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Budget 2016: Greater Dependence On Reserves

Many will know Chris Kuan who has enlightened us on the intricacies of national finance, CPF and related issues. Given his more than 30-year background in that highly-specialized domain, I have to be careful if I should disagree with any of his views. He clearly is the expert and me not.

Here’s his first take on Budget 2016.


He concludes;

That the government has made increased use of the reserves should be lauded since the reserves were derived from selling public housing at elevated prices to citizens and from excess returns earned on CPF savings. However this is tempered by the fact that social expenditures are still too low, defence spending continues to exceed healthcare spending, the government continues to aim for a surplus in the overall budget (excluding land sales and unspent returns) and it continues to be beholden to chasing ever decreasing global investment returns by not following the example of Norway having the flexibility to use up to 100% of long term real returns.

There is nothing to disagree with Chris about on all his key observations related to a ‘greater dependence on the reserves’. The only objection I have – in the immediate and foreseeable future – is his believe that Singaporeans should give the PAP government ‘the flexibility to use up to 100% of long term real returns’.

I think that is a mistake, a big mistake in at least 2 ways.

Firstly, based on PAP’s track record of how they practically ride roughshod over inputs from opinions other than their own and their total dominance of parliament to pass each Budget the last 50 years, what is there to stop the current or a renegade PAP government to raid the reserves during just one term of government? Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.

Secondly, to resort to using more reserves just to up ‘social expenditures’ (healthcare, transfers etc) is to buy hook and sinker into PAP’s false narrative of their annual expenditure allocation for the nation, the citizens of Singapore (that’s our money, by the way, not the PAP’s).

I say, let’s stick with the current 50% Constitutional restraint on use of our reserves. Let’s be ‘kiasu’ a little bit even as the world & the economy get a lot more complicated.

But, yes, let’s increase social expenditure, not by looking to use more of our reserves’ return. Instead, let’s look at each item in the mandatory and discretionary spending by the government.

Much as I also believe that defence has always been higher than needed – to spend not just on the necessities but a chunk appears to always be spent in order to ensure that the defence minister gets the red carpet welcome as a willing-to-pay high prices for, sometime, needlessly advanced military toys. Why must we line up to buy weaponry that are 2 or 3 generations of what our neighbours have? Is that not wasteful? Hello, it’s our money they are spending to be treated like an Arabian king with his petrol dollars to burn.

But any calls by anyone non-PAP for a reduction in defence spending will be branded a reckless fool by the PAP and crucified in the mainstream media as a lunatic, traitor even.

Likewise with education. Defence and education are no-go items for discussion with our brainwashed citizenry. So, let’s not touch that.

Where then to analyse how we can use what money we already have yearly to allocate to social spending?

I say, look at 3 broad areas with these characteristics in their motivation to spend the money.

#1: Vainglory projects/allocations.
For e.g. let’s ask why the need for The Jewel? Even if there is a case for The Jewel at Changi, the next question is why now? Why now when the demand is not quite certain yet given that any Black Swan event can and will do havoc to the best projections of travel patterns. And why now, when our closest competitors do not appear to be struggling with making their current airports already built with no expansion plans known or projected to come about? Why the need to be ahead of the pack/competition by, say, 20 years or 30, when we can settle for 10, 15 – and use the money to look after our more needy fellow Singaporeans. Or, yes, lessen the burdens hoisted upon us just to stay alive in our HDB flats and ever receding chance of driving a cheapo car?

#2: Political & Civil Service Salaries & Bonuses
I have no idea of how much we can still force the PAP to agree to revise downwards their 4X higher than the US benchmarked salary packages. But, we cannot let up to taken as a untouchable given their salary level is sacrosanct. It isn’t. It never was.

In the first place, the PAP’s logic is not completely watertight – that we need to pay more to attract capable officer holders and public service professionals. If PAP is correct, then by extension, none of current and recent past world leaders are true talents – and patriots rolled in one.

Do all of the office holders really, really deserve their current pay?

#3: This one should be #1 on the hit list. Using taxpayers’ money to spend on PAP’s party-positive activities and programmes. Look no further than how the People’s Association budget doubled in Budget 2015. Of course, the increase was passed by PAP members in parliament.

Whilst the leaders are not corrupt, nonetheless, the party is using taxpayers’ money to advance their private party interests. It’s sad that Singaporeans do not voice objections to the practice.

So, Chris, no need to start thinking of using 100% of long term real returns to improve on social spending. Just question each of the 3 items above to get started.





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Safety First, Murphy’s Laws & SMRT’s Protocols

I have Malay friends. They are a resilient people. When an unexpected death occurs, family members and friends will close rank, grief deeply but not showily – and then move on with life. As Muslims, they believe anything that can happen is Allah’s will.

Still, may I extend my deep condolences to the families and friends of Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari and Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin. It always saddens me when lives are needlessly lost, especially young ones.

Sometime back, I noticed that SMRT began to use a lot of our Malay compatriots in their ‘We’re Working On It’ PR posters. In fact, in all 3 posters showing maintenance in action, all 3 ‘poster-boys’ were Malay. I was really pleased to see that. To me, it was a sign that my fellow Malay citizens are taking another step up the ladder of skilled, instead of staying in mostly unskilled, jobs.

The other thought (cynical one) that I had was; well, when it came to bonus payouts, the maintenance staff were not forefront in the minds of SMRT honchos. Instead, they got the misery crumbs off the tables of Desmond Kuek, his top managers – and, no doubt – also Temasek managers

I hope the tragedy will spur the many other MRT maintenance crew to pull together and demand, without exception, that their safety – and not customer satisfaction – must come first and foremost.

My sales and marketing background always strive to live by the adage, ‘the customer is always right’. My first job at a local outfit, safety was never discussed with sales. My 2nd job at a Swedish subsidy had no direct visual contact with the factory. It was only in my 3rd job at a German manufacturer based locally that “Safety First” made a lasting impression on me. It is not ‘Cost’, not ‘Quality’, not ‘Design’, not anything else but “Safety First”.

Based on CEO (ex-SAF general) Desmond Kuek’s assertion that  “it was ‘standard’ procedure and routine for people to be on the track to investigate a fault when trains are running, but with permission sought”, it appears that keeping trains running trumps “Safety First” when lives of the rank and file are on the line. Perhaps, the CEO’s own KPI cannot afford to have another train stoppage due to yet another fault during operating hours.

Dear Mr Kuek, “SAFETY” is always FIRST. Nothing else comes close. Not your or your management team’s KPIs. Get that into your head before more lives are lost.

The first law is, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
Never mind your protocols.

Murphy’s second law reads, “If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the FIRST to go wrong.”
Never mind your protocols.
What can be more damaging than a life lost? Well, how about 2 lives, young lives?

A little down Murphy’s list is this one, “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”
Never mind your protocols.
As I like to say, “Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet!”

From what has been revealed thus far, some commonsensical questions come a’begging’.

All 15 maintenance staff were walking in single-file, along the side of the train tracks, on the walkway.

Why the need for 15 staff ‘to investigate an alarm for signalling equipment’? 15 people to look at a faulty alarm which, if faulty, needs 15 sets of hands to rectify? We assume it’s an electronic alarm, built with modular parts, no need for 15 to fix.

Walking in single-file is an accepted norm for moving along a narrow path. Or, during military training, in low visibility. But the risk lies in one tripping either forward or backward, the reflexive action is to pull the other nearest to you or reach out to catch the one falling (except for the first and last person). That was most likely what happened to result in two, not just one, being hit by the train.

The 15 were walking along a 0.5m wide walkway…The train in the incident was just pulling into the station, travelling at about 60km per hour.

Doors and residential stairways are normally 1.0m wide, basically wide enough for 2 persons to pass one another. So, 0.5m appears sufficient to walk in single-file. But have you ever tried walking along wider-than-0.5 m paths, about an arms-length away from the line of and facing oncoming cars heading towards you at 60kph?

How do you think it feels like to walk with 14 others along a 0.5m narrow path that is just also about an arms-length from the side of – not cars, but – long train carriages and hurling towards you at 60kph? Will you be reflexively affected by the metal-against-metal screeches, the windy force and the tremors under your feet?

Desmond Kuek’s million $ job is safe. He has only to quote his boss’ boss, “This was a lapse, what to do, it’s happened.”.

And move on.

To all the SMRT maintenance staff, do not count on your bosses or their political bosses setting things right for you. The SMRT “We are working on it” posters should already tell you something. You were not there when it came to bonus time. But you conveniently served the purpose to appeal to your fellow citizens’ empathy with your tough maintenance work when it suited them to hide their neglect or incompetence behind your weathered faces and dirtied overalls.

I, therefore, urge you again, the only tribute you can pay to your needlessly fallen brothers, Asyraf & Nasrulhudin, is for you to pull together and demand, without exception, that your safety – and not customer satisfaction or your bosses’ bonus-based KPIs – must come first and foremost.

Don’t be the next one to fall.


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Candidates Party Total Votes


Here’s the good news for Opposition supporters.

In the 1981 Anson by-election, PAP’s vote share swung from 84.1% to 47.1%, a mind boggling 37%. The time between elections was just 10 months (23 Dec 80 vs 31 Oct 81). Opposition optimists can therefore point to a precedent that Chee Soon Juan stands a fair chance to ace the impending Bt Batok by-election. After all, Chee only needs a vote swing of 23.63%.

But that is based purely on numbers and numbers alone. But where it truly matters – the mood of the voters – the Anson of Oct 1981 and that of Bt Batok 2016 cannot be more different. Readers interested in the details should read this link.


Now, for the more sobering news.

In GE2015, Chee helmed the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC and managed a 33.40% of votes. Was that a credible performance? Consider, SDP must have factored in the following, amongst other dynamics, when fielding the team they did.

  • Holland-Bukit Timah has more affluent middle to upper class voters than heartlanders.
  • Vivian Balakrishnan is by no means a heavy-weight GRC anchor minister. If anything, he is among those ministers who is seen as arrogant and, perhaps, incompetent. Remember his insulting and hurtful “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” and his hypocritical “Politics is a contest for power, but the key principle when you have power is, don’t take advantage of people under your charge, and always be honest and upfront with them.”
  • SDP had contested Holland-Bt Timah in GE2011 (39.92% votes) and had been diligently walking the ground in the run-up to GE2015.
  • Prof Paul Tambyah was, without doubt, a trump card and very popular with the public.

So, despite some important considerations clearly in its favour, SDP’s vote count dropped from 39.92% (2011) to 33.40% (2015). That said, it’s still better than the 9.8% swing nationally.

Putting the Bt Batok and Holland-Bt Timah 2015 results together, simplistically, the best that SDP can say would be that there is a hardcore Opposition/SDP base of 33.4% maximum. Even then, that is the most optimistic hope. If so, the absolute minimum, then, is how will Chee be able to coax the balance 16.61% to secure 50.01% to enter parliament? Will the 10 reasons actually play out according to script in Chee’s favour, or turn out to be more like 10 wishful  thinking of some Opposition dreamers?
On the other hand, the less optimistic view would be that the hardcore base is actually even lower than the 26.38% that SDP’s Savasivam secured.

Nobody knows.



Law Kim Hwee