Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for September 2010

Patient? PAP. Diagnosis? Democracy-induced Schizophrenia

The lead letter in yesterday’s Straits Times must have caused some PAP politicians to shift uneasily in their seats. In it, a Ms Margo McCutcheon from Kuala Lumpur no less, warned, “Singapore, you’ve got so much to lose. Do you really want that couple in Holland Village jeopardising it all by shouting about democracy?” The venerable McCutcheon was referring to a hellish episode that befell both her husband and herself in Holland Village, where they saw a middle-aged couple handing out pro-democracy brochures and shouting, “Support democracy”.

On account of this letter, Singaporeans reading the Straits Times yesterday might have understood what it was like living behind the iron curtain in the heydays of the Cold War. Communist press apparatchiks would have been so proud.

Invoking the wisdom of her husband, Lady McCutcheon quoted him verbatim – “I’m American and you don’t want what we have. Democracy isn’t about choice. It’s just a fancy word for partisan bickering and gridlocked government.” Like a rookie boxer, McCutcheon followed up with one hook after jab, completely oblivious to the fact that she had exposed her soft underbelly.

Vivian Balakrishnan’s Democracy

Only less than month ago, when asked about the criticism directed at the management of the Youth Olympic Games from opposition politician Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party, Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports responded, “In any society there will always be people who disagree, that’s fine. This is a democracy they are entitled to that.”

Lee Yi Shyan’s Democracy

On 3 Sep 2010, in a feature on the East Coast constituency in the Straits Times, Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Manpower and MP for Kampung Chai Chee ward, Lee Yi Shyan remarked that the Workers’ Party had been spotted more frequently in his constituency over the last six months (the Workers’ Party has been consistently active in East Coast for the better part of the last two years). In response, the Minister of State proffered, “Its alright, that’s what democracy is. We allow for other parties to advance their views and policies, to offer alternatives.”

Goh Chok Tong’s Participatory Democracy

Almost 20 years ago, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong sought to persuade 81 PAP branches to systematically rally Singaporeans behind the PAP’s goals in the next lap of the country’s development. Specifically, Goh proposed the strengthening of participatory democracy in Singapore. Elaborating, Goh posited that participatory democracy meant that every Singaporean shared the responsibility of making the country better, and that Singaporeans must defend what is right and prevent things from going wrong. Further, Goh stated that participation also meant that every Singaporean had a chance to do something to improve society. Goh, like the majority of Singaporeans would know that democracy is not necessarily the panacea to all the problems of any society, let alone Singapore. But in reaching out to participatory democracy, Goh effectively acknowledged that it was what Singapore needed 20 years ago.

Many readers may assume that the PAP’s on-and-off dance with democracy presents a golden opportunity for opposition members to call them out on double standards, speaking with a forked tongue, cognitive dissonance etc. But it is not my intention to do this. What Vivian, Lee and Goh have shown Singaporeans is that some members of the PAP are acutely aware of the importance of democracy as far as the political and economic health of the nation is concerned.

What remains, as it has for a good 20 years, is for the PAP to move substantively in a more democratic direction. With 82 out of 84 seats in parliament, the PAP is by far, the only political game in town. With the press firmly in its hands, any decision towards a qualitative democracy in the foreseeable future will be made by the men in white. One of the stumbling blocks that will stand in the way of greater democratisation in Singapore are those PAP politicians who directly or indirectly straightjacket the remit of the government-managed mainstream media.

McCutcheon’s letter was very much in step with the level of public discourse on political liberties engendered by the Straits Times since my childhood days. In spite of Goh’s brave foray nearly 20 years ago, no real attempt has been made by the mainstream media to explain what democracy substantively means, both to and for Singapore society. In fact, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, many would argue Singapore’s political development has stagnated at best, and regressed at worst, with modifications to the NCMP and NMP parliamentary schemes for example,  designed to paradoxically benefit the PAP.

Some PAP politicians and senior civil servants employ allusions to democracy to deflect criticism while the state-managed press define it in singularly dark terms, as a binary opposite to PAP white. Blinkered officers in government-linked-companies I have spoken to argue that Singapore’s success since independence has been down to the lack of democracy in Singapore, and as such, the status quo must remain. These individuals cannot comprehend nor conceive of how a substantively democratic, accountable and transparent polity can unlock talent, encourage entrepreneurship, staunch the brain drain and lethargy of the nation’s best and brightest and most importantly, strengthen the Singapore spirit.

If anything, McCutcheon’s letter proved that democracy remains a bad word in Singapore, in spite of remarks by Vivian, Lee and Goh that suggest the very opposite. And if one had to consider which political agents in Singapore are single-handedly undermining the country’s political development, the mainstream media would figure prominently among them. In the guise of a nation-building agenda, the mainstream media has monopolised the national discourse so as to buttress a PAP agenda, not a Singapore agenda.

The Singapore media scene of the 1960s and 1970s was a lot more representative of a free press chiefly because of the wider choice of newspapers available to Singaporeans. Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp Press, both majority owned by the government were not the only game in town. There were other – now defunct – papers such as the Eastern Sun, Singapore Herald, Singapore Monitor, Singapore Standard and The New Nation. Even the Chinese press was not the sole domain of the PAP government. What a wide array of newspapers guaranteed was a healthy debate about the direction the country was headed. A free press kept excess in check. And if one paper attempted to represent a partisan interest, you could be certain another paper would present an alternative viewpoint.

Fast forward a couple of decades and in the aftermath of the passage of the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act 1974: The Straits Times puts out and selectively omits information so as to benefit the ruling party.

A simple example will make out the preceding point. Every now and then, more so in the run up to every election, Singaporeans are reminded through the Straits Times how Chee Soon Juan and Chiam See Tong had a “tussle” over leadership of the Singapore Democratic Party in the early 1990s, ostensibly to dissuade Singaporeans from voting opposition.

But how many remember the Straits Times reminding Singaporeans of PAP MPs being hauled up to account for their misdemeanours and character deficiencies? Read: Hong Kah GRC PAP MP and lawyer Ahmad Khalis Abdul Ghani in 2005 for “grossly improper” professional conduct and Jalan Besar GRC PAP MP Mr Choo Wee Khiang (also infamously known for remarking that Little India was “too dark” on weekends) in 1999 for cheating? Or of a PAP Minister of National Development who committed suicide in the mid-1980s over allegations of corruption while in office?

In fairness to the Straits Times there have been times, albeit very few and far between, where it has held its ground against select PAP politicians, highlighting its capacity to play a genuine nation-building role. In the immediate aftermath of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) saga in 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng chided the paper for its “breathless coverage” and insinuating that it report on issues dispassionately and impartially in future, before concluding that the AWARE saga was not the most important challenge facing Singapore.

Photo Credit: Straits Times

Wong’s intervention was perhaps the best characterisation of the PAP towards the mainstream media. Intervene. Put out the PAP message. Move on.

If the Straits Times had not engaged in thorough and even crusading reportage of the AWARE saga, would Singaporeans have known that a certain self-described “feminist mentor” was the master puppeteer behind the coup d’etat in AWARE? And would Singaporeans have known of a certain pastor who could have torn the fabric of a secular Singapore and in doing so, irreparably damaged the reputation of Singaporean Christians?

While democracy encompasses a number of characteristics that can vary in space and time, a key constant in any substantive democracy are freedom and/or access to information. Democracy is not about form, garnishing, dodging criticism and going to the polls once every five years. It is much more than that. At a deep-rooted level, it is about citizenship and national values that are cherished by all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, and a citizenry taking ownership of the political process.

Going forward, if the Straits Times finds it uncontroversial to host a letter written by the Margo McCutcheons of the world in the name of hosting views from every segment of society (including Kuala Lumpur society [McCutcheon signed off her letter from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia]), it can be expected to have no qualms substantiating Goh’s stillborn participatory democracy or Vivian and Lee’s apparently expedient one. One might hazard even PAP politicians will admit that dealing with the question of substantive and qualitative democracy is the only way to engender a united, inclusive and equitable Singapore in the years to come.

Useful Links:

Margo McCutcheon: No say? Its simply not true, she says  –

Asiaone: YOG – A giant leap for small Singapore –

Channel News Asia Online poll (since removed from Channel News Asia’s website) question “Will you be watching any Youth Olympic Games competition?” –

NCCS: Churches should stay out of AWARE saga –

Catherine Lim: Time to do some crystal ball gazing –

Tan Tarn How on AWARE saga –

Written by singapore 2025

18/09/2010 at 8:12 am

The Straits Times: Singapore ‘bigger than PAP’

Ngiam Tong Dow is well known in local circles as one of those rare Administrative Service officers with iron in his spine. Some years after the publication of the article below, he even questioned the relevance of the Public Transport Council. Mr J.Y. Pillay, the man who was at the helm of Singapore Airlines in the early days and set the foundation for the heights it has reached today, popularly referred to Mr Ngiam as a ‘cult hero’. In this interview given to the The Straits Times in 2003, Mr Ngiam went further than any former public servant in sharing his views on where Singapore was headed. On the overwhelming majority of issues, he continues to prove uncannily prophetic.

The Straits Times: Singapore ‘bigger than PAP’

by Susan Long

28 September 2003

(c) 2003 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Source: NTU

Time to get off the autopilot, says a former civil servant

Since Mr Ngiam Tong Dow retired from the civil service in 1999, affairs of state have weighed heavily on his mind. The highly respected former Permanent Secretary worries about Singapore’s long-term survival and the kind of society the next generation will inherit. At 66, the HDB Corp chairman insists he is ‘no radical’, just a concerned Singaporean with three grandchildren, who wonders ‘whether there will be a Singapore for them in 50 years’ time’. In Tea with Think, a weekly interview series, he gives a candid appraisal of the civil service, and his prognosis of what the lack of an alternative political leadership means for Singapore. The interview will be continued next week.

Q. With all this pessimism surrounding Singapore’s prospects today, what’s your personal prognosis? Will Singapore survive Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?

A. Unequivocally yes, Singapore will survive SM Lee but provided he leaves the right legacy.

What sort of legacy he wants to leave is for him to say, but I, a blooming upstart, dare to suggest to him that we should open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge.

So far, the People’s Action Party’s tactic is to put all the scholars into the civil service because it believes the way to retain political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent. But in my view, that’s a very short term view.

It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along.

At the first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing PAP onslaught in the late 1950s.

I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.

Q. What would be a useful first step in opening up?

A. For Singapore to survive, we should release half our talent – our President and Overseas Merit scholars – to the private sector.

When ten scholars come home, five should turn to the right and join the public sector or the civil service; the other five should turn to the left and join the private sector.

These scholars should serve their bond to Singapore – not to the Government – by working in or for Singapore overseas. As matters stand, those who wish to strike out have to break their bonds, pay a financial penalty and worse, be condemned as quitters.

But it takes a certain temperament and mindset to be a civil servant. The former head of the civil service, Sim Kee Boon, once said that joining the administrative service is like entering a royal priesthood. Not all of us have the temperament to be priests.

However upright a person is, the mandarin will in time begin to live a gilded life in a gilded cage.

As a Permanent Secretary, I never had to worry whether I could pay my staff their wages. It was all provided for in the Budget.

As chairman of DBS Bank, I worried about wages only 20 per cent of the time.

I now face my greatest business challenge as chairman of HDB Corp, a new start-up spun off from HDB. I spend 90 per cent of my time worrying whether I have enough to pay my staff at the end of the month.

It’s a mental switch.

Q. What is your biggest worry about the civil service?

Source: NUS Press

A. The greatest danger is we are flying on auto-pilot. What was once a great policy, we just carry on with more of the same, until reality intervenes.

Take our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore.

For some years now, I’ve been trying to tell everybody: ‘Look, for God’s sake, grow our own timber.’ If we really want knowledge to be rooted in Singaporeans and based in Singapore, we have to support our SMEs. I’m not a supporter of SMEs just for the sake of more SMEs but we must grow our own roots. Creative Technology’s Sim Wong Hoo is one and Hyflux’s Olivia Lum is another but that’s too few.

We have been flying on auto-pilot for too long. The MNCs have contributed a lot to Singapore but they are totally unsentimental people. The moment you’re uncompetitive, they just relocate.

Q. Why has this come about?

A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.

There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews.

SM Lee has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn’t behave like Lee Kuan Yew.

There is also a trend of intellectualisation for its own sake, which loses a sense of the pragmatic concerns of the larger world.

The Chinese, for example, keep good archives of the Imperial examinations which used to be held at the Temple of Heaven.

At the beginning, the scholars were tested on very practical subjects, such as how to control floods in their province. But over time, they were examined on the Confucian Analects and Chinese poetry composition.

Hence, they became emasculated by the system, a worrying fate which could befall Singapore.

Q. But aren’t you an exception to the norm of the gilded mandarin with zero bottomline consciousness?

A. That’s because I started out with Economic Development Board in the 1959. Investment promotion then was all about hard foot slogging and personal persuasion, which teaches you to be very humble and patient.

I learnt to be a supplicant and a professional beggar, instead of a dispenser of favours. These days, most civil servants start out administering the law. If I had my way, every administrative officer would start his or her career in the EDB.

Hard foot slogging

1959: First class honours in economics from University of Malaya.

1959: Joined Administrative Service. Postings to the former Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Finance Ministry, and the Economic Development Board.

1964: Topped his Master’s in Public Administration programme at Harvard University.

1970: Became the youngest-ever Permanent Secretary at age 33 at the Ministry of Communications. Subsequent postings as Perm Sec in the Ministries of Finance, Trade & Industry, National Development, and the Prime Minister’s Office.

1990: Appointed chairman of Development Bank Of Singapore. Later also of the Central Provident Fund Board and HDB.

1999: Retired from the civil service as Permanent Secretary (Finance), a post he held for 13 years.

2003: Named chairman of HDB Corp. Currently also a director of Yeo Hiap Seng Limited, United Overseas Bank and Singapore Press Holdings.


Written by singapore 2025

10/09/2010 at 9:59 am

The PAP’s Retirement Nightmare: 2nd and 3rd Generation PAP policymakers to blame?

Imagine the scene 10 to 50 years from now. Singaporean men and women – confident their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Savings can see them through until they breathe their last – cleaning tables at hawker centres, selling all sorts of knick-knacks trying to make ends meet. And that’s not the bad news. There are countless other Singaporeans who cannot find a post-retirement job because foreign workers are just so much cheaper to employ.

For these jobless Singaporean elders, their CPF Ordinary Account – established by the first generation of PAP leaders to preserve a retirement nest egg for Singaporeans  – has long dried out, mainly because of the requirement to service 30-year, perhaps even 40-year Housing and Development Board (HDB) mortgages in their lifetimes.

More worryingly, Medisave balances are precariously low, something old and infirm Singaporeans can ill-afford in their golden years, especially since average mortality rates hover around 90. The “lucky” few have already been sent to Johor Bahru to be put up in old-folk homes, since their children can afford these facilities and are too busy minding their careers. Others wonder if their retirement years could have been better planned for, and what being a Singaporean means, since they don’t even have the energy to play with their grandchildren after they return from work.

This fictitious scenario may not be too far in the future. Some Singaporeans would argue it is already here. Thanks to a number of PAP policies, Singapore’s low to middle income earners stand smack in the middle of a particularly precarious situation. Although they live in a first-world country, they draw third-world wages. In retirement, they struggle to make ends meet thanks to high transport costs and other basic commitments.

MM Lee’s incantations over the last few weeks, ordering Singaporeans not to retire at all was arguably a function of the scenario painted above. In a question and answer on the issue published in the Straits Times on 4 Sep 2010, MM Lee was his usual brusque self, devoid of empathy.

ST Reporter: Some Singaporeans disagree with your view that they should not retire but keep on working. They argue that the end of life is a happy retirement, not more work.

MM Lee: Those who want to engage in new pursuits and develop interests which they could not do so because of work, can do so. They will have no income and may run out of their savings and CPF monies earlier.”

Source: CPF Trends - June 2008 (F1)

Source: CPF Trends - Aug 2010 (F2)

What struck me was how the Minister Mentor used his paternalistic hard-heartedness as a foil to conceal the PAP’s apparent negligence in dropping the CPF ball as a source of retirement income for Singaporeans. A cursory glance at CPF data reveals an overwhelming amount of CPF money withdrawn to fund the purchase of a home for one’s family and dependents (See F1) . With approximately 80% of Singaporeans living in public housing, i.e. HDB flats, any rise in the price of public housing will have an adverse impact on Singaporeans’ retirement nest egg.

One of Singapore’s most astute political bloggers, Tattler, who blogs at, using data sourced from the CPF board (see F2), revealed “that CPF withdrawals under the Public Housing Scheme (PHS) sucked up as much as $91b in 2009. Meaning more members are using more of their CPF Savings to service housing loans for their HDB flats, leaving little or nought for health or community participation issues.”

In a report published in the Straits Times in early April 2010, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan very shrewdly, dismissed the argument that HDB resale prices had outstripped income growth. Taking 1999 as the base year, and with the Resale Price Index and Monthly Household Income in hand, Mah may have thought he had an unimpeachable case.

Enter Hazel Poa of one of the newest opposition parties in Singapore, the Reform Party, headed by Kenneth Jeyaratnam. In a superb piece of comparative analysis that reached out to the layman, Hazel debunked Mah’s argument and exposed his analysis as nothing more than intellectual duplicity.

If one moved the base year to 2006 (to compare against 2009), Hazel showed that resale prices increased by 45.6% while median household income rose 21.3% for the period in question, before sarcastically concluding, “choosing a suitable base year to support your conclusions is quite a useful trick that we should all learn.”

Hazel’s choice of 2001 and 2006 was a lot more persuasive than Mah’s. Those were election years, where the PAP government secured a mandate from the people of Singapore to govern for the next five years. It also put into distinct relief the answer to that age-old question the PAP puts out to voters – “Is your life better today than it was five years ago?”

Lucky Tan, another erudite observer of Singapore politics drove yet another nail into Mah’s disingenuous use of the base year by mimicking the Minister’s logic. Taking 1990 his base year of choice, Lucky’s chart (F3) speaks for itself.

Source: Lucky Tan's Blog (F3)

The HDB resale market is critical because the PAP uses resale prices to determine the price of new HDB flats. In doing so, the PAP insists that market forces determine resale prices and the government has little ability to dictate housing prices. This is a dubious claim.

As the former CEO of NTUC Income, Tan Kin Lian points out, market forces can be made responsible for fluctuations in price when there is elastic supply, elastic demand and market competition. In the case of HDB flats however, supply is firmly in the hands of the PAP government as it controls all the land banks in Singapore – a monopoly by any stretch of the imagination.

From 1996-2000, approximately 155,000 new HDB flats were built, and figure which fell dramatically to approximately 55,000 from 2001-2005, precisely at a time when the resident population size in Singapore was expanding thanks to a loose immigration policy. Even worse, between 2006 and 2008, only slightly more than 11,000 new flats were constructed. In 2008 alone, more than 90,000 PRs and 20,000 new citizens made Singapore home. Simple economics informs that prices were bound to shoot up unless the PAP built more flats. But it decided not to do so. Not only did it allow a property bubble to form, it possibly added fuel to fire by withholding supply.

In the meantime, Mah continued to insist, even as recently as April 2010, that HDB flats were affordable. Twenty years ago, a Singaporean would typically take out a 15 to 20-year mortgage on public housing, leaving enough time for a CPF retirement nest egg to build up again. Today, 30-year mortgages are the norm, and if prices continue to follow an upward trajectory, longer mortgage repayment periods cannot be ruled out. Minister Mah would probably be the first to agree that affordability is a question of perspective.

Thanks to a confluence of factors, including loose immigration policies and the pro-active decision to drastically reduce the supply of public housing, amongst others, the PAP now comes out to say, through the Minister Mentor no less, that people should reconsider conventional definitions of retirement. The irony could not have been more apparent especially since the PAP’s housing policies have been singularly responsible for the contraction of CPF funds set aside for retirement.

The first generation of PAP leaders saw the CPF scheme as a central pillar contributing to the retirement income of all Singaporeans while making allowances for Singaporeans to purchase property for residential use.

Like many third-generation family-run businesses, which fritter away the hard-earned wealth and ride roughshod over the fiscal prudence of the first generation, one would not be totally remiss in questioning the governing philosophy of the current generation of PAP Ministers in regard to CPF and HDB policies.

I for one truly wonder how Hon Sui Sen, Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam would have reacted at the PAP’s complicity in manipulating HDB property prices to the detriment of Singaporeans.

In a pre-election report published in the Straits Times on 3 Sep 2010 (On the ground in East Coast GRC – Bracing itself for a battle replay), that covered a prospective battle between the Workers’ Party team led by Party Treasurer Eric Tan against PAP incumbent S. Jayakumar, Straits Times journalists Zakir Hussain, Teo Wan Gek and Chong Zi Liang ended their article as follows:

“Both sides are hunkering down for an electoral fight in the GRC. Residents are expecting one.

How many will stay with an experienced PAP team who have given constituents a better quality of life through upgrading projects? How many will take chances with the WP team?”

If “upgrading projects” represent the choice residents of East Coast will have to make between the PAP and the Workers’ Party, then the PAP should consider doing away with elections completely, and just dish out upgrading projects every now and then to all Singaporeans.

In light of MM Lee’s retirement bombshell and the PAP’s CPF and HDB policies over the last 5 years in particular, the relevant question residents of every constituency where the opposition will contest is a tad more nuanced. For Singaporeans who have already decided to vote PAP, the question they should ruminate over before polling day is this:

Photo Credit: The Straits Times

Is the PAP of today the same one that pulled an entire generation out of poverty in the 1960s and 1970s, introduced sensible policies and kept political salaries within a prudent range – or is today’s PAP one that pays itself millions of dollars, while coasting along on autopilot and shrewdly making use of statistics to justify its policies, with a view to keep itself in power?

Finally, in response to the raft of measures announced earlier this week to deflate the property bubble, Mah was quoted as saying: “If you ask me whether it has got anything to do with the elections, the answer is ‘yes’. Everything has got to do with the elections.” In an uncanny moment of frankness, Mah revealed the overarching governing ethic of the PAP of today. Improving the lives of Singaporeans has got to do with votes. The sacred duty of looking after Singaporeans does not figure as prominently as the first-generation of PAP would have liked it seems.

Useful Links

Lucky Tan: Mah Bow Tan – We don’t fudge the numbers Part 2 –

Hazel Poa: Housing Prices vs. Household Income – Alternative ways of viewing the statistics –

Tan Kin Lian: A New Pricing formula for HDB flats –

Temasek Review: 8,967 applications for 1,429 flats at Punggol Emerald and Punggol Waves –

AsiaOne: New flats still affordable – Mah –

Singapore Desk: No Golden Years for the Elderly –

Today Online: Rules tightening to return sanity to HDB resale market –

Written by singapore 2025

05/09/2010 at 9:30 am

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