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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Opposition should do Business

Opposition Should Do Business

It is the worst of times. It is the best of times.

As for the first statement, Mr Jeyaretnam has been declared by the courts of Singapore a bankrupt (he is appealing) -- all for a single sentence he didn't even write. Even if he succeeds in staving off bankruptcy by miraculously winning his appeal and finding the further cash to pay off his first set of plaintiffs, he is being threatened by Lee Kuan Yew and others for yet another bankruptcy, for a single sentence he spoke that would not even raise any eyebrow in any democracy. Things couldn't look bleaker. It is the worst of times.

As for the second statement, consider why all that had to happen. Mr Jeyaretnam had to be bankrupted because in the General Elections in 1997, he came within a whisker to defeating a long-time PAP Minister in the Cheng San GRC, and by all indications, would succeed this time in the coming GE. Also, in the 'most generous' Budget just weeks ago, the PAP handed out goodies to one and all, in a blatant attempt to win coming votes. If you enjoy your biggest tax reductions, thank the opposition for making it possible. Also thank the voters whose restiveness (probably closely monitored regularly by the PAP) put the Government in no doubt that they 'dared to change' and therefore had to be pacified by generous tax reductions. It is the best of times.

Mr Jeyaretnam isn't the only one the PAP fears. There is also Dr Chee Soon Juan who is quietly championed by first the Australians (he was sponsored by an Australian university to write one of his books) and now the Americans (he is currently in a US university writing another book). However, unlike Mr Jeyaretnam, whose ties to the electorate went back to his 1981 election victory in Anson, Dr Chee is still new and has to cement his ties to the people over time. The people love Mr Jeyaretnam and respect Dr Chee. So both have to be 'destroyed'. In Dr Chee's case, the PAP method is to deny his party (and all other opposition parties as well) funds through legislating donations to political parties.

Since a minimum amount of money is needed for any effective political work, we can now perhaps consider how, with political donations being restricted, the opposition parties can raise funds.

I would suggest that Mr Jeyaretnam, Dr Chee and other like-minded opposition members and parties go into business. Together with any investors or shareholders who want to invest some capital purely to make profits.

At first glance, it may seem implausible and divorced from the considerations of opposition politics but it need not be.

For example, unlike our 'shy' and very private Ministers and even lower rank PAP members, who only appear in public in carefully controlled and contrived settings, not unlike Communist leaders and modern dictators, Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee have long been spending their days and weekends on the streets selling the Hammer and the New Democrat newsletters respectively, using time which could otherwise be spent with family.

Now, take this street hawking one step further and consider a news-stand or a shop, preferably along busy Orchard Road, in a non-Government-controlled, that is, commercial, premises.

A shop has many advantages. It allows a permanent address, greater exposure to the public, greater range of products and services, the chance for Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee to meet members of the public face to face, and to carry publications that otherwise cannot be found in Singapore due to bookstores' reluctance to annoy the omnipotent Government. All the books reviewed in the SFD and SW websites, for example, can be given prominent display space in this shop, and hopefully, this chain of shops.

The next question. Since this shop must make money for the parties, and its investors/shareholders, just like any purely commercial venture, what can it sell?

Well, almost anything. However, to sell regular products means running against stiff competition from regular retailers, large or small. To sell only political products like books and newsletters means business will be too small to even pay the rent.

So the ideal product is to sell something that costs little or nothing to buy, so that the profit margin is 100%, less rental and other costs. And I can think of one such product. Second-hand books.

Now, books are related to our political products of 'proscribed' books and newsletters. And selling second-hand books can be profitable because there are a good number of these in Singapore, some in modern air-conditioned shopping malls.

However, these second-hand bookstores have to buy their books, just like any retailing products whereas we can (I think and I hope) count on the deep feelings of love and respect the people have for opposition figures like Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee. For example, if we can get the word out to the people of Singapore through websites like SFD and through word-of-mouth, as well as through serendipitous discovery while walking/shopping along Orchard Road, we can obtain a good number of used books for nothing and then sell these to recover rent and costs, as well as hopefully, generate some funds for political work.

People may not always give money to political parties but they will find it much easier to donate their read books to this shop, and also to browse and buy from the shop. Party workers can also go door to door to ask for book donations. For most people, giving used books is much easier than giving money. Any book qualifies, from school textbooks to novels and steamy romances. Any books that the shop does not want to display or (hopefully) lack the space to display can be sold directly to other second-hand bookshops.

How would the shop look?

The proportion of political books and publications to 'ordinary' used books can be kept to about 1:10, or about 10%. This should be enough to cater to the many Singaporeans who want to buy 'banned' books and have to go to Johor Bahru to buy them. It should also cater to the non-political customer who just wants to browse and buy a second-hand book. Initially, it may be wise to employ someone who has experience in supervising a second-hand bookshop.

There should also be small Singapore Flags for sale, as a reminder that the opposition is not disloyal, that opposition politics, despite what the PAP insinuates, is not treason.

The shop can be named "Democrat's Corner" or some other suitable name that suggests a far larger long-term and nobler goal than just winning elections. It should be about the people and bringing the best for the people.

Since little souvenirs and knick knacks are always popular and help liven up the shop, we can sell items like bookmarks, buttons, etc, with Democratic themes. These are not difficult to make and need only be designed and ordered from suppliers in Singapore.

As for shopkeepers, I suggest Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee put in some hours so that their stature will keep the book donations flowing (there should be a bin or box just outside the shop for donors to quickly drop their books and disappear, if they don't want to be seen helping the opposition). Other shop assistants can be party workers who want to donate some time to man the shop, in return for a small allowance.

Set up costs are not huge. Shelves for books are easily bought and set up, even DIY. A simple counter is not expensive to buy. A cash register is cheap and easily purchased. And, to keep things simple, books can be sold simply by the centimetre-thickness. For example, a used book of thickness 1cm or less would cost say, $3. From 1cm to 2cm, $3.50, 2cm to 3cm, $4, etc.

Prominent signs outside the shop can ask for book donations, otherwise the shop operates just like any other second-hand bookshop. Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee may want to consider the usual buy-back schemes for new books often found and sold in second-hand bookshops, whereby a customer buys a new book for say, $10, then after reading, returns it for a refund of say, $5. This scheme encourages return visits and regular customers.

I hope something can materialise from this letter. If it is feasible, then implement it. If not, then it is just an hour's typing that could stimulate thought on political fund-raising and perhaps spark off other ideas.

To conclude, if Mr Jeyaretnam loses his appeal and is bankrupted, which means automatic expulsion from Parliament and disbarment from further standing for elections, then perhaps he may want to devote his time to tending this shop and continuing his work. He is by no means finished.