Monday, March 30, 2009

Leave the world a little better

“Not even all scouts in Singapore know about Earth Hour”, admits Mr. Muhammad Khair Bin Samil’an, the National Rover Scout Programme Commissioner. “So, how can we expect most of the public to know about Earth Hour? That was why we came out with the novel idea of organising a series of road shows to educate the general public”, he adds.

The Singapore Scout Association (SSA)has been in the forefront of being the key supporting partner of Earth Hour Singapore. Earth Hour, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is an event started in Sydney two years ago by environmentalists keen to cut energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Earth Hour 2009 is hyped as “being taken to the next level, with the goal of 1 billion people switching off their lights as part of a global vote…”

When asked how The SSA became a supporting partner of Earth Hour, Mr. Tan Sijie, the Project Coordinator of the Earth Hour, says that The World Organisation of the Scout Movement (WOSM) has long collaborated with the WWF. He further added, “This could be attributed to the fine efforts of the Youth delegation representing the Singapore Scout Association (SSA) at the 10th World Scout Youth Forum in Korea, July 2008. The delegation pressed on with the initiative at the forum and it eventually garnered 141 signatures from Scouts across some 97 countries. Finally, it was accepted as a recommendation by the World Scout Committee.”

Mr. Tan firmly believes in the ethos of the founder of the Scouts movement, Lord Baden Powell: “Leave the world a little better than when you found it”. The Korean Scouts Forum and their Singapore counterparts, working together, convinced various other scouts movements from around the world about the importance of adopting Earth Hour as a worldwide scouts initiative. Inspired by Mr. Tan’s determination, scouts from up to 160 countries would have observed Earth Hour on 28 March 2009.

“The young are vitally concerned with the future and many are well aware that climate change is the greatest threat to the planet’s future,”said Mr. James Leape, Director General of WWF, in a joint statement with Luc Panissod, the Acting Secretary General of the WOSM. “We are delighted that the scouts are again working with us to secure the environment for generations to come.”

Mr. Caleb Cheah, Director (Corporate Affairs) of SSA, says that with the support of corporate partners like Capitaland, the scouts have been very successful in organising and staging a series roadshows in the Central Business District to raise awareness of Earth Hour. “The SSA is a channel which translates the message of Earth Hour to the larger community”, he explained. The mobilisation of the entire scouts movement in Singapore is indeed a nationwide grassroots efforts, he said.

Mr. Muhammad Khair says that while it is true that corporations and executives have been targeted more than the general public by the efforts of SSA’s roadshows, he believes that there will be a “trickle down effect” to the general population eventually, which will impact and influence behavioural changes. “There will not be just one earth hour; but there will be many ‘mini earth hours’ as a result”, he believes.

Of course Earth Hour has all the trappings of being just an empty symbolism. But such symbolism may be useful in showing that there is a strong global mandate for tough global action on climate change. This assumed global mandate could be very useful when the United Nation convenes a conference in the Danish capital later this year to attempt to craft a new global warming treaty for the period after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol’s obligations to cut carbon emissions expire.

“We can only protect what we know,” said Mr Tan Sijie. And even if it is only mere ‘hype’, SSA has played its part in helping the various communities in Singapore ‘know’ the urgent need for a comprehensive solution for the global climate change problem, by being the key supporting partner of Earth Hour.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dialogue with Senior American Journalists

I met several senior American journalists from CNN, Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Washington Post over coffee today with other members of TOC; Gerald Giam, Deborah Choo and Terence Lee.

The write-up on the meet-up here: TOC meets with Senior American Journalists for Coffee

Thursday, March 26, 2009

So, what did change?

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh from NUS political science department says, "Temasek is a strategically important company and for a foreigner to manage it can be seen as humiliating". Although the truth may truly be that "there (is) nobody inside Temasek equal to the job", the appointment of Charles Goodyear as the CEO of Temasek Holdings is most certainly a negative development.

Mr. Dhanabalan rightly remarked in 2002 that sensitive job of Temasek's CEO is not for foreigners. Even while being led by a Singaporean, larger and larger proportion of assets were invested in the financial sector by Temasek Holdings; supposedly spurred by foreign advise. Besides worrying if our CPF funds have disappeared with GIC's and Temasek's recent losses, one cannot help but also wonder "what now since not just the advisors are foreign but the lead person himself is a foreigner?

Senior Minister of State for Finance Lim Hwee Hua in addressing this recently in parliament, remarked, "Temasek today is completely different from the Temasek at the time of Mr Dhanabalan's". What she failed to address was, "So, what did change?"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

'We' don't look down?

Perhaps I was wrong when in my earlier post, I had said that the PAP "doesn't recruit from schools". The Marine Parade Leadership Foundation Programme, the brainchild of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, which is a scheme with a year-long programme targetted at post-secondary youth aged 17 to 25 to pick up leadership skills was launched today.

Mr. Goh said that the purpose of the progarmme was to "try and identify student leaders and get them to think beyond themselves and beyond their school. And then we hope to nurture them, to enhance their skills and interest them later on when they leave to also do something beyond themselves for the community. It is, in fact, about leadership in general for the whole country." He said the programme would also target neighbourhood school students and that perhaps although these students may not be able to compete for national leadership awards and scholarships, they can become majors, captains and warrant officers who form an important middle tier of leaders.

Almost as an answer to these remarks by Mr. Goh, during a dialogue with the students at the launch, one polytechnic student made an emotionally charged comment. He said, "For me, I only became outspoken when I came to poly because I am among my peers and my peers don't look down on me..." This comment tugged at the very root of the frustration of many; whether less academically gifted students would be discriminated against in this quest for leaders. To this comment by the student, Mr. Goh replied, "No, we don't look down...don't worry. As I mentioned just now, this programme is aimed at leadership qualities - academic results are second priority."

Over the decades, the entrenched discourse of meritocracy has focused attention mostly on the PAP leaders academic qualifications and techno-administrative abilities, loosing sight of their people skills, passion and compassion. But these are important qualities that the 'lesser mortals' continue to look out for when forming their opinions about their leaders.

Was Mr. Goh's reply to the student a mere attempt to manage the public image of the governing party?

Crisis spoils Singapore celebrations

John Burton of Financial Times writes: A third of Singaporeans normally vote against the PAP, despite the weakness of opposition parties. The government must call an election by November 2011. It may decide to call a snap election this year if it fears that the economy will not recover in the next two years, when public discontent might be stronger.

While the PAP is expected to return to power, its nightmare result would be to lose one or more of the five or six-member group representation constituencies (GRCs) that dominate the parliamentary system. Voters cast a single ballot for a party slate of candidates. The opposition, which now has only two seats in the 84-member chamber, would gain its biggest representation in more than 40 years.

“The loss of a GRC would be a psychological blow to the PAP and might encourage more Singaporeans to join the opposition,” says the local political analyst.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Risks of Unchecked Export-Driven Growth

Singapore's basic economic strategy of surviving by tapping on the global economy by attracting foreign investments to Singapore and exporting our goods to international markets is flawed. Goldman Sachs said in a client note on Thursday that, "We reiterate our view that Singapore has one of the highest exposures to weakness in external demand, because of its high ratio of exports to GDP and the high portion of exports-driven domestic demand". The brokerage firm has lowered its forecast for Singapore gross domestic product for 2009 to -8 percent from -4 percent previously as the US economy is expected to contract further in the year, curbing already weak demand for Asian goods.

In Singapore, consumption composes only 40 percent of the GDP versus at least 55 percent in other developed Asian economies. With globalisation, more players have entered the "export-driven" economic playing field. Good skills are offered at lower wages by these players. This globalisation will only continue to progress faster than ever as the pace of technological advancement continues to accelerate. Many jobs that have been lost during the past recessions are gone forever. Many more will be lost in the current depression. Structural unemployment is here to stay for a long time. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand by claiming that "The fundamentals of our growth model are sound". Although Singapore supposedly 'bounced back' three times within the last ten years from comparatively milder crisis, the current global mayhem makes it increasingly unlikely that Singapore's export-driven economy is going to 'bounce back' any time soon.

How do we rise up and meet the challenges of this crisis? Fairness and equality do matter as we attempt rise up to meet this economic challenge. There is an imperative need for new, appropriate economic policies to be drawn; bearing in mind the connections between society, environment and the economy. We cannot continue to rely on continuing growth to provide sufficient finance for public services, or on market mechanisms to ensure their efficiency – because financial markets are less reliable than ever; because markets only reflect and cannot repair inequalities. Unchecked export-driven growth puts everything we hold dear at-risk.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The PAP's Fascination with Communists

Chairman of the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s youth wing – the Young PAP (YP) – Mr Teo Ser Luck, led a five-member delegation to Beijing and met with the First Secretary of the Communist Youth League of China in February, 2009. (See here.)


Mr Teo, when asked if he was worried about YP associating with a Communist organisation, said: ‘We’re not worried because it’s the governing party and Singapore-China relations are so close. We don’t talk about political philosophy.’

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as an orderly and well-managed country and said that China must not only learn from Singapore but must also surpass it. Perhaps for the Chinese communists the period of learning from Singapore is over and they have surpassed us. Presumably, it is we who now need to ‘learn’ from them and hence the visit to China by Mr Teo.

The fascination of the governing PAP with the Chinese communists also has historical precedent. During its infancy the PAP was regarded by many as a Communist front. In fact in its early formative years the PAP calculated that a united front with the communists was necessary to win the support of the Chinese educated public and gain power. This is no secret, as even the party website bears witness that the PAP “worked with communists in the early days”. The PAP and the CCP even have similar organizational structures: both use a cadre system where a core group of party “elders” hold all the power in the parties.

Mr Teo perhaps hopes to have his YP emulate the Communist Youth League of China, also known as the China Youth League (CYL). He said that the YP School – which was established in 2004 to train party activists – would take a leaf from the CYL in political education and leadership development. Mr Teo wants the YP School to put in place a training system that would – similar to the CYL – turn a new party recruit into an activist and eventually, a party leader.

Here is what the CYL’s aims are, according to this website:

The basic task of the CYL at the present stage is: Firmly and unswervingly implementing the Party’s basic line at the primary stage of socialism, to unite and lead the young people in adhering to the four cardinal principles with economic construction as the focus, and adhering to reform and opening up and working hard through self-reliance, to promote the development of productive forces and social progress and to foster successors with ideals, ethics, education and a sense of discipline in the great practice of building socialism with Chinese characteristics in an effort to transfuse new blood into the Party and bring about young construction personnel for the country.

While Mr Teo may want to have his YP learn from the CYL, he failed to realize that there several crucial differences between YP and CYL. The CYL still adheres to Marxism - the YP doesn’t have any ideology at all. CYL is a national organisation, that has recruits from every school, and future national leaders are groomed by the CYL. In contrast, YP doesn’t recruit from schools and its recruits have almost no chance of becoming national leaders as the PAP doesn’t recruit its Cabinet ministers from its rank-and-file. Furthermore, the ‘recruitment’ methods employed by the CYL are highly questionable. Many high school students are ‘enlisted’ in questionable circumstances as CYL members upon graduating from high school – and they do not find it easy to dissociate themselves thereafter.

For example, Li Yuanlong, a reporter for Bijie Ribao daily newspaper from Guizhou province in China, had this to say when he resigned from the CYL:

“I am Li Yuanlong, male, Han nationality, born in Guizhou’s Bijie City in 1960. On August 27, 1980, I reluctantly joined the Communist Youth League. Since then, I’ve accrued a moral debt, living with a guilty conscience. As of this moment, I formally declare my resignation of the CYL.”

Mr Li was subsequently arrested for “inciting subversion of state authority” charges and suffered two years imprisonment in 2005. (Source: Asian Research, “40 million quit the CCP”)

Will ‘recruitment’ from secondary schools and junior colleges be now modus operandi for YP? Will these new ‘recruits’ be groomed to become ‘activists’, perhaps to help the ruling party engage new media? Will these ‘activists’ be put through a grueling system of leadership development and political education, one that indoctrinates them with party philosophy and party history, to develop them into ‘leaders’? Will some of these ‘activists’ and ‘leaders’ come to regret their decision to join the party, much like Li Yuanlong?

If indeed Mr Teo hopes to copy the CYL’s recruitment and indoctrination plans, will it be effective? It may not have that much impact given how none of the current PAP leaders came from YP. For example, even George Yeo and Vivian Balakrishnan were only in YP because they had been parachuted there as YP chairmen! Furthermore, most YP members seem to have joined the party only to establish some sort of patron-client relationship, in the belief that helping out with the PAP can advance their own careers or ambitions.

Perhaps Mr Teo’s visit to the CYL and his abundant praises of the Chinese system has deeper economic implications? Prior to his departure for China, Mr Teo readily admitted that trips to build ties with one of the world’s largest economies would be “significantly beneficial when things [i.e. the Singapore economy] pick up”.

Even Walt Disney has realised that China is an untapped market and has enlisted the help of China’s 70 million CYL members to enter the Chinese market in 2004. (BBC news). The US entertainment giant then toured the Chinese youth centres to build awareness of the Disney brand. Jay Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said, “It’s one part of an overall brand building process”. Andy Milligan, of branding consultancy, Interbrand, describes Walt Disney’s move to woo China by engaging CYL as “a huge commercial opportunity for Disney” “There is an increasingly affluent middle-class in China,” he said, “so they have money to spend and money to travel.”

Does the ‘one-party’ model of China fire the imagination of the governing party of Singapore? The fear of instability is etched into the PAP’s psyche. The early formative years of Singapore, which were rife with leftist riots and ethnic conflicts, has contributed much towards such fears. The ruling party believes that one-party rule represents stability. But whatever the reasons, the question remains: “Will the fascination of the governing party with the Chinese communists pay dividends for them now as it did more than 50 years ago?”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Don't Hide Behind Mere Hypothesis

Amidst a worsening recession never before seen in post-independent Singapore, retail sales plunge accelerated from 1.6 percent in December to 12 percent in January. Even the recent Chinese New Year failed to pull in the shoppers in January, as retail sales for the month showed the sharpest decline in eight years. The department of statistics shows that sales fell 8.3 percent over December's and that total retail sales value in January was about $2.9 billion, down from $3.1 billion in December.

Selena Ling an Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation economist says with grimness, "'Two factors, the rise of unemployment and fall in tourism, mean that you would not expect retail sales to see a huge rebound any time soon. Now that the festive season is over, you're going to see a lot of cutbacks in consumption." Robert Prior Wandesforde, senior Asia economist for Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation says, "In view of the busy state of Singapore's malls it may not seem as though spending is collapsing, But judging by January's retail sales numbers, people were apparently just making use of the 'free' air conditioning."

This is the time for the government to heed the call of Singapore Retailers Association executive director Lau Chuen, which appealed to the Government late last year for a drastic cut in the goods and services tax (GST) from 7 per cent to 2 per cent and to create a system where retailers could give 5 per cent of the GST back to the consumer as a rebate. This says Ms. Lau, could take the form of shopping vouchers, with validity dates which would "force them to come back to shop". The Nobel Prize laureate in economics Robert A. Mundell recently seemed to suggest such a scheme saying that that government should issue shopping vouchers to boost domestic demand.

Unprecedented events certainly do call for unprecedented actions. The government should not continue to deny such GST cuts and rebates scheme based on mere hypothesis that "it would not have the major impact on consumer spending that some believed it would".

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Marine Reserve for Singapore

My son wrote a letter to the Prime Minister urging greater biodiversity. The letter was picked up and published by the Nature News of The Nature Society (Singapore). The letter is re-produced here:

Friday, March 6, 2009

Who Killed Singapore21?

Singapore 21 was launched by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in August 1997 to strengthen Singapore's "heartware", and to develop a new vision for Singapore. For more than a year, the Singapore 21 Committee met with more than 6,000 Singaporeans from all walks of life to discuss their concerns and aspirations, and to seek suggestions on building our nation's heartware. The dialogue revealed that there were at least five dilemmas Singaporeans faced:

1. Less Stressful Life vs Retaining the Drive
2. Needs of Senior Citizens vs Aspirations of the Young
3. Attracting Talent vs Looking after Singaporeans
4. Internationalisation and Regionalisation vs Singapore as Home
5. Consultation and Consensus vs Decisiveness and Quick Action

The Singapore 21 Committee identified five key ideas which it believed would address these dilemmas and these ideas formed the vision of Singapore 21.

The first idea was that Every Singaporean Matters : Singapore 21 realised that every Singaporean is unique, that each one of us has a role to play and a contribution to make. That every Singaporean who strives to be the best that he can be, and make a difference was worthy of praise.

The second idea emphasised Strong Families as our Foundation; as they give meaning to life, and are an irreplaceable source of care and support. It is quite obvious that only in a strong family can our children grow up healthily and with confidence to meet the future. Only a strong family enables our elders to enjoy dignity and respect, and pass down the values and lessons they have learnt in life.

The third idea spoke about Opportunities For All Singapore in the 21st century: The Committee after discussion with over 6000 Singaporeans, realised that Singapore needs to be a place where our citizens find promise and a place where talented foreigners are welcomed as well, as they may contribute to Singapore's success. The idea stressed that every citizen has got to be given the opportunity to develop his potential fully, regardless of his background.

The fourth idea spoke about The Singapore Heartbeat: it stressed that regardless of background every Singaporean share a common vision of Singapore as our home, a place where we find our roots and our future; a place worth living, fighting and dying for. It called the 21st Century Singapore to feel passionatley about Singapore.

The fifth idea was the most audacious of them all! It made a clarion call for Active Citizenry: it called for active citizen participation in making a difference in society and in building the future they want for Singapore. it acknowledged that every citizen plays as important a role as the government and other private organisations in Singapore's development. It said only active citizenry enhances one's passion and commitment to the nation.

Singapore 21 tried to outline the ideals which would guide Singapore and Singaporeans into the 21st Century. It carried the tagline "Vision for a New Era". As early as in the year 2000, it became quite apparent to quite a few that Singapore 21 was mere government propoganda. A Gallup Poll then indicated that the ideas of Singapore 21 were not actively promoted (only one-third of those polled knew about Singapore 21 without prompting); and what was even more telling was that 90% of those polled, felt that the government is not listening enough.

Wong Sher Maine of Project Eyeball in his article "Are you being heard?" dated 4 August 2000, reported that David Lim the then Minister of State for Defense, Information and the Arts, was 'stumped' when a participant at a 'Singapore21@Work Conference', asked if "the Government (was) really genuine about Singapore 21? Or (was) it just paying us lip service?" Finally, Mr Lim said: "I cannot convince you of the sincerity of my motives and my intent until you have seen me act it out."

The sincereness, the intent and the motives of the government towards Singapore 21 has most certainly been acted out. The sceptics have been right all along! The government does create an elusion of engaging and listening but does not actually do so. If anyone chanced upon the Singapore 21 website he or she will quickly discover that the site was last updated on 20 January 2004. Was the government campaign towards national and societal cohesion a mere facade? Who killed Singapore 21?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Getting Their Hands Dirty - An Allusion or Elusion

I participated in a Seminar organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, titled "Getting Their Hands Ready: Recent Developments in Singapore Political Blogosphere" yesterday.

During the presentation, Tan Tarn How one of the presenters said that one of the limitations of the blogs is the perceived confidence of Singaporeans in the main stream media. And he cited a Gallup Poll finding to substantiate this claim. One of the main-stream media, The Straits Times today has made full use of this remark by Tarn How; and in an article published today titled "Blogs' reach limited: Study", with the subtitle "Mainstream media is still key source of news", made allusions to this. What I cannot determine though is if the 'study' alluded to in the article header, is an allusion or an elusion.

During the discussion at the seminar, I asked Tarn How when were the polls taken. Tarn How admitted that it was in the year 2005/2006. So, the polls were taken at at least 4 to 3 years ago in the "pre-The Online Citizen" era and in the age where the concept of web 2.0 was still relatively new, continuing to be developed , with "infant-stage" users.

With further questions from me, Tarn How remarked that there was a "dire need for alternatives", but the perception of the public was that the main-stream media was mostly reliable except when reporting or commenting of socio/political issues, where it is usually read "with a pinch of salt", meaning they exaggerate and distort things, so what they say shouldn't be believed unquestioningly.

I further remarked to confirm that the main-stream media is reliable except when it comes to reporting/commenting on socio/political issues; and said that this is where the socio/political bloggers come in; to weigh-in, moderate and even the playing field in the local socio/political reporting/commenting arena.

The Gallup Poll is dated and even the dated Gallup polls in all probability did not measure the confidence level of Singaporeans when it came to reporting/commenting on socio/political issues; and so it should not even have been cited to substantiate the 'study'. Unless the real intent is to create an elusion.

Read also: The Online Citizen

Photo Courtesy of Boris Chan of The Online Citizen

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Unemployment Insurance - The Economic Stabiliser

Selena Ling an economist at Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation feels that the government could have been more generous in terms of helping individuals directly. She says, “A lot of measures (in Budget 2009) were biased towards helping companies because they expect that what helps companies will help individuals. They have prioritised saving jobs as the key theme this year, so they are thinking that as long as you have a job, you are okay”.

How right is her observation! Could the Budget have initiated measures that would have targeted workers directly? Is this an opportune time to have initiated measures like unemployment insurance; which will be a means of temporary income for eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own and who are ready, willing, and able to work?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency, says in a recent report, “Improving social protection systems and providing immediate relief to workers and families are essential complementary interventions to employment growth strategies. Extensions of unemployment insurance and of health care coverage are essential measures to help people face the crisis. Unemployment insurance systems not only provide time to seek new opportunities and to reskill, but they also serve to maintain an adequate level of consumption in society”.

It cannot be deduced that Unemployment Insurance (UI) is not appropriate for a highly industrialized Asian ‘tiger economy’ like Singapore. South Korea the first country to be identified as a ‘tiger economy’ has a (un)employment insurance scheme which was first put into place in 1 July 1995. The unemployment scheme was further extended rapidly in the wake of the unprecedented economic crisis in 1997. In March 1998, the ILO reported that South Korea is the only sizable Asian economy that appears to be pulling out of the economic crisis and urged other Asian countries to create unemployment insurance, and to increase spending on social assistance.

In January 2009, an unprecedented number of 128,000 Koreans applied for UI. But early anecdotal evidence suggests that the unemployment insurance payouts have helped to ensure that workers were not forced to sell their homes or even cars. The system protects not only the unemployed, who can continue to pay their mortgages and interest, but also indirectly the banks, because their loans to households are repaid even in times of recession.

Benefits fall into two broad categories in the South Korean Employment Insurance Act and are calculated using different rates. The first category is ‘Unemployment Benefits’ which is calculated at a rate of 0.9% of the employee’s total annual wage; of which both the employer and employee must pay 0.45% each. The second category is described as ‘Employment Security and Vocational Development’ and it is paid by the employer only. The amount paid by the employer ranges from 0.25% (for a company with less then 150 employees) to 0.85% (for companies with more than 1,000 employees) and the percentage is applied to the year’s total wage of all employees.

During this economic crisis, Budget 2009 should have funded such an unemployment insurance scheme from government surpluses. This will not be an exception because government surpluses have been handed out in the past, as Central Provident Fund (CPF) top-ups and as Singapore shares. When the economy picks up, the hand-out from the surpluses should be discontinued; and the employers should be mandated to contribute (between) an additional 0.7% to 1.3% towards such a scheme.

CPF employer rates have been revised down during each crisis and never restored to the initial rate before the crisis:
In 1986 (cost outpaced productivity), employer rate was cut from 25% to 10%.
In 1998 (Asia Financial Crisis), employer rate was cut from 20% to 10%.
In 2003 (SARS), employer rate was cut from 16% to 13%.
In 2007, the employer rate was only raised back to 14.5%

Employer CPF contribution rates should be restored; to at least to the ‘pre-SARS’ rate of 16% after this economic crisis ends; and the increase in the rate of contribution should be used for needful social protection schemes like unemployment insurance.

Credit Suisse forecasts that as many as 300,000 may become unemployed in Singapore this year. The Development Bank of Singapore said this crisis could claim 99,000 workers. There is an imperative need to study and implement a national unemployment insurance scheme.

In fact, besides the civil societies’ call for our social safety net (including unemployment insurance) to be enhanced, the governing party’s MP, Mr. Inderjit Singh, also called for unemployment insurance, way back in the Budget 2006 debate. He suggested providing more retrenchment protection (by) having a national unemployment insurance scheme.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shot down this suggestion and said, “Who is to pay for this protection? Who is to pay for this unemployment insurance? If you raise employee contributions to CPF, then you reduce workers’ take home pay. Are you prepared to do that?”

Simple logic will show that the employee’s take home pay need not be affected by the UI. The UI must be settled in principle before practicalities are worked out; and not the other way around. In fact, the government of Singapore has adopted many policies in principle (like the means-testing for healthcare subsidies), before practicalities were worked out.

In 2006, the government also dismissed the unemployment insurance. Most workers already have some form of retrenchment protection, it said. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) did a survey in 2004 and found that 96 percent of private sector establishments with at least 25 employees paid retrenchment benefits to their local employees who had at least three years of service. This suggests that there is already some kind of unemployment protection which is in the retrenchment benefits scheme.

But questions remain. What is the total percentage of Singapore companies with 25 or more staff? What about those who lose their jobs before completing 3 years of service (especially the new entrants to the job market) in this economic crisis? What about the companies who fail to deliver retrenchment benefits even for employees who have worked for three years or more because of bankruptcies and/or closure of their enterprise?

Dr. Yap Mui Teng, Senior Research Fellow of The Institute of Policy studies recommends as much in his report entitled, “Employment Insurance: A Safety Net for the Unemployed”. Dr. Yap concludes in this report, “The Korean (Employment Insurance System) EIS embodies many of the principles Singapore holds dear in its employment and welfare policies. It is worthy of study, and perhaps even emulation, for the way it combines the social safety net with active measures to promote employment, thus providing welfare without dependency. The system is also self-funding, without being a drain on government coffers. Perhaps and EIS-type scheme providing for employment security can be introduced as another component of the CPF (Central Provident Fund)…with premiums paid from the CPF Ordinary Account”.

The UI has its roots in the Great Depression. It was first instituted during that period to encourage spending and help the poor economy. Unemployment insurance is the quintessential economic stimulus: and it is the first line of defense in a recession. Unemployment Insurance helps laid-off workers maintain consumption and search for a job that matches their skills. Kenneth Jeyaretnam the son of the late JB Jeyaretnam says, “And the point about unemployment insurance is, apart from any justification on equity grounds, is that it acts as an automatic stabiliser to maintain consumption and prevent the economy deteriorating further. Boosting domestic consumption is something Singapore …will have to do in future as they have reached the end of the road as far as depending on the US for export-led growth.”

In a recent CNBC report titled “Financial Crisis Sees Suicide Rates Rise in Asia”, Paul Yip, a mental health and suicide prevention specialist in Hong Kong says, “Work is very important to the Asian because we don’t have very good social security and losing one’s job is associated with the loss of ‘face’. So the trauma can be great”.

Unemployment Insurance can give the needed assurance to the traumatised retrenched, that they need not drastically cut back on things like education or healthcare or insurance; and therefore it enhances economic security.

It is essential for Singapore to develop a workable unemployment insurance system amidst the globalizing economic environments where jobs in general become more flexible and less secured and workers become more vulnerable to any economic turbulence which easily threatens job securities of workers. Even Thailand has introduced unemployment insurance since 2004; and countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Nepal are also considering the possibility of introducing employment/unemployment benefits in the near future.

Singapore Budget 2009, the ‘Resilience Package’ should have shown greater empathy and concern for the resident workers of Singapore by ensuring economic security, by announcing an initiative like unemployment insurance, which would surely provide social protection and the means of being truly resilient, in this economic crisis never before seen in post-independence Singapore.
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Support the Facebook campaign for Unemployment Insurance at: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=64680475154

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Reform Party Public Forum

I spoke and participated at The Reform Party's public forum - SINGAPORE BUDGET 2009 - THE ALTERNATIVE POLICIES. The Online Citizen Reports: When Mr Ravi Philemon took the stage, he focused his speech on three issues: unemployment benefits (Governing a ‘First-World’ Country with ‘Third-World’ Mindsets), elderly care needs and the potential of the silver industry (Alternative Healthcare Economic Policies), and a green economic policy (The Alternative Green Economic Policy).







Read the Forum Write-up on The Online Citizen and News Release by Uncle Yap.