LHL’s NDR Pre-Election Broadcast: Instead of Hot Air We Need to Talk About Where the Money’s Gone
State media lost no time in branding PM Lee’s plans announced at Sunday’s National Day Rally (NDR) as “ambitious”. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they since their whole raison d’etre, apart from making money from Singaporeans through their media monopoly, is to act as LHL’s year round re-election committee, like the Elections Department that he also controls since it is just part of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Personally I would not have used the word “ambitious”. Instead words like “Mickey Mouse”, “stingy” and “would have been ambitious if implemented thirty years ago” spring to mind. Most advanced countries provide free preschool education for at least one or two years before primary school starts. Singapore’s poor preschool record is borne out by the Economist Intelligence Unit which in 2012 placed Singapore in 29th place behind the US which came in at 24th= and Australia at 28th. Greece and Portugal, much poorer countries on paper, scored higher at 27th and 15th while Hong Kong came in at 19th. Not surprisingly the Nordic countries, with their high levels of social welfare, took the top spaces but the UK came in at 4th. Even with increased “subsidies” the cost of preschool is still $370 per month per child on the PM’s own figures. It is difficult to see how families on median incomes can afford preschool education if they have even one child, let alone two or three. And why are we still charging even nominal fees for primary and secondary education? We should have made education free at all levels up to university 30 or 40 years ago. The only reason it has not been, I suspect, is the lingering influence of LKY’s racist eugenic theories and a belief that it is a waste of money educating minorities and the poor.
LHL cited a report by Save the Children which placed Singapore top out of 176 countries as the best place for children to grow up in. Yet the same index says that there were “no records” of malnourished children aged 0 to 59 months or of children aged 5 to 17 engaged in child labour. While there may be no severely malnourished children there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many children go to school without breakfast or money to buy food. Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former UN envoy and one time friend of my parents, said the figure was as many as one-third but withdrew it. We do not provide school meals to poorer families or child credit as in many of the countries which are rated much lower. The fact that Save The Children is a US charity now suggests that the index is influenced by political bias to some extent as it is hard to see why the US is rated on the same level as China. In any case Singapore is a city without rural poverty which may explain why it also rates so highly on the World Bank Human Capital Index. It would be interesting to see Singapore compared with New York, London, or one of the major European cities.
Moving on to the rest of LHL’s pre-election broadcast, forgive me if I was not gripped by a wild and uncontrollable urge to shake LHL’s hand and call him a hero for promising to make university education more affordable. This still does not cover students’ living expenses. We can undoubtedly afford to abolish higher education fees and should do so for all those who have served NS, which would be a good reason to extend NS to women also. For most subjects the returns from university education substantially exceed the costs. Even if students from better-off families are required to pay part of the fees, we should have a system of student loans which should be extended to cover living costs and should not have to be paid back until one earns more than a certain level.
While I would not disagree that people should not be forced to retire and encouraged to work longer, not all Singaporeans are as fortunate as the PM, his wife and his late father. LKY continued to be paid by the taxpayer until he died, both as an MP and Minister Mentor, even though he was forced into financial hardship after GE2011, when his salary was cut from approximately $5 million p.a. to $1 million. No doubt LHL and his wife will ensure that for decades after 65 they continue to draw huge, and in the case of his wife secret, stipends out of the public purse so as to supplement their meagre earnings from the vast pool of family assets and ensure that they are not forced into penury.
Rather than raising the retirement age the PM should explain why his Government reneged on its promise to let Singaporeans have their CPF at 55 and why it would bankrupt the country to allow them to do so. And while talking glibly about people wanting to work longer, his Government should introduce legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of age, as he should also outlaw, discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
As for PM Lee’s plans to tackle climate change by spending $100 billion over the next century, that only amounts to $1 billion p.a. or about 0.2% of GDP. Is this in current or constant (adjusted for inflation) dollars? This is a drop in the ocean in comparison with the likely economic costs if half the country or more is under water (maybe an unfortunate analogy). No word about moving to zero net carbon emissions through phasing out petrol cars. Most countries are likely to spend considerably more as a percentage of GDP. Democrats in the US have proposed spending about 3% of GDP p.a. on their “Green New Deal”. A network of reclaimed islands would likely cost many hundreds of billions but Singapore’s real estate is worth far more. Given how far technology is likely to advance over even the next twenty years, LHL’s plans just illustrate how pedestrian his Government’s imagination is.
Of far more importance to Singaporeans than some nebulous plan for the next hundred years written by his highly paid foreign PR consultants is for LHL to come clean about the reserves. As I have been saying for ten years now, we need to know the value of the reserves that the Government has accumulated through fifty years of austerity, owning 80% of the land, forcing Singaporeans to save too much and to use those savings to lease overpriced and substandard housing from them. Surpluses over the last 20 years are at least $500 billion. The Statement of Assets and Liabilities as at 31 March 2018 shows net assets of over $500 billion but I believe that is a serious underestimate. It certainly does not include Temasek’s and probably not MAS. Rather than bamboozling Singaporeans into paying for things twice or three times over and calling it a subsidy for which they need to be grateful, LHL needs to explain why after so many years we cannot afford basics like universal health care, an old age pension and child credit. These should cost substantially less than the interest on the reserves. If he has trouble explaining where the money has gone despite a First Class Cambridge degree in Maths, then he can always call on his wife to help with the technical stuff.