As we move from 2023 into 2024, Goods & Services Tax (GST) in Singapore will rise by another 1%. Given the prevailing rate is 8%, the 1% rate increase is actually a 12.5% increase in the consumption tax. No doubt companies will try to convince you to buy stuff before 31 December 2023 to benefit from the lower GST, rather than wait till next year. And if we were to project this logic forward, knowing that GST might eventually be 10%, there is a question of whether we should bring forward some of our purchases even more.
This is more of a psychological trick than anything. Take for example, your interest in an iPhone that may cost you $1000. Buying it before end of the year will save you $10 at the most because of the 1% additional GST that you will need to pay next year. That is hardly a ‘discount’.
Let’s say you got 10% discount from a Black Friday sale instead. Would it compel you to change to a new model rather than stick to your old one? You might. But what if instead of using your existing phone for 1 additional year (eg. 3 years instead of 2 years). If your original phone was also costing $1000, you’d effectively get a discount of 33% just by using it for 1 additional year. Obviously, it goes down if your base time length is longer.
But you get my drift. The biggest discount is when you can use your goods for longer and get more life out of it. There is no point chasing after lower prices of new goods upfront if you keep replacing them quickly. This is an element where sustainability on the consumer end actually lines up with economics but the challenge is psychology.
There was a recent piece on Eco Business about Singapore’s packaging recycling scheme being delayed and how the polluter-pays principle seems to have failed to take hold in this particular situation. It was partly because of a speech by an activist in the recent SG Climate Rally.
The principle of polluter-pays is important because it helps to internalise the social cost of pollution and allows the market to price it in correctly. The result would be that the production and eventual consumption of the relevant goods stays at the level which is socially optimum.
Product packaging is itself a massive problem where it is clear certain social costs of the waste production is not properly internalised. The fact that supply chains are such that buying a new product is cheaper than the refill version, and the fact that massive amounts of materials are used in packaging without producers having to foot the cost of disposal, seems to be an issue. But the situation is also because waste management is not properly priced. Today, in Singapore, the amount of cost you shoulder for waste disposal is based on where you live and the type of dwelling you live in rather than the amount of waste you generate. This in itself is already not exactly adhering to the polluter-pay principle.
Creating a plastic bottle or aluminum can refund scheme would also jack up the cost of the products but sometimes we forget who are actually the polluters. The ultimate polluters are still the consumers and in making our purchase decisions, if we recognise the cost to the environment and decide that accordingly, it changes the dynamics of the situation and allows the producers to ‘suffer’ the cost from the lack of demand despite the low-ish prices. But that still doesn’t produce a very reliable signal in the marketplace. And that’s why it makes sense to properly ‘tax’ the producers or the consumers somehow to get the market back in line.
As it turns out, the identification of the polluter does not matter much. What matters is that the associated product gets the pollution priced in somehow. You can charge even the shops that are stocking the products. The reason is that the cost will reverberate through the supply chain; the higher price will result in less customers buying it, sending a demand signal that reduces the orders and stocking by the shop, who will order less from their suppliers and so on. Eventually, at the default price point the producer will realise the market isn’t taking as much of the product that they are producing hence reducing their production and hopefully the pollution as well.
The tricky issue is pricing the pollution and getting a sense of how much the marginal reduction in production could reduce the pollution. This is tricky because the average pollution per product isn’t the same as the marginal pollution. And indeed you may have to curb consumption/production very drastically in order to reduce a bit of pollution if there is significant non-linearity involved. I won’t go into the mathematics here but suffice to say, there is reluctance to tinker too much with the pricing of more ‘ordinary’ consumer goods in Singapore. And it might be a shame for sustainability.
I love this recent article by Toh Yan Yun in Rice Media, it makes an important point about Singaporean’s perspective on inequality and also our perceived sense that our meritocratic system will continue to serve us well. I frequently question this point about how well our meritocratic system is working; but more than that, whether our overemphasis on the workings of the meritocratic system we have is squeezing out room for charity. So much so that government needs to use tax deductions as a means to further incentivize donations. Question then, is whether the tax department is the one being generous or the philanthropist?
In believing that we are entitled to the successes and achievements we receive, and seeing that as a system that works, we are also thinking that those who are down and out deserves to be so. Like what Yan Yun says in the article; the belief implies “So long as you play your cards right, your big break lies around the corner.”
Those who have been in reality will certainly respond, ‘Yea, right’. A society that does not see luck and chance playing a part becomes less forgiving for people’s mistakes and even for failures. And this has become so serious in Singapore that people are struggling even with being average. There is some obvious implication for mental health and our functioning as a society.
There are certainly some positive self-fulfilling prophecies in life, and they represent positive cycles in life that we can do more to encourage and harness. Students who have teachers believing in them tend to end up doing better than if they were left on their own; encouragement matters, and more importantly, the social dimension of love and nurturing has an impact on the learning outcomes of students. That is an input for teachers beyond pedagogy, but are we training teachers to believe in their students?
The industrial system works best when we can identify success factors and then invest in them to keep those positive feedback loops in the system. The tricky part is how the industrial system seeks to interact with that ‘scientific management’ koolaid about measurability and creating metrics and indicators. As a result, some of those success factors that are strictly unmeasurable get left out. After all, how do you make sure that a teacher can ‘believe’ in the students evenly in the class? But that question, which is precisely what standardisation and industrialism are based upon, misses the point.
Some of these unmeasurable success factors can generate power feedback loops. Consider the culture of graciousness in a workplace, gentleness, kindness, patience. Just because we cannot correlate the attributes with outcomes doesn’t mean they do not exist. And we all are worse off because we have allowed measurability and ‘big data’ to take such a dominant position in our systems.
Mariana continues her tirade against government capture by capitalist in general. It is interesting how her lessons for government applies perhaps overall to organisations and businesses just as well. That the point of the economy is not the profits but the purpose of the activities themselves. In short run, going for the profits may work but in longer run, it is knowing what problems you want to solve and working on them effectively that brings about the profits.
For governments, that is perhaps the strongest point. But when it comes to corporates, I still think that it is natural for the capitalists to hijack the agenda of the government, lobby for the focus on growth and highlight all of the social benefits of economic growth so much so that government keeps staring that way. The dominance of the economic agenda and how the goals of societies have become caught up with the principle of growth is perhaps something we should be discussing and considering as a society.
In Singapore, how we want to grow our society next needs to be considered. I think the Forward SG initiative was attempting that exercise through the idea of (re)formulating our social compact yet all too often, the logic of resolving the issues seem to boil down to certain initiative, formation of committees or some kind of organisation to look into things. Maybe it is not about adding components? What if it’s about discarding some of our existing things? Including our emphasis on academic merit?
We ought not lose heart but keep the conversation going.
What happens in economics when technological innovation happens? There’s a bit of dilemma between technological progress and economics because technology needs to progress to a stage when it upend the economics of an established technology – yet the incumbent is often enjoying scale economies as well as other effects such as network economies that can make it incredibly difficult for the new comer even if it is superior to existing technology at the scale that the incumbent operates.
In the Innovators’ Dilemma, that was being described and the strategy as well as the market approach is always for the new technology to chip away at the market of the incumbent technology by being appealing enough to a small group in the market to help it grow its scale and challenge the incumbent on more fronts gradually. Can the new technologies that we are trying to cross over towards make their way through this path in order to break the dominance of the incumbent technologies?
They probably won’t be able to move fast enough. And that is probably the justification for government to intervene and encourage developments. Yet governments do not want to be seen as favouring particular technologies. There is also a concern about creating inefficiencies in the market by distorting prices or forcing the taxpayers to shoulder the wrong costs.
Yet in reality, for the world to create a better future, there’s no real ways around it. The modern world was not built by shielding taxpayers from the wrong technological investments nor from carefully betting on the right technologies to take off. The complex problems around climate issues today are not so different from the public infrastructure challenges that people faced in the time before government had the kind of powers they have today. They are more complex, and we probably need more talented people working on them, both in the private sector as well as in government. In fact more so in government than ever.
The challenge remains the cost-benefit paradigms and all the free-market type principles to government and what intervention should be like. Without more mission-oriented policy-making principles and a system that is properly leveraging talents and passion, it will be difficult for governments around the world to assume the kind of role and leadership it needs to lead the transition.
What does it mean if companies declare that they are committed to the energy transition including committing resources towards it, and massive investments, only to make a U-turn when oil & gas turns out to be way more profitable? It tells you that it had always been about the money it makes rather than the transition. Never mind that the fossil fuels continue to drive up carbon emissions and hurting the climate. In fact, maybe climate change would drive up demand for energy – especially in terms of heating or cooling, or requiring more activities in the economy to deal with and mitigate the impacts.
Can the work of accelerating the energy transition be left to the markets? Can profits really motivate companies to support the transition and reduce carbon emissions? Does the market demand understand, appreciate and would be willing to drive and pay for the transition? I don’t think so. Absent regulation, it is unlikely for the markets to drive the emergence of the solution. It is as if we want seat belt manufacturers to drive the messaging around safety and benefits of having seat belts rather than legislate it as a requirement in cars. Or just waiting around for cars to adopt them as the standard feature in a car.
We probably don’t have enough time for all that to make an impact on mitigating climate change. Regulations will be required. To put a price for carbon on the market, to push technologies and options in the market that will reduce emissions. We must also evolve and steer the regulation as our understanding of the technologies and impact on environment advances. We don’t have to get everything right on the first try but we do need to be trying.
When corporates purchase carbon credits and try to ‘offset’ their emissions, environmental groups would accuse them of greenwashing and to a certain extent, tokenism. Yet when Victoria state government bans gas in new homes from 2024, environmental groups were pleased and herald it as some degree or progress and victory.
It is easy to pass this off as a big move. Developers of new homes may have more planning restrictions. Those buying new homes will need to stop using gas. Gas demand growth from households will slow down but gas use in homes are a really tiny fraction of 17% contribution to the state’s emissions by the gas sector.
At the system level, Victoria’s grid emission factor in 2022 is actually such that it emits 4.6 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than combusting piped gas for an equivalent amount of energy. You can easily work that out by consulting the greenhouse emission factors published each year. Of course, I’m probably ignoring some of the emissions associated with the distribution part of things and also with fugitives. The reason for this big difference is the presence of coal-fired power plants on Victoria’s grid. In any case, all renewable energy injected into the grid from wind and solar will be used. Coal-fired power plants provide the baseload and gas-fired power plants usually absorb the additional load demand. What this means is that during the times (early morning or in the evenings) when you’re using electricity for heating or cooking in households, it is quite likely you’re consuming more gas fired power than solar power (whose generation peak in the mid-day).
There are questions on the efficiency of the whole process. Burning gas at power plants and converting them to electricity will result in some energy loss, and then using the electricity to convert it back to heat will mean a bit more losses (less than at the power plant of course); so heat applications for electricity isn’t all that efficient.
And then there is the question of energy bills. Whether you are consuming gas directly in the house or indirectly through electricity in the system, you are going to bear the cost of the gas that is consumed. In Australia, a large proportion of the cost of energy isn’t really in the energy itself but the share of cost that goes into infrastructure, especially that of distribution. Going full electric in households serves to help decarbonise the system only when the renewable electricity is supplied during the times when household’s demand peak. For solar, this is unlikely to be the case unless the household installs its own battery system to charge when solar generation is peak in mid-day. Batteries, additional distribution network assets to cater to peak renewable generation, are all infrastructure that will add to the cost of electricity.
So let us be honest about it: banning gas in residential use is unlikely to move the needle much in terms of decarbonisation in the electricity system right now. At least not all that much in Victoria. It is going to push the problem upstream where it can potentially be managed better. But a lot more actions will have to be taken. Would it improve indoor air quality for homes? Maybe, if your house is not properly ventilated but I doubt it is a very serious issue. Would it really reduce energy bills across the household? Quite unlikely. What it could accomplish is some degree of tokenism to pacify the groups of people who thinks it is a good idea.
Yet it is probably a setback for decarbonisation because we are narrowing ourselves to decarbonise by using a narrow set of technologies and forgetting about the ability to decarbonise gas through biomethane.
We moved to Sydney earlier this year and one of the main highways that the buses move on to get to our place in the suburbs is Parramatta Road. It was a highway leading into the western suburbs but now it is just a road – a relatively narrow one for the heavy traffic that goes through it.
I recall one morning when I walked along the road to get to the bus stop that gets me a bus to the city. There were heavy trucks going down the road, with large SUVs and smaller passenger vehicles as well. I didn’t recall tailpipe emissions bothering me that much back in Singapore – perhaps only the heat that the cars were emitting then. But I noticed how much the tailpipe emissions were stinking up the air even in Sydney where it was less humid than in Singapore and smells tend not to linger or stay strong in the air.
It did make me wonder what the roads would be like without those tailpipe emissions. And that’s probably the dream of those EV companies and the policymakers who are trying to push for more EVs on the roads. Singapore could have done that way earlier; given our ability to manage the vehicle population through COE. Moreover, Singapore already has one of the highest taxes on vehicles in the world. This means the population was ready to shell out the kind of money that an EV would cost.
It is a fine balance to strike given that there’s a lot more consideration around the readiness of our electricity network infrastructure to develop the charging capacities needed. There’s a lot of thinking around whether our vehicle refueling infrastructure is going to be disrupted – and how we can manage those disruptions. Sometimes we just want the transition to happen immediately and for all of us to gain access to the latest technology at reasonable costs. Singapore has done a good job juggling these difficulties and we can do more to explain the linkages between systems to allow us to pinpoint and put pressure on the bottlenecks.
The former China CEO of McDonald’s Kenneth Chan penned a recent opinion piece in Channel News Asia about Singaporeans not taking on leaderships in global companies. It was written in the “practical” Singaporean way that focused on the steps towards being ‘next-level’ and being ‘bold’ to be a leader. He described personal insecurities and his experiences on the ground to rise up.
Personally, I’ve had a host of regional experience within China, South Asia and Southeast Asia during my time with the Singapore government. At International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore, now Enterprise Singapore), I had the chance to work with Singapore companies on their internationalisation plans and follow them to markets you would not even think about as a man-on-the-street. Subsequently, I was in the pioneer team of Infrastructure Asia, engaging regional government bodies on infrastructure projects. That gives me the exposure, the open-mind and also the skills to communicate and manage cross-culturally.
As a Manager at the Sydney office of Blunomy today, I am leading teams of consultants across our Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne offices. I often have to facilitate exchanges with our European offices as well. Insecurities or perceived inadequacies may hold me back but ultimately, it cannot be the fear of me losing my edge or competitiveness that drives me forward.
And that’s the issue I have with the way the article was framed. The opinions expressed in the article reeks of the same old fear-mongering about Singaporeans being comfortable and losing out. I’m not sure if this works for the new generations of Singaporeans nor if that is the right motivation to begin with. The challenge for Singaporeans is not so much the desire for comfort but the lack of worthwhile aspirations. It used to be that rising up to be a ‘GM’ or a ‘CEO’ was something worth aspiring towards. But that simply isn’t the case today with the new generation.
The ‘boomer’ aspirations are simply not worth fighting for. It is in dealing with the ‘why’ that we find our fuel to move forward. “Success” as is constructed in past generations might not work anymore. Instead of aspiring towards “senior leadership” of global corporations, Singaporeans should be desiring to lead the charge of changing the world. Leading global organisations are means to do this. And then it is no longer about remuneration and the practical barriers of relocation and incentives. Monetary incentives should not be the reason for taking up these positions because they are challenging, stressful and hard. There is only so much money can drive that sort of sacrifice. It is the inspiration and influence that counts.
Think about Kenneth Chan leading McDonald’s – you’ve the chance to change the diets of millions of people by making decisions on the menus of your outlets. By thinking more deeply about the toys and promotions on Happy Meal, you get to reshape the aspirations and fancies of a generation of children. That is why it is worth being the leader of a global company – not because of the recognition or being labeled a ‘talent’.
Likewise, if you’re heading up a technology company, it shouldn’t be about maximising shareholder value or aiming to enable investors to make more money. Those elements are important only to the extent they allow businesses to continue making a difference. It is the ability for the technology to grow, benefit people and shape the future into one that we want their children to be part of. That can tip the scale of our motivation no monetary incentives can.
Are we equipping Singaporeans with the right aspirations? It’s not about skills and all that jazz about leadership. Those are important. And yes, government incentives with relocation or settling back in Singapore after stints overseas can help. But what is it that is worth Singaporeans developing that leadership for? That’s what we should be developing.