Archive for February, 2010

Challenge of communication

February 27, 2010

Dear Mr Shanmugam,

I refer to your commentary in the Petir as published by Straits Times on 9 Jan 2010.

You said the PAP has become one of the most successful political parties in history. History will show us that the PAP success has been achieved with less than scrupulous methods. Until recently, priority for lift upgrading has been tied to voting results. Lift upgrading thus became the ‘money’ used to buy votes. As many as six constituencies are lumped together as one, effectively raising the hurdle for other parties which goes against commonly understood anti-trust laws. All paid newspapers are owned by one company the shares of which belong largely to government linked companies and whose chairman is an important ex-minister. There is no sense that success came fair and square. There is no sense that such manipulated success deserves our respect let alone admiration.

You said the PAP has kept the people’s trust by continuously delivering amongst other things economic well being. That in essence is the reason for the continued success of the PAP. Through monopoly of the press, the PAP is able to perpetuate the myth that it and it alone is the reason for the country’s continued prosperity. No effective alternative media exists that can effectively reach out to the people to enlighten them of the fallacity of such PAP rhetoric. Even if all the ministers were to suddenly die tomorrow, the country will continue to function well because of the strong civil service we inherited from the British.

The supposed thorough self-renewal process doesn’t weed out the old patriarch who continues to perch high up in the ranks of the PAP. The supposed talent that is brought in is not worth the $1.5 million he is paid.

That the PAP should fear the loss of political dominance becomes clear when slowly but surely, people come to realise the truth.

You claimed that there is a deep belief that Singapore’s existence is always at risk which necessitates strong leadership and political structures for speedy decision making. But that is mere fallacy which falls flat in the face of the example of Israel where the government comprises not of one strong party but a coalition of parties even though the threat to Israel’s existence is much greater than ours. The example of Israel shows us that it is not true that only one party, let alone the PAP, can deliver good governance.

It was also wrong of you to conclude on behalf of the newer generations that the PAP message resonated strongly with the pre-1970 electorate since the opposition then was practically wiped out leaving the electorate with little or no alternative to choose from. This has to be taught to newer generations since, as you have said, their collective memory of what really happened is not strong.

You said that Singapore’s model of democracy has delivered rapid progress. If you teach that to newer generations, you would have merely taught them an opinion, not a truth. The truth in all likelihood is that Singapore achieved rapid progress despite our model of ‘democracy’.

You first asked if it is possible to change the model without trade offs, seemingly giving newer generations a chance to think about this issue for themselves. Then you show off your true colours of simply wanting to tell the newer generations what you want them to believe: that there will be trades offs that Singaporeans are entitled to choose between, which contradicts the real life examples of Taiwan and Korea. You want to tell the newer generations that there will be slower development and lower quality of life leading to social tensions. But Taiwan and Korea have shown us that democracy is not associated with slower development, neither does it lead to lower quality of life.

You said Singaporeans may forget how vulnerable we are given Singapore’s success in dealing with its vulnerabilities. At the same time, it is also easy to over state our vulnerabilities to justify anything and everything that might otherwise be unjustifiable.

You said it is fundamental for Singaporeans to understand the costs and benefits of different political systems. But it is even more vital for Singaporeans to understand that those costs and the benefits are not necessarily attributable to the political system. We may end up attributing more benefits and less costs to our political system than is true.

Your suggestion to contrast our experiences with other post-colonial independent states automatically leaves out Hong Kong which has always been the closest example of what Singapore would have become without the PAP.

All that you are proposing to be taught to students can easily be couched in one narrow perspective that distorts the true picture. As the political party in power, the PAP is in the best position to do just that.

What if Tunku had formed an alliance?

February 27, 2010

Dear editor,

I refer to the letter by Mr Kalidas dated 24 Feb 2010.

Mr Kalidas believes that the incumbency of the PAP and the brilliance of its leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, would have seen victory for the PAP in the election of 1963 even if 100 left wing leaders had not been detained under the Internal Security Act. Conversely, if Lee Kuan Yew and 99 of his top deputies had been detained instead, what would have been left of the PAP? The PAP would simply have evaporated. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the devastation to Barisan Sosialis caused by the arrest of 100 of its top leaders.

The victory in the 1962 Referendum on Merger was a hollow victory for PAP because it left people with no choice but to vote for merger. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t even have the confidence to allow for blank votes by dictating that blank votes would automatically count as votes for Option A.

There is no truth to Mr Kalidas’ assertion that the leftists weren’t against Malaysia since the Barisan Sosialis had clearly asked the people to cast blank votes.

Mr Kalidas hypothesised the scenario where the Tunku collaborated with the Barisan Sosialis to win power in Singapore leading to Singapore remaining in Malaysia till this day. In the first place, the Barisan Sosialis was against merger with Malaya so it is unlikely they would have collaborated with the Tunku. The chance of Lee Kuan Yew collaborating with the Tunku is more probable given Lee’s push for merger.

New measures won’t help market bloom

February 27, 2010

Dear editor,

I refer to the letter by Mr Jayaraman dated 23 Feb 2010.

He described the current market as being in a state of depression since 1997 as though 1997 represents the year of normalcy we should benchmark ourselves against. But 1997 is no ordinary year. It is the year when over-exuberance boiled over and led to the bursting of the property bubble. It is a dangerous level we should take extra caution not to go near without a correspondingly strong economic fundamental. With this perspective in mind, the years following 1997 were not years of depression but years when property prices reverted to normalcy. Of late, property prices have started to threaten to roar out of control again.

While some mass market condos bought in 1997 still cannot break even today, the solution is not to push the prices of all property units to the level of 1997. That would be akin to asking everyone to pay $50 for a bowl of noodles just because one person happened to be suckered into paying $50 for his bowl of noodles.

The fact that prices of new condos are higher than older ones reflects the natural preference of consumers for the new over the old.

While speculation may not be unduly high now, the severe imbalance between supply and demand means that any small amount of speculation is ill tolerated.

Contrary to what Mr Jayaraman is insinuating, prices have shot up unreasonably high in a year of economic recession and contraction, not healthy, growing economy.

Buyers don’t begrudge paying more for better locations and better views. But the sharp, unrelenting climb in property prices over the last three years is more than any ordinary citizen can tolerate.

…AND OUR APPROACH

February 27, 2010

Dear Mr Tharman,

I refer to your budget speech as reported by Straits Times on 23 Feb 2010.

You said that median income grew by 20% from 2005 to 2008. But during the same period, the price of private housing and HDB flats shot up by 50% and 30% respectively. So those who decided to start a family at the end of 2008 would have found that their salaries did not keep up with increases in housing prices. They became worse off than before.

So clearly, there is a cost to the government’s approach which had ended up being borne by the people. This is certainly not a “no-cost” strategy. To the extent that the government has gone for growth as much as conditions allowed it to with no due regard to the costs involved, the strategy is “grow at all costs”.

Tailoring political systems to fit

February 22, 2010

Dear Mr Shanmugam,

I refer to your Harvard Club address as reported by Straits Times on 12 Dec 2009.

You defined good governance as the delivery of benefits such as the rule of law, economic well being, security, health care and housing. But laissez faire Hong Kong has shown us that economic well being need not come from good governance but can come from the quality and hard work of the people. The solid foundations of our rule of law were laid down by the British while our health care and housing come from the civil service which was also established by the British. Even our security is provided for by our own people. Thus, as far as Singapore is concerned, all the ingredients for the delivery of those benefits were already in place before ‘good governance’ came about. So good governance is not the reason why we enjoy those benefits. As such, our goal should not be good governance per say but the avoidance of bad governance. Because good governance cannot raise the destiny of the people beyond what it is capable of while bad governance can undo the good work of the people.

If avoidance of bad governance is the goal, then a system that prevents the entrenchment of governments will be the superior system because it allows bad governance to be dislodged. Likewise, a system that entrenches the government is inferior because it allows bad governance to perpetuate itself. Singapore is already showing signs of bad governance so we need a system to help us purge bad governance.

You asked if we can assume that the US political system will automatically deliver good governance in all other societies. You should also ask if we can assume that the US political system will automatically fail to deliver good governance for Singapore. Since we have never tried the US political system, how can we be sure that it will not deliver good governance for us?

You quoted Alexander Hamilton as having said that the political system has to be tailored as closely to the country as a coat to a man. If Alexander Hamilton were still alive today, he will realise that the underwear that we wear today come in standard shapes and sizes that are mass produced from the same factories for mass consumption all over the world. Coca Cola, McDonalds, iPhone and Google are largely the same throughout the world with little tailoring or customisation.

You argue that the debate ought to be how to tailor political systems to suit a specific country and not whether the system approximates the American or British models. With that, the issue becomes one of finding the right system that will throw out the right governance. But does a right governance exist for every country that will deliver prosperity? Many third world countries have had one government change after another without any significant change to their destinies. No example exists to show that the right governance was uncovered that fundamentally transformed the fate of a nation. Hence, any attempt to search for the right system to throw out the right governance will, in all likelihood, be an exercise in futility. For no system can uncover a governance better than the people from which it is chosen from. Good governance is at best, the best of its people but it can never be significantly better than the people from which it is chosen from. To think otherwise would be to believe that only a tiny segment of the country are geniuses while the bulk of the rest of the population are down right idiots. If the bulk of the population are down right idiots, or treated like idiots, there is no way that country can rise above other countries.

You say Singapore has to be interventionist and activist compared to larger, more secure countries. Taiwan is not much larger and never more secure than us but became less interventionist and less activist over the years nonetheless. Similarly, less secure Korea and small Hong Kong also became less interventionist and less activist over the years. Examples abound to contradict your assertion.

You say size, geography and strategic situation have imposed limits on Singapore. On the contrary, our small size has been a God send for us because we do not have a large agrarian sector to pull down our overall economic achievement. Our strategic geographic location between the East and the West has been an important source of wealth for us since the time of our founding. The need for a government that can formulate policies for the long term is not critical since we have been able to stumble from one mistake to another.

You don’t believe laissez-faire will deliver the most optimal results for us. But a laissez-faire Singapore would simply be another Hong Kong that will be just as optimal if not more.

You said the laissez-faire approach could work if there is no need for survival or economic success and you asked if the theory would hold for a small city state like ours which has to react quickly to externalities and to mobilise the population for action. But the need for survival is no less critical for the state of Israel, Taiwan and Korea which are also economically successful in their own right. Yet, we find coalition governments in Israel and bipartisan politics in Taiwan. Clearly, survival is no excuse for the monopoly of government nor does it justify government activism in all realms of life.

You said Hong Kong is not a real comparison because Hong Kong can depend on China. But what exactly does Hong Kong depend on China? Hong Kong’s rule of law, like ours, originated from the British, not from China. Hong Kong’s economic well being is a result of the entrepreneurship and industry of the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong does not depend on China for health care or housing. So with the exception of security, Hong Kong does not depend on China for any of the benefits you claim that good governance delivers. Hence, if there is any excuse for activism, it would be confined solely to the realm of defence and defence related industries. In other words, there is still no reason for government activism in the commercial realms of banking, telecommunications, shipping, logistics, port activities, shopping centres, newspapers, tv broadcast or even supermarkets and cab companies. There is no reason for “stop at two”, “go electronics”, “go biomedical”, “diversify the economy”, “grow at all costs”, “raise productivity” since they have nothing whatsover to do with defence.

Foreign Talent

You said we have succeeded because we have been liberal to talent inflow. But there is no proof to suggest that we would not have succeeded just the same had we been less liberal to talent inflow.

You cited the example of a blue chip foreign bank employing 1,000 foreigners and in turn employing 5,000 Singaporeans to illustrate the importance of the need to be liberal with foreign talent. But what about our own government linked companies? We just signed a new foreigner CEO to head the Singapore Exchange with a lucrative salary. We have a foreigner CEO heading DBS. Are Singaporeans so lousy that we cannot even head our own companies?

You cite the example of the US where 60% of engineering PhD students and 40% of master’s students are foreign nationals. But the founders of Microsoft and Apple are Americans, not foreigners in America. Even the Google founder Surgey Brin came to the US as a child not as a PhD or masters student. Furthermore, many European countries do not have such high percentages of foreign talent but continue to enjoy good prosperity and technological advancement. Therefore, we cannot simply look at the high percentages of foreign students doing research in the US and conclude that that is the reason behind their phenomenal success.

You said we do not have resources so we must depend on investments instead. But Finland, Sweden and Switzerland do not have much resources either. Yet they do not depend on investments as much as we do. We cannot be forever asking for investments like we are forever asking for fish. We should instead learn to fish for ourselves by growing our own brands and our own mutinationals.

PRs, foreigners form 12% of HDB dwellers

February 22, 2010

Dear Dr Foo,

On 19 Feb 2010, Straits Times reported you saying that PRs and foreigners are not likely to have caused significant increases in flat prices because they make up only 12% of HDB residents. Firstly, the fact that PRs and foreigners make up 12% of HDB residents doesn’t mean they occupy 12% of HDB flats. They could occupy more or less flats depending on average family size.

Secondly, it is the flats that are sold that determine resale prices rather than the flats unsold. Suppose there are 100 flats of which 12 belong to non-Singaporeans. Of these 100 flats, 5 flats are sold. Would the resale price be determined by the 5 flats sold or the 12 flats belonging to non-Singaporeans? The resale price will be determined by the 5 flats sold, not the 12 flats belonging to non-Singaporeans unless they are part of the 5 that are sold. Hence the fact that PRs and foreigners make up only 12% of HDB residents is immaterial to the pricing of flats.

Lastly, we cannot conclude the effects of PRs and foreigners just by looking at the HDB resale market alone because the resale market is also affected by the buying or renting activities of PRs and foreigners in the private property market. When PRs or foreigners take up private dwelling units, either by renting them or buying them, less becomes available for Singaporeans who would in turn be forced into the HDB resale market that would in turn lead to higher resale prices.

Immigrants a solution to ageing population: MM

February 22, 2010

Dear Mr Lee,

I refer to your comments made at the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore’s 40th anniversary celebrations as reported by Straits Times on 11 Dec 2009.

You said old people don’t change cars, television sets or golf clubs every year. Neither do younger people. In fact, changing cars and consumer goods every year is not only wasteful but detrimental to the environment. If we were to take your argument to the extreme and change cars every day, we will end up bankrupting ourselves and all our productive funds will end up in the junk yard in the form of junk cars. We need meaningful consumption, not mindlessly increasing consumption.

You said exports depend on the domestic market having first tried out the product. But Japan has 127 million people, more than enough to test products. Finland has a population of 5 million only. Yet they delivered Nokia.

You said by 2050, there will be an expected 1.2 Japanese workers for every old folk, down from the current 3.7 and you said that is a terrible problem. But that is not a terrible problem, its a necessary outcome. If there are more young than old, then the population will keep growing and growing in a finite space that is already very over crowded. At some point, the population must stabilise in order not to over stress the land. Population stablity requires that the ratio between the young and the old must be closer to one.

Furthermore, the Japanese saves a lot. If every Japanese saves enough for his or her own retirement, he or she will not be a burden to future generations. So the key is that no matter how many people we have, as long as everyone is meaningfully engaged in earning a decent income throughout his or her productive years, no one has to be a burden to anyone else.

You can’t just count the permanent residents and new citizens and pretend that the rest of the foreigners don’t exist. They compete for space in trains and housing units just the same.

You said if we removed 1.2 million foreigners, all restaurants, theatres, everything will be one third empty. Conversely, if we added 1.2 million foreigners, will our restaurants be one third over filled? Certainly not. Instead, we’d end up with one third more restaurants than before. Similarly if we were to remove 1.2 million foreigners, we will have one third less restaurants, not restaurants that are one third empty. There is nothing wrong with having one third less restaurants when we have one third less people. If you have one third less people in your house would you need the same number of chopsticks or computers as before?

My job is really as a long-range radar

February 22, 2010

Dear Mr Lee,

I refer to excerpts of your interview by Mark Jacobson of the National Geographic that Straits Times published on 6 Jan 2010.

Why casinos?

You said the British and the Swiss have casinos too. But Swiss casino was a collective decision made by the Swiss people whereas we didn’t have a say on casinos despite many of us being against it. Traditionally, gambling addiction afflicts the Chinese more than it does any other race. Casinos will hurt us more than it will hurt the British people.

Declining birth rates

You said declining birth rates happened all over Asia even though they did not have a “stop at two” policy. But that doesn’t change the fact that your “stop at two” policy was wrong and could well have exacebated the slow down in our population growth. The reasons you gave to explain declining birth rates are based on highsight, not foresight. So where was your foresight then?

You said we are a small nation, we can top up. But you have topped up so much that we are now bursting our seams. Again, where is the foresight and anticipation to this?

Is MM Lee still the face of Singapore?

You said you are really the long range radar looking out for opportunities and threats. If your radar had worked, you would have warned us of the impending collapse of the world banking industry in late 2008 so that we could have avoided losing billions of dollars in our state funds.

You said either we embraced F1 and all the glitz of our globalised world today or we risk going out of business and running out of food. But so many places like Taiwan and Hong Kong do not have F1 and are prospering still so there is no reason why Singapore should go hungry without F1. Similarly, from the time the casinos were mooted some years back to its opening last Sunday, Singapore has never gone hungry. So where is the truth to your reasoning? Or is it plain scaremongering?

How would you like to be remembered?

You said you never wanted to be a politician but was saddled with responsibility to get the place going. But you also said in 1965 that Singapore is already a modern city, implying that it has already arrived and so you have delivered your responsibilities. Yet you continued as prime minister for another 27 years till 1992 which belies your claim that you never wanted to be a politician.

Does Singapore need somebody like Mr Lee Kuan Yew to keep going?

You said New Zealand will still be green and pleasant 100 years from now because it is the last stop on the bus line. But Easter Island was green and pleasant but became barren even though it is the last stop in the middle of nowhere. The Anasazi ruins in Southwest US bears the same fate. So your analogy to make Singapore appear more vulnerable than it really is has no historical basis.

High public sector salaries

Barrack Obama is paid lower than any of your ministers. Yet his wife dresses modestly to the extent of being labelled sloppy sometimes. So your insinuation about ministers with lower salaries having wives with glittering jewels does not hold water.

You said British members of parliament charge personal expenses to tax payers. But those charges are but a fraction of what you and your ministers pay yourselves. Eight years of corruption by ex-Taiwan president Chen Shui Bian is still cheaper than the salaries of the PAP.

You said Singaporeans are champion grumblers, that’s because we have champion causes to grumble about. We’re not just short changed, we’re being robbed in broad daylight.

Singapore is a nation in the making

February 17, 2010

Dear Mr Lee,

I refer to excerpts of your interview by Mark Jacobson of the National Geographic that Straits Times published on 5 Jan 2010.

On World War II

You said that 50,000 ethinc Chinese in Singapore were slaughtered as punishment for Singapore’s role as the centre for collection of donations to fight the Japanese. It sounds as though the ethinc Chinese asked for it. But what about the thousands of POWs who died in captivity because they were poorly fed, tortured or worked to death? Or those who died in other places like the 100,000 civilians massacred in Manila? Or the countless women raped by the Japanese everywhere they went including Dutch women in Indonesia? Did they ask for it?

No one asked for it. The Japanese attrocites against unarmed civilians and POWs were unjustifiable regardless of whether the victims were defenders or contributors to the defence of their places of ancestry. There is no good enough reason for punishment by slaughter that is worth mentioning here.

Immigrants in Singapore

You say the recent migrants are determined to succeed and they are doing better. But in the first place, you said that only those who can contribute to Singapore will be selected to join us. In other words, the recent migrants are already a chosen lot, not the average crop, so it is only natural that on average, they do better than the average Singaporean. So it may not necessarily be the case of the settled ones becoming less driven or less striven.

Furthermore, if you look at great nations like the US or the European countries, there is no evidence that they work harder than us. Yet they produce more than us. Success in this modern era is no longer about sticking spurs on hinds. It is hard to imagine the source of inspiration for the Microsoft and Google founders coming from a moment of pain when something sharp was stuck onto their behinds.

Bilingualism and Chinese schools

You said we can’t make a living with the Chinese language in Singapore because we are forced to trade and to bring in multinationals who all speak English. But Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea traded a lot and received much investment despite continuing to use Chinese, Cantonese and Korean as their primary working languages respectively.

Your Chinese educated MPs were right when they said you were ruining the careers of the Chinese educated. This is something that will forever be associated with your name.

Is Singapore a nation?

You said Singapore is not a nation but a society in transition because it takes a few hundred years to build a nation. The People’s Republic of China and Germany came into being in 1949 and 1989 respectively. That makes them nations of 61 and 21 years respectively. But are they nations of 61 and 21 years respectively? The history of China stretches back thousands of years while that of Germany’s goes back to the time of the Holy Roman Empire and of Prussia and the Teutonic knights centuries ago. In both cases, the history of these nations are not confined to the history of their current political forms but go back to the time when their respective communities first came into being as distinct entities. In the same token, while Singapore achieved self-rule only in 1959, the history of Singapore stretches back to the time of its founding in 1819. That’s 191 years of contiguous history which is close to two hundred years already. Yet we are still not a nation?

You bring out the important issue of the enduring fault line between races that prevent us from integrating more closely as a nation. But race is an issue for any nation, even those with a few hundred years of history. European nations are beginning to grapple with Muslim issues. Racism continues to rear its ugly head every now and then in the US. But these issues do not negate their status as nations. Neither should they negate our status as a nation.

Why does Singapore have to be No. 1 in everything?

You said Singapore needs to strive to be No. 1 in order not to fall to No. 2 or No. 3. But no one can hope to be No. 1 in everything. The Jack of all trades is a master of none. Singapore needs to focus on a few core competences in order to have a fighting chance of becoming No. 1 in our chosen fields.

My legacy? I’ve never thought about it

February 17, 2010

Dear Mr Lee,

I refer to your comments at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum as reported by Straits Times on 20 Oct 2009.

You said that Mao Zedong liberated China while Deng Xiaoping built China by opening the country’s doors to the world. In a similar way, you helped liberate Singapore while Dr Goh Keng Swee quietly built up our economy with help from Dr Albert Winsemius.

You said Deng opened China’s doors in December 1978, a month after he visited Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok and that the three-day Singapore visit was a turning point for him which seem to suggest that Deng got to see the light only after witnessing the prosperity of Singapore. But Deng’s reforms were in fact a continuation of the work started by Zhou Enlai in 1975. Many of the reforms were in fact not launched by Deng himself but by local leaders and then introduced to the rest of the country when proven successful. Therefore, the building of China wasn’t entirely top down from Deng but involved many initiatives from bottom up too.

Deng didn’t just call for the Chinese provinces to learn from Singapore during his Southern tour in 1992, he also called for them to learn from South Korea. He asked them to catch up with the four dragons and to build several Hong Kongs along the coast. So it was evident that when it came to the economy, Deng didn’t just have Singapore in mind. He knew as everyone else did that success wasn’t a distinctly Singaporean phenomenon, it was an East Asian phenomenon. He was especially enamoured by Singapore, not for its economic success which wasn’t exceptionally better than the other three dragons but for the fact that Singapore remained a one party state which was exactly what he wanted for China.

The Suzhou Industrial Park came fifteen years after special economic zones like Shen Zhen and Xiamen which prospered with the help of businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively.

Hence, there is a lot more than just he (Deng) built China. After a decade of calamitous cultural revolution, the nation was ready to move on. Zhou Enlai started the reforms and Deng continued with them with key inputs from the ground. It was a national effort indeed.

But having said that, if Mao and his gang of four hadn’t been removed, it would have been difficult to imagine China taking the road to prosperity. This succintly demonstrates the danger and harm an autocrat poses to the nation. As long as there is no one person above all to wreak havoc on the country so that the people can have the peace and freedom to pursue their own individual success and happiness, the nation as a whole will rise to a level limited only by the people’s own capabilities.