Saturday, July 30, 2011

Phonies Running For President

Don't bother to look for the above post in phony Tan's Facebook account. It's gone. Deleted. Disappeared into the twilight zone, dumped into the black hole where the hard truths about Singapore are buried.

Dr Tony Tan righteously claimed, "I regret that, for the first time since this page's inception, I have had to delete a post." He adds, "This page's criteria for civility is not whether the posts are favourable to me. ... I started this page with the intention to create a place of genuine, honest and respectful debate."

Yeah, but not when the debate is about his son's special deal to serve his NS obligation as a "defence research scientist" while lesser mortals end up with less exotic vocations like Combat Medic. Or worse. Puthucheary for one would have loved to learn about this option during the election hustings. His declaration that "I've spent the last 10 years saving kids' lives" in lieu of serving NS would certainly have drawn fewer brickbats from patriotic netizens.

The cowardly deletion, plus phony affirmation of "genuine, honest and respectful debate", is significant. It is concrete evidence that cronyism is rampant in certain quarters. Intent is nine tenths of the law, but the missing bit will always jump up and bite you, more so when the race for $4 million is now on. Revelations like the one below strike a resonant chord with the outraged when we are supposed to be living in a country that subscribes to meritocracy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

More Trains Coming

In July 2010 Saw Phaik Hwa, CEO, SMRT, said: "It is crowded, but when they are already running at 2-3 minutes (intervals), it's the most that I can do. I cannot go faster than that without compromising safety and reliability." Unlike Raymond Lim, Saw knows she has the protection of her godmother. Not so Lui Tuck Yew, who has just announced plans to cut peak hour waiting times from 2.5 minutes to 2.2 minutes between Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Panjang stations - without compromising safety and reliability.

SMRT used to claim it would cost gadzillion dollars to modify the signaling system to improve train intervals. They also claimed that installing safety barriers would cost another gadzillion bucks. It took a watershed election to convince these inveterate liars and appreciate the social costs of their folly.

The Transport Minister, having experienced congestion at first hand, said LTA and SMRT will purchase 13 extra train cars to provide overdue relief on the Bukit Panjang line. Currently SMRT has 19 train cars for that line, and runs a maximum of 18 cars during peak hours in 6 double-car and 6 single-car trains. Notice no exorbitantly expensive reconfiguration of the signalling system was required.

Lui also addressed measures to boost the reliability by investing $3.12 million over the next 12 months. Every month since January, there have been at least 2 interruptions per month lasting more than 10 minutes each. So much for Saw Phaik Hwa's argument that going faster will compromise safety and reliability. This coming from someone who breezes around town in a Ferrari.

It will take some time before commuters stop associating the Minister's name with a similar sounding profanity since the overdue measures are applicable only for one line of many. Plus, it is not hard to imagine the fellow is obviously is working on another line of excuses to justify the impending fare hike.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

SMRT Breaks Even

At a recent National Day celebration, PM Lee responded to charges that the government is helping public transport operators to make more profits, "there is no reason for us to do so. But we have to allow the transport companies to break even and to make reasonable profits, so that they can provide this good service." The play on semantics here is "break even" and "reasonable profits". For a guy used to multi-million dollar pay checks, peanuts must mean more than the $600,000 benchmarked by Mrs Goh Chok Tong.

In a desperate attempt to justify another fare hike, SMRT CEO highlighted the 8.9 percent fall in 1st quarter profit to $34.8 million, on the back of 7.5 percent rise in revenue to $253.1 million. Put aside for the moment the business anomally how extra revenue generates less income for the train operator. In January SMRT reported net profit after tax for 3Q FY11 was $43.0 million, 9.6% higher as compared to the same quarter the year before. However you look at it, if profit levels of about $120 million a year are considered "break even" numbers, we must really check what PM Lee was drinking when he made that speech.
SMRT's Profit Ride
2010$162.885 million
2009$162.731 million
2008$149.939 million
2007$135.790 million
2006$103.624 million
2005$126.552 million
2004$89.496 million
2003$72.068 million
2002$56.797 million
2001$102.797 million
2000$115.442 million

Ms Lim, the SMRT's vice-president of for finance, said staff costs rose because of head count, higher CPF contributions and absence of job credits of $1.2 million this year. She also blamed the electrical tariffs which increased 5 to 6 percent this quarter. Excusez-moi, commuters are already hit by the same electrical tariff hike in their utility bill, must they also be whacked with a second whammy by the train operators?

We get a sneak peek at how SMRT runs its business. Ms Lim said the company was moving towards a digital platform of advertising, which means an increase in depreciation costs and headcount. Advertising profits had fallen by 4.9 percent, and they still plan to throw good money after bad. And make the commuters pay for their foolhardiness. This is what happens when you have a DFS sale girl running a public transportation service. Instead of focusing on efficient train turnaround, minimisation of downtime, optimisation of maintenance and spares inventory, they are more enamoured with glitzy ads. Who knows, they may even install the mobile TV screens that irritated bus commuters to no end.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Signs Of A Weak, Ineffectual Government

"We've told everyone back in China how good and safe Singapore is - how do we explain to them now about what has happened to us?" The answer won't come easy for for Mr Li Wencheng, who hails from scenic Guilin, China, and now a Singapore permanent resident at Tampines. MP with special privileges Lee Kuan Yew inadvertently gave the clue when interviewed on China Central Television, "I believe once you have a weak, ineffectual government, the whole progress you have made will spiral down." That must be his son's governance he was referring to.

Li Wencheng, 39, and his wife, Yuanxiu, 42, had just returned home from their fish soup stall at Tampines 1 Mall, when they were slashed by a 25 year old at the door step of their rented flat. Their two daughters, ages 17 and 9, are studying in China, and are not taking advantage of MOE's generosity towards foreign students. Since the assailant was staying in the same block, this violence could not be pinned on the loan-sharks, who are doing a roaring trade since the casinos opened shop. Samaritans Of Singapore reported 352 calls for help about loan sharks, up from 217 in 2009. So where were the friendly neighborhood police when you need them?

The neighbourhood police post system was styled after the Japanese Koban (交番, kōban), where uniformed police work is done from small buildings located within the community, a form of community policing. In the early stages of implementation, the police actually made their patrols of the housing estates on bicycles, Japanese style. Nowadays, they prefer to be cooped up in their airconditioned cosy corners, doing their monitoring by surfing the internet. Or they might cruise the private estates in their airconditioned patrol cars, maintaining security for the odd Ang Moh jogging with an ill-fitting sports bra along deserted roads. Or handcuffing school kids who are still wondering what hideous criminality could be attributed to distributing flyers and name cards for pocket money.

3 min 50 sec of infamy
According to the police, Li Wencheng's attacker was suffering from mental problems, and "investigations are in progress", the same phrase used when responding to queries about the status of the investigation on the "Cooling Off Day" transgression. We will have to wait to see if the attack was instigated by xenophobia fueled by the likes of another China PR, Wang Peng Fei (王鹏飞). In a 4 minute YouTube video, since taken down, Wang wore ghastly lipstick and parodied Singaporeans, describing local Chinese as descendants of poor Chinese coolies. A police report has been lodged, and "investigations are in progress". The police definitely moved at a quicker pace in 2005, when two Singaporean bloggers were charged under the Sedition Act for making racist remarks online, and another Singaporean blogger promptly joined their ranks 4 days later.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Few Bad Guys

It gives cause to wonder if intellectual property laws are selectively applied in Singapore. First they rip off Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance", and mangled the lyrics into an ode to a NDP Fun Pack. Now one of the best Jack Nicholson movies is endangered by some brown nosing MediaCorp executive's dubious attempt to "honor" three characters. The common denominator in the triumvirate is that each has had his grubby hands, at one time or the other, on our secretive reserves, a significant component of the pricing for a public housing flat. We thank Mah Bow Tan for that gem.

The original play by Aaron Sorkin tells the story of military lawyers at a court-martial who uncover a high-level conspiracy, in the course of defending their United States Marines clients who are accused of murder. We know how a Singapore version will end: public prosecutors withhold evidence, wrongfully extracted confessions, and victims are narrowly saved from the gallows after an appeal by a saint of a solicitor working pro-bono - there are a few good lawyers in town. Maybe there's hope after all, we won't be downgrading from First World to Third.

Some lines which require minor tweaks, and we should have an Oscar contender on our hands:

Kaffee: Is the colonel's underwear HDB flat pricing a matter of national security?

Kaffee: Maybe, if we work at it, we can get Dawson charged with the Kennedy assassination. fix the opposition and rule forever.

Kaffee: You don't need a patch on your arm to have honor. of detaining innocent people without trial.

Kaffee: This code of honor of yours makes me wanna beat the *shit* outta somebody. [no change required]

Kaffee: I want the truth! about our reserves!
Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can't handle the truth! You can't even handle my "Hard Truths" book!

Lt. Weinberg: Cmdr. Galloway, Lt. Kaffee is considered to be the best litigator in our office. He successfully plea bargained sued and bankrupted 44 cases political opponents in 9 months.
Kaffee: One more and I get a set of steak knives. and I get a National Day Award.

Col. Jessep: I run my unit how I run my unit. You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. Remember, one freak election result, and I get to send in the army.

Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.
Dawson: Yeah, we did. We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willie. Singaporeans, not the foreign talent crowd.

Col. Jessep: We follow give orders, son. We follow give orders or people die your asset values will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries, foreign workers. It's that simple. Are we clear?
 Kaffee: Yes sir.
Col. Jessep: Are we clear?
Kaffee: Crystal.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The 3 to 5 Year Wait

It's the kind of statement that gives you a stronger jolt than the morning dose of caffeine. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan says that resale prices can only stabilise in 3 to 5 years, and that happens only when the supply of new Build-To-Order flats are completed. Why so long? Rome wasn't built in a day, but the Marina Bay Sands casino sure went up in a hurry.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said that Government funded entities have little incentive to keep costs down. The corollary of that has to be Government funded executives have little incentive to reduce completion times. After all, another year in the job is another million in the bank - you were expecting maybe Gerard Ee will recommend more than an 18% cut in their pay?

Khaw advised told those who have a flat, and aim to upgrade, to please hold on, while he gets his act together. "Why come in when prices are so high? You will regret it, " he said (the repent word seems to be falling out of favour within his political circle). Curiously, it was mentioned in a TV program last night on the same subject that 20% of resale flat buyers are private property owners downgrading to humbler dwellings with a block number in their postal address. But banks have not increased lending rates, neither have they revised mortgage payments to make up for private property values heading south. Likely, these may have either lost their shirts at MBS, or made a wrong call at flipping properties. Whatever the true picture is, the resale public housing flat is still a speculative good. So why not introduce a moratorium on HDB flats as tradeable commodities? It will have to be a gutsy move, but the guys in charge have always boasted they do not veer from tough decisions instead of pandering to the popular ones.

Khaw has admitted that rising resale prices are also attributable to an imbalance in supply and demand - stark evidence of years of bad governance in national housing development - and launched two housing projects to address the myopia of his predecessor, "The more I push out, I am sure there is some influence." So what's holding up the minister to go the whole hog?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Managing Money Matters

Bloomberg screamed "Singapore Central Bank Posts Record Loss" - the Monetary Authority of Singapore has posted a record loss of S$10.9 billion ($9 billion) in the year through March. "We made good investment gains but when measured in the Singapore dollar, these gains were more than offset by the strength of the currency,” was the way Managing Director Ravi Menon explained the second loss in the central bank’s 40-year history. A net loss of S$9.2 billion was reported in the year through March 2009.

MAS uses the exchange rate instead of interest rates to control monetary policy, and "finance our imports from the rest of the world and safeguard the value of our currency". Further appreciation is expected in April to tame price gains again, the third monetary policy tightening in a year. With each intervention in the open market to boost the Singapore dollar, which sources say is a daily event, the central bank’s equity investments in U.S. dollar terms will be further eroded by each exercise. Make that our hard earned savings are diminished by each masochistic exercise.

Whatever imported inflation MAS is targeting at seems to provide no visible relief to the common man. The same MAS is revising it's inflation forecast from 3~4 percent upwards to 4~5 percent, blaming "global inflationary prices". Isn't the strong Singapore dollar, which has appreciated 11 percent in the year through March, supposed to address these factors? The hard reality is that a strong currency is useless when the major bugbears are accommodation and transport costs, in particular the local inventions like COV (cash-over-valuation) and COE charges. If the price of oil imports is neutered at all by the currency moves, it sure as hell is not passed down to the layman in his electricity and transportation bills.

Menon claims from his ivory tower, "A strong Singapore dollar has helped, not just by filtering oil and food price increases, but also by providing a restraining effect on the economy." All we see at ground level is bus and train companies using oil price as excuse to seek a record 2.8 percent hike, and a S$10.9 billion gaping hole in the MAS report card. Somebody has some serious explaining to do. Apologies not accepted.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Quote That Was Heard Around The World

Under fire for a growing phone-hacking scandal, media mogul Rupert Murdoch's argument for The Daily Telegraph to buy a series of stolen documents relating to the expenses of MPs for an expose was to ask the British government to "look at Singapore - where every minister gets at least a million dollars a year and the Prime Minister a lot more and there is no temptation and it is as clean a society as you find anywhere." Only Bernie Ecclestone can top that whopper with his "Hitler gets things done" adulation. Bernie's words ring a familiar tone, "...apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done." And then there's this quote from a fellow authoritarian, “.. but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”

Whoever came up with our country's name had the foresight to get the first 3 letters right. And that was before Marina Bay Sands casino became the new national icon. Just because individuals have been bankrupted by lawsuits, the books have not been closed on the HPL episode. All in all, Lee Kuan Yew received from HPL a total of $416,252 whilst his son got $643,185 in discounts from the Ong Beng Seng company where Dr Lee Suan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew's younger brother, was seated on the board of directors. Here's one damning quote: "There is no way - and I say this with some sympathy for the young aspiring professional or young executives - for them to have the same value to a seller of a product as a well-known public figure or a sports star or a TV star... Let me illustrate in my own small way.  My being me helped me get, if you like, the inside track and special treatment. ..." (Hansard, May 21, 1996, cols 190-91, 196, rationalising his controversial purchases of luxury apartments from the Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) at deeply discounted prices).

80-year-old Murdoch's comment during questioning by British Members of Parliament  apparently brought about plenty of mumbling from those present, including someone who quipped derisively: "good luck in selling that to anyone here." A political science academic working in Singapore, Bridget Welsh, could see he was grasping at straws, "My sense is that Mr Murdoch was engaged in a defence and (was) using every example he could find."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Great University Escapade

Speaking like the dyed in the wool party steward that he is, Tony Tan defended the education policy by mouthing, " 'Singaporeans first' is different from saying 'Singaporeans only'. Singapore is an international city and it would be a grave mistake to close our doors." Who said anything about closing the doors to fee paying foreigners? The outrage was always about the millions expended on recruiting students from overseas, and wasting our tax money for their tuition, food, accommodation and $400++ allowances. Just for one man's sadistic pleasure of digging the spurs into our hides.

Tan did not reveal the quota that is set aside in our local universities, allocated seats that are depriving our sons and daughters of a tertiary education at home. He should have the numbers by now, as term starts in August.

The poor girl had cried her eyes out after a difficult interview at SMU. NUS simply "ran the grades through a computer", and her 2As and a C may not guarantee her a place at NTU either. SMU was "more enlightened" in that candidates are given a chance to demonstrate in person attributes not reflected in paper examinations. All the hours put in at CCA and the EduSave funds burned up for overseas enhancement trips were all for nought. Fortunately for her, in the last week of the admissions exercise, she secured a precious place in a local U. Apparently some who were offered places arm twisted their parents to study abroad. A friend's son could study law at NUS or NTU, but he told his parents he was tired of the local educational system. Apparently the precocious kid had private plans of his own to quit the country, and he knew his folks won't have to sell the flat to finance the education of their only child.

Tan said the Government should "continue to monitor carefully the proportion of foreign students in our educational institutions to ensure that the proportion matches the present and future needs of the country, and that Singaporeans are the main beneficiaries of our education policy." We don't know if his sentiments shared are that of an aspiring  presidential candidate or that of the establishment. We do know that some bright sparks may not be bothered to wait to find out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Trick In Pricing A Flat

You know PM Lee has a tough problem ahead integrating Tamil speaking and Hindi speaking Indians when Singaporeans can't even understand Khaw Boon Wan's lingo. "You cannot just look at July BTO, and the May one, and say there is a 18 percent drop," he wrote in his blog. For the benefit of sanity, let's assume he was typing while standing on his head.

Perhaps Mah Bow Tan is threatening to file a police report about the raid on the reserves. Perhaps the guy who developed the Nissan Nassim Jade condo is crying foul - you actually thought the family discounts were charitable write-offs? Whoever is wearing the brass knuckles must be powerful enough to convince the Minister to declare, "Wrong to say prices for new flats are falling." In Orwellian doublespeak, of course.

The term "Application Rate" in above table has to be another challenge for comprehension. Application rate of 2 is supposed to mean 2 applicants for one flat. But does that mean in March 2011, there were as many as 8 families scrambling for one housing unit? It turns out that the number refers to subscription rate, as in: "almost all applicants would get a chance to select a flat if the subscription rate worked out to be two applicants per flat." In plain English, a BTO launch is just another IPO.

The Minister maintains, prices of HDB's new flats are typically pegged to prevailing resale prices but are discounted. That was the Mah folly, and it looks like Khaw is continuing the saga. So much for separating the essential good from the speculative luxury. Those queuing in the HDB office will be no different from those in the TOTO lines, playing a game of chance to flip the property for quick bucks. "Pricing a flat is quite tricky as there are many factors at play," Khaw told reporters. Please, spare us the trickery, what the people want is honest to goodness transparent accounting. Those who prefer sleight of hand have already been burnt at the casinos.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Education Arrested

You can easily spot a fake if the prepared message delivered formally seems to be at odds with the spontaneous response to a question that follows. Or maybe the guy is just plain schizo.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat told parents at the Gongshang Primary School seminar on Saturday his ministry will focus on three core areas: to provide a good value system; to teach social and emotional competencies; and to foster creative thinking skills. "The values that the Ministry of Education and the schools are trying to impart will be the values of care and concern for others, values of integrity, values of resilience," he said.

Then there was his take on the brutes at Bedok Police Station, ""Clearly you see that the principals and the teachers are working with the police, and it's important for us not to make sweeping generalisations."

Er, did he actually say the principals and teachers were acting in cahoots with the cops in sweeping up 80 youths into the lock-ups, without first giving them the benefit of student counselling services? Does the MOE think handcuffing teens in their impressionable years is a good lesson in imparting "social and emotional competencies?" The creativity part we understand, in particular the police's wildly creative claim that "the officers did exercise flexibility and discretion in consideration of the suspects' age." If they handcuff 12 year olds like common criminals, will they taser the teens without compunction? Apparently the mass round up was precedented by the arrest of 156 young people last year, and 60 other young victims in 2008. These guys actaully have a sordid history of scarring young lives, and seem to take perverse pleasure in doing so - that and their maso-sadistic fetish for handcuffs. Heng is basically saying the principals and teachers, since 2008 and earlier, have surrendered their custodial duties to the uniformed thugs. No wonder the cops are so brazen in "calibrating" their approach with their students. Where will they draw the line - make the females do nude squats?

Heng blindly defended the rogue police, instead of taking the side of his young charges. That's hardly the ingredient of a good value system that boast of "care and concern for others, values of integrity, values of resilience." But then that's so typical of this breed of civil servants, perpetually sticking up for their own kind, and never own up to their obvious failings.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lust, Power - The Movie

Director Huang Jianxin did a great job with "The Founding of a Republic", produced by the state-owned China Film Group (CFG) to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Despite the obvious propaganda overtones, it’s arguably good movie making, having a bounty of good acting, good scenes, and an inherently intriguing historical storyline. Tang Guoqiang bears an uncanny resemblance to Mao that has to be seen to be believed, and you come away loving the guy and forgetting the millions who starved to death during the Cultural Revolution and upheavals of the subsequent years.

Will Tony Leung Chiu Wai (梁朝伟) have similar success in playing PAP supremo Lee Kuan Yew in a rumoured Singapore film "1965", as reported by Kwong Wah Daily (13 July 2011)? The Hongkong actor has starred in roles lusting after ladies on celluloid, but can he exude an unbridled lust for power?
Doing translation work for the Japs during WWII
Giving orders to lock up "Marxist conspirators"
Crying after kena turfed out of Malaysia
Reacting to JB Jeyaratnam's win at Tanjong Pagar
Getting inspiration for building the casinos
Vetting new party candidates at tea session
Welcoming foreign talent from Northern India

Friday, July 15, 2011

$137K For 3-room Flat

When Sim Lian slashed it's $880,000 price tag for a unit at Centrale 8, we knew he was caught with his grubby hands in the cookie jar. After all, a $100K reduction can't be a computational error. But who else was in on the game plan?

The Housing Board announced new Build-To-Order (BTO) prices for 7 locations, at Sengkang, Tampines, Jurong West, Bukit Panjang and Yishun. Their asking prices are $137,000 (3-room), $217,000 (4-room) and $274,000 (5-room). Few months ago in May, they demanded $166,000 (3-room), $264,000 (4-room) and $335,000 (5-room). So what happened?
In MayNew Prices Price Reduction (%)
3-room166,000137,000 29,000 (17.4)
4-room264,000217,000 47,000 (17.8)
5-room335,000274,00061,000 (18.2)

Cost of materials couldn't have plummeted in the intervening months, foreign labour couldn't be that much cheaper, contractors couldn't have suffered sudden pangs of guilt and cut back on their profits. The only variable that can be manipulated that quickly has to be the "market cost of land". Developers will assure you that the market values of land in Singapore have not dovetailed in the last couple of months; some civil servant must have simply coughed up new numbers on demand. While grateful for small mercies, we suspect that 3-room flats can be priced lower, say $80,000, without bankrupting the HDB. SLA may have fewer officers splurging on exotic cars, but that we can live with.

Cost of housing hits the lower income group more than the super rich, as statistics show. Cash premiums - paid on top of valuations - have risen to about $32,000 from $21,000 in the last quarter. This really hurts first time house buyers, whose purchase is usually a HDB flat. Ministers, present or past, and their kin excepted. While a good step in the right direction, the National Development Minister still has a long way to go to build them flats "cheaper, better, fasterer".

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ministers Say The Darndest Things

An American visitor once commented that he was astounded to read in the press some of the quotes attributed to Singapore ministers. That was before he was told how much these carpetbaggers pay themselves.

In a Facebook post chockful of contradictions Lui Tuck Yew said a nationalised public transport won't run well because a Government funded entity "would have little incentive to keep costs down." That explains why most of the sources of inflation are traceable to local tariffs, fees, tolls, duties, taxes and the myriad of charges levied by the authorities. That explains why the fire exit staircase of the Traffic Police HQ is lined with faux marble.

"Nationalising the operators could result in a stagnation of service quality or efficiency over time." Problem is, we have already seen evidence of both declines. While under the charge of a duty free sales CEO installed at the recommendation of the PM's wife. Lest we forget - the MRT was originally built with Government funding, only the operating expenses (including said CEO's hefty paycheck) are recovered by commuter fares. The initial S$5 billion construction of the MRT network was Singapore's largest public works in 1983. Lui claims the Government has invested $20 billion, and another $60 billion will be drawn down by the end of the decade. That debunks the returns on investment argument, since the funds were not borrowed from open markets. Taxpayers are already paying for the infrastructure, must taxpayers also pay to ride on the train? That must sound like buying a house, and paying yourself rent to stay in it.

Cedric Foo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said the fare adjustment formula has been in place for 6 years and valid till next year. He's in no hurry to review or revise the suspicious computations - meaning, the fare hike is a done deal. It figures, thanks to that mathematical device, the transport companies have never experienced a single year of financial loss.

Meanwhile, over at Maplewoods, the residents' suggestion to relocate tunnelling machine launch shafts to the King Albert Park worksite was pooh-poohed by LTA. Balakrishnan said it was "very easy" for him to accede to the demand since the condo has more voters than those at the Sixth Avenue shop houses affected by the move. "But I couldn't in all conscience do that" because the MP needs to "stand up for the minority." Is he talking about the 60% or the 40%? Whatever. Looks like the guys in charge are still adamant about having their own way, pre- and post- GE 2011.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Extra Egg In Their Kway Teow

Without supporting hands, can he stand on his own two feet?
Looks like he used up his list of apologies. The statement from the Prime Minister's Office simply confirmed what was reported by netizens: Although he is now officially a lower ranking ordinary member of parliament, Lee Kuan Yew continues to enjoy the perks of expensive staff support. One full time staff secretary, two clerical officers, a special assistant and a press secretary, all paid not out of his own bulging pockets, but charged to the taxpayers. It's not mentioned, but you can bet your CPF, the security officers and 24/7 Gurkha residential guards are also included in the sweetheart deal. Oh yes, all men are brothers, some are big brothers.

It was easy to see how NKF's TT Durai was much loved and admired in his heydays. After all, he did raise all those millions that made possible subsidized dialysis treatments on a large scale. But when he helped himself to the money on the table, he self destructed his own legacy. Lee is probably doing the same by making a pig of himself at the buffet spread.

Lee was in government for 52 years, including 31 years drawing prime minister pay. Hasn't he accumulated enough to pay for his own expenses? From the photograph, one can see the kind of support he needs to avoid toppling over the champagne glasses (ghostly hand is probably a poor attempt at photoshop by the MSM). We would really prefer to remember him in healthier days, braving the rain speaking to record crowds at a Fullerton Rally (sans self serving apologies, sincere or otherwise), picking himself up after being knocked down a drain by a detractor, and standing up to speak for Singapore's rights in the Malaysian Rakyat. Now, that's something to be proud about, something to wave the flag for.

Goh Chok Tong is also entitled to the goodies, we are told, "Mr Lee and Mr Goh continue to make significant contributions to Singapore, especially internationally." We beg to differ, making friends with Gaddafi and calling Kim Jong-il names are not exactly noteworthy gestures for promoting goodwill and world peace. Both guys had supposedly chosen to step down from Government in May to give PM Lee and his team a "fresh, clean slate" to carry the country forward. From the reality in sight, it looks more like an "old, moldy sheet" that is dragging the country down with dead weights.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Operators Formulating Fare Hikes

Well managed corporations usually address tough market conditions by implementing cost cutting measures such travel freeze, reducing new hires, trimming executive perks, etc, depending on the severity of the situation. Not so SBS Transit and and SMRT Corp - they simply ask the accommodating Gerard Ee (same fella tasked to "review" ministerial salaries) at the Public Transport Council to rubber stamp another hike in bus and train fares. EVP for trains Khoo Hean Seng is going for broke, "With uncontrollable cost increases due to rising fuel costs and manpower costs, we have applied for the maximum fare adjustment of 2.8 percent." It's uncontrollable by the commuters that's for sure, when the greedy buggers pay their CEO obscene salaries and tell you to take the next train if you don't like it.

SBS Transit even went on to enlighten us that they faced cost pressures "despite its efforts to raise productivity." Can management's abject failure to improve productivity, a nation wide goal, be justification to penalise the consumer? That Saw Phaik Hwa must have the easiest job in the world.

The albatross on every commuter's neck is the opaque formula that inputs inflation rate to adjust transportation fare, latter an item in the CPI basket of indices which defines inflation. Go figure. Maybe some kind whistle blower will leak us the formula, and we get to see if it's as flawed as the one used for calculating ministerial salaries.

Recently Brendan Wauters, president & CEO of Senoko Energy, said the new gas turbines which replace 3 decades-old oil-fired units at Woodlands are 2 per cent more efficient, and "reduces the fuel cost and allows to provide more competitively priced electricity for end users." Unfortunately, another opaque formula used by the EMA seems to index prices to current cost of oil, and Wauters' accomplishment will unlikely translate into lower energy cost for lesser mortals. Has someone forgotten about the 325 MMcfd of Natuna gas bought from Indonesia's Pertamina under a 22-year purchase agreement? Those long term contracts were supposed to hedge against the roller coaster ride of oil price fluctuations. Singapore's first deal to buy gas from Indonesia's West Natuna fields was signed in January 1999, worth some $8 billion for Indonesia. Surely that should have provided some relief to the relentless tariff hike.

An ex-PSA staffer told of how an international dredging company once ripped off the statutory board when they charged for the extensive reclamation work contracted. In that formula, which was not carefully vetted by the civil servants, the rate paid by PSA was indexed to the price of coal in Holland. Problem is, the fleet of dredgers run on oil, operating in Singapore waters. And we thought the best brains were in charge.

One thing's for sure, with the present Minister of Transportation installed, aptly name Tuck Yew!, Singaporeans can look forward to be over charged again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Buffoons Beget Buffoons

"Dangerous criminals" corralled by SPF at Bedok Division Station
80 youths - some as young as 12 - were arrested by the Singapore Police Force on Thursday night in the course of a anti-loansharking operation. Some were handcuffed like dangerous criminals and bundled into patrol cars for the traumatic ride to the lock-up. Their transgression - responding to an online ad seeking students to hand out fliers. The father of a 13-year old joining worried parents at the Bedok Police Division station said, "It was basically chaos. Imagine waiting at a police station as your children are being questioned by the police."

Some were released only on posting bail. They have real cause for concern. Technically, the kids can be prosecuted for "assisting in the operations of illegal moneylenders". This is what happens when police go by the letter of the law, instead of the spirit of the law. Even if the fliers were for a new restaurant, and subsequently someone died of food poisoning, the youths could be held as accessories to murder by these clowns. This is what happens when the law enforcers can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, the victims from the victimised.

A police spokesman said the kids were handcuffed "to ensure the safety and security of both suspects and officers would not be compromised as there was a large number of suspects." Armed with baton, gun and taser, and the cop is frightened by a 12 year old in school uniform? Still clueless about the looming public relations disaster and greater social outrage, Commander of Bedok Police Division, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Police (DAC) Teo Chun Ching had the cheek to add, "Parents should be mindful of their children's activities and educate them so that they do not fall prey to these unscrupulous criminals." To that we should add, the minister in charge should be mindful of the police's idiotic antics and educate the public so they do not fall prey to their abuse of authority.

Meanwhile, police released a 600-worded statement in response to the criticism about the handling of Ismil Kadar's wrongful conviction by saying they will motivate officers "to work harder to collect such evidence at the scene of crime". Not a word was mentioned about the more serious observation by the appeals court, "To our consternation, three vital items of evidence were not provided to counsel for the appellants by the prosecution until very late in the proceedings."

And this morning, Aedit Abdullah wrote to the press as Chief Prosecutor for the Attorney General, to complain they had bad press.
Listen, dummy: Ismil was convicted of murder. His lawyer appealled. Else he would have been hanged. Did you file for the appeal? You expect us to believe the high and mighty prosecutor, meaning you, will act on his behalf after stumbling across your own boo-boo?

Aedit admits, even with fresh evidence in hand, they persisted to charge Ismil with committing robbery with hurt. Hello, Ismil was not in the room! His transgression was for selling a stolen mobile phone - have you even read the case notes?

One suspects that most of those blue uniformed must have a IQ lower than Ismil's 75. The tragedy is that the Police Commisioners will be lining up in droves for the National Day Awards. We need our version of Operation Bersih, and clean the crap from the system. Maybe we should hang our flag upside down this August, that's an international sign of distress - SOS - Save Our Singapore.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Going Gaga Doesn't Make It Right

Lady Gaga's take: "It seems fine for children"
Colonel Ong Tze-Ch'in, chairman of the NDP 2011 Show Committee, said: "We're in the process of working with the recording and publishing company to try to secure the rights to modify the lyrics and until then we will not perform the song." After all the negative vibes, they actually intend to pay good money to follow through with the awful "Fun Bag Song". What is it about army officer types and their absolute disconnect with feedback from the ground? Don't answer that one - that general in the Cabinet is a thousand times worse.

The lyrics for Bad Romance are pretty awful to start with:
Caught in a bad romance
Caught in a bad romance

Want your bad romance

Only a critically-acclaimed playwright can make it worse:
Oh o o o o o o o o
Time for the fun pack song
Oh o o o o o o o o
We like the fun pack song

Let’s start with the bag
That’s right, grab your bag
It’s the fun pack bag
Attack the fun pack

They could at least be more attuned to the political groundswell:
I don't know what to say
I now in parliament

There's nothing you can do!
About the cooling rule!
Time now to repent!
I now in parliament

What did PM Lee Hsien Loong say at the Fullerton Rally? "Well, we’re sorry we didn’t get it exactly right, but I hope you’ll understand and bear with us, because we’re trying our best to fix the problems." Putting Tin Pei Ling (MP, Marine Parade GRC) in the Home Affairs and Law Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) will fix her problems with the police report alright. The police report which was lodged against Ms Tin on 12 May 2011 for allegedly posting a snide comment about her opponent Nicole Seah on her Facebook on ‘Cooling-off’ day. Our sympathies go to Investigating Officer Inspector Diong Kok Leong of the Central Police Division, the humour is wearing thin.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Temasek Revelations

Source: Print ad in Straits Times, Friday 8 July 2011
 Singaporeans were allowed a rare peek at how Temasek was doing with the monopoly money today. Analysts like APS Asset Management generally agree that the rates of return achieved were "respectable", but not "particularly impressive". Said one, "It's not a figure you can be jubilant about." Or use to justify the salary increases over the years for the 400 staff, which used to be 92% Singaporean (2004), currently reduced to 66% (2011).

The total returns to shareholder was merely 4.6%, after dumping US$3.6 billion of shares in Bank of China and China Construction Bank (not included for the net profit computation). Temasek MD Nagi Hamiyeh said the divestment was part of the portfolio rebalancing, while reiterating in the same breath, "We are bullish on China in the long term." Why sell if the future looks promising? Another buy high, sell low stratagem like the Bank of America "divestment" in 2Q 2009? Temasek lost US$1 billion in that one deal (188.8 million BOA shares valued at US$13.7 each sold at an average US$8.67 per share).

The bragging rights seem to be about the Temasek portfolio hitting a record $193 billion. But where, may we ask, is the source of funds for the shopping spree?

According to the CIA Factbook release in 2010, Singapore has the 8th highest public debt to GDP ratio in the world after bankrupt states Zimbabwe (1st) and Greece (5th):
The CIA Factbook also notes "Singapore public debt consists largely of Singapore Government Securities (SGS) issued to assist the Central Provident Fund (CPF), which administers Singapore's defined contribution pension fund; special issues of SGS are held by the CPF, and are non-tradeable; the government has not borrowed to finance deficit expenditures since the 1980s." That's our CPF in the quote.

With the kind of lacklustre performance from Temasek, one can see why they are reluctant pay more than 2.5% on our CPF funds. But there's nothing to stop the powers on high to keep increasing the quantum of minimum sum frozen in the CPF accounts (just "revised" to $131,000 on 1 July), money which may generate better returns in the hands of more financial savvy fund managers. The CPF board says that the minimum sum revisions are to ensure that Singaporeans have sufficient savings to meet their healthcare expenses, nothing is mentioned about adding to the pool of play money for the Temasek guys.
Prettier picture in Temasek Review 2011 Annual Report

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Water Strategy

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told water experts at the Singapore International Water Week event that the main challenges to providing clean water and sanitation to Asia’s cities are not technical or even economic – they are political and social. He revealed the Singapore government’s gradual approach to water pricing, which began 15 years ago with a rate of only 1/3 the targeted cost of water. In other words, our price of water has been hiked three-fold according to some nefarious plan. Probably the same kind of plans that set the jaundiced target of a 6 million people population.

His justification? Good water pricing allows water producers to get a return on their investment and make the finances work. So that's how companies like Hyflux makes its money, and government's coffers are topped up with the tax revenue.

We are told PUB has been charged to introduce measures to reduce daily per capita water demand from its 2010 level of 155 litres to 147 litres by 2020. There's nothing said about efforts to reduce the cost of water passed on to the consumers, and help alleviate the burden of inflation and spiralling cost of living. In the write up about the ceramic membrane demonstration plant at Choa Chu Kang Waterworks, the PUB spokesman said the cost savings will help to maintain the price level, not lower it.

Notice the item "Water Conservation Tax" in your monthly water bill. The 30% levy is applied to the total amount consumed, not the excess over some predetermined minimum quantity. Even if you had been extra wastage conscious in your water utilisation, and consumed only, say 60% of the national average for your type of dwelling, you are still punished by this "Water Conservation Tax". To add insult to injury, GST is applied on top of the tax. That's tax upon tax, double taxation. So how does the government get away with it? Simple, the guy who said “If you make it free nobody will bother to turn off the tap,” also said "People support CPF cuts because there are no protest (sic) outside parliament”.

There's an old folk warning that if you throw a frog in boiling water he will quickly jump out. But if you put a frog in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature ever so slowly, the gradual warming will make the frog doze happily...  in fact, the frog will eventually cook to death, without ever waking up. Like all fables, the "boiled frog" anecdote serves its purpose, whether or not it is based on something that is literally true. But it's mighty useful as a political and social tool.

PM Lee said the government increased the water tariff rate over the course of a few years in combination with subsidies for low-income groups and public education campaigns. “Today we price housing water at what it is worth, which is what it would cost us to build desalinate.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Shining Light In The Midst Of Darkness

"To reiterate, the duty of the prosecution is not to secure a conviction at all costs. Rather, the prosecution owes a duty to the court and to the wider public to ensure that only the guilty are convicted," Justice V K Rajah reminded the bungling cops who nearly dispatched a man with an IQ of only 73 to the gallows for a murder he did not commit.

The court of appeal said the prosecution was not even able to establish without a doubt that Ismil was at the scene of the crime, let alone being a party to the robbery or the killing of the deceased. The gravest injustice, and one that is still being perpetrated in the courts of Singapore, has to be the police practice of withholding statements which are crucial for the defence counsels. "To our consternation, three vital items of evidence were not provided to counsel for the appellants by the prosecution until very late in the proceedings." Justice Rajah said it was an ethical duty to produce the statements as the issue of how many intruders were in the flat during the incident went to the very heart of the case. The victim's husband may have been bed ridden because of a stroke, but he had a clear view of the doorway. The police decided to go with a "confession" extracted in the confines of a police car, "recorded" on a piece of paper, and "transferred" to a field diary by a Senior Station Inspector of 28 years experience. If this is standard professional conduct of the SPF, it makes you wonder about the awards handed out by the Home Affairs Minister all these years.

The redeeming element in this sad tale is that lawyer R Thrumurgan stood by his client during the 6 years he was locked up because of the persecutor prosecutor's zeal. A friend who suffered the ignominy of going to court said his arresting officer had recommended a letter of warning for the minor transgression, but the officer's "charge -happy" supervisor had insisted on prosecuting. Although the episode concluded with the charge dismissed at court, the trauma resulted in a year of depression and medication.

There is no great financial reward for Mr Thrumurgan's perseverance, although the judges lauded him for "impassioned advocacy" and "commendable conscientiousness". His own words explain, "It is a privilege to do what we do, to save a life." It is a privilege to have you in the justice system, Mr Thrumurgan, we thank you for restoring our faith in mankind.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Homes For The Homeless

The failed businessman who turned cab driver panned without a hint of the jocular. When the day comes he can't pay his bills, he will lie down on the sidewalk, to be swept up like discarded litter, and deposited into welfare homes by social workers. Not exactly a palatable kind of retirement plan. There lies the answer to the boast, " You go down New York, Broadway. You will see the beggars, people of the streets... Where are the beggars in Singapore? Show me."

The number of homeless picked up by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports reached an all time high last year.

Number of Homeless Picked Up
201033915(50 members)
200921717(82 members)

Of the 271 men and 68 women who made the 2010 list of homeless individuals, 169 were aged 41-59, 130 were 60 years and older.

The MCYS has appointed three shelters to house the human flotsam and jetsam, WAHAH Transitional Shelter, New Hope Community Services and Lakeside Family Centre. Just Parenting Association (JPA) commenced operations of WAHAH Transitional Shelter in June 2010 for families that have been rendered homeless - by social issues like divorce, addiction (alcohol, drugs and gambling), and what the MCYS curiously termed "unwillingness to hold on to a job". WAHAH (meaning ‘oasis’ in Arabic), which caters for displaced families who have young children or elderly members, has 45 families staying at their facilities, with 3 or 4 families crammed into each flat. Due to the lack of available space allocated by the government for housing this segment of the population, 27 families remain on their waiting list. The "lucky" residents are allowed to stay only for a period of between 3 to 6 months, after that, they are on their own. Probably tossed back into the sidewalk to be recycled, like trash.

It looks like MCYS has a lot to do. It also looks like the former minister in charge had his priorities misplaced somewhere, providing lush accommodation for foreign athletes while denying a basic roof for Singapore's destitute.

Don't expect much from the Acting Minister who told reporters after delivering his "Socrates-style" crap, "I did not want to give them my solutions, but work through solutions with them." Translation: "Kee Chiu", come up with something, I'm dying to take credit for it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sleep On The Job No More

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan rapped Business Times for wrong numbers that quoted a land price of $82,222,000 and a maximum GFA of 721,188 square feet for the  the Sim Lian Centrale 8 project at Tampines. According to MND, the "correct" figures were respectively $178,128,000 and 682,385 square feet. The difference of almost $100 million, was eerily close to the discount offered by the developer after an initial outrage of the $880,000 asking price for some units.

BG (NS) Tan Chuan-Jin was first to highlight the boo-boo when he responded online to a netizen's query on the land price paid by Sim Lian. According to him, Sim Lian’s land price paid was $178-$195m and not $82m as claimed by BT. Since Tan was a former army officer, and not former MND staffer or player in the property market, nobody knows where he plucked the figures from. Maybe he got the prices from fellow PAP comrade Ong Ye Kung who missed his GRC ride into parliament because of the unfortunate affiliation with George Yeo's Waterloo at Aljunied. Mrs Ong Ye Kung, nee Diana Kuik, is reported to be an executive director of Sim Lian, and daughter of the owner. Family business in Singapore seems to be all the rage nowadays.

BT explained on Saturday the error arose  because it had inadvertently used the land price of another Sim Lian project - the Premier - to compute the data for Centrale 8. Both developments are located in Tampines. Which begs the interesting question: why should two developments in the same mature estate have a land price difference of nearly two times?

It's easy to challenge the construction costs - the material, the finishing, the landscaping, the facilities, etc - but when we come to the price of land acquired and sold by the government, we are once again at the mercy of the mysterious Chief Valuer. Mah Bow Tan never did let in on how the mechanism works, and it looks like Khaw Boon Wan is also keeping the secrets close to his recently operated on heart.

In his blog, Khaw commented on the stress of his new job, "I have been in MND for five weeks and not sleeping well." Perhaps if he were more open and transparent with the public, and come clean with the HDB costings, the minister might be able to have a better night's rest. Or he could continue to share the guilt-ridden lot of Macbeth,
Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,' --the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Goodbye And Good Riddance

Rumours were rife as speculation spread that Tony Tan could be a candidate for president if SR Nathan would step down at the end of his first term in September 2005. That was the year then Deputy Prime Minister Tan left the cabinet. Tan, 64, had planned to retire when Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister in August 2004, but he was asked to stay on till 30th June 2005 to complete his assignment in home security.

SM Goh Chok Tong, whilst touring Israel and the Palestinian Territories, commented on reports that Nathan had hinted that he would not stand for re-election: "When I read President Nathan's comments in Malaysia, I though the hint was the other way that he may run. There was a certain studied ambiguity in his statement." Goh added, "He has done a very good job. If his health allows it, if he is fit and healthy, he would continue to make a good president."

Nathan had been quoted in the Chinese Daily Muzi News (Lateline News) in Malaysia, "I'm 81, you know? Everybody is speculating. I'm not speculating. I'm hoping to look into retirement."

Back in Singapore, President Nathan chose to take a philosophical stand when approached by reporters again at a Vesak Day event. "When due time comes, you will know the answer. I live by the day, whether I wake up tomorrow morning, I'm not sure," sounding more morose than ambiguous.

The reason for Nathan's uncertainty then was that Tony Tan was the more popular establishment choice. When Tan shied away, Nathan rushed to submit his unsolicited medical report.

Fast forward to 2011, when the mainstream media is lavishing praise on Tan as if he had parted the waters of the Red Sea to set the people free. All hail the man who will heal the polarisation attributed to the recent elections.

I'm 87, you know?
Is it any surprise then to read that "Nathan calls it a day"? Nathan said in a press release that with his 87th birthday coming up, age is the reason why he believes he will be unsuited for the "heavy responsibilities and physical demands". Too bad the other old man, apparently still in office with his retinue of principal private and press secretaries, is not sharing the same thoughts.

Even Nathan had to concede he has earned his "fair share of criticism". Short of an apology, he said, "If I have fallen short, I would like the people of Singapore to know that this has not been for lack of effort or commitment." How about returning all those millions you pocketed for doing zilch?

Of all the nauseating "tributes" collated for face saving gestures, this one takes the cake: "His time in office will be remembered as one of wisdom and compassion." Need we be reminded that all those calls for a presidential pardon for Yong Vui Kong fell on deaf ears and an ice-cold heart?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Electricity Surges Ahead

Once again, inflation rears its ugly head in the form of self afflicted pain by the EMA who sanctioned another round of electrical tariff hike. Of course the exercise is timed after the election is over. All that talk about keeping the Singdollar strong to combat imported inflation, such as the cost of oil, seems to be just that, talk.

From today, cost of electricity will hit a 33-month record high of 27.28 cents per kWh, almost one-fifth  (20 percent) more than what SP services charged Singapore households one year ago. The Utilities-Save rebates will be temporary buffer, with the $20 or $90 handout, depending on type of qualifying HDB flat, providing on the average one month's offset in electrical bills. For the rest of the year and beyond, stock up on candles or charcoal.

EMA's FAQ on liberalisation of the electricity market implemented in Singapore includes this bit:
"Retail contestability will eventually be introduced to the remaining domestic and small non-domestic consumers (with average consumption less than 10,000kWh per month) under the third phase of retail liberalisation. The number of consumers in the third phase is about 1 million, but in terms of electricity sales, they represent only about 25% of total sales in Singapore. Phase 3 of the retail market liberalisation is currently under study."

Retail contestability means that consumers, no matter how big or small, can have a choice of their retailer, our subject of interest being pricey electricity. Changing a retailer means one can choose who sells you electricity, manages your bills, and provides services to you, presumably at the most competitive rate.

While Singaporeans wait (no time frame for the retail market liberalisation study is indicated), SP Services Ltd continues to set the electricity tariffs which are rubber stamped by EMA as the regulator. Electricity tariffs are reviewed quarterly and adjusted (usually upwards) to pass on the changes in fuel cost to consumers. In a 2004 paper, EMA boasted that "the competitive market has reduced prices for customers by 9.5% as it has created incentives for the largest gencos to switch from oil-fired steam generators to more efficient gas turbines."  Does the graph tell you something different?

All the major power plants have been sold and privatised, all the profits have been posted to some reserve account. But not one iota of the money making has trickled down significantly to relieve the relentless march of the tariff hikes. If there's any consolation, CIMB Research says job worries and pullback in consumption in Europe and the US will likely see oil prices come off. Salvation will have to come from external sources, not our own government bodies.