Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Straddling [the] Income Gap

Straddling [the] Income Gap – ST Editorial July 12, 2006: A response which will never be published in the MSM.

First and foremost an editorial like this chooses which statistic to use. Secondly it chooses how it wants to interpret and project the chosen statistic. Commonly known as propaganda … here I present another way to interpret the data presented and how to question such statistics in this editorial and in future publications of this nature:

Why is a dollar amount used to demonstrate the rise in income from “$4,940 in 2000 to $5,400 last year” while a percentage is used to demonstrate “the income of the top 10 per cent of families [which has] increased by 14.7 per cent between 2000 and 2005, the income of families in the 11th to the 20th percentile fell by 4.3 per cent? The income of the top 20 per cent of households is now 31 times that of the bottom 20 per cent.”

Is it because the top earners wages are so obscenely high that publishing the figures would foment a revolution? Or is it because of who are in the top wage earner category? Numerous ministers? Executive Officers of TLCs and GLCs? Both put together – which in recent years have seen a large number by appointment thinly disguised behind the veil of meritocracy?

This is quickly followed up by an explanation for the disparity in income: “One explanation for this growing gap is the increasing number of retiree households. In 1990, there were 164,400 people over the age of 65; in 2004, there were 296,900. Most in this age group do not earn wages - the only source of income the survey measured - but live off their savings. The Department of Statistics also noted that the higher unemployment rate in 2004, compared with 2000, might also explain the drop in wages for the bottom 20 per cent.”

What I do not get from this collection of statistics is that while it attempts to reflect the reality on the ground and is presented as such in mainstream media it does not take into account the full picture. For instance we now can legally have taxi drivers up to the age of 73. Whereas the ‘cut off’ age for this General Household Survey in terms of wage earning is 65? And the official retirement age according to the CPF Board is 62?

So which age should be used to estimate or aggregate number of people who could be employed but are not? Are the numbers real or ‘manipulated’ to paint a certain picture? Because by including all those to the age of 73 or dropping it down to 62 would change the difference in wage earning capacity dramatically increasing it and decreasing it respectively.

But before anyone can digest or make sense (or nonsense) of the statistics provided so far the editor/writer claims that: “The chief explanation for the phenomenon, however, is globalisation. The income gap is widening in Singapore for the same reason it is widening in other advanced economies: The entry of low-cost countries into the global marketplace has meant intense wage pressure at the low-skilled end of the job spectrum in countries like Singapore.”

There are a few issues in the statement above on globalisation. Let’s go back some 40 years to the modern ‘founding’ of Singapore. Did we not enter the global market as a ‘low cost country’ which provided ‘intense wage pressure at the low-skilled end of the job spectrum in countries’ like America (pick your favourite first world economy here)? Did Americans blame globalisation then for the ascent of low cost economic centers outside of its territories? Doesn’t this sound familiar? Like it was repeated over and over again by the PAP during the recent Elections? To which my response was: you have all the ‘scholarly’ material in your stables and you choose to hike your inability to deal with change on ‘globalisation?’ The problem is in the system here in Singapore being not nimble enough to adapt to change – as much as it is with this phenomenon called ‘globalisation.’

Globalisation has been with us since the heydays of the East India Trading Company and are not likely to go away in the near or distant future. The questions should be: are our leaders fit and nimble enough in thought and deed to embrace it and move on to more creative enterprises which will overcome the effects of globalisation and which will ensure the future political and economic independence of Singapore and Singaporeans? If others can find a way to exploit or appear to be exploiting globalisation as a formula why are we stuck in a rut and using the phenomenon as a lame excuse like this editor/writer has?

And in line with governmental ‘regulations’ on writing in criticism the editor/writer has duly noted the possible solutions of skills upgrading and restricting lower cost migrant labour. Sounds suspiciously like party line the first one does doesn’t it? While the second smacks of protectionism in the name of keeping wages up? Thus ensuring the further rise in cost of living for Singaporeans?

Credit given where it is due and both the editor/writer, who is anonymous to date, rightly argue and cite that welfarism is not a long term solution nor a panacea despite the handing out of the Progress Package just prior to the recent Elections. But then what is? Should not MICA apply the same standards it did to Mr. Brown by coming down hard on this article for bringing up the issues but not supplying any issues? Or should MICA come down even harder since the writer is essentially anonymous, save to the editorial staff of the Straits Times, and who has written on a national agenda without properly presenting the whole facts? (Does not presenting all the facts constitute not telling the ‘truth’?)

Perhaps it would behoof the editor/writer to utilize his/her brains to make real propositions for change to deal with globalisation instead of just parroting what PAP has been propagating.

Such as the true release of government funds to help local SMEs instead of subjecting these small companies to ridiculous red tape like: “in order for us to disburse the grant of $100k to you you must first prove that your board of directors have the same amount in reserve.” Grow our local firms and let them compete on the worldwide stage. Spare some of the billions of dollars used to buy up shares in overseas companies and banks, which may have untold political consequences, to help our local firms stand up tall in this small world. Growth of local SMEs will engender more employment of Singaporeans which would generate a symbiotic relationship ensuring the further rise of local enterprises.

Stop the ‘parenting’ attitude that is so pernicious of the Singapore government to the point where now as third or fourth generation overseas Chinese entrepreneurs we have been ‘cut down to size’ as simply obedient Singaporeans for your own political expediency. (Remember LKY’s speech on hammering down every nail that sticks out? Now there are no more nails that stick out and we are just plain flat with not an iota of independent intellectual geography to speak of. Yeeaahh, count on me Singapore.)

Finishing off, the editor calls for a reconsideration of policies which heretofore have been ‘open’ in terms of low cost labour. Protectionism, in any form, doesn’t bode well for a country which has to rely on the free flow of trade. Singapore, as often claimed, with no natural resources has to, unfortunately, rely on free trade in order to sustain her economic impetus. What better way then for home grown companies / industries to foray out into the world and bring back the currency to pay lower waged workers?

Re-designing or re-designating jobs that are of zero or low value add should be slowly stopped as it is a tremendous waste of public funds which should go to insuring the future of Singaporeans and Singapore as a value-added service sector provider. Singaporeans should be encouraged to think critically, to explore without fear in all aspects of life.

Anguish. My country can treat the [modern] founding members of her society in such a manner. What will it do to me?

Necessity is the mother of invention. This adage has been bandied around for a long time and will remain valid for a long time more. But it is more important to note that dreams and aspirations go a longer way in terms of inventions or you would not be reading this article on a blog which has some nebulous origins in a garage in Palo Alto, California some 40 odd years ago.

Can I as a Singaporean, if I toe the government line and all the propaganda fed to me as a tool of socialization all through school and through ‘afraid to die’ parents and grandparents who have lived through the ‘ISD will come for you at 3am’ era, succeed in today’s world? Tomorrow’s world? Be a sufficiently independent and daring thinker who goes beyond thinking?

Politics affects everything without exception. Just like bullets do not have eyes.

Your vote, while you still have one, and the votes of those around you, counts immeasurably for the future of Singapore. Vote wisely always.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Of Mother Tongues, The Economy & State Control

The halcyon 80s, barring the slight recession in the early 80s, Singapore was an economic miracle with manufacturing and exports as well as tourism driving a vast majority of the local economy. Proof of economic interdependence on Asia was somewhat low relative to the same interdependence on American and European business and economies. In short, if America or Europe grew, Singapore would also grow. And vice-versa. China was slowly opening up to visitors and the like though commerce was primarily export driven (remember how long we have been eating ‘Ma Ling Luncheon Meant’ in round cans? Almost like forever for me.).

Our leaders then, and the political regime then probably viewed China as a potential burgeoning market that would very shortly yield fantastic economic returns if we could engage them in trade and commerce. And to effectively do this we should be able to utilize their business lingo – Mandarin, which is originally a northern Chinese dialect, enforced as a national language due the political center of China being in the north. This thinking yielded an eventual wholesale destruction of our cultural heritage vis a vis our original roots going back not too many generations (most can count this on one hand even today). This was enacted through a series of programmes exhorting only the use of Mandarin for all. “Speak less dialect, speak more Mandarin” was one of the slogans used. I should know, I was in secondary school then. Even the use of dialect was frowned on and in some cases, prohibited, in school and official settings.

This programme of Sinicization was highly successful as the State had penultimate control being that it was predominantly a single party government. One result is that today’s young adults and teenagers who are able to converse in some semblance of dialect number in the minute – soon to be non-existent. Are we economically successful in China as a counter-balance to this loss of heritage? I am not sure. I grew up reading and hearing about numerous investments, national and private, in China but have yet to hear of numerous successful returns on these investments. It has been twenty years now.

While there is no doubt that Mandarin is a requirement to do business in China could there have been a lighter hand in the implementation of learning the language to the point where our original (for mostly 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Chinese in Singapore) heritage and dialect is not lost? Today, we have an entire upcoming generation bereft of their true mother tongue. Our mother tongues if we were to individually trace our lineage back to China not so many generations ago. A true loss in heritage and more.

Let us flip back the dusty pages of recent history and quickly review the general trend of economics and commerce in Asia in the 20th century. Numerous publications have pointed out that due to political unrest and persecution some Chinese were driven south. Their dialects and culture followed or in some cases assimilation to the local cultures took place. These Chinese were then the ones who took to the seas in search of a better life away from natural and political persecution. Some went to ‘Nanyang’ or the south seas and this includes Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand predominantly. Others choose to stay on in Hong Kong which was under British rule. In the later years Taiwan as a political entity was formed. China closed up then under Communist rule.

Officially, commerce flourished between the different Chinese communities around the Asian region. China always had some way of conducting commerce even though in most cases it was officially prohibited (I will leave the details to your research capabilities or imagination). Post World War 2 onwards the Asian economies sans China enjoyed an unprecedented amount of growth with parts of the growth engines driven by these overseas Chinese. Commerce was conducted in dialects and English. Recently several authors have chronicled the economic adventures and struggles of the Teochews (though I am sure they are not the only dialect group to be successful) in particular and how the dialect and ‘relationships’ with their hometowns or villages actually drove commerce to an international level beyond Asia and into the then reclusive China. These economic power houses revolving around dialects or home towns still stand today.

Let’s put the situation of Singapore today in contrast with Hong Kong and Taiwan. Unequivocally these two historic and present economic power houses of Asia (barring Japan and Korea) that are closely related to China due to geography, history, culture and language. For all intents and purposes these two territories are Chinese which have maintained their local customs and cultural heritage including what Singaporeans would call ‘dialects.’ Namely Cantonese and Mei Nan Yu (closest to Hokkien as we know it in Singapore) although Taiwan does utilize Mandarin it adamantly adheres to what the traditional written form in stark political and cultural protest to the modern written form practiced in China.

They have attained globe spanning economies that until today bear no equal in Asia. Does their success have anything to do with the fact that the de facto language of commerce for both of them at home are their own ‘dialects’ and English for international commerce? Perhaps it might be more instructive to look at the successful diaspora of the Chinese people worldwide. Even today the language of choice in most major cities in the world where there is a sizeable Chinese population remains Cantonese and or Mei Nan Yu. Why is it not Mandarin? All one has to do is visit Chinatowns in New York, Los Angeles, San Franciso, Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne (Perth has apparently been over-run by Singaporeans!), London, Paris and even Budapest or Moscow.

Would Singapore have been better off economically in dealing with China if we had a strong mix of dialects (although mostly southern Chinese) as well as Mandarin to deal with the bureaucrats and the northerners? The economic end of this debate would have to be more extensively discussed. Would we be a more cohesive society that is culturally vibrant in the local Chinese context? Will our customs and festivals lose their meaning soon? This is, by my observation, a sure fact. We are losing our heritage and with it some economic clout to engage in some business fronts.

For most 3rd generation Chinese we are culturally bereft due to a State imposed programme ostensibly for economic gain for which materialization is suspect. Are we better off economically due to the opening up of China? Are the young brought up only to value material and economics above all else? What are we becoming as a people and a nation? All this while MM Lee opines that Singaporeans are being ‘lost’ to the world?

The political regime of the 80s, very much the same regime today as a choice of the apparently popular vote, had in mind a growing China and her adoption of a northern dialect (called Mandarin). With a vast economic market at Singapore’s doorstep the prevailing thinking was that Singaporeans should be linguistically equipped to barge into the Communist market which was slowly liberalizing. No fault in that mentality except that the leaders of the day chose to ignore the fact that a majority of international ‘chinese’ commerce was from Hong Kong (pre-SAR) and Taiwan where mother tongues of Cantonese and Mei Nan Yu (close relative to Hokkien as it is known in Singapore) as well as the real 20th century Chinese diaspora of whom very few spoke Mandarin.

No doubt we conducted commerce with Hong Kong and Taiwan to a large part but we, as a nation, democratically, voted for and bought into the vision of China as an economic saviour of sorts in the future. Today they are a net selling market (export oriented) with little to show for Singapore in terms of true economic benefit in bottom line terms.

We are where we are today due to the choices made then. And ultimate state control in one Party, as voted for by most Singaporeans, may be very fast in making decisions that result in policy often lack the usually better judgment afforded by time. Time that is found from responsibly debating national issues and policies prior to legislation where the interest of all are taken into account as far as is reasonably possible within the entity called a country. This is contrary to what PM Lee believes in when he criticized the Australian government for not opening up the lucrative flight routes from Australia to the US due to party politics. Colloquially put: the Australians do not owe SIA a living. If the PM is keen to comment on the standard of housekeeping done by others he should extend the same courtesy all around!

Today we are looking at India as a potential growth center. I hope we do not commit the same folly and overnight enforce a ‘national’ language program on Indian Singaporeans. India has a multitude of dialects just like China has and it would forbear policy makers, who, in some cases are voted in, to not impress a programme that kills off the various Indian dialects in use in Singapore today. Let us have a good and true discussion with the stakeholders prior to making policies on what today’s policy makers deem to be their utopian views.

Some lip service was provided in 2005 when Prime Minister Lee commended the Hokkien Huay Kwan (Hokkien clan) for attempting to keep the culture and language alive. But in schools, where we are all socialized and educated, culture (original culture that is) bashing is still the modus operandi.

Growing up in a generation whose parents were ‘strongly encouraged’ to study English as it was deemed prudent I was exposed only to Channel 5 so to speak. They were discouraged from using any other language while in school (unless they were in a Chinese school) and at work. China and Chinese was not the ‘in’ thing in the 60s and 70s. They still retain their ability to speak dialect as it was not slammed on. Brought up by my grandmother who spoke only dialect (not written – remember Redifussion!?) that exercise at ‘linguistic choice’ was then repeated on me but it was Mandarin over and above English, the only language my parents conversed in with me. I speak market Malay as a result of playing, after school, with lots of other kids, around where I lived growing up. No wonder I failed Mandarin at every turn then. I wonder what my children will face when they go to school? English, Mandarin and the language flavour of the day? And my grand children? Will my children and grandchildren, if they are Singaporeans ever know their true cultural heritage?

Today I work for a multi-national consulting firm that appreciates my ability to conduct my work in English and still be culturally and linguistically effective in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and yes even China even though I do not have academic ‘A’s in Hokkien, Cantonese and Bahasa and Mandarin at any mentionable educational level. Ironically the young elite Chinese are now rushing to learn English and will use it at every opportunity they have and refuse to converse with you in Mandarin if they can help it. That I understand a smattering of local dialects and languages in Singapore has also helped tremendously in helping me quickly pick up and use simple French, Polish, Hungarian and Korean while working in those countries – all because I am not dead set on one set of rules about language.

Singapore policy makers often make policies based almost solely on economic needs and as if all Singaporeans lived a perfect life with no worries about, in this instance, taking up another language. As if we live to fulfill the ideals and dreams of policy makers and not much more when in a democratic society, as laid claim to by one star on our Flag (, and the National Pledge, the policy makers should be reflecting the desires of the populace and guiding us with wisdom that does not come in a rush or overnight.

In diversity lies strength and resilience. Celebrating diversity instead of killing it off for the pragmatic convenience of policy makers only serves to strengthen the nation. Nation building is something which takes time, perhaps generations even with minimal social engineering, and cannot be enacted overnight as is favoured by the ruling regime.

Vote wisely! Your vote not only puts someone in government, it also dictates how you and your family will live in a variety of ways.


I am a Singaporean writing in my personal capacity. The recent "demise of Mr. Brown" has prodded me to start a blog though I've known of the technology and existence of such a medium for more then several years now.

With the apparent state control over the traditional avenues of mainstream media (MSM) those who wish to express opinions that may not gel with the PAP's mode of thought have only the cyber world left to turn to.

I maintain that I am fully responsible for only my postings on this blog and not any comments directly or indirectly attributable to this space of free expression. That this blog has not been sanctioned by any political party or external body that may be deemd a society under Singapore laws.
The existence of this blog serves as a protest against the various forms of censorship espoused by (self-censorship) and enforced by (external parties) on the various media in Singapore. If you are irritated or find any articles in this blog not to your taste you are at full liberty to not visit this blog. Exercise your rights by keeping them to yourself.
dum spiro, spero
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