As readers might have guessed from the picture in the previous article, I was at the People’s Action Party rally held on 2 May 2011 in Bukit Panjang. I didn’t plan to stay more than 30 to 45 minutes, just to get a flavour of the event and some pictures. By chance, none other than the incumbent candidate Teo Ho Pin was on stage speaking while I was there.
What struck me was that virtually the entire speech was devoted to municipal affairs. Gee, I thought to myself, is that all that he thinks voters are concerned with? But perhaps he is right. Maybe enough voters care only about the parochial that he can coast to victory with nothing more than that.
Don’t just take my word for it. Read the Straits Times’ report and you’ll see the same thing. Let me quote the opening paragraphs of the news story:
Bt Panjang has grown into vibrant town: Teo Ho Pin
Bukit Panjang has developed from a town with few amenities into a vibrant place that residents are proud to live in, People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate for Bukit Panjang Teo Ho Pin said last night.
Speaking at a rally in Jelapang Road, he pointed out that the Single Member Constituency (SMC) was the first constituency to complete the upgrading of lifts in all 132 of its eligible housing blocks.
The town, he said, is also completely barrier-free.
Dr Teo, the incumbent MP for Bukit Panjang for the past 14 years, also revealed several projects in the pipeline.
These include a new wet market and food centre, an MRT station with an integrated bus interchange, community gardens in every precinct and a nature park beside the Bukit Timah Expressway.
— Straits Times, 3 May 2011, Bt Panjang has grown into vibrant town: Teo Ho Pin
The other interesting thing was that chairs were provided. Back home, examining the telephoto pictures I took, I counted 43 chairs abreast x 24 rows. That’s about 1,000 seats, all filled. There were perhaps another 500 people standing at the back and by the sides. Another thing I noticed, but only after I got home, was that the persons seated in the front row each had large placards. From my angle, I couldn’t see what these placards said, but we can all guess. It sure looked rather North Korean to me.
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The Sunday Times, 1 May 2011, had a front page headline that said: Solution to rising costs is to grow economy: MM.
What a load of crap, I said to myself. Inflation is an independent variable from growth. Growth alone does nothing to cure inflation. Look at China the last few years, with GDP growth nine percent per annum and higher, but also persistent inflation.
Of course, Lee Kuan Yew quickly added (and was dutifully reported by the newspaper) that growing the economic pie means the government can give out more. Eh? Again, it’s another independent variable. If it were so automatically linked that growth leads to redistribution, then how is it we have widespread grumbles after 14.5 percent GDP growth in 2010?
Income redistribution is a policy decision. You can make that decision regardless of GDP growth.
But of course, Lee was not even contemplating income redistribution; he was still thinking along the lines of trickle-down economics — a theory that is quite evidently discredited. Wealth does not automatically trickle down. Wealth flows to those with political and economic power — it’s one of the most enduring truths through human history. Income and wealth is only redistributed when the have-nots seize power.
Moving on, he then contradicted himself.
Mr Lee acknowledged voters’ concerns over high living costs. But these are due to “higher food prices elsewhere, as a result of higher oil prices, which is reflected in transportation costs for cars, buses and electricity”.
— Sunday Times, 1 May 2011, Solution to rising costs is to grow economy: MM
Here he is saying inflation is independent of domestic growth, because inflation is imported. Actually, he’s wrong. Economists have pointed out that at least half of inflation in Singapore is domestically generated. Land costs feed into rental costs which feeds into the cost of products and services. Lack of competition allows certain providers of products and services to keep prices higher than they need to be. In the post Imagining electoral calamity, I pointed out for example that Singapore’s main urban rail operator, SMRT Corp, made a fat Operating Profit of 21.4 percent last financial year. Train fares are government-regulated, so let’s not pretend that the government had no hand in high living costs.
All that Lee is saying is a sideshow to distract from the chief point: The pain of cost of living is experienced when prices rise and wages stay nearly stagnant. The issue is, in the final analysis, not whether prices are going up or down. If wages also go up, it won’t much hurt. The issue is the income gap, and that is something that macro-economic policy and taxation philosophy have huge roles in shaping. And who is responsible for that?
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The following day, on page A14 is this headline:
Foreign worker cap poses real dilemma, says Lim Hng Kiang.
Restricting the number of foreign workers in Singapore’s economy presents a ‘real dilemma’ for the Government, as it will likely require turning away big foreign investments.
Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang yesterday appealed to Singaporeans to understand the ‘huge trade-off’ the country will have to accept in terms of lost opportunities for growth.
Responding to concerns over the influx of foreigners, the Government said early last year that it would maintain the proportion of foreigners in the labour force at its current level of one-third.
‘We will keep foreign workers to one-third of the workforce, but I can tell you that one-third is a very severe limitation to us,’ Mr Lim said, in characteristically frank terms.
— Straits Times, 2 May 2011
Again we are mesmerised by the gross numbers of GDP growth from investments but fail to ask ourselves what the external costs of these investments will be. External costs include impact on society and the environment, and even opportunities foregone. Do we really need more shipyards? More low-tech construction work?
If we have to have investments, shouldn’t we be inviting those with high capital and low labour? Admittedly, it is a complicated debate involving a multitude of factors from land scarcity to available skills and so on. I don’t have the space to get into it here.
All I want to point out is that this statement by Lim is perhaps designed to lay the groundwork for a roll-back on the promise made last year to deal with this problem.
Further down the article:
Mr Iswaran, who is the Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, emphasised that these trade-offs require that the one-third cap be viewed as a long-term goal, rather than be kept to as a “theological constraint”.
Mr Lim reiterated his view that taking in big investments with the concurrent need for foreign manpower yields the best outcome for Singaporeans.
There you go. Now that they are confident of winning the election, earlier promises are quietly being shelved.