By Inderjit Singh, MP of Ang Mo Kio GRC in response to the President Address (26 May 2014)
Parliament is debating the President’s address this week. I wanted to share my thoughts on what the government has achieved in the past 3 three years and what more it can do in the remainder of this 12th term of parliament. Since I am currently traveling and not in Singapore, I decided to share my thoughts through this post instead.
Post GE2011, the government got a very clear signal from Singaporeans about the issues that affected them most and the government spent considerable time fixing these problems, which were created as a result of a decade long series of policy misjudgment linked to its “growth at all cost” economic strategy. We must all agree, that the government has done well in many areas, particularly the manner in which it sorted out issues in the housing, healthcare and even transport to some extent.
The icing on the cake has been the Pioneer Generation Package, which is unprecedented in Singapore on many counts and shows that the government is taking an effort to move beyond dollars and cents, to inculcate care and compassion in policy making. But, really though, beyond the Pioneer Package, if someone were to ask me honestly whether the lives of all Singaporeans have become better in these last few years, I would not be able to do that.
The disconnect between the country’s wealth and Singaporeans’ well being
Yes, I would agree that Singapore as a country and as an economy has improved. Yes Singapore has become richer, but not all Singaporeans have seen an improvement in their daily lives. I mean it is really a noteworthy achievement that while most of the developed world remains mired in an economic crisis that can be traced back to more than 5 years ago, Singapore has emerged relatively unscathed, grown from strength to strength and even restructured and repositioned its economy in the meanwhile. But did every Singaporean benefit from this? I would say there is still a significant section of our society who didn’t. Did every Singaporean’s life become better? Sadly, not every Singaporean’s did.
In fact, things have become tougher for some middle and low income Singaporeans. While wages may have risen, the cost of living outpaced the rise in wages and therefore life has become tougher for some unless they adjust their lifestyles downwards to live comfortably in their own country. If this is the message for Singaporeans as has been suggested by some, I think it is a sad thing because for many years since independence Singaporeans had expected and also achieved better and better standards of living and aimed higher and higher had their aspirations met or exceeded. The growing income disparity coupled with stagnant wages at the bottom and a sudden increase in population has put undue pressure on lower income Singaporeans. Of course the rich are very happy – high end restaurants and places of entertainment are always busy and full. We must ask ourselves, are all the amenities and entertainment places we built in the last 10 years being enjoyed by mainly Singaporeans or by new arrivals and foreigners? I really wonder whether this is what we want as a nation.
We progressed from 3rd world to 1st world in just 1 generation – a great success. So where is the disconnect between the country’s wealth, which has grown tremendously, and Singaporeans’ wealth. While indicators may seem to indicate most Singaporeans are richer, I believe they may be so because of things such as assets enhancement, which may not mean everyone’s life became better because they actually have less disposable income. While the government wants to solve this through unlocking asset wealth for retirement spending at old age it may not be the best way.
I would caution against overly emphasizing the role of the home in providing for retirement adequacy. To achieve this goal of a home being a source of retirement funding, asset appreciation would be beneficial. However, the appreciation of housing prices can cause serious anxiety among the young who are looking to settle down and start a family. Asset appreciation can, very simplistically, be seen as an intergenerational transfer of wealth – the young working Singaporean is paying the elderly retiree an inflated price for their home.
Asset appreciation through increase in property prices also has an illusory effect on a person’s wealth. Even though my home price has increased constantly over the years I am not any richer till I dispose of my property. But in that instance, I would have to purchase a replacement home, which would of course be more expensive. Constantly increasing property prices, in my opinion, are not a good thing for our country. With our limited land space, a meltdown of the property market like that seen in certain American states in 2008/09 may be unlikely, but the fear is still real and justified.
What worries me most is how our young see their future in Singapore. Are they seeing a good life becoming more difficult to achieve or do they see a sense of hope and opportunity in Singapore? The most important task ahead for the government and this parliament is to improve the lives of the average Singaporean and to show our young that this is their home where they will benefit most from the opportunities that arise and that this country is their best hope of finding a good life.
The process of Wealth Creation – Creating vs Importing
If not asset enhancement, then how do we create wealth for our citizens? Yes, the government has come up with a plethora of government assistance schemes, subsidies and grants to help our lower-income. But in doing so, we may affect their self-pride and their motivation levels. Killing a person’s pride can also lead to destroying his self-belief and we definitely do not want our citizens to stop believing in themselves or their abilities. Why not instead give everyone a decent salary so that they do not need to depend on government handouts to live comfortably? This way, at least we do not kill their confidence as we want them to take pride in Singapore’s development and not be embarrassed instead.
Our founding fathers created wealth by their own blood, sweat and tears: inspiring Singaporeans to work hard together to create success and prosperity. The problem really is that for many years now, we have focused on the outcome and not the process. So while we focused on building wealth for Singapore, we didn’t pay as much attention to how we were doing this. In recent years we have shifted the focus away from growing through motivating and encouraging Singaporeans to importing talent that the government feels will contribute to the nation’s bottom-line – our GDP. Today we are willing to achieve growth by transplanting what others, including foreigners can do into Singapore – an “instant tree” mentality of sorts -what pride do Singaporean have in such a prosperity? I am not saying we should stop importing talent and enterprises but what I am saying is that we overdid this to achieve the ends, compromising on the means of getting to our goal – building things ourselves, even if things take a little longer to build.
Singapore’s original success story was written by hardworking locals assisted with ‘imports’ in specific roles that our locals lacked the necessary expertise in. Today’s Singapore is a very different story. We have attempted to bring in the best from around the world to drive our growth and in certain instances sidelined our own local talent. The ends have too often been used to justify the means.
According to a recent wealth report from Barclays Bank, Singapore has the fifth highest concentration of millionaires in the world; 8.8% of the population has at least one million US dollars in investable assets (excluding the value of the primary residence). The same report also highlighted that Singapore was the fastest place for one to accumulate their wealth.
This is certainly good news if the growth is equitable and enjoyed by most Singaporeans. Sadly I believe the reality may not be so. While asset enhancement may had helped Singaporeans, I believe a large number of the wealthy millionaires are new citizens or PRs who transplanted their wealth from wherever and however they acquired it, to Singapore. The median income of Singaporeans has certainly risen and on the surface is a good thing for the county, but it seems to be highly correlated to the increase in the number of new citizens and PRs. So the question is, did Singaporeans really see a big growth of their income to afford the high cost of living here?
I am glad that this government has thankfully, heeded the call of Singaporeans and shifted its focus away from simply the outcome, of high GDP growth rates, towards the effort and process by which this is achieved aiming to ensure that the growth is equitable and fair. So an inclusive growth strategy adopted by the government since 2011 is definitely the right direction so that everyone enjoys the fruits of the wealth of the nation.
While social assistance schemes and safety nets are necessary I feel that they are not addressing the root cause of the problem – low wages. The progressive wage model is a good start in legislating a sectorial minimum wage, I urge this government to further develop the model and include more sectors. Ensuring that all Singaporeans earn a decent living wage would promote self-sufficiency and reduce their dependence on the government for assistance even to achieve a basic standard of comfortable life.
Issues in the Civil Service:
Long Term Planning and Complacency in the Civil Service
But the problem is not just about our approach, it is also one of capabilities. As I mentioned earlier, we have spent the last few years trying to solve many problems and correct many wrongs, what we in Singapore commonly refer to as fire-fighting. But why did we even have to do this in the first place? The government in the early days of Singapore was well known for its long term scenario planning. They would plan such that they had considered all potential problems and would ensure that such problems are avoided. And even if these problems do crop up, they would already have thought of viable alternatives, which they could implement immediately. They certainly did not spend years fire-fighting to solve problems. So what happened to all our scenario planners in the government? Why are we fighting fires because of poor planning?
I suspect that there has been some amount of complacency that has crept into the system. Whether it is the MCE fiasco, or that of the lack of hospital beds or dealing with the Little India riot, the corruption cases in the many government agencies like The Singapore Civil Defense force, I detect a certain amount of complacency in our government agencies in dealing with these problems and the trend is not healthy and needs to be eradicated fast. If Singaporean loses confidence in these key institutions, we will face greater problems in nation building in the future.
Take the case of the bed crunch at hospitals earlier this year. With such disequilibrium, why then promote medical tourism for government restructured hospitals? I was shocked to discover last year that all our government restructured hospitals are involved in promoting medical tourism around the region. Shouldn’t the services in our government restructured be for Singaporeans and residents first? That is one example of poor planning and complacency that bed demand will never exceed supply.
Policy Making and Implementation
The government, aided by a meritocratic system of scholarship, has recruited some of the most academically talented individuals to lead the civil service. Yet in recent years I have heard increasing complains from average Singaporeans about a growing disconnect between them and the elite policy makers. In 1967 Dr. Goh Keng Swee in an interview for a Straits Times article entitled “Stop Behaving like Computers, Goh Tells the ‘Egg-Heads’”. He admonished that, “If the intelligentsia want to make a contribution to society, they must first understand what kind of society they live in. By society, of course, I do not mean the high society of snobs and socialites, but the people at the grassroot level: how they live, how they work, what they do in their leisure time, what they think of the world, their hopes, their fears and aspirations…because the intelligentsia are puzzled over the nature of the society they live in, such views as they express from time to time relate to abstract principles in vacuo”
I am afraid that we may have reached the situation chastised by Dr. Goh, that today’s policy makers live in a different society from the average Singaporean. During my MPS sessions I encounter a fair number of residents who question the rationale of government policies. They feel that the government does not understand their needs and concerns but instead craft policy while seated in, what effectively seems like a different world, an ideal clean and sterile policy lab or an ivory tower perched high up.
I urge the government to look at reorganizing the policy making process. To encourage for policy inputs from all segments of society at all stages of the process. I spoke about this a couple of years ago and suggested a more bottoms up process in policy making instead of continuing the current top down process driven mainly by civil servants who have don’t have a good feel of issues on the ground.
We will need to remove this elitism from the policy-making process, to reverse it to make it more bottom-up and driven by the man in the street. This will change the ways our policies are shaped and changed and I am confident that it will also lead to ministers having to deal with less fire-fighting as the policies were developed from a different and diverse perspective.
Embracing Diversity for talent in Civil Service
The top echelons of the civil service and government has been populated by hand-picked scholars who were chosen primarily on their academic achievements. Having the most academically talented Singaporeans in these vaulted positions it does pose certain problems. Many scholars are parachuted into high positions at a young age. They may lack the experience or understanding of the ground sentiment to effectively craft and implement policies that affect the majority of the population. We also risk the problem of group think if the decision makers are effectively ‘cut from the same cloth’. Having a bit of diversity even in the policy-making bureau can actually be beneficial, just as it is desired in any other team.
Let me share an example from our uniformed services. In the late 80s and 90s, our armed forces and police force focused on promoting many of the returning scholars to very senior positions very fast while those with less academic qualifications did not get similar opportunities to take up higher ranks in the uniformed services. The result over the years was stagnation for many of those with lower academic qualifications and finally retirement as they did not see their career going anyway. This led to a rapid depletion of very good ground commanders replaced with high flying scholars who got the opportunities because of their academic success. I feel this happened for too many such good ground commanders too quickly resulting in loss of experience and the ability to deal with ground issues. The preliminary findings from the Little India riots do seem to indicate that there the lack of experience was as an issue. I hope I am wrong in my assessment of the type of leaders we have in some areas of the civil service because if I am right, we will continue to see many more problems simply because the policy makers don’t understand the ground issues and are far detached from the reality of what is happening and what is needed to improve Singaporeans’ life. We need the best people for the respective jobs not necessarily the best academically qualified for all the jobs. As the largest employer in Singapore, the Public Service should lead the way in talent management.
Another example of poor talent management was shared with me by a senior grass roots leader who shared his daughter’s frustration when she tried for 3 years in a row to apply for attachment at our government restructured hospitals when she comes back for her summer holidays. She is in her final year studying medicine in a European university and has told her father she will not want to come back to practice medicine and that she prefers to stay in Europe. I did a check with a few more such Singaporean overseas medical students, most are among our top scorers at their A levels and our own talent and they gave me similar feedback about their unhappiness at the way they have been treated when applying for attachment in Singapore hospitals – many had their applications rejected and for some who got accepted, they were required to pay very high fees coming up to a couple of thousand dollars for a few weeks of attachment, which students studying at NUS don’t have to pay. Similarly, some told me they preferred to not come back to practice as they felt they would be treated as 2nd class citizens if they came back.
I would have done it differently – the right thing to do is to keep in touch with all our talented students overseas and have someone constantly communicating with them and guide them to make them feel more wanted and welcome to come back. If we had done things correctly, we would not have the need to hire so many foreign doctors if many of our young doctors who studied overseas had come back to practice medicine. There is a big disconnect in our talent management programme for our hospitals, that seem to favour of foreign talent and less on our home grown talent studying overseas.
I urge the government to tackle the issue of complacency in the civil service and bring in a good diverse group of people, not just academically talented, to focus the complex issues of long term planning and better policy implementation. This is an institution that should never lose the trust of all Singaporeans.
Singapore’s National Identity – A Home vs Hotel
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s 50th year of independence, I urge the government to have a quiet moment of contemplation and think seriously about how we can restart our national identity building process. Our tiny island nation has achieved so much in the last half century. This government and governments past have built this country into a gleaming beacon of the 21st century, a truly global city. At independence we were uncertain about our future, unsure if we could survive, yet today we are the envy of the world. In achieving this amazing feat we may have lost sight of the most important thing, a sense of national identity.
When I talk with my constituents, many of them share with me the great sense of pride that they feel towards Singapore and her achievements. They share stories of how when they travel people enquire eagerly about the ‘Singapore model’. Many of our programs such as education, healthcare financing and CPF are enthusiastically adopted by foreign policy makers. We, Singaporeans, certainly have a lot to be proud of. But when you ask them what it means to be a Singaporean they turn awkwardly and smile, ‘Ermm our food’.
We did very well from independence till the late 80’s to build a sense of unity and common purpose for our young nation. As Mr. Lee Kuan Yew said in 1965, “You have got to believe in something. You are not just building houses in order that people can procreate and fill these houses up because there is no point in that. You do these things because in the end you create a happy and healthy nation, a society in which man finds fulfilment and you have got to have the ideological basis…Nations have gone through tremendous privations and hardships in order to achieve specific goals which have inspired and fired their imagination”
We believed in punching above our weight and transforming Singapore into a gleaming first world metropolis. We believed in working together as Singaporeans; regardless of race, language or religion. This common vision united the people and they worked hard to achieve it. Today, Singapore has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world and the common thread that bound us in the past has lost its resonance among the youth. Having grown up in relative comfort, today’s youth aspire to attain self-actualization and higher order goals.
A young friend, a 30 year old well educated man, shared the following with me. “I am not sure what my place in Singapore is anymore. I know that my life is not that of an average Singaporean, I have been very fortunate. Still at times I do not feel like Singapore is my home. Yes Singapore is a brilliant place to make money but not to live anymore. Everything is so crowded and society so impersonal and detached. I feel like my personal space has been invaded by strangers. Today we are a great nation but it seems more and more like a 6 star hotel – emphasized by the huge amount of imported wealth and labour – where everything is perfect if you can pay the high room rates.”
I am saddened to hear this sentiment but I cannot ignore his feelings. How affectionate are Singaporeans with Singapore? The government has to look at this disaffection among Singaporeans more seriously. Our only hope of making this a home and not a hotel is when every Singaporean feels that they are important and have a stake in the country that gives them a happy and comfortable life.
With the huge influx of immigrants in the last 10 years many feel that our sense of common identity has been diluted at best and eradicated at worse. For instance, many of the new PRs don’t take up citizenship for their whole families and choose to remain PRs for a long time, as they still have this transient mentality. Some are selective and don’t get PR for their sons, thinking they don’t have to do NS. So, what we can do in our selection process that we get the right people committed to the country? I am not against the economic value of bringing in foreigners. But I am also against the social implications of them treating our home, Singapore, as a hotel.
This huge influx of foreigners has destabilised Singapore a little and has reversed our gains on building a national identity as we have to deal not just with racial integration, which we did very well since independence, but now we also have to deal with the integration of new citizens and residents and dealing with new cultures that start to influence what happens in Singapore. We have seen one too many cases of foreigners who have behaved in a manner that makes Singaporeans uncomfortable. We also see the effect of some of the new citizens who bring their cultures and behavioural norms that make Singaporeans uncomfortable. If the numbers are small, I don’t think Singaporeans will react negatively but because the numbers are too large we see many Singaporean starting to feel uncomfortable in their own home.
I don’t support the attitude of some Singaporeans who make threats to some groups of new citizens and residents living in Singapore. We need to be more big-hearted. I do realise the government made a mistake of bringing in too many foreigners to fast as I indicated in my speech on the White paper last year. We already have many new citizens in Singapore – asking them to go back is not right so we have to focus on making things work. For those who are committed to Singapore and treat Singapore as their own home, we should make it work; but for those who treat Singapore as a hotel to stay for a while and who use Singapore as a stepping stone for their future life somewhere else, we don’t have to bend backwards to give them citizen privileges.
While Singapore did become from third world to first world in one generation, the question is at what cost. As a first world country, Singapore is considered a rich nation. But what about Singaporeans, did their incomes grow as fast the per capita income growth? Unless we give our citizens a sense of feeling better and more well off than before, how are we going to have everyone develop a sense of ownership in our national achievements?
The first half of this government’s term was dedicated largely to fighting fires, fires that were made obvious during GE2011. But what worries me most is that we are fixing the symptoms of the problems created as a result of poor planning, weaker policies and weaker still policy implementation. But what about fixing the root cause of the problems? I feel these were not properly elaborated in the president’s speech which I hope the government will quickly address so that we don’t end up fighting too many new fires in the future. We need our civil service to be build capacities with better scenario planning ability, eliminating complacency and adding diversity in talent.
Finally, if our young don’t see a sense of hope and opportunity in Singapore we will never be able to build a better Singapore in the future. This government was handed its mandate by Singaporeans to govern in a just, fair and equitable manner and most importantly to build Singapore into a home that we are not only proud of but one that we love. If every Singaporean can feel that their life has become better than yesterday, then this government would have done it job well. Our government is capable of doing this by focusing on the right things as I have suggested in my commentary.