Monday, 16 June 2014

Where's the consensus on the CPF?

I don't think PM Lee intended for so much heated debate about the CPF when he decided to send warning letters about libel to Roy Ngerng for his posts about the CPF. Since the letters were issued by PM, there has been a successful crowd-funding donation to support Roy that has raised more than SGD100,000 to date and a protest attended by at least a few thousand people at Speakers' Corner Hong Lim Park. There was even a case of an unprecedented CPF-specific vandalism - a 71-year-old man allegedly wrote on the screens of some bus-stops in Singapore that the government should "Return our CPF money". More recently, there was also a small-scale forum discussion facilitated by the ruling party's MP, Hri Kumar.

During the very interesting forum, a 76-year-old former teacher spoke up about her problems with the CPF. The gist of her appeal to the CPF was that as a retiree born in 1938, she had had the option to withdraw her CPF before the more restrictive new rules kicked in. However, as she was not in need of cash at the time of her retirement, she opted for what seemed like a great financial plan - leave the bulk of her retirement funds in the CPF to earn the interest provided by the CPF Board's investment of the funds in AAA-certified bonds. (In fact, the Board is suggesting the same plan to new retirees.) She was then counting on withdrawing the funds at a later date when she was in need of cash.

Sounds like a good financial plan, right? It reflects the great trust that she had in the government. When she could have taken her money and run (to paraphrase Woody Allen), she chose to place her funds in an institution that she trusted. Unfortunately, it backfired on her when the government changed the rules, apparently without offering her an alternative option. Her savings in the CPF were transferred to the newly created Retirement Account, which aims to help retirees born after 1958 to manage their funds so that - pardon my bluntness - they will not go broke before they die and have to rely on government welfare.

The funds in the Retirement Account are disbursed to the retirees in installments calculated based on average life expectancy rates in Singapore. The Singapore government's not unreasonable rationale is that doing so will be more "sustainable" in the long run, as the retirees will continue to be at least partially self-reliant, and the government will not have to increase welfare hand-outs for those who have spent all their retirement funds unwisely.

The government's intentions for setting up the Retirement Account, however, have been questioned by the opposition, such as Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam. There is also a video being circulated titled "Kenneth Jeyaretnam's question dodged by Hri Kumar Nair" - it was taken at the same CPF forum. (Jeyaretnam has written his account of the forum discussion here.)

Whether there is indeed anything unaccounted for in the CPF is not for me to say. I do not feel that I should give opinions on financial and investment matters that are not my expertise. While I am interested to hear the government's answers to Jeyaretnam's questions, I do not have high hopes that this will happen until a time when we have sufficient non-PAP members in parliament. Our current opposition MPs are out-numbered in parliament. It is difficult for them to press for an answer in such an environment.

Nevertheless, I think that the current positions being held by both sides about the CPF are too extreme. We should find a consensus if we are to move forward to resolve an issue that has been the bugbear of many old folks in Singapore.

Regardless of the opposition camp's opinion of the scheme, credit must be given to Hri Kumar for facilitating the forum and then compiling this detailed list of problems and suggested solutions. To implement them, I think what we need from the government, first of all, is an official acknowledgement that the new CPF rules, implementing a mandatory Minimum Sum of SGD155,000 and the aforementioned Retirement Account, have not been beneficial to some old folks.

It seems to me that, unless one is loaded with cash from other sources, the benefit of the MS and the RA to the elderly is marginal because the new rules deprive them of the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labour (i.e. their CPF savings, which is an accumulation of deductions from their previous salaries and contributions from their employers). No doubt it is wise for retirees to lead frugal lives with limited monthly payouts from their CPF savings, but these are people who have worked for more than 50 years. Surely we can be more lenient with them and not expect them to live like the Spartans? Some elderly folks may have wishes to fulfill - the ones that they never got around to when they were too busy working and, in the case of the old former teacher, educating children.

Here's an example of what could be on the post-retirement to-do list of an old person: An elderly lady in her 70s in Singapore may want to fulfill a lifelong wish to visit family members who have migrated to another continent. She will not be able to do so using her CPF, unless she has SGD155,000 in her Retirement Account to reassure the Singapore government that she will not go broke before she passes on. It is thus not unexpected that some people here would have the perception that the government is "heartless" to deprive old people who have toiled for most of their lives of a chance to accomplish the items on their bucket list.

However, in the long run, such measures may benefit Singapore, as they may help the government to manage the aging population better. While there's no concrete evidence to suggest that old folks are more likely to be spendthrifts when they receive a large amount of money, it cannot be denied that a lot of elderly folks in Singapore - perhaps for want of healthy recreational activities for senior citizens - enjoy gambling in their free time. Their frequent haunts are RWS and MBS, Genting, and sometimes this unholy ship anchored outside Singapore waters. Thus, the possibility of them using up their savings is definitely there and the government is not entirely wrong to restrict CPF withdrawal.

Since Hri Kumar has already done such a good summary of the suggested changes on his Facebook page, there's no need for me to go through them again. I only hope that the CPF Board can become more flexible in its case-by-case considerations. Or, if they really need to convince the public to park their money with them after retirement, maybe they can show some clear evidence for once instead of resorting to that familiar paternalistic high-handedness. It has often been argued that the elderly in Singapore tend to fritter away large sums of money and the government may eventually be forced to support them with taxpayers' money. Well, I don't think the government is necessarily wrong, but how about showing us some concrete proof? Where are the statistics? Did the government keep track of how many elderly had applied for financial help as a result of losing their CPF?

Finally, just as the government has said again today, there is always a "trade-off" and "hard choices" to be made when making policies that concern a nation's economic well-being. In my (layman) opinion, the trade-offs are as follows:

If we want to release the CPF funds, according to the government, we will have to be prepared to spend more, or even pay higher taxes for welfare handouts should a large number of the elderly lose their savings.

But let it also not be forgotten that there is another trade-off that the government has not mentioned.

If we want to give the government the mandate to control the retirement funds of the elderly, we have to recognise that what we are doing is at the expense of the well-being of people who might have started working when they were only 16 years old (it was common for teens back then to start working after their "O" or "A" levels), meaning that they would have contributed at least 50 years of their life to the Singaporean workforce. The frustration at being kept from their lifetime savings was palpable in the voices of those who spoke at the CPF forum. (Wouldn't you be, if you started working as a teenager, retired at the senior age of 62, only to be told that you can't get the lump sum payment that you rightfully earned?) The elderly who attended the forum are not members of the opposition. Although some wacky PAP supporters have claimed that they were coached by the pro-opposition camp, it is an unlikely story.

In other words, no matter what we choose, everything has a price. Some elderly people in Singapore are paying the price now for the government's future peace of mind. 



In a great show of how angered they were by the comments resulting from the elderly lady's gutsy speech, the pro-PAP camp has even gone so far as to publish on their Facebook page a zoomed-in picture of a house with a very specific street name and a photo of the old lady at the forum. The caption: "Feeling SORRY for her? She lives in a bigger house than you".

The implication is that the semi-detached house in the picture (screenshot from Google Maps) is the residence of the elderly lady. The argument being made is that since she owns a landed property, there's no need for the government to give in to her requests for the return of her funds. There are always "options" for asset-rich people like her, the admin of the page quipped. Some have suggested that she could sell her house to finance her funeral arrangements. However, to my knowledge, if a comment by a participant of the forum is to be believed, the house is jointly owned by the lady and her estranged siblings. You can see how that could be a problem if it is true.

What is disturbing is how the admin of a pro-PAP Facebook page can be so specific about the home address of a citizen who spoke up against the CPF policies.... Upon being questioned online, the admin claimed that the post does not mention the exact address. However, several commenters have pointed out to him that the picture zooms in on only one house. Further, there are four streets in the same estate and he has named the specific drive that the house is on. It would be easy for a crook to locate the house using the admin's screenshot.

Till date, there has been no official acknowledgement from both the party and its supporters that the grievances the retirees have about the CPF are justifiable. They have only acknowledged that some people are unhappy, but the extent to which party supporters have gone to discredit an elderly lady (a former civil servant, too), who had shown so much trust towards the government and is simply feeling played out by the new rules, shows just how resistant some people in Singapore still are towards any suggestions that the CPF rules need to be re-assessed for their viability. I think that says a lot about our intransigent political landscape.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Kindness is free, kindness is for everyone.

An example of trolling on a Facebook page. The motive of the troll is unknown.
I read recently Bertha Henson's post on keeping the "civil" in civil society and how it's important to take a stand against negative trolls online. There is also this article from the Financial Times - shared by PM Lee on his Facebook page - on freedom of expression over the Internet as well as its challenges, not least that of bullying by anonymous online trolls.

A week ago, civil societies and individuals concerned about racism and xenophobia in Singapore also put out this statement to urge Singaporeans to promote equality and not turn into anti-foreigner bigots. Much of the racism and xenophobia, of course, is being expressed online via websites such as The Real Singapore and SPH-owned Stomp.

Further, indignant online reactions to the statement has prompted Singapore Kindness Movement chief, Dr William Wan, to write this letter in reply. Dr Wan has also called for people in Singapore to be kind when interacting with one another online.

I am glad for all of these attempts to condemn behaviours that are increasingly causing discomfort to the people being targeted. Nevertheless, because these groups and individuals cannot enforce their will on the people, I think all of us have a duty to remind one another that using hurtful words against another is wrong. In the case of racism and xenophobia, both of which are associated with anti-foreigner views, it doesn't solve the perceived issues and it only causes hurt to people who simply came here because they had believed that Singapore was a good place to live in. I hope he won't mind me sharing this, but last year, someone I know, together with his family, was told "you foreigners are rubbish" by a taxi driver in Singapore. At the time, I was shocked that a family from another country had experienced such treatment here. I did not realise how bad things had become.

Singaporeans are avid travellers to foreign lands. We would not like it if we sent our children to study abroad, only to have them return with negative stories about how they were subjected to racist vitriol. We wouldn't like to read nasty Facebook updates or tweets about our nationality or race. We would like our family and friends to be safe when they travel, and we wouldn't wish for them to encounter threatening bigots along the way. So, why do we subject people from other countries to such treatment?

Some have argued that the reason for the racist and xenophobic slant in public discourse is that Singaporeans are becoming more frustrated with their lives. They are not entirely wrong. Although it looks like Singapore is experiencing good times, it is not easy to eke out a comfortable living in Singapore. According to this 2011 survey, which interviewed 12,000 employees from 85 countries, of the 95 Singaporean professionals polled, about 18 of them said that they worked 11 hours or more per day. Almost half of them said they had taken work home more than three times a week.

The recommended daily working hours from our Ministry of Manpower is actually up to nine hours. A significant number of Singaporeans are working beyond these recommended hours, or even working from home after office hours when they are supposed to be spending time with their families. If one has a low salary, it can be argued that one can cut down on spending. But what happens if one is short of time because there's too much work to be done?

With so little time for rest and relaxation, it is no wonder that stress and frustration levels are growing. It seems that some people have chosen to translate their frustrations about life in Singapore into nasty behaviour. But I think it's precisely because life isn't easy that we have to be more accepting and nicer to one another. After all, venting frustrations on people around us or singling out certain groups to verbally abuse simply causes that frustration to spread around, causing somebody else to be unhappy and leading to retaliation from aggrieved parties. Eventually, it makes life in this country more difficult.

Finally, I would like to call for our politicians to take the lead and be kind as well. Since the case of the "CPF blogger" came up, I have read a lot of comments online urging him to "take responsibility" for defaming the PM. There are strong calls online for the PM to "make an example" out of him, exact a high sum of damages from him so that nobody will dare to make unsubstantiated allegations about our political leaders ever again.

I understand that Bertha Henson as well as a few others calling for a nicer civil society actually support the lawsuit.

I beg to differ. My reason for not supporting the lawsuit is simple. If we want a kinder society, we have to start with forgiveness. Being kind is not just about being friendly or saying nice things. Forgiveness is the kindest act of all, because it requires so much kindness for someone who has been wronged to willingly relinquish his right to hold on to the grudge, so that the person who wronged him might be relieved of the burden of the "crime".

That is not to say that we cannot punish someone for defamation. In fact, we must and we should, but the punishment ought to be proportionate to the impact of the defamatory statement, and it ought to be considered if the impact of the defamatory comment is reversible or something irrevocable.

I would like to draw your attention to a different case of a man who was not forgiven. Because of three cheques that were made out to him instead of to his party, he was charged and convicted locally for embezzling SGD2,600 from his own party. Next, he was threatened with disbarment so that he would never be able to practice law again, i.e. he would lose his livelihood and the means to support his family.

The original story from the Straits Times is here.

Fortunately, his appeal against the disbarment was successful as the court in Britain overruled the initial conviction, accepting his defense that the cheques were made out to him because they were meant for him rather than his party. The overrule, however, was not viewed favourably by others, thus prompting the following action to "plug the loophole" and ensure that only the Singapore court could control who was to be disbarred.

The full story from the Straits Times is here.

It was a different case but coincidentally, the individual above was also a vehement critic of the government.

Back to the Roy Ngerng case - if you told me that we need to be responsible for what we say online and that we should not say things to incite anger or provoke conflict between different groups in society, I would stand with you. If you told me that a person who posts malicious, defamatory words against another online should be punished, I would wholeheartedly agree with you.

However, if you told me that it is necessary to metaphorically whack the living daylights out of that offending person, make an example out of him to strike fear in others, shame him so that he can't lead a dignified life again, and drain his savings so that he will not be able to provide for his loved ones, I would question the logic and reason behind such vindictiveness.

For too long, Singapore has been a society that is unkind to the people who do not agree with our political leaders.

As much of the online discourse also relates to politics, apart from speaking up against racism and xenophobia, we ought to also speak up against the ongoing condemnation of people for having different political views. Incidentally, former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng has been referring to various people who disagree with the government as "radicals"on his Facebook updates. He has even gone so far to say that these "radicals should be ostracised". Just what he means by "ostracised" is anyone's guess.

In fact, I feel that driving the new racism and xenophobia that have arisen in recent years are the polarised views of the political parties and their supporters. The Population White Paper is associated with the PAP government while the idea of checking the flow of immigrants is associated with the opposition parties. As our political scene becomes more vibrant and people are rising out of apathy to become more interested in politics, if we continue our habit of condemning one another because of differing political views, the discourse, both online and offline, is bound to take an ugly turn, with foreigners becoming the punching bags of the public and some sort of political leverage for the politicians to use to ensnare each other in debates. It will be best if, instead of trapping each other with the issue, both our political parties in Parliament can reach a consensus about the relevant policies.

Indeed, we have to create a strong environment where people will stand up against all types of online bullying. But to get to the specifics of it, where racist and xenophobic comments are concerned, to stem the tide of nasty online behaviour, especially on websites that provide socio-political news, we also further have to develop an environment where disagreeing with one another politically is okay. We can debate and hopefully come to a consensus; there's no need to condemn someone for having a different view of the government's policies in Singapore. While curbing unwanted comments and posts is an efficient way to get rid of negative information (or mis-information), it doesn't add value to the quality of our citizenry, nor our political scene. It's far better to encourage respectful debate.