Correcting MP Hri Kumar’s May 2014 parliament speech

I refer to Mr Hri Kumar Nair’s 28 May 2014 parliament speech.

Government has no risks, only allocates risk

Mr Kumar’s response to Mr Gerald Giam’s bemoaning that the government is good at managing its own risks but not those of the people’s was to say that the government has no risks but merely allocates risks between young and old, present and future generations, employers and employees and so on.

But the government’s allocation of risks between groups should not result in the government becoming richer. When the government takes $10 from one group thereby increasing the group’s risk by $10 and gives it to another group thereby reducing the latter group’s risk by $10, it gains nothing and so should not be richer. Yet the government is becoming richer and accumulating bigger budget surpluses year after year. In other words, the government isn’t just allocating risks; it is also extracting from the groups it assigns risks to. The more the government extracts, the more risks it leaves behind for the various groups.

Mr Kumar illustrated his concept of the government being a mere risk allocator with French economist Frederic Bastiat’s description of everyone endeavoring to live off everyone else through the government. But Frederic Bastiat also said that the state too lives off everyone else. In other words, Frederic Bastiat’s everyone endeavoring to live off everyone else includes the government. So contrary to what Mr Kumar said, the government isn’t just a passive umpire but an active player as well in the game of risk tai chi.

Contradictions

Mr Kumar pointed out the contradictions to what people want:

• Less stressful education, better education
• Higher wages, lower costs
• Free market for investment and job creation, job protection

However,
• Finland is an example of less stressful education with comparable education outcomes.
• Higher wages need not be tied to lower costs but can be tied to higher value added services or products.
• Free job market may be abused and hence necessitates protection just as capitalism may be abused and hence must operate within the confines of law and regulation to avoid a repeat of the Global Financial Crisis.

Mature democracies

Mr Kumar pointed to the millions spent, negative campaigning and grand speeches at every election in mature democracies. Is that not true for Singapore?

Mr Kumar pointed to US politicians referring to American healthcare as the best in the world despite the 2013 Bloomberg survey ranking it 46th in the world while Singapore came in 2nd. But American healthcare is indeed the best in the world in some respects. When George Yeo’s youngest son had a relapse of leukemia, his father sent him to the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the US instead of to Singapore hospitals. In any case, healthcare administrators and statisticians throughout the world make the same mistake of not adjusting healthcare costs with population age, an important reason why Singapore is ranked very high.

Mr Kumar pointed to American politicians saying a different thing behind closed doors. But unless we get behind the closed doors of Singapore politicians, how can we tell what they say behind closed doors?

Mr Kumar pointed to US politicians telling popular untruths. Is that worse than Singapore politicians telling unpopular untruths?

Mr Kumar pointed to politicians in mature democracies doing what they want to do, not what they said they would do. Is that worse than Singapore politicians insisting in going against Singaporeans’ wishes?

Mr Kumar pointed to an overwhelming belief in mature democracies that people run for political office not to help citizens but to satisfy egos and thirst for power. How does Mr Kumar know Singaporeans don’t feel the same way?

Mr Kumar pointed to contempt for the most important office in most mature democracies. From graffiti on HDB water tanks, bus stops, notice boards to defacement of government websites, is it not already clear that Singapore is no different?

Voter or voting age turnout

Mr Kumar claimed that people in mature democracies are turning off from politics because they no longer vote. He gave the following examples:

• US presidential election voter turn-out falling below 50% in 1996 and hovering in the mid-50s in the last few elections.
• UK voter turnout falling to 65% in 2010 compared to 80+% in the 1950s
• German voting age turnout was 66% in 2013
• Japan voter turnout was 59% in 2012
• Switzerland voter turnout was 40% in 2011

There are several issues with Mr Kumar’s examples. He sometimes used voter turnout (UK), and sometimes used voting age turnout (Germany). In the case of the US, there is a big difference between the two.

The US presidential election voter turnout in 1996 was 82% (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance http://www.idea.int), not falling below 50% as Mr Kumar had claimed. The last few elections’ voter turnouts have been above 60%, not around 50% as Mr Kumar had claimed. If Mr Kumar had been referring to voting age turnout (VAP) instead, then VAP has been stable since World War 2 and not falling as Mr Kumar had claimed.

1st

Mr Kumar’s depiction of UK’s 1950s voter turnout as 80+% is also problematic. UK had four elections in the 1950s and the voter turnout had been 81.6%, 81.4%, 75.8% and 77.5%. Overall voter turnout in the 1950s was 79%, not 80+%.

Mr Kumar’s selective use of examples doesn’t do justice to voter turnout across mature democracies. The following table from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (http://www.idea.int) shows 6 countries with better voter turnout since their first elections compared to Singapore and another 7 countries with less than 10% decrease in voter turnout since their first elections. Mr Kumar’s claim that people in mature democracies are turning off politics is therefore only half true … and half false.

Country 1st year parliamentary voter turnout (%) Latest year parliamentary voter turnout (%) Change in voter turnout since first election (%) Change in voter turnout per year since first election (%)
Taiwan 68.32 74.72 6.4 0.3
Sweden 82.74 84.63 1.9 0
Norway 76.36 78.23 1.9 0
Denmark 86.29 87.74 1.4 0
Australia 93.95 93.23 -0.7 0
Luxembourg 91.9 91.15 -0.8 0
Singapore 94.09 93.18 -0.9 0
Belgium 90.3 89.22 -1.1 0
Ireland 74.25 70.05 -4.2 -0.1
Iceland 87.41 81.44 -6 -0.1
United Kingdom 72.55 65.77 -6.8 -0.1
Germany 78.49 71.55 -6.9 -0.1
Finland 74.87 67.37 -7.5 -0.1
Spain 76.96 68.94 -8 -0.2
Japan 72.08 59.32 -12.8 -0.2
Liechtenstein 93.36 79.8 -13.6 -0.2
Italy 89.08 75.19 -13.9 -0.2
Greece 77.2 62.47 -14.7 -0.2
Canada 76.31 61.41 -14.9 -0.2
Netherlands 93.12 74.56 -18.6 -0.3
Austria 94.31 74.91 -19.4 -0.3
United States 89.66 67.95 -21.7 -0.5
South Korea 76.12 54.26 -21.9 -0.5
Switzerland 71.69 49.1 -22.6 -0.4
New Zealand 97.6 74.21 -23.4 -0.4
France 79.83 55.4 -24.4 -0.4
Portugal 91.73 58.03 -33.7 -0.9

Furthermore, mature democracies tend not to have compulsory voting. The New Paper Young Voters 2011 survey found 40% of Singaporeans aged 21 to 35 would not bother to vote if voting wasn’t compulsory. Thus, without compulsory voting, Mr Kumar may find us in an even worse situation than the mature democracies he is ridiculing.

’Clear’ evidence of minority groups seizing agenda from majority

Mr Kumar claimed there is clear evidence of well organized and funded pressure groups seizing the agenda from the majority and shaping it. Mr Kumar’s evidence was the supposedly over 70% people in US who want stricter gun laws but who cannot pass them because the minority 30% is lobbying against it.

The chart below shows that the percentage of Americans who want stricter gun laws have never gone above 62% let alone 70% since 2000. As of this year, only 49% of Americans want stricter gun laws. 49% is not the majority.

2nd

The chart below shows the percentage of Americans who are satisfied or unsatisfied with American gun laws. For much of the last 14 years, those who are satisfied outnumber those who are not. The trend has changed in the last two years but still does not exhibit the 70-30 ratio Mr Kumar claimed.

3rd

The rest

Mr Kumar described mature democracies as being infected by cynicism, hopelessness and pessimism whereas Singapore is free from these ailments. However, both the World Happiness Report and the Happy Planet Index placed most mature democracies higher than Singapore in happiness. How can people in mature democracies feel hopeless and pessimistic while feeling happy at the same time?

Country World Happiness Report 2013 2010-2012 Happiness Happy Planet Index 2013 Inequality adjusted well being Average happiness 2013
Denmark 7.7 7.6 7.6
Norway 7.7 7.4 7.5
Switzerland 7.7 7.3 7.5
Netherlands 7.5 7.3 7.4
Canada 7.5 7.4 7.4
Sweden 7.5 7.3 7.4
Finland 7.4 7.1 7.3
Australia 7.4 7.1 7.2
Austria 7.4 7.1 7.2
New Zealand 7.2 7 7.1
Ireland 7.1 6.9 7
Luxembourg 7.1 6.8 6.9
Iceland 7.4 6.5 6.9
United States 7.1 6.7 6.9
United Kingdom 6.9 6.7 6.8
Belgium 7 6.6 6.8
France 6.8 6.5 6.6
Germany 6.7 6.4 6.5
Singapore 6.5 6.3 6.4
Spain 6.3 5.8 6
Korea 6.3 5.7 6
Italy 6 5.9 6
Japan 6.1 5.7 5.9
Hong Kong 5.5 5.3 5.4
Greece 5.4 5.2 5.3
Portugal 5.1 4.4 4.7

Mr Kumar expressed his belief that most Singaporeans believe in the nobility and integrity of politics and that the government is a force for good. But Mr Kumar’s fellow MPs are not turning up for parliament so much so that NMP Eugene Tan had to twice remind the House of the insufficiency of MP numbers to pass bills. How noble can Singapore politics be if MPs don’t even turn up for parliament?

Mr Kumar said Singapore has thrived in the last 50 years despite obvious limitations. But statistics show that small size, small population and lack of natural resources are no limits to the globalised economies of today.

Mr Kumar expressed his belief that members of parliament should be honest with the electorate and not sugar coat or over reach. In the same token, government controlled media should be honest with the people and not flood our senses with half truths or falsehoods.

Mr Kumar lamented that we have not been getting robust debates from the opposition. Mr Kumar, being in the debate himself, is in no position to judge. Judgment rests with the people.

Mr Kumar likened the opposition to World War II German prison guards who were always finding out what prisoners were doing and telling them to stop what they were doing. In the same token, the PAP can be likened to Hitler who ruled with an iron fist, insisted his way, ignored his generals’ advice and pleas and ended up ruining the country.

Mr Kumar brushed off critics saying it doesn’t take a genius to criticize. What genius does Mr Kumar or the PAP has to show?

Mr Kumar asked those who call for the abolishing of the GRC to say how minority representation in parliament can be ensured. The NSP has done precisely that with its “Constituency reserved for minority scheme” proposal.

Mr Kumar asked those who call for CPF Minimum Sum to be lowered or for earlier withdrawal of CPF monies to say what the government should do if people run out of money. Mr Kumar should first ask the government why its risk allocation role results in an ever growing layer of buffer fat around itself. Does it not occur to Mr Kumar that the fatter the government’s buffer layer is, the thinner the buffer layer will be for the people with consequently higher risk for the people and lower risk for the government?

Mr Kumar boasted that while governments in the world claim to take a long term perspective for the common good, it is the Singapore government that has been actually doing it. Mr Kumar’s boast doesn’t square with the government’s admission of being caught flat footed for the massive infrastructure problems caused by its growth at all costs economic policy.

Mr Kumar boasted that Singapore has been showing the rest of the world in the last 50 years what honest, realistic policies and constructive politics can achieve. Actually, Singapore has been showing the rest of the world for close to 200 years already since 1819. Our preeminent Dr Goh Keng Swee has made it clear that what we have been doing post independence was to merely continue with the priceless policies of our former British colonial masters.

• [Goh Keng Swee, The Practice of Economic Growth, Chapter 1: Why Singapore succeeds, pages 6-7]
For well over a hundred years Singapore learnt to adapt her economy to changing circumstances. This ability to adapt which was won in the hard school of experience remains an asset which the government of independent Singapore decided to retain. It might have been politically expedient to rid ourselves of institutions and practices that bore the taint of colonial associations. Had we done so, we would have thrown away a priceless advantage.

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