Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for October 2010

David Marshall of Singapore

Some years ago, David Saul Marshall, a Jew and Singapore’s first Chief Minister (1955) was interviewed by lawyer and blogger, Dharmendra Yadav:

The interview was conducted in 1994, when Marshall was a consultant to law firm Drew & Napier in Singapore, and Dharmendra, a student at St. Andrew’s Junior College. I read this interview some months after Dharmendra uploaded it onto his blog in August 2006.

David Marshall founded the Workers’ Party of Singapore in 1957, making it the oldest functioning political party in Singapore today. Marshall’s leadership style was characterised by humanity, empathy, honesty and determination. He was a Singaporean all Singaporeans can be incredibly proud of. I would encourage readers to discuss the issues Marshall raises in this interview with your family and friends, for the very same issues continue to remain broadly relevant today.

If you enjoyed reading this interview, please drop a note to Dharmendra thru his blog site or post a comment on the article thread that can be sourced from the hyperlink above.

Dharmendra: In the past, when you were chief minister, youths played a politically-active role. How has the role of youths changed as compared to the past?

Marshall: The role of youths! Ha!

In my time, I tried to educate our people in an understanding of the dignity of human life and their right as fellow human beings, and youth was not only interested but excited about what I consider things that matter. Things of the spirit; the development of a human being to his true potential in accordance with his own personal genius in the context of equal rights of others.

Today, youth is interested in getting paper qualification and, as soon as possible, shoveling gold into their bank accounts. It’s a different world, even the law.

I am a consultant here [Drew & Napier]. When I left in ’78, there were three partners – it was supposed to be a big firm; two assistants – we were a big firm; 17 staff. This office has four floors. They think that it is a waste of time to use the lift so we have an internal staircase. We have more than 90 lawyers, more than 200 secretaries and I don’t know how many staff.

The law is no longer a vocation, it is a business. Everything is geared to business!

Of course, there is this pragmatic development of our country. Ah, our rising expectations of a pragmatic character! It is a fantastic and almost a miraculous development in my lifetime.

When I was Chief Minister, there were men dying of starvation and because of ‘beri-beri’. I took my PA [personal assistant] and an

Credit: Singapore Archives

Inspector of Police for night at midnight. For two hours, we toured Singapore and we estimated there were two ten thousand men sleeping on the pavements. No homes.

Today – no unemployment, no homeless. I started this business of building homes for our people. Compare the puny work I achieved and the fantastic HDB homes that are available today for our people. I am deeply impressed and I take off my hat to this very able honest government. Dedicated!

But I am seen as a critic and I am a critic.

I am frankly terrified by this massive control of the mass media, the press, the radio, television, antennae, [and] public meetings. You can’t write a letter to the Straits Times; if there is a shadow of criticism, it’s not published. And the Chinese press follows suit. It’s a very dangerous position because experience proves that no one group of human beings has got all the wisdom in the world.

I mean…well, two of you are Chinese and one Indian [Ed: actually, the interviewers were one Chinese, one Jew and one Indian]. I don’t know much about Indian history but look at China. You had Confucian authoritarianism for more than 2500 years. What happened to China? She was a fossil. She had to reinvigorate herself with the Western ideology of communism. Another authoritarian ideology! And what was the result?

There must have been a million decent people who were transformed into vipers, vicious obscene vipers. I’m afraid of this control of the mass media.

And are youths the miasma of apathetic subservience to authority? But you say to yourselves, “Well, you know, what do we seek in life? We seek a rice bowl, full!”

It is full and overflowing, in fact. They serve you your rice in a jade bowl with golden chopsticks; not that it makes much difference to the taste of the rice. But you’re empty!

You’ve got technocratic skills and you are seeking more but internally you are empty. Money is your acid test of success.

I’ve got nothing against money. I’d like to have money myself! I’d like to have a house and a garden and dogs and a car and a chauffeur but, look, I’ve got a flat. I’ve got a swimming pool attached to the flat. I’ve not even got a car but I use taxis. I have a dignified way of life without being wealthy.

I don’t see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming pool and a couple of mistresses. I think we’ve got our values all wrong.

You know $96,000 a month for a Prime Minister and $60,000 a month for a minister. What the hell do you do with all that money? You can’t eat it! What do you do with it? Your children don’t need all that money.

My children have had the best of education. In fact, I’m very proud of them. One of them is a senior registrar to two major hospitals in Oxford. Another of them is a consultant in European law to the Securities and Investment Board in the United Kingdom. They’ve had their education. There are no complaints.

I never earned $60,000 a month or $90,000 a month. When I was Chief Minister, I earned $8,000 a month. Look, what is happening today is we are encouraged to and are becoming worshippers of the Golden Calf.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman flanked by MCA leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock (far right) and Chief Minister of Singapore David Marshall at the Baling Talks with communist leaders in 1955. Credit: The Star, Malaysia

We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the joy of the miracle of the living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost taste for heroic action in the service of our people.

We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s like seeking a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous injections through pipes in the crystal coffin; crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities.

What has changed?

The self-confidence of our people has grown immensely, and that is good to see. Our pragmatic abilities have grown magnificently, and that is good to see. Very good to see!

You are very able. You’re ambitious, and the government has heroic plans for the future. It hasn’t finished.

I take off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but there is no soul in our conduct. It is a difficult thing to speak of because it is difficult to put in a computer, and the youth of Singapore is accustomed to computer fault. There is no longer the intellectual ferment, the passionate argument for a better civilisation. The emphasis on the rice bowl!

Tell me I’m wrong, come on.

Dharmendra: That PAP government has indeed done a great deal for Singapore. However, there is an increasing degree of discontent growing amongst our youths against them. Why do you think this is happening?

Marshall: Our lives are empty. We don’t understand the joy of living is not in the gold coins. It is not in the bank account. The joy of living is in human relations. We are not in appreciation of this miracle of life.

We are giving a lop-sided view, an unfairness to the government! We come out of a morass of imperial subjugation where people were dying of starvation and now?

You know, when I won a case once years ago, I was presented with a lovely porcelain Buddha with a big flowing belly and ears that reached to his shoulders and a chubby face.

I said to my client, “Look, you Chinese got a real feeling for aesthetics. How can you worship something so obscene?”

He said, “Mr Marshall, try and understand. China is a land of starvation where millions of people die for lack of food, and to be able to eat that much, to be that fat, that is heaven!”

Now, that is the attitude of our government: to be able to eat that much, that is heaven and you should be content.

So are youths not content? They are not anti. Our youths frankly, very honestly respect the pragmatic achievements of the government, and I’m grateful, but they feel empty.

There isn’t this joy of living which youth expects and youth needs – to learn the joy of living. How do you teach it?

I think you teach it through respect for the individual. That’s our tragedy. If you want to put it in a nutshell, our tragedy is that we emphasise the primacy of society as against respect for the individual. Mind you, both are right.

I mean both sides have the liberty. Of course, there should be respect for the needs of society over the right of the individual but you must respect the individual too in seeking the expression of the needs of society. Here, we have no respect for the individual.

Cane them! Hang them! There are more than a hundred queuing up to be hanged, you know that?

[Minister for Law] Jayakumar said, “I have plugged the loop-hole whereby they could escape being hanged and just have twenty years of imprisonment!”

Oh, wacko the ducks – you need a monument!

The joy of hanging people; flogging them, every stroke must break the skin. I don’t like it. I don’t believe it is a deterrent. I see no proof. Look, it seems to me logic! If every year we have more death sentences, how can you say death sentence is a deterrent? If it were, there should be less death sentences.

But you know I’m in a minority and my father had one saying which I’d like you to publish. It is a beauty. He was a true democratic heart although he didn’t know it.

He used to say, “David, if ten men tell you your head is not on your shoulders, shake it and make sure. Don’t accept it. Just shake it and make sure!”

Well, I’ve shaken my head again and again and again and I still think I’m right. I know I’m in the dog-house.

The government doesn’t see I do respect them immensely. They don’t see I’m a genuine friend. They only see me as a critic and to be a critic is to be an enemy who must be erased and destroyed. There is no such thing as an honest critic to the PAP. It’s a blasphemy to criticise the emperor, spoilt son of heaven.

[Lee] Kuan Yew says you mustn’t lampoon a Chinese gentleman. Oh, dear me! Ya, what happened? What happened to China?

In Europe, they institutionalised the court jester and the court jester had total immunity against any result from his public criticism of the kings and emperors and the courtyard. Open public criticism – that was his job! They tried to laugh it off but at least there was one person to prick the bubble of their overgrown egoism.

And which civilisation has progressed better for the development of humanity? The Western civilisation or the Chinese civilisation?

You talk of Asian values. I only know two Asian values and, I wish someone would really pinpoint them instead of pontificating ponderously in humbug and hypocrisy.

Family values – I think we have more family cohesion in Asia than in Europe; more family warmth and I like that. I accept that there is a greater tradition of family warmth and family cohesion.

Two, we have a greater passion for education. My secretary – I asked her once what her background is. She said her mother is a washer-woman and, here is this lovely secretary doing a damn good job. She was educated. How her mother could save enough to give her the education?

So these are the only two values I know. Somebody tell me what other values that are Asian, which everybody talks and nobody mentions the exact parameters.

And you know we use this concept of family cohesion to place on our youths the burden of caring for aging and ailing parents and grand-parents.

The young have got their own lives to make. To carry in your own homes aging irritable ailing parents and grandparents can destroy the family life of the young.

But then, the alternative is for the government to pour so much mountains of gold into building homes for the aged. That’s sacrilege – gold is to be gathered and not to be spent.

I want to see more crèches, more homes for the aged.

Our Prime Minister [Goh Chok Tong] talks about gracious living. Where is the gracious living?

So I am a bad boy, I’m ostracised. The Straits Times makes slimy remarks about me.

The [press are] running dogs of the PAP.

Dharmendra: What would you tell youths who intend to pursue a career in law?

Marshall: Try and understand that the law is a vocation and not a business. Respect your client irrespective of the fees. I used to charge $1 for a murder case if he was Malay because he had no money. I used to charge $1 to trade unions; all Malay unions, I charged $1 a year. And the $1 is simply because, if you do it for nothing, you are not liable in negligence whereas $1 makes a contract and, if you are negligent, they can sue you.

I’d like them to also understand that justice is a meld of law and humanity. Law and humanity; decency in concepts; if we administer law by the soulless logic of the computer, we aren’t on our road to progress.

You’re too young but ask your parents – the Japanese times, their draconian approach to anti-social activities. Ask your parents how they welcomed the returning British soldiers in 1945.

I was stunned when I heard about it; that we a colonial people, a subject people, should welcome rapturously the armed forces of Imperial power. How was that possible?

I learnt that they had a sense of relief to be back in the ambience of British justice; out of darkness, out of the draconian attitudes of the occupying power.

If you want to make money as a lawyer, you can. I see marble palaces. My juniors, ha! Marble palaces, swimming pools, Mercedes-Benz! Oh, bravo!

They work till nine o’clock at night. I don’t know how their children survive. They work very hard, they make a lot of money. Yes, it’s true.

If you are going for corporate law, insurance law and the non-litigant aspects of law, you can make a lot of money.

If you’re a particularly good litigant – our litigation lawyers in civil cases – we’ve got some outstanding local lawyers. Yes, you can make a lot of money.

Don’t go in for crime. The Criminal Bar is a very frustrating Bar today.

Dharmendra: You have fought many cases. You have some brilliant cases that you managed to sweep the jury off their feet in words?

Marshall: And I’m according to Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament when he sought the abolition of the jury, “David Marshall is responsible for 200 murderers walking freely the streets of Singapore.”

I’m proud of that. I told him to put it on my tomb. If there are 200 people walking freely the streets of Singapore, it means they are contributing to Singapore. Singapore would have been poorer by hanging them. I have no compulsion.

Look, the purpose of criminal law is really two-fold: as a deterrent and as a catharsis of society to express its vengeance. If you escape it, you’re no harm to society so long as you maintain a good police force and so long as you maintain a certain human justice in understanding.

For me, the punishment must not fit the crime, the punishment must fit the criminal and the punishment must fit the needs of society.

Recently, I accepted a brief – a Sikh sentenced to death. He was 21 when he was arrested. His appeal came on five years later. It was dismissed.

But during those five years, he studied religious knowledge. He got distinction in the New Testament and he became a Christian.

He’s now 26 or 27. He’s going to be hanged. I like that man. I think he can be a real asset. He is a delightful chap.

I asked his family, his elder brother. I said, “You Sikhs are really close in the family. How did your family take his becoming a Christian?”

He said, “What could we do? The poor man is going to be hanged. How can we be angry?”

There are more than a hundred people queuing to be hanged. There are decent people there.

Look, there’s a lovely phrase – I forgot who coined it – who said, “There but for the grace of God go I, I know no man who stood totally spotless that he can say I committed no anti-social act.”

And so in our criminal code, if some escaped, that’s an asset.

I’m reminded of a lovely story of Sir Walter Raleigh. On the scaffold, he went up and tested the axe with his thumb and turning to the master executioner, he said, “This is the surest cure for all diseases. If you want to eliminate all crime, you got to eliminate all humanity.”

I have absolutely no bad conscience about the men I have helped escape the gallows and escape the prison. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done that.

I say this, perhaps in conclusion, we have a judiciary of tremendous integrity. I’ve been practising since 1948, except for three and a half years, there isn’t a single case of financial corruption, neither in the High Court nor the magistrates’ courts. It’s wonderful to practice in the ambience of total integrity.

Dharmendra: Have you ever regretted becoming a lawyer?

Marshall: No! I think it was a guardian angel that brought me there.

I suppose you know, you must have read that I wanted to be a psychiatrist. First, when I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. I thought medicine was the greatest profession in the world – helping heal and comfort the sick and the helpless. And as I grew into adolescence, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Not to practice but to do research: why the goodwill of the young?

All youths no matter what race, no matter what country, goodwill flows from their hearts. They want to help the world, but by the time you reach 30, your goodwill like good wine turns to vinegar – the vinegar of crabbed egoism.

I wanted to study the wise and whether these could be some antidote for this unhappy transformation of the goodwill of youths to the crabbed egoism but I didn’t have the money. Fortunately!

I don’t know if I could have achieved anything that vast. I don’t know whether I have the intellectual ability to do first-class research into the mind and emotions of man.

I fell, by accident, into the right career at the right time and it has been wonderful.

Regret? I’m full of gratitude for having become a lawyer and, especially, a criminal lawyer; for having helped thousands of people terrified, helpless before the silly forces of society. They’ve looked into me as their protector. I have no regrets at all for having helped them; humanity, if you can understand this.

If you ever become a criminal lawyer, never look down upon your client. He may be a murderer or he may be a thief; he is a fellow human being. You must try and respect your client no matter what he has done. It is very important in your own self-respect in your work, and to help who is helpless in seeking help.

Look, at the age of 86, I can say in all earnestness, the thing that matters most in bringing human satisfaction is human relations. To be able to care for your fellow human beings, to be able to give! Never mind about receiving.

Even today, my friends say, “Oh, David, stop it! Why do you have to keep making public noises that annoy the government? Live in dignity and retirement. They’ll respect you and you’ll have the honours.”

Ha, honours! I want to fight till I’m dead!

What matters most in life is the right of human beings to live fully in the context of their own genius. In one word, perhaps, to fight for human justice. I once said humanity’s cry for human justice reverberates down the corridors of the centuries, and it is still crying for human justice.

Dharmendra: An unforgettable moment in St. Andrew’s School?

Marshall: I was coming. That was the old building and I was coming along the corridor carrying a set of books. It must have been morning and, outside my classroom, there was a Chinese boy much slimmer than you [Dharmendra] with his back to the wall – absolutely pale, full of fear.

And in front of him was my friend, an American boy – same student, same class – and dancing an Indian jig saying, “Chink! Chink! Chinaman!”

Without the slightest warning, I dropped my books and lunged at him [the American boy].

Dharmendra: Do you have any message in general?

Marshall: Recognise there is a lot of satisfaction in public service, foreign service, judicial service. A great deal of satisfaction in public service, even honorary public service in committees.

[If] you are totally engrossed in self-promotion, at the end of the day, you’ll find it’s dead seafood.

Try and give up yourselves to others.

I am so alien to this worship of the Golden Calf and the draconian attitude; the brutal attitude towards our fellow citizens. Here I ask people and, no doubt, if I ask you, “We’re all in favour so long as it’s not me having my bottoms cut! Yes, whip ‘em!”

Try to put yourself in the other man’s shoes.

And, of course, what have I got to say?

You, the young – you’ve got a fantastic, absolutely fantastic potential before you; economic expansion, heroic plans that the government has for the future not only the present. You are so lucky! No unemployment! Great potential even beyond your capacity to fulfill.

It’s an exciting country, Singapore. It’s a lovely country. And you have to make your own space for your own spiritual and intellectual needs and have the courage. Have the courage to serve your fellow men with integrity.

I’ll put it in one nutshell: have the courage to live, don’t be afraid!

You know, I’m told I’m fool-hardy and always criticising, although I have such a gracious life. But fool-hardy or no, this is me; I am prepared to take what you give.


Written by singapore 2025

22/10/2010 at 3:31 am

The Youth Olympic Games: Complacency in the PAP Governance Model?

Originally published in the Temasek Review:

A couple of stories over the past few weeks on the recently organised Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Singapore caught the eye. All centred around the Ministry of Youth Sports’ (MCYS) management of YOG volunteers and the MCYS Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan’s response to the inflated YOG budget in parliament.

On 21 Sep 2010, The New Paper reported that a complimentary trip, arranged by the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee, went awry when150 students from Queenstown Secondary School were turned away from Universal Studios Singapore. The trip was organised by the YOG Committee to thank students who volunteered at the Games. Apparently the students had to go home because of a mistake in an email from the YOG Committee.

Photo Credit: Straits Times

The same week, it was discovered that the certificates for around 45,000 volunteers, participants and staff received for services rendered in support of the YOG contained “sample signatures”, rather than those of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge and YOG Committee Chairman Ng Ser Miang. According to the YOG Committee, this was due to “an oversight in the checking process.” Vivian chimed in with an apology, “So on behalf of the organising committee, I say sorry. But I also say, far louder, a big thank you to all of you who made this Games possible.”

Earlier this week, due to an “administrative flop”, it came to light that some YOG volunteers did not receive their complimentary race tickets for the F1 Singapore Grand Prix race weekend from 24-26 September 2010. Instead, they received their tickets on 27 September 2010, after the event was over.

On 30 September 2010, a letter to the Straits Times written by one Keith Gerard Tan queried why the YOG countdown clock at Ion Orchard and the big screen near Mountbatten MRT station were still in operation more than a month after the YOG ended. He also queried when the authorities were going to remove the “Give Way” markings on the roads all over Singapore and concluded, “if the sports authorities wish to remember the YOG for posterity, build a proper Olympic park rather than leave scattered remnants that serve no purpose.”

Weeks before these shortcomings came to light, Vivian Balakrishnan in parliament no less, defended the tripling of the budget set aside to organise the event by providing a breakdown how the $387 million YOG budget was spent, since the original cost was budgeted at slightly more than $100 million. The “probing” questions came from PAP MP for Hong Kah, Zaqy Mohamad and PAP MP for Tampines Irene Ng, both of whom queried why the actual expenditure was more than initially budgeted and how other sporting events organised in Singapore compared.

Vivian’s response was that the PAP government’s inexperience in handling world-class events led to overspending and the tripling of the budget for the YOG. This odd answer aside, no MP found it appropriate to question where the additional 200-odd million dollars to fund the event came from except Non-Constituency MP and Workers’ Party Chairman Sylvia Lim (Vivian said it came from the Ministry of Finance without elaborating).

The Minister then went on to cursorily detail the breakdown of the amount spent on the YOG as follows:

  • $97 million: Technology
  • $76 million: Upgrading of sports venues and equipment
  • $45.5 million: Live broadcast plus staging of opening and closing ceremonies
  • $7 million: Journey of Youth Olympic Flame across the globe, starting in Greece
  • $44 million: Logistics
  • $18 million: Security
  • $14.3 million: Operational requirements
  • $5.4 million: Culture and Education Programme
  • $79.8 million: Miscellaneous costs such as medical services and training of volunteers

Unfortunately, Vivian did not proceed to provide details of the companies and corporate entities that received YOG-linked contracts as a result of the tripling of the YOG budget, even though he used the word “transparency” a number of times in his parliamentary address. Singapore has earned a reputation as a place where the standards of governance and corporate social responsibility are very high. It would have served Singapore’s national interests had Vivian provided a detailed breakdown of YOG-related contracts or at the very least, pointed to where Singaporeans could find that information in the name of good governance. After all, good governance, accountability and transparency are major reasons that explain the economic presence of internationally renowned MNCs in Singapore. More critically, had Vivian taken the opportunity to reach out to a higher standard of accountability, any lingering concerns Singaporeans might have had over suspicions of pork-barrelling with parliamentary elections around the corner, would have been soundly put to rest.

On a different tangent, some PAP members, senior civil servants and grassroots activists are known to privately remark how ungrateful Singaporeans are in spite of all the PAP has done in securing the opportunity to stage the first Youth Olympics for Singapore – words and terms such as unappreciative, unthankful, insensible, grumbling and a “lack of perspective” have all been employed in some way or form. What the PAP ecosystem refuses to consider is that Singaporeans are NOT an ungrateful citizenry – but that Singaporeans have become unforgiving because the PAP has made us so.

The PAP prides itself on paying ministers and the policy-making administrative service the highest salaries found anywhere in the world. At every juncture, it has championed the virtues of these individuals as men and women of the highest calibre, capability and integrity. It should then come as no surprise to the PAP that Singaporeans hold the political and administrative elites to exactingly high standards, even more so when it comes to staging high-profile events.

On 29 September, in response to the latest revelations of the YOG Committee’s ‘volunteer mismanagement’, The Online Citizen’s facebook page hosted a random poll that queried, “Weeks earlier, we asked if Vivian Balakrishnan should step down for the YOG fiasco. Do you now feel he should tender his resignation? If you do, please click like.” In a matter of hours, more than 200 individuals had done so.

But Vivian Balakrishnan’s resignation will do nothing for a reality that has entrenched itself over the last few years within the public service in Singapore. In fact, the post-YOG “cock-ups” referred to above worryingly suggest that standards of public service have stagnated and could fall in future. Amongst other reasons, the failure of the mainstream media and PAP parliamentarians to question the government more incisively, has contributed to a culture of complacency in the public service.

Credit: Scott Adams

Some have attributed this to the age-old “scholar-farmer” divide within the public service. As numerous precedents indicate, promotions to the very top echelons of public service are dominated by a small vanguard of administrative service officers. As such, it makes little sense, both cognitively and financially, for some rank-and-file public servants to strive for excellence. In addition, these very public servants are wont to reason that it makes strategic sense to save one’s energy for the high-profile endeavours rather than oversee superficially mundane matters such as YOG volunteer management with a fine-tooth comb.

A coterie of around 350 Administrative Service scholars leads the 120,000 strong Singapore Public Service (65,000 in the civil service and about 60,000 in the statutory boards). Although the public service theoretically is a separate arm of government, the Administrative Service straddles the executive and legislative arms of government, operationally forming a cocoon around the PAP political leadership. Administrative service officers write speeches for PAP ministers and they represent the brains behind many if not, all PAP policies. At the age of 32, the average administrative service officer earns in excess of $350,000 a year. By 45, he or she can expect to become a Permanent Secretary earning in excess of $1.2 million a year. When political salaries are statutorily increased, administrative service salaries follow in step. Quite simply, the relationship between the political and administrative leadership in Singapore is a symbiotic one.

Many in the 120,000 civil service understand the contours of this relationship. Some civil servants do become administrative service officers at the mid-career stage, although it has been suggested that some element of devotion to the PAP cause arguably determines this promotion. Over the years, anecdotal information suggests that a not an insignificant number have left public service because of this apparently “meritocratic” state of affairs.

Many of those who remain in service cannot afford to leave because of the relatively high civil service salaries they cannot command in the private sector and separately, because of the realities of servicing a mortgage or two and the financial realities of looking after their loved ones. Of course, there are some who genuinely believe they are in an apolitical public service, and that they serve the state, not the party in power. Sadly, these individuals do not make it to the top, and even if they do, they do not seem to last very long – and that is a travesty of the highest order. Former Attorney-General Walter Woon could have been one such individual, a prospect that was raised when in an interview with the Straits Times on the back of his short two-year tenure as Attorney-General remarked, “best to leave before you outstay your welcome, although I think among some people, I’ve already outstayed my welcome.”

These structural realities within the public service have led to the crystallization of a bifurcated civil service, partly a development of the scholar-farmer debate that characterized the public service in the 1980s. That debate has since mutated into one centred on the financial benefits of joining public service in Singapore.

Slightly more than 10 years to this day, Chua Lee Hoong, the current political editor of the Straits Times (“Boost non-monetary draw of public service”, 8 July 2000) opined – If the Singapore Public Service was to avoid monetary motivations from becoming a draw to join the public service, ways had to be found to increase the “psychic income” or spiritual satisfaction that public service brings.

Chua ended her piece as follows: “How? Well, there are probably half a dozen ways, but that, as they say, is another story for another day.”

Chua was correct in regard to the diagnosis, but absolutely wrong as far as the medicine was concerned. That was not a story for another day. That was an urgent story that required reflection ten years ago. The post-YOG fallout is proof of it. The malaise and lethargy afflicting the civil service today could foreshadow the standards of public service Singaporeans can expect in future.


Useful Links

Minister says sorry:

MCYS says sorry to YOG volunteers for latest gaffe:

Room for improvement in explaining YOG overspending:

Singaporeans unappreciative of Vivian:

YOG initial budget inaccurate:

45,000 YOG certificates to be reprinted:,000-YOG-certificates-to-be-reprinted

S’pore YOG organising committee apologies for printing errors:

Stop video clips and countdown clock:

Free F1 tickets arrive too late for YOG volunteers:


Boost non-monetary draw of public service.

8 July 2000

The Straits Times

(c) 2000 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

A LONG, long time ago, my economics tutors used to teach the concept of “psychic income”, a notion explaining why the pay of people like nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers remained low relative to other professions, despite their shortage in the economy, and the undoubted value they bring to society.

These jobs, so the theory goes, bring spiritual satisfaction, over and above that provided by pay.

Nurses and doctors hold in their hands power over health and life; social workers restore sanity and happiness; and teachers help bring children up in the way they should go.

With rewards in such lofty realms, money is but shallow and base – and therefore not a mark of one’s ability or worth.

I do not know if the concept is still taught in schools – if it isn’t, it must be a sign of changing times.

But one person, at least, still has some notion of it: Mr George Wong, who wrote in The Straits Times’ Forum page on Thursday, commenting on the pay increase for university professors.

“As an old man, I wonder what has happened to old-fashioned values like a love of learning, dedication, and job satisfaction. Have they all been replaced by monetary gain?

“In the last millennium, the greatest advances and achievements came from men who were underpaid and overworked.

“Their reward was the satisfaction of their emotional and spiritual desires, and not their desire for money,” he said.

His remarks carry added punch, coming after a week of much wringing of public hands over the ministerial pay hike.

Indeed, the subject is still the stuff of dealer-room chatter, of cafeteria conversation and of taxi monologues.

Several reporters from this newspaper carried out a street survey earlier this week. The unsurprising finding: The majority of those polled did not agree with the latest pay rise.

They might not know the details of the move; they might not have followed the Government’s rationale; they might not even know who the ministers are. But they were sure on one thing: They did not like the increase.

Envy? Yes and no, I think.

Whatever the psychic-income advocates tell you, few can resist the lure of a million-dollar salary. But to dismiss as mere envy the concerns raised would be dangerous.

There are good reasons for their worry, and it is a good thing there are people in Singapore who do.

The issue goes to the very heart of what Singapore is. Or should be.

What makes Singapore go round? It is money, and yet it is not money.

A higher standard of living is brought about not by more money alone.

Were money enough, Singapore could have opted to turn into a service economy. A casino town. A financial haven. But no, the Republic’s economic strategy has been to nci add mtr value, to create jobs for its people beyond card-dealing and number-crunching.

Of late it has gone one step further, to nci create mtr value, through greater emphasis on research and development.

And money alone won’t bring this about.

As Mr Wong argued in his letter: “If we are to remain competitive, I believe that we have to motivate our young people with values other than money. Otherwise, we will be comparing ourpay constantly with what other nationals are getting, and we will lose our competitive edge.”

He cited the examples of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and SoundBlaster pioneer Sim Wong Hoo, both of whom started out with not much more than enthusiasm and hard work.

Money was the consequence of their endeavours, not the aim. Had it been their immediate quarry, they would probably have chosen more direct routes.

And Singapore? Indeed, if its bottom line is money, only money, we might as well write nationhood off now.

The Republic’s unit labour cost up to 1998 was escalating faster than those of its rivals on the same rungs of the economic ladder. Only by ruthless cost-cutting – including the Central Provident Fund cuts – was it brought down to early-1990s levels.

But with the recent pay increases, you don’t need to be an economist to know that wage pressures will rise again.

The reason is simple: Singapore is small. All the private-sector Joes know former classmate public-sector Jack and his increased pay. And there are only so many capable Joes and Jacks to go around.

Some employers are already bracing themselves for higher wage demands.

How long can such a pay spiral last? Not long, before you need another Committee on Singapore’s Competitiveness, I’m sure.

So if pay is not the answer, what is?

Simple: Income of another sort.

In the old days, long before I learnt about the concept of psychic income, other people were already learning its meaning, first-hand.

These people brought Singapore into being. They entered politics, not because there was money in it, but because there was excitement, adventure, power and the promise of changing history.

There was no monetary income, but there was plenty of psychic income.

Is the era of revolutionary change that threw up people with deep convictions and overpowering motivations over? I’m not so sure about that: Every generation, I believe, throws up its own change agents, people who want to make a difference – their way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, these people gravitated to politics because that was where the action was.

Today, the action is in business and technology: Hence the destination of many of those who quit the Administrative Service recently.

Finian Tan, who joined venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, wanted, in his own words, to be a “player”, not a referee or a coach.

Joe Sim and Cheong Kwok Leong started a, wanting to “break out of the comfort zone” and “be part of the new economy” – psychic income that makes up for salaries “much less” than what they used to get.

I don’t know Messrs Tan and Cheong personally, but Joe I have met several times, and had the pleasure of giving a lift once.

During that half-hour ride from Pasir Panjang to town, he struck me as someone who, had he been born in an age of political ferment, would have been in the thick of the revolutionary action. He has the zeal of a change agent.

If politics in Singapore today does not attract that sort, I presume it must be because they do not find the particular kind of personal satisfaction and challenge they crave.

If we are to avoid monetary income becoming an unhealthy draw, ways must be found to boost the psychic income in that particular profession.

How? Well, there are probably half a dozen ways, but that, as they say, is another story for another day.

Written by singapore 2025

05/10/2010 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Public Service

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