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PM Lee’s NDR message: The Why Behind The What’s Said

Given the past week’s flood of analyses and commentaries on PM Lee’s NDR speech, not much else can be squeezed out of his 12,000-word discourse substance-wise. So, for a different angle – my take on why his choice of substance in the speech.

The backdrop to NDR 2014

By uncovering PM Lee’s unspoken key objective(s), many criticisms of his speech for lack or excess thereof in this or another item or in toto can be more easily understood – though not necessarily accepted.

To do that, one has to bear in mind; Lee Hsien Loong is a politician, first and foremost, and  the PM and Sec-Gen of the ruling PAP. Further, 2014 is an exceptional factor in play. NDR 2014 precedes NDR 2015, the 50th year of SG independence and, co-incidentally, 2015 edges closer to the legal requirement for holding SG’s 17th GE.

He couldn’t have asked for a more difficult backdrop to ‘Singapore is at a turning point’ and his moment in history as PM when SG turns 50 – a highly, highly fluid situation of a never-so-polarized citizenry with demands so vocally and incessantly expressed 24/7. His own mediocre, one-trick-pony leadership team that worships the golden calf of GDP at all costs hasn’t helped either.

The wealth gap, retirement inadequacies of 75% (or 90%?) CPFers (not counting our mothers with no CPF at all), overcrowding, our oxymoronic govt-subsidized-skyhigh-priced HDB-scrapers and a restless younger and better-educated electorate are all coming home to roost.

For the die-hard supporters on either side of the divide, the issues are rather cut-and-dry. But the politician in LHL knows the real fight is in the middle ground and far from done.  What his FB sheep and grassroots stooges are telling him are in distinct and diverse dissonance with what is incessantly and impassionedly imparted, and not by just the lunatic fringe but fence-sitters and marginal supporters, too.

Key objective(s) for the speech at this time, 2014

So, against that irrefutable backdrop, what can be LHL’s key objective(s)?… Other than max’ing his incumbent resources to assure himself that same NDR stage beyond 2015? And better his PAP’s chances of another 5 years reigning over SG?

To cynics, it’s to ensure he and his all non-accountable, iron-rice-bowled civil service & reserves fund top managers continue to enjoy their oversized salaries managing a small-size economy albeit with much to show for outwardly but little to cheer about for the lesser merito-guanxi-ly connected and the even less well-off.

LHL & team might lack in 20/20 foresight managing FTs, transport, housing etc, but we’re truly daft to think they are lacking in survival instincts and strategy when it comes to exploiting their party’s PLUS the govt’s resources to the max to perpetuate PAP’s reign – until 2065, SG’s centenary year, if they can.

How NDR 2014 speech fits into PAP’s 17th GE objectives

Nothing is more perplexing than uncertainty when planning an election. If the ground is definitely majority against or for a certain direction or policy, it is easier to allocate resources and focus the fight, set the agenda. Or, if voters are daft. Alas, such is not the case.

A clear and present external threat or bogeyman may also help the incumbent party to rally the voters. But PAP cannot throw up another Asia Financial Crisis, 9-11 or Lehman moment. And pint-size SG cannot conjure up any bogeyman amongst or related to its neighbours. Ukraine/Crimea, MH17, Spratly or Senkaku/Diaoyu islands or the recurring Thai junta rule are distant threats to apathetic S’poreans.

So, left with mostly the legacies of their self-inflicted, one-hand-money-grabbing-and-self-rewarding deal for elites and other-hand-tight-money-fisted doctrine of self-reliance for the rest of us, how is he to get more certainty?

Whence his speech under this light.

He first tries to stabilize the shaky Malay ground with a Yusof Ishak hat-trick. Moves quickly to remind the seniors about the PGP. Then entices marginal supporters with a new career path in the civil and commercial sectors while reaching out to those who his ministers have been urging to forego tertiary education (while themselves continuing to send their own kids to the best ones their salaries can pre-order).

Lastly, the biggest missed opportunity of all, at least to naysayers – the CPF withdrawal/retirement issue that will affect not just the aforementioned constituents but everyone else who is going to age sooner or later. That appears to be the street view of retirees, would-be retirees, an academic, pundits or your blogger-in-attendance.

But, seen from Sec-Gen Lee, where he can, he has skilfully tried to lock in more votes. Where still very fluid, uncertain, he did a masterstroke  –  assuring his core supporters (yes, the MS will increase to $161,000 regardless) while sending out teasers like improved Lease-Buyback and CPF withdrawals tweaks at 65. Tentative half-measures to elicit, entice and expose more views, more voices, more venting of emotions (the entire spectrum) in order to identify the extent of discontent. Buy time…

Time till the next GE to better understand, separating the signals from the noise, their strengths and the likely determining factors in the next GE.

With more clarity, watch out for the real deal in NDR 2015 – excluding Black Swan events – when he will unleash his most powerful options yet to raise his chances of another parliamentary term with a dominant count of PAP MPs.

NDR 2015 the slam dunk for PM Lee?

With time on his side and all the government machinery and S$800+ billion reserves at PAP’s disposal, will his NDR 2015 speech seal the deal for PAP’s continued, dominant reign?

I think perhaps… not. Unless he adds another move that just will do the trick… watch this space.


* The author blogs at 2econdsight.

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Till Deaf Do Us Part….

TRE editor sent me a Sunday Times (3 Aug) piece written by Chua Mui Loong, Straits Times Opinion Editor, asking if I’d like to have a go rebutting her. To be fair to her, I read her take on.’Many Singapore Stories, one resilient nation. People’s narratives of triumph in the past bear telling and retelling in celebration” four times to see what’s there to respond to.

Frankly speaking, the content and form were so A-level standard (1970’s, not the current batch of better-read students), you wonder why you even wonder how ST keeps dropping lower in int’l ranking – and, hurray! less subscribers.

I wrote back to Richard Wan that ‘I much prefer OLDER women, the strong, self-assured, intellectual type, if you know what I mean.’ Below is my take on Prof Chan Heng Chee’s By-Invitation Opinion piece for ST published a day earlier.

Prof Chan Heng Chee, Chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, SUTD, writes another opinion piece for the ST, ‘Learning to talk through our differences’.

In her own words (1996), she’s

anti-establishment and… a bit of a dissident” and had “something of a shock… when… offered the (US) ambassadorship because I was highly critical of government in a society that is not used to being critiqued.”

Looks like age – or her long years as a diplomat – has mellowed her much. Perhaps, too much to the point of being neutered and then co-opted as an apologist for her employer. 20 years is a long time in the payroll and diplomacy cocktail party circuit. Readers of her recent public utterances will find little evidence of any dissidence past, let alone anti-anything about anything SG government.

It’s a great pity. Whilst the under-siege SG govt gains from her assuring its staunch and marginal supporters, dissenting and dissatisfied citizens can only grow in their cynicism of enlightened civil leadership. In turn, Singapore society is poorer for it.

Singapore’s Three Seminal Struggles

Notwithstanding the above, let’s not fall into the funk that supporters on either side of the Establishment are so wont to do, interpret everything and anything from their preferred angles.

Prof Chan’s opinion piece does add to the conversation in the mainstream media leading up to our 49th National Day.

She correctly identified our three seminal struggles to be ‘first… our political-economic identity – communist or non-communist. The second was political – our territorial identity – interpreted as whether to go for merger with Malaya or not. The third was over cultural identity shaped by the language policy.’

Any reasonable person will not argue with her general thrusts of how history dealt Singapore a hand that could have sunk us but fortuitously did not. Giving credit where due for the leadership past is only right – where citizens have benefitted and not just some select groups.

Broad Strokes vs Details

Hence, in the three struggles, Prof Chan leaves no doubt about the seminal roles played by PAP and its leaders. And her urging to talk through our differences must be applauded. But in trying not to be biased, we must call it as we see it.

Firstly, she implies that the recent ‘shift to the left in the social policies’ was a PAP-initiated response to ‘growing inequalities in society exacerbated by globalisation’. And that ‘Singaporeans… share an egalitarian outlook and believe in the state’s provision of social safety nets. There is wide support for the Government’s moves to increase assistance for the poor and disabled.’

Sorry, she cannot be more mistaken. She doesn’t need to hear the cries of citizens left behind; struggling to make ends meet not with one but two or more jobs, furious over CPF monies that have been arbitrarily denied them to withdraw as originally agreed or paying more than 5X annual salaries for what is touted as ‘public’ housing, etc . As a distinguished academician herself, she can easily dissect Vivian Balakrishnan’s (in)famous ‘Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?ministerial response to a request for, perhaps, an additional S$2.50 per day to eat 3 square hawker meals. But that was 2007, you say. Well, the cabinet has progressed to the new ‘kueh lapis’ approach premised on no ‘dead poor’ in SG by a new million$-salary MCYS minister and supported by the PM himself  – this in Nov 2013? No ‘poverty line’, please, we are Singaporeans.

Does Prof Chan seriously believe that this is a govt wilfully and willingly initiating ‘the shift to the left in social policies’ – or one that will only part with money for the poor ‘from my cold, dead hands’? Or only if it buys votes? Regrettably, the small voice of a small egalitarian citizenry is drowned by the indifferent majority led by complicit part-time MPs and policymakers with uncaring, elitist faces.

A second observation that raises doubts is Prof Chan’s claim that our ‘demerger’ from Malaya is a victim of chauvinistic Malay tendencies against a SG-advocated ‘Malaysian Malay’. Prof Chan (and readers) may like to read the ST 30 October 1965, Page 1 [Link]  to understand how Tengku Abdul Rahman, then PM, as key player in the merger and demerger, revealed of the more personal PAP factors that might have played the bigger role to the macro ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ slogan PAP proffered. Do read it. Then decide. Or at least question the preferred narrative that Prof Chan advances.

Her third and final observation is spot on; that SG’s “language policy has largely shaped our cultural identity. Singaporeans are united by speaking English, Singlish and our mother tongues. We are ‘diluted’ Chinese, Malays, Indians or Eurasians – we are Westernised up to a point, and our ethnic identities show in varying degrees. We are Singaporeans”. But she fails to uncover the causes of how ‘today, we have new identity concerns and new fault-lines’. Or “how much ‘foreign’ should be accommodated in the population and identity, and how to deal with the new… ‘cultural divide’ – over family values”. A diplomatic pass-over nod to her political employer?

Prognosis for her diagnosis

Prof Chan concludes that

all this is reflective of a nation growing more diverse as it matures and evolves. There is an urgent need for us to talk to one another with civility and learn to negotiate our way through differences.

Our founding values of equality of all races, multiculturalism, multilingualism and multi-religions are a tolerant and inclusive vision. We should burnish and reinterpret the spirit of these values as we deal with new diversity issues.”

Very well-said, indeed! Where diversity issues or difficulties show up, dialogue is surely the first step. So, yes, we all should be for ‘learning to talk through our differences’ to move forward as a nation.

The National Conversation could have lived up to its potential but did not. How did the CPF issue escape the 12-month Conversation, for example? As a participant, I think I know why. Minders and leaders in each Conversation were all trained to ‘guide’ the conversation fowards and then faithfully report all the pre-agreed findings ‘spontaneously unearthed’ by each group.

Back to Prof Chan’s encouragement to ‘learn to talk’. There is no doubt the vocal citizenry has a new-found voice, a booming one at that, to talk. The urge and motivation are all there even if some of what’s said can be fringe and jarring from both sides. But talk we want.

Where’s the PAP as govt in all these talking? Instead of a fair chairman presiding over 2 or multi-sides, they appear to represent the status quo side of the population. But with the advantage of  all the levers in their hands to pull to advance their ‘talk’ the way they want it, when they want it and how often as they like. Can the talking work at all?

If the PM himself has come out to say that he is ‘flame-proof’ (22 Aug 2013) – yeah, he’s followed that up with proofing himself to the extent of suing a citizen, a first, a PM suing one who is a citizen, not a politician or professional commentator.

If his minister also claimed to ‘never give up. We are like the little frog. We are deaf to all these criticisms. So instead of telling us that low-wage workers are having problems, why not be part of the solution?’  Not only ‘deaf’ to criticisms (a necessary input) but also demanding that, notwithstanding their huge S$2mil salary to do a given job, the people who criticize must themselves offer the solution! (Lim Swee Say, 3 Apr 2010 in Parliament).

On balance of evidence, we are less sanguine of ‘talk through problems’, more sombre of ‘till deaf do us part’ come GE2016.



The Truth Behind the Tolls

Almost all reports state the obvious facts and figures. Comments, for or against, appear to be predetermined – solely depending on the commentator’s preference for free-flowing traffic or lower cost. Or if you are anti-PAP. But where’s the analysis?

Hopefully, this article will inform reader’s views.

Johore’s Unilateral Toll Increase
“In a statement issued on Sunday (27 Jul), the Malaysian Highway Authority said the revised rates would be used for the cost and maintenance of the Eastern Dispersal Link (EDL) and other CIQ Complex-related facilities.”

Notice that the ‘increase’ in toll charges is said to be ‘revised rates’. This was deliberate. MHA seemed to have succeeded to make it appear as if the ‘revision’ is from the original RM2.90 rate – where actually there was zero payable currently for the EDL. This can be seen from the difference between the inbound and outbound rates (RM9.70 & RM6.80 = RM2.90).
In actual fact, MHA is slapping toll charges for the EDL, no more, no less.

To state that the rates will be ‘used for the cost and maintenance of…other CIQ Complex-related facilities’ is to make it appear that the high rates are justified. In the first instance, what has a ‘Highway Authority’, if anything, to do with Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ)? This is disingenuous and devious of the MHA. It is clearly and undoubtedly a greedy grab for money – mostly from Singaporeans’ pockets. How so?

– The EDL is a mere 8.1 km.
– The current toll rate for PLUS (North-South Highway) is RM$0.136 per km.

Therefore, at a flat rate of RM6.80 (outbound rate, excluding the Causeway toll component, MHA is looking to make RM0.84 cts per km of distance travelled.

No, no, that’s incorrect. MHA is looking to make drivers, mostly Singaporean ones, pay TWICE that amount whether or not you use the EDL on your trips in and out of JB!!!

By making the EDL free-of-charge for vehicles other than those originating from or entering the CIQ into SG, (mostly) SG cars are being made to subsidize the (mostly M’sian) ones using the EDL to get round and about JB. In the process, the M’sian EDL operator or govt stands to make a killing – from SGns.

My fellow Singaporeans, if MHA succeeds with this sleight of hand i.e. ditching the longstanding international principle of only users pay and pay only for what they use, we would be the biggest suckers this side of paradise.

Therefore, pray hard that those Barisan Nasional & Opposition politicians succeed in their action against the aforesaid greedy grab for money – mostly at Singaporeans’ expense.

LTA’s ‘We’ll Match JB’s Increase’
No surprise that netizens find themselves with yet another episode to throw stones at the LTA as a proxy of their unhappiness with the govt in general.

I would urge a more detached, level-headed consideration of the situation. (Well, ok, go ahead thumb me down now – even before you read what I have to say.) 

Let us first look at how the Causeway toll originated.

After the Tuas Link opened 1998, Johore announced that they will levy a toll. For good measure – and why not when there’s free money for the taking by administrative fiat – toll was to be payable also for the Causeway. Whilst it is reasonable to recover the Tuas Link construction cost, what is the rationale to collect toll at the Causeway which was built 60 years earlier (1928) with cost fully written off many times over? Well, it was lamely justified to discourage vehicles shunning Tuas in favour of & to maintain the Causeway.

On Singapore’s part, the LTA was, in this case, shrewd to divert attention from themselves to their M’sian counterparts by laying out the ‘we’ll match JB’s quantum of charges’ approach for both road links.

So, what’s there to be level-headed about? Simple, really. Whenever a toll-collector calculates the quantum to collect, one key factor is the affordability. To illustrate, say the threshold for someone using the Causeway is RM$5.00 (one-way, entry and/or exit). If that is what the JB authority thinks, then they will proceed to charge accordingly.

That means, if LTA levies no charge at all, JB stands to reap the FULL ‘affordable’ toll amount. But since LTA ‘will match JB’s quantum’, JB has to restrain itself and cannot happily disregard charges by the LTA.

Therefore, LTA’s approach ensures that about half the what’s-deemed-affordable toll paid by users stay firmly in Singapore – instead of giving carte blanche and every dollar into the M’sian govt’s coffers.

Hence, notwithstanding our unhappiness with the govt’s many other policies, it’s dumb to find fault here and, in the process, give our hard-earned money to another country’s govt or authority. We can already see the extent the M’sians will go rip us off with their latest salvo on the EDL charge.

Bro, if you insist to cut off your nose to spite your face, please count me out this instance.

On the other hand, it is indeed justified to fault the LTA if they proceed to match the toll that is collected by MHA for cars using the EDL. Whether it’s the BKE or KJE or SLE etc, our exorbitant road taxes already paid for all our expressways. And it’s all toll-free, even if most are, well, ‘ERP-plagued’.

Therefore, it would be unconscionable if LTA charges what is the component for the toll payable for use of the EDL. In this case, I would cry bloody murder and off with their ‘head’! You read it right, it’s their ‘head’, not heads.
(Still, we need watch what’s across the Causeway. This is where LKY may be already proven right when he counselled against investing in Johore where “…at the stroke of a pen they can take it over.” Just listen to, of all persons, ex-Malaysian High Commissioner to Singapore Datuk Param¬eswaran urging Malaysia to match Singapore’s new VEP on every SG car entering Malaysia, “I think the notion that Singaporeans will shun Johor if a levy is imposed no longer holds water.
Things have changed in recent years as many Singaporeans have bought property here, and are commuting between both countries daily,” he said.

Don’t say you have not been warned.)



TRAVEL SMART NETWORK SCHEME – Throwing good money after bad

30 Jul 2014 – TODAY reported that only 12 companies signed up to the flexi-work pilot programme arrangements launched in October 2012 which allowed ‘participating organisations (to) benefit from expert advice on understanding employees’ concerns and opportunities with regard to more flexible work arrangements, reducing unnecessary business commuting, enabling flexibility for employees and realising potential productivity gains, and improving their overall transport efficiency’.

Now, with money spent and nothing to show for, LTA led by Josephine Teo (Minister of State, Transport) wants to dangle ‘cash grants for employers’ instead, achieve the same goals of adopting ‘flexi-work arrangements as well as encourage alternative modes of transport, such as cycling’.

Companies stand to reap ‘up to S$30,000 to engage approved consultants to conduct employee travel pattern studies and develop tailored action plans from Nov 1’ under the Travel Smart Network scheme.

More goodies can be had by way of ‘grants of up to S$160,000 annually, for up to three years, to… installing bicycle parking facilities or shower facilities at workplaces, or to pay for breakfast vouchers for staff.’

And ‘employees of companies that participate… can sign up for the corporate tier of a rewards programme, earning them more points than regular commuters for travelling during off-peak hours. The more points one has, the higher one’s chances of winning cash prizes awarded monthly by the Land Transport Authority.’

The scheme will be open initially to companies with more than 200 workers and which are based near MRT stations.

Maybe the SG government and civil service have never heard what we hear all the time in the private sector, are we throwing more good money after bad money? Or is this easy money (taxpayers’) for dead ideas?

And if we go by some of the other schemes (e.g. PIC, Productivity & Innovation Credit, scheme), is this yet another opportunity created for unscrupulous employers or managers to cream off public grants for private gratification?

To be fair, Mrs Jos Teo has never failed to mention that such schemes are all complementary and do not detract from the government aggressive increases to public transport capacity through new rail lines, additional trains and buses, as well as improved train and bus frequencies.

Even so, why is no one admitting to or at least publicly discussing the clear and present impact of overloading our previously First World’s public transport system with a liberal policy of allowing all kinds and unfettered numbers of foreign employees onto our trains and buses, not to mention competition for COEs for their top managers and spouses/children?

Are taxpayers daft to the extent that we pay our ministers and top civil servants top dollar to create public transport problems, throw S$1.1 bil for new buses and trains FOC to shareholders of listed companies and, now throw even more money to alleviate the overcrowding crunch?

Everything and anything they will do except take the overcrowding bull by the insanely liberal Foreign Talent policy horns and stop this madness, this stupidity? Without confronting THE truth, how can we expect to be set free from our transport woes?

Change we Must.
End PAP’s dominance or else PAP’s dominance will end us.