25 August 2011

Much ado about an Elected President

We hereby state our disinterest and lack of interest in the current election for the Elected President of Singapore.

We might as well vote for a potted plant or a mascot

As the minister of law Mr K Shanmugam has pointed out, the president can be very easily rendered powerless by the cabinet. If the minister - who speaks presumably for the prime minister on this issue - sees the eventual winner of Saturday's election as unsuitable for the post, all respect can go out of the window. The full letter of the law can be ridiculously and unreasonably applied to ensure the president doesn't even have leave to speak to the public on any issue, thank you very much.

Mr K Shanmugam is either the cleverest man in Singapore or its most stupidest man alive. In one single stroke, the minister of law shows any leaders of a future 'rogue government' how to bypass that famed "guardian of the reserves". Either the president is a superman with the power to clamp down the government or he is a potted plant whose presence and function is tolerated by the government. There are no two ways about it - and the law minister and the Ministry of Law has weighed in his legal interpretation that the president is as good as a potted plant. Or a merlion mascot.

The President is guardian of nothing

Once the elected president was the guardian of the reserves of Singapore. Then the constitution was changed so that the president is the guardian of only the current reserves. In one fell swoop, the government negated the meaning of the presidency - though the citizens of Singapore and even the candidates for its 4th election/selection seem unaware.

As 'defined' by the constitution, the current reserves is whatever the sitting government of the day has put in and the past reserves is whatever the government put in the previous parliamentary sessions. Even though the reserves are in fact the earnings of all Singaporeans, the president is only allowed to safeguard, have power and cognizance over the 'past reserves'.

That is all and well if you assume that 'reserves' are money that are locked up safely in a bank. They are not. A large part of our past reserves are in the form of physical assets (like state land) and investments (like shares bought by GIC). Yet investment income and interest is treated as current income, and so are proceeds from sales of land.

In practice, the distinction between past reserves and current reserves is a weak and manufactured one. Need to sell land to keep up or push down property prices? GIC sells off its stake in a bank? You just helped to convert past reserves to current reserves and now the president is guardian of less before the sale.

What does it matter that a president is not guardian of the current reserves? One can imagine a scenario where a rogue government comes into power tomorrow. Why should it rob the entire reserves, killing the goose that laid the golden egg? Why not use the current reserves to ensure that every 5 years come election time, it'll have a private war chest of pork barrel projects to throw at voters? While in between elections, its MPs vote themselves comfortable a pay raise that it will no doubt find some stupid reason to justify? Why should we even assume this isn't already done by the ruling PAP?

My friends, the president is either guardian of all the reserves or he is guardian of nothing. I would have endorsed any candidate who would fight for this in his election platform. No candidate has!

07 August 2011

Bringing the gavel down on Workers Party I

MSN builds campaign against WP and Sylvia Lim

There is an unfolding situation over at Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. No doubt it's been angled ever so subtly by the government-owned media in Singapore as the B plot and convenient distraction to its presidential election due to take place on 27 August. Like a carefully plotted campaign, Singapore's news media is content to put its citizens on a drip on this story, calibrating the slow release of information that may build up to an implied allegation of mismanagement or corruption in the AHTC as well as the original HTC.

The reporters have the full story but they will not release all of it, not all at once - even though they have the fullest access to the information for a long time. Their cynical exercise may be rightly dismissed as a ploy but what if the story does have legs?

Non-transparency? Improper procedures? Or something far worse?

Consider this: Almost immediately after winning the ward of Aljunied, the Workers Party's town council HATC employed a new managing agent without a tender. The managing agent is FM Solutions (FMSS).

What is even more peculiar is how Ms Sylvia Lim, the incoming MP for Aljunied and concurrently the chairman of AHTC and HTC before that, defends this decision. She alleges "the decision to award FMSS the contract without calling for a tender was due to the deadline set by the Ministry of National Development".

That's bizarre logic there, Sherlock! If there's a deadline that the town council can't meet, the most obvious thing to do is to retain the old managing agent temporarily for a year - not replacing the incumbent with a new managing agent!

We see no logic for WP to claim grounds for its extraordinary measures. During the last election, the Aljunied ward had the least amount of redrawing. We do not hear of other town councils having to enact such measures despite their greater turmoil and reorganisation.

What's even more bizarre is how the managing agent was formed and registered with ACRA only just - on 15 May 2011, to be precise. Yes, AHTC terminated the ongoing incumbent whose contract was still in existence so they could hire a managing agent that is literally brand new. According to ACRA reports, this entity was formed not long before the elections with a paid up capital of $500,000 for the expressed sole purpose of providing town council services.

Let's say anyone with access to competent polling would have known Aljunied would fall to the Workers Party. Let's say someone is enterprising enough to do pre-emptively sink half a million to form a company whose sole business activity is "town councils" to bid for the managing agent position with the new Aljunied Town Council. And hire 77 people on short notice. But that doesn't really make sense unless they're very certain they'd get the contract. And it makes even less sense if FMSS was formed just to contest for the sole tender of AHTC.

None of us would believe that a newly established, costly venture will be content to get a one year contract by the back door. For all intents and purposes, FMSS will be awarded the full contract next year by the AHTC and hence help the press build up its allegations of procurement corruption.

One director, five directors, how many key directors?

Now Sylvia assures us that its managing agent's "key directors have been in the field for an average of 20 years". I don't know what this sentence means. No one can know what it means because it means nothing. It's nonsense, gobbledegook, balderdash. Here, I'll hold your hand in this exercise.

What is an "average" and why is it a meaningful number? An average is the sum total of the attributes of all the units divided by the total number of units there are.

The statement "FMSS's directors have been in the field for an average of 20 years" would make sense in this case. But to say that its key directors (i.e. not all directors) have an average of 20 years tells you exactly nothing. It's an intellectually dishonest and cynical statement. It's intellectually dishonest because an average of a subset of a population says nothing about the population, and cynical because legally speaking, all the directors of a company are jointly accountable - key directors or otherwise.

FMSS has 6 directors in total. Which are its "key directors"? What is the average experience of all the directors in FMSS? These are questions we want answered!

Of course ACRA has all this on record. You'll also notice how FMSS suddenly increased from its original sole director, Mr Danny Loh Chong Meng, registering 4 more directors hurriedly on 16 June just after the press started reporting on WP town councils. Who are these mysterious men? Are they normal directors or key directors? Where did they work previously and how much experience do they have in town council management?

Of interest to us is of the 4 new directors found their way into FMSS, a certain How Weng Fan also happens to be a former secretary of HTC, the direct precursor of AHTC. Is this not already a conflict of interest? When did How Weng Fan stop being a secretary of HTC? Was that before or after the formation of FMSS? How many other directors of FMSS have rendered services for HTC in the past? How many of them have rendered exclusive services for HTC?

Now you see why the news media is preparing the ground with the initial charge of non-transparent procedure in the Workers Party's management of the Aljunied-Hougang town council? It's so it can lead to the eventual allegation of corruption in public procurement.

Love me tender, WP

In fact, Sylvia's logic is even more warped if you take into account the fact that AHTC did have the time anyway to call for a tender for four other contracts on 17 June, barely weeks after winning the ward. And again, it made this decision over the option of holding on to its existing contractors temporarily for a year. Yes, AHTC had so little time that it found the time to call for a tender for everything but a managing agent in this Classifieds ad.

It has so little time that the tender period from announcement to closing date is just 2 weeks - a quickie compared to PAP-held town council project tenders, which are normally 3 weeks to 1 month.

To town council service providers and managers, this should set off alarm bells. Players in the town council services industry need at least 3 weeks to compete competently for a tender because of the time frames involved to get the necessary documentation, certificates, and licenses from the Building and Construction Authority.

In a more bizarre note, the AHTC tender insists on a "pay first" scheme. Ordinarily (i.e. how PAP town councils do things), interested contractors attend the tender briefing to get an idea of the scope of work, the coverage and condition of the town council's area. Then if they feel they are up for it and are still interested, they'll pay the money for the tender documents.

In contrast, AHTC demands that interested contractors pay first to attend the tender briefing. Under what circumstances would any contractor take part in this ridiculous process? Your guess is as good as mine, dear readers.

If we assume procurement corruption, AHTC's shortened and backwards tender process will certainly benefit players who are certain they'll get the awards, i.e. players who have links to the town council. It would be interesting to note which companies won the tenders and who heads them. It would fit in with the same shortened and illogical awarding of the management agent contract to FMSS too.

07 June 2011

Paul Krugman repudiates High Broderism

The body of David S Broder lies cold in the ground where he is interred but Paul Krugman sees the need to repudiate the zombie idea of High Broderism, which sometime this decade had infected our very own Cherian George, now known as the apostle of High Broderism in the Archdiocese of Singapore.

Let's review what Cherian George wanted so badly, put in such eloquent words that half the blogosphere with less than half a brain clapped so wildly for:
1. Cherian George wants a fair and balanced blogosphere that he can award give gold stars to
2. In that heavenly blogosphere, the tone will be not too hot and not too cold but just right.
3. In that heavenly blogosphere, there must be a full "spectrum of views": for every anti-ruling party blogger, there should be a pro-ruling party blogger.

Let's review Krugman's own words, the central problem with High Broderism:
This gets at the heart of the current pundit problem. If you say that one of our two major parties has gone completely off the deep end, you’re considered shrill and extreme. But if you don’t say that, if you pretend that someone like Barbour is a reasonable guy with somewhat different views, then you’re fundamentally lying about reality.
Sure, Singapore is a one-party state right now. But we do have ministers like Tharman Shanmugaratnam who insist that the GST flat consumption tax benefits the poor. What do you want us to do to get our gold stars, Cherian George? Have enough bloggers to say that Tharman didn't fail Econs101 but he's merely a reasonable guy with somewhat different views?

And this is precisely what you'll get in the ideal blogosphere of Cherian George and David S Broder: rampant intellectual dishonesty.

16 May 2011

Meet Cherian George, Singapore's apostle for High Broderism

We have never been fans of Mr Cherian George. When we have actually deigned to speak about him, we have not been kind. He has never given us reason to be kind even today and we will tell you why. But you'll need to read his latest essay first.

Cherian George is Singapore's pale imitation of David S Broder and the apostle for High Broderism in the archdiocese of Singapore. For those unfamiliar with American political culture the late Broder was an American journalist who, for want of a better word, was an extremist centrist who made a career and pedestal for himself out of denouncing extremists on both ends of the political aisle.

What needs to be pointed out is that the absolute mid point between two extreme political positions is not necessarily the correct position to take, that the truth can lie closer to the left than it is to the right. Sometimes the truth has a liberal bias. And yet the Overton Window of 'acceptable opinion' has easily been gamed by arch-conservatives shifting their positions further right, with useful fools like Broder advocating a shift to the new centre while denouncing... the extremist leftists!

Now read Cherian George's article again, with the recognition of his unstated High Broderist agenda of advocating a centrist position when reality and logic does not warrant it.

Note for example how Cherian Broder complains of the rabidly anti-government to moderately anti-government stance of online chatter and blogs. He forgets that PM Lee's cabinet has committed several public policy failures over the past 5 years. We would question why Cherian expects the "right mood" for the blogosphere to be more centrist. We'd assume that even wonkish bloggers, say Mr Tan Kin Lian at theonlinecitizen, would see no choice but to critique PAP public policy. Reality does have an anti-PAP bias, people.

Note how cleverly he builds up his High Broderism to present us with a false dilemma which is as intellectually dishonest as it is an advertisement for his centrist at all cost ideology: "it is a mistake to put all our eggs in the government basket, it is surely also a mistake to put all eggs in the opposition or non-government basket."

There are so many things wrong with that statement. I'm happy to point out just two.

1. For an academic, George is surprisingly politically illiterate, conflating the PAP with the government and conflating the opposition with non-government. He forgets that the government includes the civil service talent which advised and implemented the public policy failures of the Minilee government over the years, that non-government talent extends far beyond the political opposition to the much wider civil society.

2. He conflates the singular PAP ideology and talent base with the multiplicity of that of the opposition. Putting all your eggs in a singular solution means you lose all your eggs if that solution proves wrong. Putting all your eggs in multiplicity of solutions doesn't mean you lose all your eggs... But clearly, Cherian George would love to mislead us with his imagery. Just saying.

Make no mistake about it: like the late David S Broder, Cherian George is putting himself up as the arbiter of moderate political discourse, a wise man who can put down any idea and position too radical in his eyes; even if reality, truth, and logic have a certain bias.

15 May 2011

Modelling the Singapore elections II: Are Singaporeans stupid voters?

Why do Singaporeans vote the way they do? What goes on in their heads when they cast a vote? Is the Singaporean voter a rational voter? Or did the Workers' Party and the general opposition call for a First World Parliament flounder embarrassingly, 81 to 6, because there isn't exactly a First World Electorate?

On 7 May 2011, it did turn out that there was an average 6.6% swing against the PAP, Aljunied GRC was lost, and the Workers' Party [WP] became the only opposition party in Singapore's 87-seat parliament, representing almost 40% of Singaporeans with their 6 seats.
Today, we'd like to grapple with three reactions to the results using hard numbers from this election:
1. The politically illiterate voter failed the opposition parties, handing the PAP yet another convincing mandate.
2. Because WP was the only opposition party that has won a GRC, it must have done something right.
3. The GRC system must go; it kicked out a decent minister and let in an airhead.

At first glance, the PAP national vote share of 60.1% and national average swing of 6.6% may suggest that Singaporeans are politically illiterate and as some cynics might put it - fully deserving of the authoritarian government they get.

In these five years, the average Singaporean worked harder, faster and cheaper for shrinking real wages while facing a skyrocketing cost of living in an increasingly crowded country whose infrastructure has not kept along with its immigration policy. In these past five years, Minilee's cabinet has proved itself stuffed silly with clowns who make public blunders of policy and speech and have earned the collective scorn of many. Yet when it comes down to a vote, the PAP was returned with a national average of 60.1% this year, down from 66.6% in 2006.

I present to you table 1: The swing votes of GRCs with unpopular ministers.

Things to note: In GRCs which had not been contested in 2006, I either take the average value of 66.6% as the baseline or 76.6% if the minister in charge was deemed a 'strong' minister with a great coattail then. If a ward has not been contested for more than 2 elections in a row before 2011, the minister is assumed to be a strong one.

(Persistent) groundwork and strong candidates have been advocated by Alex Au, who puts forth the theory that WP won its victory because it had these two principles where it won.

GRC, minister, portfolio PAP % (2011) PAP % (2006) % swing Party contesting Groundwork Strong candidates
George Yeo (MFA)
45.3 56.1 10.8 WP X X
Marine Parade
Goh Chok Tong (SM)
56.7 76.6 19.9 NSP X X
Holland-Bukit Timah
Vivian Balakrishnan (MCYS)
60.1 76.6* 16.5 SDP
Moulmein Kallang
Yaacob Ibrahim (Environment)
58.6 69.2 10.6 WP

Bishan Toa-Payoh
Wong Kan Seng (National security)
56.9 76.6* 19.7 SPP
East Coast
Raymond Lim (Transport)
Lim Swee Say (NTUC)
54.8 63.9 9.1 WP X
Khaw Boon Wan (Health)
63.9 76.7 12.8 SDP

Mah Bow Tan (Housing)
57.2 68.5 11.3 NSP

General Observations

The list, as you will realise, is a rogue's gallery, a veritable who's who of the clown show in Minilee's cabinet. Where policy failures have been evident, these are the ministers responsible, and the GRC wards they head.

George Yeo and Mr Goh Chok Tong have been included in the list for comparative purposes - being the biggest losers of this election who are not clowns.

While the vote swing against the PAP has been remarkably consistent in most other wards, an analysis of these battleground wards may teach us a few lessons that other bloggers haven't gleamed yet.

1. Singaporean voters do punish unpopular ministers and policy failures. Note that the swing vote in these wards are in excess of the 6.6% national average.

2. The vote swing is independent of variables such as the opposition party contesting, whether it has done persistent groundwork either in the election or in the years before the election, or whether it fielded strong candidates.

3. Contrary to expectations, Singaporeans did not punish the PAP for its policy failures in cost of living issues (Mah, Yaacob, and the two Lims got off quite well compared to their clown cohort) - but very much for failures of performance, with Vivian Balakrishnan, Wong Kan Seng, and Khaw Boon Wan in a distant third suffering the largest drop in vote shares.

4. Note that Gan Kim Yong, the Minister for Manpower, and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Minister for Finance who failed Econs 101, outperformed the national average vote due to the opposition sending in their own clown shows.

4. What is the percentage of voters in Holland-Bukit Timah and Bishan-Toa Payoh who believe in the principle of accountability, that ministers should bite the bullet and resign for embarrassing blunders and incompetence? The answer is: not enough. The answer is also: 9.9% and 13.1% respectively.

5. In general though, the answer in other battleground wards range from 3-5% - which does show that although Singaporeans are mad enough about policy failure and the general steering of the nation by the PAP, they are unwilling to send a strong enough signal to the ruling party. Are Singaporean voters politically illiterate then?

Answering the 3 responses to the election

We now have enough hard numbers to answer all 3 responses

A. "The politically illiterate voter failed the opposition parties, handing the PAP yet another convincing mandate.

While the swing votes suggest there are Singaporeans who behave like rational voters in other democracies, the PAP victories in these wards still show that either i. there are more than enough politically illiterate Singaporeans
ii. understanding that Aljunied would fall, voters felt the PAP should lose a GRC, just not theirs, or
iii. The opposition did not push hard enough on the unpopular ministers.

B. "WP was the only opposition party that has won a GRC, it must have done something right."

The pattern of swing votes show that Singaporean voters in this election did not reward classic retail politics; they voted not for the brand of the opposition, the calibre of team it sent, or even whether that team put in the groundwork.

Instead, they show that Singaporean voters were participating in an election where there is in effect just one party on the ballot - voting for or against the PAP.

C. "The GRC system must go; it kicked out a decent minister and let in an airhead."

Aljunied was won because it was a low-lying fruit on the branch, easily flipping because of the national vote swing. We posit from the table that if the unpopular ministers had been running in single seat wards, Wong Kan Seng and Vivian Balakrishnan could have been wiped out if it had not been for the goodwill generated by their backbencher colleagues, who played their part as grassroots fix-it men.
The GRC system will be kept because it has proven that in good times, popular ministers lend their coattails to green, untested, unready candidates while in bad times, unpopular ministers are bolstered by their decent backbencher colleagues.

Bonus stage: Explaining Aljunied

Aljunied was polled by the PAP (or its hired agents) to be a respectably decent ward fronted by a not-unpopular, non-clown minister. In its projections - published by The Straits Times, Aljunied was expected to be lost by a narrow margin.

We suggest the following as factors that made Aljunied resemble the clown wards more:

1. Clown mentor Papalee's interference, threatening Aljunied voters with everything short of sending in the tanks to punish them if Aljunied flips to WP.

Like it or not, the electorate is getting replaced by younger voters who do not take kindly to this barbaric and backward form of electioneering.

2. Clown mentor Papalee's antagonism of Malay voters in Singapore prior to the elections.

Like it or not, Aljunied precinct is a largely Malay precinct in Aljunied GRC. For that matter, so is the east of Singapore island in general, which explains Alex Au's musings here.

We should also note that the offer to promote Zainal Abidin Rasheed to Speaker of Parliament - a largely ceremonial and toothless role in Singapore - was a clumsy and hamfisted bribe to the Malay electorate, who have sought for years to gain access to the PAP leadership so their community issues can be heard and considered seriously in policy making. That Zainul has since announced his retirement from politics altogether suggests that the Malay community's feedback to him was not entirely pleasant.

3. Lim Hwee Hua's attack on Low Thia Khiang's handling of Hougang Town Council's finances was spun - rightly or wrongly - as a smear campaign. What could have been the equivalent of an October surprise was defanged and turned back onto the PAP, with PR consequences.

Bonus stage 2: Explaining Marine Parade

To be honest, I like Mr Goh Chok Tong. In a cabinet of clowns let by a mentor who just can't shut his mouth, Mr Goh has provided the political savvy needed to navigate a changing Singaporean electorate. Soon enough, I will write a tribute post on him but that will have to wait.

Mr Goh's 19.9% vote swing is the worst result in this year's elections. To be frank, Mr Goh brought this on his head with his dogged defense of Ms Tin Pei Ling. The obviously unqualified and unsuitable political candidate had a negative coattail of her own that clearly tripped up Mr Goh.

09 May 2011

Modelling the Singapore elections I: A call for electoral law reform

Why do Singaporeans vote the way they do? What goes on in their heads when they cast a vote? Is the Singaporean voter a rational voter? Or did the Workers' Party and the general opposition call for a First World Parliament flounder embarrassingly, 81 to 6, because there isn't exactly a First World Electorate?

Despite being a parliamentary democracy based on regular, free, and fair elections, the psychology of the Singaporean voter has remained a black box for decades, preventing the scientific modelling of voter behaviour and trends. This is in part due to laws which prohibit the publishing of polls conducted during the elections period.

If information is a resource, this law prevents the monetisation of particular voting knowledge and hence excludes the participation of major polling organisations. In other words, there is no incentive for a polling organisation to conduct regular snapshots of the electorate.

If this information does not flow freely, the overall intelligence of the electorate is suppressed. In other words, the absence of regular, published, scientific polls reinforces the political illiteracy of an electorate; no one knows for sure - aside from parties who can afford their internal polls - what are the important issues, how the ground stands against various parties. No one knows for certain which demographics are truly in play, what the voter psychodemographics are, the issues pertinent to each demographic, and how to reach out to them.

Embarrassingly enough, Minilee and Goh Chok Tong had to admit that they didn't know what the young voter was thinking and that they didn't know the extent of the anger in the electorate until the election period was under way. From this, we can surmise that even the People's Action Party either does not possess adequate  resources to accurately poll the electorate or the polling organisation it hires privately was frankly incompetent.

Taken together, this legal arrangement reinforces the political apathy and illiteracy of the average voter. Without access to knowledge on which national issues are at play, the average voter is atomised and individualised. This privileges election strategies that cater to the voter as a narrow-minded, selfish individual who responds to bribes such as housing upgrading, "grow and share packages", and so on.

The Straits Times and other mainstream media by default are the only entities in Singapore that can get away with conducting informal, unscientific polls and pass them off as credible studies during the elections period. These have very little credibility to academics and statisticians, while having the maximum sway over the average reader due to the pretensions to credibility of these studies.

The electorate, the ruling party, and the opposition parties need access to regular, published polling data so every side can make informed decisions in an election.
I therefore call on our legislators in parliament to end the ban on the publication of polling during the election period in Singapore, and hope you too can join me in this call.

07 May 2011

One final question for GE2011

As a voter, I will ask myself this as I enter the polling booth in a few hours' time.

Has my life improved in the past five years? Or do I count myself among the swathes of Singaporeans who had to work harder, faster, cheaper  - while facing rising costs? Did the PAP's idea of their successful five years coincide with how my life went?

Do I see my life improving in the next five years under the incumbents? Do I see myself working even harder, faster, and cheaper in the next five years thanks to what the PAP considers as the right policies for Singapore?

That is all.

26 April 2011

On Vivian Balakrishnan

Vivian Balakrishnan and the video that cannot be named

Last week, Vivian Balakrishnan sounded like a sphinx speaking in riddles and conundrums. Singaporeans are used to the fury of People Action Party attacks on opposition candidates during elections but this time round, the attacks have started even before Nomination Day. Adding to the unseasonal and surreal atmosphere this year is Vivian's mysteriously-worded attacks and half insinuations on Vincent Wijeysingha, a likely candidate for the Singapore Democratic Party.

As previous targets Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong, Steve Chia, and James Gomez will know, the attacks and scandals begin and suddenly the entire news - and the entire elections - for the next few weeks will seem to revolve around their alleged shortcomings, the attacks from the PAP rising to a crescendo, "Please lah, withdraw!"

Dr Vivian's attacks on Wijeysingha, courtesy of Alex Au:

I am not sure what [the SDP] strategy is. I would like to know whether they have confirmed that they are contesting, I would like to know their line-up. I can’t help feeling that part of the reason for their reticence is they have elements of their agenda they are not prepared to disclose and subject to scrutiny. Eventually, they will have to come out of the closet.     (The Straits Times, 20 April 2011)

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday described the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team running against him as ‘strange bedfellows’ who do not have a shared vision or ideology...In an interview with The Sunday Times, he said: ‘It has been brought to my attention – in fact it is the SDP which is suppressing a certain YouTube video, which raises some very awkward questions about the agenda and motivations of the SDP and its candidates.’    (The Sunday Times, 24 April 2011)
Why would an attack by a sitting minister on a very naughty opposition candidate be this cryptic? The PAP has never been shy from calling a spade a spade  witness its blunt denunciation of Steve Chia in 2003.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the dog whistler

It's taken the blogosphere half a week to figure out the game. Vivian Balakrishnan alludes to the open secret of Dr Vincent Wijeysingha's homosexuality. He alludes to a video taken at a public forum where Dr Wijeysingha discussed issues which were then popularly discussed like the age of consent and the decriminalisation of gay sex in Singapore.

Why would this discussion - in the video, Dr Wijeysingha clearly does not take a stand on either these two issues! - be so horrendously evil? And why would it then warrant such a roundabout, mincing reference?

Vivian Balakrishnan is not a sage, nor a sphinx, nor a fool. He is putting into practice dog whistle politics - carefully parsing his words to target a key demographic. Balakrishnan is not speaking to the press or to the general public that reads The Straits Times.

He is speaking to a key demographic who is not in on the secret but can decipher it with clues like - an agenda, strange bedfellows, closets. He speaks to a demographic that will be spring into action because there is an insinuation of a gay agenda secretly planned by a gay politician who Vivian Balakrishnan simultaneously accuses of fooling his party on his motivations and is also in cahoots with his party to suppress this video.

Consciously or otherwise, Vivian Balakrishnan furiously dog-whistles the demographic consisting of Thio Su Mien, her co-coup leaders at AWARE, Derek Hong, and other concerned conservative Christians. The "Gay agenda", the spectre of homosexual politicians pushing to overturn legislation - an obvious wedge issue for an obvious demographic, dog whistled expertly by a coy minister of very few direct words.

Vivan Balakrishnan, the enabler of religious identity politics

Consciously or otherwise, Vivian Balakrishnan invites Feminist Mentor and conservative Christians to wage another round of their cultural war in Singapore's general election this year. Consciously or otherwise, Balakrishnan will make 2011 the first time in Singapore's history where the conservative Christian vote has wedge issues in the elections brought to their attention.

Vivian Balakrishnan can right now say he meant nothing, that he meant something else which he will not follow up at the present moment but will reveal when the time is ripe, etc. The fact is the wheels have been set into motion and no one can close this Pandora's box.

If a gay man like Alex Au can hear the dog whistle (even though he misconstrues it to be an ad hominem attack), Conservative Christians can likewise hear Balakrishnan's dog whistle shrilly calling. At best, this will be the year in Singapore's history that conservative Christians gel as a voting bloc. At worst - if the PAP allows Balakrishnan to make Wijeysingha this election's key target -  this will be the year where a conservative Christian wedge issue becomes the key issue of a general election.

Vivian Balakrishnan - now, thou art Death, the Destroyer of Worlds

I was here when Thio Su Mien and her co-conspirators took over AWARE. I was here when Thio Su Mien and her co-conspirators had Singapore civil society under strain with their religious intolerance for secularism. I was here when it seemed we would no longer be at peace between peoples of different faiths, between believers and secularists.

I for one do not wish there to be a new cultural war between conservative Christians and everyone else. And yet if Vivian Balakrishnan continues his attacks, this will surely be an issue for conservative Christians. After all, who else would Balakrishnan count on to attack Dr Wijeysingha? His fellow cabinet colleagues, who tilted against the conservative Christian coup of a feminist organisation? Papalee, who thinks being gay is in the genes and can't be helped - and welcomes gay MPs? Goh Chok Tong, who went on record to say that gay civil servants are perfectly okay?

And should Balakrishnan succeed in making the sexual orientation of Dr Wijeysingha THE issue of this election, it is clear conservative Christians will rise up to the occasion - together with their leaders, who may feel obliged to weigh in especially when it comes to chusing politicians who may change the legislation. And should the conservative Christians rise up, will not their old foes in the AWARE saga - feminists, members of other religions, secular and agnostic Singaporeans rise up to counteract the perceived rise of religious politics in Singapore?

Perhaps Vivian Balakrishnan is pleased at the new cleavages he has wrought on Singapore society? Perhaps he is satisfied at the introduction of dog whistling to religious groups on wedge issues? Maybe he fancies himself a trailblazer but I see him as a sower of potential destruction in Singapore.

Will there be religious riots or even religious-secular riots in the future because of Vivian Balakrishnan's dog whistling? I'll make no bones about it - Vivian Balakrishnan's comments on Dr Wijeysingha constitute a threat to Singapore's long term stability as a secular, multireligious society.

I call on Vivian Balakrishnan to step down as a candidate in this election. You sir are not fit to be an elected representative of the people. Please lah, withdraw!

24 April 2011

General Elections 2011: Retrocognition & recognition

2011 will be a watershed year for Singapore politics. For the first time in its post-independence history, the opposition manifesto consists of bread and butter issues, its issues resonating with the common man in the street: jobs, wages, cost of living, the property bubble. For the first time in Singapore's post-independence history, the PAP argues on ideological terms, stating a belief in the unproven, unproveable goodness of immaterial concepts and slogans: leadership renewal, foreign talent, securing the future.

The PAP manifesto and platform for this year will cut no ground with the electorate - as other airy-fairy concepts from campaigns of yesteryear have failed with the electorate. The Singaporean voter was never swayed by an appeal to intrinsic goods like "democracy", "checks and balances", so what makes the PAP clown show think the same voter can be swayed by an appeal to how having "leadership renewal" or bringing in foreign talent will make things automatically better for his lot?

The opposition manifesto and platform for this year has already been written for them, out of pure necessity. Hard statistics tell hard truths; Singapore's mandarins may expend millions on international PR campaigns on its 'success story' but this comes with increased scrutiny from statisticians around the world - whose recent reports put in hard numbers the hardship that the average Singaporean has had to endure for the past 15 years of a failed expansionary economic policy by the PAP.

The profile of the Singaporean voter points towards an interest in hard numbers and the tangibles. For the first time in Singapore's post-independence history, the PAP is the party of highfalutin ideas nobody has the time for, and the opposition is the party of bread and butter issues.

This election is the PAP's to lose.

10 March 2011

ASEAN diplomacy, Singapore style!

Will East Timor be allowed to join ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian nations)?

Its application is sponsored by Indonesia, its former occupier. A few days ago, it appeared to be a done deal.

"We have visited all ASEAN countries and everyone has agreed politically that Timor can join," said Ramos-Horta.

That was then. Now, it seems the ASEAN members who have given East Timor's president assurances are backing away. The loudest dissenters, according to Barry Wan from The Straits Times, are a motley group consisting of Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma.

Their reasoning?

Singapore has been quite adamant that the prospective new member needs to prepare properly before it can join the bloc.

Cambodia, Laos, and Burma believe ASEAN cannot afford to accept a weak and poor nation as a member.

Vietnam believes accepting a weak nation will put ASEAN more firmly into the Chinese orbit.

In ASEAN, diplomacy is another name for international comedy.

Singapore's diplomats lobbied hard for the entry of the Indochinese nations into ASEAN in its last expansion, knowing full well that Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam were not properly prepared to join the grouping.

Cambodia, Laos, and Burma certainly didn't object to their own membership applications despite being already preyed upon by the Chinese model of mercantile capitalism prior to them joining ASEAN.

As part of the new Indochinese membership of ASEAN, Vietnam's diplomats and politicians should already know that their neighbours (let's say Burma at the very least) report dutifully to Peking the proceedings of each ASEAN meeting they attend.

East Timor, as a Southeast Asian nation with oil reserves, will attract Chinese diplomacy, development, and political influence whether or not it joins ASEAN.

ASEAN diplomacy deconstructed

Being China's second banana in ASEAN, Singapore will not want to see ASEAN fall further under or more obviously into the Chinese orbit because it means having to compete with 10 other countries who also want to be China's second banana in the region.

Similarly, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma are aware that East Timor is an oil-producing upstart. As a new country that needs to build its infrastructure from scratch, East Timor is terra firma and fresh meat for investment and development funds. The three Indochinese nations do not want China to divert its ASEAN warchest (spent partially on building railroads to connect Peking to Indochina) to this new nation.

As Vietnam's diplomats and leaders are aware, being earmarked as a Chinese satellite doesn't mean co-option as a Chinese ally. Vietnam's China policy consists of resisting Chinese political influence in its ruling party and state organs, while accepting Chinese money. Their opposition to East Timor's membership is motivated by the fear that East Timor will better Vietnam on its own China policy.

Will East Timor be allowed to join ASEAN? Even its biggest detractors in ASEAN think it would do just fine in ASEAN!

08 March 2011

From civil service to political service

If the leaders of the People's Action Party have been more than truthful, their star recruits for the next election will feature senior civil servants such as the former chief of the army and other permanent secretaries, directors, and assistant directors from various ministries.

Prepare for their bundling into strong Group Representative Constituencies, where their ascension from civil service to political service political mastery will be accomplished on the coattails of popular ministers and senior ministers of state.

Prepare for the attempts to convince that these senior civil servants have earned their right to take charge of public policy, that they have exhibited the skills to lead Singapore as the fourth generation of PAP's leaders.

If you have read my previous post, you'll understand that like Wall Street and its increasingly well-educated financiers and their complicated toxic instruments, the Singapore civil service produces increasingly well-educated bureaucrats who have honed to an art the skill of producing improbable KPIs.

In the Singapore civil service, success is measured through how creatively its bureaucrats can create creatively skewed KPIs. The more educated and scholarly the civil servant, the darker his arts of creating such toxic instruments. This trend will continue as long as Singapore's bureaucracy continues employing expensive, highly educated scholars for fast track promotions.

To allow the continued ascension into heaven parliament of Singapore's senior civil servants is to reward their innovation of inventing KPIs and statistics that have less and less correlation to the base reality. In time (if not now), the map will bear no relation to the territory, the statistics will bear no relation to what they measure, the representation of Singapore will bear no relation to anything existing in Singapore.

Senior civil servants are a dead-end product of Singapore's meritocratic system. Do not expect solutions or initiatives from them. I strongly urge the electors to strongly reject PAP GRC slates that include recent senior civil servants.

06 March 2011

Wall Street Smarts

This was your comparative reading for the week:

Wall Street Smarts by Calvin Trillin
Smart Guys and Wall Street by Paul Krugman

As your readings for the week have been suspended for the duration of Singapore's Silly Season, this will be a presentation instead.

What makes a theory valid?

Calvin Trillin is a humorist, not an economist. The essay is a tall tale told by a fictitious man. Wall Street Smarts exists in the realm of fable, establishing timeless truths (or morals) from fabrications.

Why was there a financial crisis in 2008? Trillin tells a story instead, which Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, endorses from his observation of graduate school and the financial service industry.

How do we measure the validity of a piece of qualitative research (or in this case, a qualitative essay)? Without recourse to charts and statistics, the idea expounded must be tested in terms of theoretical rigour, explanatory value (both in context and transferability), and credibility. The biggest test of whether a qualitative piece of reasoning is valid lies very much with its credibility - when deconstructed and restated in its barest axioms, would you be able to buy the explanation whether or not you agree with it?

Wall Street Smarts, restated

Why did the financial crisis of 2008 occur? One could point to the many economic explanations - overinvestment, market bubbles, toxic instruments. But why were overinvestment, market bubbles, and toxic instruments promoted? Why indeed were derivatives invented and then pushed the way they were?

Here, the economists have no answers because the question asks for an exogenous explanation for the crisis, which lies outside the boundaries of the economics discipline.

Trillin in effect proposes an explanation that turns the spotlight on the history of economics, the social anthropology of the finance industry, and the political economy of employment.

1. In the old days where finance was about selling actual industry, the financial services sector largely recruited from a hereditary class of bankers and financiers. Barriers to entry were not too high: a college education would have done it (plus either relatives or friends or classmates in the industry).

2. Owing to comparative lower prestige, the financial services sector did not attract the best, the brightest, the most ambitious, the most greedy.

3. The roots of the financial crises of the late 20th century and 2008 lie in the increase of prestige of the financial services sector, its attraction of the best and the brightest (etc.) graduates, and the increase in university tuition and student debt, and of course the balloon in executive pay in the financial sector compared to other sectors.

4. The last two factors create an industry fronted by innovative, ambitious, and greedy agents who were smart enough to invent complicated toxic instruments, fake products, massaged company accounts...

5. The financial crisis occurs because there is no longer any correlation between the healthy trade of toxic instruments and massaged numbers, and the health of the real economy.

Wall Street Smarts, Singapore civil service edition!

The next best test (other than the very subjective notion of 'credibility') is transferability. What other context, what other industry can we find a similar set of environmental factors?

We note that a post-independence strategy of the Singapore is its much-vaunted introduction of university graduates into its civil service. Gathering pace more in the late 1970s, the policy has morphed into the recruitment of scholars fast-tracked into senior posts and handpicked for politics by the ruling PAP.

Note the increasing salaries and bonuses for the civil service. Note the increasing salaries for MPs and ministers - which only began when the scholars started entering politics. Note the increasing reliance on complicated KPIs and statistics that no one can comprehend and therefore trust, note the trumpeting of dodgy rankings that somehow suggest Singapore is the best nation is this and that and the other. Note the anger from the ground about how far the trumpeted KPIs and rankings are divorced from the everyday reality and experience of normal Singaporeans.

Wall Street Smarts - not just a story that took place a long time ago in a country far, far away.

04 March 2011

Tharman Shammugaratnam's crowning clown moment

Economic illiterate or discombobulator?

Finance minister Tharman Shammugaratnam (PAP-Jurong) continues to perform his clown routine in parliament as he defends Singapore's budget for 2010.

Possible in light of strong criticism from the blogosphere, the minister admitted that yes, the GST is a regressive tax. However, it seems that is his knowledge of basic economics ends here. Tweaking the rate of the consumption tax will benefit higher income groups and foreigners more, he claims. Yes. That's what Shammugaratnam said -- reducing the rate of the GST will benefit the rich more because the bulk of the GST is collected from them.

Which part of regressive tax does finance minister Tharman Shammugaratnam not understand? Why will he not admit or acknowledge what any introductory econs text states baldly - that a consumption tax makes the poor pay a higher proportion of their income than the rich and that reducing the rate of a regressive tax will make the poor pay a lesser proportion?

Either finance minister Tharman Shammugaratnam is an economic illiterate and should be removed from his post forthwith, or the minister a glib discombobulator who thinks that Singaporean citizens and residents are economic illiterates and should be removed from his post forthwith.

Why Tharman Shammugaratnam will rather clown about than tell you the truth

In 2003, the GST was introduced to gradually replace income taxes, the complicated system of duties and levies, and corporate taxes as the main revenue source for the Singapore government.

The advantages? The global rich will be more likely to make Singapore their home or at least vacation home. Singapore, I suspect, has one of the world's more lenient tax regimes for the rich. Corporate taxes in Singapore are now the lowest in Asia, next to Hong Kong. Having to deal with less duties and levies lessens the red tape that corporations and entrepreneurs have to deal with.

The downside? The progressive tax instruments that existed prior to 1993 have all been dismantled -- progressive income taxes, corporate taxes, and levies and duties to target the rich. Wealth is redistributed from the poor to the rich in Singapore's post-1993 tax system.

Tharman Shammugaratnam and the PAP will go down defending the GST in the short to medium run as a reform of the entire system will take time and planning. They will go down insisting that the regressive tax structure stay in place (and the poor receive strategic state handouts). They will if necessary play dumb on the regressive tax structure because it constitutes the main revenue source of the Singapore government.

They will attempt to tweak the system and preserve the GST for as long as they can, unless the electorate speaks loudly, unless citizens and residents complain loudly and often, unless bloggers continue to expose the PAP's faulty and discombobulating defense of an indefensible regressive tax.

A chief clown for the clown show?

Tharman Shammugaratnam is the finance minister of Singapore. Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong were the finance ministers of Singapore before they became prime ministers themselves.

Tharman Shammugaratnam is unfit to be the finance minister of Singapore. He is either economically illiterate, or a glib discombobulator, or an insincere leader who cannot level with Singaporeans. Tharman Shammugaratnam is unfit to be the next prime minister of Singapore.

In the coming general election, I strongly urge the electors to strongly reject Tharman Shammugaratnam (PAP-Jurong) and deprive him of the opportunity to further damage the poor and the middle class.

01 March 2011

GST, inequality and regressive taxes: A Model Answer

Joseph Henry Greene is part of the Citibank team headed by Johan van Oenen that made Goh Keng Swee and Singapore its first billions, betting the US dollar against the British pound. The team subsequently recommended that Dr Goh develop Singapore as a finance hub servicing the "Asian dollar market".

Here is Joseph Henry Greene on the subject of the GST just when the consumption tax was about to be set in place:
This sales tax which is coming on is regressive. Why the government would have a sales tax – which is regressive – at a time like this? It won’t hurt the people at the moment but if there should be any trouble in the future, it’s going to make the disparity between the very wealthy and the average working class of Singapore... It will cause a strain and it will exacerbate.

(Economic development of Singapore, Interview with Joseph Henry Greene. National Archives, Oral History Centre. 1994)

Here is a member of the economic literati telling you the GST is a regressive tax. Listen to him instead of the PAP clown show.

The PAP clown show continues! (GST edition)

This is not your reading for the week. We are suspending your readings for this week and indeed for many months to come. That is because we are in Silly Season. Very Silly Season

The headlines say it all:
PAP MPs question who WP is trying to help
Cutting GST to tackle inflation would benefit rich more than poor, they say


PAP MPs on Monday hit back at Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang's broad-ranging attack on the Government's Budget. At least seven MPs from the ruling party stood up to disagree, as they questioned his call for GST cuts...

Mr Christopher de Souza (PAP-Holland Bukit Timah) and Prof Koo Tsai Kee (PAP-Tanjong Pagar) said that trimming GST would be more beneficial to the rich than to the poor

Said Mr de Souza: "High income earners, we know, consume more and therefore pay more GST."

In 2008, finance minister Tharman Shammugaratnam (PAP-Jurong) said that in absolute terms, the bottom 60% of earners here pay less than 25% of the total GST collected each year.

We can only come to one of two conclusions. Singapore is run by

1. A bunch of economic illiterates who don't bother to pick up any econs textbook, which will tell them a consumption tax (i.e. the GST) is a regressive tax.

2. A bunch of glib discombobulators who know that the GST is a regressive tax but refuse to acknowledge it as such. Instead, they work on the assumption that the electorate is composed of economic illiterates.

Finance minister Tharman Shammugaratnam will distract you by talking about absolute terms. He hopes you won't realise that no matter what the bottom 60% pay for their GST, they're still paying proportionately more out of their total income than the top 40%.

Christopher de Souza will distract you by saying the rich spend more and therefore pay more total GST. He hopes you won't realise that the rich spend a lower proportion of their income on consumption - and have a higher proportion of their income in savings - than the poor.

Prof Koo Tsai Kee will distract you by saying that the tax pool gets redistributed disproportionately to the lower income earners in the form of GST credits. He hopes you won't realise that he just conceded the inherent regressiveness of the tax, and that it requires annual government handouts (aka GST credits) to redress the balance or appear to redress it.

The PAP continues to run a clown show.

Whether they are economic illiterates or glib discombobulators, I recommend that the following current MPs be dropped from the PAP slate for the coming elections, and that if reselected to run, the electorate vote against such clowns:

Mr Christopher de Souza (PAP-Holland Bukit Timah)
Prof Koo Tsai Kee (PAP-Tanjong Pagar)
Tharman Shammugaratnam (PAP-Jurong)

Stupidity and disingenuity must never be rewarded.

08 February 2011

The system gets the results it wants

Your reading of the week: The Singapore Monitor interviews Ivy Goh Nair

Discussion questions:

1. What are the properties of a bureaucratic structure that simultaneously absolve individuals within the system from responsibility and accountability and hoist the same responsibility and accountability to other individuals?

2. Who has the function within the Singapore civil service to exercise oversight over this transactional system of shared/deferred/inferred responsibility and accountability?

3. How would this overseer function be expected to work - and how would it actually work out? Why would the two not coincide?

28 January 2011

Underemployment in post-crisis economies

Your comparative readings for the week

Ex-NUS graduate: I'm a failed product of our meritocratic system
In Japan, young face roadblocks
The curse of the class of 2009

Discussion questions
1. What is a labour market?

2. As a perfect market, how would we theorise it to work? In a perfect, rational world how would the labour market deal with a recession situation? How would a "recession graduate" experience this?

3. Consider the real world examples. Why does it not work perfectly? Can there be cultural, social reasons why a local labour market will never work perfectly?