Sunday, 22 July 2018

Inequality at the root: It's in the genes, stupid.

Lee Kuan Yew once said that "the problem for the government is: how do you keep a society united when that lower layer can never catch up?" (pg 197, Hard Truth). 

But our founding father did not stop there. He added this carrot hoping to bridge (or close) the gap in an unusual (draconian) way, that is, sterilisation. 

He said: "So we have offered those at the lower end: If you sterilised after two children, we'll give you a free flat."

Understandably, there were no takers. And here is why in LKY's own words: "Because once they sterilise and the husband leaves them, they look for another husband, but without having children with the new husband, they are not anchored."

I pause here to think about those words. LKY may have a point there about a woman's security in childbearing during his time. Even today, we are still conservative or traditional about children being equated with wealth and security.

He then continued: "So they produce more children (instead of taking the offer of the free flat). If this continues, we will have more and more duds and the whole society has to carry themselves. Nobody wants to talk about the hard truths." 

Mm...there's no mincing of words there. Call a "dud" a dud I guess.

Here's the other part about genetics or soft eugenics. 

Being a keen reader of Edward Wilson's works, the renown author of sociobiology, LKY said matter-of-factly:-

"So when the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him he's a fool, stupid. You marry your clerk or your secretary, you're going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You'll be tearing your hair out." (pg 191/2 of Hard Truths).

At one point of the interview for the book, he even went uncharacteristically religious when he said:-

"I tell people frankly God has made you that way. I'm not God, I cannot remake you. I can give you extra tuition, better environment, but the incremental benefits are not that much. And their peers with bigger engines will also make progress. So the gap will never be closed."

That's his signature hard truth - "the gap will never be closed". Inequality is here to stay, ever-widening in fact. Maybe love somehow got in the way of "selective breeding" by matching only graduate with graduate?

In any event, I sense that only LKY, the master statesman, can say all that and not raise too many eyebrows in protests.

You see, no political script writer for LHL would even think of penciling in those words in the PM's annual National Day Address, because the outcry from the activists, social media and international public at large would be deafening.   

Basically, what LKY is saying is, "it's all in the genes, stupid," and no vanity of efforts and wishful thinking can ever change that hard fact. 

And if there is any doubt as to whether LKY was a firm believer in natural selection (or genetic destiny), this personal recounting by him would squash it all for good:-

"In 1970, Alex Douglas-Home was then in the (British) opposition. I'd known him when he was a minister. He flew in from Australia on his way back. So I put him up. I said, "I read that your dogs could catch salmon, trout, and bring these birds back." 

He said, "Oh no, they're specially trained and each has a pedigree - so-and-so field champion, so-and-so field champion, mother, father sire field champions." 

I said, "My dog was bred for beauty, so I gave it away."

He said, "Oh, you're interested in a dog?" 

By 1971,(Alex Douglas-Home)had become a minister and we had a Commonwealth conference here. He brough a Labrador pup for my daughter. It was the most intelligent dog I've ever had. 

We sent her to the police training school, learnt all the tricks just like that. After a while you ask her to do it, she gets so bored she performs all the tricks for you - sit down, lie, creep, so on. 

And instinct tells her: water, you go in. So she goes into the Istana pool, and we got to wash her.

So I decide that if dogs are like that, the human being - since I believe in Darwinism and I'm not an American fundamentalist who believes in creation and the Bible - I think there must be an affinity between these animals and us, and especially the apes and the chimpanzees." (pg 196 of Hard Truths).

Alas, this is how LKY saw the world and how he saw the role of government when it comes to addressing this question that has basically stumped our 4G leaders, especially Ong Ye Kung in his May parliamentary speech about fighting inequality incrementally without compromising growth:- 

"How to keep the society united so that we don't have an underclass that feels disaffected, disconnect and rebellious as in America".

Taking a page off LKY, he believed that "(our) system must accept that human nature is like that. You get the best of people for society by incentives and disincentives." 

And here is the real dilemma for him as expressed with endearing concern: "If you remove too much of their rewards from the top, they will migrate." 

That I guess would be a very costly brain drain for the nation. And for a ruthlessly pragmatic strategist like LKY, that would be a national disaster.

In other words, to use the metaphor above about Labrador pup, I get the impression from LKY that the pedigree dogs at the top are instrumental (if not indispensable) to a nation's unrelenting pursuit of growth and wealth generation while the groaning (and barking) of "dud" dogs at the bottom (for being left behind) would have to be dealt with no less, but nevertheless, with a less urgent hand because economic growth (regardless) is still the golden standard of good governance. 

To me, this seems more like an inconvenient truth that needs to be addressed in a way that would keep the top dogs comfortably rewarded and the bottom dogs largely appeased, and possibly kept at bay.

Mm...this might just explain the top dollars they are getting while in office?

And as an intrepid defender of the system he had created, here is LKY rubbishing another criticism he finds stupid. This time the criticism is directed at the government. 

In Hard Truths, he said: "The popular belief that we are an elitist lot is just stupid!" 

Here is why as reported in the book:-

"The PAP's leadership selection model is not a hypocritical system that pays lip service to being egalitarian, (LKY) argued. The reality as societies developed is that leaders often come from the same social circles, educational backgrounds and even family trees. Lee pointed to the experiences of other countries, where leadership selection is equally elitist but masquerades under the guise of egalitarianism. Oxbridge graduates stock Whitehall in the United Kingdom, Ivy Leaguers in the United States, graduates of the grandes ecoles in France, powerful oligarchs elsewhere in the world...There is no truly egalitarian leadership anywhere in the world, Lee stated categorically." (pg 104 of Hard Truths).

Well, LKY has got a point (about nepotistic ties and homogeneity of high achievers with good genes in high places). It may be a blunt, politically incorrect point, but no less true and pervasive. At least he is being unpretentious about it. 

Yet, like it or not, it would still be a great political risk for any politician here to try to hint to that hush-hush reality in parliament which screeches in the cerebral chalkboard of the modern mind.

But the more pertinent question is, can LKY be wrong? That is, can he be wrong when he left us with this stark option:-

"You want an equal society with low growth? Or an unequal society with high growth then you take part of the growth and support the lower strata?"

Yes, we are back to incentivising the top for growth and appeasing the bottom by sharing some of the growth. 

But, is it always the case that equal society means low growth and an unequal society means high growth? What has recent years of data shown us? 

In an article yesterday entitled "How inequality and low wages can stall growth", Professor Linda Lim cited numerous studies from IMF and OECD and they all reaffirm research results that, "on average, higher income inequality is associated with slower gross domestic product growth".

It bears repeating that the above studies show that higher income inequality means slower GDP growth (not higher growth). And Prof Lim said: "This contradicts the earlier standard economic belief that inequality contributes positively to economic growth, by providing both the motivation and means to work hard and invest more for higher returns." 

It also runs counter to LKY's equation above. 

The reason for such slower growth is that as automation replaces workers, it also depresses their wages. In addition, globalisation has further depressed wages as workers in high income countries like ours are unable to compete with lower-wage foreign workers and lower-wage immigrants. 

According to the article, "globally, wage share of GDP has been falling since the 1970s while the share that goes to capital, or corporate profits, has risen." 

This is the result of the top 1% gaming the system by paying themselves high salaries and bonuses and raking in "monopoly returns on scarce land, property and other "non-productive" assets - which are not invested in increasing productive capacity, so they do not raise productivity and wages."

Professor Lim also observed that "corporate decisions - such as share buybacks, mergers and acquisitions, and cost-cutting - that push up stock prices but discourage long-term investments in increasing productivity and innovation" and this further cuts the wage share of GDP. 

As such, if you put the pieces together, what you get is a vicious cycle played out in this manner: lower wages means weaker aggregate demand, and weaker aggregate demand means less incentive for businesses to invest. And this is one of the reasons why high inequality means slow growth. 

So, LKY may have a point about the good gene pool (with important caveats of course), incentivizing the top and pacifying the bottom to preserve unity, and the unavoidable atas composition of the elitist, but recent trends/studies have contradicted the simplistic equation that unequal society means high growth, at least not in the long run in an already matured economy.

For automation, globalisation, financialisation, rent-seeking behaviour, excessive salaries and compensation, stock prices hike via merger and acquisition, investment in non-productive assets and a slump aggregate demand due to depressed wages have all conspired to stall growth in an already highly unequal society like ours. 

At some point, inequality comes as an insidious drawback of growth, and not its unintended partner or ally, or out of necessity. 

And it is surely not about no growth, but what growth, and how to get there, and not about blind growth, at all costs, and hoping that the top can generously share the economic pie with the bottom - history has proven quite otherwise with compliment of our human nature.

In conclusion (in the article), Professor Lim observed that "inequality in Singapore now ranks among the highest of other high-income countries" and even with "many policies recommended to reduce inequality, such as public investments in health and education which reach children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, heavy state investments in public housing and subsidised social services for qualifying populations,...yet inequality remains stubbornly high and social mobility is declining."

She ended with this caution: "This is clearly an issue that merits further examination." 

So, let me end too with this tenuous hope: when Ong Ye Kung talks in May about "tackling inequality" as an "unfinished business," which requires "ceaseless striving" to close the income gap, strengthen the middle income core, and increase social mobility and social mix, I hope he will be going beyond the rhetoric to ensure that the majority at the bottom gets to share in the economic feasting at the banquet table of growth, and not wait by the side for the crumbs to fall gratuitously from the top dogs. 

Most importantly, I hope he is not barking up the wrong tree. Cheerz. 

Jake's love and Joycelyn's courage.

When Jake Seet, 33, was conducting underwater operation on May 5 near Sentosa, he went missing and his body was found two days later off the coast of Sentosa.

He left behind his wife, Joycelyn, 34, and two sons, Justin, 6, and Jareth, 3, and Joycelyn recently gave birth to their baby girl, Jewel.

Joycelyn, a teaching assistant at an Australian school here, admitted to this: "The toughest period was after my delivery, when I was in a two-bed ward."

She added: "The husband of the patient beside me was always by her side, so I would feel extremely lonely seeing them. The word "husband" has become a knife to my heart."

Nevertheless, Joycelyn felt her husband's presence during her pregnancy in this assuring words: "Jake very much wanted to see his daughter. He told me she will be the most beautiful girl in the world."

Lesson? There are three here.

1) The anonymous good Samaritans in our crossroad. 

Joycelyn said: "We are touched and grateful to the public for their support, (and) how complete strangers can step up to offer their assistance."

It reports in the papers (by Lucas Wong) that "grateful donors...contributed almost $260,000 to (Joycelyn's) family via targeted amount is $300,000."

2) The paradox of joy and pain in our life.

Earlier, Joycelyn admitted that the word "husband" has become a knife to her heart. Yet, the birth of Jewel gave hope to Joycelyn and her two boys. 

As she looked at Jewel, she saw Jake in her beautiful girl. "The left side of Jewel's ear is sharp while her right ear is more rounded, just like her dad." 

Truly, nothing could compare to the presence of Jake in the three kids' life, but even in sorrow, there is always hope and growth in a new life.

And lastly...

3) We fathers never left.

Joycelyn plans to "make a pendant to hold a picture of (Jake) on one side and Jewel on the other" and to give it to Jewel when she is older. 
At times, Joycelyn would play voice recordings of Jake to her kids. 

In one of them, their father said: "Good morning Jareth, good morning Justin, good morning morning mummy. I love you. I miss you guys. I will be back soon, okay? Be good."

The sad thing about such poignant occasion is that Jareth (3 yrs) is still unaware that his father is no longer with them and Jareth would reply: "Okay daddy."

Joycelyn said that when Jewel was born, her first words to her were: "Daddy would love to see you. Even though daddy's not around and you can't see him, he will always be by your side. He is your guardian angel."


I put these three lessons together in one go because they represent the timeless encouragement for those going through grief and pain. 

I believe that you can't fully experience the beauty of humanity without embracing in your heart the assurance that there is always a community out there that truly cares. 

It may come in a form of financial aid, a word of prayer or a silent caregiver in your midst to tend to your needs while you grieve. 

But they are there, connected by the bond of humanity, like Job's friends who sat with him for days in quietude as he moaned in sorrow. 
Then, there is the birth of a new life and the hope she brings. In other words, there are the endearing lives that the loved one leaves behind. And again, they are always there to remind you of what is worth living for. 

At such time when it truly counts, the strength for today and the hope for tomorrow come mainly from things relational and seldom from things material. 

No doubt, the bills still have to be paid. But if the heart finds no reason to go on, what further obligation does one have to the earthly debts one owes? 

Lastly, there is the life that once lived. I believe that love is demysfied in one's passing. It is made clearer as the memories are treasured even more. The shed tears unveil the full picture of what is dearly missed. 

Nothing about our loss thereafter is taken for granted. As such, he or she may be gone, but everything about him or her lives on. 

As Joycelyn said to Jewel: "Daddy would love to see you. Even though daddy's not around and you can't see him, he will always be by your side. He is your guardian angel."

Indeed, in the same way that you can't separate love from a grieving heart, you can't separate hope, intimacy, and the joy once shared together either.

They will always be close by, breathing life to life, strengthening bonds, nudging us forward and yielding a bittersweet warmness to our heart that persists to glow undimmed in the darkest of nights. 

In other words, they have become our undying guardian angels. Cheerz.

What kind of father are you?

Honestly, what kind of father do you want to be?

The late Michael Jackson's father, Joe Jackson (whose full name is Joseph Walter Jackson), passed away on Wednesday at 89 of pancreatic cancer. He was living in a hospice in Las Vegas.

If fatherhood has a unique blend of strictness and betrayal, Joe may just fit the bill here. 

He dropped out of high school, with parents divorced, worked as a steel worker, dabbled in boxing for a while, and also joined a R&B band before they disbanded. 

He also managed and led the Jackson Music Empire which produced the famous Jackson Five with Michael Jackson helming it and subsequently, Janet Jackson's music career also took off. 

When he broke away with Motown Records in mid-70s, that decision launched Michael's career to super stardom status. If not for that breakaway, MJ wouldn't be as successful as he is today, even in memoriam.

It was a casual start for the kids when Joe disbanded from his R&B band. He hid his guitar, afraid that his kids might damage it, but his sons found it, jammed on it and the rest is MJ history. 

But success for the Jackson came with a price. 

Although Jackson senior was strict, focused and bent on making his kids a success, which he has to be given credit for, he was also abusive and he took the opportunity to commit extramarital affairs when he toured with the Jacksons. 

His philandering ways were hardly hidden from his children and he treated it as a rite of passage for the rich and successful, an entitlement which the world should understand. It's almost like the price for fame. 

However, in 1983, led by Michael, the kids dismissed their father from being their manager and distanced themselves from him. Michael said: "It's not easy firing your father."

It reports that to the end, Joe insisted that he had raised his kids in the right way. 

He said: "I got a strict raising when I was young and I've been able to accomplished a lot because of that. And my kids have gotten a strict raising and look what they've accomplished. I think children should fear their parents."

Lesson? Well, I don't know whether kids should fear their parents, but I sure feared mine in the past. 

But my point is that fatherhood is never an easy road. The journey is twofold: marital and parenting. Both of them must be inspired by hope, fidelity and love. 

Hope that your kids are going to turn out well. Fidelity to keep keeping at it whatever the costs. And love to water the weary soul, refresh the spirit and strengthen the bond. 

Joe's experiences of fatherhood is more complicated than it seems. I do not see a point in commenting on it as different people from different perspectives may see it differently. 

Some may think that it is worth it, that is, the abuse and infidelity, if the kids turns out independent, rich and famous. 

Others may see it as highly questionable since he had broken many promises as a husband and father. In the end, his relationship with them, especially his wife, is essentially estranged. 

To me, fatherhood is much less complicated than Joe's. 

It is made up of countless of simple meals shared together with family. It is made up of unscheduled laughters, encouraging words at the right time, the holding of hands to affirm the bond, a smile of pride for the little victories and milestones overcome, rumble and tumble in the sheets for unexpected fun, a hug and a kiss to assure them of your devotion to them, and most importantly, to beat them at loving the love of their life, their mother.

Nothing about all that is about being rich and famous. For me, it is always about being truthful, honest and committed. These virtues are priceless and it takes a lifetime of stumbles as a human father to nurture and sustain them in my life. 

My philosophy is simply that you only have one life of limited span here on earth. So, what truly and enduringly counts is at its end. 

When you finally get to look back from the boundary of mortality, you want to know that you have been true to yourself, have given the best you can, have loved unceasing even when temptation is unrelenting, have never given up hope even in the worst of times, and having survey your bed death, you are surrounded by them, the ones whom you have given your life to, and they are holding your hands, hugging you with tears, and telling you repeatedly, "Daddy we love you". 

I think no fame or riches can compare to that when you finally leave this world as a very human father with all the flaws, but yet, an earnest dad with a heart that stays true, stays strong and stays hopeful. Cheerz.

When fathers pray...

When fathers pray...

Dear Lord, give us strength. Fatherhood is challenging. At times, it's tough. we are supposed to be their hero, but at times, we struggle with the villain within.

It is easy to say that we are supposed to keep our cool. Our temper must be measured. Our patience must be enduring. 

But fathers are humans too. We may wear the pants in the house. But still, we wear it one leg at a time. We do not turn into saints the moment our children are born. 

At times, we stumble. We trip over our words. We get angry for no good reason. We lose our head. 

At such times, our children bear the brunt of it. They are hurt by our words. They are disappointed by our behaviour.

So Lord, give us strength to live up as the head of the household. Give us strength to set the example to lead our precious children. 

Sure, in this journey, we will fall or disappoint. But give us the strength to fall forward, pick ourselves up and run the race with renewed hope. Give us the strength to own up to our faults and say sorry for them. 

Remind us that our children do not want a father who resists to be broken at all costs, but one who is always vulnerable, open and willing to change. 

Oh Lord, sooner or later, our children will realise that we are not perfect. But as fathers, we are not called to be perfect. 

What defines us as fathers is our faithfulness, not perfection. What makes us good fathers is that we will always be there for them come rain or shine. It is our faithfulness in the little things that adds up at the end of the day.

For this reason Lord, remind us to never be discouraged when we are not able to give them what they ask for. There is more to fatherhood than gifts and presents. 

Ultimately, what our kids are looking for is beyond what money can buy. 

For the best gift a father can offer to his children comes from the heart and not from a wallet or a cheque book. And a good father's heart makes all the difference in our children's lives.

When we finally walk our daughter down the aisle, or witness our son leave home to start his own family, what sets tears flowing is not things material, but the relationship we have forged with them over the years. It is our commitment to protect and to provide that defines our love for them. 

For Lord, what makes fatherhood such a sacred responsibility is that we get to show our children the power of making and keeping a promise in a union we fathers take with the love of our life. 

Our marriage is the greatest gift we can offer to our children. It is a priceless gift because the commitment of a lifetime is beyond what this world can ever hope to give. This union is special because it is a gift from you Lord.

No doubt we are no saints to our children, but by keeping our marriage vows, protecting it against all temptations, we as fathers make love perfect in two imperfect beings on earth. This is the closest we will ever get to being heroes to our children.

So Lord, as we end this prayer, give us the strength and courage to take this transforming journey of fatherhood. For it is one of the most rewarding journeys we will ever take to experience not just our children's growth, but our very own. Amen.