Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rigor Mortis

News of my demise has been greatly exaggerated. I've just blogged elsewhere under a different name. I might be moving this blog to a new site, so please stay tuned. I'm coming back to Singapore soon, so I'll be way more in touch with what is going on. Of course I might be off to Law School soon, so who knows. But I'm not dead. Just sleeping like a pig.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Catch 22

There's been alot on the PM's speech. Let's just say his speechwriters need to be fired. Then again if he wrote his own speech, then he needs to get speechwriters. I'm firm believer in having good speechwriters, and American-style lying and spin doctoring. So don't vote for me. I'll spin you good.

I've been thinking alot about Singapore. Partly due to the fact that I am coming home for good this December, partly because I am considering being a civil servant, or in our case a Mandarin. There's a key difference between the two. Our bureaucrats are obviously not inclined to think of themselves as civil SERVANTS, so a better, and oft used term, is Mandarin. Afterall they dispense wisdom from up high.

I've also been thinking alot about Turkey and Eygpt. There, like here, the state is all pervasive. It's everywhere. Like us, Turks and Eygptians also know that they can't do without the state. In all honesty, our institutions have been designed to be all pervasive. Even if we somehow elected a new government into power, it's only a matter of time before they become all pervasive. If they roll it back (which party would do that) then our community would be suffering from withdrawal syndrome. We are entirely dependent on the state for most everything. Despite our urge to be free of it, let's be honest and admit we actually like some things about our all pervasive state. We like the efficiency and convenience.

It's reflected in our relationship with our parents. As we grow older we love to be more independent, but the truth is we like the convenience of living with our parents. Sure we can't bring skanky women home for one night stands, and we cannot be sure the tea we bought won't be stolen by someone else in the household, but we like that our clothes are washed, food is cooked and we're reminded to pay our bills. I used to be like that, my sis is like that. Having lived on my own for 5 and 1/2 years now, I actually value my freedom. I still miss homecooked meals (not ruined by me) and not having to do laundry (more time for bumming around), but I also like the fact that I know my bottle of OJ won't disappear and I can bring home skanky women i picked up at bars (only in my fantasy world).

That's what my relationship with Singapore is like. We want more freedom, but we like living with our parents. The thing is there will come a time when we must leave home. We must create our own spaces, our own families. So while we like the all-pervasive efficiency and convenience, we also would like to pioneer our won space. We'd like to be parents ourselves.

The question is can we give up the convenience and efficiency of our insitutions? A little bit of instability for a little bit of freedom? Life is full of trade offs. What are we willing to trade?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The hustings

So election fever is beginning to grip our tiny little island. Everyone is gearing up for that big day where half the country doesn't vote and takes a nice holiday (although lately they've been scheduling it for saturday... the bastards!) and the other half pretty much gets to decide less than 50% of the seats in the next Parliament.

It is always nice to see that everyone is getting excited over not much.

Also alot of people have gone on hiatus. In fact most of us are not even blogging. Our favourite #1 blogger, Ms Molly Meek is on a holiday. A nice long holiday, I hope, to rest her nerves before Election Fever comes along and makes her sick all over again.

What do I have to say? I don't agree with the PAP or the WP for that matter. I think the PAP has grown too accustomed to unchallenged authority and forgets that it is a representative party. The WP, on the other hand, just doesn't appeal to me. They've got too many socialistic policies in there for me to go along with it. I can be a little bit of a cold hearted economic Liberal. I do agree on social safety nets, but I think the WP is aiming for safety nets that are far too high for my liking.

That's all I have to say on this matter. Being so far away also insulates me from the daily madness. I was hoping to count on other people to keep me updated but everyone is pretty much busy or talking about the gay issue (i won't go there).

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Singapore Spirit

Xeno Boy asks a good question.

This is a complex cultural question. During my undergraduate days I was an active member of a fraternity. We went through some pretty rough times during my sophomore year (2nd yr). We had bad leadership from the officer corp. This put us sophomores in a crisis mode. All junior year (3rd yr) we worked to realign ourselves. We had to stop coasting and barely surviving. We needed to find something to rally around, an idea to live for. Working with the alumni and our very good alumni advisor by senior year we had unveiled the Leadership Initiative. With it came our belief in who we were, where we saw ourselves going... A year, of course, is not enough time for a cultural revolution, but because of that idea our successors are far more coordinated and have something to rally around.

Related to this is what Singaporean youths rally around. Firstly I'd like to point out that there are subsets within the wider category "youth." Generally anyone under 35 is considered a youth. But it could be constructed as anyone who isn't an adult but older than 14. Still in the process of identiy formation is the best way to put it. There are indeed subsets, from the blog world you can see the divisions already.

You have the safe, prod along types who while privately holding views contrary to the authorities, tow the public line. You have the "celebrity at any price" sort of crowd. You have the "as long as I'm one of beautiful/cool" crowd. You have those who have to worry about bread and butter issues. You have the "sit there and complain" group. You also have the "thinking" group. The "activitst" group. You have the "good deeds and volunteerism" group. The "pursuit of wealth" group. The "rebel without a cause" group. The "i just don't care" crowd. I mean they can and do intersect of course and I'm sure there are more subgroups out there.

It's hard to say what we're all collectively fighting for or what we believe in. Sometimes the reality of our state system forces us to make certain decisions or join certain subsets. What did our parents fight for? They're also broken up in subsets. While the Nantah students were busy defending Chinese culture, my parents were busy being enterpernuers, trying everything from being tailors to HK superstars (i take pride in that fact) to finally hitting it big in property. I don't think my parents cared too much about the Nantah crowd. They were poor, non-university educated folks. My dad has an O level certificate and my mom has a vocational license. They just kept trying idea after idea.

The national rhetoric may have been that the previous generation fought hard for independence and survival, but that's the whole Epic myth created by every nation. The political elites (winners and losers) may have been in an epic struggle, but everyday folk may have been more worried about getting blown to bit by Indonesian terrorists, shot by Communists or just trying to survive financially. Of course they get swept up into the national creation myth. I'm sure while the Founding Fathers of the US were busy debating rebellion, the everyday farmer was busy tilling the soil and sort of paying attention to what's going on, but not being active. Later on he would have picked sides and fought for either cause.

There has to be a creation of something to fight for. In my opinion all cultural ideas carry hints of politics in them. Politics is a close relative of culture, they work closely together. The state has tried to create a cultural identity without introducing politics into it. But civic conciousness is linked to political partisipation. The politically active tend to be concious of their rights and duties of a citizen. The creation of a civic mind is intertwined with politics, culture, ethics and morals.

So what are we fighting for? As a whole, I don't know. But I know some of us believe that things can be better. That begs the question as to whether we're willing to fight for it.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Follow up on Economics of transportation

KT Man:

Thank you for your comments, allow me to respond.

I agree that natural monopolies are no different, the only thing going for them is economies of scale, to price out rivals.

I think demand is somewhat elastic depending on which transportation you look at. Remember if transportations costs get too high, even firms will consider letting workers work from home (Boeing does that here in the US).

There is a difference as to only people who use the system pay and every citizen paying. If I drive a car, or work from home, why should i subsidize every other person who travels? If I only use the system once a month, why do I have to pay for every single day. This is the difference between a Liberal and a Socialist. It's nothing to do with your logic, you just assume that costs should be carried by society as a whole, while I think that the users of the goods should pay.

Keeping the cost of living low means that the government must invariably subsidise a whole range of products. Should it also subsidise all basic neccesities, electrcity (already subsidised), telephone, and water (subsidised)? You could also argue for the case of subsidised internet connection, if you consider that a neccesity in Singaporean life. Education is already heavily subsidised all the way to the tertiary level. The money has to come from somewhere. We could shut down a number of programs if you want, but that still will not yield that much money. How much of the military would you like to cut down? Police force? Fire department? Museum? Library? Customs? Immigration? Hospitals (subsidised too)? Embassies? Courts? Prisons? The question is how much can you cut before you compromise other public goods?

Outside of taxation and sale of bonds, I cannot figure out how the government can raise more taxes? The ERP is just a road consumption tax. If they charge trains to use the rail, then it's a rail tax. I mean I cannot think how. Lottery I suppose... That could be it, but that's just another form of income tax on the poor (the richer you are the less you spend proportional to your income of the lottery, barring gamblin addicts, but then how did they get rich in the first place). What other forms of "creative" fund raising does the government have?

As for exempting goods, from a consumption tax could be difficult. Then you'd have to seperate them from the other goods. Two classes of supermarkets? Should we only subsidise cheap brands or all brands? In DC sales tax is 5.75% but liqour tax is higher.This has created a situation where supermarkets do not sell liqour, and the creation of specialised liqour stores. Arguably the supermarkets could sell both, but they do not, it must have to do with creating more complex software to compute two tax rates.

Do not underestimate market power of an oligopoly, especially a cartel (it's basically a monopoly). They could drop rent for the taxi drivers to say $40 and then say that their taxi rates will now start at flagdown of $2.00 and instead of $0.10/km, it could be $0.06/km. For the firm the taxis are a sunk cost. If drivers are unhappy, the supply of new drivers is not scarce. They don't have market power in the labour market either. For potential entrants (individuals not other firms from other industries with huge war chests), this can be a huge barrier.


Thank you for your comments.

For natural monopolies see above. That's the textbook definition. They are definetely manmade since they got to the point of EOS through government intervention.

I agree also that the government should remove itself form the tranportation business and let the chips fall where they may. A light regulatory touch instead of a heavy one.

Again I think it may be possible for a Perfect Competition market to evolve. Information is not perfect, but can be near perfect. You must remove the big firms though. Imagine:

Country A has a population of 100. Monthly income is $50 There are currently 5 taxis in operation. Demand for taxis places the price at $1/km. Taxi drivers sort of sense they can charge you about $1, they're not stupid (ok a few may be). So they start making economic profits of $10/month. This encourages other guys to get a taxi. So 10 new taxis join. Now we're at 15 taxis. This shifts the market supply curve, more supply! Yay! So now consumers are no longer willing to pat $1/km. The new drivers might charge $0.80/km (which is the new marker equilibrium). Quickly the old drivers follow or get priced out. Now the individual "firm" is making an economic loss of $2/month. Some taxi drivers will leave the business. Eventually economic profits are zero. This does not mean that people are not making a living. It's just that their opportunity costs match their profits.

This is an exaggeration, and you could well be right. It may be more difficult to get rates out. But if there were no taxi companies, each taxi driver would fight for your fare. They could use a meter or just tell you flat out. "How much to Orchard from Changi? $15? Too expensive. $10? Cannot? Ok never mind then. I'll just grab the cab behind." DC actually operates on that kind of system. They use zonal payments, which never works, the drivers try to cheat you. But if you're not willing to pay, then you just go to the next one that is offering a price you want. The more expensive driver will realise that he's getting priced out by his other rivals. Similarly drivers also cannot be had by consumers. If they know with accounting costs and everything the ride to Orchard from Changi is $8, they won't go lower than that, and if they know there are 3 other guys waiting who are willing to pay about $15 for the trip, they just won't take you for $10. Invisible hand of the market.

The only other way is for the government to take the trouble and draw a demand and supply curve. Ask stupid questions like at $0.15/km would you take a cab? At $0.20? $2 flag down fee would you take it? $3? And then extrapolate from there. Similarly ask taxi drivers questions. At $0.15/km will you drive? $3 flag down fee? And so on. Tedious, but that's one way, and then let everyone know that the market equilibrium is at $2.50 for flag down and $0.20/km. That's another way i guess. Not so good, but might be better. This is of course top of my head, and I'm not an expert in transport economics.

By the way when I say firms in Pefect Competition with relation to taxis, I mean individual taxi owners. Sorry for that error.

A good discussion gentlemen. I do enjoy such intellectual discussions. Maybe I am too pedantic or too textbook-y, but I belive that theory informs practise and vice versa. These models cannot hold for so long unless there is truth to it. Maybe we woudl have to alter them a little, but I do not believe that their entirely wrong when applied to the real world either.

On transportation

Kway Teow man has posted his opinions on Singapore's transportation system. I would like to take a closer look at his policy suggestions. While his recommendations are socialistic in nature and really does care for the underprivileged in our society, there are economic drawbacks.

(1) Monopolies are allocatively and productively inefficient.

He clearly understood that concept, and thought that nationalisation is the answer. He rightly point out that the burden will fall on taxpayers, but not just initially. It will continue to be a burden on tax payers. His goal of nationalisation is to force the monopoly to produce where price = Marginal Cost, and quantity is at minimum average total cost. That is not possible. At P=MC, demand at that price is way higher. And at min. ATC (the productively efficient point), the price is higher than P=MC price (the allocatively efficient point).

Let's say we don't care about productive efficiency, since it focuses more on the firm than consumers (forcing a monopoly to operate at that point also creates a loss). Let's say we look allocative efficiency where consumers. This is where opportunity cost to produce the marginal unit equals to the cost consumers are willing to pay for that unit. If the monopoly is forced to produce at P=MC. This means that the monopoly is going to operate at a loss. Total revenue < Total cost. This is where the tax payers come in again. Tax payers have to pay for the bus service whether they take it or not. That's hardly as fair as the current system. Now everyone, not just public transport users, have to pay for the system.

Ok. So we produce at higher quantities and lower prices at either of the two points, but let's say people cannot stomach paying for public transport through taxes. So we try to produce where the firm breaks even, or where marginal revenue = marginal cost, then the price will be far lowers than its allocatively efficient point, but the quantity will continue to be at the level before the nationalisation. That's your break even point. Doesn't solve anything because at that Price, demand is more than the quantity supplied. So there's a shortage. And a black market may open up to meet the demand.

There is almost no good way to regulate a monopoly. At least not from the economic stand point. The only thing I can think of is a profits tax. Which adds to nothing, but it does take away incentive to invest in the future, but for transport monopolies in Singapore, it's ok, since the government invests in improvements. The firm can also be forced to update equipment by law or regulation, as it does with taxis.

(2) Not raising or reducing consumption tax

That sounds like a good idea. Consumption taxes usually affect the poor more than the rich since the cost of fixed spending increases proportionally higher in poor household, than in rich households.

Let's say that society accepts government run, subsidised transportation, through taxation. If consumption tax is not moved, we have to pay for it somehow. A rise in income tax is another way to do it. Corporate taxes should not be raised simply because this would discourage businesses in an already weak economy. So income tax it is. This means raising the income tax. A rise in income tax means that consumption goes down. This is because there is less money to spend now that it is being taxed. Along with the multiplier effect, consumption and investment could go down. This affects the overall GDP. Y= C + I + G + NX. Y = economy, C = consumption, I = investment, G = government spending, NX = net exports.

Let's say the government decides not to raise taxes, but sell bonds to raise money. Unlike US t-bills and t-notes, Singapore's government bonds are not as enticing as US government bonds. Which means we can only sell so much. There are a few problems with that. Assume that all our bonds are snapped up. This could lead to a "crowding out" effect. Where private firms cannot raise capital to invest, since a large sum of the private money is going to the government. It also means a rise in capital inflow, currently Singapore has a capital account deficit, of $22 million. I suspect maintaining a bus system would require another 5 to 6 million at least. So this means that our capital account deficit will be reduced.

Before you go cheering at a reduction in deficit, it also means that our current account balance surplus will be reduced by that much. It means we export less or import more. If that doesn't happen then it means that our foreign exchange assests is set to fall even more. Which means drawing from our reserves.

(3) Individual licences for taxis

I agree with you. I would argue going a step further. Abolish cab companies. This would create a near perfect competition market. It would have a large number of buyers and sellers, homogenuous product (travel in a taxi is more or less homogenous), perfect information (no advertising), and negligible barriers to entry (a driving license and a license to operate a taxi and cost of taxi). This produces both allocative and productive efficiencies. Too wonderful. The only problem is no economic profits in the long run (there might still be accounting profits) for the taxi drivers. As long as the requirement to obtain a taxi is kept to the minimum and we hand out as many licenses as demanded, the market would regulate itself. This could mean alot more taxis or a lot less taxis on the road, but it is a good model.

The problem with a dual structure with a few large firms and many small ones (individual owners) is that the big firms will lower prices to the point that the small firms are priced out (economies of scale let them do that), which benefits the consumer in the short run. The long run is that once all these small firms are no longer a threat to the large firms, prices return to their high levels. Worst if the taxi companies are in collusion. Nothing like some small fish to make the big ones work together to protect their interests.

Another senario could be one of price leadership. The biggest firm basically becomes a price leader, and everyone follows. This is usually because of uncertainty, which is what many small firms could cause to the market. In then end, they all agree that one firm set prices and the rest follow. It'll help the taxi drivers but not us the consumers.

In the oligopoly model, regulation could get somewhat complicated. The regulator could make it so that barriers to entry are too high for potential entrants. I mean the regulator might not be colluding with the oligopolies, but it could ask for better safety standards, safe driving records, low prices to help consumers, annual barrage of inspections, license renewal every year, new car every 10 years, only certain types of cars to be used and so on. It's not to help the established firms, but to have some safety and to help the consumer.

Yes KT man, this is my analysis of your proposals. I would commend you for making them, but there are some areas you failed to analyze when you made those proposals. I know my analysis is economically based and it reveals sort of my biases. For those not in the know, I am a Liberal in the traditional sense. Free market, limited government intervention in the market, and all that good stuff.

There is no good way to counter monopoly power in my opinion, regulation can only go so far. A Profit tax is my answer. That works best in my opinion. That may bug the shareholders, but if they're not happy, they can sell the shares.

Keeping consumption tax low is good, in my opinion. That does mean the the government has to raise revenue elsewhere. If your proposal to nationalise all transportation is to take place, we'll have to pay somehow. There are pitfalls to other forms of revenue collection.

Individual licences all around. Totally abolish cab companies. In fact regulate so that none may form. A perfect competition market? That would be my dream come true.

That's it. I hope you don't take this as me knocking you, just looking at your proposals and dissecting them. Helps us both understand the situation better.

Related links: Molly Meek

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Reason why I wish to come back

Plutarch was once asked why he didn't join everyone else and move; you know follow a brain drain and make big bucks. His reply was "lest my small city should become even smaller."

My good friend from pre-primary recently got a nice programming job in Australia. He's been studying there for 5 years now. I'm gald for him. I asked him if he was ever coming home, he said maybe, but not soon. He wants to see more of the world before he returned home.

My girlfriend wants to move to China to work. She doesn't like countries where she's a minority and she's opposed to Taiwan, and I to Hong Kong, so China sounds like the only option. Her rationale is that China is more fun than Singapore.

Everywhere I turn those closest to me are leaving the country in search of a better life, be it higher pay or a crazier night scene. I mean jobs in the US pay more than jobs in Singapore, even after tax. And there are a lot more jobs for someone with my specialisation in the US.

Yet somehow I feel like I should come home. Maybe I'm old fashioned and believe in nationalism. Maybe I'm just loyal like that. Maybe I feel the need to fulfill my filial duty to my parents. Maybe I just like Singaporean food. I'm not too sure.

I feel like leaving is quitting while the going gets tough. You know, you enjoy the good times, and then you leave the minute trouble's on the horizon. A fair weathered friend. I feel like I have to help it out despite its flaws. I'm a skeptic not a cynic. I know there are deep problems with the place I regard as home, but I also know that given time and effort it can be improved.

Sure the provincial capitals of the Roman world are all nice and shiny, but I like my little Chaeronea.

The Meritocratic Elite

Kway Teow Man makes an interesting case about Singapore's meritocratic education system. Molly Meek also has a few things to say about our vaunted education system.

So I guess now it's my turn to weigh in and give my two cents worth. Don't blame me for being slow. ST now costs money to read online, and I'm a poor grad student. Where am I supposed to find the money?

I do think that the resources a school has plays a certain role in the nurturing of a mind. Imagine a school library with really good books for you to do reserach with and one that maybe has 10 shelves of books from the 1980s and if you're lucky a few from the 1990s. Or where a school that has 1 computer lab has 20 outdated Pentium 2 computers versus a school with 2 computer labs with 35 up-to-date Pentium 4 computers each. While it still requires good teachers and motivated students, a motivated student in a poorer school might find some restrictions due to facilities.

Another issue might be teacher quality. While both "independent," "autonomous," or "government" schools tend to draw their teachers from the same pool (NIE graduates and a few foreign talents), "independent" schools have a much more relaxed hiring proceedure, while "government" schools have to go through a rather red-taped procedure to obtain a teacher. Furthermore, it is my belief that "independent" school teachers may have less paperwork to deal with since the school is nominally under MOE control and directives, while "government" school teachers are normally swamped with paperwork. Having more time to do lesson plans and teach makes a big difference in quality of teaching. Also many teachers quit their jobs because the immense amount of non-teaching duties makes them lose sight of their original noble goal to teach.

Also the extra money that "independent" schools have, makes it easier to "poach" good teachers away from other schools with better pay and benefits. Again I stress that it also depends on the individual motivation of the students.

As for the permanence of streaming, I agree with KT Man. It can be a very demoralising life journey since the odds are stacked against you. It is easier for a student to slip from the "higher" streams down to the "lower" streams, but not vice versa. Allow me to illustrate:

Timmy is a young boy, smart, intelligent, but rather lazy and not very good at Chinese. He is in a "government" primary school.

He stakes his streaming exam and gets into the EM3 band because his family does not speak mandarin (they're a Hokkien speaking family) and are too poor to afford a tuition teacher (Dad works two jobs, taxi operator and security guard and mom works part-time as a cleaner). His home environment is not suitable for studying since he has 2 other younger siblings.

At P6 he doesn't do so well because of his lack of motivation to study. He ends up in the Normal (Technical) Stream, which means a very very slim chance of getting to do the Ordinary Levels exam. Instead at age 16 he takes the Normal Levels exam and gets an average grade. So Timmy is off to ITE.

At his local ITE, Timmy discovers a flair for computer type jobs, which he never got a chance to do in his secondary school because the labs were always full and computers were too old. He excels and at 19 graduates top of his class. Now he applies to a Polytechnic and gets in. He also has to defer his National Service again.

During his poly years, his lecturers notice that Timmy is in fact very good at computer programming. He completes his Diploma at age 22, at the top 5% of his class. Timmy decides to apply to NTU, but has to do his NS first. At 25 Timmy enter NTU's second year, and graduates with honours at the age of 28 and enters the workforce.

Now compare this to Johnny. His dad is a regional vice president for a big accounting firm and his mom is an assistant general manager of a local shipping firm.

Johnny is equally lazy and unmotivated as Timmy in primary school. He gets tons of tuition and has his own quiet study to do work. He also doesn't need to pitch in and do housework , which Timmy does, when he gets home.

Thanks to rote learning and some exam tips from his tuition teacher, Johnny ends up in the EM2 band. His parents worrying about his future, sends him to Chinese camp during the holidays and doubles his tuition teachers.

As the PSLE Johnny does quite well enough thanks to the tips his tuition teachers gave him. But he fails to make the cut to get into an elite "independent" school. His father being an alumnus of the said school and a big donor, talks to a few friends of his on the school's board and its administration, and they find an extra seat for Johnny in their incoming Express class. With their brand spanking new computer labs and enough equipment for every child, young Johnny discovers that he has a flare for computers. His parents are supportive and send him to computer class outside of school. At the same time they find him tutors for his other weaker subjects.

Johnny doesn't have the right grades on his provisional exams to provisionally get into the JC with a strong computing program. Dad gets a few friends to write letters to that JC and along with some wealthy friends of his, donates a new chandelier for the JC's new performance annex. So Johnny finds himself at the JC for his first three months. Johnny does well for his O levels at age 16. Thanks once again to rote learning and exam taking strategies from his tutors.

At age 18 Johnny exels and does well on his A levels, also with some help from his tutors. He serves NS and leaves at age 21. His father sends him to the US to learn at one of the best schools in the world (which Johnny of course qualified for on his own, he's like Timmy now, very well motivated). And Johnny enters the workforce at age 25 with a BSc summa cum laude.

Three years later Johnny gets a new colleague by the name of Timmy.

I know. This is a long illustration, but i'm trying to show that having wealthy parents can make a difference between children of the same calibre who discover themselves later in life. Of course I exaggerate alot, and I also leave out a lot of things like friends and influences. If Timmy had gotten demoralised along the way he'd not have gone all the way. Or if Johnny sucked so much that all of his daddy's money and friends couldn't save him.

Coming from an upper-middle class family will definetely afford you more opportunity than coming from a poorer family. Coming from a filthy rich family ups the ante even more in your favour. I should know, I come from an upper-middle class family. I always accepted my grades and did the best i could with the grades i had gotten (through my own sheer lack of motivation), even opposing my parents at times. I remember when I was a kid, I did well enough in my PSLE and missed the "Advanced" stream cut off by 3 points (which actually is a good thing for me, my Chinese sucked ass). I went back to my old school, because I felt loyalty and also wanted to stick by my friends. My parents wanted me to go to ACS. They had actually secured a place for me there. Thank goodness I passed up on Slytherin ACS. I remember I told them squarely that I would not budge, and they gave way (I suspect because I appealed to my dad's sense of history; he's an alumnus of my old school).

At my provisional grades, I could have gotten into Catholic Junior College (which was where I wanted to go), but my parents once again secured a place for me at a "better" Junior College. I seriously didn't want to go, but when you're 17 and your parents threaten to cut off your allowance, there's little choice here. So off I went and thankfully I got a good enough O level grade where my parents didn't have to pull those strings to keep me there. Those two years were kind of miserable years.

Is it necessarily fair? No, not really. Is it meritocratic? To an extent. Like KT man says, it does offer children from poorer households the opportunity if they are properly motivated or just naturally talented. It's exactly like the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy at the national level (local level appointments are different). Rich families were the ones who could afford to train their sons, but sometimes poor villages (yes it took a whole village) would sponsor one child and the child would suceed.

The deck is naturally stacked in the favour of the rich, simply because they can get access to better educational resources, be it schools, computers or tuition. I know it's not entirely meritocratic, since I am a beneficiary of "influence" and know of other cases where that happens.

In life there are winners and losers, economics makes that very clear. The goal is to make it so that the gains outweigh the losses , so as to create a net positive effect for society as a whole. Education is Singapore is far more equal than education in the US. The deck is less stacked against the poor in Singapore than it is in the US. Part of it has to do with the fact that alot of tertiary education in the US is private, while in Singapore they are all subsidised. Another has to do with the lack of uniformity in control of education in the US, as opposed to Singapore. So the education, and consequently, wealth gap in the US increases, while Singapore's sort of hovers along or even decreases (I am at this time too lazy to call up data from the last 4 census years to prove that fact).

As for old boys' network, I tend to think that Singapore schools are not as good in that when compared with US schools. The networking here is amazing. Singaporeans are still learning the ropes of networking and alumni relations. In the US, I am constantly reminded of my fraternal links (with my fraternity) and also where i went to school (my alma mater). My current school even posts job listings on its listserv so that both graduated and graduating students can find jobs. The theory is to help us do as well as we can possibly do, and that in turn will serve the school's reputation. It'll also help when it comes around to ask for alumni donations.

So if you're poor and live in Singapore, your one great hope of climbing up the social ladder is to do well in school or marry up (if you know a rich heiress let me know).

Monday, December 12, 2005

Martyn See's Singapore Rebel: A Review

Today I finally had an opportunity to sit down and watch Martyn See's Singapore Rebel (you can visit his blog here). I find that overall it was a well produced documentary, which provided information that is usually unavailable to the general public, Singaporean or otherwise.

I do have a few things to comment about the short film though (note: this is about the documetary and the way it was done, not neccessarily about the politics). The introduction voice did not seem to fit the documetary well. It sounded too comical, and too whimsical; it did not create the proper mood for the viewer (namely me). Otherwise I think with a more sombre voice the intro is great.

I am especially interested in the use of the family several times throughout the 26 minute film. It is interesting to bring in the family and try to humanise the person that is so often demonised in the Singapore media. However I feel that the family is used too much in the film. It would have been nice to see Dr Chee going around talking to ordinary Singaporeans or on a walkabout (like the ones that WP and NSP do every now and then), to see the political animal at work.

My biggest problem with the film is that it is uncritical of its subject. I would have liked some hard questions answered. Like his tussle with Chiam See Tong for SDP leadership, and why he courts foreign political organisations more than forging local alliances. I would think a fair and balanced documentary would have helped me understand Dr Chee as a politician better. From my view point the documentary is the exactly like the Straits Times' PAP coverage, just slanted towards Dr Chee.

I did enjoy the film immensely, it's just that as a historian and assessing the the film as a primary document, I would have wanted more. Perhaps I am too demanding as a researcher or perhaps I am biased due to my disagreement with Dr Chee's proposals (essentially a more socialist state with welfare, higher taxes and a higher minimum wage), but throughout the film there was a nagging voice in my head.

Overall I would give the short film a 3 out of 5.