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The Privileged

December 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Nice post. Among the privileged in Singapore, I could be one of them, considering I have a roof over my head and had a university education, overseas exposure and currently works in a nice company. Among the rest of world, the PAP government officials are definitely one of the most privileged. Read on:

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A few words on privilege…

I’m a hugely privileged person. Almost all the advantages that can be bestowed upon someone in our society have been bestowed upon me. I was brought up in a family for which money wasn’t really an issue. I lived in a nice place – in leafy, privileged Cambridge – and went to very good schools. State schools, as it happens, but in Cambridge the state schools are remarkably good, and Hills Road Sixth Form College, where I did my A Levels, can compete at an academic level with pretty much all the ‘top’ public schools in the country. I went to Cambridge University. I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’ve always been able to find jobs. I’m married, have a child, have a great job, own a nice home, I’m able-bodied, not suffering from mental health problems and reasonably healthy. I tick almost all the right boxes – and have all the advantages.

Many more advantages, indeed, than some people seem to want to acknowledge. I grew up in a remarkable family – one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this piece is that tomorrow is the memorial for my father, Martin Bernal, who was himself a quite remarkable man – academic, author, folk singer, campaigner etc.. He died in the summer, and over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what I got from having him as a father – and indeed from having so many interesting people around me so much of my life. It was and is an immense privilege. I grew up in a household where we were expected to read, to learn, to question. We were listened to – well, most of the time – and were given a huge amount of freedom, and included in fascinating conversations. I was instilled with confidence and with a sense that pretty much anything was possible.

These kinds of things matter – they add a huge, extra layer of advantage to the more tangible ones that wealth so directly provides. They open doors for you – doors that are generally already pretty much ajar to the privileged but shut, locked and bolted against anyone else. They make it far, far easier to take advantage of opportunities – and when you add it to the safety nets that wealth and connections provide they make life much, much easier.

And yet, somehow, a great many people who are privileged seem to forget this – indeed, they seem to think exactly the opposite. They convince themselves that they have made successes of their lives from raw talent and intelligence and that everyone else who hasn’t succeeded must have failed either because they’re too stupid – as the recent speech of Boris Johnson seems to suggest – or too lazy (as the whole ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda supposes) or because they’ve made terrible decisions, can’t budget and so forth.

I understand some of where they’re coming from. There’s no doubt in my mind that intelligence plays a part in all this – but the part it plays is vastly overstated, and what exactly ‘intelligence’ means is much harder to describe or measure than people seem to think. I know I’m intelligent by the kind of standards that Boris uses – I have a degree in mathematics and a PhD in law – but I also know that this ‘intelligence’ hasn’t been the most important thing in the way that opportunities have come up for me. I know for example that having the words ‘Cambridge University’ on my CV make people more willing to read further. I know that my family name has made some people in academia more interested in what I do. More than anything else, though, I know that society is ‘designed’ to let ‘people like me’ succeed.

Three shocks…

Three events in my twenties put a lot of this into context for me, and have changed the way I’ve looked at things. The first was when I was an accountant, working for one of the biggest accountancy firms in the City of London, in the late 80s. The height of Thatcherism, when greed was certainly seen as good. We’d had a good ‘busy season’, but after a merger of firms I found myself denied a promotion – as did everyone else in my cohort, or so we were told. When I found out that this wasn’t true, and that one person (who happened to have very good connections) had been given this promotion, I was outraged, and started digging around to find out what was going on. I asked all my contemporaries what had happened to them – had they been promoted, what ‘rating’ had they got, how much were they paid and so on. I soon found something much more outrageous than my petty jealousy about having been denied a promotion: every single woman was paid less than every single man. To put it another way, the best paid woman was on a lower salary than the worst paid man. Now this wasn’t anything to do with merit – I’d worked with most of the people, and I knew very well that however you decided to measure things this could not possibly be right. What made it even worse was that when I confronted the partner (male, public school and Oxbridge) about it, he said ‘why do you care, you’re a man’ or words to that effect. That this made me even angrier – and meant my leaving the firm was inevitable – seemed to be close to incomprehensible to him.

The second was in Burma – I was visiting the country in 1991, soon after leaving my accountancy job, at a time when the government was at its most oppressive and repressive. I had got in on a semi-diplomatic visa (through connections(!)) and was able to visit much more of the country than the usual tourist packages – travelling up to Mandalay and being shown around the place by a group of young Burmese people, introduced to me through my connections. They’d never met me, but I had never encountered such welcoming, interested, open and even happy people in my life. I had three or four days with them and it changed my outlook on life forever. I had been feeling rather sorry for myself and depressed – but when I looked at these people, living under one of the most repressive governments on the planet, with little opportunity for any of the things that we take for granted, and found that they were able to be so open and welcoming I thought I was being ridiculous. If they can find a way to be happy and interested, how can I possibly be so selfish and self-indulgent myself? When I found out after I returned to the UK that pretty much everyone seen talking to me in Burma – and that would have been most of them, since Burmese military intelligence had spies everywhere – was taken in for questioning after the event, my respect for them grew even more.

The third was a year or two later, when I was helping out with a ‘peace conference’ for children, in Lillehammer in Norway. We had kids from many, many countries, each with an adult accompanying them. One afternoon, our hosts, Redd Barna Norway (their version of Save the Children) arranged a session for the adult chaperones from the African countries. There were about 30 of them, from memory, from all over Africa. The question the Norwegians asked was ‘how can we help you?’ It was all very well-meaning, but when I saw the faces of the audience, I was surprised – and when I heard the answers they gave even more so. It wasn’t ‘give us more aid’ or ‘send us more machinery’ or ‘give us training in medicine’ or anything like that. It was, instead, simple and unequivocal: leave us alone. We don’t want your aid – and we don’t want your multinationals taking over our country, your arms companies selling weapons to our governments and the various opposition groups. Leave us alone. The hosts were shocked – but every single one of the representatives said the same. I’m not suggesting they were ‘right’, or that this was in any way a representative sample, but the event still shocked me. Our patronising paternalism was not what was wanted – and we had to think all over again.

What does this mean?

When I read about Boris’s speech, and when I think about all the patronising, elitist, offensive stuff that this government and pretty much every government I can remember have said, it makes me angry. Things like accusing poor people of not knowing how to budget, how to cook, how to feed their kids, how to make good decisions, or of being lazy, stupid etc. Suggestions from ministers that they could easily live on the amounts people get in benefits. Suggestions that people don’t try hard enough to get jobs. Suggestions that they don’t work hard enough. They all make me angry – and they make it clear to me that most of those speaking don’t know how privileged they are – and what the consequences of that privilege are.

For me, there are a few things that I try to remember. The first is the most obvious – that I’m deeply privileged and deeply lucky. The second is that I still don’t know quite how privileged and lucky I am – because so much of the privilege is hidden and built into the system, so much that those who are privileged can’t see it. Until I asked, I never realised that all the women were being paid less than all the men. Until I went to Burma and met those Burmese people I didn’t realise how it was possible not to feel sorry for yourself for the smallest thing. Until I listened to the African people at the conference, I didn’t realise quite how many assumptions I was making about how to solve the world’s problems.

That, in the end, is the most important thing. Whoever you are, however intelligent and enlightened you are, you don’t know what life is like for other people. You don’t know how things are for them, how hard it is for them. I don’t know what it is like to be really poor, for example. I’ve been poor – but I’ve been poor and still known I have family that would support me in the end, that I have the kind of education and experience that can help me out, that I’m healthy and so forth. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women. Straight men don’t know what it’s like to be gay in the society we have today. Able-bodied people don’t know what it’s like to have a disability. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

There’s an old saying: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. There’s a degree to which it’s true, and it certainly seems that the current lot of powerful people are thoroughly irresponsible. I’d like to add another – though it’s deeply wishful thinking. With great privilege should come great humility. Those of us who are privileged – like me, and like Boris – should be able to find that humility. To know that we really don’t know what it’s like to live without our privilege. We can try to imagine – but we’ll never really succeed. And we should know that we’ll never really succeed – and be far, far more willing to listen properly to those who do know it. Most of all, though, we should know when not to talk as though we had all the answers. We should know when to shut up.

Categories: Uncategorized

Hypocrisy

July 25, 2013 Leave a comment

There, I’ve said it. The H-word. In view of the scandals involving high ranking officials, and the increasingly extremist methods in suppressing alternative voices in the virtual community, I felt a burning need for netizens to be more vociferous in their views. How is it that the government can never understand the meaning of 2-way dialogue? How is it that they can never be honest and fair (or even attempting to show case they are)? Every election, new pools of young, internet savvy citizens participate in their citizen right of voting while the older generation gives way. This group of citizens is most likely to be heavily influenced by online media with an almost guaranteed dislike for autocratic methods and unfairness. Instead of the great opportunity in showcasing their honest explanation that could have earn them some points, all they know is throwing legal suits while not doing much explanation. How do you expect people to be convinced? Has the PAP government been fair and honest? I leave it to you to decide on the following events:

1) The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez was only let off with a ‘stern’ warning after many, many months of investigation (that really let me doubt the efficiency of our police force) for publishing a poll on the results of the General Election on Cooling Day, when it is by law unlawful to comment. However, a fellow netizen was criminalized for a similar act (and this time the police took a much, much shorter time to solve. Any reason for this?). If I am to do something similar to what Warren Fernandez had done, what do you think will happen to me? So my questions to the government are: What is the difference between the 2 cases? In view of the wider reach of audience the Straits Times has and the professionalism expected of a national and responsible newspaper, wouldn’t the act by Warren Fernandez warrant a greater offense? And why did the police force took such a long time to conclude their ‘investigation’ for Warren Fernandez? Is it that complicated? Is it due to the incompetence of the force? Or is it due to other reasons that the government has?

2) When we have more scandals of the public service involving hundreds of millions of tax payers money, why is the government attempting to undermine the crimes? The Straits Times reported that a report will be made public to show that the number of fraud cases by public servants are ‘consistent’ throughout the years. To me, if each scandal is to involve so much money, one fraud is one too many. Lee Kwan Yew said before that he has absolutely ZERO tolerance for corruption. As such, should we even tolerate a single case? Sure, there’s always the ‘human is prone to error and temptation’ reasoning but please don’t even bring this up. By bringing this up, it only goes to show the lack of sincerity and resoluteness in admitting to the incompetence of the government. As a citizen who pays taxes, I am not interested in the ‘consistency’ of fraud cases involving public service officials. I am more interested in how can this be solved, how can monetary control issues be tightened, and whether the money lost can be recovered.

If the number of fraud cases are ‘consistent’ over a number of years, it only meant one thing. There are loopholes in the system and the government had failed to tightened it throughout the years. This spells incompetence. I mean, what else can it imply? Why would any company or organization continue to allow such frauds to happen over and over again? Is it because the ministers don’t feel the pinch since they continue to collect their millions?

Don’t go around defending saying there is nothing the minister can do. If there are loopholes, only the ones at the ministerial level can tighten, especially when the recent cases involve the top officials of various agencies, including the supposedly upholder of justice CPIB. Unless of course, they can well benefit from these loopholes as well. As the ones overseeing the government, the ministers have the responsibility to look into this issue to ensure such cases do not happen again. Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of multiple approvals and controls when it comes to money? And most importantly, why isn’t such fraud uncovered during audits by the AGO?

3) Carry on to what the AGO has done, it is reported that there are multiple issues with money (again) concerning multiple agencies. So what if the report is published? Some, like the National Research Fund or NRF simply release a statement saying controls will be tightened. That’s all? Given the huge amount of money involve, shouldn’t a more detailed investigation be carried out and punishments executed accordingly? All these issues are obviously due to lax controls and irresponsibility of the personnel involve. This is especially important in light of the recent fraud cases.

One of the issues includes unauthorized payments from the Pension fund by MINDEF!! While it is stated the money is restored to the fund, where did that money came from then? Another point reads the Ministry of Foreign Affairs failing to check the reasonable of prices quoted for some security services, which resulted in over payment due to ‘tight timeline’. Such a reason is not a good explanation. Is this how taxpayer’s money shall be spent? Freely spending without a care in the world and no checks and balances? How many more fraud cases could there be uncovered? Mind you, the report states problems not with just one or two or even three agencies. The problems spread across multiple government agencies like virus in stage 4 cancer. To be fair, I applaud the AGO for publishing their findings.

Reading into the report only makes my blood boils. Overpayment of this, over valuation that. All these money wasted simply the government don’t care how they spend! I am not surprised how much money Vivian Balakrishnan had overspent for the YOG given the incompetence in procurement and spending. When you have a budget, you KEEP to the budget. What’s the use of a budget if you overblown it at such an astronomical rate? Has a detailed audit been done on the YOG?

All these examples involves a lot of public money (hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars) that could have been put to better use. As a citizen who pays tax (yet again), I demand more transparency in this issue. I also demand that the government take a serious look into their lax spending habits and lousy monetary controls. Or is it because the agencies are headed by multiple ministers and senior civil servants that made them immune to the rules of law? The silence of the government is unsettling. Before the PAP government/ AGO even wish to accuse netizens of wrongful accusation, maybe they should first be more forthcoming in their explanation. That is, if they even care to explain.

Categories: Uncategorized

Petty politics

July 10, 2013 1 comment

It’s been a good 5 months since I last post. For one, work is heavy. For two, age is catching up. There has been many issues for the past 5 months. Some issue like the monitoring of the internet I didn’t bother to write. Many has been written and if the PAP government thinks they can control the internet or control what the people is reading online, or if they think that their little laws can extend beyond our shores, I wish them good luck.

What is more amusing to me is how the little issue of spring cleaning erupted into a 90s comedy that is being played on youtube and facebook with Vivian Balakrishnan as our male lead. Watching the youtube video, I gathered poor Mr Vivian Balakrishnan must have suffered much from the recent haze. Much of his brain cells must have died. If not, how else is such an ‘elite’ incapable of stringing a coherent argument, or even the basic ability in replying what was being asked, something even my 2 year old niece is able to? What I deduce is confused, self-high moral, and simply pure stupidity. All I see is Vivian Balakrishnan throwing his own little show without showing any evidence to back his accusations and at the same time claiming he has evidence. A big question mark hangs on my head. Or maybe as an elite, his argument logic has proved too deep for understanding.

This episode, however, highlights the danger of a domineering old political party that has obviously lost touch and sense. It is no secret many of the MPs that the PAP roped in is incapable of decent public speaking. Now we have a full minister that is making a clown out of himself and the party. Many of my foreign friends had asked me “So what is your minister talking about? Is he even responding to the counter argument at all? And what is all that hoo-ha on cleaning issues in an eatery? Isn’t there bigger issues like the haze and that dengue epidemic?”. It’s embarrassing on so many levels. So much time and effort spent on discrediting the opposition party when bigger problems loomed. It’s a disgrace to the country and a disgrace to me as the citizen of this nation.

Once upon a time, the PAP stands for hope. Now, it has degraded to playing political ploys to save their own little skin. The very same political games the PAP had accused an increasing opposition party in parliament would flare up during the last election, the PAP themselves are the ones doing it. And the more they play it up, the more their insecurity and incapability are brought to public view. What a ‘petty’.

Categories: Uncategorized

White Paper…Ooo very scary

February 6, 2013 2 comments

First of all, forgive me for the rather messy write up of this post. It’s long and in no way coherent as I dropped my thinking over different periods of time and I’m too tired to piece them all together. Nor do I have time to clean up any grammar mistakes. Pardon me.

When I saw the 6.9 million figure on local media, the first thing that struck my mind is some old marketing technique of using .90 to price any value giving one the illusion that the White Paper projects to 6.9 million when the actual figure the PAP government is aiming for is 7 million. It’s not 6, but 7, SEVEN million. That adds an additional 1.7, or if I too use the marketing technique of rounding up, it’s adding 2 million or 2/5 of the current population, entirely via importing labor.

7 million-population target

Do not be mistaken. The figure of 7 million is a target despite some minister claiming that it is just ‘worse-case scenario’ planning. Do you think the government will actually over build houses and facilities and risk over-supply that will push Singapore into deflation? That contradicts the PAP policy of ‘ensure gradual increase in house prices to build up every citizen’s asset value.’

What is not that obvious to me is the government’s insistent that we need a younger workforce to support the increasing group of retiring work force. Singapore does not have a pension system, unlike many other countries. The amount spent on medical care is by far one of the least per capita in comparison with other developed economies. That suggested there is more room for the government to allocate their resources in. In case someone is to argue that I am just being wasteful, aren’t the nation’s reserve always ‘prudently’ invested via GIC and Temasek? Is too careful not as bad as too wasteful? Frankly, I have no answer to this, and this has always been a question I ponder.

The government locks up a major portion of the citizen’s salary to prepare for old age, of which huge part is locked in housing; while at the same time provide cheap financing to the government. The only way to unlock the value is to downgrade your house in your old age. The government went on to make it unlawful for children not to take care of their aging parents. Through these schemes, the PAP government had managed to extract full economic benefit from a person’s prime life and minimize responsibility and burden when an economic digit becomes redundant. Not that it’s a bad thing from the government’s point of view. It’s entirely efficient and effective.

Even if we need to equalize the retiring group of workers, why is not the government aiming for growth to stabilize the population figures at today’s population? A plan to take in 30,000 immigrants and granting freely the seemingly increasingly worthless Singapore citizenship to 25,000 every year and growing the population to 7 million sounds more like a plan to increase the population instead of stabilizing.

Many people also question: so what’s next after 2030? The current absorption of immigrants will also mean a larger base of retirees in the future. Never mind how some minister insist some of these ‘productive young labor imports’ will eventually go back to their country. The fact that 25,000 Singaporeans are being minted (with a high probability of being recruited when they are quite young therefore economically valuable to the PAP government) will enlarge the aging base.

On the idea of conspiracy theory (one can’t blame citizens for being imaginative given how lack of transparent the PAP is) that I heard and would like to share: Could this be because the PAP is afraid of a major redemption of cash from the CPF when the Baby Boomers retire and they simply do not have enough money left after all the losses, and therefore have to resort to minting more citizens and lock up more money in CPF to pay the Baby Boomers? Coffee shop/taxi talk sessions can be pretty amusing at times.

Economic structure

Today while watching TV, I almost puked on my dinner when I saw Mr Khaw ‘pleading earnestly’ in Parliament that Singaporeans need houses and he needs all these extra foreign workers to build enough homes fast enough; insinuating that the Worker’s Party proposal to cut down foreign workers is working against Singaporeans, therefore suggesting the Worker’s Party must be the bad guy. It’s so badly acted and hypocritical it reminds me of some character in those Canto serial dramas.

The problem is, Mr Khaw doesn’t really need that many workers to build houses. It is an all too common problem in Singapore. So long as you can get along with cheap labor, you continue to do so. It’s easy to hire and fire, and you have no responsibility on them since they are usually contracted from some other sources. The construction industry continues to be built on cheap labor. So cheap they can afford to hire an army of them to build houses. They are such cheap commodity some unscrupulous contractors wouldn’t even provide decent housing and sufficient safety measures. So much for the much hyped productivity drive announced by the Prime Minister last year; the one area the government had failed miserably and looks too half-hearted to continue pursing. All they can do is lament they have allocated the money there and companies are not improving fast enough.

I have mentioned before productivity is the only way Singapore can continue to pull itself up the economic ladder. We have no resources to begin with and the only resources we have are people. Our physical capital (ie land) is being stretched to the limits (I do worry for the next generation), the country had done all it can to move up the high-value chain. The only problem is, we are simply not productive enough. Among the developed countries, Singapore does not rank high in terms of productivity. You do not see an army working on a construction site in the United States. Nor do you see that in Japan. What you see is much smaller group of efficient, highly professional, highly paid construction professionals, creating living spaces from stretch. That’s how technology came into play.

It’s only via higher productivity can one hope to see real gains in wages, with the bonus of not requiring so many workers.

Politics

Politically, this almost guarantees the PAP government an additional 25,000 votes every year.  And most people on the anti-PAP camp would readily link the White Paper to political ploy. But it’s worth a thought. Sure, some supporters might argue that not every new citizen minted will be of eligible age to vote. Taking a leaf out from the government, I am presenting numbers at it’s worst case scenario. Since every GE is conducted after 5 years, the PAP will garner an additional 75,000 votes by 2016 and adds 125,000 votes for every GE thereafter. By 2030, PAP will push up an additional 450,000 votes. Yes, that is equivalent to another major GRC. Given the PAP’s habit of cutting up the GRC as and when they deem fit, they can easily spread out these imported voters to opposition wards. Punggol is one new town waiting to be developed (ie adding more people into the area).

Refering to Channelnewsasia (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251363/1/.html)

“Besides creating new towns, mature estates will also be rejuvenated while existing towns like Punggol will also continue to be developed.

When completed, Punggol will become one of the largest HDB towns in Singapore with 96,000 units, three times its current size.”

Lack of consultation on major issues & the existence of useless MPs

Population planning affects every one in the country. The PAP had shrewdly avoided releasing the White Paper before the Punggol election for fear of a backlash. Right after the release, expectedly the local media came on full blast in defending the white paper, publishing ‘feel-good’ reports that is meaningless (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251338/1/.html) and attempts to brainwash the citizens into believing that the PAP government is trying to do some good.

It’s foreseeable that the PAP government will debate in Parliament, put on a show that there’s discussion, and continue to move on. In fact, we have seen old horses Mr Goh Chok Tong and (oh my gosh, I thought he’d gone on a long vacation since last GE) Mr Mah Bow Tan coming forward to support the White Paper. This is what happens when the parliament is overwhelmingly controlled by one political party of yes men and women, that is severely over-represented in parliament given they only got 65% of the votes but dominates more than 90% in parliamentary seats.

For the one last time, can the PAP stop framing the opposition’s plan as having ZERO foreign workers or not granting any more PR or citizenship? It’s dumb and stupid and totally lack respect. MPs such as Vikram Nair and Janil Puthucheary should simply keep their mouth shut if they have no constructive replies. Trying to argue on extreme lines benefit neither side and only aims to corner the opponent simply because it’s nonsensical to argue from extremes in the first place. It shows desire to win argument, lack of maturity, simply lack depth and childish. I can argue back in their extreme point of view: So Mr Vikram and Janil, do you have foreign masters to report to rather than pledging allegiance to the Singapore flag since you love anything foreign so much? Especially when Mr Janil was not local born to begin with?

[Quote from CNA: Mr Chen was challenged by PAP MPs Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who asked if the WP is proposing not having any foreign labour in Singapore at all, and if the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council employs foreign workers.]

They are advocating (like me, and many others) to slow down population growth. Not zero. I can imagine how frustrating it can get sometimes for the opposition to debate even gentlemanly with cowards who can’t answer a question properly. And these are the people you pay millions to govern a small island?

Some of the defending points are redundant. Take for example, the papers published that 5,200 hectares more land to be reclaimed to accommodate the 7 million population. The problem is, of this 5,200 hectares, a major part is allocated for Pulau Tekong and Tuas, mainly non-residential areas to begin with. There is only a small consolation in having Tengah converted to a new town.

The unprofessional White Paper

If you ever bother to read the White Paper (with care, as the PAP wish you will), you’ll find some graphs, some charts, lots of pictures that shows up like a brochure persuading you to buy the product, in this case, the idea of bringing in more people. If you like colors, fluffy words, lots and lots of colors, yes, you may buy in the idea that the White Paper is good for you. However, upon closer scrutiny, it baffled me how un-scholarly (to quote from critic Donald Low) the White Paper is.

Sure it tells you some trends (with tonnes of assumptions) and such and I forgot how many times the words “growth, aspirations, high quality of life” appear over and over again. What is my aspiration? What is my children’s aspiration? What is the definition of high quality of life? What is good planning? What are good jobs? What is a good future?

All I see are these words but no concrete plan on how to achieve all that. Is the government telling me that by pulling in 30,000 foreign imports a year and building up more buildings and facilities to cater to the rising population will magically make the future oh-so-bright? And it amazed me when the PAP stewards will preach so religiously in parliament about the ‘good happy ending’ they envisioned but not how to get there.

The lack of trust based on poor track record

The PAP government has a very bad report card for the past decade or so in growing the nation. GDP is artificially raised via the Casinos, resorts and importing cheap labor. While GDP rises, so do the Gini coefficient while wage rate for the lower wage workers remain stagnant or even decline. This means the nation is not enjoying the growth evenly with only the upper elchelons benefitting. Given that productivity continues to stagnant or decline, where is the basis for growth in real income? Now that they have run out of ideas, they are tying to convince the nation that growth will moderate to 2-3% a year. Given the poor track record, I read with much suspicion when Minister of National Development, ex-Malaysian Khaw Boon Wan said:

How could it be? It’s already so crowded — 5.3 million — buses (and) trains. How is it possible to have 6.9 million population? The planners must be mad!’

“I think that’s a legitimate reaction and of course they ask good questions — which is, how can you be sure, more population, but quality of life will remain the same but in fact even better?

“Actually the answer is yes, it’s possible — you can have a larger population and yet have a better quality of life, but conditions must be right.

“So what are those conditions — one, there must be planning, which means good long-term planning and secondly, there must be good infrastructure that must be built ahead of demand.

“So if those conditions are there then you can (resolve) this seemingly difficult problem — how to achieve better quality of life despite a greater or larger population.

“And we are confident because we have time, because we are talking about the future — 2020, 2025, 2030 — and as planners our mantra is the Boy Scouts’ motto – ‘prepare for the worst but hope for the best’.

In a reply to the last statement, I quote from the great economist Keynes – “In the long run, we are all dead”. If we look over a long time horizon, any problem now will not be a problem (although there will be new problems).  It’s a totally redundant statement. Since 2000, the PAP government had attempted to raise the population via importing immigrants. Given how smart those scholars are, it is without a doubt they will, or rather, should anticipate problems such as infrastructure stressing.  How on earth can they be caught ‘off-guard’ on the population increase when they are the same government allowing all these foreigners into the country? Did the government turn on the tap, went to laze off for a smoke only to come back to find the pail overflowing? If so, it can only translate to extreme poor judgment, not working on the job, zero communication, poor coordination, or simply pure incompetency.

If the PAP government had failed in the last 13 years in ‘good planning’, what makes you think they can have better planning this time round? And how does Mr Khaw know it’s possible to achieve a higher quality of life with a larger population on limited land? It’s never been done before and it’s a disaster in today’s term looking back the policy to increase population a decade ago.  What is his definition of high quality of life?

Mr Khaw went on to say: (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251363/1/.html)

Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan addressed concerns of affordability of BTO flats. He said prices of BTO flats will not rise with resale flat prices.

Mr Khaw added this has been the practice since he took over the ministry in 2011 and will continue till the housing market stabilises, and he pointed out that stable BTO prices also means government subsidies have also increased.

I have not done any research, but somehow I felt there is some correlation between BTO and resale market prices. Someone could enlighten me on this part. I would love to find out that I had perceived wrongly.

Quality: Land consumption is a zero sum game

Contrary to what Mr Khaw wants you to believe: (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251352/1/.html)

Mr Khaw said: “The underlying principle is not quantity, it’s not statistics, the underlying principle is quality.

“In the next phase of development in Singapore, let us strive for quality. Quality living, quality worklife, quality environment, quality schools, quality pre-schools that have better balance in life. Quality in inter-people relationships, a much more gracious society.

“I think that is a life worth looking forward to and that is a vision that is within our grasp. We can achieve it with better resources and better attitude, it is totally within our grasp.

“This is not to say we don’t have current problems, overcrowding etc etc but you know we are addressing that as fast as we can and they will be resolved.

“Please do give us some time but even as we resolve current problems, our eyes must be on our future.

“So the key is planning and infrastructure and with time, we can achieve both, so please don’t worry.”

That’s all very nice words. I wonder whether he had some private lessons from Adam Khoo. Be clear: Land consumption is a zero sum game. With more people, you naturally have less space to yourself. If more space does not equate higher life quality, why would people pay a premium to stay in bigger houses? While the government will attempt to change travel patterns diverting to the north and south, such build up of buildings and facilities will take a long while. At the same time, the government is going to roll in 30,000 more people a year now when we are already facing gridlocks in facilities and more importantly transportation.

There is also a limit to how much the PAP government can change travel patterns. Take for example for leisure. The city and orchard road will continue to be the main ‘in’ places that people go for shopping and leisure. Look at the crowd during weekends and imagine it a lot more in the coming years. There will be longer waiting time in searching for a seat in the Food Courts, longer waiting time to look for a parking slot, higher cost of living given the higher aggregate demand for almost everything in the country.  Inflation will rise and since the government had already announced a slower growth rate of 2-3%, in general terms your salary won’t be able to increase higher in real terms if productivity did not continue to rise. That of course means a decrease in life quality.

And for once, is it not strange for PAP, a party known to be mathematically precise and logical to ask you not to ponder on “quantity and statistics” but on something partially “intangible” like “quality”? Especially when some of the MPs (like the one that drank water from water tanks with dead bodies) are known to be extremely nicky picky in useless details. Obviously figures can do a frightening job persuading you to accept the White Paper. Just imagine, you are going to add 300,000 people a year over 17 years, which means changing 5,310,000 population to 7,000,000! And increase of almost 2,000,000 (i love rounding) Hmmm numbers doesn’t seem to tell any lies don’t they? So that would means if the MRT has 6 cabins, the train will need almost 3 more cabins in 17 years time! Either that or you can stand with your face practically pasted on someone else’s butt for the entire journey.

The PAP government was given too much time and too many chances but little has been done. What is worse is they are going to exacerbate the problem, all for the sake of cheap economic growth.

No change in population policy & the non-existent of a Singapore core.

There is, in fact, no change in the population policy of adding 30,000 immigrants to the country. The backlash in 2011 forces the PAP to trim down on the numbers and this White Paper gives them the ‘moral authority’ to continue doing what they have been doing all along.

It is also comical to see the PAP insisting there is a ‘Singapore core’ when Singaporeans only comprise slightly over 55% in their own country. Bear in mind that of that 55%, more than ½ a million came from the minting of new citizens. If we were to break down to true blue local born Singaporeans, we would have really become a minority in our country.

“Why be so xenophobic and not accept new citizens as part of the Singapore family?” some may ask. Again, I have to emphasize that xenophobia shouldn’t be swept off cleanly as a negative thing. Things happened for a reason. It’s more important to look at the reasons than go around labeling people xenophobic. New citizens still differ from Singapore born citizens, with various degrees of difference. Malaysian turn Singaporeans are most likely to be welcomed and assimilated due to the close similarities in culture, history and language.  Southern Mainland Chinese may also exhibit some degrees of similarities to Chinese Singaporeans in terms of Chinese or dialect accents and culture, even facial features. But when a Northern Mainland Chinese stands beside a Singaporean Chinese, the difference is obvious. Oh well, at least to most Chinese. The same can be said of our Indian counterparts. Why is being xenophobic being demonized? You may say it’s bad to be xenophobic when only 1% of the population is different. But can you say it’s bad when almost 50% of the population is different? For a Singaporean not to be ‘xenophobic’ when foreigners populate half the country will spell zero attachment to the country in the first place. People voice out because they care. It is completely normal.  Even Sweden, a nation long held as the model society, is experiencing xenophobia with a far less percentage of foreigners in their country.

In any culture or country, it is a basic human instinct to want to belong to a group that shares similarities.  Will you feel comfortable having to adjust to social breakages and tensions in your every day life in your own backyard? How many times do our Malay and Indian fellow Singaporeans have to tolerate communicating with PRC Chinese who speaks almost no English? How many times do you find yourself having to expend energy speaking with India Indians or Pinoys who speaks ‘weird’ English (arguably, and I have to be fair, Singaporeans don’t speak the very best English around but then I would argue: speak as the Singaporeans speak in Singapore). I apologize if I offend any India Indians and Pinoys here, but admittedly, 8 out of 10 calls I receive each day about credit cards, insurance, spas etc are handled by one of your fellow friends and it can be quite challenging trying to understand what rattles off in rapids of AK16 burst of accented English behind those phones. I do understand from the other side of the coin, they might find it challenging to understand Singaporean’s weird “rolling up and down” (to quote from my American professor….hmm not that the Americans speaks the best English anyway) English scattered with local flavors. So here we have, a potential ground for miscommunication and conflict simply due to different accents, exacerbated in every day bombardment.

It is not possible to fully integrate new citizens. They bring with them a culture and behavior instilled in their formative years back in their countries and that will spell potentially huge social tension. No matter how much money the government is going to waste in coming up with programs to ‘teach’ these new citizens our way of life, it is not quite possible. Way of life cannot be taught. Such forced social engineering is redundant and ineffective. To make things worse, the constant absorbing of foreigners including minting of foreigners into new citizens will mean there is no time to integrate and assimilate. More of the foreign kind will come together and form their own enclaves. This is not what is going to happen. This is what HAD already happened. Just look around you and you’ll see. Do you really see new citizens and foreigners mixing with local born citizens? Is this not already a dangerous sign of social tension? A few hundreds of years ago, Americans populate and annexed California from Mexico. It is not an unreal thought of foreigners coming to dominate national policies as this divide continues to tore apart. Something even the PAP camp should worry about.

Sure, culture and way of life is not static, that I agree. But I also think it’s a natural reaction to protect one’s identity. Therefore I disapprove of anyone carelessly using the word ‘Xenophobia’ to demonize a person’s attempt to protect one’s culture or identity. It ignores the fact that there is something held on dearly by the incumbent. After all, isn’t this same sense of identity that gives us the meaning of a nation?

We have already witnessed the rise of hate speech and extreme anger on the Internet. The words used against foreigners are so extreme sometimes it is embarrassing to read as a Singaporean. Evidently, the rise in xenophobia will continue as the population issue gives rise to the ugly side of Singaporeans. The real danger comes when the tension flows into physical actions. Continuing to open the floodgate for foreigners is a time bomb waiting to explode.

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Happy National Day 2012

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

And a happy 47th Birthday to my dear country. I love my country. I blog about politicians and policies not because I want to attack the PAP for the sake of opposing. I blog because I care and I blog because I want my country to prosper and I want my fellow countrymen to lead better lives. As much as I disagree with certain aspects of the PAP government, the notion of a country is a much bigger entity. At the juncture, I salute each and every netizens and blogger contributing whatever views and little voice out there in cyber space. It is this diversity of thoughts that would strengthen the country through many years.

Happy birthday Singapore~!

 

 

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The love of tangible measurement

March 5, 2012 1 comment

One dear MP Mr Vikram Nair had been criticized on the online world after his relentless attacks on how Chen Show Mao intend to justify the cost of more social spending. It is fair to ask whether such costs can be sustained. But then again, it’s a matter of choice. Spending on society usually reaps benefits that are intangible. Comparatively, the government seem to prefer spending on items that reap tangible benefits, such as throwing money to Temasek Holdings, GIC and yes, even our privatized transport operators SBS and SMRT. Spending money one way or another is just spending. There is no discrimination in absolute terms.

The questions we should be asking are whether we can afford to spend more on society, whether the disadvantaged group needed help and what are the government’s priorities. It’s simply a matter of political will. If the government don’t think it’s important, the political will to spend more for society won’t exist. With our fiscal surplus running into the billions, I say Singapore can well afford it. Of course, I wouldn’t know how many more billions were lost through ‘tangible spending’ in investments headed by the Prime Minister and his wife. Maybe we lost so much money that the government can no longer afford? And does the disadvantaged group needed more help? I wouldn’t know. But if the Gini coefficient is used as a blunt instrument, then maybe yes, we should contribute more help. 

If Vikram Nair is indeed sincerely worried about the sustainability of spending more on society, I am worried how on earth Singapore can afford to pay their ministers millions upon millions of dollars a year despite their less-than-desired performance. I am also very worried how the public can continue to force subsidize inefficient privatized public transportation operators and yet there is nothing we can do. Since Mr Vikram is really worried about the fiscal health of the government, maybe he should be asking these questions instead of attacking the opposition for the sake of opposing. If every cost need to be substantiated, I would say the cost of having certain MPs in Parliament is a complete waste of tax payer’s money.

P.S. I will post another post on the ridiculous subsidy of S$1,100,000,000.00 to SBS and SMRT when I have more spare time.

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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.

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