Sunday, January 14, 2007

Singapore: Middle Class Wage Stagnation

This was in the press not too long ago:

Middle class wage stagnation could lead to social instability
By Pearl Forss, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 11 January 2007 1856 hrs

SINGAPORE: Middle class wages have been stagnant in the past 5 years, according to economists, and this could lead to social instability.

These concerns were shared by economists at the annual Institute of Policy Studies Singapore Perspectives conference, who also added that the government is taking steps to address the problem.

Economists believe a US economic slowdown in business and consumer spending may cause problems for Singapore, but as Singapore is tops in the ASEAN resilience index, it should be able to weather external shocks, thanks to a diversified economy and strong Asian demand.

They predict that growth going forward will be above 3 to 5 percent.

The long-term growth limits for a mature economy was previously in the 3 to 5 percent range.

However, economists are asking who this growth is for. The income of the bottom 30 percent of the population has fallen. What is more worrying is the fact that the majority of Singaporeans in the middle class has only seen about a one percent increase in their nominal income in the last 5 years.

The answer to this question is clear: the vast majority of economic growth has benefited the upper class and the rich; the middle and lower classes have hardly benefited from the reported economic growth that the government has put up of late. One can see this in the growth in property prices that has centred around high end luxury properties built mainly for rich foreigners, and in the focus on developing industries designed to attract the foreign rich to our shores: Casino gambling and Private Banking.

But considering the vast concentration of political power in the hands of a few, Singaporeans should not be surprised that their interests have been, at best, secondary to those of the ruling and upper class. Singaporeans have repeatedly chosen small monetary handouts over substantive political change, and the economic impact can be said to be a direct result of their political choices.

This is not just a Singapore problem say economists who point out that stagnant wages is a global problem.

The chief reason for this is globalisation, especially with India and China introducing a large pool of skilled and unskilled labour to compete with the labour forces of industrialised countries.

Singapore is susceptible to this because of its open economy.
This part of the report fails to consider one very important fact: Singapore is largely a country of wage earning employees, in contrast to free economies like Hong Kong or the United States where there is a substantial proportion of small businesses. These countries, unlike Singapore, value free enterprise and entrepreneurship; people take risks to start their own businesses and do not necessarily value the lawyer/doctor/accountant/banker route with anywhere near the kind of respect that Singaporeans do. Take a visit to Hong Kong and you will see multiple small businesses along Nathan Road running their operations long into the night, with their neon lights flashing for your attention. Singapore, in comparison, is a dead city. And why? because most people are too busy going home after their 9-9 job and plunking down on their bed, getting ready for the next day of work.

No, the thing that most makes Singapore susceptible is not the fact that it has an open economy, it is not the fact that China and India are exporting more and more cheap labour, it is because Singaporeans themselves have grown too accustomed to depending on the government to tell them what to do, what job to work for, and have been psychologically conditioned to be employee-smart, but entrepreneurially dumb.
Manpower Ministry data shows that 124,000 jobs were created last year and 45 percent of these jobs went to foreigners.
It is thus no surprise that multiple jobs should go to foreigners. In fact, citizens only took 30% of the jobs, the other 25% going to PRs. It is clear that Singapore is not a country for Singaporeans, it is a country where Singaporeans screw themselves to serve foreigners.

Why? Perhaps it is because Singaporeans as a whole have some kind of deep-seated inferiority complex where they do not believe that they are as good as foreigners. They treat their own scholars poorly by paying them less than foreign imports. They treat their own men poorly by not making special arrangement for the fact they have served national service. And they have a weird obsession with bringing in 'foreign talent' to fill each job where they believe there is no local to fill.

And the great paradox is that Singaporeans repeatedly vote in a government that embodies and emphasises this phenomenon. Can we really put all the blame on the PAP for being an abusive husband when Singaporeans willingly play the subservient wife? Can we really put all the blame on foreigners for wanting to take our jobs when we do not stand up to fight for our own ricebowls?

I personally think that Singaporeans are in no way inferior to foreigners. In fact, I have come across many caucasians whom I think are dumber than most. But then, the government and other Singaporeans seem to disagree.

It will be interesting to see how Singaporeans respond to this latest piece of news, and how this sado-masochistic relationship between ordinary Singaporeans and the government/foreigners develops.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Gayle Goh, Mr Wang, and George Yeo

Lately, there has been a bit of a debate around whether those who blog over political issues should step forth into the mainstream media to exchange views with politicians in public.

The debate was sparked over a difference of opinion between Mr Wang and Gayle Goh about whether they should appear on's latest episode, "Big Boys Blogging." In particular, Gayle was rather critical of what Mr Wang said in his rejection of the invitation to appear on the show. Here's my take on the debate:

Gayle seems to have a soft spot for the mainstream media. She has participated multiple times on television shows and has written for local broadsheets. She also blogs with her real name, so, she really has little to lose by appearing on TV. In fact, it heightens her profile and helps her in her quest to promote 'engagement' between bloggers and the msm/incumbent politicians. She is also comparatively young, does not yet have a career and/or mouths to feed, and is waiting to enter college. Her life circumstances are very different from Mr Wang and other bloggers whom she critiques.

Mr Wang, in contrast, is a social commentator who prefers to preserve his anonymity. He has a career and a family to take care of. Being several years older than Gayle, he is conscious of the approach that the PAP has taken towards its critics and is cognisant of the risks he might be taking by stepping out into the open and revealing his identity. Given the approach that Lee Kuan Yew and family have taken towards outspoken critics of his regime, Mr Wang probably feels that it is more prudent for him to remain anonymous, rather than step out into the playing ground of the PAP.

As we can see, the two bloggers are in rather different stages in life and have rather different experiences with regards to politics. Gayle comes from a younger generation that is idealistic, optimistic, and has not felt the full force of the authoritarian rule of LKY, and probably does not fully understand the risks a salaried family man takes when becoming a government critic. Mr Wang, meanwhile, has observed the political scene in Singapore somewhat longer and is much more cynical that appearing on TV is worth his time.

Clearly, the two have vastly different experiences and points of view, which probably explains the great difference in opinion and response to the BlogTV invitation.

Interestingly, Gayle says that "[she] entirely disagree[s] with [Mr Wang's] take on this issue." Mr Wang himself has yet to respond to Gayle's post (as of this writing).

Gayle says,

"If we become blase and disinterested, distancing ourselves, then is it really the government's fault when we complain of an affective divide?"
However, she has not factored into her argument that CNA is a government owned media network that is heavily censored in favour of the PAP. While it may be all nice to engage in a conversation, that is only so if the exchange takes place on a fair playing field where both sides have the equal opportunity to make their points and where their statements are not skewed, censored, or misrepresented. The mainstream media in Singapore, however, has a reputation and track record of heavy censorship of anything that portrays the ruling party in a negative light. And because of this, Mr Wang probably has a very strong reason to turn down the invitation to appear on state-controlled television because of the ways he has been misrepresented and/or censored in the past.

Gayle also says,

"The right of reply is a wondrous thing."

And implies that by criticising the establishment from the comfort of his blog and refusing to engage them face to face, Mr Wang is denying them the right of reply. Yet in making her argument Gayle has failed to consider how the PAP have used their monopoly of the mainstream media in Singapore to shape public opinion and debate towards their agenda, without giving the opposition a genuine 'right of reply.' She has also failed to consider that George Yeo and PAP MPs have every opportunity to engage Mr Wang's posts on their own blogs or by leaving comments on Mr Wang's blog - on the internet they have a perfect opportunity to claim their 'right of reply,' an opportunity that they have yet to take advantage of. At the same time, the mainstream media is clearly a skewed playing field without the same opportunity for equal exchange that Gayle asks bloggers to give politicians. Time and again the local daily and its media cousins have not only censored but misrepresented opinions irrelevant to their agenda - critics are well justified if they decide that engaging on an uneven playing field is not worth their time.

Gayle does make several good points, though, one of which is:

"...the opportunity to quiz ministers directly on the issue helps the debate to evolve."
Indeed, few would deny that being able to converse directly with those in power is an exciting and valuable opportunity. Even Mr Wang acknowledged that he "was somewhat tempted." I doubt any would contest that genuine engagement with a minister would enhance political dialogue and citizen participation in politics.

But perhaps if she paused to consider why so many bloggers turned down the opportunity to converse with George Yeo (at least four or five did so, to my knowledge; even Bernard Leong nearly declined the invitation - which would have made Gayle the only participant), Gayle might find cause to temper her criticisms of these bloggers with as much criticism of the media machinery in Singapore.

However, this post may have too much Gayle bashing. Perhaps she is right, and the other "notoriously uncontactable bloggers" are all wrong. Perhaps her youthful idealism and optimism will pay dividends when she "ask[ed George] about opposition politicians and new media like podcasts and (tongue-in-cheek) sound amplification devices in public." If, and when, "these things... ..survive the cuts and edits," I will be more than pleased to have my arguments proven wrong, and for Gayle's efforts to herald a new era in political engagement between ordinary citizens and ministers in the mainstream media.

Your Danse Macabre
Talk of the Town
Teaser to "Big Boys Blogging"

Monday, January 01, 2007

GGBL Fund Review

Here is how my fund has performed over the last 1.5 years.

Click image for bigger chart