Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gobbledygook

I could be going through a strange phase in my life but I seem to be finding that gobbledygook, or speech that does not seem to make sense is becoming the norm in Singapore. I get the impression that there is a new national trend to ensure that when we communicate we are NOT understood. You can imagine the scenario, if you speak in such a way that is honest and understandable, you will be thrown into jail.

Unfortunately, the people who have taken up the art of gobbledygook are precisely the people who have made their reputation for speaking clearly and telling it like it is. Like it or not, Singapore’s leadership at one stage was about having what Jack Welsh, GE’s former CEO called “Candour,” or the dirty little secret of business success. This was a political leadership that was never afraid to being honest about why unpopular policies had to be put in place and while we, the public may have bitched about it, we accepted the decisions of the leadership and thus far things have turned out brilliantly.

But things have been starting to change and I can say with a bit of relief or should it be alarm that even the foreigners are not immune to speaking in gobbledygook. A week ago, I attended a talk by the American Ambassador. Like all Americans, the lady meant well even if she did end up sounding patronising. However, she had to spoil it all when someone asked her whether Presidential Obhama’s plans to withdraw troops from Iraq would reduce America’s role as the world’s “military policemen.” At this point, the embassy’s PR people should have made it a point to shrink into a cave as the lady replied, “I take issue with you calling us the world’s military policemen. When we go into a country, we don’t go in with the intention to occupy but to provide solutions.” Thank goodness the government’s spokesperson was around to see that potential troublemakers were well behaved.

Seriously, what was the lady thinking when she spoke those words. Erm, exactly what solutions has America provided Afghanistan or Iraq – that is unless you call sending your GIs (but what do the neoCONS care about White Trash, Niggers and Spicks?), to be target practice for the insurgents a solution (a solution for the neoCONS but who else)? And what exactly did Madame Ambassador think the GIs were doing in Iraq if they were not occupying the place? (Well, I suppose the GIs are there to soak up the sun).

I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for the woman or regret that I didn’t push her on these questions. This is the first time I’ve seen an Ambassador stick her foot in her mouth and pull it out of her ear with such a lack of fines. The fact that it was the American Ambassador making a statement of the absurd was even more amusing.

OK, I have to be fair to the American Ambassador. Her gobbledygook does work most of the time. A few months ago, a Singaporean complained about being punched by a drunken sailor and the fact that the sailor was not charged by the police. The good lady went wrote a letter about how the USA respects Singapore law and how Singaporeans should remember how US sailors pick litter on the beach (which, if I know these boys, they put it there in the first place.) Unlike her counterpart in Tokyo who has to bow in front of the Governor of Okinawa every time the GIs get into trouble – the government did utterly nothing and we even had letters to the papers praising her for her honesty.

But then again, should anyone be surprised? This is the country that has gobbledygook at its heart. Look at the 377A debate where you had Professor Thio Li-Ann, who spoke allot of gobbledygook about how keeping a private consensual act between consenting adults illegal would somehow uphold society’s morals. Her arguments ran along the lines that the majority of Singaporeans are against homosexual sex and letting homosexuals have sex in the privacy of their bedrooms would make the rest of us homosexuals …or something like that. But let’s give credit where credit is due. She spoke allot of gobbledygook and the public seemed to cheer her on as a defender of their values – My favourite Young Politician cannot resist telling me that this is a sign of Asian Values (goes to show how much he knows about Asian culture.) Professor Thio deserves her law professorship – the lady can spin gobbledygook in such a way that supposedly educated and rational people believe her. (Says allot about education in Singapore)

The law is not the only place in Singapore that seems to be infected with gobbledygook. The economy has become a place where speaking gobbledygook has become a necessity. A few days after the American Ambassador made her statement of the absurd, our finance minister, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a brilliant finance person by all counts, proceeded to warn the population that getting higher wages would fuel inflation, which would only make them suffer.

He’s right! The monthly wage increase he got a few years ago would probably cover the annual salaries of 4 more executives. So you can’t have an extra four people on one man’s payroll without sending prices rising higher, and that’s before you count the increase of the rest of his colleagues. This is basic economics 101 for you. In the mean time the rest of us can rest comfortably that any salary increase we have will be taxed further to ensure that Temasek and GIC can continue to fund profit making ventures like Citigroup and UBS (lost count of how many billions have been wiped off their books), which is all for our benefit – such as ensuring the Americans don’t offer us any solutions.

Singapore’s grandmaster of speaking gobbledygook is of course, non other than our founding Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The man, who made the nation by having candour, has decided that in the modern day and age of the Bush Administration, candour is bad and gobbledygook is in.

Over the weekend, he declared that Singapore’s economy is rosy. We are, according to him, entering a decade where we can see seven percent annual growth, baring a major world recession. So, there you have it. Mr Lee says tiny little Singapore will grow tremendously but if it fails, well it’s not his fault (assuming his cabinet post gives him responsibility would be complacent).

The man has had a brilliant career. He’s been great for Singapore but there comes a time when even the greatest of us fail. Now, the greatest of us will acknowledge our failure and move ourselves into positions where we don’t do damage to what we have built up. That was Mr Lee’s original idea when he stepped aside in 1990. But unlike Jack Welsh who had the decency to retire, write books and give seminars – Mr Lee’s idea of stepping aside was to change title. He remains vastly influential in the government’s decision making.

I can accept that his experiences are valuable. But he would serve Singapore better if he had offered it as a private citizen. Instead, he’s a full and exceedingly influential member of the cabinet. In his position, he can ensure his policies are perpetuated, which has thus far been beneficial to Singapore but I fear it’s a reaching stage where its not.

Go back to Jack Welsh. Today, GE’s membership can take allot of lessons from Jack Welsh and his stint as CEO. He and others have written enough books about his experiences and insights. But ultimately, Mr Welsh does not make any decisions at GE – that’s for the current CEO, Jeff Immelt.

So, Mr Lee thinks the economy is doing well. It was helped by the statisticians from the WTO, who declared Singapore’s economy one of the world’s “Most Open,” though I noticed that they didn’t say for who it was open to? My Young Politician has smiled in triumph – the status quo works. Mr Lee’s words have the power to form reality.

Let’s try to work this out. The world’s biggest economy is mired in debt. The debts are so bad that the losses of all the banks involve are probably equal to Singapore’s GDP and the Sovereign Wealth Fund that Mr Lee is Chairman of has only bought into two of those banks (UBS and Citigroup). Since the GIC plonked 11 billion Swiss Franks of tax payers/ CPF holder’s money into UBS, the shares have fallen by some 11 percent in four months. The bank has already lost a CEO and is currently in its umpteenth board reshuffle. In the mean time Citigroup only bleed some US$9 billion in the second quarter of the financial year, which is only 9 percent of Singapore’s GDP. But then, as my young policitican from Pasir Ris GRC would be quick to point out – The GIC is a private company and its spending government money……

So, I suppose when you look at it this way, Mr Lee is very interested in speaking gobbledygook about how the Singapore economy is in such a rosy place. Like all Chinese Patriarchs, he’s probably annoyed that the other Chinese Patriarch, Wee Chow Yaw, former CEO of UOB, the nation’s largest bank in private sector hands, said a few days earlier that the world (of which Singapore is still part of) is in its WORST RECESSION EVER. More importantly, Mr Lee is probably ticked off that Mr Wee is probably more believable.

I admire Mr Lee for his leadership in building up the nation. But in this case, I’m more inclined to put my meagre resources with Mr Wee. As Chairman of the GIC, Mr Lee runs an organisation where the cash is so abundant that he can afford to look “long-term” which is money man speak for hope for the best, it goes right eventually. Mr Wee, by contrast has run an institution where his personal fortune was at stake. Yes, he is rich but this is his personal money and he needs to make it grow – as such he’s got to be capital efficient. When you’re in such a situation – gobbledygook simply won’t do.

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