Saturday, May 21, 2011

Let's Wait And See - Again .

After GE 2001 copied  and commented on PM Lee's promises for the new term.
Here, I copy the post GE 2011 speech and promises to review in 2016.
Let's wait and see...


Mr President
Ministers and Members of Parliament
Fellow Singaporeans

1. We have just gone through a watershed general election. Almost all the seats were contested, for the first time in decades. Many Singaporeans were voting also for the first time. Singapore has entered a new phase in its political development.

2. In a rapidly changing world, Singapore is evolving too. Our economy has developed, and our society is changing: from the retirees who experienced our independence struggles in the 1960s, to the generation which grew up with the rapid economic growth of the 1980s, to the teenagers of the 2000s who have never known a world without the Internet. Each successive generation has different life experiences. They see our history differently, view current social issues from their own perspectives, and dream new dreams of their future.
3. The Government cannot stand still. It must evolve in tandem with our society and our people. That is the best way for our Government to serve and to govern, in accord with the spirit of the times and the aspirations and hopes of our people.

4. Our politics cannot remain static either. More interest groups and alternative views have emerged, competing for support. Our political system can and must accommodate more views, more debate and more participation. At the same time, it is absolutely crucial for Singaporeans to stay united on the big issues, understand the fundamental realities facing a small country in Southeast Asia, and work together to develop and implement the best solutions for our country.

5. We must develop a political system and political values that work for Singapore, foster good government and benefit Singaporeans both today and in the long term. Even though we now have more diverse voices, Singapore politics should not become confrontational or worse divide our people and society, like in some other countries. My government pledges to serve the widest possible spread of our society. We are committed to inclusive growth, and a cohesive Singapore. We will do our utmost to work with Singaporeans to create an exciting and fulfilling future for our people and our young.
6. I thank the voters of Singapore for giving me and my team a clear mandate to implement our programmes – to grow the economy so that we can create better jobs for all; to educate our young to their full potential; to care for our older generation; and to engage our citizens to build an outstanding city and home for every one of us. All these we will now do.

7. At the same time, it is clear that Singaporeans do have significant concerns over both the substance of Government policies and the way they are implemented. There are anxieties over specific areas such as housing, healthcare and immigration. Many groups want the Government to be more responsive to their difficulties and predicaments – retirees, single parents, the middle class and young adults, even students.
8. In implementation, our approach must be more flexible, thoughtful and compassionate. No policy can cover all contingencies. Hence policies must be carried out with judgment, and with heart. Policies are meant to make our lives better. When they have unintended consequences, we should put things right promptly. When we make mistakes, we must admit and correct them. We must always do what is right for Singaporeans, and Singapore.

9. We will address all these concerns of the people.

10. My first step is a new Cabinet to lead Singapore in this new phase. I have comprehensively reshuffled and refreshed my Cabinet team. Many experienced ministers have retired. They have done much to bring us thus far, especially the former Prime Ministers Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong. I thank them all for everything that they have done for all of us. In their place we have a younger team, reinforced with several first-term office-holders. We will work closely with Singaporeans to take the country forward in a complex and challenging external and domestic environment.

11. Secondly, the Government will engage all segments of society – young and old, students, workers and retirees. We will reach out online and in the real world. We will listen carefully to different voices, understand the day-to-day difficulties and strains facing Singaporeans, address their concerns and be open to inputs on what Government can do better. Realistically, we cannot fulfil every request, or accept every suggestion. But by engaging Singaporeans in an inclusive dialogue on making policies and governing Singapore, we can solve our problems better, and shape our new Singapore together. This is vital.
12. Thirdly, we will take a totally fresh look at our problems and policies, and rethink what is necessary and best for Singapore’s future. We will address the issues preoccupying Singaporeans, such as healthcare, housing, and immigration. We will review both the policies and their implementation, as well as our broader approach to tackling these issues. We must move quickly to address pockets of urgent need, even as we think through the more difficult long-term challenges. Though Singaporeans trust that our policies are mostly sound, nothing should be sacrosanct.

13. One important area for review is political salaries. We will always need committed and capable ministers. Politics is not a job or a career promotion. It is a calling to serve the larger good of Singapore. But ministers should also be paid properly in order that Singapore can have honest, competent leadership over the long term. I know that Singaporeans have genuine concerns over the present salaries. Hence I am appointing a committee to review the basis and level of political salaries. The committee will be chaired by Mr Gerard Ee, Chairman of Changi General Hospital and Chairman of NKF.

14. Beyond dealing with these issues, we should focus our energies on our main task: building a bright future for our people. What Singapore has achieved thus far is remarkable. It is not just about good GDP growth, but how growth has transformed and improved the lives of most Singaporeans and their families – workers getting better jobs, low income people breaking out of poverty, students getting better education. We all enjoy better housing, transport, healthcare, leisure facilities, and much more. Provided we continue to work in partnership – government and people, workers and businesses – I am confident we will progress year by year, and achieve inclusive growth to realise the hopes and aspirations of our people and our next generation.

15. I pledge to work together with all Singaporeans to create a just and fair society, which gives all citizens the best start in life, and leaves no one behind. A Singapore which is open to the world yet puts Singaporeans first. A Singapore which excites our young and respects our old. A society that nurtures and inspires the human spirit, beyond material success. Rich or poor, young or old, men or women, Singapore is our home. Here we all belong. Here we can work together for the common good, and share our pride in being Singaporeans.
16. Fellow Singaporeans, today marks a milestone in our journey to bond as one people and to build a better tomorrow. I call on all Singaporeans to come forth with your ideas and energies, to join our minds, our hearts and our hands to create a better Singa¬pore. We know not what challenges tomorrow may bring. But I am confident that united as one, we will overcome the odds and secure our future together.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Irate Motorist

“Nice. Wonder how much extra we will collect today,” wondered Alex with a smile on his face, as he sipped from his cup of coffee.
     It was 7.10 am on a Tuesday, and Alex – who monitors traffic in a huge room full of computer screens – had just seen a 16-wheeler come to grief, with a flat front tyre, on Lane 5 of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.
     “Maybe they’ll give us a better bonus,” quipped his colleague, Genie, as she typed in some words that would soon appear on the signboards on the East Coast Parkway : “Veh Breakdown... Ln 5”.
     Near Marine Parade meanwhile, Geoff and wife were on their way to work on a route they had taken for 6 years since their daughter started schooling.
     For four of those years, when their girl’s school started in the morning, they would leave home early, in good time to avoid traffic congestion charges on the ECP.
     Today, they were comfortably early. The school holidays had started and there were a lot fewer cars on the ECP towards town.
     Geoff’s high spirits crashed as the car approached the Tanjong Rhu flyover. In front of him was a jam that stretched over and beyond the flyover that rose like a hill before him.
   “Oh no, not again!” he said. “They must be smiling again.”
     It always upset Geoff to think that thousands of people wake up early in the morning and get going early to avoid congestion charges – only to be caught have to pay, through no fault of theirs.
     Sometimes, he would imagine an evil Alex and company, praying that there would be an accident somewhere, which would slow traffic and catch a few extra thousand people under their gantries.
     Sometimes, he’d get angry with the motorists involved in an accident.
     “Idiots. No one is injured and they’re just standing there arguing. They should just move their cars to the side and let us get on with it.
     “They should fine these people, for all the inconvenience they’re causing the rest of us.”
     But that thought is usually quickly cancelled: “And who would it benefit to fine them? Not the additional 1,000 motorists who'd each have to pay $1; but Alex and company.
     “And anyway sometimes its just bad luck – that truck driver didn’t ask anyone to spill nails on the road.”
     “You know”, he said to his wife, “gantries and computer sytems are stupid. They come on at the prescribed time, charge the programmed rates and switch themselves off when they are supposed to.
     “But those traffic monitors. They know what is happening. They can see it all happening. And yet they do nothing. Can’t they just get the system to come on 10 minutes later because of an unforeseen accident?”
     Beep. The car passed the gantry. The device in the car showed a balance that was $1 less than before (another irritation ­– too often in these traffic and parking systems, you’re not told how much is deducted; only how much value you have left – but that is another story).
     Geoff had taken about 12 minutes to  get to the gantry when, on an ordinary day, it would have taken two.
     He looked across to the car on his left. It was a Toyota Wish, driven by a long-haired, bespectacled woman and said: “I wonder whether she woke up early to avoid charges too; and how she feels about all this.”

Sunday, July 09, 2006

CashCards and Cash

Soon there will be a new stored-value card that will combine the features of the existing CashCard, used now mostly in cars, and the EZ-Link card, used now in buses and trains. The new card is expected to be introduced shortly and to be used widely by 2010.

Its advent is being sold by its creators, and reported in the media as a (wholly) positive development. The proclaimed benefits include being able to pay for public transport and burgers – and other retail items – with just one card, instead of two now. Development towards this cashless environment will include “upgrading” card readers and devices such as those in retail outlets, in MRT stations, in vehicles and in relevant toll-gantries.

Other touted benefits of the new convenience include a boost in consumer spending, with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) saying that it will raise e-payments from $25 billion to $50 billion by 2010. The IDA quoted a Visa study that suggested that a 10 per cent rise in e-payments could grow GDP by 0.5 per cent. What more, the new cards will use a locally developed e-payment standard which could be adopted internationally.

CashCards and e-payments in general are promoted in Singapore and there is rarely a critical look at them. So I will try to address the imbalance a little bit here by raising a few questions.

CashCards are part of a wider, more modern, system of concluding money transactions without cash. The wider system includes card readers, payment kiosks and the Internet as a means to transfer funds. The card’s place in the system is as an electronic wallet in which money-value is stored and then used for payments. It is different from the ATM card, with which you can access funds from your bank at the point and time of payment.

Electronic payments in general – whether with a CashCard, payment kiosk or through the Internet ­– are indeed convenient and beneficial. Cash has a cost to manufacture and maintain and, in Singapore, it is expected to top $1.1 billion by 2008. This cost is a main driver behind the country’s effort to reduce the use of cash. See this IDA page for a summary, and Pg 147 of this OECD paper for details, some of which I believe have not been reported in detail.

A discussion of the pros and cons of going totally cashless, with references to Singapore, can be found in this academic paper, which raises interesting points about privacy in a cashless society. The paper leans slightly towards e-money; however any electronic system that replaces cash will also have development, manufacturing and maintenance costs, even if it turns out to be cheaper than using cash.

The clear long-run benefit, I believe, is savings in human resources as businesses cut down on manpower involved in payment transactions. For example, with Electronic Road Pricing, it has become unnecessary to have staff to sell Restricted Zone coupons for entry into the city area, and officers stationed at RZ entry points to enforce the display of the coupons.

In general with e-payment ­– with the Internet, for instance – human cashiers have disappeared and with them, the costs of employing them. This is where the first question crops up: How much, if any, of the savings have been passed on to consumers? How will consumers benefit as we go more cashless?

The clearest case I can think of where savings have, indeed, been passed on is with Internet bookings. Airlines and hotels, for instance, often charge less for online bookings. But back to the CashCard. Are any savings being passed on to them?

I don’t remember ERP being adjusted to account for manpower savings when it was introduced; or parking charges being lowered at carparks where e-payment has replaced cashiers. If ERP is more expensive (less efficient) to run, why implement it?

A second question is who's paying for the e-wallets, and who'll pay in future. Unlike cash, for which the State picks up the manufacturing and maintenance bill, CashCards require deposits from their Users.

According to the report on the new card in The Straits Times, Singapore now has about 15 million cards. A $2 deposit for each card would mean $30 million held by those who issue them. It is not clear how this benefits the consumer. However it does look like the cosumer having to “buy” his cash – or at least the e-wallet – from private parties where he once got it “free”.

The third question is more about why the technology took a turn towards stored-value when it could have (I'm assuming there's no rocket science involved) been "value-on-demand" the way ATM cards are.

The fact that the CashCard is a stored-value wallet, in which funds must be withdrawn from the bank in advance of use, is a disadvantage to consumers. This is because they lose on interest the minute the funds are transferred to the card, just as when cash is withdrawn. Consumers would be better off with an ATM-like card, which draws on funds only as and when needed.

However, there is hope on this front because the BCCS intends (see the OECD paper) to pay interest on unused amounts in e-wallets. Let's wait and see.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Roots in Physical Space

Recently, while driving back from work, I was listening to a song by Neil Young, called Helpless. It can be found in numerous albums, including originally in one called Déjà Vu. This was produced back in the days of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in the 1970s.

You can hear it performed here. The first verse caught my attention:

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

I don’t know the background to the song but the verse made me think about how the physical structures and landscapes of the places where we grew up can give us a sense of rootedness and belonging to these places. As the song suggests, they can also offer a form of comfort.

I wondered whether Queenstown would be like that for me. That’s where I grew up. Block 44, Tanglin Halt Rd; Block 63, Commonwealth Drive. Tanglin Primary School, Commonwealth Secondary School, Tanglin Technical School. The Church of the Blessed Sacrament. “All my changes were there.”

I visited these places last weekend. The blocks were still there, but had been upgraded and looked very different. The open field behind Block 63 had been replaced with a communal structure. The church was still there but it, too, had sprouted additional structures around it.

All three school complexes were gone. One of them had made way for a road between Queensway and the Ayer Rajah Expressway. A residential construction project stood where my other two schools used to stand.

I remembered other old Queenstown landmarks: The roundabout fountain where, now, there’s a busy road intersection with an MRT line running over it; the empty piece of land, where circuses used to perform and where a community centre and mosque now stand.

I felt that Queenstown had changed too much for me to now feel very much for the place. The roots in physical structures and landscapes had been cut. During the short visit, I felt very little sense of belonging. I felt more that a part of me had been lost, forever.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Rules of Entrapment

A young doctor was jailed a few days ago (The Straits Times, June 8) for possession of drugs. The short story of how it happened is that undercover officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau had chatted him up on the Internet, and knowing his homosexual preferences, asked him if he had wanted some three-way “fun” and also if he had drugs.

According to a follow-up report (ST, June 9), the doctor said no a few times but the officers persisted and, after a while, the doctor gave in. He met them in a hotel, was found with the drugs, and was arrested.

While lawyers interviewed by the ST agreed there was a place for entrapment in law enforcement, they also opined that in this case, the CNB officers had “crossed the line”.

On June 10 an ST Forum writer, Mr Lionel De Souza, attempted to clarify matters and to defend the CNB. His argument? That there was a difference between the use of an agent provocateur and the use of entrapment or a sting operation, and that the latter was all right.

An agent provocateur, he said, was “one who suggests the commission of a crime to another in the hope that the individual would go along with the suggestion” while “entrapment usually takes place after due investigation of information, such as that an individual is engaged in nefarious activities like trafficking or abusing controlled drugs.”

In his letter, he continued: “After being satisfied with the authenticity of the information, and if the enforcement officers conclude that a sting operation is needed so as to catch the culprit red handed with incriminating evidence, it would then be perfectly legal and ethical to resort to entrapment.”

I have two issues with this argument.

Firstly, the suggestion that the CNB’s officers were not agent provocateurs can be challenged. Did they not repeatedly suggest “having some gay fun” when in fact gay sex is illegal in Singapore? Did the doctor offer to bring drugs, or did they ask – or even pester – him to?

Secondly, even if that challenge fails, Mr De Souza misses the point which causes concern, which is that in Singapore law, the method of entrapment does not matter.

According to the June 9 report: “Unlike countries such as the United States and Canada, where evidence gathered through "excessive'' entrapment can be thrown out of court, evidence obtained through any method of entrapment is lawful in Singapore.”

So the distinction Mr De Souza makes may be an an unwritten understanding in legal circles or one which the police use as an internal guideline; but it is not recognized or enshrined in law.

There are no official rules for entrapment and people are not protected legally from excesses. And that is the problem that’s cause for concern.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Inconsistent Surveys, Polls and Values?

A straw poll done by The New Paper finds that cost of living and jobs are the most important election issues. These items are cited by more than 60 per cent of 150 people as those about which they have strong feelings.

When the PAP’s Eric Low does a survey of 12,000 people in Hougang, interim and lift upgrading are among the top desirables, together with better transportation.

A Straits Times survey of just over 400 people, meanwhile, finds that cost of living, jobs and housing are the most important issues. A quote from one of the ST reports:

“Close to nine in 10 say the cost of basics, including health care, public transport, food and utilities, can influence their vote. More than seven in 10 cited jobs and unemployment issues, while slightly below seven in 10 pinpointed housing.”

Enter the Institute of Policy Studies, and its survey of about 1,000 people and finds apparently otherwise. Here is what ST’s front page report says:

“A recent survey of Singapore voters has found that, contrary to popular belief, bread-and-butter issues such as the cost of living and jobs were not what mattered most to them. Instead, the top concerns were the need for an efficient government and fairness of government policy.

“These surprising findings were contained in a survey conducted just after the May 6 polls by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

“ 'In the end, people don't really look to the Government for their pocket book issues to be settled at the ballot box. What they do want is a Government that is fair, that will treat all citizens equitably,' IPS senior research fellow Gillian Koh said.

“Eligible voters also said that they were influenced more by the need for alternative views and checks and balances in Parliament than by material concerns, whether it was cost of living or estate upgrading.”

And now, the PAP needs to change tack in the next election, says SM Goh Chok Tong, according to the front page report in The Sunday Times (June 4).

But wait, the stark difference between the IPS survey and the others should not be passed over without scrutiny as the PAP – or any other political party – kicks into action to revise and to re-strategise.

Why is it that one group of surveys and polls finds “bread-and-butter” issues of utmost importance while the another survey does not? Why are people saying one thing and then another?

My theory is that, in fact, the two groups of polls and surveys do not show inconsistent values in voters but different priorities assigned to these values at different times.

Each person can be said to have a prioritised list of values. The basic ones would include the bread-and-butter values, such as those in the newspapers’ poll and survey, but there would be others, too such as fair play, honesty, and so on.

The priority given to these values can change according to the situation the person finds himself in. For instance, he may strongly disagree with a political party’s position and be critical of it but when a foreign party enters the fray, his nationalistic values may come to fore as he ticks the foreign party off and, in the process, he may even defend the party he is critical of.

The newspapers’ and Eric Low’s polls and surveys were done prior to the GE. Bread-and-butter issues were, indeed, important to the people in these polls and surveys. Fair play, efficiency of government and so on, were also values but there was nothing, at the time, to cause a re-prioritisation, to put them higher on the list.

But then, the campaign started and I believe two issues made people re-prioritise their values. The first was estate upgrading, and the second, the treatment of James Gomez. In both these cases, there was as strong feeling that the PAP was not playing fair.

Hence when the IPS came along and asked them what was important to them, so close after GE 2006, they gave a higher priority to items like fairness of government. It did not mean that bread-and-butter issues were not important to them. They were just reporting what was important to them at the time.

An observation that can be made is that if the voters in Aljunied saw the treatment of James Gomez as a case of lack of fair play and hence gave his party a sizeable portion of their votes, the same cannot be said in Sembawang. There, the relatively poor showing by the SDP suggests that voters did not sense as much (if any) lack in fair play in the lawsuits taken out by the PAP against the SDP.

Will the re-prioritised values keep their places permanently? This is a tough one. There appears to be heightened consciousness of values beyond bread-and-butter ones. However, it would be a mistake to think that the basic values are not important any more and that they cannot move up in priority again given the right circumstances.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

And Now We Wait And See

At his swearing-in ceremony on May 30, PM Lee Hsien Loong gave an outline of what he saw as the challenges for Singapore and what his government would do to meet them. His speech, available on the Internet here, can be seen as a summary of promises to be delivered, post GE 2006.

It was overall a non-partisan speech of which deserves the support of the people in what it aims to do. But some of what he said caught my attention and started me thinking.

He noted that Singaporeans had endorsed the PAP’s vision for Singapore, which included: “To be an inclusive society, where Singa­poreans of all races and religions, young and old, at home and overseas play a part in shaping our nation’s future.’’

Later in the speech, he said: “We will help elderly citizens and lower income households, and address concerns over healthcare costs and the cost of living.”

Further in the speech, he said: “My Government will use our mandate to serve all Singapo­reans. In doing so, we are fulfilling our duty to Singapore, not exercising a right or a privilege. We govern Singa­pore in trust, on behalf of all Singa­poreans, as well as of future generations.

“We must maintain unity and trust between the leadership and the people, between those who support the Government and its policies and those who prefer something different.

“Many of those who voted for the opposition in fact want a PAP government, but I respect their choice. Moving ahead, my team and I will strive to deliver on our promises, and work to win the confidence and support of all Singaporeans.”

With GE 2006 still so fresh in my mind, I could not help wondering what all this meant and how to interpret it, and how it would be realised over the next five years.

The vision of inclusive society, for instance, specifically mentions Singaporeans abroad, but not the probably bigger group who did not vote PAP. This group gets mentioned later but, here, we see only the very basics of an inclusive society – people regardless of race, gender, religion and age – as it is now. It progresses little. Missing are those whose views differ from the PAP’s, for instance. How will they figure in this inclusive society?

We will have to wait and see.

Reading the lines that promise service to all Singaporeans and the elderly made me think of lifts on every floor for the elderly in Opposition constituencies. Here is a syllogistic deduction:

The PAP will serve all Singaporeans.
Singaporeans include the elderly.
The elderly include those who live in Opposition constituencies.
Therefore the PAP will serve the elderly who live in Opposition constituencies.

The PAP has already admitted that upgrading does not work any more as an election tool. One exit strategy would be to score some points by giving it to Hougang and Potong Pasir closer to GE 2011. The positive spin: “We do look after all Singaporeans, opposition Constituencies included.”

Meanwhile, the Worker’s Party chief and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang, will no doubt be reminding the PAP in Parliament about its own stance that the elderly in his Constituency need help. The prospects look good. But will they get the facilities they need?

We will have to wait and see.

A politician who wins in an election usually has something to say to those who did not vote for him. He never retaliates. Rather, he will say things such as that he will try to understand these voters better, find out why they are unhappy, that he will “engage” such voters.

What I’ve never heard a winning politician say is that he will listen to this group of people, and ensure that at least some of what they want will be delivered, even if they are in the minority, while delivering to the majority who voted for him.

PM Lee rises above partisan politics when he says the PAP will “maintain unity and trust between the leadership and the people, between those who support the Government and its policies and those who prefer something different”.

How is this unity and trust going to be forged? Will the opposition parties be invited to send contingents to march at the National Day Parade, as PAP contingents have marched before?

We will have to wait and see.

What does it mean, when one says “many of those who voted for the opposition in fact want a PAP government”? Does it mean that those who voted against one actually voted for one, and that one can ignore the vote against one? What to make of the probability that many of the people who voted PAP didn’t agree with its treatment of James Gomez, and didn’t agree with using upgrading as an election tool? This part of PM Lee’s response in not clear.

The second part of what he said, that the PAP government will “work to win the confidence and support of all Singaporeans” falls in line with the standard responses made by politicians. It does not mean that the PAP will listen and change its views. Rather it usually means trying to get those who disagree to change their views.

I may be wrong. I hope I am wrong and that, now, it will be different.

We will have to wait and see.