SDP’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

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Dear friends, following up on my first post dissecting the WP’s manifesto, here is my take on the Singapore Democratic Party’s (the manifesto available here). This time, I have added an extra section at the bottom: Undecided.

Again, please treat this as first impressions. Many of these suggestions merit closer study, which can happen if the opposition has more resources or if the government and its media starts listening to alternative suggestions. Most importantly, what is needed is better data and information from the government. For instance, how big are Singapore’s reserves?

I love the easy, lazy dichotomy that the PAP and its fans have been trotting out these past few days: Either Singapore or Greece.

Please lah. There are many ways Singapore can increase social spending without surrendering itself to fiscal recklessness. As Yeoh Lam Keong has emphasised here, these proposed social spending packages may not be as onerous to Singapore as the PAP makes out.

What I like

Healthcare Continue reading

Workers’ Party’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

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He Ting Ru, one of my favourite new politicians, partly because she puts paid to the notion that opposition candidates are necessarily substandard. But more importantly, because she is a “crazy cat lady” with eight!

“The opposition has nothing new or concrete to offer.”

I am tiring of this lazy, ignorant, biased statement. So I have put my unemployment to good use and done some homework.

Having just gone through the WP’s manifesto, I have selected here the many statements that I like and also the three that I don’t like—including the one that I REALLY dislike. (Scroll to the bottom for those.)

I have selected policies that I believe are significantly different from PAP policies. Like political parties everywhere, they both indulge in a lot of waffle—so forgive me for not humouring vapid commentary about helping SMEs, boosting productivity, broadening our definitions of achievement, encouraging flexible work arrangements, enhancing healthcare systems, strengthening regional stability, assisting Singaporeans abroad, etc. etc.

Those are all noble, lofty pursuits. Below are the ones I believe are practical and implementable. (Caveat: as with many of the PAP’s proposed policies, a more thorough analysis of the trade-offs and fiscal impact is necessary.)

Note: I have read up on the WP, since it is shaping up to be the most likely opposition in a possible two-party system; if, however, I detect enough interest in this post, I’d be happy to glean the other opposition parties’ manifestos.

What I like Continue reading

Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you

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At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.

I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)

Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.

What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.

My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.

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On S377A and gay rights in Singapore

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I will once again not be in Singapore for this year’s Pink Dot celebration, scheduled for 5pm, June 28th at Hong Lim Park (see here).

Aside from being our biggest civil demonstration, and looking like a rather fun party, of all the illiberal policies in Singapore, nothing offends my sensibilities more than the continued criminalisation of male homosexuals.

As I mentioned at the launch of Hard Choices (see here), I strongly believe that the presence of this law is a stain on our collective moral conscience. In the same way that future generations of humans may wonder how the world took so long to get ecological sustainability right, I am certain future generations of Singaporeans will ask how a developed, democratic, aspiring global city took so long to guarantee fundamental rights to a minority group.

Of course gay rights, just like ethnic rights, women’s rights, and every other human right, is a function of the social norms of the day. But this is the 21st century: while the rest of the developed world wonders whether or not to legalise gay marriage, some Singaporeans cling onto atavistic fears, dressed in cultural relativism, about legalising homosexuals themselves.

Though I have spoken publicly about this bigotry many times and touched on it in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, this is my first article or blogpost on the matter.

I actually didn’t think it necessary to write this—since many more enlightened souls have already spoken—but two people recently convinced me to do so. But since so much has already been written in Singapore and overseas, I will limit myself to what I believe are under-explored areas on the issue. This is not meant to be a comprehensive essay.

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Second book launch: Hard Choices

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

Dear friends, I just wanted to share some thoughts from my second book launch this past Tuesday. If you want to find out more about the book’s content and cover, please see my earlier post here.

I really enjoyed the launch. As in, it was genuinely fun. Lots of banter up on stage between Donald Low, my co-author, David Skilling, the moderator, and myself before the event. Engaging conversation and audience questions throughout on a range of important and sometimes emotive subjects, from Goh Keng Swee’s doubts in 1972 about Singapore’s emerging economic model to the recent uproar over the mooted Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Singapore this June.

If you are keen to see what you missed, here is a 22min video of the session.

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Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces and National Service

(This is a continuation of “Singapore’s outdated national security policies”)

Fighting the real enemy: Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces

Why does Singapore Singapore Armed Forcesstill need such a large standing Armed Forces? If we accept the argument that Singapore’s security threats have evolved over the years—and no longer includes “potentially hostile Muslim neighbours”—then our country needs to adapt, and prepare itself for today’s threats, not yesteryear’s. Continue reading

Singapore’s outdated national security policies

Synopsis

Singapore’s national security policies aresingapore_flag outdated and in dire need of revision. These policies are heavily influenced by the paranoias of the 1960s, when a vulnerability fetish gave rise to a siege mentality amongst Singaporean leaders that persists today. But Singapore’s main security threats now are not other states but non-state actors, specifically pirates and terrorists. Continue reading

Singapore’s population policies: Book extract in the New Straits Times, Nov 5th 2012

Ahead of my book launch in KL this Saturday, Malaysia’s New Straits Times (NST) has published an excerpt from my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, today.

Over the past few weeks, NUS Press, one of my co-publishers, and I had been lobbying the Malaysian media channels, trying to get them to feature us. Last week, NST confirmed the passage they would like to run.

When I saw which one they chose, I almost fell off my chair laughing. It’s the bit where I discuss Singapore’s flawed population policies and Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in genetic determinism. Of course, NST has also cut out the bits of the passage where I talk about Malaysia.

I’m very happy that they chose this passage. It’s one of my favourites. But it’s also quite reflective of Malaysia’s mainstream media–delighted to see a Singaporean asking tough questions of his country! I suppose it would have been politically impossible for them to run one of the passages where I scrutinise Malaysian policies. In any case, I’m sure the Malaysian audience would appreciate this more–so, from a purely commercial/marketing point of view, a good passage to attract Malaysians to my book launch this Saturday.

You can read the edited extract that NST has run on their website here or on this PDF file: NST Nov 5

Or you can read the full original passage from my book below. This is from pp. 237-40 of the book:

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Throughout our journey, we met Malaysians, rural and urban, who couldn’t believe that we were still single, at the grand old age of 27. As far as they were concerned, we had not planned our life well. We had not given enough priority to starting a family.

Do we Singaporeans value family life less than Malaysians? Quite possibly. After numerous conversations about girlfriends, marriage and children, my sense is that there are cultural and developmental reasons for this.

My anecdotal evidence suggests that Malays treasure big families and family time more than Chinese and Indians. Many Malays I met, including Isa and Kamal, are extremely proud of their big families. Much of their life revolves around their extended families.

I found this to be less so for the Indians, even less for Chinese. This is not to say that Chinese and Indians don’t care for their families, just simply that having a big family, and maintaining close ties with the extended family, seems less a priority than it is for Malays.

When we were cycling through Terengganu, we stopped at a tiny kampung for a breather, and two very old Malay men immediately chatted us up. They were certain that all the differences between Malaysia and Singapore could be summed up in a neat parable.

Orang Melayu, bini dulu, baru cari harta.
Orang Cina, cari harta, baru bini.

Malays find a wife first, and then wealth.
Chinese find wealth first, and then a wife.

It is interesting to compare total fertility rates—the average number of children a woman is expected to have—among the different ethnic groups in the two countries.

In 2010, Malaysia’s total fertility rates were: 1.5 for Chinese, 1.7 for Indians and 2.6 for Malays. Singapore’s were: 1.02 for Chinese, 1.13 for Indians and 1.65 for Malays.

Thus, in both Malaysia and Singapore, Malays have the highest total fertility rates among the three major ethnic groups. There could be cultural and economic reasons for this. In both countries, the Malays have lower average household incomes than the Chinese and Indians. As incomes rise, people tend to have fewer kids.

This would partly explain why Singapore’s fertility rates are today so low. This is a socio-economic phenomenon the world over, particularly with the other East Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan—who have all recorded torrid economic growth alongside plummeting fertility. (Similarly, the fertility rate in Malaysia’s more developed states, such as Penang and Selangor, is lower than other parts of the country.)

What is most surprising, perhaps, is that by 2010 the total fertility rate of Singapore’s Malays was almost as low as Malaysia’s Chinese. Malay fertility rates in Singapore have dropped drastically from 2.54 in 2000 to 1.65 in 2010.

Perhaps there is something unique about Singapore’s pressure-cooker, rat-race, materialist society that has deterred young couples from having children. It is expensive to bring up children in Singapore, particularly with all the extra tuition, expensive pre-school classes, and other personal improvement programmes that parents today deem necessary.

But government policy has also greatly influenced Singaporeans’ family values. In Singapore, love and procreation have become somewhat manufactured; transformed from individual decisions and responsibilities into a national obsession. The government has indelibly shaped every Singaporean’s conception of love, marriage and children.

In the 1970s, fearful of a population explosion, our government told people to “Stop at 2”. As expected, we followed orders. By the early 1980s, it became clear that we were not replacing ourselves sufficiently and so, in a 180-degree turn, the government started to promote bigger families. Tax breaks were offered to parents who had a third child. It didn’t make much of a difference.

By 2005, our total fertility rate had slumped to 1.26, well below 2, the “replacement rate” required to maintain a stable population. Our government, desperate, pulled out all the stops: more tax breaks, longer maternity leave, and vociferous public campaigns.

Almost from the day he stepped into office, our prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has been urging Singaporeans to make babies. In the space of one generation, the Singaporean family psyche has been switched from big families to “Stop at 2” and back to big families again.

However, our government has tried to manipulate the population in a much more classist fashion—encouraging university graduates to marry other graduates rather than non-graduates. This reflects Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in genetic determinism.

In 1967, he said that about 5 per cent of the population “are more than ordinarily endowed physically and mentally and in whom we must extend our limited and slender resources …” Later, in 1969, he worried that “less economically productive people in the community are reproducing themselves at rates higher than the rest.”

Presumably, our government believed it could improve Singapore’s gene pool. In 1984 it implemented a programme that tried to increase the fertility of university educated women while offering subsidies for the voluntary sterilisation of poor and uneducated parents.

Singapore even set up a couple of government agencies to further this agenda. The Social Development Unit (SDU) was formed in 1984 to promote marriages among graduate singles, while Social Development Services (SDS) was set up in 1985 to promote marriages among non-graduate singles.

Sometimes it seems like our eugenics policies were implemented in a bygone era rife with classism. Actually, it was less than 30 years ago. We grew up in a society where eugenics influenced love.

Lee Kuan Yew’s views on this haven’t changed much. In 2008, he told 700-odd delegates at a Human Capital Summit that Singaporean graduates who marry nongraduates “will worry if their children will make it to the university”.

In Singapore, something so natural, so carnal, so innately human as love is transformed into a more structured, formal process. It seems like the only thing the government has yet to do is teach Singaporeans how to give head.

PAP fans love to boast about the party’s forward thinking and successful longterm planning. But when its history is eventually written (by somebody neutral), the PAP’s misguided population policies of the 1970s–80s will tarnish its legacy. Many of Singapore’s current socio-economic problems—including inequality, public transport squeezes and xenophobia—have their roots in our low birth-rate, and the government’s attempt to address it with sudden, unsustainably high immigration.

Put another way, when it comes to population policies, the current PAP leadership has created new problems by trying to correct the old problems that are partly the doing of the 1970s–80s PAP leadership.

Malaysia’s government, on the other hand, does not try to manipulate its population dynamics so meticulously. However, Malaysia’s religious police do frequently try to peer into the private love lives of Muslims in the country, to ensure that unmarried couples are not engaging in illicit physical activity—what is known as khalwat, literally “close proximity”. These khalwat raids can be quite sudden and brutal—Islamic officers are known to barge into people’s houses and rooms, looking for immoral activity.

This points to one of the great paradoxes of Malaysian society. The Malay Muslims are afforded special economic rights, but they cannot enjoy certain personal and social freedoms such as the ability to drink and engage in physical relations before marriage. On the other hand, the Chinese and Indian non-Muslims are considered second-class citizens politically, but then are able to lead much freer lives than the Malay Muslims ever can.

It does appear, however, that the Singapore government’s constant intrusions into the bedroom may have been counterproductive. At best, they have failed to achieve their goals. At worst, love, marriage and sex, glorious expressions of the human condition, have been reduced to numbers, policies and projections. Procreation becomes a mechanical response, a “national service”, akin to paying taxes.

SG Population

Which begs the question: have we all spent enough time thinking about what makes us happy? For those of us who want huge families, have we really thought hard enough about what else we could be doing with our time if we had a smaller family? Conversely, for those of us who want tiny families, are we missing out on one of life’s basic joys?

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It’s interesting to compare this passage to the one that Singapore’s The Straits Times (ST) chose to run a couple of weeks back. Incidentally, ST had asked me to select a passage for their extract. NST read through the whole book and chose one they liked.

The problem with the national conversation: information asymmetries

Dear friends, as long as there are significant information asymmetries in the government-citizen relationship, Singapore will never be able to have a completely fair and open national conversation.

What information asymmetries exist? Simply, the government has all the data and information, and we, the people, are given only selective access to it. Whenever people talk about the “lack of information” or the need for a “freedom of information” act, it is difficult to grasp what precisely this means in practice, and why exactly we need it.

Hence, in my humble bid to shed some light on this problem, I will adopt the same approach as I did last year, when I wrote a piece entitled “The problem with Singapore’s media“, showing six clear examples of institutionalised bias in Singapore’s media.

Here, I will show three clear examples of how the Singapore government’s stranglehold over data has blunted my ability to function as an analyst and journalist, preventing me from writing transparently, undermining the richness of any dialogue I can hope to promote through my writing.

If you’d like to cut straight to the three examples, please click here. But, if you are keen on some discussion on information asymmetries in society, then do read on.

Information asymmetries

“In economics and contract theory, information asymmetry deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information than the other. This creates an imbalance of power in transactions which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry, a kind of market failure in the worst case.” 1

Information asymmetries can lead to several “market failures”, including adverse selection, moral hazard, and principal-agent problems.

“Adverse selection” is best demonstrated through the market for second-hand cars. Sellers know exactly how many times they’ve spilled coffee or burnt rubber on the cars they’re selling. Buyers don’t. Sellers of lemons are more likely to be bargained down than sellers of good cars. At any given price, it is more likely that a lemon than a good car is going to be sold, to the detriment of buyers and sellers of good cars.

“Moral hazard” pops up frequently in the insurance industry. Insurance firms assume all 26-year old drivers are the same. But Speedy Gonzalez assumes that once he has paid his insurance, he can drive how he wants because somebody else will cover him. If the insurance firm could have identified the Speedy Gonzalezes beforehand, it would have raised their premiums.

“Principal-agent problems” occur when the interests of the “principal” are not aligned to those of the “agent” who represents the principal. These issues are commonly discussed in terms of corporations. The company owners (principals) hire managers (agents) to run the firm. But the managers (agents) make decisions–bigger bonuses, more Club Med retreats–that might not be in the interests of the owners (principals), who are keen to maximise profits.

Everyday information asymmetries

Consider the doctor-patient relationship.

“The asymmetry of information makes the relationship between patients and doctors rather different from the usual relationship between buyers and sellers. We rely upon our doctor to act in our best interests, to act as our agent. This means we are expecting our doctor to divide herself in half – on the one hand to act in our interests as the buyer of health care for us but on the other to act in her own interests as the seller of health care. In a free market situation where the doctor is primarily motivated by the profit motive, the possibility exists for doctors to exploit patients by advising more treatment to be purchased than is necessary.” 2

Errrr, Susan Lim?

Many information asymmetries also exist in the financial services industry. Given the drama we witnessed in 2008, it’s fitting that we look at collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) in the American mortgage market. Perhaps the most famous example of an information asymmetry being exploited is when John Paulson, a hedge fund manager, allegedly influenced the composition of a Goldman Sachs CDO and then bet against it. In other words, Mr Paulson helped choose some really shitty mortgages that went into a bond which was then sold off to investors. The investors thought it was gold. Mr Paulson knew it was crap. And he made money off that trade. (Of course, he could have also lost money if the value of those subprime mortgages kept rising.)

Closer to home,  we have the Lehman Brothers Minibond Saga, where Singaporean financial institutions were accused of having mis-sold products; ten of them had penalties imposed. The mis-selling was possible only because of an information asymmetry: the sellers of the financial products had more information–i.e. understood the risk-reward profile better–than the buyers, many of whom were inexperienced elderly investors.

Information asymmetries in government-citizen relations

Government-citizen information asymmetries can lead to principal-agent problems. Elected politicians are actually the agents who are chosen to act on behalf of the principals: the voters, the people, the citizens. But these agents (politicians) may not always be acting in the best interests of the principals (voters).

Why would governments want to hide information from citizens? It usually relates to elite protection. People in positions of power, in their bid to retain their status, can go to great lengths to hide and massage data and information.

A country’s political system influences its approach to freedom of information. On one side of the spectrum we have the most information-biased country on the planet: North Korea, a brutal totalitarian, military dictatorship. On the other, we have liberal democracies, such as the US, which not only have Freedom of Information acts–including systematic declassification of secret government documents–but also have assertive, independent media outfits that relentlessly hound the government for data and information.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the countries with the most liberal information agendas are the ones with the most politically aware or enlightened populations. As much as there is information, there is also mis-information. Vested financial and political interests regularly  manipulate the media in ostensibly open, democratic systems. That is the reason why many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, and why many of them today believe that President Obama was born outside the US.

Hence, even in countries where there is freedom of information, one might argue that the informational outcomes are not always optimal from the principals’ (voters) point of view. There are many other factors that matter, including literacy and media quality and diversity. If you’re keen to read more about information control and media manipulation, do refer to the work of Noam Chomsky.

Nevertheless, all other things being equal, it is in the interests of principals (voters) to demand greater information access from their agents (government); with a few possible caveats, related to national security. Yet, even then, according to Mr Chomsky in this video on freedom of information,

“If you look at the declassified records, you find very little material that has anything to do with national security or the defense of the country. What you find mostly is the need to defend the government against its own population. Most of what’s there, they just don’t want you to know, because it harms power.”

What are some other countries that have Freedom of Information Acts? According to Wikipedia,

“President Pervez Musharraf promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 in October 2002. The law allows any citizen access to public records held by a public body of the federal government including ministries, departments, boards, councils, courts and tribunals. It does not apply to government owned corporations or provincial governments. The bodies must respond within 21 days.

In Germany, the federal government passed a freedom of information law on September 5, 2005. The law grants each person an unconditional right to access official federal information. No legal, commercial, or any other kind of justification is necessary.” 3

Where does Singapore sit on this government-citizen information continuum?

Although some government critics have in the past (ridiculously) put Singapore and North Korea in the same sentence,  in terms of information, we are actually much, much closer to the US or other Western liberal democracies than we are to totalitarian states. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of information that the government keeps from us–let me describe the three instances of government agencies rebuffing my requests for data and information.

Note: As with my earlier piece on the media, I will not be revealing the names of any of the Singapore government officials I communicated with. This article and argument has absolutely nothing to do with them; it is simply about the system and structure that we all have to operate within. In fact, all of them were quite cordial and prompt in my discussions with them, and were simply following orders–or, perhaps, as often happens in any hierarchical organisation, they were erring WAY on the side of caution. Not empowered to make big decisions, so they “cover backside”, and turn me away.

Here are the three incidents:

1) Secretive population data Part I

In November 2009 I was working on a piece for The Economist looking at immigration and its impact on Singapore. You can read my final article here.

As part of my research for the piece, I wanted to find out the ethnic breakdown of three groups of people: the “Permanent resident population”, the “Non-resident population”, and the “New citizens (i.e. not born in Singapore)”?

Why did I want to know the ethnic breakdowns? Simple. I wanted to see if Singapore’s immigration policies were giving preference to any particular nationality or ethnic group. Some HR personnel and small business owners had told me, for instance, that it is much easier to bring in Chinese from China, Malaysia and Indonesia than it is any other person on this planet.

I wanted to find out if this is true, partly because then it might explain some of the irritation in society with service staff who speak only Chinese. ““I am Singaporean and tired of service staff who can only speak Mandarin” is a group on Facebook, the social-networking site, with more than 10,000 members,” I had written three years ago.

So I asked the Population Statistics Section at the Singapore Department of Statistics. The only data point it offered was “Permanent residents by ethnic group, 2000”. This was its reply: “We are sorry to inform we are unable to provide further breakdown of the permanent residents and non-residents for the other years requested.”

As soon as I read this, my mind started racing. Why wouldn’t the government want to share ethnic breakdowns of migrants? Was the situation really so serious, i.e. has Singapore really been drastically changing the composition of its population? I still don’t know.

I also asked the newly established National Integration Council (NIC): “How many Singapore citizens are Singapore-born, and how many are foreign-born?” This would allow me to properly consider the extent of the “integration” challenge facing the NIC.

I was foolishly assuming that the NIC would be happy to share this data. After all, if its mandate is to promote integration, surely it has to know how many foreign-born people there are in our country? And surely it would want to inform the people in the country so they are aware of all the other wonderful people in the country?

Well, no. As you will read further below, that was the first but not the last time the government did not want to share this bit of information with me. Again, my mind started racing. Why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how many foreign-born citizens are in the country?

2) Secretive education spending data

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), where I work, published a research report comparing preschool education around the world. I was the editor of the report. After the report was completed, I wanted to write an Op-Ed for The Straits Times on preschool education in Singapore. You can read the Op-Ed here.

Just to rewind a bit–when the EIU was conducting its research for the project, we had asked each of the 45 countries we studied to provide us with data on “Government spending per relevant-aged child”, i.e. how much public money is being spent on children below the age of 7. For every other country, this is public information. Not here–in Singapore, this data is confidential.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) had very kindly agreed to let us have the data purely for the purposes of building the model, i.e. we could use it in our benchmarking of the 45 countries, but were not to publish it publicly.

OK. I had initially thought this was because MOE, for whatever reason, did not want this info being disseminated across the world. But surely MOE would consent to publishing it in the local newspapers, for Singapore citizens to understand the state of preschool education here?

Well, not really. The official at MOE told me not to release this figure to The Straits Times. So, as you will see in my Op-Ed, I had to dance clumsily around the fact:

“In terms of government spending per year on each relevant-aged child, exact figures for Singapore are not available, but it is understood to spend less than Norway does (US$7,620 in PPP terms), and less also than countries such as New Zealand (US$4,329), Japan (US$4,029) and Poland (US$2,635).”

From a journalistic point of view, this creates confusion. Any reader who reads the above statement will ask: So, what exactly does Singapore spend? Is it US$2,500? Or is it US$500? This loss of clarity is to the detriment of all parties involved.

From a citizen’s point of view, you are probably asking yourself the same question I did. In an article in a Singapore paper, why is it that we Singaporeans are not allowed to know how much of our tax money is flowing into preschool education? Not only that, what makes it more galling is the fact that we do have the information to discuss all the other countries’ spending amounts. But not ours.

Why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how much it spends on preschool education?

(Note: Even though I learned about all this during the course of my work, there is nothing confidential here. I did not discover all this because of any privileged access. Anybody who is interested in preschool spending in any of those 45 countries would have found out exactly what I did.)

3) Secretive population data Part II

The most recent brush I had with government information intransigence was last month, when I was doing research for a piece entitled “The End of Identity” that I intended to publish on the IPS Commons site.

In order to get a better grip on Singaporean identity, I wanted to know what percentage of citizens were born in this country. Essentially, the same question I had asked three years prior, but coming it at from a slightly different angle.

This time, I was actually much more optimistic about getting a straight answer from the government. At a macro socio-political level, from 2009 to 2012, there have been quite significant changes in this country, as Singapore’s political space has opened up. In particular, it seemed to me that the government is trying to be much more consultative, and engage citizens like myself in conversations and dialogues. At a more micro level, I was buoyed by the setting up of the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), which sits under the Prime Minister’s Office. The NPTD was some proof, I thought, that the government is taking the population issue seriously.

Perhaps most importantly, the NPTD had recently rolled out a population “Issues paper” with a big song and dance, with the specific aim of “engaging the public extensively this year to hear their views, because we think it’s an important issue that affects all of us,” according to an official at NPTD.

Finally! Now I can ask the NPTD all my burning population questions that will help me write my pieces.

Well, not really.

As it turns out, the NPTD only wants Singaporeans to discuss certain population issues, not others.

After almost one week of mulling what to say to me, amid numerous conversations with a Corporate Comms person there, this was its official reply: “The number of Singapore citizens, as at Dec 2011, is 3.27 million. We do not provide a breakdown in terms of local-born or naturalised citizens, as we regard them all as Singaporeans.”

From a journalist’s point of view, this whole process of information gathering can be quite frustrating. First, I have no idea about whether I’m going to get the data I need. Second, my piece gets held up for a week, as the government spin doctors whir into action. No big deal in this case, since many people ultimately got to read it. But it still rankles.

Third, there is again loss of clarity, to the detriment of all parties.

This process of government obfuscation, which then leads to journalists having to come up with rough approximations, which then leads to readers having to wonder what the truth actually is–is this the kind of National Conversation we want to have?

Is the NPTD interested in a genuine engagement or is its main purpose simply to communicate the government’s population policies to the people of Singapore?

And, to ask the same question that bothered me three years ago, why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how many foreign-born citizens are in the country?

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Conclusion: What kind of a national conversation do we want?

Let me sum up with a few points. First, when faced with requests for Freedom of Information, a frequent government retort–not just in Singapore, but the world over–is that “there are national security concerns”. If anybody ever mentions this to you, dear reader, I’d appreciate if you can point them to the above three examples. I can’t wait for somebody to explain how spending on toddlers is a national security concern.

Second, to reiterate, I do not think there’s any point haranguing Singaporean government officials (i.e. civil servants) who refuse to provide data or information. They are trying to do the best possible job given the constraints they face, just like journalists in mainstream media outlets. We have an institutionalised problem that needs to be addressed.

In fact, I think the government officials’ jobs would be much easier if Singapore had a Freedom of Information Act. Then they wouldn’t have to spend time wondering whether to respond to requests from people like me. They could just get on with their work. Do note that data and info is not transparent even within the govt. According to my public sector friends, there is often a problem with government units hoarding information and hiding it from other government agencies.

A Freedom of Information Act would help us all. Note that, according to Wikipedia, “A basic principle behind most freedom of information legislation is that the burden of proof falls on the body asked for information, not the person asking for it. The person making the request does not usually have to give an explanation for their actions, but if the information is not disclosed a valid reason has to be given.”3

Even if a Freedom of Information Act is politically unworkable in the short term, I am sure there are other ways to free up the mountains of data and information that citizens want access to. Perhaps we can set up a separate “Information office”, or Ombudsman of some sort, with the authority and mandate to get other government bodies to release information to the public. I’m sure there are other problems around this, but it’s high time we considered all our options.

On a related note, I am not even sure Singapore’s most senior politicians are happy with the status quo. Some may be, of course, but there are others who might see the value in sharing data and information–like those in the 3 examples above–with the general public. This can improve the quality of public discourse and ultimately policies. But, as with any huge, hierarchical bureaucracy, not every intention at the top gets passed down the chain of command swiftly. It is entirely possible that the foot soldiers are slightly out of step with the generals.

Earlier this year, Teo Chee Hean, the deputy prime minister, got a lot of stick for asking students “What do you think?” in response to some tough questions. While it would have been nice for Mr Teo to offer more concrete opinions of his own, part of me agrees with him. It is important to ask Singaporeans what we think. (It’s also important to listen and absorb our responses.)

This is largely because of the increasing complexity of policymaking and economic development. In a modern, knowledge economy in an open, globalised world, information and knowledge exists in disparate pockets everywhere. “What do you think?” has arguably become a much more important question than at any point in our history.

But it’s also important for Mr Teo to remember two things. While it is good to ask “What do you think?”, the PAP should do so with a dose of humility. One of the main reasons Singaporeans assume that we do not have to think and contribute to policymaking is, well, for decades the PAP told us NOT TO.

“They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

The second thing Mr Teo should understand is that as long as there are significant information asymmetries in society, Singapore will never be able to have a proper national conversation. And we the citizens will never be able to “think” as well as we should.

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Dear friends, in my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, I discuss in further detail several of the issues that crop up in this essay: the Malaysian and Singaporean governments’ control over information, and scripting of our national history; Singapore’s population policies; and our approach to ethnic composition, and the supposed preference for Chinese migrants.

If you are in Singapore, please join us for my book launch at 8pm, September 26th at the Esplanade. Do RSVP to Riya at orders.nuspress@nus.edu.sg if you’d like to come. Please click here for more details of the launch.

Also, the book itself will be available in book stores in Malaysia and Singapore very shortly. Look out for it! Or to buy on Amazon, click here.

References:

1 Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_asymmetry

2 http://oheschools.org/ohech3pg4.html

3 Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_legislation

Photo credit: Derek Midgley’s photostream