…and helplessness in Singapore

My blog entry on “the rich and powerless of Sentosa cove” last week received almost universal condemnation, by rich and poor alike. Unfortunately, many casual blog readers could not wait to plough through nearly 5000 words before making up their minds what it was about. (I need to warn readers this one is also long, about 3900 words, so go away and come back later if you want to make sense of what I am writing here.)

I wished there was a shorter way, where I could write more efficiently. But that has been the writing process for me, to describe the story in as much detail as possible, so that even I would not lead myself to prejudiced conclusions. But the blog world does not work that way. It insist that you arrive with a conclusion, and leave with the feeling of being vindicated. It’s panders to the beast in all of us.

There was this surge of about 1000 readers to that blog entry who came from nowhere, made their inferences and then left as suddenly as they came. I suspect they were part of another conversation, which had tagged Adrian Tan Cheng Bock and was discussing him as a candidate for the presidential elections that is coming up in Singapore. So, the comments they offered were very specific to the Singaporean situation, while my blog entry was trying to draw out broader issues of the relationship between wealth and power in general.

But without criticisms there is no iterative process. I also thought the criticisms also exemplified the Singaporean condition so vividly, and they gave me the chance to further crystallize what I thought was the sense of “helplessness” I detect in the Singaporean psyche. Let me elaborate.

I thought that the reader who said that he was proud that the Singaporean government does not treat wealthy people differently from the poor had deliberately misunderstood the story. I was clear that the Sentosa Cove story was about a commercial arrangement between the SDC as a property developer and residents who paid a lot of money to purchase property from them, only to be subject to terms that they did not agree to one year after they moved in.

Yet, on the other hand, what was he also saying? That rightly or wrongly, if the poor is not helped by government, neither should the rich? My response to that would be why should the poor, faced with any inequitable decisions – be it a dustbin erected right in front of their houses or a rise in public housing rates – not have the recourse of securing a more equitable solution by approaching someone in power to help them? In the same way, why should not the rich. I thought that many of the criticisms levied amplified more the sheer sense of “helplessness” that so profoundly permeates the Singaporean psyche today.

The quality of the criticisms were also wanting. “If you don’t like what they do to you, move out,” was almost universally the painful hallmark of the Singaporean cynicism. It comes with the addendum, “otherwise shut up and suffer like the rest of us.” It is ironically made by people who don’t have the luxury of making choices themselves, accentuating the sense of helplessness.

I do not subscribe to these views, of course. Despite having the options of making any number of decisions in my personal life – moving out, selecting another place to live in etc – I am of the opinion that we owe it to ourselves and to our immediate communities to offer our views, our solutions and even our desires on the table for discussion. I know no other way.

I do care enough about the world around me to want to be part of the decision making process that affects my life, regardless of where I choose to live or work in – in public housing or in a private apartment, in this country or that. I don’t take “no” for an answer from anyone and others walk over my head at their own peril. Also, I do care enough about Singapore to provide my comments where I think they can be useful. Opting out to let someone else take my seat never crosses my mind. Saying “if you don’t like it, move out” is also the cynics way to end the conversation by suggesting that “…if you don’t like my view of the world, get out.” All of us are poorer for taking such a view.

On a whole range of issues, there are options. To digress a bit to make my point plain, if Singaporeans collectively decide that the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) is a erroneous policy, there should be mechanisms by which they can voice that, and for the government of the day to modify decisions based on a shared view of what this country would like to be.

I had once rented a car while attending a conference in the small town of Geneva in Switzerland. When I was driving across the city in the morning, I was caught in a very bad traffic jam. I thought that the road system was already very inefficient, and as I was sitting there in traffic, I was irritated to see large sections of usable roads blocked off for trams and taxis. I even thought to myself that if this was Singapore, the government would have cleared some buildings and widened the roads, so that people who could pay could drive through selfishly.

I found out later that the people of Geneva had consciously decided that they were not going to build any more roads to accommodate the rise in the number of cars in the city. So, they invested in an efficient public transportation, but left the roads as narrow as they were for a 100 years so that foolish people like me could choose between taking public transportation or being caught in traffic. No extra charge – just sit there and enjoy the decision that you made to drive instead of taking public transport.

To make that choice, the people of that city had to make a few collective assumptions. Firstly, that traffic congestion does not impede trade or productivity, as the Singaporean policy seems to suggest. Second, that imposing a congestion charge did not result in people losing the desire to own cars. So, if you lived in Geneva, you lived under a whole different set of choices, which the people there appear to be collectively very happy with, because these decisions were made in consultation with them.

What was equally important when this policy was explained to me by a local, was that the people in Geneva did not appear cynical. Swiss cities have a way of making collective decisions through town hall meetings – a very inefficient and slow process – so that everyone was on board. The idea of choice not being impeded is central to the Western mind, and that people made the choices with a clear idea of what it will cost them.

If any city state in all of Asia is able to come to that level of a mature iteration between the rulers and the ruled, it would be Singapore. This city state is almost there – and in fact, that in itself contributes to the heightened sense of cynicism, because it assumes there is a conversation, but stops just short of the iteration process. The cynical in Singapore as elsewhere are not stupid people by a long shot. In fact, the cynicism is a direct result of a disenfranchised intelligent brain. The commentator who suggested that the Sentosa Cove visitors gantry charge was the same as the ERP made an inane but not incorrect connection, for a laugh.

To say “If we suffer, why should you not also suffer?” is to kill the conversation altogether. Isn’t this a tragic question? Maybe the pompousness of my language puts off the reader. There was so much I was sharing about the rich not being able to protect themselves that was also applicable to every level of society. We are in the same boat.

The argument that I should have been spending my time better by thinking about the really poor and not be caught up with $7 or $3 entry charge for the rich is an ancient one, and it always sounds right whenever it is made. To draw from a Christian story, two women friends of Jesus Christ were told exactly this 2000 years ago when it appeared to his followers that the women were wasting time and money pouring expensive perfume on his feet, when there were many poor people just outside the door.

His answer, that “the poor will always be with you” and that he would not (it was just before he was crucified), was based on a more humane assessment of the human condition – that we do what we can about what we care about in front of us first, no matter how urgent or how much more noble everything else out there is. The desire to do something about the things immediately in front of us is the first indication of our ability to do anything for anyone else. It has absolutely nothing to do with being rich or poor, educated or uneducated, powerful or not powerful. In the same way, I can only write about the wrong things I see immediately in front of me – and you only need to read some of my previous blogs to know how many times I have done something about things that I can do something about.

The residents of Sentosa Cove, like the residents of any community, have the right to argue against any new charges imposed on their guests opaquely after they have moved in. This same right to counter an administrative error exists for all members of society, whether rich or poor, living in Sentosa Cove or in Sengkang Central, and they must exercise it diligently and rigorously.

The responses to that previous blog entry also helped me crystallize some perhaps more important concepts in my own mind about how societies work, and I wish to discuss them here. Firstly, it crystallized in my own head to be able to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the “one or two phone calls” rule in society.

The comments sent to my previous blog was almost universal in the righteous belief that there was no such thing as a “phone call or two” rule in Singapore. Of course there is! If you have ever had turned up late for a flight and charmed the check-in staff to reopen the flight and let you through when she clearly could refuse, or spoke to your dean or headmaster to let you register to a school or course that you clearly did not qualify for, or asked for your member of parliament to write a letter to confirm your economic situation for assistance, or to get public housing near your family or waive a council fine or a horrible bank loan charge during the economic downturn, you have used  the “one or two phone calls” rule, and you will again.

This is such an important rule in society’s ability to solve problems before they becomes impossible to solve. It is disingenuous for anyone – rich or poor – to suggest that they have not used this rule at more than one point in their lives.

To be very clear, I was not at all suggesting that the rich should get off a speeding ticket or some criminal charge by making “a phone call or two”. That would be abhorrent to anyone brought up in Singapore, as it does to me. In fact, I have long ago contracted with myself that if I ever get into such a situation, I will ask absolutely no one to help me but stand on the strength or weakness of my own integrity. I too am very happy to be living in Singapore where I know exactly what the boundaries of the law are, instead of some frightening country where you need to be devious because you don’t.

I would even go further to say that the standards I set for myself on what is called “pulling strings” are higher than for anyone I know. Everybody in my business community knows that I don’t trade on favours. It defines my personality and is the cornerstone of the business that I run. I have never made friends with important people on the basis of playing golf (the game does not even interest me) or sucking up. All of the good people I know in leadership positions around the world are on the basis of mutual trust and high respect for each other, and I enjoy those friendships thoroughly because they are simple. In fact, there are more things that I cannot do, than I can do, because of preserving those amazing friendships.

But there is an entire range of normal administrative foul-ups and stupidities made by administrative types that disrupt rather than enhance everyday life, that are quickly and properly rectified through a “phone call or two.” To say that rich people should not counter an entrance fee charged to their friends to visit them, and be subject to the same inequalities as people who live outside of Sentosa Cove, is to be cynical.

If the replies to my previous blog was any indication, it graphically amplified the “helpless” alienation that ordinary people in Singapore feel from the world that has been created for them. More than 40 years of rapid “progress” made possible more despite the people, than because of the people, and so many struggling intellectually to keep up. By criticising the desire of the wealthy of Sentosa Cove to rectify their own condition, the writers criticise their own condition. All of us – rich and poor – are in the same boat.

I had recounted the many different ways the rich of Sentosa Cove tried to go about solving their problem, not to allude in any way that the rich had better access, but that whatever access they thought they had failed them. If anything, it is simply lying to suggest that ordinary people do not try all sorts of ways to find someone, or anyone, powerful enough to help them with a “phone call or two” in their own pursuits.

Mercifully, Singapore is at a point in its history where this social contract between ruler and the ruled is currently being renegotiated, and at the core of the re-negotiation is exactly this “phone call or two” rule. This rule is made all the more complicated and interesting with the advent of the email, blogs and instant messaging.

Since the parliamentary elections that was recently concluded, some Singaporean ministers now fall over themselves silly to answer emails sent to them past midnight, on things as mundane as parking lots and precinct maintenance, over and above the matters of state they have in the day time. They feel they have to give into the tyranny of the internet. The whole balance between being popular and being effective is up in the air at the moment, and the thankless journey that the ministers are going through, at the danger of being ridiculed at any time, is an instructive one.

Which brings me to the next point that I want to reiterate vigorously. Not replying to a letter on a legitimate grievance, or worse, forwarding a legitimate request made by someone you actually know in person to someone else to say “no”, is being rude. I don’t think that any person in power, be it a priest or the CEO of a bank, or the president of a country, has the right to be rude in today’s society.

I say this with the experience of having written many letters in my life to a whole range of people from heads of states to CEOs of banks to industry experts from any number of countries and having seen a wide variety of responses play out over time. The conclusion that I have come to is very simple. The people in positions of power who have a sense of proportion about the power they wield have always replied either personally or through their assistants, sometimes using very personable words, even when the answer is a emphatic “no”.

I would even say that I have been surprised by the humility of people who are truly powerful in very complex economies where the political rivalry is intense, over those who are prone to play with protocol to leverage their own self interest in tiny and inconsequential economies.

The most important reason I feel very strongly about expecting politeness from people in power is because that is the first line of defence against hubris and the eventual abuse of power. I have watched as people in leadership position in the banks from China to Hungary trying to explain to me that they are committed to the corporate governance code, and are accountable to their shareholders, their employees, their respective stakeholders and so on. But to me, nothing has been the biggest give away about their commitment to accountability then their habit of replying letters simply and clearly (and acknowledging the doorman at the elevator – I always keep an eye out for that as well).

It was for these reasons that I belaboured the point about the lack of regard that the minister showed Dr Tan Cheng Bock, by directing the CEO of Sentosa Development Corporation to reply the letter. The minister could have easily sent a letter from his assistant saying, “Dear Dr Tan, the minister thanks you for your letter, I am sorry I am unable to help you, please contact the CEO of Sentosa Development Corporation.” To do it any other way was to convey a completely different message, whether intended or not. The already cynical Singaporean does not need this treatment today. The observation that the minister did not use the opportunity with someone who could help him gain votes is actually outside this discussion, but it was an inevitable corollary.

Having said that,  I know for a fact that the Singaporean establishment is at all levels right now in the process of reviewing this bad habit. Ordinary people can respond positively to this effort by making use of this access respectfully and productively. It did not even occur to the cynical that they now have this access, and if it did, they would not know what to do with it. So, the process of healing will be an iterative one involving both sides.

The use of the “one or two phone calls” rule is to be able to resolve a matter socially and amicably, long before it becomes entangled in a legal wrangle where nobody is the winner. It is also a necessary process by which the ruler and the ruled keep in touch with each other for very progressive things, like when they look for new ideas in the areas of science, technology, management or just new ways of doing an amazing number of useful things.

When I write about the “one or two phone calls” rule, I am not just thinking about Singapore. I am thinking about all of those societies, like China where I am today, where the legal, payments and social infrastructure are not quite in place yet, so that if you apply the “go by the book” rule, you will be faced with nothing but complete nonsense. Progress and the economic growth of China, as we know it today, would be crippled.

Sure, the “one or two phone calls” rule does give rise to obscene amounts of opportunity for corruption in many of these countries. Even the UK is not exempt with the large amounts of contributions that universities take in from corrupt governments, with “one or two phone calls” from Gaddafi’s sons, for example.

In making this “one phone call or two” rule work for us, all of us, regardless of Western or Asian, are at the mercy of the integrity of the individuals involved in the transaction – and not on the state or the system. It is just as simple as that. All of us with a practical mind, who have accomplished good in the societies we live in, know only too well the real productive good that have come about just because someone gave us this opportunity, and we made good out of them.

The decent lifestyles, the great restaurants, the amazing railways in so many cities across a country like China are not fakes. They are simply testament to the empirical fact that the people who made good on the opportunities given to them far outnumber those who squandered them. In other countries, the fact is the other way around. The same “one phone call or two” rule has been abused, and so they remain ravaged.

Singapore is extremely fortunate in that the individuals at both of that telephone conversation or email exchange, for the most part, can be assumed to have basic integrity, and would not use the access for anything other than to resolve a common matter today. We have to start with this assumption.

The lack of integrity is not something that you will accuse any Singapore government official of. The lack of sensitivity, sometimes. The lack of understanding, sometimes. But not the lack of integrity. Herein lies the prospect for a good “phone call or two” culture, so that errors can be corrected quickly and opportunities created so that we can get on to the things that really matter.

The idea is not to institutionalise this rule, and yet know that it is an integral part of making society porous and accessible. The smaller Scandinavian countries, comfortable in their shared wealth and destiny, are countries where this rule works very  well.

This “one phone call or two” rule in Singapore used to be the privilege of so few people in the past that we are really fortunate that it did not result in a completely different history for Singapore if it was misused. It is now being extended, cautiously, to a wider set of people, not based on wealth, but on need and relevance to solve a problem or advance a cause. It probably has not reached the cynical yet, and probably never will.

In fact, I would go further and argue that Singapore can go even further and heal this rift between the powerless and the powerful if this rule is repaired properly. I write this at a time when everywhere in the newspapers, we read about how the impact of inflation is tearing a divide between rich and poor in almost every country around the world, regardless of how well they are run. The pain is real. The cry is real. People feel as if no one hears them. Sometimes people want access more than they want solutions.

I also write this at a time when the internet is bringing on board a whole generation of arm chair cynics, who threaten to derail genuine conversations by throwing inane comments that enables them to assume the allusions of being powerful themselves. These are the imposters of the 21st century. The people who are in jobs where ideas to be tested in an open environment have to counter them at every point, until all their diatribes are exhausted, and it becomes possible to have constructive and meaningful conversations over the world wide web without the fear of being misunderstood.

I digress, because my original story about Sentosa Cove was only the setting from which I wanted to examine the relationship between wealth and power in today’s society. I wanted to capture the nuances of the way in which the wealthy act out their lack of power through the story.  The wealthy residents of Sentosa Cove are the most powerless people in Singapore because they could not organise themselves to get what they wanted. It’s a story that could have been enacted in almost any fast growing country where new wealth is being created today, and that point somehow got lost in the way.


Comments

  1. Dear Emmanuel

    As always, you write wonderfully. However, after having read both articles, could it be that you share the same flaw as our dear LKY, a rationality flawed by a lack of humility or humor?

    A lot of your articles seem to be about general slights made personal. For example, surely the following sentence is a bit strong, given your own writings point towards a rather lackadaisical opposition by residents:
    “I should end by stating that the icon of the most short-sighted people on this planet from the view of a resident of Sentosa Cove must surely be the CEO of the SDC, Mike Barclay, and his erstwhile band of fellow directors. They have created animosity with their customers.”

    I don’t write to lecture, but some of your insights are wonderful and some seem merely petty.

    As to slights, I have written before, and am curious why an editor of a reputable magazine has not corrected what appears to be a clear error in his blog? In “Temasek in a teacup” are you referring to Tow rather than “Tok the CIO” as I questioned in my comment?

    Not that I care too much but I wonder how seriously to take you and your magazine sometimes.
    Do you mean Mr Tow?
    Tow Heng Tan
    Senior Managing Director
    Chief Investment Officer
    Heng Tan joined Temasek in 2002.
    Heng Tan was Managing Director of Lum Chang Securities and subsequently Senior Director of DBS Vickers Securities after a series of mergers and restructuring saw Lum Chang being incorporated into the latter.
    He is also a Board Director of Keppel Corporation and ComfortDelgro Corporation.

  2. It seems you (or the engine that your site runs on) have inadvertently doubled the length of this post, by posting your content twice. I’m guessing this was accidental, and not a deliberate ploy to deter readers who aren’t willing to do justice to your efforts by actually reading the post instead of reading _into_ it :)

    Like many others, I was led to this blog by a link to your previous post. Thank you for articulating and highlighting the pervasive cynicism of our society, as well as the shortsightedness and narrowmindedness of upper management that has caused this.

    Sorry this first comment to this post couldn’t be more insightful!

  3. Dr LAM Peng Er

    Hi

    I enjoyed reading your last two postings.
    Very brilliant and insightful.
    Keep blogging.

  4. Thanks for your apt description of this current century which we live in. Do like your vivid thoughts and do keep it coming!

  5. Julio the Pleb

    I stumbled upon your last post from a link from a public forum commenting about one of the presidential candidates.

    My impression from your last post is that you believe the owners/tenants of Sentosa Cove have been unfairly victimized and helpless despite being wealthy. Wealth, by its own virtue, should be translated to influence on the political and bureaucratic process as it would have been anywhere else in the world. You then went on to lament that there is a political disconnect with the wealthy, similar to that of the poor and the middle class and Singapore Inc should rethink about its current way of doing things.

    Let me share some of my thoughts on this.

    Firstly I postulate that there are few in the political and business community who sport their main residence at Sentosa Cove. For those that do, it is an unlikely locale for Singapore residents with families. There is a lack of amenities around the area that cater to families with children. Who is this group who would choose Sentosa Cove as their primary residence?

    There is no shame in acknowledging that your affluence (by virtue of your occupancy of the swanky address or as a property owner) did not accord you with influence on local politics as you hoped. That puts you squarely in the league of the disgruntled plebian class here, which annoys you obviously.

    There is a new class of wealth and affluence in many modern society that does not automatically lend to itself influence locally and abroad. There is no visible quid pro quo that can be extracted from the unfortunate affected by SDC’s decision, hence no need to grant special favour. SDC imposed the fee because it can, and because you can pay, just like every other policy decision imposed on the masses. Therefore I agree that residents at Sentosa Cove are the most powerless people in Singapore without legislators and parliamentarians representing them, but I would not be too quick to say things would be very different were this enclave transplanted elsewhere, say Hong Kong or Beijing. Let’s not be too harsh on Singapore Inc or SDC.

    Nevertheless, I found your posts on banking most enlightening and will be returning to this space soon. Looking forward to more of your insights.

  6. “I wanted to capture the nuances of the way in which the wealthy act out their lack of power through the story.”

    And you are surprised that those with neither are less than sympathetic?

    I think we can all agree that stubbing one’s toe is a nasty experience deserving some degree of sympathy. It takes a remarkably gormless, insensitive and/or entitled person, however, to stand next to a group of people with broken legs and complain about your stubbed toe.

  7. Without even talking about the content of your blog post, I’m afraid to say even the writing itself is somewhat lacklustre.

  8. What I don’t get is why don’t the Sentosa Covers use passes, like the stick-on ones that most country clubs and many condos have. The residents can have permanent ones that are always on their cars that the gantry people can see and thus allow them to pass, and their guests can be emailed similar versions to print and use for a day entry. They can write the day and address they are visiting onto it, so as to avoid abusing the system.
    Maybe what they are lacking isn’t wealth or power, but innovative problem-solving.

  9. Hi Emmanuel,

    Jessica here, a journalist for The Straits Times.

    I spoke to Dr Tan Cheng Bock today with regards to your article on Sentosa Cove and the levy imposed on residents heading into the island. He has responded to me.

    Would you care to respond?

    Do feel free to call me at the numbers listed below. Would be great to get your side of the story. tried emailing you, but your mailbox is full.

    Regards,
    Jessica – 63195242.

  10. I do not comment, but I read some of the comments on this page

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