Troubled families: Malay problem or Singapore problem?

But even as most Singaporean Malays are progressing, filling more places in universities and polytechnics, joining the middle class and living in bigger homes, one small group is falling behind.

And it is this minority — the dysfunctional families — that concerns Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

On the rise: Divorce rates, the number of single-parent households and an “unacceptably high number” of teenage births and early marriages. Calling last night on self-help group Mendaki to mobilise a community-wide effort to address the problem of such families, Mr Lee said this was vital to avert a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

“In the last two years, the community has started to tackle these issues. But you need to muster a major effort focused on this problem, and work out practical and effective solutions.

“In this area, your self-help efforts are critical….”

Excerpts from TODAY, 3 Sep 07

PM Lee, in his speech at Mendaki yesterday, brought up the issue about dysfunctional Malay families yet again. He had already mentioned it during the Malay portion of his National Day Rally speech last month, and I believe he also mentioned it during last year’s speech. Now he says it may result in a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

Obviously this is a very worrisome issue for the government, and the situation hasn’t improved much over the past year, otherwise PM Lee wouldn’t have mentioned it again and again.

But is this a Malay problem for the “Malay community” to solve on their own, or it is a problem that ALL Singaporeans need to collectively tackle? In his speech, PM Lee used the word “you” more than “we” to describe who needs to deal with the problem. I wonder why? Aren’t we all Singaporeans? Why the “it’s-your-problem-go-solve-it” approach? Should we continue on in our “self help” approach to problems, or is an “all of us help” approach more appropriate in today’s Singapore?

PM Lee mentioned that “it is much harder for the Government to intervene, or for other voluntary welfare organisations outside the Malay/Muslim community to take action, without being misunderstood or triggering a defensive reaction”. Is this really the case, or is it a false assumption? If done sensitively, would it be possible for Singapore’s limited social support resources to be redirected to where the need is currently most acute?

This post is not intended to be another smart alec commentary criticizing government policies. I don’t know enough about social problems to comment. I would really like to hear from readers what YOU think is the way forward.


A little red dot worth fighting for

“I am not going to sacrifice my life for a worthless piece of land”, cried one reader in response to one of my articles last year about National Service (NS).

As Singapore celebrates its 42nd National Day in a few days, I hope the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans do not share such a cynical view.

Some Singaporeans see the nation of Singapore, the government and the People’s Action Party (PAP) as one monolithic entity that they either love or hate. Last year, it was reported that some Singaporeans refused to fly their flag during National Day because they were unhappy with some government’s proposed GST hike.

Retired senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow once said that “Singapore is larger than the PAP”. I strongly agree. Surely it is possible to disagree with the government, yet still love our country. Similarly bad experiences with the government (like NS for some men) should not diminish our patriotism.

While we cope with the daily stresses of school or work, it is understandable that we often focus on the negative aspects of our country, like the fast pace of life, the high cost of living or our authoritarian government. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget to count the many blessings we have received as Singaporeans. Here are some of the top things I love about Singapore…

Peace. National and regional peace has eluded many countries. To this day many countries like Myanmar, Sudan, Nigeria, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Pakistan are still in the throes of civil unrest or war. Talk to the suffering people there and they will tell you how they wish for peace in their land. The peace that Singapore currently enjoys is much to be thankful for indeed — and not to be taken for granted, especially when we live in a pretty rough neighbourhood.

Low crime. Singapore is probably the safest big city in the world. Those of us who have lived in other countries (including developed ones) would particularly appreciate how safe our streets are. When I was living in Los Angeles, my individual freedom of movement is severely curtailed every day by the fear of violent crime. (The campus Starbucks in my university was robbed at gunpoint, and there was a drive-by shooting outside my house the year after I left.) Many expatriates would probably cite our safe environment as one of the top reasons they chose to relocate together with their families to Singapore.

Unity in diversity. Our ethnic and cultural diversity is a tremendous asset. It has undoubtedly contributed to the vibrancy of our local culture, which has in turn placed Singaporeans in good standing to thrive in a globalised world. Ethnic diversity has been a source of great conflict in many countries. Fortunately this is not so in Singapore, where our inter-ethnic peace can be considered one of the greatest achievements of our people.

Top grade schools. Singapore students have notched some of the top scores in international benchmarks, particularly in maths and science. Singapore maths textbooks for the primary grades are being used more than 200 schools in almost all 50 states in the US. The facilities, academic standards and teaching quality of our schools are on par with some of the best in the world. Although there are many concerns over the pressure cooker environment of our schools, on the whole, I think I would rather have it this way, than have them operate like playschools.

In addition to high academic standards, our public schools also give parents the confidence that their children can go to school in safe environment free of drugs and gang violence that plagues many inner city schools in developed countries.

Excellent healthcare. Singaporeans enjoy one of the best standards of healthcare anywhere in the world. I know a Nigerian businessman who travels half way around the world every year to come to Singapore for his routine medical check-up. I have also met cabinet ministers of countries like Bangladesh who say they regularly visit Singapore for medical treatment. They would not do so if they did not think that Singapore has the best medical facilities and doctors in the region. Singaporeans are incredibly fortunate to have easy access to such excellent healthcare facilities and world renown doctors, often at heavily subsidised prices.

Social mobility. Our system of meritocracy has provided opportunities for almost anyone to succeed, as long as they are willing to work hard and never give up. We do not have a caste system which pigeon-holes particular groups, or a system of patronage which requires guanxi (connections) with important people to get anywhere in life. Our meritocracy is by no means perfect. Being in the majority race or being a “white horse” is unfortunately still often an advantage, but I think we have generally achieved a pretty level playing field for all, with some room for improvement.

Singaporean culture. Who says Singaporeans got no culture? Singlish not part of our culture, meh? How about our unique blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Western food? I would even consider the shared experience of NS to be part of our culture (at least for half the population).

Freedom of speech…at least on the Internet. Singapore is by no means a bastion of media freedom. However, the Government’s “light touch” approach to regulating the Internet certainly deserves honourable mention. Since the explosion of popularity of blogs in the past two years, there hasn’t been a single report of political bloggers being
hauled in by the police for crossing the proverbial “out-of-bounds (OB)” markers. Despite the political vitriol against the government published on some local socio-political sites, the only Netizens who have gotten in trouble with the law here are three silly young men who made some deplorable remarks about other races and religions in Singapore. Their punishment was justified in the eyes of most Singaporeans.

National Day is an excellent time to reflect on how much we love and appreciate our country. Our country might have its flaws, but if we take an honest look at the state of our nation, most of us will agree Singapore is still a wonderful place to live in, and little red dot worth fighting for.

Happy National Day to all Singaporeans and Majulah Singapura!


This article first appeared in theonlinecitizen.

About the Legal Service Commission changes

“Under the existing Constitution, the LSC comprises of the Chief Justice as President, the Attorney-General, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, a High Court Judge nominated by the CJ and up to 2 members of the PSC.

Under Cl 8 of the Bill, the composition of the LSC is to be changed to include up to 2 nominees of the Prime Minister.

If the Bill is passed, the LSC still retains its role of deciding on dismissal and disciplinary action of legal officers. For officers above a certain threshold grade, the LSC will also make career decisions such as promotions and transfers.

Could the Minister clarify further the rationale for having a new category of LSC members who are the PM’s nominees?”

– Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim in Parliament, July 17, 2007. Read her whole speech here.

Sylvia Lim raised a very valid point. Will not the Attorney General, Chairman of the PSC and the two PSC nominees be enough to reflect the Government’s view on key decisions by the Legal Service Commission (LSC)? The Govt already has a de facto “majority” with them on the LSC. Why is there a need to pack the LSC with even more Government nominees?

Most Singaporeans have already made up their mind whether our courts are independent or not. Contrary to what Ms Lim says, this tweaking is not going to affect their perceptions much. But I hope it does not affect the way the Subordinate court judges (whose career progression is determined by the LSC) mete out their judgments, particularly for politically charged cases like defamation cases.

The politics of Singapore’s new media in 2006

This is an article I contributed to The Online Citizen.

The year 2006 was a landmark year for the new media and citizen journalism in Singapore. The government’s “light touch” approach to regulating the Internet was probably one of the factors that emboldened many Singaporeans to step up and push the political boundaries through their blogs, podcasts (online sound clips) and vodcasts (online video clips). There were too many developments in the new media in Singapore in the past year to capture in one article. Nevertheless, this piece will highlight just a few of the more significant happenings in Singapore fuelled by this phenomenon.

Election podcasting and vodcasting

In the weeks leading up to the General Election in May, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan announced a ban on “explicitly political” podcasting and vodcasting during the hustings. This move was ostensibly in response to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s plans to circumvent the government-controlled mainstream media by reaching out to the electorate using sound and video clips on its website. After the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) informed political parties of this regulation, the parties had no choice but to comply. The SDP reluctantly removed the podcasts from their website, but not without protest.

However, this did not stop some Netizens from publishing videos of numerous election rallies on their blogs. Almost all of the videos, which people had recorded using their mobile phone camcorders and submitted to the blogs, were of Opposition rallies, notably that of the Workers’ Party (WP). The blog owners did make several attempts to ask for People’s Action Party (PAP) videos but there were few takers.

Some wondered why the government did not crack down on these websites. The likely reason was that the government felt assured that due to the lack of knowledge about these websites among the general populace, they would have been unlikely to swing the votes by much. This assurance was probably strengthened when a post-election survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) revealed that only 33 per cent of Singaporeans — mostly young adults — said that the Internet was important to shaping their voting decisions.

The rise of mrbrown

Singapore’s most well-known blogger, mrbrown, shot to fame during the elections with his riotously funny “bak chor mee” podcast. This was part of a series of “persistently non-political” podcasts (a play on the government’s phase “explicitly political”). This podcast recorded an argument between a bak chor mee man (a food vendor) and his customer over a botched order. It implicitly poked fun at the PAP’s demonising of WP candidate James Gomez for his blunder of not submitting his election forms properly and initially blaming it on an Elections Department official.

mrbrown’s next podcast about the impact of grades and exams in Singapore was equally funny. In this clip, two schoolchildren who were comparing exam grades and debating whether one student’s score of 66.6 per cent was “a very good score”, as their teacher had told her. The mainstream media had trumpeted the PAP’s 66.6 per cent win as a resounding mandate. The clip went on to lampoon other politicians both from the PAP and the Opposition.

During his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee misquoted the character in mrbrown’s “bak chor mee” podcast as saying “mee siam mai hum”. Many Singaporeans caught the error immediately, as the popular Malay dish mee siam never contains hum (cockles). PM Lee’s press secretary later clarified that he had meant to say, “laksa mai hum”. This didn’t stop mrbrown from recording another funny podcast titled, “A harmless podcast”, which contained a catchy jingle of PM Lee’s gaffe. The jingle was widely downloaded and circulated, with some people even converting it into a mobile phone ring tone. In keeping with their “light touch” commitment to the new media, there was no response from the government, even though some officials were said to have taken offence at that irreverent mockery.

Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps, because of) mrbrown’s popularity, he found himself targeted for crossing the proverbial “out-of-bounds” (OB) markers. In a column he wrote for TODAY newspaper on 30 June, mrbrown criticised the government, albeit in a light-hearted manner, for its price increases following the Elections. The article, “S’poreans fed up with progress”, drew a scathing response from MICA, which it said “distort(ed) the truth”. To the dismay of many Singaporeans, MICA accused mrbrown of being a “partisan player” in politics and declared that “it is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government”. The government’s sore point appeared to be that his opinions were circulated in a mainstream newspaper rather than on his blog, which has a much narrower and more limited audience.

TODAY promptly sacked mrbrown, despite howls of protests from Netizens, some of whom turned up at City Hall mrt station wearing brown tee shirts in a show of support for mrbrown and protest at his dismissal from TODAY.”Thankfully, no further action was taken against mrbrown and his podcasts continued to draw more and more listeners every week.

Talking Cock in Parliament

The event Talking Cock in Parliament was publicised almost entirely through “viral marketing” on the Internet. It was a stand-up comedy held at the Old Parliament House on 24 August. Most of the performances were captured and made available on YouTube and other websites. The most memorable performances were probably that of Ruby Pan and Hossan Leong. Ruby Pan had her audience rolling in laughter as she demonstrated the different English accents used in Singapore to illustrate the different strains of Singlish — acrolectal Singlish (i.e., the “high class” Singlish) and basilectal Singlish (the colloquial, ungrammatical type frowned on by the government).

Hossan Leong also had his audience in fits of laughter when he sang his localised version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. His song, “We live in Singapura”, chronicled the history of Singapore from Sang Nila Utama to the present day.

This refreshing, citizen-driven event not only showcased the amazing artistic talents of Singaporeans, but more importantly demonstrated that Singapore does have a unique and vibrant culture despite our short history. The event succeeded in making Singaporeans laugh at themselves and in the process celebrate their “Singaporean-ness”, regardless of political differences.

The Wee Shu Min affair

Teenager Wee “Elite Face” Shu Min put Singapore on the map in October when her arrogant online rant against what she saw as a “whining” middle-aged Singaporean, and the subsequent vitriol against her resulted in her name topping Technorati’s most popular search words in the world for a few days. T
he storm went mainstream when journalist Ken Kwek reported the online war of words in The Straits Times (ST). The incident was later mentioned numerous times in subsequent newspaper articles and commentaries, and even in Parliament. Member of Parliament Wee Siew Kim, had to apologise twice on behalf of his daughter — the second apology was for his own insensitive remarks in his first “non-apology”.

There is no doubt that the intensity in which Singaporeans reacted to these dismissive comments by an “elite” father and daughter pair served as a warning bell of the fate that awaits any politician who is blind to the growing class divide in Singapore.

Self-regulation by bloggers

A TODAY article in December by blogger Dharmendra Yadav sparked off another debate in Blogosphere about self-regulation by bloggers and developing a bloggers’ code of ethics. Many articles were written in response, arguing both for and against the proposal. It was evident that despite the rationale put forward by its proponents, most Netizens were against the idea of any sort of regulation or code of ethics on a platform which some saw as the “last bastion of truly free expression” in Singapore.

Use of the Internet by political parties

In the past year, Opposition parties in Singapore made tentative steps to use the Internet to propagate their messages. Of the three major Opposition parties in Singapore, the SDP appears to be the most Web savvy. The party regularly publishes articles and press statements on its positions on various issues. On the other hand the WP, while maintaining a respectable Web presence, has yet to use the Web extensively to maximise its reach to the electorate. In fact, two WP central executive committee members resigned following online comments of theirs which did not square with the party leadership’s preferred method of engaging Singaporeans.

Foreign Minister George Yeo was the first Cabinet minister to start blogging regularly, with some surprisingly frank and insightful articles based on his interactions with foreign leaders. P65 MPs (the term coined for new MPs born after Independence) drew some chuckles when they first started blogging about grassroots activities which did not interest the majority of Netizens. However, by immediately posting their maiden speeches in Parliament and the PAP Conference on their blogs, they proved to be a step ahead of the main opposition Workers’ Party, which was markedly slower in using the Net for their party propaganda.

Government awakens to the new media

In his annual National Day Rally speech in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted over 25 minutes to expounding on how digital media is changing Singapore. He acknowledged that the new media will “change the texture of society” and that the traditional media was “under siege” to hold its audiences. While highlighting several citizen-driven new media initiatives, he surprised many when he mentioned political satire site TalkingCock, even remarking that “some of the jokes are not bad”. The site, which was founded by cartoonist and filmmaker Colin Goh, responded in feigned horror with a headline, “Seow Leow! TalkingCock Suffers Shrinkage, Street Cred Loss, After Rally Mention”. This was obviously not true, as TalkingCock enjoyed a huge surge in visits after the speech.

PM Lee also revealed the government’s distrust for the free-wheeling world of cyberspace. He told Singaporeans that “if you read something on the Straits Times or CNA (Channel NewsAsia) you know it is real”, unlike what is on TalkingCock. He warned Singaporeans to be “sceptical” and not believe everything they read, as “there will be half truths and untruths which will circulate, and you won’t know which is which”.

Many Netizens would have seen this as an unfair comparison, as they know that TalkingCock is just a humour site which has never claimed to be a source of proper news reports, while the ST and CNA too have their share of biases towards the government line.

PM Lee also made no mention of the many local blogs that debate political issues both objectively and independently. However, he signalled that the government would be prepared to change laws like the ones governing podcasts during elections and political videos to keep pace with developments in this digital age.

In response to these trends, the government set up a new unit in MICA’s public communications division named the New Media Unit, presumably to advise the government on Internet public communications strategies and to monitor Internet chatter. Changes to the Penal Code were also proposed to make explicit mention of electronic media as a platform for potentially defamatory comments.

STOMP and citizen journalism

In June, media giant SPH launched a new web portal, STOMP (Straits Times Online Mobile Print). It was billed by ST editor Han Fook Kwang as a platform “to provide readers with new avenues to express themselves, to enable them to interact with [the newspaper], and among themselves”.

While the paper trumpeted it as “citizen journalism”, academic and former Straits Times journalist Cherian George poured cold water on the idea. He said on his blog, “I don’t consider STOMP to be citizen journalism, because it puts the public on tap, not on top. It merely introduces greater interactivity to traditional journalism. Citizen journalism in the proper sense does its own agenda-setting. Citizen journalists decide what questions need to be asked and what topics to pursue. They don’t just answer questions decided by mainstream editors.”

Expected trends in 2007

Positive developments in the new media are expected to continue in 2007, barring any major government crackdown. As more Singaporeans from all backgrounds take to reading, writing and commenting on blogs, online forums, podcasts and vodcasts, the diversity of views on the Internet will also increase. Although most Internet chatter currently takes on a disproportionately anti-Establishment tone, there might be a slight shift in views to the right (i.e. the conservative) in 2007, as more people linked to the government machinery step in to counter their views.

We can expect more Singaporeans to warm up further to Blogosphere and see it as an increasingly credible alternative to the traditional media.


Also check out Charissa’s excellent review: Rise of the New Media in Singapore Politics

Is a GST hike the only solution?

The Singapore government seems to have concluded that only way to decrease income and corporate taxes while increasing funding for social assistance to help the poor is through a GST hike. Although I have no doubt that the Ministry of Finance and the Cabinet went through much deliberation before arriving at this conclusion, it seems to be a less-than-ideal solution to helping the poor, for the reasons I explained in Part I and Part II of this series.

But if the GST isn’t increased, how are we going to find the money to “tilt the balance in favour of the poor”? I explore a few possible alternatives, and I invite readers to comment on them and add their suggestions.

1. Use the capital gains from Net Investment Income (NII)

Currently, the Constitution defines Net Investment Income (NII) as the dividends and interest earned from investing past reserves. Just before announcing the GST hike, PM Lee announced that the government will amend the Constitution and seek the President’s approval to re-define NII to include capital gains.

The NII for this year is projected to be almost $2.4 billion. Citigroup economist Chua Hak Bin told TODAY (15 November) that he “won’t be surprised if the NII doubles once you incorporate capital gains”.

This could mean an additional $2.4 billion into the government coffers — almost 60 per cent more than the extra $1.5 billion that the GST hike is expected to reap. It is almost 3 times the entire operating expenditure of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in 2005. Is $2.4 not enough to help the needy?

2. Further increase vice taxes

Although smokers know that each budget speech usually brings bad news for them, they may not be aware that Singapore actually has a lower cigarette tax burden than many other developed countries. In Denmark, Ireland, the UK and Portugal, the cigarette tax is upwards of 80 per cent, while in Singapore it is just over 50 per cent. [Note: These were 1999 figures. The cigarette tax has probably gone up across the board since then.]

Cigarette taxation has been proven to be one of the most effective ways of preventing young people from picking up the habit and helping smokers kick the habit by making cigarettes less affordable.

There is also scope to increase liquor duties further, especially for hard liquor. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) should also abandon its provision of duty free beer to servicemen.

In the same vein, betting taxes on 4-D, Toto, Singapore Sweep, soccer betting, private lotteries and fruit machines in private clubs should also be increased to discourage people from gambling away their family money.

The annual revenue gain from the 2005 increase in tobacco duties was about $158 million. Similarly, the increase in liquor duties in 2003 resulted in an annual revenue gain of $9.4 million.

Given the benefits of vice taxation to Singaporeans’ health, the savings on healthcare and social service expenditure, the reduction in drink driving and the increase in government revenue, there is no reason why Singapore should not aim to top the world with its taxation on vices.

3. Collect more taxes from tourists

Currently, just 1 per cent cess tax is levied on cessable items sold by tourist hotels, tourist food establishments and tourist public houses. Cessable items include hotel rooms charges, food and beverage, corkage charges and cigarettes sold at hotels.

Cess could be increased to at least 3 per cent or more. In addition the number of cessable items could also be increased to include telephone and Internet charges, the hire of vehicles, tour guide charges and services of dance hostesses (yes, the last item is currently non-cessable!).

The government collected $30.46 million in cess last year. A threefold increase in cess could therefore net an additional $60 million, even without factoring in the increase in tourist arrivals envisaged in the coming years.

Currently, tourists may claim a refund of the GST paid on their purchases under the Tourist Tax Refund Scheme. The government should also eliminate this scheme. Although GST refund schemes are practiced by several other countries, there is no pragmatic reason for Singapore to follow suit. Canada recently announced that it will end its GST refund programme next April.

Some may argue that these moves could discourage tourists from coming to Singapore. But isn’t the main benefit of tourists the money they bring? If some el cheapo tourists were to really shun Singapore because of excessive cess or no GST refunds, then I don’t think they are the kind of tourists we should be courting.

4. Impose a luxury tax

A luxury tax is any tax on the sale of items not considered to be essential to a reasonable standard of living. Items such as high-end cars, fine dining and expensive entertainment could be subject to this tax. Compared to income tax, this would be a fairer way of taxing the rich, yet not penalising those who work hard but are prudent in their spending on luxuries.

5. Stop giving election handouts in cash

On the eve of the last two elections, the government saw it fit to disburse a total of $7.8 billion in cash to Singaporeans through New Singapore Shares (NSS), the Progress Package and Economic Restructuring Shares (ERS). Although less well-off Singaporeans were given larger packages, high income earners still received at least $200 to $400.

Several ruling party MPs had questioned the fiscal prudence of this generous give-away. For the rich, a few hundred dollars did not make much of an impact on either their bank books or their voting patterns. A friend of mine who is a successful investor in the financial services sector even asked me last month, “What is the Progress Package?”

These handouts were given in the form of cash deposits in one’s bank account or CPF account. Although they were meant to cushion the impact of economic restructuring, many less frugal Singaporeans saw it as ang pow money to be spent immediately on luxuries. The longer-than-usual queues at ATMs all over town and the extra long store hours in Orchard Road on the day the Progress Package was disbursed were suggestive of where many “struggling” Singaporeans had spent this money.

The government should have been more prudent in this respect. The money should not have been wasted on giving to the rich, who have no need for cash assistance from the government. It would have been better if it spread out and given in the form of vouchers for essential items rather than in one lump sum cash payment. This would have ensured that the money was not frivolously spent.

6. Reduce government administration expenditure

The government wants to reduce the tax burden for the rich (including MNCs) so they won’t pack up and leave. However it will be impossible to increase revenue without taxing the rich more, either directly or indirectly. This is because most of the tax burden in Singapore already falls on them. If the government wants more money to spend but does not want to make life more expensive for the rich, the best solution would be to reduce on government administration expenditure.

This is not a new
proposal, and indeed the government has already set up a Cut Waste Panel to look into this matter. The Panel has received almost 3,700 suggestions from the public but has agreed to implement just 91 of them – a 2 per cent take-up rate. For the remaining suggestions, government ministries have claimed that they are either already being done or “have been addressed in current policy/practice”.

Assuming that most Singaporeans who wrote in to the Cut Waste Panel had genuine observations and concerns, it is surprising that only 91 suggestions were deemed implementable.

One of the most politically contentious issues is salaries. Manpower costs make up the largest component of government administration expenditure.

Even if one were to completely accept the government’s anti-corruption and talent retention arguments for paying our ministers and top civil servants the highest public sector salaries in the world, is it really necessary to pay them so much more than their counterparts in the richest countries? (The Singapore President earns 3.7 times more than the US President, and the Singapore Prime Minister earns 6.4 times more than the British PM.)

Recently Minister in charge of the civil service Teo Chee Hean said that civil service salaries would rise next year in order to retain talent. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong also hinted at a rise in ministerial salaries. KTM has pointed out that increasing the Staff Grade salary benchmark will mean that the salaries of the hundreds of Superscale officers will increase. This would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, on top of the already sky high salaries that the ministers and top civil servants earn.

Is this really the most effective way to retain talent and prevent corruption? Human resource practitioners know that salary is not the most important reason why talented employees stay on the job. In fact, a high salary often succeeds in retaining non-performers while having a marginal influence on retaining talent. Having previously worked in the civil service, I know that there are many other reasons besides salaries that result in such a high turnover rate. The government cannot keep throwing money at a problem without solving the root cause.

And if exceedingly high pay can prevent corruption, why is it that so many African dictators continue accepting bribes even when they already have billions stashed away in Swiss bank accounts? Greed knows no boundaries. The Singapore Civil Service has managed to stay relatively corruption-free not because of its very high salaries, but because of the very heavy penalties imposed on offenders.

The GST spin and the whole truth

Part 2 of the series on the GST hike

Continuing from my previous post, this post will highlight some of the spin that the government and the mainstream media has been putting out to soften the blow of the GST hike announcement. It will also explore some other possible reasons for the government’s decision, not all of which have been publicised.

In most other developed countries, a two per cent increase in consumption tax – which will impact every single resident in the country – would be cause for a huge public outcry. In Hong Kong, the government’s mere proposal to introduce a 5 per cent GST sparked huge protests in August by 3,000 to 10,000 Hong Kongers, including local businesses operators, traders and retailers.

Unsurprisingly in Singapore, where street protests are banned, the shock announcement has been met with meek acceptance by MPs and the mainstream media, and a sense of resignation by the general population.

The spin

The government and the mainstream media are fond of comparing figures with other countries to show how much better off Singaporeans are. TODAY’s report (15 November) dutifully did a “consumption tax comparison” between Singapore and other countries. It cited how Australia, Europe, the UK and New Zealand have GSTs of between 10 and 17.5 per cent.

The sales tax in the US was listed as being “up to 9.4 per cent”, but the report conveniently omitted the fact that some states like Oregon, Delaware and Montana don’t even have sales tax. In New York city, although the sales tax is 8.325 per cent, essential items like groceries and clothing under US$110 are exempt.

The report also failed to mention that these countries are all welfare states (to varying degrees) which spend a higher proportion of government revenue on public assistance and health care than Singapore. Australia, for example, spent A$17.1 billion or 2.3 per cent of its GDP on just welfare services in FY2002-03. In contrast, the Singapore government’s total expenditure on health and community development, youth and sports in 2005 took up only 1.28 per cent of that year’s GDP (assuming that all of it goes to public assistance, which it certainly doesn’t.)

On the other hand, Japan, a developed economy just like Singapore, has continued to maintain its 5 per cent consumption tax. Hong Kong, which has a corporate tax rate that is 4 per cent lower than Singapore’s, has yet to even implement their proposed 5 per cent GST.

Local blogosphere hasn’t been so acquiescent in its reaction to the GST hike announcement. It is one of the hottest topics on local blogs, with article after article (some say too many) slamming the GST as a regressive tax which will hurt the poor.

The mantra that the government is singing to Singaporeans is that the GST hike is about “tilting the playing field in favour of the poor”. Coming hot on the heels of the tragic suicide by a Singaporean in financial crisis and the Wee Shu Min affair, the government has probably calculated that the best way to sugar coat this bitter pill is to emphasise that most of the additional revenue collected will go to help the poor.

The whole truth (well, at least some of it)

The actual reasons for the increase are not as clear cut as the sound bites portray. Firstly, the government is trying hard to balance the budget, which is currently in deficit. Between FY2002 and FY2006, the government accumulated a net overall budget deficit of $4.23 billion. (Note: This figure does not factor in additional inflows like capital receipts from statutory boards – more of this in my next post.) In certain circumstances, a large and prolonged budget deficit could lead to higher inflation and interest rates (although not necessarily so).

Secondly, the GST hike will give room for the government to further lower corporate and top bracket personal income tax rates to increase economic competitiveness. As globalisation and Singapore’s high operating costs are resulting in more and more multinational companies (MNCs) relocating to lower cost countries like China, the government is desperately trying to boost the incentives for these entities to remain in Singapore. Slashing direct taxes for high income earners and MNCs is seen as key to achieving this.

Thirdly, with the elections over (but not too recently) and the PAP receiving its “strong mandate”, there is no better time than now to feed Singaporeans the bitter medicine so they will have more time to forget its unpleasant aftertaste before the next elections in 2011.

Lastly (and this is what the government is emphasising), with an ageing population, growing income inequality and more populist pressure to increase social spending, the government is embarking on a policy shift to provide a little more financial assistance to the needy. Someone will have to pay for this “Workfare” assistance.

However, it is unlikely that the entire $1.5 billion expected windfall from the GST increase will be used to fund social assistance programmes. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies researcher Terence Chong told TODAY (15 November) that he “doubt(s) the full amount will be used purely for assistance programmes. Some of it may go into research and development costs, some may be used to fund education.”


Despite the concerted efforts by the government and the media to paint a rosy picture behind the GST hike, it is clear that the announcement is not going down well with most Singaporeans, except the fiscal conservatives who dominate the Establishment. Keeping in mind that it is still three months before Budget 2007 is officially announced, I would not exclude the possibility that the government might back down slightly under pressure on the GST hike. Singaporeans might either see a very gradual increase in the GST rate or generous offset packages to help them cope with the hike.

* * * * * *

Coming up next….Some suggestions on how the government could balance the budget without hiking the GST.


Is GST really a fairer tax for the poor and SMEs?

This is a first in a three-part series of commentaries about the impending GST hike. In this first part, I will examine the impact of GST on the lower income earners and small businesses. Part 2 will analyse the government’s and media’s “spin” accompanying the announcement of the hike. In Part 3, I will explore some of the alternative sources of revenue that can be used to increase social assistance to the poor yet balance the budget, as well as ways to cushion the impact of the GST hike for the poor.

On Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) will be increased to 7 per cent in 2007, from the current 5 per cent.

The decision to increase in the GST requires much greater scrutiny by the public, consumer groups, small businesses and the Opposition. The government needs to stop its political spin and be fully transparent with Singaporeans on this issue. It needs to explain clearly why the GST hike is necessary, whether any alternative solutions have been explored, and outline exactly what it intends to do with the increased revenue from this tax increase.

So far Singaporeans have been told by the government and the media that the extra revenue will be used to fund increased social assistance programmes that will benefit the lower income groups.

While it is laudable that the government intends to increase public spending to help needy Singaporeans, it is disingenuous to put out a message that this tax increase will benefit the poor.

The GST, unlike income tax, is widely recognised as a regressive tax. This is because it taxes both rich and poor for all items, including essential goods and services such as clothing, food, utilities and transport. Since the poor have less disposable income, the GST effectively takes a higher percentage of income from the poor than the rich.

Impact on businesses and the economy

The GST hike will also negatively impact the bottom line of small businesses. Currently, businesses with less than $1 million in revenue a year cannot pass the GST costs of their goods purchases (their “input GST”) to their customers if they are not GST-registered (which most aren’t). So a mama shop owner (a small sundries retailer) will be paying 7 per cent tax for all the goods he purchases from wholesalers, but will not be able to collect any of it back from his customers.

An increase in consumption tax will also reduce consumer spending. While this may be good for individual savings, will be bad for many businesses and could impact the overall economy of the country.

The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCCI) issued a statement yesterday expressing “great concern and disappointment” at the impending GST hike. SCCCI added that “the proposed hike is likely to have an immediate and detrimental effect on local spending, and add to the cost burden for many local companies. Our long-term competitiveness will also suffer.”

The GST has been pitched in the past as “a fairer tax”. But fairer to whom? If the government is really keen on improving the lot of the poor and small businesses, a GST hike is certainly not the best way to go.

* * * * * *

Coming up next…Putting the “spin” on the GST hike.


PAP MP calls for less restrictions on mainstream media

PAP MP Baey Yam Keng, in his first speech in Parliament this week, urged the government to amend Singapore’s media legislation so as to promote greater media freedom in the mainstream media (MSM). (Extracts of his speech are reproduced below.)

In his speech, Baey noted that new media’s impact on the young has been “massive”. He pointed out that the government should not hold itself responsible for what the people see or read, otherwise Singaporeans may lose the ability to think, evaluate and judge for themselves. In observing the vastly different viewpoints put out by the MSM and new media, Baey wondered if they were from two different populations talking about two different countries. He went on to state that he did not think that the reality is “mostly positive” as portrayed in the traditional media nor is it as negative as what the new media describes it.

In contrast to what the Second Minister for Information recently said, he called on the government to relax regulations on traditional media to allow people to vent grouses and frustrations, without always demanding for constructive suggestions. He said this would enable Singaporeans to then engage openly in meaningful, level-headed discussions without fear of prosecution.

This is probably the first time that a ruling party MP has so openly advocated greater media freedom — tight media restrictions are a sacred cow for the PAP. Equally significant is the fact that he was a former director in the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), the very ministry in charge of regulating – or some say censoring – the media.

It is heartening to note that at least one MP is listening to issues percolating from the ground by reading blogs, rather than just believing everything the Straits Times and Zaobao put out.

Baey gave a good example of Wikipedia’s self-policing mechanisms as the way of the future. Journalist Thomas Friedman had also cited community-driven websites like Wikipedia as one of the “ten forces that flattened the world” in his book, The World Is Flat. He compared how Microsoft Encarta, the world’s “best-selling encyclopedia” had just 36,000 entries, while Wikipedia had almost 900,000 articles by end 2005. The Singapore government cannot afford to be stuck in its traditional mindset of how information is disseminated and digested if they desire to see our country progress and keep pace with this globalised world.

Baey pointed out that unlike the MSM, new media often portrays issues in a negative and critical manner. There are good reasons for this. Bloggers try to find a niches that are not covered by the MSM. Because the MSM in Singapore is so skewed towards the ruling party’s viewpoints, it doesn’t make sense for the bloggers to echo the praises the MSM heaps on the PAP and the government. If the MSM were to be a bit more balanced when reporting on local political issues, perhaps bloggers would start see less of a need to play an adversarial role all the time.

Having said that, it is important to point out that the new media contains very diverse viewpoints – both for and against the government. Many are just independent analyses, which when compared to the Straits Times, naturally appear “anti-government” when they are in fact simply independent. It is unhelpful for political leaders to constantly paint the new media as being full untruths, because this may become a self-fulfilling prophesy. (More comments on this issue in my earlier post, From broadsheets to blogs.)


Extracts of Parliament speech by MP Baey Yam Keng, 9 Nov 06. Original speech is on the P65 blog:

* * * * *

Now, I would like to move on to the subject of new media, another means of self and cultural expression. New media’s impact on the young, to say the least, has been massive.

Compared to traditional media, new media is much less structured; it is more informal and also more difficult to control. It is a virtual world with its own parameters, rules and regulations. Its estate or space is both private and public. It has both advantages and disadvantages. It presents new opportunities and solutions as well as new problems. It is a force to be reckoned with and most people in the developed world cannot envision a future without it. We are beginning to see its social, political and economic powers.

It was reported recently that Google UK is poised to overtake UK’s main TV channels in advertising revenue within the year. It is therefore a wise choice that the government has identified interactive & digital media as a new sector to grow. We should harness the power of both new and old media, for instance, in using them for cross communications and marketing to different audiences. The popularity of Singapore Idol and the Idol format around the world was largely due to its ability to leverage on both the traditional TV media and the new mobile media. It manages to engage the audience and turn them into fans who like the power to be able to pick their winner.

The global media scene will continue to evolve. From the ancient days of using smoke signals, pigeons, to print, radio, television, fax, telephony, mobile and now the internet, it does not mean the emergence of one new media will always replace another. The radio continued to survive in the advent of the TV. In fact, it became more accessible with the emergence of the portable radio, then the car radio, followed by the mobile phone radio.

It is a media ecosystem when many can co-exist and will co-evolve. Even The Straits Times has launched STOMP and vodcasts, and Channel News Asia has its One thing is certain, with technology advancement, the speed of evolution will be faster and people’s lifestyles and expectations will also change at a quicker pace.

The convergence of media can pose problems for the conscientious censor. On the other hand, the good citizens of the world can now also play a bigger role in helping to police our virtual space. For example, the Wikipedia is a self-regulating resource. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education in Oct 2006, Alexander M.C. Halavais, an Assistant Professor with the State University of New York at Buffalo, slipped in 13 errors in Wikipedia. In less than three hours, all of his false facts had been deleted, thanks to the vigilance of Wikipedia editors who regularly check recently updated entries. On Dr Halawi’s “user talk” page, one Wikipedian pleaded with him to “refrain from writing nonsense articles and falsifying information.”

The differences between new media and traditional media call for different treatments from the authorities. We can allow different platforms for responsible and less responsible expression of views, eg 全民乱讲 is for all citizens to talk nonsense, 全民开讲 allows all citizens to speak their minds,and 全民好好讲 calls for all citizens to have a good discussion. I believe people will know which programme is meant to serve what target audience. What the government should ensure is that there is no masquerading.

The government should not and cannot hold itself responsible for what the people see or read. Otherwise, Singaporeans risk losing the ability to think, evaluate and judge for themselves. The Mr Brown incident illustrates too clearly how new and old media could have engaged each other better. Having driven negative comments or untrue information about the government underground, into the labyrinth of virtual space, the government loses an opportunity to engage the propagators and dispel the erroneous statements.

As I read comments in the newspapers and compare them with those in bl
ogs and online forums, I sometimes wonder if they are from two different populations talking about two different countries. I do not think that the reality is mostly positive like in the traditional media or like what the new media is portraying, mostly negative and critical. I believe the real world is somewhere in between.

We have to accept that it will be very difficult, in fact, impossible to monitor and rebut all negative online comments against the government. We should also consider relaxing regulations on traditional media to allow people to vent grouses and frustrations, without always demanding for constructive suggestions. Singaporeans can then engage openly in meaningful, level-headed discussions without fear of prosecution. Erroneous assumptions, wrong ideas, narrow mindsets, prejudices and biases, loyalties, tolerance and wisdom can all be brought to the light of day and seen clearly for what they are. I believe in the Singaporean’s ability to discern wisely. Even if we may not be able to do so accurately, that is our judgment and that judgment should be given the opportunity to be sharpened.

A few months ago, Lianhe Zaobao and My Paper featured articles about the “strawberry generation”, a description of “soft”, young people with little determination, weak wills and dependent mindsets who are unable to take the slightest of hardship. They are adults but they still turn to their parents for pocket money. They have difficulties holding down a job. I wonder if this reflects, on a micro level, a side effect of our government’s parental style towards its citizens. If our government trusts the general public’s ability to refrain from uncontrolled gambling by allowing casinos, she should also trust its ability to tell right from wrong, black from white, or even grey, on other issues. Thus, I urge the government to consider amendments to our media legislation so as to promote greater media freedom.

This, I believe, would encourage greater creativity in this sector, leading to spill-over effect in other sectors and professions in Singapore. Creativity exists in all sectors and industries. As we nurture creativity in every aspect of our lives, it would become part of ourselves, our DNA, our lifestyles, our identity. Creativity is doing things in a different way which adds value and benefits, which no one else has done before. Creativity is working smart. Creativity is the new cutting edge. Creativity is that which will provide us with the lead over our competitors.

I look forward to the day when creativity is synonymous with the Singapore national identity, the Singapore brand. When that day comes, we can be assured that our survival as a nation is secure and the future, ever the brighter.

* * * * *