Go with a smile!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mandatory Death Sentence and the "new normal"

Right after the elections, I was speaking to a friend of mine. We knew that this was a “watershed election”. A bit like having your first fuck. Most of the time, fucking is nice but your first fuck is special.

He asked me, what do you think they’re going to change now? And I said, they’ll cut their own salaries. He said, “why would they want to cut their own salaries? They’d do anything in order to avoid cutting their own salaries.” (This guy is a banker). But you know, I was right.

So why did I guess right? There’s another statement made by a former boss of mine who was a senior SAF officer. He’s a pretty conservative guy, unlike a lot of government scholars who are actually pretty liberal. He was dyed in the wool PAP, but he did notice that there was a lot of “anger” in the crowd. So I guess that’s the way that people at the top saw it: the people just had to “suffer” a little bit “for the greater good”. There “wasn’t any choice”. It wasn’t a matter of the government really implementing the wrong policies. It was that the public didn’t really understand why it was “necessary”, and maybe they weren’t going to hold out for much longer. But you just had to “manage” that “anger”, so what you did was a series of movements in order to appease the masses.

So what did I predict? I predicted that what the government would do in the near future would be to pluck the lowest hanging fruits. And I identified the minister salaries as the lowest hanging fruit because this was something that they had absolute control over. Probably they would also rescale the salaries of some of the senior civil servants. The salaries of senior civil servants are meant to entice people to come into the civil service early in their careers, and not for senior civil servants to stay in their jobs. It’s not easy to switch out of the public sector for a comparative wage in the private sector, and everybody knows that. In the short run, there wouldn’t be a lot of damage, and in any case, the damage has already been done: people have already noticed that it is difficult for the PAP to attract candidates vis a vis the opposition. The toxic environment under which a PAP MP has to serve is actually pretty off-putting for most people.

Recently, there have been a few other incidents that have confirmed my hypothesis. First, there was Lui Tuck Yew going down to the ground during the MRT breakdowns and observing the scene. Well he’s a general and you don’t get far in the SAF if you don’t know how to wayang, but this is positive form of wayanging that sends the right message. Accordingly, the COI over the public transport breakdowns were pretty harsh. I’m sure that the ministry of transport was genuinely angry over the handling of the MRT breakdowns. They must have been really happy that this didn’t happen in April 2011, just before the elections, or worse still, in the first week of May, in the middle of the campaigning season. So Saw Phiak Hwa either resigned or was pushed. And they pledged a lot of money for more buses on the roads, raising the question of why the transport system was not nationalized. And there were some dark mutterings that the Worker’s Party was caught between a rock and a hard place when it came to transport policy.

Then there was this other incident that aroused a lot of anger: the handling of the Suntec assault case. Three angmors who got into a drunken brawl were arrested, let out on bail and later absconded, raising questions of whether or not there was indeed preferential treatment for foreigners in Singapore. These sort of issues go all the way back to the era of “unequal treaties” in China, so everybody responded to that. In the end, apparently one poor officer was made to take the rap for allowing the guy to escape. I see no reason to believe that this whole incident was the fault of the guy alone, but in the absence of any real evidence, I also see no reason to believe otherwise.

The “Sticker Lady” case was another incident. It provoked a groundswell of protest. After the Sticker Lady had been arrested, it was probably decided that people would not press charges against her. It was on balance a correct decision, because it would have been very awkward to charge her when a lot of people paste advertisements on public property all over Singapore, and nobody ever gets caught. And it would have been very difficult to prosecute what has become a beloved icon in the eyes of many Singaporeans.

Pastor Kong Hee was arrested for the embezzlement of millions of dollars from tithing worshippers. A lot of people felt that this was long overdue. It was the popular thing to do all of a sudden. This was the obvious thing to do as well, but it was difficult to execute. You could have a horde of angry church-goers adopting a persecution complex. But luckily the horde of angry church-goers was in this instance outmatched by an even larger horde of angry people from outside the church condemning Kong Hee for being so obviously greedy, and the churchgoers for being such big suckers.

There was the Ma Chi Ferrari crash, which briefly raised the question of the deadly driving habits of foreigners in Singapore, and would have been even more serious if not for the exact same accident taking place at the same junction taking place exactly two weeks after, this time with the offending car driven by a Singaporean. Somebody brought up the idea to impose more regulations on allowing people to drive sports cars, but that was later on dropped.

Now there is the case of the mandatory death penalty. The mandatory death sentence has been one of the most controversial aspects of the judiciary system, and protesters have been harping on it for a long time. Apparently, now they want the MDS to be discretionary on two very strict conditions, one is that the drug trafficker is not involved in other parts of the drug supply chain, and another is that the drug trafficker is not of sound mind.

This was also a little eerie, because I had complained to a friend of mine who was a government lawyer. I said that it was stupid that you sentenced a drug mule to death and you did nothing about the drug lords. By sentencing the mule to death, it was highly unlikely that he would give you any information about who told him to transport the drugs. This was highly unproductive. Apparently somebody up there thought the same way too.

Now Ravi Philemon has also rightly pointed out that this is not a major breakthrough but a minor tweak in the mandatory death sentence. True, but you just don’t make big changes all of a sudden without studying the larger impact resulting from these tweaks to legislation. These things have to be done slowly. You don’t want there to suddenly have the drug cases in Singapore shoot up (no pun intended). It therefore remains to be seen if there’s going to be any follow up on this matter, or if this is the full extent of what they ever intended to do.

This is the year of three elections. The general elections, the presidential elections and the by-elections all took place in little more than the space of one year. None of them have been outright disasters for the PAP, but all of them have produced results that would have made them extremely uneasy. It was not surprising, therefore, that the government would be in damage control mode for a little while.

This was a watershed elections not only in the sense that the tide was beginning to turn against the PAP, but it was also a watershed elections in the sense that dirty tactics and duster-knuckle threats were generally found to have outlived their usefulness. No amount of fear-mongering and use of carrot and stick approaches can compensate for the fact that Singapore is ultimately a democracy.

Then, it is very useful to contrast this with the high hanging fruit. Why did the government ignore Lim Chong Yah’s wage proposals? Because they conflicted with other objectives like providing full employment and not having to worry about unemployment in Singapore. Because it would then be difficult to keep other MNCs in Singapore if wages went up too quickly.

Why did the government disregard the Bukit Brown protestors? Because they weren’t going to destroy the whole cemetery anyway, because they weren’t going to derail a multi-million dollar project in order to have a nice chat with conservationists. Either way, it would have been difficult.

Why did the government not cut back on defence spending? Because their most loyal supporters work in Mindef, and it would have been very difficult to take them out of what had been pretty comfortable careers. Even though the correct thing to do was to transfer them out of Mindef and plant them in schools and hospitals.

Why are they not repealing 377A? One possible reason is that they don’t want to be engaged in a second activity that pisses off the church in such a short span of time. Fair enough. Another reason was something that I don’t completely understand: somebody made a comment on facebook that a Constitutional Law professor said that there were some hidden reasons why 377A is not repealed. Would that led to a whole flood of other changes in legislation that they don’t want to think about? Anyway this issue is complicated because a lot of conservatives in Singapore will not be happy about it.

The indications are that Singapore is not turning away from the “growth is everything” paradigm that they’ve had since independence. I don’t see signs that they’re thinking about building a more equitable society, or scaling back on encroaching on peoples’ rights and freedom of speech. They might cut back on foreign labour, but this are big complicated issues which involve the co-operation of many Singapore businesses and are therefore very difficult to pull off. I don’t know if they’re going in the direction of open data, and allowing information to circulate more freely. But I don’t really think so.

There are other signs that the government is realising that some of their policies are stupid. One of the worst ever policies is the "asset enhancement" policy of the early 90s which allowed the rising price of land to fuck our economy upside down. In one fell swoop, a few people became very rich, a lot of people became very poor, the obstacles to running a successful business became ridiculously high, and our competitiveness - especially vis-a-vis the lower income neighbours around us - went down the toilet. There are measures to cool down the rising price of land, and hopefully that works out. This is not a low hanging fruit because if property prices stop their upward momentum, some people are not going to be very happy.

There was the almost Stalinist purge of the cabinet. Many people who left were the old timers. Possibly there were a few people who stayed around very long, and the date of their leaving the cabinet was merely brought forward a few years. It was a little strange that not more of the old timers were around to fix the problems that they helped create, but maybe they decided that many changes of leadership were long overdue. Maybe they felt that dogs couldn't learn new tricks. Maybe the ones who stepped down themselves thought that they couldn't face up to a newer harsher environment where they were no longer surrounded by "yes minister" types but they had to work in the face of a feistier opposition. In any case, there are a lot of new faces who simultaneously have to learn the ropes and learn new skills of "engaging the internet" which is really stupid because this is a skill they should have learnt 10 years ago and not only now.

So it is easy to provide some sops to people to stem the rising discontent. And I think our government is smart and capable enough to see which of their policies are in trouble. The only thing that is lacking is the will, but if you squeeze their balls a little bit, the political will will magically appear. What concerns me, however, is that they’re slowly succumbing to something that they said they wouldn’t succumb to – populism. A lot of times, when the PAP government mentions populism it’s actually a disingenuous way to justify policies that will not be of great benefit to the larger population. But it is true that they are also sincere about other non-populist policies that have served us over the years.

The other thing is that in the past, their policies still have had some measure of coherence about them, but when they start tweaking things in a less than deliberate manner, things could go badly out of sync with each other. Classic example is removing restrictions on import of foreigners without backing up with transport or education infrastructure. Things are beginning to fray around the edges. The prime minister – what the fuck is he doing? He should have a plan. We had a plan in 1990, and it was called “the Next Lap”. Obviously that plan wasn’t perfect, judging from the number of people who now tulan the PAP, but at least the idea was that the pieces had to fit. Now things are even more precarious – cheap labour all around. Massive uncertainty in the world economy. Existential threats to human civilization resulting from world population growth, depletion of natural resources and climate change. Better start having a plan now!!!

I just hope that they’re going to put their thinking caps on from now on and steer Singapore onto the right direction.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very simple. There's no plan because this is their final lap now. Thanks for a great overview.

2:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

based on your overview, i'm surprised you believe the PAP is smart and can think. it is quite obvious from many of today's policies and the way they've been realised that the party has not thought things through for at Least a couple of decades.

incidentally i disgree with your view that a policy or decision tt's welcomed or popular or what people want makes that policy questionable. is it bad to have housing - public housing too - and care for the old that an ordinary person can afford? these are among the things people want.

i also cannot understand why the PAP feel it is vital to have such Ginormous reserves, which are gambled away. surely the point of collecting all this money is to use it to benefit the people who have made it possible? how useful is it to have a huge amt of cash sitting around, unless you want to show others you are filthy rich? it's like having wardrobes of clothes which are never used.

10:31 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

When I believe that the PAP is smart and can think, it's based on my impression of what they did beyond 2 decades, ie up till the 80s. I share you opinion that what has happened in the Goh Chok Tong era and beyond is a breakdown of a coherent vision. But to be fair, the economic conditions of the last 2 decades have also been tougher.

What I said was "just because a decision is popular doesn't mean it's a good one". That is different from "just because a decision is popular it means it's a bad one." If you think those two statements are the same then your logic is flawed.

During the Asian Financial crisis, all the countries around us suffered speculative attacks on their economies. Traders would bet that the banks in Thailand or Indonesia would go down the drain, and at the same time, they would keep selling the stock of those banks. By doing this, they could make a lot of money in a short time. Singapore had this protection, which is why they could not do this to Singapore. And which is why Singapore did not suffer that much from the Asian Financial Crisis.

Second reason why we have a lot of reserves is that we can use that money to make more money. (Assuming we invest it properly). When that money comes in, it is possible that we get to pay less taxes, or the government can spend more.

So there is a real reason for maintaining reserves. But when you take this policy to the extreme and become so tight fisted that your only objective is to grow the reserves, then there is a problem, which is why I partially agree with you that our reserves situation is the product of a warped mentality.

11:31 PM


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