Singapore Armchair Critic

A blog about politics and policies in Singapore and beyond

Category: Others

FTA Negotiations: A Black Box?

At the time of writing, Taiwan students have occupied their legislature for 14 days; on Sunday 30 March, hundreds of thousands flocked to the streets of Taipei in support of the Sunflower Movement led by students (see photos here). Citizens have also crowdfunded full-page advertisements (see image below) in the International New York Times.

1396043401_4AM Democracy artwork-final 530x337 due


What triggered the movement was the ruling party Kuomintang’s (KMT) attempt to unilaterally ratify a service trade agreement with mainland China, breaking its earlier promise to allow a parliamentary review of the agreement. Fearing that the trade pact would increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, whose ultimate aim is to “reunify” Taiwan as part of its territory, students have demanded that President Ma Ying-jeou retract the trade pact and introduce a mechanism to monitor the nation’s agreements with China. Continue reading…

Government Acknowledges Wealth Disparity in Singapore

Cherry-picking among the basket of 160 goods and services used in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) 2014 survey, finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam argues that the survey, which ranks Singapore as the world’s most expensive city, does not measure cost of living for an “ordinary local.”

Ahhh I see, Minister. Thank you for enlightening us “ordinary” Singaporeans, who not only have plebeian tastes and neither consume imported cheese, filet mignon nor don “Burberry-type raincoats,” but also lack the intelligence to understand that Singapore’s rocketing cost of living as measured by EIU does not affect us commoners.

The government spin reminds me of the infamous episode in which a Minister was questioned in parliament about the adequacy of social handouts and his idea of “subsistence living.” He snapped at his fellow PAP member of parliament: “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” Continue reading…

Healthcare Funding in Budget 2014: Government Spending vs. Private Spending

In my earlier blogpost on healthcare funding, I highlighted that our government spending on healthcare is the lowest among the advanced economies in East Asia and Scandinavia, including Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

The chart below shows that Singapore government spending on healthcare is only 36% of total healthcare spending. Take note that our Medisave monies spent on health are not counted as out-of-pocket spending.


(Data sources: WHO Data ObservatoryTaiwan & Hong Kong). Note that Medisave is not counted as out-of-pocket spending in the Singapore figure.

In the 2013 Budget Speech, the 2013 National Day Rally Speech and the 2014 Budget Speech, the government has repeatedly indicated that it will look into reducing individual out-of-pocket expenditure on health and increase state spending on health. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in last Friday’s Budget Speech that “Government healthcare spending for the population as a whole will grow, quite apart from the extra benefits we are providing the Pioneer Generation.”

However, the Budget Speech gives no indication on how much government healthcare spending may increase as a percentage of the total healthcare bill, vis-à-vis private health expenditure including individual out-of-pocket expenses, Medisave payment and insurance. Continue reading…

2014 New Year’s Resolutions: My Wishlist for PAP

Two Harvard professors are teaching an online course “Unlocking the immunity to change” that supposedly helps us stick to our new year’s resolutions. According to the professors, we often fail to keep to our resolutions because we have sought to change our behavior while failing to address a conflicting mindset problem. They cite an illuminating example:

Somebody wants to be more collaborative. They recognize they are not really listening to people, they cut people off, they insert their own ideas, and so on. So they try to be better listeners, but they can’t. Why? What’s happening is they need to be in control. They need to be the person who is kind of the big cheese. They need to be the person who is getting the credit. They really do have the goal to be collaborative, but at the very same time they have this goal which is to be the person who is getting all of the credit and having it go their way.

Sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Continue reading…

Whose History? Whose Truth?

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Many of us would be familiar with this poem in various versions attributed to Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent Protestant pastor who openly spoke out against Hitler. The poem criticizes those who remained silent and therefore, were complicit in the Nazi atrocities, but it also speaks of the usual tactics of a repressive regime, which ruthlessly purges its “enemies” and critics one by one. The end result is a regime that reigns supreme over a docile and fearful population cowed into silence. Continue reading…

From Harrying Long-Haired Men to Embracing Casinos

In 1984, Japanese musician Kitaro canceled his two sold-out shows in Singapore one day before the scheduled date. Defying Singapore immigration’s order to chop off his tresses as a condition for entering the country, Kitaro coolly hopped on the next flight back to Narita with his entourage of band and crew in tow.

Recalled the New Age musician,

…when I went through immigration, they were like, Kitaro, please come over here, you have a problem. You cannot enter with long hair. They said, “If you would like to enter Singapore, you will have to cut your hair.” I said, “I don’t want to cut my hair, so I would like to cancel the concert.”

Kitaro was not the only casualty of our government’s revulsion at long-haired males. Back in the 1970s, Cliff Richard, Robert Plant and others also suffered the indignity of being turned away at the Singapore immigration. Some complied to get in.

Ludicrous as it may sound, this insane policy was enforced from the 1970s because our holier-than-thou government had equated long-haired males with gangsters and morally depraved persons who had succumbed to the undesirable influence of the western hippie culture. Continue reading…

Good Surveys, Bad Surveys: How to Tell the Difference


(Image by Andrew Low)

Are you perturbed by the findings of a flurry of opinion polls published recently  in the mainstream media?

To cite a few: a Nielsen survey says about 70% of Singapore consumers are “unfazed” by the increases in food prices; a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies finds a staggering 98.5% agreeing that National Service is necessary; 94% of commuters say they would give up their seat to those who need it more…

If you are puzzled why you consistently turn out to be the minority 30% or 1.5% that is out of sync with the rest of the population, fret not.

The problem may not lie with you but the survey itself. Continue reading…

Compassion Deficit: Singapore Ruling Elite’s Attitude towards the Poor

Hong Kong has a hugely popular reality television show that invites the city’s yuppies and tycoons to experience the life of the underclass. For a few days, affluent participants of “The Battle of the Poor Rich” (窮富翁大作戰) had a taste of the daily struggles of the homeless, the sweeper, the garbage collector, the eatery helper, and the single mother etc. trying to stay afloat in one of Asia’s most expensive cities.

(Cantonese with Chinese subtitles).

In one episode, a power broker spent barely a few hours collecting garbage before he asked the show’s producer to give him a less tedious job. Another young businessman who gamely took up the challenge of sleeping on the streets and earning his keep, shed tears of frustration when he lost his job as a eatery helper after working half a day. Continue reading…

Foreign Workers Policy and New Employment Rules

As if voting for the passage of the controversial Population White Paper is not enough, some of our PAP MPs would jump at any opportunity to urge a rethinking of the “tightening” of our ultra-liberal foreign workers policy.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, also Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development, had this to say of the collapsed ceiling at JEM that injured three:

Every time a contractor renews work permit for their workers, they face some difficulties and therefore keep changing staff. That could mean we don’t have experienced engineers or inspectors. The government should really look into this (emphases mine).

Now what “experienced” engineers and inspectors are employed by work permit, a category which now curiously includes S pass by MOM’s definition, and only requires a monthly salary of SGD2,200 to qualify? Continue reading…

How Meritocracy Entrenches Inequality

In a move that took many industry players by surprise, American regulators recently opened a probe on the hiring practice of JPMorgan Chase in China. Ongoing investigation seeks to establish if the investment bank’s recruitment of the offspring of high-ranking and influential Chinese officials aka “princelings” – one of whom is the son of a former banking regulator, the other the daughter of a now-disgraced railway official – was a quid pro quo for coveted business deals, prohibited under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

What’s the fuss about, you may wonder. Isn’t the hiring of relatives of powerful politicians and well-connected persons of that ilk a time-tested and pervasive practice that extends far beyond China?

Going a step further, you may even, like New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, defend such hiring decisions in a matter-of-factly manner:

… given that many of the children of the elite have some of the best educations and thriving networks of contacts, it is hard to see how businesses are supposed to not seek them out, let alone turn them away. As hard to defend as the phrase may be, it is a reality of life, “It’s not what you know, but whom you know.” Continue reading…

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