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A time for reckoning – an open letter to PM Lee

The following is an open letter from a TOC reader to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. PM Lee will be on a Channel NewsAsia programme tomorrow - Question Time With The Prime Minister - to take questions from Singaporeans. The programme is scheduled to air LIVE on the web on Tuesday, April 12, 8-9pm. (See here and here.)

Our reader too has some questions for the Prime Minister in the following open letter.

Dear Prime Minister,

At the end of each term, every child in school receives a report-card that sums up his or her performance during the term. It is essential for each child to get good grades so he or she can move on to the next class.

Similarly, we hope the PAP government will be willing to look at a report card on its performance over the past five years. The report is not exhaustive but merely a sampling of some of the issues that concern your subjects, oops, the plebeians, I mean the people.

The editors of The Online Citizen (TOC) have assured me that in the interests of transparency and openness, your reply will be published in full, unedited and unabridged and certainly unchanged for “sense”. I am sure you will find this a refreshing change from the heavy-handed treatment that letter-writers to some of TOC's larger contemporaries in town (mainstream media) get.

For your convenience, the report has been grouped into sections. Most of the points have been framed as questions for your kind consideration:

ACCOUNTABILITY

1. Financial crisis: What were the exact losses suffered by Temasek Holdings (Temasek) and the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) between 2008 and 2009 owing to the global financial crisis? How much of the losses were recovered in 2010? Global best practices as seen in countries such as Norway require that these be disclosed.

2. Shin Corporation, ABC Learning etc: How much has Singapore lost on its investments in these and similar companies over the past five years? Has anyone been held accountable for the losses? (We are specifically interested in the second question).

We understand it is in the nature of markets for investments to go up as well as down. However, this does not mean there are no bad investments and that they should not be scrutinised and held up to public view. We hope you agree.

3. Myanmar: How much of Singapore's public money is invested in Myanmar? Did Singapore sell arms to the military junta and is it continuing to do military deals with the government in that country? Why does Singapore continue to have relations with this repressive regime at all? (Perhaps your Foreign Minister, Mr Yeo, would like to comment on this; he has been remarkably quiet on this subject).

4. Failed SGX-ASX merger: We understand the Australian government has rejected the proposed merger of the Singapore and Australian Stock Exchanges owing to its strongly negative perception of the government's holdings in the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) through Temasek. Would you care to comment on why Temasek's interests in SGX should be viewed negatively? Could it be because of excessive government control of business and industry in Singapore? Would you say it has something to do with the opaque manner in which the government operates its businesses and its tendency to monopolise certain sectors of the economy?

5. Mas Selamat's escape: We are very sympathetic to your government's plight over this unfortunate episode. We understand that our highly paid Deputy Prime Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for National Security could not have foreseen the security lapse so, of course, it was not his fault. Nevertheless, the people are concerned because we are told our Ministers expect to be paid in line with top earners in the private sector.

Of course, we understand that service in your government is different from working in the private sector and that it is not necessary for senior people to take responsibility for major lapses. (The security breach could, in theory, have been very damaging to Singapore if Mas Selamat had not been recaptured by our neighbours). We also understand the culture in other countries where ministers resign to take responsibility for lapses in their ministries is alien to us; Singapore, after all, is a special country with special circumstances. In this country it is acceptable for junior officers to be disciplined and removed but not senior grandees, sorry, ministers.

6 Youth Olympic Games (YOG):

We are told the cost of this event was one-tenth that of the Summer Olympics. The Beijing Summer Olympics attracted a total of 4.7 billion viewers[i]. Could   the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) tell us how many viewers the YOG attracted worldwide? We understand the MCYS Minister, rather than being held accountable for his performance, has been promoted to head your government's re-election bid in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

We fully understand he, like the gentleman mentioned in the previous point, was not responsible for the budget over-run or the food-poisoning incident. He did an exemplary job in generating marketing exposure for Singapore and attracting additional tourist revenue. Only, we have not been told how much of this exposure was generated internationally and whether it was really beneficial (as opposed to mere internet “noise”) or sustainable for the long term? Would you care to enlighten us?

7 Road traffic: When the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) and Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) schemes were introduced 20 years ago, we were told the purpose was to keep traffic in Singapore “free-flowing”. Your government has earned billions from these two schemes yet we have traffic snarls on our roads that are approaching the infamous levels seen in the capitals of some of our neighbouring countries. Of course, it could not have been foreseen by your Ministry of Transport or highly paid Transport Minister that releasing COEs liberally to pander to the demands of the motor industry would lead to this situation. The poor minister who is responsible for these conditions, we understand, needs the support of another “heavyweight” minister from your cabinet in his bid for re-election in a GRC.

In short, our point is that many ordinary Singaporeans are held accountable in their everyday jobs and they are penalised for serious mistakes. The people would like to know whether your government and specifically, your talented cabinet, has a similar culture of accountability and acceptance of responsibility?

KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS (KPI)

1. Median wages: The median income for all households in Singapore rose by barely 1.6% per year in real terms over the past decade[ii]. Income for the bottom third of households increased by much less. During this time, Singapore's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 86% from $162.6 b to $303.7 b[iii]. Your Ministers have, of course, rewarded themselves handsomely based on the growth of the economy. Would you care to explain why wages have not kept pace with the growth of the economy? Would you agree that your single KPI, GDP growth, is hopelessly misaligned with the interests of Singaporeans as a whole? Shouldn't the main KPI for senior civil servants and ministers be median wages rather than the GDP?

2. Other indicators: Shouldn't non-material indicators such as work-life balance of Singaporeans, working hours and leisure time, flexible working hours for young parents, our carbon footprint, population density and so on also be included in the KPI of senior officers in your government?

SOCIAL SERVICES

1. We have already touched upon the stagnant wages of the bottom third of society. There have been many stories in the media concerning the elderly and the homeless in Singapore. Why is it that despite Singapore's phenomenal economic growth, we continue to have an underclass of desperately  poor people? Could it be because your government's mindless pursuit of economic growth has been divorced from all concerns of whether or not the growth benefits all segments of society?

2. The number of hospital beds in Singapore has been stagnant over the past decade. In fairness to you, several new hospitals are coming on-stream over the next few years. Nevertheless, we hear that large sections of the people are not covered under the Medishield programme for various categories of serious illnesses, such as cancer, as has been highlighted on this blog recently. Why is it that Singapore, with a per capita GDP approaching $60,000[iv] cannot provide a basic safety-net for the poorest or the stricken in our society, in keeping with those in other countries at a similar level of development? Would you agree with the charge that your government's liberal foreign worker policy has disadvantaged and impoverished our people?

3. Would you agree that a country can have a high GDP per head while maintaining a low population density and a high quality of life (eg Luxembourg)? Do you not agree that the business model pursued by your government has resulted in a congested and environmentally degraded city? Has this overcrowding not resulted in public housing (HDB) prices rising by over 60% in the past three years?

PERSONAL LIBERTIES

After almost half a century since independence and the end of the Malayan Insurgency and Konfrontasi, and 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, why are Singapore citizens still not allowed to freely:

  • Assemble
  • Speak in public
  • Demonstrate peacefully
  • Publish newspapers or
  • Broadcast on television and the Internet?

Why do we need a law that allows detention without trial? Surely your government can produce a proper anti-terrorism law that allows those charged the benefit of a fair trial? Why are we still stuck in the past with retrograde, repressive laws?

We hope it is not too much to expect an answer from you to these questions? With a salary approaching $4 million a year for yourself, three full ministers assisting you and a budget for the Prime Minister's Office of close to $348 million per year we pray these questions will not burden you too much.

The people look forward to your reply to this brief report card so they can decide whether or not to give you and your government a clean bill of health in the coming General Election.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Yours sincerely,

A Concerned Singaporean

PS: We know you will be overwhelmed with questions at the Q&A session on Channel NewsAsia “live” on Tuesday and that the editors will have a hard time picking the questions for you to answer. I am sure there is no truth to the rumour that they will pick the ones that show your government in the best light. In any case, we hope the written questions above will give you time to ponder over them at your leisure and reply at your convenience. Singaporeans await your reply with bated breath.


[i]http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/media_entertainment/beijing-olympics-draw-largest-ever-global-tv-audience/

[ii]http://www.singstat.gov.sg/news/news/press15022011.pdf

[iii]http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/economy/hist/gdp2.html

[iv]http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/economy/hist/gdp.html