Archive for July, 2010

Reaching out cuts both ways

July 28, 2010

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the letter by Mr Toh Cheng Seong dated 28 Jul 2010.

Mr Toh has applied the often quoted but rarely questioned rhetoric of the highly competive global economy as reason for denying job protection to citizens. But the global economy is no reason for saying that a coffee shop that primarily services local customers would become more competitive globally with foreign workers. The coffee shop does not compete globally but locally instead with other food and beverage outlets in Singapore. As far as local competition is concerned, whether we allow or disallow foreign workers affects all firms equally. Thus, while there may be geniune reason for employing foreign workers to boost global competitiveness, care should be taken to qualify the industries that truly benefit from it and not blindly apply the argument to all industries.

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Counter anti-foreigner talk

July 26, 2010

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to your report dated 20 Jul 2010.

In the report, it is said that the 40,000 resident births in the mid-1980s cannot make up for the 221,600 new jobs created in 2008. But there were 62,900 residents who were unemployed in 2008 so ideally, we should be looking at importing 221,600 – 40,000 – 62,900 = 118,700 workers. But we ended up importing 157,000 workers in 2008 or a surplus of 38,300 workers. Add to that the tens of thousands of ‘invisible jobless’ as reported by your good paper on 28 Dec 2009 and Singaporeans’ concern for jobs may not be so misplaced after all.

The diversity that Lynda Gratton referred to which leads to more innovative products and services is the diversity of disciplines, not the diversity of nationalities. She used the example of the diversity of engineers, mathematicians, code breakers, cryptographers, crossword puzzle experts and others that cracked the Enigma code during World War II to illustrate her idea of diversity. The spanning of nationalities is incidental, not key to diversity.

Singapore’s well-being goes far beyond GDP

July 25, 2010

Dear Dr Khor,

I refer to your speech in parliament as reported by Straits Times on 21 Jul 2010.

You referred to MM Lee’s speech at the Singapore International Water Week which purported that the government was mindful not to allow heavy pollutive industries using old technology to be set up even in our ‘early, deprived’ days. It would be good if MM Lee can provide evidence and statistics to show how numerous both in numbers and in values those purportedly heavy but pollutive investment opportunities using old technology were then.

Even if it were true that the government in our ‘early’ days took consideration of the environment, it doesn’t imply that our government today has taken consideration of the social impacts of its policies.

You said economic growth is key to improving lives. That is most true when operating from a low base but becomes less true when the base becomes very high. The law of diminishing returns tells us that growth from a low base reaps much benefit but as the base gets higher and higher, further growth becomes more and more difficult and its pursuit may do more harm than good.

While the government does not directly hold down wages, by making low wage foreign workers so readily available, the government indirectly holds down the wages of those in direct competition with low wage foreign workers. Thus, one way or another, the government distorts the labour market to the extent that it allows or disallows the influx of foreign workers.

While median incomes have grown by 20% over the last decade, housing prices have grown by even more, so much so that those who choose to set up a home now will find that their salary increases didn’t keep up with the increase in housing prices so much so that they are now worse off now than they were a decade ago.

The only obvious government effort to ‘strenuously’ redistribute wealth is its persistent, unerring increase of its own multi-million dollar salaries.

Minister bonuses are tied to the GDP. If the government is serious about not letting indicators skew its behaviour, then it shouldn’t reward itself handsomely with fat bonuses but should instead recognise the reality that many people have been adversely affected by the sharp rise in housing prices caused by its policies.

How Singapore’s economic bets paid off

July 25, 2010

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to your report dated 20 Jul 2010.

It is said in the report that our rapid recovery has vindicated government efforts to diversify Singapore’s economy over the last decades. But the urgent need to diversify the economy was made plain for all to see just less than ten years ago with the mass exodus of electronics firms to China. So this is not a vindication but a reminder to all that the government is no more forward looking than its own citizens. If several years from now, our drainage system becomes so improved that it is capable of handling massive downpours, does that vindicate government efforts to improve our drainage system or does that remind Singaporeans that the government sees and reacts to events and situations no sooner than its own citizens? Therefore, Citigroup economist Kit Wei Zheng’s assertion that the government should take credit for being far sighted in its diversification strategy is unjustifiable. We can only say that the government reacts well to mishaps and pitfalls even as they aren’t far sighted enough to spot them and steer clear of them.

The superlative growth in the first half of this year doesn’t justify the government’s decision to keep manufacturing as a pillar for it doesn’t imply that a focus on other sectors wouldn’t necessarily have been as successful if not more successful.

SIM University labour economist Randolph Tan’s assertion that without the government stepping in to retain labour, companies would now have to hire more and bid up wages is also not true. If the government didn’t step in to retain labour, labour would have left and wages would have fallen. So even if subsequent rehiring bids up wages, it would simply mean that wages bounce back from where they had fallen. The only reasonable thing that Dr Tan can say is that the government’s retention of labour helped to stabilise wages throughout the fall and rise in economic output.

Govt strategy has never been ‘growth at all costs’

July 25, 2010

Dear Dr Amy Khor,

I refer to your remarks made in parliament as reported by Straits Times on 20 Jul 2010.

You said the government has never undertaken a ‘growth-at-all-costs’ strategy. But our growth has come at the heavy social cost of sharp rise in housing prices and over crowded trains. These are real costs Singaporeans must bear with. Are you denying those costs? Are you saying the government’s strategy has been ‘growth-at-no-costs’?

You said it doesn’t make sense to slow growth deliberately. But it also doesn’t make sense to deliberately speed up growth to the extent that housing prices shoot up unbearably high and trains get over-crowded. You said 40% of government budget is spent on social sectors. But education takes a large slice of that 40%. Real social welfare expenditure is much less than that. If you want to use percentages as indication of government priorities, then social welfare is definitely not a government priority.

You said government policy has not deliberately favoured the corporate against workers. While that may be arguable, what cannot be denied is that government policy has inadvertently favoured the corporate against workers.

You said corporate profits go to taxes. But taxes in turn go to government coffers and not a small portion of that eventually gets wasted in billion dollar investment losses by the government.

You said inequality is common amongst global cities like Hong Kong and New York. In that case, we would rather not be global but prosperous and egalitarian cities like those in the Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

You said GDP is one of the best gauges of a country’s wealth. While the high GDP of Brunei is indeed an indication of Brunei’s wealth, a large chunk of that wealth belongs to the Sultan himself. So having a high GDP doesn’t necessarily mean that the people are rich.

Probably no property bubble here yet: MM

July 18, 2010

Dear MM Lee,

I refer to your statements made at a dinner hosted by the Association of Banks in Singapore as reported by Straits Times on 26th Jun.

You said the sharp property price rise is part of the total liquidity in the whole world and that foreigners see Singapore properties as cheap. But Malaysian properties are even cheaper, yet we don’t find the same sharp rise there. Why did the total liquidity in the whole world came flooding here instead of flooding Malaysia for example? So you cannot attribute our sharp property price rise solely or primarily to the total liquidity in the whole world. Because the total liquidity in the whole world doesn’t explain why Singapore property prices have shot up so much but not those of neighbouring Malaysia.

Ultimately, you cannot avoid answering the question of why there is a real underlying demand for residential property despite prices being as sky high as they are now. The answer as everybody now knows is the half a million or so people you have added to Singapore in a short span of just a couple of years without a concomitant increase in the number of houses being built. This episode clearly demonstrates the government’s utter lack of foresight that you so often tout about.

If investment return is what the Indonesians, Thais or Malaysian Chinese are coming for, they must surely know that there is an abundance of foreigners here who would readily pay a premium to buy or rent from them because of the acute shortage in housing now. Thus, no matter how we look at it, we can always trace the problem to the same root cause which is the severe imbalance between supply and demand for housing caused by inappropriate and inadequate government policies.

Foreigners are not why we don’t do well

July 8, 2010

Dear editor,

I refer to the letter by Mr Eric Brooks dated 8 Jul 2010. He claims that many Singaporeans think of themselves as Chinese, Indian or Malay first, Singaporean second. He claims that Singaporeans feel more comfortable speaking to someone of their own race. These are largely unsubstantiated, sweeping statements. Local Indians have expressed unhappiness at foreign Indians of higher caste bossing them around. On the other hand, Singaporeans of all races have celebrated the successes of Fandi Ahmad and Ang Peng Siong because they feel for Singapore rather than for individual races.

Mr Brooks claims that America welcomes people from different countries with tolerance. But he fails to mention that racism is still rife there and probably much worse than it is here. He used his own personal experiences of cleaning toilets and working at supermarkets during his teenage years to support his claim that foreigners bring the advantage of seeing humble work as dignity rather than humiliation. However, his experiences are probably unique only to America or the Western nations and are not representative of those from mainland China, India or Malaysia where the bulk of our foreign workers come from. Where the bulk of our foreign workers come from, the shunning of humble jobs is probably more or less the same. The only difference is that the same humble jobs pay a lot more here than it does back in the foreign workers’ home countries.

Mr Brooks claims that there is no competition between Singaporeans who wouldn’t get their hands dirty versus foreigners who would. But the American teenagers who would wash toilets aren’t the Americans coming here to find work. The Americans here are not here to wash toilets or to get their hands ‘dirty’. Those who come to wash toilets are probably from poorer countries and are certainly not teenagers. They compete directly with older, less educated Singaporeans even for jobs that require getting their hands dirty.

Mr Brooks claims that foreigners must be disciplined in order to pay household bills as though Singaporeans need not. It is common knowledge that America is a nation that lives on credit and that the people collectively owe more debt than any other country in the world. Singapore on the other hand is a country rooted in Confucian ethics and thrift is a virtue that remains important. As such, while there is no denying that there will be some young Singaporeans who splurge on Louis Vuitton bags, on the whole, there is no evidence that Singaporeans splurge any more than their American counterparts do. In fact, consumption as a percentage of GDP is so much higher for the US than it is for Singapore.

As far as personal responsibility is concerned, Singapore being a notoriously non-welfare state is streets ahead of Mr Brooks’ America. Therefore, while championing personal responsibility, it would be good if Mr Brooks looks at his own country first.

S’pore is Asia’s most liveable city

July 5, 2010

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 30 Jun 2010 article on the new Global Liveable Cities Index that was reportedly designed by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Swiss academics and which puts Swiss cities and Singapore at the top. Imagine designing a list that puts you at the top of the list. How much more shameless can we get? If every city were to design its own list and to place itself at the top of the list, very soon every city will be tops, albeit only on its own list.

One key criterion that was obviously missing or not sufficiently highlighted in the index is housing price. You add that and Singapore’s ranking will plummet straight away. What is the point of having an index that paints only half the picture? What is the point of sitting pretty on a list of criteria that ignores our own short comings? Are we a nation that focuses on superficial criteria while ignoring the crux of what liveable means? What is liveable if it means a lifetime of servitude and endless housing loan payments? Does liveable mean having to slog all your life for a miserable pigeon hole in the sky? Or can it simply be staying in a kampung and living out an idyllic life?

Shame, this ugly Singapore Slam

July 5, 2010

Dear Mr Yeo Sam Jo,

I refer to your Straits Times article dated 5 Jul 2010.

You criticise Singaporeans for ‘scorning’ our paddlers who helped us win gold in Moscow. But Singaporeans did not ‘scorn’ our paddlers for winning gold, we merely pointed out the fact that some of our paddlers are hardly Singaporean for one, two years which makes it difficult for us to regard their victory as a truly home grown Singaporean victory.

You bemoan the fact that many of our artists have to go overseas to get famous. This has nothing to do with the lack of support from local fans but the fact that Singapore is simply not big enough to provide sufficient consumer mass to support the artists. Even Malaysian Chinese artists also venture overseas because the overseas market is so much more lucrative.

You say we knock our icons and winners down, no we do not. We do not take anything away from the paddlers’ achievements. We merely point out the fact that they were already very accomplished paddlers even before they donned Singapore colours. As such, no one doubts that the paddlers’ victory is theirs to saviour but not for us to share in the limelight.

No there is no misguided humility or jealousy here but true adherence to what we consider to be home grown Singaporean. Why should we automatically embrace anyone that the government chooses to be one of us as being home grown Singaporean? The government has erred so very often nowadays and has even given rise to the laughing stock of foreign born sportsmen taking our money and running away with it.

You say we are sending out the dangerous message to our young ones not to get into the spotlight. Nothing can be further from the truth. Fandi Ahmad, Ang Peng Siong and Jocelyn Yeo are names that readily refute your claim.

You say if we keep doing this, Singapore will really be nothing to shout about. But if we keep shouting for foreigners while pretending they are as home grown as any Singaporean can be, then Singapore ceases to be Singapore no matter how loud we shout.

You refer to the difference that fervent rallying behind World Cup soccer teams can make but these are rallying behind mostly home grown talent and not a team of foreigners who only got their passports one, two years ago.

Rene Descartes may have said it’s easy to hate but difficult to love. But he didn’t say which is right and which is wrong. So when you ask us to choose what is right, we need not choose love or hate, we can simply choose indifference. Because we have the right to feel indifferent to an event that genuinely does not tug at our heartstrings. We refuse to accept the cheapening of what it means to be Singaporean to be forced upon us.