Archive for December, 2011

Mr Lee on…

December 30, 2011

Dear Mr Lee,

I refer to the 6 Sept 2011 Straits Times report of your comments on Singapore’s bilingualism. You said you got Singapore to go for English as first language because that connected us to the world, to modern sciences, to commerce and made Singapore what it is.

The Germans, Swiss, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Chinese and Hong Kongers do not go for English as their first language. But that did not prevent them from getting connected to the world, to modern sciences and to commerce or prevent them from becoming what they are today. There is no evidence that mastering English as a first language was key to our prosperity.

Many Singaporeans credit you with the foresight for recognising English’s economic value and for promoting its use in Singapore. What is less commonly known is that English’s ascent to its preeminent position today in Singapore began long before you came to power. According to Page 4 of the book “Singapore English: a grammatical description” edited by Lisa Lim, it was already obvious during colonial times that English had many material advantages; enrolment in English medium schools was already 27,000 before the Japanese Occupation and that Chinese medium schools were already teaching English; after the Second World War, English became even more lingua franca due to US global power; throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the British promoted English medium schools so that enrolment in English medium schools rose from 32% in 1947 to 43% in 1952 and then overtook enrolment in Chinese medium schools by the end of the 1950s which is about the time you took power.

Page 150 of the book “Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control” by Carl A. Trocki tells of English medium schools increasing at a faster rate than Chinese medium schools as early as 1950 and that by 1954, more students were enrolled in English medium schools than Chinese ones.

Quite clearly, many people already understood the usefulness of English long before you came along. Given such evidence, we should not go away with the idea that the promotion of English was your wisdom and foresight alone. You merely continued with a trend that began after the Second World War, albeit more ruthlessly perhaps.


Tackling inequality​: Charting own path

December 29, 2011

Dear Ms Sim Ann,

I refer to your 22 Dec 2011 Straits Times article.

You compared the Swedish government spending nearly 50% of GDP to the Singapore government spending 17% of GDP. There are two adjustments you can make so that the comparison is fairer.

First, almost 18% of Swedish government expenditure comes from social contributions by the Swedish people. Strictly speaking, this component doesn’t represent government spending on people but people contributing to its own welfare. If we take that out, the Swedish government spends only 41.1% of GDP.

Also, expressing government expenditure as a percentage of GDP may not be as meaningful as expressing it as a percentage of GNI. To illustrate, consider a household with a combined salary of $4,000 and a total monthly expenditure of $2,000. Suppose the household also rents out a room at $1,000 a month to a foreigner who earns $5,000 a month. The household expenditure as a percentage of total household income is $2,000 / $5,000 = 40%. But the household expenditure as a percentage of all incomes in the house is $2,000 / $10,000 = 20%. So the percentage household expenditure can be vastly different depending on whether it is compared to household income or income in the house. While it makes sense to express household expenditure as a percentage of household income, it doesn’t make sense to express household expenditure as a percentage of income in the house. The former tells us how well controlled household expenses are while the latter muddies the picture by including foreigner income.

Government expenditure, GNI and GDP are the equivalent to household expenditure, household income and income in the house respectively. Government expenditure should be expressed as a percentage of GNI which is the income of nationals, not GDP which is the income of the land. Unfortunately for both Sweden and Singapore, GNI doesn’t represent income of nationals but income of the land plus income of nationals residing overseas.

Luckily for Singapore, we have this statistic called ‘indigenous GDP’ which is the GDP of citizens and PRs. The Singapore government expenditure expressed as a percentage of indigenous GDP is 28.8%. This figure is much higher than the 17% you quoted because Singapore has a sizeable foreigner population that is 25.7% of our total population. There is no Swedish equivalent for indigenous GDP but since Sweden’s foreigner population is only 6.1% of total population, the diference between GDP and indigenous GDP would not be too great.

This approach of comparing government expenditure to indigenous GDP instead of GDP is important because the government can very easily boost foreigner numbers to boost GDP without boosting indigenous GDP or government expenditure by much. In the end, the cost of foreigner influx is not born primarily by the government but by the people in the form of increased prices.

Making these two adjustments, we find the Singapore government expenditure of 28.8% of indigneous GDP not that far from the Swedish government expenditure of 41.1% of GDP.

You also compared Sweden’s up to 57% tax rate with Singapore’s less than 20% tax rate. What this comparison doesn’t convey is the fact that even though Swedish taxes are higher, Swedish salaries are also higher so that after tax income is on par. The following table shows that the Swedish after tax employee compensation is 36.9% of GDP, comparable to Singapore’s 39.9%.

Sweden Singapore
Swedish Kroner % GDP SGD % GDP
GDP 3,204,320 100% 267,952 100%
Compensation of employees 1,724,586 53.8% 113,247 42.3%
Income tax 541,012 16.9% 6,288 2.3%
Compensation less income tax 1,183,574 36.9% 106,959 39.9%

Other international surveys show Swedish after tax income to be higher than Singapore’s.

Finally, spending more doesn’t necessarily mean being more wasteful. A large part of Swedish government expenditure goes directly back to the people to improve their lives. Sweden is more aged than Singapore and necessarily spends more on healthcare and old age pensions. We too would spend more on healthcare when we become as aged as Sweden. We don’t spend as much on our old so they go around picking up cardboard boxes to sell or clean toilets or tables at hawker centres.

Be reasonable​, like commuters elsewhere

December 21, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 21 Dec 2011 letter by Ms Anju Tiwari.

Having lived in many countries, Ms Tiwari wonders if Singaporeans know that they live in an awesome country. Perhaps Ms Tiwari has been living mostly in Third World countries, which is why a First World country like Singapore appears awesome to her. Perhaps if Ms Tiwari has been living mostly in First World countries instead, she wouldn’t find Singapore as awesome.

Ms Tiwari credits forward thinking leadership for nurturing Singapore’s diversity and economic growth. Is Ms Tiwari crediting Sir Stamford Raffles’ forward thinking in founding Singapore? Is Ms Tiwari paying tribute to our early colonial masters whose import of Sepoys from India and coolies from China became the basis of our diversity today? Is Ms Tiwari crediting Dr Albert Winsemius for gifting Singapore with the export strategy that would become the basis of our economic growth?

Ms Tiwari thinks it is ludicrous to ask SMRT CEO to resign or to ask for free rides in compensation for disrupted rides. Ms Tiwari must have never lived in First World countries where CEOs take responsibility for mistakes by resigning without being asked to.

Ms Tiwari doesn’t seem to understand that train disruptions in London is not a big deal and do not trigger resignations because the government in London doesn’t make a big deal out of trains and doesn’t boast ever so often of having the best or one of the best trains in the world. On the other hand, Ms Tiwari should understand that train disruptions in Singapore is a big deal because the Singapore government makes a big deal out of trains and boasts ever so often of having the best or one of the best trains in the world.

Ms Tiwari blames the public of looking for an opportunity to attack the government and prove its under-performance. Ms Tiwari should understand that every opportunity to critique the government balances every opportunity for the government to self-praise.

Ms Tiwari wants Singaporeans to consider what the government has achieved as though we the citizens played no part in those achievements.

Ms Tiwari wants Singaporeans to expect disruptions given infrastructure growth without realising that such massive disruptions if extrapolated to the scale of London’s or New York’s train systems would have crippled those systems.

Ms Tiwari is confident service reliability would have increased next year and expects us to bear with service unreliability for a year.

Ms Tiwari sprouts such rhetoric as the best plans in life fails as though she knows that SMRT plans that have resulted in recent train failures is the best yet.

Ms Tiwari shares with us the key to proud citizenry as having reasonable sense of awareness as though telling us we can always stand tall and proud so long as we find some other country worse off to compare with.

Ms Tiwari encourages us to be constructively demanding rather than constantly criticising. Ms Tiwari may not be aware, if every Singaporean criticises, there will be three million criticisms. Thus, three million criticisms may seem like constant criticism but is not. Don’t forget, we must also factor in criticisms from tourists too such as the one from Mr Byron E Barrett (ST Forum, 21 Dec 2011, “Notes from an American tourist”).

Reactions – CEO’s contributi​on

December 20, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 20 Dec 2011 letter by Mrs Eunice Lim.

Mrs Lim claims that SMRT CEO, Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, has added to Singapore’s vibrancy as we can shop and dine at MRT stations. How can the added vibrancy be fantastic if we come across news every now and then of MRT station retailers lamenting about poor business at MRT stations?

Mrs Lim claims to be amazed that it only costs her $1.69 to travel more than 20 km to work and attributes this to Ms Saw’s success in putting the pressure off raising fares by finding alternative revenue sources. Mrs Lim should also consider that it costs $0.73 to travel about 1 km for some one-MRT-stop journeys which is almost nine times as costly. Mrs Lim should therefore realise that part of the reason why she is not paying more for her daily commute is because other passengers who travel shorter distances are subsidising her longer distance trips. Also, what does Mrs Lim mean by ‘pressure being put off raising fares’ when fares are being raised almost every year?

Mrs Lim suggests that Ms Saw hire an able chief train officer to run trains while she generates revenues. Actually, it should be the other way round; the chief train officer should be the CEO while Ms Saw can assist him in her capacity as chief marketing officer. Ultimately, SMRT is a train company, not a retail company.

A major disruption in 24 years is understand​able – and forgivable

December 20, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 20 Dec 2011 letter by Mr Samson Guanglin Lee.

Mr Lee points to train disruptions in Japan and Spain to justify why a major breakdown in 24 years of SMRT operations is understandable and forgivable. SMRT has been operating only two lines for much of the past 24 years with the Circle Line being added only recently. Japan and Spain on the other hand, have been operating many more lines that stretch for many more kilometres for many more years. All else being equal, operating fewer lines that stretch for fewer kilometres for fewer number of years will of course yield fewer breakdowns. Similarly, breakdowns due to earthquakes is understandable compared to breakdowns due to poor maintenance. If all that Mr Lee is saying is that there is no country with zero major breakdowns, then he is as good as not saying anything useful. He is better off comparing the breakdown rates per line, per km while factoring in the age of the lines and the nature of the breakdowns too.

He contrasts the public calm in Japan and Spain to the anger and online rants in Singapore to say that Singaporeans have been pampered and have grown intolerant. Mr Lee should not forget that the Japanese and the Spanish governments do not claim they have the best or one of the best train services in the world ever so often. On the other hand, since our government makes no qualms about making those claims, it should expect brick bats when it falls short of those claims.

From Nantah to NTU: Difficult but necessary journey

December 11, 2011

Dear Mr Lee Kuan Yew,

I refer to the 2 Dec 2011 Straits Times print of excerpts from your new book.

You wrote that Tan Lark Sye and his supporters believed communist China was a great nation and could back them. Exactly what backing did Tan Lark Sye need from communist China? Money? No, he had millions of that himself. Manpower? He was leader of the Chinese community and had no lack of manpower. By merely being the leader of the Chinese community then, you had him labelled as a communist believer. Which Chinese community leader then who was against you escaped being labelled as a communist believer? Your entire political career reads of all kinds of labelling of your political opponents.

According to the book “The business of politics and ethnicity: a history of the Singapore Chinese” by Sikko Visscher (pages 154-156), Tan Lark Sye could not have been a communist sympathiser since he set up Tasek Cement complex in Ipoh with considerable Taiwanese financial involvement. He also appointed former Chung Cheng High School (which was synonymous with nationalist Taiwan, not communist China) principal to be Vice Chancellor of Nantah. It was Mr Visscher’s view that Tan Lark Sye was a millionaire businessman with no interest in communist ideology and that being at the top of the Chinese social pyramid did not make him a pro-communist.

According to the book “Singapore: the Unexpected Nation” by Edwin Lee (pages 418-419), “Nantah was a threat to the English educated ruling elite and the PAP government. It was PAP’s economic transformation of Singapore that put a premium on English and undermined Chinese education. Tan Lark Sye was too sold on capitalism and too good and too lucky at it to have been a communist.”

According to the book “Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control” by Carl A. Trocki:
– Page 123, “PAP was able to play the racial card, accusing the Chinese-educated groups of ‘Chinese chauvinism’ when they championed the cause of Chinese education.”
– Page 131, “since the government controlled the political discourse, any expression of a political or social nature that came from an ethnic source could be tarred with the label chauvinist.”

For all your lofty claims, it seems to these authors that your closing of Nantah was more politically motivated than anything else.

Deng Xiaoping said Singaporean social order is good because the country put it under strict control. In other words, he came to study how our government kept strict control of our people. This is nothing to be proud of. Tan Lark Sye would never have imagined how the strict Chinese communists had to come to Singapore to learn to be strict.

You wrote that language was more than just a tool of communication and that larger issues were at stake. By ‘larger issues’, do you mean economic issues and prosperity? But whether it is the Korean language in South Korea, Traditional Mandarin in Taiwan, Cantonese in Hong Kong or Simplified Mandarin in China today, language never got into the way of economic issues or prosperity.

You claimed to have opposed Nantah’s use of the language of the race in order to stamp out racial education. Being born and bred in English and Malay, the language of your ‘race’ is English and Malay. You therefore cannot claim to be stamping out racial education since you didn’t stamp out the two languages of your ‘race’. You were merely stamping out political opposition the strongest of which happened to be the Chinese speaking.

Singapore workers earning more

December 4, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 1 Dec 2011 report on Singapore worker’s wage increase. Does Singapore worker refer to Singapore citizens or Singapore residents which include PRs? Should we, as a nation, be more concerned about Singapore citizen wages or Singapore resident wages?

You reported a 5.3% increase in median wages from $2,500 last year to $2,633 this year and a 1.6% increase in labour force to 2.08 million. If the increase in labour force comprise mainly new PRs earning high salaries, that would by itself bring the median income up so that part of the median wage increase comes from merely including more high salaried PRs into the computation.

You reported that a full time worker’s median income rose 8% from $2,708 last year to $2,925 this year. At the same time, HDB resale price index rose by 11.8% from second quarter last year to second quarter this year. It seems like wage increase cannot keep up with housing price increase. While wage increase is a couple of hundred dollars, HDB price increase is tens of thousands of dollars.

You reported full-timer median income ‘soared’ to $3,250 when CPF is included. Even that is only 8.3% ($250) more compared to last year which is also less than HDB price increase.