The party of the few

In the article Values for power, I discussed how the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) constructs and propagates a set of values with an eye to staying in power. Unlike many parties in mature democracies where coherent branding and  a set of values constitute the launch pad for winning votes and getting into power, in the case of a dominant party in a quasi-one-party political system, cause and effect can be reversed. Since power is virtually a given, values can change whenever needed to best ensure staying in power.

However, there is one value or worldview that is perhaps independent (or as independent as the matrices of politics can ever be) of the imperative of staying in power. In other words, if the PAP were out of power, they would be campaigning for your votes based on this principle. It is fundamental to what they believe is in the best interest of Singapore.

What is this principle?  It is that the course of human history is determined by a few people. Just a few will make the difference between success or failure. For Singapore to succeed, we need to identify and cultivate the few who will make that difference. Coupled with this worldview is the notion, sotto voce, that Singapore is forever under siege, from our neighbours and their envy, from our tropical climate that promotes a lotus-eating  languidness and from our physical limitations of size. This siege mentality justifies over-compensation: All the more crucially we need to identify, cultivate, attract and reward the few that will deliver success.

This accounts for the attention paid as much to attracting talent into Singapore as to identifying the brightest among our young for streaming into the best academies. This accounts for the importance attached to rewarding them well, with good pay, scholarships and a quality of life second to none. Providing for the rest, the rhetoric of inclusiveness and a caring government notwithstanding, is secondary to making sure we’ve first looked after the best so that the elite in turn will generate the surpluses from which we can look after the others. Providing for lowly migrant workers, or even citizens who have fallen short (e.g. prisoners) comes a distant third.

In such a system, the distribution of resources favours those who are believed to be success-makers. Especially in a world where Singapore has to compete against countries with bigger markets, larger populations (therefore larger pool of talent), strategic depth and underground resources, we need to ensure we are exceptionally good at attracting and rewarding talent, to compensate for our weaknesses. If this means we skew the distribution of resources even more, then it’s just a hard fact of survival. If this means we have to live with a grotesque income gap, so be it.

Many Singaporeans do not agree. They won’t find it hard to come up with the rebuttal that the rich and the brightest are usually more than able to look after themselves. If distribution of resources is to be skewed, it should be to help the disadvantaged. The moral imperative is to close gaps rather than widen them further through deliberate policy.

Unfortunately, this riposte may be too glib.

Firstly, is it not a valid argument that throughout history, people have not contributed equally? A smallish set of exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals have made the difference between invention and stagnation, progress and  decline, success and failure. Hence, is it not valid that whether we’re referring to a corporation or a state, there is an ineluctable need to identify, nurture and reward talent?

Secondly, is it not a simple truth that unless the conditions and rewards are in place for the talented to generate surpluses and the dynamic of progress, nobody gains?

Thirdly, how does one balance that survivalist imperative against the moral imperative of skewing the distribution of resources more towards the weak, untalented and disadvantaged?

I don’t have the answers. I stop here at just those questions, for those are the questions that should give us pause. The third question is particularly acute. It is easy to demonise the PAP government’s policies as a train speeding down the wrong tracks without brakes, to suggest that the party is self-serving and mendacious, and to bait xenophobia.

This video, for example, is well made, and no doubt emotively powerful:

Yes, it is important that there should be a better balance of dissenting voices in parliament, but at the same time, it is important to understand where the PAP is coming from, whether you agree with them or not. They are not just being power-hungry and self-serving, though I won’t say that these play no part either. But they genuinely believe that in Singapore’s case, the kind of skewing I’ve described is what is needed to survive and prosper.

If you disagree, it is incumbent on you to think through your alternatives and have a good answer in hand to each of the three questions. Otherwise, no genuine debate is joined.

40 Responses to “The party of the few”

  1. 1 Sgcynic 27 March 2011 at 16:16

    “But they genuinely believe that in Singapore’s case, the kind of skewing I’ve described is what is needed to survive and prosper”

    Is it that they also believe that it will not go down well with the electorate and such they dare not be upfront about it?

  2. 2 tee 27 March 2011 at 17:01

    We can take a flip of history in Old China. They pretty much believed what the PAP believe.

  3. 3 Terence 27 March 2011 at 17:39

    Actually, I don’t see this as a clash between a survivalist imperative and a moral imperative. Rather, I see two competing moral ideologies here, each with its own persuasive logic:

    (A) Fundamental human dignity demands that society provide for every individual in their midst, so that everyone is able to enjoy a basic standard of living. It is unconscionable to deny assistance to needy people just because they lack “merit”. As long as you are a human being, others are morally obligated to help you fulfil your basic needs.

    (B) Nobody is inherently entitled to anything. Individuals reap what they sow; they earn a living by contributing valuable output to society. It is only fair for individuals to earn enormous pay packets if that is how much the market values their contributions. Conversely, lazy bums or untalented incompetents cannot expect to leech off the rest of society.

    Thus, it would be a huge mistake to think that the PAP is being ruthlessly “survivalist” with no moral principles. In fact, they probably believe in all moral earnestness that it is only fair that people reap what they sow; that society is not obliged to automatically provide assistance to any individual who needs help.

    This explains why the PAP is so reluctant to give unconditional aid. They prefer “targeted assistance” because that way, they can screen individuals for meritoriousness and make sure that only deserving people receive aid. People who become poor because of bad decisions/qualities of their own (e.g. gambling away all their money, having such a bad attitude that no boss wants to hire them) only have themselves to blame and cannot seriously expect the Government to provide them with aid. The Government cannot justify spending taxpayers’ money on such undeserving people; the proper avenue for them is private charity.

    • 4 Rajiv Chaudhry 29 March 2011 at 15:39

      I would suggest it is a function of where a nation is in the continuum of development. What was true of Singapore in 1965 is not necessarily true of Singapore in 2011. My view is, as a nation grows and develops, it must move gradually but steadily from (B) to (A).

      The problem with the PAP is that it is ideologically stuck in the first period of Singapore’s growth, unable to shake off the trauma and insecurity that followed expulsion from Malaysia. An absence of fresh ideas is now portrayed as a virtue, the thesis that says “we have no ideology, we do what is best for Singapore”. I suggest the PAP has, in fact, a very distinct ideology and that it is a right-wing, conservative, anti-welfare ideology. Whether or not this is “moral” is, I suggest, almost besides the point; in any case, policy-makers in the party are unlikely to be losing much sleep worrying about the morality of their actions.

      The PAP is, in many ways, a victim of its own success. If there has been a failure, it was and is in its inability to foresee the consequences of its “go for broke” policies and to take corrective action in good time.

      To address the points raised by YB, the one that seems to me to be the most relevant is point three. In this regard, I have to concur with Gazebo below on his argument concerning the fine distinction between running a company and running a country. The purpose of economic development must be to lift the whole boat, it cannot be otherwise. The practical lever that the government has been using to achieve this, the single KPI for civil servants and ministers, namely economic growth, is hopelessly misaligned with the welfare of Singaporeans as a whole. There is a dichotomy between economic growth and median wages that seems to have escaped the PAP.

      This raises the question posed by The Unnamable below ie as to how this debate has been framed by YB. If the question simply is “has the elite not always dominated society throughout history”, the answer must irrefutably be yes. But if the question is “has the elite always acted altruistically”, then the answer must be much more nuanced.

      The irrefutable logic of the first two points, in the context of a nation, must surely come to naught unless they address the “moral” imperative of the third?

      Whether the PAP is in or out of power, if the central plank of their world-view is that a few must be promoted out of all proportion at the expense of the many, then I must add the corollary: is it for the greater good of all? If the answer is not unequivocal, then in my view it has failed not just the many but itself.

      The following quote from this week’s The Economist on-line edition might be of interest in this regard (it appeared the same day as the YB article):

      “The progressive master narrative is that inequalities of income and wealth are easily translated into inequalities of political power, and that the rich as a class exploit this unequal power to shape the basic structure of our public institutions to their permanent advantage, in effect disenfranchising the less-wealthy and leaving their rights and interests without the protection of authentically democratic institutions*”.

      With regard to the question on taxation, depending upon whose estimate one believes, Singapore generates anything between S$20b and $26b annually in surpluses before factoring in transfers to the various development funds and after including income earned by Temasek and GIC. If these surpluses were not salted away but were put to use to improve, for instance, education, healthcare and social services there would be no need to raise taxes to take care of YB point three.

      Thus, the excessive savings generated by the PAP’s “survivalist imperative”, the compulsive need to stuff the country’s savings under the mattress is one of the root causes of its inability to deal effectively with point three apart, of course, for its inability to see the problem as framed by YB in the first place. The PAP’s preferred prescription of “targeted assistance” is, I suggest, band-aid governance; it treats the symptoms but does nothing to address the causes and is therefore, doomed to failure.


    • 5 Anonymous 30 March 2011 at 00:26

      But how can the govt justify increasing their own pay across the board without any discrimination in performance.

  4. 6 Mr V 27 March 2011 at 18:28

    I think all societies agree that talents should be nurtured and rewarded “sufficiently”. The red-herrings in your 3 questions are what kind of talents are you really talking about( we are quite successful in producing bureacrats but not really creative entreprenuers, scientists or engineers despite having top scores for international maths and science competition every year) and the environnment or system needed to identify and nurture the talents? (our education system did not view very single child as “special” and need for different approaches) Your third question is intellectually sloppy and even rhetorical. If we are living in a darwinian struggle for survival kind of context, isn’t it more important to make sure that we uplift the disadvantaged segments of the nation rather than allocating more resources to the “talented”, who are mostly from well-connected and well-to-do families and don’t really need them. My issue with the current system is that it is use more to separate the elites from the non-elites rather than fair allocation of resources for the progress of the majority. The society doesn’t exist for the small group of elites, and I think any reasonable people would agree that its success cannot be predominately attributed to them as well.

    • 7 Diamond 28 March 2011 at 13:57

      I agree with V. I would further add that Singapore’s politicians are some of the only employees who can set their own terms and conditions of employment at will, without having to bargain with their employers – given a lack of alternative parties of voices. Thus they have conveniently constructed salaries sclaes taken into account the “entry price” to entice them, “ongoing price” to retain them and “exit price” to pension them, all for so called Ministers who are extremely talented enough to be Ministers but not talented enough for their own career planning like everybody else. The fair allocation of resources should be re-looked, as the old saying that if you pay them peanuts you get monkeys, but if you give more peanuts you sometimes get gorillas. We have plenty of the latter now.

  5. 8 Anonymous 27 March 2011 at 18:51

    For point one, I agree with you that its not wrong to reward handsomely the talented, hardworking gifted people. I mean that’s why there is performance bonus given, IF YOU PERFORM well in your job. But how many of the ministers in our current Cabinet truly fit into these categories?

    Escape of a terrorist, busting the Youth Olympic budget almost 3 times, reacting to rising costs of public housing rather than through anticipation and prevention? Are these the kind of talented people who should be rewarded 8 months bonus, who should be getting the pay rise? I think the issue here is whether its fair that ALL the ministers across the board are getting the bonuses.

    • 9 Vernon Voon 28 March 2011 at 12:18


      The PAP’s values and policies would be best carried out in a dictatorship where people do not get to vote at all, leaving it to the party to decide what is best for the people. This is the current China model.

      However history has shown that this kind of system is not sustainable in the long term as the human condition ultimately prefers greater egalitarianism even at the expense of the greater good, if it means less inequality. Tests have shown that people would be prepared to forego a $50 rise in income if their peers would be compelled in the same vein to forego a $100 rise in income.

      In a true democracy it is for the people to decide what kind of government they want. And as Churchill said, democracy is a bad form of government, but all other systems of government are worse.

  6. 10 Anon 27 March 2011 at 19:02

    You are too full of hubris to think that you can understand PAP’s agenda … much less be their spokesperson.

    If PAP feels that they need to explain themselves, they have all the talent and money at their disposal to do the job to their exacting specifications.

    Respectfully again, the crux of your thesis here is “constructive criticism.” Please.

    Criticism needs to be only true or false. Valid or invalid.
    There is no need to be constructive.

    A court of law is not interested in a prosecutor being “constructive” in his arguments for conviction. Only the facts of the case matters.

  7. 11 Gard 27 March 2011 at 19:35

    I like to invite a reframing of your article:

    1) What do you mean by ‘talent’?

    A case in point: the foreign talent policy is the right policy – we need foreigners that complement the local workforce – but implementation wise, there is the definition of ‘talent’.

    2) The carrot and sticks are in place in the free market economy: Schumpeter creative destruction. We expect senior management to be rewarded for making the right calls; but we also expect responsibility for failures as well.

    This is ideal of the free market model, a model that one can safely leave out the government under its assumptions. If the government opt to intervene, we need to make a case how the government is able to make the market better, and at what cost.

    3) What do you mean by “the weak, untalented and disadvantaged”? Or why are they weak, untalented and disadvantaged?

    Women were once ‘all of the above’. So were black people.

    4) Good information is required for good decisions and judgement. I’m leaving what constitutes ‘good’ information as an question, for the responsibility may lie on the individual as well as the role of the state-controlled media.

  8. 12 T 27 March 2011 at 20:13

    The entire article speaks of the functionalist perspective vis a vis meritocracy.

    The stages of (functionalist) meritocracy are as follows
    1. Some jobs are functionally more important than others in terms of their contribution to society
    2. Such jobs require talent which is scarce
    3. Talent requires education and effort to nurture
    4. Incentives are required for (talented) people to put in the effort required

    The common criticisms of (functionalist) meritocracy are

    1) Who determines what is functionally more important?
    2) Does functional importance take into account the interdependence, direct and distant, between jobs that facilitates the operation of society? (Question 1)
    3) Do people just go for (monetary) incentives in jobs and positions? (Question 2)
    4) In judging who deserves to get into such functionally important positions, do things such as socioeconomic background, tuition fees, healthcare costs, political orientation, etc get in the way of talented people/children having equal access to fight for such positions? . . . . Could the very ideology (and policies) of a party of the few deny truly good talent in top positions?

    For criticism (3) and question 2 of this article, this video may provide more information.

    I find it very interesting that in this video, there is a statement which says:

    “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table…so that they’re not thinking about money, they’re thinking about the work.”

    On one hand, one may say that the policy of rewarding talented individuals well is justified by such a statement.

    On the other hand, how much money is enough to take the issue of money off the table? How about a position in public service?
    Are people in such positions thinking more about their work or more about their money after a certain level of extra-subsistence income?

    Question 3 is a very good question, especially for the Opposition, and alludes to the kiasu/kiasi local mentality. I ask a few questions in return.

    1) What exactly is the survivalist imperative? To outgrow other countries? To emerge the top out of regional geopolitics?
    To have the world’s best talents and their dedication or to have the loyalty and resilience of an entire nation?

    2) Does the moral and survivalist imperative have to be considered separately? To borrow an analogy, breaking a pair of chopsticks is much easier than breaking 10 pairs of chopsticks.

    To contextualize this analogy more closely (but not exactly or even close) to Singapore, its population is assumed to consist of 99 chopsticks.

    33 chopsticks are aligned firmly together in true belief of the party of a few.
    33 chopsticks are aligned to the first 33 because of coercion, financially or otherwise.
    33 chopsticks are aligned separately from the other 66 because of contrary beliefs to the party of a few.

    For a country with a party of the few facing a crisis,
    its strength will be between 33-66 chopsticks
    For a country with a “party”/culture for as many as possible
    its strength will be between 66-99 chopsticks because
    a) the first 33 and last 33 can come to compromises to work for the country, not for themselves.
    b) even the timid may find courage and purpose in a spirit of inclusiveness.

    Alas, is (functionalist) meritocracy a theory or an ideology?

  9. 13 The Unnamable 27 March 2011 at 20:40

    Dear Yawningbread,

    I’ll pose a question regarding what you refer to as “genuine debate”. You are trying to construct a notion of it for Singapore’s situation, and you formulate the three questions as necessary engagements in order for “genuine debate” to occur. In other words, you are describing the necessary condition(s) for “genuine debate”. However, if this is indeed what you are claiming, something essential about the nature of discourse is missing: is the nature of these conditions of “genuine debate” ‘subjective’, or should we see these conditions as more properly located in the ‘objective’ realm?

    You locate the problem in the ‘subjective’ realm when you say the interlocutors in a debate merely need to engage with and think through answers to the three questions you listed. For me, the conditions of “genuine debate” are instead ‘objective’. For instance, who are the participants of the debate—among citizens, or between citizens and the PAP representatives in Parliament? Could there be a space in which citizens genuinely engage with members of the ruling elite? Is there a ground—can one even construct or imagine this ground—on which such a “genuine debate” occurs?

    This question is important because as long as the ruling elite remain as they are, i.e. the dominant social class, as long as they participate in any discussion/debate as the class wielding power, they will never be able to take up argumentative positions that jeopardize the positions they are in. In other words, as you have already alluded to (the fact that they have a vested interest can never be ruled out), there is always a remainder of self-interest in any debate in which they speak as the ruling class/government in power. They can participate in genuine debate only if they speak as ordinary citizens unconcerned with—even disinterested in—their own (material) interests; they must even be prepared to speak against these interests if reason dictates it. But as long as they remain and speak as members of the ruling elite whose salaries are paid by public monies through taxation, they can never be said to participate in “genuine debate”. One can never get rid of the suspicion that there is self-interest in it.

    Thus, I don’t think a “genuine debate” can ever occur between the representatives of the ruling party and citizens in general, as long as and insofar as the ruling elite speaks as the ruling elite. There must be a fundamental divide, an unbridgeable abyss between two imaginary spheres: one, the sphere of “sentiment on the ground” (i.e. ordinary citizens), and two, the sphere of the “ivory tower” (i.e. the ruling elite). This is not to say that the ruling elite is not aware of sentiments ‘on the ground’, that they have no access to opposing/alternative views, nor is it to say that they are not apprised of—or even intentionally ignore—debates among citizens excluded from parliament. (Obviously, any PAP minister can access websites like TOC and Yawningbread.) This is merely to say the ruling elites (claim to) represent not only the interests of the electorate, but also and always represent their own interests.

    So, is “genuine debate” necessarily impossible? Not at all. I find Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere” and Immanuel Kant’s concepts of “public use of reason” and “private use of reason” useful. At the risk of misrepresenting Kant and doing a disservice to Habermas, I argue that the (Habermasian) public sphere, the one in which “genuine debate” occurs, involves only the Kantian “public use of reason”. Very roughly, this means that when a civil servant is acting in her bureaucratic capacity, she is (counter-intuitively) employing a “private use of reason”; and when citizens come together in a public forum as equal citizens, without fear or favour, having purged him- or her-self of selfish material interests, and engage each other in argument/debate, then they are employing a “public use of reason”. The latter is, I think, a necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) condition of “genuine debate”.

    Thus, I argue that one of the places in which “genuine debate” might be possible is precisely in cyberspace, wherein one is allowed to speak anonymously, as unknown identities, outside of one’s social position (e.g. of power): this comes close to mimicking the conditions of equalising the status of all participants, as in the civic/public fora in ancient Athens. Of course, a PAP minister probably will not argue convincingly against raising his own salary in a public forum such as this, but—this point is crucial—it means only that s/he is freed, from the constraints of being publicly identified as a minister, to take up positions that are independent of his material interests, whether detrimentally or favourably. And what is true for the minister is also true for anyone: one is freed from the socio-symbolic constraints upon one’s objective appearance to argue whichever case universal, subjective reason dictates.

    Necessary, but not sufficient, condition for “genuine debate”.

    [P.S. I may also further add that, these ‘objective’ conditions are more important than the ‘subjective’ conditions you list. They determine more strongly than anything else what the PAP can say and do–indeed here, like many other political parties in Western democracies, the PAP stands not for a politics of conviction, but a politics of pragmatism (even Lee Kuan Yew admits this). Officially, they don’t believe in anything, they are not ideological, but this is a problematic statement, for I would insist ideology works best when it disavows itself. You summarise your earlier post “Values for power” that if “power is virtually a given, values can change whenever needed to best ensure staying in power.” It only appears that what the PAP does not believe in anything; neither ideology nor a system of values is what they deal in. They claim to do what they ‘have to’ do. But again, this ‘have to’ is what precisely needs to be questioned. I agree with commentator “Contender” in “Values for power” when s/he says that “one of the PAP’s core values is economic success. Its pursuit of power is simply a means to implement its particular values”. However, its ‘values’ are so closely tied to the economic function (thus ‘pragmatism’) that I’d argue that its values are economic success regardless of power. I thus disagree with “Contender” who notes that “[t]he fact remains that the PAP *does* have various sacred cows that it stubbornly refuses to slaughter, shows that it values certain things more than power itself.” The sacred cows, tethered to the economic function, are the ideological fetishes by which it maintains its fantasy of power.]

  10. 14 Gazebo 27 March 2011 at 22:15

    I will attempt to answer you questions in systematic order.

    1) Q:”Firstly, is it not a valid argument that throughout history, people have not contributed equally? A smallish set of exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals have made the difference between invention and stagnation, progress and decline, success and failure. Hence, is it not valid that whether we’re referring to a corporation or a state, there is an ineluctable need to identify, nurture and reward talent?”

    A: I do not think anybody would deny that history has been shaped by s small set of individuals. However this is not a valid argument for choosing then to only support these few individuals. A corporation could probably do that. But a state definitely should not for one simple reason — the citizens of a country, generally speaking, do not have the ability nor choice to drop or change their citizenship.

    This distinction is of paramount importance. One can dismiss employees but not citizens. The less well regarded employee of a firm can choose to switch firms, but the downtrodden citizens by and large, cannot choose to switch citizenship.

    2) Q: Secondly, is it not a simple truth that unless the conditions and rewards are in place for the talented to generate surpluses and the dynamic of progress, nobody gains?

    A: Again, I do not think anybody has argued that talented individuals should not be rewarded. The real issue is that of the marginal dollar. Let me illustrate this using a recent letter to the Straits Times.

    This reader claimed that paying our ministers top dollar is merely reflecting their market worth. He furthered compared the situation to compensating our reservists’ wages during ICT. His argument is that just as we ourselves do not expect our wages to be sacrificed during our moments of duty to the nation, we should not expect ministers to serve for free.

    This reader is clearly missing the point. The right question is not that of market worth or rewarding the talented minister. The proper question to ask, is that given that our ministers are already being paid 3 million a year each, where should the extra marginal dollar of our budget go? To claim that it should go towards raising the wages of our ministers further, is to also claim that raising the ministers’ wages trumps any and every other use of that marginal dollar.

    In summary, I am not denying the need to reward talent. We should always recognize and reward talent. However the real issue is that at the margin, should one devote our entire endeavor towards supporting that? Or could there by other more purposeful use of our resources?

    3) Q: Thirdly, how does one balance that survivalist imperative against the moral imperative of skewing the distribution of resources more towards the weak, untalented and disadvantaged?

    A: In my opinion, framing it as a balancing act is not appropriate. As mentioned earlier, the right way to frame the issue is examining our resource use at the margin. Given that we are, by any standards, already overbearingly rewarding the talented, where should the additional dollar go?

    And on a related note, this survivalist imperative is unnecessary in my humble opinion. We are way past that. Yet the government has chosen to hang on to it, mainly because the culture of fear that this imperative perpetuates, serves them well. Making the people fearful of their future makes them afraid of change, thereby solidifying PAP’s stranglehold on the people. It is preposterous that we are spending more on defense as a percentage of our GDP than Taiwan. Taiwan is staring down Chinese nukes for crying out loud!

  11. 15 twasher 27 March 2011 at 23:02

    I’m not sure who you’re arguing against. I don’t think anyone favours a communist system where people get resources based on need and not ability. Of course there must be incentives in place to attract the talented. But that doesn’t imply that we should spend more on minister salaries (say) than welfare for the poor. It’s quite plausible that there is a certain threshold for financial compensation for ministers beyond which increasing the compensation does not attract ‘better’ candidates but only more greedy candidates. It’s not obvious at all to me that as you increase compensation indefinitely, the ability of those hired also increases indefinitely. The assumption that this is the case is endemic in Singapore and has led to other unfortunate situations such as A*Star paying big-name foreign scientists who are retired or close to retirement obscene sums to stay here. But surely compensation for the elite is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and at some point the returns have to become negligibly small.

    In sum, I think people favour redistribution of resources towards the poor because as they see it current levels of compensation are more than enough to ensure that ‘talented’ people run the country, and there is plenty left over to help the poor. This stance is bolstered by many instances of competently run countries with much lower ministerial salaries. Of course, it may be that there is something about Singapore that requires us to pay ministers much more than these other countries in order to attract good people, but I haven’t seen a good argument for why this should be so. The burden on proof is on those who claim this to offer a good argument for their claim.

  12. 16 twasher 27 March 2011 at 23:09

    Another problem with your argument is that it assumes that there is a foolproof mechanism for determining who is more talented or going to be more talented. Since this is not the case, that means that we should also hedge our bets by distributing some resources to the poor. The tricky question is what the distribution should be like. That obviously depends a lot on how reliable you think your mechanism for identifying talent is. A classic example is the scholarship system — there are many who believe that the current mechanism is not an effective way of identifying talent, and thus would recommend lowering investment in that mechanism, but the official gahmen line is that it is one of the roots of Sg’s success so we should continue investing in it. So it’s not so much that people think those who are talented ought not to be compensated more, but that they are skeptical that the mechanisms for identifying them are so reliable that we should always spend resources on the apparently talented first before expending them on the apparently less talented.

  13. 17 yawningbread 27 March 2011 at 23:49

    Please avoid over-focussing on ministerial salaries. Consider this as another example of the policy of rewarding success handsomely:
    Top marginal tax rates for individual income tax:
    Australia 47%
    Germany 42%
    UK 40%
    Japan 37%
    Thailand 37%
    US 35%
    South Korea 35%
    Canada 29%
    Singapore 20%
    Source for other countries.

    Do you think Singapore should raise our income tax rates?

    • 18 Gazebo 28 March 2011 at 00:15

      Again you are not asking the right question. The issue is not whether Singapore should raise its income tax rates, but rather
      HOW should Singapore raise its tax dollars.

      The concept of margins is once again imperative to illustrate this reframing. It is not a question if we should raise the income tax rate. Rather the question is if we have to raise an additional dollar of tax revenue, should we be taxing the rich or the poor? At the margin, do you favor transferring the tax burden on to the rich, or on to the poor?

    • 19 twasher 28 March 2011 at 04:28

      I don’t think that one can answer that question based on your argument. The problems of the fallibility of the talent-spotting mechanism and diminishing marginal returns still exist for income tax rates. One would need to investigate how far salaries track actual productivity and how much of a deterrent increasing taxes are at the margin. So, your argument still doesn’t hold for income tax rates unless you assume a perfect talent-spotting mechanism and constant or increasing marginal returns.

    • 20 prettyplace 28 March 2011 at 04:29

      Seems like your questions were well addressed.

      Germany from where she came from, certainly knows that peace & security is essential with an equitable taxation policy.
      It can never be perfect, like how they hope their engineering feats potrary but they make do with what they can.
      Singapore tries to emulate their system but with contradicting policies in place.

      Australia, once Kerry Packer only paid $2 in tax. However, people knew he did more towards the betterment of society.
      He paid for all ambulances in Sydney to have heart ignition machines in all ambulances after suffering from a heart attack to realise only 2 ambulances were equiped with such machines.

      Tax policies can be circumvented, but there must humaness too.

      It is important to have an equitable tax policy.
      If we don’t and go with such targeted assistance policies, we could certainly miss the Beethoven’s & Mozart’s and what more, our society can provide.

      A stand alone taxation policy on its own cannot bring about a better Singapore, there should morality and a conscious effort to bring about a greater Singapore among her populace.

      The current party seems to miss the point about public service.

    • 21 Gard 28 March 2011 at 09:44

      Perhaps the more pertinent question is, what should the government do with the additional revenue from raising the tax rates; and why should the government be performing the activities and not the market?

      Obviously, one thinking is, the more ‘socialist’ the government, the higher the tax would be.

      But curiously, Hong Kong is ranked 21st in the UN Human Development Index 2010; Singapore 27th, although Hong Kong is commonly considered the more laissez-faire of the two.


      (The military budget is one big gun to maintain.)

      • 22 Fox 28 March 2011 at 17:53

        Precisely. Although taxes are lower in HK, one must also bear in mind that they spend next to nothing on military defence whereas Singapore spends almost a third of its national budget on defence, something which does not contribute to the welfare of its people. Singapore has one of the stingiest public healthcare system in Asia. Public healthcare subsidies are about 1 percent of GDP in Singapore. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong have significantly more public medical subsidies.

    • 23 Fox 29 March 2011 at 14:13

      It is misleading to say that Singapore has low taxes. Singaporeans have a compulsory savings scheme which gives a very low return. For example, every $1000 in your CPF account nets you $25 even though the government, through Temasek Holdings, gets on average about $80 to 90 per annum from investing it. The govt takes the excess $55 to 65 and declares it as part of investment income.

      Most people don’t realize that the govt’s investment income comes from shortchanging CPF account holders. For an average Singaporean, his CPF is worth about 2X of his annual income after 6 years of working life. The government takes a 5.5 to 6.5 percent cut from the CPF. So, that person is effectively taxed at 11 to 13 percent of his annual income as a result of the govt underpaying him on his CPF. This percentage rises as the CPF account grows. If your CPF is 4X of your annual income, you are effectively taxed at 22 to 26 percent of your income.

      • 24 Melbourne 3 April 2011 at 10:23

        Fox, are your figures for both capital growth and yield, or just yield alone?

        Because going by Temasek’s own books, its YOY return is 16% or thereabouts. I believe that would include capital gains.

        Let’s just use a simple example. If the Singapore Government bought a standard residential property in Australia (and they own a hell lot of properties here) the typical figures would be 10% capital gain + 5% yield for a 15% return.

        Obviously they wouldn’t get that every year, but I don’t think the $80-90 figure you’ve put out is too accurate.

      • 25 Fox 4 April 2011 at 09:12


        I simply took the average between the claimed returns of 15 percent, according to Tharman in 2009, and the ‘annualised shareholder returns’ (according the ST) between 1999 to 2009 of 5.4 percent. This average is about 10 percent. To be on the conservative side, I put in a 1 to 2 percent premium to get a return of 8 to 9 percent. It’s a rough estimate on the conservative side. Even so, it shows that the government still retains the bulk of the returns from its savings-funded investment vehicle.

  14. 26 buta 28 March 2011 at 10:04

    I have the feeling that Alex is being deliberately provocative.

    Alex – is it that you consider the video simplistic, that it caricatures the issues? And want a discussion about the mechanisms that have led to the present situation?

  15. 27 Alan Wong 28 March 2011 at 10:23

    Incidentally, our Govt has still not explained to us why the kids of PAP Ministers and MPs (PM included) are entitled to public scholarships so that their kids can go for tertiary education overseas when they can very well afford them and not forgetting thousands of professionals like doctors, lawyers, etc. benefitting from such scholarships as well. (Remember the bonded doctor who committed suicide comes from a family of doctors).

    Why is it that PAP has never implemented means testing for public scholarships ? It is not as if such rich bright kids will not succeed if they are denied a public scholarship. Every one scholarship given to rich spoilt brats like Wee Shu Min is depriving other deserving ones of their rightful entitlement, isn’t it ?

  16. 28 Tan Tai Wei 28 March 2011 at 11:20

    Goh Keng Swee, when education minister, once said, privately, that MOE moral education (hence also religious education, as this was only to bolster morality) was to prevent the poor from eventually revolting, given that income gap was inevitably going to keep widening if Singapore was to retain her talented few.

    But if social upheaval and disintegration is seen as a real eventuality, wouldn’t this a greater evil than the lesser economic successes we might suffer by not rewarding our talents so outrageously and hence our having to do with lesser talents? (Unless the only alternative to having “the best” were our destruction also?)

    And if moral education could prevent that eventuality, surely the “talented” would be more morally educable? Why not aim it at them, so that they would still work for less pay, if not for more social justice, then for greater love for neighbours?

    Ministers should be the most suitable target for the moral education, for LKY says that they have to be paid so much because “we can’t expect them to be as moral and sacrificial as the old guards”, thus implying that it’s a moral lapse that if possible should be rectified?

    After all, the moral capacity for such virtues as “identifying with the people they represent”, even salary-wise, is fundamental amongst the “talents” needed for performance in politics? So would such high pay bring in real, all-rounded political talents? Might not persons, even if less able in other regards but who have greater capacity for empathy with common people, put up a more “talented”, effective performance?

  17. 29 Robox 28 March 2011 at 11:32

    My turn to answer to the three challenges thrown by YB, but this is only #1:

    1a) ”Firstly, is it not a valid argument that throughout history, people have not contributed equally?”

    Yes, it is very definitely a valid argument, and not only that, the same phenomenon continues to be observed till today.

    But I don’t say that in the way it has been constructed in that it is those regarded as ‘superior’ who have contributed more greatly historically than those who are not. (See my point below)

    1b) “A smallish set of exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals have made the difference between invention and stagnation, progress and decline, success and failure.”

    Again, yes. But I have very great reservations about attributing ‘the difference between invention and stagnation, progress and decline, success and failure’ to the ‘smallish set of exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals’.

    It is actually very well documented that the ‘exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals’ have always derived their inspiration from the common people, even tribal people, for contributions supposedly due entirely to them.

    I will spare the details for now, but know that I have sufficient information to debunk the contributions of ‘exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals’ as a farce where original thought is concerned.

    1c) “Hence, is it not valid that whether we’re referring to a corporation or a state, there is an ineluctable need to identify, nurture and reward talent?”

    Hence, yes.

    But identify the correct talent, even if they happen to be tribal. Nurture them. And then reward them as well.

    Relative skill sets may be involved here, but skills and training are not the same thing as innovation.

  18. 30 liew kai khiun 28 March 2011 at 12:28

    So call talent can be relative. Perhaps for governance, they should have a KPI not according to some ambiguous benchmark set locally for compared to places like Mexico City and Chongqing, singapore is a piece of cake for bureacrats. Hence, i would not associate elitism too intimately with talent in the context of political administration in Singapore (I guess the only national leader in Singapore who can run any city around the world decently, be it NYC or Jakarta and Rio would be the MM himeself)

    What i find actually most convincing about the PAP’s values about elitism is not its presence, but just the possibility of being there, like that of the American Dream. Its a logic and framework that drives parents pathological about education and schooling. Parents would not invest so much and screw their kids’ childhood if they do not believe in the rules of the game and the prizes they gain from it. The fear of the state I guess is when people stop believing in the chase, or feel that it is getting too elusive to get there.

  19. 31 KKB 28 March 2011 at 12:42

    Thirdly, how does one balance that survivalist imperative against the moral imperative of skewing the distribution of resources more towards the weak, untalented and disadvantaged?

    It is not a moral imperative. It is essentially a condition upon which our society is built. The social contract we have entered with each other dictates that we have to take care of the weak, untalented and disadvantaged. If we choose to leave them behind, does it also mean that in order to survive, these group of people can choose to ignore the laws of society? Can they now steal, rob, murder and not respect personal property? If we leave them behind, it means we do not consider them an equal part of our society and so why should they obey the laws set by a society of which this group of people is not a part?

    Social problems are essentially a reflection of the lack of justice within a society and they present a huge cost to the state as a whole. Doesn’t this take pose a problem to the survivalist perspective too?

  20. 32 KKB 28 March 2011 at 12:59

    I would also just like to highlight my own personal view that I do not subscribe to the common thinking in Singapore that some people are more important than others.

    One of the things about living in Singapore is our inability to appreciate that everyone has a role to play. We tend to segregate people and their jobs into tiers: some being more highly valued than others.

    If we allow workers to go on strike, we will see how society falls apart without people whom we tend to ignore. Let the garbage collectors go on strike. Let the aunties and uncles who clean toilets go on strike. Let the taxi, bus and MRT drivers go on strike. People will suddenly see how everyone has a role to play. Some people are just blessed with skills that are just economically more valuable. But without people who do those dirty jobs, society just won’t function.

  21. 33 laïcité 29 March 2011 at 00:27

    I’d just like to say, that is probably one of the most xenophobic videos I’ve ever seen, even more so than that crazy UCLA rant against Asians in the library. Putting the blame on the foreigners just makes one no better than the stereotypical right wing nationalistic US-centric Americans that we so love to hate.

    • 34 Poker Player 29 March 2011 at 02:53

      “I’d just like to say, that is probably one of the most xenophobic videos I’ve ever seen, even more so than that crazy UCLA rant against Asians in the library. Putting the blame on the foreigners just makes one no better than the stereotypical right wing nationalistic US-centric Americans that we so love to hate.”

      Huh? Did we watch the same video? The video is making very specific claims that you can rebut logically.

      Claim 1) I am Singaporean, I want my child to get into school A. But school A is full with 10% (say) foreigners. Why do Finns not have to put up with this problem but I have to?

      Claim 2) House prices are being push up by foreigners buying PUBLIC housing. Prices would be much lower if foreigners were not allowed to buy PUBLIC housing.


      There is no rant. There are claims you can rebut.

      There is no blaming of foreigners for being foreigners. The blame is on the government for treating foreigners far more favourably than any other democracy.

      • 35 laïcité 29 March 2011 at 17:27

        Maybe I should have explained why I found it so xenophobic.

        Using phrases like “swarmed with foreigners”, foreigners “denying our kids places in schools” is not merely putting the blame on the government’s policies, it is blaming the foreigners themselves as well. With such emotional music and language, the video seems to suggest that foreigners themselves are bad, and that the word “foreigner” is used with a negative connotation.

        Language like this has already become unacceptable in mainstream politics elsewhere. In the UK, where the influx of international students and workers (yes, they use the word “international” here, never “foreigner”) is even more palpable than in Singapore, only the right-wing BNP tries to put the blame on foreigners. It is not socially acceptable to express such anti-foreigner feelings in public, and even if one does harbor them, it is never done in such an unabashed manner that was in the video.

        In my daily interactions with Britons, not once have I met any hostility against me or foreign students/workers, even though I am now a foreigner here myself. The same can’t be said for my undergraduate days in NUS. Judging by my friends and acquaintances in NUS, and by this video, Singaporeans are probably people the most unashamedly hostile towards foreigners that I have ever come across.

        I think foreigners are necessary. After all, it is the international students in world class universities that add diversity and raise standards, and international workers in world class cities that add vibrancy and cosmopolitanism. One may be right to be angry at the government for sometimes letting Singaporeans lag behind, but the solution is to create jobs and increase our own value and productivity, not to limit the foreigners.

      • 36 J 6 April 2011 at 10:13

        Perhaps they are simply polite enough not to tell you to your face. If you go to say, daily mail, I am sure you will find plenty of anti foreigner sentiment.

        Also, ‘diversity’ is more than just different nationalities. If you are using that as your only yardstick I am sure you will be disappointed.

  22. 37 Anonymous 29 March 2011 at 10:00

    you can’t compare our income tax with other countries with more welfare! and yes don’t forget our 7% GST.

    • 38 yawningbread 29 March 2011 at 12:22

      So you think that we should keep tax rates as they are and not institute a better welfare system? As for GST/VAT/Sales tax, please research other countries’ rates first.

  23. 39 Poker Player 29 March 2011 at 13:38

    “Especially in a world where Singapore has to compete against countries with bigger markets, larger populations (therefore larger pool of talent), strategic depth and underground resources, we need to ensure we are exceptionally good at attracting and rewarding talent, to compensate for our weaknesses. ”

    A challenge to everyone reading this. Denmark, Finland and Norway are in the same ballpark as us population wise. We are also only a little behind Finland in per capita GDP. They are also among the most egalitarian societies in the world. Someone tell me what I am missing here.

  24. 40 Melbourne 3 April 2011 at 10:35

    I’m just going to add this to the discussion.

    “They are not just being power-hungry and self-serving, though I won’t say that these play no part either. But they genuinely believe that in Singapore’s case, the kind of skewing I’ve described is what is needed to survive and prosper.”

    1) Who does “Singapore” refer to? All Singaporeans or the privileged few?

    2) I think it’s not too far-fetched to say that there are serious doubts about whether Singapore will continue to survive and prosper, even with this skewing in place.

    So has the supposed social contract been broken? And if it has been broken, why should Singaporeans continue to accept the skewing you’ve described?

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