Archive for November, 2009

Singapore style democracy

November 30, 2009

Dear Mr Shanmugam,

I refer to your speech at the New York state bar association dialogue as reported by the Straits Times on 30th Oct 2009.

In your speech, you referred to American economist Bryan Caplan’s arguments that as a political entity, Singapore should be seen as a city and as far as cities go, America has its share of cities where one party has dominated over long periods of time, which in turn suggests that party dominance doesn’t imply the lack of democracy.

Another example would be Microsoft’s dominance of global computer operating systems. People can choose not to use Microsoft, but they use Microsoft nonetheless. Yet, some of Microsoft’s practices have resulted in anti-trust proceedings by the US Department of Justice as well as the European Commission with the latter succeeding in getting Microsoft to unbundle both Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer from Windows sold in Europe because the practice is deemed anti-competitive and unfair.

Hence, it is not dominance per say but unfair dominance that we should be concerned with. Does the mayor of Chicago go around telling its constituents that unless they vote for the Democrats, they will not get to enjoy nation wide housing retrofitting benefits? Does the mayor of Chicago lump six districts into one mega-district to be voted as one? Are all newspapers distributed in Chicago owned by just one company the shares of which belong largely to state linked companies? You will not find these unfair practices in Chicago, San Francisco or New York. You can only find them in Singapore. Only the issue of tying voting to HDB flat upgrading has been addressed barely months ago. Hence, Bryan Caplan’s assertion that pressure from the dominant party hardly matters is untrue.

While international observers have rated our government as one of the least corrupt, it should not escape their eyes that instead of taking money from under the table, they have resorted to taking money from above the table. No other government in the world takes more money from above the table than our government.

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Fundamentals to S’pore’s progress

November 15, 2009

Dear Mr Shanmugam,

I refer to your speech at the New York State Bar Association Seasonal Meeting as reported by the Straits Times on 29 Oct 2009.

You said that Singapore had a weak economy back in 1965 when our per capita GDP was US$500. ‘Weak’ as we were then, we nevertheless had the fourth highest per capita GDP in Asia after oil rich Brunei, Japan and Hong Kong.

Next, you said that foreign investment would come only if we had laws which men of commerce could trust. But men of commerce have invested in the oil fields of Russia and factories in China despite their less than ideal laws. Law or no law, as long as there is money to be made, men of commerce are willing to take risks. Furthermore, the need for good commercial laws doesn’t imply the need for laws that excessively constrain basic rights. Take Hong Kong for example. It’s commercial laws are as good as ours, yet it does not have laws that constrain basic rights like the right to demonstrate.

Next, you said that Singapore faced a severe communist threat in 1948 that threatened our existence. But the Malayan communist insurgency of 1948 never once reached the shores of Singapore but was always confined to remote towns and jungles in Malaya. The strikes and riots of the 1950s were essentially nationalistic rather than communist in nature. They arose from the hardships that the people faced in the aftermath of the war and the unfair treatment of the Chinese educated Chinese by the British. Sure, strike leaders like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan have been labelled as communists and locked away. But these were charges that have never been unequivocally proven even until today. What is clear however is that their struggles were anti-British and anti-colonial. What is also certain is that the strike participants were ordinary students and workers. They hardly qualify as communists, so the incidents hardly qualify as communist threats. Given that there wasn’t even an armed struggle to begin with, it would be ridiculous to say that the strikes terrorised the people and threatened Singapore’s existence.

Next, you said that there were racial tensions and riots due to ideological differences between our leaders and the leaders of the Malay Peninisular which eventually led to Singapore’s expulsion from Malaya. This shows that the root of the racial riots were political in nature and once the political antagonism between Lee Kuan Yew and Tungku Abdul Rahman were disentangled, the racial tensions went away.

Next you said that we are a little red dot surrounded by two countries with whom our relationships were tense. But we weren’t the only ones in this situation. South Korea didn’t just have a tense relationship with North Korea, it actually went to war with the latter and lost many lives. Yet the South Koreans are some of the fiercest demonstrators today. Likewise, Taiwan had to face the People’s Liberation Army juggernaut. Yet Taiwan today is a much freer, more democratic country than ours. So the phrase ‘little red dot’ is no excuse for us to be authoritarian.

Next, you analogised our situation with a hypothetical situation of the US being shrunk into the size of Connecticut and sandwiched between Russia and China. This analogy is not appropriate because the US shrunk to the size of Connecticut will not have the firepower to counteract Russia or China. On the other hand, shrunk as we are, Singapore has the firepower to counteract either Malaysia or Indonesia. This should not be surprising given that Israel is able to hold its own despite being surrounded by numerous and much larger adversaries.

So while stability is not a luxury we take for granted, it is also not an excuse upon which authoritarianism can be justified.

Next, you said that speed of response is important to us. But speed of response is also important to Hong Kong. Yet Hong Kong is not authoritarian like us.

Next, you said that chewing gum is not illegal. But you neglected to mention that the sale of chewing gum is illegal. What material difference does it make whether you ban chewing gum or you ban the sale of chewing gum?

Next you compared Singapore with the US to show that we have lower crime rate achieved with a smaller police force. Why don’t you compare us with Hong Kong, which depending on the year of comparison, has lower crime rates? Yet Hong Kong is not authoritarian like us.

CJ on judicial independence and judicial review

November 13, 2009

Dear Mr Chief Justice,

I refer to your speech at the New York State Bar Association Seasonal Meeting as reported by the Straits Times under the following titles:

– CJ on judicial independence and judicial review – 28th Oct 2009
– Raffles, MM Lee and the rule of law – 28th Oct 2009
– Bridging the gulf between ideal principle and practice – 29th Oct 2009

In your speech, you said that Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s precepts and values are reflected in all laws found in the Singapore statute. Since they are Mr Lee’s precepts and values, they are not necessarily the precepts and values of the people. Therefore, it may not be entirely right to say that our laws reflect the political, social and cultural values of the people. Take for example our tough defamation laws. What basis do you have to say that people want tough defamation laws? Is Ah Kow the char kuay tiao seller very concerned about being defamed? More likely than not, it is politicians who are more concerned with being defamed. So it may be more appropriate to say that tough defamation laws reflect the values of politicans rather than the values of our people.

You also said that the judge’s pay and tenure are protected and a Supreme Court judge can only be removed by no less than five of your peers. But does that mean that the judge is therefore completely and absolutely unaffected by executive interference? Are money and position the only things that can influence a person’s judgement? What about good old friendship? Let’s say I am a judge presiding over a case involving my good friend Ali. Unless I profess to be a robot completely devoid of human feelings, how can I be absolutely sure that when it boils down to matters involving subjective judgement, I will not lean towards Ali not matter how slight that leaning might be?

Finally, you say that contempt power is necessary to punish allegations that could undermine the court’s authority or public confidence in the impartiality of the court. But on what basis do judges judge public confidence? You said that the judge interprets the law. That is fine. But how does the judge judge public confidence? Without a reasonably good survey, how does the judge know what the public is thinking or is confident about?

Shanmugam: Our approach to the law has worked

November 9, 2009

I refer to the report dated 29 Oct 2009.

Mr Shanmugam starts by saying that women and children feel safe to travel any time, anywhere in Singapore which he then attributes to our strict laws and law enforcement. However, there are many first world cities and countries like Hong Kong and Japan where women too can walk safely at night. Yet these places do not have laws as strict as ours. These places show that it is not necessarily strict laws that explain why our country is so safe.

Mr Shanmugam’s statement that 90% of our population owns homes may not necessarily be true either. Of the more than 900,000 HDB homes in existence, more than 400,000 have yet to repay their loans. For these 400,000 homes, the title deed is kept by the HDB so technically, the HDB owns these homes. So the real home ownership rate in Singapore is probably closer to 50%.

The speech given by Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong has also served to confuse participants like Mr Jeffrey Tanenbaum who concedes, based on his observation of the commercial realm, that the law here merely reflects our culture rather than executive interference. But why would the executive interfere with commercial affairs when it is highly dependent on multinationals for our continued economic prosperity? Executive interference only makes sense in the political realm where the battering of political opponents and the control of the media can only bring good and nothing but the good for the executive. So making reference to the wrong field has led Mr Tanenbaum to make the wrong conclusions.

To continue with Mr Shanmugam’s metaphor, whether or not the pig wears the lip stick, it continues to rule over the animal farm.

If there is such a thing as the Singapore exceptionalism, it is no more exceptional than those of the other East Asian dragons of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. With the rapid rise of China, the whole of East Asia, will collectively be exceptional. So what is really so exceptional when each of the democracies of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea achieves as much as authoritarian Singapore?

So perhaps, the exceptionalism lies not with Singapore per say but with the fact that Singapore is East Asian.

Press can criticise, but Govt expects right of reply

November 8, 2009

I refer to the Straits Times report dated 28 Oct 2009.

Mr Shanmugam was reported to have said that Singapore’s low ranking in press freedom is both absurd and divorced from reality. Is Mr Shanmugam man enough to allow international organisations to conduct a referendum or a survey to verify just how true his allegation is?

He questions how people can be unempowered in a modern, open economy. China is a good example. It’s economy is not only open but one that is very rapidly modernising as well. Yet, the people of China remain firmly gripped by communism. So his question is really quite silly given the living example that clearly demonstrates that it is indeed possible.

Mr Shanmugam implies that it is not possible for a modern, successful, wired and internationally connected city like Singapore to be a repressive state where people’s thoughts are controlled. But thought control happens even in modern and prosperous Japan. Since the end of World War 2, generations of Japanese have been brought up to believe that the Nanking massacre never happened and that the Japanese were the victims rather than the aggressors of the war. So too in Singapore, students have been receiving an education slanted towards the vitures of the government. This mind setting process throughout their formative years hardens quite often into stone for the rest of their lives.

Furthermore, many old folks in Singapore are either uneducated or cannot read English. They are not connected to the Internet but are dependent instead on Chinese or malay or Indian news supplied by virtually state owned newspapers. So despite Singapore being wired internationally, there is a significant proportion of us who aren’t.

Mr Shanmugam states that the government demands the right of reply but that right of reply is not extended to the people. So in that sense, it is true that the media favours the government but not the man on the street.

Mr Shanmugan also says that critics of government policies should avoid personal attacks or that which is untrue. But it was precisely on the 11th Oct 2009 that Minister Mah Bow Tan personally attacked some Singaporeans over application claims. Furthermore, the allegations made by Minister Mah weren’t entirely true either. Is this how things work in Singapore? The govt has the right to make personal attacks and to say things which may only be half true while the people are refrained from doing so?

Mr Shanmugan brushes off Singapore’s low ranking by Reporters Without Borders by implying that since Singapore’s social order is much better than those of Guinea, Kenya, Congo or Venezuela, Singapore’s press freedom must necessarily be better. That is not necessarily true. The law and order in China is much better than Guinea, Kenya, Congo or Venezuela. Yet we all know that China is a communist state that imposes strict controls on the press and what it publishes. So Mr Shanmugam’s argument is simply nonsense. You can have very strict press controls with reasonably good law and order. In this case, the same agent that is enforcing strict law and order is also the one enforcing strict press controls.

So if Mr Shanmugam wishes to question the objectivity of the rankings, it needs to come up with more objective arguments than merely equating law and order with press control.

MM Lee, SM Goh continue to go all out for S’pore

November 1, 2009

I refer to the letter to Straits Times by Steve Tan dated 31 Oct 2009.

Mr Tan feels that the glowing tributes by American dignitaries place in context the vision and stewardship of MM Lee. But many of those tributes don’t even make sense. Mr Clinton said that MM helped millions of people across Southeast Asia to live better, more prosperous lives. Yet, much of Southeast Asia remains in poverty. Should we instead say that MM helped millions across Southeast Asia to stay in poverty?

Mr Bush said that MM has done so much for Singapore and desserves the recognition for making Singapore the thriving, prosperous nation it is today. But the fact remains that Singapore was already a thriving city under the British. MM merely inherited a Singapore that had been thriving for more than a century. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have similarly thrived and prospered without the stewardship of any one ‘legendary’ figure. This suggests that the prosperity that we experience today is not necessarily the work of any one individual but the result of something common amongst East Asians.

We should ask ourselves what this incessant pursuit of growth is for? Do we pursue growth for growth’s sake? Or do we pursue growth to become prosperous? But we are already prosperous. The developed economies have shown us that as we near the apex of prosperity, growth slows naturally. Like a child who improves by 10 marks every year, very soon, he’ll hit 100 marks.

When Sir Stamford Raffles brought in immigrants, Singapore was just a colony. Now that Singapore is a nation, can we continue to behave like we are a colony? When will we ever start behaving like a nation?

The recognition and honouring of our leader doesn’t automatically translate to the honouring of our country. Just like the honouring of Stalin or Hitler doesn’t automatically translate to the honouring of Russia or Germany.

Both MM and SM have shown us that at ages when many can no longer find gainful employment, they are privileged enough to continue to work for the millions they pocket every year.

You don’t need the harshest critics to see the meaninglessness of it all. I wish MM good riddance for the good of Singapore.

US ties, challenges for China, Singapore’s role

November 1, 2009

I refer to your report “US ties, challenges for China, Singapore’s role” dated 29 Oct 2009.

MM Lee was reported to have advised our neighbours not to assume that the Americans will be in Vietnam forever and to be prepared so as to avoid being overrun by the communists. But the Americans have maintained their presence in Southeast Asia throughout the cold war with military bases in the Philippines. After the cold war, a logistics unit was relocated to Singapore. So there is no denying that US forces have always been present and contributed to peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

MM Lee was also reported to have said that Singapore is like a catalyst and a model to China, who followed the Singapore path of inviting all multinationals instead of the South Korean path of building its own champions. First, it is wrong to think of ‘inviting multinationals’ as a distinctively Singaporean model as South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong have their fair share of investments from multinationals, especially from the US. In fact, Dr Goh Keng Swee once said that perhaps the start of China‚Äôs Cultural Revolution in 1966 and its peak in 1968 scared investors away from countries bordering China so they avoided South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong and came to Singapore instead. So it’s hard to say whose model China is following especially when there are so many Taiwanese and Hong Kong entrepreneurs in China.

Furthermore, China’s approach is similar to South Korea’s and Taiwan’s because in addition to inviting multinationals, it has also started to build its own brands. Cherry is one such brand which even MM cannot deny. This is where Singapore’s approach differs from those of China and the other East Asian dragons. In all these years, with the exception of the SIA, the state has never been able to nuture a home grown winner like those from our East Asian counterparts.

A trigger for Asian miracle

November 1, 2009

Dear Mr President,

I refer to your recent compliment to our Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. You said Mr Lee ‘helped to trigger the Asian economic miracle.’ But just how momentous or crucial has this ‘trigger’ been?

The ‘Asian economic miracle’ began with the miracles of the four East Asian dragons of Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. Since all started industrialisation around the same time, how do we know if it was Mr Lee’s Singapore that helped ‘trigger the Asian miracle’ and not Hong Kong, Taiwan or Korea instead?

We now know that the success of the Asian miracle rests with export oriented industrialisation. Countries that embarked on import substitution industrialisation failed to prosper. Yet, when Mr Lee first took over the reins of government in 1959, it was precisely the route of import substitution that he took. It was only in 1965 when Singapore was separated from its Malaysian hinterland that import substitution became untenable, forcing Singapore to embark on export oriented industrialisation instead. So if there had been a ‘trigger’ for the ‘Singapore miracle’, it must have been lady luck.

Moreover, Singapore’s plans for industrialisation came largely from one man – the Dutch economist Dr Albert Winsemius who was also instrumental in bringing the first multinationals like Shell and Philips onto the shores of Singapore. So if we have to name one person who ‘helped trigger the Singapore miracle’, it would have been Dr Winsemius rather than Mr Lee.

Finally, if all it takes is just a ‘trigger’, why aren’t we seeing more ‘miracles’ all around the world? The Singapore story is no secret but an open recipe for all to see and to emulate. Yet even within Asia itself we see so many countries languishing in poverty. Does it make sense to say that Mr Lee ‘triggered’ China more and the Phillippines less? It doesn’t make sense. So clearly, it takes more than just ‘triggers’ for ‘miracles’ to happen. Thus it makes little sense to attribute the ‘Asian miracle’ to any one ‘trigger’.

Thank you