Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Money Down The Drain

When Lee Kuan Yew was asked in July 2010 if he thought the response from the various agencies to the recent spate of floods in Singapore was sufficient, he was quoted as saying,"whatever we do when we get extraordinary rains like we had recently, no amount of engineering can prevent flooding." Oops, looks like another "I stand corrected" statement is in order.

The Public Utilities Board (PUB) just announced that it will be spending about $750 million over the next 5 years to carry out 20 drainage improvement projects to achieve a higher level of flood protection. Presumably most of the money will be allocated for implementing the recommendations of the Expert Panel for Drainage Design and Flood Protection Measures, like introducing a polymer lining to smoothen the Stamford canal walls and speed up the water discharge. Longer-term solutions mooted include the construction of a diversion canal and detention ponds, items which Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan was so hesitant to commit on - "These are very expensive projects. We have to approach this methodically and carefully." (MyPaper, 3 Jan 2012)

Actually, that's the worrying part. This is the guy who was given $104 million to spend for YOG and ended up with a bloated $387 million expense. Of which $79.8 million was parked as "Other Costs", an accounting entry that was not even picked up for query by the Auditor General. Yet the then 50-year-old, who was heading the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), insisted that his team "did not overspend or waste or squander the $387 million budget" allocated to the project - note the sneaky sleight of hand here, actual $387m amount expended (per report card presented in parliament) equals exactly the revised $387m budget proposed (supposedly figure approved by PM Lee).

Which means the $750 million can easily balloon to $2.2++ billion. With pro-rated "Other Costs" to match. Instead of more CCTVs to monitor flood-prone areas, what we need is a closer watch of these profligates at the helm. Note only $2 million is needed to remove the sewer and NEWater pipelines from Stamford Canal and line it with polymer, leaving lots of room to fiddle with $748 million.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The New Army

"The Men Who Stare at Goats," is a weird story about a secret, psychic military unit established in 1979 by the most gifted minds within the US Army. Defying all known accepted military practice - and the laws of physics - they believed that a soldier could adopt the cloak of invisibility, walk through solid walls and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them.

The goats of the title, according to author Jon Ronson, have been hidden at a Goat Lab at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and de-bleated for security reasons. The experts there contend that a goat's heart can be stopped by the intense gaze of a certain kind of supersoldier.
This jaw-dropper of a hard-to-believe book (also made into a movie starring George Clooney) is a non-fiction story. Based on material from declassified government documents, Ronson addresses the more sinister aspect of out-of-the-box military thinking.

Equally weird is a study by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that claim recruits who go through their Building Resilience in Individuals for Growth and Emotional Well-being programme (BRIDGE - even the acronym does not tally up)  out-jumped, out-ran, out-shot and out-performed those who did not. Add out-hype to those superlatives. Mindef spokesman Desmond Tan boasts that the programme focuses on imparting the knowledge and skills recruits need to control their thoughts and actions to overcome the adversities they face in physical or outfield training.

Stretched over the 10-week Basic Military Training (BMT), BRIDGE is supposed to teach recruits to:
Stop negative thought processes (and replace these with positive self-talk like HDB prices will come down);
Reflect and share thoughts with peers and commanders (keep the distance though, look what happened between teachers and students in schools);
Set individual targets for physical training (why 10 push-ups when one will do?)

Oh yeah, and recruits get to watch movies and are given handbooks, in addition to the laptops and iPads issued.

Makes one wonder when our young men in uniform will get to practise their marksmanship on the firing range, or learn to reverse a land rover without running over someone standing behind.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

More White Lies

Can the Minister for Home Affairs, namely Teo Chee Hean, be probed by the CPIB for lying to the electorate?

In the latest MHA statement, Teo's ministry said it had planned to announce that Lim and Ng were investigated and suspended from duty on 25 Jan, one day after Lianhe Wanbao informed the public on 24 Jan. The MHA also said it was informed by CPIB on 20 Jan that there was "sufficient basis" to consider civil service disciplinary action for misconduct, resulting in the immediate appointment of their replacements.

Why is the MHA, Teo's ministry, still insisting that there was NO DELAY in releasing news of the CPIB probe of the allegations of misconduct against the two top men in his ministry?

The MHA, in an earlier press release, already stated for the record that both men were arrested on 14 Dec 2011 (Ng) and 4 Jan 2012 (Lim). Is the MHA saying that prior to these dates, investigative work had not yet commenced on both these black sheep? That, prior to these two dates, the Minister, namely Teo Chee Hean, was not clued in on the developments before his two top lieutenants were dragged into the police station to be handcuffed and finger printed for the arrest?

Hiding behind the "not in the position to comment as investigations are in progress" excuse, Teo said, "If I have more information , I'll be happy to provide it to my fellow Members of Parliament". That's his way of saying that lesser mortals will have to settle for scraps of flaky information from his MHA, to plaster over the truths being leaked from other sources.

Well, it looks like the MPs will have to ask the hard questions:
When was impropriety about the IT purchases first discovered;
When was suspicion first cast on the uniformed officers;
When was the female IT executive first identified and invited to assist in the investigations;
When were the collaborative pieces of evidence first assembled to pin point the targets;
When did the CPIB conclude it had "sufficient basis" to inform MHA;
When did they receive official permission to arrest Ng and Lim.

CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria interviewed PM Lee Hsien Loong at Davaos on Thursday 26 Jan, "People say the system is too closed you  need more political openness." Lee's response is telling, "If only it were so simple." We can understand why. The can of worms that is being opened confirms the ugly truth - white is the new colour for the rot within.

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Hidden Agendas

The broadside burst from his shotgun came out of nowhere. It was not clear who his bullets were targeting, the members of the audience at the "Young Guns" forum organised by the NUS political association, the journalists of MSM at large, or the bloggers of the new media.

Vikram Nair of the People's Action Party was obviously not within his element of boot-licking grassroots leaders and apple-polishers when he professed, "At every forum I've attended before this one, I have been misquoted."  Whining like a wounded puppy, he lamented, "That is because people have an  agenda to discredit us (presumably referring to his keechiu crowd)... I don't think (the misquoting) is accidental, I am quite sure they are deliberate."

Well, people, it looks like Nair is one card carrying member who fully subscribes to the "us" versus "them" mentality. Which means the political divide is here to stay, it seems to suit their agenda. On this, this Nair seems to have a head start.

Way back on 11th August 2009, the 93.8FM website quoted one of the editors of the lame P65 blog site, Mr Tang Ho Wan, as saying that none of the 8 new writers brought in to beef up the blog was affiliated to the Young PAP. He was also quoted by the Today newspaper as having said the same.  Young PAP Chairman, Mr Teo Ser Luck, as quoted in the Straits Times, had explained, “We have our own Young PAP website for the politically inclined… The P65 blog is to allow other young people to share their views, which are non-partisan, neutral and can be constructive criticism of policies.”

All too soon, it surfaced that one of the writers on the blog was indeed a Young PAP member travelling incognito. And Vikram Nair revealed it himself in a blog post titled, “I’m coming out”.

It looks like we have an expert practitioner on hidden agendas talking.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Tin Pei Ling Defence

The two top uniformed officials, entrusted to protect life and property, have been finger printed and formally arrested, passports impounded. So why are they offered an escape clause? Specifically,
"The bureau (CPIB) said that in the case of public servants, and especially where there may be no criminal wrongdoings but serious misconduct, the matter may also be referred to the ministry or agency concerned for appropriate disciplinary action to be taken".

The Kate Spade MP from Marine Parade clearly violated the "Cooling Off Day" election law, but was let off with a teeny weeny smack on her dainty little hand. Even the shame of the official police warning was borne by a mysterious "administrator", whose identity was never declared in the election filings.

This "personal failing" of the civil service elites is rumoured to involve clandestine interactions with a certain female IT executive; does mean that the Clintonesque excuse ("define sex") will also be resorted to? And assuming a Monica Lewinsky type dress could be produced, the testimony of the DNA lab could also be stained - recall the senior employee of over 30 years experience at the Health Sciences Authority's DNA Profiling Laboratory who screwed up because he had "misread' the label of the EDTA reagent.

In the Lennick and Kiel book, "Moral Intelligence" (Wharton School Publishing, 2005), the authors wrote:
"Knowing who you want to be - an honest, responsible, and compassionate leader - is one thing. Knowing how to become your best self is another. Actually, doing what you know you should do is still another matter. That is the essence of alignment, a shorthand term that means "your goals and your behaviors are consistent with your moral compass."

Targeted at corporate governance, the authors could have easily written for politicians and elitist civil servants. Commented one reviewer, Paul Fribourg of Wharton Business School, "We live in an increasingly competitive and global world,. Increasingly, 'the end justifies the means'. This often results in the loss of our moral compass. Lennick and Kiel show us that the truly great business leaders never sacrifice moral integrity for financial goals and that maintaining the highest ethical standards is not only the 'right' thing to do, it also produces the best companies and the best results."

It makes one wonder if the Singapore elites read stuff besides their CPF statement which, according to Minister Lim Swee Say, makes him feel fabulously rich.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Bad Dose Of Crap

Tanjung Pagar GRC MP Lee Kuan Yew once said that all you need is a dose of bad government, and our wives and daughters will end up working as maids for a living. So what happened that resulted in high flying civil servants being nabbed by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB)?
Top dogs collared by Corrupt Practices Bureau
Both are government scholarship recipients, those get-out-of my-elite-uncaring-face types normally fast tracked by the Public Service Commission to lofty heights of high office appointments. With superscale grade salaries to match. Peter Lim was Chief of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Ng Boon Gay was Director of Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), together they had 40 years of service in their respective uniformed organisations. Barely a month transpired (Ng was investigated in end-Dec 2011, Lim in early-Jan 2012), and both have been replaced (by scholars of the same mold). The euphemism used for their downfall, "serious personal misconduct" is hardly appropriate for these guys obviously caught by their short hairs. Closer to home perhaps, is what the Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao, who scooped the arrests, attributed to: "money and women."

Significantly, both transgressors are key members of the Home Team, the decorated folks that gave you the Mas Selamat debacle. The guy in charge of the Home Team is the Home Affairs Minister, currently DPM Teo Chee Hean, who also happens to be the Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service, the organisation who selects the scholars, and makes sure they are helicoptered to the top appointments in the land.

Don't expect DPM Teo, a soldier-scholar of the same breed, groomed by the same system, to be tainted by this latest hiccup. What did PM Lee say recently? "We can't expect ministers never to make mistakes or never to have mistakes happen on their watch in their ministries."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chinese New Year Revelations

Chinese New Year reunion dinners are a great time for exchange of gossip. Fortified with 14-year-old whiskey, supposedly more mellow than Blue Label Johnny Walker, inhibitions vaporise and all tongues are let loose. Guess what? The picture of ex-SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa seated on a sedan chair carried aloft by eight bare-bodied men in at her company’s dinner and dance was not photoshopped!
Er, guys, you should be heading for the exit doors...

The more important revelation is that the window in the failed MRT car need not have been shattered, because there was a back up battery system that should have keep the lights and air-con working for at least 45 minutes! The relative who confirmed this gem also said, from the inception, the UK provided copies of their operating manuals and documentation of years of experience in train operation to help our SMRT planners get started. So the only excuse for the in-tunnel black-out would have to be the classic DBS line - we have the backup system in place, but chose not to switch it on.

More riveting is the structural constraint in the congestion problem.  Way back when Ong Teng Cheong (the president who was denied a gun-carriage funeral) battled Goh Keng Swee for a all-train over all-bus, or bus-plus-train mass transportation options, the population numbers justified 6-car trains. The foreign talent policy, the 6-million population target, are making nonsense out of this configuration. Look at the train stations, under-ground and above-ground, they are physically handicapped to support longer trains, unlike Hong Kong, Japan or the UK.  In Sydney, there are double decker cars to handle heavier passenger loads, which current MRT tunnels are not designed to accommodate. Aren't those guys supposedly (over) paid for long range far-sightedness in planning for the future?

The morning after, one hoped that the nightmares conjectured were just alcohol fuelled. But no, even after cups of head clearing kopi-o, the headaches are as real as ever.  Just take a look at the nearest MRT station.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reprise of Bak Chor Mee

For someone appointed as Minister of State of Education, Lawrence Wong sure wasn't paying attention in class during the three days of ministerial salary debate. Instead of taking cognizance of lessons learnt in the bruising battle of words, he is droning on like Wong Kan Seng (no relation) over the Gomez-CCTV episode of 2006.

Yes, the Workers' Party did propose in 2006 that ministerial salaries be benchmarked 100 times the salary of the bottom 20 percent. But they also know that even if WP pointed out that white is indeed white, the PAP will pass a law to decree white is black. Hence during GE 2011, WP proposed an alternative benchmark pitted against the political office of developed countries. Now Wong (Lawrence, not Kan Seng) is quibbling over the Superscale MX9 peg.

WP chose MX9 because it is the entry-level of the Superscale grade. Who's to know how this level is pegged to the private sector salaries? There are so many opaque formulas in play in the system - electrical tariff, HDB pricing, COE quota, health care subsidy, etc - that it's probably easier to find out the secret recipe of the XO Sauce that the keechiu general is yapping about. Case in point, PM Lee revealed that only one minister is currently at the higher MR3 grade, but stopped short at naming the minister. What's there to hide? Is he afraid the public will be outraged at that minister's financial bonanza, or supreme sacrifice?

Wong should heed the words of a real teaching professional, NUS law professor Walter Woon, who said that the debate over minister's pay has become a proxy for dissatisfaction with the divide between the top earners and the vast majority of Singaporeans:
"No amount of argument with facts and figures will change that."

Wong should heed the lesson that in attempting to win the battle, he will lose the war. He may continue to rant like a rabid dog, but he's still taking a hair-cut with his take home pay. And we have the WP, and the electorate of Singapore, to thank for that. Let's hope he won't take it out on the kids by skimping on the angpows.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Air Force One Envy

For Tanjung Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, perks of office mean UK taxpayer funded type cheap meals, wine and spirits in the House of Commons. Her boss has his sights on a private jet.

The plane popularly known as Air Force One, is technically the call sign of any US Air Force aircraft carrying the  President of the United States. In practice, it refers to one of two highly customised Boeing 747-200B series aircraft, which carry the tail codes 28000 and 29000. The idea of designating specific military aircraft to transport the President was first mooted in 1943, when the United States Army Air Force became concerned with relying on commercial airlines to transport the President. The "Air Force One" call sign was created after a 1953 incident involving a flight carrying President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airline flight using the same call sign.

There are a number of differences between the customized 747's and a standard 747. These include state of the art navigation, secure and unsecure communications and computer systems, custom configuration and furnishings, self-contained baggage loader, front and aft air-stairs, and the capability for in-flight refueling to provide unlimited range.

The plane has an presidential executive suite, including a stateroom and an office, enabling the president to perform duties while in the air in the event of an attack on the United States. The president, his staff, and family, also have dining and conference facilities available to them. Separate accommodation is also provided for guests, senior staff, security personnel, and the news media.

Less detail is available about the Singapore Airlines plane SQ321 which was commandeered and outfitted  into a private hospital ship, complete with two neurosurgeons, two intensive care nurses, oxygen equipment and a drip, to fly Lee Kuan Yew's wife back to Singapore after she suffered a stroke in London in October 2003. Consequent to public concern that tax payers would have to foot the bill, Lee's office released a short statement saying "Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew is paying for all the extra expenses of Mrs Lee's medical treatment in London and for her flight home on Singapore Airlines." The statement did not say how much the bill would be, and how much was paid to date, what discount rate was applied. What we do know is that the news team of tabloid ‘TODAY’ was trashed for the report they made of his speech about the event, which was based on material from an official press release.  Apparently the offending point had to do with the phone call made by Singapore High Commissioner Michael Teo to No. 10 Downing Street, hoping for some intervention to move Mrs Lee up the NHS queue for a brain scan.

Who needs an Air Force One when one has the whole SIA fleet at his beck and call?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dancing Monkeys In Play

Pay peanuts, and you get monkeys. But who would have guessed that if you pay millions, you end up with dancing monkeys? Tired of the monkeying around about "convergence and agreement" of the principles in play over the ministerial salary debate, Chen Show Mao told the house:
"If indeed there is convergence today and if indeed, as has been mentioned, today is much like a dance, I would like to thank the Government for leading the dance and taking the first step towards acknowledging that political salaries in this country need fixing.

"While we agree with he three principles distilled by the committee, does DPM agree that under the committee's application of the principles, they have produced a formula that is really quite distinct from what the WP has proposed?

"For example, if maximum bonuses were received under the committee's proposal, ministerial salary would be in fact be reduced by 8 percent. And under the WP's proposal, it will be reduced by 37 percent."

Josephine Teo, missing the forest for the trees altogether, could not grasp the monkey tricks with the allowances. For Pritam Singh, it was like talking to a wall, "It's not the numbers that's the issue.... Peg it to the average Singaporean at a level where Singaporeans can aspire to."

What the primates in white and white missed altogether (scientific factoid: one of the most predictable traits of rhesus monkeys: their tendency to steal food at every opportunity) was a lifeline that would save them from the quagmire of greed they were sinking deeper into. Instead of pegging pay to the top earners, pegging it to rank and file servants, Pritam Singh explained, would be more acceptable to the public and, "critically, take the emotion out of the debate and set the tone in future decades for a more sober assessment of political salaries."

The last word came from Tanjung Pagar GRC MP Lee Kuan Yew, who preferred the boardroom of TOTAL in Paris discussing profits from oil to Parliament House deliberating the nation's future, "unless we have a steady stream of high quality men and women to serve as PM and ministers, Singapore as a little red dot will become a black spot." Precisely why we need people who come in for the service, not the money.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Flogging A Dead Horse

Lee Hsien Loong can be so dense. Of all the unhappiness Singaporeans are so worked up over, none is worse than the demand for private sector pay without the private sector accountability. Even Steve Jobs was fired by the board when disappointing sales caused Apple shares to slide.

License to fail, and still get rich
 Instead of sacking his epic fails, Lee would "move them to less demanding portfolios". Which explains why Vivian Balakrishnan is now "jaga longkang" (Malay for "custodian of drains"), but still drawing $1.1 millions after the "pay cut". The electorate is not so forgiving - witness the punishment dished out at the polls for Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan and Raymond Lim. More would have had their heads at the guillotine if not for the protective shield of the GRC.

Lee said Workers' Party MP Chen Show Mao entered politics at age 50, after a successful career as a lawyer, "Now he is ready to do public service". Lee himself became prime minister at 52, at a substantially higher salary than entry level MP allowance. No wonder Teo Chee Hean's quote made the headlines yesterday, "Passion alone not enough to run country". For some people.

Heng Swee Keat was held up as a sterling example of a private sector find who "took a substantial cut" in salary to enter politics. Heng was a Permanent Secretary (superscaled civil servant) before made managing director of Monetary Authority of Singapore (government appointee). That's as "private sector" as they can get. And Heng was made Minister so fast, you will never guess he was sneaked in on the Tampines GRC ticket in 2011. Even Lee himself had to serve time as minister of state before handed all the perks of ministerhood, personal security officers, Gurkha guard post, official car, etc, etc. The Workers' Party is asking that the total pay of political leaders should be published annually. Better still, let's see how big a sacrificial pay cut was taken by Heng. Before and after Lee defers his bonus for 40 years.

If John F Kennedy had campaigned under the PAP ticket, he would have said:
"My fellow Singaporeans: ask not what your ministers can do for you -ask what you can afford to pay your ministers."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Teo's Duplicity Exposed

We just want to be as rich as these guys, is that asking too much?
DPM Teo Chee Hean used the word conundrum to mean "a puzzling question or problem". But it also means "a riddle in which a fanciful question is answered by a pun". He may try to avoid a direct answer to an outstanding issue by repeating the fallacious line, "Political pay levels and structures based on domestic political considerations in one country may not correlate with the conditions in another," but we have not forgotten his comrades' official spiel about globalisation that forced Singaporeans to accept "competitive pay" - their justification for foreign imports that stole white collar jobs.

Calling for high standards of accountability, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Inderjit Singh said: "If a minister consistently performs poorly and less than satisfactorily, the Prime Minister should be quick to replace him, as is done in the private sector." We have a PM who actually apologised for his past performance and promised to do better, was he ever in danger of being replaced?

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Alvin Yeo was dumb enough to cite Barack Obama has a net worth of US$7.3 million, "thanks to his book sales." Many a minister in the cabinet has not penned a single volume, save the octogenarian who keeps regurgitating his fairy tales in heavy tomes fit mostly for door stop material, yet you can safely bet each of their net worth is easily more than twice that of the US President. Just take a look at their residential addresses.

Sengkang West MP Lam Pin Min reminded us that when political leaders sow the sees today, "we will reap the harvest for ourselves, for our children and our future." He must be referring to the under capacity trains, the insufficient drainage, the shortage of affordable housing, and insatiable greed of the ministers in office. Yeah, right, reap and weep.

Surprisingly the quote of the day came not from the opposition parties, but from Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, who nailed it by calling the proposed benchmark for pegging ministerial salaries "arbitrary" and "smacks of elitism." It could have been a moment of epiphany, or it could simply be a calculated ploy to take the sting out of the opposition's, and the people of Singapore's, rightful accusation. Leopards don't usually change their spots overnight.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Knowing When To Shut Up

The most important aspect to being a good salesman is knowing when to 'shut up' and let the people buy.

The best salesmen get up, make their pitch fast, shut up and get off the stage quickly so they can start collecting their money from the convinced customers. A bad one stretches every little bit of his story out, throwing in things that he obviously thinks will bolster his point, but in reality end up scoring an own goal.

At what was reported as the first ministerial community visit since the General Election, "keechiu" general Chan Chun Sing said in response to a query about ministers and monetary motivation, "Money shouldn't be the one (factor) to attract them". Instead of stopping there, and clamming up like he should have, he rattles on to insert foot in mouth:
"On the other hand, money should also not be the bugbear to deter them."

If that doesn't bug you enough, he's determined to ruin your digestion with the tasteless example of $10 XO Sauce chye tow kuay at Peach Garden (if you have to ask where, you can't afford it) which he claims will make you happy because the quality of a $1.50 version at a hawker center is such "you might not want to eat". That statement should make him popular among hawkers at eating outlets island wide at the next election. Does this guy even know that everyone is still puking at the XO (eXtra Ordinary) months of allowances creamed off by the ministers to date?

Chan will definitely not make the grade as a successful salesperson. But he's a shoo-in as a stand up comedian, what with lines like:
"I don't think anyone of them comes here for the money."
"They come here to provide a better life for the next generation."
"One of the reasons I stepped forward was because I knew I was joining a team that was not here for the money."

Oh, shut up already.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Damn Bloody Stupid

The two Bugis street DBS ATMs compromised in the recent card skimming scandal were equipped with "jitter" technology - which uses a stop start or jitter motion inside the card drive specifically designed to distort magnetic stripe details and prevent copying by a foreign card reader inserted into the ATM - but it was not turned on. This has to be damn bloody silly.

Wait, it gets worse. DBS has 4.3 million customers, the highest customer volume at its ATMs among all the banks here. While it employs a wide range of ATM security measures, the bank admits not all the measures are deployed at all its 1,100 ATMs all of the time. Why? The lame excuse offered is damn bloody stupid.

It looks like the DBS concept of security is to leave their doors unlocked, use chihuahuas as guard dogs, employ security guards who don't have to show up at their posts, and install expensive intruder detection systems that need not be monitored.

When DBS acquired POSB in November 1998, many account holders closed out their books and migrated to other banks. Banks like OCBC and UOB who have all security measures activated at all their ATMs. Maybe an additional level of security is to for remaining customers to junk all those DBS-POSB credit and debit cards altogether. After DBS did say said that it was highly unlikely crime could have been prevented even if additional security features have been turned on, hardly a vote of confidence in their own anti-fraud protection systems.

Needless to say, all these revelations make mockery of India import Piyush Gupta's hollow boast about improvements at DBS under his watch. Unless he progress he referred to was about his personal financial well being.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Transparent Pay System, My Foot

"Singapore practises a transparent system where salaries are fully accounted for through a clean wage set at a competitive level with no hidden perks and privileges," so reads para 15 of the report of the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries (CRMS). If you have not read the report in detail, you would have missed out on some of the "hidden perks and privileges".

Many an apologetic has waxed lyrical about the great financial sacrifice made by those who signed up for political office, the most nauseating version being Grace Fu's not so subtle threat about "tilting the balance." But unknown to most of us, and the whole wide world watching the money game in play, the PM seems to have an ace up his sleeve that runs counter current to all the talk about the pain of pay cuts. This get-out-of-jail free card (as if ministerhood was indentured servitude) would make sure the appointee can have his cake and eat it too. Specifically, the PM is empowered to offer a higher salary outside the official Ministerial range, and damn be whatever numbers Gerard Ee's committee members come up with.

The name that comes to mind immediately is Ng Eng Hen, who once famously said, “You’re getting a bargain for the ministers you get… I worked half as much and earn(ed) five times more when I was in the private sector.” (Channelnewsasia, 9 September 2003).

Interestingly, an unpublished paper presented to the American Accounting Association in August by Richard Cazier and John Mcinnis discovered that the premium pay expected of external hires is negatively correlated with their actual performance. This may be because superstars have an inflated opinion of their own capabilities. They assume all the credit for the success of their previous firm, when in fact the contribution of others were involved. ("The Trouble With Superheroes", Schumpeter, The Economist, October 1st 2011)

Now unless Gerard Ee is emboldened to lie in black and white, we have his word, Scout's honour, that the hitherto lesser known make-up pay system, which was introduced in Parliament in 1989, has not been used thus far. But if Ng, or similar super salaried decides to bitch like Grace Fu, he could easily get his 5 times ministerial salary in a jiffy, complete with creative contrivances of miscellaneous allowances and all.

The CRMS has chosen to retain this joker card, albeit the recommended provision is good for one term only, compared to the prescribed two terms. The big $64,000 question is why this loop hole is not plugged?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Damn Bloody Slow Bank

When OCBC's ATM banking services were down on 13 Sept 2011, CEO Chris David Conner promptly messaged an apology to all its customers before the day was over. But it took DBS Group Holdings chief executive Piyush Gupta nearly a week before he apologised to customers for the inconvenience caused by their recent ATM scam.

At last count, a total of some 400 POSB and DBS customers holding ATM and debit cards have had about S$500,000 fraudulently withdrawn from their accounts over Wednesday 4th and Thursday 5th Jan 2012. Gupta made his apology only on Wednesday 11 Jan at an exclusive DBS private bank luncheon at posh Shangri-La Hotel. For those not on DBS's private banking list, one presumes he won't give a hoot about them lesser mortals.

Gupta claims the unauthorised ATM withdrawals were done through a card skimming scheme by a syndicate that can happen to any bank. Well, if it does happen to another bank, the apology probably won't take that long to come through. And it probably will be addressed to all customers, not just the champagne circuit crowd.

The real embarrassment was that Gupta had boasted about IT technology progress during his tenure at DBS in a 4th Jan Straits Times spread, the very day the scam was hitting the ATMs. The operation took place despite all DBS ATMs were fitted with anti-skimming devices 6 years ago. And the ATMs are supposedly checked regularly by security staff whenever they replenish the money in the machines. In the article, Gupta claimed that the large scale IT failure in 2010 motivated him to accelerate the "scaling up the bank's resiliency programmes" from two years to one year. Didn't quite work out as he planned, did it? Perhaps he is just another foreign import who places priority on profits over maintenance and security of systems.

What else can DBS say? "We continue to keep up with the latest in technology to see how we can continually enhance our security," managing director and head of group strategic marketing and communications Ms Ngui told the press. They'll probably get their act together one day, it's just that they are still Damn Bloody Slow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hear It From The Experts

It has to be karma that Vivian Balakrishnan, notorious for his gutter politics during the May 2011 elections, has ended up dealing with drainage gutters. In all probability, he won't be any more successful than Yaacob Ibrahim, the cad who lied about acts of gods and blocked drains, they are both made of the same political mold.

This chap is putting off the construction of a much needed diversion canal to relieve the overflowing Stamford Canal, because it would cost between $300 and $400 million ("in the long run, these need to be done," he is quoted saying). But he did not hesitate to waste $387 million on the YOG debacle - food poisoning and fake certificates of appreciation for local volunteers, free hospitalisation and R&R for the foreign one - and even boasted to a reporter he'll do it again anytime ( "I felt it was money well spent").

We don't know if serious money was spent on the 12-member panel making recommendations on flood mitigation in Singapore. We do know that one of the suggestions, porous pavements, was a no-brainer. When the junction of Scotts Road and Orchard Road was submerged, everyone knew that the absorbent grass knoll would prevented the flash flood if it wasn't paved over for the impermeable concrete monolith of Ion Orchard. What was commonsense among netizens aged 6 to 66 is now officially confirmed, "Urbanisation has undoubtedly led to an increase in storm water run off in Singapore."

Asked about Balakrishnan's procastination on the diversion canal requirement, Prof Balmforth of MWH UK said, "It would be unusual to produce a range of measures on a city that didn't involve some upgrade of some conveyance capacity somewhere." The minister may dismiss internet input as chatter, but will he listen to the experts? Maybe he's just afraid to contradict the declaration of the octogenarian "expert", "No amount of engineering can prevent flooding."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Another Day, Another Dollar

The problem with overpaying ministers is that they tend to take too long to come up with solutions. After all, each extra day means an additional $3,000 in the wallet - courtesy of the taxpayers, even after the token salary cuts. The loaded sarcasm in the January edition of The Economist article is universal, "Politicians take a pay cut - poor things".

Asked why MRT train windows do not have emergency ventilation panels, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew's response demonstrates the laggard attitude about the life threatening event of a blacked out carriage jam packed with suffocating human beings.

Confirming the existence of a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) system that was supposed to keep the lighting and ventilation going on for at least 45 minutes, Lui said,
"Whether the emergency power supply... is doing what's it's supposed to do, whether it's sufficient, I would want to take a much more careful look."

This coming from a guy much photographed on site, posturing for the opportunistic photo op, trying his darnedest best to understand what the fish was going on, and still wants more time to read the used-by date on the backup batteries. While at it, how about flipping through the maintenance log, and do a quick check when they were last recharged? These are actions with immediate repercussions, as there are similarly equipped trains running everyday, each of which is another disaster waiting to happen.

We can understand it will take a bit longer to query why they bought Kawasaki trains assembled in China, the country that gives you spectacular smash ups like the recent collision in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. Even Bangkok, with lowly paid parliamentarians, didn't stinge on public safety when they sourced their trains from the more reputable Siemens Transportation Systems (Siemens C651 were bought mainly to complement the existing Kawasaki C151 trains due to the opening of the Woodlands extension). Investigating sourcing decisions sometimes require the assistance of other agencies like CPIB. How long did they take to nab the flashy guy who scammed the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) out of $11.8 million?

Here's a heads up for the really difficult work about vibrations dislodging the third rail: take a hard look at the spacing of the rail mountings.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Spring Cleaning Required

That has to be a goddamn lie.

Either that or he is saying there are are lots of lying journalists out there.

TODAY Online,
Friday, 16 Dec 2011
"On public calls for her and other senior management to resign, Ms Saw said that while she would consider resigning if necessary, she would reserve her opinion on the matter for the time being."

AsiaOne Online,
Monday, 19 Dec 2011
"SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa said yesterday that she will be staying on in the company, as leaving now was not the right thing to do.
She said in a statement issued yesterday: "'As CEO of SMRT, I am naturally responsible. Being responsible does not mean walking away from these faults. It means doing all I can to get the problem fixed"."

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, this Koh Yong Guan is connected to 17 board members in 3 different organizations across 3 different industries.

Koh has been Singapore's High Commissioner to Canada since January 2008. Koh has been Chairman of SMRT Corporation Ltd since July 23, 2009. He serves as the Chairman of Governing Board of the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore and the Central Provident Fund Board.
Koh had served as Chairman at Singapore Turf Club and Deputy Chairman at Singapore Totalisator Board. He has been a Director at SMRT Corporation Ltd. since April 2, 2007. He serves as a Director of SMRT Group, SMRT Trains Ltd., SMRT Road Holdings Ltd., SMRT Buses Ltd., and SMRT Light Rail Pte Ltd.
Koh’s career in the Singapore Civil Service included appointments at the Permanent Secretary level in the Ministries of Defence, Finance, Health and National Development as well as the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, and Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.  
Do I look like I give a damn?

Now, how could a barefaced liar like that end up with all those fancy appointments? One icon of cronyism may be gone, but it looks like the Spring Festival clean up rite has yet to begin in earnest.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

By Grace, The Truth Is Out

For someone appointed as Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, Grace Fu is a master of misinformation, a retard in communications, and pretty artless on Facebook. Don't blame us, we never voted for her. She slided into parliament in 2006 on the coat-tails of some senior politician in the Jurong GRC.

"I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. ... If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office," she wrote. What's there to misunderstand about her focus on pecuniary priorities? When she made the threat about "harder for any one considering political office", she surely wasn't referring to other political aspirants within her family group.

And if there's any doubt about what was "tilted further in the future", she makes it plain as day in her following posting: ".. it may not be wise to call for the trade-offs to be tilted further to an extent that it dissuades good people from coming forward in future." You probably heard the same refrain from the nocturnal denizens of Geylang, "No money, no honey."

The long overdue correction in the obscene ministerial salaries is hardly a trade-off between personal and national pursuits. It is a matter of public service altruism versus self centred greed. If money is all that matters, Lim Kim San would not have taken up the challenge of building houses for the masses as a volunteer, and foregoing a salary for three whole years.

Unfortunately for us, Grace Fu is not the only misguided soul. She's simply one of many MIW following the example of her political paymaster. PM Lee Hsien Loong told BBC journalist Jonathan Head in 2009: "...these are jobs where you make decisions which are worth billions of dollars. And you cannot do that if you’re pretending and you just say, well, we’re all in it for the love of king and country."

Papa Lee makes it nauseatingly clear in "Hard Truths" (page 123): "We're in this part of the world where "money politics" is the culture, we're not in Europe, nor Australasia or some region where different political cultures prevail."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Millionaire Ministers of Singapore

Surely the bar can be set a wee bit higher
Only a few days ago, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Singapore will face "an environment of slow growth" for at least two years. UOB expects overall GDP growth to slow to 2.5 per cent this year. Now note that gloomy forecast of 2.5 falls nicely between 2% to 3%, the benchmark in the National Bonus Matrix that triggers a 50% bonus payout. It may be raining, but the ministers still have plenty to smile about.

Like the Breadtalk CEO member in his Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries, Gerard Ee is one who knows which side of his bread is buttered. That's why, die, die, the ministers must end up with a $1,000,000 paycheck.

The base figure of $55,000 a month would have been closer to public expectations, as Opposition Leader Mr Low Thia Khiang rightly pointed out in 2000. That's enough for a bungalow, two cars in the garage, servants and annual holidays skiing at the Swiss Alps or cooking lessons in France. But no, they have to fudge with the findings to come up with an additional 8 months of pay.

The 13th month AWS and Annual Variable Component are done deals. But nobody has a clue how the PM goes about handing out the 3 months individual performance bonus. Maybe all they need to do is tahan him, and vice versa. Vivian Balakrishnan flunked miserably at YOG budgeting, but still gets to keep his pension, thanks to an exception made in the no-more-pensions recommendation (appointed before May 21, 2003). As for the 3 months National Bonus Matrix invention referred to earlier, it's obvious that numbers can always be massaged to suit the intent. Now if they can produce 7% real GDP growth rate in the current economic climate, no one will quibble about their helping themselves to the economic pie.

And what is the "kinesthetic check" that Gerard Ee was yapping about? That must be a high-faluting version of the Lim Wee Kiak proposition:
"If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discuss policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister's ideas and proposals. Hence, a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity."

So what's the real world like? Former president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises Lawrence Seow said "$1.1 million is rare":
"On a $10 million turnover, it quite good already if the CEO draws $250,000. On a $50 million turnover, maybe $500,000," referring to the revenue generators and not the cost centers hankering for easy money.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Still Greedy As Ever

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who had promised a salary review to ease public anger about the rapaciousness of his team's unquenchable greed, accepted a token 36 percent reduction in basic pay to $2.2 million (US$1.69 million).

Compare his (still) hefty slice of the public pie to:
US President Barack Obama - US$400,000 (pop. 311 million)
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy - US$300,277 (pop. 65 million)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel - US$246,750 (pop. 81 million)
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - US$36,200 (pop. 1.2 billion)

On top of the basic pay, Lee and his cabinet members will be helping themselves to a "National Bonus" of up to three months' pay if targets are met on economic growth, employment and improvement in Singaporeans' incomes. Those performance targets were never published before, and more akin to shifting goal posts that were moved to suit their bonus expectations of the occasion. The new published targets pile on the financial rewards if, for instance real median income growth rate exceeds 0.5%. But if real income growth is negative, the ministers are not made any poorer.

In 2008, when the world was bracing for the financial meltdown, ministers were actually paid S$1,924,300 (S$2,055,100 with pension), the highest ever in the period of 2001 - 2011. Now, that's gotta be obscene in any language, English, Chinese, Malay or Indian.

Under the benchmarks unveiled, the salary of an entry-level cabinet minister is set at 60 percent of the median income of the 1,000 highest-earning Singaporean citizens (the names of which will probably never be published, like the previous 48 anonymous professionals) which works out at S$1.1 million (still more than what President Obama makes). Which means people like Lui Tuck Yew will not be embarrassed when clinking cocktail glasses with businessmen (who work hard for their money). And if any of the businessmen in their index pool gets wiped out in the market, they will find another set of well to do high earners to boost the median income of the 1,000 highest-earning Singaporean citizens. This is the crux of the system corruption - the public servants are still demanding private sector pay without the same levels of accountability and responsibility. Shops are flooded, trains are stopped in the tracks, and they just keep on collecting the cash. They have a rigged formula, and would not relinquish it. The same shenanigans are going on with the formulae for electrical tariff hikes, HDB pricing, healthcare subsidies, etc.

So how serious is the ministerial salary review? Gerard Ee's comment on the exercise is telling: "I immediately think of some of my friends that (might be) potentially considered (for the ministerial junket). Would they say outright, 'Don't kid me, $1.1 million, don't come and kachau me.' "

Deep in their heart of hearts, public service was never in the equation. These folks just want their pals and cronies to join in the feeding frenzy. Just like the Mafioso.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stupid As Stupid Gets

What's wrong with this picture? The third rail which supplies power to the trains, has to be a heavy piece of metal. The claw, a metal grip which transfers the weight to the mounting brackets, has to be another seriously massive piece of a component. 21 claws were dislodged, obviously the result of being subject to tremendous forces at play. And the solution is to hold this critical structural component in place with cable ties and a flimsy metal bracket? Whoever thought of this must have been dropped on his head as a child, or just born plain stupid.

Well, it looks like stupidity is prevalent in the system. A laboratory manager at the Health Sciences Authority's DNA Profiling Laboratory used 1.0 millimolar (mM) of the reagent ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) instead of the prescribed 0.1 mM - a senior employee of over 30 years experience - because he had "misread' the label. Thanks to the error in the government run laboratory, 412 cases of DNA testing have to be reviewed. The Government may give it's assurance, but it remains to be seen how many of the 87 tests the AGC are demanding to be redone ended up with wrong convictions.

The good news is that if CEO Saw has not been sacked, the laboratory manager will probably get to keep his job, given his seniority and all. So what if the salary review results in a 30 percent pay cut, the ministers will still be millionaires several times over.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Watered Down Explanations

What a difference a week makes. The day after the Friday 23rd Dec floods, PUB insisted that "Based on our monitoring, Stamford Canal did not overflow." A new word was plucked from the English lexicon to explain the repeat of last year's disaster: PUB said "ponding" resulted in Liat Towers and Lucky Plaza being hit again.

One week later, we read that the "ponding" was traced to a drain that overflowed. The drain water could not be discharged into Stamford Canal as designed as it was "already full and could not take any more rainwater". So did the watery contents of Stamford Canal swirl into the drain or vice versa? Does the chicken come first or the the egg?

PUB also blames the pumping capacity of the affected buildings, without providing guidance on where the pumps should be discharging their liquid loads. Surely not into the Stamford Canal which was already at full capacity?

Meanwhile three wisemen have been appointed to look into the dumb guys in charge at PUB, a judge, a prisons director, and a professor from the School of Aerospace at Nanyang Technological University. Tan Siong Thye, Chief District Judge of the Subordinate Courts will probably lay down the law for incompetence, after which the prisons director presumably may have to haul the culprits into a nice comfy cell. The Aerospace expert will probably provide intellectual input on how 100 mm of rainwater (2010) and 152.8 mm (2011) could target the unlucky Lucky Plaza and Liat Towers with unerring GPS guided accuracy rivalling the success rate of state-of-the-art cruise missiles.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year, New Promises

The list of promises was issued not by by the Government, but by it's official mouth piece. It remains to be seen how many will be broken, contorted or simply swept under the carpet - thanks to the short term memory capacity of the 60.1 percent.

More flats coming up - affordability not addressed
Better chances for second-timers - another tweak of the malleable HDB rules
Fate of DBSS projects - suspended but no final decision

Re-employment of older workers - at discounted wages and benefits, so called "reasonable adjustments"
Parent-care for civil servants - private sectors not encouraged to breed, presumably because they tend to support alternative political parties
Tighter Employment Pass requirements - to level playing field for Singaporeans competing with foreigners, but processing time for latter as citizens may be expedited (as in the "within days" case of Fooled Me Hah!)

More university places - intake to be pushed beyond 30 percent only from 2015, nice figure to keep in mind for 2016 GE

Report on ministerial salary review - supposed backdated to May 2011, a litmus test of the white-and-white sincerity - just don't set your hopes up too highly

Lower taxes - as in chargeable income, but watch out for the squeeze from from GST, COE, ERP, utility tariffs, town council charges, tertiary education fees, etc, etc
More protection for investors - obviously these guys have yet to watch "Margin Call"

More train stations - more good years for (still) CEO Saw, since reliability and accountability are not expressly stipulated
Safer rides for school children - just another excuse to hike school bus charges

Subsidised health care for more people - it's true, medical products are cheaper across the causeway - which makes you wonder how subsidy is defined
More savings for health care - which is official euphemism for jacking up your Medisave balance requirement from $27,000 to $32,000 - more reason for those above 55 to take out as much of their CPF as possible so that can't move your numbers around without your permission

Lemon law to protect consumers - if life gives you lemons, be prepared to make lemonade. Anybody got a painless refund from SMRT yet?
No more surprises from telcos - ISPs must measure and publish typical download speeds, but not mandated to deliver what they promised in their sales pitch
Better flood protection - this has to be comic relief, the expensive flood barriers failed miserably on Black Friday 23rd December.