Go with a smile!

Monday, September 10, 2012


I had a few friends who went for the PSC interview after we finished JC, and of course I know a few people who are scholars. One question that was commonly asked (and this was the 90s, which was when the rot started but long before it was common to think that Singapore was headed in the wrong direction.) A question was, “why do you think that Singapore is so successful today?”

The answer they wanted, the one that underpinned everything else, was, “because we got rid of corruption”. Getting rid of corruption is something that the PAP prided itself on. It is the reason why PAP wears white uniforms (also possibly a lot of people went to RI and had white uniforms as well).

I had blogged earlier that I had become a little suspicious about what the government was up to in these days. I had written that they were just plucking the low lying fruit, and not being able to deal with the more complex issues.

When you think about how the government has responded to the electoral setbacks, a lot of those things have one thing in common: corruption. Pastor Kong Hee? Corruption. The IT procurement case? Corruption. Professor Tey from the Law Fac? Corruption. Brompton bicycles? Corruption. The Suntec brawl case? I don’t know, but possibly corruption had something to do with it. Everything is corruption.

Now, it may not be true that corruption is responsible for a lot of what’s wrong with Singapore these days, but it’s responsible for a lot. What is one of the worst policies that Singapore has had in the last 20 years? Asset enhancement. Because of asset enhancement, cost of living has skyrocketed, and Singaporeans have to be paid a higher wage just to be able to live comfortably.

Because of preferential admission for children of alumni, the sons and daughters of people who are already wealthy get into the primary school of their choice and get shunted onto the right path from an earlier age.

And why do we really have so many foreigners? It’s not actually the government’s choice. The government’s plan was to have a population of 5.5 million in 2020. Not right now, actually. How and why did it lose control of the situation? Well, judging by a few cases where immigration officers have been caught fucking PRC women who want to come into Singapore, you can probably guess what is going on “under the covers”. You let me come inside you, I let you come inside my country. I have heard people telling me that a few of the PRC people who get foreigner scholarships are not actually excellent students, but rather the sons and daughters of very well connected officials. (I’m not targeting PRC students here, but rather it was a PRC person who told me this, and therefore I can only speak about a few PRC students.)

Why are the employers so powerful in Singapore? Partially this has to do with Singapore’s economic structure: the MNCs are a very big component. If they pull out, then Singapore will get fucked. The economic ecosystem will get fucked. The SMEs who supply to the MNCs will get fucked. So there is severe downward pressure on wages in Singapore. But maybe they have a little too much influence, and right now, only the government is powerful enough to deal with them.

A lot of people have the mindset that Singapore’s biggest problem is that it is too dictatorial. This is something that is repeated over and over again: by the opposition parties, by the people who do not like the government’s policies and want them to change, but they won’t change. By young people who just hate authority. But I’m not against authority per se. Rebelling for the sake of rebelling is like jerking off. It feels really good, but time passes and nothing is achieved. It’s also like jerking off because teenagers love it. I’m more interested in the question, what is the right thing to do. How can we get back to a state where governance is effective, and things run smoothly?

A government can be dictatorial and not corrupt, like Singapore in the good old days. A government can be corrupt but not dictatorial, probably the citizens will still make do – like USA today. What is not possible is for a government to be corrupt and dictatorial, because when that goes on for long enough, people will rise up, even in the face of threats to safety and livelihood, as the events of 1989, and more recently Arab Spring have demonstrated to us.

Corruption is actually a very big problem that we have in Singapore today. Corruption is a problem in government because it means that the leaders do not have control over a situation. Contrary to what a lot of people think, corruption is not the same as paying a minister high wages. That alone is not corruption. Corruption is what happens when people have incentives to do the wrong thing. Maybe that is the most basic and fundamental thing in government: there is a lack of alignment behind the incentives and doing the right thing. When corruption happens, you favour your inner circle, and you stop being fair to everybody. Then taxes aren’t enough to run the government, because money leaks out through fairly unusual channels.

Unfortunately, there are two kinds of corruption. One kind of corruption is the obvious kind: you give me a kickback, and I as a public official, close one eye and allow you to break the rules a little. That corruption is easy to police. The other kind of corruption is more subtle, and much harder to break. Maybe I will appoint you, a former important civil servant, on my board of directors, and we can look forward to the government making the rules favour us. Maybe I, as a company looking to invest in Singapore, can be given a few tax breaks so that it would make it easier for me to decide to throw my lot in with you. Maybe I can contribute to your political campaign, so that it would be harder for you to turn down a request from me. This other corruption is written about in more detail in this book. And it is important to understand this, and know why a lot of corruption takes place all the time without any laws being broken.

So in my previous blog post, I had asked the question, “what the fuck is our PM doing?” Maybe this is what it’s all about. You purge a lot of people, and after that you can clean house. It won’t be perfect, but you start with a cleaner slate. A lot of our problems had been festering for a long time, and they will take great efforts to solve. Possibly some of them are unsolveable, which means that we might not get back certain things we had in the past.

This does not negate what I said in that other blog post. Yes, the government wants to solve the easiest problems first. But isn’t that the natural thing to do? Maybe solving the easiest problems will give you a handle on the harder problems. This puts a different angle on things now. Maybe that’s the first thing you need to tackle: corruption. Maybe PM Lee is learning from his father, that the first thing you need to do is to squeeze peoples’ balls. A lot of the problems do not originate from the government. Rather, these problems take place because the government hasn’t always been able to solve the problems that other people are creating.

A lot of people won’t like to hear this, but the government is not responsible for all of your problems. Many, but not all. They won’t like to hear this, but Singaporeans are also at fault for a lot of their own problems as well.

Yes, property prices are way too high but who drove them up in the first place? Who are the speculators? Singaporeans. (NB having a lot of foreigners staying in Singapore does create a larger market for housing, but the home owners are Singaporeans who rent to the foreigners). Yes, we have too many foreigners but many are doing jobs shunned by whom in the first place? Singaporeans. Yes, students have too much pressure at school, but who’s responsible for this undue emphasis on excelling in a very narrow path in life? Singaporeans. It takes two hands to clap. For all the problems that you can attribute to the gahment, Singaporeans also take a share of the blame.

So OK, maybe a few positive steps have been taken. But what follows from here? The road to 2016 is both long (ie still a long way to go to solve problems and make Singapore a better place) and short (ie 4 years is not a terribly long time to turn this ship around.) Getting rid of corruption is something that makes it easier to get the right policies in place. It is not the same thing as getting the right policies in place.


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