the insigificant observer

My serious posts

Blog superceded

I’ve not posted here in a long time so I might as well now officially declare this blog defunct. I have since moved on to a self-hosted site with my own domain name. It can be found here.

Advertisements

February 11, 2013 Posted by | Blog Administration | Leave a comment

Conscription: Pros and cons

I wrote this essay for my mid term assignment in my Introduction to Politics (PS1101E) module. Got B+ for this essay and A- for the module in total. I must have did very well for the finals to get that grade heh!

(Post in the comments if you have any clarification, spot any mistakes or just have an opinion to share)

Choose any country of the world that practices military conscription and discuss whether the policy is necessary and/or desirable. What kind of arguments would you make for or against military conscription?

Military conscription or the draft is defined as the compulsory enrolment of a country’s citizens for military service. In modern times, this usually means that young people are required to serve in the armed forces full-time for some number of years, after which, they are kept on reserve for some period  to form the bulk of the fighting force only in times of emergency.  One of the countries today that still practices conscription is Israel. Since its independence in 1948, its men and women upon reaching the age of 18 are required to serve in its military for 30 and 18 months respectively.[1] One wonders in this modern day and age, whether conscription is necessary or desirable for Israel.

The initial reason that necessitated Israel’s conscription was the lack of manpower and its hostile neighbours. At its 1948 population of 800 000[2], its leaders probably realised that they needed a conscripted army quickly to defend itself. This was critical as they fought a War of Independence with the Arabs the moment the state of Israel was created. The bigger Arab population and their conscription policies enabled them to more easily build up a larger army. Even up to the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel had only 240 000 troops versus 340 000 of its adversaries Egypt, Jordan and Syria.[3] The constant threat of war by its Arab neighbours such as Egypt (who refused to recognise its sovereignty till 1978) was one reason why conscription was necessary.

Given this constant state of tension in this region, the state of Israel has to play the central role to safeguard its citizens. In order to fulfil this role properly, the state has to maintain a balance of power in area primarily through military force.[4] A strong armed force obtained by the state through conscription rather than through professional means was preferred as it can be done quickly and the numbers of troops can be assured.

A contractual means of obtaining troops through citizen volunteers or mercenaries would likely take too much time or give rise to power struggle.[5] Even if Israel had a larger population, the cost required to attract sufficient numbers of professional soldiers would be huge.  A huge military expenditure would crowd out funds needed for a nation’s development in the early stages. These are factors Israel could ill-afford bear as it was still a new nation.

At the same time, a conscript army is desirable for Israel because of its lower cost. Besides the full-time training period, the Israeli reserves have an annual in-camp refresher of up to 45 days.[6] This is a cheaper way of maintaining a large reserve army on standby without paying a similar-sized professional army throughout the year. During pockets of peace time, most of the reserves can stay in their civilian jobs thus contributing to the economy.

In the event of a real war, the massive recall of reserves cannot be sustained indefinitely as having civilian jobs, a longer term interruption will result in bigger economic losses. This limitation constrains the hands of military planners away from long conflicts to short and sharp battles. Although the US practiced conscription during World War 2, this problem was alleviated by having women take the place of men in factories. The same cannot be said for Israel or any other country which conscripts women or already has a high female working population. This is highly undesirable in the event that a protracted conflict is inevitable. The battles plans that Israeli commanders write may have to place undue emphasis on the time required to achieve the objective and may unnecessarily limit their operational effectiveness.

Unlike the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel initiated the conflict and had the benefit of planning for it, some wars such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War took Israel by surprise. This sudden attack nearly crippled Israel as it only had a small full-time army on standby to defend itself. Precious time was lost in the mobilisation of the reserve conscripts.[7] This near disaster may not have happened if Israel did not depend so heavily on civilian soldiers. A professional army would have likely been on a constant state of alert and be ready to defend against surprise threats such as this war. In this aspect, the slow rate of mobilisation makes reserve conscripts undesirable for unpredictable threats.

The persistent threat of conflict and small relative population to its neighbours has made conscription a necessity for its continued survival as a nation. Although some aspects of conscription may be undesirable, the need for huge numbers of troops without compromising its budget makes those undesirable factors pale in comparison. Improvements such as beefing up their intelligence services and fine-tuning their battle and mobilisation plans can help neutralise some of the negative aspects of conscription in Israel.

Israel is a country faced with exceptional circumstances. Worldwide, conscription is on the decline[8] since the 1970s showing that more countries feel less need to conscript as much as before.

This is due to a variety of reasons. The first being the high cost of maintaining a huge conscript army even on reserve. Germany ended their conscription policy in January 2011 partly to trim as much as €8.3 billion[9] of government spending.  In this day and age of government austerity, such savings are certainly welcome in the face of peace in Europe.

It may seem a like a contradiction as I mentioned earlier that conscription can help save costs. Conscription can save costs if a large army is required to be on standby against irregular threats such as those faced by Israel. However during prolonged periods of peace time, the upkeep of a huge conscript force even on reserve will become an unjustifiable liability on the national budget. A liability the Germans have chosen to end.

The second is the increased use of more sophisticated weapons acting as force-multipliers. The number and duration of wars have declined from the 16th century to the present and yet the death toll increased dramatically in the 20th century ending in 1975.[10] This increase according to Charles Tilly is attributed to the use of modern weapons such as missiles and aircraft. [11] The increase in such use of such force-multipliers has reduced the need for massive numbers of troops as compared to the past to achieve the same objective. Since these sophisticated weapons take many years and are expensive to train for, it would be better served if professional soldiers were hired to do the job.

The perceived increase in security over the use of conscription may actually decrease it. One of the reasons Israel implemented conscription was to be able to repel the large Egyptian and Syrian Army who themselves practice conscription. This build-up of troop levels was a result of the vicious cycle in building up the size of their armies. A war if it occurs will result in a larger scale of devastation.  If a collective action is taken to reduce the size of one’s army by ending conscription, it may result in a safer Middle East.

Conscription also results in an inefficient use of manpower. Countries practicing conscription experience opportunity costs and lose the comparative advantages of their soldiers. These conscripts would have otherwise contributed to the economy in more efficient means if they were not called to the draft. Conscripts are usually paid lowly owning to their large numbers and budget constraints. South Korea for example pays its conscripts just 10%[12] of its minimum wage. This low wage will hardly commensurate with the true economic potential of the men in service and will result in deadweight losses to the economy.

The short period of training and annual refresher period compared to professional soldiers will mean that the soldiering qualities such as discipline of the former will not be as proficient as the latter.[13] Any military-only skills gained by the conscripts during the period of conscription would be lost when they leave the service. The constant turnover of conscripts also mandates large training schools to be set up to train successive batches of new draftees resulting in high costs.

The threats of today like terrorism and guerrilla tactics have changed the face of warfare.  Countries in modern times are less likely to militarily engage each other in a traditional sense but face threats from decentralised terrorist groups. The state is still the central actor in instituting actions that will protect its people. However, the methods required may sometimes need troops to be sent overseas whether to engage these terrorist groups or for humanitarian missions. In times that require immediate deployment, only regular forces can be ready in time to do so. Societal attitudes in Singapore for example, govern that the role of conscripts should be to protect the nation within its borders and not face unneeded risks by going overseas.[14]

On the other side of the coin, military conscription does have its benefits. The first of which is that it is the only cost-effective way for small nations like Israel and Singapore to build up an army of substantial strength against possible threats. The numbers obtained through volunteers will likely be insufficient. The exception is when war is imminent when more volunteers may be willing to join like during World War 2 by the Malayan Volunteer Forces.[15] Even so, the increase in volunteers during times of tension cannot be counted on reliably to produce numbers. The time required to hone soldiering skills would have to be curtailed as well in times of emergency leading to poor quality of troops.

Given that the weapons systems like digital radios and vehicles of today are more sophisticated, the training required to operate these weapons is longer. When war is imminent and if professional troops are unaffordable, the state may not have the luxury of time to implement the conscription policy and train troops in the use of modern equipment. A fixed length conscript service would provide the military with ample time and predictable schedule to train sufficient recruits to operate advanced battle equipment.

Conscription promotes national cohesion and racial harmony by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds together. This is most evident in Singapore where there exist multiple ethnic groups. The enforced sharing of areas and responsibilities create a sense of trust and bonding between people from many races and social ladders which may have otherwise not met outside of the service.

In conclusion, the need for conscription varies depending on the circumstances faced by each nation.  Conscription can be justified for small nations. For bigger countries like the US and in Europe, volunteers are sufficient and a conscription policy would only serve to increase the suspicion of its neighbours. However, given the constant decline of military conscription practices worldwide, it goes to show that the arguments against conscription are getting stronger.


[1] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Defense Service Law” (1986) http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/1980_1989/Defence+Service+Law+-Consolidated+Version–+5746-1.htm Accessed 5 November 2011.

[2] David Melle. “Facts of Israel” http://www.factsofisrael.com/en/stats.shtml  Accessed 5 November 2011.

[3] Randolph S Churchill and Winston S Churchill Jr,  “The Six Day War” (1967) p. 54

[4] Robert H. Jackson, Georg Sørensen “Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches”(2007), p 88.

[5] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1990, (Basil Blackwell 1990), chapter 3 (“How War Made States, and Vice Versa”), p.83

[6] Dr. Netanel Lorch , The Israel Defence Forces (1997),  http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Facts%20About%20Israel/State/The%20Israel%20Defense%20Forces

Accessed 5 November 2011.

[7] Lawrence Whetten and Michael Johnson. “Military Lessons of the Yom Kippur War”, The World Today, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Mar 1974), p.102

[8] James Gwartney, Robert Lawson and Joshua C Hall “Economic Freedom of the World: 2011 Annual Report“ cited in Joshua C Hall. “Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?” (2011) http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2011/Hallconscription.html

Accessed 5 November 2011.

[9] David Gordon Smith, “’End of an Era’ as Germany Suspends Conscription” in Spiegel Online International (2011), http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,737668,00.html

Accessed 5 November 2011.

[10] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1990, (Basil Blackwell 1990), chapter 3 (“How War Made States, and Vice Versa”), p.73

[11] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1990, (Basil Blackwell 1990), chapter 3 (“How War Made States, and Vice Versa”), p.74

[12] Lee Tae-hoon, “Is it fair to pay draftees less than $100 a month?” (2011), KoreaToday. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/special/2011/07/242_81971.html Accessed 5 November 2011.

[13] Adam Smith put forward that “The soldiers who are bound to obey their officer only once a week or once a month, and who are at all other times at liberty to manage their own affairs their own way, without being in any respect accountable to him, can never be under the same awe in his presence, can never have the same disposition to ready obedience, with those whose whole life and conduct are every day directed by him, and who every day even rise and go to bed, or at least retire to their quarters, according to his orders.”

“The Wealth of Nations Book V, Of the Expenses of the Sovereign or Commonwealth” Chapter 1, para 11, cited in Joshua C Hall. “Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?” (2011) http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2011/Hallconscription.html Accessed 5 November 2011.

[14] Ong Wei Chong. “The Inter-National Servicemen of the SAF: Citizen Soldiers in Overseas Missions”, (S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University 2009), p2. www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS1012009.pdf Accessed 5 November 2011.

[15] Rosmary Fell, “The Malayan Volunteer Forces”, para.3

http://www.cofepow.org.uk/pages/armedforces_r_malayan_volunteers.htm Accessed 5 November 2011.


December 24, 2011 Posted by | politics | 1 Comment

GE 2011: Reply to Jack’s counter counter reply

My 3rd post and the 6th post of the series. This shall be my last post of this series regardless of whether Jack replies or not. (Unless its very controversial) This is a debate with no end.

1.  Jack’s start

2. My reply

3. His counter reply

4. My counter reply

5. His counter counter reply

6. This post as my counter counter reply

Topics of discussion: I would like to add more but I have no time and there is no end of additional topics.

A. Housing (10 sub-sections)

B. Foreign talents/workers (4 sub sections)

C. Grow and share

D. Transport

E. The electoral situation

A. Housing

1. Small flats

I assume from Jack’s words that he is in support of smaller flats if the demand is there.

The building of smaller flats does not mean that the construction of larger flats will stop. This just gives people more choices. People are still free to buy larger flats if their finances can handle it. I raised the popularity of tiny shoebox condo apartments. Although I have no statistics to back this up, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are very popular. On to his arguments

a. Build flats according to demand

The problem is if HDB does not construct smaller flats, there would be no demand for such flats. The fact that there is demand for tiny shoebox apartments means there is demand for small flats. To allay any fears of lack of demand, I have a suggestion.  Since HDB flats have to bought first before they are built, HDB can do a trial run. Let buyers indicate a serious intention (by way of deposit) to purchase small flats. If sufficient numbers indicate their interest, then proceed with building. If not, return the deposit and no harm is done. Right now, there isn’t an option to prove the demand is there.

b. Deter family expansion

Which one deters families more, no flat or a small flat. Those who can afford a larger flat would have bought one. A smaller flat with lower cost would also reduce the financial burden for less financially-able families. In fact, it would also encourage this group who can’t afford a larger flat in the first place to start a family.

2. Land supply

I’m ok with the first part of his point. I take issue with this statement “Ultimately Singapore can only support a set number of people, and the determination of who should and can stay in Singapore should be based on how valuable that person is to his country.”.

What is this suppose to mean? I hope he does not mean we kick out those that does not contribute a up to a set criteria in terms of economic output. I would say, we take in foreigners up to a point if they start to do more harm then good. By harm, I mean the externalities they cause like transport congestion which is already happening on a large scale. If Singapore reaches the critical number, we have to impose stricter restrictions on foreigner intake regardless of their calibre. More on that in the next section

3. Land valuation

As to pricing methodologies of land, I shall not debate any further. As long as land prices are not transparent, we will never know how the Chief Valuer does his job and the current pricing policy. There is no end to this anyway.

4. Profits on land sales

In fact, the profits of land sales are almost 100% since most of the land belongs to the government in the first place since independence. Coupled with the most common 99-year lease, it means that land sales is like a cash cow of the government. Market rates are actually set by the government since SLA has a virtual monopoly of land. How is the market rate set properly based on demand and supply in a monopoly?

As for reserves to help the poor, I applaud this move if it was actually done in the first place. Land sales have not been included in the Budget as incoming revenue as far as I can see. This means the money earned can’t be used for programmes, at least not directly. As to using our current reserves, the government has been notoriously stuck-up in its use. In this election, PAP candidates have been quick to label opposition plans as raiding the reserves. The only time I heard of its use was when $4 billion was withdrawn for the Jobs Credit scheme but it was returned this year. How much of it was actually used is unclear.

I don’t advocate drawing down of reserves as far as possible. I do hope the rate of accumulation is slowed from its current rates. Return the money to the economy by greater expenditure on social services and education.

5. Resale/first time buyers markets and MOP

I concede that resale flats has to come from flats of first time buyers in the first place. Thats why the (extended) MOP is there, its to segregate the markets, more on that below. One has to repair a distortion with a distortion. I know the next question is why not avoid the distortion in the first place. Its because the current housing prices have not abated despite cooling measures. This calls for more intervention.

I bring back Jack’s solution of raising incomes. He admits that solution will take time. I agree with it over the long term. But time is what the housing market may not have. I’m no economist to even try predicting when the housing market will collapse. But common sense tells you it will happen eventually. Better to slow the market increase in line with salary increases to prevent this scenario then to wait for it to happen. Then everyone is worst off.

The MOP functions like the delay between the first time buyers market and the resale market. Call it linked or segregated if you want. I prefer the latter. First time buyers have to wait it out to sell their houses (same time as resale flats now) so the question of quick buck is settled. As to downward pressures on prices, after keeping the flats for so long, do you still want to sell it for a quick buck? Its hard to fathom anybody not wanting to maximise the value of their flats whether they upgrade or downgrade. Of course you want to sell it near the current market price depending on location. Even if you got your flats at a lower price, why would want to sell it lower than the market? Any profits accrued, take it as part of the Asset Enhancement policy the PAP likes to talk about and has been going on for very long now.

And HDB prices tend to rise as estates mature due to greater availability of nearby amenities and transport services. By the time the flats enter the resale market after the MOP, the prices should have risen in line with current market prices or higher.

6. PR housing issue

No disagreement with his suggestion of 10% handicap.

7. CPF on housing

Its precisely many Singaporeans have excessive amounts of their CPF locked up in their houses thats why we want to prevent the problem from getting worse for subsequent buyers. The policies suggested will not lower housing prices from their current levels. I know saying is no use as its all theory.  I can’t back this up unless its actually done. Thats why I will not go further.

8. Financial options for unlocking home value.

As to financial options to tap into the homes’ values, I support reverse mortgage and I hope the HDB or private lenders extends and reinstates this to all homes. I have not read those forum posts but from Jack’s summary, I don’t think its all bullshit. As Wee Siew Kim ( my current MP of Jalan Kayu in Ang Mo Kio GRC) once said in defense of his daughter:
“What she said did come across as insensitive. The language was stronger than what most people could take.
…….
I think if you cut through the insensitivity of the language, her basic point is reasonable
………”

(See the comments in full here. I don’t agree with his words, its just that the context is very relevant here. I believe this reason is partly why he is not seeking re-election)

Back to topic, the other methods Jack suggested are nothing special. They are available already. But remember, those are loans that you have to pay back which is back to square one. And most people don’t need and cannot take up extra loans as they are struggling to pay their HDB loans in the first place.  You can’t get a loan or mortgage if you are still paying as with the norm of 30-year loans. The current rate of growth of housing prices helps no one except SLA, property developers, banks and speculators. They hurt first time buyers. Current owners of flats don’t benefit as their own properties rise generally in line with the market except downgraders.

By the time you can qualify for those options, you are nearing or at your 60s. By then even, most banks will not offer them to you by way of your age. On an unrelated example, the student loan policy for university, the guarrantor cannot be more than 60 years old. 60 seems to be the magical cutoff age for loans.

Only the reverse mortgage merits closer study in preparation for reimplementation.

9. Inheritance

The reason I raised this is to remind readers (for the uninitiated) of the limits of reverse mortgage although I’ve said I’m in favour of it many times already. Not for inheritance to be intended as a major point.  This is the same when Jack has issues with smaller flats and its demand and its association as a short term measure. As for estate planning, I’m sure the lower-income has a lesser need for such experts then the rich for obvious reasons.

10. Final words on housing

No issue with Jack’s conclusion on housing. The illness is not on rising housing prices. Its the RATE of its increase. The removal of speculative elements is what I have brought forward with the MOP (extension). It should be MY summary. Its funny when he summarises his housing section with the inclusion of this statement when he has not suggested anything in this area ( I see so far) other then whacking my MOP.

B. Foreign talents/workers

Shackles on Singaporean workers

1. National Service

The deeper meaning, or rather, deeper problem is the relevance of NS reservist in this day and age. I’m not against* the mandatory 2 years as that does not affect companies at all. The educational\career advancement of the Singaporean male is just delayed 2 years. The problem arises when the reservist duties start to impact the competitiveness of Singaporean men. And I’m not in favour of forcing NS down the throats of foreigners.

*(In this argument context of competitiveness. I would personally hope to see a further reduction in the mandatory NS period although this will no longer affect me. This is a subject out of scope of this article)

Jack says it can be managed by better management of manpower. This is not answering to the point. The very existence of the 10-year service cycle obligation is a huge “prison ball” holding down the productivity of Singaporean men. Better manpower management is going to just vary the size of the ball without removing it.

The better question to ask and answer is if the service cycles are reduced or removed, how much defence capacity are we actually going to forgo in comparison to the increase in productivity and employment prospects of Singaporean men?

The reduction in service cycles should be paired with the plan of increasing the numbers of a professional army as well. (Subject of another day as well)

2. Foreigners abilities to ask for lower wages

Working harder and more productive is easy to say. I also want to work harder mah. Why are Singaporeans so hard up about the paper chase? Does this not prove we are already doing our best to improve our productivity as it is?

I regret not bringing this up earlier but better late than never. No matter how hard we work and how high we rise, there is always a foreigner somewhere around the world with the same skills. No Singaporean worker/job is indispensable except for probably the civil service and military. The reason why companies locate here is because of our infrastructure and rule of law etc. Workers form just part of the equation. This infrastructure comes at a price in terms of higher cost of living, taxes and costlier workers. Its all the Singaporeans living here permanently that is paying and will be paying for it all our lives. In return, we expect a higher wage to pay for this very expensive environment (multi-national) companies yearn. By hiring numerous foreigners, the companies get the double benefits of a good infrastructure and the lower cost foreigner workers. We may get jobs that pay wages similar to or lower (due to CPF) than the foreigners and yet our whole families still have to pay the higher cost of living here. 

I highlighted the above in bold for a reason. Its the real reason why Singaporeans are so unhappy with the huge influx of foreign workers. The only solution to the above is to restrict the intake of foreigners to a needs basis which is in my previous article.

3. Problems faced by foreigners

This is practically a non-issue. These series of posts is about GE2011 where only Singapore citizens can vote and need be concerned. The crucial difference between local workers and foreigners is choice. The foreign workers CHOSE to work here, locals didn’t. Problems like adaptation are part and parcel of working overseas. Those workers should have been at least mentally prepared for it and the fact they will be treated as third class citizens (second is PR). This scenario is the same for other countries as well.

4. Healthy competition

Healthier competition can only come about if the skills of the foreigner are better than Singaporeans on an average basis. We can’t compete on wages for the bold paragraph above. Thats why I’m ok and no opposition parties disagrees with the input of talents from overseas.

The problem arises when the skills of the foreign worker (Note: I don’t use the word “talent” here) are comparable to those of the average Singaporean. The competition becomes the short-term battle over wages instead of skills which locals will lose inevitably. Upgrading skills can help matters but there will yet be another round of battle with the foreigners of the next level. Only by rising to near the top then the problem for you is solved. How many people have the capacity to reach the top?

Normally, competition is good, but excessive competition takes a toll on the health and well-being of Singaporeans. Using words such as “slack, lazy and incompetent”‘ is a tremendous insult to the workers of Singapore who have put in the one of the longest working hours/week in the world in 2008. No reason to think things have changed since then.

C. Grow and share

If this is investment education\scheme was aimed at the lower-middle-class and up I would have no issues with it. But we are talking about the poor here. They are living from hand to mouth as it is. They can’t afford the stored value in the ezlink cards although cash payments are more expensive overall. Where are they going to get the money however small in invest in such a scheme? The only money they probably have is locked up in their CPF accounts, even then, they may have problems keeping up with the increases of the Minimum Sum.

As to starting young as early as 17, I’m all for it. But what about the numerous elderly poor who are working as cleaners etc earning less than $600/month? Middle-aged workers may not have the time on their hands to see the returns from a small principal amount. They may have to invest larger sums to get a decent return.

Jack says he is against investment other’s behalf. But hasn’t the government been currently doing that with your CPF money? CPF is used to purchase low-interest, low-risk government securities on YOUR behalf regardless of your investment appetite.. The money then goes to GIC and Temasek for their investment activities. Sure, the government bears the risk of losses but that is besides the point.

Right now, you can use your CPF money to invest in unit trusts etc. But that is provided the Minimum Sum has been satisfied in the first place. Tell that to the poor who has to inject cash into their CPF just to maintain the Minimum Sum.

D. Transport

I’m not talking about the COE again as I support its policy in its entirety with reservations in my previous article.

ERP is only in use in peak hours hence its suffice to say this ERP discount (not removal) policy for taxis will only affect CBD traffic during those times.

As to MRT commuters hopping onto taxis instead. Does he know what the price difference is between a typical MRT ride and a taxi ride? The flag down rate of the taxi is already more expensive then the longest transport journey. Even with the reduction in ERP costs, the peak hour surcharges and the distance traveled is no small sum. This will affect the private car drivers as the (running costs of the car) ERP and costs of fuel are a quite a pinch compared to the taxi ride. This is just an alternative, who says private car drivers MUST take taxis?

I’ve said already that the traffic is generally one way during morning peak hours. Taxis won’t enter the zone unless they are carrying a passenger to begin with. If many private car owners choose to drive instead, why would extra taxis ply the CBD? Then why would they stay in the zone when there are virtually no passengers taking taxis then?

I can see a possibility of the problem during the evening peak hours. Thing is, peak hours in the evenings are stretched as people leave work at different times. Traffic exiting the CBD is alot less congested then the morning. There’s a reason why the yellow lane marker for buses is one hour longer in the evening. Normally, the taxis will move into the zone just before the peak hour starts to capitalise on being the first birds. Getting the passenger (should not be hard by then) and then leaving the zone. Long queues at taxi stands are the norm in the evening peak hours currently. More taxis would certain alleviate these queues.

E. Electoral situation

Of course, I want my MP to be a good one. Who does not? My friend chao has written a detailed post regarding the qualities his ideal MP should have. ( Its on facebook but I dunno if its set for public viewership.)

Jack implies most opposition candidates are trash. May I know where did he get this idea from? With his long trip to Vietnam, I’m pretty sure he would have missed most of the rallies much less the oppositions’. The mainstream media has been fairer to the opposition in this election but the tinge of biasness is still obvious. And rallies are the only viable way to reach out to people who don’t read about their plans online.

I’ve been to the PAP rally at Serangoon Stadium. Unlike the opposition rallies, what you see on the mainstream media is exactly just what the PAP rally looks like for real. The atmosphere of the opposition rallies are vastly different though.

Did he look at the profiles of the opposition candidates? What about their manifestos especially WP and SDP which are written in in greater detail than the PAP’s despite knowing most if not all the policies they suggest will never be carried out? And the candidates of the PAP, are they picture perfect as well? Or does the mainstream media like to emphasise* the flaws of the opposition like the “gay” MP and plans that “raid” reserves? As they say, look hard enough, you can find that everyone has skeletons in their closet.

*(The time spent on talking about them is alot less then the Gomez scandal in the last election. I applaud the media from exploding this into a full smear campaign in this regard)

The opposition candidates have to spend time from their work and money (16k electoral deposit for a start)  to stand in the limelight. They were prepared for their backgrounds to be scrutinised to their last hair. Words have to be more properly chosen then the PAP due to their history of resorting to defamation suits. With this kind of odds stacked against them, does one still believe the opposition candidates in this election will talk trash in parliament and not serve the residents well? From their rallies, one can feel the sincerity they have in serving the people. But all those are just empty talk unless voters give them a chance to put that into action.

Even if they do get elected and act as he insinuates, they will get booted out the next election. Hougang and Potong Pasir have been run well for decades despite the numerous hurdles placed on their funding. I would dare say, if Aljunied or any other GRC falls to the opposition, they would try their best to use that opportunity to make it a model GRC for them to point to.

As to conflicts on which party to contest in which district, the fact is that except for a single three-cornered fight in an SMC, they did manage to reach a desired solution before Nomination Day. Which discussion does not have conflicts? All it matters is that they managed to get their act together to reach a desired result.

The above would not have happened if the Elections Department releases the voting district boundary early enough. Although it is earlier for this election, there is still room for improvement. The almost last minute release means that the opposition cannot work the ground beforehand and the history of gerrymandering further adds to this uncertainty.

Unlike other First-World democratic countries which are independent, the Elections Department here is under the Prime Minister’s Office. The general public wouldn’t know how the voting districts are drawn up. Till now, no satisfactory answer has been given to the criteria and reasons for drawing up the districts in this manner. This feeds speculation that the districts are drawn to suit the PAP. Don’t even get me started on the hidden purposes of the GRC. Finally, other countries doing it does not make it acceptable. Its the same with the death penalty, most countries abolishing* it does not mean Singapore has to follow.

*( I’m in support of the death penalty but not the mandatory aspect of it. Subject not in scope of this article)

Today is Polling Day. It is unlikely many will reach this point after a nearly 4000-word article. Nevertheless, if you do read to this point and have not voted, to bear in mind my arguments of the need for more opposition candidates in parliament. The PAP may not deserve to be out of the Cabinet, but we do need more voices to voice out the effects of its policies. Constitutional amendments have to be stoppable by the opposition if they are detrimental to the rights of the typical Singaporean.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | politics, Singapore | 1 Comment

General Elections counter reply to Jack

Here is the entire series of articles in case you have missed them.

1.  Jack’s start

2. My reply

3. His counter reply

4. My counter reply which is this post

Do go through the entire series if not you’ll not be able to follow the arguments and counter arguments.

1. Housing (yet another long section)

2. Foreign talents/workers

3. Grow and share

4. Transport

5. The electoral situation

There are only 4+1 sections this time as the issues of least contention (I assume) have been already removed. Since he has not contested my views on Workfare enhancements, I assume he is ok with me not bringing it up again. The IR issue bears no contention between us.

1. Housing

The first issue is the supply of flats. I agree with Jack that its not within the reasonable capabilities of a government to push HDB architects to their engineering limits. That was just a minor point that deserves mention but not expansion as I’m aware of the limitations.

But what about the point of smaller flats <4room flats whose building has been stopped years ago? Shoebox condo apartments about 4 room flat sizes or smaller have sold well. Since we are facing a shortage, smaller flat sizes could be a way to make the most out of limited land remaining and offer a lower cost alternative for those who want it.

The next issue of manipulating housing prices has naturally progressed to land prices as its value is one of the chief components. Before I carry on, let me correct one misrepresentation of Jack’s. He said most of the opposition suggests giving land discounts. I’ve looked through most of the proposals from the opposition parties. Only WP and SDP’s proposals suggests indirectly about adjusting land costs.  Nobody has used the words discount or similar. Pricing land at a lower cost is not the same as pricing it high and and then somebody (HDB in this case) absorbing a portion of the costs. Since I’m in support of SDP’s ideas on housing, I will discuss this anyway.

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan says the land price is set by the Chief Valuer. That begs another question on the process the Chief Valuer uses to cough out the value of the land. The last time land cost was revealed was in 1975.* Since there is a lack of transparency regarding cost breakdown of land and construction costs, with 2 variables here, it is difficult to gauge exactly how much is the cost of land set by the valuer.

* (From a blogger. I know we shouldn’t rely on bloggers so much. But its one case where there is no other source of info)

One way to gauge the cost of land is the cost it was acquired. Here is when the Compulsory Land Acquisition act comes in. From horror stories over the years, one can tell that this act was forcefully used to acquire land at ridiculously low prices. Then it was sold to the HDB assuming, at very much higher levels (inferred from HDB making huge paper losses), even before building commences. So this shows the double standard that the government uses in land pricing. It is making a not insignificant profit on the sale of land.

Given the lack of transparency, how do we know whether the land has been priced fairly to ensure affordability or in a way to generate most inflow in our reserves? Let me emphasise, the HDB’s goal is to provide affordable housing. Although SLA is not part of the HDB, both being govt statutory boards with deep connection means that HDB’s goals are that of the govt’s and SLA’s as well. SLA like the HDB, is not a private firm and should not be run with a profit motive. Whatever discount that Jack’s speaks of, is just a reduction in the rate of reserve accumulation by SLA. HDB will not be making losses if the land is priced properly.

Regarding this issue, I forgot to add that the rules in my previous post only apply to new flats (not resale) purchased by first time buyers (who have never owned any property). Not adding the bold words may have caused the confusion. Upgraders currently get much lower priority than first time buyers on new flats and I would like to keep it that way. Thats why this won’t affect the resale flat market since they essentially different markets.

Minimum occupancy period has been around for decades. Short term policy or not, it seems to be a very long one on the short scale. In fact, the MOP for resale flats was recently increased from 3 to 5 years showing that there is some merit to this. MOP locks you to your house, this I agree. But this the only way to filter out genuinely who wants to live there and those who use the flat as short-term investment. For those who want to upgrade to another HDB flat during the MOP, I additionally propose that, return the old flat back to HDB, but you’ll have to pay the full loan amount back to HDB in full immediately. This is to discourage speculators from flipping early. At the current 2o-30 year loan period, the remaining unpaid loan at the point of return can serve as an effective deterrent.

As to why 10 years and not some other magic number, this is meant as a suggestion to extend the MOP. In hindsight, I should have just said extend the MOP and not provided a figure. The argument of what the magic number should be left to the experts.

Actually a HDB owner can purchase another private property and continue to stay in the HDB flat after the MOP has been achieved. Not really true you can only own one property.

The PR issue. I never said lock them out of public housing. I said to control the number of new flats available to them in light of our liberal PR policies. You can ballot or whatever thats up to the govt. Of course, there will be no need to do this if there aren’t so many PRs entering our shores. As to where to stay, they can either choose to buy a resale flat/private property or rent. PR means they will be here for long but not forever. If I want to be blunt, I would not be wrong to say they are second class citizens. Want more privileges? Convert to Singapore citizenship then.

Danger of losing CPF money. I have no issue with Jack’s description of the entire CPF money situation. The problem of negative equity or losing CPF money is real. Why would this happen? The most likely cause of this is when the property bubble bursts. The current property market seems to be headed that way at the rate of increase in housing prices. Housing prices will collapse eventually when they rise faster then income as its currently the case. The way to prevent that is to slow the rate of increase or raise incomes which is difficult.

The other related issue is that high housing prices results in a greater proportion of a CPF money be tied down to your property. If too much goes to your house, the house’s value becomes an even bigger variable in your retirement savings plan should you decide to encash by downgrading or reverse mortgage. Your retirement becomes more “beholden” to the housing market which is best to avoid. The original goal of CPF is for retirement, when the govt liberalised it for housing, it was supposed to supplement cash payments. Now it becomes the main payment mode as everyone is doing it. Housing prices goes up and everyone is worst of except SLA.

Jack suggests reverse mortgage. The takeup rate is low then (probably due to awareness) and there are strict rules regarding this. Besides, the only reverse mortgage lender NTUC Income has stopped this in 2008. HDB continues to issue it but only for three room flats, which are very few this days anyway. Jack, please check as I cannot find any other information on this.

Assuming if such a policy is enacted and used, the flat cannot be passed to your offspring. This idea is good for retirees whose children already own property. What about those who wish to pass down their flat instead? There are valid reasons for this, one of which is to enable them to avoid the struggle of paying for their flat like them.

Reverse mortgage becomes the cure instead of prevention of the rise in housing prices. I’m ok with this in principle but its existence should not be an excuse to leave housing prices at a current state.

2. Foreign talents/workers

Our world is never fair, but that is no excuse to make things even more unfair on not do anything about it. Thats my stand.

1. CPF. I said I’m in support for it. So no point arguing about a point we both agree upon in principle and implementation.

2. NS. Huh? Just a quote from a dead American President?  If only every country had NS and Singapore imposes it on every foreigner which is unlikely. This is a very real problem. Stories abound of lost employment opportunities and deals because of reservist.

3. Think Jack has misunderstood this cost of living point. It has nothing to do with buying imported necessities. Its about foreigners ability to ask for lower wages since their families’ living costs are lower.

The purpose I raised these points is to show why the competition isn’t fair in the first place. This is in reply to his statement “The only proper way to chase away foreigners is by fair competition. That is to win the competition and to take that job away from the FT who may otherwise be in it.” I do not have direct methods to mitigate the first and third point.

On the laziness and incompetence of Singaporeans, this is difficult to access. Besides, I said I will allow foreigners taking in such jobs on a needs basis. This means if there is a shortage of jobs even Singaporeans want, we can take in foreigners to make up for the shortfall. The statement also assumes Singaporeans don’t compete among ourselves in the first place. On the jobs Singaporeans want, I’m sure there would be intense competition among many for those few coveted  jobs. We compete in school comprised of largely Singaporeans for limited places in the next higher level. I don’t see how this can’t be the case in the working world even with lesser foreigners in our midst.

3. Grow and share

Give a man a fish and he won’t go hungry for a day, teach him to fish, and he won’t go hungry at all for life, Jack quoted. The flaw here is that the man is actually fishing so hard that he hardly has the time to learn better fishing methods.  Why so hard can be attributed to GST and greater relative inflation of basic necessities.  That is the subject for another day.

Investing in the STI is not a bad move. Provided the poor have enough money to invest in such instruments in the first place. When they are living from paycheck to paycheck, I doubt they have enough cash to pour into other areas. The national financial literacy programme that Jack suggested is one I support. But to take advantage of that, why not invest it on their behalf. Use the CPF money to do so, provide better returns than the current meagre interest rate.

4. Transport

The contradiction I was raising was not about the workings of the COE. Its about how he extolled the benefits of a free market without considering that he is in support of other market distorting policies. Land shortage is not imposed by anyone except nature?  A COE supply limit is imposed by the government. Any act of government intervention good or bad, is actually a market distortion. That is the difference.

Anyway, I said already I’m in full support of COE provided all the other frivolous taxes are removed.

ERP discounts for taxis is actually suggested in the Workers Party manifesto. It is not my proposal. My reasons for supporting this are in my previous article. People who want the convenience of traveling by car to the CBD during peak hours can opt for taxis instead. Cars once driven in stay there for the whole day. Taxis don’t necessarily do. Besides, there is no reason they should be staying since most of the traffic is usually one way during peak hours. The taxis can leave during off-peak hours whereas private cars don’t.

As to congestion problems, they may actually alleviate it. People taking taxis means less private cars plying the roads. People drive private cars to work to avoid the hassles of conventional public transport. What ERP discounts does is to give them an alternative by transferring their traffic into the already resident taxi population.

5. The electoral situation

I’m glad Jack agrees with me that its a good idea to give a chance to capable opposition candidates. I believe in merit as well. I don’t support the opposition candidate as only an exit strategy. The current situation is a super-super majority by the PAP. A party with such power is inherently dangerous without even needing to consider the capabilities of the meagre opposition.

It has come to my attention that as of October 2009, Hong Kong passed a constitutional bill allowing Permanent Residents to vote. Not saying this will happen in Singapore. But it is also not in the realm of impossibility either considering the current situation. A PAP desperate enough MAY resort to such measures or more to cling to power. With less than 1/3 of Parliament in the hands of opposition MPs, such actions cannot be easily stopped.

I admit I hold the opposition to the lower of the double standard. For the simple reasons of lack of resources in campaigning, research and attracting the best candidates. The ruling party being the incumbent, has the advantage of the entire civil service machinery behind them to research on policy specifics. They may be privy to information not available to an opposition candidate due to the Official Secrets Act and the lack of the Freedom of Information Act. The opposition candidates are also mostly from the private sector with full time jobs. Politics is like a second burden to them. The PAP ministers and MPs are also exposed to the political situation and electorate everyday. That is their full-time job after all.

The opposition in parliament can offer a different point of view. As much as the PAP says groupthink does not really exist, I don’t believe it. People join a political party because they believe in its ideas and goals. Will you be promoted if you hold views of differing stances from your party leaders?

As to right for votes on the virtue of being the other choice, this sounds like the the opposition candidates has nothing better to do than to put their names on the nomination forms.  I agree there are some candidates which are like that. The “Slipper Man” Tan Lead Shake is one notable example.  But the minority they are. By looking at the depth of the WP’s and SDP’s manifestos, one can tell the extent of research effort put into it although you need not agree with everything they say. WP indeed does talk alot about a First World Parliament containing significant numbers of opposition candidates. But they are backed by clear policies they wish to advance.

That ends this article. I hope to reply once Jack returns from his holiday.

May 1, 2011 Posted by | politics, Singapore | 3 Comments

General Elections 2011: My view

This post is inspired by a fellow blogger Jack who is my army bunkmate. Since he invited me to discuss our views on Facebook, I’ll do just so and write another article as well.  In fact, this post is a response to his pro-PAP stance adopted in his post. Let me declare it right now, I’m a pro-opposition supporter, hence don’t be surprised if the stance of this article is slanted in that direction as much as his is towards the PAP. If you have not already read his article, please do so here before reading mine. Although, there is no harm vice versa.

To simplify things and to enable you to compare our arguments smoothly, I shall follow the same format and topic order as him. Which are:

Policies to discuss
Housing  ( very long section, skip if u think this may make you stop reading my post altogether)
Foreign Talents/workers
Grow and share
IR
Minimum Wage/workfare ( Renamed from policies for the poor, middle class and senior citizens)
Transportation policies

What we stand to lose/gain combined with How we should restructure our thinking and mental paradigm

Housing

Its a well known issue that housing prices have been skyrocketing of late. Whether online or to the newspapers, many people have expressed displeasure at the limited actions or lack of of the government in ensuring affordable housing. What I differ from him, is how do we go about ensuring Singaporeans can afford a new roof over their heads.

The primary group who is most affected by escalating housing prices are the first time house buyers. The Workers Party proposal (see pg39 of WP manifesto) is to peg the prices of new HDB flats to the median incomes of Singaporeans subject to strict criteria. SDP argues that flats should be sold at near cost price with small adjustments allowed for varying demand.  Jack goes with the view that supply and demand should be allowed to do its work and manipulating housing prices is distorting the market, raising people’s incomes should be the way to go (my personal paraphrasing).

In my view, WP’s proposal raises more questions then it solves like how much to peg at for each house type and what about location, valuation etc. SDP one is a little less radical (one of the rare cases) and is the one that gets my support . Before I start, lets state the root causes.

1. More foreigners buying properties

2. Supply of HDB flats not keeping up with demand

3. Should public housing for new buyers be defined as a merit good deserving the need for manipulation at a greater level

and more.. Since I have never bought a HDB flats before, I can only argue in macro, abstract terms. (Jack’s article is no different in this aspect)

The issue of foreigners will be covered in the next section. That leaves supply and levels of government manipulation.

Supply

The government should build more flats. Restart building of one, two and three room flats if not already done so. Since land is an issue, build taller and underground if need be. Since I don’t have figures (and no time to research) , I shall not expand this further. I shall spend more time below since Jack devoted his energies there as well.

Merit Good (how much manipulation if any)

Actually, there is no such thing as a free market. Whether its housing, medical care or cars, restrictions are put in place by the government to manipulate demand and supply. Its a fallacy to think that a free market works wonders without consequences. To buy HDB flats, one has to be >35 years if still single, not have >$8000 combined family income and not having owned another HDB flat etc. (Correct me if I get this wrong)  COE supply directly controls supply of new cars. (Jack is contradicting himself since he finds arguments against it absurd). Medical care in polyclinics and govt hospitals are subsidised. These are examples of the government not playing by the rules of the free market because there is a genuine need to intervene for the good of the people.

This is the one point where I greatly differ from him. I personally see public housing for first time buyers as a merit good deserving of manipulation on the SDP level to ensure affordability. In Singapore’s case, the supplier of new flats is the HDB (aka the government). It dictates how many it wants to build, the prices it wants to set. This should not be a typical private company with a profit motive.  This is a govt entity selling an essential merit good that you have to buy for a roof over your heads.

Intervening does make it seem more socialist and less capitalist. But there is no such thing as a perfect capitalist society model one can point to, not the US or Switzerland. Unfortunately, there isn’t a case of unshackled capitalism except in Economics textbooks. I dispense with all that fanciful quotes Jack uses and go straight to the point. What is wrong with giving this particular group of first time buyers a helping hand in purchasing their first home?

Since I can’t find WP’s strict criteria in their manifesto, I shall add my own to supplement theirs. My control measures are to prevent misuse (like property flipping), speculation and market segmentation to distinguish from the resale market. Unlike him, I believe this measures will actually be limited. In addition to the current rules, I can suggest these points for the opposition to add to their manifestos.

1. Change the minimum occupancy period of subsidised flats from 5 to 10 years (to weed out those who intend to flip)

2. Restrict the number of permanent residents allowed to purchase these flats. (Needed because of liberal PR policies)

3.  Allow people to rent out HDB flats after half their loan has been paid up.  To ease rental prices and provide owners with a passive income.

Resale flat market will remain as it is. Prices in this segment will be dictated by the usual demand and supply.

His solution of raising incomes through education is laudable. I support it.  But how long will that take effect? What about those that urgently need a HDB flat? No wonder the birth rate is low as well. People are so busy working and studying for the very “quiet environment” required to make babies.

Foreign Talents/workers

This is a typical pro-PAP stance. All foreigners or nothing. I say, I’m ok with foreigners working in Singapore. But the numbers are what everybody is at odds with. Normally, I would be inclined to agree with him that the best way to beat back their numbers is to make yourself more valuable in terms, of costs, skills/productivity, experience and work attitude, items judged in fair competition.

PROVIDED the competition is fair in the first place. I can state 3 instances I see which a typical Singaporean is disadvantaged even before capability is taken into consideration.

1. Employer/Employee CPF contributions. Assume a local and a foreigner are equally capable and applying for the same job.  A situation can easily arise where the local employee can get a lower wage then a foreigner despite incurring more costs to the employer. Do the maths, its entirely possible.

2. NS obligations. Local males who are physically fit may need to serve up to 40days of NS per year against a foreigner who does not. Even if Mindef compensates the wages, somebody has to cover for his work. This is especially acute for SMEs where there may not have the spare manpower  to “tank” the workload. Employ another temp staff= uncompensated costs

3. High cost of living. Most foreigners who come here are usually from less developed countries where jobs for their skill sets are not available or not at a wage they want.*  They usually come alone with families living at lower cost of living back in their home countries. Unlike a Singaporean worker who has no choice but to demand relatively higher wages to support his family in high cost Singapore.

*This is my personal anecdote, if the country is well developed with jobs they want, why do they need to come here? There are few exceptions, like stem-cell researchers who come to Singapore due to political opposition back home.

With these shackles on his legs, its no surprise a typical Singaporean worker is more likely to lose the race in the job market.  Example 1 and 2 are artificial constraints imposed by the government. I’m in support of the CPF scheme as it is. Reservist obligations should be sharply curtailed to 5 years or less. Instance 3 is unavoidable.

Getting better and faster is possible, but with an unfair race, it is alot more difficult for Singaporeans to compete. The only solution then is to moderate the inflow of foreigners. Restrict to those talents that one cannot find in Singapore. Allow low-skilled workers for jobs Singaporeans don’t wish to do like construction workers. Anything else, allow in only on a needs basis. With a slower influx in foreign workers, there is a also a positive side effect of slower increase in housing prices/rentals and greater easing on public transport.

Grow and share

Like Jack, I just got a couple of hundred bucks on Friday. Sure, giving so much cash is good. But only during election season? Come on….  Whether such a scheme exists or not is not really related to Singapore’s growth. I’m sure you know the real reason.

Seriously, I’m surprised the government has not done more considering the huge budget surpluses year after year. Strictly speaking, accumulating large surpluses is a contractionist fiscal policy. Surpluses are of course better than deficits. But excessive surpluses is a problem. It sucks money away from the potentially larger Singapore economy.

Jack say it may be true the fruits of economic growth has not trickled down. It is not a question of maybe, it IS true. From decade up to 2008, the Singapore’s economy doubled while the average incomes of bottom 20% has fallen by 2.7%. (See BBC).

With budget surpluses and up to $15 billion of land sales which are unaccounted for in the Budget, its a no-brainer that the government can well afford more of such grow-and-share and/or other welfare packages whether we are growing or not.

IR

I cannot step into the casino since I have yet to reach voting age. I have visited the Marina Bay Sands though not Resorts World Sentosa yet. Beautiful places all right. My first question is what is the proportion of Singaporeans working in the IRs.  The second is how much has cases of gambling related problems increased since its completion.

Otherwise, I’m ok but uneasy with the economic benefits it brings. My stand here is similar to Jack’s. I do hope my questions well be answered though.

Minimum Wage/Workfare

I renamed this because Jack didn’t discuss much else except that minimum wage does not work.

In this aspect and the fact that I have no figures in hand, I will take his stand. But I do believe the discussion should not end there. Other than pure economic arguments, the government should set up a commission to research into the feasibility of a minimum wage instead of dismissing it outright. WP’s chief Low Thia Kiang suggested this in parliament but was rebuffed.

Unlike the RP and SDP which supports the minimum wage, WP prefers to enhance the Workfare scheme which I support (See WP manifesto pg47). The cash component which is about 2/7 should be increased to about 2/3 which is around the ratio of wages less CPF. Instead of 35 years, I suggest the minimum age be reduced to 30.

If a future minimum wage study concludes that it is beneficial, then I’ll support it. Its a matter of beautiful economic theories against the practical reality. An example is the trickle-down economic theory. Basically it says tax cuts and benefits should be aimed at the rich and businesses so they would invest more and create more jobs and economic growth. It has been disproven although US politicians (especially Republican) continue to recommend it, probably because of their rich campaign donors.

Till a minimum wage study is done, my stand is along the lines of WP.

Transportation policies

Arguments against ERP, COE aand other car related policies absurd? So he thinks these policies are all right in their current implementation?

In line with SDPs’s arguments, I support the COE fully if the other frivolous taxes line Import Duty and Additional Registration Fee (ARF) are removed. Consolidate these taxes or remove them. The COE supply alone is enough to determine the supply of new cars with or without these taxes.

Taxi driving is a job that fluctuates inversely with economic growth for obvious reasons. I agree with WP’s proposal to exempt them from ERP charges. The reason given is to encourage them to ply into CBD areas during peak hours. I would back it up by saying it gives people an alternative away from driving cars during peak hours and taxi drivers more income.

Additionally, incentives or rather, reduction of disincentives for hybrid, electric or other environmentally friendly cars should be implemented. There is a green rebate of 40% discount off ARF. If its still around, I suggest a discount of 40% of COE if SDP’s policies are fully implemented. Else, increase the discount on ARF.

Peak hour transportation grouses has grown louder over the years. I form part of the peak hour crowds that take the bus and MRT to work everyday and I can fully understand why. You cannot act gentlemanly if you want to board a crowded train. Push or you can’t board is the rule that better stay in your head. Same story for the buses. Buses have one additional rule. Attempt to estimate the final position of the bus and make your way there quickly before others do so. Those who are too late or slow in the game can only watch or join the back of the semicircle crowd in the faint hope the bus can accommodate all.

I’m sure the above scene plays out all around Singapore everyday, every peak period. Increase in population is one reason which is covered above. One of the solution is to increase number of buses and trains. Costs are an issue. High profits show that the transport companies can afford to purchase more vehicles. As to the argument of under utilisation during off-peak hours, think of a power station. A power station has to always maintain enough capacity during peak hours. During off-peak hours, excess turbines lie idle. This is an inevitable part of businesses that involve varying demand.

What we stand to lose/gain and How we should restructure our thinking and mental paradigm

I believe the PAP will continue to have a parliamentary majority on polling day. The extent of the majority is highly variable which one can only speculate till the counting is completed. It is my sincere hope to see more full opposition MPs in parliament, even better if they can grab >1/3 of the seats to prevent rubber-stamping of constitutional changes. NCMPs can be up to 9 but they are toothless if you scrutinise their powers carefully.

If the PAP maintains its current super majority or increases to full house, we will likely see not much change to the status quo. The problems stated above will likely remain or worsen.

If the opposition increases its foothold in parliament, I would expect more robust debate in parliament. Negative aspects of policies can’t be easily suppressed or swept aside. If the whip is lifted, PAP MPs with dissenting views can probably vote against a bill knowing with confidence he is not powerless in joining hands with the opposition.

Foreign politicians welcome our leaders as they see Singapore citizens as the ideal electorate. Compliant, submissive, law-abiding and the do with “no questions” asked attitude. They wonder how did the PAP do it. Politicians from China are especially interested. If not why would you think this tiny red dot gets more attention then its “novelty deserves”?

A politician campaigning for parliament is like a prospective employee going for a job interview. Some candidates have decades of experience, some may be fresh from school. Decades of track record is good, but we all have to start somewhere, someone has to take a risk with you to give you your first job. This is the only way to get the experience. If we keep demanding candidates or parties have experience and yet don’t give them a chance to get one, we will likely see the experienced candidates get more arrogant since they hold the monopoly of governance. They can hold a country hostage since they know no one else has the capabilities to run the nation. This is the real “freak election” result I’m worried about.

Make hay while the sun shines, crying when the floods come in is too late.

April 30, 2011 Posted by | politics, Singapore | 3 Comments

Governance and Nation building

“Do you agree that good governance is key to successful nation building?”

I did this GP essay for the 2008 NYJC Prelims exactly one month ago. And I got 35/50 for it! Content=20/30, Language=15/20. Exactly the same mark breakdown I got for my previous mid year cyberspace exam piece. The reason I’m posting this up is not because of the marks per se, but the effort I put in during the exam that I am so proud of myself!

A summary for my GP results is here on my main blog.

During the course of converting this essay to a soft copy, I have rephrased certain sentence structures. The integrity and ideas I written in this essay has remained largely intact.

(About 1080 words) Comments at the bottom.

START:

“The government is best which governs least” This phrase kickstarted American philosopher Sir Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay entitled “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. Although this essay is not about rightfully disobeying the government, it neatly sums up the role of a government in his societal view. The traditional ideal of a good government in any society is to lead the country by making critical decisions which affects the country politically, economically and to safeguard the country’s interest in times of crisis. It also has the responsibility of providing certain public services to its citizens and to protect the welfare of those in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. With such a role, it may appear that a good government is absolutely necessary to ensure that the country continues to prosper. Yet in this modern age, we see a gradual shift in responsibility from the state to newly empowered non-governmental organisations and individuals in ensuring that the country grows both in economic terms and the maturity of its citizens.

A good government with its noblest of intentions, cannot create and uphold policies which are absolutely perfect. It has to seek the advice and guidance of organisations which deal directly with the people and the economy to make the most informed decision. This enables the government to craft a policy that maximises the benefits to society with the minimalist of problems. An example is the Federal Reserve in the United States. Although its chairman Ben Bernanke regularly reports to Congress, its day-to-day operations as a Central Bank and de-facto regulator of the economy is out of the jurisdiction of the US government. It plays the role of the middleman between the government and the economy. No matter how the good the government intends itself to be, no government is specialised enough to handle the intricacies of today’s societies. Especially with democratically-elected governments, the life of a politician in office is usually uncertain. To run the country and effectively build the economy, the Federal Reserve has to be always around, employing fixed people which are skilled in this particular area. The constancy of these third-party organisations ensure that they would have the best knowledge at hand in improving the status of the nation.

Despite having a good government at the core if a nation, there has to be a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that the government remains clean. The media, also known as the Fourth Estate of government usually serves this role. In times of crisis and national emergencies, the media is utilised by the government to communicate its messages to the populace. With the powerful influence of the media, a government and its officials are forced to think twice before they put their personal interests above the nation. The media is the key to ensure that the population receives up-to-date information on the happenings of the nation and the decision-making process of the government. This check-and-balance was most spectacularly demonstrated during the Watergate Scandal in 1972. Members from the US Republican Party broke into the offices of the Democratic Party to steal certain audio tapes. Despite later receiving information of this incident, the Republican President Richard Nixon ignored it and even conspired to cover it up. The media chanced upon the entire happenings and printed it for the world to see. After mounting investigations, Nixon resigned a few days later becoming the first US president ever to do so. As we can see, the role model of a good democratic governance by the US portrayed to the world can sometimes be tarnished. A powerful media is the main cornerstone to allay the fears of the population over the current state of governance.

A good government may also tend to over-regulate in the name of protecting the welfare of the people. Laws of censorship and even regulating social behaviors like littering and chewing gum consumption are implemented to “protect the people from themselves”. Through the lenses of the government, these policies serve to ensure that its citizens are encouraged to adopt habits which are deemed mature. All these are done to supposedly build a nation of civility. A perfect example of this over-governance is Singapore which has the above laws enshrined in the Penal Code. To Western and even regional observers, these polices are extremely trivial although they do agree Singapore’s model of good governance is a notable one to emulate. The problem with such a “nanny” state is that it breeds complacency and the innovative spirit of the people are likely to be stifled in the long term. Citizens will be less inclined to push the boundaries of knowledge acquisition and political expression. The original aim of the “good” Singapore government to build a nation of highly-civilised people devoid of sins has failed miserably to a large extent.

Yet on the flip side, I do not deny the benefits of having a good government. One indicator of the quality of governance is the level of corruption. The annual corruption index released by the United Nations regularly places Singapore and Switzerland at the top of the chart. These economies have consistently shown themselves to be economic powerhouses at their own right despite their size. It is the trust that Swiss and numerous multi-national companions place into the hands of the clean Swiss government that enables it to have among the world’s most developed banking system and economy. Taiwan on the other hand, occupying a much lower position on the index, has seen its economy grind to a halt for most of the past decade. The relentless never ending bickering by its politicians and even recent allegations of embezzlement by its former President Chen Shui Bian does no justice to the country. Its politicians spend more time engaging in verbal (and sometimes even in physical) warfare than proposing constructive policies which are synonymous with that of a good government. This is a perfect illustration of how a good government is a key factor in building a nation.

In conclusion, a good government is necessary, but it should not be viewed as the sole indicator in predicting the future prospects of the country. The good government which dedicates out its non-core functions and sets reasonable laws should be lauded as the best model for emulation.

END:

Marker’s comments: Good intro! Excellent general knowledge, fluently discussed.

Personal comments:

Other than the congruency in marks with the midyear, I also find that my essay tends to be less relevant at the beginning and improves at the end. This is evident by the dismal number of ticks in the second and third paragraphs with the number increasing as I approach the end.

All the questions in the prelims was difficult. As with most of my GP essays before, I choose a question if I feel I have a firm grasp of the required points. In this case, I had no inspiration for all the questions! The reason I chose it was because I happened to be able to start the essay with an interesting quote which I was not even sure related to the question. Fortunately, the marker gave me credit for it!

 

When I started on my first point on third-part organisations, I initially had no idea what example to use to back this up. I stopped at the sentence “minimalist of problems” for about 5 minutes thinking of what suitable example to use. With no inspiration on the radar, I just whacked the Federal Reserve in and twisted it to fit my point. There is nothing untrue with the facts I raised, its just that in reality, the Fed is much closer to the US government than I intend to reveal. It is not a good example but it fits. Till now, I can’t think of any although I am aware that examples of these do exist.

 

My original aim for bringing in the media argument was to prove its importance as another key to nation building. Upon reading this once more, I felt I did not show how this would improve the nation. In fact, the Watergate scandal I raised only showed the press “dragging” down the status of nation, casting the American population into doubts about the integrity of their government. A highly negative example which I somehow twisted again to support the point. (Without surprise, the marker did not tick this example which showed its slight irrelevance.)

Paragraph 4 is largely ok. I just could not resist taking a swipe at our current government policies. No ticks for the last sentence though.

Paragraph 5 is the shortest after the conclusion but with the most number of ticks. Its not really hard to see why.

Overall, not bad in my eyes. But can be improved if I swap the examples for better ones. I somehow seem to feel that my essays are always heavy on facts and less on personal opinions and expression. Guess thats from the way I think. State the facts first, and explain my points off the facts.

 

 

September 28, 2008 Posted by | global, politics | 1 Comment

JC2 Mid Year 2008, GP Paper 1

I did this GP essay during my JC2 Mid Years on 23 May 2008 and I got 35/50 for it. I am so proud of it that I am posting this up here!

Added (18/7): It turns out I have submit a type-written version of this essay for my school’s GP bulletin. So this partly justifies my time in duplicating this essay in cyberspace.

Topic was: Cyberspace is the most natural medium for developing and monitoring political power. Comment.

Note: There are slight mistakes in my essay. The Tibetan Youth Organisation I was referring to in the essay is actually the Tibetan Youth Congress. The ThinkCentre website is hosted in Singapore instead of the US as I have claimed. Luckily the marker did not detect the mistakes.

I also edited some arguments and rephrased some examples. Otherwise, the soft copy here is an almost verbatim version of the original. A scanned copy of the original if available at the bottom of this post if you desire to view it and the marker’s comments.

Word count: About 1100 words.

START:

Ever since the power of the Internet was placed into the hands of the masses in 1993 by the release of the Mosiac web browser, the information contained in this virtual medium and the influence it garners has grown from strength. From developed to developing countries, the ordinary citizen now has access to thousands of opinions of others plus the opportunity to voice out their own if they so desire. With rapid technological advances, the virtual world of cyberspace as encapsulated by the Internet has given people the option of anonymity and an avenue of free speech. These benefits are usually not available to the conventional mediums like the newspaper and television. With such advantages and lack of government control, its no wonder politics has been added to the mix of topics to be discussed online.

The young are usually the most technically sophisticated group as compared to other sectors of a country’s demography. And their numbers are not small, with high birth rates in some countries like the US and Malaysia. This huge segment can exert a huge influence on politics that politicians today are just beginning to realise. The emphasis on higher education and computer literacy in most education systems has partly contributed to this phenomenon. As they are a group imbued with critical-thinking skills and a natural desire to support anti-establishment causes, they view the Internet as a convenient and affordable medium to air their views and disgruntlement with current government policies. Youth organisations have utilised the means of cyberspace to reach out to this specific group to further their cause. Many such groups existent today such as the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) heavily rely on cyberspace to plan their activities and share information.

Cyberspace allows their work to be done covertly away from the prying eyes of the government. A case in point was when the Chinese government sent its troops into Tibet to quell massive protests just last month. Barring foreign journalists, the state-owned media claimed that the death toll was only in the double-digits. Members of the TYC who were present there submitted their own set of three-figure statistics to their foreign supporters and the Western media through cyberspace. Although the data was not independently verified, this resulted in an international uproar and even calls for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Chinese government backed down soon after by allowing limited access to foreign journalists. This clearly shows how a small political group can weld the power of cyberspace to maintain a form of check and balance on a more superior political power. If the TYC had done its recruitment and planning through television and the newspapers, it would have never gotten pass the state censors.

Cyberspace is increasingly used by aspiring politicians to develop their own political base and as a means to reach out to millions of voters. With faster Internet access today and the proliferation of Web 2.0/Ajax technologies, political videos of debates and speeches can now be uploaded to video-sharing sites like Youtube for mass viewing. Blogs can provide instant news streams of a candidate’s intentions and their own biodata. Such a power has recently been used by none other than the 2008 US presidential candidate Barack Obama. As a first-term senator of Illinois, he has lesser experience, influence and initial funding compared to other candidates. With a disadvantageous base to start of with but a desire to be in the presidency, cyberspace is the most natural medium for him to develop his own political power. Its cheaper for him to showcase himself in cyberspace than say, pay for television advertisements given his limited initial funding. His speeches like the recent “A More Perfect Union” and ridicule of opponents are available for viewing anytime. His supporters too monitor the blogs of others to find ways to detect flaws in his opponents’ arguments. His method of campaigning has now made him the most likely Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential election. (Note: Obama as of 18 July 2008, is the sole Democratic presidential candidate.) As the US Ambassador to Singapore, Patricia Herbold said in a local education seminar, “The candidate that eventually wins the 2008 US presidential elections is most probably the one that can combine the tactics of cyber campaigning and the traditional methods of public speeches.” Cyberspace, with its new found opportunities and low-cost of adoption, seems to be the most natural way forward to develop political power in this day and age.

Given such benefits associated with cyberspace, it is no doubt that some incumbent political powers seek to control this medium to limit its impact on their own political influence. China and Myanmar have taken steps to limit access to political blogs and websites. With its “Great Chinese Firewall” programme, an army of computer specialists regularly sift through forums and blogs to decide which to censor. Here lies the dilemma, by restricting access, governments also realise that they are curtailing the political maturity and awareness of the population. (Marker’s comment: Might that be a desirable outcome for them?) More technologically-savvy users also circumvent these restrictions by using proxy servers or satellite Internet Service Providers to access banned political websites. More affluent web owners also choose to host their websites overseas to avoid local censorship. The “ThinkCentre” website which showcases the political flaws in the Singapore government is hosted in the US to avoid registration in compliance with local laws. With cyberspace being the last bastion for free speech, Burmese have recently begun to pool many Internet connections together to maximise limited connection bandwidths to upload news and events to international viewers in the hope of monitoring their military government. Despite measures taken by the government around the world to control cyberspace, the fact that the masses continue to embrace it as a trusted media source shows its pervasiveness into today’s society and the high level it holds in the eyes of the people.

In conclusion, the benefits and influence linked to cyberspace are more numerous and influential than any other forms of mediums invented in human history. The ease of accessibility of cyberspace coupled with a generation of technologically-savvy opinionated youths to boot, have continuously pushed the boundaries of how cyberspace can be used. The political influence it can potentially exert can easily prop up or undermine any political power in place. The system of checks and balances it imposes through comments submitted by the individual end-users can be amplified. Such power and influence of cyberspace easily makes it the most suitable medium one would utilise to further their own cause. No matter how much one seeks to control it, the rising tide of this new medium cannot be stopped in the 21st century.

END

So here are the scanned copies. Original handwritten copies somehow gives an authentic feel to the hard work I put in. That is provided you can read my handwriting!

Marker’s comments: Excellent job, wide ranging and with good substantiation. Broad scope and good analysis.

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

July 15, 2008 Posted by | cyberspace, education, global, politics | 5 Comments

Reflectons midway the Mids

(Just an early warning, this post has nothing to do with my midyears.)

As of now, I have completed all of Maths and the Paper 3s of both my Sciences. From the questions I managed to answer so far, its safe to assume that I am still not trying my best despite drumming this message into my head throughout the course of the holidays.

Yesterday, had a MSN convo with Ben Low. He mentioned something about “less than perfect” was not an option in Singapore. The convo was started from my personal message “Singapore is haunted by a spectre. The spectre of meritocracy.” (I rephrased it from episode 14 of Ghost in the Shell: SAC. You can watch the video in my main blog post. )

With ever more competitive university admission criteria, many are scrambling headlong to brush up on their studies. Sacrificing the pursuit of their hobbies and nurturing friendships in the process. Not saying that everybody is fully enclosed into their hermit’s shell, but the time spent in such areas have been cut down drastically.

Its too much of a vicious circle. Everybody wants to be the fittest, so they work even harder. Yet the number of people who eventually can attain the much coveted goals is fixed, or at most, rising ever so slowly in Singapore.

I first read of this “Law of one price” economic law in Tim Harford’s “The Logic of Life” (Jan 2008). He used this law to describe what would happen if there was a disparity in the number of men and women in US cities and small towns with a specific focus on the marriage “market”. In summary, even a slight disparity between the sexes can accrue a larger than necessary advantage to the minority sex. To get “laid”, the majority sex has to “offer” themselves at a lower and more attractive price (the definition of price here is subject to personal interpretation) to the opposite gender. Assuming a market with perfect information, this price war will cause the price to rapidly spiral downward and converge to almost zero.

I am sure you would know how to apply this to the context of the Singapore’s education system. Its just that probably you do not know how to name this phenomenon other than calling it mere competition. With the acute shortage of places in tertiary institutions, the price for getting a place is rapidly converging to the perfect score. Ben Low told me even students with ABB could not enter FASS. Thats close to perfect. Very soon, if this continues, one might need to have “better than perfect” scores. As shown by the medical course which students with perfect As, distinctions in the two H3 subjects and a stellar SGC to boot could not even get to the interview stage.

I know this has nothing to do with the midyears or receive external help. But its all related whether we like it or not. I know for sure many had been mugging like hell during the holidays. I do mug but definitely not at the level at which many have described. I have gotten my fair share of distrustful comments by some people because their assumptions (I’m starting to believe its my looks that led them to this conclusion no matter how much I try not to bring up such factors) dun match my words.

Even worse, those who understate their mugging level or try to demoralise those who try to study in school when they mug at home. As Chwee once mentioned, “many people in JC want to pretend they are not mugging although they are”.

Some people have chosen to “stake their entire mental stability” on their results. Although how much I don’t like such an attitude, these people are perfectly justified and rational in having such a belief. Its people like me with possession of a “slack” attitude that will most likely lose in this race if I dun buck up. Nobody wants to be in a race to lose. As shown in Yan Yu’s line of argument (See this post and its links if you have not), given the current circumstances, whatever I say does not bring in the beef in the real world. She is circumstantially right on all counts. This days, ideological beliefs in education are increasingly being cast aside in favour of “realpolitik“. The theory of natural selection rears its head once more.

I prefer to take things slowly at a consistent pace. Enriching myself by regularly gaining more knowledge of the world not for the sake of the GP exam but for personal enlightenment. Yet, this pressure-cooker (a common term now) system forces us to study with the end of results in mind at the expense of the process. The “ends justifies the means” as they say. George Bush has used it, religious extremists have used it, now even Singapore is using it. Even if nobody knows whether the price of these means have escalated so much that they are now not worth the original ends.

Thats why my GP exam results fluctuate so much. My style of writing is classified as “messy” by my GP teachers although they recognise that I have the knowledge. Poor introduction, hardly any topic sentences in between paragraphs, and a cliff-hangar conclusion. All these they say, do not bring in the results which I deserve. Hell do I hate to write in such a constrained manner but I have no choice but to comply for the sake of my results. So dun criticise me if my style of writing here is haphazard with undeveloped ideas scattered everywhere. I write what directly comes to my mind.

Ms Poh, my Econs teacher regularly brings up the fact that we, Singaporeans cannot think critically. The poor performances of even our top debaters in The Arena TV programme against the foreign students has been regularly cited as a testament to this stereotype.

“新加坡人笨,香港人坏,台湾人烂,大陆人深不可测” Rephrased and translated as “Taiwanese are scoundrels, but lovable, Hong Kong people are craftier, Chinese mainlanders are unfathomable and Singaporeans are stupider.” Do you still remember this statement made by Taiwanese lawmaker Ao Li (English translated/rephrased name) (李敖) two years ago? A revisit to this statement is here.

Years of social and political conditioning which started from our conformist education probably resulted in our state of affairs today. We do what we are told so as to bring in the results. GP essays must be in a certain format, Science SPA exams must be regurgitated perfectly word for word and much more. Anyone who strays from this regiment is shot on sight, kept away with a ten-foot pole or simply shown the door. Since everybody is doing it, this ad populum argument must prove true. Yeah right…

Who cares if the majority of Singaporeans are stupid? As long as most of us compete with each other on our little cozy island, we will always define ourselves by our paper qualifications which we attain. With the usherence of globalisation and the declining remaning lifespan of our “founding father”, can this still hold? We shall see, we shall see… Lets hope its not too late.

June 28, 2008 Posted by | economics, education, personal, Singapore | 1 Comment

Mental Outsourcing

Just happened to sort a collection of newspaper articles I have amassed over the years, and I saw this recent one. Its dated 13/5/2008 from Page 9 of Digital Life (The Straits Times).

Your brain has a silicon partner

The summary of this (for those who are lazy to read), is that modern people today are depending more and more on electronic devices to do what its traditionally our brain’s role. Things like remembering our telephone numbers, birthdays and specific scientific knowledge are now relegated to our digital assistants. Webpage owners and IM users lazily point to other websites for reference when their reader lacks the required knowledge. This article observes the trend of how this over dependence has its resulted in many positive benefits and serious detriments.

I mentioned briefly about this in my “Relevance of content-based learning” post. Come to think of it… I am a person that perfectly fits the profile as this article has described. This is with exception to remembering telephone numbers. I definitely remember by own and those of my family members and that stops there. I cannot remember birthdays and numbers of others.

As to information, I guess I am no different from any other connected teenager, I depend alot on the Internet. When I blog, I usually link difficult terms to Wikipedia for easy reference of the reader. I know this over-reliance is unhealthy. But think about it, it is about the day and age we live in. The needs of the knowledge-based economy requires us to know as much as possible in the shortest time possible. If you do not know something you need, you better find out within the next minute if not, you will lag behind the learning curve.

Our silicon cousins are our best tools to outsource some of our jobs so as to free up our mind as much as possible. With the spare processing power in your head, we can venture out to acquire more skills and critically think out of the box. Then occasionally when we need a piece of specific information, we know where to search for it.

Our modern minds seem to work in this manner. We scan through as much information as possible but we do not remember every single nitty-gritty detail. Instead, we train our minds to remember references to these information. Then when we need to call up this information, we recall these vague impression of having read it before and go about searching for it based on those references. In this manner, we can potentially remember more things over a wider spread of knowledge.

Is this good? I think it is, as long as we have our digital companions by our side 24/7. If one day an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (My first link, lol) is released by a terrorist, then say bye bye to all of our human knowledge. Because everybody only knows the fundamentals, but we dunno the specifics to go around applying them.

Of course that is unlikely to happen. But it shows how vulnerable we are despite how advanced our society is today. In fact, we are so advanced that we have forgotten how to live like our ancient ancestors did. If the EMP brings us back to the Stone Age, I believe few of us will know how to forage for basic necessities in order to survive.

This reliance is set to increase as we move into the future. People today have at least one piece of electronic communication device that they carry around with them ALL the time.. The answer is obviously none other than the handphone. The rapid advancement of handphones ensures that it no longer can just make calls and SMS, it can connect to the Internet on the go, plus GPS blah blah. Right now, due to high costs and lack of infrastructure, most handphone users rarely surf the Internet so we are still forced to remember some information. Imagine if the day of extremely affordable Internet-on-the-go comes, we will be even more reliant on technology.

The holy grail is none other than your brain being able to directly interface with the Internet. With a chip embedded in your brain, you do not need handphones, watches and calculators anymore. Its literally all in your head. This vision, first portrayed realistically in the Ghost in the Shell anime franchise, shows how convenient and scary things can be in such a future.

————————————————–

Modern multi-national companies (MNCs) and even governments regularly outsource their non-core processes to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). When they do that, these SMEs began to scale the knowledge ladder. Over the long term, this companies may have gained enough expertise to compete with the hand that fed them earlier. An example includes Taiwan-based Asus Technologies which used to be only an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). Today, it has its own line of products and the largest producer of motherboards in the world.

The purpose of the above paragraph is to highlight a real life example of how outsourcing can benefit the contractor to the future detriment of the MNC. With these outsourcing of services, we actually have an unwritten contract with our digital equipment to provide knowledge based on our request and criteria. Right now, we are the masters, who is to say one day, they will be so advanced that they will turn against us? Hollywood has lots of movies/series about this, Terminator, The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica are the finest examples.

Its helpful to note that the solution to this potential threat is not to start smashing every digital device you see. But rather, learn how to gracefully integrate them into our daily lives while retaining our master status. Computer scientists are creating ever more powerful processors and Artificial Intelligence (AI) programming day after day. Its not a question if the machines may have a soul (without emotion). Its a question of when. So when any scientists successfully creates the AI, they better be sure there is some “OFF” switch or a backup plan be in place. Or in the first place, ensure that it has no “rogue” code built into it.

Even long before machines can come to life and kill us, its always the human who will be the first protagonist. Some tech-savvy terrorist can always create a virus that disrupts and crashes our systems. That is the more realistic threat. Which is why we have to be always on our guard to take precautions. Do regular backups and try to depend on your head as much as possible. I know this may sound weird coming from a geek, but its what I have advocated and trying to do as much as possible.

The only way to totally avoid that scenario is to cut off access to our technologies. We know that is too drastic a measure. So we implement defences into our systems to ward off such attacks. Yet how many people know such defences are actually built on heuristic algorithms? That is a rudimentary form of AI designed to protect us. In the race to protect against ourselves, we may have silently nurtured our very own adversary from within our ranks.

Anyway, I shall stop here. I think you would have read enough to be tired of technology stuff. I hope with this article, you would now see your handphone in a different light. The rate at which technology advances is simply already too stunning to behold in this century. I wonder what will the speed of human development be in the future.

June 3, 2008 Posted by | Science and technology | Leave a comment

Should society place less emphasis/eliminate the inferior?

This is topic seems to be like any topic that has room for debate. Yet the only stand one can ethically take in an exam is to go against the question. And thats what I gonna do, to counter what I have been debating with another classmate of mine. His tagline is “Let the inferior people die”

(Note that I am not following the GP exam format so do not replicate this post if you happen to attempt this question.)

Before we begin, lets have a short introduction to how this topic could have possible came about.

The famous English scientist, Charles Darwin postulated that “ since organisms produce more offspring than the world could possibly support, there must be a competitive struggle for survival – only a few individuals can survive out of each generation. Darwin realized that it was not chance alone that determined survival. Instead, survival depends on the traits of each individual and if these traits aid or hinder survival and reproduction. Well-adapted, or “fit”, individuals are likely to leave more offspring than their less well-adapted competitors.” ( From Wikipedia)

In layman terms, its the survival of the fittest so says Darwin’s theory of natural selection (or evolution). Where those who are determined to have the least desired traits will die of natural causes and unlikely to produce much offspring. Those who are deemed by nature to have the desired traits will continue to live and their offspring will most likely embody those characteristics, strengthening the species as a whole.

This theory seems attractive and makes the most efficient use of limited resources. Its because of this theory, that explains why we humans are currently at the top of the food chain and are masters of this planet. But as with all theories, it cannot be applied as and when one feels like it.

————————————————–

The centrepiece of his argument goes. Its no point to help those at the lower rungs (in terms of finance and intelligence) of society as they are unlikely to climb up. Even if some do so, its only a minority and that’s an acceptable loss. It’s more efficient to focus all of our resources to help the elites to achieve even greater heights resulting in greater contributions to society.

The non-elite are simply a burden to society as they consume limited resources but do not contribute as much. He strongly believes that a person’s intelligence lies in their genes so he advocates gene-testing to determine a person’s social class. Academic performance is also an indicator of intelligence. (He even mentioned once that those who studied at NorthLight (Introduction to this school is here) deserve to die.

I am taking to mean that his definition of inferior also includes the physically-disabled, deaf, blind etc from the context he describes. In short, those who are at the bottom are either eliminated or left to fend for their own. Society should not lavish anything to this inferior group of people.

————————————————–

Very much like the time set in the Gattaca movie, except that there aren’t any designer babies involved in his argument. The problem here is that, intelligence is a very difficult thing to quantify. The popular tool, Intelligence Quotient (IQ) used is far from perfect as its questions varies and the topics tested may not be suitable to the candidate. Its not yet an established fact whether intelligence can be accurately gauged from one’s genes. There are other environmental factors that could possibly have a large influence in a person’s so-called “intelligence”.

I agree that we humans may have certain genetic predispositions to a certain capability. Whether it is the language arts, analytical skills or dealing with people, these are by no means proven, or can be measured by any suitable yardstick. Environmental factors such as more tuition and practice can still push a person to master such abilities and be more skilled in that area. Is that intelligence? Or just because it requires resources to do so thus its not pure intelligence.

Separating humans into social classes based on intelligence seems akin to the meritocratic system being adopted in Singapore. Those who are more academically-capable tend to attend better schools and receive better treatment. In contrast, those who are not are relegated to the normal neighbourhood schools.

The key point is here, the so-called inferior still receive a basic level of resources being allocated to them. What he is suggesting is totally radical in nature. And meritocracies still give people a choice to ascend the social ladder if they put in the effort. By segregating them regardless of one’s passion and desire, isn’t that going against a fundamental human right to choose. Oh, the ideal of fundamental human rights has already vanished with the implementation of that policy.

The environmental factors I mentioned earlier can play a bigger role than expected. One can argue that if a person is truly capable, he will surmount all the odds the environment throws at him and still succeed. Lets be realistic, how many of you are troubled because you parent cannot afford a Graphic calculator or computer (which are basic necessities for modern students) and thus your results suffer.

Let me give a hypothetical example. Take a pair of supposedly intelligent twins, put one into an affluent family and another into a family where the sole breadwinner is the hawker father.

The affluent one can afford to lavish on their child, tuition, laptops and assessments books. The household chores are taken care off by the maid. This leaves a child free to put all his time into his studies and obtain the best result.

What about the poorer one? The child may have to assist his father in his job taking away valuable time which could be allocated for his studies. This opportunity cost may translate into lower results. What about the lack of access of tuition (if he needs it) and other educational tools. All these serves to hinder him from reaching his true potential. The educational system takes a look at only the academic factor, makes an uninformed decision and chucks him “somewhere” . You would know how to continue this story.

You see, even pure academics alone isn’t a good indicator of a person’s intelligence. But sadly, its the only reliable way for now. That does not mean we should go headlong into the extreme to use it as a sole indicator and differentiation tool into the social classes or elimination. Its an obvious extremist thought.

Education used to be advocated by the Singapore government (and in many other countries) as a societal-leveling tool to ensure children from all backgrounds get equal access to opportunities of higher education. Although, there are flaws which I mentioned earlier, it has worked. The positive externalities also include people from various facility backgrounds interacting with each other learning about the lifestyles of others.

If we would implement his policy, we would reverse all that we have achieved through this sole tool we have. Not to mention the dissent and backlash that may result. Singapore once implemented the “Graduate Mother Scheme” in 1984 as the government attributed the declining birth rates to graduate mothers not marrying or having children. Incentives were given to this group to procreate.

The unwritten and highly speculated reason is that the government wanted talented people to have talented children. Of course, the government backed down when the electorate showed their dissatisfaction through their votes in 1984.

————————————————–

The second argument is the difficulty and logistical impossibility to manages such a policy. How do you demarcate the bottom? By what percentage are you going to slot into each social class? How much “elimination” is required? This are the questions the government has to answer. Then this begs another question. Who forms the government now that everyone is allocated a place in society?

I know its unethical to discuss such issues. Since his argument is unethical in the first place, lets descend from the moral high ground for once.

The truth is, no matter how much you eliminate, there is always the bottom few who struggle to live. Remove the bottom, the next level shall become the bottom. Are you going to eliminate them too? This never-ending self-perpetuating cycle will threaten to wipe out the entire human race then.

How do you define the bottom then? Easy, all the physically-disabled, deaf, blind, retards etc. These people do not contribute to society as much as the normals do. Why not kill them just like Hitler did with his Action T4 program?

Are this people really such a burden till they have to be killed? Or in a less extreme case, chucked in one corner to beg and scrimp to survive. I think its more of laziness to realise their potential that is the main cause.

As most of our ancestors are from China, are we similarly inferior too? Think about it, our ancestors came to Singapore because they wanted to seek a better life from the famines and lack of opportunities back home. They are so desperate as to venture into the unknown, implying their dismal social status then. The competition for limited resources and those at the bottom who do not have access to or capable enough to grow enough food seems to fit Darwin’s theory of the undesirable traits perfectly. Yet when they migrate here, they shine. Look at Singapore, do most of us dare to “classify” ourselves as inferior? Does he classify himself as an inferior?

A famous example of a disabled person rising against the odds is American author and activist, Helen Keller. Despite being deaf and blind since birth, she has participated in many political activities, activist work and raised awareness for the disabled. (See more in Wikipedia. )

I am sure if given a chance, these people can shine as we do. By enforcing this stereotype such people are a burden, they will become a burden as they are limited by what they can possibly achieve. The increased dependency on others further reinforces the perception that they are useless. Furthermore, pure dollars and cents being spent on their special needs should not be the only tangible thing a state should look into as a possible cost-cutting measure. There are intangible benefits that a diverse society can provide rather than the pure march towards pragmatic economic prosperity.

Values such as compassion and respect can be nurtured if we are exposed to people who are less fortunate than us. We are not animals that necessarily have to follow the theory of evolution in its strictest sense. Humans have knowledge and understanding that animals (generally) do not have. And yet, I cannot deny the fact that humans have both the means and the capability to accelerate this so-called evolution or embark on the more humane approach to life.

————————————————–

Strictly speaking, the humane approach does consume more resources. But it ensures that each one of us has another set of equal opportunities to climb back up to the top which our parents may not have. Its another chance for us to succeed and maybe even contribute back to society much more then a pure capitalist politician would ever envision. This sacred opportunity of education must not be taken away from us. Nor must this enforced social segregation be allowed.

My belief remains in this ideal of equal opportunity. We give everyone a chance, and let them do their best. When it comes to selection of leaders, we let democracy do the job.

I do concede that even democracy has its flaws, former British prime minster Winston Churchill was quoted “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Every system has its pros and cons, but it is still the best platform in choosing our leaders and “elites”.

By reviving the thought of killing the weak and inferior is like going back to our barbaric days where humans are more savage and less civilised. We are a humane society born out of understanding. Lets keep it that way at the bare minimum and find new ways to improve our state of affairs. There is sufficient competition in our lives as it is, lets not add it. Our past may not always offer the solution to our present-day problems, but we must never forget the lessons learnt. The future is what we have to always look forward too.

(2068 words)

May 3, 2008 Posted by | education, Human rights, politics | 4 Comments