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The Problems With The Fortune Made In Shit

One of my more prominent memories of my last year in university, was being at an event where the then Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Tony Tan was the guest of honour. Dr. Tan was on visit to the UK and the prominent members of the Singapore community had gathered to see what he had to say about Singapore’s relationship with the UK.

During this event, I was introduced to the representative of a Singapore government-controlled company. This was an exceptionally educational conversation into the workings of the Singapore advertising market and suddenly the representative mentioned that the Company had the capability of upgrading the entire island to broadband fiber optic system overnight (this being in 2000 when broadband was just becoming a standard and wi-fi belonged to the realms of science fiction). I remember asking him why the system wasn’t upgraded if there was the capability to do so. The reply was that the company was making so much money from the status quo and there was no rush to upgrade the system.

I’ve been made to recall this story because my day job in the insolvency sphere and my side hustle promoting start-ups paint two very different pictures of the Singapore economy. In the side-hustle, you’re given the impression that Singapore is serious about being a “Silicon Valley” for Southeast Asia. Our government, which is famous for its “control freakery” is somehow sending out ministers to give all sorts of speeches about needing people who can take risk, think out of the box and so on, all in the hope of getting the world’s innovators to set up shop in Singapore. Apparently, the world’s most famous group of control freaks are committed to growing Asia’s Elon Musk out of Singapore. Funnily enough, the statistics might be proving them right: [LINK]

However, in my day job, I run into a lot of businesses in the old-fashioned industries like shipping and construction. These are the industries that are capital, asset and let us not forget labour intensive. The most prominent part of these industries is the fact that they are powered primarily by labour from what the former US President called “Shithole” countries because they involve physically demanding labour in rough conditions.

While the old-fashioned industries may not have the glamour of the “sexy tech-start-ups,” they are what you’d call the backbone of the economy. Singapore was founded as a trading centre so it goes without saying that the shipping industry plays a vital role in keeping Singapore relevant in the world. Singapore’s construction industry also has a role in keeping Singapore’s infrastructure in tip top condition.

These are also the industries with the most amount of patronage (the major construction projects are inevitably government ones) and depend the most of exploitation of the poor for their profits. Let’s face it the work of say paving a road requires you do physically do it and the only people willing to do it at low wages are the people from what Donald Trump most famously called “Shithole” countries. Not only do these workers power the old-fashioned industries, they are also the source of funds for a strangely entrepreneurial industry called “labour supply,” which basically involves a group of middle men getting workers to work on various construction projects for a certain fixed wage and pocketing things like overtime.

Thanks to Covid-19 and the explosion of cases in the dormitories, to get an idea of the extent that the industries were dependent on foreign labour. The tax payer had to step in to assist the dormitory operators to “upgrade” their facilities to more livable ones and when questioned as to why the tax payer was bailing out an industry that had benefited from keeping workers in conditions that helped breed the disease, the standard response from the industries was this was our national obligation because the system of keeping workers in disease breeding facilities benefited the rest of us through cheaper real estate (which was a polite way of saying nobody would be able to afford a roof over our heads).

Leaving aside all the other arguments on the merits of foreign labour, one thing is clear – our old-fashioned industries are exceedingly unproductive and basic task that could be done more efficiently are done by manpower.

I take the conversation I had with a General Manager of a Swiss company that sells cable pulling wenches. The man found it easier to sell his machines in the “Shithole” countries in the region then in the land of “ultra-modernity.” His point was that despite the fact that a single one of his machines could pull a cable a greater distance and, in less time, then several men, the “bean counters” on the client side found that it was cheaper to hire those several men (a cynic might also argue that you only pay goods and services tax once on the sale of a machine but the worker’s levy is a monthly affair). [LINK]

There is technology available to make old fashioned industries more productive or at least less dependent on manpower. I think of a former Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professor, who is working to develop a wheelchair that will help the mobility of the aged. With an aging population, this would be a good product in Singapore’s market. However, if you look at what he considers his “selling” points, you’ll realise that it will reduce the need for manpower, which means an army of agents will have less to earn from an army of maids, which also means that there will be less money generated in the form of levies.

This is clearly not a question of a lack of money or technology. If you work on A*Star or DSTA accounts, you’ll realise that a lot of patents do get filed and if something can’t be invented or develop in Singapore, there are technologies developed elsewhere which can be bought.

So, the question then becomes, if the money and technologies are there, why aren’t they being adapted to create greater efficiencies? I go back to that conversation all those years ago and the answer seems that too many people are making money from a system that encourages exploitation and discourages efficiency or productivity.

If Covid-19 brings us anything, it should be to force the old-fashioned industries to adapt to new technologies that create greater

efficiencies. An investment in technology might seem daunting but in the long run in pays off. I think of the most successful member of my army cohort who has become a “cleaning entrepreneur.” He provides robots who can help keep our environment clean: [LINK]

Singapore has reached a stage where the problems it faces cannot be solved by only one source of ideas. It needs entrepreneurs like my friend, who are looking at ways of making basic industries more productive and less exploitative.

The government needs to find ways to make it expensive to make money in the shit and incentivize ways in which people can make money from cleaning the shit. That is if the government is really serious about restructuring the economy to a “new normal” and making us a more productive nation.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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17 Responses to “The Problems With The Fortune Made In Shit”

  • A productive nation indeed?:

    Low wage workers are the most exploited breed of a nation that overpays its selfserving ruling politicians.

    So what? It’s just a poltical game; a game gamed by unscrupulous powergreed polticians and cronies who only believe in bigtime powergrip to enrich themselves.

    You die, your funeral!

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  • Anonymous incognito:

    never going to happen. Precisely because the peverse economic incentives are conscious public policy. So unless the part is voted out it’s inefficient business as usual

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    Dear Tang Li,
    You said : …..many people are making money from a system that encourages exploitation and discourages efficiency or productivity.
    ===================================================
    So when are you going to stop the exploitation ?

    Are you going to follow Professor Pang below to take them to court to stop the exploitation ?
    政經關不了(完整版)|2021.02.26
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPgTKuMk58M

    Or are you just another Oppieopportunist who hide awaywaiting for others to do the dirty jobs while they themselves enjoy fine dining safe and far away ?

    While students charged at frontline, Martin Lee Hide Away Enjoys Fine Dining with his pastor
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXjSv3Hj-Xg

    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.HuatAgain
    Majullah $PAP$ $PAP$ Huat$

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  • DPM HSK talking cock again:

    Straits Times: Budget debate: DPM Heng reminds the House of hard truths

    The following are the “hard truths” that always self-serving PAP denies.

    (1) Singapore is NOT are a (real) First World country. It does NOT have First World wages, productivity, work quality and standard of living. It might have First World per capita GDP but it also has First World COST of living with stagnant wages.

    (2) Singapore is NOT are real democracy because it lacks basic freedoms (free speech, freedom to assemble and a free press) and an independent judiciary. There is no openness and transparency in the public sector. That is the reason there is no REAL accountability. Same reason elections in Singapore is a FARCE.

    (3) Singaporeans are WORSE OFF since LHL became PM. He allowed the massive influx of foreign workers causing Singaporeans to lose their job, depress local wages and push up prices sharply. Singaporeans got squeezed and screwed big-time by PAP. LHL also allowed the price of HDB flats to more than double since he became PM. This “drained” the CPF accounts of Singaporeans and sharply increased government reserves.

    (4) HDB flats are basically DEPRECIATING assets because of the 99-year lease. HDB flats fair price steadily depreciates to ZER0. An UNSUSTAINABLE “property bubble” initiated and perpetuated by PAP has masked the steady depreciation of HDB flats. Being a basically depreciating asset HDB are the WORST investment for retirement savings. This saving should appreciate, not depreciate.

    (5) HDB is a big PONZI SCHEME. Owners of HDB flats have to depend on “another sucker” like them to buy their HDB flat without taking into account the steadily declining lease remaining for all HDB flats.

    (6) Singapore has over a TRILLION in reserves from perennial Budget surpluses over the last 5+ decades and from the BILLIONS made by self-funding stat boards like SLA, LTA, JTC, URA, CAAS, etc. annually. These are not included in the Budget. These stat boards are holding BILLIONS (as hidden reserves) because MOF does not need the money since the Budget is often already in surplus.

    (7) Singaporeans ARE SINGAPORE. They are the only real asset of the country. LKY and PAP does not believe this. They think the country is a small island at the end of the Malay Peninsula with an economic metric (GDP) attach to it. They “used” Singaporeans to increase GDP to boost their ego and to be able to pay themselves millions each year. Singaporeans were (are being “used even abused then discarded”.

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  • DPM HSK talking cock again:

    (8) LKY (and PAP) invested in infrastructure (“concrete on the ground”) instead of Singaporeans (the only real asset of Singapore) because investing in Singaporeans means making sure as manay Singaporeans get a university education as possible to compete in the knowledge economy of First World country. LKY and PAP did the opposite. It deliberately limited the number of young Singaporeans that can go local universities. Uniquely (stupid) Singapore. Why? Because local graduates are a threat to PAP political dominance.

    (9) Singapore might have massive reserves but it cannot buy time. Not investing in Singaporeans is the reason Singapore does not have global companies like Hyundai, LG, KIA, Samsung, TSMC, Asus, Acer, MSI, Gigabyte, ARM, etc. Singapore does not have the “smarts” and the technology. It is ow trying to play catch up by spending BILLIONS annually on research employing mostly high p-priced foreigners. For example, A-Star have spent billions of reserves since it started but has nothing substantial to show for it.

    (10) Ho Ching has LOST BILLIONS since she became Temasek CEO. She stupidly invested in Merrill Lynch and Barclays at the start of the 2008 Financial Crisis but has not been held accountable.

    (11) GIC lost BILLIONS when it invested in UBS. The GIC investment team was led by former 35% President Tony Tan then GIC Executive Director. He became EP (suppose to protect reserves) after losing billions of it investing in UBS. What a joke!

    (12) PAP has not “come back” to the issue of its former candidate Ivan Lim as it said it would because this would prove its selection process for MPs is deeply flawed.

    PM LHL is a FAILURE. PAP is a “spent force”. Singaporeans should have buried it with LKY at the last GE.

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    Dear Readers,
    If you enrolled in courses by University of London (UOL), quit the course now.

    UOL ranking is dropping fast and furious after it was exposed that LSE assisted President Tsai with a fake PHD.

    蔡英文的假博士們再也擋不住
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSk6FiZIZFc

    You had been warned ….
    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.HuatAgain
    Majullah $PAP$ $PAP$ Huat$

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  • NotMyProblem:

    “…. you only pay goods and services tax once on the sale of a machine but the worker’s levy is a monthly affair”;

    Well @Tang Li; you hit the nail directly on its head!!

    Not only that; foreigner workers also benefitted middlemen and HR kickback!! Not forgetting also those providing accommodation for these FWs. Remember someone boasted about her mansion in Santosa Cove??

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  • TEMUSIK PATRIOT:

    AI as to GreyMatter between the ears of Man??? no contest one is an Illusion and the other is Real…

    When the chips are down the GreyMatter will be around

    Today everything swirls around AI

    but it is GM that makes it swirl…and some e*** B*$t**d$ would like to REDUCE GM and “Replace” it with AI…Lie Con You, his Master Kissinger still kicking and Bill Gates to name a few…with Hitler-Moa-Stalin long GONE!!!

    Hopefully, History will NOT repeat when Covid-19 had done its JOB naturally

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  • LKY failed Singaporeans:

    Even the “great LKY” did not have the foresight and guts to “invest” in Singaporeans, the only real asset of Singapore, to make Singapore the “silicon valley of Asia”. This required a well-educated workforce which LKY did not want because graduates are a threat to PAP political dominance. His top priority is to keep PAP in total control. If LKY did what Korea (and Taiwan) did 5 decades ago Singapore could have come up with global companies like Samsung, Hyundai, KIA, LG, TSMC, Asus, Acer, etc. LKY opted for the “soft option” and continued to invest in ship[yards left by the British (Keppel and Sembawang). Both are no longer competitive against the big players from China and Korea. They had to resort to paying bribes to get business overseas. Keppel got caught and had to pay a fine of US$500m.

    LKY was fixated with building reserves, “putting concrete on the ground” (aka infrastructure), and GDP growth instead of investing in the only real asset of Singapore – Singaporeans. The rest is history.

    Singapore might have over a TRILLION in reserves but it cannot buy time. PAP has been spending billions yearly to try and catch up but it is too late. A-Star has spent billions of taxpayers money since it was setup but has nothing substantial to show for it.

    Singapore is just an expensive Third World” country dependent on over-priced real estate, value-extracting (“blood-sucking”) banks and MNC attracted to Singapore by cheap labor and tax-breaks provided by the government.

    Without a doubt, Singapore is NOT a First World country in terms of what really counts – wages, productivity, work quality and standard of living because LKY (and PAP) failed Singaporeans. They just made themselves (and their families) and “friends” rich at the expense of ordinary Singaporeans.

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  • TEMUSIK PATRIOT:

    LKY failed Singaporeans:
    Even the “great LKY” did not have the foresight and guts to “invest” in Singaporeans, the only real asset of Singapore, to make Singapore the “silicon valley of Asia”. This required a well-educated workforce which LKY did not want because graduates are a threat to PAP political dominance. His top priority is to keep PAP in total control. If LKY did what Korea (and Taiwan) did 5 decades ago Singapore could have come up with global companies like Samsung, Hyundai, KIA, LG, TSMC, Asus, Acer, etc. LKY opted for the “soft option” and continued to invest in ship[yards left by the British (Keppel and Sembawang). Both are no longer competitive against the big players from China and Korea. They had to resort to paying bribes to get business overseas. Keppel got caught and had to pay a fine of US$500m.

    LKY was fixated with building reserves, “putting concrete on the ground” (aka infrastructure), and GDP growth instead of investing in the only real asset of Singapore – Singaporeans. The rest is history.

    Singapore might have over a TRILLION in reserves but it cannot buy time. PAP has been spending billions yearly to try and catch up but it is too late. A-Star has spent billions of taxpayers money since it was setup but has nothing substantial to show for it.

    Singapore is just an expensive Third World” country dependent on over-priced real estate, value-extracting (“blood-sucking”) banks and MNC attracted to Singapore by cheap labor and tax-breaks provided by the government.

    Without a doubt, Singapore is NOT a First World country in terms of what really counts – wages, productivity, work quality and standard of living because LKY (and PAP) failed Singaporeans. They just made themselves (and their families) and “friends” rich at the expense of ordinary Singaporeans.

    A good comment from a Tru “THINKING” Patriot, the sad thing is about the CONditioned sheep unable to “think” and led to pen by dogs with e*** eyes to be slaughtered

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  • Harder Truths:

    The measure of success is not technology or productivity – these are correlated factors. Productivity and technology can equally mean more control or less jobs. These factors do not tell you how well the population are taken care of or how desperate they are. The assumption that productivity is always good and the regime has it means nothing if the end result is a worse situation for the people.

    Has A.I. given more jobs or are people being displaced? Is better PMET productivity achieved by employing a foreigner from the EU or USA instead of a local? Can a skilled construction job be given to a foreign labourer to reduce costs and increase productivity? Is A.I. replacement in many jobs increasing productivity but putting people out of work a good thing?

    Productivity by itself means nothing if it cannot create jobs, improve the livelihood of citizens and keep their health and happiness as its main goal.

    That is why this assertion that productivity is by itself a great thing has no real meaning. It misses the point completely.

    Real economic activity that improves the life of the citizens must come from the private sector and cannot exist in a controlled communist society. Every bought, stolen or borrowed new technology or foreign labour is adopted for the purpose of increasing control or putting people out of work.

    Therefore technology is merely a tool for a desired end. It can be used both ways. As it is now local citizens are going to end up tagged, tracked and jobless within the next generation.

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  • AhLi eat well shit well:

    I can swallow two pieces of string and when they come out the other end below, they’ll be tied together… “I shit you knot”!

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  • #06-195 Merde!:

    UOL don’t want to recognise but degree mills recognise. Save on wages so important?

    Singaporeans R Free Riders:
    Dear Readers,
    If you enrolled in courses by University of London (UOL), quit the course now.

    UOL ranking is dropping fast and furious after it was exposed that LSE assisted President Tsai with a fake PHD.

    蔡英文的假博士們再也擋不住
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSk6FiZIZFc

    You had been warned ….
    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.HuatAgain
    Majullah $PAP$ $PAP$ Huat$

    GD Star Rating
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  • #06-183 Huang Ba Dan:

    Are you opportunist also? Exploit these articles for warped commentary?

    Singaporeans R Free Riders:
    Dear Tang Li,
    You said : …..many people are making money from a system that encourages exploitation and discourages efficiency or productivity.
    ===================================================
    So when are you going to stop the exploitation ?

    Are you going to follow Professor Pang below to take them to court to stop the exploitation ?
    政經關不了(完整版)|2021.02.26
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPgTKuMk58M

    Or are you just another Oppieopportunist who hide awaywaiting for others to do the dirty jobs while they themselves enjoy fine dining safe and far away ?

    While students charged at frontline, Martin Lee Hide Away Enjoys Fine Dining with his pastor
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXjSv3Hj-Xg

    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.HuatAgain
    Majullah $PAP$ $PAP$ Huat$

    GD Star Rating
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  • Weaver with No Substance:

    After reading through what I thought an academia piece, this guy is no economist or sociopolitical scientist or human resource planner but a writer of bullshits.

    AhLi eat well shit well:
    I can swallow two pieces of string and when they come out the other end below, they’ll be tied together… “I shit you knot”!

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  • What a great article!:

    All about the ‘shits’ in tech, labor, and productivity.
    A long piece of muddled-up crap.
    Wonder whether workers from those “shit-hole” countries will show HIM their “middle fingers” if they lose their livelihoods.

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  • Prof Wei Shin YU:

    Again, Tang Li has started a discussion of a controversial topic that is close to every Singaporean’s heart. Bravo!
    For solution I agree with “Harder Truth”, that adoption of a technology must benefit Singaporeans, ultimately. I can think of a few technology that can reduce the reliance on foreign labours so that Singaporeans can be employed, even though they cost more:
    1. Semi-auto cleaning & repainting of HDB apartment blocks
    — for a typical rectangular block, only the 2 side walls (and may be the back wall as well?)
    2. Semi-auto cleaning & repainting of million-barrel oil storage tanks
    — it’s a hell hole inside, dark and full of very thick oily mud
    3. Semi-auto cleaning & repainting of ship hulls at ports or in shipyards
    — potential to revitalise SG’s ship repairing industry
    4. Semi-auto preparation of Peking ducks and bak kua
    5. Semi-auto sewing of aircraft & car seat covers
    — potential to become the “Manufacturing Centre for Aircraft & Car Seat Covers”
    6. Fully automated biscuit manufacturing — to bring Khong Guan back to SG

    Anyone interested, pls see http://www.appliedrobotics.com.au, for whom I am consultant.

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