Archive for January, 2013

Hoping for no change

January 23, 2013

I refer to the 23 Jan 2013 Straits Times report “Koh said ‘no’ to PM at first”.

Dr Koh hopes that he will not change with time and will continue to be himself instead of toeing the PAP party line even when he disagreed with it. If Dr Koh himself isn’t sure he won’t change with time, how can we be sure he will be sufficiently convicted of his ideals and beliefs and not compromise on them when the time comes?

Dr Koh only has to look at his fellow medical specialist Dr Vivian Balakrishnan who was reputed to be a government critique but ended up defending government policies with the most unbelievable question “Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

Dr Koh’s wife says that Dr Koh wants to help people but people don’t want his help. Mrs Koh should understand that Dr Koh himself is unsure he won’t change with time. How can she be sure if Dr Koh won’t end up helping the party instead of helping the people?

Our transformation wasn’t from nothing

January 20, 2013

Dear Mr Wen Quan,

I refer to the 21 Dec 2012 Straits Times translation of your Xinhua News Agency article “Transforming an island from nothing”.

The notion that Singapore was transformed from nothing is far from the truth. The truth is that Singapore was already a prosperous city under the British long before the PAP came to power. Singapore has had 194 years of development since 1819, not just 40 years of hard work. The PAP government came to power riding on strong foundations and success left by the British colonial government and inheriting some of the finest institutions and government apparatus any government can hope to inherit. We were already the 4th richest state in Asia in 1960, we were already well ahead of the pack back then.

The miracle of forging success without hinterland, huge domestic market or natural resources was similarly achieved by our fellow East Asian economic dragons Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Our so-called economic miracle is common place amongst East Asian economies.

Sharing of fruits of development has been far from adequate to prevent widening of our income gap.

Singapore is paradise only when compared to the worst nations riddled with corruption, hatred, terrorism and extremism. Singapore pales when compared to truly First World nations. Singapore scored a dismal 26th in the United Nations Human Development Index, far from the paradise epitomised by chart toppers Norway, Australia and the Netherlands.

The success of many Western nation welfare states shows that success need not necessarily require making people pay for everything in life. Western nations also show that free education need not necessarily be detrimental to national success. The belief that fear of caning discourages criminals from committing crimes again is challenged by a letter from a prison volunteer who professed that caning is no longer the deterrent it used to be [1].

No one is above the law must now be tempered by the reality that MPs can, at their discretion, waive off parking fines as and when they deem fit. The law, as far as past events show, has nearly always ended in favour of the ruling party. This is merely stating the obvious based on past realities with no other implications whatsoever.

No additional allowances, housing allocation and health-care benefits are no justifications for astronomically high ministerial pay. In the case of the British, allowances don’t fatten politicians’ pockets but simply reimburse real, actual expenditures incurred in the course of performing duties.

The assistance and support schemes for our poor are pittances compared to those disbursed by First World nations.

There was no thorough debate before the government decided to open casinos. While we were allowed to make some noises, our views were in the end, not respected. The supposedly huge economic benefits are debatable considering that not all details are revealed, not all costs are considered and some supposed economic benefits are dubious.

Nordic governments perform better in governance and are more incorruptible without having to resort to million dollar salaries. It is the clearest example that million dollar salaries aren’t needed for politicians to do their job properly. In any case, going by the slew of recent problems, we may not be getting our money’s worth for the millions we are paying.

If the government understood the people, it wouldn’t have needed an election setback to decide to lower salaries, would it? It took not courage but a knock on its head before it would make such a decision.

The supposed acknowledgement by the government that its people are its most valuable resource may have become lip service now. From denying people’s call to control property prices until it could no longer deny it anymore to making callous statements like whether the people want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant, its callous attitude towards the people is obvious beyond doubt. Singapore doesn’t ensure everyone’s potential is maximised, it focuses instead on a few elites while the rest just makes up numbers. That is why we have one of the highest income inequality indices in the world. It ensures everyone is worked to the max by pricing everything so high that people simply can’t afford to slow down. This makes us not a dazzling garden city, but a debilitating, dehumanising corporation.

To ask the world to learn from Singapore’s people-oriented spirit is to ask people to search for Big Foot or the Loch Ness’ monster. Singapore has no people-oriented spirit for if we had, we wouldn’t be having so many grievances and votes against the government would we?

[1] STForum, 8 Jan 2013, Why Death Penalty is Needed
“ … the only punishment that they are truly frightened of is the death penalty.
Even though caning is very painful, for many of the prisoners, it is no longer a deterrent, and I know that many would be prepared to be caned again if the trade-off is that their prison terms can be shortened.
… among the older prisoners, many of whom were telling the man who was about to be caned that, compared to the “good old days”, the caning he would soon receive was “a piece of cake”.
Even though the maximum number of strokes that can be handed down by the courts is 24, I know of many prisoners who have been caned more than 50 times, over many prison terms.
Which means that for many hardcore offenders, once they have been caned, the fear of caning is no longer an effective deterrent.”

No more kampung to come home to

January 19, 2013

I refer to the 11 Jan 2013 Straits Times article “Homecoming for a bus driver’s son” on new PAP candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon.

Describing Dr Koh’s campaigning in Punggol as home coming is less than appropriate because the kampung that Dr Koh grew up in is no longer around for Dr Koh to come home to. Instead, the Punggol of today comprises one of the youngest and most educated populations who most likely grew up elsewhere and would not consider Dr Koh as someone coming home.

There is nothing exceptional about coming from humble backgrounds, many of us do and two of the three opposition candidates probably came from humble backgrounds too. Dr Koh’s humble childhood experience is probably nowhere as horrible as seeing one’s father sued bankrupt for reasons that are unclear to me. Having a humble background doesn’t mean one will empathise with the poor once one has become rich.

While it may seem that Dr Koh was so poor that he had to borrow money to renovate his flat in 1998, the fact is that 1998 was probably the year he graduated from medical school. Being able to pay for his flat down payment upon graduation is something most Singaporeans cannot afford to do, even today.

Dr Koh attributes his rise to Singapore’s sound policies put in place by a capable and committed government. But our basic policies were all inherited from our British colonial government; even Dr Goh Keng Swee acknowledges that. Many important policies were also crafted by our former economic advisor Dr Albert Winsemius. More importantly, our policies were crafted at a time when most people like Dr Koh’s parents had little education. There is no reason why our educated population today can’t think of better policies than Dr Koh or his government.

Dr Koh says helping residents is an extension of helping patients. But helping residents may mean taking precious time away from patients so patients may have to wait longer and suffer longer. It may also mean that in order not to spend too much time away from patients, his time with residents would be kept to the bare minimum. So in the end, the so-called sacred duty of representing residents is just a part-time job. If he were to eventually give up medicine to become a minister, it would be a gross waste of our nation’s precious resources used to support his medical education and specialist training.

Dr Koh says politics is his way of making sure that his kids grow up in a Singapore that is very much like the one he grew up in. The Singapore that Dr Koh grew up in didn’t have the deluge of immigration that we have today. Is Dr Koh saying he will challenge the government and make sure its policies are reversed? That would be most unexpected and to some extents illustrate the emptiness of what Dr Koh is saying.

Punggol East by-election

January 19, 2013

Fellow Singaporeans hoping for national issues to tip Punggol East votes towards the opposition may be left disappointed. The last election was just a little over a year-and-a-half ago. Nothing material has changed since then. Housing was already an issue then and seems more abated now. Even the recent MRT breakdown doesn’t generate much heat any more. A few scandals and an uncompleted shopping centre can’t do much to swing votes. The issues are more or less the same as before, the voters are also more or less the same as before. There’s therefore no reason why we should see much material change to the 55%:45% vote distribution of the last election in favour of the PAP. So even if the opposition had been united in fielding only one candidate, it is unlikely they would have performed much better than 45%. As such, it is actually better to have many candidates go around and make themselves seen and heard to boost their visibility and chances come next election.

The 10% gap between the PAP and non-PAP votes is unlikely to be closed this time. If the widely condemned Mah Bow Tan could secure 57% of votes last round, there is no reason why Dr Koh can’t secure at least 55% of votes for PAP this time. WP’s excellent performance in Hougang is the result of many years of cultivation of the ground by a man whom they have come to trust. WP’s good performance in Aljunied could be more than just trust in the same man. WP fielded a candidate with credentials no one in PAP could match. For many years, PAP has been cultivating the electorate to look at credentials. So last round, they finally got what they’ve always preached. Coming back to this by-election, the electorate does look at the individual and his or her credentials and in this respect; there seems to be no opposition candidate who can match Dr Koh.

After the last presidential election, people tend to lump the results of the ‘opposition’ candidate Tan Jee Say with the results of the ‘moderate’ candidate Tan Cheng Bock and claim that unity would have won the day for opposition supporters. But why don’t we see things the other way round and lump the results of Tan Cheng Bock with that of Tony Tan as the combined votes for PAP?

No matter how we look at it, the PAP is still the team to beat. The odds continue to be stacked against the opposition. The challenge for the opposition continues to be to field candidates with credentials that not only match but surpass those of the PAP.

No democracy in Singapore

January 3, 2013

Dear Professor Bryan Caplan,

I refer to your 3 Jan 2013 TR Emeritus posting “Democracy in Singapore”.

Although Singapore has several opposition parties, these are largely powerless parties with either little or no representation in parliament.

There are no lack of examples of what you would consider serious violation of civil rights. We have political detainees like Chia Thye Poh who was detained for longer than Nelson Mandela. Others like Dr Lim Hock Siew were similarly incarcerated for many years.

‘Hardly live in mortal fear of PAP’ doesn’t mean there is no fear. During the last election, the WP had to take pains to explain and convince voters that voting is secret. If there is no fear, why bother about whether voting is or is not secret?

It’s inappropriate to compare Singapore politics to Pakistan politics where widespread poverty means there is little to hold one back in going for broke to gain political power. The opportunity cost of politics in relatively prosperous Singapore on the other hand is much higher.

It is also wrong to assume that opposition candidates can easily gain power by campaigning on policies. Many Singaporeans, particularly the oldest generation who may have little education, don’t care about policies and simply vote the PAP without considering policies. This is partially supported by your quote [8] which reports 75.2% of Singaporeans disinterested in politics.

Your quote [6] doesn’t show Singapore to be stellar in “Rule of Law”. Instead, it shows Singapore to be middling amongst developed nations when it comes to “Rule of Law”. There are so many developed nations with better “Rule of Law” scores than us. To describe our score as ‘stellar’ would be to sterilise the word stellar.

Countries Rule of Law score 2011
DENMARK 1.92
NEW ZEALAND 1.91
NORWAY 1.89
NETHERLANDS 1.82
AUSTRIA 1.81
LUXEMBOURG 1.81
AUSTRALIA 1.78
IRELAND 1.77
SWITZERLAND 1.76
CANADA 1.76
SINGAPORE 1.69
UNITED KINGDOM 1.67
LIECHTENSTEIN 1.63
GERMANY 1.62
UNITED STATES 1.59
HONG KONG 1.54
FRANCE 1.5
BELGIUM 1.45
JAPAN 1.27
SPAIN 1.2
TAIWAN, CHINA 1.04
KOREA, REP. 1.01
ITALY 0.41

Don’t rely on a simple quote (your quote [7]) to conclude there have been no irregularities during voting but rely instead on documented past events instead. During the 1997 Cheng San election, important ministers appeared at the polling station even though the law forbids loitering within 200 metres from the polling station.

Although your quote [8] reports that 86% of Singaporeans believe Singapore is a democracy, the same report also shows that 75.2% of Singaporeans are not very interested or not at all interested in politics. How do you trust Singaporeans who are not interested in politics to give an interested, well thought answer to the question of whether Singapore is a democracy? The same report also shows that 52.4% of Singaporeans feels that our government can’t be held accountable in between elections, 59.8% feels there is no freedom of speech and 51.1% feels there is no freedom of association. Surely, given Singaporeans perceptions about our state of accountability, freedom of speech and association, if they truly understood what democracy entails or if they even cared to think about it, they would not have considered Singapore to be a democracy.

Although there is no electoral corruption in the manner described in your quote [10], there have been vote buying in the form of HDB upgrading priority over decades which would normally be considered electoral corruption in other countries.

Your 2002 World Values Survey is outdated. You should refer to Gallup’s survey report last year [1] which showed Singaporeans to be the most emotionless. We, of all nations are the least likely to say “yes” to these questions:
· Did you feel well-rested yesterday?
· Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
· Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?

The difference between Singapore and most democracies isn’t just that the ruling party responds with lawsuits, but also that the ruling party perpetually wins all lawsuits. Also, what you term as opposition ‘verbal abuses’ are quite often innocuous things that just about everyone else on the street would say too.

Your quote [13] doesn’t justify your claim that the government of Singapore practises a moderate form of censorship. Having government nominees sit in all major media corporations could mean more than just moderate censorship. They can choose the top executives of these corporations and hence control these corporations. You can easily judge the level of censorship by contrasting the minimal coverage given to WP’s explanation of the AIM saga versus the much greater coverage of PAP’s counter explanation. You can also see it from the maximum assault on ex-WP MP Yaw versus the much softer reporting on ex-PAP MP Michael Palmer on the same issue of extra marital affairs.

It’s wrong to say that censorship is irrelevant to the Median Voter Model. There is no voting in North Korea but from television images, we know that the median North Korean is patriotic and will die for his communist government even as their children die of hunger. But if you put the median North Korean in South Korea for a while, would his median mind set remain unchanged? Similarly, if you let competing ideas flourish in our newspapers and television, would the median Singaporean mind set remain unchanged? It’s very easy to see if censorship is or is not relevant to voting. Abolish it, and we shall see.

Having the freedom to vote is not enough. We also need information freedom in order to free the mind. Baby elephants are chained to tree trunks to train them not to run away. They are too young to break away from the tree and after some hopeless trying, they give up. These elephants grow up thinking that once they are chained, they cannot run away even though the chain is no longer attached to the tree. We may be free to vote. But that doesn’t mean we vote with a free mind, un-coloured by what we read or see around us.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/158882/singapore-ranks-least-emotional-country-world.aspx