Monday, August 29, 2011

Where do you move to when you have no limbs?

Election season ended with one of the most memorable elections in history. As expected, former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, won the election to be Singapore’s next president. For once, there was no need to qualify political adjectives with the phrase, “By Singapore Standards.” The winning margin of 0.34 percent or some 8,000 votes out of over two-million cast was as narrow as its gets nearly everywhere else. How did this happen in a place where elections usually means life carries on as usual and results are more predictable than weather in the Sahara? What does this mean for politics in Singapore?

Well, let’s start with the obvious. The vast majority of voters are still with the establishment and good old fashioned things like a reputation for reliability and political smarts as well as help from the main stream media help.

For most of us, Dr Tony Tan was the “preferred” candidate of the government. Both Prime Minister and Emeritus Senior Minister had said nice things about him and suddenly the mainstream media started giving his views on things as minor as toilet paper quality an unexplainable amount of attention. However, that didn’t deter us from liking him. Enough voters remembered Dr Tan as a minister and he was remembered for being likeable enough. The man only retired from the cabinet in 2005. Our last memory of his cabinet performance was taking a different stance from the cabinet during the debate on building casinos – hence the image of him being a senior member of government who dared disagree with the main stream remained.

Even his weaknesses were explainable. As Executive Director of the Government Investment Corporation (GIC), he was subordinate to the Chairman, who happened to be Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister and former Minister Mentor. Hence it was possible to argue that he wasn’t the main decision maker when GIC decided to invest heavily in the then loss making Citigroup and UBS. His most serious weakness, namely the question of his sons rather cushy National Service career was accepted by the silent majority – yes, we know there’s a White Horse system and Tony’s boy wasn’t doing anything worse than what other White Horses did and do.

Then there was his performance during the campaign. He spoke intelligently enough and displayed enough gravitas for people to accept that he was “Tried and Tested” enough to have as the symbolic helm. On a personal basis, I liked the fact that he made the point that it is important to “Run for the office that exist rather than what you’d like it to be.”

Say what you like about the man but he is aware of the realities of being a public figure. There are more than enough forums outlining how he’s shifted position of various policies and that he’s not as independent as he’s making himself out to be. Could he be, as one blogger put it – “A double headed snake?” Well, perhaps he is – but then again, is he merely doing what needs to be done in politics to get the job done?

Much as the post of President in Singapore is ceremonial and the President should be above the petty squabbles of politics – having a President who knows how the game is played is useful and in many cases acceptable. Idealism is admired in politics – naivety is a dangerous trait in a national leader – even if that leader is primarily symbolic.

I take all of these factors into account and despite my misgivings about the way he’s handled the question of his son’s National Service record – he was and is the most qualified of all the four candidates. In that respect, I believe that the best man did win on the night.

However, while Singaporeans were willing to give Dr Tony Tan a chance at the polls, we have to look at his margin of victory. By all accounts, Dr Tony Tan has to consider himself a very lucky man. He is President by virtue of the “First-Past-The-Post” system we inherited from the UK.

This system means the person who gets the job is simply the person who gets the most votes rather than the person who receives the largest share of the votes. If you look at the UK as an example, even the most prominent leaders like Mrs Thatcher or her Labour Predecessors of the 1970s never won a lot more than forty percent of total votes cast. They merely won more votes than their contenders. Is this system necessarily fair? No, it isn’t.

However, the British system has produced relatively stable governments than many nations on the continent using “proportional representation” systems which are better at reflecting the national share of the vote. Britain’s current coalition is the first of its kind in living memory or at least amongst people my age.

Dr Tony Tan is President because he won the most votes on the night. He is not President because the majority voted for him. If you look at the numbers – nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t. Luckily for Dr Tony Tan, this is a competition of individuals and not parties – if it were, the other three candidates could easily have kept him in the cold by forming a coalition against him.

What does this mean? Well, I’d say that the message is similar to the one delivered at the General Election. Singaporeans generally like the establishment as it is – it’s done a fairly good job on the macro-level. However, we think the establishment needs to listen to us and show a bit more concern about us. To make sure the powers that be get the message – hit them where it hurts most – placing a few more opposition leaders in parliament.

We all saw Dr Tan as the establishment candidate but he was more than that. He was a qualified candidate for a post that in many ways is a waste of his qualifications. We’re willing to give him a chance.

However, we want Dr Tan to remember that he works for us – “The Electorate.” The margin of victory is so narrow that Dr Tan cannot escape the fact that he’s only president by luck. Face it, he had all the advantages, yet he had a wafer thin majority. The message to him is clear – “you’ve got to make us happy.”

This will be a test for Dr Tan. On one hand he has to face his former colleagues in cabinet who will undoubtedly remind him that his scope to do anything is limited. If you read the constitution, the President only has powers to say “no” to the government on certain occasions. He is legally obliged to do whatever he’s told to by the government. However, he also faces a growing number of young voters and netizens who want him to be “independent” in his thoughts. There’s also the fact that the older voters who supported him could easily defect to his nearest rival – Dr Tan Cheng Bok, former Member of Parliament for Ayer Rajah.

The other Dr Tan had a powerful and very appealing message – “Singaporeans first – Unifying Singaporeans.” Like Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bok has been in politics for a long time. He is familiar with the workings of the ruling party and while he may not have had Dr Tony Tan’s experiences of dealing with the cabinet and in policy formation – he was far closer to the ground and his record of putting nation before party is unquestionable. This man stood up and voted against the “NCMP and NMP” (Non-Constituency Member of Parliament and Nominated Member of Parliament) schemes despite the fact that the party whip was in place (Whips in the Westminster tradition are legalised party thugs – they “persuade” MPs to vote along with party decisions rather than with their individual conscience).

The man showed an incredible grasp of what the ground wanted. Simply put – we, the people feel like second class citizens in our own land and we can’t help feeling that there’s a Singapore for some and a Singapore for others. Dr Tan Cheng Bok’s offer to put us first is appealing. Then, as my favourite Young Politician from Pasir Ris GRC says, “Lots of people in the PAP support him and he had plenty of supporters in the Workers Party.” If you chat to enough voters, you’ll find that the main difference between the Dr Tan’s is the fact that Dr Tony had a higher national profile. Should he mess up, we would happily vote for Dr Tan Cheng Bok instead.

If Dr Tony Tan is smart, he’ll offer Dr Tan Cheng Bok a seat of Council of Presidential Advisors. This is the body that the President has to listen to when he doesn’t have to listen to the government. The principle is simple – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” By doing this, Dr Tony Tan will bring Dr Tan Cheng Bok and his supporters into his camp. This is a move that the Prime Minister will have to support. Dr Tan Cheng Bok may not have been his preferred choice – but the election results are such that he cannot afford to alienate Dr Tan Cheng Bok, either on the national level or even within party lines (Dr Tan was once elected into his seat with some 88 percent of votes cast in his constituency.)

Of the two candidates who were not former members of the party, the most interesting one is Tan Jee Say. Mr Tan was a high flying scholar, who moved into the private sector and later into politics.

He ran on a campaign of making the President an office that provides “Checks and Balances” on a very powerful government. While the constitution as it stands does not allow the President much room for manoeuvre, Mr Tan has rightfully suggested that the government will have to think twice before challenging a President who has a democratic mandate. Let’s face it, the President is elected by every member of the electorate – the Prime Minister is only voted in by his constituents. Mr Tan is also right to point out that part of the reason for making the Presidency an elected post was to put a check on potentially spendthrift government.

The message is appealing. Mr Tan is not. Let’s face it, what exactly is Mr Tan’s record of public service? He gained some attention during the General Election and then, when he didn’t get his seat, he happily resigned from the party (Singapore Democratic) to run for the Presidency. If he was that interested in “serving the people” or acting as a “Check and Balance” surely he would focused on building his party into a force credible enough to take on the ruling party in parliament rather than going for the Presidency, which is primarily ceremonial?”

Power in Singapore comes from control of parliament. If you want to limit the powers of the current government, you need to start with a seat in parliament. Winning one seat as an opposition is tough but it isn’t impossible. Mr Low Thia Khiang, leader of the Workers Party understood this well enough. He held onto Hougang for nearly two-decades, building up a track record as a person who could look after the electorate. He waited and took his time and when the ruling party was vulnerable, he struck. We cannot rule out the possibility that Mr Low has the potential to be a potential Prime Minister, should the ruling party ever fail. People will trust him because he’s built up from the ground.

The more perceptive will realise that Mr Tan is hopping to parachute himself into high office. First he joins a political party – then when it doesn’t win, he rushes into another election where he thinks he can use their ideas. This smacks of political opportunism. In the investment banking scene, you could argue that opportunism is a good thing. However, you are talking about politics what is usually a conservative country. Jumping from here to there smacks of political opportunism rather than genuine interest in the public.

Furthermore, while Mr Tan was never a member of the ruling party, he was a senior member of the civil service. Sure, the ruling party will think twice about blackmailing him (he knows where the proverbial bodies are buried) but the converse is also true. He cannot claim to be “guilt-free” of the “sins” of the government.

The image of Mr Tan’s blatant sense of political opportunism was most clearly visible when he started complaining about how the campaign period was too short for him to correct his image of being confrontational. May be he is right. However, his complaint makes him sound like a spoilt child. Sorry, politics is a rough game. The guys in power have the advantage of choosing when elections take place. You either enter the game on their side or you learn to fight by the rules they set. Mr Tan new full well that the Presidential Election would come after the General One. He should started building his brand equity much earlier. Say what you like about media bias but the man is also at fault.

Having said all of that, Mr Tan is highly intelligent. His ideas are worth listening to and despite being a relative novice; Mr Tan did win the votes of one in four Singaporeans. He cannot be underestimated.

What can Dr Tan do? Well, the answer is simple – take his better ideas, repackage them and sell them as your own. Ideas in politics are not copyright and as long as you are in power, you have the means of putting them into action.

Look at Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Both came from parties known as being closer to the socialist left than the business right. However, both the New Democrats and New Labour took ideas shamelessly from their right wing opponents and made them their own. Both Clinton and Blair spoke of “economic growth” with a kinder face. George Bush II who was an awful President but a first rate Governor of Texas was also good at this – think of his “Compassionate Conservatism.”

Dr Tan with the backing of the Prime Minister should look at how he can “borrow” some of Mr Tan’s ideas and make them their own.

Finally, there was Mr Tan Kin Lian, former CEO of NTUC Income, our largest insurance cooperative. Mr Tan noticed the way things were going and quickly conceded defeat. As he predicted – he lost his deposit.

In way, one is tempted to feel sorry for this Mr Tan. However, he deserved it. Mr Tan made much of his experience running the insurance cooperative. Halfway through the campaign, he lost the plot. He made wild promises about donating half his salary to the public and how he would raise the wages of pensioners and National Servicemen. – Nice gesture – but the President simply has no authority to do this. Purse strings are controlled by the Ministry of Finance and the President is merely a gatekeeper on past reserves – he does not allocate revenue. Hard to trust someone who has no idea which office he’s running for.

Dr Tony Tan has won a tight fought race for an office with very limited scope. He has, however, cards he can play. He needs to read the public mood correctly and play his cards accordingly if he wants to make this Presidency the shinning star of his brilliant career.


Friday, August 26, 2011

The Question of Service

Singapore’s liberals are going to be very upset with me, but of all the Presidential candidates running for Singapore’s highest office, Dr Tony Tan is easily the most qualified. The man has that distinguished, dignified (though he admittedly looks better in the media than in the flesh) look that makes him perfect for the largely ceremonial post.

His experiences as the head of Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), Deputy Prime Minister and most recently Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) have given him the experience of dealing with large sums of money and the bureaucratic machinery that the President is expected to be able to handle.

As a Minister, Dr Tan was regarded as one of the “good guys.” He was close enough to the top but also had a reputation for having an independent mind. Even passionate “anti-PAP” voters like my mother who advised us “Vote for anyone EXCEPT the PAP,” take the position of “Vote for TONY.”

So, when you add up all these factors, the Presidential Race is Dr Tan’s to lose. His performance is almost flawless – when the other candidates blab on about how independent minded they’ll be, Dr Tan has rightly pointed out that he’s running for an office that exist rather than an office that he wishes he had. What could sound more reasonable than that?

Well, unfortunately for Dr Tan, he may well lose an election that was his for the taking. The reason boils down to a “Question of Service.” Nobody is questioning Dr Tan’s unquestionable service to the nation – instead the world is questioning the service of his son, Dr Patrick Tan.

The story is simple. When Dr Tan Senior was Defence Minister in the middle 1990s, his son Patrick enlisted for National Service. He disrupted his service to go abroad for studies (which is acceptable and done). When he returned from his studies, he mysteriously ended up being posted into some obscure unit to study – soil (How did he get that posting?). Somehow, the younger Dr Tan not only found a way to get a cushy job during his full time service – there’s even the question of how much reservist time he actually served.

This doesn’t bode well for Dr Tony Tan. Suddenly his record for decent service is looking less decent. As far as most of us are concerned, it can’t be a coincidence that Dr Patrick Tan’s National Service ended up in “cushy” land when his father was Defence Minister. How is it that none of his sons served a day of their National Service in a combat unit? What does this mean? Simply put – in a theoretical war situation, none of the Tan boys will be on the front line.

To be fair to Dr Tony Tan and his son’s, this is part of the system – it’s called the “White Horse” system. Children of prominent figures in society are marked out before they enter National Service. The official reasoning given by a former Minister of State for Defence was, “So that people will NOT give them special treatment.” Poor old Cedric Foo was dubbed “Cedric Fool.”

Sorry, anyone who has been through National Service (Most MEN) knows that is blatantly not true. You notice it in small things like – how some people never do push-ups for the same thing you do or how is it that some companies mysteriously get certain privileges that the rest of the battalion don’t. One of the biggest areas where you notice the “White Horses” comes from postings. How do some people end up in some jobs while others do not?

This is a systematic issue rather than a personal issue. By and large, the majority of “White Horses” are very nice people and they’ve been brought up to be embarrassed by the treatment that the system accords them. I take my former Deputy Manpower Officer (Dy S1), who is the son of a former Member of Parliament – you couldn’t find a nicer person than him. He remains a humble and gentle person. The “real” White Horses are humble and find themselves in an embarrassing position every time they’re signalled for special treatment.

So, in many ways, you can’t blame Dr Patrick Tan for getting a “cushy” National Service posting. Chances are, he never asked for it – it was handed to him on a plate and he took it. Simply put, who wouldn’t take something decent if it was offered to them? There are good chances that Dr Tony Tan never ordered anyone or even suggested to anyone that he wanted his sons to get cushy jobs.

Having said that, the incident reflects very poorly on Dr Tan and if he loses the election, this will be the very things that will rightfully does it. It has shown that Dr Tan is either very naïve or at worst, his integrity is questionable.

Let’s start with the obvious. When you want to climb the political ladder in a country that prides itself in having no corruption – its not enough to non-corrupt – you have to be seen to be non-corrupt. As Defence Minister, Dr Tan had to be aware that his son’s posting might be a controversial topic. Dr Tan has to this date made not one effort to show how he distanced himself from his son’s posting.

It’s not that difficult to do. Look at the way Mr Lee Kuan Yew got our current Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong into politics. He got his deputies, S.Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee to bring him into the party. Then, when he handed over power, he handed it to Goh Chok Tong, who was Prime Minister for 14-years. The cynics will still point out that there had to be some political manoeuvrings there – but you can’t actually pin-point anything on the Lees.

The Elder Mr Lee has also made it clear that he didn’t want his children to be “spoilt.” The Lee Family in Singapore is a tightly run ship and other than the Lees in politics – the others stay out of the limelight in the way that the Suhartos in Indonesia were never able to. Mr Lee has somehow ensured that there are enough urban myths floating around of how he doesn’t tolerate certain kinds of behaviour. One of them comes from an old school teacher who attended my grandmother’s wake. She tells a story of how she threatened to cane Lee Hsien Yang, younger brother of Prime Minister Lee. The Young Boy had threatened the school with “You know how my father is?” The story goes that the Prime Minister came down from the Istana, ordered the Principal to summon the school and promptly canned the boy in front of everyone. Message – just because he’s my son, I won’t allow you to give him perks.

Dr Tan could easily have done something similar. All he had to do was to point out how removed he was from the selection process. Cynics may not have been appeased but at least it would be a better answer than what’s been given now – “It’s all a pack of lies.”

This then leads to the next nail in Dr Tan’s proverbial coffin. He has shown that he simply doesn’t get communication. Thanks to the internet and social media platforms like Facebook – communications is a two-way street.

Dr Tan has had the advantage over the other candidates in terms of main stream media coverage. I saw the Presidential Debate on TV and he actually did better than the rest. That was the easy part – he had the machine to control the messaging in the main stream. Unfortunately, the game is quite different in cyberspace. This was something that the PAP machinery failed to realise until it was too late in the last election.

Dr Tan’s team has done a poor job of communicating in cyberspace. When the story of the younger Dr Tan’s posting was broken online – the reaction time in responding to the story was pretty slow. Instead of responding calmly, rationally and persistently, Dr Tan’s team went as far as to take down his Facebook page. Yes, people on the next can be nasty, crude and unreasonable. However, you still need to face them and as long as you keep your cool and stay objective – you can win them over. Taking down your Facebook page on the other hand is tantamount to admitting defeat – it’s like burning down the walls of a conquered city. – This isn’t exactly the reaction of a man you would expect of a man who is touting the value of a steady hand.

Then there’s the final response of Dr Tan and his sons – namely to accuse people online of deliberately trying to malign them and the institution of National Service. Sorry, it’s not going to work.

They are reacting to a story that broke online. As such, everyone is more inclined to believe the online story than to blame them. The facts are such – all the boys got cushy national service jobs when the father was Minister of Defence. The questions remain. Did Dr Tan exercise undue influence to get his sons cushy jobs? How did things happen? Dr Tan has dismissed this as a pack of lies as have his sons. Erm, sorry that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to say – “I’m great – believe me.” You need to show why your version is the believable one. Dr Tan hasn’t done this and it should be no surprise why he was booed when he gave his acceptance speech.

Politics in Singapore is getting rougher and the ruling party cannot expect its mandate to be taken for granted. It seemed that the Prime Minister understood the message after the General Election. Unfortunately, the lessons seem lost on his preferred Presidential Candidate.

Dr Tan may yet win this election. He should pray that the older generations and those who are not active online come out and vote for the virtues he once represented. However, even if he wins the Presidential Election, as most suspect he will, he needs to answer some questions and he needs to be convincing – otherwise he can expect some dark clouds to hang over any presidency he may have

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Vote for What?

After a lifetime of not having to vote, Singaporeans are currently in a happy vote fest. Three-months after voting in a General Election, we are about to vote for a new President. At the time of writing, Singapore only has two more days of actual campaigning before polling day on August 27, 2011.

While the Presidential Election hasn’t generated the same excitement as the General one, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the chat-rooms and in the coffee shops on which of the four Tans running for the highest office in the land is best suited for the job. On the surface of things, the talk about who is going to be President is interesting. If you look at the office of the President, it’s basically a ceremonial one or if you want to be unkind – a redundant one.

Despite all the chatter about the various powers that the President holds, real power, as in most Commonwealth Countries, lies in the hands of the Prime Minister as the leader of the largest party in parliament. Like the British Monarch, the only perk that Singapore’s President actually has over the Prime Minister is at ceremonial occasions (Actually, its less fun – the sovereign can keep a Prime Minister standing as he or she delivers her report, the President by contrast only has a bigger chair on National Day).

The Singapore Constitution has been written in such a way that the President can do lots of things – ON THE ADVICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER. What does that mean in plain speak? Simply put, the President can only do what he’s told to by the Prime Minister.

However, sometime in the 1990s, the constitution was changed to make the Presidency an elected one (the President is the only individual elected by EVERY Singaporean – the Prime Minister is only elected by his constituents) and to give the President some areas where he’s allowed to act on his own discretion – namely in the two key areas of vetoing the drawing down on past reserves and on the appointment on certain key civil service appointments. While the President may not have to “ACT ON ADVICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER” in these areas – he needs to ‘CONSULT THE COUNCIL OF PRESIDENTIAL ADVISORS.’ What exactly is that? A council of the great and good who help the President know what he’s doing. One doesn’t exactly need to point out that Parliament has a say in influencing who gets on this council of great and the good.

The lack of actual powers of the President is so well known that incumbent was known to make cryptic remarks like “Ask God” when he was asked if he was going to run for a second term, a few weeks after he said he wouldn’t. One of his predecessors even went as far as to call the Prime Minister of the day – “Boss” whenever they were in private. In return for knowing who’s boss, the President is well rewarded – like the British Monarch, the President is looked after by a Civil List – this means a small salary of S$4 million plus.

So, why does anyone really care about who becomes the President? I mean, as long as the President looks reasonably dignified and waves on National Day, why should anyone care who becomes President?

I suspect the reason is simple. This is the only other chance we’re ever going to get to slap the government for the next five-years. As I have often said and many would probably agree with me – the Singapore government has done about 70 – 80 percent of things right. So, most Singaporeans are in no rush to kick out the government.

Where most of us get ‘cheesed off’ with the powers that be, comes in the form of style. As a visiting school friend of mine was said, “Singapore is run like Churchers – it’s a giant school.” Listen to enough government official communications and you’ll get the feeling that you’re reading a school report. “We the teachers are smart – you the kiddies don’t know what is good for you so listen to us.”

That was tolerable when they were getting things right. However, in the last few years, they’ve been less right than usual. One only has to think about Mas Selamat, the limping man who waltzed out of a secure facility and only caught a year later by …..Malaysians. The government was simply out of tune with the ground. What was more frightening than the actual gaff was the arrogance of officialdom. Instead of apologising – we, the public were consistently reprimanded for expecting ministers to resign instead of being satisfied with the sacking of two Ghurkhas.

So, when it came to the last General Election, we put the ruling party back into power with a heavy mandate (60 percent) but we gave the opposition more seats. For the ruling party, this was a slap in the face. Suddenly, the Prime Minister got rid of the ministers we wanted him to get rid off and started looking into the issues that we wanted him to address. – A good chunk of the electorate now gets it – slap the government at the polls and they listen.

Unfortunately for the powers that be, this feeling may actually move to the Presidential election. Yes, the President can’t do much but we, the electorate can send the sharp reminder to the government that we can hurt them by not voting in their preferred candidate – or at least giving the preferred candidate such a nasty scare that he remembers who’s boss when he’s in the Istana. Poor Dr Tony Tan is currently suffering from this reaction. This former Deputy Prime Minister was once regarded as one of the “good guys,” – he was thought of as an “Independent Thinker.” However, once the Prime Minister and “Senior Minister Emeritus,” started saying nice things about how great he was as a potential President – the internet crowd started digging up dirt on the man. Now, the interesting thing about Dr Tan is how is how his son managed to get posted to cushy job as a Defence Scientist when he was Defence Minister.

Is it fair for Dr Tan? Well, it may not be but then again, the government hasn’t exactly been fair when it comes to the presidency either.

Let’s start with the obvious – the criterion of who can be President isn’t exactly fair to begin with. One of the key requirements to run for President is that you must have either been a minister or a CEO of a company with a paid-up capital and turn-over of S$100 million. That instantly disqualifies quite a few people. Then, when you look at that criteria, you’ll understand that the people who can run either won’t or they’re going to be exceedingly conservative – you don’t get to those positions by rocking the boat. Let’s face it; of the two candidates who are not former members of the ruling party, one of them was a former civil servant and the other the CEO of the Insurance Cooperative – which is to all intents and purposes an arm of the government.

No matter how much the candidates talk about being “independent” of the government, it’s hard to believe them. It’s easy to dismiss this as “saying anything to get the job.”

However, to be fair to the candidates – there is at the very least some semblance of competition. During the last election for President, the candidate was unopposed. Everyone else who made the grade decided not to run. The one person, who tried to run, didn’t make the grade – he was a CFO rather than a CEO. The fact that he didn’t make the grade would have given the government the result it wanted. However, that wasn’t enough – they had to dig into his past and publish his dirt – which included things like disputes he had with his condominium management committee a decade ago.

We the public simply don’t want elections being ‘fixed.’ Other countries have survived with different centres of power and as far as most of us are concerned, there is no reason for one group to have unquestioned power.

We also remember the treatment of the last President who did what he was supposed to do. The late President Ong was a former Deputy Prime Minister who believed that he had a job to do, no matter what the government thought or felt. He gave a public press conference about the teething problems he had with the government. Didn’t actually make any allegations but he provided an independent view on what was going on. Somehow that was a bit too much for the powers that be – somehow, when the man died of cancer, there was a “committee” that decided he would not be accorded a State Funeral – surely this is something that would be considered an automatic given for a former Head of State.

In many ways, who wins the election is not important. The candidates are generally accepted as decent people who would do justice to the job. What is important, however, is whether this Presidential election is the beginning of a new way of doing things? Will the government accept that it is no longer the unquestioned authority on all matters in the country? Could this be the beginning of government being about a conversation of equals rather than between the great and good with the dull and obedient?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

When Boy’s can’t Get Laid

It’s a little tempting to be smug about being ethnic Chinese these days. America is in deep financial trouble and so the world is looking to the cash-rich Chinese for a bail out. Britain has gone through the shock of riots that are better associated with the Middle East and one is tempted to gloat at the fact that we’ve not seen an ethnic Chinese amongst the rioters. The Western is losing its shine and the Chinese world is glowing.

As tempting as it is to gloat, it’s probably best to hold the celebrations for a while yet. While China is currently and increasingly being viewed as an alternative bedrock for the rest of the world, it’s quite possible that the Middle Kingdom is going to be the source of a host of geo-political problems in time to come.

The reason is simple – China is going to be filled with boys who can’t get laid. In a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in January 2011, some 24 million Chinese men of marrying age could find themselves without a wife. Thanks to a combination of a “One-Child” policy that has been in effect since 1978 and cultural preferences for boys coupled with growing economic development (which usually takes away people’s interest in making babies), China is going to be awash with lots testosterone. The statistics are fairly simple – there are 119 boys for every 100 girls born and in some parts of the area, the imbalance goes up 130 boys per 100 girls.

What does this all mean? Well, for a start, it’s clear that women born in China can expect to have a lot more fun while men are going to have a problem. Men are going to outnumber women by quite a large margin. Culturally, women tend to marry older and more established men. So, in a family of more than one boy, the younger brother is going to be competing with his older brother from the same pool of women when it comes to looking for a bride.

For women, this situation can be fun. I remember being at Churcher’s College when girls were first welcomed into the junior classes (there were a handful in the 6th form.) The 13 girls who entered the first year had the undivided attention of 400 boys. They were to put the centre of much wanted attention. The gender imbalance at school got a little more balanced within two-years when girls could enter in the third year. However, by the time I left, things had cooled down a bit but the lads still outnumbered the girls.

It wasn’t all bad for us as the lads. For those of us who didn’t get a girl in school, the solution was simple – look outside the school grounds. There were, for example, enough desirable chicks in the local comprehensive and right at the other end of town, there was Bedales, my sister’s school, where the girls were known for being good looking (much better than at Churchers) and for being wide open to having a bit of fun.

Unfortunately for the boys born in rural China, they’re not going to have this alternative since this gender imbalance is going to be nation wide. Look at it this way, if you’re a peasant from rural China, what are your choices? Move to the city and you compete with the better off and more sophisticated city boys as well as sophisticated foreigners. Move abroad and chances are you’re still at the bottom of the social ladder when it comes to looking for a bride.

It’s cool to talk about the Chinese surplus of cash. It’s not polite to talk about it at the moment but will probably become vital to discuss, is the surplus of Chinese testosterone. China is going to have 24 million young men who are going to have a problem getting laid. Just to put things into perspective, that 24 million is larger than the entire population of Australia and New Zealand combined. There will be more Chinese men looking for brides than people in the Nordic world (Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark).

Testosterone can be tricky because it’s the very thing that makes men aggressive. This is the thing that drives men to want sex. Napoleon Hill, the author of “Think and Grow Rich,” makes the point that a high sex drive can be highly beneficial for a man – he just needs to know how to control it. You’ll find that men tend to blossom in later years (late 30s to early 40s) because it takes a while to learn how to divert the energies that you’d use into getting laid into productive work.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that married men or men in steady relationships are going to be a lot more focused on economic productivity than on getting laid. Simply put, if you are getting laid at home – you don’t need to keep looking elsewhere for it.

When you look at these assumptions, it’s not hard to see that the possibility of 24 million men who can’t laid, running round the place is going to be problematic.

The solution is simple – you either find them a bride or you keep them so busy and channel their energies into other things that they forget about their lack of opportunities. The third alternative is you export them out of the place.

Finding a bride is the toughest option of the lot. The gender imbalance is the result of 30-years of upholding a “one-child” policy in a culture that promotes men over women. To reverse it, you’re going to have to get people to start making girl babies and those girl babies won’t be any use for reproduction for at least 16-years.

This becomes even more complicated by the fact that China has been on the express rout to getting rich. As the developed world has discovered – when you get rich, you find people being less interested in having kids.

There is the possibility that you have to import women from elsewhere. Short of promoting human trafficking, you have the problem of making the men attractive enough for the women to want to be imported from elsewhere.

This leaves us looking at the possibility of keeping them busy. At the most peaceful stage, the solution is to keep this number of men in jobs that are going to occupy so much of their time and take so much of their energy that getting laid and the lack of opportunities to get laid will be the last thing on their mind.

Somehow, the domestic economy needs to be grown at such a rapid rate that these numbers of young men who can’t get laid coming into the market are absorbed in jobs. The London riots have shown what can happen when you don’t keep young men busy and if you have 24 million young men who have a problem getting laid and getting work, you have the perfect recipe for disaster.

Alternatively, one can look at sending these men into institutions like the army. However, armies are expensive for the state and China already has the largest army in the world by population (something which the Chinese government is trying to reduce). Getting them into the army means you may have to do things like give them a purpose – which means pick fights with people – bored men with the skill to kill are an especially lethal combination.

So, we look at exporting them. However, you have to ask yourself, where exactly are you going to export them to? The Western World as well as Japan are struggling to give their own citizens jobs, so they’re not likely to give yours any jobs. One possibility has been in the countries you invest in. One of the chief complaints about Chinese investment in Africa is the fact that China has also exported its labour to do the jobs – which means the African nations don’t the get the number of jobs they were hopping to get. However, things between China and Africa seem to be working out in some way.

This is a problem that requires imagination, which isn’t exactly a quality China’s central planners are known for. You can’t expect a world currently preoccupied with an economic crisis to look at 24 million horny men in 2020. However, this is going to be a major problem and unless China and the world focus on it now, we can expect 2020 to be a very interesting year

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is the Wrong Generation Dying Out?

Watching the London riots play out, reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my best friends when I first met him. He said, “I can’t stand English people [he is incidentally English] except for the old ones. Unfortunately for England, the wrong generation is dying out.”

Perhaps I’m being coloured by my own perceptions here but I always thought my friend had a point. With the greatest love and affection to the guys I went to school with, I don’t have the best images of the English of my generation. I think of the tramps who lined up on Dean Street. All of them were young, white and English.

However, whenever I think of “Old” English people, I have nicer images. I think of the Westons – the family that took me to the airport from school whenever I went overseas. In many ways, Old Mr Weston represents the best of England. His handlebar moustache and cheerful smile whenever he saw me stays in memory till this day. Mr Weston fought in World War II. When he came back home, he became an entrepreneur. As well as running the local taxi service, he had a chip shop and a B&B. He was protective of his family and the community that he served.

I’ve noticed something similar in Singapore too. When I married Gina, I noticed a difference between her and her parents. I think of the egg seller who worked hard, refused to let his wife go to work and somehow put two kids through university. He gave money to charity and was active in his community. He told his kids – “Do good deeds.” By contrast, Gina simply couldn’t get round to caring for people in different circumstances. Let’s not go into charity – she couldn’t walk past a Malay wedding without passing uncalled for remarks. My Aunt couldn’t help but tell me “What a load of fucking racist crap have you got yourself into?”

When you look at how the UK has gone from Mr Weston to the tramps on Dean Street and how Singapore has gone from Gina’s dad to Gina – you cannot help but ask – “What the hell happened?”

I guess you could say that life became too good for the young. In a way there is a truism in this and the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. After World War II, successive Labour Governments implemented the Welfare State. In Singapore, my father’s generation struggled as independent businessmen to build up enough money to ensure people like me could go to university and good comfortable jobs. There would always be enough money around to ensure we could focus on studying instead of worrying about having enough to eat.

Let’s not knock this. As much as we might want to talk about the “Good Old Days,” they weren’t really that good. The intention behind the Welfare State was correct – it was to give the poorest in society a helping hand. The intention of getting your kids into university is correct – parents are supposed to want their kids to be better than they were.

However, when good intentions are taking into excess, they can have side effects. If I look at my generation of Singaporeans, we simply don’t have the hunger to succeed and build something better for our succeeding generations. We don’t need to. Somehow, life has always been mapped out for us. All we’ve had to do is to follow.

In the case of the UK and countries with a welfare system – the system has moved away from being about giving the poorest of the poor a helping hand to being about keeping political lobbies looked after. For the welfare recipients, there is no reason to do anything for yourself – why work for money when you get it for free.

I am also reminded by the Old Rogue that, “Welfare is not for the poor. It’s for the people who administer it.” Across the Western world, vast numbers of people have been employed to administer the welfare system – it’s not in their interest to see things change. Powerful political constituencies with vested interest in the status quo have been created. As a result of this, you get a generation of people that sees state benefits as a right rather than a privilege.

When people have an entitlement mentality, they lose the ability to think for themselves or to develop decent social networks of self-support. When they fight for something, it’s not to better society but to protect entitlements.

As awful as Mrs Thatcher sounded, she had a point. Something had to be done to get people to solve their own problems. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, the UK did become a more dynamic place. My uncle Nick, who is English, pointed out that, “Thatcherism has made people in England willing to work harder.”

Personally, I don’t think the issue is much of a case of things being “too good,” but a case of social structures and values changing.

If you look at the Singapore case, you cannot argue with parents wanting children to have education or a good life. Singapore has benefited from having a more educated population. We’re in the position to look for better, higher paying industries than our neighbours because our population has the skills.

Despite my rhetoric, I actually don’t have a problem with governments and multinationals. Singapore has done well because it has had competent civil servants. The multinationals do hire Singaporeans because we can do the jobs they provide.

What I disagree with in Singapore in many ways is the way a generation has been brought up with a sense of entitlement. If I go to university, I am entitled to a good, secure civil service job. If I buy a house, I am entitled to make pots of money from it – hence I no longer talk about my home or my house but my property.

When you think of everything as an entitlement, you find it hard to change. Listen to how Singapore Government Linked companies talk and you’ll understand why they can ONLY operate in Singapore. The media industry was particularly rife with entitlement mentality. “The Market is TOO SMALL for competition.” – Read – “We are entitled to make money regardless of what you think.” Sure, you’re entitled to make money as long as you provide the consumers with what they are willing to pay for. You are not entitled to make money because of who you are.

I think the UK has a somewhat similar but more subtle problem. I agree with my former guardian who said, “The Brits lost it when they lost sense of duty.” Nothing exemplifies this better than the Royal Family. You have the Queen who has a very strong sense of duty. She believes that it is her duty to sit on that throne and do all the things a Head of State (incidentally she’s Head of State of Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well as the UK) does until she drops dead. She’s stuck with Prince Phillip despite the fact that the man can’t help but put his foot in his mouth (slitty eyed Japanese) and is womanizer.

By contrast, you have her kids who can’t hold their marriages together and more worryingly are more than happy to feed their linen to the public. I think Prince Charles is a wonderfully kind and decent person but did I really need to know about his desire to be a tampon to some old bag?

I have no problems with the so called English “class system” as it used to be. The working class, as represented by Mr Weston – worked and they worked hard. By contrast, the tramps have realised its easier to get by doing nothing and rioting when they don’t get their next fix of nicotine. People like Mr Weston had an obligation to family and the wider community.

If you look at the traditional British aristocracy, you’ll find that they’re trained with a sense of duty to look after the people. As elitist as the Public School system is, you are, as one Old codger pointed out, “trained to get along with people from all walks of life.” In the days when the British had an empire, the elite took hardship better than the working class – they were trained to by elite Public Schools.

The Public School system has become more academic. Has it become better at training people who understand that leadership is about caring for people under you? That’s debateable. Progress is inevitable – when Britain no longer had colonies, the elite schools had to reinvent themselves as bastions of academic excellence rather than training grounds for colonial administration. If you look at exam results tables, they’ve done a pretty good job. The question, have they produced an elite that understands that it has a role in producing people with a decent set of values?

Funnily enough, the British institution that seems to have done the best job in keeping up to date with modernity but maintaining decent values systems is the military. Nobody questions the ability of British officers trained at Sandhurst to lead. Nobody doubts the British “squadies” ability to work. Somehow the army prison has the lowest rates of re-offenders of all prisons in the UK. I think part of the success of the British military as compared with the civil institutions is that the military has understood that it needs to keep young people (especially men) busy and the structure of the military provides young men with the security that they are cared for as long as they do their part.

Funnily enough, one country that has held relatively well is the USA. This is despite the debts and financial crisis. The USA has a terrible inequality problem. Yet we’ve not had a noticeable riot since Rodney King in the 1990s.

Part of the reason is because you have an elite that understands the principle of giving back. Bill Gates has made more money than anyone else in history. He is currently on course to give more away too. Simple – the system allows you to make as much as you can but you also understand that you need to give something back.

It is true that the problems in America are in a large part due to “crony capitalism,” or at least an implicit collusion between banks and government. However, you also have genuine elite that is not selfish. You have people Warren Buffet, the most successful investor of all time, writing op-ed pieces in the New York Times telling the US government to stop coddling the super rich. Mr Buffet rightly argues that you don’t need to look after the people who don’t need to be looked after. He is for the record, not a softy liberal.

Something has to be done and we need a system that generates ideas and also allows a certain value system to be maintained. How do you ensure and encourage people to get rich through their talents but at the same time understand that they have an obligation to give back. How do you give a helping hand to the poor without robbing them of their pride and incentive to move ahead? These are questions that need to be answered – so isn’t it time we start debating them?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Let the Apes Run the Show!

One of the hot movies of this year is called “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” This movie is supposed to be the prequel of the 1968 and 2001 and one version of “Planet of the Apes.” The premise of all these movies is simple. One day, the apes will achieve human like intelligence and become the dominant life form. Human beings will end up either as slaves or game for the apes to hunt for the fun of it.

These movies have all been success. Science fiction is always fun and there’s something innate in human nature to be terrified of anything that is remotely different. What’s more terrifying than something different is the idea that you may one day be in an inferior position to something that you once dominated.

I look at the way the American establishment got very upset with the Japanese in the 1980s and have since transferred that angst to the Chinese when the little Yellow people started doing things like buying American icons like the Rockefeller Centre. The pundits couldn’t help but draw pictures of America being bombarded by Yen Signs and although tried not to do it, they ended up blabbering about the “Yellow Peril.” The reality was quite different. While the Japanese and the Chinese today have made some headline grabbing purchases but the fact remains that the biggest investors in the USA are British – the Anglo-Saxon cousins.

Why didn’t anyone make a peep when you had the likes of Hanson and James Goldsmith’s buying up US assets and throwing people out of work? There was no “British Peril” there. If anything, the Americans started portraying the English corporate raiders as ruthless but very charming and sexy – just think of Terrence Stamp’s character in Wall Street.

Let’s not put to fine a point on it – the American establishment is simply terrified of little Yellow People, who don’t speak the same language and follow a somewhat different set of beliefs beating them at their own game (let alone being superior to them). If the ruthless billionaire who is about to throw you out of work is the same colour and speaks the same language (which is why there’s been less paranoia about Indians running multinationals – the Indians speak excellent English), it’s not as scary as someone who looks different and more importantly doesn’t exactly want to be you (Americans usually assume the world wants to be like them and they can’t handle it when the rest of the world say ….no).

This isn’t limited to the USA. If you surf the internet in Singapore, you cannot escape people complaining about arrogant Indians from India who expect Singaporeans to have a “slave mentality” towards them. It’s not that the Indian Nationals and to an extent the PRC Chinese are arrogant. We, the Singaporeans have been so used to thinking ourselves as the most advanced beings in Asia (as close to the West as you get), we simply cannot take other Asians being our bosses.

So, if we get this way about our fellow human beings, this is sense of paranoia must be magnified a million times over when the former slave becoming our master happens to be from another species. Hey, we don’t like the idea of being locked up in a cage but we’re quite happy to see other species locked up. We think it’s a violation of rights when the likes of Singapore’s former Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew talks about making graduates breed with other graduates to get smarter babies. We have no problem breeding faster horses (a multi-billion dollar industry) or smaller, bigger, fleshier dogs. As far as human beings are concerned, we are the only species on the planet with “rights.” Everything else is meant to serve us and if it can’t – we eat it. It is incidentally perfectly OK to be a meat eating human but totally unacceptable to be a man-eating tiger.

Well, I don’t want to be locked up in a cage or anyone’s sport. However, if that day happens, would it really be a bad thing? If you look objectively enough, having one of the “other” species take over the planet may not be such a bad thing. Let’s face it; the human being is an exceedingly destructive creature. We happily destroy everyone else’s home in the name of progress.

I don’t need Al Gore to tell me that cutting down rainforest is bad. I live in tinny Singapore, which gets covered in smog whenever the large neighbour, Indonesia, starts burning down trees. You might get pissed off with the Indonesians for doing it because you’re breathing crap – but you sympathise because you, as a human being would happily burn the trees too if someone told you that this was a way to progress. We are the only species on the planet that acquires stuff for the sake of it. Every other species simply takes what it needs. A pride of lions can survive on a single kill for a week or two. One human beings needs this and that every day.

So, when you look at things like that, letting apes take over may not be such a bad thing. For a start, they’re going to cut down hell of a lot less trees. Most ape species climb them and a civilisation of apes may end up finding a way of building cities that work in rain forest rather than cutting down the rain forest to do it.

Then there’s the fact that apes are simply less warlike than human beings. In our system, we have people like the neoCONS who think that it’s perfectly acceptable to march their troops all over the place to be slaughtered. Yes, gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans do get into violent displays or temper with each other but they rarely kill each other and when they do, there’s usually a purpose to it (usually a case of one has to die for the other to survive).

Let’s face it, a silverback gorilla, the leader of his troop will do the fighting himself rather than get others to do it for him. When you have to do the fighting, you understand pretty darn quickly that you can get hurt as well as do the hurting. This realisation makes you less likely to get violent and start conflicts. Humans on the other hand are quite capable of getting others to do the fighting for them – so they’re more than happy to get into large scale conflicts – hey war is fun as long as I’m not the guy risking my neck. I don’t get fights on a personal basis because I don’t want to risk getting hurt.

When you look at the other ape species and the societies that they form, you’ll find that they seem to have a system that’s more in harmony with nature. They use only what they need. They only use violence to survive in their own personal space and they don’t pillage and burn things down. In short, the other ape species are living a life that is far better for the planet than the one we’ve imposed on society. As is said in the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes “The Strength of an Ape is nothing when compared to the cunning and deviousness of the human.”

So, go and watch the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Have fun doing it but don’t pander to the fear mongering. Instead, welcome the prospect of another species taking over. They may actually have something worth looking forward to.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Decade at Home

Singapore’s National Day (August 9th) is well into its early hours. The upcoming celebrations that are being advertised all over the place are a reminder to me that I’ve lived here for a decade now. With the exception of a few trips abroad (mainly across the Causeway), I have lived in this little Red Dot for the better part of ten-year – this is slightly after two-decades of moving around all over the place.

It’s been quite a decade. I came back to Singapore from the UK, filled with dreams. It was simple; I started corporate life in Citibank Singapore and coming back home to start my working life sounded like the logical choice since I already had my foot in a big brand name over here. I had this idea that I would become an AVP at Citi before my 30th and show Carra, the wonderful woman I had fallen for back in 1999, that I was well and truly worthy of her. I would try and emulate Edmund Koh, former Regional Director, Consumer Banking at DBS – who had started out in advertising before moving to the bank.

Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. I am far removed from the lofty career aspirations that I once had. At the wrong end of my thirties, I often find myself struggling to find my next meal and I no longer think of myself as having a career. I am probably the only graduate who’s been forced to look to my less-educated friends to help me out from time-to-time.

So, you might imagine that I’d be cursing my decision to go back to Singapore, a homeland, which I’ve only really gotten to know in the last decade. I’m not – in fact, I’m actually quite happy in the sense that the last decade has given me a wealth of experiences that I don’t think I would have been able to get anywhere else.

Somehow I’ve managed to run up and down the social ladder in a way that wouldn’t seem possible anywhere else. I can brag of helping my nation foster better relations with another one at the government-to-government level (Saudi Arabia – Visit of Crown Prince Sultan to Singapore in 2006). I can proudly claim to have worked with some of the most prestigious brands known to man (General Electric, 3M, Alcon and UL come to mind.) I’ve actually written a speech for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew (though by the time it had been passed up the chain – there wasn’t a word that I had written). The Prime Minister has even commended me for some of the articles I’ve published. I’ve done all of this as a one man band, without being part of a big international agency. I look at these little achievements and ask myself, could I have done this elsewhere? The answer is no. If I was a one-band in London, I’d be busy trying to get my local corner shop into the Evening Standard.

Yet, at the same time, I’ve had plenty of disastrous lows. Back in 2004, I found myself having to camp out in Geylang Lorong 12, because I had no home to go to. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having to be at a police station because I was a victim of assault. I’ve been questioned by the police because I was with someone who was an open public nuisance.

Once again, I compare these lows with my life in London. I lived in Soho, an area known for pimps, drug dealers and other shady characters. In those three-years, I only had one physical encounter on the streets and I didn’t get a scratch out of that. By comparison my ex-wife left me with a 7x12 haematoma in one of her many instances of violent behaviour towards me. Might this have happened elsewhere? Who knows – I just know it happened in Singapore.

So, how does that make me view Singapore? Well, for the most part, I enjoy the many great physical amenities that the place has to offer. As one Kuwaiti fellow I meet said, “From a facilities management point of view – Singapore compares very well – in fact better than many countries in the West.” I don’t feel a loss comfort when moving from the West to Singapore. If anything, going back to the UK when I was still at school, felt like I was heading back in time. When Singapore had run ahead in the use of laser disc, the Europeans and British were still on VHS systems. Say what you like about our public transport system – but it’s still pretty darn good, especially when you compare it to quite a few cities in the USA.

What I do miss about the west is decent manners, particularly on the public transport. I do wish that people here would understand that it makes life easier if you allowed people to get off the bus before you get on and moving to the back of the bus doesn’t hurt you. However, other than that, I don’t feel a great sense of elation when I go to Germany or a great sense of deprivation when I come back to Singapore. I have long since lost the desire to set foot in the UK or the USA (though I ought to try and see my step-dad on his 80th) again.

So, you could say in many aspects, Singapore has been quite a good home. I enjoy the fact that I can walk out late at night without getting mugged. I like clean streets. I like the fact that toilets do flush. These creature comforts do matter. I’m very clear, I’d be more than happy to help Thuy grow up here if her mother so asked me to. People ask me why I don’t leave Singapore for elsewhere, and the honest truth is because I like the nice things that Singapore has to offer. These are things that everyone in Singapore has access to. It’s not like moving to another part of Asia and I’m locked away from the rest of society in a prison of privilege. I look at the riots going on in London and I think I did make the right decision to move.

Yes, I do think the PAP has done a good job despite my criticisms of public policy. If you look at things from an objective, rational point of view, we have been blessed with a government that on the whole has done what a government is supposed to do – provide the people with an opportunity to care for themselves.

What I do feel is lacking in Singapore is probably best summed up by the term – the human spirit. I first felt it in the army, when I was sent to Thailand. When you first see rural Thailand you understand why every Thai girl who is selling her body is doing what she does. However, when you leave the place, you feel sad to leave. Somehow you can’t help but feel that these people who have so much less than you, have something important that you lost a long time ago. I feel this sense of emptiness whenever I finish visiting my Dad in Bangkok and head home.

It’s not just Thailand. Cross the Causeway into Johor and you find that people in Malaysia are nicer. They are less uptight about themselves. They actually smile and give you a sense that they wish you well. I can laugh and joke with immigration officers on the Malaysian side. On the Singapore side, you feel like you want to slap the bugger as he tries to intimidate you for the sake of it.

We, as Singaporeans talk about how advanced we are as a society. I agree we are advanced but at the same time, we’ve paid the price for it. We pledge to build a “democratic and prosperous society based on justice and equality, regardless of race, language or religion.” We have no physical ghettos – yet, if you talk to people long enough and you’ll realise that Singapore has plenty of mental and spiritual ghettoes.

You see this most clearly when it comes to the topic of “other Asians.” If you trawl the internet, you will find no shortage of grouses of women from China stealing husbands (China girls ask for cash – Singaporeans just expect an endless supply of gifts and other freebies), arrogant Hindi speakers who refuse to learn Tamil (Incidentally for Singapore readers – the National Language of India is Hindi) and best of all – Chinese waiters who can’t speak a word of English (Assuming this is what you call what Singaporeans speak). However, when you get a posting of a few Caucasians beating up a taxi driver after a drunken brawl, you’ll find people rushing to defend them – “Oh…you can’t judge a race by a few idiots etc”

You have to thank the Young Pariah from Pasir Ris GRC for illustrating this most vividly. He proudly tells me about how he sacrifices his seat for some young Caucasian executive on the MRT (We must respect to the superior culture, you know). By contrast, I had to physically remove him from his seat to give way to a pregnant lady from China.

It’s not just views on racial integration that illustrates the ghettos that we place ourselves in. Just look at the success of the likes of Pastor Prince – Singapore’s chief intellectual export. What does the good pastor peddle? He peddles a snake oil known as “McGod.” This is the theory that Christ died for your sins and therefore you are “ENTITLED” to be rich, healthy and successful. The best part about the good pastor is that ALL of his followers are graduate professionals with degrees from reputable universities.

Why do young graduate professionals from respectable universities feel the urge to buy this snake oil? I suspect that it is because they’re used to being told that they are ENTITLED to certain things and when they have to struggle, its painful. So when the good Pastor comes along with his oil – they swallow it.

I like the fact that these people who willingly give a portion of their salary to the Good Pastor (You should know his character by the fact that he changed his name from Singh to Prince) are the first people who berate you for giving coins to an old Malay lady begging on the streets (You shouldn’t support the beggars syndicate, you know).

My favourite example of people stuck in mental and physical ghettos are from the family Thio. This group of highly intelligent lawyers are on crusade to eliminate the term “homosexual” from the conscience of the world. Mama Thio, who was the first lady to be dean of the law faculty at our local university claims that she had a chat with God to get him to spare us from the ravages of the 2004 Tsunami. Bad enough she believes she has reached this level of spirituality – she publicly states that she has this apparent relationship with God – it is worse that rational people actually believe her.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out why, after a decade of living in Singapore, my closest friends include a Nepali chef and a Vietnamese Entrepreneur (well, we’re a little bit more than friends). These are the people who work for their living. They are down to earth and are not born with a sense of entitlement. What they want to do is to find a little space in Singapore and make a living. Since these guys are living with their feet on the ground, they pay respects to the Almighty but they are quite aware that they have their destiny in their own hands and so they make a living without cheating people.

Why can’t Singaporeans accept people like this? I suspect that as we celebrate our 46th birthday, we are still hurt adolescents bent on messing up the good work that preceding generations have provided for us.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Are You Ever Ready for Anything?

You have to credit the Singapore government for coming up with one of the most ironic points of the day. In a session to 250 youths, our Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean made the point that one is never really ever ready to join politics and even till this day, the man who is a heart beat away from the Prime Ministership says that he still feels completely “inadequate.” This is a wonderfully human admission from a senior member of a government that has made it a point to be totally ready for anything.

I admire Mr Teo for this moment of humanity. Mr Teo is a military man (former Chief of Navy). As such, he should be more aware than most about the very real fact that you can never really be fully prepared for anything.

Let’s face it; the military officers in just about every military in the world are trained to think of every possible scenario. They do things like play make plans, study battle tactics and play war games. Thanks to Hollywood, we are all familiar with the scene of senior military commanders huddled up in the room playing what looks like chess – except that this time it’s with real lives at stake.

Lower down the food chain, we’ve now invented simulators to give the boys a ‘feel’ of what its going to be like. However, despite all the technology and training time that goes into making a solider, nothing can fully prepare a solider for war other than being in a war.

At the time of writing, I am living out my military fantasies on a Facebook game called “Army Attack”. It’s fun to imagine myself being a big war hero. However, I suspect I would probably pee in my pants when the first shell lands and explodes next to me and I have to deal with real life casualties. I’ve often made the point that the two military funerals I had to attend were two too many. Yes, I agree that a nation should use its young men to defend itself but it should only use their lives when it has no other choice.

War is not the only thing that one can never really be fully be prepared for. Take parenthood for example. How many of us are fully prepared for the realities of being a parent. Thousands have books have been written about the subject. We’ve had role models in the shape of our own parents. There is so much advice about parenting out there; you would imagine that it becomes easier with every generation.

Yet, despite the availability of information on the topic, how many of us are ever prepared to be parents? OK, I don’t have my own kids – but even then you’d imagine that I would be a know-it-all when it comes to being a parent. I studied biology and anthropology – so I should be pretty familiar with the various roles that parents should play in nurturing a kid and raising them to deal with society. I have had two stepfathers to add to my father and two stepmothers to add to the other I already have. As such, I am spoilt for choice when it comes to parental role models. I have so much “simulation” knowledge of the subject that I have to be an expert.

However, I was not prepared when Thuy became a part of my life. To put it crudely, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of having to live for something greater than myself. OK, having experienced it once, it became easier when Yooga popped into my life. However, I wasn’t prepared for the many bouts of separation that his mother imposed on us.

Let’s face it, everybody can teach us the brain stuff. It’s easy to process information. In this day and age, you should be shot for basic ignorance. Thanks to Google, you can find out just about anything with a click of a button. Getting information does not require much physical effort. The processing of information doesn’t burn any additional calories either.

However, nothing can prepare you for the emotions of dealing with the situation. We all know what to do in certain situations but yet we often fail to act. A Kuwaiti fellow I once knew made the point that he was a cancer patient who was in denial for a year. Did he know he had cancer? Yes he did – but he was overcome by fear. He’s not the only person to be this situation when your emotions overcome your intellectual knowledge?

I guess you could say that the first thing you need to do is to be honest about your feelings. Most of us like to think of ourselves as nice people who don’t get greedy or frightened. We convince ourselves that we will always be that way. However, when the situation comes, we end up being less so and screwing ourselves. Just look at the stock market. Everyday, thousands of people clever and rational people play the stock market. They tell themselves that they are not greedy or fearful. Yet, everyday you get people who get burned on financial markets because they got greedy, frightened or both.

Yet there are people who don’t get burnt on the stock market. In fact they become quite good at playing shares – my late grandmother was one of them. She was, I suspect, one of the few people who could resist the temptation to give into greed or fear. I suspect she understood that those emotions existed in her and could get to her. Thanks to this self-knowledge, she would act before she would get affected by them. She didn’t make a vast fortune on hot tips. More importantly she didn’t get burnt when the hot tips proved to be less than hot or cooled dramatically. The old lady left her much better educated children with a decent nest egg when she died – not bad for a woman who spent the better part of the last four decades of her life as a housewife.

Self-knowledge is hard to get hold off. Who really wants to admit that they might have a short coming or two? Yet, despite this, there is much to be gained by achieving it.

I think Mr Teo’s admission of weakness is a welcome change for Singapore. Successive PAP governments delivered pretty darn good results for the people on just about every facet of social development. While this was good, it had the unfortunate side-effect of developing a “God Complex” within our government.

Analyse the last election and you’ll find that the ruling party’s main message seemed to be “Trust us because you always have and you won’t be disappointed.” When people pointed out their mistakes like the escaping limping man or the great floods in the city square, they got defensive – “How dare you question us – we’re Godlike and can do no wrong.” The most amazing example of the Deus Complexus (God Complex according to my very hazy school boy Latin – trying to show off here) came from the Former Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, who never apologised for insulting a good portion of the population – he merely “Stood corrected.”

God Complexes prevent problems from getting solved. All you have to do is to think of the way the government rushed to defend one of their own when the limping man who was allegedly the most dangerous terrorist of all time waltzed out of their prison. Everyone kept talking about how we “need to judge the man by his distinguished record than an incident,” than finding the said terrorist.

That annoyed people and so when it came to voting time ……the public made themselves heard as loudly as they could.

So, is Mr Teo’s sudden admission of his inadequacy a welcome change in the way business is done? Let’s hope so. A government filled with people who are secure enough to admit their own failings is more likely to be a government that gets round to the business of solving problems for the people instead of a government bent on defending a perfect record when it is clearly not perfect.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing

If you want to know about the direction of the world economy, you could do no worse than to look at a story in Reuters and the Hindustan Times, of a Swedish Table Tennis Coach who refused to work for the Indian Table Tennis Federation because they were going to pay him in US Dollars rather than Indian Rupees. He argued quite reasonably that he had bills to pay in Swedish Krona and the US Dollar had only been declining by 25 percent every year against the Krona. By contrast, the Rupee was holding steady – and so he was much better off being paid in Rupees.

How times change? There was a time when the US Dollar was unofficial currency of the Third-World. If you worked in places like Indonesia, Brazil and dare I say India, you made sure that your bill was in US Dollars because if you billed in local currency, you might have the rude shock of finding that the value of what you billed had become worthless by the time you finished your job.

Well, this isn’t the case now. American tourist are finding the world increasingly expensive as the once almighty Greenback takes a tumble against currencies both major (Euro, Yen) and minor (Rupee, Real etc). For the rest of us, the US is starting to look like a cheap holiday destination. For Americans the only comfort must come from the fact that they have their British cousins in the same boat. How my father must cursing me for not going to school in the UK now, instead of when I did – which was ten years ago. Back then, the pound changed hands for three Singapore dollars for every pound. Today, it trades at about one point nine eight Singapore Dollars to the pound. If I was now at school, the Old Man would be saving about some seven thousand Singapore dollars a year just on the exchange rate.

So what’s happening? Over a decade ago, it was the USA and the UK which were booming. Asia was coming out of a financial crisis in 1997 and we relied very much on Western markets to survive. Today things are a bit different. It is Westerners who come over to Asia to look for jobs and not all of them are in high powered positions. Hong Kong had a host of British visitors called F.I.L.T.H (Failed in London Try Hong Kong) doing menial jobs that the locals wouldn’t do. Singapore, being further away from an increasingly assertive China, is a bit less harsh to Westerners. We still love them but there is a decreasing amount of expatriate packages. It’s not an uncommon sight to see Caucasians taking the bus or hanging around HDB estates these days.

A part of it is probably natural. Asia is home to three fifths of humanity and sooner or later, you have to expect the many Asians on the planet to go for some of life’s nicer things. In a way much of this was started by Japan. Back in the 1800s they saw the rise of the West and went out of their way to emulate the technology and the systems that made the West grow. When they were defeated in World War II, they had the good fortune to do so at the time when America was desperate for prosperous anti-Communist bastions. Money was pumped into Japan and the Japanese were prevented from having a military. Japan prospered and when things started getting expensive in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore become the next in-line to plug into and benefit from the global capitalist system. Hong Kong and Taiwan then became engines for China and Singapore became an engine for places like Malaysia and Indonesia (We have been much slower in trying to develop our neighbours than Hong Kong and Taiwan).

A generation of Asians have studied in the West. We feel at home in English and dealing with concepts like the “Rule of Law” are things that our growing generation expects. Contrary to what some of the regions autocrats might believe, we want things like laws, accountability and fairness, not because they are Western but because they are the things that make society prosperous. In most of Asia, this is the growing generation and the momentum for improved governance and prosperity can only grow.

Then let’s take into account the fact that Asia is playing catch up. For most of us, we are at an earlier stage of development than much of the West. As such, there is simply more room to grow. China and India have made headlines with their growth figures. However, the class that has benefited from growth in the Asian Giants are only a minority. Rural China and India remain poor – so much so that entrepreneurs like Polaris’s Arun Jain, who made a fortune in IT doing work for Western multinationals are trying to find ways to apply their knowledge to lift their poor country brethren out of poverty. If you think both these Asian Giants have achieved anything – wait till the vast majority start climbing out of the poverty trap.

Much has been made of the great rise of Asia. What is less looked at is the decline of the West, particularly the USA. Once again, we shouldn’t get too carried away writing off America. American multinationals continue to dominate the world and American universities continue to produce the best scientist, artist etc. However, this is becoming less so and the average American is feeling less secure than he or she did a generation ago.

The key reason for this is simple – bad money management. America remains the world’s largest debtor nation. With the exception of the eight-years under Bill Clinton, every American Administration has run a budget deficit. What is true of the American government is also true of the average American household. Your average American household has something like five-credit cards per working adult and all of them are maxed out to the tune of something like US $20,000. A baby born in America today inherits a debt of a hundred or two thousand.

Such figures are staggering and hard to imagine? How did it happen? Americans were not always like this. My late step-grandmother, Joan was a depression baby – she was conservative with money and avoided extravagances. When she died, her estate was large enough to put my younger brother Max through college with plenty of spare change. For Joan and her generation, money was scarce and therefore something which had to be conserved and treasured. Thanks to such attitudes, the USA had money to underwrite World War II and to provide Marshal Aid to Europe in the aftermath of the War (So much so that when George Marshal went to Westminster Abby, ALL the crowned heads of Europe stood up).

What happened since then? How did America go from a creditor nation to being a debtor nation within a generation? Part of the answer is circumstances. During the Cold War, America the Super Power in the West and it had a need to spend heavily on things like defence and propping up allies in various parts of the world. Militaries are expensive and the Americans spent heavily to keep their military machine going. Today, one of the biggest expenditures in the American budget is for the military. The US spends more on defence than the European Union and China combined. You might argue that part of this was necessary. There was the “Cold War,” and most recently there’s the “War on Terrorism.” However, even then there are ways of saving money when you fight wars. George Bush I did it best.

He waited for Saddam to invade Kuwait. Built up an alliance of Arab Nations and limited the military adventure to getting Iraq out of Kuwait. At the end of the day, Old Man Bush could send the bill to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who were more than happy to pay for a good portion of it.

By contrast Bush II decided to invade Iraq despite the objections of the rest of the world (You are with us or against us) and not finishing a job in Afghanistan (His Dad finished Noriega in Panama before looking elsewhere). As such the Americans have continued to foot the bill for two wars. The only way that America pacified Iraq has been to bribe various fractions who are likely to kill each other and Americans when American money runs out.

Stupid military expenditure is only part of the reason. The key component in America’s lack of financial discipline is cultural – which is ironically one of America’s greatest strengths. We, the rest of the world, love America because it remains one of the most optimistic and therefore innovative societies. Think of most of the great inventions of the day like the Internet – these are all American inventions.

Not only has America been at the forefront of scientific invention – it has also been at the forefront of financial innovation. In a way this has been a blessing. Entrepreneurs in the USA have easier access to credit than in most places. Bankruptcy laws are relatively lenient. As such, it is easier for an aspiring entrepreneur to get things going – fail and start again until he gets it right in the USA than any other part of the world. Americans have a high tolerance for failure provided the failure gets up and tries again.

If companies cannot get bank loans, there’s a market to raise funds. For big companies there are the financial markets. Now, small individuals can go onto the internet and get loans or loan money to people at an agreed interest rate. When I worked for GE Commercial Finance (South East Office which has since been sold to Standard Chartered Bank), I found a myriad of ways to raise funds – ie equipment leasing, factoring and so on.

This is good in as much as anyone with a dream has an option of raising money to make that dream come true.

There is however, a downside – namely when the lines between tolerating mistakes and condoning bad behaviour blurs. It’s one thing to help a guy who had a run of bad luck. It’s another, when you bail out obvious criminal activity – just think of Enron when you had a huge multinational, which was obviously cooking the books and everyone turned a blind eye to it until there was no more money to keep the show going.

Yes, in business, credit is important. There will be times when you need to pay bills and you have yet to be paid. You cannot tell your suppliers that they have to wait till you get paid simply because they deal with you not your clients.

However, easy credit can be very addictive. Why bother watching the pennies when the bank is more than happy to provide you with a never ending credit line? In business debts can be a good thing if you do things like buy assets or invest in something or other. On a personal level this is not bad too – most of us have a mortgage to buy a house, which becomes our biggest asset once we pay off the bank.

Debt becomes dangerous when it goes into things like buying the stuff that you don’t need. It’s one thing to take a loan to buy a house or put your kid to school. It’s quite another when you use it to live in a spa or buy fast cars. Things like this go down in value and when they do, they are worth less than the loan you took out to buy them. Unfortunately the easy credit which made it easy for businesses to start up mostly went into buying things that have no real value.

Furthermore, the finance industry got extra creative. Creativity in itself is an asset. However, when carried to far this can be dangerous. For example, a mortgage is good loan for both sides in the sense that the borrower is using debt to gain an asset while the creditor knows that if there is a default, he gets something in return – an asset. It’s a totally different story when you make a loan that isn’t backed up by anything other than high interest rates. Fine while the guy raising junk bonds can pay the interest and principle. It’s a different story when things go belly up.

In short, the finance people found so many clever ways of raising money; they didn’t even understand what they were doing. A lot was said about the “new” finance models which reduced risk and maximised returns. It reached a stage when the wisest investor of all time, Warren Buffet declared that these new products were “Weapons of Financial Mass Destruction.”

Mr Buffet has been proved right. The entire American nation forgot about risk as well as returns. Nobody thought it was worth teaching the young that money was something to be conserved. The idea of getting ready for a rainy day never crossed anyone’s mind – then it stormed.

American policy makers are now very upset with China for having the audacity to save. Apparently this is bad for the world because it leads to an economic imbalance. However, you can’t blame the Chinese for wanting to preserve themselves and take care for the days which may not be so rosy.

Isn’t it time for a culture change?