Should Not and Ought Not

Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah:

“Regarding the trickle-down effect that the water price increase would have on the cost of other goods such as coffee and tea, the cost of such goods should not and ought not go up. Currently, firms are charged S$2.15 per cubic metre for the portable water that they use, and after the full water price hike kicks in next year, this will go up to S$2.74 cents, an increase of 59 cents. This would have very minimal impact on the price of coffee and tea.”

Indranee Rajah

Those of us who are not as well-educated as our ministers may find the “should not” and “ought not” in the above statement a bit confusing. They may even find the use of “ought” (which I seldom hear people use nowadays) rather odd. Allow me to explain. The word “should” or “should not” in this case, has a broad spectrum of meanings. It could mean that it’s unlikely to happen. It could also take on a judgemental tone, meaning that it’s not right to make it happen. It could also be a piece of advice, meaning that the speaker is recommending that it does not happen. In most cases, saying that something should not happen is sufficient to cover all these nuances.

What about “ought not”? Well, it has a much narrower spectrum of meanings and I find the use of it a bit unnecessary in this case as “should not” overlaps everything under “ought not”. When you say that someone “ought not” do something, it simply means that it’s wrong to do it. Personally, I prefer to use “ought” only in retrospect. I almost never tell people they ought or ought not do something. I often tell my son that he ought to have done something when he didn’t. That sounds better to me. Nevertheless, the use of an awkward statement bearing “should not” and “ought not” in succession did get many people’s attention. It’s just that if the person in the audience had asked me instead of Ms Indranee, I would have given him the correct answer.

For the benefit of those who don’t read Chinese, 10 coffee shops may raise their prices next month. The smaller print says that it has nothing to do with the increase in water price. That should take care of the “should not” and “ought not”. Looking beyond the language, the mathematics behind our minister’s calculations treats water price as an isolated issue not related to other costs. Our coffee shop operators know better. I’ve once described how increases in ERPs can affect a business like a dental clinic even though it’s not obvious to those not in the know. Few dental clinics can operate in isolation. They need laboratory support to get their dentures, their crowns and bridges, their orthodontic appliances done. They also need to order supplies regularly. Deliveries within the CBD will incur additional costs for the suppliers and labs if ERP rates go up. They may insist on minimum orders or charge extra for delivery. You can’t mathematically conclude that increases in ERP rates should not and ought not increase the cost of running a dental practice which is not on wheels.

52 Mobile Dental Clinic

Having said all that, I think it’s not fair for Ms Indranee to be asked such a question. She might have been wrong to underestimate the likelihood of prices going up, but it takes quite a moron to ask a minister about coffee and tea issues.

But let’s get back to the mathematical equations for a moment. I once saw a yong tau foo seller adding water to the sweet sauce. I was disgusted. If she had only increased the price of her yong tau foo by a very affordable 10 cents or even 20 cents, there would have been no need to dilute the sauce. Simple addition? Not so. Unlike the beverages stall (usually run by the big boss), these folks compete with other stalls for customers. In a competitive market, it’s never a good idea to increase prices. Better to dilute the sauces. But wait, even the diluent isn’t cheap now. Time to do a little subtraction?

As for the far more privileged beverage stalls, increasing prices would not be such a difficult decision. But how much to increase? What is an adequate margin? Now, that’s the kind of question that would be appropriate for our experts like ministers and professors to answer. Let me put forward a familiar scenario. The OC tells the PCs that he wants the soldiers to fall in at 0800. The PCs tells his sergeants to fall the men in at 0700. The sergeants instruct the men to fall in at 0600 – totally baffling the OC. We’ve all heard that story before; Singaporeans are well known for playing safe. It won’t be difficult to predict that some of the “privileged” industries will increase their rates quite a bit more than what’s necessary to maintain profitability.

I thus find it very odd that Ms Indranee should consider a 59 cents’ increase for every cubic metre (1000 litres) in water cost as something that should not and ought not result in an increase in prices of beverages when our highly privileged government is well known for drawing a very wide “margin of safety”. Is the 30% increase reflective of this wide margin of safety? Or is it something else.

Many were outraged by Dr Lee Bee Wah’s statement. She should not and ought not to have said it. Anyone who has spent some time in the great outdoors would be even more aware of the importance of water than our ministers. The trouble is, people who don’t pay for it (like the youngsters who live with their parents) and those who can well afford it (like the majority of Singaporeans) won’t feel the pinch. Yes, water usage may fall initially, but over time, I suspect that the only significant outcome for this exercise is an increase in the size of government coffers and not a decrease in water usage/wastage.

As for Prof Ng Yew Kwang who felt that it should have been or ought to have been 50% or even 100%, I seriously hope that he was just toeing the line and not advising our government. In case Prof Ng has lost touch with the geography department, the average annual rainfall in the cities he has been comparing with Singapore are:

Berlin 571 mm
Stockholm 527mm
Helsinki 643mm
Singapore 2340 mm

Let me give a better reason:

In view of the high costs incurred in flood control, we need to increase water prices by 30% to better manage our water resources.

Road Flood, Singapore

© Chan Joon Yee

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