We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.
Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.
This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.
They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.
Diversity of ideas
First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.
Though our political complacency is partly to blame, I believe it is mostly the PAP’s fault. It does not genuinely want the opposition and observers like myself to contribute to any debate.
There is very little transparency of data and information, as I have shown here. One of the more amusing things to emerge from campaigning the last two weeks is this false dichotomy presented by the PAP: Singapore or Greece. Apparently any increase in social spending is fiscally reckless.
But how does anybody know? We have no access to information about Singapore’s reserves. As Yeoh Lam Keong, GIC’s former chief economist, has emphasised here, these proposed social spending packages may not be as onerous to Singapore as the PAP makes out.
In Singapore, the conventional theory is that the PAP, the civil service and the government-controlled media have so many brainy people engaging on all the important issues of the day. And so Singapore has no need for alternative views.
That is utter nonsense.
The government only permits public discussion of issues that are in its own interest. To prove my point, here is one glaring recent omission.
What is the most significant economic idea of the past two years? It’s from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where he shows, among other things, that in the long run, returns to capital will exceed economic growth, leading to concentrations of wealth. In order to mitigate the inequality, he suggests wealth taxes.
Since the book was published, every developed country in the world has been having a lively debate about wealth.
In Singapore, barely a whimper. In the last few years we have finally been allowed to talk about income inequality, but not about wealth inequality.
A trust fund kid sitting in daddy’s home on Nassim Road can have no income but be very, very wealthy. As Piketty makes clear, society needs to address both inequalities.
I wrote an article on the IPS Commons site eighteen months ago on this, to try and instigate discussion, but nothing. There are still no serious opinion pieces in any newspaper—aside from one, fawning speech by a professor that essentially deflects the core issue of wealth inequality.
Singapore, of course, is the best place in the world for wealthy people. Zero wealth taxes. Zero inheritance tax. That’s why billionaires have been flocking here. They’re not coming to eat chap chye, to drink Michael Jackson, or to watch Phua Chu Kang. They’re here because of wealth preservation.
Guess who else belongs to this elite 0.1% class? Our politicians. Is Singapore the only developed democracy in the world where every single senior politician and senior civil servant belongs to the global 0.1%? Probably.
One of the great contradictions, I’ve always found, about the PAP’s incessant moralising about corruption is this: on the one hand, it preaches about clean government, honesty, transparency. On the other, it allows into this country not only capital of questionable origin but also characters of disrepute, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Both have a direct effect on our cost of living.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Indonesians who are on the run from their own government take refuge in Singapore.
It is because, among other things, we have a tame media that won’t intrude and a ruling party that finds kinship in the global 0.1%.
In fact, Singapore does not even measure wealth inequality. We don’t measure wealth, and we don’t measure poverty.
We pretend that these “problems” don’t exist. Some estimates suggest that Singapore is the most unequal country on the planet in terms of wealth.
Now, I have friends and family who are Randian capitalists. They don’t necessarily share my humanistic impulses for distributing wealth more equally.
But even for them, my argument is: every revolution in history—every single one—has its roots in wealth inequality. We spend so much time in Singapore worrying about external threats that we have ignored the one brewing in our own backyard.
If you care about Singapore’s stability, you must concern yourself with mitigating wealth inequality.
For sure, this does not mean communism or even excessive wealth taxes.
But at the very least we need to talk about it. Singaporeans need to be having a more open, honest, consultative debate about what kind of a society we want. And we will simply not get that from the PAP when its leaders belong to that same global plutocracy.
One more point.
Singapore is the only developed democracy in the world where politicians do not have to make asset declarations. The electorate will never know how much wealth they created for themselves while in office.
Why is this important? Here is an example.
Recall when politicians and civil servants were spending all our taxpayer money on Marina Bay—including casinos, F1, and, of course, the famous rebranding exercise, where $400,000 of our money was paid to a branding agency to rename Marina Bay as….Marina Bay.
When public money was being used to enhance Marina Bay, were our politicians investing in any Marina Bay properties?
Maybe not. And even if they were, there is nothing illegal. Just a potential conflict of interest that might be worth noting.
Similarly, when the PAP government refrained from cooling our red-hot housing market in 2004-11, how many landed properties did our ministers and senior civil servants hold? While the lower-income brackets were being priced out of their own country’s housing market, by how much did our ministers’ net worth increase?
Again, there is no suggestion of illegality here. Simply that we the voters, by allowing the PAP to act as its own check-and-balance, have grown ignorant about the many conflicts of interest that plague Singapore society today. Which brings me to my next point.
This is part 1 of 4. To read part 2, click here.