Monday, August 18, 2008

Our government is not stupid

Of course our government is not stupid. In fact they are brilliant – especially when it comes to collecting money from us.

A financial guru once said (I wish I had read this when I was younger) that the best way to earn a high income is to build pipes that bring in money on a continuous basis and not carry them individually by buckets. This is exactly what our government does with unmatched skill. They build lots of small pipes which collect money from us on a daily basis; GST, ERP, COEs, fuel taxes, causeway toll charges etc. etc. etc. Then they put aside some in a bucket and give it back to us once in a while and the figure appears so generous, $3 billion! Contrary to what the prime minister said last night about not publicizing that enough, the ministers and the newspapers never tire of talking about it. What Jack Neo joked about in his movie Money No Enough 2 is common knowledge and all over the internet.

Another feature of our government’s money-collecting technique that is simply brilliant when compared to, say our neighbour up north, is that they collect our money even before we spend it. Let’s take the example of the cash card. All of us have at least two of them. Before you use it, your money has already been collected. If you are so careless as to lose one ..… too bad. If you forget to insert one into your IU when you drive under an ERP gantry ….. again too bad.

Likewise for our car park coupons. Most of us have at least $30 to $50 worth of coupons sitting in our glove compartments. If you are so careless as to accidentally tear off the wrong tab for the year or month ..… too bad. If you underestimate the amount of the time you need to park ….. again too bad. The ever-efficient and friendly parking wardens will come along and issue you a surcharge. If you overestimate the time you need to park your car and tear 1-hour coupon when you need only to spend say, 35 minutes ..… too bad. You cannot even sell the remaining 40 cents to the next driver. In this aspect, I must say that the Malaysian authorities are really dumb compared to ours. In many Malaysian towns, they still use the primitive coin-operated parking meter system. Any unused time can actually be utilized by the next driver.

So the PM as usual is right. The government is not stupid. MP for Hong Kah, Ms Amy Khor puts it best (when commenting on 2007 budget surplus of $6.47 billion):

“It is this far-sightedness and prudence, as well as the many timely and astute policies implemented, that have played a major role in bringing about such a large surplus.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Our Angsana mentality

Last Sunday, I stumbled upon a very insightful documentary on Arts Central. Entitled, Singapore Standard Time, it was one of those low profile, low budget, local productions. And typical of the Singaporean, “local ginger not hot” (本地姜不辣) mentality, Media Corp hardly gave it any publicity. In fact, as you can see from the TV programme that appeared in the Sunday Times, this documentary wasn’t even announced to the public. I think they just decided to insert it to fill the empty time slot after the movie, Cages, ended. What a contrast from the huge publicity that Channel News Asia gives to its expensive, imported Documentary of the Week shows like this one and this one.

Produced by Lo Hwei Shan and Directed by Joycelyn Khoo, this documentary takes a good hard look at Singaporeans’ obsession with instant results; or what I would call, The Angsana Mentality. Featuring interviews with a number of Singaporeans including Dr Wee Yeow Chin, a botanist, Dr Woffles Wu, a cosmetic surgeon and Ivan Heng, a famous theatre director and playwright, it “explores the ways speed has taken root in Singaporean culture. Driven by an ethos of efficiency and instant gratification, we have taken speed to unique heights, from setting the world record for the world's fastest SMS text message, to the patented 20-minute facelift.” (quoted from the synopsis at this website)

Dr Wee, the botanist, for example spoke about our Garden City campaign and how we planted lots of trees propagated by stem-cuttings to provide ‘instant trees’ for our roads and parks. Another gentleman, an aquarium owner spoke about the craze for luohan fish at one time, because many superstitious Singaporeans wanted to look for numbers on the fish’s body to ‘buy 4D’ and acquire instant wealth. Yet another interview was with a businessman who had developed an ‘instant’ Hainanese chicken rice package for sale to tourists. The final interview was with Ivan Heng. He lamented the decline of interest among students for literature in our schools; possibly because it was a difficult subject to score an A in; and if I may add, of little value in ‘pragmatic’ Singapore.

I find botanist, Dr Wee’s narration of how we transformed Singapore into a garden city in 40 short years most telling. Initially, we planted a lot of Angsana trees to provide instant shade and greenery to our roads and parks. But it was soon discovered that Angsanas were prone to branch breakage, especially during heavy storms, and infection by a fungal disease known as the "Angsana Wilt", which has killed many of the trees. They were later replaced by sturdier trees like the Raintree. He also explained why trees grown from stem cuttings were not as resilient as those grown from seedlings. A tree planted from seedling develops vertical roots which are anchored deep in the ground. In contrast, a tree grown from stem cutting develops roots that spread out sideways and thus could not provide as strong an anchor. But the latter provides fast results.

Coincidentally, over at Channel 5, they were airing the daily news roundup of the ongoing Beijing Olympic Games. As Singaporeans well know, this year we are keeping our fingers crossed that our athletes will finally bring back a medal. Our hopes rest on a handful of mostly foreign sports talents like Li Jiawei and Tao Li. I cannot resist drawing a comparison between these foreign imports and Dr Wee’s stem-cut trees.

In recent years, our government has been going all out to woo foreign talents to come to our shores. We offer them lots of attractive incentives and hope that at least some of them would settle down and ‘sink their roots’ on Singapore soil. Would they form deep roots like us local ‘sons of the soil’ who are born and bred and served our national service here? I hope so.

I have argued before that our foreign talent policy is in fact quite short-sighted. After watching Singapore Standard Time, I understand that our leaders too are suffering from the Angsana mentality. Such a mentality is best exemplified by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s famous 1998 National Day Rally Speech where he openly declared that with the help of foreign talents, Singapore is going to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals. He thought that by waving the mighty Sing Dollar, the likes of Zinedine Zidane would flock to our shores.

I can think of many other examples of such Angsana mentality. One of them is our abortion law. In 1970, we decided to legalise abortion because we were afraid that Singapore would have a population explosion. Now we are contemplating ‘unlegalising’ abortion because we facing a ‘shortfall’ of babies. It is really laughable if it weren’t so tragic. While other societies agonise over the moral dilemma of taking innocent lives, here in ‘pragmatic’ Singapore, we debate about baby shortfalls and low yields of our women’s wombs.

Another example is our language policy. At one time, we were worried that Singaporean’s standard of Mandarin was too low. Dialects was singled out as the chief culprit. Overnight they banned Cantonese tv programmes and movies. Overnight, they changed the names of our towns into hideous hanyu pinyin names like Hougang, Yishun, Bishan and Zhujiao. Suddenly, all our deep-rooted heritage like Chua Chu Kang, Pek San Teng, Nee Soon and Tekka were excavated and incinerated.

Anyway, the documentary ended on a slightly optimistic note with both Dr Wee and Ivan Heng acknowledging that our Angsana-land is a miracle of sorts. "Which country in the world can go from third world to first world in 40 years?" asked Ivan Heng. "And which country can turn a third world slum into a beautiful garden city simply because one man willed it?" asked Dr Wee?

Still I hope we never have a Katrina or a Nargis to test those roots.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Aren’t I clever?

A rich man bought a house with a large beautiful garden. Against the advice of his friends and neighbours, he decided to chop down all the fruit trees and shrubs and get rid of the pots of flowers which the previous owner had painstakingly planted over the years. What practical value have trees and flowers? What this house needs is a car park for my many cars as well as those of my visitors.

But it is such a waste, argued his neighbours; all the beautiful flowers gone just like that. The birds and insects will not visit your home anymore. Still the rich man went ahead with his plan and replaced the garden with what he thought was a beautiful tiled car park. Aren’t I clever, thought the man as he surveyed his spanking new car park.

Five years went by and suddenly the man realized that his house was rather bare; and hot, and uncomfortable. And many visitors had stopped coming. And so he hired an expensive landscaping consultant to advise him on how to improve his home. What your home needs is a big garden with lots of fruit trees and flowers to provide shade and attract insects and birds to you house.

Thus the man decided to build a big garden to beautify his house. And as he looked at the beautiful plans drawn up by his expensive consultant, he thought to himself; "Aren't I clever to come up with this brilliant idea?"