Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Military coups just aren’t what they used to be!

In the good old days the military simply had to secure key sites like the radio, television broadcasters, airports, other transport hubs and newspaper offices. Once the sites were under control, then detain the ‘disputed’ head of government along with her key associates. Finally, put some helmeted soldiers decked out in combat gear on the streets of major cities, preferably with some tanks nearby for the ‘wow’ factor. The civil service and judiciary naturally fell into line by taking new oaths of loyalty or were simply fired from their roles. 

(Source: Pexels.com)

All of the above happened in darkness and in typically the space of a few hours between midnight and dawn. Depending on the size of the country a few thousand loyal soldiers were all that was required for a successful coup. If a more detailed playbook were required then ‘Coup D’Etat: a Practical Handbook’ by Edward Luttwak would serve the purpose.

No more. That was the last century. Like many similar handbooks, Luttwak’s book is obsolete. Things are different in the new millennium.

The first sign that something was amiss came in July 2016 with the failed coup attempt in Turkey.

Yes, Turkey. A country where the military is revered and coups are (were) a normal fact of life. Despite these two factors, the coup was neither able to dethrone President Erdogan nor install a military council to run affairs of state.

Today the world is witnessing the ongoing efforts by Myanmar’s military to unseat the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. At the time of writing, it seems unclear if efforts by Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander leading the coup attempt, will succeed. The coup is certainly not ‘done and dusted’ the way it would have been in the past.

What has changed in the last two decades to make successful, naked military coups a rarity?

News Monopoly

Remember the days everyone read newspapers in the morning at breakfast? Then families gathered together in the evening to watch the news on national television. And only the news that was fit to print was printed. 

International newspapers often arrived a few days late and circulation was easy to control. There were no international television broadcasters. Even radio broadcasts by international politically motivated broadcasters such as Voice of America or Radio Free Europe had limited success in shaping opinions in target countries.

In other word, national governments’ had a monopoly on information. Even print publications of the ‘free’ press could be coerced by into reporting with a particular slant or just simply not reporting certain events. A low ranking officer posted at the office of the major newsprint companies and the national radio / television broadcasters was sufficient to manage news flow.

(Source: Pexels.com)

Along came social media and broke the information monopoly paradigm. Not only has information become virtually impossible to control but the proliferation of disinformation, often politically motivated, has also become routine. Moreover, international news broadcasters are regularly watched in living room televisions all around the world.

Consequently, managing negative news – or any news for that matter - associated with a military coup is impossible. No state maintains a monopoly on news anymore. This less controlled movement of information and the immediacy of many social media platforms also allow ordinary citizens to mobilize protest movements in a manner not possible in the past.

Global Superpower Rivalries

The Cold War between the US and its Soviet rival spawned many doctrines. All were expedient for their time but among the most relevant (and loved) doctrine for coup makers was the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. The doctrine was postulated by the former US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick in a 1979 essay.

In her essay, Kirkpatrick made a distinction between Totalitarian and Authoritarian regimes. While totalitarian regimes try and control all aspects of a society and its citizens – including thought, authoritarian regimes try and control only certain behaviours. Additionally, authoritarian regimes are more amenable to gradual reform thus making them easier to move towards democratic norms. 

In essence, the doctrine was Cold War influenced intellectual justification for supporting authoritarian dictatorships from Argentina to the Philippines - as long as these rulers supported free enterprise (read permitted US businesses to operate freely) and sided with the US in its battle against Soviet inspired communism.

In practice, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine gave a blank check to coup makers to overthrow leftist regimes. Once in control, these same coup makers could expect continued support from the Free World until the ‘threat’ from communism was defeated. Support for such right wing authoritarian regimes was only withdrawn if / when the optics of maintaining domestic control became untenable.

Corporate Dollars and the Rise of Social Media

In a bygone era, large multinational corporations often acted as catalysts for coups. Whether it was a left leaning government that needed ‘course correction’ or a privileged monopolistic position in a market was under threat by government policy changes, corporations were in the thick of things – typically on the side of the coup instigators.

Note the origins of the term, Banana Republic, which stemmed from the installation of a military government via a coup in Honduras in the early 1900s. The coup was championed and funded by an American businessman and founder of a fruit company with significant economic interests in the Honduran fruit industry.

Things did not change because multinationals miraculously grew a conscience and stopped supporting dictatorial rulers. That was a slow process and relied largely on consumer pressure. It reached critical mass in the 1980s as campus activists pressured companies doing business in apartheid South Africa to divest their holdings.

Activists held that by doing business with a racist regime in apartheid South Africa, large corporations like Bank of America and General Motors, were helping to prop up the system. Initially, this led to the establishment of the Sullivan Principles, a voluntary code of business ethics devised by a Baptist Minister, for companies involved in South Africa. However, ultimately it forced businesses to rethink their presence in apartheid South Africa.

Over the last several decades, the trend of social activism has entered the mainstream with concepts like ESG – environmental, social and governance, becoming an essential part of the framework used to review and analyze corporations. With the rise of citizen journalism and social media it is virtually impossible for companies to cover up unethical practices, including openly supporting regime change in foreign countries. On the contrary, companies have found it almost essential to implement positive and transparent ESG policies to cater to rising social awareness among contemporary consumers.


The New Normal

The generals in Myanmar are finding out the hard way that coups are an anachronism of the last century. To be sure, the Thai military successfully executed a coup in 2014 under General Prayut likely because the coup was quickly legitimized by a much revered monarch, the late King Bhumibol. The late King’s actions must be considered as a major factor in the success of the 2014 coup. Arguably, Thailand is the exception that proves the rule.  

A new balance in civil-military relations has been precipitated by changing social conditions. While there is no clear rule for ‘new’ civil – military relationships the experience of Turkey, Thailand and Pakistan are illustrative.

In Turkey, the once all powerful Turkish military has had to swallow humble pie. From being able to change a government by issuing a memo, Coup by Memorandum, the Turkish military now plays a less powerful role under a powerful president. In Thailand, the military has so far resisted meaningful change. Though it is hard to predict how events will unfold in the coming years. In Pakistan, the military’s dominance remains a key part of the state power equation. Partly this is due to the military’s relationship with the current Prime Minister Imran Khan and partly because the military establishment has been careful in playing its hand. The possibility of the Pakistani military establishment overplaying its cards a la Myanmar must loom large with senior Pakistani generals.

As for Myanmar, only time will tell how the situation will play out. Even if the generals do survive intact until the next promised elections it is clear the military junta’s operational freedoms have already been circumscribed by domestic protests.


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Singapore's listed REITs: an introduction

With a market capitalization of approximately SGD 800 billion (USD 595 billion) Singapore's stock exchange (SGX) is not among the world's largest. Indeed, within the MSCI (Developed Markets) World Index Singapore falls in the 'Others' category, along with thirteen other countries. These fourteen countries share the Index's six percent exposure to 'Others.'

The SGX is a powerhouse for listed Asian REITs. Currently, there are 43 REITs and Property Trusts listed in Singapore. These forty three securities represent almost twelve percent of the local market's capitalization at SGD 95 billion (USD 71 billion). They are diversified across virtually all sectors, the important exception being residential REITs. These sectors include retail, industrial, hospitality, healthcare and office. Additionally, over 80 percent of these entities have exposure outside of Singapore's small domestic market.

However, any investor evaluating REITs now has a whole host of new factors to analyze. The dynamics of a REIT's business is not the same as it was in the pre-COVID-19 world. Several new trends have emerged while some existing ones have accelerated. Notable trends are the Work From Home (WFH) phenomena and the increased adoption of e-commerce delivery platforms for retail sales.

Source: Pexels.com

WFH, especially in the financial sector, will affect demand for commercial office space. That's a serious concern for Singapore given that Finance and Business Services combined are almost 30 percent of the Republic's GDP, 14 and 15 percent respectively in 2019. Even a casual stroll through Singapore's old Raffles Place and new Marina Bay financial districts will leave no observer in doubt about the amount of office space currently occupied by big name banks and financial institutions.

Singapore's largest bank DBS recently announced that four in five of its jobs can be conducted remotely without any problem. Additionally, the bank stated in future it will allow all staff members to work remotely for up to 40 percent of their time.

Not all banks may move as aggressively as DBS to embrace the new post pandemic workplace realities. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall and there is no going back to the days of yesteryear. In other words, in the medium to long term demand for office space from banks and financial institutions can be expected to moderate (if not decline outright).

But is it really all doom and gloom for Singapore's office property sector? Not exactly.

Firstly, the pandemic has reinforced Singapore's efficiency as a reliable business hub. Even during the city's strictest Phase I, Circuit Breaker (aka lock down) finance, trade and logistics businesses operated at or near full efficiency. Notwithstanding the issues surrounding foreign workers, Singapore's public health response was vigorous though sufficiently calibrated to avoid the type of total shutdowns experienced by many other economies.

Secondly, Singapore will be a net beneficiary of digital growth businesses looking to grow in Asia. Singapore provides an ideal springboard for broader Asian expansion. Such companies will look closely at Singapore as a site for regional headquarters for a variety of reasons clearly explained by new tech darling Zoom in a statement highlighting their own such decision.

Singapore is pro-business, ranks as one of the friendliest countries to set up a company, and continues to be a favorite for regional headquarters as it boasts exceptional talent, strong infrastructure, and is a perfect gateway for engaging the wider APAC region … We plan to immediately hire employees, leveraging Singapore’s highly-educated engineering talent pool. Our new R&D center and data center will play a critical role in Zoom’s continued international growth.”

- Velchamy Sankarlingam, President of Product and Engineering for Zoom.

Lastly, logistics and even manufacturing companies looking to diversify operating geographies after suffering supply chain disruptions will give Singapore a second look despite the city's high operating costs. After all, it's better to pay slightly more for some (or all) of your supplies than it is to stop manufacturing altogether due to unexpected supply chain disruptions. Stopping business activities entirely, even for a short period, has potentially severe unintended consequences with strategic partners, including reputation and reliability.

Apart from office REITs, SGX has a large number of commercial mall REITs. Prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, shopping malls in Singapore were already adjusting to a world with e-commerce. Several malls had undertaken asset enhancement initiatives to reinvent the entire mall experience. For example, Funan Mall, the city's signature IT mall popular among techies reopened after a three year upgrade in December 2019 with a reduced emphasis on traditional shops and more on 'lifestyle'. That project started well before e-commerce

came into the limelight due to lock downs, etc. Additionally, malls were grappling with the slow but steady disappearance of traditional universal department store anchor tenants which were already struggling with the arrival of online retail sales.

To put plainly, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Singapore's retail malls were in the midst of reinventing the mall business due to the emergence of e-commerce as a long term competitive threat. Not surprising in a country with an Internet penetration rate of 87 percent (2019) coupled with safe and reliable connectivity.

The growth of Singapore’s e-commerce market will be supported by the country’s excellent internet technology. Fixed internet connections are typically almost triple the speed of the global average, and the country enjoys highly reliable, secure information and communications technology infrastructure. These factors have promoted high internet (87 percent) and mobile penetration (75 percent) levels among citizens.

- 2019 Global Payments Trends Report - Singapore Country Insights, JP Morgan

Moreover, as travel and tourism recovers in the post pandemic world it may be expected that initially some categories of travelers will be cautious about their choice of destination. These travelers will evaluate not only the public healthcare systems but also the reputational reliability of the host / destination country in its management of the pandemic. At least to date, Singapore comes out as a winner on these metrics. Consequently, Singapore and its shopping malls will be significant beneficiaries as international business and leisure travel to the city-state recovers.

With dividend yields ranging between two and seven percent p.a. for most SGX listed REITs, they present an attractive investment opportunity especially for yield hungry investors. However, Singapore's listed REITs are a varied lot (see table with data from September 2020). Investors must evaluate the management and financial resilience of each individual REIT before investing. To be sure, Singapore's regulatory environment helps in ensuring a certain level of transparency and solvency within the sector. However, regulatory requirements generally only set the bare minimum of standards. Investors looking to invest in the entire sector have three ETFs to consider. All are listed on the Singapore Exchange but are relatively small in size with the largest having SGD 250 million (USD 188 million) in assets under management as at December 2020.


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com

Friday, 25 September 2020

Singapore Airlines: transparency, accountability and public financial support

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many assumptions about the world’s normal state of being. New business trends have emerged or intensified while existing norms are being questioned in a rapidly evolving environment. Many businesses are forced to reinvent themselves in the throes of a crisis and do not have the luxury of time. For many, this is an existential crisis.

Among the many affected is Singapore Airlines (SIA). Even the airline’s multiple quality accolades are not sufficient to save SIA from the worst impact of the crisis. Without the Temasek sponsored bailout of SGD fifteen billion announced in March 2020 SIA’s solvency as a going concern was brought into question. 

A Singapore Airlines Airbus A-380 coming in for landing. (Source: Wikipedia)

Six months after the March bailout was agreed the situation has not materially improved for SIA. Passenger traffic has dropped by over 90 percent year on year while freight volume has approximately halved during the same period.

Less than 50% of SIA’s fleet is airborne. As of August 2020, out of SIA’s active fleet of 124 aircraft only 56 were being utilized for revenue generating passenger or cargo flights. After factoring in capacity utilization on passenger flights the scale of SIA’s problem becomes more apparent.

Moreover, even after placing scores of planes in long term storage SIA’s operating costs continue to burn cash. By mid-August SIA had already spent SGD 4.4 billion of fresh money raised as a result of the March exercise.

The present operating environment raises obvious questions about SIA’s future strategic direction.

Is the strategy proposed at the time of the March bailout still relevant or is it time for a rethink? Do Singapore taxpayers, either directly through the government or via government investment vehicles like Temasek, continue to support SIA for the next few years in the hope that the world – and SIA’s operations - returns to ‘normalcy?’

These questions are best addressed by an Independent Review Commission staffed by aviation experts – local and international – appointed and formed by the government. While the commission’s objective will be to provide recommendations on SIA’s future, its terms of reference must be broad enough to permit members to ask tough questions, including those which may make many Singaporeans uncomfortable.

Singapore’s future is intertwined with the world. As a city-state, the Little Red Dot cannot isolate itself from the world. The country’s port and airport are vital to ensure Singapore’s status as an important node in an interconnected world. 

Nevertheless, Singaporeans deserve greater openness and accountability on the use of public funds to keep SIA flying. The public must be assured there is a coherent and coordinated strategy in place to revive SIA and Singapore’s aviation sector.

As Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew once said to the Singapore Air Transport Workers’ Union, “[The airline was not a prestige project,  if they could not turn in a profit then] we should have no compunction in closing a service down."

SIA’s fate is not yet at the stage where discussions about closing it down are warranted. However, the size of public sector support to SIA requires greater transparency in the form of a government sanctioned independent review of SIA’s operations.  


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Karachi: Pakistan’s orphan without a guardian

On a trip to Karachi during the summer monsoon season 2019 the Federal Government made loud promises about cleaning up Karachi (and its drains) within one week. To add substance to the claims the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) and the Pakistan Rangers, both branches of the powerful military establishment, were handed the task. The Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping was appointed to handle the task and, as with the PML-Ns ‘law and order’ clean up initiated in 2013 – the Federal Government was prepared to go it alone if the efforts were not supported by the provincial and civic authorities.

Yet another public fund (remember the Dam Fund?) was created to solicit public donations to help pay for Karachi’s cleaning. One supposes charitable funds are required for this essential civic service because not enough taxes are collected by the authorities in Karachi? Not.

The Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) building. The KMC is one of the several governmental agencies responsible for Karachi's current state of civic neglect. (Photo: Wikipedia)
One year later – monsoon season 2020 - Karachites are reminded they live in Pakistan's largest orphan city. City roads are streams inundated with various blends of sewage and rain water – clean drinking water is an unrealistic dream not worth mentioning.

In other words, no substantial improvements have been made during the last twelve months. Additionally, there has been no accountability at any level neither for the civic lapses nor for the millions collected in donations by the 2019 Clean Karachi campaign.

As if on cue, accusations of blame regarding inaction and lack of preparedness are being hurled. These accusations are closely followed by tall claims about immediate action including by the Prime Minister himself, i.e. political grand standing.  

While the city (MQM), provincial (PPP) and federal (PTI) governments' fight for supremacy over the goose that lays golden (revenue) eggs, ordinary Karachites continue to suffer. Karachites don't care which political party, e.g. ANP, MQM, PML-N, PPP or PTI, fixes their city. People simply want the political leadership to stop bickering and take action.

Pakistan’s leadership must ask itself if Pakistan can progress while its economic heart and largest city is mired in civic despair.

A listless Karachi places a glass ceiling on Pakistan’s development while a vibrant Karachi acts as a catalyst for national growth.

Conclusion: Karachites wait patiently for monsoon 2021 when, in all likelihood, they will again wake to urban flooding. The flooding will automatically be followed initially by finger pointing and subsequently by dramatic promises from politicians (and ‘non-political’ military men) of renewed efforts to clean Karachi. Ironically, while Karachi waits for monsoon 2021 the city will return to its usual water shortages and the water mafia.  
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

The Swing Trader's Bible by Matthew McCall and Mark Whistler: a book review

A good introduction to swing trading.

The authors do a good job identifying and explaining the multiple tools and instruments most commonly used for swing trading. Be warned, however, the book does not go into enough depth to be a stand alone master class on the subject. Traders are well advised to continue their education into the subject before taking the plunge into trading with real dollars and cents.

The book reads easily. The authors have simplified complex ideas well. The title is a good place to start for any aspiring swing trader - as long as the learning doesn't stop with this book.


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester: a book review

“For in war the character and personality of the leader is decisive in events much more than questions of material.”

The Good Shepherd is a naval military classic - perhaps slightly dated for contemporary readers as it revolves around a group of naval vessels protecting numerous merchant ships in convoy transporting cargo from the US to its World War Two allies in Europe. Ships from several allied navies under the command of a young US naval officer, George Krause, are assigned to guard a convoy from marauding German submarine predators.

Forester’s novel is about character and leadership. The fast paced action and naval duelling are simply the containers through which the author reveals his insights.

Forester does an amazing job getting the reader inside Krause’s head. We know Krause loves black coffee and can guzzle an entire jug – hot or cold - without flinching. We also know he is a religious man whose decision making is influenced by his notion of Christian ethics.

Lives hang in the balance as the captain makes life and death decisions instantaneously, sometimes literally as whether to pick up enemy survivors drifting in the open sea. In these split second decisions, Krause must reach urgent compromises between husbanding convoy resources, cultural / political factors given the presence of ships from navies like Poland, etc., attack versus defence, maintaining moral leadership over his crew and inspiring the other crews.

Sometimes his decisions are explained while at other times these choices seem almost random flips of a coin. (Luck as a crucial element in leadership?)

More often than not, war literature is associated with armies and land based warfare. The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester is a pleasant change. It brings to life the hopes, fears and desperations of a generation of seafarers who fought on earth’s vast oceans. The work is not only an adventure novel but also wanders into the realms of psychology. Though first published in 1955, Forester’s work has not lost any of its allure during the ensuing six decades.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Singapore's Achilles heel: foreign workers?

Singapore's foreign workforce has been in the news lately. It seems to happen every so often – generally for the wrong reasons.

The last time Singapore's foreign worker presence hit the headlines was in December 2013 with the infamous Little India Riot. (Yes, riots in Singapore and that too within the last decade!)

Today I would like to shed some light on Singapore's foreign worker presence and put forward some ideas for managing the situation in the coming years.

Let's start by putting the situation in context.

Modern Singapore's skyline (Photo: Wikipedia)
Size wise Singapore is about ten percent smaller than New York City at approx. 720 square kilometers versus NY's 780 sq. kms.

Singapore – though small in size – is an economic powerhouse. According to the recent estimates by the IMF, Singapore's GDP per capita on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis is equivalent to USD 105,700 which makes Singaporeans the third wealthiest people on earth.

In 2019, the World Bank also ranked Singapore at number three with a GDP per capital on a PPP basis of USD 101,500.

In case you are not aware, Purchasing Power Parity is a method which converts a country's local currency using "a theoretical exchange rate that allows you to buy the same amount of goods and services in every country." In other words, PPP allows one to measure and compare a citizen's ability to purchase goods and services across different countries using the same yardstick.

Because of its wealth Singapore has been a magnet for foreign labor – at least in during the last few decades. Consider the island's population.

In 2019, Singapore's population was 5.7 million with 1.7 million people or almost 30 percent being foreigners. By contrast, in 1990, Singapore's total population was three million of which 300,000 or ten percent were foreigners. By 2010, Singapore's total population was 5.1 million with a full one quarter or 1.3 million being foreign residents.

In other words, we've seen Singapore's population grow from 3.0 million (three million) with a ten percent foreign participation rate in 1990 to 5.7 million with a 30 percent foreign participation rate today.

It was in the 1990s that total population and foreigner numbers increased dramatically.

These are staggering numbers and come at a time when Singapore's own fertility rate has been falling from approx. 1.8 in 1990 to 1.14 in 2019. Only 35,300 babies were born in Singapore versus 49,800 in 1990. 

Singapore had more natural deaths than live births in 2019.

Singapore's subway system built with extensive participation of foreign workers (Photo: WIkipedia)
Unlike many other developed countries, Singapore's foreign worker population does not for the most part comprise of illegal immigrants. Foreign workers are tightly controlled by the government based on a complex quota system.

Singapore's system works well because employers of illegal workers face a fine of SGD 5,000 – SGD 30,000, or twelve months imprisonment, or both.

As at 2019, there were a total of 999,000 foreign workers on Work Permits in Singapore. Included in this one million number are 262,000 Foreign Domestic Workers or maids and 293,000 construction workers. Add in approximately 300,000 foreign professionals, management and other higher skilled foreign employees from the Employment and S-Pass permit categories and one gets a clearer picture.

Singapore has approximately 1.3 million foreign residents, including 300,000 foreign construction workers (Photo: Wikipedia)
Foreign workers are not only tightly controlled but also a healthy source of revenue for the government by means of an employment tax called the Foreign Workers Levy (FWL). 

For each foreigner employed in Singapore, employers must pay a Foreign Worker Levy. The amount of the levy varies depending on the skill level and category of the employee but generally ranges between SGD 300 – 700.

While it is not possible to obtain an exact revenue number for the FWL, Singapore's 2017 budget data stated SGD six billion (or USD 4.2 billion at present exchange rates) was raised under the following four heads: Foreign Workers Levy, Annual Tonnage Tax, Water Conservation Tax and (land) Development Surcharge.

Using only the figure of 293,000 construction workers one may guesstimate the amount raised (only for construction workers) to be in the range of SGD 1 – 2.5 billion (or USD 700 million – 1.8 billion); one billion if the levy was to be SGD 300 on each worker or SGD 2.5 billion if the levy was SGD 700 per worker.

Once levies from the other one million foreign workers are included it is safe to conclude the FWL is a nice source of income for the state – possibly SGD 3 billion or more annually (USD 2.1 billion).

By comparison, in the same year (2017) Singapore raised SGD 1.8 billion in liquor and tobacco taxes; SGD 2.7 billion in betting taxes from the local casinos; SGD 4.4 billion in property taxes; and 10.7 billion in personal income taxes.

Singapore's foreign workers are here voluntarily. Most will speak positively of their experiences in Singapore. Nonetheless, low skilled foreign workers are not paid generously.

Based on data collected in 2018 by a Singaporean NGO, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), the average monthly starting salary for a Bangladeshi or Indian foreign worker was SGD 400 – 465 (USD 282 – 328) versus the average Singapore monthly salary of SGD 3,100 (USD 2,200). To be sure, foreign workers are provided with basic accommodation and medical coverage by their local employers.

To be sure, one is not suggesting a cleaner be paid the same as bank manager. However, there are dangers to keeping the foreign worker community on the margins of Singapore's society – not marginalized but on the margins.

Presently, foreign workers are seen but not heard. They do but cannot say.

The quality of life of Singaporeans is dependent on the continued stable supply of cheap labor. As the Singapore Minister Minister for Home Affairs recently said, "They clean Singapore, they build our HDB flats ... they handle our waste management... they are helping us build our prosperity."

In other words, Singapore's wealth and competitive advantage are to some degree based on the availability of a steady and uninterrupted supply of cheap labor. For example, high quality public housing -  85 percent of Singaporeans live in owner occupied public housing – are not only constructed but also maintained on an ongoing basis by foreign workers.

Likewise, Singapore's world class public transport subway system is constructed by foreign workers. Additionally, some of those qualities which we tout as being intrinsic to Singapore's identity, e.g. clean public spaces and well maintained green spaces are in reality a result of foreign labor.

The dangers of dependency on foreign workers came to the fore in 2013 during the Little India riot and again during the present Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

Singapore's iconic structures such as the Marina Bay Sands rely heavily on foreign construction workers (Photo: Wikipedia)
During the present crisis, the authorities were so focused on maintaining the health of Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents that the almost one million foreigners on Work Passes were virtually overlooked.

It was a costly oversight which has affected the Singapore brand which prides itself on good governance and typically places the country on the top of most ranking lists. Additionally, it has set back the island's efforts to restart and normalize its economy by at least several weeks.

As an aside, by publicizing Singapore's one of Singapore's not normally talked about open secrets, its large foreign worker community, there is a feeling Singapore's dirty laundry is being aired in public!

Surely, Singapore has at least partly redeemed itself by ensuring there is sufficient testing available for all foreign workers. Additionally, the government has committed and continues to provide quality health care to all foreign workers in need, including world class Intensive Care health facilities all at taxpayer expense.

Singapore's dependence on foreign labor is at best an irritant and at worst a national security risk. Hence, there is ample reason to reduce the country's reliance on this demographic (dare one call labor a commodity?).

Innovation and adoption of new technologies are two ways forward; replacing human activity with robots and / or artificial intelligence makes a difference. For example, consider certain factory production lines where humans have been replaced with robots for many functions.

Simultaneously, Singapore must improve living conditions of foreign workers. Improving living conditions is a social responsibility. It cannot simply be left to the authorities by building new and better dormitories, etc. It requires a broad understanding by Singaporeans of the critical role foreign workers play in keeping the city-state functioning.

Implicit in this understanding is the need to more equitably compensate foreign workers. Surely, higher pay will necessitate a general increase in Singapore's price level as the cost of construction, waste disposal, cleaning, gardening, etc. (the list is long!) is directly linked to foreign workers wage levels. Pay more and Singaporeans must pick up the bill. No escaping that fact.

Singapore's treatment of foreign workers is a reflection of Singapore society and its people's values. Singapore must do better for its foreign worker community in the coming months and years. The country's excuses for not doing so are wearing thin.

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.