07 November 2009

A country, a city, a garden or a hotel?

Things are getting "curiouser and curiouser", as Alice said in The Land of Oz ...

But it may go some way to explain why we are "Hotel Singapore Inc" (no longer "Singapore Inc") ...
  • why homes are commoditized for en bloc flipping ...

  • why the law technically provides for en bloc sale immediately upon issuance of Temporary Occupation Permit (viz, when owners take possession of their spanking new condominium/apartment unit) ...

  • why condos of 15-25 years of age are pulverized under a wrecker's ball despite flavour-of-the-day hype about Sustainable Development, bearing in mind that some of these condos were designed by renowned architects and some with still-stunning aesthetics as part of post-independent Singapore's modern architectural legacy ...

  • why our collective sense of community, of rootedess, of time and of space in our nascent nationhood are yanked out thoughtlessly and almost zealously ...

  • why ownership of a refrigerator made in Malaysia outlasts ownership of a condo unit built on Singapore island ...
In August 2009 around the time of our National Day celebration, we learned from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's response to NMP Viswa Sadasivan's high-falutin' maiden speech in Parliament that our National Pledge enshrines mere "aspirations". Uh-oh ...

Less than three months later, our Law Minister Mr K Shanmugam affirmed at the Q&A session of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) Rule of Law Plenary Session on 28 Oct 2009 that in fact "We are a city. We are not a country". Voila!

Oi, before you can finish uttering "Majullah Singapura", the powers-that-be may well say that we are possibly only a garden, and not even a city (much less the oft-touted "City In A Garden")!

Now, on a more serious note (ie, not so tongue-in-cheek, although I have absolutely no idea where else to store my tongue these days in the face of recent ministerial pronouncements), it was indeed thought-provoking to read Singapore Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong's keynote address at NYSBA's Annual Fall Meeting on 27 Oct 2009 that:

-- "rule of law simply means the supremacy of the law, without reference to whether the law is just or unjust";

-- "the Constitution declares that any law inconsistent with the Constitution is null and void but it does not expressly provide for a procedure for nullifying and voiding such law. But because the judicial power of Singapore is vested in the judiciary, the legislature and the executive have accepted the legitimacy of the courts to exercise this power";

-- "the courts have the power to review legislation and executive acts to determine whether they are unconstitutional. They also have the power to review executive acts to determine whether they are contrary to law. So long as the power of judicial review exists, the rule of law exists".

The speeches and events arising from NYSBA's Annual Fall Meeting have indeed made me "curiouser and curiouser" as to when has the Singapore Judiciary exercised its review powers, if at all? Surely, in our 44 years of nationhood, there would have been occasions, even if rare, on the assumption (and presumption) that we have the best of men and women with the kindest of intentions amongst the powers-that-be?

Now, we all know what curiosity eventually did to the cat! But do indulge me with some vocal room for plaintive meowing:
Who checks the checker when checker doesn't check?

Or maybe there is nothing to check? Or maybe the checks affirmed that everything was 100% A-OK at all times? Or maybe if something was a little askew at one time, the checker just had a quiet word with the checked and everything was straightened out pronto without we suckers being made any wiser. As the old sayings go: "Silence is golden"; "Ignorance is bliss"; "What you don't know won't hurt". Who am I to doubt such ancient wisdom, eh?

But, but, but ... now that we know our independent Judiciary has "the power to review legislation and executive acts to determine whether they are unconstitutional ... the power to review executive acts to determine whether they are contrary to law", perhaps they should exercise such judicial independence and their powers to review the Land Titles (Strata) Act, especially within the present context of "our own political, social and cultural values", as our Honourable Chief Justice puts it.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Such review would showcase the judicial independence that Singapore is trying so darn hard to convince all and sundry, especially after the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute Report of July 2008 entitled "Prosperity versus individual rights - Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore". http://www.ibanet.org/Human_Rights_Institute/Work_by_regions/Asia_Pacific/Singapore.aspxore.aspx

Perhaps, initiating a judicial review to "make an unjust law just" and also "do right by the people" may go some way to lend greater credence to Singapore's assertion of judicial independence.
In other words, a whiter-than-white exercise - without any punning intention on my part with the People's Action Party all-white party dress colour!

Over our 44 years of nationhood with 2nd and 3rd generational Singaporeans as present condo owners, how many more times are Singaporeans expected to sacrifice yet again in the name of our country (... errrr, city) (... ooops, garden) (... I mean, hotel)? [Whew, the cat nearly got my tongue!] This was the poser in para 6 of my previous blog entitled "A horse dumbstruck by a mutant 3-hump camel" dated 7 Oct 2009: http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2009/10/horse-dumbstruck-by-mutant-three-hump.htmlhump.html

QUESTION - Is this en bloc law:

(a) still "consistent with our Constitution", and
[L'est we forget - Do bear in mind that we are no longer demolishing slums nor building infrastructural/community facilities over the demolished condos under police powers for public safety or eminent domain powers for larger communal good.]

(b) not "contrary to law", and [Undoubtedly, an unjust law is still law. Ordinarily, the courts will justly dispense justice under unjust law. Now, would that make it "Just Injustice" or "Unjust Justice"??? Kind of comparable to the innocence of "1 + 1 makes 11", eh??? Ahhh ... but one should take heart from what the Chief Justice also said in the same NYSBA keynote address when he quoted a 1962 speech made by our founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, to the University of Singapore Law Society: "Justice and fair play according to predetermined rules of law can be achieved within our situation if there is integrity of purpose and an intelligent search for forms which will work and which will meet the needs of our society".]

(c) "just and fair" within our present context of "political, social and cultural values"? [Context: This law impinges on strata-title private property rights in a land where (i) Singapore is the world's most densely populated city at 6,814 persons per sq km (Singapore surpassed Hongkong in 2009) and (ii) Singapore has the 3rd highest GDP at PPP per capita in the world at 49,288 international dollars (Singapore ranks after Luxembourg and Norway but ahead of the USA, Hongkong and even Switzerland according to World Bank 2008 data).] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita#cite_note-1-1

On the one hand, the majoritianism powers invoked by this law are draconian. Yet on the other hand, the purported collectivism which birthed the majoritianism is thinly veiled and brazenly (purportedly legally) undermined from what I could piece together from the numerous en bloc battles fought in court (viz, some Majority Consenters and/or some Minority Dissenters could be paid more under separate private treaties with gag orders). Scant regard is paid to minority rights even where it affects something so basic as a ceiling over one's family that one has bought with 100% personal savings and provident funds!

As a classic Homer Simpson quote goes: "Never under-estimate the power of stupid people in large groups". Majoritianism is cleverly capitalized upon to unlock land value primarily for corporate developers because - in my opinion - the law is skewed and calibrated (not unwittingly, if you know our Gahmen) against extant individual homeowners. My opinion is buttressed by the stark and harsh reality invariably faced by nearly all homeowners of "twice the price, half the size, quarter the value" post-en bloc, as reflected in numerous press reports and even a mini-survey done by The Straits Times. That's why I reckoned the South Korean model of urban rejuvenation under their Hapdong Redevelopment laws mandating one-for-one (1-4-1) exchange is more just and equitable, being the lesser of two evils when majoritianism is allowed to prevail over private property rights (Gahmen has been made aware of South Korea's Hapdong Redevelopment laws since Aug 2007).

Other than occasionally fighting over Hello Kitty toys at McDonald's, petrol discounts and talking on handphones during cinematic screenings, Singaporeans generally are a law-abiding lot. However, to wit:

- The overwhelming caseload of the Strata Titles Boards resulted in a significant and hurried expansion of the tribunal in 2008 to cope with the backlog of en bloc battles, escalating into protracted en bloc legal battles at High and Appellate Court levels;

- The widely reported criminal acts committed by ordinary folks in various condo estates (so much for gracious living of the upper-middle and upper social class who could afford private property prices in Singapore);

- The neighbourhood and even matrimonial acrimony hearsay one encounters not infrequently over the past couple of years (and still persisting after the 2007 legislative amendments);

- The tribunal of their own accord even poked its fingers in an attempt to stop the collective sale of one controversial condo estate (viz, Regent Garden) for valuation reasons;

- The tax authorities (again, of their own accord) stepped in to claim their share of the spoils by way of overdue stamp duties that - according to en bloc market practice until the case of another condo estate (viz, Regent Court) - are paid only if the tribunal issues collective sale order; and

- The public disagreement (rare but distinct - thankfully healthy for being both rare but distinct) between the judicial courts and the tribunal over some landmark en bloc legal battles (viz, Horizon Towers, Regent Garden).

Perhaps (or surely?), the above symptons are a litmus indicator of the injustice and unjustness of this law. The aforementioned state of affairs already and unequivocably FAILS the Chief Justice's quote of the statement made by our founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in his 1962 address to the University of Singapore Law Society that "the acid test of any legal system is not the greatness nor the grandeur of its ideal concepts, but whether in fact it is able to produce order and justice in the relationships between man and man and between man and the State". And if I may add, "between one state organ and another state organ".

The Chief Justice's equanimity worries me when he said that "the very fact that we still debate this sort of question shows that the rule of law is very much alive and well in Singapore". Wah lau, surely the crux of the matter lies NOT in the "debate" but in the "execution"!

I am sufficiently perturbed as a Singaporean that Singapore seems to apply either the thick or the thin versions of the rule of law as it suits the powers-that-are according to each circumstance. Broadly, as the Chief Justice pointed out, "the thick describes the rule of law in liberal democracies". According to The Economist (15 Mar 2008), "the thick definitions treat the rule of law as the core of a just society" and "the 'declaration of Delhi' drawn up by the International Commission of Jurists in that city in 1959 followed this line in saying that the rule of law 'should be employed to safeguard and advance the civil and political rights of the individual' and create 'conditions under which his legitimate aspirations and dignity can be realised'."

As Singapore clearly does not fall into the above description and cannot be classified as a "liberal democracy" by any stretch of imagination, that must mean Singapore applies the thin version of the rule of law. However, Singapore traces her legal tradition back to common law (similar to the U.S. and the U.K. versus civil-law countries such as France and the Scandanavian bloc). Yet "common-law countries have more secure property rights, better protection of shareholders and creditors, more diversified share ownership, and tougher disclosure and liability laws" (The Economist, 15 Mar 2008). This en bloc law does anything but provides "secure property rights"!

Grrrr ... things just don't add up in this little red dot! So what else is new, eh? Such shilly-shally pattern in the legal arena is only consistent with Singapore's Prices and Earnings trends captured in UBS' 30 July 2009 report. Namely, on the one hand, Singapore rivals First World Countries in the areas of GDP, COL, Price Level but on the other hand, we rival Third World/Emerging Countries in terms of Wage Index, Domestic Purchasing Power, Purchasing Power of Wages (Big Mac/iPod), Working Hours - please double-click on the table in para 9 of my previous blog at: http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2009/10/horse-dumbstruck-by-mutant-three-hump.html

The Chief Justice with more hair than Yul Brynner but somewhat less dashing as Chow Yun Fatt drew a succinct analogy with the musical 'The King and I' where "the King is puzzled by the changes his kingdom has undergone. He sings a song which ends with these words:
When I was a boy
World was better spot
What was so, was so
What was not, was not
Now I am a man
World have changed a lot
Some things nearly so
Others nearly not.
Singapore has changed a lot in 50 years, some things nearly so, others nearly not".

Well, will the en bloc law change a lot next year, nearly so or nearly not?

They say: "Talk is cheap". In fast-paced Singapore in a fast-forward world, a decade from 1999 when the en bloc law first came into effect is nearly long. It's time to walk the talk! Otherwise, my movable refrigerator made-in-Malaysia will outlast my immovable real estate built-in-Singapore as I get "furiouser and furiouser" ...