Good afternoon friends, fellow Singaporeans,
First, let me clarify that I am here, speaking entirely in my own personal capacity, not as a representative of the University, the hospital or even any political party.
Second, let me state up front that I am not an expert on water or pricing. I am not even an expert on fluoridation of water so I have no comments on what the previous speaker spoke about but I do think that it is important that the authorities provide some data to answer these questions which keep coming up online. I am primarily an infectious diseases physician who believes a lot in access to water. I have spent a large part of the last twenty years telling people to clean their hands to save lives from infectious diseases. At the same time, I have been someone who believes that we are all created equal and equally entitled to human rights whether we are rich or poor, regardless of race, language or religion. I believe that fundamental human rights must include the right of access to food, shelter, water and essential healthcare.
A lot of people are unhappy about the water price rise and you have heard some eloquent statements about the issue but I would like to take a slightly different view of this. I would like to view the proposed 30% increase in the price of water as a symptom of an underlying disease. In medical school, we learn, that we don’t just treat the symptoms, we treat the disease and the patient as a whole.
I would like to offer some possible differential diagnoses to explain the problem of needing to raise the price of water at a time of economic uncertainty.
The first could be that there is a real need to raise the price of water because of uncontrollable external forces which have caused the cost of potable water to rise. This was the explanation which was raised early when the announcement was made. This however is unlikely to be the real reason as our current Foreign Minister was quoted in August 2015 just before the General Election. According to Channel New Asia, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on August 17, 2015, “There is currently no need for an adjustment for the price of water in Singapore” He went on to say, “The price of water has remained unchanged since 2000, and this is as improvements in membrane technology and productivity have helped defray the rise in costs of labour and equipment, Dr Balakrishnan also said.
“We should bear in mind that desalination and recycling water are energy-intensive processes. Hence, the key variable for the future is the price of energy. Nonetheless, given the current state of technology and energy prices, there is no need for an adjustment at this point,” he added in a written response to a question by Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng. Of course that was before the elections when there was no need to raise prices, only give away goodies but today, elections are at least four years away and unfortunately, many of our memories are short.
The second possibility is that while the cost of energy which the minister has said was the main contributor to the cost of producing water has gone down, there may be some hidden losses by the government linked companies which produce the water through desalination or recycling that need a bailout from Singaporean taxpayers. While this is not likely, it is not possible to rule it out completely without a full and transparent accounting of how our money is being spent on producing water. Unfortunately, according to Minister Masagos, this transparent accounting is unlikely to be forthcoming. The argument has been made that water is strategic like electricity and as we accept that as the electricity price varies, we should accept frequent changes in the water price depending on the elements that go into the price such as the cost of energy. I think that many people would welcome such an approach – to have a clear relationship between the costs of producing water and the price of water. Again, we would need some transparency and accountability for this to happen. Hopefully this will happen. We were told that water is existential to our survival like shelter and food and security. I agree that water is critical just like food and security but the government provides us with security in return for the taxes we pay although those living in condos can pay extra for security guards, all of us get a basic level of police protection from the daily taxes we pay. For rice, the government by the PRICE CONTROL (RICE) ORDER of the PRICE CONTROL ACT (CHAPTER 244, SECTION 5) ensures the access of the population to rice because food security is important and they recognize that the access to rice is a fundamental human right in Singapore. To me, they are the same, rice and water. If our right to rice can be guaranteed as a fundamental human right, so also is our access to water.
The third possibility for the increase is that there is a problem with domestic consumption of water that it is rising sharply and there is a need to take drastic measures to raise the price so much as to force people to reduce consumption. My friend who blogs at the cynical investor website pointed out to me that according to the official government website data.gov which houses data from the PUB, the daily domestic consumption of water has been around 150 litres per capita for years. In fact, according to water expert Dr Cecilia Tortajada, Singapore’s domestic water consumption has plummeted from 172 litres per capita in 1995 to 160 litres per capita in 2005
and it is now around 150 litres per capita. We Singaporeans have worked very hard at bringing down our water use and now we are being rewarded for our hard work in drastically reducing our water consumption by being accused of being complacent. We have switched to water efficient devices at home, put up with shorter flushes, and this has been shown objectively by the drop in domestic water use. Yet, we are being punished for some reason which does not seem clear.
The other argument that has been advanced is that water is a security issue and we need to raise the bogeyman of some nasty neighbor raising the price of water to scare Singaporeans into valuing water periodically. First of all, the government has done a good job in making Singapore relatively water independent. In fact, it was reported in an articlearticle by Dr Joey Long published in the Journal Contemporary Southeast Asia by the Institute of SE Asian studies, now the Yusof-Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian studies in Dec 2001 that Singapore was well on our way towards water sufficiency by 2011. Dr Long wrote in 2001 “At present, Singapore’s domestic reservoirs and the various water catchment ponds can collect and provide an average of 680,000 cubic metres of water daily while the rest, 520,000 cubic metres, is imported from Malaysia to meet daily water demands. Singapore’s developed desalination programme then will be capable of supplying at least 400,000 cubic metres of water to the state daily. In addition to the desalted water, Singapore will be able to generate about 250,000 cubic metres of recycled water daily. All in all, a comfortable volume of water will have been procured indigenously for domestic use.
This was of course predicated on Singapore’s population reaching 4.3 million in 2010 and eventually plateau-ing in 2030 to a comfortable figure between 4.5-5 million. In those days, we thought that Singapore would become a technologically advanced nation with high productivity so we would not need a large population base like a developing country but unfortunately for some reason, the thinking changed about 10 years ago and the floodgates opened with the massive influx of population which painfully strained our infrastructure. Healthcare facilities which had been optimized for 3-4 million people were straining to cope with the massive influx. The MRT and LRT system have been badly strained, as I mentioned in the IPS forum, my wife and I enjoy being around Singapore on long weekends when a million people have left the country and the traffic is better and the shopping centers and hawker centers are less crowded. This is the elephant in the room, we have not heard from anyone in government the contribution of the massive rise in population to the demand for water. How we would have had enough water without having to depend on imported water by 2011 as the academics predicted using a population base of 4.3 million rather than the insane projections of 6.9 million or more which we hear today. To put it simply, we need answers – is the sudden need to raise the price of water because of the need to provide for a massive population increase? If this is so, we should be told and the issue discussed openly.
Finally, the fourth possibility is that the government is so completely out of touch with Singaporeans that they think that the price of water is so trivial that they can raise the price and no one will notice. The argument is made that the for the wealthy Singaporeans, the price increase is small and for poor Singaporeans, the government gives U-save vouchers which will cancel out the impact of the price increases. When I try to explain this to people, they always ask, “Why raise the price and give out vouchers to pay for the price rise? Isnt that extremely wasteful creating a bureaucracy to administer the vouchers and collect the additional charges? Why not simply exempt the poorest households and those who consume the lowest amounts of water from any rises? That was the way water was priced in Singapore in the 1970s and 80s any way, long before we had the new technologies that we had and at a time when relations with our neighbours were a lot worse than they are today.
It is tempting to think that the government is simply out of touch and too elitist but my experience in the GE 2015 showed me how this works and why elections in Singapore depend entirely on the ruling party. About a week after the elections, I was in my clinic when a long time patient rolled in on a motorized wheelchair with his daughter who is a nurse. They both congratulated me on a well run and clean campaign. I then asked them, where they lived. The older man somewhat sheepishly said, “We live in Yuhua and you know, Grace Fu has done so much for us. She even gave us this motorized wheelchair”. “Hold on, I said, that motorized wheelchair came from your money as a taxpayer, she did not give it to you.” “No, but she came with a whole entourage of grassroots people and photographers to our flat, she personally delivered it” He would not be persuaded. As long as we have that kind of system in place, the ruling party can simply raise any charge they want by any amount they want and they marshal their grassroots teams to compassionately provide vouchers to help out those badly affected by their own policies. It is brilliant. I don’t think that Lenin even could have thought of this.
So, I think that the water price increase is a symptom, not the disease. It seems to reflect some underlying problem in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled here in Singapore. I don’t think it is our fault that we have become complacent or that we are ignorant of how important water is to all of us. I think we need some answers to important questions about how much water is needed by 4 million people, by 5 million people, by 6.9 million people and also where does the money go. Until we get some honest answers, we should all keep asking questions.
Thank you to the organizers of this rally and thank you all for being here. Keep asking the questions and we will get some answers some day.
Minister Shanmugam – people must trust the Government to be efficient with its use of money.
But the past 2 Auditor’s General report raised concerns. Clearly flagged so many waste in spending by the Ministries and Stat Boards in the tune of Millions of dollars of Tax-payers money.
How can this wastage happen? Singaporean must remember the rule of thumb in life. Whenever someone tells you to trust them with your money than you better be careful. Trust must be earned not given (suka-suka).
We gather here today because as citizens we are concern that the Government once again chooses to impose burdensome tax on our shoulders with questionable basis unsupported by data and lacking full transparency in financial figures.
Why is it that in this country whenever the Government want to solve a problem, most of the time, the first thing they do must be, to increase tax?
The Government and the Civil Service prides on a Systems thinking approach – identify the problem at the centre and map out all factors to find the solutions – So what is the problem with our water supply that must increase price by 30%?
It is to create awareness of water importance and its scarcity – implying we need to control our usage. Ok, I can think of many ways to create awareness of that, through public education campaign, installing water efficient taps, recycling used water for flushing, targeted pricing to differentiate users and abusers. And if we brainstorm together, there are so many possible ways to manage water usage to prevent wastage.
Then they say it’s about making us feel the full cost of water supply, and they had someone that doesn’t sound nor look like a professor that crazily states that it should be 100% instead of just 30%.
And then they say that the last price increase was 15 years ago therefore implying its ok.
Mr Png Ng Huat of Workers Party in Parliament shared what our VERY FREE PRESS don’t tell us the people:
Cost of water supply (PUB: water treatment, reservoir operations, Newater production, desalination, used-water collection and treatment, and the maintenance of water pipelines):
(1) $500 million in 2000, to $1.3 billion in 2015
(2) Homes account for 45 per cent of water used daily
Using simple ratio, the share of the cost of supplying water to households should be 45 per cent of $1.3 billion, or $585 million.
As such, the average cost of water is about $40 per month to supply water to each household in 2015*. This is well below the average monthly water bill paid by households of 4-room and above. However, how much do we pay per month for our water Bills?
So, the PUB is making a handsome margin each month it seems. Yet you want to increase the price? And for what again?
Ladies and gentlemen, the impact on families for this unjustified exorbitant price hike are clear. We will have to fork out more money per month. We still have to bathe, eat, drink, go toilet, as usual. And I believe individual families will do our level best as we already are doing to cut down on our water consumption.
But the impact of the 30% will be compounding on many other things that affects all of us citizens. The price of food will correspondingly increase as sellers need to recover additional cost which is not their fault.
Our groceries will be more expensive. Our roti prata, teh tarik, nasi lemak, noodles, etc. will increase in price. Our utilities and amenities cost will eventually also rise as they all use water for their operations.
It is disingenuous of the Government to say that they will monitor to ensure there will be no profiteering. MY God, as shown by Png Eng Huat, they are the one doing it in the first place.
So, why is the government so eager to hike water price? Why are they so desperate to take our hard earned money, which for most of us have not caught up with the exponential increase in cost of living, as government policies for bringing in fast money has led us to be the most expensive city in the world for 2 years running?
Is there something that is amiss? Something that they are not telling us. Why the sudden urge to make as much money? Maybe we should look elsewhere to identify possible reasons for this urgency to hike our water price by a punishing 30%.Is there a financial hole somewhere that they are trying to cover? Anyway, most of us are the 30% here, can we be excused Mr Government from this?
This price hike will hurt the people’s pocket at a time when for most of us, it is already hurting.
The Government will say, don’t worry, we hear your pain. We will give subsidies, throw some financial aid, mediate the pain where needed. But all this are temporary, because they know the people will eventually accept this burden, as it is human nature that we will adjust and adapt to whatever conditions to survive.
And for most Singaporean, we will only work harder and spent lesser time with our love ones, cut on what little luxuries that we, the common people barely had, just to put that money on the table to live in the most expensive city on earth.
This normalization will benefit them as they will keep the money and spent it as they like for 5-6 years in between elections. As they know that thing called elections are already made safe and water-tight for the 9-10 days of campaigning with all the advantage working for them, to pull a wool over the eyes of the people and elect them to continue their power.
Already we have a Minister openly advocating the so-called merit of a One Party rule that is perpetual. Last I checked, that is not called a democracy, it calls something else right.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
So my fellow countrymen. There is a more fundamental issue that we must address. The root of the matter is the absent of real and genuine check and balance in government. The government must be checked to ensure that policies are put in place to really benefit us the people.
For a long time, since independence in fact, the democratic system that we have is far from what it is supposed to be. Today as we speak, we know that there exist severe hindrances for political parties to have a just and fair space in public to articulate our views.
The press is sealed, the TV is blocked, the only place for us to gather and speak is here in Hong Lim, and when election comes, we have gerrymandering, the GRC system that benefits them, only 9 days of campaigning, a cooling day that essentially works to their benefit. It is never a level playing field and it is unfair and unjust.
Even what little last hope that the people had, to ensure at least a form of check and balance to this Government, was only recently dampened, when the people’s hope to have a truly worthy President to hold the second key to our money disappeared into thin air with the embarrassing reason of racial preferential treatment that the minority never asked for anyway.
In other countries parliament legislate to grow their democracy by granting funds for political parties’ operations and democratic work in the spirit of respect and trust to work for the collective good of a maturing democracy. Why can’t we do the same here?
Finally, the water price hike is cruel on the people, but the people have lost their voice to a power that no longer see us the people as the government’s number one concern. Hopefully, what little that we do here today, would go somewhere to create some awareness of the issues and the importance of taking back the power from the hands of an elite entrenched hegemonic group that shamelessly pride themselves as a natural aristocracy, and give back that power to us, the people. We the people, are against the water price hike.
Thank you very much my friends.