Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Taxes and the distorted perspectives of some elites...

Here is the hidden video of Mitt Romney speaking to a group of rich donors to his campaign. This video has damaged his campaign because he said his job, if he is elected president, is not to take care of the 47% who will vote for Obama "no matter what". He sees these poeple as leechers dependent on the govt and don't pay taxes. He then goes on to talk about how he succeeded on his own ability "not being born with a silver spoon" because his dad donated all his wealth away when he died.

It is very strange how Romney cannot see what is so painfully obvious to everyone else and how his view about the world turn out to be so distorted . He is going to pay dearly for this startling disconnect with reality and the ground.

I want to show you another video of a Singaporean leader speaking on the topic of taxes and inequality in response to a certain Mr. Soh who asked if capital gains tax for the rich should be raised in order to close the income gap. I have written earlier that there are 2 viable options here to address the inequality in our society ...wage restructuring or tax reform with transfers.

The minister in answering the question stuck to the PAP stand that good education together with social mobility is the solution. He started off by saying other developed economies ("matured societies") have "ossification" of the society where "the rich marry the rich" to provide good education for their children and opportunities. Does this minister even know what he is talking about? What he said is so detached from reality. I wonder where he is coming from. Singapore has the largest income gap among all developed nations. Our education system is highly elitist in nature compared with egalitarian system they have in places like Finland, Sweden, Australia and Canada. In all other developed countries power is shared more equally among the people and free press scrutinizes the actions of those in power and the rich. The rich people else where are subjected to high progressive taxes and inheritance taxes so that wealth is transferred back to society. Most developed countries, educate more people to university level than Singapore (Singapore is well below the OECD average). I can't believe how a this minister who is in charge of the MCYS can have such a distorted view of reality.

He was one of 4 or 5 people to received a president scholarship in his cohort of 30-40K and was given the best education and lavished with job opportunities after that in our elitist system - many others with more or equal talents do not get the same opportunities. He forgets that the other 99.98% of the people do not have the same opportunities as him. Today, only 27% of each batch make it to university and others join the workforce without a degree and  many of these people struggle to compete for jobs and income with foreigners coming here with better qualifications - no thanks to the policy formulated by this minister's party.  These people are struggling not because they are refuse to work hard but because of the system put in place that resulted in the 3rd world wage structure we see in our economy.

"Even if this generation, I can't get you out of the poverty cycle, ...the problems that you face. Even if I can't do anything in this generation. We must make sure, we do our very best for the next generation,,,even if I can't get you out of your poverty cycle, even if I can't do anything in this generation, we must make sure we do our very best for the next that the next generation is not disadvantaged. ...and when we say helping the next generation to the same opportunities is not just about social transfer of 'I tax you and I give you'.  That one is a short term solution and probably the easiest to do.......the next generation have equal opportunities to shine come from education, housing, healthcare and so forth" - Minister.

He is so clueless. I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear him speak. Saying that taxing the rich to transfer to the poor is the "easiest" thing for the PAP govt to do is just absurdity.  This is ideologically the hardest thing for the PAP govt to do. Under the PAP govt, taxes for the rich has monotonically decreased and they fund this in recent times by raising GST - a regressive tax on the poor who now pay more taxes. As for ensuring the next generation have "equal opportunities" through housing and healthcare schemes is really a disconnect from reality - the costs of these 2 items have risen rapidly compared with median income and is a great de-equaliser for our society as it burdens the struggling middle class and sinks the lower classes into poverty. As the cost of healthcare rises, we still do not have in place a universal healthcare system that will shift the burden away from the sick and their families.  We have a system in which prosperity is not shared in the current generation and unless major changes take place it will not be shared in future generations. The minister distorted view of reality tells us that we cannot secure our future and that of our children under a leadership determined to travel along the same erroneous path. Just 2 days ago, the PM spoke about having a population of 6 million people. ...when the people still haven't even accepted and adjusted to the 5 million population that we already have now.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why Nations Fail

This i s an interesting book by Daron Acemoglu. an MIT economist and James A Robinson.a political scientist from Harvard. When they talk about failure, it is not a country disappearing or wipe off from the map but a failure of its socio-economic and political systems leading to abrupt change or revolutions.
You should read the book in its entirety but in case you don't have time, as usual, I'll summarise its findings for you.
"Countries such as Great Britain and the United States became rich because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities" - Extract from the book.
Acemoglu amd Robinson studied the histories of numerous countries describing and found a common cause of failue. What they found is the key differentiator between countries is “institutions.” Nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Nations that thrive and succeed are those that empower their people both politically and economically. Power is distributed "puralistically" and "extractive" power structures that  reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold power are avoided

Authors show that there is a common historic pattern that you cannot sustain your economy if don't have the correct political structure i n place. They argue that China has not found the magic formula for combining political control and economic growth - its system in inherently unsustainable and the full historic outcome of current system has not been played out.

In a chapter  :“What Stalin, King Shyaam, the NeolithicRevolution, and the Maya city-states all had in common and howthis explains why China’s current economic growth cannot last.”, the authors predict that the current system in China will eventually fail because it concentrates power and is unable to distribute the wealth.

In a presentation at the Harvard Bookshop for the launch of the book, Acemoglu, the leading expert iin his field debunked the myth that a nation can thrive and continue to thrive by if led by enlightened leadership. Such leadership without other inclusive institutions in place will eventually lead to a class of elites whose interest is to enrich themselves and hold on to power rather than share prosperity broadly among the population.

In response to a question by a student, 20min 30sec into the video Acenoglu talks about Singapore and other countries with similar models why such systems are unsustainable.

In an earlier posting, I linked the high income inequality in Singapore to the unequal distribution of power in our society[Link]. Acemoglu and Robinson showed that this is a common pattern among nations that fail and history is full of such examples.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Minister Tharman's claim needs to be examined closely...

Yesterday, Minister Tharman made this claim based on a study by Ministry of Manpower:

"Young Singaporeans entering the workforce today will have accumulated enough savings in their Central Provident Fund (CPF) when they retire to see them through their golden years.
This was one of the key findings from a Ministry of Manpower-commissioned study, revealed Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.
Based on the current CPF system, the study showed that the savings will "provide a comfortable level of income in retirement, a level equal to a large part of their pre-retirement income", he said.
Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, was speaking at the opening of the two-day Singapore Human Capital Summit 2012, held at Resorts World Sentosa."[Link]
If young Singaporeans can retire properly on their own CPF in the future, it contradicts a major assertion made by the PAP govt on the need to import more foreigners. The key reason given for importing foreigners is there will be fewer younger people working to support the elderly in the future[Link]

If Tharman's claim is true that our future elderly are financially self sufficient, it throws the key argument that we need to import foreigners to shore up our dependency ratio out of the window. Anyway, I doubt the PAP is going to implement a "tax foreigners to support our elderly" tax structure - they will rather use the money for other purposes. ...but that is not the way they sell their policies.

I think Singaporeans really need to think hard and connect the dots...they have to see through the propaganda that is crafted to make us support various govt schemes and policies. While Minister Tharman tells us we will be able to retire under the CPF scheme, the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) says we need foreigners to come in order to support our elderly. Both can't be true at the same time....but both need to be true for the PAP to avoid changing its policies on CPF and import of foreign talent.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

National Conversation : Need for major mindset change...and a clear vision

I spent the last 2 weeks waiting and listening to understand how this National Conversation will be conducted. The govt says that thousands will get to participate, govt will listen, hard decisions will be made. How do you "listen" to thousands of people and make sense of this massive feedback? After that are we going to craft policies that will satisfy as many people as possible (commonly known as populist policies)? How are coherent sustainable policies going to emerge from all this?  It is strange how the PAP govt move from a completely top down approach ignoring the voices from the ground and now turn around to conduct a broad conversation with the thousands. I don't want to get too cynical about the whole thing but I think the public just wanted a more balanced approach to policy making and for the govt to address the know existing problems.

At this juncture, I would like to detour a little to point out 2 noteworthy opinions by members of the  establishment. The first is an article by Han Fook Kwang, former editor of the Straits Times,  urging the govt try harder to understand the people on the foreign influx issue:

"The large majority of Singaporeans in the heartlands, who worry about their job security and the future prospects of their children, will have a completely different perspective, and will be much less sympathetic to the argument that Singapore needs these foreigners to grow and prosper.

Policymakers and political leaders have to bear this in mind and try harder to understand the mindset of this large group of Singaporeans who feel threatened. It is a real and deep-seated fear that has to be addressed." - Han Fook Kwang, The Real Fear : Being pushed out of home

If you read Han Fook Kwang's article, you will find there is nothing new in his article about the ground level sentiment  . The points he raised have appeared in this blog several hundred postings ago, in various Internet forums and other parts of the Internet. What is new is for someone who upheld the govt view on this issue for so many years as editor of the Straits Times, to turn around and tell the govt that it has been wrong on this issue.
A former chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) yesterday critiqued the "myth of meritocracy" at the core of the Singapore system.

Mr Nizam Ismail, 45, also took issue with Minister of State Halimah Yacob's National Day Rally speech, saying it suggested that the reason the Malay-Muslim community has not succeeded "as much as we can is because we did not work hard".

Her statement took a "very broad-brush approach" that ignored real problems, he said, adding that meritocracy glosses over social inequality. - [Link]

During an AMP dialogue on the National Day Rally former AMP chair, Nizam Ismail,  criticized the "myth of meritocracy".  He took issue with Minister of State Halimah  Yacob's National Day speech that suggested that meritocracy is alive and well in Singapore and Malays have not succeeded as much as they can is because they did not work hard[Link] and that  "meritocracy also breeds elitism when those who succeed think they deserve it and look down on those who fail". Similar issues have been discussed in this blog about one thousand postings ago. It is often argued by the PAP that the income gap in Singapore is acceptable because our system is meritocratic and social mobility exists. A high level of social mobility exists not with the possibility of people moving up from the bottom to the top - such possibilities exists almost everywhere in the world - but when such movement is common - it is seen when the middle class is healthy and expanding, when there prosperity shared  and the hurdles for poor to move into the middle class not too overbearing. Today staying in the middle class is in itself challenging. We have a middle class that is feeling insecure and those living in poverty feeling hopeless. We have 400,000 workers locked into the Workfare that keeps their heads just above water and a middle class lifestyle eroded by rising cost of living. The advantages of wealth and inherited wealth is protected by low taxes and pro-business policies while the disadvantages of poverty passed down to from father to child in the name of "self-reliance". In order to break out of this negative loop, we must look beyond what individuals can do and look at what we can do to the system.
If there is just one thing to look at and monitor to know whether we are in the right track and the socio-economic system we have is in a healthy sustainable state, it is the income gap. 8 months ago, I posted a video of highly respected Yale economist Robert Schiller explaining why this is the single most important problem to solve[Link] - more important than the deep financial crisis we have seen in recent years.

Today in Singapore we have the highest income gap among developed countries. This "gap" is not spread across cities and rural regions but concentrated in an small island of 700 sq km. While other developed countries have in place safety nets, universal healthcare and higher progressive taxation, the Singapore system is build a different philosophy. It keeps taxes low and emphasizes self-reliance - you as an individuals shoulder the highest % burden of healthcare expenditure in the developed world, there is no national pension scheme and individuals take care of their own retirement. These schemes appeared workable and sustainable in the 90s.
If you examine the household income distribution of the last 10 years, you find that the bottom 10% saw income rising from $1332 tp $1580 about $25 per year while the top 10% saw income rising from $17,400 to $28K. The benefits of GDP growth has disproportionately gone to corporations and wealthy individuals. If you find it hard to cope with inflation, just imagine what it is like for the bottom 10% whose income rose by just $25 as the cost of living rose. By around 2005, it was clear a large number of families could no longer cope and Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) Scheme was introduced in 2007 to keep their heads above water. But Workfare does not address the root causes of the problem and perpetuates a system that is heading towards bigger problems. The large income gap also breaks the "self-reliance" model - with more and more people working full time jobs not earning enough for retirement and medical care. The PAP takes its self-reliance further by mandating that children have to be responsible for their aged parents (Parents Maintenance Act) - filial piety  is fine if you're in the top 10% but for lower middle income families earning $3000,  nursing home fees of $1K+ pushes these families into poverty. The system as it is amplifies the effects of the income gap.

Today Singapore is today the wealthiest nation in the world based on average income. Our average income is incredibly 10% higher than Norway.  Knowing this is little comfort for ordinary Singaporeans because our extremely high income gap means the median income which is a more accurate measure of what an ordinary Singaporeans earns is completely disconnected from our average income figures.

Mr Ghazali Salim, 42, who manages a cafe, said he doesn’t feel particularly rich on his income of $2,500.Said Mr Ghazali: “I’m not rich and there are still some Singaporeans who can’t afford their own homes as housing is so expensive.”
And that’s the thing about indices – it tells only one side of the story, experts say. - TNP, Is Singapore the richest and healthiest nation in the world?
How did income gap become so large in Singapore? If you go to a PAP MP and ask this question, they will give this standard answer that income gap is rising around the world.
"Globalisation and technology will widen income distributions all over the world" - PM Lee., Speech to ESS[Link
It is true that income gap has risen around the world. But that does not explain why Singapore has the highest income gap among developed countries. Norway for instance has a GINI of 0.25, roughly half of what it is in Singapore.  If you look at the data on this page : List of countries by income inequality, it lists the GINI index before and after taxation & transfers. If you compare the data, you will notice a number of countries have relative high income inequality before taxation & transfers but low GINI index after transfers e.g. Japan 0.46 pushed all the way down to 0.33. So there are only 2 ways to compress the income gap - tax & transfers or fairer/flatter  wages structure. If you don't want to raise taxes on the rich, make sure people get good wages when they work.  If you refuse to do either, you live with a rising income gap....history has shown that the masses will eventually reject such a system. In a democracy, they vote the govt out, in a dictatorship, they overthrow the govt.
So why do we have such a wage structure in Singapore? Our bus drivers are paid half the wages of a bus driver in Taiwan. Our cleaners and supermarket cashiers are the lowest paid in the developed world but our politicians still the highest paid in the world.
"Workers' wages account for less than half of Singapore's GDP. In contrast, wages take up more than half of GDP in developed countries." - Sue Ann Chia, 1st World country, but not First World wages?
Remuneration (wages) as a share of GDP relative to company profits in Singapore is the lowest among developed counrties. In fact the share of wages to GDP has never crossed the 50% mark in our history.
"Linda Lim said Singapore's economic growth model has tried to 'do too much, and achieved too little' in delivering returns for Singaporeans, relative to foreign firms and foreigners."[Link]
In an earlier article I explained that the large influx of foreign workers mostly from 3rd world will negatively impact wages[Link] - it is almost common sense, allowing hundreds of thousands of cheaper workers to come into Singapore gives businesses access to cheaper labor to make higher profits - this is in effect a wealth transfer from workers to corporatiions and business owners.
"The main reason for this sector’s low wages and productivity is the liberal import of unskilled workers in this sector. And it is not sustainable because the increase of such workers required to satisfy the growing domestic economy will be inevitably greater than the ability of infrastructure, such as transport and housing, to keep pace. This is now apparent to regular public transport users." - Ho Kwon Peng, [Link]

Ultimately, what is unsustainable will break and a socio-economic system with rising inequality will become polarised and fall apart due to rejection by the people. Today we see the old formulas breaking apart. The CPF Scheme and does not ensure that Singaporeans can enjoy a good retirement - it is projected that more than half cannot reach minimum sum requirements[Link]. The HDB no longer builds affordable homes - prices rising much faster than median income putting young families deeper in debt. Our healthcare system results in the heaviest financial burden for the sick and their families among develeoped countries.

The great mystery isn't how we can continue but how we have not already fallen apart with such a system. One aspect of PAP rule has been to keep information  and the mainstream media controlled so that the system appear healthy and the deep problems masked from the public. Take housing and healthcare as examples, we have been told repeatedly by the govt with the help of the mainstream media that they are affordable and everyone is taken care of - the 3Ms of our healthcare system ensures that everyone is okay under the system. If you're not looking to buy a home or get seriously ill, you can completely unaware of the problems. The PAP's ability to control information is now eroded by the new media/social media. Awareness of the problems have increased over the years and once people gain a better understanding of the system, they find it hard to accept and support. Take Han Fook Kwang, the ex-Straits Times editor as an example.The article he wrote so accurately reflects what is happening on the ground but we did not see such articles in the Straits Times when Han Fook Kwang was the editor...his vision suddenly cleared up once he left his position in the Straits Times.

There is a reason why the PAP is unable to perceive the problems in our society the same way as the rest of us. The man on the street calls it the "you die, your business" ideology.  The PAP thinking is highly elitist and sometimes, when convenient, influenced by market fundamentalism. For years, as the wages of the bottom 20% fell due to imported labor, they would argue that it is just demand-supply. If you can't take the competition, "you-die-your business" . When "shock therapy" and minimum wages were suggested, the PAP say that it is not good to interfere with market forces. However, when businesses, including GLCs and TLCs complained that they cannot get workers,  the PAP did not tell them it is demand-supply, they would have to pay more for workers....the PAP govt intervened by opening the floodgates to foreign workers.

What brings the PAP to this National Conversation is not their concern about the income inequality - this has been growing for years - or our beleaguered middle class but the willingness of Singaporeans to vote against them. If you go back the the early articles I wrote in 2005, there was more than enough data about the widening income gap and low wages in Singapore for the govt to be concerned about these problems. But once they received a strong mandate in the 2006 elections, the PAP govt raised GST and cut corporate taxes and taxes for high income earners. They also raised their own salaries and flooded the labor with more foreign workers. Common sense will tell you that these are not the type of policies to make when income gap is rising and there is enormous stress on low wage earners. But through their ideological lens these are not big problems. Their elitist views also drove them to believe they deserve the highest salaries in the world - this is hard to swallow in a country where kindergarten teachers, cleaners, bus drivers get the lowest salaries in the developed world. It is the PAP's own ideological extreme that make what is painfully unacceptable to ordinary people  okay for them.

Han Fook Kwang's advice to the PAP is go and understand the concerns of ordinary Singaporeans and not to dismiss and trivialize the challenges they face in their lives. The PAP should stop using the conversation to promote its thinking - they have had ample opportunity to explain their policies in the mainstream media and there is no lack of understanding of what they are doing and the outcomes of their actions. The more they explain why they needed to do what they have done, the less support they will gain on the ground because the last thing ordinary Singaporeans want to hear is justifications for going in a direction we have been going in the last 10 years - more and more people are willing to vote against this.

At the end of the day, what Singaporeans want is a clear vision of what the govt will try to achieve in the coming years and a concrete plan to get there. If this vision is aligned with what Singaporeans want for themselves and their families...and they are convinced the govt is serious about it, there is no reason not to support it. But to craft such a vision, the PAP needs to get out  ideological box, come down and really listen and understand the people...make the difficult tradeoffs that may run against vested interest linked to its power structure....the only way to motivate the govt to move in this direction is to indicate that, we too, are serious about change and our support cannot be taken for granted.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

National Conversation - Need to break out of old ideas....

Hi. I haven't written anything for a while because I'm busy clearing as much work as possible so that I can consume my leave at the end of the year. It is strange how companies give you more leave as you become more senior but also more responsibility at the same time - you're older and less able to work longer hours but the expectation is you get everything done anyway. Last few years it wasn't uncommon for people in my company especially the more senior ones to come back on days they took leave to get work done. Work life balance is a great idea but the practically difficult in a competitive society.

I have kept up with what is discussed in our National Conversation...and find that it is the same old things said for the 10th time. Still, I appreciate the proactive effort of Minister Heng Swee Keat to eliminate the banding in secondary schools - something I wrote about and suggested doing in my blog. Things that we can readily do -lets get it out of the way. The rest of the National Conversation, I find rather boxed in by stale ideas, narrow vision and the tendency to cling to the status quo.

Here is a segment, I will use as an example:

[Video clip of National Conversation]

In the video clip, Douglas Foo a highly successful local entrepreneur described his difficulty getting dishwashers. This part of video has caused a firestorm on the Internet because the job description given by Mr.Foo ($3K per month, 9 hours per week, machine automated) was not accurate and he is now accused of opportunistically lobbying for his own interest. The camera then turns to Josephine Teo who is the Minister of State for Finance & Transport. She appeared to have doubts and didn't know what to make of Douglas' claim. A quick look at our employment data will tell you what Douglas said can't be right because more than 100,000 workers in Singapore make less than $1000 a month[Link] and most of the 50,000 Singapore cleaners make less than $1000 a month - but the minister didn't catch him by throat for what he said. MP Sitoh then launched into a discussion about how productivity can make us less dependent on foreign workers.  Productivity gains typically is about 2-3% a year in countries where there is no cheap imported labor and business have to compete by making better use of the limited pool of workers. Even if we can get productivity gains up to the level of other countries i.e.2-3%, we will only make a small dent on the dependence on foreign workers. If wages are linked to productivity gains of 2-3% we will also see little improvement for the low wage earners in the working class. So that particular round conversing produced no new ideas, some misinformation on the part of Douglas Foo and PAP MPs & ministers telling us to stick to status quo.

This topic has been discussed much deeper by economists, netizens and opposition members for a number of years. The problem is we have a 3rd world wage structure. The wages on top linked to profits and wages at the bottom depressed by imported labor. This is how we end up with this polarising income gap. Multi-millionaire Douglas' problem of hiring dishwashers is secondary to this problem. Douglas has difficulty getting his dishes washed but hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans find it hard to make ends meet. Surely dishes get washed in Finland, Switzerland and Australia where imported labor is not so readily available. The broader question we should ask ourselves is whether it is worthwhile to have businesses that don't generate good quality jobs for Singaporeans, dependent on foreign labor to compete and survive to be located here. We have finite resources in terms of land, housing and transport, we do a lot better if we host businesses that makes the best use of our precious human resource and pay good wages. Giving our businesses access to cheap foreign labor is a race to the bottom - it is a wealth transfer from those who have to compete with foreign labor to business owners. It will not result in shared prosperity and has led to Singapore having the biggest income gap among developed countries with 400,000 workers who make so little working they need Workfare to stay afloat.

The question now is how far the PAP govt is willing to go to fix these problems. Minimum wages? Shock therapy? They have kept the current model for economic growth going for far too long and there are only hard choices left. Doing too little will only guarantee rising dissatisfaction and anger. We just need to see what the income gap has done to the Hong Kong society to understand this. There is a widespread distrust of leadership and it doesn't matter who they put on top and what he does. They implemented minimum wages successfully this year but the income gap is so wide even such major changes are not  sufficient to address the issue. Corrective action in Singapore should have been made 6 years ago or even earlier. Now business have become dependent on foreign labor and major change will affect them and incremental changes will not solve the problem. Ultimately, we must understand that prosperity in our society is shared by workers getting good first world wages for the job they perform....and that is the way to grow the middle class and reduce poverty in our society. ...that is what a first world economy has to strive to achieve otherwise what is the whole point of being a first world country - people will stop supporting a system fails to achieve this.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Reasons for anonymity on the Internet .....

Recently PM Lee met up with 19 bloggers and netizens for a friendly hour long chat. Among this group are the lovable pair of brothers Jiajia and BigBro, Mr. Brown and Andrew Loh.

“What do you think of online anonymity? Do you think netizens should make
anonymous postings?”  - PM Lee.

It was reported in the Straits Times:

“Participants at the session said PM Lee had asked for their opinions about
online anonymity. Most felt that online commentators should not be anonymous.”

“I feel there are circumstances where the person’s identity needs to be
protected, such as whistleblowing on a wrongdoer.”  - Andrew Loh.

I don't blame the participants who are not anonymous for what they said during this chit-chat session. They may not have thought about this issue thoroughly. Since many of them have no reason be be anonymous, they may not have spent time thinking about why others have chosen to be anonymous.

"I have a friend who told me that at two different jobs, his bosses requested him to leave after they found out he was a political activist, even though they were satisfied with his work and he had done nothing illegal" - Gerald Giam[Link]

WP;s Gerald Giam was working with the MFA and started blogging non-anonymously only after the left to start his own business. The civil service allows officers to blog but not about political matters - so civil servants are quite safe to have a Facebook or blog that talks about their travels, his hobbies and the food he likes. But suppose he has an opinion about the healthcare system - he thinks it is too expensive or he thinks the GST hikes are bad. These are grey areas seen by some as simply a personal opinion he is entitled to or it can be seen as political opinions so it is safer for him to write about it anonymously on the Internet.

The political economy of Singapore is such that the influence of the PAP extends well beyond govt - there are TLCs, GLCs and network of companies that depend on these for their existence. In the 2005, a rather naive Andrew Kuan answered one of those calls to step forward by offering himself as an alternative candidate for the Presidential elections. In the next few weeks after his announcement, was an ugly humiliation exercise in which his ex-employers came forward one by one to release confidential data about his work performance in those companies. You wonder what will happen to bloggers critical of the govt f they are working in one of those companies if they reveal themselves.

The second reason for anonymity is how people expressing criticism are treated in Singapore. or how they believe they will be treated. I'm not just talking about political criticism but in companies...even private sector companies. Companies that regularly conduct surveys to collect staff feedback know this. If the survey requires the employees to put their name down, they will get little comments or comments bias towards the positive side. If you want honest opinions, you will have to make such surveys anonymous. In Singapore, there are several reasons for this. The employers and higher managment wields a lot of power to hire and fire lower ranking staff and there is sometimes hyper-sensitivity to criticism due to cultural reasons. If you have worked with companies from various countries, you will be able to correlate the corporate culture with the position of "free speech" in the  society. In countries where free speech is protected, there is generally less fear and people speak their minds.

So why does the PAP govt want comments on the Internet to be "non-anonymous"?  Cynics will say they want to track and catch people criticising the govt online to punish and humiliate. There is a basis for this belief. As recently as a few months ago, Richard Wan of TREmeritus was threatened with lawsuits by various members of the establishment. So was Alex Au. Mr. Brown was fired from Today for an article many netizens felt express the real sentiment on the ground. Richard Wan was threatened with a lawsuit for one of the tens of thousands of comments[Link] posted by one of the several thousands readers of the website - they went after him because he came forward.

During Goh Chok Tong's time as PM, he came into office saying that he wanted a consulative govt that woild listen to the views of citizens - he said "nothing" would happen to people who came forward with their views even if they were critical of the govt. Many Singaporeans are smart in their own way - they let others go first to see what happens. A young lecturer in the NUS answered the call to speak up and give honest feedback. Shortly, after he spoke up, his taxi claims were check for typographical errors, and he was sacked for dishonesty. A few years later he was made a bankrupt. Yes, "nothing" happened to him, after speaking up, he literally had nothing left in his finances.

In the US, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of websites are set up critising Obama and his policies....a lot of views and opinions expressed but not a single threat of a lawsuit.

The large number of anonymous comments is a result the system of govt in place and actions that the govt has taken in the past. Where in the world do you find the most anonymous bloggers and netizens - in China, Russia and Burma. In N. Korea, the govt simply cut the citizens off the Internet to build a nation wide intranet where every user can be tracked and monitored so that it is hard to be anonymous...when you can do that the only get praises for Dear Leader and Brilliant Comrade. Countries and govts that cope well with the Internet are also those that have over time respected the rights of their citizens to speak freely. Govts and systems that depend on propaganda and information control to rule the people are the ones that find it hard to cope with the new media.

For a monolithic dominant govt with its own internal decision making processes, democratic processes fall out of the system. Criticism and dissent will be at some point be viewed by govt and its supporters as harmful and unconstructive.  With concentration of power, citizens are always worried what will happen to them if they openly disagree with the govt.

There are 2 almost unique characteristics of online political discussion in Singapore - it is dominated by people opposing the PAP govt and there many prominent bloggers expressing rational views anonymously. Other than those run by govt entities and the PAP, why are discussion forums full of voices against the PAP? You visit US political forums, you find there are people who support Obama and people who don't...people who support Bush and people who don't. The PAP govt operate on the extreme end of the polical spectrum generating policies that people find hard to accept - running an economy with the biggest income inequality in the developed world,  burdening the sick with the highest share of healthcare burden, lack of social safety nets, extremely high foreign influx undemocratic practices etc etc etc. To push these many of these unpopular through, it needs a mainstream media that is on its side. So if you're the kind of person that likes PAP policies, you feel your views are well represented when you open up the Straits Times to read it so there is compelling need to go somewhere to express your views. However, if you oppose what the PAP does..... after reading the Straits Times, you will feel very motivated to go somewhere to express your point of view - that place used to be the local coffeeshop, now it is the Internet.

Why are there so many people expressing rational reasonable views anonymously? In many other countries people will proudly put their real names and identities down.  You look around at the people blogging with their real identities, many are retired others run their own business with little dealing with the govt. Suppose you're an intelligent guy working for or running a small company dependent on one of the GLCs (e.g SingTel), will you feel safe being identified a blog full of alternative competing views?  In the current political environment, given the level of fear, the level of dominance, and the position of free is unpredictable what kind of actions people will take if you are found out.

At the end of the day does anonymity really matters? Maybe for those in power to have the ability to extract apology and issue threats of defamation to frighten oppenents. But for the vast majority of netizens over time they know it doesn't matter. You don't go behind Wikipedia to find out who wrote the page you;re reading, you know it is not perfect but can be relied on most of the time. On the Internet, anyone can start a blog, a discussion group, a website put up his ideas openly for feedback and anyone can freely criique his ideas. The PAP seems to have problem with this whole concept because it cannot control the informaton, it cannot suppress the competing points of views - we keep hearing complaints from the PAP about the Internet. The same problems they have with democracy. They are running a system that works well only when information can be filtered and ideas flow top down for acceptance by the ordinary citizens....but times have changed and the PAP monopoly of ideas has been eroded by the Internet and they seem to have to great difficulty adjusting and competing....