Is it high time to mothball Singapore Inc?

January 4, 2011

(To increase the font size, hold down the Ctrl Key and keep pressing +) – Important NoteThis essay should be read in conjunction with this: In defense of the “admirable  sentiment” in Singapore.

In Defense of the “admirable sentiment” in Singapore

In the last 40 years, Singapore Inc has come to exemplify the whole idea of the pursuit of excellence – not a bad innings when you consider it all started off from heap of rustic fishing huts at the tip of the Malayan Peninsula. There is no doubt that Singapore Inc has managed to come up tops since then – there are really too many do and die stories to recount so for the sake of brevity, I shall spare all of you the yada, yada, yada, yada yarn. You can go to the NLB, ST and TR (soon to be renamed the de facto online ST) and I’ve leave you to them to wax lyrical till you are all blue in the face while you slip into a comatose state.

If I had to plumb to choose one word that best describes why Singapore Inc has been such a resounding success, I would have to say it may have something to do with how since its inception its been elevated to a religion. This appellation I admit may seem curious to the uninitiated, but when one considers how the idea of Singapore Inc clings steadfastly to the twin promises of the good life and has managed to deliver on that covenant time and again – then its all easy to remain bovine how the cult of infallibility has through time fossilized to a point where no one these days even bothers to ask whether this may or may not be the best way to continue creating a better tomorrow. Most just accept it as a veritable fact – to paraphrase, it’s a fait accompli.

However of late, the spanky image of Singapore Inc has taken a battering – the Byzantine losses incurred by both GIC and Temasek; the almost religious zeal in which the government of the day pursues privatization despite producing no discernible benefits to the ordinary man in the street; the mindless chasing of performance metrics despite exacerbating the already chronic income inequality; the super high salaries of ministers and the cognitive dissonance it provokes in the public who regularly fail to perceive any extraordinary value, metier or skill in the ranks of who receive these payouts. Along with the recent embarrassing dumps by Wikileaks which can only do very little to endear us in the eyes of our neighbors and much more which can really run ten pages – want to hear more? I think its best if we try to be kind to the internet and spare the bandwidth should they wish to reply (only be warned, I will unleash the ASDF on you! And after that we can all go to the UN) My point is all these motifs add up to conjure an image of a beleaguered behemoth that has has seen better days. I am not saying Singapore Inc is dead; but no one can deny it doesn’t seem to be as self confident as it used too.

And this should prompt us to consider is it time to rebrand Singapore Inc?

But before we set about tinkering with Singapore Inc, lets just press the pause button and take a closer look at what we are dealing with here; for starters contrary to populist belief the idea of Singapore Inc isn’t a neat pigeon box concept; if anything, it’s polyglot term that tries to encapsulate basically many ideas that can be boiled down to only one simple, elegant idea: government should harness whatever resources that is available in its inventory and use it to better the lot of Singaporeans and residents – nothing wrong with that idea – in theory at least – the problem (as I see it) is not that the nature of Singapore Inc is banal. The main problem is in this day and age; that elegant idea may simply not be enough to sell the idea of the gold standard of delivering a better tomorrow – truth is profiling the persona of Singapore Inc as everything to do with the government of the day is like trying to sell the idea that it’s a great idea to appoint Count Dracula as the CEO of the blood bank – I don’t deny that idea of metallic efficiency and effectiveness continues to exact a tenuous hold on our psyche as it can only appeal to our sense and sensibilities, but that is only because no one has really bothered to interrogate it beyond what the MSM regularly tells: its as good as mother’s milk- nonetheless if the imperative is to successfully market Singapore Inc to an increasing skeptical and discerning market Singapore Inc as a political theory and science then it needs to be able to transcend merely the technical and mechanical art of being able to deliver effectiveness and efficiency.

Let me put it simply, no one wants to deal with a vampire state and the problem to frame it succinctly in the language of call a spade a spade is Singapore Inc is rapidly been linked to this idea – its even possible the idea that once propelled Singapore Inc may no longer be in synch with the times: or worst still it has become so disconnected with those which it was originally supposed to serve that it’s a liability – observation suggest to garner a market share these days it is not nearly enough for a firm or for that matter the idea of Singapore Inc to merely sell the idea efficiency, delivery reliability and probity; as when we talk about building a successful brand these days what may be required is the idea of libertarianism. I realize this is a big word and some of you are probably considering tuning off (people like stupid me for instance) – but do bear me with me. As when we speak about the concept of Liberatarianism in the context of the marketing manifesto; the only this thing we are really talking about is variety, choice the most importantly empowering the consumer i.e shifting the power from state to citizenry – something that is able to transcend merely the promise of efficiency and effectiveness – and here for dummies like myself its best to consider Libertarianism as just a bag word that allows us to put all sorts of stuff that folk consider important whenever they make a decision whether to buy in or out of an idea – that idea may be something fanciful like being able to stand in a public square and declare that if you don’t hunch you stand two inches taller; then again, it could be something principled like the demand for moral coherency – for instance while everyone enjoys the sensation of lazing on a Persian rug; most consumers would be turned off if they realized it was made by 12 year old Abdul who was chained to a loom somewhere in Kashmir as his eyes fritter away these days that may just be the tipping point for them to vote no with their wallets – another recent case was the fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico when BP just couldn’t seem to get their act together to project the image that they have sold to the public vis-a-vis we care for the environment – the same holds true when it comes to personal investment; no one denies tobacco and defense stocks regularly pay out good dividends but some people just don’t want to profit at the expense of people and planet – you could even say it rubs them the wrong way. Don’t get me wrong, we will all step on bugs and even commit genocide on the ant kingdom in our pantries – my point is when we discuss the whole idea of Singapore Inc in the context of a firm – what needs to be emphasized is people are increasingly demanding more than just effectiveness and efficiency.

One clue to this shift may be found in how everyone these days has his own idea of how to create a better society – many reasons account for this; the internet, the break up of the monopoly of information and perhaps even how the DNA of society continues to be spliced up to ever smaller segments and that simply means the single track ideal of Singapore Inc being the sole purveyor of the good life for both Singaporeans and residents is fast losing its appeal; against this chastening passage of change what it can really only offer is a Kitsch version of la vie de Disneyland – a corollary of that also means it will always fall short of expectation. As not only does it fails to offer variety, choice and most importantly the flexibility to recruit the consumer in different ways that may appeal to them – as since Singapore Inc is a centrally controlled idea it can never recruit the masses and instead limits the decision making process to only a few elites to define how we should all go about the business of creating a better tomorrow. This can only serve to alienate and disenfranchise many who may not share the same aspirations – wonder no more why so many remain terminally apathetic that they simply want nothing to do with being a cog in a goody good state sanctioned machine.

I don’t deny Singapore Inc may have once been highly coveted in the same way the Japanese once mesmerized the world with their awesome ability to produce quality products; but what needs to be emphasized is these techniques by themselves are not arcanums ; they have a shelf life and they can be uploaded and replicated with admirable ease – besides how sustainable is effectiveness and efficiency alone when even sweatshops these days where people regularly die like flies in China can churn out sexy iPhones.

Think about it!

In the same vein just as many once upon a time were willing to sacrifice their individuality and “freedom to choose” in order to serve the common good by being a cog the juggernaut Singapore Inc – these days even the idea of good is under assault and increasingly becoming so uncommon and malleable and even elastic that its hard if not impossible to agree on the collective object of interest that makes up the guts of this simple word. Hence the idea of yellow brick Singapore Inc road which once led to Shangri-la no longer commands the same tenuous hold on the public consciousness as the only way to materialize the good life. Increasingly many of us whether we consciously realize it or not are beginning to question the wisdom of Singapore Inc along with the fixation for chasing the buck at every turn and opportunity – take for example the idea privatization at first its hard if not impossible to argue against that idea; since we are always told recruiting the profit motive is the most efficient and effective to delivering value. So the theory goes. But what if the cost of delivering that quantum of efficiency and effectiveness comes to us at a prohibitive social cost? Then say what you like; but in my book the only thing the state has managed to do is create another appendage of the vampire state – along with debasing the role of minister where his portfolio is perhaps one rung higher than a postal clerk since all he seems to do is pass the cost spikes right down to the end user with the obligatory, “no choice lah” soundbite justification – and this should prompt us to ask, what is the point of privatization or for that matter the value of efficiency and effectiveness if it fails to bring any discernible benefits to the average man in the street and only makes his life that just harder and tougher to bear?

And here we might do well to press the pause button once again and consider whether we should place so much faith in Singapore Inc, that we don’t even feel the need to interrogate whether it can still be a reliable purveyor of the good life – if salaries rises are commensurate with the cost of living; then I say go ahead, privatize even the air and sunshine – but if not then how might we proceed to deal with the hubris of the widening disparity between salary stagnation and in certain cases even regression that only continues to vex thinking folk when they see the submerged classes suffer silently? As the cost of living continues to escalate how do we even begin to negotiate a way of to temper the steam roller effects of the profit motive that forms that backbone of Singapore Inc. How do we even begin to interrogate the broader destiny of our nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principles of equality and sovereignty of the people— who remain not only trapped, but cloaked in uncertainty and shadowed by lingering apprehension in this place called Singapore Inc?

We cannot. But we should. And that is the real tragedy of our age in the land of free…..correction…land of the fee.

Darkness 2011


If I write another one of my sappy toe curling Korean love stories – I can easily garner 30,000 readers in the first year – and 8 out of 10 of them would be women – by the second year after the guilds have translated it to different languages maybe 150,000. So I can understand why they want me to go towards that direction…..I understand completely….they are very much driven by the profit motive.

But if I write a social political piece – if I am lucky I get maybe 1,000 hits, notice I don’t refer to them as readers because out of that 500 you must remember most are tourist, so its unlikely they would even complete reading the entire essay; even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make head or tail of it, so they don’t count; as for the rest of the 250 they are just clicking on links because they are killing time, so they dont count either as its a touch and go relationship – that leaves you with 250 readers, notice, I have now used the word reader, but in the French sense only – but when you winnow this model habit readership further out of the 250 only less than maybe 100 are the perceptive readers – the rest are just poseurs, so even they don’t count and if you filter it further it is perhaps less than 50 real readers. That is the core, there is no more in Singapore.

I realized this the first day I stepped into the Intelligent Singaporean; I even told Inspir3d about this over dinner; he was not happy, but what can I say – that is the truth. That is incidentally something that both TOC and Temasek Review do not realize – they have no wisdom. They might as well go and try to transmute lead to gold or better still plough the sea. They have no soul…none whatsoever. All the hits in the world; like a tart all dressed up with no one to blow – that’s mucho bono sad.

So yes, I can understand why the guilds sees this as a great diffusion of energy and why they have been saying nasty things behind my back – like what a waste of time from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint this must be – but tell me apprentice, how many people did it take to start the French Revolution? Or for that matter the winter revolution? What about WW2 – how many Spartans do you think it took to repelled the Persians in the narrow passage in Thermoplye? – coming to think of it how many gamers in the whole wide world actually know how many people control the Confederation or even the Laanstrad? What if I tell you that for every  100,000 gamer only one of them really knows that they are even part of a guild – the rest are just logging on and playing, they dont even know that they are paying taxes, levies etc

I think apprentice, I have a far more accurate appraisal of effectiveness and efficiency than the guilds. Only I believe there is more to it…..much more that I may not be able to even describe.”





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