The Online Citizen catches up with regular contributor Leong Sze Hian to uncover the man behind the statistician. By Joshua Chiang
Leong Sze Hian is a walking contradiction.
Ask him what he does for a living, and he’ll reply ‘not very much’. But in the same breath, he’ll tell you why he’s probably busier than he had ever been– writing a column for The Online Citizen on Mondays, hosting a radio show on Tuesdays (Money on Tuesdays), being a weekly contributor to the online newspaper Malaysiakini (he writes about the lives of Malaysians in Singapore), being a member of human rights group MARUAH, doing financial counseling for needy people and bankrupts, and traveling overseas at least once a month giving speeches.
Ask him about his academic qualifications, and he’ll confess to failing his exams in primary and secondary school first, before giving you a mind-boggling run-down of Bachelor and Master degrees that would make any father proud.
But for someone who has been living and breathing statistics since he was a teenager, his tendency towards self-contradiction – deliberate or otherwise – should come as no surprise. After all, it is all too familiar for him to find that statistics often contradict the claims made by government ministries.
“The statistics tell a different story,” he often writes in his columns.
Likewise for Leong. He claims that he is ‘just an ordinary Singaporean’. But his life, and his thoughts tell a different story.
You’re turning 57 this November. With all the things you’re doing with your life now, that makes you a poster boy for active aging.
Why do you call me a poster boy? I’m sure there are many people who try to make their lives less worrying.
But I don’t know of anybody who actually does as many things as you do at your age. Do you hope to be so active for the rest of your life?
I hope so. To me it’s not actually work. The truth of the matter is, I don’t do much. I don’t keep a diary. So everything’s in my head. That probably gives you an idea of how little work I do.
So you consider yourself retired.
I’m probably busier now than ever. Everyday I receive a few hundred emails, SMSes, calls, faxes, documents, etc.
About 14 years ago I decided that waking up everyday and spending most of my time trying to earn a living wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I decided to stop working for money and try to live a life that is fun, interesting and hopefully more meaningful.
So in a way, when I wake up everyday, I ask myself this question. What shall I do today that’s meaningful, fun and interesting?
Sounds like you’re paying for your fun and exciting life with very good financial planning early on.
Well if you’ve been listening to me on radio over the last two years, if you don’t have very big desire to make a lot of money it’s quite easy to survive in Singapore.
Let me give you some numbers – let’s say if I need to spend a thousand dollars a month, and I need to increase that by two per cent a year for inflation, until I’m 88 years old. By 88 more than 80 per cent of men would have died already. And the capital I need is only about $200,000. If you add up my CPF and non-CPF assets, even excluding the house, I think quite a lot of people would have $200,000. And if you ask me, a thousand dollars is more than enough. I take public transport. I eat Indian vegetarian food mostly.
If you look at statistics you always wonder – why do so many Singaporeans have no money when they retire? If you drive a car, you spend an extra $1000 a month, from 25 – 65, if you compound that $1000 at 6 per cent, it’s almost $2 miliion. So when you drive a car, you have $2 million less when you retire. Or put it another way, if you don’t drive a car, you can live a life that’s much less stressful.
On the topic of statistics, when did you first get started on this fascination with statistics?
It all started when I was in pre-university in Raffles Institution. Back then, we had the option of either doing comprehension or statistics for our General Paper. In 1971 I was the only candidate in the whole of Singapore who took the statistics option in the exam. My GP teacher said, ‘Why do you want to do it? Nobody in the school and the whole of Singapore is going to prepare you for it.” I replied, “Well I just like to be different.”
I failed my preliminary exams for statistics. And you know when you fail your prelims, you have a problem when you apply for university. So I appealed to my senior maths master whom I am eternally grateful for – Mr Henry Mok. He gave me 51 marks to allow me to pass. Since that time I started to have a liking for statistics.
It’s quite fun analyzing statistics because it’s like reading an investigative novel. When you read statistics, often you discover that what they are showing you is like a striptease. They are not showing you the parts you really want to see. And it’s kind of a thrill if you are able to find it.
But statistics are quite dry and boring to the average person. Are there things that you see around you that corresponds to the statistics?
When you read the statistics you have no idea what really happens unless you talk to the people who are out there trying to figure out how to survive.
My primary school classmate just got retrenched in August. He’s still trying to find a job today, and he’s only asking for $1100. So he applied for the Job Assistance Scheme. The problem with the Job Assistance Scheme is this – the requirement to continue to receive financial assistance is that you must go for every interview that they arrange for you . So my friend went for every interview – he didn’t have a choice. Most of the employers told him, “Sorry you are too old”. So my friend asked them, “If you don’t want to employ someone who is 56 why ask me to come for interview?” Finally one employer told him the truth.
See when employers sign up for the scheme they can’t tell the agency that’s running it that they discriminate against older worker. So it’s wasting the time of the people who are looking for a job, wasting the time of the HR people who have to do the interviews, it’s wasting everybody’s time! But the system continues. So you have to, I think, really go to the ground and then you find out the scheme doesn’t make sense right?
But the Government says people are choosy about their jobs.
There’re always two sides to the story. But the good thing about statistics is we can kind of nail the balance and tilt it. Look, the latest statistics show that the highest unemployment rate is for cleaners labourers and general workers. Isn’t this the category that most people say they don’t want to work in? Then how can this have the highest unemployment rate of all the categories? What this statistics clearly show is that there are a lot of people who want to work as cleaners, labourers and general workers and yet they cannot get the job because you have a foreign worker who is willing to work for $600.
Statistics aside, I think the easiest way to look at the problem is to look at is how your life has been say over the last two years.
I give you an example. Five years ago, you go to a club, all the people who serve you drinks were Singaporeans. And they were getting a pay of around maybe $1500. And then shortly thereafter you find that the people who are serving you drinks are no longer Singaporeans. They are PRs (permanent residents) from a neighbouring country and they are getting about $1300. And then the next thing you know they have changed. Now they are from ASEAN countries, and they are getting about $1200. And then you find that the next thing they are from Asian countries and they are getting $800. Now the people serving me are interns from a foreign university who are working for $550. So you don’t need statistics. You just need to go around and see what the changes have been.
You’re very passionate about all these statistics the Government puts out. Why?
It started about 10 years ago when I wrote my first letter to the Forum page and it got published. And then I thought this is quite fun and so I began writing one letter a week. So I’ve been writing one letter a week for at least 10 years already. There was one year I was quoted in the media for more than 200 times. My Forum page publishing rate used to be about 80 per cent. But since writing for The Online Citizen my publishing rate in the forum pages has dropped to less than 10 per cent. Nothing to do with the newspaper. I think the problem is that I don’t practice self censorship anymore. Because after sometime, you know how to write so that it will get published. Do a bit of self-censorship, don’t hit too hard, give a lot of face followed by some mild subtle criticism, then very easy to be published. So I guess maybe I’ve come to the stage where I try not to censor myself in the hope of getting published. To me getting the letters published is not important It’s about saying what I want to say.
Let me put it to you in another way. Why do you keep probing?
There’s no answer you know. You wake up in the morning, you ask yourself what do I do today that’s fun, interesting and meaningful? And when you’re bored, analyzing statistics for an hour or two and writing a letter, to me it’s fun. Some people write songs, some people write poetry, some people paint. My hobby is analyzing statistics and writing something funny about it.
So you enjoy being a nuisance to the government.
Don’t la. Whenever my friends see me, they say ‘NMP come already.’ Not ‘Nominated Member of Parliament’. Nuisance Member of The Public. My most popular name among my friends.
To me it’s just a hobby, just like a songwriter or painter, I do what I like to do and the thing about analyzing statistics is I’m using the statistics that is there. I’m not trying to be subjective. I mean if you give me statistics or I take statistics from you and then I analyze it, you can’t fault me.
Because of your involvement in being a financial consultant, do you see an increase in the number of people who need help especially when it comes to not being able to pay HDB arrears?
Before you talk about HDB, which is my favourite subject, let’s look at the credit card statistics. There are 1.2 million credit card holders in Singapore who hold 6.2 million credit cards. Of this 1.2 million who own credit cards, the number which have not paid their credit card bill in full for more than 3 consecutive months is 300,000. Can you imagine? If I count those who didn’t pay one month or two months, or some month pay some month don’t pay, it must be much, much more, maybe 400,000 to 500,000.
So what does this mean?
It means a lot of people are very cash-strapped. And about 60,000 didn’t even pay the minimum they are required to pay. That means we are in effectively what we call a delinquent situation.
Seeing all these rather somewhat depressing figures does it change your opinion on what’s happening on the ground?
I’m not depressed by all these. If I’m depressed I won’t be doing it everyday. To me it’s quite fun. But it’s depressing when you see that the statistics are so bad and yet nobody is aware of it. Talk about HDB statistics. Nobody knows how many people can’t pay for their HDB loans anymore. Why? Because the HDB annual report used to publish a statistic called Financial Assistance To Flat Dwellers – people who can’t pay for their HDB flat. This statistic has disappeared since the 2005 or 2006 report. And right now each time you see HDB in arrears statistics coming out, they are only referring to HDB loans. Your HDB loans are declining, your HDB bank loans are going up. So if you don’t tell me how many HDB bank loans are in arrears, how do you know how many people are not paying? I’m just telling you half the story. Only HDB loans people don’t pay. What about people who borrow from banks? We don’t have the statistics.
In parliament in 2007 if they were able to disclose the HDB bank loans statistics, how is it now the HDB say we don’t have the statistics? So you used to have it, now you don’t have it. Are they sleeping on the job?
If things are not turning out so well, but you don’t see so many of it still right?
Statistics are very funny.
Let me give you some examples. According to HDB statistics, the number of people who are in arrears for three months actually dropped last year. Last year was Singapore’s worst recession. How is it possible that the number of people who owe money dropped? Because when people cannot pay, they will be told, you better sell your flat in the open market. If you don’t sell in the open market we will acquire and we will only pay you 90 per cent of the valuation price. If you sell in the open market you will get a higher amount, plus cash over valuation. So nobody will wait for a compulsory acquisition. That’s why when the statistics say, oh we have only acquired 1000 over flats the last two years, it’s meaningless. What we need to know is how many people cannot pay and how many people have given up the flat because they cannot pay.
Perhaps the Government is not aware of all the things you pointed out. Is it worrying?
You take the words right out of my mouth. If the people who formulate the policies or review policies are not aware then we have a huge problem. If the statistics are narrated in such a way that the big issues are not highlighted and then the people who are in the position of authority to make decision don’t know about it then we have a big problem.
My stand has always been, I’m just doing a part-time hobby analyzing statistics. I know nothing about policies. But without the statistics the people who are making policies may not be making policies or reviewing them in the right matter.
They’re not aware, or they want the policies a certain way?
It’s got to do with transparency and accountability. Let’s say I have to make policy so I get statistics given to me. If the statistics given to me is such a way I can’t really tell what is the real problem, how do I solve the problem?
Let me give you an example. In the Sunday Times today, the Heath Minister said this thing about the IVF (in-vitro fertilization)issue, that we are approach it the right way because it’s a systemic problem, you must solve the systemic problem Let me give you an example of systemic problem in my view:
If the number of hospital beds in total in Singapore has not increased in the last ten years while the population has increased by more than a miliion and the number of medical tourists have gone up to 850,000, this is the systemic problem! But to the best of my knowledge it has never been reported in the media despite the fact that this has been revealed in the Department of Statistics’s Yearbook of Statistics 2010 that was published in July this year. You can see. Number of hospital beds in Singapore for the past ten years- zero increase! If this is not a systemic problem, what is?
You’ve basically helped MARUAH and given consultation to the opposition parties.
I have been invited by practically all the opposition parties to speak at various events they have on the economy and all that. Just to balance the scales, I used to serve on many of MCYS’s (Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports) so-called feedback groups in the past. I’ve served on the feedback group on elderly issues, small business development, politics and international relations, so it is not that I’m only doing it now for the opposition I’ve been doing it for a long time even before I started writing to the Forum pages.
So why have you switched sides?
It’s not that I’ve switched sides. They’ve stopped having this mini feedback group system.
But during your time with MCYS did you feel your feedback was actually taken into consideration?
Oh yes. And maybe that’s the reason why they don’t have the feedback group anymore. Because every time the feedback group report is published in the media there’s a huge ruckus over all the issues that were raised. The feedback groups were very useful because you can ask for the statistics. You can actually get someone from the ministry to come and explain the policy and answer the questions.
See the problem with groups like The Online Citizen and what many similar groups are doing or even the Forum page writers is that it’s one-way. You write, there’s no response. And even if there’s a response it’s just a few words in the newspapers.
The feedback group is different. The ministry will send someone, usually from the director level, armed with all the statistics, powerpoint presentations, handouts, it’s even better than your parliamentary debate. It’s not limited by time restrictions.
So in your perspective is the Government more or less transparent than it was before?
I would say they are more transparent now. You find more and more things coming out. They are engaging the online people more often but having said that although there are more statistics coming out, in a sense it’s also very much harder because there are too many statistics. Let me give you an example:
The only way to compare statistics is if you are measuring the same thing with the same definition periodically over a time period. For example, I want to measure the number of people who cannot pay the HDB loans. So if every year on the first of January, let’s say this statistics come out, then its fine. After a few years I can figure out exactly what’s happening. But here’s the trick – what if the definition changes. Like now they don’t tell you the HDB bank loan statistics. Then the definition of statistics is different.
The press does a very good job of repeating ad-verbatim the statistics given by the Government, and what they mean. In your opinion do you think they should actually go further than that to analyze and interpret it?
I have to confess that the president of SPH (Singapore Press Holdings) and the editor of the Straits Times are both my classmates. And the radio show I’m on every week, those were SPH radio show. So, you may have to take the things I say from now onwards with a pinch of salt.
I think they are doing a better job. You must understand the context of media. The minister makes his announcement at five o’clock. You have to file your story by ten. You don’t have time to do any detailed or substantial analysis. But when you read the Insight section of the Straits Times, they actually do publish a one or two page analysis one to two months after the report. It is usually very well done. Of course the criticism is that by the time they do it, it will be all over the Internet. So it’s like old analysis of the old news.
I agree with what you say about the Internet. Whenever some like Mah Bow Tan makes a claim that is backed by statistics in the mainstream papers, very soon you have say, Hazel Poa from the Reform Party refuting him. But that’s online. But we don’t really see the mainstream media actively acting as a platform for these debates.
There are always two sides to the story. The problem today I would say, if I may use an analogy, is like two boxers in a boxing ring but they are not punching each other. They are punching opposite each other. They are not fighting. In your example, the National Development Minister gave his side of the story. And then you have Hazel Poa or The Online Citizen giving their side of the story. But as long as they don’t engage each other, you can’t figure out. Because nobody is answering the questions that are being asked.
I guess that’s where the media plays a very important role because the media can ask questions, and normally they get answers.
Is this the role that the mainstream media should have done and perhaps is not doing?
No matter how hard they try, the mainstream media will always be seen as not being objective and not independent. To be fair you just read the mainstream media today compared with five years, ten years, 15 years ago. You can see they have improved by leaps and bounds. The important thing is they are improving. But it may take some time before they get to where The Online Citizen is when it comes to really hard analysis and the so-called lack of fear of criticizing the establishment. I think there’s still a lot of self-censorship going around. I mean, if I work for the media, I have a comfortable job, I have my pay, and then of course things like Operation Spectrum is not going to happen again. But in the back of my mind I always have this fear that even though all these bad things happened in the past, and that they cannot happen again, the fear and the stigma may still be there. That’s why I may still practice some form of self-censorship. Why should I not self-censor and take the risk that I might lose my job. Why do I want to do that?
Moving on to a completely different topic. I’m sure the opposition, and many members of the public have asked you to run for elections.
I have stated categorically on a few occasions, and once to the New Paper something along the line that ‘If I enter politics it will be over my dead body.” Two reasons:-
First is that I think the system of having NMPs or NCMPs is an affront to the development of democracy in Singapore. So you either have true elections or not. Look at Burma. One quarter of the MPs were appointed by the government. So in Singapore when you have nine who are NMPs and nine who are NCMPs, what’s the difference with Burma? It’s just that it’s not 25%, it’s 20%. I won’t say it’s as bad, but it’s equally bad.
The second reason is probably the more significant one. For me entering politics won’t make my life as fun, as interesting, as meaningful as it is today. Because when you go back to the political history of Singapore, there was a time when Singaporeans were told that if you want to talk about politics you must go join a political party. Because of that almost everybody stopped the discourse on political issues.
Every citizen should be concerned because everything is politics. Jobs is politics, healthcare is politics, CPF is politics. So if I enter politics then in a way it’s like saying all these ordinary citizens who are commenting on social issues should join politics. Then there’ll be no ordinary citizens left to comment on social issues!
I’d rather see 10, 100, 1000 Leong Sze Hians writing as ordinary citizens than one Leong Sze Hian in Parliament.
If you take away Leong Sze Hian the statistician, who is Leong Sze Hian?
I’m just an ordinary citizen who takes the bus, take MRT, absolutely useless when it comes to anything mechanical.
If you see my report card in school last time, you will see that I only got 51 marks for Maths. So what some people are good at, other people are no so good, or better.
So to answer your question, I’m just an ordinary person who maybe does ordinary things in a not-so-ordinary way.
But does everybody agree with the things you do, even your friends in higher places?
So far everybody has been very encouraging especially my friends in government. As one person put it it’s refreshing to breath different air sometimes. When you travel read the Indian newspapers. The Indian journalists, the way they criticize the government, it makes you stay awake when you’re on the plane. I think this is what a lot of people hunger for.
What does your wife feel about all your activities?
She normally doesn’t say anything. Which I assume is good.
You don’t talk statistics with her all the time?
Normally not. Because statistics and government policies are very boring stuff. The real meaning is to the people who are disadvantaged because of policies. The problem in Singapore is that too many people are focused on helping people. We don’t focus on the policies that may be causing the problems for these people in the first place. If you don’t solve the problem, hit the nail and heart of the problem, then the number of people who have problems will keep multiplying. Then there’s no end. More people will have to spend more time on the issues that may be causing this problem.
How was your childhood like?
My father used to be very rich. There was a time when I had a driver send me to school in a Mercedes. I had unlimited pocket money. And I brought all my classmates out for lunch. Subsequently my father became bankrupt. I didn’t even have pocket money to go to school. I learn to live off my friends, so to speak. I’ve done things like organize food exchange scheme. You know the girls always cook right? So I said, “You all bring your food, then you all exchange.” So I become a broker, I took a cut. That’s how I survived. Or else I got no food to eat, no money to take bus. When I was a civil servant working at the airport I brought French loaves – the one you eat with kambing (mutton) soup for lunch. You can survive very long on one loaf.
Which is a funny thing, because aren’t you proving the point that with a lot of personal responsibility, you will be able to get by?
I’m talking about maybe 40 years ago. 40 years ago, when HDB prices were very low and affordable, still you have people going bankrupt. Government can help to reduce the incidents of poverty. There’ll always be poor people. The issue to me is whether the lives can be made better. Or put it another way.- don’t have policies that make the lives of people who are already suffering much worse. Don’t say the problem does not exist. Because when you say the problem does not exist, you are doing nothing to help.
Is it harder to be poor now than it was before?
Of course it’s harder to be. There was a great deal of family support 40 years ago. You didn’t have people homeless because somebody will take you in. It was very shameful in my time to have a relative out in the streets. My uncle was homeless and my mother had to take him in. But nobody would reject him. It’s only in today’s society where you find that people have to sue their children under the Parents Maintenance Tribunal. Life has changed. Today everybody wants to make a lot of money even though it’s not done the right way as long as you can make a lot of money. The values today have changed. Today we say everybody must do well in school. You cannot fail today. It’s good to fail. Because when you fail, then you experience the joy of improving. When you never fail, you never know what life is.
The problem with society today is pride and anger. If we can eliminate these two words, most of the time our lives will be more peaceful.
You think we are an angry society now?
We are angry. Why is it that my children fail? The answer is, God has made children in different ways. If your children cannot pass Chinese (exams) like me, it’s because they are better off analyzing statistics. Everyone is different. Today we cannot accept that. All children must be good at everything. But if you look at the statistics, the more educated you are, the harder it is to find a job, and the easier it is to lose your job when you are old. You still want to be smart in school? You must be dumb! Statistically it shows you it is dumb today to be smart in school.
Leong Sze Hian also has his own blog.
To purchase Sze Hian's book - Issues That Matter: Uniquely Singapore - click here.