05 November 2018

Should permanent residents and dual citizens serve national service in Singapore?

Minister of Defence Ng Eg Hen previously made nice comforting noises (otherwise known as motherhood statements) in parliament about how safety is a top priority of army training, in light of a recent escalation in fatal training incidents. But isn't 1 reported accident every 3.5 months statistically significant for an armed forces that has only 35,000 conscripts at any time? Doesn't this statistic indicate the presence of serious and pervasive systematic failings in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)?

Liu Kai, the victim in the latest SAF fatal training accident and possibly SAF's fatally compromised culture was a permanent resident. Kok Yuen Chin, the victim in the previous SCDF fatal training accident was also a permanent resident. Many Singapore PRs and dual citizens who are legally obligated to serve national service at the age of 16 have every right to ask to ask the question: Should they just say no to their NS obligations and give up their permanent residence or Singapore citizenship?

Soldiers are meant to die heroically in battle.
Which is why every accidental training death must be investigated.

25 September 2018

Will Dr Thum Ping Tjin ever wish Singaporeans a Happy National Day?

Almost a month ago, Singapore celebrity historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin met Dr Mahathir with his fellow New Narratif founders Kirsten Han and Sonny Liew, fellow activist Jolovan Wham, and potentially fellow exiles Tan Wah Piow and Hishamuddin Rais. Did Dr Thum invite Dr Mahathir to interfere with the politics of Singapore? We at Illusio think that Dr Thum had made an ill-considered publicity stunt which was repaid in full by law minister Shanmugam and member of parliament Mr Seah.

On 31 August, Dr Thum fanned the flames further by wishing Singaporeans a "Selamat Hari Merdeka". And 3 days after our previous post examining Seah's allegations of treachery, Dr Thum doubled down and wished Singaporeans a "Happy Malaysia Day" Was this is another ill-advised publicity stunt by Dr Thum? Or is this the smoking gun?

Does this provide ammunition, if not a smoking gun, for a select committee that has already branded the Good Doctor a liar and a perjurer? Or is this just another publicity attempt gone sideways? Is Dr Thum a celebrity academic mugging for an audience or a public intellectual educating the public?

12 September 2018

Is Dr Thum Ping Tjin a traitor to Singapore?

Almost two weeks ago, Singapore historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin, together with Sonny Liew, Kirsten Han, and Jolovan Wham, met with Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir in Kuala Lumpur. His Facebook photo and description of the meeting and subsequent exchanges with law minister K Shanmugam and MP Seah Kian Peng have resulted in very serious accusations that the good Doctor is a traitor.

Did Dr Thum invite Mahathir to interfere in Singapore's domestic politics, as minister Shanmugam alleged? Does Dr Thum wish ill on Singapore, as Mr Seah suggested? Does Dr Thum have an agenda, however nostalgic, misguided, or delusional, for a Malayan union? Is this treason? Or are the minister and MP irresponsible and inflammatory, as Thum accuses?

A typical election pamphlet in Victorian England

31 August 2018

Is there a public housing crisis in Singapore? NDRS 2018 edition

After watching prime minister Lee Hsien Loong's 2018 National Day Rally speech, many Singaporean homeowners asked the question: Is it worth it to opt into the new housing improvement (HIP 2) and voluntary early redevelopment scheme (VERS)?

Yet his latest housing minister recently announced that the value of public housing will plummet to zero at the end of their 99 year lease. Are Lee's new schemes an exercise in futility in retaining the value of your Housing Development Board (HDB) flat? Or do they show up the ongoing "asset enhancement" schemes as doomed and misguided? Should Singaporean homeowners feel more secure after Lee's new promises, or more angry at the PAP's old promises?

More importantly, do Lee's new HDB schemes actually solve the public housing crisis in Singapore?

18 July 2018

Is Singapore's welfare system failing its poor?

Yes, democracy classrooms are still taking place despite the New Narratif ban

Kirsten Han is organising "democracy classrooms" in Singapore in her personal capacity. This surely is a courageous and principled decision, given the Singapore government's proscription of New Narratif's workshop arm and its bizarre declaration that such activities, especially when funded by George Soros, are "political in nature" and "contrary to Singapore's national interests".

While everyone else including ministers can organise and participate in public forums, talks, and feedback sessions in educational institutions to discuss, question and even criticise aspects of Singapore's public policy, Kirsten's New Narratif is barred from doing so.

That Ms Han remains a free woman in Singapore is testament to the common sense of its civil service; the Singapore government's proscription of New Narratif/OSEA and apparent grudge match against George Soros may be political in nature, but democracy classrooms and questioning of public policy are legitimate activities that cannot be proscribed.

Charity, welfare, social spending, and the deserving poor

The latest democracy classroom was about poverty in Singapore. Social workers from welfare organisations shared, in their personal capacity, their experience working within Singapore's social welfare sector. To wit: As external vendors directly funded by Singapore's social spending budget, these welfare organisations are obliged, when helping the poor, to apply the state's criteria and checklists, which define who are eligible and deserving of handouts.

The consensus within the industry, or at least between the professionals in the democracy classroom, is that the rules as drawn up by the state often disenfranchise the poor further. The professionals in the industry feel that the very poor seem to be excluded from qualifying for welfare in Singapore, as a direct result of certain discriminatory criteria. As a whole, the state agencies seem unsympathetic to the conditions of poverty. Onerous and inflexible criteria that are put in place to prevent the very poor gaming the welfare system instead cause humiliation and additional misery and hardship to the petitioners.

Plot twist: Singapore is an invisible welfare state

From the perspective of professional social workers, every instance of a poor client who must be turned away and prevented from dipping into welfare handouts is an indictment of the system. From a sociological viewpoint however, we need to ask if this is a feature in the system and not a bug.

Frequent government critic Chua Beng-huat has noted that Singapore, while authoritarian, is a liberal state-socialist polity. The political compact between the ruling People's Action Party and Singapore citizens is underpinned by 3 key public policies: public housing, universal education, and universal healthcare insurance.

You get handouts, everyone gets handouts!
Singaporeans may not know it but their housing, education, and healthcare are highly subsidised by the state, to an extent that would make most affluent western nations blush (save for the Scandinavians). Since independence, the middle class in Singapore has been the main beneficiary of state welfare.

It's a form of state welfare that doesn't require people to approach the civil service with hat in hand. The state knows when you are eligible for handouts, how much handouts you should get, and all of it is done without legwork, casework, or pure hard work. Education is automatically subsidised: all school-going children get vouchers that they can use while adults receive free money every year to go for courses and skills upgrading. Most of Singapore's housing grants and subsidies are automatic and worked into the property bill. Concessions for hospital bills and healthcare premiums are automatically applied.

Which begs the question: why don't the very poor get automatic vouchers? Everyone gets automatic vouchers. Singapore's largest, universal automatic handout this year is for DIGITAL TV. Yes, that's right. Every household gets a free voucher for digital television, whether or not they already have one and whether or not they want one, and whether or not they might just use the voucher and get one more on top of what they already have. And policymakers talk about how it's important not to let the poor get away with gaming the system!

Plot twist: It's not about the poor

What is the difference between Daniel Yapcelebrity state welfare recipient of the month, and the social worker's dirt-poor client whose application for welfare grants keep getting rejected? [Full disclosure: I have previously written a healthcare article for The Middle Ground, which was co-founded by Daniel.]

Policy preferences.

Daniel Yap is an economically productive member of society. Gainfully employed. Long term employed. The problem cases? Long term unemployed, itinerant workers in the informal economy, have a debt sheet, married to unnaturalised spouses.

From a social work perspective, such a policy is discriminatory and ironic: the very poor tend to have lower employment opportunities, causing them to participate in the informal economy if at all. It's hard to build up savings if you're an itinerant worker. And marrying out seems to be a universal solution if someone is too poor to participate in the local marriage market.

From a sociological perspective, welfare policy is not about defining the poor, helping them, or punishing them for being poor. Welfare policy is about defining the middle class and its habits as the norm that potential recipients should aspire towards, i.e. economically productive, gainfully employed, savings-positive but members of an industrial, consumerist economy.

It is no surprise that Singapore's criteria for welfare handouts is not much different from most of the industrial west, minus the socialist Scandinavian states who are finally regretting their experiments with universal basic income, aka "living wage".

Can Singapore live with its welfare system?

Singapore's welfare system may be discriminatory. It may indeed benefit the middle class far more than the poor. But it is a coherent, consistent policy that reflects the values and preferences of its policymakers. And piloted by Singapore's bureaucracy, it is a remarkably competent policy that delivers the same outcome, day in and day out.

Bleeding heart arguments will be ineffective against this.

Very ineffective.
We at Illusio posit an alternative argument that may have more traction. Namely, Singapore's current administration of welfare handouts is unsustainable. It is due for policy failure, and should be reworked - preferably to an automatic voucher system that cuts down the unwieldy welfare state bureaucracy and the VWO ecosystem to a manageable size to reduce unproductive busy-work.

We note that Singapore's welfare system (and its inculcation of middle class habits and norms) was tailor-made for an expansionary, industrialising economy between 1965 to the early 1990s. In such an expansionary, industrialising climate brimming with employment opportunities and massive trickle-down effects, it was correct to assume that the poor could lift themselves out of poverty easily so long as they participated in the economy.

Singapore today is a mature economy with sub 2% GDP growth. Ministers are increasingly aware of the entrenchment of poverty. Its success in creating a stable and large middle class has resulted in a situation where social capital is throwing a spanner into meritocracy and mobility. Its prime minister made a speech acknowledging the evolution of Singapore into a class society.

The assumptions and foundations behind the administration of welfare handouts no longer hold true. There is no expansionary economy today, no massive and easy trickle-down effect to lift the poor. Failure to realise that circumstances have changed will result in policy failure: an entrenched, permanent underclass. Let's assume that future bureaucrats continue their hostility towards the very poor. Then we will have an angry, entrenched, permanent underclass.

Sociology tells us that any entrenched, permanent underclass will pursue success by any other means necessary, and that an angry, entrenched, permanent underclass will create social and legal problems. In the words of Papalee: riots will break out and blood will flow in the streets.

The policy failure point is not that far-fetched or distant: Yishun, Singapore's most criminal suburb, is on its way to becoming a Parisian banlieue.

Singapore cannot afford to run its welfare system like this, not if it wants to keep its reputation as a wealthy, crime-free global city.

22 May 2018

What was the political compact between UMNO, PAP, and the people?

A democratic and liberal housecleaning is possible in Malaya

Having won an unprecedented election, Tun Dr Mahathir's new administration continues to signal its intention to prosecute Najib and his cronies over 1MDB, and investigate the state agencies that protected Najib and his cronies. From his pronouncements so far, it appears Malaysia's transition to from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Harapan will be achieved, in defiance of popular expectations, without:

i. ruthlessly and undemocratically oppressing the former ruling coalition;
ii. cannibalising the partisan grassroots and patronage networks of the former ruling coalition;
iii. taking over the politically co-opted civil service.

These popular expectations are similar, if not identical to the narrative in Singapore, that in the event of a "freak election result", the new ruling party or coalition is expected to do all 3 (especially take over the openly partisan government-policy-friendly People's Association) and turn itself into a new People's Action Party. The subtext of this narrative: Better vote the PAP that you know, rather than an opposition who will betray its own democratic values and morph into the PAP rather messily.

Singapore and Malaysia: Even less dissimilar than Vulcans and Romulans!
For Dr Mahathir to achieve a transition without turning Pakatan into a new BN would be an achievement not only for Malaysia but Singapore as well, given how both countries continue to share a similar if not common culture.

Dr Mahathir's victory was only possible because the electorate decided that former prime minister Najib Razak's particular brand of corruption had broken BN's longstanding political compact on two counts: behaving badly (say, being spectacularly and narrowly corrupt and abusing the agencies of the state) while publicly failing to deliver key items (people really felt the pain from the inflation and public debt).

But what does the government supply in the Malayan political compact?

It is easy to see from self-gratifying behaviour when leaders have broken the compact. But what about the deliverables of the compact itself?

If presented with the disturbingly adjacent and anomalous positions of Singapore and Malaysian on the Ingelhart-Werzel cultural map, a student of historical sociology might propose that instead of seeing the two as far outliers from the "Confucian" and "Islamic" groupings, we should place India, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma in a separate "former British East India" category, all incidentally occupying the narrow -1.0, -1.0 space. Said historical sociologist may argue that the similar if not common experience of than 2 centuries of British administration and decolonialisation have created a cultural and political similarity.

For Singapore and Malaysia, the birth of the modern political compact comes from their experience of post-war reconstruction. The end of the WW2 saw an immediate realisation that independence or divestment of Empire had to be given despite less than ideal conditions. Malaya had the best run and competent civil service in colonial Southeast Asia, but as United Nations observers pointed out, the people were too politically immature to govern themselves safely in 1945.

And for independence to be successful (at least to the British and their preferred post-colonial successors), the 5 and 10-year post-war reconstruction plans under the British Military Administration and its civilian successors had to deliver Malayanisation. That meant not just the expulsion of the transitory population in Malaya (a point recognised by the earlier UN report), but the continuation of British and Commonwealth grand interests and economic policy under a local administration and workforce. That could only be done by providing sensible social welfare (mostly in the form of affordable, standardised mass housing and healthcare), sufficient education, and create a modern industrialising economy. Failing which, the decolonialisation project would end in Mugabean chaos or a communist regime taking control of the industrial prize of Malaya. It helped that these were also the same things that citizens in Malaya told the BMA and the Social Welfare Department they wanted in several immediate postwar surveys.

Consequently, the political compact in both Singapore and Malaysia are the same: affordable mass housing (that would remain affordable for later generations), creating a native middle class and professional class through education (that would be gainfully employed in a native-controlled economy), and sharing with the people the fruits of a well-managed resource-rich and geographically strategic economy.

Likewise, the political leadership in Singapore and Malaysia are extremely sensitive to the same things: popular fears about the escalating costs of public housing, an education system that is failing future generations of workers, and an economy that is failing to deliver jobs and security to the people. In Singapore, these fears have put policy reversals for a largely immigrant-centric population plan, a moratorium on mass housing construction prior to GE2011, and sparked several rounds of economic restructuring talks and feedback sessions.

One more thing, perhaps the most important

While the Philippines had the highest GDP, it was Malaya had the best run civil service and the potentially richest economy in Southeast Asia (the British planned decolonialism and independence on the back of an expected postwar tin and rubber boom). This provides the final piece of the political compact between the political leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, and their people, beyond the deliverables that are expected, beyond the particular bad behaviour that cannot be tolerated.

In Singapore: The PAP has its mandate so long as Singapore is the least worst country in Southeast Asia.

In Malaysia: BN has its mandate so long as Malaysia is the least worst country in Southeast Asia, aside from Singapore.

So even if the People's Action Party should pull its socks together in the next two years, so long as Tun Dr Mahathir creates a post-BN Malaysia that inspires hope, that threatens to have a brighter future than Singapore, the PAP could be in for a lot of trouble in the next polls.

15 May 2018

With Mahathir winning, will the PAP fall?

Mahathir served as Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003 [Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]
Mahathir IV/VII, Prime Minister of Malaysia
Tun Dr Mahathir's resounding defeat of Barisan Nasional, which has been in power since the Federation of Malaya was granted independence in 1957, has raised speculation whether Singapore is in position for a similar spring-cleaning.

PAP detractors online make the argument that if Malaysia can do it, so can Singapore. PAP supporters insist that what happened in Malaysia is a one-off, the factors contributing to the fall of BN do not apply here, and make the (unsurprising) prediction that this regime change will be disastrous, both economically and politically for Malaysia.

From a Bourdieuian perspective, such speculation is pure political posturing, with most of the players attempting to craft a narrative of Malaysian election sympathetic to their respective positions and interests in Singapore politics. Pierre Bourdieu himself might even add that these players, with their instinctive speculation, have far less understanding of Singapore politics than Malaysian politics.

Singapore and Malaysia are more similar than we think?

Vulcans and Romulans: not so different actually
Singapore and Malaysia remain fairly similar after more than 50 years of separation. Geographic neighbours Singapore and Malaysia are not far apart in the World Values Survey (WVS) , which broadly measures population attitudes towards traditional vs secular values and survival vs expression values, and accurately indicate changing trends in political and social values.

Despite the philosophical differences between Malaysia and Singapore (meritocratic vs bumiputera policy), how people behave, what opinions they have, how they relate to authority and political structures in both countries are largely similar. Some have argued that political elites and the middle class of Singapore and Malaya used to attend to the same schools, while the civil servants imbibed the same mindsets of the colonial civil service.

This similarity is reflected in the political news, stories, gossip, and rumours circulating before and on election day itself, after polls closed and counting was underway, and when early results were trickling in. The army and police would impose a coup or emergency measures to void the election entirely in case of a freak election result. The electoral commission has gerrymandered voting districts to a ridiculous extent. Senior members of the institutionalised patronage network were actively participating in voter suppression. The partisan and politically co-opted civil service would either be purged or purge themselves following a resounding Pakatan Harapan victory. Dr Mahathir will recreate the BN alliance in Pakatan once UMNO members defect in droves, and the new ruling coalition will be indistinguishable from the old ruling coalition. These stories are by and large identical to the ones that crawl out of the woodwork each Singapore general election.

Both Singapore and Malaysia are more similar to each other than they are to other countries, so much so that both are considered outliers in the WVS. Singapore scores far more 'traditional' for a developed/developing nation. Ironically for the "Chinese Singapore" narrative, Singapore also scores far more traditional and self-expressive than most Confucian nations. Malaysia itself is far more 'progressive' and less 'traditional' for a Muslim nation. As a result, both countries tend to be excluded in the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map visualisation of the WVS. But if you're curious, both Singapore and Malaysia tend to be located slightly off centre, usually -0.5 to -1.0 on both axes.

Why doesn't a BN rout automatically mean a PAP rout?

The arguments by PAP detractors can be reformulated as: If an institutionally entrenched ruling party can be dislodged in Malaysia, the same can happen in Singapore.

The arguments by PAP supporters can be reformulated as: There is nothing in Singapore politics that looks like Malaysia, so the same cannot happen in Singapore.

The domino theory ignores the specific context of Dr Mahathir's Pakatan victory, while the uniquely Singapore theory forgets to ask if those specific conditions are also present in Singapore. We start our evaluation of both theories by noting the similarity in cultural and political values in Singapore and Malaysia.

Corruption itself not the cause of BN fall

The ruling parties in Singapore and Malaysia are seasoned practitioners of clientelism and possess extensive patronage networks. In Singapore, the patronage system is passed off as a strong state-dominated economy. In Malaysia, the patronage system is passed off as the racially based bumiputera policy. In either case, a group of approved insiders (government linked companies and the usual group of contractors servicing these companies) are institutionally sanctioned and rewarded for their participation in rent-seeking behaviour, ironically in the name of racially redistributive fairness (certain races must benefit) or meritocracy (in order to compete you must already have a minimum paid up capital or track record).

Some might see this as unfair, institutionally corrupt. Ultimately the patronage system in Singapore and Malaysia is accepted and acceptable, and has become part of the political contract -- so long as the wealth and opportunity trickles down.

Broken political compact was the cause of BN fall

Malaysians did not vote for a more socialist, left-wing government; Dr Mahathir's platform was not at all similar to Keadilan's previous election platform, nor did Parti Sosialis Malaysia or Parti Rakyat Malaysia do well at all in last week's polls (they were nearly wiped out instead).

Najib's venality nor the 1MDB scandal did not cause the fall of BN; otherwise, Pakatan would have turned out BN an election cycle ago when the corruption rumours began to look credible and damning. It was the establishment's reaction to the 1MDB scandal that veered horribly off the accepted patronage system narrative.

Certain businessmen got very rich off brokering deals for their political leaders. That's the story of Malaya since the British arrived, not just post-independence. But unlike other businessmen, Jho Low and Najib did not, were not seen to redistribute these gains downwards. They were seen to benefit only themselves, their immediate family, and close political supporters.

Rosmah and her many Birkins and diamonds
The civil service was never seen to be sufficiently independent of the political leadership. "Politically co-opted" is a nice way of describing the state of governance both sides of the Causeway. That's the story of Malaya since the British arrived, not just post-independence. But unlike other co-opted mandarins, key appointees at the MACC, police, and AGO were not seen to preserve a degree of plausible deniability and political disinterestedness. They were seen to be actively bagging it for their masters when they cleared Najib of corruption.

Most damning was the failure of BN and UMNO to secure growth and prosperity for Malaysians across the board over the past 2 election cycles. Unlike previous leaders, Najib and friends were seen to be epically venal and self-interested while being epically incompetent, while rising costs of living have finally reached a tipping point for a workforce experiencing stagnant salaries.

Has PAP broken its political compact with Singaporeans?

These then are the signposts that Singaporean political watchers should look out for instead, given various reactions and volte faces by PAP ministers in the past week.

1. Have rising costs of living and stagnant salaries crossed the people's pain threshold?

2. Is the "Future of the Singapore economy" seen as a load of reassuring talk, and the leadership is seen as out of credible ideas for growth?

Economic and consumer confidence indicators should be transparent enough to provide the answer in the coming months.

3. Is the PAP leadership seen to be misusing the organs of the state to protect themselves?

Reactions to the Oxley Road scandal might serve as a gauge to public sentiment.

4. Is the PAP seen as departing from values, principles established by its classic brand and accepted as a social compact? Is the PAP seen as trampling on the rules to ensure a victory, rather than just rewriting the rules?

What divided Singapore last year was a racially reserved presidential election. What was most dispiriting wasn't the inevitability that the PAP's preferred candidate would win, or that it would resort to rewriting the rules, or that it would manufacture consent by involving the organs of the state and gang-pressing the establishment. Instead, it was how the PAP could never convince the need for a racial quota given its decades of meritocratic policy.

5. Given the corruption scandal at Keppel and Prof Walter Woon's denunciation of Singapore's response as insufficient, is the PAP seen as protecting its patronage class from its publicly visible wrongdoings?

Opinion polls in Malaysia did not predict the groundswell of opinion away from BN and UMNO. People hid their disappointment and sense of betrayal well. To most data-centred observers, the result came as a shock. Singaporeans are unlikely to express any real voting intention to pollsters, but that doesn't mean there aren't signs and signposts to look out for.