Don’t Allow Ho Ching’s and Josephine Teo’s Bleats of “Hindsight” Let PM Lee Off the Hook
As I have said frequently much of the credit for Singapore’s success story should not go to LKY and his son. Singapore was always one of the richest cities in Asia and the jewel in the crown of the British Empire pre-1945. Read my blog here. All LKY did was to seize power through an undemocratic coup with the help of his British friends and take advantage of Singapore’s incomparable location and the long boom in world trade that was just starting off. The Vietnam War and the fact that the US was starting to run a chronic current account deficit helped. Singapore was literally in the right place at the right time and LKY and his family reaped the rewards. There was nothing clever about their growth model which as I pointed out in my last article was filched from W. A. Lewis’s influential 1950s “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour”. When the local pool of cheap labour was exhausted Singapore opened its doors to allow employers to import workers under near slavery conditions from our neighbours and then from China, India and Bangladesh.
The result was high rates of economic growth allowing the PAP to brush aside Western critics of their authoritarian rule with chants of “You can’t argue with 10% growth”. I pointed out way back in 2009 that this growth was not accompanied by meaningful productivity growth (to be fair Paul Krugman had pointed this out back in the 1990s). Our productivity record remains extremely poor and if measured by output per hour worked we are on a par with a mid-ranking OECD nation and well behind the US. If compared with comparable cities like New York or London our record is even worse. However economic growth and the illusion of success served as a justification for obscene ministerial salaries and the even more obscene appointment of Lee Hsien Loong’s wife who was appointed to run Temasek on a secret remuneration package where her only responsibilities appear to be maintaining a super-active Facebook account supporting her husband and the PAP.
Having benefited for decades from external factors, which our leaders had no influence over but which they were happy to claim credit for and use as an excuse to feather their own nests handsomely, our Ministers are now trying to blame the reversal of those factors on circumstances beyond their control.They are like investment managers (literally in the case of the PM’s wife) who gleefully reap the kudos (and fees) when markets go up but say they should not be blamed when markets go down because no one saw it coming. Anyone who dares to criticise them is berated in public for hindsight.
Recently Madam Ho Ching, whose employers surely have a duty to the Singaporean taxpayer to keep her nose to the grindstone in order to recoup at least a fraction of the losses Temasek’s portfolio has suffered rather than allowing her to run a full-time Facebook media campaign (whose financing is just as opaque as her remuneration) in support of her husband and his Government, berated a blogger on her Facebook page for “I told you so” comments. She went on to say “Nope! Don’t put words in my mouth, young man!” and added that the unnamed critic shouldn’t “waste time being a back-seat driver” and should stop acting like a “smart alec, by blaming this or that person.”, finishing by saying “hindsight is always beautiful and perfect.”
No wonder the PM and his wife are put out. The PAP were strolling to another comfortable victory and a likely landslide on the scale of or better than 2015 before Singapore’s carefully crafted reputation for handling the pandemic efficiently was exploded by the new mass outbreaks in the foreign workers’ dormitories. This has shone an unwelcome spotlight on the so-called Singapore model and the fact that there is no economic miracle, just the familiar exploitation of cheap labour in slave or slave-like conditions that would have been familiar in the Ancient World or the US Ante-bellum South. It has also once again exposed the links between the dormitory operators and PAP grassroots leaders. In 2016 one of these companies, MES Group, was fined $300,000 for overcrowding and horrifically insanitary facilities. At that time anyway the Chairman was former PAP MP and Minister Sidek Saniff though his name disappeared from the website after the news broke. While $300,000 might seem like a lot it pales beside the extra profit that overcrowding brings in and thus is hardly a deterrent. Even if the number of workers per dorm was brought within the legal limits that still created conditions for a high coronavirus transmission rate.
Given that MOM was familiar with the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in the foreign workers’ dormitories, and that its ability to administer the rules may be impaired by links between PAP cronies and the dormitory companies, there is no reason why we should let MOM, the PM and his Government off the hook however loudly his wife and Manpower MInister Josephine Teo bleat about hindsight.
There is further trouble ahead for the PM. MAS’s prediction of -1 to -4% GDP growth in 2020 is far too sanguine and even the Citibank estimate of -8.5% is likely too low. MOM’s forecast that unemployment will remain below its peak during the financial crisis looks similarly hopelessly optimistic Figures out of the US, France, Spain and China in the last few days show that this is far worse than the financial crisis. Singapore’s competitiveness is largely based on exploitation of its foreign workers and housing them in crowded and insanitary conditions. If that is no longer possible because of the pandemic then it removes a major source of our “edge” over other countries. Even if the foreign workforce can go back to work any time soon demand in Singapore’s export markets has collapsed. And many of our top industries (with the exception of pharmaceuticals) are concentrated in areas that have been hit hardest (oil, tourism, aviation, electronics).
Do not let Lee Hsien Loong, his wife and his Ministers and cronies off the hook. If Ho Ching, Lee Hsien Loong, Josephine Teo want to take less stressful jobs for low salaries then they might be entitled to complain about hindsight. As people earning multi-million salaries (or in Ho Ching’s case, maybe hundreds of millions for a job that seems to involve nothing more than surfing Facebook), they carry the can. The buck stops with them. No matter how much they irascibly try to intimidate Singaporeans into silence and call for respect, they need to be held to account for the policy missteps that put us in this predicament. Instead of being thankful for Government support alleged to be $60 billion, much of which will go from one state-owned pocket to another, Singaporeans need the truth about what has happened to the reserves and whether their CPF savings are safe. When many SIngaporeans are going hungry despite reserves that should be in the trillions of dollars, the Government needs to tell us why it is relying so much on private charity to fill the gap rather than stepping into the breach itself like those in other developed countries. Pandering to Heng Swee Keat’s and the PM’s calls for unity and returning them to office with a similar or increased majority will not serve Singaporeans well.