Thursday, September 30, 2010

Grandma Deserves Better

You knew Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng was in serious deficit of thinking matter when he said, in response to queries about Mas Selamat 's whereabouts, latter was either in Singapore, or not in Singapore. Demonstrating similar dereliction of duty in disseminating useful public information, Acting Minister for Information and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew was quoted as saying. "And if you ask if not now, then when, or if ever - I don't know." What the fish do you know, Mr Minister?

Lui was presenting his stand that the country is not ready to lift the restriction on dialects, and his dubious claim that allowing full content in dialects could "hypothetically impact the standard of Mandarin by 20 percent". His other hypothesis is that "It is already difficult enough to learn English and Mandarin, I think it would be quite challenging to learn a third language."

We don't know when Lui last had a conversation with his parents. If he did, he would have been enlightened that dialects are as natural to the young as fish is to water. For generations, grandma have been teaching kids to finish the food in their bowl, and to be respectful to their elders through culturally rich anecdotes like not pointing your finger at the moon. Mandarin not required. And grandma does a better job at holistic education than those MOE bucreaucrats who coerce school kids to attend YOG events. Or fly in native English speakers, complete with wife, kids and the family dog, because they have no confidence in our own language teachers.

Dialect programming on free-to-air-television is meant for the enjoyment of the silver haired generation who are now unable to engage in conversation with their grandchildren, thanks to the alienation brought about by the Mandarin language. It's supposed to be a small token of appreciation for our senior citizens who dutifully  procreated and worked hard to make the present generation possible. So are we to wait till they are gone before the Hong Kong Cantonese and Taiwan Hokkien programming get to be aired? The only appropriate response to Lui for this disrespect is, boh tua boh suay.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Curiouser And Curiouser!

Nobody probably batted an eyelid when they saw  the Deputy Director of Singapore Land Authority (SLA) driving around town in his Mercedes E200 ($140,000) or E350 Coupe ($300,000).  And so what if he traded in a white Lamborghini Gallardo for a grey Murcielago ($1.55 million), it's just a change of colours.  After all, it's common knowledge that Singapore's civil servants are well paid. Very well paid. His name only popped up in somebody's radarscope when he crashed his Ferrari along Nicoll Highway on 19 December last year. What a waste of a fine piece of engineering. The curious part about Koh, 40, is that he skimped off $11.8 from fictitious payments for IT maintenance goods and services. If SLA spends that much on IT maintenance, they must have an astronomical budget for IT capital purchases. No wonder the YOG committee didn't think twice before shelling out $97 million for time keeping hardware.

But the curious story about YOG is that they gave out 400 free passes for the F1 races, purportedly "to thank volunteers for helping out at the games". In a statement, Vivian Balakrishnan's Ministry of Communications, Youth and Sports said it was offered 1,200 complimentary F1 tickets to give to the deserving volunteers. So what happened to the missing 800 tickets? Each of those tickets for the Marina Bay grandstand cost at least $298. That's $238,400 missing right there. And that's not all. Of those "lucky" volunteers who were given tickets, many received them after the event was over. Now that's a new twist to the term "Indian giver". Volunteer Goh expressed his incredulity thus, "The most ridiculous thing was that the envelope was stamped Sep 24, when the ticket was for Saturday, Sep 25." The irony was not missed that the Ministry of Communications was handling the delivery.
So while the Minister Mentor traverses the globe, telling people how to run their countries, much is amiss at home. The other curious bit is how he prefers to spend his 87 birthday abroad in the company of foreigners, instead of being close to his own family members. After all, he does have a bed-ridden spouse, one brother dying of diverticulitis and a third brother diagnosed with prostate cancer that has spread into the lymph nodes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Selamat Datang Ke Singapura

Malaysia is on a roll. For housing and feeding Mas Selamat since 1 April 2009, she is well compensated for "the longstanding close co-operation between the Malaysian and Singapore security agencies". Never mind that, throughout the long sojourn, MHA representatives never got to meet with the escaped terrorist. It is only now, after a multi-billion dollar handshake, that Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng can cautiously state "when the information he gives can be verified, and we can conclusively say that is how he escaped". In other words, Mas Selamat could have easily taken one of those Duck Tours, which operates amphibious military surplus DUKWs capable of crossing land and water. The rubber dinghy story offered by him earlier is so lame.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's parsimonious one word "No" answer to the obvious query about the link between the perceived payola and the long overdue prisoner extradition speaks volumes. The story really started with Singtel overpaying English Premier League (EPL) for the exclusive broadcast rights, which they are still struggling to deliver with the flaky mioTV platform. Then FIFA heard about the Singapore decision makers who throw money to the wind like it was going out of style, and joined the feeding frenzy with outrageous World Cup demands. But even they could not imagine a Minister who would exceed a budget 3 times over, and still look himself in the mirror and smile.

No wonder Bernie Ecclestone is saying he wants the Singapore Grand Prix to be staged for the next 20 years. Factoid: He''s the only one guaranteed to make a killing from the F1 races. According to Time Magazine ("Turbulent Times Of Formula One", 15 March 2010), Ecclestone alone makes the big TV, sponsorship and track deals that keep F1's cash gushing. Ecclestone was also quoted praising the governance style of Adolf Hitler, saying the German leader "could command a lot of people" and was "able to get things done". You can see why the guy simply loves Singapore. A nervous Minister of Trade and Industry S. Iswaran, who inked the 5 year deal running out in 2012, quickly clarified that it is too early to talk about an extension. The decision to proceed "will rest on a robust cost-benefit analysis," especially when the report card for the inaugural event of 2008 has yet to be publicly released. Unlike his thick skinned colleague, Iswaran does not have a miscellaneous accounting entry called "other costs" to fool around with.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Where The Money Really Went

Milan Fischer from Canada, 68, must have been one of the oldest YOG volunteers in the Olympic Village (the "Y" is for youth). defines a volunteer as "a person who does some act or enters into a transaction without being under any legal obligation to do so and without being promised any remuneration for his services". Taken to the medical room for a leg cramp on 20 August, Fischer was rushed to National University Hospital for first class treament (no queuing, no bed shortage). After a 4-hour open-heart treatment for an aortic dissection on 31 August, he remained in hospital until last Friday 17 September. He and wife Beata will be staying on at the Fairmount Singapore until next month. A coronary artery bypass in Singapore costs $13,000 minimum. Add various scans, surgical fees, anaesthesia, etc, and the tab easily totals up to $50,000 or more. We are told all medical expenses and lodgings for the long stay will be paid for by the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee. It will probably be buried in "Other Costs". But who authorised the expenditures? Can't be Ng Ser Miang, he's just a businessman always on the lookout for a profit opportunity.

The number may be peanuts to the elitist crowd, but it was Minister Lim Hng Kiang who, regretting the decision to save a baby's life, once said "...I regret making the decision because, in the end, the baby continued to be in intensive care, and KKH now runs up a total bill of more than $300,000..."

Meanwhile, other YOG volunteers found they were issued a counterfeit certificate of appreciation. Except for the optically challenged, anyone could see the signatures bear no resemblance to the scratchings of Jacques Rogge (President IOC) or Ng Ser Miang (President SYOGOC). Singaporeans face imprisonment for such criminal offence, putting someone's John Hancock on the dotted line. The official excuse offered is that "sample signatures" were sent to the printers, without disclosing by who, or how the handwriting was provided.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting Youth To Believe

It was a cynical George Bernard Shaw who once said, "Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire." Thanks to modern human ingenuity, one can skip the supine position to accomplish similar amorous intent, as best illustrated in the library scene of "The Atonement". The alcove of literary resources is not only a refuge for heavy reading, but also of heavy breathing.

Young couples looking to government resources for guidance in matrimonial issues, were surprised to read that their plans for "Getting youth to believe in marriage, family as part of success" turn out to be building an underground tunnel linking Malaysia and Singapore. How did the Ministry of Transport end up being involved in the promotion of matters of the heart, marriage (to qualify for a HDB flat) and procreation (improve birth rate to stem the tide of immigration)?

Perhaps they were planning a tunnel of love, complete with floating ERP gantries. Imaginative NS boys are saying that they will probably be more like the tunnels discovered at the South Korean end of the DMZ, large enough for one regiment to pass through in one hour. Maybe even larger, for 55 tonne 2A4 Leopard tanks too heavy to rumble across overhead bridges, S-shaped or straight thoroughfares. Whatever the rationale of the scholar planners, it's not exactly the accouterment of choice that Cupid could work with.

The hurdles for today's youngsters contemplating a new home are staggering. Some say guys maintain that the COE must come first, before the down payment for an affordable HDB flat, if they can find one. With the coming of the baby, there's the worry of pre-school expenditure, as kindergartens cost more than primary or secondary school fees. Latter may range from $28 per month (inclusive miscellaneous fees) to the $400 charged by independent junior colleges. And with limited places in the local universities taken up by outsiders, parents may have to resort to downgrading their pigeon holes to pay for the overseas degree. In the light of all these financial considerations, maybe a Singapore variant of the prenuptial agreement should be drawn up, with an addendum to to ensure that doting parents don't end up destitute and dumped by their offspring in a nursing home in Johore or Batam. Surely those bureaucratic pen pushers can handle the paperwork.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Don't Pop The Champagne Bottle Yet

There's an Asian truism that says the first generation earns the money, the second invests it, and the third fritters it away. The multi-millions vaporised for an ego trip by Vivian Balakrishnan may be a hard act to follow, but did someone just upped the ante?

The land swap with Najib Razak netted Malaysia two plots of prime estate in Marina South and Oprhir-Rochor, worth as much as $5 billion and $2 billion respectively, according to property analyst Nicholas Mark. Earlier, Straits Times quoted lower numbers of $2.2 billion and $950 million. In return, Singapore inherits the awkward footprint at Tanjong Pagar and odd scraps at Kranji , Woodlands and Bukit Timah. What Credo Real Estate says of the elongated sites: "On its own, it is almost impossible to develop..." The rail land along Upper Bukit Timah has a valuation only of $500 mllion. Time to stop laughing at the Red Indians who sold Manhattan Island for "beads, buttons, and other trinkets".

What is billed as the "Final chapter in a long arrangement" is far from concluded. The hard driving Malaysian negotiating team is steadfastly refusing to pay the development charge, an outlay which Singapore developers are so used to accepting without the slightest murmur of protest. Even with legislative powerhouse Law Minister K Shanmugam at the table, legal technicalities were not accorded due respect. So it's back to the ugly scenes reminiscent of the contentious arbitration over Pulau Tekong reclamation and Pedra Blanca dispute, back to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. On Pedra Blanca, Malaysia had written to Singapore asking for copies of the November 1844 letters that Governor Butterworth wrote to the Sultan and Temenggung of Johor regarding the construction of the Pedra Blanca lighthouse, because if the letters still existed they were probably in Singapore's archives in a file entitled "Letters to Native Rulers". However, Singapore has never replied.

The good news about the "argy bargy" is that Singaporeans will no longer be incongruously run over by a Malaysian train while standing on Singapore soil.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oh Yes Virginia, There Is A Minimum Wage

The argument offered by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Lim Boon Heng, for not having a minimum wage for low income workers is that it could push up the price tag on Singaporean workers, and in turn make it harder for them to find jobs. In order words, the bottom feeders should continue to subsist on peanuts (think President Carter, not Mrs Goh Chok Tong), forever dependent on the crumbs like the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) handouts hamstrung by loads of qualifying conditions. Don't forget to read the fine print.

The reality is that minimum wage exists in Singapore. The minimum starting pay for a cabinet minister is $1.5 million, regardless of not being backed by a single ballot cast in his name, not possessing prior track record in political office, or inexperience in managing a budget for a national mega project. The minimum for a senior minister is $3 million. You know what the top dog pays himself. And there are the minimum wage levels for permanent secretaries, superscale officers and a whole catalogue of fat cat civil servants. The only number applicable to a low wage earner is the foreign worker levy, which is strictly enforceable by law.

The last time Liim did a great disfavour for Singaporeans was to cut the CPF contribution rate, based on his expert understanding from a PERC (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy) report that Singaporean workers are paid more than Americans or Australians. PERC's managing director Robert Broadfoot justified its findings in that it was based on the peception of business leaders it surveyed. Colored, no doubt, by the likes of compensation heavyweights like Lim himself.

Meanwhile, paltry GST Credits and Senior Citizens Bonus payments are the only indications of a pumping heart in the cold machinery of governance. Apparently the last largesse for the senior citizens was posted to their Medisave Account, so that that grandpa can't even use it to buy moon cakes for the grandchildren, or heaven forbid, pay for the entrance fee to Resort World Sentosa.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tom Plate Is A Funny Guy

Tom Plate wrote his book "Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew" with material from two interviews on 27 and 28 July 2009. It purports to be an honest and full account of "the Lee Kuan Yew I know", but the skimpy volume of 211 pages obviously left out substantial chunks to leave credibility floundering like the Titanic with a big gap at her side. And despite the ballyhoo Plate makes of Lee pulling him aside during a break in the inteviews to whisper, "Tom, the book will have to have critical and negative stuff in it," the true story will just have to wait. Plate himself admits this on page 207, "He took out a few things out, not wanting to embarass Singapore". Or his legacy.

Everbody is dying to know who were the 3 ministers who resigned within 6 months of working with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong "because they didn't like his style" (answer is not in the book). We are told Lee helped him out. In turn, according to Lee, Goh "appointed my son deputy who helped him succeed." Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. This is how Lee summarised it all, "Goh's success means I have succeeded, not that he has succeeded only. His success reflects creditably on me. He has decided to help my son succeed because that will reflect favorably on him. We have evolved a system, a virtual cycle." Plate may joke about "taking the gosh-awful picture [of Mao] down in Tiananmen", but he dares not "dredge up the well-known Singapore jibe that the triumphant triad is sometimes labeled as 'the Father, the Son and the Holy Goh'."

But let Plate tell his own joke:
"I have this joke-theory, Minister Mentor. It's about people who retire. Did you know that there's a high correlation between retirement and death? Also, that there is a high correlation between playing golf too much and death? Golf is a killer."

Plate says "Minister Mentor" is not his all-time favorite title for a serious official position. He actually asked of Lee, "Will you greatly dispute me if I do not characterize you thusly, 'fun-loving' and 'light-hearted'?" Plate thinks the "Nanny State" apellation for Singapore is too un-masculine. With Darwinian emphasis on discipline and hard work, looking over all by "LKY, the ultimate godfather", the reflection reminds him of "Father Knows Best", the old American TV show.

Plate is no David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon. Would he have dared asked of Nixon (the apology to the American people), "And I think that unless you say it, you're going to be haunted for the rest of your life."? You gotta be joking.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Is This Where The Money Went?

On Friday, YOG volunteers were rewarded with a day at Universal Studios as promised. Unfortunately the program started only after 6 pm, so they had limited time to enjoy the freebies. With queuing time for the popular Jurassic ride as long as 20 minutes, many leaving after 12.00 missed the last train and had to take an expensive taxi home. They cancelled the RWS shuttle bus service prematurely, remember? You would think with $79.8 million to play around with in "other costs", they could be more generous with the keepsake souvenir for the cheap labour.

Friday, September 17, 2010

He Still Doesn't Get It

The couple couldn't have presented their message in any simpler terms:
"We read in the papers that the number of new flats completed each year by the HDB has been lower than the number of marriages in recent years. This means that the HDB is not building enough flats for the new households." Here are two responsible citizens ready to answer the nation's call for more births so that the original stakeholders in our country will not have to see their share diluted by outsider elements. All that is missing is a roof for the new family.

Instead of confessing his myopia, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan spins a wild and woolly tale in TODAY about what a tough job he has, trying to outguess the real estate market. We already have an expensive self appointed oracle in the Minister Mentor, and even he could not read the crystal ball effectively for Temasek Holdings investments. Experts in the housing market are predicting a hard landing, with property values heading south by as much as 50 per cent. These, the same folks, who were recommending stocking up on premium properties not too long ago. "If you look at the developments over the last four years, you clearly see elements of exaggerations where it doesn't make sense to buy in terms of rental yields or expected capital gains," said Mr Beat Lenherr, global chief strategist of LGT Capital Management, who should have dispensed his wisdom 4 years earlier. It's a rehash of the Wall Street analysts who brazenly promoted dot com companies just before they bombed. Hardly the kind of playground for the likes of Mah.

With truth being a beleagured entity in the cabinet, we will never know if it was Mah or "population czar" Wong Kan Seng who first pushed the 6.5 million people target. What we do know, thanks to Budget Tai Tai, is that Singapore currently has a population density of 7,022 people per sq km, exceeding the Hongkong statistic of 6,480 people per sq km. Former HDB and URA CEO Liu Thai Ker must be bonkers to suggest the island has capacity for 7.5 million. Notice how the loonies are always put in charge of housing for the masses. How did Sigourney Weaver put it in Avatar? "They're just pissing on us without even a courtesy of calling it rain."

All the Singapore griping paid dividends in that HDB has now begrudgingly promised to raise its planned output from 12,000 to 16,000 new flats. But that's in the rosy future, and plausibly just another vaporware of an electioning sweetener. Whether the couple will have a room for the cot is yet to be confirmed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

No Sex Please, We Are Singaporeans

After being so protective of the heartlanders from the lure of the twin gambling dens of RWS and MBS (a.k.a. Sodom and Gomorrah), why are the authorities relaxing controls on screening of R21 (unsuitable for viewing by anyone below 21) movies in HDB estates? No one has raised request for this, and no one needs to. Anyone with an internet connection can access material more sexually explicit than Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution"(色, 戒). Streaming media players selling like hot cakes at Sim Lim Square have made movie-on-demand so convenient that Singtel's mioTV offerings are downright Jurassic by comparison.

The "brainwave" from a state appointed group to review censorship regulations in all media such as films, videos and publications were released yesterday after a year of deliberations. Which means a bunch of fat cat civil servants were sitting around, collecting obscene salaries for non-productive work. For one whole year. Presently, R21 films can be screened only in central business district cinemas. Cinema chain and film distributors like Golden Village are the ones who will profit financially from the proposed changes. To quote their managing director, there could "potentially be a significant lift" in the box office earnings when females start baring skin and raise pulse rates in the heartland screenings. Uncles queued up in droves when Hong Kong pornstar Amy Yip's substantial mammary assets were first unveiled in 1991 with the introduction of the Film Classification System. Who knows, maybe shuttle buses to the heartland cinemas will be provided.

Committee Goh Yew Lin said the panel decided to go ahead because the proposal is "germane to the point of informed adult choice." The frog in the well seems to assume the average Singapore adult cares only about selections from a Masters and Johnson catalogue. What the committee conveniently omits to report is that pent up demand is not for a loosening of garter strings, but rather in the choice of reading material like Dr Ross Worthington's "Governance In Singapore" or even John Hardin's "Escape From Paradise". Latter is still listed in the National Library online catalogue as "Item not available for loan yet" even though it was actually on public library shelves before being yanked out by Yeo Cheow Tong's better half. As for video material, Martyn See 's "Dr Lim Hock Siew" is still top of the charts, thanks to public awareness generated by Minister for Communication and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew. Once again, the bureaucrats have failed to descend from their lofty ivory towers to fully appreciate the preferences of choice at ground zero.

Optically Challenged Minister

For a trained ophthalmologist, Vivian Balakrishnan must be way out of practice if he thinks Singaporeans can't spot the $79.8 million (of the total $387 overblown YOG budget) anomaly classified as "Other costs". Surely such a large outlay demands more details and transparent accounting? Did they buy a private jet to fly the Olympic torch or charter one? Does the "medical services" item buried in "Other costs" include the cost of condoms distributed during the Games? And why was it necessary to issue free rubbers in the first place - to protect our locals from a calibrated influx of foreign crap (rhymes like clap, meaning probably same)?

With a PAP dominated parliament, he must know he will be lobbed only soft balls when called to account for the gross misuse of public funds. When Singapore bidded $104 (US$75) million against the Moscow challenge of US$175, and with the Minister's own admission that "Moscow has hosted Olympic Olympic Games before, it has hosted Youth Games before, and they know what they are doing," why didn't he learn from the experts? Balakrishnan puts the blame for the debacle on his ministry's lack of experience in organising a "sports extravaganza on such an Olympian scale." Well, he should look himself in the mirror to see who is the inexperienced one, not only as an event organiser, but also as an overpaid Minister.

Again, in character with his personal penchant for highlighting the flaws of others without admitting foibles of his own, Balakrishnan said this of the Resort World Sentosa management on the subject of the free shuttle bus services targetted at the heartlands, "Because the profit motive is so strong, I don't believe there will ever be a final solution." The corollary of this is that with a Minister motivated by a million dollar paycheck, there will be no solution in sight for the future of Singapore. Of course, Singaporeans could see another eye doctor to remove the political cataract clouding their vision, and save our hard earned sovereign funds from being raped for another showboating extravaganza.

[Update: Someone has posted the link to the original budget. Click here for the screen capture.]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reverting To Higher Authority

Maranatha (either מרנא תא; maranâ' thâ' or מרן אתא; maran 'athâ' ) is an Aramaic phrase occurring once only in the whole of the New Testament. It is transliterated into Greek letters rather than translated. Transliteration is not the same as translation, which involves converting a message expressed in one language into a message with the same meaning in another language. Transliteration is mapping text from one system of writing into another. Source script may not correspond with the letters in a goal script. e.g. the Greek language is written in the 24-letter alphabet, which overlaps with, but differs from, the 26-letter version of the Roman alphabet on which English is based.

Found at the end of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:22), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates Maranatha as: "Our Lord, come!" but notes that it can also be translated as: "Our Lord has come". The New International Version (NIV) translates: "Come, O Lord". The New American Bible (NAB) carries the notation: "As understood here ("O Lord, come!"), it is a prayer for the early return of Christ".

If the Aramaic words are divided differently (Maran atha, "Our Lord has come"), it becomes a credal declaration. Much religious acrimony between Jews and Christians is traceable to differences in interpreting whether the Lord is coming, or has come.

So how could a Cambridge trained lawyer, graduating with Double Starred First Class Honours, end up mumbling a phrase which has no precise meaning to pursue peace of mind? Worse, the "devout Christian" who recommended him the chant also said, "you can take any other mantra, Buddhist Om Mi Tuo Fo, and keep repeating it". This has to be ecumenism stretched to absurd extremities - Laurence Freeman's "guru", Benedictine priest John Main, received his "christian mantra" from his Hindu teacher Swami Satayanda! It makes you wonder how the Chief Investment Officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation manages our sovereign funds - through analytical determination based on empirical data, or on a wing and a prayer.

Christians do chant. Chanting in the Gregorian style is attributed to Pope Gregor in similar way the tradition of monastic psalmody is attributed to King David. Singing the psalms at regular intervals throughout the day--a practice known as the "Divine Office"(Opus Dei)--furnishes the basic rhythm of the monastic day and the grounding for both daily work and contemplative prayer. Psalms are songs (that's what the word "psalm" means), found in the Bible, representing the sacred poetry of ancient Israel, 150 of them altogether. Many were originally intended for use at festivals and in synagogue worship, others are for private reflection and devotion. In Christian psalmody, you have to comprehend and understand the words, and stay close to the meaning of the text. Tender and comforting, the well-loved Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," is not a undecipherable conjunction of sounds to soothe the weak minded. Used in the proper context, a tortured soul may find redemption yet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Thinking About The Inevitable

One has to be a cold-hearted bastard not to go misty-eyed when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew rambles on about attending to his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes. He goes into excruciating detail about spraying biothene to relieve her dry throat, and sucking out phelgm from lungs for her to breathe fully. Just when you reach for the Kleenex, he says something like, "“but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.” Chia Thye Poh (32 years) and Lim Siew Hock (20 years) would certainly like to dispute the honor of that purpose.

So what keeps Lee Kuan Yew from having a good night's sleep, that this self professed agnostic has to resort to reciting a Christian mantra for peace of mind? The Straits Times extract of the New York Times. September 10 interview enlightens us: Younger people worry him, with their demands for more political openness and a free exchange of ideas. “They have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs, and they can take liberties with it,” he said derisively of the new generation of voters. "The kind of open political combat they demand would inevitably open the door to race-based politics," he insisted, "and our society will be ripped apart.”

When Seth Mydans told him of a taxi driver's remark about the interview, "Safer not to ask him anything. If you ask him, somebody will follow you," Lee, in typical lawyer mode, challenged, "How old is he?" Like it matters, whether how Chiam See Tong's "O" Level grades compared to Mah Bow Tan's, as latter was roundly ejected in a rare straight electoral fight. It appears the combative Lee still lives in his world of fighting left-wingers, communists and Malay-ultras. Mydan's reminder of the libel suits "which keep a lot of people at bay" put him in the defensive, "No, you're fearful of a libel suit?" Softening, Lee volunteered, "Because I'm no longer in charge, I don't have to do the hard things."

We are told that at the end of each day, he sits by the bedside of Kwa Geok Choo, 89, unable to move or speak for 2 years and 4 months, and "tell her about my day’s work, read her favorite poems". For once mindful of his own mortality, he shared, “I’m not sure who’s going first, whether she or me.”

The last time he talked publicly about the great beyond was for the Time cover story of 12 December 2005. "I've seen my closest friend Hon Sui Sen on his deathbed; he has had a heart attack and was fighting for his life, the doctors were there, the priest was there, but there was no fear in his eyes. He and his wife were devout Catholics. They were both convinced they would meet again in the hereafter. I believe a man or a woman who has a deep faith in God has an enormous strength facing crises, an advantage in life."

Except when a youth is cut down in the prime of life, sometimes death gets a bad press. Sally Field, playing the role of Forrest Gump's dying mother, explains her willingness to depart quite elegantly, "It's just my time. Death is just a part of life. Something we're all destined to do."
Unlike Macbeth, when she's done her truly best with what God gave her, she can sleep peacefully into the night,
"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11 Firestorm At Sentosa

While the rest of the world wrestles with Pastor Terry Jones' threat to torch Korans on this 11 September, Singaporeans are contending with a more fiery issue of free transportation to Sentosa being impetuously extinguished (lots of incendiary metaphors in this post).

Hawkish Resort World Sentosa (RWS) vice-president Noel Hawkes blasted off the first salvo about the "knee-jerk reaction" to terminate with immediate effect free shuttles servicing housing estates. Both IRs had obtained the necessary approvals from LTA for their transportation master plan, "to bring people here by public transport and avoid people having to take cars and jam up the (Telok Blangah) junction". On Thursday, one day after the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports announced it was investigating free rides to the IRS, RWS had already fired away notice it would voluntary end its heartland shuttle bus service by the weekend, on Sunday. "What we're really concerned about is our guests.. to cut it off like that is a bit blunt." Oh no, not cinder-proof Balakrishnan again. Hasn't burning up nearly $400 million satiated his pyric proclivities?

At the 19 pick-up locations, would be passengers fuming under a blazing sun were unaware of the Casino Regulatory Authority's explosive order to cease and desist. In a flash, Transit Network Consortium's $2 million worth of 18 new buses and 25 drivers were as good as toast. Managing director Neo, who banked his business on brainiac George Yeo's combustible claim that "an IR is not a casino" maintained that "there is (sic) other entertainment here like the theme park and restaurants". The incensed Hawks joined in and rekindled the official line that "the casino occupies (just) 5 percent of the total gross area."

The buses had transported 2,500 people to the IR each day. Mr Yap of Transtar was boiling mad, "This is very unfair to us. It's too harsh to have a sudden change." His company stands to see $2 million for purchasing 13 buses and hiring 36 Singaporean drivers going up in a puff of smoke. He had also swallowed George Yeo's blistering lie, hook, line and sinker, "This is an IR, not a casino. If we were ferrying people just to gamble, then as a Singaporean, I will stop my service. But people are taking the bus with children, so how can they be gambling?" Er, Mr Yap, while junior heads for the Universal Studio flaming attractions, and mommy makes a bee line for the fire-sale at Hermes, dad will probably be staking out the red-hot baccarat table for "asset enhancement" opportunities.

Amidst the flaring tempers, no one seemed to appreciate the altruistic largesse of RWS, providing a precious rarity in the pay-and-pay culture of Singapore, a bona fide, honest-to-goodness, free ride. Instead, confused commuters like 56-year old Tan who had boarded the noon shutlle from Ang Mo Kio were stuck in the scorching heat of Sentosa, "They should have stopped the buses tomorrow so that we can still take it back. How should I go back now?" Maybe he should flag down a YOG bus. The infuriating special lanes are still there, igniting pent up furies.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Foreign Gripes

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong can be a real pussycat when foreigners Gripe. His Mr Hyde persona is reserved for mild mannered Singaporean sheep.

The EP holder who initiated the "Singapore to Expel 10% of Permanent Residents" thread in ExpatSingapore wrote these in the closing lines of his post:
"As an example, I cannot imagine the best way to start a life-long loving commitment and marriage is for the marriage proposal to be:  "Marry me, or I will kill you". " Singaporeans have been arrested for using a less provocative metaphor.

Goh has to be seriously engaged in back pedalling now, trying desperately to swallow his own ill conceived words, "If they don't (take up Singapore citizenship), then their PR will not be renewed." Especially when his short sightedness nets truisms like this from "an English speaking highly paid professional":

"And there are of course the pragmatic reasons. The piece of paper called a western passport is not just a travel document that opens doors around the world but is also a medical insurance policy, giving me free health care in my homeland if I choose to take it,  a social welfare card giving me access to varous social welfare benefits, a pension plan for when I am old, and an education subsidy for my children giving them the right to study in Universities back home (and in our friendly neighbour) at a highly subsidised rate.
 If Singapore Inc thinks that any rational human being would give all that up for a Singapore passport, they need to tweak their grip on reality very fast."

But the letter in TODAY from Peter Wadely is puzzling. He lives in Singapore because "I have a Singaporean wife and two Singaporean children". While affirming that "Singapore is my home and I feel loyalty to Singapore," he simultaneously declares for the record, "I am not Singaporean and never will be... Nothing will ever change that". So will his son, who he (claims) is preparing to serve National Service, point his SAR 21 in the right direction? Pity the poor Mrs, "So what am I? A convenient USB port?"

Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob is not discouraged. She feels PRs eventually make up their minds if they want to take up citizenship, "Otherwise, we would have a situation where they would stay just to have the best of both worlds."

The lesson from this latest Goh gaffe, and one which Singaporeans should learn from our foreign friends, is best phrased by Kubes:
"Threats don't tend to work well with people who have choices, especially when one of the options is to remove all choice."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Life Without Foreigners

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in December 2009 told the local Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry that Japan has to take in more foreigners despite fears of racial dilution in order to make up for its fast-ageing population. "Bakka!", Prime Minister Hatoyama must thought to himself, as he mouthed the politically correct response that he was broaching a "sensitive issue".

Japan has some of the world's strictest controls on immigration, as its people are reluctant to, as Lee put it, "dilute or to complicate the society by bringing in people of different cultures, different races."

But the Japanese cannot be labelled xenophobic. Not with France spending a long hot summer clearing camps of foreign-born gypsies, Australian Tony Abbot vowing to "stop the boats" of aslyum seekers arriving by sea, Netherland's anti-Islamic Geert Wilders calling for Muslim headscarves to be licensed and taxed, and Americans screaming for stricter border control. Even Britain's Conservative Party supporters tweeted, "It's time to put a limit on immigration."

So how is Japan faring without a calibrated inflow of newcomers? The Land of the Rising Sun (spelled with a "u" not "o") certainly has had its share of economic doldrums, but it hardly resembles a place wallowing in crisis. The workaholic salarymen are ditching the traditional practices of drinking into the wee hours with the boss, for a greater work-life balance, focusing on their homes and hobbies. Some even take sabbaticals or drop out of corporate life altogether, strumming air guitars at Harajuku. The "shin-jin-rui" women folk are forgoing diapers and ironing for shopping trips to Paris and Hongkong. Despite a ridership exceeding 3 billion a year, world's busiest by far, Tokyo's public transport system is still easy and cheap to get around in. PUB could learn a thing or two from their ingenius urban flood control schemes. Crime levels are among the lowest, the Koban system is discrete, and cops are not trigger happy types who discharge firearms in congested subway stations. Social cohesion remains strong, strong enough to relocate an American air base on Okinawa. Income disparities are low - Gini coefficient in 2009 for Japan is 24.9, compared to Singapore's 42.5.

With life expectancy averaging 82 years, Japan in the face of a shrinking population seems to be able to improve the quality of life for many of its senior citizens. Without having to pack them off to Johore or Batam.

Most significant of all, walk down cosmopolitan Ginza or entertainment district Shinjuku. Except for the odd tourist, the gaijin is truly a rare sighting. If only Singapore would learn from Japan.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Three Core Failings

Last Friday, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan kicked off a series of articles in TODAY with which he planned to discuss his concept of public housing. His maiden contribution highlighted his 3 "core commitments", which ironically demonstrated that he got it all wrong, all along.

1. "Homes for ownership:
Rather than making people pay "dead rent" with no returns for a roof over their heads, the Government decided early on that prudent mortgages can be a "good debt" that allows every citizen, every family, to have a concrete stake in this country."

If outright purchase is the only way to go, why is rental or lease still an attractive financial option? There are many situations where renting makes more sense than buying. Young couples can start a family almost immediately, and address the declining birthrate, without waiting to save up for the downpayment. Renting also means not having to worry about a leaking roof, a bum-faucet, or pest control. With job uncertainty exacerbated by foreign talent imports, renting allows you the flexibility of moving at the drop of a hat. Or voting with your feet. Stakeholding makes no sense if it can be diluted with foreigners at the Minister's whim and fancy.

2. "Homes for the masses:
Second, public housing in Singapore is not just about putting roofs over people's heads, but also about building an inclusive home for all Singaporeans."

Poor Mr Lim Kim San must be rolling in his grave over this one. The recent measures speak for themselves - let each market have their own dynamics. These are not new rules, just old ones which worked in the past. Public housing is not meant for speculators, within or without the country. Those who can afford private properties should not be allowed to deprive the needy of affordable accommodation. Period. Remember the ugly Mercedes owner who fought over free text books?

3. "Homes for life:
Third, our housing commitment to Singaporeans is a long-term one, HDB not only sells you a flat but comes back to upgrade it from time to time, budget permitting."

No one should have to service a mortgage the whole duration of his working life, with or without a retirement respite. Housing payments should just be another temporal financial allocation, like education, healthcare, travel and hobbies. Mah was the one who made you pay to change out the window rivets installed by HDB in the first place, or face a stiff fine with potential jail time. The upgrading he talks about comes with an additional cost, but not an itemised bill. As a seller, HDB acts more like a difficult landlord, always threatening to withhold maintenance services during electioneering periods.

Dense as the Minister may appear to be, he should pay heed to the words of the head of research and consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International: "If you cannot afford to live in a private property and invest in another in the first place, but want to live in an HDB flat and invest in one, you are probably the most vulnerable to a sudden and sharp downward price correction. It may not be immediately obviously to you, but like a gambling addict, you need protection from yourself."
Then again, Mah's from the same crowd that built, not one, but two casinos, that celebrate the social evil of gambling.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting Worked Up Over Numbers

The headlines trumpeted in bold print that a record $29.9 billion in taxes were collected in Year of Assessment 2009/2010. Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore boasted that this was due to the shorter than expected economic downturn and a surprising buoyant property market (no thanks to Mah Bow Tan's personal mission to edge up property prices). Examining the data in the appendix, it appears IRAS collected 0.2 percent more than the $29.8 billion figure in 2009. And the amount of taxes collected the year before in 2008 was $29.1 billion, a difference of 2.3%, representing a ten-fold increase in FY2008/2009. So why all the excitement about this year's takings?

Corporate tax collection was down by about $1 billion, thanks to a tax rate reduction from 18% to 17%. But individual tax-payers paid "an all-time high" of $6.1 billion in income taxes. Here some tax experts say that the record individual income taxes collected was attributable to the addition of more than 81,000 new individual  taxpayers. So is this the heralded justification for jetting in plane loads of foreigners (including the so-called 1,305,000 "transients")?

Look at the numbers in the IRAS Annual Report 2009/2010 again. Residents paid $5.9 billion of individual income taxes, non-residents paid only $0.09 billion. Does it seem like one group is subsidising the other group in terms of housing, transport, education and other social amenities?

Without elaborating on how the process would work, Goh Chok Tong talked of his grand plan to approach the 500,000 PRs to become Singapore citizens, instead of taking up the suggestion of his Marine Parade resident that Employment Pass holders should take up citizenship. And as if to confirm his absolute disconnect with the ground, Goh is considering "a zero vehicular traffic growth" even as foreign talent Khoo Peng Beng (of Pinnacle@Duxton fame) outlined the horror of squeezing 6.5 million people on 710 sq km. Khoo's own words, "when you invent a design for living, you might also be inventing a series of other problems in life." That sums it up, their grand design, our myriad problems.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Political Leader Commenting On Political Leaders

It is open secret that scrunched up pages of The Straits Times make excellent material for cleaning windows. The ink in the newsprint does a better job of wiping glass surfaces than a commercial product like Windex. But for decent reading material, pick up  a copy of Time, Newsweek or the Economist instead.

The September 13 issue of Time has an exclusive essay adapted from Tony Blair's memoir "A Journey". In it the former Prime Minister of Britain reflects on the political leaders he had met, and some he wished he hadn't.  Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, he wrote. "I recall sitting across the table from some leaders, unable to think of anything other than: my God, the poor people of that country. You get the dumb; the cynical; the tedious; the mildly unsuitable; the weird; the products of systems so mad and dysfunctional, you find yourself marveling that the leader is sentient, let alone capable. And frankly some weren't sentient. I remember asking rather unkindly when told of one leader's death, 'How could they tell?' "

Some of the adjectives used might come to mind, when one ponders Goh Chok Tong's recent statement that crowded trains, inadequate car parks and housing shortages are "problems created by our own success". Is he telling us that these products of policy making, like the calibrated intake of foreigners, are typical of the government's benchmark of success? And for which the bureaucrats are awarded performance bonuses? Is the Minister's pay rise also indexed to ballooning HDB prices?  While he's at it, why didn't he include the island wide instances of  flooding? To understand his twisted mind, you have to appreciate that this is the same guy who said in 2006, “Retrenchment is good for Singapore. If there is no retrenchment, then I worry.”

But he's not the only "product of systems so mad and dysfunctional"; just think of the clown who overspent $400 million (probably trying to outdo Mah Bow Tan spending $400,000 to come up with a new name for Marina Bay). Informed by MP Lily Tan that some poor residents couldn't afford 3 full meals a day, Balakrishnan rankled everyone within earshot with, "How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?"

When Mr Blair does have negative things to say of people like Gordon Brown, he can be pretty blunt with assessments like, “Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero.” For the Men in White, even analytical intelligence is now suspect.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Preparing For The Finals

In June, the Sunday Times reported that Saw Phaik Hwa, the highest-grossing chief executive that public transport operator SMRT Corp has ever employed, dismissed complaints of overcrowded trains by claiming that “people can board the trains — it is whether they choose to.” That gutsy statement give credence to the net story in circulation that she had originally resigned from DFS to return home to Malaysia, but was persuaded to stay and take on the MRT job by Daughter-In-Law herself. Even Transport Minister Raymond Lim lacks the cojones to be that affront.

With the commuters' threshhold of pain reaching breaking point, it was no surprise that LTA suddenly discovered that 22 new trains could be added to the woefully inadequate train system. Just like that, no mention of fare hikes required, no threat of GST increase hinted. Yesterday, LTA laid out an impressive four-stage process to ease overcrowding on trains. They even confirmed the bottleneck problem at Jurong East, where an approaching train has to wait for the preceding one to leave before it can pull in. That's a design problem any commuter can recognise, DFS salesgirls excepted.

And only days earlier, HDB announced an unprecedented surge in supply of new housing board flats. On Monday, HDB said 16,000 new flats will be up for grabs this year, and up to 22,000 next. It will also release more land for 8,000 executive condomiums (EC) and 7,000 Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) housing projects. Considering that the HDB had been studiously keeping its annual building rate under 6,000 units per year, this has to be the boom of a boom-and-bust cycle, or is it vice-versa? In an interview on “Talking Point” on March 14, Mah Bow Tan had said, “We make sure we don’t overbuild because once you overbuild, you’ll make flat prices in future go down, and that’s not what we want." The Minister is not one who feels abashed about his priority of profit over the social obligation of providing shelter from the elements. So why the big U-turn?

Those who have been sleeping in class or skipping tutorials for quite a spell recognise the infuse of cold sweat when final exams are round the corner. But he big boys have more to lose than an "O" or "A" level certificate. Besides the million dollar paycheck, at stake is the round the clock Gurkha sentinel, use of the VVIP lounge at Changi airport and rapturous adulation of a sychophantic grassroots following. Just ask Yeo Cheow Tong or any ex-minister who had to adjust from life at Mount Olympus. Greek mythology has it that the Gods feed on the prayers of men for their immortality. Take that away, and watch the titans fall.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Prophets In Our Midst

Warren Fernandez was News Editor of The Straits Times when he penned "Thinking Allowed?", a compilation of his columns written over the years. Fernandez also served on several public committees like Remaking Singapore Committee, Singapore 21 Commitee and Cost Review Committee.

His essay dated 20 July 2002 recalled that in 1996, the Cost Review Committee (CRC), of which he was a member, pointed in its report to trends which
"raised serious questions for Singaporeans to ponder: Just what was the role of the government in providiing public housing? Was the Housing Board in danger of being moved, by rising public expectations, beyond its intended role?"

The man at the helm of the CRC, we are told, was Lim Boon Heng, Minister of State Without Portfolio. Even Lim had wondered aloud if Singaporeans were not over-investing in housing, incurring huge interest payments to service the mortgage obligations, at the expense of financial needs for the retirement years.

Actually the nightmare scenario was highlighted earlier in the report of the Howe Yoon Chong Committee On The Aged in 1984. Confronted by public uproar, the government of the day dropped it's recommendations. Then Second Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam lamented, "It would be easier for the present government to ignore this problem and keep you living in a fool's paradise. But it would be cowardly for the government to do this because the prices of our cowardice will have to be paid for by Singaporeans now under 40 and the succeeding waiting in the wings to be born." Prophetic words indeed.

Well, it looks like the cowardly option was chosen and Singaporeans were seduced by "asset enchancement" and other political ploys along the way. The day of reckoning has come, and that nest egg is as good as Humpty Dumpty after the fall. And judging by the reactions to latest measures to "stabilise the booming property market", both speculators and genuine upgraders are being burned (metaphorically! metaphorically!) by half baked policy making.

Fernandez's concluding entry (page 249) for his 2004 book is aptly entitled, "Is Singapore Finished?" He wrote, "When politicians, who once pledged 'more good years', start telling voters that perhaps they might be better off chasing other, non-material, dreams, you know that times must really be tough." Jeez, this guy is downright prophetic, and how did he know the national day theme for 2010 is about dreams?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Read Their Lips

"With this latest release, many Singaporeans would say, 'I told you so', since we've been seeing crowded trains and higher property prices." (Singapore Management University lecturer Eugene Tan, ST 1 Sep 2010).

Last Sunday Prime Minister Lee told the nation, there's an "important distinction between foreign workers and immigrants (PRs and citizens) - foreign workers are transients." That's the lie right there. Okay, maybe we should cut him some slack, someone from ICA lied to him, and he simply repeated the falsehood without an appreciation of the details. After all, this is the same smuck who doesn't know mee siam is not served with cockles.

Any kid in primary school, and he does not have to be from the gifted stream, can tell you that foreigners physically displace Singaporeans from living spaces, MRT seats, job vacancies and limited places in schools, polytechnics and universities. And the foreigner can be staying in Singapore from 1 to 15 years. Heck, there are foreigners who have been squatting for 20 years or more, never taking up PR or citizenship, and for those who left the United Kingdom, could even be drawing a pension from Her Majesty's service.

The 1 out of 3 strange faces you see everyday? It's not in your worst nightmare, or the layers of dreams in the film "Inception", it's the cruel reality of today's Singapore.

Lee praised to the skies the "foreign talents" who were credited with the Pinnacle@Duxton, a classic ostentatious monolith of what affordable public housing should not be. At least Lim Kim San understood that the poor needed a basic roof over their heads, a step up from what the man he came across in Chinatown had, who was sharing a pair of pants with his room mate. Once upon a time, there was the HDB flat for the economically challenged, and there was the private sector housing for the privileged. HUDC was there to bridge the gap for those in the sandwiched class of the middle income, especially dinks (double income no kids). A young couple, collecting their first paycheck, after piously repaying their parents for the CPF that went into their university fees, hardly needs the rude shock of an installment schedule for a 30 year mortage. Hardly the incentive to contemplate starting a family of their own. Think kindergarten fees, private tution and the astronomical sums required for their own kid's tertiary education. No wonder the birthrate is stagnating.

All the new measures to "reduce speculation and short-term investment" simply confirm that the humble HDB flat is no longer the accommodation of necessity for the masses, but another poker chip in the casino of Singapore Inc. Entry fee is substantially higher than $100, it's two full years of national service, currently valued at $9K. In case you have any doubt about National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan's sincerity to solve the long term housing problems, read his lips: "If you ask me whether it has got anything to do with the elections, the answer is yes. Everything has to do with the elections."