Sunday, August 9, 2015

Happy SG50 and looking forward to SG100

We have been treated to events and parties galore, aerial displays, exhibitions, the past and following days resplendent with activity and celebration. There is much to look forward to later today. Let us spare a thought for those in our armed services and countless other volunteers who have given of their time and sacrificed many a weekend so as to make tomorrow an unparalleled success. We give thanks as a nation for the past 50 years. Yesterday evening, as my wife and I took our children to drive past the impressive lights display along the ECP towards Changi Airport, culminating in a visit to the Singapore Flyer, the skyline of Singapore greeted us in a way that we were unused to. The lighting displays in many buildings reinforced how seriously we have taken this golden jubilee of our fair city. There appeared to be an infinite number of ways to display and present our national flag. Later today many of our citizens would have the opportunity to re-live what our forbears experienced on the morning of 9th August 1965. It begins with a recitation of the proclamation – that turning point of our history.
For those of us in the P65 generation, our time has truly come. We have been blessed with all the gifts that a well-governed nation has bestowed upon its citizenry, in terms of opportunity as well as social recognition and mobility. We have our pressures, responsibilities and key performance indicators. We are our own harshest critics, because we want to make a difference, and we are driven to pursuing excellence. Many of us have already done so, albeit to varying degrees. Family and friends have provided support, love and encouragement. We treasure community bonds, and the larger opportunities to interact with fellow citizens and residents. Looking at my young children, I pray that they will learn to rise above themselves in life, and never stop learning. In their time, the world will expect more cross-border expertise to a degree even greater than what is expected now. I also pray that our children will be able to function as global citizens with skills that are easily portable, through different platforms.
At the celebrations’ end, what of the next 50 years? SG100 – what will Singapore look like then? My personal opinion is that Singapore will move to an even higher level of success, augmented by a driven citizenry and returning Singaporeans. Singapore will be a smart nation, and champion many new innovations that traverse transportation (driverless cars), space optimization and alternative energy. This island will continue to punch above its weight, amidst a stronger economic integration with the region and ASEAN. It is conceivable that geographical and political boundaries of at least one neighboring country will alter significantly over the next 50 years. The perspective of political leadership may change, amidst the trends of disintermediation and the erasure of hierarchical boundary. As citizens and residents we will be coerced into a new level of national honesty, where subjects are accountable to each other and no one can claim a monopoly of virtue, talent or ideas for the future. Pluralism will prevail, and come to be the new currency and norm of engagement between us. The public sector will reduce in size, replaced by a thriving private sector that will increasingly feed into the political leadership. As a financial hub, we will blaze the trail for FinTech (Finance Technology). We will be a significant thought leader in cyber-security and defence technology. The SAF will move to 6G.
That is the level of prescience that I am prepared to venture at this point. We celebrate and give thanks for the 50 years that we have enjoyed. Happy SG50 to one and all! Shalom.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Placing a significant man into history

Reading the two pieces in the Straits Times today - one by Han Fook Kwang, the other by Tom Plate; one is struck by how commentators galore are trying to place a most significant political leader and statesman into history.  The debate over the post-LKY era and what shape it will take will inhabit our stream of consciousness in the weeks and months to come.  Whilst we can deliberate on and on about the missing leadership DNA that will no longer infuse the genome of tomorrow's political leaders and administrators, or indulge in speculation as to whether LKY is a 'hedgehog' or 'fox' in the formulation of Isaiah Berlin, the true state of affairs is that no words can adequately predict with total exactitude what shape Singapore will take with LKY no longer amongst us.  How should we as a people cope with the swift return to the affairs and concerns of the day?  Is the formula for governance still burnishing a team of like-minded, committed leaders, presiding over a confucian culture whose participants dutifully operate under a singular leadership?  Surely not. If our population is coaxed into thinking that the country will not survive absent a solo prescription, then it must surely fail, and deservedly.  Singapore has many talented individuals in leadership - at all levels of government.  The greasy pole has emplaced at the highest levels men and women who carry the promise of greatness into the future.  Many will be called to be statesmen, but few, or indeed, only one will be chosen.  We should be constantly reminded of the wisdom of Napolean.  He said, in response to a question about the lack of great statesmen in the world - to get power, you have to demonstrate absolute pettiness.  To exercise power you have to show true greatness.  These qualities are, rarely, to be singularly found in one individual.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

A stronger man you will rarely see
In our generation, in our lifetime
For he created a jewelled city
From the throes of desolation and darkness
A team was assembled and a Party formed
A strong government was created
With institutions, processes and the rule of law emplaced
To provide the citizenry with
A strong sense of security and wellbeing.
Modern Singapore was created, brick by brick.
Its standing and place in the world
The admiration and envy of many.
This man cultivated an ecosystem of excellence
And reached for the stars.
Supported by repeated electoral success,
He was an inspiration to those around him,
And those who came after him.
To SG50 he would say,
Never let up -
Press on with this legacy of achievement.
For to this man our country owes dear.
To Lee Kuan Yew – may his legacy
Continue for the generations.
Rest in peace.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Year that was 2012 - Part 2

Recalling this year from the domestic perspective means reflecting on events in Singapore that perhaps would lead one to look back on either as troublesome events; or as events which give hope and renewed optimism for the future.  In 2012, there has certainly been more of the former than the latter. 

The cautionary tales are easier to recall.  We have in 2012 seen too many instances of sexual fallibility (not necessarily corruption – still sub judice) that have occurred in the civil service, politics and possibly even academia.  It has dominated blogosphere, and there is no need to re-visit the sordid details.  The fallout will unfortunately still dominate discussion for the foreseeable future.

Rising prices and affordability of housing are still an issue for Singapore.  HDB has built many new units this past year.  But prices still do not seem to fall.  That is a worry – especially with economic growth slowing down.  EC flats are selling for over $2m – but they are snapped up.  Are the ‘right’ people buying them?  What is the purpose behind the purchase?  Interest rates are too low, stimulating demand.  Are different property bubbles forming across the entire real estate spectrum? 

Do not misunderstand me.  Like the next person I am pleased when my property rises in value.  I think about my wife and child.  But we are still talking about affordability for first-time home buyers or singles.  This still needs to materalise, and hopefully new measures will be announced soon.

Inflation is still with us – and the fear is that wages will not increase at the same rate as rising prices.  Reduced increments to annual salaries will feel like a pay cut to the workforce.  Will this be a problem that continues into 2013?  The recently released Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review has presented a better picture, with real income rising by 2.7% in the past year amongst middle and lower income households.  The Gini coefficient has shown little change last year.  It was 0.475 compared to 0.472 in 2010.

Public transport has made headlines for a variety of different reasons.  Nationalizing the MRT may be necessary for the future.  Too many corners have been cut and passengers’ interests sacrificed for the sake of profitability and shareholder return.  Will there be more strikes and instances of passive insubordination for the future?  There is much to do.   

What 2012 has taught us is the Singapore citizen needs to constantly exercise discipline, to change and not embrace a risk appetite that constantly challenges social norms and moral parameters; and surpass them.  Discipline is a tough sell.  It means the control of appetites, and the active resistance to temptations that call at the door of the most successful and powerful.  The mighty have fallen and Parliament has lost two MPs.  Think of the grassroots leaders and volunteers of the affected branches who come in week in week out to help out, to try to make life better for constituents.  One incident like that, followed by a shock resignation, and suddenly another seat falls into risk.  Much good work on the ground has been negated.  The party in power has everything to lose in this ward.  There would be pressure to call a by-election, and if one is called, the PAP has to fight extremely hard to get an overwhelming mandate.

The exercise of discipline is a call that must extend beyond public life, to all spheres.  These are the values that we must hold fast to, and develop as a country.  It is also a degree of separation which local must draw with the many foreigners.

What are the events of 2012 that give renewed hope for the future?  The engagement between government and people is changing, and will continue to evolve.  The national conversation must still result in strong outcomes, where those in power cajole and persuade those that they lead into agreement.  It must not result in non-resolution, and a conversation cannot result in convulsion.  The education policy appears to be changing; with more tertiary opportunities being offered.  Every child should aspire and be given a chance to complete a university degree.  At all other education levels, one hopes that parents will manage their expectations of the school system, as well as their own children.  A pressure valve definitely needs to be released very soon.

The move to increase productivity is laudable, and one hopes that the Singapore economy will grow qualitatively as well as quantitatively.  SMEs may complain that they need more foreign labour to manage wage costs, but in the long term, such a strategy will mean lower productivity and the organization runs the risk of atrophy.  The transition into the new paradigm will undoubtedly be challenging.

The electorate is changing, and looking ahead, more citizens will want to engage the government, and each other, on their own terms.  As the Singapore democracy matures, those in charge will have to look for ways to galvanise support and remain conspicuous in the stream of consciousness of citizens.  Above all, reconsider whether the weapons of yesteryear should be used in tomorrow's battles. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Year that was 2012 - Part I

If one is able to recall this year, there are too many specific incidents to recount.  We take a moment to revisit events past, to rationalize the divine path that lies ahead.  These events divide into international and national events.  Each category has lessons for the future.

International events appear distant, but calamity resonates at a personal level.  The fear of political unrest and instability, such as what happened in Syria, with its escalation of full scale civil war. The rebels surged forth against the Assad regime, with almost 30,000 dead.  In Egypt, in the wake of Arab spring, a riotous city finally saw the election of Morsi as President.  Yet a new constitution was proposed shortly thereafter which has invited more vitriol and the strong islamist agenda behind the amendments has not found favour amongst minorities, who are going to be endangered with the passing of these amendments.  In Libya, who can forget the anniversary of 9/11 commemorated by the killing of the American ambassador during the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.  The middle east remains a tinder box, with Israel and Hamas doing  battle in Gaza.  A fragile peace has been brokered, but for how long?  Only God knows.  Asia has seen the ongoing reform of Myanmar, including national elections that saw the Aung San Suu Kyi restored to parliament.  The US President visited Myanmar for the first time.  Yet reform is marred by ethnic conflict between buddists and muslims in Rakhine.

Like many countries, North Korea and Hong Kong saw a change of leaders.  Any hope that the North Korean regime would be more liberal and open under Kim Jong Un, was quickly dispelled with tough talking and unauthorised missile testing. The new Hong Kong Chief Executive is off to a precarious start to his term.  Revelations that Leung Chun-ying tried to cover up illegal construction at his home have not helped.  Especially, when Leung criticised his rival for building violations during the elections.  Earlier this year, Leung also survived a no-confidence vote.  Be that as it may, the Chinese leadership appears to back Leung for now, and recently said that Beijing’s cone country, two systems’ policy towards Hong Kong would not change.

In Pakistan the Supreme Court sacked the prime minister for not following its order to re-open a case of corruption against its ex-President.

South Korea has just seen the election of its first female Present.  Will the peace be made with North Korea?  Unlikely, if North Korea persists in provocative actions like missile testing.  Taiwan saw the re-election of Ma Ying-Jeou.

In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party was returned to government, after spending the last few years in the wilderness.  Shinzo Abe has recovered physically to assume his old job as PM.  The territorial dispute of some islands in the East China sea will continue to affect relations between China and Japan for the foreseeable future.  A strong anti-Japanese sentiment is brewing in China, and this does not augur well for the future.

China has seen an interesting year with the unceremonious removal of Bo Xilai from party positions because of his wife’s involvement in the murder of a British businessman.  The spring cleaning of the Chinese establishment continues.  The establishment has seen off Bo Xilai.  Xi Jinping is now China’s new leader.  It is interesting how the Chinese Communist Party has moved away from ideology, and is looking for a new paradigm of legitimacy, whilst battling corruption at a systemic level, and seeking to engage the world with platforms that it will define for the future.

What can we say about Europe?  Summits galore have yielded little in the form of results.  The European Central Bank had to outline an Outright Monetary Transactions programme to purchase short term government bonds from countries that sought assistance.  Spain, Italy and Greece have struggling debt ridden economies and struggling banks.  Searing political changes occurred in France which saw the ignominious exit of Nicolas Sarkozy and the strong return of the socialists, led by Francois Holland.  President Holland’s approval is headed to single digits after just seven months in office, because of spending cuts.

Great Britain had a mixed year, celebrating notable successes in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and the London Olympics.  The latter clearly edged the Beijing Olympics, and was a strong morale uplift for Britons.  Who can forget the rain soaked Regata, which gave Prince Philip a bladder infection, which he struggled with for some time.  The government’s continued austerity measures and tax increases, have however, not resonated so well.  Special mention should be made of the ‘granny tax’ which was introduced during this year’s budget.  The top rate of income tax was cut whilst the tax burden on pensioners was increased.  A strange political choice, indeed.

In the US, an excessive  $2bn campaign resulted in the re-election of Obama back to the Whitehouse.  The Democrats now control the Senate, against a Republican House of Representatives.  The Republican Mitt Romney ran a campaign that was ineffectual, plagued by many blunders and mishaps.  He has every reason to be disappointed, not having prevailed amidst a challenging economic climate, high unemployment and rising prices over the past 4 years (for almost every consumer/household item except potatoes and TV sets).  I do not agree with Obaman politics, but he is affable, and I can see why he strikes a better note with the voters.

These are some of the events which I have considered memorable from the international perspective.    

Monday, October 22, 2012

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Visiting the US is always an experience.  Especially during the Presidential Election season.  Bloomberg Business Week has presented a comparison between USA (August 2012) and USA (January 2009).  Interesting comparisons.

Income is flat.  The average median household income has only seen 0.2% increase. $50,590 v $50,678.

Food costs have gone up.  According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food and beverage costs for a typical market basket rose nearly 7% over the past 4 years.  Only tomatoes and potatoes appear to have decreased in price over the period.

College tuition fees have jumped 19%.  Textbooks have jumped 22%.

But TV proces have fallen 57% over the past 4 years!

At the same time the buying power of the US dollar has shrunken by almost 8.2%.  This is inevitable, given that prices have increased against flat income.

There is worst to come - homes have lost value.  Bloomberg has an article about 16 homes in North Las Vegas that tell the story of the housing bubble.  Homes that were purchased in acess of $200,000 are now worth less than $100,000.  More than 50% home value has been lost.  This would affect the middle and lower-middle class.

Unemployment has increased from 6.1% to 7.8%.  And the figures could have been worst, if not for the passing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in Feb 2009.  This legislation is credited with creating or saving 700,000 to 3.3m jobs in 2010, and 400,000 to 2.6m jobs in 2011.  But at what cost?  Almost $1.5 trillion.  This is the price that Americans will have to pay for stimulus.  A debt default in 2011 was averted by Congress that saw both parties agreeing to reduce spending by at least $2.1trillion over 10 years.  It did not stop S&P lowering USA's credit rating to AA+.

In terms of foreign affairs - the administration has strained relations with Israel and Russia.  This will not be mended soon.  But the respect of the world diminishes if the US economy is still floundering.

Is it all bad news?  Osama Bin Laden is dead.  Obamacare was passed (Affordable Care Act aims to extend healthcare affordability to all Americans).  The federal government has not grown as GOP critics expected.  Only 0.8% over the past 4 years.  America is also less dependent on foreign energy, and this is good news.

As of today, the candidates are tied in a dead heat.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Social Media

2011 has shown a heightened political awareness amongst Singaporeans.  Much of the critique of public services, listed companies with public accountabilities as well as politicians both new and old, have been embedded and seemingly entrenched in social media.  At the very least, such voices of disdain, scepticism and critical abandon have permeated our consciousness, over a variety of different media.  Of the different media, social media has perhaps shown itself as the new unaccountable voice.  Is social media the real agent for change as we look towards 2012?

Is there a legitimate fear that social media will be a change agent for low risk activism in our society?  Will social media, comprising facebook, twitter, online chatrooms, blog sites and the plethora of on-line commentary over different publications, graduate to becoming the catalyst for high risk activism?

I have my doubts as to whether the latter will be realizable through social media activism.  In an orderly society where the Public Order Act is vigorously enforced without fear or favour, there is little risk of social media becoming a medium to bring about stirrings amongst the masses to the point where public order is compromised, and people take to the streets in protest.  However other fundamental precepts such as contentment and the belief in striving for a better and improved life must also be present.

Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker has argued that social change is brought about by high risk meaningful activism, like the civil rights movement that altered the US social compact in the 1960s.  Strong group identity and cohesion foster strong ties, which form the basis of a mass rebellion.  Gladwell comments that social media tools promote low risk activism, and weaker ties.  Facebook, according to Gladwell “succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do things people do when they’re not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

I agree with this.  We are influenced by what we read, although the more discerning amongst us will question and seek collaboration or factual confirmations, after reading a certain posting on social media.  More often than not it is the medium by which activists express themselves but such expression may carry little tangible impact.  Yet we remain affected by it.

The counter-view is that social media has shown itself to be an effective organising tool, and certain governments, such as China, are clearly afraid of it.  An NYU academic, Clay Shirley has argued that the formation of a vibrant civil society and public sphere is a two-step process.  Access to information and media is the first step.  Google and other online media provide amply for this.  The second step is active debate and conversations about that information.  Political opinions are formed at this stage.  According to Shirley, access to this information is less important that access to conversations.  And in this sphere social media is a great facilitator of mass conversations.  It enables many-to-many communications which facilitate synchronised action, and compel change.

The arisings that led to the downfall of the Ben Ali regime and the Mubarak government in 2011 are illustrative of how social media could play a role in galvanising mass disaffection into a coherent demonstration of political will.  Yet we must understand that these changes were precipitated by mass dissatisfaction, high food prices and a dire economy.  Conversations were sparked by outrage. 

Gladwell has commented that social media builds networks rather than hierarchies.  The Arab protests have been observed to lack hierarchy.  Traditional opposition groups, like the Muslim brotherhood may have had less to do with the organization of such protests through social media, than individual activists. 

In the main social networks can be used as a tool for authoritarianism or democracy.  Countries such as Iran and China have come to use the internet to identify, locate and target dissidents.  Other governments have chosen to engage citizenry with social media, to try to cajole a changing of minds, and better mould the pre-disposition of individuals.  

We criticize public bodies, statutory boards and listed companies with public accountabilities, yet social media platforms are also owned and managed by private businesses and private interests.  In time there will be more focus placed on the accountabilities and responsibilities of these bodies, in relation to their users as well as what is articulated through their platforms to the world at large.  More questions will be asked but only if access is maintained to information as well as conversations.  Watch for it.