May 31, 2011

PM Lee Defends His Own Grassroots Activists From Internal Flak

As the PAP continues with its post-election reflections and musings, a certain new theme emerges. It seems as if the PAP's grassroots activists are getting some of the flak, for the party's poor performance in the elections.

The allegation is that these activists failed to give the MPs adequate feedback, causing the MPs to lose touch with the ground (that is, with the people of Singapore). Here's PM Lee leaping to their defence.
Don't be discouraged, PM Lee tells activists

by S Ramesh (TODAY)

SINGAPORE - Citing the criticism levelled at grassroots activists in the aftermath of the recent General Election (GE), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday defended the work of the activists who had given "their honest feedback, which unfortunately we sometimes failed to interpret correctly".

Speaking at a dinner to thank volunteers of his Teck Ghee division in Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Mr Lee also acknowledged that "clearly there were problems which were missed" and areas where the People's Action Party (PAP) "can and must improve".

But it would be unfair to blame the activists, said Mr Lee, as the majority have committed time and energy to community work and have done their best to serve residents.

He said community leaders and PAP activists played a crucial role in the run-up to the GE, with some even taking leave during the nine days of hustings.

"People say various things: They say that (the activists) stood between the Members of Parliament and residents, you shielded the MP, or you didn't respond enough to the residents' needs, or you didn't speak candidly enough when the residents were giving feedback and the MP didn't get a good sense of what was on the ground," he said.

"Some grassroots leaders and party activists reading this have been discouraged. My response is, don't be discouraged."

The Prime Minister said that shortcomings in the PAP will be remedied and the party will strive to do better.
I don't know how much the PAP MPs rely on their grassroots activists to give them feedback about the ground. I do wonder if the PAP MPs are aware of the inherent weaknesses of such a feedback mechanism.

The first problem is that some grassroots activists are probably not genuinely interested in helping the PAP. They are there just to gain certain specific personal advantages for themselves.

For example, years ago, my wife once considered becoming a PAP volunteer. This would enable our son to  gain priority for admission into the PAP kindergarten near our home. The kindergarten was three minutes away from our home, so it would have been really convenient.

In the end, we decided not to do it. One reason was that the kindergarten looked rather run-down. Neither the curriculum nor the teachers impressed us, when we went for the open house.

However, the fact is that even if my wife had decided to become a grassroots activist, she would have done it just to clock the hours and get the admission priority. Mrs Wang has no love for the PAP. She wouldn't have been interested at all in giving genuine feedback to the MPs.

Especially if the feedback was negative and would annoy the MPs (therefore jeopardising the priority for kindergarten admission).

Now, the second problem for the PAP is that some grassroots activists ARE genuinely interested in helping the PAP. These are the hard-core, true-blue PAP supporters, who will take nine days of leave from work to help out during the GE; and wave the flag and banners; and hug their MPs; and take the chartered bus from one rally to the next and to the next, just to make up the crowd.

The problem here is that such grassroots activists are inherently unable to give negative feedback to the MPs. You can safely assume that a large part of of their loyalty is blind. Whatever was the result of a PAP policy or decision, these activists will automatically view as wonderful, and good, and desirable. Asking them for criticism is like asking an ardent Lady Gaga fan to criticise Lady Gaga - it's an exercise in futility.

That is why such grassroots activists are lousy at providing feedback. (They are good for some things, such as waving flags and banners. But they are lousy at providing feedback).

In the near future, I may blog about how the PAP can get its best, most useful feedback. Of course, such feedback comes from its worst enemies - the Opposition.

May 30, 2011

Lui on the Train - Much Ado About Nothing

Today the Straits Times has an article about Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew being spotted on an MRT train. The article goes like this:
NEW Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew was once again spotted taking the public transportation. This time, he was seen riding a MRT train during morning rush hour on Monday.
A commuter identified only as Nat snapped photos of the minister after seeing him in the crowded train, and posted them on citizen journalism website STOMP.

Nat said: 'I snapped pictures of him on the train this morning at 7.45am, on the North South line heading towards Jurong East at Bukit Gombak. Welcome to the crowd!'

Mr Lui was last week seen riding a public bus last Tuesday, and photos of the sighting were also posted on STOMP."

Well, it's not a bad thing if he takes the public transport to see what it is like. But to me, it's an overkill  to pitch this as a good thing. If some Singaporeans think that this is a good thing, then I have to say that their expectations of our government are too low.
Personally, I would expect the Education Minister to visit schools from time to time, to see what's going on. I would expect the Defence Minister to visit army camps and bases for the same reason. I would expect the Heath Minister to visit our polyclinics and hospitals, and yes, I would expect the Transport Minister to ride on the trains and buses. 
Expecting any less from our ministers is to have unduly low expectations for them. We're not paying them peanuts - we shouldn't be getting monkeys.

May 29, 2011

The Presidential Elections

Very shortly after the PAP had lost in Aljunied GRC, the media asked ex-Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo if he would run for President. He replied quite affirmatively that he would not.

The decisiveness in his response would have surprised some political watchers. After all, George had just become jobless. Furthermore he has the right sort of background to be President. One would have expected George to at least reserve his position and say something along the lines of "I don't know yet. I'll think about it and decide later."

But a more recent TODAY article (that is not even about George Yeo) gives us a clue as to why George Yeo had been adamant about not running for President. The background to this article is that ex-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock had just expressed his interest in running for President. And this is what his ex-fellow PAP MPs had to say about it:

PAP MPs surprised Dr Tan might run for President

04:47 AM May 28, 2011
by Teo Xuanwei

SINGAPORE - News that his former comrade-in-arms Tan Cheng Bock, 71, has declared his intention to run for President caught veteran backbencher Inderjit Singh off guard.

The Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency Member of Parliament (MP) told Today: "For Presidential Elections, there's always been a candidate that the Government supports ... it's quite clear that we will be fully behind this person so it will be very awkward (to have Dr Tan in the contest)."
What do these lines tell you? Firstly, that the PAP had already decided who should run for President. Secondly, that George Yeo was not the guy. Thirdly, that the PAP groupthink is so strong that George absolutely would not consider rocking the boat. George does not dare to be the President, if the PAP has already decided that someone else should be.

This brings to mind George Yeo's parting words, when he spoke to the media and said that he would not run for President. He said something like this, "I'm too much of a free spirit to run for President". This was a somewhat curious choice of phrase - and in fact, it attracted a degree of speculative twitterings among Singaporeans. One can't help but wonder - why would being a free spirit obstruct a person from being the President, any more than, say, being the Foreign Affairs Minister?

Perhaps I'm reading too much between the lines. But my instinctive feel is as follows. As mentioned earlier, the PAP has already decided who should be the President - and the PAP has decided to give him its full support (note Inderjit Singh's words - "we will be fully behind this person"). Whoever he is, this person himself would no doubt have been heavily involved in the discussions.

And if he does become President, it may well transpire that he feels beholden to the PAP (which selected him, and endorsed him, and gave him its full support). The expectation may arise that he is obliged to lend his support to the PAP. In other words, the President would not be a "free spirit". He can't do what he really wants. He can only do what the PAP wants. The favour has to be repaid.

This is pretty scary - especially if you understand what the President's role is all about. Let me explain. One of the President's main functions is to preside over the the appointment and dismissal of very senior civil servants and public officers. Specifically, the President has veto powers to stop the government from dismissing these people:

(1) the Chief Justice, Judges and Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court;
(2) the Attorney-General;
(3) members of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights;
(4) members of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony;
(5) a member of the Legal Service Commission;
(6) the Chief Valuer;
(7) the Auditor-General;
(8) the Accountant-General;
(9) the Chief of Defence Force;
(10) the Chiefs of the Air Force, Army and Navy;
(11) a member of the Armed Forces Council;
(12) the Commissioner of Police; and
(13) the Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

What's the idea here? Well, the President is supposed to protect these senior civil servants / public officers so that they can perform their duties without fear of political reprisal. This is a very important check & balance.

Just for example, suppose one day, a PAP minister is suspected of criminal wrongdoing - let's say that it's something to do with misuse of government funds. The Auditor-General discovers this while performing an audit, and would want to make a police report. The Commissioner of Police would want to launch a full-scale investigation against that PAP minister. If there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the Attorney-General of Singapore would want to prosecute the case, and the District Judge would want to hear it.

But at the same time, all these persons - the Auditor General; the Commissioner of Police; the Attorney-General; the District Judge - could be afraid to do the right thing. After all, they might get sacked (it's the government that employs them, after all). This is where the President comes in. The President has the power to protect these people. Unless the President agrees, none of these people can be sacked or otherwise removed from their posts.

That's why it is important to have a truly independent President. A free spirit, if you want to call it that. A President who didn't receive any favours from the PAP, and who doesn't feel obliged to return any.

May 26, 2011

Possible Formulae for Determining Ministers' Salaries

Mak Yuen Teen is an associate professor at NUS Business School. He has an article in TODAY which discusses ministerial salaries. Excerpts below:
Reviewing ministerial salaries: Seven lessons from the private sector
04:46 AM May 26, 2011
by Mak Yuen Teen

Last week, I taught executive and director pay to an executive MBA class and, during lunch, the subject of conversation at my table was ministerial pay in Singapore - a regular topic among the executives attending the programme over the years.

While most of the rest of the world is concerned with high executive pay, this must be the only country where ministerial salaries are of more interest.

Quite coincidentally, on Saturday morning, I had begun writing a commentary with the tentative title of "Ministerial pay: Lessons from corporate scandals and the financial crisis". That night, I saw on the news the Prime Minister's announcement that he was setting up a committee to review ministerial pay.

When you pay poorly, you might still get good people but, undoubtedly, the pool you select from will be smaller. You may also attract some who are willing to take low pay because they want to use their position for other benefit, such as taking bribes or getting directorships in companies.

When you pay very well, the pool will be larger, but you also risk attracting the wrong people who are motivated purely by money. People who are attracted to politics because of the money (or power) might still want to use their positions for their own benefit because for some, it is never enough.

I personally do not believe that high pay is effective for fighting corruption; I think it is an affront to the many who make an honest living on low pay to suggest that paying little encourages corruption.
I agree with Mak. Not only that, I think that it is also an affront to the many who make an honest living on high pay to suggest that paying them less would encourage corruption. I mean, just take a look at this nice, honest-looking man over here:

This man earns a lot of money (about 3 or 4 million dollars per year, excluding bonuses). He is also a well-respected man, who has held public office for many years. And in all those many years, there has never been any reason to believe that he has ever done anything corrupt.

But you know what his father says, and has said for many years, right? According to Daddy, if his son's salary was cut (for example, to only 1 or 2 million dollars per year), then he would feel tempted to become dishonest, and to cheat, and take bribes.

Now, if I were the son, I would feel very insulted by such remarks. For if I were a genuinely honest man, I would never think of taking bribes and Daddy's remarks are therefore indeed an insult to me. And the only temptation I would feel is the temptation to slap my father's face.

But that wouldn't be very nice. At least, I wouldn't do it in public - it would be politically incorrect. Daddy, after all, is a pretty powerful man. In practical terms, perhaps my only feasible course of action would be to  wait, wait and wait ... until Daddy grows very old, and retires. Then I could go about taking steps to change his long-standing policy on ministers' salaries.

However, it is very difficult to determine what is the "right" pay for CEOs, people with very specialised skills - and government ministers. For CEOs, certain "benchmarks" have been suggested, such as some percentage of profits, some ratio to average employee pay, the pay of sports stars and celebrities or fellow CEOs. None of these are wholly satisfactory.

Benchmarking ministerial pay to other professions has its limitations because they are totally different jobs, and different jobs come with different lifestyles and employment risks. When I look at my peers who have gone to the private sector, many are earning a lot more than I do now, but they do not have my more flexible lifestyle as an academic, and they are not able to achieve tenure which gives better job security.

In any case, I believe that the best people in any field are those who are driven first by their passion and calling.


As a corporate governance advocate, it has never been my concern if someone is well paid and earns it in the right way. I would be outraged if someone makes a lot of money but does so in an illegal or unethical manner, where it is not related to appropriate measures of performance, or the pay determined is through a contaminated process.

The corporate sector suggests the following "best practices" which should be followed in setting senior executives pay:

- An "arms length" process for determining remuneration policy and packages
- Benchmarks used should be comparable (similar job responsibilities, similar size and industry, etc)
- There should be a reasonable mix of short- and long-term pay
- Pay should be based mainly on factors within the executive's control
- Performance measures used for evaluation should have strong links with the corporation's long-term performance
- There should be minimal benefits and termination payments that are generally unrelated to performance
- There is good disclosure and transparency
A private sector approach which treats running a country as equivalent to running a corporation is, of course, flawed to start out with. After all, a government can always print money, raise taxes, determine whether it wants to make a profit (budget surplus) or a loss (budget deficit) and so on.

Tying ministerial bonuses to annual GDP growth can create the same perverse incentives as tying CEO pay to annual revenue growth. For example, it can lead to incentives to invest in projects with high economic payoffs, but with attendant high social costs and under-investing for long-term growth.
"Projects with high economic payoffs, but with attendant high social costs" ...? Hmmm, that sounds like two things to me.

Firstly, our massive import of foreigners - which leads to economic growth, but strains our public infrastructure such as housing and transport.

Secondly, our two new casinos - which lead to economic growth, but also cause a variety of social ills such as crime, gambling addiction and the destruction of families.

What's also quite tragic is that many Singaporeans still don't realise that high economic growth doesn't necessarily translate into a better standard of living for citizens in general. High economic growth simply means that:

(1) Companies are producing and selling more goods and services; and
(2) The government gets to collect more corporate taxes.

Normally, (1) means that citizens get to earn more money, because successful companies can pay better salaries and bonuses and hire more employees. However, if labour & immigration policies are extremely lax, the companies don't actually pay citizens better, and won't invest in training them. Instead the companies will just hire plenty of cheap foreigners who earn a very large part of the extra money that might otherwise have gone to the citizens.

Normally, (2) means that the government has plenty of extra money which it can reinvest in society and redistribute to the people, for example, in areas such as education, healthcare and housing. However, if the government has the obsessive mindset that every extra cent must be channelled into the reserves and the reserves must never be touched until the end of the world has arrived, well, basically the people won't gain any benefit from (2).

Other problems are that high economic growth typically leads to increased inflation, which means that the cost of living escalates (hmmm, coincidentally that was the top election issue in Singapore) and furthermore the wealth created by a high GDP doesn't necessarily get distributed evenly across society (i.e, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer - and guess which country holds the world record for having the largest income gap?)

But I digress. Back to Mak's article: 
But if we are determined to follow a private sector approach to setting ministerial pay, then we should go the whole nine yards and adopt similar sound pay practices, which could involve the following ....


One, have an independent ministerial pay committee to oversee ministerial pay policy and levels (members must be independent and perceived to be so).

Two, adopt a small number of macro performance measures which capture overall performance in a holistic way (such as average GDP growth, average wage growth, Gini coefficient and unemployment rate) and micro performance measures which directly reflect a particular minister's performance (such as traffic accident rates, average expressway speeds, admission rates of Singaporeans into local universities, percentage of low-income families owning HDB flats).

Three, tie a minister's pay primarily to his individual responsibilities and performance, based on his portfolio (a small component can be tied to more macro measures but these may be more relevant to assessing the performance of the "chief executive", that is, the Prime Minister).

Four, benchmark targets such as GDP growth to trends in comparable economies, to better ensure that improvements are not largely due to external factors (for example, a significant increase in GDP growth - just like a significant increase in a company's stock price - may be driven more by general trends in the inter-connected global economy).

Five, defer a part of a minister's pay for a number of years and put in place conditions under which the deferred pay may be reduced.

Six, eliminate or significantly reduce pensions and other benefits not linked to a minister's performance. And seven, publish a report each year on the actual amount of each minister's pay and its breakdown.

This may sound like an awfully tedious process for setting ministerial pay. Unfortunately, corporate scandals and the recent financial crisis have taught us that poorly designed pay schemes set through a flawed process and which lack transparency can create perverse incentives and undermine governance. The current approach to setting ministerial pay emulates the pay levels in the private sector but not the sound pay principles that well-governed companies follow.
Some good ideas there, and all worth considering.

There is also a simpler idea which Mak did not mention. Yes, I know that it needs some tweaks and adjustments, but basically the idea goes like this. Firstly, ensure that the civil service has a rational system for determining salaries. Secondly, extend this system to the ministers.

Why? Well, in any normal organisation (and the civil service is not different), your salary depends on where you stand, in the hierarchy. Junior employees earn less than middle management, and middle management earns less than senior management. And the most senior guy in senior management earns more than the other guys in senior management.

A minister occupies the highest position in his ministry. The Permanent Secretary of that ministry occupies the 2nd highest position. So the minister should earn a salary anywhere from 5% to 20% higher than the Permanent Secretary. Similarly, we would expect the Perm Sec to earn 5% to 20% more than the civil servants who occupy the rank immediately below him.

Now, if the pay structure of the civil service is correctly rationalised across the board (and that should be the ongoing aim of the civil service anyway), what we would get is a natural pegging of ministers' salaries to private sector salaries anyway.

Why? Because the civil service and the private sector are in natural economic competition for employees all the time. For example, government hospitals and private hospitals are continuously competing to hire  doctors and nurses all the time. Government schools, private schools and tuition centres are continuously  competing to hire teachers. Any ministry which wants to hire fresh grads has got to compete with private-sector companies who also want to hire fresh grads.

If civil service salaries are generally fair and competitive at every level, then pegging our ministers' salaries to the permanent secretaries (and paying the ministers incrementally more) makes good sense.

Of course, this logic will probably reveal that currently, our ministers are grossly overpaid and have been grossly overpaid for many years.

But then we already knew that. Didn't we?

May 25, 2011

Poems on the Radio and on the Trains

Mediacorp contacted me yesterday and asked for permission to read out a poem of mine on one of their radio programmes. I said yes, and planned to tune in, but woke up too late this morning and missed the programme (it started at 7:10 am). Oh well.

The poem was Palmistry, which I also read at a poetry event at the Esplanade Xchange last weekend. That event was part of the Moving Words project (jointly supported by the National Arts Council, The Literary Centre and SMRT). Selected poems by 12 Singapore poets will be featured - in the coming weeks - at various MRT stations and on the trains.

The poems come in the four official languages. Here's a nice one from Liang Wern Fook (梁文福), who is also well-known as a songwriter.




(人们都说:这么年轻 这个父亲)











(看起来还这么年轻 人们都这么说)






放轻一点 别说得太急

他就可以 字字句句都听进去



路还很长 再往前走



The Moving Words project comes with a competition that's open to the public (click on the earlier link). Prizes include an iPad2; book vouchers; and the chance to be published in a new book to be launched later this year in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival. Winning poems will also get featured on the MRT stations and trains. So wake up your muse, and start writing.

May 12, 2011

George Yeo and His True Legacy for Singapore

Now that George Yeo is quitting politics, many people are saying that this is such a pity for Singapore's foreign affairs. Personally I am somewhat hazy about what George Yeo actually achieved in this area, but perhaps that's just because Singapore's foreign affairs is not an area to which I've paid that much attention.

Instead I will remember George Yeo as the minister who brought the casinos to Singapore. Yes, in case you've forgotten, George was the guy who first proposed the idea and pushed for it. Even within the PAP, there was plenty of debate and resistance about the casino proposal (to such an extent that another ex-minister, Lim Boon Heng, recently broke down in tears when he revisited those memories). But in the end George prevailed.

(George Yeo was also the man who famously said, "But we are building integrated resorts, not casinos". I found this statement very annoying, not merely because of its inherent dishonesty, but because it also assumed that Singaporeans were so stupid that they would fall for it. However, let's not digress.)

George Yeo's true legacy for Singapore is the casinos, for they will continue to exert an influence and impact on our society long after George himself is dead and gone. Billion-dollar infrastructure projects backed by serious international investors will not just fold up and expire tomorrow - once they are here, they are here to stay.

I am not one of those people who are fervently against casinos. Firstly I am not a Christian nor a Muslim and therefore have no religious objections against gambling.

Secondly, I recognise that the casinos do earn easy tourist dollars and create jobs (even though I do not think well of many of these jobs - would you really encourage your son to pursue a career as a professional croupier?).

Thirdly, I am not terribly persuaded by the argument that the casinos will spawn widespread gambling addictions among our people. That's because (in my view) such addictions may just as well arise in relation to 4D, Toto, Big Sweep or mahjong, all of which are forms of gambling which were here in Singapore long before the casinos ever came.

My concern about the casinos is that they will breed a lot of crime in Singapore. As long-time readers of this blog know, I began my legal career as a DPP, working frequently with the police as well as with CPIB and the Central Narcotics Bureau. Through my work experience, I have developed an intuitive sense of the kinds of environments and conditions under which crime, like magic, will spontaneously appear and flourish.

Casinos strike me as a rich, natural breeding ground for many types of crimes. Casinos are to criminals what garbage dumps are to rats, or shit is to houseflies. Specifically, a casino environment is supportive of the following species of criminal offences - theft, robbery, extortion, cheating, drug trafficking, consumption of illegal drugs, illegal moneylending, money laundering, vice activities, human trafficking and other immigration-related offences.

The two casinos have opened only in the recent past, so some of you will argue that it is too early to say if I am right or wrong. In fact I hope to be proven wrong about what I have said about the casinos - for who would want to live in a crime-infested country? Nevertheless, we can already begin to get a flavour of George Yeo's true legacy for Singapore. See below:
"AN UNEMPLOYED man was charged in court on Thursday with armed robbery of $450,000 from a businessman at a hotel room in Marina Bay Sands last week. No plea was taken from Octavius Tok Tien Howe, 37." LINK

"SINGAPORE: A punter who cheated the Marina Bay Sands casino of S$31,500 (US$24,800) with the help of a dealer was sentenced on Monday to 54 months jail. Thirty-two-year-old Tan Tiong Loon is the first person to ever be convicted and sentenced for being in cahoots with a dealer to cheat a local casino." LINK

"A VIETNAMESE woman was fined $700 on Wednesday for soliciting at the Marina Bay Sands casino after she lost money in gambling ... A district court heard that at 1.30am last Saturday, police received a call from security staff of the casino that they had detained a woman for soliciting for the purpose of prostitution." LINK

"SINGAPORE: A former croupier at the Resorts World Sentosa casino and a full-time gambler were jailed Tuesday for working together to cheat the attraction of nearly S$29,000 between October 2 and 9 last year." LINK

"A Singaporean man has been charged with acting as a bookie at the Resorts World Sentosa casino. 50-year-old Ng Ah Chye allegedly committed the offences between 11 July and 17 August, last year." LINK 

"SINGAPORE: A court in Singapore has framed charges against five Indians for allegedly using fake casino chips at a resort in the city state, local media reported on Saturday. The Indians are accused of using an unknown number of counterfeit chips valued at SGD 1,000 each ..." LINK

"After gambling and losing the $1000 he had brought to the Resorts World Sentosa casino, an Indonesian tourist resorted to theft. 49-year old Paulus Djohar has been sentenced to 4 weeks' jail for the attempted theft of a $500 cellphone. He followed 18-year old student Lim Tse Min from behind at Changi Airport and took the phone from her backpack." LINK

"A CHINESE national gambled with $250 in casino chips that did not belong to him while an Indian national stole $12,180 worth of electrical cables meant for Marina Bay Sands so as to get some money to bet with. On Wednesday, the two construction workers pleaded guilty. Ni Guo Jian, 45, was jailed nine weeks for criminal breach of trust. Kakkayan Govindarasan, 26, was jailed seven months." LINK
For better or for worse, this is George Yeo's legacy. For all of us, in this country.

May 11, 2011

The Recycling of PAP Ministers and the Fall of the US Dollar

From the TODAY newspaper:

Risk of crisis if US loses AAA rating: GIC
04:46 AM May 10, 2011

by Chris Howells

SINGAPORE - A major crisis could erupt if the United States loses its triple-A credit rating, according to Government of Singapore Investment Corp (GIC) deputy chairman and executive director Tony Tan.
"We face the possibility of another major financial and economic crisis if the world's risk-free asset, hitherto US bonds, loses its AAA credit rating in a disorderly manner," Dr Tan said at a 30th anniversary conference of GIC yesterday.
Speaking at the same event, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is also a deputy chairman of GIC, said: "The US has had its credit rating put on negative watch. It hasn't affected bond rates so far. But whether or not the rating agencies' views affect the market, the reality of the unsolved problem is that this fiscal challenge is looming and growing. That must eventually affect the confidence in the economy and the ability of Americans to continue to finance their debt, and, ultimately, with international implications, the value of the US dollar."
The comments come after Standard & Poor's last month cut its long-term outlook on US sovereign debt to negative, from stable, while keeping its triple-A rating. The ratings agency cited political gridlock in Washington over plans to cut government deficits as a key reason for the downgrade. 
First, a small digression. Some of you are still misguidedly mourning the defeat of foreign affairs minister George Yeo in the recent General Elections. For you believe that this means that Singapore has lost the services of a very talented, capable man.

But look carefully at the article above. See that name Tony Tan? Yes, that's our former Deputy Prime Minister (who was also our ex-Defence Minister, ex-Education Minister, ex-Home Affairs Minister etc).

Tony Tan retired from politics in 2005. But as you can see, he didn't end up as a quiet old man passing his days away by doing taichi and growing orchids in his garden. Today, Tony continues to hold a variety of important appointments. Among other things, he is the Deputy Chairman of GIC; and the Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings.

Ex-PAP ministers never really die, until they are really dead. They just get recycled into other lucrative roles, whereby they still get to control your CPF money, your mainstream media and various other aspects of your life. Sure, their public profile ceases to be so high, but they're not going to give up on the money so easily.

So members of the George Yeo Fan Club need not fear. Hsien Loong is probably identifying job vacancies for George now. If there isn't any existing vacancy, Hsien Loong will probably just create a new job for George.

Back to the TODAY article. I think that the title is misleading. Tony did not say that there is a risk of a crisis if the US loses its AAA rating. Tony said that there is a risk of a crisis, if the US loses its AAA rating in a disorderly manner. There's a difference.

Personally, I do not think that the S&P decision to place the US on negative watch was a surprise to anybody. Since the financial crisis, no one really cares that much about S&P ratings anyway, since they are no longer considered that reliable - remember how AAA-rated CDOs collapsed almost overnight into less than junk?

Relative to Asian currencies, the US dollar has been steadily declining for a long time, and the decline will just go on and on, quite irrespective of anything that S&P has got to say about it. My own financial adviser has told me to stay out of US dollar assets, unless they are one of those funds which also use USD/SGD hedges. And the main reason why gold and silver prices had been going crazy is that investors worldwide have been getting out of the US dollar and needing somewhere else to jump into, eg precious metals.

May 10, 2011

Jurong Town Council Employee Sacked .... Allegedly for Supporting the Opposition

I just read this on the Temasek Review:
A National Solidarity Party (NSP) supporter by the name of Geraldine Soh Shin Lin was sacked from her job at Jurong Town Council without any valid reasons given.

According to Ms Soh’s boyfriend Joel Kong who alerted us to the case on our Facebook, Ms Soh has been working at Jurong Town Council for three years without any incidents or warnings to note.

On 1 May, she was spotted by a fellow collegue selling merchandise at a NSP rally. On 3rd May, she was suspended without any valid reason by her superior Ong Ah Hai for seven days.

After her suspension, the Town Council informed a RC member who told Ms Soh’s father that she was suspended because she had ‘passed confidential information to the Opposition’ which Mr Kong vehemently denied.

Ms Soh was dismissed today after arriving in office for ‘poor performance’, but the Human Resource did not compensate her for the termination in accordance to MOM guidelines except a vague promise that she will be contacted again.

Mr Kong remains perturbed at his girlfriend’s sudden dismissal without a proper explanation being given:

“Compare this to her other colleagues who were told to support the PAP during Nomination Day, and subsequently missing from office for the whole day, my girlfriend did not use working hours to support the Opposition, while those who did suppoting the PAP were not penalised. Is the residents’ money supposed to fund PAP’s electorial campaign? She is currently unemployed as a result of this morning’s happenings,” he wrote.

The person who suspended and sacked Ms Soh is Mr Ho Thian Poh. He can be contacted at 6561 2222.

NSP’s Goh Meng Seng was unavailable for comments at Press Time.
I don't know any more details than what the Temasek Review has stated. And I do not know whether there might be any inaccuracies in their article.

But I think that the public should take an interest in this matter, and that the public has a right to know. At the very least, Jurong Town Council should come forward to clarify the situation.

If there is wrongdoing here, don't let them get away with this. Call that telephone number, and ask Mr Ho Thian Poh for an explanation. Or email the town council with your questions, at this address -

You can also send them a fax at this number - 6562 4997. Or ask Tharman Shanmugaratnam for a clarification (he's now leading the Jurong GRC team). Tharman is on Facebook.

Golden Point Award 2011

Paul Tan, from the National Arts Council, just contacted me. Paul asked for help in publicising the 2011 Golden Point Award Competition. This is a national writing competition, with different categories for poetry and short stories, in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

I won this competition back in 2005, when the rules permitted any Singaporean citizen or permanent resident to enter. That made the competition a very tough one, since you had to compete with the best writers in the whole country.

Since then, the competition rules have changed. Published writers and ex-1st prize winners (like myself) are no longer eligible to participate. The idea behind these new rules (which were introduced in 2009) was to discover new, unknown writing talent in Singapore.

So if you are a new, unknown writer and you think you can write well, do give this competition a shot. The prize money is quite generous - as generous as it gets in Singapore. $10,500 goes to the first-prize winner, in the form of cash, enrichment grants and gift vouchers.

Political Poems, Star Gazing and Literature Texts

I think that I have had an overdose of GE blogging. I'm going to take a break now and write about other stuff instead.

So far, 2011 has been quite a pleasant year for me as a writer. I have hardly written anything new, yet my older works keep getting featured in new publications.

This year, I appeared in a new anthology - & Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond, edited by Edwin Thumboo. I understand that the Education Ministry has recommended / approved this book for use in Singapore schools, as a literature text.

I also appeared in Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore, edited by Gwee Li Sui. This collection of short stories and poems contains some overtly political themes, and it's safe to say that it will never be approved by the Education Ministry.

It's a pity, because this anthology contains works from some of the most-acclaimed Singapore writers over a period of almost 60 years. Featured writers include Catherine Lim, Kirpal Singh, Lee Tzu Pheng, Boey Kim Cheng, Alfian Saat and Alvin Pang.

(Interestingly, it also includes writers like Edwin Thumboo, Tan Jin Quee, Said Zahari, James Puthucheary and Elangovan. The common factor among these writers is that at one point or another, they had been either been arrested or detained without trial, for their political beliefs, or their works had been banned).

(For example, Said Zahari is the same Said Zahari who was formerly the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, and an advocate of press freedom. He was detained under the ISA for 17 years without trial).

Anyway, political or not, you can buy the book from Kinokuniya or Select Books, or directly order it online from the publisher, Ethos Books.

Oh, and just yesterday, I received my free copy of Gazing at Stars, a new book published by Oxford University Press. This is a collection of short stories from writers in Asia (and includes Singapore writers Ovidia Yu and Tan Hwee Hwee). I didn't contribute any short story, but the publisher wanted to include a poem of mine, as an introduction to the book. In fact, the title of the book - "Gazing at Stars" - is taken from that poem.


.       And I,
........... gazing at stars,
stumbled over you,
...................... tripped
.............. and
....... fell painfully in love,
couldn't get up
................... for ages.

Gazing at Stars does not reproduce the short stories in their original form. Instead the language has been simplified. That's because the book is part of an international series of books intended to help non-native English speakers to read more and learn the language.

However, as the book is graded Level 6 (the highest level in the series), it makes good reading even for those who regard English as their first language.

May 8, 2011

What Do You Think of the Election Results?

I think that is a great day for Singapore. It could have been better, but overall it's a great day.

The victory of the Workers Party in Aljunied GRC is a truly historic moment for the nation. Congratulations, Mr Low! And I look forward to seeing the great value which I believe Chen Show Mao will bring to the national policy-making process in Parliament.

I'm also glad to see that Yaw Shin Leong has won very comfortably in Hougang. I think that this is evidence that Hougang residents do not see the Workers Party as just Low Thia Kiang - this is why they have placed their trust in Yaw too.

The PAP won in Marine Parade, and as I predicted many posts ago (in fact, it was my first GE2011 post), the infamous Tin Pei Ling gets to ride into Parliament as an MP, riding on the strength of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Still the narrow margin of the PAP victory in Marine Parade will send a strong message to the PAP that they had better buck up and remember the people they are supposed to serve.

Nicole Seah, I am glad that you ran for elections. The odds were always against you, but I believe you knew that very well from the outset. Your campaign has awakened and inspired something in our collective hearts, about the need to help the poor and the underdogs in Singapore, and you have connected powerfully with native Singaporeans. I hope to see you again, in GE2016.

Tan Jee Say, I am sorry that you did not win. I know why you ran for election, I understand why you did it, and yes, I agree with you that the PAP has lost its moral compass. Take comfort in the fact that your hard work and great efforts in GE2011 may compel the PAP to start searching for its compass again.

Chiam See Tong, you are a hero in my eyes. You have been a brave voice in Parliament for so many years, and you have earned the admiration and respect of many. I feel that you have done enough, and in view of your age and health, I feel that it's time for you to retire and take a good rest. You will be fondly remembered, especially by the residents of Potong Pasir who steadfastly stood by you for so long, through the years of PAP bullying.

Lina Chiam, it was so close, so close! I don't know what to say. If you were standing beside me, I would give you a big, big hug. Take care, dear brave Lina, my best wishes to you.

Vivian, in an odd way, I'm glad that you did that smear thing against Vincent Wijeysingha. This ugly episode reveals something about your personality, and it's good for the people of Singapore to know. I've already met someone from your church who says that from now on, she'll be giving you a cold look every time she sees you.

Lee Kuan Yew, you might have saved George Yeo's job if you hadn't said rude things like "Chen Show Mao can go back to China" and "Aljunied voters shall repent." Pssst, here's a little bit of news for you - you're not God, and it isn't a sin for citizens to vote for whoever they like. You annoyed many voters there, next time consult your PR adviser first.

Hsien Loong, I hope that your apology was sincere. And that you're really going to change things and make things better for Singaporeans. If you do, then I promise to tell my blog readers all about it, as loudly as I can.

May 6, 2011

A Singaporean's Message for Polling Day

Today is Cooling Off Day and I wasn't going to post anything new. However someone forwarded me an article by one Ong Yi Xin, and it was also indicated that Yi Xin would like his message to be shared with as many Singaporeans as possible.

Yi Xin's article was well-written and extremely well-researched, and actually came with 15 footnotes and two annexes worth of supporting data ( one annex coming in the form of an Excel spreadsheet with lots of facts and figures).

I'm just giving you the main article itself. It's too good to miss:

Friends and fellow Singaporeans,

I am writing this letter as a concerned citizen, unaffiliated to any political party, to persuade you to vote wisely on May 7. I was and remain motivated by the increasingly large gap between the rhetoric we hear and the reality which all of us feel as ordinary citizens.

PM Lee has said that these elections are about our future, and that we should judge the PAP MPs on their track record. Plenty of ink has been spilled on various issues, but I want to touch on just three subjects: housing, socio-economic inequality and the electoral system.


We have been reminded time and again that HDB flats are affordable, a claim which we can examine most simply by comparing income to price . From 2000-2010, median monthly household income of residents rose from SGD3,638 to SGD5,000 (a 37% increase), while the resale price index for HDB flats rose from 108.3 to 164.0 (a 52% increase). Examining the data more carefully, we find that from 2005-2010, median incomes increased by 30%, but the resale price index leapt by 62%, i.e. HDB prices rose twice as quickly as median incomes in the last 5 years. Claims of affordability and progress don’t hold up when our parents took less time, with less income, to buy an HDB flat.

I would be less concerned if rising prices were not buttressed by the economically illiterate policy of “asset enhancement”. When the ministers speak of “asset enhancement”, they conveniently neglect the fact that leased assets (such as HDB flats) are by definition depreciating assets . Now repeat to yourselves the phrase “depreciating asset enhancement” – does that sound like a sustainable policy? Many have said that there is an implicit promise to renew the leases (e.g. via SERS , where the new flats come with new 99-year leases), but that comes with a cost: either the Singapore Land Authority forgoes income (in their words, raiding the reserves), or HDB pays to extend the lease (in my understanding, robbing taxpayers) . This is textbook fiscal irresponsibility.


Socio-economic equality is important – the PAP has highlighted that with its last three election manifestos: “A people united – secure future, better life” (2001), “Staying together, moving ahead” (2006), and “Securing our future together” (2011). The statistics make for grimmer reading than taglines: the Gini coefficient , a measure of inequality, rose from .430 in 2000 to .452 in 2010 . The top 10% of households now earn close to 17 times what the bottom 10% do . More tellingly, the average real income of the bottom 10% of employed households dropped by 6.6% from 2000 to 2010, which indicates that we are leaving our weakest and poorest ever further behind.

This trend is unlikely to change, because our policy-makers are not incentivised to do so, no matter what the manifestos proclaim. Their base pay is determined formulaically by referencing it to a benchmark of the top earners across six professions . Their bonuses are pegged to absolute GDP growth and boosted by a discretionary component, presumably based on a subjective performance evaluation by the Prime Minister. Simply put, our Cabinet is paid more when the best-paid earn even more, when absolute (not per capita) GDP grows, and when they are judged favourably by their own peers. That does not strike me as a pay package which attracts those who truly wish to serve, nor motivates them (once elected) to listen to and speak up for the faintest voices in society.

Electoral system

In 2006, just over 1.1 million citizens cast valid votes for 47 contested seats . A PAP candidate was elected for every 16,625 PAP voters; the 375,143 votes cast for opposition candidates saw only two representatives returned to Parliament . While the British first-past-the-post (FPTP) system does lead to such outcomes , our unique, winner-takes-all GRC system has skewed it even further. This year, it is conceivable that as many as 85,000 voters will vote for the opposition in a single GRC, only to see 6 PAP MPs elected to Parliament .

The GRC system does not just mute a larger number of voices, but it also forces difficult choices on voters, who need to assess the entire slate of candidates. The contest in Aljunied GRC has thrown this into stark relief: is a single excellent candidate enough reason to vote in four others of hugely varying quality? What if one of the other candidates is rotten to the core? What if the excellent candidate passes away or steps down before the next General Elections ?

‘Cooling-off day’ is supposed to be a time to reflect, to help us make rational choices at the ballot box. The PAP’s track record and self-engineered compensation scheme leaves me with little doubt about the direction it will take our country towards should it even receive a shadow of a mandate. The electoral system tilts the results in their favour before a single vote has been cast.

I ask you, friends and fellow citizens, to vote wisely this Saturday: not for the PAP, but for Singapore and Singaporeans.

A friend and fellow Singaporean,
Ong Yi Xin

May 5, 2011

Marine Parade GRC: Nicole Seah vs Goh Chok Tong

As earlier mentioned, I had moved house a few months ago. I thought that I would be in Aljunied GRC. But my wife and I still haven't received our polling cards.

Then last night, my ex-landlord called me up and said, "Your polling cards are here with me! Please come to collect them, Voting Day is almost here." Apparently, as we had moved house only after a certain cut-off date, our old address is the relevant one for GE2011. That means we would be treated as Marine Parade GRC voters.

Sorry, Mr Low Thia Kiang. That means you just lost two votes in Aljunied.

Since I am now a Marine Parade voter, here are my thoughts on the Marine Parade GRC. Many, many people have been comparing Nicole Seah and Tin Pei Ling. The reasons are obvious. The two candidates are very similar in some ways, and very different in others. So they are a highly interesting pair to compare and contrast.

A lot has already been said about Pei Ling, so I won't rehash. All I want to say, after watching the videos and reading the news, is that she is not impressive. It's not just the youth. Even for a 27-year-old, she is not impressive.

I try to think back to myself when I was 27, where I was, and what I was doing. And I try to think of my colleagues and friends, in that age-group at that time. I honestly feel that Pei Ling does not compare well (and none of us were even trying to run for elections).

In fairness, I should add that most of my colleagues and friends in that age-group at that time were lawyers. Not only that, litigation lawyers. Effective communication was an essential skill, and so was the ability to make strong, persuasive, convincing arguments. You also needed to carry yourself with some gravitas. It was part of the job.

At that age, I was already appearing in Yong Pung How's court, doing criminal appeal cases (Yong Pung How was the former Chief Justice of Singapore). His extreme sarcasm and intolerance of incompetence was very well-known. CJ Yong had no qualms about butchering even senior lawyers with his brutally sharp tongue, if they did not prepare their cases well or spoke ineloquently in his court.

And I think that CJ Yong would have slaughtered any lawyer (metaphorically), if she had gone "I don't know what to saaaaay ..." and stomped her feet in his courtroom.

I am not saying that Pei Ling is very bad for a 27-year-old. I am saying that she is not impressive, for a 27-year-old. If you are 27 and you want to run for election, you have to be very impressive in how you present yourself. That's because you need to compensate for the disadvantage of your youth and perceived immaturity. But Pei Ling is not impressive. She doesn't meet the mark.

However, 24-year-old Nicole Seah is very impressive. I have seen the videos, the way she speaks and handles questions from the press. This girl has a brain, has a heart and speaks with sincerity, conviction and remarkable composure. Nicole isn't merely impressive for a 24-year-old - she is quite impressive compared to Singapore politicians of any age group.

Unlike LKY, Nicole even knows how to make a strong point, without sounding mean or vindictive. She doesn't say anything like "Go back to China, Chen Shao Mao" or "You will repent, Aljunied voters". Nicole is down-to-earth, authentic and friendly, qualities that I find quite appealing.

(May I add that in terms of looks, Nicole Seah is also much more appealing than LKY).

When I first told my wife about Nicole Seah, my wife was not convinced. Mrs Wang just groaned, "First we have a 27-year-old, now we have a 24-year-old. Things are getting from bad to worse." But I persuaded Mrs Wang to watch the videos of Nicole Seah in action. Eight minutes later, Mrs Wang changed her mind. She said, "Now I understand why people are talking so much about Nicole Seah. Because she is REALLY good."

And indeed, I read that as of today, Nicole has just overtaken Lee Kuan Yew, on Facebook, as the most popular politician in Singapore. (Based on the number of Facebook "likes").

Of course, the problem is that Marine Parade GRC is not just Tin Pei Ling versus Nicole Seah. If that was the case, Nicole would probably win 90% of the votes. And most of the remaining 10% votes for Pei Ling would probably be compassionate votes, given in the hope that that Pei Ling doesn't suffer any long-term emotional trauma.

Marine Parade GRC is more about Goh Chok Tong vs Nicole Seah. And of course, Goh is a PAP heavyweight. He has held numerous key appointments - Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister etc, and of course, he has been an elected MP for Marine Parade for the longest time. If you want to talk about actual experience and stature, Nicole Seah cannot hold a candle to Goh Chok Tong.

So what rational basis can a Marine Parade GRC voter possibly have, to vote for NSP (Nicole) rather than the PAP (Goh Chok Tong)? Let me offer a few possible arguments. Not saying that these arguments are sufficient - every voter must decide that for himself (and I'm still undecided myself). I'm just laying out the reasons, for your consideration. See which ones make sense to you.

1. "The PAP is almost certainly going to win in Marine Parade anyway. But I will vote for the NSP, to give them a better percentage. This will send a symbolic message to the PAP, to show that I do not think well of their performance over the past 5 years."

2. "The GRC system is seriously wrong in principle, and the PAP has been using it for decades, to protect their weaker candidates (like Pei Ling) and give them a free ride into Parliament. I cannot agree with this. Although Goh Chok Tong deserves a lot of respect, I have to vote for NSP to show my displeasure with the GRC system."

3. "Even the most experienced PAP ministers are not as indispensable as they may appear. One might have thought that ministers such as Lim Boon Heng, Jayakumar and Abdullah Tarmugi are all essential, but this year they are stepping down and retiring anyway. Just like them, Goh Chok Tong may not be that absolutely necessary."

4. "Even if Goh Chok Tong loses, it's not like he died and Singapore lost him forever. They will probably redeploy him in some other new and important role. Such as the President of Singapore. Or the Chairman of the CPF Board. Or the CEO of GIC. Or the Special Advisor to Temasek Holdings. Or Singapore's United Nations chief representative, or something."

5. "I am not voting on municipal lines. I am voting on a national basis. I am more concerned about the country and its Parliament, than the question of who's going to clear my rubbish and build new playgrounds. And I think that what this country needs is more Opposition members in Parliament."

Let me know what you think, folks.

May 4, 2011

The Aljunied Mother & Son Story

So now ChannelNews Asia is on it. Unfortunately their article is quite garbled and I get the feeling that Satish Cheney, the journalist, is feeling a little lost as to what the story is really all about. Here's the CNA article (which contains various inaccuracies and ambiguities). Full text below:
GE: PAP Aljunied team denies pressing charges against low IQ boy
By Satish Cheney

SINGAPORE : The People's Action Party's Aljunied GRC team has denied allegations that it is pressing charges against a mentally disabled boy who had come to one of its Meet-the-People sessions (MPS) in Serangoon North and slammed a chair on the door.

In a note on its Facebook page, the team labelled the allegations and reports "slander that has been viralling online".

It said the team was wrongly accused "that we had not been compassionate, also that we had pressed charges against the poor boy".

"We didn't press charges. The mother and son have been coming to MPS regularly and we had been helping them to get financial aid. We had continued to help after the incident and we will continue doing so."

In the note, the team urged residents and grassroots leaders to look out for those who require assistance but are hesitating to come forward to seek help.

Some media reports had indicated that the MP who met the boy was Cynthia Phua and that she had said she would not accept the boy's apology and was in no position to excuse or forgive the boy.

Okay, Satish. The first thing you'll want to take note of is that this incident is not something happening now, but is a past incident that occurred two years ago, in 2009. So the PAP is definitely not pressing charges now.

The next thing you'll want to note is that generally, only the police and the AGC can press charges. Other people cannot press charges (that includes MPs) and so it must be true that the MPs in this case did not press charges.

I think what's getting people excited about this matter is that the mother went to apologise and the boy wrote an apology letter too, but the MP rejected the apology. If the MP had been more magnanimous (taking into account the fact that the boy was mentally disabled and his mother was in dire financial straits), the MP could have accepted the apology and asked the police to drop the case.

Thirdly, you'll want to take note that it was not Cynthia Phua, but Lim Hwee Hua, who said that she would not accept the boy's apology and was in no position to excuse or forgive the boy. Satish, read this New Paper article which was published on 8 May, 2009. I've reproduced the full text below.
Teen arrested for violence at MP's office

The 17-year-old boy slammed a chair over his head when he felt his mother was given cold treatment by MP. -TNP

Fri, May 08, 2009
The New Paper
By Ng Tze Yong

A YOUTH with low IQ has been arrested by police after flying into a rage at a Meet-the-People Session (MPS), upset at what he felt was his MP's cold-shoulder treatment of his mother's financial plight.

The 17-year-old boy hoisted an aluminium foldable chair over his head and slammed it against a glass door seconds after walking out of MP Cynthia Phua's Serangoon North office with his mother.

The boy, who has been released on bail, has been told to report back to the police on 12 May, where he may be charged with committing a rash act.

The offence carries a jail term of up to six months and a fine of up to $2,500.

The youth cannot be named because of impending court proceedings.

This is the third incident in recent months involving MPs and their constituents.

The boy and his mother, 53, are familiar faces to the grassroots volunteers at the MPS.

The unwed mother with Primary 6 education gets by on a $400 monthly salary as a part-time cleaner.

He attended a special school and suffers from thalassemia, a blood disorder that renders him weak and sickly.

The mother said that things went from bad to worse in November 2004 when the boy's father disappeared and stopped paying the $300 monthly maintenance due to her.

As a result, she visited the MPS about once a month for the past few years to request for various kinds of financial aid.

FORGIVE ME: Two days ago, the mother returned to the MPS alone and with a handwritten letter of apology from her son.

January this year saw a crisis unfold in their lives, when the mother broke her wrist after falling off a chair while cleaning a fan. She hasn't worked since.

She said the HDB was then in the middle of repossessing her flat and giving her a rental unit, but she was unable to pay the $138 in rental deposit and stamp duty.

So last Monday, she went to the office at Block 125, Serangoon North Ave 1, where MP Lim Hwee Hua holds her MPS, hoping to have her sign an appeal letter for HDB.

But that day, Mrs Lim, who is also a minister in the Prime Minister's Office, was abroad. Fellow Aljunied GRC MP Cynthia Phua stood in for her.

The mother's request was granted - Madam Phua signed the letter - but mother and son left fuming, claiming that Madam Phua had put them down.

She claimed that shortly after they had entered the office, Madam Phua asked her son a series of questions:

'She asked him, 'Who are you? What are you doing? Why aren't you working?' she claimed.

The mother said she wanted to explain her son's condition, but wasn't given a chance.

'I felt like we were being scolded,' she said.

The meeting ended after two or three minutes, she said.

As they were walking out, the son snapped.

His outburst with the chair - two blows against the glass door, which didn't break - was 'strong enough to get someone killed', said the Serangoon PAP branch secretary, Mr Poon Mun Wai.

As grassroots volunteers scrambled to calm down the teenager, his mother begged a neighbour to whisk him home immediately.

Later that night, the police arrived at their flat and arrested him. He was released on bail at about 1am.

When contacted, Madam Phua contradicted the mother's version of events, saying she felt that their conversation 'went well'.

She said: 'Like any normal case at MPS, I have to try to understand the case first of all...

'I had to ask some pointed questions about his employment status to understand the root cause of the problem, so that I can be more effective in helping them.'

During the one week after the incident, the mother pondered what to do.

She got her son to shave off his shoulder-length orange-dyed hair to get rid of bad luck.

For days, she said, he couldn't find the courage to face himself in the mirror. He also decided to put on hold a long-time dream to audition for Singapore Idol.

Two days ago, she returned to the MPS again alone and clutching a handwritten letter of apology from her son.

'Please fodgive me for what I dad I am sinelely truely I'm sorry (sic),' the teenager had written in big, neat handwriting.

The apology, however, was not acceptable to Mrs Lim, who was back chairing the MPS after returning from abroad.

'I made it very clear to (the mother) that this is unacceptable behaviour. It is not justifiable in any circumstance. There's no excuse to be violent,' Mrs Lim told The New Paper.

She also explained that she was not in a position to excuse or forgive the boy.

'I was not present and the police are investigating into the matter. I believe the police will take into consideration the mitigating factors,' said Mrs Lim.

'From what I understand, Madam Phua was being very motherly and very helpful inside the room with them.'

Mrs Lim's response surprised the mother, who had spoken fondly of her throughout the interview with The New Paper just a day before.

She said: 'I know what my son did was wrong. But how can I not defend him? He is my son, he is not well and he has a problem with his temper.

'I don't want him to go to jail and have his future ruined.'

The Apology from PM Lee Hsien Loong

From the Straits Times today:
PM says sorry over mistakes, pledges to do better
By Yen Feng

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday apologised for the mistakes under his watch in the last five years and pledged to make adjustments to the system and do better.

He cited the escape of detained terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari and the massive Orchard Road floods as two slip-ups, and also acknowledged that the Government could have moved faster to address shortfalls in housing and public transport.

Speaking at a People's Action Party lunchtime rally at Boat Quay next to UOB Plaza, PM Lee said he was sorry and he and his team were doing their best to fix the problems. He said the Government did not predict the sharp demand for flats after the recession in mid-2009. If they had, they would have ramped up the Housing Board building programmes faster, and saved many Singaporeans angst.

They would also have moved more aggressively to expand MRT networks to deal with growing population and traffic congestion.

'When these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us. We're trying our best on your behalf. And if we didn't quite get it right, I am sorry but we will try and do better the next time," he said.
This is rare. Humility from the PAP, and coming straight from the Prime Minister himself. This apology does score some points with me. If I were living in his constituency (Ang Mo Kio), I might now feel somewhat inclined to vote for Lee Hsien Loong.

For this apology, we also have to thank the opposition parties and the large number of supporters who showed up at their rallies. Ask yourself - why is PM Lee's apology coming now? Because it's election season. The Opposition is speaking up loudly, raising important issues and making many strong, valid arguments. The PAP has few easy rebuttals, and in the end, PM Lee feels somewhat compelled to concede that his party has made some big mistakes.

This shows the value of having a strong Opposition - it keeps the ruling party on its toes. The Opposition acts as a check and balance, constantly reminding the PAP about the people that they are supposed to serve. However, once the elections are over, there won't be any more rallies and all the usual restrictions on civil society will kick in.

The Opposition won't be allowed to speak here, they won't be allowed to speak there, they won't be allowed to write this; they won't be allowed to do that - yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda. (Click on the individual yadda's, if you want to see specific examples and illustrations of what I mean).

That is why Singapore needs to get a decent number of Opposition members into Parliament. This would institutionalise their alternative voices in national policy-making. They would get to speak up, and more often than just once in five years. If we had had more than two Opposition voices in Parliament five years ago, Singapore might well have averted its housing crisis and healthcare problems today.

That's because the Opposition would have started making significant noise in Parliament at a much earlier stage, forcing the PAP to pay attention and start tackling the problem sooner. The PAP calls this "gridlock". The correct term should be "feedback".

Anyway, although the fact that PM Lee made an apology is nice, I also found the apology somewhat troubling. Not because of anything he said, but because of what he did not say. PM Lee admitted that his government had made mistakes with public housing and public transport, but he said nothing about the root cause. And the root cause - as you already know - is the overwhelming influx of foreigners into this country.

My own views on the foreign worker issue are well-known, for I have written on this topic many times before. At the individual level, there should be no hostility against the foreigners in our midst - for they have come here just wanting, like the rest of us, to build better lives for themselves. On the other hand, the sheer size of their influx into Singapore has given rise to a wide range of social issues.

Public housing and public transport are just two of these social issues. Two very big issues, yes, but certainly not the only ones. PM Lee has apologised for mistakes in these two areas, but he has made no reference to the other issues. And very significantly, PM Lee has not acknowledged the root cause of all these issues - which is the massive influx of foreigners.

May 3, 2011

PAP's Cynthia Phua And Her Most Famous Moment as an Aljunied MP

Today I will tell you a story. It is a sad story, so sad that it could almost be a Taiwanese soap opera.  Unfortunately, it is not fiction, but a true story. (I read about it from this newspaper report in The New Paper).

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in Aljunied (we don't know her real name, so let's just call her Julie). She was 53 years old, and she had a 17-year-old son (again we don't know his real name - so we'll just call him Ah Teck).

Julie was poorly educated. She had only studied up to Primary 6. She worked as a part-time cleaner, earning $400 a month to support herself and Ah Teck. Meanwhile, Ah Teck had low IQ and was attending a special school for mentally handicapped kids. He also had thalassemia, a blood disorder.

Ah Teck's father had run away several years ago and could no longer be found. So there was absolutely no financial help from him.

One day in January 2009, Julie was at work. She was standing on a chair to clean a fan. Suddenly, she slipped and fell. She broke her wrist. Thereafter Julie lost her job, for she could no longer perform her cleaning duties.

A few months later, their money ran out and they could not pay their HDB mortgage instalments. So Julie and Ah Teck were about to lose their home - the HDB was taking action to repossess it. The HDB agreed to rent her another flat. But Julie did not even have $138 to pay for the rental deposit.

So Julie and Ah Teck decided to go to see their MP in Aljunied. They had gone to their Aljunied MP many times before, to get financial aid, so they knew where to go. This time Julie and Ah Teck wanted to ask the MP to sign an appeal letter for them, to waive the $138 rental deposit. They went to the town council and met with Aljunied MP Cynthia Phua (yes, the same Cynthia Phua now running for Aljunied again, together with George Yeo).

What went on in the office, we do not know for sure. We do know that the letter did get signed. Later Cynthia also claimed that the conversation was cordial and went well. And in the subsequent newspaper report, her fellow PAP MP Lim Hwee Hua also said that Cynthia behaved in a manner that was "very helpful" and "very motherly".

However, Julie tells a somewhat different story, and it goes like this:

      ".....shortly after they had entered the office, Madam Phua asked her son a series of questions: 'She asked him, 'Who are you? What are you doing? Why aren't you working?' .... The mother said she wanted to explain her son's condition, but wasn't given a chance. 'I felt like we were being scolded,' she said.

Whatever Cynthia Phua had actually said, we know that Ah Teck must have felt very humiliated. Perhaps it was not the words, but the tone, the demeanour or the body language. Whatever the case may be, we know how Ah Teck must have felt. That's because right after he walked out of Cynthia's office, he lost his temper in a big way. Ah Teck picked up a foldable chair, and slammed it twice on a glass door.

There was a commotion, other people quickly restrained the boy and calmed him down. And then Julie went home, taking her mentally-handicapped son with her.

The story might have ended there, but it did not. Cynthia made a police report. Later that night, the police arrived at Julie's home and arrested Ah Teck.

Two days later, Julie went to see the MP again, clutching a handwritten letter of apology from her son. We are told that in this letter, Ah Teck wrote the following words: "'Please fodgive me for what I dad I am sinelely truely I'm sorry". (Note that Ah Teck has low IQ - that would be why his writing skills are so poor).

But that forgiveness didn't come. PAP MP Lim Hwee Hua rejected the apology. She would not ask the police to withdraw the case.

A grassroots volunter, Mr Poon, further claimed that Ah Teck's blows with the chair "could have gotten someone killed".

(Personally, I think that the only thing you can kill by hitting a door with a chair is the door. Or the chair. The TNP article also made the subtle observation that despite the killer blows, the door, which was made of glass, remained unbroken).

The hapless Ah Teck was required to appear in court on a certain date - 12th May 2009. He faced a criminal charge of committing a rash act to endanger the safety of others.

What happened next is not publicly known. I have surfed and googled, but the media does not seem to have followed up on the story and I cannot get any more information.

This is probably because the boy was underage. In Singapore, juvenile court proceedings are generally shielded from the public eye and reporters are kept out of the courtroom.

So the story ends here - because we really don't know what happened next.

What I hope is that Ah Teck did not get some criminal conviction that would stain his record, and make his already-bleak future even more difficult. He is a low-IQ boy, after all.

I also hope that both Julie and Ah Teck had the good fortune to meet a judge who could understand their hardship and empathise with their daily struggles for money and a roof over their heads.

And I hope that the judge treated Ah Teck with more kindness and compassion, than the Aljunied PAP MPs had done.

Since the General Elections are here again, it is also my hope that you will take a few moments to reflect on the above incident. Please vote wisely .... for the MPs whom you believe will have compassion for their residents.

May 2, 2011

The PAP Team in Aljunied

So much of the spotlight has fallen on George Yeo that it's easy to forget that there are other members in the PAP team. Today I decided to check them out. They are Zainal Abidin Rasheed, Lim Hwee Hua, Ong Ye Kung And Cynthia Phua.

Zainal Abidin is a new name to me. Upon googling, I was surprised to learn that he's been a Minister of State for the past five years. In that period of time, I wrote about 800 articles about Singapore's current affairs. The fact that Zainal managed to entirely escape my notice for that long suggests to me that in that time, he had done .... NOTHING .... that was noteworthy to me.

Lim Hwee Hua has been in charge of public transport. Sorry, Hwee Hua, that means you get an instant black mark in my book. Public transport standards in Singapore have fallen drastically in the past five years. The trains and buses are way too crowded, the MRT stations are slowly rotting away and leaking rainwater, and I even have the photos to prove it. What happened to your quality controls?

Ong Ye Kung is a relative newcomer to the political scene. He is a unionist from NTUC. In some other countries, being a unionist is a badge of honor and it would be fair to assume that the person is committed to defending the rights of ordinary workers. In Singapore, things are very different and it has been largely impossible, since the events in 1968, to make such an assumption. So Ong has nothing in his CV that makes me want to vote for him.

Last and possibly least, we have Cynthia Phua. This name I recognise, and back in May 2008, I also blogged about a Straits Times article which quoted her. Alas, the ST article contains nothing that would make me regard her more positively. On the contrary, re-reading that ST article now just makes me feel wary about what clever new ideas the PAP might come up with, to extract more money from Aljunied residents.

I reproduce below my blog post from 2008 - it's entitled Aljunied Town Council and A Matter of Principle.

ST May 5, 2008
Aljunied trash index aims to wipe out litterbugs
Conservancy fees may be tied to index, with dirtiest precincts paying more
By Alfred Siew

TIRED of hardcore litterbugs, Aljunied GRC plans to start measuring the cleanliness of its precincts under a new litter index to be introduced in October.

Officials also said they will consider raising the conservancy charges for the dirtiest precincts to cover the extra work that goes into maintaining them.

The index, the first of its kind in Singapore, was unveiled on Saturday by the GRC's Members of Parliament. They said that it was designed to encourage residents to change their attitudes towards tossing trash.

Aljunied Town Council chairman Cynthia Phua said that the index would be based on the cleanliness of lifts, the condition of public property and how large pieces of rubbish are disposed.

She told The Straits Times yesterday that the council would tie conservancy charges to the index only if it found an objective measure of cleanliness. The plan is under consideration and would not be confirmed until next year, she said.
Would it be right, as a matter of principle, for Aljunied Town Council to raise conservancy charges in the manner proposed above? Let's discuss.

The most obvious objection is that all the residents in the dirty precincts would have to pay higher conservancy charges, even though the large majority of them may be civic-minded residents who do not litter.

Once again, it would be a case of innocent Singaporeans being punished for a wrong they did not commit and could not personally prevent.

It is one thing to catch a litterbug and impose a fine on him. It is quite another thing to impose a fine (or a higher conservancy charge) on a resident, just because he happens to live in an area with more litterbugs around.

All the residents are already paying their usual conservancy charges. The amount they currently pay is already more than enough to maintain the cleanliness of the Aljunied GRC area. Check out the Aljunied Town Council's financial statements yourself.

In the 2006/2007 financial year, the Aljunied town council collected $31,955,492 in conservancy and service fees. They spent only $4,237,162 on cleaning works.

Their accumulated surplus for the year, as at 31 March 2007, was $4,964,022. Which means that in 2006/2007, they could have spent DOUBLE the amount they actually did, on cleaning works, and still have money left over.

Just as a side point, what about their gigantic sinking funds? Check out the Aljunied Town Council's balance sheet. They have more than $90,000,000 in surpluses accumulated over the years. And yes, the bulk of which would have come from the conservancy and service fees paid by Aljunied residents.

Of that amount, $36,270,609 is reported to be sitting in the bank as fixed deposits. Another $44,045,035 is reported as being held for "trading investments". What's that? On further inspection, we see that it means $12,587,775 invested in stocks; $21,082,590 invested in bonds; and $11,981,315 invested in unit trusts.

Does the Aljunied Town Council sound poor to you?

(The sinking funds can't be used for general cleaning works, but their enormous size raises other sorts of questions, which I'll discuss in a future post).
Those interested in the full story from 2008 should click on the earlier link and read all the comments too (plus the my related post dated 12 May 2008).

May 1, 2011

Property Values and Your Choice of Political Party

When I read about Low Thia Kiang leaving Hougang to run for elections in Aljunied GRC, I felt fear and dismay. Low is well-known and very well-loved in Hougang, and if he had chosen to remain in Hougang, his seat in Parliament would be almost guaranteed. However, when Low comes to Aljunied GRC, it's a different ball game, especially with the PAP's gerrymandering tactics.

If Low should lose in Aljunied GRC, then this would be a disaster for Singapore. It would be a very dark day in the history of this nation.

For so many years, Low has been the (almost) lone Opposition voice in Parliament, one man standing up and bravely  speaking up against a pack of 80+ PAP MPs. It takes no courage whatsoever to be a Mah Bow Tan or a Wong Kan Seng in Parliament, but it takes great courage to be a Low Thia Kiang. To his immense credit, Low has done his job and served Singaporeans well, not just for a year or two, but for the past 20 years

If Low loses in Aljunied GRC, then even that one lone voice in Parliament might be gone, silenced for good. It is possible that parliamentary debate might then degenerate into an utter sham. Nothing but a puppet show with PAP MPs posing nice, friendly, pre-arranged questions to each other and giving nice, friendly, rehearsed answers to each other. There would be nobody to challenge them, nobody to act as a check and balance, nobody to ask the tough questions that really need, for the sake of the nation, to be asked.

Honestly, if we come to that stage, Parliament House might just as well shut down. On weekends, the PAP MPs can just gather at Hsien Loong's living room or Kuan Yew's garden to have some cakes and coffee. There they can plan their next salary increases; chit chat about golf and BMWs; and casually make a few national policies for five million citizens. So much for public accountability and transparency,


Regular readers of my blog know that I moved house a few months ago. What I didn't mention was exactly where I moved to. I now live in Tai Keng Gardens, a small quiet residential area near Paya Lebar, and I recently learned that my new address is under Aljunied GRC.

There isn't the slightest doubt in my mind who I need to vote for. After all, I am intelligent, educated, well-informed and concerned. So effectively I have no choice. I have to vote for the Workers Party. Because I can see so clearly that the PAP's performance over the past five years is just taking this country on a one-way trip into slow deterioriation and gradual collapse.

Things have already reached such a bad stage that I can sincerely say this: if you genuinely support the PAP and want them to succeed, then you must vote for the Opposition. For the PAP can improve and do better - it has that potential. What the PAP needs is to be shocked out of its own complacency.

The best thing that can happen for the PAP is that they lose 10 seats in this election. Then suddenly they will wake up, remember the people whom they are supposed to serve, and start getting their act together. The PAP does have some talented, capable people in their midst. It's just that they have lost their way, over the past five years.


I see from the newspapers that Kuan Yew has been busily making statements to create fear in the electorate. Something about how the Workers Party (if they win) will bring down the property values of Aljunied GRC.

What's that old saying about old dogs and new tricks? Fear-mongering is one of Kuan Yew's favourite tactics. Woe betide you, foolish Singaporeans, if you do not listen to me, then the sky will fall on your head. Some of his statements are so far-fetched that it's amazing he still has any credibility left.

Remember this stunning proclamation from Lee Kuan Yew, in 2007? The PAP ministers were just about to give themselves another fat pay raise, and Singaporeans were questioning this. Lee Kuan Yew's reply was that if the PAP ministers did not get their increase, the women of Singapore will become "maids in other people's countries".

Oh, come on, Kuan Yew. Can you at least try to keep your fear-mongering a little more .... rational?

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a keen watcher of the property market. I'd like to share a few personal observations on the content of Kuan Yew's latest fear.

LKY's basic point is that the WP is incompetent; that they will mismanage Aljunied; and the area will be so badly run that property values will fall sharply (relative to PAP constituencies).

But let's look at the facts. Low Thia Kiang has been MP for Hougang, for twenty years. If Low can ruin property values through his sheer incompetence, then Hougang should be a slum by now. But it is not. It is a clean, vibrant HDB town, with its own lively suburban malls, hawker centres, supermarkets, bus interchange, sport stadium, two MRT stations and more.

I can honestly tell you that, as a person who is familiar with the area. My brother lives in Hougang, my kids used to go for tuition in Hougang, and I still go there with my family quite often to eat and shop in Hougang.

Most Singaporeans wouldn't realise it, but I'll just say it straight out here. MPs do lots of important things, such as debate, discuss and shape national policies in Parliament and meet residents to help solve their personal problems. MPs and their grassroots supporters also organise community events like Plant-a-Tree Day and Chinese New Year dinners etc, and make appearances at schools' Prize-Giving Day to hand out awards and make speeches. All these types of MP work have their value and are important in their own way. But none of them has any direct bearing on the value of your property.

In other words, whoever you elect as your MP has very, very little influence on whether your property value will go up or down. May I quickly give you a big bunch of illustrations? Okay, let's go:

Your MP does not look after the roads in your neighbourhood (the LTA does that). 
Your MP does not look after the parks (the National Parks Board does that).
Your MP does not look after your public library (the National Library Board does that).
Your MP does not look after your sports stadium or public swimming pool (the Singapore Sports Council does that).
Your MP does not build shopping malls for you (property developers such as Capitaland do that).
Your MP does not manage your MRT line (SMRT does that). 
Your MP does not manage your SBS buses (SBS does that).
Your MP does not look after your electricity supply (SP Power does that).
Your MP does not look after your carpark (the URA does that). 
Your MP does not investigate crimes (the Singapore Police Force does that). 
Your MP does not put out fires (the SCDF and their NSmen do that).
Your MP does not ensure that top schools are near your home (whether a school is top or not depends on the students' efforts).
Your MP doesn't prevent mosquito breeding (the NEA does that).

Your MP does engage the cleaning contractors to clean the neighbourhood (which, in terms of level of difficulty, is not exactly rocket science and shouldn't be a challenge for any self-respecting MP, whether from the PAP or not). Apart from the cleaning contractors, your MP also builds playgrounds, fitness corners, maybe a couple of covered link ways here and there. None of these little projects require great ability or vast competence, nor will they have any significant influence on your property value.

There, hope it's all abundantly clear now. Abundantly clear that Lee Kuan Yew is mongering foolish fears. Don't be his sucker.