Monday, December 10, 2007

Facts on the ground more eloquent than statistics: Ngiam

Facts on the ground more eloquent than statistics: Ngiam

Loh Chee Kong

MORE than four decades ago, former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow — then a young public officer in the Finance Ministry — was tagging along with former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee at a high-level United Nations meeting in Thailand.

After dinner one day during the discussion at the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, the minister insisted that a bemused Mr Ngiam follow him on an evening walk through the streets of Bangkok.

"After sweating up and down the hot and dusty pavements of the street in front of our hotel, I plucked up enough courage to ask Dr Goh what was the purpose of the exercise," said Mr Ngiam last Saturday at the National University of Singapore's Economics Alumni inaugural annual dinner. The event was attended by about 100 alumni from various years.

As it turned out, Dr Goh — widely regarded as Singapore's economic wizard — wanted to see "whether the shops were well stocked" in order to satisfy himself with the economic statistics put forth by the Bank of Thailand.

Mr Ngiam, now 70, also recalled how Dr Albert Winsemius, Singapore's first economics adviser, got his grandson to plot the changes in the number of job advertisements in the newspaper.

The chart his grandson produced "told him far more about the state of the Singapore economy than all the economic statistics I dutifully sent him each month", said Mr Ngiam.

Mr Ngiam was underlining the pitfalls of over-reliance on economic statistics without reality checks, especially in today's age of super-computers.

Another potential trap is how Singapore's "robust brand" of economics could turn out to be myopic, said Mr Ngiam.

Questioning the Monetary Authority of Singapore's use of the exchange rate as the key monetary policy instrument — while eschewing the interest rate as a tool — Mr Ngiam said that long-term growth could only be sustained by increases in productivity.

While wages here have skyrocketed in the last few months, economists have expressed concern over the sluggish growth in productivity.

Describing the Republic's productivity performance as "mediocre", Mr Ngiam pointed out how Singapore's Gross Domestic Product has expanded "largely on infusions of foreign labour".

Said Mr Ngiam: "MAS' catchphrase in its half-yearly review is that it will allow a modest appreciation of the Singapore dollar over time. Such a policy stance is realistic only if there is steady increase in our productivity growth."

And such shortsightedness has come back to haunt Singapore in some instances, Mr Ngiam added.

For example, the ongoing retrofitting of lifts to stop on every floor in HDB blocks is costing the Government "much more" than the intended "marginal" savings when it decided in the early years that the lifts should stop on alternate floors.

And even the top brains can sometimes be wrong — as evidenced by the "great MRT debate" of the mid-1970s, said Mr Ngiam.

Back then, a "powerful" team of Harvard economists assembled by the Finance Ministry had argued for an all-bus transport network instead of a bus-rail mass rapid transit system.

Dr Goh also argued that an all-bus system would be less risky than the $5 billion MRT system as the bus fleets "can expand incrementally bus by bus".

"It was a disruptive piece of reasoning," said Mr Ngiam, who had argued for a rail-based network on the basis that it would provide access to the whole island and push up property prices.

"The increase in the collection of property taxes would probably pay for the total cost of $5 billion to build the initial system," said Mr Ngiam, who added that the Government's final decision to build the MRT has been vindicated.

Reiterating that population issues are the most pressing concerns, cutting across the social, economic and political spheres, Mr Ngiam said he feared that "the tipping point of procreation has been reached" and falling birth rates "cannot be easily reversed".

While he confessed that he was "not clued up enough" to have a complete understanding of the current population policy, Mr Ngiam repeated his concern — which he first made in a People's Action Party newsletter last month — that Singapore should not be obsessed with bumping up the population for economic purposes, given the advances in technology and education standards.

Said Mr Ngiam: "The civil service is more adept at achieving quantitative than qualitative targets. Topping up our population en masse with immigrants may well create a population base larger than what our economy can sustain."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

If you are a "nobody", you "will go hungry".

Check out this article Mr Balakrishnan, I think what you meant is that if you are a "nobody", you "will go hungry"

Nobody will go hungry: Balakrishnan

Plans for CCCs to get more funds to help the needy

Sheralyn Tay

MORE MONEY for the needy, whenever and wherever it is needed.

And towards that end, the Government is considering an injection of funds into the Citizens Consultative Councils (CCCs), following a review.

This is in a bid to ensure that no Singaporean is left behind even as the cost of living inevitably creeps upward, said Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at a community dialogue session yesterday.

The candid discussion — which followed a ministerial walkabout at Changi-Simei — saw, unsurprisingly, many residents highlighting the issue of rising costs.

Acknowledging their concerns, Dr Balakrishnan reassured them that his ministry was monitoring the situation closely and was planning a review of community-level funding. "What we are thinking of right now is to make sure that grassroots organisations, in particular the CCCs, will have sufficient funds so that they can roll out additional assistance programmes," he said.

This can be in the form of more outreach programmes or vouchers for food and cash, Dr Balakrishnan added, saying that "this will make sure that we can give the assurance that nobody will go hungry".

Plans for the funding review are at "formulation stage" and more details will be shared at the next Budget session, he added.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that the number of appeals to Community Development Councils and CCCs have gone down overall partly due to the buoyant economy, but he also said that some segments do not benefit from the upswing.

Currently, each of the 84 CCCs gets an average of about $42,000 a year and this is usually enough, he said, but a review would help ensure that funds are available should the need arise. This would especially be the case for CCCs with a larger pool of needy residents, such as Kreta Ayer, which has a disproportionate share of elderly and low-income residents.

Another area of focus is to ensure that children are not denied educational opportunities because their families cannot afford it, said Dr Balakrishnan. "In that area I am prepared to be more generous and to make sure that whatever happens with inflation or the economic front, that these children have optimal social environments in which to grow up in."

With the good economy and unemployment at a record low, Dr Balakrishnan said it was timely to ensure these social safety nets are in place so that society can withstand the pressures caused by rising costs and other challenges.

He also said that Commcare Call — a universal helpline service announced by MCYS Minister of State Mrs Yu-Foo Yee-Shoon earlier this year — would be set up to offer assistance for those who do not know where to go for help.

The toll-free 24-hour number, 1800-222-0000, which is now being tested, will go "live" next month and will be an integrated system — connected to all the relevant community agencies and organisations — to make sure that appropriate help is delivered in a timely and customised way, said Dr Balakrishnan.

These moves are to signal that his ministry "can and will do more" to ensure that help is "flexible, responsive and available", he said.

Ultimately though, he noted, it is cooperation from all sides — the Government, grassroots organisations and citizens — that will ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Speakers Cornered - Complete video now unleashed


Sunday, December 02, 2007

We can barely stay afloat, say low-income folk

Singapore is in Golden Age, but Golden Age for Whom?

Definitely not for Mr Sim...

LIVING ON PUBLIC ASSISTANCE, Mr Sim Boon Choon, 68, keeps his lights switched off in his one-room flat at night and has stopped eating out for all his meals to save money. But even then, he runs out of cash before the month is up. -- ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN
According to Eagle2004,
The theory of Marxism considers capitalism as exploitation of the working
class i.e. proletariat, by the capitalists i.e. bourgeoisie, who control the means of production.

How does this exploitation happen? The working class, have no choice except to find work to survive, since they have no ownership of the factors of production.

The proletariat become the workers for the capitalist, slave for him & produce goods/services. Whatever they produce is the property of the capitalist, who sells them, & gets a certain amount of money in exchange.

A part of the wealth produced is used to pay the workers' salaries, & the surplus i.e extra becomes the capitalist's profit. As such, the capitalist earns money from the work of his staff (without doing any actual work himself).

Those who actually do the work, do not enjoy the rewards, & that is exploitation in teh eyes of the Marxists. They argue that capitalists make their money by exploiting the working classes.

Sounds familiar? Most of us are the mere cogs in the giant machinery of S'pore Inc.

Dec 2, 2007

We can barely stay afloat, say low-income folk

Some MPs and social workers say pleas for financial aid from poorer residents are growing louder and more frequent with the rising cost of living
By Jamie Ee Wen Wei and Nur Dianah Suhaimi

ADMINISTRATIVE assistant Noor Zeen earns $1,350 a month and has not paid her utility bills for the past four months.

Prices of everyday goods have gone up and she finds that she no longer earns enough to cover household expenses.

The 28-year-old divorcee said her monthly utility bill alone has gone up by at least $20. The breadwinner in her family, she lives in a four-room flat in Hougang with her mother, her eight-year-old son and her late aunt's two children.

Cash-strapped and with unpaid utility bills of about $600, Madam Noor asked her MP, Madam Cynthia Phua (Aljunied GRC), for financial help last week.

After the soft-spoken woman poured out her financial woes, Madam Phua put her on short-term financial assistance that will provide her with $200 for the next three months.

The economy may be buoyant, but low-wage earners such as Madam Noor have been telling MPs and social workers that they can barely stay afloat because the cost of living has been going up.

These workers say that their wages are not rising as fast as inflation.

In October, inflation rose to a 16-year high of 3.6 per cent. Two months ago, prices of food staples such as bread and noodles went up by 20 per cent. Soaring oil prices have also driven up pump prices and electricity tariffs.

Median monthly starting pay for cleaners and labourers has in fact fallen by nearly one-third, from $860 to $600, between 1996 and last year.

And PAP still want to import more so-called FTs to depress their wages?!

Twelve MPs and social workers interviewed said pleas for financial help from residents are growing louder but most could not give figures.

In Jalan Besar GRC, MP Lily Neo said she sees about 60 hard-luck cases a week at her Meet-the-People sessions. In the past, she saw about 40 cases.

She said: 'Each week, I find myself busier and busier, staying longer and longer, because there are so many people asking for financial help.''

Madam Halimah Yacob, an MP for Jurong GRC, said some of the low-income residents are holding two jobs and doing overtime, yet they still ask for rations of basic items such as cooking oil and Milo because they do not earn enough to feed their families.

=> Having job and earning a living is 2 different things, ok! Not able to survive financially while doing 2 jobs and OT shows us clearly just how well our current system is working for the locals.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah GRC) observed that those on financial aid schemes are showing up more often at Meet-the-People Sessions.

'They used to come once every three months. Now, some come back every couple of weeks to ask for food and utility vouchers,' he said, because their cash is running out faster.

Mr Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said he was even told off by a retiree who had asked for financial aid.

The elderly man told the MP: 'I'm retired, in my 60s, have no job and living off my savings. But GST is up, food prices are up, inflation is up. The only thing that has not gone up is the banks' interest rates!'

Mr Sim Boon Choon, 68, is in the same boat as the retiree. He tries to stretch every cent of the $290 in public assistance that he receives every month.

A loaf of bread now costs 20 cents more and the price of a packet of 20 Milo sachets is up by 40 cents. Even chicken rice and kway teow soup at the hawker centre cost 50 cents more.

To save money, he has stopped eating out for all his meals. Dinner is a simple meal of bread and Milo. To save electricity, the bachelor does not switch on the lights in his one-room Telok Blangah flat.

Even then, he finds himself running out of money before the month is up. 'I'm already very thrifty but the money is still not enough,' he said in Hokkien.

In March, public welfare recipients such as Mr Sim had their monthly allowance raised from $260 to $290 to offset the impact of the GST hike and rising cost of living.

But social workers said the $30 increment is not enough, given that inflation has risen so high.

=> That is not what our Minister Vivian Balakrishnan thinks. Check out his exchange with Miss Lily Neo on Public Welfare.

Ms Grace Lee, centre director of Care Corner Family Service Centre (Toa Payoh), said the centre has been receiving more requests for the monthly free food packages of rice, instant noodles and canned food.

At least 100 packages are handed out, compared to 80 a few months back.

Over at the Care Corner Seniors Activity Centre in Toa Payoh, programme executive Lim Siew Eng said the elderly poor who show up for free daily lunches are asking for larger portions to take home for dinner. A typical lunch consists of rice, mixed vegetables and meat.

MP Cynthia Phua said she has been advising the elderly in her ward to rent out the rooms in their flats to generate income.

She said: 'A can of luncheon meat used to cost $1.30. Now it's $2.50. Not everyone can afford that, especially the elderly who are not working and depending on handouts.'

MPs said that they try not to give cash to residents seeking aid because they cannot ensure that the money is spent on food. They prefer to give food vouchers.

While utility, service and conservancy rebates, and Workfare payouts have helped, the MPs hope that the Government would come up with schemes which help those without income cope with the rising cost of living.

Pasir Ris-Punggol's Mr Chong said: 'The current schemes that we have, such as Workfare, help those who work. But for the elderly who are retired and sickly, we need to find new schemes for them.'

The Government has said that it will not keep prices artificially low by controlling price increases to help people cope with the rising cost of living. Its aim is to get the basics right - housing, jobs and affordable necessities.

It also tops up the wages of low-income workers through Workfare and gives various cash handouts and rebates. A total of 2.4 million Singaporeans are eligible for $650 million in GST credits and senior citizens' bonuses this year.

It is not just the low income who are feeling the pinch. Mayor for Central Singapore district, Mr Zainudin Nordin, said families living in four- and five-room flats are trying to downgrade to smaller flats because they cannot afford the cash portion of their mortgage.

He said: 'These families find that they need that few hundred dollars for other necessities now that prices have gone up. They can't afford to put aside any cash for housing.'

For housewife Norliza Maidin, 40, the rising cost of living could not have come at a worse time.

Her husband was retrenched from his warehouse supervisor job last year and now earns $1,500 - $500 less than his previous pay.

The couple have two sons -- aged five and one - and Madam Norliza's elderly mother lives with them in a four-room flat in Jurong.

Madam Norliza limits the family's electricity usage to $3 a day, chooses the cheapest fish and buys the cheapest groceries.

But she still finds herself with no savings at the end of the month. Sometimes, she has to borrow money from friends.

After being out of the workforce for five years, she is back in the job market because she wants to supplement her husband's income.

'I want to save for a rainy day. And buy better food for my children, such as salmon and not just selar,' she said.

With inflation expected to go up to 4.5 per cent next year, MPs such as Madam Phua think that the number of financial aid requests they are receiving is only the tip of the iceberg.

She said: 'I believe more will ask for financial help. This is just the beginning.'

Will local politics change?

Will local politics change?
In the end, it is the economics that will dictate

Loh Chee Kong

THE year is 2030. Now, imagine a Singapore with no Group Representative Constituencies (GRC), no defamation suits, no one-dominant party and personality.

This is what the young people who attended a session three weeks ago with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan seem to want. And the youngest Minister in the Cabinet seems prepared for such a scenario.

=> Shouldn't that be the way all along?!

"I'm not so obsessed with whether or not the PAP wins elections, what I am more interested in is the quality of candidates," said Dr Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, dismissing the suggestion that the People's Action Party (PAP) was fixated with one-party rule.

In fact, from a "purely national point of view", he felt that youth should even take up opposition politics if they do not want to join the PAP.

=> Then end the media control now! We all saw just how bias the media is during the GE2006.

Responding to a comment on how the ruling party and the opposition trip over themselves in claiming credit for improvement works in opposition wards, the Minister also urged the youth to look beyond the political "wayang".

"The PAP plays games, the opposition plays games … while all these games go on, make sure nobody loses out.

=> By denying lift upgrades to Potong Pasir, one of the oldest estate in S'pore, S'poreans are already losing out. Who is Mr Balakrishnan trying to kid?

"My point is not that we will not change. We will change but make sure that even as we change, that we understand the consequences … and are prepared," added Dr Balakrishnan, who reiterated that Singapore's political stability is a cornerstone of its success.

For a party that has forged a formidable reputation for the way it crushes political opponents, Dr Balakrishnan's words would get the optimist excited.

They would, at the very least, imply a tacit acceptance by the PAP that there is space for opposition politics.

Not so fast, said a political analyst, who applauded Dr Balakrishnan's "good statesmanship" in answering the way he did. But that is not the way the PAP "runs or plans things", she added.

"They play to win. If out of enlightened self-interest, the PAP changes the rules of the game then we have a whole new ball game," said the analyst.

Sceptics could even interpret Dr Balakrishan's answers as a clear slight on the quality of the opposition and how it would stay that way. And that if Singaporeans want more opposition in Parliament and more relaxed rules on public speaking, they have to be prepared for political instability and loss of foreign investments.

=> This is the most nonsensical argument I ever heard. In what way having a democratic political system will undermine political stability and lead to loss of foreign investment?! Is North Korea and Mainland China more stable and richer than South Korea and Japan?!

But the giveaway was this comment by Dr Balakrishnan: "Can we afford not to change? If the change is necessary for our survival or prosperity, then we must."

The political landscape is set for changes, if, and only if, the PAP Government sees their necessity in sustaining and promoting economic growth — not social progress.

Never mind if it means losing a few seats to the opposition as long as it serves the economic objectives. Never mind political diversity, it's the dollars and cents that matter.

But therein lies the conundrum. While economic and social objectives can be neatly compartmentalised in the early days of nation building, they become increasingly intertwined and untidy as a society matures.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, most Singaporeans had little choice but to stay and build up the Republic's economy.

Today, people uproot themselves to other countries when they disagree with Government policies or feel left out of the political process.

Which is why Singapore's political system has few options but to progress.

First, the playing field has to be level — a perception that is certainly lost on Singaporeans.

While politics is a dirty game everywhere, it has to appear to be fair and just.

The security sweeps — Operation Coldstore in 1963 and Operation Spectrum in the 1987 — against alleged communist movements had set back the two strongest opposition parties, the Barisan Socialis and the Workers Party, of the respective periods, albeit if it was an unintended outcome.

And while rules of the game apply equally to all, the opposition parties are still playing catch up while stuck in a vicious cycle: They cannot attract better candidates unless they make inroads into the government and vice versa.

While the elected presidency, in principle, guards against a rogue government by holding the key to the national reserves, hurdles must be put in place to prevent inept politicians from entering Parliament in the first place.

=> (S)elected Presidency you mean. How many time did we voted for our president since Mr Ong Teng Chong left the post?! How many times did our president Nathan report to us, Singaporean citizens, on the current status of out national reserves? ZERO! ZILCH! To be frank the president might not even know what he is guarding... Read this to find out more about Mr Ong presidency.

But such safeguards should be in the form of an independent media, strong civil society movement and Singaporeans' own critical thinking, not artificial barriers such as election deposits, the GRC system or the threat of defamation lawsuits.

While the GRC system was established with the stated intent of ensuring minority representation, it has inadvertently become an impediment not just for opposition parties but crucially, for aspiring independent politicians, who do not want to be tied down by the baggage of existing parties.

=> BULLSHIT! Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong already tell the whole of Singapore that the GRC system is meant for smoothing PAP's newcomers' path into the parliament.

It has also deterred political competition by cutting off smaller political parties, while allowing larger ones to consolidate themselves.

In the 1984 elections (the last General Election before the GRC system was introduced), candidates from nine political parties and three independent candidates contested the polls.

In the 2006 GE, candidates contested under four party banners and there were zero independent candidates.

Given such statistics, it is not difficult to draw a link between these artificial hurdles and why fewer young Singaporeans are willing to enter politics — when their choice is limited to joining the PAP to have a more than half chance of winning.

By Dr Balakrishnan's own admission, "politics in 2030 cannot be politics in the 1960s".

"In 2030, if you are the Prime Minister, do you think you would have the same authority, overarching stature of someone like our Minister Mentor Lee (Kuan Yew)?" he added.

The days of personality-driven politics are long gone and future electoral battles would be about national policies as much as local politics. Opposition politicians banking on fiery rhetoric should be advised to back it up with sound policy alternatives.

The implications of a "collegiate" type of leadership, as Dr Balakrishnan put it, point to a more effective consultation process both within and without the government.

When no one person wields an inordinate amount of influence, diversity of views would flourish but it also makes it harder to push through policies — an argument that the PAP has made in support of one-party rule.

But while efficiency could be increasingly compromised, effectiveness need not. And that can only be ensured when there is a healthy process of political debate and consensus building, where opposing voices are satisfied that they have been heard even if the final decision goes against them.

The Government's aggressive drive for new citizens would pose political ramifications in time to come.

While these citizens would want to preserve the state of affairs that attracted them here in the first place, they are also the ones who would not be tied down by historical baggage when the situation turns for the worse.

In other words, in the event of a national crisis, new citizens would be the quickest to vote the government out, while Singapore-born voters bank their faith on the PAP's track record.

Which is why the PAP may find it worth its while to lose a few seats in the future — if only to keep an increasingly sophisticated electorate happy.

More FTs in Singapore.

Workers better enjoy the boom time now, it is not going last.

Government eases regulations on hiring foreign workers
By Asha Popatlal, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 28 November 2007 2306 hrs

SINGAPORE: The government is easing regulations across the board on the hiring of foreign workers, in view of a tight labour market.

The overall unemployment rate fell to 1.7 percent in September this year – the lowest in almost a decade. The Manpower Ministry (MOM) said far more jobs are being created than locals can fill.

Amidst this tight labour market, companies said they have been finding it increasingly difficult to employ workers, especially locals.

That is why MOM is introducing a slew of measures to ease regulations on the hiring of foreign workers across all levels.

With growing industry demand for mid-skilled, mid-level foreign workers, the quota of S-pass holders will be increased from 15 percent to 25 percent from January next year.

To ease the manpower pressure in the booming Construction, Process and Marine sectors, MOM will raise the dependency ratio for the Construction and Process sectors from 1 local worker : 5 foreign workers, to 1 local worker : 7 foreign workers from 1 January 2008.

It will also reduce the work experience requirement for workers in Construction from four to two years from next March, and raise the dependency ratio for the Marine sector from 1 local worker : 3 foreign workers, to 1 local worker : 5 foreign workers from 1 January.

As the Manufacturing and Services sectors also expect to enjoy high growth, they will be allowed a higher proportion of foreign workers in their workforce as well.

For Manufacturing, the ratio will be increased to 6.5 foreign workers for every 10 Singaporeans hired, and for Services, that figure is 5 foreign workers to 10 locals.

Refinements will also be made to the Personalised Employment Pass. Launched earlier this year, this scheme helps professionals to continue working in Singapore as it is tied to an individual's merits rather than a specific employer.

Announcing the changes at an event on Wednesday evening, Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen explained why they were necessary.

He said: "There isn't an inexhaustible supply of local workers and it has slowed down this year to about 2 percent. In the World Competitiveness Yearbook for 2007 released earlier this year, Singapore emerged as having the most competitive labour market.

"One of the underlying factors is that companies here have access to the manpower that they need. Indeed, this must be a key concern for any company operating here, especially in the current tight labour market."

Industry players welcome the moves to ease the labour market.

Dr Robert Yap, YCH Group, said: "I'm sure this is something that's good for the industry. Our labour situation is getting very tight. With this tightness, you see job-hopping and all that, so it's affecting people like us who are entrepreneurs trying to build an organisation."

- CNA/so

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