Tuesday, April 29, 2008

One of the Fickle Masses

Well, I've finally decided that I have no desire to be part of the elite in this country. It's far more fun being one of the masses. The thing about being part of the massess, is the fact that you have the perfect right to act as if you own the world and the rest of the world reacts to your very emotions. The elite on the other hand are supposed to act with some sort of principle and I've decided that principle's are deeply overrated.

What's happened you may ask? Nothing particularly earth shattering has happened other than the fact that after a night of expecting not to have a bean to my name, I managed to recieve my small portion of the government budget surplus. Which means, despite recent critical postings of the government's handling of the Mas Who case, I'm now an avid supporter of the government.

Of course, since I don't actually have a day wage, I can't blow it all quite yet. The thought of spending tonight in Geylang with a porclin fair China-doll and a bottle of whiskey did cross my mind but then the idea of wanting to eat a bit for lunch took precedence - there goes my planned night of debauchery.

In the mean time, the world is suffering from a rise in the price of basic food stuffs. Ah well, who gives a darn as long as I have enough to eat and there's the PAP to throw money at me once in a while.

There you have it - being part of the masses is definately more fun. Don't worry when the money runs out, I'll be back to grumbling about the government by this evening.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Guards Made me do it.

You have to hand it to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minster and Minster for Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng for being able to look so cool amidst the pressure of his political office. The man should have a great career in front of him as a poker player. Not only did he manage to read the report of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Mas Selamat affair without batting and eyelid, the man was also able to claim that there had been no hint of complacency in his ministry despite providing the evidence of his ministry’s complacency. .

To the credit of the COI, a factual report was given. There was very little emotion and a good deal of detail into how Singapore’s most prominent terrorist was allowed to escape from prison with comical ease. Three facts were given for his escape:

  • The window of the toilet had no grill.
  • The guards had slipped by letting him out of their sight.
  • The Whitely Road Detention Centre was poorly designed – the fence was not high enough thus allowing Mas Selamat to run across a roof top before jumping over the fence.

To the credit of the Minister, the superintendent of Whitely Rd Detention Centre was removed and he did mention that those in supervisory and managerial positions within the detention centre would be dealt with – thus providing a shred of decency by not blaming everything on the Ghurkhas who were guarding him. “Corrective Measures,” would now be put into place and Singaporeans, as both the government and press seemed to say – should forget the matter and concentrate on more important things. This was, as one newspaper reporter pointed out – “A small stain on an otherwise sound record of the Ministry of Home Affairs.”

Unfortunately, the Minister seems to have forgotten that Singaporeans have become more educated and although the major questions seemed to have escaped the main press, they did not escape the minds of a few chattering heads. This became particularly so when the Minister claimed without a trace of irony that there was no culture of complacency in his ministry (which by his very actions proved that his ministry was complacent.)

Take a look at Singapore’s most famous window! One has to ask how a facility meant to keep people inside would have a window so wide that a human being, even one as small as Mas Selamat, could leave it so easily. Public toilets in MRT stations have better security. I’ve visited enough public toilets to notice that large spacious windows are not built over urinals and the urinal area is not cordoned off in a cubicle.

Perhaps this design flaw would not have been so bad on its own. However, this turned out to be a window without a window grill. Once again, Singapore is filled with HDB flats with window grills and even the most primitive army camps have window grills. So, once again, how is it possible for a facility meant to hold people in not to have an iron grill on its windows.

It was comical to see the picture of the sawn off window hinge. I’m not sure what type of security measures the superintendent was thinking about when he had the hinge sawn off. However, as one thinks back to this situation, it becomes rather less funny when you consider that these measures are supposed to ensure national security.

Sure, the Minister cannot be held responsible for everything that goes on in the Ministry. Did he let Mas Selamat go to the toilet? You can’t blame him for that nor can you blame him for taking action against various members of the Detention Centre.

However, what the Minister must be responsible for is structural and procedural faults within the Ministry and its subunits. As the leader of his Ministry, the Minister is also responsible for the culture that permeates that ministry. Yes, it’s hard to change cultures. Even absolute monarchs cannot change cultures with a flick of a switch. However, Mr Wong is not a newly installed minister. He has held his position for the past fourteen years, a time frame that most reasonable people would assume is long enough to leave your mark on the culture of the organisation. Mr Wong’s claim that there was no complacency on his ministry’s part is an ingenious exercise in shifting the blame.

Allot of the Minister’s supporters have argued that Mas Semalat’s escape is just one small incident. However, they seem to miss a major point. Mas Selamat was incarcerated for a good reason – namely the fact that the government felt he was too much of a risk to be allowed to roam free. In fact the man was such a risk to society that the government didn’t even bring this to trial and arrested him under the Internal Security Act.

So, here’s the question. If Mas Selamat is so dangerous that we need to incarcerate him under ISA, how is it possible that people can now claim that his escape is a “small” or “single” incident? Why bother to incarcerate him in the first place if he was just a small time crook? Why not wait for the evidence to accumulate and bring him to trial? Who was the person who had the power to decide on arresting Mas Selamat under ISA and keeping him in detention for two-years? If that person found it so necessary for Mas Selamat to be arrested and detained under ISA, surely he or she would realise that his escape is not just a single incident.

Then one has to ask, how it was possible for the both the ISA and Ministry of Home Affairs to have no knowledge of the possible flaws within the Whitely Road Detention Centre. Yes, the superintendent was guilty of complacency, but it seems strange for someone who has been through external audits during national service, that neither the Home Affairs Ministry nor the Internal Security Department (ISD) found any of these faults during audits of the detention centre. The Whitely Detention Centre has been in operation for 42-years (since 1966), and Mr Wong Kan Seng has been Minister of Home Affairs for 14-years. In all that time, I’m surprised that nobody conducted audits of the detention centre or pointed out the obvious structural flaws to the people who had the power to do something about them.

Perhaps one has to be charitable to the Minister in this incident. Perhaps it was spotted but somebody or some groups of people in between the Minister and the ground felt it was best to hide the facts from him. It’s easy to suggest spending $100 million on high tech goods but rather unglamorous to suggest there should be more window grills and barbed wire in a detention facility. Even if this were the case, the Minister must take responsibility for creating a culture where nobody tells him the truth.

Some people have argued that the residents of Whitley Detention Centre are merely political detainees and not prisoners. As such, it would have been wrong and self-defeating to make the detention centre out to be a prison. But then again, what exactly is a political detainee and why do we need to incarcerate them? Allot has been said about rehabilitating people in the detention centre and not wanting them to “Ideologically Contaminate” others. Then again, why do terrorist or potential terrorist need to be treated better than other criminals. Mas Selamat allegedly planed to crash a plane into Changi airport and to kill as many people as possible. Surely that has to make him and others like him mere criminals. Yes, by all means keep him away from other prisoners and try and gather intelligence, but don’t give the bugger any more kudos by making him out to be something special other than a common criminal.

Seriously, any discerning individual can see that the Mas Selamat affair has poked a rather large hole into a culture of complacency within the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Minister has conveniently blamed a few individuals at the detention centre. Then the Prime Minister has argued quite eloquently that removing the Minister does not solve the fundamental problem – which once again is blamed on the culture of complacency.

Then again, if one takes the Prime Minister’s defence of the Minister into account, it seems that even the PM is not immune to the culture of complacency. Did the PM ask any hard questions of the Minister or even the Director of ISD? Or was it just a case of – I know him, he’s good bloke, I have blind faith in him.”

Personally, I think that anyone who asks enough questions will find that the culture of complacency is deeply entrenched. Yes, the PM is right, we need to get to the fundamental problem and change the culture of complacency – and to that, we either need to change the culture or change the man responsible to the development of the culture within the Ministry and its subunits.

My name is Tang Li and my NRIC is S7439818I. I live at Block 27 Marine Crescent, #22-03, Singapore 440027 and I can be contacted at 90256957.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I could drop Dead tomorrow

When historians start debating the legacy of Mas Selamat to Singapore, one of the things that they will have to examine is the way in which Mas Selamat caused Singaporeans to look at their expectations on leadership.

Trail the internet for comments on the issue and you will find that there are quite a number of Singaporeans who felt that the political leadership was sorely lacking and when the government released the findings of the Committee of Inquiry, a good handful of angry postings felt that it confirmed the need for the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng to resign.

However, I’ve been asked, and I’ve seen the question asked of others – “Who do you think should replace the Minister were he to do the honourable thing and resign?” After thinking long and hard about this, I can’t think of anyone who should replace the Minister. The current crop of ministers is preoccupied running their own ministries to take on a colleague’s portfolio and there are few in the junior ranks that seem ready or willing to take on the challenges of running one of the nation’s most prominent ministries. Mr Wong Kang Seng it seems is an irreplaceable part of our government.

This is presents Singaporeans with a rather tragic reality – namely the reality that human talent is in such pitifully short supply that our current crop of elites are totally irreplaceable. Put it this way – if every minister, statutory board CE, permanent secretary and GLC (Government linked company) CEO were to drop dead tomorrow, Singapore would collapse overnight.

How can we have reached this stage when our entire system is dependent on a very small minority? More importantly, how did this situation come about in a nation that was brought to independence by a man obsessed with succession planning?

Ironically, this rather tragic and dangerous state of affairs has come about by another national obsession – the desire to maximise available talent. Take Mr Lee Kuan Yew as an example. The man is in so many ways a genius. Say what you like about him, but the man found a way of taking a dot of an island in an unstable region with no hinterland to speak of and turned it into a role-model for many in the West as well as in the East (London’s idea of road pricing came from.) However, as the man himself readily acknowledged in his biography – he wanted to step down while his mental facilities were still in order and prevent himself from being in the position to do harm to the nation he founded.

While Mr Lee may have wisely relinquished his premiership while he was still fit and able, he promptly created vast consultancy post for himself in the administrations of his successors. The nation has accepted the fact that Mr Lee has is usually correct in many of the great arguments of the day and his wisdom and experience are an asset to the cabinets he’s served in as Senior Minister and now Minister Mentor.

But are we maximising Mr Lee to such an extent that we are preventing other talents from developing? When you think of the number of high profile activities that the Minister Mentor is taking part in, when compared to the Prime Minister, one cannot help that the office and person of the current Prime Minister is being overshadowed.

Admittedly, keeping active has helped Mr Lee stay healthy. However, there are plenty of ways where someone can continue to be active and contribute to society once they’ve stepped down. Mr Lee should take a leaf from Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric and often regarded as the greatest corporate chief of his time. Mr Welsh keeps active on the lecture circuit and by writing books. His experiences have become a source of inspiration for many. Mr Welsh has also made it a point to ensure that he minimises his views on GE’s current leadership in public. This has helped both GE and Mr Welsh to continue to prosper. Imagine if Mr Lee Kuan Yew had taken a leaf from Mr Welsh’s book and remove himself from the active role of government and do things like write books. Hey, we could be selling the “Singapore Way of Management,” to places like Harvard Business School if our founding father actually decided to sit down, let his successors get on with it and write a book of his management experiences. His brand value outside Singapore remains fairly strong but it will diminish if he remains focused on helping the government of the day govern Singapore.

But back to the original point – why don’t we have a situation where we could afford to lose our leaders to either death, disease, retirement and so on? The other reason is probably due to the leaderships other obsession – control. To be fair, Singapore has thrived in no small part to its leadership’s competence. The leadership gets the job done and in return we ensure they can do the job with the minimum interference from opposition parties or an overly critical press. Why rock the system? Why do we even need to grumble about it when they’ve done a fabulous job and keeping you and I well fed?

However, as the Mas Selamat case is proving – Singapore’s leadership is not always competent nor is it always well-meaning. The system, as the government has been stressing in this case, is only as good as the human beings who run it. The Singapore government like most normal commercial organisations goes out of its way to ensure that it has the best, brightest and most honest. Most of the time, the efforts to ensure that only the best fill the job yields the correct result, but there are times when it does not. When you get the wrong man for the job, there are obvious solutions – let him quit or sack him.

But what happens when the man for the job cannot be replaced because no one else can do the job? Do we simply leave him there and let him extricate himself and shrug our shoulders telling ourselves that beggars cannot be choosers?

Thanks to Mas Selamat there is irony in Singapore. Take a look at the nation’s security system. The government spends approximately S$100 million plus a year to ensure that we have the most sophisticated anti-terrorism facilities and technologies. But all that money has gone to waste because the centre where terrorist are held does not have a simple window grill on its windows.

The same can be said for our “People” resources. The “careless” prison guards are replaceable – being Ghurkhas, the Singapore Police Force will have no shortage of recruits willing to give Singapore the dedication that no Singaporean will give in replacing the guards that will be undoubtedly sent back to Nepal. It seems that the prison officers in the detention centre are also replaceable. When a recession takes place, as is expected, the government will have no problem recruiting people. But what about the people who allowed a culture of complacency in the Ministry and its sub-units to develop? Are we stuck with both the Minister and Director of ISD simply because there is no one else who can take the job?

If this is so, then we are really are in trouble. It shows that our leadership has not done its part in ensuring that there is a ready replacement for the people that make the important decisions. Yes, its nice to groom someone at your own pace but you need to ensure that they have the ability to take over if things happen unexpectedly.

Mr Wong and Singapore are lucky. This time it was a mere call for resignation and the Prime Minister made a belated effort to tell the world that Mr Wong had his support. Perhaps Mr Wong develops the will and capacity to amend his blunders. But what would have happened had the matter been more serious and Mr Wong had dropped dead. Would there be anyone to replace him?

PN Balji always insisted that his associates learn to work without him as quickly as possible. As he so eloquently said, “I could always drop dead tomorrow.” I’ve always remembered that. In 2005, he helped keep me alive. In 2006, he made me thrive by not being on the project. Now, if only more of our leaders thought about things that way and actually prepared the nation for their mortality.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Existing - The Birth of Tang-Asia Consultancy

Well, it's taken my bloody yonks to do it but I've finally registered by daily activities with the Acounting Corporate Regulatory Authority of Singapore (ACRA). Tang-Asia, the name I was using for my business emails has now taken on a life in the official sense of the word. The down side means, I know have to pay tax on my business activities. But then again, ever since I started earning decent money out of things like the Saudi job, I've actually had to pay tax. In fact registering for a business may actually provide me with a few benefits.

I'm only a sole-propriotor, which means that unlike being a private limited, I'm still liable for my own business liabilities. However, I think it is a step in the right direction. For a start, I can now open a business account under the name of the business. My invoices will have a bit more credibility when I don't ask for cheques in my personal name - from the dealings I've had, big organisations have issues when it comes to issuing cheques to individual names but no problem when it comes to dealing with organisations.

Not sure how much will change from my daily dealings. It's not like a have a sky high turn over, the type that will get a government minister attending my personal functions. But I think, now that I've decided to exist, I can make things a little easier for myself. It's like now that I know I exist as a business, I got to do something to make the business work for myself.

Life as an entrepreneur in Singapore is not easy and I've been what Robert Koyosaki calls the "Entrepreneur who owns a job." Seriously, if I look back on things, the only thing I do is create work to generate money, which I spend pretty darn quickly. The down side is the fact that I have no income stability. The good side is that my work to money ratio is pretty darn good.

Now that I exist as a business, I get the feeling that I may have to change the way I do things even more. It will mean firmer in my pricing and negotiations. I think it will mean having to create something for myself. Who knows where this will go but I think it could be the start of an interesting chapter in my life.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Be Annoying!

Being a member of any of Singapore's opposition parties must rank as one of the worst jobs in the world. In the world of Singapore politics, being an opposition politician must be akin to being like an ant that has to go into a boxing ring against an elephant, particularly an elephant that makes it a point not to pull punches against ants.

Seriously, it’s a miracle when the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has to actually go to the polls to confirm its electoral mandate. A good many of Singapore's politicians are so entrenched in their constituencies that a vast portion of Singaporeans have never voted in their lives. I'm one of them. In three years of living in London, I managed to vote twice. In seven years of being back at home, I've not needed to visit the ballot box.

The poor old opposition is often left struggling for a bit of attention. If you compare elections to a sporting contest, Singapore elections are akin to a football match where the defending champions get so bored they look for an opponent to kick instead of the ball. Singapore politics is of course a bit more sophisticated; the opposition politician that was unfortunate enough to incur the wrath of the ruling party merely gets sued till his or her very presence becomes a liability to cow dung. Is it surprising nobody wants to become an opposition politician?

To be fair to the PAP, the successive governments it has produced have delivered the economic goodies and in Singapore, as elsewhere, the truism that, "Oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them," is strong. The PAP is simply not into losing or allowing anyone else a hope in hell of winning - Who can forget Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's threat in 2006 of - "Instead of spending my time governing Singapore, I'll have to fix the opposition." Singaporeans seem to agree with him. In nearly every election since I don't know when, the PAP consistently wins something like 81 out of 84 available seats, leaving two token members of the opposition, who, to their credit have managed to keep themselves in a job.

The pathetic state of Singapore's opposition has reached a stage where, the PAP has even contemplated ordering some of its members to masquerade as an opposition and the Prime Minister has been compelled to asses the two elected and single nominated members of parliament as not being very good (One speaks less than he used to, another is a little more cautious and the final one is dismissed as a passionate nit-picker).What can the opposition parties do about this dire state of affairs?

For a start, there is a serious need to get people who are serious about winning elections, and that means finding unity. As things stand, the opposition consist of a series of egos that seem to despise each other as much as they do the government. In Malaysia, Chinese and Indian rights parties managed to join forces with an Islamist party. On this side of the causeway with less ethnic and religious divisions, the opposition can’t even work together to organise a three-year olds birthday party. I remember attending a conference chaired by M Ravi, a part-time human rights lawyer and full time punch bag for the government. The conference was a sham, which was a pity. Instead of a rational discussion on the merits of the death penalty, I was treated to a ‘Worship Me,’ session by Mr Ravi and let’s not forget, the event was a book launch and he was selling his book at a special discount of $19.99 or something like that. I was skint and somehow I felt compelled to want to hang the bugger, even if I don’t actually believe in hanging.

The other thing that the opposition needs to do is to come up with some ideas. This is easier said than done. The PAP has done a fabulous job in government and it’s hard to disagree with a group of people who have this annoying habit of getting it right all the time.

Having said that, the PAP does not get it right all the time and in this, the opposition has failed quite miserably in its job to hold the government to account. Is it that difficult to do your research and ask questions in parliament and in front of the media? Sure, the PAP will be inclined to use bully-boy tactics (just think of MM Lee’s complacency remarks) but bullies are surprisingly cowardly when people refuse to be intimidated by them.

Think of the following:

Mas Selamat’s Escape

  • What happened to the security system in the prison? We’ve pumped millions into anti-terrorism facilities and one man with a limp has obviously gotten the better of all our investments.
  • Why is the Committee of Inquiry taking so long to reveal its findings? Normal commercial supermarkets have installed CC TV’s and have the facility to trace incidents within minutes. Surely, a high-technology prison should have even better facilities?
  • How did Singapore’s leading terrorist have so much freedom of movement within the prison?

Tanker Collides with Navy Spy Ship

  • What happened to all the radar technology on the ship? Sure, we’ve found the watch officer negligent, but surely a ship filled with the latest radar technologies should have had other fail safe systems?

Exercise Swift Lion – Death of two NSFs

  • How did a faulty fuse make its way into the ammunition?
  • We’ve been told that the suppliers in the USA and China were at fault. But why don’t we have final checks on our end? We spend five-percent of our GDP on defence; we must surely have the ability to check the quality of the equipment we receive from foreign suppliers?
  • Is the ammunition being used by our military of the highest standard?

In ten-years I’ve managed to find three incidences where tough questions should have been asked. Where was the opposition when these incidents happened? To be fair to the opposition, it seems easier not to ask questions because they may leave themselves open to accusations that they re unpatriotic and distracting the government from its job. But has the government answered the questions to the best of its ability? We’ll never know until the opposition loses its fear of being beaten down and continues asking the questions until they are answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Governments are elected to do a job and oppositions are elected to make sure they do it. Singapore can’t get the government it deserves until its opposition does the job it was meant to do.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I'm No Longer in Charge

How do you know if a girl is a virgin? The answer is simple - ask her. If she says yes, chances are she's not. If she says no, she most definately is. The reasoning behind this piece of teenage wisdom runs as follows:

1 - If she says yes, it is because she needs to prove her virtue and how does a girl prove her virtue? She claims that she's remained pure and chaste throughout.

2 - If she says no, it is because she needs to show that she's interesting and nothing makes a girl seem more interesting than the number of sexual partners she's had.

I guess the point I'm trying to make here, is that there should be certain things we don't need to tell people, unless we're trying to prove a point. This is particularly true when it comes to the area of personal integrity. One of my favourite lines that people often use is:

a - Let me be frank with you. Now, I wonder people have to say that? I am by my nature, very trusting and when people tell me things, I take it that they're speaking from the bottom of their hearts. So, it always bothers me when people tell me that they're going to be honest in their dealings with me. I find myself asking - Why do they need to tell me that they will be honest?

History of full of interesting soundbites. Who can forget Richard Nixon's imortal lines - "I am not a crook!" Or George HW Bush's - "Read my lips, no new taxes." Then again politicians and governors have an interesing dilema. The needs of governing don't always meet the needs of politics and sometimes the politcians who have to do both end up breaking promises.

In Singapore, with our omnipotent government, we have our own political sound bite. That famous line is - "I'm No Longer in Charge." This phrase is spoken by non other than our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who at the age of 84 has parked himself into a consultancy position known as "Minister Mentor." The title, as non Singaporeans might imagine has something to do with Mentoring Ministers.

To be fair to Lee Kuan Yew, his influence in Singapore would remain exceedingly high, whether he held a cabinate post or not. Although Singapore strives to be ruled by laws and political offices, Asian culture is such that prominent personalities rule. In China, Deng Xiao Peng ran China til the day he died as nothing more than - "President of the Bridge Club." Like Deng, Lee Kuan Yew or LKY is so prominent a personality in the psyche of Singaporeans that one commentator mentioned, "Lee Hsien Loong may be the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong may have been the Prime Minister for the past 14-years but this is still the era of Lee Kuan Yew."

So, I guess Mr Lee is right to make this statement wherever he goes. No matter what he does, Singaporeans will still feel that he is in charge, regardless of what office he holds. I remember watching him in person, the begining of the construction of the Marina Barrage in 2005 - "I have another challenge for you, even though I'm no longer in charge." With those words (which were not in the original script) he managed to cause panic amongst the corporate communications teams from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources as well as the Public Utilities Board.

However, while its understandable why he keeps telling everyone that he's no longer in charge, the man doesn't seem to be acting that way. Study is movements carefully enough and you'll find that the Mentor to the Cabinate is acting more like the national leader instead. The best part is, he's pulling along his understudy, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. It could be me, but I don't recall either Minister Mentor or Senior Minister being described as Head of State or Head of Government.

OK, I've not stat down and done calculations about this, but in recent months, all the high-level activity seems to be conducted by either the Minister Mentor or the Senior Minister, while the President and the Prime Minister have been so low key, that one is left wondering where they've been. I do remember the Prime Minister waving a small flag back when we won the right to host the Youth Olympics and I'm sure the President will be somewhere to be seen when National Day comes about this August 9th. The Minister Mentor and Senior Minister are way to busy with such inconsequential things like, going to countries we are trying to open up, as well as entertaining leaders of the superpowers and keeping the nation in check when national disasters take place.

Just look at Singapore's relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is a relationship that has grown in leaps and bounds during the past three-years and Singaporeans are being encouraged to view Saudi has a nation that can build fortunes. Guess who headed up this inital push from the Singaporean side? Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Guess who has made two trips up to Saudi Arabia? Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The Senior Minister and Minister Mentor have made about three trips compared to one between the President and Prime Minister.

OK, this may make strategic sense. Senior Minister Goh has the people skills that are so necessary for dealing with a culture where relationships are so important. Minister Mentor Lee is of the same generation as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque, and Arab culture respects seniority. Then again, our President is of a similar age to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque and Minister Mentor Lee and our Prime Minister should have the people skills.

I shouldn't dwell into this too much. Both the Senior Minister and Minister Mentor have done an excellent job in ensuring that Saudi-Singapore relations are at a high, and this has been maintained by the efforts of the respective Ambassadors - Dr Amin Kurdi and Mr VP Hirubalan.

However one has to ask if this situation where the consultants overshadow the client is obviously healthy. No doubt, SM and MM have been very helpful to Singapore in the area of foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East - where the Prime Minister has delegated responsability of managing the relationship to them.

But what about things like domestic affairs. Is it healthy that two retired politicians, no matter how good and experienced seem to have higher profiles than the head of government?

Look to the Mas Selamat affair. The Minister Mentor has spoken about this issue. I don't agree with the Minister Mentor's position. I think his comments before the actual findings of the completion of the inquiry were irresponsible. But at least he's said something. He's given some sort of direction to the general public. One may not agree with the direction, but at least he's provided it. Compare that the the Prime Minister who has been exceedingly silent, thus enforcing the impression that he's not providing leadership during a crisis situation.

Then let us look at the Olympic Games and the protest surrounding the torch. The Prime Minister has made a speech about not politicising the games. Yea, politicians make speeches all the time. But who is the one bringing Singapore's position on the issue into the International Arena - Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Shouldn't our Head of Government be promoting our position in the International Arena instead.

I'm sure both "retired" politicians are having fun doing what they're doing. Both were good for the nation when they were not retired and they're contributing their experiences to the current government. But one has to wonder if this is good for them and for the government in the long run.

How is this not good for the two retired politicians? I think the word legacy comes to mind. Retired politicians in other countries do contribute allot to society once they leave office. In retirement, Jimmy Carter is doing far more good than he did while in office through running his foundation. Margaret Thatcher, who, while physically failing and fading is becomming more iconic as people who would have been her opposition are adapting her philosophical ideas. Same with Regan, who died of Alzheimers not remembering he was President of the USA. How did they do it - they stayed away from government when they left. Time allowed people to forget their mistakes and remember the good that they left.

Unfortunately, those who stay in government beyond their sell by date find the opposite. Their mistakes become more prominent and people remember recent blunders more than they do years of public service. Look at Goh Chok Tong, a genuinely good Prime Minister for 14-years. But what do we remember from those years? In chats with a few friends, we remember him for:

a - Throwing his prestiege behind an effort to remove two opposition politicians and being shown the Middle Finger by the voters. There was a public embarrasment when he declared one of the gentlemen as being a little too "Old" to be a Member of Parliament and was then told by that Member that he was disrespecting Minister Mentor Lee who is 10-years older.

b - His wife's unfortunate remarks about a the high salary of a crook as "Peanuts." P Hirubalan
The same goes for the Minister Mentor. Check the internet positings and you'll find postings galore about his "Complacency" remarks. Nobody seems to be talking about his leadership that brought Singapore from third world to first.

Then there is the issue of the current leadership. Yes, it's always good to have experience. I don't have experience in allot of things and I've been lucky enough to have had mentors to turn too. But ultimately, who is responsible and acountable for my actions? I am, or at least I should be (though I'm learning the art of blamming it on everyone except myself).

Likewise with the Prime Minister. Both his predecessors are extraordinary men and their experiences are invaluable. Having your predecessors can be good. Its also delegate task to the best people for the job rather than trying to muddle along. But ultimately someone has to be responsible for the success and failures of a government and that person is.....The Head of Government. Is it healthy for a Prime Minister to be seen delgating leadership - obviously not.

Take the complacency remarks. Minister Mentor Lee has every right to make his views known and the public has an obligation to respond. But should MM's views be representative of the government? It's no issue when LKY thinks Singaporeans are complacent for expecting the government to contain and catch a terrorist(should be the otherway round but that's not how events took place). But it is a major issue when that's being presented as official policy and surely the Minister Mentor knows that as long as he holds an official cabinate post, all his public utterances are seen as official policy. Who should be responsible for the government's position?

By all means, the Prime Minister should utilise the resources and experiences available to him, even if they those of his predecessors. But surely, it's not healthy when they seem to be overshadowing him in everything that counts. He can use their experiences. He can delegate certain task to them. But ultimately he's responsible for the goverment's actions and he needs to be seen as the one being in charge. Much as I despise cheerleading fags, I take George W Bush who crossed party lines and personal feelings to get Bill Clinton and George HW Bush to raise funds for the 2004 Tsunami victims but nobody got the impression that Bill and Pops would be taking over everything.

As for the Minister Mentor and Senior Minister. Surely, they should realise that there are benefits to really being - Not in charge.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Founding Fathers

Was sauntering around town today trying to look intelligent when I stumbled into a book shop and ended up browsing through an biography of Goh Keng Swee, Singapore's former Minister of economics, defense and many other things. Dr Goh, along with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr S. Rajaratnam is considered to be one of Singapore's core group of "Founding Fathers." The book was facinating to say the least. Like the USA, which was founded by men like Washington and Jefferson, Singapore was blessed with leadership by brilliant men.

As the writer of this biography rightly pointed out though, Singapore's founding father's have for the most part dissapeared into the memory of history. I've not asked AC Neilson about this, but I'm quite sure that if you grabbed any randome Singaporean of the street, they'd have a problem naming one, other than Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

I remember three-years ago, when two former presidents died (Wee Kim Wee and Devan Nair). The media was covered with eulagies galore. This was especially true for Devan Nair, who left the presidency amidst accusations of alcoholism. - A friend's wife (Who was working at Temasek Holdings) remarked, "I didn't know he did so much for Singapore, all I remember was stories about his alcoholism." She hit the issue on the head with an iron fist. I grew up with jokes like Nair standing for "No Alcohol, I Resign." It was only at his death that I realised that this man was actually instrumental in making Singapore's Labour Movement what it is today. A year later, S Rajaratnam died and we realised that this man actually wrote the pledge and provided allot of the intellecual backbone to Singapore's rulling system.

I think it was PN Balji amongst others who made this point - "Why do we say so much about them when they are dead? Why didn't we appreciate these men while they were alive." Now, that's a question worth asking and trying to answer.

Generally speaking, Singapore History seems to be centred around one man - Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee as Modern Singapore's founding Prime Minister is an extraordinary man and no one should denny that it was his leadership that brought Singapore to where it is today. However, the idea that Singapore's success is due soley to him insults Mr Lee and his cadre.

What made Singapore? I think it was the hard work of her people. Barefoot entrepreneurs from China, India and elsewhere set foot on this island with nothing other than a burning desire to make a better life for themselves. However, these men needed leadership and Singapore was blessed with men with a passion for Singapore.

Dr Goh was particularly interesting character. This mild mannered economist set up the Ministries and Statutary Boards that provide Singapore's businesses with the government support that they need. However, this man was more than just an economist. Suddenly, when we became an independent nation, Singapore needed a military force and it was Dr Goh who set up the SAF. The story of how Israeli advisors were brought in has been well doccumented and how he overcame the cultural antipathy towards soldiering of the majority Chinese population is also well doccumented. What is under doccumented is what made someone like Dr Goh so successful at what he did?

I believe that the main motivating factor for men like him was a passion to create a stable and prosperous society in a region filled with chaos. He and his colleagues did what they had to do. It's impossible for those of us who have grown up in a world where we've never really had to struggle to understand passion but personally I'm greatful to men like Dr Goh and Messers Rajaratnam. Pillay, Nair, Ong and gang. They did the jobs they had to do without the infrastructure we take for granted and with challenges we can't imagine today. Then, when the job was done, they stepped down and moved into the twilight, allowing the rest of us to forget about of them. - Truely this relinquishing of office, influence and power with such good grace is a demonstration of men who really loved Singapore by allowing future generations to grow.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Still the Fault of the Guards

As expected, my last posting seems to have upset quite a few people. True to form, I've now been labelled an "Irresponsible" Singaporean who expects freedom with no responsibility for my words, actions etc etc. My only reaction to these accusations is – it wasn’t me! It was Mas Selamat’s guards – bastards made me do it.

OK, let me clarify things. I think the successive PAP governments that have run Singapore have done a fabulous job. I appreciate the fact that there are clean streets, efficient services and so on. I find these things so important to my daily life that I moved back from the "Freedom" of the West to live here. Singapore, whatever one may say about it is actually a pretty decent place to live in and the government deserves credit.

However, what I do take issue with the fact that Singaporeans have become what the Minister Mentor calls, “Complacent.” The government has obviously been complacent in the handling of the Mas Selmat affair. How did Singapore’s number one terrorist walk out of a highly secure prison? If our security facility is as tight as it’s supposed to be, it will take more than a few prison guards sleeping on the job. Yet, if we are to take the Minister Mentor at his word, the majority of the blame lies here. Given that the rest of us are supposed to wait for the committee’s findings, was the Minister Mentor being responsible in making his comments to the press?

Then there is the role of Wong Kang Seng, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs. From the start, Mr Wong has demonstrated an arrogance that has been unmatched in our nation’s history. He was, “Sorry this had to happen,” rather than sorry. Although he mobilised vast resources, he’s also refused to consider various possibilities. He’s allowed his Ministry to insist Mas Selmat is still in Singapore despite the growing likelihood that the man may have escaped. More seriously, he’s insisted in having his Ministry lead the committee that is meant to investigate probably wrong doings in his Ministry. Such investigations need to be seen to be above reproach and Mr Wong’s actions have shown that this committee will not be seen in this light. By comparison, when Swift Lion took place in 1997, the Ministry of Defense ensured that the Committee of Inquiry was chaired by someone outside the Ministry (If memory serves correctly, the chair came from Ministry of the Environment.)

Having pointed out the obvious faults of the government, the Minister Mentor does have a point when he complains that the public has become complacent and over reliant on the government. He’s right. Singaporeans are so used to the government getting things right; nobody seems terribly bothered to hold the government to account when the government goofs. OK, to be fair to the public, the government is heavy handed when it deals with criticism. Singapore has a range of laws to keep people in their place and the government has not been shy in using those laws. Every respectable foreign publication has been sued at least once or twice. The local media have developed “responsible” and “respectful” journalism when it comes to political affairs – so much so that one of our major newspapers believed that it was more important to talk about an “Arrogant Roti Prata Salesman,” on the very day that every decision maker in the global economy was gathering in Singapore. Then there are usual slapping down of critics. Make a legitimate content and you become labelled a stooge of Western liberals or told that only politicians are entitled to a voice.

Having said all of this, there is no excuse for not expressing your opinions whenever you feel the government has goofed. If the media won’t take the opinions of the public, there are alternative outlets like cyberspace.

One might ask me why bother? Why make such a song and dance over, what may look like small issues in the overall picture. The answer lies in the simple fact that – we, as voters chose the government and as tax payers finance the government. As with anything that we put money into, surely it’s an act of responsibility to keep a close enough tab on people who manage your money.

For example, most of us put money into investments like Unit Trust because they allow us to leave our money in the hands of professional managers. These professionals are required to send us regular updates about the performance of the funds and if we are not happy with their performance, we take our money elsewhere. If experiences at Citibank are anything to go by, Singaporeans are very demanding when it comes to their personal funds and they’re more than willing to voice their displeasure when funds don’t perform as expected.

So, why aren’t we more vocal about the government that we finance? Thanks to the increase in GST, government finances are being moved away from direct taxes and into indirect taxes – the theory being we pay for consumption rather than production, which means more of us, are tax payers. So by that theory, shouldn’t more people be interested in the workings of the government?

Instead, the public is quite oblivious to the way money gets spent. Government budgets only excite our imagination when it involves a rebate cheque. Politics, is boring and just think of the times we’ve heard this phrase – “You can never win against them.” So there you have it, you have an institution that you spend money on, and yet you conveniently insist that there’s nothing you can do about how this institution spends your money.

OK, credit has to be given to the government for sound financial management. Budget deficits are generally the exception rather than the rule. But let’s look at some incidents:

  • Mas Selamat’s Escape – Singapore’s number one terrorist walks out of a secure prison, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent a good deal of money on anti-terrorism facilities (In Budget 08, SG$102 million was allocated to anti-terrorism)
  • The crushing on a navy ship near Peda Braca. The committee found the duty officer negligent and he was subsequently charged. But did anyone ask why our investment in navy radars could not detect a huge tanker coming its way.

Perhaps these may be small incidents on the scale of things. But then when you look at the loss of life and the other hidden cost – they cost the nation quite a bit. And yet, nobody seems interested in asking important questions of the government. When you think about it, the lack of criticism, both constructive and not, of the government is a sign of the public’s irresponsibility.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

When in Doubt - Blame the Guards

I'm finally learning that it's utterly helpless to try and discuss one of the least pleasent quirks of our national culture - namely the taking of personal responsability. There's utterly no point in talking about the subject or even thinking you might be able to make difference, because this is Singapore, the land of accomodating practical people. So before you keep reading this entry, I must let you know that anything you may deem offensive about what I write, is not actually my fault.Perhaps I was complacent, but the real truth of the matter is, it was the fault of the guards who let Mas Selamat go. This also a two-way streak. If you reply to anything I may find offensive, I won't address the issue with you, I'll just blame the guards who let Mas Selamat go. After all, the complacent bastards should have known better.

Anyway, if you don't believe me, I would urge you to look at interview with Singapore's Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, which was published in the Straits Times. In the interview, Mr Lee made it a point to blame the escape and subsequent failure to capture Mas Selamat on - complacency. According to Mr Lee, Mas Selamat's handlers were complacent -they knew he was a slippery fish but being so complacent they let him run off. Of course, his handlers are not the only complacent buggers around - Singaporeans in general have become so complacent, that they expect the uncomplacent creators of the system to take care of their every whim and fancy. However, when asked if there were incidences of incompetence, Mr Lee, true to form, reprimanded the interviewer and declared that we can only know once the Comittee of Inquiry has completed its work sometime (being the opperative word here) in the not to distant future.

In Singapore it's something of a sacrilledge to disagree with Mr Lee. If Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a colony, Lee Kuan Yew is the man who made Singapore what it is today. You have to admire his achievements. Thanks to his passion and leadership, Singapore has become a thriving metropolis in a few short years. I like to think of Singapore as everything a city should be - clean, green, rich and safe. As I've often mentioned, Lee Kuan Yew stands out as probably the only man of his generation who rulled wisely and made the decision to step out of the hot steat at his own accord.

Lee Kuan Yew remains admired by both East and West. Mainland China, Vietnam and even India find his transformation of Singapore remarkable. These nations, though many times our size have fantasies of many Singapore's being replicated throughout their lands. His Western contemporaries like Maraget Thatcher cannot stop singing his praises. I remember, Chas Friedman, former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia describing him as "One of the Most Brilliant Men," in the world. And I was reminded, when Chas Friedman calls someone brilliant, its because they are.

Even though his body is frail, Mr Lee is exceedingly energetic and for the most part, he's proven the case of keeping old people in the job market. Study the man's track record. Look at his arguments and you'll realise for the most part, Mr Lee has been on the right side of nearly every major issue in the world. And he's right, the Mas Selamat affair shows that Singaporeans have become an utterly complacent lot - content to tollerate incompetence from officialdome and unable to tell Mr Lee when he's speaking from cloud nine.

On the whole, I admire Lee Kuan Yew, but as time progresses, I'm worried that Singaporeans have lost the ability to see the fact that he's human and prone to making some major mistakes. As a nation, we're so in awe of him, we can't see when he's blatantly wrong. What's even worse is the fact that some of his rare but "wrong" moves are so self-serving and are in fact destroying the very things he put into our culture, the things that make Singapore's culture so materially successful.

Like him or not, Lee Kuan Yew was never one to shy away from taking personal responsability. When a policy was unpopular, he didn't delegate it to someone else - he fought for the policy in public and won - the merger with Malaysia comes to mind. This was also a leader who brought out the best in people, a man who was willing to let his colleagues argue with him on what they believed in and he had the security to let them shine. Dr Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam would not have done what they did for Singapore had LKY been the control freak who needed everything done his way and to the letter.

Our "Founding" Prime Minister was also a practical man. He knew when to be harsh. You're less likely to become a vandalising Yob if you know you'll get a hidding. He also knew when to turn a blind eye to certain things - as my favourite US Navy boys point out - Geylang is miles better than many American city centres, and we're not even talking about red light districts here. Most importantly, LKY is a man of integrity. While Suharto allowed his kids to plunder the country, Mr Lee has ensured that any wealth aquired by his family is done through hard work.

But if anyone with common sense read his interview in the Straits Times on Saturday 5 March, 2008 - that leader is sitting in the back of the history books. Did he realise what he was saying?

1 - The official government line is that nobody get's blammed for Mas Selamat's escape until the Committee of Enquiry completes its work. Well, that line no longer exist. A man, who's every word is regarded as gospel truth has just put the blame of the escape on the complacency of his handlers - ie prison guards.

2 - If the prison guards were complacent, nobody has asked how a culture complacency came into being. Nobody has been encouraged to come up into the open and admit they made a mistake. We have a Minister who was "Sorry that THIS had to happen," instead of just being "Sorry." Other than that, officialdome has not been proven to be incompetent despite glaring signs that prove otherwise - just think of the mole we knew about 19-days after the escape.

3 -
Instead, the blame for the culture of complacency lies with - the general public that expects the government to do everything. Mr Lee and his followers seem to be under the impression that all the public ever does is to whine, in spite of being well treated. Well, Singaporeans may whine alot and the government may be exceedingly generous in many ways. But then again, how does the wonderful government come into being? - Ooooppps, the whiney general public not only voted for the government, but it pays the government exceedingly well. I'm sorry, I do not see how Mr Lee can call it living in reality for the public to accept the necessity of high salaries for competent ministers but to accept it when Ministers make mistakes and don't account for their actions.

Let's bring it down to the most basic level. For ordinary Joes, we go to work and expect to get paid a decent wage. When we do well, we like to get a pat on the back from the boss. When we do badly, we get scolded or at worst - dismissed. However, if you follow Mr Lee's thinking - he goes to work, gets exceedingly well rewarded, comended when he does well but when he does badly - he has the privillege of scolding his boss for expecting too much from him. Singaporeans, at large, are expected to pay a high salary for competent Ministers but when the Ministers don't deliver, we have to understand that the Ministers are only human and prone to error.

The traditional answer from the powers that be, is that I'm thinking like a Westerner - a bloody minded Western Liberal who does not understand that we have our own way of doing things. I wonder if what they're saying is that only Westerners are entitled to expect competent government that they pay for?

My other favourite is - join the opposition if you feel so strongly about it. Well, let's think about this. If you follow this line of thinking - you will need to take a course in carpentry and chairmaking if you sit on an uncomfortable chair because only those with the proper qualifications know what an uncomfortable chair is.

I'm sorry Mr Lee. My name is Tang Li (S7439818i), I live in Blk 27 Marine Crescent, #22-03, Singapore 440027. I have served my National Service for Singapore and I've paid my taxes. The least I expect is a government that does the job it was paid to do and when the government fails to perform, it should take responsability. If you think you have the right to reprimand Singaporeans fo expecting anything less, you should reconsider what your doing to your legacy.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Another Look at Talent

Mas Selamat aside, one of the biggest topics in Singapore these days is the fact that our PM is on the look out for a successor. Limping dwarf's aside, leadership or the lack of it is back on the national agenda, and one of the most pressing issues about leadership is - "Succession Planning."

I'm often reminded of PN Balji's favourite theme - the idea that a good leader will leave the place he or she left stronger than when she started. I'm also reminded of a former platoon sergant who told us that, "The battery must be able to run without me." These are words that I think most of us who climb up in life tend to forget. Climbling is bloody difficult, and I guess those of us who climb up successfully depend on having strong egos. However, while a strong ego helps one survive the trials and tribulations of being on top, it is often an impediment in clouding our purpose. We get to tied up with the idea that it's all about the person - we think of "I did this, I did that and I'm so great that the rest of them will die without me," when we are in positions of leadership. As a result we end up making ourselves the centre of the world instead of concentrating one of the most basic fundimentals of leadership - making sure that our people are up to the job when we're not around.

In the Singapore we've been fairly lucky. Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister stepped aside in 1990 while, in his words, the "mental facilities were still in order." Goh Chok Tong, his successor did something similar in 2004 and handed over to Lee Hsien Loong. Of course both Mr Lee and Mr Goh managed to retain high-level consultancy positions in the shape of being Minister Mentor and Senior Minister respectively but unlike many of their contemporaries in the region, they made it a point to step aside rather than get pushed and they've played a somewhat constructive role in contributing their experience to government rather than snipe at their successor.

However, the elder Mr Lee and Mr Goh had something that the current Mr Lee does not seem to have - an obvious team of successors. Unlike his predecessors, nobody seems to have an idea who the next Prime Minister is or even who the next group of Ministers are. The last cabinate was something of a game of musical chairs that told us utterly nothing.

So, since there is an obvious lack of political talent at home - the talk is about resorting to a traditional Singapore solution - get the talent from elsewhere. Well, actually it's an integral of being a Singaporean, especially when you think that most Singaporeans came from elsewhere once upon a time.

Leaving aside the regular grumbling, Singaporeans are quite used to working for foreigners. Just as in Lee Kuan Yew's youth, "The supperiority of the White men is acceptend" (Well if you call talentless barrow boys - talented) and these days we're even swallowing initial racial prejudices and comming to accept that the supperior men from abroad may even be Indian. Then there are the Banladeshi, Philipinos and Thais we can spit on whenever we feel that we've been spat on by the Hillbillys....ooppps, I mean talents.

But when it comes to politics, things are slightly different. The story is, we need Singaporeans to lead Singaporeans. One of the great and good mentioned that being a Minister requires passion, the type of passion that only a real Singaporean can provide.

Well, I guess they have a point there. Look to the number of barrow boys crawling round the streets these days and you'd think that we've become a third world city - London. The thought is so scary that I end cheering on the government everytime some Expat kid shits his pants when he gets canned for doing such savoury things like vandalising cars. - It's especially fun when Americans get into trouble with the law - "I'm an American dude, you can't do that....I'll call ma lawyer, write my Congressman etc etc" - Yea, right - I think. The more you say that the more inclined I am make sure you get wacked our way...infront of your congressman, lawyer etc etc. Seriously, many of the American, British and Australian expats should stick to being useful to the local economy.......getting ripped off by the imported prostitutes as well as the local bar scene.

Leaving aside my little rant, I don't think it's such a bad idea to have a non-Singaporean run for Parliament. I mean, Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Raja and the gang were not Singaporeans to begin with - they were British subjects who became Malaysians and today nobody doubts their passion to Singapore. It's even been pointed out that our much respected Health Minister, Khaw Boon Wan was actually born in Malaysia.

Singapore has a proud tradition of welcoming useful expats. I think of Hans Hofer, one of my earliest shinning lights. The man fell in love with this part of the world, built a business empire based in Singapore, cashed out and continues offer his hyperactive brain to the world. Mr Hofer is German but has come to accept Singapore and Asia as his home. Once you meet Mr Hofer, you'll ask yourself - why isn't he being invited to run a Ministry. Let's leave Defense aside, if we are so keen about having "Global Talent" I don't see a logical reason why we need a Singaporean citizen to be running any of our Ministrys.

Besides, there are government departments who don't seem too worried about wether certain positions are filled by Singaporeans or not. Philip Yeo, former Chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has even declared that he would stop giving out schoolarships to Singaporean Men (bunch of Whinney Losers) and only give them to the girls and foreigners (People who can tollerate him....oopps, I mean nice people.)

So there it is. A prominent member of the government has come out and declared that it's not always good to give things to Singaporeans. So, I wonder....If a prominent government figure can make such a statement without being made to issue a public appology...........what does it say about the government's view of Singaporean citizens?

I mean, as a Singaporean citizen, why should I care? I need to accept the need to compete with the best the world has to offer. It's good to let competition mould you. I ask myself, is it more important to have the most qualified man or woman for the job or whether you want to limit your talent pool to Singapore?