SPDR STI ETF

According to the latest SPDR report I received in my mail, “The SPDR Straits Times Index ETF, Singapore’s first locally created exchange traded fund, is designed to track the performance of the Straits Times Index.”

Its inception date is 17th April 2002 and it has been around for about 12 years.  The price is approximately 1/1000th of STI and it’s available for purchase using the CPF investment scheme in the ordinary account for amount over $20 thousand under the current MAS policy.

The assets under management for this ETF is over $400 million, so the chances of this fund getting liquidated over the long term are pretty slim.  Like most diversified ETF’s, it’s a good medium as a long-term investment, and trading for the short-term is not recommended.

For an investor who invests in this fund since its inception till the month end as of 28 Feb 2014, the return is 8.20% inclusive of transaction cost and dividends in SGD.  This return is splendid, especially considering that over this period, the SGD has appreciated much over the USD.  The return figure quoted in a global financial currency such as USD will probably be much higher.  At that rate of past return, it beats inflation in a meaningful way and provides the investor a real appreciation of his funds.

Over the same period of time, the return for HDB flats in general, without taking into account of upkeep cost and rental, is around 6.5%.  It would mean that the SPDR STI ETF provided a similar rate of return without the requirements of a huge outlay of capital, at a lower cost, with better diversification and liquidity and with the ability of subdivision of your holdings into smaller lots to be purchased and sold over time.

As with all stocks, the SPDR STI ETF is pretty volatile over the short term of a few years.  Witness the drop of the STI index from the high of 3800 level to less than 3100 level during the recent financial crisis and the fall from 2500 level to the 1250 level during the dot com bubble burst.  Stock market panics and blooms are common and cannot be avoided and furthermore is the very reason why stocks long-term returns are higher than staid investments such as bonds.  The stock market is the manifest of the mantra of high-risks high-returns and no-pain no-gain.  What the investor can deal with the situation is to take a long term view of the stock market and invest for the long term – let the ebbs and flows of the price cycles cancel out each other over the long term and achieve meaningful returns over periods of decades of investment.

It’s important for the investor not to place short-term funds designated to fund items such as near-term house purchases or college funding to a volatile asset class such as stock ETF.  It’ll not be optimal to purchase the STI ETF at a temporary high price and encounter a bear market thereafter.  The investor will then be faced with a financial straitjacket of having to lock into capital losses if he/she needs to en-cash the funds to meet his/her needs.  The ideal investment for STI ETF will be for your retirement, college funding for your infant, or as a bequest which allow capitalism to do its magic over decades down the road.

The STI ETF is well diversified with a slight tilt towards banks.  The first, third and fourth by holdings are DBS, OCBC and UOB.  This perhaps reflects the fact that Singapore is a major financial hub.  The index also contains some companies based overseas in countries/regions such as Hong Kong; examples of such companies are Hong Kong Land and Jardine Matheson.  All in all, even though the index is based on stocks traded in SGX, it’s globally diversified as even companies based in Singapore such as Singtel and DBS have a large presence overseas.

The STI ETF is one such ETF that is physically replicated instead of others listed in SGX that are mostly synthetically replicated.  This would mean that the STI ETF will not have counter-party risks.  Its focus in large-caps, well-established companies is particularly assuring to the concerned investors.  The fact that this is an index fund with a low annual cost of 0.3% is an icing on the cake.

Personally, I’m dollar cost averaging into this ETF via my CPF OA.  At its current PE ratio of 13 to 14, it’s probably undervalued compared to S&P500.  If the future of Singapore and the region goes well, this should be a good investment.

CPF LIFE Review

The CPF LIFE scheme is a national annuity life-insurance scheme launched in September 2009.  It’s administrated by the define-contribution pension-fund board CPF.  The scheme has since then gone through an iteration where the plans offered are reduced/simplified.  This scheme comes about to address the twin challenges of an aging population and the limitations of the current CPF drawn-down scheme.

Almost half a decade has lapsed since the scheme’s birth.  If you browse around the web for forums by the public about the CPF LIFE scheme, the responses are mostly negative.  Comments ranged from “it’s a scam” to the allegation that “the government does not want its people to draw monies from the CPF”, etc.  However, these diatribes masked 2 grave problems – the population is rapidly aging and through better medical science and improved sanitation the longevity of the silver-hair generation is slowly but surely improving.  For example, the median life expectancy of a 65 year-old retiree has now reached an impressive 20 years.  Many older people are expected to beat their peers and enjoy a 30-year retirement or more.  Given the younger generation propensity not to have children, the demographic dividend will sooner or later come to an end – the working population will have to bear the burden of those too old and frail to work.

Given the statistics, how are Singaporeans going to cater for a stretch of 20-to-30 years without work income?  The CPF LIFE scheme, as proposed by the government, is an insurance scheme whereby those who have a shorter lifespan will subsidy the living expenses of those who live longer, thus reducing the initial outlay of the individual’s retirement savings.  While CPF LIFE is not perfect, it’s a good first step towards securing our graying population’s future.  Although I do not like the fact that the government makes the scheme mandatory for the majority of the population, I could empathize on the need to standardize for a major national policy as important as a retirement pension scheme.

So is the CPF LIFE scheme value for money?  Your guess is as good as mine given the complexity of the actuary science to compute the costs-and-benefits of such a system.  Only with the passage of time and as the feedback loop of the payout data comes in can we know whether the current pricing truly reflects the cost of the payouts.  As a government sanctioned policy, I would genuinely believe that it’s a not-for-profit fiscally-neutral institution operated on a mutually beneficial basis for all Singapore residents.  This would mean that it’s probably a better deal to buy an annuity from the CPF than a for-profit commercially-operated insurance company who has to pay its agents’ commissions and cater to its margins.

The CPF account holders can visit the CPF website and check out how much bang they can get out of their bucks from the online calculator.  For example, a 55 year-old Singaporean with $100 thousand choosing the Standard Plan could get around $827 to $914 from 65.  After factoring into account of inflation from the passage of 10 years from 55 till 65, the monthly withdrawal is not that spectacular.  The annuitant would be expected to be living a fairly Spartan/subsistence lifestyle.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the payout is not indexed to inflation.  Assuming an annual inflation of 3% to 4%, after a 20-year retirement, the aged will see his payouts shrink by around 50% – at a time just when his medical expenses are about to skyrocket.  As such, the retiree needs a Plan B for his retirement income, whether it’s a part-time job, savings or his children.

So should I enroll in this scheme and which plan should I opt for?  For those with health conditions, the scheme is unlikely to be of benefit and they can opt out under the Medical Ground Scheme.  For those that can’t opt out but are heavy smokers, drinkers or morbidly obese and can’t see time on their side compared to the healthy, they can choose the Basic Plan and leave a larger bequest to their beneficiaries.  However, I do expect to see a major portion of the population who would choose the Standard Plan with lesser bequest.  They are the singles or widowers with no spouse or children and thus a bequest would be meaningless to them.  There’re also those who are financially destitute and would squeeze out every ounce from whatever they can lay their hands on.  In this case, the bequest would likely be used to pay for their terminal-disease treatment and funeral.  The 2 schemes were sufficiently simple and at the same time add some flexibility to the different needs of the various sections of the population.

Going forward, I’ve 2 items for the CPF LIFE scheme on my wish list.  First, I hope the CPF board would allow annuitants an option to delay monetizing the plans from 65 to perhaps 70 or 75.  Frankly speaking, given the longevity profiles of Singaporeans, 65 year old is too young an age to retire.  We should allow those who want to continue to work to continue to do so and let them withdraw a higher payout later so they can truly enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Secondly, it’ll be great to offer a plan with a lower payout but indexed to inflation so that the income from CPF LIFE will not suffer from the ravage of inflationary pressure.  Given the disparate financial and health profiles of Singaporeans, there’s a need for measures to encompass the different needs of various entities of the society.

Personally, I feel that while the CPF LIFE scheme does not cater to the needs of all Singapore residents, it’s a pretty good start.  It just needs time to prove itself.

Lee Kuan Yew on Europe’s currency problems

The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 13, 2013

SINGAPORE – Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s new book launched last Tuesday, One Man’s View Of The World, presents what he thinks about the future of major powers and regions. In these extracts, he speaks about death and dying, a younger generation of Singaporeans who have known only a thriving Singapore, as well as Japan’s ageing society and Europe’s currency woes.

Mr Lee: “The fundamental problem with the euro is that you cannot have monetary integration without fiscal integration – especially in a region with spending and thrift habits as diverse as those of Germany and Greece.

The incongruity would break the system down eventually. For this reason, the euro was destined to flounder, with its demise written into its DNA.

Its difficulties over the last few years should not be seen as stemming from either the failure of one or two governments to spend within their means or the failure of others to warn them of the dangers of not doing so.

That is to say, the euro’s troubles are not the result of a historical accident that could have been prevented if a few actors involved had made different decisions – more responsible ones – in the course of its implementation.

Instead, it was a historical inevitability that was waiting to happen. If things had not come to a head in 2010 or 2011, they would have come to a head in another year, with another set of circumstances.

I am not convinced, therefore, that the euro can be saved, at least not in its present form, with all 17 countries remaining in the fold.

From the inception of the euro project, clear-eyed and well-respected economists, including the likes of Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein, had been sounding alarm bells about its inherent paradoxes.

The British did not join because they did not see it working. They were not convinced about the benefits and were fully cognisant of the dangers.

However, the governments which joined the euro zone in 1999, as well as the populations that elected them, while eager to move on the single currency, were not prepared to accept fiscal integration because of the loss of sovereignty that it obviously implied.

In the end, their choice to go ahead with the euro anyway reflected a misplaced belief that Europe was somehow special enough to overcome the contradictions. It was a political decision.

In the United States, one currency can work for 50 states because you have one Federal Reserve and one Treasurer.

When one state runs into economic hardship, it receives generous transfers from the centre in the form of social spending on individuals living in that state and government projects.

The federal taxes raised in that state will not be sufficient to pay for the federal spending disbursed to that state.

If one were to keep accounts, that state might be running deficits for years – but it is a sustainable situation precisely because nobody is keeping accounts.

The people living in that state are considered fellow Americans and the people living elsewhere do not actually expect the money to be repaid. It is effectively a gift.

The other extreme works too, of course – that is, Europe under a pre-euro system, with each country having its own finance minister and managing its own currency.

Under that system, when one country experiences a slowdown, it can roll out remedial monetary policies because it is free from the shackles of a common currency.

These include expanding the supply of money – what the Americans call “quantitative easing” – and devaluing the currency to make the country’s exports more attractive.

But these were tools that the euro zone countries gave up as a result of their entry into a common monetary community.

They did so, furthermore, without ensuring that there would be budgetary transfers similar in type and magnitude to those that depressed states in the US receive.

What do you get, then, when a motley crowd tries to march to a single drummer? You get the euro zone.

Some countries surged ahead while others struggled to keep pace.

In countries that fell behind economically, governments were under electoral pressure to maintain or even increase public spending, even though tax receipts decreased.

Budget deficits had to be financed through loans from the money markets. That these loans could be obtained at relatively low rates – since they were made in euros, not, say, drachmas – did nothing to discourage the profligacy.

The Greeks eventually became the most extreme example of this decline, going further and further into the red.

To be fair, the community as a whole also has to bear some responsibility, since there were rules under the Stability and Growth Pact that allowed for sanctions on governments that ran repeated deficits. But these sanctions were never imposed on any country.

For some time, experts with boundless optimism hoped that these governments could close the competitive gap with stronger nations like Germany by cutting welfare programmes, reforming tax collection, liberalising labour market rules or making their people work longer. But it did not happen.

The situation finally began to unravel with the global financial crisis of 2008.

Easy credit dried up and the markets’ falling confidence in the credit-worthiness of governments like Greece’s caused their borrowing rates to soar.

Germany and the European Central Bank were forced to intervene with bailouts to stop the debt crisis from spreading throughout the already crestfallen euro zone.

As at June 2013, the euro community has avoided catastrophe by throwing enough money at the problem.

But the 17 governments need to face up to the more difficult question of what to do to address the fundamental contradiction in the euro project – monetary integration without fiscal integration.

They might try to postpone this for some time, but they know they cannot do so indefinitely or history will repeat itself and another crisis will come along, requiring bigger bailouts, which, if push comes to shove, the Germans will probably have to underwrite.

Prompt action is far better than procrastination, especially since further down the road, as memory of the pain and panic of the debt crisis fades in the minds of voters, the political will to act decisively is also likely to wilt.”

Lee Kuan Yew on Japan’s insular attitude and population woes

The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 13, 2013

SINGAPORE – Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s new book launched last Tuesday, One Man’s View Of The World, presents what he thinks about the future of major powers and regions. In these extracts, he speaks about death and dying, a younger generation of Singaporeans who have known only a thriving Singapore, as well as Japan’s ageing society and Europe’s currency woes.

Mr Lee: “The most serious challenge facing Japan is demographic. Its population is rapidly ageing and not replacing itself. All its other problems – a stagnating economy and weak political leadership – pale in comparison.

If Japan does not solve its demographic problem, its future will be very grim.

The numbers alone make for sobering reading. The fertility rate stands at 1.39 children per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. With fewer births, the number of workers supporting each senior person has shrunk from 10 in 1950 to 2.8 in recent years.

This is projected to continue dropping – to two by 2022 and possibly to 1.3 by 2060. By the time it hits 1.3, it may become so unbearable for the young workers that they will choose to leave.

The population, which grew in the 61/2 decades after the war from 72 million to 128 million, has registered declines for the past three years and is currently 127.5 million.

A shrinking economy cannot be far behind. The situation is wholly unsustainable.

For years, Japanese women accepted their culturally assigned role in the family and in society. They were quite happy to stay at home to bear and rear children, to serve their elderly folk and to take charge of household matters.

But as the women travelled and interacted with people from other parts of the world, and as they tasted the freedom of working and being economically independent, attitudes changed dramatically and irreversibly.

Some Japanese women working for Singapore Airlines, for example, married Singaporean air stewards. They saw how women in Singapore lived – separate from their in-laws and without their husbands bossing them around.

Japanese society tried its best to hold back the tide and to keep the women economically reliant on the men for as long as possible – but failed.

In one or two generations, women abandoned the role they played in the old society. They made their own calculations and decided that the former deal was no longer worth their while.

They did not want to be burdened by children. Many have therefore chosen to remain single. Others got married but did not have children.

Unhelpfully, a significant number of Japanese employers have refused to move with the times. Unlike the Swedes, who have made it possible for their women to have babies and careers, many Japanese companies still convert the women who leave to give birth into temporary employees.

For women who are ambitious and on the rise – as well as for those who feel they need the full-time income that corresponds to a career – the decision to have children becomes unnecessarily costly.

Many never find the courage to take the leap, even if they were inclined to have children.

Singapore’s problem with low birth rates is not dissimilar from Japan’s. But there is one key difference: we have shaded our problem with immigrants.

Japan has been remarkably intransigent about accepting foreigners. The idea that the Japanese race must be kept pure is so deeply ingrained that no attempt has been made to publicly discuss alternatives.

A multiracial Japan is simply not imaginable – whether among the Japanese public or its political elite.

I have seen for myself this pride in racial purity on display. During the Japanese Occupation in Singapore, I spent time working in the Cathay Building as an English- language editor.

On Dec 8 each year, there was a ceremony there in which a Japanese soldier wielding a big samurai sword would say: “Ware ware Nihonjin wa Amaterasu no Shison desu (We Japanese are the descendants of the Sun Goddess).”

In other words, we are and you are not.

I doubt they will repeat the line as much these days, but I do not think the basic belief has changed.

One civilian Japanese officer educated and born in America, called George Takemura, was not fully trusted. He worked in the Hodobu (Japanese information or propaganda department) during the Japanese Occupation and dealt with the cable news editors like me. He was gentle in speech and behaviour.

Holding firmly to such a belief has serious implications. It means the most commonsensical solutions to their demographic dilemma may be automatically precluded.

For instance, if I were Japanese, I would seek to attract immigrants from ethnic groups that look Japanese and try my best to integrate them – Chinese, Koreans, perhaps even Vietnamese.

And in fact, such a group already exists within Japan. There are 566,000 ethnic Koreans and 687,000 ethnic Chinese living in the country.

Speaking perfect Japanese, they are fully assimilated to the rest of society in their ways and habits and long to be accepted as full, naturalised Japanese citizens.

Indeed, many were born and bred in Japan. And yet, Japanese society has not accepted them.

To fully understand the extremity of this insular attitude, one has to consider another group that has been rejected: pure-bred ethnic Japanese from Latin America, also known as nikkeijin.

From the 1980s, tens of thousands of them, mainly from Brazil, have moved to Japan under liberal migration policies drawn up in the hope that they were the answer to the nation’s ageing population.

In making the trip halfway across the globe, these nikkeijin were going in the reverse direction of their grandparents or great grandparents, who had emigrated in the 1920s in search of jobs in the labour-intensive coffee plantations of Brazil.

The experiment failed. Having grown up in an entirely different society, the nikkeijin were so culturally alienated from their genetic relatives in Japan that they were treated as foreigners.

Finally, in 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, the government offered unemployed nikkeijin a one-time resettlement fee to return to Brazil.

In another society, one with a different attitude towards foreigners, this experiment may have succeeded. Indeed, the Japanese government must have believed in the possibility of success before they implemented the policy.

Even they had underestimated the level of intolerance.

Foreigners currently make up less than 1.2 per cent of all residents in Japan, compared with 6per cent in Britain, 8 per cent in Germany and 10 per cent in Spain.

Japan is so homogeneous that young Japanese who have spent time overseas, usually because their parents were sent abroad to work as expatriates, have a difficult time adapting when they return, even if they had studied in Japanese schools.

So much in everyday communication is left unspoken, and the other party is expected to make inferences based on body language and guttural noises.

It will take many more years and a very fundamental shift in attitudes for the country to contemplate a demographic solution that is based on attracting immigrants.

But does Japan have the luxury of waiting many more years before confronting this problem? I doubt it.

If they leave it for another 10 to 15 years, they would have gone down the slippery slope, and it may be too late to recover.

Life, to be sure, will remain comfortable enough for middle-class Japanese for many years to come. Unlike the developed countries of the West, Japan has not accumulated enormous foreign debts.

The country is also technologically advanced and the people are well educated. But eventually Japan’s problems will catch up with it. If I were a young Japanese and I could speak English, I would probably choose to emigrate.”

Lee Kuan Yew on fate of S’pore in 100 years’ time

The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 13, 2013

SINGAPORE – Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s new book launched last Tuesday, One Man’s View Of The World, presents what he thinks about the future of major powers and regions. In these extracts, he speaks about death and dying, a younger generation of Singaporeans who have known only a thriving Singapore, as well as Japan’s ageing society and Europe’s currency woes.

Mr Lee: “On Aug 22, 2012, I received a thank-you card from a Singaporean by the name of James Ow-Yeong Keen Hoy.

From his elegant, cursive handwriting, I guess he must at least be in his 50s. Young people these days prefer to type, and when they do write, they simply do not write as beautifully.

He wrote: “My family is deeply grateful and has benefited from your magnificent leadership and solid contributions that have enabled our nation to achieve peace, happiness, progress, prosperity, solidarity and security all these good years. A big thank you!

“May we have the honour to sincerely wish you, Sir, peace and joy, wisdom and longevity and all the very best in the coming good years. And may our beloved country be blissfully and richly blessed and be mercifully safeguarded now and always. God bless.”

I quote at length from this card to highlight the enormity of the mindset shift, from an older generation, including this writer, his peers and his seniors, to a younger one that takes for granted Singapore’s affluence.

People like Mr Ow-Yeong have seen Singapore develop from the unsettling 1960s, when hardship and poverty were still the rule rather than the exception, to today’s vibrant and cosmopolitan Singapore, providing well-paying jobs to a highly educated population.

Many older Singaporeans also progressed from living in shanty huts to high-rise apartments with present-day conveniences and surrounded by safe neighbourhoods.

They have a good understanding of the nation’s imperatives – what it took for us to get here and what it would take to keep up our success – as well as its vulnerabilities.

The younger voters do not share those views. Having been born into a Singapore that had in many ways already arrived, they see all that is around them – a working system generating stability and wealth – and they ask: “Where is the miracle?”…

Even as things stand, we have regretfully shifted the system away from attracting the best talent through reductions to ministerial pay.

If I were a Cabinet minister at the time the change came up for discussion, I would have stood firm. But the younger generation of ministers decided to go with the trend.

It is true that no country in the world pays ministers as we do. But it is also true that no other island has developed like Singapore: sparkling, clean, safe, with no corruption and low crime rates.

You can walk the streets or jog at night. Women will not be mugged. Police do not take bribes, and if they are offered bribes, there are consequences for the ones offering.

None of this came about by coincidence. It took the construction of an ecosystem that requires highly paid ministers.

With every pay reduction, the sacrifice that a minister makes – giving up his profession or his banking job – becomes greater.

Some will eventually tell themselves: “I don’t mind doing this for half a term, 21/2 years, as a form of national service. But beyond that, it has to be: thanks but no thanks.”

The final outcome would be a revolving-door government, which will inevitably lack a deep understanding of the issues or the incentive to think about problems in a long-term manner.

Will Singapore be around in 100 years? I am not so sure. America, China, Britain, Australia – these countries will be around in 100 years. But Singapore was never a nation until recently.

An earlier generation of Singaporeans had to build this place from scratch – and what a fine job we have done.

When I led the country, I did what I could to consolidate our gains. So too did Goh Chok Tong.

And now, under Lee Hsien Loong and his team, the country will do well for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

But after that, the trajectory that we take will depend on the choices made by a younger generation of Singaporeans.

Whatever those choices are, I am absolutely sure that if Singapore gets a dumb government, we are done for. This country will sink into nothingness.”

Lee Kuan Yew on life after Cabinet… and death

The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 13, 2013

SINGAPORE – Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s new book launched last Tuesday, One Man’s View Of The World, presents what he thinks about the future of major powers and regions.

In these extracts, he speaks about death and dying, a younger generation of Singaporeans who have known only a thriving Singapore, as well as Japan’s ageing society and Europe’s currency woes.

Mr Lee: “My daily routine is set. I wake up, clear my e-mail, read the newspapers, do my exercises and have lunch. After that, I go to my office at the Istana, clear more papers and write articles or speeches.

In the afternoons and evenings, I sometimes have interviews scheduled with journalists, after which I may spend an hour or two with my Chinese teachers.

I have made it a habit to exercise daily. At the age of 89, I can sit up and I do not need a walking stick.

When I was in my 30s, I was fond of smoking and drinking beer. I quit smoking because it was causing me to lose my voice at election campaigns. That was before medical research linked smoking to lung and throat cancer, among other things. Oddly enough, I later became hyper-allergic to smoke.

The drinking gave me a beer belly and it was showing up in pictures appearing in the press. I began to play more golf to keep fit, but later on turned to running and swimming, which took me less time to achieve the same amount of aerobic exercise.

Now, I walk on the treadmill three times a day – 12 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes after lunch and 15 minutes after dinner. Before dinner, I used to swim for 20 to 25 minutes.

Without that, I would not be in my present condition physically. It is a discipline.

I continue to make appointments to meet people. You must meet people, because you must have human contact if you want to broaden your perspective.

Besides people in Singapore, I meet those from Malaysia, Indonesia, and, from time to time, China, Europe and the United States.

I try not to meet only old friends or political leaders, but people from a variety of fields, such as academics, businessmen, journalists and ordinary people.

I have cut down on my overseas trips significantly, because of the jetlag, especially when travelling to the US.

Until 2012, I was still travelling to Japan once a year to speak at the Future of Asia Conference – now into its 19th year, organised by the Japanese media corporation, Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei).

For a time, I was going to China nearly once a year, although I am reluctant to go to Beijing now because of the pollution. But the leaders are there, so you have to go there to meet them.

The JP Morgan International Council, which I am on, did me the honour of holding its 2012 annual meeting in Singapore, so did the Total Advisory Board.

Going to France is all right. It is a 12-hour direct flight on an Airbus 380, there and back. But to go to New York is much more tiring – especially because of the time change, from night into day and day into night.

Travelling overseas helps me widen my horizons. I see how other countries are developing. No country or city stays static. I have seen London and Paris change, over and over again.

Being out of Government means I am less well-informed of what is going on and the pressures for change. I therefore go by the decisions of the ministers, by and large. I seldom express a contrary opinion – at least, much less than when I was in Government and attended Cabinet meetings, which allowed me to participate fully in the debates.

Occasionally, when I disagree strongly with something, I make my views known to the Prime Minister. There was an instance of this when the Government was looking to reintroduce Chinese dialect programmes on free-to-air channels.

A suggestion was made: “Mandarin is well-established among the population now. Let us go back to dialects so the old can enjoy dramas.”

I objected, pointing out that I had, as prime minister, paid a heavy price getting the dialect programmes suppressed and encouraging people to speak Mandarin. So why backtrack?

I had antagonised an entire generation of Chinese, who found their favourite dialect programmes cut off. There was one very good narrator of stories called Lee Dai Sor on Rediffusion, and we just switched off his show.

Why should I allow Cantonese or Hokkien to infect the next generation? If you bring it back, you will find portions of the older generation beginning to speak in dialects to their children and grandchildren. It will creep back, slowly but surely…

Life is better than death. But death comes eventually to everyone. It is something which many in their prime may prefer not to think about. But at 89, I see no point in avoiding the question.

What concerns me is: How do I go? Will the end come swiftly, with a stroke in one of the coronary arteries? Or will it be a stroke in the mind that lays me out in bed for months, semicomatose?

Of the two, I prefer the quick one.

Some time back, I had an Advance Medical Directive (AMD) done which says that if I have to be fed by a tube, and it is unlikely that I would ever be able to recover and walk about, my doctors are to remove the tube and allow me to make a quick exit. I had it signed by a lawyer friend and a doctor…

If you do not sign one, they do everything possible to prevent the inevitable.

I have seen this in so many cases… Quite often, the doctors and relatives of the patient believe they should keep life going. I do not agree. There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach.

In such cases, one is little more than a body.

I am not given to making sense out of life – or coming up with some grand narrative on it – other than to measure it by what you think you want to do in life. As for me, I have done what I had wanted to, to the best of my ability. I am satisfied…

Different societies have different philosophical explanations for life and the hereafter.

If you go to America, you will find fervent Christians, especially in the conservative Bible Belt covering much of the country’s south.

In China, despite decades of Maoist and Marxist indoctrination, ancestral worship and other traditional Buddhist or Taoist-based religious practices are commonplace.

In India, belief in reincarnation is widespread.

I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God. The universe, they say, came out of the Big Bang.

But human beings on this earth have developed over the last 20,000 years into thinking beings, and are able to see beyond themselves and think about themselves. Is that a result of Darwinian evolution? Or is it God? I do not know.

So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God – nor deny that there could be one.”