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Category: Society

Government correspondence

On 3 February, I sent this inquiry to the National Population and Talent Division:


I am writing to inquire if the division has done any work evaluating the effectiveness and possible shortcomings of the measures recently proposed to arrest the plummeting TFR. Although the measures have been well-documented and relentlessly advertised to the public, the division has not released any serious analysis of these measures.

What are the chances that the M&P package will succeed in reversing the downward TFR trend? What are some of its potential shortcomings? Has the division considered any alternative policies to those ultimately implemented?

Thank you for your time,

Hou Shihang

They finally replied on 29 April. You can determine for yourself if their response was helpful in any way.

Dear Mr Hou,

Thank you for your email.

2.            The Government is committed to providing a pro-family environment that will support Singaporeans in getting married and having children.  In January 2013, we announced enhancements to our Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) Package, which seeks to strengthen the pro-family environment, and address some of the practical concerns Singaporeans face.  In developing our marriage and parenthood measures, we have drawn on suggestions made by Singaporeans during the consultation period from 28 Jun to 31 Oct 2012.  In total, we received more than 800 pieces of feedback on marriage and parenthood issues.  We also engaged various stakeholders such as community organisations and employers as well as the members of the public.  These feedback have helped to shape our policy enhancements.

3.            Besides public feedback, we have also looked at the experiences of various countries, and studied their approaches in improving birth rates.  In June 2012, we published an Occasional Paper titled Marriage & Parenthood Trends in Singapore which highlighted some of the key learning points we had garnered.  In addition, in January 2013, we released findings from the Marriage and Parenthood Study 2012.  This study surveyed a total of 4,646 respondents aged 21 to 45 years old, to understand the attitudes and motivations behind Singapore residents’ marriage and parenthood trends.  In reviewing our measures, we have taken into account some of the learning points highlighted in the Occasional Paper and the Marriage and Parenthood Study. (These can be found at the NPTD website

4.            The M&P Package has provided significant support to many families in their marriage and parenthood journeys.  Since the introduction of the M&P Package in 2001, the measures have benefitted the families of about 350,000 children.  Moreover, the measures within the M&P package have been well-received and appreciated by parents.  For example, the Marriage and Parenthood Study 2012 found that maternity leave and the Baby Bonus cash gift were the top two policies that would most likely persuade married respondents to have children or to have more children.  Also, in the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Perception of Policies Survey on the 2008 M&P package conducted in 2010, 53% of the married couples surveyed said that the M&P Package has made it conducive for them to have children.  69% said that the Baby Bonus scheme would influence couples like themselves to have children.

5.            Beyond Government measures to help raise our TFR, we recognise the need to shape mindsets and foster a pro-family culture.  In this area, society at large has a role to play in shaping positive mindsets towards marriage and parenthood and to encourage Singaporeans to put families first and celebrate family life.  We will continue to work with our partners in this regard, including employers, people sector organisations and other community groups, to promote the importance of family, and to encourage Singaporeans to consider family as central to our life choices and sense of fulfilment.

6.            As with all other policies, we will review the measures in the Marriage and Parenthood Package from time to time, and we will continue to study ideas and suggestions from the public.

7.            Thank you and have a good week ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Kiang Kai Lun (Mr)

Executive (Marriage & Parenthood Policy Directorate)

National Population and Talent Division

Prime Minister’s Office


Not out of ideas 1: Civil servants on hamster wheels

Wow. I got an email today from someone commenting on a couple of suggestions I wrote up a little less than 2 years ago. I think they hold up pretty well, I mean. It was written in the wake of the 2011 general election, so some of the more topical suggestions may not be so biting, but given that the government has not implemented ANY of my suggestions (come on, people), I think it’s far to reiterate my call for a better Singapore.



A Manifesto for a Better Singapore

Or the only way left is up.

“Truffles steamed and served in diluted Milo taste like shit”. – Yeap Choon How

Anybody with half a brain can see that our government is delivering us to hell in a hand basket, knocking on the gates of Pandemonium, and personally hand-delivering a message to Satan asking him to bugger us repeatedly with a pitchfork. Sometimes they try to convince us that we are not actually headed to hell; we are actually on a trip to Disneyland, or a Justin Bieber concert! Sometimes, they don’t even bother and just tell us that we’re going to see the Satan and if we complain, we’re terrible terrible people. Either way, we generally tend to obediently nod, bend over and take off our trousers.
Not anymore. This manifesto outlines a suite of policies that offers a real alternative that promises equal opportunities for all by sharing the fruit (not fruits, dullard) of our prosperity in this period of uncertainty.

Welfare: Transforming the civil service
One thing the PAP says over and over again is that Singaporeans are self-reliant. The second thing the PAP says is that in this period of uncertainty, Singaporeans definitely need strong government to weather the storm. The third thing the PAP says is that we should stop slouching, remember to wee-wee if we really need to and take breaths at regular intervals.
This party avoids this contradiction: we do not believe that Singaporeans are self-reliant at all. A truly democratic government listens to its people, and our people are saying that they want money. Hence, we propose that we give a lot of money to a lot of people, as (1) they need it, and (2) we want to be re-elected. We promise to be responsible about this money, and propose that we pay for this hand-out by eliminating all civil servant and MP pay, reducing carbon-dependent energy by 20%, and buying a lot of hamster wheels connected to electric generators. About as many hamster wheels as there are civil servants and MPs in the country. We finally have a use for the party whip.
We are all in this together. Civil servants, the dedicated servants of the country they are, are happy to sacrifice some of the benefits they have enjoyed in the past to power the country through these uncertain times. The reason we choose our beloved and well-respected civil servants for this task is comparative advantage. After all, they do have company gyms and fruit vouchers. We reassure our civil servants that their beloved hierarchy of power will be preserved in this new arrangement: the hamster wheels will differ in size and build.
Our party is committed to developing local talent for careers in the civil service, but we are arguably more committed to giving people money in exchange for votes. We justify this using a utilitarian ethic: giving a lot people a lot of money generates more net happiness than giving some students too much money. The civil service must not be afraid of change. It must develop capabilities, foster mindshare and maximise value-add. Hamster wheels are an indispensable part of the civil service of the future.

The Singaporean Conversation

As an immigrant, I have been rather taken aback from the viciousness and anger expressed against foreign workers in the aftermath of the bus drivers’ strike. In the comments left under the Straits Times article reporting the incident, some netizens turned to full-blooded attack, calling the drivers cockroaches, dogs, and demanding that they be sacked so the next batch of cheap labour can continue running their city’s transport system.

It was a terrible thing. The recent turn towards xenophobia is just another example of a strange trend in Singapore: the rhetoric is getting more heated, the debate more vociferous and the “vocal minority” more clamorous. Sometimes it just looks like bullying to me. But this, I am told by reliable sources, is the result of a political awakening, an unfortunate side-effect of the realisation that Singaporeans don’t really like the smelly foreigners and their strange ways, and more importantly, the government and their foreigner-importing ways. Whereas in the past they might just make a private joke about how all Indians have dark skin or how the Chinese have silly accents, now they are making it very clear that they don’t like it very much and the foreigners should lump it. In an essay by my friend Yoong Ren Yan titled “Against reform: a call to arms“, he refers to the intensifying of the debate as Singaporeans “[dusting] off their collective docility”.

To be fair, the xenophobia is not my main point here (my thoughts about it here). Rather it is the strange way public discourse in Singapore has developed. Ren Yan is by no means a fire-breathing revolutionary. His position is simply that a mildly repressive and at times explicitly aggressive regime cannot be taken to be the chief authority in its own reform. Shaking his spear and donning his armour, he declares “We are not feedback-bots at the service of a benign arbiter-government. We are millions of independent minds making considered judgements about what our nation should stand for.” He calls for a public space independent of the government.

To this end, the emergence of the internet has been an immeasurable boon to dissenters (or grumblers) everywhere. Instead of complaining to a few friends in a coffee shop, the chronically angry can now express their distress on TR Emeritus or the Online Citizen. Critical bloggers and satirists like Yawning Bread and Mr. Brown are reaching more people than ever. Even those who cannot be arsed to construct a coherent argument can express their prejudices in a poorly spelt comment left under a news article or on their preferred social network.

It is fair to say that the internet has been a great boon to the opposition in Singapore (in this case, not only the political parties but the coalition of voters standing against the PAP), in part because it is not a medium that can be shut down by Lee Kuan Yew delivering a thinly veiled threat that he will break the writer’s neck. Whether it is a good reflection of what the people really think is another. (Like all opposition parties, Singapore’s are happy to pretend to be speaking for the common man when in fact there is no proof that this is true.) In an (unremarkable) article (I cannot seem to find it online yet) in the Straits Times (Online voices equals vox populi?, December 22 2012), Leslie Koh makes this point by calling the rigorous opposition community “a small but vocal group” that is set against “a silent majority”.

Here is the thing. I do not think Leslie Koh knows what the silent majority thinks. Neither does the opposition. Mr. Koh’s article is not backed up by any evidence at all, and in the absence of it, we can discount what he says. As for the claims made by the dissenters (for an example, see Yawning Bread’s “Singapore has changed; will the PAP change too“), explicit evidence, the 2011 GE results seem to suggest that at any rate over 60% of Singaporeans prefer the government’s beliefs to theirs. It is obviously fair to suggest that Singapore has its fair share of unfair election rules but to suggest they lead to majorities where the PAP has beat out their nearest rivals, WP, by almost a million votes is an astounding claim that requires more than speculation.

It seems to me that the crux of the problem is that no one really knows anything about what Singaporeans think. Or more precisely, we know what they think, but we do not how to respond because we do not know who thinks it, whether many think it and how the opinion was formed. This is a shame, because undoubtedly this information is necessary for a national “conversation”. For both sides, it will be good to know how the public stands and where the divides between the positions are. It will also give us a way to move beyond the state of the debate, which has mostly consisted of declaring one’s point with force and claiming that the other side does not know where it is at.

However, the people that should be most interested in telling people what they think is the public themselves, for it gives them voice like they never have had. This is a problem that is relatively unique to the Singaporean political scene: a lingering wariness of entering public discourse (preferring instead to make sharp remarks in the company of friends), a monopolistic press that is seen to serve as a mouthpiece for the government and a vocal online presence that is often discounted as a boisterous minority.

This is why I believe that it is time to introduce the practice of political polling into Singapore. It is a practice that is common in many countries, most prominently in the USA where politicians, who really need to be responsive to the changes in the electorate, and the press, hungry for more points of interest to report, have led to the flourishing of an independent polling industry.

It is hence not very inexplicable that there is no similar industry here; rather the surveys that are conducted are the work of local academics and statistics organisations. For one, it is unclear whether the market in Singapore is deep enough to support a natural polling organisation, given its small population. But more importantly, polls largely do not reflect anything very crucial. The PAP has such a comfortable lead that it really does not need to be very sensitive to feedback. In such a position, knowing more about what people think may simply be embarrassing rather than illuminating, which is why the PAP was happy enough to grade itself and submit its own scorecard. Similarly, I believe that polling will give the opposition similar uncomfortable truths about the popularity of its positions.

Given the way our Singapore Conversation is going, I think it is a good time to bring in the awareness of the greater picture and the attention to specifics a well-conducted poll can bring. For example, on the Singapore Conversation webpage, Ace Kay shares this sentiment: “bring back the Kampong spirit where people from all races and religions congregate and share their joy”. While it is a nice sentiment, I doubt this is the sort of feedback that will lead to effective change and a greater understanding of the policy preferences of Singaporeans. It is further unclear whether bringing back the Kampong spirit is something many people want. I for one am not too keen. We have no way of telling if it is simply the wish of the village idiot or the wishes of the greater part of the population.

In conclusion, the lack of an authoritative understanding of the thinking of Singaporeans on the whole and in context is one reason why to date we have been finding our political awakening loud, sometimes frankly offensive, and largely confused. The establishment of the practice of polling in Singapore can help to solve these issues, and if done consistenty can become a good reflection of the political views of Singaporeans. But for these firms to survive, they need patronage, and it is difficult to see what can support it at the present. Ultimately, the information will be of greatest value to the politicians themselves (if they have anything on the line at all), but also to websites that are interested in Singapore politics (The Online Citizen) and a competitive press that can use the data to editorialise and lead discussion more effectively. Until an effective ecosystem grows, it is difficult to see how polling can be supported (and supported it must be, as it must constantly pass judgment on the goings-on of government, not only when the government sees fit to listen to it), but this does not mean that it is not necessary and helpful to the country’s growing self-awareness.

The conservative dream

Krugman has published an article titled “The GOP’s Existential Crisis“, in which he theorises that the Republican leadership’s inability to make a counter-offer to President Obama is a sign of a lack of direction after the disintegration of the conservative dream of dismantling the welfare state:

“Since the 1970s, the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the welfare state — that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society… [Conservatives thought that] the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely. Just eight years ago, Grover Norquist, the antitax activist, looked forward cheerfully to the days when Democrats would be politically neutered: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”

O.K., you see the problem: Democrats didn’t go along with the program, and refused to give up…And look at where we are now in terms of the welfare state: far from killing it, Republicans now have to watch as Mr. Obama implements the biggest expansion of social insurance since the creation of Medicare.

So Republicans have suffered more than an election defeat, they’ve seen the collapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they literally have no idea what they want — hence their inability to make specific demands.

It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.”

Undoubtedly this is an interesting theory, but it will be more interesting to see how it can be justified. Krugman is sounding conspiratorial (as he occasionally does when talking about Republicans) in mentioning a “conservative dream”. Who holds this dream? How was it organised and just how close were they to succeeding? For the way Krugman puts it, it is a plot every bit as subversive as the Russian revolution  but seemingly far more cunning. If it is actually a thing that exists, I’d like to see books in the future about the failed conservative putsch of the late 20th century.

Automated reply to your question about globalisation

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So when companies like Wal-Mart bring their logistics ability to Africa, it actually could be a good thing for the poor people of Africa?

Cowen: It’s exactly what we need more of. Yes.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Yet there’s a fear Wal-Mart will put the smaller stores out of business.

Cowen: Yes, they do so sometimes, but they do so by charging lower prices. It makes it more accessible and more reliable. It’s not just the pricing at any one point and time. It’s what happens in the very worst periods. Companies like Wal-Mart are very, very good at keeping up supply and being regular.

This is a pretty standard reply from economists when quizzed about the devastation of local industries by foreign businesses, but I wonder if anyone knows whether anyone has looked into it more. (Recommendations welcome.) Because while I do not doubt that Walmart is able to procure and ship things with great efficiency, I do wonder what the effects of the crowding out of local businesses are and whether the cost justifies lower prices. While the possible things to do in an economy are theoretically infinite, what is immediately available to people with little skill, low literacy and poor infrastructure is finite. So after Walmart has come in to do the retailing, Nike has wiped out the shoe weavers, HSBC comes and takes away the retail banking business etc., there is less room for local entrepreneurs, and hence, a lack of employment opportunities for the local population. I have read at least one history mentioning this as one of the reasons why the privatisation of Russia had such devastating impact in the 90s.

Economists have been using this line for ages, but governments still seem to distrust this advice, perhaps for good reason: employment and sustainable local industries are important to a state that wishes not to be utterly dependent on foreign companies with powerful relations overseas (the exertion of British pressure to protect British lenders from default in Iceland?). In other words, governments do not like simply being additions to a company’s resources: it wishes to be in some way prior to the merchant class.

Religious hypocrisy

I thought I would never say this, but the Huffington Post has an article on hypocrisy in the practice of Islam that is both entertaining and important, although I would also argue that a lot of what he says can be divorced from the religious context and still be brutally effective. The image he paints of Egypt post-revolution is not particularly chirpy, but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about Egyptian politics and society. But his points about the triviality of religious expression are extremely well-made.

Two ideas perhaps. First, there is an interesting principles vs. consequences issue here that is slightly perverse:

Egyptians go [to Saudi Arabia] and see a society different from Egyptian society. Men and women are completely segregated but rates of sexual harassment and rape are among the highest in the world. Alcohol is banned but many people drink in secret.

The emphasis on appearance is obviously a very principle-based thing, but the Saudis’ disregard for what actually happens as long as everything looks fine suggests perhaps that policing of the external has crowded out policing of the less visible.

I am wondering what this says about religion, and I’m inclined to think not much, because this is so much an issue of how religion is actually practiced. But perhaps there is a point to be made about religion and its rule-based moral system, that it can lead to over emphasis on less important things over more fundamental problems. But I have a question that I am not sure of the answer to: why does religion have so many rules related to less important things like eating pigs and eating shellfish and having sex etc.? Is it because simply that God wants it so, or does it have something to do with chains of moral causality?

Wonks and Huns

One word that has entered my lexicon through Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog is the word “wonk”, which means somebody who has devoted time to studying the details of an issue thoroughly. I conceive good policy-making as being built on wonkery, with people trying to salvage sense from the wreck of politicians’ rhetoric. However, the importance of this technical detail to the running of the government is a little problematic democratically, as few people will have the expertise to engage the issues if fields get too specialised. (This despite what Feyerabend says about the non-expert being more knowledgeable than the expert, which might be true in reality but not in appearance.)

So I’m really loving the new wonky element in the Occupy movement. They sent a 300 page letter to the SEC and now they are proposing things to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau including some rules that look like pretty good ideas. It is one of those things that make me feel like there is hope for the world and perhaps all history is a series of back-and-forth between evil power-mongers and heroic wonks, who like initiates into an order dedicated to a cause have sacrificed their social lives for the good of the world.

“Privilege” pt. 2

Reading the Facebook pages of some of the PAP’s ministers (how’s social media working out for you?), it seems clear that people are convinced that public service is a “privilege”. Now, as much as I disagree with the PAP on the issue of compensation, I think the use of “privilege” here is rather perverse. After all, the free market in its idealised state rests upon arguments that selfish motivations can lead to behaviour that benefit the public good, and perhaps, also that it is the most consistent factor that binds actors to a socially beneficial course. Insisting that public servants to rely on their own benevolence to keep them on the straight and narrow, however idealistically defensible it may be, is perhaps a little naive. And surely working long hours and public attention are indeed costs that come with the decision to be a public servant. So I am not sure that the issue of ministerial salaries should rest any more on ministers’ goodwill than the laughably egoistical notion that our ministers are as economically competitive as their pay cheques suggest.

Also, I appreciate the point raised by one NMP that this report is a technical fix, which is why we should not be dizzied by the size of the pay cut. Frankly, the pay structure before was ridiculous. Ministers could have been paid for 39.5 months of work in a year (which to my knowledge still consists of 12 months). On top of that, they are also paid a MP allowance. It also strikes me as a little strange that they would consider a comfortable wage 50,000 a month, which seems rather damning considering that most Singaporeans earn below a-tenth that sum.

Just two more disparate observations. First, one thing I like about the recommendation is the notion of a clean wage. Case in point: Chinese officials’ pay is notoriously low but everybody knows that they drive luxury cars and live in big mansions. The shortfall is made up for by corruption and favour taking (read Richard McGregor’s book for a good account). Second, on the other hand, paying people not to lie and cheat seems to be in fact internalising the deception, which is defensible on pragmatic grounds, but suggests that it is a pity that we cannot get less greedy people.

Upward Redistribution

Really interesting article by Dean Baker arguing that policy in the world has often been covertly upward distributionist, that while politicians were debating progressive taxation with the moral artillery of self-reliance, they have been promoting policies which take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the rich.

I don’t think anyone would argue that this is a desirable policy in public. But Baker makes a very plausible case for his thesis and one idea I like is that we must look at policies carefully to see exactly what they entail. Often policies can be disguised with clever names. A free trade agreement sounds great to people with a basic understanding of economic theory but that agreement assumes free trade in some goods, but also protectionism in others. How do we decide which goods are protected by barriers and which are free? It is in these questions that the true ideological orientation and effects of policies lie. So while we haven’t been taxing the poor and giving it to the rich, it is still possible for subtle upward distribution to exist.

Are Baker’s examples convincing? The point about patent laws has been discussed often (here for a start) and the notion that patent laws can actually reduce innovation has also been brought into the mainstream. And given the monopolistic aspects of a patent, the notion that patents are bad for consumers is obvious, even more so if we realise that if the argument above is correct, then patents do not even generate new innovations for the market.

So I am willing to believe that patent laws bring profits to monopolist inventors to the detriment of everyone else. Increasing inequality may be a free market outcome, but it is also helped along by regressive policy. In any case, this is an idea that is worth looking into.

Public Intellectualism

Rather strongly worded argument on the blogosphere between Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, where Mr. Cowen accuses Krugman of demonising his opponents and being lazy constructing his case, and Mr. Krugman retorts that he is trying to affect policy rather than engage in academic niceties.

I actually like a lot of what Cowen is saying. It is pretty clear that Krugman is not Humean, and even if he has thought of what Cowen thought of, he generally does not bother to say it. It is true that Krugman has an ability to make things really clear (almost obvious) and this talent stems from a reductionist dynamic at the core of his thinking. So for a more thorough approach to the issue, Cowen’s suggestion, which is roughly to examine how large the effect Krugman is predicting is going to be over how long, see if there can be anything in the longer run that will make austerity even a plausible option and considering workable policies that might be adopted to the least worst effect (and some wonkish icing on the cake), would be a more convincing argument simply because it is more thorough.

Krugman on the other hand is probably approaching the issue from a different perspective. I don’t think his blog is a place for the sort of rumination Cowen suggests, but as a sort of outreach to a broader audience. Perhaps people search for Krugman more because he writes more generally and more simply for a larger audience (note how he still labels posts wonkish to ward off the fainter of heart). But for people who want to engage with Krugman’s arguments on a deeper level, well, perhaps Cowen is right that there are not that many avenues (not that I know anything at all about his complete bibliography).

After the divisive Christopher Hitchens’s death, yet another issue invoking the theme of what mould a public intellectual should be in.