Archive for April, 2010

On keeping public housing affordable

April 24, 2010

Dear Mr Teo,

I refer to the Straits Times report of your speech at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum dated 6 Apr 2010.

Your reported answer to worried young couples who asked you how they can afford a flat with prices going through the roof is to look at the Sengkang and Punggol flats right before their eyes. These flats that are supposedly nicer than a generation ago now house families that went through the same pains during the last property boom ten years ago.

But does the purchase of a Sengkang or Punggol flat ten years ago answer the question of affordability? With a possible 30-year loan to service, that question cannot be answered until 20 years later. For by then, these young couples would no longer be young any more and they would be asking you another question: ‘Do we have enough to retire?’

So you see, your answer is quite simply no answer. Sure you can ‘buy’ a flat by taking up a mountain of debt. But that does not mean that the flat is therefore affordable. Because you would ultimately have to repay the loan and if you spend your entire life servicing your housing loan, what would you be left with for retirement? If you have to sell your flat back to the government for retirement funds, doesn’t that show that you never earned enough to really get to keep the flat to begin with? Doesn’t that show that the flat was actually not affordable in the first place?

The young couples who bought during the last peak of 1995/96 would have ended up paying a lot more than those who bought later, between 2000 and 2006. The Senkang flat bought in 1995/96 will not be worth more today than a similar one bought between 2000 and 2006 even though the former cost a lot more. In other words, the young couples who asked you that question a decade ago paid more for nothing. So if they were to ask you today why have they paid more for nothing, what are you going to tell them?

You said if we keep our expectations realistic, public housing will be affordable. But expectations have not changed, prices have. The same Senkang flat that was $200,000 three years ago is now $300,000. You expect us to expect that to be realistic?

You said that generations after generations of Singaporeans have been able to afford flats. What you mean is that generations after generations of Singaporeans have been made to sign a lifetime contract to pay for flats. It is only now that the early generations have finally paid up their flats but are finding themselves with no money for retirement. For the later generations, their time will come. They too will find themselves with no money for retirement. Because generations after generations have paid all their moneys all their lives to the HDB and the government who have in turn lost them in billion dollar gambles like the UBS.

Substance, not style, directs S’pore policy

April 24, 2010

Dear Mr Teo,

I refer to the 6 Apr 2010 Straits Times report of your speech at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum.

You said that Singapore politics, as observed by Bryan Caplan, is in a nutshell, about implementing programmes based on merits, not on polls. Until recently, HDB upgrading has always been tied to voting so this is one obvious programme that was tied to polls, not merits. Quite often, flats will be painted and government goodies given out just before elections which are again evidences of programmes being based on polls rather than merits.

Many policies that are supposedly detrimental to polls are in fact not so detrimental after all. Take high flat prices for example. High flat price is unpopular only to buyers whose numbers are dwarfed by the number of flat owners who don’t mind prices going up. So based on numbers, the policy of maintaining high flat prices favours the polls more than it hurts it. So we can’t say that this is a policy that was implemented with no due consideration to polls.

So unless you can show us that by and large policies were continued despite severe detrmental impacts on poll results, you have no basis to say that policies were implemented with no due consideration on polls.

Even when it comes to congestion pricing, only about 20% of Singapore voters drive compared to about 90% in the US. Thus, the political impact of congestion pricing is much smaller for our politicians than for politicians in the US. Thus, it is not necessarily true that we are operating on different modes of ‘pragmatism’ because the same pragmatism would dictate that congestion pricing is much more tolerable here and much less tolerable in the US. Thus, there is no evidence that our government’s “brand of pragmatism” is any different from that of the US.

You urge Singaporeans to accept MM Lee because “he’s like that”. Similarly, you should also urge Singaporeans to accept Chee Soon Juan because “he’s like that”.

From true grit comes myths

April 1, 2010

Dear Mr Mahbubani,

I refer to your Straits Times article dated 3 Mar 2010.

You said the South African story shows the importance of choosing the correct moral heroes as though there was a conscious effort by the South Africans to choose Mandela as their hero. No such effort was needed for there is simply nothing quite like the story of Nelson Mandela. His moral heroism is so extraordinary and so plain for all to see, it inspires us from deep within. That is the difference between true heroes and hero wannabes. The former truly inspires while the latter depends on being chosen.

You pointed out the vast difference between the recognition for Mandela and for Rajaratnam even though both shared the same moral belief that all races should be equal. But Mandela gave 27 years of his life to imprisonment for his ideals and convictions. What has Rajaratnam to show for his convictions other than a comfortable career seated in lofty positions? Without taking anything away from him, Rajaratnam is simply not comparable to Mandela. The closest to a Mandela that we have in Singapore are Chia Thye Poh and Dr Lim Hock Siew who were imprisoned for 32 years and 19 years respectively for their unwavering convictions.

You claimed there has been very little effort to share the virtues of our founding fathers to our population. But the supposed ‘virtues’ of Lee Kuan Yew are constantly being expounded in all forms of media while those of Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam are also well mentioned in our history textbooks.

You claimed that the US has masterfully deified its founding fathers as though the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln require artificial assistance for the glorification of their deeds. In the first place, George Washington didn’t even care for glory for he gave up office and returned to the farms after having completed his work of establishing a strong, new nation that is America. Such unselfish demonstration of true dedication towards helping his people is something that MM Lee will never be able to understand let alone emulate.

You said that national myths do not surface naturally but are manufactured instead. But the true stories of Nelson Mandela and George Washington are no myths and to equate them to national myths is to whitewash history. Jefferson may have been a slave owner and the father of his slave’s children, but we need to judge him based on the circumstances of his times. Slavery was already a way of life for more than a century before Jefferson was born and wouldn’t be abolished for another century. Do we denigrate Singapore philantrophers and pioneers like Tan Kah Kee and Gan Eng Seng just because they had many wives? Or do we acknowledge that polygamy was not only socially acceptable then but was also a mark of social status in those times? Polygamy is still being practised today amongst Malays. Who is to say that Malays won’t abandon polygamy altogether a hundred years from now? When that day comes, do we go back in time and sneer at all those who are practising polygamy today?

It is time we stopped manufacturing the myth of the communist threat to Singapore and face up to the undeniable historical fact that the communist insurgency of 1948 never once reached the shores of Singapore and had always been confined to remote towns and jungles of Malaya. The supposed ‘tough’ opponents of the PAP were in fact, unarmed workers and students. It is really a joke to compare them with the might of the British Empire which the Americans had to face with real guns and cannons. What’s more, it was the British who faced up against these so called ‘tough’ worker and student opponents, not the PAP. What courage or steel does one require in a ‘battle’ fought by someone else?

While it is true that we cannot record every drop of history, what we do record must be true in order for us to build a true story. True stories are therefore not myths and when they become embedded in national consciousness, they become legends, not myths. The true stories of Washington and Jefferson are the stuff of legends, not myths.

The gulf between the wealth and poverty in South Africa persists despite the moral compass of Mandela. Don’t delude yourself by saying that we can build a strong nation around the moral strength of one man. The universal admiration and respect for Nelson Mandela didn’t translate to universal admiration and respect for South Africa. Similarly, even if Rajaratnam were to become universally admired and respected, it will not automatically translate to universal respect and admiration for Singapore.