Another conversation? Hold that cynicism

In News Reports on May 19, 2018 at 1:41 am

And at the end of five days of parliamentary speeches, we are going to have…another conversation? I suppose we should wait for the details on how this coming conversation will be conducted before being consumed by cynicism.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, originator of the first conversation, said this second one will reach different age groups, such as millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Pioneers and different segments such as unionists, grassroots leaders and volunteer groups. I don’t suppose it will be much different in its conversation coverage, that is, it would include anyone and everyone. In fact, that 2012/13 exercise included 47,000 Singaporeans from over 40 private and non-profit organisations in over 660 dialogues. I think many might have forgotten we later had the smaller SGFuture dialogues a few years later, on imagining a Singapore in 50 years.

The eye-rolling has already started.

My eyeballs went up into my brain until I recalled that the Our Singapore Conversation wasn’t a bad exercise. Really. And it did culminate in tangible policy changes especially in housing, transport and healthcare. Rules allowing more singles to live in public housing, the change of PSLE format and the introduction of Medishield Life are some notable examples. The pity is that the G is quite bad at referencing the policies to what the people had said in the Our Singapore Conversation. Hence, the eye-rolling now about the prospect of another No action, Talk only exercise.

I covered that OSC exercise quite extensively and gave the final report a thumbs-up. Among other things, it included views which would ordinarily be confined to what has been described as the vocal minority, such as: “As citizens, we sometimes feel that the government could trust us more. At the end of the day, we may not always agree with the government’s decisions. But we would like to have more information to make an informed assessment and to arrive at conclusions of our own.’’

There were several calls for engagement and inclusivity, a compassionate meritocracy and how the nature of governance needed “updating’’, along with the “talents’’ and “temperaments’’ involved.  Singaporeans let it all hang out.

Will another conversation lead to more of the same sentiment? Or is the 4G leadership more concerned with the process of forging bonds through engagement, rather than its tangible results?

Looking back over events of the past two years or so, I have come round to thinking that such engagement would be good for the 4G leaders and the people. This is because recent events have rocked my Singaporean core (I can speak for myself only).

Here are some worries that run through my Gen X head:

  1. Effectiveness of the G: The recent public transport woes, while being addressed, has led to the perception that the G and its companies aren’t as efficient and top-class as they are made out to be. This, despite constant exhortations that Singapore should pursue excellence and exceptionalism.
  2. Vulnerability of the G: The FamiLEE saga has shaken sentiments about the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been accused by his own siblings of being, among other things, power hungry. He has chosen not to sue for defamation, which makes him an open target in elections.
  3. Temperament of the G: The recent Select Committee hearings on fake news proposals showed a G that tended not just to demolish arguments, but also to belittle people – a 1G practice.
  4. Opacity of the G: Information is still hard to come by, especially with the re-surfacing of the use of the Official Secrets Act and the way contempt of court laws are being selectively applied. And I still don’t understand why parliamentary proceedings can’t be broadcast live.
  5. Paucity of the G: This has to do with the talent induction process, with the parachuting of ex-military men into key positions. It gives rise to worries about the the small talent pool Singapore has and how big a part group-think plays in policy-making.
  6. Heavy-handedness of the G: This is my biggest beef – pushing through a race-based reserved presidency in Singapore. I will add though that the G could only do this because people were sleeping while the discussions were going on.

Now, the G is filled with intelligent people, and will have a counter-argument to every point made above.

  1. There are numerous indices which tout Singapore’s efficiency and so forth as Number 1. On balance, this is a good G.
  2. Parliament has no problems with PM Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, even if his siblings do.
  3. The G has a policy of robust replies to counter views that it believes to be wrong.
  4. Secrets are secrets, and contempt of court laws aren’t applied willy-nilly. The rule of the law must be upheld – to the letter.
  5. Judge not a man by his background but what he can bring to the table.
  6. An activist race policy is needed to maintain multi-racial harmony.

In any case, my list above will be viewed as out-of-touch with the sentiments of the so-called silent majority. They will be concerned with bread-and-butter issues, whether they will get a flat, have a job and have enough savings to retire on. This means that the G must make sure the Industry Transformation Maps are executed properly to create higher-paying jobs, calibrate taxes to bankroll future social spending, and have an immigrant policy that will top up – and not overwhelm – the Singapore.

In other words, delivering material goods and a higher standard of living are most important to the people.  This is true for my parents’ generation because they started from a low base, and even for my generation – but I would worry if the next generation only cares about scaling the material ladder when they are already living in plenty.

Signs are that the young people want a bigger say in how this country moves ahead.  This idealism should not be dampened. I don’t think that they want a G which talks down to them, and uses “trust’’ as a euphemism for “we know best’’. Nor would they be convinced by the constant public profiling of the G with its numerous G-commissioned surveys which almost always support the G position. There is such a thing as “too good to be true’’. But hey, that’s not the business of this Gen X-er. Let the millennials dictate the dialogue.

For myself, I would like to put my list behind me and open my mind to what the 4G leadership wants to achieve for Singapore. I welcome the next series of conversations because it will give a sense of what the young leaders stand for and how much of a break from the past we can expect.  Methinks we should all get behind the 4G leadership in starting a new relationship between the governed and the government

From reading the speeches, it is clear that the issue of social inequality and mobility will take centre stage. It is a big bone to chew on because it would involve every aspect of our lives – from how to give our less well-off children a good start to creating more spaces for social interaction.

I would hold Mr Heng to this promise in his speech: “The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

Let the conversation begin.





The flat is old – but gold to me

In News Reports on May 14, 2018 at 11:47 pm

I will be moving back into my mother’s flat soon. It is a five-room HDB flat, where I had spent most of my growing-up years. It is also more than 40 years old, one of among 7 per cent of all flats here.

When I brought renovation contractors to the house, they wondered at the pristine condition of the walls and floor tiles. They advised me not to replace the original terrazzo flooring, because such tiles weren’t available anymore. They even suggested retaining the more than 20-year old carpentry works in the three bedrooms, again, because you can’t find such high-quality work anymore. I almost wondered if they wanted my business.

It helps that my mother is a house-proud neat freak, possessive of every single item in the flat. Many people have urged her to sell, especially some years ago when such big flats in mature estates commanded a hefty premium. She used to show me flyers from real estate agents on how much flats like hers had sold for, and who among the neighbours had made a killing selling their flats.

I have never taken her suggestion to sell seriously, even as she painted visions of moving into a smaller flat which would be easier to house-keep. I didn’t think she would be comfortable in a different neighbourhood at this late stage of her life. She is, after all, the doyen of the block, an original resident who had moved in as soon as the flat was ready for occupation in the 70s.

Of course, my mother now grumbles about how the flat price is going down and evinces some regret at not moving out earlier and buying a second, new, BTO flat. After all, that’s how most people are “rolling’’ their HDB homes.

Flat prices are a big theme in Singapore now, as people wake up to the fact that a 99-year lease isn’t forever and that such homes would lose their asset value or even be seen as an encumbrance in the upgrading race.

I wondered at all the angst that surrounded the March announcement that not all old HDB blocks would undergo the selective enbloc resale (SERS) process to be torn down and rebuilt. Only 4 per cent or 80 sites have been picked so far, we’re told, and the G has warned people not to buy old flats with the expectation of getting a windfall under Sers – and a new replacement flat in the same area.

It is the HDB version of speculators who buy units in condominiums with enbloc potential, except that while these speculators can actually start the ball rolling with sales committees and so forth, the HDB speculators are at the mercy of the G.

I laughed when I read about how people peruse maps to locate possible blocks which could undergo Sers as an investment opportunity. Did they think this is like one of those HDB programmes where there is a commitment that blocks will have a lift that stops on every floor, or upgraded toilets? It is not an automatic programme, not even for three-room flats.

Methinks there is too much confusion surrounding the concept of a home in Singapore.  In the early days, we were told that a home-owning society will have more reason to care for the shelter they possess and hence, the land. We’ve more or less succeeded in that objective.

But very soon after, home ownership became an investment asset, to be sold after the five-year moratorium to afford its owners some extra money to jump to the next bigger, subsidized flat or into private property.

Then came the upgrading programmes which we’re told would increase the asset value of our homes. In the meantime, there were the former HUDC flats which meant another windfall for residents who banded together to sell en bloc. Prices went up and up.  In 1995, Sers came along.

The home is such an asset that it can be pledged as part of the CPF minimum sum. More recently, the call has been to the elderly to unlock the value of their flat by downgrading or selling back part of the remaining lease to the HDB – which won’t garner much income if they have been living in the same place all their lives.

Singapore University of Social Sciences labour economist Walter Theseira was reported in ST  as suggesting a halt in the use of CPF savings for home purchases. It caused a furore but it transpired that what he had suggested was a re-calibration, with a greater focus on health and retirement needs.

Then yesterday, the issue became the main plank of an MP who spoke in response to the President’s Address in Parliament. People’s Action Party’s Cheryl Chan, whose Fengshan ward is full of old flats, suggested that flat valuation be based not on comparing past market transactions but on “its remaining lease, length of time occupied by current owner, and its right-sizing potential”. This will enable older homeowners to unlock their cash, right-size (or downsize) to a smaller unit, and move nearer to their children if they prefer.

She also suggested that the loan structure using CPF, now available to members up to age 55, be reviewed.

Stopping the use of CPF for housing would be politically controversial, to put it mildly. But re-designing the loan system, shortening the loan period or capping the amount that could be drawn from CPF are ideas to be explored. The final result may mean more time must pass before a household owns a home but I doubt there are many other countries where residents get to be home owners when they are only in their 20s, or when they get married. We’re lucky that way.

Here’s a thought: besides systemic changes, we might want to build a culture where the house is not seen as an investment opportunity but as a home. This might come about if home ownership is not so easy to achieve. Renting shouldn’t be a bad word, especially in the early years of working life. We might treasure a property more if we took longer to get it. (I will now take cover…)

These days, you see all sorts of advice online on when to sell your flat before it loses its value and which old flats are still commanding high prices. Young people balk at buying old flats now because of their low resale value. Older folk wonder if the flat will be as good an inheritance to leave for their children as they had thought.

The schemes to unlock the home, like the lease buyback, applies to three-room and smaller flats, allowing people to age “in place’’. This doesn’t apply to my mother’s five-room flat, but she can opt for a smaller flat and get a Silver Housing bonus or she can rent out a room.

I persuaded my mother that neither option worked. She would have to give away precious possessions collected over 40 years if she moved into a smaller place. And she would be uncomfortable with a tenant in the house.

Besides, I wanted the flat for myself.

It’s old, yes, but it’s in a neighbourhood I grew up in and it’s bigger than my own flat. In any case, the lease would outlive me and whoever I leave the flat to shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Still, I wait to see what the G will say to the problem of old flats, like whether we can hope for an increase in value. Then I can thumb my nose at those who think I’m throwing away good money after bad by spending on renovations.

But even if nothing happens, it’s still home to me.

That’s the most important thing.


Takeaways from the Malaysian GE

In News Reports on May 11, 2018 at 12:58 am

So the Malaysians have spoken. And we should congratulate them…for what exactly? That they have effected a change of government? That’s not really our business. Or that they have managed it peacefully through the electoral process?

It’s easy to be caught up in the Malaysia Boleh frenzy of the past 48 hours or so, to look admiringly at the chanting and clamour and to get absorbed in the twists and turns that led to the swearing-in ceremony of Dr Mahathir Mohammad as Malaysia’s comeback prime minister. So exciting! Even inspiring! Historic! Epochal!

At the back of our minds, there is this little voice which asks: “Can the same thing happen here?’’ I have no doubt at all that the Malaysian example will inspire the opposition politicians and supporters here to up the ante in the run-up to Singapore’s own general election due by January 2021. In fact, the 3G to 4G changeover in the G presents an opportunity for the opposition to call in the votes, because by the 4G leaders’ own admission, they haven’t earned the right to lead.

But I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There are other significant takeaways from the Malaysian GE, beyond demonstrating that a political party that has been in power since 1957 can be felled at the ballot box.

  1. If voter discontent is widespread, no amount of re-drawing of boundaries or denial of political party registration because of “lack of documentation’’ is going to help the incumbent.
  2. Implementing fake news laws, especially right before an election, isn’t going to intimidate people into sticking with politically correct speech and behavior. In any case, the campaign period is too short for any executive or judicial intervention to sway the votes.
  3.  Racial politics is not bigger than national politics. I am guessing here that Malaysians of all races were more upset at the IMDB scandal which had reached the international stage, than tempted by any appeal to racial loyalty.
  4. That populist promises, such as the abolition of the Goods and Services tax, the re-introduction of fuel subsidies and the rise in minimum wages, might have something to do with the opposition’s win. Perhaps, they counted for more than the money that the BN was throwing at different segments such as the civil service.

What I found interesting also is what happened post-election, that is, the frantic hours before Dr M was sworn in, particularly the reading of the Federal Constitution, the role of Malaysian royalty and members of the establishment.

It seems clear that the institutions of the State weren’t prepared for the scenario of the BN actually losing. Hence, some people hit the books and came up with Article 43 of the federal constitution which  states “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) shall first appoint as perdana menteri (prime minister) to preside over the cabinet a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgement is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House”.

The constitution makes no mention of political parties or political coalitions, allowing ex-premier Najib Razak to report initially that the polls have resulted in a “hung’’ Parliament. By his reading, it should be Madam Wan Azizah heading the government because her Parti Rakyat Keadilan  had the most number of seats, or the Barisan National could still entice some elected MPs to switch-over to its side. It was not to be.  The PKR and the three parities behind the Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Dr M made sure that they threw their support behind Dr M. They cited “the letter of the law’’.

This is when the cynic in me wondered why Mr Najib didn’t consider the step of changing the constitution while he was still in charge to ensure his longevity. Or why he didn’t get his legal team to get all legalistic over constitutional interpretation. I suppose he decided that even if the “letter’’ of the law was in his favour, its spirit was not, as the people of Malaysia had demonstrated.

The Malaysian royalty, always a political force to be reckoned with, had to come out to deny that it was delaying Dr M’s swearing-in. The royals and Dr M have had a rocky relationship, with Dr M trying his utmost to clip their wings in his previous tenure as PM.

The King and the sultans are a foundational pillar in the country. Their roles are largely ceremonial, but highly influential. Who knows what would have happened if they dragged their feet given such a split in the vote. It made me wonder about similar foundational pillars in Singapore. Would this be akin to the “unifying’’ role of the elected president should the country be placed in a similar position?

What was intriguing was the role three people seemed to have played in tipping the royal scales in favour of Dr M. The Straits Times reported that the Chief Secretary of Government, Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, who heads the civil service, Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Fuzi Harun and a senior member of the Armed Forces met with the King to impress on him the need to get Dr M sworn in quickly.

Are our institutions similarly independent enough to hold the line to see to the fulfilment of the people’s wishes? The answer must be yes.

But while the Malaysian election offered some insights on the workings of democracy, as citizens of a sovereign country, we should be more concerned with what the change happening in our next-door neighbor means for us.

This phrase pops into my mind – better the devil we know, than the devil we don’t – except that we’ve had some bilateral experience with Dr M’s leadership. We must hope that our 4G leaders are up to the challenge of handling our neighbor, and ensuring that our national interests are protected. They must keep in mind that they are dealing with a  man from the Lee Kuan Yew era – even if he is 92 and is going to be prime minister for just two years.