Tuesday, November 30, 2010

None Are So Blind As Those Who Do Not See

"I wander around the city and wonder where the poor people are," observed Paul Vocker, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and economic adviser to President Obama, when he was in Singapore to speak at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

In Tokyo, the down and out surface in subway stations after the last commuter has departed, and volunteer workers distribute food packets discretely at the doorstep of their cardboard shelters for the night. Come dawn, just before the morning stampede of the office crowd, they neatly pack away their worldly belongings and vanish for the day.

In Singapore the vagrants are swept up by welfare officers driving around Singapore's housing estates, beaches and streets. According to a report in January 2010, there were about 280 patrols last year, up from 160 in 2007. Those picked up from void decks and beaches last year included 17 families, up from just 4 in 2007. Of the total of 253 people nabbed by officers from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) last year, up from 123 in 2007, 85 per cent were Singaporeans.

Most are dumped at government-run homes for destitutes such as Pelangi Village in Buangkok Green where they get free food, clothes and shelter, but face curbs on their freedom. Think Changi Prison without the criminal tag. About 260 other people, including 43 families, end up in two temporary shelters for the homeless run by New Hope Community Services, a voluntary welfare organisation (VWO). A third shelter, operated by Lakeside Family Service Centre, was set up early this year and is currently housing 12 families.

Some shelter residents were forced to sell their homes because of hard times, they lost their jobs and could not keep up with mortgage payments. About 60 flats are voluntarily surrendered to the HDB every month. "The number of HDB-related cases I see rose significantly after flat prices started to rise," said MP Charles Chong. They have Mah to thank for that.

The shelters house the homeless for only 3 months. After release, about 40 per cent go to live with friends or relatives and about 30 per cent rent a flat from the HDB. The rest probably go back to the streets, to be picked up again, and continue the circle of life for the poor and desperate in Singapore. How could Volcker have missed out on all the action in town? Next time, he should ask MP Lily Neo to show him how the residents in her Jalan Besar ward put up with less than 2 full meals a day.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Workfare Betterer Than Minimum Wage, Really?

At the 31st PAP party conference on Sunday, PM Lee said that "Actually, we have something better than minimum wage, we have Workfare." Actually, hor, it depends on how you define "better".

Started in 2006, the Workfare scheme gives cash and CPF monies to Singaporeans aged 35 and above who earn up to $1,700 monthly - it is a shocking testament that 30 percent of wage earners are subsisting on this amount or less.

Lee used the example of a 65-year old earning $1,000 a month (65, and still has to work to stay alive) who will get the maximum payout of $2,800 a year, of which $800 will be in cash and $2,000 goes into the CPF account. Translated in real world terms, it means only cash of $66.66 a month ($2.19 a day) extra is available for food, transportation and utilities bills. The substantial bulk of the Workfare handout is locked up in CPF, to be used as the "nest egg" for retirement at, presumably 85, as government guided trends go. Far from lying idle, truth be told, quite a bit of the funds have already been burnt in toxic investments by the financial wizards at GIC and the like.

The creation of the Workfare initiative in Singapore is claimed by some to be inspired by the US Bill of welfare reforms designed to encourage economic self-sufficiency. Apparently it was the system developed by the state of Wisconsin that served as a model for Singapore because of its numerous successes in reducing the number of recipients on welfare. There's a key difference of course, Singapore does not have a welfare system to begin with. If you still have a pair of working legs or hands, you can wipe tables or clean toilets up to the ripe old age of 90, for all they care. If you are handicapped, physically or mentally challenged, you don't get to receive the largesse of $2.19 a day at all. Which is hardly enough anyway for three meals a day, at hawker center, food court or restaurant.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Brains Without Balls

Johanna Wokalek stars in "Pope Joan", a movie about an Englishwoman who purportedly disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female pontiff in history. The Roman Catholic Church is not amused, and maintains she was a mythical figure used by the early Protestant Church to discredit and embarrass Rome.

In the well-documented 1413 heresy trial of Jan Hus, this statement of his was not challenged: "Many times have the Popes fallen into sin and error, for instance when Joan was elected Pope, who was a woman." And there is circumstantial evidence difficult to explain if there was never a female Pope, the so-called chaise percée or Porphyry Chair owned by the Vatican Museum, which has been part of the medieval papal consecration ceremony for almost 600 years. Each newly elected Pope after Joan had to sit on the sella stercoraria (literally, "dung seat"), a special marble chair with a hole in the middle to facilitate examination by physicians to ensure that he was truly a man. Afterward the examiner would solemnly inform the gathered people, "Mas nobis nominus est" -- "Our nominee is a man." Only then was the Pope handed the keys of St. Peter.

Today the ruling party will be huddling together to elect a new Central Executive Committee, using a secretive process styled after the way the Vatican selects a new pope. In 1988, Wong Kan Seng revealed that there were more than 1,000 PAP cadres (the register of cadres is kept confidential). To become a cadre, a party member has to be first nominated by the MP in his or her branch. Cadre members have the right to attend party conferences and to vote for and to be elected to the CEC, the fount of political power and privilege.

Since the whole shebang is so top secret, nobody really knows what goes on behind the closed doors. George Yeo likes to repeat what his brother Jim once told him, that to succeed in life, one needs the 3 B’s. What are the 3 B’s? They are Brains, Balls and Breaks. "Brains without balls doesn’t get you very far," says the Foreign Minister. Makes you wonder if they have their own version of the "sella stercoraria." After all, what self respecting Singaporean wants to be led by an Ah Kua?

Friday, November 26, 2010

When Less Is More

In announcing the greatest bonus payout for the 74,000 civil servants since 1994 (2.5 months plus 1 minimum next year), the Government took pains to highlight that pay adjustments due since last year for ministers and top civil servants will be put on hold again. Before you shed a tear for your altruistic MP, take a look at the chart.

Except for local manufacturing and MNC, all the professionals' median salaries included in the private sector benchmark scheme, some say scam, used to compute ministers' pay have headed south - which makes the "Local Manufacturer" with a double digit net positive jump a suspect statistic. Remember MM Lee's comment about the "pipe dream" that local companies can compete with successful ones in other parts of the world? MNC's, as is well known, always have had out of this world expatriate packages and "hardship allowance" tweaks. If ministerial salaries are indeed indexed against the declining trend, shouldn't they be pointing in the same direction? Since we are told the "planned adjustment" for the ministers have been deferred for the third time, it's a no brainer to conclude that they have been grossly over compensated for the past 3 years and maybe more. For those lower ranked civil servants swooning over their bumper bonus and $300 one-time pay off, read on.

Despite the big sacrifice of foregoing salary adjustment, ministers at the entry level grade of MR4 will take home $1.58 million this year, up from last year's $1.49 million - that's $90,000 extra. Administrative officers at the entry level Superscale Grade of SR9 will get $365,000, up from $338,000 - that's $27,000 extra. Kinda makes the 300 bucks look puny, doesn't it? Note also they quote only the "entry level" numbers, meaning the actual average hike for the top dogs will definitely be more than enough for a pastry cooking lesson in France. Makes you wonder how Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, minister in charge of the civil service paychecks (including his own), will account for the extraneous compensation outlay - classify them as "Other Costs" as inspired by Balakrishnan's creative YOG accounting?

A number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have already told the press that they won't be able to match the Government's generosity for its own rank and file. The Chairman of wallpaper supplier Goodrich Global, not feeling particularly good or rich this year, said he will probably pay his 150 employees a maximum of 2 months bonus. Deputy secretary-general of NTUC Halimah Jacob said workers are paid less during bad times but are rewarded fairly during good times. Fat cats with recession proof payola packages excepted.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

About That Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

Britain's Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne must be a very powerful man. All he had to do was "express dismay" after author Alan Shadrake was sentenced by a Singapore court on 16 November to 6 weeks in prison and fined S$20,000 for expressing his personal views on the legal system. “I look forward to constructive discussions when I visit Singapore next month, which I hope will serve to strengthen further the level of engagement and cooperation between our countries,” was his carefully phrased challenge to his diplomatic counterpart to recognise the right to freedom of expression as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Buried somewhere in the diplomatic jargon must be a coded message that caused the foreign affairs ministry and/or judicial officials to soil their underwear. In an unprecedented move, the Attorney General’s Office made an extraordinary application for the court on 23 Nov, to remind Mr Alan Shadrake of his right to seek leave of court if he wants to "exit the jurisdiction". According to Shadrake’s lawyer M Ravi, normally it is the prerogative of defence counsel to explore this escape route for a defendant not domicile in Singapore, and the AG to gleefully and vehemently contest it. Most don't even bother, given the slim chance of success in the kind of judicial system documented in Shadrake's book. Just ask Swiss national Oliver Fricker.

The turn around couldn't be more dramatic. In passing sentence, Justice Loh had pointed out that the law was not concerned with the sensitivities of the judge ”but whether there was risk in public confidence of the independence of the courts being undermined". He even castigated Shadrake’s apology as “nothing more that a tactical ploy in court to obtain a reduced sentence while mounting a different stance elsewhere.” And there was the veiled threat of being investigated by the police for criminal defamation; for which his passport is being held by the police.

Shadrake wrote in his book that the German government applied maximum pressure on Singapore to save Julia Bohl from the gallows, through the clever ploy of issuing a revised laboratory report that said only 281 of the 687 grams of cannabis found in her possession were pure stuff. The 15 grams of heroin that Amara Tochi from Nigeria was hanged for did not benefit from similar laboratory analysis. If Britain is exerting pressure through Browne, public confidence of the independence of the courts will no doubt be undermined. And additional fresh material will be provided for Shadrake's new book.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

MOE Is Just Following Regulations

The Ministry of Education (MOE) is initiating moves to terminate Nur Aini's employment as a Malay language teacher for rendering her uncle assistance in a time of desperate need. She chose kin rather than country, a country whose citizens have started to question the worth of defending. A country which doles out school places, jobs, housing and seats on the MRT, to the detriment of its own local born and bred. Nui Aini will be spending Xmas in a lock-up for abetting an offence.

MOE, however, is choosing to ignore a not too dissimiliar crime committed by teachers at Chinese High and Hwa Chong Junior College. Alumnus Jonathan Wong was caned publicly for peeping into a women's toilet when he was in Secondary 3. Police was not informed, no report was registered of the criminal offence, which is punishable by jail up to one year and/or fine. The teachers chose to exclude the trangression from Wong's school testimonials and abetted him to secure the Teaching Scholarship (Overseas) in 2006. MOE states they made the award based on academic and co-curricular records and testimonials written by his teachers.

In an effette attempt to exonerate their criminal liability, a Hwa Chong Institution spokeperson inadvertently made the damning confirmation, "The teachers' testimonials were based on their observation of Jonathan during his time under their charge." The teachers "thought he had learnt from his mistake" and conspired to groom their young charge, whose scholar career path will surely be gilded by the PSC to superscale nirvana, and conceivably culminate to millionaire status in a cabinet position.

Wong was supposedly counselled and "responded well", the teachers claimed (Google "Hardcore child pornography shame of University of York student Jonathan Wong"). Miss Nui Aini was not accorded a similar opportunity to avoid incarceration. It is no comfort to her that MP Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC) said MOE is merely following regulations, adding, "there will be efforts to assist her so she continues to remain employable." Let's hope Al Qaeda won't offer her a scholarship first.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Family Affair

According to revelations in parliament on Monday November 22, three Singaporean Malays admitted to providing sanctuary to fugitive Mas Selamat, after being "confronted with the facts" last month in October 2010. Brother Asmom, sis-in-law Aisah and niece Nur Aini easily fooled Wong Kan Seng's highly decorated (and highly rewarded) Home Team by deliberately and successfully withholding key information when they were first interviewed by the authorities on March 3, 2008.

New Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam upstaged his predecessor by revealing to Parliament that Mas Selamat had stayed overnight in his brother’s Tampines flat on Feb 29, 2008, before absconding to Malaysia with a getaway backpack containing an EZ-link card, S$100 and RM100 in cash, hair-net which he wore as part of his disguise, tudung, map and some paracetamol. The abetting trio, Nur Aini (18 months' jail), Asmom (12 months) and Aisah (3 months) were arrested and charged last week on November 10.

Speaking at a community event on 25 September 2010, soon after the Malaysians handed over the fugitive, then still Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng had declared, “I am sure that Singaporeans are very interested to know how he escaped. I can assure Singaporeans that when the information he gives can be verified... I will let Singaporeans know more about how he escaped.” And as late as 18 October 2010, in his Oral Answer to MP Christopher De Souza, Wong merely recanted the embarassing toilet break episode without shading new light on how the terrorist managed to leave Singapore and made his way to Malaysia.

So how is it Shanmugam had access to the wealth of details in the month of October and not Wong? Wong officially relinquished his post on 27 October.Was the Home Team playing favourites, denying Wong his last hurrah, or were they biding their time to hand over the goodies to their new paymaster (and just in time for the Xmas bonus)? Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim lamented that Mas Selamat was aided by family members, “I am disappointed because we know that Singaporeans from all backgrounds have come together since 2002 – the Malay/Muslim community very prominently – to keep the lid on the danger of terrorism.” As they say, blood is thicker than water, but sometimes political intrigue transcends over all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Keeping You Awake At Nights

While the rest of the world battens down for the effects of US's quantitative easing - and the tsunami of billions heading for their shores - the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) appears to play the smart alec contrarian.

From Australia to India, countries remembered their Economic 101 lessons and raised interest rates to stem the tide of inflation. South Korea and Japan announced precautionary measures to dampen rapid rises in their exchange rates which threaten the competitiveness of their exports. The inflow of hot money, estimated at as much as US$2 billion a day, have boosted currencies from the Australian dollar to Thai baht to record highs. Thailand is contemplating capital controls.

Initially, the economists tell us that Singapore need worry only about imported inflation, to justify maintaining the S$ at a record high against the greenback. Now they are saying the capital inflows are channelled overseas, and only a small portion leaks into the domestic economy. The vulnerable stock and property markets, which fuel asset bubble formation, have prompted Hong Kong to implement protective measures, but local experts are claiming "a vibrant stock market benefits investors", and magic bullets have been dispensed against the property madness. It's enough to keep a sane man awake at nights.

In his speech to the NUS Economics Alumni in December 2008, Ngiam Tong Dow touched on how MAS eschews interest rate as a policy instrument, opting instead to intervene directly in foreign exchange markets, trading the Singapore dollar against a basket of currencies predominated by the US$. "While such a policy may be effective against disruptive short-term inflows of foreign currencies, is it adequate as a long-term policy instrument?" he had asked his audience of peers.

Apparently the weapon of choice employed by MAS can be carbon dated to when Goh Keng Swee was still at the helm. Ngiam himself believes that our dollar should be pegged to US$ only, just as two of our major trading partners - China, including Hongkong, and Malaysia - have been doing. Which begs the question whether the MAS is wielding an antiquated blunt instrument, and whether it has left its brain on cruise-control all along. One point is clear, the competitive advantage associated with a weaker currency tends to attenuate the standard of living of the population, and who dares to spoil the partying of the rich and elites?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Squeezing Blood Out Of Fossilised Stone

It was painful to hear MM Lee Kuan Yew struggling to mouth his vocally challenged reponses at an open dialogue session held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hewlett-Packard Singapore. Anyone attempting to make sense of the guttural noises eminating from his tortured throat can see that the man is not in his best of health, and his abbreviated attention span showed through in the short replies. Except for the DBS guy who was obviously trying his luck (or showing off his ignorance) if he thought Lee had the answers for USA's economic problems, the rest of the guests were merciful enough to keep the questions simple.

In volume one of his memoirs (The Singapore Story, page 203), Lee narrated the May 1995 riot account of a protesting 17 year old Chinese student shot by a policeman's revolver. Instead of taking him straight to the hospital, the other students put him on a lorry and paraded him around the town for three hours. By the time he was brought to the hospital, he was dead from the wound in his lung. Lee wrote, "But what was one life if another martyr could stoke up the fire of revolution?"

Whatever the mileage they may want to squeeze out of him, surely we don't need the spectre of an octogenarian making the election circuit in an open lorry? Even if they could put him in a Steve Hawkins type rig, complete with DECtalk DTC01 voice synthesizer and predictive text entry system, he'd still utter garbage like, "Singapore's small bases means it would be a "pipe dream" for the country to develop its own companies and expect them to compete with successful ones in other parts of the world". Hello, ever heard of Creative? Does Soundblaster ring a bell in your hearing aid? The Company that Apple had to shell out US$100 million to in settlement of a patent suit? Mr Sim, kindly accept our apologies for his ignorance and impudence.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Still Fumbling After All Those Years

Addressing the Economic Society of Singapore in 2004, Nigiam Tong Dow told his audience that, "from sunrise to sunset, economists always think they are right and every other Gentile is wrong. But when the sun sets and darkness descends on an economy, economists are as much at a loss as anybody else unschooled in the dismal science." Unfortunately for the lesser mortals struggling in the dystopia, these government appointed experts always seem to be able to walk away with a positive spin on their follies.

Yesterday's festivity was the occasion of the launch of his book, "Dynamics of the Singapore Success Story" - actually a collation of his speeches, inteviews and articles - and the author and Singapore's youngest Permanent Secretary in 1972 at age 35 had gained notoriety with public quips like, "I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP." Foreign Minister George Yeo had to admit Ngiam "almost killed (his pet) the Esplanade project." There was no budget to justify Yeo's extravagance, but the dilettante pandering to snotty tastes of the bejewelled elites used "future earnings" to bankroll the monstrous edifice. We do not know the context wherein Yeo claimed Ngiam purportedly complimented him "when the Esplanade proved to be a resounding success." Like the Clarke Quay watering holes, the Esplanade is patronised by the expatriates and the nouveau riche, or rich kids spending dad's old money, not exactly the destination of choice for the majority of HDB heartlanders. Maybe the "success" inferred to had to do with the influx of foreigners.

Ngiam revealed that in the 1970s, at EDB where he was wet nursed, the planners wanted to have a bigger population because they studied the populations of small countries like Israel, Norway, Sweden and somehow concluded that they were very successful because of the critical population size of 5 million. Today, according to Ngiam, technology has changed, and while Singapore must remain open to ideas from outside, he recommends that we should be more selective.

"You bring in someone from outside, his average education must be higher than our average. Otherwise he doesn’t add anything. So you must always bring in a better chap, not just bring in the numbers. Numbers are no longer what counts. What counts is knowledge and education."

Now hold your horses. Didn't the PM, SM and whatever M, said that foreigners are needed in large numbers to build the HDB flats, nevermind that nobody can afford the prices that Mah Bow Tan rigs up anyway? Is the emphasis on the "foreign" or on the "talent"? Are we on the verge of a new diaspora when Singaporean professionals will have to start packing their bags because this ex-civil servant is advocating they be replaced by foreigners with more "knowledge and education"? What good will this ethnic cleansing exercise do, if future Singapore is without Singaporeans?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Singtel Slammed

The mystery is solved - why our super duper broadband access sometimes dwindle to such a pathetic crawl that we can't even connect to Yahoo! mail. It so happens that ISP Singtel is at liberty to, and actually does, "throttle" their consumers' broadband speeds to suit their nefarious intents.

The Sydney-based Australian Federation Court has found Singtel-Optus guilty of "deceptive conduct" under the Trade Practices Act. Singtel's ads had offered a monthly plan for download of data during peak and off-peak hours. But if a consumer had exceeded his quota of peak hour usage, his broadband speed during off-peak would slow substantially (the whole service would be slowed to 64 Kbps). This occurs even if the consumer had not used any of his off-peak data quota. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCS) took them to court for the trickery. The Court ruled that Singtel had failed to sufficiently inform potential consumers their broadband speeds would be throttled back to sub-broadband levels.

Here in Singapore, they don't bother to give you 3 Mbps of promised speed even if you had explictly signed up for it. And who is there to stop them from siphoning off bandwidth to support their higher priced 10 Mbps customers (who is also conned by the same "up to" qualifier in the ads)? Or feed their resource hungry mioTV service?

The judge noted that in its arguments, Singtel-Optus implied that consumers do not rely on ads and cannot, under those circumstances, be misled by them. Note also the caustic in Justice Nye Perram's remarks, "This proposition sits uncomfortably with the size of the advertising campaign in question, which is clearly substantial and inconsistent with an exercise conducted sheerly for the merriment of its designers."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Do Singapore Lawyers Talk To Each Other?

Remember the President of the Law Society, Mr Wong Meng Meng, who was so quick to jump on M Ravi for shooing the pesky reporters out of the his office, writing officially to him and the proprietor of the firm he works at "to seek a full report, on an urgent basis, on what transpired”? Seems like he has an unique sense of priorities.

This time, members of the Law Society (LawSoc), Ravi probably included, are riled by Wong's initiative to provide business class air tickets for council members travelling on business for the society.

Writing in the Law Gazette, Wong gave an account of his 6-hour coach ride to KL for an official engagement, detailing how he and other council members had to endure the "filthy toilets" at the Golden Mile Complex. No, he did not write officially to the proprietor of the firm he made his travel arrangements with "to seek a full report, on an urgent basis, on what transpires" at the convenience stop. Without seeking prior approval, Wong and companions bought airplane tickets for the return journey because "we had suffered far beyond the call of our duty to the Singapore legal profession". His follow up action was to persuade the LawSoc Council to approve business class travel for council members for trips exceeding 5 hours. There's nothing outrageous in the proposal, which is in line with most travel policies of private profit generating companies, except that LawSoc members have to cough up $200 each for their use of the VIP airport lounge toilet facilities. By the way, did anybody notice the legality of the transgression incurred when the lawyers flew without prior official approval?

Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore (ACLS) president Subhas Anandan commented, "We do not know how serious the president is... but if he is serious, then we will seriously object." Meanwhile, obviously oblivious to the objections, Wong claims he has "not received any complaints about the new travel policy". It's a sorry state of the Singapore legal profession when lawyers don't talk to each other anymore. Oh, we forgot, this Wong guy communicates only via official correspondence, "to seek a full report, on an urgent basis, on what transpired".

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's Not Wrong If...

It was a curious thing to hear Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew say, that admission to a primary school is not meritocratic, since it matters if you have a sibling already there, or pa or ma is an alumnus. He also said the system favours the social class of your parents. The planners must have had more in mind than the one kilometer ruling when RGPS was sited at Hillcrest Road (prime District 10), and Punggol Primary in a humbler neighbourhood. Never mind all that, the PSLE levels the playing field, and meritocracy is restored in the secondary schools, where entrance criteria is based on performance. Or is it?

A libel suit has now brought to air about what really goes on in those school placement exercises. Madame G had blogged that retired teacher Mrs W took bribes from parents and guardians in return for placing their children in her school. W sued G for defaming her by alleging she had demanded $3,000 for each student placed, vitiating the noble intents of meritocracy. Interestingly, this is the same figure that has been bandied around the kopi tiam and wet market circuits for quite a while, wherever desperate housewives congregate to brainstorm and ensure their ward gets a leg up in the paper chase crazed society of Singapore. Stories abound of "chao kuan" creative director types who promised free advertising services (and then sent their staff over for the pro bono work), as well as the less monied who volunteered for school crossing patrol duties, with no firm assurance their long hours under the sun and rain (at least 40 hours) will achieve the desired goal.

Instead of dwelling on the cancer metastasizing in the education system, PAP MP Michael Palmer and lawyer for the defence is nitpicking about whether his client had alleged W was seeking the cash donation for her person or for the school. Even trial judge Justin Chong shared his sense of values by opining that "a reasonable alternative reading was that the money was for the school". Ergo, if the money goes to the school, the purpose ennobles the deed. End justifies means. What amounts to a whistle blower case has been warped into a sordid tale of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in a twisted system.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Seated Candidate

"If I'm fit, I'm prepared to stand". That's an interesting choice of word right there, considering that the speaker recently has always been photographed sitting down. His other criteria was, ".. and capable of making another speech like this."

That he may be ambulatory challenged should not worry the electoral architects too much, they make such nifty wheel chairs nowadays. Besides, these folks have more than enough stashed away in the war chest to pay for Anthony Le's US$4,000 Ironman suit featured in Popular Science. Then again, Gus Dur was sightless, and yet could still end up being President. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

The worrrying part about his speech making was his advice to HDB flat owners not to sell and opt for renting. By his own admission, flats that used to cost $30,000 to $40,000 are now carrying price tags of about $300,000. So if asset appreciation is not to be realised for the liquid profits, what exactly was the purpose of the investment in the first place, pray tell? He may not understand it, but those contemplating selling off the roof over their heads are probably in dire need of hard cash to pay the bills. One recalls not too long ago when the desperate, retrenched and jobless, sought the use of their CPF funds to put food on the table. The heartless bureaucrats refused to budge, insisting that the locked up funds were meant for retirement in future years, without realising that the petitioners did not have enough even to see through another week of hellish living. Maybe he was just insensitive to the problems on the ground, or maybe the interferons in his brain have been misfiring with the passage of time. You be the judge.

Whether Reform Party's declared intention to contest the Tanjong Pagar GRC is premature is a subject of separate debate. But judging by the grinning faces of the meretricious cohorts standing behind their seated sponsor, the dubiety of the electoral results may be a moot point. Has Sam Tan, Indranee Rajah, Koo Tsai Kee, LimTuck Yew or Baey Yam Keng made any significant contribution for the betterment of society in their years of office? Does it matter? So long as Humpty Dumpty does not fall off the wall too soon, they know their golden goose is good for another 5 years or more. Their iron rice bowl is reinforced with kevlar, 5 times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis, and second only to the gerrymandering tricks of the GRC system.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Getting Your Money's Worth

The truth is out. All those who signed up for pricey internet broadband access services may have been short changed all along. IDA statistics recorded that a consumer who used a 30 Mbps service in September achieved only 1 Mbps downloading from a US website. Even the download speed from a local Singapore site clocked only at 27 Mbps.

IDA should also take a look at the state of our HDTV development. In April 2010, StarHub announced it was updating its digital terrestrial delivery platform from MPEG-2 to advanced MPEG-4 compression technology from Grass Valley™. Apparently it had been using ViBE MPEG-2/4 SD and HD compression equipment for its mix of SD and HD channels. The company's digital terrestrial television (DTTV) service was supposed to migrate completely from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 in two stages. The new StarHub DTTV platform was scheduled to be on air using Grass Valley's MPEG-4 products by mid-Q2 2010, and the company's cable TV MPEG-4 HD expansion was set for late-Q2 2010.

What this means is that, prior to Q2 2010, or whenever they finally get their act together, Starhub's subscribers have not been benefitting from full HD quality delivery.

On an interesting note, Grass Valley is undergoing an reorganization announced in March 2010 by parent company Technicolor, which has been trying to sell Grass Valley since early 2009.

Technicolor said the moves were being made to adapt Grass Valley to "a strongly deteriorated business climate" that saw its revenues fall 31% between 2008 and 2009, and losses total $109.5 million. In an effort to bring the business back to the break-even point, Technicolor will eliminate 25% of Grass Valley's workforce, totaling 625 jobs worldwide.

Early adopters beware!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Is Today Different From Yesterday?

The best part about TODAY is that it's distributed free, proof that printed media makes its profits from advertisements, and content is subsidiary justification for it's existence. Makes one wonder why Minister Shanmugam wasted his breath trying to convince the skeptical champions of liberal journalism that Singapore needs to be paranoid about its press control.

The optimists are taking to heart Goh Chok Tong's comments at the paper's 10th anniversary dinner when he said, "I support the newspaper’s aim to get its readers thinking about the issues of the day." Quoting from selective sources like public relations firm Edelman and Nielsen Media to support his argument that newspapers are Singaporeans' preferred source of news, he avers that these surveys "testify to the credibility of the Singapore media, and the trust and confidence they enjoy among Singaporeans". Such trust will be more convincing except for the front page banner that has National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan repeating ad nauseam, "Whichever objective we choose, it is clear that rather are enough HDB flats within reach of homebuyers." Whatever lesson Goh may have learnt from student Lim Zi Rui's sad tale of an engagement torpedoed by HDB prices, reported fully in TODAY only a few days ago, it must have been quickly dissipated like the morning mist. Credibility is supposed to be long lasting.

Didn't someone recently tell a US audience, "It (the media) should be a neutral medium for conveying news – with commentary clearly separate from news"? It must be wistful thinking to contemplate a Fourth Estate, when the publishing house counts among its chairmen – past and present – political appointees and office holders, and in the case of SPH, ex-intelligence services types like former ISD director Tjong Yik Min and curry-puff supplier Chua Lee Hoong. Which also explains why a post-retirement Permanent Secretary is given a new lease in the gravy train as chairman of MediaCorp. As the government appointee is neither businessman, entrepreneur nor media socialite, his predecessor Ho Kwon Ping must have felt insulted by the choice of a nobody who earned his brownie stripes doing procurement in Mindef. But ah, in the grand scheme of things, it makes perfect sense to plant a mole in the journalistic pool. The Minister said they are paranoid, remember?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Price Of Silence

True to expectations, the ACS Board of Governors comprising the panel investigating former school principal Dr Ong Teck Chin is closing ranks and will not be making public the much anticipated findings of their report. They merely stated that "The report reinforces the original allegations." Their statement also said some of those interviewed are teachers who are still at ACS, "and would avoid Dr Ong when he was still in school," providing the tantalising nugget that there could be more than one victim in the target rich environment of the boys' school at Dover Road.

Surely a revelation like that will generate a firestorm, outscaling the conflagrations of the Sumatra agricultural practices. Given the recent plethora of lurid headlines, which should sell lots of newspapers, imagination can only run riot with the plausible permutations of sexual impropriety.

One end of the spectrum has an ex-banker charged for insulting the modesty of a woman. One of the offences, which is documented as asking his female companion whether she was a virgin during a drive to Keppel Club, carries a potential jail term of up to one year. His string of credentials challenge that of Dr Ong's - Vice-President of volunteer organisation Pertapis, chair of the Pertapis Centre for Women and Girls, and founder of Ikhlas Catering, a catering setup staffed by former offenders and single mothers. Sounds like he had a target rich environment too, albeit of the female species. Plus, he was on the select 11-member Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee set up up in 2008, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, no doubt.

The other extemity has an ex-hotel General Manager spiking the drink of a job seeker with Zolpidem and accessing her room uninvited. For causing the woman to take poison [the Zolpidem sleeping drug for insomnia is classified under the Poisons Act and is available only through prescription] to facilitate an offence [the G-rated report mentions only kissing], the ex-GM can be jailed for 10 years, and fined, or caned.

A few years ago, Dr Ong presided over a public caning, under closed doors of course, of errant school boys, including the victim of a bullying session in the boarding school dormitory who unfortunately chose to defend himself from bodily harm with a chair. The desperate local MSM offered a free Nokia handphone to any student willing to share snippets of the indoor proceedings. They will definitely have to up the ante if they expect to get anything out of the ACS Board. Perhaps a fancy sports job like those preferred by Singapore Land Authority (SLA) officers might loosen lips a little.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Safe Streets Of Singapore

In the 1997 defamation suit against Tang Liang Hong, Lee Kuan Yew applied to the court to remove certain words in his own affidavit which cast derogatory comment about the Malaysian state of Johor, words which caused a diplomatic row between Singapore and Malaysia:
"I was baffled. He (Tang) claimed that his life was under threat. But, of all places, he went to Johor.That place is notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings. It did not make sense for a person who claims to be fearful for his life to go to a place like Johor…"

The world must be baffled now, especially in the wake of recent comment by Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam who trumpeted, "Anyone can walk along most streets in Singapore, day or night. Any child can take public transport, and many do - parents will not have to worry too much". Notice the qualifier "most" in the sentence. Parents please take note, not all streets are safe in Singapore.

Less than 2 weeks after a Republic Polytechnic student was hacked to death at Downtown East, a Pasir Ris destination "synonymous with family-friendly recreation", 7 youths were slashed by a group of parang-wielding men in Bukit Panjang on Monday night. The first victim was 20 year old technician Jayasiva, who was walking home along a jogging track near 418 Fajar Road. When challenged whether he was a member of the Pak Hai Tong gang, Jayaysiva's "No" answer set them off, triggering the rain of vulgarities and 16-inch long parangs. The attackers next picked on a group of 20 teens at a basketball court at 505 Jala[ang Road, which happened to include an 8 year old. Frustrated again by their failure to locate Pak Hai Tong members, parangs were unleashed in a slashing frenzy. Before they left, the gang shouted "Sah Lak Kau", Hokkien dialect for "369". Unfortunately for the wounded youngsters lying in hospitals, the incident was not a advertising attention grabber of the fake bear type. This is Feddy Krueger type blood-letting in Singapore neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile ex-Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng looks pleased as punch on the front page that out of 7,200 people who walked by a smoking car in busy Shenton Way, only 52 bothered to report the "suspicious" vehicles. And oh, a handful who stopped by did so to the take pictures or pose beside the smoking car, which had a gas cylinder in the back seat and wires sticking out under the door. "However, the fact that there were those who were alert and noticed the suspicious vehicle quickly and acted on it... give us cause for some satisfaction," Mr Wong said in his maiden speech to 320 civil servants as the Co-ordinating Minister for Nartional Security. Don't you think the bar could have be set a wee bit higher?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

First World Economy, Third World Press?

At a public lecture entitled “Universities for a Global Society” at the LKY School on 27 Oct 2009, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, argued that the world needs a free and independent press to “serve the needs of a global society.” “A lot of the world views this as potentially dangerous and counterproductive,” he said. “My attitude is that the world needs to be helped towards that kind of value system. It is the most vital and exhilarating kind of world to have.”

We have read how Shanmugam opined that such a system "a large, rich counry like the US can afford, (but) the cost will be to high for some of us." ("The Role of the Media: Singapore's Perspective", Columbia University, 4 Nov 2010). This came after he boasted about our per capita GDP that has vaunted from US$512 in 1965 to US$41,000. Then he segued into the line that our fabric of society, now conveniently grouped with that of developing countries, does not have the in-built stability of mainstream America. So where are we, First World status, or third world pariah? If all the economic laurels do not translate into a functional glue for binding the tribal, ethnic and religious fault lines in society, what were the sacrifices for? Were the last years spent on nation building, or creating a gigantic piggy bank for a select coterie?

Invoking the ghosts of communist spectres past, Shanumgam attempted to draw up a case for a muted press. Lee Kuan Yew did same at the General Assembly of the International Press Institute at Helsinki on 9 Jun 1971, but at least he was more forthcoming about media elements who allegedly make political gains by shaping opinions and attitudes:
"My colleagues and I have the responsibility to neutralise their intentions. In such a situation, freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government."

On shaping opinions and attitudes, Shanmugam did quote that Gallup polls in 2005 and 2006 showed 69 per cent of Singaporeans trusted the local media compared with only 32 per cent of the Americans. Guess what? The winner of that poll was Rwanda. 86 per cent of the Rwandans said they trusted the local media. If "Singaporeans trust our media", as Shanmugam maintains, it makes one wonder why certain leaders like to air their views to Charlie Rose and the National Geographic. Didn't he also say, "People are more cynical about the media in the US"?

Monday, November 8, 2010

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost....

It's not unexpected that Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan came to the defence of Thomson Medical so quickly. After all founder Dr Cheng Wei Chen did parlay his $10 million investment into $513 millions. It was also Khaw who read out the letter from TT Durai's daughter in parliament, an appeal to PM Lee to help restore her father's honour. And it was Khaw to whom TT Durai and his chairman Richard Yong turned to in person as a life buoy of last resort. The man definitely has a kindly ear for the rich, and teetering on the verge of notoriety.

Khaw is asking that a "systemic approach" be used to look into the IVF bungling at Thomson Medical. He knows that a witch-hunt will ultimately finger the man in charge, where the buck should really stop. And that's awkward with the imminence of coming elections. Laying blame on the system implies no individual is accountable or responsible. Like cussing at God for the Orchard Road floods.

Unfortunately the "systemic approach" will not be utilised for the 4 youths, age 18 to 20, involved in the fatal rumble at Downtown East. Did the education system fail them? Were they and/or their family victims of the unemployment situation? Was the lax security system at a public shopping mall at fault? None of these issues will be explored, they will simply hang. For them, rehabilitation is not an option.

In 2005 Dinesh Bhatia was sentenced one year of jail for consuming cocaine. Then MP K. Shanmugam appealed and had it reduced to 8 months, by arguing that Bhatia "did not know that it was cocaine, and had a 'fleeting suspicion' the substance could be illegal". We get it. This one deserved rehabilitation because he might just grow up to be a High Court Judge like his father Amarjeet Singh, or a Nominated Member of Parliament like his mother Kanwaljit Soin.

Khaw should really heed Amarjeet Singh's own words, "It doesn't pay to mess around with the system". By letting off one rotten apple, the whole bushel may end up being rejected by an outraged public.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Devil Is In The Details

Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore were ranked top of Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), all 3 tied with a score of 9.3. Since corruption rears its ugly head in myriad forms, blatant or subtle, it's no wonder this number has been referred to as the "murk meter" in the 5 Nov issue of The Economist. Perceptions, after all, can be so subjective.

One criticism levied is that the Berlin based TI singles out poorer countries since the organisation mirrors the ethos of wealthier nations. And there is their methodology of 13 surveys of experts and business people, which varies from country to country, and over time, making year to year comparisons misleading.

TI claims that a combination of sources measuring the same phenomenon is more reliable than each source taken separately. Their evaluation of the extent of corruption in countries/territories is done by two groups: country experts and business leaders. PERC (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy) is in the business group. It was PERC who once reported that Singaporean wages are higher than that of America and Australia, which then Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan Tony Tan cited to justify the 1 Oct 2003 CPF cut. A cruel cut from which Singaporeans have never recovered. PERC's CEO Broadfoot defended the validity of his company's findings thus: "More often than not, business decisions are made based more on perception than facts." So much for objective professional research.

The other source aggregated for the CPI indicator is provided by country/risk/expert analysts. One of them, Freedom House - Nations in Transit 2010 (FH2010), uses scores derived from pretty tough questions like these:
1. Has the government implements executive anti-corruption initiatives?
2. Is the country's economy free of excessive state involvement?
3. Is the government free from excessive bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls that increase opportunities for corruption?
4. Are there significant limitations on the participation of government officials in economic life?
5. Are there adequate laws requiring financial disclosure and disallowing conflict of interest?
6. Does the government advertise jobs and contracts?
7. Does the state enforce an executive legislative or administrative process - particularly one that is free of prejudice against one's political opponents - to prevent , investigate, and prosecute the corruption of government officials and civil servants?
8. Do whistle-blowers, anticorruption activists, investigators, and journalists enjoy legal protections that make them feel secure about reporting cases of bribery and corruption?
9. Are allegations of corruption given wide and extensive airing in the media?
10. Does the public display a high intolerance for offical corruption?

Since we do have members of parliament who collect company directorships like Imelda acquires footwear, or office holders who have benefitted from substantial discounts from property magnates, a perfect score of 10 looks hardly achievable. Question 5 looks particularly dicey.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Famous Last Words

On Oct 29, Shadrake wrote in British Weekly, his "Open Letter to the Singapore Government":
"I am being prosecuted and facing jail for exposing prosecutorial scandals in Singapore – scandals this PAP dictatorship doesn’t want decent Singaporean citizens to know about. "

Well, the 76 year old British certainly had his bravado knocked out of his system when the Singapore court convicted this week him of challenging the integrity of the city state's judiciary in a book criticising its use of the death penalty. Confidently armed with state anointed judicial powers to dish out a custodial sentence or a fine – or both – judge Quentin Loh dangled a carrot in front of the subdued Shadrake, saying he was giving him "a final opportunity to make amends", i.e. now is the time to come to Jesus.

After the court adjourned on Wednesday, the pugnacity in Shadrake was evidently diminished in his neutered choice of words, "I think I've been given a very fair hearing." Faced with a loaded gun at his forehead, even a mendicant professor must be tempted to grovel. Lest we forget, there is the double whammy of the Attorney General's Chambers' separate threat of criminal defamation charges, which carry penalties of up to two years in jail and a fine.

In a prospectus designed to win over sceptical academics about a proposed NUS-Yale liberal arts college, Yale President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey admitted they were "greatly concerned" by the Shadrake case. "It gives us reason to inquire even more deeply to understand how free faculty and students would be to express themselves in scholarly publications, in the classroom and on campus," they wrote.

Shadrake has thus far refused to apologise, saying after the ruling that he would "work out how to do this and satisfy the court". Don't waste time here, you might as well have talked to Hitler about world peace. All that fellow wanted was a piece of Poland, a piece of France, a piece of Russia, etc. What was it that the Old Man once said?
"Repression, Sir, is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love--it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack." (Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates, 4 Oct 1956)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

That Can't Be Our Baby

Peter Lim sure knows how to pick them. First he is conned into making a "sure bid" for Liverpool F.C. Then he splurges S$202 million to acquire a medical centre. Not just any medical centre, but the Thomson Medical owned by Dr Cheng Wei Chen and his family, the same who screwed up an IVF operation.

A Singaporean Chinese was supposed to have her egg fertilized by her Causcasian husband's sperm in a petri dish, only to discover that their bouncing baby had a different complexion, and a definitely different DNA. The whole implantation process was supposedly recorded by CCTV, so the wife can actually see her eggs moved by the embryologist from cold storage to the warm of her womb. Same type of CCTV system Wong Kan Seng used to pin James Gomez for not filing his minority-race candidate application form as claimed during the 2006 General Elections. There's a nice graphic of the In-Vitro Fertilisation process in the morning papers, and a nicer disclaimer by MOH - "MOH provides guideline, but hospitals may have different procedures". And if that does not suffice to waive responsibility and/or accountability, MOH is quoted as saying that theThomson Fertility Centre "has certain procedures that could be improved." Classic taiji.

The director of the Centre for Assisted Reproduction at SGH was surprised by the news, "I believe the labs have very strict procedures, because the guidelines come from the Ministry of Health." Dr Peter Chew was plainly dismayed, "This is bad. It should not happen." Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who recently announced that he was confident to take on a mano-a-mano SMC straight fight, is probably just as sanguine about the lapse in MOH's enforcement of its directives. After all, there were strict procedures at Whitley Road Detention Centre, and Wong Kan Seng is still very much around.

Interestingly, the lady involved is not too upset about the whole SNAFU, and the stranger will not be put up for adoption. Maybe she has been conned by the official propaganda about welcoming foreigners and helping them to integrate into Singapore society. Maybe she just has a big, generous heart.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Move Over, Baghdad Bob

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (Arabic: محمد سعيد الصحاف‎ ) came to world wide prominence for his grandiose and grossly unrealistic propaganda broadcasts made prior to and during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, extolling the invincibility of the Iraqi Army and the permanence of Saddam's rule. His announcements, intended for an Iraqi domestic audience subject to Saddam's cult of personality and total state censorship, were met with widespread derision and amusement. Quite obviously, Minister Ng Eng Hen is trying hard to outdo Al-Sahhaf, a.k.a. Baghdad Bob.

Ng's debut was his vociferous rebuttal of a university finding that foreigners took 75% of new jobs created. Nanyang Technological University economists, Chen Kang and Tan Khee Giap had based their study on publicly available figures from the Manpower Ministry's website. Ng accused them of being "sensationalist, irresponsible and unprofessional", but avoided labelling same of another university don involved in the study, Lim Chong Yah, since latter's daughter is married into the Lee family. According to Ng, 9 in 10 new jobs in Singapore actually went to citizens and permanent residents. In hindsight, we now know how malleable truth can be under the hands of a spin doctor.

He's at it again, this time insisting that polls conducted in 2008 and this year showed 95% of young people are proud to be Singaporean. The Education Ministry had polled 74,000 students in Primary 4 and 6, Secondary 2 and 4 and Year 2 JCs. Ng also claims that "objective surveys to gauge the sentiments from the ground" had consistently shown that the public felt Singapore was a place they belonged to, and would defend (it) if it came under threat.

That was too much even for the normally compliant press, who quoted heavily from a letter from the public:
"I suspect that, not only young Singaporeans, but Singaporeans in general are beginning to feel that way.
My sentiment comes from engaging with friends, colleagues, and National Service buddies on many national issues, in particular the foreign talent policy.
If a crisis or war hits Singapore, it would be very disheartening to see hundreds of thousands of foreigners and PRs ditching Singapore leaving behind 3 million-odd Singaporeans to fend fro themselves."

If the good doctor still happens to be high on spirits, alcoholic medication or otherwise, he should listen carefully to the writer's poignant ending:
"Surely the situation would dampen the Singapore spirit. In the end, Singaporeans would ask: What are we fighting for?
I hope my children will never have to ask me this question."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Something Is Fundamentally Wrong Here

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, faced with the honest truth from a young student and SAF officer about what's amiss at ground level, had to admit, something is fundamentally wrong here in Singapore.

M K Kang's wife was with her 10 year old son when she flagged down a taxi for Orchard Cineleisure. The cabby drove to Cathay Building instead and had to be redirected to the correct destination. As a South Korean who has been here for  3 1/2 years, she did what Singaporeans normally do, and offered $10 instead of the metered $11.30 for the unwelcomed scenic detour.  Cabby got out and threatened to punch her if she did not pay full fare. Surely the minister in charge of public transporation has to admit, something is fundamentally wrong here.

A Puupella's son was bullied and beaten by some students in school. After reporting to the police and the school principal, the police washed their hands and allowed the principal to handle the matter. The school caned the bully and her son - latter for retaliating by pushing back his attacker.  Surely the minister in charge of educaiton has to admit, something is fundamentally wrong here.

Third year Republic Polytechnc student Darren Ng was with his friends at Downtown East when a group of 10 teenagers accused him of staring at them. After a brawl that took place just outside a crowded MacDonalds, Darren was hacked with a chopper and subsequently died from multiple cuts to the limbs, back and abdomen. Shopkeepers at Downtown East said they were used to seeing skirmishes in the mall.  Surely the minister in charge of public safety has to admit, something is fundamentally wrong here.

Meanwhile welder Dai, who hailed from China in 2008, dragged a fellow Chinese national into the bushes and raped her. After the tumble in the grass, the pair spent half an hour together trying to locate her missing shoes and mobile phone again. Dai was spotted when he returned to the site to look for the phone.  Surely the minister in charge of foreign workers has to admit, something is fundamentally wrong here.