Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Is Getting Boring

Lawyers of 51 men caught in the online vice ring sensation were waiting for the outcome of Howard Shaw's court case. Defence Counsel Josephus Tan opined the result will be "somewhat of a guideline for the rest of the cases to come".

Well, the 41-year-old grandson of the founder of Shaw Organisation and former Singapore Environment Council executive director was sentenced to 12 week's jail for paid sex with an underage girl. By comparison, the former principal of Pei Chun Public School was given 9 weeks' jail for a similar offence. The difference is that the principal took his bitter medicine at one go, no excuses offered, while Howard's lawyer tried to argue there was "collusion and deceit" involved, and a custodial sentence for an offence which has no mandatory jail sentence or even a minimum fine would be "absolutely draconian".

Howard is filing for an appeal, a route that could result in extended jail time. Singaporean student Ram Puneet Tiwary may have been acquitted of the murder charge on a technicality at an appeals court, but we are not in Australia, mate. Here, the prosecution likes to win. Considering what was dished out to the principal and the scion, those still mulling over their fates should simply plea guilty, stop wasting the public prosecutor's time, and get on with their lives.

One outstanding question is why this underage whore is so special. One of the latest batch to be charged is the founder of toy company Stikfas. 5 foreigners were also snared in the honey trap, including a 40-year-old Swiss expatriate from banking giant UBS. One client actually paid just for a chat with her, and skipped the main course. What pearls of wisdom can a 17 year old possibly bestow on established businessmen, worldly professionals, and high flyer civil servants? Imaginative minds have it that she is related to some bigshot. If they can't nail the father, they can at least do it to his daughter.

And why is it with so many grown up men (and their lawyers) involved, not a single soul has "accidentally" leaked her identity? It appears she's more closely guarded than the KFC recipe.

In "Dark Knight", second of the Batman triology, District Attorney Harvey Dent drags all the crooks into one court. In real life, all 5 of the City Harvest accused stood in the same subordinate court to face the charges. So how is it guys who ended up in her little back book have to be charged and sentenced on piece meal basis? Here the conspiracy theory is that the charade is played out in installments to deflect from the many price hikes planned in advance, the most recent being the service and conservancy charges (S&CC) rolled out by 7 PAP town councils.

Whatever the hidden agenda, this is one case where we wish the pace could be speeded up, as in wham, bam, thank you ma'am. The prices may have been stiff, but the public has a limited attention span.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The COE System Was Skewed

When Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew made the announcement on Friday that taxis will be removed from the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) bidding process from next month onwards, he said the move was a response to public feedback that taxi operators unduly skewed COE prices. And we always thought the car dealers were the bad guys colluding with each other for each round of bidding. Maybe the minister knows something we don't.

From 1 August, taxis will be removed from the bidding process and will have to pay the Prevailing Quota Premium (PQP) for Category A (1600cc and below) which is the moving average of the COE prices for the last 6 months. COEs used by taxi operators will also be taken from the quota for Category E, usually meant for bigger cars. Bottomline, it appears the total available COEs issued by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will remain unchanged. How does that address a broken system?

The fact, obvious to everyone but this poor excuse of a transport minister, is that even as LTA reduces the number of COEs to be issued, the total population (resident and non-resident) has been growing unabated, thanks to the other broken policy of bringing in the foreigners by the plane loads. To exacerbate the situation, the hated National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) is advertising our country as the destination of choice for the filty rich, i.e. those who will take up 3 or 4 COEs per person, and think nothing of the $90,000 PQP because their other car is a Lamborghini. Meanwhile, the number of kilometers of roads, like the rest of the country's strained infrastructure, has never kept pace with the number of people crammed into the little red dot.

LTA said more details will be unveiled next week. Maybe they have a magic solution up their sleeves, but don't bet too much on it. You expect a submariner to come up with a sensible solution for the roads?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lawyers Do It Too

National University of Singapore (NUS) associate law professor Tey Tsun Hang was arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB) in April this year for allegedly giving out a good grade in exchange for sex. To date he has not been suspended by the university, he still gets to keep his Herman Miller seat (or equivalent) - poor Nparks staff had their Brompton bikes taken away.

Maybe it has to do with the precedent set by Ministry of Education (MOE) when they allowed their scholar Jonathan Wong to teach in a Secondary School in July 2010 despite being arrested for possession and making of child pornography in the United Kingdom earlier in March. MOE's lame excuse was: “His offence only came to light after he was charged in court in November.” NUS has to come up with something more credible.

Tey joined the Faculty of Law in 1997. He started off as a Justice's Law Clerk before being appointed to the Subordinate Courts as a District Judge, and moved on to be a State Counsel at the Legislation Division of the Attorney-General's Chambers. He had been a member of the Editorial Committee of the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies and the Singapore Journal of International and Comparative Law, and the Executive Committee of the Centre for Commercial Law Studies. Until 2008, he was the Deputy Chief Editor of Singapore Year Book of International Law. Is he another of those too big to fall?

An NUS spokesman said that the university has a code of conduct that its staff must adhere to. But the one on its website makes no clear reference to staff, only how students should behave.
Specifically, a student must not be caught "giving or receiving any unauthorised aid" that compromises the integrity of the academic standards of the university. The student also has to accept any disciplinary action that may include "the deprivation of any degree, diploma, certificate or other academic distinction conferred." That sucks, especially when NUS has told the media about the fate facing their testosterone driven don: "Possible consequences of violating the Code of Conduct range from a warning to dismissal." A slap on the wrist cannot be discounted.

According to The New Paper, the teacher-student arrangement was not a one-off liaison dangereuse, Tey had sex with the 23 year old female on multiple occasions. Elsewhere it is reported that the student approached Tey first for a better grade in the elective he taught. As we saw in the case of another high profile sex-for-gratification case, "obtain" and "accept" could be crucial words to determine the legal outcome. In other words, there's still wriggle room. Heck, defence might demand the equivalent of a Monica Lewinsky stained dress as irrevocable proof of wrong doing.

What boggles the mind about this blowout is that it involves a law professor, a student studying law, and shenanigans in the law faculty - do they actually teach law, or sex-ed? Instead of producing legal eagles, they seem to be churning out legal beavers. We should ask the Law Society for a comment, but those guys have their hands full with members acting on their own volition.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Land Of Hikes And More Hikes

Last night the managing director of Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) was on tv, painting a bleak picture of the apocalypse to come. With a worst case scenario of a US slump, China crash landing or European melt-down, Singapore won't be meeting the current economic growth forecast of between 1 and 3 percent.

MAS narrowed its inflation forecast to between 4.0 and 4.5 percent range, lower than current peak of 5.3 percent. Core inflation, which excludes accommodation and private road transport, remained at 2.7 percent in June, unchanged from a month earlier. Inflation was most punitive for the lowest 20 per cent of income earners (who don't drive), hitting them by as much as 6.3 per cent, compared to 4.6 per cent for the top 20 percent, and 5.2 percent for the 60 percent of middle income earners.

MAS's usual policy is to maintain a strong Singapore dollar to fight imported inflation. But accommodation (housing rentals) and private road transport (COE premiums) are not imported items, they are created locally. So are service and conservancy charges (S&CC).

Grassroots leaders are sounding the ground for another hike, citing "spiralling maintenance costs". Apparently town councils currently have reserves of about three years. Based on East Coast operating expenses of $20.5 million in  2011, they are sitting on as much as $60 million. What do they need such a big buffer for, investing in toxic instruments they way Holland-Bukit Panjang and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Councils blew $12 million of their sinking funds? Money is supposed to be saved for a rainy day. Given the dark clouds predicted by MAS, shouldn't the sums be utilised to weather the storm instead of adding to the inflationary pressures?

Political analyst Lam Peng Er is pretty defeatist about the issue, saying complaints will fall on deaf ears, and most people will eventually get used to it. "How many of the past increases in municipal fees do you remember?" he asked. Indeed, who can keep track of the transport hikes, utility hikes, educational fee hikes, medishield hikes, .......

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stewards of Public Resources

At the annual Public Service Commission's (PSC) scholarship ceremony Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said, "Officers know that as stewards of public resources... they must guard against any behaviour that can erode the trust Singaporeans have in the public service." Integrity, service and excellence will remain core values of the Singapore public service, rattled on DPM Teo. Notably missing were transparency and accountability.

 The Ministry of National Development (MND) has suspended the National Parks Board (NParks) officer in charge of procuring 26 units S$2,200 Brompton foldable bicycles in a shady deal that should have warranted the attention of the CPIB or CAD. The fact that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan earnestly defended the purchase of the pricey designer bikes as "valid" to enhance work productivity implicates him as accessory to "behaviour that can erode the trust Singaporeans have in the public service". Worse, MP Lee Bee Wah pointed out that the MND investigation was focused on the procurement process and not over the cost of the bicycles. That explains the Herman Miller chairs.

 The NParks officer fingered for the transaction was not mentioned in the statement issued by by MND last night. Alternate media has narrowed it down to two possibilities, NParks Assistant Director (Bernard Lim) or Procurement Manager (Wesley Su). Since neither are under aged females, gag order should not apply. Strangely, Straits Times (but not TODAY) reported this morning Lim was named. Perhaps no willing scapegoat was prepared to take the fall, emulating the successful stratagem of the plastic surgeon. And guilty parties get to continue as "stewards of public resources". Khaw got himself out of the line of fire by initiating the MND Internal audit after the dirty laundry was aired on the internet, specifically the damning evidence about:
- Timing and duration of tender notice;
- Contrived tender specification;
- Award to neither authorised distributor or network of dealers.

 MND, for opaque reasons best known to themselves, deem these discrepancies as inconclusive, and merely "suggested the possibility of bias". Bias is just another word for cronyism, defined as partiality to long-standing friends. Wikipedia states that "democratic governments are encouraged to practice administrative transparency in accounting and contracting, however, there often is no clear delineation of when an appointment to government office is cronyism." So much for the vaunted "integrity, service and excellence" core values supposedly cherished by DPM Teo. You know what to think.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lawyer Fights Back

No dangerous weapons were used in the filming of this video
It is reported that Louis Joseph, colleague at law firm L.F. Violet Netto, on behalf of M Ravi, has served a letter of demand on the Law Society and Wong Siew Hong, to which they have seven days to respond. The letter, dated yesterday, asked for compensation and a public apology from the Law Society and Wong Siew Hong for alleged defamation.

Among other things, it claimed that Wong's bizarre conduct at Justice Philip Pillai's court session was "intended primarily to injure" Ravi's "reputation, goodwill and standing in the community".

However, it is generally accepted sentiment among the public that any attempt to take on the parties involved is an uphill task. At the Speakers' Corner on Sunday the aggrieved lawyer had to delve deep into his cultural roots to summon help from higher authority. Authenticity was sacrificed by use of stage props, in case over enthusiastic undercover agents, acting very much on their own volition, try to frame him for possession of offensive weapons. According to Ravi, the ritualistic performance was a classical dance item that the Indians did when Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, instituted mass executions of 888 people upon ascending the throne. Wong, on the other hand, has yet to come up with an explanation for his weird performance before the presiding judges and state counsels at the Singapore High Court.

I still don't get it.
To underline the seriousness of the issues at hand, mainstream media highlighted the case of a lawyer struck off the rolls for being cavalier about court proceedings. The litany of complaints filed against him include being ill prepared to argue his case, late for court hearings, and not complying with court directions. 6 advocates and solicitors were stripped of their right to practice law as a result of misconduct in 2010, worse than the showing in 2008 (3 disbarred) and 2007 (2).

Monday, July 23, 2012

Diversion In The Works

It's not nice to make an old man look like a fool.  In July 2010, after touring the waterfront development at the Kallang and Kolam Ayer areas, Lee Kuan Yew had silenced detractors by proclaiming that "whatever we do when we get extraordinary rains like we had recently, no amount of engineering can prevent flooding". The Public Utilities Board (PUB) has decided to do just that, spend lots of money on an epic engineering endeavor to prevent another act of God within the next 50 years.

A 2-kilometer diversion will be constructed to relieve the flood-water load at Stamford Canal, and a 38,000 cubic meter water detention tank will be built underground near the Botanic Gardens - the free one, not the rip-off at Gardens by the Bay. The projects are part of the recommendations of a 9 month study, what PUB chief executive Chew termed "a multi-prong plan to strengthen flood resilience across Singapore." Included was a "more advanced" forecasting system and a weir to direct upstream water from Stamford Canal into the new diversion canal. The second diversion canal at Bukit Timah built in 1990 at a cost of $240 million in 1990 is 3 times as large as the proposed diversion. Even with this available as a guidance, PUB declined to commit on a number for the cost of the project undertaking.

The fellow in charge of the huge expenditure is - *palmface* - none other than the profligate Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Asked if the Stamford Canal initiative will be extended to other canals in Singapore, he gave his standard non-answer, "There's a fair amount of uncertainty because you can't predict the future." As was expected, Balakrishan declined to comment on the cost estimates, math being his Achilles heel.

What will probably happen is that he will report in parliament after the event that $XXX.XX millions were spent. Then  he will happily recall that the budget, after due consultation with and approval of the prime minister, was $XXX.XX millions, accurate to the second decimal point. That was the YOG fairy tale told at the Clementi Election Rally of GE 2011, and it got him re-elected.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Contempt Of Court

Anyone keeping score? In the latest round of Blogger versus AGC (Attorney-General's Chambers), it was enlightening to read that the judge is not as thin skinned as generally assumed. We are given following assurance:

Expanding, the AGC spokesman added, "It is contempt, however, to say that the court was biased if there is no objective rational basis to do so." The emphasis seems to be on the word "biased", but still, you wouldn't want to tell the judge his mother wears army boots, or worse.

Members of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) were sent to jail in 2006 and 2008 for wearing T-shirts in court with a picture of a kangaroo in a judge's robe. They didn't stand up in court and yell, "Your mother wears army boots". Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but they would have less troubles if they chosen Ah Meng the orang utan for their motif instead. It's probably the bias towards the adorable Australian marsupial that got them into hot water, promoting tourism for Australia, and not Singapore. Bias is defined as "a leaning of the mind; propensity or prepossession toward an object or view". Compared to the antics of Skippy the Kangaroo, Ah Meng's monkey business is passé; you can't really get upset over free porridge, legal assistance or toilet upgrades during a by-election anymore. The golf expression for the new normal is "par for the course".

Or they could have chosen a picture of Merlion the national icon, forever puking its guts out. Spewing out your breakfast coffee upon scanning the morning headlines is more or less a national pastime. COE up, Medishield premiums up, inflation up, and you can still hold your food down?

We shouldn't be too harsh on our judges. Just look at the trained lawyer who gatecrashed a court proceeding, waving a confidential medical report like a too-good-to-be true Groupon deal.  He was just given a telling off, not charged with contempt of court.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Hikes Go On

First a rogue lawyer barges in uninvited as if it was his grandfather's court. Then the Ministry of Health (MOH) revises the health insurance rates without consulting its subscribers about suitability of coverage. Is lawlessness in Singapore society that virulent?

A contract is a legally-enforceable promise or set of promises made by one party to another. The most important feature of a contract is that one party makes an offer for a consideration that another accepts. The promise or consideration should not change while the contractual obligation is alive, without mutual assent.

Premiums for Medishield have just been hiked, ostensibly to widen coverage and provide a "bigger shield" against bid medical bills. Some of these "enhancements" include yearly-limit of $70,000 instead of $50,000, life-time limit of $300,000 instead of $200,000 and coverage for inpatient psychiatric treatment.

Have they considered that some of us may feel $50,000 or $200,000 limit is more than sufficient for our needs, thank you, and that we may have private plans to cover any shortfall? Or that we are in perfect mental state, always on the alert to stay away from doctors like Dr Fones who may put out an unsolicited letter on the sly to commit us to the tender loving care of the Institute of Mental Health? Can we opt out of this "inclusive" intentions of the Minister? Especially the part where deductibles, the amount patients have to pay out of pocket before they can even start on the bureaucratic red tape to make a claim, are raised by $500 to "keep premiums affordable". If MP Chia Shi-Lu, member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, thinks it's logical to be hit a with a premium hike and still suffer a $500 loss in deductibles, he should make an appointment with the IMH. One's intention can either be good or bad, not both.

One of the reasons not to sign up for CPF Life is that quantum of payouts are not fixed at time of commitment.  When you puchase an annuity from a private insurer, the vendor at least provides you with a number - could be a range of say, between 2 to 5% - with which you can do your own math about personal financial needs. With CPF Life the official position is: "the monthly income may be adjusted depending on the actual interest rate". With Medishield it's more ludicrous, we have signed up, and they are changing the goal posts. Is this even legal?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

We All Should Be Mad

According to Helpguide.org bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) causes serious shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior – from the highs of mania on one extreme, to the lows of depression on the other. More than just a fleeting good or bad mood, the cycles of bipolar disorder last for days, weeks, or months.

During a manic episode, a person might impulsively quit a job, charge up huge amounts on credit cards, or feel rested after sleeping two hours.
During a depressive episode, the same person might be too tired to get out of bed and full of self-loathing and hopelessness over being unemployed and in debt.

Before you get smug and congratulate yourself on your good fortune, take a look at the typical queries doctors use to identify symptoms:
  1. At times I am much more talkative or speak much faster than usual.
  2. There have been times when I was much more active or did many more things than usual.
  3. I get into moods where I feel very 'speeded-up' or irritable.
  4. There have been times when I have felt both high (elated) and low (depressed) at the same time.
  5. I have been much more interested in sex than usual.
  6. My self-confidence ranges from great self-doubt to equally great overconfidence.
  7. There have been GREAT variations in the quantity or quality of my work.
  8. For no apparent reason I sometimes have been VERY angry or hostile.
  9. I have periods of mental dullness and other periods of very creative thinking.
  10. At times I am greatly interested in being with people and at other times I just want to be left alone with my thoughts.
  11. I have had periods of great optimism and other periods of equally great pessimism.
  12. I have had periods of tearfulness and crying and other times when I laugh and joke excessively.
Can you honestly claim you've never in your whole adult life had occasion to respond "yes" to any of the above listed? Don't bother to answer if you've been  invited for tea at the Istana - you're probably one of those incorrigible liars. When they ask you to jump, your reply will be "How high?" If 1 in 10 in Singapore are mentally ill, the trigger has to be bad governance. Or unprofessional doctors.

An aunt was very unhappy living with her daughter-in-law. When latter was blessed with a child, auntie was ignored altogether. She was not allowed at the dinner table where everybody was fussing over the cute baby. She was not allowed to carry the little tot, as if she might contaminate the newbirth with germs old people carry. One day she blew up, screaming and yelling. A doctor was called in, saw an agitated old lady apparently out of control, and administered a jab of Risperdal, the first line of defence for schizophrenia. It works by changing the effects of chemicals in the brain. It took a few years before auntie was given a clean bill of health. She might be cranky, but she was not stark raving mad. A person charged with mental illness is seldom afforded a second opinion.

Here's something more cheerful from Helpguide.org:
Myth: People with bipolar disorder can’t get better or lead a normal life.
Fact: Many people with bipolar disorder have successful careers, happy family lives, and satisfying relationships. Living with bipolar disorder is challenging. But with treatment, healthy coping skills, and a solid support system, you can live fully while managing your symptoms.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

In the Jack Nicholson movie, the sane actions of men contrast starkly with the insane actions of the institution.  It is a Catch-22 situation: only a sane man would question an irrational system, but the act of questioning means his sanity will inevitably be compromised. The authorities in charge decide who is sane and who is insane, and by deciding so, they make it reality, resorting to extreme measures like lobotomy. The slippery slope can start with a letter from your friendly neighborhood doctor.

Forget about the cast from the Bromptongate debacle - Bikehop Director Lawrence Lim, NParks Director Bernard Lim, Procurement Manager Wesley Su - this one could be a bigger blockbuster.

M Ravi - Lawyer representing Mdm Vellama Marie Muthu in Hougang by-election case
Eye witnesses who saw him in action at Supreme Court No. 3B on Monday morning of 16 Jul 2012 at 10am did not think anything was amiss when he presented Mdm Vallema's case before Justice Philip Pillai.

Justice Philip Pillai - the presiding judge
He was reported to be upset with the surprise intrusion into his Court room, characterised the action of the party crasher as “unprecedented” and admonished him accordingly, "How is it you have the audacity to come and turn up in court when you don't even have an application?"

David Chong - Chief Counsel, Attorney-General's Chambers
The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) has clarified that it “didn’t know about this letter at all”. Also, it did not ask that Mr Ravi be prevented from arguing the Hougang by-election case.

Wong Siew Hong - representative from Law Society of Singapore (LAWSOC), Director of local law firm Infinitus Law Corporation
This maverick's cameo performance is best described by the account of one observer in court:

"While the AG was speaking, a lawyer representing the Law Society (whom I shall call "the LS lawyer") entered the Court with a companion in tow. The LS lawyer wore the Court gown, thus indicating that he wanted to address the Court; his companion (whom I recognised to be an employee of the Law Society) was in long sleeved office shirt, no jacket. They stood conspicuously there at the side, between the AG and the Judge.

"The LS lawyer held in his hand a transparent sheet protector containing a single piece of paper which looked like a letter. The AG stopped his presentation and said to the Judge something like he was agreeable "to yield" to the LS lawyer.  But the Judge seemed to indicate to AG to finish his submission without interruption, so the AG continued speaking.  As it was obviously awkward for the LS lawyer and his companion to remaining standing where they were, they then walked to sit down on available chairs.

After the Hearing, I found out that the LS lawyer had wanted to interrupt the Court proceedings to present a letter alleging that M Ravi was unfit to practise law."

A spokesperson for LAWSOC has confirmed that “The Law Society informed the judge of the contents of the letter as it felt that it was in the public interest to do so, and as officers of the court. To be clear, there was no application whatsoever by the Law Society to in any way prevent Mr Ravi from appearing in Court.”

Dr Fones Soon Leng Calvin - psychiatrist in private practice, Gleneagles Medical Centre.
Since LAWSOC denies any attempt to prevent Mr Ravi from appearing in Court, why did the good doctor write ”we may have to impose the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act upon him" ? The plural we is normally used to denote oneself and another or others, except when used by royalty in the singular, or someone affected with illusions of grandeur.

Guess who's the cuckoo bird in this production?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Minister Who Can Say No

Finally, a minister with balls. Bernie Ecclestone had insisted that negotiations for the Singapore Grand Prix were concluded and all that is left to do is for the government to decide when to announce the new deal. Instead, Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran announced that Singapore will only decide by June next year whether to extend the  Formula 1 night race held here for another 5 years. This means Singapore will serve out a 2-year notice period, and the 2014 night race could be the last.

Iswaran confirmed that for the country to continue the support for the night race, "the terms must be economically viable." The potential deal breaker hinged on the licensing fee,  which Formula One Management (FOM) is sticking to a figure similar to last year's US$44 million. The cost of staging the race is estimated at $150 million, but each event is now said to bring in only about $160 million in tourism dollars. Subtract the loss in retail business in the cordoned off Marina area, and it's not difficult to imagine the red ink bled since day one.

Compare the numbers to the $195 million in casino entry levies collected by the government last year. In the first 6 months of this year alone, $93 million has already been pocketed. Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo said the casino entry levies collected by the Singapore Totalisator Board (Tote Board) are used for social and charitable purposes. Since 2009, she claimed the government has more than doubled its expenditure on containing gambling ills, from $3.8 million in FY09 to $9 million in FY11. Now, that's a real money maker there, without the high decibel noise and inconveniences imposed. And if the government is serious about addressing the social ills of gambling, they could raise the levy to $200 as proposed by some. That translates into another extra $195 million (based on last year's bonanza) in the kitty. Heck, even if they spend another $10 million to "contain gambling ills", the economic model is just too juicy to ignore.

To think it all started because Lee Kuan Yew once told a dinner gathering of CitiBank staff that he was stupid not to realise money could be made by watching cars go round and round a circuit. Channel NewsAsia (CNA) changed the word to "dim-witted" in their report to tone down the personal assessment of his business acumen - same way they changed "fix the opposition" gaffe to "counter the opposition" - but it looks like the ugly truth is finally out. Don't shed tears for Bernie.  He's the guy who admires Adolf Hitler because "he gets things done."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Singapore In Ruins

Click to see the scale of the devastation
Jonas de Ro is a talented young digital artist based in Belgium, whose day job is Concept Artist at Warner Brothers. He works with concept art, animation, matte painting, photography and more. Maybe he can also foretell the future, judging from his accurate depiction of an overgrown city, its infrastructure pushed to the breaking point by ill conceived population growth policies and the mad pursuit of economic wealth at the sacrifice of social well-being. Just read the headlines.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It Ain't Rocket Science

Trying to understand what atom-smashing physicists call "god particle", the Higgs boson with 125 to 126 times the mass of the proton, is an exercise in mental torture. It has no intrinsic spin, no electric charge, and no colour charge. It is also very unstable, decaying into other particles almost immediately. Named after Peter Higgs who proposed in 1964 the mechanism that suggested such a particle , it required the the world's most powerful particle accelerator - the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland - to confirm in 2012 the formal discovery of a previously unknown boson of mass between 125–127 GeV/c2.

Equally mind racking is attempting to piece the jigsaw of the curious case of Woffles Wu. One blogger hit a nerve with a very long post, comingling the the facts and fiction amidst flotsam and jetsam of the internet. The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) wasn't excited with the theorising, and concluded: "In essence you allege that our entire judicial system has been biased for a long time." Yale-NUS may be here, but the road to liberalised contemplation is still mined with black holes.

The monkey wrench in the works is why the authorities are taking so long to find out who was actually behind the wheel of the rebuilt stretch Mercedes. NY Times Lawrence Klaus wrote that a career in theoretical physics has taught him that nature usually has a far richer imagination than we do. Anything can happen on a Friday 13th, perhaps a dash of quantum physics, suitably fuelled by your mind bending beverage of choice - alcohol or kopi-kau - might solve the puzzle.

Suppose for a moment the one who took the car out for a high speed spin is a "god-like" individual. One with impeccable progeny, perfect scholastic scores, prestigious business credentials.  The ideal candidate to be feted at an Istana tea party, and groomed for higher office - the ultimate millionaire club type. It would be a shame of national resources to waste such talent, to smear the pristine record with a yucky documented traffic offence.

Suppose a wise older person, out of magnanimity and his cognizance of the greater good for society, volunteers himself as sacrificial pawn, surrenders himself to the authorities and takes the fall. He suggests someone to pen his name in the "request to provide driver's particulars" - hence the abetting part. That would explain the statement that "I was fined for providing the name of someone who was not driving the car". It would also explain the other comment, that the abettor "did not make the misleading statements himself". Neat, huh?

Of course, there is the outstanding matter of the real driver's name, as elusive as the real boson.  Recall a "god particle" is unstable, decaying into other particles as soon as it's created, leaving no trace of its brief existence. A name could be produced, mainstream media could put it into a spin faster than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is capable of, and the matter is quickly put to rest - faster than the speed of light. Neat, huh? So, guys, what do you think? What do you think?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Wheel Of Justice Turns

Currently a law professor at National University of Singapore, Walter Woon once referred to his term as Attorney-General (AG) from 2008 to April 2010 as the longest two years of his life. He opined that making the "hard decisions" of whether or not to charge someone with an offence that carried the mandatory death penalty was "the thing that gives us grey hair".

Constitutionally, Woon argues it was "far better" for the judge to decide the sentence at the time of judgment than for the AG to decide at the time the charge is laid. The reason he offers is intriguing: "The judge has to explain his reasons in open court, the AG doesn't." So who is this powerful person who does not have to account to the public for his actions?

After Woon stepped down, Senior Counsel Sundaresh Menon, managing partner of Rajah and Tann, was  appointed to take over the two-year term on Oct 1, 2010. Mrs Koh Juat Jong, the Solicitor-General, was Acting Attorney-General from April 11 to Sept 30.

In May 2012, 5 months short of October, Sundaresh Menon moved on to be Judge of Appeal and Justice Steven Chong Horng Siong, 54, was pronounced Singapore's new AG and the country's top prosecutor effective 25 June.

Chong built his legal career from associate to joint Managing Partner over 14 years at Drew & Napier. He then spent 12 years in Rajah & Tan and was its Managing Partner until his appointment to the Supreme Court Bench. During his time on the Bench, Chong presided on a wide range of cases covering criminal, constitutional, banking, defamation and shipping aspects of the law.

One of his more notable cases was Yong Vui Kong v Attorney General, which dealt with the issue of justiciably of the clemency process for the first time in Singapore. Decided in 2010, the Court of Appeal ruled that the mandatory death penalty imposed by the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) for certain drug trafficking offences does not infringe Articles 9(1) and 12(1) of the Constitution of Singapore.
Article 9(1) states: "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law."
Article 12(1) states: "All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law."

The Court then was of the opinion that rules of customary international law cannot be incorporated into the meaning of the word law in Article 9(1) as this is not in accordance with the normal hierarchy of Singapore law. Oh we get it, the law in Singapore is a unique animal, malleable only to the whims and fancies of the political will of the day. But will Yong still get to live, even after the recent proposed changes to the mandatory death sentence?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Misplaced Priorities

Dissatisfied with the poor job the Commissioner of Charities (COC) had done in 2008, missing out on the alleged lack of compliance with regulations and code of governance at City Harvest Church in 2008, Nominated Member of Parliament Lawrence Lien had asked whether current governance review methodologies have to be reviewed. Acting Minister Chan Chun Sing responded by saying that his ministry "would continue to develop the methodology over time to better help charities improve their governance standards." File away under "pending", akan datang.

On subject of New Zealander  Robert Dahlberg and Briton Robert Springall jumping bail, Members of Parliament (MP) David Ong (Jurong GRC) and Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) called for tighter measures to stop foreigners accused of crime from fleeing the country. Second Minister for Home Affairs S Iswaran responded by saying that his ministry is reviewing its processes, "We will see what else can be done to strengthen the framework and the procedures."  File away under "pending", akan datang.

In a written reply to MP Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), same Iswaran, this time wearing the hat of Second Minister for Trade and Industry, said Singapore will continue to host the F1 Night Race "only if the terms for a full 5-year extension are economically viable."  He told Parliament that negotiations  between race promoter Singapore GP and Formula One Management (FOM) were "still ongoing". File away under "pending", akan datang. I stand corrected.

Apparently, hours after the minister stated his (and presumably the standing government's) position, Bernie Ecclestone told the press FOM has secured agreement to stage the Grand Prix for another 5 years after the current contract expires in September, and that the timing of the official announcement will be decided and made by the Singapore Government. Whoa, does Bernie know something that Iswaran doesn't?  Maybe the "economically viable" condition was intended for Ecclestone, not Singapore. Of the $150 million that goes into each night race, 60 percent or $90 million is paid by the Singapore Government. This is on top of the $35 million fee for the rights to stage the event (last year the number went up to $42 million). For Ecclestone, it's pure profit from the starting line. Todate, we have yet to see a comprehensive financial report of any of the races. From the perspective of Singapore taxpayer of course, not the foreigner's.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

They Can Still Kill You

Walking quickly past the tv set last night, you would be forgiven for rejoicing prematurely that hell has frozen over. Hurray, the death penalty has been eradicated! No more will Singaporeans be the butt of jokes again, specifically science fiction writer William Gibson's depiction of the city state as “Disneyland with the death penalty”.

That's the problem with current coverage of parliamentary sessions, just disjointed clips and cuts of the proceedings with selective quotes and soundbites, to make the speakers look good, and gloss over their speech and delivery impediments. Upon closer scrutiny, it turns out the epic announcement was just a proposed easing of the mandatory death penalty in some drug and murder cases, but not an absolute abolishment of the ultimate punishment that human rights groups worldwide still condemn as barbaric.

To avoid execution by hanging for drug trafficking, two specific conditions must be met, elaborated deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean. First, the accused must have acted only as a courier, with no other part to play in the supply or distribution. Second, a courier could be spared if he co-operates with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) "in a substantive way" or can be proved to have a “mental disability” that prevents them from appreciating the full gravity of their action. Commenting, lawyer Hri Kumar wanted to know to what extent  can you say someone has "substantively co-operated" with CNB. Needless to say, submissive compliance in a dimly lit carpark is out of the equation.

When it comes to dispensation of the gift of human life, they are as stingy as same tightwads who doled out the GST rebate vouchers. Draft legislation implementing the proposed changes to the application of the death penalty will be introduced in Parliament only later this year. Surely they could expedite this important exercise, since there are currently 35 persons on death row, of which 28 are for drug offences and 7 for murder. Mr Shanmugam stressed that lawyers should "carefully study the legislation when it is enacted and properly understand the precise scope of the changes" before giving legal advice to their clients. In plain English, don't set your hopes up too high.

Alan Shadrake, the British author who was jailed last year for criticisms of Singapore’s judiciary in his book "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock", is grateful for small mercies, “It’s not the end of the death penalty. But it’s a move in the right direction that no-one really expected.” After all, in 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had personally dismissed Australia’s calls to commute the death sentence for Australian drug smuggler Nguyen Tuong Van.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Trying To be Clever

Last week the Ministry of Finance (MOF) clarified that each household is eligible for only one Goods and Services Tax Voucher (GSTV) - U-Save rebate, the component of the GST Voucher scheme which was meant to help offset monthly utilities bills. "The amount of GSTV-U Save rebates depends on the flat type, and not the size of the household," the ministry stated in a press release. If, say, three members of household, staying in the same flat, are individually eligible and duly received notification for the GSTV- U Save rebate, only one use of the utilities rebate may be utilised. This is inspite of the fact that all three members of the household are individually taxed by the regressive GST scheme each time they make a purchase of goods or services, whither at a hawker center, food court or restaurant.

The GSTV is a permanent scheme introduced in February this year, within the 2012 Budget, so that, Thaman Shanmugaratnam may argue, “GST plus other schemes will not be regressive”. Well, it doesn't seem to quite work out as originally planned, does it? What semblance of altruism traceable in Thaman's effort is torpedoed by some smart aleck.

When it comes to splurging on Herman Miller chairs or designer Brompton bikes, the mandarin scholars sure know how to tweak the system to maximise their benefit. When it comes to fine-tuning what the less mortals are supposed receive as relief from the punitive taxes, they also know how to tweak the system so their departmental budget for personal comfort is not diminished. They may pat their own backs for being clever, but karma has a way of hitting back.

A family relative who used to work at the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) told of the time when international bids were called for the purchase of 5 quayside gantry cranes for offloading containers. All the big time tenderers met at the table for the bid opening, resembling a mini United Nations, with representatives from USA, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Japan. One by one, their sealed bids were opened, and confidential prices read aloud. It was a shock then to the vendors when the PSA director in charge announced that the port authority had decided to buy 3 cranes instead of 5, and would the vendors please make a new submission. Many stomped out of the room in outrage, furious with the gambit to bargain them down, now that everybody's carefully guarded prices were revealed to all and sundry. Even within PSA circles, protests of foul play made the grapevine. The clever director tried to shout down his critics with, "If it's for the good fo PSA, who's to say it is wrong?"

Only two vendors bothered to participate in the re-bid.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Temasek In The Rough

Temasek's portfolio value hits a record $198 billion, screamed the headlines, while smaller fonts disclosed that the rate of return on shareholder funds was a miserable 1.5 percent. Hey, anybody can be a big spender, it's what you get in return that matters - and justify a high paying job. And 1.5 percent is easily attainable at most banks for long term fixed deposits in the right currency mix.

Apparently Temasek has an internal benchmark of 8 percent rate of return, and Wealth Added bonuses are distributed to its staff when this is exceeded - GDP bonuses, national bonuses, wealth added bonuses, the powers that be can be real creative when it comes to rewarding themselves. Meanwhile, the citizens who contribute to the source of funds for their monopoly games are limited at 2.5 percent return. The previous year's report card was 4.6 percent, which makes the number for fiscal year ending March 31 look real bad. The return over 38 years since its inception in 1974 has always been showed off as an annualised 17 percent.

Temasek profit fell 16 precent from $12.7 billion to $10.7 billion. That didn't stop Temasek from splurging another $5 billion in it's shopping spree.  Like $2 billion in US based shale gas producer FTS International and $1.3 billion in fertiliser producer Mosaic Company. These investments helped boost its exposure to North America and Europe from 8 to 11 percent, two geographies which are not exactly in the pink of economic health.

We are also told Temasek made $22 billion worth of investment in total, against $15 billion of divestments. What we are not told is whether Chesapeake, whose stock tumbled more than 30% in the last financial year, is featured in either exercise.

In May 2010, Temasek Holdings and Beijing-based Hopu Investment Management Company agreed to buy a combined US$600 million in convertible preferred stock of New York-listed Chesapeake Energy, and an additional 30-day option to acquire a further US$500m of the stock. The convertible preferred stock carries a coupon of 5.75 per cent and the proposed US$1.1 billion investment will translate to about 7 per cent stake in Chesapeake.

In April 2012, the NY Times reported that controversial borrowing practices by Chesapeake Energy’s CEO Aubrey McClendon raised additional scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as well as sinking the company’s debt rating. Temasek Holdings’ investee company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, had its debt rating cut to ‘BB’ which is a “Junk” or Non-Investment Grade by Standard & Poor’s.

As recent as 3 July 2012, Reuters reported that the U.S. Justice Department is probing Chesapeake Energy Corp and Encana Corp for possible collusion after email leaks showed that top executives of the two rivals plotted in 2010 to avoid bidding against each other in Michigan land deals. In one email, Chesapeake Chief Executive Officer Aubrey McClendon told one of his deputies on June 16, 2010, that it was time "to smoke a peace pipe" with Encana "if we are bidding each other up."

In the light of all these disclosures, any other CEO would start to polish up his or her resume. But we are talking about Temasek Holdings.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Not My Own Money

Not too long ago, there was an outcry over the $1,200 Herman Miller chairs bought by Nanyang Technnological University (NTU). Then it surfaced that Khaw Boon Wan had ordered 150 sets of the Herman Miller Celle®  model for office use in National University Hospital when he was in charge. Khaw said cheaper alternatives will not last as long - same reason offered by disgraced monk Ming Yi when asked in court why he bought Mont Blanc pens.

If you have to ask, you can't afford it
Now Khaw is defending the National Parks Board's (NParks) purchase of S$2,200 Brompton foldable bicycles as "a simple and effective way to raise staff productivity". The indefensible part has to do with his "clarification" that NParks "had no particular brand in mind" and "was open to considering all brands" (The NTU tender was written around Herman Miller specifications). Quite obviously the NParks folks have never stepped into a Giant or Carrefour departmental store to check out the alternatives, which kind of explains the telling remark by Khaw: "NParks might have gotten a better deal if there was greater participation in this quotation".

Why are Brompton bikes so expensive? The clue is found on the supplier's website:
Nothing is standard
We do not offer standard models because nothing we build is standard: every bike is built by hand from scratch.

There is something more insidious going on than the much maligned mentally of N.I.M.B. For want of a better acronym, N.M.O.M. should suffice. As in, hey, it's Not My Own Money, the daft taxpayers are shelling out for it.

In "Hard Truths", Lee Kuan Yew thought it weird one of his grandsons didn't want a scholarship even though he could easily get one. "If I were the father, I'll say, no, you better take that scholarship... Why should I spend $300,000 or $400,000 for nothing?" Indeed, why empty your own pockets when there's a cheaper alternative?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When More Is Less

It was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who drove the final nail into the coffin of Lim Chong Yah's "shock therapy" proposal - raise the lowest incomes by at least 50% over 3 years, and institute a wage freeze for top income earners for 3 years. After the angry groundswell refused to subside, the National Wages Council relented and accepted the suggestion by National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to recommend a pay hike of $50 to workers earning less than $1,000. Small price to pay for protecting the welfare of the top income earners.

Madam Tan the 66 year old cleaner is not so easily fooled. If she accepts the $50 increase offered by her employer, her rent will go up from $26 to $111, " I'm thankful that the authorities are giving this increase but I'll be $35 worse off ". Thanks, but no thanks, is a familiar refrain when it comes to this government's "financial assistance" schemes.

HDB charges rent of between $90 and $123 for those earning between $801 and $1,500. Those earning below $801 pay only between $26 and $33. A divorcee who has been a cleaner for 10 years, Madam Tan stays alone. Her two children are in their forties and are unable to support her. HDB tried to soften their cruel landlord image by saying her rent will remain the same since her increased household income ($850) will still be below $800. Er, dude, she lives alone.

Zaqy Mohamad, MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, is the oddity who thinks Madam Tan is wrong, maintaining that low-wage workers should accept a wage rise even if it might put them slightly out of pocket. At least fellow MP Lee Bee Wah makes more sense, "I don't think the choice is irrational. For residents earning $800 a month, every cent counts. My family went that stage before." Obviously Zaqy Mohamad had not.

The other idiocy from same MP claims that the way forward for the 69,000 cleaners in Singapore to improve their lot is through skills upgrading. Er, how does one upgrade a cleaning task? Install expensive robotic cleaning devices so Madam Tan can push a button instead of pushing a mop? Enough of the idiotic suggestions, Prof Hui of the Lee Kuan yew School of Public Policy nails it on the head when he surmises: "The cut-off for Workfare is $1,700, it's an implicit recognition that you need a lot more than $800 to survive. We can't talk about increasing productivity for them - we're underpaying them under current conditions." Finally, someone that talks sense. Unfortunately he's also an economist like Lim Chong Yan, and his views will similarly be ignored.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Teaching Information Effectively

Real life teachers Golden and Coffey made a parody video of a Khan Academy YouTube lecture about multiplying and dividing positive and negative integers. Not disputing that Salman Khan, hedge fund analyst turned online tutor, is both brilliant and talented, they point out that "he doesn’t know much about pedagogy, the science of teaching information effectively." Towards the end, at about 11:29, one of them remarks, "Bill Gates thinks he's the best teacher in America? That explains a lot about Windows."

To be fair, everybody knows Gates dropped out of school to rush into making money, so he didn't really spend much contact time with teachers. Gates was so enamoured of Khan's use of the internet as a core component of instruction, he gave him a US$1.5 million grant. Which should really help boost PC sales to schools. Khan is aware of his detractors, which he dismisses by saying it's like telling Bill Gates, "Look, you don't have a M.B.A., so don't do business." (TIME, 9 July 2012)

Frankly, 12 minutes is an awful lot time to spend on multiplying and dividing positive and negative integers. "Converting Yards Into Inches" takes 5 minutes 49 seconds. But can he actually explain "Open Market Operations" in 12 minutes? After all, it's a subject right up his alley. At 4:19 he starts on his "I don't want to get too technical just yet", and also (at 5:54) alludes to another video to expand on the subject ("I'll do a whole video on that, so don't too confused"). Let's just say it's easier to understand "round-tripping" by City Harvest Church leaders as explained by Channelnewsasia graphics.

Khan deserves credit for the effort to explain, whatever the subject, instead of resorting to the odious Teo Chee Hean repartee "What do you think?" Chan Chun Sing is no better.  Instead of providing a substantive response to the reporter's question on narrowing the gap between the have and have-nots, he goes off on a tangent about aspirations of graduates with this throwback, "What would  be an acceptable range?" The Reuben Wang generation would surely know how to answer that. Cocking a snook at Vivian Balakrishnan, Chan boasts, "We will control 2015 SEA Games budget," without offering any concrete numbers to be measured by. S$1.33 billion has been allocated for the Sports Hub, due for completion in April 2014. How about a progress report on that budget?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Goods and Services Tax Vouchers

Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a regressive tax as it that takes a higher percentage of low incomes than high ones. Regressivity is considered undesirable because poorer people pay a greater percentage of their income in tax than wealthier people. The men in white have tried to tell you different. George Yeo, for instance, could, and did, tell you with a poker face, "GST is not regressive".

When the Hougang MP called for a cut in the GST from 7% to 5% in March 2011 to help people cope with inflation, Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) deflected the sting with the qualifier, "High income earners, we know, consume more and therefore pay higher GST." He was arguing that what affects poverty and fairness is not the impact of any particular tax, but the impact of the tax system as a whole.

Even Thaman Shanmugaratnam, then the Second Finance Minister, had admitted that the GST “on its own is a regressive tax as it takes up a bigger portion of a lower-income person’s wages compared to that of a high income earner ”, but “GST plus other schemes will not be regressive”. The only problem with this caveat is that the GST is permanent, while the “other schemes” are temporary and have a finite lifespan.

That could explain the introduction of the new "permanent" GST Voucher (GSTV) Scheme in Budget 2012, a move that is supposedly intended to "help them (lower income families) to bear daily and medical cost, quite apart from topping up their income through workfare and improving the subsidies".

2.1 million adults are supposed to receive $440 million budgetted for the GSTV Scheme, in cash or CPF top ups. Up to $340 million in GSTV-Cash will be paid to elligible Singaporeans on Aug 1, each recipient will be getting $250 in GST-Cash. Another $100 million in GST-Medisave be used to top up by $450 the CPF accounts of elderly Singaporeans aged 65 and above living in HDB flats or private properties of Annual Value (AV) not exceeding $20,000. Those retired elderly with no fixed income staying at such residences will be getting zilch. Nada. Big fat zero. To receive financial relief from the regressive GST, they will have to downgrade from their comfortable abode to a hovel.

Typical of all government handouts, not all the monies budgetted will be distributed. Only those who have signed up by July 18 will be receiving notification in the mail, others have up to December 31 to sign up for their 2012 GSTV payout. The elderly folks who are illiterate, or have diminished mental faculties due to aging or other reasons, are bound to miss the boat.

But $1 billion was definitely spent on the Gardens by the Bay. Mah Bow Tan, the guy who blew $400,000 to rename Marina Bay to Marina Bay, must have made sure of that. After all, it's not like he was spending his own money. You can also bet GST will be levied on the admission charges to the Cooled Conservatory and Skyway. Those who can't afford to be included in the air-conditioned climes will have to watch in envy at the Outdoor Gardens, sweating their guts out in the heat and humidity. This has to be one of the many exceptions to the "inclusive society" illusion.