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.