Monday, April 29, 2013

Breaking news will never be the same again

Apr 29, 2013


Social media played a role during the Boston bombings, adding to the speed - and confusion - with which events unfolded

By Jonathan Eyal Europe Correspondent

THE United States intelligence community is still rushing to piece together the evidence related to the planning and execution of the Boston Marathon bombings. But a parallel and equally energetic investigation is sorely needed into the spectacular role online social media played during that crisis.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Social welfare - essential building block of a nation

Apr 27, 2013

By Ho Chi Tim For The Straits Times

THE recent formation of the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the leaner-looking successor to the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, brings a sharper focus on family issues, social services and social safety nets - in other words, the welfare of Singapore society.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lessons from S'pore's success story

Apr 26, 2013

The global economy is not out of the woods yet. Quantitative easing could cause inflation and competitive devaluations, slowing world trade. What factors help determine a country's success in a globalised world where wealth and welfare increasingly converge?

By Richard Lambert

BACK in the 1980s, the epicentre of the world's financial shocks lay in the countries of Latin America.

In the late 1990s, it was Asia's turn for big trouble.

In the past five years, though, the earthquake mainly hit the developed countries of Western Europe and the United States, and their economies have still not recovered from its impact. The emerging markets have emerged relatively unscathed and have turned into the main engine of global growth.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Denmark retooling welfare system

Apr 24, 2013

Welfare state with cradle-to-grave safety net spirals 'out of control'

COPENHAGEN (Denmark) - It began as a stunt to prove that hardship and poverty still existed in this small, wealthy country.

Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal Member of Parliament goaded a sceptical rival from the Liberal Alliance, and see for yourself how hard it is.

But it backfired. Life on welfare was not so hard after all.

A 36-year-old Danish single mother of two, given the pseudonym "Carina" in the media, had more money to spend than many full-time workers. She was getting about US$2,700 (S$3,350) a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

But even before her story made the headlines, Danes were engaged in a debate over whether their beloved welfare state, perhaps Europe's most generous, had become too rich, undermining the work ethic.

And Carina was not the only person to fuel the debate.

Mr Robert Nielsen, 45, dubbed "Lazy Robert" by the news media, made headlines last year when he was interviewed on TV admitting that he had basically been on welfare since 2001.

Mr Nielsen said he was able-bodied, but had no intention of taking a "demeaning" job such as working at a fast-food restaurant. He made do quite well on welfare, he said.

"Luckily, I am born and live in Denmark, where the government is willing to support my life."

In past years, Danes might have shrugged off such cases. But with little fuss or political protest, Denmark is now overhauling entitlements, trying to prod Danes into working more or longer.

The country's long-term outlook is troubling. The population is ageing, and in many regions, people without jobs outnumber those with them. Some of that is a result of a depressed economy, but many experts say a more basic problem is the proportion of Danes who are not in the workforce at all - be they university students, young pensioners or welfare recipients like Carina on hefty government support.

"Before the crisis there was a sense that there was always going to be more and more," said Mr Bjarke Moller, editor-in-chief for research group Mandag Morgen.

"That is not true any more."

But even conservative politicians are not suggesting getting rid of welfare.

Denmark has among the highest marginal income tax rates in the world, with the top bracket of 56.5 per cent kicking in on incomes of more than about US$80,000. In exchange, the Danes get a cradle-to-grave safety net that includes free health care, free university education and hefty payouts even to the rich. Parents get quarterly cheques from the government to defray childcare costs. The elderly get free maid service if they need it, even if they are wealthy.

Few experts believe that Denmark can afford the current perks.

So Denmark is retooling itself, tinkering with corporate tax rates, considering new public sector investments and trying to wean more people off state benefits.

Many Danes work short hours and all enjoy perks like long vacations and lengthy paid maternity leaves, not to speak of a de facto minimum wage approaching US$20 an hour.

"The welfare state here has spiralled out of control," said Mr Joachim Olsen, the sceptical politician from the Liberal Alliance.

"It has done a lot of good, but we have been unwilling to talk about the negative side."


Monday, April 22, 2013

Turning chicken poo into biofuel

By Lim Wee Leng

22 Apr 2013

At some farms in Singapore, chicken droppings are put to good use and are converted into biofuels.

SINGAPORE: Eggs are not the only cash cow for some farms in Singapore.

Chicken droppings are also being put to good use and are converted into biofuels.

At Chew’s Group's farm in Lim Chu Kang, about 700,000 chickens produce 60 tons of droppings a day.

It's building a plant, costing about S$5 million that can convert the waste.

It hopes to use this to replace the current practice of treating the fresh manure and selling it to vegetable farmers in Singapore and Malaysia as fertiliser, because the process is expensive and needs a lot of space and manpower.

The first phase of the new plant will be completed by the end of this year and can supply up to 70 per cent of energy needs.

If it succeeds, the farm hopes to scale up.

Executive chairman of Chew’s Group, Chew Chee Bin said: "We actually need to solve our chicken dung problem. Traditionally, we take 35 days to ferment the chicken dung and supply to local and Malaysia vegetable farmers. By using the biogas system, we can reduce almost 50 per cent of land use, reduce manpower use, and increase egg production.

“If we enter into the second phase, we will treat 80 tons of chicken dung, which in turn will produce almost one mega kilowatt hours, which is sufficient to supply the whole farm and supply to the power grid."


Choosing the better angels of our nature

Apr 22, 2013

In Singapore, identity has always been fragmented. As we did in the past, we must continue to see being Singaporean as a matter of extending, not narrowing, the overlapping circles of our identity.

By Janadas Devan

I WAS born a British subject, became a Malaysian briefly and then a Singaporean at the age of 10. I remember singing God Save The Queen in kindergarten, Majulah Singapura in Primary 1, Negara Ku from Primary 3 to 5, and then back to Majulah Singapura in Primary 5 when we were booted out of Malaysia.

My father was born in British Malaya, was subjected to Japanese rule for three years, became a Malaysian for six and then a Singaporean at the age of 46. He got his identity card late in life.

Every one of Singapore's founding fathers began their political careers believing there was no such thing as a Singaporean and that Singapore couldn't possibly be independent. They all believed Singapore was a part of Malaya. They stumbled, tripped into their identities as Singaporeans.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew became a Singaporean at the age of 42, Dr Goh Keng Swee 47, and Mr S. Rajaratnam 50.

To use a contemporary term, they were all "new citizens". They weren't born wanting to be Singaporean. Indeed, they didn't expect to be Singaporean till Aug 10, 1965. On Aug 9, they were still shedding tears, mourning the loss of a previous identity.

There will be no majority or minority race in Singapore, Mr Lee declared after Separation. Instead, we will have a "Singaporean Singapore", he promised. That was Mr Lee's and the Old Guard's finest hour.

The natural thing to do, having been booted out of Malaysia primarily because we were a Chinese-majority state in a Malay-majority Federation, would have been to base your political legitimacy on appeals to Chinese identity. Instead our founding fathers decided to base their legitimacy on an extraordinary dream: a Singaporean Singapore. To a remarkable degree, we have fulfilled their dream - not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.

But there was nothing natural or inevitable or even expected in how we got from there to here. We willed our trajectory; we didn't let things take their "natural" or "inevitable" or "expected" course.

The natural, inevitable, expected course would have been to move towards a politics based on race, language and religion. Instead, at every step of the way, we deliberately chose the better angels of our nature. We cannot cease making such a choice.

We would be mistaken if we assumed we have arrived at some summit of perpetual harmony. We still have to - consciously and deliberately - choose the better angels of our nature. Let me explain why.

Multiple identities

CONSIDER the roots of modern Singapore in the first half of the 20th century.

The emergent Singapore nationalism was first mediated through the cultural nationalisms of the colony's various racial groups. There would have been no such thing as a Singaporean nationalism - or, more accurately, Malayan nationalism, which was the only thing we knew prior to 1965 - if there had been no Chinese revolutions (1911 and 1949), no Indonesian revolution and no Indian national movement.

What inspired Chinese Singaporeans in the 1950s, for instance, was the victory of the Chinese communists in 1949.

When Mao Zedong declared on the ramparts of Tiananmen that "China has stood up", that was taken not merely as an expression of national self-assertion applicable only to China, but also of cultural self-assertion applicable to all ethnic Chinese.

The political consciousness of Malays and Indians in Singapore was also formed in strikingly intimate ways by events in Indonesia and India, respectively.

Singapore's nationalism existed in a tense relationship with the extra-national sources of that nationalism.

The problem of inter-racial relations in Singapore is rooted in the fact that Singapore nationalism - by definition, an assertion of a singular identity - has overlapped with but has never been completely coincident with our various cultural nationalisms - by definition, assertions of trans-national cultural identities.

Enlarging our circle

THE problem of multiple identities, often in conflict, will long be with us. For 47 years now, Singapore's political leadership has dealt with this problem by cordoning off, as best as possible, the cultural from the national.

Cultural identities, rooted in language or religion, belong in the private or familial sphere. They are given ample space as well as support.

The Government insists on bilingualism in education, for example, and assists in mosque-building, among other things.

But the cultural sphere has never been allowed to drive policy in the public sphere.
Indeed, the opposite has happened: Sometimes, the state has interfered in the cultural sphere, as when it discouraged the use of Chinese dialects in favour of Mandarin.

Singapore's politics has thus evolved differently from Malaysia's, which is still deeply inflected by race and religion. We at once allow separate cultural identities to flourish, but contain them within an over-arching national framework.

But a Singaporean Singapore has never meant a diminution of our different cultural, racial or religious identities. No matter what your race, you become a Singaporean by becoming larger than what you are, not less; by expanding, not contracting; by adding to, not subtracting from, your identity.

E pluribus unum - out of many, one - the Americans say. Their ideal is the melting pot: the dilution of different flavours in one overriding theme. Our ideal is rojak: the preservation of different flavours in a new concoction. We are one and many; many though one; one precisely because we accept our diversity.

Another image that comes to mind is of overlapping circles: Nobody in Singapore is required to abandon his or her identity or circle. When you choose to be Singaporean, what you are invited to do is enlarge your circle so as to include as much as possible other circles. Your sense of being a Singaporean intensifies as you occupy more of the common space formed by the overlapping circles.

Human-made miracle

WE HAVE made numerous pragmatic trade-offs between our national and cultural identities.

Sometimes, cultural identities are acknowledged, as in the formation of self-help groups; and sometimes they are not, as in the ruling that school uniforms should, indeed, remain uniform.

Sometimes policy is race- blind, as in the insistence on meritocracy; and sometimes it is not, as when the Constitution was amended to allow for Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) with mandated minority-candidate representation.

Sometimes we take care to preserve the many, as when we scrupulously maintain pre-determined ethnic quotas in housing estates; and sometimes we insist we are one, as when we "pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion".

So far, this juggling has worked. Each year that passes without cultural nationalisms coming into conflict with each other or challenging Singaporean nationalism is a plus. In time, perhaps, the necessity of juggling would cease.

But there is absolutely nothing natural or organic or inevitable about what we have. We made this; we engineered this; we fashioned this as a potter would clay.

Singapore is a human-made miracle. And like all human-made miracles, it can be shattered by human hands.

How might this miracle unravel? Well, I don't think it will, but let's consider the challenges.

The Institute of Policy Studies conducted a wide-ranging survey recently on the attitudes of Singaporeans on matters of race and religion. The sample size was 4,000. Here are some of its preliminary findings:

The state of our inter-racial, inter-religious relations is reasonably healthy. For example, an overwhelming 70 per cent of Singaporeans agree or agree strongly that a person's race or religion should have no bearing in hiring decisions.

A healthy majority - more than 50 per cent - either agree or agree strongly with statements such as "I feel comfortable being the only individual of my racial group mixing with people of other racial groups". A distinct minority - less than 20 per cent - either disagree or disagree strongly with the statement. And about a third are neutral - they are not exercised one way or another.

The findings indicate we haven't arrived at some multi-cultural nirvana.

On the one hand, the majority of Singaporeans do value our diversity. About 72 per cent, for example, either agree or strongly agree that "it is a good thing for Singapore to be made up of people from different racial groups".

On the other hand, most people do not have close friends of different races.

Singaporeans, it would seem, are ideologically committed to diversity. But they do not always live out that ideology in their everyday lives.

The elite opinion that Singaporeans have so overcome racial distinctions that we can safely abandon institutions such as self-help groups and GRCs, happens to be just that: an elite opinion quite unrepresentative of the entire population.

We still have to juggle pragmatically; we still need laws and institutions to ensure that we do indeed end up choosing the better angels of our nature. There is no reason to believe we will always, invariably, automatically, be angelic.

Differences within races

THE increasing number of foreigners in our midst poses another problem. As a result of immigration, especially among Chinese and Indians, the differences within each race may now be greater than the differences between the races.

The Princeton University expert on global cities Saskia Sassen was in Singapore recently. Asked what she looked for when she arrives in a new city, she said she would always wonder who in that city believes they belong to that city. Applying that question to ourselves, we might ask: Who is part of Club Singapore?

Without a doubt, we do now have a stronger sense of a Singaporean identity - a stronger sense of a "we". But a stronger sense of a "we" has also come to mean a stronger sense of a "them". And instinctively, many feel "they" are not "us".
We have a stronger sense of an inner identity. But that sense of inner membership among Singaporeans is not reflected on the outside - where we see many more whom we do not think belong to Club Singapore, in Dr Sassen's terms.

There is as it were a disjunction between the inside and the outside: the nagging sense that what we feel inside ("We" who belong to Club Singapore) is not reflected on the outside ("They" are not "us").

How do you solve this problem? Well it is a bit embarrassing but I have nothing more profound to utter than a few cliches: Let us try to be a little kinder to each other; let us give integration time to work.

Above all I think the integration of new citizens with old should take place along the same lines we created a Singaporean Singapore: Nobody should be asked to abandon his or her own identity. Becoming a Singaporean should be a matter of sharing an enlarged common space.

The Singaporean should forever be an identity that turns on becoming more, not less; expanding, not contracting; adding, not subtracting.

The writer is director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Chief of Government Communications at the Ministry of Communications and Information.

This article is extracted from a speech delivered at the Community Engagement Programme dialogue on April 13.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Hail the new meritocracy

Apr 21, 2013

Singapore needs to redefine what success means to realise vision of a society where all are treated as equals

By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

There's a new vision and definition of meritocracy in Singapore, and they have a wonderful ring to them.

When something as refreshing and with the potential to change comes our way, we should do more to herald its arrival.

But, seriously, when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke to this newspaper recently, it was his vision for Singapore and his view on meritocracy that stood out for me.

Here's what he said which was published last Friday and is worth quoting at length:

"We've had a working meritocracy. It has brought us quite far. It's allowed for a tremendous amount of social mobility in our first 40 years, but I think it has to evolve.

"We've got to be a broader meritocracy recognising different strengths and different individuals, but also a continuous meritocracy where it doesn't matter so much what happened when you're in Sec 4 or JC 2 or when you finish your polytechnic or ITE (course), but what happens after that."

It is not just education, he added, but also the way ordinary workers are treated whether in a restaurant or on a bus.

"We are a meritocracy that's still a bit too much defined by what happened in your school years or your post-secondary years."

His vision of Singapore? To become a society where people treat one another as equals, regardless of their education level or job.

That's a tall order, especially since, as he pointed out, Singapore is a product of both the British system of education which is quite elitist (think Eton and Oxbridge) and the Chinese system which is very "test-oriented" (think the imperial examination system).

Can Singapore change this dose of double-strength DNA?

The realistic answer is that it will take a heroic effort on everybody's part, and even then, the outcome isn't assured.

But, it's important to understand why a society, in which everybody believes he or she is as equal as anyone else and treated as such, is better than one which is overly hierarchical and with widening social gaps.

First, there is tremendous wastage whenever people believe they are less equal because they will not make the maximum effort and live up to their potential.

Many of us who travel can see, for example, how motivated and productive waiters in Western Europe are, with just one or two serving an entire restaurant.

The same is true of construction workers, in Japan, Australia and other mature economies.

Their societies are much more egalitarian than Singapore, where waiting at tables isn't seen as such a demeaning job and waiters, or for that matter, bus drivers and construction workers, are treated with greater respect.

["Egalitarian" and "Meritocratic" doesn't mean the same thing. If the theory is that meritocracy breeds elitism which is anathema to egalitarianism, then it would help if there were some evidence of a causal relationship. I am inclined to believe that such a relationship exists, but I would like to see a little more than just a wink-and-a-nudge to prove it.]

When they are treated well, they are more likely to give of their best.

This is a key reason for the low productivity of Singapore workers which no amount of government incentives can help.

But more important than work is how an unequal society divides the country politically and socially.

Singapore is moving in this direction because it wants to be a First World global city with all the attendant glamour and glitz but which the HDB heartlander finds hard to identify or keep up with.

This widening gap will create political problems because the leaders cannot move the country in one direction when the people do not have a common vision of what the future holds for them.

How then to realise Mr Tharman's vision?

Singapore needs to change in three areas.

First, and most obvious is the education system which needs to be made more multi-dimensional and rounded so that a student's entire life doesn't depend on how well he does at the PSLE or the O and A-level examinations.

It is an encouraging sign that changes are afoot in this direction and education is a key focus of the ongoing Our Singapore Conversation headed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

I do not envy his task because it is a complex issue and students and parents have different expectations of what a good education is about.

Even on a relatively simple question about whether to retain, abolish or tweak the PSLE, there will be no consensus.

[That's because everyone is just sharing their opinion with no evidence or anecdotal evidence at best to shore up their opinion. How to arrive at consensus when there is no objective basis to decide on the correct course of action?]

But if Mr Tharman's vision is to be realised, there is one critical change that needs to be made to the way pupils are assigned their schools after PSLE.

There should be a greater mix of students with differing academic abilities in every school, including the so-called elite ones.

When this happens and there is less differentiation among schools here, there will be less pressure to do well in those life-defining examinations.

Then students and teachers can focus more on learning and be more open to developing other skills besides doing well in examinations.

Without this change, no amount of tinkering with the PSLE will mean much.

The second area of change has to be in the way we value what people do to earn a living.

We can say all we want about how we should treat people equally regardless of the jobs they do but if we pay a cleaner at a hawker centre only $800 a month, it is an empty promise.

[This should be the ONLY necessary area of change. Money cannot buy happiness. Or respect. Or status. But it is a good way to keep score. PSLE and educational results are a red herring.  The true test of egalitarianism is whether people are valued equally, and equal pay or at least more equal than currently, is probably the ONLY way to show that we value people equally.]

This has nothing to do with how productive the cleaner is, which is a favourite retort.

It has everything to do with our values as a society and how we want to treat our fellow Singaporeans.

Our instinct as a society when we see such low wages being paid must be to say without a moment's hesitation: This isn't right and we should put a stop to it.

We shouldn't require an economist or productivity expert to tell us that.

Raising wages at the low end must be a top priority in this exercise because, like it or not, pay does affect a person's self-worth.

Finally, Singapore has to develop a stronger sense of community, that we are in this together and need to look after one another.

This is a defining characteristic of those societies that approximate Mr Tharman's vision - Japan, Israel, and the Scandinavian countries where there is much greater respect for everyone regardless of the jobs they do.

In fact, they have an easier task because of their homogeneous population with one language and culture.

For Singapore, it means having a more vigorous civic society where people take responsibility for their actions and causes, and, in so doing, forge a stronger sense of ownership of their community.

Is this an impossible dream for Singapore?

Perhaps, but a vision for the future is a good place to start.

We could begin with being smarter about the meritocracy we practise.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

From boom, to blowing bubbles

Singapore’s property market has been framed as a success story. Prices have moved inexorably up since 2005 despite several rounds of cooling measures.

15 April 2013


Devadas Krisnadas

Singapore’s property market has been framed as a success story. Prices have moved inexorably up since 2005 despite several rounds of cooling measures.

The intervention of cooling measures is indicative that the Government has concerns that the market may be overheating, but also reflects political considerations from Singaporeans who feel they are being priced out of the “Singapore Dream”.

Property forms the largest asset within each household balance sheet. Judging by news reports of packed showrooms, it would seem that most Singaporeans feel positive about the future of the property market. Is the optimism justified or are they headed for a fall?


Following the 1997 Asian Dollar Crisis, the domestic property market went into decline and remained subdued by the effects of successive economic shocks until 2005. From that point, with the exception of a dip due to the 2009 global financial crisis, the property market as marked to price moved ever higher.

There are several drivers which explain this pick-up. First, there was under-supply in the public housing market after years of slow building due to cautious government policy, following the surplus scare in the wake of the 1997 Asian Dollar Crisis.

Second, there was pent up domestic demand, after almost a decade of neglect as an asset class due to a combination of market wariness and lagging supply.

Third, the population has grown at a fast clip through population augmentation. The majority of new citizens and permanent residents are adults with purchasing power. A comparison of graphs 1 and 2 show obvious parallels. Population growth has also meant good rental demand which translates into mortgage cover for investors.

Fourth, segments of the Singapore property market have become internationalised. Local property is being marketed in far-flung destinations to attract High Net-worth Individuals (HNI) to invest here. While this is mostly concentrated on the high end it has a positive psychology effect on the entire market, creating a buzz which property developers and real estate agents can be expected to opportunistically exploit.

Fifth, there has been a sustained and significant fall in interest rates over the past decade, but especially since 2005. This has lowered the cost of debt and disincentivised savings. Singaporeans seeking yield have moved savings into equity and property.

Sixth, in property cycles, after a certain point in the upswing, the herd effect makes itself known. The longer the good run lasts, the more it is sustained just a bit longer by new market entrants who want to get in on the action.

Seventh, Singapore experienced a sharp but very short recession as a consequence of the global financial crisis. Our economic numbers have been positive, though just shaving past experiencing a technical recession each year. This positive momentum and a tight labour market have to date translated into an absence of natural economic checks on buying behaviour.


Now let us look at the current and anticipated state of these demand drivers.

First, accelerated and intensified building by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) will remedy the demand and supply mismatch in the public housing market by 2016. The URA has released many land parcels over the past three years which will continue to translate into new housing units in the private market, especially in the mass market condominium segment. In all, nearly 200,000 new units are due to be completed by 2016.

Second, the pent-up demand from the first half of the last decade has been soaked up by now.

Third, notwithstanding the adoption of the White Paper on population, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has pledged to moderate the rate of population growth and look at a total population ceiling of 6 million, rather than 6.9 million, by 2030.

This addition of less than a million means the annualised pace of growth would be less than half that we have experienced over the past five years. Hence, demand from population augmentation should be far less over time.

Further, the higher the price index goes, the higher rentals must be to provide mortgage cover for investors. At a certain point rental levels cannot be supported by wage levels, which will then catch out investors reliant on a certain level of rent to meet their payments.

Fourth, expect the high-end segment of the market to continue attracting foreign investment. However the buyer in the mass market – public resale or private – should screen out high end price behaviour when determining what is fair value. This is because the foreign (or local) HNI is not influenced by domestic factors nor by the same practical considerations, such as the need for income security or rental cover, as faces the layman investor or buyer.


Fifth, interest rates cannot be expected to say so low for ever. As the macro economy slowly recovers, we should expect that quantitative easing by major economies will wind down and that eventually, interest rates will creep back up.

There is something pernicious about a low interest rate environment which is worth noting. A 100 basis (1 percentage point) move upwards when the initial interest is 5 per cent – the rate circa 2000 – would represent a 20 per cent higher weight of capital, which is a hit most will likely be able to afford.

However a similar-sized move when the initial interest rate is 2 per cent – the rate circa 2012 – would represent a 50 per cent higher weight of capital. Hence those who have borrowed to the limit of their debt serviceability would be extremely vulnerable to future rate shifts, which can only be upwards given how low they have been in recent years.

Sixth, so the only strong driver we can count on for the foreseeable future is the herd effect. The problem with the herd effect is that it does not reflect real fundamental demand, since a significant proportion would be speculative. It also may not reflect real effective demand, given that some caught in the herd effect may be over-exposing themselves.

Seventh, while we have done comparatively well economically over the past four years we should not expect unrealistically for this to continue without some eventual interruption. Singapore’s economic health is contingent on what happens in the larger global economy. Shocks should be expected – the only questions are when, with how much warning and how seriously.


Contrary to the rosy inference that higher property prices suggest a healthy economy, I would argue that we are now facing systemic risks in the medium and long-term, as well as at the household and financial system levels.

A large number of Singaporeans have exposure to the property market which may make them financially vulnerable when there is another economic shock. Most households have been able to weather previous crises due to a strong cash reserve in the form of savings. However, the larger down payment and stamp duty requirements introduced in successive cooling measures imply an erosion of that cash reserve. This increases the depth of their vulnerability.

At the financial system level, our local banks have a significant loan book exposure to the property sector of 30 per cent. While this still meets the conditions of Section 35 of the Banking Act, it represents a non-trivial risk factor. There is a systemic risk to the financial system if we experience a significant economic shock that inverts the property market, as happened in 1997-98.

Finally, for Singaporean households to lock up so much liquidity in the illiquid property market represents two distinct risks. The first, that in future years there may be unintentionally coordinated disinvestment through sales, as retirement or other life adjustment effects make themselves felt. This would create supply-and-demand distortions which can be difficult to contain.

Second, taking on large debt in the property sector reduces the incentive to take risks in other areas – this can have a suppressant effect on the entrepreneurial impulse of young people by limiting them to ‘safe’ salaried employment.


In the event that we have an inversion of the property market – due to economic shock or supply overrun/ demand undershoot – we would do well to avoid a moral hazard situation where the Government comes to the rescue of households or the financial system.

It is important that the lessons of risk management be learnt, and that those who were avaricious or imprudent do not get to have their cake and eat it too with the aid of tax dollars. But if an inversion occurs in the period approaching 2016, it is not unnatural to expect considerable political temptation for the Government to intervene.

The nature of “bubble calling” is that bubbles are easy enough to see in hindsight, but just about everyone will find them invisible to fathom with foresight – either out of self-interest or because of the ‘’noisiness’ of all the varied indicators. However, the systemic risks are such that if “this time is different”, as people like to assume, it is only so in the most negative of ways.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Defence policy: Not just a matter for experts

Singapore has witnessed a growing maturity in the level of public debate on social issues. The same, however, cannot be said of the sphere of defence policy, which has largely remained the domain of the professionals — policymakers, practitioners, academics and defence pundits.

12 April

Singapore has witnessed a growing maturity in the level of public debate on social issues. The same, however, cannot be said of the sphere of defence policy, which has largely remained the domain of the professionals — policymakers, practitioners, academics and defence pundits.

Concerns about the level of defence spending and contributions to National Service (NS) have periodically been raised in the blogosphere and other forms of social media, but they lack the same rigorous treatment or sustained traction of social and day-to-day “bread and butter” issues.

Why is the discourse of defence policy in the public space important? Like the debate on other issues in the public domain, a more pluralistic exchange on defence issues, particularly by independent voices not beholden to any interest group, can act as a check against the “group-think” of professionals and the dominance of partisan agendas.

Rather than impede the decision-making process, the rigour of such a discourse will throw out options hitherto hidden by “expert” blinkers and institutionalised biases.


More importantly, Singapore cannot afford to have a military that is divorced from its society — like in the case of some countries with professional militaries.

In a military that depends on citizen soldiers as its core, public discourse on the raison d’ĂȘtre of Singapore’s defence policies and issues that directly impact Singapore’s citizen-soldier model has to be strengthened and factored into the crafting of defence policy.

Expanding the process — from the dominant approach of State-led education of citizen-soldiers about the importance of NS, to one where space is created for citizen-soldiers to define for themselves and take ownership of the “why we serve” question — will go a long way in strengthening Singapore’s citizen-soldier model and the Singapore core.


One of the most enduring philosophical explanations of the nature of war is to be found in the writings of the 19th century Prussian military thinker, Carl Von Clausewitz.

For Clausewitz, war exists in a Trinitarian relationship between rational forces embodied by the calculated policies of government, non-rational forces encountered by military forces on the battlefield (such as fog, friction, uncertainty, probability and chance), and irrational forces personified by the passion of the people. The passion that fuelled the rank-and-file of France’s citizen-soldiers was harnessed by Napoleon’s military genius to build an empire which was ultimately undone by his ambitious hubris.

Indeed, Georges Clemenceau, the wartime Prime Minister of France from 1917-1920, was known to have remarked: “War is too important a matter to be left to the military”. War, and by that extension defence of the realm, is a matter of national and personal survival that should not be the exclusive domain of military professionals and — in today’s context — other experts.

Beyond the military, other experts such as academics and defence pundits, too, can be susceptible to intellectual biases, dogmatic mindsets and entrenched assumptions that cloud decision-making.

In particular, for some countries with professional militaries, the military profession has become a community apart from the society that it defends. This separation then becomes the breeding ground of military exceptionalism — an inherent belief that only the professionals are qualified to discuss military matters.

In a critique of British military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, a former British intelligence officer, Frank Ledwidge, argued that the “manifestation of British military exceptionalism” had led to failures at the strategic and operational levels in both military campaigns.


In the Singapore Armed Forces, where citizen-soldiers still constitute its core, more can be done to harness the passion of its NSmen, particularly as a “brain trust” to solve problems and improve processes that require skills and ideas not easily found within the defence establishment.

Beyond that, there has to be a greater confidence in the ability of Singaporeans to help shape defence policy through discourse in the public space. That is not to say that such a process is to be encouraged in all areas of national defence. Debate on matters where operational sensitivity is an issue and where the lives of service personnel may be put in danger should be off-limits.

However, when it comes to public discourse on the raison d’ĂȘtre of Singapore’s defence policies and those that directly impact its citizen-soldier model — such as the inclusion of females or non-citizen volunteers in NS — the Government should encourage this process by the dissemination of green papers to solicit the feedback of Singaporeans.

In addition, conditions for the development of a citizen-led rather than professional-led space for a sustained rigorous debate of such issues should be encouraged. A distinct citizen-led discourse does not mean that ideas arising from such a process cannot be incorporated into policymaking — on the contrary, the growth of such a space has the potential of serving as a “public brain trust” for out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving.


Singapore’s strategic posture at the turn of the 21st century is succinctly explained in an excerpt from a defence policy paper, Defending Singapore in the 21st Century, published in January 2000.

It states: “A small and open country like Singapore is especially susceptible to unpredictable shifts in the international environment. This vulnerability will increase as we become more integrated with the global economy. What happens in another part of the world can have immediate and great spillover effects on our economy and security.

“But we cannot turn back from globalisation. We depend on the world economy for a living. We will have to work more actively with others to safeguard peace and stability in the region and beyond, to promote a peaceful environment conducive to socio-economic development ... The end of the Cold War may have reduced the risk of a superpower conflict, but regional and sub-regional conflicts remain a real possibility.”

By and large, this observation from more than a decade ago still remains an accurate representation of the international system that Singapore is situated in. As a small state, we may be more susceptible to global shifts, but therein lies the imperative of harnessing the collective passion of those who form, and want to be part of, the Singaporean core.

[Why? How does "being more susceptible to global shifts" lead to the "imperative of harnessing the collective passion of... the Singaporean core"? How does one lead to the other? There is NO LOGIC in this proposition. Or if there is one, it has not been established!]

In short, the creation of space for public discourse on defence issues built on public trust will go a long way in creating a “public brain trust” that is resilient, dynamic and passionate about serving Singapore.


Ong Weichong is an Assistant Professor with the Military Studies Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

[This is the ramblings of an Asst Professor? Of Military Studies? Of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies? I would be fascinated if I were not flabbergasted. 

First of all, he speaks of "defence policy" and "defence issue" then he speaks of the "nature of war", then he throws in terms like "military", and quotes Georges Clemenceau who says, "War is too important a matter to be left to the military".

In that single quote, it is clear that War is one thing. The Military is another thing. And I would say Defence Policy and Defence Issues are a whole lot of other things. So without defining these things and establishing the relationship of these things, he seems to be arguing that since Singaporeans can have a public debate on social issues, we can also debate defence issues, because war is too important to be left to the military. 

And he hopes no one will realise that he has not established that social issue and defence issues are similar enough that the general public are as much an expert in social issues as they are in defence issues because  hey, we have all been in relationships before and we have fought with our girlfriends and boyfriends so we are experts in personal conflicts, and by extension, war and by further extension, defence matters, and issues, and policies, so yeah, we should be consulted and I can tell you that my ex-girlfriend should be enlisted because she is a vicious fighter!

If this is to be a viable and credible article, first he should show why the general public can be as much an expert in defence policy as they are in social policy. It is clear to me if not most people that the public has an interest and a stake in social policies, because they need housing, would like to be employed, would like to have security when they are retired, are concerned about the cost of living, healthcare, and education and the cost of education, because they experience these issues in their daily lives. In other words, they are "experts" in social issues, not because they have thought about it, but because it affects them.

By what means are these people also experts or have an informed position on defence policies? Because they serve NS? Because they go for reservist? 

Second, in quoting Clemenceau, his "hand wave" to connect "war" and "defence" is simply, "war, and by that extension the defence of the realm, is a matter of national and personal survival". That's it. That's all he does to link one to the other. And he is with the Military Studies Programme. 

Let me correct him. War is a matter of National survival; a matter of National will prevailing over our enemies. In the prosecution of war, people will die. One objective is to minimise the loss of our combatants, and to maximise the loss for the enemy combatants. And in the course of such military manoeuvrings,  we may be required to sacrifice some of our combatants to maximise the loss of enemy combatants. 

In such a case, the matter of the personal survival of those to be sacrificed becomes subordinate to the greater matter of the survival of the nation.  So how does he lump the two (personal and national) together?

Defence policy is what you do before, during and after war. War is the continuation of politics by other means. Or something like that. Good defence policy and good foreign policy and politics may prevent wars. Independent Singapore has never been at war, but we have had defence policies, defence issues, and defence matters. Perhaps they have been good policies because we have not been led to war.

But this article, needs a lot of work. ] 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A jolt of reality to Asian Dream

Apr 09, 2013
Is Professor Kishore Mahbubani's idea of an Asian Dream an overly optimistic one? One writer says 'yes' in this article.

[This article is not about the Asian Dream. The ST editor or blurb writer or whatever needs reading and comprehension lessons! This article is a critique of Mahbubani's positon that Democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for good governance.]

By Sun Xi For The Straits Times

PROFESSOR Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, has been described as "the muse of the Asian century". He is widely known for his famous idea, "the rise of Asia and the decline of the West".

His full perspectives on the idea can be intensively explored in his books - The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift Of Global Power To The East, and The Great Convergence: Asia, The West And The Logic Of One World.

As an Asian youth, I am actually very receptive to his idea of the rise of Asia, since it gives us an unprecedented dose of confidence in our future.

However, Prof Mahbubani's idea also casts a doubt in my mind: Is he too optimistic about Asia's rise? As a matter of fact, his argument is mainly based on the evidence that some of the major Asian emerging countries (China, India and Indonesia) have been enjoying rapid economic growth and relative success in recent decades. However, I question if Asia as a whole is also rising comprehensively and sustainably in terms of political, social and cultural power.

On March 26, The Governance journal blog published an article by Prof Mahbubani in response to American academic Francis Fukuyama's essay, What Is Governance?

Prof Mahbubani welcomed Professor Fukuyama's distinction between democracy and good governance, particularly in the Asian context. As I scrutinised Prof Mahbubani's article, I started to wonder if he was too optimistic again.

Although Prof Mahbubani mentioned in his article that "democracy is a desirable goal", his key arguments over-emphasised democracy as just a means of governance.

This is evident from his claim: "To put it bluntly, democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good governance. And, yes, it is possible to have good governance without democracy."

Unfortunately, this point may be easily misunderstood by the public as: democracy is regarded as dispensable or optional, so long as there is good governance.

[I am sure he wrote what he meant and meant what he wrote. Your disagreement with his position does not give you the right to either distort his words or "correct" his meaning. So all he is saying is that governance and democracy are independent and separate characteristics. One does not follow from the other. Nor does either mutually exclude the other. ]

On the contrary, I want to re-emphasise that democracy is not only a means to governance, but also an extremely critical social development goal.

[You can emphasise anything you want. But if you want to make a point, you need to argue for it with logic and reason. Just emphasising it, cuts no ice.]

In its proclamation of Independence in 1965, Singapore proposed the blueprint of constructing a nation with democracy, independence, freedom, justice, fairness, equality, welfare and well-being.

[You're not doing so good. Instead of logic and reason, you went into history. Aspirational declarations are not arguments, or proof of anything other than a historical fact, if true.]

Even the People's Republic of China, which always firmly declares "building socialism with Chinese characteristics", clearly states its national goal of "building a prosperous, democratic and civilised socialist country" in its Constitution. Therefore, it is very obvious that even if there is good governance, democracy is still an inevitable objective to pursue.

[Still not doing so good. Again, aspirational declaration without explanation of words like "democratic" and "civilised" means nothing. Oh dear. I just realised, Singapore NEVER declared an intent to develop a "civilised society"! We're fucked!]

China was cited by Prof Mahbubani to support his idea. He commented in his article that "anyone who doubts this (it is possible to have good governance without democracy) should look at the record of China's government over the past 30 years".

As a mainland-born Chinese, I should be very proud if China's so-called unique development model can be considered as a sustainable paradigm of good governance.

However, Prof Mahbubani's statement raises a pertinent question: Why should we look only at the past 30 years of China's governance but not the past 40 or even 50 years?

Obviously, China has been enjoying fast economic growth over the past 30 years since the opening up of its economy in the late 1970s. Nonetheless, China and its people suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 and the earlier Great Leap Forward years (1958-1960).

What type of governance had existed in China during the 30 years between the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the opening up of the economy in 1978?

[So you have your answer to why 30 years and not 50 years. There was good governance only in the last 30 years. Prior to that, bad governance. You don't seem to dispute this.]

Yes, democracy may not necessarily ensure good governance, but in my view, it should at its minimum prevent the rise of "evil governance".

[So how did China end the "evil governance"? Democratic uprising? What role did Democracy have in either ending the "evil governance", or establishing "good governance"? So your view that democracy should prevent the rise of "evil governance" is at best a wishful idiosyncrasy, unsupported by any evidence, historical or otherwise?]

In addition, Prof Mahbubani wrote that "no other society in human history has improved human welfare as much as the Chinese government".

I personally agree but this judgment comes a bit too early.

It may not be reasonable to compare economic performance between developed countries and emerging countries simply in terms of the speed of growth as it is similar to comparing the growth rate between the elderly and the young.

Although the West is currently experiencing certain crises, isn't it unfair to blame the Western model of democracy as a scapegoat? The United States has been prosperous for hundreds of years, with its democratic system as one element underpinning its success.

[No. You are not reading Mahbubani carefully. If the west is having crises it is because it is badly governed. This is despite democracy. You are still not disproving Fukuyama or Mahbubani wrong, or even inconsistent.]

Perhaps China did not need democracy for the past 30 years during its initial phase of wealth creation. Nevertheless, without a functional democratic system in place in the near future to ensure equal participation from the public in the wealth allocation, China will not be able to build an inclusive society based on fairness, justice and less corruption.

[And now you introduce concepts of fairness, justice, and corruption. It is the sign of a disordered mind that words are used without definition, without clarity, and without distinction. It would seem that you would imply that democracy is either the same as fairness, justice, and non-corruption, or leads to these three concepts, or encompasses these three concepts, or means these three concepts. It is hard to know your intent when you make no links or explanations as you jump from one concept to another!]

Singapore is another example which Prof Mahbubani favours. His article stated: "The Singapore civil service has performed brilliantly but it has not done so because it is the most autonomous. It has done so because it has imbibed a culture which focuses the minds of civil servants on improving the livelihood of Singaporeans."

In fact, the professor has listed the key factors of Singapore's success as MPH, namely Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. I would never deny the importance of MPH, but it should not be taken to mean that Singapore does not require democracy.

[Then explain why and how democracy is essential, either to Singapore's past success or future continuing success.]

If MPH is really sufficient for Singapore, then the public support for the ruling party in the recent elections and by-elections would have not declined continuously and significantly.

[Again, a non sequitur. You have not made a link between democracy and good governance. And now you confuse democracy with electoral results. Again, evidence of a very disordered mind.]

Although it is unclear what kind of democracy is best for Singapore, electorates have repeatedly used their ballots to indicate a preference for more political competition as well as greater checks and balances on the ruling government.

Asians should respect universal values such as democracy and human rights. It would not be beneficial to overly emphasise Asia's uniqueness which may only lead to selective interpretation or even misinterpretation of democracy.

[Thank you for telling us what Asians should respect. I really miss having someone tell me what to think. ]

North Korea may call itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" but the rest of the world is left in no doubt that it is a totalitarian and Stalinist dictatorship.

[And may I refer you to your earlier point about China espousing a "democratic and civilised society" in her Constitution? So if you accept that China believes this as an aspirational goal, can not North Korea also have the aspiration to a Democracy? And can both aspirations be completely divorced from reality? And have no bearing on actual efforts to pursue either stated aspirations?]

Furthermore, Asia itself is facing crises. Dozens of Asian countries are still struggling with poverty; while the nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran are seeking wars.

[Appropos of...?]

Moreover, the simmering territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea can potentially trigger unrest in the region and impact global security.

[And democracy would immediately solve this problem!.... How? You're just tossing in current affairs issues right? Or do you mean to have a democratic regional voting to decide how the territorial disputes be resolved? So one man one vote, decide which country have control over Diaoyu Dao?]

Hopefully, most of such crises in Asia are just the exception and Prof Mahbubani's great "Asian Dream" will not turn out to be just a beautiful mirage.

[You know, you should just go to the comments on Mahbubani's article and just say, "I disagree!" Because your article is a waste of time.]

The writer, a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an investment analyst based in Singapore. He was born in China and became a Singapore permanent resident in 2011.

[I hope he is a better investment analyst than a political writer. Oh wait. I'm sure he is a better investment analyst than a writer.]

Monday, April 8, 2013

The S'pore way: the way to go?

Apr 08, 2013
By Tom Plate

COMMUNICATION of many kinds - verbal as well as symbolic - is required to govern well. Mass politics requires a leader's persuasion to maximise political effectiveness.

Lee Kuan Yew - Singapore's founding prime minister, and by history's assessment the long-running elected PM ever - knew what he wanted for his country, but a driven utilitarian, Lee judged himself, almost ideologically, by standards that could be scientifically measured.

He was almost always in a deliberate rush to achieve. Per capita income. International competitiveness. Scholastic scores. Low inflation. High employment. He wanted nothing to stand in the way of measurable achievements.

He hated unnecessary delays, such as from uninformed debate, which of course is the essence of mass democracy. But unless he were to do away with elections altogether, he had to know what his people thought, even if much of it seemed to him thoughtless - or in any event, uninformed. The leader always has to carry the people with him, as he'd say.

The ancient Greek thinkers understood the core problem. One perceptive modern-day interpreter was Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher who used to lecture about Greek thought at the College de France. He accepted their insights about the severe contradiction at the heart of the very concept of democracy.

And the Greeks had a word for that. Two words, actually.

The first was parrhesia, which sort of means "truth-telling" or "free, frank speech" in a profound way. The theoretical sine qua non of superior governance means the best decisions are produced by the best thought and information and discussion. Not everyone can do that.

So ongoing tension exists between parrhesia and its opposite, isegoria. This latter means (sort of) "everyone has an equal and absolute right to speak in public debate, whatever the truth value". (This is to say: no matter how uninformed or, arguably, even stupid.)

The first speaks to Maximum Truth, political correctness notwithstanding, people's feelings notwithstanding; and said parrhesia speech must be pure and wise and, above all, anything but self-seeking.

The second speaks to accepting that everyone is speech-equal and every citizen needs to have her or his say and should be equally involved in the public debate, no matter how little they may know or however self-seeking they may be.

Everyone and anyone can do their isegoria. That's easy enough. But parrhesia - this is something else entirely. The two are in opposition: Truth-telling and speech-equality are anything but the same.

Foucault used to suggest that democracy could either affirm equality of public speech at the expense of parrhesia or affirm quality of public discourse at the expense of isegoria. My hypothesis is that LKY, who did not suffer fools or foolish comment readily, was a fervent admirer of parrhesia and not of isegoria. He thought the latter, if left unchecked by proper educated authority, would degrade Singapore's polity and handicap its rate of progress.

[Social Media and the internet would seem to promote isegoria rather than parrhesia. ]

To extrapolate, Lee followed in the footsteps of Plato, who describes his mentor Socrates as sometimes distrusting the utility of truth-telling to the masses. Wrote Foucault by way of explanation: "The powerlessness of true discourse in democracy is not due, of course, to true discourse, that is, to the fact that discourse is true. It is due to the very structure of democracy."

Bring Lee back into this discussion.

Remember, he honestly admitted to us (with a plain-spoken directness I had not seen elsewhere before, and have not heard from him since) that the ideology of democracy left him cold. And I have to tell you that, when he said it towards the end of our first day of conversations - with absolutely no apology whatsoever - the comment seemed to me breathtaking in its utter disregard of political correctness or polite qualification.

Said Lee to us: "I do not believe that one-man, one-vote, in either the US format or the British format or the French format, is the final position."

Public truth-telling and real-world politics make for a very rough fit when trying to co-exist in a political system. This is not something political leaders say publicly. But the difference between the individual speaking the truth and wanting the truth to predominate, on the one hand, and the equal right of all to speak in comparable volume even if it runs the risk of advancing untruthfulness - this is a tough one.

Lee of course was no Old Testament prophet but a modern Machiavellian political leader with a strategic vision - perhaps even of a Plato. As a utilitarian pragmatist who mainly wanted to get good things done properly and, if possible, rapidly, he was not a sainted ideologue about this, or about anything else.

He knew what he could get away with and was a master of rhetorical nuance. He was often accused of controlling the courts but - whatever the truth of that - in fact, as a close associate put it to me, "everything he did or said had to be legally defensible". He could rouse a crowd with the best of them.

His goal was not to stay in power for its own sake and loot, as with some Third World despots, but to deploy that power to improve Singapore dramatically and impress on neighbours how it can be done. He was often in a rush. Failures slammed progress into reverse. So what he could not tolerate was ineffectiveness, especially cloaked in ideological purity. Ideological arguments were for professors of the academic and arcane.

"Singapore is not a 4,000-year culture," he told me in an interview in 2007.

"This is an immigrant community that started in 1819. It's an immigrant community that left its moorings and therefore, knowing it's sailing to uncharted seas, is guided by the stars. I say let's follow the stars and they said okay, let's try. And we've succeeded and here we are, but has it really taken root? No. It's just worked for the time being. If it doesn't (continue to) work, again, we say let's try something else. This (Singapore's current way) is not entrenched. This is not a 4,000-year society."

Though educated in England, he said he was not much the student of one of the great European political intellectuals of the 20th century - the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, whose short book, The Hedgehog And The Fox (1953), helped frame our conversations for this book. We had a light tussle over my proposal that he was a Hedgehog (a big ideas man), but he took the view that, if anything between the two extremes, he was a Fox (a man of hundreds of practical ideas, not just a few overriding ones).

Lee always emphasised his ad-hoc pragmatism. I fought him on this point, at best to a draw. But I may have been wrong. In Berlin's terminology, Lee is indeed a Fox, not a Hedgehog. I may have underestimated the overall impact of the tremendous atmospheric pressure of empiricism at Cambridge, where he read law and graduated with double first class honours. This successful experience at such a hallowed institution would have left a deep impression on anyone. It might have made me almost religious about what I had learnt, made me even unyieldingly Hedgehogian about my British pragmatism.

Fox or not, Lee was a steel icon for what we Americans would label the law and order thing. He was stricter than the sternest father. His insistence on the virtues of discipline, hard work and respect for authority put the filial piety of a nation to the test.

A joke at his expense. And so two dogs are swimming in the waters between Singapore and Borneo - but in opposite directions. They pause halfway to exchange greetings. The dog headed towards Borneo asked the other dog why he's swimming to Singapore. The answer: "Ah, the shopping, the housing, the air-conditioning, the health care, the schools. So why are you going to Borneo?" Says the dog from Singapore: "Oh, I just want to bark."

The hurry-up game plan of the Lee Kuan Yew ambition to First World Singapore was competing against the ticking clock of competition and globalisation. The rush to build and grow was understandable and the performance exceptional. But it was predicated on a political system that, in quieting the news media, put enormous pressure on the Government and the People's Action Party (PAP) to monitor corruption and inferior performance.

This was the system's Achilles' heel. Inevitably some bad stuff had to have been kept from public view. But in time it will come out - and for all anyone knows, there may be a good deal of it.

The system of control Lee clamped on the small island city-state was somewhat suffocating. Arts and literature were slow to develop even as the scientific, mathematical and engineering skills soared to exceed the achievement level of almost all nations. Singapore's per capita income level, greater than even the US and probably Japan, were a testament to the economic success, brilliantly achieved in the flash of a few decades. But there was a downside, a cost, as there is with almost everything. His daughter Wei Ling hints at it (earlier in this book) in her critique of mere materialism as a measure of exemplary national achievement. But asked about it, her father (who like all of us fathers always knows best) is defensive and dismissive.

Lee was all but blind to that because he was hell-bent to see his country escape from Third World poverty. And that he did. But there was tunnel vision to the route of the canal he burrowed. He felt that if he took his eye off the economic ball, the juggernaut that was Singapore would slow down, lose momentum and slide into reverse. Every day he woke up, he would look for new coal to fire into the engine.

And in the end he got his way. In Singapore, politics it usually went Lee's way - and that of PAP, which he dominated. And that rather nicely characterised Singapore politics for decades - Lee Kuan Yew getting his own way. Right, enemies might face jail time if necessary, critics faced costly litigation in the courts, and the mere sight or voice of Lee could scare.

But there was a payoff to the public: Singapore got to the land that Lee had promised - to be a first-class First World nation. It was almost a textbook success, except he was the one writing the book, and writing it as he went along, as he'd be the first to admit.

The achievement was not always pretty. Leaving aside the relentless drumbeat of criticism from foreign human rights groups, mostly those in the US (as if the US hasn't its own issues in that regard), it is true Singapore had less "freedom" than classically defined. Yes, it has more money, more stability, more social cohesion, more international clout - but not more freedom to… well… bark.

Lee was well aware of what he was doing. Effective leaders usually do. They will do what they have to do. In classical political philosophy, the "Doctrine of Dirty Hands" postulates that all leaders will have to do things that otherwise would be morally (and probably legally) unacceptable in less authorised hands.

Let us note mild-mannered, professorial President Barack Obama - the former lecturer from Harvard Law School - keeps a hit list of possible terrorist targets at his White House desk. And so on around the globe.

Power is not pretty. Whether it comes from the barrel of a gun, from the gavel of a judge, or from the mouth of authority, it is inherently forceful and coercive. People tend not to understand power. Even when used for a good cause, it is not a nice thing.

Lee earlier in the book denies he was a soft authoritarian, as that term of political art goes, on the grounds that the PAP had put itself before voters and had been repeatedly validated. But without the decades of dazzling economic success, what would have happened? The suspicion is that by and large, voters would have been too intimidated to vote otherwise. But they never had to see the worst. Lee delivered. He used power-absolute and persuasive - effectively. He got the job done that he set out to do.

By fax once I once asked him to offer some self-criticism. He referred me to Catherine Lim. This fine writer, perhaps his most persistently perceptive critic, at the end of a long lecture in the summer of 2012 that contained quite a listing of his alleged errors and foibles, nonetheless was forced to conclude this way:

"We are indeed in the midst of one of the most exciting times in Singapore's history, a time fraught with paradoxes, perils and promises, brought about (by) a general election (2011) that has been described as a watershed, a sea change, a transformation, not least because it ended the era of Lee Kuan Yew.

"Mr Lee's legacy is so mixed that at one end of the spectrum of response, there will be adulation, and at the other, undisguised opprobrium and distaste.

"But whatever the emotions he elicits, whatever the controversies that swirl around him, it will be generally agreed that for a man of his stature and impact, neither the present nor the future holds an equal."

No definitive, measured assessment of the Lee Kuan Yew era is possible right now. History needs to sort through the basic metrics and give them some ranking. Consider the daunting question of the true value of electoral democracy - one citizen, one vote. Is this system a moral imperative? As we have seen, Lee thinks not.

Many people admire the US but they also give enormous credit to China, despite its authoritarian system. Is any kind of political system that delivers very good governance and economic development, as did Lee's, a manifest social good? And is a democracy that fails to do that still justifiable, simply because it is a democracy?

The mystery of Lee Kuan Yew and what his successful Singapore represents is not for the simple-minded or those impatient for quick answers. It is profound.

But at the end of his story, he stood as the longest-serving prime minister in world history. However much we admired his governance policies, we cannot ignore his politics. At the same time, however harsh they were, they worked.

The writer is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, and the author of the best-selling Giants Of Asia book series, of which Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew was the first volume

Aussies set to curb casino-style games

Apr 08, 2013
Social media and app games may lead children to be future problem gamblers

By Jonathan Pearlman in Sydney

AUSTRALIA is set to crack down on a new wave of casino-style games and mobile applications, amid fears they are grooming children under 13 and creating false expectations of gambling.

A federal government review found that the games give a skewed impression to users of how easy it is to win, and could lead children to become problem gamblers in the future.

The casino-style games are the fastest-growing social media segment, with free games such as Zynga Poker, a poker simulation game, and DoubleDown Casino, which offers various casino games, now accounting for 13 per cent of all game users on Facebook.

The games use virtual money or points, and are not classified as gambling under Australian law, even though some require players to pay for their initial points.

But a study by Canadian researchers found that 39 per cent of the games provide higher- than-usual odds in favour of the player.

The exact number of children using the games is unknown.

Zynga Poker is the fourth-most popular game on Facebook - and up to 15 per cent of the social media giant's billion-plus members are under 18.

The Australian review, released last month by the Department of Communications, warned that such games can "normalise" gambling for children and "may lead them to become problem gamblers in the future".

The review cited research that has found that exposure to gambling-style games at a young age is a "predictor" for future problem gambling behaviour.

"A further issue associated with many gambling simulations is how the odds are often geared to benefit the player, which may provide a false impression of the ease of winning," it said.

The games have been described as a "disgrace" by experts, who say they are easily accessible and habituate young people to electronic gaming.

An Australian gambling researcher, Dr Sally Gainsbury from Southern Cross University, said the games appear "child-friendly" and often feature bright colours and cartoonish characters.

"A lot of these games use Facebook and social media apps, and feature cartoonish characters and look like they are child-friendly," she told The Straits Times.

"Children can view them as games and not as a risk. Kids may think they are winning lots of free credit and this can eventually lead them to start gambling."

Another researcher, Monash University's Dr Charles Livingstone, said: "These games are a disgrace. They're identical to poker machines and they are easily accessible by young people - habituating them to electronic gambling, particularly poker machines."

The gambling games have become increasingly profitable, with users showing an increasing willingness to pay for virtual credit.

Australians spend about A$59.8 million (S$77.3 million) a year on social media simulated gambling apps.

The government's review said global gambling companies have been buying free and virtual games with an apparent aim of expanding into social media.

The review noted the purchase of DoubleDown Casino by online gambling company International Game Technology and the purchase of Playtika, creator of the slot machine game Slotomania, by Caesars Entertainment, the global gaming giant.

In addition, Zynga announced last week that it will make its first foray into actual gambling with the release of several poker-style and casino games that will be available online, on mobile phones and Facebook.

The games will first be available in Britain, but will then expand across Europe, though it will not be released in countries that ban real-money online gaming such as Australia and the United States.

The review urged social media sites and game developers to "closely monitor" gambling-style games to ensure that they are not inappropriately targeting youngsters or misleading children about the prospects for success on real gambling services.

The review flagged an outright ban on the games, but noted this may be difficult to achieve because it could also lead to bans on non-gambling apps. In addition, the review noted, the global nature of the apps and their developers would make any such law difficult to enforce.

Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has asked game providers and social media to outline steps to prevent risks to children. He said he will consult state governments before taking further steps.

Dr Gainsbury said the authorities should restrict use of the games to people aged 18 and over. Providers and sites that carry the games should be forced to ensure there are no Web links or pop-ups advertising real-money gambling sites, she said.

"Since these are supposed to be gambling-type games, they should have an age restriction to 18-plus," she said.

Doctor-to-population and nurse-to-population ratios improved over past 5 years

Apr 08, 2013
Amy Khor, Healthcare

By Andrea Ong

The ratios of doctors and nurses serving the general population have both improved over the past five years, said Minister of State for Health Amy Khor in Parliament on Monday.

Last year, Singapore had one doctor serving 520 people, up from 620 people in 2007. There was one nurse serving 154 people, an improvement from 205 people in 2007.

Responding to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), Dr Khor said her ministry has worked with public healthcare clusters to expand the pool of professionals working in public healthcare. For instance, the number of doctors in the public sector has increased by over 50 per cent since 2007 to around 6,200 last year. The number of nurses went up by about 70 per cent to 21,000 over the same period.

In order to better attract and retain healthcare professionals, the Government has enhanced pay packages and expanded intakes of medical and nursing students, said Dr Khor.

Replying to a concern raised by Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) about the difficulty of recruiting students into nursing and allied health professional courses, she said response to an advertising campaign promoting these professions to school-leavers has been positive so far.

Air-condition this nation

Apr 07, 2013
By Rachel Chang

On one particularly low moment during Easter Sunday, as I walked through a sheet of humidity that felt like unformed cement, I decided that Hell would have the same climate and weather patterns - "Humid, Wet, Humid-Wet-Humid, Hazy Humid" - as Singapore. But without the air-conditioning.

Over the weekend, with my nose running and eyes watering from the haze, and a constant sheen on my skin from the thick, wet air, I wondered how we've managed to get anything done in this country.

The answer is that we try to travel between air-conditioned space and air-conditioned space with minimal time spent in the open. But how did Singaporeans, before we had the time to air-condition the island, survive - not to mention build a country?

No wonder former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called air-conditioning humankind's greatest invention.

I know this type of weather can get worse in other equatorial countries. But we are locked in an existential battle with the climate that I'm convinced is the source of all our First World problems and the reason for our collective perennial bad mood.

I really don't think Singapore would otherwise have topped these international "emotionless" and "least positive" polls. If some guy sweating over a clipboard is making you answer questions about "the last time you laughed" in the blazing heat, while the sliding doors of your office building emits puffs of air-conditioned air in your direction, "emotionless" is going to be the best they will get.

The problem is this: While it is unfeasible to air-condition everything, we have managed to air-condition the previously unfeasible, thus making the yet uncooled spaces exponentially more vexing.

Take the Gardens by the Bay. The Cloud Forest is advertised as "replicating the cool, moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions between 1,000m and 3,000m above sea level".

Let's not kid ourselves. It began with some civil servant in a conference room asking: How can we air-condition the outdoors?

Sure, the Flower Dome might look a bit like the hotel lobby of a five-star hotel but it combines nature with artificial cooling, and that's no mean feat.

The problem with reaching these heights of air-conditioning excellence - and this is applicable as an analogy to every aspect of Singapore society - is that we are the kind of people who let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

On Good Friday, my entire family and I started to get cold in the Cloud Forest (another Singaporean trait: complaining that the good is too good).

Looking out towards the Super Trees and the undulating stretches of green around it, we decided that we should visit the real outdoors part of the Gardens (also known as the free part).

There, the real majesty of sprawling natural life would meet us. No hotel lobby flower arrangements here; we would feel appropriately small in the face of the universe, calmed by a silent world beyond human concern, one that existed before us and will continue long after.

We took two steps in the direction of the real outdoors before the wall of humidity came crashing down and reminded us why this country spent $2 billion air-conditioning the outdoors.

"We can always look at pictures of nature online," I suggested, as we beat a hasty retreat to the air-conditioned cars which would take us to air-conditioned restaurants.

"Why can't they air-condition that part also?" my brother-in-law joked.

Except it wasn't really a joke. If Singaporeans were told that there's some secret statutory board working on how to air- condition the whole country, I really think that revelation would be a vote- winner.

This is what I envision the solution to be, some sort of giant, climate-controlled dome lowered over the island.

The airport is outside the dome (see, I've thought this through) so that our aviation hub status is unaffected. From the airport, you can get through an underground network into the dome.

This thing can even function as some sort of missile shield to protect the whole country, because we all know that's going to be a problem sooner or later.

I know we can do it and I only hope it happens in my lifetime.

Even if not, I am happy for my descendents - who will look back on the days before they were born, when Singapore had managed to air-condition only one part of the outdoors, and with great sympathy wonder how on earth we got anything done.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Room at the top - for rich to pay more taxes

Apr 07, 2013
Some among the rich argue - or would at least agree - that they should pay more

By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

If you asked someone whether he was willing to pay more tax, you would probably be expecting a rude answer - it seems like asking if he wants to have his bones broken.

It turns out though that it isn't such a no-brainer, and there are people who are not only prepared to pay more but who will also argue quite vociferously why they should do so.

The most well-known is American billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who has long argued that the United States' tax system needs to be overhauled because wealthy people like him are not paying enough tax.

According to him, the tax rate on his income amounted to only 17.7 per cent in 2011, way below the 32.9 per cent average of what his own office staff, including his secretary, were paying.

That's because a large part of his income came from stock-related earnings, which in the US attracted a flat tax rate of 15 per cent.

This was how he put his case in a piece he wrote in 2011: "Our leaders have asked for 'shared sacrifice'. But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

"While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labours but are allowed to classify our income as 'carried interest', thereby getting a bargain 15 per cent tax rate...

"These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It's nice to have friends in high places."

The world's most successful investor, who is worth US$53 billion (S$66 billion), wants a more progressive tax system where the rich are taxed a much higher rate.

He isn't alone in making this call.

Some time ago, I heard on BBC radio a Scandinavian businessman defend the very high taxes he had to pay to support the welfare system there because he believed it was a good system and those better off should help pay to support it.

The issue of how progressive a tax system Singapore should have was raised in this year's Budget debate when Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam gave what I thought was the most detailed thinking from the Government on this matter.

He made several points worth recapping because this will be an important issue in the years ahead as government spending increases and revenues decline with an ageing population.

First, he argued that Singapore already has a progressive system and that if you take total taxes - including maid levies, car taxes and so on, and not just income tax - the top 10 per cent of tax payers contribute one third of the tax revenue.

Second, he stressed that the Government wasn't interested in making the system progressive for its own sake but wanted to do it in a way which would best help the lower- and middle-income groups.

Hence it needed to take into consideration issues such as how any change would affect the economic dynamism of the country, what it would spend the revenue collected on and whether the system was fair and equitable.

These are sound principles and we are fortunate to have a finance minister who has thought deeply about these issues.

The question remains though: Can and should the rich be made to pay more?

I believe there is room in Singapore to do so.

This is particularly so in the area of wealth, as opposed to income.

Wealth is what you have at any one time - property being the most common - while income is what you earn in a year.

The rich here get away with too much of their wealth left intact from taxation.

Owners of high-value homes must have felt like Mr Buffett, having friends in high places, when the Government abolished estate duty in 2008.

This is a tax on assets left behind after death and, when it was applied to property before it was abolished, affected those with a value above $9 million.

It was a high threshold and so would not affect most people, only the very rich.

Yet it was removed, without much debate even from the opposition Workers' Party.

One reason cited then was that removing it would help promote the wealth management industry in Singapore by encouraging the overseas rich to bring their assets here.

I wouldn't be surprised if they responded in droves as a result, with many buying property here to add to their stockpile, pushing up prices.

Whatever the result, the move made the tax system less progressive.

In this year's Budget, there was an attempt to redress this somewhat when changes were made to property tax which would result in those owning high-value homes paying more taxes.

But estate duty remains a relic of the past.

Is it time to bring it back, perhaps for the second and subsequent property?

And what about introducing a capital gains tax which taxes gains made when, say, you sell a property or shares in the market?

Any decision about how much more the wealthy should pay should take into account the principles that Mr Tharman highlighted. It also depends on whether there is a need to increase tax revenue, given the healthy surpluses in the Government's coffers.

One further caveat: This shouldn't descend into an ideological war to milk the rich for its own sake. That's why it was important for Government to set out its approach to this issue.

You might ask what right any government has to tax what is rightfully yours and you've worked hard to accumulate.

The answer is that when the value of your assets, especially property, goes up, it usually isn't solely because of what you've done personally, but the result of the effort of all in the country to make it a stable and prosperous place with a promising future. Without these conditions, there would be no asset appreciation.

Singapore is a great place for the wealthy - it's peaceful, safe and stable, has first-class infrastructure, and where everything (well, almost) works.

Where else can the super-rich drive and park their luxury cars in peace?

When millionaires buy seafront homes on Sentosa, they know there will be no armed robbers from the sea to threaten their lives.

Should they be taxed more to enjoy these privileges?

If they were asked whether they would pay more so as to continue with this happy state of affairs, I believe most will say yes.

That's as good a reason as any to tax them more.

Change? Yes, but just how and where?

Apr 07, 2013
It would help if voters are given a better sense of where leaders are heading, and why

By Sunday With Warren Fernandez Editor

Nike says Just Do It. Standard Chartered Bank declares it is Here For Good. BMW proclaims its cars the "ultimate driving machine".

In today's hyper-media world, it is all the more critical that organisations and brands are clear what they stand for, and communicate this to those they would like to serve.

The same goes for politics, even though selling policies and getting buy-in for them is obviously not quite the same as selling soap or shoes.

So, United States President Barrack Obama stood for change in 2008, rallying supporters with resonant cries of, "Yes, we can". Closer to home, Singapore's leaders once held out a bold vision of attaining a "Swiss standard of living", while Malaysia had its Vision 2020. Mr Goh Chok Tong's call to foster a "kinder, gentler society" when he took over as prime minister in 1990 also went down well.

It might seem simplistic and overly reductionist, but when done well, a good slogan, or more elaborately, an overarching narrative, can help focus minds and frame perceptions about deeper changes that are taking place.

Besides, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In the absence of any conscious effort to shape this narrative, the gap is likely to be filled, perhaps in unintended and even unfortunate ways. Once perceptions stick, they are hard to shake off or change.

So, it is worth pondering: What is the underlying storyline for politics in Singapore today?

Last year's mantra was all about building an "inclusive society", with the idea reiterated by political leaders throughout the Budget debate and afterwards.

The germ of a new idea emerged during the campaign for the recent Punggol East by-election, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to assure voters that his party and Government was "on your side".

This might have seemed self-evident to some. But in the aftermath of the roiling election campaigns in 2011, when criticisms were made that the People's Action Party had grown distant and aloof from the common man's concerns, it was worth making plain just where its leaders stood, and what drove their decisions.

Variations on this theme followed. This year's Budget was dubbed by some as a "Robin Hood" budget, with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam cast as the bandit of Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich to help the poor, on whose side he was, presumably.

There were also moves to lower the cost of new Housing Board flats, steps to bring car prices down for the masses while raising them for the rich, and tough new measures to ensure that local workers are given a fair deal by employers.

This "on your side" mantra is a powerful one. Voters want to be assured that the people they pick as leaders understand their worries and woes, and can be trusted to look out for them in putting these right.

For this to happen, though, the rhetoric must match the reality, if it is not to be dismissed as just so much political talk.

Herein lies the difficulty. For once you get down to the details, it becomes a lot less clear just what being "on your side" means under different circumstances.

On tax policy, for example, does being "on your side" imply taxing the rich till the proverbial pips squeak? What if this results in driving away businesses, investors and jobs, and hitting the people the policy was meant to serve?

On immigration, the call to put "Singaporeans first" has taken on greater resonance in the wake of the fraught debate over that 6.9 million population figure. Some have taken to saying that putting Singaporeans ahead should entail penalising newcomers, or making it less enticing for them to come in the first place. Some even want "no vacancies, we're full" signs on the door.

Most Singaporeans, I believe, don't buy this nativist nonsense, spouted by a vocal minority. We know full well that Singapore was built on the hard work of our immigrant forefathers and by being open to people, money and ideas from around the world.

So, to my mind, being "on your side" when it comes to immigration entails ensuring that the country stays open and accessible to those who might come to help this place prosper, while making sure that the social and physical infrastructure systems are able to cope.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between shutting the door to further immigration and the wide open door of the past, which caused the sense among many Singaporeans of being swamped and overwhelmed. Going forward, the debate should be about how to strike that balance.

The same might be said of housing policy. Is being "on your side" simply about lowering public housing prices? What impact would that have on the many who already own their homes, and rely on their flats for rentals or retirement? Or those who have been holding out to upgrade?

Or take transport. Does being "on your side" mean making cars cheap for everyone who wants one? Or limiting every household to having one or two cars? Or is it more about making buses and MRT services cheap, convenient and consistently reliable?

What about education? Would abolishing the Primary School Leaving Examination put Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on the side of parents wanting to ease stress on their children? Or should he be mindful to stay on the side of those who believe that the exam helps give bright but poor kids a better chance of getting into top secondary schools?

Clearly, there are no easy answers. As a society facing a major transition, we are going to have to make some difficult decisions, which entail trade-offs between competing "sides", each with legitimate claims and interests. We will have to contend with the age-old 3Cs of politics: choices, costs and compromises. We will have to work out the costs of our various choices, and shape collectively acceptable compromises.

That, to me, is what the Our Singapore Conversation process should be about. So I am glad that it is finally moving into its second phase, delving deeper into the many pressing issues we face as a society, from a rapidly ageing society to an increasingly challenging external environment, both economically and geopolitically. This is where it gets interesting, as well as more challenging, and perhaps more controversial.

It is well and good that earlier rounds of discussions have signalled agreement that Singaporeans would like a society that cares more about the less well-off, or where preserving its natural and social heritage is given its rightful priority.

But now comes the hard part: How to do that? How to trade off one competing good against the other? How to figure out the costs, weigh up the trade-offs and agree on the compromises? That is where the debate must now turn.

Giving Singaporeans a better sense of the underlying philosophy that will shape these "on your side" decisions will help in the process.

This might entail an overarching storyline on just where our leaders are trying to go, and where we might end up as a society in the wake of the welter of policy reviews that are now under way.

Voters will want to know just why they should back them or agree to go along. Certainly, in today's world, they will not take kindly to being simply told to "just do it" as their leaders "are here for good".