Saturday, 29 March 2014

Tommy Koh’s ST Article Hits the Nail on the Head

Tommy Koh wrote a very interesting article “Is there an ideological cleavage in Singapore?” in the Newspapers today. He muses what he describes as the belief system and shared values that Singaporeans uphold and if these have changed. In simple words the Rules of Singapore Society. He listed the five as :
  • Free trade and investment
  • Market economy
  • Globalization
  • Foreign Talent
  • Meritocracy

For each of the values listed, I analyzed my perception of the general Singaporean’s ideals and contrast what our Government leaders are actually practicing.

Free trade and investment

For the most part of it, Singaporeans understand that we need free trade to be moving smoothly, we are a country with no natural resources or agricultural hinterland. Food is mostly imported together with all the equipment, fuel, car spare parts and yes, importantly iPhones and Samsung mobile phones, to keep the country going. Let’s face it, if Singapore was besieged by an immense flotilla of warships, we would probably last a few weeks at most a month. This is also aligned with Tommy Koh’s article. The Government has also been clear that free trade is necessary, and has made progress in accessing non-traditional resource markets and keeping our borders open with little protectionist policies nor high import taxes. 

Market economy

Singaporeans feel that the right balance of private and public sectors in the economy makes sense. On one hand we need private companies to make a decent profit, continue to innovate and bring value to the market place where consumers are willing to pay for the goods and services. However, goods and services that should not be driven by profit such as health care, education, defense etc should be clearly under the public sector. Tommy did not make a clear distinction of this and his main point was that whilst we accept a market economy, we do not accept a market society where winner-takes-all. So what has the Government been doing? In one word, “Befuddled”. Certain services such as Defense, Water resources, Land resources, Tax departments are clearly run by public institutions and very successfully in some cases. But others are in a mixed-up hybrid scenario.

First bugbear is Public Housing, by the very virtue of the name implies it a Public Good, but with the series of poorly appointed Housing Ministers, the HDB had lost it’s mission. DBSS, ECs, prices pegged to market rates, have caused major discontent in the populace. Things are turning around, but the jury is still out there whether these are structural changes or a band-aid.

Secondly, Public Transport is a Frankenstein epic disaster, Public Transport operators are  expected to make a profit while at the same time maintaining service standards, while the Government funds these operators’ capital investments in the form of buses and trains. As what a local blogger succinctly declared “Privatizing Profits, Nationalizing Costs”, it is not rocket science, Private or Public Transport, make a decision, don’t feed a Monster.

Health care is in a slightly better position, but still some aspects of it smack of bureaucrats trying to act too smart. Singaporeans are clear that if they have a complicated and/or urgent medical condition which requires a very experienced surgeon, the private hospitals/medical route is the way to go. Polyclinics and Public hospitals provide credible healthcare at subsidized prices, but only for people who can wait 3 to 6 months. But if you need the condition to be addressed faster, get off the subsidized prices and pay private prices. So the Public Healthcare system discriminates whether you can pay for faster service?


Singapore belongs to an interconnected world and Singaporeans would definitely reject being an isolated regime such as North Korea. Free flow of ideas, technology, people and capital from all parts of the world makes Singapore a vibrant city. But as Tommy quipped, we are also a country with no hinterland to escape to or avoid the omnipresent crush of people. And I read with a faint smile on his jibe at Anton Casey ( , “the growing resentment felt by many Singaporeans that wealthy foreigners are free-riders. They come here to make money and lead very comfortable lives, but give little or nothing back in return. To make matters worse, some of them have a disrespectful attitude towards Singaporeans.”

How about the Government’s position on Global City or Singaporean Home ? They use either as convenient spin-doctor propaganda. When it serves their agenda, they proclaim it a Global City as necessary to encourage business startups and employment to attract rich Chinese, Indonesians and Russians whose money are suspect. And manipulate the theme “Singapore Home” when they tell Singaporeans to sacrifice two years of their prime for National Service. Many of us may have the similar experience when bonus time comes around, and your company CEO tells you that business is tough and the external environment is uncertain. The CEO then change his/her tune to future career opportunities and upbeat business forecasts when you receive a competing job offer. Make no doubt about it, PAP’s Government goal is the ensuring the survival of Singapore the Global City, regardless if Singaporeans are part of that survival equation or not. (

Foreign Talent

Let’s be pragmatic, Singapore cannot function without any foreigners, we need the thousands of workers who labour in construction sites, cleaners, cooks, waiters, housekeepers, retail executives etc. These are mostly hard working people who want to earn enough and return home to their families.

What Singaporeans are indignant about is encapsulated in George Orwell’s Animal Farm quote, “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Tommy also alluded to this in his article, “First, Singapore discovered that some so-called foreign talent was not very talented. Second, there was the discovery that, in some cases, when a foreign chief executive officer was hired, he or she discriminated against Singaporeans when hiring staff.” Singaporeans are sick of their leaders placing foreigners on a pedestal just because they come from a foreign land.

Before the bruising 2011 elections, the government was adamant that their consultants were correct, and that foreign talent were more talented rather than foreign. Many worthy and talented Singaporeans were sidelined or never given the opportunities in this xenophilic environment. They have now changed their tune with the National Jobs Bank where companies have to demonstrate that they cannot hire Singaporeans within a certain period before they can hire foreigners. Time will tell, if this is a charade to appease the electorate for the next elections or an effective tool to stem foreign workplace invasion.  A first step is to acknowledge that they were wrong and not all foreigners are talented. We have yet to see this realization in official speeches.


Pursuit of a better life, strive for excellence and meritocracy are cardinal drivers for Singaporeans. We celebrate our successful members of society be it when Singapore wins the Asian football cup or when Anthony Chen’s ilo ilo wins Camera D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. And as Tommy stated, “Singapore want to be assured that meritocracy is accompanied by social mobility.”

In general, the government over the years has performed reasonably well in this arena, increasing open places in prestigious primary schools for non-affiliated children, scholarships and bursaries for bright children who should not be disadvantaged due to their parents’ economic background. However, it is not all a rosy picture, why are scholarships that could be given to needy Singaporeans given to Asean scholars, Chinese post-graduate students and visiting academia? Many of whom only use Singapore as a stepping stone to greener pastures overseas. Rolling stones gather no moss. Singaporeans want more dollars given to the taxi-driver’s son or daughter who may not be as academically bright as a chinese scholar, but who would be a respectable upright member of Singapore’s society. Rather than anointing a nomad who would flee once the going gets tough. The government needs some soul-searching in this regard.

After this deliberating thought exercise, I would say that Singaporeans continue to uphold the belief system and values that make us unique, competitive and highly regarded world-wide. The crux of the problem is that these values have been mutated to suit the government’s own misguided goals. The ideological cleavage in the belief system is really between Singaporeans and the existing PAP government, and if the government does not Repent, then perhaps a hammer would be needed to hit the nail on PAP’s head.  

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