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Archive for January, 2012

Happy Lunar New Year

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

A very happy Lunar New Year to all readers. Just came across an article from Yahoo and thought it’s a rather nice read:

For the link, click here.

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It was a memorable and bold moment in Singapore journalism. Earlier this week, a dogged reporter’s patience and persistence combined with a brave editor’s decision to throw caution to the wind ended in an exclusive that brought back memories of the good old days of old-fashioned reporting — and put the government in an embarrassing spot.

The Chinese evening newspaper, Lianhe Wanbao, went ahead with a report on the corruption investigations into the activities of two top public service officers — Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim Sin Pang and Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay — without a government confirmation. It named names and gave details, like the involvement of a woman in the scandal, knowing fully well that there was a chance — a very small chance, maybe — that it could get some important details wrong.

When the government statement came — on the same day but after the paper had published the report — the news had already caught fire with the on-line world hammering out posts and reports and raising pointed issues that ranged from transparency to arrogance.

The most damaging statement, unintended though it was, came from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. In response to media queries, it said that the narcotics man was arrested on Dec 19 and the civil defence boss on Jan 4, many days before the government put out its statement on Jan 24.

It was too long a lapse and was made worse by the rapid-fire news cycle punishing even those who take a couple of  hours to come out with its side of the story.

Why this long delay?

In response to a query by The Straits Times, the government said the investigations are continuing and “it is only  fair that we accord the officers assisting with investigations a fair hearing in accordance with the civil service disciplinary process and the law.”

It is understandable that you want to give those involved, especially when the investigations are still on-going, a good shot at fair play. That occasion passed when the two were arrested. That was the moment when officialdom should have bitten the bullet and said: The tipping point has been reached.  And we have to go public with the story.

But it remained silent until the unlikeliest of sources — the traditional media, fed by a regular diet of press releases and official speeches — put the story in the public domain.

The end result: A government caught with its back against the wall and in a reactive mode.

High pay and low corruption

When the Parliamentary debate on political salaries took place from Jan 16 to 18, the one critical point that never came up was that of a clean Cabinet and civil service. The silence on this issue was understandable because corruption in high places in government is extremely rare. But this new development, where two very senior public service officials were under investigation for “serious personal misconduct”, could have been brought up and could have added a new dimension to the debate.

The salary-corruption link is important. High pay was one way to discourage officials from wanting to have their palms greased. Lee Kuan Yew highlighted that point when he pushed vigorously for top salaries. No reasonable-minded Singaporean would have expected a corrupt-free public service, even with high pay; those who want to get round the laws will always find loopholes to exploit.

But you can make sure that corruption cases are as rare as possible. And that corrupt officials, once exposed, will face the full brunt of the law.

Even ministers have not been spared. Former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan, who was praised by Lee Kuan Yew a number of times, chose to end his life when he faced the heat of an unyielding group of anti-corruption officers way back in the 1980s.

Making the CPIB report directly to the PMO gives them the latitude and freedom to investigate even the high and mighty without too many encumbrances.

All these could have made the Parliamentary debate more meaningful and relevant. But an opportunity to explain the historical backdrop and context to Singapore’s war on corruption was lost.

The ruling party kept silent; so did the Opposition. I am more inclined to sympathise with the members of the Opposition because there was no way for them to have information on the latest investigations.

Lessons not learnt

Since GE 2011, the government seems to be on its backfoot with communication blunders becoming a regular occurrence. From the Mas Selamat case (official statement was issued four hours after the terrorist escaped from the Internal Security Department’s detention centre) to the wrong signatures on YOG appreciation certificates (Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that it was an embarrassment but not a disaster) to the PAP’s electoral defeat in Aljunied (Lee Kuan Yew warned residents that they will repent if Opposition won), it is clear  that the government has yet to get a handle on how to communicate effectively in a new world.

That is really strange. This is not a stupid government, it has done a lot of good things for its people, it is respected overseas and its model of governance is highly sought after.

Yet, one of the basic attributes of a smart government — squaring with its citizens and carrying them along — seems to be missing.

P N Balji has more than 35 years experience as a journalist. He is now a media consultant.

Categories: Uncategorized

Moral authority

January 17, 2012 2 comments

I had a fun time reading and watching some of the parliament speeches, some of which makes me think real hard. Not about the reason high pay is required, because I don’t see a point in bringing up a topic to discuss when there’s nothing to discuss anyway.

The PM had already said that the government (or rather, himself) decided to accept the wage proposal created by a committee formed by himself and that the ‘whip’ will not be removed, meaning the majority PAP controlled parliament can only approve the proposal as well.  It’s akin to a school headmaster asking his fellow teachers to grade him for his performance but he can choose to approve whether that grade is acceptable. In other words, the PM grades himself. What I am really concern about is the capability and logic thinking skills of the various ‘talents’ the PAP government had ushered into the highest decision body in Singapore.

There is this unknown MP who calculates that an estimated 3.5 million Singaporeans pay only $1 each for the Prime Minister, and the PM is ‘kind enough’ to ‘sacrifice’ a hefty discount to take ‘only’ $2.2 million a year. I laughed. Going by that logic, the US President should be paid $300 million, the Indian PM should be paid $1.2 billion, and the Chinese Premier should expect $1.3 billion. That would mean every single head of state in the developed world is seriously underpaid. I smell a wisp of chao-tar curry in the air. Too much curry powder was added and the flame was overwhelming.

Another unknown MP re-paraphrase what the Deputy PM Teo Chee Heng had mentioned, about ‘not being fair’ to compare the salaries of other countries as other head of states enjoy hidden perks like housing, free air ticket, and (he emphasized the words) “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”. If there are so many et ceteras, why couldn’t the MP simply list the figures down clearly? The emphasizes of et cetra without a concrete figure is vague and ambiguous. If you have the figures, back it up. If not, it’s empty speech.

One female MP talks about being unfair to measure politician salaries base on civil service salaries given the larger responsibilities and more important decision making politicians face. If salary is a measurement of responsibility, it would mean managing a $220 billion economy with a population of 5 million is more complicated and difficult than managing a $15 trillion economy with a population of 300 million, never mind the other factors such as natural disasters and strong labor unions when we compare Singapore and USA.

The fact that only 1 PAP MP Ms Denis Phua raised concerns about the revised salary structure reeks of Group Think and reluctance to challenge the decisions made by the PM within the PAP–the very idea of nonexistence of impartiality in a dominating PAP parliament. The PM said that it is still possible to have healthy debates in a PAP dominated parliament during the last General Election. Obviously, it’s not true. All in all, it sent a shiver down my spine to think that these are the so called ‘talents’ that the PAP is pursuing to lead the country.

The PM mentioned that Singapore is extraordinary. Yes, we are extraordinarily open to foreigners. We are extraordinarily friendly to various corporations. And we pay our political leaders extraordinarily well. While self-praising themselves as extraordinary elites and insinuating that without the PAP, Singapore will deteriorate, the deterioration process has already started proven from the recent problems haunting the country. The many years of self-serving elitism had eschewed on whatever remaining moral the old PAP had build up. The new PAP is an obsessed financier that place a price tag on everything, mix with his own people, benchmark his performance on growing the bank account even if it means structuring products that would cause harm to his clients as long as his own profits increase, and measure his capability in dollars and zeros. In the logic of PAP, a high pay equates to talent and vice versa.

If the logic is true, is it not only fair for Singaporeans to have extraordinary expectations? So why aren’t Singaporeans enjoying an extraordinary life? In fact, I don’t think that Singaporeans have an extraordinary expectation of their government. I remembered a time when most Singaporeans are contented about the PAP government until the foreigners, transportation, housing and cost of living issues started brewing in the beginning of the new millennium.

Despite all that explanation, the PM and Deputy PM’s reasoning are flawed. Singapore is a larger entity than the PAP. The PM’s reasoning simply means that the PAP is unable to find talents without paying top dollar. It does not mean that Singapore is unable to find talents without paying top dollar. It is important that we are conscious that the PAP might not govern Singapore forever. The fact that we have Chen Show Mao, a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar to give up a top paying job as a partner of a top lawyer firm renowned world-wide to take up a MP position in the opposition camp, is the perfect example of what a real sacrifice should be. Not those calculative ‘sacrifices’ espoused by unproven, mostly ex-civil servants or ex-top management of government-linked companies that only managed to hop on the coat tails of PAP into parliament.

I view the discussion of the ministerial salary as a valuable chance for the PAP government to regain whatever credibility they have lost over the last few years. What I witnessed is reluctance to go for bold changes and speeches that makes me question the capabilities and real reason for joining politics of the various ‘elected’ MPs and ministers of the ruling party. It seems that the PAP is not only extraordinarily generous in rewarding themselves, they are also extraordinary in one aspect: the lack of moral authority.

Confused or Wayang?

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

A noble speech by an ex-military general after his first constitutional walk about since the general election (so what was he doing since June 2011??):

 

Once upon a time, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said ministerial pay needs to be increased in order to curb corruption and also attract talents. So what he means is pay is an important factor. Fine, that sounds like an acceptable reason given the political landscape among the ASEAN countries in the 1960s. Mr Goh Chok Tong followed up by saying that if we pay peanuts, we’ll get monkeys. Reaffirmation of the importance of the pay factor but not very convincing nowadays given the negative issues of foreigners, housing and transportation even after paying top dollar to the so-called talents for so many decades.

In recent times Ms Not-so-Graceful said money is not her primary concern when she decided to enter politics and yet paradoxically mention about the ‘possible deterioration’ of her standard of living. If you are not concern, why even mention it? I can never understand why would someone talk about an issue that they said they are not concern about. And now, we have this ex-general propagating that pay is not a factor at all for his fellow colleagues and himself. Going by the logic of Mr Lee and Mr Goh, Ms Grace Fu and Mr Chan Chun Sing must be offered top dollar in order to attract them to join politics. Yet going by Ms Grace Fu and Mr Chan’s defense, it seems that pay is not an important factor after all. So the question is, do we still need to pay top dollar to attract talents to serve the country?

If pay is an important factor to attract talents, then there is nothing altruistic about the reason Ms Grace and Mr Chan joined politics. But if pay is not an important factor, why do we even need to offer such a high salary? You can’t say pay is not an important factor for yourself to join politics and yet said that pay is important to attract talents to join politics. It is such an oxymoron.

PAP is such a confused group of politicians. Either that, or it’s all wayang.

Money Issues

January 5, 2012 4 comments

So the recent proposal of salary amendment was released and obviously many people aren’t satisfied about it. Personally, I don’t find the cut satisfactory when using an international benchmark (comparing vis-a-vis the responsibility by leaders of other countries) but the results are pretty much within expectation. A drastic cut would literally cut away at whatever harmony and morale left in the PAP government, and an internal disintegration would be worse than leaving a portion of citizens being unsatisfied. After all, they still have 4 more years to prove their worth.

In addition, there is not much margin left to cut considering that the top management of Government-Linked-Companies are already earning a very high salary. It doesn’t make sense for the CEO of SMRT or Singtel to earn more than a minister (at least in PAP logic, although CEO of Keppel group seemed to be paid more than a minister in a good year when bonus and options are included). In fact, the entire pay structure of top civil servants would prevent a humongous cut from happening since our permanent secretary alone (and I haven’t add in the bonuses) earns more than the U.S. president. In a way, it’s like a domino. If you want a truly significant reduction, it would mean slicing all the way down to the civil servants, which is actually a bad thing if you ask me.

However, I must say that the salary cut is a good step towards a more democratic society, where an increasingly vociferous population is snatching back power monopolized by the government. The only issue I have is the ridiculous bonus scheme. Even if the new proposal is adopted, the maximum bonus is still more than 14 months–a scheme that is so rare in the private sector. In typical oxymoron fashion, the government benchmark their pay to the (top earners of the) private sector but devised a bonus scheme that is out of this world (the current scheme allows bonus up to more than 24 months). The proposed benchmark based on 4 factors sounds valid but there is a deeper sinister meaning:

  1. GDP growth—ok, so GDP growth still plays a part
  2. Unemployment rate—since S’pore’s unemployment rate is forever so low (since the 80s!), GDP still plays the major part. Why do you think there are so many foreigners? The country’s problem is not enough workers, not not enough jobs. For this, I commended the government for doing such a great job in pulling in companies to set up businesses in Singapore (that policies is almost crafted solely to meet business owners/ MNCs’ needs)
  3. Median Income of TOP 1000 Singaporeans income earners—bias policy might be created to favor this elite group. We already see the chairman of the Real Estate Developer Association of Singapore to have the cheek to warn (and threaten) an economic downturn and asset devaluation due to new property cooling measures. And again, it’s about pushing through the GDP express train so that the top earners would benefit. I foresee greater income disparity.
  4. Real growth in bottom 20% of income earners—This sounds politically right. But basically, all you need to do is to increase foreign workers levy which makes it more expensive to hire cheaper foreign labor, score some political point for correcting a policy that Singaporeans don’t like, and indirectly force some companies to pay a higher pay to Singaporeans. Or, the government can simply introduce minimum wage policy, score more political points and raise the bottom earners by a few dollars. At such low salary, any increment would be significant. When you are earning $800 a month, a $50 increment would translate to 6.25% jump in income.

If you look closely, the essence of the policy doesn’t change. It is still about the economy. It is still mainly about money. Point 2 is easily achieved going by the current low Singaporean population and the low replacement rate. Point 4 can be easily achieved too. And point 1 and 2 is solely on driving the economic train. In fact, points 1,2 & 3 go hand in hand together. You can’t get one without the other two. While I admit economic growth is important, the idealistic me would rather see benchmarks such as improving health-care (made even more important in an aging society) and public goods such as transportation (yes, I definitely feel that a ‘nationalized’ bus and train service is still the responsibility of LTA. If not, why would we even need a minister of transport?) and housing (a major problem). How about replacing point 2 & 3 with population control (measurable), waiting time of public transportation (measurable), and waiting time to get and affordability of a HDB flat (also measurable) since such factors directly affect most Singaporeans?

In the meantime, we yet see another minister who just could not keep her mouth shut and start spouting stupid comments. Grace Fu, in yet another ungraceful ‘PAP-style-I am misinterpreted’ episode (see here) could do better to keep her opinion to herself. Why would she comment that pay is not a major factor when at the same time insinuate a lower pay scale would mean a lower standard of living? On the other hand, maybe I should commend her on her honesty and bravery for not deleting the post (or maybe she realized netizens would have screen saved it any way).

This is not the first time we have seen how politically ‘unsavvy’ PAP candidates are…maybe they need EQ lessons, provided they have some emotional quotient left in their brain.

P.S. I wasted a few minutes of my life reading through the recent post by Tin Pei Ling. In a new year, I was hoping for some improvement. Yet, I see another noble-sounding post that didn’t add value to my time spent. And while more than 80% of the essay is about what is already being done and how the ‘Community’ is helping and ‘reaching out’ to the public, the last paragraph talks about not depending on the government. Isn’t it an irony? An MP of the ruling government asking the public not to depend on the government while taking in $190,000 a year.