Archive for April, 2007

World will feel Singapore’s disappearance

April 28, 2007

MM said that Singapore is a lot more valuable to the world than it was 40 years ago because we are now a financial, telecommunications and pharmaceutical hub compared to 40 years ago when we were only a trader’s port. But the world wasn’t as connected as it is today. The internet, which the infocomm revolution and financial industry depended on would not have been invented for another 25 years. What Singapore was to the world then, given the technology available then, was never far from what it is to the world today.

Our advantage as a manufacturing base for pharmaceuticals rests solely on China’s current lack of intellectual property protection. As China’s economy strengthens and matures, it’s framework for doing business, including respect for intellectual property would improve. What happens then?

If we were to always rely on manufacuring, we would always be at the mercy of MNCs who have no vested interest to stay here other than dollars and cents. We have been told that we wouldn’t know the outcome of our drive towards pharmaceutical research until 15, 20 years later. What happens 15, 20 years down the road if our pharmaceutical research doesn’t bear fruit and China’s intellectual property protection has reached those of our levels?

The world has become a lot more complicated than it was 40 years ago. No one knows what the future holds. Can we afford to let our elites gamble our future on one or two throws of the dice? How many times can we afford to throw the dice?

Nokia, Microsoft, Google … all recent corporate meteorites arose out of individual passion and corporate ingenuity. None of them arose out of government leadership. Amidst the chaos of today’s rapid technological change, perhaps the talents and passions of multitudes of individuals would triumph over the elitism shining out from ivory towers.

Educating a country

April 28, 2007

MM Lee said that it is because he switched our education to English that we are connected to the world today and that he did it by offering the people choices and letting the market decide who got better jobs. I find this interpretation of events inaccurate.

Hong Kong is just as well connected to the world as we are even though it relegated English to a second language. There could be two reasons why MM chose to marginalise Chinese:

1. The masses were largely Chinese educated and loyal to Chinese leadership. To gain control of the population, he needed to eradicate Chinese and replace it with English, even assimilating Nanyang University into NUS.

2. He is himself an admirer and master of the English language. It is natural that he would want to mould his nation in English.

The main reason why English is our working language today is that we, like Hong Kong and India, were once British colonies. So it is really a stroke of luck that English became an integral part of us from which we have benefited immensely. But while Hong Kong connects with the West through English without losing hold of its indigenous cantonese dialect, we on the other hand have lost touch with our native mandarin. One might say that MM obliterated Chinese with the same ruthless efficiency as Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

He did it by nationalising all schools which in turn facilitated the implementation of a nationwide English syllabus which left people with no choice really. By controlling the entire economy, he controlled the entire market so in the end, what the market decided was what he decided.

Hand foot mouth disease

April 26, 2007

What happens when the government tries to push more women into the workforce? More kids have to be thrown into child care centres which in turn exacebates such problems of hand foot mouth disease. This is the kind of obscure social cost that the government should factor in when making policies instead of just seeing the obvious denominated in dollars and cents.

$20 million for school IT

April 26, 2007

Teachers are overworked trying to discipline students and setting and marking test papers all the time. What time or energy would they have left to devote to our students?

A centralised agency for setting test papers would significantly reduce duplication of efforts and reap tremendous scale economy. Instead of having 3,000 teachers set 3,000 sets of test papers every month or so, we can have just a handful of teachers setting the same test papers to be shared by 3,000 teachers.

If all schools use the same syllabus, then their test papers shouldn’t be too different from one another and should thus be amenable to becoming combined.

Marking of test papers can also be automated. Instead of getting all 3,000 teachers mark papers, we can transfer some of the marking to computers. Every school should have a computerised examination room. Students take tests over webpages and key in their answers into the computer system. At the end of the test, scores of every student can be totaled in an instant. Statistics with regards to the percentage of correct answers for each question can be viewed at a glance which allows the teacher to know instantly where the problem areas lie. She can then tailor her teaching / explanation accordingly.

The biggest headache teachers face is student discipline. Teachers are not allowed to discipline students these days, little wonder student discipline has plummeted. Students with discipline problems invariably come from low income, problematic families. Rather than teach, many teachers end up as counsellors not only for their students but also for their students’ parents. It can be very draining for the teachers which explains why many of them leave. Teachers are not social workers. They are not trained to deal with the social problems that the students bring into class.

For the good of everyone, it may be best that this group of students be grouped together to be taught separately by specialists such as retired officers and warrant officers. These officers are the best candidates to take charge of these delinquents.

Talent

April 26, 2007

MM Lee made the remark not too long ago that Mr Teo Chee Hian and his team are talented people because they had the wisdom to send staff well versed in Bahasa Indonesia and not Bahasa Melayu to Banda Aceh for our humanitarian efforts during the Aceh tsunamis crisis. To ordinary folks like us, this is just simple common sense that only the most idiot of fools wouldn’t know. What this illustrates is a gulf in perception between the elites and the rest of us. What is common sense to ordinary folks becomes extraordinary wisdom to the elites. It is perhaps this kind of perceptual difference that makes the elites believe they are a whole lot better than us and are therefore entitled to much more rewards.

MM Lee made similar statements recently. He said that the government is forward looking because it is now studying how to build walls around Singapore to prevent it from being submerged under sea when the polar ice caps melt due to global warming. I find this statement quite disagreeable for the following reasons:

1. Scientists have been warning us about global warming for three decades now. To respond three decades later when everyone else is also taking heed of the issue isn’t quite as forward looking as one would expect.

2. Forward looking means being able to see into the future what others cannot see. So what is so forward looking about acting on knowledge that everyone is already aware of?

3. If the government were truly forward looking, they might have forseen the last round of spike in oil prices and built underground storage tanks in anticipation. But they only decided to built the tanks after persistent worldwide price hikes. If they had been truly forward looking, they might have anticipated such innocuous issues as sand supply and not frantically react with plans on sustainable construction.

Talent drain

April 23, 2007

The entrepreneur pioneers of Hong Kong and Taiwan sent their children to study in the US and UK in the 1970s. Upon finishing their studies, many stayed behind to work in MNCs to gain international experience and exposure to modern business practices. When these children finally returned home, they helped modernise and internationalise their parents’ businesses giving rise to many of today’s large corporations in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

We should never take a shortsighted view of Singaporeans venturing abroad to explore new opportunities. It is because those opportunities are not available here that they have to be sought elsewhere. To clip their wings is to deny their growth potential. To view their departure as a loss would be to ignore the future benefits they can bring when they return with greater wealth of experience and exposure. They are the ambassadors that can help connect Singapore to other cosmopolitan cities.

But what about those who never return? Before we label them as quitters or ingrates, should we not ask ourselves what is it that these top 20 or 30 percent yearn for that they cannot find here? Does it mean that the bottom 80 or 70 percent are happy to stay behind or do they long just as much to escape from the clutches of our system?

We are already the capital of human talent for the Malay Peninsula. What makes Malaysian Chinese come to us? It is the fact that the Malaysian government does not treat its Chinese citizens as fairly as it treats its Malay citizens. What makes Singaporeans migrate to Australia or US? Is it because Singaporeans are not being treated fairly? Alternatively we can also say that Malaysian Chinese come to Singapore because Singapore does not deny them rights that they are denied in Malaysia. Similarly, we might say that Singaporeans go to Australia / US because Australia / US does not deny Singaporeans rights that we are denied here.

The greatest difference between Singapore and the other cosmopolitan cities is our stiffling lack of democracy. The main tenets of democracy are equal opportunities for all and the freedom to pursue ones’ own happiness. These are quite absent here because the economy and by extension the lives of Singaporeans are tightly controlled by the government. We do not have the freedom to own taxis but must instead slave for taxi companies that truly suck blood out of us. The elites are protected and given the best that Singapore has to offer while the non-elites are treated as economic digits to be milked dry. The price of public housing, goods and services, even salaries are largely determined by the government that ensures that the average citizen has little left over to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

If the government still doesn’t understand why people are dying to leave this place then perhaps what they need is to have a taste of the ordinary folk’s life.

Cosmopolitan

April 23, 2007

New York and London are the most cosmopolitan cities in the world for the simple reason that their spoken language is English. It explains why they are more cosmopolitan than say Frankfurt or Tokyo and also suggests that Singapore, as a nation of English speakers can be just as cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, the degree to which we can become cosmopolitan also depends on how attractive we are in terms of the opportunities we can provide which in turn depends on the strength of our economy. New York is the financial capital of the world’s largest economy so its attractiveness lies invariably with the strength of the US economy. The same can be said of Zurich and Tokyo which are the financial capitals of Europe and Japan respectively.

We must learn to recognise Singapore as a little red dot. The opportunities we can provide can never come close to what America can provide which severely limits our ability to match the cosmopolitan status of New York. We can follow the example of Switzerland by becoming the financial capital of Southeast Asia but it is unlikely that Southeast Asia can achieve the economic strength of US, Europe or Japan anytime soon. It is also unlikely for Singapore to become the financial centre of China for that title obviously belongs to Shanghai. So what we are chasing really is a fruitless dream. Cosmopolitan cities are borne from within an entire continent of prosperity. We are too far away from these continents to be their de facto capital for talent congregation.

Since US or UK are invariably the first choice destinations for international talents, it follows that what Singapore receives are more often than not second choice talents. How much would second choice talents add to our success?

We have attracted a fair number of outstanding scientists to settle here and do research which can only be good for Singapore. The problem with outsourcing technological research to foreigners is to place our future into the hands of highly mobile individuals who may not sink root. To hope that they sink root is to gamble on our future. What we need is our own pool of researchers to strengthen our technological capabilities rather than depend on foreigner scientists who come and go easily. The economic race for us now and in the future would be heavily technological. It may be good to supplement our talent pool with foreign talent to enrich our existing pool but it would be suicidal to be over reliant on foreign talent for our strategic future.

Getting more women to work

April 21, 2007

The government is finding ways and means to increase the workforce. First they thought of increasing the population by 2 million without considering the costs involved. Now they also want more of our women to join the workforce.

There is no doubt increased women participation would increase our GDP or even GDP per capita. But it comes at a much higher social cost that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

I spoke to a taxi driver once. His youngest kid is getting into all sorts of problems in school and it saddens him. Many years ago when he still made a decent living, he could afford to let his wife stay at home to look after the kids. As a result, the kids were well behaved and well taken care of. He no longer earns enough given the hefty taxi hiring fees he has to pay so his wife has had to work in a factory to help make ends meet. With no adult at home to guide them, the kids started to go astray.

I don’t understand why our government is always short sighted in the way they see things. A proper upbringing and a mother’s care is worth so much more than the few hundred dollars they can make at work. The social consequences of not having a good upbringing would be wasted, under-educated lives that would in years to come add to our list of unemployables.

If we really need to increase women participation in the work force, consideration should be made to allow them to work from homes. For example, telephone operators need not travel to a call centre to answer calls. We’re so connected these days I don’t see why she can’t connect to the call centre from home. A lady software developer can always do her coding at home so that she could at least provide her children the comfort of a mother’s presence. Work should ultimately be judged by her output and not how much time she spent in office.

Minister’s millions

April 21, 2007

At the end of the day, it is the prosperity of us ordinary Singaporeans that should be the basis of judgement for ministerial performance. We have had to suffer cuts in CPF to help the nation tide through bad times and now we are required to contribute more in terms of GST. There hasn’t been any significant improvement to our lives to justify the significant pay increases for our ministers.

Some people will say that benchmarking against the lowest is wrong. But it is not any more wrong than benchmarking against the highest. One extreme is wrong doesn’t imply that the other extreme is correct.

The government’s main selling point is that if our highly mobile elites were to leave, our leadership would be badly shaken and we would all suffer as a consequence. The question we need to ask is why should our economy depend on just a few individuals to begin with?

To insist that the government control our entire economy is to place our future into the hands of a few elites, which may not be the wisest thing for us. It may have worked well in the past when things were a lot simpler. But with globalisation and increased technological leaps, it gets harder and harder for any individual or an elite for that matter to strike lottery. For if the elite were to fail, it would have dire consequences for us all. We need not look very far back to see how our infallible elites failed to pre-empt the mass exodus of electronics manufacturing to China to tell us just how fallible they can be and how much we suffered as a consequence.

Over reliance on the government is no good and it may be much better for economic decisions to spread throughout the population. Two heads are better than one and three non-elites beat one elite any time. So rather than pay a premium to keep those elites, let these elites dissipate throughout the economy which can only strengthen, not weaken our economy.

We only have to look at Hong Kong to see how a vibrant and entrepreneurial economy can prosper in the absence of a over-directive and highly monopolising government. In our quest to become more vibrant and entrepreneurial, perhaps all we need is for our government to fade into the background so that free market entreprise can come alive.

In the past, elites were elites for the simple reason that most of us ordinary folks were either illiterate or could not read English. But education standards of ordinary folks have improved substantially and we now have more straight As students coming from neighbourhood schools. This closing of the education gap makes it a lot more unacceptable to continue to maintain that elite / non-elite differentiation.

The government’s argument that a welfare state will weaken our nation is not put in the right context. The amount of welfare our people receives is so much less compared to what people in US and Germany receive. How can a few hundred dollars cripple a nation more than a few million dollars?

Better a finite quantum than fake selflessness

April 4, 2007

I refer to Dr Yik Keng Yeong’s reply “Better a finite quantum than fake selflessness” (ST, April 4).

I agree with Dr Yik’s quote, that an able general is worth more than 10,000 foot soldiers. But no matter how good a general is, he is worth nothing if he cannot defeat his opponent general. So how well we have weathered global storms is best seen in relation to how well other countries like Taiwan have coped.

We are often told that it is a miracle that Singapore exists, let alone prospers, given it has no natural resources of its own. But we do have one important natural resource – our location, which is the reason for our founding and the origin of our wealth. So it was not by accident that Singapore came into being for it was a gem waiting to be discovered.

Countries like Denmark and Finland have government ratings and economic performances on par or better than ours. Are we not paying a premium when compared to them? If we cannot have politicians serving selflessly, can we at least not have politicians serving out of greed?

In retrospect, the 80s and 90s were the easy days when we successfully rode on one formula – electronics. It was only after the mass exodus of electronics firms to China that the alarm bell started to sound followed by a frantic scramble to find a replacement. This is one of those incidences where we could only react instead of anticipate, where we didn’t see very much ahead of us which is what separates a general from his soldier.

Yes, we have weathered one storm after another, but our recovery from regional or global storms are due in no small part to the recovery of the whole region or globe.

I think the government can do more to improve the livelihood of the people. For a beginning, it can waive HDB rental fees for the old folks under public assistance.