Future Of Singapore – It’s Not Just About Money

I’m a bit surprised. While the new criteria for the elected president were hotly debated in and out of Parliament and Mr Wee Kim Wee was named as Singapore’s first elected president instead of Mr Ong Teng Cheong, 2011 presidential hopeful Dr Tan Cheng Bock had been curiously quiet. Then, all of a sudden, he held a press conference on Friday 31st March 2017, expressing his “concerns” while at the same time calling for an open election for what is ostensibly the highest office in the land.

When asked about his somewhat delayed response, Dr Tan explained that he had been thinking hard about it, doing his “homework” and consulting lawyers on what he could do. From the Q&A session, I guess we can conclude that Dr Tan was dealt his “last straw” when he saw the debate being put to an abrupt end when opposition MPs were threatened with lawsuits when they tried to delve deeper into the issue. When Ms Sylvia Lim challenged the naming of Mr Wee as first elected president with obvious facts, she too was greeted with a mind-boggling threat. It is uniquely Singaporean not be be infuriated or disgusted with such bullying tactics, but certainly we can feel sadness.

Tan Cheng Bock and wife at his rally, Aug 25

Dr Tan Cheng Bock:

“If you ever want to define the presidency by money, then I’m so sad for this country. We must never define the presidency by money. We must define the presidency by people who believe in multi-racialism, people who have the correct character, who have served the country for a long time, who believe in the people. That is the kind of president we want. But if you want to define the presidency by money, I don’t know what sort of legacy I’m going to leave to my children, or my grandchildren. It’s very sad.”

Sad indeed. But the saddest part is not the regime that we now have but the voters who have no ideals, no beliefs or principles which will render them unmoved in the face of sticks and carrots. By now, it should be clear that the spirit of Potong Pasir is long gone. The spirit of Hougang is probably being slowly eroded too. I’m not saying that it’s always right to support the underdog; nor would I automatically do so myself, but you have to respect their courage in holding on to their beliefs in spite of the sacrifices. We call it 骨气 in Chinese and that has nothing to do with being dreamy and unrealistic. Even the most pragmatic economists advocate a certain degree of generosity and moderated “meritocracy”.

Ex-GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong (now a lecturer at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy) has a lot to say about our current socioeconomic policies which always assume that the market knows best. Like the point about money and presidency raised by Dr Tan, Mr Yeoh brings to our attention, the fact that economic policies are also not just about growth and money. There are huge social costs and consequences if we just leave everyone to fend for himself. Two years ago before GE2015, Mr Yeoh took issue with DPM Tharman’s rally speech.

1. Mr Yeoh praised Workfare, but says at the same time it is “sadly inadequate”, and we can afford to increase it by about three times!

2. He said the Silver Support Scheme also needs to be tripled to be effective.

3. He argued that the middle class in Singapore might well be willing to pay a little bit more in taxes to help look after the less privileged, as well as to enjoy higher social protection and mobility.

4. Mr Yeoh feels strongly that the government can avoid raising taxes for the middle-income because we actually have 7 per cent of our GDP in structural budget surplus (that translates to some $20 billion) over many years.

5. He thinks taxes on the rich are currently too low and can be raised moderately without losing competitiveness.

6. Environmental and sin taxes can also be raised further. The increase in revenue will be very significant.

7. With the benefit of “local knowledge”, Mr Yeoh disagreed with DPM Tharman that our returns on investments from our reserves have already been maxed out. He called for greater public transparency in terms of details about Singapore’s fiscal resources so that financial market analysts, think tanks, policymakers and economists can analyse and play a more informed role in debating the best use of our money.

In short, Mr Yeoh had pointed out back in 2015 that we have been way too stingy for our own good. Obviously, people like him must be financially secure enough not to even dream of rocking the boat for the sake of the underclass whom he probably doesn’t associate much with. He could have just kept quiet and enjoyed the fruits of his labour like so many of my well-off friends and peers. But like me and the minority, we care about our children’s future. We observe that some things just aren’t going right.

Below are edited recordings of a seminar where Mr Yeoh presented his views on the past, present and future of Singapore. It was organised by Mr Tay Kheng Soon et al. I hope these videos would be as informative for you as they had been for me.

Maximising labour force growth because it’s easier than increasing productivity growth. They opened the flood gates to foreign skilled and unskilled labour. Over a period of 20 years, the population went from 3.3 million to 5.2 million. Foreign workforce went from 300,000 to 1.3 million! Growth escalated. Real wages fell. We’ve created an underclass and a socioeconomic time bomb.

Local enterprises account for only 1/3 of total output. Many mom and pop shops were regulated out of business. Open tender for hawker stalls, investor interest in REITs all play a part in wearing out traditional methods of preparing local cuisine. Variety is lost. Quality is lost. But to be fair, we should also consider the unwillingness of the younger generation to enter the hawker trade.

People who believe that the markets will take care of everything are just lazy. The first generation of policymakers believed in intelligent intervention. Foreign workers are favoured over NS men. The policy ideology lost its way. Singapore swallowed Neoliberalism hook line and sinker!

Under Dr Goh Keng Swee, people were not afraid to interfere intelligently to achieve tenable economic goals. Under the new regime, the market knows best. Intelligent intervention is not considered because people are paid 10 times better and this discourages change. Policy-making is all about consensus. Dissenting ideas and views have all dried up. No civil servant wants to jeopardise his lucrative career.

17.9 million people in 2050 if current population growth were projected! In the mid-2000s, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. We are now in a state of stagnation. We need the likes of the EDB for SMEs to help local businesses upgrade.

We can well afford to pay the underclass living wages many times over. The reason we’re not doing it is purely “ideological”. Welfare is a dirty word maybe? We are giving social protection peanuts! If you neglect social protection long enough… We are one of the “lucky bastard” countries in the world with enough fiscal resources to increase spending in 6 key areas. Things are only slowly beginning to happen. If Goh Keng Swee were around, he would have sacked everybody.

We aren’t really running a deficit. We have about 5-7% GDP more than we actually need as attested by the IMF.

The Norwegians know exactly how much their SWF has made or lost over the years. It’s all public information. 80% of land in Singapore is owned by the government. Social causes like subsidised hawker centres/stalls, day care centres can be pursued with minimal cost to the government. Meritocracy has been equated to the market. We don’t have to reinvent socialism. Every OECD country worth its salt has 25 students or less per class, long-term healthcare subsidies, etc. We just need to catch up. It’s not just about money but also the kind of society we want.

Our students keep outperforming their counterparts in other parts of the world in Pisa scores. No matter how relevant Pisa scores are to industry needs, these top scorers can’t deal with people, they don’t have enough independent thinking, they can’t put a team together, come up with out of the box solutions and lead a team to execute solutions. They lose out to teams from Australia.

I have a different explanation for the apparent ineptitude of our Pisa stars. Firstly, our education system places too much emphasis on grades. It is also unrealistically taxing. Sure, it brings out the best and highest marks in our students, but their development is far from holistic. The stress and keen competition also breed self-serving, anti-social personalities who lack genuine empathy and compassion.

Secondly, I also attribute this problem to our lack of freedom of expression, stifled by rigid, almost puritanical social norms. Society is cold and unforgiving. Laws get stricter and stricter, punishments get stiffer and stiffer in an attempt to make this a sanitary and crime-free country. Too many of us frown upon all kinds of “deviant” behaviour and there is a tendency to judge people from their hair, their clothing and their tattoos. Unless society becomes more open-minded, we are unlikely to get many talented, efficient industry leaders whose performance in the industry matches their academic achievements.

Thirdly, there is a lack of courage. Our students are brought up to fear mistakes and failure. All encouragement to stick their necks out are not matched by a new and higher level of tolerance and leniency. Thus, our youngsters (just like their predecessors) are afraid to challenge old concepts and go for it. Before we ask people to chiong, we must first break down the wall.

Finally, Mr Yeoh pointed out that nobody does existing systems as beautifully as our government does. The thing they do too slowly, is change.

© Chan Joon Yee

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