Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Much Is $10 Million?

The big news is that Lee Kuan Yew has pledged a personal donation of S$10 million to set up a Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism to promote the learning of the mother tongue and English for preschoolers. This comes on the heels of Goh Chok Tong's speech at the Credit Suisse Philantropists Forum on 7 April 2011, when Goh made mention of the US$100 million from the family of the late Ng Teng Fong for setting up a fund for needy patients at a new hospital in Singapore. The Singapore government has an incentive for 2.5 times tax deduction for donations to Institutions of a Public Character.

It piques one's curiosity to ponder how generous is the gesture. Clues come from the contributions of his three children. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the highest compensated politician in the whole wide world, is donating $100,000. Second son Lee Hsien Yang, who used to pick up $4 million in a good year at Singtel, which he left mysteriously for a $1 million a year appointment as business consultant at Fraser and Neave (he is now chairman), is donating $50,000. Daughter Lee Wei Lin, who took over after the then-Director of the Singapore National Neuroscience Institute Dr Simon Shorvon was booted out (the British General Medical Council and British High Courts sided with Shorvon in his dispute with the Singapore Medical Council), is also donating $50,000. Except for Dr Lee, the paltry sum is probably only a fraction of their 13th month bonus. She had once said of her father's psyche: "The word charity did not sit well with him".  At a time when Singaporeans gained a reputation both at home and abroad for their eagerness to open their wallets to anyone in need (Nepalese twins, Yishun siblings, Huang Na kidnapping), daughter Lee blamed the press for its "propensity" to sensationalise stories that helped bring out "the gullibility of Singaporeans".

With the aforesaid in mind, so how much is the $10 million pledge worth? If he had intended to put Scrooge to shame, that could be 25 percent of his liquid assets. If he was a real skinflint, it could be 1 percent, which means he has at least $1,000 million in loose change. Even if the out-of-character largess was only 10 percent of his bank balance, it would imply that all those years of public service have earned him at least $100 million. Something must be wrong with the mathematics here.

BTW, don't buy the book "My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey" thinking it will solve all your problems in acquiring a second language. This is what the author writes: "My big mistake... in the midst of our messy, massive exercise to revamp the education system, I realised I had been wrong in my premise (that anyone intelligent will be able to master languages)". Not everyone gets paid handsomely for making mistakes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Long Voyage Home

23 Oct 1947-20 Nov 2011
In 1977, lawyer Francis Khoo fled Singapore to avoid being detained by the notorious Internal Security Department (ISD). The Ministry of Home Affairs claims he was wanted for questioning because a number of people arrested in February of that year "for activities to rebuild the Communist United Front in Singapore" had "implicated Francis Khoo for involvement in the group."

In 1977, the twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 blasted off to take advantage of a planetary alignment that occurs once every 176 years. Travelling a billion miles every 3 years, they flew past Jupiter (1979), Saturn (1980), Uranus (1986), Neptune (1989), and onward to infinity and beyond. After 34 years in space, Voyager 1 is 18 billion km away; Voyager 2 is 14.5 km away. That's close to the theoretical 19 billion km distance where the solar system ends. The spacecraft carries messages from earth, music and greetings, etched in old styled phonographs. In 1977, nobody heard of a CD.

Francis Khoo Kah Siang spent those 34 years in exile.

In an obituary notice on Friday 25 Nov, Mrs Khoo said that her husband was involved in the legalities of forming a Citizens' Co-op to save the doomed Singapore Herald.
"On May 27, 1971 - after the Wee Cho Yaw fiasco - a pro-tem committee of "five concerned citizens," namely University of Singapore's economics lecturer Dr Lee Soo Ann, lawyers Francis Khoo Kah Siang, political scientist Patrick Low, bank officer Mok Kwong Yue, and architect Tay Kheng Soon, stepped forward and issued a statement calling upon the people and government to "support our efforts to set up a co-operative to purchase the Singapore Herald and turn it into a Citizens' Paper."
(The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited, Francis Seow, page 95)

Although Lee Kuan Yew had reluctantly absolved the CIA of "direct involvement" in the operation of the Singapore Herald, he had persisted in his stubborn belief that other U.S. propaganda agencies were likely financiers, such as the U.S. Information Service and the Voice of America. The Singapore Herald was accused of creating unwelcomed "pressure points on the government" and had to be stopped at all costs.

The international reaction was scathing:
"Singapore is a one-party State and bears the injuries that all one-party States do to themselves.
Those who see the power of the Singapore government and the lengths to which Lee Kuan Yew is prepared to go to hang on to it are frightened by what is likely to be the result of it. In Singapore the question is being asked more often these days: what is the point of being the best fed, best administered, best education nations in Asia if that nation is also one of the least free."
(The Australian, 21 May 1971)
Francis Khoo is free at last. At 64, he takes his place among the heavenly stars.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lack Of Political Judgment

Just like Lily Neo has endeared herself to her constituents by speaking up, and actually shouted out on one occasion in parliament, for the less fortunate, veteran MP Inderjit Singh has always vocalised the unpleasant truths. That's why both have never been promoted to a higher pay grade. For Inderjit Singh, there's also the discrimination factor, "Singapore was not ready for an Indian prime minister."

Like the voice of the prophet preaching to the wilderness, Singh recited the litany of serial abuses inflicted on a hapless nation: housing, transport, immigration, etc. He nailed it when he termed "a state of denial" when the government, by obfuscation and selective use of statistics, condemned future generations to a life time of servitude by insisting that public housing is affordable. That state of denial is still in place, the supply may have been ratcheted up, but the 30 year repayment onus has not been relieved. On the "growth-at-all-costs" fetish of the master planners, Inderjit Singh revealed that "the Government expected that if the economy grew, then all Singaporeans would also benefit indirectly a over a period of time." The same premise for the subprime crisis.

First-term MP Intan Azura Mokhtar said, "Respect is necessary in treading through diverse views and beliefs, while empathy is required to show care and understanding of different backgrounds and circumstances." It would appear Inderjit Singh will never be accorded a modicum of that respect. Why else did his political master not understand the ground sentiment regarding housing and foreign talent policy and called for an election at a timing it misjudged as "sweet"? Maybe he should quit while he's still ahead - public lamentation that housing and economic growth were mishandled is not a smart career move - John the Baptist was beheaded because King Herod's wife was less forgiving.

Ugh! Not a reprise of the "Upturn The Downturn" routine!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Political Jokes

"A political joke is often the only weapon available to those who live under a totalitarian regime," the author was quoting from the first ever book of Communist jokes by emigre Yevgeny Andreevich. To test his hypothesis that jokes brought down the Communist system, Ben Lewis went beyond literature survey and ventured into countries like Romania for proof. That's where a spelling mistake with the name of Nicolae Ceauşescu - a minor alteration to "Nicolai", and the word means small penis in Romania - could send you to jail. And that's no joke.

The problem with grim jokes is that the laughter is time limited, and then you realise it's suddenly not so funny after all. That's when the Bee Gees lyrics go, "Oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me." Some of the anekdoty (Russian for jokes) could have been written in our context.

Take the current scheme of things when motoring will get so expensive that only millionaires can afford to drive down the NSE which wipes Rochor Center off the map of Singapore:
"Have you noticed that at every petrol station there is now a doctor and a policeman on duty? The doctor gives first aid to those who faint when they see the price, and the policeman interrogates the ones who fill up about where they got the money from." (page 169)

It's no help when clowns can still get into parliament through the outrage of the GRC system. Even the phony Tan who promised to speak for the people won't tell the truth about the national reserves because he swears by the OSA:
"A factory worker is sentenced to 15 years in prison for calling the secretary of the local party an idiot. After the sentence is read out, the lawyer protests that the penal code calls for only a maximum of 5 years for insults of this kind.
The judge corrects him: 'We didn't sentence the defendant for offending the secretary, but for divulging a state secret.' " (page 73)

But laughter grinds to a halt when each time the thin-skinned screams 'sedition' and files a police report when he could have simply turned the other cheek:
"A dissident arrives at a remote village, to which he has been exiled.
Everywhere seems deserted, but as he gets towards the centre of town he notices an overpowering horrible smell. In the main square he comes across a big crowd of people standing quietly in a lake of sewage coming up to their chins. Suddenly he falls in. He starts flailing his arms and shouting in disgust. 'Yuk! I cannot stand this! How can you people just stand here not doing anything?'
They reply, 'Shut up and keep still, you are making waves.' "(page 240)

And yet they wonder why people are still complaining:
"A dissident walks out of his house, It's starting to rain. He looks up and says in indignation: 'They always do just what they want'.
The next day when the dissident walks out the sun is shining brightly. He looks up and says in indignation, 'Of course. For this they find the money.' " (page 234)

In the penultimate of his 312 page volume, the author concludes that through joke telling, people inside the Communist regimes, including the leadership, admitted that Communism was "laughably" wrong. The jokes brought down Communism, in that the sense that they were intrinsic to the critique of Communism, shared eventually by the leadership and citizens, which led to its fall. But what has this got to do with us, excepting the fact the MIW still call each other "comrades"? Ah, that's where the definitive anekdot comes in:
"What is the definition of Capitalism?
The exploitation of man by man.
And what is the definition of Communism?
The exact opposite" (page 60)

Friday, November 25, 2011

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Olympus fans are worried what the financial shenanigans will do to the 92-year-old optical company which gave us the endoscope (also referred to as a fiberscope) and more recently, the micro four thirds technology for the camera buffs. Michael Woodford, ex-CEO and whistle blower, is calling for a shakeup of the corporate (mis)governance which wiped out 80 percent of the company's market capitalization. Can one gai-jin undo the harm that creative book keeping unleashed? And if that doesn't get your knickers in a knickers in a twist, the accountants seem to be busy here too.

Property experts are asking why K-REIT paid Keppel Land $1.57 billion for a 99-year lease of the OFC Building which has 999-year tenure. In a market that has lost most of its sizzle, and a economy that is buffeted by bad news, domestic and international. Keppel won't be asking awkward questions, it will book a net gain of $492.7 million from the transaction. REITs depend on rental income from properties held in its portfolio. When businesses go broke, as they do in a looming recession, the rent will not be paid. You don't have to be a sophisticated investor to appreciate that. You definitely do not want to just "trust the management to do the right thing." Just ask the long serving workers at Olympus. There's only one clue for the K-REIT mystery: "the payoff is better with acquisitions than getting the existing assets to perform."

Which reminds me of the time a property agent, and a blood relative at that, tried to sell us a piece of pricey real estate. On paper, we could make the down payment, and the rent, presumably from expatriates sponsored by Fortune 500 type companies, will "take care of the loan servicing." For 30+ years, we get to see someone enjoy the premises we possess only on paper. The agent gets his fat commission upfront, and won't be around to make sure there is a tenant to make the numbers match. The relative is no longer on talking terms. Which could explain why, no bank officer tried to sell me a Lehman linked investment instrument.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Recession Proof Jobs

In July this year, civil servants were paid a mid-year Annual Variable Component (AVC) of half-a-month's salary (0.5-month) plus a S$250 quantum. Sources said the government is considering an additional 0.75-month bonus plus a dollar quantum for the year end bonanza.

On Monday it was reported Singapore faces a sharply lower economic growth of 1.0-3.0 percent in 2012 amid an export slowdown, and more bad news about the debt woes in Europe's that could trigger a global crisis.

The projection is worse than the previous estimate of 2.5-3.5 percent and well down from the 5 percent predicted for 2011 earlier as demand in Europe and the United States was drying up. Even China manufacturers are not immune to the imminent meltdown, as they suffered the weakest month of activity in 32 months.

Growth, the lack of, is not the only ill wind around town. "This does not factor in downside risks to growth, such as a worsening debt situation or a full-blown financial crisis in the advanced economies," the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said in a statement. "Should these risks materialise, growth in the Singapore economy in 2012 could come in lower than expected."

So what if the world falls into the abyss of recession? The Singapore civil servants still get to collect. Tell that to the AMD staff who were laid off with Christmas just round the corner. Industry experts say the American chip maker was simply taking austerity measures in the face of the countdown to Armageddon. For them, bonus would mean surviving the forthcoming downturn to stay in business.

Analysts from Nomura financial services group are hoping the government may step in with a stimulus package when the next budget is unveiled in February 2012. Doesn't matter. Whether the stimulus package works or not, they'll still be rewarding themselves for a job well done. One thing's for certain, the salary review Gerard Ee is (still) working on won't be implemented until after the Christmas presents are opened.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hot Button Issues

The LTA may have missed the humor - tuck yew! why can't you recognise Singapore genius when you see it? - but the message of the sticker has universal application: "Press Once Can Already".

Within one week, the hot button of religious sensitivity was pushed importunately one time too many. Unless you played truant during physics class, you would have recalled Newton's third law of motion in his "Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis": To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. If you wanna push, be prepared to be pushed back. Even experts don't profess to have all the answers.

Lesley Hazleton (born 1945) is an award-winning British-American writer who specialises on the history, religion and politics of the Middle East. She has described herself as “a Jew who once seriously considered becoming a rabbi, a former convent schoolgirl who daydreamed about being a nun." She is an agnostic with a deep sense of religious mystery, agnostic because she does not claim to know that a deity does not exist. Her recent book, "After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split", was a finalist for the 2010 PEN-USA nonfiction award.

Lesley Hazleton: “The fact that so few people do actually read the Quran is that is so easy to quote, that is to misquote. Phrases and snippets taken out of context what I call the highlighter version which is the one favored both by the Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim islamphobes…”
Listen to her first before you push another button.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

More Time To Repent

Once upon a time we were told the MRT congestion could not be relieved owing to constraints in the existing signalling system. Yesterday, Minister of State (Transport) Josephine Teo said there are simply not enough trains to run two-minute intervals throughout the morning and evening peak periods.

It was announced that a total of 35 trains will be added to the present fleet in the next 4 years. 5 arrived in May, but we are not told if they have been put in service. "We are fully committed to expanding the train fleet in order to improve frequencies in order of train arrivals," she chirped to a skeptical public. "You can always take the next train," was no longer politically acceptable.

Teo blamed the manufacturers for the tardy progress in the production line. The world has only a handful of train makers she claimed, naming Siemens (German), Alstom (French) and Bombardier (Canadian). Obviously she hasn't heard of other players like Hyundai-Rotem and the Chinese builders for the Chinese Ministry of Railways (MOR). Incidentally Bombardier's Derby plant is cutting jobs after losing the big Thameslink contract to Siemens - they should be hungry for a Singapore order. Building rolling stock is not exactly rocket science. Has anybody considered our local shipyards who construct engineering behemoths like state of the art floating rigs for deep sea exploration offshore Brazil? In the heydays of the containerisation buildup, many of the trailers and prime-movers for the container port were assembled from components sourced from Fruehauf and other brand names; the formula could be repeated.

Teo gave another excuse for the wait. The bigger fleet will take advantage of the new signaling system which reduces the spacing between trains, scheduled to be ready only by 2016. There will be no shortcut, the period for repentance will not be abbreviated.

To Gerald Giam's question if there was "no forward planning done", Teo answered, "there is advance planning but projecting demand and ridership is tricky business and hard to get 100-percent right". The same excuse could have been made for the housing shortage, hospital shortage, flood controls shortage. And have you seen the graph for economic growth? Even a drunk driver can steer a straighter line. Definitely lots of slapping required.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tempering With The Law

The police is investigating an offensive Facebook posting. On Saturday, YPAP's chairman and vice-chairman, Teo Ser Luck and Zaqy Mohamad, visited Huda Kindergarten to apologise in person. Is that an admission of guilt, being accessory to a criminal act, and willingness to accept the punishment according to the laws of the land? If not, why the orchestrated photo op in the mainstream media?

Zaqy Mohamad should know better than to interfere when a police investigation is in progress. The officers of the law should be allowed to proceed with their work without undue influence. Zaqy alludes to same arms-length approach in his own Facebook posting - "leave it to the relevant authorities and let the law to (sic) run its course" - but is pictured arm-twisting the Huda principal, presumably to to withdraw the police report he lodged:

This has to be Teo Ser Luck' attempt to "balance the usage of traditional media like newspapers" since "the Government is now learning to use new media effectively" (his own words, no less).

Unfortunately there was more than one police report made about the rhetorical question concerning a bus load of young Muslims. Maybe that's why a fall guy was needed. Someone who could have cut and pasted any of the graphics from google images available online. Someone who expressed a personal outrage like Wafa Sultan, the first Arab Muslim woman who dared to challenge Islam. Wafa Sultan could be wrong, but she provides ample evidence for her own persuasion. Evidence that invites reasoned debate to change her mindset. She's one gutsy Muslim sister. Only the asinine would charge her with sedition.

Religion was never a recommended topic for polite dinner conversation, in Singapore or any other part of the world. That doesn't mean intellectual deliberation should be held hostage to the madness of McCarthyism. During the McCarthy era, reckless, unsubstantiated accusations and demagogic attacks were made on ordinary citizens to serve the politics of the day. When common sense finally prevailed, contrived punishments which came about were later overturned, mischievous laws would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals from employment declared illegal or actionable, convoluted extra-legal procedures challenged in open court. That was in a country which embraces democracy.

The best we can hope for is that the law will be fairly administered, and seen to be fair.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Priority For The Greater Good

Who would imagine this scene, Singapore rolling out the red carpet literally for a couple joined in gay wedlock. They even named an orchid after him - the "Doritaenopsis Sir Elton John". Elton and his partner David Furnish were similarly attired in track suits, so it was difficult to tell who actually wears the pants in their household. And who changes the baby diapers.

That could be one reason for the big welcome. The message that gays can help boost the population growth statistic without worrying about the bothersome TFR. A colleague had a quick put down for the alternate lifestyle: homosexuals are unnatural because they can't reproduce. Well, it looks like she could be wrong. Baby Zachary makes three.

And if Elton John signs up for a red passport, little Zachary will grow up to play golf at Orchid Country Club in the north and then zip down the spanking new North-South Expressway to Marina Bay Sands for a session at the baccarat tables. He probably will have to choose between a Porsche, Ferrari or Lotus Esprit, that's 3 COEs less for the lesser mortals. That's also one way to double the GDP by 2025.

Too bad the Rochor Centre folks have to be evicted to make way for the grandiose plans. "I hope they understand that their sacrifice is for the greater good, " said their MP Denise Phua. Latter claims to understand that there are residents who are angry with the move, adding, "It's difficult but we have to accept the Government's decision". Way up north, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew could not assure the Nanyang Pho Heng association whether their request to move back to their original site after all the dust has settled would be entertained.

Major road works for the NSE project will begin from 2015. Both Lui and Ms Phua should take note that the next election is due in 2016.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Managing The New Media

Speaking at the Project Reach discussion on strategic engagement of new media, Teo Ser Luck lamented that a Facebook post by someone from an opposition party gathered " a lot of likes and hero worshipping", but a similar message posted by a PAP member resulted in criticism. That was before he was alerted to the posting by a PAP youth wing member of a photo of a Huda Kindergarten school bus, labelled "Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?"

Tampines resident Firdaus emailed YP vice-chairman Zaqy Mohamad, and latter's comments are illuminating:
"The YP has throughout the years, brought in its members through the branches. They would have demonstrated a certain level of interest and commitment towards the Party before they would be referred by a trusted comrade for membership. The reference would largely be experiential; with the referrer’s knowledge based on his practical and personal encounters with the potential member."

Zaqy's initial response ("My Holdingt Reply Last Night') to the email stated this:
"However, I am informed that the photo posted was made earlier in the year some time in Feb. XXX had joined YP much later in June."

Note the lifeline extended to the racist: the offending post was made before the party membership card was issued. It would appear "a certain level of interest and commitment towards the Party" is all that is required of membership, moral inaptitude and innate prejudices are presumably secondary considerations. The Ku Klux Klan probably shared similar recruiting philosophies.

Initially YP leaders contemplated an internal investigation before taking action, a protracted process that calls for a vote by the central executive committee. Teo Ser Luck, who expressed disagreement at the Project Reach meeting with the IPS survey finding that the recent GE was not a "Internet election", knew he had to cut his losses, and arranged for the black sheep to resign, and the Facebook account deactivated.

But three police reports have already been lodged, including one from the principal of the Islamic kindergarten maligned. It remains to be seen if the final outcome will be a repeat of the "investigation" involving a certain Marine Parade GRC MP. After all, Teo did say the Government is now learning to use new media effectively, but it is still essential to "balance with the usage of traditional media like newspapers to tap into different communities".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Glimpse Of Things To Come

Click to see what was planned all along
McKinsey&Company is obviously privy to information that is not available to the average Singaporean. Put in another way, foreigners are trusted with future plans while citizens are treated like mushrooms - kept in the dark and fed with sh_t.

What the planners have in mind:
Population, thousands4,5895,487
Total GDP, $ billion172415
Per capital GDP, $'0005191

Thanks for the heads up, "Kindness"@ November 16, 2011 5:08 PM

Meanwhile lawyer Hri Kumar Nair, MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, is saying the southern stretch of the NSE has a much smaller impact on building owners than the northern stretch. The occupants of 567 units in the affected HDB blocks at Rochor Centre will have a hard time swallowing this bitter truth - that they were never really proud owners of their residential flats, at least not in the eyes of the Government promoting home ownership.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another One Bites The Dust

By now it is quite clear Bukit Brown is not just about making way for a new expressway, the plot of land is too lucrative an opportunity for real estate gains to miss. Could Rochor Centre, slated to be bulldozed for the North-South Expressway, be the latest sacrifice for another property development goldmine?

Residents like retiree Wong, 72, who has stayed there since 1978, will miss seeing the National Day fireworks from his 17th floor flat. Others lament the loss of convenience of the nearby supermarket, banks, eating houses and 3 communal facilities - kindergarten, community centre and a home for the aged. It remains to be seen if the advantages of the site will be enjoyed by the new occupiers of fancy high rise condominiums which foreigners are permitted to purchase.

The route for the new expressway is close to 4 MRT stations, namely Caldecott, Novena, Little India and Bugis. If accessibility is available by rail, why build roads to service the same locations? The LTA has made plain their intent cut the number of cars on the road, yet they embark on the exercise to shave driving time from the north to the city by 5 minutes. With COEs currently in the stratospheric region, only the filthy rich will benefit from the time saver. Anyway, what's 5 minutes caught in traffic for a guy whose other car is a Lamborghini?

On paper, relocation benefits are generous. A resident living in a 3-room 67 sq m HDB flat will be compensated $434,400 to $485,300 for their apartment. We are told a 3-room 67 sq m new flat in Kallang is estimated at $348,000 to $401,000.
Officially the average size of HDB flats has shrunk by 5 to 10 per cent over the last 20 to 30 years, the reality is far worse. Surely a 3-room Rochor flat built in the 1978 era can't have the same 67 m floor area as a new 3-room flat in Kallang. Recently HDB chief executive Cheong Koon Hean received lots of flak for asserting that "Smaller flats doesn't mean lower quality of living", her line of defence for "Hey honey, I shrunk the flat." Looks like somebody at LTA is about to be lambasted for another con job foisted on the people.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Big Boys Preferred

Years ago, an engineer visiting Panasonic Japan was waiting in the lobby when he noted a vendor delivering machined parts in a small plastic bag. His host later told him it was one of their many subcontractors who supply precision components by operating a small lathe from their homes. Back home, he told an EDB officer Singapore should have similar supporting industries. The officer said he had mooted a similar idea, but was shot down.

Lim's former employee said, "There is the sense that the Government prefers to work with established companies, not start-ups." He was referring to a Lim Kian Wee who funded his own greenfield operation to develop a electric vehicle (EV) with a range of 900 km per charge. Another entrepreneur, Clarence Tan invested $250,000 to realise his own dream of manufacturing a 2-seater air-conditioned EV. Tan also felt that the Government could have done more to support them.

The official initiative Electric Vehicle Taskforce - led by the Energy Market Authority and Land Transport Authority - launched an EV test bed for related technologies in June. The big boys invited include Daimler, Mitsubishi, Bosch, Renault and Nissan.

Tan had sought assistance from the National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2009 to test bed his battery system, but did not even receive an acknowledgement of their request. NRF denies the claim. Their spokesman says proposals are evaluated by expert panels and a successful proof of concept (POC) grant must demonstrate not just technical viability but also a high degree of commercial readiness.

One man must be familiar with the hurdles experienced by innovators like Tan. If Sim Wong Hoo did not pack his bag and headed for the US of A, the world would not have heard of Soundblaster. He, too, was rejected by EDB. Sim coined and made famous the term "No U-turn syndrome" to describe the social behaviour of the Singaporean mindset of conformity to higher authorities before taking any action. The strait jacket has to be cast off if creativity is to bloom.
Mind the speed bumps ahead

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Right Answers

Students sitting for the A levels must be having sleepness nights, tossing and turning in bed, wondering if their answers submitted will satisfy the examiners' expectations.

Compared with the transcript of a CNBC interview with Lee Hsien Loong in 2009, it was obvious the answers fell short of the latest queries directed to him. Maybe it's the new normal in action, maybe things haven't changed a wee bit.

Asked whether cancer had "humbled" him, Lee said, "I think I try to be myself and that's the best way and people will accept us as we are." Notice the use of the royal "we" and not "me", since the life threatening event had affected him personally and not, touch wood, the nation at large. And he can tell segue on to tell the questioner, "It's not our role to be lords and masters and I think that's quite fundamental, which every elected politician must remember in a democracy." The corollary of that statement must be, since full democracy is not yet in place, lords and masters will continue to reign.

And the world knows too well what goes on in our city state, best illustrated by the mainstream media blackout about the prestigious LI Freedom Award 2011. Surely the old man will rather be accorded with that prize instead of the Ford Theater thingy. Sharing honours with the likes of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma's democracy leader) and Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic) is just not the same as standing on the same stage as Julie Andrews.

Asked if there was an unfair image of Singapore portrayed in the West, Lee's response was puzzling, "It's like looking at the tail of the elephant and thinking 'that's the animal'." Now, what does that mean, coming from a guy who also said, "You have to depend on people who will be productive, be skilled, be imaginative"? Just focus on the tail and ignore the elephant in the room? Theres' a Chinese saying to the effect that if one draws a cartoon, it's not necessary to sketch in the intestines. One doesn't need a wild imagination to see through the fog of deception.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Elderly Institutional Care Review

The teacher was both exasperated and embarrassed. She was leading her troop of primary school tiny tots to visit single room flats, an exercise in altruism intended to inculcate empathy for the less fortunate. But the little brat refused to step through the doorway, saying the room smells funny. Fortunately the septuagenarian occupant was hard of hearing, and was spared the hurtful remark.

But the kid was still a kid, with all his needs attended to by his doting parents. At the other end of the age spectrum, the senior citizen was supposed to be taken care of by the younger generation, her own children if she had any. Even a brief social visit was welcome palliative for her lonely existence.

Most of the nursing homes in Singapore are staffed by foreign workers, with filipinas in dominance because of their literacy in English. These are also relatively younger than their elderly charges. While they go about their assigned duties professionally, distributing medication or disposing of soiled adult pampers, not all of them have the empathy to dispense. The video footage of an old woman being abused by the staff of Nightingale Nursing Home at Braddell Road may have shocked some Singaporeans, but the harsh reality is that it is probably a more common occurrence than anyone would care to admit. The young foreign nurses have their own set of growing up pains, be it boyfriend problems or just scrounging enough money to send home. The ideal caregiver would be a Singaporean nurse in her retirement years. She has the skills and the mindset to care for someone who could be a contemporary of her own mother, or grandmother. Apparently these are not in short supply, but they have a niche market in being highly paid private nurses, caring for the well-off in their luxurious private residences.

Speaking at the conference organised by the Centre of Enable Living (CEL), Chan Chun Sing said "We know in the Asian context and culturally, we frown upon moving into institutional care. We think that it is against our values of filial piety to put your parents in the institutional home." Hence the government initiatives to build "Senior Service Centres" where the elderly are supposed to provide emotional support for their own kind, presumably for those who can feed, wash and clean up after themselves. The old looking after the old. It makes sense. Then he suggests something more in character with his unfathomable logic: use the new media and create one-minute YouTube videos on care giving to improve home care for the elderly. Honestly, I don't know what to say.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Moral Education

If there was a contradiction of terms, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat must have missed it. At the unveiling of a "character development" toolkit, Heng said that character-building is a long-term process. MOE introduced an ethics syllabus in 1959, civics and moral education in 1992 and 1994, and national education in 2007 (recommendations on NE made by Committee of Supply per Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Minister of State (Education)), just 4 years ago. Note the intervals are getting shorter and shorter. Maybe the latest guidelines for Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) will have an even shorter shelf-life.

One principal at a SAP school in the West made a lasting impression on parents and guardians some time back during an occasion of the announcement of the PSLE results. She asked the pupils assembled in the school hall to stand up, to turn around, and face the moms and dads seated at the back. Take a bow, she told the kids, for without their patient love and nurturing, that day in school would not have been possible.

On the wall of that hall, the school had painted in large characters the values it aimed to impart to the young minds:
礼 (li) - courtesy
义 (yi) - righteousness
廉 (lian) - integrity
耻 (chi) - sense of shame
忠 (zhong) - loyalty
孝 (xiao) - filial piety
仁 (ren) - humanity
爱 (ai) - love

A committee member of the St Joseph's Institution Old Boys' Association commenting on the new MOE initiative said that teachers must be prepared to venture out of their comfort zone. Really? Is it hazardous duty to teach, amongst others, righteousness, integrity or a sense of shame?

Shame - 耻 (chi) - is not just about exposing the navel line, as in the Abercrombie & Fitch ad. It's about the shame of setting a bad example, of lying to the people you pledged to serve, of hiding behind manipulated data, while enriching oneself by ripping off taxpayers. It's moral hazard pure and simple, and teachers should not be afraid to call a spade a spade.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Even The Dead Are Not Spared

Mahathir once caused a major upset when he said some of his people were pampered from the womb to the tomb. Lucky them. As for us, it's more like being made to pay and pay for progress from the cradle to the grave. Even those souls resting in peace at Bukit Brown are not spared.

Detractors allege that the deluge of MSM coverage about the grave development was intended to mask the more news worthy item about the Liberal International (LI) Prize for Freedom 2011 Award accorded to a Singaporean, given to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of freedom and human rights. Past laureates of the Prize include Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma's democracy leader), Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic), and Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).

Between the living and the dead
In addition to a wordy post in his Facebook account of 5 Nov, BG Tan Chuan-Jin was given a two page spread in the Sunday Times. Despite the copious deluge of verbosity, the general would not, or could not, provide a positive answer when confronted with the request for an re-alignment of the road, more time for historians to document the graves, relocation of certain tombstones, or simply keeping some clusters as "cemetery-parks". Not exactly very difficult demands for a high ranking officer and gentleman.

His prevarication defeats the prose in his post, "Our history and heritage is precious. They are anchors to our past even as we look forward to our future". He repeats the charade of having "discussed with some members of Heritage Society, met a few personalities passionate about the place and importantly, to talk to the Hokkien Huay Kuan." But when it comes to decision time, it is obvious where he stands: "I have taken a look at our 2025 plans and beyond till the middle of this century. The Bukit Brown area would be required for future developments." How's that for killing off a discourse?

Tan's pseudo remorse, "We could have done better", sounds remarkably like a page taken out of PM Lee's last ditch apology at the eve of elections, "And if we didn’t quite get it right, I’m sorry, but we will try and do better the next time." So this is the new approach the incumbents are embarking on to engage the citizens. Smoke 'em and fool 'em. Maybe this ex-soldier may not be as "in-your-face" as the kee-chiu character, but his graveside manner has room for improvement in the sincerity department.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Hot Air About Electricity

The managing director of Singapore Power says of the need to look for cheaper fuel, "I am already worried about next year's electricity prices." Obviously that concern was not about the financial impact on Singapore house holds. You see, electricity here is not subsidised because the Government claims it wants to encourage people to conserve energy and cut wastage. Meanwhile one old geezer is allowed to keep the room temperature of his office at 22 degrees Celsius, and that of his bedroom at 19 degrees Celsius. At taxpayers' expense.

If that gets you hot under the collar, note that last year, oil accounted for 17 percent of fuel for electricity production, natural gas for 77 percent, and waste and other sources for 6 percent. Yet that secret formula for calculating the household electricity tariff rate is still indexed against the price of oil.

During 2001-2003, the electricity market was "liberalised" to permit the privatised power stations to compete in providing power to about 10,000 non-residential consumers. The fruit of privatisation is delivered to the industrial giants, not to lesser mortals in their HDB cubicles. Oh yes, we know, the Gahment wants to encourage people to conserve energy.

All the hot air about alternative sources of fuel sources is of no practical value to the average Singaporean if they are simply alternate excuses to hike the electrical bills. The HDB began a $31 million 5-year trial in 2009 to supply solar power for common areas like corridors and stairwells. Meanwhile the residents living and studying inside their flats continue to pay exorbitant prices. And praying that the Town Council charges won't be raised to cover the expensive solar panels.

The really dumb idea has to be buying electricity from remote overseas foreign facilities, considering the pitfalls of grid security and the power source's political sustainability. Indonesia is building coal firing plants at Batam, with intent to sell electricity to Singapore and diverting the cleaner gas fuel to serve it's own Java instead. Are the recent lessons of being held hostage for drinking water from Johore so easily forgotten? Remember how the Japs turned off the pipeline at the Causeway and made the the British soldiers cry uncle? Asian Development Bank energy specialist Zhou Aiming is only scratching the surface of a potentially volatile situation when he pointed out that "countries trading electricity need to iron out interconnection standards and terms of the trade countries", conveniently choosing to skip the political realities.

The Energy Market Authority estimates Singapore currently uses at most one third of it's licensed 9,890 MW power generation capacity. Scrap all the fancy talk, how about giving some of the excess capacity to the citizens? Or is that reserved for the next pre-election hand-out?

Monday, November 7, 2011

More Research Required

Did you know that the MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Lee Kuan Yew once wished someone had invented air-conditioned underwear? Describing it to the Asian Wall Street Journal in 1999, he said that it could be "a light polyester air-conditioned undergarment, enclosed around the neck, wrists and ankles, and battery-operated". True to form, the Straits Times ran it as a straight story on page one. A month later, it published a 1455-word feature article quoting local academics and engineers hot for the idea, complete with an illustration of how a "cold suit" might work.

Reuters has jumped on Sunday Times' story, about the revelation by the director of Singapore's National Neuroscience Institute, that her 88-year-old father has sensory peripheral neuropathy, a condition that impairs the conduction of sensation from his legs to his spinal cord. "This makes his walking unsteady, as many Singaporeans have already noticed," she wrote. The daughter added, "I think with medication and simple precaution, he can continue to be of service to his country and the world." In other words, no need to dock his pay. A Bangladeshi worker who lost one or two of his fingers in an industrial accident may no longer be deemed employable, but an MP who can't walk to the meet-the-people-sessions need not worry about the pink slip. That's another advantage of the GRC - you're hoping for a by-election maybe?

Coincidence or not, there seems to be no shortage of research work on robotic ambulatory studies in Singapore. From the polytechnics to NTU, the complex dynamics of a humanoid locomotion are already well covered. Apparently the technology is well within reach, compared to refrigerated Calvin Kleins.

The worrying part is not automatic control of the limbs, but the cognitive portion above the neck. We are told someone diagnosed with sensory peripheral neuropathy has full functionality of his brain. Which makes it puzzling for us lesser mortals to understand why he had to tell his daughter to "Let the readers know I have sensory peripheral neuropathy." Has communication with the common man broken down?

At a tree planting ceremony yesterday, he said the problem started when he was 86, a secret he kept for 2 whole years - maybe he thought it might disqualify him from the electoral sweepstakes. Many Singaporeans would have already noticed extra hands were on the spade,  from the sar kar (dialect expression for "the third hand") general, to steady the gardening effort for the photo op. Who's giving who a leg up?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Risky Business

Events certainly ended on a sour note when the 211 investors who bought DBS High Notes (HN5) lost their appeal for the recovery of about $18 million worth of products linked to bankrupted Lehman Brothers. Chief Justice Chan ruled that "Illiteracy, whether linguistic, financial or general, does not enable a contracting party to avoid a contract whose terms he has expressly agreed to be bound by." Laymen will ask, how can one express agreement to terms he did not understand in the first place?

Joining the wealth of reading material documenting the financial meltdown of 2008, authors Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera ("All The Devils Are Here", Portfolio/Penguin 2010) illustrate that even for quants well versed with the Black-Scholes formula for pricing options or VaR model for attaching a dollar value to risk, "nobody ever thought CDOs would be WMD". That was the senior VP in structural finance at Lehman Brothers speaking in November 2007. The bits and pieces of mortgage loans put together by subprime companies metastasized into an alphabet soup of toxic products with exotic names like ABS, ARM, ABCP, MBS, and RMBS. If these read like rocket science, it's because actual rocket scientists - mathematicians and physicists - were hired to use quantitative methods, and not stock and bond fundamentals, to create the complex risk models for high tech finance. Add the bad guys in the industry who gull customers into taking on expensive mortgages - and paying exorbitant fees - which were securitized into incomprehensible derivative deals and you've got a potent mix. Eric Hibbert, another Lehman Brothers executive, described one First Alliance Mortgage Company (Famco) as a typical sweatshop specializing in "high pressure sales for people who are in a weak state". He added, "It is a requirement to leave your ethics at the door." A money lender who bucked the trend said, "Just because Johnny jumped off the bridge doesn't mean you have to follow."

Johnny's latest fling in town seems to be with CFDs, Contracts For Difference which hinge on the bet on the movement of an asset - stock, currency or commodity - without owning the asset itself. The sweetener is that investors pay only 10 percent upfront for the leap off. But if the CFD shares dive, the full cost of the loss could wipe out that initial outlay, and euphoria of easy money, easily. Those who dabble in shares will recognise the similarity to margin trading. The generous broker who promptly opens a margin account for you will be just as quick to make the margin call, when something interesting like Greece makes the headlines.

The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act signed by Obama on 21 July 2010 requires derivatives to be traded on an exchange - and subject to regulatory controls that these instruments avoided during the subprime crisis. But greed can never be regulated. When things go horribly wrong, like the credit event kicking in for HN5, the good judge will simply remind you, "We think it appropriate and timely to remind the general public that... a person who signs a contract... is bound by the terms of that contract."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Who's Doing The Policing?

Gazetting a blog is not internet policing. *palm-face*
In the CNA Talking Point episode "Policing The Internet", MP (Tampines GRC) Baey Yam Keng claimed that the Ministry of Law sees the internet as another platform for real world criminals to operate from, and people need to be protected from fraud, cyber-bullying, etc. The timing of gazetting online blogs had nothing to do with policing the internet, he said with a poker face. While at it, he might as well add that the president's addendum had nothing to do with the online revelations about the circumstances of his son's 12 year deferment. The wording of the Ministry of Law statement on the subject goes like this:"The proliferation of new media has brought about new challenges to the rule of law and the ministry will review legislation to deal with harmful and unlawful online conduct". Smells like a good-cop-bad-cop routine is in play.

Here's how real world politicians feel strongly about the subject:
US Foreign Secretary William Hague: The fact that criminals and terrorists can exploit digital networks is not "justification for states to censor their citizens."
UK Prime Minister David Cameron: Governments "must not use cybersecurity as an excuse for censorship or to deny their people the opportunities that the Internet represents."

Cameron and Hague were speaking at a two-day International Cyber Conference in London. Their stance contrasts with calls by Russia and China for tighter regulation of the Internet through binding international treaties. No prizes for guessing which camp Baey or his comrades will be more comfortable with.

Confronted with Ravi's clarification that the much bally-hooed case of cyber-bullying did not involve Singaporeans, Baey had to concede that crime was not the only raison d'être for the internet policing, "Yes, political concerns could be one of it". Since the mainstream media shy from highlighting instances of duplicity, netizens will just have to be extra vigilant and do their patriotic bit for the country.

"What citizens do online should not, as some have suggested, be decreed solely by groups of governments making decisions for them somewhere on high," US Vice President Joe Biden said in his contribution delivered via videolink from Washington. Hear! Hear!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Be Careful What You Vote For

Suppose you had signed up for an expensive package of on-demand movies in glorious full HD (1920 x 1080), but discovered that most of the programming is in pathetic DVD resolution (720 x 480). Fortunately the new MDA guideline stipulates that cancelling charges must be pro-rated, on new contracts capped at 2 years. But what is the recourse if you voted for a president who fails to deliver on your expectations?

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) seems to be embarking on another "education exercise" on behalf of the powers seated on high. Coming after an earlier survey debunking the effects of social media on the last election, they have produced another study to prove that voters got it wrong, again.

Apparently a majority of respondents believe the elected president is there to ensure the Government manages the economy well. Some even believe he is free to speak publicly on national issues that are important to us. 66 percent of those surveyed actually thinks the least he could do was to make sure the Government does what it promised during the hustings of the general election. In other words, for 4 million smackeroos, this guy better justify his existence. What we don't want is another free loader who summarises his years of service with a memoir aptly titled "Why Am I Here?"

Indeed, why is there a president, installed at great expense to the taxpayers, if all he does is shake hands with foreign visitors and speak out for the people only when he has been given permission to do so? If he requires official authorisation just to open his mouth, where will he find the authority to disagree with the government's spending of the reserves and object to appointment of cronies to high office? With this godless government in office, personal religious and moral conviction is already checked out at the door.

If there is a legal basis to nullify the election outcome, nobody is interested to explore it. One constitutional law expert even proposed using TV drama to "educate" the people, so they won't feel short-changed. "Have a 24-part Channel 8 drama on some features of the presidency, showing crises and so on, set the date at 2050. You might actually succeed." SMU lecturer Eugene Tan is less sanguine, opining that any Government attempt to educate voters will be perceived as trying to "straitjacket" the office. The soap opera continues.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The New Game In Town

The total workforce in Singapore comprises 2.1 million residents (citizens and PRs) and 1.1 million foreigners. Labour economist Hui of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy deduces that the overall jobless rate is about about one third less than the official resident unemployment rate of 3.0% as of June 2011, (i.e. 2%), since all foreigners have jobs. But how did 1/3 of the jobs available in Singapore end up going to foreigners?

Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin knew the answer in hi sheart when one CEO accused of hiring too many foreigners disclosed his company's workforce figures which, in Tan's own words, "didn't make very good reading" for a company based here."

Yet when Mr Yeap of the Singapore Shell Employees' Union pointed out that Singaporeans were retrenched while foreigners kept their jobs during the downturns of 1986 and 1998, Tan, now sitting on the same side as Lim Swee Say and SNEF president Stephen Lee, challenged Yeap if that was a fact or perception. That sounded awfully like Shanmugam's assault on Pritam Singh's presentation of the unpleasant truth in parliament, tantamount to imputing Yeap "purveys lies and dishonest opinions". It was like Yeap had to "put your hand on your heart and say, this is what I believe in." Yeap didn't blink, "It is a fact, that's why I raised it here."

Labour chief Lim Swee Say didn't exactly help with his warped version of events - that the Job Credit Scheme helped keep jobs, while foreign work passes were allowed to expire without renewal. In other words, foreigners lost jobs, Singaporeans kept their jobs. SNEF's Lee qualified that foreigners on contract were let go, but at least he was honest enough to concede, "This does not mean no Singaporeans were retrenched." So when Tan urged his audience to distinguish perception from reality, maybe he should have commanded Lim Swee Say to stop daydreaming and come down to earth.

Oddly, it is the same Tan who announced the new guidelines purportedly designed to take aim at discriminatory hiring practices such as job advertisements that stipulate foreigners are preferred, and preferential hiring of foreigners over suitably qualified Singaporeans. Which makes one wonder whether the general is acting on inputs of perception or reality, or just engaging in theater. Shanmugam's words come to mind again: "When members speak here, (with) their personal views and their integrity to speak their personal views and speak from their heart, there are no games that need to be played."