Tobacco tax is good for the coffers, but risks abound

Take your eyes off the GST rate hike, if you can. I personally don’t mind so much how much tax is levied, as long as we get our money’s worth in the end (spend it well), and it doesn’t lead to any risky situations.

The G already makes more than $1 billion a year from tobacco tax. A 10 per cent hike would put a tidy $100 million more into the budget (although it wouldn’t stave off the need for the 2 per cent GST hike everyone is fixated on), and will more than pay for the healthcare costs that smokers are likely to rack up from their habit.

Don’t be mistaken – the tax hike is not really meant as a way to encourage smokers to quit. Singaporeans are surprisingly stubborn when it comes to paying taxes on things they really want, and the massive taxes we already pay for cars and alcohol have scarcely put a damper on demand.

Two things are going to happen, and one more likely than the other. The first is that smokers will feel a little hard done by – this can’t be avoided if the G needs the money. Smokers are used to being the butt of taxes anyway, since the G believes that they will not only keep smoking, but not impact the political balance significantly (it’s not like there are any pro-smoking opposition parties anyway).

Second, and more importantly, we are going to see a rise in contraband cigarettes (check out TMG’s report on the issue last year). As prices go up, it’s going to become more and more attractive to bring in illicit cigarettes, and with them the additional risks they are linked with.

Just on the surface, the G already loses about $203 million in revenue per year to contraband cigarettes, according to a 2014 report. If higher tax leads to more smuggling, then this loss figure could increase significantly.

Underneath the surface, it also floods the market with more tobacco prpducts that may not be compliant to tar, nicotine and chemical limits, is a source of funds for criminal syndicates and terrorism, and encourages other sorts of trafficking (like drugs or weapons) to piggyback along. Singapore becomes a big magnet for the inventory of illegal cigarettes around the region because with retail prices sky-high, smugglers stand to make bigger margins on their goods.

One more factor is going to push up cigarette smuggling in the near future – proposed plain packaging laws. The health ministry’s public consultation paper on plain packaging basically considered the risks of increased illicit trade non-existent, citing the Australian story, but some facts seem to bear out a different story.

KPMG study of illicit tobacco market in Australia

Chart from KPMG study of illicit tobacco market in Australia

Australian plain packaging laws came into force in 2012, and a study by KPMG showed that since that year, illicit tobacco has accounted for 2 to 3 per cent more of the tobacco market than before. The situation has prompted the Australian government to push a bill for harsher penalties for illicit cigarettes and tobacco.

Ultimately, Singapore needs to tread carefully and increase her vigilance against smuggled cigarettes, or else the financial benefits from the increased cigarette tax will not outweigh the associated risks.


Photo by Thong Vo on Unsplash



Urumi and M Ravi welcomed at St Patrick’s Day Parade

I work at the agency doing PR for St Patrick’s Day (although I write this in my personal capacity) and we’ve worked hard (along with organisers SRO) to make it an inclusive, celebratory and totally rocking weekend event. There was great food, great bands (shamelessly promoting especially The Disclaimers and Craic Horse), and flowing Guinness (our dear sponsor, here’s a #jointhecrowd for you). Contrary to assumptions, this was a family event too, with all sorts of entertainment for the kids over the weekend.

Some Indian urumi drummers showed up (as expected), as did M Ravi (not as expected), and they were warmly welcomed by both local and Irish organisers. Parade chairman Colin MacDonald, while walking through the parade before it began, shook hands with Ravi and welcomed him personally. I’m not sure what part of that Ravi considered “negotiations”, but I think Colin certainly won Ravi over. That was about all that transpired between Colin and Ravi (no negotiations, not much shock expressed, etc). After the parade, the entourage proceeded to Hero’s for a few drinks (mostly Guinness).

Adding some urumi kick to the parade. And lots of dancing in the back by M Ravi.

Adding some urumi kick to the parade. And lots of dancing in the back by M Ravi.

I just want to make it clear that at no point had anyone ever rejected their participation – the parade is and has always been open to the public, and stands as a testimony to Singapore’s multicultural and inclusive spirit, so that rumour about some unnamed Singaporean organiser is utterly confusing.

Nonetheless, the important thing was that the Indian drummers were a welcome part of the celebrations, this year and in any year to come. Colin MacDonald said that “the St Patrick’s Day parade is and always he’s been organized by a joint Singaporean and Irish organizing committee. We welcome everybody to join. Next year, please come down and bring your drums; bring everything! We welcome you!”

Ravi’s attendance (and I guess the drummers’ too) was orchestrated by Augustin Lee (Zixu Augustin Lee). All I can say is… COME DOWN TO BOAT QUAY AND HAVE A DRINK LAH.

Parliament’s new drinking law not steady on its feet

Drinking-related shenanigans have got to go, but this new law makes no sense to me. I am all for an end to the disamenities and crime caused by public drinking. After all, I live within 200m of a popular drinking area, and some people do get a little unruly on the weekends. I’ve even had some of my property damaged by drunks. Yet I believe that this new law is a terrible way to tackle the issue.

linked from


According to Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran, this law was passed to “tamp down liquor-related disamenities and preserve public order, in response to feedback.”

Which disamenities? The rioting? The affray? The public drunkenness? The vomiting? The littering? We have laws for these already, and are apparently not enforcing them properly (since so many people seem to still be breaking them). There’s even an existing law against being drunk and incapable in public – why not use what we already have? What is this new law going to add to our police’s ability to keep the peace, and at what cost?

We now have lost the freedom to drink peacefully in public and in return we may not get what we want at all, simply because nobody is putting boots on the ground. People who are daring enough to break one law will have no qualms about breaking two. If the Ministry of Home Affairs can show that its officers are effectively policing existing laws, but that they need more laws to keep people on the straight and narrow, then we can take the Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) law more seriously.

The privacy issue

Foreign worker dormitories are considered public places for this law. This is a disturbing invasion of the privacy of private spaces, when a law can be passed to make it count as public space.

MP Hri Kumar Nair is on the record asking about how this “could unnecessarily single out foreign workers.” This is a sentiment that worries me too.

Iswaran counterclaimed that “workers can continue to drink in their private quarters according to whatever rules they have in their dorms… And they can also continue to drink in the beer gardens in their dorms, until such time as it is allowed under the licence. So it will not unduly constrain foreign workers in the dorms.”

You mean that an argument of ‘Oh, they already have some curbs, some private rules, this doesn’t change their life much. Let’s just pass this law to invade their privacy since they already have very little of it’ is considered robust? You mean this isn’t a strong hint that we are, basically, trampling on foreign workers’ rights? It’s like passing a law that says that it is legal to chop off the missing limbs of amputees. No practical implications, but inhuman, foolish and potentially dangerous nonetheless.

Unenforced – a mockery of a law

CNA clarifies that “The new law is to encourage responsible drinking and considerate behaviour. As long as members of the public act in an appropriate behaviour and are not rowdy, the police will not step in and instead, focus on the more problematic areas.” Iswaran says as much himself.

Did he actually say that Parliament passed a new law but that the Government wouldn’t enforce it in its entirety? Then why pass it in its entirety? One application of the law for one group and another application of the law for another group is just going to be a big mess. Not to mention that it is unjust, inequitable, and shakes the foundations of why we have laws in the first place.

Iswaran also “emphasised that the intent is not to penalise the mere possession of alcohol.” Well, if the house doesn’t intend to penalise the mere possession of alcohol, then why pass a law that penalises the mere possession of alcohol? The loose logic baffles me.

Grey areas – impossible to police

The existence of grey areas is another sign that this law is going to be problematic. It will either result in people getting away with breaking the law, or result in abuse of the interpretation by the police. Perhaps both.

This letter to TODAY spells out some of these grey areas.

Changing behaviour – no statistics

Okay, so there are all these people getting drunk and then committing crimes. They drink past 10:30pm (most drinkers do). Nobody has presented any data on whether they were drinking in public or in private before the incidents happened. Other than the littering and noise, how many of the other crimes and offences were caused by persons drinking in public (vs private)? Isn’t it a classic case that people get liquored up INSIDE and then take their drunken grouses OUTSIDE (in public) to get settled? How much of this sort of behaviour can be attributed to actual public drinking after 10:30pm?

Without the data, how can we be sure that change will be seen? Iswaran makes a big deal about having a national ban because without islandwide curbs, he believes that the problem “will only push the problem to other areas

Never mind that this was not the case with the Little India riots. The drinking ban there did not simply move riots to other parts of Singapore.

If Iswaran is worried about the problem being pushed to other areas, doesn’t he realise that these “other areas” will include indoor areas as well? Won’t people get off the streets, get into the bars, and then come out and commit their crimes as they always do?

A bad trade

It seems we have traded a lot of freedoms for comparatively few concrete or guaranteed benefits. Moreover, we have traded in a lot of freedoms for marginal gains in our enforcement arsenal. Either that, or we are slowly making a mockery of our legal system by making laws that are not evenly enforced.

What are our MPs doing?

Other than Hri Kumar Nair’s objection to the invasion of foreign workers’ privacy (a point that was brushed off), few other MPs questioned the law in depth. Tin Pei Ling challenged the asymmetircal strip-search powers of police to no effect. Only NCMP Lina Chiam roundly opposed the law and also managed to squeak out a vague point about a lack of consultation.  Few others raised the pertinent questions listed above (or at least I haven’t read any published in the news).

Consultation isn’t the biggest problem here, even though it is a problem. The problem is why our elected representatives are not asking the right questions, or are not getting the right answers, and how a law that seems to be so flawed was passed so easily.

Who will lead labour after Lim Swee Say?

Love him or hate him (or puzzle at his odd quips), Lim Swee Say has been a fixture in the Labour Movement for the last 8 years and has exercised considerable influence in this sphere. But now that he has announced his clear intention not to fill the post again, the question is: who will (and will it matter)?

Every NTUC Secretary-General since Devan Nair has held a cabinet position, often concurrently. I don’t expect that to change this time around. Why this is so is probably because of the longstanding relationships between the NTUC and the PAP, as an alliance between the two had formed during the struggle for independence and during the years after. Some say that the PAP controls the NTUC. Others say that the NTUC has clout in government. Perhaps both are true.

Either way, this means that the pool of candidates is not very large – look at the cabinet. The other heirs apparent over the years have faded away – Josephine Teo, Halimah Yaacob and Ong Ye Kung all once held key positions but are no longer with the movement.

Neither Deputy Secretary-General Heng Chee How nor the Assistant Secraties-General: Ms Cham Hui Fong, Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, Mr Ang Hin Kee and Mr Zainal Sapari seem to possess the political clout for the position.

In my reckoning, it seems possible that Josephine Teo may be positioned to take up the mantle, but at the same time she still doesn’t command the political power necessary for the position. It would be a step backwards as well, since she had already left the NTUC to fulfill her role as Minister of State.

Grace Fu seems another possibility, since she is also a minister in the PMO and well exposed to the private sector, but an another interesting candidate pops up within the cabinet.

Chan Chun Sing.

Kee chiu.

Kee chiu.

Whatever you want to say about him, he has a certain demeanour that the rank-and-file can understand; something that reminds me of Lim Swee Say – very “on the ground” (okay lah, “low class” if you’re a hater), in spite of a career as a SAF scholar. Moreover Chan Chun Sing was the chosen replacement for Lim Swee Say in my Buona Vista constituency. Who is to say that history will not repeat itself (because it is going to be the same people making these decisions)?

Chan Chun Sing as NTUC Secretary-General will throw up synergies with his current portfolio as Minister for Social and Family development. Hopefully his constant exposure to those who are suffering the most will mean that he will find avenues to raise wages to sustainable levels as NTUC Sec-Gen.

We’ll have to wait for October to see.

A beneficial policy for Stay-at-home Parents

NOTE: I had published this article on 9 Dec 2014 but it was deleted for some reason (or has gone missing *play mysterious music*). Just reposting.

Remembering some of the initial exchanges about this post, I would like to preface this by saying that the purpose of this policy suggestion isn’t to give out “goodies” per se in the vain hope that it will encourage people to have more kids, but to bring Stay-At-Home Parenting to the same “value” as “working” parents, at least in the eyes of our G policy.

There would also be the effect of encouraging parents of young children to have MORE children, since I believe that it is nigh impossible to convince those who plan to have no children to have children, but it is far easier to encourage parents of one or more children to have another.

I also see this as congruent with:

1) Our aim to improve TFR

2) Our principle of equitable benefits that accrue to all our children (even those whole parents choose to care for them at home)

3) That the scope and effort to care for a child at home is by no means less than the work of a domestic worker (who is considered employed), or a childcare teacher (who is considered employed)

4) The concept that parents are the most preferred primary caregivers for a child

Stay-at-home parental benefits are one of the things that Nee Soon GRC MP Patrick Tay has been trying to work on, although many other policy issues overshadow it. Some of these are, in part, developed from conversations on his FB account and elsewhere. Here’s the policy I’m suggesting:

A parent is considered a stay-at-home parent when:

  • He or she has a child under the age of 2 (or 3 – this can be implemented first and then increased later)
  • He or she is not employed for more than 56 hours per month
  • His or her family unit does not employ a FDW (other than to care for an elderly or disabled person in the household)
  • Both parents cannot claim this benefit simultaneously (maximum of one stay-at-home parent per household)

The benefits:

  • They are classified as working for the computation of eligibility for any other government benefits. This includes maternity leave (can be encashed at fixed rate) for those who have a second child before their first turns two
  • They receive $145 each month (cash equivalent of the Enhanced Foreign Domestic Worker Levy Concession)
  • They receive an annual contribution into their CPF equivalent to 1 week of pay (based on their last drawn monthly salary, capped at $10,000) to help them with their retirement planning. This offsets the Childcare Leave and both cannot be claimed simultaneously for the same period
  • Their other children receive a $300 subsidy for kindergarten (not childcare) fees during this time
  • A stay-at-home parent’s MC can be used for their spouse to take medical leave (but no change in total statutory entitlement)
  • Comprehensive job placement services for when they return to the workforce


My estimate that the cost to fund this will be based on the following assumptions:


  • 2 years’ worth of benefits
  • 40,000 Singaporean children born per year
  • Assume 50% of parents choose to stay at home (this is quite high)
  • Assume average of 2 children per family and that the elder child will benefit from the kindergarten subsidy (50%, this is also quite high)
  • Average personal income of $4,000 (also above the national average)


CPF contribution cost $40,000,000/year

FDW levy encashment cost $69,600,000/year

Childcare subsidy cost $72,000,000/year


That’s $181.6 million per year. Add to that the cost of job placement and administration and miscellaneous costs… Maybe $250 million a year? In comparison, the G is already spending $1.6 billion on the Baby Bonus scheme.


Hidden costs include potentially lower workforce participation in the short run, but not significant (less than 20,000 expected to take up scheme in total each year).


Is a policy like this worth $250 million a year? Let’s think about socioeconomic benefits:


  • Increased reemployment after child reaches 2 years old
  • Increase TFR (priceless! OK, fine, you economists go figure this one out J)
  • More respect and recognition for the duty of parenting
  • More appreciation for the work of FDWs, childcare teachers and other caregivers
  • Incentive to develop flexi-work or home-based work to tap on stay-at-home parents


I’m sure I’m missing part of the picture here – what costs and benefits am I missing out on? Of course, this policy needs to be made more congruent with other policies, but I’ll leave the nitty gritty out for now.




Eh, hello. That’s not how to Honour Singapore, lah.

Honour Singapore was controversial for all the wrong reasons – accusations of steeplejacking – when it launched in August this year. But judging from their latest blog post, nobody need worry about any effective insertion of some extreme Christian Kingdom agenda into the national honour movement because THEY CAN’T EVENT TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HONOUR AND COURTESY.

“KEEP TO THE LEFT FOR HONOUR!” screams the headline. Then it goes on try and link courtesy with honour, essentially by insisting that “honouring one another” is the same thing as courtesy.

ZeroWing forgreatjustice

Neither is it justice.

The blog, which publishes an article every week, seems to be stretched for “honourable” content, with past posts also conflating courtesy and consideration with honour. As a matter of fact, most of their posts seems to try REALLY really hard to talk about some subject, then quickly do a switch and jam the word “honour” in somewhere.

Honour is about knowing and doing what is good and right (morally). Moral uprightness doesn’t necessarily relate to courtesy. Even the morally reprehensible and dishonourable can be courteous.

Is Honour Singapore clueless about honour, or are they desperate for content? Well, at least we don’t have to worry about some Kingdom Dominion Theology (ED: for specificity) agenda coming to impose itself upon us.

5 Ways to Interpret Lim Swee Say’s latest CPF Gobbledegook

Minister in the PMO and Labour Chief Lim Swee Say’s latest statement about CPF has been feeding the flames of Mount Facebook since it was reported yesterday evening.

His easily-misinterpreted statement, delivered off-the-cuff on the sidelines of a Singapore Model Parliament event, has left many fuming, some puzzled, and others scrambling to defend the man.

The Man. photo:

The specific quote in question:

“Instead of thinking about whether you can spend your savings in the CPF at the age of 55, I think we should think about how can we help our Singaporeans to continue to remain employed, to continue to earn a good living, continue to have good jobs, and at the same time to continue to contribute to the CPF because the more money they have in CPF, the longer they defer the use of the CPF — this will mean they will have more for retirement.”

Mr Lim made a daring grab for the mantle of Captain Obvious from NMP Eugene Tan by, among other things, saying that people who put more into their account (by working past the ‘retirement age’) will have more money for retirement. There was also this nearly pointless quote: “You have your money, you have the account, and you receive the statement, the account on a regular basis. So, you know how much money you have in the CPF”.

Here’s five ways we can interpret his overall statement as reported:

1) You probably won’t have enough money in your CPF to retire, so it’s best to defer retirement. Ditch that pipe dream.

If this is true, that’s pretty in your face. While I personally agree that retirement is a myth these days, Mr Lim is known for making bizarre and confusing statements like “Cheaper Better Faster”, which took months for NTUC to clarify and is still being misinterpreted today, the “Little Frog” story from GE 2011, “better, betterer, betterest”, and of course, “I feel so rich”, the legendary proportions of which doubtless will colour every statement about CPF Mr Lim will ever make.

2) Those who don’t have enough money to retire should continue working.

Blunt, but true, if that’s what he meant. It doesn’t bode well coming from the mouth of the labour chief, though. This corroborates with the fact that some 50% of CPF Members today cannot meet their Minimum Sum and will not have enough to retire on.

3) Don’t spend your CPF savings on other things (like housing and education) so you have enough for retirement.

If that’s what he was trying to say, then it’s terrible advice. This interpretation, however is a little far fetched, although the reporter’s opening line “The best way for Singaporeans to prepare for retirement is to use less of their Central Provident Fund (CPF) money when they are young, said Labour Chief Lim Swee Say” lends some weight to this.

4) Specifically saying that younger Singaporeans should stay employed and earn more to have more for retirement.

It’s good advice, and a friend in NTUC tried to this as a defence by bringing up the example of someone she knew who was out of a job for several years before he was 40. This, however, doesn’t seem to be what Mr Lim is talking about at all.

5) People should plan to continue working and leave monies in the CPF account between 55 to the Drawdown Age (currently 63), even though they can, by right, withdraw monies in excess of their Minimum Sum at age 55.

This is possibly the best interpretation for Mr Lim, should he want to come out and clarify his statement. It makes sense, is sound advice, and doesn’t sound prescriptive. Too bad he totally botched the delivery, as he often does.

Here’s the kicker: in the same interview, Mr Lim was also reported to have said that “the labour movement has been watching the debate closely, and wants to ensure that what is discussed does not create confusion among workers and union leaders.”

Looks like he’s got some catching up to do.

UPDATE 23 June, 10:15pm: A clarification has been made on what Mr Lim said. It seems that his use of the word “young” to describe people aged 55 resulted in mass confusion. Point 5 is our winner.