Tunnel floods and the erosion of performance legitimacy

In traditional Chinese political thinking, emperors have absolute powers, subject only to the will of gods. The political duty of subjects is to serve and to obey. The Mandate of Heaven, however, can be withdrawn at any time. Flood, famine, earthquake and pestilence are read as signs that Heaven is displeased with the regime and has revoked the emperor’s mandate.

As recently as 1976, millions of people in China had reason to believe that this divine signalling was in operation. On 28 July 1976, a massive earthquake struck the city of Tangshan, killing over 240,000 people, though nobody really knows what the actual figure was. Six weeks later, Mao Zedong, supreme ruler for 27 years, died.

Revocation of the Mandate of Heaven does not always mean that Heaven itself will take care of the problem by striking the monarch dead. Sometimes, people have to do the necessary work. Natural disaster as a signal can also mean that Heaven will bless an uprising to get rid of the emperor.

Don’t look at this as pure superstition. There is an element of truth in it. When natural disasters strike and governments are perceived as slow or incompetent in its response, there follows a loss of respect for its leaders. In a democratic political system, this works its way into vote loss at the next election — an ‘uprising’ in a sense.

New Orleans flooded as levees broke when Hurricane Katrina hit, 2005. Pic from nola.com

Hurricane Katrina that hit and inundated New Orleans in 2005 is an example. George W Bush was in the White House at the time, having narrowly won reelection the year before. An August 2015 article in nola.com, marking the tenth anniversary of Katrina, noted that Bush himself acknowledged the storm’s impact on his approval ratings.

George W. Bush never recovered politically from the perception that the federal government’s failure to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina extended the misery for tens of thousands of New Orleans area residents. In large part, he said, he deserved it.

Writing in his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points,” the 43rd president said “in a national catastrophe the easiest person to blame is the president,” and “Katrina presented a political opportunity that some critics exploited for years.” He said the poor Katrina response, combined with the “drumbeat of violence in Iraq,” made “the fall of 2005 a damaging period in my presidency.”

Further down the article:

Bush said delays in the federal government’s response, particularly in sending federal troops, convinced “many of our citizens, particularly in the African-American community,” that their president didn’t care about them. “Just as Katrina was more than a hurricane, its impact was more than physical destruction. It eroded citizens’ trust in their government. It exacerbated divisions in our society and politics. And it cast a cloud over my second term.”

Bush’s approval rating was slightly over 40% when Katrina hit. It slid and never went above that level again through the three remaining years of his term.

* * * * *

I saw the epithet “The worst metro system in Asia” applied to Singapore’s MRT for the first time on Sunday morning, 8 October 2017. I myself was inconvenienced by the disruption of service on the North-South Line the previous evening. But it was only on Sunday morning that I learnt that it was due to flooding in the tunnel between Braddell and Bishan stations. There was also a small fire between Raffles Place and Marina South stations.

The announcement that I heard while trying to travel on Saturday night was a study in vagueness. It said there was a “track fault” near Bishan and an “incident” near Marina South.

“Track fault” the announcement said. Pic from Gilbert Goh’s Facebook post

As I write, it is not yet clear why the tunnel flooded [See addendum]. Initial explanations blamed “heavy rain”, but that cannot be a credible explanation. Thunderstorms are nothing but normal in Singapore; if metro services are to be disrupted every time it rains heavily, “the worst metro system in Asia” will be well-deserved.

Inevitably, social media was rife with adverse comments about the “paper generals” running SMRT and other government-linked corporations. Transport minister Khaw Boon Wan was likewise mocked. Less verbalised perhaps, but the entire government of Lee Hsien Loong will not escape blame.

No doubt, flooding of a metro tunnel leading to cessation of service for about a day is nothing like the scale of Katrina inundating an entire city for weeks. But political repercussions are scalable. This “track fault” like so many before is not fatal to Lee’s government, but then again, most governments aren’t felled by a single lightning strike; they die by a thousand cuts.

* * * * *

The democratic, electoral legitimacy of Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) government has long been questionable. Exploiting incumbency, they have made so many self-serving modifications to the electoral system, and imposed so many restrictions on foundational freedoms needed to give substance to democracy, that only blindfolded folks will describe this lot as democratically elected. See this article in TheDiplomat.com.

Yet, people recognise this government as legitimate. It is said that the PAP government has “performance legitimacy”, where people excuse rulers for their authoritarianism so long as they get to enjoy economic success.

However, a steady drumbeat of cock-ups, incompetence and outcomes below expectations will erode that legitimacy.

That said, public transport failures are not the kind of cock-up that throws people’s lives off-kilter. Even so, they tend to affect large numbers of people, and that mass effect, especially if repeated every few months, will erode confidence in the government. Moreover, with heads of public transport corporations generally perceived to be elitist cronies of the government with no visible prior qualification for the job, knock-on blame will be magnified.

Two major issues on the horizon will be far more damaging. Public transport cock-ups will be mere knicks compared to these machete blows to come. The first is economic stagnation, where people will not see their livelihoods improving; instead, Singaporeans will see other countries overtaking them. The second is wealth destruction.

There has already been much murmuring about Singapore’s low productivity and slowing economy. Ministers have been seen wringing their hands about future drivers of economic growth. Committee after committee have been formed to brainstorm a strategy forward; every one of them has been forgettable. But let me just give you a few numbers that illustrate what is happening.

The above table compares two five-year periods, between 2006-2011 and 2011-2016.

In the first five-year period, our per capita GDP increased by 14.7%, or about 2.8% a year. On the whole, people could see their lives improve — assuming that income divide or the household share of GDP were not severely worsened during the same period. Note too that 2006-2011 was the five-year period in which the global economy suffered the terrible shock of the 2008 Great Recession.

In the second five-year period, our per capita GDP increased by 8.6%, or only about 1.6% per annum. It’s not much different from the sluggish economies of Western Europe. There is nothing superlative about this kind of performance, which would have meant more and more people seeing their wellbeing stagnate. In Europe, such sluggishness has been enough to generate mass disaffection with the parties in power; the price is exacted at the ballot box.

It is more than possible that over the next ten years, Singaporeans will continue to see anemic growth; at some point, this will hugely undermine the PAP’s performance legitimacy.

A bit more distant on the horizon, but a lot more dramatic, will be wealth destruction. I wrote about it in 2011 (The coming $270 billion bail-out), and this year, National Development minister Lawrence Wong has been saying much the same himself. It is that when the 99-year leases of HDB flats run out, the asset value will be zero.

The Housing and Development Board built about one million flats in the fifty years 1960 – 2010. Since the 1990s, Singaporeans have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for their homes. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong and his government talked up prices by referring to HDB flats as “nest-eggs”. Even Lawrence Wong characterised them as such this year, in an attempt to “follow up” on his earlier downbeat remarks. He said, “The general point is that the HDB leasehold flat is not only a good home, but also a nest-egg for future retirement needs.” (Link to Straits Times story, 12 April 2017).

But, as I wrote in my 2011 post, no flat has any intrinsic value. It is ultimately a slice of air, and its value depends on supply and demand. The market price of anything can go down as it can go up. If, the day you’re thinking of selling, there are far fewer interested buyers than you expected, e.g. if Singapore is suffering mass emigration due to poor economic prospects, then your “nest-egg” will be nothing like you thought it would be.

The market value of HDB flats will start to fall long before they reach 99 years. It is absurd to expect market value to keep rising until, in the 99th year, it falls off a cliff.  Well before then, as news spread that some older flats are fetching far less than expected, people (even if they are not ready to sell) will sense that the value of their biggest asset is being destroyed. A ripple of anxiety will spread through the voting population when news emerges of a whole cohort of owners whose homes’ resale value has fallen below what they paid for their flats — there’s a term for this: such properties are said to be “underwater”.

“Performance legitimacy” by then will sound like a joke. Flooded tunnels and stalled trains will seem like the good old days.



  1.  It was reported in the Sunday Times (8 October) that “By 10pm, a total of 73.2mm of rain had been recorded in Tai Seng. The mean rainfall for this month is 154.6mm, based on records from 1981 to 2010.”
  2. It was subsequently reported that SMRT’s pumps which should have automatically kicked in, failed to do so. The North-South Line’s Bishan station is sort of at ground level, while Braddell Station is underground. The tunnel opens near Bishan. Rainwater (which should have been dealt with by the pumps) entered from here.



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