Moving to

I'm moving to Mostly.

I plan to use that site as a "self-marketing website" of sorts and to manage content in a way that I would otherwise not be able to do on blogger alone.

This blog will stay, ostensibly for more provisional ideas prior to refinement. I'll be gradually moving content (I still like) over to the other website. =)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More Disgraceful Debating

Earlier, I wrote that Bishan-Toa Payoh MP Hri Kumar's statements on the issue of a by-election in Hougang (in reply to a commentary by NMP Eugene Tan) reminded me of some episode where sophistry won out over good sense.

The public discourse on this matter has advanced somewhat, with experts on constitutional law weighing in. To summarize their views, it suffices to consider the following statement Yahoo! News obtained from Adjunct professor Kevin Tan who lectures at the National University of Singapore:
    "In brief, Eugene (Tan) is right and Hri (Kumar) is wrong. Eugene's latest letter states the law as it stands and must be regarded as the proper interpretation of the situation."
NMP Eugene Tan replied on the 28 Feb, citing both Article 49 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore and Section 52 of the Interpretation Act to support his original contention that a by-election should be called soon and if not, the reasons should be clearly spelt out.

Hri Kumar was quick to file a rejoinder, saying, among other things, that:
    Contrary to what he wrote, Article 49 of the Constitution does not say that an election shall be "called" to fill a vacant seat. It simply prescribes that the vacant seat "shall be filled by election".

    Whether it is a general election or a by-election, and more importantly, when that election is to be called, is entirely at the discretion of the Prime Minister. There is no obligation to call an immediate by-election.
and also that:
    The law prescribes that it is for the PM to determine when elections should be called, and we should let him do his job.
He later mentions a largely irrelevant point about the Workers' Party previously voting against a motion that proposed mandating by-elections be called within three months from the date an MP vacates his seat, and makes a weak attempt at an ad hominem attack at Eugene Tan the "political commentator" suggesting that Tan was motivated by the rich material that would be generated in the "electioneering" of a by-election.

(The reader is encouraged to read the full set of letters before forming an opinion. The series of letters documenting the exchange in Today Online may be found here, or here, if that link is broken.)

The first paragraph I quoted of Hri Kumar's second letter represents, at least to me, a poor attempt at twisting the text of the Constitution. I would term it unsophisticated sophistry. His attempt at distraction was rather silly as well. It is disgraceful debating in plain sight.

In my previous post, the evidence and simple logic led to two possibly conclusions, that either (i) Hri Kumar has publicly shown that he lacks integrity (by arguing for a legal position that he knew to be at variance with the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore), or (ii) he is incompetent as a lawyer (by arguing for a legal position without knowledge of the relevant statutes). My argument still stands, and the reader should form his/her opinion on which to pick.

I think he is a disgrace to the legacy of good PAP men like Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S. Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye. It is indeed regrettable that Singaporeans have a Member of Parliament such as Hri Kumar.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some Thoughts on National Service

In the second volume of MM Lee's memoirs From Third World To First, The Singapore Story: 1965 - 2000, (in the chapter "Building an Army from Scratch") he quotes Goh Keng Swee:
    It is foolish to allow ourselves to be hypnotised by the disparity in the population ratios between Singapore and her neighbours. What counts is the fighting strength of the armed forces, not the size of the populations. ... After five years of conscription we can field an army of 150,000 by mobilising those on the reserve service. By using older persons and women for non-combatant duties we should eventually be able to field an army with a combat strength of 250,000 consisting of men between the ages of 18 and 35. The war-making potential of a small, vigorous, well-educated and highly motivated population should never be underestimated.
The message is clear. Where fighting strength matters, our NS-reservist system delivers. It is clear, however, that today fighting strength is not what matters. In the present-day military environment, having a technology edge and using it effectively is what creates a decisive edge.

Given that we do have a regional technology edge. The challenge is using it effectively. We need people to be well trained in the use of our systems. As such, there is scope to study a compression (and possibly reduction) of the reservist cycle.

The argument for compression is clear. Soldiers should not have huge gaps between the times they train with their equipment. To understand the case for reduction, note that it stands to reason that even with a full reservist cycle (in terms of the number of high-key and low-key call-ups), there will be a fall in proficiency over time. Cutting off the tail end associated with low proficiency would make sense. It would also ensure that equipment is available for training given the larger number of reservists being called up in the compressed cycle.

More analysis will be needed to come to a conclusion, especially vis a vis the effects of a compressed reservist cycle on the early careers of non-university graduates who enter the workforce shortly after their ORD. It may turn out it may be best for "high-tech" platoons to be mixed and matched with larger sub-units going through the slower cycle.

More analysis will be needed. It is time for MINDEF officials to earn their pay and address this fundamental issue.


Afternote: Previously, in a (somewhat presumptuously) titled post "Force Structure Amid Transformation", I proposed a restructuring of National Service with the intent of improving learning (and hence effectiveness) with respect to equipment that requires substantial training to use effectively (especially relatively high-tech equipment).

Friday, February 24, 2012

Disgraceful Debating

I would like to share something from my early life that has disgusted me to this day. It was 1993 or 1994. I was in primary school. (Primary 5 or Primary 6; Henry Park Primary School, one of those... "good schools" as we were excessively told.) There was an interclass debate, and in one of the early match-ups, an EM1 class was pit against an EM3 class.

(In case that particular streaming system has now been replaced, let me elaborate. After Primary 4, students would be streamed into EM1 thru EM3. The EM1s were the "smart" ones; the EM2s the "regular" ones; and the EM3's the "slow" ones.)

The EM3 class was to support the motion that "School Uniforms are Good to Have", while the EM1 class opposed. The EM3 class, in halting English, made coherent arguments of the merits of school uniforms. (Granted, those were the obvious arguments, but they were done coherently.) On the other hand, their opponents, in well-formed complete sentences, made arguments like "The definition of uniform means 'the same in all cases', surely it is not a good idea for all pupils, both girls and boys, to wear the same attire in the same size." They won. It was a sad day for good sense.

(Note: Children have a decent sense of justice based on common sense and fairness. When it was clear that the sophistry would be a consistent feature of the EM1 class's debate speeches, many students in the hall boo-ed. My class included. The boo-ing were a protest against deception wrapped in well-formed English. I have concluded that the form teacher of that EM1 class was derelict in her duty to educate that class.)

Sometimes, when I hear PAP MPs debate or argue, I am taken back to that day. The recent discussion about a possibly by-election in Hougang provides me with a perfect example of this.

One of the NCMP's Assistant Professor Eugene Tan of SMU authored a commentary for the Feb 20 issue of Today (see below for a copy) where he opined that:
  1. The Prime Minister has the prerogative on the timing of a by-election, but it does not extend to being able to delay a by-election indefinitely.
  2. If the Government decides to delay or not to hold a by-election in Hougang, it should state its reasons.
  3. There are still more than 4½ years to the life of the current Parliament. Hougang voters should not be deprived of having their elected representative in the House.
  4. That "the cardinal principle of representation is crucial": A stand-in MP is not the same as an MP for whom the majority had voted.
PAP MP Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) responded in the Feb 24 issue of Today (see below for a copy) that:
  1. Our parliamentary democracy is based on the principle that elections are fundamentally about voters choosing between different political parties to lead the country, rather than between individual candidates standing in a constituency.
  2. When a seat falls vacant, there is no requirement to call an immediate by-election, unless the vacancy affects the Government's mandate.
  3. This serves to hold political parties accountable to voters for the performance of their candidates.
  4. If an MP does not or cannot last the term as an MP, the onus is on their party to take care of residents in that constituency.
  5. To call for an automatic by-election now that the Hougang seat is vacant is to confuse the Singapore and UK model, where MPs remain MPs even if they leave or are expelled from their parties (refer to the full letter for details).
Now, we should first know that Hri Kumar is a Senior Counsel (SC). The SC rank recognizes the most senior lawyers in Singapore and was intended to be the equivalent of the rank "Queen's Counsel". There are only about 40 SCs in Singapore as compared to the population of 3500 to 4000 lawyers. They are thus expected to have a excellent knowledge of the law and be men and women of integrity. Given that Hri Kumar is serving as a MP, the requirement for integrity might be further emphasized.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect, nay, require that:
  1. Hri Kumar Nair read and comprehended Article 49 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Filling of Vacancies) (see below for a copy) or was already familiar with it prior to submitting his letter for publication. (Professionalism)
  2. Hri Kumar Nair would not wilfully fail to highlight any provisions in that article of the Constitution that conflict with his/his party's interest. (Integrity)
As the Constitution states in Article 49(1),
    Whenever the seat of a Member, not being a non-constituency Member, has become vacant for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, the vacancy SHALL be filled by election in the manner provided by or under any law relating to Parliamentary elections for the time being in force.
(Emphasis mine.) Legally, the word "shall" indicates that a particular condition must be met. This is standard in contracts and documents such as requirements specifications for tenders. (In many ways, the Constitution may be regarded as a requirements document.) The Constitution is clear that a by-election must be conducted should the seat of a MP be vacated. Hri Kumar should know it and not hide it.

He probably knew, and he did not highlight the fact. If he wasn't aware of the content of the constitution relevant to the vacation of seats in parliament and wrote to the media on it, it is an act of utmost un-professionalism and deserves stern professional rebuke. This however is highly improbable since he is a SC and also a MP. If he knew and hid the fact, then he would have betrayed the trust of the public and, in my opinion, would not be fit to be a Member of Parliament. This may be harsh, but even in his words, parties should perform "rigorous selection to ensure that men and women of integrity are fielded". I believe that MPs should be men and women of integrity. Hri Kumar has publicly shown that either he lacks this crucial quality, or he is incompetent as a lawyer.

I understand that Hri Kumar's phrasing was somewhat ambiguous. He wrote that "there is no requirement to call an immediate by-election". However, his intent seems clear to me. But to be fair, I will willingly retract my conclusions on his integrity should he clarify that a by-election must take place in Hougang due to the vacation of that seat. (In this event, it would leave us with the less severe conclusion that he lacks professionalism, which is based on his ambiguous phrasing on a matter of low complexity where he could and should have expressed himself clearly.)

This exchange brought back memories of how well packaged sophistry won out over common sense based on simple realities. This, unlike an inter-class debate in primary school, is a serious matter. It is important for our nation that what is, today, written in the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore prevails over partisan interests.

Sophistry is not wisdom. It is a misrepresentation of reality. Let us not be deceived.


49. —(1) Whenever the seat of a Member, not being a non-constituency Member, has become vacant for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, the vacancy shall be filled by election in the manner provided by or under any law relating to Parliamentary elections for the time being in force.

(2) The Legislature may by law provide for —

(a) the vacating of a seat of a non-constituency Member in circumstances other than those specified in Article 46;

(b) the filling of vacancies of the seats of non-constituency Members where such vacancies are caused otherwise than by a dissolution of Parliament.

If Parliament eventually determines that the Hougang seat has been vacated with the expulsion of Mr Yaw Shin Leong from the Workers' Party (WP), the spotlight will shift to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Under the Parliamentary Elections Act, the President issues an election writ stipulating when a by-election is to be held. But it is the Prime Minister who so advises the President.

When asked last Wednesday, PM Lee said he would consider carefully "whether and when to hold a by-election in Hougang". This appears to suggest that a by-election need not be held in Hougang.

There is no obligation under the Constitution to hold a by-election within a specific time-frame. In 2008, PM Lee told Parliament that the timing of one "is the prerogative of the PM. He has full discretion and he is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed timeline".

While the Prime Minister has the prerogative on the timing, I would argue that this does not extend to his having an unfettered discretion to delay the calling of a by-election indefinitely. In most instances, it has to be called within a reasonable time, or certainly without an inordinate delay. In short, the "default" position should be that a by-election should be automatic, although there is no hard and fast rule on the timing.


There may be three reasons why a by-election may not be called. This could be when an MP switches political party, or when Parliament's term is coming to a close within the next 12 to 18 months, or if there is a national crisis. None of them is pertinent at this point in time.

By-elections have been called in the past even though the General Election had taken place recently. For instance, by-elections in 1967, 1968, 1977, 1981 and 1992 were called between six and 16 months prior to or after a General Election in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1991.

Delaying the calling of a by-election to the point of not calling it would, in my view, not be in accord with the duty of due process. It would, arguably, constitute an exercise of discretion for which a legal challenge can be mounted. The fact that the Constitution is silent on when a by-election should be called does not mean one need not be called.

In any case, if the Government decides to delay or not to hold a by-election in Hougang, the Government should state its reasons.

In November 1987, the Government explained why a by-election was not conducted in both Anson and Geylang West: It was contemplating introducing a Bill to form town councils in which some boundaries might be re-delineated, including the vacated seats of Anson and Geylang West. (Eventually, the GE was held on Sept 3, 1988.)


There are still more than 4½ years to the life of the current Parliament. Hougang voters should not be deprived of having their elected representative in the House. Although the WP's five MPs in the adjacent Aljunied GRC can cover Hougang, that is not ideal. Let Hougang residents decide how they would like to hold the WP to account in light of the recent events.

PM Lee hinted at one consideration which he will take into account: "There are many other issues on the national agenda right now." Granted.

But will a by-election involving only about 25,000 voters be a massive distraction nationally?

Of course, some Hougang voters and Singaporeans generally may choose to view the by-election not just as a localised matter but a referendum on the PAP Government's performance since May 2011. This should not stand in the way of holding a by-election.

More importantly, the cardinal principle of representation is crucial: A stand-in MP is not the same as an MP for whom the majority had voted. Not calling a by-election would undermine the importance of representation in our maturing parliamentary democracy.

Our electoral system must endeavour to be inclusive and representative in tandem with the growing democratic aspirations. Doing so can only increase Singaporeans' civic participation and ownership of governmental processes.


Assuming a by-election is called, should the WP field in Hougang one of its two NCMPs?

It appears that an NCMP need not vacate his seat to contest in a by-election. Article 46(2A) of the Constitution provides that an NCMP shall vacate his seat "if he is subsequently elected as a Member of Parliament for any constituency". However, the law is not so clear on whether a vacated NCMP seat has to be filled.

Given the legal uncertainty, it may work better for the WP to field a candidate who is not in Parliament. Moreover, this would enable the WP, should it prove victorious in Hougang, to maintain its full complement of eight representatives in Parliament.

Eugene K B Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law, and a Nominated Member of Parliament.

Annex C: No automatic by-election in our model of parliamentary democracy (Hri Kumar Nair, 24 Feb 2012, TODAYonline)
Assistant Professor Eugene Tan's commentary "The value of a by-election" (Feb 20) argued that the Prime Minister does not have an unfettered discretion in deciding when to call a by-election and that the "default" position should be that a by-election should be automatic.

Those two claims ignore the law and the reason behind the law.

There is a reason the Singapore Constitution does not prescribe any time limit to call a by-election.

Our parliamentary democracy is based on the principle that elections are fundamentally about voters choosing between different political parties to lead the country, rather than between individual candidates standing in a constituency.

In general elections, the issue is which party should form the government.

Hence, under our system, if any Member of Parliament (MP) resigns or is expelled from his party, he loses his seat because voters had elected him as a representative of his party.

Therefore, when a seat falls vacant, there is no requirement to call an immediate by-election, unless the vacancy affects the Government's mandate.

Nor should an MP's resignation or expulsion force the Government to put aside more important national issues to focus on a by-election.

This model enables the Government to focus on governing Singapore well and improving the lives of Singaporeans. It has resulted in stability and progress for Singapore for half a century.

It has another salutary effect: It holds political parties accountable to voters for the performance of their candidates. Parties must endeavour to field candidates who can last the term as MP.

This calls for rigorous selection to ensure that men and women of integrity are fielded and, when elected, will do their utmost to fulfil their MP responsibilities for their entire term.

If they do not or cannot, the onus is on their party to take care of residents in that constituency. The Workers' Party (WP) knows this. That is why their MPs have taken over Mr Yaw Shin Leong's duties in Hougang.

In contrast, some other parliamentary democracies operate on a different philosophy: The individual MP has more power than the party.

There, MPs can change parties within the parliamentary term and keep their seats, even cause governments to fall as a consequence, without the voters having any say in the matter.

Because the MP is the fundamental element of their system, by-elections must be held promptly when seats fall vacant. The United Kingdom is such an example.

The WP could force Mr Yaw to vacate his Hougang seat by expelling him from the party, only because it is operating under the Singapore model.

The WP could not have done this under the UK model, as Mr Yaw would have remained MP for Hougang even after his expulsion, and there would have been no by-election.

To call for an automatic by-election now that the Hougang seat is vacant, as Asst Prof Tan did, is to confuse the Singapore and UK models.

The writer is a Senior Counsel and an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Construction as a Singapore Labour Market Safety Valve: First Steps

In the United States, the construction industry has traditionally served as a "safety valve" for the labour market in the sense that those with low educational attainments might (i) find gainful employment in that sector relatively easily, (ii) gradually build up a useful skill set as construction tasks vary greatly in complexity and skill requirements, thus (iii) giving them a meaningful way of moving up in the world through hard work and an active mind.

In Singapore we do not really have such a labour market "safety valve". The closest we might come to one is in the food and beverage industry. It does not make the cut as a "safety valve" as at the entry level, one needs skills and some capital. (Note: Skills are also needed for work in a restaurant kitchen in food preparation.)

I have been thinking of how we might simultaneously reduce our reliance on foreign labour and raise the productivity of the local construction by creating a core non-transient workforce that will be able to retain and grow their skills.

Amusingly, this thought first came to me some years ago after the 2nd or 3rd time I watched CJ7 during the Chinese New Year period at an uncle's home. In the movie, the protagonist's father was a construction worker (in Hong Kong), and there, it was clear that construction workers took pride in their work. The real Hong Kong construction industry is staffed by locals, and their achievements are recorded in the Hong Kong skyline. Their productivity, as an industry, is much higher than ours. The same is true of the construction sectors of the USA, Germany and many other countries. It is clear that retention of skills plays a major part, as do incentives to improve.

In Singapore, however, construction work is regarded as "undesirable". This is due, in large part, to the way current construction workers are treated and to the level of skills necessary to do the work. Restoring pride to the construction industry is alluded to in the Finance Minister's Budget Speech for FY 2012. (See paragraph C23.) While no concrete plan was mentioned or even the allusion to one was made, I do not take para. C23 to be a motherhood statement promising no substantive impact. I have a vague sense that some work is being done in this direction.

Now, it will take time to erase the perception of "undesirability". But the first step to doing that is to recognize that, at least today, it is accurate. Construction work in Singapore is a low-wage dead-end job. This has to change. The first step to this would be to uncover the full continuum of skills that construction work all around the world utilize. Our construction industry, due to its reliance on transient workers, is unable to access the full range of skills the mastery thereof can make a worker highly productive, a stake contrast with our "unskilled" foreign construction workers. (The same argument could be made for a transformation of our armed forces, as "transient workers" can only learn so much.)

I think the first step might be taken by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA). By framing the range of technical skills in construction in a "Competency Framework", and relating that framework to the various roles (some managerial) in construction, it would provide a skill-oriented (productivity oriented) guiding framework for career development in construction. Construction companies which are ready to move to higher levels of productivity could take this framework and run with it.

Naturally, it would be unlikely that we would be able to (even eventually) move to a local-only construction industry. Yet the core should be local in order to retain skills. Transient foreign workers would be used as a capacity management tool, with their numbers increasing when demand is high and falling when demand is low. (Thus, shielding the local workforce from cyclical unemployment.)

The crux of the approach recommended is the building of "depth" with respect to career development where none existed before. I would guess that a similar approach might be taken for other industries.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How to Pay People

In the midst of the recent alleged scandals in politics, and the reminders of past (almost literally) hushed scandals, the issue of pay may now seem passé, but I'd like to share a short article on behavioral responses to incentive schemes.

In a way, it tangentially supports a past contention that KPIs, if they are used, should be cognitively complicated to game. Yet, there is also support for "I think he/she did well" type of bonus schemes. (For those, reports should be published justifying the bonuses awarded.) Anyway, on to the main event.

Bloomberg Businessweek (Sep 26 - Oct 2, 2011)
How to Pay People
by Dan Ariely

Most of the time, when you hire people you don't want to specify exactly what they do and how much they would get paid -- you don't want to say if you do X you will get this much, and if you do Y you will get that much. That type of contract is what we call a complete contract. Creating one is basically impossible, especially with higher-level jobs. If you try to do it, you cause "crowding out." People focus on everything you've included and exclude everything else. What's left out of the contract tends to drop out of their motivation as well. You are taking away from their judgment and goodwill and teaching them to be like rats in a maze.

It's like the difference between asking someone to help you change a tire and offering them $5 to do it. The moment you introduce money, you change how the person views the exchange. They say, "Oh, this is work. I don't work for $5, give me $150 and we can talk." When I was at MIT, they told us we had to teach 112 points per year. They a complex formula for how many students and how many hours and so on would translate to teaching points. Basically, MIT was conditioning me to put the least effort into getting the most points. This became the game. I was quite good at it. And I taught very little.

It happens with all kinds of compensation. A consulting company once told me that if you stayed until 8 in the five, you could order food and use the car service to get home. So what happens? A ton of people are there at 8. Nobody's there at 8:05. It's the same with pay: If you're hiring the right people, you don't want to include anything too specific in the contract. You want people to buy into the objectives of the company. Be specific about those, and then trustpeople to quickly understand how they can help maximize the objectives at each point in time. People actually know to a high degree which actions are good for the company and which are not -- regardless of what you pay them for.