Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Relocating my blog

I'll be blogging at from today. This is my new blog. Its still work in progress.

To follow my blog entries, the url for the feed is

For the moment, i'll continue with my other blog at blogger. I might switch. Or i might not. Will surely keep you posted if i do.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

No transparency. No accountability. Just secrecy. And HUGE losses.

Temasek and Transparency
Wall Street Journal Asia
Feb 12, 2009

Singapore's state-owned investment fund Temasek announced a change in leadership last week to a non-Singaporean CEO. We hope his appointment heralds a new era of openness.

Temasek manages public monies, yet much of what it does is hidden from the public it aims to serve. Its stated mission is "to create and maximise long-term shareholder value as an active investor and shareholder of successful enterprises." But to what end? To support Singaporeans in times of recession, like now?

Government officials in the past said they are accumulating reserves for an unspecified "rainy day." In a speech this month, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said reserves should be used only "under dire circumstances when one-off extraordinary measures are required to ward off catastrophe or prevent irreparable damage to the economy." A spokesman tells us that, "Temasek's charter is to manage these investments independent of the Singapore government on a purely commercial basis in order to generate sustainable returns for the benefit of future generations." But who decides when to use the reserves, and under what metrics?

Temasek's murky goals are part and parcel of Singapore Inc., where the line between public and private firms is often blurred. This corporatist approach worked for Singapore in its early years -- though of course we'll never know whether the market might have done a better job. Temasek was set up in 1974 as a holding company to manage state-owned firms and has nurtured successful, world-class companies such as Singapore Airlines and DBS Group, a major bank. The current CEO, Ho Ching, is the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Today, however, Singapore needs to develop a more vibrant private sector that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation. The city-state is in the throes of the worst recession in its modern history, with GDP forecast to contract as much as 5% this year. Expatriates are fleeing and the government, for the first time, is going to tap its reserves to the tune of S$4.9 billion ($3.3 billion) to help fund a stimulus package.

But if this is the "rainy day" Temasek is there for, why not give back the fund's piles of cash to taxpayers and let Singaporeans invest their own money? As of March 31 -- its last public annual statement -- Temasek's portfolio totaled S$185 billion. During the course of a parliamentary debate Tuesday, the government announced a 31% drop in the company's net portfolio value between March 31 and November 30 last year. The decline was not unexpected, given the world financial crisis and some poorly timed investments, including $5.8 billion in Merrill Lynch and £975 million ($2 billion) in Barclays.

Temasek says it oversees its portfolio prudently. But it has never provided historical financials to back up its claim of an 18% compounded annual "total shareholder return" by "market value," nor has it released detailed results showing how money flows among its subsidiaries, the holding company and its government shareholder. Temasek outlines its compensation arrangements but doesn't say how much it pays its top executives.

Temasek is 100% government-owned and isn't required to release publicly audited financial statements. The President of Singapore must sign off on the "appointment or removal" of the CEO and board members, according to Temasek's annual report. It cannot "draw on or diminish our past reserves without the President's concurrence." So even while it is a "commercially disciplined investment firm," as the company says, Temasek still answers to the Singapore executive. This system would be more effective if Singapore boasted a more vibrant democracy with better checks and balances.

All of which makes last week's change at the top of Temasek all the more intriguing, and an opportunity. Replacing Ms. Ho in October will be American Charles "Chip" Goodyear, who will be Temasek's first foreign CEO in its 35-year history. Mr. Goodyear is a Wall Street veteran -- not always a compliment these days -- and the former head of BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining firm. He has run firms accountable to their shareholders, and run them well.

The hiring of a foreign CEO is a notable change, and we hope it's a signal that Temasek and Singapore's leaders understand the need for more transparency in the company's operations. The world is demanding more openness and accountability from sovereign-wealth funds, and the shareholder-voters of Singapore deserve nothing less.

Temasek takes severe hit
By Thanong Khanthong
The Nation
Published on February 9, 2009

Ho Ching's resignation as CEO of Temasek Holdings would not cloud heavy losses of about 40 per cent at Singapore's sovereign wealth fund amid the global financial market meltdown.

The Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) is also suffering similar heavy losses.

An investment analyst in Singapore said Temasek's results will be released in April and he estimated that of its US$125 billion portfolio as of March 2008, Temasek would have lost 40 per cent, leaving it with about US$75 billion left.

As for the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore or GIC, the investment analyst said it would also lose more than a third of the value of its investment portfolio.

"GIC started the crisis with roughly Singapore $550 billion in reserves. My estimate is that it has lost about $190-$200 billion of that, leaving it with about $350 billion left. This amount is equivalent to 200 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product," he added.

"So both have lost money but their performance has not been out of line with other large funds, possibly a bit better. These are all worst-case estimates."

Ho, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong, announced last week that after almost seven years at the helm of Temasek, she would step down by October this year. She would be succeeded by Chip Goodyear, a former CEO of BHP Billiton Ltd, who would be the first foreigner to run the sovereign wealth fund.

Temasek Holdings was set up by proceeds from the privatisation of Singapore's state-owned firms, while GIC by international reserves of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Both represent the investment vehicles of Singapore, which has eyed for a global reach for its investment.

The transition is taking place at a time when Singapore is suffering the worst economic problems since 1960s. Temasek, racked a return of about 17 per cent a year since its inception in 1974 and March this year, is also going to face a drastic restructuring of its investment strategy.

Under her leadership, and also as wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsian Loong, Ho led Temasek to embark on audacious acquisitions in China, Asia, Europe and the United States. Temasek's buy-out of Shin Corp, previously owned by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in January 2006 sparked out a political turmoil inside Thailand followed by a military coup in September that same year.

Ho's resignation has also sparked a debate inside Singapore. Tharman Shangmugaratnam, the finance minister, preferred to handle the issue with a diplomatic term, saying that Ho's departure wasn't linked to the performance of Temasek's investments.

"Whether this is a way of making a change of someone who is related to the prime minister, this has been a point that I've dealt with since the first day Ho Ching was appointed as CEO. I was very instrumental in bringing in Ho Ching and it was based purely on merit and has nothing to do with her relationship to anyone," he said.

The investment analyst in Singapore said Ho's resignation was planned for about a year. "I don't think it has much to do with Temasek's performance. This is Singapore, favoured people are not made to resign for performance! I think Singapore leaders are more concerned over the Sovereign Wealth Fund issue. It becomes more difficult to defend Singapore's sovereign wealth fund as a non-state actor with no political agenda if the wife of the prime minister is running it," he said.

Singapore's economy is facing a severe downturn, with growth rate plunging into the negative territory. "We recently revised downward our GDP forecast to minus 2.8 per cent to reflect the likelihood that the contraction in the first half of 2009 could be deeper than previously expected," said Citi's Asia Economic Outlook and strategy (January 23, 2009). "Advance estimates for the fourth quarter of 2008 showed a contraction of 2.6 per cent from a year ago, down sharply from 0.3 per cent the previous quarter. On a quarter on quarter seasonally adjusted annualised rate, the fourth quarter GDP contracted 16.9 per cent - the worst on record."

Singapore has recently entered into a currency swap arrangement with the US Federal Reserve, which worked out the swap arrangements with selected countries including Brazil and Korea, to avert the financial crisis, data of the US Federal Reserve show.

Unlike Korea, which has drawn down the currency swap arrangement, Singapore has not yet drawn down the swap.

Apres Ho Ching, Le Deluge?
Asia Sentinel
Feb 9, 2009

Lee Hsien Loong's wife leaves Temasek just in time for her successor to reap the bad news

Ho Ching, the wife of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, is departing from stewardship of Temasek Holdings in good time for her successor to have to be the one in charge when the disastrous performance for 2008 and 2009 comes around.

Such are the circumstances that the Singapore leadership has decided that it is best that a foreigner replace her – not that Temasek's earlier recruitment of Wall Street whiz-kids has done it much good. This time former BHP Billiton boss Chip Goodyear just might shift Temasek's attention away from disastrous forays into finance towards the natural resources which are so abundant in Southeast Asia but so conspicuously lacking from its Temasek's portfolio.

BHP is in good shape compared with the other major mining companies such as Rio Tinto and Xstrata. But do not be deceived by this into thinking that Goodyear is the cautious, far-sighted manager needed by a sovereign wealth fund such as Temasek. BHP owes its relatively strong position largely to luck.

Goodyear, a Wharton-bred former investment banker, made his reputation through an array of acquisitions in a rising metals market. He stepped down as chief executive in September 2007, but remained with the company and close to his successor Marius Kloppers when BHP launched a typical top-of-the-market US$66 billion bid for rival miner Rio Tinto, itself then trying to digest its own acquisition spree, notably aluminum giant Alcan. Only Rio's determination to resist the takeover saved BHP from the potential disaster of such a costly acquisition and Goodyear being classified with the Wall Street crowd whose hubris and arrogance has become the biggest ever bonfire of the vanities.

Ho Ching proved the classic bull market player with Singapore's public funds. At first she could claim success in raising returns by more active management of Temasek's investment portfolio – and in rising markets always report profits generated by disposals as well as by the operating profits of its major assets, the Singapore property, banking, power, telecoms, aviation and shipping companies.

But under her leadership, and spurred by foreign advice, a larger and larger proportion of assets were invested in the financial sector. By March 2008 this had climbed to no less than 40 percent of Temasek's portfolio. Nor was that enough. It continued to believe in Wall Street's self-delusions that first half 2008 just saw a few "localized difficulties" rather than the richly deserved meltdown that occurred, increasing its stakes in Merrill Lynch, Barclays and others, and putting most of its China investments into banking.

Even as late as the end of August, a managing director, Marish Kejriwal, was being quoted as saying "The financial services industry is one we believe in… It is a proxy to the economic growth" – an extraordinary statement and one which showed that Temasek had learned nothing from the Asian crisis of a decade ago, or from Japanese financial troubles, or indeed the mid-1980s banking failure in Hong Kong and Malaysia etc. To make matters even worse, Kejriwal also noted "We recently concentrated on US and UK primarily because we see value."

Temasek's overall performance is hard to assess. Although more transparent than most sovereign wealth funds, it still falls far short of what a public company would have to report. The performance of its major listed subsidiaries is easy enough to track but there is a lot that does not appear, including methods of valuation of some huge, leveraged investments made in private equity funds.

Injections of capital from the Ministry of Finance are also a key to its expansion. For example, last financial year its portfolio value rose by 13 percent to S$185 billion but much of this was apparently accounted for by an official injection. Nor are there any details on dividends, if any, paid to the MoF.

Indeed, not only are the accounts skimpy and largely lacking in the notes normally found but anyone wishing to track the latest Annual Review against past ones will be unable to do so via the Temasek Holdings website, which now has only the latest Review (2007-08) not the previous ones.

What can be deduced, however is that reported profits last year, which zoomed 50 percent to S$20 billion on revenue of just S$83 billion, owed much to disposals, including Tuas Power for S$4.2 billion. The rundown in Singapore assets has been marked. They are now only 33 percent of the total compared with 38 percent a year earlier. This trend is presented as a necessary and valuable diversification, but it also helps maintain profits as the Singapore disposals are mostly of assets acquired years ago and thus can generate big capital gains.

Apart from the trend to non-Singapore assets, there have been two other trends. One is towards non-Asian OECD markets such as US and UK, and the other to unlisted and so-called "liquidity" investments. These mostly opaque investments now account for 52% of total assets helping to further obscure the details.

The latest Review also has a none-too-subtle Ho Ching boast. Assets acquired in the previous six years are credited in one chart with annual growth in value of 32 percent, or double the 16 percent by assets held prior to 2003. It is not hard to imagine that the numbers for 2009 will look rather different – assuming they are published. Nor was the 10-year annual Total Shareholder Return as published particularly impressive – 9 percent since the dark days of the Asian crisis.

But whatever the performance, the skimpy nature of Temasek's published data makes independent analysis very difficult – even assuming that the major brokers, rating agencies and investment banks would ever be willing to incur official wrath by attempting to do so.

As for Goodyear, even with the help of a big capital profit on the December sale of PowerSeraya to Malaysia's YTL for S$3.8 billion, his first Annual Review as Ho Ching's successor will need some remarkable accounting contortions if it is not to look grim indeed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Undercurrent of public discontent with the PAP government

Crisis spoils Singapore celebrations
By John Burton in Singapore
Financial Times, Published: February 12 2009

When an apparently deranged man in Singapore set fire to his parliamentary representative at a community event recently, a local website polled its readers to ask which of them deserved more sympathy. By a four-to-one margin, the readers voted for the assailant.

The episode appears to reflect an undercurrent of public discontent with the People’s Action party (PAP) government, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in power this year, as Singapore confronts its worst postwar recession, with the economy expected to contract by up to 5 per cent.

The PAP government has long been one of Asia’s most secure. Singapore’s dominant one-party system has set an example for countries such as China, Russia and the Gulf states. Their leaders “are picking up points here and there” about how Singapore can “keep its ruling party in place and run a tight ship, honest and effective”, says Lee Kuan Yew, the city state’s founding father

But the economic crisis is putting Singapore’s political system to its severest test since independence in 1965. “Officials appear scared about the public reaction. I’ve never seen them so concerned before,” said a Singapore-based regional political analyst.

The economic downturn threatens to expose some of Singapore’s vulnerabilities, including a wide gap between rich and poor and a heavy dependence on foreign investment for growth.

The recession also comes at a challenging time, when the city state must find new manufacturing industries to replace the declining electronics sector and as it embarks on an ambitious plan to become the Monaco of Asia, with private banking and gambling as growth sectors.

The PAP has stayed in power because of an implicit social bargain that it would deliver prosperity in return for restrictions on political freedoms. It has justified its strong rule by saying that liberal democracy could prove divisive in a multi-ethnic society such as Singapore, with its ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian populations.

Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister and son of Lee Kuan Yew, recently praised one-party rule for promoting administrative efficiency and good policymaking, compared with malfunctioning” Asian democracies such as Taiwan, with a troubled economy, polarised politics and widespread corruption.

“I don’t think you want that kind of political system in Singapore,” he told the annual PAP congress.

Terence Chong, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says: “Political order and economic stability may go hand in hand, but there is increasing awareness, even within the PAP, that that may no longer work.”

He points to a feeling that the PAP is “out of touch with the general suffering”.

In November, Singapore said it would cut the 2009 salaries of senior government officials by up to 19 per cent in response to the slowing economy.

The government also said recently that it would tighten already strict rules on public assemblies to prevent acts of civil disobedience. But civil activism is growing, and the government is coming under increased scrutiny and criticism on the internet.

“The government hasn’t helped matters by losing billions of dollars by investing in Citigroup and Merrill Lynch,” says a foreign businessman, referring to the $24bn (€18.6bn, £16.7bn) invested by Singapore’s sovereign funds in western financial groups. “The crisis is proving to be a reality check for the authorities.”

Officials are hoping to address public concerns with the recent announcement of a S$20.5bn ($13.6bn, €10.6bn, £9.5bn) stimulus package.

Manu Bhaskaran, of Centennial Group, an economic consultancy, also argues that support for the government remains strong in comparison with neighbouring Malaysia and Thailand, “where there is corruption and mismanagement”.

He adds: “The population doesn’t want to rock the boat in an economic storm and it will support the government, which has a strong record of economic progress and political stability.”

But an element of uncertainty remains about the depth of public support. A third of Singaporeans normally vote against the PAP, despite the weakness of opposition parties. The government must call an election by November 2011. It may decide to call a snap election this year if it fears that the economy will not recover in the next two years, when public discontent might be stronger.

While the PAP is expected to return to power, its nightmare result would be to lose one or more of the five or six-member group representation constituencies (GRCs) that dominate the parliamentary system. Voters cast a single ballot for a party slate of candidates. The opposition, which now has only two seats in the 84-member chamber, would gain its biggest representation in more than 40 years.

“The loss of a GRC would be a psychological blow to the PAP and might encourage more Singaporeans to join the opposition,” says the local political analyst.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Holding Lee Kuan Yew accountable

Holding Lee Kuan Yew accountable – Part 1
Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democrats
Feb 10, 2009

In what has become a landmark speech Minister Mentor pointed out in July 2007 that, thanks to his party, the economy was headed skywards: Tourism, consumer confidence, job creation, inflow of wealth, etc were all at an all time high. Not only was the economy going great guns, social development was apparently also doing swimmingly.

In fact things were so rosy then that Mr Lee couldn't hide his excitement: "If there are no wars or oil crises, this golden period can stretch out over many years."

Barely one, let alone many, later Singapore's economy started to go into a tailspin – and, might it be pointed out, there were no wars or oil crises.

In other words, the MM's prediction was spectacularly wrong – not that there is anything surprising with that, Mr Lee had been wildly off the mark many times before:

In January 1998 Mr Lee predicted: "I don't think you're going to get a significant or dramatic political change in Indonesia." Four months later, Suharto was toppled.

In 1995, the then Senior Minister proclaimed: "Both the Suzhou and Singapore sides recognise that they need to work as a team for the Suzhou Industrial Park to compete successfully..." Three years later, the project collapsed.

In 1997 just prior to the general elections, Mr Lee told HDB residents that upgrading would lead to a "40 to 50 percent increase in the value of your HDB property." Before the year was over, property prices plunged with the advent of the Asian financial crises.

There's nothing wrong, of course, about making bad predictions. Let's be fair, everyone at some point has made calls that have turned out embarrassingly wrong. Mr Lee has made, and will make, his fair share.

The difference with the MM's words is that they drive policy formulation which involves spending of billions of dollars of public monies. Once spoken, these words precipitate PAP groupthink; few dare to tell Mr Lee that he is wrong, let alone hold him accountable for his errors in judgement which have catastrophic consequences.

Oracle of the East he is not but you wouldn't know that if you spoke to the servants with whom the MM surrounds himself and on whom he lavishes made-in-heaven salaries. These highly intelligent individuals apparently go into a synaptic short-circuit when they are in his presence and suspend all form of independent thinking. (See also Tearing Down the Facade).

Herein lies the danger, which is that of allowing one man to call the shots and of accepting Mr Lee's propaganda that he and the people he has anointed are the only one's who have the answers to our future. This danger must be highlighted, and highlighted again and again until it drenches our national psyche.

In the beginning...

It is clear from his utterances in that fateful 2007 speech how little Mr Lee understood of the economic world. Just months before the crash of the global financial labyrinth, at a time when the system was at its bursting point, the MM told us all:
We have drawn in many professionals, especially in financial services, which has expanded to its highest ever levels. Many financial institutions have moved their top people and their regional headquarters to Singapore...
Indeed, Mr Lee and his ministers had gone into overdrive to push Singapore to be the financial capital of the world, regardless of whether our national infrastructure was equipped to handle such a brutal and risky transformation or not. He did not see, nor did he understand, the decadence that had enveloped Wall Street and that the corruption was already driving the world's financial system to its knees. He was still telling Singaporeans that the boom could go on for years.

Here's what had happened: Banks in the US were hedging on the housing mortgage market through financial instruments they called "credit default swaps".

These fancily named derivatives were really nothing more than side bets -- not unlike the kind that avid football fans place when they watch two teams play each other. The bettors need not buy a direct stake in the teams but stood to gain or lose depending on the outcome of the game.

This was what happened at the banks: Essentially, bets were taken on how the mortgage-loans performed. If mortgagees defaulted on their loans, insurance would be paid out through the credit swaps that investors purchased.

Of course, the financial institutions raked in the money when the US housing market was on a roll between 1996 and 2006, with much of activity fueled, unfortunately, by unscrupulous lending. Housing loans were given to people, called subprime borrowers, who did not meet the criteria for borrowing at the prevailing interest rate. This was a recipe for trouble because as soon as the US economy and the housing market started to wobble, many of these borrowers were unable to keep up with their loan payments.

Then someone screamed “Subprime!" and all of a sudden the housing industry pancaked. Mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures escalated as Americans defaulted on their housing loans and banks were left high and dry.

But as bad as the debacle was, it still wasn't the worst thing that happened to the banks. On the side, investors came a calling and wanted to be paid because they had bought the credit default swaps. The problem was that the banks and investment houses had sold so much of these instruments that they were simply overwhelmed by the amounts they owed (estimates have it in the trillions of dollars). Unbelievable as it may seem, these financial institutions did not set aside any funds to make these payouts. The scheme was really nothing more than legalised gambling run by over-leveraged bookies. Hence the banking meltdown.

Of course, hind-sight suffers not from astigmatism. But there were many signs that all was not right within the financial world. Billionaire investor Mr Warren Buffet had repeatedly warned of the scourge of the derivatives market, calling them “weapons of mass financial destruction”.

As early as 2002, Mr Buffet was already warning: “I view derivatives as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system.”

In 2003, he repeated his message that derivatives can push companies onto a "spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown" and didn't mince words saying that these financial schemes have been devised by "madmen".

Mr Buffet rang the warning bell again in May 2007: "There is an electronic herd of people around the world managing an amazing amount of money...I think it's a fool's game."

As prescient as he was, Mr Buffet was not the first to sound the alarm against the Wall Street whiz kids. Dr Frank Partnoy, an investment banker himself before he became a professor at the University of San Diego, had written a book back in 1997 entitled F.I.A.S.C.O. in which he warned about the shenanigans that were going on in the financial houses.

He authored another book in 2003, Infectious Greed, where he again called attention to the marketing of derivatives and how this was destabilising the financial market.

Another academic, New York University's Dr Nouriel Roubini, had warned at the World Economic Forum in 2007 that a “hard landing” was about to come with the bubbles created by the financial system. (Were any of our ministers there?) He predicted that all the unbridled wheeling and dealing would end in “painful consequences for the U.S. and the global economy.”

Note that these red flags were all raised before Mr Lee Kuan Yew made his “golden period” speech (Mr Buffet's "fools' game" warning came just two months before).

In fact, just before the MM's speech, Bear Stearns, then the fifth largest investment bank in the US, was breathing its last breaths. Two of its hedge funds were up to their eyeballs in the mortgage derivatives market and they were bleeding funds. The bank was losing so much money that shortly thereafter it filed for bankruptcy.

If the Buffets and Partnoys were screaming about the risks, and if Bear Stearns had collapsed in such a stunning fashion, why did Mr Lee and his cabinet ministers not note these danger signals and adopt a more cautionary tone in his speech? Were they all asleep at the wheel?

But not only was there no circumspection, Mr Lee was urging everyone to “maximise our opportunities in this golden period”!

In competence and in experience

Mr Lee had claimed sole credit for himself and his ministers that things had gone on so well. He actually started off his speech with this:
Every night there is this buzz along Orchard Road. It is because a competent and experienced team of ministers took painful and unpopular measures in the last few years since the Asian financial crisis to get our domestic policies to encourage growth. Tourism is up. Consumers have confidence; restaurants, food courts are thriving; unemployment has remained low at 2.9 per cent with a healthy creation of 49,000 jobs for the first quarter this year. This is on top of a record creation of 176,000 jobs in 2006. We are into a period of good economic growth and social development. (emphasis added)
He repeated the line later in the same speech: "An experienced team of ministers is getting our policies set in the right direction." In 2003, never tiring of reminding the people of his goodness, Mr Lee repeated that Singaporeans were fortunate in having a "competent government in charge, anticipating events."

“Competence”, “experience”, and the ability to “anticipate events” are the words Mr Lee chose to describe himself and his ministers, and to justify their salaries. Indeed if they all possessed such traits of distinction why did they not see, and warn Singapore of, the crisis that was brewing and all the warning signs that were hollering for attention?

Now that the MM's rhetoric has been so extravagantly shown up, there is only silence within the establishment. Speech? What speech? seems to be the new strategy going forward. Everyone pretends that it was never made. And yet, that speech is probably the most serious misjudgment of Mr Lee's carreer.

But among the many words that Mr Lee has spoken only one matters, but it is one that we will not hear: Accountability.

Click here to read Part 2 of Holding Lee Kuan Yew accountable

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mediocre quantum may be inadequate in facing the tsunami-sized ground crisis - NSP

NSP Budget Response 2009 - Extensive But Not Comprehensive
4 Feb 2009

The “Resilience Package” of $20.5 billion unveiled in Parliament by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is generally seen to be extensive, addressing the main problems of job loss, business cash flow and credit crunch.

However, while the direction and footing of the Budget are generally correct, its actual impact will be quite below public expectations, because its somewhat mediocre quantum may be inadequate in facing the tsunami-sized ground crisis. Indeed, the Government has itself admitted that the Package “will not be enough to haul the country out of recession….”

Firstly, the deficit of $4.9 billion to be drawn from the Nation’s Official Reserves, is very much less than the tens of billions in paper loss which the Government had incurred in trying to prop-up foreign banks, over the past six months. According to prominent economist Song Seng Wun (from CIMB-GK), it was estimated that the Government had accumulated some $60 billion (perhaps, including land sale income) over the past two years, since May 2006. This amount would be more than sufficient to “offset any fiscal stimulus package”.

Secondly, the Package did little to help the unemployed in particular, other than allowing them to pay their income tax instalments over two years. The increment of $30pm in Public Assistance is considered to be so miserly, that the poor recipient will have difficulties wondering whether to use it for salt or sugar!

Considering that unemployment may probably hit a new high of 6% this year, amidst the already sky-high inflation of 7.5%, the Authorities need to put in more efforts to help the unemployed, especially the bread-winners, to tide over this critical period. For extreme cases, the Authorities should allow defer payments for both public utilities (water, electricity, gas) and conservancy charges, for at least six months. In addition, there should be a “Subsistence Fund” to provide a nominal allowance tagged at 50% of the recipient’s last drawn salary with a cap of $1500 per month.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has gathered considerable feedbacks from its weekly direct interactions with the People. Many have requested for the abolition or reduction of several controversial domestic taxes. For instance, the Radio & TV licence fee is seen to duplicate charges payable to media owners. The Water Conservation Tax has outlived its relevance now that the island is quite self-sufficient in water, considering our many new reservoirs and the gracious abundance of rainfall. The Domestic Foreign Worker levy adds heavily to domestic maintenance costs. The levy is seen to be both opportunistic and punitive, especially when the maid is hired to care for children and the elderly sick, and thereby freeing scarce local manpower. In such cases, the Government should subsidize instead of levying additional charges!

The Government should look into more ways of lowering the health care costs, which had jumped by a massive 20%-30% during the last two years. It should refrain from interfering with the ability of local universities to increase their medical faculty intake each year. The current shortage of qualified medical practitioners has contributed to the escalating health care cost.

Its Jobs Credit scheme per se can be quite cumbersome to implement, and may be subject to abuses. A better alternative would be the conversion of the proposed 12% quarterly cash subsidy into a direct monthly transfer to the CPF Board under the Employer’s Contribution account. Apart from being comparatively safer, such a mechanism will also ease critical cash flow.

NSP calls on the Government to be more responsible to the People, by being more transparent especially where statistics are concerned. Mark Twain once observed that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Following the unveiling of the Budget, there has been an orchestrated hype glorifying the Establishment with glowing commentaries. Although such trends have become a tradition of sorts in Singapore, the Government would be seen to be more sincere if it should shun the temptation of politicizing every twist of event, for Singaporeans have now matured politically.

12th Central Executive Council

National Solidarity Party

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

From Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall in Race Course Lane to British High Commission in Tanglin Road

Below is a report from Straits Times online. See also here, here and here for my posts from last year.
4 protest over Sri Lanka war
By Khushwant Singh, 4 Feb 2009

THERE were no placards, banners or chanting; and fortunately there were only four 'protestors' as five would have constituted an illegal assembly in the eyes of the law.

The march on Wednesday morning from Little India to the British High Commission in Tanglin Road was to appeal to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to try to stop the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Leading the group was Mr V. Thamizhmaraiyan. The 54-year-old bus driver said that recent media reports had highlighted that up to 250,000 non-combatants, many of them Tamils, are caught in the crossfire between Sri Lankan government troops and the Tamil Tigers, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil state since 1983.

'It was the British colonial government that arranged for Tamils to move to Sri Lanka so it's responsible,' he added.

Mr Tamizhmaraiyan and his friends started their 4km-walk from the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall in Race Course Lane. Each said that it was a logical choice as Gandhi had championed non-violence.

They decided to 'express their concerns' on Wednesday as it was Sri Lanka's Independence Day but said that the motive was humanitarian and not political.

The group also comprised property agent K. Rathakrishnan, 36, and Mr P. Govindasamy, 44, also a bus-driver, and Indian farmer N.Gurumurthy, 54, who is on a visit here.

They were denied entry into the British High Commission but their appeal letter was handed to security staff to be passed to British High Commissioner Paul Madden.

Mr Tamizhmaraiyan said that he had the support of many Tamils here but they did not join in as they were afraid of being arrested.

'I assured them that we could not be carrying placards and banners and would not be doing anything illegal but they were still fearful,' he said.

Misconceptions about the Singapore Democrats

Singapore Democrats
Feb 3, 2009

Through the years, much has been said about the SDP. As a result many views have been formed and propagated about what we stand for, our beliefs and how we go about achieving our goals – some accurate and others completely false.

We take a moment here to address these misconceptions so that Singaporeans can get a better understanding of the party. The information below will also be useful to counter the propaganda put out by the PAP.

Misconception No. 1: The SDP is not interested in parliamentary elections

Parliamentary elections are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy and we cannot emphasize more that we see elections as the only legitimate way of political parties gaining power. We have taken part in every election in the past and will continue do so in the future.

What we don't believe in, however, is that an opposition party, under present political circumstances, should focus exclusively on elections. This is because elections in Singapore are not free and fair. The PAP amends electoral rules to suit its own needs, controls the media, and victimises opposition leaders. Where else in the world can a prime minister openly say that he needs to "fix" the opposition and "buy" votes -- and get away with it?

The truth is that it is impossible for the opposition to make any meaningful inroads into Parliament through the existing electoral process. This is why, over and above taking part in elections, opposition parties – together with civil society – must work to reform the election system.

What the SDP wants to see is a truly fair parliamentary election system in Singapore, one acceptable by international standards.

Misconception No. 2: The SDP wants to effect change through "extra-legal" means

As explained above, when effecting change through undemocratic elections is impossible other peaceful, non-violent approaches are the only other options open.

What the SDP is fighting for are the freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly for Singaporeans, rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. They are the building blocks of free and fair elections without which we cannot press the Government to reform the electoral process.

But when the PAP continues to violate the Constitution and bans citizens from peaceful assembly, Singaporeans must stand up and protect our Constitution. The only way that this can be achieved is by defying the repressive laws put in place by the PAP.

Protecting the Constitution is not extra-legal because the Constitution is the supreme law of the country. It is the PAP that has resorted to extra-legal measures by violating the supreme law of the land.

Misconception No. 3: The SDP is an extremist party that advocates breaking laws

Let us be absolutely clear: Citizens cannot go about breaking a law just because they don't agree with it. This is not what civil disobedience is about. Civil disobedience is about standing up and not submitting to unjust laws put in place by governments to deny citizens their most basic rights. These rights are universally accepted as inalienable to all persons and the PAP has no right to take them away.

In fact it is the PAP that does not adhere to the rule of law. Case in point: The police arrested Tak Boleh Tahan protesters on 15 Mar 08 while allowing Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) members to conduct their protest. Such discrimination clearly infringes Article 12 of the Constitution which demands that the law must apply equally to all without favour or fear.

We, the Singapore Democrats, are protecting our Constitution and there is nothing extreme about that. In fact it is the duty of all citizens of this republic to stand up for our Constitutional rights.

In any democratic society, we would be considered a moderate party. It is only in an authoritarian system that the ruling party tries to brand reformers as extremists.

Misconception No. 4: The SDP does not offer constructive alternative ideas

Like the other misconceptions, this is one that the PAP likes to spread despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Way back in 1994 the party adopted Dr Chee Soon Juan's book Dare to Change: An Alternative Vision for Singapore as its manifesto. The book explicitly spells out alternative policies as well as the rationale for these ideas, including those for the economy, politics, society, culture and the arts, education and the media.

These ideas were subsequently expanded in Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A Democratic Blueprint for Singapore. They are further developed in A Nation Cheated. Our flagship publication, The New Democrat, and pamphlets consistently focus on our alternative ideas to the PAP programmes. A look at Our Manifesto in this website would nail the lie that the SDP does not offer constructive alternatives. The latest example is our Budget proposal to help Singaporeans and the economy.

But Singaporeans don't know much of this because the state media will not publish our ideas and keeps printing lies that the Singapore Democrats simply criticise and don't offer constructive ideas.

Misconception No. 5: The SDP is only interested in human rights and not bread-and-butter issues

The SDP has always been at the forefront of raising concerns about the escalating prices of essentials. Again, a quick glance through this website would show clearly that issues such as health care costs, CPF savings, public transport fares, etc are regularly addressed.

The ongoing Tak Boleh Tahan campaign, for example, is one of our main programmes to ensure that the Government keeps the cost of living affordable. The plight of working Singaporeans and SMEs remain high on our agenda. In fact during the general elections, we zero in on pocket-book issues such as the minimum wage, retrenchment entitlements, and the Singaporeans First Policy.

The reason why the wider public does not realise this is because the mass media censor much of what we say and do, especially on pocketbook issues that we raise. A good example is their refusal to report our proposals for this year's Budget.

At the same time, however, it is important to bring up human rights matters. Human rights and bread-and-butter issues are two sides of the same coin. In order for us to talk to the people about issues that concern them, we need freedom of speech. Without this freedom we cannot effectively communicate with the people.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Opposition - Where To? - A public forum on 7 Feb (Sat)

Singapore Democrats
26 Jan 09

In an age of democratic change, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong continues to insist that a one-party system is good for Singapore. This is regardless of what the opposition and Singaporeans at large think and want.

But even as we debate on whether such a one-party state is desirable for this country, what are opposition parties doing to build confidence among the electorate for support? Is greater Opposition unity and cooperation a necessary, or even important, factor in attracting votes? Or is the authoritarian system making elections in Singapore a non-starter?

Also does civil society and the blogging community have a role to play in helping to develop a multi-party system? Given the state of politics here, is it desirable for the political opposition and civil society to work closer together to promote democracy? If so, in what ways?

These are important questions that will be tackled at a public forum organised by the Singapore Democrats entitled Opposition - Where To?:

Date: 7 Feb 09, Saturday
Time: 2-5 pm
Venue: Aerides Room, Copthorne Orchid Hotel, 214 Dunearn Road
Admission: Free

We are honoured to have the following party and civil society leaders as panel speakers:

1. Desmond Lim, Secretary-General, Singapore Democratic Alliance
2. Ng Teck Siong, Chairman, Reform Party
3. Sin Kek Tong, Chairman, Singapore People's Party
4. Sebastian Teo, President, National Solidarity Party
5. Gandhi Ambalam, Chairman, Singapore Democratic Party

Representing civil society are:

1. Chia Ti Lik, blogger and activist
2. Mohd Jufrie, activist and former election candidate
3. Ng E-jay, blogger and activist
4. Tan Kin Lian, blogger and financial activist
5. Seelan Palay, blogger and activist

Post updated on Feb 5 with the following Straits Times report:
Key parties to skip forum
By Kor Kian Beng, 4 Feb 2009

THE need for unity and identifying the future direction of the opposition in Singapore are among issues to be discussed at a forum on Saturday - but several key parties are giving the event a miss.

The meeting, organised by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and titled Opposition - Where To?, will also address questions such as what parties are doing to build confidence and support among the electorate, and whether greater cooperation is necessary to attract votes.

A posting on the SDP's website listed five panellists: Reform Party (RP) chairman Ng Teck Siong, Singapore People's Party (SPP) chairman Sin Kek Tong, National Solidarity Party (NSP) president Sebastian Teo, SDP chairman Gandhi Ambalam and Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) secretary-general Desmond Lim.

Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong, who is SPP's secretary-general and SDA's chairman, and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang, the Workers' Party (WP) secretary-general, are not involved.

The duo are the only elected opposition MPs in Parliament along with WP chairman Sylvia Lim, who is a Non-Constituency MP.

The absence of Mr Chiam and Mr Low prompted some queries on the SDP website, with one person saying: 'Cheers to SDP for organising such (a) forum. The two opposition MPs should join in. Where are they?'

When contacted, WP organising secretary Yaw Shin Leong said the party received the SDP's invitation last week but did not respond to it. He declined to comment when asked for the reason.

Mr Chiam's SPP is not being formally represented at the forum.

Mr Sin, its chairman, is attending in his private capacity, but said he did not object to the SDP billing him as SPP chairman: 'I said I have no objections because you can't hide these things.'

The SDA - a grouping of the SPP, Singapore Malay National Organisation and Singapore Justice Party - will also not be represented.

This despite Mr Lim being listed as a panellist.

He told The Straits Times that he was not going as he had to attend a Potong Pasir grassroots event on that day.

The SDA is not sending a replacement as it requires a meeting and the consensus of its executive council, he added.

'There are other opportunities to work together in the future,' said Mr Lim, who is also SPP's assistant secretary-general.

Echoing this sentiment was the NSP's Mr Teo, a business consultant.

He, too, may skip the forum due to work commitments in China this weekend. He said the party would have to discuss whether to send a replacement.

'Things cannot be perfect all the time. We can always find other opportunities,' he said, but added that the forum was a good occasion for opposition parties to foster greater understanding.

Mr Ng of the RP, set up by late opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam, confirmed that he would be attending the forum.

The event at the Copthorne Orchid Hotel will also discuss the role of civil society and the blogging community, whose representatives include former WP member Chia Ti Lik and former NTUC Income chief executive officer Tan Kin Lian.

The SDP's Mr Gandhi declined to comment when contacted for more details on the event and its participants.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Do we need another 50 years to realise that we've been had?

Shameful piece of legislation
Singapore Democrats
28 Jan 09

Unbeknownst to most Singaporeans -- as well as police officers apparently -- the Government quietly passed subsidiary legislation a few years ago to ban all forms of political activity.

Under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) (Assemblies and Processions) Rules, permits are required for a group of 5 persons or more to:

(a) demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person;
(b) publicise a cause or campaign; or
(c) mark or commemorate any event.

What kind of law makes it illegal for citizens to come together just to express a view or to publicise a cause or campaign? Indeed what kind of a government passes that kind of law?

But even this is not enough. The Government now wants yet more power to ensure that no one even attempts to assemble in public. The Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said two weeks ago that the Government will review and expand public order laws specifically to pre-emptively arrest persons it suspects of trying to conduct "illegal protests". (Since when were protests ever legal in the eyes of the PAP anyway?) The Government is even proposing to outlaw the filming of such illegal activities.

Singaporeans need to understand the seriousness of the position that we are in. We have been bound and gagged, and our captors can do anything they want to us and our loved ones all in the name of the law.

But we are not totally helpless. There are things that we can do to stand up to our oppressors. The first is to get rid of our mental enslavement that laws passed by the PAP is good for the country and should be unquestioningly obeyed.

It bears repeating that good and just laws benefit the people and must be followed. But bad laws such as the Miscellaneous Offences Rules mentioned above and the ones the Government is proposing are designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to further subjugate citizens and perpetuate the one-party state.

The second thing we need to do is to take concrete, proactive steps to bring about reform. We need to do more than just post our views and comments on the Internet. We need to act. Remember if you cannot fly, run; if you cannot run, walk; if you cannot walk, crawl. But we all need to do more.

We also need to get rid of the mindset that the only way to repeal such laws is to get elected into Parliament. In functioning democracies citizens freely engage in politics by joining political parties, NGOs or simply speaking up as individuals. They conduct meetings, both in public and in private, to let their elected representatives know their views.

But of course we are not a democracy, functioning or otherwise. When our lawmakers make laws that forbid citizens to even come together to express a view, how does one expect to get elected and elected in numbers to change laws?

Under Rule 2(b) above, opposition parties cannot even gather in numbers of more than four to sell newspapers, distribute flyers and meet the people because they are “publicising a cause or campaign.”

How does an opposition party become successful at the polls when the law allows the ruling party to criminalise legitimate political activities?

This is not to say that the Singapore Democrats are not interested in elections. We state clearly that it is important to continue to participate in elections.

But over and above elections, we – the opposition and civil society – must continue to work for the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. This is the foundation upon which free and fair elections rests. Without it, changing laws through elections is a fantasy.

We have had 12 general elections in the last 50 years since the PAP first came to power. Laws have been constantly changed not just to ensure that the PAP wins every single time but that the opposition's presence in Parliament remains non-existent or miniscule (think GRC, elections deposit, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, ban on podcasts, the Films Act, etc).

The PAP's strategy, of course, is to continue to propagate the falsehood that laws can be changed through the elections, elections that the party controls. Do we need another 50 years to realise that we've been had?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Tax haven" Singapore may soon come under increased scrutiny from the US

Read Chee Soon Juan's 3-part article Singapore's future as a financial centre: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.
Obama to influence Hongkong as tax havens
International Business Times, 19 Jan 09

Hong Kong and Singapore may soon come under increased scrutiny from the US, if incoming President Barack Obama follows through with his pledge to crack down on abusive "tax havens" which "peddle secrecy" and "cloak tax evasion and other misconduct," according to Withers law firm.

In February 2007, then-Senator Obama co-sponsored the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act (STHAA), which was introduced in both the Senate and the House. Although no action has been taken on either version since then, Obama's aides have indicated that similar legislation will be considered in the early stages of the new administration.

With both Hong Kong and Singapore featuring on the initial list of 34 "Offshore Secrecy Jurisdictions," Obama's inauguration could mark the beginning of increased restrictions for US persons utilising these offshore financial centres, according to Kurt Rademacher, Partner at Withers, Hong Kong.

"If Obama, as President, pushes similar legislation through, the next step would be to determine whether Hong Kong and Singapore should be considered official 'tax havens'," said Mr. Rademacher.

"If designated as "tax havens," a number of restrictions would be imposed on US persons using these jurisdictions as offshore financial centres."

The centrepiece of the STHAA is a provision that would force taxpayers to prove that they do not have control over any offshore entities with which they contract, including trusts, corporations, limited liability companies and partnerships. The STHAA would also increase reporting and withholding requirements on financial institutions and fiduciaries dealing with Hong Kong and Singapore, provided they are designated as "tax havens," as well as increase penalties for tax avoidance in these offshore jurisdictions.

"The penalties and deterrents that come with the STHAA are very real," added Mr.Rademacher. "US banks could be prohibited from operating accounts for non-compliant foreign financial institutions and US financial institutions could be prohibited from accepting credit card transactions involving non-compliant foreign banks."

Other jurisdictions that featured on the "Offshore Secrecy Jurisdictions" list include Jersey,Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Belize.

It has been estimated that the STHAA would generate up to US$50 billion of additional tax revenue for the US annually, which could be used to offset an array of new spending programmes Obama has promised.

Singapore may face U.S. challenge on bank secrecy laws
Reuters, 5 Dec 08

SINGAPORE, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Singapore may face political pressure from the United States over its role as a financial centre for rich foreigners, the country's prime minister said on Friday.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told journalists at a lunch hosted by Singapore's Foreign Correspondents Association that U.S. pressure on some European countries to lighten banking secrecy laws and open their books to greater scrutiny may lead to more European money flowing into Singapore in the short term.

"But I expect Singapore to come under pressure too," he said in response to a question on whether pressure on countries like Switzerland and Liechtenstein will help Singapore.

Singapore's government has previously denied suggestions that the country is a tax haven. It has strict bank secrecy laws and has been promoting itself as a rival financial centre to Hong Kong to attract banks such as UBS, Credit Suisse and Citigroup to manage money for rich local and foreign clients.

(Reporting by Neil Chatterjee and Kevin Lim; Writing by Jan Dahinten; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dr Chee Soon Juan's video message to President Barack Obama

See here for the text of this message. And here for my post on Obama's inauguration.

Dissident urges Obama to push Singapore on rights
AP, 21 Jan 09

SINGAPORE - A Singapore opposition leader has called on President Barack Obama to take steps to encourage the island nation's government to stop committing human rights abuses.

Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, praised Obama's record as a civil rights lawyer and said he hoped the new "administration's foreign policy will be as enlightened."

"I have every confidence that the U.S. will pay more attention to the human rights abuses of the Singapore government and take positive steps to help Singapore join the community of democracies," Chee said in a five-minute video posted on YouTube and his party's Web site on Tuesday.

He criticized the restrictions imposed on speech, assembly, the media and elections, but did not outline what he thought Obama could do to improve the human rights situation in Singapore and across Asia.

Chee called the government "effectively a dictatorship."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not available for comment Wednesday.

The People's Action Party has ruled Singapore since independence in 1959 and holds 82 out of 84 seats in Parliament.

The government has previously said some restrictions are necessary to maintain harmony in the tiny, multiethnic island.

There was no immediate comment from Washington.

Last year, Human Rights Watch accused Singapore of using defamation lawsuits to stifle criticism of the government in the press and to bankrupt opposition leaders, including Chee. Singapore's leaders have also sued journalists several times in past years for alleged defamation. They have won lawsuits and damages against Bloomberg, The Economist, the International Herald Tribune, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal.

Obama to receive Singapore plea
BBC News, 21 Jan 09

The leader of a Singapore opposition party has posted a video message asking for US President Obama's support.

Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, posted his "message to President Obama" on the video sharing website YouTube.

Mr Chee said he hopes that the US "will pay more attention to the human rights abuses of the Singapore government".

Mr Chee has been jailed several times and faces multiple charges of defying local protest laws and other offences.

His Youtube message began with congratulations to Mr Obama, describing his inauguration as "an occasion of great moment".

He reminded the US president of his words on International Human Rights Day in December 2008, when he had aligned the US with "men and women around the world who struggle for the rights to speak their minds, choose their leaders and be treated with dignity and respect".

'Clever repression'

Mr Chee then spoke of the many men and women around Asia suffering in that struggle, notably Burmese opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.

Mr Chee expressed the hope that with Mr Obama in charge, it could not be "repression as usual" in Burma, and that "urgent change must come" to the country ruled by a military junta.

In Singapore, Mr Chee claimed, repression was exercised through the "clever use" of terms such as rule of law and good governance "to cover up what is effectively a dictatorship".

"How else do we describe a government prohibits public speech and peaceful assembly controls media, detains citizens without trial and manipulates elections?" he said.

He expressed the hope that Mr Obama might "take positive steps to help Singapore join the community of democracies."

"Under your leadership I look forward to a world that is freer, more democratic and more just," said Mr Chee.

Economic concerns

Mr Chee's YouTube message includes pictures apparently of poor Singaporeans living in cardboard boxes - an allusion to growing economic distress in a state that has made impressive economic success a key plank of its appeal at the ballot box.

The Singapore government has announced a new low in the level of economic performance expected this year - a contraction of between 2% and 5%.

Singapore President SR Nathan sent his own congratulatory message to Mr Obama in which he expressed the hope that the US would provide new economic leadership.

Mr Nathan noted the close ties between Singapore and the US which he described as longstanding, close, multifaceted and versatile.

The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore carried a brief report about Mr Chee's message without comment on Wednesday.

In the past the government has dismissed complaints about restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly as without substance.

A park is designated as a space for free speech in Singapore; outside that area, gatherings of more than five people need official permission.

Mr Chee is one of the few Singaporeans who have publicly spoken against Singapore's People's Action Party, which has ruled since 1959.

Singapore's leaders say tough laws against dissent and other political activity are necessary to ensure the stability which has helped the city-state achieve economic success.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Foreigners & PRs filled 484,700 out of 796,000 jobs created between 2004 & 2008; 200,000 of them may leave in next two years - Analysts

Singapore May See 200,000 Foreigners Leave, Credit Suisse Says
By Shamim Adam

Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s population may shrink in the next two years as “sizeable” job losses amid the city- state’s deepest recession force 200,000 foreigners to leave, Credit Suisse Group said.

About 300,000 jobs may be lost by 2010, two-thirds of which are held by foreigners and permanent residents, economists Cem Karacadag and Kun Lung Wu wrote in a report received today. The number of people on the island nation may fall by about 3.3 percent to 4.68 million by 2010, Credit Suisse said.

Companies in export-dependent Singapore are firing workers as demand for goods and services ebb. More than 10,000 people were retrenched last year and a worsening economy may result in job losses tripling in 2009, reaching numbers not seen since the Asian financial crisis a decade ago, the government said.

“The contraction in exports and output and consolidation in financial and business services could lead to sizeable job losses, which, in turn, may drive as many as 200,000 foreigners and permanent residents out of Singapore,” the economists said. “These levels of job losses and population decline would be unprecedented.”

Singapore’s economy may shrink 2.8 percent this year, Credit Suisse predicts, making it the Southeast Asian nation’s worst annual contraction in its 43-year history. The government says gross domestic product may decline as much as 2 percent.

Last week, the National Wages Council, which represents government, employers and union groups, advised companies affected by the deepening economic slump to freeze or cut pay rather than fire workers.

Fewer Births

About 30,000 workers were retrenched in 1998 and some 26,000 lost their jobs in the 2001 downturn, acting Minister for Manpower Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

Immigration is a key component of Singapore’s population strategy, as incentives offered since 1987 to arrest a declining birth rate by offering tax breaks, subsidies and cash bonuses failed. Singapore, a quarter the size of Rhode Island, has no natural resources and the government relies on the skills of its populace to generate economic growth.

The nation’s population jumped 17.6 percent in the five years to June 2008, and foreigners made up three-quarters of the increase, the Credit Suisse report said. Foreigners and permanent residents filled 61 percent, or 484,700, of the 796,000 jobs created between 2004 and the third quarter of 2008, the analysts estimated.

Singapore’s employers added more than 435,000 workers to their payrolls in the seven quarters to September 2008, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

‘Harsh Assumptions’

“As harsh as our assumptions may seem, they only imply that the economy gives up all of the jobs it created in 2008 and a portion of the new jobs in 2007,” the economists wrote.

About 160,000 positions in the services industry may be lost, while manufacturers may fire 100,000 workers, Credit Suisse predicts. The construction industry may cut 40,000 workers, it said.

“The potential drop in employment and population would have far-reaching implications for the economy,” wrote Credit Suisse analysts Sean Quek and Kwee Hong Ching. “Private consumption could contract in both 2009 and 2010.”

The unemployment rate, at 2.2 percent as of September 2008, may rise to 5.6 percent by 2010, the highest in more than two decades, they said.

Job cuts rose “significantly” last quarter, and both unemployment and layoffs are expected to be “substantially higher” in 2009, the National Wages Council said last week.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Singapore govt to further tighten ALREADY tightened laws against protests

The first is an AFP report followed by a report from TODAY. After the news articles is a report on Singapore from Human Rights Watch's World Report 2009.
Singapore government to tighten laws against protests: deputy PM
17 Jan 2009

SINGAPORE (AFP) - - Singapore's deputy prime minister said the island state, which is hosting a summit of Asia Pacific leaders this year, may further tighten laws against public protests, according to reports.

Wong Kan Seng, who is also Home Affairs minister, said the government is reviewing public order laws and may pass legislation to deal more effectively with illegal protests and other acts of civil disobedience, the Straits Times said.

The legislation is expected to be passed in time for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November which could attract both local and overseas protesters, he said.

US president-elect Barack Obama, due to take office next week, is among the 21 leaders scheduled to attend the summit.

Public order laws are already tight in Singapore, where protests require a police permit if held outside a designated free-speech zone and gatherings of five or more people are illegal.

Nevertheless Wong said fresh legislation is needed to deal more effectively with political activities, while relaxing regulations on people gathering for social and recreational purposes.

He said police could be granted power to take action before protesters could gather at specific areas such as parliament, and cited protests by the political opposition, and by Myanmar nationals against their country's ruling junta.

"They make a show of breaking the law," Wong said of the protesters.

"The police watch and do nothing and can only follow up with investigation after the show is over when they pack up and leave. This cannot go on," he said.

Police may get ‘move on’ powers
MHA reviewing public order laws
Weekend • January 17, 2009

WHEN members of the Singapore Democratic Party attempted to disrupt the IMF-World Bank meetings here in 2006, it turned into a three-day standoff with the police.

When Falungong activists protested along Orchard Road in 2005, they were warned that they did not have a permit. Yet this did not stop them from protesting the very next day.

Armed with only the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (MOA) and Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (Pema) police could only deal with such acts of civil disobedience via prosecution after the incidents.

Now, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wants to give its security forces the powers to deal with such situations “pre-emptively on the ground and not let it occur and then deal with the consequences and perpetrators later”.

Responding to queries, MHA told Weekend Today that it is studying how other countries have responded post-911 and is considering enacting new public order laws here.

Certain Australian states, for example, have given their police “move-on” powers, “in a way which minimises disruption by asking people to leave a particular location”. If they leave, there is no arrest. If they refuse to comply, the police arrest them for defying the law.

“This creates an intermediary step between ‘doing nothing’, which is not acceptable in today’s context, and ‘outright arrests’, which is not necessary in all situations,” said MHA in a written reply.

“Our current public order laws have evolved over time in piece-meal fashion ... (and) were conceived in an era when security threats were of an entirely different scale and impact,” said MHA, noting that such a situation was “not tenable” in today’s world which is threatened by “suicide bombers and anarchistic fanatics”.

Significantly, Singapore is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting this year and with “mega events increasingly an important means of profiling Singapore”, the risk level is higher.

“They are ‘trophy’ targets for terrorists or disruptive elements who seek global attention in promoting their causes or agenda,” said MHA.

Legislative changes could rationalise the two laws, which were meant to govern recreational and social activities.

“We should not continue to have politics treated as entertainment or as a miscellaneous offence ... We should distinguish between political and non-political activities.

“By enacting a new law to deal with public order incidents arising from cause-related activism, we can liberalise the Miscellaneous Offences Act and Public Entertainment and Meetings Act to allow greater self-regulation in activities that matter to the average citizen and are less likely to create public disorder.

“Cause-related or ideologically related activities, including those pertaining to race and religion that certain groups wish to promote, can then be addressed squarely for the heightened risks they pose,” explained the Ministry.

The review comes at a time when the Government is freeing up political space.

Since September, citizens can stage outdoor demonstrations at Speakers’ Corner.

While reiterating that Singaporeans’ desire to express their views publicly about a range of different causes was “positive”, MHA added: “Greater freedom must come with greater accountability.

“Abuse of the freedom to the detriment of the community and nation must have its consequences.”
Human Rights Watch report on Singapore

Events of 2008

Singapore remains an authoritarian state with strict curbs on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; denial of due process rights; draconian defamation laws; and tight controls on independent political activity. Since 1959 the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has won all elections.

Internal security and criminal laws permit prolonged detention of suspects without trial. Caning is obligatory for certain categories of crimes, as is the death penalty for others. Although reforms have improved employment conditions for some of the country's 180,000 migrant domestic workers, the government still fails to guarantee them basic rights.

Freedom of Expression and Assembly

Singapore's constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and expression, though parliament can and does limit both on security, public order, and morality grounds. Opposition politicians and their supporters are at constant risk of prison and substantial fines for simply expressing their views.

On October 13, 2008, Singapore's High Court ruled that opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Secretary General Dr. Chee Soon Juan and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, must pay Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, US$416,000 in damages for an article in the SDP's newsletter. The article had compared how the government is run to a scandal at a well-known charity. The ruling may bankrupt the SDP and permanently shut it down. Dr. Chee and Ms. Chee are already bankrupt because of previous defamation rulings against them.

In September 2008 the Lees also won a defamation suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review and its editor Hugo Restall for commentary on the same case. Damages had yet to be assessed at this writing. The government is also seeking contempt proceedings against the publisher and two editors of the Asian Wall Street Journal for editorial comments related to the case.

In May Dr. Chee and a colleague were fined for speaking in public without a permit during the 2006 election campaign. They were charged with trying to sell copies of the SDP newsletter on a Singapore street.

Movies, music, and video games are routinely censored in Singapore. The Media Development Authority controls website licensing. In May 2008 the authority interrupted a private screening, sponsored by the SDP, of the video One Nation Under Lee.

The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act requires that locally published newspapers renew their licenses each year, and empowers authorities to limit the circulation of foreign publications deemed to "be engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore."

How far Singapore's leadership will loosen curbs on assembly and expression, as Prime Minister Loong suggested in August 2008, remains to be seen. The only step taken in 2008 was the government's decision in September to rescind the need for police permission for gatherings and rallies of more than four people at a popular park site officially labeled the Speaker's Corner. Race and religion still may not be publicly discussed, police may still intervene on public order grounds, and a permit is still required elsewhere in the city.

In March, on World Consumer Rights Day, police stopped a protest against rising prices outside Parliament House. The organizers, among them Dr. Chee, had been refused a permit; 18 protesters have since been charged with illegal assembly and procession. A day after the attempted rally, the non-political Consumer Association of Singapore was able to hold a public event without incident.

Due Process

Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA), Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), and Undesirable Publications Act permit arrest and detention of suspects without a warrant or judicial review. Both the ISA and the CLA also authorize preventive detention. The MDA permits the Central Narcotics Bureau chief to send suspected drug users for rehabilitation without recourse to trial.

The ISA is used against suspected Islamist militants, many of whom have been detained for long periods without trial. There is no right to challenge detention on substantive grounds. As of April 2008 some 30 suspected Muslim militants were being held, almost all members of Jemaah Islamiah. Another 25-30 former detainees live under restriction orders.


Singapore's penal code mandates caning combined with imprisonment for some 30 offenses, including drug and immigration felonies. It is discretionary for other offenses. Courts reportedly sentenced 6,404 men and boys to caning in 2007, some 95 percent of whose sentences were carried out.

Death Penalty

Although death penalty statistics are secret in Singapore, available information indicates that it has one of the world's highest per capita execution rates. In December 2007 Singapore joined with 53 other states in voting against a nonbinding UN General Assembly resolution calling for "a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty." Earlier, Singapore's home affairs minister, referring to the law's deterrent effects, commented that "there is no room to go soft."

Migrant Domestic Workers

Singapore's labor laws exclude some 180,000 migrant domestic workers from key protections guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly day off, limits on working hours, annual leave, paid holidays, and caps on salary deductions. In May 2008 acting Minister for Manpower Gan Kim Yong said it was unnecessary to mandate a weekly rest day. He instead supported the current standard contract provision that provides for at least one day off a month or compensatory pay. However, many employers forbid domestic workers to take a rest day; their isolation and employers' power to have them deported at will make it difficult if not impossible for them to bargain effectively for their due.

The government has prosecuted some employers who physically abuse domestic workers and imposed penalties on labor recruitment agencies for unethical practices. However it has failed to regulate exploitative recruitment charges that can consume a third or more of workers' two-year wage total.


In October 2007 Singapore's parliament rejected a proposal to repeal law 377A, which bans private and consensual sexual relations between men. Although prosecutions are rare, those found in violation can be jailed for up to two years on charges of "gross indecency."

In April 2008 the Media Development Authority fined a local television station for featuring a gay couple and their baby under regulations that prohibit promotion of gay lifestyles. It also fined a cable network for airing a commercial that showed two women kissing.

Human Rights Defenders

State laws and political repression effectively prevent the establishment of human rights organizations and deter individuals from speaking out publicly against government policies.

Unless they are registered as political parties, associations may not engage in any activities the government deems political. Trade unions are under the same restrictions and are banned from contributing to political parties or using their funds for political purposes. Most unions are affiliated with the umbrella National Trade Union Congress, which does not allow members supportive of opposition parties to hold office.

Key International Actors

Singapore is a key member of the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism, along with the US, Malaysia, and others, and is an active participant in regional and sub-regional security issues. It is also an important financial and banking center for Southeast Asia.

In February 2008 Singapore Foreign Minister George Yong-Boon Yeo, then chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), expressed ASEAN's concern about the conditions under which Burma's constitutional referendum took place. Since July 2008, after Singapore's term as chair of ASEAN ended, the government has shown more support for Burma's government, even refusing to renew residency permits for Burmese citizens who appear to have taken part in peaceful activities critical of Burmese government policies.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Employment squeeze; rising costs strain Uni students; and an in-your-face trip to Le Cordon Bleu (and the year has only started!)

Singapore gripped by employment squeeze
By Sumathi Bala
Financial Times, January 15 2009

Singapore’s job market is looking gloomy as the global economic slowdown takes its toll on local industries’ hiring.

A recent survey reveals that more than half of bosses are planning to cut jobs in the first quarter of this year.

A Manpower employment outlook survey of 629 employers across seven industry sectors found that only 8 per cent intended to recruit, while 46 per cent expected to cut jobs. The rest had no plans to hire or fire, or had not made up their minds.

Net employment outlook – the percentage of employers looking to hire, minus those expecting a decrease in employment – now stands at 38 per cent for the January to March period, a sharp 54 per cent drop from the fourth quarter last year.

Job prospects are less bullish across Asia, according to the survey, with employers in all eight countries polled reporting weaker hiring plans compared with the previous quarter and a year ago.

The slowest hiring activity is expected in Singapore and Taiwan, where negative hiring expectations are reported.

Jeffrey A Joerres, chairman and chief executive of Manpower, says that the net employment outlooks from Singapore, India, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand are the weakest recorded and contrast starkly with the previous year, when these markets “were dealing with chronic and widespread talent shortages”.

A recent Reuters poll reaffirms Singapore’s grim outlook. The city-state is expected to be Asia’s worst-performing economy next year, when it is likely to remain entrenched in recession as the global downturn erodes demand for its exports.

The poll predicts gross domestic product (GDP) will contract 1.1 per cent in 2009. That marks a rapid deterioration in the economic environment from two months ago, as the global financial crisis has deepened. A similar poll in late September forecast 4.6 per cent GDP growth.

Singapore’s bleak performance has been the result of its exposure to the US market. The city-state became one of the earliest casualties of the US credit meltdown in Asia, when it sank into recession in the third quarter of 2008.

Singapore’s openness to external trade – especially its manufacturing industry, which accounts for about a quarter of the economy – is expected to cause more suffering this year, as the downturn in advanced economies accelerates. Job losses in manufacturing will rise as a result, analysts say.

Local companies are beginning to feel the pinch. Neptune Orient Lines, one of the world’s largest container carriers, recently said it would lay off 1,000 employees or 9 per cent of its workforce and issued a profit warning.

In a sudden move, DBS group, the largest bank in south-east Asia, said it would cut 900 jobs, or 6 per cent of its staff, mostly in Singapore and Hong Kong. This, by far the biggest job cut it has made, is to reduce costs as it tries to run a tighter ship amid a challenging business environment.

Philippe Capsie, country manager of Manpower Singapore, says: “As the realisation of the credit crisis begins to hit companies, employers’ hiring confidence is likewise affected. We expect companies to monitor market developments closely before making hiring decisions.”

He adds: “Employers are likely to place a higher emphasis on retaining and retraining existing staff as well as paying more attention to productivity. A number of employers will continue to hire, but job seekers are advised to be more open-minded in their job search and expectations.”

As lay-offs are expected to mount, Singapore’s policymakers are urging companies to look at creative options, such as having a shorter working week and reducing year-end bonuses. To keep workers employable, the government has also launched a S$600m ($402m) training scheme, which gives employers more funds to retrain staff rather than dispense with them.

The economic crunch could also affect Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers. Lim Swee Say, secretary-general of the national trades union congress (NTUC), speaking at a recent forum, said that it may make more business sense to let go of foreign workers rather than Singaporean workers if retrenchment is unavoidable for companies.

“We’re talking about rank-and-file workers, who are, by and large, replaceable. Our message is: give priority to the local workers. Not only will you help minimise unemployment in Singapore, but more importantly, it makes business sense for your company.”

Mr Lim added that if Singaporeans are laid off, companies may find it tough to re-employ them when the economy improves, as they will be sought by companies that must fulfill a quota of locals before they can hire foreigners.

At the same time, it is not lost on policymakers that foreign workers are necessary for companies to keep costs down and to dissuade local operators from choosing to relocate overseas.

The unemployment rate is expected to be below 3 per cent with about 10,000 job losses this year. But some estimates paint a bleaker picture, predicting that job cuts could be higher than the 30,000 seen in the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

Rising costs strain Singapore's university students
By Fong Wei Li / National University of Singapore
UPI, Jan 14, 2009

Singapore, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- By day, a third-year economics major who wants to be known only as Lynn attends classes at the National University of Singapore, usually clad in a simple getup of jeans and a tank top.

But at night, while most other undergraduates are asleep, Lynn trades her casual wear for a wardrobe of resplendent dresses and works as a social escort, a job scorned and labeled distasteful by most. From 8 p.m. to about 4 a.m. she entertains male clients by attending functions with them, indulging them in a drink and chat, or by providing what she called “discreet services.”

“It’s not exactly the most glamorous of jobs,” Lynn said. “I’m keeping it from my parents and most friends. But what to do? I have to eat my meals and pay my bills.”

Lynn belongs to a handful of varsity students taking on part-time jobs to finance their tuition fees and daily expenses. These students usually come from lower-income families with parents who are unable to foot the steep bills tagged to a tertiary education. It is unclear how many such students there are, but like Lynn, some are holding jobs that involve long hours while others engage in menial labor. Some of these students say their grades have suffered from having to balance both work and studies.

Lynn's father, a truck driver, took a pay cut earlier in January and makes barely enough to sustain the household’s day-to-day expenses, let alone finance Lynn’s university education. To see herself through her degree, she has been juggling her studies with part-time jobs since she enrolled at NUS.

According to the NUS Office of Admission’s Web site, the estimated monthly living expenses for undergraduates range from $580 to $1,000. This includes costs for transport, food, course materials and personal expenses. Tuition fees for most undergraduate degree courses are currently pegged at $6,360 per year, a $250 increase from last year. Broken down on a per-month basis, tuition fees add $530 to a student’s monthly expenses. Including living expenses, an undergraduate requires between $1,110 and $1,530 a month.

Although NUS offers loans to students assessed as needy, the schemes cover only up to 90 percent of tuition fees and provide little or no relief on the side of living expenses. On the other hand, rising food and transport costs are jacking up the cost of living. “I used to spend about $450 a month, give or take,” said Jamie Ong, a second-year mathematics major. “Now, all the price increases have brought it up to about a little less than $550.”

Ong’s father was retrenched earlier in May, and her mother earns a nominal income as a dishwasher. Both parents refuse to fund her university education because they feel it is a waste of time and money. To make ends meet, Ong takes on an evening job at the Night Safari as a tram guide, working from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. on weekends and alternate weekdays. She is paid $8 an hour and earns about $900 a month, half of which goes to her family. “On weekdays, I rush off from school to Night Safari and work till midnight,” Ong said. “It’s darn tiring and I feel like I can’t get any schoolwork done on time.”

Third-year psychology major Benjamin Kuah works part time as a supermarket assistant to finance his varsity life. His job at the supermarket is physically tiring because it requires him to carry and move heavy boxes daily during restocking. Kuah’s father was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago and has since been unable to work. His mother supports the family with her job as a school cleaner. Kuah attributed the plight of needy students, who work part time, to inadequate financial support. “I’m on the assistance scheme and they gave me a loan for most of my tuition fees but there’s no help with my living expenses,” Kuah said. “I’m not a big spender but I still need to eat, travel and pay for miscellaneous stuff. That’s the hard part.”

Eunice Foo, an officer with the NUS Office of Admissions, said the university’s assistance schemes assess each applicant and provide aid based on individual needs and circumstances. She said to help students cope with living expenses, the university’s career center facilitates work-study arrangements by maintaining a comprehensive job bank.

Kuah said this does not solve his problem of having to plough long hours and late nights into his supermarket job just to make ends meet. He added that his grades have suffered since he took up the job one year ago. “When I was in year one, my CAP (cumulative average point) score was above four,” Kuah said. “Now it’s below 3.5.” Ong, who works at the Night Safari, said her grades have also worsened noticeably. "I skip class so often because I'm so tired I can't wake up in time," she said. "If I manage to go for class, I end up falling asleep."

Lynn, who works as a social escort, said the nature of her job leaves her no time for schoolwork. “I usually can’t meet deadlines and sometimes I flunk modules,” she said. “But it’s better than not being able to afford my degree and then having to sell myself for the rest of my life.”

Not the time to flaunt your riches
Insight Down South
Jan 10, 2009

A high-ranking civil servant’s account about spending RM110,124 for him, his wife and son to learn fine French cooking has blown up in his face.

A GOVERNMENT elite has stirred ripples by talking of his expensive cooking lessons in France, revealing how hard times are deepening class differences in Singapore.

Inadvertently creating controversy was the permanent secretary at the Environment and Water Resources Ministry, one of the highest ranking civil servants.

Tan Yong Soon had related how he had spent S$46,000 (RM110,124) for himself, his wife and son for a five-day trip to learn fine French cooking.

In ordinary times, this leisurely – but rather insensitive – account would not have amounted to anything much but these days are, of course, far from normal.

Two factors invited criticism to flare.

First, he was seen as flaunting wealth, obtained from his high pay, at a time when Singapore is suffering one of its worst slumps in history.

Many thousands of workers are still losing jobs or suffering wage cuts.

And, secondly, government leaders are accused of being hugely overpaid, as a result of which some are no longer able to relate to the common people.

Tan was also accused of “boasting” about his elitist background when he wrote that his wife was “a senior investment counsellor at a bank” and his son, a soon-to-be student at America’s prestigious Brown University.

“Taking five weeks’ leave from work is not as difficult as one thinks,” Tan said.

“Most times, when you are at the top, you think you are indispensable. But if you are a good leader who has built up a good team, it is possible to go away for five weeks or even longer.”

Singaporeans were largely unimpressed. Some were angry. His fling at France’s prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in the face of rising poverty is the latest example of how out of tune some of Singapore’s well-paid elites are with heartland realities.

About 20% of affluent Singapore’s population lives in poverty with welfare payout to the poorest of the lot limited to a mere S$290 (RM694) a month.

When a government backbencher wanted to have it increased, a Cabinet minister refused, demanding: “How much do you want?”

Many Singaporeans were already unhappy with the multi-million dollar salaries paid to Cabinet ministers and top civil servants even in happier times.

(Despite a recent cut of up to 19%, the government here remains, by far, the highest paid in the world.)

The pay issue remains very controversial and contributes to the class division in society, a them-verses-us mentality that has apparently sharpened as a result of the economic crisis.

The whole episode has shown how the class – and social – divide is widening in high-tech Singapore.

The controversy over Tan’s trip has political implications for a government that is pondering over whether or not to call for a snap general election, which is not due until 2010-11.

In other developed countries from Britain to Japan, it would not have any impact since it involves a civil servant, not a political leader.

But the system is very different in Singapore, where the line separating the two hardly exists.

The Chinese characters “zeng fu” are used to describe the political leadership as well as the civil service.

Some questioned why Tan’s choice of spending his own wealth should be the public’s business – but not many are buying into it.

Established blogger Redbean articulated: “Tan is no ordinary, rich Singaporean. He is a senior civil servant ... and part of the governing elite.

“(He) should be seen as one who would be able to empathise with ordinary Singaporeans who are going through tough times ... (when) the Prime Minister is preparing the people for some belt-tightening and ‘bitter medicine’.”

Besides, if Tan had wished he should have spent his money at home to help the troubled economy rather than abroad, some believed.

Tan’s is by no means the only example of elitist snobbery, nor the worse.

A bigger controversy flared up four years ago when Wee Shu Min, the teenage daughter of a Member of Parliament, came across the blog of a Singaporean who wrote that he was worried about losing his job.

She called Derek Wee “one of many wretched, under-motivated, over-assuming leeches in our country.

“If you’re not good enough, life will kick you in the b***s ... Our society is, I quote, ‘far too survival of fittest’,” said Shu Min, who hailed from the elite Raffles Junior College.

“... Unless you are an arm-twisting commie bully, which, given your whiny, middle-class, under-educated penchant, I doubt,” she added before signing off with “please, get out of my elite uncaring face”.

The girl was flamed by hundreds of Singaporeans, but when her father Wee Siew Kim – an MP in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s constituency – told a newspaper that “her basic point is reasonable”, the row moved well beyond blogosphere.

A news agency, in reporting this, said: “The episode highlighted a deep rift in Singapore society and was an embarrassment for the ruling People’s Action Party and PM Lee.”

Raffles JC, which has produced several state leaders, had another brush with student snobbishness.

When a student found that a Raffles girl was dating a boy from a lower-achieving neighbourhood school, he hit out at him and had a message for lower-ranking students everywhere.

“Quit trying to climb the social ladder by dating students from top schools.”

There are signs the class distinction is getting into some young minds.

A reporter recounted how her friend was shaken when her young daughter came home one day and mentioned in passing that poor people were “stupid, obviously”.