Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Does Opposition Scare Foreign Investment?

If you allow opposition into Parliament, you will send the wrong signal to investors and drive them away. The PAP sometimes takes this line and, in GE 2006, I saw it once in the newspapers and heard it again at a forum I attended recently at the National University of Singapore Society.

The gist of the argument seems to be: Opposition in Parliament will introduce political instability. Foreign investors don’t like political instability – it’s a risk – and will hence be scared off. So, opposition in Parliament is bad for Singapore.

Is this true?

The first step towards finding out is to understand political stability better, as there are several kinds. The second step: ask what kind of stability investors want. The third step: ask what impact opposition will make in Parliament, on the kind of stability that investors want. If opposition does indeed introduce instability of the kind investors shy from, then it is bad for Singapore. However, if it does not cause the kind of instability investors dislike, then it is not true that opposition will drive them away.

There are many definitions of political stability, and different people will include different ingredients. The basic ingredients include a lasting political order and an absence of agitation among the people, in the form of riots and other unrest such as strikes, civil war, or revolution.

Some may add additional ingredients, such as a legitimacy of government (acceptance of rule) and peaceful transition of power. Based of these as indicators, political stability can also be measured.

However, ingredients such as legitimacy are not necessary elements although, in most cases, they are very important. Political stability is also not the preserve of democratic countries. Monarchies, communist regimes and military juntas can be stable, too, with (benevolent) rulers enjoying a degree of legitimacy. You can also have a powerful and repressive government or a strongman leader, ensuring that there are no riots, strikes or other civil unrest. You’d then have little legitimacy but a lot of stability.

China is not a model of western democracy, but it appears stable, and attracts investors. Myanmar is not a democracy but it appears stable, too, and there are trade missions going there. India is a democracy but, for sure, politics in that country can get hot. It has many ingredients that spell “unstable”. Yet, it attracts investments.

Examples such as these suggest that the form of government in a country is, by itself, not the most critical factor for investors. They also certainly seem not to mind the presence of some ingredients of political instability in the countries where they put their money.

What is crucial to them, it would seem, are the economic and business conditions arising from political stability or instability, rather than political stability itself. Their concerns would include whether their physical investments (buildings, machinery), and staff whom they send, would be safe from physical harm. Whether taxation laws are favourable. Whether they can repatriate funds if they choose to.

Other factors would include whether there is adequate infrastructure, an appropriately skilled and competitively-priced workforce for the kind of investment they are considering. Whether there are suitable labour laws that are fair to them as employers. Whether the courts are competent and fair in settling business disputes. Yet other factors: Whether there is consistency, durability and some predictability in the business rules and economic policy for investors.

Basically investors would be looking for economic and business stability, and at political stability mostly in relation to how it affects economic and business policies. To answer the question with which we started: Investors look mostly for the kind of political stability that supports economic stability and, in particular, the investment conditions in that country. Political stability alone, without favourable investment conditions, is not enough.

So, what if one GRC worth of seats are won by the opposition in addition to the existing two? That would mean up to eight opposition MPs in Parliament .What impact would it have to political stability in Singapore, and to the attractiveness of the country for investors?

Political Impact
Eight opposition MPs, or the control under 10 percent of Parliament is not good enough to stop the PAP from having its way when it comes to legislation. The PAP would hold enough control so as to be the power in matters as crucial as, say, amending the Constitution.

How would things change if opposition had even more numbers? It would depend on the opposition’s political stances. As far as I know, no major party in Singapore has suggested changing the form of government (a PAP leader, meanwhile has in the past floated the idea of tinkering with “one man, one vote”).

There have also been no opposition suggestion – certainly none that I know of – that can lead to unrest of the kind that would upset political stability with civil war and such. Even if there were, the opposition would not have the numbers to make it a reality

In fact, rather than cause political instability, some have argued that with 33.4 percent of the national vote and just two MPs, comprising, under 10 percent of seats in Parliament, opposition is grossly underrepresented. The entry of more opposition would address this and reflect more truly the relative support for the opposition and the PAP.

Economic Impact
As with political stability, it is clear that the present number of opposition MPs, or even five times that number, would not have enough support in Parliament to either derail a PAP economic programme or initiate one of their own.

Again, supposing they had bigger numbers, what is it that they would want to do that would scare investors? They have not made, as an election platform or manifesto, any suggestion or shown any desire to tinker with Singapore’s overall stance to investors.

In an earlier entry, it has already been observed that the opposition does not have a clear economic plan, and appears not to have thought through many economic questions. They have been concerned in campaigns to retain their single-member seats in Parliament and, in GE 2006, had some energy and resources to make a reasonable push into GRCs.

They have yet to reach a stage at which they can offer alternative economic plans for Singapore. Perhaps knowing this, the opposition MPs already in Parliament before GE2006 have seldom, if ever, touched on economic matters. They have left it to the PAP and focused on domestic and municipal issues. With the expertise they now have, it is most likely that this will continue for some time, and the PAP’s economic programmes which relate to investors will prevail.

So, to summarise, it is not true that the entry of opposition – even in numbers greater than at present ­– is going to cause political instability. In fact, it may redress the issue of underrepresented opposition at the national level. Any “trouble” they cause is not going to affect the good economic climate for investors in Singapore.

At the end of the NUSS forum I attended – during Q &A ­– a member of the audience rose to make an impassioned plea to all present, not to leave the room with the idea that opposition scares away investment. With the typical time given to a person in a Q &A at such events, it is understandable that member did not elaborate on why.

Here, I hope I have given reasonable backing for that plea.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Catholics Not Christians? Duh!

Recently, my daughter came home from school and asked: “Are we really Christians? My friend said we are Catholics so we are not Christians”. Aaaargh! That one again. And she goes to a Catholic school.

Now I am not a religious person; but I was so angry. Catholics know they are Christians, so you can guess who the ignorant are, who are spreading their disease.

I gave her the facts: There are two varieties of Christians: Catholics, and Protestants – those who broke away from the original Church.

Another one hit me a few days later when the front page blurb of a local weekly for a column called “Think” (Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrrgh!) displayed the same ignorance, together with the “thinker”, in his introduction to his article.

Aren’t the facts of the matter out there and easy to determine? I asked myself. So I went to Google, and typed in “difference between christians and catholics” and hit the return button.
Anyone who wants a simple, straight answer is going to have a tough time because there are a variety of sites and many are more evangelistic than they are informative.

Here is one that can be a starting point if you want to dig a little deeper in to the question. It gives a list of differences between Catholic and Protestant churches. Here is one site that gives the Catholic view. Remember, these are starting points. Do explore other sites to get an even more rounded view.

But here’s a shortcut, a surefire way of determining for yourself whether Catholics believe in Jesus Christ and are therefore Christians. Go to a Catholic church this Sunday, and hear what they profess to be their faith. They do it at every Mass, which Protestsants call Service. Here is what they declare:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. AMEN.

Catholics declare this at each Sunday Mass. Hear it yourself. Yes, some may not move their lips, but many will be declaring it loud and clear . Judge for yourself, when you hear someone say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,” whether he is a Christian.

A listing of Catholic churches and Mass times can be found here.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Little Critical Help For The Opposition

During the GE 2006 period, many Internet sites questioned the objectivity of the mainstream mass media and criticised the PAP’s arguments.

Their independent reports on election rallies constituted ballast, to offset the perceived partialness of the mainstream media towards the PAP. But ballast is, by necessity, weighted to one side. I won’t say more here, beyond that if the mainstream mass media was pro-PAP, the Internet sites were anti-PAP.

In attacking the PAP’s arguments, these Internet sites provided points for the Opposition to pick up. But scrutiny and criticism of an argument are also a service because they help to enlighten the proponent on where his thinking may have gone wrong. They allow him to go back and re-think. He may, if he still believes in the case, rebuild it and come back with better arguments.

From this perspective, the Internet criticism of the PAP was a service to it: feedback for it to improve itself. There is little doubt, for instance, that criticism of its strategy with James Gomez (not just on the Net) contributed to it toning down its efforts on this front. Conversely the failure of the Internet sites to criticise Opposition arguments adequately was a disservice to it. A pity because these sites were obviously sympathetic to the Opposition.

So here I’d like to offer some criticism of the Opposition; a service which is ballast for the disservice done to it elsewhere, in the hope that if it wants to continue with its case in several areas, it will come back with better arguments.

There was clearly much which the Opposition could have argued better and I pick 3 areas in which I found it most wanting: Economics, GRCs and the Existence of Opposition.

At the one rally I attended, the speakers advocated a minimum wage and a “Singaporean first” employment policy, without giving details of the benefits. But what if we have a minimum wage, another country didn’t and could do certain types of work at a cost below our minimum wage? Where would our jobs go in this age of globalisation? These were among the questions not dealt with.

Yet another suggestion was that certain sectors of the economy should be nationalised. This, too, came with no support . I’d imagine that the case for the nationalisation of a sector must be made points about the efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of nationalised sectors. In addition, some evidence must also be given, to show the disadvantages (inefficiency, cost-ineffectiveness) should the sector be in private hands. A bare statement that prices have gone up since privatisation is insufficient, since they may have gone up anyway in nationalised mode.

Suggestions made without adequate support fail to score points (if that was the intention). They fail to convince but, in fact, open the proponent up to attack. My guess is that the Opposition candidates involved would not have been able to answer the questions about minimum wage or substantiate the claim that nationalised was better than private.

Another topic in which the Opposition failed to convince was the Cost of Living. The message was that it had gone up under the PAP. But not only was there no clear proposal on how to keep costs down, but also no clear idea what Cost of Living was and how it was related to Standard of Living. I’m no economist, but there must be a link between the two; and I believe (unless someone corrects me) that the two move up, or down, together.

In a simplistic example, Dr Tan wants to have a better car, so he charges $2 more per patient. He buys the better car and enjoys a higher standard of living. Mr Lim, the hawker, finds medical costs rising, and charges 50 cents more for his plate of noodles. Now he can afford better medical care. But Dr Tan now has to pay a bit more for lunch…

As citizens, both Mr Lim and Dr Tan demand better roads, better community facilities, parks and a clean, green environment. So the government goes out and hires better road designers, puts in more and better-run facilities as well as gets PhD horticulturists. These citizens now enjoy a better standard of living but alas, the experts hired (not necessarily local) to give them this would rather work elsewhere if you didn’t pay them what they could earn (or more) elsewhere. And so costs go up.

So what was the Opposition complaining about, and what was it offering? A Swiss Standard of Living with a Third-World Cost of Living? How is this going to be achieved? These were never explained.

Raising efficiency and productivity is one way to keep costs in check while affording a higher standard of living. If Dr Tan found a way to see more patients without compromising quality – perhaps if he had a computer database so that he could spend 1 minute rather than 10 retrieving records – he would be able to see more patients, and earn more, without raising charges. And get that car. But if those complaining about a high Cost of Living knew this, they did not show that they did.

My observation, given cases like these, was that the Opposition was weak when it came to matters where a good grasp of economics was required. It would do well to familiarise itself with the economics behind the ideas that it floats, and show that it understands them well. For, apart from the dire consequences of getting the economics of a proposed programme wrong (jobs, livelihoods) one reason is that should they come into power, they would have to deliver on election promises.

Many years ago, I was abroad where a national election was about to take place and I asked a business leader what the difference would be between the two main political parties, once one of them was in power. He said that whatever they said during the campaign, they would face the same issues once they took office. Issues such as creating jobs, international competition and the demand for higher standards of living together with lower costs. There was a narrow choice of viable options open to them to deal with these issues, given economic realities. In short, very little difference.

So if the Opposition wants to propose alternatives to the PAP’s economic programmes, it should study such alternatives carefully and offer only the ones that have a solid foundation and which they can explain clearly.

GRCs were introduced several years ago with the stated reason that they would allow for the representation of minority races (I disagree with the way both words are used commonly in Singapore, but they are handy here). The size of the GRCs then grew with subsequent GEs, and a couple of Opposition-friendly Constituencies were absorbed into GRCs. The Opposition complained that GRCs made it tough for it and the PAP said it was not its duty to make it easy for the Opposition.

In GE 2006, the complaints from the Opposition about GRCs continued. The Worker’s Party, in its manifesto, called for their abolition. The Opposition also held that it was not true any more that people were voting along racial lines.

It is quite clear that a big GRC – one comprising 7 or 6 candidates, surely, and the one comprising 5 or 4 candidates, maybe – does in fact place a hurdle in front of the Opposition, which has found it hard, especially in the past, to put up teams. Big GRCs which deny the Opposition a chance to field candidates will also, by this fact, disenfranchise citizens by denying conditions in which they have a choice.

But do smaller GRCs have a role in Singapore in ensuring minority representation? I believe this question was not considered carefully enough by those calling for their abolition. The question here is whether people are still voting along racial lines. It is a factual question, for which there is no answer in the form of hard published data. However, there is enough evidence that race does matter, to some extent.

While the individual citizen’s vote is secret, a Constituency is broken up into smaller blocks, in which contesting parties (Opposition included) can discern voting patterns. Hence, when the PAP says that people do vote along racial lines, it is likely that this has some empirical basis.

There is also other evidence. Take the fact that in all the SMCs, both the PAP and the Opposition fielded Chinese candidates. Both camps were unwilling to risk fielding an Malay, Indian or Eurasian candidate; they knew that that voting patterns did not favour a minority candidate.

Taken together, it is safe to assume that race still plays a part when Singaporeans choose their MPs. That being the case, would it not deny racial minorities representation if we had only SMCs and the seats were all occupied by MPs of one dominant race? How would that help avowed multiracialism?

Another argument against GRCs which some have made is that racial representation is not necessary: someone of one race can look after the interests of another race. Hence they conclude, GRCs are not necessary. But the point is not that one needs to be of a certain race to serve that race. It is that voters are voting according to racial lines. They want to see someone of their own race among the national leadership. They may feel that only such leadership can understand and look after their interests, and it is irrelevant that this is a mistaken view.

Race-weighted voting also means that if two men, of Race A and Race B, are both able to rise above race but B is the better candidate, B may yet not get elected if the constituency they are contesting in are dominated by Race A. Which is a pity because the better man would have lost.

The issue, then, is not whether we should have GRCs, but the number of such GRCs and their size. Sure, one can argue for other mechanisms to ensure multiracial representation, but the usefulness of GRCs as the mechanism we have now for this cannot be denied.

One main PAP line has been that opposition makes for ineffective government; that Singapore needs “strong” government to deal with issues of the day. This is Political Science 101 stuff of hung legislatures and parliaments deadlocked in debate, unable to move quickly and firmly to solve issues.

Another main line has been that the PAP can provide opposition within it ranks. There were also suggestions recently that the Whip could be lifted, for instance, if a PAP candidate was selected in an Opposition-held Constituency.

Meanwhile, recognising that there is a desire for some real Opposition, the PAP has also tried to create some artificially, through the NCMP scheme.

My main aim here is to look at Opposition positions. Hence I shall not deal with the PAP arguments save to say briefly why they are not demolition-proof. With 82 out of 84 seats, the “effective government” argument is weak. “Effective” government that is be quick and decisive because it dominates, can also be wrong. Meanwhile the line that the PAP can provide its own Opposition is weakend by the exercise of the Whip, and contradicted by the fact that the party has gone on and created the NCMP scheme.

Meanwhile what positions have the Opposition taken? It has asked for voter support to carry it to Parliament so that it can check the PAP government and provide a balance to its power. It has said it wants to give people a “voice” in Parliament. In the recent GE, the Worker’s Party – the biggest of the opposition parties – emphasised giving people a “choice”. This presumably, is an alternative to the PAP and its programmes.

But why do having “checks and balances”, a voice in Parliament and choices – which can be summarised as having a plurality of views in Parliament – matter? After all, the people, with their votes, don’t seem to want to check the PAP beyond giving the Opposition 2 SMCs; don’t seem to want to give the Opposition a bigger voice or to want more choices.

Without doubt, plurality is a vital ingredient in a democracy and if people don’t understand this enough, here’s where the Opposition has its work cut out for it: to explain in simple terms, why more plurality is needed. I started out with the aim of criticising the Opposition as a service; but now tip over to giving some positive help by pointing to where the foundations can be found for good arguments for the need for Opposition: here.

Why am I tipping over? Two reasons. First, have you ever watched a debate in which you knew the counter to an argument but which the debater seemed to have missed? Or watched a TV game show in which you happened to know some of the answers but in which the player didn’t? You almost wish you were there, but you aren’t. Well it’s a bit like that watching the Opposition putting its case across. I itch, so I scratch.

Second, I tend to sympathise with the underdog.


Some years ago, I happened to write a report on local blogging for a newspaper. I read several local blogs, met a few bloggers and, to verify my instructions to readers on how to start a blog, actually created one here at blogspot by the same name. It had just one entry, a one-liner to complete the process.

Then came the Iraq war and I was fascinated by Salam Pax the blogger who gave us a perspective from inside Baghdad as the bombs fell, quite apart from the perspectives of journalists on the ground.Although I was interested, other pursuits occupied me. But here I am now.

I am not sure where this will go, but the plan is to write on a variety of topics. I itch when I see a bad argument. This blog is my chance to scratch when I see one. My hobbies, and commentaries on topics that interest me also fit into what I want to do.

Let's see where it goes.

Post Note:
Last night when I was trying to log into my blog ( I had created a new one recently), I accidentally found my old blog - the one mentioned above. I had thought it was gone, after so long. So I've now copied the few entries here and will use this.