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.

Continue reading

Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

Dear friends, I am very happy to announce the release of my new book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, co-authored with Donald Low, with contributions by Linda Lim and PJ Thum, and published by NUS Press.

Do you recognise the image on the cover? Scroll to the bottom of this post to find out more about it.

Availability in Singapore

Donald and I will be taking part in a discussion at NUS, moderated by David Skilling of the Landfall Strategy Group. Bookhaven will be selling copies there at S$20 per book (usual price S$24).

Date: April 22nd 2014
Time: 6:00pm to 7:30pm
Venue: Bookhaven, NUS U-Town. 2 College Avenue West, Singapore, Singapore 138607 (see here)

Registration is free, but necessary as space is limited. Click here to do so.

For those who cannot make it on April 22nd but still want a personalised copy autographed by the two of us—at the launch price—please order through me directly by April 22nd morning, for collection at NUS Press.

To order, send an email with your details, including autograph instructions (if any), to sudhir@post.harvard.edu. The S$20 is payable to NUS Press upon collection there (see here).

Otherwise, the book should be available in all good bookstores, including NUS Press itself, by end April.

Digital/Worldwide

Digital versions (Amazon, Apple, Kobo and B&N) will be ready by end April. We are still working out the Google Play delivery. Worldwide hard copies should also be available on Amazon by July 31st—although they are notorious for delays with hard copies.

Do check back here for updates; or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of this page to receive my blogposts automatically.

What is the book about?

The book is a collection of essays on Singapore, each dealing with a different policy or social dimension—including history, meritocracy, social security, housing and identity.

More important than the specific topics, perhaps, is the spirit of the book. Each essay challenges one or more assumptions of the Singapore consensus—from vulnerability to elite governance—and suggests policy alternatives, some fairly radical, to the limited and narrow options that are often presented in public discourse here.

Will greater welfare necessarily harm Singapore’s competitiveness? Does Singapore need high immigration in order to keep growing and raise living standards? Are ethnic classifications—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others—and quotas in HDB estates necessary in order to maintain ethnic harmony?

A traditional Singapore establishment viewpoint would respond with a resounding YES to all of the above. In the book we skewer these and many other sacred cows. Continue reading

Preparing for our bicycle trip, May-June 2004

Once Sumana and I had made up our minds to spend 30 days cycling around Malaysia on RM10 (US$3) per day each, we had to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Physically, because we had no idea how our bodies would react. The most we had ever cycled was some 50km around Singapore. What would happen when we tried to cycle 80km every single day continuously? So, we just started cycling around Singapore. First,with nothing on our bikes, then with our panniers mounted and filled. When I look back at this period, the one enduring memory is of Singapore’s roads–they were far less congested back then, just a few years ago in 2004, and motorists were much more patient and aware of cyclists. After a 7-year hiatus, I started cycling seriously again last December, 2011. Oh boy. There are times now on Singapore’s roads I feel like one of those runners in Pamplona, panting, sprinting foolishly alongside raging bulls, unsure who is supposed to tag who.

Emotionally, because as cocksure as we pretended to be, we were still scared. At a larger level, what if this whole trip was just a bloody waste of time? We weren’t looking forward to failure, stumbling back to Singapore to face the chorus of told-you-so’s. At a more prosaic level, the daily uncertainties worried us. Would we really be able to live on just RM10 a day? Where were we going to sleep every night? How the heck could we get through a month without home-cooked food? Worse, a month without drinking?

And intellectually, as we dusted off our Malaysia history books and Kamus, the Malay dictionary. Sure, we had gone through 12 years of Malay as second-language in Singapore’s schools. Sure, we had passed Malay at ‘O’ and ‘AO’ Level. But in early 2004, having just spent 4 years at undergrad in California, Sumana and I spoke better Spanish than Malay. And so, painful as it was initially, we started reading Malay newspapers, talking to each other in Malay, and watching Mat YoYo.

So, in short, we passed those days in May and June 2004, after we had returned to Singapore from Year 1 of our Masters programme in the US and before the start of our bike trip, mostly cycling, worrying, and trying to memorise the Malay phrase for “hungry cyclist”. It was actually quite fun.

One of the toughest trade-offs we faced was between our bicycles’ simplicity and performance. Our intention was to travel as inconspicuously as possible. We had chosen to cycle, after all, partly because we didn’t want to be seen as the Rolex-touting Singaporean barrelling through Malaysia in a Mercedes. We certainly didn’t want a high-tech, flashy mountain bike.

However, our desire for simplicity had to be balanced with the need for a machine that could get us through thousands of kilometres of Malaysian sand, jungle, road and mountain. In the end, we erred on the side of performance.

As a result, amidst thousands of single-geared bicycles, our 24-speed Giants stuck out like sore thumbs.

We also wore ridiculous helmets—shunned even by Malaysian motorcyclists—another sure sign that we were slightly out of mind, and definitely out-of-town.

The other major dilemma revolved around our pre-trip dietary plans. I was fairly convinced by the “protein diet” craze that had swept the US, and so decided to cut down on carbohydrates. The aim was to slowly reduce my food intake and therefore shrink my stomach to prepare for our journey where we would be eating much less than normal.

Sumana, a student of the camel school of consumption, had decided that the only way to prepare for reduced consumption was to eat as much as possible and thus fatten himself up to pre-empt the effects of weight loss. We took to our diets with dogged determination, intent on proving the other wrong. The result of all this waffly nutritional science is that Sumana often felt hungry and I weak.

Dinner with a Bersih Boy

April 28th 2012, Kuala Lumpur

If you want to eat at Sek Yuen, go after a Bersih rally.

Smack in the middle of KL, Sek Yuen is an old-school Cantonese joint: wooden Chinese coffeshop chairs; yellowed plastic ceiling fans, silver standing fans, so old their blades look like WWII propellers; square metal grills over the windows; black and white photographs on the walls; and, of course, the elderly Chinese lao ban sitting at the money table, listlessly fingering his abacus to no sum in particular.

As one travels around Malaysia, there are several spots that implore you to stop, take pause, and wonder about how Singapore might have looked in the 1950s. Nowhere evokes this nostalgia better than Sek Yuen.

As if to prove they are also connected with the present, Sek Yuen’s owners have built a new restaurant–with air-conditioning, this time–right next to the original on Jalan Pudu. The first time I ate here, in 2009, we were seated at the new joint because the place was too full. The second time, Saturday April 28th 2012, the day of Bersih 3.0, there was plenty of space. We got a spot at the original–the real time machine.

The whole afternoon, several friends and I had been agonising about whether to go to Sek Yuen. Will downtown KL be OK? Will the Bersih roadblocks have been cleared? Will we spend our evening stuck in another horrendous KL traffic jam?

One of the paradoxes of any country’s democratisation process is that while one usually feels like urging it on, celebrating it, one doesn’t on those occasions when it impinges on your own mobility or schedule.

If I had been part of the Bersih rally, I would have been singing and high-fiving, for I knew several people there, including George (not his real name) who we were meeting for dinner. But since I wasn’t involved, Bersih became like an irritant, an obstacle standing between me and my pipa duck (or Pei Par duck, 枇杷鸭) the most tender, juicy, crispy bird one might ever eat.

Observers pick apart Malaysia’s democratisation to see if there are any lessons for Singapore. One thing that we are wholly unprepared for is the messiness, the disruptions, the delays. Singapore has been run for so long with clinical precision by a few people–an increasingly archaic form of governance–that it will probably take some time for society to accept and enjoy the democratic process, the extra time needed, whether it be for civil society activism, citizen-government engagement or more collaborative decision-making.

In other words, for the pragmatic Singaporean, something like a Bersih rally in Raffles Place would be an absolute nightmare. Can you imagine not being able to get to Louis Vuitton or Mee Pok Man on a Saturday? Heaven help us.

Malaysians, by contrast, are now used to all this; some even crave it. The Sek Yuen matriarch, for instance, was completely on top of things, and had promised to call us if there was any major traffic situation near the restaurant. We couldn’t really trust her, of course, since she had a vested interest in making sure we got there–particularly since we had pre-ordered eight dishes.

And so our relaxed afternoon was peppered with light-hearted debates between the more obsessive among us–“Why don’t we just eat here in Petaling Jaya?”–and the more philosophical–“Let’s just drive in to KL, if we make it we make it, if we don’t we don’t”.

Being firmly part of the former, I was busy texting and calling different people, including George, to find out the situation on the ground. We also had the television on and were busy refreshing Facebook and Twitter feeds, partly to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, partly because of our hunger pangs.

As is now common in Malaysia–like many other countries–there was a fair bit of real-time misinformation online. The most egregious example of this was a photo showing the Bersih rally completely swarming the whole of downtown KL, including Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square).

The cartoonish flags are a giveaway. In reality, Dataran Merdeka was the most heavily fortified, and the scene of many of the alleged instances of police brutality, as Malaysia’s cops struggled to keep protestors out.

In any case, we had privileged sources of information, and a few hours later, had driven smoothly into the city, and were sitting in front of a wonderful spread. Both the streets and Sek Yuen were empty. Thank you, Bersih.

Across from our table was a group of protestors, yellow shirts on, digging in furiously. George texted to say that he’d be a bit late, so we did the polite Singaporean thing, and started eating.

When George arrived, half an hour later, several people in our group instinctively rose and started clapping, much to the amusement of the Sek Yuen staff. I wasn’t sure if it was to acknowledge his role in Malaysia’s political journey, or in appreciation of Lina (not her real name), his beautiful new girlfriend, who we had all been eager to meet.

Both George and Lina had taken part in the rally, though with different groups. “We didn’t see each other there,” he said. George was glowing, the same fiery glow I’ve noticed over the past few years, every time we meet after some political event. He was supercharged on democracy, on activism, on participation, that pulsating feeling one gets when absorbed and enveloped in people power.

He glanced quickly at the half eaten platters of food in front of him–a traditional cold dish, with jellyfish, octopus, shellfish and prawns; Aspic chicken, a jelly-like concoction; sauteed beef; and stir-fried Udang Galah, huge, succulent freshwater prawns. He looked back at us, clearly more interested in chatting than eating.

Though political awakenings are a relatively recent phenomenon in Singapore, almost every Malaysian I know has been revelling in the newfound power of their voice and vote for several years now. “Talking politics” has become as important as the food. George got involved in activism in the lead up to the 2008 General Elections, when he volunteered on the winning campaign of a friend, a DAP (Democratic Action Party) candidate. He’s been hooked ever since.

“You know, some people actually overturned a police car!” George screamed defiantly, as I turned over, rather grumpily, the last of the Yam Ring. Perhaps it was a symbolic victory for many in the Bersih crowd who have long felt victimised by the police. But it would also prove a liability, an indication to some that elements of Bersih might have gotten carried away and engaged in violent behaviour.

Bersih is a non-governmental coalition that seeks to promote electoral reform in Malaysia. It was founded in 2006 and is headed by Ambiga Sreenevasan, a Malaysian lawyer, to her followers a somewhat Gandhian figure. Bersih’s first rally was in November 2007; the second (Bersih 2.0) was in July 2011; and the third (Bersih 3.0) on April 28th 2012.

Bersih has many genuine grievances. Singaporeans like to complain about several problems with our electoral processes, including gerrymandering. All serious enough, and yet at the same time they pale in comparison to the shenanigans north of the border.

In the past few months, for instance, it has emerged that a single Malaysian address has more than 50 different voter names registered at it. There are more than 40,000 “doubtful” voters, with no valid or verifiable address (out of a total of some 12.5m registered voters). Meanwhile, there are suggestions that many foreign workers–including Indonesians and Myanmese–have been registered to vote, either officially by having citizenship applications rushed through, or surreptitiously.

It has been fascinating watching Malaysia’s civil society evolve. The first Malaysian election I attended was a by-election in a small town called Pengkalan Pasir, just outside Kota Bahru, Kelantan in 2005. It was called after an assemblyman passed on, and was a fierce contest between PAS (Parti SeIslam Malaysia) and UMNO. The frequent electoral complaint back then–pre-Bersih days–was about “Pengundi Hantu”, phantom voters. I certainly saw buses full of people arriving in Kelantan from outside, though it wasn’t clear to me if they were just UMNO supporters, accidental tourists or, indeed, phantom voters. UMNO won that close election–by a mere 134 votes, out of some 15,000 total–a surprise perhaps, in a state long dominated by PAS.

Hence Bersih certainly has some legitimate complaints. As an organisation, it has matured tremendously. “This time we came prepared,” George said. “We had masks, goggles, and salt.”

“Salt? For what?”

“The tear gas. You put it on your skin. Also, it burns your throat, so you eat spoonfulls of salt to neutralise it.”

Poor sod. No wonder he couldn’t taste the chicken.

“I went to McDonald’s on the way to the rally, and picked up a few sachets of salt. I thought I was being very smart. When I got there, these old aunties laughed at my sachets. They pulled out boxes of kitchen salt from their bag.”

Bersih describes itself as a ‘coalition of like-minded civil society organisations unaffiliated to any political party’. However, in the eyes of many, Bersih is also effectively an opposition vehicle.

Why? First, it has the explicit backing of all the opposition parties. Opposition leaders, such as Anwar Ibrahim, frequently front Bersih rallies. Many opposition supporters, such as George and Lina, are also Bersih supporters, and vice versa. For the past few years, Malaysia’s opposition has been complaining about electoral fraud. The usual government retort to this is “If there was fraud, how could the opposition win 5 states in 2008?” To which the opposition replies, “We would have won so much more.”

Bersih has also accepted financial assistance from America’s National Democratic Institute (NDI) and George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI). The NDI and OSI, of course, regularly fund pro-democracy movements in many parts of the world, from the Middle East to Latin America. Unsurprisingly, in all these countries, support for “democracy” or “electoral reform” usually means supporting the opposition, which often faces an alleged authoritarian incumbent.

And this is where Bersih’s role in Malaysian society starts to get a bit hazier and trickier. Is Bersih really unaffiliated or is it effectively a civil society front for the opposition? The difference is important, especially for Malaysians. Another close friend of mine–who leans slightly towards the opposition–said that she was going to go for the rally on Saturday, but decided not to at the last moment, when she realised, “That was not totally neutral lah. It had elements of the opposition so I thought best not to and I was right!”

Is Bersih acting purely for electoral reform, or is it making organisational decisions that are intended to benefit the opposition? Is an opposition-driven Bersih more likely to provoke the police than a non-partisan Bersih? Why were they so intent on entering Dataran Merdeka, I asked George. As he pondered, I quietly finished off the last of the pipa duck.

When you bite into Sek Yuen’s golden brown pipa duck, the first thing you notice is a crackling sound, as the skin breaks, like papadum. Moments later, your entire mouth is awash with glorious duck fat and juice. And oh, the smoke. Sek Yuen’s kitchen is fuelled completely by wood–not, say, gas or charcoal–a culinary rarity even in Malaysia’s countryside, let alone its biggest city. This imparts a magical flavour to several dishes, most notably the duck.

George answered:  Ambiga had made the decision to move towards the square, and that was that. “We were all chanting together, ‘masuk!’, ‘masuk!’,” George said, recognising the Bersih crowd’s desire to enter Dataran Merdeka.

It would be silly to suggest that opposition or Bersih supporters are violent. George is one of the most non-violent peaceniks you’ll ever meet. Nor are all Bersih supporters opposition voters. In fact, over the past few days, several people who attended the rally have taken umbrage at the accusation that they’re opposition stooges. One of the more touching accounts I’ve read is from the daughter of an officer at the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit, Malaysia’s “riot police”, for lack of a better phrase, the policemen acting as the last barrier at the rally).

Still, one broad point here is that Malaysians should be mindful of any civil society organisation having its agenda hijacked by any vested interests–government, opposition or otherwise. Whatever happens at the next General Elections, due by March 2013, you can be sure there will be cries over electoral fraud. It is incumbent upon Bersih to make an independent assessment–not one biased by one party or another.

In many ways, Bersih’s existential struggle is all part of the country’s political evolution, as a heavy-handed authoritarian government has to concede political and social space to a plethora of other actors. New voices are fighting to be heard. As they each stake out their space, the lines between them will grow clearer. It will be interesting to see how this takes shape in Singapore.

Malaysia’s civil society is developing at an astonishing pace. A few days before Bersih 3.0, another organisation, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia, republished a “Street Rally Guide” that it had written in July 2011 (ahead of Bersih 2.0). It is utterly modern, including such gems as “Take pictures to be posted on Facebook. Tag your new friends.”

I reposted the whole guide last week on my Facebook page. A few hours later, my American Latina grad school classmate had reposted it on her own FB page–“relevant to people everywhere,” she said. And just like that, a Malaysian grassroots innovation had been copied by those old Democrats in the US.

Bersih is performing a great service for Malaysia: raising awareness, helping improve electoral processes, allowing Malaysians from all walks of life to participate in civil society, drawing them in to democratic life, strengthening codes of conduct.

Let’s hope it continues its work as a non-partisan, civil society organisation. I look forward to many more Bersih rallies.

Besides, I can’t wait to eat that duck again.

Sek Yuen’s pig’s trotter is made with delicate precision. It is deboned and then stuffed with gingko, chestnuts, mushroom, lap cheong, garlic and other granular goodies. It is wrapped so perfectly that it almost seems as if Sek Yuen breeds special pigs made of nuts, not bones. The server leans over our table, and cuts up the trotter with a scissors. Unlike every other trotter I’ve had, this one does not cause you to go into cardiac arrest. It is almost healthy, with just the right amount of fat below the skin; a trotter for non-trotters.

a noisy night of nostalgia

The view from the top of the hill at Fort Canning Park–looking down onto the stage, rockers in full glory, bright lights blinding those in the pit, the Singapore skyline in the background–that’s one of my favourite concert scenes.

And I have been spoilt for choice, lucky to attend many outdoor concerts with stunning backdrops, especially during my four years studying in California. The Greek Theater at Berkeley, my home away from home, holds a special place in my heart. Bob Dylan, Green Day, Live and Counting Crows together, they all played their part, as the sun set behind San Francisco, the city in the distance, the scent of eucalyptus, hotdogs and burning herbs wafting through the air.

Or the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, more than an hour from Berkeley, which meant having to drive back an hour somewhat intoxicated; drunk enough to fail a breathalyser, but not drunk enough to cause any trouble–the drink driver’s hymn, that one. Crosby, Stills and Nash (very old, and no Neil Young), and Third Eye Blind sang their hearts out beneath the crimson Californian sky. Magic.

Or Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, nestled between Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where retired hippies chill while wannabe hippies and dotcom millionaires rock, bang and gyrate. I saw too many here, the pick were the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Dave Matthews Band (twice). But my good times memories are always tainted by the nightmarish traffic, leading in and out of this place, which made me miss even more the Greek Theater, minutes from my dorm.

And despite all those wonderful events there is something special, something unique about Fort Canning Park. Certainly not the overpriced drinks and mediocre food, pitiful in a gastronomic capital. Not the listless service offered by the lost schoolkids who’ve swapped school for waitstaff uniforms, all eager beavers with no clue, personifications of Singapore’s productivity dilemma–pay as low as you can, get as many as possible, and don’t you worry about the quality. (No disrespect to the kids–they tried their best, but they’re just not trained well enough.)

And also not the long walk to the bathrooms in that grand old colonial building sitting on top of the hill. Nor the sight of brutish, drunk, belligerent White males walking to the nearest fence and unzipping their pants, showering the trees and grass, because they were too lazy to walk to the top of the hill, too eager to return to the electric Kasabian atmosphere and their plastic cups of beer.

My BIL and I, half hammered and bladders full, alternated between cursing at the foreigners pissing on our park and wondering if we should join them. It is easy to lament the torrid influx of foreigners into this country, especially at times like these, but just by looking around I was reminded that if not for them, acts like Kasabian would probably never bother coming here.

Still, we had to leggo some Singapore machismo. We heckled one bloke, who shivered nervously, barely 10 metres away, and then turned around and walked towards us.

As he approached, all seven feet of him, I realised one should not judge a man by his pissing physique. We started smiling, and luckily so did he. Instead of getting thumped, all I got was a rather damp handshake.

It was while on a separate urinary mission that I had my first brush of nostalgia. I was up in the old colonial building when I ran into a Singaporean Malay guy. We didn’t shake hands. He was dressed in loose jeans and t-shirt, and spoke with a rather proper accent, as if he didn’t care much for Singlish.

He went to secondary school at Saint Patrick’s, and I at Saint Andrew’s, and we found a lot of joy in reminiscing about ancient football rivalries.

“You know, I used to love hanging out with the Eurasians and Bhais, like you,..”
“I’m not a Bha..”
“You guys are the best. A lot of fun. We’d go drinking together”
“Yes we would.”

It won’t be the last time I get mistaken for a Sikh. I never mind, they are a great bunch, and there certainly wasn’t time for a geographical clarification. Besides, even if not the letter, the spirit of his point rang true–the Eurasians, Indians and Malays of my generasi all had a rollicking good time in school, corralled in Malay class, we became members, BFFs. Or so we hoped.

As I left the old colonial building, bladder empty and nostalgia recepticon tweaking, I gazed down the hill once more, and admired the view. And then it struck me why I like the skyline so much.

From Fort Canning Park, the only two buildings one can really see, far behind the stage, are Peninsula Plaza to the right and to the left the Westin Stamford (or Swissotel or whatever it’s called today).

Peninsula Plaza, which at night wears that kitschy red and green neon crown, evokes memories of football shops, where one could buy English football jerseys, posters, photos and other memorabilia, a veritable emporium in those barren pre-Internet days. Or guitar studios. And photography labs.

Westin Stamford was the world’s tallest hotel when it was built. For some reason I remember that, and remember being proud about that. Much more than I am today when I look at the Esplanade, the Marina Bay Sands, and all those other temples of the new, global, Singapore.

So I guess what I’m trying to say, dear Reader, is that I really enjoyed Kasabian, and the opening act, the Vaccines. But what made the night special was the view, of a 1980s-90s Singapore, unencumbered by all those burdens and trappings of being whatever it is we are supposed to be today.

It felt nice. But also strange.

Worthless words

A recent media kerfuffle has shed light on politics and society in Singapore. After decades of softball journalism and scripted Q&As, some of our politicians do not have the ability to articulate their views coherently, or answer tough questions.

As a result, when we hear the views of our leaders, as transmitted through the mainstream media, I wonder how much is true; how much is really their own view; and how much is scripted–them simply saying what they think we want to hear.

The story involves Lim Wee Kiak, a PAP MP for Nee Soon GRC. In late May, when discussing ministerial salaries, he told a Lianhe Zaobao reporter:

“If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with CEOs of telco companies who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.”

Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate online backlash–why should dignity flow from a person’s income?

What followed was a series of ridiculous flip-flops that still leaves me baffled.

First, Dr Lim responded that he had been quoted out of context. OK–so he does believe that income=dignity, just that the example shouldn’t be quoted on its own.

A couple of days later, he released a statement, where he said, “I withdraw those remarks and apologise for making them. Dignity cannot be and must not be measured purely in monetary terms.”

Huh? I find it impossible that somebody can flip views on such a fundamental belief in two days.

On the one hand, I’ve always respected the fact that politicians in Singapore can change their opinions on larger policy issues–LKY on bilingualism, for instance–when new facts and evidence surface.

On the other hand, belief in income, dignity and a person’s worth are not policy ideas–they get to the very core of a person’s makeup. I doubt that some criticism can suddenly change that overnight. I am completely convinced that Dr Lim believes that dignity flows from income. Many people do, not just in Singapore, but all over the world.

That doesn’t make it right, and it worries me that our politicians think this way. Although I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me: money-worship seems to have gotten a stranglehold on our society, especially over the past 10 years or so. At its extreme, it produces cases like that involving Susan Lim.

(to clarify: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with materialism and making money. this instinct drives many economies, after all. It’s only problematic when the pursuit, and the making, of money is immoral, unethical or excessive.)

In my mind, what probably happened is that other senior politicians told him to fall into line, and apologise. How many of those other politicians actually think exactly like Dr Lim–but simply sugar-coat their press statements to make it seem like they’re egalitarian, magnanimous folk?

What has surprised me is that speaking to some friends, and reading some of the commentary online, it seems as though some Singaporeans accept this flip-flop, and are willing to forget what he said.

In other words, we may be tempted to view his initial statement to Lianhe Zaobao as a genuine gaffe–unrepresentative of the man.

I think we shouldn’t. It is a precious insight into the thinking of a politician–unvarnished, unscripted, spontaneous, from the heart, away from the watchful eye of the PAP spin doctors.

We should cherish these moments.

Ministerial salaries: A bottom-up approach?

Many Singaporeans are happy that the government will review ministerial salaries, partly because they finally feel that their voices are being heard and their votes making a difference.

Sadly Mr Gerrard Ee and his review committee will still be using old methodologies, such as benchmarking salaries to the private sector. That is a shame—this is a wonderful opportunity for a fresh, novel look at the issue, and a chance to set a good precedent for the government’s approach to other thorny challenges in the coming years.

For instance, Mr Ee’s team could consider a bottom-up approach. Instead of trying to figure out what discount from the private sector ministers should stomach, how about thinking about how much money a minister actually needs to live very comfortably?

Let me take an unscientific stab at it. I believe that in order for Singapore’s president to live very comfortably in Singapore today, every month we should pay him/her:

$20,000 housing
$20,000 family (including children’s education)
$10,000 food and beverage
$5,000 household miscellaneous
$5,000 IT miscellaneous
$5,000 entertainment miscellaneous
$5,000 car

That comes up to S$70,000. Since there are many more things, unbeknownst to us, that a president might need, let’s add an extra 20%, bringing it to S$84,000. That equates to around $1m a year. At the moment, our president earns more than four times that.

By any measure, our president can enjoy a luxurious life in Singapore on that salary. Our president will also be able to provide the very best education and upbringing for his or her children.

What are the merits of this approach? First, it actually ensures that every minister will be well taken care of, regardless of the vagaries of the free market. In the wake of the global financial crisis, there has been much soul-searching in the private sector—mostly in the developed world, but also elsewhere—about levels of senior executive compensation. Imagine that within five years time, the private sector has decided to lower senior executive compensation across the board. Does that mean our politicians should take a pay cut? I hope not.

Our politicians should be shielded from these free-market fluctuations. On the other hand, if house prices climb rapidly, I hope that our politicians are not affected. I would rather they spend their time thinking about policies for Singapore rather than watching the housing market (unless, of course, they are formulating housing policies).

With a bottom-up approach, they do not have to worry. If housing costs climb 10% in a year, we will adjust their incomes appropriately—using a crude calculation on the above figures, the president would get an extra S$2,000 per month.

Second, this methodology has a symbolic benefit—the electorate is basically telling the people we elect to lead us, “Hey. Don’t worry. You’ll be taken care of. You will enjoy the same wonderful standard of living today, tomorrow, and in four years time.”

Third, it ensures that the gap between ministerial salaries and median salaries is not determined by external events—the going rate for, say, an accountant in developed Asia—but by local, internal cost-of-living measures. Unlike accountants and lawyers, a minister cannot suddenly pack his bags and say, “You don’t want me? I’ll go be a minister in Hong Kong.” Why should we benchmark their salaries to people who are mobile and whose salaries are generally determined by regional trends?

What are the downsides of this approach? Well, ministerial salaries will probably not keep pace with top private sector ones. But so what? Do we really want as our president somebody who’s only willing to serve the country for S$4m, rather than S$1m?

I dare say that by encouraging this sort of thinking, we have unwittingly inculcated a certain degree of selfish money-mindedness in society. We are all prone to this—at the extreme, it produces cases like that involving Susan Lim, a surgeon under investigation for overcharging.

In any case, this is but one of many approaches. There are people much wiser than I who have suggested alternatives. The salient point is that Mr Ee and team should be generating fresh, novel ideas about ministerial salaries. If that is not the brief they have been given by the prime minister, well then, they should ask him for it. I believe he’s in the mood to listen.

TPL

Though it has taken some time for me to gather my thoughts on this complex, polarising figure, I think I’ve finally made up my mind. I believe it’s important that we come together to support Tin Pei Ling–in the same way we should support every parliamentarian representing our country. The only exception: if she’s found guilty of breaking cooling-off day rules, as discussed below.1

When I first heard that the PAP had recruited a 27-year old, I was delighted. Finally, I thought, we have our breath of fresh air, somebody who can represent the younger generation, and brighten up the party with new views.

That initial excitement quickly turned to amusement, as she was shown in all her Kate Spade glory. Had the PAP, in its mammoth effort to scour Singapore for political talent, just unearthed our first ever Hello Kitty Ambassador? From then on, it seemed as though she’d be less suited to the rigours of political life than to the dainty cutesiness of Japanese retail.

That tomfoolery was just simplistic pre-election humour, which we all happily indulged in (and why not?). But it was also a bit unfair in that it didn’t tell us who TPL really is. The vast majority of people I know on FB–myself certainly included–could have also been as easily embarrassed by online photos.

(aside: I am actually quite sad that TPL’s FB profile has been whitewashed. Gone are the cutesy photos. Will the real TPL please stand up? I fear that we will never get to know the real person now. I’d prefer if I knew more about our politicians–their knowledge and wisdom, for sure, but also their softer sides. Might make them seem more mortal, less aloof.)

Then a stream of TPL video clips were aired. One had her stomping up and down like a spoiled child at a loss for words. But the clincher, for me, was her comment about the greatest regret in her life. Remember: that was a proper, government-sanctioned, mainstream media interview, and she had just said one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard in local politics.

In a heartbeat, she went from Miss Hello Kitty to Miss Teen USA disaster reel.

She never really recovered from that. In the days that followed, more comical clips and reports emerged, some of which were also downright worrying–like her thoughts on income inequality in a 2007 speech. My current favourite TPL clip is a 2008 National Youth Forum video.

She has quickly become the most complex character in Singaporean politics. I do not think there is any other person who elicits such a range of visceral feelings and emotions.

Her supporters, however, seem to believe she is a Gen Y messiah. Meanwhile, some long-time PAP supporters have been completely disillusioned–a friend of mine, a smart, hardworking finance chap, says that he has always voted PAP, but now, for the first time, feels intellectually insulted by the choice of TPL–“They really take us for fools”.

Similarly, I have friends who have been PAP grassroots volunteers for a long time. They also feel a bit aggrieved that she was chosen over many other talented young people. Some now contend that it’s nepotism–her husband, after all, is PM Lee’s private secretary. But I don’t think that’s possible, since there is no nepotism in Singaporean politics.

She has also become a lightning rod for criticism over the GRC system. She has also drawn in unlikely people to political commentary–a friend who’s a teacher related a story of a Primary 4 student in her class. “Teacher, I don’t believe she should be carrying branded handbags”.

I personally don’t have much against her. I just don’t think she’s very smart. She strikes me as fairly mediocre–not somebody of the highest calibre (what our politicians are supposed to be). As with almost everybody I speak with, it grates that a bit of every tax dollar I pay from now on will be going to her bumper S$15,000 salary. In a pre-election Op-ed piece I wrote for TOC, I expressed my dismay at her perceived shortcomings.

Almost as soon as she was elected, there have been calls and petitions to have her removed. However, now that I have read some different viewpoints, I feel that it is only fair and right that we support her.

There are several reasons for this. First is the need to develop a constructive political system, not a disruptive, unhealthy one. I hope that everybody in Singapore, including the PAP and its supporters, pay the utmost respect to the opposition politicians in parliament today. Similarly, I think that whatever your political inclinations, it’s important to support TPL now that she’s been elected.

Second is that in a democratic process, we must respect voters’ wishes. We can dispute the GRC system. And we can argue till the cows come home about whether Marine Parade voters really wanted TPL in parliament. But the fact of the matter is that a majority of them voted for a team with her in it. That is important. They have chosen this team, and everybody should respect their choice.

Third, do we really know who she is? I’m not sure Singaporeans have really gotten a chance to know her. There’s been so much noise and furore around everything she does. If anything, she’s handled the criticism with admirable aplomb. I’m keen to see if there is something smart inside there.

All this is not to say that we should not criticise her words anymore. Every one of us should follow and scrutinise the words and actions of all our politicians, including TPL. If she makes any more mistakes, we must point them out. If we disagree with her mooted policies, let her know. However, criticising her just because of who she is seems pointless.

In the lead up to the next election, we should all again examine her record closely, and see whether we want her back in parliament. I no longer believe that she will be a breath of fresh air to Singaporean politics. If anything, she seems to be eerily similar in ideology to her predecessors. But that’s not to say that she won’t make a good politician. For the moment, at least, I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt–hopefully that doesn’t become the greatest regret of my life.

1 If she is found guilty of breaking cooling-off day laws, then she must be punished appropriately. If she is found guilty of lying about who posted on her FB page–even worse. I hope the police conduct a full and thorough investigation into this. I’m sure there is a way to track FB activity though the IP addresses. Or something.

By George!

For me, the saddest thing about the elections is the loss of George Yeo.

(Just to be clear on this point, I am delighted that the opposition won a GRC, and I’m pleased that Low’s team got in. But I am still sad that George is no longer around. as do many others, I blame our flawed GRC system for this.)

George is eloquent and smart, somebody who can represent Singapore in any corridor in the world. George is friendly and down-to-earth, engaging on Facebook, and discussing issues at McDonald’s with us regular folk. most of all, George just seems like a genuinely nice guy. Sadly, I can’t say all those things about all of our ministers.

When I was in grad school, I attended a class taught by Michael Porter, a strategy ‘guru’. Every week, we would discuss a different country’s development. During each, we had the good fortune of either listening directly to a senior politician from that country–Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, for instance, actually came for the class on his country–or watching a video of a politician from that country.

When it was Singapore’s turn, the discussion was fairly predictable, with lots of talk about rapid economic development, and rises in standards of living. as an international student amongst many other international students, it was stuff to feel rather smug about. But the best part was when George came on the screen.

Amongst many other wonderful things, he said, “the difference between Singapore and many other developed countries is that other countries measure their success by how well the people at the top do. In Singapore, we measure success by how well the people at the bottom do.” (I am misquoting, I’m sure, but it’s something like that)

Of course, this statement probably applies more to early Singapore than Singapore of the past 15 years, during which time the people at the bottom haven’t really seen their standards of living rise much. Income inequality has spiked. That is probably one of the major reasons why more people have been voting for the opposition.

In other words, George lost his seat partly because the PAP has recently failed to raise living standards of those at the bottom.

The great irony in this story is that George is probably one of the ministers most concerned about this issue. Nobody will ever know this for sure, but it’s just something I have a hunch about. Other PAP politicians do not seem as bothered about income inequality as George.

Adieu, George. You will be missed.

Two pieces I wrote recently for TOC

Dear reader, I recently wrote two pieces for The Online Citizen. You can read them here:

1. Why Singapore needs more opposition MPs

2. Three local myths

Overall, I have received positive feedback about them, which is nice. I was a little bit skeptical about writing at first, because I wasn’t sure who reads TOC, and whether or not they’d appreciate my writing. So thanks everybody who’s given me feedback.

I didn’t write for any money. More just because I felt that I had views to share, and there aren’t many places in Singapore I could share them. Of all the online sites, my sense is that TOC is the most balanced. although it certainly has an opposition slant–which in a way can’t be helped, as all these online sites feel the need to counteract our pro-PAP mainstream media.

What has actually been most interesting to me–and which speaks volumes about politics in Singapore–is that some people have suggested that my articles are pro-opposition.

Think about it: in both pieces, I say that my preferred political outcome is for the PAP to win about 67 seats, and the opposition 20.

Only in Singapore can that be interpreted as a plug for the opposition…:-)

What has surprised me, pleasantly, over the past few weeks, has been the sheer number of people I see talking about politics. Up till a year ago, I would have maintained that Singaporeans are politically apathetic. Not anymore. I think we were all just waiting for an avenue, and a critical mass–now there is confidence in numbers. people seem more willing to speak their mind because others are too.

So, even if the opposition wins just two seats again, at least we’ve all found our voice.