Privacy rights and heads in the sand

Yawning Bread (Jun 2005)
15 Jul 05

Some days our local newspapers are the most boring read, but today, I found a story each in Today and the Straits Times which I thought noteworthy.

They’re not stories that truly stand out, and many Singaporeans may peruse them quickly and say to themselves, “so what’s new?”

I, however, want to highlight these two stories because they bear further thought, and they point to defects in our society which need addressing.

The two stories are not, at first glance, related, but I will show you further on, how indeed they are.

Mandatory surveys

The story in Today was about an expatriate from Finland, Mika Sampovaara, who refused to provide information he considered private, to a government survey. He had a conception of his right to privacy which he felt the government had violated by the insistence on asking personal questions.

Singaporeans generally have but the haziest idea of this alien thing called a “right to privacy”. It is one aspect of human rights that is becoming increasingly important in a surveillance-rich world. In our fishbowl Singapore, more akin to a totalitarian state, we have become so inured to being watched, monitored and tracked, we find it hard to conceive that other people take offence.

For example, Singaporeans hand over our identity cards to just about anyone who asks.

But we’re not just victims, we as much oppressors. Employers routinely demand all kinds of information about your background when you apply for a job. The more government-related the organisation, the worse it gets. I’ve seen forms asking you to list all your brothers and sisters and their educational qualifications. What that has to do with your competence for the job in question, I can’t imagine! The Prime Minister didn’t design the forms. Mr average civil servant did.

By the way, asking you for your highest educational qualification is very common. It is in my judgment, one of the chief ways in which we have made ours into a pathologically elitist society. Those who don’t have sterling qualifications are cowed by the question, and made to feel small each time they deal with officialdom.

The same way, asking people about their race heightens race-consciousness in our society.

We have plenty of laws that empower the government to collect information. In Singapore, laws are tools for the government to get what it wants done. It will surprise many people here that in other countries, the legal system is seen more as the defender of the little guy, to protect him from being bullied by his government — in theory at least. But even if it is nowhere near perfect, at least it makes it morally questionable for the government to ride roughshod over its citizens.

Here, the government relies on its laws to give moral underpinning to its demands, making those who object seem too querulous by half.

In the story about the Finnish expatriate, Today tried to get the view of the Department of Statistics. I found their response quite interesting too. The DoS justified themselves by appealing to efficacy. It helps the government plan programs and policies, they said. Besides sounding like central planning to me, I wonder if there is any realisation that ends don’t always justify means. Does effectiveness in governmental objectives justify invasion of privacy? Must the aims of the state trump human rights?

Give a little thought to the matter and any reasonable person will say some kind of balance may have to be struck. Why must the Household Survey in this example require passport number, educational qualifications and date of birth? If representative data is what the DoS wants, it could still be mandatory but couldn’t they treat all respondents as anonymous?

After all, plenty of businesses manage to find out about consumer habits with surveys that treat respondents with respect, without the need for legal powers. So don’t tell me it can’t be done otherwise.

The household survey and the Gini coefficient

One finding from this household survey was in the news a few weeks earlier: the lowest 20% of households by income were slightly worse off since 1998.. They saw their income decline by an average of 1.6% annually between 1998 and 2003.

Meanwhile the richest 20% of households saw their incomes rising 3.3% annually through the same period.

Casual observation around Singapore would have told you that!


See also the press release from the DoS at

A widening income gap can’t be good for social stability. Knowing this, our press swung into action, carrying reports that other countries too had widening income gaps, as if (a) the poor would read their reports, and (b) they would be somehow less hungry knowing that!

Here’s a snippet from the Straits Times of 27 June 2005 about the same widening gap in China:

The survey of 54,000 families found that the richest 10 per cent controlled 45 per cent of urban wealth, while the poorest 10 per cent owned just 1.4 per cent of the assets.

And the rich are getting richer, faster. In terms of per capita disposable income, China’s richest 10 per cent had a 15.7 per cent income rise in the first three months of this year compared to 7.6 per cent for the bottom 10 per cent of earners.

Discrepancies in income levels are nothing new in developing economies, so why should this concern anyone?

But the story got a little more intelligent as it went on….

Well, ask the Gini, experts say, or more precisely the Gini index of income disparity.

A Gini index of zero means income is equally distributed, a score of one means wealth is controlled by one person.

State media estimated that China’s Gini index could now be as high as 0.47, up from 0.454 in 2002 and 0.437 in 1995. The Gini index for the United States last year was 0.45, according to the CIA World Factbook, while war-scarred Sierra Leone was worst off with a score of 0.629.

‘China’s Gini index has already crossed the red line of 0.4,’ said Professor Cai Chuang, a labour expert.

The rising index bears watching as a harbinger of future social unrest, experts warn. When Mao and the communist party started the peasant revolution in the 1920s, the Gini index was at 0.51.

Which immediately got me asking, what is the Gini coefficient for Singapore? And why is it not publicised by the DoS?

I had to google for it and the best (and most recent) I could find in a quick search was a paper by Irene Ng, University of Michigan, on “Intergenerational income mobility in Singapore” dated 21 September 2004. In it she said,

Singapore’s Gini Index of 42.5 in 1998, and 45 on average for 1990-2000 (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2002), is comparable to other countries, especially those at similar stages of economic development. However, the income disparity has been observed to be widening since the 1980s when the Gini coefficient was 40.7. (Chiew & Ko, 1991; Singapore Department of Statistics, 2002; Ramesh, 2004).

Even so, her figure of 42.5 was for 1998, the start of the 5-year period of the latest Household Survey. What has happened to the Gini coefficient since then?

It would be a little more palatable asking people to participate in surveys if there was transparency in results, but if one reads the DoS release, one sees quite a bit of defensiveness.

As soon as the statisticians said the bottom 20% of households saw their incomes fall 1.6% annually, it also said the government helped them out with subsidies, so they didn’t do too badly after all. There is a whiff of politics there. Is it any surprise that the Gini coefficient is not as readily publicised as the government’s earnest concern and assistance?

Human rights

Sampovaara alluded to an important point: if Singapore wants to attract talent from all over the world, including the West, then we must address the issue of societal norms.

We take it as self-evident that in order to attract people to come and live here, we need to have first world standards of incorruptibility and administrative efficiency, unparalleled quality in transport, telecommunications and other infrastructure, good housing and good schools. Foreigners from Europe and America are used to these things, we say, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to sacrifice their comfort. We need them more than they need us.

Furthermore, we have to match the pay scales they are used to.

We’ve even started to talk about entertainment. They’re used to a lively entertainment scene, so we have to loosen up, otherwise they won’t want to relocate here.

And then we stop. We somehow think that other things they are used to, like a free press, a less intrusive government, human rights — and yes, including decent treatment of gay and lesbian people — aren’t important.

On what basis do we draw this line?

And that’s when we come to the second story.

Political apathy

In the Youth section of the Straits Times was a short op-ed piece by Edward Choy, a postgraduate student. In essence, he argued that there’s nothing wrong with people not caring about bigger issues, particularly issues of state, economics and society.

The sky won’t fall down, Choy said. “Life goes on.”

“You go to school, you work, you go out, you go home, you watch TV, you sleep. You pay your bills, you pay your loans, you pay your taxes…”

He is wrong. What makes anyone think there will be a school to go to, a home to return to, a job and all the comfy conveniences of TV, etc, without a healthy state, economy and society?

Look at Liberia, Congo, Somalia, Haiti, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Moldova, and many, many other places.

We have to care. Our comforts don’t fall like manna from heaven. They are created and nurtured by people who care, and the more people we have who care, the better is what gets built.

Particularly politics. Politics is the shaping of the common domain, it’s the overarching architecture for economics and social systems. It’s politics that enables the setting up of mechanisms — legal and judicial — that enshrine your property rights, so that your home is indeed your home, and the money in your bank account is indeed your money. And similarly enshrine your human rights, so that you are not imprisoned arbitrarily, nor discriminated against on the most baseless of grounds.

It’s through politics that we come to a common agreement on pooling resources to have schools, roads and public housing. It’s through politics that we work out fair trading rules so that people are motivated to make products and trade in them, leading to the TV set in our homes and the TV programs we so enjoy.

It floors me that we can praise apathy and still expect the benefits from arduous organisation.

Mika Sampovaara, is doing a greater service to Singapore by raising an important question, compared to this young writer, Choy. By being obstreperous and politically aware, the Finn is helping us make a better polity. By being apathetic, we simply let in the rot.

Sampovaara is asking why we care about first world standards of infrastructure and facilities without first world norms of civil behaviour by governments and citizens. Why do we draw the line to exclude the question of rights? Leave it to the apathetic Singaporeans, and no one might ask that question. No one might think there’s anything odd about having that line.

But Choy’s last sentence is also worth noting. “Even if I did care – I’m really not sure anyone would give a hoot.”

It speaks of our national experience — 40 years of such over-powerful government that few have survived to believe they can make any difference. Why bother when you have no choice and nothing will change?

And maybe that’s why we need foreigners. They are not as “house-trained” as Singaporeans. They show us how to stand up, speak out, and speak of human rights, privacy rights, and things that would blow our little minds.

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