Thursday, January 31, 2013

Population White Paper :Inventing reasons to sell a plan bad for ordinary S'poreans..

- Straits Times,27 Nov 1960.

There was a time when govt felt that the small island we were in was too crowded with 1.6M people. So they went on to tell the people that the living standards will fall due to overcrowding and higher living density, their path to happiness and healthy family was to keep the population small by having fewer babies. The PAP minister at that time cited problems of strains in housing, hospitals,  transport and the inability to create jobs for the people.

Of course what turned out in the subsequent decades proved this piece of social engineering misguided. The Singapore economy boomed and rose as one of the Asian Tigers chalking up breath-taking double digit growth year after year in a one-off transformation. Not only did Singapore acquire the resources to accommodate a larger population, it ended up facing a labor force bottle neck due to its population control policy and ended up importing  foreigners primarily from Malaysia to fill the gap.

How and why did this mistake occur? The govt based its population plan on what happened it the past with the economy. Despite selling us the notion  that they were men with foresight, great planning and helicopter views that steered the Singapore economy from the 3rd world to the 1st in one generation, they were riding on a wave they themselves did not foresee and based their population planning on the anemic economic performance of the past. You see you can always make the conclusions you want depending on the assumptions you chose to make.

Today they tell that there are blue skies ahead, the global demand will keep rising and Singapore economy can keep expanding to fill the demand. So they propose an extreme population growth policy based primarily on importing foreigners and converting some of them to citizens and PRs. The rate at which they choose to grow the population is much faster than the replacement rate - by a factor of 5. They want to convert many to PRs and citizens. Now they assume there will always be enough jobs, there will be enough infrastructure expansion to accommodate the people, inflation which is high now will not get worse. But what they are doing is putting a lot of risk on Singaporeans with this plan. With the financial crisis just behind us, we see inherent weakness in the big economies - Europe is indebted and aging, US is heavily indebted and must cut spending, China facing a mountain of restructuring in the coming years. If global aggregate demand falls, we will suddenly see our artificially enlarged population competing harder for fewer jobs as the ability of our economy to support this enlarge population falls.

Singaporeans already see the clear and present danger of such a policy in the past decade. It has caused a sharp rise in our cost of living, it caused our income gap to balloon as the foreign influx caused a wealth transfer from the employed to businesses that used them, we are also familiar with the effects of overcrowding in public spaces and public transport. Few Singaporeans believe that continuing a high foreign influx will improve their lives but the govt is driven by other interests other than that of ordinary Singaporeans. It has a power structure constructed to benefit those who form part of the elites and a network of GLCs, many of which are monopolies, that will benefit greatly from a larger population. Singaporeans cannot afford not be awake at this late hour and allow the PAP govt to execute what is proposed in the white paper. The PAP will do anything to achieve its political goal to benefit those who form its power-elite structure.

"Of course, they ask good questions. How can you be sure? More population, but quality of life remains the same or even better?"
"Actually, the answer is yes," he emphasised. "It's possible."

- Minister Khaw's reaction to the white paper[Link].

Minister Khaw slipped when he was asked if such a population growth plan would improve the lives of Singaporeans ...he said that that improving Singagporeans' lives was "possible". If the Singapore govt has been putting the interest of Singaporeans ahead of everything else, the singular purpose of the population plan should be to ensure that Singaporeans have a better quality of life - that should be the only goal of the plan not the goal of 5% GDP growth in the white paper. However, bettering Singaporeans' lives is just a possibility assuming that our infrastructure can keep up with the population expansion. Infrastructure has not even caught up with the influx of the last decade is dangerous to assume there will be no severe strain as we push the population density to even higher levels - today we are already at the highest living density in the world and the PAP govt wants to push this even further.

No other developed country tries to grow its economy by importing people even though fertility rates have generally fallen in these countries because of the deep negative effects of doing so. If our competitors are not doing it, why do we have to do this in order to compete and grow? What is increasingly clear to Singaporeans is the PAP govt is willing to use this brute force method to create growth which the white paper stated as a goal of 5% GDP to ensure businesses including its network of GLCs can grow profits.  Without fully addressing the income gap, the beneficiaries of this growth will be the small % at the top of our income distribution. We have already seen first hand the deleterious effects of this type of GDP growth on Singaporeans in the last decade and nothing will change because the goal of the PAP remains the same.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Population White Paper : Filled with flaws and unsubstantiated claims

Even before the PAP solved the problems caused by the large influx of the last 15 years, it tells us that it wants to continue the large influx until 2030 to reach a population of 6.5-6.9M people. This proposal has shocked both netizens and citizens alike because the past decade of high foreign influx has led to numerous problems and a decline in the quality of life Singaporeans. Singapore now has the highest population density in the world and the PAP govt wants to increase this further by another 30%. The high foreign influx and especially cheap 3rd world labour has caused the income gap to widen, wages to be stagnant among lower income groups, cost of living to shoot up and transport/medical infrastructure to be strained.

Here is the white paper [Link]. You should read the white paper in full to understand the arguments but if you don't have time, as usual, I will summarize the main points

The first section of the paper discusses the challenging demographics we face - that of an ageing workforce.  If the current birth rate does not improve we will have an ageing population unless we allow for immigration. Most govts be it Russia, France, Sweden, Finland and S.Korea when confronted with the same problem of low fertility tackles it head on by removing the root causes of low fertility but the PAP proposes a solution that assumes that it will fail to get the fertility rate backup.

However, the evidence produced here is not correct. While it is true that the Singaporean workforce is ageing,  Singapore workforce today consists of both foreigners (40%) and Singaporeans(60%). These foreigners on work permits and employment passes are "refreshed" every few years provide a segment of the workforce is "forever young". So the combined profile of our entire workforce is not going to age substantially over time. Today we have the reverse of an ageing workforce problem that will get worse if the PAP embarks on this irresponsible measure of importing more foreign labor over time - the problem faced by Singaporeans is that of structural unemployment. There is underemployment or unemployment of our older workers (45 and above) because the PAP open the floodgates to supply the labor market with younger foreign workers many of our older workers have been retrenched and find it hard to get new jobs. They usually end up underemployed in positions that do not fully utilize  their skills and experience.

The white paper also talks about the low fertility rate among Singaporeans. This I've explained in previous postings [Link]is fixed by importing babies today or adults into our workforce 20 years from now. You cannot import adults to make up for the shortfall in babies today. Even then in terms of numbers we are talking about a shortfall of 10-20 thousand babies a year but the white paper talks about expanding the population by about 100  thousand a year - 5 times the baby short fall from replacement level. What is the extra 80,000 people for? Other than force feeding the economy with people to keep it growing, it really does not make sense.

The last part of the white paper discusses the final numbers we will be looking at in 2030, a population consisting of 55% Singaporeans (this number includes the newly minted citizens during the 17 year period) and calls this a "strong core" of Singaporeans. It also discusses the benefits if the PAP govt goes along the proposed plan - increase job opportunities, good quality of life, and the chance to live in a vibrant economy. To tell this to Singaporeans who are already filled with anger and frustration resulting from the high foreign influx of the last decade that maintaining a high influx is good for them is an insult - we already know the consequences and outcomes of such a policy, throughout the last decade, the PAP has reiterated that a high foreign influx is here to create a better life for Singapore, but that is not what happened.   To try to fool us again shows the disingenuity of our leaders - not only have they failed to deliver, they are now proposing to go along a trajectory we know will not deliver a good quality of life for our people.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Punggol BE Results : What it tells us.

For anyone unfamiliar with the situation on the ground at Punggol East, the results of the by-election is indeed surprising. The popular opinion at the start of the contest was it would be a close one but the PAP candidate was likely to win. Instead of this, we see a 11% swing away from the PAP candidate.  A hypothetical 11% swing in the GE 2016 will not only take the PAP votes to below 50%, it is likely to take away its majority in parliament - the PAP will have to seek coalition partner from the opposition to stay in power or be kicked out - I don't think the leaders in PAP slept well yesterday. While a win by WP was always a possibility, the wide margin was a big surprise for many.

I will cite a few of the minor reasons that might have helped to contributed to the margin before I get to the major ones. One commonly cited reason on the mainstream media  is this is a by-election so voters are more willing to vote for the opposition. The by-election effect was cleverly used by Chiam See Tong in the 1990s who tried to turn the opposition weakness to strength by returning the PAP to power on nomination day during general elections. If you look at the election results when this strategy was used, it probably account a few extra % of the votes because most people expected the PAP to be returned to power anyway given  its dominance. How many people voted for the PAP in 2011 instead of the opposition because they fear it would lose the general elections? If you look at the 1992 by-election held shortly after the 1991 election when PAP lost an unprecedented 4 SMCs, there was a swing of 4% to the opposition[Link] - it was also a 4 corner fight but the main opposition party (SDP) running at that time was led by Chee (before his sacking from NUS and hunger strike) was far stronger that the one running during the GE 1991 (JPS)  yet we saw only a swing of 4%.

Another contributor to the margin was the poor campaign strategy by the PAP.  In the early part it appeared to be led by Dr. Koh. himself, an complete political amateur who joined the PAP just 3 weeks before the by-election. When he was first introduced, he looked like the cookie-cutter PAP candidate that personally benefited greatly from the system and he expressed his belief that the system was good and no major changes required - exactly the same views expressed by Tin Peh Ling in 2011 GE. Then he tried to play up his childhood poverty... eating from biscuit tins, bus driver father, living in a kampong - he seemed to forget that Singapore was a 3rd world country at that time and most Singaporeans in their 40s have even sadder stories to tell about their childhood.  He was really losing the audience when tried to tell them he had "suffered" poverty...but so did every else. Then he went on to say and do a few things that showed that he was disconnected from the ground:

He said that "everyone owns a car" which I take to mean that he thought most professionals drove cars - other interpretations make even less sense. This was true  maybe when Dr. Koh was in JC or serving his NS but he seemed to be unaware that at today's prices most professionals don't own one and if you are raising a family it is even harder to own a car when you sometimes really need it. He then went on to do an unconvincing publicity stunt of pulling leaves from a drain. It is not possible to believe anyone would do something like this spontaneously so it was clear he was doing to get publicity and to artificially project a "do gooder" image. To voters, something like this is insincere and called to question whether all his earlier "hard life" stories were just cherry-picked to win sympathy. At some point, the PAP leadership realised things were not right and stepped in shore up the campaign but it was too late.

The WP ran an efficient, effective and highly coordinated campaign relative to other parties selecting a candidate the voters were familiar with rather than someone with high qualifications. While the mainstream media was as usual biased towards the PAP, the WP had one resource that was invaluable during the election - volunteers, Singaporeans young and old willing to give  their time to the campaign, there are very few things more powerful than large number of people passionately championing their cause :

The difference in quality of campaigning definitely contributed to the large margin but you cannot have a campaign as successful WP's without a strong wind blowing behind you. The massive crowds coming to the rallies and willingness of people to volunteer for the campaign is driven by underlying factors that also drove swing voters to vote for the opposition.

The discontent rose because almost every single thing that affected the quality of in Singapore has gotten worse in the 1.5 years since the last election. Housing prices were at a new high when the by-election was called so was the COE. The foreign influx continued and the population increased by 130,000 in 2012[Link] - 8 times the increase in Singaporeans. This is after the govt promised to "moderate" the flow after GE2011 election. Can you imagine what would happen if they were not given a clear signal then? With the population increase, the density of population goes up and the problems expand and multiply to become less solvable. Yet the PAP spent a large part of the period after the ministerial pay review and some manpower policy tweaks which it said addressed the discontentment seen in GE 2011, to try to convince Singaporeans that a higher foreign population influx is needed as if all the problems associated with the earlier influx has been solved. We know the PAP is doing this because a higher influx helps to satisfy the thirst of GLCs and corporations for cheap labor allowing them to generate higher profits. In the short run, it helps the economy to grow but Singaporeans now know the long term consequences of this policy - higher income gap, high living density which will erode the quality of life and escalate the cost of living.

"Govt has always been working with S'poreans to improve lives"
- PM Lee, during PAP's election rally [Link]

Singaporeans today find it hard to believe that the PAP puts the interests of the people first ahead of everything else. The PAP is now linked in inextricable ways to a network of GLCs and runs an elitist system that sees benefits of the system concentrated in a smaller number of elites that the PAP depend on in its power structure. In Singapore, we have the highest paid ministers in the world and the lowest paid bus drivers, cleaner and kindergarten teachers in the developed world - a 3rd world wage structure. This income gap, the highest in the developed world, reflect not the difference in ability of human beings but the unequal distribution of power in our society. Last year we again saw no improvement to the income gap. Dr. Koh Poh Boon who works in Mount Elizabeth is probably one of the highest paid specialist in his area among Asian counter-parts because he is a beneficiary of govt policies that encourages medical tourism for the rich in the region. This policy has caused a reduction in the capacity of our public healthcare system because men like Dr. Koh will move to private hospitals to earn more money from rich medical tourists. This drives up the cost of medical care for Singaporeans who now shoulder the highest % of medical care expenditure out of their own pockets among citizens of developed countries. This cost spiral has not stopped - Dr. Koh praises the system that benefited himself forgetting the price ordinary Singaporeans have to pay.

Today we see more Singaporeans rejecting the system because they find it hard to accept the outcomes. The Punggol East election is the latest sign that all is not well and the system is heading for trouble. 7 years when this blog was started it discussed the set of challenges for our leaders and the problems ahead. These problems have grown and become harder to solve because the PAP made the wrong policy choices and went along the wrong direction for too long causing the problems to become entrenched. When the influx of foreign workers was identified as a cause of wage depression at the lower end more than a decade ago, the PAP was unconcerned and went on to import even more foreign workers until almost all  industries became dependent on the continuously expanding influx neglecting investment on productivity and innovation. Now even small tweaks to moderate the influx are strongly resisted by industries - the problem has become harder to fix. The PAP has perhaps manoeuvre itself into a position where the deepening problems require stronger action to turn things around but it is ideological lens shrinks the problems we know are severe and restrains it from taking more action.

Even when a very clear, strong signal is delivered, the PAP goes quickly into denial

"Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday by-elections are prone to big swings and the results of Saturday's Punggol East race will not affect how the People's Action Party handles national issues" - The New Paper 29 Jan 2013.

At this point, it is becoming dangerous for the PAP not to listen to the people. With the current set of policies, things can only get worse going into GE 2016.  The people may not send a send another strong warning signal in 2016 but instead deliver a strong deadly blow that will shatter the PAP's power structure as it no longer benefits the ordinary Singaporean.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

WP"s Lee Li Lian wins by a large margin....

I was alerted to the possibility of a surprise result on cooling day by a WP volunteer who was involved in the campaign. I was told about the torrent of discontent encountered on the ground of people falling through the cracks and seeing their quality of life deteriorate over the years. This was the likely reason for the top brass in the PAP to turn up and try to turn the election around....but trust in the PAP has already broken down.

The changes we have seen so far are merely tweaks to the system the PAP is ideologically  comfortable with. There has not been a single fundamental change to improve the lives of Singaporeans. As soon as the effects of the GE2011 wore off and some minor tweaks were made, the PAP was back its old self finding ways to sell the idea of  importing people to 'solve' problems. But all problems that affected the quality of life of the people just got worse ...housing, medical care and transport.

During the campaign, the WP candidate brought up a simple suggestion to allow seniors above the age of 75 use their own Medisave for polyclinic treatment, this idea was resisted by Dr. Koh who simply stuck to the status quo when he was interviewed..but the way the PAP treats our seniors shows PAP's ideological extreme - in all other developed Asian countries and Malaysia, they give their elderly free or nearly free outpatient treatment and our elderly can't use their own money in Medisave because our govt wants to keep its healthcare expenditure down to keep taxes low for the rich and spend lavishly on defense and scholarships for foreigners. This small example shows the ideological gulf the PAP has to cross to stop the trust from falling further. How does denying our elderly access to medical care when they have no money....the generation that build this miracle economy, how can it be can it possibly be good for the people.

It is late ...I will continue discussion of the by-election tomorrow and what it tells us about the swelling discontent on the ground.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Will be back tomorrow

I actually had a lot I wanted to write about  this  week but was unable to do so due to some very difficult circumstances.

The PE by-election results will give us a clear picture of  the sentiment at the ground and how the post-2011 GE policies are received. I did have discussion with an opposition volunteer who has been involved in the campaigning and the unexpected sentiment on the ground might have led to that last minute all out push by the PAP top brass ...with PM Lee giving a one hour speech at the last PAP rally. So we may get a result few people think was  likely at the start of this 4 corner contest.

We will know tomorrow and the results will set the tone for GE2016.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Political Strategy and the Punggol East by-elections.........

Simple question : If you are putting up posters for an election, how do you position the posters on a lamp post so that they get noticed?
The answer is put at at eye level so that people don't have to tilt their heads up and down to see it. You also do not want to put too many words on the poster and clutter it  Next simple question : Who are the best people to get to help out in an election to get things done to help you win the election?  You want people whose interests are aligned with yours and want to see you elected. These people are motivated by the right incentives who will put in the extra effort to make sure your posters are positioned properly when they put it up,  they will try to convince voters to select you when hand out your pamphlets and having people with real enthusiasm that will energizes your campaign. If you can't convince people to help you, you will have to spend money on hired hands to get things done and their interest may be to make money rather help you win the election.

There are many decisions for politicians and their parties have to make. Everything from choosing the size, color of their posters to what issues to take on during a campaign.  Just before the election, the govt announced a set of harsh cooling measures, the 7th in a series and during the by-election campaign, Minister Liu announced the govt plan to extend the public transport system - by year 2030, most Singaporeans with stay within walking distance of an MRT station. It is hard to believe that these announcements are not carefully planned and timed by the PAP as transport and housing are the 2 biggest issues in this by election.

On top of these there is the bigger picture - that of political strategy to gain and maintain power over the longer term. You have a bad strategy, you're going to spend a lot of time and money to get inferior outcomes.

The PAP govt deliberately designed a system with odds heavily stacked against the opposition and laden with political minefields that makes it easy for govt to dispose of opponents. For opposition to win, they have to overcome the pro-PAP media, upgrading for votes carrots, redefinition of electoral boundaries, GRC system etc. If you become prominent, you have to worry about attacks on your character and ability - they  publicized Chiam See Tong so-so "O" level results to embarrass and discredit him, just last year they tried to link Png Eng Huat and Tan Jee Say with a few defunct companies to show they have poor management ability, they got Andrew Kuan's employers to speak out against his work performance to discredit him when he wanted to run for the presidency...the examples are numerous. The PAP govt moved the management of town councils from the HDB to the hands of elected MPs - the PAP has all the resources and experience to run these and argues that the opposition has none - giving more opportunity to take down the opposition's reputation using the MSM should they mismanage the town councils...the loss of millions in minibond  investment by PAP run town councils was a non-issue, but the arrears in WP's AHTC caused by the termination of town council was a big issue - the ability to inflict damage is asymmetric. If some thing like AIM-PAP had occurred on the WP side, the WP would have been crushed.

If the opposition over-stretch themselves by accusing the govt of something that cannot be proven - most of the time nobody can prove intent - our defamation laws makes it easy for the PAP bankrupt opponents with limited financial resources.  There is also the problem of a fearful, sometimes apathetic, population....if you take on the PAP system head on like JBJ did after he became an elected representative, in any other developed democratic country, if the govt had done what they did to JBJ, protests and marches would have erupted and the govt's hand would have been weakened. But the PAP had been able to jail socialists for multi-decades without trial in the past...and they could arrest and bankrupt opposition members without a whimper of protest from Singaporeans. You can't get Singaporeans to "Occupy" Raffles Place to make a statement despite having the highest inequality among developed countries - when thousands protested in countries where inequality is far lower than in Singapore. Members of the opposition who get repressed find themselves more or less alone in their will not see a groundswell of support emerging from the people. Even someone of JBJ stature had to end up selling his books alone at the street corner.  In the 1997 election, JBJ's WP team attracted massive crowds like the ones we see at recent WP rallies. The WP team was narrowly defeated, When the PAP govt decided to go after members of the team, nobody could stop them - no massive crowds to stop the persecution.

For those who suggest that the WP fight the PAP harder on AIM, or use it as an isuue in the by election, you should remember 1997. Before the elections, there was the HPL saga in which some politicians received discounts for condos that was higher than other buyers. They tried to close the case by explaining that the units they bought were of inferior facing, odd shapes etc. the developer, HPL, confirmed this was so. Several members of the opposition refused to allow the govt to move on and the atmosphere for the 1997 election became acrimonious. The PAP concentrated their attacks on a member of the WP known as Tang Liang Hong [Link]accusing him of being a Chinese chauvinist and a threat to racial harmony. Tang was part of the WP Chang San GRC team with JBJ. The crowd turn out was massive during the rallies. They lost narrowly and the govt when after Tang who had to flee to Australia and bankrupted JBJ for remarks defending Tang during the election. Most of the characters in the PAP involved in this episode are still in power, the mechanisms that enabled them to cripple the opposition are still there.

A series of PAP missteps in various policies and the ability of the opposition to recruit good people have seen the fortunes of opposition parties rising again led again by the WP. To put things in perspective, the WP, today, has only won SMC and one GRC with 6 elected MPs out of 87.  While this is the most any opposition party has held in Singapore for 4 decades, it is still a very small number. Not only small, we must not forget how fragile this is. While the WP is busy working hard to find ways to improve the management of the estates and identify cracks in govt policy, you can be sure their powerful opponent is also finding ways to discredit and weaken them - and they have the money and resources to succeed if given the smallest chance.

"I don't see any strong views or alternatives being presented by the opposition, whether it's the NCMPs or the elected MPs,"  - PM Lee taking a swipe at the WP.[Link]

In GE2011, MP Low and the WP campaigned to be the "co-driver" of the govt. If you remember his exact words, they said "the driver has to be slapped if he falls asleep". This is a very humble goal and the WP did just that after they got into parliament. They vigorously questioned the govt on all new policies introduced. A lot of the data we have today on things like scholarship for foreign students, manpower numbers, medical care cost etc resulted from questions from members of the opposition. They appear quiet only because the coverage on the main stream media is not complete.  The one thing they have not done is challenge the govt on something major like a revamp of  CPF.  If you read their manifesto released during the 2006 elections and 2011 elections[Link], there are specific and major changes to the existing system. Given how things are unfolding in Singapore, the demand for change is rising and the electorate is getting impatient with the PAP and wants the "co-driver" to steer the driver in the right direction.

Right now with 1 SMC and 1 GRC, the WP have access to a decent pool of citizens they can interact with and learn about their problems. This will give them an insight to the changes that are needed in govt policy and put pressure on the govt to close the cracks. If the opposition can win more seats, they will have greater strength to push for changes. It is however pre-mature for the opposition in parliament to propose something like a major overhaul of the CPF system. Such ideas will be shot down as there are too few of them get it through. The other problem is there is an asymmetry of data, the govt in power have access to information not available to the opposition and can cherry pick data to counter  their arguments. Take the example of an opposition MP who proposed that NS be reduced sometime in the 1990s. The minister in charge countered the idea by saying that experts in the SAF a shorter NS period would result in insufficient training resulting in higher casualties. The media portrayed the opposition MP as irresponsible for making such a proposal. Years later, the govt did reduce the NS duration to 2 years saying that new training methods no longer need 2.5 years to prepare a soldier.

In days leading to the nomination of candidates for PE, the SDP said they want their candidates to be in parliament to make policy proposals in housing and healthcare. This makes opposition supporters ask themselves if the WP is doing too little. All of us appreciate the SDP efforts to formulate policies and have them discussed public forums so that alternative ideas can be explored. However, to take these ideas to parliament with 81 PAP MPs and ministers waiting to tear it apart is another matter. The SDP healthcare proposal requires a 50% cut in defense spending - the is no expertise outside govt that is able to say how much our defense spending can be cut and a lot of data on healthcare costs etc is just not available to the public. There is a high risk of getting discredited when you take on such a big task with too few opposition MPs in parliament even when you're putting up a plan that is workable.

Although it is quite a few days since my last post, I've watching the PE by-election closely. A workable strategy for opposition to win a seat as demonstrated by by Chiam See Tong some 30 years ago. You don't need  to mount some dramatic challenge against the PAP and you don't have to show yourself to be smarter (academically and otherwise) than your opponent to get votes - LKY release Chiam's O level results to it was inferior to Mah Bow Tan. What you need is to show is you're someone people can trust to put their interest above everything else. You don't have to promise them something you cannot deliver but you have to show that you understand the problems they are facing. Chiam took 3 elections to win his seat at a time when the PAP was extremely popular and held on for 27 years. Some opposition politicians today still do not understand that they should not fight battles they cannot win, give the opponent opportunity to hurt their credibility and sometimes they hurt their own credibility doing things they shouldn't do. One candidate in the current by-election paid youngsters to join him in walkabouts to artificially boost his image, but it defy common sense how he can expect not to caught by vigilant netizens and the media[Link] - that's bad strategy... spending money to achieve negative results.

I don't expect the opposition to take the Punggol East seat from the PAP due to the 4 corner fight unless the discontent at the ground has risen faster than I expected. This by-election like the many elections of the past holds important lessons for opposition parties and their supporters.  You make progress only when you're able to learn, build on your strengths and stop repeating old mistakes. I am not sure what the opposition parties will look like 10 years from now, Where they will be is a function of their strategy - doing the right things at the right time, selecting the right battles to fight and avoiding the minefields that their powerful opponent, the PAP, has laid out. The wind has been blowing in the right direction for opposition parties for the last few years and perhaps until GE2016 due to bad policies of the PAP that will take time to fix, but the wind can also change direction. We all hope to see opposition parties put in the right strategies, like avoiding multi-corner fights, avoid pulling each other down to get on top and putting in place sensible effective strategies to win.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Opposition politics gets messy in Punggol East By-Election...

While the PM was unexpectedly prompt in calling for an election, the PAP's selection of its candidate, introduction of the candidate to the media and subsequent campaign activities have been very systematic. Dr. Koh quickly got down to the ground doing what an good candidate is expected to do. To market him well, they call him the "son of Punggol". He was quickly seen visiting the stalled Rivervale project, a sore point among residents, meeting various stakeholders to assure them he would do what it takes to get the project going.

Things don't have to be as messy as they appear to be on the opposition side. Even if they are disunited, all that is needed is for different parties to act rationally in their own best interest.  The facts are not too difficult to grasp. Workers' Party contested in the SMC with decent results in the 2011 elections. Riding the moral high ground after the recent AIMgate and Palm-gate, it's chance of winning is very good and it is not reasonable to expect Workers' Party to give up this opportunity to take up one more seat to add to the pressure it has put on the PAP on various issues. The recent proposal by SDP[Link] for WP not to participate in the by-election is ludicrous and self-damaging - they lost some of the credibility they gained during GE2011....the best thing they can do now is not to make things worse for themselves by joining a contest they will certainly lose due to lack of time to work the ground and be blamed for causing the loss of a seat that could have been won by another opposition party. Unfortunately, based on what they have done in recent days, I'm not sure if they are able to stop damaging their own reputation further.

"But given the mood change since, the ruling party will have a tougher time – if it is a two-party contest. If it faces the Workers Party alone, the PAP may likely lose." - Seah Chiang Nee[Link]

We start off with a roughly 50-50 situation in a direct contest between WP and PAP.  You can't say for sure who will win because it is hard to assess the swing votes but we know the swing will be in favor of WP because Palmer was far better known than Dr. Koh and things have not gotten better (for Punggol residents and Singaporeans) since the 2011 election. Starting with this, any additional opposition party that comes in to contest will chip away WP's block of votes - the irony is the better quality their candidate, the bigger chunk they will take and the less likely an opposition candidate will win the seat. 

“if we enter into (a three-cornered fight), we're only going to kill ourselves. We're not that stupid.” - Chiam See Tong, GE2006.

Chiam See Tong's party SPP and NSP have chosen to do the sensible thing to stay out of this contest. These are the 2 parties that came closest to winning parliament seats in GE2011 after the WP - with narrow defeats in Potong Pasir and Marine Parade GRC. 

For the other parties, whatever their intentions are, their joining the contest will stop the WP from winning another seat without gaining anything but blame for helping the PAP retain its seat in Punggol East. Opposition supporters will be left with this feeling of "what could have been" and morn a wasted opportunity. We saw the end result of vote splitting in the Presidential Election, it is likely that Tan Cheng Bock would have won if the votes were not split. But nobody could have foreseen this close fight between Tan Cheng Bock and Tony Tan - you cannot blame the other presidential candidates for the missed opportunity because it was unpredictable. However, for this by election, we have baseline results from GE2011 so there is no excuse to hand PAP the victory by splitting the votes when the people of Punggol East actually want an opposition member of parliament.

To put it simply, the PAP will win in a 3- or 4- corner fight. The opposition parties joining the contest will walk off as losers - a defeat they inflict on themselves. Unless their goal is to stop the WP which they see as a rival, the decision to contest just makes no sense. If they are there to stop the WP, then these other parties are led by people whose intentions are not very clear. A stronger WP will pave the way for other opposition parties. The better WP performs, the stronger the proof that alternatives to PAP can perform well and that will help people to overcome their reservations about voting for alternatives. Other parties can choose to leverage on the success of WP to advance their own cause or they choose to turn this win-win situation into a lose-lose one.  Perhaps, the biggest obstacle to the progress of opposition politics is not the PAP - these days they can't seem to solve any of our problems and reverse the rising discontent- but the inability of personalities in opposition parties to make sensible decisions.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Another PAP man to preserve the status quo...

I was watching the press conference that introduced the PAP candidate for the coming Punggol East election:

As with many of the PAP men, he comes with almost impeccable credentials and speaks very well - in both English and Chinese. Dr. Koh is a cancer specialist with a practice in Mount Elisabeth, made it to commanding officer in combat battalion and served in the RC since 2003.  He rose from a very humble background (son of bus driver) to the top of his profession.

"I still stay in my HDB flat" - Dr Koh Poh Koon

He didn't surprise us further by saying he takes the bus to Mount Elizabeth but it is hard to dislike this guy given his humility and apparent desire to serve the people. But if you watch the entire video, you quick see the what is so familiar among so many PAP men:

"Dr Koh said he and his family are proof of the success of Singapore's
meritocratic system
. Dr Koh said he is thankful that despite his humble
background, he was able to attend medical school at the National University of
Singapore and graduate as a doctor.

He was also given government scholarships to receive training at top centres in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Dr Koh worked for 14 years at Singapore General Hospital before setting up his own practice as a colorectal surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

Explaining why he decided to enter politics, Dr Koh said when
he was called to serve, he felt "duty-bound to stand and be counted".

Dr Koh said he wants to help create the same opportunities to help other
Singaporeans achieve their fullest potential."
- Report in Today[Link]
He believes the system is good because he is able to succeed. There is no question that for people with talents, the top students and the scholarship holders, the system opens up numerous opportunities to achieve success. What Dr. Koh said is no different from what Tin Pei Ling said and what many other PAP candidates said when they were interviewed during the 2011 Election, the system is good because they are able to succeed and no major change is needed.

Therein lies the key difference between the PAP man and an equally capable opposition candidate. The opposition candidate looks beyond himself and his own experience to better appreciate what is going on in the system. Only the top 0.1% of the people have scholarships and get to same opportunities as Dr. Koh, more than two-thirds of every cohort does not get the chance to go to university to obtain a degree. 400,000 thousand workers have full time jobs but do not make enough to support themselves and their families. Singapore has the highest income gap in the developed world. Yet, you see PAP men and women, saying they want to get elected into parliament to serve but see no need for fundamental changes to the system.

On the same day Dr. Koh was introduced, the COE broke new records hitting $92K for small cars. Housing cost rose to the highest in our history.  The middle-class comes under threat as the income gap balloons. Discontent is rising as cracks appear in the system that now needs an overhaul. The so-called meritocratic system is "meritocratic" and working only for a small number of people - the highly talented, the highly connected and the rich. The rest have to work harder to overcome the challenges the system produces - the rapidly rising cost of living and low wages at the bottom. The PAP has policies that consistently benefit those who already have the advantage causing the income gap to expand. As the PAP spends on tax cuts for the richest and allow businesses to import cheap labor abundantly, the burden of on those at the middle and bottom expanded over time. All systems are good for some of the people most of the time, But the we need a system is good for most of the people most of the time to broaden prosperity. To achieve that outcome we cannot elect another representative whose stated objective is to support and preserve the system because he and his family have benefited.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

AIM-PAP Saga : White elephants, transparency and accountability..........

"The big fat white elephant in the room – which the PAP and Teo seem to have missed – is the issue of a conflict of interest in selling the intellectual property (IP) of software developed by the 14 PAP town councils and paid for, presumably, by residents or taxpayers, to a PAP-owned company run by three former PAP MPs." - Andrew Loh [Link]

The big white elephant is not just seen my netizens but by all ordinary people except for the PAP and their staunch supporters. Two days ago, highly respected ex-PAP MP and presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock  question the sale of software to AIM:

"So did the town councils as public institutions do the right thing, selling (the system) to a company owned by a political party with its own agenda?" - Tan Cheng Bock.

PAP MP Baey Yam Kam argued that  town councils "are not public institutions;" but  are "political organisations" run by political parties[Link]. He seemed to be saying that because town councils are political organisations, the conflict of interest just does occur in the AIM deal. This the first time I heard of this  political "role" of town councils - just because the people filling various positions are from competing political parties does not make town councils political organisations. Our prime minister is from PAP but he is the prime minister for the whole country including those who voted for the opposition - if he forgets his role, he will be in trouble.

PM Lee has called for a review of the AIM transaction. The review will also examine the role of town councils.

'The simmering issue, which gave rise to numerous statements being exchanged between both sides over the "public interest", will be reviewed "in the interest of transparency and maintaining trust in the system' - PM Lee's statement[Link]

One factor that affected trust in the govt that cannot be repaired now regardless of  findings of this review committee is the way the AIM saga came to light. The public only learned about AIM  (and AIM being a PAP company) after WP tried to explain its town council's performance. Much of the information that pointed to important possible issues were initially gathered by netizens. Only when the pressure mounted did the govt release more information. Things could have turned out a lot better for the PAP if the town councils had been completely transparent in 2010  when AIM was awarded the contract. If the people who made the decision knew that they had to explain it to the public they would have been more careful and conscientious. Continuous transparency and voluntary transparency helps to resolve problems early and improve decision making. Countries and organisation implement what is known as a freedom of information act (FOIA) so that information all information so long as it does not affect national security and national interest. Instead of the FOIA, the PAP implemented the draconian OSA (official secrets act) [Link].

Today, even restaurants have open kitchens so that you can see how your food is cooked before you enjoy it. The cook will re-cook the food with fresh ingredients if he accidentally drops it on the floor. One quarter of chefs would serve you food from the floor if nobody sees it [Link]. There no point explaining that the floor is clean after you're caught.  Being transparent "after the fact", will not help to fully repair the damage to  trust and reputation that could have been prevented by having transparency all the time.

I don't expect the PAP to change or improve much in this area - secrecy seems to be in deep in their DNA, a common trait among less democratic..authoritarian type govts. I do see opportunity here for opposition parties to show they can find ways to give the public more information ...that we don't have a 1st world govt does not mean we should not have a 1st world opposition when it comes to else is it going to check and challenge the govt to do better.  

Saturday, January 05, 2013

AIM-PAP Saga : Just too many unanswered questions...

There is so much online and offline discussion on the topic and a whole pile of unanswered questions piling up when Dr. Teo HP promised an explanation. Unfortunately, the explanation was highly unsatisfactory and the unhappiness surround the issue rocketed. Singaporeans depend on town councils to provide essential services at an affordable cost would like more transparency and accountability on this matter and greater clarity and more data  will certainly help us to make a better assessment.

It is unfortunate the threat of defamation lawsuits came so quickly when there are so many legitimate questions still waiting for answers. The concerns of Singaporeans have to be satisfactorily addressed otherwise there will be a further loss of trust.

In page 6 of today's The New Paper one of the companies that collected the tender document, Hutcabb Consulting, shed some light on what was in the documents. Hutcabb Consulting has an office located in Jalan Kilang and counts the Attorney-General Chamber and Ministry of Foreign Affairs as its clients:

Chief Executive of Hutcabb Consulting, Mr. Oliver Tian told The New Papar that his company did not bid for the software because the town councils did not provide sufficient information about it in the tender document.

"It was very hard to make a decision based on what was provided. After paying more than $200, we simply got a thin stack of documents and the town councils were unable to provide us with more information" - he said

- The New Paper, Pg 6, 5 Jan 2013.

For the tender process to work successfully and fairly, companies have to be provided sufficient information to put in a bid. In this case, the tender involves the purchase a custom software and specifications have to be sufficiently detailed so that companies can value the system and put in a competitive bid.  Other netizens have found the tender notice[Link] to be vague and lacking in details. It is not clear if the termination clause was in the original tender document as a requirement or added to the contract after AIM won the tender.

There is a long list of questions that can be answered if the PAP govt has nothing to hide and make public all the relevant documents.  This is a matter that affects many ordinary Singaporeans and they need to know is public interest has been served and all measures to safeguard their interests have been undertaken.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

AIM-PAP Saga : The Explanation that explains nothing!

The main issue with the sale of town council management software to a PAP owned company with a clause that gives the PAP company the right to terminate use of the software if an opposition takes over the town council is that of conflict of interest. It is equivalent to the Democratic Party selling the US Social Security computer software to a company it owns then giving the company the right to stop the Republicans from using it when it recaptures the presidency in elections. The AIM deal gives enormous power to the PAP to stop the opposition from running the town councils effectively when they are chosen by the constituents to be representatives in parliament. Therein lies the conflict of interest. The rights of the people are not protected and they are put at risk.

"Dr Teo has now confirmed that this third party, AIM, is “fully-owned” by the PAP. In other words, the PAP-managed Town Councils saw it fit to sell away their ownership of the systems, developed with public funds, to a political party, which presumably could act in its own interests when exercising its rights to terminate the contracts". - Sylvia Lim, WP Statement

Professor Teo Ho Pin's  26 paragraph explanation does not address this conflict of interest issue which was the main point brought up by Sylvia Lim. I really you suggest you read his statement in full to understand what he is saying[Why the PAP town council entered into transaction with AIM]. I challenge you to find the logic in his statements that can explain that no conflict of interest has occurred.

In skirting the central issue, Teo Ho Pin's 26 paragraphs detailing PAP's Town Councils rationale and timeline for the sale really gives us an insight on how a PAP elite thinks and make decisions. I would like to share my thoughts as I run through his 26 paragraphs. As usual, here is a summary:

In 2003, PAP town councils wanted to "harmonise" their computer systems and jointly called an open tender for a computer system based on a common platform. 

It is strange that these systems are stove-piped and harmonisation is done on hindsight. The head of PAP town councils didn't have the foresight to achieve cost savings and cost sharing by getting the town councils to work together? 

NCS was chosen to provide this system from Aug 1, 2003 to Oct 31, 2010, with an option to extend the contract for one year.

Teo does not tell us how much NCS is paid to develop the system. This piece of information is of public interest. We would like to know how much money is spent on such a system when it is sold for $140K

In 2010, PAP town councils jointly appointed Deloitte and Touche Enterprise Risk Services (D&T) to advise on the review of the computer system.

After a comprehensive review, D&T identified various deficiencies and gaps in the system which was becoming "obsolete and unmaintainable". 

After just 7 years of use, the system is "obsolete and unmaintainable". Let me ask you a question : How many new services did you receive from your town council in those 7 years? Town councils do the same thing year in-year out like landscaping, clearing rubbish,  collecting conservancy etc but the NCS software becomes "unmaintainable". 
After a comprehensive review, D&T identified various deficiencies and gaps in the system. The main issue, however, was that the system was becoming obsolete and unmaintainable. It had been built in 2003, on Microsoft Windows XP and Oracle Financial 11 platforms. By 2010, Windows XP had been superseded by Windows Vista as well as Windows 7, and Oracle would soon phase out and discontinue support to its Financial 11 platform. - Teo H P.

Teo Ho Pin further elaborates on this saying D&T main finding is that Windows XP and Oracle Financial 11 platforms would be superseded. I'm quite surprise that they have to pay expensive consultants to find this out - something you can know by spending 10 minutes reading Microsoft's and Oracle's roadmap online. The important thing to note is when these products are superseded by new ones e.g. Windows 7, these vendors will keep their products backward compatible so that custom software written for Windows XP and older version of Oracle will still work on new versions. Companies that do not want  to waste money simply stick to Windows XP (I'm sure many of you work in companies that still uses Windows XP) and older versions of Oracle so long as they get the job done and have no major issues.  
In moving custom software to a new version of operating system and Oracle database, all that is needed for total assurance is some software porting, if necessary, regression testing which can be done by NCS.   

D&T suggested the option of having a third party own the computer system, including the software, with the town councils paying a service fee for regular maintenance.

After serious consideration, the PAP town councils decided to call for a tender under which only the intellectual property in the old software would be sold. The ownership of the physical computer systems remained with the PAP town councils.

Teo H P says that shared ownership of IP (Intellectual Property) is "cumbersome". Why? The PAP Town Council has been sharing the IP for 7 years before they tried to sell it off. 
This is a strange recommendation by D&T. Post 1990s software is written for re-use. Rarely in the software industry do we see new versions of software written from scratch - it is a massive waste of money. For Town Council management software you can imagine that 80-90% of the original written code can be reused given they do the same thing year after year -day in day out . Selling the IP to a 3rd party to far below cost of development does not make sense because you sign away your right to use the old source codes. Now you pay the price of full development of new software.

According to Teo HP,  D&T recommended that the "unmaintainable" software ownership be moved to a third party to own and "provide regular maintenance".  Somehow AIM, a $2 company without a permanent office is able to maintain an "unmaintainable" software. It turned out AIM did this by signing up NCS to do the maintenance. The town councils engage NCS through AIM rather than directly and that is more efficient?

On June 30, 2010, PAP town councils advertised the tender in the Straits Times. Five companies collected the tender documents: CSC Technologies Services, Hutcabb Consulting, NCS, NEC Asia and Action Information Management (AIM).

On July 20, 2010, AIM submitted a bid which was the only one received by the town councils.

After assessing that AIM's proposal was in the PAP town councils' best interests, the tender was awarded to AIM.

 Teo H P explained that the Town Council saved $8000 in the leaseback without the considering the loss of  intellectual property with the potential of reuse in a new development. Teo does not tell us the cost of developing the original software. He does not tell us how much it pays consultants for what looks like trivial findings and simple decisions. ....but I'm still glad he took the trouble to write his 26 paragraphs. It tells us the PAP Town Councils are not very good at saving costs for residents and residents have to pay more and more each year for the same services.  Reading the 26 paragraphs tells us cost cutting and keeping expenses low for residents does not seem feature in their thought processes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Happy New Year : What 2013 may bring...

The year 2011 ended with a dramatic breakdown of our MRT system that woke everyone up to the urgent need to improve our public transport. On the last day of 2012, I took the circle line and was delayed for more than half an hour in the morning due to a "track fault".  In the afternoon, there was a problem with the EW line when a breakdown occurred at Redhill MRT[Link]. On the same day, there was also a disruption on the NEL - what a way to end the year. I wrote about the problems with our transport system 6 years ago, identifying the privatisation of our public transport and the pressure for profit to please shareholders as factors that will lead to decline in service quality. Unless we can change the model, we will not see the dramatic improvement of service quality needed to lift the quality of life of most Singaporeans - with rising COE and more middleclass Singaporeans forced to take public transport,  there will be rising dissatisfaction over unmet expectations  The problems with our public transport system is perhaps emblematic of the socio-economic issues faced by Singapore in the recent and coming years. Our old solutions to problems become new problems and we find ourselves unable to solve the new class of problems because we applied old solutions for too long ignoring the deep and far reaching negative consequences.

The problem with Singapore is that suddenly, we became a one-trick pony......Our one trick was bring in more cheap foreign labour; we will increase GDP every year. And that is true, but it’s not the only trick in the book — (yet) it became so convenient for us that we used it all the time.” - AWARE executive director Corinna Lim.[Link]

This year ended with Singapore nearly entering recession. Our growth has stagnated because of our high dependence on cheap foreign labour for growth . The govt introduced mild curbs to foreign imported labor but our economy needs high level of foreign imported labor to to keep our economy growing because we are "out of new tricks". The busineess community in the form of  Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) and Singapore European Chamber of Commerce (SECC), claimed that Singapore will "lose its competive edge" unless the floodgates are again re-opened. The business lobby wants more of the old solution and to play the same one easy trick. No where else in the developed world do businesses enjoy such a liberal foreign worker policy yet the business lobby demands the floodgates stay open[Link]. The interests of the business lobby are not just narrow, they are short term in nature. In 2012, Singapore's economy was showing signs of overheating with inflation hitting 5.7% in Nov 2012[Link], business rentals, housing prices and COE breaking new records. If the Singapore had done what the business lobby wanted easing the curbs on foreign labor, we would have even higher inflation and the type of GDP growth that brings little benefit, if not negative effects, for ordinary Singaporeans.

In 2010, minimum wage [Link] was proposed as solutions for our income inequality and low wage worker problem. This was quickly rejected by the govt, govt-controlled union and the business lobby. Their claim was such schemes would lead to unemployment and it is undesirable to interfere with the free market.  A pro-business govt with controlled unions and a business community just cannot get some of these bold but workable ideas through to solve a problem that will polarize our society and threaten us in the longer term. In 2011, the Hong Kong govt decided to adopt minimum wage legislation - the pro-business lobby there screamed that thousands of businesses would shut down, unemployment would rise, inflation would spin out of control and Hong Kong would become uncompetitive. The Hong Kong govt fortunately had enough resolve to overcome the resistance from the business lobby and boldly implemented the measure. The legislation pushed the wages of lowest paid workers by a whopping 28%. One year after implementation none of the deleterious effects has been seen - unemployment remained the same, inflation rate is lower than Singapore's and the Hong Kong economy kept growing. Economists generally conclude that the implementation is a success[Link]and the Hong Kong govt intends to increase minimum wage by another 7% in May next year[Hong Kong increases min wage] benefiting 320,000 workers.

There has been little progress in tackling the income gap which in now near dangerous levels[Link]. This year our GINI index (after govt transfers) did not improve from 2011 [Link]. Despite all the govt publicity surrounding GST vouchers, Workfare, U-Save etc, these transfers knock off only 0.02 from our GINI index which remains 0.452 after transfers (0.473 before transfers). Some countries reduce their GINI by 0.1 to 0.2 through govt transfers[Link]. Although the income gap did not get worse, maintaining it at these levels has harmful long term effects including increased poverty and allowing the growth of an permanent underclass to take hold. The govt limit what it does today to face the consequences of its inaction further down - the problem will become harder and more expensive to solve.

The issue is not whether we can solve any of these problems quickly - they have become entrenched and difficult - but Singaporeans need to know we can get on the right path.  But 2012 is another year the PAP govt demonstrated that it cannot change fast enough to overcome the problems we face. The ideological shackles, the old formulas and the hard truths of one man, keeps the govt on a narrow path afraid to walk an alternate track on which solutions might lie. We are in a system that cause our people to be the unhappiest in the world[Singaporeans the unhappiest people in the world] yet the PAP govt is still trying to make do small tweaks and still constantly preach to us that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the system they have constructed. ..but the reality is we have the most unhappy people in the world who have been dis-empowered by a ruling elite whose interests over time have diverged from that of the common can it be that no major change is needed to address this?

The PAP today still uses propaganda, filters information and uses a considerable amount of spin to keep Singaporeans in a bubble of ignorance and acceptance of their system. But with alternate sources of information, more Singaporeans realize the flaws and unsustainability of  the current system. 2013 like 2012 will see more Singaporeans turning against the system that is generating negative outcomes in the quality of life for an increasing number of people. Nothing improved in key areas that affected our quality of life in 2012 - housing became less affordable, COE for cars are at record levels, public transport saw no improvement, cost of healthcare kept rising and inflation is in excess of 5%. There is rising indebtedness in our society with consumer loans increasing 34% from $151.5 to $201.4 billion from 2010 to October 2012 since I last wrote about it [Link],  and loan sharking has become epidemic in recent years with more than 65,000 cases in the last 4 years. Singaporeans have the highest debt to income ratio in the world[Personal Debt Bomb].

After 2012, it is hard to be optimistic that the PAP govt will eventually be able to acquire a brave vision to lead us out of our problems and improve the quality of life of Singaporeans. The close link between the PAP and the network of businesses that form our GLCs has resulted in interests that diverged from those of ordinary Singaporeans. Policies have been unbalanced for many years will continue to remain unbalanced until Singaporeans acquire real power to effect changes in the system.