Saturday, 15 June 2019

The fight is with poverty, not inequality

By Justin Ong, Published The Straits Times, 14 Jun 2019

In the discourse on how we can best uplift the less fortunate that was sparked off by Mr Yaron Brook's recent op-ed (Why inequality might not be unfair, June 1), many Singaporeans have mistakenly conflated poverty with inequality.

Fundamentally, what matters to a poor person is how much money he has, not how much less money he has compared to Bill Gates. The fact that Singapore has a high number of millionaires per capita is simply irrelevant if the poorest of Singaporeans have a roof over their heads and can make ends meet.

Inequality is about a gap in numbers and speaks nothing of the socio-economic mobility of the poor.

If inequality is all that matters, then the poor would be better off in Afghanistan and Thailand, which rank better than Singapore on Oxfam's Inequality Index, but that's hardly the case.

As one of the co-founders of The Philosophy of Life, the organisation that hosted Mr Brook's dialogue series in Singapore, I would like to address some of the arguments that have been raised in response to his article.

MORAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE RICH

The central premise of the arguments asserting that inequality matters is that the rich must be morally accountable to uplift the poor.

First, it is unclear why it is reasonable to prescribe the rich moral duties to the poor, especially in Singapore. Unlike countries marred with political corruption and a history of colonialism, wealth accumulation in a free marketplace like Singapore is an outcome of voluntary mutually advantageous transactions between individuals. Thus, there isn't a zero-sum game with the rich coming out on top at the expense of the poor that compels any form of moral responsibility.

The proposition that the rich must redistribute their wealth as a means to return the favour to society for enabling their success doesn't make sense either.

With regard to consumers and workers of the poor and middle class, businesses have fairly reciprocated by distributing wages consented to by their employees or transacting goods and services at prices desired by their customers.

Moreover, the rich are already shouldering a higher burden of taxes through corporate taxes and being taxed in the highest income bracket, the money going to fund public goods such as roads and schools.

Just because privileges are unearned doesn't make them wrong. Inherited privileges are blessings that shouldn't be frowned upon as they are incentives that motivate both rich and poor parents to work selflessly in pursuit of a better future for their children. Thus, it is perplexing to me how anyone would deem it moral and just to expropriate these privileges on the mere basis that others need it more.

INADEQUATE SOCIO-ECONOMIC MOBILITY

Another point that is frequently raised is that while we should not aim for equal outcomes, at a minimum, the rich ought to compensate for the different starting points we begin with. The critique fits well with the perennial narrative that the rich have steamrolled so far ahead of the poor and middle class that social mobility is out of reach.

However, the narrative does not match up to the unrivalled record of free markets to produce wealth and socio-economic mobility for the masses.

Globally, the world has halved absolute poverty in 15 years, meeting its UN Millennium Development Goal set in 2000, five years ahead of schedule. Domestically, Singapore's poor has witnessed similar progress. Basic wage has increased 7.8 per cent for local low-wage employees, which is higher than the increase for all rank-and-file workers at 5.5 per cent in 2018. In addition, Oxford-based research centre, Our World in Data, observes that inequality has not risen from 1990 to 2015, but has fallen marginally.

Only in a free marketplace is wealth the most dynamic and where people have the capacity to move across the income spectrum.

The rich can only sustain their privilege through serving their consumer markets better or funnelling their capital into the right hands. Thus, as the rich get richer, the poor get richer too as there is an ever greater abundance of opportunities to invest, work and enjoy products and services that make all of our lives more meaningful and productive.

Confiscating wealth and then redistributing it till we attain an equity of opportunities is not only an impossible endeavour but an unproductive one that penalises success and obstructs the creation of wealth for rich and poor alike.

If socio-economic mobility is an ideal we aspire to particularly for individuals who are less fortunate, then it is incumbent upon us to welcome and maximise the abundance of opportunities for them through free markets.

SOCIAL FRAGMENTATION

The claim that too much inequality ferments damaging divisions between the rich and poor by eroding social trust needs to be questioned too.

Monday, 10 June 2019

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Business China Awards 2019

Singapore will not be seen as a stooge of US or China if it acts on its own interests: PM Lee
By Ng Jun Sen, TODAY, 8 Jun 2019

In order for Singapore to not become a stooge of any one power, it must work on the basis of what is in its own interest, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (June 7) evening.

Mr Lee was answering a question about how smaller nations may act in a world split between the United States and China amid their economic and technological conflict. This was during a fireside chat at the annual Business China awards ceremony held at the Marina Bay Sands.

By acting on its own interests, “there is some chance for us to say that I’m your friend, but I’m also his friend. I’m not (anyone’s) stooge, I represent myself”, Mr Lee said.



But this also hinges on the big powers, too, who must leave room for small countries to befriend more than one side if they do not want to see a world “completely polarised into two camps”, he added.

“That means you don’t force people to take sides, and you don’t say ‘if you are not with me, then you are against me’,” he said in response to the chat's host, Mr Robin Hu, head of sustainability and stewardship at Temasek International, the management arm of state investment firm Temasek Holdings.

Mr Lee added that this would allow regional and international co-operation to develop in such a way that countries can have strong links with China, Europe, Japan and the United States at the same time.

“Those links will also grow with time. If we have many such links, then I think we can maintain a reasonably balanced position with respect to all the powers. If we only have links in one direction, then I think it is very hard to say that we are friends with everybody.”



Mr Hu later asked what Singapore has done right to forge strong links with China.

In reply, Mr Lee said he does not like to look at what the country has done “right” with China, seeing how things could turn out wrong the next day, to the audience’s laughter.

But Singapore has tried to make sure that its relationship with China is based on “reality and candour”, he added.

“We make sure that we are honest with each other, that we recognise what the situation is and that we don’t make believe and just say nice things to one another,” he said.



'NO MAKE-BELIEVE IN DEALINGS'

Mr Lee pointed out how the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had visited Singapore in 1978 as part of a tour to hear the region’s perspectives about China’s struggle with the Soviet Union.

“He made the pitch to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, (who) said, ‘We understand what you are saying, but everyone in South-east Asia sees China as the threat, because there are (armed communist) insurgency movements in all our countries backed by China’.”

After their meeting, Mr Deng stopped supporting the Voice of Malayan Revolution, which was the Communist Party of Malaya’s radio station.

Mr Lee said there was no make-believe in their dealings: “You want my help, I understand why you need my help and I tell you why it is not possible for me to help you. And from that basis, we assess each other accurately… and we move forward on the basis that your interests align with my fundamental interests.”

Mr Lee said China’s interest is that the city-state sees the bigger power as a developing nation that will benefit the world.

“China sees that we are not against them — we have our own independent position, our own foreign policy, majority-Chinese but multiracial, and we take our position as the Republic of Singapore,” he said.



But while all countries will say they would support the needs and interests of small nations to not pick sides, Mr Lee said actions mean more than words.

“We will have to see. It is in the nature of these assurances — you cannot convey conviction just by a statement. It has to be a consistent pattern of actions over time, and people see that you calculate your interests in this way and they can rely on you, there is a certain predictability, not in what you say but what you believe, and also in the processes in which your leadership is elected and your policies are made.”

Many countries are currently being pressured and are asked “to speak up on behalf of what each participant thinks is the right thing to say”, Mr Lee said.

But not Singapore, he added. “We have to say what we think is the right thing to say — which is what Singapore is trying to do.”

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Singapore committed to good ties with Vietnam and Cambodia, says MFA after furore over PM Lee Hsien Loong's comments

It responds to furore in the two countries over PM Lee's remarks on 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia
The Straits Times, 8 Jun 2019

Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia, and hopes that they can continue to grow based on candour and trust, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said last night.

Its statement was in response to unhappiness in Vietnam and Cambodia over Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's recent comments on the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

"Singapore highly values its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam. Notwithstanding our differences in the past, we have always treated each other with respect and friendship," the ministry said.

"Bilateral relations have grown in many areas, and we worked together with other South-east Asian countries to build a cohesive and united ASEAN."

This was the context of PM Lee's comments, said the statement, adding that they reflect Singapore's longstanding viewpoint, which has been stated publicly before.

Singapore upholds the principle that no country should violate the sovereignty of another.

Additionally, if it were not opposed, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia would create an undesirable precedent for small countries such as Singapore.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made separate phone calls to Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn yesterday. Dr Balakrishnan explained these points to his counterparts. "They agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences in the past, we have taken the path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship," the statement added.

Both Hanoi and Phnom Penh have protested since PM Lee wrote a Facebook post on May 31 that mentioned Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

The Vietnamese troops then ousted a Khmer Rouge regime that had wiped out up to one-third of Cambodia's population.

In expressing his condolences for the death of Thai statesman Prem Tinsulanonda, PM Lee wrote about how ASEAN - then comprising Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines - came together "to oppose Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge".

"Thailand was on the front line, facing Vietnamese forces across its border with Cambodia. General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli, and worked with ASEAN partners to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums," PM Lee wrote.

"This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised. It protected the security of other South-east Asia countries and decisively shaped the course of the region."



PM Lee also mentioned the issue during his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on May 31 when he was talking about the formation of ASEAN.

Cambodia and Vietnam objected to PM Lee's remarks. Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh told local media earlier this week that PM Lee's comments were "unacceptable" and "not true".

Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it "regretted" that PM Lee's remarks did not "objectively reflect the historical truth" and, as a result, caused "negative impact" on public opinion.

Netizens from Vietnam also flooded PM Lee's Facebook page expressing unhappiness.

On Thursday night, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Facebook that he deeply regretted PM Lee's statement, and said it revealed that the "leader of Singapore had indeed contributed to the massacre of Cambodian people".

"His statement reflects Singapore's position then in support of the genocidal regime and the wish for its return to Cambodia," he said.

In its statement yesterday, the MFA noted that Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs about Singapore's longstanding view of what happened.

ASEAN, then comprising five members, also stated its position on Cambodia clearly in a joint statement that was circulated to the United Nations Security Council in 1979, which "affirmed the right of the Kampuchean people to determine their future by themselves, free from interference or influence from outside powers in the exercise of their right of self-determination".



MFA said: "Singapore had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge, and did not want to see the Khmer Rouge return to Cambodia."

It noted that in 1988, ASEAN sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the Khmer Rouge to ensure it would not be part of any eventual government in Cambodia. "Singapore and ASEAN were keen to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cambodian people," it said.

"ASEAN spearheaded the 1980 International Meeting of Humanitarian Assistance and Relief to the Kampuchean People, which took place under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council."

The statement said PM Lee had made reference to this history "to explain how statesmanship and foresight helped to end the tragic wars that caused great suffering to the people of Indochina, and to bring about the peace and cooperation that the region enjoys today".

"He also wanted to emphasise that regional stability and prosperity, as well as ASEAN unity, cannot be taken for granted. The current geopolitical uncertainties make it all the more important that ASEAN countries maintain our unity and cohesion, and strengthen our cooperation."

Saturday, 8 June 2019

PM Lee marks swearing-in of Singapore's first Cabinet 60 years ago, on 5 June 1959

By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jun 2019

Sixty years ago on June 5, the first Cabinet after Singapore became self-governing was sworn in at City Hall.

Describing it as one of the milestones that made possible the country's independence and all that has followed since, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "We owe a deep debt of gratitude to this pride of lions who took office 60 years ago, and to the people they led.

"As I told my colleagues, the fight continues. The dream of an ever better Singapore is alive and well. Our pledge to be one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, endures."

PM Lee was writing in a Facebook post, in which he shared two photos taken six decades apart - one of the first Cabinet and one of the current 14th Cabinet.

The People's Action Party (PAP) formed the first fully elected government of Singapore after it won 43 of the 51 seats in the 1959 General Election.

The election, held on May 30 that year, was to bring into effect Singapore's own Constitution, which would establish its own head of state as well as give it control over its legislative assembly.

After the election, Singapore, then a British colony, gained internal self-rule on June 3, though the colonial government still retained control of defence and foreign affairs.

The nine-member Cabinet sworn in on June 5, 1959 comprised Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, Minister for National Development Ong Eng Guan; Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee, Minister for Home Affairs Ong Pang Boon, Minister for Labour and Law K. M. Byrne; Minister for Health Ahmad Ibrahim, Minister for Education Yong Nyuk Lin and Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam.



Yesterday, the 14th Cabinet took a photograph at its weekly meeting - postponed from Wednesday due to Hari Raya Puasa - to mark the 60th anniversary of the swearing-in of the first Cabinet. A few ministers were unable to attend.

PM Lee said the first Cabinet had taken their oaths of office in 1959 wearing white shirts and trousers, with no suits and ties, as a signal that times had changed.

Similarly, the former governor and newly appointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Sir William Goode, had officiated at the ceremony - held behind closed doors - in a fawn-coloured suit and not the regalia of empire, he added.

Quoting his father, the late Mr Lee, PM Lee said: "As Mr Lee declared at a huge rally at the Padang on June 3, two nights earlier, 'Once in a long while in the history of a people, there comes a moment of great change. Tonight is such a moment in our lives... We begin a new chapter in the history of Singapore'."

What is lost when millions rely on GPS

More than just navigation skills are at risk when we let satellites take over how we find our way
By M.R. O'Connor, Published The Straits Times, 7 Jun 2019

It has become the most natural thing to do: Get in the car, type a destination into a smartphone, and let an algorithm using Global Positioning System (GPS) data show the way.

Personal GPS-equipped devices entered the mass market in only the past 15 or so years, but hundreds of millions of people now rarely travel without them.

These gadgets are extremely powerful, allowing people to know their location at all times, to explore unknown places and to avoid getting lost.

But they also affect perception and judgment. When people are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them. They pay less attention to their surroundings. And neuroscientists can now see that brain behaviour changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions.



In a study published in Nature Communications in 2017, researchers asked subjects to navigate a virtual simulation of London's Soho neighbourhood and monitored their brain activity, specifically the hippocampus, which is integral to spatial navigation. Those who were guided by directions showed less activity in this part of the brain than participants who navigated without the device.

"The hippocampus makes an internal map of the environment, and this map becomes active only when you are engaged in navigating and not using GPS," Dr Amir-Homayoun Javadi, one of the study's authors, told me.

The hippocampus is crucial to many aspects of daily life. It allows us to orient in space and know where we are by creating cognitive maps. It also allows us to recall events from the past - what is known as episodic memory.

And, remarkably, it is the part of the brain that neuroscientists believe gives us the ability to imagine ourselves in the future.

Studies have long shown that the hippocampus is highly susceptible to experience. (London's taxi drivers famously have greater grey-matter volume in the hippocampus as a consequence of memorising the city's labyrinthine streets.)

Meanwhile, atrophy in that part of the brain is linked to devastating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's disease. Stress and depression have been shown to dampen neurogenesis - the growth of new neurons - in the hippocampal circuit.

What is not known is the effect of GPS use on hippocampal function when employed daily over long periods of time.

Dr Javadi said the conclusion he draws from recent studies is that "when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink".

How people navigate naturally changes with age. Navigation aptitude appears to peak around age 19, and after that, most people gradually stop using spatial memory strategies to find their way, relying on habit instead.

New $20 note to commemorate Singapore's Bicentennial; available for public exchange from 10 June 2019

President Halimah launches commemorative $20 notes to mark bicentennial year
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2019

A new $20 note that features Singapore's pioneers such as philanthropist Tan Kah Kee and scholar and writer Munshi Abdullah was launched by President Halimah Yacob at the Istana's Hari Raya Puasa open house yesterday.

The commemorative note, issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to mark Singapore's bicentennial year, depicts the journey to nationhood.

The $20 commemorative note features a portrait of Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak on the front, as well as two national monuments - the former Supreme Court and City Hall - which now make up the National Gallery Singapore.

The monuments witnessed key events such as the swearing-in of the state government in 1963 and Singapore's first National Day Parade in 1966, said MAS.

The back of the note features eight individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds who made significant contributions to nation building in various fields such as education, culture, social work, sports and defence.

The portraits of these pioneers are placed against a "then and now" image of the Singapore River, which depicts the old Singapore River flowing into the present-day river - a symbol of Singapore's development as a trading port and subsequent transformation into a business and financial hub.

"We've been able to achieve so much primarily because we all stood together and fought as one on all fronts. For us to be able to leapfrog and seek quantum leaps of growth and development, we need to have the same spirit of unity and togetherness," Madam Halimah told reporters yesterday.

MAS' assistant managing director of finance, risk and currency Bernard Wee added that the $20 denomination was used instead of $200 so that it would be more affordable for Singaporeans.



Munshi is regarded as the founder of modern Malay literature and was Stamford Raffles' secretary, interpreter and Malay tutor, while Tan was a community leader who helped set up schools such as Tao Nan School and Ai Tong School.

The other individuals featured are:

• British botanist Henry Nicholas Ridley, the first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911;

• Philanthropist P. Govindasamy Pillai, who contributed to temple building and community welfare;

• Prominent social worker Teresa Hsu, who founded the Home for the Aged Sick and devoted her life to helping the poor and destitute;

• Alice Pennefather, a badminton and tennis champion who won titles at the Singapore National Badminton Championships and Singapore Ladies Tennis Championship;

• Adnan Saidi, a lieutenant who led the Malay Regiment in a valiant defence of Bukit Chandu during the Japanese invasion in 1942; and

• Ruth Wong, a pioneering educator who was the first director of the Institute of Education, now the National Institute of Education.

New HDB flats to come with condo-like fittings starting from February 2019 BTO sales exercise

HDB will absorb extra cost of sleeker, more modern fittings so that prices are not affected
By Rosalind Ang and Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2019

New Housing Board flats will now come with condominium-like finishings at a fraction of the cost.

These sleeker and more modern fittings - such as larger tiles and concealed floor traps - will be installed in new Build-To-Order (BTO) projects launched since February.

The new flats will incur marginally higher costs that the HDB will absorb without affecting home pricing, a spokesman said.

Mr Jansen Foo, deputy director of the HDB's Building Quality Group, said the net increase in cost is minimal as the HDB has been able to achieve economies of scale. As such, it is able to absorb the cost.


The HDB has adopted several practices akin to those at private condos in recent years, such as pushing structural walls and beams to the side to encourage open-plan layouts, as well as open-concept kitchens.

"This year, we took this one step further to improve the range of fittings provided in our new flats for a sleeker look. The HDB is constantly improving the design of our flats to suit the changing needs of our residents," said Mr Foo.

The new fittings include a scratch-resistant laminated timber main door with better finishing, which replaces the timber-veneer doors in older flats.

Steel entrance gates in more modern designs will replace the wrought iron gates in many flats.

These new gates will also feature "thumb-turn knobs" instead of traditional key inserts, which lets residents open their gates from inside without a key, enabling them to leave their flats quickly in an emergency.



Instead of more breakable ceramic tiles, glazed porcelain ones will be used in kitchens and bathrooms as they are more resistant to wear and tear.

Kitchens and bathrooms will also have larger floor tiles, which the HDB said would allow for "better visual continuity" from the kitchen to the living area, and also make cleaning easier.

Bathrooms will also boast better-looking fittings - like toilets and taps - that use water more efficiently. Floor traps will no longer have a plastic cover, but blend in with the tiles on the floor.

Ramps leading to a bathroom will be replaced with a 2cm drop, giving flats a more contemporary look and layout, while remaining accessible to people in wheelchairs.

This change was made in response to feedback from residents, who said that the ramps let water seep out of the bathrooms when residents cleaned them.

In the kitchen, owners will get windows that match the door leading to their service yard. Instead of louvred vent windows, they will get top-hung ones, which are more durable and easier to clean.

Future home owners said they are pleased with the upgraded fittings.

Thailand cautiously reopens door to cannabis

Medical cannabis legal, but supply limited by rule that only govt-linked entities can grow it
By Tan Hui Yee, Indochina Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2019

NAKHON RATCHASIMA (Thailand)• • "Would you like to try it?" the young man says when he notices me peering at the cannabis joint held between his fingers. "It's good for your health." Behind him, a dark green banner declares: "Meet People with Experience in Kancha".

It's May 18, in this small resort some four hours from Bangkok. Marijuana advocate and former policeman Buntoon Niyamabha sprinkles cannabis seeds into the palms of seminar participants. His aide warms an acrid paste of cannabis flowers and alcohol, enough to produce dozens of vials of potent essence. In the sunlit courtyard, people sip cannabis tea over conversation. No one is really worried about the police turning up.

Cannabis - variously called marijuana, ganja and weed, as well as kancha in Thai - remains classified as a narcotic under Thai law. Possessing up to 10kg of it for recreational use attracts penalties of up to five years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht (S$4,350).

South-east Asia has some of the world's harshest penalties on drugs, including capital punishment in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia for trafficking.



But Thailand's legalisation of medical cannabis in December last year has unleashed a surge of interest in an ageing society anxious to find better ways to stave off the ravages of cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as other diseases.

Malaysia reportedly started talks on the legalisation of medical cannabis late last year.

Thailand is a pioneer in South-east Asia, where strict narcotics laws continue to fill prisons with addicts and surging production of synthetic drugs has flooded black markets.

Now, the kingdom has joined a growing list of countries - including Canada, Germany and South Korea - that allow medical cannabis to be prescribed.

With more scientists stepping up, it is also poised to enter a global medical cannabis market, estimated by the Imarc research group to be worth US$13.4 billion (S$18.3 billion) last year.

A three-month amnesty period for medical cannabis users to declare themselves drew about 20,000 people to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the time it ended on May 21. Once registered patients use up their existing supply of the drug, they can rely only on approved formulas dispensed by licensed doctors and traditional medical practitioners.