Monday, December 31, 2012

The Year In Pictures

She came, she saw, she collected millions, and zoomed off into the sunset in her Ferrari California. Budget for train maintenance, whazzat? Engineering is so unsexy. The new guy seems to think so too.

His sacking triggered a by-election. In retrospect, it was a godsend; the relentless witch hunters will have the tables turned on themselves before the year was over.

Even the dead have to give way for the development plans to feed the real estate bubble. What they fail to tell you about asset enhancement is the cash impoverishment side of the story.

What killed the wage shock therapy was not the call to raise the income of the poor, but the audacity to suggest a wage freeze for the filthy rich. "Never mind your Gini coefficient", was the old man's dismissal.

What Susan Boyle did for "I Dreamed a Dream", Hougang contributed as much to popularise another Les Miz favourite. Don't be shy, join in the chorus,
"Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes..."

Botox is great for masking blemishes. But who would have thought speeding tickets could be papered over by waffling about appropriate traffic laws that were in force in 2006?

Kudos to the keyboard warriors who shattered the imprimatur of the minister who initially endorsed the profligate spending exercise. Just because minister says okay doesn't always means okay, okay?

The Chinese proverb says: When you drink water remember the source (饮水思源). Does not apply when your heart tells you different in a moment of celebratory euphoria.

The national con got off to a good start.  Until eagle eyed netizens spotted the card carrying party loyalists and aspiring sycophants embedded in the discussion group.

Xenophobia had a good run, kicked off by the "more dogs than men" quotable. The unpardonable was this foreign talent's explicit blog of ugly bedroom gymnastics. If the 51 guys had come across his gross pictorials earlier, they would be so turned off by female anatomical parts that the under-aged online hooker's bookings would be less prolific.

Thanks to the pioneering contribution of this lot of bus drivers, our official lexicon now recognises the proper word for industrial action. It may take 26 years to call a spade a spade, but such is the new timeline for progress in our nation.

The English translation may lack the panache, but Confucius once made this cynical observation:, "For I have never encountered anyone who puts principles before licentiousness."

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Real Tear Jerker

Can you think of someone who can afford to retire at the age of 31? Li Jia Wei can, thanks to the $1.27 million bonanza from the Multi-Million Award Programme provided by her host country.

The official reason given is that a knee injury is ending her sports career that require the use of healthy hands. "I will always be a Singapore player and I want to ...  repay the country for the support I've received," she sobbed convincingly while announcing plans to pack her bags and return to China with her 3-year old son. It sounds more like "quitting" than "retiring". Throughout her 18 years spent here, she didn't even bother to pick up Singlish. And she's probably not planning to see her son killed/injured/mangled in a national service training exercise either.

Another foreign talent who downed her ping pong paddles is Sun Bei Bei, 28, who decided to step down to raise kids. Contribute to advancing the nation's pathetic Total Fertility Rate. "Whether as a coach or as a player, I will not leave Singapore. I want my child to live here and be educated here." That sounds more palatable. Sun is assigned the role of youth coach to the School Within A School programme at the Singapore Sports School. At least she plans to earn her keep.

It beggars the imagination why Lee Bee Wah will want to "arrange for her (Jia Wei) to do something for Singapore" when she is clearly uprooting herself and family to settle in Beijing. Which part of goodbye does she not understand? Something must have been lost in translation.

Surely Singapore money should be spent on Singaporeans.

The headlines scream "Higher cash payout for elderly households," but the "bonus" money is a mere $5,000 (which used to be a CPF top-up). All part and parcel of a Lease Buyback Scheme incentive to sell a $470,000 4-room flat and trade down to a $100,000 studio apartment. Which means the silver haired will bequeath a substantially reduced asset to their kids when the time comes to quit this life on earth. If they could afford to have kids in the first place. Nobody really arranged to do something for the old folks who are trapped in the asset-rich-cash-poor dilemma.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Lackluster Performance

Anne Hathaway made a better Catwoman than a Fantine tugging at your heart strings with "I Dreamed a Dream", reputedly a performance aimed at an Oscar. Sorry, Russel Crowe's vocals made a splash only after his suicide soliloquy. Save Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy, the real singing came from those with stage experience, like Samantha Barks as Éponine and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Colm Wilkinson only makes a cameo appearance as the Bishop of Digne.  What a waste of talent.

One reviewer said Tom Hooper's film of the musical Les Miserables is an exceptional movie of a mediocre musical. Judging from last night's screening at Lido, more likely, it is the other way round. Just like the present cabinet is a mediocre version of the exceptional first generation of political leaders.

Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye and other Old Guard ministers may have been renowned for their domineering and authoritarian style, but they contributed much with their robust debate of policy and administrative issues. Not for them the group-think that Lim Boon Heng shared crocodile tears over when he was asked to step down before GE 2011. Even Lee Kuan Yew noted that the sameness of political and public sector executives is in itself a problem; they do not challenge one another and are guilty of "intellectual in-breeding" (ST 12 Nov 1994). One consequence is the inability of the middle class to achieve genuine political participation except through PAP co-option (Garry Rodan, "Singapore Changes Guard: Social, Political and Economic Directions in the 1990s", Longman Chesire, 1993). And we are told, even those invited to tea decided not to sign up.

All we see on stage is a string of strutting generals, lacking in vitality, force, or conviction; uninspired actors with no commanding performance. Witness ex-Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean's version of a town hall meeting, fending off every earnest question with a infuriating "What do you think?" The ex-Air Force Chief George "FM" Yeo had plenty pretty speeches to make, but when he had to man the barricades at Aljunied, he turned tail and blamed everybody else except himself for the "resentment against the government". The man who promised "I am not going anywhere. I am staying in Aljunied GRC." shifted loyalties to a Hong Kong employer instead of staying on for the fight.

One memorable scene in the Les Miz movie has Inspector Javert walking through pools of blood shed by the fallen. It brings to mind the words of Ong Pang Boon who bitterly objected to the creation of the elected presidency:
"In a parliamentary democracy, peaceful transfer of power, whether intra-party or inter-party,  is fundamental to the system, and must be seen to be so. Once this possibility appears to be closed, then violent revolutionary means would loom large.  I do not know if this is what we want." (Cited in "Singapore: The Ultimate Island", T.S Selvan, Freeway Books, 1991)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Insights From The Past

It was an unusual find at the Christmas tree, a hardcover book published in 2003. The book provides a great deal of detailed information and analysis about the peculiarities of the elitist and highly controlled system of governance in Singapore. It also has the only documented narration of how Richard Hu, S Dhanabalan and Tony Tan threatened to resign en masse over an act of violence in a cabinet meeting (click on cover for the relevant page content). No wonder the country is in such a mess today.

There are loads of priceless insights from the book. Nearly a decade ago, Ross Worthington already expressed doubt that economic performance is an adequate substitute for trust. The lack of accountability, complicated by the high levels of remuneration and those aspects of their public duties hidden within the GLC and statutory boards, is starting to bear rotten fruit. Ergo, the work of the government owned National Computer Services (NCS) sold to a political party owned Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM) for $140,000 and leased back to the public through the Town Councils (TC). With such shadowy money making schemes in play, no wonder the Service and Conservancy Charges keep increasing year after year.

Worthing quotes this on page 232:
"Intellectuals and professionals sense an atmosphere of corruption - not corruption of money, for there is nothing in Singapore corresponding to the activities of families of Presidents of some of the ASEAN countries, but corruption in the disbursement of power and influence."
(John Goldring, "The legal profession and government in Singapore and Malaysia", Australian Quarterly, 60, 4, 1988)

Earlier, in 1973, T J S George ("Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore", Eastern Universities Press, 1984 p.213) noted:
"Even Singapore's famous graftlessness has an unseen face.  Petty bribery is, of course, unknown and no minister of government official grows fat on illegal takings - a unique virtue in Southeast Asia. But this does not preclude the existance of a form of political corruption. Falling in with the government's line of thinking is recognized as a way of getting official favours such as the allotment of choice apartments; a proportion of housing estates' accommodation is set apart as a reward for political support. Government pressure through red tape is brought to bear on industrialists and traders... If, however, the businessmen concerned  are personally close to the top political hierarchy, they are spared the pressures."

Frankly, Dr Teo Ho Pin, Coordinating Chairman of 14 PAP TCs, did no favour for Chandra Das by coming to his defence of the latest variant of BromptonGate. This businessman is so close to the top political hierarchy, no pressure will ever be brought to bear on him. Ever.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Will Santa Oblige?

All we want for Christmas is a ......    by-election.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to be in India to start "considering seriously if a by-election should be held for the Punggol East SMC, and if so, when to hold one." Lee reiterated that the Constitution does not require him to call a by-election within any fixed timeframe, based on his father's interpretation in 1965: "Since we are no longer a part of the Federal whole, for reasons which we find valid and valuable as a result of our own experience of elections and of government in Singapore, we have decided that this limitation should no longer apply".

Singapore's constitution draws upon the English Constitution tradition and the Malaysian Constitution (which drew heavily on the Indian Constitution), but has been sufficiently adapted to demonstrate some Westminster traits, while exhibiting many non-Westminster components. The general PAP view of institutional arrangements was summarised by then Minister of State for Law Ho Peng Kee:
"I look at democracy as a basket of rights and a list of freedoms, at the top of which you put the freedom to express your choice of the group of people you want to put into power, who will, after that, have the authority and the power to circumscribe the other freedoms that you have."
("Democracy East or West?" ST 25 May 1995)

This interpretation of a Westminster style constitution has been rejected by the Privy Council in one of its first cases involving Singapore constitutional law. (Anthony Lester QC, "Note on Constitutional Law", Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, 1989). In that case, the council found that an act of the Singapore parliament cannot override a citizen's fundamental human rights.

The Singapore constitution is essentially an instrument of "rule by law" rather "rule of law", which when combined with the complete dominance of the legislature by one party has produced a "rule of State law" regime. (Robert D. Cooter, "The Rule of State Law and the Rule-of-Law State", Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics 1996).

Walter Woon said this in 1991 ("Stand up and be quoted", ST 6 July):
"We effectively don't have a Constitution.  We have a law that can be easily changed by parliament, and by the party in power, because the party is the parliament.. it is unsettling how flexible the Constitution is..."

Thanks a lot, Michael Palmer, for sobering up our Christmas this year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Woman Of The Year

Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai was a close second to Barack Obama, nominated TIME's person of the year. The other contenders being Apple CEO Tim Cook, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and particle physicist Fabiola Giantti respectively. The brave lady survived a shot in the head by a Taliban assassin, and emerged as the world's most admired children's-rights advocate.

We have had our share of female news makers in 2012, but nothing to be proud of, really.

Ms Ko made the headlines for her extreme generosity, bar none. She allegedly gifted her doting National University of Singapore (NUS) professor a Mont Blanc pen worth S$740, tailor-made shirts, an iPod Touch, and even settled one of his bills amounting to almost S$1,300. Whether these presents are tainted with elements of gratification are something for the courts to decide.

Ms Sue ignited a feeding frenzy when she made her appearance in court, unprotected by a gag order after being named in the corruption trial of a former Central Narcotics Bureau director. What really stirred the imagination of the public was when Deputy Director of Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) Teng Khee Fatt mobilised his goon squad as personal body guards for his precious witness. He even sat next to her in his personally assigned vehicle. Talk about playing it close.

Ms Ong will always have a special place in our hearts. Not only did she barter mangoes for a $5,500 Lady Dior bag, she bagged the Speaker of the House under the auspices of the Monday nights meet the people's sessions. Suddenly, adultery is respectable, justifiable when bonding with the grassroots worshippers is the declared objective. "But you can't judge our relationship by just what happens on Monday" is the telling message by the philandering parliamentary, there are other days in the week, and overseas trips for commingling opportunities, courtesy of taxpayers' funding.

Ms XXX is the party we are dying to know about. The 18+ year old is the albatross around the necks of at least 51 men who were snared by the online under age sex scam. School principal, banking professional, movie mogul scion, civil service high flyers, all fell under her spell. Since the Attorney General's Chambers saw fit to protect her identity, she must be really someone special to their hearts. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange just announced that he will releasing a million more documents, files to be published in 2013 that would affect "every country in this world". Perhaps Ms XXX will finally find her place on the front cover.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Transportation Horrors

It's the time for year end festivities and office parties. Much as you would like to avoid it, a sip of alcoholic beverage is quite inevitable. Just be extra careful if you are one of those who can still afford the near $100K COE and are in charge of an expensive set of wheels.

Au was found sleeping off a few drinks in his stationary car parked at Fourth Avenue in the wee hours of Dec 18, 2009. A friend had driven his vehicle there, one of two witnesses who had given police statements attesting to the fact he did not drive the vehicle on that particular occasion. Still, Au was jailed for two weeks, fined $4,000 and banned from driving. Judge of Appeal V K Rajah ended the nightmare by ruling that catching forty winks at the wheel of a stationary vehicle while over the alcohol limit does not constitute an offence. But prosecutors at the Attorney General's Chambers are "studying the High Court decision" and "considering the next course of action". Why are the prosecutors so determined in persecuting? Gleaning available information on the Internet, it seems they still have a few cards to play.

What is the Drink Drive Offence in question?
It is an offence for a person to be in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place with excess alcohol in his breath or in blood or urine as evidenced by a certificate of analysis or statement.

What is the legal definition of being in charge?
There is no legal definition for the term "in charge". Generally, a Defendant is "in charge" if he was the owner or in possession of the vehicle or had recently driven it. He is not in charge if it is being driven by another person or is "a great distance" from the vehicle.

What happens if a person is sitting in the vehicle or "otherwise involved with it"?
In charge can include attempting to gain entry to the vehicle and failing, having keys to the vehicle, having intention to take control of the vehicle or even "being near the vehicle".

What if I was in my car listening to music and had no intention of driving?
There is no need for the prosecution to prove that a person was likely to drive whilst unfit or over the limit. It is for the Defendant to prove that there is no prospect of using the vehicle.

What if I fell asleep in the car or I was sitting in the back?
It depends on the circumstances leading up to it. If somebody else had driven the vehicle, and has merely got out and left you in it, and you were not aware of this, you are not in charge. If, however, you had, by your own means got into the car you would have been in charge and remain in charge.

Can I be prosecuted if I am sitting in the passenger seat?
Yes. If the police believe that you were driving at some point, but when they stopped the vehicle, you were no longer driving, it is still possible to prosecute or if the police are able to show that there was a likelihood of you driving the vehicle. You do not have to be sitting in the driver's seat to be "in charge".

In 2002, NSman Chong was charged with "being in possession of a car while under the influence of alcohol" for drinking a beer in his father's parked car, and dozed off. Chan Sek Cheong ruled that the conviction was a weak antecedent to justify a jail term for a second case of DUI in 2009, adding that if Chong's story raised "a question of reasonable doubt, then he ought to be entitled to that doubt".

Surely these horror stories should be enough to persuade you to give up the car (that plus the rip-off COE) and start taking the trains. Except that alternative mode of transport keeps breaking down, derailing the travel plans of at least 26,000 on the North East Line yesterday.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Broken Promises

Remember the falling e-clip, last detected at the Clementi station? The clip was found on the ground on the centre road divider below the MRT track along Commonwealth Avenue West, near the junction of Clementi Avenue 3. Manufacturer PANDROL introduced their e-PLUS System for locations with very high lateral forces, such as the curving section at Clementi. Instead of replacing the old ‘e’ clips, SMRT simply put up temporary safety netting to catch falling hardware. The flimsy green barriers are still at the Clementi tracks.

When Lieutenant General Demond Kuek took over from Saw Phaik Hwa as the new CEO of SMRT in October 2012, he proclaimed with great fanfare, “What is certain is that we are first and foremost a public transport operator. This is the core business that we are responsible for and must excel in.” He also paid lip service to putting priority on engineering ("strengthen our operations, engineering and maintenance capabilities") and safety ("instill a strong customer service and safety culture in all our people”).

So how do engineering and safety on the tracks come into play with his plan to lease and operate more than 40,000 sq m of retail space inside the new Sports Hub? Make no mistake, SMRT is taking the lead in 70% of the new venture called SMRT Alpha. NTUC is roped in only for the FairPrice Xtra hypermarket share of the pie. The range of indoor and outdoor dining outlets, stores, entertainment options in the retail mall will be taking up the general's full attention. The train merely serves as the conduit to the retail outlets.

Maybe Kuek thought he had the industrial relation issues licked, palming it off to the other general in the Ministry of Manpower. More likely, he has taken cognizance that the other ex-armed forces staff given free rein at SMRT, Boey Tak Hap (Chief of Army) and Kwek Siew Jin (Rear Admiral), were paid in the region of $570,000 before share options. Saw Phaik Hwa, retrenched from Duty Free Shops (DFS), was paid $1.43 million in 2009. Her total package including share options came up tp $1.67 million, making her the highest-grossing chief executive that public transport operator SMRT Corp has ever employed. Elementary, my dear Watson, the money is in the shops, not on the trains or buses.

Suddenly, the lieutenant-general "is proud to be involved in promoting a sports and lifestyle destination for the Singapore community." The sweat and stink of smelly armpits in the trains is now celebrated on the running tracks. The smell of money is the perfume of profit mania.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eternally Gratified

Commenting on the findings of the Town Council Management Review published on 14 Dec 2012, Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) chairperson Sylvia Lim has inadvertently unearthed some unsavory goings on rivaling the extra-curricular activities at the Punggol East Monday nights meet the people sessions. Already MPS is now an acronym for Mate Per Schedule, code for sweetheart dealings under the umbrella of approved government transactions.
"After the GE in May 2011, the Town Council was served with a notice that the Town Council's Computer and Financial Systems will be terminated with effect from 1 August 2011 due to material changes to the member ship of the Town Council. This Computer and Financial Systems had been developed jointly by the 14 Town Councils over a period of more than 15 months but was in January 2011 sold to and leased back from M/s Action Information Management Pte Ltd, a company which was dormant."

That dormant company lists as directors former People's Action Party members of parliament, namely Chandra Das, Lau Ping Sum and Chew Heng Ching (Deputy House Speaker 2002-2006). That explains the "Action" in the company name "AIM". Whatever the original aim of the entity, it was incorporated in 1991 with a miserly paid up capital of $2. The first director (Lau) was appointed in 1998, Chandra Das (MP 1980 to 1996) was made director in 2010. Presumably those were the years they geared up for their "IT consultancy/hardware consultancy" business, and injected more funds to augment the token start-up investment. We are assuming, of course, the 14 Town Councils, will millions of reserves collected from S&CC, will not deal with a $2 company. Or entrust it with a costly computer system developed over 15 months.

Chandra Das is the Singapore non-resident ambassador to Turkey, managing director of NUR Investment & Trading, chairman of Nera Telecommunications, and pro-chancellor of NTU. The life trustee of the Singapore Indian Development Association also holds directorship in companies including Yeo Hiap Seng and The Ascott Reit. Before he passed away in July 2006, Lim Kim San, in a moment of candour, once told a young and aspiring banker, "The PAP knows how to take care of its own." He died a very grateful man.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Packaging Morals

Morality is the distinction between right and wrong, the line drawn in the sand to determine what should be done and what should not be done.

Problem is, there is no end to the debate on what is the source of morals and whether or not they are objective. According to anthropologists, even in small homogeneous societies that have no written language, distinctions are sometimes made among morality, etiquette, law, and religion.

Etiquette is sometimes included as a part of morality, but it applies to norms that are considered less serious. Thomas Hobbes ("Leviathan" or "The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil") expresses the standard view when he discusses manners. “By manners I mean not here decency of behavior, as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of small morals, but those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity.”

Law is distinguished from morality or a moral system by having explicit written rules, and officials who interpret them to apply the penalties. Moral criticism is often cited to argue for a change in the law. Especially bad laws. Like whether someone should have unfettered discretion to deny citizens from having a rightfully elected official to make their representations in government.

Religion differs from morality in that morality is only a guide to conduct, whereas religion is always more than this. When the law fails to enforce conduct required by morality, religion provides recourse to a higher authority far beyond the reach of mortal parliamentarians susceptible to temptations of the flesh. By definition, God is incorruptible.

When “morality” is perceived in such descriptive senses, there are no absolutes in content and it is left to the foundation that members of the society claim to set their standards of morals. Bowing is morally acceptable in one culture and kissing the cheek is in another. Last week we heard that adultery is condoned as long as "you have worked long hours, tirelessly attending to the concerns of your residents, reaching out particularly to the needy and to youths, and building stronger bonds among them." Deciding whether the speaker is amoral to state so depends on what kind of society you want your children to grow up in.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Santa Won't Be Liking This

If it's not a white lie, someone is going through extremes to stretch the truth. These guys never get it into their system to call a spade a spade. Flood becomes ponding, strike becomes absence from work without valid medical certificate.

Kids who are holy terrors for the earlier part of the year suddenly become darling angels at Christmas, just in time to be in Santa's good books. Your guess is as good as mine why Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean chose to say he did not know about the emails and incriminating SMSes that were leaked to The New Paper on Saturday morning. The development which was followed by Laura Ong's resignation on Monday, and the Michael Palmer press conference on Wednesday.

Asked point blank if Palmer mentioned the smoking guns during the meeting with his father confessor, Teo said, "I wasn't aware of that." He declined further comment, adding, "I don't have further details to share with you." When Iswaran clammed up on the F1 sweet heart extension deal with Bernie Ecclestone, at least he had the courtesy to plea confidentiality as an excuse.

So what possibly could Palmer have told Teo as reason to disclose his ongoing sordid affair with the People's Association married employee? That it's open secret the PA is in bed with PAP? That Santa might still let him have the Lamborghini he always wanted if he made a clean breast of things? Needless to say, guys who give their Monday girlfriends lambskin Dior bags have expensive tastes.

PA chief executive director Yam Ah Mee, with his trade mark emotionless monotone, is another not too bothered about the moral lessons to be learned from this shameful episode, "So we want to encourage all to staff to continued to move forward." Looks like the taxpayer sponsored overseas bonding trips will continue.

Some things will have to change. The husband/boyfriend who gave the Marine Parade MP a Kate Spade bag (auctioned off for $1,600) will have to pony up much more for this year's present. That Lady Dior bag, which comes in lambskin, patent leather, ostrich and crocodile hide, could set the poor guy back by $5,500++. Don't forget the hand written note, "To My Darling...Again!"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

This Ought To Make You See Red

Dictionary says to nitpick is to criticize by focusing on inconsequential details. The Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) was castigated not for failings in cleanliness, maintenance or lift performance, but being slow in collecting Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) arrears from financially strapped residents. AHTC Chairman Sylvia Lim need not have to explain why they had to develop its own financial system after the Computer and Financial Systems used by the People's Action Party was abruptly terminated in August, collateral damage from the May election results. A lot of time was spent with auditors to reconcile the books maintained under two different systems. Two months after his 1984 re-election, JB Jeyaretnam was charged for allegedly misreporting his party accounts. Not everybody has a short memory.

The mainstream media (MSM) designated it "code red", making it sound like Mas Selamat had just been succeeded by a gun-toting Abu Sayyaf extremist looking for work, now that Philippine Muslim rebel leaders are negotiating a peace deal with Manila.

Potong Pasir's Sitoh Yih Pin received a yellow card since more than half of its S&CC collectibles were 3 months overdue or more. Admitting that many households were in arrears due to financial circumstances, he said this was "an inherited problem".  Implying the residents were spoilt by the more forgiving administration when Chiam See Tong was in charge.

The party who is so quick to milk the populace just can't stand a slow collection. The Speaker of the House probably received his half year bonus payout promptly, before he was exposed banging some body's wife. The whistle blower saved the taxpayers a tidy sum. MSM seems intent on rooting out the snitch, not accounting for the underwriting of the adulterous affair.

Chinese author and Nobel Prize laureate Mo Yan told this parable in Stockholm:
A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen.
The eight men decide that their group is cursed by the presence of one who must have committed a crime against the heavens.  To determine who, they agree to throw their hats towards the open door. Whoever's hat flies out is guilty and must spend the night in the storm.
So they flung their hats towards the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured its owner to accept his punishment, and when he baulked, they picked him up and flung him out the door.  I'll bet you know how it ends : They had no sooner flung him out than the temple collapsed around them.
("Mo Yan’s Nobel: Parable of a Patsy?", Bloomberg 12/12/12)

The house of cards is collapsing. Depending on your politics, the philandering politician-lawyer or the alternative voice in parliament with a heart, could be interpreted as the one thrown out into the rain. Once upon a time, Lee Kuan Yew would not allow a divorcee to be in his cabinet. Boy, was he hopping mad when he found out former Environment Minister Dr Ahmad Mattar was dancing with someone of the same gender. The joke then was Mattar's reaction: "What's the matter?"

Friday, December 14, 2012

Importing Violence

Willie was a diligent member of our engineering, procurement, installation and commissioning (EPIC) team. He came in useful when we bidded for a mounded gas tank project in Batangas. After the site survey and meeting local subcontractors, he wanted to check on his brother who was running his business, delivering additives for Coca Cola, while he was working in Singapore. For protection on his routes, Willie said they always carried a grenade in the glove compartment. Like most Singaporeans, we were not used to sighting live ammunition outside military installations.

One day Willie was not his usual self at the office. His brother was shot dead in a bar brawl. He was always hot headed, Willie told us.

The guy checking out his hardware collection is working at an ice cream outlet here. According to his Facebook CV, he studied at the Management Development Institute of Singapore in 2010, one of many private schools providing education as an excuse to enter the country. He is supposed to be enrolled at Southern Cross University in New South Wales. He also promised to kill all Singaporeans visiting his country ("go to philippines and I will kill u all"). Apparently he is motivated by the defence of another Filipino, a Seagate Techonology employee against whom the firm is "planning to take the necessary disciplinary measures where needed" for an online posting that is derogatory. One Singaporean is so scared by the threat on his life, he has lodged a report at Bishan neighborhood police post (Police Report (NP299) No. E/20121211/2119).

Fortunately for Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, Singaporeans are not as emotional or incendiary as hot blooded Filipinos. Writing in TODAY, someone going by the monicker of Avi Liran, a economist supposedly living here for past 15 years, expressed support for the Filipino extremes ("What S'pore can learn from emotional Philippines", pg 14, Fri 14 Dec 2012). Mr Liran doesn't sound very Singaporean.

Hell bent on taxing the threshhold of our emotional limits, Lui (tuck you! tuck you!) expressed determination in his own conflagrative Facebook posting to increase bus fares. Calmer minds at Workers' Party (Aljunied, Hougang and maybe Punggol East) reminded him that "the Government should not assume nor suggest that this cost increase must automatically be borne by commuters." Perhaps, with more foreigners taking up citizenship in line with Government plans, Lui may one day end up with more explosive responses. The kerosene bottle that ruined Seng Han Thong's evening could do worse if it was a Molotov cocktail. Is the minister planning to fiddle while our city burns?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Connecting The Dots

Personal disclosure. We shared the same lift down to the CK Tang basement carpark after Michael Palmer made a fool of himself doing the hip hop at Chingay 2007. Poor sap had no choice, he was one of the 12 post-65 MPs directed to perform for 1 full minute "to connect with the youths of today". He was so wet behind the ears, he actually mouthed, "Before I joined the grassroots organisation, I never knew there were poor people in developed countries". Someone should have warned him advisers to grassroots organisations are expected to uphold highest standards of personal conduct. This conduct unbecoming begs to be scrutinised.

The Timing
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said Michael Palmer confessed his sins of the flesh to him on Saturday Dec 8, but the nation was told only in the afternoon of Wednesday Dec 12. The buzz that morning concerned the early retirement of High Court Justice Philip Pillai, 65, who had served only 30 months, one of the shortest terms spent in the position in Singapore. It was Pillai who ruled that Hougang resident Madam Vellama would not have to pay costs relating to the bid for a court declaration that the Prime Minister did not have unfettered discretion in deciding whether and when to call by-elections. Teo said PM Lee met Mr Palmer on Sunday morning Dec 9, and Lee "directed that the matter be dealt decisively and in an open way".

The Other Woman
Off site meeting, China hotel
Outed before a gag order could be put in place, Ms Laura Ong was identified as the scarlet woman and constituency director of Pasir Ris West Constituency Office until she resigned on Monday Dec 10, citing "family commitments". That reference was obviously not about commitment to her businessman husband, since they were separated way before the hook-up with the speaker of parliament. Asked by the media for confirmation, Teo Chee Hean merely panned: "I think she knows what she did was wrong." Sigh, it's always the female who is cast the first stone.

The Last Supper
One social media website claims a reliable informant provided details days before the storm broke but the editorial team decided to await independent verification - they had enough headaches with the recent letter of demand from Dr Vasoo over alleged libel. Apparently the couple's last surreptitious "meeting" was at a hotel in Jalan Besar last week during lunch time. Some date before Dec 8. The informant had initially posted the interesting inputs online, but has since removed them. Trust Singapore lawyers to put fear into the hearts of lesser mortals.

The Replacements
Teo said his party had to make plans to take care of the constituency before going public with the latest debacle. Charles Chong was appointed Acting Speaker of Parliament, and Teo Ser Luck will oversee the Punggol East constituency. Both are featured in the photo spread of Ms Ong's blog. Was Palmer just one of three juicy targets?

The Punishment
Comparison with the Yaw Shin Leong affair is inevitable. Yaw was sacked, Palmer was allowed to resign, what the army generals would call a honourable discharge. PAP apologist Chua Mui Hoong said Yaw maintained a "strange silence in the face of allegations", but Khaw Boon Wan's charges can be easily paraphrased:
"The Workers' Party PAP needs to come clean with the people what information have they got about Mr Yaw Palmer and in particular, what they know about him prior to the May election. And if they know, why did they field Mr Yaw Palmer. I think it is sad that the voters have been misled by the Workers' Party PAP."
For all his candour, Michael Palmer's "I had a relationship with a member of the PA" is not particularly enlightening, compared to the orgy of salacious detail indulged in the Ng Boon Gay corruption case.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rotten To The Core

Partly to escape the harsh winter climes, many of my friends' kids studying overseas are home with the family for the Christmas season. Given a choice, they wouldn't have left for foreign shores in the first place, straining the finances of their parents. But their grades were not considered good enough for the local universities, where places are set aside for non-Singaporeans, some of whom are fully sponsored for tuition, board and lodging.

Most of them are doing well overseas. One completed his Masters under a scholarship awarded by the foreign university, and moving on to a doctorate. Another is doing research in genomics, peering into the DNA sequence of rice grains to produce a better crop. If they had stayed on in Singapore, they would have had to contend with a diploma, and end up working under a degree holder. Such is the way meritocracy works here.

Worse, they could have ended up working under a Pinoy "process engineer" in Seagate Technology International, a storage solutions company.

Carlos R Pestano III, declared on his Facebook account last Friday that Singaporean employees in his company who worked under foreign bosses were "bitter", and offered this bit of condescending advice: "You can improve over time and maybe start with your manners."

Pestano hails from the Catholic University of the Philippines, the almost 4-century old University of Santo Tomas which draws inspiration from the teachings and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor and patron saint of Catholic schools. Its ranking according to QS World University Rankings in 2012: 601+
The pecking order to put things in perspective:
#1 Massachussets Insitutue of Technology
#2 University of Cambridge
#3 Harvard University
#15 Stanford University
#19 University of Toronto
#23 University of Hongkong
#24 Australian National University
#25 National University of Singapore
#30 The University of Tokyo
#47 Nanyang Technological University
#79 University of Western Australia
#81 Uppsala University
#156 Universiti of Malaya
#198 Waseda University
#212 Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
#326 Universiti Sains Malaysia
#348 University of the Philippines
#400 University of Mexico
#401-450, #451-500, #550-551, #551-600 are grouped, no individual ranking
#601+ refers to the bottom of the heap

QS World University Rankings are based on data covering four key areas of concern for students: research, employability, teaching and internationalization, with the heaviest weightage on academic reputation (40%). Seagate should take note.

Fortunately the worst of Pestano's venom is not targeted at his Singaporean subordinates. Not happy working under foreigners? "Don't blame us for this," he wrote, "maybe rotten locals up there commenting are not good enough." There are so many rotten locals "up there", it's difficult fathom who he is referring to, but we have our favourites. Like the minister who opened the floodgates for foreign trash.

It was therefore a real surprise that Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer had to resign over an "improper" relationship with a member of the People's Association staff. Another gratification pot-boiler to detract from the foreign talent issues? Whatever the true story is, we are forever indebted to Mr Palmer for dropping his guard in a single-seat constituency. Now, that's a real Christmas present!

Surviving 2012

Don't fret, the announcement on 12 December 2012 about Singapore Airlines (SIA), 56 per cent owned by Temasek Holding, selling it's 49 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic for US$360 million (S$436 million), is in line with the state investor's trading practice. 12 years ago on 30 March 2000, it paid 600 million pounds in cash (S$1.06 billion) in the hope of leveraging on the purchase for the lucrative transatlantic market. Buy high sell low. Like the Like the 3.8 percent stake in Bank of America Corp. that was disposed off at a loss of US$4.6 billion in May 2009.

There was a lot of hoopla then, about how the deal with Sir Richard Branson was sealed with a handshake and a number scratched on a napkin (signed off by Cheong Choong Kong, thanks, anon@12/12/2012 10:11 AM). Chew Choon Seng, who paid a huge price for a pittance of the profits, relinquished his position as Chief Executive Officer of SIA at the end of 2010 and assumed the post of Chairman at Singapore Exchange (SGX) and board member of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). It is a tragic tale not to be regaled any time soon, at least not in the mainstream media.

Barely 3 months ago in October 2012, SIA announced it will buy a 10 percent stake in Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd for A$105 million (S$109 million) to compete with Qantas Airways Ltd in the lucrative Australian market, an effort also interpreted by some to deal with its troubled budget associate, Tiger Airways Holdings Ltd. Shares in Tiger Airways, 33 percent owned by SIA, were suspended after the carrier reported a S$18 million second-quarter net loss. The troubled airline had just won back a full operating license that particular month after fixing safety faults that had caused Australian regulators to ground the carrier last year. Chew was fingered for not intervening in the operations of Tiger Airways, which led to the carrier's grounding in 2011.

Well, we might still survive the prediction of doom for 21/12/2012 yet, the supposed end of the Mayan calendar. Jose Manrique Esquivel, a descendant of the Maya, said his community in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula sees the date as a celebration of their survival despite centuries of genocide and oppression. Our own worries are surviving wildcat strikes by Chinese nationals, insults by Pinoys working at Seagate, bus fare increases foretold by the transport minister. Don't pop the champagne too soon, doomsday may just have been postponed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sacrificing The Big Bucks

When Tin Pei Ling (member of parliament, Marine Parade GRC) resigned from her business consultant job in Ernst & Young in June 2011, she had only four years of working experience. The question on every body's mind was what she could contribute to her "responsibilities as full time MP in her MacPherson ward." People queuing up for assistance at the meet the people sessions (MPS) to consult their MPs for advice about errant employers bent on exploiting labour will prefer one who also faces the same harsh realities of day to day subsistence. Wong Kan Seng in 2006 had this perspective that a full-time MP would "lose contact with people in business, lose contact with foreigners who come to Singapore."

Last month Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC MP ) resigned from her position as a senior banker at Standard Chartered after 19 years - last assignment was Global Head of Priority and International Banking - to "spend more time with the Ayer Rajah constituents on exciting projects”. Presumably she will share war stories from her "exciting and fulfilling journey with the bank, which has taken me across many functions, many businesses, and many countries." Plus, she still gets to sit in on her employer's meetings, albeit in a non-executive role in the bank. A finger on the pulse of the corporate world.

Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC MP) also left his day job before the end of the year. A curious move, since most Singaporeans will wait for the year end bonus before handing in their dear john letter. But then Baey did contribute to quite a bit of negative PR when he publicly empatised with Sun Xu, and asked our citizens to reflect on their canine attributes. His Facebook postings are classic examples of what not to write in social media.

Baey did contribute to solving the puzzle about the exodus of the PAP MPs from the working world, he says the move "means a cut in his total income of over 50 percent". Meaning, his MP allowance pays as much as his Managing Director post at public relations firm Hill and Knowlton. The committee to review ministers' salaries had recommended only a 3 per cent pay cut for Members of Parliament, resulting in a monthly allowance, a thirteenth month bonus and a Annual Variable Component (AVC) which adds up $192,500. Not bad for once a week MPS work as petition writer.

The interesting bit is that opposition member Chen Show Mao's name has been roped in to lend legitimacy for the "big sacrifice".  The big difference is that Chen, named one of American Lawyer’s 2010 "Dealmakers of the Year" in April 2011,  left the corporate world to throw his hat into the uncertainty of the epic battle at Aljunied. A fight that threatened the constituents there with years spent in repentance. Let's not compare pears with rotting apples.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Who Is Dr Vasoo?

Dr Sushilan Vasoo was department head (1986-1999) when Chee Soon Juan was a lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of Social Work and Psychology. In 1992, Chee went head-to-head against the prime minister in the Marine Parade by-election on a Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) ticket. It was a respectable performance - considering who he was locking horns with - winning 24.5 per cent of the vote.

The People's Action Party (PAP) had always derided the SDP for putting up as candidates cab drivers and secretaries who could never run the country vis-a-vis scholar generals who supposedly can. Chee and other intellectuals moving into the party were clearly qualified professionals with more impressive credentials. They also had a strategy: to build up the opposition gradually and visibly so the electororate could see it happening and not to fear a change from decades of one-party dominance. This was perceived as a serious threat to the PAP.

Three months after the by-election, Dr Vasoo (Associate Professorial Fellow, July 2002- Present), who happened to be a member of parliament for the PAP (Tanjong Pagar 1991-2001), sacked him. The alleged offence was that Chee had used research funds assigned to him to express mail his wife's doctoral thesis to her academic adviser in the United States. Chee responded by saying the university had authorised the mailing and that his sacking was designed to make people think very carefully before saying "the wrong thing". Dr Vasoo promptly sued him. Chee's lawyers said he could not afford to lose a court case, and he agreed to pay "about pounds 100,000" in an out-of-court settlement. (The Independent, "Inside Story: Singapore grip" ).

Last week Dr Vasoo, now 71, through his lawyer Davinder Singh sent a letter of demand to two socio-political websites, alleging words were “published maliciously and recklessly” and constituted a grave libel. The letter said the allegation that Dr Vasoo had “fabricated evidence” to deprive opposition politician Chee Soon Juan of his living was “false and baseless”, since Dr Vasoo had successfully obtained a judgment against Dr Chee for making similar allegations in 1993.

It demanded that the websites remove the offending words and related comments, warning that legal proceedings will start against them if they did not comply. Dr Vasoo did not ask for any damages or costs, which was pretty magnanimous of him, considering Mr Singh's rates are like $1,800 per hour (directors/managing directors $900-$1,500/hr, associate directors/deputy directors $700-$800/hr, senior associates $500-$650/hr). But Mr Singh is also a nice man, known to provide pro bono services. The websites quickly apologised to Dr Vasoo.

Asked by reporters to comment about the matter at a forum, Dr Vasoo said he had nothing more to add, leading us to understand that he "did not raise a whimper", to borrow the terminology in the offending quote:
Not a whimper
“It fabricates evidence – as Dr Vasoo did twenty years ago – to deprive people of their living. Lest I be accused of fabricating this, I draw evidence from the fact that this accusation has been published abroad in my colleague, Chee Soon Juan’s book, Democratically Speaking, available these last three months and against which Dr Vasoo has not raised a whimper.”

It also leads us to wonder why Chee was not sued over the said book published by him. Like why Ross Worthington was not sued for documenting the slapping of S Dhanabalan in 1990 (page 150, "Governance in Singapore", Taylor & Francis, Inc, Dec 2002).

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tuck You, Minister

Of the 325 commuters polled yesterday, a resounding 92 percent reacted strongly to the proposal to increase bus fares suggested by the Transport Minister, "Tuck you!" In a nutshell, the typical response was summed thus:
"It is good to increase salaries of bus drivers, but you can't just push it to commuters. The Government has to think of other alternatives before increasing fares."

There are plenty of alternatives. Such as trimming the pay and perks of the top echelons until they show progress in addressing the technical and personnel problems at the freakish transport company. For starters, reduce the number of directors on the compliant board who approved the holiday leave application of the CEO when he was in office for barely 2 months.  Just about the time to be familiar with the route to the executive washroom. The reduction in director fees should go some way in offsetting the additional costs of the drivers' pay.

To be fair, the Transport Minister was simply acting on cue. After all, the Prime Minister did say more hikes are expected in the coming 20 years. Cost reduction was never in the equation. He's assuming his party will still be in office, of course. He has the generals to back him, he made sure of that.

A private nursing home tried to justify a 20 percent increase in charges, citing:
- High inflation rate of 4.8 percent for Jan - Sep 2012;
- Public healthcare nurses receiving a 4 to 17 percent increase in pay (from April 2012);
- Public health  administrative, ancillary and support staff receiving a 4 to 10 percent increase (from Sept 2012);
- Increase of foreign worker levy from $280 to $340 in July 2012, and $400 in July 2013;
- Requirement to house foreign workers in private accommodations outside of the nursing homes (estimated at $300 to $350 per foreign worker per month).

I can see clearly now
Like the Transport Minister, they are also acting on cue, and passing the costs down to the man in the street. Notice the inflationary pressures tracing from Government initiatives, like the higher property tax for most HDB owners in the coming year. Are you prepared to climb to the highest floor and threaten to jump off in protest, like the two Chinese nationals driven by desperation to the top of the tower cranes? Don't despair, there are plenty of alternatives. Think Hougang and Aljunied.

Friday, December 7, 2012

No Easy Days

What lieutenant-general Desmond Kuek plans to do says much about his leadership style. Instead of spearheading the resources at hand in a well staffed SMRT and lead the troubled transportation company out of its own muddied waters, he is bringing in lower ranked soldiers to do the necessary.  One such person is a colonel slotted to the hot seat of director of human resources, whose vaunted experience with handling personnel is being head of national service affairs.

In his "The Godfather" trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola shows how the mafia top dogs buffer themselves with layers of "buttons" or foot soldiers who do the dirty work. Final accountability and responsibility are alien concepts to these guys.

Mark Owen, the former member of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development group (a.k.a. SEAL Team Six) who wrote the first hand account of the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden ("No Easy Day"), was shocked to discover that the Al Qaeda leader's AK-47 and Makarov pistol found in his room were not even loaded. He pulled out the magazines and checked the chambers. Both were empty.
"He hadn't even prepared a defense. He had no intention of fighting. He asked his followers for decades to wear suicide vests or fly planes into buildings, but didn't even pick up his weapon. In all of my deployments, we routinely saw this phenomenon.  The higher up the food chain in the targeted individual was, the bigger a pussy he was. The leaders were less willing to fight."
(page 249, "No Easy Day, The Autobiography Of A Navy SEAL")

Former Rear Admiral Lui Tuck Yew does it better. Instead of gearing up to do battle and check out the "deep-seated issues" - such as why SBS can afford to pay its drivers better - he wants to simply pass the cost of the unnecessary overheads to the commuters. Bus driver's wages are just one component in the balance sheet, productivity and efficiency also contribute to the bottom line. But what do these paper generals know? Their table top war games are all about feeding soldiers to the front lines, while the generals primp and mouth fancy speeches.

Singaporeans may not be as emotional as the Hongkong protestors. But they sure do know who the real culprits are. "There is no honor in sending people to die for something you won't even fight for yourself," wrote Mark Owen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Blame The Idiot Tiger Keeper

When Myron S. Scholes and Robert C. Merton, joint winners of the 1997 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for a "new method to determine the value of derivatives", came up with a formula to price the dollar value of risk, it was the equivalent of inventing the atomic bomb. Both started Long-Term Capital Management L.P. (LTCM) in 1994 to test their  absolute-return trading strategies combined with high financial leverage, and it blew up in their faces. 4 years later in 1998, LTCM lost US$4.6 billion in less than 4 months, requiring financial intervention by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Their mathematics were used in the invention of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a variant of structured asset-backed security (ABS) collateralized by debt obligations including bonds and loans. IMF's former chief economist Raghuram Rajan warned that asset-backed securities and other derivatives spread risk and uncertainty more widely, rather than reduce risk through diversification as was the purported intention. We witnessed the contribution in the financial meltdown.

We don't know the full mathematics behind the Olam International rights issue, a complex structured deal involving bonds, warrants and shares. By one "tricky estimate", the warrants become valuable only if Olam shares trade above $1.575. Don't miss the line that says Olam shares continued to flounder, falling 5.31 percent to $1.515 yesterday.

And then there's the sequence of events behind the Temasek's show of support and confidence in the beleaguered company. According to chief executive Sunny Verghese, it was the company's banks that went to Temasek to propose the rights deal. Temasek then approached Olam. That was on Monday. The latest variant has it that it was Olam which had instructed one of its banks to go to Temasek to discuss the investment deal. So were the banks not on talking terms with Olam in the first place, or was Temasek not on talking terms? Asking for money is such a delicate subject, especially when the CEO claims he has more than $10 billion in liquidity.

Educated friends who lost money on the Lehman mini-bonds said they didn't understand the financial gobbledygook, it was the 5 percent promised returns that sucked them in. Warren Buffett's long-time partner, Berkshire vice chairman Charlie Munger, has choice words for lax or dysfunctional government regulations, comparing the relationship between banks and regulators to that between a tiger and a tiger keeper, "When the tiger gets out and starts creating damage, it's insane to blame the tiger, it's the idiot tiger keeper."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shorting Our Future

When an investor goes long on an investment, it means that he or she is buying a stock with the belief that its trading price will rise in the future. Conversely, when an investor goes short, he or she is anticipating a decrease in share price.

Muddy Waters founder Carson Block is betting against commodities supplier Olam International Ltd (16 percent owned by Temasek Holdings) because it believes the firm is at risk of insolvency and has been too aggressive in booking future so-called biological gains.  Latter allows it to record future gains from plantations and dairy farms i.e. book earnings not yet realized. Like what Enron did with its gas futures, this accounting practice and debt exposure can turn ugly in a hurry.

Temasek is backing Olam's bid to raise US$1.25 billion to "shore up confidence". Block is saying Olam needs US$3 billion to stay afloat. By injecting equity, Temasek and participating shareholders are effectively diluting Olam's share price. The fund raising exercise will also cost Olam at least 10 percent in interest each year, putting further downward pressure on its stock. And benefiting short-sellers like Muddy Waters.

Block told The Wall Street Journal that Olam's plan to raise funds to allay fears about its balance sheet "solves nothing" and will merely delay its collapse. Once again, good money is thrown after bad. Our money.

The corollary here is that the prime minister is still insisting on diluting our national stake holding with the influx of foreigners. Reuters say expatriates make up more than 90 percent of Dubai's population, a future that's definitely not tenable for Singaporeans born here. Especially for those who have spent two years in Temasek green, risking life and limb for a losing cause.

The prime minister says, "We listen, but we have to lead". But, puh-leez, don't lead us into muddy waters. Like the jack-up rig at Jurong Shipyard, a failed braking system can tilt a whole superstructure. The little red dot is more vulnerable.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wait For The Numbers

It was the fog of war that clouded the initial reports of what happened at Benghazi, an act of terror that turned out to be a terrorist attack. That happens when an incident takes place in a foreign country thousands of miles away. But why can't the local media get their details right when something occurs within our own doorsteps?

The number of Chinese nationals involved in the SMRT strike went from 200 to 171, and at last count could actually be 184 (4 charged, 1 sentenced, 29 deported, 150 given a "severe warning"). It was not just semantics at play in the first strike in 26 years (according to the manpower ministry the last strike in Singapore was staged in 1986 by shipyard workers, ignoring the bus strike of 1955), the reporting seems to be malleable to political direction.

The number of casualties at Jurong Shipyard, subsidiary of offshore engineering group Sembcorp Marine, where the jack up legs of a platform were being tested while other workers were still onboard, is currently listed as 89. The ministry says the injured workers were taken to hospitals and 80 were later discharged, with 3 remaining in an emergency ward. They are probably trying to come up with an appropriate adjective for the state of well-being of the balance of 6 humans at risk.

The numbers matter. Expensive overheads like Tan Chuan-Jin depended on data from TODAY and Lianhe Zaobao to account to parliament for the percentages of local workers employed by the two Integrated Resorts (IRs). That's the euphemism used for the gambling joints at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) and Marina Bay Sands (MBS). Tan is obviously not prepared to be caught by the number of jobs promised (36,000? 24,000?) that was used to justify the construction of the dens of iniquity. Then chairman of the People's Action Party (PAP), Lim Boon Heng, cried on  national tv while explaining that he agreed on the casino issue only because it had brought jobs to Singapore,  "It is a difficult one for me, because I do not like the idea of using gambling as an industry for Singapore and using that as a means of earning an income."

There is good reason be prudent with the reporting of the major industrial accident at Jurong.  The spot light has just been shone on the welfare of the foreign workers, the (lack of) safety precautions at the shipyards will have to be carefully aired. Brigadier General and Acting Minister of Manpower Tan will probably reprise his line for the SMRT debacle, "The labelling of industrial action such as this is not trivial.. it would then open up  a series of actions that would follow thereafter." The souls at Bukit Brown must be rolling over in their graves.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Selective History

In his speech to the PAP activists at their party conference on Sunday, Lee Hsien Loong certainly airbrushed history when he said, "It was this very principle of equal opportunity and meritocracy that Singapore left Malaysia." The hard truth, be it from Toh Chin Chye or Goh Keng Swee, will tell you that Singapore was turfed out of Malaysia. Both will agree with James Minchin, who wrote in his book "No Man Is An Island", that "careful research makes it hard to avoid laying much of the blame at Lee's feet".

From late 1963 to the fateful day of separation of Singapore from Malaysia, he recorded, there was no stopping the deterioration of relations between Lee and the Tunku and their respective confidants. The timeless prose of Mohamad Haji Salleh provides rare insight of the difference of views:


do not say my people are lazy
because you do not know.
you are only a critic, an looker.
you cannot know or judge,
passing the kampong in your car,
staring at the economic data.

do not think my people are weak
because they are gentle,
because they do not build skyscrapers.
have you ever worked in a ladang,
or danced the ronggeng?
can you sing the dondang sayang?
do not think that we have only music
because we love life.

do not write that we have no literature, culture,
have you ever listened to the sajak or pantun
stayed a night at the bangsawan?
have you read the epic shairs
or the theological theses?
how many times have you wondered about history in the blade
and ancestry in the middle of the keris.
or felt the pattern of the songket?
have you lived in a kampong?

do not condemn us as poor
because we have very few banks.
see, here the richness of our people,
the brimful hearts that do not grab or grapple.
we collect humanity from sun and rain and man,
transcending the business and the money.

do not tell us how to live
or organise such nice associations and bodies.
our society was an entity
before the advent of political philosophy.

do no say -
because you do not know.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Day Of Infamy

The numbers keeping changing, as does the storyline

“Without the elected president and if there is a freak result, within two or three years, the army would have to come in and stop it” - Lee Kuan Yew on what would happen if a profligate opposition government touched Singapore’s vast monetary reserves. (Straits Times, Sept 16 2006)

We had sneak preview of how the generals would be deployed on Saturday December 1st, when the Ministry of Manpower announced in a statement that 29 Chinese national drivers' work permits had been revoked and immigration officials "will be repatriating them" for involvement in the 26th and 27th Nov two-day work stoppage to demand better pay and working conditions.

Brigadier-General Tan Chuan-Jin (wearing the hat of Acting Minister for Manpower) first declared on Tuesday 27 Nov that the no-show at work by SMRT PRC bus drivers was an “illegal strike”.  Earlier on Monday, even The Economist picked up the local media's reluctance to use the word "strike" and said, "... the Straits Times, a pro-government daily, termed it an “action”, “protest”, “episode” and “wage dispute”. Asked if the workers will be sacked or sent back to China, BG Tan refused to answer by saying police investigations are going on and the matter should be “left to due processes”.

Lieutenant-General Desmond Kuek (wearing the hat of SMRT President and CEO) in his first public appearance on Friday 30 Nov after returning from a nice holiday, said that if the drivers' action had been confined to Monday, there would not have been a police probe, implying that a one-day strike is not illegal in Singapore. Kuek did not confirm who in SMRT actually filed the police report, unless he did it via remote control since he claimed "I was constantly updated and made decisions collectively with my management team." He probably would have conducted a war similarly if he was still in uniform.

On Black Saturday the PRC bus drivers were rounded up from both the Woodlands and Serangoon foreign worker dormitories and escorted by police officers to Admiralty West Prison for immediate processing of their deportation on same day. As on Sunday morning 2 Dec, they are still locked up in the prison compound without due access to legal representation.

Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong is the current Prime Minister. Other ex-army officers and two Rear Admirals are also in the existing Cabinet, ever eager to be called to duty and flex their muscles.  Only one brigadier-general decided not to go against the flow after he met his Waterloo at Aljunied.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

All Aboard The SMRT Gravy Train

According to Bloomberg, SMRT Corporation Ltd has seen their bottom line shrink from $161.1M to $119.9M despite an increase in revenues from $969.7M to $1.1B in 2012. An increase in the percentage of sales devoted to cost of goods sold from 53.00% to 55.93% was reported to be a key component of the falling profits in spite of the rise in ridership and revenues. The familiar looking "Other Operating Expenses" book keeping entry (shades of YOG accounting) also jumped from $161.1M to $188.0M. Is this where they post the compensation for the board of directors?

And exactly what kind of board has oversight of the business at SMRT? Well, it appears 9 board members have a total of 234 "relationships" with other companies. Between the 9, board members average 26 "relationships" with other organisations. Why are these board members so exceptionally "hard-working"?

Going by the example of Ong Ye Kung, the Executive Secretary of the National Transport Workers Union (NTWU), the largest transport union in Singapore, who wears another hat as a member of the Board of Directors of SMRT, collecting directorships can be quite lucrative. Based on SMRT’s 2011-2012 Annual Report, Ong's annual director fee was $80,000. Now imagine multiplying that by 26.

A study of 3,816 directors by National University of Singapore's Corporate Governance and Financial Reporting Centre (CGFRC) in 2008 found that some 84 per cent of directors in Singapore-listed companies hold just 1 seat. Some 14.5 per cent of directors hold between 2 and 5 positions in listed companies. This leaves less than 2 per cent of directors - 51 individuals in all - who sit on least 6 company boards. Most of the "popular candidates" have either government links or have accounting backgrounds. For example, among the 16 directors who have 8 or more posts, 10 are former or current members of Parliament (MPs), or former civil servants. Ex-PAP MP Wang Kai Yuen used to top the list with 12 directorships, but still he wasn't a happy man, grumbling to all who cared to hear, "some of the companies pay me as little as $10,000". Move over, Wong, your record has been broken several times over.

Professor Mak Yuen Teen, co-director of CGFRC, said that having "super busy" directors is a concern, "With due respect, I do wonder if they are there because of the good reputation of our government and civil service, and companies wanting to capitalise on this, than because of their perceived independence, personal competencies or commitment."

Meanwhile former chief of defence CEO Desmond Kuek, fresh from holidaying in the United States while turmoil reigned at the bus depot, told the press that SMRT has "deep-seated issues". Makes you wonder how many of those are seated on the board.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Strike Three - You're Out!

The four bus drivers from China who stood up to the discriminating practices of SMRT management were hauled up to court by the police yesterday and charged with instigating an illegal strike on Monday and Tuesday.

Problem is, since the strike was recognised only on Tuesday, Monday's activity being vicariously labelled as sit-down, refusal to show up for work and other euphemisms, the charge is wrongly framed. One of the Fantastic Four faces another charge of inciting workers to strike in relation to a statement posted on Chinese website Baidu. The words "instigating" and "inciting" are probably plucked from the same dictionary which, at least on Monday, did not list "strike".  It is very possible that the freedom of expression was misconstrued by the authorities, thanks to their corrupted lexicon. J B Jeyaratnam once waved a copy of a police report at a election rally, and he was promptly sued for libel.

Read the "incriminating" extract and try to find the "instigating" and "inciting" elements:
"But why don't we think of it the other way round, if a few hundred Chinese nationals take the lead, I am afraid the management of SMRT will fired instead. Not that we do not know the traffic situation in Singapore, a few hundred bus drivers do not report for work  for a few days, there will be public outcry in Singapore. Lianhe Zaoba, My Paper and the English papers will all wait on us, trying to find out the reasons for the action.  Land Transport Authority will have to start questioning the SMRT."

If the well meaning ("They were just asking for better pay and living conditions", an anonymous source who braved the SMRT forbidding the Chinese drivers from talking to the media) were intent on inciting anything, it was to nudge the mainstream media and LTA to do their bloody job in the first place. The last public outcry about the mismanagement at SMRT was initiated by a train stuck in a dark tunnel. Which is a preferable incubator of public outcry, a sit-down at a dormitory, or commuters seated in an airless, unlitted train coach?

Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor enthusiastically "welcomed the swift action of the police" but downplayed the lethargy of the SMRT management, best exemplified by the newly appointed CEO who is still conveniently out of town, mobile phone presumably switched off. The caped crusader buffoon, that defacto defender of industrial workers, is still MIA. Meanwhile the loser at Hougang, deputy executive secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) Desmond Choo, surfaced suddenly as the one "who helped to mediate at the strike". Or rather, the one who failed miserably at the mediation, resulting in the brutal police response. He admitted his personal failure in getting the SMRT bus drivers to join his union, leaving them with no recourse except to exercise their human rights to protest.

China, who has been observing Singapore's model of governance, was quick to learn from the use of force. Taking a cue from Amy Khor's praise of swift police action,  it is empowering its border police to take tougher action against foreign ships entering contested waters in the South China Sea, specifically "to board, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the province's sea areas." It remains to be seen if the boys in blue will next board the dormitories, seize and expel the foreigners. More likely they will park their shiny new red vans nearby and await political motivation.