Rebutting Mr Mahbubani’s silly earthquake theory

I refer to the 11 Oct 2014 Straits Times column “To future-proof the country, build a wise citizenry” by Mr Kishore Mahbubani.


Contrary to Mr Mahbubani’s claim, earthquakes often happen in Tokyo. They do not rarely happen in Tokyo. In December 2012 Tokyo experienced earthquakes once every two, three days.

The Japan Times, Tokyo-area frequency of quakes still high, 4 Jun 2014

The frequency of earthquakes measuring magnitude 3 or stronger in the Tokyo metropolitan area at the end of last year remained higher than before the massive Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 … According to the research … the frequency in December 2012 rose to one every two to three days.

If Tokyo is wise in making expensive investments to earthquake-proof their buildings despite the ‘remoteness’ of major earthquakes hitting them, isn’t Singapore stupid then for not making similar expensive investments to earthquake-proof our buildings despite the remoteness too of major earthquakes hitting us?

Clearly, the ‘remoteness’ of a major Tokyo earthquake is different from the remoteness of a major Singapore earthquake. A major earthquake is not as ‘remote’ to Tokyo as it is to Singapore which explains the difference in attitudes towards earthquake-proofing homes. While the probability of a major earthquake hitting Tokyo on any particular day is low, the probability that Tokyo will experience a major earthquake over 30, 50 years is quite high. That is why people in Tokyo are willing to spend on earthquake proofing, because the probability that a building will experience a major earthquake over its lifetime is quite high. Singapore, on the other hand will hardly experience a major earthquake over 30, 50 years.

The University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute predicts there is a 70% probability that the capital’s metropolitan area will experience a magnitude-7 quake within four years and a 98% probability within the next 30 years.

Tokyo sees high quake probability, scientists warn, CNN, 27 Jan 2012

Mr Mahbubani’s calling for Singapore to earthquake proof our politics is like a calling for us to earthquake proof our homes – silly and ridiculous.

Exceptional Singapore

Mr Mahbubani’s idea of Singapore’s success as a statistic aberration is one based on a highly selective view of the world. His claim that no other new nation-state has enjoyed 50 years of peace and prosperity is based on imagination, not truth.

Singapore isn’t the only new nation state that has experienced peace and prosperity over the last 50 years. Minister Shanmugam explained how East and Southeast Asia enjoyed peace and prosperity due to US involvement:

Modern East Asia, including Southeast Asia is what it is today because of the crucial role the United States played in underwriting security in Asia-Pacific. The U.S. provided security and stability that helped to stem the tide of communism, the 7th Fleet kept the ceilings open. The U.S. generously opened its markets to the region, and that sustained economic growth and prosperity of many Asian countries. In turn, that created conditions that allowed East Asia, beginning with Japan, to seize opportunity to uplift their people’s lives, and China is a most recent example of that. Success of countries in the region created a dynamism which has also created new challenges and opportunities, and let me add … the U.S. did all of it

The Brookings Institution, Southeast Asia and the United States: remarks by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Singapore foreign minister K. Shanmugam, 22 Sept 2014

Both LKY and his son PM Lee commended Suharto for bringing 32 years of peace, stability and prosperity to Indonesia till 1998. Add to that the years of peace and prosperity after 1998 and Indonesia would have had roughly the same number of peaceful, prosperous years as us.

PM: Well, after President Suharto resigned … back in 1998 … Suharto had given us stability for 30 years and that stability had created prosperity in Indonesia and allowed other countries in Southeast Asia to prosper … for the last ten years, we have had President Yudhoyono and there has been stability, there has been growth …

Singapore Summit, 20 Sept 2014, PM Lee

There is thus nothing aberrational about Singapore’s peace and prosperity that cannot be explained by US involvement in East and Southeast Asia.

What is the kind of “normal instability” experienced by South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand in the last 50 years that Singapore hasn’t experienced? Has Mr Mahbubani forgotten our 1969 racial riots? Is Mr Mahbubani ignoring our Little India riots this year? Mr Mahbubani’s concept of stability or instability seems to rest on selective amnesia.

Institutional independence, US dysfunction, populist government

Singaporeans have witnessed one incident after another of institutions hopelessly aligned with the PAP. We cannot depend on these institutions to act fairly and justly in normal times or in times of political crisis.

It was with the same rationality that Singaporeans voted for PAP promising HDB flats. But unlike the agricultural subsidies in Thailand or the petrol subsidies in Indonesia, HDB flats have never been subsidized since Day 1 but have been hyper inflated ever since. Only fools believe that a discount over a jacked up price is a subsidy.

Mr Mahbubani cannot convince us of US dysfunction when US is ranked 3rd in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index.

Mr Mahbubani’s description of a populist government making use of its legislative powers to override checks and balances fits PAP to a T. Singapore’s populist PAP government made use of its legislative powers to enact the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act in 1974 to effectively control the press and override this important institutional check on the government.

Educated citizenry

Mr Mahbubani held the Swiss up as a wise, responsible, well-educated citizenry for voting against the Swiss minimum wage on 18 May this year. But the Swiss also voted against spending $3.5 billion to purchase 22 new Gripen fighter jets from Sweden on the same day. They also voted against immigration this year. So if Singaporeans similarly vote against buying F35 fighter jets or vote against immigration, will Mr Mahbubani say we are not wise, not responsible and not well educated? Mr Mahbubani’s concept of a wise, responsible, well-educated citizenry seems to rest on the people conforming to the government’s decisions. If that’s the case, North Korea has the most wise, responsible and well-educated citizenry in the world.

If Mr Mahbubani sincerely does not wish to see Singapore citizenry fall prey to a populist government, he should have encouraged Singaporeans to vote against the PAP promising easy HDB upgrading in return for votes.

Mr Mahbubani’s definition of a good education system is a circular one. If a good education system is one that delivers a well-educated population, then what is a well-educated population? A population that has received a good education system?

The universal benchmark for how well educated a population is, is literacy rate. North Korea’s 99% literacy rate trumps Singapore’s 96%.

If Mr Mahbubani sincerely wishes for more peer-to-peer engagement in Singapore, he must first fight for press freedom because it is difficult for Singaporeans to engage older fellow citizens who may not know how to use the Internet who must therefore be engaged through the press.

School of Public Policy

Government agencies are already churning out one policy paper after another like the Population White Paper which has largely been consigned to being flushed down the toilet bowl. There is no need for more policy papers to flush down the toilet bowl. Mr Mahbubani should instead fight for Singaporean referendums similar to the Swiss ones so that we can make it clear to all who the silent majority is and what we collectively want. If Mr Mahbubani thinks that the current electorate is not wise, responsible or educated enough to vote at referendums yet, surely he must also think that the current electorate is not wise, responsible or educated enough to vote at elections?

The 76% and 75% who trust the NGOs and the government respectively shows that the people’s trust in NGOs is only little better than their trust in the government.

The four research institutes of the School of Public Policy already have a large thrash of policy papers that no one is referring to for policy debates. There is no need for an even bigger thrash of policy papers that no one will refer to.

Government agencies have always been using data and arguments to state their case. But far from disarming critiques, these selective data and arguments have always been a source of liability for the government and ammunition for critiques to fire back and to highlight the government’s folly.

The School of Public Policy has never played a catalytic role since its inception but has largely been consigned to the inconspicuousness of making noises in the spectator stand.

There has been no lack of policy papers from the School of Public Policy but it has yet to produce any phenomenal, far reaching policy paper that can address deep, systemic issues that has been plaguing our country for a long time. It would be wise for Singapore’s business community not to throw good money after bad by supporting a school that clearly doesn’t have the right answers. Any investment in the School of Public Policy would simply be money down the drain that would serve no useful purpose except to support a lunatic’s fantasy about earthquakes in Singapore.

Straits Times, To future-proof the country, build a wise citizenry, 11 Oct 2014, KISHORE MAHBUBANI

BIG Idea No. 9 is also a difficult one: “Future-Proof” Singapore. What does the phrase “Future-Proof” mean?

The best way to explain it is to use an analogy from the world of earthquakes. Earthquakes happen rarely. But they do happen. Hence, it is wise for a city like Tokyo, which is in an earthquake zone, to legislate that all buildings should be engineered to be earthquake-proof. They should be able to remain standing even if a major earthquake hits Tokyo. Of course, this makes the cost of buildings in Tokyo much more expensive, but it is a wise investment to make.

Discerning readers of my columns in The Straits Times where I highlight Big Ideas that would help Singapore navigate the next 50 years, would have picked up a rising concern of mine that Singapore’s future will be challenging.

Indeed, even though the prospects are as remote as a major physical earthquake hitting Tokyo, we cannot rule out a major political earthquake hitting Singapore. Since we cannot rule out such a political earthquake, we should “future-proof” Singapore so that it can withstand one.

Inevitably, some of the more virulent voices in Singapore’s social media will accuse me of scare-mongering. Hence, I need to explain why the statistical probability of political shocks is high. To explain this, I need to explain why Singapore’s success so far has been a statistical aberration.

To put it simply, no other new nation-state has enjoyed 50 years of such peace and prosperity, as Singapore has. The first 50 years of Singapore’s history after independence were therefore an “exceptional” performance. It took exceptional leadership, exceptional governance, and exceptional luck to create an “exceptional” performance.

Let me now state an obvious point: the word “exceptional” means “exceptional”. It also means “not normal”.

Since exceptional performances do not last forever, it will be perfectly normal for Singapore to experience the “normal” stresses and strains of other societies. And if you want to understand what “normal” means, just look at South Korea and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand.

Since we have not experienced the “normal” instability that other societies have experienced, we may not be prepared to handle “normal” instability. The goal of this article is to suggest one major “stabiliser” we can build in Singapore to handle political shocks.

I should quickly add that we have wisely invested in a few stabilisers already.

Powerful stabilisers

OUR strong civil service and excellent judiciary, to cite two examples, are powerful stabilisers. The quality of the people who serve in these institutions is remarkable. Hence, in the event of a political crisis, they are likely to perform well. Yet, it is also true that when a “populist” government is elected, it is more than likely to behave irresponsibly and either override or weaken these institutions.

And it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of a “populist” government emerging in Singapore.

It is rational for populations to vote in a government which promises them subsidies, such as the agricultural subsidies in Thailand or the petrol subsidies in Indonesia.

It would also be unwise to assume that this happens only in developing countries. Eminent American scholars have begun to warn that American democracy is becoming dysfunctional.

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Dr Francis Fukuyama, one of America’s leading political scientists, has said this: “And while democratic political systems theoretically have self-correcting mechanisms that allow them to reform, they also open themselves up to decay by legitimating the activities of powerful interest groups that can block needed change. This is precisely what has been happening in the United States in recent decades, as many of its political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional.”

If the powerful American Constitution and its system of checks and balances have failed to prevent dysfunctional governance in the US, we in Singapore should take heed and look for even stronger ways and means of preventing dysfunctional governance.

Only real safeguard

STRONG institutions can help. But as populist governments have shown the capacity to use their legislative powers to override institutional checks and balances, the only real safeguard against populist governance is to have an educated citizenry.

We have had a good recent example of how a responsible and well-educated citizenry can behave.

On May 18 this year, the Swiss population was asked to decide whether the Swiss minimum wage should become the highest in the world. I fully expected the Swiss population to vote themselves a pay raise that the government and private sector would have to pay for. Similarly, if a political party were to promise cash subsidies of $10,000 per Singaporean family (paid for by tapping into Singapore’s reserves), it is equally probable that the Singapore population would support this.

Fortunately, the Swiss population showed that they were a remarkably wise people. They actually voted against giving themselves an increase in the minimum wage.

This is what we have to do in Singapore: develop an equally wise citizenry that will not fall prey to populist governance. We want a population that will vote against any populist party that promises easy subsidies.

The big question is: how do we develop such a wise citizenry?

The good news is that we are halfway there. Over the years, we have developed an education system that is the envy of other countries in the world. A good education system, by definition, delivers a well-educated population.

That is the good news. But there is also bad news.

The bad news is that a well-educated population requires a different kind of engagement.

Some of the top-down approaches that worked well in the early years of Singapore’s governance will not work when dealing with a well-educated population.

Intelligent peer-to-peer engagement is what a well-educated population expects. This is exactly how the Swiss government engages its population. It uses reason and logic to explain to the population why it should not vote itself a pay rise.

For example, Mr Johann Schneider-Ammann, the Swiss Economics Minister, said: “A minimum wage of 4,000 francs (S$5,340) could lead to job cuts and even threaten the existence of smaller companies, notably in retail, catering, agriculture and housekeeping. If jobs are being cut, the weakest suffer most.”

To help a well-educated citizenry make well-informed decisions, I would like to propose that we “future-proof” Singapore by creating a treasure trove of well-researched and well-reasoned policy papers on all the major challenges that Singapore will be facing in the next 50 years.

This could be done by government agencies. And they should certainly do this.

However, research shows that the population is more likely to put greater trust in papers produced by non-governmental organisations. For example, the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that 76 per cent of Singaporeans trust NGOs, while 75 per cent trust the Government. Thus, evidence from both NGOs and the public sector will help to shore up this treasure trove of information.

This is one small contribution that the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy can make.

Armed with four well-established research institutes (the Asia Competitiveness Institute, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Institute of Policy Studies, and Institute of Water Policy) and a strong faculty (including both academics and practitioners), it is in a strong position to build a treasure trove of public policy papers that a well-educated citizenry can refer to any time a major public policy debate breaks out in Singapore.

The best way to disarm a seductive populist politician is to show data and arguments that will demonstrate the folly of marching down the populist path.

Obviously, the Lee Kuan Yew School cannot do the job alone. It can, at best, play a catalytic role of sparking a process of deep reflection on the future options for Singapore. The hardest point to put across to a population that has enjoyed 50 years of peace and prosperity is that this long record of peace and prosperity is not natural or normal. If it were natural or normal, more nations would have enjoyed Singapore’s track record. We do need to prepare our population for “normal” times.

The business community of Singapore has benefited enormously from the 50 years of good governance that Singapore has enjoyed. The value of all their assets (including real estate and market cap values) will diminish significantly if good governance diminishes in Singapore.

Hence, one of the wisest long-term investments that the business community in Singapore can make is to support the creation of this treasure trove of policy papers to jump-start a process of deep reflection. An investment of 1 per cent of their annual profits would be a tiny cost, but it could result in massive dividends if it protects Singapore from political earthquakes.


One Response to “Rebutting Mr Mahbubani’s silly earthquake theory”

  1. anon Says:

    A very reading-friendly article, a departure from Mr NKL’s usual approach, and yet encapsulating his signature style. An interesting read. Thank-you.

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