Saturday, March 30, 2013

Catch Them If You Can

Similar to the Sarawak-Taib sting, investigative website Cobrapost had a camera equipped journalist walking into banks, pretending to be a unnamed politician whose house could no longer contain his stash of cash. According to the Economist article ("Evasive Cash", Mar 23-29, 2013), bank staff were only too willingly to oblige. "Yes, yes, don't worry sir, all people do this," assured one bank official. It quotes a 2010 World Bank study of 151 countries concluding that India's shadow economy, defined as legal activity concealed from the authorities, as equivalent of one fifth of GDP. The money laundering  was usually efficiently effected by tweaking rules for setting up accounts and insurance policies.

The Private Banking Industry Group (PBIG), not the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), has on its own volition, established a set of guidelines to "protect themselves from tax criminals". The PBIG guidelines expect its staff to determine whether there are any reasonable grounds for suspecting that the funds are proceeds from serious tax crimes. To protect themselves, new clients must acknowledge in writing that they are responsible for their own tax affairs, and/or that they have not committed or have been connected of any serious tax crimes.

What the banking staff will consider as a red flag in respect of a client's taxable assets will be difficult to determine. In September 2011, Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship to obtain a Singapore passport. That his citizenship change reduced the capital gains taxes Saverin was liable for after the Facebook IPO is a sore point with some parties. From the U.S. side, the Ex-PATRIOT Act may result in Saverin not being permitted to enter the U.S. in the future. Will such uncharted territory be covered in the new regulatory measures in July 1, which is intended to designate serious tax offences as money laundering predicate offences?

A clearer case is the courier who takes the ferry from Batam on a regular basis, with wads of U.S. dollar bills stuffed into a sports bag, to distribute to political cronies on the take at Singapore hotels or similar. Remember Lee Kuan Yew's story about Indonesians who fly in for weekend shopping? Some of these guys end up richer even after splurging oodles at the boutique retail outlets. If you had run into the nondescript Mohamed (not his real name) you wouldn't have suspected his true mission objective, what more the humble bank clerk.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bright Ideas From A New Citizen

This has to be one foreign talent with a capital "T". Billionaire Bhupendra Kumar Modi, a new citizen who ranks 23rd in the Forbes list of Singapore’s richest, is recommending that singles as young as 25 be allowed to buy subsidised HDB flats to "encourage sexual relationships and earlier marriages".

Not to worry, this being Singapore, if there's a bun in the oven, you can go ahead and plan the wedding dinner. Just make sure there are more invitees than the number of tables booked, not unlike Khaw Boon Wan's recipe of building flats just short of meeting demand. That's one way to guarantee a profitable enterprise.

But what if the gentleman turns out to be a cad, and refuse to protect the deflowered lady's honour? Then you are on track with the casino strategy, build first, worry about the proliferation of gambling ills later. Anyway, the billionaire also said, “Most of the girls and boys these days would like to have sex before they marry.” Modi, 64, who has three children and five grandchildren, must be speaking from first hand experience when he added authoritatively, "“There are no virgin marriages.”

Modi is the global chairman of Spice Global, an Indian conglomerate headquartered in Singapore. His Spice Innovative Technologies provides voice, data and computing services. If his local hires include Singaporeans, he would have realised that it's not a simple matter of boy meets girl to "counter a slump in the birthrate that’s depriving the economy of workers". Being so rich, he probably missed out on the small problem of affordability.

Yes, Khaw did announce plans to cut prices of flats by 30%, dream prices which can be financed by 4 years' earnings, but the details have yet to be revealed. Since January, mortgage  payments have been capped at 30 percent of monthly household income, when there were no restrictions on bank loans before. A 3-room flat, minimal requirement for a viable family setup, is still pegged at $255,000 at SkyPeak@Bukit Batok. That's easily a 20 year loan at 3% interest. And if Modi had considered national service, he should realise that a young male graduate having served two years drawing about $500 a month would have limited savings at age 25.

Perhaps Modi should also recommend scrapping the COE. The money saved should certainly help with the house purchase. While waiting for Khaw to improve on the waiting list, the baby production rigmarole can be initiated at a discrete car park. For recommended sites, check the press reports on the CNB and SCDF gratification court cases.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Question Of Morals

Horikoshi (not his real name) liked to complain that he was dumped in Singapore, robbed of the opportunities to hob-nob with the corporate elites at head quarters in Tokyo. His cardinal sin, as he imagines it, was having spent two years working with a gaijin outfit in America. Has he stayed faithful to the careerist route of graduation through retirement, he would not have lost out in the mad race ascending the corporate ladder.

Once Hori had to play host to Takagi - another fictitious name to protect the guilty conscious - a top dog from HQ sent to inspect the regional offices. After making the rounds of Bangkok's notorious night scene, Takagi wanted a lady for the rest of the evening. Hori discreetly left his boss at the Royal Orchid Sheraton foyer. Unfortunately for Hori, Takagi was stopped cold at the lift doors - hotel security was strict about female companions allowed access to guests' rooms.

Presumably the faux pas would not have happened in Singapore. Our under aged hooker seems to experience no problems sashaying into the hallways of the best-of-the-best hotels in town - Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental, St Regis, etc - to chalk up another mission accomplished. And she has the envelopes to prove it too, envelopes which the UBS executive stuffed dollar bills into to pay for services rendered, even if not remembered in open court.

Islamic morality police in Malaysia arrested more than 80 Muslims in an operation to stop them celebrating this year's Valentine's Day, which the government-run Department of Islamic Development says is "synonymous with vice activities" and that it contravened Islamic teachings.

Well, our very own Commissioner of Police has set a higher standard, equating dalliances outside of marriage as tantamount to corruption, "reprehensible acts" which "tainted the whole police force". One is reminded of Lee Kuan Yew's own strict morality benchmark, which was intolerant of divorce among cabinet members, causing much grief to Goh Keng Swee's personal affairs. So will the top cop be gunning for Michael Palmer next, and - gasp, gasp - the Minister of Law K Shanmugam?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Damsels In Distress

Class 95 FM plays old songs like "Papa Don't Preach" and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". Whether you listen to Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, you can get into trouble with the law. Even if you wear a skirt.

Amy Cheong was driven bonkers by the ruckus in the void deck. If she had bitched about the decibel level in another country, she could have earned herself a fatwa. But in multi-racial Singapore, she was castigated in one single day in October 2012 by the likes of Tan Chuan-Jin (1.30 pm), Tharman (4.30 pm), Shanmugam (5.30 pm) and Lee Hsien Loong (6.30 pm). When "Zorro" Lim Swee Say personally sacked the NTUC Assistant Director of Membership, Singapore permanent resident Amy decided to take refuge in quieter Perth. Long after apple polisher Lionel de Souza, secretary of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle made a police report, Cheong was issued a "stern warning" via long distance and the case was closed. Time for the wheel of justice to turn: approx 5 months.

Ms Lo, a.k.a. "Sticker Lady", ran afoul of the law when she spray painted "My Grandfather Road" on a section between Robinson Road and Maxwell Road in May 2012. And she tickled the funny bones of many with circular stickers captioned with Singapore truisms like "Anyhow Press Police Catch" and "Anyhow Paste Kena Fine".  She will be charged in court, after about 9 months, for 15 counts of mischief. She was originally arrested for vandalism on June 3, which implied caning as potential punishment, except she's a girl, unlike poor Michael Faye. Whether the intervention by Law Minister K Shanmugam changed the course of events is unconfirmed. His ex-wife Jothie Rajah, writing in her book "Authorian Rule of Law", opines that justice here tends to be politically motivated, citing examples like:
- Vandalism Act was aimed at Barisan Socialis’ street messaging;
- Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974 was aimed at securing control of the print media;
- Legal Profession (Amendment) Act was aimed at the Law Society’s criticism of the government’s attempt to extend controls to foreign media;
- Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act 1991 was aimed at the 1987/1988 detentions of social justice activists who supposedly had the support of the Catholic Church;
- Public Order Act 2009 was aimed at the pesky streetside protests of opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, who was fast gaining (foreign) media attention.

Lynn Lee, who left The Straits Times in October 2011 after 8 long years, was named in a Wikileaks release. It quoted her exchange with a political officer of the US Embassy in 2008, saying she would “never write about racially-sensitive issues”. What she did say was she would not want to write articles containing racially-charged remarks that could incite hatred or create rifts within society. Her filmed interview about SMRT bus drivers' complaints (alleged police quote:“Do you know I can dig a hole and bury you? No one will be able to find you.”) has landed her in hot soup. In February the plainclothes policemen who attempted to confiscate her phone, laptop and iMac in search of footage of the interviews could not tell her which section of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) authorised them to effect the seizure of private property. The Ministry of Home Affairs has said the authorities are investigating and taking a serious view of the allegations of police brutality. But pressed for explanation in parliament, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah would only mouth, “So the intention is not to not give an answer". Male or female, the high handedness is much in evidence.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Policeman's Code Of Conduct

Why on earth is the Commissioner of Police blowing his own trumpet in nearly two full pages of the Sunday Times? Has it to do with global brand consultant FutureBrand that was appointed last August for 18-months and at an undisclosed price to taxpayers to polish up the image of the Singapore Police Force? Executive director Ms Sarah Reiter heading the McCann-Erickson WorldGroup consultancy was formerly chief of planning at Ogilvy in Jakarta. Ng Joo Hee, 43 when he was given the top job in 2010, said "FutureBrand is not the cheapest (of 8 bidders)" and had done work for Australian Federal Police and the United States Army. Their website boasts of Singapore clients like Jurong Town Corporation, Republic Polytechnic, International Sepak Takraw Federation, Asia Sports, Rotary Engineering, and Markono (formerly Kin Keong Printing Pte Ltd).

Ng itemises four areas that may have kept him awake at nights: Terrorism, loan shark harassment, molestation on public transport and "errant motorists". The last three definitely have been hitting the headlines recently, but hasn't Mas Selamat Kastari been locked away? While on the subject, when will we ever get to know how he made it across the Straits of Johore?

On paper, Ng makes a better by-election candidate than a colorectal surgeon. This guy has degrees from Oxford and Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. For the humble beginnings angle, we are told his parents were hawkers (running a sundry shop in Tanglin Halt). All we need is an uncle to help out in financing  renovation for his first HDB flat, and the branding exercise is complete.

Another lady, security consultant and former intelligence analyst Susan Sim, who has known (presumably not in the biblical sense of the word) the commissioner for more than 20 years, calls him "a warrior philosopher".

Then there's this curious bit of personal philosophy that sticks out. Apparently he encourages his MBA wielding commanders to "imagine having competition", his personal imagined competitors being Hong Kong Police, NYPD, Metropolitan Police in London, and the Shanghai police. Imagine internecine paranoia, an enemy in every corner office.

Then there's this curious bit about an unsolicited commentary on another law enforcer. "Boon Gay has been found not guilty... but certainly his acts are reprehensible," he says. "He has broken every one of our values and he has tainted the whole police force by his behavior and that is very disappointing." Wow, that's gotta be judge, jury and executioner pronouncement on a fellow officer who has been proven innocent by our legal system.

One year ago in January 2012, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong had said of former Central Narcotics Bureau Director Mr Ng Boon Gay and former Singapore Civil Defence Force Commissioner Mr Peter Lim, "If he did wrong, he must be punished; if he did nothing wrong, he must be exonerated." Even during those early days, there was loose talk both Ng and Lim were collateral damage of "friendly fire" from within the ranks. It must be tough to do your job, if you have to look over your shoulder while looking after the safety of the people.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The French Also Has Tax Problems

Singapore is safe, they said
Mediapart is a French news website founded in 2008 by Edwy Plenel, a former managing editor of Le Monde. In January Mediapart claimed to have evidence that the Budget Minister in charge of clamping down on tax evasion, Jérôme Cahuzac, had held an undeclared account at the Swiss bank UBS for 20 years until 2010. Shortly before he was made president of the National Assembly finance committee in February 2010, he travelled to Switzerland to close the Geneva-based account and transfer the money to Singapore.

An alleged recording of a conversation between Cahuzac and his wealth manager in 2000 about his embarrassment is telling: "What bothers me is that I still have an account open with UBS … UBS is not necessarily the most hidden of banks." It would appear that he has more confidence in Singapore's growing international reputation for discretion of the unsavoury kind.  Cahuzac has resigned after being placed under formal investigation for tax fraud and money laundering.

The Paris public prosecutor's office said in a statement: "The investigations carried out as part of the preliminary inquiry must continue from now in a more appropriate form." The opening of an official inquiry would enable an examining magistrate to officially request information from Switzerland and Singapore.

Meanwhile the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has responded strongly to the Global Witness film on corruption in Sarawak, denying allegations of banks here playing safe haven for ill gotten wealth, "Contrary to what was claimed in the video, Singapore has to date provided fully the information requested by Malaysia for tax purposes." That could mean, if Malaysia didn't ask, MAS wouldn't tell. And the request had to be specific, queries about Alvin Chong's mechanism to allow foreign investors to circumvent existing company laws may not be entertained i.e. no fishing expedition. Presumably, the French detectives will have do their homework too, before being extended unfettered cooperation by local authorities.

Recently Lee Kuan Yew told some 600 people at the Shangri-La Hotel dialogue moderated by Standard Chartered Bank's group CEO Peter Sands that Singapore's role as a financial centre is secure for now, "It would be very stupid of us to shake this confidence." The last thing the 89-year-old would like to do is to issue another "I stand corrected" statement.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Exposé On Foreign Talent

"We have the advantage of quality control of the people who come in," boasted Lee Kuan Yew. "So we have bright Indians, bright Chinese, bright Caucasians..."

Former UBS Executive Director Juerg Buergin must be one of those foreign talent Caucasians who measured up to Lee's stringent quality controls. The Swiss national, 41, married with two kids, stood out because, according to his underaged plaything, he paid up-front with cash inserted in hotel envelopes, and booked only expensive hotel rooms like those of Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental. And oh, she had to use a certain quality of prophylactic. That's real talent at play here.

Actually we'll rather hear more from former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who was sharing the same stage as the spin master. His name is used for a specific section of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to restrict United States banks from making certain kinds of speculative investments that do not benefit their customers.

The Volcker Rule bans proprietary trading, risky securities bets that banks place for their own accounts, rather than for their clients. It's designed to ensure the government perks that banks enjoy (borrowing money at low rates from the Federal Reserve, guaranteeing their depositors against losses) do not subsidize risky speculation. We should have a variant of that to prevent our Town Councils from investing our money in toxic instruments.

On the other hand, quality control measures for financial institutions may not be apposite discourse for the gathering of Singapore bankers. Not when the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has started investigation of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mamud over claims of corruption in the timber trade. Claims which surfaced from the Global Witness film "Inside Malaysia's Shadow State". Film which features quotes like ""Singapore has a China Wall... They will not tell them, the Malaysian government, nothing..." That was Alvin Chong Chee Vun of Alvin Chong & Partners, Kuching, sharing his "trade secret" about the offshore jurisdiction mechanism in Singapore, which he said would not comply with requests from Malaysian authorities for information about such agreements.

So many talents, so little space. Too bad we only have 710 sq km to squeeze them all in.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Garbage In Garbage Out

How did Joseph Stiglitz (born February 9, 1943) get it so wrong? In "Singapore’s Lessons for an Unequal America" he risks having to return his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences of 2011.

He may have advised Barack Obama, but he is also critical of his financial-industry rescue plan, quoted on record as saying that whoever designed the Obama administration's bank rescue plan is "either in the pocket of the banks or they’re incompetent." It would be too far fetched to suggest the professor at Columbia University is in the pocket of politicians or being incompetent.  More likely, he has been fed garbage and regurgitating same. His four jaundiced views:

First, individuals were compelled to take responsibility for their own needs. For example, through the savings in their provident fund, around 90 percent of Singaporeans became homeowners.
Homes which are priced to erode life savings, leaving nought for retirement and medical contingency needs.

Second, Government programs were universal but progressive: while everyone contributed, those who were well off contributed more to help those at the bottom.
Right, and GST is not regressive, estate duty was abolished to relieve the financial burden of the poor.

Third, the government intervened in the distribution of pretax income - to help those at the bottom, rather than, as in the United States, those at the top.
Is that why minimum wage is vigorously resisted, while top income earners pay only 20% and corporate tax rate is capped at 17%? (USA highest marginal tax rate is 39.6%, corporate tax peak at 35%)

Fourth, Singapore realized that the key to future success was heavy investment in education.
The defence budget was increased by 4.3 percent over last year to $12.28 billion, a jump of $504 million, representing 12.3% of FY2012 Total Expenditure. The budget for Education was reduced from 10.8% to 10.6%. Nuff said.

Fortunately, Stiglitz's gaps in the knowledge about our country are not lethal. What is dangerous is when Singapore Business Federation (SBF) Mission Leader Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who is also a former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, nonchalantly promotes Iraq as a business destination: “I believe Singapore companies can benefit from Iraq through the export of goods and services that will meet the demands arising from the reconstruction efforts and the government’s investment in both hard infrastructure."

March 20 headline: 50 killed in Iraq attacks on eve of anniversary (of United States-led invasion).

In the collection of letters published in 1698 as "The mystery of phanaticism", an anonymous author, signing himself 'A B', wrote:
"Twas well observed by my Lord Bacon,
That a little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy,
but a greater share of it will set them right,
and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Unwelcomed Scrutiny

The mysterious death of Shane Todd has drawn the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Also from America, another entity may be interested in the goings on in Singapore too. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act is a comprehensive financial reform that, amongst other proposals, require hedge funds to be registered and to provide dates about their trades and portfolios so that the overall market risk can be assessed.

Apparently there is a shady business going on in town, dealing in a type of foreign exchange contract known as a non-deliverable forward (NDF). Two parties agree to buy or sell a foreign currency for a fixed price at some future date. Both counterparties settle their trades with a "fixing rate" set daily by a panel of banks in Singapore. Although there are official rates set by Southeast Asian central banks, some of the traders are resorting to a "shadow" fixing system that has emerged in Singapore. Singapore is the biggest NDF market in Asia outside Japan.

Banks in Singapore run trading desks where NDFs are also traded speculatively, usually over the phone. In the aftermath of the manipulation scandal of the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, one former UBS trader had raised concerns to his employer over the way in which reference rates were being set in Singapore, in particular "increasingly unrealistic" US dollar-rupiah rates. At least one bank, Bank Negara (Malaysia's central bank) has advised domestic banks to use a locally set reference rate for dollar-ringgit transactions, steering them away from the suspicious rates set in Singapore.

The attitude of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is to direct banks to review their own processes for setting rates for NDFs. When derivatives broker Nick Leeson brought down the United Kingdom's oldest investment bank in 1995, Singapore authorities laid much of the blame on Barings' internal auditing and risk management practices. Yet the Singapore International Monetary Exchange (SIMEX) had allowed Leeson to trade, when he was denied a broker's license in the UK because of fraud on his application. Leeson pleaded guilty to two counts of "deceiving the bank's auditors and of cheating the Singapore exchange". That the deception and cheat occurred in Singapore gave the little red dot a big black eye.

By leaving the NDF market unregulated, Singapore is set to repeat the disaster of the unregulated over-the-counter (OTC) derivative markets, such as the credit default swaps, that triggered the 2008 global financial melt-down. Last we heard, MAS is expected to wrap up its review of the NDF market "soon".

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Running Out Of Excuses

Early adopters of the first Apple had to pay $666

Paul Terrell, the founder of The Byte Shop - one of the very first computer stores on the planet - give Steve Jobs a purchase order in 1976 for 50 Apple-1 units at the price of US$666. It had a 1.0 Mhz Motorola MOS 6502 CPU, 4k RAM, composite video output at 280 x 192 resolution, and interfaces for keyboard and cassette storage.

Today the Raspberry Pi is available from Sim Lim Tower at S$55. It is a credit card sized computer with an ARM1176JZFS CPU running at 700Mhz, a Videocore 4 GPU capable of 1080p video playback, 512 MB RAM, USB and Ethernet ports, and SD card slot for storage and OS.

single-board computer developed in the UK by Raspberry Pi Foundation

Innovation and productivity makes it possible to be cheaper, faster and better.

According to one account, Lee Kuan Yew's salary in 1970 was $42,000 a year. Today a full minister like Grace Fu is drawing about $935,000 (her new pay grade after Gerald Ee's Ministerial Salary Review Committee recommended 37% pay cuts in 2012). To avoid embarrassing Barack Obama, courtesy demands that Lee Hsien Loong's remuneration will not be quoted.

Today, everything (houses, cars, education, health care) is more expensive, slower (queue for a flat, wait for a bus, appointment for a medical appointment) and worse off (over crowding, dilution of nation core, cost of living). 

Asked by Lally Weymouth of The Washington Post to comment on the key issues for Singapore, Lee said, "We have to negotiate a major change in our phase of development, from a rapidly changing phase to slower growth" because, "we can’t just expand our workforce without limit and constraint." He also said, "Previously, everything was orderly and predictable. Now there are many more voices, views and interests . . . ", an indirect jibe at the inroads made by social media in highlighting the many instances of misgovernance. Surely one can't blame social media for the 30.6 % plunge in non-oil exports reported today. So why are things not "Cheaper, Better, Faster (CBF)" as promised by labour chief Lim Swee Say in October 2009? It's not just the failings of innovation and productivity, the key is what Lee also said, "For a long time, we fought in principle against casinos. Finally, we were persuaded it’s big business..." When you forsake principles, the endgame can only be desultory.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Flexing Muscles

When Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) suggested in Parliament that statements given by accused persons in custody should be video-recorded, a practice already in place in countries like Australia, the UK, South Korea and Taiwan, to ensure that the words in the statement "fell from the accused’s own lips and were not force fed", Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah's terse response was "there are currently no plans to introduce video recording for the taking of statement".

When NCMP Yee Jenn Jong questioned the high handed antics of the Internal Affairs Office (IAO) of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) in seizing the handphone, laptop and iMac of independent film-maker Lynn Lee without providing relevant provisions under which they were authorised, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah was equally negative and succinct, "“So the intention is not to not give an answer".

The "rajah" in her name may connote royalty, but her laconic replies from on high doesn't exactly inspire confidence of transparency in the administration of law in Singapore.

Or lend credence to the Foreign Affairs Ministry's lament of "pressure" tactics from the United States over investigations into Shane Todd's "suicide". US Senators Max Baucus' and Jon Tester have introduced an amendment to block American funding to Singapore's Institute of Microelectronics (IME) until the US Attorney General certifies that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has full access to all evidence and records relevant to the death of  Shane Todd. Until the protestations of his aggrieved parents surfaced, the main stream media had been reporting that 31-year-old Shane was found hanged in his Singapore apartment "in what appeared to be suicide".

What also surfaced in this clash of giants is that IME, which is part of the national Agency for Science, Technology And Research (A*STAR) actually received a stipend (US$500,000 in 2010) from the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (Darpa) for collaborative projects. Given the disparity in salaries between the heads of state of the two countries involved, it was akin to the "rich" taking a handout from the "poor". In the parsimony of parlance favoured by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah, the brief answer for the state of affairs has to be, "Greed".

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sleepless In Singapore

Unless you have been sleeping soundly, you must heard of the story telling from Khaw Boon Wan. So what exactly did the lady hear?

Ignore what she misunderstood from the stuff reported in the media, he wrote. What he told Parliament, Khaw said, was that there had been many calls for HDB to “return to basics”, for example to “return to the past when flats could only be sold to HDB, and not in the open market”. Such a call would have major impact on existing flat owners like the lady in question.

Next he segued on to confirm that he does plan to see how they can come up with a new housing option which can be a lot cheaper than today’s BTO price. Meaning new flats that are priced at a level equivalent to 4 years of median household income e.g. a household with gross income of $4,100 should be able to buy a 4-room flat for $196,800 instead of the $300,000 price tag per last quarter's BTO offering. Assuming 30 percent of income used to service the mortgage, one can look forward to 12+  instead of horrendous 30 year housing loans.

Naturally, the new low-cost housing option must come with restrictions, and the minister mentioned some such restrictions as proposed by fellow MPs: longer minimum occupation period, shorter lease and disbarment from resale in the open market. Obviously, as Khaw pointed out, such an option will only apply to the new buyers, and will not apply to existing flat owners like the Queenstown lady.

So why did Khaw assure her that her dream (realise her retirement fund by flipping her flat for a fat profit) is safe, congratulate her on "how the HDB policies have benefited her", and that she could now look forward to a new BTO flat? That would only be possible if the new buyers are daft enough to reject the lower priced new flats and opt for the higher priced old flats. Or she downgrades from a 4-room $300,000 flat to a 2-room $100,000 shoebox. Khaw seems to think one can have the pie and still eat it. He seems to have two sets of stories: one for those struggling to afford a fixed roof, and another for those with second properties to sell or to rent.

HDB data indicates that 14,600 whole flats approved for subletting in 2Q2007 have tripled to 43,508 in 4Q2012. This is one bubble that should be burst. The poor ones seem to be subsidising the better off. If the minister thinks the inequity is tenable, he must still be in dreamland.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Different Folks, Different Tastes

Anyone remember the hullabaloo when Director of Creative Insurgence, Aaghir Yadav, tried to organise Singapore's First Chapel Party at Chjimes on Saturday 7 April, eve of Easter Sunday? The controversy then was show casing young women (un)dressed in skimpy nun-like habits. Poor sod had to capitulate and apologise, "We would like to reiterate that we used no religious symbolism in any of our marketing and promotional materials and had no intention to cause any upset."

The Pangaea at Marina Bay Sands, an exclusive club that targets the super rich and famous, seems to have something lined up for eve of Saint Patrick's Day or the Feast of Saint Patrick (Irish: Lá Fhéile Pádraig, "the Day of the Festival of Patrick") which is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated on 17 March.

The hoity-toity club was featured in Malaysia’s Bernama recently, in an article about Asia’s most expensive drink which can be imbibed for a whopping S$32,000. A concoction of gold-flecked Hennessey brandy, 1985 vintage Krug champagne and sugar, the cocktail is garnished with a Triple X 1-carat diamond from Switzerland-based jeweler Mouawad.

A garnish is an item or substance used as a decoration or embellishment accompanying a prepared food dish or drink. In many cases, it may give added or contrasting flavor. But what does diamond taste like? During a visit to the outskirts of Fukushima, a Japanese inn keeper who was last here when Singapore was Syonanto (昭南島) presented us a bottle of sake with gold flakes added, which is called Kinpaku-iri. We never got round to (dare) drinking it, kept it as a conversation piece. Just as well, apparently the sake used for this exorbitant practice is not usually top-grade alcoholic beverage.

What could pique our interest is how the organisers plan to verify the ladies' colour choice for the veiling of their nether regions. St Patrick's Day is all about wearing green. Will rumbustious lasses, alcohol fuelled,  resorting to colour dye or body paint pass muster?  Bluenoses demanding restraint should forget about Adam Lambert's stage antics, this is the real low-down on attention seeking in Sin City.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Free Money In The Mail

You may have received one of this in the mail. Surely this cannot be part of the "support network for past and present NSmen" mentioned by Ng Eng Hen in parliament. Everyone knows $50 to $100 can't get you very far in Singapore.

What the people were asking for:
"NSmen should have more subsidies for further education. We should have a better chance of entering universities instead of foreign students."
(Mr Teo, who works in finance)
"They have served two years of their lives. They deserve some form of tangible recognition for their efforts...  Subsidies on housing and medical benefits would be a start."
(Ms Fatin, a personal assistant)

This small amount of handout is usually associated with buying supporters' votes, but the next election is 3 long years' away. Still, the money goes a long way to offset the $3 administrative levy each time one draws on his own Medisave to pay for outpatient treatment. Yes, Virginia, since 1984 the Singapore Government had been charging you to access your own money. But that is supposed to be removed from April 1, unless it's someone's idea of an April Fool joke. Mr Yeow, single, earning $450 a month, explained what $3 means to him, "Everyday, I spend only $2 on lunch. If I eat $3 meals, I won't have enough money left."

Delving further into the NS45 HomeTeamNS pamphlet, one comes across the offer to use $20 of the free cash to sign up for a PAssion card. Not the kind of passion offered to a certain ex-House Speaker by a passionate PA member. The card presumably provides access to 3 HomeTeamNS club houses at Bukit Batok, Balestier and Chinatown which are being upgraded in 2013, where "members can expect a one-stop lifestyle destination with a wide range of sports and social facilities, food & beverages outlets and retail shops." Hang on to your $50 to $100 vouchers, you'll find it barely sufficient for hawker center meals.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hey Big Spender

Even if Ms Sylvia Lim hadn't raised it someone else would have: Singapore was given a "D+" by Transparency International in its first Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index.

In a literature survey on "Instances of Measures to Prevent Corruption in the Defence and Security Sector", Catalina Robledo Botero wrote, "Although there is considerable agreement on ends (efficient, non-corrupt and transparent public purchasing systems), little information is available on means, and in particular, on the effective and replicable strategies…"

Singapore fared poorly because no specific legislation regulates defence procurement. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen confirmed that the Government is in the final stages of buying the hottest military toy in town, the problem plagued F-35. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, has been grounded twice this year already for engine-related issues. Since the procurement is not legislated, Ng doesn't have to explain why a battle tested F-18 Hornet is sufficient. After all, the Malaysians used it effectively to suppress the Sulu Sultanate's army of 200 armed Filipinos, who invaded a town in the Lahad Datu district of Sabah on 9 February.

Obviously anxious to allay potential talk about being a big spender, Ng spinned a yarn about cheap holidays for his family in, of all places, Sabah, which is protected by cheaper fighter jets. He hyped on the best goreng pisang ever tasted because they use a special banana. Just like Peach Gardens use a special sauce for their expensive chye tow kuay. If you have to ask how much, you can't afford it.

Chan Chun Seng deflected the call for public accountability on military spending by pointing out Mindef supposedly has a zero tolerance policy towards corruption. This is coming from a professional soldier who downed his rifle for an opportunity to advance his income tax bracket. We assume, of course, Singapore generals are not paid million dollar salaries. The use of the "C" word is strategic.  Anyone else mentioning the hot topic is usually slapped so fast into jail, and/or bankrupted for good measure, before he can shoot up his hand ("keechiu!").

One of two F-35 fighter jets made an unscheduled landing in Lubbock, Texas, after a caution light came on in the cockpit.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Houses As Poker Chips

After being challenged in parliament, the obtuse National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan "clarified" that the delinking of public housing prices from the resale market was actually a "discount". Then on Friday, he said HDB has delinked BTO prices from resale prices only in mature estates, another variant of his evasive definition of delink.

Even his pledge that prices of new flats "will become almost 30 percent cheaper" cannot be taken at face value. You have to literally pin him down on what dictionary he uses for his loose language. And hell will have to freeze over before he reveals the actual costs of construction and the obscene profits churned every year.

Apparently there was a ruling 4 decades ago that flats can only be sold back to the HDB. A sensible directive no doubt aimed at cutting out the speculative element in public housing. So why does the Minister not exercise the moral courage to restore the original objectives of the pioneers like Lim Kim San, whose simple charter was to provide a roof over one's head?

It is revealing that Khaw plans to price the "cheaper" flats at 4 times annual salary instead of cost plus overheads, or less "subsidy" if you still believe that word is real. That's like the greater fool theory of the stock market, always targeting another fool to pay a higher price. Going back to the fundamentals was never in the equation.

Khaw's quibble is that some 800,000 owners are collecting rent from their units instead of living in them. "They will suffer if there is a collapse in the rental market," that's what he said. Suddenly, his attention has shifted from those in dire need of basic shelter, to those who are capitalising on "subsidised" public housing to play the real estate market. Suddenly, he has veered from the needs and wants of genuine home owners to the speculative lot who pick up choice properties to flip for a quick profit. And he actually admits he purposely avoids meeting new demands to protect those making money from rentals: "If I keep on meeting new demand, I am actually hurting the many home owners who now rent out their own properties." BTW, where do these guys stay if their houses are rented out?

Khaw tried to justify his soft play of several rounds of property cooling measures instead of just one bold move to bring the price down 30 percent or 20 percent. His cautiousness is hard to understand, given that three tight slaps have been roundly delivered at GE 2011, Hougang by-election and Punggol-East.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Matter Of Credibility

The death of Shane Todd, 31, an electrical engineer who worked for Singapore-based Institute for Microelectronics (IME), was treated by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) as suicide. Not so, says his family. Shane had defensive wounds on his body and hands, and bruised knuckles indicate he was trying unsuccessfully to slip his fingers under a garrote that could have ended his young and promising life.

Rick Todd, his father, told the Washington Times he “made it known” to Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, that the family wants a full FBI investigation.
“We need there to be independent oversight [of the Singaporean police investigation] by an agency that we have confidence in,” he said, adding that police in Singapore “repeatedly lied” to the family about the circumstances of Shane’s death and about the progress of their investigation.

A SPF statement in February maintained that its procedures for investigating cases, in particular those involving deaths, are of high international standards. According to their report, Shane Todd allegedly hanged himself in the toilet of his apartment in Chinatown last year. Their spokesman claimed all unnatural death cases are investigated thoroughly and that police work closely with the pathologist and other relevant experts.

The parents of David Hartanto Widjaja, 21, weren't too satisfied either with the official investigation of their son's violent death in March 2009. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student was alleged to have knifed his supervisor who hailed from China, Associate Professor Chan Kap Luk, 45, in the back during a discussion in his office, and then slit his own wrists before fleeing and falling four floors to his death. When the shocked parents flew in from Indonesia, the crime scene was cleaned of all blood traces, and NTU had erased computer records associated with his son. It was as if David never existed.

Iwan Piliang, the head of a group formed by David’s parents and supporters, was upset the witnesses brought before the Coroner's Inquiry were “not to David’s advantage.” The group had wanted to meet with the NTU officials, but was not entertained. A similar request to meet Professor Chan, who was reported to have been wounded by David with a fruit knife missing a handle, was also rejected. The disturbing autopsy report that David’s family received documented 36 gaping wounds, of which 14 were from stab wounds.

“I, on behalf of David Hartanto Widjaja’s family, ask the (Indonesian) government to help David get the justice he deserves,” Piliang had said. “David’s death was part of a conspiracy.” But Jakarta Post quoted national police spokesman Abu Bakar Nataprawira as saying they were not able to investigate, as the death occurred in Singapore.

It looks like the SPF has to work on its international credibility.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Better Than Bollywood

If you never watched a Tamil program on TV before, this is one video you must not miss. This is Singapore core at its best, and our Indian brothers and sisters who spoke from their hearts deserve the applause.

Episode 7 of this Series 2 Idhayam Pesugirathu talk show really lived up to its credo, invoking passion and pulling the heartstrings of the participants, and audience. The temperature was raised further when the policies behind the nefarious Population White Paper were - deservedly - trashed. Let the screen shots speak for themselves.

How's that to kickstart the National Conversation?
Debunking the official spin by MSM
Once upon a time Singapore was built by Singaporeans
Ain't that the bitter truth?
Something the planners forgot to factor in.
They even advise their kids to skip PR to avoid NS
Bowing down to demands of  the foreigners
This gentleman was shaking his head in disbelief
If you repeat a lie often enough...
How do you say "Amen to that" in Tamil?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

And Now The Bad News

Sitoh Yih Pin was voted into parliament after his third try (2001, 2006, 2011), winning Potong Pasir with a slim margin of 50.36 percent.  He must be feeling tired when he expressed his deepest thoughts that the Budget debates are merely efforts to manage and calibrate expectations. Instead, the Government should just come clean and tell people the bad news.

1. Under this Government, some graduates will never stay in private housing or own a car because 85% of housing are HDB flats and only one third of families have a car presently and these numbers will not change drastically;
2. Under this Government, the harsh reality of meritocracy as it stands, is a "take and take" by the best and the ablest without any obligation to serve and contribute;
3. Under this Government, even if the total fertility rate is increased to 2.1 in 2013, import labour will continue;
4. Under this Government, the "accessible and affordable" public hospitals will continue to have long waiting times and the latest high-tech expensive care options will not be available to all;
5. Under this Government, COEs may never go back to the days of old again as there are limits to our car population just as there are limits to our human population;
6. Under this Government, the influx of foreign labour to Singapore may be limited, but our workers will still be competing day and night, 24/7, with workers from China, India or Indonesia.

According to him, there are more examples of things going bad, but Sitoh stops and can only hope against hope, "I urge our Government to listen to the people, to labour for the people and to lead the people".

Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to receive her Noble Peace Prize for Freedom of Thought in person as she was under house arrest in 1991. Her son Alexander, 18, spoke in his mother's place: "To live the full life," he quoted her, "one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others... one must want to bear this responsibility..." ("The Lady And The Peacock, The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi", Peter Popham, Rider Books, 2011)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Going For Free

Day one of the Budget wayang in session kicked off with this figure of $3.6 billion allocated for the Wage Credit Scheme, which has the present Government co-paying 40 percent of wage increases for Singaporean workers for the next 3 years. Forget for a moment how much of this amount will actually trickle down to benefit the bottom feeders, and that the next general election is conveniently 3 years away.

The estimates for pregnancy and delivery of a child ranges from a low of $4,000 to a high of $20,000. The VIP maternity package at Gleneagles Hospital’s new Tanglin Suite is priced at $12,998 for normal delivery (2 days) or $16,988 for Caesarean delivery (3 days). In 2012 1,739 babies were delivered at Kandang Kerbau Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) with a 90th percentile bill size of $4,197 for an average stay of 1.9 days (Straightforward vaginal delivery no complications). Assuming a round number of $10,000 per baby brought into the world, $3.6 billion will easily pay for the birth of 360,000 babies.

So why didn't the good doctor who tells us he served national service by "saving lives of babies" propose free deliveries at public hospitals?

Instead Puthucheary, son of the Dominic Puthucheary rounded up in the treacherous Operation Cold Store of 2 February 1963, suggested commuters travel for free during off-peak hours. Apparently that's what they tried in Melbourne in 2008, letting passengers who arrive at their destination by 7 a.m., Mondays through Fridays, travel free. Not sure if the transport situation there is the same, but in Australia, babies delivered at public hospitals are still free of charge. You pay only if you opt for private.

Transport experts say dangling free travel may not have a significant impact in alleviating congestion. Lest we forget, the congestion came about when foreigners were brought in en masse supposedly to address the pathetic birthrate of Singapore babies. Instead of beating about the bush, these nattering nabobs of self-servitude should focus on rebuilding the Singapore core the right way.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Making Sense Of Nonsense

So this is the new normal. If an academic fails to sing the correct tune, he faces the terror of denied tenure. On the other hand, if you toe the official line, you may just end up with the Albert Winsemius Chair. Albert Winsemius (1910–1996) was the Dutch economist who led the United Nations Survey Mission to Singapore (1961 to 1984), and generally credited with the economic development strategies that transformed a quiet fishing village into an roaring industrial powerhouse. The ka-ching of the casinos' cash registers came about years later.

Winsemius would surely roll in his grave to hear the professor associated with his namesake utter crap like it is a common fallacy to assert foreign labour is bad for locals as it reduces per-capita resources, reduces per-capita incomes. Confronted by data evidencing wages for the bottom 20 percent of Singaporean workers had fallen 10 percent in real terms from 1997 to 2010, he had to beat a hasty retreat and admit that "it was possible that the influx of unskilled workers may press down wages".

Not only the livelihoods of unskilled workers were at put to risk. The malaise spread up the food chain, and even the PMET (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) were not spared. What happened was that the "transients", who were supposed to go home after the infrastructure was built, soon morphed into "foreign talents" that started to displace Singaporeans at the work place.

Professor Ng Yew-Kang justified the influx by arguing that " ..had we not increased (the population), then we won't have so many MRT routes and high bus frequencies." That's like saying obesity is great, because you get to wear clothing several sizes larger.

No, the professor is not so dumb. This guy knows enough about the art of tai-ji to publish a kungfu novel in Chinese. He's got his knickers in a twist because he tried too hard jumping in to defend a White Paper which is more soiled than a used douchebag. It's not a career breaking move, whatever nonsense he spouted, and got quickly shot down for, will all too soon be obliviated so long as he continues to move with the flow.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Whither Car Ownership?

Car buyers were whacked on two fronts after Budget 2013. New car loan limit of 5 years, down payment of at least 40 per cent of the purchase price. Additional Registration Fee (ARF) of 140 per cent for bigger cars. With the quota of cars allowed on the roads continually decreased while the population numbers are kept growing, can the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) offer any respite?

The theory behind the COE is that, instead of raising taxes to discourage vehicle buyers, the Government sets a quota on the number of vehicles that can be put on the road at any time, and leaves it to market forces to price the COE via a fortnightly auction.

Bidding for a COE can be effected by motor dealers, or individual car buyers at an ATM, as long as you have $10,000 in your bank balance. 9 out of 10 buyers let the motor dealers bid for their COE because dealers set different prices for cars sold to buyers who supply their own COE and those who take up one of their packaged deals. The difference is not a simple arithmetic of deducting the COE price from the package deal price. Let the greedy dealer explain that.

After all bids are received, the lowest successful bid submitted in a tender is the price everyone in the same category pays. For instance if there are 100 COEs available in a category, and bidders make bids from anything between $1 and $100,000, the 100th successful bid from the top becomes the COE price.

Naturally the dealer with a quota of cars to unload will bid as high as he can, since the customer has left him the task of securing the COE. Ditto the sports car fanatic with money to burn - what's a $150,000 COE bid compared to the price tag on his exotic marque? It is not difficult to imagine these characters with deep pockets are yanking the COE higher and higher.

The original reasoning for opposing a "pay-as-you-bid" tender system was that bidders are likely to over-estimate the value of the COE, and thus end up over-paying. Similar logic like senior citizens are likely to blow their life savings on a spending spree, to justify the Minimum Sum and all sorts of excuses to avoid the CPF payouts. Well, the rationale originally cited for the introduction for the COE was supposedly to avoid raising taxes to discourage vehicle buyers. Guess what, taxes have been raised. Maybe it's about time we make the buggers with the fat wallets pay at their submitted price level, instead of the lowest successful bid. Drastic times require drastic measures.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Bursting The Bubble

The government has decided to revise the development charge (DC) rates, with the steepest increase targeting the commercial and industrial sectors.

Four sectors in the industrial segment will see hefty increases of between 14 and 26 per cent. Woodlands, Senoko, Sembawang, and Yishun sectors will be slapped with the stiff 26 per cent. For the commercial sector, the average increase will be 24 per cent, with Yishun, Sembawang, Woodlands, Choa Chu Kang and Jurong West hiked highest at 39 per cent. Unlike the wages, there's not co-payment for these charges. The employers are in for a rough ride.

By contrast, the levy for landed homes will increase only by an average of 4 per cent in some areas, with the largest increase of 15 per cent for properties in Tanjong Katong, Joo Chiat, Telok Kurau, Upper East Coast, Siglap, Bedok and Marine Parade.

Analysts attribute the relatively smaller increase in the residential segment to the government's wait-and-see approach. But what are they waiting to see? Either the cooling measures are to meant to cool the residential market or they are not.

There was a report last weekend about 44 percent of high-end non-landed properties under construction being still unsold.  Besides these 4,077 units, 500 completed homes in the red hot zones of districts 9,10 and 11, where the really rich people congregate, are also left high and dry. These are the guys who moan loudly about having to pay $300,000 more for their Ferrari F12 because of the new car taxes.

The folks in charge can't back pedal this time if the Gini coefficient is to be addressed. You can't pretend to help the poor while throwing out lifelines to the wealthy. Money is a zero sum game, you primp one group, you destitute the other. Like a festering boil, the bubble has to be pricked before the suppurating wound infects the rest.