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Insights to the Singapore Dilemma

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Credit to TOC for the heads up on this interview with the former head of the civil service, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow.

Talk about hitting the nail on its head. No interview comes close in terms of addressing the future concerns of the civil service and the government. Mind you, this interview was done in 2003, and we are facing the exact same problems which Mr Ngiam highlighted. Bloody insightful.

Here are some excerpts form the interview. You can read the full one here.

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Q. With all this pessimism surrounding Singapore’s prospects today, what’s your personal prognosis? Will Singapore survive Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?

A. Unequivocally yes, Singapore will survive SM Lee but provided he leaves the right legacy. What sort of legacy he wants to leave is for him to say, but I, a blooming upstart, dare to suggest to him that we should open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge. So far, the People’s Action Party’s tactic is to put all the scholars into the civil service because it believes the way to retain political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent. But in my view, that’s a very short term view. It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along. At the first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing PAP onslaught in the late 1950s. I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.

Q. What is your biggest worry about the civil service?

A. The greatest danger is we are flying on auto-pilot. What was once a great policy, we just carry on with more of the same, until reality intervenes. Take our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore. For some years now, I’ve been trying to tell everybody: ‘Look, for God’s sake, grow our own timber.’ If we really want knowledge to be rooted in Singaporeans and based in Singapore, we have to support our SMEs. I’m not a supporter of SMEs just for the sake of more SMEs, but we must grow our own roots. Creative Technology’s Sim Wong Hoo is one and Hyflux’s Olivia Lum is another but that’s too few. We have been flying on auto-pilot for too long. The MNCs have contributed a lot to Singapore but they are totally unsentimental people. The moment you’re uncompetitive, they just relocate.

Q. Why has this come about?

A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda. There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews. SM Lee has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn’t behave like Lee Kuan Yew. There is also a trend of intellectualisation for its own sake, which loses a sense of the pragmatic concerns of the larger world. The Chinese, for example, keep good archives of the Imperial examinations which used to be held at the Temple of Heaven. At the beginning, the scholars were tested on very practical subjects, such as how to control floods in their province. But over time, they were examined on the Confucian Analects and Chinese poetry composition. Hence, they became emasculated by the system, a worrying fate which could befall Singapore.

Q. You advocate a more inclusive mindset all around?

A. Yes, intellectually, everyone has to accept that the country of Singapore is larger than the PAP. But even larger than the country of Singapore, which is limited by size and population, is the nation of Singapore, which includes a diaspora. My view is that we should have a more inclusive approach to nation-building. We have started the Majulah Connection, an international network where every Singaporean – whether he is a citizen or not, so long as he feels for Singapore – is included as part of our diaspora. Similarly, we should include foreigners who have worked and thrived here as friends of Singapore. That’s the only way to survive. Otherwise, its just four million people on a little red dot of 600 sq km. If you exclude people, you become smaller and smaller, and in the end, you’ll disappear.

Q. What is the kind of Singapore you hope your grandchildren will inherit?

A. Let’s look at Sparta and Athens, two city states in Greek history. Singapore is like Sparta, where the top students are taken away from their parents as children and educated. Cohort by cohort, they each select their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King. When I first read Plato’s Republic, I was totally dazzled by the great logic of this organisational model where the best selects the best. But when I reached the end of the book, it dawned on me that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. In the end, that was how Sparta crumbled. Yet, Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived. What does this tell us about out-of-bounds markers? So SM Lee has to think very hard what legacy he wants to leave for Singapore and the type of society he wants to leave behind. Is it to be a Sparta, a well-organised martial society, but in the end, very brittle; or an untidy Athens which survived because of its diversity of thinking? Personally, I believe that Singaporeans are not so kuai (Hokkien for obedient) as to become a Sparta. This is our saving grace. As a young senior citizen, I very much hope that Singapore will survive for a long time, but as an Athens. It is more interesting and worth living and dying for.

photo by notsogoodphotography

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Written by Nabs

June 1, 2010 at 11:18 am

Posted in MIND, Politics

A National Identity Issue

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It was once said that we only attract  talented immigrants with expertise so as to create economic synergy.

It was also said that we should attract  immigrants to fill the lower end jobs to support our rising middle class.

But nobody was ready for or should I say none was reported about wholesale immigration of any occupation or class. And suddenly the fingers were pointed at its own citizens for their low productivity and fertility.

“Now, we feel foreigners who come here are intruding into our space. But we forget that that’s what our parents did before – intruding into the space of those who were here before them.We should remember that immigrant children will one day be like us,”

–  Minister for Home Affairs, Wong Kan Seng

photo by JasonDGreat


There we are people, the open truth, we are all just immigrants, dispensable, replaceable and replicable. When your Minister of Home Affairs utter words like this, you listen  and you be smart about it. It just accentuates my claim that we are mere commodities to the government and they still wonder why Singapore is suffering from a brain drain.

The word xenophobic has been mentioned quite a lot recently. But what are we Singapore citizens afraid that the foreigners might take away from us? Our national identity?  Do we even have a national identity?

We measure a nation’s identity by its culture, belief structure, national heritage and ethnocentrism. The negro/black community for example is a great example of how strong a national identity can be despite having throngs of them emigrating to Europe and North America. The apartheid era in Africa, famous icons like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela,  hip hop music and dance are all elements of national identity that the black community can identify with regardless of boundaries.

In our shores, has our mere 50 years of independence created an identity for us? Our foundations were laid by first generation immigrants and along with them came a hybrid of culture and religious differences. Yes, all of us are infused by the notion of racial harmony by government driven campaigns and by saying the pledge, but is 50 years long enough to forge a common identity of Singaporeans instead of by ethnic groups (we are one of the few nations in the world to have our race stated in our identity cards mind you)?  I highly doubt so.

How about our sense of ethnocentrism or patriotism? The only events in the past 2 decades I can think of is during the Malaysia Cup in the mid nineties. Never have I seen national pride so evident as we come in our red T shirts, banners and flags to support of our beloved national soccer team. However, the pride of the Malaysia Cup was short-lived because of some pretentious  government official who wanted to strive for the World Cup 2010 by splurging more money. How typical.

Of course we have our Singlish, yummy food like nasi lemak, chili crab, durians, as national identities,  but all this to me are just superfluous and pompous  marketing tools created by our tourism board.  How about our historical landmarks like Fort Canning or Raffles Hotel? Well, every country has a history which can be over commercialized for monetary reasons, but whether its citizens can relate to it as a national identity is another issue altogether.

To me, our national identity is based on economic, pragmatic ideals with one driving factor – money. To think of it, what motivated the first generation of immigrants to our shores is also based on purely economic pursuits.  We work the longest hours in the world, striving for our country’s economic success in hopes that the equity can flow down from the top. This is the reason why we get xenophobic when foreigners start competing for our jobs and tertiary places.

However, this is where the problem lies. A national identity forged by pragmatic,  economic reason is not relevant ever since we had globalization and a significant rise of the middle class . Immigrants of yesterday had a binding goal, spearheaded by the government, to transform Singapore into a first world country.  That was their national identity. Now that we are a developed nation, the late generation X and Ys of today are born in an environment of decent modern comforts, thus that national identity began to change considerably. The new generation will have lesser difficulties of uprooting themselves for greener pastures as long as the society fits their ideals and conducive to making a living. The government is deeply concerned by rising emigration trend especially the young educated ones,  but instead of solving the core of the issue, they focused on the symptom instead, by opening our floodgates to immigration.

If the ruling party fails to engage the younger generation of Singapore and empower them to play a role in building the country, what they’ll get is more and more dis-chanted citizens who will question the need to do National Service, dismayed by the rise in cost of living , and more crucially question their loyalty to the country. We just want to be heard. We want to keep the country we love alive, but we need to be listened to. No where it is more apparent than in the blogosphere. Don’t just shove policies down our throats and lump our statistics with the new Permanent Residents to make the figures look better. A majority of us are all immune to news of stellar GDP figures and how prosperous the nation is because we cannot empathize, and if we can’t empathize, we feel disconnected.

On the flip side, it is  naive and a risk  if the government thinks that the majority of new generation of immigrants will stay for good and contribute in boosting Singapore’s fertility rate and economic growth. Only they will know whether the cost of integration like health care and education subsidies  will outweigh  the potential economic benefits. Talk about a double whammy.

A national identity is created by memories that spur patriotism. An engaged citizen who is given freedom to contribute in shaping its country’s growth and given a listening ear  will no doubt create binding ties with the country, filled with memories to cherish.

And as I quote a fellow blogger, “We can’t make a national identity, if we aren’t regarded as citizens with voices.”



Written by Nabs

May 27, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Posted in MIND, Politics

Knowledge is Strength المعرفة قوّة، العلمُ قوّة

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Islam

Islam is a faith that advocates and demands intellectual rigor. The Quran instructs its followers to observe, reflect and employ rational thinking and analysis towards the understanding of both secular knowledge, the world that we live in and our place within it.

As I quote the Quran: ” The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of martyrs.”

I am really fascinated by the Islam Renaissance era, between the 7th and 14th century. Some call it the Golden Age of Islam where Islamic civilization was at its intellectual zenith

The success of Islamic empires then, namely dynasties like Umayyads and Abbasids spread its influence all the way to the east in China and the west to Europe. Its influence stem not from violent conquests, but by its scholars and intellects, who by exploring and discovering, attracted interest from all over the world. The knowledge gained by this scholars transformed the Muslim world in being a custodian of knowledge,  from literary works of Rome, Egyptian architecture, all recorded and translated into Arabic for all of its people to learn and be learned. Moreover, Muslim and non Muslim scholars were given the opportunity and freedom to come together, collaborate and communicate their ideas, in what became a centre of intellectual stimulus. Muslim scholars like Ibn Battuta were pivotal in developing and contributing in the fields of philosophy, physics, chemistry, mathematics, law, medicine, economics, just to name a few. They leached upon knowledge from other parts of the world, preserving them and adding innovative inventions and ideas of their own. Think, algebra, geometry, alternative energy, surgery,capitalism, astrology…. The world certainly owns a great deal of knowledge to this era.

What was the catalyst to the success of the era was the religious freedom granted to Muslims and non Muslims. This attracted the Christians and Jewsish intellectuals to engage with the Musilm scholars. Almost everything basically was up for debate, except of course for religious sensitivities. The Muslim population as a whole saw religion not only as a faith, but a reason to life. Reason and faith were both very much connected and mutually inclusive. Learning was universal and not confined to religion only. I totally embrace this mindset.

Unfortunately, like any golden empire, there was a downfall. The Islamic Renaissance period ended due to a sequence of events that unfolded. War and conquest from other civilization threatened the existence of the Muslim world. This led the people to become inward looking. This defensive mode of Islam sacrificed intellectual dynamism for religious survival.

Fast forward to today, Islamic traditionalist thinking is very much prevalent. In fact events like 9/11 and other terrorists related activities prompted the world to cast a doubtful eye on us. Another disheartening fact is if we look at the Human Development Index which measure socio-economic indicators like life expectancy, standard of living, education, GDP, no Muslim state comes closed to a industrialized nation. If we talk about poverty, 10% – 20% of the population in Muslim countries like Pakistan or Indonesia live on US$1 per day. Sad isn’t it? It seems that we have taken 2 steps backwards. It’s a shame that nothing from the golden age is being replicated. Don’t even get me started on the conflicts internally between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

Today, the Muslim world have 2 wars to fight. First, eradicating fundamentalist, who stand against modernist thinking. Second,a new breed of Muslim intellectuals must stand up and lead the way into a globalized world. The religion must be truly  understood and analyzed to be applied to today’s issues. An example would be democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. Culture and human deviation must NOT be confused with religion. I emphasize NOT as I read about and experience such confusions during my travels. Some very common misunderstandings are 1) The term Arabs/Malays and Muslims are synonymous (Yes, I am flabbergasted by how some Singaporeans among us still cannot differentiate between race and religion) , 2)  women should not pursue education and have limited rights, 3) laws that  condemn infidel women but not men , 4) polygamy for lust, and most importantly in current context, 5) conservatism and intolerance to other religions which promotes extremist ideologies.

I truly believe that traditionalist thinking in Islam is a result of being defensive, and lacking understanding. Having said all that, with the question marks raised of the current conventional banking system, and with Islam being in the limelight because of the news generated by extremists, there is no better time to strive for improvement today. Islamic banking for example can be introduced more aggressively to the world and be a cornerstone in transforming the image and understanding of Islam once again.

As a reflection, I might not be a good practicing Muslim, but one thing I am certain is that character is paramount when it comes to my priorities. I believed that being a born Muslim, it is easier to take it for granted. However, I am taking the reverse route. Solidifying my character, strengthening my knowledge, and using the religion as a reason to build my faith.

Written by Nabs

May 24, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Religion, SOUL

When Communism meets Globalization

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Real interesting stuff.  If only every country comes out with a info graphic like that. Unearth all the skeletons in the state closet.. …

Written by Nabs

May 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Posted in MIND, Politics

Tribute to Dr Goh Keng Swee

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I thought this was a fitting tribute that I read from a post in Google groups:

“The key attribute of Dr Goh was his selflessness, not working for
money, glory or power, but for the people, in fact he started his
career as a social welfare officer.

He was one of the main reason PAP was popular, by his care for the
people. When he stepped down in 1984 with the old guard, people
lamented the loss of a kind leader and wondered whether things will be
the same after that.

He was different from the new gd in many ways:

He was selfless, the new gd  promoted themself
He walk the talk, while others just talk
He was revolutionary, while the new gd is evolutionary

He was not working for money, while the new gd get the world highest
government pay
He was the architect, the builder, inventor while the new gd are the
car tuning mechanic,   repair technician.
It seemed like he cooked rice for the country, while the new gd just
reheat it
He was like the Abraham Lincoln of Singapore while the new gd is like
the Bush of Singapore
He challenged the current thinking while the new gd try to maintain
status quo
He had written innovative, life changing ministerial papers, essays
while the new gd just rehash it, changing the sentence structure, the
punctuation, the tenses.

He serves to get win win for the people and government, while new gd I
win you loose
He did not have to worry about defeat in polls, the new gd has to
tweak the system to prevent defeat
He went all out to contribute to the people, the new gd went all out
to defend themselves, protecting their own belly, their high salary

He built the structure to create wealth while the new gd gamble it
He formulated the MNC, GLC strategy and was successful while new gd
should have revised it to version 2 to develop promising local
enterprise like Taiwan, Korea did with their Samsung, LG, Acer, TSMC,
but instead new gd only have Chartered Semicon and most MNC gone.
He developed Jurong, JTC successfully, but new gd should have revised
the strategy but instead let it rot
He setup GIC to invest with prudence, economic research & due
diligence but new gd invest with gut feeling and risked it
He setup RAF and required reasonable contribution from people, the new
gd squeeze every once out of the men
He encouraged people to work hard to gain wealth while new gd built
casino for people to loose it”

– lasttrumpet

Written by Nabs

May 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Posted in MIND, Politics

The Price of Being Egocentric

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Image by xkcd

We cannot be egocentric when we are discussing about local politics. Here’s the thing, a majority of us are in the so called middle class bracket and relatively comfortable with our lives.  We are in the so called “comfort zone” But how many of us are willing to take the extra step to read and learn about the plight of the unfortunate and the lower income group? Do we need to wait till the cost of living catches up with the majority middle class, and we feel the pinch; only then we start questioning the relevance and rationale of the policies by our ruling party? We cannot judge government policies by sitting in our nests and admire how beautiful the four walls around us are.

On the flip side, we also cannot point fingers at the government once a policy does not favour us. That’s not taking a macro view of what’s good for the majority. By doing that, one loses credibility too and we are just being labeled as “complain kings.”

There is still a general view that if you are not with the ruling party, you are rebel without a cause. Your motivation of having an alternate view is being questioned and branded egocentric or your source of debate is questionable. However have these people in their “comfort zone” even given themselves a chance to open up their minds and understand national issues more than just scrapping the tip of the iceberg? Are they able to go beyond themselves and empathize with the less privileged? Are they able to take their sense of skepticism away from the opposition and be objective in judging what’s good and bad? Or are they satisfied with what is being fed to them by the mass media which we all know is  an avenue for government propaganda? It is really easy in Singapore to overlook underlying issues, because on the surface, everything seems immaculate. Read, search, understand, analyze, then judge. As a citizen of Singapore, you owe it to yourself.

It’s not a comforting thought that the Singapore education systems promotes elitism and materialism. At the end of the day, of course it’s a choice whether we want to empathize with the lower income or unfortunate. But it’s more than donating that dollar into the donation tin or calling in donations during charity shows. Sometimes, it’s about citizen power and voicing out when government policies are illogical. No government has the right to create a policy and shove it down our throats. Singaporeans must not forget that we have a role to shape the society we want. Do we really want a society where everyone is caught up in the pursuit of materialism and being ignorant to the other less fortunate citizens that fall through policy cracks? If you think that one person has limited power, think again.

I am not saying that all policies are bad, but I just feel that any power at the realm for too long will suffer bouts of complacency. Thus, it’s up to us citizens to empower ourselves and send a wake up call. We need to create a  society that goes beyond just economic figures.  If everyone is willing to delve deeper into government policies, highlight the shortfalls and spread the awareness, the multiplication effect can have an impact.

Written by Nabs

May 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

Posted in MIND, Politics, Ramblings

The Free Market Rhetoric…

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photo by Limbic

We all know the  story of Robinson Crusoe. He survived a shipwreck and found himself on an inhabited island. In order to survive, he started gathering resources like wood, stone, plants, water, fruits in order to provide for his basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. To build a shelter, he then use wood and vines from a tree and debris from the ship wreckage to make a shovel. In economics, what Crusoe did was create factors of production, that is natural resources, labour and capital. Capital is comprised of any resources, other than land or labour, that may be employed in the production of goods and services. In this case, it would be the creation of the shovel to make his shelter. Thus far I have established what we call a very basic form of a labour intensive economy, which many third world countries are still relying on.

The story goes on when Crusoe rescued a prisoner (Friday) from native cannibals in the island. Friday became the second inhabitant of the island and he, similar to Crusoe when he first landed, needed to gather resources for food, clothing and build a shelter as well. Crusoe agreed to lend Friday his shovel, in return for 5 coconuts. What Crusoe just did was being a capitalist, that is someone who profits from the economic employment of his capital, even though he does no work with that capital himself. In the true sense of capitalism, instead of lending Friday his shovel in exchange of coconuts, Crusoe should encourage Friday to build his own shovel so that both of them can increase production. Two shovels can be twice as productive as one. Even better if Friday built an axe, so while he focuses on gathering wood, Crusoe can use his shovel to dig for food and they can basically trade with one another. Another economics concept of comparative advantage is introduced here.

However, the question is will Crusoe encourage Friday do build his own tools (capital) or will he continue to exploit his labour and benefit from it? This brings about the current social dilemma in many developing and developed countries. A good government will always encourage capitalism oriented towards the economic self-sufficiency of its citizens. It can do this by facilitating labour oriented toward the creation of equity, and by legislating other economic practices and institutions that do the same. That includes creating level playing fields, allowing for trade unions, curbing elitism or for that matter nepotism.

Essentially, capitalism thrives in all form of governance. The main difference is the ownership and control of the means of production. A communist government for example practices state capitalism, in which all or most means of production are owned and controlled by “the state”. We in Singapore are more familiar to Laissez-faire capitalism, or elitist/corporate capitalism, where most of the wealth is hoarded by small percentage of the population. A majority of us slog for corporations sometimes up to 12 hours a day, six days a week  but we don’t fully get to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Besides getting that salary or bonus, we are essentially building equity for the corporation, not for ourselves. In fact most of us are motivated to work in such a system not by wanting to build our own equity but because of fear of unemployment. This is what I call perpetual indebtedness to the system. A corporation that includes stock options as part of its compensation to employees is a good measure to alleviate corporate capitalism.

What inspired me to blog about capitalism is because I find the words” market forces” being used a bit too regularly whenever a member of our ruling party is  defending the party’s policies. Yes, while free market forces are needed to encourage capitalism and wealth creation, a government’s role is also to ensure that no corporation or wealthy individuals or themselves even hoard the means of production for individuals to build equity. To think of it, how much equity does an average Singaporean create for himself? We rent houses from the government and the banks as we live in a 99 year lease public housing and borrow money from banks in huge amounts to pay for the rent. Unless we fully own equity like private housing or a business, could we then be our own Robinson Crusoe and use our capital to create more equity. The relentless rise of cost of living, corporate bullying (Shen Siong anyone?), no minimum wage structure, ignoring speculation in public housing, cheap foreign labour are signs of Laissez-faire capitalism. Such form of capitalism can be detrimental to an economy as can be seen in the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover, where the government failed utterly to provide desperately needed economic sustenance to working Americans. Or the very recent Great Recession where too much wealth is hoarded in wall street in the absence of regulation and ethics,  and a fall in them posed a systematic risk to the economy.

Capitalism is great in encouraging ambition, but it also can create an increasing income gap and inequality  that can harm the very fabric of our society like a higher crime rate and more broken families. Our gini coefficient, which measures income inequality is already one of the highest among developed countries. A government should ensure that ownership and control of means of production is dispersed as wide as possible to promote enjoyment by the individual of the fruits of his own labour.  The very basic thing it could start with is by ensuring that income levels commensurate with the cost of living.


Written by Nabs

May 7, 2010 at 10:37 am