Author Archives: kjeyaretnam
Someone made a comment a couple of days ago on my public Facebook profile Kenneth Jeyaretnam TeamRP:
Kenneth, just checking your opinion on this. Japan’s economy is doing badly, and this is partly due to their aging population and low birth rate.
do u think that if the Sg government did not do anything do bring foreigners here, that we would end up like japan?
Falling birth rates with an economy in recession?
And also, in your opinion, how can Japan get out of this mess that they are in?
I decided replying on Facebook would be too long so decided to make it the subject of a blog.
Are Japan’s problems due to their ageing population and low birth rate?
No not really. Japan’s immediate problem is deflation where prices are falling and the real value of debt increases.
Interest rates cannot fall below zero so as prices decline, the real interest rate rises and the cost of servicing that debt rises.
This leads people to consume less and firms to invest less while trying to save more to meet the higher cost of servicing the debt. Lower consumption and investment leads firms to cut prices and try to cut wages.
This quickly becomes a vicious spiral.
Japan may have a future problem with an aging population and low birth rate but technological advances in robotics and software will lead to accelerating productivity growth that will offset this. Advances in medicine will lead to an increase in lifespans and the quality of life. This will increase the number of years people can work and be economically productive, probably quite substantially.
How did Japan get into this situation in the first place?
Japan got to this point because it relied too much on net exports and investment, rather than domestic demand, to drive growth. Its corporations hugely over-invested in a narrow range of industries, induced by subsidies and non-tariff barriers. Demand for the country’s products stagnated and as China and the rest of Asia opened up to foreign investment Japanese corporations either transferred production to Asia or were forced out of business. The persistent current account surpluses pushed the yen up despite attempts by successive governments to manipulate the exchange rate. Japan fell into a deflationary spiral as faced with the loss of competitiveness and a lack of demand at home, domestic manufacturers cut prices and wages.
While there were endless stimulus packages during the 1990s and 2000s, with a vast number of infamous pork-barrel infrastructure projects, none of the stimulus packages was sufficiently large to reverse falling prices once deflation had set in. Moreover they were often accompanied by taxation increases which largely negated the effects of the additional spending. Saddled with overcapacity, the corporate sector failed to invest and the Government failed to mop up the excess savings. Ultimately it only succeeded in increasing the debt to GDP ratio.
What is the solution to Japan’s problems?
Japan needs to break the deflationary spiral and push the inflation rate up to erode the real value of debt. This has to be done through a combination of monetary and fiscal policy.
In what has come to be known as Abenomics, the Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, has leaned on the Bank of Japan to undertake a massive easing of monetary policy and expansion of the money supply. This is several times larger as a proportion of GDP than the monetary easing in the US by the Federal Reserve after the financial crisis of 2008.
However, monetary policy easing has not been accompanied by any easing of fiscal policy. This has in fact been tightened with a rise in the sales tax in April and another rise due by October 2015 (though this may be postponed in light of the poor GDP figures).
Without fiscal policy easing Japan’s monetary easing just looks like another in a long line of Japanese attempts to gain a competitive advantage through currency depreciation. The yen has fallen some 45% since its high point in 2012 of around 80 yen to the dollar. While it may bring temporary gains to Japanese exporters other big exporters like China, South Korean and Germany are unlikely to tolerate it for long. In fact all these countries have moved to depreciate their currencies (in Germany’s case the European Central Bank has eased policy to push down the euro) in an attempt to divert some of the US’s demand growth to their own products. This is unlikely to be successful for long and indeed there are already signs that US growth is stalling.
The conventional view is that Japan cannot afford to embark on a fiscal easing because its Government debt to GDP ratio is one of the highest in the world. Gross debt is over 230% of GDP though this comes down considerably, to about 134% of GDP, when debt instruments such as securities and loans held by the Japanese Government are included. However, all Japanese Government debt is denominated in yen and Japanese residents hold 90%, so it is difficult to see why the Japanese Government would be unable to repay the debt. Ultimately they could just monetize the debt by printing money or borrowing from the banks. Critics might complain that this would be inflationary but Japan’s economic woes stem from deflation in the first place. A rise in inflation to erode the real value of debt is just what is needed in the first place.
How is Singapore like Japan?
Singapore is likely to have the same problem as Japan in the future but not because of a falling birth rate. The PAP Government has aggressively moved to boost the economically active segment of the population and counteract the falling birth rate (which they are responsible for) by allowing in so many foreign workers at all levels. At least for the time being we do not face the problem of a large number of retirees supported by a shrinking working population. However this has merely shifted the problem to the future since Singapore’s population cannot continue to grow to infinity. But I have argued above that this is likely to be a non-problem anyway as productivity, lifespans and working lives expand, probably quite dramatically.
Singapore’s problem is that like Japan, it relies largely on adding more inputs to create output rather increasing the productivity of these inputs. This was pointed out, by Krugman and others, in the 1990s when comparing the performance of the Asian “tiger” economies, including Singapore. I have often drawn attention in the past to Singapore’s poor productivity growth and that the PAP government has taken the easy route to impress foreigners and grow the economy merely by adding more low-cost workers.
Our economic growth is also extremely unbalanced, like Japan’s in the past and China or Germany now. Singapore runs a huge current account surplus of close to 20% of GDP that is much bigger than either Germany’s or China’s, which are often cited as examples of countries adopting selfish economic policies. Consumption is only about 40% of GDP so investment and net exports comprise about 60% of the economy. This cannot continue indefinitely without the rate of return on new investment falling so low as to be unattractive. The PAP Government have tried to stop this happening by opening the floodgates to cheap and easily exploitable foreign labour but we must be reaching the end of the road here despite the Government’s plans for a 7 million population and their barely concealed desire to increase that target to 10 million or more as soon as they think they can get away with it.
A major part of the problem with our unbalanced and unsustainable economic growth is that the PAP Government runs a surplus of about 10% of GDP and together with our forced savings in CPF this is recycled into the purchase of foreign financial assets that earn low or negative returns in S$ rather than being spent on consumption .
What could send Singapore into a deflationary spiral?
Already demand for Singapore’s exports is slowing amid the global economic slowdown and the economy is on the brink of recession. Unemployment is rising particularly among graduates who are forced to take lower-paying jobs. A property slump abroad could quickly translate into falling property prices here. Since inflation is domestically generated and is mainly caused by the rising cost of land and rents a property price slump could quickly lead to a scenario where prices are falling. This could lead to the same kind of deflationary spiral we have seen in Japan and that Europe is on the brink of falling into.
You might think that this cannot happen because the PAP Government has a lot of room to cut taxes and spend more because of the huge Government and current account surpluses. However much of the Government surplus is income from foreign financial assets. A slump in asset prices and in foreign currencies could cut the value of this income and leave a shortfall in the amounts necessary to repay CPF account holders. We already suspect that something like this has happened and that the value of our reserves has been eroded due to mismanagement. The Government does nothing to dispel these rumours by its desperate desire to hang on to our CPF savings and prevent withdrawals. The PAP is also so desperate that they have revived the defamation weapon and use of illegal assembly laws just in order to try to silence a group of young people who never looked very threatening to start with.
A “Tails They Win, Heads You Lose” Scenario
Ultimately though, even if the kind of scenario outlined above unfolds, the PAP Government can allow the S$ to depreciate and print money to pay off CPF holders. This should prevent us falling into the kind of deflationary spiral that afflicts Japan. However any such action, even if viewed as a lesser evil, would be expropriation from Singaporeans who have not been given any choice in whether they wish to lend money to the PAP Government for overseas speculation.
We have been left holding the risk with no share in the rewards. To the PAP leaders and the heads of Temasek and GIC Singapore is just a gigantic hedge fund that owns a valuable asset which unfortunately comes with a liability of three million native inhabitants. By electing them to office with no checks on their power, Singaporeans have granted the PAP a free option. This is why I call it a “Heads They Win, Tails You Lose Scenario”.
Yesterday I wrote about why the general Singaporean public paying for foreign workers’ medical care was a bad idea. If companies are allowed to get away without providing adequate medical coverage for their foreign workers this would effectively be a subsidy to those employers to employ foreign workers rather than Singaporeans.
Today I read about the proposals from the Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree, a luxury hotels and resorts group, Ho Kwon Ping.
Who is Ho Kwon Ping?
Mr Ho was detained in the 1970s for writing critical articles about the PAP Government. During his imprisonment, according to an interview he gave to the BBC, he had a conversion realising that he wasn’t Nelson Mandela. Purely coincidentally he became very rich but after assuming the leadership of the family business and purely coincidentally he has become a vocal supporter of the PAP.
What is his proposal?
Ho advocates converting the foreign workers’ levy into a deferred savings account akin to CPF, which the foreign worker would be able to withdraw when he left Singapore.
What is the Foreign Worker’s Levy?
This is a sum paid to the government by the employer. At the moment the foreign worker levy acts as a tax on the use of foreign labour. It should make foreign workers more expensive to employ and thus encourage employers to substitute Singaporeans.
Isn’t that a good thing?
Unfortunately, as I have pointed out repeatedly, if the supply of foreign labour is inelastic ( which means that even if their salaries are cut the amount of labour supplied does not fall by very much ) the levy could act merely to drive down wages for foreign workers while the gross cost to the employer (wage plus levy) remains unchanged. In this case the government is benefitting from the levy but the foreign workers are worse off. Most importantly Singaporeans are even worse off as no new jobs have been created for Singaporeans.
So the Foreign workers levy doesn’t help Singaporeans and is ineffective.
So isn’t Ho’s proposal an improvement?
Ho’s proposal is to convert the levy into a deferred savings account for the foreign workers. The same problems apply.
- Employers can theoretically reduce their foreign workers’ direct pay by up to the full amount of the deferred savings because these workers will be able to access their savings when they return to their home country.
- Given foreign workers’ weak bargaining power it is likely that employers will be able to cut their direct pay substantially.
- Ho’s proposal thus amounts effectively to a removal of the tax on foreign labour.
- Employers are likely to respond by employing MORE foreign labour and cutting back on their usage of Singaporeans as far as they are able.
Why is that self -serving?
While the number of Mr Ho’s employees in Singapore appears to be small, he speaks clearly with the economic interests of employers in mind and not Singaporean workers or even foreign workers.
What’s your solution?
- A better solution would be to have a minimum wage that was mandatory for all workers, both local and foreign.
- This would remove the ability of employers to drive down foreign workers’ wages to the detriment of Singaporeans competing with them for jobs.
- The levy could then be converted into a CPF account for foreign workers or retained as a tax on foreign labour.
My preference would be to have a cap on the overall number of foreign workers and then auction the entitlements to the highest bidders. This would ensure that foreign workers were allocated to where they would be most productive while controlling the overall levels. The cap could be adjusted up and down to keep wage growth in line with productivity growth.
Unfortunately judging by the comments on my Facebook page many employers are unhappy that the Government is not subsidising them more to take on foreign workers and making it easier for them to employ foreigners. This will always be so as far as employers are concerned. Labour can never be cheap enough. Slave owners in the American South worried that if slavery was abolished labour would become too expensive to allow them to profitably grow cotton and other crops.
Lets hope that Singaporeans are not too naïve to see through the arguments of special interest groups that appear to have altruistic motives but are actually trying to gain a commercial advantage.
I’m going to upset a lot of people here and come across as a heartless B*****d but here goes! There is a “heart warming” story out on Channel News Asia and Today concerning a Bangladeshi work pass employee who was discovered to have a brain tumour. The man was brought over from Bangladesh two months ago to work as a construction supervisor for Singaporean firm Archetype Pte Ltd., a group of six companies in the construction Industry. According to the story, Archetype’s medical insurance policy only provided the minimum medical cover for its foreign workers of $15,000. This has already been exhausted after Mr Shah’s three-day stay in intensive care. Archetype had not covered themselves with any extra critical care or serious illness plan for their employees.
A MOM spokesperson is reported as confirming that all employers are liable for their work pass holders’ medical care whether it is work related or not and presumably whether they have insurance for it or not..
I would not wish brain cancer on anyone and I have the deepest sympathy for the unfortunate Mr Shah and his fiancée back in Bangladesh. However there are several things that I find outrageous about this episode. I am going to go against the tide of public opinion here but I wonder why we are so naïve.
Why are companies allowed to bring over foreign workers without adequate insurance? MOM only requires employers of work permit holders to buy $15,000 of medical insurance. This is nothing if a worker suffers a serious illness or accident. MOM then allows companies to send the workers home where their condition allows it whereupon the companies have no further obligation for medical care.
Companies should be made to provide critical illness cover. Singaporeans are made to contribute to Medisave and Medishield to pay for their future medical expenses. The amounts contributed by Singaporeans are considerably in excess of Singaporeans’ current medical needs as evidenced by the huge surplus in Medisave and Medishield.
This means that Singaporeans’ wages have to be higher to compensate them for these additional costs. Foreign workers, already have much lower wage costs than Singaporean workers. Bangladeshi workers are probably the lowest paid in the world. Certainly Singaporean construction firms are finding Malaysians and Indonesians less exploitable and have now turned to Bangladeshis.
As I always say without a minimum wage employers can just keep turning to poorer and poorer countries. Real wages will continue to drop and Singaporeans will be continuously undercut.
By allowing companies to employ workers without adequate medical coverage, the PAP Government is just subsidising companies, many of which are foreign-owned, at the expense of Singaporean employees. If companies had to pay the same costs for a foreign employee as a Singaporean one then perhaps they would hire more Singaporeans.
Artificially subsidising the construction industry as I have described is also another way that the PAP Government boosts GDP growth by encouraging the excessive tearing down and construction of new buildings compared to other advanced countries. This contributes little to the welfare of citizens since most of those employed are foreigners. Certainly the constant upheaval and noise 7 days a week for SMRT projects is a cause of much stress. GDP calculations do not take account of the cost of traffic and public transport delays caused by the constant construction.
Why are Singaporeans, who are already disadvantaged by the subsidies given to these companies, being asked to contribute to help this company evade its legal and moral obligations and perpetuate a system that stacks the odds against them in the employment market? It is disappointing to see comments on Facebook like “The company deserves a medal”. Why?
The company and its directors and shareholders have not dug into their own pockets to help Mr Shah. They are expecting you to do so. Their profits however are not being shared with you but staying in their pockets. The crowd sourced campaign fund is in the company’s name not in that of the poor man himself or his family.
Archetype approached Jolovan Wham from HOME for help in raising money. Jolovan is quoted as saying “Mr Alam’s case raises the question of whether the medical coverage provided to work permit holders is comprehensive enough. This is definitely something we need to look into again. “ He is right but it is not just about protecting foreign workers. Eliminating unfair subsidies and bringing costs for foreign workers up to the level of local ones will save jobs for Singaporeans . Presently 18% of our population is comprised of foreign workers.
It appears that HOME are raising funds on their portal. It would have been more appropriate for HOME alone to run the donations campaign as a registered Charity. That is something I could buy into. Even if treating this as a hard luck case masks the rotten system at heart and the wrong people are being asked to contribute.
The employer has also set up an Indiegogo fund but I’m not even sure it is legal to use Indiegogo to raise funds when MOM puts a legal obligation on the employer to meet the costs. It smacks of scam. How can we be sure that the money raised is all going to Mr Shah’s treatment? Singapore hospitals are profit centres and presumably the same treatment in Singapore will be much more than in India or Bangladesh.
What is there to stop companies in future from trying to raise money from good-hearted and naïve Singaporeans to save themselves the costs of repatriation and so that they do not have to bear the cost of locating and employing another worker.
While I hope that Mr Shah receives the best treatment, Singaporeans should not be taken in by a system that exploits foreign workers and undercuts their own employment conditions.
Crowd source funding looks like a magic formula for whisking up money from thin air but it Is not the answer to everything. This is a classic example of how the excitement of a new media campaign has completely covered up the real issues.
- We need to stop subsidising employers to hire from overseas
- We need to preserve employment for Singaporeans.
- We need to make it more difficult for employers to exploit workers from poorer nations
- We need to keep reminding ourselves that our GDP growth is falsely inflated by subsidies for activities that do not contribute to our welfare.
- We need to understand that our abysmal productivity record stems from these abuses.
While Singaporeans may long ago have lost their admiration and affection for Lee Kuan Yew and the Lee family, though not their fear, there is one constituency where LKY’s reputation seems undiminished. This is of course with foreigners and particularly Western think tanks and academics. The Western media may have been cowed by fear of defamation suits or the loss of advertising revenues but it has always been a mystery why Western think tanks and NGOs are always ready to sing the praises of the PAP government or LKY’s wise foresight.
Among the myths that are endlessly repeated are that Singapore was a mangrove swamp before the genius of LKY transformed it or that Singapore is a barren rock devoid of natural resources. Like citizens of a communist country Singaporeans find this endless repetition of lies and propaganda offensive. In response to LKY being called the “founding father” of Singapore in the book “Hard Truths”, one netizen’s response was to say that LKY was not his father and how dare he call himself founding father.
One reason for this naivety on the part of foreigners may just be the very skilful marketing and hype done by the PAP Government and ignorance on the part of Western pundits. Nevertheless, I have always wondered how the PAP Government ensures that they are rarely criticised by Western media and think tanks.
Sometimes the people peddling the myths have never even visited Singapore or looked for a counter factual. It is sheer ignorance that allows a Nobel Prize-winning economist like Stiglitz to write a shockingly ill-informed pieces like this and then ignore my rebuttal. Then it turned out that he had written his piece based on conversations and impressions of his Singaporean students in the US. No doubt they were government-funded scholars.
Or John Kampfner, a clever and good man whom I have met and author of “Freedom for Sale” an important book, who did at least visit Singapore. He always stayed with elite Singaporean friends in condos and landed houses. He wrote a chapter praising the miracle of Singapore’s public housing while never having visited an HDB block.
But how does Singapore, with its state control over most sectors of the economy, manage to come top of indices of economic freedom compiled by right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation? Thanks to a New York Times (NYT) article the mystery is solved. Ignorance is not the answer here. Money, it seems, buys an awful lot of influence.
This is evident from the way Lee Kuan Yew, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday, he was showered with the predictable awards from a number of international organisations. The Atlantic Council, which “promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the Atlantic Community’s central role in meeting global challenges.”, on Sunday gave Lee Kuan Yew its Global Citizen Award. Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, who is the same age as LKY, paid tribute to him while our Foreign Minister, Shanmugam, was on hand with a gushing tribute, “This is an age where words like ‘outstanding’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘great’ are overused to describe leaders. But few will challenge that Mr Lee deserves to be described in those terms and more.”
A few months ago the Brookings Institution, a leading American think tank, which is often critical of US economic policy but usually has nothing but praise for Singapore’s Government, established a Lee Kuan Yew Chair in South East Asian studies (see link).
Lee Kuan Yew is not the only member of the Lee family to receive an award this year. In June 2014 his daughter-in-law and the PM’s wife, Ho Ching, received the Asian Business Leaders Award from the trustees of Asia House, a London-based “centre of expertise on Asia”.
To quote from the press statement, “The annual award recognises individuals who embody the ‘Servant Leader’ – economic success and professional excellence accompanied by moral leadership and service to society, Ms Ho Ching was selected to receive this year’s award because of her impressive business credentials and her significant efforts to inspire a commitment in others to improving society.”
The State Media and the PAP Government would like you to believe that these awards were just a recognition of the individuals’ achievements and talents.
However the New York Times recently carried an article exposing the substantial amounts given to several US-based think tanks, including the Atlantic Council and the Brookings Institution, by foreign government donors (see link). I was not surprised to learn in the same article that the PAP Government had given money to at least two US think tanks, the Atlantic Council (which gave LKY the Global Citizen Award) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
To quote the NY Times, “The think tanks do not disclose the terms of the agreements they have reached with foreign governments. And they have not registered with the United States government as representatives of the donor countries, an omission that appears, in some cases, to be a violation of federal law, according to several legal specialists who examined the agreements at the request of The Times.” The law in question is the Foreign Agent Registration Act which was passed in 1938 to combat a propaganda campaign by Nazi Germany.
In many cases, according to the NY Times, these donations come with expectations that the think tanks will promote the interests of their foreign donors, particularly in lobbying the US Government. In at least one instance the head of a think tank set up by the Atlantic Council, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, was removed because she put forward views to the US Congress which were opposed to those of the donor that had paid for the new centre. As the NY Times says. “Sometimes the foreign donors move aggressively to stifle views contrary to their own” and they quote another scholar in a phrase chillingly reminiscent of Singapore, “It is the self-censorship that really affects us over time”.
The PAP Government’s donations to the Atlantic Council and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies not only appear to have secured Lee Kuan Yew the Global Citizen Award. They also ensure that these think tanks are unlikely to criticise them.
Likewise, presumably the PAP Government and/or the Lee family get to appoint the holder of the Lee Kuan Yew Chair at Brookings. In addition the money paid to Brookings would make them reluctant to criticise an important actual and potential future donor. The first appointee, Joseph Chinyong Liow, is currently professor of comparative and international politics and associate dean in the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
The list of donors who contributed to the setting up of the LKY Chair also makes for interesting reading. Brookings says “generous contributions have been made by Ray and Barbara Dalio, Chevron, Hotel Properties Limited, Keppel Group, Robert Ng and Philip Ng, Sembcorp Industries Ltd., Edwin Soeryadjaya, STEngineering, and The Starr Foundation.” No information was given about the relative amounts contributed.
Ray Dalio is the owner and CEO of Bridgewater Associates which claims to be the world’s biggest hedge fund. According to this 2011 article in the New Yorker, a quarter of Bridgewater’s capital comes from sovereign wealth funds like GIC. In 2013 Dalio earned $700 million according to Forbes so our investments contribute to his and his wife’s earnings through the fees Bridgewater charges. There is thus a direct conflict of interest since LHL is the Chairman of GIC as his father was previously. In effect, Singapore’s CPF holders are paying indirectly for the setting up of a chair in LKY’s name without their approval being asked.
Keppel Corp, Sembcorp Industries Ltd and STEngineering are all GLCs and partly or wholly owned by Temasek Holdings which is of course headed by the PM’s wife and LKY’s daughter-in-law.
Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) was the company that was infamous in 1995 when it was discovered to have given discounts on properties in developments like Nassim Jade to LKY, LHL and many other members of the Lee family without seeking shareholder approval. Though PM Goh declined to refer this to CPIB, wrongly in my view, the fact that the individuals paid back the discounts was an admission that they should not have received them, particularly given the Government’s control over land sales.
As the Government owns 80% of the land in Singapore, it would be fair to say that all property developers are dependent on the Government. In fact the Economist in its survey of crony capitalism in March 2014 ranked Singapore as fifth, largely due to the concentration of its billionaires in areas like property where government support or subsidies are essential.
Robert and Philip Ng top the Forbes list of the 50 richest Singaporeans. Their wealth stems from property like Ong Beng Seng at HPL. Thus exactly the same conflicts of interest apply as with HPL. In fact Robert Ng sits on the board of Temasek.
Ho Ching’s award from Asia House is also just as dubious as her father-in-law’s award from the Atlantic Council. Since she is a civil servant (albeit one with multi-million dollar remuneration) she would naturally be expected to embody the ideals of “Servant Leader”. How also can she be said to have impressive business credentials. Unlike some of the other recipients she has not built a business from scratch. In fact she has never worked in the private sector. She was appointed head of Temasek by the PAP Government of which her husband is the head. Her father-in-law, LKY, is on the International Advisory Council of Asia House. The Council also includes several representatives from the founding stakeholders of Asia House, HSBC, Prudential and Standard Chartered. They all have significant business interests in Singapore while Temasek owns nearly 20% of Standard Chartered.
The revelations from the NY Times are an eye-opener. They shed light on the extraordinary thoroughness of the PAP’s influence-buying strategy and the lengths the PAP will go to, using taxpayers’ money, to get a favourable rating, even if it means sowing misinformation and rewriting history. It is particularly hypocritical that the PAP should give our money to US think tanks with a view to influencing government policy when they are always warning foreigners not to interfere in Singapore politics and ban Singaporean NGOs designated “political” from receiving foreign funding.
Next time when you read that a prestigious and independent institution has placed Singapore at the top of some global ranking or given its leaders an award you will be asking yourself, “How much of our tax payers money did they receive?”
I am sure the case of Dr Susan Lim is still in many people’s minds. She was the doctor taken to court by the SMC for overcharging the Brunei royal family and suspended from practice for three years. The courts found her guilty and after her appeal failed they awarded costs against her. This means that not only did she have to pay her own lawyers but also the SMC’s lawyers’ costs.
Acting for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in the case against Dr Lim were a team led by Alvin Yeo, Senior Counsel and PAP MP for Chua Chu Kang (CCK) GRC, and lawyers Melanie Ho and Lim Wei Lee. They submitted their bill to Dr Lim for payment and in one of life’s exquisite ironies Dr Lim herself found that she herself had been grossly overcharged by the MP and his team. Her husband objected to Yeo’s bill and had it sent back to the court to be “taxed” which is the process whereby the Registrar of the Supreme Court scrutinises the bill.
A few days ago I read here that the Supreme Court ordered that Alvin Yeo’s bill be reduced from $1.33 million to $317,000. That is they found the correct amount to be charged was 25% of the original submitted. In other words Alvin Yeo and the team he led had overcharged by a staggering 300%.
Lawyers, let alone a Senior Counsel and an MP such as Yeo of whom higher standards are expected, who overcharge their clients by that multiple, frequently face disciplinary action and either a large fine or even a suspension from practice. The judges in previous disciplinary tribunals have made it clear that sanctions include the power to strike off. So what disciplinary action has the Honourable MP and Senior Counsel faced? At the time of writing this I can find no evidence that any disciplinary action against Yeo and his team is scheduled.
There have been several precedents where the consequences have been severe. For example, in 2011 lawyer, Andre Arul was found guilty of overcharging his client by a multiple of approximately 200% and fined $50,000. In addition costs were awarded against him by a Court of Three Judges (including the then CJ, Chan Sek Kheong, of the teleportation into the polling booth controversy in Cheng San in 1997.) You can read the judgement here Law Society of Singapore v Andre Ravindran Saravanapavan Arul  SGHC 224. The judgement also mentioned three other cases where lawyers were suspended from practice for between three and six months.
In the case of Low Yong Sen, the amount overcharged, which took the form of inflated disbursements for items like stationery and photocopying , was found to be less than $3,000. However the lawyer in question was suspended for six months.
As it was Dr Lim who had asked for the SMC’s costs to be taxed, it is not clear whether SMC will in turn make a complaint to the Law Society about their bill or whether they will just pay the difference between what the court said was a fair amount and the full amount of Wong Partnership’s ( Yeo’s firm) bill.
Even if the SMC are reluctant to make a complaint against a PAP MP Sections 85(2) and (3) of the LPA allow the Council of the Law Society or a Supreme Court Judge to refer the matter to the Inquiry Committee or, in the case of a Supreme Court Judge, to appoint a Disciplinary Committee directly.
I for one will be watching closely to see if the CJ or the Law Society takes any action or if Alvin Yeo is let off the hook. If he is, then this would appear to be evidence of discriminatory treatment given the penalty meted out to Andre Arul and the other lawyers. The margin of overcharging (300%) was significantly greater in Alvin Yeo’s case than in Andre Arul’s (200%).
Even if no disciplinary proceedings are initiated, I do not see how Alvin Yeo can continue as an MP. I do not see how Alvin Yeo can keep his seat if he is found guilty of gross overcharging and is either fined, censured or suspended from practice. The law makes it clear that the penalties in these cases are for damaging the integrity of the profession.
For a politician Integrity is also paramount. I would like to draw your attention to one item on the overcharging that I found striking. Stuck amongst the high figures charged for days in court, up to $100,000 per hour on the last statement, was an item for ring binders. Ring binders which SMC’s lawyers had priced at $6 per unit for Dr Lim to pay were cut to $2.50 per unit after the court found it had used the cheaper version in past hearings. Who overcharges for Ring Binders? The mind boggles that there was not even one item so small that they could not see an opportunity for a mark up of over 200%.
Those with a keen interest in the politics of office stationery will remember that Dr Chee was fired from his job at NUS for overcharging for photocopying and taxi fares. I remember the amount he was found to have overcharged for taxi-fares was less than $10. Compare that to Alvin Yeo’s charges..
Maybe the PAP should upgrade Dr Koh’s “everyone owns two cars” to “everyone earns $100,000 an hour”.
Alvin Yeo should resign immediately paving the way for a by-election in CCK. After the Appeal Court’s decision in the case of Madam Vellama, the PM is required to hold a by-election within a reasonable period of time, though that judgement only applied in the case of an SMC. I do not know whether it would be possible to file an action in the High Court to attempt to extend that judgement to GRCs and, if so, whether an action would have any chance of success.
While Alvin Yeo’s conduct is shocking, I am not surprised at the low standards set by PAP MPs and their seemingly insatiable greed. Just as the Communist Party in China has allowed its top officials to accumulate vast wealth to buy their complicity and head off any democratic challenges (see here), so the PAP’s philosophy has been one of vastly overpaying Ministers to ensure that they remain loyal to the leadership and are prepared to ignore whatever principles they may once have had.
The PAP’s philosophy that you go into government to get rich extends to its MPs, most of whom hold lucrative primary jobs, like Alvin Yeo, Janil Puthucheary, Hari Nair, Lim Wee Kiat, and Vikram Nair. For them being an MP is merely a (very) part-time role. They are enabled to do so by the fact Parliament is little more than a rubber stamp, which works the shortest hours of any legislature while paying its representatives one of the highest allowances (tax-free as well!).
In fact Eugene Tan, a former NMP, in the last Parliamentary sitting drew attention to how poorly attended Parliament was when he had to point out to the Deputy Speaker, Halimah Yaacob, that there were not even enough MPs to constitute the necessary quorum to pass a Bill.
My first thought when I read about the Susan Lim case, was that the Brunei royal family, who are rumoured to be worth at least US$20 billion, should be able to look after themselves. They could have sued Susan Lim themselves or refused to pay her excessive bills. However Brunei and its royal family are of course extremely important clients of Singapore. One of the SMC’s objectives in bringing the action against Dr Lim presumably was to show wealthy foreigners that Singapore was a safe and reliable place to live and seek medical treatment in and that we uphold the highest standards of professional integrity. In that case this is more than just irony. It is an attempt to reassure Brunei that has disastrously backfired giving the impression that Singapore is rife with rogue professionals lacking integrity. Unless the full force of disciplinary action is now directed at Alvin Yeo our reputation will be in tatters.
Like many other Singaporeans I was shocked when I heard about the case of the UK mother divorced from a Singaporean husband and the ensuing bitter custody dispute over their son. Custody battles and marital breakdown are never pleasant but what shocked me most was the light this case shed on our Ministry of Home affairs whom it appears have been literally asleep on the job. Who actually is guarding our Island and protecting our interests?
To recap on the case. The mother had obtained a court order in the UK giving her custody of her son but the boy’s father had successfully applied for an injunction in Singapore to prevent her taking the child whom he had taken to reside with his Singaporean parents. I do not understand why the father was able to block enforcement of a UK court order granting the mother custody and I sympathise with the mother who was able to convince a UK court that she was a fit person to have custody. However, what she did next was extraordinary. She hired a former London Metropolitan detective to help her recover her child and to abduct him back , by return as it were.
I do not understand why the agency she hired, Child Abduction Recovery International, did not advise her to use the legal route rather than embark on this course of action. But whatever the reason we should be grateful that and the former London Metropolitan detective, Adan Whittington she hired was able to uncover a huge breach in our National security. After just one day of reconnaissance in Singapore he found out a universal truth about Singapore and they were able to easily enter Singapore illegally (see link).
The universal truth he uncovered is that (particularly wealthy) foreigners enjoy privileges and freedoms in Singapore denied to us lesser mortals -( the locals). In this case Mr Whittington soon identified a bastion of privilege and wealth, almost another country in itself, namely Raffles Marina.
Yet again our border protections and security services have been shown to be inadequate and the personnel charged with enforcing border security incompetent if not criminally negligent. The former Met detective should actually be praised for his public service to Singapore in highlighting the huge flaws in our security. In a day he was able to establish that our marinas are unguarded and an easy entry point into Singapore for any potential terrorist with a dirty bomb or biological weapons or dirty funds for laundering or indeed human trafficking. I am often told by anti-death penalty activists that drugs are still very easy to obtain in Singapore despite the well used death penalty and now I understand why.
It was not as though the couple landed on a beach or secluded inlet. Why are yacht marinas which one would have thought would have been an obvious weak point, not under 24 hour surveillance and security? If no immigration personnel are on duty between 6pm and 9am then surely it should be impossible to access or exit the marina? Perhaps the PAP Government’s over eagerness to establish Singapore as a yachting hub for gambling millionaires makes them unwilling to subject owners of yachts to the same laws that lesser mortals like you and I have to obey. After all the PAP’s thinking is probably that anyone who owns or is a passenger on a yacht must be a person whom we want to attract.
The fact that this kind of blunder has happened so frequently would be farcical were the implications for national security not so grave. There was the Mas Selamat incident in 2008, though there the security services were unable to prevent him leaving the country rather than entering. Recently there was the case of the Malaysian woman who was able to get through the Causeway checkpoint by tailgating another car. She was able to drive off before the immigration officer raised the alarm or lowered the barrier. Then she was able to give the police the slip for three days. She actually had to drive into the MFA and create a disturbance before the police were able to apprehend her.
This failure at the most basic level of border security is inexcusable, particularly when contrasted with the amount of money spent on defence and defending our skies. This amounted to some $12.5 billion in 2014 or 3.4% of GDP. By contrast Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia spend much less than Singapore on defence as a proportion of GDP (see link). Parliament is not provided with a breakdown of this spending between equipment and manpower so once again we are left to speculate. My conservative guess would be that more than one-third of this goes on equipment purchases. Recently Jane’s Defence Weekly speculated that Singapore had increased the number of F15SGs, one of the most advanced fighters in the world, it operates to 40. Coupled with over 70 F16s we have by far the most powerful air force in ASEAN.
I am not advocating cutting defence spending, particularly at a time of rising external threats. There is certainly no economic need to do so since the PAP Government is running a budget surplus of about three times the current level of defence spending. I support the reduction of NS to twelve months or less and a larger professional army which may even lead to higher defence spending. However, I do feel that we need to evaluate the effectiveness and relevance of existing weapons programmes and proposed future purchases, particularly when the Government is unable to prevent what next time could be terrorists landing at a regular marina in Singapore without any kind of border control or screening. Without surveillance what is to prevent them offloading miniaturised Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) such as dirty nuclear bombs or lethal biological weapons. Even conventional weapons could be smuggled in. We are an Island and our coast is a natural barrier but also a potential weakness. Let us spend a fraction of what we spend on sophisticated air weapons like the F15 and the proposed F35 Lightning II purchase, on ensuring these basic security lapses do not recur.
Having such negligent border oversight demonstrates that the Home Affairs Minister, Teo Chee Hean, is incompetent and should be replaced. In any other country sch a serious lapse would result in a public enquiry and heads would roll. How did he get to be Admiral without understanding seaborne threats to our security? At the very least he owes us Singaporeans an apology. He is clearly not fit to be a Minister drawing over two million dollars a year plus his MP’s allowance. What are the chances of him doing the decent thing and resigning? I think the chances are close to zero but the people of Pasir Ris-Punggol deserve better and presumably can make their feelings known at the next election!
A copy of a letter sent to Temasek Holdings urging them to invest in Nigerian energy company Six Energy has fallen into my hands. I share it with you. (Warning! I have no way of confirming that this letter was really sent or received. It may even be a parody. Judge for yourself.)
Agabi and Associates.
Solicitors and Advocates for Six Energy.
5th floor, Kelong House.
To the Honorable Madam Ho
Re: Strictly Confidential and Urgent Business Opportunity.
Dear Madam Ho (wife of glorious Prime Minster of the fully Democratic Republic of Singapore, the Honorable Mr PM LEE)
I am the representative of the Nigerian energy company ‘Six Energy’. In Nigeria we have long admired you as a market guru seemingly able to seize every and any opportunity to make money. We are mesmeric by the incredible track record of the company, Temasek Holdings, which effortlessly has made annualized returns of 16% since inception.
Even when your countrymen discovered that you had made elementary mistakes during the financial crisis of 2008 this did not end of your career as in a lesser fund manager. Truly your esteem is such that the Government of your country, headed by your illustrious husband, had sufficient faith in your abilities, to confirm his appointment of you as CEO.
Please permit me to make your acquaintance in so informal a manner. This is necessitated by my urgent need to reach a dependable and trust wordy foreign partner. I am in a position to uplift your esteem even higher and present Temasek Holdings with an unbeatable business offer.
You must have heard over the media reports and the Internet of various huge sums of money invested in our company by such elite organisations as the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group of companies (see link).
We know you are not a charity despite the fact that Singaporeans sometimes may be forgiven for thinking you are, even if most of your charity work benefits foreigners. We know that Temasek’s principal aim is to make money for its shareholder, the Government of Singapore. We agree with you that this money would be wasted on Singaporeans who are a weak and whining lot, unappreciative of all that you, your husband and your father-in-law, may he live forever, have done for them. We know that without his guiding genius your esteemed country would just be another disgusting mangrove swamp, like much of our coastline after the Western oil companies started pumping oil.
We therefore humbly beseech you for a small investment, nothing too big for an esteemed and magnificent company of your stature cannot handle. S$200 million should be suffice for now though we may kindly call upon your esteemedness for further and larger amounts in the future. This money will be part of a total fundraising of over S$300 million in new equity capital (alas we do not know where the money we raised before has gone!) and will be invested with most care and utmost diligence in development of our growing portfolio of energy assets in Nigeria.
You may be concerned that all the other participants in our fundraising are there with charitable objectives, to reduce poverty and create prosperity in Africa. You may be worried that the International Finance Corporation, which will be a junior partner in the investment, is principally concerned with ending extreme poverty and creating shared prosperity rather than making money for its shareholder. This may suggest to you that investing in Six Energy would not meet the investment criteria of Temasek Holdings . Don’t worry this just means that there will be more money for you.
Madam Ho, you may ask yourself why your exaltedness should be investing your country’s citizens’ precious money in a Nigerian energy company when the only other investor is a multilateral institution who is not there to make money. After all your countrymen and women may ask what you know about Nigeria or about investment in Africa. They may be concerned at the risk that those evil rascals and thorough bad fellows, Boko Haram, are getting stronger on a daily basis and that our army appears powerless to stop them.
Tell these ungrateful wretches to be no concerned. Kidnapping a few schoolgirls and bombing our capital is much different from attacking a well protected first class company like ours. In case you have trouble with your investment committee, we have prepared many sets of cashflow statements to show you the huge IRRs that your investment will be sure to earn. Just do not ask us to pay you any dividends. Or if we do pay you a dividend please be advised that instantaneously you must invest that back into new shares. We know that this will not shock you as Temasek and your sister company GIC have used a similar scam to avoid paying any money to their shareholder for years.
We know your immense appetite for foolhardiness and high risk which has been demonstrated by your decision to double down on your investment in another company, Olam, which has extensive interests in Nigeria. In such case we truly can appreciate the immense generosity and kindness of your benevolent leadership towards the management and shareholders of that company which rescued them from bankruptcy without them having to lose any of the huge wealth and large properties they had accumulated. We also truly thank the good people of Singapore for going without basic health care or even free education so that others in our countries can be helped. In particular the recent generosity of their Government which put another $5 billion in surpluses extracted from your people into your esteemed organisation is to be highly commended. Even some of our Illustrious former Presidents, like Mr Abacha, clearly have a lot to learn.
Though we have neither seen nor met each other, the information we gathered from an associate who has worked in your country has encouraged and convinced us that with your sincere assistance, this transaction will be properly handled with modesty and honesty to a huge success within two weeks.
Please note that we have strong and reliable connections at the Central Bank Of Nigeria and other Government Parastatals and we hear that you have also banking secrecy in Singapore and do not engage in public disclosure of Temasek deal details, hence assistance in this regards, would not be a problem. Indeed Madam, you will be absolutely right when you say that this project is risk free and viable for you (although possibly not so good for your citizens). If you are capable and willing to assist, contact me at once via email with following details:
1.Your Full Name, Company’s Name, Address, Telephone and Fax Numbers. 2.Your Bank Name, Address. Telephone and Fax Number. 3.Your Bank Account Number and Beneficiary Name – You must be the signatory.
Rest assured that the modalities I have resolved to finalize the entire project guarantees our safety and the successful transfer of the funds.
Kindly contact me as soon as possible, whether or not you are interested in this deal, so that whereby you are not interested, it would give us more room to scout for another partner. But if you are interested, kindly contact me via above email, telephone or fax, so that we can swing into action, as time is not on our part.
I wait in anticipation of your fullest co-operation.
P.S. Also this transaction demands absolute confidentiality which our associate in your country tells us is Temaask Holding’s strong point. We also understand that your husband’s government is also not strong on transparency. Nevertheless, on no condition must you disclose it to anybody irrespective of your relation with the person. In particular do not discuss this with that horrible fellow Vikram Nair who has spread bad words about Nigerian financial schemes in your country.
Thank you and God Bless.
Best Regards, MR DAN AGABE.
I read the news today that Rebecca Loh, the woman who pushed her disabled nine-year-old son out of a window, would plead guilty to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Though she was diagnosed as suffering from post-schizophrenic depression at the time and has a history of schizophrenic illness, IMH still judged her fit to stand.
We need answers to the following questions:
- Why was Rebecca left to fend for herself with a nine-year old son who suffered from osteoporosis and numerous other debilitating conditions? The report says that she did not intend to kill her son only wanted him injured so that he would be taken to a home.
- Was there a social worker assigned to her case by MSF?
- As she had a history of schizophrenia and police had been called to her mother’s flat on several occasions when she had beaten and strangled her mother, why was the child not put on an “At Risk” register as in other countries like the UK? She had also been arrested for threatening a stall holder with a chopper in 2011.
- What help did the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) provide? Rebecca should have been entitled to close to $1000 a month from Public Assistance as her mother was earning below $1700 a month. Perhaps because she lived with her mother MSF deemed her ineligible for assistance? When foreigners write about our Government being stingy they assume that the levels of assistance they promise to provide are in fact provided. However they are not aware that this is frequently not the case. Our bureaucracy seems especially skilled at denying those in need the help to which they are entitled
- Why do we not provide Special Assistants to disabled children like Rebecca’s son so that they are able to attend school? Again this would be the case in most first world countries. Her son’s disabilities were physical not mental.
Unfortunately the questions will not be answered now that Rebecca has pleaded guilty. In other advanced countries there would be outcries against the social workers and the Ministry responsible for letting this happen. The role of MSF and the social workers (if any) has not been examined. An incident like this would also normally lead to changes in policy to ensure that this does not happen again. There would be a public inquiry. Yet this has been quietly brushed under the carpet.
Lee Kuan Yew after all is well known to be a supporter of eugenics and his philosophy is embodied in such policies as providing financial incentives to poor women and single mother “who keep their families small” with free family planning through the HOPE scheme..
Recently we have been working to help another woman in a similar situation to Rebecca Loh. I first met Madam S while conducting block visits with my volunteers in Radin Mas. Since the 1980s she has been the sole carer and provider for her son who suffered severe brain injuries as the result of a hit-and-run car accident. Her son was seven when he was injured but now is in his mid-thirties. As a result of his injuries he has a range of disabilities, both physical and mental, is an epileptic and unable to work.
The driver of the vehicle was never caught and it is not clear what compensation Madam S received, if any, from the special fund set up by insurers to compensate the victims of hit-and-run accidents. Madam S has been unable to work for years as she has to look after her son full-time and is in any case too old to work now.
At the time I first met her she seemed quite cheerful despite her sad story and hard life challenges. She asked to have a photo taken with me and I gave her my contact details to get a copy of that photo. A few days ago she phoned me to say that her situation had deteriorated and she was feeling quite desperate. She was particularly concerned that had no money to buy food or new clothes for Hari Raya. She had been suffering from asthma attacks which really needed hospitalization but this was a luxury she could not afford as she had full-time care of her son.
When I saw her she seemed in a very bad way and far from the happy smiling woman of the first photo. I asked her whether she was getting help from CDC and she said no. I pointed out that she should be getting around $800 a month from Public Assistance She has been to see her MP but he does not seem to have been able to help her. She has also approached MUIS but said that MUIS were unable to give her much help.
This is where our team of volunteers and members came in aided by the power of the internet where we put out a call for help. .Thanks to our great team of volunteers and public response, we were able to put Madam S. in touch with a lovely woman called Zarina who runs a charity called 3R Sincerely and Giving. I will quote from her Facebook post:
“Just for info, I’m the admin from 3R Sincerely & Giving. We are just a small outfit currently assisting needy family and adopting few families with long-term need. We are self funding as such we won’t be able to extend large monetary to any one family. At most we can give her $200 per month till more permanent solution is found. We also do a monthly visits to our adopted family more like a befriender programme. Sometimes, we rope in their neighbors to keep an eye on them and beep us if there’s a need.
Admittedly, we are rather stretch as we have only a small team doing the errands and currently very involve in our Ramadan Charity Drive.”
Zarina has already been to see her and has given her some NTUC vouchers and a set of baju kurung for Hari Raya. Some of our volunteers, though not by any means well off, have also made personal donations. They will follow up with MUIS to see what help she is getting.
As for me, I will pick up her case to see why she is not getting Public Assistance. I will follow up on that with CDC and the Family Service Centre. I understand that CDC stopped helping her some time ago and Madam S. has shown me a letter from CDC over a year ago promising to look into her case. Till now nothing has been done. If this is correct, then that is absolutely unacceptable but unfortunately I frequently see these cases where people fall through the cracks and paperwork gets lost. I have been helping an elderly gentleman again in Radin Mas in a wheel chair to liaise with AIC in order to get him a mobility scooter. After a few months when there had been no progress I chased them up and it turned out they had lost his contact details. They asked me to go and visit him and tell him they were trying to contact him. Often those who are most in need are worn down by the paperwork and the necessity of chasing people up by phone. If they are carers as Madam S is then visits to these offices are almost impossible.
Towards a longer term solution I will try to establish whether Madam S did receive compensation from the insurance fund for her son’s accident and if not whether it is still possible to apply.
The charity is now also working with her to try to persuade her to let them clear out her living space and give it a lick of paint.
So even if our Government, which runs a surplus of over $30 billion a year, is unwilling to help its own citizens, it is good to know that people like Zarina and our volunteers, with hearts of gold, are prepared to step in and help even though the resources at their disposal are modest.
It would be too easy to contrast this case with Rebecca Loh, who appears to have had no resources or charity network to call upon,because Rebecca’s case is one of mental illness, schizophrenia. As such I have been told by charities that they would not have worked with her as they are not professionally trained. This make it even more unbelievable that Rebecca was deemed fit to take care of her son, day in day out without any respite.
We need to ask what is the purpose of Government? Why do we elect one that wriggles out of even the most basic responsibilities to care for its people? Why does the Government need excess assets of $400 billion and to force us to save so much through CPF? As the Government runs a real Budget surplus of $30 billion a year why can in not afford to help the citizens who fall through the cracks?
More importantly as it is our money can we not afford to help these citizens. I would like to make it clear here that form an economist’s point of view I am not a big fan of the Nanny State or the Welfare State model. Even the Swedes are no longer fans of the Scandinavian model , putting back their retirement age at which they can draw their generous pensions. So I am not suggesting we use this surplus to fund a full welfare state and a dependency culture. If I could sum up my philosophy it would be that I believe in less STATE and more WELFARE, rather than a welfare state. My reading of the Government’s figures shows that we can afford to be more generous with welfare neither needing to raise taxes or cut spending elsewhere.
Certainly on an individual and small group level this case above shows that Singaporeans are caring generous and compassionate. How strange then that our government so poorly reflects the citizens on the ground being heartless, stingy and uncaring.
I dedicate this article to all the volunteers in charities or individually who devote themselves to helping in our communities and catching those in need before they slip through the cracks. Thank you. You make a difference.
#RETURNOURCPF – MEDISHIELD LIFE PROTEST 12
JULY, HONGLIM PARK
In June 2014, the enhanced benefits for MediShield Life were announced.
It was stated that there will be substantial increases in benefits for MediShield Life that will cover all Singaporeans for large hospital bills.
At a time when Singapore is ranked as the most expensive place to live in the world, where Singaporeans yet continue to receive the lowest wages among the high-income countries, CPF is akin to an additional tax on our income.
On 7 June 2014, Singapore had its first CPF protest against the increase of the minimum sum as an estimated only 1 in 8 Singaporeans who reach age 55 were able to meet the CPF Minimum Sum and MediSave Minimum Sum entirely in cash from their CPF accounts.
There is no transparency and accountability towards how the government is using our CPF monies or the returns derived from CPF funds, all these despite MPs calling for higher rates, improvements to our CPF system practically every year.
From a cash flow perspective, the Government is still not spending a single cent on healthcare because MediSave contributions in a year continue to exceed all withdrawals including government healthcare spending.
Being a Singaporean, I’m concerned about my future and have decided to invite all political parties that took part in GE2011 to hear their views regarding my concerns.
As such, this event aims to highlight the inadequate measures in place to protect the healthcare needs of Singaporeans.
Date: Saturday 12 July 2014
Time: 4.00pm – 6.00pm
Venue: Hong Lim Park – Speaker’s Corner
4.00pm – 4.15pm Mr. Tan Kin Lian, former presidential candidate
4.15pm – 4.30pm A political party
4.30pm – 4.45pm RP Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam
4.45pm – 5.00pm SDP Treasurer Chong Wai Fung
5.00pm – 5.15pm Mr. Vincent Wijeysingha
5.15pm – 5.30pm Mr. Leong Sze Hian
5.30pm – 5.45pm Ms. Han Hui Hui
5.45pm – 6.00pm Mr. Roy Ngerng
6.00pm – 6.30pm Questions & Answers
To find out more about the event, you can go to the Facebook event page at https://www.facebook.com/events/251518938371663
Han Hui Hui
I was quite shaken by my trip to Parliament yesterday to watch the CPF “debate” . There wasn’t really any debate at all. Our Finance Minister, Tharman made a speech that was full of irrelevancies and gaffes and what he did admit to worried me considerably. I sat in the spectators gallery where it was noticeable that the MIW were MIA . Thank goodness that Eugene Tan is there to remind the Speaker and Deputy Speaker how parliament works. Even some WP MPs were missing and came in an hour after the debate had started. No one picked up on anything that Tharman said and he was given an easy ride for his monologues. This is why I have put “debate” in quotation marks.
Plenty of questions were asked about CPF such as.
- Whether members could be given an early warning as they approached 55 that their money would be locked up and could no longer be used for housing?
- Could special consideration be given to allowing those with balances below the Minimum Sum to use part of it to service their housing loans?
- What is the average amount used for housing as a percentage of CPF Ordinary Accounts of members aged 55 and above?
- How many Singaporeans who turn 55 are inactive members?
But these were all questions about the mechanism of the system and accepting it as PAP presented it. No one asked the questions uppermost in our minds at the moment: Why does the Government need to hang on to our money at 55 if it is making such colossal surpluses amounting to some $30-35 billion a year?
Why does it keep increasing the Minimum Sum?
Is GIC losing money?
And all of this leads the people to wonder, “is GIC is even possibly insolvent?”
The closest that any questions came to touching on the issues we all want answered were asked by Gerald Giam and Low Thia Kiang and I congratulate them for asking. Gerald Giam asked how many years in the last 20 years GIC had been unable to pay the interest on the Special Singapore Government Secutities (SSGS), what were the returns on GIC’s portfolio after accounting for interest in each of the last 20 years and what extraordinary measures were taken if that was the case. All good questions.
When Low Thia Kiang’s turn came he said that as CPF members’ balances were substantial at $300 billion why were CPF members’ balances not separated and managed separately from GIC. An eminently sensible question.
I will restate here what Tharman said yesterday as a reminder of the convoluted and opaque route by which our CPF monies are invested. All CPF members’ balances are deposited with the MAS. They are then used to buy SSGS that are matched to the interest rates that CPF pays on Ordinary and Special Accounts. The money from the SSGS is then managed by GIC together with the Government’s other assets.
I found Tharman’s answers to Low’s and Giam’s questions to be evasive and even nonsensical but with the advantage of observing from the gallery I could spot that he also made some revealing and worrying admissions.
These are some of the assertions and answers that Tharman made that set off alarm bells in the minds of anyone who knows anything about how the investment process should work and about transparency. For example, If I was an investor doing due diligence I would run a million miles rather than invest my funds in GIC.
Tharman said :CPF is an absolutely safe investment since it invests in securities issued by the Singapore Government, one of the few countries left in the world that is still rated AAA
AAA rated! That is an interesting admission. You may remember that after I visited his CPF forum Hri Kumar went to his Facebook page and denied that he had ever said that CPF was a AAA investment. Let’s ignore Kumar as an ignoramus because, according to Tharman, CPF is safe because it lends to the Government. which is AAA rated.
However the Government then takes our CPF money and pools it with the Government’s net assets. The total is then managed by GIC. GIC is able to take a lot more risk than CPF would be able to as a stand-alone entity because it has the government’s net assets to act as a buffer.
The level of security would depend on the size of the buffer and the riskiness of the assets. In the financial crisis of 2007-2008, having a large buffer of subprime mortgages which had to default before they lost money, did not help the holders of AAA rated Collateralized Mortgage Obligations. The downtown in the housing market was so severe that even the AAA rated securities ended up worthless.
In the same way if we lend our money to the Government and it then uses it to invest or speculate in risky assets then this could happen to our CPF. It is like depositing your money with what you thought was a very conservative, low risk financial institution and then discovering that the conservative low risk institution you chose was in fact giving your money to a high risk player to gamble with.
But it is not even like that for us Singaporeans is it.? As a private investor you would have a choice at least over where you put your money and how much risk you wanted. You could move it around if you were not happy with where it was invested. Most importantly you could demand absolute transparency, a full explanation of the risk profile and investment rationale and methodology of the fund managers. if you even suspected smoke and mirrors or just did not like the manager’s face you would be free to go somewhere else with your pension fund.
Some might say that you can diversify your risk through the CPF Investment Scheme. You have the option of investing up to $60,000 of your CPF money in a number of options including unit trusts and shares. However, as the investment is made through CPF, your money is still at risk if CPF becomes insolvent.
In 2008 highly rated banks and institutions almost went bust and had to be rescued by governments worldwide because they had used their depositors’ money to invest in highly risky assets. Citibank, UBS, Bank of America, RBS, Lloyds, and AIG are just some of the institutions that had to be rescued by their countries’ taxpayers.
Please note that AIG used to be rated AAA while the others were either AA or AA+. These institutions were investing in or guaranteeing supposedly AAA financial instruments (like sub-prime collaterized mortgage obligations) that ended up worthless. Temasek and/or GIC had significant stakes in some of these institutions.
Can you see why I am worried?
Tharman said that our CPF assets can be put into a larger porfolio that takes more risk because the Government’s net assets act as a buffer. How big a buffer do the Government’s net assets represent before we are at risk of losing our CPF money if GIC squanders the funds it is given through poor investments? I will not go into detail here and will publish my calculations as a separate note. However if the Statement of the Government’s Assets and Liabilities issued every year as part of the Budget is accurate and includes Temasek as well, then there may not be any buffer left.
Can you see why I am worried?
In fact the Government will already need to dig into the cash reserves it holds with MAS or force Temasek to sell assets in order to pay back CPF holders. If GIC loses money then the Government will have to raise taxes or print money.
Can you see why I am worried?
If Temasek’s assets are not included in the Statement (which would surely be a breach of the Constitution since both Temasek and MAS are Government-owned corporations just like GIC) then there may be a buffer of up to 30% of total assets within GIC before the Government has to make up the shortfall from other sources. This is still not reassuring as a downturn in global markets of the severity of 2008 could easily cause equity, bond and real estate values to decline by 30%. The Government has a large net cash reserve of some $140 billion but it would need to keep a large part of this with the MAS to fund their operations. MAS is not allowed under the Constitution to lend money to the Government which would amount to printing money.
Can you see why I am worried?
Tharman made some comment about GIC’s higher returns benefiting all of us. Really? What benefit do Singaporeans get if GIC is able to achieve higher returns than the Government pays on CPF by taking more risk? We have yet to receive any benefit from enduring years of austerity and low rates of return on our forced savings. The so-called Net Investment Returns Contribution is a scam since it does not represent actual spending but only a shuffling of money from one account to another. This is the question that Hari Kumar dodged at his forum and condescendingly said “we’re dealing with the real world here”. What real world is that, Mr. Kumar? One in which the PAP government continually pulls the wool over the eyes of its citizens.
So despite Tharman’s reassurances we can say that our CPF is only AAA because the Government (which means Singaporean taxpayers) are guaranteeing it. This explains why the Government keeps on harping on the need for taxes to rise.
Can you see why I am worried?