Monday, November 07, 2011

Shangri-La on Earth?

My favourite litigator once made the point that Singapore is the “Celestial Kingdom.” He had mentioned this as a strategy of a trial we were going to hold for the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who supports the Israeli blockade of Gaza aka Thambi Pundek. He made the point that if you think about things logically, Singapore has nearly everything that you could possibly want.

He's right. If you think about things rationally, Singapore is everything a city should be. We are rich, green and clean. It's not just the Vietnamese, Chinese and Nepalese singing our praises. Americans, Brits and Continental Europeans also make the point that Singapore is “wonderful.” The US navy boy says it best, “If you think Geylang is your worst area – come to the USA.” I've often said this and I'll say it again, we must be the only nation on the planet that is better loved by foreigners than it is by the locals.

Well, if you ask our Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, he'll argue that Singaporeans are exceptionally happy. When an opposition member of parliament (yes, we know have those), made the brief point that we should follow the Bhutanese example of looking at happiness – Mr Khaw proceeded to tell the world that as far as he was concerned, Bhutan is NOT Shangri-La on earth. In fact, its filled with poor, ignorant and unhappy people who are worried about their next meal. The next day the national news paper proceeded to come up with a survey telling the population that we the locals are exceedingly happy with the state of things.

I'm not exactly sure which Singaporeans Mr Khaw was referring to. Perhaps he was thinking of the ones living in S$35 million penthouses or the ones of super scale scholarships. If he's thinking of this group as being “Happy” he may have a point. However, if Mr Khaw were to travel outside Sentosa Cove, he might be surprised with the reality on the ground.

It's not just grouses on the internet. Sit in the coffee shops and you'll find that online chatter is only a public reaction to the feelings vented in coffee shops. Singaporeans from all walks of life are frustrated with the way things are going. The Minister might point out that his party did win 60 percent of the popular vote and 81 seats in an 87 parliament is pretty darn good by any ones standards. However, I would caution the minister not to get complacent.

As far as the average Singaporean is concerned, life has become harder and to make matters worse, there seems to be a protected minority who seem to be getting richer. What is especially hard for the people to take is that the protected minority sounds like it is more interested in protecting the status-qua than it is about increasing and working to a more equitable distribution of the pie.

Not all the criticisms against the powers-that-be are fair. I still believe that our Ministers are on the whole decent chaps. However, not all is well in paradise and we need to look at why the locals feel like shit despite statistically having one of the most decent lifestyles on the planet.

I suspect part of the problem is presentation. The powers-that-be have been fed stories by the toadies on the ground like the Young Muslim Politician who supports the Israeli Blockade on Gaza aka Thambi Pundek about the real situation on the ground. I pray that the desire for the truth by the Ministers last longer than the after-effects of the last election.

However, I think the problem here is that you have a government that has grown so used to getting its own way based on economic statistics that it has failed to see that life is about a little more than just about growth figures.

Let's get it clear. I am not criticising the focus on economic growth and fiscal prudence. You need to have money to get things moving and you can only do that in an economy that is growing. If you look at the USA and Europe, you'll also realise that there is a lot to be said about fiscal prudence. A government that can pay its bills is also a government that can look after the people when the chips are down. I remember my Dad being upset with me when I quit the teaching job because he pointed out that I had, “Quit working for the only people in the market with money.”

Money is necessary to survive. As has been pointed out, not even death solves money worries. As one lawyer I knew said, “The difference between a lawyer and a prostitute is the prostitute stops screwing you when you die.” If your financial problems are bad enough, the lawyers will be there to hound your heirs.

So I'm not anti-growth. I think all right thinking people should be pro-growth. However, if growth and having money were the main thing, Singapore's ruling party would not have lost seats in the last election. If I am not wrong, in 2010 we were the fastest growing economy on earth with an astonishing 15 percent annual growth rate. By right, people in 2011 should have been way too busy trying to make a fortune and we'd be dying to keep the government doing more of the same. That wasn't the case.

We are one of the few nations with money. We are part of a lucky few with this thing called “economic growth,” and yet we have lots of very pissed off people. There has to be a reason for it.

The logical place to start is to follow the money trail. Singapore has a lot of money but it is concentrated in the hands of the very few. If you follow the Gini coefficient, which the world's main yardstick for measuring dispersion of wealth, Singapore is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. If you follow the statistics of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, you'll find that two-thirds of Singaporeans earn less than the national average of S$4,000 a month. Back in the days when I was working on the Ministry of Manpower Learning Festival, I had the shock of discovering that the average graduate in a “real” industry (hard core things like engineering – not wish wasy things like writing) in a sizeable company could expect to finish his career on a salary of a shade under S$5,000 a month.

OK, this sounds like a lot of money if you converted it to Thai Bhat or Vietnamese Dong. However, Singapore has long ceased to be a “third-world” country in terms of its infrastructure and its cost. Our march into the first-world has come along with the fact that your average family needs two incomes to survive.

As poor as he was, my father's father refused to allow my grandmother to do anything vaguely commercial. Her presence in the work force would have been a slap on his face. Now, I have my father reminding me to only get involved with women who can earn a living.

By contrast, Singapore has the world's highest paid ministers. Our Prime Minister earns more four times more than the US President for a country that isn't even a suburb of LA. We also have very highly paid officials. One of the few people I know who has the luxury of a housewife is my former army commander. He's a super-scale military scholar who was on the promotion fast track and became a full colonel before his 40th birthday.

Generally, Singaporeans do accept this situation. Good government has to have a price. There's no reason why politicians should be badly paid. It is better to have smart people in the bureaucracy than idiots and as everyone from the rest of ASEAN will point out, its nice to deal with bureaucrats that you don't have to bribe.

However, this difference becomes harder to swallow when government is less than what it makes itself out to be. Mistakes can be forgiven. However, when salt is rubbed into a wound it becomes a different issue.

I don't begrudge the Ministers their salaries. Sure, the guy earns in a month more than what I and my closest friends make in a year – but as long as he does the job reasonably well, I don't care what he makes. If he goofs up, I may get cross that my taxes have gone into “less than perfect” performance – but then again, I've not always been perfect on the job.

What becomes unforgivable is when the powers-that-be start treating their perks as an entitlement and expect you to continue buying their reasoning. To put it crudely, they do it because they can and people don't like being screwed by the people who are supposed to look after them, especially when times are tough.

When it comes to foreign competition, the people to have to accept that this is “globalisation”. The power-that-be don't – it's called “National Interest.” When government controlled businesses rise prices it is called “earning more to give you more.” When a small business man tries the same thing it is called “profiteering.” When the cleaning lady needs 10 cents a month extra, it is called “inflationary unless she learns how to be more productive.” When the managing partner of a big law firm becomes a member of parliament with an allowance three times the national average wage to supplement his already generous salary it is called “attracting talent.” When a blogger says you should sentence physical abuse harsher than slander it is called “Criminal-Libel.” However, when the Attorney-General's Chambers changes a rule in the middle of a judicial enquiry that affects the rights of the accused, it is called “Creating efficiency.”

The list goes on. However, the list in itself isn't bad on its own. What becomes bad is when the powers-that-be start defending it. It shows that their interest is not with the people paying for their perks but with continuing their hold on the perks. Lee Kuan Yew, our founding father and revered elder statesman promptly lost his status as such in the eyes of many when he started accusing the public of being complacent when the public started complaining about the former home-affairs minister's performance when a limping man strolled out of jail. Despite the boo-boo, the cabinet spent more time and focus on defending its performance than it did on finding the man, despite the fact that he was billed as the worst terrorist in our history.

Now, after having had its nose bopped in an election, we're hearing a lot of talk from the rulers about how we cannot have a “full-democracy.” Apparently there is not enough talent to field two “A-class” teams in our political system. The increased opposition presence is tolerated because it is “constructive” or “consultative” opposition. Having an opposition that thinks it could be a government is called “pressure to be populist,” and that is a codeword for Domesday. In short, you need to keep the current rulers in place forever at the rates they're being paid because it is good for you as a citizen of the nation to keep the powerful, powerful.

Now, let's look at Bhutan, the small Himalayan Kingdom that came up with this idea of “GHP” or “Gross Happiness Product.”

In a way Bhutan's situation is unique. People remain happy because – well, for the large part they don't know any other way of life from what they've known for thousands of years. Internet and television are restricted. Much as one might like to keep the place in “isolation” away from the big bad world, it is impossible. Sooner or later, the modern age will have catch-up with Bhutan.

Bhutan has a fault line in that it did try and impose its ethnic identity in some pretty draconian ways. Ethnic “Druk” people have to wear national costume by law when they are on home soil.

Mr Khaw is not wrong when he makes the point that Bhutan is not the “idealistic” paradise that the more romantic amongst us would like to believe it is.

The fact that Bhutan has faults should be no surprise and these faults need to be taken into consideration when assessing the place. In a way, Bhutan is doing something about this and you can only wish them well for it.

While Mr Khaw was not wrong in pointing out that Bhutan has its faults, he was wrong in condemning it wholesale. His condemnation of the country has allowed him to gloss over one of the most important things that Bhutan has done in recent years – it has been one of the few societies where democracy has been imposed on its people instead of being imposed by the people.

Bhutan's “King-Father” Jigme Singye Wangchuck who ruled until his abdication in 2006, was an absolute monarch. When he declared his abdication, he also “ordered” a general election and divested most of the monarchy's powers into the post of an elected Prime-Minister.

Unlike the scenes of jubilation in the streets of places like Egypt and Tunisia when an autocrat was removed from power, the people in Thimpu were in tears when the monarch of the day decided to surrender his powers.

However, the “King-Father” stuck to his guns. His argument was simple - “Democracy is the only way to protect the long term interest of the people.” He's looked at his own record and argued rightly that while he has not been a bad king, he cannot guarantee that his successors won't be.

The “King-Father” also decided to abdicate to give his son the chance to grow into the job and to guide him. However, what guidance the “King-Father” gives is strictly a family affair. Since his abdication, the “King-Father” has done precisely that – he's been a father to the king and nothing else. He's not travelled abroad as Head of Government and Head of State. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Bhutan has a Head of State who is the King and a Head of Government who is the Prime Minister. The “King-Father” is respected but both the people of Bhutan and the rest of the world know that he no longer has a role to play in affairs of state.

How is it that an “Absolute Monarch” running a country that people think of as being as far away from modernity as you can get can give up power so easily while a group of democratically elected and very clever politicians on an island that is proudly plugged into the modern world cannot?

Seriously, if you listen to the way Singapore's politicians speak, you can't help but get the impression that they seriously believe that Singapore can only be run by PAP candidates for all eternity. The talk about the possibility of a “non-PAP” government is spoken of in terms of bette noire science fiction terms – 'One day(in the dark gloomy future) if the PAP fails.....' In the mean time institutions which are meant to be a counter to a possible rogue government are crippled. Think of the Elected Presidency which was supposed to be a check on the government. The Elected President can only act on advice of the Prime Minister and when he doesn't have to he acts of advice of people the Prime Minister has a hold over.

It took the loss of four-seats, including three ministers in an election for two former Prime Ministers to finally retire from cabinet. Lee Kuan Yew set the precedent of becoming a “senior minister” in Goh Chok Tongs government and a “Minister Mentor” in Lee Hsien Loong's. Old Prime Ministers don't die , they just get consultancy jobs that allow them to travel round the world as if they were still in charge. The old joke was that Singapore was a Christian country – we had “The Father,” “The Son,” and “The Holy Goh.” It took the shock of the election to break the possibility of former Prime Ministers continuing in cabinet on multi-million tax-payer funded salaries after retirement.

Both the elder Mr Lee and Mr Goh have damaged their legacies by refusing to hand over properly. Mr Lee lead the team that built Singapore. He was the one who said no to corruption in public service and stressed the importance of ensuring leadership renewal. Yet his refusal to step aside until he was pushed has ruined this. Mr Goh was a very good Prime Minister who will now remain in our memories as the man who's wife made some unfortunate remark about “Peanuts” as well as the man who tried to bribe the residents of Potong Pasir and Hougang with public funds in the 2006 election. How sad!

As Prime Minister, the younger Mr Lee will now have to find the proverbial “mojo.” He's suffered one of the “worst” election results in Singapore's history and his preferred candidate for President barely scrapped by and was effectively rejected by two-thirds of the electorate. As the election of 2011 showed, talking about economic growth and dolling out a wad of cash to the electorate is not going to work.

Many of us (myself included), voted for the PAP because on the whole they haven't been bad. I speak for myself but I don't think I'm alone in this but I also voted for the PAP because I wanted to have an MP who could bring home the bacon. The opposition managed to contest every ward bar one which is in itself an achievement. However, they were scattered amongst different parties and voting for them would be a protest vote more than anything else. However, this election has thrown up the very real possibility that a credible alternative in the shape of the Workers Party is emerging. The Prime Minister will have to struggle to keep people like me loyal to his party.

Personally, I worry for Singapore beyond elections. Even if another party were to take power, all our politicians have been so used to a system that allows those in power to behave as if they had divine rights.

While an alternative voice is welcome, what is needed is stronger institutions that go beyond personalities. So far Singapore has been OK because Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong have been good guys (when you balance everything). We have to move to a stage where we have more than just blind faith in ensuring that our leaders are somewhat decent and honest.

At the end of the day Singapore is a decent place to be. However, it is a society living in the hope that its top men will always be good and wise. It has few institutions in place to ensure that those in authority will behave. It's not difficult for a clever rogue to gain power and rob the people blind.

Bhutan's King-Father had the foresight to work towards creating a system that would depend on more than the personality and character of the man in charge. Democracy doesn't always produce the best government or the best leaders. However, it has proven that it provides the most efficient way of removing bad government (which is in many ways more important than producing effective government) and it gives people a stake in society – thus ensuring a strong society takes root.

Bhutan may not be the paradise that the romantics make it out to be. However, thanks to the wisdom of the King-Father, it will has a better chance of continuing its hold on claim to be Shangri-La on earth than Singapore in the long run.


Alan Wan said...

It seems when it comes to Singapore politics, only one man can claim to know what is best for for the whole of Singapore including especially what is better for himself and his family.

Is it also not strange that as citizens of a democratic country, each and everyone of us citizens are denied the right to choose our PM directly ?

And why is this democratic right to choose our elected Prime Minister decided by a very selected few people which we have no idea who they are in the first instance ? Why is it also that our PM can choose to stay as long as he deems fit even until he dies ?

So many unanswered questions, which I think only LKY or his PM son still owe each of us citizen an honest answer.

Anonymous said...

"It has few institutions in place to ensure that those in authority will behave. It's not difficult for a clever rogue to gain power and rob the people blind."

This has always been at the back of my mind.

What frightens me is that the ruling party itself has shown that it is very capable of not behaving when it can get away with it.

For these two reasons, I did not vote for the ruling party during the GE and the ruling party endorsed candidate during the PE.

Anonymous said...

Read half way gave up. Too lor sor. Trim it down maybe more will read.