Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book List Refreshed

I have removed:

Aftershock by David Wiedemer et al
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook
Red Capitalism by Carl E. Walter and Fraser J. T. Howie
The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

I have added:

Extreme Money by Satyajit Das
Factions and Finance in China by Victor C. Shih
The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar (recommended)
Without Conscience by Robert D. Hare

The nascent crisis of affinity

The Saturday edition of the Straits Times had a long series on heritage in Singapore. It was one of the better articles that they have published.

Why is it fashionable to talk about heritage now? Because with the progress and changes in the last decade, more and more Singaporeans are feeling that the parts of the Singapore Identity are being lost irrevocably. And as a result of this ineffable sense of loss, more Singaporeans are stepping forward to claim a piece of their rightful heritage.

I would wager most of us have never heard of Bukit Brown cemetery before part of it was put at risk by the LTA. Just like many of us had not stepped into the old National Library Building in years, or even decades, when plans were afoot to have it torn down.

And yet, like something long taken for granted, we are suddenly shocked when we are told of what we are to lose.

The Power of Place and the Power of the Narrative

It has been several years since the old Changi Prison was demolished. And while some parts of it were saved and a museum was built to commemorate the site, I still recall then how I marveled that Australian POWs and their descendants, literally thousands of miles away, actually made a formal effort to save the prison from being demolished. They stepped forward to claim what they felt was a part of their heritage, as far removed as they were on a foreign continent. Read more here.

I was naive then about the power of place and the power of the narrative. Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, no longer.

For Singaporean males who have served NS, the following should sound very familiar:

You don't see your NS friends on any kind of regular basis in your "real" life, but when the time for ICT rolls around, you pack up your stuff and grudgingly make your way back to camp. While doing ICT is a real drag, at least there is the bright spot of meeting old friends, friends you instantly connect with because of where you are and the situation you are in again.

That is the power of place. It provides an environment which allows you to pick up the conversations where you left off. There is no sense of awkwardness, unlike say, a high school reunion held in a hotel ballroom (which can be remarkably fraught with angst).

A lot of NS guys will find familiar the ICT routine of exchanging and retelling old stories from the days of full-time NS, of the pranks and practical jokes that people pulled, of the tics and mannerisms of various characters encountered, of the universally disliked officer or encik getting his comeuppance. They're all stories we've heard before and are familiar with, and yet retelling them is a comforting routine. You would think that we had all turned into doddering old men with no teeth in our gums, reminiscing over the glory days of our youth.

And that is the power of the narrative. Retelling a story keeps it alive and preserves the memory of it and how it binds the various participants and actors together. It reinforces a shared sense of history and the closeness of the collective.

In many ways, the power of place reinforces the power of the narrative. That is why some Australian and British POWs visited Changi Prison every year before it was demolished. In all likelihood, every time they visited the prison, they cracked the same old jokes, retold the same old stories and lingered over the same old corners of the Prison that they were imprisoned in so many years ago.

A place becomes a cultural and historical touchstone, and a metaphysical repository of memories. I use the word metaphysical because the memories are embedded not just in the artifacts or in the structure, but in the very space that is enclosed and defined by the structure itself.

In truth, the government should be glad that many Singaporeans are expressing disquietude over the destruction of Bukit Brown or the demolition of Rochor.

The unthinking civil servant believes that these Singaporeans are being difficult, obdurate and overly sentimental. The savvier civil servant believes that "engagement" with the public should have been done earlier, with consultation exercises carried out to assuage the disgruntled (but with the same end result as the government-crafted plan called for).

In contrast, the most enlightened civil servant would, I submit, rejoice that Singaporeans still care enough about their heritage to lock horns with the authorities over part of its demise. The enlightened civil servant would also recognize that the loss of any part of our shared heritage, however necessary, is lamentable, even if it is preserved with museums or commemorative plaques.

Because eventually, when there is little left to be lost, all that will remain will be the sound of silence. No one will care enough to speak up about what is Singapore. That is, if there are any who care who remain in the first place.

The crisis of affinity

This brings me to my topic for today, what I call the crisis of affinity, the erosion of Singapore's collective sense of belonging and a shared destiny and vision for the future.

As meteoric as our economic growth has been in the last decade, I think something valuable has been lost along the way. What is vexing is that it is so difficult to put a finger on what exactly has been lost. And yet, I sense the loss, as I wrote about it in the Two-Tier Society. And it is not merely a sense of misplaced nostalgia.

The last 10 years have seen great changes in Singapore, not all for the better. The pace of demolition and construction, and the loss of shared urban spaces and the memories they represent is bad enough. But to compound matters, we have had a huge foreigner influx and a widening gulf in income inequality.

Some would argue that having more foreigners doesn't dilute our store of memories, but only adds to it. A greater foreigner presence enlivens Singapore and makes it more interesting, diverse and cosmopolitan.

I would agree, but up to a point. That point ends where foreigners are privileged over citizens in work and school, when it is painfully clear that Singapore is a stepping stone for them to better places, or when by their sheer numbers, assertiveness, competitiveness and sense of entitlement, transform the very character of the place.

I never thought I would say this, being very much invested in my identity as a city person: To the Indonesian, Filipino, Mainland Chinese, Indian, Myanmarese, Vietnamese and Malaysian immigrant here in search of a better life, I appreciate that Singapore is your land of opportunity and your New York. But I don't much like the New Yorker that you're collectively turning me into (with all the attendant stereotypes).

What happens to Singapore if we all become a nation of narcissistic New Yorkers?

As for income inequality, what is there left to be said that I have not said already? Income inequality is inherently divisive and corrosive to affinity. People from different socio-economic strata lead different lives, have different narratives on what is important, what is to be valued, and what groups, ideas or philosophies they individually identify with. The Wee Shu Min incident years ago should have made this abundantly clear. You can trust me on this when I say income inequality is not conducive to building a strong society with a sense of the collective. I know.

A strong economy can cover up a lot of cracks. But who's to know what will happen when the shining facade is peeled away? I have called this a nascent crisis of affinity. But how nascent it is remains to be seen.

Goh Chok Tong drew a lot of flak/comments for his stayers and quitters remark years ago in a time of adversity. The government should not fear criticism the next time it decides to level such an question at Singaporeans. It should fear the possibility of a deafening silence instead.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Observations on the Foreigner Dominated Office at Work

I took on a temp position in a financial services company several weeks ago as a preliminary step towards a permanent career change; I formerly worked as a research engineer in the public sector.

[As to why I decided to change careers, well, that's a little personal, and perhaps I'll blog about it some other day when I am more settled in a permanent job.]

My current workplace is strikingly different from my previous workplace. For one thing, my previous employer, for reasons peculiar to the nature of the work, generally hired only Singapore citizens and a handful of permanent residents (don't ask why). In contrast, in the department of my current employer where I work, the office is filled with foreigners on work visas. I estimate Singaporeans comprise something between 20 and 30 percent of the employees. The rest include Malaysians, Indonesians, Hong Kongers, Indians and Westerners from various countries (the UK, Australia, etc.).

It is one thing to be intellectually aware of how Singaporeans compete with the many foreigners that have arrived in our country in recent years, it is quite another to be thrust into the thick of it after being formerly ensconced in the public sector.

I'm not bitter or resentful about it, even with my current employment challenges. One might as well complain about why it rains or why it's so damnably hot here all the time. I'm not the optimistic or "think positive" sort, but I much prefer practical thoughts on how to move past (or around) obstacles in order to get what I want, rather than caviling about how unfair life is.

As a former researcher who used to professionally observe and interview people at work (I trained formally as an engineer, but I worked frequently with psychologists and the occasional sociologist), I took the opportunity of working in the modern Singapore office to observe the dynamics of foreigners working here,  and to think about the impact it has on Singaporeans.

A lot of people have complained commented on foreign competition for jobs, but beyond the obvious, I haven't really read anything substantive with the details articulated well. And even though I do have foreigner friends in Singapore, working in an office full of foreigners allows certain insights to come through that would not have otherwise occurred to me within the more personal confines of friendship.

This post is a collection of my own observations and reflections after several weeks of working in a foreigner dominated office.


First, the caveat: the sample size I have is small, and arguably biased. This caveat applies equally to all the subsections that come after this one.

Most of the foreigners in my workplace are, as mentioned previously, of the nationalities I listed above. They are generally youngish, ranging from the mid-20s to the early and mid-30s, which squares with the data I reconstructed in a previous post. The gender split in my office, however, is relatively even.

The single to married ratio runs at about 2:1. A few of the singles date. Those that are married have one, or no kids, and where they have kids, the kids are generally infants or toddlers, meaning the kids came relatively recently, when they were in their early thirties.

In general, most of my coworkers do not have extended family here. Immediate family is a bit more common, either in the form of spouses or sometimes siblings (with whom they frequently share a rental apartment with, especially the Malaysians and Indonesians).

Living Arrangements

Married folks tend to buy, singles tend to rent. It's as simple, and as expected, as that. Ergo, as most of my coworkers are single, rentals predominate. My office is along Shenton Way, so most of my coworkers live in relatively central locations.

Driving is uncommon.


The dominant language is, of course, English. However, Mandarin and Cantonese are frequently spoken in my office. This isn't at all surprising given the presence of Malaysians and Hong Kongers.

Working hours

Perhaps it is mostly a function of the private sector in general and the financial services industry in particular, but my coworkers work longer hours than I am used to. Where at my previous employer I used to knock off on the dot at 6 pm, people in my current office routinely leave at between 7:30 pm and 8:30 pm. FYI, the day starts at about 9 am.

And yes, I am fully aware that many people in Singapore work longer hours than these, and that these are not particularly onerous hours.

Is it because foreigners are likelier to be single with no families to return home to that they work longer hours? Or is it because the same ambitions and aspirations that drive people to find work in a foreign city also motivates them to put in more hours at the office? Does this up the bar for the Singaporean worker, with resulting effects on the later age of marriage and the number of kids raised?

These are interesting questions, but I am also all too aware of confirmation bias to unhesitatingly state these as conclusions. Let's just leave them as intriguing questions to think about.

Socializing After Work

Perhaps because of the longer hours as well as the single status of many of my coworkers, going for dinner together after work is a common occurrence. My coworkers also sometimes meet up on Saturdays for lunch (usually at some place with good food). It could also be due to the more constricted social circles faced by workers in a foreign city.

The vibe in my current office is similar to the vibe I felt as a university student, and the vibe I felt when I used to visit friends working on Wall Street in New York (although because I am a career changer, many of my colleagues are much younger than I am). It was more of a single's lifestyle (as a single myself, I'm certainly not complaining about or judging it). Nor am I so myopic to not know that many people eventually grow out of this kind of lifestyle.

While I did have many single (Singaporean) colleagues in my previous job that I occasionally had dinner with after work, meeting on weekends was almost nonexistent. And the shorter working hours at my previous job meant that most people knocked off from work and met their other friends for dinner. Relationships at work are somewhat chummier in my current office than before.

It's interesting to think about what the social implications are for a government-sanctioned policy of mass immigration of foreigners of working age, and the potential impact it has on the local population: the rate of interracial and inter-nationality marriage (one of my female Singaporean coworkers is a Malaysian in the same office), the delay in the rate of local family formation and lowering of birthrates, since the office culture encourages long hours, even on the viability of national service in the future.

With regard to NS, quite aside from the already low birthrates Singapore is experiencing, immigration has historically been driven by the young, and restless young men in particular. Will the children of expatriate men and local Singaporean women be lost to the SAF in the future should they choose to eschew citizenship? Was this one reason why nationality law was amended in 2004 to permit female citizens residing abroad to transmit their citizenship by descent? Are there other potential effects on dilution of national identity as a result of mass immigration?


I am just a temp, hence I fully intend to resume my job search in a couple of months (my position is a very short term one, more like an internship formalized into a temp position). So, it's hard to ignore the conversations in the office when candidates are being considered for fresh positions, or when resumes get sent in and scrutinized.

[I have to state here first that I am not being seriously considered for a permanent position in my current company mainly because of my lack of relevant industry experience, among other things, rather than my nationality.]

While I wouldn't go so far as to call it discrimination, the fact of the matter is that job searches, as in much of life, depend on referrals. The impression that I get is that it is common for someone to be hired in my company based on a personal referral from someone already working in the company. And since the department is staffed mainly with foreigners...well, you get the idea.

I have no idea how widespread this phenomenon is, but I would hardly be surprised if it was common across many companies and industrial sectors in Singapore.

It's not so much the fact that new hires get made on the basis of referrals as the fact that being a foreigner is no bar to getting hired in the first place that is so disturbing. Most industrialized and developed countries impose some barrier of entry to immigrants so that they have to meet a higher standard of credentialing, talent or performance than a citizen in order to obtain a job here.

The ease of foreigners in getting jobs here could be interpreted in a number of ways. One interpretation is that jobs are plentiful. Another is that foreigners have it easier than Singaporeans, with fewer obligations, such as NS, and fewer financial commitments, such as HDB mortgages. That allows them to be more competitive than local hires. Yet another interpretation is that foreigners are "hungrier", whatever that means, and are willing to work harder and to settle for less.

Here is one other interpretation: perhaps it is not how easy it is for immigrants to find jobs here that is salient, but what an indictment it is of how bereft of value Singapore citizenship really is.

Maybe the government is so confident that foreigners can't freeload off the system here (beyond the initial inducements made to attract them) that they feel free to throw the doors wide open to all comers without reservation. After all, if you can't earn your keep here each day every day, you certainly won't survive long here. Even citizens here do not enjoy much in the way of state-sponsored benefits (aka "free lunches").

Citizens, PRs or foreigners on work visas, we are all just fungible labor inputs into Singapore's economic machine, which is why I do not mince words when I say that Singapore citizenship is bereft of value.

Future Plans

It's interesting to speculate what plans foreigners have when they arrive and work in Singapore. Do they plan to stay on and make Singapore their permanent home, take up citizenship, perhaps start a family? Are we attracting the "right" people to come to Singapore, so to speak?

The short answer to this question is there is no answer. The general feeling that I get from many of my foreign-born colleagues is that they have no concrete plans. Nobody really knows what the future holds, and certainly nobody has made concrete plans that concern making their move to Singapore permanent.  To many of colleagues, being in their mid-20s to mid-30s, these are highly abstract concerns for another day, another age, literally.

Oh, some hold permanent resident status, and a few have even bought property here. But given the ease and cost-benefit trade-off of permanent residency here, taking up PR status is a no-brainer. It's all carrots and no sticks. And a continually rising property market here in the last decade makes buying property a relatively easy commitment for the married folks to make, whether they eventually decide to stay or go elsewhere. For those who got in early in the cycle, it even made good financial sense. PR status and property ownership are not reliable indicators to base an assessment of how likely a foreigner is going to make Singapore their home for good.

As I have indicated in two previous posts, there is reason to believe that outflow rates may pick up years in the future, particularly if economic growth stalls, and population volatility will likely rise markedly as well. I wonder if the smart guys in our civil service take these factors into account in their rosy population projections.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the New Civics and Moral Education Imperative

"Pity the student who does not surpass the master."

The new Education Minister announced a new focus on Civics and Moral Education a few days ago.

Let's leave aside the issue of how ineffective classroom teaching generally is on imparting a values system. If you need comic relief on a related topic (the so-called MBA Oath), look here

Mr Heng Swee Keat spoke on the importance of inculcating "social responsibility, personal and citizenship values in students".

What I find remarkable is how anyone can take seriously this pledge to uphold the importance of personal and citizenship values in Singapore. 

Oh, I do not doubt the intent to place high importance on this initiative (although I have much darker things to say about the nature of that intent), but I question how much anyone can really expect to reap in terms of results, when so much in our environment demands a survivor's mentality.

The harsh environment begins as early as childhood, when students have to claw their way to the top of the heap in our highly competitive education system, one that allows no room for failure, since streaming starts so early. This is an education system that gave birth to acronyms such as ITE ("It's the end"). In addition, the fact that so many parents feel the need to resort to extra measures outside the state educational system, such as tuition, reveals the ineffectiveness of the educational system to act as a social leveler, and to improve social mobility here on this island.

Once kids reach adulthood and join the workplace, they have to compete with the numerous foreigners here for employment, and it certainly doesn't help that government imposed handicaps like National Service disadvantage citizens in their own country. Then there are the tax-payer sponsored inducements that are used to attract foreigners to come here that our own citizens aren't entitled to (such as university scholarships).

All the while, we are repeatedly told that there is "no free lunch", that we need to be "hungry" and have "spurs stuck in our hide". All this amid the highest levels of income inequality just about anywhere on Planet Earth.

We are also admonished frequently by the government that we have to avoid the dangers of a welfare state, that we need to take personal responsibility for our employment / health / retirement / elderly years etc. 

It is sometimes ironic how Singapore can be thought of as a nanny state when in reality, many of our policies are designed for mandatory inclusion precisely so that the state can unburden itself of responsibilities onto the individual (e.g. CPF, Medisave and CPF Life), responsibilities that I might add, have traditionally been borne by the state in many developed countries.

The evidence of daily living in Singapore for the average citizen points to an existence marked by individual struggle. 

And the flip side of meritocracy, as it is so avidly pursued here it is almost a state religion, is that individuals that 'make it' often feel they deserve their success, and can blithely ascribe their success solely to their own talents and abilities, and that those that fail deserve every iota of misery they endure.

Here in Singapore, it's every man for himself. If you want lunch, you had better go out there and get it yourself. There is a reason why every NSman knows and understands the acronym of SAF, "Serve and F*** Off".

Daily living in Singapore will inculcate values in students stronger than anything that can be taught in a classroom setting, government-sanctioned, civics, moral or otherwise. What those values are, you need only look around you in everyday Singapore to see. 

And since the experience of daily living is shaped by government policies, it is only natural that students, upon growing to adulthood, will apply those same strictures that they have learnt in life to evaluating their own country and their government, with the same or greater degree of exactitude. 

Pity the student who does not surpass the master.

The government shouldn't expect a free lunch themselves; the ever more pragmatic and survivalist Singaporean of the future will not pledge anything, much less his loyalty, to a place and its people simply because he was born and raised there. This breed of Singaporean includes, perhaps more so than any other group, those who are fervently pro-PAP and supportive of the material benefits that the PAP promises to deliver year after year. 

Here's an interesting chart showing the negative correlation between income inequality and levels of social trust. And let us not forget that we have official confirmation that the income gap is not important. Old fogies like me who are just barely 30 may argue this point with the PM, but the PM need not worry. 

The kids younger than me will be much more obliging towards taking the PM's words at face value. They will simply internalize this truth, adapt to reality, and concentrate on making more money for themselves. Just like the foreigners who come here because this is a great place to make money, enjoy the rich living (if you can afford it), and move on to someplace else if and when the weather changes. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Just as the system encourages survivalist and individualistic leanings in its own citizens by design, it attracts foreigners with the same values system.

As for the personal and citizenship values Heng Swee Keat wants so badly, well, let me put it this way. 

The government has long wanted its citizen proletariats to put in their all for the economy, which isn't exactly a positive for family life. Belatedly, the government decided it wanted the fertility rate to be higher, which it is failing miserably at raising.

The government wants "hungry" citizens as well, which students are today internalizing the importance of. Now, the government wants social responsibility, personal and citizenship values to be emphasized in addition. 

I think that's going to work out about as well as the fertility rate. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Trouble in (Research) Paradise

Front page article in the Straits Times - "$180m doled out from stalled biomed fund", the title of which is itself an anodyne sounding palliative.

I wrote on the capriciousness of research funding in Singapore and the impact it has on individuals two years ago, almost to the day, in my post Picking Winners.

I wrote then:

If there is a lesson to be drawn here, it is that the government in Singapore likes to 'pick winners', hence the title of this post. Like it or not, major segments of our economy are centrally planned. Even the number of doctors, lawyers, teachers and PhDs in Singapore is centrally planned.

For the individual, this works fine if the sector you work in is a 'winner' and the 'picking' part is still in the early stages. You'll do just fine, better than fine even, if you are a foreigner invited to come here.

But if you are late to the cycle, there is a real risk you could get shut out even before you get a foot in the door. Worst, if you are established in the 'winning' field that then becomes less winning, you are left behind, too old to switch fields when you get made redundant.

This Schumpetarian creative destruction may work well for Singapore's economy, but it can leave an exceedingly bitter taste in the mouth of the individual.

The requirement for industrial collaboration and quantifiable economic value generation in order to access government funding was obvious to those who knew where to look, right from the beginning of Singapore's great R&D enterprise. It was de-emphasized early on (otherwise, how else would we have attracted the whales?), but as I expected, not too long after Philip Yeo has exited the scene, the edifice is starting to crumble.

One of the most important lessons I learnt when I first started working in research as a fresh graduate was that running a research lab is a lot like running a small business.  

Passion, curiosity, orginality, drive - these are all important attributes for a successful scientist. But to do science you need money. So, bringing money in is extremely important. It's the reason why if you've ever worked in a not-so-well funded lab, the PI (principal investigator) isn't as involved in the day-to-day running of the lab as you think he or she should be, but instead spends all their time writing grant proposals and making sales pitches to funding authorities.

And if you're really unlucky like I was, the pressures of "business development" start filtering down to the lower echelons of researchers, like fresh graduates. Developing technical expertise takes a backseat to helping to put food on the table.

It sounds strange, but managing tight lines of cash flow is a common activity in small research labs. That's because unlike for-profit companies, there is no luxury of a cash cushion or going to market to raise debt and equity financing. Oftentimes, money from a new project is directed to meeting the costs of an ongoing project due to unexpected delays, cost overruns or just plain overpromising/underbudgeting in the project proposal (usually in order to get the grant money in the first place). 

Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. That's why I say running your own research lab, which is what most scientists aspire to, is like running a small business.

So, researchers in Singapore are simply going to have to adapt to the new realities of research funding at A*Star. If you're a returning scholar who has long had your head in the clouds about doing science, and discovering new knowledge, and pursuing noble goals, it's time to wrap your mind around what are the important skills to learn in running a small business, meeting the needs of your industrial partners/customers, and appealing to bureaucrats' unhealthy obsession with KPIs. You're going to have to learn all this on your own; PhD programs generally don't teach these skills.

I have a lot more to say on this sudden change in research funding policies at A*Star, but it's difficult to cohere it all into an article. So, I'm going to take the lazy way out: quoting sections from the Straits Times article and interspersing my comments.


"Going to bed with industry makes us all very uneasy...Plus scientists don't make the best negotiators with savvy businessmen."

Especially if the businessmen can smell blood, like they do now. The scientists are desperate and everybody knows it. Negotiating from a position of weakness means extremely unfavorable terms on any deals made, you can count on that for sure.

"I feel very sorry for the younger scientists and scholars as the rules of the game have changed while they were looking the other way."

Read: You're going to be assessed and rewarded on your ability to bring in money, not on your ability to do good science. You can trash your doctoral work now if there's no way to spin it as having industrial or economic value. 

And if your subspeciality happens to have little commercial value, well, sucks to be you.

"The whales are likely to be followed by other big and small research creatures."

Exodus. 'Nuff said. And the whale metaphor is getting so tired, it should be retired, just as Philip Yeo has left the scene. I wonder how many returning scholars are going to feel grateful to him for the scholarships he doled out so aggressively in years past. It's a terrible feeling to feel trapped. 

"I do not know whether you can measure the performance of scientists by KPIs."

Ah, the tyranny of the KPIs again. What can't be measured or is difficult to measure generally won't be measured. See above on being assessed on ability to bring in money rather than ability to do good science.

"They must have signed research agreement with industry, or work with a medical doctor who is also a scientist, or create technology platforms that companies can use."

It is a sweet, sweet time to be a clinician scientist. Suddenly, everyone wants to be your new best friend.

"And he said that $180 million of the $600 million available for the next five years has been given out or will be given out soon, which shows institutes are able to access it successfully."

Let's see, in my experience, that can mean a few things:

1) Relaxation of the guidelines on awarding funding due to massive unhappiness on the ground.
2) Creative interpretation of the guidelines on awarding funding due to massive unhappiness on the ground.
3) Fantasy proposals that can't reasonably be delivered on, but that will only be a problem a few years later.

For (3), you can generally expect the scientists who wrote the proposals to intensify their job search with the time they have bought at A*Star with their unrealistic research proposals. 

Either that, or manage expectations of the funding authorities when project deadlines near. That's not as difficult as it sounds, since in Singapore's bureaucracy, the management people get rotated every few years, so the person assessing project completion is quite often not the same person who approved the project.

"Last week, homegrown biotech firm S*Bio said it was slashing headcount by 80 percent after a deal with a US pharmaceutical firm did not go through as planned."

I'm shocked, shocked! And here I was thinking that everything was going hunky dory. I mean, if something bad had really happened in Biotech Land, I'm sure our authoritative Straits Times, voice of the nation, would have been all over it.  

"But others are concerned about the ethics of working with industry....conflicts of interest."

See Science for Sale for example. Many other good books on this subject.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fear-mongering before the next immigration surge

The Straits Times had a front page article today entitled "Population will shrink without immigrants".

[Not coincidentally, they also had "Baby and talent dearth in Taiwan's economic spiral" in the Review section. Real subtle, Straits Times editors.]

As expected, post-GE 2011, it's going to be business as usual for the government. The only concession is a softer, more persuasive, consultation style of government. In other words, the packaging will be prettier, but the contents will still be the same.

This post isn't another polemic about the evils of immigration, or the problems it creates. That's kind of boring, and my blog is all about fresher perspectives.

Here, I'll be talking about some things which may not be immediately apparent to people thinking about immigration.

I haven't read the report produced by the Institute of Policy Studies, so I can't in fairness comment on their methods, their modeling parameters, and all that dense technical stuff.

That's also not terribly fun to do, or read.

In general, I'm not going to dispute their findings on how the population will shrink if immigration doesn't keep apace. I will take their findings on good faith.

But what I do find interesting is how the the Straits Times article reported on the demographic model's output based on the "net" immigration rate of 0, 30,000 or 60,000 people per annum. The numbers sound nice and pretty and round, but they blithely ignore the messy realities of life (like all models).

"All models are wrong, but some are useful." - George Box.

Let me put it this way by using an analogy.

Let's say you have a cup and you're trying to fill it with water from a running tap. You get to control how much the tap is turned and so the rate at which water drips into the cup.

Your goal is to control how fast the cup is filling up. Note, this is not the same as the rate at which water comes out of the tap. The goal is to attain a target rate for how fast the cup is filling up.

I have this magic device that can poke holes in the bottom of your cup so that water leaks from the bottom of the cup. This device can also magically seal holes in the bottom of the cup, so leakage rates can change moment to moment.

Again, let me reiterate, the goal is to achieve a target rate of how fast the cup is filling up. You only get to control the tap, not the leaks.

Oh, and lest you forget, how much water you have in your cup changes the leakage rate of water out of your cup. The pressure of a higher water level will of course force water to leak out the bottom faster.

Your job is to maintain a constant rate at which the cup is filled, whether it's 30,000 units per year or 60,000 units per year.

You also have a natural concern about how full the cup is. That's because the water is scalding hot and filling it to overflowing will burn you very badly. Oh, and your Mom will beat the crap out of you if the cup becomes too empty.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the faster the tap is flowing, the harder it is to get your job done correctly.

My point here is that increased dependence on immigration will almost certainly lead to greater volatility in population numbers, with attendant consequences on public policy planning, services and infrastructure. Immigration may well be necessary, but it is hardly an unalloyed good.

A previous post of mine during GE 2011 indicated that the data suggests that PRs generally start leaving once they are past the prime of their working life, in their 40s and over. That's hardly surprising. People are here for the economic opportunities and the money. They are not here for the yawning income inequality, the stressful lifestyle, the astronomical property prices and difficulties in starting a family, and all the things that we ungrateful locals complain about.

I wrote then that, "Our new PRs who are now aged in their 20s and 30s today could well leave en masse five, ten or twenty years from now."

A greater outflow rate in the future means a greater rate of immigration (of new people who are then in their 20s and 30s) will be needed to compensate. This means that the flux through our proverbial cup is going to increase. In other words, our cup is going to leak very fast in the future, so the tap had better been turned on really fast too.

Try keeping the cup from being too full or too empty then.

Over the long term, the volatility in population numbers may mean that in some years or decades our public infrastructure may be strained due to too many people (like now), but in some years or decades, when the economy is weak, our population numbers may slide dramatically, with lots of spare capacity everywhere (read: weak property market).

Our government will of course do all they can to ensure a vigorous and growing economy forever.

Forever, however, is a very long time. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book List Refreshed! 31/08/2011

Apologies for not blogging more frequently, but life has been...complicated lately.

Also, current affairs have lately been heavy on the Presidential Elections. I have had little interest in PE 2011, hence the dearth of posts. My only comment on the PE results, which probably would have been noted elsewhere in more popular blogs, is that it shows that Singapore's political center (composed of swing voters), has grown larger over the years, and will continue to grow larger. This is due in no small part to the Generational Shift Effect and the die-off of a large part of the PAP's core base.

In other words, the electorate in Singapore is maturing, and will more closely resemble that of developed countries, where win margins are narrower and political parties have to appeal more to the center bloc of swing voters.

[That is, if future global economic dislocations do not lead to a rise in political extremism in the years ahead. There is a non-zero probability of this happening in many countries.

And by "this", I mean the political extremism. The global economic dislocations are a certainty; it's only a question of when.]

As for my Book List, which this post is ostensibly about, I have removed:

America's Bubble Economy by David Wiedemer et al
The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics by Richard Koo
The Next Decade by George Friedman
Brilliant by Jane Brox

I have added:

Aftershock by David Wiedemer et al
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Red Capitalism by Carl Walter and Fraser Howie 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Blogging Break

I haven’t had much time to blog lately as I’ve been trying to engineer (no pun intended!) a career change to an actuarial position, which is a bit of a coincidence given that my last post was on the Presidential elections and one of the potential candidates happens to be an actuary. 

In any case, as a career changer, I certainly have my work cut out for me in a job search. So, expect fewer updates from me in the interim. Later.

What a Non-PAP elected President Means

The Presidential post in Singapore is largely a ceremonial position with no legislative powers. The key powers are veto powers, and frankly, with the comfortable, greater than two thirds majority that the ruling party enjoys in Parliament, those veto powers are largely moot.

Many people have commented on this, and as a result, have taken the view that the importance of the Presidential elections should be de-emphasised. Mr Shanmugam has also downplayed the importance of the role of the President.

The first view is a merely a mistake. The second is disingenuous.

We do not need to look further than Tony Tan to see how seriously the PAP is taking the Presidential elections. Although they have not stated it, it is clear from the extensive glowing coverage of Tony Tan in the “lamestream” media in recent weeks that he is the unofficial PAP-endorsed candidate. If the position was not very powerful or important, why would the PAP care so much about helping their preferred candidate win?

One of the most important ways that the ruling party has managed to hold power over the decades is the way it has managed to control the national conversation on national policies.

I have written on this in a previous post. By controlling the major media levers, the PAP holds the power of framing conversations on national policies (although this power is diminishing in the Information Age). And this has the effect of making it difficult for rational individuals in the population to form coherent and reasoned objections to policies that can then reach a wider audience and garner support. 

A good propaganda system goes beyond simply trumpeting the virtues of such and such a policy. It ranges from setting up straw men counterarguments for the sake of “balance” in reporting, inundating the population with artfully conjured up statistics, redacting unhelpful information that detracts from the nation-building agenda, and taking surveys whose results give the appearance that all is hunky-dory on the surface, but wherein the survey methodology falls apart under even cursory scrutiny. More sophisticated techniques involve setting up and covertly funding or implicitly supporting “independent” think tanks that deliver voluminous research in support of existing or soon-to-be implemented policies.

Seen in this light, it is not difficult to understand why the President, even in a ceremonial role, has considerable power, power that has the potential to detract from the government’s carefully crafted policy messages.

Being a public figure with a public profile higher than the average MP, and perhaps on a par with a cabinet minister, the President may have no formal legislative powers, but he has the power of political patronage. He can make alternative viewpoints more credible. This is something which Yawning Bread wrote on in a recent piece. He can lend the prestige of his office and his voice to various causes which at best, do not enjoy PAP support, and at worst, are antithetical to the PAP’s ideologies.

And that is why the PAP government has a huge stake in the Presidential elections, even if it takes pains to appear distant (and for good reason, given the revelation of its declining popularity in GE 2011). 

A President who does not toe the PAP party line (even if he is not a card-carrying member of the PAP, so to speak) on government policies can strike a singularly discordant note in the symphony that the government perpetually plays in an effort to convince the citizenry that the bitter medicine being doled out is indeed good for them. Who knows? He might even be shriller than the small coterie of opposition MPs in Parliament today.

And make no mistake; the PAP dreads the possibility of a President who is a loose cannon. Perhaps because our government is stuffed with technocrats and functionaries, many of whom were earmarked for the fast track early on in their careers, and who never had to practice at mollifying, scrambling, ‘fessing up and apologising, or just plain rolling with the punches, that the PAP is remarkably bad at dealing with situations that arise because they fall outside of its planning norms.

The very idea that the President was vested with the power to block drawing on the reserves was conceived under the presumption that the President would be a PAP man facing down the temporary anomaly of a hostile non-PAP-led Parliament. And now, the shoe is on the other foot.

The outcome that the PAP fears the most is not a rabidly anti-PAP President. That would be the second worst outcome.

The worst outcome would be a popular and vocal President, with a centrist position that is not in concord with the PAP’s policies, and who has excellent oratorical skills and is not afraid to use them. 

The popularity factor is key. A rabidly PAP President would be an embarrassment certainly, but could be dismissed as “fringe” for the most part, and suitably stonewalled and marginalized.

The PAP’s methods of “managing” a popular and vocal President, however, would come off as unseemly at best. More likely than not, they would be perceived by the public as being ham-handed. 

And the real danger in this election is that the President would almost by definition be a popular one. After all, it is because the position comes without legislative powers that party candidacy, gerrymandering, HDB upgrading, political track record, and all the other messy calculations associated with who to vote for in a general election don’t come into play.

In other words, being elected President means being liked. Needless to say, in recent years, the PAP and their ilk haven’t been very good at that.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Republished: The Two-Tier Society

The Asia Mag requested to republish my previous post: The Two-Tier Society. You can see it here.

It's always gratifying when one's work is read and appreciated. Thanks, Asia Mag!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Two-Tier Society

The Straits Times today featured a fairly bland and benign, even banal story. It was entitled "Premium healthcare grows at a healthy pace." The full transcript is available (for now), strangely enough, at IM$avvy, a CPF companion website. I say strangely enough because the lux health screening packages described in the article are far beyond the reach of the average Singaporean, and yet, if there is one government institution all Singaporeans are acquainted intimately with, it is the CPF.

It has happened in business and banking (think private banking). It has happened with restaurants and fine dining. It has happened in the real estate market (Sentosa Cove, and too many condos to name). It has happened with entertainment venues, like our integrated resorts, and events, like Formula I. And it has happened in our healthcare as well. If the words "medical tourist hub" did not resoundingly ring in your head when you read this story, they should have.

Singapore is also home to the One Degree 15 Marina Club, Jetquay and FreePort. I could have chosen other examples, but these three resonate most with me as symbols of the excess, exclusivity, and expatriateness that define the new Singapore.

We have truly arrived as a first world city. Our level of immigration, connectedness to the global economy, our availability of goods and services, standards of quality, and costs of living, rival those of any of the global cities that Saskia Sassen describes in her work.

Unfortunately, at least for me, I am belatedly realizing that as much as I enjoy the energy associated with living in the "big city", warmth and homeyness are increasingly not what I identify with this city, Singapore, that I currently live in.

Inveighing against the wealth that comes to our shores from afar is a pointless, perhaps even foolish, exercise, given the benefits it brings to our economy.

I am not going to go into the complicated arguments that delve into whether inflation here has been driven up by foreign liquidity, or that medical tourism has indirectly caused an exodus of doctors to the private sector, or the multitudinous pernicious effects that income inequality has on measures of societal health, as detailed in The Spirit Level. That is better left to a day when my dispassionate, more analytical self, feels moved to comment.

But my quieter, more philosophical self senses the ineffable feeling that this city is increasingly being designed variously as a playground, a global bolthole, winter retreat, or Asian gateway, marketed primarily to the wealthy expatriate, and perhaps, incidentally, to the wealthy local (who may be a naturalized foreigner).

The feeling is particularly difficult to dispel when one considers the sorry state of public transportation while struggling to board a subway train at rush hour (with hordes of foreigners who are working class, of which I guess I am one too), or when one marvels at the price of government flats as they spiral ever higher out of reach, until the dream of owning a home becomes mere fantasy.

Each day I turn the pages of our increasingly irrelevant national newspaper, and my eyes glaze over the risibly fanciful names of newly launched condos in property ads, or the expensive marques that tout ever more sophisticated levels of automotive engineering and tasteful design. And I continue to wonder how relevant all this is to my life, beyond the evanescent pleasures of daydreaming that perhaps one day, I could have all this too.

Wishful thinking.

I am not overly worried about my future; not optimistic, but not worried either. I can differentiate between needs and wants, and my psychological constitution is strong enough to withstand the corrosive effects of income inequality.

Still, the feeling that Singapore is Home continues to recede. Feeling is irrational, and it defies logic and explanation. Yet there it is, and it persists in existing.

It is difficult to love a city that doesn't love you back, and that is both cold and hard. And it is not for nothing that cash is described as cold and hard. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book List Refreshed! 09/06/2011

I have removed:

Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller
Richistan by Robert Frank
Econned by Yves Smith
The Post-Catastrophe Economy by Eric Janszen

I have added:

Brilliant by Jane Brox
The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
How to Disappear by Frank Ahearn and Eileen Horan
Dying of Money by Jens Parsson (Highly, highly recommended. Free downloads available in many places) 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Keep the spin cycle on, and get ready to be hung out to dry...

Today's edition of the Straits Times had the headline on the front page: "Government to review drainage after year's worst flood".

This is refreshing. The Straits Times is often deployed for spin damage control every time the government can't cover up mismanagement bad news. The rule appears to be: Cover up first. If not possible, then obfuscate, mislead and distract. And if that fails, underplay and de-emphasize. We now have a new fourth stage: pre-empt criticism and be seen to be DOING SOMETHING.

The front-page story read in an almost surreal way. Talking about review of drainage before describing the floods was putting the cart before the horse; I wasn't even aware that there had been floods yesterday before I picked up today's newspaper (I was holed up at home with a book over the weekend). The Straits Times seemed to be assuming that everyone knew about the floods before the story was printed today (not an unreasonable assumption to make in light of the digital age), but it certainly carried the faint scent of resignation of old world media.

Keep it up, nation-building press. The PAP government has your jobs, but with its continual expectation that you comply to its spin demands, the importance of those jobs will be eroded as the years roll by.

Conventional local media is already distrusted; it won’t be long before it ceases to be relevant altogether (especially when the older folks that depend on it die off). Then the SPH management will question the very need for investment into conventional media. What will follow will be smaller operating budgets, reduced headcount and dismal attempts at new media (to be repeated at X-year intervals with refreshed roadmaps / business plans).

The local print media need look no further than Mediacorpse to see the future. Diminished mindshare since fewer people tune in to free-to-air TV, diminished production values due to reduced budgets, and diminished advertising revenue due to irrelevance to consumers. Talent flight is a further result (as well as an accelerant to the crisis).

I don’t watch TV anymore, although my parents do, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that many TV ads, particularly outside primetime, are either ads about advertising on Mediacorpse or trailers for other programs. The Straits Times itself too carries its own advertisements exhorting subscriptions, as well as touting lucky draws for new subscribers. A sign of the times indeed.

I would cease reading the Straits Times if not for the fact that my family subscribes to it and it makes for convenient breakfast reading. However, I spend as little as 20 minutes reading the papers. I can often dispense with the Home Section in just 15 seconds; the Forum page is always ignored.

A few years ago, I might flip through past editions of the papers after returning from vacation. I no longer do so. In fact, now, if I do not pick up the papers at my appointed breakfast hour (usually because I have an early start that day), that day’s Straits Times edition will be left untouched, permanently. Reading the Straits Times is a function of my breakfast. It is not a goal in itself.

Even for someone like me with newspapers at home, the Straits Times no longer holds my attention. And I am just over 30. To younger Singaporeans, local newspapers are fast becoming an anachronism.

PS: Although causation is difficult to prove, one does have to wonder if road raising works along Orchard Road to deal with previous floods have shunted the problem to the Tanglin area. This could well be the flooding version of whac-a-mole.

Monday, May 9, 2011

GE 2011 aftermath, random quick thoughts, and prognostications.

This post is going to be written stream-of-consciousness style...

Is the PAP going to mend its ways, or is it going to be business as usual? I would like to think the former will happen, but I am very skeptical. Many PAP politicians seem too ideologically wedded to their positions (Mah Bow Tan, Lim Swee Say, Lui Tuck Yew, the list goes on...). Certainly, few if any would publicly backtrack on their stated policies. The PM apologised in this election for his government's performance (garnering a 3.2% improvement in vote share for Ang Mo Kio relative to GE 2006), but tellingly, no other politician did, least of all those who were responsible for policies causing the most grief to the electorate (e.g. Mah Bow Tan). Still, given the apparent act of contrition by the PM, a wait-and-see approach seems warranted.


More people will be willing to step forward to stand for elections for opposition parties, particularly the WP. The risk-reward ratio has changed with the WP's success in Aljunied. The WP can only grow stronger with their increased popularity and rising public profile. I have no doubt their efforts at recruitment of quality candidates from the private sector will be far more fruitful than the PAP, as I have previously stated.

The practice of slipping in weak PAP candidates into Parliament via "safe" GRCs helmed by prominent politicians will be reassessed by the PAP. That doesn't mean that the practice will be abandoned, only that it will be exercised with greater care. Frankly, the fact that the PAP had to scrape up a Tin Pei Ling from the bottom of the barrel to make up the numbers betrays the difficulty they have in recruiting loyal, quality candidates in number. The parachute tactic will continue to be a necessary part of the PAP's election arsenal as long as Tin Pei Ling-types continue to be selected.

However, I am grateful for one thing. Thanks to the fact that Marine Parade GRC was actually contested in GE 2011 (the last time it was contested was in 1991!), it is now possible to quantify the effect of the parachute tactic on vote share (the "Tin Pei Ling effect").

Marine Parade GRC, helmed by Goh Chok Tong in 1991, secured 77.2% of the vote share, versus 56.65% in 2011. The average PAP vote share in 1991 was 61%, versus 60.14% in 2011, virtually the same. The TPL effect could hence have accounted for as much as a 19.69% [(77.2%-56.65%)-(61%-60.14%)] swing in vote share.

This estimate is a high ceiling estimate; the swing in vote share can also be attributed to Goh Chok Tong's diminished popularity, the fact that he is no longer PM as he was in 1991, the generally inferior quality of opposition party candidates in 1991, and of course, the polar opposite "Nicole Seah effect". Granted all that and the fact that 1991 and 2011 are literally 20 years apart, but I think the TPL effect is probably good for a 5% vote swing against the PAP.

Given that the PAP's average vote share in GE 2011 stands at about 60%, that means that a GRC "lifeboat" can probably only comfortably accommodate at most one low quality free-rider, assuming linear additivity. More than that and the PAP risks sinking the entire GRC.


Prof Jayakumar has noted that the fact that an Opposition had won a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) proves that the political system in Singapore works and does not benefit only the ruling party (see here). This statement is disingenuous. The fact that it has taken this long for an opposition party to win a GRC, with a team clearly superior to the one fielded by the PAP in Aljunied, in a more favorable political climate, and almost all constituencies contested that hence diluted the PAP's strength, is an exception that proves the rule that GRCs disadvantage opposition parties.

It is possible that with the loss of Aljunied, the PAP may rejig the GRC system to stack the deck further in its favor. Jayakumar's statement above provides the perfect validation for such a tactic.

It is especially important for the PAP to adjust the GRC system if more Tin Pei Ling-types are to be put up by the PAP in future elections. Lifeboats need to get bigger for a wider margin of safety. Equally, the PAP is having difficulty recruiting quality candidates in number to "hold down the fort". Cabinet ministers and other heavy-weights can only be spread so thinly over so many constituencies. We may see the advent of 8-member GRCs in the not-too-distant future.

Perhaps a more stringent requirement to have not one but two minority race candidates in each GRC. Perhaps even a hard requirement to have one Malay and one Indian candidate in each GRC. This would raise barriers to entry for the opposition even higher than they already are now.


One of the most startling things I observed when I stepped into a polling station for the very first time was the sheer number of old folks streaming in to vote. They came on walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Singapore's population has aged, and the oldest, staunchest of the PAP's supporters are literally aging and dying.

Lee Kuan Yew *may* have been right in saying that the young don't know better to vote PAP don't appreciate the struggles that we have gone through as a nation. Nonetheless, even the PAP has to acknowledge the relentless tide of mortality that is carrying away its most loyal bloc of voters. It must adjust its strategy and tactics accordingly if it is to remain victorious in the elections ahead. The Generational Shift Effect is starting to make itself felt, and it will grow stronger in the years to come.


If the recent PAP campaign is any indicator of how the PAP manages its internal affairs in planning and implementing public policies, then I am apprehensive what the future holds.

We had ministers saying things that contradicted each other, unilateral party reform proposed by one minister, and blame-shifting. Not to forget the MM's vote-WP-and-repent threat. Or the PM's apology that was followed by conspicuous silence by all the other ministers.

Ladies and gentlemen, it appears that we have preliminary indications of schisms and factionalism within the PAP itself. If this is what happens in public, what happens behind closed doors?

Then there is that vexing matter of who the next PM should be, as there is no heir apparent waiting in the wings at the moment. That means that the issue of succession is still very much undecided.

The PM can reshuffle ministers and redeploy those who are the most unpopular but who were nonetheless re-elected (Mah Bow Tan comes to mind). But every time he does so, he expends just that much more of his political capital within the PAP. If you were Mah Bow Tan and you kept insisting that housing was affordable, how kindly would you look on the PM deciding to reassign you to a different portfolio? You can only push people so much before they start pushing back.

The electorate is changing and demanding more choices. Is it possible that the PAP may also be changing and becoming more individualistic? And what might that mean for policy-making in the future?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Assessing the Generational Shift Effect in GE 2011

This is a technical post, so it will be rather dry. Going by previous pageviews, I doubt many people will be interested to read further, but nonetheless, I will need to perform the analysis and archive the results here for my own records.

The Generational Shift Effect (GSE) was previously defined here. The objective of this post is to assess whether such an effect is in fact present.

Given the differences between each election in terms of candidates, issues and media use, it is a futile exercise to rigorously reduce the results of each election to individually quantifiable covariates. My approach here is to simply look at the data and to check for interesting trends.

To recap, the constituencies that I identified as possibly manifesting the GSE were Radin Mas, Pioneer, Moulmein-Kallang, Sembawang, Sengkang West and Punggol East. This group consists of 4 SMCs and 2 GRCs.

My approach is to compare the PAP's vote share in each constituency in GE 2011 and to compare it against the PAP's vote share in the most recent previous election. However, except for Sembawang (which in fact has had its boundaries redrawn), none of the constituencies in the group above existed in recent history prior to GE 2011. This may seem like a bad thing, but it does have a silver lining.

While previous data may not be directly comparable to current data due to redrawn GRC boundaries, every new constituency in 2011 has a progenitor GRC. We can compare the PAP's vote share for say, Sengkang West SMC in 2011 versus Ang Mo Kio GRC (its progenitor) in 2006. We can also compare the PAP's vote share for Sengkang West SMC in 2011 against Ang Mo Kio GRC in 2011. So, in effect, we have two data points for comparison.

What we are really interested in are differences. Using our example above, we can calculate how well the PAP fared in Sengkang West in 2011 versus 2006 (using Ang Mo Kio as a proxy), taking the difference [1st difference]. We can also calculate how well the PAP fared in Ang Mo Kio between 2011 and 2006, again taking the difference [2nd difference]. It is the divergence between these two differences that may be attributed to the GSE (and other factors).

Now, let's turn to the data. I have excluded Radin Mas SMC from this analysis. Radin Mas was carved out from Tanjong Pagar, which has had walkovers for the longest time, so historical voting data is unavailable. In addition, the 'Lee Kuan Yew effect' in Tanjong Pagar would probably swamp any other effect, so I'm not even going to bother with further analysis here.

Table 1 below shows PAP vote shares for the constituencies of interest in GE 2011 as well as the most recent election. Except for Sembawang GRC, data for the previous election is taken from the progenitor GRC. Also, all previous data relates to GE 2006, except for West Coast GRC, which was last contested in GE 1997.

  Table 1. Comparing PAP vote shares for each constituency across elections. Larger image here.  
From Table 1, it is clear that the PAP's vote share has declined for all the constituencies under study. But how does this compare to the progenitor GRCs?

Table 2 below reproduces the rightmost column from Table 1, and includes another column showing the change in the PAP's vote share in the progenitor GRCs. Note that Moulmein-Kallang progenitor data is unavailable since Moulmein-Kallang was carved out of Tanjong Pagar and Jalan Besar. Tanjong Pagar was uncontested and Jalan Besar no longer exists. In addition, I have included a column to show the change in the PAP's average vote share across elections.

Table 2. Comparing changes in PAP vote shares. Larger image here.

In every constituency under study (except Sembawang and Moulmein-Kallang), the drop in the PAP's vote share has exceeded the drop in the PAP's vote share in the progenitor GRC. It has also exceeded the drop in the average PAP vote share across elections. Most striking is the divergence seen in Sengkang West, which experienced a drop in PAP vote share by 8% while in contrast, its progenitor GRC of Ang Mo Kio actually improved in its PAP vote share by 3.2%.

In the case of Sengkang West, the large divergence in PAP vote share between Sengkang West and its progenitor is unlikely to be due to the GSE. It is far more likely due to the fact that Ang Mo Kio is helmed by PM Lee Hsien Loong. Similarly, the divergence for Punggol East may be explained by the presence of heavyweight Teo Chee Hean in progenitor Pasir Ris-Punggol. On an opposite note, Moulmein-Kallang's poor performance for the PAP in 2011 may be more attributable to the presence of Yaacob Ibrahim (Orchard Road floods) and Lui Tuck Yew (hardly a ray of sunshine, see here).

For the remaining 2 constituencies, it is more difficult to reject the presence of the GSE. Khaw Boon Wan helms Sembawang GRC. Notwithstanding his $8 gaffe, he is still one of the PAP's more popular and stalwart politicians. Yet Sembawang fared poorly relative to the fall in the PAP's average vote share in this election (-12.8% vs -6.5%). This is an unexpected result which I interpret as the GSE exerting itself. For Pioneer SMC, I can't think of major reasons for the larger than expected fall in vote share except for the possibility that Pioneer is demographically much different from its progenitor, West Coast GRC. Again, I think the GSE could have exerted itself here.

Table 3 below summarizes the foregoing discussion in assessing the GSE. I have included a column showing which opposition parties contested in each constituency for GE 2011. Note that Sembawang and Pioneer, which I flagged as having a high likelihood of GSE, were contested by SDP and NSP respectively. The WP was the big opposition party winner in this election, presumably due to their branding, as surmised by Yawning Bread. So, we can exclude the "WP effect" from explaining the large falls in PAP vote share these two constituencies. In addition, neither SDP nor NSP fielded their 'A' teams or top candidates in these constituencies as well, so candidate differences should be muted.

Table 3. Likelihood of GSE and possible explanations. Larger image here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Voting along municipal lines: Penny-wise, Pound Foolish

I have never accepted the logic behind voting along municipal lines in Singapore. Never.

For many years, one of the main reasons that Singaporeans have given for not voting for opposition party candidates is that the quality of candidates standing in their constituencies has been poor. And the quality of opposition party candidates has indeed been generally poor for much of Singapore's history.

Even Singaporeans disgruntled with the PAP frequently vote for the PAP when they perceive that opposition party candidates in their constituencies are inferior in breeding, credentials or capability compared to PAP candidates, which is often. I expect this election to be no different.

On the surface, this would make perfect sense. After all, who wants a doofus to represent them in Parliament? How could a clown the likes of many opposition party politicians effectively champion the interests of their constituents, particularly in a PAP-dominated parliament that is known to place Singaporeans in opposition wards last?

To me, however, this is missing the point entirely. Think of the last 5, 10 years. What issues have impacted your life the most? What have your heaviest concerns been about? What are the root causes of your worries, your angsts, and the things that keep you up late at night?

Almost without exception, I think I can state categorically that the most immediate concerns of most Singaporeans stem from issues related to national policies implemented in the last 10 years. These policies heavily impact important issues such as the cost of living, housing, influx of foreigners, income inequality, unemployment, health care, retirement and education.

In Singapore, the PAP designs and implements all major policies that govern the lives of Singaporeans. These are NATIONAL policies. In this country, national policies impact your life the most, and they have far-reaching effects on you, your family and your children.

These policies are more important than whether your MP can successfully petition for public funds to be spent in your constituency on playgrounds, covered walkways, refurbished wet markets and other matters that I deem of little consequence. Even the value of your property (if you own one) is dictated more by decisions made at the national level, e.g. zoning and land use planning done by the URA, or transportation infrastructure planned by the LTA.

If you feel hard done in by the PAP's policies, and practically every middle-class or lower income Singaporean is a victim on some level or in some aspect of their life, but you vote PAP because you think that the opposition party candidates standing in your constituency "cannot make it", then you are shooting yourself in the foot. You are being penny-wise, but pound foolish.

Realistically speaking, the PAP will still form the next government after this election due to the preponderance of their vote-share. That means they will still get to appoint all the cabinet ministers and still get to set all national policies.

This election is not about forming a new government. It is a referendum on the policies set by the present government. If you can't stomach the thought of voting in that unknown MP wannabe from the opposition in your constituency, think of it not as him representing your interests, but as him a visible signal of your displeasure with the PAP and how they must change their policies for the benefit of all Singaporeans.

All of the above would be true even if the quality of all opposition candidates was uniformly poor. But that is not true today. Today, the quality of many opposition candidates is as good, if not better, than the PAP candidates.

Many Singaporeans are excited about the contest in Aljunied, and I dare say, envious. They are envious not because voters in Aljunied actually have a realistic chance of voting in opposition party politicians in this election, but because Aljunied voters are in an enviable position of having to pick between two credible teams vying for their vote. It is not a dilemma, as some fool of a PAP supporter pointed out. It is a lovely feeling to be courted. A feeling that unfortunately few Singaporeans can claim to have experienced.

If you live in a constituency that has credible opposition party candidates, and you are unhappy with the current government's policies, you have no excuse not to vote for the opposition party.

If you are like me, and you live in a constituency contested by opposition party candidates that lack credibility, you still have good reason to vote for the opposition if you have felt victimized by our current government's policies. As I have highlighted above, voting along municipal lines is a case of being penny-wise, pound foolish. The wiser decision would be to vote along party lines.

Related to this is the great fear, played up by the PAP and their sycophantic mainstream media, that voting in opposition party candidates is tantamount to inviting legislative gridlock.

First of all, as I have pointed out above, legislative gridlock is a dim possibility given that the PAP is unlikely to lose more than 50% of seats in parliament. They will likely still get to pass all the policies they want. In fact, they are likely to retain more than the two thirds majority required to change the constitution at will, the highest law in the land.

Secondly, and this is an important point that I have not seen anyone in the media or blogosphere make, from my perspective as an average Singaporean, I do not think that legislative gridlock is such a bad thing if the policies that would have resulted otherwise were to impact my life negatively.

The PAP's greatest claim to fame is their contribution to economic growth. But as is patently clear to anyone who has an operating brain cell, the fruits of economic growth in this country have not been shared evenly, just like their costs. With every gain, there is a concomitant cost. The impressive rate of economic growth in recent years looks considerably less impressive when one takes into account the increased stresses that all of us experience from the rising cost of living, yawning income gaps, longer working hours, angst over retirement, more foreigners and strained infrastructure.

With regard to economic growth, ask yourself this: cui bono? Then ask yourself, who has borne the bulk of the costs?

Net-net, do you genuinely think that you are better off today? You MUST know the answer to this question if you are to vote wisely.

As a Singaporean, the last thing that I want in a government are smart, ambitious, capable people working against my best interests. Gridlock would be preferable. As Warren Buffett once put it, "In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you."

Even though the opposition party candidates in my constituency are less than impressive, I value them for what they are and what they represent to the PAP, rather than what they can do for me. I may not think highly of them, but they disagree with current PAP policy and like every opposition party, it is part of their campaign platform. As an instrument to convey my displeasure, that will suffice for my vote, at least for now.