Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Crack In The System

The proverb, "A new broom sweeps clean", was intended to suggest that someone who is new in a particular job will do a very good job at first, to prove how competent he or she is. Too bad it doesn't seem to apply to the new army chief paid millions to run the train system. For starters, he didn't even bother to abbreviate his holiday plans when the rail system fell short again during his honeymoon period.

Neither, it seems, does it bother his buddy officers from the armed forces who signed on with the gravy train. The metallurgical crack in the rail was detected as early as 7.30 pm, but 4 hours later, the SMRT spokesman (probably one of those army guys) would only say, "We are still trying to find out more about what happened." Worse, the lame SMRT twit who tweeted at 8.30 pm, "unfortunately sometimes there are machine faults that we do not expect," failed to comprehend that a static steel rail lying on the ground is definitely not a moving machine component. Seng Han Tong, who drew lots of flak for criticising the English spoken by Malay and Indian SMRT staff, had apologised by saying that bad English should not prevent people from trying to communicate, especially in times of emergency. But that's no excuse for one of Lieutenant General Demond Kuek's expensive hires.

A cracked rail can throw a train, as in the Leeds to London derailment of October 2000 that killed 4 and injured 30. An expert at the Committee of Inquiry commissioned by the Government had actually warned that a faulty track could cause trains to derail. That real-world rail operators paid more attention to flaws on the tracks than power supply systems.

Flaws like the falling e-clips which were first reported at Commonwealth Avenue West, near the junction of Clementi Avenue 3, in February 2012. An LTA spokesman said at that time: "We have met with the engineers and maintenance staff from SMRT to discuss the measures to be implemented following these incidents. SMRT will be putting up temporary safety nets at the two stretches of the viaduct between Dover and Jurong East with immediate effect." Those disembarking at the Clementi Station will be able to verify that the "temporary safety nets" are still very much in place.

The humble e-clips are responsible for fastening the rail to the base plate so the rail cannot move vertically or horizontally. If the rail is permitted to slide through the plates then compressive or tensile forces build up to either cause a pull-apart (rail break) or a track buckle, which causes derailments. That's when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dialogue — The Speech of Fiction

We have had enough of bad dialogue. Enough of those politically correct utterances from staged puppets, spouting verbiage that no one is allowed to challenge without the consequence of a lawyer's letter of demand in the mail. Come on, who in real life lets another person spout off without interruption, especially when debating points he or she doesn’t agree with? It's only natural there’s a response if the parties agree and an even stronger response when the parties are in opposition. Anything else, it's plain wayang.

The task of dialogue does have responsibilities. Dialogue is supposed to:

Advance the plot
Dialogue can and should both direct and change the course of a storyline. A simple revelation, like how much does it really cost to build a HDB flat, will soothe the skeptics about the affordability of public housing. To suggest that the housing authority actually incurs financial losses, like the fairy tale of the $8 open heart surgery, merely stresses the plot and prolongs the agony of the spin.

Reveal character
Dialogue cannot be bland. Characters in play should not speak in dour, colourless monotone, unless you plan a career in announcing electoral results with a robotic voice. The absence of emotional engagement when addressing the concerns of a worried generation says a lot about the sincerity of the speaker. Just avoid rabble rousing theatrics like prompting the audience to assent with a "keechiu!"

Create or increase conflict
Dialogue should shake up the status quo, not prolong the perpetuity of the ongoing injustices. The misunderstanding of multifarious parties in contention — either by accident or deliberate ploy - is only evil when by promoted by participants with separate agendas, pursuing those agendas at the expense of others. Even the authorities have issued a statement declaring that if insensitive comments are made in the heat of the moment, or by relatively immature persons who did not know better, after the investigations uncover, “a more nuanced response may follow” by the police in handling the matter.

Break up passages of action or inaction
Like fiction in a novel, too much of any element is simply too much. The audience need a break from the drone of the official spiel; repetition ad nauseam - "we are on your side" - can only put one to sleep; exposition without pause is merely regurgitation of propaganda; and constant dialogue, as would constant conversation in real life, annoys people to no end and drives them to alternative platforms like the May Day gathering.

One of the answers to the Shell Thought Leadership Question "How can a meaningful dialogue between the Government and the people be sustained" suggest that dialogue sessions should not be restricted to just "politically correct" opinions and views, and the people should be given the right to challenge the Government (Student, Tampines JC, 430 Votes). The student may wish to add a disclaimer about personal views and partisan parlance, even though that declaration may afford scant protection from whispering ministers.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The King Is Not Amused

The concept of Lèse-majesté (French, from the Latin laesa maiestas, "injured majesty") as a criminal offence goes all the way back to ancient Rome and was zealously guarded by absolute monarchs in medieval Europe. Various real crimes were also classified as lese-majesty even though they were not intentionally directed against the crown, such as counterfeiting (because coins bear the monarch's effigy and/or coat of arms). By analogy, as modern times saw banana (or mango, depending on your preference of fruit) republics emerging as first world countries, a similar crime may be constituted, though not under this name, by any offence against the highest representatives of any state. In particular, similar acts against heads of today's totalitarian dictatorships are very likely to result in prosecution.

Current instances of lese-majeste application crop up periodically in Europe, Middle East, Asia and Thailand. In the Indian Ocean state of the Maldives, 3 journalists were sentenced to life in 2002 for "insulting the president" and setting up a newsletter critical of the government. In October 2006, a Polish man was arrested in Warsaw after expressing his dissatisfaction with the leadership of Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński by passing gas loudly. An Egyptian court sentenced blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman in February 2007 to 4 years in prison for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. Swiss national Oliver Jufer, who admitted to spray-painting several portraits of the Thai king during a drunken spree in Chiang Mai, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March 2007. He received a royal pardon subsequently and was promptly deported.

Prof Ronald Hutton of Bristol University opined on the travesty: "It was the idea that being rude about a government was a very bad idea - it hurt the government but was technically not treason because no act of rebellion was committed." But it was King Henry VIII (1491-1547) who first took personal injury one step further by passing an act which made speaking against the king treason in itself so "lese-majeste" became redundant.

Interestingly, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s longest-reigning monarch, may be growing tiresome of strict applications of the law. "Actually, I must also be criticized," he said in 2005. "If someone offers criticisms suggesting that the King is wrong, then I would like to be informed of their opinion. If I am not, that could be problematic... If we hold that the King cannot be criticised or violated, then the King ends up in a difficult situation." Someone else (not of blue blood) said as much decades ago, "I don't think I worry too much about what people think... In fact, criticism or general debunking even stimulates me because I think it is foolish not to have your people read you being made fun of. And we have got books circulating in Singapore written specially for this purpose by foreigners." (LKY to New Zealand academics and journalists in Christchurch on April 15, 1975)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Guided Democracy In Play

Contemporary conceptualizations of the public sphere are based on the ideas expressed in Jürgen Habermas' book "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere". Broadly speaking, the public sphere encompasses the processes involved in political communication and the sites where the processes take place (the media, civil organisations, etc). According to democracy theorist Robert Dahl, there is an expectation that the political preferences expressed in a democratic sphere are "freely formed". That is, if we subscribe to the definition of democracy as a political system that allows political talk to take place in a relatively untrammeled way, where civil liberties provide people with the ability to express views that run contrary to the current flavour of the incumbent government.

Yaacob Ibrahim gave a clue why Nizam Ismail had to go when he said money given to Malay Muslim organisations must be used to help the community, not "creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics." The Minister obviously does not subscribe to the belief that listening to diverse views, even critical and dissenting ones, is one of the processes of helping the community, one of the vaunted objectives of the ongoing National Conversation.

The chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), Azmoon Ahmad, had advised Nizam to part ways after separate phone calls from two Ministers (guess who?) took issue with some online comments, speaking at the Hong Lim Park, and participation in a public forum. Azmoon had to act, "Otherwise, the Government will withdraw all funding from AMP." Money may not buy happiness, but it sure does ensure compliance.

Nizam was aghast that activities in his private personal capacity was commingled with community services in his public capacity as an AMP/RIMA director. Community services which stand to benefit thousands – be they low-income families, youths at risk, students. Nizam is also leaving Suara Musyawarah, a feedback panel for the Malay-Muslim community. You would too, if feedback is commingled with kickbacks.

The other news worthy item in the public sphere is the arrest of a cartoonist for sedition, the offending copy being “Malay population… Deliberately suppressed by a racist government.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unpleasant Reminders

The counter for the mobile phone repair center was manned by Burmese, all of them. It was a golden opportunity to ask why the locals we came across in a recent trip to Rangoon were decorated with a yellow paste, like the red dot our own Indians adorn for ceremonial purposes. But the ladies didn't care to explain, and we didn't want to be insensitive about cultural practices.

Google provided some clues, but the enlightenment came from Zoyan Phan, author of "Undaunted".The tha na kah is a traditional face cream made from the bark of the tha maw glay, the tamarind tree. Her mother  would rub a length of the bark over a smooth stone, adding water simultaneously to dissolve the bark into a yellow paste. Besides acting as a natural sunblock, tha na kah is also applied to cheeks, arms and legs to keep cool in the hot season.

Zoya's book isn't just about beauty treatments. Her story is about the Karen tribe displaced by "the most brutal dictatorship in the world". She spent her childhood dodging live bullets and bombs, and managed to escape the hovel of the refugee camps in Thailand to earn an MA at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Her father was assassinated in 2008 by agents of the Burmese regime, and Zoya was also on the hit list. After the world recoiled in the horror of the 2007 "Saffron Revolution", she actually spoke with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, asking him to introduce targeted economic sanctions that would stop money  from going to the generals. Money that was helping to pay for the bullets used against the monks on the streets of Rangoon. And the first class treatment of generals coming here as medical tourists to perpetuate the longevity of their dictatorship.

We don't know about the personal stories of the Burmese nationals fleeced by the "freelance recruiters", except that the first four months of their salaries are deducted for "recruitment fees", essentially making them slaves for the first period of their stay in Singapore. The practice is not unique to Burmese of course; Sri Lankans, Indonesians and Filipinos have also been exploited. It is easy to be inured to the unpleasantness of humanitarian rights abuses - until the day "our women will become maids in other people's countries, foreign workers". That's the outcome Lee Kuan Yew predicted for "a really a good dose of incompetent government." (LKY justifying million-dollar pay hike for Singapore ministers, Straits Times, 5 April 2007)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Not All Flies Are Treated Equal

“There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies,” Deng Xiaoping once proclaimed in defence of his reformist vision, adding, "If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in."

Deng's context for the quote was that as China pursues growing wealth, increasing per capita incomes, and rising living standards for her people, it will also expect environmental degradation and a host of social ills including political unrest, increased crime, and a fraying social safety net.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam seemed to be defending not the nation, but a select coterie of the rich and ostentatious when he paraphrased Deng thus: "if we leave our windows open, you get insects flying in. Some would have a lot of bling and colour, but that’s what happens when your windows are open." It would seem, unlike Deng, Tharman welcomes those insects with open arms. Never mind if some of them are fleeing the dragnet of the  International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which has a cache of 2.5 million files threatening the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and the mega-rich the world over.

The secret records obtained by ICIJ provide facts and figures — cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals — that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe to offshore hideaways like British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and (...drum roll...) Singapore.

Offshore patrons identified in the documents include Indonesian billionaires with ties to the late dictator Suharto who enriched a circle of elites during his decades in power. Thai official and former cabinet minister for Prime Minister Yingluck, Nalinee “Joy” Taveesin, who used Singapore-based TrustNet to set up a secret company.  And there's Maria Imelda Marcos Manotoc, eldest daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and beneficiary of a British Virgin Islands (BVI) trust which may or may not be part of the estimated $5 billion her father amassed through corruption.

When the state media initially reported on Chinese national Ma Chi's spectacular traffic accident, they dwelt mostly on his $3 million condominium in the East Coast, $400,000 BMW and the fact the speeding Ferrari was a $1.8 million limited edition car. Not how the  "tall, capable, young and handsome tycoon who arrived from Sichuan province a few years ago" made his money. Tharman may promise to "try our best to keep a culture that is not one based on excesses but is one based on responsibility” but that sounds awfully like locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Monday, April 22, 2013

We Don't Need This

These are not the bullet points you like to see in a Powerpoint presentation. A Singapore Business reminded us of 8 facts about Singapore's housing and transport woes:

1 Singaporeans are experiencing greater pressure in the arenas of housing and transportation, as population density rose 20% from 2001 to 2011.
2 Commuting congestion generates stress.
3 Increasing transport cost raises cost of living.
Low accessibility among the low income.
The growth rate of housing prices is outstripping that of monthly incomes.
6 Resale flats are not accessible to the bottom 20% of young home buyers.
7 Erosion of long-term housing affordability.
8 Homelessness on the rise.

Observations about points 7 and 8 warrant further elucidation.
The official position is that housing is considered affordable if mortgages do not eat up more than 30% of income. The Housing Development Board (HDB) tracks housing affordability using the debt servicing ratio (DSR), the ratio of monthly household income to monthly housing instalments. This is a ticking time bomb as it is premised on 30-year loan repayment periods and present low interest rates. Even if rates can be artificially maintained at historic lows, it remains that 30 years of one's working life is encumbered with servicing a debt.  HDB reports that the DSR rose from 18% in 2007 to 24% in 2011. Data for 2013 not disclosed.

When Kishore Mahbubani was Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations, he boasted before the world, "There are no homeless, destitute or starving people [in Singapore]…Poverty has been eradicated." According to the Singapore Social Health Project 2013, and similar reports from  Manulife Asset Management, the number of persons and families identified to be in need of shelter more than doubled from 2007 to 2010. Manulife’s analysis shows that the mere accumulation of wealth is insufficient to ensure income security in retirement, especially when the wealth is vested in concrete structures priced at arbitrary market values. The poor, it seems, will be with us always.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Indian Giver

The "permanent" exhibition of  segments of the Berlin Wall 

The 5m long section of the Berlin wall, comprising slabs 251-254, was supposed to be on indefinite loan from American art lover and oil industry veteran Robert A. Hefner III, 78, and his Singapore-born wife Mei Li. On that understanding, presumably conveyed to the National Parks Board (NParks) by their good friend and former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, $2 million was spent to construct a 1400 sq m custom built glass, steel and concrete facility at the eastern bank of Bedok Reservoir Park.

After all the fanfare of the unveiling in January 2010, the Hefners now plan to move the concrete slabs back to the United States by the end of this year, to display at one of their many properties.

George Yeo himself has moved to Hong Kong to work for his new paymasters in Kerry Logistics Network. It is not known if the logistics company has been engaged for the shipment back to its original home in Oklahoma City. Also not known is whether the decision is related to a quid pro quo for the loss in Aljunied.

Then again German graffiti artist Dennis Kaun may have been scared off by the local laws about defacing wall structures. The four panels of the original drab concrete Berlin Wall are spray painted, depicting a colourful, joyful king representing West Germany (good guy) and a pale, blindfolded one who is oblivious to the wishes of his people, signifying East Germany (bad guy). Depending on the flow of politics, some thin skinned party may sue for defamation in the unforeseeable future.

NParks is on the look out for objects of interest to fill the enclosure. Now that Brompton Bikes has opened office in Singapore, they may be interested to exhibit their product range there. But then again, NParks may not wish to be reminded of that object of interest.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Letting Go

More horrifying than the ghastly pictures of the victims of the Boston pressure cooker bomb blast, must be this AP photo of a crowd celebrating a politician's passing.

On 3 May 1989 Margaret Thatcher had already chalked up ten years as Prime Minister. Sixteen months earlier, on 3 January 1988, she had already become the longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. (John Campbell, "The Iron Lady")

Several of her senior colleagues, even as they applauded her achievement, felt she should have chosen the moment to announce she would step down soon, when she could still have gone out in triumph. Even her husband, Denis, briefly thought he had convinced her not to stand for another election. He did not force the issue, but he had seen enough of politics to suspect  that she would be hurt in the end if she stayed too long.

Thatcher was commenting on the fall of the Berlin Wall when she uttered the following words, but they could have easily been applied to human barriers too:
"The day comes when the anger and frustrations of the people is so great that force cannot contain it. Then the edifice cracks: the mortar crumbles...  One day, liberty will dawn on the other side of the wall."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Curious Case Of Mr Dorsey

He was no run-of-the-mill keyboard warrior blogger. Mr James Dorsey was a veteran journalist and freelance writer before appointed senior fellow at National Technological University (NTU)'s School of International Studies.

His blog post in July 2012 made mention of a rights agreement between Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and an associate of World Sports Group (WSG) which the Singapore based WSG has alleged to be defamatory. WSG's lawyers claim the information referred to was confidential and demanded for disclosure of the source.

Dorsey's position is that he is entitled to protect his sources as matter of principle as a journalist and produced a copy of the Singapore National Union of Journalists' Code of Professional Conduct to support his argument.

But judge Judith Prakash ruled that Dorsey was not a journalist at the time of posting but an employee of NTU. "In any event," she said, "there is no newspaper rule in Singapore that operates to protect a journalist's sources from being disclosed. Instead, the court adopts a balancing-of-interests approach." We saw how this "balancing-of-interests" approach was acted out when the challenge to the constitutionality of Section 377A was dismissed recently. In his 92-page judgment, Justice Quentin Loh had said that in Singapore's legal system, whether a social norm that has "yet to gain currency" should be discarded or retained is decided by Parliament. In other words, Parliament 1, Courts 0.

Watergate's follow-the-money team, Woodward and Bernstein, would have been easily stonewalled in  Singapore. No wonder Bromptongate had to be cracked by netizens, not our poor hamstrung mainstream journalists. Don't expect them to come through with similar journalistic revelations for AIMgate.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Party Goes On

It's enough to make you do a double take. It is reported that Robert Prior-Wandesforde, director of Asian economies at Credit Suisse, actually said: "Singapore clearly remains the sick man of Asia... the economy continues to struggle badly."

How can that be? We are buying the pricey F-35 Lightning while our neighbours have to contend with the F-18 Hornet. Never mind if the $237-million (latest price estimate) F-35 has been banned from traveling within 25 miles of a thunderstorm, amid fears that lightning could cause its fuel tank to explode. Like those designer handbags, it's always the price tag that is the bragging factor.

And in spite of the umpteen rounds of cooling measures, the property market is doing just fine, thank you. New private home sales just chalked up an all-time high, the highest monthly sales volume since the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) began publishing monthly data in 2007. The total of 2,793 units sold beats the previous record of 2,772 in July 2009. Quite naturally, critics of Minister Khaw Boon Wan will claim he was never serious in addressing the bubble in the housing market. He was probably more concerned about losing the votes of those who had swallowed the asset enhancement poison pill, still waiting to cash in on their investment.

Even the used car sales dealers have much to cheer. Just when you thought the traffic situation will improve after the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) introduced the loan curbs in February, the congestion is back. Thanks to the 2,500 used cars which are put back on the road. That's the number Singapore Vehicle Traders Association estimates have been sold after somebody with influence arm twisted MAS into relinquishing the borrowing limits for second-hand vehicles in that were in stock before February 25, the date when the new loan limits were imposed. Some 7,000 will qualify for full loans, thanks to the 60 day reprieve afforded by MAS. The policies to reduce vehicles on the road will have to take a step back, since business volume is always top priority in our culture of greed.

Ours is a place where a void deck, the empty space nobody wants a flat to be built in, can actually be marketed for $50,000 a month. The operator who rented the site above a multi-storey car park used the excuse to charge $1,777 for a place in her child care centre. Maybe the economist was right after all, only the sick can exploit the struggling masses to such an extent.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Disgraceful Episode

The first registration exercise for Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergartens was met with a curious response. Over 196 applications were received for a total of 240 places, while at Dazhong there were only only 56 applications — less than half of the 120 places available. Soon members of parliament were mobilised to enter the heartlands for the hard sell.

School fees were set at $150 per month for locals and $300 for permanent residents. Families with a gross monthly household income not exceeding $3,500 or per capita income not exceeding $875 are entitled to subsidies, which could reduce the fee to as low as $10 (Gross monthly income < $2000, gross per capita income < $500). That level of subsidy we wish could be made available for public housing, not the arbitrary link/delink roulette in the spin.

Perhaps the lukewarm response could be attributable to horrible memories of the past. In April 2008, some 1,500 students attending 7 PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergartens in Woodlands saw their fees shoot up by 30 to 100 per cent.

Woodlands kindergartens in Blk 601 and Blk 875 hiked monthly fees from $50.90 to $110 per child because they will be air-conditioned. Air-conditioned kindergartens in blocks 899B, 652 and 824 increased fees from $86.60 to $110, while non-air-conditioned ones in blocks 624B and 853 ramped up from $50.90 to $95.

In less than 5 years from 2006 to 2011, PAP kindergarten prices had jumped 4 times. In 2006, the monthly fee was only $30.50, then in 2007 it went up to $50.60. Then in 1 July 2008, it was $95 a month. Then in 2010, it was $120 a month. Minister Grace Fu then defended the 20% price raise in 2011, saying the price "was lower than many operators".

Now we know there was a system then of awarding sites in Housing Board estates to private pre-school operators based solely on the highest bid. Naturally the operators passed on the increased costs to parents by raising fees. And thus culminating in the disgraceful practice of hiking PAP kindergarten prices because they were "lower than many operators". Now, that looks awfully similar to the pegged-to-private-sector formula that guarantees riches for a select few.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Perils Of Staying On State Land

Presumably not a candidate for World Heritage Site
When residents living on idyllic Pulau Ubin received a letter informing them that their homes are slated for "clearance", what else could they think of except that another land grabbing exercise is in the offing? The letter from the Housing Board document even spelt out that officers will be visiting their premises to conduct a "census survey" and determine their "eligibility of resettlement benefits". At least they are rendered compensation courtesies denied the residents of Bukit Brown.

As soon as the news hit the airwaves, the Ministry of National Development and the Singapore Land Authority quickly issued a joint statement on the same Friday the story broke. This time the government is saying the residents on Pulau Ubin will not be evicted and there are no plans to develop a new adventure park on the island. However, if affected residents do decide to remain in their homes, they will have to pay rent from now on because they are staying on state land.

So if the residents who have not been paying rent all these peaceful years, stand firm and refuse to do so in future, will they be evicted? Or will they be "formally escorted" by the Singapore Police Force to new accommodation in Changi?

It seems the word "eviction" has acquired the same odiferous distinction as "strike". Once again, a spade is not allowed to be called a spade. It is quite obvious that the Housing Development Board, the Ministry of National Development and the Singapore Land Authority don't share the same dictionary. Either that or the top civil servants in those departments are having their own turf wars, in the rivalry spirit of the SCDF, CNB and SPF.

The agencies "clarified" that the notices given to 22 households in March were a follow-up from a previous exercise. Problem is the previous exercise inferred to is a projected mentioned in 1922. Back then, it was reported that the Government would acquire 254 ha of the private land on Pulau Ubin within the following year, partly to create an adventure park. Will the residents staying on state land have to back pay the rent for the years 1922 to 2013? Maybe another government can come up with a clarification about the clarification. One thing's crystal clear, when there's money to be collected, these guys have elephantine memories.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Emptying The Showrooms

In retrospect, it was so easy to bring car prices down.

All the Minister had to do was change the rules for car financing and make some adjustment in taxes in February, and the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) for cars above 1,600cc plummeted from $92,667 to $58,090.

Then, even the resale market was hurt, and the Minister decided to relax the pruning measures to give the dealers some breathing space. Whoever made the representation for their case must be well connected in the grassroots organisations.

Back in December 2012, small car COEs shot up as high as $82,000. Open COEs hovered at the astronomical heights of $95,000. Some said that’s enough to buy a small island in Greece -  or even Greece itself, given the precarious financial standing of the beleaguered country at that time.

Of course we know how the motor madness was incubated. First, the government announced that the car quota was going to shrink, while it was boosting population import numbers on the quiet. Then there was the red carpet welcome for the big rollers, guys who can afford to buy three or four cars. These are probably the same guys who put 449 Ferraris on the road in Singapore (up from 142 in 2001), while the Maserati fleet has grown from 24 to 469 in the same period. To them the COE must be just the cost of a speeding ticket.

So while the car dealers and the tax collectors were smiling all the way to the bank, the rest of us poor folks were herded to the flakey train and bus services. The more desperate simply jumped into the tracks.

The clue for the turn of events has to lie in this statement: "The expectation is that COE premiums will soften, so no dealer will bid aggressively in case it affects his margin". So spare no pity for those manning the car showrooms. The day of reckoning cometh, Singaporeans have woken up to the conspiracy. Next step, say no to the COV.
Making the system work for you

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Joys Of Public Service

Why are the salaries of public servants not made more public? That must be the question on every body's mind when Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, concurrently the the Minister in charge of the Civil Service,  sailed forth on the latest revelations about how the top dogs in the civil service are compensated for their sacrifices.

Teo would only divulge that the pension system is about to be replaced with a long-term retention package effective July 1. And all the while we thought the Ministerial Salary Review Committee (MSRC) headed by Gerard Ee in 2012 had already done away with this boondoggle. The Attorney-General, Auditor-General and the chairman of the Public Service Commission even have a special deal, something called a "gratuity plan". This is not to be confused with the alleged gratification derived by certain top civil servants in SCDF and CNB in parked automobiles. The water gets murkier when Teo said the retention and gratuity plan are "in line with talent retention practices in the private sector and parts of the public sector".  Is he referring to sign-on bonuses and golden parachutes? Without detailed inputs, one's imagination can only run wild.

We also get to know that although the MSRC had done away with the GDP bonus in the 2012 recommendations, members of the "elite Administrative Service" were still enjoying the perk. It suddenly makes sense why the statistics are adjusted each time we are supposed to be heading for a technical recession.  There's money to be made from them charts.

Teo claims that "The most important motivation for a person to stay in the public service is that he gets happiness out of other people's happiness". He must be referring to Goh Chok Tong's thesis of "net happiness", as there must be lots of unhappy people out there when they find out how the pockets are lined.

One last question from a curious mind: When Yam Ah Mee retired again (he first retired as Brigadier-General to join the Civil Service in 1998) to be the Managing Director of Sembcorp Design and Construction on April 16, is he entitled to full pension from the Civil Service? What do you think?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Tragic Send Off

Having watched Meryl Streep's Oscar deserving “uncanny impersonation” of the woman who was elected to 3 terms as Britain’s first female prime minister, it was natural to want to read the book of the same name as the movie. It was sheer coincidence one copy of "The Iron Lady" was available for loan on the National Library shelf on the very day she passed on, at age 87 years.

World leaders like Obama paid tribute to Margaret Thatcher on Monday, reminding us that "she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can't be shattered." Streep said her subject had been a pioneer – "willingly or unwillingly" – for the role of women in politics, allowing females from across the globe to dare to dream of leadership. Thatcher expressed her resolve in her own pugnacious parlance, "We must show men that we’re better than they are."

With such provocative conviction, she must have garnered her share of detractors. And they did not mask their vitriol. In the London neighbourhood of Brixton, people toasted her passing by drinking and dancing to hip-hop and reggae songs blaring from boom boxes. "I'm very, very pleased. She did so much damage to this country," volunteered one. In Scotland's biggest city of Glasgow, some shouted, "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie" as the crowd responded, "dead, dead, dead". Socialist Angela McCormick explains: "I'm here for a generation that didn't have a future when they left school and didn't have jobs. I'm here for the members of my family who have been devastated by the economic policies or the economic crimes of Margaret Thatcher." The hero of the Falklands War was also labelled "extraordinary but heartless", accused of festering inequality through a "culture of greed". In defence of her intolerance and imperium, apologists claim it is impossible to achieve change without anguish.

Thatcher was not the only politician who insisted that she did not care about her poll ratings, pointing always instead to her unbeaten election record. “I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls,” Lee Kuan Yew once said, echoing a sentiment that he has conveyed throughout his career.  “I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.”

Lee’s policies have elicited great criticism over the decades. While some may hail him as a visionary, others denounce him as authoritarian, fascist, or worse. Let's take a leaf from the Guardian report on the polarisation about Thatcher's demise: "How should we honour her? Let's privatize her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It's what she would have wanted."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

It's Still A Debt

Someone tried to explain why Singapore has a public debt equivalent to 105 percent of its GDP, the 14th highest in the world.(2012 estimates: 111.40 percent, 13th highest, CIA World Factbook)

The illustration used was, two guys borrowing $1 million each. One has zero bank balance, the second has another $1 million to his name. First guy has net debt of $1 million, second guy has net debt of $0, even though he has a gross debt of $1 million. Both guys are betting they can secure higher returns from the open market than their borrowing cost. And both guys are exposed to the same financial risks.

The second fella is similar to the investment entities of Singapore, namely Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), Temasek Holdings, and the like (there must be more than one $2 company out there somewhere). The sleight of hand here is the Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS), a special bond unique to this country. A bond is a promissory note that an issuer undertakes to repay at a due date with a stipulated interest rate. Simply stated, money is taken from the hard earned savings of Singaporeans lodged in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) account to play in the financial markets. The irony not missed here is that the justification for withholding a Minimum Sum in CPF is to ensure senior citizens won't gamble it all away.

The Finance Ministry boasts: "The investment returns are more than sufficient to cover the debt servicing costs." Since the people are seeing only a pathetic 2.5 to 4.00 percent return on their own monies, they had better make sure they deliver on the promise. Never mind if Christopher Balding has the charts to show that, no way, Jose, has Temasek ever achieved the double digit returns they crowed about. 

Balding also points out that should GIC and Temasek fare poorly or collapse, the Singaporean tax payer will end up with the cost of guaranteeing the CPF. Should GIC/Temasek end up in a position not being able to pay back the debt, the government will simply raise taxes on the CPF holder, asking him to subsidize the losses incurred by Temasek/GIC. Ever wonder why costs for government and government related services keep going up even though productivity and innovation in the public sector are heading in the opposite direction?

The second guy in the above example will still lose his shirt when the weather turns if his $1 million was secured as collateral for the loan, no matter if his debt is designated net or gross. GIC/Temasek should be made accountable for their own gambling debts. Like the spectacular blow-out at middle-income housing projects Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village: "The government of Singapore, well, they lost the most — over US$600 million. It all just went poof.” (Charles Bagli, "Other People’s Money").

Monday, April 8, 2013

More Waste Of Time

In the above scene from "Zero Dark Thirty" CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) wrote on the glass partition the number of days elapsed since the Osama hide-away in Abbottabad was found. She's hopping mad no action plan had yet to materialise.

Certainly more than 21 days have gone by since Lee Hsien Loong called for a Ministry of National Development (MND) inquiry in January on the problematic Action Information Management (AIM) saga. The inactivity only prompts others to ask more basic questions like: “As AIM is a company that was set up by members of the PAP, is it in the public interest to task a Ministry that is headed by the chairman of the PAP to assess the integrity of its transactions?”

If you go further back to the December note by Teo Ho Pin on the sorry episode, more time have been wasted. Enough time for characters involved to cover their tracks. People like the high achiever (Deputy Director, Enterprise Software Group of NCS Pte Ltd) who used to boast in his LinkedIn CV that the deal with Chandra Das' $2 outfit amounted to as much as $30 million from the Singapore Town Council, and included a software licence hitting $5 million.

It is taking so long, a new deal worth $16 million has been awarded to Japanese firm NEC Asia Pacific in April. The subject who should have been under the microscope of the MND, Teo Ho Pin, was allowed to splurge more millions on software from the Town Council funds. Teo said, “The new system is more cost-effective, thus saving maintenance cost for town councils and our residents." Is that a confession that the old system was not cost -effective, and a sheer waste of money collected from the residents?"

For sheer tardiness, the investigation of Shane Todd's death in June 2012 has to be a new record setter. It took the February 2013 report of the Financial Times newspaper to dig spurs into the local police to come up with a better explanation. Even with US Senators piling on the pressure, the State Coroner has scheduled the inquiry only to start on May 13, 2013. Lots of powerful people seem to be taking their own sweet time. Maybe their equally powerful paychecks should be suspended until the answers are forthcoming. For these guys, it's not simply another day, another dollar. It's more like another day, another $1,000 in the bank.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sensitive Topics

During 1968–1969 John Forbes Kerry (born December 11, 1943) served an abbreviated four-month tour of duty in South Vietnam as officer-in-charge of a Swift Boat and was awarded combat medals that include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Real medals, not the type they dole out at National Day ceremonies to dress up a politician's resume.

After returning from the war, he became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam conflict. He appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs where he deemed United States war policy in Vietnam to be the cause of "war crimes." So when Lee Hsien Loong said of him, "He is an old Asia hand, knows Asia very well", Kerry may have preferred different memories of a different time.

But Kerry was on his job when he piped in, "..we have some important law enforcement and security issues that we need to discuss". The man was obviously well briefed and not about to be slipshod about the Shane Todd conundrum. Not when his mom Mary Todd had told ABC, "I know he was murdered and then they just hung him on a door."  Shane's work on superconductors for IME may have been passed to China's Huawei corporation, for use in systems that could involve jamming U.S. radar. National security and China must be two important items very high up on his to-do list.

For his 2004 presidential campaign, which he lost to George W. Bush, Kerry chose Senator John Edwards as running mate. Edwards was later indicted for violating multiple federal campaign contribution laws to cover up an extramarital affair during the 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination. His off-site romantic involvement and mother of his love child, Rielle Hunter, has written a whole book about the liaisons dangereuses, "What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me," released through a Dallas-based boutique publisher, BenBella Books. John Kerry had his own problems with rumors of an alleged affair with a Alex Polier, whose father called him a "sleazebag."

In his own recollection, Kerry said he had great discussions with former Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew when he was in Singapore on numerous occasions. He must have been just glad his present day talks with the son had no off-handed tasteless jokes about Michael Palmer's downfall over some lady's mangoes. Last we heard, Ms Ong has changed her identity and started a new Facebook account. Guess she won't be writing a book.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Just For Laffs

You may have heard this one before, in Singapore or in Washington.

A new guy arrives in prison, is introduced to his cellmate, and tries to settle in. At mealtime, the two take their places at the mess hall.

Just when the new prisoner starts on his chow, he hears another prisoner shout, "22!" Everyone bursts into laughter spontaneously.

A few minutes later, another prisoner calls out, "36!" The prisoners are besides themselves, practically rolling in the aisles.

"What's going on here?" asks the new prisoner, turning to his smiling mentor.

"Well, we only have one joke book in here.  After so many times of retelling, everyone more or less knows them all by heart. Now, when someone wants to tell a joke, all he does is mention the number of the joke.  Everybody remembers the joke, and they laugh just as hard as if it was told the first time."

"I see," replied the new prisoner.  "It is a curious custom, but I suppose it does save time."

Soon, the new prisoner got hold of the book, and starts to memorize some of the jokes. At the next opportunity, he screws up his courage to tell his first joke for the lunchroom crowd.

"53!" he called out with all the vigor he could muster.

There was absolute silence in the hall.  Chagrined, he turned to his cellmate buddy to ask why no one laughed.

"Well," replied his friend, "I guess some people can tell a joke, and some can't."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

No Laughing Matter

According to an Associated Press report from Washington, Singapore is well-known for its efficiency and order, but the city state's prime minister displayed a less advertised attribute - humour.

The misconception about the second part is understandable. The "Sticker Lady" and her "partner-in-crime" had to practically throw themselves at the mercy of the court for - goodness gracious me - trying to introduce Singlish humour to the world at large.  The people in charge, for reasons best known to their humourless lives, decided to spare no expense to remove the offending street art (officials quoted cost of damage at $3,857 and $3,723) and drag both of them to court. Come on, if you can't laugh at stuff like "No Need To Press So Many Times" reminders at pedestrian crossings and the cheeky phrase "My Grand Father  Road", you seriously need to have your head examined. Or, to quote Robin Williams in the "Good Morning Vietnam" movie classic, "You know... you're in more dire need of a blow job than any white man in history."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was obviously not ready for a second career as a stand-up comedian. According to the same report from Washington, he drew laughs - and some groans - with his quips, including this one about China's environmental problems: "Beijing residents joke that to get a free smoke all they have to do is open their windows!"

China recently made it known that it had sent four ships carrying troops and helicopters to the southernmost tip of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Specifically, she said its warships had sailed all the way to James Shoal, some 80km from Malaysian waters. China is also less well-known for its sense of humour.

Maybe that's why Ng Eng Hen is all about ready to splurge US$2.8 billion (S$3.5 billion) for the 12 F-35Bs. We may need the hardware to protect us from bad jokes.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Flexing Muscles II

It is often said that if you enter a courtroom without an experienced defense attorney by your side and attempt to represent yourself, you are starting with a serious disadvantage. Some of the reasons:
- Not Understanding the Rules of Evidence;
- Not Knowing Effective Defense Strategies;
- Becoming Overwhelmed by Court Rules.

There's even a proverb, probably first expressed by a lawyer, that says self-representation in court is likely to end badly. The early 19th century expression, attributed to a Henry Kett (1814), goes like this: "I hesitate not to pronounce, that every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client".

Professor Tey Tsun Hang presumably knows his stuff, he is after all a teaching academic at the law faculty of the National University of Singapore. He also probably realises that a third party practitioner might not dare go head-to-head against a system that errs on the side of vindictiveness. One local big shot lawyer is known to make it a point to send a thank note to the public prosecutor, whether he wins the case or not.

The revelations Tey brought out in open court makes it abundantly clear why Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah is in no hurry to introduce video recording for the taking of police statements. Even the most thick skinned of members of parliament will blush if following exchange was aired in the house: "You don't f***ing play with me. This is CPIB, you are a subject."

"I stab you once, you die beautifully,
legs straight up. But if you insist,
I can stab you tens of times, and
you die most horrendously."
According to the law professor, the thugs officers threatened to "arrest his wife, tell his bosses to slash his pay and withdraw his permanent resident status". The gist of one virulent tirade, Tey recounted, was: "Hook both my wife and I up and bleed us dry financially." That has certainly upped the ante from dragging victims through the mud and slime of the mainstream media. Seriously, did these guys have training at Gitmo?

And when CPIB Deputy Director Teng Khee Fatt was caught with records of wrong timings in his interrogation diary, he cavalierly dismissed the discrepancy with, "But this was the timing that was taken down by me during the time." Forget the niceties of court evidence (taxi receipts establishing timing gaps), what the man writes down is the law. Saddam Hussein had his Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-Amma, Muammar Gaddafi had his Mukhabarat el-Jamahiriya, Bashar Al-Assad had his Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya, maybe we might as well have our own Mukhābarāt (Arabic: مخابرات‎). That cuts out the good cop bad cop charade of a justice system.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Lesson From The Good Book

In his Peking University HSBC Business School lecture on Monday 25 March 2013 Tan Jee Say makes use of this verse from the bible: “In the multitude of people is the king’s honour, but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince.” - Proverbs 14:28, King James Version (KJV).

While rulers of the ancient past raise large armies out of huge populations to subjugate their enemies and forage for food and other resources from foreign territories, some see the modern use of the multitudes of new citizens as potential voters, for the preservation of their power and prevention of their destruction.

The King James Bible uses antiquated English that is difficult to understand. Sometimes words are inserted, like the italicised "is", to make the passage clearer. As it was unlikely Proverbs 14:28 was covered during Sunday School class, a search of the online bibles yielded interesting perspectives. The English Standard Version (ESV) translates the same verse from the original Greek this way:
"In a multitude of people is the glory of a king,
    but without people a prince is ruined."

Our curiosity about kingly intention is whetted. Then there is this exposition from the Matthew Henry Commentary about the "two maxims in politics":
"1. That it is much for the honour of a king to have a populous kingdom; it is a sign that he rules well, since strangers are hereby invited to come and settle under his protection and his own subjects live comfortably; it is a sign that he and his kingdom are under the blessing of God, the effect of which is being fruitful and multiplying.
2. That when the people are lessened the prince is weakened; trade lies dead, the ground lies untilled, the army wants to be recruited, the navy to be manned, and all because there are not hands sufficient."

Aiyah, what a long winded way to remind us that, under a lousy ruler, we are cursed, people will not reproduce, i.e. opposite of "being fruitful and multiplying". With the total fertility rate driven south, economy tanks, no one wants to serve National Service. So, die-die, the population figure must be 6.9 million.