Sunday, 23 June 2019

The link between the Brexit debate and flush lavatories

By Tim Harford, Published The Straits Times, 22 Jun 2019

On a scale of one to seven, how well do you understand how a flush lavatory works?

This was a question asked by Yale psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, almost two decades ago. Before I explain why, here's a follow-up exercise: Write down your lavatory explanation in as much detail as you can. You may wish to draw a diagram, or explain it to a friend. Or not.

You may then reflect that you knew a little less than you realised. That was the experience of many of the study's subjects - and not just for lavatories (why does all the water disappear down the U-bend?) but also for zips, quartz watches, helicopters, speedometers, cylinder locks, piano keys and sewing machines.

People felt they understood the mechanisms that surrounded them, but their confidence was severely dented by the simple act of giving them pencil and paper and saying: "Show me."

The same exercise can be performed with politics.

In 2013, professors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, authors of The Knowledge Illusion, were members of a research team that did just that, inviting people resident in the United States to rate their understanding of American policy proposals such as introducing unilateral sanctions on Iran, a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions and a national flat tax.

They also asked people to rate their approval of each policy, which would have been unnecessary for lavatories and zips. (Lavatories are useful, zips self-evidently malevolent.)

Professors Sloman and Fernbach and their colleagues found that - just as with locks and speedometers - people tended to overrate their knowledge at first, and then discover some humility when asked to be more specific.

Perhaps British voters could use a dose of the same medicine when it comes to their understanding of Brexit. Leave or Remain, many came late to the realisation that there was a difference between the single market and the Customs union. I am still not sure most people can explain what that difference is.

International Conference on Cohesive Societies, 19 - 21 June 2019

Need to nurture, expand our common spaces: DPM Heng Swee Keat
Fault lines are growing but global community must work together to combat them, he says
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jun 2019

Building an inclusive, cohesive society is always a work in progress, both in Singapore and the wider world, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

This is why leaders and others must come together to learn from one another, share best practices and tackle common challenges, he added at the close of the three-day inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies.

Pointing to today's global challenges, he said unprecedented levels of trade, technological advancement and migration have combined in a way that has not worked for some, fuelling tension and conflict.

Fault lines have deepened, made worse by the ease with which falsehoods and extremist ideas proliferate online and are exploited.

"Increasingly, nationalism and intolerance are displacing openness and harmony," he added.

He cited supremacist hate groups and rising hostility to minorities generating a vicious circle of conflict, a factor which led President Halimah Yacob to suggest the event to discuss ways to deepen harmony in and across societies grappling with diversity.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said common challenges can be tackled well only if the global community works together, stressing that mutual trust and respect, as well as deeper understanding and harmony, are the foundations on which such efforts must be based.

"To combat extremist and intolerant views, we must work together to create an ever widening ripple of understanding, trust and respect," he said. "Just as each society achieves more together than as disparate individuals, the global community achieves more together when all societies can pursue common goals and tackle common challenges."

Mr Heng added that every society will need to find its own path to cohesion, shaped by its history, context, culture and demands.

He pointed out that throughout human history, many societies that embraced their diversity thrived - like the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, whose inhabitants came from all over, bringing with them their unique religious beliefs, intermarrying and exchanging cultures.

As for Singapore, he said, it is becoming more diverse, and this means its common spaces will "be harder to maintain, and must be deliberately nurtured and expanded".

"As our racial and religious demographics shift, so too must our approach to building bridges and encouraging discourse," he added.

Mr Heng noted there are now more interfaith families in Singapore - an opportunity to deepen mutual understanding.

Also, 22 per cent of marriages are between people of different ethnic groups, and nearly 20 per cent of Singaporeans do not identify with a religion. He said: "We must learn to include their perspectives in our discourses."

He also outlined Singapore's approach to deepen cohesion.

First, it expands common spaces and shared experiences, while preserving racial and religious diversity. Next, it is vigilant to guard against forces that can tear society apart, including establishing institutional structures that prevent groups or individuals from exploiting racial and religious fault lines.

Lastly, the Government works to provide Singaporeans with better lives and to ensure all share in the fruits of progress.

"In growing our economy, we put a special focus on creating good jobs for all Singaporeans, regardless of which community they belong to," he said.

"Some workers have benefited more from this growth than others. This is why we continue to work hard to address social inequality, to better distribute the fruits of growth."

Saturday, 22 June 2019

CDAC to revise income eligibility criteria for its programmes and help more needy families from January 2020

By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2019

The Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) will ease the qualification criteria for its help schemes from January next year. More needy families will benefit, with the monthly income threshold lifted from $1,900 to $2,400.

The CDAC announced the move yesterday, and said the per capita income criterion will also rise from $650 to $800.

With these changes, the CDAC projects that about 1,500 new families will benefit from its schemes, and about 1,500 families who are already on its programmes will qualify for even more support.

The CDAC is a self-help group for the Chinese community that provides learning support for students through tuition and other enrichment programmes.

In another change, beneficiaries from more disadvantaged families will receive deeper support on a more sustained basis, the organisation said. It will "make adjustments to extend assistance on a multi-year basis" to families who need greater support.

For example, a child from a family facing long-term financial and job challenges could be given a three-year continuous bursary. Currently, bursaries have to be applied for and are disbursed yearly.

This will be on a case-by-case basis, and case workers will be given room to exercise judgment, the CDAC added.

Families with a monthly household income of $4,000 and below, or a per capita income of $1,200 and below, will also be eligible for certain programme subsidies after the criteria revision. The thresholds now are $3,300 and $900, respectively.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who is also the CDAC board chairman, said: "While we will continue to expand outreach and offer quality programmes to more low-income families, we are identifying the more disadvantaged families to provide them with holistic and deepened support.

"The objective is to ensure social mobility within the Chinese community, and recognising that education for children and stable jobs for parents are the best ways to bring this about."

Similar self-help groups serving other communities include the Eurasian Association, Singapore Indian Development Association and Yayasan Mendaki.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

4G leaders will partner Singaporeans in policymaking: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat

REACH-CNA dialogue on "Building Our Future Singapore Together" on 15 June 2019

Aim is to create shared future where everyone plays a part: Heng Swee Keat
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2019

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday set out how his generation of leaders plans to take Singapore forward: The Government will partner Singaporeans in new ways to design and implement policies together.

And it will work with Singaporeans to create a shared future where everyone will have a part to play, he said at a dialogue on building the country's future together.

Mr Heng, leader of the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) fourth-generation team, sketched out for the first time in detail the approach it will adopt to govern the country in a more challenging environment.

He spoke of the need to shift from government that works for the people to one that works with them.

Constructive politics and unity remain critical, he added, as Singapore becomes more diverse and navigates serious challenges such as the shifting global order and changes brought about by technological advancements.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, noted that each generation of leaders has to earn the right to lead.

"I know, and my colleagues know, that we have to earn your trust," he said in a 45-minute speech to 400 people at the dialogue organised by government feedback unit REACH and CNA at the Singapore Management University School of Law.

"I mean to do so by working with you, for you, for Singapore," he said.

The phrase was also the PAP's slogan in the 2015 General Election. The next election must be held by April 2021.

"These words express our deep-seated beliefs, the reasons why we decided to enter politics," said Mr Heng, who recounted how founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his team earned the trust of the people the hard way, "by trusting them with the hard truths and leading from the front".

As the country developed, Singaporeans came to feel a greater sense of ownership and wanted a stronger say in how they were governed. Successive generations of leaders have had to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans in their own way, in accordance with the tenor of the times, Mr Heng said.

The second generation of leaders, led by Mr Goh Chok Tong from 1990, created a "kinder, gentler society".

The Government became more consultative and launched various national engagement efforts, including Remaking Singapore, to involve more Singaporeans in decision-making.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took this further with a more inclusive style of governance when he took over in 2004, Mr Heng added.

But even as the style of governance changed, there were constants through successive generations of leaders, he noted.

"I believe that trust between the people and the Government is absolutely essential. And the best way to win your trust is to first trust you with the truth - no matter how hard or unpopular," he said.

The Government will also continue to lead decisively "with clear-eyed realism" in areas such as national security and foreign policy.

But in many other areas, there is plenty of room to debate, deliberate and establish partnerships with Singaporeans. The 4G leaders will work hand in hand with the people to come up with policies in areas such as environmental sustainability and housing.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo will soon launch a citizens' panel to look at ways to improve work-life harmony, he announced.

Other 4G leaders will share their vision and engage people on four broad themes, including a society with more opportunities for all.

All these will be the work of a generation, Mr Heng stressed, noting that it will be a learning process for all and partnerships cannot be expected to proliferate overnight.

"This is how we will build a society where every Singaporean has a strong sense of belonging, and a part to play in building our shared future together."

Shanmugam on the law against fake news and the vocal minority

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam isn't one to shy away from tackling the hard issues of politics and policies.
I do it as long as it's the right thing to do, says Shanmugam
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2019

Lunch with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam is initially set to be at a coffee shop in his Chong Pang ward in Yishun.

But on the morning of our meeting, his people call with a change in plans.

Mr Shanmugam's schedule is very tight and we will have to eat at his office in the Ministry of Home Affairs in Irrawaddy Road.

My heart sinks. An office isn't the best place to get to know the person behind the public persona.

Could we at least eat at the ministry's canteen, I ask.

The reply comes back that while he has eaten there, he usually eats at his desk. The office setting would be "more authentic".

His room on the 20th floor is smaller than I expect. On a long table are two computers set at standing height, several pairs of reading glasses and assorted files.

A painting of a Singapore streetscape hangs on a wall and books line some shelves. I spot Eloquence In Stone: The Lithic Saga Of Sri Lanka, and Intelligent Island: The Untold Story Of Singapore's Tech Journey.

He's flipping through some papers when I enter, and leads me to a small side table where we will have lunch. Two of his people sit behind us, on a sofa, while we eat.

The minister is having just a quinoa salad from SaladStop! and I get a chicken rice set from Loy Kee in Balestier down the road.

I can't buy you lunch unless I pay for this, I remark.

"Well, you can go and pay them," he says with a laugh. "That's your principle."

At 60, he looks youthful. His face is unlined and his figure trim. He in fact shed some weight recently, he reveals.

There was a two-three month period when he kept coming down with the flu and lost weight.

"I decided, having lost weight, might as well keep to it. So I eat less and try and maintain that weight, and I exercise more rigorously."

It's not the first time we are having lunch, actually.

Thirty years ago when he was starting out as a Member of Parliament and I was covering politics, we had met for a meal.

I can't recall where we ate but I remember him being mild-mannered and easy to talk to, and also soft-spoken.

In the decades since, his public presence has loomed loud and large, first as one of Singapore's top lawyers taking on big cases, then when he joined the government front bench in 2008.

As law, home affairs and foreign affairs minister over the years, he has kept a high and sometimes controversial profile, leading key legislative changes in areas like criminal justice, dispute resolution and, more recently, deliberate online falsehoods.

He doesn't shy away from media interviews, keeps an active social media account, and is quick to rebuke anyone - opposition, academics, ordinary Singaporeans - he feels is dishonest or not doing the right thing.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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."