Monday, June 20, 2011

You Know something is Overrated when…..

I used to have a dream that I would one day be able to place the letters MBA behind my name. The idea was sweet. I would get my first degree in the UK, work for a huge multinational for about three-years and then head towards Kellogg School of Management in Northwestern University to do my MBA. In short, I thought it would have been cool to be part of the great corporate network.

Well, things didn’t work out that way. I never got into a “big” corporation – I think the closest I’ve been to a multinational was two weeks at Rapp Collins. Didn’t have the credentials and earning enough for my next meal became a bigger priority to getting my MBA. However, as I continued to pound the streets looking for work, I still harboured the dream of calling myself “Tang Li, MBA”

That was until I meet “Chutiya Bhai.” My dreams of ever becoming an MBA went to the shit. Thanks to Chutiya Bhai, I realised that having an MBA was not everything it was cracked up to be – I lie – I realised that having an MBA might become detrimental to my state of mind. It was like fantasising over a hot chick for ten-years and then one day, you go on a date with her and you realise that she’s so rotten on the inside that shooting yourself before the date is over looks like a viable option.

Chutiya Bhai has an MBA amongst a host of other qualifications. He’s a very clever person. However, he is also unpleasant. Give him two minutes of your time and he’ll take two days telling you how rich and successful he is and how he managed to get to that stage by jacking over his professional colleagues. The man’s idea of saving money is to avoid paying his local coffee shop for food he’s eaten.

He did admit to me that he had a few personal issues to resolve with his family. However, you would imagine that someone with an MBA would have the education and
character to rise above it and succeed brilliantly. He didn’t – his only friends were the Old Rogue and myself – that was of course until Joyce decided she would rather be with me than with him (despite the fact that he makes loads more money than I do). If Chutiya Bhai was not bugging the Old Rogue about his issues in the office, he would bug me. We were meant to solve the world’s issues for him. Much as I did spend a lot of time in his company – I felt that, “If this is what an MBA does to you – thanks but no thanks.”

Ever since I’ve lost the ambition to get an MBA, I’ve been able to see things more clearly. I realise that MBAs do not make the best business people. Two of the best people I know are a Vietnamese girl and a Chinese egg seller. Both have debateable qualifications. Yet both have risen up from nowhere by having the right people-smarts. Both have helped bring prosperity to others and so have been rewarded in turn.

To be fair to Chutiya Bhai, he’s not the only person to shatter my dreams. One of the most prominent people to shatter my dreams was Professor Thio Lee-Ann, a former Nominated Member of Parliament and a Professor of Law.

Like the MBA, I had a dream of going to Oxford. Unfortunately, I was coming out of a bad love relationship and a drunken spree during my A-level year and so I didn’t get the grades required for Oxbridge. However, that didn’t stop me from admiring Oxbridge and holding up the place as an ideal of what a university should be. I suspect I didn’t make much of a student career at the University of London because I felt like a poor relation to the Oxbridge Universities.

The Professor Thio Lee-Ann came along and shattered my dreams about Oxbridge. I read her arguments during the debate on the repeal of 377A (the section in the Singapore Penal Code that criminalises anal sex between men) and was stunned.

This supposedly clever woman who had a professorship in law proceeded to produce pages and pages of drivel about how letting two consenting adults have sex in the privacy of their own bedroom would be bad for society. Her argument went along the lines of – if you let consenting gay adults have sex in the privacy of the bedroom, you will ruin society because everyone might turn gay. The clincher of her argument was – Anal Sex is like sticking a straw up your nose.

Not sure how she worked that one out? Throughout her ranting, she failed to provide a single, logical and legally sound argument as to why a private act between two consenting adults should be a criminal act. Her arguments were befitting a trash collector than a professor of law.

What was most shocking to me was finding out that the good professor had been to Oxford. I mean, I guess you could say that our local varsities have a way of passing certain people, but one would surely expect better from Oxford! How the hell did a woman with such an inability to think rationally and critically graduate from a University that is renowned for producing some of the greatest minds of our time.

Furthermore, my respect for the Oxbridge institutions were shattered when our Prime Minister, a Cambridge Graduate, and his cabinet (filled with Oxbridge graduates with MBAs) refused to recognise the drivel that Professor Thio was sprouting for what it is and proceeded to agree with her – they decided to keep 377a in the penal code but promised not to enforce it – which is a beautiful contradiction in terms.

I suppose I should be grateful to the likes of Professor Thio and Chutiya Bhai. These are people who help you to realise that sometimes the lost dreams that you had were lost for a reason. When you meet them, you suddenly become grateful for the things that you did not get and you bless your fortune for giving you the things that you had. When it comes to institutions, I think it’s always best to meet the products as well as reading the brochures.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What’s next for George?

I am really happy that Singapore’s much liked former foreign minister; George Yeo will not be running for the Presidency. Mr Yeo, who was regarded as one of the more ‘liberal’ members of the ruling elite would have had an awful time as President.

He would have been caught between his former cabinet colleagues who would expect him to be on their side and the public who would have expected him to be an independent minded President. Mr Yeo has wisely decided that it is better not to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

So what’s next for Mr Yeo? If you look at his credentials and his number of years of service to the nation, Mr Yeo should have plenty of options. He could, for example, take on the role as an advisor to a number of statuary boards and government linked corporations. He could easily take up a role as a lecturer, talking about Singapore’s place in the world. Not only would Singapore’s universities hire him, he could also lecture in universities around the region.

Personally, I think Mr Yeo should be bold and look for opportunities beyond Singapore and the Southeast Asian region. He should look towards getting a senior management role in a big multinational – which if you consider GIC and Temasek Holding’s investment in some of the world’s largest corporations, should not be too difficult.

To put it simply, Mr Yeo’s presence at a multinational corporation like General Electric (GE) or 3M or JP Morgan would help his former cabinet colleagues seal the argument about the need to pay themselves high salaries.

The argument for paying ministers high salaries has always bordered on the need to counter corruption (well paid people have less temptation to look for bribes) and to attract talent. On the corruption front, this argument has worked relatively well. Singapore has been a steady number four on the list of the least corrupt governments in the world (though the more cynical do argue that Singapore should be number one).

On the argument of attracting talent, this argument is less effective. The initial argument for paying Ministers high salaries was that it was necessary to bring bright minds into politics, which might otherwise have gone into the private sector.
As far as politics is concerned, it is OK for big countries like the USA to accept that you can pretend to be a President for US$20 million in a movie instead of being the President for US$400,000 a year, but it is not possible for small countries like Singapore. We need the best political talent we can get and we need to pay high salaries to stop them from running to places like JP Morgan and GE.

However, there’s one small problem. If you look at the pre-ministerial careers of most of our cabinet ministers, you’ll find that more often than not they’re careers have always been in Singapore and in the public sector. We have plenty of former military people and other civil service types and even the rare few who have spent their careers in the private sector have spent it in Singapore – Tony Tan, former Deputy Prime Minister for example, was the CEO of OCBC and our former Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong was once at Neptune Orient Line (Temasek Holdings is a primary share holder).

This in itself has not been a bad thing. As governments go, the Singapore government has been acknowledged as a fairly good one. Our public sector is filled with bright people who do quite a good job in running the show.

However, having good people does not mean we’ve been getting the best. The point about paying high salaries has been that we need to attract people who might otherwise have gone to JP Morgan into politics. However, not one of our cabinet members has come from international organisations. The majority have in fact been bread at home and on government scholarship – ie they’ve been bonded to the government before they could even decide if they wanted to go for jobs at places like JP Morgan.

Not only have our top people started in the government, they’ve stayed within the protection of the Singapore government after they’ve retired from active cabinet duty. Think of the most high profile retirees, Senior Minister Goh and Minister Mentor Lee, who became advisors to the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Government Investment Corporation respectively.

So, how good are our top people? They’re good by Singapore standards but where does that leave them on the international stage?

Well, Mr Yeo should look at answering that question and discover what he can do on the international stage. Getting a job at a top level corporation would be a good place to start.

Alternatively, Mr Yeo might decide that he wants to do something entrepreneurial or perhaps philanthropic. Mr Yeo has made plenty of money from his career as a minister and built up a contact base of movers and shakers. All he needs is a little bit of imagination and he could start something that could make an impact on the world. Look at what former US Presidents do. Bill Clinton’s foundation is devoted to fighting AIDS while Jimmy Carter travels round the world trying to make peace.

Losing an election could be the start of something great for Mr Yeo if he puts his mind to it. Chris Patten lost an election and became a much respected Governor of Hong Kong as well as European Commissioner. Mr Patten travels the world writing books and giving seminars. He’s Chancellor of Oxford University. In short, we think of Mr Patten’s success and the failure of a lost election has become a distant memory. This should encourage Mr Yeo in his post-political career.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nobody Notices when you are Bald – Everyone Notices when you Comb Over

One of the earliest bits of advice when I started losing my hair in my late teens came from my Dad. He said, “Whatever you do, NEVER comb over and NEVER get a hair transplant. Somehow nobody notices when you are bald but everyone notices you when you comb over or have a hair transplant.”

My Dad was right. As I got older, I realised that nobody really gave two hoots about bald men. If anything, being bald can be a fashion statement. Just look at Andre Agassi who was a teenage sex symbol known for his long bushy mane (apparently it was a wig). Later on he shaved bald and his status as a sex symbol strengthened. On the other hand, everyone notices the guys who comb over. The most prominent comb over was Dr Cheong Choon Kong, former CEO of SIA and currently the Chairman of Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation. Dr Cheong’s comb over was so prominent that it provided a little but of comic relief during the tragedy of SQ Flight 006, which crashed in Taiwan.

Like it or not, baldness is not an uncommon trait for men. As such, we, the folliclely challenged, either learn to live with it or we try to hide it. Despite the fact that hiding it usually draws more attention to it, there are men who persist in doing things like combing over the growing bald spot with the few strands of hair that they have.

I have recently discovered another version of the comb over. This new breed does not have to worry about follicles on the head. Instead, this new breed deals with things like money or the lack of it. Let’s call this breed the story teller.

Being broke is a little like being bald – more of us are broke than we care to admit to. Like being bald, many of us feel that being broke is a little embarrassing and so, the temptation to hide being broke is quite strong. It’s generally easier to hide being broke than it is to hide being bald. However, the efforts to hide being broke sometimes reach proportions that can be compared to the valiant effort to hide a growing bald spot.

One of the silliest examples of an effort to hide being broke is “Oooppss, I forgot my wallet at home.” This is apparently a very handy excuse when you happen to be meeting people for the very first time and don’t have the finances to cover a round of drinks. Unfortunately, this is also the type of story that reveals that you’re not being entirely honest – who in this day and age forgets their wallet when they go out for drinks?

The efforts to cover up the fact that you are broke can be quite amusing. However, there comes a point when telling stories can reveal plenty about your character or rather lack of it. Story tellers like comb overs have an insecure streak that borders on dishonesty. Like the comb over, the sad thing about the story teller is usually most dishonest with him or herself.

Young Muslim Politicians serving National Service from the comfort of the bed room (Thumbi Pundeks) are especially prone to telling stories to cover up for their inadequacies.

This young PAP cadre who is currently living off his father and the tax payer believes that he is an important person and he’s very rich. Somehow, somewhere in his gene pool and education, he’s been told that he’s entitled to spend other people’s money on ipads and expensive prostitutes. Thanks to his father and the Singapore tax payer, the Young PAP cadre believes that anyone who cannot spend money such items is only one level above shit.

However, this fa├žade that he’s valiantly trying to pursue has its limits. Money, like other resources has a way of running out and when you don’t have money, it’s rather hard to pretend that you have pots of the stuff.

The Young Pariah has discovered a way of dealing with it. It’s called – talking shit. He’ll announce to you that he’s dying to “treat you.” Then you go out with him, he’ll order food without looking at the price tag. Just before the bill comes, he’ll then ask if it’s OK if you put it on your credit card and he’ll draw cash from you later on. One would suggest to anyone agreeing to such a deal that you march him to the ATM immediately after you have finished – because his understanding of later can be rather elastic. Of course, you’ll have to deal with him trying to bargain with you and when you point out to him that he was supposed to treat you – he’ll look indignant and tell you, “But I just spent $400 on an new cover for my phone, you don’t expect me to have money do you?”

Another variation of the scam that this Young PAP Cadre from Pasir Ris GRC will try pull is this – “I’ll treat you, let’s go somewhere classy.” He’ll then tell you that he only has $30 on him once you’ve sat down for a meal. He’ll gladly except it if you pass him an extra $10 to cover the unmentioned cost like GST and service charge. Suddenly, when the bill comes, you’ll find that he gets change of over $15. You check the bill and find that you’ve ordered less than $30 bucks worth and he’s paid $50 of cash, excluding your $10. When you ask him about it, he returns $10. I suppose you could say he has a point – he said he’d treat you but he didn’t say he’d pay GST or service charge.

Young Pariah’s are a bit like bald men trying to cover up their bald spots. However, unlike the bald men trying to cover up the bald spot with their remaining three strands of hair, the Young Pariah has been allowed to enter politics and is sometimes portrayed as a person that the Deputy Prime Minister might want to associate himself with.

If you were to believe that the ruling party tolerates characters with such a high sense of self-esteem and integrity, you might be wanting to ask yourself if the ruling party is trying to hide something too?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

An Extension of an Old Age Pension….

The Singaporean Presidential Election is looking set to get interesting. A day after the former head of the insurance arm of the National Trade Union Congress (yes, we have a union – it sells products to the workers) decided to enter the fray, the incumbent decided to drop a few hints about his wanting to stay on.

President SR Nathan, who has been President for the last 12-years, was in Mauritius when he dropped his hint. He mentioned that he has worked quietly despite what his critics had said and he mentioned that he was aware of his constitutional limits. So what exactly is going on here?

The last time Mr Nathan faced an election, he made some noises about how he was getting on and wanted to rest. Then he said that we had to “Ask God,” if he should run and then he ran and won an uncontested election.

So, has Mr Nathan decided that he likes being in the Istana after all? Well, in a way you can’t blame him. Mr Nathan receives some S$4 million a year in salary and since he spends time on State business, a good portion of that money has been his to keep.

We also have to except the possibility that Mr Nathan has done a fairly good job and the prospect of his Presidency being extended is unlikely to cause harm to Singapore. Unlike the other recently retired Octogenarian, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Nathan is not in the position to influence executive decisions and he’s been good at the ceremonial aspects of the job. He has shown genuine warmth for the people. He’s looked dignified when he’s supposed to and he says, he knows the limits of the job.

So, what’s the big deal about Mr Nathan running for a third term, especially if he’s been good at his job? One might argue that Mr Nathan who is turning 87 is getting on a bit and the prospects that he might die in office is very real. However, given that we have an aging population that feels left out by a society obsessed with youth, having a man who works till he dies is not a bad thing.

Let’s face it, we should not stop Mr Nathan from running again and we should be open to the possibility that he might actually be what we need – a dignified symbol of continuity in times of rapid change.

However, it would be a shame if Mr Nathan left things at that. He has an opportunity to provide moral leadership on one of the most pressing issues in society today – the question of the aged. Singapore as we have been constantly reminded is an aging society.

Despite our professed love of Asian Values – we have a shockingly horrible disregard for the elderly in our society. This “Asian” society of ours is the only place where young and educated people will pretend to fall asleep in their seats on the bus or subway rather than to give up their seats for old. That is unfortunately only a visible sign of how the old are regarded in Singapore. Age discrimination is rife in employment and social services. Grandparents have to work at McDonald’s counters because they don’t have enough money to survive.

While nobody expects Mr Nathan to create executive policies on the topic, Mr Nathan should spend his time leading a move to change our social perceptions of the old. Mr Nathan in his position of President is the ideal person to do this. As President he shows that Old People can still work without interfering with the day-to-day running of the lives of the young.

What are the things that Mr Nathan could do? For a start, he should throw the weight and prestige of the Presidency behind institutions that cater to the old. When an old folk’s home opens, he should rush to visit. When a corporation comes up with an aged empowerment program he should rush to give the CEO a plaque.

Then he needs to get creative in the way that Prince Charles has got creative championing his causes. In the UK, we have the Princes Trust, which has helped troubled teens down the productive path of entrepreneurship. Can’t we have something similar in Singapore?

Can you imagine if you had an organisation that helped “pensioners” fend for themselves? As the government has pointed out, many old people do want to work – if not for the money, and then it’s for the feeling of remaining useful. My late grandmother used to complain on a daily basis that one of the worst things about growing old was the feeling of being useless.

Mr Nathan would be an ideal champion of an organisation that helped old people to help themselves. He has the financial resources to start funding things on a personal basis. His time in the Presidency (assuming he does not run again) has provided him with a circle of influential people who could ensure the better ideas that such an organisation would provide can become real.

Now that Mr Lee has “retired,” we need another symbol for active aging and Mr Nathan is the ideal position to take over. Is there a better way for Mr Nathan to secure his legacy as a much loved President than to become the champion of the aged? He’s been given a generous pension – he has the chance to extend his pension – why shouldn’t he spend his remaining days by helping others keep their pensions?

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Expensive Key to Nowhere in Particular

Something unusual is happening in the state of Singapore. This year, this little island that took pride in being predictably boring has suddenly found a new lease of life. Kamal Nath, India’s eloquent transport minister once said of Singapore’s elections, “If you didn’t read the newspapers, you wouldn’t think there was an election. Besides, you already know the result before its taken place.”

Mr Nath was right. A good portion of us lived in uncontested wards. I was one of them. Nobody in their right mind would stand against a senior member of the government and election time for those of us in uncontested wards was simply a matter of collecting a government hand-out. The most exciting thing for us was seeing how generous the government would be.

Well, Mr Nath is no longer right. On May 7, 2011, Singapore went to the polls and proceeded to shock not only the PAP government by taking a Group Representative Constituency (GRC) and kicking out our affable foreign minister – we shocked ourselves by sheer passion an interest in politics. Internet chat rooms were buzzing. The politically apathetic became politically alive. Simply put – from the prospect of never voting, we were given a chance to vote.

The best part about the new found awareness is the fact that not only did we the people get to vote for our government, we are expected to vote for our President in an election that should take place by the end of August of 2011.

The Presidential Election is slightly different from the General One. To be President of Singapore, you must forgo ties to any political party and resign from whatever job you had. The Presidential Election is contest of individuals rather than parties. On paper, the President is the only person to be elected by every individual voter.

Singapore’s Presidency is an interesting one. Prior to 1993, the post was an appointed one. Parliament appointed the President who was primarily a ceremonial figure. Like the British Monarch he (all of our Presidents have been men) opened parliament by reading a speech prepared by the government, inspected the troops on National Day and visit foreign countries as well as receive dignitaries. The best thing that could have been said about the office was the fact that it made ethnic minorities feel a bit more cuddly. The underlying precedent was that since the government would be run by a Chinese (the majority of the population), the President would be from an ethnic minority. Lee Kuan Yew states very clearly that it was essential to have Yousof Ishak, a Malay to be Head of State, as it would signal to the Malaysians (Old Mr Lee had dreams of being part of Malaysia) that a Malay could achieve high office.

However, the reality was best summed up by Devan Nair, our third President. He would refer to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister as “boss” when they were in private.

Then some bright spark decided that it was necessary to have a President who could do something and so the constitution was amended and in 1993, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, a former Deputy Prime Minister became our first Elected President. As the President, Mr Ong had the constitutional duty to safeguard the reserves in addition to being a ceremonial figurehead. Real power remained with the government but the President was a little more than just a tea spoon. He became a little more like the British House of Lords rather than the Monarch. In the Singapore System, the President is part of the legislature rather than the executive.

Anyway, as we get closer to the Presidential Election, it might be worth asking ourselves if having an Elected President has been worth the effort. The President is after all an important part of the system and let’s not forget that the post cost money, an essential topic in money obsessed Singapore. Like the British Monarch, the President receives a “Civil List” to pay for staff and state expenses as well as a generous salary. At the last count, the President was drawing a salary of a mere S$4,000,000 a year, making the highest paid public official in the land that already has the world’s highest paid politicians.

Well, the answer has to be – NO. The main purpose of giving the President power over the reserves was so that the reserves would be safeguarded from a spendthrift government. If the President couldn’t check anything, at least he or she could delay Singapore being spent into the US National Debt. While this idea has been nice in theory – there have been two key problems.

The first key problem was highlighted by our first Elected President, Ong Teng Cheong. At the end of his term in office, the late President called a press conference where he described how he had problems asking for an audit of the reserves. As he rightly pointed out, he, the President was tasked to safeguard the reserves so he needed to know exactly how much was in the reserves.

He pointed out that civil servants had been evasive and he was told that it would take 56 man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of immovable assets. President Ong then consulted the Attorney-General who conceded that the government only had to produce a list of properties it owned. An incomplete list was given to him several months later and it took three-years to give him the information he requested.
So what exactly are “The Reserves?” Apparently the Singapore government has lots of spare cash which is stashed away somewhere for a rainy day. The topic of “The Reserves” is always spoken in reverent terms but nobody knows exactly what or how much is in the reserves. There is supposed to be something called the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) an SWF that manages the reserves – but once again nobody actually knows how much GIC manages or mismanages. If the man who is supposed to safeguard the reserves doesn’t know exactly what he’s supposed to safeguard, how can anyone expect him to do a good job of it.

The second point is that the man who is supposed to safeguard the reserves is supposed to have a democratic mandate from the people to do so and unfortunately, the current President has been denied such a mandate.

To be fair, this isn’t entirely his fault. To eligibility criteria is such that very few people qualify to run for President. You need to be either a former Minister or a CEO of a company turning over not less than S$100million a year. The guys in these jobs are not about to give them up to be a silver tea spoon. Nobody actually wanted to run against President Ong – they had to find someone to run against him and that someone campaigned on the premise that Mr Ong was far more qualified than he was (and he still got 670,358 votes out of a total of 1,756,517 votes cast)

President SR Nathan, has been pretty good at the ceremonial parts of the job. He’s read the speeches he’s been told to read. He waves at the crowd on National Day and everyone who has met him says he exudes warmth. In short, it is impossible to dislike the man.

However, we shouldn’t mince words here. He was to all intents and purposes appointed to the job and knows he has no mandate to fight against a government that has one. So when the government asked if they could dip into the reserves back into 2009 – he said yes. Mr Nathan has made pots of money by doing as he was told. As one Indian friend says, “He is the COMPLIANT Ke Ling” (Which is a derogatory term for Indians of Tamil decent who were originally brought to Singapore as prisoners – hence their chains went ke-ling, ke-ling.)

What can be done to solve this problem? Well, a good start seems to be having an actual contest. It’s nice to see people who meet the criteria throw their hats into the ring. At the time of writing, we have a former Member of Parliament (Tan Chin Bock) and the former CEO if NTUC Income (Tan Kin Lian). The former Foreign Minister, George Yeo is praying for wisdom (read consulting with his former colleagues) on whether he should throw his hat into the ring.

A contest of sorts will restore some legitimacy to the office. A president who is genuinely elected can do what he was supposed to do – be at least a little bit independent of the government.

However, something more important needs to be done. There needs to be a public audit of the reserves. Much has been made about how we cannot talk about the reserves because of National Security. However, let’s ask ourselves, how exactly does having a proper audit of what we actually own harm our security?

If anything, a public audit will create a situation where there will be greater transparency of the management of the reserves. The President, or the second key, will know exactly what he or she is safeguarding. We, the public will know what is happening to our money and if the government is open with us about how they’re managing our money, we’re likely to trust and communicate with them more.

Think of it this way, we trust the bank because we get a statement about how much we have with them. Imagine the next time you asked the bank how much you have in your bank account and they told you they couldn’t tell you for your own good. Now, would be inclined to keep your money with such a bank?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Bless the Fools

In a day and age where everyone wants to be known as exceedingly intelligent, it’s hard to appreciate fools. Everyone is trying so hard to be clever that even those who are not, are forced to be or at least appear to be so. One of the ladies in my life said it best – “I don’t mind you being poor but I expect you to be clever.”

With so much pressure to be clever, we are left underestimating the value of fools.
Being “Foolish” is considered a mortal sin that is as bad as say, picking your nose in public. This is a pity because being a fool or being silly is actually a valuable skill.

Let’s start with the obvious; being really stupid actually requires some sort of intelligence. Some of the world’s greatest clowns happened to be highly qualified. Look at Sacha Baron Cohen who brought us Bruno, Borat and Ali G or the Monty Python team who composed a range of movies and songs, which one can only describe as being totally silly. These men who made their name and living by silly, all came from that bastion of silliness’ – Cambridge University. The illustrious rival for silliness, “Oxford University,” (I don’t mean Oxford Brooks), gave us Rowan Atkinson, the man who gave us Mr Bean.

People who are brilliantly stupid can do wonders. Simpletons can be the most effective communicators who reduce things to their most basic. They can be understood in a way that clever and eloquent people cannot be.

Take one of the most interesting US Administrations in recent years – The Regan Administration. Ronald Regan was not known for intellect. The joke in Hollywood was that Bonzo the Chimp was much smarter than he was. Yet, despite all of that, the Regan Administration brought the Cold War to an end without firing a shot. The economy buzzed. How did this “idiot” do it? Well, he framed two key ideas simply – he called the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire” and he told stories about the “evil welfare queen who drove a Cadillac.” These two messages allowed the administration to slash spending on welfare and lower taxes while rising spending on defence to levels that the USSR could not match.

When Mr Regan got into trouble during the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1986, the clever people in the administration proceeded to take the blame for him. As one British commentator at the time pointed out, “His behaviour was beyond normal satire.” Despite the obvious corruption in the incident, the American people forgave Regan in ways that they did not forgive the cleverer Mr Nixon and to a lesser degree the very clever Mr Clinton.

Fools are not only effective communicators. They can produce gems of wisdom. I refer to the movie “Bean.” Mr Bean is sent to American by the National Portrait Gallery in Britain. His American host thinks Bean is a high powered art historian. He’s asked, “What have you written?” Bean replies, “I look at the pictures.” The host is impressed – “Wow, that’s profound; I wish other academics would just look at the pictures.”

This scene is a laugh in that Mr Bean really looks at the pictures –he’s a security guard and yet the Americans are setting up as something deep and profound. We laugh at Americans for their child like innocence. However, the fool has a point…I remember James Curan one of my lecturers at Goldsmith’s telling us the secret to sure first – answer the question. Most of us clever people think of exams are an opportunity to show off how clever we are. As such, we end up missing the question and we write a lot but never answer the question and so we don’t get the marks for it. The fool might actually answer the question and get the points.

Fools are also the only people who can tell the powers that be the truth. Medieval Europe survived as long as it did because of fools. The fool could satirize the kings mistakes without getting his head lopped off. It’s such a pity nobody has been able to check with Kings of that age on how many bad decisions they’ve reversed thanks to their fools.

Literature is also full of examples of how fools were used to get points across. The most famous example is in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The best critic of inheritance laws (which were blatantly in favour of men) was Mrs Bennet, Matriarch of the Bennet clan and the silliest character in the novel. Thanks to Mrs Bennet, Ms Austen could take a swipe at the law without being labelled a dangerous reactionary.

Fools have succeeded where cleverer men have failed in as much as they’ve never taken themselves so seriously that they lose touch with reality. For all her faults, Margaret Thatcher had enough of a sense of humour to appear on “Yes Prime Minister,” one of the best loved political satires of all times. I suspect that sense of humour allowed Mrs Thatcher to stay close enough to the ground to get her policies through. The end result, Mrs Thatcher was actually beneficial to Britain.

If you ask me, Western society gets by because politicians expect to have the piss taken out of them. I think of Spitting Image puppets and how they’ve succeeded in ensuring that the public will never treat a politician or celebrity so seriously that the said politician or celebrity develops a God complex.

I look closer to home. Up North, in Malaysia, politicians are constantly lampooned by cartoonist like Lat. Here in Singapore, you simply do not make fun of politicians. On a shallow level you might be able to understand that. My Malaysian friends will point out that Malaysia in many ways lags behind Singapore. It’s mired in corruption while Singapore is squeaky clean and hyper efficient.

However, let’s take things into perspective. Singapore is small red dot mainly populated by Chinese migrants who will happily let you rule with an iron fist as long as you ensure that they can do business and get rich. The place is small enough for you to quickly snuff out decent and yes, Singapore’s politicians do deserve a pat on the back for a job well done.

Malaysia by contrast is a huge place with a diverse population. The majority belong to a culture that does not chase the material. Getting Malaysia to move one step is more challenging than getting Singapore to leap.
So, when you look at things this way, the Malaysian politicians like Mahathir have actually done a pretty good job. Things could be better, especially when you compare it to Singapore but then again, when you take the challenges that Malaysia faces, you have to take your hat off to the Malaysian system for getting things done despite everything.

Malaysians laugh at their politicians and rightly so. For all that the Malaysians complain about how awful their politicians are, the ability to laugh at them has helped both sides. The politicians know that they’re not God. The people also realise that they got to depend on themselves rather than on super competent Gods in the civil service to get things done. As a result, Malaysians can travel and succeed outside Malaysia without the aid of the government.

Singaporeans by contrast do not make fun of their politicians. In fact they are expected to worship them, even when the politicians goof. Look at what happened during Mas Selamat’s escape. Limping terrorist walks out of a secure facility and the government rushed to defend the virtue and competence of the Minister, so much so that during the recently concluded election they got a shock when people used the issue to hit them.

Perhaps it’s time for Singapore’s politicians to take a leaf from their counterparts over the Causeway and learn to laugh at themselves a little. It would definitely help us connect better.