Congratulations NUS Engineers Class of 2016!


My speech at the Commencement of NUS Faculty of Engineering on July 12, 2016 at 3:00 pm.

Mr Neo Kian Hong, Member, NUS Board of Trustees, Distinguished Guests, Friends and Families of Graduands, Graduating Class of 2016, Ladies and Gentlemen, Good afternoon.

To the class of 2016, both my wife and I would like to extend our heartiest congratulations to all of you.

There are, here today, 515 graduates of which 106 getting joint bachelor’s, 3 with multi-disciplinary, 244 bachelor’s in computer and electrical engineering, 115 masters, and 47 PhDs degrees.

In a word, wow. What a fantastic collection of talent, potential and promise. A brain trust that would rival any other. The 2016 World University Ranking by Times Higher Education for Engineering and Technology, ranks NUS lucky 13th globally. Your alma mater is shining and you can rightly be proud of it! Surely that deserves a hearty round of applause!

I feel at home in the company of people who value the pursuit of knowledge with the vision to make this a better world. Engineers are dreamers, doers, builders, risk takers. Engineers are weird like that. That’s in our DNA. Our ethos.

As a child, I was enthralled with the idea of being able to walk on the moon. I wanted to become an astronaut. It has not happened, yet, but that goal has helped open up for me a vast vista of possibilities and opportunities. In its own way, that interest led me down the path of becoming a ham radio operator, 9v1hp is my call sign if you want to QSO, pursuing electrical and electronics engineering, and then computer engineering and computer science.

It was done during the time when technology, largely driven by the NASA space program’s need for high performance computing and semiconductor devices, was showing the way to bring to life, some of the ideas of what was essentially in science fiction.

It was a time when, much of the things we take for granted today, were mere ideas in Isaac Asimov‘s visions of tomorrow.

There is a wonderful interview of Asimov done by Bill Moyers in which they discuss education.

Let me quote you the following:

Bill Moyers asks:

Do you think we can educate ourselves, that any one of us, at any time, can be educated in any subject that strikes our fancy?

Isaac Asimov replies:

“The key words here are “that strikes our fancy.” There are some things that simply don’t strike my fancy, and I doubt that I can force myself to be educated in them. On the other hand, when there’s a subject I’m ferociously interested in, then it is easy for me to learn about it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully – what’s exciting is the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.”

Asimov later goes on to say:

“That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school — reading books, having ideas, asking questions — that’s kid’s stuff. Now that you’re an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”

Education is never “finished”. It is also not marked by getting pieces of paper, or getting a grade, or even this today’s commencement.

You may have heard of adage “sharpening your saw”. A rusty or dull saw cannot cut you a tree. Sharpening the saw is key to keeping your knowledge fresh, alive and useful. Stop sharpening, you disintegrate.

It is fitting that today’s event is called a “commencement”. You are indeed commencing your next phase of life. It is the culmination of lots of sweat equity you expended to reach a goal, and then to go on to build new things. It is a cycle, not a treadmill. It is a deliberate and positive cycle of life.

There is a word for that. Entropy. And I find entropy a fascinating idea.

You may be wondering why would I want to bring in the “second law of thermodynamics” in the address.

A tl;dr definition of the 2nd law of thermodynamics says that the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time, or remains constant in ideal cases where the system is in a steady state or undergoing a reversible process. The increase in entropy accounts for the irreversibility of natural processes, and the asymmetry between future and past.

What was that all about, you wonder? What has entropy got to do with today’s proceedings? I hope Carnot, Clausius, Kelvin, Planck and Shannon would grant me this non-scientific postulation of their collective work.

Most of you have spent 4 years in this 111-year old institution, those getting their PhDs, a few more.

From the time you entered this school, entropy in you has been increasing. As knowledge, experience, wisdom and insights flowed from your dedicated faculty and your classmates to you – entropy increased. I say it increased because I am approximating the university as a closed system – as needed by the 2nd law.

When you take formal leave of this school’s lecture theatres, halls and labs, you will start the process of transferring the entropy – knowledge, experience etc – on to the big world outside these walls.

As you stand at the peak of this phase of your life’s adventure, the “you” sitting here is a very different “you” that entered this school. In giving of yourself to the future endeavours that you get into, you will be putting truth into the statement “that the entropy of the universe will always increase”.

By the end of this evening, all of you would hold in your hands a scroll that records your accomplishment. Savour and cherish that moment but only for a moment. It is an indication and acknowledgement that your next stage of possibilities and responsibilities has now been laid in front of you.

I am frequently reminded of a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States.

He said:

He who received an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his candle at mine, receives light without darkening mine. Then there is twice as much light.

Ideas are one of those fundamental qualities that make us all human. In other words, Ideas Maketh Homo Sapiens. It remains to be seen if Artificial Intelligence can generate ideas like we do.

Each of us generate hundreds of ideas every day without breaking a sweat. Most of them are not acted upon, but do serve as building blocks for something else, all done subconsciously. The “ah, ha!” moment is an example of that subconscious confluence of ideas.

If you must judge me, judge me by how good my good ideas are and not by how bad my bad ideas were.

I know you are all brimming with ideas of what to do next. I hope you will not be distracted by, what I consider, a falsehood that ideas need to be guarded, locked up and not shared with others.

I come from the world of open collaboration where software source code, the classic example of the embodiment of ideas, is freely shared and improved upon. The business I am part of, Red Hat, built its US$2b revenue business on 100% open source code, all achieved with open collaboration on ideas and code.

My empirical experience has been that when ideas (and code) are shared, they get sharpened and the outcome is both unpredictable and beautiful. And just last week, the source code of Apollo 11 spacecraft was released and it is amazing to read the code and understand the constraints they had to work with in 1969.

Please don’t hold back on sharing your ideas.

I shall practise what I’ve preached and here’s an idea that I hope some of you will consider picking up:

Electric cars are fun, but the challenge is one of re-charging it. Re-charging is being done today by retrofitting and building new charging infrastructure. And that takes time. So here’s my idea for a start-up which I shall call PowerBuddy:

a) PowerBuddy operates a mobile, battery-powered fleet of “charging vehicles”

b) these charging vehicles are strategically placed all over Singapore

c) As a subscriber to PowerBuddy, your car will be tracked with your permission, so that PowerBuddy will know what the charge level is at all times and, based on pre-arranged settings, provide a quick (or full) recharge wherever the car is parked at.

d) You can then go anywhere and not be worried about running out of juice and more importantly, not have to wait for the current infrastructure to catch up.

I hope some of you here will pick this up, ideate further and execute PowerBuddy. I would be happy to collaborate with you on this. We are engineers, we build solutions to address problems.

Engineering is a profession that loves precision but accepts and is extremely aware of real world approximations.

Any worthy engineer will solve problems in many cases by making assumptions, to a first approximation, and then to iteratively refine the solution until it is good enough. There is a growing community of engineers who recognise that “good enough” engineering is what makes the world happen. I believe in that approximation as well.

It was the French philosopher Voltaire who said: “Perfect is the opposite of Good Enough”. The real world we live in makes it almost impossible to be perfect. Embrace good enough and we can build solutions.

We all love to succeed. But success is a poor teacher – failure, on the other hand, is a fantastic albeit cruel teacher. You can learn lots from failure, but precious little from success.

So, make sure you define success on your own terms, and work to achieve success by your own rules. Fail, fail quick and often, so that you can succeed. And in that process, to build a life you’re proud to live.

Before I conclude, from one engineer to another, well done on becoming an engineer! Together, let’s build a better world.

And finally, thank you NUS for giving me this opportunity to address this afternoon’s commencement (Update: my address starts at around 0:26).

Congratulations Class of 2016.

Thank you.

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Remember, Remember The Eleventh of September. Majulah Singapura.


My extended family will be voting sometime today. My wife and I will be exercising our right to vote at Qifa Primary School. That was the same place we voted in 2011. The People’s Action Party and Reform Party are contesting in this West Coast GRC.

11940284_10206326379092598_8725255103894262689_oI just came across this Peanuts cartoon done many years ago (and I am not sure of the copyright status of it). It is very appropriate as we go to the polls.

Remember, Remember The Eleventh of September.

After all is said and done, we are all in this together to make our country thrive and flourish for generations to come.

Majulah Singapura.

Ensuring that this gets as wide a read as possible before September 11, Polling Day


This has been circulating in the chat groups on telegram.org and whatsapp.com and want it to be as widely read as possible. I did not wirte it, and I would love to give credit to the author. If you are the author or know who wrote it. please tell me so that I can give credit where credit is due.

A very well written article by a young Singaporean to be read before one votes this coming Friday:

I am a Singaporean voter. I want our policies to be thoroughly examined by different political parties in the Parliament.

I know all the candidates have different strengths, weaknesses and abilities but that is exactly the whole idea. A policy paper can be better scrutinized by different people with different perspectives, angles and insights. Ultimately, Singapore and Singaporeans benefit from better policies. Good policies can withstand scrutiny, no matter who came up with them.

I am a Singaporean voter. I want our anti-corruption department to be completely detached from the power of any government, regardless of political party

The department should be a checks-and-balances asset for the people of Singapore. The anti-corruption department should report directly to the people and conduct regular and random checks on every single branch of the state and government to ensure nobody plays under the table. Nobody.

I am a Singaporean voter. I want our civil service, army, police and judiciary systems to be independent from any politically-motivated decisions from any incumbent government.

I dislike the practice of parachuting newly-resigned civil servants, army or police officers or judges into the political sphere weeks or days before elections. This presents a serious conflict of interests because these newly-converted politicians still hold networks of influence within their old jobs and that may present dilemmas in crucial decision-making. Imagine if we go to war and our generals hesitate to act because they are considering military decisions based on answering to ex-colleagues-turned-ministers on which electoral constituency to defend or retreat from. Wouldn’t that be a disaster if they lost battle initiative due to such considerations?

I am a Singaporean voter. I understand all policies cost valuable taxpayers’ monies.

I am not a rabbit. I don’t eat carrots dangling in front of me. I am not a dog. I refuse to be tamed or intimidated by fear-mongering tactics. I am not a crazy person either. I don’t intend to bankrupt Singapore or Singaporeans over poorly-planned policies. I am, however, keeping an open mind to alternative suggestions to current policies. I don’t mind these alternatives be thoroughly debated in Parliament because there is always a chance to find moderation and suitability in them until these policies can meet the needs and wants of Singaporeans.

I am a Singaporean voter. I want my government to work for me, not against me and certainly not for themselves. I want my politicians to earn their keep, not sleep through in Parliament and just nod their heads in agreement to pass policies into bills which are not clearly understood by the people.

Governments are servants to the people. If they lord over their own voters, they are not governments. They are called tyrants. I understand the need for attractive pay to entice the best talents and minds into a government. However, I want such salaries to be pegged to real performance in their terms of office. This is called meritocracy. Any member of parliament who naps in parliamentary sessions should receive a pay cut for that month. No excuses. Any member of parliament who has contributed no constructive suggestions to any policies in a year should receive a pay cut for that year. Any member of parliament who broke the laws of Singapore should receive a demerit ceremony in public and serve the necessary sentence in whichever way deem fit by the people of Singapore.

I am a Singaporean voter. I want Singapore to survive longer than any political squabble or contest.

If any political party claims that Singapore will collapse or be in ruins if they are voted out of power, that means we have built the country in the wrong way. All political parties face the possibility of total dissolution but as a Singaporean, I want Singapore to possess a robust system where it can survive any change of power from any political party. This means the civil service, army, police and judiciary system must remain apolitical if they understand such a national need beyond political competition.

I am a Singaporean voter. Vote not for Singapore’s past. Vote not for Singapore’s present. Vote for Singapore’s future.

#ge2015

As the silly season starts


By noon on September 1st, we will know who are running for the 89 seats in the parliament.

As voters we are all keen to know who the candidates are. The irony is that the majority voters don’t really know who their current member of parliament is to begin with. I know who mine is, but I have not met nor spoken to him ever. That being the reality, how would you go about making a considered and fair assessment of how you should be casting your vote.

Let me offer up a short checklist to help with the thinking:

  1. Is your’s, your family’s and of Singapore’s future important to you?
  2. If you said YES to 1, do you think the candidate(s) in your ballot paper will be able to deliver the future you want?
  3. If you said NO to 1, it does not matter who you vote for.  So VOTE, PLEASE DON’T SPOIL THE VOTE EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPOIL IT.
  4. If you said YES to 2, have you understood who the candidate(s) is(are) and where they stand on issues that is of concern to you? Have you done sufficient research to be able to be honest to yourself to come to a decision?
  5. If you said NO to 2, are you prepared to find out why you think they cannot deliver the future you want?
  6. If you said NO to 5, it does not matter who you vote for. So VOTE, PLEASE DON’T SPOIL THE VOTE EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPOIL IT.
  7. If you said YES to 5, do spend time reading, talking to family, friends, colleagues or just about any other Singaporean voter. Do make sure that you get to hear from all sides not just one side.

See, it is quite easy to navigate the silly season.

Do be aware that what is called “Mainstream Media” (MSM), which especially in the Singapore context, has very low credibility in terms of being fair, balanced and critical. These MSM include the newspapers, TV and radio owned and operated by Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp. These entities are government-linked companies and have never been known to challenge or be critical of government policies. Investigative and critical reporting is NOT what they can ever do (or to be fair, allowed to do).

Having said all of that, do take about 10 minutes to listen to this TEDx talk that discusses how entities, like governments and political parties, would do all that they can to astroturf opinion and understanding of issues. Don’t be lulled by catchphrases, innuendoes, carrots, meat etc.

And, yes, this post could perhaps be also playing that game.

Majulah Singapura!

#ge2015

And the games have begun


Oh, the classic off-by-one error. All of us who were expecting the polling day to be September 12, started counting from the day after the nomination day. Missed out the fact that nomination day itself is counted. Classic CS 101 error.

Now that the games have begun, it is not surprising to see the Elections Department (that reports to the Prime Minister who is also the secretary general of the current majority-in-parliament party) putting out new rules.

This is exactly what, many other Singaporeans and myself have advocated for: that the elections department should be stand alone, independent entity. The text from the PDF (linked above) is included here:

Advisory on Participation in Political Activities and Election Campaigning by Civic, Business and Professional Bodies

Under the Parliamentary Elections Act, any person who conducts activities to promote or procure the election of a candidate, must be individually authorised in writing by the candidate or his election agent on and from Nomination Day.

Individuals who are not citizens of Singapore are prohibited from taking part in any election activity and cannot be so authorised.

2 In addition, any civic, business or professional body that wishes to participate in any political activity or allow its funds and/or premises to be used for political purposes needs to ensure that its constitution allows it to do so, and ensure that this does not contravene any laws that the body is subject to.

3 Such political activities include endorsing certain candidates and publishing advertisements or issuing press statements to express its support for a candidate. If such advertisements or statements amount to election advertising, the relevant rules under the Parliamentary Elections Act and its regulations have to be complied with.

4 While such bodies should have their own processes to consult their members and consider the merits of supporting a candidate, it remains each individual’s right as a voter, regardless of his membership of any organisation, to freely decide whom to support and how to cast his vote.

ISSUED BY
ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT
PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE
26 August 2015

I think this document is pretty standard and has nothing new. What would be useful is if this document’s conditions are meant to be observed from August 26th onwards and not retroactive. This is being asked because the PAP did use a VWO facilities for a very clear political purpose – that of introducing their candidates.

I am not hopeful that the Elections Department would state if their new rules were violated.

Fair play and transparency is even more critical in this hustings. The world is watching.

To keep things in context


Just so that we don’t get distracted with all the SG50 festivities and forget key historical details, here’s some of the festive commemorations we’ve seen in Singapore.

In four years, 2019, Singapore would be 200 years old from the day, in 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles representing the British East India Company signed a treaty with Temenggong Abdul Rahman and the Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor to hand over Singapore to the EIC to become a trading post. That marked the start of Singapore being a British colony. Not sure if the monies promised to the two as per the treaty are still being paid.

Even if the 200th anniversary is not observed because of commemoration-fatique coupled with the lack of an impending election (as it was in 1969) there was some small observation of the 150th anniversary as noted in this from the National Archives:

I don’t recall any big rah-rah then (I was in Primary 4), considering that Singapore was 4 years into its independence, probably not much. I was personally more enthralled with the NASA Moon Landing than anything else.

It was not quite subdued  when you fast forward to 1984. There was a General Election coming and the government, I mean, the ruling party rolled out the “25 Years of Nation Building” celebrations in earnest. This commemoration was complete with month-long (may have been many months) National Exhibition at the then World Trade Centre exhibition halls in Telok Blangah. I remember going there to see the exhibition and being quite annoyed with the PAP-ism in the exhibition. The 25 years was about 25 years since 1959 when the PAP came into government, not about Independence. It had a clear political objective and despite sweeting the electorate, two opposition members won seats against the PAP – the late J. B. Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong.

That 1984 opposition victory royally pissed off the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who did his best to get rid of JBJ (by suing him for many things, and in the process bankrupting him and then gerrymandering the Anson constituency into Tanjong Pagar).

So, after that “25 Years of Nation Building”,

25 Years of Nation Building
25 Years of Nation Building

we have SG50 just in time for the next General Elections. The same tricks cannot be played now as we have far more information out there and no one in their right mind trusts the local MSM (The Singapore Press Holdings, or MediaCorp). People who DO watch or listen or read output from those two entities have always discounted the validity, integrity and credibility. They have not gone down to the absurdity of the US Fox News channel (at least not yet), but the slant these two have to being essentially pro-PAP is plain to see.

So as we wind down SG50 and gear up for General Elections 2015, remember, Singapore@200 is just FOUR years away and there are no general elections to fight then.

First impressions about the new Marina Coastal Expressway


I decided to take a spin onto the new Marina Coastal Expressway today.  And my first impression is that it is screwed up. Not the highway per se. The highway is top-notch. Five lanes in each direction. Fantastic surface where you don’t hear the tires at all. Smooth and probably worth the S$5billlion spent on the 5km expressway.

So, what’s wrong?  Here’s my list:

a) *Anyone* travelling from the West to the East (say to Fort Road), you will, if you choose to go via the AYE, be then marshalled into MCE (which is quite sweet I must say). You continue in the MCE and since you are goint to the East, you have to KEEP TO THE TWO LEFT lanes to make sure that you then get into the exit of MCE to ECP. So, 4 lanes of AYE, becomes 5 lanes of MCE then 2 lanes of the exit and then onto ECP/Fort Road. Yes, TWO lanes to ECP. I repeat, TWO lanes. If you MISSED this exit, you will continue from MCE into KPE and then have to turn around somewhere to undo your mistake.

b) If you are coming from the West and want to go to Rochor. Good luck. You’ll have to exit in the MCE – ie take an exit and go INTO the Central Business District – yes, ERP  and traffic light infested zone – and then navigate to the Rochor area. I did not take that exit on MCE today as I was not happy with what I saw in a) above.

c) You are coming from the East and want to down town. There is an exit that brings you to the Central Boulevard, but because the roads on the surface after exiting the MCE are still being realigned, it is a mess for now. I reckon those will be straightened out over the next few months.

d) You are coming down Ophir Road expecting to go West. Although I did not try that today, you will go up the ramp and go over the Sheares Bridge on to the South side of Marina Bay Sands (which was part of the ECP but no longer called the ECP but Sheares Avenue) and then navigate to enter the MCE and then onto the West.  Not sure of the swamp you will be in with lights and reduced lanes.

I am not happy with the way the MCE is breaking all the connections and travel patterns we have had with some yet to be proven improvements in traffic flow. I am very sure that the biggest congestion will be a the exit from MCE to ECP because of the lane reduction.

I cannot understand how the LTA could have royally screwed up with the MCE and how traffic flows. I am really disappointed. I could be completely wrong as I only saw a part of the how the MCE’s introduction changes the traffic flow. But I bet you, the mess will be enormous over the next week or so as people begin to adjust to the new realities.

I would like to perhaps suggest that MCE be temporarily changed from Marina Coastal Expressway to Most Cocked-up Expressway until the whole MCE plan is rolled out.

It’s not about *taxing* anyone


By and large, Singaporeans accept the value and import of National Service. Yes, there are genuine situations where things can be done better with far less waste, but as a whole, the long-term benefits of National Service to the citizen, family and country is not in dispute.

The nature of National Service does involve in a big way, the sacrifice of personal time and energy of every able-bodied male 18-year-old for a period of two years. It used to be either two or two-and-a-half years when I did my NS, but it has now been made uniform to just two years. It can be argued whether the length of service should be made even shorter, but that is for another post.

Over the years, we have had a steady inflow of people who took up permanent residency and as the rules go, the children of these PRs (who themselves can become PRs, albeit second generation PRs) are then obligated to do National Service just as any citizen.

That’s the nub of the issue. I know of a couple who moved to Singapore and became PRs and started a family. Because they were PRs, they could buy HDB housing and as luck would have it for them, their block underwent a HDB redevelopment exercise that then resulted in that family getting a brand new HDB unit. That is all well and good. They, even as PRs benefited from the system.

The twist in the story is when their sons (second generation PRs) were due for enlistment, the couple managed to snag some immigration opportunity and moved off to Canada. They then cashed out the HDB apartment, made a killing and now are PRs in Canada and their sons managed to get out of their obligations to do National Service.

We can look at this story (all true, btw) and be disappointed, or look at it positively as they came to this country and worked the system and with all the unintended loop holes, they have benefited immensely.

Where does that leave, We, The Citizens? I too would like the financial windfall and perhaps have my sons not do their National Service as well, but I am not asking for that.

It is therefore, amusing, to read the suggestion by PAP MP Hri Kumar Nair who suggests a “national defense duty” (NDD) be imposed on all PRs and foreigners living in Singapore.

This from the ruling party MP whose party’s modus operandi in solving issues it to tax things (COE, Road Tax, GST etc).

On the surface, his proposal *might* sound plausible. But there are two significant flaws in it.

Firstly, the NDD cheapens the sweat, blood and economic sacrifice Singaporeans (not only the men, but their families as well) make in doing their National Service and reservist duties. “If you can’t do the work, just pay your way out” seems to be the his rationale. It suggests that we have to tax others (labelling it “duty” is hiding the truth) as a form of imposed misery. Do we have to make our neighbours to be poor(er) in order for us to succeed?

The people who come to our shores came here to make a living for themselves and to be economically active. They do pay taxes like the rest of us. If the government wants to really do the Right Thing, they should have the NS Tax Relief not be a deductible BEFORE tax, but an offset after tax assessment.

I recall doing the NS Tax Relief some years ago and found that since it is a tax relief, the real impact in including the NS Tax Relief and not made very little difference (like less than $20) in the taxable income, at least for me. So, while the NS Tax Relief looks nice on the surface and while might be a sincere attempt, it was not what one would have thought it was.

So, Mr MP, no need to place an extra tax. Do the simple change in the NS Tax Relief and you’ve got a reasonable step forward.

A second flaw in the MP’s proposal is that in the event of a crisis, it is us Singaporeans who would have to stand up and defend, not those who paid “NDD”.  They can just as well leave Singapore and return when things are OK. See the difference? Just because they’ve been NDDed, it does not mean that they’ll be picking up anything to help defend. I am sure you are not that naive, or are you Mr MP?

Missing the point!


I will keep this post short. I am really disappointed with the way the Golden Village movie chain deals with online booking.

Firstly, they charge EXTRA for online bookings. Yes, that’s a great way to encourage usage of online bookings.  If anything else, they should be giving a DISCOUNT to it. I guess the  GV site would be happy to even support the broken IE browsers as well.

Second, there is NO way on the online booking system to include promotional options (like student discounts, vouchers etc). For all of that, one has to be there IN PERSON to do the booking. Clever in that when you do online bookings, you then shrug and just pay the extra – because you might not get the seats you want.

Third, when you do go to the theatre (I’ve only gone to their Vivocity location), the concessions (which are exorbitantly priced anyway and they do not allow any other munchies to be brought in) only accept CASH.  You have a captive audience stuck with a monopoly situation and yet these smart business folks only accept cash.

Somewhere in all of this, they’ve lost the game.  So should I be too concerned if I were to continue to torrent down movies? If the cinema houses cannot get their acts together, in spite of all the good ideas and intentions, then they deserve to go out of business.

This is a fair request for a greater view of how Singapore is to be governed.


The following speech was delivered by Mr Viswa Sadasivan, Nominated Member of Parliament at the parliamentary sitting today, July 19 2010.

For reasons we all know, the media has chosen to brush aside his speech which was responded to by some unimportant lowly government spokesperson – who was completely the wrong individual. It is evidence that the ruling political party is not happy with this suggestion and are not even willing to have a discussion let alone a debate.

Welcome to my Singapore.

July 20 2010 – updated with a video from the government-run TV station.
The response from them. Other videos are at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/parliament/videoarchives.htm.

For another view, see this.

==============================================
[Posted with the permission of Viswa].

Notice for the Sitting of Parliament on 19th July 2010

MATTER OF MOTION FOR ADJOURNMENT

By Mr Viswa Sadasivan (Nominated Member)

LOOKING BEYOND GDP FOR PROGRESS

Preamble

1.Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to move this motion. Before commencing my speech, I would like to convey my congratulations and gratitude to the government for steering an impressive economic recovery – far exceeding expectations.

2.The Gross Domestic Product or GDP, and in some cases, the Gross National Product or GNP, has been and, I foresee, will continue to remain the most commonly used indicator of economic performance and growth. This speech will not contest that reality.

3.My intent in making this speech is to highlight that the changed circumstances today require a broader framework where policy makers have the benefit of being prompted by socio-economic indicators other than GDP. This helps us better address important issues that are not strictly economic in nature, such as aspiration, equity and happiness which in turn have an increasing impact on national goals such as sustained economic growth, productivity, innovation, work-life balance and, of course, procreation.

4.In this year’s Committee of Supply debate, the government made it clear that it no longer adopts a “GDP growth at all cost” approach. I am heartened by this assurance, and I have reason to believe that the government is already looking at other indicators to ensure that negative externalities of policies and programmes are identified early and addressed or mitigated. The Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) also highlighted the importance of evolving a more qualitative, “sustained economic growth”. However, its recommendations are still focused on economic growth and productivity which a growth-centred model tends to emphasise, with too little consideration of social and environmental factors.

5.My concern is that if we do not develop a formalised framework for analysis, these other indicators will continue to play second fiddle to GDP, instead of being considered together with GDP and with the same level of importance. This is the best, and if I may say so, the only way we can develop a new and necessary reflex to be sufficiently responsive to more complex environments where non-economic considerations appear to be increasingly important to the people. Sustained economic growth is necessary for job creation and employment which in turn is a key determinant of standard of living. This government has delivered this. Continued economic progress over the years has resulted in the cause of the challenges we face today – balancing the needs of an increasingly educated and sophisticated populace with those from the middle and lower middle class sector who are struggling to match up and keep up. For the more affluent in society, having a roof over their heads and employment, are nothing more than hygiene factors. For this group, self actualisation is important – fulfilling their aspirations, social consciousness, work-life balance, equity, the environment and just being happy. For most in the middle and lower income group – getting a job, buying a flat, and the rising cost of living remain primary preoccupations.

6. In the first 30 years of Singapore the population was less bifurcated, socially and economically – so, GDP as a key indicator was sufficient. We just needed to grow fast, create jobs and build affordable houses. Today, it is no more about how fast we grow – increasingly, it is about:
how we grow
where we grow
are we prepared to pay the price for growth
and, whether we are growing together.

7.These are all challenges that developed societies face; challenges of managing success. The GDP is not equipped to prompt us or provide answers in these increasingly critical areas. Worse, if we focus too much and for too long on the GDP, it could paint too rosy a picture – a false positive – and distract us from these issues. The GDP is essentially a measurement of economic activity, not economic benefit. Used on its own, it can be a misleading indicator of economic progress and welfare of the individual Singaporean.

8.We need a system that helps us better anticipate these issues – be more proactive than reactive. Hence the need for a new framework of indicators.

Some troubling signs that should prompt a review

9.While one cannot dispute the correlation between economic growth and standard of living, the GDP was never meant to measure the well-being of people. Simon Kuznets, one of the founders of the GDP calculations, made this quite clear. He said, “…distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and the long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what….”

10.GDP figures limit the assessment of both objective as well as subjective elements of well-being and development. Objective elements refer to issues of income distribution, purchasing power parity, per capita consumption, and wage shares. Subjective elements refer to issues such as health and mental well-being, life and job satisfaction, work-life balance, happiness and social and environmental capital.
11.I believe that some of the socio-economic dysfunctions we see in Singapore have been exacerbated by a combination of a strong focus on GDP growth and the inherent limitations of and the skewing effects of the GDP figures. Let me highlight a few of these dysfunctions, by way of illustration.

12. First, let’s look at some of the market-driven negative externalities that the GDP figures don’t highlight. As I highlighted in my speech made in this House last August, Singapore’s per capita GDP has risen exponentially over the past 44 years. According to figures from the department of statistics, in Sing dollar and nominal terms, Singapore’s per capita GDP grew from $1, 567 in 1965 to $53, 192 in 2008, certainly one of the highest in the world.

13.But when we look closer at what constitutes the GDP, there is cause for concern. According to data, profits take about 46% of Singapore’s GDP, which according to economists I spoke to, is extremely high compared to other developed economies. And from what I understand, half of this high profit share goes to the coffers of foreign-owned companies with operations here. What is left in the GDP pie to directly benefit Singaporeans is therefore a relatively small amount. With such a significant amount of growth driven by foreign MNCs, the net welfare benefit to the average Singaporean is unclear.

14. According to economist, Manu Bhaskaran, and I quote: “…This could be why even though Singapore’s per capita GDP is roughly 11% higher than Hong Kong’s, our per capita consumption is about 21% lower that Hong Kong’s. If we take per capita consumption as a better indicator of welfare, then simply going for high growth per se does not guarantee that we will achieve the best possible welfare outcome for Singaporeans….” Unquote.

15. Similarly, if you look at the wage component of GDP, you will see that the Singaporean workers’ wages account for less than half of Singapore’s GDP. In other developed countries, these wages take up more than half of the total GDP. In Singapore, wages account for about 43% of our GDP, compared to 58% in the USA and 57% in Japan, according to a report published by Singstat. This is due to a conscious effort by the government to moderate wage increases to manage the cost of doing business. Another cause of the low wage level in Singapore is the influx of foreign workers which has had the effect of pushing wages down. I believe the government is addressing these issues through our concerted efforts to boost productivity and innovation in the workplace. However, the Prime Minister’s recent statement indicating that with the blow-out economic growth rate we would need another 100,000 foreign workers is a cause for concern – it appears to go against the ESC’s recommendation to reduce our dependency on foreign workers, and for good reasons.

16. The other area that the GDP figures tend to mask is income distribution – which for most developed, affluent economies remain a key challenge. While we have one of the highest per capita GDP in the world, according to figures from the CIA World Factbook for 2009, Singapore ranks as one of the highest in the world in terms of income inequality. The Gini Index is the measurement of income inequality – the higher the Gini coefficient, the worse the level of inequality. Based on 2008 figures, Singapore has a Gini coefficient of 48.10 – which is much higher than other countries in Asia including China, Malaysia and the Philippines. In fact, it would appear that Singapore is closer to many under-developed countries in the Gini Index. This should certainly be a cause for concern for us, but it will be red-flagged only if we pay enough attention, and prompt attention, to this indicator together with the GDP.

17.One evident cost when pursuing an economic growth-centred model is a possible short-sightedness that could lead to short-cut solutions. We lose peripheral vision, which is an important public policy imperative. Take the policy of importing foreign workers in large numbers into Singapore – something that we have only recently started pulling the brakes on. Yes, our GDP has risen as a result of this policy – but it has, over the years, systematically depressed wages of lower-skilled workers, caused a surge in rental costs, and contributed to inflation.

18.Secondly, the economic growth-centred model focused on GDP can come at a social and ecological cost. Given that social and environmental factors such as work-life balance, job satisfaction and happiness have been proved to be essential – especially in developed societies – for economic sustainability, it is necessary to stop seeing social and economic policies as tradeoffs.

19.Take the Kelly Global Workforce Index, for example. It measures work-life balance and the use of technology in countries. In 2009 it was stated that 54% of Singaporeans are satisfied with their work-life balance, compared to 69% in the USA. We were even significantly lower than other Asian countries – India had 64% and Indonesia, 68%.

20.A Grant Thornton study in 2007 ranked Singapore 6th globally in terms of stress level of the population.

21.And, in a 2009 survey conducted by Robert Half Singapore, a HR consultancy firm, Singapore ranked second lowest worldwide in terms of job satisfaction, with only 53% of respondents being satisfied with their work.

22.From all this, it is clear that the equity versus efficiency debate needs to be adjusted from being a zero-sum issue to one of balance and complementarity. Economic growth and general well being must be seen as equally important societal goals. After all, the end goal of economic policies should be to benefit the citizens and improve their well-being and give happiness. It is difficult, even for the best intentioned policy makers to develop this reflex, if the GDP remains the default indicator.

Global trend towards a more balanced framework

23.In many ways the recent global economic meltdown has served as a wakeup call for political leaders. It has sparked introspection and close examination of the systemic flaws in the way we manage economic growth, and consequently, the way prosperity is measured. There have been systematic reviews and a renewed call to go back to basics – essentially, that economic growth is a means to an end which is about providing the basis for happiness and prosperity in citizens.

24.Many eminent economists, for example, have pointed to GDP figures “masking the true health” of the economy in the lead up to and during the recent global economic crisis in the USA. They argue that if policy makers had focused on a broader set of indicators, there is a good chance the adverse situation would have been prevented, or at least managed better with early detection.

25.Consequently, in the USA, a new system of national measurements called the ‘State of the USA” has emerged, with several hundred new measures and indices pushed to policy makers, and at the same time made available to the public. The idea is for this to evolve into a “national indicators panel”. President Obama’s recently passed Healthcare Bill included a provision requiring Congress to finance and oversee the creation of a “key national indicators system”. These indicators include crime, energy, infrastructure, housing, health, education, the environment, in addition to and interfaced with key economic indicators such as the GDP and consumption index.

26.US Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is another proponent of this line of thought. He has argued passionately for an acknowledgement of the inherent limitations of the GDP as a policy tool for policy makers, as it focused primarily on what he terms “material determinants of social welfare”. He calls for a “broader measurement of human welfare” which includes what he refers to as the “economics of happiness”. This is a concept that has since gained credibility and traction globally, even though it has been in practice in Bhutan for some years now as what they term the “Gross National Happiness”.

27.Perhaps the most noteworthy and thorough reports on the need for this shift in practice is the ‘Report on Economic Performance and Social Progress”. This was commissioned by French President Nicholas Sarkozy in the aftermath of the global crisis that started in 2007. The Report states that conventional market-based measurements of income, wealth and consumption are insufficient to assess human well-being. It emphasised the need to give greater prominence to factors such as income distribution, personal consumption and individual wealth, while assessing qualitative aspects such as health, education, the environment, employment, material well-being, interpersonal connectedness and political engagement. What underscores these findings are that the determinants of human well being are not based purely on monetary or economic resources, but to aspects of people’s life circumstances such as health, social networks and the quality of institutions.

28.The “Report on Economic Performance and Social Progress” was tabled at the 2009 G20 Summit in Pittsburg, USA. The leaders endorsed the need to include indicators other than the GDP to have a better measurement of progress.

29.There is significant movement, especially in the developed world, to shift global thinking on how we measure our economy, our progress and prosperity. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, is actively challenging the pre-eminent status of the GDP as the “end all” of all indicators. They strongly support the “institutionalisation of a range of indicators”.

30.It is no surprise that in many European societies there is consensus that social and environmental indicators should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with economic measurements to evaluate progress. The Europe 2020 Strategy will see the European Commission monitor member states based on a set of indicators to track overall progress. The idea is not to lose the plot yet again.

31.In Canada, the “Canadian Index of Well Being” measures social connections, in addition to standard of living, health, environmental quality, education and skill levels, participation in the democratic process, vitality of communities, and the state of leisure and culture.

Recommendation for Singapore

32.So, what does all this mean for Singapore, which today is recognised as a developed society, aspiring to become a global city of excellence?

33.Society today has become more sophisticated in a more globalised world. The increased level of education and technology usage has made people more informed and exposed, and therefore demanding greater levels of transparency and accountability in seeking a better quality of life. Needs are shifting. Progress has taken on a whole new meaning, compared to what it was understood as just a decade ago.

34.There is increasing demand for information that pertains directly to each individual’s life and priorities. When the government announces that the economy is recovering or doing well, people are asking how this is benefitting them directly. It is incumbent on the government to make available broad information to facilitate informed decisions by the people.

35.I would suggest a 3-step approach for the government to consider, with a view to evolving a new collective reflex in balancing economic growth with other goals that the people increasingly desire.

36.First, the government should commit resources to ensure we collect information on what the people want – their priorities – and then aggregate and present them as easy to understand indicators. It is evident that some of these determinants – job satisfaction, happiness, work-life balance, feeling connected, environmental degradation, pollution – are qualitative in nature. In economic parlance, they are non-market externalities. From what I understand, currently there is little available data on these factors, and it would appear they are not accounted for in public policy.

37.Second, the government should develop a framework for broad-based public policy analysis. It should create a mixed bag of social and economic indicators. This would be in line with the OECD recommendation of “institutionalising a range of indicators”, and similar to Europe 2020 Strategy where the European Commission will monitor member states based on a set of indicators to track overall progress. Apart from the currently used key indicators of GDP, Consumer Price Index (CPI), Industrial Production Index, and Total Exports/Imports, we could consider including other economic indicators that measure median wages, income distribution, productivity, job satisfaction and household consumption. The new framework should also include indicators for quality of life and general well-being – a range of indices that measure income, public services, health, leisure, wealth, mobility, the environment and connectedness.
38.Experts I have spoken to, especially economists and researchers, are in agreement that what we have at present is not sufficiently versatile to anticipate, unearth and red-flag problem areas. This is because problems are complex and multifaceted, and because we don’t have enough data on non-market externalities, they don’t appear on the radar screens. And even if these problems are identified, solutions tend to be shallow and technical in nature because we rely primarily on economic indicators. To get a clearer, more accurate resolution of the situation and the issues thereof, we need to study the mixed bag of indicators in combination and where possible how they interface. Let’s take the current challenge of boosting productivity in the workplace. A key solution is skills training and innovation. But, what if the key underlying problem is low job satisfaction, lack of ownership or empowerment, and poor work-life balance. Currently, these are indicators that are not readily available and therefore likely not to be given sufficient or prompt attention in addressing the productivity challenge. Even if the government has data on some of these non-market externalities, unless they are viewed with the same level of importance as economic indicators such as GDP and at the same time in a framework, policies will invariable be skewed in favour of pure economic growth.

39. Thirdly, as in the case of the GDP and non-oil exports – which is reported on monthly – there should be quarterly reporting by the government on a handful of new indicators, some measuring non-market externalities. Ideally these should be aggregated or composite indices to measure:
a.Productivity and job-satisfaction
b.Household consumption
c.Income distribution
d.Welfare
e.and Quality of life and general well-being.

40. This will not only allow for greater transparency and provide information that is increasingly relevant to the people; it will also help evolve a much needed collective reflex in us as a society. This is necessary to help ensure we move forward together – our priorities and goals synchronised.

Conclusion

41.Mr Speaker, Sir, to conclude, I would like to acknowledge, once again, our admirable economic achievement over the past 45 years because of sound economic policies and good governance. What I am recommending is an improvement of a good system and practice as a necessary step in managing the success we have achieved – where a better educated, sophisticated people’s needs have moved up the value chain. It is about aligning our practices with the aspirations of today’s Singapore resident – citizens and PRs alike. It is about moving in tandem with the best practices in other developed economies facing similar challenges – best practices that have evolved through learning from lessons from recent history.

42.I urge the government to view my observations with an open mind – to see it not as a criticism of current practice but as a considered appeal for a review that will help provide greater clarity in policy formulation, resulting in policies and programmes that resonate better with the ground.

43.Yes, the increased level of transparency and public disclosure is likely to result in more questions asked about the government’s policies and the considerations behind them. This inconvenience must be seen as an investment in building trust between the government and the people, and evolving a more engaged society.

44.Thank you.

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