Archive for March, 2010

Not perfect, but still a role model

March 28, 2010

Dear Mr Davenport,

I refer to your article which appeared on Straits Times, 27 Aug 2009.

You said Singapore rarely engages in self-congratulation, but our government does precisely that all the time in more ways than one such as publishing articles like the one you wrote.

You listed several reasons why Singapore is a great example for the United States:

  • Singapore is hardworking and disciplined. But Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, China and all of East Asia are hardworking and disciplined.
  • Singapore is obsessed with education. All of East Asia is obsessed with education.
  • Singapore is a highly capitalist society. Capitalism reigns supreme too in all of East Asia, even in communist China. For countries like Korea, Japan and Taiwan, strong government guidance in the early days of industrialisation have given way to a highly entrepreneurial private sector that is arguably more successful. Hong Kong has never had strong government guidance. Therefore, Singapore’s continued strong government guidance is just one of many ways to success and not the only way. It is not more worthy of emulation than private sector driven economic success.
  • Singapore is highly diverse, yet citizens of all races get along well. Even so, there is a significant Chinese majority which serves as the anchor to the nation’s stability. Religious disharmony is beginning to rear its ugly head with several headline grabbing news of conflicts between Christians and other religions.
  • Singapore invests heavily in infrastructure. All of East Asia invests heavily in infrastructure. Korea was able to unseat our Changi Airport for the best airport in recent years. With the exception of newly industrialising China, all of East Asia is generally as clean and as well maintained as Singapore. East Asia, particularly Korea, is as wired up as Singapore, if not more. East Asian cities have clean buses that come on time too.
  • Singapore’s economy is doing pretty well. All of East Asia is doing pretty well. With the exception of China, their economies were similarly affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2001 terrorist attack, the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2008 global financial crisis.
  • If these are what you consider to be Singaporean attributes worthy of emulation by the US and the rest of the world, then they are really nothing more than just the traits of East Asia.

    Tying the shoe down is just wrongfooting it

    March 28, 2010

    Dear Dr Khanna,

    I refer to the report of your interview by Straits Times senior writer Ms Cheong Suk Wai dated 8 Dec 2009.

    You said good governance, as demonstrated by China, Singapore and Malaysia, is a way to create a successful, balanced society with social stability and equity and that it works. Is China a balanced and equitable society? Is there any successful, balanced, stable and equitable society that does not have good governance? The answer has to be no if your purpose is to say that good governance is why a society becomes successful. So as long as we see a successful society, it must have good governance. That’s probably the easiest thing to say without necessarily saying anything. Why do some countries have good governance, why do other countries have bad governance? If good governance means successful countries, then the question of why countries have good governance goes back to the question of why do countries succeed? So we’re back to the same age old question and we haven’t really learnt anything have we?

    But before we ask ourselves why countries succeed, we need to distinguish various degrees of success because clearly, Singapore’s success is quite different from that of Malaysia’s. Malaysia experienced racial riots and churches being burnt recently and its per capita GDP has never been quite as near as Singapore’s over the last four decades or so. Since our achievements have been quite different, by your definition, the degree of good governance must have been quite different as well. But both Singapore and Malaysia were British colonies and inherited the same set of governing rules, systems and institutions. Yet, the outcome is so different. Perhaps our leaders have been very different? Perhaps Singapore has been blessed with the most talented leaders? If that is so, then rightfully, all societies that have achieved the same success as Singapore ought to have been blessed with the same gifted leaders. Now, only Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have achieved the same success as Singapore in terms of the economic growth over the last four decades. Yet, do we ever hear of gifted leaders that have steered Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea over the last four decades? No. What is the chance that out of hundreds of third world countries emerging from the ruins of the Second World War, only the four East Asian economies of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have been blessed with gifted leaders? If we say that gifted leaders are equally probable of appearing all around the world, what is the probability that all four would appear in East Asia? Close to zero. So ‘leaders’ isn’t the answer we are looking for either. To really find an answer to why societies succeed, we need to look at what is common between Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea and not give useless ideas like societies succeed because of good governance.

    IHT apology to S’pore leaders over article

    March 28, 2010

    Dear Mr Chief Justice,

    According to the Straits Times dated 25 Mar 2010, the International Herald Tribune has to apologise and to pay damages to MM Lee, SM Goh and PM Lee for the alleged libellous article “All In The Family” by Mr Philip Bowring. All that Mr Bowring did was to list those countries in Asia where leadership over the generations have come from the same family. What is so libellous about that? The fear that readers might infer nepotism from the article must be proven beyond reasonable doubt and the only way to do so is to conduct an unbiased survey of a large enough sample of readers of the IHT using a simple questionnaire like this:

    Dear reader of the International Herald Tribune

    1. Have you read the article “All In The Family” by Mr Philip Bowring?
    2. Do you know who PM Lee is?
    3. Do you believe that PM Lee achieved his position through nepotism?
    4. Is your belief based on the article stipulated in Q1?

    Only where a reader has answered “yes” to all the questions can he be deemed to have been misled by the IHT and unless a significant number of readers have answered “yes” to all the questions, the concerns of the plaintiffs and the charge of libel cannot be substantiated.

    Your authority is sought to make right whatever wrong that may have transpired in this episode.

    Don’t complain – find the candidates

    March 27, 2010

    Dear editor,

    I refer to Mr Anthony Oei’s letter dated 25 Mar 2010.

    Mr Oei asserts that the GRC poses no extra burden on the opposition in terms of candidates and resources since the total number of parliamentary seats remains the same whether they are contested individually or as GRCs. However, the GRC does pose a much steeper hurdle to the opposition which even MM Lee himself has admitted to. It is simply much more difficult to win a GRC than it is to win a single constituency. The GRC therefore represents a barrier to entry that entrenches the incumbent while preventing smaller parties from winning seats and gaining strength. Seen from this perspective, the GRC does pose a burden to the strengthening of the opposition to a level where they can field good candidates in all wards.

    Secondly, Mr Oei asserts that no matter what, at the end of the day, the choice still rests with the people and if the people are really so fed up with the PAP they can always vote it out. That is true provided the people aren’t so ignorant and have easy access to unbiased analyses and opinions of PAP policies. However, all paid newspapers in Singapore are owned by just one company the shares of which are largely owned by GLCs and whose past chairmen have always been important ex-ministers. So while the choice still rests with the people, the freedom of views and opinions upon which those choices are made is not.

    Contrary to what Mr Oei said, the election of 1959 wasn’t rough but easy for the PAP because it had the support of the Chinese speaking masses through Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan who in turn became the martyrs for PAP’s victory. Mr Oei should be careful not to label PAP opponents as communists because it is a charge that has never been unequivocally proven even till this day.

    While the verdict of the people may have been terrifying then, one needs to understand that the verdict was for Lim Chin Siong, not Lee Kuan Yew.

    Bubbles can be ‘good for property market’

    March 27, 2010

    Dear Straits Times,

    I refer to your 24 Mar 2010 report that told of Hong Kong’s Cheung Kong Holdings executive director, Mr Justin Chiu saying that property bubbles can be good. Of course property bubbles can be good, but good for whom? Good for property developers because they end up making a killing. But it is not good for consumers and buyers because they end up paying more for nothing. The gain by the property developer equals the loss suffered by buyers so that the country as a whole gains nothing.

    Mr Chiu said that the price of his latest West Coast project, the Vision, is reasonable because he was able to sell 200 units in two weeks. But a sale frenzy hardly justifies that the price is reasonable. It merely signals that demand, whether rational or otherwise, is very high. There are so many property frenzies in recent history around the world accompanied by property bubbles that ended up being burst and hurting the respective countries’ economies.

    History tells us that property bubbles are not only no good, they are highly dangerous and ultimately, disastrous to a nation’s economy. The property fever is not unlike the fever that we succumb to from time to time. It not only tells us that our body is sick but also requires our immediate attention to bring the temperature under control before it can do further, irreversible damage.

    Kampung spirit reigns in Punggol North

    March 27, 2010

    Dear Straits Times,

    I refer to your 23 Mar 2010 report on MP Ms Penny Low’s experiences in running her Punggol North constituency.

    She described the disappointment of resident Mr Kevin Tang when his $252,000 five-room flat bought in the late 1990s shrunk by a value of $20,000 in 2001. He felt heartsick and frustrated that his neighbour bought his flat so much cheaper. This episode tells us the disturbing effects that HDB price fluctuations have on ordinary citizens. Even though the price of Mr Tang’s flat has shot up to $380,000 today, it doesn’t change the fact that his paper gain will always be $20,000 less than his neighbour’s. Looking forward, a new resident who pays $380,000 today for a similar flat close to Mr Tang’s will experience a more terrible heartsick because he will be paying $128,000 more than Mr Tang for essentially the same flat. Mr Tang’s $128,000 paper gain will be offset by his new neighbour’s $128,000 loss. The country as a whole gains nothing. Furthermore, no matter how much Punggol flats continue to appreciate in future, the paper gains by Mr Tang’s new neighbour will always be $128,000 less than those of Mr Tang’s.

    HDB price should not be allowed to fluctuate up and down like the stock market. It is after all, a basic necessity first and foremost. Its price should therefore be kept low and stable like the price of rice, water and all other basic necessities in life.

    What we can learn from Singapore’s health-care model

    March 25, 2010

    Dear Mr Matt Miller,

    I refer to your Washington Post article dated 3 Mar 2010 which was carried by the Straits Times on 5 Mar 2010 under the similar title of “US can get pointers from S’pore’s health-care system”.

    Your assertion that Singapore is the only rich nation with universal health coverage is false. According to a reply (http://www.moh.gov.sg/mohcorp/parliamentaryqa.aspx?id=22864) by our health minister to parliament on 18 Aug 2009, our nationwide MediShield Plan covers only 84% of our population with two main groups left uninsured – the young below 20 years and non-working spouses.

    You have the impression that Singapore was a poor country a few decades ago. Yet even then, we were already amongst the top in Asia in terms of per capita GDP. In fact, we have been thriving since our founding in 1819 as a port and crown jewel of the British Empire. Yes, we’ve made leaps and bounds over the last few decades but that only means that we’re richer now compared to a few decades ago, not that we were poor a few decades ago. If you were to compare the US of today with the US of a few decades ago, you will similarly find that the US of a few decades ago seems so considerably poorer.

    While we may now have a higher per capita GDP than your country, our take home pay according to UBS’ global survey on prices and earnings is only less than half that of New Yorker’s. Therefore, it is not enough to just look at the GDP, we must also look at how much of that GDP is going into the people’s pockets. Judging by the UBS survey, Singaporeans are getting the much shorter end of the stick than you Americans are getting.

    Your comparison of your country’s healthcare bill of 17% of GDP to our healthcare bill of 4% of GDP over exaggerates the frugality of our healthcare bill. Because if you were to look at the healthcare bills across the East Asian economies of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, they too are similarly conservative at around 5% to 7% of GDP. So within the league of the East Asian economies, Singapore’s healthcare bill doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary. In fact, most of the Western nations spend between 8% to 11% of GDP on healthcare. Therefore, the US healthcare bill is not just bloated in comparison to Singapore, it is bloated in comparison to all other Western nations.

    Again, you appear to over-exaggerate your case by comparing the 33% of health spending paid by Singaporeans against the 90% of health spending not paid by Americans. You should have instead compared the 33% of health spending paid by Singaporeans against the 10% health spending paid by Americans. In any case, it shows that we Singaporeans are paying a larger share of healthcare bills ourselves compared to you Americans. Would you rather that your fellow Americans pay more out of their own pockets even though they have already paid more in terms of taxes and social security?

    Our so-called mandatory retirement savings is really not so mandatory after all since Singaporeans are allowed to use it to pay for housing so much so that many end up having no money left for retirement.

    Your impression that we have ‘ample safety net for the poor’ is ludicrous to say the least. It is well known that ‘welfare’ is a dirty word in Singapore. Social safety is a concept that does not exist in Singapore. Although we do have the Public Assistance Scheme, it only amounts to $17.3 million this year up from $13 million last year. That makes social safety 0.007% of our GDP compared to 14.8% for your country.

    Therefore, contrary to what you have said, we are not further to the left than either President Obama or his foes. Your article is so chock-full of mistakes, I don’t understand why Washington Post and the Straits Times even bothered to publish it.

    Not for sale

    March 21, 2010

    Dear Rachel,

    I refer to your Straits Times article dated 11 Dec 2009 which detailed the work of Mr John Kampfner. It began with a question posed by Mr Kampfner on why educated people are willing to hand over their freedoms in exchange for prosperity and security. In the case of Singapore, the answer is invariably ignorance. Generations of Singaporeans have been sold to the idea that our prosperity comes from our brilliant PAP government without which there would have been no prosperous Singapore. Singaporeans believe this to their bones and will not give up the PAP for fear of losing their prosperity. Little do they realise that the key ingredients to our prosperity have little to do with the PAP. The world renowned success formula of embracing foreign direct investments was not conjured by the PAP but was gifted to us by Dr Albert Winsemius, an economic advisor sent to us by the United Nations. A well oiled civil service and robust institutions were British inheritances along with the inheritance of a hard working population of largely East Asian descent. One cannot disagree that Singapore was already a prosperous city and one of the crown jewels in the British Empire long before the PAP came about. We were also amongst the top in Asia in terms of per capita GDP prior to our self-rule and independence. But this side of the Singapore story has become less common place now. In its place is the often touted but rarely questioned rhetoric of the PAP led success.

    Mr Kampfner rightly saw that free markets can exist within a not so free political environment while the response by our High Commissioner fails to address the crux of the issue. Saying that the true test of what works comes from the real world doesn’t say anything about what else might work or what really is the reason behind why it works. Singapore has worked but that does not mean that Singapore would not have worked had it been governed in another way. For if we were to strip away Singapore’s authoritarianism, what remains would simply be another Hong Kong which has proven to be just as successful.

    So there’s a lot that Singaporeans don’t understand, contrary to Mr Kampfner’s assertion that Singaporeans have entered these pacts with their eyes wide open. We may not be as blind as the North Koreans but we are certainly not as discerning as we ought to be. On the other hand, the Burmese people aren’t as blind as Mr Kampfner might think given their dislike for the military junta and their love for Aung Sang Su Kyi. There is very little choice for the Burmese people living in fear of the guns of their military junta.

    The so-called Asian values espoused by MM Lee are really East Asian values. But do East Asians prefer collective well being over individualism? East Asians love to make money. But it’s hard to see East Asians working hard to make money for their countries rather than for themselves. Therefore, the most definitive characteristic of East Asians is individualistic rather than collectivist in nature. Do East Asians prefer social harmony over dissent? In the case of Singaporeans, more likely than not, it is not social harmony but personal safety that is being preferred over dissent.

    The supposed irreconcilable difference amongst the various civilisations as propagated by Samuel Huntington is largely religious, not cultural in nature. If the East Asian cultures of Japan, Korea and Taiwan can become so affable with the Western culture of America, clearly culture is not the reason for the antagonism between the US and China? That antagonism is probably more similar to the one between the former Soviet Union and the US. It is an antagonism between opposing political-military mights, not a clash of civilisations. The real clash of civilisations is between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East, which is a conflict that has existed since the first Crusades nearly a thousand years ago.

    The question by the Singaporean academic of whether an illiberal democracy is more stable cannot be answered without first qualifying the countries being compared. If we compare similarly successful societies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, then the answer is invariably no because despite the antics in the Taiwanese parliament and the strikes in Korea, the other three East Asian dragons have proven to be no less stable than us despite they being a lot more liberal. If we were to compare third world African countries instead, the conclusion is the same. There is no evidence that an illiberal third world country is inherently more stable than one that is more liberal.

    The ‘pact’ that Mr Kampfner so often see nowadays will not seem so bewildering if we can understand how modern democracies came about. All the defining moments of democracy from the Magna Carta and the English Civil War to the French and the American revolutions all involved some form of money struggle or struggle for material well being. Democracy is rooted in people fighting for their fare share of material well being. As long as the nationwide surveillance and money laundering in Britain do not compromise the material well being of the British people, they will not become major issues. On the other hand, the numerous strikes in Britain goes to show that democracy as the means for demanding a fair share of material well being is still very much alive and kicking in Britain.

    Finally, Mr Kampfner suggested that democracy may come when the state fails to deliver prosperity. That day nearly came for Singapore some years back when state bureaucrats failed to appreciate our over reliance on the electronics industry and were caught napping while electronics firms emigrated en masse to China. There were massive retrenchments along with a mad scramble to replace the lost firms with biomedical firms. The people tasted hardships but there was no revolution, no clamour for democracy. This reminds us of North Korea where many children have died of starvation and yet the people remain rooted for the ruling Kim family. It wasn’t difficult to put the blame on climate just as it was easy to find a scapegoat for the recent North Korean currency revaluation crisis. And so it is with Singapore too that even if the state were to fail to deliver prosperity, state newspapers will always be there to explain things away. We may not be as blind as the North Koreans but we are not so discerning either.

    Cultural diversity in ancient China

    March 14, 2010

    Dear Dr Ong,

    I refer to your comments in parliament as reported by Straits Times on 13 Mar 2010.

    You pointed out the cosmopolitan atmosphere in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang An and the foreignness of one of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai to illustrate the importance of an open-door policy and of tolerance to a nation’s prosperity and the flourishing of its culture and economic development.

    However, as cosmopolitan as Chang An was, it is doubtful that one third of its inhabitants was foreign like in the case of Singapore. So quoting the example of Chang An doesn’t justify the situation in Singapore where the percentage of foreigners is amazingly high. Also, while Li Bai’s place of birth lies in modern day Kyrgyzstan (rather than Kazakhstan), it was actually found within Chinese territory during the Tang dynasty. What’s more, Li Bai’s family originated from even closer within China. So quoting Li Bai’s place of birth also doesn’t justify a pro-foreigner stance since Li Bai wasn’t foreign born as far as the Tang dynasty is concerned.

    While the Silk Road is a good example of the need to remain open to trade, it is not a good example to justify mass immigrations since the Silk Road was essentially a trade route, not a mass migration route.

    You also pointed out the examples of the Ming and the Qing dynasties which ended up poorer for shutting up their doors. But those are examples that point to the danger of rejecting trade that has little if anything to do with cultural diversity or renaissance.

    The most powerful example of how mass immigration changed a nation’s destiny is probably that of the Roman Empire which was subjected to mass immigrations towards the end of its five century dominion. The great numbers of Goth immigrants proved too great for the Romans to handle and when they finally rebelled, it marked the end of the once mighty Roman Empire.

    We don’t have to look far back into history to understand how important immigrants are to a nation’s success. Modern day examples abound such as those of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Western Europe which show that prosperity and cultural efflorescence can take place without mass immigrations.

    ‘Not realistic’ for GIC to avoid making any losses

    March 14, 2010

    Dear Mrs Lim,

    I refer to your comments in parliament as reported by Straits Times on 10 Mar 2010.

    Your said it is not realistic to avoid losses on every investment (that GIC makes). But that is not the issue at hand. The issue is the magnitude of those losses versus the supposed talent that GIC has. What value are we getting from these so-called talents for the millions they are paid versus the billions they have lost? How much worse would a school boy fare throwing darts to pick investment alternatives?

    You said the GIC will not be judged on individual deals but on overall performance. But individual deals do affect overall performance. If we don’t improve on individual deals, especially the spectacularly bad ones, it means we are not getting the best overall performance we should be getting. The stakes in the financial market are ever higher now and a lot more devastating too. The Barings Bank is one good example of how individual bad deals can bring down an entire financial institution with centuries of history behind it. Surely we would not want individual bad deals to wipe out our nation’s golden goose?

    We cannot accept the so-called creditable returns by GIC and Temasek over the long term without the means to actually verify them thoroughly given the lack of detailed information concerning their investments. This is perhaps the reason why we are left to criticise individual spectacular losses given their ascertainableness.

    Mr Singh’s suggestion that it is timely for the GIC and Temasek adopt a more conservative mandate should not be construed to mean an immediate, knee-jerk reaction to the recent downturn but a timely reminder that their role is to protect the nation’s golden goose and not to endanger it regardless of what courses of action they might undertake at the moment.