Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Time To Go

"M" dies at the end of the movie. There I said it.  The organizers at the premier viewing of "Skyfall" last night passed out a leaflet giving specific instructions not to blog about it, but no true 007 fan could resist a challenge like that.

But it was a good way for James Bond's spymaster boss to go. Besides, the new M (Ralph Fiennes as Mallory) had already told her about the forced retirement plan, all because she lost a hard drive. In real life, Judi Dench is getting on with years. Born in 1934, it was reported her failing eyesight required her to memorise the lines as she could no longer read the script. At least she gets to go off with a bang (another spoiler - she was shot). That way we get to remember her at her best, who not too long ago was by a margin voted "the greatest actor of all time" in an exhaustive poll of the readers of The Stage magazine.

The other interesting segment involves a new Q, the official quarter master who issues Bond his weapons of mass destruction, a youthful geek who pooh-poohs the veteran of spy trade with a disarming "Age is no guarantee of efficiency". Daniel Craig is not that old, age 44, and he is signed up for another two installments of the James Bond franchise.

Still, old timers must always learn to give way to the energies of the younger generation. After all, what has an octogenarian got to teach today's youth, save hackneyed war stories about frightening communists. The same communists the world is embracing with open arms because of their new found economic clout. When asked what she thought about the Tienanmen incident, the PRC exchange scholar at our local university said she wasn't even born when it happened. It is so convenient to forget the atrocities of the past, except when a living relic is still walking around to remind one of the abuses in a bygone era.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gaps In Public Service

Quoting a report by consulting, technology- services and outsourcing company Accenture ("Delivering Public Service For The Future: Navigating The Shifts") the mainstream media said the Singapore Government may have to spend an additional $13 billion to fund public services by 2025. The puzzle here is where the billions have been spent, if they were actually expended for public services at all. The mind boggling amount is supposed to be required due to costs associated with the country's ageing population. Ask Ah Pek when was the last time he received any handout without strings attached - as in the nefarious one-time GST voucher for a life-time hike in good and services tax.

Note the tiny gap attributed to Singapore's public service

Reading the report proper, Accenture's focus was actually about the gap between what the citizens want, and what the Government is delivering. They have identified four clear structural shifts that are needed to push public services toward becoming more outcome focused:
1. Shift from standardised services to personal services;
2. Shift from reactive to insight driven;
3. Shift from public management to public entrepreneurship;
4. Shift from piecemeal efficiency to mission productivity.

To emphasize the message, they quote the CEO of CONSIP, a public company owned by Italy's Ministry of the Economy and Finance, "The world is moving forward very rapidly, and just as production processes change and public sentiment changes, likewise the service processes of the public administration must also change." In short, it is an indictment of a failed public service that has not kept up with the pace of change.

Accenture reports that 63 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement: "I often find it difficult to find my way through the system to access the services I need." That must be the bureaucratic red tape so familiar to all of us. If the Government is sincere about helping our senior citizens in their evening years they need to provide a clearer roadmap that is personalised, insight driven, entrepreneur and productive.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Self And Society

The doctor who owned "just a Ferrari spider convertible 430", dined at fine restaurants with Michelin Chefs and kept company with the likes of Miss Universe and Eduardo Saverin (net worth $2.6 billion) said society made him do it.

The relationship between individuals and the social environments in which they live is a topic which fascinates sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and political theorists. Interactions between Self and Society can help explain:
(1) the impact of one individual on another individual,
(2) the impact of a group on its individual members,
(3) the impact of individual members on their group and,
(4) the impact of groups on one another.

An understanding of the priorities of individuals in respect of the social systems into which they are immersed  helps to explain social problems (attributed to foreign intake or competition), social norms and values (unresolved "visceral" racial issues), moral and political change (exacerbated by institutional promotion of gambling), organizational practices (meritocracy eroded by cronyism), and interpersonal and cross-cultural conflict (conflated to xenophobia).

George Herbert Mead (Self and Society, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962) argued that the self consists of more than just a bare organisation of social attitudes, but can be divided into an "I", an unique and natural response to the attitudes of others, and "me", who knows what is socially required in a certain situation through the recognition of the attitudes of others. The point in Mead’s theory becomes evident when one ponders whether social order derives from individuals or whether individuals derive from social order.

Adding his two cents to the PSLE debate, DPM Tharman said "It's only possible to succeed in character education and encouraging students to question and think originally if we create real space for it in the educational system." Will the students be encouraged to be an "I" or a "me"? When they took History and Geography off the syllabus, they conveniently did away with the horror stories of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot,  and the perspective of what a small island we really are on the planet earth. Leaving only Math to calculate the millions to be earned from a lucrative career choice, and enough Science recognize our physical mortality. Instead of creating space, the shrinkage probably did, and continue to do so, cause misery for the future generation. Quite obviously, the one who coined "teach less, learn more" wasn't too concerned with morality plays.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Income For Retirement

About a month ago, circa 19 September, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told delegates at the Singapore Human Capital Summit that the Singapore median male earner who enters the workforce today will be able to achieve an Income Replacement Rate (IRR) of over 70% through his Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings. For the female median earner, the equivalent IRR is 63%. The IRR for the median OECD economies is 66%, while the World Bank recommends a range of between 53% and 78%.

Christine Benz explains that most retirees spend substantially less than 75% or 80% of their previous working income because many of the commuting expenses, outside meals, and working clothes are no longer necessary. Most likely, big ticket commitments like housing loans and the kids' university education would have been done with. And in the American context, retirees need not pay taxes for Social Security and Medicare. On that score she quotes Aon Consulting's Replacement Rate Study, which concludes that in 2008, a 78% income replacement rate would allow a 65-year-old with $60,000 pre-retirement income to retire in 2008 with the same standard of living he or she had while working. The assumption is that 15% of pre-retirees' income have been saved regularly during the working years in preparation for retirement.

Our mandatory CPF contribution rate should, theoretically, put us in good stead. Except that in our situation, retirees continue to co-pay for their Medicare through the chunk eaten up by Medisave, plus premiums for additional cover like Medishield. And then there is the Goods and Services Tax.

Tharman's premise for the IRR numbers include the overpriced housing board flat, an illiquid source of funds which can be made available only by downgrading or pursuing a refinancing exercise. Assuming the house has already been fully paid for by then. He calls this "Our strategy to help them monetise the values of their homes in retirement." Tharman also pointed that many older Singaporeans have low CPF balances and are unable to achieve the IRR that "the study" has found. These older folks bought houses at significantly lower prices, unlike the younger generation who is already seeing COV (cost over valuation) figures in excess of $200,000. We are told "details of the study will be released in the near future", but the released date was not indicated. Have you seen "the study"? Except for those still entitled to state provided pensions, one suspects the true picture of the IRRs may not be as pretty as painted.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions

Zachary Shore says in "Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions" they fall into inflexible mind-sets formed from faulty reasoning and cognition traps. His recipe for avoiding cognition traps and inevitable blunders is to cultivate mental flexibility, empathy, imagination, contrarianism and an open mind. That's got to be easier said than done.

Take a test: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The majority will respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

When faced with an uncertain situation, most people don’t carefully evaluate the information or have the luxury to look up relevant statistics. Instead, our decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts.  Shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. We have seen how Mitt Romney tripped on his budget numbers in the recent debates. Unlike the Singapore system, he can't simply restate the economic data to "correct" a technical recession.

While philosophers, economists, and social scientists assume that human beings are rational agents, others like Shane Frederick (who developed the above bat-and-ball question) demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe. Apparently there is a “meta-bias” that is rooted in our innate ability to spot mistakes in the decisions of others, and inability to identify those same mistakes in ourselves.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. After testing students on four measures of “cognitive sophistication,” they reported in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” West’s paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth Tuck School of Business, and the author of "Why Smart Executives Fail" says that being a successful leader is not just about intelligence, not just about being smart. It's about actually making the right moves at the right time.

Andy Ho of ST ("Sex blogger's 'crazy ' act") skips all these headache inducing theorizing, to the extent of rubbishing Socrates, by offering "akrasia" as justification - as defined by him as "intemperance, acting against one's better judgement, or lacking control over oneself". He writes, "Craziness, it turns out, may have little to do with irrationality and everything to do with one's opinion of the virtues of an act." For sure, each one of us is likely to be bonkers, driven to the nut house by the virtue of economic vibrancy (as in Grace Fu's "The economic vibrancy of the country remains an important political consideration") at the cost of stressed infrastructure, encroaching inflation and being squeezed on all fronts by the alien crowd. There's the method in the madness.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Careless Twits

While one cocky scholar ruminates over the consequences of his online exhibitionism, he is seems confident he has the National University of Singapore (NUS) authorities caught by their short hairs: "Of course I intend to keep my scholarship and place in the university so I will apologise to the university.” Rather than admit their folly on investing substantial sums in a potential lawyer who has declared he has no intention of becoming a legal eagle, they may just put their blinkers on and ignore his interest in beavers.

Other folks are less fortunate, and Bloomberg Businessweek has a list of careless individuals who lost their day jobs over lesser indiscretions at the keyboard. Some samples of Tweets gone horribly wrong:

Road Rage
“I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity,” tweeted Scott Bartosiewicz, a social media manager for New Media Strategies, “and yet no one here knows how to f--king drive.” Bartosiewicz sent the tweet from the corporate account of one of his clients, Chrysler Group. Chrysler apologized, explaining that “our account was compromised.... We are taking steps to resolve it.” They resolved it by firing Bartosiewicz and his agency.

Bored to Death
Gene Morphis was dumped as CFO of women’s clothing retailer Francesca’s Holdings, explained his former company, for “improperly communicat[ing] company information through social media.” Closer scrutiny of his innocuous Twitter account suggests he may have been fired for posting dull tweets. Using the handle “@theoldcfo,” he shared such insights as, “Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board.”

Tweeting for Tyrants
After Marc Jacobs CEO Robert Duffy linked to a photo of a nude male pole dancer on the company’s official account, the label hired an intern to temporarily take over tweeting duties. The pressure proved too much. “I hate this job,” he tweeted, calling Duffy a “tyrant.” Also: “Don’t judge me! I’m alone in this office having to try and entertain you all.” He was fired, and the company apologized, adding, “Twitter is a crazy place. Protect your passwords.”

The Not-So-Secret Secret Sex Blog
By day, Kendra Holliday worked part-time at a St. Louis nonprofit. At night she shared intimate details about her sex life on a blog called The Beautiful Kind, a self-described “safe haven for perverts.” When the nonprofit (which Holliday won’t name) googled its employees and found links to her NSFW blog from her Twitter account, she was immediately fired, despite dressing (in Holliday’s words) “like a freaking Mormon” at the office.

Okay, maybe they weren't too harsh on the NTUC assistant director after all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

There's More Than Meets The Eye

Flipping through Glenn Knight's book, the above entry caught my eye. The chief investigator of Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) tripped by a straight forward car loan? One expects the disclosures by former Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng, 69, to be similarly abbreviated in "OB Markers: The Straits Times Story". The message he wants to deliver is that the Government will become "less heavy-handed" over time, and will no longer close down a newspaper. But that's a given: closing down the mainstream media will shut down it's own key propaganda machine.

Starting his journalism career in 1963 as a trainee journalist, he rose to become Editor-in-Chief of SPH's English and Malay Newspapers Division - a position he occupied for 19 years - before retiring in 2006. "I have seen newspapers closed when they fell foul of the government, and friends lose their jobs.... I did not suffer their fate," said Cheong, but wouldn't deign to reveal how he survived being "at the receiving end of Lee Kuan Yew's fury".  Mostly likely, he simply moved with the flow, like George Yeo did, instead of sticking out for his journalistic principles. Cheong did confirm though, the "favourite instrument" of changing editorial leadership in newsrooms.

In November 2003, senior staff members of TODAY (Mr Ernest Wong, Group Chief Executive Officer of Mediacorp (publisher), Mr Mano Sabnani (Editor), Mr Rahul Pathak (Deputy Editor) and Ms Val Chua (unfortunate journalist who filed the offending report) were taken to the woodshed to face the full wrath of Lee, for their write-up “SM Lee and the eye opening trauma in London,” which was based on verbatim inputs from the official press release. Warned against "writing any articles that were risqué", the unpalatable paragraphs were never disclosed, but one possibility was quoting him as saying that he had made a phone call to 10 Downing Street asking them to help as his wife had to wait till 6 hours before she could have a brain scan. Which put British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a spot. The upshot was that Lee's press secretary had to issue a follow up statement, "Lee Kuan Yew regrets that he was mistaken that 10 Downing Street had anything to do with his wife getting a CT scan at 3:30 a.m."

It has been said Lee has no compunction about putting journalists on a very short leash when it comes to reporting on his family and the PAP. Only his daughter can write about him asking his bed-ridden wife to change the elastic band in his running shorts. According to Dr Lee's article in the Sunday Times, the feisty woman, who was recovering from a recent stroke and whose vision was impaired, told him: “If you want me to prove my love for you, I will try.” That should sum up Cheong's picture of the press in Singapore, an ongoing love-hate relationship.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Time To Get Real

Kate Losse had a master's degree in English from John Hopkins University when she joined Facebook in 2005 as employee #51 . Starting as hourly rated customer support staff, she rose to lead the internationalization team - rolling out Facebook to the rest of the world - and finishing as the personal ghost writer of Mark Zuckerberg. As the odd English major in the fraternity of computer geeks, she could empathise with those users eviscerated when the notorious News Feed feature broadcasted their personal break-ups online. To the code warriors it was just clever programming, not appreciating the fact that digital profiles are real people beyond the computer screens. She made the brave decision to abandon the world of virtual friends for the company of actual humans with feelings.

"Technology is the perfect alibi.  Facebook doesn't hurt people: People hurt people. This is true. But just as Facebook makes it possible to do things faster, more efficiently, more cheaply, it makes it possible to hurt people faster, more efficiently, with less cost to themselves.  It removes any sense of direct responsibility for our behavior, for how what we do makes others feel.  With Facebook, you can act and be seen acting without ever having to look anyone who is watching you in the eye, or look at them at all."
("The Boy Kings, A Journey Into The Heart Of The Social Network", 2012, page 93)

The distortion reality field must be lost on some. That could explain why the 23-year-old female partner of the National University of Singapore (NUS) law scholarship holder claims she has no regrets about showing off her private poses to the gawkers at large. Boyfriend Tan went further to state that their erotic photos and videos going viral was "exciting". They may feel unharmed by the scandalous episode, but the law on pornography has a different perspective.

“NUS adopts a rigorous process in the selection of scholarship recipients and scholars are selected based on their academic achievements and personal accomplishments," the NUS spokesperson said. Note that personal indiscretion and public shame brought upon an esteemed institution doesn't seem to figure very highly on their radar. The university administration appears to be similarly divorced from reality, investing our taxpayers' bricks-and-mortar monies to sponsor the cyber hi-jinks of yet another amoral foreign talent.

The game changer could be another police report. Where is the grassroots leader always hankering for his 5 minute of fame when we need him most?
State sponsored scholarly pursuits

Friday, October 19, 2012

Greater Protection For Who?

"We are making amendments to the provisions.. that may be viewed as potentially discriminatory against disabled persons," said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in parliament. Until those amendments are in place, spouses, parents or guardians of persons with hereditary illnesses or mental disabilities can still have them sterilised like unwanted pet rabbits. Without legal consent.

Between 2003 and 2011, more than 27,900 people underwent voluntary sexual sterilization. How many were sterilised on medical or mental grounds, without their written consent, is not disclosed. Although persons who coerce or intimidate another person to undergo sexual sterilisation can be fined a maximum of $10,000 (up from $5,000 before), unauthorised disclosure of confidential information relating to such matters attract a maximum fine of $10,000 (up from $2,000) and/or maximum jail term of 12 months. With such a severe gag order, will the true picture of draconian measures undertaken ever be known?

The new amendments in mind are supposed to accord the affected person the same legal rights as those imposing the extreme procedures on them. If the person is deemed to lack mental capacity, the proposed changes give the court power to decide on behalf of the individual.  Bearing in mind the court also has the power to decide whether the individual is mentally capable in the first place, this smells like a catch-22 situation.

Opposition MP Sylvia Lim brought up another irksome matter: within our multi-racial and multi-cultural population are those whose religious convictions do not endorse sexual sterilisation for contraceptive purposes. Will they be over-ruled by the courts too? One Archbishop has been known to change his stance on a humanitarian issue after being invited out for lunch by a minister.

The Health Minister's response that "all relevant circumstances will also be explored" doesn't sound too assuring:
"As an additional safeguard, the spouse or parent or guardian will need to apply to the Court for an order to proceed. Similar to the Court's role under the MCA, the Court may then make an order declaring that the treatment is necessary in the best interests of the person. This application will need to be supported by a doctor's report stating that the person lacks mental capacity to give his or her own consent to the procedure, and that the procedure is necessary in the person's best interests."

We have already seen how a legal professional, waving a letter from a medical professional, march into a court house, and nearly declared an individual mentally incapacitated. More worrying, we have seen too many politicians exhibiting behaviors which bother on the bizarre- such as donning a cape and mask to ape a comic hero. Who's protecting us from them?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fact Checks

Have to admit it, the U.S. presidential election debate is so educational. Especially the "Fact Check" parts that talking heads indulge in immediately after the event. Whether you subscribe to the analysis or not, it still beats the lame official version of "factually yours" hands down.

The Amy Cheong affair was rehashed at a National University of Singapore forum on the Government's engagement of the public after last year's General Election.

The Claim:
That Ms Cheong had been "in a sense made a scapegoat" - as "some of our leaders have said worse things in the past". (Reform Party Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam)

The Counter Claim:
"But it's just that the way society is, you'll inevitably have tensions that pull us apart. So it's a work-in-progress and you have to just keep on working at it." (People's Action Party Member of Parliament Indranee Rajah)

The Facts:
Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had made insensitive comments about Malay Muslims previously. Last year, Mr Lee was quoted as saying Muslims integrated less easily here than other communities in his book "Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going". He later issued a statement saying his call was "out of date" and that he stood corrected. And his holier-than-thou views about "Race, Culture and Genes" extend beyond the bias towards a minority ethnic group:
"Look at the number of smart Teochews there are... just count them. Teo Chee Hean, Lim Hng Kiang, George Yeo, Lim Boon Heng. Is it a coincidence? In a Cabinet of 15, how do you explain that? For that matter, the Hakkas consider themselves very special too.
... You also have more Hakkas in the Cabinet than are represented in the population. They are supposed to be harder-working, tougher and therefore higher-achievers.  So there are these differences even within the races."
(LKY: The Man And His Ideas, 1998, page 173)

Another "I stand corrected" statement is in order now that George Yeo has come clean and confessed that, for the 23 years of his laid back political life, he was, and we quote him, just "in the flow, rather than trying to fight the flow".

Amazing, isn't it? How a presentation of information can cut through the fog of politics and the truth comes across clear as day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Move With The Flow

Tasting fresh raspberries from the vine for the first time at an Australian farm, the initial observation was that it was just like the ice cream  flavour. That's the problem of growing up in the cloistered cocoon of Singapore. Fortunately, international sales and marketing provided the opportunity to see and taste what the real world out there is like.

That's one reason why the U.S. presidential debate is so addictive. No topic is taboo, no stones unturned. When Obama and Romney faced off in town hall style for their second of three debates, the audience is not primed with die-hard grassroots supporters to favour the incumbent. The moderator Candy Crowley made it clear at the beginning that neither participant had prior knowledge of the questions asked. Our own prime minister won't even take questions from the press in his last official visit to New Zealand. Their PM John Key says it best, "It is Mr Lee's wish and is the nature of the Singapore system." Rumour has it that our local press are issued a prepared list when interviewing our ministers, maybe factually yours can clarify that tit-bit.

When 20-year-old college student Jeremy Epstein asked, “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?” he wasn't told "What do you think?" It all goes to show that those in our cabinet have it too easy for too long.

Ex-minister George Yeo's candid remarks with China Morning Post explain it too well. For 23 years of his political tenure, all he did was move with the flow. "If you want to fight the flow, you will be very tired," sounds mighty strange from an ex-general who was supposed to lead the fight into the enemy. It is stranger still from an ex-foreign minister who was expected to defend our sovereign rights in international affairs. No wonder, at the first taste of defeat at Aljunied, he turned tail and flew out in a hurry.

About the technical knock-out that made him face the harsh reality, Yeo said: "I thought if there was not something that I could change, because it was not something about me, maybe it was time to open a new chapter of my life." Let's hope the rest of his comrades still enjoying the ride will have the same sense knocked into their thick heads.
Sorry, you have to take the questions. This is not Singapore system.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Online Ranting

One week ago an ex-army officer from the general staff was first to snipe at an ex-assistant director of the NTUC staff for her erroneous accounting of nuptial arrangements at a void deck. The curious part to his Facebook post alludes to noise pollution broadcasted by a minority ethnic group. This can't be true, since their religious practices have always taken into account consideration for others in the community within hearing range. One scholarly website on the relevant subject, "Islam Q and A" , expresses this well:
Is it better for us to use the indoor loudspeakers for taraaweeh and tahajjud prayers, or to use the outdoor loudspeakers so that people in the streets and neighbouring houses can hear?

Praise be to Allaah.
Outdoor loudspeakers should not be used for the prayer, whether that is for taraaweeh, tahajjud or any other prayers such as Fajr, Maghrib and ‘Isha’, because that leads to many negative consequences and causes disturbance to the neighbours of the mosque.

Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen was asked:
In recent times it has become very common for the imams of mosques to use outdoor loudspeakers, which are usually placed in the minaret and the volume is set very high. By doing this, some mosques disturb one another in the prayers in which Qur’aan is recited out loud, by using these loudspeakers for the recitation. What is the ruling on using loudspeakers for the prayers in which Qur’aan is recited out loud when the sound from the minaret will disturb other mosques?

He replied:
What you have mentioned about using loudspeakers on the minaret for the prayers in which Qur’aan is recited out loud is something that is not allowed, because it causes a lot of disturbance for the people in houses and other mosques nearby. Imam Maalik (may Allaah have mercy on him) narrated in al-Muwatta’ (178), from Sharh al-Zarqaani in Baab al-‘Aml fi’l-Qiraa’ah (How Qur’aan is to be recited) from al-Bayaadi Farwah ibn ‘Amr – may Allaah be pleased with him – that the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) went out to the people when they were praying, and their voices were loud in recitation, and he said: “ A worshipper is conversing with his Lord, so let him think about the One with Whom he is conversing. Do not raise your voices above one another when reciting Qur’aan.” 

Maybe the brigadier general happened to have had a bad hair day at the keyboard. But something else must be amiss when Lee Bee Wah (member of parliament, Nee Soon GRC) made her own personal rant on her Facebook pages, “Can we use the strength and power of the 60% good Singaporeans and residents who do not litter to put pressure and change the bad habit of the other 40% litterbugs?”

That's not unlike Mitt Romney castigating the 47% who won't vote for him, ever. Even if Lee's 60/40 divide is not politically motivated as widely speculated online, do we need another excuse to test the delicate fabric of our multi-racial, multi-cultural milieu by introducing a new social division? This coming on top of the confabulation on xenophobia, brought about by a flawed immigration policy which challenges our limited living space and ill prepared infrastructure.

The last time Lee had to apologise in public (“I sincerely apologise for causing any grievances, any stress.”) was for having blown up in Beijing, ranting that table tennis team manager Antony Lee was responsible for a game loss and should be fired. Do you think she will ever make amends for branding Singapore as being made up of 40% litterbugs? Dream on.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Premiums and Deductibles Revised

In America, a man who saved his country (and the world) from a free fall into financial Armageddon, got rid of Bin Laden and gave new life to General Motors, may lose his job if his political opponent can convince the electorate that health care will cost more under his plan. Here in Disneyland with the Death Penalty, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong can hike the premiums for Medisave without giving a hoot.

The automatic deductions from your Central Provident Fund account will go up by $17 to $251 a year.  Deductibles will increase from $1,000 to $1,500 for C class and $1,500 to $2,000 for B2 and above. All because 43 people reached the lifetime limit of $200,000 last year, up from 11 people in 2010. Surely buying one less F15 fighter jet could have taken care of the needs of that extra draw down. And is the extra $700 million really needed for the Nanyang Technological University campus? For four new blocks of staff housing, new retail outlets, cafes and "shaded terraces and pergolas"?  Is Bertil Andersson running a school or swanky business enterprise?

There is no opt-out recourse if our senior citizens decide not to extend coverage up to age 90. The present maximum joining age of 75 is enough, thank you, since the premium for that category is already pretty hefty - especially when anyone with pre-existing ailments is excluded from coverage. Imagine, aged 75, and still ailment free. Put on the John Lennon cd.

The salt in the wound has to be the one-time top up to Medisave of between $50 and $400 for people on Medishield.  That's like gutting you with a butcher's knife and then comforting you with a 10 cent band-aid. That premium hike will last till age 90, and it probably won't be the last. They are counting on the 60.1 percent who can't do the math. Medishield covers 92 percent of the population. Even that is not sufficient for the greedy buggers, they want to capture the 1,700 people aged 86 to 90, each of which will have to cough up premiums of $1,190 a year. How sick can you get?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Technical Issues About Money

In April 2012. the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had restated Singapore’s fiscal data in the IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) database. The restatement increased the figure for the cumulative government surplus for the period 1990-2011 from $271bn as reported in the WEO database in September 2011 to $429bn.

So what were the "technical issues" (in IMF language) that resulted in a increase of the cumulative government surplus? "Factually yours" would like you to believe that the restatement of data in the WEO database was due to "technical errors".

There's no error. The IMF presentation format (Government Finance Statistics Manual - GFSM 2001) includes all receipts, including land sales proceeds, and total investment income.

The presentation format of the Government Budget is different, deviating even from the government finance data reported in the Yearbook of Statistics published by the Singapore Department of Statistics.

The official explanation per FAQ #8:
"1) The Overall Budget Balance excludes proceeds derived from the sale of land, as these are not available for spending and are part of Past Reserves. This is because the sale of land converts a land asset into a financial asset, with both comprising part of Past Reserves. To spend the financial proceeds from land sales will mean drawing down Past Reserves."

Moreover, only up to 50% of net investment returns on a real basis can be included in the Budget for spending by the Government, thanks to the Reserves Protection Framework in the Singapore Constitution. They are hence not included in the Government Budget, which provides the fiscal resources available to the Government to spend on public infrastructure, health care, social welfare, education, and the insatiable appetite of the war machinery.

In simple terms, not all of the profits harvested from property sales and investment of our CPF savings are distributed for the good of the people. That portion of the housing price tag attributed to "opportunity cost of land" is squirrelled away beyond touch. The acclaimed double-digit returns from CPF funds converted into "special securities" for investment deals translate to only 2% for the original owners. That how the math works in Singapore. Nobody outside a select coterie  is allowed to peek at the true picture of the reserves, save the President, that's the uncle in the family tree.

After it was announced that the economy shrank by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter, analysts said there was a good chance of Singapore entering a technical recession. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's solution hinted on Tuesday was that Q2 figures may be revised upwards into positive territory. See, they do it all the time. All done by restating numbers.

"I think that's another reason why we must keep our economy strong, because there's a very big impact on the mood of the people on the confidence of the population and of investors when they see an economy which is able to continue to make progress steadily." Technically that's as accurate as it gets. When the economy is down, the mood of the people tends to sour pretty quickly.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

New SMRT Spokesman

Train operator SMRT Corp's choice for a new spokesman is an Australian who is a permanent resident here. Stephen Forshaw, 42, was reported to be the spokesman for Singapore Airlines (SIA) between 2000 and 2009. Specifically, just months into the SIA job, we are told he had to deal with the SQ006 crash in Taipei on Oct 31, 2000 which killed 83 of the 179 people on board.

Immediately after the accident, a James Boyd was identified as the SIA spokesperson who told the Fox News Channel that no fatalities occurred in the crash. The airline subsequently had to revise that to state that fatalities had occurred.

John Diaz, a producer who has made more than 1,000 music videos and a passenger on the flight, was the one who pointed out the cover-up attempt and disputed the claim that there were no deaths. "There had to be fatalities," he said. Describing the crash, he said there was a loud bang. "And then there were flames just all over the place. Flames shot up right next to me and some some poor fellow not very far from me got I guess jet fuel splashed on him, because he just lit up like a torch."

William Dwan of Canyon Country called the airline's 1-800 number for information about his wife several times but that officials told him they would contact him when they knew more. "I feel very bad. I'm kind of upset," said Dwan, 45. "They should have told us something."

Briton PR Rick Clements was identified as the airline public affairs chief (last official title "Vice-President of Public Affairs", resigned Apr 2004) who said it was "a bit harsh" to say SIA had one of the world's worst safety records in recent times when the performance of its subsidiary SilkAir was also taken into account. A SilkAir flight crashed in Indonesia in 1997, killing all 104 on board.

What exactly was Forshaw doing when the heat was on in the aftermath of the SQ006 crash is unclear. But hopefully he won't take off for Australia in a jiffy like the NTUC foreign talent did, when the going gets tough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Amy's Story

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Some Peace And Quiet Please

The NTUC ad for a new Assistant Director (Service Quality), Membership, requires the candidate to be a person to "delight members, using all available Service Quality touchpoints – including (but not limited) to the Call Centre, Emails, Counters (physical and virtual), Social media".

Which means the former Assistant Director at NTUC Partnership and Alliance failed big time. Barely 24 hours had lapsed after her tactless Facebook posting, which hardly brought delight to members and non-members alike, when Secretary-General Lim Swee Say personally intervened and swiftly axed her to "reiterate that inclusiveness remains at the heart of the Labour Movement.” That was easy, she was small fry, kuching kurak.  Did we hear a single beep out of the legendary Zorro when someone insisted that a minority group should integrate over meals?

She tried to apologise in vain, even set up a Twitter account on the fly for damage control. But the witch hunters were bearing down in full force; even a gallant Zorro would have wet his under garments at the mere sight of the waving pitch forks and flaming torches. And there was the possibility that the tsunami of online vitriol was actually directed at NTUC as a proxy for failed government policies.

Which is really upsetting because a friend once told me how his egress route from his private estate was blocked because a funeral in progress had a stage erected right in front of the deceased's terrace house unit, instead of the vacant field nearby which other families normally used. The private roadway was good only for two passing cars, which meant he had to navigate precariously between the ostentatious display of wreaths and the tables and chairs arranged for visitors which took up one full lane. Hardly an auspicious way to start off each morning to his investment banking job. The irony was that the apologetic younger bereaved were Christians and did not really subscribe to the traditional ancestral worship rites. But he departed was super rich, which meant the elaborate ceremonies went on for five long days and nights of chants, gongs and other Chinese instruments, including the loud and ear piercing suona (唢呐).

The saving grace was that my friend was not into social media. He unloaded his expletive loaded frustrations onto sympathetic ears over a copious flow of kopi-si - hey, that's what friends are for. Sigh, whether one is rich or poor, whether you stay in a HDB flat or landed property, you can still be the irritant that gets someone's goat.

Monday, October 8, 2012

It's All About The Money

This is just one of many reasons why our own people are crowded out by the foreigners. The freaking planners actually set a target 10 years ago to attract 150,000 international students a year by 2015. If the children of expatriate parents who are enrolled in the foreign system schools such as United World College and Singapore American School, alma mater of brats  like Michael Fay, are included, the number is even higher. The vaunted justification was to "grow Singapore as a top education hub", as in make more money from collecting fees, not furthering the acquisition of knowledge and development from an educational process.

Recent figures from the Immigration & Checkpoint Authority (ICA) released indicate that the total currently enrolled in private and government-run schools, including polytechnic and universities, stand at 84,000. In 2008, the number was close to 100,000. The shortfall was attributed to stricter regulations and standards stipulated for private schools, and hefty hike in fees for foreigners. That plus the many complaints about limited places in the university being given away gratis to scum like Sun Xu, which forced many a struggling parent to make financial sacrifices, to the extreme of downgrading their accommodation, to afford their children an expensive education overseas. Places with entry requirement of a good pass in at least 4 ‘Advanced’ Level subjects or lower, without the caveat of "Admission is subject to competition". Especially competition from foreigners, like those farmed afar from mainland China at taxpayers' expense to dig spurs into our kids.

The Economic Development Board (EDB), the agency behind the education hub plan, would not confirm or deny  that the 2015 target would be put off, maintaining stubbornly instead that it "will continue to diversify Singapore's educational offerings, with an emphasis on building industry-relevant capabilities." Well, if the foreign students, at least the full fare paying kind, are tired of being ripped off, it appears they have a ready fallback plan. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said 1,7000 health care employees will be needed to staff the 10 new nursing homes due to be built by 2016. No way the GDP bonus will be compromised, if the young wise up to the educational hub scam, there's still the silver generation goldmine to skim off.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Rebranding Singapore

Who would have thought it, Yale and Singapore share a common ancestry. Ishaan Tharoor tells us (TIME, 15 Oct 2012, "Illiberal Arts") that an East India Company employee, Elihu Yale, donated the equivalent of £562 in kind to an obscure college in Connecticut to help build the school that now carries his name. The other East India Company employee more familiar to us, Sir Stamford Raffles, turned an idyllic fishing village into the metropolitan monstrosity that is uniquely Singapore. If you think that's a harsh descriptive, contemplate why the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) has gone ahead to spend big bucks on a worldwide tender (“Public Relations Plan to Enhance External Perceptions of Singapore”) for public relations companies to rebrand Singapore. The official excuse offered: the Lion City has gained a “reputation for being safe, clean, efficient and pro-business”, but there “still exist some misconceptions and a substantial lag between reality.”

We'll ignore for a moment the ugly rumours of financial shenanigans in the deal for Yale, the training ground of five U.S. presidents, destination of choice for aspiring political leaders and scions of influential industrialists. Yale is mired in controversy for compromising "the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students". The angry rhetoric refers to the admission of Pericles Lewis, first president of the Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) College, that students on the Singapore campus will not be able to stage political protests or form political parties. If it's an incubator of world class political minds you're after, head for New Haven, Connecticut.

Mr Jorg Dietzel, CEO of Jorg Dietzel Brand Consultants, who will probably be bidding for the juicy MICA tender, said common misconceptions of Singapore include how the country supposedly lacks freedom, and was boring and sterile. The exercise may prove to be an interesting experience, in the spirit of the rename Marina Bay effort. After wasting more taxpayers' monies, Singapore could be rebranded as ............ (drum roll) .............. Singapore!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Extreme Ethics Needed

Way, way, before Steve Wozniak designed and built the Apple II, he and the more famous Steve Jobs produced and sold a digital "Blue Box" that enables one to make free international calls over an ordinary telephone.

Wozniak got the idea from an article about "phone phreaks" in the Esquire magazine. What really appealed to him was not just the technology, but the part that talked about the ethics the guys supposedly had:
"That it wasn't just about free calls. One of the guys said he was basically trying to do a good thing by finding flaws in the system and letting the phone company know what they were."
("iWoz, Computer Geek to Cult Icon", Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith)

Not everyone appreciates hearing the bad stuff. NKF volunteer Archie Ong (1997) and aero-modelling instructor Piragasam Singaravelu (1998) were hauled to court for letting it be known the CEO had "squandered monies" by flying First Class. More recently, a blogger was nearly crucified for making mention of a letter of support an Archbishop had, on his own volition, transmitted to the organizers of a rally regarding the Internal Security Act (ISA). The head of the Catholic Church could have easily quelled the speculative fever by simply releasing the correspondence. If the message is wrong, surely he knows where the confession box is. The rest of us heathens can only wonder what other flaws in the system lay hidden.

Wozniak said his father believed in honesty. ("Extreme honesty. Extreme ethics, really"). He was told that it was worse to lie about doing something bad under oath than it was to actually do something bad, even like murdering someone. It must be tough to raise kids in our society when everybody makes a habit of stretching the truth - lawyers, law enforcers, physicians, plastic surgeons, academics, parliamentarians, ministers (men of the cloth as well as men-in-white). Anyone else we missed?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Unique No More

Second Minister (Trade and Industry) S Iswaran claims that extending the Formula 1 contract will bring S$1 billion worth of "additional value-add" for the economy over a 10-year period, betting all his poker chips "to keep innovating the night race to keep it unique". That's adjective for being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

According to the Bangkok Post English-language daily, Thailand's tourism and sports minister Chumpol Silpa-archa told AFP that its first Formula One race in 2014 is likely to be held at night as in Singapore. Apparently Thai officials had met with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone on the quiet late last month, when negotiations with Formula One's governing body, the FIA, were already more than halfway through.

That's the way the cookie crumbles
That explains Ecclestone's remark to The Telegraph, "The trouble is they've started something that's so popular worldwide that I'm sure other people are going to want to do this." The guy who sold the snake oil about the unique night race that "creates a glittering atmosphere that no other race circuit on the F1 calendar can provide" was making plans on the sly for Bangkok to be the next jewel in his crown. The slippery 81-year-old Nazi lover is not about to take the blame for knocking the wind out of Iswaran's uniqueness justification.

Iswaran had stressed that the government negotiations for the extension were about reducing costs through factors such as infrastructure, operational efficiencies in race organisation and revised terms with the race promoter and FOA. However he refused to reveal the concessions acceded, in particular the discount in franchise fees for the new contract, citing "commercial confidentiality". Obviously this is one government official who plays lip service to accountability and transparency.

Last year, officials behind the inaugural Indian Grand Prix told AFP it would take them four years to break even, leaving them only one year on their current contract to make a profit. It will be doubtful if our own officials can do better. Iswaran had claimed that the race was operating at roughly break-even cost, although there was "additional scope for savings". Without the numbers, the minister will never be able live down the fact that he has been weighed, has been measured, and has been found wanting.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Developments In Law

Just as there are those who buy Playboy magazine to read the articles, surely there must be some who are following the salacious revelations of the Central Narcotics Bureau chief's corruption trial for the fine points of law.

Lawyer for the defense sought to impeach the key prosecution witness over her inconsistencies in presenting testimony when impeachment is usually carried out by the prosecuting party, and "fairly rare" by a defence counsel. Latter observation was opined by Louis Joseph, a lawyer with L.F. Violet Netto. At risk for the hostile witness was liability for giving false statements to the police under Section 182 of the Penal Code, or committing perjury to the Court. There's one other issue at hand - providing self incriminating evidence under duress. Forget all the movies you have watched about the Miranda law - the warning given to criminal suspects in custody before they are interrogated to preserve the admissibility of their statements which are likely to be used against them in subsequent trial proceedings - inaccessibility to counsel during questioning must be one of those uniquely Singapore sacred elephants which won't ever be slayed.

Cullen Murphy's provocative book, "God's Jury, The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World", demonstrates that the medieval mindset of extracting information by men of the cloth such as Torquemada is very much still in play. From the archives of the Vatican to meticulous records of the Third Reich and the camps of Guantánamo, it is shown that the surveillance, censorship and “scientific” interrogation tools of the Inquisition may have been tweaked through the ages - and who would have thought the modern air conditioner would be so effective in the hands of the sadistic brutes at Whitley Road Detention Center? -  but the problematic result remains the same. Validity of a confession extracted under severe duress. Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.) defines duress as "any unlawful threat or coercion used... to induce another to act [or not act] in a manner [they] otherwise would not [or would]".

The book goes into excruciating detail about how human anatomy is painfully deconstructed by ropes and pulleys on the rack, how death at the burning stake is concluded mostly by asphyxiation rather than the licking of the flames. The horrible endings followed a meandered system of injustice, reminding us the making of the present may bring about equally ugly consequences. Will the law be mocked? The jury is out on this, and we don't even have a jury system to speak of.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Your Entitlement

The English version of the 4-language advertorial goes like this:
"We have a lively community in Northwest District where there is plenty for residents to do to keep fit or have fun and make new friends. Whether you are young or old, there is a whole host of activities you can join.
The most popular activity in the district is brisk walking.  Although we have been promoting brisk walking for around 10 years, interest remains strong was we constantly plan novel activities. We have 135 Brisk Walking Clubs in the District with 56,000 members.  Recently, we held our first Brisk Walking Festival where we organized 110 thematic walks taking members all over Singapore, including to the newly-opened Gardens by the Bay."

Naturally most of the participants could ill afford the $2,000+ digital SLR Mayor Teo Ho Pin was having fun with in the illustration for the Sept-Nov 2012 issue of North West Cohesion magazine article. Brisk walking is all they can do, since BATA (Buy And Throw Away) still makes cheap knock-offs of branded foot wear. They may offer you free porridge, but definitely not an ergonomically correct pair of shoes from Nike. That will call for a hike in GST. The Member of Parliament (MP) may get extra for the mayoral boon dongle, on top of his S$192,500 per year tax free MP allowance, but that's for his personal entitlement.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the "The Australian" that Singaporeans think their government is "not poor" and as such, expect the government to do more for them. Specifically, he said Singaporeans will get help, but the help is not something they are absolutely entitled to.

You think the 100+ new facilities to be built for the elderly are actually constructed because "we will be a society that embraces ageing and our seniors with a big and loving heart", as Health Minister Gan Kim Yong hopefully expressed at the Man Fu Tong Nursing Home mid-Autumn Festival celebration?  Think again.  A bed in those nursing homes will set you back $1,600 to $2,000 each month. If you looking for a government subsidy, grandma will have to be in category 4 or worse - can't walk, feed or wash herself.  Like those grandiose education hub, medical hub, IT hub schemes, the whole senior care master plan is just another money making, GDP growth boosting, profit driven venture. Nothing is sacred, the silver haired generation is just another piggy bank to help themselves to.