Inaccurate police force to resident ratio

April 8, 2014

I refer to the 26 Mar 2014 Straits Times report “1,000 more cops needed to boost police force: Police chief” [1].

The report stated that Singapore currently has 163 police officers for every 100,000 residents based on 8,784 police officers and a population of 5,400,000. This statistics is wrong because it excludes the 3,700 full time national service policemen who bear the exact same firearm and equipment as regular police officers and perform the exact same job for the same rank. Just as the Singapore armed forces strength includes national service soldiers, similarly the Singapore police force strength should also include national service policemen.

If full time national service policemen are included, our ratio becomes 231 police officers for every 100,000 residents instead. That will make the police commissioner Mr Ng Joo Hee’s statement that comparable cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and London typically operate with two or three times more police officers per resident than Singapore does inaccurate. The correct ratio should be 1.4 to 1.8 times.

[1] Straits Times, 1,000 more cops needed to boost police force: Police chief, 26 Mar 2014

Police strength per 100k population Singapore

TO BEEF up the anti-riot capability of the police while keeping Singapore safe, Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee wants to recruit 1,000 more officers.

The police chief made this passionate plea at the end of his testimony yesterday before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Dec 8 riot.

The extra manpower will let him raise an additional tactical troop specialised in tackling riots and police hot spots, and increase the number of officers who patrol the streets and neighbourhoods. It would also allow the police to train its front-line officers better.

The COI, led by retired judge G. Pannir Selvam, had over the course of the public hearing, questioned why police patrolmen were not adequately trained to deal with the unrest.

The 47-year-old – who was testifying at the COI for the first time since it was convened – said that a move to train officers to deal with the “initial moments” of a riot more effectively is now being considered. But that will involve “large and persistent investments in manpower and in training”.

Already, front-line officers work a four-shift system lasting 12 hours each, leaving them with very little time for training of any sort. That is why Mr Ng feels that training these officers to fight riots under the current shift system is “quite impossible”.

“If we were a football team, we would be a team that spends most of our time playing matches and very little time training,” he said.

“And in my view, that is quite incredible and not a desirable situation… I think we have to rethink the system and we have to certainly get more resources if we want to do that.”

A key reason for the manpower crunch in the force, added Mr Ng, is because its ranks have not kept pace with Singapore’s population growth over the years.

In 1994, there were 222 officers for every 100,000 residents here. Now there are 163.

This also affects the size of anti-riot squads, better known as Police Tactical Troops (PTT) under the Special Operations Command.

The first time these specialised units were restructured was in 1983, when 12 troops of 63 men were cut to just eight troops, each with 46 men. In 2004, the number per troop was cut to 35.

As of last December, the Singapore Police Force has just under 8,800 regular officers, supported by about 3,700 full-time national servicemen and 2,000 volunteer policemen.

“If you look at cities of comparable sizes like Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, London, you will find that they typically operate with two or three times more police officers than we do per resident in Singapore,” said Mr Ng.

“So there is some truth in the common refrain that one hardly comes across police officers on the streets of Singapore. But at the same time, we are able to deliver safety from crime that is still the envy of the world.”

Mr Ng told the COI that the way to “increase police robustness before the next disturbance comes around is to build up rather than to cut down on our contingency forces.

“My intention, if I have the resources, is to raise an additional PTT to be on standby at any one time. If we are able to do this, we can increase our rioting fighting capability by 50 per cent and create the ability to bring a far larger force to bear to an incident.”

In addition to augmenting the PTT, Mr Ng said it is critical to project a stronger police presence in areas where there is a congregation of foreign workers and that “pose a clear and present danger to public order”, aside from Little India. “Today, despite the riot in Little India, I worry more for Geylang,” he said. “If Singaporeans are irked by the littering, the noise and the jaywalking in Little India, they’ll certainly and quickly sense that there exists a hint of lawlessness in Geylang.”

A deployment of 300 pairs of boots on the ground should bring noticeable police visibility to both locations, added Mr Ng. But efforts to maintain law and order in Geylang and Little India have “already stretched police resources to near breaking point”.

“My planners tell me that police presence is defined as a police patrol passing a point once every 15 to 20 minutes… This is a useful benchmark, but one which we cannot come close to achieving in either Little India or Geylang on present levels of resourcing.”

Adequate water supply is common sense, not foresight

March 17, 2014

I refer to the 27 Feb 2014 Straits Times letter “adequate water supply a result of govt’s foresight” by Mr Ho Kong Loon [1].

Mr Ho said the Singapore government understood the critical need to act decisively to ensure adequate water supply in 1998. This Mr Ho said is the government’s determination, wherewithal and foresight to continually seek long term solutions to problems.

However according to PUB’s website [2], NEWater wasn’t an overnight success, the Singapore government had already attempted to turn used water into potable water back in 1974, 24 years before 1998. Our first Water Master Plan was also conceived in 1972. Thus, the understanding of the need to act decisively to ensure adequate water supply did not happen in 1998 but at least a quarter century before that.

The website also explained how the initial attempt to reclaim water in 1974 had to be shelved due to high cost and how it was only in the late 1990s that the cost of membrane technology had come down sufficiently to make NEWater commercially viable [2]. If the government was really determined to seek long term solutions to problems, it would have continued with its 1974 effort to reclaim water rather than shelve the project for nearly a quarter of a century until technology becomes viable. In other words, if technology had not become viable in the late 1990s, this ‘determination’ to reclaim water in 1998 would not have been possible. Thus, as with most other things, the government is driven more by events and circumstances than by intrinsic determination.

Even if we were to look back at the seminal 1972 Water Master Plan, it was also hardly a plan conceived out of foresight but a natural reaction to events and circumstances. Straits Times reported how 10 months of water rationing between 1963 and 1964 due to drought kept Singapore leaders awake at night [3] and how LKY referred to it as a matter of life and death that could lead to war because Tunku Abdul Rahman had threatened to turn off the water supply in 1965 if Singapore didn’t do his bidding [3] and how the Japanese blew up the pipes carrying water to Singapore in 1942 [3] which ultimately led to Singapore’s surrender. The gravity of these three events along with many other water related events should make it clear to any average Joe of the acute need to ensure adequate water supply. Given this context, it is bewildering why anyone should consider this a matter of foresight rather than a matter of common sense.

[1] Straits Times forum, adequate water supply a result of Govt’s foresight, 27 Feb 2014

THE current prolonged dry spell, which has also badly affected some states in Malaysia, brought about quite dissimilar reactions on either side of the Causeway (“S’pore experiencing record dry spell – and it could get worse”; Tuesday).

National water agency PUB has been pumping massive amounts of Newater into our reservoirs to maintain water levels.

Thus, Singaporeans can go about their daily activities without worrying that their water supply may be cut off due to dangerously low water levels at our reservoirs.

But some Malaysian states have had to ration water (“Selangor to ration water; other states may follow suit”; Tuesday).

Thousands wait for water trucks to arrive with the precious commodity, which is sufficient for only cooking, drinking and, possibly, washing.

In 1998, the Singapore Government understood the critical need to act decisively to ensure Singaporeans will have an adequate supply of potable and non-potable water in the event of long droughts or other emergencies.

At the same time, some top Malaysian politicians threatened to cut off the raw water supply to Singapore when it suited their political agendas.

Our initial forays into Newater met with derision and even contempt from some Singaporeans. PUB had its work cut out to educate the public that Newater was safe to drink.

Currently, the four Newater plants and two desalination plants, which turn seawater into potable water, have allowed Singapore to obtain water using non-traditional methods.

Both initiatives, which involved huge capital outlays, were carried out only after years of meticulous study into their viability.

With hindsight, Singaporeans can take comfort in the fact that the Government had the determination, wherewithal and foresight to continually seek long-term solutions to problems.

Ho Kong Loon


NEWater History
NEWater may sound like an overnight success for Singapore. But its evolution is a journey that spanned 3 decades.

Singapore’s first water masterplan was drawn up in 1972. In 1974, PUB built a pilot plant to turn used water into potable water. This was the precursor of today’s NEWater factories. But it was ahead of its time. The costs were astronomical and the membranes were unreliable, so the idea was shelved to await further technological advancement.

In 1998, the necessary technology had matured and driven production costs down. In May 2000, the first NEWater plant was completed.

[3] Straits Times, Quenching Singapore’s thirst, 3 Sept 2011

A water pact with Malaysia upon which Singapore used to depend expired this week. Its end was marked by a cordial handover of a water catchment area in Johor and treatment facilities – a powerful testament of Singapore’s progress towards greater self-sufficiency in water. Insight tells the story of that quest.

A SIMPLE turn of the tap did not guarantee water if you happened to be in Singapore on April 24, 1963.

It was the first day of a water rationing exercise that would last 10 months.

An unusually dry spell both in Singapore and in the Tebrau River area in Johor – a primary water source for the island – caused water stocks to plunge dramatically, leaving the authorities with little choice but to impose restrictions.

For four days a week, depending on which area you lived in, you were either deprived of water between 8am and 2pm or between 2pm and 8pm.

People who did not ordinarily read the newspapers or listen to the radio suddenly found themselves having to scan headlines or turn knobs at least once a week – to stay informed about rationing schedules.

Those who forgot to store water in pails at home during the allocated timings had to stand in queues to use public taps.

The cost of food went up.

A government advisory that called for the washing of cars and watering of gardens to be ‘kept to a minimum’ clearly did not stop some. A forum letter in The Straits Times on May 3 had one reader wondering ‘why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes’ a day.

Eerily, the spying on neighbours went further than that.

Another letter on May 17 read: ‘At a time when the state is facing an acute water shortage, is it proper for a person to bathe three times a day? That is exactly what my neighbour and his six children are doing every day of the week.’

Eventually, the rain returned and the reservoirs filled up. Curbs were finally lifted on Feb 28, 1964 – ironically, on a day when heavy rainfall caused an 11-year- old boy to drown.

Singaporeans who lived through that angsty period learnt a lesson they never forgot: that water, or the lack thereof, was a major source of weakness for the island-state.

This week, a no less momentous milestone in Singapore’s aquatic history was crossed, but with far less public interest. A 50-year water agreement signed in 1961 – one of just two between Singapore and Malaysia – drew to a close.

As a result, a catchment area in Johor more than five times the size of Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve ceased to serve Singapore’s water needs, but with nary an eyebrow raised.

Public indifference, however, can be seen in a positive light. It is arguably a testament to Singapore’s success in overcoming its water vulnerabilities.

What has happened since 1963?

In the words of Dr Joey Long of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, ‘the tables have turned’.

‘While in the initial years Singapore’s access to adequate water was viewed through the lens of security and survival, Singapore’s present circumstances should be viewed with more optimism,’ he said.

In 50 years, a virtuous mix of visionary leadership, meticulous groundwork and scientific advancements has helped Singapore exorcise her hydro-demons.

A tiny island-state ranked 170th out of a list of 190 nations in fresh water availability appears to be leapfrogging its way into water independence.

A matter of life and death

BUT there was a time when the situation was a lot more tense – and not just because people had to line up at public taps and tolerate dirty cars.

In 1970, seven years after that depressing drought, water security continued to keep Singapore’s leaders awake at night.

‘If these chaps do not observe the agreements, it will be a very serious matter for us,’ said then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, referring to the two Singapore-Malaysia water agreements, in a meeting with Professor S. Jayakumar before he took over as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

‘It is a matter of life and death… it can lead to war,’ he added.

Never far from Mr Lee’s mind was the threat from Malaysian premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, relayed to him by the British, that ‘if Singapore doesn’t do what I want, I’ll switch off the water supply’.

Coming just days after independence, the threat – though never acted upon – convinced him that ‘as long as I was totally dependent on Malaysia’s water supply, we would always be a satellite’.

That, combined with the Japanese blowing up water pipes that carried water across the strait from Johor in 1942, was what drove him to seek water self-sufficiency from the get-go, he later revealed.

The cards dealt to Singapore in 1965 were not promising.

The bulk of its water came from Johor. Two agreements signed in 1961 and 1962 allowed Singapore to buy water for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons (4,546 litres), excluding land rental costs in the catchment areas.

The expiry dates of the two water pacts were 2011 and 2061 respectively.

The 1961 agreement gave Singapore full and exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai, Pontian, Skudai and Tebrau. The 1962 agreement allowed Singapore to collect up to 250 million gallons of water a day from Johor River.

In exchange, treated water was sold back to Johor at the price of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, which was below cost.

The two agreements were confirmed by both Singapore and Malaysia in their separation agreement and promptly lodged with the UN.

The British also left behind three reservoirs – MacRitchie, Peirce and Seletar.

At once, Mr Lee and his Government swung into action. One of his first initiatives: forming a unit under the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate water policy.

Singapore lacked natural aquifers and groundwater. But it did not lack rainfall, per se, receiving from the heavens 2,400mm annually, comfortably higher than the global average of 1,050mm.

Rather, what could not be found in abundance were water bodies and land that could ‘catch’ the rain.

In 1969, the capacity of Seletar Reservoir was enlarged and its catchment scope broadened.

The 1970s saw a flurry of activity.

The Government began studying the feasibility of various conventional and not-so-conventional water sources, and published in 1972 the Water Master Plan. This is seen by water experts as the first long-term blueprint for water resource development here.

Upper Peirce Reservoir was completed in 1975. That same year, Kranji River was dammed to separate seawater from freshwater. This created Kranji Reservoir – one of the first of several reservoirs formed this way.

But the Government also took chances with the not-so-likely. It constructed an experimental plant to recycle used water – a predecessor to Newater.

Unfortunately, the requisite technologies, such as reverse osmosis, were still premature. The tests failed to persuade policymakers that the idea was sufficiently economical or reliable and no permanent plant was built.

As the economy grew rapidly, it soon also became clear that Singapore could not simply expand reservoirs indefinitely. Industry was competing for land use.

A concerted effort at promoting conservation began. The first ‘Water is precious’ campaign, launched in 1971, reduced water consumption by 5 per cent.

Four decades on, the public education drive continues in schools, factories and the media, whether it is exemplifying ‘water efficient homes’ with toilets that use cistern water-saving bags or mandating self-shutting delayed action taps in buildings. To drive home the message, a water conservation tax was later introduced. It is levied today at a rate of 30 per cent for the first 40 litres per month. Beyond that, the tax rises to 45 per cent. The Government’s aim is to cut per capita consumption from 155 litres today to 140 litres by 2030.

The 1980s and 1990s

THE 1980s saw both bright spots and dark ones in bilateral ties. From time to time, threats to fiddle with Singapore’s water supply, whether serious or not, emanated from Malaysian society or officialdom or both.

In 1986, for instance, the visit of Israeli President Chaim Herzog to Singapore stoked anger across the causeway, prompting some to call for the treaties to be revoked or at least re-negotiated.

There was good reason for optimism in the late 1980s, when the two sides penned an agreement supplementing the 1962 one. Singapore was given the go-ahead to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above the original limit of 250 million gallons a day.

A decade passed. As it considered its long-term water needs, Singapore’s leaders decided to negotiate supplementary agreements to extend the supply of water from Johor beyond 2061.

In 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the two sides came close to an agreement on a ‘water-for-funds’ deal, which was later called off.

Another round of talks took place in 2000 but differences remained over the sale price of raw water from Johor. There was initial agreement to raise the price from 3 sen per 1,000 gallons to 45 sen, and later to 60 sen.

Malaysia then said it wanted to unilaterally revise the price to RM6.25 per thousand gallons, a move Singapore insisted was not legally sound. After rounds of strongly worded exchanges in various forms, the matter quietened.

Ambitious new strategy to add two big taps

Four big taps

THE Singapore Government had been hard at work exploring alternative sources of water.

Even as talks with Malaysia ran into an impasse, efforts on another front were headed for a breakthrough that would ‘change the whole equation’, in the words of Dr Lee Poh Onn, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

After the failed 1974 experiment, Singapore decided to give recycled water another shot, sending two engineers to the United States in 1998 for a study trip.

Upon their return, they reported findings that suggested recycling had become viable, thanks to, among other things, advances in membrane technology. Subsequent studies corroborated the findings, prompting the Government to construct the first demo plant in Bedok in 2000.

The three-step process eventually adopted for the production of Newater involved filtration and reverse osmosis, removing particles as small as 0.001 microns before disinfecting the water under ultraviolet light. The water met US and UN standards and was, indeed, purer than tap water.

By May 2002, the Government was finally ready to go public with its bold new water strategy.

It was an ambitious plan to double the different types of water sources Singapore relied upon from two to four by 2011, the year the 1961 agreement with Malaysia expired.

Instead of relying only on water collected in reservoirs here and bought from Johor, there would be ‘four big national taps’ within 10 years. The two new ‘taps’ were desalination plants and Newater or water-reclamation plants.

In his speech to Parliament, then Environment Minister Lim Swee Say declared: ‘Singapore certainly can become completely self-sufficient after 2061, if need be.’

The year 2061 was significant as it was when the 1962 water agreement with Malaysia would expire.

A toast to the future

FOR Newater to succeed, the public had to be willing to drink water that was previously sewage.

‘Public acceptance is not guaranteed at the start. Recycled water has been rejected in Australia, where people term it ‘yuck’ water,’ said Dr Eduardo Araral, assistant dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

‘Singaporeans accepted it both because they are are pragmatic and because they trust the Government’s promise that Newater is safe to drink,’ he added.

Some 60,000 ‘toasted’ with bottled Newater during the 2002 National Day Parade, including Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Prime Minister. Singapore now has five Newater plants, the largest of which is at Changi. Newater is used both in industries and indirectly for households, after it is mixed into reservoirs.

The next significant breakthrough came in desalination technology, although some call this success story a work in progress.

As the cost of desalting seawater fell by more than half in the decade leading up to 2002, PUB called for and received tenders to build a plant. In 2005, a desalination facility using reverse osmosis membranes was commissioned in Tuas. It was built by SingSpring, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hyflux. A second desalination plant in Tuas should be ready by 2013.

Of the current daily consumption of 380 million gallons, Newater and desalination now make up 40 per cent. PUB aims to raise that to 80 per cent by 2061, when all agreements with Johor expire.

Meanwhile, work on other fronts continue.

The completion of Marina Barrage in 2008 increased Singapore’s water catchment area from half of its total land area to more than two-thirds. Studies are under way on the possibility of increasing this in future to 90 per cent through the use of treatment plants that handle both salt water and fresh water. There are now 17 reservoirs – up from three in 1965 – including Marina, Punggol and Serangoon.

Less visible upgrades may not be any less important. PUB has an ongoing programme to replace leaky asbestos cement water pipes with more corrosion-resistant ones. Also, an underground system of pumps and pipes connecting Singapore’s reservoirs was completed in 2007 to prevent wastage by transferring water from full reservoirs to less full ones.

Turning weakness to strength

‘I NEVER imagined we could progress from a situation of crisis to the situation of opportunity today,’ said Dr Lee.

A dramatic turn of events, which he ultimately puts down to political will, means the water issue is now more likely to evoke hope than anxiety.

Research and development projects are creating jobs and expertise that can be exported. The PUB expects the GDP contribution from the water sector to grow from $0.5 billion in 2003 to $1.7 billion in 2015, with the number of jobs doubling to 11,000 by 2015.

To be sure, some latent risks remain.

Dr Araral warns, for instance, that skyrocketing energy prices in the future may yet cause problems for the much-vaunted but relatively fuel-guzzling desalination project, although that may in turn spur the development of other sources of water.

Terrorism, too, could derail the most carefully constructed of systems.

‘Security experts note that water reservoirs are attractive targets of terrorists,’ he said.

Nevertheless, most agree that whatever happens in the future, the achievements as they stand today already exceed the wildest of expectations – not least among them those of the water rationing generation.

Singaporeans can rest with the firm assurance that their secure access to this life-giving commodity is no longer in the hands of others.

The water story

1857: Philanthropist Tan Kim Seng donated $13,000 to construct Singapore’s first waterworks and piped water supply.

1867: Singapore’s first reservoir, MacRitchie, completed.

1927: Water agreement signed between British-controlled Singapore and Johor Sultan. This agreement is superseded by the 1961 agreement.

1961: First water agreement signed between Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore gets full, exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai and three other areas for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons.

1962: Second Singapore-Malaysia water agreement signed, allowing Singapore to buy water from Johor River at the same price.

1963: Public Utilities Board (PUB) set up to take charge of water supply. Also, start of 10-month-long water rationing due to drought.

1965: Singapore separated from Malaysia. Both countries agree to abide by 1961 and 1962 agreements.

1971: First water conservation campaign launched.

1977: Start of 10-year-long Clean Singapore River campaign.

1990: Signing of supplement to 1962 agreement, allowing Singapore to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above original quota of 250 million gallons a day.

2000: The beginning of Singapore- Malaysia water talks that end in stalemate in 2003. The two sides could not agree on price.

2001: Restructuring of PUB so it took charge of not only water supply, but also drainage, water reclamation plants and sewerage systems.

2002: Launch of Newater – or recycled water – technology, which decisively paves the way towards water independence for Singapore.

2005: First desalination plant completed in Tuas. A second plant, also in Tuas, is expected by 2013.

2008: Inaugural International Water Week, which became an annual conference on water solutions. Also, Marina Barrage was completed, the first reservoir here in the heart of the city.

2011: 1961 water agreement with Malaysia lapsed. Singapore returns all land and facilities, saying handover does not affect adequacy of water supply.

The high cost of Singapore living!

March 13, 2014

I refer to the 11 Mar 2014 TREmeritus article “CNA editor: The high cost of Singapore living?” by Mr Nicholas Fang.

Mr Fang repeats what has been told to us from young: that we are a small country with no natural resources that managed to compete with the world’s best. Now that we are all grown up, it’s time to wake up from this fairy tale.

If we compare small population economies (defined as less than 10 million population) against large population economies (defined as 10 million population or more), the percentage of small population economies achieving World Bank’s High Income status classification is nearly twice that for large population economies. It thus seems that prosperity is easier achieved for small population economies than for large population economies. Our smallness hasn’t been a hindrance to us.

World Bank Data Population 10 million or more Population less than 10 million Total
Number of High Income economies 19 55 74
Number of Not High Income economies 67 73 140
Total 86 128 214
Percentage 22% 43%

Similarly, if we compare economies deriving less than 5% of its GDP from natural resources against economies deriving 5% or more of its GDP from natural resources, we find that the percentage of the former group achieving World Bank’s High Income status classification is again more than twice that for the latter group. Prosperity seems easier achieved for economies deriving less than 5% of its GDP from natural resources than for economies deriving 5% or more of its GDP from natural resources. The absence of natural resources hasn’t been a hindrance to us.

World Bank Data 5% or more GDP from natural resources Less than 5% GDP from natural resources Total
Number of High Income economies 13 61 74
Number of Not High Income economies 58 82 140
Total 71 143 214
Percentage 18% 43%

It’s amazing how Mr Fang can conclude from just a handful of the hundreds of EIU items that the EIU items relate only to expatriates but not to the ‘average’ citizen like himself. It’s amazing too he can conclude that the hundreds of thousands of expatriates in Singapore are all consuming well beyond the exquisiteness of his ‘average’ taste.

The difference between the CPI and the EIU index Mr Fang brought up could be due to the fact that the former includes imputed rental which kind of muddies the consumer price information whereas the latter does not. It’s unfortunate the EIU index does not include housing prices because if it did, it will more clearly show our high costs given that the price of our public housing is the price of private housing elsewhere.

Mr Fang should realise that we don’t have the right public information to know if our public transport is cheaper than say New York. Our hub and spoke transport system forces the average home-to-destination or destination-to-home journey into a series of bus-train-bus combinations the average price of which cannot be obtained simply by looking at bus only or train only fare information separately.

Mr Fang also repeats the irrelevant notion that we have a short history as an independent state because modern Singapore has had a glorious history spanning close to 200 years.

Mr Fang wants us to search our soul about the image we want to project. But for the average man on the street, image is the last thing on his mind, coping with the daily grind of life is.

Ex-ST writer is not the world’s most wise

March 9, 2014

I refer to the 9 Mar 2014 TR Emeritus article “Ex-ST writer: SG is not the world’s most expensive city” by Mr Andy Mukherjee.

Mr Mukherjee claims that Singapore will obviously have higher US dollar prices due to Singapore’s appreciating exchange rate over the past decade. That is not true for goods imported from the US or for international commodities denominated in USD like oil.

When the Singapore currency strengthens, a 1 USD imported item will still cost 1 USD even though it can be bought for less SGD. For example, if the exchange rate was 1 USD = 1 SGD, a 1 USD item will cost 1 USD or 1 SGD. When the exchange rate improves in our favour to 1 USD = 0.5 SGD for example, the 1 USD item will still cost 1 USD but will now cost 0.5 SGD. Thus, the USD price didn’t change while the SGD price became lower.

An imported item will only become pricier in USD if the currency of the country from which the item was imported strengthens against the USD. For example, a 1 Euro item from Europe will cost 1 USD when the exchange rate was 1 USD = 1 Euro. When the Euro strengthens relative to USD to 1 USD = 0.2 Euro, the 1 Euro item will now cost 5 USD. The USD price of non-USD denominated imports depends not on SGD-USD exchange rate but on the respective currencies’ exchange rate with USD.

Only local products and services will cost more in USD when the Singapore currency strengthens. However, since the Singapore economic model is based on low wage workers, labourers, waiters, cooks and so on, Singapore services should still be cheaper than services in other developed economies despite the strengthening of the Singapore dollar.

Mr Mukherjee claims that cars in Singapore have little utility beyond the dating scene. But many friends have expressed appreciation for the convenience that a vehicle brings to a family with little children.

Mr Mukherjee suggests that safe drinking water can be quite expensive in Mumbai. But if Mumbai has no cheap access to safe drinking water, wouldn’t most Mumbai people have died of thirst within a few weeks? Mumbai residents boiling water to make drinking water safe is no different from Singaporeans boiling water to make drinking water safe.

Mr Mukherjee points out the issue of nationality specific spending patterns like kimchi refrigerators for the Koreans or cheap cricket channels for the Pakistanis. But don’t Koreans and Pakistanis wear Western style underwear, T-shirt, shoes, socks, eat McDonalds hamburger, drink Coca Cola, use toothpaste, toothbrush, drive automobiles, ride bicycles, watch television, use the computer, connect to the Internet and so on? Should one, two differences in nationality specific spending patterns invalidate the comparison of a whole multitude of products and services commonly consumed across cultures and throughout humanity?

Mr Mukherjee claims that the EIU study fails the simple test of people revealing their preferences by their decisions because employers that used the EIU study to tone down Mumbai’s wage expectations would have caused a beeline of Mumbai people rushing to find jobs in Singapore. It is Mr Mukherjee who has failed the test of his own logic. We can always turn the question around and ask what if employers did not adjust wages to account for differences in cost of living? Wouldn’t the Indians in Singapore be making a beeline for low cost Mumbai since wages are the same? Since that hasn’t happened, by Mr Mukherjee’s logic, employers should have adjusted wages here to account for higher cost of living so that expatriates here do not make a beeline for Mumbai. As for Mr Mukherjee’s original logic, he should realise that it is not just Mumbai people but many Third World nation people have always been making a beeline for jobs in Singapore which is why international surveys have always revealed Singapore to be one of the top destinations for Third World citizens.

In conclusion, there is nothing in Mr Mukherjee’s essay that proves that Singapore is not the world’s most expensive city.

Problems with an associate professor’s comparisons

March 9, 2014

I refer to the 7 Mar 2014 Straits Times letter “Problems with global comparisons” by Associate Professor Martin Bodenstein.

Mr Bodenstein asserts the EIU survey does not compare cost of living of local citizens across the globe because not everyone drives a Mercedes Benz, wears an Armani suit, orders champagne or spends a night at Marina Bay Sands.

But a Singapore citizen doesn’t even have to drive a Mercedes Benz to incur higher cost of car ownership than his counterpart in other developed countries. His piece of COE paper is already more than the price of a Mercedes Benz elsewhere.

Similarly, is the local citizen better off because he cannot afford an Armani suit and so does not wear one? Is the local citizen better off because he cannot afford champagne and so drinks teh tarik instead? Is the local citizen better off because he cannot afford to spend a night at Marina Bay Sands and so spends a night on an open bench at Marina Barrage instead?

Shouldn’t it be the other way around instead? A Singaporean has a living standard comparable to the expatriate because he can similarly afford an Armani suit, order champagne and spend a night at Marina Bay Sands? If the Singaporean cannot afford what the expatriate can, doesn’t that show that the Singaporean is worse off in living standards?

Mr Bodenstein also asserts that cross border comparisons of cost of living is plagued primarily by the problem of differences in local tastes and substitutability of goods as not everyone here eats beef or pork or not in the amounts consumed in the West but eats vegetables instead.

Does Mr Bodenstein have any proof to show that our lower beef consumption is due to taste and not due to beef price? If beef price is lowered, consumption of beef will not increase because Singaporeans prefer vegetables to beef? Is a Singaporean better off because he cannot afford to eat beef or pork or in the same amounts as those consumed in the West? Is Mr Bodenstein’s concept of substitutability about expatriate eating beef being equivalent to locals eating vegetables? If that’s the case, we can extend the concept further and say that the African who can only afford to eat grass is merely eating a beef substitute so there is no difference in cost of living across the world from dirt poor Africa to the prosperous West.

Mr Bodenstein claims he is better off in Singapore because he pays lower taxes that more than offset his expensive Honda. The US authorities should take note of this and correspondingly reduce Mr Bodenstein’s pension entitlements in future because Mr Bodenstein failed to appreciate that higher US taxes isn’t for nothing but for a more secure, comfortable retirement that lower taxed Singaporeans don’t get to enjoy.

Finally, Mr Bodenstein claims that the EIU survey is the wrong place to assess the impact of rising prices in Singapore. No, Mr Bodenstein, it is you who have amply demonstrated that you are not the right person to comment on this issue.

Straits Times, Cost of Living – problems with global comparisons, 7 Mar 2014

IT IS official now: We live in the world’s most expensive city (“S’pore ‘world’s most expensive city’”; Wednesday).

The media hype surrounding the release of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) cost of living index, which ranked Singapore first among 131 global cities surveyed, can easily make one lose sight of what the survey set out to measure.

The survey forms part of a professional tool that the EIU markets to human resource departments of international corporations to compute cost-of-living adjustments for business travellers and expatriates. To this end, price data for a fixed consumption basket of a typical (Western) expatriate is collected around the globe and combined to city-specific indices.

In no way does the survey compare the cost of living of local citizens across the globe, unless one believes that everybody drives a Mercedes-Benz to town wearing an Armani suit, orders champagne, and then decides to spend the night at Marina Bay Sands.

Cross-border comparisons of the cost of living are plagued by many problems. With respect to the relevance of the EIU survey to ordinary folk, these problems primarily concern differences in local tastes and the substitutability between goods.

Not everyone here eats beef or pork, or at least not in the amounts consumed in the West. Traditional South Asian and South-east Asian cooking makes more creative use of vegetables.

Market prices also influence consumption habits, and thus the measured local costs of living.

But even if one is an expatriate who cannot live without a slice of real gruyere cheese and a fancy car, goods prices need to be assessed in relation to direct and indirect income taxation.

When considered in isolation, the price tag of a six-year-old Honda in Singapore is almost prohibitive due to taxes and fees, but low personal income taxes by international standards (for both locals and foreigners) leave me financially better off than when I was in Washington, DC, with comparable gross income and a Honda.

I do not intend to downplay people’s concerns about the impact of rising prices on real income inequality in Singapore. Broad-based participation in economic growth is an important goal for public policy to secure social stability. Yet, the EIU survey is the wrong place to look for assessing that situation.

Martin Bodenstein (Associate Professor)
National University of Singapore
Department of Economics

Much to thank for beyond the last 50 years

March 9, 2014

I refer to the 6 Mar 2014 Straits Times letter “Much we can be thankful for” by Mr Patrick Liew [1]. Mr Liew purported to put things into perspective by merely parroting the state’s and its media’s claim that the EIU report relates more to expatriate lifestyle. The EIU Worldwide Cost of Living 2014 report compared more than 400 individual prices across 160 products and services including food, drink, household supplies and personal care items. The state media listed only a handful of the hundreds of EIU items and from that handful Mr Liew concluded that the EIU items relate more to expatriate lifestyle without considering the hundreds of other items not listed.

Mr Liew expressed his thanks for not facing congestion problems in many developed cities. But Singaporeans face many congestion problems even though they may not be reported. Many major roads are congested even during non-peak hours or on Saturdays. During peak periods, the congestions can be nightmarish.

Mr Liew also expressed thanks for the regulation of our property market without considering that it came only after an election setback. That being the case, it was ultimately the votes of the people that regulated our property market.

Mr Liew said we will be better off in Singapore compared to many developed cities if we lived simply. But if we have to live simply in Singapore to be better off but don’t have to live simply to be better off in other developed cities, doesn’t that show that we are actually worse off instead?

Mr Liew claimed our economy is better off than other developed countries because there are plenty of jobs and that our tax rates are amongst the lowest. But the plenty of jobs we have are low paying jobs that cannot support the quality of life found in other developed countries. What good is it for a country to have plenty of low paying jobs that only provides the barest living sustenance? Our low tax rates give us nothing in our old age and nothing when we fall sick.

Most developed countries are safe, not just Singapore. Otherwise, people in those countries would be flocking to Singapore instead of the other way around wouldn’t it? The government would not have to start campaigns to encourage Singaporeans overseas to come back would it?

Our country is a model mostly for Third World or communist countries. It is hardly a model for developed countries. While we have done well for a country with no natural resources, practically all developed countries have done well with little or no natural resources.

Mr Liew is wrong to say that it took us less than 50 years to build our city state. Many important institutions and buildings were put in place more than 50 years ago. Our running water began during colonial times with the generous donation by Mr Tan Kim Seng. Our police force began during colonial times. KK Hospital where most Singaporeans were born began during colonial times. Many good schools that nurtured generations of leaders for Singapore were founded during colonial times. Our most precious heritage buildings were built during colonial times.

There is so much to thank for beyond the last 50 years. Without the years that came before the last 50 years, there would have been no last 50 years.

[1] Straits Times, Much we can be thankful for, 6 Mar 2014

YESTERDAY’S report (“S’pore ‘world’s most expensive city’”) may have caused some concern.
To put things in perspective, the survey cited in the report relates more to the expatriate lifestyle.
Expatriates’ needs and spending habits are different from Singaporeans’.
I am thankful that we restrict the number of cars on the road, so we do not have the congestion problems faced by many developed cities.
Our property market is regulated by various cooling measures that protect us from asset bubbles.
Public transport and hawker food in Singapore are cheaper than those in most developed cities.
Perhaps we can explore setting up “farmers’ markets” or “manufacturers’ outlets” so that people can purchase necessities at a lower cost.
We do not have to live lavishly to be happy. In fact, if we live simply, we will be better off living in Singapore than in many developed cities.
There is much that we can be thankful for.
Our economy is comparatively better off than those of most developed countries. There are plenty of jobs available and our tax rate is among the lowest in the developed world.
Our country is safe and most people have a roof over their heads. Our homes are surrounded by good amenities, especially in HDB estates.
Our country is widely regarded as a model city and is admired all over the world. We have done well for a country with no natural resources and of mainly migrant stock. It took us less than 50 years to build our city state.
I believe that our best years are ahead of us.
Patrick Liew

Singapore’s No. 1 ranking in EIU Cost of Living Survey

March 7, 2014

I refer to the transcript of Mr Tharman’s Budget 2014 speech for his comments on Singapore’s Number 1 ranking in EIU’s cost of living survey.

Mr Tharman said the strengthening of the Singapore dollar makes Singapore goods expensive for someone who is paid in a foreign currency. Firstly, many expatriates are given the choice of being paid in Singapore dollars. Secondly, the EIU cost of living survey ranks countries based on prices of goods and services only, it does not rank countries based on how affordable goods and services are relative to salaries. Singapore’s No.1 ranking in the EIU cost of living survey has everything to do with prices and nothing to do with salaries or the currency of salaries. Therefore, Mr Tharman’s argument about someone being paid in a foreign currency is completely irrelevant in so far as Singapore is No.1 ranking in the EIU cost of living survey is concerned.

Since most goods in Singapore are imported, the strengthening of the Singapore dollar vis-a-vis the USD will not affect the USD price of these imported goods.

Mr Tharman also said that a stronger Singapore dollar makes imported goods cheaper. But the reality is that Singapore’s imported goods have become more expensive, not cheaper. The strengthening of the Singapore dollar merely allows importers to make better margins without necessarily lowering the prices of the goods they import.

Mr Tharman claimed that the EIU’s basket of goods that include imported cheese, filet mignon and Burberry type raincoats is geared towards higher end expatriates that differ from the basket of goods consumed by ordinary Singaporeans. However, according to the EIU website [2]: survey prices are gathered and listed from three types of stores: supermarket, medium-priced retailers and more expensive speciality shops. Surely, supermarket goods cannot be too different from goods consumed by Singaporeans? Thus, while the goods quoted by Mr Tharman are quite different from those consumed by Singaporeans, many other goods not quoted by Mr Thaman are quite the same as those consumed by Singaporeans. This is further supported by the statement from EIU spokesperson Mr Jon Copestake who said [3]: The highest-weighted category in our survey is that of groceries and everyday staples which include goods like fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, rice, etc.

Mr Tharman also complained that the EIU survey’s transport category only included cars and taxis but not public transportation whereas the average Singaporean takes public transport. But if the average Singaporean is consigned to taking public transportation while the average person in some other country can afford to drive, wouldn’t that in itself show that our cost of living is higher than other countries and that our people cannot afford what people in other countries take for granted? The EIU Worldwide Cost of Living 2014 summary report explained that high COE led to Singapore’s transport costs being three times higher than those in New York. So it is not just the rich or the expatriate but the average Singaporean too who must pay four times the price for a car compared to the average New Yorker.

Mr Tharman said our public transport is cheaper than other cities. But public information on public transport doesn’t inspire the confidence that those figures are correct. LTA compares average MRT fare and average bus fare separately with those of other cities. But the Singapore public transport model is a hub and spoke model that forces most home-to-destination or destination-to-home journeys into a series of MRT and bus ride combinations. Providing separate statistics for MRT and bus journeys distorts the true picture of our public transportation costs. As an example:

Home to MRT station by bus: $0.80 Average bus fare: $0.80
MRT station to destination by MRT: $1.00 – $0.40 rebate = $0.60 Average MRT fare: $0.60

But the cost of the journey from home to destination is actually $1.40. We should be comparing $1.40 with other countries, not $0.80 or $0.60 separately. Comparing $0.80 or $0.60 with other countries makes us look cheap when the actual cost is $1.40. The more hub and spoke a transport model is, the greater the distortion between cost of home-to-destination journeys and cost of individual MRT and bus journeys. EIU is therefore correct to exclude public transport costs because they never truly reflect the cost of public transport in Singapore anyway.

Mr Tharman then claimed that few surveys measure living costs of ordinary residents and went on to cite the one from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy as the one that does. But the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy survey is quite a useless survey because it is almost never used by anyone outside Singapore. It is almost like North Korean statistics useful only within North Korea.

I refer too to the 6 Mar 2014 Straits Times report “S’pore the costliest city? That’s rich” [4]. In that report, Straits Times claimed that the EIU study included fees at international schools as part of overall cost of living. However, the EIU website [2] says: the final three subcategories of:

• Housing rents
• International schools, health & sports
• Business trip costs

are not included in the index calculation. Hence, Straits Times is wrong to say that international school fees are included as part of overall cost of living since it is excluded from the index calculation.

Straits Times also quoted former MP Calvin Cheng saying rental rates were taken from Orchard Road whereas most Singaporeans live in HDB flats [4]. Does Mr Cheng not know that housing rents are excluded from the index calculation and hence does not impact our cost of living ranking?

If housing rents and international school fees had been included in the index calculation, Singapore cost of living would have shot up even more.

In conclusion, the state and its media, by listing only a handful of the more than 400 individual prices across 160 products and services in the EIU survey, failed to show that the items are generally expat-centric and irrelevant to Singaporeans.

[1] Straits Times, “Cost-of-living surveys reflect expatriate, not local, costs”, 6 Mar 2014



[4] Straits Times, “S’pore the costliest city? That’s rich”, 6 Mar 2014
The study also took into account taxi fares and the costs of buying and running a car but excluded public transport. And it included fees at various international schools as part of the overal cost of living.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng said: “Rental rates for the survey are taken from average rates of locations like Orchard Road and River Valley, where most Singaporeans do not live in. Most locals live in HDB flats which they own.”

Don’t cheapen what it means to be a founding father

January 29, 2014

I refer to the 29 Jan 2014 Straits Times letter “Timely to reinforce founding fathers’ values” [1] by Mr Georgie Lee Heng Fatt.

Singapore’s big day is not 2015 but 2019 because 2015 isn’t our 50th birthday but our 50th anniversary of our divorce from Malaysia whereas 2019 is Singapore’s 200th birthday.

1965 is our year of independence as well as our year of separation from Malaysia. Whether we view it from an independence perspective or a separation perspective, neither qualifies as our birth year. If we become independent at the age of say 30, do we say we were born at the age of 30? If we become divorced at the age of 60, do we say we were born at the age of 60? Clearly, we were born at age 0 which occurred in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore.

One might argue there were former kingdoms and civilisations that ruled Singapore in ancient times. However, the last kingdom that occupied the land of Singapore was razed to the ground by the Portuguese in 1613. More than 200 years separated those former civilisations from the founding of modern Singapore in 1819. There was thus a clean and clear break between those ancient civilisations and modern Singapore. The Singapore that we know today has continuously evolved since 1819 and can be traced back to 1819. To reset our age in 1965 is to betray our true forefathers who literally carved a city out of a jungle.

It is also a grave mistake to refer to our post-independence leaders as our founding fathers because people like Lee Kuan Yew did absolutely nothing to deserve that title. When we think of founding fathers, we think of people like George Washington, Ghandi and Sun Yat Sen. The common thread that binds these people and that uniquely qualifies them as founding fathers is their common struggle against colonial or foreign masters to gain independence for their respective peoples. Lee Kuan Yew never did anything remotely close to that. When the Japanese came, he didn’t fight them but worked for them instead. When it was time to fight the British for Singapore’s independence after the war, he again did nothing of that sort but cooperated and worked for the British instead. Because he had been such a good boy, the British and subsequently the Tungku helped him gain power by locking up the Leftists who were the ones who fought for our independence. In fact, LKY didn’t even want independence and cried the day we were separated from Malaysia. He fought not for the independence of Singapore but for Singapore’s marriage into Malaysia and short changing Singaporeans in the process. It was Tungku Abdul Rahman whom we must thank for giving us our independence.

Singapore owes much of its progress to the strong moral values of its people, values carried by various cultures from where they came and given opportunity to blossom and grow in a progressive climate rooted in British institutions. These values of our Singaporean forefathers were neither espoused nor moulded by any one man, let alone Lee Kuan Yew. Let us not short change our own forefathers by taking away the credit of strong moral values owed to them and heaping them onto a single person or select group of individuals. Anyone who is capable of locking political opponents for more than 30 years will never be worthy of our moral emulation.

If we truly come to terms with history and facts, we must accept that Lee Kuan Yew never created Singapore, never fought for our independence and in fact married us into Malaysia, committed morally unacceptable acts like locking opponents for 30 years. We can never accept Lee Kuan Yew as our founding father without cheapening what it means to be a founding father.

Revisiting Lessons from Nelson Mandela

December 29, 2013

I refer to the 19 Dec 2013 TR Emeritus article “Lessons from Nelson Mandela & Little India riot” by Mr Albert Lim.

Mr Lim denounced Leong Sze Hian and Roy Ngerng for playing up class politics which he described as being the politics of division, envy and discord that only stirs up discontent and disaffection amongst people. He likened their tactics to those of the Bolsheviks who rose to power and reigned with terror by playing up class divisions.

Mr Lim also contrasted Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s actions with those of Nelson Mandela’s whom Mr Lim described as having many remarkable things about him that should be picked up such as: embarking on a path of reconciliation between the blacks and the whites, encouraging the whites to stay in South Africa and using his force of personality to nullify radicals and Marxists within the African National Congress.

The following were statements made by Nelson Mandela during his Rivonia Trial in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964:

• South Africa is the richest country in Africa, and could be one of the richest countries in the world. But it is a land of extremes and remarkable contrasts. The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty per cent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded … reserves … Thirty per cent are labourers, labour tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages … Yet most Africans … are impoverished by low incomes and the high cost of living.

• The highest-paid and the most prosperous section of urban African life is in Johannesburg. Yet their actual position is desperate. The latest figures were given on the 25th of March 1964 by Mr. Carr, Manager of the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department. The poverty datum line for the average African family in Johannesburg, according to Mr. Carr’s department, is R42.84 per month. He showed that the average monthly wage is R32.24 and that forty-six per cent of all African families in Johannesburg do not earn enough to keep them going.

• The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation.

• The other main obstacle to the economic advancement of the African is the Industrial Colour Bar under which all the better paid, better jobs of industry are reserved for whites only … The discrimination … towards African workers is demonstrated by the so-called ‘civilized labour policy’ under which sheltered, unskilled Government jobs are found for those white workers who cannot make the grade in industry, at wages far, which far exceed the earnings of the average African employee in industry.

• The Government often answers its critics by saying that Africans in South Africa are economically better off than the inhabitants of the other countries in Africa. I do not know whether this statement is true and doubt whether any comparison can be made without having regard to the cost-of-living index in such countries. But even if it is true, as far as African people are concerned, it is irrelevant. Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country …

Replace the word “white” with “men-in-white” and the word “African” with “Singaporean” in the texts above and Nelson Mandela’s words appear not too dissimilar to those of Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s. Like Mr Leong and Mr Ngerng, Mr Mandela employed socio-economic statistics to highlight real social injustices and to rebut government excuses. Similar people making similar statements about similar issues, yet the former is considered by Mr Lim as a unifying figure while the latter are labelled by Mr Lim as sowing discord and disaffection.

Division, envy, discontent and disaffection are born out of real social injustices; they don’t simply grow out of writings. Refraining from writing about social injustices will not make the feelings of social injustices go away unless the underlying problems are addressed. Highlighting social injustices isn’t wrong but is everyone’s moral obligation instead.

Mr Lim should realize that Mr Mandela didn’t just nullify the Marxists, he actually embraced key Marxist ideals and even adopted communist methods of sabotage and also considered communist style guerrilla warfare in preparation for civil war. These Mr Mandela readily admitted during his trial:

Mandela’s Marxist and socialist beliefs:

• Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organisation of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There was no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.

• It is true, as I have already stated that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent states. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact. We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of the world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.

• The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. It calls for redistribution, but not nationalisation, of land; it provides for nationalisation of mines, banks, and monopoly industry, because monopolies, big monopolies are owned by one race only, and without such nationalisation racial domination would be perpetuated despite the spread of political power.

So while Mr Lim is against “helping the poor by taking away money from others”, he should realize that his respected Nelson Mandela preached redistribution of land, the exact opposite to what he believes in. We thus have this strange situation where the person Mr Lim holds up as someone who personifies the ideals he believes in is someone who actually preached the exact opposite to what he believes in.

Like Nelson Mandela, the Leftists who fought for Singapore’s freedom post World War 2 weren’t Marxists even if they held varying degrees of Marxist beliefs. If we can honour Nelson Mandela despite his Marxist beliefs, surely we can honour the Leftists too who were our true benefactors and freedom fighters.

Mandela involved in sabotage activities and prepared for guerilla warfare

• I do not however, deny that I planned sabotage. We felt that without sabotage there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the Government. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

• The shooting at Sharpeville, which resulted in the … declaration of the ANC as an unlawful organisation. My colleagues and I … decided that we would not obey this decree. The African people were not part of the Government and did not make the laws by which they were governed. We believed in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the Government”, and for us to accept the banning was equivalent to accepting the silencing of the African people for all time. The ANC refused to dissolve, but instead went underground.

• A Government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it.

• I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that … it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force … it was when all … channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so … because the Government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto … we said’, I quote:
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom”, unquote.

• When we decided to adopt sabotage … we realised that we might one day have to face the prospect of (civil) war … we did not want to be committed to civil war, but we wanted to be ready if it became inevitable.

• We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position.

• Attacks on the economic life lines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on Government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people and encourage them to participate in non-violent mass action such as strikes.

• Umkhonto had its first operation on the 16th of December 1961, when Government buildings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban were attacked.

• We felt it our duty to make preparations as a long-term undertaking to use force in order to defend ourselves against force. If war became inevitable, we wanted to be ready when the time came … we decided, therefore, in our preparations for the future, to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare.

• I had already started to make a study of the art of war and revolution and … underwent a course in military training … I attempted to examine all types of authority on the subject … covering such a variety as Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara …

Mr Lim should thus realize that the unity that he remembers Nelson Mandela by is not a single act but a series of actions that began with the questioning of societal differences and then progressing to violence before turning into the reconciliation that he is more familiar with. The moral of the Nelson Mandela story seen in its entirety is that, before there can be unity, unfair differences have to be addressed and ironed out. As long as there is anger, there can be no unity even if we make a determined effort not to highlight or talk about it.

Finally, another quote from Nelson Mandela:
I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one” – On the Larry King show 2000.

Those who decried Mr Mandela’s actions at first were eventually won over by him. So similarly, those who decry Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s actions today may someday be won over by them too.

Comments on PISA reporting

December 25, 2013

The following statements about the PISA were made in a BBC report [1]:

Seekers after educational excellence once used to head pilgrim-like towards Finland. This was the most quoted example of a high performing school system, even though in many ways it was a very distinctive and individual system. Scandinavia was the education world’s sensible successful neighbour.
But Finland has slipped downwards and the gloom has spread across Nordic countries, with Sweden among the biggest fallers. Norway and Denmark are absent from the top end of the tables. Their sluggish performances have been overtaken by countries such as Estonia, Poland and Ireland.

These statements were made based on PISA data. Anyone who quotes and therefore stands by these statements implicitly accepts the PISA data underpinning these statements. It would be strange for anyone to simultaneously denounce PISA data and embrace such statements based on PISA data.

There are also several validity issues with these statements. For example, Norway and Denmark didn’t just become absent from the top end recently, they have never been in the top 10 since PISA began in 2000. Rather than slipping or falling, Norway’s rankings have fluctuated up and down. The same can be said of the Science ranking of Denmark.

Math ranking Science ranking Reading ranking
Norway 2000 17 13 13
2003 22 28 12
2006 28 24 25
2009 21 24 12
2012 30 31 22
Denmark 2000 12 22 16
2003 15 31 19
2006 15 18 19
2009 19 26 24
2012 22 27 25


The notion that Norway and Denmark have been overtaken by Estonia and Ireland is also problematic.

For science scores, Estonia and Ireland were never behind Norway and Denmark to begin with and so cannot be said to have overtaken Norway and Denmark.

PISA science scores 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Norway 500 484 487 500 495
Denmark 481 475 496 499 498
Estonia - - 531 528 541
Poland 483 498 498 508 526
Ireland 513 505 508 508 522


For reading scores, with the exception of 2009, both Estonia and Ireland were already better than Norway and Denmark when they joined PISA in 2006 and 2000 respectively so once again overtaking is not the right word to describe their achievements.

PISA reading scores 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Norway 505 500 484 503 504
Denmark 497 492 494 495 496
Estonia - - 501 501 516
Poland 479 497 508 500 518
Ireland 527 515 517 496 523


For math scores, Estonia was never behind Norway and Denmark and so could not have overtaken them. The latest score difference between Ireland and Denmark is too fine to be useful for ascertaining anything. Ireland also didn’t just catch up with Norway, Ireland has always been better than Norway except for 2009.

PISA math scores 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Norway 499 495 490 498 489
Denmark 514 514 513 503 500
Estonia - - 515 512 521
Poland 470 490 495 495 518
Ireland 503 503 501 487 501


Thus, the claims made in those statements were more wrong than they were right and are therefore not worth quoting.

In the case of Finland, there is no evidence that its science scores have slipped over the years although its math and reading scores may have slipped by 3.2% and 4% respectively since it first participated in PISA rankings in 2000. It may be over presumptuous to associate this 3.2% or 4% dip in math and reading scores respectively as evidence that the Finnish education model is finished already. Given the many measurement issues with PISA, the 3.2% or 4% could simply be due to measurement issues. There is no strong enough evidence yet to condemn the Finnish education model.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012 2012 / 2000
Finland math 536 544 548 541 519 -3.20%
Finland science 538 548 563 554 545 1.30%
Finland 546 543 547 536 524 -4.00%


Furthermore, Finland’s science score still ranks amongst the top 5 in the world, not a gloomy ranking at all.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
China Shanghai, China #N/A #N/A #N/A 575 580
Hong Kong, China #N/A #N/A 542 549 555
Singapore #N/A #N/A #N/A 542 551
Japan 550 548 531 539 547
Finland 538 548 563 554 545

Finland’s reading score is still ranked 6th in the world, again not a gloomy ranking.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
China Shanghai, China #N/A #N/A #N/A 556 570
Hong Kong, China #N/A #N/A 536 533 545
Singapore #N/A #N/A #N/A 526 542
Japan 522 498 498 520 538
South Korea 525 534 556 539 536
Finland 546 543 547 536 524

Finland’s math score is now ranked 12th, not as sterling as before but definitely not something to be ashamed of.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
China Shanghai, China #N/A #N/A #N/A 600 613
Singapore #N/A #N/A #N/A 562 573
Hong Kong, China #N/A #N/A 547 555 561
Taiwan #N/A #N/A 549 543 560
South Korea 547 542 547 546 554
Macau, China #N/A #N/A 525 525 538
Japan 557 534 523 529 536
Liechtenstein 514 536 525 536 535
Switzerland 529 527 530 534 531
Netherlands #N/A 538 531 526 523
Estonia #N/A #N/A 515 512 521
Finland 536 544 548 541 519

What is interesting to note is that by and large, Finland’s rankings have fallen over the years, not because it was overtaken by other countries but because of the gradual addition of East Asian nations into the PISA list of countries. East Asian nations have shown themselves to be quite good at topping PISA rankings and displacing other nations to lower ranks. The fact that Finland is still the best scoring non-East-Asian nation in science and reading is itself a very commendable achievement.

The following statements from the same report [1] are also problematic:

The runaway success story has been the achievement of a clutch of Asian education systems. But results saw the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher challenging any stereotypes about some places having an inherent “culture” of education. Results in Shanghai and Vietnam are much better than three years ago, he says, but the “culture” hasn’t changed. The improvements reflect a deliberate policy of ensuring that a high proportion of pupils will succeed.
This also applies in other parts of the world. Poland has been transformed into one of the best school performers in Europe and the OECD argues this reflects an active policy of change and not any inherent quality of its culture. The implication of this is that other countries could follow their example.

Improvement despite having kept culture constant is no proof that culture is therefore not responsible for the improvement. Just as a car rapidly increasing its speed from 0 to 100 km/hr while carrying the same engine doesn’t prove that the engine is not responsible for the rapid speed increase. Or a school with rapid improvement despite having the same principal and teachers is no proof that the principal and teachers hadn’t contributed to the improvement.

Holding Poland up as an example that rapid improvement can occur outside Asia is again no proof that Poland will eventually attain the high levels achieved by the East Asians. Just as a school that won the best improvement award is no proof that it will eventually become an RI.

Inaccurate labelling
Another report [2] by the same BBC author carries a picture with inaccurate labelling. The picture below suggests that the UK’s math PISA score is just average amongst nations that include Brazil and Peru. But ‘494’ is not the average score of all nations that participated in PISA but the average of OECD countries instead. The average of all nations’ PISA math scores should be ‘473’ instead. The British thus performed better than average of all nations by 21 points.


[1], BBC Business news, Pisa tests: What do we know now?, Sean Coughlan, 4 Dec 2013

[2], BBC Education & Family news, Pisa tests: UK stagnates as Shanghai tops league table, Sean Coughlan, 3 Dec 2013


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