Archive for February, 2012

Parliament​ary Question on flash floods in Orchard Road

February 19, 2012

Dear Dr Balakrishnan,

I refer to your 9 Jan 2012 parliament replies to questions on Orchard Road flash floods:

You explained that the three recent floods over the Orchard Road area are part of a larger, longer rainfall change in Singapore. By plotting Singapore’s maximum one-hour rainfall over the last 30 years, you concluded together with the expert panel that Singapore is experiencing increasing rainfall intensity.

If rainfall intensity is indeed the culprit for our recent floods, shouldn’t there be a worse flood in 1995 since it recorded a higher maximum rainfall intensity of about 145 mm in 1 hour compared to 130 mm in 1 hour in 2010? Similarly, 2007’s maximum rainfall intensity of about 135 mm in 1 hour is also more than that in 2010. No massive flooding of Orchard Road in 2007 either.

While the slope of the trend line looks rather steep on your graph, it is merely 10 mm rise over 11 years (1987 to 1998) or less than 1 mm rise per year. Are you saying that one extra mm of rain going from 2009 to 2010 led to the 2010 Orchard Road floods? The trend line alone is insufficient to conclude that we are facing a situation of increasing rainfall intensity. What is the statistical significance of the trend line? What is the strength of the correlation between rainfall intensity and year?

You asked the PUB to assume we will continue to have storms exactly similar to the last three episodes. Have you asked the PUB whether we had similar storms prior to the last three episodes? Your case will be so much stronger if you can show Singaporeans that the last three episodes were the only such storms Orchard Road ever experienced in the last thirty years.

You concluded by saying that the weather has changed. What better way than to blame it on the weather. But the fact is that while Singapore weather can suddenly change from day to day, the underlying trend doesn’t suddenly change from year to year. It doesn’t suddenly change from no floods in 2009 to massive floods in 2010. Only human activities can bring about such rapid changes.


Why PAP ‘old guards’ are not our founding fathers

February 15, 2012

Dear Straits Times, ESM Goh and Mr Palmer,

I refer to the following Straits Times reports:

  • He worked for Singapore all his life – 4 Feb 2012
  • No ‘dumb cow’ but a vocal critic in the House – 4 Feb 2012
  • PAP founding chairman dies – 4 Feb 2012
  • PAP pioneers remember a fighter – 4 Feb 2012
  • What if there had been no Toh Chin Chye? – 4 Feb 2012
  • Dr Toh ‘of a generation of warriors and builders’ – 6 Feb 2012
  • Minute of silence for late Dr Toh – 15 Feb 2012
  • It is heartening to learn that Dr Toh was the veneer of strength behind his more illustrious colleague Mr Lee Kuan Yew; how he exuded intellectual independence rarely seen in parliament these days and how he truly cared for the people. He embodied all that Singaporeans want in our leaders: strong but not bullying, intellectual rather than just scholarly but above all: truly caring.

    The reports referred to Dr Toh as one of Singapore’s founding fathers who struggled for Singapore’s independence and who manoeuvred against the ‘communists’. Dr Toh’s struggle against supposed ‘communists’ wasn’t a struggle for independence but a struggle for power instead. A struggle for independence has to be against some foreign power whose rule we want to overthrow. We can therefore either speak of independence struggle against British rule before 1963 or against Malaysian rule between 1963 and 1965. Dr Toh and his colleagues didn’t struggle against British rule but used British might instead to wipe out political foes and received power from the British. They also didn’t struggle against Malaysian rule but actively courted Malaysian rule instead. Independence fell onto our laps when we were kicked out of Malaysia by Tunku Abdul Rahman. Is the act of founding one of merely receiving independence or one of fighting for independence? To regard founding simply as receiving independence is to cheapen what founding means. India’s founding for example is more closely associated with Mohandas Ghandi, the leader of their independence movement than with Nehru, their first prime minister. Our founding should similarly be more closely associated with those who fought for our independence than those who merely inherited independence. Several books regard anti-colonialism amongst the local populace as the fundamental reason why Britain granted us self-rule:

  • To defuse hostile sentiments against colonial rule, the colonial government had to accept constitution reformation in 1954 to grant Singapore greater internal self-government [1].
  • The people’s vehement desire for self-government was why Britain had to grant early self-government in order to gain the people’s acquiescence to govern them [2].
  • The trade union movement bore Singapore out of colonialism and into statehood [3].
  • There is little doubt that the exodus of British capital and activity due to strikes and unrest hastened the relinquishing of control over internal affairs [4].
  • It was thus the ordinary workers and students, the so-called ‘leftists’ or ‘pro-communists’ who fought for our independence through trade union and student movements. There was nothing particularly communist about these movements which were driven by genuine worker grievances [5] and discrimination against the Chinese educated [6]. Throughout the world today, there are still people who demonstrate against work place and social injustices such as the 2011 Batam demonstrations for fair wage and the 2011 ethnic Indian demonstrations in Malaysia.

    At that time, many strikes began peacefully but turned violent only because employers hired secret society members to break up strikes which led to scuffles or they were triggered by the police using water cannons to disperse picketers [3]. Even David Marshall didn’t think they were communists but Chinese chauvinists instead [7]. The Malayan Communist Party itself admitted that they had no control over the rioters and even criticised the rioters for being overly militant [8]. The MCP had been outlawed in 1948 and their Singapore operation had been badly crippled by the Special Branch in 1949 so that subsequent riots weren’t communist led but arose out of the spontaneous boiling over of hatred accumulated through years of suffering social injustice.

    As we remember the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, let us not forget that these so-called ‘leftists’ were the ones who resisted the Japanese invasion and who fought a guerrilla warfare with the Japanese throughout the years of Japanese Occupation. They were our true patriots who laid down their lives for Singapore compared to some of the PAP ‘old guards’ who worked for the Japanese instead. Should our founding fathers be those who fought the Japanese or those who worked for the Japanese?

    It is interesting to note that the so-called leftists included luminaries like Tan Kah Kee and Tan Lark Sye who contributed much to Singapore education and philanthropy. The former was branded as a communist, prevented from returning to Singapore and forced to live out the rest of his life in China [9]. The latter was stripped of his citizenship and forced to live out his life in Malaysia [10]. How to believe these were hard core communists all out to ruin Singapore? They were businessmen who would have continued to contribute to Singapore’s prosperity had they not been persecuted.

    Many Singaporeans are grateful to the PAP ‘old guards’ and regard them as our founding fathers because they believe the ‘old guards’ took us from Third World to First. The following books suggest that Singapore wasn’t Third World when PAP took over in 1959:

  • In 1960, Singapore’s per capita GDP was $1,330, which gave the country a middle-income status [11].
  • Post-war Singapore was never a backward fishing village waiting to be transformed by Lee Kuan Yew into a modern economy. The King of Thailand wouldn’t have sent 20 of his sons to a fishing village for education in the late nineteenth century. A fishing village could not have staged a manned air flight as early as 1911. Singapore was credited with the finest airport in the British Empire in the 1930s. In Aug 1967, speaking to American businessmen in Chicago, Lee Kuan Yew acknowledged that we were already a metropolis [12].
  • Unemployment in 1960 was estimated to be 4.9% [13]
  • The following book suggests that our progress was simply a matter of continuing our colonial tradition of free market adaptation:

  • Development through multinationals required no more than what Singapore had always done historically – respond to changes in the international economy and in foreigner requirements. Accepting foreign enterprise is a continuation of a long tradition of adaptability (since colonial times) [14].
  • The following books suggest that resourcefulness of people, favourable global conditions and luck played a part too:

  • According to the Winsemius Mission: resourcefulness of her people, active industrial promotion by government and close cooperation between employers and labour will allow Singapore to successfully carry out its proposed programme [15].
  • Until 1973, growth was made possible by an expanding world economy unfettered by trade and investment restrictions, supported by trade liberalisation in developed countries that was sparked off by the Kennedy Round of multilateral trade negotiations in the Sixties. Singapore was also given access to industrialised markets under the Generalised System of Preferences [16].
  • Some of Singapore’s economic success must be attributed to luck. For example, it benefited from the oil exploration boom in the region in the early 1970s. Singapore’s leaders were guided by the counsel of the eminent Dutch economist, Dr Albert Winsemius who was struck by the often informally acquired skills of Singapore labourers whom he watched undertaking effective repair jobs with simple tools [17].
  • The following books suggest the indispensability of Dr Winsemius to Singapore’s development:

  • Dr Winsemius and I.F. Tang made extraordinary contributions to the economic development of Singapore as leader and secretary of the first UN Industrialisation Survey Team in 1961 [18].
  • With Singapore’s secession in 1965, the United Nations Proposed Industrialization Programme for the State of Singapore became the basis for Singapore’s industrialisation strategy [19].
  • The 1960-61 United Nations mission led by Albert Winsemius helped develop a blueprint for Singapore’s industrialisation and development plan and recommended the establishment of EDB [20].
  • The following books suggest that the PAP ‘old guards’ foolishly chose import substitution first but were forced to switch to export industrialisation only when we were kicked out of Malaysia:

  • Singapore at first adopted the industrialisation policy of import substitution, followed after 1966 by the export of labour intensive manufactured goods [21].
  • Singapore’s industrialisation strategy was originally dependent on policies of import substitution within the Malaysian common market, but the attainment of political independence in 1965 led to export industrialisation [22].
  • Import substitution was adopted in the early 1960s in anticipation of the Malayan common market. However, Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 dashing the hopes of the common market, hence an export strategy was promoted instead [23].
  • Thus, our development was in accordance to Dr Winsemius and his team’s plans, we avoided the mistake of import substitution only because we were kicked out of Malaysia, we had resourceful people, favourable global conditions, good luck and were merely continuing the good, old colonial tradition of free market adaptation. Thus, many factors contributed to our progress; the notion of the PAP ‘old guards’ singularly dragging us from Third World to First is false.

    Finally, we must also consider the deplorable manner with which the PAP dealt with its political opponents and ask ourselves if these are what we expect of our founding fathers. When PAP detained Barisan leaders during Operation Cold Store for alleged connection to the Brunei anti-Malaysia revolt, the British Commissioner Lord Selkirk and his deputy Philip Moore believed the Barisan had intended to work within constitutional means. Subsequent British investigations found little evidence of the allegation for which Barisan leaders had been detained. Yet, by the time the Barisan leaders were released, the election was over [24]. The operation thus appears politically motivated and lacking in scruple. When David Marshall tried to visit the detainees, he found appalling conditions worse than that experienced by those who were detained in Malaysia and worse than anything ever experienced under the colonial government [25]. How can we associate such cruel methods with our founding fathers?

    The PAP also cracked down on unions for union fund misuse when the funds were used to support families of striking workers and detained union leaders but weren’t properly documented due to poor accounting practices then. One example is Jamit Singh who was charged with misappropriating funds in 1962, jailed and then banished to Malaya. Jamit protested by saying that helping people is a matter of heart, not keeping records. Deputy public prosecutor, Francis Seow subsequently admitted that the trial was intended to reduce Singh’s capacity for ‘political mischief’ [26]. Again, how can we associate such cruel methods with our founding fathers?

    Worst of all are the experiences of Chia Thye Poh and Lim Hock Siew who were locked away / confined for 32 and 18 years respectively. To say that Dr Toh’s service to the nation is at great sacrifice to his career and prospects is to trivialise the sacrifices of those whose best years were taken away from them without ever being tried or convicted.

    In conclusion, there is hardly any good reason to regard the PAP ‘old guards’ as our founding fathers. They inherited rather than fought for our independence and were followers too albeit of Dr Winsemius’ plans. Above all, they were guilty of perpetuating injustices unbefitting of founding fathers.

    [1] Derek Heng, Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Singapore in Global History, Page 220
    [2] Karl Hack, Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia, page 224
    [3] Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Chapter 11
    [4] Chris J Dixon, South East Asia in the world economy, Page 144
    [5] Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Chapter 11
    At that time, workers worked 12 to 14 hours a day with only two days leave during Chinese New Year. Of the 1955 strikes, half were sympathy strikes while subsequent ones were mostly economic in nature. The strikes brought about an increase in pay, sick pay and two weeks’ annual leave for workers. Various ordnances between 1955 and 1957 gave workers eight-hour work day and Sunday off, something we take for granted today. The unions sought to address genuine workers’ grievances and to restore their rights and dignity.
    The National Service ruling angered Chinese Middle School students because they were compelled to defend the same British order that had discriminated against them and in which they saw no future. Largely, the Chinese who felt that they were not treated as equals by the British did not feel obliged to serve the colonial government.
    [7] Carl A. Trocki, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Page 127
    [8] C C Chin, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Chapter 3
    [9] Robin Ramcharan, Forging a Singaporean statehood, 1965-1995: the contribution of Japan, Page 111
    [10] Edwin Lee, Singapore: the unexpected nation, Page 296
    [11] Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control, Page 166
    [12] Peter Wilson / Gavin Peebles, Economic growth and development in Singapore: past and future, Page 26
    [13] Philip Nalliah Pillai, State enterprise in Singapore: legal importation and development, Page 29
    [14] W. G. Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century, Page 36
    [15] R. P. Le Blanc, Singapore. the Socio-Economic Development of a City-State: 1960-1980, Page 14
    [16] R. P. Le Blanc, Singapore. the Socio-Economic Development of a City-State: 1960-1980, Page 22
    [17] Diane K. Mauzy / Robert Stephen Milne, Singapore politics under the People’s Action Party, Page 66
    [18] Ngiam Tong Dow / Simon Tay, A Mandarin and the making of public policy: reflections, Page 66
    [19] Philip Nalliah Pillai, State enterprise in Singapore: legal importation and development, Page 30
    [20] Danny M Leipziger, Lessons from East Asia, Page 240
    [21] Jacques Charmes, In-service training: five Asian experiences, Bernard Salomé, Page 21
    [22] Robert Fitzgerald, The Competitive advantages of Far Eastern business, Page 55
    [23] Eddie C. Y. Kuo / Chee Meng Loh / K. S. Raman, Information technology and Singapore society, Page 87
    [24] Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Page 218
    [25] Carl A. Trocki, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Page 121
    [26] Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Page 218-219

    Why Singapore Has the Cleanest Government Money Can Buy

    February 6, 2012

    Dear Bloomberg editors,

    I refer to your 25 Jan 2012 editorial on why Singapore has the cleanest government money can buy which was reproduced by the Straits Times on 27 Jan 2012.

    Our public service has no lack of the best and brightest; many of them take up scholarships at the age of 18 and by the time they are accelerated through the ranks to reach prominent positions in the civil service, they would have more or less been entrenched in the public service. There is no need to pay millions to attract these already well entrenched, well paid civil servant high fliers.

    Over herding them into government leaves little for the private sector. Perhaps that is why Singapore has yet to produce our own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and has to continue to depend very much on First World investments.

    While Singapore is amongst the least corrupt and best governed according to the Transparency International and the World Bank respectively, it is not the cleanest government money can buy in 2011, which according to the Transparency International, is New Zealand followed by Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Not only do these countries have cleaner governments than ours, their ministers cost only a fraction of ours too. Our contemporaries: Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland show that we do not need to pay our politicians million dollar salaries to be least corrupt and best governed.

    The World Bank has other indicators like ‘voice and accountability’. It wouldn’t be fair to pay ministers on the basis of good performance on some indicators while ignoring poor performance on other indicators. Furthermore, government doesn’t just comprise a handful of ministers but includes thousands of civil servants too. We can’t attribute good government performance solely to a handful of ministers while ignoring the contributions of thousands of civil servants.

    The region comprises many Third World nations; it wouldn’t be fair to compare First World Singapore with Third World nations like Cambodia. While it is understandable why low civil service salaries in poor countries can lead to corruption, it doesn’t make sense why already high ministerial salaries in prosperous Singapore is not enough to prevent ministerial corruption so much so they have to be boosted to stratospheric levels. Does it mean that our ministers are potentially corruptible if paid just $999,999 a year and must therefore be paid more than a million dollars a year to keep them from getting corrupted?

    Singapore also has our own form of amkudari. Many of our high ranking military officials retire into high positions in government linked companies. Relationships between ex-colleagues in public service and government linked companies exist too.

    The old saying in Asia is less relevant now in new Asia where Asian MNCs make real, good money. Singapore was already very capitalist and efficient when we were a British colony. We didn’t have to pay million dollar salaries at the highest levels of public service then to make Singapore efficient. Million dollar salaries is not the reason why Singapore continues to be efficient today. Excessive capitalism, as protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement have realized, is detrimental to society. Wall Street’s excessive capitalism is not what Singapore should strive for at the highest levels of public service.

    The best government that money alone cannot buy

    February 5, 2012

    Dear Professor Rappa,

    I refer to your 13 Jan 2012 Straits Times article.

    If you deem people’s sense of envy as having run wild when they compare their salaries with those of the ministers, wouldn’t you also deem ministers’ sense of envy as having run wild too when they compare their salaries with those of the top 1,000 earners? If people’s viewpoints arising out of such ‘envious’ comparisons are considered invalid as serious critiques of the issue, surely the ministers’ similarly ‘envious’ benchmark with the top 1,000 earners ought to be considered invalid as well?

    While it is convenient to attribute the even distribution of the fruits of growth to globalization, the truth according to a recent IPS study is that our growth distribution is far more uneven than many other First World economies exposed to the same forces of globalization.

    There is no basis to say that the middle class rich is jealous of the ultra-rich for they never said anything against Singapore’s ultra-rich like Mr Ng Teng Fong or Mr Wee Cho Yaw. Singaporeans know that these are self-made ultra-rich unlike many ministers who merely claim that they belong to the same ultra-rich category but cannot convince Singaporeans that they are of ultra-rich pedigree deserving of ultra-rich salaries.

    A sizeable portion of Singaporeans’ wealth is locked in property. While there is no reason to begrudge our property wealth, we must learn to recognize them for what they are: paper wealth that cannot be used to improve our standards of living. Are we really wealthy or are we merely asset rich but cash poor? The question of why squander Singapore wealth with cheap politics assumes in the first place that Singapore wealth is a result of expensive politics. But Singapore was already prosperous during colonial times, long before we had expensive politics. Many First World economies like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Hong Kong have become wealthy without expensive politics. Why pay for expensive politics when wealth can be found with much cheaper politics?

    You remind Singaporeans highest paid doesn’t mean richest because the richest politicians get money from multiple sources. That is a misconception rather than a comprehensive concept because the so-called multiple sources do not lead to riches. For example, legitimate British MP housing claims do not make the British MP richer but merely compensate him for the extra expenses he incurred in say making a trip from Scotland to London to attend parliament. Illegitimate claims are few and far between; those uncovered in Britain recently form only a tiny fraction of all claims made. The important thing is that they were uncovered nonetheless so there can be no multiple sources to riches in First World nations.

    Why ape politicians in blaming Singaporeans for expecting the highest standards? Is a simple flat to live in too much to ask for? Is proper train evacuation too much to ask for? Is flood prevention in Orchard Road, the symbol of our prosperity too much to ask for? If you think these are the highest standards, your standards must be very low indeed.

    Not giving away billions of dollars to a friendly neighbour doesn’t show that our ministers are strong; it just shows that they are not idiots. We can poll Singaporeans to find out how many would give away billions of dollars to a friendly neighbour. If all say no, does that mean that Singaporeans are all strong and deserving of million dollar salaries as well? While paying more or paying less is unethical, the right ehtical amount is not for you, the ministers or a committee to decide. It is for all Singaporeans to decide.

    Don’t confuse ‘ministers’ with ‘government’. What you probably wanted to say was that we should not risk our children’s future by thinking that good ministers can be had on the cheap. But not to be had on the cheap doesn’t mean they should be had on the expensive. If countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Hong Kong can have good, inexpensive ministers that enhance children’s future, why can’t Singapore? This is not the Great Singapore Sale but the Great Singapore Ransom.

    While MPs spend long, repetitive, monotonous hours listening to the issues of their constituents, they only do so once a week. When spread over the week, the hours are not that long so much so that many MPs can actually hold a full time job concurrently. It’s not that people begrudge MP allowances or doubt that they work hard for their money. But the hourly rate of the MP is so good it’s hard to imagine they are working any harder than most ordinary folks in the street.

    You ask Singapore to strive for the best government money alone cannot buy. The World Bank has been ranking government effectiveness since 1996. If we average out government effectiveness scores since 1996 to smoothen out the effects of specific events like SARs or the Global Financial Crisis, the best governments are those of Denmark’s and Finland’s. We should strive for these governments which are not only better than ours but have much cheaper ministers too.

    Clean wage versus pay with perks

    February 4, 2012

    Dear Mr Calvin Cheng,

    I refer to your 10 Jan 2012 Straits Times article.

    You refer to hospitalization benefits, housing benefits and tax exemptions as hidden perks in other countries. But hospitalization benefit is not a perk. No one will want to stay in a hospital for two weeks every year just to claim hospitalization benefits. The hospitalization claim goes to reimburse hospitalization charges; it doesn’t go into the politician’s pockets. Hence, politicians in other countries cannot fatten their pockets no matter how many times they get hospitalized. Conversely, our politicians receive Medisave every month regardless of whether they get hospitalized or not.

    Similarly, housing benefit is also not a perk but reimbursement for necessary expenditure arising out of politician’s duties. The Green Book states very clearly that British MP claims, including housing claims, must reflect actual usage and must be incurred while performing parliamentary duties. It defines clearly conditions for additional housing claims such as when main home is in constituency, for overnight stays in London or when main home is in London, for overnight stays in constituency. These claims as they are spelt out in the Green Book are not perks for they do not add to the British MP’s pockets but merely compensate for the additional expenditure they incur such as when a Scottish MP stays in London to attend parliament. Not only the claims themselves aren’t perks, the abuse of those claims is also not perks but petty corruption. Paying the politician millions doesn’t mean that the politician is not corrupted anymore. It just means we are helping the potentially corruptible politician by giving him what he wants to take for himself and more.

    You mentioned in a New Paper report, the US president’s tax exempt allowances for entertainment ($50,000) and unanticipated needs (up to $1 million). But the US president is not just the chief executive of the US; he is also the US head of state. He is like our president and prime minister rolled into one. As such, the US president’s allowances for entertainment and unanticipated needs should be compared with our president’s entertainment allowances and Class IV expenses for special services which amounted to $73,000 and $659,300 respectively in 2010. All these expenses were paid for by the state. The salary review committee only mentioned that our president’s use of the state car is taxable. Presumably all other benefits associated with our president are non-taxable, including the employment of four drivers. If most of our president’s benefits are tax exempt too, why make an issue out of tax exemption?

    Similarly, the free accommodation in the White House should be compared with free accommodation in the Istana. The White House’s army of servants and staff should be compared with our Istana’s army of servants, staff and aide-de-camps. The total cost of SGD $11.6 million for running the Istana in 2010 is comparable to the US $12.8 million operating cost of running the White House (“To serve the President: continuity and innovation in the White House staff” by Bradley Hawkes Patterson).

    Why wonder about the Chinese president’s ability to afford respectable accommodation when we know that China provides its president with an official residence just as Singapore provides our president with an official residence?

    Your arguments about ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean’ wages appear very unclean. When drilled deeper, they turn out to be groundless false comparisons. It is self-deceiving and shameless to claim that we alone implement ‘clean’ wages while nobody else in the world does. Our wages are no cleaner than those of other nations and the salary league tables truly reflect our politicians’ astronomical high pay vis-a-vis other nations, benefits accounted for.

    While the man on the street cannot fathom the million dollar salaries that our ministers receive, it doesn’t mean that he has no right to judge those salaries because it is he who puts ministers into their positions. If granted the million dollar salary is excessive to begin with, then spending all that salary is also excessive and the minister only has himself to blame for spending excessively if he ever has to downgrade from say a bungalow to a semi-detached which is hardly a downgrade as far as the man on the street is concerned. Many of the new political appointment holders were getting far less than $1 million before they joined politics so it would be speculative to say they would, by the time they reached their 40s, achieve and settle into a lifestyle that requires $1 million salaries. Whatever that their lifestyles entailed before they joined politics would have been adequately met by their former salaries that were far less than $1 million. It is not a given that they would have to forgo houses, cars, children’s education any more than they could have afforded with their former salaries.

    The time of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee wasn’t a time of revolution for Lee and Dr Goh never led a revolution but merely cooperated with our colonial masters and received power from them. If it was pure luck that we got good people as our leaders compared to rapacious leaders who impoverished other countries, is it also pure luck that Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and China got good people who led them to equally impressive growth and prosperity today? How do you explain good luck falling almost exclusively on East Asia alone?

    Our country’s future doesn’t depend primarily on our leaders alone, for what can our leaders achieve with a country full of idiots? Our future depends instead on our collective strength as a nation and the people comprising it. It is wrong to attribute the prosperity that all Singaporeans contribute to entirely to our politicians and pay them on that basis. While political work is not charity work, neither is it Wall Street work. We have been denouncing the astronomical high pay of Wall Street bankers. Wall Street is not an example we should follow.

    While Grace Fu doesn’t deserve the rudeness that she received, neither do Singaporeans deserve her insensitive remarks.

    Ministeria​l pay report draws on sound principles

    February 1, 2012

    Dear Zao Bao editor,

    I refer to the 11 Jan 2012 Straits Times translation of your 9 Jan 2012 Zao Bao commentary on ministerial pay.

    The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index classifies Singapore as a hybrid regime between flawed democracy and authoritarian regime. Many other international rankings report the same thing. It is therefore inappropriate to refer to ministerial salary formulation as a ‘creative’ product of Singapore ‘democracy’ since we do not have full and complete democracy. While feedback was taken from the public, negative feedback may have been glossed over in favour of more positive ones. Whether pay-cuts meet people’s expectations is a matter of opinion. We don’t know for sure until we carry out a general survey of the populace.

    The principle of competitive salary based on benchmarking with the median of the top 1,000 earners is flawed because those ear marked to become ministers didn’t come from the top 1,000 earners. Why claim to pay top 1,000 salaries to get top 1,000 talents but end up getting talents far below top 1,000 instead? If the new political appointment holders came from the top 100,000 instead, shouldn’t we pay top 100,000 salaries instead? If we do that, we may find that the discount is not so steep after all. In fact, for some new appointment holders, there is no discount at all but a pay rise instead. Employing someone far below top 1,000 does little to support the claim that top 1,000 salaries is ‘competitive pay’. If anything goes, it actually shows that top 1,000 salaries is indeed high pay instead.

    The argument that if the candidate is up to the job, he deserves the pay is similarly flawed. First, we price the job at top 1,000 salaries because we say we want top 1,000 people. Once we employ someone into that position, we then say that since he has the top 1,000 job, he deserves top 1,000 salaries. It’s a circular argument. Salary justifies salary which is no justification at all.

    It is not true that political salaries are taboo in democratic countries for they do discuss salaries from time to time which get adjusted from time to time. It is also not true that other governments are not daring while our government is courageous in pushing for million dollar salaries. Other governments may simply find it distasteful, vulgar and immoral to ask for million dollar salaries for themselves while our government may simply be taking for granted our citizens’ acquiescence. It is also not true that many such democratic countries are ruled by populism. Are Switzerland, Denmark, Finland or Sweden ruled by populism? If Singapore is not ruled by populism, why does it dish out extra ang pows and HDB upgradings once every five years?

    The government didn’t put up a convincing argument. For example, they tried to compare our ‘clean’ wages with the ‘unclean’ wages in Britain by saying that UK MP claims are perks. But UK MP claims are not perks but are reimbursements for necessary expenditure arising out of British MP duties that Singapore MPs don’t normally incur like travelling from Scotland to London to attend parliament.

    No one doubts the importance of good governance and capable government but to say that our survival and development depends on them is simply over exaggerating. Even Dr Goh Keng Swee didn’t think it was good governance and capable government that our survival and development depended on. In Chapter 1 of the book “The Practice of Economic Growth”, Dr Goh listed our superb geographic location, colonial institutions of free trade, free enterprise and the development of our neighbours as key to our development.

    Suppose the US is like us and bright individuals like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs joined the government instead of setting up their own firms, would the world have been better off? Their talents would have been wasted with no guarantee that they would have controlled Wall Street’s big alligators and fat cats. The spark for the global financial crisis is the sub-prime crisis which is essentially the loss in control of housing prices. When you look at Singapore, our so-called ‘talented’ ministers also didn’t control housing prices very well. It was only with much exhortation from the people and an imminent election that things started to change. Our experience shows that ‘talented’ ministers may not have been any wiser.

    It’s strange that while you were so meticulous in working out the inflation adjusted salary of George Washington today, you conveniently ignored inflation when discussing Singapore’s per capita GDP increase from 1965 to 2010. Singapore is not the only nation with rapid growth in per capita GDP or huge national reserves. China, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong outgrew us in terms of real per capita GDP increase from 1960 to 2009. They too have huge national reserves. These countries or economies have similarly achieved what we have achieved. Would you say that their successes are also due to capable and committed governments? Are you saying that the collective progress of East Asia is due to our collective luck of having capable and committed governments? How do you prove that? How do you account for the fact that even though international agencies rate China, Taiwan and South Korea governments much lower than ours, these economies have kept pace with us in terms of economic progress and development?

    The recent election experiences of George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua, Zainul Abidin Rasheed and Ong Ye Kung do not support the claim that politics is no walk in the park. George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua are the only two minister casualties since 1965. Zainul Abidin is close to retirement while Ong Ye Kung easily went back to his old position of assistant secretary general of NTUC. Even Raymond Lim found prestigious employment after the elections. The Straits Times letter you read is therefore not unreasonable.

    Singapore has prospered despite our mediocre politics so clearly demonstrated in our recent Third World parliament exchanges shown on TV. Your claim of rational discussion of political salaries not held hostage by emotions is betrayed by such exclamations as “How naive!”

    The catch phrase: ‘no such thing as cheap and good food’ may not be true always. We often hear connoisseurs say that good food need not be expensive so long as it is prepared with love and dedication. Almost every household has someone willing to stand the heat of the kitchen without asking for a high price. That person can be the wife, the mother, the father, we ourselves or even the maid. If someone is our beloved or our servant, he or she will not ask for a high price to cook for us. Conversely, if someone asks for a high price to cook for us, it means he or she is not our beloved and is not our servant.

    Singapore may be small, but that doesn’t mean it lacks talent. If relatively small Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Hong Kong do not bemoan talent shortage, there is no reason why we should be any different.