The Conversation isn’t getting very far

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I dragged myself, Saturday morning, to a session of the Singapore Conversation, my thoughts swinging between This is stupid, I’ll be wasting my time and I should at least see what one is like.

It was a Stage 2 event, meaning that it was to build upon the conversations of the previous month or two. From those sessions, the organisers had distilled the sentiments expressed into the following themes, and an introductory paper was passed around stating them:

I would like to see a Singapore . . .

  • With more kampong spirit
  • With strong families
  • Where life feels more fulfilling
  • With a strong Singaporean core
  • That is affordable
  • With many definitions of success
  • Where we can grow old with dignity
  • Where we take better care of the less fortunate
  • Where government does less and society does more

Someone I know pointed out to me how remarkable these sentiments were. All of them can broadly be classified as ‘quality of life’ and ‘gentler, gracious society’ aspirations. You’re not seeing concerns that parallel the government’s key obsessions such as economic growth and material success. However, it is possible that this was because the participants in earlier sessions took these for granted and hence omitted them from their expressed wish-list.

Any yet, in the discussions that followed, it seemed to me that participants kept talking about similar issues: stressful education system, school streaming and the resultant labelling, crowding, difficulty in supporting aged parents while holding down a job with long hours, housing prices going through the roof and long commutes.

The programme indicated that participants should discuss how to achieve the aspirations distilled from the earlier sessions, but I think it failed. Participants kept going on about “Yes, we should have this, and yes we should have that”  and “Oh yes, our education system sucks; there are too many foreigners on our trains,” and so on.  At one point, the conversation focussed on road courtesy among drivers, I guess, as an example of the lack of graciousness in our society.

Here and there, some people did mention that we need to look at the root causes, but either they weren’t understood by others or the suggestion was intuitively considered too difficult to pursue and brushed aside.

At several points, I got a little impatient and chose to remind others in my discussion circle that in many ways, we make the kind of society we are — though in many other ways, it’s the government’s fault too.

We are a highly materialistic society, eager to impress on others the status we have achieved. We need to show off. This inevitably creates the kinds of competitive pressure that runs right through our society. From the travels we did during our holidays to the handbags we buy to the restaurants we go gaga over, we are constantly elbowing our way to be a cut above others. Little surprise then, from wanting our children to score 100% in exams, to being afraid to leave the office before your boss, we find ourselves trapped by these pressures.

At one point I said that much of what I was hearing at the session took the form of “let’s have more icing on the cake” in order to make Singapore a more liveable, gracious place. But I thought this was a misplaced point. To me, it seemed that if we felt the cake wasn’t sweet enough, it wasn’t because there was not enough icing, but that there was something wrong with the cake itself — a question that no one seemed to be addressing. But when I said that, I had an instant sense that I was being too philosophical for the room. From the faces, I had the feeling no one understood me.

Without doubt, many of the pressures spring from objective reasons, chief of which may be the widening income gap. This certainly exacerbates the competitive pressure. As the gap widens, the need to push oneself harder to close it intensifies. We work more overtime. We feel more discouraged when we can’t afford the same model of car our friend has. The slightest price rises cause us dismay. The widening income gap is one example of the role played by government in making the kind of society we are. It’s a point I have dealt with before, so I won’t belabour it here.

Another gripe often touched on in the discussions had to do with inadequate public services, from public transport to facilities for the elderly. I chipped in by reminding the group that there is always going to be a trade-off, a point they seem to be ignoring. Provisions of public services requires resources. When parents speak of the need to reduce class sizes, it will mean more classrooms and more teachers. Higher frequency of buses and trains clearly costs money. Higher taxes cannot be far behind. If we say we’re too stressed out from work to attend to families or volunteer with charities, we can work shorter hours, but this has an effect on income (but see point below).

My point was met with silence. Nobody seemed to want to hear it.

Alas, Education minister Heng Swee Kiat, who was hovering around the hall listening in to snatches of conversations, picked up and repeated my same point when he did a summing up at the end of the session. I am not sure it was wise. When it comes out of a minister’s mouth, people see any mention of “trade-off” in a different context. It may not be Heng’s fault, but there is a legacy of government ministers using the “There  will be a trade-off” argument to mean “Forget about your idea, it costs money and therefore it is out of the question.”

That’s certainly not what I mean when I speak of trade-offs. As readers can guess from my previous articles, I think Singapore taxation is too low; I think we could do with with higher taxes and consequently more amply-provided public services. We need to be more progressive in our tax/services equation. I speak of trade-offs to mean that we should be rational and examine it carefully and see the benefit of a larger public purse. We should not be head-in-the-sand about it, which both the government and a good proportion of the public are.

On working shorter hours, there was some nodding of heads when I said that working shorter hours does not necessarily mean output must fall. I was of the view that Singaporeans work badly; our productivity is poor. Someone helpfully offered an example of how when we send emails to someone else in another organisation to ask for something, we have a habit of adding 4 to 6 cc’d addresses. It’s as if we don’t trust the main recipient to do his job and need 4 to 6 others to come down on him to get things done. It’s like needing five people to change a lightbulb.

But again, I’d say, look at the cake, not the icing. What is it about the nature of Singaporeans that make us work badly? Perhaps we can’t take the initiative; we don’t have the self-confidence to do so and would rather wait for instructions? Perhaps we dare not go out on a limb to do something different which might solve the problem but rather wait for consensus which tends to arrive at conventional (even if less than effective) solutions? Perhaps we always choose the safe rather than do the creative and bold?

Another area where I think what I said was not welcome, had to do with volunteering and civil society. As you would notice, “Where government does less and society does more” was one of the nine themes distilled from the earlier stage of the Conversation. I said that it’s all very well to wish for this, but there are structural reasons why we don’t have what we wish for:

1.  Singaporeans work long hours; we just don’t have the time;

2. The government actively impedes the growth of civil society;

3. The government has historically been relatively good at delivering public services, and so the need for civil society to step up to the plate has not been great.

On the last point, I offered the view that generally speaking and provided a government does not actively suppress civil society, civil society becomes more active when government fails. Someone countered that the trend in Singapore is one of growing civil society, which perhaps was meant as an argument against the general principle I outlined. To that I said, “Yes, I’ve observed that trend too, but it does not contradict what I said. Civil society is growing in Singapore because the government is beginning to fail.”

Silence. It was as if I had denied the existence of god in a church.

* * * * *

There were too many “no go” areas in the Conversation. We avoid self-reflection. We are too timid. We are afraid to see the structural underpinnings of our present state, and therefore fail to diagnose the true causes of our malaise.

In the end I said I fear all that is going to emerge from this exercise is a long, impractical wish-list and little else.

* * * * *

A reporter from Lianhe Zaobao approached me after the session and asked what I thought of it. I gave him a negative assessment. I added that its weakness was that the format was wrong.

Firstly, it reinforced what I have called the petitionary state, that is one in which the government’s monopoly of power goes unquestioned, but like so much noblesse oblige, now and then, it generously lends a listening ear to the king’s subjects. But, and secondly, the problem with that is that people then get into the mode of asking for favours and seeing what is eventually sprinkled upon them as gifts; they don’t have to work for them or pay the price for them, whether it be smaller classroom sizes or more frequent trains.

We saw that in action in the session. Participants were reluctant to engage in a discussion of the costs of their wish-list, or examine how their own materialism and status-seeking impulses created the kind of elbow-my-way-forward society we are. It was also blasphemy to say the government was beginning to fail.

I repeated to the reporter what I have argued before in Yawning Bread:  a better national conversation would be a free and open democracy. Let political parties work out and convince people of various other models for Singapore society. In the course of it, they will have to work out the costs and explain to the electorate why these costs are worth paying. That way, people, in making their voting decisions, take responsibility of the choices they make.

52 Responses to “The Conversation isn’t getting very far”


  1. 1 Sgcynic 17 December 2012 at 19:17

    I am ambivalent about trade-offs that you propose.

    I do agree with your view that Singapore taxation is too low, in particular for the higher income groups. I also think we could do with with higher taxes, especially on capital gains and reintroduction of estate duty, the goals among which are to discourage speculative “investment”, to preserve  the work ethic by capping the rise on income tax, and as a form of progressive tax and redistribution.

    Yet my head and heart are not aligned in accepting “trade-offs”, not when they are proposed and implemented by the PAP government, not when I see the waste of public money in the form of idiotic and wanton “investment” of the GIC and TH and the lack of transparency and accountability. Not when practically every government service is profitable or “revenue-neutral” as they seek “cost-recovery” in the delivery of public services (e.g. the HDB, COE, GST). Not when the people are already footing sizeable portion of the bill and the government keeps its services lean and mean (pun intended) (e.g. means-testing and medical services).

    I actually can see the sense in the government policies, yet they become abhorrent when implemented by a government with no heart. They have “peed in the pool” so to speak (straits times 14 Dec 2012) and eroded the goodwill and trust of the people. That’s one major reason why they now find it so difficult to persuade people to accept trade-offs. Increase fares to improve the lot of bus drivers anyone? Yah right. We believe in the goal but we simply distrust the efficacy of the means and the intent and the will.

    • 2 yawningbread 18 December 2012 at 00:17

      Somewhere in my queue of topics-to-be-written is an article about the erosion of public trust . . . which largely touches on the points you’ve raised.

    • 3 andykor7 19 December 2012 at 12:05

      Firstly, good article by yawning bread. The root cause to the more pressing issues like the economic situation down the road, the aging population, the erp, etc should be the topics to be put on the table (erp is my personal priority). However, i will also like to point out that not all investments are investment investment, many are political investment, an effort to keep foreign investors here and keep jobs for many of us.

      • 4 sgcynic 19 December 2012 at 17:01

        The US is facing a fiscal cliff. Time for more political investment? We need jobs else more will go on strike…

  2. 5 Passerby 17 December 2012 at 20:40

    I’d like to paraphrase your last paragraph, “The very existence of this national conversation arises from the lack of a free and open democracy.”

    • 6 Jeff Dickey 20 December 2012 at 01:08

      Spot on. A free and open democracy would have regular conversations with different groups setting out views and proposed solutions (including trade-offs). With Once-Great Leeader and Oh-Dear! Leeader and their Cronies, instead, we’re going through the motions of doing what parties and elections do in countries with legitimate, democratic governments. And the chances that we’d have gotten this far off the tracks without people organising and pointing it out on the national stage would be low; almost as low as the PAP getting things right from now.

      I’ve been saying for years now that the best thing that could possibly happen to both the PAP as an institution and to Singapore would be for the PAP to decisively lose two or three elections running. Clear out the deadwood; come up with new ideas that are actually better than the competition, and win their way back into power in a free and fair election. Until one or more of the other guys do the same thing, that is. Let’s get rid of this time-warp bubble we’re in and have a real, live country for a change.

  3. 7 abao 17 December 2012 at 22:21

    if such is the scope of discussion we might as well discuss immigration and utopia in another land. might yield better answers.

  4. 8 Insider 17 December 2012 at 22:35

    Hi Alex,

    Similar sessions for civil servants were organised. From some of the participants, it was a waste of time. Like you said, only more alternative voices in Parliament will help our country. Many of the civil servants who took part in the session also know that it is just a wayang exercise. No sacred cows will be killed. The PAP, with too many cronies feeding off their trough, can’t afford to make major changes.

  5. 9 henry 17 December 2012 at 23:24

    Facilitating discussions is an art.

    It requires the mind to split into as many participants and concepts that lurk in other people’s mind. Appropriately phrased questions is key. Is the discussion about solutions, defining issues, or just collecting thoughts?

    If the group is a mix of people from different generations, education backgrounds, then a lot more effort and time is required to align the purpose of the discussion.

    The general public will find it taxing to drill down to cause & effect, that it becomes abstract to understand. The political significance is too far away from their lives. They need to find a way to connect the dots, and many are unable to articulate as well as you!

    Then again it could all be due to decades of conditioning. This is why bloggers like you play an important role in civic society. It allows ideas to flow and help connect the dots. How many people understand the effects of policies like GST and personal data protection acts?

    Of course, the newspapers are not helping either.

    Yes, the National Conversation is just a note taking session, and the responses will remain shallow. The organisers probably think that a couple of flipcharts and felt pens will capture it all. Facilitation is an art.

  6. 10 lee sze yong 17 December 2012 at 23:27

    hi alex, i assume you mean “conversation” rather than “conservation” in your title? also should be “Lianhe Zaobao” a few paras near the end… hope you don’t mind me pointing them out :) anyway, on the Singapore Conversation, i think it would help the process greatly if we don’t shy away from “hard” topics like human rights, equality, justice, discrimination, etc. much of the discussions seem to be focusing on “soft” topics so far

  7. 11 Charlie Chan 17 December 2012 at 23:50

    This conversation is designed to hold on to the support of those who want changes which will not affect the fundamentals of Kuan Yew’s ideas.

    Singapore needs a leader who can bring it forward. There are no leaders of this ilk in the present cabinet. The present cabinet will not incorporate ideas which will upset the apple cart. The interest groups which support the elite in Spore will resist change. They are having it good. Some cosmetic changes will be trumpeted to give credibility to the conversation. Multi party democracy remains an ideal. They are not going to be bring about the trade-offs necessary for the maturation of our society. Sacred cows will remain sacred.

  8. 12 Xu Si Han 18 December 2012 at 00:31

    I personally am for a free and open democracy but if you think that it would lead Singapore to a more progressive society, I think you are badly mistaken. My hypothesis is that Singapore is likely to do a Morsi if the PAP is gone. Any new regime would not be any more friendly to liberals, and likely to be worse.

    • 13 Jim Reeves 18 December 2012 at 23:57

      the situation is fluid in Egypt unfolding. Morsi is not the last word. You are however right on one thing…a new regime will not bring guarantees for a better society. A nation however must take risks or it is not a nation. There have been examples where new regimes have bought positive changes.

    • 14 Lucy 19 December 2012 at 04:28

      So we should accept the devil (metaphorically speaking) because the alternative could be worse? :-)

    • 15 Robox 19 December 2012 at 05:39

      If you are talking about the WP, I would agree. The evidence that there is every possibility of them becoming even more tyrannical than the PAP currently is is mounting.

      • 16 Anon Ddm2 21 December 2012 at 11:32

        Wow that’s interesting indeed! Can you please provide some evidence in support of your postulation?

  9. 17 Daniel Ho 18 December 2012 at 01:07

    It seems the first part of the conversation produced a bunch of uncontroversial wants and ends. Seriously, does the government really need a focus group to divine these self-evident values?

    The debate since the last election is clearly not about the ends. It is about the means. But since their incumbency is itself part of the problem, the incumbents left to their own devices will not be able nor be willing to solve it.

  10. 18 Someone 18 December 2012 at 01:17

    In Singapore you will find people wanting their Motherhood and Apple Pie but they expect the PAP to be the mother and to make the Apple Pie for them. If the PAP don’t give in, they just go moan and groan about it.

    In the US, people would rather be the mother and make their own Apple Pie than have the government do it for them. And if governments get in their way, they will pressure it to have that achieve.

    So frankly, when you noted that “the programme indicated that participants should discuss how to achieve the aspirations distilled from the earlier sessions, but I think it failed”. I am not surprised.

    Faced with this entrenched attitude, I don’t think much of Singapore is going to change even if an apocalyptic event occur and I suspect Singaporean will still wait for the PAP to tell them what to do.

  11. 19 Confused 18 December 2012 at 01:28

    I see several issues /conflicts in the needs of Singaporeans and the need of govt to garner its support of the people and govern effectively.

    i) efficient as the govt is – it is not seen as benevolent. But their efficiency of late has only been in the area of fee collection but retarding in the area of sound delivery of services. Benefits in govt circles tend to be centered on a few inner circle – while the populous gets paid below developed country levels. The synmotivationalstem breeds a populous underclass – since the avenues and levels to improve is limited – from lack of meaningful reward. Nonetheless – the inner circle remains in a cushy position – having not enough accountability – except when whistle blowers sound. and this is usu for more scandalous behavior rather than day to day improvements.

    ii) pple are consumed with bread and butter issues. Our immature society, stifling civil society and education – leaves little to the critical mind. Safe to say – pple don’t really know what they want beyond the cookie in front of their eyes. That’s dangerous and a smart govt cannot please with cookies all the time. it will lead to society’s downfall to be too far left.

  12. 20 Bluex Spore 18 December 2012 at 01:28

    Hi Alex, before we consider raising taxes, we should first recognise that there are many other things that the Government should do instead, namely:
    1) use revenue from land leases and more of the revenue from investment of reserves;
    2) reduce inefficiencies e.g. current administration of multitudes of government schemes having overlapping objectives;
    3) reduce spending on areas with dubious benefit to Singapore e.g. MDA censorship, People’s Association, scholarships for foreign students etc; and
    4) reduce overspending e.g. defence, Youth Olympic Games etc.
    Your suggestion that taxes should increase seems like a rushed conclusion.

    • 21 Jeff Dickey 20 December 2012 at 01:29

      5) commit to transparency by, among other things, having complete, public audits by independent international auditors of TH, GIC, CPF, HDB, and MAS. How much money do we really have, and where is it? Then we can

      6) continuing 2-4, have a real conversation about setting priorities. Do we really need to pay millions to avoid getting monkeys, or are we merely getting greedy monkeys? Do we need as many “monkeys” in the jobs they’re supposed to be doing now, paid as highly as they are? Can salaries be justified by international, as-ideologically-neutral-as-practical benchmarking?

      7) Reform education. We don’t need a nation of parrots, repetitively mouthing the same platitudes, regurgitating the same data, and being indoctrinated to not think critically or originally. (Side note: my company has had four job openings for well over a year now that we cannot fill in Singapore, precisely because the supply of Singaporeans who think the way we need them to, so egregiously outstrips supply.)

      8) Can we as a society agree that centrally-controlled media (as well as judiciary, but one thing at a time) are lethal to an informed citizenry of an open, free nation, and set ourselves on a publicly-committed-to course to effect real change? For an autarch to clutch so tightly to control merely screams that his insecurity is greater than that of “his” people;

      9-76,423) As we gradually adopt a more transparent, honest system, we should keep having regular conversations (particularly in the run-up to open, fair elections) about where we think we are, where we’ve understood ourselves to have been, and where we as a society want to go… making course (and Government) changes as appropriate.

  13. 22 AA 18 December 2012 at 02:06

    YB, I’m curious if you think there needs to be a trade-off in the way you expressed it (more expenditure = more resources needed = more tax). The way I see it, we pay large amounts of hidden taxes via e.g. COEs, GLC profits from operations where Singaporeans are the customers (such as SMRT), the difference between market returns and returns on CPF, and most importantly high rentals that find their way into the pocket of the government/GLCs – whether actual rentals, or by paying for goods and services to tenants of the government/GLCs who pass on their costs to us. So the public sector absorbs a lot of the product of our labour (not to mention, in some ways depresses our wages) and has grown fat on that excess. If that fat were applied towards more socially beneficial spending, wouldn’t that account for more public expenditure, without needing a trade-off in the form of higher direct taxes?

  14. 23 Sensei 18 December 2012 at 10:23

    Hi Alex I do not agree on the increase in taxes as a solution of our problems. Our government is long due for a revamp, a corporate restructuring. By pumping more money into the system only solves the problem for the moment. It’s the leaks that we have to plug. As with any corporate company growing too big and fat it’s high time to trim off the fats. Mega salaries, wasteful investments and the squandering of resources on non-singaporeans. I feel that the government now is an inefficient fuel(money) guzzling engine. The fuel spent does not equate to any usable mileage. So its high time something is done about this before everything boils over and the bubble busts. By then we will be like how the EU and US economies are, at the end of a bust bubble.

  15. 24 Johnny Reb 18 December 2012 at 10:26

    “Civil society is growing in Singapore because the government is beginning to fail. Silence. It was as if I had denied the existence of god in a church.”

    Good that you went and knocked some rational sense into them, Alex !

    The National Conversation was never meant to change anything.

  16. 25 GoonDoo 18 December 2012 at 16:06

    Alex, your observations of how the NC was conducted did not surprise me. I think it was a foregone conclusion that the govt was only using this avenue to Spin & to trumpet to the electorate that ‘We Listened’. The chose this mechanism of a NC along the same logic of the Nominated MP scheme – don’t yield power, but let the people THINK they can influence us.

    So what others on the thread said about facillitating brain-storming being an art that was obviously not practised in the NC.. your own observations that the NC should involve different political parties instead of just a limited airing of various ‘wish lists’ without thinking through of what the actual ingredients of the cake should comprise. I think all this was deliberate. The govt knew what they were getting themselves into – which isn’t much.

    So i agree with you that folks in Sg should stop deluding themselves into thinking they can influence real, meaningful changes – unless its through the ballot box. The PAP has been in power way too long, and they won’t give it up so easily. They have too much to lose.

    • 26 Jeff Dickey 20 December 2012 at 01:35

      They aren’t listening, they’re hearing. What we say goes in one ear and accelerates out the other at several g.

      As one no doubt Temasek-linked local office of a worldwide insurance company points out on their numerous TV commercials, actively listening is essential for success (in any cooperative endeavour).

  17. 27 William 18 December 2012 at 17:34

    An excellent post in all respects.

    I think it’s fair to reflect on what we want in society, and as you put it, what kind of cake we’d like.

    Many paternalist policies are perfectly justified given the findings of behavioural economics and cognitive psychology: opt-out schemes for organ donation and pension contributions for example (see Thinking Fast and Slow). It’s also very clear that people will do what they’re told when they are in a group, and that cultural norms, regarding violence for example, can vary significantly based on one’s environment (see The Better Angels of our Nature). There is a very strong case for a fair, consistent, well thought-out, paternalistic government with a monopoly on the use of violence.

    On the back of these findings, authoritarian governments will often profess the example of democratic failures to justify their rule. They point to Greece, Italy, France, Indonesia, Malaysia or the USA and bemoan the inefficiency, vested interests, corruption, voter disengagement and politicking that hinder society’s progress. In short, they claim, politicians in (open) democracies must be populist, offering freebies to their citizens to buy their votes and easily blaming [foreigners; China; the USA; globalisation; anybody but them] instead of confronting issues and making tough choices.

    They have a point, but it is not the one they think they are making, most obviously because examples of authoritarian yet corrupt governments abound.

    Singapore has deftly walked the lines linking these three options: it is democratic, yet clearly paternalistic and sometimes authoritarian. This is a very tricky balancing act, and it’s perhaps no surprise that is the only example cited in living memory of a successful, corruption-free “benevolent dictatorship.” Yet, as this blog and others highlight more and more often, this strength that has served Singapore so well in the past may be turning into a weakness in an age of globalised knowledge economies, where entire generations have grown up taking a prosperous, peaceful society as a natural right, rather than something to be thankful for and fought for.

    Of the options suggested to tackle these risks, an “open democracy” is the one most often put forward (in this blog for example). Yet democracies can fail, as we have seen above. One of the more interesting points I’ve heard recently, is that this is because democracies are often not “government by the people” but “government by politician” instead. Check out pretty much any comment by Steven Morris or Steven Spadjer on the forums of The Economist, and you’ll have a long dissertation on how this comes to be. The alternative, they suggest, is direct democracy – of the Swiss, not Cailfornian, kind.

    Yawningbread, I hope you will take up this issue in a future post (perhaps you already have, apologies if this is the case). Direct democracy just might be the form of government that maximises citizen engagement while promoting good government. By construction, it forces citizens to reflect on trade-offs and the long-term costs of a given project. Once they cast their vote on a given issue, they take ownership of it. It sounds like something that could work, and like something that addresses your concerns.

  18. 28 Chanel 18 December 2012 at 17:53

    Alex,

    I am surprised that you actually went to the greatest FARCE in S’pore’s history…..the Singapore CONversation !!!

    This is just PAP’s first leg of political rally for the 2016 general election.

  19. 29 CUPPAM 18 December 2012 at 18:33

    national conversation… How many people is hand picked by PXP. or somehow 1 way or another related to PXP? and what topic can be brought up? in order to control the time required and to better presentation, a lot of topic is not included.. if this is a case. is it still call a national conversation?

    if just wanna heard good things instead of the complains, why you wan to have a national conversation at the 1st place?
    to improve??? or trying to show ppl that you are good?

    the new re election is really to test the pxp, and to know how much support PXP have.. i hope they wake up.
    i am a pxp supporter, but seriously, i really questioning the calibre of the mp elected since i start following the news after my 1st round of voting. in next election, if there is no changes. i wont mind change my vote for others.
    i am forced 1 way or another(or how u phase it) to vote for others. i rather choose a wayang parties/mp rather than a pxp whom i know is “working hard” but getting their focus wrong and also will 1 way or another impact me.

    i rather risk for a opporunity for changes(even for the worst) rather than a opporunity to be screw again by PXP.

    few day ago, when i was taking a cab from location A to location B. the taxi drive was complaining about he is unable to get his CPF, only able to draw 300+ per mth. he wont be alive for the many years to come to see he get back his CPF.
    ask 2 question, 1, is CPF our money?
    2, is 300 enough for 1 person(assume he is “single” now)???

    CPF used to be like a warchest for the goverment to build roads, hospital, or any other form of usage that is meant for singaporean.
    what is the CPF Usage now??

    i already lost trust in them…

    • 30 Jeff Dickey 20 December 2012 at 01:41

      But losing trust in them, and staying away, just furthers their plans. Without a large number of people going to the Con and saying “hey, conversation is a two-way street; here’s what we have to say”, then the States Times will keep trumpeting the “effectiveness” and “vibrancy” of the papaganda-masked-as-civic-activity. If we don’t call them on this, loudly, publicly and persistently, then they’ll get even more entrenched and out-of-touch. And, just like saying “what could possibly go wrong”, they always can and will when least expected.

  20. 31 Worst Singaporean 19 December 2012 at 00:02

    i attended the 1st conversation and raised a point saying that “there is a deficit of trust with the government, the public’s trust with the government is eroding and it needs to be addressed”… similarly, my point was met with silence, the participants seem more interested in listening to topics that resonates with them… there were no debates, people were happy to just say their own piece and not comment disagreements with what others say (at least in my group).

    While i do not doubt the government’s sincerity in having a conversation, i doubt the effectiveness of the conversation resulting in real policy changes. It seems more like an exercise to help PAP’s next gen leadership connect with the electorate.

    i was hoping that the conversations will go more in-depth at the next phase, but based on your experience seems like its wishful thinking on my part…

    • 32 Duh 19 December 2012 at 14:36

      The response from the Singaporeans in this National CONversation can be attributed to a few factors:

      (i) Lack of transparency: (a) selection of the people involved (How was the selection done? How many people belong to PAP and Opposition wards?) and (b) how was the distillation of the issues for Stage 2 done? I find the last discussion item Alex listed as quite counter-intuitive (i.e., govt does less and citizens do more) – I don’t think generally Singaporeans think this way.

      (ii) self-censorship (people still have innate fear of the OB markers and steer clear of issues that they deem are inappropriate as espoused by the PAP)

      (iii) model answer regurgitating education – Singaporeans are generally not a very critically thinking lot and they tend to regurgitate issues and ideas that were spoonfed to them by PAP propaganda or other sources. The occurrence of silence when met with counterarguments is a frequent phenomenon among Singaporeans when having intellectual discourse – this indicates a very shallow level of critical thinking. Reasons given are often of the concrete nature (e.g., ‘bcos Mommy/Daddy [i.e., the law] says so’) rather than the abstract (e.g., ‘bcos it violates the concept of equal rights’). Many researchers agree that concrete reasoning is a more juvenile form of reasoning than abstract reasoning.

      (iv) learned helplessness – owing to the dictatorial governance style of the PAP where they issue policy changes without considering the views of the general public and also how legal and social constraints limit Singaporeans’ right to stop such policies, Singaporeans have developed a form of learned helplessness (i.e., they can’t do anything and the PAP does everything). So they end up sounding whining, demanding and rather hands-off.

      Overall, I think it is not just a ‘free and open democracy’ that will allow a more constructive conversation but also a free press and less micro-managing in our civil service. However, this is a culture that has been perpetuated by the PAP over decades of their rule and will take some time to overcome.

      PS. I tend to disagree with Alex’s argument about raising taxes to fund social welfare initiatives. The highest cost for most businesses in Singapore is actually not labour but rental. And guess who controls that? Also, one can mitigate the need to raise taxes by shifting other less impt priorities lower in the budget allocation rank (e.g., defence).

  21. 33 politicalwritings 19 December 2012 at 09:16

    You should have stuck with “This is stupid, I’ll be wasting my time”. Anyway, it’s PAP’s conversation, it’s PAP’s exercise, if it doesn’t succeed, so be it.

  22. 34 reservist_cpl 19 December 2012 at 15:24

    Wow. Someone else who shares my fear (or perhaps it is not a fear to you): “Civil society is growing in Singapore because the government is beginning to fail.”

  23. 35 Rabbit 19 December 2012 at 16:02

    National Conversation will not lead us anywhere without a change of leader. Looney is a very insecured leader. While the “conversation” is still ongoing; he was seen hinting, with every given opportune that we cannot expect any major changes to his policies. Simply, the same PAP ghost stories that investors will run away, Singapore will be left behind, jobs will be lost and standard of livings will suffer. So be it if such pictures came true, Singaporeans ain’t seeing life any better than before to fear such tiresome rhetoric. We are not getting a good dose of competency from our ministers by paying them top dollars anyway. PAP just cannot be trusted with everything that came out of its mouth with decades of empty promises.

    3 more years before the next general election, what can PAP and Singaporeans possibly do after this “national conversation”, other than helping PAP buy times until Heng Swee Keat became dry and bald? Verdict of the NC will be out soon, the same-old, same-old gloomy and doom tales with msm willing to play a bigger role in PAP Halloween scares, such that Singaporeans can expect nothing new out of all these staged trouble.

    Ironically, the speed of change we witnessed finally came, not from the pressure of Singaporeans, but from action by a small group of foreigners enough to scare the worms out of PAP. Heads started to roll in SMRT, sleepy unions crawl out and suddenly became hyperactive, and CEO paid workers a visit like never before, dormitory made livable within day and every complacent power woke up from such necessary shock therapy. Moral of the story, if there is compelling reason to act when situation is dire, why bother to speak to the wall.

    • 36 Jeff Dickey 20 December 2012 at 01:50

      That also leaves the question of why the Oh-Dear! Leeader is insecure. In any open democratic country,, a 60% share of the vote at the polls would be considered a thrashing of the opposition, an explicit mandate from the voters to carry out the promised (or current) policies.

      The fact that this is, functionally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Singapore, with centrally controlled economy and society and a culture replaced by leader-worship, robs Junior of that legitimacy. Why do you think so many boondoggles like, say, Gardens by the Bay have been splurged on, if not to reassure The Minister and His Cronies that they are, in fact, worthy of leading an advancing nation? Read the interviews published with Mah Bow Tan as GBTB opened for as explicit an admission of that as any politician, anywhere, has ever made.

      • 37 Duh 20 December 2012 at 13:40

        In usual democracies, voting patterns do indicate endorsement by the people but this is not the case in Singapore. As many political scholars and other online commentators have pointed out, the GRC system distorts voting patterns. That is, if there is strong ground support for ONE PAP member in a 5man GRC team that led to their election success, it doesn’t necessarily mean citizens wanted the other four but they clearly wanted that ONE.

        So saying that 60% supports PAP is wrong – it is more accurate to say that Singaporeans voted for SOME members of the PAP GRC teams. PAP’s strategy is very shortsighted – smooth entry into politics by hiding under the skirt tails of a PAP bigwig only accelerates the inclusion of lackluster candidates; These new candidates did not go through the trial of fire by winning SMCs, and including more of such ‘untested’ candidates will only dilute the calibre of the PAP itself.

        LHL is sweating now because Punggol is a SMC – he cannot play the same GRC trick unless he does some political dirty trick by absorbing Palmer’s constituency into another more pro-PAP one. This trick has been done before.

  24. 38 Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei 20 December 2012 at 18:15

    I think we could do with with higher taxes and consequently more amply-provided public services.
    =======

    Socialism is scary. You want to the govt to use force to take away money from the rich and use that money to spend on the poor.

    In short, you want the govt to spend somebody else’s money on somebody else? That is basically what our YOG was all about and we know how much good that did.

  25. 39 eremarf 21 December 2012 at 03:55

    What really struck me here was that Singaporeans aren’t very good (yet?) at thinking about government (at least those that YB met at the Nat Con). This is a huge impediment no matter what kind of process we try to pursue to change policies, e.g. as YB suggested – a “free and open democracy”, or other comments – “direct democracy” a la Switzerland

    (anyway re: America’s problems with democracy – isn’t it due to the erosion of their democratic institutions? Is their press still free – or are too many media companies owned by moneyed interests monopolising the airwaves? Haven’t moneyed interests influenced who is registered to vote? Don’t politicians depend heavily on party funding and support to get elected, and doesn’t party funding come from moneyed interests? Isn’t the civil service, esp the regulatory bodies, “captured” by the revolving door between industry and Washington? How about the academy – think tanks, researchers, etc – don’t they get funded and by donations from moneyed interests and become shills?). @Kelvin Tan – this is what’s scary about letting money concentrate and accumulate – because money is power. Better to redistribute wealth and reduce some incentives (and do other good things I won’t elaborate on here) – then to let it accumulate and be used to infiltrate and corrupt democratic institutions.

    Well, maybe if we start to fulfil the “free and open” bit (e.g. as per comments here, improve transparency of national funds in GIC, TH, etc, improve general transparency in government, have an independent press, have individual freedoms, etc – all the institutions and cultural technologies that foster and maintain “genuine” democracy), the average Singaporean will become better at thinking about government.

    But until we attain free and open democracy – we are at the mercy of the political elites. Pray hard friends, and try to make a difference in the coming GE.

  26. 40 Kenny Chong 21 December 2012 at 09:45

    Frankly, I was expecting this at the very onset. Being an OD practitioner myself, I observe that 90% of such endeavours within organizations fail because sponsors have too much faith in the discussion process but fail to understand that out of this process requires a renewed political will and increased effort to change the status quo. The facilitative process or “workshop” or “team building” itself is often thought of as the end in mind, this is completely misplaced. You can “workshop” all you want, but if participants return to exactly the same working/operating environment with exactly the same attitude, we are then back on BAU territory.

    The government has the opportunity to do something different now that social media is so alive, but they deliberately chose not to. When it all started, I wrote to OSC to suggest setting up a crowdsourcing platform where people get rewarded for providing real, practical, how-to ideas. See US example (http://challenge.gov/). I get silence in return. For example on teacher-student ratio. People can submit ideas and receive votes, the best one gets a reward. Simple as that. Those that go on and on complaining instead of providing a way forward will get ignored.

    To the government I have this to say. Listening is not a free endeavour. When you commit to listen, you implicitly also commit to respond to what you have heard. You would rather just do nothing than to promise to listen and do nothing later.

  27. 43 Chekkers 21 December 2012 at 17:04

    As Eremarf has mentioned, Singaporeans in general, are terrible at asking fundamental questions. The majority are not interested in finding out more than what its means to their immediate personal well-being. Now that things have not been ideal for the last decade, people are upset at the change in status quo but do not look deeper into the underlying cause. I think it is partly a result of our national education (no emphasis on understanding the philosophy that underpins our constitution and legal framework) and partly because we have had it good for so long and everything seems to work. And since everything works, we do not question and after 47 years of non-questioning, we have forgotten how to ask questions. The unraveling of the PAP mechanism and the revelation of its self-serving mechanism (eg. PA grassroots advisor has more say than an elected MP) was shocked some but the majority of Singaporeans are still apathetic to it. By keeping the knowledge of legal and constitutional framework esoteric, PAP has managed to maintain the advantage over the people. We do not even know what our rights are, so how do we know if our rights have been trampled? To put it into a geeky AD&D analogy, some feel that PAP belongs to the ‘lawful evil’ alignment, i.e. that they make use of the their extensive comprehension of the law to their full advantage and backed by their >2/3 majority in Parliament, they can pretty much do whatever they want, including rewriting the entire constitution. Looking at it this way, I’d say they are rather fair because they can do a lot worse.

    I agree that in its current format, the NC is nothing more than a wayang exercise in that the government just want us to debate about the superficial and not about the core of its vision for Singapore. But the fact remains is that are the majority ready to talk about anything deeper? My colleagues are upset by the influx of PRCs and NRIs and they want it to stop. But they are not keen to understand the rationale for it when I tried to engage them in a discussion. They simply think that this is something that PAP can turn on or off like a tap.

    Being a land with no resources, the only way we can survive, to quote our Leeder 2.0, is to “make ourselves as useful” to the powers that be, be it the West in the last 40 years or China and India in the next 40 years. As such, our national strategy has always been to accomplish this, from turning Singapore from a entrepot port into a knowledge-based economy, to driving the integration of South East Asia into a single market with the size of 600 million population, with us in the driving seat (presumably). The implication of such a strategy is that we have low corporate tax and high tax incentives which, coupled with low direct personal taxation means that the government needs to make money from other means, such as consumption-based taxes such as GST & ERP. If we assume that the government is using the income at the optimum level in providing public goods, any improvement in public spending in terms of welfare, will mean an increase in income, either via taxation or other means. I believe that the returns made by GIC, MAS & Temasek goes back into the national reserves (partly to CPF to repay the 2.5% interest) and not part of our national budget (but do correct me if I’m wrong).

    So here lies the fundamental question we need to ask is if we agree that the current strategy of survival or do we want to re look at this?

    If yes, then it means that we need to look at how the government spending is allocated correctly because our taxation strategy will remain the same). As some others had commented earlier that we have one of the highest defense spending in the world (no. 5 according SIPRI) and perhaps we need to spend a little less here. Others have argued that we should maintain a balanced budget as opposed to budget surplus or even run a deficit? So in the case of increasing welfare spending, raising personal income taxes is probably a case of political suicide during these challenging times hence, unlikely to happen. Also, raising taxes does not necessarily means that welfare spending will increase as the taxes are not earmarked for a specific purpose. One way to overcome this is institute a more generous tax credit scheme (eg. $1 donation = $2 tax credit) to encourage donation directly to funds that benefit the poor. This maybe something that the government can do at little political cost and the impact on tax coffers may be minimal (also this also mean that the donation drive is not effective).

    If no, this means that we need to find new ways to drive the future of Singapore. I believe that “What got us here, will not get us there” but what is the ‘there’ we are talking about. If we do not want to be a ‘useful middle man’ what is the alternative for a country in our circumstances? I admit that I have no idea but we do not have much time left to decide.

    The fact that our success is much emulated also means that our competitive advantage is eroding fast – i.e. that the enemies are at the gate! It took us 35 years to turn into a first world city and it took China 25 years to develop 3-4 world class cities, based on our ‘blueprint’. We are lucky that we are the only stable spot in the region for the past 30 years and we are reaping the rewards of such stability. We started out as “cheap and fast” nation to MNCs and we have since moved into the “fast and good” space. Now, we are trying to shift into the “fast, good & original” space for the last decade and we are not seeing much returns yet. Some politico-socio commentators are claiming that open democracy and creativity goes hand in hand, hence we will become more creative when we are more democratized, perhaps this is what is needed. Personally I feel that adversity is the mother of creativity and as life gets more difficult and the traditional path of Sec – JC – University path no longer guarantees a good life will we see more risk taking in the form of entrepreneurship since the opportunity cost is low. Censorship itself does not dampen creativity, if you look at the abundance of great artworks coming out of some of the most oppressive epochs and regimes of human history. However, when you have nothing to lose but your pride, it is then that you do not care about the consequences that censorship has no effect and repression has no effect, you just do.

    There is no quick and fast answer from the 10-years series because we are now the model answer for the developing world of the 10-year series to nation building. We are in uncharted territories and more than ever, we need to start having, not just more conversations, but national debates. It is precisely because no one has a monopoly on good policy ideas, that a debate is necessary. Hopefully, great ideas are forged in on the anvil of a national debate. The GE is one such opportunity but why do we have to wait 5 years for it when we can start and should start debating now.

    • 44 Jeff Dickey 22 December 2012 at 13:26

      Debate on equal terms is exactly what’s needed but, as you implied, our educational system is optimised to prevent that from happening. If you spend your entire academic career being taught that there’s one right answer for every important question, and that that answer almost always comes from those Above you, then you are not going to question the “answers” you are given. Even when you realise that the “answers” are indisputably wrong, you still lack the experience-based skills needed to come up with your own in discussion with others; indeed, you’re quite likely to think something like, “I know the answers are wrong, but at least they’re answers; I don’t have to anything as risky and scary as actually thinking.”

      Many people, myself included, have been saying for years that the PAP remains in power largely due to their absolute control of media and the law enforcement/judicial system. I now see that as necessary but not sufficient. The true linchpin of PAP power over the decades has been their perversion of the educational system, followed closely by housing policy that is too effective at discouraging self-organising communities to be purely accidental. To gain the power needed to change those, we must have a post-PAP Government. But to keep a free, honest Government, we need to radically rethink and reshape those institutions, against almost-insuperable inertia. With a population conditioned to expect things to Change on a whim, turning “on or off like a tap”, that type of change is going to be extremely difficult… almost as difficult as getting the majority of people to understand that they, and the way they think about Government and indeed Singapore in general, needs to change.

    • 45 eremarf 23 December 2012 at 01:25

      @Chekkers – Hi, agree generally with your ideas – and I think getting into debating, discussing our country (I mean for lots of people – not just a few) is something to be fought for and built up. It’s too important to just let it develop on its own. We need to build it. Doesn’t help that the PAP machinery will be trying to suppress such efforts.

      But, a couple of things to comment on:

      I really must object to this idea of Singapore being “without resources” (and therefore we are vulnerable, whatever). This meme needs to be stopped right now. South Korea went into steel and shipbuilding industries without having native sources of iron ore. Taiwan dominates the semi-conductor industry without relying on native natural resources. Ditto for industries in Japan. These Asian miracles only had more land than us (OTOH, consider Indonesia, M’sia, Brunei – who had oil). Not having natural resources can even sometimes be a good thing (check up Dutch Disease, Resource Curse, etc.) No hard feelings yeah – but let’s stop feeding this “no resource” meme. :-)

      Re: increasing taxes – YB talked about this recently – “Consider capital gains tax”. He mentions two possible objections – it will affect our being a “tax haven” of sorts – and more importantly – it is disincentivizes people. (He was talking about capital gains tax – and for income tax it only disincentivizes. Estate tax wouldn’t dis-incentivize entrepreneurship, I think?)

      I think everyone is curious whether Singapore can raise taxes and still do well economically. There’re many examples of countries with high tax regimes who remain innovative and economically successful (granted Singapore doesn’t depend on innovation in R&D and manufacturing – we earn mostly from finance) – Acemoglu et al calls them “cuddly” capitalists as opposed to “cutthroat” ones like the US. I think the net effect is quite unknown – but it’s a complex mix of forces. Low taxation motivates people to work and create wealth, but social safety nets encourage people to take risks in careers (think of it like bankruptcy or limited liability laws – they encourage businessmen to take risks – safety nets encourage individuals to take risks with careers). Specific policy tweaks (such as YB mentioned about exempting a company’s workers from being taxed on increases in share value) also affect outcomes greatly. (During US presidential elections, the Republicans suppressed a tax report from the Congressional Research Service that finds no correlation between top bracket tax rates and economic growth – which has since been published – which just goes to show how grey this topic is.)

      The thing is – we shouldn’t rule out higher taxes right off. It’s possible that higher taxes can lead to a net improvement in the economy – but we don’t have access to technical analyses because in Singapore the academy has been silenced and the government embargoes all relevant data so nobody can do an analysis except themselves. The first step towards overcoming this is to get the data out to the public and the academics.

      Re: adversity is the mother of creativity – I really don’t think so (except for art, perhaps) (c.f. Africa, poor regions, etc). Creativity is one thing – but channeling that into worthwhile innovations is another. I’m no expert – but innovation requires incentive (property rights, IP law), it requires reaching a critical technological level (not just materially, but also embodied as knowledge in people’s brains), it might be encouraged by social/cultural acceptance or even celebration (of weirdos, tinkerers, people who try and fail – rather than the 5Cs), it might be fostered by institutions like work culture, gov’t policy, etc various things. (I agree with you that opportunity costs matter – but I think the stigma of “failure” here is still high enough that the opportunity cost of innovating isn’t that low – if you fail – people scorn you, and there’re no social safety nets in case you do fail – which should be often – given the serendipitous and “positive Black Swan” nature of successful innovations.)

      Re: GIC and Temasek Holdings – nobody knows how much money they are holding for the Singaporean public… :-( Troubling, really…

      • 46 eremarf 23 December 2012 at 01:41

        Left out another benefit of high taxation + high social spending – societies which do this well (via good policy rather than wasteful ones) will invest well for the future – via education, family time, healthcare and infrastructure.

        Healthcare is quite self-explanatory, I hope. There’re good systems that obtain good outcomes without being too expensive. I recommend Ezra Klein’s article “The Health of Nations”.

        Education – left to private markets, most poor families don’t spend enough to fulfill their children’s potential. I’m talking a broad sense of education here – not just what children do in school. I’m all for gov’t policies that force companies to allocate money for skills-training for workers (but that only works if workers have a say in what courses they want – otherwise it just becomes going through the motions and a waste of money – like the wayang training hours I used to do in MOE). If this “wasted potential” can be opened up by social spending – the spending might “pay for itself” by creating future economic growth (if not in absolute terms – at least in labour productivity).

        Family time – if there’s enough social spending so parents don’t need to spend all their time trying to meet basic needs, families might spend more time together. This might fix problems of low fertility rates, juveniles dropping out of school or committing crimes, etc, which obviously have social benefits. Another social benefit is that people might finally feel free enough to engage in their community and politics.

        Infrastructure – I think Singapore generally has done quite well here – if we discount our problems handling the sudden worker influx in the last 6 to 7 years (which I think is a cockup in details, not in spirit). Well, to a large extent it is user-funded (we pay fares!), but government has also put in public funds. But we can see the cost savings in having a good public transport network over gridlock and traffic congestion (i.e. social spending (and hence taxation) here is better than leaving things to the market).

        Increased social spending to produce these things is good – and the benefits from these might exceed the loss in incentive to create wealth. But we need the technocrats to chip in – the economists, and whoever else, to know that for sure.

  28. 47 Chekkers 23 December 2012 at 12:10

    Hey Eremarf, thanks for your reply, This is actually what we need, a proper debate, And I think Jeff Dickey is right, a debate on equal terms is right and by that, I mean giving equal weight to the views of everyone and not just a bunch of kids who lucked out during their A & O’levels and end-up becoming a scholar on public admin track.

    To counter your resources argument, you are forgetting human resources. They all enjoyed the same cost advantage provided by rural-urban migration of a young workforce. Having a huge labour force also means they have a huge domestic market, which we also lack, hence the need to integrate SIngapore fully into the global economy through FTAs and the integrated ASEAN market. I’m not saying that we should just give up but just recognising the hand we were dealt with and what PAP had done was to do the best they could in 1965. I however, do think that its time to lift up our heads and re-assess our situation, because we are in a very different situation now than in the 60s. We may not be suffering the classic Dutch Disease but we are probably suffering from the newer version, which is of a country that is very good at emulating the developed world and grow rich providing valuable service to them. However, since the rest of the developing world are soon catching up by being able to do the same as us at a cheaper price, we are stuck in a race to a bottom if we stay the same but by changing to adapt to the world, our homegrown talent cannot adapt fast enough, hence necessitates the import of foreign talents and its attending social issues.

    It is time to debate more and we need the local academics to shake off their fear and join in.

  29. 48 The 26 December 2012 at 16:28

    Sorry, Alex, have to disagree with you on one point – Singapore’s taxes are not low. Yes, income and corporate tax are low by global standards. But if you cost in all the “hidden” taxes, Singapore’s tax burden is actually quite high. The disposable income of the majority of working people are rather low. Those other “hidden” taxes are ERP, GST, utility taxes, COE, ARF, PARF, maids levies, tobacco taxes, liquor taxes, etc. – most of which are amongst the highest in the world.

    Taken together, our taxes are rather high – which explains the low disposable income of most people. And one other important factor – the efficiency and pervasiveness of our tax reach is well known. Income and corporate tax may be high in the US, but there are many tax breaks and legal loopholes that enable much lower effective tax. All those billionaire investors in the US – they are paying much lower taxes than salaried people and laughing all the way to the bank. At the other end of the spectrum, the tax net in most countries are very leaky. And in the poorer countries, most low-income earners can live off the land and survive quite comfortably.

    Our total tax revenue/collecgtion is actually very high. We have surpluses in most years – only one deficit in one year if I remember correctly. And in some years, the budget surpluses are so embarrassingly high (the forecast was for a$6b deficit, but it ended up with a $12b surplus – or somewhere in the ball park – relying on memory here).

    Our revenue/budget surplus is largely channeled into the Consolidated Fund. All such revenue are fungible, but the government do not treat it as such. The problem with the government is that they tried to compartmentalized everything. Every department/division and GLC must try to make a surplus or profit.

    Just one example – the various taxes from motor transport (COE, ARF, PARF, ERP, petrol taxes, fines, etc) are enough to fund our land transport system’s development and annual running cost. I have worked out the numbers – we can have FREE bus and MRT rides if we choose to – for every citizens and tourist everyday without resorting to more taxes, but just relying on motor-related taxes.

    We have billions from land sales, billions from workers’ and maids’ levies each year falling like manna from heaven without any contributions from civil servants.

    Bottom-line is – many of the programmes for a more gracious, more dignified living for our poor and elderly can be funded with the perennial budget surpluses without resorting to higher taxes. And that is after paying the world’s highest salaries for all our politicians and civil servants.

    • 49 yawningbread 26 December 2012 at 22:54

      One can complicate the question and speak about the tax rates for this and that, but a simple and widely used measure that makes cross-comparisons possible between countries is to look at total government revenue as a percentage of total GDP, and here Singapore scores far below the average for countries with our level of GDP and developed-country aspirations re public services.

      • 50 The 26 December 2012 at 23:45

        Our GDP figures are bloated by MNCs and GLCs. Most of the MNCs enjoyed pioneer status and various tax breaks. In that sense, they are low which is why they invest here (plus the fact that the hoi polloi employees are underpaid).

        We have a two-tier economy here. A lot of big companies who contributed the bulk of the GDP, yet pay low taxes — hence your indicator of revenue/GDP showing artificially low. The other economy which is largely local in nature pays higher taxes.

        Then there are the percentage-wise large concentration of millionaires (both local and PRs) which artificially made Singapore one of the richest in the world, yet the reality on the ground is anything but. The median household income is laughably (if that is the appropriate word for such a sad state of affairs), and does not square with our per capita figure.

        And most important of all, ours is a processing economy, an entrepot economy which buys a lot, value add a little, and re-export most of the stuff with very little local consumption. I suspect this is the main reason for the artificially high GDP figures.

      • 51 Lee 28 December 2012 at 14:05

        Yes, if we are addressing the problems of Singaporeans, its better to look at the more accurate level of tax burden and median incomes of social groups than to refer to (made up? Untransparent? Lol) figures like GDP that mask the real Singaporean economy. Singaporean’s disposable incomes are, as I can see from my peers, incredibly low and their debt levels extremely high, what with student loans, incredibly high HDB loans, cars, COE and of course inflation. It would be unconscionable to raise taxes further when obviously the huge revenues should be spent on Singaporeans.

  30. 52 Great article 3 January 2013 at 17:08

    Nice article that shows that Singaporeans actually have the society and government they deserve. It reflect their values and their concerns: bread and butter. This also shows why the PAP will have a harder time to please every single Singaporean who only care about himself. The opposition will probably be elected due to protest votes leading to surprisingly more unhappiness since citizens’ expectations are completely disconnected from reality and no political parties could fulfil that with a rational economic or social policy. The beginning of the end for the country: death by democracy.


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