Monday, January 31, 2011

He Ain't Heavy, He's Your Father

When Mas Selamat Kastari's relatives were jailed in Nov 2010 for aiding a fugitive from the law, the message sent was loud and clear - nation's interest comes before family ties. Mohd Fatris Bakaram, Deputy Mufti of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), rubbed in the salt: "It is natural to help and give protection to family members, but it is not acceptable by Islamic law to perform the act that will jeopardise the peace and security of a society." Well, it depends on whose family is involved.

When 3 young Singaporeans were charged under the Sedition Act for allegedly posting inflammatory racial remarks online, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drew the line in the sand:
"It does not matter whether inflammatory racist remarks are made online or offline, it is still against the law to stir up distrust and enmity between the races. And the Singapore government will act against anyone who threatens racial and religious harmony". (17 Sept 2005).

"It has nothing to do with whether you are a blogger or not. If you publish such stuff, anywhere you go, we will act," said Lee, who was then speaking to reporters at the launch of a family carnival organised by the People's Action Party Community Foundation (PCF) and the National Trades Union Congress.

This is how he acts after the Association of Muslim Professionals issued a strongly worded statement to seek clarification on whether MM Lee's comments on the Muslim community reflected the thinking of the Government, comments which "have hurt the community and are potentially divisive": "The views on Singapore Muslims expressed by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in a new book are his personal opinions, and not those of the Government," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday. That's it? He's going to continue drawing a fat salary as a member of the Government? He's not going to step down "for personal reasons" and "spend more time with the family"? Do we need an ICBM from North Korea heading our way to send the PM a clearer message?

Would the 3 young Singaporeans mentioned earlier have been left off the hook if they used the "personal opinions" defence? Can Alan Shadrake, who published some stuff about the judicial system, also avail himself of the "personal opinions" defence? Are we to understand that all Government policies are also subjects of "personal opinions"? That's a very slippery road he has chosen to navigate - but at least we now know what we are voting for.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Shoot The Messenger

Since it's a SPH publication that exposed MM Lee Kuan Yew to a barrage of flak never experienced before in the annals of Singapore history, it was no surprise that a sacrificial lamb had to be found. The extract published on page A6 of the Sunday Times, 30 Jan 2011, seems to serve the intent well.
With the Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Singapura (PKMS) calling for the dreaded ISA provision to be invoked to haul in someone for "distorting and inciting racial and religious disharmony", editor Han Fook Kwang is obviously more suitable for the arctic cold airconditioning of Whitley Road Detention Centre than an ailing geriatric - after all, he was the one who proposed the Q&A format.
"May we advise that the ISA provision be applied to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and can he be detained and be further investigated for such subversive acts? No Singaporeans shall be allowed immunity if he/she committed the offence under: The Sedition Act (Cap 290)."

The Sunday Times extract from the offending book does not include the incendiary quotable like "I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam" or "Be less strict on Islamic observations and say,'Okay, I'll eat with you'. " Besides deflecting the barbs to a racially biased questioner, the same extract also alludes to "a younger generation of leaders" who may not know "how to manage them" and, out of fear, there "might be an overreaction". You see, everybody has erred, everybody, except MM Lee. He is perfect, he can do no wrong. He's like the character who can send you to hell, and get you thanking him profusely for the privilege.

Meanwhile Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, ever eager to get on with receiving his million dollar ang pows, disparaged all the deleterious dissonance with his "personal view" that, "looking at what he has painted, it (Lee's personal view) is at best a worst-case scenario." Now, what exactly does that mean? He can either stand with the people he is supposedly in charge of and reject the flawed accusation they cannot be integrated with he rest of society today, or be deluded and subscribe to the fallacy, for the few pieces of silver thrown his way. This is no freak flood of derisive comments that occurs only once in 50 years. This one won't wash so easily.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Allah's Torch

That's the title the author chose after sounding out Ruhaini Dzuhayatin, a lecturer in sociology and director of the Center for Women's Studies at the State Institutute of Islam Studies in Jogjakarta - for fear its meaning might be misinterpreted. What did she think?
"I think it's great, "she said enthusiatically. She caught the gist immediately - the torch of Islam was meant to bring enlightenment, but in the wrong hands, could also be put to destructive ends.

In May 2000, acclaimed journalist and filmmaker Tracy Dahlby unwittingly sailed with Laskar Jihad warriors into troubled Moluccas. When the Muslim-Christian fracas boiled over at Ambon, he narrowly escaped, initial attempt by crashed Navy plane, and finally by the same transportation of choice of terrorists, M.V. Bukit Siguntang. That didn't stop him for heading back to Indonesia in 2002, for an abortive effort to interview Abu Bakar Bashir, whom he ascribes as "the wolfish grandpa who took his orders straight from Osam's board of directors". That's a tasting portion of Dahly's wicked humour. Those who have travelled to populous Indonesia will recognise the friendliness and hospitality he experienced along the way. So how did the Bali bombers like Imam Samudra fit in the scheme of things?

One of his interpreter-guides, Reza, offered one variant in his tale of being fixed by Suharto's' military goons and thrown into the local equivalent of Abu Ghraib, complete with a "electric stick" which made his limbs jump crazily and sucked the air from his lungs. All he wanted was a Cory Aquino inspired people's power revolution to address the abuses of the Smiling General. Does poverty gap, skewed education or jaundiced judiciaries ring a bell? "I don't agree at all with the Bali bombers and what they did. But I know exactly how people like them feel. I know how angry they are. They're reacting to the same atmosphere of injustice in this society."

The author's encounters with a firebrand and a prince, the rhetoric of the Lesser Jihad and the high symbolism of the Javanese Islam culminated in an information overload, the ramifications of which made Dahlby cognizant of the fog of war, the confusion that overcomes observers on an active battlefield.

"We were hit on 9/11 by people who believed in hateful ideas. We cannot win a war of ideas against such people by ourselves," the author quoted Tom Friedman of the New York Times, "only fellow Muslims could do that." In other words, it requires jihad, in the best and broadest meaning of the word. For those unfamiliar with the concept, let prudence be their guide in commentary. As for loud mouthed politicians, just shut up!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Politically Incorrect Politician

At the Tanjong Pagar "Singapore 21 forum" on 18 Sept 1999, a polytechnic student had asked then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew if certain instinctive emotional bonds among ethnic groups could be surmounted for Singapore to become a nation. This was Lee's reply: "Yes, I think so, over a long period of time, and selectively. We must not make an error. If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine-gun unit, that's a very tricky business. We've got to know his background. I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I don't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy. "

That prompted two Malay-Muslim groups to call for a dialogue with Lee. Taman Bacaan, a grassroots group, said Malay MPs should have a "heart-to-heart" discussion with Lee. Majlis Pusat, the central council for 38 Malay-Muslim cultural bodies, wanted Malay-Muslim grassroots leaders and groups to take part in the dialogue and "put the issue of Malay-Muslim loyalty to rest, once and for all".

This time the AFP report, citing MM Lee Kuan Yew had urged local Muslims, who he said were socially “distinct and separate,” to “be less strict on Islamic observances” to aid integration and the city-state’s nation-building process, drew ire from across the causeway and beyond.
Led by Malaysian Islamic Scholars Association (PUM) and Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim), Muslim organisations criticised Lee for his “Islamophobic” comments.
“His statement seemed to be anti-Islamic and reflects an Islamophobia that is baseless and not founded on historical fact and current reality,” said Abim secretary-general Mohamad Raimi Ab Rahim in a press statement. “Muslims do not need any interference from non-Muslims in religious matters,” PUM secretary Mohd Roslan said, adding that Muslims do not question the practices of other religions.
Mohamad Raimi also said that even though most Muslims in the region were moderate and peaceful, Lee had taken a “step backwards” with his comment which could incite a reaction from Muslim groups who were more radical.

Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf, Professor of Religion at Bangkok's Assumption University said the views of Lee about Islam do not hold water and criticizing and generalizing about Islam as being un-integrative is unsophisticated.
"When I identify myself as a Muslim in Southeast Asia, I am defined as a person who does not eat pork and has four wives. I am sure that if Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus were to ever meet today, they would not talk about pigs and women, they would address more profound issues facing humanity today such as materialism, the reduction of the role of religion in social and moral life and the negative effects of globalized economy on the poor sections of society."

Well said, Professor.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Hard Truths About Education In Singapore

In a new twist to his graduate mother policy, Lee Kuan Yew is blaming parents for the difference between "brand-name" schools and neighbourhood schools. He observed that 72 per cent of Raffles Girls' School pupils have fathers who are university graduates while it was 9 per cent at Bukit Merah Secondary. The disparity is similar across the schools in terms of educational profiles of mothers. He urged non-graduate parents to bring their children to the library from an early stage, "They must get their children accustomed to ... acquiring knowledge by themselves and not be spoon-fed by teachers."

We know how "brand-name" schools end up with the graduate parents. 18 year old Wong Zheng Kai explained it clearly and patiently to the slow learner: "Hwa Chong's fees would be too taxing on my parents." While the monthly fee at Dunman High is $37, it is $300 at Hwa Chong. Grossly out of touch, Lee was still thinking meritocracy alone determines placement in secondary schools when he posed his question to her earlier, "What made you choose Dunman High? Which schools did you try to get in but couldn't? Let's not be shy."

Let's not be shy. There are the poor who need a leg up to level the playing field (Recall the education of rookie MP Michael Palmer: "Before I joined the grassroots organisation, I never knew there were poor people in developed countries"). Northbrooks Secondary principal Janet Oh told MediaCorp it was not easy to "just encourage parents to support their child's learning" when their physical needs are not met. Northbrooks encourages students to stay back for two periods after school to build up the habit of doing homework, but "Many of them don't stay back after school because they have no money for lunch." This school provides money for lunch and recess. Thank you, principal Oh.

About the spoon-feeding by teachers: A Norwegian lady friend doing her doctorate here sent her two daughters to a neighborhood school because she didn't want them to be pampered by the likes of the American School (who bent the rules for Lee's autistic grandson). Her personal observation after 2 years was that the teachers here don't cover all the syllabus material in class, and the kids are expected to have tutors to make up the shortfall. Needless to say, the poor can hardly cough up the extortion money charged by tutors these days. Someone who emigrated to Canada also noted their kids studying there have no homework - the teaching and learning are completed during classroom hours.

Some schools require a PSLE score of at least 265 before doling out the financial assistance. Kids who don't do well academically because their parents can't afford the "books and all the paraphernalia that makes for a learning child" mentioned by Lee, end up spiralling deeper into the poverty trap. And into the tentacles of the local street gangs. At least some of those guys are more genuine in offering a helping hand than the MOE officials.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Helping Or Exploiting The Kids?

A friend's daughter was in a neighborhood school for a week, before being transferred to a "brand name" school. On querying one teacher of the neighborhood school about the textbooks and uniforms already purchased, he was told needy students would welcome the items. That particular school had 140 students who had yet to pay the school fees and similar numbers who could not afford a new school uniform.

The one-off $155 million top-up to the Edusave scheme was flaunted as a measure to insulate children from the impact of inflation, so goes the spin of Dr Ng Eng Hen. So will kids finally have pocket money for recess, cash to buy new books or replace the set of school uniform which has been washed once too often? None of the forementioned.

Firstly, only $54.8 million goes to the kids, and not into their eager hands, but into their Edusave accounts. The $330 (primary) and $370 (secondary) handouts can only be used for "school enrichment" programmes like local and overseas learning trips. Needless to say, 300 bucks won't fly you to Europe to sing along with the Vienna Boys' Choir or Shanghai to check out the Maglev train. Still, there are lots of travel agents out there sweet talking principals into such trips, with parents ending up having to top up the difference. For the poorer kids, the trip destinations will likely be Little India or Chinatown. The only people enriched here are the scheming travel agents targeting the school market.

The larger slice of the top-up pie, $100 million, is meant to be spent on IT equipment, so that schools "can use the gadgets to improve the education". Okay, now we know where he's getting the money for "keyboarding" - the proposed use of Pinyin on personal computers for Mandarin lessons.

One wonders if the minister is aware of the vacuity of his words: "In Singapore, nobody who has the ability, whether it's ITE, polytechnic or university, will be denied their education because their family cannot afford it. That is a guarantee." How can a starving child have the energy to stay awake in class, or struggle through tons of homework on a empty stomach? No wonder the rich kids, with maids in tow to carry the schoolbags, and chauffeured to school in limousines, walk off with all the scholarships. Did you read about how Lee Kuan Yew lamented his grandson rejecting a scholarship because papa had the money for his overseas education?

The altruism Education Minister Ng tries to impress on the public is torpedoed by his own slip up, ""You trust us for another 10 years, we will make the difference for you." With elections likely to be called in the 2nd quarter (according to George Yeo), couldn't he at least be more subtle about it?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Truth About Learning Mandarin

Amy Chua's book about sticking spurs into their hides to make sure her charges do not fall behind was not entitled "Hard Truths: To Keep Kids Going". Nor did she have free publicity help from Singapore Press Holdings to shoot up the best sellers list. In a way, she's very much like the guy who would rather be feared than loved.

But Chua can teach us something about language learning, "Rote repetition is underrated in America." Ditto Singapore. Professor of psychology at University of Virginia, Daniel Willingham explains, "If you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually be automatic. Your brain will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it." Once this happens, the brain has made mental space for higher order operations for interpreting for literary works, say, and not simply decoding their words. (Time, 31 Jan 2011)

There's no short cut to learning the Mandarin language, the hardest part of which  is the Chinese writing system. There are about 70,000 character entries in the Xinhua Chinese Character Dictionary, which is edited by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Commercial Press. According to the Chinese Language Association, an official research centre for Chinese language studies, 3,000 characters are most commonly used and needed for formal communication and reading. You must recognise about 2,000 Chinese characters to read a newspaper. In China, a person who grasps more than 1,500 Chinese characters is considered literate. The only way to learn Chinese is by memorization and constant practice. That's the hard truth.

Pinyin is just one method to "write Chinese" using the Roman (Western) alphabet, allowing students to concentrate on spoken Mandarin before tackling the formidable task of mastering Chinese characters. It is not a substitute for literacy in Chinese. There are numerous methods available for typing Chinese characters into a computer, from which the Ministry of Education has selected Pinyin for teaching of Mandarin.

In the press conference, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said "keyboarding" will be used only at secondary school level. Primary school kids will still learn to write in the time honored system, stroke by stroke. So, after the kids have started on the correct path of learning Chinese via penmanship, they are to regress to use of Pinyin? Need we point out that Pinyin spellings can represent many different characters? Unless you know exactly which character you need, you will likely make mistakes when using the computer to write Chinese characters. But hey, what does Minister Ng know? He probably can't speak the language to save his life. Still, it's progress when you consider that Tharman Shanmugaratnam (Tamil -தர்மன் சண்முகரத்னம்) was once charged to head the learning of Mandarin.

Not too long ago, the principal of a popular girls' school was conned into adopting tablet PCs to "enhance learning", not realising that the hardware of that generation was rejected by the market because of crappy handwriting recognition software. It looks like the snake oil peddlers are at it again. For the educators and policy makers who swallow the poison, Amy Chua has one word for them:"garbage".

Friday, January 21, 2011

If The Shoe Fits, Wear It

Rules of Engagement: You Die, Your Problem
They sure know how to pick them. The YPAP Chairman of Ponggol South was a connoiseur of upskirt videos, but this YPAP Chairman of Toa Payoh East aspired to trade profanities with a rock-star of sorts and ended up being "pwnd". Let's just say Christian Bale's expletive-laden YouTube rant reads like a nursery rhyme when Mr Rockson Tan blogs. Yes, he is more deserving of the honorific than those lackeys.

The alumus of ACS-Barker Road (Factoid: ACS(I) at Dover Road has more stringent scholastic entry requirements) bit off more than he could chew because his cringe worthy acclaim that "LKY is equivalent of Nelson Mandela to Singaporeans" was a natural magnet for spontaneous responses like "Mandela go jail, LKY puts you in jail". Let's not stoop to his level of erudition (sample printable tweet: "bossming: Rocksonnn dunneed to google for so long to find dirt on me. Just talk dirty with me direct") and focus on the subject of contention. Mandela vis-à-vis LKY.
  • Mandela did go to jail, LKY did not. Devan Nair did, and see how shoddily he was treated by a comrade.
  • Mandela treated his political adversaries like F.W. de Klerk with respect, and never called him "mangy dog" or something.
  • Mandela harboured no genetic supremacy philosophies, and encouraged black South Africans to support the previously hated Springboks (the white dominated South African national rugby team).
  • Mandela ditched his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, when she became a political liability. No, Winnie did not monopolise the conveyancing business for public housing.
  • Mandela retired in 1999 after one term of office, and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki (not seat warmer or relation). Really retired, to become an advocate for a variety of social and human rights, not hanging to office with a ridiculously invented job title.
  • Mandela, this is going to hurt, was awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, and 250 other awards. None of those cooked up by SPH and the like.
 It has been said before, and bears repeating, LKY is more Marcos than Mandela. Except maybe for the shoe collection.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Baby Incentive? What Baby Incentive?

Lim Swee Say refused to budge on minimum wage because he claims it's the easy solution to income disparity. Yet when it comes to falling birthrates, MM Lee Kuan Yew is opting for the easy way out by bringing in more foreigners.

Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng claims it's an uphill task to persuade Singaporeans to have more children, "The going is hard, but we have not given up. We will continue to support couples' decisions to get married and have children, and create a pro-family environment." So how sincere is the level of support?

Just look at the incentives the government Baby Bonus Scheme spells out on their website:
  • Cash gift of up to $4,000 each for your 1st and 2nd child and $6,000 each for your 3rd and 4th child;
  • Contribution in Children Development Account (CDA), a special savings account in which your savings is matched to the cap of $6,000 each for the 1st and 2nd child, $12,000 each for the 3rd and 4th child and $18,000 each for the 5th and subsequent child.
The CDA is good only until your child turns 6 years of age. From year 7, you're on your own. Don't bother with the mathematics - the university fees for a 4 year course alone will wipe out the most generous of the financial incentive packages.

Now, according to APM, France has Europe's second-highest birth rate in part because of incentives offered by the government. Way back in 2006, they were already offering:
  • 3-year paid parental leave with guaranteed job protection upon returning to the workforce;
  • Universal, full-time preschool starting at age 3;
  • Subsidized daycare before age 3;
  • Stipends for in-home nannies; and
  • Monthly childcare allowances (about $540) that increase with the number of children per family.
In addition to above, families were given the option of receiving $1,800 per month for one year while the mother takes time off work after having a 3rd child, or $1,000 per month for 3 years. Germany has the new "Elterngeld" — or "parent money" — program allows an adult who stops work after a child is born to continue to claim two-thirds of their net wage, up to a maximum $3,000 per month. Low earners can claim 100 percent compensation for lost wages. One parent can claim for up to 12 months; if both parents take a turn, they can claim the benefit for a total of 14 months — a tweak designed to encourage more fathers to help. The Swedes give either moms or dads 80 percent of their salary for a total of 480 days in a parental leave. Last year Singapore finished up with a $6 billion surplus, instead of the experts' projection of $3 billion deficit, yet Lee Kuan Yew is saying subsidies will break the bank. Go figure.

Singapore lawyer T. Chin explains why she has no intention of having children as yet, "It's a question of opportunity cost, and I can't afford the downtime from my career. Furthermore, speaking from my own experience as an only child, children are really expensive." It's worse when you have to count on the support of a complacent minister.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Price Of Higher Education

Tertiary education is going to cost more in Singapore. With the Total Fertility Rate at a historic low of 1.16, do we really need another scary excuse not to have kids?

The country's 3 universities, 5 polytechnics and the Institutes of Technical Education made the announcement on Friday 14 January 2011. National University of Singapore Provost and deputy president, Tan Eng Chye, was pretty candid about his justification, "70 per cent of our budget goes to salaries. People would want to see their salary increase. I have to give salary increase for my staff as well." There's nary a mention of the quality or quantity of academic output of staff members who merit the financial bonanza. Productivity, it would seem, is not in the equation for the academic circle in Singapore. Nanyang Technological University (NTU), for instance, has tumbled 101 places, plunging from 73rd to 174th place in this year's edition of the widely viewed Times Higher Education World ranking of the world's top 200 universities. That won't be stopping them from hiking fees by about 4 per cent. (A NTU Engineering 2008 student wrote to say the increase is closer to 14.2 per cent for the new batch).

On 4 Nov 2005, eyebrows were raised over the NTU tender for 300 designer chairs. The business school of NTU was looking to buy 300 Herman Miller Aeron chairs costing as much as $2,200 each. Quite ingeniously, a 12-year warranty was specified in the tender so that the price paid will, when worked out over its lifespan, supposedly be similar to that of regular chairs, which cost less but may have a shorter life. Implying buying Ikea is akin to buying BATA - Buy And Throw Away. Since they have such expensive tastes, perhaps a peep into their books may yield some enlightening information - other than lecturers staring at students as cash cows crying out to be milked.

Looking at the 2009 Annual Report on their website, there appears to be a deficit of $129 million in 2009 (2008 was pure profit), no thanks to the $485 million expenditure on manpower. If you espy academics driving exotic cars, we know for sure where the money is going. There's also a total $276 million loss in investments, but the explanatory note is not in the pdf file.

But if you look at their Accumulated Surplus, there's a nice stash of $1.535 billion as of 31 March 2009. Which means there's nearly 12 years of reserves for bad years like 2009. Do you feel the sense of deja vu? It's the NKF syndrome all over again! The question to be asked during this election year: why the fee hike now, when inflation is rearing it's ugly head? You don't need a degree or diploma for the obvious answer - the lessons of TT Durai have been conveniently shelved and forgotten.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just Another Tainted History Book On Singapore

On the last day of 2010, Friday 31st December, Mr Lim Chin Joo highlighted an error in the publication, "Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty years Of Headline News (1959-2009)". The Straits Times article of 22 Nov 1965 featured ("Chin Siong: Hurt in free-for-all") was proven false in a court of law after Chin Siong sued for libel in 1966, and the allegation was retracted in a subsequent article dated 27 May 1966 ("Free for all libel action by Chin Siong is settled"). Said paper also printed a correction, apology was accepted, and money paid to the satisfaction of the plaintiff.  Lim Chin Siong was not involved in a fight in prison, so there. He was imprisoned on charges of being a communist, charges which still remain unsubstantiated.

Mr Lim Chin Joo wondered aloud how the collaborative effort between publishers Editions Didier Millet (EDM is a French-owned publishing house) and the National Library Board decided to pick the misleading article of 22 Nov 1965 for printing and left out the correction of 27 May 1966. He felt NLB owes the public a duty not to let falsehoods be perpetuated as part of history. So far every thing's pretty straight forward and easy to comprehend, even for a non-native English speaker.

The weird part is when a Charles Orwin of EDM tries vehemently to absolve NLB of shirking their custodian responsibilities by suggesting Mr Lim mistook that the book was co-published by NLB. "It was not. The book was published solely by Editions Didier Millet," wrote Orwin in the second paragraph of his missive to the Forum page. He then goes on about how they industriously accessed and researched materials, blah, blah, blah. Then in his closing paragraph, Orwin screws up royally by shooting his own foot, "In the book, we acknowledge the NLB as co-publisher."

Somebody is obviously mangling the English language to perpetuate a falsehood here. If you don't say what you mean, how can you possibly mean what you say? Since NLB and a foreigner is involved in the tango, we may never get to know who has the political agenda here. Note the "publisher" and "foreign source" elements in this incendiary mix - shouldn't some party be gazetted? As Rhett Butler would say to Scarlett O'Hara, "Frankly, my dear, we don't give a damn".

Monday, January 17, 2011

More Fiction Than Truth

After turning the last and 479th page of Sean Wilsey's bare-all memoir ("Oh The Glory Of It All"), you have one of those moments in life when you tell yourself "this can't be happening". Did his mother really entertain Joan Baez, Black Panthers, Gloria Steinem and movie stars in their marble and glass penthouse, "800 feet in the air above San Francisco"? Did the author actually get to meet Indira Gandhi, Helmut Kohl, Menachem Begin, and the Pope - at 9 years old? Is his father, a dairy-business millionaire, helicopter pilot and lothario, really the same Alfred Wilsey philanthropist who gave millions of dollars to San Francisco's arts institutions and schools?

The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. Sean sold the proposal for the book before informing his father, who had reservations because, in the old man's words, "I've done some bad things that I'm not proud of". Like dressing up as an old codger at a party and then run around the room feeling up all his friends' wives.

There's nothing that comes close to such eye-openers in the Straits Times Editor Han Fook Kwan inspired Q&A book "'Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going'". It's no longer surprising to read of Lee's rhetorical question posed to Han, "if he had daughters, and how he would feel if his daughter came back to say she wanted to marry a black man". A multi-racial country dominated for decades by a unapologetic racist is ho-hum news. Not exactly the spin that would engage the targetted younger readers. And no one expected Han to triumph with a Frost versus Nixon moment when his dream team includes an ex-staffer from the ISD. Bottomline, Tom Plate's slim volume of "Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew" has more bang for the buck.

In the Tom Plate story telling, Lee mentions 3 ministers who wanted to resign because of Goh Chok Tong's stewardship ("they didn’t like his style"), and critics were quick to speculate on Plate's dismal failure to press on with his journalistic instincts and home in on their identities. Could it be a variant on the Richard Hu, Tony Tan and Dhanabalan on-site reaction to the infamous sting on the left cheek? Is Goh destined to be fall guy in a revisionist history like Goh Keng Swee's purported initiative in the separation from Malaysia? In Han's narrative, Lee's hero is not longer just Deng Xiaoping of Tiananmeng infamy (post Zhao Ziyang's leaked secret memoir, "Prisoner of the State"), as quoted in Plate's book, but now updated to include Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. The two full-time attendants dedicated to serve provide heating pads promptly and at the correct temperatures, faithfully documented in "Conversations", are now replaced by a DIY neon coloured skipping rope.

Perhaps it's time for Lee to pen his own memoirs, instead of depending on SPH staffers to do the writing. Surely the truth can't be more mind-boggling than Sean Wilsey's recollections.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Bane Of Intellectual Morons

Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong seems to think his party is smarter than the governments of Hong Kong and Taiwan, two countries which have adopted minimum wage policy to address the wage gap disparity. If they are so smart, how did the Singapore government's official estimate of a $3 billion deficit end up as a $6 billion surplus? They can't manage the influx of foreigners, they can't manage the influx of foreign funds, they can't manage the influx of income over outlays, what can they do right?

The budget surplus is in the main excess of taxation revenues collected from by the state over expenditures meant for the people's welfare, as in defence, health, education, housing, job creation, etc. It is quite obvious the guys in charge are not prepared to share the bumper crop with the peasants. Money which could have been utilised to help people in need - especially lower income earners - have been withheld. All the talk about funds set aside for relief packages are meaningless if the money is not dispensed efficiently. It's the NKF disease all over again, huge accumulations of reserves while profits are raked from "subsidized" social benefits.

All the hoo-hah about a "marathon 5-hour session" to deliberate the minimum wage subject may just have been scripted to give the impression of the parliamentarians' pseudo-angst for a downtrodden group. According to Manpower Ministry's survey, only 1 in 5 economically inactive women have upper secondary education or above, characteristic of the group requiring training in literacy or numeracy to upgrade their earning potential. If they couldn't learn to read or add after 6 years or more of formal education, can miracles be achieved from a few hours of part-time courses?

What is strange is the finality with which Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Swee Say draws his line in the sand - the labour movement has no intention to adopt a minimum wage scheme - and damned be the effete orchestration of a parliamentary debate. From whence does a dumb-deaf frog derive such arrogance (as in "Over my dead body") and pugnacity ("Go on, make my day")? One clue is the extract from another SPH publication (actually more door-stop than tome). Queried about the remote possibility of a more generous welfare policy, an irate Lee Kuan Yew is quoted as responding,
"You won't convince me. Whether I convince you or not is irrelevant to me because I know these are the real facts. You're are not going to shift me. And if the ministers believe like you would, then they are going to waste of a lot of time and money, that's all."

Given that this stubborn geriatric, by his own belated twilight-hour confession, was wrong about the learning of Mandarin, what's immutable about his misguided doctrine of welfarism? The title of Daniel Flynn's book, "Intellectual Moron: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas", provides better insight to the problem plaguing Singapore. When ideology is your religion and truth becomes just a matter of opinion, anything goes. "There is great danger when lies are institutionalized as truth."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Online Media Rules

The PMO (Prime Minister's Office) statement reads thus: "As a website that provides coverage and analysis of political issues, TOC has the potential to influence the opinions of their readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore." Then, almost as an after thought, it goes on, "It has been gazetted to ensure that is is not funded by foreign elements or sources."

The Singapore Press Holdings publications also provide "coverage and analysis of political issues". So one plausible reason why it is not gazetted is because it does not have the equivalent "potential to influence the opinions of their readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore". Ouch! Looks like quite a few editors manning political desks will be dragged to the woodshed for a bollocking by their management. Reporting on the development, Reuters reminded the world that Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 133rd among 175 countries in its 2009 World Press Freedom Index.

Of course the issue is not about funding by foreign elements or sources. Do you actually think the foreigners who have been welcomed ashore with open arms, and a S$10 million party, will contribute a cent to a maverick website? Can you imagine any of the foreigners who scored straight A's for their O Levels writing a single negative word about the system in their essays?

A prescient Garry Rodan of the Asia Research Centre penned this years ago:
"Political competition in Singapore operates within tight strictures. Periodic refinements are meant to keep it that way and take the risk out of elections for the ruling People's Action Party. Adjustments include fine-tunings controls over electronic media. The PAP is accustomed to conducting election campaigns with media that promotes rather than question or scrutinise its message. That is not about to dramatically change." ("Singapore Tightens Grip", The West Australian, 30 June 2001)

In July 2001, similar notice was served on to register the website as a political entity. Founder Tan Chong Kee shut it down instead as he felt the arbitrariness of political terms within the Class License could entrap him in liability for civil and/or criminal action, regardless if comments at his website are not made by him. ("Sintercom founder fades out of cybespace", ST Interactive, 22 Aug 2001). Need we be reminded that we are living in a country where "piss on your grave" can be interpreted by legal academics as a death threat?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Half Cooked Law Passed By Parliament

If there was a justification for more opposition members in parliament to represent the people's interest, Workers' Party's Sylvia Lim provided it yesterday. Highlighting the shortcoming of the new law which escaped the planners, she said that the Government should "at least correspondingly provide for a more seamless transition of employment from 62 to 65."

She had joined in fellow opposition MP Low Thia Khiang's critique that the new law was "half cooked" and will result in Singaporeans "hanging in the air" - without a job at the age of 62, yet unable to tap their CPF savings. The Government had recently announced that the draw down age, when workers are allowed access to their life savings, would be raised to 63 next year, 64 in 2015, and 65 in 2018. The new law requires employers to offer re-employment to workers who turn 62, else to alternately compensate with a one-time "Employment Assistance Payment" to tide him over while job hunting. If the handouts are anything like the pittance from ComCare, the poor sod will probably fill his stomach better with his own savings. Provided the HDB housing loan hasn't bled him dry by then.

Both PAP members Heng and Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong, who insist on deferring drawdown as long as possible, don't seem to get it. When you're broke, you're broke. Who cares about life expectancy of 85, when you don't have food on the table for year 63? They keep harping on working to the grave, without respite to enjoy the fruits of one's labour.

The Retirement and Re-employment Act passed in Parliament is conditional upon the worker's job performance being at least satisfactory and he continues to be medically fit. There's a catch-22 right there. If his health deteriorates, as is expected with the physical ravages of the natural aging process, will his job performance, be it toilet cleaning or mopping floors, satisfy his employers? Not every employer is prepared to keep an octogenarian on the payroll at $3 million per annum, when all he does is regurgitate old war stories.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Height Of Kiasu-ism

"During our time, we went to school to learn. Now the school expects the kids to know the subject already, " was the lament of one mother who had to hire a tutor for her son in Primary Two. even suggests that children starting Primary One should be able to write all 26 letters of the English alphabet and construct simple English sentences. No wonder parents are rich fodder for unregulated "toddler enrichment" centers - known to charge as much as $20,000 a year - for pre-school preparation to give their tikes a headstart in the treadmill of Singapore education. It cuts no ice with the gullible if the Government said a year ago that there are no plans to nationalise preschool education, that standing philosophy is preschool goals should not be assessment based, but focused on social and communication skills development. Now the national sickness of fear of being left behind has reached the stage of the theater of the absurd. The stage when we renounce arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; and merely present it in being—that is, in terms of concrete stage images. Imagine the overnight queue on Sunday to get 3-year-olds on the 2013 waitlist of a Bukit Timah preschool - purportedly the alumni of Lee Hsien Loong and his children, and also prominent lawyers, scientists and architects.

Now imagine this: A former major in the Singapore Air Force is charging $499 for a National Service pre-enlistment preparatory course. The 6 session package, each of 1 1/2 hours length, is supposed to help pre-enlistees overcome their fears and "psych them up" before they report for the NS Basic Military Training (BMT). "If going for the course will give him an edge over his NS peers, why not?" said fifty-ish housewife Sim, who is willing to part with the cash to ensure  his 17-year-old is mentally ready for his NS stint. To ace his BMT, the same way he aced his ABCs at preschool. The major even has a $999 course to ace the interviews to clinch SAF scholarships. Who knows, maybe an ex-Minister might start a course to prepare for the invite to tea at the Istana.

Fortunately some members of the younger generation can espy the scam of pay and puke. Ngee Ann student Melvin Poon doesn't see why he needs to pay so much just to learn how to do well, "Even if it is tough, we just have to deal with whatever is thrown at us." Attaboy, Melvin, that's the spirit!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Campaigning Has Begun

During the last general election, they attempted an unsuccessful ban on podcasts and blogs about the hustings. This time round, the one day "cooling-off" period introduced to dampen voter enthusiasm is probably deemed dead in the water even before the election is officially launched. Hence the blatant exploitation of the main stream print media and national television.

Following the grandiose Aljunied GRC announcement of its 5-year plans, Jalan Besar GRC predictably unrolled it's own road show. Note George Yeo in Aljunied and Yaacob Ibrahim in Jalan Besar, both individuals similarly identified as highly endangered species in the current political atmosphere. Why else link the Orchard Road (lack of) flood control issues with "artistic landscaping" and "latest street furniture" for Jalan Besar, the ward where MP Lily Neo has to contribute from her own wallet the occasional $10 note to help out the destitute? The same people who could not afford three full meals a day. No point in sitting pretty at a landscaped park with growling noises emanating from an empty stomach.

The $460 million promised for one of the oldest wards in the island does not came from Yaacob Ibrahim's personal stash, or the war-chest of his political sponsor. These are monies taken not just from the taxpayers of Jalan Besar, or the other GRCs (East Coast, Ang Mo Kio, Marine Parade and Hong Kah) whose 5-year improvement plans are slated to be announced in the coming weeks. The 5-year plans for the whole of Singapore should deserve equal billing, not just the GRCs under perceived threat of the growing opposition front. Note also the hot potatoes in some of the GRCs selected for national attention: Raymond Lim, Seng Han Thong, Goh Chok Tong, Yeo Cheow Tong. Oh, silly us, we forgot, MM Lee Kuan Yew said that there's no such thing as a level playing field in Singapore politics.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

If You Can Pay, You Can Afford It

Click for more upsetting statistics to increase your blood pressure
 Everybody knows about the $8 bill Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan paid for his surgical bypass. What we don't know is whether he had lobotomy done on the side to take advantage of the special rates he seems to enjoy. How else to account for his comment on the report that the average bill for a subsidised C-class patient has almost doubled in the four years since 2006? "The bottom line: We have good high-standard public hospitals that are affordable because of the 3Ms, " he said, referring to Medisave, Medishield and Medifund.

That's like Development Minister Mah Bow Tan saying HDB housing is affordable since a 25-year-old can always take out a 30 year loan. Never mind if he discovers decades later, at age 55, there's nothing left for retirement.

Khaw claims the majority have no difficulty in paying their bills, and four out of five of them are able to use Medishield and Medisave to cover the whole bill. There are good reasons why Singaporeans pay up bills: 1) the authorities will not hesitate to haul them up to court, 2) the loan sharks will spray paint their house-gates for free. And if it comes to jumping in front of the MRT tracks, you betcha LTA will make the surviving kin pay for messing up their shiny trains. When one guy decided to leap out of a hospital window while waiting his turn for a scan, he wasn't mentally disturbed as one reporter wrote. In all probability, the nightmare of a horrendous hospital bill may have contributed to his choice of drastic measures.

Asked to comment on the issue, unionist and fellow PAP MP Halimah Yacob would only call for healthcare costs to stay affordable and for the poor to have access to the various help schemes, a lame but politically correct response to a gross social injustice.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The End Of Free Parking Is Near

Judging from the mercenary element of his recommendations, it is tempting to surmise that Asst Prof Barter of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is likely to barter trade his grandmother if there was a market for grandmothers in Geylang. Writing his 93-page research paper on parking policy in Asian cities, this foreigner has the gall to suggest a ERP-like system that would raise prices when car parks are consistently more than 85-percent full. He proudly proclaims, "Parking is a missed opportunity not consistent with all of the other public transport and car policies." Even Transport Minister Raymond Lim winced at that one, coming so soon after the Distance-Fare debacle and COE meltdown.

Already anger is simmering over the HDB "experiment" to do away with free parking on Sundays. Free parking on Sundays and public holidays was first mooted in 1985 to encourage Singaporeans who have set up their own households to visit their parents and grandparents, since extended families are difficult to accommodate in high-rise pigeon holes. At least once a week, the senior citizens get to enjoy quality time with their children and grandchildren. Before they get shipped off to nursing homes in Batam, Bintang and Johore. Of course this Asian trait of filial piety has to be totally alien to the Ang Moh. To reinforce the issue, China is now drafting a law to let the elderly sue children who fail to drop by. The proposed legal amendment comes amid reports of growing numbers of "empty nesters" in China as its population ages.

What is really inexplicable is that grassroots leaders reportedly first asked for the removal of free parking at carparks near the Serangoon Nex shopping mall. Even before before the mall opened in November. The garish red signs declaring implementation of the new revenue collecting exercise are slowly being introduced at carparks across the island, carparks that are not in the vicinity of any shopping mall - and endangering the survival of kopitiams and HDB businesses. Are they trying to be useful, helping their political masters to finance the "budget goodies" planned for the imminent elections? Expect hordes of tongkatted grandmas insisting on being wheel-chaired to the polling stations.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Cost Of An Appeal

When Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong urged criminal defence lawyers to do more to promote ethical practices, he wasn't inferring that Singapore lawyers are a crooked bunch- although there were high profile cases of legal professionals who absconded with clients' monies. He was advocating that lawyers do not encourage clients to launch appeals that have no chance of succeeding. Don't waste money, you can't beat the system, seems to be the message, "In doing so, you are simply taking their hard-earned, and perhaps borrowed, money unconscionably." Interestingly, the appeal fee has just been hiked ten-fold from $5 to $50, something to do with "cost recovery" in the context of criminal prosecution.

The number of appeals to the High Court was 248 in 2009, up from 227 the year before. A large number of these appeals ended up with a stiffer sentence or higher fine. A man jailed a month for assaulting a taxi driver had his prison time jacked to three months, when he appealed for the original sentence to be reduced to a fine. So why do they persist? The CJ has once said that the law should not only be upheld, but must be seen to be upheld too. Perhaps the players in the courts, the judges and the advocates on both sides, have yet to instill confidence in the justice system. Maybe we can blame it on Alan Shadrake's book, or the way his accusations are contested. To borrow the comment of lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, "The only currency a lawyer has is his integrity."

Another lawyer suggested that the CJ's remarks aim to strike a balance between ensuring the offender's right to appeal and preventing the system from being overloaded with too many appeals. Which begs another question - was the initiative weighted to address the court's bureaucratic inefficiencies or cost considerations for the client? After all, the struggle to save a man's life from the gallows surely cannot be measured in monetary terms.

CJ Chan recognises the pioneering element involved, "I have not heard of any other jurisdiction where the Bench, the Prosecution and the Criminal Bar have voluntary agreed to discuss issues and problems of criminal justice that arise from time to time in the course of their work." Judging from Singapore's unique tripartite system, where the worker sometimes gets shortchanged, one can appreciate why some have already expressed reservations about the outcome.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Another Slapping Incident

The slapper was the executive director of a securities firm, with investments in Hong Kong and Vietnam. The slappee was a remisier, a self-employed with a desk in a stock broking firm, way down the food chain.

Had Mr Ong not settled out of court for the impetuosity of a moment, he could have been jailed for up to two years and/or fined up to $5,000. Pek had filed a magistrate's complaint for being at the receiving end of a slapping action over a work related issue, and the court found it serious enough to file a charge of voluntary hurt. The undisclosed financial settlement had the charges withdrawn, case closed, and details sealed under protection of confidentiality. There's not enough material to write a chapter in a book about the incident, with or without the potential threat of a libel lawsuit.

In the olden days of chivalry, a mere ritual slap in the face (probably with a silken handkerchief), said to be the last affront one could accept without redress, would have to be settled by duelling pistols or swords to demand satisfaction from the offender. What more barbaric than a vigorous smack across a table with an open palm.
At the choice of the offended party, the duel used to be settled:
- to draw first blood, in which case the duel would be ended as soon as one man was wounded;
- until one man was so severely wounded as to be physically unable to continue;
- to the death, in which case there would be no satisfaction until one party was mortally wounded;
- or, in the case of pistol duels, each party would fire one shot. If neither man was hit and if the challenger stated that he was satisfied, the duel would be declared over. A pistol duel could continue until one man was wounded or killed.

During the early Renaissance, duelling established the status of a respectable gentleman, and was an accepted manner to resolve disputes. But gentlemen have gone the way of the Dodo, and money (and political power) is the new currency of honour. Some say money can't buy happiness, you can add that respect can't be bought too.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Current Generosity Of The State

One of the personal stories about how Workfare benefited 300,000 who are in the older, low-wage workers category started off this way:
"When Workfare was first introduced in 2007, massage therapist Kelly Poon, 44. was working part-time and earning $950 a month.
The Workfare Income Supplement boosted her income by $900 that year."

Since the morning caffeine fix hadn't kicked in yet, the initial reaction was like "Wow! What a caring government to help those in financial need!" At first reading, the sentence construction made it seem like she had her income nearly doubled.

In reality, the more than $300 million paid out to over 300,000 workers is spread pretty thin. In 2009, each recipient received an average of "more than" $1,000. Before you smile again, note that 2/7 of the payout is in cash, 5/7 is deposited in the illiquid Central Provident Fund. The self-employed is worse off, their money is locked away in Medisave. No wonder some call CPF the "Coffin Provision Fund".

Mr Savakumar's personal experience with the state generosity is Workfare payout of between $535 to $1,732. That's per year, not per month. Ms Poon, who currently receives $250 per year from Workfare, states the obvious when she wished more was in cash and less channelled to her CPF account. "The money helps a little, but how long does $100 last? Only three weeks at the most," she said in Mandarin, not meaning to sound ungrateful. Couldn't have phrased it more accurately than the politically correct journalist.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Good Buy

It's the 21st century, yet some people still believe that it's bad luck to receive an empty wallet as a gift because it portends that your wallet will always be empty. Cantonese always frown on giving a timepiece as a gift ( 送钟, "sòng zhōng" in Mandarin,) because the expression is homophone for "attending a funeral".

No such superstitious qualm dissuaded two brothers from buying the Sentosa Cove bungalow in which a China girl drowned under mysterious circumstances in the dead of night, on March 24. Such is the attraction of a good bargain in Singapore. The three-storey waterfront unit on Ocean Drive at Sentosa Cove, advertised at $15.8 million and below the valuation of $17 million, was sold in August 2010 for S$13.6 million. At S$1,690 psf, the 8,049 square foot plot represents a saving of S$6 million, based on the S$2,546 asking price of a similar bungalow transacted in the the following month. We are not told what was the original price paid by the former owner, rumoured son but no relation of business tycoon Chua Thian Poh, the high school dropout who earned his first million by age 21 making hooks and spikes for logging industry.

The new owners plan to use the bungalow as a “holiday home” for family gatherings after their S$1 million renovations are complete. Assuming that does not include cementing over the swimming pool, one can imagine the house guests, suitably charged by alcoholic beverages, staying up all night, laying bets for the nocturnal sighting of a nude swimmer. That should take some business away from the casino.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Not For The Faint Hearted

True to form, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's new year message skims over the thunderstorms in the horizon. He mentions the "challenges" of the influx of foreigners, keeping homes affordable, and coping with cost of living. "We have the means to tackle these problems," he claims. But with Goh Keng Swee gone, who's going to tackle the "impossible trinity" - a far worse problem than the Father, Son and holy Goh triumvirate.

There are more foreign funds coming into Singapore than MAS can handle, to the tune of 90% of GDP. Something's gotta give, according to a source in DBS. In October 2010, US$17 billion was spent buying up Singdollars, the strengthening of which has to be bad news for the struggling exporters. US$8.2 billion was used for spot market intervention, US$8.6 billion for forward markets. Why forward? So that the delayed time-bomb won't show up in the books now, only later, probably after the elections.

The trilemma refers to the inherent incompatibility in the three macroeconomic aims: (1) free capital flow, (2) fixed exchange rates, and (3) monetary autonomy. China chose (2) and (3), pegging its currency to the US$. Australia has a free float to support (1) and (3), which makes it vulnerable to exchange rate volatility. Singapore opted for a managed float, the exchange rate based on a secret list of 20 currencies. This basket can be distilled to 60% US$, 25% Yen, and 15% Euros. Since the S$ has appreciated nearly 3%, you would expect the interest rate to drop, for balanced fund flow. Trade-Weighted interbank offer rate (TWibor) is currently 0.4%, which means Sibor has to be in the region of -2.6%. But negative interest rate will be suicidal for the politicians, and people will prefer to withdraw cash from the banks to put behind their pillows, or in an empty Milo tin. The price of a managed float and free capital flow will haunt the domestic money supply with a vengeance.

Professor Lim Chin of NUS Business School wrote that "Singapore has the capacity to mitigate the effects of flows," echoing the bravado of Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He may or may not have taken into account the quantitative easing measures of the US. Thailand in 1997 (the baht was then similarly fixed to a basket of currencies with the US dollar having by far the largest weight) also butted its head against the "impossible trinity" trilemma, with disastrous results, when capital inflows rose from US$29 billion in 1990 (34% of GDP) to US$108.7 billion in 1996 (59% of GDP). Now you understand why the DBS guy is running around, yapping like Chicken Little, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"