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Reblog: Views on the AIM saga

January 4, 2013 2 comments

There are many posts in the blogosphere discussing on the almost embarrassing act of a Prime Minister shooting out lawyer letters to Alex Au, the blogger of the popular Yawningbread.org. So I am not going to write more, since the questions are very much well known. I do, have a couple of posts from other social-political website that shares my sentiments and questions regarding the saga. So in my bid to promote similar views, I have them reblogged on my blog:

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Source: http://andrewlohhp.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/stop-being-so-childish-prime-minister/

Stop being so childish, prime minister

It is barely the first week of the new year and we already have a threat of legal action from the People’s Action Party (PAP) / Government. PM Lee Hsien Loong had sent a lawyer’s letter to well known and very much respected blogger, activist and writer, Alex Au, demanding Alex removed his blog posts about Action Information Management, the PAP-owned company embroiled in the controversy over a certain computer system.

It is unclear whether PM Lee had sent the letter in his personal capacity, or as the prime minister or secretary general of the PAP. Whatever it is, the demand was clear – remove the allegedly offending post, and publish an apology, or else.

It is the same old tiring, tiresome, and tired tactic of issuing threats instead of engaging the issue or the alleged allegations. Threatening to take legal action over blog postings is, to be honest, infantile. It is childish because it does not befit the office of the prime minister to take offence so easily, when he has in his power all the resources to engage the issue, clarify any perceived falsehoods, or lay out the facts of the issue at hand. In short, he could very well take some time, have a bit of patience, and debate or discuss the issues and in the process enlighten everyone – and maybe gain a bit more respect too from his detractors.

But no. A lawyer’s letter was obviously deemed the better option.

Nonetheless, lets not let this threat of legal action distract us from the very important matter of the AIM/PAP controversy – for there are still many questions, serious questions, left unanswered, even after some 3 weeks since the matter came into the public spotlight.

Dr Teo Ho Pin, the coordinating chairman of the 14 PAP town councils, have yet to explain, for example, why he and the chairmen of the town councils, did not see the conflict of interest of awarding and selling the rights of the computer system to a PAP-owned company. If they did, why did they still choose to go ahead in awarding the contract to AIM?

He has also not disclosed how much was used to develop the software in the first place. Or indeed, how much AIM paid for the software. Why was AIM’s bid for the contract submitted, apparently, one week after the closing date of the tender – and accepted?

Alex raised some very pertinent matters too – such as the danger that there is nothing to stop the PAP from selling out other services to PAP-owned companies. By the way, the PAP has declined to reveal how many companies it owns. This too is a problem because any opposition party which wins a constituency may find itself having to deal with PAP-owned companies, as the Workers’ Party did with AIM in Aljunied.

It is thus important, in the name of full accountability, that the PAP disclose the number of companies it has, and the nature of their business.

In the case of AIM, the PAP declined to disclose its past business dealings, or other details about the company.

So, in spite of the threat of legal action by the prime minister, these questions are being asked even more loudly now – and it would do the PAP a whole lot of good if it addressed each one openly.

And the best way to do so is in a “live” press conference in the presence of the mainstream media and the alternative media. Take the matter head-on, clear all doubts, lay out all facts.

That is, if the PAP has nothing to hide, which I am sure is the case.

And it really – I mean, really – is time to lay down the hatchet.

Engage Singaporeans. Engage the issue. Engage the questions – and not engage lawyers to issue threats.

Stop being so childish, prime minister.

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Source: http://www.raviphilemon.net/2013/01/opposition-has-more-integrity-than-pap.html

Mr Khaw Boon Wan
Chairman
People’s Action Party

Dear Mr Khaw

I refer to the newspaper report ‘PAP explains software sale to AIM’ (link: http://goo.gl/6VMO9). The report states that ‘The PAP declined to comment on the number of companies it owns’.

The PAP being a political party is subjected to the political donations act; an act which the PAP dominated Parliament passed as being integral in safeguarding the integrity of the domestic political process, and to ensure that political organisations are not funded by foreign elements or sources.

Since the Party is subjected to the said Act, it is important for the Party to give details of the companies the Party own, for only that will give the general public the confidence that the ruling party is not above the integrity expected of other organisations involved in the local political process, and that it is not funded by foreign elements or sources.

I write to you as Party Chairman to shed more light on this issue.

Thank you.”

AIM (PAP-owned company) too, like its owner, has declined to give details of its track record and business dealings. This silence, is extremely disturbing, and I hope I get a response from PAP’s chairman soon.

In the midst of the unraveling of this issue, some have accused Workers’ Party of keeping relative silence because they too like the PAP, have engaged their own company to manage the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. That accusation is not true.

While the PAP has acknowledged that AIM is owned by PAP, FM Solution & Services Pte Ltd (FMSS) is not owned by WP, and also no WP member has any interest in FMSS (see THIS). Yes, the General Manager of FMSS may have formerly been the secretary of Hougang Town Council, but where the town councils are so politicised, I can understand why.

With the PAP deciding to not disclose which are the companies they own, you don’t know which are the ones the PAP owns and which they don’t. If WP is not careful about who they award the town council management contract to, and if it gets awarded to a PAP-owned company, that company may potentially sabotage WP’s town council operations in order to reduce WP’s electability in the same constituency in the next General Election.

The PAP being the ruling party, and being the governing party for over 50 years, must first set fairness as a benchmark. Where that is not established, whether WP’s action to award contract to FMSS was beyond reproach or not, becomes very subjective. And no, it’s not a competition about who’s more wrong, or where the greater conflict of interest lies. The fact is, WP does not own any companies – not one of the other political parties do.  But PAP does, and no one knows how many such companies they own.

WP, and all the other opposition parties try to serve the citizens of Singapore, in an uneven field created by the PAP;  but they compete with more integrity than the PAP.

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All in all, the questions raised are logical. As a citizen, it is my right to question the questionable. How the heck can one sounds ‘in-defamtory’ when the PAP is not giving clear details on their explanation (and it took them more than 3 days to come up with an answer??? That itself is questionable!)?  PAP has a chance to showcase their integrity and transparency by coming forward to explain with concrete evidence that Alex’s posts are defamatory. Yet, they stupidly choose to undertake the perceived negatively action of throwing libel suits. What they achieved in the end is probably a slight relief of having suggestive posts being taken down but end up being a loud hailer for deeper questioning of the AIM saga.

Dear Prime Minister, seriously, grow up. Give me the answers that we citizens demand and deserve. As a political party, in the name of transparency, which the PAP has always loudly acclaimed, disclose all the companies the PAP owns or have vested interest in. How else do you expect citizens to believe there’s no dealings being undertaken that could run against the interest of Singaporeans? Given the recent episodes of corruption and immoral coverings of senior civil servants, including a MP/ Speaker of the House, where is the guarantee that such bad apples or dealings don’t exist within the PAP party? After all, didn’t the ruling party absorb most of their ‘talents’ from the exact same pool?

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Mr Lui should just shut up

December 14, 2012 8 comments

That is my kind advice. Repeated attempts to explain something that sounds wrong only made it sound even worse.

If raising fares also meant improving service standards, can the Minister of Transport explain how is it that service levels continue to deteriorate after all these years of fare increase? Since past increment in fares actually translate into worsening service standards, history obviously shows that a rise in fares will not improve service standards. Service standard is also not simply achieved by paying bus captains more. It is a combination of reasonable fares, timeliness of buses, training, bus captain’s personal service, efficient planning of bus routes etc.

If the minister is concern about ‘keeping transport operators commercially viable’, he need not worry. SMRT and SBS continue to earn great profits and even manage to generously give out dividends to shareholders after a year of breakdowns and accidents; thanks to it’s monopolistic position and PAP’s generous transfer of $1.1 billion from the tax payers’ pockets (that could have been used for public projects) to capital owners, investors and of course, the bulk of which goes to Temasek Holdings. And can someone remind Cambridge educated Mr Lui commercially viable does not equate huge profits (with the cheek to hand out dividends after a government bail out)?

Then Mr Lui goes on to say that having leaving the public transport operator privatized would meant more efficiency and depend less on tax-payers’ money. Is it any more efficient now? Has it not also depended on tax payers’ money? So despite government subsiding the public has to pay even more? Ever heard of double taxation? Is there any difference in money coming directly from the tax payers’ pockets and indirectly as subsidy from the government? Either way it’s financed by the public. The only nightmare is taxpayers are paying it BOTH ways. How is the current situation of the government subsidizing $1,100,000,000.00 any different from being nationalized?

What this smart minister said doesn’t seem to make much sense: “He said taking the populist approach of avoiding fare increases completely and pushing it onto public transport operators will give the operators no incentive to be efficient and provide better service for commuters.” In order to survive, the operators have to think of other ways if fares are not increased. Sometimes creative ways. Sometimes it may simply be a reduction in costs in other aspects, such as drop out some useless board of directors (see link, and think for yourself how has that entourage of government linked personnel contributed anything constructive in ensuring the past failures did not happen) and use that millions in director fees saved to increase the pay of the bus captains. I’ll tell you what would not give the operators any incentive to improve standards–Government guarantee of survival and profitability. Not just being ‘commercially viable’, but ‘huge profits’. Being a monopoly in train transport and free money from the government going into the billions, why should SMRT has the motivation or incentive to become better?

And let the troubles roll

December 12, 2012 2 comments

The SMRT saga continues and all I see are denials and denials and denials. Where are the transparency and conversation the government sought to have? Where are the substances in all these conversation?

Touching down back to this sunny (or rather, rainy) island, the first thing the taxi driver yanked about is the failure of SMRT. Never mind that the recent sagas had created a deep distrust in the government handling of a private transport operator that had conflicting invested interest by the government itself, the transport minister goes on to showcase his EQ deficiency and insensitiveness in announcing the need to raise fares in order for SMRT to offer higher pay to attract Singaporeans to work as drivers.

And to the great embarrassment to any citizen of this ‘fine’ country, we have $15,000 a month MPs (see link) who are incapable of stringing logical answers and statements, flabbergasting in a stammer of nonsensical and heavily Singlish flavored replies that speaks zero confidence, absence of factual evidence, and simply devoid of intelligence. One can easily sense the great denial going on. When you can’t convince, you try to confuse, even though that’s a rather bad job done. I would rather hire Sarah Paulin as an MP. At least she knows the simple logic of Russia and Alaska being pretty near one another. How on earth did the great PAP ended up with minions like these?

Firstly, SMRT got someone who had not a single day experience in transport management to head a major transport company that offers public bus services. How is that risk assessed or approved is anyone’s guess. A few years down the road, it became obvious that Singapore Mass Rapid Transport is turning into SuperMaRkeT Inc with all that focus on retail rather than the core business in transport. Sure, revenue increased, which is a good thing for shareholders, notwithstanding that fares were still being raised in the face of “ever increasing cost in fuel and wages” despite increasing profits. Consequentially, failures of the train system came one after another, another after another.

The answer provided by the Ministry of Transport, which seems to have been sleeping on for years, is to spend more tax payer’s money in creating some random council to assist an entire ministry in solving SMRT’s problem. Why then do we even need a ministry for in the first place? Are all these people working in the ministry so useless they have to get additional resources to remedy something that they should be overseeing all this while? Lawyer fees were incurred, effort and thousands of hours later, it simply culminated in a muffed blaming game; in the hope of boomeranging the responsibility on the already guilty transport operator away from the government.  What I see is simply a show, a boring show by script writers who slaved away in MediaCorp’s cubicle box paid for by tax payers.

Turning back to an ex-military 3-star general to solve the current issue signified the depth of buried head the government had. Further stepping up on the bureaucracy ladder, this ex-general intend to rope in his soon-to-be-retired colleagues in the military. Isn’t it funny yet somehow familiar at how the military becomes the magic pill that “should” set things right. It’s simply a matter of going back to how things used to work before all that drama. Since things were fine headed by an ex-military honcho in the past, it must work in today’s time right? I’m baffled by the simplicity solution the government sought to create.  Anyone who had experience in the military will know that it is not the most efficient organization around. Appointing people who used to direct tanks and heavy vehicles to manage a nation-wide transport system isn’t really the wisest thing if you ask me. To be fair, time should reveal how capable our military is.

While the government stands by the view that public transport operators should be left privatized in order to achieve ‘efficiency’, they are slapping themselves in their face by indirectly admitting that the government, as a public serving body, is not efficient. Well, that’s pretty obvious going by the waste of tax payer’s money in the recent Procurement saga where there’s no logistical expert, no due diligence and no controls on spending money on the various ministries and statutory boards. How privatize is SMRT in the first place when the government is free to insert their own people as and when it deemed necessary? If simply being privatized equates efficiency and profitability, maybe the ministers, with their highly decorated accolades and degrees from prestigious universities care to explain the reason SMRT failed, or any other privatized firms such as the major banks failures in recent years.

Although “privatized”, the government goes on to use $1.1 billion of tax payer’s money to assist these transport operators to upgrade their infrastructure and procure new vehicles. $1.1 billion, that’s 1,100 million. It’s not a small figure mind you. It is equivalent to more than 8 years SMRT’s profit. How is such a huge amount approved so easily and so fast amazed me. All the more amazing when the PAP has always been reluctant to spend even an additional couple of millions more on healthcare and aid for the unfortunate.

In another showcase of efficiency, or rather, the lack of thorough debate and discussion with a fast approval in Parliament, the citizens of this island state are coerced to bail out a company that feeds profits to the government. In theory, privatized companies do perform better as they have a bottom line to take care of. By taking away that urgency to take care of bottom line, the government is signaling that SMRT will be guaranteed survival. Well, not only survival, the government goes an extra length to signify their willingness to guarantee profitability, even at the expense of the real shareholders—the citizens funding the entire infrastructure upgrade and bus procurement. The issue is not a matter of market failure and treating it with a useless tagline of ‘privatization’ when it is in essence heavily subsidized by public funds. The real issue is a Principle-agent problem, exacerbated by common interests between the government’s investment arm and the problematic company in question.  In essence, tax payers are paying for their own buses and bus captains and paying on top of it extra premium to ensure shareholders (ie Temasek Holdings) get their fatty pay check and bonuses. What choices do the common man and woman down the street has?

P.S. At the time PAP experienced WP’s episode of ‘unfaithful MPs’, we see Low Thai Kiang reacting to crafty interview questions (read between the lines how those questions posed are designed to bait certain answers) with ease and style. Why can’t the PAP ever learn their PR skills?

Bloody Joker

November 8, 2012 2 comments

Will be doing a bit of flying, so won’t be writing much any time soon. Did I mentioned I respect and love (not in the literary sense though) Ngiam Tong Dow? We need people who are decisive and give straight answers and honest opinions. Enough of vagueness and hiding around the bush. You hear that NUS? Why is a university of such standing be afraid of announcing any punishments met to a student who have no qualms or social logic in publishing sex videos and destroying years of reputations hard built by hard working honest university employees and students?

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Link

SINGAPORE – Instead of giving scholarships to foreigners who might not sink roots here, the country’s resources could be better used to help Singaporean undergraduates, some of whom have to work part-time to support themselves financially, former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow said yesterday.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a higher education dialogue hosted by the National University of Singapore (NUS), Mr Ngiam, who is an NUS Pro-Chancellor, also remarked that NUS law student and ASEAN scholar Alvin Tan Jye Yee should be expelled.

Mr Tan made headlines last month after he and his girlfriend posted explicit videos and pictures of themselves on his blog. The Malaysian has been disciplined by the university but NUS was tight-lipped about the nature of the punishment.

“This ASEAN scholar, bloody joker, we should sack him,” Mr Ngiam said.

While he acknowledged the need for overseas talents, Mr Ngiam argued against having too many foreign undergrads on Singapore-sponsored scholarships. “That is very unfair… That is nonsense… you have to import talent but how many of them want to stay back here?” said Mr Ngiam.

Over the years, the percentage of foreign student intake in universities here has fallen from about 20 per cent to the current 16 per cent. The Government has said that the proportion will be cut to 15 per cent by 2015.

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I have mentioned before in my post, I have seen too much so called scholars that are not achieving the kind of academic standing that is fit for a ‘scholar’. I don’t know how you see it. To me, a scholar shouldn’t be anything less than a first class (under NUS’s grading system; or summa-cum-laude under SMU’s US grading system). The worst you should get as a scholar should be second-upper, nothing worse off.

Cabinet Reshuffle (again)

July 31, 2012 Leave a comment

It came as a shock for many when the PAP government announced a shuffle of cabinets, turning MCYS and MICA to these weirdly worded ministries like Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSFD); the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY); and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

Sometimes I wonder what did all these people in those ministries actually do every day. Did anyone really benefit from anything that MCYS (sponsorships for schools probably) and MICA (which I only remember them doing censoring) do? How can a ministry magically improve family ties?

From what I discerned from the write up of the 3 cabinets, the government believes the ‘family’ factor warranted a full ministry in MSFD, MCYS changed their name to MCCY and assume MICA’s art and heritage functions after removing the ‘family oriented unit’ (net work load remains the same it seems), and MICA’s responsibility essentially becomes lesser after a name change to MCI.

Synergy? Frankly speaking, I don’t see any. What I see is simply a lot more red tape and bureaucracy. From my previous experience in a prominent ministry, there is barely any synergy when you talk about two different departments, much less between ministries. There is more mistrust than synergy as scholars/ leaders in each stat-board and ministry compete to outshine one another. The truth is, the imperialistic system installed will only add on more layers of miscommunication and confusion between huge groups. Why can’t MCYS simply appoint specialized departments to oversee specific functions and coordinate between them? There’s no rule on how big a ministry should be.

What I deduce from this reshuffle is: this is simply a promotion drive. With one more ministry, one can create more positions for themselves. The PAP government needs a full female minister after the ‘unfortunate’ dismissal of ex-MP Lim Hwee Hua in Aljunied, to signal gender equality. There’s not much choice to begin with, so there goes lucky Grace Fu. Then there’s the factor of wage decrease a few months ago. How do you continue to entice people to join PAP after the wage cut? There’s always the promotion drive to circumvent the drop in wage.

Think of citizens as shareholders of a company. Now Singapore Inc wants to create new positions, increase the cost and deliver essentially the same results. Should the share price go up or down?

It doesn’t matter how many ministries you have. If you really have capable people, you won’t need so many people leading the various ministries. Why do we have two full ministers as Ministers of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, which as the name suggest, should be headed by the Prime Minister? Does the incapability of LTA in regulating public transport means LTA should be split up into Ministry of Bus, Ministry of Train and Ministry of Cars?

It’s never their fault

July 21, 2012 4 comments

I haven’t been writing much due to work commitments. But after a long day at work on a weekend, the last thing I wish to read is news like this:

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Source: Channelnewsasia

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has cautioned Singaporeans to pay attention to new fault lines that have appeared between new citizens and native Singaporeans.

Speaking at Teck Ghee Community Club’s racial harmony celebrations, Mr Lee said new citizens may be ethnically similar, but fault lines may develop as the new citizens have different norms, habits and attitudes.

So he said Singaporeans must watch out for instances of social friction, especially online.

Mr Lee said new citizens and those born in Singapore must work together to ensure that differences do not affect social stability.

“The new arrivals – to embrace the Singapore values and norms and try and fit in as Singaporeans. And Singaporeans – to encourage the new ones to integrate, to help the new ones to fit in.”

In his speech, PM Lee reminded Singaporeans the reason for racial harmony celebrations.

He cited the two racial riots of 1964 when Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia. The riots left more than 30 dead, 500 injured and thousands arrested.

Looking back, Mr Lee said Singapore has come a long way but challenges remain.

He pointed out that the ease of joining online communities amplifies intolerant views as people are less restrained in cyberspace.

Mr Lee said the peace that Singapore now enjoys did not happen by chance, but by pure effort and deliberate policies.

These include ensuring equality, meritocracy and setting up institutions like the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony to protect those groups’ interests.

And it’s important to continue to do so.

PM Lee said: “In normal times, we get along well together, but when there’s a crisis for example, if there’s a terrorist attack, then even though we’re under pressure, stay together and we don’t pull apart.”

So as the population becomes more diverse, Singaporeans will have to work harder at keeping social cohesion.

Mr Lee added, that perhaps Singaporeans can start today.

“Today of course, is the first day of Ramadan, and we wish our Muslim friends a happy fasting month and I hope you’ll accept your Muslim friends’ invitation to visit them during the month of Ramadan, if they invite you to break fast with them, take the opportunity to invite them for dinner the next time if you can,” he said.

And bit-by-bit, he said, this will keep the Singapore society harmonious.

– CNA/ck

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The issue between Singaporeans and foreigners is not a race issue in my opinion. It is simply locals versus aliens. And this is a result of the PAP government’s blatant disregard for population control. So much so that a party that is never known for acknowledging their own wrong doings (except in dire circumstances such as election; and even regarding the MRT breakdown issues, the government fell short of admitting their oversight) was forced to gave explanations to the citizens.

Can one say one is racist if a Singaporean Chinese does not see eye to eye with a China Chinese? How can a Indian (Singaporean) be racist against another Indian (from India)? While the issue today is similar, it is of a different context. Lumping it into a racial issue that happened in 1964 is misleading and irresponsible.

In addition, while I admit online views tend to be raw with less careful selection of words, maybe the PAP government should reflect whether that is the doing of suppressed freedom of speech and a state controlled media. And maybe they should reflect on their own policy making capabilities. In the 80s, they blame Singaporeans for having too many kids and implemented the stop at 2 policy. When the policy became so successful, they blame Singaporeans for not having enough kids and created policies that disadvantaged singles. Now that incentives doesn’t seem to work (much to the dismay of the government who seems to think money would work wonders going by how their policies are always created around monetary incentives and punishments), they bring in so many foreigners and are pushing the responsibility of social harmony to the locals.

P.S.: I wish to find time to write about the seemingly circus show displayed by the so-called Public Transportation Council. And the entire tai-ji-ing of responsibilities around as a show of display — a smoke screen ‘proof’ the government is doing something even though it amounts to nothing except using tax payers money to assist the closely government linked companies to help themselves (yeah, it is actually circular logic). It baffled me to see a government creating councils out of thin air (from the same pool of people who had connections or had a hand in the various government agencies) whenever there are any problems to ”investigate, judge and help” agencies that is supposed to be the one doing the job of regulation and governance.

Old PAP and new PAP

May 21, 2012 2 comments

I admit, there is a bit of bias as this article wrote about views that corresponds with mine. Still, no harm sharing the article that had been making rounds in the internet:

Singapore’s social policies are not future-ready, says former GIC economist. He talks to Susan Long about his new cause in life
Straits Times, Published on May 18, 2012
By Susan Long
Mr Yeoh feels that now is the time for the Government to embark on large-scale social reform because it can, adding that ‘we have extremely low taxes, such that we can afford to raise them somewhat and still remain very tax-competitive’. — ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO 

WHEN Mr Yeoh Lam Keong quit his job as chief economist of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation last June, his colleagues presented him with a T-shirt which read: ‘Buddha says: Stop wanting stupid shit.’

It’s a message that suits the 54-year-old to a T.

He lives in a Housing Board flat, takes public transport, and eschews holiday resorts with air- conditioning. ‘I don’t consider it spartan, it’s cosier and aesthetically more pleasing,’ he says.

He has not moved from the Marine Terrace flat he bought in 1987 because he wants his children to grow up in an HDB setting. ‘So they have a choice. They don’t have to live in private housing, they can go and live in a three-room flat in Sengkang if they need to and be totally comfortable,’ he says.

To his mind, he is not under- consuming. ‘Others are over-consuming. Most of us have enough resources to live comfortably, yet we kill ourselves to drive a Lotus, instead of an ordinary car.

‘We end up killing the environment and stressing each other out. Perhaps, as Lord Robert Skidelski, professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University said, mass consumption capitalism has outlived its usefulness.’

Social awakening
MR YEOH grew up in a bungalow along Bukit Timah Road. He was the eldest of four children born to an orthopaedic surgeon and doctor-turned-housewife. His three siblings include Ms Yeoh Chee Yan, permanent secretary for Education.

His social awakening happened five years ago, when he was roped in to help analyse Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports data on poverty. As he examined the grim figures, he realised serious structural problems were creating a growing underbelly of poverty in Singapore.
Before long, he found a face to the problem.

While watching football with his son in a coffeeshop one evening, he chatted with a neighbour from a nearby rental block, and found out that the latter, after working as a cleaner for 10 years, earned $700 a month.

Mr Yeoh ventured in Mandarin: ‘That’s really tight, I don’t suppose you have kids?’ The guy’s response: ‘You mad, ah?’

His son, then 11, soon became aware of the substance of the conversation – that there were people too poor to have children. Later that night, he asked his father: ‘Pa, do you think the Prime Minister knows about people like him?’

Mr Yeoh said: ‘I hope so.’ His son prodded: ‘I think someone should tell him.’

Before long, father and son had added to their coterie of coffeeshop companions an odd-job labourer, who had been unemployed for 10 years because of a history of mental illness. The man had not eaten properly, surviving on a giant vat of green bean soup for days.

Mr Yeoh offered to go with him to see their Member of Parliament. But the man refused, fearing social workers ‘will bother my brothers and sisters’.

‘It became clear to me that the so-called social safety net was both undignified and insufficient. It was undignified where sufficient, or plain insufficient.

‘He didn’t want to be ashamed before family, or for government officials to bug his family to look after him, which he himself would not do,’ says Mr Yeoh, citing a 2009 Lien Foundation survey which showed that being a burden to family and friends was the top death-related fear of Singaporeans, followed by medical costs.

Early influences
HE CREDITS his Anglo-Chinese School mate and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for first stimulating his social conscience.

He was all set on becoming a naturalist – and studying marine biology – but was persuaded by Mr Tharman that economics was more ‘socially useful’ . They both applied to the London School of Economics and were accepted.

In London, Mr Tharman encouraged his interest in the underprivileged, social issues and student activism. Mr Yeoh returned to Singapore in 1983, and worked at the Skills Development Fund in the Economic Development Board for two years, then left to become a senior economist at the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

He was soon seconded to help start up the Economics and Strategy Department at GIC and ended up staying a total of 26 years because the work was so riveting.

GIC, he says, taught him all about ‘real-world economics, politics, markets, people, policymakers, under the most extreme stress’. Six major financial crises unfolded during the time he was there. ‘It was a huge education in economic policy analysis, what could go right and wrong.’

The department he headed at GIC became infamous for its high-quality analysis, independence and daring to challenge convention, say Mr Yeoh’s colleagues.

GIC’s chief economist Leslie Teo says: ‘Lam Keong was never afraid to speak his mind even if his views were not popular or politically correct; he was not afraid to explore new and unconventional ideas. He always stood apart from the prevailing culture of the industry – big money, flashy, top of the world – by his concern for the average person and his simple tastes.’

He worked under Mr Lim Siong Guan, group president of GIC, whom he says drummed into him the importance of being ready to meet the future.

‘He taught me that being future-ready is being strategically on top of the most important relevant long-term trends even before they became conventional wisdom,’ he says.

‘Because catching up is the worst position to be in, you are chased and dragged and not the master of your own destiny. You become like Nokia, or Blackberry, as opposed to Apple.’

One of his top worries for Singapore today is whether its social policies are future-ready.

He worries that the old social compact is eroding, because the delivery of public services in social security, housing, health care, education and infrastructure is fraying at the edges, and excessive immigration has crowded out quality in such services.

‘It’s not ready for the world that faces us now; a world where median wages are stagnating, inequality is rising sharply, our population ageing, our maturing economy is growing much more slowly. And it’s not going to be ready for the decades ahead, or maybe even the next five years,’ he vexes.

Time for social reform
HE FEELS that now is the time for the Government to embark on large-scale social reform because it can.

Singapore is in a ‘uniquely privileged’ position to make these changes, he says. ‘We have extremely low taxes, such that we can afford to raise them somewhat and still remain very tax- competitive, and we are unnecessarily conservative in our budgetary accounting, even by International Monetary Fund standards.’

He notes that the Government’s spending, as a share of GDP, of around 17 per cent is among the lowest in the developed world, compared to 35-40 per cent in most OECD countries and 25-30 per cent in other advanced Asian economies.

‘Our current levels of spending are low even by our own historical standards of up to 25 per cent of GDP seen in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. These are levels of a public spending we can afford to return to while maintaining competitiveness and long-term fiscal sustainability,’ he says.

He applauds the Government’s pledge announced by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong to double health-care expenditure from $4 billion to $8 billion in 2017, which will raise it from 1.5 per cent to 2.2 per cent of GDP. However, he points out, Taiwan was already spending 3.5 to 4 per cent of GDP on health care in 2001.

Notwithstanding the superiority of quality and efficiency of Singapore’s health care, he asks: ‘Is it enough for Singapore, which is steadily ageing, to spend half of Taiwan’s 2001 budget in 2017?’

He adds that Mr Gan, to his credit, has assured that no Singaporean will be denied medical care if he or she needs it. ‘But rather than say it, why not design policy for someone to afford it, rather than have him deplete his own savings and his family’s Medisave accounts first?

‘The most important reform needed, which is still missing, is that we still do not have universal financial access to medical care for all citizens, which is politically unacceptable in most democratic developed countries.’

Citing figures, Mr Yeoh notes that a relatively large proportion of health-care expenditure in Singapore is still funded out of pocket, with 55 per cent of spending financed by patients, with the rest borne by the state or insurance.

In comparison, patients in other developed Asian economies like Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan pay about 15 to 30 per cent out of pocket. The World Health Organisation’s recommendation is 33 per cent and below.

He says the key driver of Singapore’s success, going forward, will hinge on how substantively the government can overhaul social policies and win back voters.

The Government still enjoys strong credibility and trust, he says, though he fears that too is eroding, ‘especially if they keep to their current course and the public continues to feel the level of provision of these basic needs is inadequate’.

‘It will take a decade to build up a credible alternative government capability as the opposition, while making impressive strides, is starting from such a low base.’

He worries that if the government continues with piecemeal tweaks but does not restructure sufficiently to meet the future, ‘it will be like a big company not doing enough to keep market share, like Nokia or Blackberry, which refused to go touch screen till it was too late’. Both are now eating the dust of Apple.

‘A key business of government is strategy, says US statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski. Right now, we are forgoing strategy for tweaks. The trouble with tweaks is that you are not spending strategically and not making headway in things that matter, you are just reacting to pressure from the ground,’ he says.

One example: The many rounds of cooling measures that have failed to arrest runaway housing prices.

Although most Singaporeans can afford $150,000 to buy a Build-To-Order flat in Sengkang, on a lower floor and facing a car park now, they worry that future HDB flats will be priced out of their children’s reach, he says.

‘They know that prices will converge towards resale and private residential prices which, at five to six times median annual household income, are extremely unaffordable. On current trends, how likely is it that HDB can keep prices at $150,000 if they price off market price plus costs?’

He thinks that HDB needs to abandon its ‘market fundamentalist’ pricing formula and revert to its original mission of meeting ‘social needs’. For starters, he suggests pricing entry-level three- room flats at around two times household income in all locations – only for citizens – which he says would be ‘in the spirit of HDB’s original inspiration and success’.

But will these sweeping changes he suggests – radically increasing health and housing subsidies – depart too much from the ethos of cautious continuity and fiscal prudence that the People’s Action Party has come to symbolise?

He disagrees: ‘The original brand of the PAP, as I remember it, was pragmatically meeting the needs of the ordinary citizen and often exceeding expectations in doing so on a universal basis. And it did so from the 1950s to 1980s.

‘Back then, their policies were revolutionary and ahead of time, because they anticipated and drove and mastered the future. I would love to see them recapture that original brand.’

Life after GIC
LAST June, Mr Yeoh left GIC to spend more time with his family, as well as outdoors, where he fishes, does ink sketches and pens poetry on nature. He intends to apply his economist training to ‘social investigation’ projects, especially on inequality and poverty.

He is a senior adjunct fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, a fellow of Civil Service College and an adviser to Singapore Management University’s economics faculty.

He is married to Dr Lai Ah Eng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Research Institute. Their son Lai Hsin, 16, studies at Victoria School, and their daughter Lai Lin, 19, at Cambridge University.
The self-styled ‘Engaged Buddhist’ says his goal in life is ‘to seek peace of mind, happiness and freedom from suffering, for all sentient beings’.

The person he most admires is Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped rebuild bombed villages, set up schools and resettle homeless families during the Vietnam War.

‘In his books, he describes movingly how he went about rebuilding villages each time they were bombed and destroyed. I am convinced you need these deep- seated values: compassion, reverence for life and its beauty and a sense of the eternal rather than just chasing money, power or fame.
Unless you have that spiritual foundation, it’s very hard to stay sane or be truly effective.’

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TOP WORRY
It’s not ready for the world that faces us now; a world where median wages are stagnating, inequality is rising sharply, our population ageing, our maturing economy is growing much more slowly. And it’s not going to be ready for the decades ahead, or maybe even the next five years.
– Mr Yeoh, on Singapore’s social compact

VALUES TO LIVE BY
I am convinced you need these deep-seated values: compassion, reverence for life and its beauty and a sense of the eternal rather than just chasing money, power or fame.
– On how he chooses to live

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In the meantime, we have news of how SMRT increased working days from 5 to 6 after a paltry increase of $225 for Singaporean bus drivers. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people? Didn’t the government forced tax payers to bail these inefficient transport operators out with more than $1 BILLION!???