Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blood On His Hands

The Mumbai terrorists were targetting Americans and British citizens. So why was Singaporean Lo Hwei Yen, 28, shot? Lo is a Chinese lady married to an Indian Singaporean. Her death was confirmed on 28 November 2008 at 9.35 pm Singapore time. She first spoke to her husband at 2 a.m. on Thursday 27 November, informing him hotel staff had told her to move to another level in the Oberoi Trident Hotel. Later, at 6 a.m. she told him she was taken hostage.

An Indian news channel had reported earlier that the terrorists had held the woman at gunpoint and ordered her to tell the Singapore Government to tell the Mumbai authorities to refrain from acting against them or she would lose her life.

Perhaps the clue lies in the ill choice of words in the following communication from one prime minister to another:

HE Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister
Republic of India

27 November 2008

Dear Prime Minister,

I was shocked to learn of the series of terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008. On behalf of the Government of Singapore, I convey our deepest condolences to you, the Government of India and the families of the victims .
The terrorists have taken several people of different nationalities as hostages, including a Singaporean . We are already working closely with the Indian authorities on this. Singapore stands ready to assist the Indian authorities in any way to secure the safe release of the Singaporean and other hostages .
I am confident that the Indian people will rally around your government as it deals with the Mumbai terrorist attacks and bring the perpetrators to justice . The Mumbai attacks are another reminder that terrorism continues to be a common threat to all of us. We strongly support your government's efforts in fighting the scourge of terrorism .

Yours sincerely,
Lee Hsien Loong

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Salaries For Fat Cats

In April 2007 and January this year, the salaries of top civil servants and ministers were revised upwards again "to keep pace with soaring private sector salaries". But, in the light of economic doldrums island wide, the Public Service Division apparently had to bite the bullet and announced that the 2009 salary revision for this group has now been deferred (not cancelled). The original game plan was that the already over paid top civil servants and ministers were supposed to get another pay rise in January next year. It was to be the third adjustment to bring public sector pay to 88 per cent of the private sector benchmark, a move announced in April 2007.

Ministers and top civil servants will now get a pay cut of up to 19 per cent next year. The Civil Service is also reducing the year-end bonus payment for this year.

The guiding benchmark, we are told, is set at two-thirds of the median pay of the top eight earners in each of the six sectors: multinational corporations, lawyers, bankers, accountants, local manufacturers and engineers. What piques one's curiosity is that, despite endemic bankruptcies, and wide scale retrenchments in private corporations, the government released data show that all indexed professions in the private sector, excepting accountants (probably the lot working for Lehman Brothers and the like), are earning 11 to 35 per cent more in 2008 than in 2007.

Commenting on the pay cut, Mr Teo Chee Hean, Minister in charge of the Civil Service, said: "Public sector salaries follow the market up and down. The mechanism we introduced last year to link a significant proportion of the salary of senior civil servants to the performance of the economy is working as intended. This mechanism allows salaries to respond more rapidly to market conditions." Maybe the minister has another set of figures for his speech.

The facts on hand seem to suggest that the formula used to calculate the ministrial paycheck is not as straight forward as claimed. Like the formula used to calculate the tariff rate for electricity, the mathematics involved will probably take several man-years to explain.

The Public Service Division also took pains to highlight that the Prime Minister has and will continue to donate all increases in his own salary after the April 2007 revisions, to good causes for five years. Note "good causes" and not "charitable organisations."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

One Party Rule

Two-party system cannot work here, says PM Lee (18 Nov 2008, Straits Times)

A two-party system cannot work in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday.

This is because it is adversarial and guarantees neither good governance nor progress.

As long as the People's Action Party (PAP) changes itself and continues to provide clean and good government, and the lives of Singaporeans improve, the country is much better off with one dominant, strong, clean party, he said.

Speaking at the PAP annual conference, Mr Lee highlighted two examples of how the two-party system worked: The United States and Taiwan.

Concerning the US, he noted that Mr Barack Obama had campaigned on the theme of 'Change we can believe in'.

The President-elect would now try to change the direction of the country because that was the nature of the system in the US: One party changing what the other has done once it is in power.

The US could afford such change because it was a big country, said Mr Lee.

'It has a big pool from which to find political talent. Mr Obama will be able to find many able people to hold his administration... According to one report, they are all waiting beside their telephones waiting for the phone call.'

He added that while Republican presidential candidate John McCain might have given a 'very gracious' concession speech after he lost to Mr Obama, that will not alter the stark reality of adversarial politics in the US: The Republican Party will be doing all it can over the next four years 'to undermine the Democratic Party, and in the next elections, beat it, and get back into power'.

The US could withstand such an adversarial system because of its size: 'Whatever happens, the US will still be there. Eventually, problems will be put right and life will go on.'

In smaller countries however, there was no guarantee 'that if something goes can put Humpty Dumpty together again', he noted.

He cited Taiwan as an example of how two-party democracy had been detrimental to people's lives.

In 2000, its voters, unhappy with the 'corrupt' and 'stale' Kuomintang (KMT), voted in MrChen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But after eight years of his presidency, they saw the 'sad results' - a stagnant economy, polarised politics and worsening corruption.

So they voted him out, and returned the KMT to power.

But the KMT found it was not so easy to get the economy restarted or to restore good government and have a less polarised political environment.

The Taiwanese today are disappointed with President Ma Ying-jeou because his campaign promise of instant improvements has not materialised, said Mr Lee.

Yet the alternative to President Ma in the form of the DPP leader would do no better.

Taiwan would qualify as a democracy by Western standards because it has had two changes of government in the past eight years, said Mr Lee, but it was not a political system that worked properly. It was 'malfunctioning'.

'I don't think you want that kind of political system in Singapore,' he said.

So just how well is his PAP team doing under the one-party rule system? Official statistics released show that the budget deficit for 2008 is negative $2.4 billion, revised from the earlier projected $0.8 billion.  In 2007 the government had a budget surplus of $6.5 billion. 
Also, it was reported that the Town Councils run by PAP members of parliament invested $16 million in failed Lehman Brothers-linked structured products. Statutory boards - Civil Service College, Singapore Land Authority, Infocomm Development Authority - incurred a 14 percent loss on investments in credit-linked notes.

The last word from his father is also worth noting: Lee Kuan Yew once told the media that if the PAP fails to deliver, he expects the military will step in.

Monday, November 03, 2008

An Expensive Messenger Boy

The uproar began over a month ago, when SP Services announced that electricity tariffs would increase 21.5 per cent in the last quarter of this year. Consumers already burdened by record inflation saw red, pointing to the $1.08 billion that SP's parent company, Singapore Power, made last year. How would the poor cope, and why couldn't Singapore Power use some of its profits to absorb the cost, many asked in newspapers and internet forums.

After remaining largely silent while market regulator, the Energy Market Authority (EMA) made pathetic responses to news coverage and letters to the press, group chief executive Quek Poh Huat told a media briefing that blaming SP services for high tariffs was akin to shooting the messenger.
"If I'm the lorry driver (delivering) goods to your house, and you ask me how come the price for a bag of rice has doubled, I can't explain to you," said chief financial officer Yap Chee Keong, who, like his boss, draws a superscale salary which is more than double that of a lorry driver.

We are told the transmission charge, which is collected by SP services, makes up 17 percent of the tariff. The EMA sets the formula for tariffs, which Non-Constituency Member of Parliament asked to be revealed in Parliament last month. Expectedly, the Singapore Power lorry drivers are very quiet on this request. At best the public will get a Ong Teng Cheong type answer about how many man years will be required to make the computations.
Singapore Power's profit from the regulated electricity market monopoly here was $423 million last year, representing a 6 per cent return on total assets, which is more than double what the public gets from their Central Provident Fund compulsory savings (2.5 per cent). And it's also higher than the 5 percent promised returns on the Lehman-linked structured deposits, which many retirees turned to because of the pathetic 1 per cent offered for bank fixed deposits.
Reader Daniel Gwee wrote in his response:
"SP Services in not an office boy. It has a higher mandate: That of a negotiator, to get the best terms for us and not pass on what terms have been quoted by a supplier.
We have been told Singapore switched to the use of natural gas as a more competitive source than fuel oil for generation purpose.
Have we been able to get the best commercial financing terms, and is it cheaper than obtaining Government funds?"