Wrong to say Yale resolution is wrong

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 14 Apr 2012 letter by Mr Michael Rebaczonok-Padulo [1].

Mr Padulo questioned the correctness of the Yale resolution’s concern for Singapore’s lack of respect for civil and political rights [2] by pointing to the fact that he has made Singapore his home. Does Mr Padulo’s making Singapore his home demonstrate that Singapore respects civil and political rights? Civil rights comprises amongst other things the right to a free press. Do we have press freedom? Singapore is ranked No. 135 on press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. All of Singapore’s paid newspapers are owned by one company the ownership of which is largely by government linked companies and whose chairperson has always been important ex-ministers. Even the free newspaper Today is owned by MediaCorp which is in turn owned by the government too.

Political rights include amongst other things, the right to assemble, the right to vote and the right to a fair trial. Singaporeans don’t have the right to assemble beyond five persons. Hougang citizens’ right to a by-election remains in doubt. Countless political detainees in Singapore history were never given a fair trial but were simply locked away under the Internal Security Act. Some were locked away for periods longer than Nelson Mandela had been. Therefore, Mr Padulo’s making Singapore his home doesn’t show that civil and political rights in Singapore are fully respected and doesn’t prove that the Yale resolution is wrong.

Mr Padulo claimed that Singapore is doing something right that is worthy of emulation because we have genuine respect and guarantee for the right to walk safely in the streets without fear of gunshots, we do not have overt racial or religious intolerance, we do not have grinding poverty unlike his birthplace, we have good governance and good public service unlike so-called ‘democratic’ countries which are so polarised nothing gets done to help the less fortunate.

The homicide rate data in the table below is from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While US’s 5 homicides per 100,000 people is indeed higher than Singapore’s 0.5 per 100,000, it is far less than bottom ranked Honduras’ 82.1 per 100,000 and close to the median of 4.9 per 100,000. If US is really such a dangerous place as Mr Padulo suggested, how could it have become the No.1 immigration destination in the world?

Country Latest Homicide Rate (per 100,000)
Monaco 0.0
Palau 0.0
Iceland 0.3
Hong Kong 0.5
Japan 0.5
Brunei 0.5
Singapore 0.5
Austria 0.5
Norway 0.6
Switzerland 0.7
Germany 0.8
Denmark 0.9
Sweden 1.0
Netherlands 1.1
Australia 1.2
United Kingdom 1.2
Ireland 1.2
France 1.4
New Zealand 1.5
Belgium 1.7
Canada 1.8
Macao 1.9
Malaysia 2.3
Taiwan 3.6
USA 5.0
Honduras 82.1

Mr Padulo has essentially focused on what Singapore does well but ignored what Singapore is not good at. The table [3] below brings together homicide rate, government effectiveness, corruption index, press freedom and democracy index. Singapore shines in three categories but barely passes the other two. Considered together, the US is actually slightly better than Singapore and many First World nations, particularly the Nordic countries, are better than us. They are the ones worthy of our emulation.

Country Latest Homicide Rate 2010 Government Effectiveness 2011 Corruption Index 2011/2012 Press Freedom 2011 Democracy Index Average
Denmark 9.9 9.3 9.4 9.7 9.5 9.6
Sweden 9.9 9.0 9.3 9.7 9.5 9.5
Norway 9.9 8.6 9.0 10.0 9.8 9.5
New Zealand 9.8 8.7 9.5 9.7 9.3 9.4
Switzerland 9.9 8.8 8.8 9.8 9.1 9.3
Netherlands 9.9 8.5 8.9 9.9 9.0 9.2
Canada 9.8 8.7 8.7 9.7 9.1 9.2
Iceland 10.0 8.2 8.3 9.8 9.7 9.2
Australia 9.9 8.6 8.8 9.1 9.2 9.1
Austria 9.9 8.8 7.8 9.9 8.5 9.0
Germany 9.9 8.1 8.0 9.5 8.3 8.8
Japan 9.9 7.8 8.0 9.4 8.1 8.7
Ireland 9.9 7.6 7.5 9.6 8.6 8.6
United Kingdom 9.9 8.1 7.8 9.2 8.2 8.6
Belgium 9.8 8.2 7.5 9.5 8.1 8.6
France 9.8 7.9 7.0 8.7 7.8 8.2
Hong Kong 9.9 8.5 8.4 8.2 5.9 8.2
USA 9.4 7.9 7.1 8.4 8.1 8.2
Singapore 9.9 9.5 9.2 5.3 5.9 8.0
Taiwan 9.6 7.4 6.1 8.5 7.5 7.8
Macao 9.8 7.6 5.1 7.5
Brunei 9.9 6.8 5.2 5.6 6.9
Malaysia 9.7 7.2 4.3 5.7 6.2 6.6
Honduras 0.0 3.7 2.6 5.3 5.8 3.5
Monaco 10.0
Palau 10.0 3.3

Again, if racism is so severe in US, it is unlikely that US could become the No. 1 immigration destination in the world. My colleague’s sister emigrated to US many years ago and is so happy with her good life there she says she’s never coming back to Singapore. How could she be so happy in US if racism is such a big problem there? Mr Padulo’s anecdotal evidence is easily countered by other anecdotal evidences. Without data to back him up, his opinion is just one out of thousands of opinions out there. We can also consider that 297,200 Singaporeans or 6.1% of our population have emigrated compared to 2,423,600 Americans or 0.8% of Americans [4]. If Singapore is so much better than US, how come our emigration rate is so much higher than theirs?

It is also difficult to compare ‘grinding’ poverty because unlike US, Singapore hasn’t defined a poverty line. But a report by Belinda Yuen in the Global Urban Development Magazine (Volume 3, Issue 1, Nov 2007) might shed some light:

“If going by the recent number of street people picked up by the authorities, about 170-300 people in Singapore make the streets their home every year. Many (50%) are old (60 and above years old) and have no family, employment or skills. Others are abandoned by their own families. In one report, the Singapore Department of Statistics has released a figure of about 4 per cent of Singapore’s resident population (or 120,000) living at or close to the poverty line in 1998 (The Straits Times, 31 May 2000). Income distribution as measured by the Gini coefficient was 0.481 in 2000. In the most recent population census (2000a), 12.6 per cent of households (116,300 households) in Singapore earned less than S$1000 a month (average household income was S$4943 per month). The lowest 10% of households excluding those with no income earners had an average monthly income of S$459 in 2000 (average household size was 3.7) (Singapore Census of Population, 2001). The unofficial national definition of poverty drawn from the income qualifying criteria in various public assistance schemes seems to cover those surviving on less than S$10 per person per day.”

Some statistics may give us a feel of the poverty situation in Singapore:

– 4.6% of resident households live in 1-room or 2-room flats [5-1]

– 3.5% of resident households are non-retiree households but with no working persons [5-2]

– 3.4% of resident households have household income less than $1,000 a month [5-3]

– Bottom 10% average household income is $1,460 [5-4]

Our public assistance is $400, $700, $880 and $1050 for 1-person, 2-person, 3-person and 4-person households respectively [6]. Assuming the poverty line is roughly $1,000 a month, potentially 7.9% of households or 90,550 households fall below this line. Yet, there are only 2,929 recipients of public assistance [7]. It is difficult to believe Mr Padulo’s claim of no ‘grinding’ poverty in Singapore given such a huge disparity between the number of households falling below the public assistance poverty line and the actual number receiving public assistance.

Talk is cheap. Mr Padulo should substantiate what he says with facts and figures.

[1] Straits Times, 14 Apr 2012, Yale resolution wrong, says former American

[2] Straits Times, 6 Apr 2012, Yale to proceed with NUS college tie-up

[3] Table sources:

– Latest homicide rate from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Data ranged from 0 homicide rate for Monaco and Palau to 82.1 per 100,000 for Honduras. Data has been converted to a 0 to 10 scale by first dividing every data point by 82.1, then taking the negative, then adding 10.

– 2010 Government effectiveness from World Bank’s Aggregate Governance Indicators. Data ranged from -2.5 to 2.5 and has been converted to a 0 to 10 scale by adding 2.5 then multiplying by 2.

– 2011 Corruption index from Transparency International. Data already in 0 to 10 scale.

– 2011/2012 Press Freedom from Reporters Without Borders. Data ranged from -10 (best) to 142 (worst). Data has been converted to 0 to 10 scale by first taking the negative, then adding 142, then dividing by 142 and then multiplying by 10.

– 2011 Democracy Index from Economist Intelligence Unit. Data already in 0 to 10 scale.

[4] Migration and Remittances factbook 2011 Second Edition, Page 221, Page 252

[5] Key Household Characteristics and Household Income Trends, 2011
[4-1] Table 3, Resident Households by Type of Dwelling, 2000-2011
[4-2] Table 4. Resident households by number of working persons, 2000-2011
[4-3] Table 6. Resident households by monthly household income from work, 2000-2011 (excluding employer CPF)
[4-4] Table 14. Average monthly household income of lowest 10th decile (excluding employer CPF)
[6] http://app1.mcys.gov.sg/Assistance/PublicAssistancePAScheme.aspx

[7] Yearbook of Statistics Singapore, 2011, Item 22.5 Public Assistance Recipients by Category

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