Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Priority Payoffs

The monthly Singapore Demographic Bulletin (SBD), provides the latest data on population, births, still-births and deaths. For the whole year of 2013, there were 39,874 live births in Singapore. Of this number 28,028 were registered by nationality to Singaporean fathers. 21,274 of these kids were born of a Singaporean father and a Singaporean mother.

The Government announced a couple of weeks ago that every Singaporean child born next year will receive a special Jubilee Baby Gift to mark the 50th anniversary of the country's independence. Qualifying parents hoping for gold coins, a year's supply of pampers or free education will be sorely disappointed.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu said the the gift pack is likely to include less than 10 items, and "We are not looking at, for example, free education and free childcare for the babies". More likely, expect to see subsidies, Medisave top-ups, and one-off vouchers, in the fashion of the Pioneer Generation Package.

Grace Fu was with Teo Chee Hean and others at the boondoggle in London's Victoria Park recently, for which a budget of $4.4 million was committed for the Singapore Day 2014 picnic. Assuming that 30,000 Singaporean babies will be brought into the world next year, and the same level of largesse extended to the tiny tots, each child could enjoy a windfall of $146.

The official report says over 9,000 Singaporeans living, working and studying in the United Kingdom and Europe were entertained and fed on Singapore Day. The math says $488.88 per person. Which is more than 3 times what a baby will get, if a similar size budget has been allocated for the Jubilee Baby Gift. Then again, the frolicking picnickers are of voting age. The babies of next year won't be eligible to vote for at least two decades, by which time a coalition government could be in place. It's a no-brainer where the goodies will be distributed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Story Of Rank Incompetence

Martin Meredith goes beyond the subject of his book, devoting quite a lot of space to the people and politics around Nelson Mandela, and dwelling into the mistakes that plagued his political party during and after his time in office.

The leader of the rainbow nation wanted to set a new style of leadership, free from the greed and corruption for which the apartheid National Party rule was renown. But no sooner had his African National Congress (ANC) come into power, the cracks in the system begin to show.

The new dispensation offered opportunities for the black elites ensconced with power, which they seized with alacrity. One of the first acts of the new parliament was to vote for huge increases in the salaries and allowances of ministers, members of parliament and the president. Ministers' monthly salaries were raised to a level which was three times more than what the average worker earned in a year.

South Africa faced no international threat of any kind. Indeed, some ANC politicians argued that there was no need for a navy at all, only a national coast guard equipped to protect fisheries  from foreign trawlers; as for the air force, they suggested that its existing fleet of jet fighters was adequate to deal with any foreseeable circumstances. But key ministers embarked on a massive arms procurement programme - submarines, frigates and fighter jets. The $5 billion spending spree designed as such provided many opportunities for kickbacks to greedy officials.

ANC leaders treated the public sector, in effect, as a spoils system. They set up a secret network of four companies, called the Chancellor House Group, to acquire contracts in order to channel funds back to the party. The objective was to ensure that the ANC elite had the means to entrench themselves in power forever or, as party leader Jacob Zuma put it memorably, "until Jesus comes back".

The ANC administration was riddled not just with corruption but also with rank incompetence. Because of a failure by government ministers to plan ahead, South Africa was hit by an energy crisis in 2008 that caused widespread economic disruption.  Advances that the government made in providing housing, piped water and electricity to poor communities were soon over shadowed by failing education, health and other public services.

This is a book about South Africa, but the parallels to our daily headlines are frightening.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Food For Thought

The Sunday Times printed in full the interview by Financial Times's chief foreign affairs columnist, Gideon Rachman. Except the menu for lunch at the Park Terrace of the Royal Garden Hotel in London, with prices indicated. Maybe they wanted to steer clear of Baey Yam Keng's gaffe with the $2.50 nasi padang meal plus bandung drink and Teo Chee Hean's $1.80 chicken rice.

The FT Rachman, obviously distracted by the delicious piece of grilled halibut and prime minister's pistachio crème brûlée - both largely untouched, it was noted - made an ill attempt at humour when he asked Lee if he always knew he would go into the family business, into politics.

When the guy who told pork chop soup on tap and free smoke at open windows jokes failed to respond in like vein, Rachman was rudely reminded that the PM has successfully extracted apologies and damages from media organisations, including the FT, for suggesting the Lee family has benefited from nepotism.

But humour at others' expense is par for the course. Racham wrote that the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the second world war, the west’s mishandling of the revolution in Ukraine, China’s fear of separatist movements and the bankruptcy of Iceland, all provoked an incongruous chuckle or a broad smile.

Still, the light banter provided invaluable inputs. Such as the day when the PAP is not running Singapore. “It could well happen,” he reportedly replied mildly. “I don’t know how it will work but it could happen.” Lee has told us on more than one occasion that 20/20 vision is not his forte. Maybe it was the effect of the pricey Hildon water - our own drinking water, if everything is going on as planned, by now should contain 5 percent sourced from the toilet bowl - as Lee went on to ruminate on the scenario of a coalition government, “It may not be one team in, one team out, it may be more complicated – you’re getting used to more complicated than that in Britain now.”

Taking cue from Lim Wee Kiat who reflected on his MH370 commentary and then made a grovelling U-turn, Lee is now saying that "a stable two-party system is naive." He clarified via Facebook post that the possibility of Singapore having a coalition government was not what he had in mind, what he meant was that there could be a day when the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is no longer dominant. Now that's plenty to reflect about.

It's not just the housing shortage, rising health care costs - Singapore hospitals just hiked the A&E admission charges - and regular train breakdowns, dirty money is afloat. Asked if Lee has noticed an inflow of funds from Switzerland, the reply was, “I don’t know where the money comes from.” Rachman was making discrete reference to Singapore being discussed as the new safe harbour for footloose international money. That can't be a stable system in play.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Reflections Of Lim

Lim Wee Kiak couldn't be more wrong when he said that Singapore Airlines (SIA) has better media management than Malaysia's handling of the MH370 incident. A senior Yahoo executive was furious when SIA spokesman Rick Clements told CNN that there were no casualties after SQ006 turned into the wrong runway on the night of Oct 31, 2000, and crashed into a construction vehicle, killing 83 of 179 passengers aboard. Screaming his frustration on TV, he asked aloud how could that be when he personally saw a fellow passenger in his first class section burst into flames?

“Everyone here knows who the dead are but we were still crying back in Singapore and up till now, we know nothing. You owe us an explanation!” a Singaporean woman shouted at SIA CEO Cheong Choong Kong. The brother of a man who died in the crash was also not impressed by Cheong's lame excuses. “Tell the press the true story,” he said. “Don’t hide any more. Are people’s lives more important or SIA’s reputation?” It all sounds so familiar, only the angry voices were not PRC Chinese.

Lim had to eat humble pie - with a side order of grovel sauce - for different reasons. He dared suggest that the MH370 incident "revealed glaring gaps in communications among ASEAN countries". Foreign Minister K Shanmugam couldn't have been pleased. Lim didn't just stop at undoing regional relations, he ventured further into territorial security, "This episode into may give China a reason to say they should manage the airspace over South China Sea." This time it's the Defence Minister's turn to facepalm.

In a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sam Tan made the official position clear: the remarks by Lim, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs, "do not represent the views of the Government".

The Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament (MP) once told Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang “I will quote (from your speech then) one more time. And maybe your hearing aid has to be (turned) up a little bit.” Maybe all of us, Lim included, need to have our hearing checked. How can the chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs not speak for Defence and Foreign Affairs?

If there's one good reason to distance yourself from this controversial character, it should this defence of ministerial salaries by arguing that a reasonable payout helps maintain "dignity" for politicians dealing with media:
"If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discuss policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister's ideas and proposals. Hence, a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity," Dr Lim told LianHe ZaoBao in Chinese.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Justice Is Blind

This would be a real joke if not for the seriousness of the offence. Mr Mahalingam was originally arrested for rioting, then the charge was downgraded to obstruction of a public servant. He faces up to 8 years in jail and/or a fine if found guilty.

Mahalingam's alleged crime was to fail to disperse as instructed by police officers, and to insist on entering Belilios Road which had been closed off by the authorities. His lawyer said that his client was not trying to enter the road, he merely wanted to wait for his brother whom he said had gone into the area to relieve himself.

The misunderstanding could have been cleared before anyone was dragged to court. Here the laughing matter stops being funny.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Subramaniam, the officer who made the in-situ decision to arrest Mahalingam - reportedly because “no advice or persuasion was going to make him change his mind” - told the court: "I'm not able to recognise the accused now, as my encounter with him then was brief."

Special Operations Command officer Lim Ke Wei, who provided his standard issue hand-cuffs to effect the arrest, also testified in court that he could not recognise Mahalingam.

When Inspector Lee Tian Huat of the Criminal Investigation Department was asked if he had “any evidence that the accused man had used any force or any behaviour that prevented the officer from discharging his duty”, the law enforcer said, "No".

Of the 25 Indian nationals charged for various offences, from rioting to failure to disperse, 6 have pleaded guilty and sentenced to between 15 and 18 weeks’ jail. Makes you wonder how many languishing behind bars, or the lot that was so promptly deported, were positively identified.