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SINGAPORE — Half a century after Singapore’s independence, the Opposition scene has become a lively one where participation is concerned.

With increasingly fewer walkovers in the last three polls — all 89 seats were contested in the General Election (GE) last year — the signs are clear: Gone are the days when the Opposition struggled to attract enough candidates to stage a contest.

But even as a fresh crop of individuals joins the ranks of the Opposition, perennial issues dog these parties. Not all parties attract quality candidates, and when they do, retaining the talent, and handing over the leadership baton to the next generation, continue to be a hit-and-miss affair, as shown by the recent challenge for power in the Workers’ Party (WP).

Other parties have no clear succession plans at all, with promising candidates that made a splash in one election gone by the next.

While the WP shrugged off the contest for the secretary-general post in its latest Central Executive Council (CEC) elections as part of the democratic process, political analysts were divided over the significance of the mounted challenge, which ended with party chief Low Thia Khiang retaining the post with 61 votes to fellow Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament Chen Show Mao’s 45 votes.

Amid criticism of Mr Low’s leadership style, the party reinstated the role of assistant secretary-general, with the position — once held by Mr Low — going to Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh.

The Opposition has a “sorry history” of in-fighting, noted Associate Professor Alan Chong from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). Two decades on, the public fall-out between veteran politician Chiam See Tong and his then protege Chee Soon Juan, which resulted in Mr Chiam leaving the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), continues to be a sore spot. It resurfaced during the polls last year and in the Bukit Batok by-election last month, both of which Dr Chee stood in.

Beyond the WP, other parties have yet to show their hand in terms of renewal and succession plans, said political watchers.

Too much focus has been placed on short-term goals, such as winning a seat, and this has hampered the nurturing of next-generation leaders, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.

Political commentator Derek da Cunha said “minor alternative parties” find it difficult to attract well-qualified people or personalities “who can excite the voters”.

“Even the SDP can really only showcase their one high-credentialed member and GE2015 election candidate, Dr Paul Tambyah, who seems to be trotted out by the party every so often,” he said, referring to the respected infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore.

Further tripping up the leadership renewal is the predominance of personality politics, which are commonplace in parties lacking the institutional development of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), analysts observed.

The PAP has come a long way since its early days, when power struggles were rampant, until a left-leaning faction was expelled and went on to form the now-defunct Barisan Sosialis in 1961. Subsequently, the PAP’s leaders approached renewal with a “team-based” ideology, with internal institutions and processes to facilitate transition.

In the same way, said Assistant Professor Woo Jun Jie, from Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) School of Humanities and Social Sciences, even as internal struggles are part of a party’s development, Opposition parties need to move beyond personality politics and divert power from key figures to institutions.

A NEW ERA, DESPITE LINGERING FEARS

At 47, blogger Ravi Philemon decided to take the plunge and contest a single-seat ward, Hong Kah North, on the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) ticket last year. Months before, he left the National Solidarity Party (NSP), together with former secretary-general Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, to breathe new life into the SPP, a party long dominated by its leader, Mr Chiam.

“I resigned from my last job (as director of a voluntary welfare organisation). I was at a different stage in my life — my children were older, my wife is working. There were certain risks that I could take, which others at a different station in their life might not have been able to take,” said Mr Philemon. He ended up clinching about one in four votes (25.24 per cent), losing to the PAP’s Amy Khor.

Mr Philemon, now lead editor of socio-political website The Independent Singapore, said he personally knew of young people who contemplated running in the last GE, but held back for fear of ending up jobless.

He felt that the stigma of being associated with the Opposition has not diminished over the years. “The fear is always there, but it’s not so much of being arrested or bankrupted. It’s more of the fear of losing opportunities and offending people from the establishment,” he said.

People’s Power Party (PPP) chief Goh Meng Seng, who founded the party after leaving the NSP, has a contrary view: The tide turned for the Opposition after the 2011 polls.

That year, WP’s Low gathered an “A-team” to stand in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), a team comprising, among others, party chairman Sylvia Lim as well as then new face Chen Show Mao, a top corporate lawyer touted by the party as their star candidate. They triumphed over the PAP team led by then Foreign Minister George Yeo, with 54.72 per cent of the vote share, and swept into Parliament.

“With the success of the WP in Aljunied, they’ve instilled more hope and excitement in the talented people. They’re willing to come out,” said the PPP’s Mr Goh.

SMU’s Associate Professor Tan said Opposition parties have started to find it easier to attract promising talent compared with a decade ago. “This is borne out of the quality of candidates fielded by the Opposition in the past two General Elections; they are not necessarily the riff-raff that Lee Kuan Yew had once described,” he added, referring to a term used by the late Mr Lee during the 2006 polls to describe the calibre of the Opposition candidates.

Fast forward to 2015, the WP fielded sociology lecturer Daniel Goh, consultancy firm chief executive Leon Perera and shipping lawyer Dennis Tan. All lost in the respective wards they contested in, but entered Parliament as Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs).

Meanwhile, the SDP fielded Dr Tambyah alongside Dr Chee for a contest in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. In 2011, the SDP also made waves with Mr Tan Jee Say, a former principal private secretary to then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, while the NSP had “star catches” of their own: Former high-flying civil servants Tony Tan Lay Thiam, who was a Singapore Armed Forces scholar, and 
Hazel Poa, who had worked at the Ministry of Finance, among other roles.

RSIS’ Dr Chong said Singapore is a maturing society, where more people are willing to “roll the dice”. While previously people aired their views in the safety of their homes, the elections have morphed into a “participatory sport” over the years. This was evident from the sheer number of volunteers milling around during Opposition election rallies, helping to distribute flyers and sell merchandise, he added.

But the hard truth remains: Wannabe politicians gravitate towards more recognisable parties. In Mr Philemon’s view, this includes the WP, SDP and SPP “only because of the Chiams”.

“Fringe Opposition parties find it difficult to recruit any kind of membership. They are perceived to be creating noise just for the sake of doing so,” he said.

BEYOND THE FRENZY, THE LONG HAUL

Within the Opposition, some stars have also burnt out fast.

Case in point: The NSP’s Nicole Seah captured the imagination of Marine Parade voters with her eloquence, despite being the youngest candidate during the 2011 polls. Two years later, she was appointed second assistant secretary-general of the party. But Ms Seah eventually had what she described as a meltdown, and left the party in 2014.

Another rising star that crashed out of the political scene was business analyst Yaw Shin Leong, who caused a scandal when he had to step down as Hougang MP over an alleged extramarital affair.

Once seen as Mr Low’s successor, Mr Yaw joined the WP in 2001, and led the party’s “suicide squad” of young political newcomers against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s PAP team in Ang Mo Kio GRC in GE2006, securing about one-third of the votes.

In 2011, he was chosen to defend the WP’s hold on Hougang when Mr Low moved to contest in Aljunied GRC, and succeeded, winning 64.8 per cent of the vote. But his downfall came barely a year later, when the WP expelled him amid rumours of his indiscretions.

“Efforts at grooming new talent within Opposition parties have been pretty much a case of ‘hit and miss’,” said NTU’s Assistant Professor Woo. “In all cases, there is a conflict between party goals and personal dispositions that render such new talent less than suitable for political life.”

These premature departures raise questions as to whether potential members are effectively screened or in tune with party ideologies, he added.

When approached for comments, the WP’s Mr Perera, Dr Goh and Mr Dennis Tan declined to respond.

Even when budding politicians stay in the game, their loyalties may change, leading to a merry-go-round as they hop from one party to another, and putting a dent in grooming and succession plans.

For example, Mr Benjamin Pwee, secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was a former civil servant touted as a promising catch for the SPP in 2011, when he ran alongside Mr Chiam See Tong in his bid to capture Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. But months after their defeat, a bitter split saw Mr Pwee leave with several SPP members to join the DPP.

Another example is Mr Tan Jee Say, who left the SDP after 2011 to form the Singaporeans First party in 2014.

“Very often, politicians go on to form new parties when they find that existing parties cannot accommodate them,” said SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan. “We’re not seeing talent congregating in a few Opposition parties; instead, they are all scattered throughout more parties, more marginal than central players in Singapore politics.”

The fragmentation comes at a time when the Opposition ought to be building on Singaporeans’ receptivity to political competition and diversity, he added.

Former NSP secretary-general Tan Lam Siong said the nature of politics is such that it attracts individuals with strong personalities.

“They tend not to be so open and forthright with one another. There is a lot of suspicion and divided loyalties ... and it is not uncommon to see members leaving one party and joining the next and the next,” said Mr Tan, who quit the NSP last year.

He added: “When you finally think that there is someone who has the necessary attributes, you begin to worry about their commitment and whether they will deviate from your chosen path. That’s human nature.” Plans to groom successors also may result in internal friction, and derail without transparency and endorsement from cadres, he pointed out.

For those who do stay the course, parties have their own ways of grooming them.

The SDP’s Dr Tambyah pointed out that his party, and “most serious political parties”, offer members training sessions in leadership, communications and other skills “essential” for success in politics.

“In reality, however, the best preparation for politics come from walking the ground. The SDP has continued our house visits and community visits, and these are essential for budding politicians to see how well they can connect with residents, understand the issues and work with volunteers,” he said.

Singapore Democratic Alliance chief Desmond Lim spent 14 years as a consultant at Potong Pasir Town Council, under Mr Chiam, who served as the MP there. “I never say I wasted my time there, because I learnt something — how to organise community activities, how to engage with the people,” he said.

These were core skills needed by every politician, but Mr Lim felt that newcomers prefer to see results quickly, be it rising within their party or making a splash at the polls.

Former WP treasurer Eric Tan agreed that aspiring politicians should be taught more practical skills — for instance, shadowing the party’s MPs during Meet-the-People sessions or having town council management programmes.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director (research) Gillian Koh said that the WP was keen to give “good people” exposure. One clear sign was their nomination of new names for the NCMP posts last year, instead of seeking a second term for former NCMP Gerald Giam.

“It’s quite clear they want to give other new people a chance. They’re not selfish about it,” said Dr Koh. The party’s line-up of office bearers, announced earlier this week, signalled an intent to groom younger members, she added.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: “I see the WP giving its new talent exposure in terms of party positions, election candidates and as NCMPs.”

At the end of the day, the best way for politicians to prove themselves is through their work, said the WP’s Yee Jenn Jong, a former NCMP. “There are always opportunities for those willing to commit their time to serving and then let leaders emerge though proving themselves through the political work that they do,” he said.

NEW GENERATION OF LEADERS NEEDED

The pressing need for self-renewal has never been more real, especially for parties with ageing chiefs. Despite getting on in years, the SPP’s Mr Chiam, 81, has yet to name a successor to head the SPP.

And while the WP’s Mr Low, who turns 60 this year, has identified the three NCMPs as the “future leadership core” of his party, the party chief has remained tight-lipped about 
his successor.

Refreshing leadership is an integral step, stressed SPP founder Sin Kek Tong.

“The younger generation, with good education and rationality, know what it means to do renewal. How is Mr Chiam going to renew now, when he hasn’t done so for many years?”

Former NSP secretary-general Tan Lam Siong pointed out that Opposition parties are generally weak in terms of manpower and finances, and only someone with a “deep and strong affiliation” with the party would willingly shoulder the burden of running it.

“He or she would have invested and sacrificed a great deal of personal time, energy and money in the party over the years. The party gradually evolves into his or her alter ego and it is not difficult to see why the process of leadership renewal can never be an easy thing,” he said.

The entrenchment of a party chief ends up becoming a double-edged sword, as RSIS’ Dr Chong puts it. A charismatic leader is needed to unite the party, and clamp down on discordant voices. But too much control can easily tip the scales, as “people will see that this is not what they signed up for”, he said.

Added NTU’s Asst Prof Woo: “This is typical of political parties that are not as institutionally developed, and hence require the presence of a charismatic leader in order to garner support.”

What does renewal constitute? A steady stream of talent and ample opportunities to shine were givens, but analysts and politicians also warned of a danger to avoid: Rigging the process of renewal to entrench oneself.

Said the PPP’s Mr Goh: “Renewal is a very sexy word to use. In the process of renewal, there’s a lot of politicking — replacing veterans with younger ones who are more supportive to maintain their power base.”

One way to prevent this would be to modify the cadre system, he suggested. Instead of having the CECs appoint cadres, the cadres themselves could be given the power to expand their ranks.

At 46, the PPP’s Mr Goh is one of the youngest party chiefs around, but he is already making plans for succession.

“It takes about one to two elections for new people to be experienced in running a party. If you are 60, and still cannot find anyone to take over, you are in a position of short notice.”

Asked whether the next generation of politicians were ready to take the Opposition to the next level, Mr Goh said no. Mr Yaw Shin Leong had the “best shot”, with charisma, organisational skills and a clear grasp of policies. “Charisma is something that you can’t teach. Now I don’t see any suitable replacement and it‘s a really worrying sight,” he said.

Other analysts were hard pressed to name up-and-coming young politicians, but recurring names included the WP’s Mr Perera and Dr Goh.

Asst Prof Woo pointed to the example of the PAP, which, as a more mature party, had set up “strong internal institutions and processes” to facilitate the transfer of power.

“It is also less dependent on the role of any particular politician and takes a team-based approach instead, hence diluting the potential for personality-driven politics,” he said. “Indeed, a move from individuals to institutions is necessary for political development at any level of politics.”

Former WP treasurer Eric Tan added: “At the end of the day, the party must be bigger than the leader. Cadres and members must be able to grow the party to the next stage.”

SINGAPORE — A frequent traveller to places such as the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan for work, information technology sales professional Brandon Lim used to chalk up mobile phone bills of at least S$500 to $600 a month. “I had long conference calls that lasted one to two hours — that kills it — and text messages were expensive too,” said the 40-year-old.

These days, however, the size of his monthly mobile phone bills has shrunk to just above S$100 on average.

Ms Low Qiuling, 33, has also seen her mobile bills while on vacation become more manageable. Gone are the days when she spent as much as S$500 on phone bills during a trip to Europe.

Ms Low, who works in corporate communications, travels two to three times a year. When overseas, she either rents on arrival at airports devices with cheap Wi-Fi connectivity, or she makes calls and sends messages only when she is at places with free Wi-Fi.

Consumers such as Mr Lim and Ms Low have much to thank the disruption to the telecommunications industry in recent years for, as it has seen new players shaking things up by offering cheaper deals, for example, and incumbent telcos having to follow and to raise their own game by offering more innovative products.

Over-the-top (OTT) services such as Whatsapp have all but rendered SMS (short messsage service) obsolete as well as made it cheaper or even free for people to talk to their loved ones overseas or conduct tele- and video-conferencing with business acquaintances abroad, as long as they have an Internet connection. On the other hand, the Great Digital Disruption has pummelled telcos worldwide, including the incumbent players — Singtel, StarHub and M1 — in Singapore: Even as official statistics show total minutes of outgoing international calls going up exponentially in the past six years, revenue from such calls, for example, has fallen by about half for Singtel and M1 based on their financial results.

But it is not all bad news for the telcos: The upshot is that customers are consuming more data than ever. M1 and StarHub, for example, have seen their revenues from mobile data jump several folds.

Mr Naveen Menon, a partner at A.T. Kearney’s media and technology practice (Asia Pacific), said: “In this era of rising mobile traffic and falling prices, telecom operators need a large scale transformation. A telco can remake itself as a basic ‘data utility’, or become a full ‘digital navigator’ that takes on the likes of Apple or Google when it comes to innovating in services and content. If they fail to do either, the opportunity could be lost.”

In Singapore, industry players and experts point to the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2008 and 2009 — and the instant runaway success of these smartphones in the market — as ushering the era of disruption for telcos, with consumers able to access the Internet on the go. Around the same period, the Government rolled out the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (NGNBN), significantly lowering the barriers for new entrants into the telco market.

The disruption to the telco industry will reach another milestone this quarter — if, as expected, a fourth telco licence is awarded to a new player. The Infocomm Development Authority is expected to put up a 4G spectrum auction between this month and September, some three years after a similar auction failed to draw any concrete interest.

TELCO WARS

The entry of MyRepublic and ViewQwest into the fibre broadband market in 2011 and 2012, respectively, have led to greater competition and paved the way for price wars. Previously, the three incumbents tended to move closely together when it came to pricing or service, prompting questions on whether there was enough competition. In response, some telcos told TODAY at that time that competition had moved beyond pricing in Singapore’s small and mature mobile market and they differentiated themselves on factors such as quality, reliability, speed and innovativeness of their mobile services.

In 2014, however, a price war broke out when MyRepublic offered its 1Gbps fibre broadband package at S$49.99 a month, which was about eight times cheaper than what M1 and StarHub were then offering. Shortly after, M1 slashed its price by half to offer its 1Gbps plan at the same price. Singtel and StarHub subsequently launched unlimited (with average typical speeds of 800Mbps) and 1Gbps fibre plans respectively priced at S$69.90 per month.

Speaking to TODAY, MyRepublic chief operations officer Greg Mittman said: “Telcos have been in a protected space for a very long time, and there was zero price competition. Now you have competition coming in, people’s expectations will have to be re-adjusted ... We don’t aim to be the cheapest, but to give you the best value for money.”

Singtel CEO of Consumer Singapore Yuen Kuan Moon, however, played down the notion that the industry needs a fourth telco to shake things up. “Everyone seems to think that we need a fourth telco to spur innovation and competition. But innovation and competition is already alive and healthy. Just look at our data plans and differentiated content. We are responding to what customers want and making it affordable at the same time," he said. 

The incumbent telcos have come up with a slew of new offerings in recent years. For instance, M1 launched its Data Passport service last year, where customers pay between S$10 and S$25 more a month per destination to use their local data bundle when they travel to any of 44 destinations across Asia, Europe and United States. A similar service was launched later where customers pay S$50 per month for 27 destinations in Europe.

The new service has seen the number of M1 customers who use data roaming increase by more than 80 per cent now as compared to a year ago — helping to cushion the fall in IDD revenue.

In April, M1 also launched a Voice Over Wi-Fi trial, which enables users to make data voice calls even for fixed line numbers.

M1 chief commercial officer Lee Kok Chew said: “Generally, we are seeing people using more data because of increased video streaming, usage of apps, as well as faster devices and networks. In addition, we have introduced innovative services such as Data Passport for affordable data usage overseas. On average, each person uses 3.3Gb of data on smartphone now, as compared to 1.6Gb four years ago.”

Meanwhile, Singtel came up with WhatsApp plans which are tagged to customers’ existing pre-paid plans. These allow them to send unlimited volume of WhatsApp messages without incurring additional data charges. It also launched its own Wavee app last year which imitates Whatsapp functions such as enabling users to make voice calls, send instant messages and set up chat groups. It also started offering standalone data plans, super-sized shareable data add-ons, and data-free music streaming. "OTT is disrupting many industries besides the telecommunications industry. But it’s not a zero-sum game for us," said Mr Yuen. "We’re meeting the OTT challenge by looking at how we can complement each other. For example, we’re partnering with content providers like Netflix and Viu to enrich the range of digital services we can offer to our customers."

StarHub is focusing on its “hubbing bundles” which comes with a suite of services such as fibre broadband, fibre television and mobile broadband. Its latest HomeHub Go package offers five services, including a 7GB mobile postpaid line, for a single fee.

Referring to StarHub being named by an independent global study as having the fastest LTE network twice in a row, StarHub chief marketing officer Howie Lau said: “Another key differentiator for us is network quality. Amid continued growth in mobile data use, we will continue upgrading network quality using the latest available technologies, such as HetNet and 1Gbps small cells.”

Hetnet stands for Heterogeneous Networks, where mobile devices can seamlessly switch between different types of networks such as from home Wi-Fi, 4G and public Wi-Fi. Small cells refer to mini base stations that boost 4G coverage.

INCUMBENTS’ ADVANTAGE: DEEP POCKETS

In an increasingly crowded market, all three incumbent telcos believe they have a key advantage over their newer and smaller competitors — their better network quality, given the millions of dollars they have ploughed into building, maintaining and upgrading their networks. In other words, they have deeper pockets for capital investments.

Industry players have cast doubt on the ability of any new entrant to have the financial might to roll out a mobile network that can meet the Quality of Service (QOS) set by the IDA - an assertion disputed by MyRepublic, which along with wireless solutions company Consistel, has publicly stated their interest in obtaining the fourth telco licence. MyRepublic projects that S$250million would be sufficient to roll out a mobile network, although telcos state they have invested much more, in their networks.

StarHub said it has invested over S$1 billion on upgrading its mobile network over the years. Its capital expenditure (CAPEX) last year made up 13.5 per cent of its total revenue that year.

M1’s Mr Lee said:”M1 has invested more than $1.8 billion in its mobile network to date, and spends more than $100m a year on CAPEX, to enhance customer experience, as well as meet IDA’s QoS.”

Likewise, Singtel said it has spent a total of S$1.6 billion in capital expenditure over the last two years. This year, it has set aside another S$1 billion for capital expenditure domestically.

Industry players said that in order to break into the market and gain a foothold, new entrants would have substantial obstacles to surmount - not least the strong relationships enjoyed by the incumbent telcos with building owners and overseas telcos, which would be hard for the new boy to replicate quickly. To improve mobile coverage, telcos have to work with building owners who would provide the space for base stations.

NEW BOYS BENT ON SHAKING THINGS UP

Despite the odds, MyRepublic and ViewQwest are confident that they can rumble with the big boys. Their lean and low-cost operations and the sound regulatory environment here work in their favour, they said.

MyRepublic’s Mr Mittman said: “If we had built ourselves as a traditional operator, we wouldn’t get there. But now, we have built a new type of organisation, one that taps on cloud computing, less headcount and more automation.”

In Singapore, MyRepublic currently has 100 employees. Should they succeed in becoming the fourth telco, they will add another 200 staff. Even then, their headcount would still be five times fewer than M1 and 10 times smaller than Starhub, according to Mr Mittman.

Due to the high cost of labour here, ViewQwest, which has 60 employees in Singapore, has outsourced some of its operations to Malaysia. ViewQwest chief executive officer Vignesa Moorthy said: “We’re focused on providing a single service, and we have no legacy infrastructure to deal with. We use productivity tools like cloud computing, but traditional telcos spend millions of dollars on customer relationship management tools, for instance.”

As for relationships with building owners, Mr Mittman noted the small pool of major landlords in Singapore which meant it would not be too difficult for his company to build ties from scratch. Also, there is plenty of rooftop spaces that can potentially house MyRepublic’s base stations, he added.

On whether S$250million would be enough to roll out a mobile network, Mr Mittman said: “We have a lean model, we already have the infrastructure for a fixed fibre network, call centres, operational IT platforms, and a regional customer base of 100,000.”

Referring to the smallest among the three incumbent telcos, Mr Moorthy added his two cents worth about the challenges: “It is not impossible. M1 had to start somewhere... IDA has regulation in place that says buildings cannot prevent you from coming in to set up base stations, and there are companies that sell wholesale roaming... Over time, you can build your own relationships with the (overseas) operators.”

POWER TO CONSUMERS

Blessed with more choices as service providers try and outdo one another, customers are in a sweet spot.

Mr Clement Teo, senior analyst at research firm Forrester, referred to the oft-cited Amazon experience - what the e-commerce giant did to revolutionise customer experience. “What is changing is that (telco) customers are becoming consumers of digital content... and they want what Amazon offers, it is constantly re-fining what it knows about you, it makes it easy and simple to make purchases.”

He noted that some telcos, including Telstra in Australia and CSL in Hong Kong, are starting to shift their business strategies to “survive in a digital world”. “There are so many customer touch points, from email to retail shops to calls, and many processes such as the process from when you sign up, to the technician going to your place. Each step needs to be benchmarked and improved,” he said. Referring to Telstra and CSL, he added: “What these two telcos are doing, is to look at all these touchpoints and put in the right processes.”

A telco should also tap on analytics and technology to share customer data across the company, put in new systems and hire the “right kind of people”, he said.

To that end, Singtel, for example, has set up a new business unit that focuses on digital marketing, advanced geoanalytics and OTT video. The company said that it started on plans four years ago to transform itself from a traditional telco to a communications company. Among other things, it started digital engagement efforts via its My Singtel app, live webchat and social media channels.

While telcos here get back to the drawing board and mull over ways to ride the wave of digital disruption, consumers now find themselves having the upper hand, as the balance of power tilts away from the businesses.

Accounts director Mr Eric Wong, 40, said: “Pricing for one (has improved), we seem to be getting more for the same amount of money.”

Now that their appetite has been whetted by what competition can bring, consumers are looking forward to more improvements. “(The telcos) still have some way to go, especially in customer service,” said Mr Wong, adding that the companies ought to also look at improving their mobile coverage islandwide.

Now, for the first time in a long while, the customer is king.

SINGAPORE — Haiyang Shiyou 981.

To get a clearer understanding of the remarkable events that took place in Hanoi early this week, casual observers must acquaint themselves with that name.

(An oil rig (centre) which China calls Haiyang Shiyou 981, and Vietnam refers to as Hai Duong 981, is seen in the South China Sea, off the shore of Vietnam in this May 14, 2014. Photo: Reuters)

It represented the shock that Vietnam woke up to in May 2014: The Haiyang Shiyou 981, a US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion) giant Chinese oil rig, parked off its coast, in waters that both countries claim.

Vietnam tried to dislodge the deep-water drilling rig, sending a flotilla of ships its way, but was beaten back by a more forceful response from the Chinese ships that escorted the China National Offshore Oil Corporation rig. The ensuing chaos sparked an international crisis, and a violent nationalistic response within Vietnam.

But it was the silence on one end that quickly moved things onto a different plane — when Vietnam’s communist party leader Nguyen Phu Trong tried to reach Beijing to protest, his calls were not returned. Hanoi wasted no time in turning to the United States, lobbying its former enemy to lift an arms embargo so that Vietnam could buy American lethal weapons to protect itself.

The US partly relaxed the ban, allowing the purchase of non-lethal equipment for maritime defence, and last year, warmly received Mr Trong at the White House.

That visit arguably set in firm motion the full lifting of the arms embargo this week, announced during the first official visit by President Barack Obama to Vietnam.

The move not only ends one of the last vestiges of the Vietnam War, but, more importantly, marks a recalibration of US-Vietnam ties as well as Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing.

“In a sense, you can consider this Vietnam’s version of ‘rebalance’ after the estrangement of the Vietnam War,” said Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, noting that Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh himself had made overtures to the US after World War II and only decisively turned to the communist bloc after he was rebuffed.

“The Vietnamese are first and foremost nationalists,” added Mr Kausikan. The S R Nathan Fellow has this year given a series of public lectures about how the South China Sea issue has become one where the parameters of Sino-American competition and their interests are most clearly defined and from which South-east Asia nations will draw conclusions about American resolve and Chinese intentions in the region.

While Mr Obama said the decision to lift the arms ban had nothing to do with China, most experts and analysts believe it was partly in response to Beijing’s assertiveness in staking Chinese claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Analysts have suggested that, in return, Hanoi may allow the US access to Cam Ranh Bay — a strategic deepwater port in an inlet of the disputed South China Sea. Such a development, if it comes to pass, will upset China and raise further questions on how the diplomatic and military dance around the waterway will play out.

The picture is further complicated by disputes involving China and several countries in the region over fishing rights in the South China Sea. Malaysia this week detained three Filipino fishermen for fishing in its territorial waters. Indonesia has launched an aggressive crackdown on illegal fishing vessels — including those owned by Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese fishermen — in its waters, sinking more than 60 of them so far. The fishermen have insisted they were plying their trade in traditional fishing waters.

(Click to Enlarge)

Against this background of tension and rivalry, some South-east Asian countries are already changing positions with regard to their relations with the major powers. Thailand, a long-time ally of the US, has been alienated from Washington since Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha launched a military coup in 2014. Mr Prayuth’s government has been strengthening ties with Beijing.

There are also indications that the Philippines, which has overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea and is another treaty ally of the US, may recalibrate its ties with Washington. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has openly questioned the US’ commitment to the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China. He has also indicated that he is open to talks with Beijing.

Only time will tell how these changing geopolitical alliances will affect regional peace and stability, especially given the uncertainty in the US’ foreign policy towards Asia as Mr Obama nears the end of his term in the White House.

A NEW DAWN IN US-VIETNAM TIES?

Mr Obama’s visit to Vietnam this week was steeped in significance. Both sides herald a new partnership 40 years after a bitter war that claimed more than 57,000 American lives and killed as many as two million Vietnamese.

(US President Barack Obama greets attendees after a town-hall-style meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 25, 2016. Photo: The New York Times)

The President portrayed the lifting of the arms embargo as part of the process of normalising relations between the two countries. “This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment that it needs to defend itself,” Mr Obama said in a press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on Monday.

“It also underscores the commitment of the US to fully normalise the relationship with Vietnam, including strong defence ties,” Mr Obama said.

Everywhere he went, the US President was greeted by cheering locals, all jostling to catch a glimpse of the world’s top leader. In a masterstroke of public diplomacy, Mr Obama sat down for a meal with celebrity television show host Anthony Bourdain in a humble noodle shop in Hanoi, delighting netizens and many Vietnamese.

Mr Obama also held a town hall session in Ho Chi Minh City with young Vietnamese leaders. He urged them to do more to combat climate change and touted the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

(Photo: AP)

The TPP is a landmark trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Vietnam, and is a capstone to Mr Obama’s foreign-policy rebalance towards closer ties with Asia.

For Vietnam, Mr Obama’s visit could not have gone better.

“The messages of friendship and cooperation as well as those of looking forward to the future have been sent and well received in Vietnam,” said Mr Tran Viet Thai, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies under Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Assistant Professor Richard Heydarian, who teaches political science at De La Salle University in Manila, noted that the Obama administration has “astutely tapped into Vietnam’s strategic anxieties to build a security partnership that seemed unthinkable just a decade ago”.

“Through the TPP and the growing naval cooperation with America, Vietnam hopes to dampen its deleterious vulnerability with respect to its giant neighbour,” he added, referring to China.

Vietnam’s economy will reportedly get a 10 per cent boost from the TPP in the next decade.

At first glance, ties between Hanoi and Washington appear to have been given a huge boost by the lifting of the arms embargo. Vietnam has hitherto viewed the embargo as a discriminatory practice and a relic of the Cold War, but Washington had held back so that it could continue to use the embargo as a bargaining chip to get Hanoi to improve its human-rights record.

The lifting of the ban is therefore an important diplomatic signal from the US that it wants to move the relationship with Vietnam forward, especially since Vietnam is now the biggest South-east Asian exporter to the US.

“The removal of the embargo indicates a stronger rapprochement and a higher level of trust between the two countries, which makes them more comfortable and more willing to pursue closer cooperation in the future, especially in sensitive areas such as defence and security,” said Dr Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Vietnam, which lost two short naval wars with China in 1974 and 1988 over disputed islands in the South China Sea, is alarmed by China’s growing assertiveness in the maritime regional domain.

(The Vietnamese national flag is seen at the damaged Taiwanese bicycle producer Asama building in Vietnam’s southern Binh Duong province May 16, 2014. Photo: Reuters)

(Security forces (front) scuffle with protesters chanting anti-China slogans, during an anti-China protest in Vietnam’s southern Ho Chi Minh city, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters)

China-Vietnam ties were severely strained in 2014 after the deployment of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation rig sparked massive anti-Chinese protests that left at least 21 dead and dozens injured in Vietnam. Thousands of Chinese citizens had to be extracted from Vietnam for their safety. Although Beijing moved the rig back to its waters after two months, the crisis saw bilateral relations between the two nations tumble to their lowest point in decades.

By cosying up to Washington, Hanoi has sent a clear signal to Beijing that it has powerful friends. At the same time, Vietnam is unlikely to sever itself from the orbit of its largest trading partner and ideological ally.

“Vietnam is acutely conscious it lives next to China and has done so for two thousand years. They have to simultaneously stand up to China and get along with China. That will never change and they are not going to swing all the way one way or another,” said Mr Kausikan.

Military analysts say although there is likely to be greater defence cooperation between the US and Vietnam going forward, this is unlikely to be in the form of major weapons deals.

Since the arms embargo was partially lifted two years ago to allow Hanoi to buy equipment such as radar and boats, Vietnam has not followed up with any major purchases.

“Vietnam is fully in the Russian technological domain, and to break out they will have significant technological problems integrating American weapons into their existing Russian-based armed forces,” said Associate Professor Bernard Loo from the military studies programme of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, adding that he expects more consultations and exchanges between both sides in future.

Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said he expects the US and Vietnam to step up cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as training for Vietnam’s involvement in United Nations peacekeeping.

“Vietnam likely will permit the US to preposition supplies and equipment to deal with natural disasters in the region. Vietnam will not, however, join with the US in military exercises that could appear to be aimed at China,” added Prof Thayer, who has studied Vietnam’s military since the 1960s.

Commenting on the outlook for US-Vietnam relations, Dr Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said ties were likely to see a gradual but long-term improvement.

“Both sides will continue to protect their self-interests. To some degree, this will limit the speed at which the bilateral relationship develops. Nevertheless, the relationship can grow despite these disagreements,” he said.

“In a sense, this is an advantage because expectations are lower when everyone realises these are former adversaries with mutually-antagonistic political systems.”

(People gather and wave to US President Barack Obama’s motorcade as it travels to a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) town hall-style event at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Photo: AP)

BEIJING TAKES NOTICE

Mr Obama’s visit to Vietnam and how ties between both sides progress will no doubt be closely watched by Beijing.

“For China, Vietnam’s increasingly active embrace of the US rebalance — from its participation in the TPP and acquisition of US-built patrol boats, to its citizens’ fanfare reception of President Obama — is a major setback for its strategic influence in South-east Asia,” said Mr Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

“Despite long-standing cultural ties and extensive party-to-party relations, China is effectively ‘losing’ Vietnam to the US,” he added.

China’s official response to the outcome of Mr Obama’s visit was muted and measured, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying that Beijing hoped the lifting of the arms embargo would be beneficial to regional peace, stability and development.

However, the Global Times, an influential state-run newspaper, slammed the announcement, saying the move was aimed at Beijing. It added that the US’ move would exacerbate the “strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing” and accused the White House of “taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more troubles in the South China Sea”.

Closer US-Vietnam ties come at a time when China is challenged on several fronts over its claims in the South China Sea, through which roughly US$5 billion (S$6.88 billion) of shipborne trade pass through every year. China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the disputed waters.

Massive land reclamation, construction of military facilities and the siting of military equipment in the disputed islands and reefs controlled by Beijing have sparked fears of militarisation in the region. The Pentagon has carried out repeated patrols near Chinese-controlled islands, ostensibly to uphold freedom of navigation in international waters.

Manila has asked a court of arbitration at The Hague to recognise its right to exploit waters in the South China Sea, but Beijing has insisted that the court has no jurisdiction over the case.

A ruling on the case is expected in the coming weeks. But leading up to that, China has cobbled up a list of more than 40 countries — many of which are landlocked ones from beyond the region — which Beijing claims endorses its position that the issue should be settled through direct negotiations and not international courts.

When asked if China is getting more nervous about developments in the South China Sea, Mr Kausikan replied that “at least the PRC MFA is getting nervous”, referring to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Otherwise why go around collecting so-called statements of support from such major maritime powers as Sudan, Gambia and Belarus, among others? It impresses no one and only internationalises the issue, which all along (is something) the Chinese say they don’t want,” said Mr Kausikan.

“I think this is because the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) will have to explain to its own people why, if the Great Rejuvenation (espoused by President Xi Jinping) is really so great, and China under CCP leadership is recovering territories lost when China was weak, an international tribunal thinks these are not really Chinese,” he added.

“So they have to show that there is no international consensus and many countries support China, never mind if most of these countries either don’t have a clue what the South China Sea issue is all about or have had words put into their mouth.”

Mr Kausikan believed it was not necessary for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to divide the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) by recently getting Laos, Cambodia and Brunei to agree to a so-called four-point consensus on the South China Sea.

“Asean would not have been able to agree on a common position on the tribunal’s decision even if Wang Yi did not do anything. But Wang Yi is worried about his career as the MFA was bound to be blamed if it did nothing.”

STRATEGIC CAM RANH BAY

(Cam Ranh International Port. Source: Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Adding to Beijing’s anxieties is how the operational picture in the South China Sea might change if Vietnam allows the US Navy to access a recently inaugurated international commercial port in Cam Ranh Bay, a dual-use facility that can also serve foreign warships.

Situated on the south-eastern coast of Vietnam approximately 290km north of Ho Chi Minh City, Cam Ranh Bay is closer to the disputed Paracel Islands claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi than China’s nearest naval base in Hainan.

The bay is also near the Strait of Malacca, giving the US influence over the important global shipping route. It is a deepwater facility that can reportedly receive aircraft carriers and submarines.

The navies of Singapore, Japan and France have visited Cam Ranh International Port since it was opened several months ago. Singapore’s RSS Endurance was the first foreign warship to call at Cam Ranh port on March 17.

(The RSS Endurance at Cam Ranh International Port on March 17. The RSS Endurance is first foreign warship to call into Cam Ranh International Port since its inauguration on March 8. Photo: Ng Eng Hen/Facebook)

Despite speculation that Hanoi may be willing to allow the US Navy to access Cam Ranh Bay, the nature of the arrangement — occasional port calls, rotational deployment, or long-term presence — has yet to be announced.

If the US Navy is given access to Cam Ranh Bay, it will open up another front that China has to watch, in addition to the Scarborough Shoal at the eastern reaches of the South China Sea, where Beijing is facing off against a Philippines supported by the US and Japan.

“Were Hanoi to permit the US military to access airstrips and port facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, Beijing would be confronted with American military access points along the western, southern and eastern flanks of the South China Sea,” noted Mr Townshend of the US Studies Centre.

Professor Alexander Vuving, of the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said that granting the US military access to Cam Ranh Bay would be a “smart move in a weiqi game”, a Chinese traditional chess game based on the principle of indirect offence.

“If the US Navy has permanent access to Cam Ranh Bay, this can neutralise some of the advantage China can enjoy due to its artificial islands in the South China Sea,” he said.

Other analysts point out that, ultimately, the modality through which the US is allowed to access Cam Ranh Bay will be carefully considered by Vietnam. High among Hanoi’s considerations will be how to balance sending a clear signal to Beijing that it is no pushover, with minimising the chances of conflict.

Prof Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said that Vietnam is unlikely to give the US privileged access to Cam Ranh Bay. He said Vietnam will also stop short of allowing any permanent presence or rotational presence by the US Navy there.

“Vietnam will carefully orchestrate these visits so as to minimise Chinese concerns,” said Prof Thayer.

Dr Le of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute added that, for the moment, Vietnam is likely to take a gradual approach to the issue. “It does not want to generate the perception that it is ganging up with the US and other countries against China,” he noted.

“Every step Vietnam takes with the US, it will have to look back to see how China reacts.”

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