“I was born in a generation where every cent counts, so I believe we should spend our money wisely, and not on frivolities. Sometimes, I think our present Cabinet spends money on frivolities, and staging the F1 is my “favourite” example.” - ex-top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow
Tan Soo Khoon, an Ex-PAP MP and former Speaker of the House, made his first and his last (who was immediately “retired” in the next election) impassionate and only famous speech, arguably still the best parliamentary speech, in 2002 and wowed the whole nation with his well researched, frank and sharp criticism on the extravagance of the Singapore Government and the burden of the GST increases on the poor. Sadly committed MPs like him are few and far between, Singaporeans will forever miss this great man who has made his mark in Singapore history.
After his famous “Seven Wonders” speech, the government did review and reign in the unnecessary spending for a few years but sadly the extravagance has since returned….. the GST has since increased from 5% to 7% and there are hints that it will go even higher; more “seven wonders” mega projects that are not on the original list and have since sprouted e.g. Esplanade, SMU, Republic Polytechnic, Marina Barrage, The Southern Ridge, Biopolis, Fushionpolis, Mediapolis, National Broadband, YOG, $5Billion NRF, and Flower Dome (see article below) etc. Gosh I wish there were more compassionate and courageous MPs like Mr Tan to set things right [updated 18 Jun 2014: probably the closest to Mr Tan Soo Khoon’s speech after a long 12 years, Inderjit Singh’s Facebook post on Singapore’s policy missteps].
– Written by Askmelah, 9 Aug 2010 on our National Day.
Updated 28Jul2011: read another strong argument put forth by Tan Soo Khoon opposing the building of IRs – The Controversy For The Integrated Resorts.
Soo Khoon queries govt spending and GST increases
THRIFT and …. MOAN
By Deepa Vijiyasingam
Streats, 15 May 2002
SPRING Singapore —is that the name of a latest resort or spa?
‘If a lot of money has been paid to some consultant to dream up A*Star, let me say that it also reminds me of a certain singer from Taiwan who writes her name in the same way with the * sign after the letter A. So much for creativity.’ -- Mr Tan Soo Khoon on excess government spending
If you ask Mr Tan Soo Khoon, he would say the revamped name for the Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board, sounds like a nightclub.
That’s not all.
A*Star, formerly known as the Agency for Science Technology and Research, reminds him of popular Taiwanese singer, A*mei.
Why all the fuss about names?
It all boils down to dollars and cents, of being thrifty against being excessive, said Mr Tan, MP for East Coast CRC, who was raising the issue of government spending.
“Changing a name means you probably have to pay some slick design consultant to think up your new name, re-do your logo, all your signboards, letterheads, envelopes and other stationery, not to mention spending lots of money to tell the whole world that you now have a new name.
“At the end of it all, you’re still doing the same things, but nobody is any wiser what you actually do or how to look for you,” said Mr Tan.
He also took issue with ministries and statutory boards clamouring for spanking new premises with plush interiors.
“If you see many of them, you wonder if they look more like five-star hotels… I think there must be a competition among them to outdo one another to see which can look better than the Four Seasons Hotel,” quipped Mr Tan.
He cited what many Singaporeans apparently refer to as the Seven Wonders of Singapore, Ministry of Education, Jurong Town Corporation, Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, the new Supreme Court, Ministry of Foreign Affairs which sits on prime land, the twin towers of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the upcoming HDB headquarters in Toa Payoh.
“In fact I cannot understand why HDB, which is downsizing as the building programme is being cut back drastically, cannot stay where it is.”
Mrs Lim Hwee Hwa, MP for Marine Parade GRC, echoed similar views on the need to curb the Government’s over-investment in infrastructure, or what she termed the “hardware” of the country.
AMID the many calls to resist increasing the goods and services tax, perhaps the one that rang loudest was that of the former Speaker of the House.
In what can now be described as typical Tan Soo Khoon fashion, he made an impassioned plea to the Government, complete with telling figures, to back up his point that the Government had no reason to increase the GST from 3 to 5 per cent.
“The Government has always maintained that at 3 per cent, our GST rate is one of the lowest in the world and we lag behind the GST rates of other countries. This is one race where I do not think we are in a hurry to be No 1,” cautioned Mr Tan.
He said that when the GST was introduced and income taxes were reduced, . Singaporeans were told that it would mean a revenue loss to the Government Of $183 million a year for five years, after which the fiscal position would be revenue neutral. But Mr Tan pointed out that over the years since income was last reduced, income tax collection had actually grown from $7.31 billion in 1993 (a year before the rates were lowered) to $12.35 billion in 2000. He added that income tax contribution as a percentage of all taxes has remained constant at 50 to 60 per cent, despite the reduction in tax rates. “So when we are told that the GST must be raised to make up for losses in the collection of income taxes, I must ask what losses is the Government talking about.”
He also pointed out that GST collection has increased steadily over the years, except in 1998 and 2001 due to the recession.
[Updated 17Oct2012:In 2000, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) proportion of the total taxes collected by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) accounted for 12.3 per cent. By 2012, this figure will have jumped to 23.6 per cent of all taxes collected, almost doubling from a decade before. What this shows is the growing importance of GST as a source of the Government’s tax revenues. source]
“My conclusion after seeing all these figures is that the Government has realised what a goldmine the GST is’ he said.
“The only bold thing about this year’s Budget is the unashamed hurry to increase tax revenue under the guise of preparing for changing circumstances at a time when Singaporeans are reeling and recoiling from the effects of the recession, when unemployment is now hovering around a six-digit figure and when new entrants into the job market cannot even smell a job interview.”
‘How do you justify a system that now says the rich, with their big fat salaries, pay less and who probably don’t feel the pinch, and the other 70 per cent, who could not or a along, have to start coughing up? Sure you can give the goodies or offsets but why break a man’s leg’s and then. give him crutches to wobble on? – Mr Tan Soo Khoon on why the GST hike is regressive
Blood and Sweets
‘When announcing the GST, at the same time, the Government also announced an off~setting package. The media has immediately publicised vigorously that this package will benefit the people. ‘But the feedback I get from the people is that the Government gives me a piece of sweet and cuts a piece of my flesh.’ – - Opposition MP for Hougang Low Thia Kiang
Death and taxes
‘Given a choice, I’d rather return all the ERS and rebates back to the Government if I have the option to be exempted from GST. These rebates and grants are short-term measures to ease our pain, but the GST iS going to stay with me till I go to my grave…
‘I paid taxes when I was young and working. Now, I’m old, unemployed and waiting to die, and I still have to pay taxes. This is unfair.’ - Non Constituency MP Steve Chia quoting a senior citizen from Jurong West
Other related links:
- AGC defends purchase of 200 designer chairs at S$597 each
- Loaning of IPADs to NUS teaching stuff and library users
You may also be interested to read:
Singapore Eighth Wonder!
The Singapore 8th wonder is proudly brought to you by the National Parks Board Singapore.
A cavernous glass dome on the enormous construction site of the Gardens by the Bay is set to become Singapore’s newest tourist attraction. The 1.2ha dome – slightly larger than the size of two football fields – is 38m high, and its interior is cooled to temperatures of between 17 deg C and 25 deg C. It is slated to become ‘the crown jewel of the downtown Marina Bay’.
This replicates the cool-dry climate of the Mediterranean and semi-arid subtropical regions such as South Africa and parts of Europe, and will house a variety of plants, ranging from olive and bottle trees to tulips and grape vines. The dome will open to visitors for the first time during the World Orchid Conference in November. Its official opening will be in June 2012, together with the Bay South Gardens, one of the Gardens by the Bay’s three parts. It takes approximately 6 months for the plants to mature and settle into their new environment.
A second dome, which replicates a cool-moist climate found in high-elevation areas such as South America, is also on track to open in June. Both domes will house about 226,000 plants from every continent except Antarctica. The Flower Dome, along with the second conservatory the Cloud Forest, are not just “architectural icons” but an “amalgamation of architectural, environmental engineering and horticultural excellence.”
The two conservatories were designed with environmental sustainability in mind, applying cutting-edge technologies that provide energy-efficient solutions in cooling. The facade of the 1.2-hectare Flower Dome is made up of 3,300 special glass panels, which let in the sunlight while keeping the heat out. This allows the conservatory to mimic the cool-dry climate of the Mediterranean. To ensure energy efficiency, only areas occupied by plants and visitors will be cooled.
The conservatory is divided into smaller gardens featuring plants such as poppy flowers from California and Cat’s Paw plants from Australia. One of the gardens – the Flower Field – will have changing displays including tulips and lavender. The conservatory will also have an event space which can be rented out for weddings and other functions. There will also be two restaurants within the conservatory – one serving Mediterranean cuisine and the other, Chinese.
[Updated 1 Oct 2012] Singapore 9th Wonder – ITE College Central
Askmelah was in awe when he saw the newly completed ITE newest campus. The grandeur can put some of the best universities in the world including MIT and Stanford to shame in terms of its architecture grandness! And ITE, for those who are not in the know, are the technical schools meant for those O-level students who can not make it to the Pre-University Colleges and the Polytechnics. It is a technical training schools to produce skilled technicians, cooks, machinists and the likes. WHY THE EXTRAVAGANCE? Why the waste of tax payers money in a prime land with such majestic buildings when its main purpose in life is to produce the blue collar workers? It is now officially Askmelah’s 9th Wonder of Singapore!
The trouble with $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs
What’s the connection between this and the questions being raised over the NParks’ purchase of Brompton bicycles that is now the subject of a corruption investigation?
If your answer is that both are about how government agencies procure goods and services and whether they follow established policies, you’re only partly right.
If that was all, the matter could be resolved quite simply and quickly – tighten the rules, introduce more if necessary, and make sure they are followed.
In fact, that was how the story developed; earlier this month, the Finance Ministry announced new rules to improve the buying process, including lengthening the bidding period from four to seven days.
End of story?
Not at all. That would be the wrong story and ending it this way wouldn’t make the problem go away.
To be sure, the issues over rules are important and need to be put right. But they are not the most critical.
So, what’s bugging Singaporeans?
I believe it’s really about the money itself, not the rules or whether they were followed.
It wouldn’t matter if there were 10 bidders instead of just one for the tender to buy foldable bikes.
If NParks ended up paying $2,200 a bike, there would still be many unhappy with the outcome.
Ditto the $597 Herman Miller chairs bought by the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
From where many Singaporeans come, and I mean that both physically (the majority from the Housing Board heartlands) and figuratively (they have lived though hard times when money was tight), they cannot comprehend why these agencies have to spend so much to buy these things, when they personally would never do so.
Here is a clash of two worlds that the Instruction Manual issued by the Finance Ministry for proper financial procedures wasn’t meant to deal with.
In the world of the rational bureaucrat, it makes perfect sense to pay $2,200 rather than $300 for a bike if the financial analysis shows that it’s a better deal in the long run because it lasts longer, wouldn’t break down as frequently and has a longer warranty period.
And how do you price comfort? And the well-being of staff who will be spending many hours riding those bikes or sitting on those chairs?
Taking all these things into consideration, it is entirely possible that the higher-priced purchase would make the better choice.
But – and this is the crux of the matter – only if you can afford it.
In the world of the sometimes- not-so-rational public, when people have to decide whether to buy something for themselves, it doesn’t matter what the calculations turn up if you can’t afford a $600 chair.
That’s the end of the story, even if it’s the most comfortable chair in the world.
And even if you can afford it, you may still think it’s too much to pay and that you would rather spend the money on your son’s education or save it for a rainy day.
This other world isn’t run along cost-benefit analyses – how do you put a price on education or the prospect of having to cope with inclement weather?
Instead it is shaped by one’s life experience, and the influence of people around you, all of which determines the values you believe in – whether it’s extravagance versus thrift, or caution versus impulsiveness or whatever.
They help most people decide, almost in an instinctive way, whether a thing is right or wrong.
That’s too much to pay! We sometimes say that, and we don’t require a cost-benefit analysis to tell us.
Can the public sector act in the same way, and develop these instincts to guide and inform its decision-making? Can these values sit together with rational decision- making, which is also needed because there are choices to be made which will require fine calculations and analysis?
One is about hard numbers and mathematical calculations, the other is about judgment, what’s right or wrong, and what is or not acceptable to the public.
Doing both will require leadership of a different order. But that’s what leaders are for: To say this or that is simply not acceptable – whether it’s a $600 chair or a $2,200 bike – because it’s too extravagant and won’t pass the values test.
Of course, it may also mean going ahead with the purchase, public unhappiness notwithstanding, because of the benefits it will bring, both tangible and intangible. That’s what leadership demands as well.
And they will say this no matter what the cost-benefit analysis shows because that’s what their judgment is.
It will require clear-headed and strong leadership that knows what’s right and wrong.
But how does it decide in each instance?
This isn’t easy and there are no simple answers. How does an organisation develop a culture and a value system to do the right thing, that is also in tune with the times and the aspirations of the majority of the people?
How does a leadership imbue its staff with these values so the ethos of the service is the right one for the age?
Part of the problem in Singapore is the dramatic transformation that has taken place in such a short span of time, and the different speeds at which different parts of the society have moved with these changes.
It was simpler in the early years of Independence, when the leadership and the people were shaped by the same experience and there was better understanding all round of what needed to be done and agreement on what was right or wrong.
People respected the frugal lives led by the leaders and the spartan offices they worked in because that was how the majority of Singaporeans lived and worked. That was part of the ethos then.
What is it now?
Is there a widening gap in expectations between the general public and the public sector leadership? There is also the question of whether there is a gap in expectations between what the public expects of public servants, and what public servants want for themselves.
To put it bluntly, is the public content with $200 Aleoca folding bicycles for themselves and for public servants, while public servants want $2,200 Brompton bicycles to do their jobs on?
If so, Singapore is facing a serious problem. Because unless there is a common understanding on what is right or wrong, there will be endless quarrels, and not just over the correct price to pay for something.
If we want to understand what was at the root of public unhappiness regarding those recent government purchases, we have to ask these deeper questions, and not just fix the mechanics of the buying process.
Indeed this issue is also relevant to the recently announced move by the Government to try to forge a national consensus on Singapore’s future.
It is possible to do this only if there is agreement today on the right ethos and values of those institutions that are critical in shaping Singapore’s future.
If we cannot agree on the Singapore story today, how can we decide what future story is best?
There are many places to start this discussion, but I believe we can do worse than begin with foldable bikes and office chairs.
$2200 bikes, $600 chairs, $25,000 French cooking classes – and $60 haircuts
What do these tell us? It’s a sorry state for Singapore.
The civil servants are good at calculating. They fit the saying, “one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Sure, the cost-benefit analysis, the life cycle calcs. and mostly because that is not their money. Why are chairs even the subject of a product life cycle costing analysis? Are they supposed to be office furniture or are they thrones? I suppose Durai had been too harshly treated because he did not produce a cost-benefit analysis for his golden toilet seats.
In all my years of public and private servitude, chairs seldom saw a life of 2 years. The company gets restructured, a new one takes over, and out goes all the “old” office furniture, and in comes the new ones with the favourite colours of the new management. This is the case of Spring Singapore. What was wrong with the old Spring Singapore building and its offices that they have to move into new ones at Fusionpolis? The Chairman’s office was done up poshly at the old office in Bukit Merah to give a warm welcome to PY, but it had to be torn up because PY preferred to move into a more spanking new environment at Solaris. In the end, not only him, but the whole staff moved out. Isnt that a waste of public funds? Would Dr Goh have done the same?
One may also question whether civil servants intend to do a lot of sitting at their desks instead of management by walking around the city and neighbourhoods and understanding the ground’s problems better?
The issue with all these purchases is the ease with which our public moneys get spent and without a blink of an eye in hesitation. Is it because the Ministries are filled with surpluses that had to be spent away? Why werent they prudent in budgeting that they have allowed excesses to be left over? They don’t feel anything when they had to spend $2200 on a bike or $600 for a chair because they can afford it – they have the budget!? Forgetting for a moment that it is not their money, and they are the trustees of public funds. When you have public servants ready to spend $25,000 on French cooking lessons on paid vacations, can we expect them to be sensitive or numbed when it comes to spending public funds?
Another perception that these expenditures create is that there is an elitist feel about it. We are given to understand that public servants deserve to be pampered because they are the elite and doing a helluva job governing us. When we complained about phenomenal salaries paid to Ministers, the Old Man raked us for not seeing it in perspective. Are we again to look at these in perspective?
Recently there was the story of the teacher who cut a student’s hair and the boy’s mother took umbrage. What bothered me is why she had to spend $60 on a 12 yo’s hair? Sometimes I think that Singaporeans deserve the kind of govts they get. This is an example. Must be the 60%.
Last edited by kingrant; 26-08-2012 at 04:35 AM.
(more report here: Has the Government done enough for the poor?)
[Updated 13Mar2016] A rare gem in the public service as highlighted by NUS prof Amy Ou:
Lim Siong Guan
An example nearer home is Mr Lim Siong Guan, group president of GIC (Askmelah: ex head of Civil Service). He has been reported to queue for postage stamps himself instead of asking his personal assistant to do so.
On his annual tour of GIC overseas offices, he prefers taking public transport than use a corporate limousine.
He does not splash out on hotel rooms. Instead, sleeping on the plane is not beneath him.
Known as one of the nicest bosses to work for in the civil service, Mr Lim is always asking: “How can I help you do your job better?” This is balanced with a tough streak of demanding the best from others.
In business, humility can be a powerful force. It can also be one to deliver extraordinary results.