Category Archives: The market

My Response to David Pilling from the Financial Times

Screenshot 2015-04-11 15.41.30Screenshot 2015-04-11 15.43.24Screenshot 2015-04-11 15.45.48Screenshot 2015-04-11 16.10.36I have reproduced above  David Pilling’s article that I refer to in my last blog post “Perspiration without Inspiration. Singapore’s Role in the Asian Economic Boom.”

Below is the letter that I wrote to the FT in response and which they did not publish:

 26 February 2015

Letters Editor

The Financial Times

1 Southwark Bridge

London SE1 9HL

Dear Sir,

I refer to today’s article by David Pilling on Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy where several inaccuracies stand out

Pilling asserts that Singapore has a higher material standard of living than the UK, US and Norway. This is simply untrue. Even on GDP per capita, Norway’s is about twice Singapore’s. In any case, Singapore should be ranked against comparable cities and not countries. On the Brookings Global Metropolitan Monitor by comparison, which ranks cities by GDP per capita on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis, Singapore only comes 14th in the top 20 metropolitan areas. Macau is at the top and there are twelve North American cities above Singapore.

GDP per capita is also not a good measure. Singapore has a very high ratio of employed labour force to total population because almost 40% of the workforce are foreign workers. Singaporeans also work the longest hours of any developed country. On a GDP per hour worked we rank near the bottom of the OECD countries at a level that is only about 60% of the US.

Our distribution of income is also one of the most unequal in the world with a Gini coefficient of 46.3, significantly higher than the US and other developed countries. A UBS survey in 2011 found the purchasing power of Singapore’s workers’ wages to be well below that of many other Asian cities and around the same level as workers in Kuala Lumpur or Moscow.

Incomprehensibly, Pilling talks about LKY’s achievement “in conjuring a prosperous city state from an unpromising history and geography”. The Straits of Malacca have always been at the intersection of major global trade routes. As early as the 16th century the Portuguese said “Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” In 2011 one-quarter of the world’s traded goods or about 35% of the world’s container trade and the major part of the Asian oil trade passed though the Malacca Straits. Historically It was Stamford Raffles not Lee Kuan Yew who spotted Singapore’s potential as the best harbour in the region and long before 1960 we were one of the top three busiest ports in the world.

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth Jeyaretnam

Weak Exports Confirm We Were Right to Call for A Stimulus Package Last Year

The latest figures for non-oil domestic exports were extremely weak and signal that GDP growth is likely to be weaker than the MAS’s projection for this year of 2-4%. They fell by 9.7% in February compared with the same month last year. As non-oil domestic exports comprise about 40% of GDP, it is likely that the economy will enter a recession later this year if the trend is confirmed (though on the past track record one cannot rule out further manipulation of the figures by the Statistics Department). The decline in exports to China can hardly have been a surprise for the Government as most data have indicated that China is already in recession despite the official figures purporting to show that the Chinese economy is still growing at 7%. In addition the Japanese government’s deliberate depreciation of the yen is doing exactly what it is supposed to do-curb imports and stimulate exports.

The PAP Government does not have any strategy to deal with this other than to blame it on industrial restructuring caused by their decision to restrict the inflow of cheap foreign labour in an effort to boost productivity growth. However if this were part of a planned restructuring we would expect to see a booming export sector complaining about lack of access to cheap labour. Instead local manufacturing has been forced to restructure by a combination of weak global growth and uncompetitive or poorly positioned exports. The fact that commentators expect the MAS to respond by depreciating the SGD further, a move that will cut real wages, shows that the Government is panicking and this is not a planned strategy to increase productivity. The fall in exports and manufacturing output, unless accompanied by lay-offs, will actually have the opposite effect of leading to negative productivity growth.

Reform Party have consistently called for a stimulus package to boost domestic demand since April last year in order to restructure the economy away from its dependence on exports. We called for a stimulus package of about 0.5 to 1% of GDP. Needless to say, the Government and the State media ignored our calls.

There is ample fiscal room for a much larger stimulus of about 2-3% of GDP since the Government runs a true surplus of about $30 billion a year. In addition the current account surplus has consistently been around the same size. In Budget 2015, the Finance Minister used the usual sleight of hand to produce a headline deficit for 2015 of $6.7 billion. However, he lumped together transfers to funds, like the Productivity Fund and the newly set-up Changi Airport Fund, with current spending. Once these are properly allocated and the usual conservatism in forecasting spending taken into account, the Government Budget will probably show a surplus. This is despite ignoring returns from Temasek, GIC, MAS and land sales, which need to be taken into account if we follow the correct IMF accounting framework.

In light of the latest figures showing the situation has got considerably worse we repeat our calls for an enhanced stimulus package. As we indicated in our previous calls, this should take the form of cash rebates concentrated on the middle to lower income groups. The depreciation of the SGD, whether engineered by MAS or the result of massive capital outflows, is unlikely on its own to revive the economy. Most exporting countries, like Germany, Japan, Korean, even China, are resorting to deliberate weakening of their currencies to try and boost exports in what will undoubtedly be a self-defeating strategy.

Kenneth do you put your money where your mouth is?

I am grateful for the following question left in my comments:

Kenneth, if Roy wishes to contest a future election under your party flag, will you accept him? Or will this “extraordinary Singaporean”, IMO a potential time bomb and a liability for any party, suddenly not be so extraordinary anymore?

As it required a thoughtful answer and more space I answer it here.

The short answer is Yes. Feel free to skip the longer rationale.

BTW this is not my Reform Party blog so I don’t answer here as a politician but as an economist. That question also requires me to speculate as Roy will no doubt get fined and banned from standing and it would depend on who he is 5-10 years from now and what he does in-between so I can’t comment on future elections.

I’m sure he will continue to be extraordinary,though. The only ticking time bomb I see is LHL himself and his wife’s continued role as head of our SWF. This kind of situation and the whole PAP set up has reached the end of its shelf life.

So all other things being equal yes, Roy in very broad strokes, would be welcome.

In reality it wouldn’t be my decision within the Party. Reform is not a fiefdom it doesn’t have Cadres and a system where only a few get to vote. It is set up as a representative democracy and decisions as to whether or not a person is approved after probation are not mine to make.

That is not to say that I don’t get annoyed that Roy makes many basic errors with statistics, methodology and even giving wrong figures. Kirsten Han dealt with this is in a news article she wrote where she explained why I support Roy even though I don’t always agree with him. He has the broad brush strokes right and the heart. I could supply the maths and the economics. Then again so many commentators do get the figures and methodology wrong. As for the PAP, as my breakdown of the budget shows, they cannot add up but that may be deliberate misdirection rather than basic incompetence. I prefer to think it is both.

Do you not realise that unaccountable governments are the ticking time bombs? Do you not understand the danger in not having an early warning system and a lack of oversight that can allow anything, including hidden losses, to fester? Can you point me to any set of figures or accounts that shows conclusively where our money is allocated within our Sovereign Wealth Funds and in what quantities? The Norwegian people can.

Certainly most recently Roy has been writing as though he has nothing to lose as he is under great pressure but after all Roy was always just asking for his elected representatives to be accountable to the people who elected them. Nothing wrong with that.

The only liability I would envisage for our Party is that we exist to form an alternative government and Roy seems rather too fond of the current government.That’s a cultural clash. I’m not convinced he is truly committed to voting all the PAP out and he may be one of the many who mistakenly believe the PAP government can be persuaded to work with them and respond to citizen pressure.

In fact your question is the hypothetical equivalent of asking me whether I would accept JBJ to contest an election under our Party flag with his criminal record and recently paid off bankruptcy. Or whether I would accept Dr Chee. Both could have been called ticking time bombs and liabilities. Both like Roy subjected to the most extreme and concerted character assassinations and smear campaigns. Something I am no stranger to either.

No offence to you but I am not sure why people persist in asking me questions such as yours as though they cannot read the writing on the box or as though they think I write and do what I do for some kind of stage effect? Do they think I sit on a fence, wait to see which way the tide is turning and then leap? Do they maybe imagine that as an economist who espouses feee market principles rather than the usual marxist/socialist ones that I must also be far right wing and authoritarian or opportunist?

I am sure I am seen as a ticking time bomb and a liability but over time we have seen how the PAP are being forced to pick up my ideas and implement them one at a time.

Those who demand accountability and point out discrepancies and conflicts of interest should not be seen as ticking time bombs. Rather they should be regarded as sniffer dogs who find the time bombs and assorted nasties that might lurk underneath the gleaming facade. In the time-honoured manner of authoritarian governments the PAP and PM Lee seek to deflect the tough questions and make the issue about the sniffer dogs rather than the lack of accountability. Unfortunately Singaporeans have been so brainwashed by fifty years of indoctrination and the systematic demolition of those who stand up to demand answers that they allow those in power to escape scrutiny by this reversal. Roy and others like him become the potential time bombs and not our whole secretive and unaccountable setup riddled as it is with serious conflicts of interest.

The basic premise of this blog is and always will be, that freedom is actually good for the economy and that liberal policies not authoritarian ones are the best way forward for a better standard of living for everyone. You can’t uncouple the freedom from the prosperity equation. People like Roy are hugely beneficial to our society’s progress and not detrimental.

I write that as a liberal and as an economist.

The PAP Sausage Making Machine, Foreign Professors and Our Inferiority Complex

George Borjas

George Borjas

A warning

I have been warning for the past five years about the effect of an open-door foreign worker policy in depressing the wages of native Singaporean workers and in particular low-income workers. I have pointed out both in Reform Party press releases  such as our yearly Budget analysis- see here for 2014- which is never printed or quoted in the Singapore  State Media, and in my blog, Rethinking the Rice Bowl,  (ditto) that the PAP have had one economic model for fifty years for achieving growth which is to add more labour inputs rather than increase productivity.

The sausage making machine

Sausage Maker

In 2013, in response to a comment by the former NMP Eugene Tan that took the title of my previous article, I wrote “When Immigration Stops Being the Elephant in the Room and Becomes the Great White Shark in Your Parliament”:

 The PAP government knows only one economic model. That model which I first pointed out and which these days is explained back to me by taxi drivers is this. It is a sausage-making machine.  You feed in additional inputs of labour at one end of the sausage machine to produce additional units of output, or GDP, at the other. In between there is no rise in underlying productivity. Despite a Budget devoted to productivity in 2010 and Tharman’s promise to raise productivity growth to 2-3% per annum and real incomes by 30% by 2020,the facts show that productivity growth was -2% in 2011 and 0% in 2012. That’s a clear sign for you. Wake up!

 A Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman exposed this same model in the 1990s when he debunked the Asian economic miracle and that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1990. This is a basic model of economic development that has been around since 1954 when Arthur Lewis first propounded it (“Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour”). Sooner or later this model just runs out of steam or collapses because there is no innovation. The PAP have just put off  the day of reckoning by opening the floodgates to cheaper and cheaper labour supplies from the developing countries of Asia…

The PAP government is the principal owner of land and capital. By transferring resources from us the workers to themselves, facilitated by the role of immigration in depressing wages and pushing up land prices, that wealth stays out of our hands. Make no mistake, in the last 50 years that wealth could have been used to develop a strong middle, each generation better off than the one before, free universal education, joined up health care, a professional paid army, benefits for the most needy.

Stagnation of median real wages

in 2011, in an article entitled “Immigration is the Elephant in the Room”, where I criticised a discussion on the causes of rising inequality and the stagnation of median real wages by the chief economists at GIC and Resorts World Sentosa I wrote:

However they fail to mention the elephant in the room, which is immigration policy or the lack thereof. Undoubtedly the government’s determination to allow our wages to be determined by those in the poorest economies in Asia has played a major part in depressing real wages, particularly for the lower-skilled workers. Not only was there very little restriction on foreign labour, and no restriction at all for those earning more than $2,500 a month, but there appears to have been lax enforcement of what rules there were and ample loopholes. This has been demonstrated by a recent case where an employer was jailed for putting phantom Singaporean workers on his payroll to allow him to bring in more foreign Work Permit holders…

 What we have in Singapore is a situation where the wages of those who can be replaced by cheap foreign labour have been held back or in many cases cut.  Even those with higher-level skills have undoubtedly been held back by competition from third-world graduates from India, China and the Philippines, even Eastern Europe.  Worryingly there are clear indications that advances in software and machine intelligence are starting to make redundant even highly-paid white-collar jobs in areas such as law and financial services that were hitherto relatively protected from foreign competition. But this government’s open door policy to foreign labour has been the main cause of rising inequality in Singapore.

Opening the Floodgate




In  2013 I wrote an article entitled “Singapore’s Economic and Immigration Policies are Insane” in which I said:

In the 1990s Singapore began to open the floodgates to the import of labour from Asian low-income countries, nearly doubling our population. As I keep telling you, this has resulted in real wage stagnation for the bulk of the working population and declines for those in the bottom quartile. Particularly because our work force isn’t protected by a minimum wage so wages can keep getting lower and we enjoy minimal labour protections.

Given my previous extensive writings on the PAP Government’s use of immigration to depress wages and boost profits, I had a strong sense of déjà vu when I received an email from Tan Jee Say yesterday. This contained an account of the conversations he had with his professors at Harvard about the economic effects of immigration. He quotes George Borjas, a labour economist and one who has warned about the consequences of large-scale unskilled immigration into the US, as saying:

There are gainers and losers of a country’s immigration policy. Gainers are the users of immigrant labour namely, employers and consumers. Losers are native workers who compete with the immigrants.”

I can understand why it is tempting for Tan Jee Say to be swayed by the opinions of foreign professors as he is currently at Harvard and in close contact with them.  After all he was PM Goh’s Principal Private Secretary for  a long time and the PAP have always taken their ideas from academics overseas. But I think it is a mistake and even shows signs of a Singaporean inferiority complex. We do not need foreign professors to tell us what our home grown pundits have been saying- in my case for years. I would prefer that Singaporeans started to think for themselves rather than act as sponges for outside influences.  It is also dangerous because the US economy is so different  to ours.

In the article Borjas repeats what I have said previously on many occasions. A frequent argument in favour of immigration, and one used by the PAP, is that immigrants do jobs that native workers shun. However as Borjas rightly points out the main reason why native workers no longer want to do those jobs is because the competition from immigrant workers has reduced wages in those occupations to levels where they are no longer attractive. This has happened to a large extent in Singapore. In many occupations such as construction, cleaning and food services it is cheaper to substitute lower-skilled and less productive foreign labour rather than invest money in automation and continue to employ more productive but more costly Singaporean workers. Our low productivity is a direct consequence of the easy availability of low-cost foreign labour.

While there are some analogies with the US, the Singapore situation is very different. The US has abundant land and is on many measures extremely underpopulated while Singapore is the second most densely populated country in the world (after Monaco). US workers enjoy the protection of a minimum wage and a probably too restrictive immigration policy. While the proportion of immigrants in the US population is around 12% as compared to a proportion of 40% foreigners in Singapore, the US figure includes new citizens whereas new citizens are excluded from the Singapore figure. Excluding PRs and new citizens from the residents figure would undoubtedly take the proportion of foreigners in the employed labour force  in Singapore to well above 50%.

Borjas says that the US minimum wage, which is set on a state-by-state basis, is too low to protect low-wage American workers. However that is still a big improvement over Singapore which has no minimum wage and no real protections for employees against being sacked and replaced by cheaper foreign labour. While Tan Jee Say is on the right track in calling for priority for Singaporeans in hiring this is not sufficient. Reform Party have called for a cap on the total number of foreign workers rather than the current situation where there is practically no upper bound on the number who can come in under the Employment Pass system. We want to replace the foreign worker levy with an auction that will ensure that more of the producer surplus from being able to employ cheap foreign labour is retained by the government and used for the benefit of Singaporean workers. The cap can be raised or lowered in line with economic conditions and to keep wage growth in line with productivity growth.

While it is good to see that some of the most prominent US academics in this field arrive at the same conclusions that I have, it is slightly disappointing to see that Tan Jee Say feels that the analysis of foreigners is more likely to impress Singaporeans than the same conclusions arrived at by a Singaporean economist. Until we can shake off this inferiority complex which has been inculcated by the PAP our people will never receive their just reward in the marketplace irrespective of government policy.

Inferiority complex

Ho Kwon Ping’s Self-Serving Proposals Have No Merit.

Ho Kwon PIng2Yesterday 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.

Tax with inelastic supply

Tax with inelastic supply

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.

Why Donating Money for Foreign Workers’ Medical Bills is the Wrong Approach

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.

  1. We need to stop subsidising employers to hire from overseas
  2. We need to preserve employment for Singaporeans.
  3. We need to make it more difficult for employers to exploit workers from poorer nations
  4. We need to keep reminding ourselves that our GDP growth is falsely inflated by subsidies for activities that do not contribute to our welfare.
  5. We need to understand that our abysmal productivity record stems from these abuses.

Clash of the Grossly Overcharged Means Alvin Yeo Must Resign

alvin yeo

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 [2011] SGHC 224The 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.




Leaked: The letter that Ho Ching received from a Nigerian lawyer.

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

Temasek Holdings

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.

Yours Faithfully,
Dan Agabe

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.

What is the Point of Our Government?


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:


  1. 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.
  2. Was there a social worker assigned to her case by MSF?
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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.

Votker 2: Readers want electoral system changes


Now the topic of Reforming the GRC system is active again Alex Au’s brilliant poll and analysis is well worth re -reading.

Originally posted on Yawning Bread:

A large majority of Yawning Bread readers would like to see Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) abolished, and comprehensive overseas voting catered for. There was also considerable support for lowering the voting age to 18 and introducing proportional representation.

This came out of the second Votker poll which opened for responses on 14 September morning and closed at midnight 19/20 September.

View original 828 more words


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