Monday, October 31, 2011

Selecting Good People

People who had a recent opportunity to attend a SHELL recruitment interview will be familiar with the CART system which they are assessed against: Capacity, Achievement, Relation skills and Technical skills. MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Lee Kuan Yew says the Singapore civil service adopted Shell's human resource methodology to select people based on HAIR qualities - their helicopter ability, their power of analysis, their sense of imagination and their sense of reality.

Nobody in their right minds will dispute his comment that the Shell criteria makes a lot of sense, and that there are a lot of good civil servants in the system. But who are the ones who actually get promoted?

The helicopter ability - we assume this refers to the vision to see the forest instead of the trees, and not the helicopter hop into parliament via the GRC system - was evidently not demonstrated in the Orchard Road floods situation. The brown liquids swirling about Starbucks were not from their coffee machines. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Was it analysis that led to the housing shortage, and congested public transportation system? Academics clamouring for access to the raw data are eager to run them through their own set of computations, and see whether the computer should be blamed. As we know, drug offence incidences can be on the rise or ebb, depending on the number crunching system opted for.

Imaginative powers, coupled with euphoria from being cocooned in the ivory towers, can be pretty deceiving. Problem is, the Swiss standard of living imagined by some may not be translated easily to those at the bottom of the food chain. Especially those collecting used cardboard for subsistence. For them, a million dollar salary or $150,000 allowance can only be a figment of imagination.

And what's more unreal than the level of compensation accorded to some civil servants? Observing the recent parliament in session, one notes some of the performances by the MPs, those who bothered to show up at all, are downright surreal. Said PM Lee: "This is not just a show, it's not just theatre." Prove it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Refresher Course In Politics

With his tousled hair, the questioner looked like a Rip Van Winkle who was rudely interrupted from his long siesta to do some productive work. Rising just in time to catch the tail end of Low Thia Khiang's speech, he asked: "My question is, in what way does he think the field is not level for the opposition party?"

Mr Low made it easy enough for a 4-year-old to understand, "To cut it short, simply put it, that the GRC system is something which has not given the opposition a level playing field." One member sitting directly behind Low was visibly trying to stifle his snicker. Man, how long has the guy been sleeping?

By now, every kid in a Singapore school knows what gerrymander is. It is the root cause why you get to see your MP only once a year. Why should he or she bother to visit the constituents if the electoral boundaries are re-drawn every time before a general election is conducted? Why risk a health hazard by shaking hands with a fishmonger or pork seller (depending on the story telling) when one could be clinking champagne glasses at a "good class bungalow" ward?

It was the nineteen-century Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, who has given his name to a practice that undermines democracy. He is said to have drawn up a district map of the United States. A cartoonist then satirized the shape of one electoral region by adding a head, wings, and claws and declaring, 'That will do for a salamander.' Another retorted, 'Gerrymander'. Thus a word was born that refers to a practice of manipulating electoral districts unfairly in order to secure disproportionate representation. ("Dining With Terrorists", Phil Rees, Pan Macmillan 2005, page 187).

It may be argued that even with the advantages of carving up the country to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible, a SMC candidate still has to put in some token effort as some core residents may not have been afftected by the geographical redistribution. Not so the GRC guy. The chap who was introduced with much pomp and ceremony in one constituency can end up parachuting into another kilometers away in a wink of an eye. And guaranteed a ride into parliament. Such is the level playing field in local politics.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wisdom From The Past

In the temptation scene of the 2010 Chinese blockbuster "Confucius", the sage(played by Chow Yun-Fat) said in response to an immodest proposal from Nanzi, the infamous consort in the Kingdom of Wei: 微臣從沒見過, 如斯好德如好色的人

That line is from the Analects of Confucius 9.19:
The Master said, "I have yet to meet a man who loves Virtue as much as he loves female beauty."

There are many interpretations of the sage's message of self cultivation, one being that if people love virtue as much as they love female beauty, then they will discard immorality and return to rectitude. Xie Liangzuo expresses it best:
"Loving a beautiful woman or hating a foul smell - these are examples of sincerity. If one could only love Virtue the way one loves female beauty, this would mean sincerely loving Virtue. Unfortunately, few among the people are able to do this."

Confucius puts it more explicitly in Analect 9.24:
The Master said, "When a man is rebuked with exemplary words after having made a mistake, he cannot help but agree with them. However, what is important is that he change himself in order to accord with them. When a man is praised with words of respect, he cannot help but be pleased with them. However, what is important is that he actually lives up to them. A person who finds respectful words pleasing but does not live up to them, or agrees with others' reproaches and yet does not change - there is nothing I can do with one such as this." ("Confucius Analects: with selections from traditional commentaries," translated by Edward Slingerland, Hackett Publishing 2003)

In the aftermath of the recent skirmishes in parliament, one Minister has acknowledged that his political party does not have the monopoly of talent. If the exercise turned out to be a moral education for our schools, the lesson is timely.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Quest For More Information

Was Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, the right person to ask if his ministry would consider looking at the suitability of a Freedom of Information Act for Singapore? He's probably still sore WikiLeaks revealed the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs since 2002 "has a more open-minded interpretation of the Koran" and said his Puerto Rico born wife converted to Islam to "satisfy the conservative standards of Singapore".

Academics, economists and sociologists are demanding more than the "pledge to share more information." They want the raw data, instead of the ad hoc releases from the official propaganda machine. We have seen how Lawrence Wong massaged the MOM statistic about how the bottom 20 percent income earners stagnated over the past decade. Wong broke the numbers into first half of the decade with a negative plunge, and second half of the decade with the recovery, emphasizing the second to cover the pain of the first, and ignoring the same end result: real monthly income change for the 20th percentile of 0.3% for 2001-2010.

Researchers and university dons seem to focus on the two hot-button issues - foreigners and wages. But the data which merits closer scrutiny is the costing for the HDB flats. Recall the "Report on The National Kidney Foundation" dated 16 December 2005 by KPMG which stumbled across the TT Durai style of accounting:

6.11.1 The NKF reported in its Investment Report 2004 that it enabled its patients to save in excess of $3.5 million in treatment costs by providing subsidies for costly medication and by bringing down drug prices.

6.11.2 We found that the amount of such savings was derived from the difference between the prices charged by NKF and a notional market price of drugs based on estimated annual consumption in 2004 instead of the difference between the prices charged by the NKF and the actual prices of drugs paid by the NKF. These savings were reflected in invoices given to patients.

6.11.3 We found that the stated cost of drugs dispensed to patients as reflected in the invoices closely approximated the market price of the drugs.

One may argue that, going by the dictionary definition of subsidy, being "Monetary assistance granted by a government to a person or group in support of an enterprise regarded as being in the public interest," HDB flats are subsidised. But what if the actual accounting is a facsimile of the NKF model? In his last dying gasps as Minister of National Development, Mah Bow Tan muddied the waters further by adding the notion of national reserves into the costing.

There is anecdotal evidence that the subsidised medication from our Healthcare system may be sourced cheaper across the Causeway. In the Michael Moore 2007 documentary "Sicko", Americans crossed the border to Canada for more affordable medicine. Since Singapore is a duty free station, there should be no significant disparity in prices of pharmaceutical products in JB. Unless the bean counters have a different philosophy in preparing the books. Will a Freedom of Information Act provide any illumination in such murky waters?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Media Re-Visited

Responding to Pritam Singh's call in parliament to improve communications with Singaporeans in the digital age, MP Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked Mr Singh if he thought there was indirect control of the mainstream media by the Government. Cued by the scent of blood,  Law Minister K Shanmugam joined in the gang bang and pressed him "to put your hand on your heart and say this is what I believe in."

Pritam Singh could have easily neutered the ravenous predators by quoting from WikiLeaks cable referenced 09SINGAPORE61:
¶3. (C) Singapore journalists tell us they are increasingly frustrated with the obstacles they face in reporting on sensitive domestic issues.  Reporters have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore's leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership, Chua xxxx xxx (strictly protect), the new Straits Times (ST) U.S. Bureau Chief (former China Bureau Chief) told Poloff January 6.
Chua lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line.

Or highlight the appointment of Lee Boon Yang as director of Singapore Press Holdings on Oct 1, in preparation for  re-election on Dec 1 to make him Chairman of the Board. Surely there are sufficient senior staff within the organisation to merit the post after years of faithful service? Lee is another of those ministers who can't seem to be able to find a real job in the private sector after being retired in 2009.

Or go further back in time to quote the observation of the Australian Committee of the International Press Institute (IPI):
"Many politicians in free countries, sensitive to exposure of their weaknesses and failings by the press, thirst for the very powers which Mr Lee Kuan Yew threatened to employ in Singapore.  Such threats are a menace not only to newspapers and newspapermen everywhere but also to the already dwindling liberties of all free men." (ST, May 28, 1959)

And if anyone still misses the point, here's a no holds barred advisory from ST Editor Leslie Fong,
"Where the issue in question is one over which the government has taken a determined stand, there is no doubt whose view will prevail. Should any journalist feel that he cannot accept such an outcome, then resignation is the only honourable course open to him. This is just one of the harsh realities which the press here faces." (Roger Mitton, "The Long Story, What Role For The Press? Singapore's Answers", Asiaweek, September 25, 1992).

Please treat our journalists kindly. These guys are under tremendous pressure.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Comic Relief

How can you write a book and not deliver the facts? The author does not elaborate on many details, readers have to piece together the links between Thaksin, the coup and the role of the palace. Ezra Vogel was criticized for a 900+ page tome that gives little away about his subject, Deng Xiaoping. But Deng is dead. Tom Plate's Thakshin Shinawattra is alive and well in Dubai, trying to "make do" with US$100 million at his 7-bedroom, 2-stories-plus-basement Emirates Hills villa. Why didn't he just ask?

Plate is worried about lèse-majesté, the Thai laws that protect their King and Queen from unfavourable commentary. Although mention is made of the WikiLeaks report - about a war against Thaksin and Prem Tinsulanond as schemer-in-chief for the palace - he allows Thaksin to shy away from the topic by saying "if I were to comment on this, I would say, let's forget the past." If Vogel's biography about Deng leaves readers hungry for more, Plate's third book of his Giants Of Asia series makes one wonder why he chose Thaksin as a case study if he can't get the simplest truth out of him.

He lets Thaksin argue his wife's Land-Purchase Deal was above board because it was done through a public auction. He lets Thaksin present the sale of Shin Corporation to Temasek as a divestment to deflect criticism of mixing politics with private business. Instead of confronting Thaksin with the low price wife Pojaman paid - one third of the prior-assessed value - and the clever structure of the Shin deal to evade Thai taxes, Plate parks the inconvenient details at the back of the book, under "Appendix".

Who cares whether Thaksin has 8 or 12 cell phones? Or how many passports he carries. Or that he used the work site toilet while making impromptu check on the construction progress of the Suvarnabhumi Airport. Or that that he loses when playing golf with Goh Chok Tong. Thaksin blames the weather in Singapore, "Yes, and maybe also the helicopter security overhead all the time... bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-boo all the time." [laughs] (page 83). Wait a minute, who pays for the "helicopter security"? Aren't we told the PM's package is all pay but no perks?

If you go for that kind of reading material, here's how the two pontificate over Mahathir's pension (US$3,000 a month) and Thaksin's salary as Prime Minister of Thailand (also US$3,000 a month - but no pension, according to Thaksin) :-
Tom Plate: "Speaking of Lee... someone said to me, 'Do you realize that Lee Kuan Yew, as minister mentor', even when he was only a minister mentor, not the prime minister, 'was making a government salary of millions of dollars a year? What do you think of that?' "
Plate ask Thaksin, "You know what Lee Kuan Yew has said?"
Thaksin: "What?"
Plate: "He said, 'pay peanut, get monkey!' "

The book is still unavailable in Bangkok, despite being in bookstores in other cities in the region such as Singapore. But don't waste your money, just borrow it from the National Library for comic relief.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Master Class

Uncle is rejuvenated each time he recalls, eons ago, being thunderstruck when Francis Seow addressed the rally at Cheng San Eunos, reminding the massive turnout that only one person in history can credibly claim the ability to rise from the grave. The policeman standing next to him was more shocked when he, in his naïveté of youth, uttered aloud spontaneously, "Omigosh, this guy could be our next premier!" The cop was fidgeting with a cheap model Ecolac attache case, crammed with 3 or 4 vintage Walkman-type recorders, gathering material surreptitiously to sue the pants off any politician with a careless word. How was he going to erase the truth expressed from the groundswell?

It must be déjà vu for him, coupled with a touch of nostalgia, to read the print version of Low Thia Khiang's masterly performance in parliament. How we wish parliamentary debates were broadcast live on TV. The sight of court jester Lim Swee Say and company cringing at his words, squirming in their seats, must be priceless.

"I think is is high time the PAP MPs refrain from using this (pitfalls of a welfare state) as a red herring to kill debate on alternative solutions and mechanisms to those proposed by the Government." Ouch!

"It seems to me that more often than not, the policy trade-off was biased against the people, especially those who are adversely affected." Double ouch!

Low expands on Lim's CBF doctrine
Low made reference to the threshold of pain, using the colloquial expression tahan (Malay for withstand), that citizens have stoically  experienced while putting up with bad governance instances that inflicted the scorch of housing woes, infrastructure shortcomings, foreign hordes, etc. The list is long, and too painful to regurgitate. "But when the people tak boleh tahan, the Government will get hit during the election, " reminded Mr Low. Lim Swee Say must have asked of the genie from the magic lamp of his wacky bed-time story, wishing "to be beaten half to death." Be careful what you wish for, Mr Lim, look at what just happened to Gaddafi. Even an euphemistic version of his inglorious finale must be tough to tahan.

After the shock and awe of the brass knuckles, Low laid on thick with the velvet gloves, "I am happy to note the PAP has done some reflection on ground reactions, and the Government has responded to some of the concerns of the people," alluding to PM Lee's pledge on Thursday (adding to the longer list of earlier, yet to be delivered, election promises) to strengthen the social safety net.

Omigosh, this guy could be our next premier!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Advocates Of Terror

DPM Teo Chee Hean invoked all incantations of ghosts of spectres past like "Marxist conspirators" and "domino theories" to scare the daylights out of you and justify the retention of the ISA. Halloween isn't even due till October 31st. For the record, Vietnam fell and the dominoes never did tumble into Thailand, or other SEA countries, as the fear mongering Americans predicted. Teo maintains ISA is a shield to protect us from terrorism, and other nasties such as foreign subversion, espionage and racial agitation. But who is terrorising who?

Writing in "Dining With Terrorists," Phil Rees noted that the United Nations spent 17 years trying to draw up a definition that all its members would accept, and failed. No armchair journalist, the author actually travelled afar to dine (hence the title) with advocates of armed conflict like Hamas, Tamil Tigers, Albanian KLA, Colombia's FARC, Taliban and Chechnya fighters, to find out if the old adage that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter still applies.

Prior to September 11, the United States of America often aligned with "freedom fighters" confronting colonial power. After all, America itself was birthed from violent rebellion against oppressive British colonialists. The Boston Tea Party, the revolt that sparked the War of Independence, was an act of heroism or terrorism, depending on which side of the Atlantic you stood. (page 18)

Then "terrorism" was a term applied to violence committed by non-state actors developed after the Second World War. As nationalist groups throughout Asia emerged to overthrow their colonial masters, British and French governments used the term to describe their adversaries in news reports.  In Malaysia, insurgents fighting the Brits for national liberation were simply called "CTs", communist terrorists.

Post 9/11, Palestinians brandishing AK-47s present the face of terror on television screens. Ironically, underground Jewish militias like the Stern Gang and the Irgun Zvai Le'umi, were also terrorists in the Middle East. Yitzhak Shamir, who later became Israeli Prime Minister, wrote an August 1943 article entitled "Terror", for the journal of the Stern Gang, "First and foremost, terror is for us a part of the political war appropriate for the circumstances of today." Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela's ANC was not squeamish about employing violence to overthrow apartheid.

The compact edition of the Oxford Dictionary defines:
Terrorism: n  A system of terror. 1. Government by intimidation as directed and carried out by the party in power in France during the revolution of 1789-94; the system of "Terror". 2. gen. A policy intended into strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or the condition of being terrorized.

Teo resisted against replacing the ISA with a Terrorism Act as the Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act of 2007 would not allow pre-emptive action against those who have not yet committed overt deeds that warrant prosecution. Arguing against the right of public trial, he claims "the very airing of these incendiary issues in a public trial can further exacerbate an already volatile situation." Which speaks volumes about the lame discourses in parliament. The ISA is more terrifying than one can imagine.
Quiz: Was Muammar Gaddafi killed by "terrorists"?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Myth Of The Three Ms

Both Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam of the Workers' Party made mention of elderly parents' heavy reliance on their children's Medisave accounts to settle medical bills. Despite the announcements of more hospital beds in the pipeline, such as the extra 200 beds for Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, the affordability of healthcare remain a thorny problem to be addressed.

According to the World Health Report 2000, Singapore is ranked 6th for Overall Performance. However, if you look at Annex Table 7, "Fairness of financial contribution to health systems", Singapore is ranked 101th, sharing the dubious honor with Lebanon, in a list of 191 countries. The measurement of achievement in fairness of financial contribution has reference to a household's payment towards the health system through income taxes, value added tax (GST), social security contributions (CPF), private insurance and out-of-pocket payments. Singapore spends only 3% of the national GDP for healthcare, the balance of the burden rests on co-payment. No wonder the system has been described as potentially a "very difficult system to replicate in many other countries."

Singaporeans contribute 6.5 - 9% (up from 6 - 8% before September 2010) of their earnings to Medisave, a significant chunk of the CPF cut. According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), the average out-of-pocket hospital bill for C Class hospitalisation, after the 80 per cent subsidy, is about $ 1,097. The level of savings in MediSave as at end 2006, is $ 9,300 at the 50th percentile, but what is the MediSave account balance for the 20th percentile ? How many have less than $ 1,097 in their MediSave accounts?

Even for the better off, big bills are always a threat. To ensure that Singaporeans can afford catastrophic bills - and have to depend on a caring Government to help out - they are strongly encouraged to 'risk- pool' by taking up MediShield. The brochure says MediShield will pay up to 80% of the actual expenditure, always subject to the claimable limit. You need cash for the co-insurance and deductible, a deductible that starts at $1,000 and goes up to $3,000 for the aged who really need the financial cover. Although Medishield was conceived for longer hospital stays, the daily charges - $450 (normal ward), $900 (ICU) - are not exactly peanuts.

Medisave will not be enough for wards higher than Class B2 and private hospitals, is the explicit warning on the CPF website. For stronger protection, private medical insurance plans are recommended under the Private Medical Insurance Scheme (PMIS). From October 2005, the Central Provident Fund (CPFB) privatised its MediShield Plus plans through a Tender Evaluation Committee (TEC) chaired by Mr Gerard Ee, same guy taking his time evaluating the bloated ministerial salaries. Funny how his name pops up in all the right places.

Medifund is an endowment fund set up by the Government to help needy Singaporeans who are unable to pay for their medical expenses. SGH makes it clear Medifund help is for patients who are facing financial hardship. It is not an entitlement. Patients have to fulfil certain income criteria before the applications can be approved. In most cases, the program will only assist with 60 percent of the expense. In 2006, $39.6 million from Medifund was given to 20,000 to 30,000 patients for a record 301,126 successful applications - average payout of $132 per application. Be prepared to beg.

So has Singapore’s Healthcare policies met the needs of the people? If they have, the Government would not have bothered to announce plans to boost healthcare infrastructure and manpower in the next 5 years. The Ministry of Health is also re-looking means testing, introduced in 2009, "While continuing to target subsidies, we will rationalise and streamline the means-testing approaches." One last word on means testing in Singapore: People with no income, such as retirees or housewives, have their subsidy rate pegged to the Annual Value of their homes. The IRAS in its infinite wisdom has determined that AV is the estimated annual rent of your property if it were to be rented out. Even if you are using it as a basic roof over your head. Rationalise that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Betting On The Bank

Temasek is sitting on a paper loss. Their hoarding of 430 million of Stanchart shares (18.2% estimated at £5.9 bn) started with the purchase of a 11.5 % stake from Khoo Teck Puat's estate in 2006. Then Stanchart shares were trading at £15.24, when the exchange rate was S$2.90 to £1.

Stanchart shares are currently trading at £13.73 (yesterday's quote); the highest level reached during last year was £19.75. The British £ has also taken a pounding, diving from S$2.90 to S$2 yesterday, a stomach churning plunge of 30%. Yahoo! Finance indicates today's range will be £1.9907 - £1.9937.

So what fool (as in "fool me, hah?') would bet that the Stanchart share price would go up 27% in 3 years' time? That's a tantalising return of 9% per annum, assuming the pound-euro correlation doesn't get any worse. Reuters is reporting a sterling drop, as latest UK data adds to the gloomy outlook.

That's the premise of Temasek's of bond offer. The zero coupon bonds which mature in 2014 can be exchanged for Stanchart shares at £36.29 S$36.29 per share during a 3 year holding period, a 27% premium over Monday's price of £14.29 on the London Stock Exchange. Or get your cash back 3 years later with zero payout. That's worse than the pathetic rate of return for FDs at local banks. What Temasek gets in return is an opportunity to offload its bad investment to a bunch of daft investors.

A remisier friend said the stock market is founded on the greater fool theory - one fool buys, and hopes for another fool to come along and pay a higher price. After the debacle of the Lehman shabby deals, is this type of business still legal? Bank of America Merrill Lynch is the lead manager and sole book runner for the bond offer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Happiness Is Not For Everyone

Conceived as a measure to relieve traffic congestion, the ERP system was a stillborn from day one. Whether one is rushing to work, or heading home for quality time with the family, the rare alternative route, if one is available at all, would be destination to another traffic jam. Take the train, and risk another hold-up, as in yesterday's instance of disruption at two sections of the MRT system. Both were attributed to train faults, probably euphemism for mechanical failure or another botched maintenance job.

So exactly how does changing the operating hours of the north bound CTE from 5.30 to 8pm, instead of till 10.30 pm on weekdays, ensure a smooth traffic flow? It doesn't. The real reason behind the scam is found in Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew's Freudian slip, that there was room to shorten the evening ERP hours in selected areas, "especially if personal benefits outweighed economic ones." Need we expound on who benefits from the ERP charges collected?

When extended evening ERP hours were introduced for the CTE in 2007 - right after GE 2006 - motorists had highlighted the move will hit those who value dinner time with the family, instead of another night out at the karaoke lounges. It took them till now - after the election setback of GE 2011 - to "give motorists greater flexibility in timing their homebound trips."

No wonder Sylvia Lim's call for more a more holistic economic indicator, one that includes happiness, fell on deaf ears. "Prosperity and progress are certainly important, but they cannot be ends in themselves. They should be the means to an end - the happiness of Singaporeans as a whole," she said. Trust the dense Cedric fool to insist that happiness is not a universal attribute, that a smile in a Bhutan is different from a smile in Singapore. By his logic, because "we are exposed to the seas, exposed to the onslaught of competition from the world, we were dealt a different deck of cards", we should wipe the smirk off our faces. Except for those laughing all the way to the bank to collect their GDP-linked bonuses.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Take Down Of Temasek

Sinestro (Mark Strong) told Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) in Martin Campbell 's Green Lantern, "The Corp is only as strong as its weakest link." The Sunday Times reported that a man who has been linked to the Temasek Review sociopolitical website was arrested last month for offences under the Parliamentary Elections Act. Dr Ong's alleged transgression was conducting an exit poll during the general election on May 7.

Little is known about the regulation about an exit poll. More people are familiar with the Cooling Off Day ruling that was breached by the Kate Spade MP from Marine Parade GRC and her mysterious administrator friend. Latter was supposedly given a police warning but, unlike the accused doctor, her picture was never published in the mainstream media.

Australian company UMR Research also conducted a pre-election poll between May 3 and May 5. The survey findings were published by news wire agencies such as Associated Press, Reuters and Deutsche Presse-Agentur before the polling stations in Singapore closed at 8pm on May 7. UMR spokesperson David Utting claimed that it did not run afoul of the Singapore laws, "UMR has not 'published or caused to be published' this opinion poll in was released in Germany. AP published it." AP, Reuters and Deutsche Presse-Agentur apparently have not been invited for coffee by the police to help in their investigations.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at the Nanyang Technological University, said that the law was "very broad". Political risk consultant Azhar Ghani noted that the issue does not lie in whether the poll was done by an overseas company but on the law which is "silent" on where the publication of survey results could take place: While election advertising regulations specifically mention the Internet, the law on election surveys does not, Mr Azhar noted.

Like the police investigation of Tin Pei Ling, we will probably never get to the bottom of the story. Especially since PM Lee appointed her as a member of the Home Affairs and Law Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) while the investigations were still in progress. Frankly, most of us don't give a damn - she will serve as a constant reminder of the the tumour in the system. What pricks our curiousity is whether the doctor's troubles have anything to do with the take down of Temasek Review. The scant information available is that the site is located overseas.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Pension Report Card

Thanks to input from a reader (anon@October 13, 2011 4:03 PM), we know how Singapore is ranked according to the Global Pension Index 2011. The Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index compares retirement income systems around the world and rates them based on their adequacy, sustainability and integrity.

The following table shows how Singapore fared when compared to 15 other countries:

The Singaporean index value fell from 59.6 in 2010 to 56.7 in 2011 due to a reduction in each of the three sub-indexes, including "Adequacy", which carries a weighting of 40 percent . The Adequacy sub-index represents the benefits that are currently being provided, such as "Benefits", "Savings", "Tax Support", "Benefit Design", and "Growth Assets", all of which must sound Greek to the average Singaporean. The people who are enjoying these benefits seem to be in the top income tax bracket.

The report attributed the fall in index value to 56.7 in 2011 to several reasons: a lower net household saving rate, reduced pension coverage and the effect of some new investment rules. Let's hope the last bit does not refer the games that GIC and Temasek plays with our CPF.

Grade C (index value 50–65) is given to a system that has some good features, but also has major risks and/or shortcomings that should be addressed. Without these improvements, its efficacy and/or long-term sustainability are questionable.

Interestingly, mention is made of common challenges in flaky retirement income systems which include "Reducing the leakage from the retirement savings system prior to an individual’s retirement". Oh yes, we recognise the leak to the HDB coffers, but how to plug it?

Here's how the country stands in the overall scores:

1  Netherlands - 77.9
2  Australia - 75.0
3  Switzerland - 72.7
4  Sweden - 72.6
5  Canada - 69.1
6  United Kingdom - 66.0
7  Chile - 64.9
8  Poland - 58.6
9  Brazil - 58.4
10  United States - 58.1
11  Singapore - 56.7
12  France - 54.4
13  Germany - 54.2
14  Japan - 43.9
15  India - 43.4
16  China - 42.5
It looks like the Swiss standard of living is still a long way to go.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Down And Out In Singapore And Other Countries

You've paid your taxes, your CPF contributions, completed your National Service obligations, yet you perennially worry about ending up like one of those who can't afford to retire. According to the latest CPF Life Report, about 60 per cent of Active CPF Members will have only $67,000 or less in 2013. That's less than the current CPF Minimum Sum of $131,000, money barely sufficient to tide you over the evening years.

Suppose you are old, single, and have no income or property.

In Australia you get an Age Pension after age 65 of A$689.00 per fortnight (approx S$1,700 per month).

A Pension Supplement of A$58.40 per fortnight to offset GST, Pharmaceutical, Telephone, Utilities expenses.

And a Pensioner Concession Card that entitles you to:
- reductions on property and water rates
- reductions on energy bills
- a telephone allowance
- reduced fares on public transport
- reductions on motor vehicle registration
- free rail journeys

In Canada you get the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and The Old Age Security pension (or OAS or OAS-GIS).

 The Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is a contributory, earnings-related social insurance program. In 2011, the prescribed contribution rate is 4.95% of a salaried worker's gross employment income between $3,500 and $48,300, up to a maximum contribution of $2,217.60. The employer matches the employee contribution, effectively doubling the contributions of the employee. When the contributor reaches the normal retirement age of 65, the CPP provides regular pension benefit payments to the contributor, calculated as 25% of the average contributory maximum over the entire working life of a contributor.

The Old Age Security pension (or OAS or OAS-GIS) is a taxable monthly social security payment available to most Canadians 65 years of age or older. As of July, 2011, the basic amount is C$533.70 per month.

The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) is for low income pensioners who earn little or no other income. The Old Age Security is supplemented by a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is considered non-taxable income. As of July 2006, the maximum supplement for a single individual with no other source of income is C$597.53.

For a guy with no CPP, the OAS-GIS would pay out C$533.70 plus C$597.53 (approx S$1,300 per month).

Sets you thinking, doesn't it?

Of course it's all paid for by the taxpayers. In Australia only those earning above A$6,000 a month pay tax (starts at 15% rate), in Canada combined federal/provincial taxes kick in at 9.9% for the first C$20,000 (annual income). But comprehensive medicare is thrown in for free. Baby deliveries are F.O.C. at public hospitals in Australia. In Singapore, on top of income tax and the regressive GST, 36% is put away for CPF every month. Why are we still fearful of getting sick at old age?

The Ministry of Health is blowing a trumpet about its vision to "enable all Singaporeans to live well, live long and enjoy peace of mind." You may ask the Minister a simple question, "Where's the beef, Mr Gan?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hang On To Your Day Job

Responding to a question about what Singapore could do to narrow its income gap, Lee Kuan said in October 2009, "'Never mind your Gini coefficient. If you don't have a job you get zero against those with jobs." The 4th year social sciences and business student from the Singapore Management University had asked him what Singapore could do to help its bottom 20 per cent.

True to his plans, Ministry of Manpower (MOM) data released yesterday showed that while middle incomes rose more than 10 percent over the past decade, the bottom feeders at the 20 percentile stagnated. Even the statisticians had to admit the Gini coefficient was "high", comparable to Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles, cities which attract movie stars and other high flyers. But don't blame Gong Li or Jet Li (no relation) for picking up a red passport, focus instead on the multi-farious government promises that were supposed to help the poor. As in the President's pledge to "seek high quality, inclusive growth that benefits all citizens, not just the lucky few". Lee didn't even bother to attend the opening of parliament to hear that line, he's off on another high flying junket to receive some legacy award. Lucky him. Doubtless, Abe Lincoln must be rolling in his grave.

On the jobs front, although unemployment rate was at 3.1 percent, jobless Singaporeans aged 50 and above stayed unemployed for longer periods - 12 weeks, compared to the average 8 weeks for all citizens. The MOM report said they were too discouraged to pound the pavement on another futile job search.

Ex-minister George Yeo, 57, unemployed since May 2011, should be delirious and jumping up and down like Tom Cruise did on Oprah's sofa. He just beat the odds and landed a Senior Advisor appointment with Malaysian conglomerate Kuok Brothers. Strange enough, he's not popping the champagne bottle yet, but played it down as "an informal arrangement." As in guanxi, the Chinese euphemism for quid pro quo. He said, "I'll join private sector next year. Not decided yet what or where." Which is curious, considering that the Kuok Group, run by "sugar king" Robert Kuok, dealing in chemical, scrap steel and fertilisers, is as private sector as they come. Unless they have plans for government projects, and Yeo is fearful of compromising his Official Secrets Act obligations. The guy was minister for information and the arts, health, trade and industry, and foreign affairs - surely he must be good for something. Unless it was pure wayang all along.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Dagger Behind The Smiles

District Judge Lim Tse Haw must have pinched himself to make sure he had not dozed off and started to hear weird stuff. The businessman in the dock was claiming that he was physically abused by the police for 4 hours. Even at Abu Ghraib, the tormentors didn't use soiled underwear to cover the heads of detainees.

Torture, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (an advisory measure of the UN General Assembly) is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession. The motive for torture can also be for the sadistic gratification of the torturer, as in the Moors murders carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in Greater Manchester, England. Human rights supporters argue that, under torture, a man will confess to anything.

The judge's reaction was to recommend that prosecution reassign another investigation officer (IO) for the case. Judge also granted the prosecution's application to remand the accused for another week. One can imagine the eager boys in blue salivating in anticipation of another opportunity to work on the prisoner again.

The words of the accused's wife has been heard countless times before, "Don't you think that he deserves a fair treatment?  He is innocent until proven guilty." Why is it that the presumption of innocence, sometimes referred by the Latin "Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat" (the principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty) such a difficult concept for the law enforcers?

The police refused to comment on the grounds that the case is before the courts, except saying, "If criminal offences are disclosed, police would not hesitate to bring criminal charges against he errant officer." And then immediately proceeded to point the threatening dagger in the opposite direction, warning that "appropriation action will be taken against anyone who makes false allegations."

The bard rightly pointed out in Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 3:
"Where we are, There's daggers in men's smiles"

Monday, October 10, 2011

We Should Be So Grateful

This has to be a uniquely Singapore social phenomenon. After jacking up public transport costs, the Government attempted to soften their heartless image by offering to give away 200,000 vouchers for $20 coupons. Steve Jobs is said to have walked 6 miles for a free meal at a Hare Krishna kitchen, but to date only 92,000 applications for these free transport vouchers have been approved. It beggars to ask, why is the take up rate so pathetic?

The generosity of the Government was also publicised in the Ministry for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) offer of help for Eldercare subsidies. A targeted 5,600 households are supposed to benefit from a 25 percent subsidy to offset day care and home help costs for the elderly. The take up rate for this scheme has yet to be reported.

A quick check with the Eldercare Service Locator at the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) website shows that most of the centres are "Voluntary Welfare Organisations not under Government Subsidies". Those that qualify for subsidies are under the "MOH Purview". Which presumably means subject to the much detested MOH Means Test that Minister Khaw Boon Wan said will not be introduced during the 2006 electoral hustings, but quietly implemented after the election was over.

For those looking for a leg up with a nursing home, there are other hoops to jump through. Patients have to be graded Category I through IV, using following sample parameters to assess qualification for assistance:
  • Mobility dependency
  • Feeding dependency
  • Grooming and Bathing dependency
  • Toileting dependency
  • Cognitive or mental issues
  • Nursing care needs
The patient has to be classified Category III or IV before financial help is even discussed.

The transport vouchers amount to $4 million, the MCYS effort is estimated at $5 million. These are big numbers for those in dire need of financial assistance to offset the $300 to $500 per month charges at the 22 day care centres that presumably qualify for Government subsidy. Nursing homes charge more, as much as $2,000 a month. Compare the largess set aside for the citizens to the $4 million paid to a Mr Tan annually, and another $4 million budgeted for the upkeep of the Istana. What was the descriptive used by Mrs Goh Chok Tong? Peanuts.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

An Advance Medical Directive (AMD) is a legal document that you sign in advance to inform the doctor treating you (in the event you become terminally ill and unconscious) that you do not want any extraordinary life-sustaining treatment to be used to prolong your life. The law allows Singaporeans who wish to make an advance medical directive to do so. The AMD Act was passed in Parliament in May 1996.

Dr Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute, told The Straits Times why she was among the first to sign the Advance Medical Directive, "When I say I will carry on until I cannot carry on any more, I have no intention of lingering." According to her, dad also signed an AMD years ago, but said not to tell her mom. Although some doctors took pains to stress that the AMD is not the same as euthanasia whereby one omits treatment or gives treatment with the intention to kill off a patient, the practical reality of cost to sustain life is obviously in the equation when the Government is not prepared to pick up the bill. Not everybody in Singapore can afford round the clock nursing to care for someone diagnosed as terminally ill.

But what the fish is the Office of the Public Guardian trying to achieve with the "Lasting Power of Attorney"? The Mental Capacity Act, which took effect in March last year, allows people to appoint a third party to make decisions for them "if and when they become unable to make decisions for themselves". The OPG is tasked to protect vulnerable people who have lost their ability to take care of themselves as a result of intellectual disability or problems associated with illness and old age, such as dementia. Apparently 1 in 12 Singaporeans aged 65 and above is likely to develop dementia by 2020 - which sets you wondering what is the mental state of an 88 year old. With this piece of paper, authority and responsibility is passed to the nominated caregiver. Which means Ah Kong can be kicked to a dump in Batam, Bintang or Johore even if the old geezer wants spend his last days, and last penny, at a resort style nursing home in the Bahamas, or marry Anna Nicole Smith like the elderly oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall did at age 89. But if grandpa has zilch in his CPF, do you think his kin will want to be legally committed? It's probably another variant of the Maintenance of Parents Act, which provides for Singapore residents aged 60 years old and above, who are unable to subsist on their own, to claim maintenance from their children instead of the State. If you are looking for Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors like the Old Age Security (OAS) program, you'll have to move to Canada.

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing decided to lead by example by appointing his wife to take charge of his welfare should he turn cuckoo prematurely. Maybe he is in a better position to recognise his own mental state. Which kind of explains his televised antics at the Tanjong Pagar nomination center in May.
I sign off here, and I'm set for life, right?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Remembering Steve Jobs

Click to see the many facets of the man
While the world mourns the passing away of Steve Jobs (1955-2011), the man who put together the breadboard for the Apple computer was Steve Wozniak. Wozniak teamed up with Jobs, whom he met in the early 1970s, with Wozniak playing the role of the tech wiz and Jobs the marketing guru.

Their first product, the Apple I computer, had no provision for internal expansion cards. The Apple I was purely a hobbyist machine, a US$25 microprocessor (MOS 6502) on a single-circuit board with 256 bytes of ROM, 4K or 8K bytes of RAM and a 40-character by 24-row display controller. It was similar to the Altair 8800, the world's first commercially available microcomputer, except that the Altair's expansion cards enabled it to be attached to a computer terminal and be programmed in BASIC.

One could argue that the Apple story is a triumph of marketing over technology. John Sculley had the Newton, the first-ever Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) in 1992, but it was Steve Jobs' genius who made iPhone the product of choice. Even Wintel diehards will have to admit Steve is a hard act to follow.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Exit Plans

When the boss asks you to surrender the key to the executive toilet, you have to be real daft not to get the hint. The euphemism used for Lee Kuan Yew was "to facilitate leadership renewal in the party", a tad prettier than the "make room for personal priorities" excuse for Hsieh Fu Hua's departure as President of Temasek Holdings. Hsieh, rumoured to succeed PM Lee's wife as chief honcho, was in office for only 17 months. Lee has been at the Central Executive Committee for donkey years.

Also stepping down from the PAP CEC are Goh Chok Tong, Lim Boon Heng, Wong Kan Seng, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua. Former Potong Pasir MP Chiam See commented, "These are all very senior ministers who are stepping down. This marks the end of the Lee Kuan Yew era." Well, not exactly.  The lady has yet to collect her CPF. Lim Hwee Hua slided into Parliament via the Marine Parade GRC route in 1997 and joined the CEC in 2003. She was obviously the collateral damage for George Yeo's Waterloo at Aljunied. Lim become woman minister on 1 April 2009, when she was made Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for Transport. Lim is not the first woman minister to be booted out by the electorate. That dubious honour goes to Dr. Seet Ai Mee, Minister of State at the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Community Development, who was defeated by Ling How Doong at the 1991 polls. Some said she was brought down by the handshake with a fishmonger. Dr Seet said it was a pork seller. Whatever.

No tears will be shed for Lim Boon Heng (the original cry baby), Wong Kan Seng, Goh Chok Tong or George Yeo. Lim Kim San once told a young banker during a moment of candour, "One thing about the PAP, they take care of their own. If not for them, I'll be sleeping on the streets."

But who's taking care of the people of Singapore? Among the names tossed up to fill the vacancies, one of them is none other than the "kee chiu" general Chan Chun Seng. Yup, the guy who said our country won't last longer than the Lanfang Republic ("states of Singapore’s size rarely survived beyond 100 years"). Which means those who signed up for the overpriced HDB BTO flats might never get to see the end of the 99-year lease. Which way to the exit door?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Matter Of Perception

Ric O'Barry was in town to raise awareness for the Resorts World Sentosa's dolphin issue. It is a twist of fate that O'Barry was the one who originally captured and trained the 5 dolphins for the well-known TV series "Flipper", and popularised the image of the marine animals as intelligent companions for humans. The rude awakening came about when Kathy, one of the "Flipper" dolphins, committed suicide in his arms. That painful moment is narrated in the Academy Award (2010) winning documentary, "The Cove".

A dolpin's smile
is nature's greatest deception
When a participant at animal welfare group ACRES' public dialogue session at Grand Copthorne Waterfront asked whether dolphins could be happy in captivity, Mr O'Barry said: "You're dealing with an optical illusion - the dolphin is smiling - which is nature's greatest deception, unless you hit them with a baseball bat, you wouldn't see the abuse."

There is another illusion presented by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) researchers: that the Internet did not have a decisive effect on the GE. Polling 2,000 Singaporeans aged 21 and above, these IPS experts surmise that mainstream media was still the people's choice for election news. Specifically, the study concluded that people put more trust in mainstream media, and spent more time on print newspapers and TV than on the Net. If that's a fact, real media players need not worry about the pink slip. And the incumbents need not lose sleep over the "kee chiu" and "stomp" videos that went viral.

Another study by Nanyang Technological University found that, contrary to common belief, bloggers were not the nattering nabobs of negativism when commenting on political parties. The issues that generated most heat were governance, candidates' qualification for office, freedom of expression, and housing costs. The study claimed that blogs were mostly neutral on the subject of the Singapore political system. If governance, candidates' qualification for office, freedom of expression, and housing costs are not integral elements of the political system, what exactly are they? Sideshows of a greater wayang on display?

At least two presidential hopefuls thought Facebook and Twitter were instrumental platforms that could install them in office. If they worked magic for Obama, why could they not also succeed? Senior research fellow Tan Tarn How said the new media consumers "don't just swallow information hook, line and sinker," while NTU Prof Ang's has a different observation in that those who go online are more trusting. The cup can only be half empty or half full.

With such divergence of expert opinion, one suspects much deception is still in play. It doesn't really matter, just watch what happens when the baseball bat connects.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Doctors You Can Trust

It is difficult to dispute the argument that  if nerves are accidentally severed during surgery, repair should be effected quickly to expedite recovery before the injury deteriorates. The issue is whether the remedial action should be carried out if the patient is still under sedation and prior consent had not been secured. And be honest with him afterwards.

The little girl had a hole in the heart (atrial septal defect) and her parents decided on the AMPLATZER® Septal Occluder because the procedure is less invasive than open-heart surgery. Adults with an uncorrected ASD tend to exhibit symptoms of dyspnea on exertion (shortness of breath with minimal exercise), congestive heart failure, or cerebrovascular accident (stroke). The procedure takes approximately 1-2 hours, and many patients go home within the same day. But the procedure was relatively new in Singapore then, and the surgeon decided to be extra kiasu (cautious).

Amplatzer® occluder launched
One day before the operation, he briefed the parents on his method of approach. He planned to use a balloon catheter to check the actual size of the intracardiac shunt. If the ASD did not exceed a certain diameter, the surgeon may decide not to go through the process, even though the $25K equipment was already paid for. Although the AMPLATZER®  device is made of Nitinol (a wire made from an alloy of nickel and titanium) with polyester fabric inserts designed to provide a foundation for growth of tissue and help close the hole, it is still a foreign object in the human body. The surgeon categorically stated that the parents will have to trust his judgement. Mom was like, all that money down the drain!

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's perspective, the ASD was significant enough to justify the operation. The little girl was home by lunchtime, and playing on the swing, without the telltale scars of a typical open heart surgery.

The doctor whose accreditation was revoked was not penalised for reattaching the severed nerves without the patient's expressed permission. His misdemeanor was instructing  a nurse to edit the consent form to include the unauthorised procedure. Electronic forms used at Tan Tock Seng Hospital prevent alterations or cancellations after they are submitted, but Singapore General Hospital has yet to implement such systems. Computers are not fool-proof, the ultimate insurance is a doctor you can trust your life with.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Circle Line Of Life

The Circle Line fully opens on Saturday, but don't expect commuting times or service levels to improve. LTA spent $5.9 million not on state-of-the-art transportation and security enhancements, but artwork - to make the waiting between trains seem a a lot shorter. No tuck yew, commuters expect to clear in and out of transport depots speedily so they can get to their places of work or study on time and on schedule. The last thing anyone in  a hurry needs is to wade through throngs of sight seers gawking at murals in order to catch the rare train with standing room remaining.

Better signage for information on train destinations would have been welcomed, given the obfuscating mix of commuter lines being developed. Soon, we may require GPS guidance to board the correct connecting line. What we don't need is misinformation about a imaginary film that will never be coming to a theatre near you, despite what the 9-meter tall poster promised. The artist may think it's interesting to make a giant poster about a fictitious movie that would never come about, but commuters are more concerned about real-life trains that will arrive, on time and on schedule. Nobody cares for humongous  posters that are paid out of taxpayers' pockets. Guys might bitch about the Knightsbridge mall mural, but at least Abercrombie & Fitch picked up the bill for that.

Associate Professor Cheok of Mixed Reality Lab of NUS must really come down to earth if he expects any inspiring verse to be flashed on his giant SMS screen. Dr Cheok has included a filter system to block out obscene words (which probably includes "Tuck Yew! Tuck Yew!") in several languages and record the telephone number of the contributor. Mao would surely have loved to have this electronic billboard for his "Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom" campaign (more accurately termed the Hundred Flowers Movement -simplified Chinese: 百花运动). It would have been so much easier to flush out dissidents before wiping them out, since big wall posters do not carry identifying phone numbers. Maybe this one is subsidized by the ISD.

If hordes of idling tourists trying to figure out art from crap at the stations are bad enough, wait till the foodies cascade to the food outlets near the train stations. On fears the Botanic Gardens, one of few quiet spots in Singapore for nature lovers, will never be the same again when the Circle Line violates the serenity of the environs. One possible development is that the troublesome monkeys may be irritated by the train noise and retreat deep into the sanctity of the trees, instead of disturbing the peace of the park. The train will be disgorging pesky humans to replace their functional roles.