Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Problems for a Member of Parliament

I have to thank Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and probably Singapore's most renowned intellectual, and Zen, probably Singapore's most comical prositute for providing me into an insight into one of the most worrying aspects of Singapore's culture - namely the deep sense of entitlement that the Middle Class feels and its disregard for the poor.

Professor Mahbubani, who is a university contemporary of my mother, wrote an excellent commentary in the Straits Times (25 March, 2009) called, "If Singapore Fails." This, well argued commentary recalled the first electoral defeat that the People's Action Party (PAP) suffered in the Anson constituency in 1981. He recalls how Dr Goh Kheng Swee, one of Singapore's Founding Fathers (also described as Singapore's REAL ARCHITECT), had placed the shock defeat down to the fact that the dominant party never "envisioned the possibility of defeat." The party had taken its 100 percent mandate for granted and the people of Anson had given them a bloody nose. Ever since then, the supremely dominant PAP has been paranoid about losing seats, even if continues to hold a commanding 96 percent of available seats in Parliament. 

By simply not excepting the possibility of failure, people don't prepare themselves both in the practical and psychological sense. One of his key points was that Singaporeans have grown so used to "Good" (competant and compasionate) government that they are simply unable to see government in any other light. More importantly, this has prevented Singaporeans from developing greater "Self-Reliance." As such, Professor Mahbubani points out, the nation is woefully unprepared for the day when it will have a government that does not have solutions to every individual's problems. 

True enough, I got to witness this first hand when I accomanied Zen to see her Member of Parliament, Dr Lee Boon Yang, who is also Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). As with the Westminister system, our Minsiter are also Members of Parliament (MP) and as such they are required to serve the people who elect them on a weekly basis. 

Meet the People sessions are fun, particularly if you have issues with any government department. As efficient as the government mashinary is, it can be highly inflexible and going through it dehumanises. If you're reasonably educated and thick skinned, you can find a way of getting the officials in the system to show you a bit of humanity. Unfortunately, not everyone in Singapore is reasonably educated and able to deal with robots.  Examples include incidences where a government department refuses someone in obvious need of a food stamp because they made 10 cents more than the required amount to qualify and so on. 

Bureaucrats by nature stick to the rules and generally its a good thing. However, from time-to-time, exceptions need to be made and unless you get to someone who can make the decision, you will be frustrated. For those who can't, the "Meet the People" sessions are a way for them to get the government working for them. In Zen's case, the prison's department refused to let her see Eric because she's not a blood relative. Unfortunately, she's the only thing resembling family that he has. The Bureaucracy doesn't bend for people like Zen and Eric so she went to see Dr Lee to explain her situation and now she see's Eric on a monthly basis. 

These sessions actually give me more respect for the world's best paid Ministers. I actually see them working for the people. Allot of cases at these sessions are heart wrenching - people who have lost their jobs, livlihoods and so on.

Unfortunately, I had sit close enough to hear a reasonablly well to do couple beg to see Dr Lee. I could hear snippets of their conversation. Perhaps I'm unfair and if someone could prove me wrong, it sounded pretty much like these guys lost money buying an investment product and now they wanted their Member of Parliament to get them legal assistance in suing the buggers.

Sorry, I don't think this is what Dr Lee should be doing. Perhaps the person who sold them the financial product was a cad and the institution was shit (as most of them often are), but why the hell were they begging Dr Lee to get them legal assistance to solve a matter they had a key role in playing. 

The finance industry is a rough place and one should bless economic crisis for reminding people that Newton's law "what goes up must come down," is as applicable to finance as it is to physics. Risk, a four letter word, which is as vulgar as it gets; always tags along with profit and returns. Surely anyone with an ounce of sense understands that and if the person selling you the financial product tells you that your investment in "Guarenteed" and more worryingly, your returns. How the hell do reasonably educated people not suspect something is wrong when an investment advisor tells them that their investment in "Guarenteed," and more importantly so are their returns. Even the US government is having difficulty explaining "reassurance" to owners of its Treasury Bonds these days. 

OK, this does not excuse ciminal actions on the part of the financial salespeople and institutions. If one feels done in, it's up to one to find a lawyer willing to take the case and either take a civil or criminal action against the other party. Unfortunately, lawyers cost money. Still if you have enough money to buy any of these products in the first place, you obviously can afford a half-way decent lawyer.

Sure, there are times when the State needs to foot legal bills. There are impovrished people who need access to justice and you can't expect the lawyers to provide it for free. Legal Aid should be for things like, the police have arrested you and charged you and you need a lawyer to stick by you in court. 

Why on earth should the State provide legal assistance for civil cases involving bad business deals? One argument that my favourite Young Politician and others of his generation might put up is that the "Middle Class and Rich" pay more taxes and so are entitled to such benefits from the State. This argument is hogwash - in fact the "Uncaring Elite" need to be washed in pig shit for even entertaining the thought. 

The State exists to provide certain services and to ensure the playing field is relatively even. Things like security, sanitation and defense are the responsibility of government and so it's right for us to harp on at the government when limping criminals walk out of a detention facility. The State and government in this case have failed to provide a basic service which is their key function.

The State has a delicate balancing act. It needs to provide the talented with the chance to get ahead but it also needs to ensure the less talented don't get squished too far. So, taxes and state aid help to ensure this balance. There is something seriously wrong when the well to do decide that they're entitled to the stuff set aside for the less fortunate. 

OK, I'm not against everyone having subsidised education. If education is more avilable you get more people discovering opportunities that were previously closed to them. This is good for society. I'm also fine with subsidised health care if it keeps the general population healthy. I'm not so proud that I refuse to take things like my progress package. This is something the government choses to pay me and since they're funding this with my tax dollars, I might as well use the money they give me to fund my tax bill. 

What I find seriously wrong is when the well to do expect the state to pick up after them and I despise young toadies who get upset when you give to the poor. I remember one of the few moments I applauded Philip Yeo, Chairman of SPRING Singapore and former Chairman of A*STAR. He made some comment of saying that he favoured providing government schoolarships to people from poorer backgrounds (they're hungrier). Boy, the next day you got allot of people who were upset with him for daring to suggest that help should be for those who need it the most. 

Sure, if you're clever you should be rewarded but if all things are equal, shouldn't we help the guy who would otherwise be unable to aford the education? I remember one of my friends who was very clever at school. He never got a scholarship and the reason for that was because his father was the head of chemistry and refused to take one. His argument was simple - he taught at the school and paid in one year what the rest of us paid in a term for each of his children. He beileved that it was better to accept his blessings and let those who were less fortunate but no less able to go for the scholarships. Now, why don't we celebrate this type of thinking? 

As for today, my new gripe is when the well to do look for legal assistance from the state. Such systems are designed to ensure those who are genuinely poor don't get screwed in the legal system - which, despite all efforts, can and does happen. Don't use these things especially if your legal problems are because of your greed. 

Seriously, let's stop talking about entitlements. Let's focus on people. Why can't we celebrate those who have the ability to share? It's good for society as a whole and actually good for the economy if you look at things intelligently. Just as mankind needs to stop blamming God for its adequacies, Singaporeans should try and take charge of their own lives for a change. 

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