Singapore Media Watch

Monday, December 18, 2006

Income gap tears at Singapore social fabric - Reuters

Monday December 18, 3:04 PM Reuters

By Geert De Clercq

SINGAPORE, Dec 18 (Reuters) - When Wee Shu Min, the teenage daughter of a Singapore member of parliament stumbled across the blog of a Singaporean who wrote that he was worried about losing his job, she thought she'd give him a piece of her mind.
She called him "one of many wretched, undermotivated, overassuming leeches in our country" on her own blog and signed off with "please, get out of my elite uncaring face".

Wee was flamed by hundreds of fellow bloggers, but when her father Wee Siew Kim -- an MP in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's constituency -- told a Singapore newspaper that "her basic point is reasonable", the row moved well beyond the blogosphere.

The episode highlighted a deep rift in Singapore society and was an embarrassment for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and prime minister Lee, who has made the reduction of the income gap one of the priorities of his new government.

"Coming from an MP in the prime minister's constituency, these comments really were political dynamite," political commentator Seah Chiang Nee told Reuters."If the political arrogance and elitism get any worse, the PAP will lose more electoral ground," he added.

Singapore is Asia's second-richest country after Japan with a gross domestic product per capita of about $27,000, ranking between EU member Italy and Spain. But in terms of income disparity, Singapore is in altogether different company.

Singapore's Gini index -- which measures inequality of income distribution among households -- of 42.5 puts it between Burundi and Kenya, the UN Human Development Report 2006 shows.
"Yes, the gini coefficient is very high. Through housing, health care and education, we have tried to narrow the income gap, but not through wages," National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan told Reuters in an interview last month.


Singapore pays no employment benefits, no pensions and has no legal minimum wage, but education is cheap and excellent, health care is subsidised and the government gives subsidies to first-time buyers of government-built flats.

Last month, Singapore's first parliament session since the May 6 poll was dominated by the inequality theme. PM Lee ruled out the introduction of old-age pensions, a minimum wage or European-style welfare.

"We have treated welfare as a dirty word. The opposition, I think the Workers' Party, has called for a 'permanent unconditional needs-based welfare system'. I think that is an even dirtier five words," he said in a speech on Nov. 13.

But he acknowledged that since the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the income gap had widened, and said that his government plans to "tilt the balance in favour of the lower-income groups".
While Lee's ruling PAP is in no danger of losing its stranglehold on parliament -- where it has 82 out of 84 elected seats -- the growing income disparity has hurt its credibility.

In the May 6 poll, the Workers' Party scored its best result in years, with chairwoman Sylvia Lim winning 44 percent of the votes in a multi-seat ward. Lee lost 34 percent in his ward to a group of unknown candidates in their early thirties.

"They (the PAP) are concerned about the fallout if they don't do anything about the income gap," Lim, who entered parliament as a non-voting MP under a best-loser provision, told Reuters.

In parliament, Lee said he plans to improve healthcare and boost housing subsidies for low-income families. He added that he wants more "workfare" schemes, under which the state tops up low-income workers' pay.

On May 1 -- five days before the election -- the government paid out S$150 million to about 330,000 low-income workers, and Lee promised a similar package for next year. Details would be released in the 2007 budget on February 15.


Critics say that much of the outrage about the teenage blogger's comments is due to a perception that Singapore is ruled by a privileged elite that's out of touch with the people.
The road to a top job in the Singapore government or civil service leads through elite junior colleges and prestigious government scholarships for university studies abroad.

While access to these schools and scholarships is open to all and based on academic grades, critics say the children of the elite are well represented. Wee Shu Min attends a top school, Raffles Junior College, as did her father, an MP and a top executive at state-owned arms maker ST Engineering.

In a report about "elite envy", the Straits Times daily quoted official data showing that in the last five years, one in three students on government scholarships came from families with incomes of more than $$10,000 ($6,500) a month, while such families make up just 13 per cent of all Singapore households.

Students from households on incomes of less than $2,000 made up only 7 per cent of scholarship winners, the paper added. Colin Goh, founder of satirical website, said that while the first generation of post-independence PAP leaders was seen as close to the people, this is no longer the case.

"The source for much invective in the Wee Shu Min case is that there is a real sense the PAP is composed of people in ivory towers; that they are a bunch of Marie Antoinettes," he said.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Singapore's troubled Shin Corp deal - Asia Times 13 December 2006

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak

No other country's ruling family does it quite like the Lees of Singapore. National founder Lee Kuan Yew built a gleaming metropolis out of a swampy island in four quick decades of rapid economic growth.

His son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has made a priority of carrying Singapore's economic-development miracle forward through diversifying its investment in the region.

The younger Lee's wife, Ho Ching, and brother, Lee Hsien Yang, spearhead Singapore's interlocking state-owned investment vehicles, which are fortified and facilitated by a web of often-opaque cross-share holdings.

Despite pockets of opposition disenchantment, few outsiders would dispute that Singapore is a place where things get done because of an enlightened consensus among its political elites, underpinned by the country's geographically and historically peculiar strengths.

But Singapore's state-engineered, elite-driven economic success at home has recently been embroiled in controversy and alleged scandal when venturing abroad. The most glaring example involves state-run Temasek Holdings' purchase last January of Thailand's Shin Corp, a communications conglomerate founded by recently deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and majority-owned by his family.

This year, Temasek's US$1.9 billion buyout of the Shinawatra family's 49.3% stake in Shin Corp added fuel to the fire of the popular protests that climaxed in the September 19 military coup that upended Thaksin's government.

The controversial transaction apparently surpassed legal limits on foreign ownership of crucial national infrastructure, including telecommunications frequencies, which Shin Corp operated through a government concession. (Read more...)

Will Temasek CEO do likewise to avoid possible conflict of interest?

I read with concern the article in The Straits Times of 7 Dec 2006, "NCSS concerned over possible conflict of interest".

This is followed by Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society's (THKMS) revelation of its CEO's $7,100 pay package, "Charity tells why CEO gets salary of only $7,100" (ST, 13 Dec).

A reason cited for NCSS' concern was "the highest-ranking paid staff members are related to their boss..." - hence the "concerns over conflict-of-interest issues".

While I am glad that the NCSS and the Commissioner of Charities have taken precautionary measures to prevent such conflict-of-interest issues from potential abuse, will the government at the very top do likewise in another widely reported similar "reporting' structure (where "the highest-ranking paid staff member (is) related to (her) boss...") in Temasek's case where its CEO's boss is her husband, the Prime Minister?

I applaud the CEO of Food From The Heart (FFTH, another NCSS member identified in the article), Mrs Christine Laimer's stepping down after receiving the NCSS letter, "even though she firmly believes there is no conflict of interest at the charity". I believe this is the right move in order to totally avoid even any perceived conflict-of-interest. The challenge is for the CEO of Temasek to do likewise even though she too may firmly believe there is no conflict-of-interest.

As an aside, now that the salary package of the CEO of THKMS is made public (at $7,100 per month), will FFTH do likewise too in making public its CEO's pay? I note their operating cost came up to some $450,000 last year with a staff strength of six.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Opposition marchers demand greater political freedom in Singapore - AFP

11 Dec 06

Supporters of a jailed opposition leader staged a protest march Sunday in Singapore's busy shopping district to press for greater political freedom in the city-state. The rare demonstration marking international Human Rights Day was staged by followers and relatives of Chee Soon Juan, who is serving a five-week jail term for defying the city-state's restrictions on free speech.

"We're going to celebrate what little rights we have, freedom to question and criticise the government," marcher John Tan, who described himself as a lecturer in psychology, told reporters.Because any public protest involving five or more persons requires a police permit, the demonstrators held the march in relays of four persons each.

Plainclothes men were seen trailing the protestors across town after they started off from a park in the banking district.Chee's wife Huang Chih Mei marched with their three young children along the Orchard Road shopping belt, which was packed with Christmas shoppers.Some passers-by accepted protest leaflets handed out by the marchers, while others declined.

The demonstrators wore yellow t-shirts saying "Free to Walk" and "Free to Speak."Chee Siok Chin, sister of the detained politician, said the protest was "a symbol that one of our colleagues, one of our fellow activists is still in prison ... for exercising his rights that are guaranteed under the Singapore constitution."

The march was scheduled to end at the Queenstown Remand Prison, where Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), was jailed for five weeks on November 23 after refusing to pay a fine of 5,000 Singapore dollars (3,200 US).

Two opposition colleagues charged in the same case served shorter prison stints, also for refusing to pay their fines.The penalties were imposed after they were convicted for speaking in public without a police permit ahead of the May general elections won overwhelmingly by the conservative People's Action Party (PAP).US-based rights group Human Rights Watch said Thursday that Chee "is being arbitrarily detained for exercising his right to free expression and should be immediately and unconditionally released."

Your Views: HDB's reply a red herring? - ST (8 Dec 2006) - Ltr from HDB: HDB consistently incurs losses selling new flats

I attach below HDB's reply in the ST dated 8 Dec 2006.

While HDB's may not be technically misleading the public (as far as land cost is concerned), I feel the government is.

If one looks at the whole issue of "subsidised" (or what I call "market-rate discounted") HDB flats, HDB may be running deficits if the land is purchased from the SLA at market rates. Therefore, HDB may not misleading the public.

But, many of these state lands were compulsorily acquired during the early days of independence for a song. I know because my ancestors' land was compulsorily acquired back in the late 60s/early 70s for something like 10 cents per sq feet - all in the name of national development!

Now what happens to these vast tracts of government land? They are sold to HDB at market rates - hence the deficits in HDB's books but the surpluses are booked under the entity selling the land to HDB - whether SLA or the old Land Office or whatever.

The trick is that the profits are shown in the government's books (either through the SLA or the URA or even JTC?) because the land was acquired for only 10 cents psf (before the government started paying "market" rates for land compulsorily acquired only some 10 years or so ago when prices sky-rocketed). So, for the majority of state land under the government's books (in SLA/URA/JTC) which were acquired way before the "market rate" era 10 years or so ago (compare 10c cost vs the current market rate of $400-5000 psf), the profits are humongous.

Therefore, while the HDB might not have not misled the public in its land cost claim, the government certainly did when its "silence" (or through HDB's red herring reply) gave the impression that the government (through HDB alone) was "subsidising" public flats.

What I would like is for the government (either the "profitable" entities like SLA or URA) to come clean and let the public know how much profits are stashed away in their books or transferred to the government as capital gains since Day One. We do not want to hear HDB's deficit; rather, we'd like to hear the SLA's or URA's surpluses.

Didn't the government make use of these surpluses from land sales to use it towards funding the Progress Package of $2.6b prior to the General Elections in May 2006?

The public deserves a wholistic picture of the government's land ownership and surpluses/deficits rather than the often-heard exhortation by the HDB that they have been running deficits through its subsidised HDB flats.

Can the relevant authorities (SLA and/or URA?) please reply?


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Fearing collapse, ITV asks for leniency - The Nation

The Nation
9 December 2006

The defence team for iTV yesterday pleaded for leniency, saying the station could collapse and its workers become unemployed if the high court ruled to confirm the whopping fine of almost Bt100 billion.

The Supreme Administrative Court has scheduled its appellate ruling on the case for Wednesday.

"This court's primary duty is to dispense justice and disputed parties should not try to sway the ruling or make hasty criticism in advance," judge Charan Hatthakam said in the final session of the appellate review.

At the centre of the litigation is a contractual clause - Article 5, paragraph 4 - that empowers the station to seek mediation by a board of three arbitrators to revise its concession fees if authorities allowed advertising to be broadcast on cable television.

Based on this clause, the arbitration ruling allowed the station to pay reduced fees and revise programming to favour entertainment at the expense of news coverage. (Read more...)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Your Views: Potential Guiness World Record - 2nd MRT death in 4 days and 4th in less than 2 months!

Singapore is famous for its many world records according to the Guiness World Records - fastest text messager, etc...

With sympathies to the victims' loved ones, we can probably add the highest per capita deaths in MRTs/MRT stations (or subways) within the shortest time (2 deaths in 4 days and 4 deaths in less than 2 months, or 2-in-4 days and 4-in-2 months?).

(The first occurred in late October 2006: the case of Mr Tan Jee Suan - TNP (21 Oct 2006) - "MRT death case: Dad gives $10 to son, says last words to him", link,4136,115969-1161467940,00.html?
while the 2nd happened at Clementi MRT shortly thereafter.)

Can the relevant authorities find out the true cause of the problems in these deaths before more happen? Is it the hardware (the design of the MRT system) or is it the software (the despair, desperation and hopelessness some of these victims went through) or both?

If the probelm is the software side of the equation, merely putting up additional safety structures will not solve the problem.