The PM’s midnight musings

Past and present pride and joy

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

So now we know what keeps PM Lee up at night is not so much Ho Ching’s snoring but midnight musings over how to retain the “specialness” of Singapore. This so that outsiders can look at us and say: “Wow, let’s go and see what’s happening there.”

Appearance matters, after all, when keeping up with the Jones of the world.

PM Lee also said that if he could persuade another ten billionaires to Singapore, he would have no qualms doing so even if it results in higher income inequality, “because they will bring business, they will bring opportunities, they will open new doors, they will create new jobs”.

Instead of losing sleep over how the world views Singapore, perhaps the PM should ponder over how the average Singaporean views the government’s curious fixation on the super-rich. So far, it has not done a very good job of convincing us that the much feted trickle-down economics has improved the lives of Singaporeans. Show us that we are wrong please, give us the numbers of exactly how many businesses, opportunities and jobs have been created for every billionaire who has relocated to our shores.

Tell us that it’s not just about the likes of Eduardo Saverin single-handedly shoring up the private night club industry, of Jim Rogers competing with Singaporean parents for a place in Nanyang Primary with his influence and resources just so that his daughter can learn Chinese, or of Nathan Tinkler supposedly moving here to escape his creditors, because it is all we read of why these rich foreigners are here. Where of the jobs, what of the businesses? And this is before we even get started on them buying up luxury properties and fancy cars that just makes everything more expensive for everyone else.

Why not, instead of obsessing over ways to persuade another ten billionaires to come to Singapore, spend more time thinking about how to help another ten local companies grow?

A lesson from corporate finance is timely if we think of the PM as the CEO of Singapore, Inc and every citizen as shareholder. As academics will tell you, the first and foremost role of the CEO is to maximise shareholders’ value, not to increase top-line revenues, earnings per share or share price. Think of this as analogous to the role of the PM in improving the lives of every Singaporean, where economic numbers are either a means to this end or a by-product of this mission. As with CEOs, it is all too easy to lose sight of this mission.

Corporate finance also teaches us to guard against management pet projects and empire building. PM Lee proudly tells us there’s only one Marina Bay in the world, like it is some eighth world wonder. Gardens by the Bay is our new pride and joy while yesterday’s darling, the Singapore Flyer, was a borrowed idea and is no longer sexy as it goes into receivership. What pet project next? His government also tells us we need 6.9 million people to continue growing, like CEOs buying up companies to grow their empires at the expense of quality of growth and value to shareholders.

Rising inequality leads to rising discontent and discord, regardless of how true it is the presence of the super-rich will end up benefiting the rest. This is because perception by the people matters as much as, if not more than, the appearance to the outside world that PM Lee worries about. And, right now, the social costs are much more visible than any economic benefit.