Sunday, November 18, 2007

Will you be there in the morning?

At times, it can be an intolerable experience to follow politics and current affairs (International or otherwise). Weeding through thick layers of political doublespeak and maneuvering through layers upon layers of hypocrisy can be trying. These accumulated frustrations, and the particularly galling behaviour of clueless individuals, has sparked this blog entry.

The individuals in question are a group of international students from NUS who have announced their intentions to hold a protest outside the venue of the ASEAN summit on 19 Nov.

Before I look at their intentions, allow me to postulate the likely outcome of their actions. Police officers at the site will advise them to disperse as their actions could possibly pose a public order threat within stipulated “protected areas”. They will naturally refuse (what self-respecting “activist” wouldn’t?). This could lead to their arrest, which would be lapped up by international media representatives.

This is of course where the real ideological onslaught begins. Critics will have more fodder to label us as authoritarian, no better than the Junta. Singapore official will scramble their spin doctors to emphasis security trumps freedom of expression. Ultimately, we become audience to a dance where both parties are cognizant of each others steps and take turns to lead. And the Junta cracks a wry smile and gains some desperately needed respite.

Wind back the clock a year or so and you will see what I mean.

I vividly remember Paul Wolfowitz, former President of the World Bank, criticising Singapore as “authoritarian” and asserted that “enormous damage” had been done to Singapore’s image. for restrictions on activists during the IMF/WB meetings in Sep 06.

Alas, we all are familiar with the embarrassing revelations that subsequently transpired. Perhaps more troubling than Wolfowitz’s public denial of running such an important international institution as his personal fiefdom (isn’t that the very definition of authoritarianism?), was the fact that the Bank’s thumb-twiddling board was only jolted into action by media exposure of their inaction. Ironically, these events have tarnished the reputation of his former organization that so aggressively promoted personal integrity and clean government in the developing world.

And what about accusations of our handling of the event like a police state. Naturally, the image of thick wire fencing surrounding Suntec City comes to mind. But wait a minute, have we forgotten the “Great Wall of APEC”? In fact, security was so high that a 3 German tourists were asked by police to delete digital photographs of the fence that placed Sydney in near total lockdown.

These serve as a poignant reminder of the swelling amounts of hypocrisy that permeates much of what we see and read from international governments, bodies and groups. Who appointed these people as agents of progress anyway? And what entitles them to pontificate in so shameless a way when there are injustices and rights abuses in their own country?

In light of the political wrangling over the crisis in Myanmar, it is remarkably disingenuous for embodiments of the one-world system, a system that has artfully glazed economic and cultural hegemony as democracy, to claim moral authority over atrocities that they are to an extent culpable for perpetuating.

That brings us back to the planned protest by International students from NUS, whom in my opinion embody all the above traits of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

I know it comes across as a harsh dismissal, but how else am I to understand their actions which are designed to derail processes (albeit baby steps, but steps nonetheless) in order to:

1) Peacefully demonstrate their solidarity with the Burmese people --- While the thought is rather sweet, we have reached a juncture where concrete actions or processes are far more urgent. The Myanmese already know the world, at least most of it, is united in solidarity in condemning the current situation. Candle vigils are fashionable these days. But like all fashion statements, they are seasonal. What we need is organized institutions or groups that can engage the Junta in dialogue. They already know what Ms Suu Kyi looks like.

2) Respond to recent violent crackdowns and the subsequent lapse in international media attention. --- This statement implies that the majority of the world is unaware of the authorities and is indebted to this groups for highlighting them. They must have had their heads buried in the sand all this while. Awareness has already reached saturation point, what we need know is political action.

3) Respond to the news that the member states will be signing the ASEAN Charter which is to include clauses on human rights. –-- This threw me off for a bit. Are they upset that ASEAN members are engaging the Junta? Are they dissatisfied with the drafting of the charter?

While the Singapore government’s position with regards to regime change in Myanmar can be at times confusing, it is apparent to me that the Humans Rights Charter that ASEAN member states are embarking on is an integral piece of a larger strategy to that effect. While “constructive engagement” has almost become a dirty word, the alternatives are far less appealing.

Or is it as plain as it reads: the cameras are on, we will be there.

But will they be there after the smoke has cleared? Probably not.

International students are notorious for exploiting scholarship loopholes to absolve themselves from serving out their local bonds; an uncomfortable truth that is exacerbated by recent debates over foreign student numbers and how more resources meant for locals are channeled to them.

One of the basic tenants of human rights is the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression. Perhaps in this case, these international students are being wasteful with their freedoms and privileged lives.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Why Deny HDB Windfall?

Donald Aw lamented in the Young PAP Blog that the prices of HDB flats in some matured estates were "absurd" and asserted that "if the purpose of the HDB housing programme is to provide affordable public housing, then there is a need to re-look at the way the resale market is structured."  Donald concluded that "we should send a clear signal that those who stay in these public housing in mature estate are privileged and not that only those who are financially privileged can stay in these public housing."

I agree with Donald that a key tenet of HDB would be to provide affordable public housing.  But aside from being a roof over our heads, the HDB flat is also, for many Singaporean families, a major component of their financial assets.  The value of the HDB flat can be realized only if it is sold on the resale market (although more recently, it can also be used as collateral for the reverse mortgage/annuity schemes).

As with all assets, prices sometimes rise, and they sometimes fall.  Traditionally, no resale flat would be priced lower than the amount for which it was purchased from the HDB.  In the past 10-15 years, however, with the economic swings, rising HDB direct-sale prices etc, there are people who have lost money (whether on paper or otherwise) even if they had bought their units directly from HDB.  This would apply to a greater proportion of those who bought resale units.

Now that prices have risen (in the mature estates at least), some HDB flat owners have chosen to cash-out, whether to upgrade to private property or realize some profit.  They are generally not speculators; direct-sale or 1st time buyers who used the CPF grant would have stayed in their home for a minimum of 5 years before selling – one of the many anti-speculation measures in place for HDB flat buyers.  Is it so undesirable that some lucky ones are able to enjoy a windfall?

To be fair, Donald's concern appears to be focused on young couples who cannot afford to live near their parents.  

But the simple matter is that location (and distance to amenities etc) and flat type/size are the major price determinants.  Other factos include the floor/level, view and facing (west sun is generally a no-no), whether it is on a lift landing floor, whether there is "O$P$" splashed on the walls of the block etc.

It is inevitable that some flats will command a premium over others.  When times are good and buyers are flush with cash (whether from en bloc sales or Toto winnings), this premium will increase; and the gap will narrow when times are bad.  Just because a buyer has the means and is willing to pay a premium for a HDB unit does not make him any less a "genuine buyer."  

After all, if *all* HDB flats are only for meant for the less financially privileged, then HDB should start evicting all residents whose household incomes have risen above $6,000 or $8,000 or whatever the cap for that flat size may be.  Judging from the marques I see at many HDB car parks these days, there will be a lot of people pushed to the streets … and quite possibly living in expensive cars  ;-)

HDB does provide affordable public housing, done primarily via the direct sales channel.  Some units (albeit limited) are in mature estates and others are in very nice (if somewhat ulu) new estates.  Young couples who buy a resale unit near have an added incentive of a larger CPF grant.  

But ultimately, resale HDB flat prices should be determined by market forces.  Why deny HDB flat owners the occasional windfall?