Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lim Zi Rui : I don't know what I'm defending anymore....

When Lim Zi Rui brought up this issue during a Ministerial Forum dialog between SM Goh and NTU students, SM Goh must have been caught 'off guard' because he gave a very poor response. As an SM and PM for more than a decade, we expect him to have a good answer to this question because as a high ranking leader of this country and it is his responsibility to preserve the sense of belonging among Singaporeans - it is something he has to foster among the people he leads.

“When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean. But that was about five, ten years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.."
- NTU Student, Lim Rui Zi

“You want to have a home. Who’s going to build your HDB flat?”
- SM Goh Chok Tong

I'm really surprised at the answer given by SM Goh. Singaporeans have never taken issue with the construction workers brought here by the construction industry. They don't take up citizenship or permanent residency here and they fill jobs Singaporeans have moved away from. They have been here for almost 3 decades since the early 80s and they stay at temporary housing at the construction sites and dorms. This is different from the recent influx of the past 10 years that intensified competition for jobs and housing....and it is this extension of the policy that brought in workers at all levels for jobs that are normally filled by Singaporeans that is the issue.

“This is your country,” SM Goh replied. “What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?”

“For my part, don’t worry about me,” Mr Lim said. “I will definitely do something, if I can, for Singapore. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.”

“If this is happening, it is very serious,” said SM Goh.

“If the majority feel they don’t belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don’t feel they belong over here?” asked SM Goh
In the above exchange, SM Goh asked Mr. Lim what he can do to make him feel that he belongs. That is strange isn't it? As a leader, isn't he suppose to articulate a common vision and create a sense of purpose for the people he leads? Mr. Lim had already explained clearly earlier in the dialogue why he felt the the sense of belonging has disappeared....yet SM Goh denied Mr. Lim's explanation (high foreign influx) and asked him what has to be done.

Earlier on during the dialogue session, the Minister made the point that the next General Elections, due to be held by February 2012, would be a “watershed” for the future of Singapore from which a “fourth Prime Minister and a core team of younger ministers will emerge”.
I agree with SM Goh that the coming elections will be a 'watershed' but not for the reasons he gave. Many Singaporeans have woken up and begun to see the outcome of the PAP policies and its form of govt. For many ordinary Singaporeans, the PAP govt is taking us to a place we don't want to go with their lopsided unbalanced policies. Singaporeans also understand that nothing is going to change if the PAP is again swept into power with an overwhelming majority - it will just take the people's support for granted and dish out more of the same unbalanced policies. As long as the one-man-one vote system is in place, there is a way out of this vicious cycle for ordinary Singaporeans...and this election will be a watershed because more people than ever before are willing to support positive change and it will come only when they exercise their vote wisely.

‘I don’t know what I’m defending anymore’[Link]
By Ewen Boey – October 30th, 2010

Young Singaporeans like Lim Zi Rui are becoming increasingly disillusioned and they’re not afraid to let it show.

The 23-year-old final-year aerospace engineering student was among a 1,000-strong crowd who attended a Ministerial Forum organised on Friday by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Students’ Union.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was the guest-of-honour.

During a dialogue session after SM Goh’s main address, Lim stood up and asked if the Minister was aware that many young people no longer felt a sense of ownership in Singapore.

“When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,” said Lim as reported in The Straits Times.

“But that was about five, ten years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.”

He said this was a view that many of the men he served with during National Service also held.

“I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more,” he said.

Mr Goh replied, “‘This is one early sign of danger… If this is happening, it is very serious.” He went on to ask Mr Lim why he felt disconnected.

Mr Lim told SM Goh, ”‘I’m still serving as an officer and I definitely would love to defend Singapore.”

But he said the key difference between him and his foreign friends was, “I tell them, this is my country. I can’t just leave here whenever I want to. You can come and play and work here, but I have to stay here.”

SM Goh responded by defending the government’s policy of welcoming foreigners.

“You want to have a home. Who’s going to build your HDB flat?” said the Minister.

Lim replied that due to the inability to afford the sky-high public housing prices, his brother had to call off his engagement.

“My brother got engaged, but lost his engagement because he could not afford an HDB flat,” said Lim, who went on to state that his question was not about “integrating foreigners”.

“My question was, how are we going to help the younger generation feel a sense of belonging to Singapore? I don’t think it’s about integrating foreigners,” said Lim.

“This is your country,” SM Goh replied. “What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?”

“For my part, don’t worry about me,” Mr Lim said. “I will definitely do something, if I can, for Singapore. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.”

“If this is happening, it is very serious,” said SM Goh.

“If the majority feel they don’t belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don’t feel they belong over here?” asked SM Goh.

Earlier on during the dialogue session, the Minister made the point that the next General Elections, due to be held by February 2012, would be a “watershed” for the future of Singapore from which a “fourth Prime Minister and a core team of younger ministers will emerge”.

SM Goh also challenged the young undergrads in his audience to “make a difference to Singapore” by joining local politics.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Teo Soh Lung: 23 years on S'pore, M'sia ex-ISA detainees speak out

You watch this video .....its a reminder that the ISA/ISD is still around, the draconian Newspaper and Presses Act that the Law Society opposed 23 years ago is still around, the illegal assembly laws have been tightened and so on. I would like to bring your attention to something that you might have missed that came out a few days ago - International Quality of Life Index. Singapore ranked 70[Link] behind all other developed Asian countries - Japan, Taiwan, S. Korea. These countries have thrived as full blown democracies. As the economic achievements of the PAP govt start to fade and is overtaken by other countries, what stands out is its authoritarianism. This auhoritarianism has become hard for ordinary Singaporeans to accept as it stands in the way of much needed change.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Khaw Boon Wan's $8 bypass....

Khaw Boon Wan is one of the most well liked ministers around.....maybe because most people haven't been means tested or had a severe illness not covered by insurance.

In a recent posting in his blog (, he wrote that he paid only $8 for his recent bypass. $8 is not even enough to buy a ticket for the movies these days. Recall that Minister Khaw's condition was detected through an expensive calcium test[Link] which ordinary folks probably don't if they have the same condition as Khaw, they probably won't find out about their heart condition until they have a severe heart attack. The reason Minister Khaw paid only $8 because he is covered by both Medishield and a private insurance plan. This is strange right? I really wonder why minister who is paid millions in salary per year needs to supplement his Medshield with a private plan. If Khaw as a millionaire minister finds Medishield inadequate and supplements it with a private insurance plan, what does that say about the Medishield?! These private plans can cost $2k-$3K or higher per year depending on your age and health condition.

Singapore's healthcare system has to be always compared with the those of other 1st world countries. We are definitely better than most developing countries if you're not too poor to afford it. If you look at the % of the healthcare burden shouldered by individuals (vs govt expediture) it is the highest in the developed world even higher than the US which had a healthcare crisis that had to be fixed. Our system is not universal:

"We have been particularly effective in reducing the % of uninsured young Singaporeans, from 45% in 2007 to 17% in 2009" - Khaw Boon Wan [Link]

In the US when they debate the severe healthcare crisis of a 'large' number of uninsured Americans, they number they were talking about was 15.4%[Link]. For a developed country, our uninsured population is huge. After Obama's healthcare reform, Singapore will be the only developed country without universal healthcare[Link].

When I read Minister Khaw's blog, I'm very happy that he acknowledges that more needs to be done:

"........ especially in extending MediShield to include mental illness, congenital illness and neonatal treatment. There were also comments on raising the claim limits on outpatient cancer care, so as to relieve the burden on cancer patients. " - Khaw Boon Wan

I wrote about coverage of children with congenital illnesses many times in my blog and it has been the topic of much debate over the past years. If the system does not take care of Singaporean children who are born sick, can we ever say the system is good? The reason the govt doesn't do this is simply because it doesn't want to allocate money to solve this. But what is lacking in govt is not money but heart. Perhaps Minister Khaw has his heart at the right place because he at least recognise that this is something that has to be fixed. However, he belongs to a political party that leans too far to the right whose basic philosophy is to shift as much burden as possible to the sick and their families. It has been many years, many babies and many parents who struggle to provide care for these children with little help from the govt. The money is there ...we are not a poor country. But helping sick babies is too difficult for this govt to do - we need to wait, debate and ponder over it for decades.....but there are no big deal to just spend $387M on a sporting event or lose a few billion in western banks or spend money on expensive military hardware that has little relevance in a world where the threats have changed from all out war to low intensity conflicts. Minister Khaw needs to ask for more budget to cover those who have no insurance and take care of those who are now left out by the system. ...if we treat healthcare as important as defense, we can only get stronger as a nation because ultimately when the time comes and we are called to serve with our lives, we will remember how well we were taken care of in our time of need.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

SGX takeover of ASX faces political opposition...

SGX offer to buy ASX for S$10.7B looks like a good financial deal for the Australians. SGX is paying a huge premium of 37% above the price based on AGX's current stock market valuation. This reminds me of SingTel takeover of Optus which proved to be drag on its performance for many years. The new CEO of SGX perhaps feels pressured to impress with a big move given his other ideas like getting rid of the lunch time, high frequency trading and introduction of black pools have not been well received. The previous SGX CEO brought in many (sometimes crappy) Chinese companies known as S-shares which was great for SGX and its stakeholders i.e. brokerages but sometimes painful for small shareholders of S-chips. Singapore companies have had a number of major takeovers of foreign counterparts more often than not the outcomes are not positive especially so when Singapore companies overpay - what comes to mind are Shin Corp, Americal President Line (by NOL) etc.

The ASX deal is opposed by Australian politicians who view the Singapore political system negatively:
"Singapore is a state that tramples all over freedom of speech, democracy, the rights of oppositions, the ability for public discourse," -Greens leader Bob Brown told Dow Jones [Link]
“(They) don't respect this nation in the way they should, they don't respect our aspiration for a more democratic and fair society, and have a poor track record in regarding Australians as equals." - Green leader Bob Brown
"I have a desire some things in my country are left owned by my country. I do not wish to live in a country of serfs working for foreign landlords," - Independent lawmaker Bob Katter [Link]
I think the deal is likely to be derailed given ASX is an Australian monopoly and it is clearly against their national interest to have it under the control of foreign company. Singapore political system is viewed as unacceptable by certain Australians politicians and they cringe at the thought of Singapore companies coming in to dominate various business sectors because of PAP's lack of respect of human rights and undemocratic ways. Bob Katter worries that such invasions by "foreign landlords" will result in a country of serfs working for foreigners. In Singapore we get to hear PAP's explanation that foreigners will create jobs for locals and there is nobody as powerful as Bob Katter around to warn us that we might turn into serfs in our own country and stop that from happening.

Monday, October 25, 2010

PMETs and cohesiveness in our society.

I'm overseas and getting access to the Internet is not so easy in some places. A few days ago on the 19 Oct 2010, I wanted to post something on the 4th anniversary of the Wee Shu Min incident [Link] but couldn't get access to the Internet. For many Singaporeans, that incident was a wakeup call to the widening class divide in our society. The incident started when a blogger Derek Wee wrote about his worries about how the intense economic competition resulted in structural unemployment among Singaporeans and how we end up with the most having the "most highly educated taxi drivers in the world" because it is so difficult to get a job when you're retrench above the age of 40. You should read Derek's post[Link] and think about what he said and you may find answers to several questions - why people don't have children, why people leave, why our society is losing its cohesiveness. Before I discuss these issues, further I will tell you a story.

4 weeks ago, I woke up late and had to take a taxi to get to work on time. I managed to catch a cab driven by a man in his early 50s. My brain must still be half asleep when I was in the taxi because I asked him a rather insensitive question - whether driving taxi was his part-time retirement job. He told me that 7 years ago, he went to work one day and was asked to leave because his performance was poor. He couldn't believe it because he had been with the company for 20 years and did not make any major mistake or had any discipline problems. He had been in his current managerial position for the 7 years doing the same thing year after year. He went to MOM to seek help and they told him there was nothing they could do and he would have to sue the company if he wanted his job back. There was no realistic chance of him winning a lawsuit given performance assessment is a subjective thing so he decided to move on and look for another job. After looking for 6 months, he couldn't find an employer who would hire him for the same type of job (probably due to age) so he ended up driving taxis - one of the few jobs still reserved for Singaporeans. While looking around for a job, he realised his former company probably decided to sack him because they could find someone younger to fill his job for 1-2K less pay per month. After years of annual increments, the company discovered they paid him "too much". However, instead of talking to him about a pay cut to help him keep his job, they decided simply to sack him. The company probably did not want to create potential "disgruntled employee" by keeping him around after pay cuts - finding an excuse to sack him then replacing him with someone cheaper was a lot easier to do under Singapore employment rules. There was extreme bitterness in his voice when he told me what happened to him.

The above story is just one example of how companies get rid of older workers. Given the floodgates are opened for younger and cheaper foreign labour, companies have the option not to keep older workers. In the past when the labor market became tight during the good times, companies were more willing to give older workers a chance. However, now that the floodgates are open and companies have access to a large pool of cheaper younger foreign workers, it is hard for older workers to get a job that makes full use of their skills and experience.

Strutural unemployment is just one of the problems in this ultra-competitive environment. The intense competition leads to a "take care of yourself first" mentality. The profit motive dominate the decisions of companies and the "hire and fire" without any social safety net and protection creates a constant sense of instability. People do not want to have children when they feel insecure. When you add this sense of instability to the rising income gap you get many people who are unhappy with the system. In addition to that, we have a group of elites who are groomed, protected in secure jobs, overpaid and are given the best opportunities available without facing the intense competition of the average Joes in our society. This is the source of intense resentment that broke out 4 years ago when the Wee Shu Min incident ignited hatred that spread beyond cyberspace. You can see this resentment everytime there is slip up by the political elites (YOG, Temasek Holdings losses, floods, Mas Selamat etc) - people just don't like the people running a system that makes life so insecure and tough for them. 4 years after the WSM incident and nothing has changed....Singaporeans understand nothing will change for them with the same people and system in place. The frustration will turn into action and we will see some of that in the coming elections.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Income Gap : Too Big to Ignore....

The following is extracted from an article by Robert H. Frank [NYTImes - Income Gap : Too Big to Ignore] in the New York Times. He is working on a paper [working paper here] on the relationship between savings rate /expenditure and the income distribution..

In a recent working paper based on census data for the 100 most populous counties in the United States, Adam Seth Levine (a postdoctoral researcher in political science at Vanderbilt University), Oege Dijk (an economics Ph.D. student at the European University Institute) and I found that the counties where income inequality grew fastest also showed the biggest increases in symptoms of financial distress.

For example, even after controlling for other factors, these counties had the largest increases in bankruptcy filings.

Divorce rates are another reliable indicator of financial distress, as marriage counselors report that a high proportion of couples they see are experiencing significant financial problems. The counties with the biggest increases in inequality also reported the largest increases in divorce rates.

Another footprint of financial distress is long commute times, because families who are short on cash often try to make ends meet by moving to where housing is cheaper — in many cases, farther from work. The counties where long commute times had grown the most were again those with the largest increases in inequality.

The middle-class squeeze has also reduced voters’ willingness to support even basic public services. Rich and poor alike endure crumbling roads, weak bridges, an unreliable rail system, and cargo containers that enter our ports without scrutiny. And many Americans live in the shadow of poorly maintained dams that could collapse at any moment.

ECONOMISTS who say we should relegate questions about inequality to philosophers often advocate policies, like tax cuts for the wealthy, that increase inequality substantially. That greater inequality causes real harm is beyond doubt.

But are there offsetting benefits?

There is no persuasive evidence that greater inequality bolsters economic growth or enhances anyone’s well-being. Yes, the rich can now buy bigger mansions and host more expensive parties. But this appears to have made them no happier. And in our winner-take-all economy, one effect of the growing inequality has been to lure our most talented graduates to the largely unproductive chase for financial bonanzas on Wall Street.

In short, the economist’s cost-benefit approach — itself long an important arrow in the moral philosopher’s quiver — has much to say about the effects of rising inequality. We need not reach agreement on all philosophical principles of fairness to recognize that it has imposed considerable harm across the income scale without generating significant offsetting benefits.

No one dares to argue that rising inequality is required in the name of fairness. So maybe we should just agree that it’s a bad thing — and try to do something about it.

Robert and his co-authors were looking at income inequality in counties in the USA but his findings are all too familiar and the negative effects of the big income gap is similar to what we experience in Singapore....perhaps with greater severity because there is only one developed country with an income gap higher than that of USA....that country is Singapore. With the large income gap, we cannot get the "net happiness" SM Goh talks about in a recent will always be "net unhappiness" and govt policy can only try to reduce the unhappiness.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Seah Chiang Nee : Super-rich come to Singapore

"Many of working class living in the heartland do not see much benefit from having so many rich people around – but they feel the pain of rising costs " - Seah Chiang Nee, The Star

"'Supposing the world's richest man, Carlos Slim, comes to live in Singapore. The Gini coefficient will get worse. But I think Singapore will be better off. Even for the lower income Singaporeans, it will be better,"
- PM Lee, 27 Mar 2010

For ordinary Singaporeans to benefit from rich people coming here a few things have to happen - they are here to create well paying jobs (and not exploit cheap labor), they pay taxes under a highly progressive tax structure, and they do not drive up the cost of living for Singaporeans. What you don't want is have rich people come here to compete for limited resources such as housing and medical services - they will price out your own citizens and local Singaporeans will lose out. There was a good point made by an American writer Joel Kotkin said that Singapore should not try to expand the middleclass by importing it - it is only beneficial if it is created from within our own society[Link]. Importing richer higher skilled foreigners can result in the formation an underclass and ultra-underclass among native Singaporeans as the cost of living is driven up by a rate not that cannot be matched by the growth of their incomes.

Very often importing foreigners makes the numbers look good e.g. Singapore is 4th highest in per capita wealth. You can get such achievements by attracting the likes of Jet Li, Jacky Chan and rich Indonesians by offering them a kind of tax haven to park their wealth here. However, this seldom translate to any benefits for ordinary Singaporeans less the few who work as investment bankers who are already overpaid for what they do thereby further widening the income gap even more.


Super-rich come to S'pore [Link]
Insight Down South
By Seah Chiang Nee

Many of working class living in the heartland do not see much benefit from having so many rich people around – but they feel the pain of rising costs.

A LUXURIOUS 7,072 sq ft penthouse at a prime district has just changed hands for S$30mil (RM71.46mil) in one of the most expensive deals on a per square foot basis. The buyer was a permanent resident from Hong Kong and the seller an Indian tycoon who had bought it in 2006 for S$17.3mil (RM41.21mil).

The cost of the triplex with five bedrooms and an 11m swimming pool worked out to S$4,242 per sq ft, a record in land-scarce Singapore.

Last June, an unknown Chinese national snapped up a bungalow on Sentosa Island for S$36mil (RM85.77mil), the highest paid for a residence here. The PR holder from China had considered the price a bargain, according to the agent who handled the sale.

These are among a rising number of wealthy foreigners – especially Chi­nese, Indians and Indonesians – who have made this city their family residence while doing business outside.

Asia’s growing wealth, particularly from China and India, is slowly making its way into Singapore. More Europeans, too, are parking their money here.

For a glimpse of a Singapore in, say, another 10 or 15 years, just take a picture of Monaca or Zurich and superimpose it on this island. What will emerge is a city of wealth – transient and abiding, a land of personal banking, celebrity-chef dinners, where Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Ferraris ply the street and branded goods will become daily items.

An example of the foreign presence can be gauged at Sentosa Cove, one of Singapore’s most posh and expensive waterfront projects.

More than 3,000 people now live there. They have come from 22 countries, the top five nationalities being Singaporeans (who make up 40%), Australians, Britons, Germans and Chinese.

“Singapore has opened up a lot in recent years and we’re drawing foreigners keen to park their money as well as live here,” a developer said.

The arrival of the nouveau riche has created new fortunes for Sing­apore’s upper middle class, but it has also widened the economic gap between the rich and the poor as few of the lower class derives much benefit from the phenomenon.

For the upper class, the story is clear. Last year the number of millionaires jumped by 26%. Currently, 11.8% of Singaporean households have at least US$1mil (RM3.09mil) in investible assets (excluding property) each.

Some recent headlines gave an indication of the change, good and bad.

A Singaporean billionaire, Peter Lim, has just made a US$507mil (RM1.56bil) bid to buy England’s Liverpool football team. And two Singaporeans displayed their wealth less gloriously at the casino tables. One, a company managing director of a seafood business, lost S$26mil (RM61.95mil) in just three days, while the second, who was in the latest Forbes list of Singapore’s 40 richest people, dropped S$100mil (RM238.27mil). Easy come, easy go!

Cashing in on it, Citibank last week launched an exclusive Ultima credit card for the super rich in Singapore where members must have S$5mil (RM11.9mil) and admitted only by invitation.

Some of the nouveau riche came because of their children’s education. Among them is action star Jet Li, who bought a bungalow for S$19.8mil (RM47.15mil) last year. He took up citizenship and sent daughter, Jane to study here.

Another new settler, US investment guru Jim Rogers, with a net worth of US$1.8bil (RM5.55bil), also came to send his daughter to the reputable Nanyang Primary School two years ago.

To ensure she got a better chance, Rogers and his wife had performed 40 hours of volunteer work, something the locals do.

Who are the richest foreigners living here?

The Forbes’ list of top 40 ranks China-born Zhong Sheng Jian, 48, as the fourth richest man in Singapore with a net worth of US$2.5bil (RM7.71bil). And 47 year-old Indian-born Sudhir Gupta, now a naturalised citizen is ranked 13th richest. He has a personal fortune estimated at US$320mil (RM987.3mil).

Seventeen percent of foreign buyers of high-end property in the first quarter are Chinese, and the number is rising. One out of five bought houses in prestigious multi-million dollar districts of 9 to 11, the Central Business District (CBD) and Sentosa.

Some salesmen have reported cases of Chinese buyers paying the down payment with a bag of cash, leading to suspicion they may be keen to cover the money trail.

Recently a growing number of foreigners have turned to buying landed properties.

Under the law foreigners, including PRs, cannot buy any property on land or any apartment with fewer than five storeys – except with special approval. Under its strategy of attracting the wealthy and talented to settle here, the government appears to be loosening the screw.

In the first half of this year, 150 such sales were allowed, most in the prime, rich areas.

Local critics are protesting against such sale of precious landed properties. “It is like selling the country’s Crown Jewels to outsiders,” one blogger wrote.

The influx of foreign wealth is not welcomed by all Singaporeans. Some see their cake becoming smaller and more expensive.

Many of working class citizens living in the heartland do not see much benefit from having so many rich people around – but they feel the pain of rising costs.

A polytechnic student asked: “And what happens to us when they suddenly take their money and go home?”

Friday, October 15, 2010

Overdose: The Next Financial Crisis

Here's an interesting video that attempts to explain the recurring financial bubbles and crisis in the past 2 decades. A few months ago, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman warned that we may be entering a 3rd depression [Krugman : The 3rd Depression]. In the past few weeks a currency war threaten to break out as nations try to devalue their currencies to gain a competitive advantage[Time: Who would win a currency war]. It is hoped that the G20 summit next week[Link] will help to avert a currency war and prevent economic instability. In May this year, a sovereign debt crisis broke out in Europe and caused markets around the world to plunge. It is hard to say when the next financial crisis will occur but the potential for a crisis exists and according to the video the risks are increasing. While stock markets and property markets rally to new highs, it is so easy to become complacent and forget the risks.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

General Election on the way?

There is speculation that the General Election is just around the corner (Dec 2010?) as Straits Times today (14 Oct 2010) reported that PAP MPs were asked to have their photos taken and prepare for rehearsal for speeches.

I just want to show you something from the 2006 Election:

"I am concerned about less-skilled Singaporeans, whose jobs and wages are under pressure. I worry for older Singaporeans too, living by themselves and having to provide for their medical and daily expenses. I am troubled that a terrorist attack will sow suspicion and discord among Singaporeans.We must respond boldly and creatively to these opportunities and challenges, expand our horizons and aim high. We will continue to restructure our economy to make it more productive and resilient. We should make our society more vibrant and cohesive. And our young must be imbued with the same can-do, never-say-die Singapore spirit that has brought us here"
.– Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his letter to Singaporeans, PAP Manifesto for General Election 2006.

You remember this letter sent to you during the last election? I want to show it to you to remind you of PM Lee's promise in 2006 to "respond boldly and creatively" to the challenges faced by Singaporeans. That was 4 years ago. Just look at the above paragraph - right on top, he said "I'm concerned...about less skilled Singaporeans whose jobs and wages are under pressure". He sent this letter to all Singaporeans during the last election and after he got elected he opened the floodgates to cheap foreign labor and that increased the downward pressure on the wages of lower skilled workers. He increased GST - a regressive tax that would be most heavily shouldered by low wages earners. He increased the pay of his cabinet which was already the highest in the world prior to the increase.

When the campaigning starts and the PAP men give their speeches and make their promises, remember what Lee Hsien Loong said in 2006 and what he has done since.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lim Swee Say : Minimum wage has no place in Singapore....

Having a union chief that believes minimum wage has no place in Singapore says a lot about what kind of system we have in Singapore. Minimum wage policy wherever it is implemented, whether in Europe long time ago or Hong Kong more recently, has always generated plenty of debate. However, you will never find a labor union chief in any other country that will speak out against paying workers a minimum decent living wage. Lim Swee Say speaking against minimum wage just shows us how lopsided and unbalanced the system is ....even more so than the absence of a minimum wage itself. Lim Swee Say, as labor chief, also urge workers to be "cheaper, better, faster" at a time when Singapore has the highest income inequality among developed countries.

Lets get it clear, the debate on minimum wage in Singapore gained momentum because income gap has widened so much in the past decade and an significant underclass consisting of the bottom 20-30% of resident workforce has emerged. If the PAP govt had not pursued policies that caused the income gap to widen such as allowing the influx of cheap imported labor, regressive taxation policies and erosion of labor rights and benefits, the reasons for having minimum wage would be less compelling.

Lim Swee Say recycles old arguments against minimum wage. He says it will erode competitiveness by raising business costs and cause unemployment. Labor is only one component of costs - rent, utilities, govt charges etc. You never hear Lim Swee Say urging landlords to keep rentals low or reducing CEO pay or suggesting that electricity tariffs which is 2nd highest in the world should be reduced to keep Singapore competitive - he believes in making workers "cheaper" to stay competitive as part of his CBF (Cheaper, better faster) strategy. Higher wages will actually provide businesses with incentives to automate and increase productivity which has been falling forthe past few years. Minimum wage only causes unemployment in economies that are highly dependent on cheap labor. We should restructure our economy and move away these industries otherwise we will have workers locked in a 3rd world wage structure coping with a 1st world world cost of living.

If we believe a person working full time in Singapore should be paid decent wages , we have to make it happen with leadership that is determined to put in place the economic pre-conditions that make it possible. All developed countries other than Singapore have done it. Hong Kong has gone ahead and Malaysia is likely to implement it by next year. We, in Singapore, have a "cannot do" leadership that seeks to maintain the status quo because it best preserve its own interests and the interests of the large network of businesses to which it is linked. In such a system, inequalities can only expand....

Minimum wage policy won't work: Employers, labour chief

By Kor Kian Beng

SINGAPORE'S labour chief and employers have come out strongly against the idea of a minimum wage and debunked recent claims it would be effective in helping the country's low-wage workers.

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Lim Swee Say and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) marshalled arguments to show that a minimum wage is hard to implement effectively and failure to do so would trigger negative effects on workers and bosses alike.

The nasty consequences include raising business costs, driving up joblessness, pushing up costs of living and eroding Singapore's competitive edge, while doing little to lessen income inequality.

Mr Lim, who leads 60 affiliated unions with more than 530,000 members, made it clear in an interview with The Straits Times last week that a minimum wage has no place in Singapore - now or in the near future, because 'it will not work'.

He said there was no way to get it right: If the wage was set too low, it would serve no purpose as low-wage workers would continue to earn little. If set too high, it would trigger higher unemployment as companies would cut demand for labour or their investments.

Based on Singapore's workforce of two million, every one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate would mean 20,000 low-wage workers losing their jobs, cautioned Mr Lim, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

He dismissed as well the idea of setting different minimum wages for each sector, depending on the type of work done by low-wage workers, as it would be hard to justify why workers in a certain sector should be paid a higher wage.

In response to media queries, the SNEF said a minimum wage would raise costs and force bosses to respond in ways 'none of which are beneficial'.

These include cutting headcount and trimming workers' benefits and training. Ultimately, a minimum wage would eat away at the competitiveness of the Singapore workforce, said the SNEF, which has 2,000 members employing more than 600,000 workers in total. It said: 'Jobs will be lost and fewer new jobs will be created as new businesses find the minimum wage an impediment and choose to start up elsewhere.' SNEF also cited research findings that showed a causal link between a minimum wage and negative effects on employment in countries like the United States. The robust response from the labour movement and the employers follows a debate on minimum wage last month. It began with opinion pieces by National University of Singapore economists Lim Chin and Hui Weng Tat - the former opposing, and the latter supporting the idea. This was shortly after Hong Kong, an economy often compared to Singapore, legislated a minimum wage in July, paving the way for its implementation by next year. A minimum wage sets a salary floor employers cannot breach. Its key aims are two-fold: Protect low-wage workers from potential exploitation and help them earn higher wages to cope with rising costs of living. In the latest debate, the idea of a minimum wage appeared to gain more support because of a widening income gap here. Official figures showed top managers earned four times more than cleaners and labourers at the bottom in 1998. It grew to 5.12 times in 2008. Lending support this time were Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and Mr K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Disagreeing, Mr Lim and SNEF believe the better way to help low-wage workers is to raise their skills through what Mr Lim calls a 'minimum skills' approach. Developed since the mid-1990s, this includes a training infrastructure with 46 centres islandwide, and a nationally recognised skills certification system. Over time, higher skills and productivity would lead to higher wages, instead of compelling employers to cough up the extra money through a minimum wage law, said Mr Lim. 'We believe the most effective wage ladder for low-wage workers is the skills ladder,' he said. Responding to Straits Times queries, the International Labour Organisation said a carefully articulated set of wide-ranging policies is needed to secure 'minimum income' for low-wage workers. It believes this holistic approach is 'at least implicitly reflected' in Singapore's recent policy measures. But this does not mean there is no need for a minimum wage here because it can help prevent abusive wage practices, it added.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Wealth or Extreme Inequality?

UPDATE: Abhijit of Pressrun has done an analysis of the Credit Suisse report[analysis here] and found that the median wealth in Singapore is the lowest among the 25 countries surveyed. The median wealth in Singapore is lower than in S. Korea, Taiwan, Australia and Japan. Due to the highly unequal distribution of wealth in Singapore, a typical (median) adult in all other developed asian countries has more wealth than a typical adult Singaporean.

Singaporean workers work the longest hours in the world[Link] and top the world rankings for stress[Link] yet the wealth generated in our society is concentrated in a small % on the top of the pyramid. This is the result of years of lopsided and unbalanced policies that created a 3rd world wage structure[Link] in Singapore. This elitist system is unfair and over-rewards a handful in our society while those who work the hardest and deserve a better life are made to struggle at the bottom.

The report above appeared in today's Straits Times. If you didn't bother to read the article in detail, you would get the impression that if you throw a rock at a group of ordinary Singaporeans, you are likely to hit someone with a personal wealth upwards of $300K which is the average wealth of Singaporeans based on the Global Wealth Report published by Credit Suisse. If you read the article, you pick up this:
The median wealth of Singaporeans is just one-ninth of the average wealth. If you don't know what median means it is lining up Singaporeans ordering them by their personal wealth than picking the person in the middle. That person in the middle has US$30K vs the average US$255K. Its something like this : if Carlos Slim, the world's richest man decides to live life on an Phillipines island of 100 people each with a wealth of $1000, the average wealth of the people on the island will rocket to something like $400M...but the original islanders are not a single cent richer that $1000.

I looked up the median wealth as a % of average wealth for all other developed Asian countries in the report [Report found here]and this is what I found:

Singapore : 11%
Taiwan : 32%
Australia : 38%
Japan : 51%

These numbers correlates closely to what the GINI index tells us. Singapore has a very high income inequality and wealth is very unequally distributed.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Different countries same mistake....

The short article below appeared in NYTimes describing how things turned for the real estate market in Dubai. At the height of the property bubble, nobody can imagine it can come to this - property in Dubai had been rising for years and it was the place of choice to work, find money and start businesses for many foreigners who went there. Dubai, however, is not unique.

A few weeks ago, you may have caught this piece of news : Irish bank bailout to cost US$60B (S$77B) [Link]. I checked and found the population of Ireland is 4+M so the size of this bailout is quite staggering. Ireland had a property bubble which collapsed ahead of the subprime crisis in US. Before the bubble burst, Ireland was often called the Celtic Tiger[Link] (hmmm...remember Asian Tigers[Link]) for its strong economy. After the political problems (Protestants vs Catholics) were solved, the Irish economy boomed from 1995-2007. The leaders of Ireland were seen as being highly competent technocrats that transformed one of Europe's poorest countries to become one of the wealthiest. In 2006, nobody can imagine the trouble its economy will be in today. But the trouble in Ireland is not due to massive govt incompetence or fraud, it was as simple as having a property market that became too hot and falling sharply - perhaps one can argue the govt was incompetent by doing nothing and just standing by as property prices rose.

A few days ago, it was reported that a HUDC flat in Bishan was sold for $1.1M[Link]. I think Singaporeans who are so used to high property prices are only mildly alarmed by this transaction but this perhaps one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, public housing transaction in the world. People often argue that these prices are okay because Singaporeans can afford it and are used to it. I'm sure that in Ireland, Dubai or US, when someone bought a property during the property bubble, that person can also "afford it" at that point in time. If the banks are willing to lend and you can service the loan, you can afford it. I was crossing a small road to get to Tampines Interchange yesterday and saw a notice put on the railing of the road divider by a property agent - China couple wants to buy your flat, urgent purchase. There is this belief among property agents whom I've spoken to that the immigration wave will keep prices high in Singapore. After much public outcry over the surge in property prices, the govt finally stepped in last month with cooling measures to keep speculation under control - these measures have managed to slow the rate of price rise - but they were put in place after many months of denial that there was any problem here. Some suspect that they only did it because elections have to be held soon.

In Nov 2009, Mercer came out with a report to say the CPF scheme is inadequate for retirement[Link]. Studies show that an average person will retire on between 8-26% of his last draw salary vs >50% for retirees in other developed countries[Link]. The PAP govt explanation of this situation is that property has to be counted in measures of adequacy. This is strange because in apples for apples comparison, you cannot add something that is not added in other countries. But it just shows how persistently high property prices relative to income has basically sucked in funds that can be used for other things like retirement and disposal income for consumption. In short much 'wealth' is locked up in property and because of high property prices, Singaporeans enjoy a comparatively lower quality of life.

The high dependence on property as a means of retirement and store of wealth is risky. We have seen how property prices can tumble for more than 2 decades in Japan and the damage left behind when high property prices tumble in Ireland, Spain, USA, UK and Dubai. It is one thing to make honest mistakes due to unforeseeable events but another not to learn from the painful lessons of others especially when the mistake is repeated so many times.

Real Estate Collapse Spells Havoc in Dubai

LIZ ALDERMAN, On Thursday October 7, 2010, 4:44 am EDT
DUBAI — On a sultry June evening in 2007, more than 100 people camped out at the offices of Emaar, a prestigious Dubai property developer, to ensure that they would land a coveted spot in a gleaming new skyscraper scheduled to open this year near the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Today, the property, designed by the New York architect Frank Williams (who died in February), is like a number of others around Dubai — little more than a rotting foundation. Its value has plunged by more than 40 percent since 2008, after the collapse of Dubai’s real estate boom.

“It’s really a disaster, the situation in Dubai,” said Silvia Turrin, a real estate agent who bought into the property, 29 Boulevard, and has been unable to get her money out. “It’s not like in Western countries. It’s very difficult to exit here if there’s a problem. And we’ll never get our money back, but now we’re stuck dealing with this hole.”

Dubai lured people to a gold rush in properties at the height of its real estate boom — including business and political leaders from Afghanistan who invested the deposits from Kabul Bank, one of the country’s largest. The near-collapse of the bank in September was largely a result.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Stock Market Update

UPDATE 9 Oct 2010: The DOW Jones Industrial Index has risen past the 11,000 mark and it did so after pretty dismal job numbers were announced:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks rose Friday after another weak report on unemployment added to expectations that the Federal Reserve will step in to prop up the economy. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed above 11,000 for the first time since early May.

High unemployment remains a major hurdle as economic growth continues to be sluggish. The Labor Department's report, considered the most important piece of news on the economic calendar, did little to alter the view that the economy remains weak.

Investors are saying : the economy is weak but that is good for stocks because it means the Federal Reserves will have to print even more money. Someone in the comments section reminded me not to underestimate liquidity....that is precisely how I have been looking at medium term moves in the market....liquidity drives it. However, the longer term picture is not so sanguine. Bernanke's (helicopter Ben as he is sometimes known) money printing is very risky, because inflation can bring as much misery as a weak economy and you may end up with both a weak economy and runaway inflation.
In my last stock market update[Link], I wrote:

"The market is indeed running up to a peak from end Jul to Aug 2010 and I expect pretty good gains in the near term."

I expected the market to peak in end Aug 2010. For market watchers, you will know that is not the case and I was wrong - all part of the hazards of the inexact science of forecasting stock markets. The market after a brief but sharp correction Aug run up all the way in Sep 2010 and was still going up as of yesterday. For those who think that it is because the US economy is doing better, companies are making more profits and global economy is looking up that we are seeing this rally. ....think again.

The red line shows the Dow Jones Industrial and blue line the EURO/USD exchange rate.

In the 1st cut, it looks like a highly correlated lock step movement. However, if you look more closely, you will notice the exchange rate movements lead the US stock market slightly. The other thing that is very clear is the US economic recovery is weakening[Link] as seen from a broad number of indicators. Like I mentioned in my previous posts, Singapore stock market is outperforming because of favorable allocation to emerging markets - thanks to countries like Indonesia, the Indonesian stock market is hitting all time highs. What is actually going on is the weak US dollar is holding up markets ranging from gold, oil, commodities to emerging market stocks. The US stock market bottomed on 26 Aug 2010, when Ben Bernanke announced on 27 Aug that the US Fed is willing to print more money[Link] (known as QE2), the US dollar weakened and stocks around the world rallied. This new printed money or promised printed money is what threw my forecast off. This "weak dollar" trade [Details here Link] in which traders borrow US dollars cheaply convert them to other currencies to invest in risk assets is self reinforcing - it further weakens the US$, push up assets to which liquidity is flowing which in turns encourages traders to borrow more US$ in a self-reinforcing cycle. Although this results in big trends (up) for risky assets, what happens at the end of the day is large built up of short US$ positions, highly leveraged positions in various assets. The large short position in US$ can result in abrupt short covering and deleveraging of other assets sometimes known as "de-risking". The rule of thumb is the longer the markets rise due to this weak dollar trade, the more abrupt and deeper the falls are.

Under the above situation, the longer the markets rise, the riskier things becomes but the psychology of investors is such that they perceive risks fading and take bigger risks. It is not clear how far the current rally will go, but I feel is can get nasty when the whole thing reverses. Printing money cannot be a panacea...somebody is paying as Bernanke debases the US$ - this is an old trick[Link] going back to the time mankind used salt and sea-shells for money.

Monday, October 04, 2010

"The Trap" by James Goldsmith....

While I was doing some reading to find out how deregulation in the US markets during the Regean years with Alan Greenspan as FED chairman led to the junk bond and buyout boom in the 80s and eventual market failure, I stumbled upon the writings of James Goldsmith. James Goldsmith was an extremely controversial but interesting figure in his day - a successful corporate raider, failed politician and has a scandalous personal life[wiki link]. He was once thought to be the world's richest man for a while and famously exited the markets before the 1987 crash. During his later years, he became an enviromentalist.

In the early 1990s, James Goldsmith wrote a series of books among is the "The Trap", a profound piece of work that foresaw the effects of free trade and globalisation on income inequality:

"Nations ... cannot allow themselves
to be overwhelmed by immigration
otherwise they will lose their identity
and cease to be nations." - The Trap

The 1st section of the book discusses the flaw of using GNP and economics as a measure of quality of life. The 2nd section criticises a number of capitalist dogmas - among them is the belief that free trade is always good. In this section he wrote the devastating effects of free trade (and cheap 3rd world labor) on the working and middleclass of Western societies unless govts take serious actions to mitigate these effects. The 4th section discusses immigration and how much immigration a country should allow:

"...nations need new blood and new ideas. But they can only absorb a limited amount at a time. They cannot allow themselves to be overwhelmed by immigration otherwise they will lose their identity and cease to be nations. Newcomers who are welcomed into a nation should want to honour and respect the customs of their new home. They must not step on shore or over the border and reject the national culture. If they do, the inevitable results are hostility, intolerance and conflict" - The Trap, page. 59

Here is a prophetic interview with James Goldsmith by Charlie Rose in 1994.

Goldsmith called his book "The Trap" to point out the many "traps" in the thinking of leaders surrounding immigration, GDP growth and free trade. Has Singapore fallen into this trap?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Cover all newborns for congenital illnesses....

UPDATE : A commenter wrote:

In Malaysia the liver transplant would have cost significantly less at their public hospitals..just RM500!!

The hospitals there may not be perfect and the waiting list long but they'd never say no to their patients! Some Malaysians even say that after undergoing surgery the public hospitals would sometimes even forget to collect the bill...if that is is inefficnency..I'd prefer that anytime over Singapore's world class facilties

I found it hard to believe that with govt help Malaysian hospitals only charge RM$500 (S$217) for a liver transplant for patients vs more than S$100,000 in Singapore. I did a check and it turned out to be true : the Malaysians put this in place because they felt that those who have suffered liver failure should not be financially burdened . Quite amazing.

I've written about this several times[Link][Link]. I want to bring this issue up again because of recent news report about a child born liver problems. About 4-5% of children are born with congenital conditions and 1% are serious & life threatening. Many of these cases are tough not just because of the financial burden that parents have to bear but the time, energy and dedication needed to care for these children. One of our patriots and most famous blogger Mr. Brown (Lee Kin Mun) has a child who is autistic [Link]and he writes about the challenges of bringing up his child who needs special care[Link]. Mr. Brown's struggle was made harder when means testing was implemented and he described his disappointment:

This is because of this thing called "Means Testing", where they test your means, then if you are not poor enough, you lose some or all of the subsidy you've been getting for your special child's therapy.

I think I am looking at about a $100 increase, which is a more than a 100 per cent increase, but who's counting, right? We can afford it, but we do know many families who cannot, even those that are making more money than we are, on paper. - Mr. Brown, 2006.[Link]

While Mr. Brown can afford it, the small helping hand in the form of subsidy he received from the govt represented the govt's willingness to share a small bit of the burden and help with his family's challenges of bringing up a special child. With means testing, that was eliminated for middle class families and the message is loud and clear : you shoulder all the financial burden yourself. The govt argument for means testing was so that it can "can devote more resources to families who need more help"[Link]. This is not true. With means testing, poor families get the same level of subsidy as before while middleclass families are squeezed to pay more. The purpose of means testing is to keep govt expediture on healthcare low so that cuts in tax rate for the corporations and rich can be maintained. The govt often tells us that the 3Ms - Medisave, Medishield and Medifund are adequate. It is not. Healthcare burden for the sick and their families is higher here than in Taiwan, S. Korea and Japan and the system is full of cracks and stories of severe hardship for those who get sick. The lack of universal coverage for newborn with congenital illness in itself affects 4-5% of children and severely affects 1% of them - you throw in the large number of uninsured adults, uninsurable old folks and the cases not covered by restrictive conditions of insurance policies, you conclude that many Singaporeans will face heavy healthcare burdens.

I just want to show you this example to illustrate how our healthcare policies result in severe burden for the poorer families and how the lack of coverage for newborn can plunge families into a lifetime of struggle and the oft-advertised "sufficient help for the poor" is overrated. I'm sure no family in any other developed countries in Asia or Europe has to go through what this family has to go through. The healthcare system exacerbates the effects of the wide income inequality which is already the largest among developed countries.....covering all newborn Singaporeans to take away the financial burden of congenital illnesses is something the PAP can easily afford to do ($387M for YOG is okay? But caring for sick babies is not?) to take away some of the pain families have to endure but they refuse to do so, it is unconscionable not to do it - medical social workers who are at the frontline of providing support for these families are probably fedup with the situation and it has been such a long time since the need to fix this was recognised...the frustration is building.

Asked if she was tired from having two jobs, Madam Lim replied: "If there's money to be made, there's nothing to complain about.

"Which mother will sit idly by when they see their child suffering? If there is a need to, I would even be a prostitute to get my daughter the help she needs."

Avril's transplant operation - scheduled for Oct 9 at the National University Hospital (NUH) - will cost an estimated $80,000 to $100,000. Her post-operation medical bills could come to more than $1,000 a month

Her 'little monster' is a feisty fighter [Link]

Mum had considered ending her baby's life when the infant was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a condition due to the absence of bile ducts. -TNP

Sat, Oct 02, 2010
The New Paper

By Geraldine Yeo

WHEN her daughter was diagnosed with a rare liver condition two weeks after birth, Madam Lim Hooi Yan was so devastated that she even considered ending the baby's life. She did not want to see her child suffer.

But when she saw how hard little Avril Tan fought her illness, she changed her mind.

Since then, she has been desperately fighting to save her daughter's life - even taking on two jobs to raise money for a liver transplant. Avril, now three, needs a new liver. Otherwise, she won't live past the age of five.

On Avril's birthday on Oct 9, Madam Lim, 35, will be giving her daughter the best birthday gift - part of her liver.

Avril was diagnosed with biliary atresia, which affects one in 14,000 newborns.

Infants with this condition are born without bile ducts. This prevents bile from being transported to the intestines.

When Avril was born, she had jaundice, during which increased levels of bilirubin in the blood gives the skin a yellowish tint.

The condition is common among newborns whose livers have yet to function properly but usually clears without treatment.

After noticing Avril's prolonged jaundice, her paediatrician did some tests and found that she had biliary atresia.

Thoughts of ending her daughter's life started crossing Madam Lim's mind.

"Once, I was very stressed and even wanted to carry my daughter up to the 13th floor of my block," she recalled.

When Avril was a little more than a month old, she underwent a procedure known as a Kasai operation, in which a duct is constructed by using a part of the intestine to drain bile from the liver into the intestines.

Madam Lim, who also has a seven-year-old daughter, recalled: "I was sitting outside the operating theatre. I felt so scared, I broke down. I did not want my daughter to suffer."

Bad news
Six hours later, the doctors emerged with bad news - the operation had failed.

They told her that Avril needed a liver transplant if she wanted a long-term cure.

Madam Lim said she was informed that the transplant could go ahead last December.

Avril takes seven types of medication twice a day. She goes to the hospital for monthly check-ups and is cared for by a maid when her parents are at work.

Madam Lim said Avril's doctors had urged her not to give up hope.

"As I watched my 'little monster' grow, I started to realise that she was quite a fighter and that I should do all I can for her to lead a normal life."

"Little monster" is Madam Lim's pet name for Avril because of her playful nature.

When The New Paper visited the family's four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio on Sunday afternoon, Avril was cheerful despite her illness.

Her skin was distinctively yellow against the sunlight (see photo above, right), and her stomach was bloated from water retention.

While Madam Lim was being interviewed, the tomboyish girl played "masak masak" (cooking in Malay) with her sister and posed readily for pictures.

Then it was time for her to take her medication. Avril put her toys down and promptly emptied the medicine syringe into her mouth.

She then resumed playing.

Madam Lim said: "She doesn't complain or ask why she has to take so many types of medication a day."

The girl later took out her dolls to play "doctor" - complete with toy injections.

"She is very brave and so used to getting injections and everything, while I am the one who is scared by the sight of blood," her mother said.

Avril's medical bills total almost $1,000 a month.

She also needs a special milk formula as she has brittle bones. Each 400g tin costs $45 and lasts for only 1½ days .

Her parents pay for the bills and expenses through Medifund and get financial help from the Singapore Children's Society.

They also care for Madam Lim's mother-in-law, who is in her 70s and has diabetes, high blood pressure and leg problems.

Madam Lim has been juggling two jobs since Avril was diagnosed with biliary atresia.

From 6am to 8am on weekdays, she works as an office cleaner before starting her job as an administrator in a private hospital at 9am.

She and her technician husband earn about $3,500 a month.

Asked if she was tired from having two jobs, Madam Lim replied: "If there's money to be made, there's nothing to complain about.

"Which mother will sit idly by when they see their child suffering? If there is a need to, I would even be a prostitute to get my daughter the help she needs."

Avril's transplant operation - scheduled for Oct 9 at the National University Hospital (NUH) - will cost an estimated $80,000 to $100,000. Her post-operation medical bills could come to more than $1,000 a month.

Mrs Lee has passed on.

I got home yesterday turned on my computer and saw the breaking news that Mrs Lee Kuan Yew has passed on. Mrs Lee has been seriously ill for some time having suffered a severe stroke several months ago so her death does not come as a shock to most Singaporeans. In the past few months, MM Lee and Dr. Lee Wei Ling have shared with Singaporeans some aspects of the personal lives of their family. MM Lee recently spoke of how he was trying to cope with his wife suffering, religion and death.

"But the one who has been hurting the most, and is yet carrying on stoically, is my father. "

- Dr. Lee Wei Ling

Dr. Lee wrote a poignant article (see below) about how pain of coping with Mrs. Lee's suffering.
At this moment, Singaporeans should put aside their political differences and offer their deepest condolences.


Difficult to accept a loved one's suffering
Feeling compassion with a detachment is wise, but tough when it comes to Mama
By Lee Wei Ling

I awoke with a start, a while ago, from a dream. I looked at my watch. It was 4am.

It was a dream worth remembering, so I decided to write it down immediately. If I had not done so, I would not have been able to remember it later.

In my dream, I seemed to be simultaneously at home and outdoors at some unfamiliar place. Suddenly, a monster appeared and attacked me. I struggled with the monster but it matched me strength for strength. I did not utter a sound, nor was I frightened. Instead, I wrestled silently with it.

Suddenly my mother appeared. She walked towards us, but did not say anything either. Instead, she made a dismissive gesture and the monster turned tail and ran away.

That would be Mama's way of tackling problems, I thought: no need for unnecessary words or actions; just do things quietly and effectively.

At that point, I woke up. I got up from the floor where I was sleeping and went into my mother's room to see how she was doing. She was sleeping peacefully. I am now back in my room recording what I can still remember of my dream - for a 'dream' indeed it was, as it cannot be classified as a nightmare.

For two years and three months already, my mother has been too weak to get out of bed. But in that brief moment in my dream, I saw her again as she had been - physically normal.

I wished I could have dreamt on, and after some time, together with Mama, vanquished the monster in the dream and then walked off together.

In dreams, everything seems possible. That my mother appeared magically in my dream did not surprise me - either while I was dreaming or when I awoke. This is because between Mama and me, there was always some form of telepathy.

Once, when I was staying with my brother Hsien Loong, my toothbrush was worn out and needed to be replaced. I hardly ever shop, so I did what I had always done before: I told Mama I needed a new toothbrush.

Since we were in different houses and I did not want to wake her if she was sleeping by calling her on the telephone, I e-mailed her: 'Ma, I need a toothbrush.'

She e-mailed back: 'I am telepathic. I just got a toothbrush for you. But one day, the commissariat will not be around. If you don't know the word 'commissariat' go look it up in the dictionary.'

She was correct: I did not know what the word meant. And since I did not know where the dictionary was kept in my brother's house, that evening at dinner, I asked him what the word meant.

He knew, of course. 'Commissariat', he explained, is a department in the army charged with providing provisions to soldiers.

Now Mama is no longer in a position to be my commissariat. Worse yet, she is bedbound and no longer able to read - a favourite activity of hers.

Mama had wide interests. She knew things that even many highly educated people would not know or be interested in, as would be obvious if one rummaged through her bookshelves, as I did recently.

There were several books on the flora and fauna of Singapore. There was a hardcover book of children's nursery rhymes, which she had used to read to her grandchildren. Of all her grandchildren, my albino nephew enjoyed reading the nursery rhymes with her the most.

There were several books on Buddhism and Hinduism. There was a King James version of the Bible printed in a large font so that she could read it even without her reading glasses. There were many books on the Indian caste system, and a book describing the ancient city of Harappa in the Indus valley. The city dates back about 4,600 years ago, and was an important trade centre in the ancient world.

Mama was interested in the Silk Route long before it became a fashionable subject of interest. She had a book chronicling the travels of a Victorian lady on the Silk Route.

There were six Malay kamus, or dictionaries. There was a book on Chinese customs and symbols. And of course, there were many books of poetry, including a collection of Rudyard Kipling's poems.

There were also books relating to the early days of Singapore, including The Battle For Merger, a collection of radio talks my father delivered in 1961, detailing the early history of the People's Action Party's struggles with the communists. It is now out of print.

There were many books, too, written by others about my father, including Lee Kuan Yew In His Own Words, excerpts of his speeches from 1959 to 1970, edited by S.J. Rodringuez.

Mama also had the kinds of books one would expect to find on the bookshelves of someone so cultured: among other things, The Tale Of Genji, Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum And The Sword, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto's The Daughter Of A Samurai, the novels of Jane Austen, and a book I enjoyed tremendously as a child, Anne Of Green Gables.

Mama didn't just collect these books, she read them.

It is now 5.30am. I popped into her room again a while ago and she was still sleeping. I comforted myself that at least when she was sleeping, she was unaware of her unfortunate situation.

Now I am trying to go back to sleep myself, but I cannot do so - not because of the dream but because of Mama's unhappy predicament. It is acutely felt by her three children, my two sisters-in-law, and my cousin Kwa Kim Li, who is my mother's favourite niece. But the one who has been hurting the most, and is yet carrying on stoically, is my father.

It is easy when thinking in the abstract, to conclude that being born, growing old, falling sick and eventually dying is what happens to all of us. I accept these facts with no resentment that life is unkind. I have had more than my fair share of bad luck, but I never resented it, for I think suffering built up my resilience.

But I find it difficult to accept my mother's suffering. The Buddhist principle of feeling compassion but with detachment is wise, but it is not an attitude that I find humanly possible to adopt when it comes to Mama. I cannot see her suffering with detachment.

But there is nothing I can do to get her back to where she was before she suffered a massive stroke on May 12, 2008. She has been suffering since then, and so has my father. But that is life, and we all plod on, fulfilling our duties as best we can. Indeed by focusing my mind on my duties, I manage to temporarily block Mama's suffering from my consciousness.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. Send your comments to

Friday, October 01, 2010

Lim Swee Say : Minimum wage can cause unemployment....

Yes, and if you can pay people $100 or nothing, unemployment drops to zero but what is the point of keeping people in low wage work to keep unemployment low? So they can work their whole lives, collect workfare and live out a life just above subsistence. Not very Swiss standard of living right?

With a worldclass govt paid the highest salaries in the world, we would like to have our cake and eat it = low unemployment and decent least we want leaders who will try to achieve this as a goal otherwise how else do we narrow the income gap and inequalities in our society. Why is the PAP govt insistent that it is not do-able when so many other countries have done it. In fact all developed countries have minimum wage policies and even our neighbor, Malaysia, is seriously considering it.

Minimum wage an 'easy solution', says Swee Say

But doing so would lead to firms moving to places with cheaper labour, he says
By Kor Kian Beng

LABOUR chief Lim Swee Say said yesterday that advocates who want a minimum wage as a way to improve the lot of low-paid workers were opting for an 'easy solution'.

Taking such an step would, instead, lead to higher unemployment rates as companies start moving to more cost-competitive locations, he argued.

'Yes, we can try to reduce the number of low-wage workers by having a minimum wage, but the number of workers with no wage will go up and unemployment will go up,' he said during a panel discussion at a conference to explore ways Asian companies can better attract and groom talent.

It would be more effective to introduce a 'minimum skills' system for jobs and raise the skills level over time through education and training, said Mr Lim, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. 'That way, lower-wage workers of today will become better-skilled workers and earn better wages of tomorrow.'

Mr Lim's first public comments on the issue follow a debate last month on the effectiveness of a minimum wage as a way to protect low-wage workers here and boost their incomes.

Making a case for such a move were National University of Singapore labour economist Hui Weng Tat and Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh.

Dr Hui argued that an influx of low-skilled and low-cost foreign labour keeps the wages of lower-skilled workers here stagnant. He believed a minimum wage would encourage bosses to invest more in technology so as to raise productivity.

Professor Koh noted the Government's argument to let the market regulate wages, but said the state should intervene to 'make the world a fairer one' when there is a market failure.

Yesterday, Mr Lim noted that some economies went for easy solutions such as a minimum wage and the restriction of foreign labour supply - thus forcing firms to take on local workers even though there may be a mismatch in the skills level for jobs.

'We can force the mismatch onto companies and force them to pay higher wages,' he said. 'But you can't stop the globalisation of jobs (and) the harder you push, eventually the jobs will go away because if a location is not competitive, they can always go (elsewhere).'

Mr Lim spoke on the issue at the Singapore Human Capital Summit during a panel discussion on the human capital challenges facing Asia in 2020.

Challenges he named include a widening income gap, keener competition for top talent, and a growing mismatch between jobs and skills.

Countries should focus on developing their prime asset - their people - and use this to attract investments and jobs, Mr Lim said. They could do so by beefing up the education and skills upgrading system, keeping foreign manpower supply open, and maintaining social stability by looking at narrowing the income gap.

On the issue of social stability, panellist Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor, said companies had to stop paying top executives '500 times' more than their lowest-paid employees. This would build fairer societies.

Citing the example of a firm that pays its top management 20 per cent more than its lowest-paid workers, she asked Mr Lim if more companies would do so in future.

Mr Lim's response was that in the real world, top dollar would have to be paid for top talent.

The labour movement does not object to people getting higher pay, he said. But it expects bosses to be more responsible to their rank-and-file workers by ensuring that they too receive a fair wage for the work they put in.