Friday, August 30, 2013

Brompton Case Closed

Something to smile about
It was blatantly obvious that assistant director of the National Parks Board (NParks) Bernard Lim had colluded with his pal BikeHop director Lawrence Lim in the acquisition of $2,200 Brompton foldable bikes for inspecting trees. Investigative efforts by netizens provided the damning proof: timing of bid, duration of bid, specifications written around the desired product. That similarly functional foldable bikes were available at prices as low as $128 imply public funds were misused and abused.

Minister of National Development (MND) Khaw Book Wan initially defended the purchase of the bikes by claiming they were good value for money. Same reasoning he offered for buying Herman Miller chairs when he was at the Health Ministry. Any guy paid more than a million smackeroos a year tends to think like that. When public disgust cascaded, Khaw tasked an audit team from his MND to work with NParks to review the controversial purchase. MND passed the case to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau CPIB) in July 2012. Then in March 2013, DPM Teo Chee Hean, in response to query by member of parliament Lina Chiam, revealed that CPIB had completed its investigation and the case was with the public prosecutor “for assessment and determination of whether there is any offence disclosed”.

This month in August, CPIB charged Lim with knowingly given false information to a public servant, lying about his personal relationship with Lawrence Lim, for which the NParks director can be jailed up to a year and fined $5,000. No need to wait till 27 September 2013, when the case will be up for mention, the punishment will be another slap on the wrist.

The system cannot be faulted, the minister cannot be embarrassed for his error in judgement. The inquiry into the death of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah was abbreviated by the sacrificial offering of scape goat Deputy Superintendent Lim Kwo Yin, charged and fined $10,000. The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) has rejected the request by family members to re-open an inquest into the circumstances of the loss of life at Changi Prison. The Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) is to move on.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Call A Spade A Spade

Billed as a cabinet reshuffle, it was in actuality a promotion exercise. Speaking to the media in Xinjiang, China, where he is on an official visit cum holiday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the tasks at hand "have become more complicated and more intense" and that the existing mechanism needs to be "staffed with political leadership . . . who can do the political work, which means going out . . . engaging Singaporeans . . . understanding what people are feeling".

Not everyone was promoted. Tan Chuan-Jin had to step down as Senior Minister of State at Ministry of National Development (MND), but gets to hang on to his post as Acting Minister for Manpower. Political unknown Desmond Lee (who's he?) will be taking over the role of Minister of State at MND, the ministry handling the hot potato issue of affordable housing. Perhaps Lee felt that the Bukit Brown and bus strike brouhaha was not what he had in mind about ". . . engaging Singaporeans . . . understanding what people are feeling."

Perhaps Lee's idea of people ..."who can do the political work, which means going out..." was luring senior citizens with packet meals to boost the pathetic attendance at its election rallies. Or help shovel dirt at a tree planting photo-op when dad didn't have the physical strength to lift the farming implement.

Chan Chun Sing made his cameo appearance at the funeral of the PM's mother, claiming to be in charge of the gun carriage team. When rumors spiralled about his association in the family tree, instead of quashing the misinformation outright, he added fuel to the speculation, "I am related to the Lee family as much as I am related to all Singaporeans..  as fellow Singaporeans". The political mileage in the innuendo is not missed.

Way back in 1988 of the newspaper archives, Chan was more straight forward with the truth: "My mother is a machine-operator. I do not stay with my father became my parents are divorced." While we are still at myth busting, Wong Kan Seng is not related either - it just happens his wife has the same three-letter surname. Then again - how did Chan put it? - "...if one believes in evolution, then we all - regardless of race, language and religion - came from the same ancestor."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

No Simple Solution In Sight

According to Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor from William of Ockham, and in Latin lex parsimoniae), the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The principle of parsimony states that one should proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power.

Writing to the press, Nick Fellows, managing director of a transport consultancy, suggests a "simple solution" to a problem that had the Land Transport Authority (LTA) polling 3,700 and interviewed another 200 to address the Certificate Of Entitlement (COE) dilemma. Simply stated, there are 535,000 private cars in Singapore. Based on a lifespan of 10 years, and no extension, this equates to 53,500 COEs per year. Release 53,500 COEs a year, he recommended, instead of the current 24,000 limit, which is pushing the price of the piece of paper towards $100,000.

There is another simple way to look at the problem. The COE system was started 23 years ago, when the total population (citizens and permanent residents) was 3.047 million. In 2012, the official statistic is 5.312 million. The number of foreigners in-country have not been included. Unless the kilometers of road have kept pace with the growth of vehicle owners, the nightmare of the grid-lock can only be epic when the population hits 6.9 million.

Havard University's Professor Susan Fainstein was quoted as saying a just city, not just a global city, has three essential attributes: equity, diversity and democracy. Oh, we have diversity, we even have Indians speaking different languages, Tamil and Hindi. On democracy, someone wrote that "it would be a stretch to say that the residents of Singapore feel they have significantly more voice and enjoy more democratic rights today than they did a decade ago." It is equity in private transportation that is even more hurting.

A fixed supply of COEs is only part of the problem, making them available only to those with deep pockets is the other. Pity the karang guni man making the rounds with his beat up Nissan pickup. Soon he will be reduced to pushing a cart, like the sad old women collecting cardboard boxes to stay alive. Meanwhile high worth individuals from around the world are continually encouraged to move into the crowded city. For these guys, what better conspicuous display of wealth than a string of COEs? Everybody else is packed like sardines into the public transportation metallic boxes, straight from their public housing pigeon holes in the sky.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elephant In The Room

The Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) Survey was conducted over a period of two months, between 1 December 2012 and 31 January 2013, and completed by 4,000 Singaporeans. The strange part is that the OSC was conducted over one whole calendar year, and 47,000 people were involved. Given the importance of the objective, to determine what Singaporeans hope to see in 2030 and what their key priorities are for today, the sample size and sampling period seems anemic. Sample size is an important feature of any empirical study in which the goal is to make inferences about a population, too small a sample size results in wide confidence intervals or risks of errors in statistical studies.

Fortunately, the findings did confirm that Job Security, Healthcare and Housing are top concerns among the electorate. Next in order of decreasing ranking, Caring Government, Safety and Security, Public Transport and Education System kept Singaporeans awake at nights. We have heard the placating platitudes about Healthcare, Housing and Education System, but nothing about the elephant in the room, Job Security.

Globalisation is always fingered as the bad guy, and "competition" is the scape goat when jobs are lost or taken away.

Wu Jiaping (not his real name) is one of 200 PRC imports who will be studying at our local universities. He is spending one year at a preparatory school to brush up his competency in English before starting his 4-year degree course, to be followed by a 6-year bond working in Singapore. Wu will be spending 11 years here, 5 years of which are on a scholarship funded by Singapore taxpayers, which includes a generous stipend of $400 pocket money each month. This is way more generous than the School Pocket Money Fund allowance that selected Singaporean children are given for school-related expenses, such as buying a meal during recess, paying for their bus fares or using it to meet their other schooling needs (Primary school beneficiaries receive $55 a month, secondary school beneficiaries $90, post-secondary institutions like Polytechnics $120). Wu said his batch is studying engineering, which means 200 engineering jobs have been allocated for this "imported competition". There are other batches involving other disciplines of study. How many more jobs are set aside for the foreigners is any body's guess.

The OSC survey report, like the White Paper, is unsigned, so we don't know who to approach to ask why the respondents to the survey felt Job Security is a top worry. Perhaps they are resigned to the fact that competing for jobs on even basis is already an uphill task, and putting faith in meritocracy to ensure their survival. Blissfully unaware of the loaded deck they have been dealt with.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Widening Gap In Trust

First we heard Lee Kuan Yew say that our declining population woes had nothing to do with his stop-at-two policy. Now we hear Deputy Prime Minister Tharman  Shanmugaratnam declare that the gap between the rich and poor here is not the result of the Government's recent growth strategy. The Gospel accord to S Tharman wants to believe us that "the spike in education levels exacerbated the high inequality". He was speaking at the Academy of Medicine which conferred him a honorary fellowship, not the Academy of Wisdom, or Academy of Blind Faith.

Recall Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's take on how a higher Gini coefficient could be even better for all of us. "Supposing the world's richest man, Carlos Slim, comes to live in Singapore. The Gini coefficient will get worse. But I think Singapore will be better off. Even for the lower-income Singaporeans, it will be better."

That's entirely consistent with his father's line of thought. Dismissing the minimal wage as a method to reduce the growing income gap between the rich and poor, Lee Senior had insisted, “Never mind your Gini coefficient. If you don’t have a job you get zero against those with jobs. So our first priority is jobs for everybody.” Others beg to differ.

At the 18 Jan 2013 press conference in Beijing, China's State Council released for the first time the Gini coefficient for the past decade to demonstrate the government’s resolve to bridge the gap between the rich and poor. Despite year-by-year retreat, the Gini coefficient has stayed at a relatively high level of between 0.47 and 0.49 during the last 10 years. "The statistics highlighted the urgency for our country to speed up the income distribution reforms to narrow the wealth gap," said Ma Jiantang, director of the National Bureau of Statistics.

According to the BBC, "A Gini-coefficient of 0.4 is generally regarded as the international warning level for dangerous levels of inequality." Our own academic Lim Chong Yah confirms, "A Gini coefficient of 0.5 is normally considered a danger to breach." Singapore is already mired in the danger zone.

The mainstream media tried to ameliorate the deplorable state by judicious manipulation of statistics. According to TODAY, “Singapore’s Gini coefficient of 0.478 last year, before accounting for Government transfers and taxes, is on a per-household-member basis.” It goes on to argue that “some countries compute their Gini coefficients based on the “square root scale”, and  Singapore’s Gini coefficient is “0.435 if the (modified OECD) square root scale is used” and would be 0.414 after Government transfers and taxes are factored in. Balderdash. If the income gap is a non-issue, why did DPM Tharman have to defend it, and PM Lee leave it out of the National Day Rally speech?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Understanding Cost Of Construction

Chip Eng Seng Contractors (1988) Pte Ltd (CESC) has been building Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats since 1982. It's typical contract scope involves the design and construction of residential buildings and the supporting parking and community facilities. CES has won many contracts from HDB in the past, and the contracted values of projects awarded in recent years provide fascinating insight about the costing of subsidised public housing:
  • Sengkang (698 units) $123 million, awarded June 2008
  • Queenstown (1,394 units) $188 million, awarded June 2008
  • Hougang (792 units) $113 million, awarded August 2011
  • Bukit Panjang (862 units) $137 million, awarded August 2012

If all the numbers are added up and divided, it looks like the average cost of construction for one HDB unit is about $150,000. Needless to say, the units are a mix of 2-room to 4-room units, with selling prices to match.

Another HDB contractor boasted that its unit cost of $547/m2 (of constructed floor area) was lower than HDB's industry average of $590/m2 for design & build (BTO) projects. The latest data we have for BTO projects come from the boast that 4-room flats will be affordable at listed prices of $285,000 and up. 4-room flats also come in different layouts and floor areas. Using the more common figure of 93 sq m, the cost of construction based on HDB's own industry average is about $54,870 for a 4-room unit.

One opposition party member once got into serious trouble when he shouted, "Mr Goh, Mr Goh, where is the money, Mr Goh?" Before you jump up and yell, "Mr Lee, Mr Lee, where is the money, Mr Lee?", recall what the guy said at his National Day Rally (NDR) speech, "And people say HDB is making money. Something is wrong."

Something is definitely wrong here since the same guy who graduated from Cambridge with Double First Class Honours in Mathematical Statistics and Mathematical Economics and a distinction in a Diploma in Computer Science also said in his NDR 2013 speech, "I stare at a page of Math with the formulas; I do not understand what is going on sometimes." Maybe one needs a Doctorate to understand HDB math, or deal with a character who boasted about his $8 open heart surgery to showcase affordable health care.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Teaching Moment

It was the classic teaching moment. Student Sun, 13, had wanted to study pure humanities subjects, but her school said it could not offer her the opportunity as it did not have enough qualified teachers. "Why are there not enough qualified teachers... when all schools are meant to be good schools?" she asked Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat.

Heng, who made it a point to teach school principals a thing or two about school girls who show up like  female versions of Kojak instead of donning wigs as promised, missed the precious moment.  Instead of educating the precocious child about the complexities of supply and demand of good educators, he taught her the art of taiji. Taiji is the Chinese art of shadow boxing. But the Singlish expression, to practise shadow boxing, means shifting the blame to someone or something else.

Avoiding her question altogether, Heng told her that a good school "cannot just be defined by an academic yardstick."  The poor girl just wanted to study the humanities, not ace the subject. To study human culture, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, and having a significant historical element, as distinguished from the cold empirical approaches of the natural sciences. Scholars working in the humanities are sometimes described as "humanists". It must be all Greek to the inhuman Minister, who's focus is probably about GDP numbers, and how many more foreigners his comrades can pack into the Little Red Dot, to achieve the "sustainable economy" proposed by the White Paper.

Heng is putting the blame on parents ("Parents' mindset key to education change: Heng"), without being upfront about the failures of the existing educational system. Like teachers who haul up parents to tell them to hire private tutors, so as not to drag down the school's academic track record. Like teachers despatched to remote corners of the Middle Kingdom, to sign up foreign students to boost the school's academic track record. And, for good measure, to dig spurs into the behinds of our own locally born and bred kids.

Fortunately, the future is not all bleak, when we have bright sparks who can see through the inhumanities inflicted upon us, and boldly speak out about the inconvenient truths. Heng may gainsay the shortcomings of his ministry, but the people, the young and not so young, refuse to be hoodwinked.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

More Room For The Masses

The message sent out at 7:58pm on Thursday Dec 15 2011 read, "Income opportunity. Dear partners, there is a breakdown in our MRT train services from Bishan MRT to Marina Bay MRT stretch of stations." SMRT scrambled to apologise for the message alert that asked its own affiliate taxis to take advantage of the massive train breakdown: "We are sorry for the oversight. Our staff were using a template message, and we have since corrected it."

Property developers island wide must have been busy messaging each other when the prime minister announced that 800 ha of land will be freed at Paya Lebar. Real estate agents salivated with glee, at news of height restrictions removed by the relocation of the airbase, meaning existing 8 storey structures in perfectly livable and affordable conditions can be demolished to make way for building heights of up to 36 floors. Residents in the affected zone will probably discover new neighbours, speculative vultures who take up a unit or more in anticipation of the plump prospects of another Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). The stakes are high, the land area could easily accommodate 60,000 to 80,000 public and private homes. This is asset enhancement at work, same land area extorting higher prices.

Some will definitely benefit from the bonanza, but most will discover the money they receive will only afford newer units of smaller living space, packed closer together than older developments. How did the HDB CEO put it? Units are smaller because Singapore families are getting smaller. The higher density fits nicely into the White Paper target, oops, planning parameter, of 6.9 million population. It wasn't referred to in the National Day Rally speech, probably because the old geezer said in his latest book, "One Man's View", it was Teo Chee Hean who's responsible for the reviled number. If there's another last minute election apology in 2016, it might go like this: "We are sorry for the oversight. Our ministers were using a template policy, and we have since tried to correct it."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Affordability Questioned

The question on every body's mind after Sunday night: By how much will premiums go up? The answer is already written on the wall: As much as they can get away with it.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong issued the vacuous assurance, that premiums under the new Medishield Life scheme will be affordable. A vacuous truth is a truth that is devoid of content because it asserts something about all members of a class that is empty - they haven't even figured out the numbers yet. With the next breath intake, he said the Government will subsidise the premiums for those  who cannot afford them. Maybe we missed something here, why are subsidies needed at all if the premiums are truly affordable?

You've seen this line with "affordable" housing. On this point, the 25 year repayment schedule for a 4-room flat indicated by the PM implies an  Affordability Ratio (AR) of 5.9 (household income $4000, 4-room flat at $285,000 BTO price). The Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey 2013 defines affordability as 3.0 and under, i.e. you should be able to pay off the mortgage with 3 years' total annual income. According to the report, surveys indicate that many households are having children later, or not at all, because housing conducive to raising children is unaffordable. Next to the nefarious stop-at-two campaign, housing unaffordability has to be key to a declining population. Father and son may tell you different, but truth always prevails.

By their benchmark, a $100,000 Certificate of Entitlement (COE) is also affordable. Their line of reasoning started off with the quip, “People support CPF cuts because there are no protest (sic) outside parliament.”

Faith is defined in the dictionary as strong or unshakable belief in something, especially without proof or evidence. Blind faith is unquestioning of anything that is dictated by the religion of choice, no matter how foolish, or even if one "rule" (or "guideline") contradicts another. Now, what was that guy at the podium asking you to subscribe to?

Monday, August 19, 2013

No More Opting Out

He's kinda thick, isn't he? After one whole year of feedback through the National Conversation/Our Singapore Conversation, he still doesn't quite comprehend the complaints about affordable healthcare.

Instead of reducing medical expenses, he plans to hike the Medisave, which is basically our own hard earned money deducted to pay for ever inflating government charges. Medishield is the other horror. Most private insurance companies quote you a fixed rate for the type of policy you decide upon. And stays fixed for the duration of the contracted cover.  Medishield increases your premium without your permission. No wonder many have opted out. Do we need Medishield Plus for cover beyond age 90? Not many of us fancy living like a zonked-out zombie like that character, who is 89, going on 90 in September. Whatever good ideas PM Lee floated for housing and education, it all went out the window when he announced: "There will be no more opting out for MediShield.”

We know the math about paying for a $100,000 housing development board (HDB) flat on a $1,000 per month household income. Now the new math about $170,000 3-room flats and $285,000 4-room flats. It has to do with those elusive grants - you'll need a score card to keep track of those "subsidies", and tick off the qualifying criteria. Why can't they just disclose the actual building cost, and declare a profit margin or desired rate of return to keep HDB from going bankrupt? One astute commentator remarked: "PAP only likes to talk about supply, “subsidy”, “grants” and “affordablility” of public housing but does not tell Singaporeans the actual cost of building HDB flats. The greedy and corrupt PAP cannot be trusted."

If they are tightwads with medical and housing essentials, where are they spending all the taxes collected? Another Gardens by the Bay type extravaganza, to be located where the current public carpark for Terminal One is. Needless to say, parking charges there will be taking off soon. Many have yet to visit the Two Conservatories because of the high entrance charges - as much as $28 per head - so most settle for the poor man's $5 Outdoor Tour. Gardens was budgeted at $893 million in 2006, revised to $1.035 billion in 2009, and annual operating cost is estimated to be $53 million. We need another Gardens like we need a hole in the head.

The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) topic apparently was too hot to handle. But what's so difficult about implementing the clever idea of halting the disclosure of T-scores? The way they stopped releasing ranking of schools. That should take the heat off the pressure cooker of kiasu parents. Instead, they put it on the back burner, for another round of procrastinating conversations.

There's something haunting about the expression of Dr Yeo Sze Ling on tv, the blind 4-year old who made it to A-star researcher after a life time of struggle. Maybe she knows more than we do. Many problems have been glossed over by the pretty speeches, it's always darkest before the dawn.

Friday, August 16, 2013

One Death That Will Not Go Away

Speaking at a charity gala to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Yellow Ribbon Fund for ex-offenders, Second Minister for Home Affairs S Iswaran boasted that Singapore Prison Service officers will emerge stronger from the incident involving the death of prison inmate Dinesh Raman. Well, it doesn't quite look that way, does it? Not when the family of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah has just written to the Attorney General, seeking approval to re-open the coroner's inquiry into their son's death within 7 days.

Iswaran had told Parliament that the State Coroner discontinued the inquiry because the cause and circumstances of Dinesh's death had been established in the criminal court. Well, if it had been so clearly established, it behoves one to ask why the minister is so reluctant to release the full report of the coroner's inquiry. Law Minister K Shanmugam had once said the Shane Todd inquiry was fair, open and "the world can see what we have done", yet he, too deigned to release that report when challenged by the Todd family.

The statement relating to the request for reopening the coroner's enquiry said that it is "in the interest of transparency and justice that a public and independent inquiry into Dinesh's death be allowed to run its full course. His family deserves nothing less." We could also add, the general public interest deserves nothing less.

The family's lawyer correctly pointed out that "there had been no forensic findings on how, when and where the deceased came by his death, which is the stated purpose of of an an inquiry into the death, according to Section 27(1)(b) of the Coroner's Act." This flies in the face of Iswaran's claim that the cause and circumstances had been clearly established in court. And since the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) had already emphasised that the prosecution does not have power "to compel the coroner to adjourn or discontinue an inquiry," it looks like State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid also owes the public an accounting for why he decided to stop work. Work only when you feel like working? Now that's a job to die for (pun unintended).

Whatever happens, the AGC needs to emerge stronger from this affair. In the light of recent shenanigans - corrupt elements within CPIB, professor of law hauled to jail, top law enforcers servants nabbed by honey traps - faith in the judicial system has been badly shaken.  Brushing off the cartoonist was the easy part, restoring the trust of the people in public institutions needs a bit more work.

Iswaran says the police already spent 28 months and interviewed 130 on the case (compared to 13 months and over 60 witnesses for Shane Todd). Surely the extra effort to clear the air can't be that much of a "drain on the state's resources," the excuse proffered by the AGC as one justification for discontinuation of a coroner's inquiry.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Giving People What They Want

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first announced the idea of a national conversation during his last National Day message, and it started with this blurb: "Welcome to the National Conversation, where we invite all Singaporeans to share about our dreams, views, and thoughts on what we want for our country. Diverse views are welcomed, regardless of race, language, religion or political affiliation." Somewhere along the line, it has morphed into "Our Singapore Conversation" (OSC).

After one year-long of national conversation involving some 47,000 Singaporeans or less than 1% of the population, the man in charge wants to dispel a few myths about the mass engagement exercise, without providing any clue for the name change, and who the "our" refers to.

The first myth to be debunked is that OSC dialogues were a "major meet-the-people session", with the Government collating a wish list and then giving people what they want, explained Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. The disappointment is understandable.

Last night's episode of "Talking Point, The Vote " concluded with over 56% voting "No" to the question, "Has Singapore Conversation adequately reflected your views?" The online inputs to the tv programme were, to borrow the words of a panel member who was a facilitator at OSC sessions, quite cutting and blunt:
"Talking about consultation? I seriously doubt they listen at all! Some of the issues raise (sic) were not even consulted and they made the decision for us. Eg. CPF minimum sum."

"Why is it that mental health issues which I raised at OSC and also to Education Heng Swee Kiat who promised to look into the welfare of caregivers of the mentally ill not looked into?"

Guest on the panel, Indranee Rajah could only bluster there are also "other opportunities" available for feedback from the public. Which confirms what Heng said about the OSC not being a platform to collate a wish list and then giving people what they want. Quite simply, they never intended to listen to the voices of the people in the first place. Whether NC or OSC, it was always a one sided conversation.

Heng said the OSC-influenced policy shifts will be unveiled only at Sunday's National Day Rally. Confirming the worst, he emphasised that they will not sacrifice strategic thinking for the sake of showing empathy and responsiveness. So what else is new? It has always been their way or the highway.

When Lee talked about the vision of Singapore along the themes of "Hope, Heart and Home", one is reminded of Goh Chok Tong's promise of "Swiss standard of living". Sure, the Swiss standard has been attained, for them but not for us mere mortals. If Heng openly refuses to demonstrate empathy and responsiveness, where and when will we ever get to see our Hope, Heart and Home?

One almost trembles at the anticipated announcements concerning state support for health-care costs and housing affordability. More likely, Medisave minimum sums and Medishield premiums will be increased - Health Minister Gan already highlighted that they will go up with enhancements planned for to the scheme - and housing affordability will be redefined with 30 year loans extending to 50 or 60 years. You want empathy and responsiveness, you won't find it in the OSC charade.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The War On Mosquitoes

How many have died from dengue fever in Singapore? The official position from the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) states "This is the fifth local dengue death case this year."

The actual number depends on whether you want to make the minister in charge look good/bad, and the mainstream media does that very well. The tally goes like this:
1st victim, 20-year-old Singaporean Chinese male, lived in Hougang Ave 1, died 29 May 2013;
2nd victim, 60-year-old Singaporean Chinese male, lived in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, died 9 June 2013;
3rd victim, 86-year-old Singaporean Chinese male, lived in the Sembawang Road area, 25 June 2013;
4th victim, a 66-year-old Singaporean Chinese male, lived in the Tanglin Halt area, died 8 July 2013;
5th victim, 52-year-old Chinese male, lived in Corporation Walk, died on 13 August 2013.

The unvarnished truth is that there is a tie for 4th occurrence, an Indonesian male, who died on 25 June 2013. The victim contracted dengue fever overseas between 10 - 21 June 2013 and was subsequently sent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital for treatment on 23 June 2013. He was a foreigner who died in a local hospital, under competent medical care of doctors stationed locally. So 5 or 6 local dengue deaths, you choose the number to rank how well Vivan Balakrishnan is doing his job.

The number is not very helpful. More helpful is an article in a Smithsonian magazine, which spells out how blood type, metabolism, exercise, shirt color and beer consumption can determine whether the mosquitoes choose to land on you. Here are some of their key findings:

Blood type: Mosquitoes prefer people with Type O blood nearly twice as often as those with Type A. People with Type B blood fell somewhere in the middle;
Carbon Dioxide: People who simply exhale more of the gas over time — generally, larger people — attract more mosquitoes than others;
Exercise and Metabolism: Strenuous exercise which increases the buildup of lactic acid and heat in your body, makes you more attractive to the mosquitoes;
Skin Bacteria: Mosquitoes are especially prone to biting our ankles and feet because they naturally have more robust bacteria colonies;
Beer: Just a single 12-ounce bottle of beer can make you more attractive to mosquitoes;
Pregnancy: Pregnant women have been found to attract roughly twice as many mosquito bites as others, because they exhale about 21 percent more carbon dioxide and are on average about 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than others;
Clothing Color: Wearing colors that stand out (black, dark blue or red) may make you easier for the mosquitoes to find.

Now that you know better, make it tougher for the mozzies to home in on you - don't drink beer, hold on to your gases, stay cool, keep clean and avoid outstanding colours. Definitely more useful than the doctored information provided by MOH and NEA.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Winning The Hearts Of The People

It was just yesterday when Goh Chok Tong was quoted as saying, "To solve problems in a practical, ruthlessly efficient bureaucratic way is not enough anymore. The government must also win the hearts of the people." Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran must have missed the point when he was reverting to queries surrounding the death of a prison inmate.

The members of parliament (MPs) had asked if more information could be provided on the matter, but all Iswaran did was to provide a non-answer, that "investigations had been rigorous and thorough". Obviously too rigorous and thorough for the public to understand, MPs included.

To press the point home, opposition MP Pritam Singh asked for more transparency, such as making public the findings from the Commission of Inquiry (COI). Same request asked by the parents of Shane Todd about their son's demise.

Without replying yes or no to the straight forward request, Iswaran deflected by telling the house that the COI's purpose was not to establish criminal guilt or liability. So if the officers who subdued the inmate had criminal intent to fatally assault him for having earlier kicked a fellow warden, the COI is supposed to turn a blind eye and restrict themselves to focusing on whether bureaucratic procedures were followed to the letter?

The *palmed face* moment came about when the minister said it was not unprecedented nor uncommon for a COI to be discontinued at the state coroner's discretion after the accused had pleaded guilty. Is that the efficient bureaucratic way to sweep matters under the carpet, by arranging for some party to plea guilty or admit liability, when the COI is not supposed to concern itself with matters of criminal guilt or liability? And how many such precedents have occurred in the past, pray tell?

Maybe the government needs a different breed of ministers to win the hearts and minds of the people. This is the same guy who has yet to disclose a single report card on the F-1 night race. Did the country make or lose money on the sweetheart deals with Bernie Ecclestone?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Sad Stories

Grandma's delight was priceless, her face lit up when she heard the familiar sounds from the Rediffusion app. Immediately she was transported back to the glorious past and relived the stories and music of yesteryear. The years when she first struggled to build a modest family tree as a washer woman, and her constant companion was a minimalist wooden box that spoke her mother tongue. The years before dialect programming was taken off the air. One of the saddest scenes of today is at family get togethers where the youngest addition and the most senior member can only exchange mute greetings, unable to surmount the language barrier.

When the nation wide Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched, Rediffusion was forced to halt all dialect content by 1982. Facing the ban and increased competition from free-to-air radio, subscription plunged, and Singapore's only cable radio service finally fell silent on 30 April 2012. Mercifully, Eduplus Holdings bought over the assets and audio material and is now making available the archived tales and tunes of a nostalgic era in heritage dialect.

What we did not know about was the determination of one man to deprive grandma of her simple pleasures.

When filial elements in the Government were looking into reintroducing Chinese dialect programmes on free-to-air channels, Lee Kuan Yew put his heavy foot down. "I had antagonised an entire generation of Chinese, who found their favourite dialect programmes cut off.... Why should I allow  Cantonese or Hokkien to infect the next generation? If you bring it back, you will find portions of the older generation beginning to speak in dialects to their children and grandchildren," according to his One Man's View. Apparently he's still sore Lee Dai Sor was more popular than Lee Kuan Yew, the man who "paid a heavy price getting the dialect programmes suppressed and encouraging people to speak Mandarin." Dude, suppression of any form is never popular in civil societies.

He would rather let the older folks live their last days in silence, unable to communicate with their children and grandchildren. This has to be the saddest tale of all history.

Friday, August 9, 2013

On The Matter Of Principle

It's a sad day when a principal of a school has to buckle under pressure. Then again, they don't hand out national day awards for sticking to your principles.

The principal of St Margaret's had made her stand crystal:""It's very clear in our mission: it's about their turnout as a young lady." She did not subscribe to the NGO's gimmicky call for shaved heads to raise awareness of cancer patients and, supposedly, empathise with their suffering. She was not inflexible, five girls were exempted from the ruling provided they wore lady like wigs to school. They can show off their bald pates and parade along Orchard Road if that's what tickles their youthful fancies. Only two of the five Secondary 3 students kept to their solemn undertaking. That's when the lesson in upbringing fell apart.

Now that the principal was pressurised to "reflect" on her decision making, the renegade girls are allowed, during school hours, to "show empathy and solidarity with cancer patients which entails the experience of going bald". Parent of one 15 year old who broke her promise whooped with delight, now that her precious darling daughter won't "have to suffer the discomfort and heat of wearing wigs." Whatever happened to the empathy and solidarity for the cancer patients who are suffering the  discomfort and heat of wearing wigs?

An animal rights activist group once wanted to make a point to protest the use of mink for ladies' fashion wear. They burned down a mink farm. Sure, they made an impact on the supply of mink fur for the business, but did they spare a thought for the lives of the furry creatures that died in the conflagration?

It was Education Minister Heng Swee Keat who used his Facebook account to announce the U-turn deal. Nobody knows if there were any midnight telephone calls to "pass the message along". While noting that the school was trying to teach how commitments are supposed to be honoured, he wrote "... there is a learning moment in every situation, in every situation we make, in every promise we pledge." And what exactly is the minister trying to teach, that it's okay to go back on your word? Youngsters should not be roped into political causes, unless they plan to be groomed as politicians with malleable principles.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Guilty While Innocent

The award winning documentary "West of Memphis" is a good introduction to the "Alford plea", a legal option to plea guilty while maintaining one's innocence, in order to avoid a conviction by the court.

The West Memphis Three are three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas, who were tried, convicted of murder, and spent 18 years and 78 days in prison when DNA evidence due to new technological advances surfaced to provide possible exoneration. But the state would not admit their error, fearing repercussions from political fall-out and potential lawsuits. A deal with the public prosecutor was struck with the Alford plea, the legal mechanism in which "no contest" pleas are entered but innocence is nevertheless maintained. Judge David Laser vacated the previous convictions, each man then entered an Alford plea to lesser charges of first and second degree murder while verbally stating their innocence, and finally set free from prison.

That could be one scenario if the cartoonist had his day in court, and the lawyers will have to work their butts off.

However, the Attorney-General's Chambers have decided it will not proceed  with the contempt of court charges against Mr Chew in light of his apology and undertaking, "which he initiated". The last three words are important. The "apology" goes something like this: "It was never my intention to scandalise the judiciary. I realise my mistake and I want to make amends for it. I draw to make people laugh, and I want to continue with my work within the boundaries of the law."

In the light of this development, we'll never know if the persecution had the legal arguments to prove their case. Lawyers referring to the win-win situation say this is "the best possible outcome for all parties involved." We'll never know if the Alford plea will be allowed here. In our binary system, no one can be innocent if the courts decides you are guilty. Heck, even if the courts absolve you of corruption charges, some high flying police commissioner can still make public declarations that you are corrupt.

Since the boundaries of the law are such shifting targets here, aspiring cartoonists should pay careful attention to what material some people might deem offensive:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

One Man's View

During small talk at a wake last year, somebody was awfully confident about the outcomes of the corruption cases concerning Peter Lim (Singapore Civil Defence Force) and Ng Boon Gay (Central Narcotics Bureau). Sure enough, Lim was jailed and Ng was acquitted. The whiff of intrigue spelt power play at high levels.

PM Lee's sacking of CPIB Director Eric Tan over a mere $1.7 million embezzled by Edwin Yeo, an Assistant Director, confirms the rot is indeed well entrenched and system wide. After all, not a whimper was raised when Balakrishnan blew $387 million.

The following 2012 account culled from the internet may fit Ng Eng Hen's definition of DRUMS - Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears -  but as they say, there's no smoke without fire. The curious observer will note that all the component parts, warts and all, form a perfect fit.

This is a smoke screen. It's a cover up of an investigation gone wrong and heading no where. It's part of a bigger conspiracy from a prolonged power struggle within MHA, resulting in severe collateral damage.
The current Director of CPIB, Eric Tan, was in ISD during the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy. As a relative of Monsignor Francis Lau, Eric played an important role between ISD/Singapore government and the Church. Since then, he earned the trust of the then Director ISD, Benny Lim, and has been backed by the latter till date.
Eric is well known within MHA to be a hot-blooded rash person. For example, in GE 1991, when still in ISD, he was deployed to observe the crowd in a Potong Pasir rally. Instead of following the agreed rules of engagement (trailing and identifying trouble makers, and passing the leads to police for arrest), he identified himself as a police officer in a crowd of thousands and tried to arrest the trouble makers. That action of him nearly caused a major riot. He received a warning letter for his rash act. But he was backed by Benny Lim.
Unfortunately he did not learn his lesson, and did a similar stunt in GE 1997 when he was still in ISD. But with backing by Benny, he enjoyed smooth career in MHA moving from ISD to SIR to CNB and to ICA. But his rash behaviour never changed. In 2005, Benny became the Perm Sec of MHA, and Eric's flag flew even higher.
However, due to his weakness, he was never considered for the post of Commissioner of Police despite strong backing by Benny. This is especially true when he had a very strong contender - Lock Wai Han, who happens to have two very good drinking friends in the police force - Ng Boon Gay and Paul Lim.
For some strange reason, Paul Lim at a private birthday dinner in Shangri-La was accused of molesting the Shang Palace waitress in 2009. The case was leaked to the press too. At that time, Director CID was Ng Boon Gay. But because of their closeness, Deputy Director CID Wong Choon Mann was appointed as the IO for Paul's case. Paul had his lucky break, his friend at the dinner happened to film the occasion and the said waitress was filmed teasing the guests including sitting on laps. Paul resigned before PSD initiated the internal disciplinary proceeding. During that time, Paul was avoided by many in MHA, but Boon Gay and Peter Lim believed in him and continued to meet him.
A year later, 2010, Boon Gay and Wai Han were implicated in insider trading and investigated by CPIB. There were insufficient evidence. Wai Han resigned and he is now based in China. Boon Gay was posted as Director CNB. And the first thing he uncovered and went public was the years of wrong drug statistics before his time, when the Deputy Director CNB then was Ng Ser Song. Coincidentally, Ser Song was a young ISD officer with Eric in GE 1991. And, Ser Song now replaced Boon Gay as Director CNB.
With no strong candidate, an unlikely officer, Ng Joo Hee, was selected as Commissioner of Police. He is the first CP without the major foundation postings - Director Ops and Director CID. He had his disciplinary cases in his younger days too, such as losing his Investigation Papers. But he did once work for Benny in ISD. Another ISD connection. As the CP now, he can't be bothered with policy, planning and management. He is only interested in outdoors. And with this new found fame, his IT headhunter wife, Joyce, has been telling her customers and candidates about her husband.
Sensing that his position is weakening especially since Benny is due to be posted out of MHA, Eric accepted the post of Director CPIB on 1 Oct 2010. Soon in 2011, Benny took over as Perm Sec PMO. Eric is once again with Benny. Eric pulled along Choon Mann (who investigated against Paul) to become Director Investigation in CPIB. Knowing that Eric has grudges with many officers in MHA, there were talks since 2010 that many in MHA would be in trouble.
The golden opportunity presented itself. A sore loser in the IT industry (Derrick Leau?), made a false report about money and sex involving SCDF and CNB. Still a hot-blooded rash person, Eric directed his team to take action including arresting Peter and Boon Gay before sufficient surveillance and preliminary covert investigation were carried out.
After weeks of investigation and many more people arrested/called up, CPIB found no evidence of money and sex as alleged by the "whistleblower". Around the same time, the latter leaked to the press to pressurize Singapore government. This explains the first CPIB press release of "serious personal misconduct" as opposed to alleged corruption, and subsequent releases and interviews with Ministers including PM. In Singapore, sex in return of favours is definitely classified as corruption.
CPIB is now in a panick mode. They made a big blunder by rashly arresting two HODs and many senior officers and even people from the industry, many from NCS. They now need to dig out every small things that they can get hold. They even interrogated the arrested people to justify small little things such as simple meals and golf games. I believe Ministers and MPs attended even more
dinner and golf game!
With no knowledge at all how the IT industry operates for win-win for government and vendor, CPIB even asked staff of NCS why they knew the budget of certain projects, and why they are the only bidder, why they bidded just below the budget, etc. I guess RFI (request for information) to CPIB means Requires Forced Interrogation.
Perhaps CPIB investigators did not realize that when Eric was Commissioner ICA from 2005 to 2010, he was entertained frequently by NEC and EDS (now HP). And they probably did not know that NEC won a contract as a sole bidder at $4,999,999, one dollar below the actual budget.
The root of this power struggle and conspiracy was planted during the Marxist Conspiracy. Many more senior people in the government were once the core ISD team involved in the operation. Back then, PM Goh Chok Tong was even quoted "Was the ISD not making a mistake? Were they not over-reacting?"

The writer went on to propose that the SPF should arrest Eric Tan for wrongful arrests and many other abuses. Lay defamation charges against the SPH and the papers, he suggested. Arrest the false "whistleblower". This is certainly One Man's View that has all the makings of a best seller.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pure Fiction

You know credibility is at stake when the picture on the cover bears faint resemblance to the present day subject of another ghost written excuse to fill the book shelf. Asked why he would want to "write" another book, Lee Kuan Yew, 89 going on 90, said, "To recount what has struck my life before I lose my memory."

The ghost writers, Han Fook Kwang et al says  - unlike the earlier two volumes of memoirs, "Singapore Story" and "From Third World To First" - this 400-page exercise in ego massage focuses more on the future than the past. Lee must be the only person who has "memories" of the future. Artistic licence has just embarked on a new frontier.

As in previous publications, Lee just can't resist insulting other countries, "The iPhone, iPad, Microsoft, the Internet - these were created in America, not elsewhere. The Chinese have many talented individuals compared to the Americans, but why have they not been able to come up with similar inventions?"

Er, Mr Know-It-All, the Chinese invented papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, and printing (both woodblock and movable type). The Chinese also invented the blast furnace, paper money, sternpost rudder, water-powered clockworks, the multiple-tube seed drill and heavy moldboard iron plow. Compared to these technologies involving mechanics, hydraulics, and mathematics applied to metallurgy, agriculture, engineering, craftsmanship, horology, nautics, and warfare, iPhones and iPads are mere toys. Besides, real men prefer Android smartphones and tablets. Try explaining that to a guy who doesn't text because he "can't find the keys" on his mobile phone.

Sorry, America is not on the decline, not because of the power of creativity. The success of America is ensured by its full embrace of democracy. The problems with the Arab Spring is not that democracy has failed, or that Egyptians lack the cultural and sociological reasoning to appreciate equal citizenship.  The problems lie with the damage inflicted by the cabal rule of dictators like Mubarak on a nation, damage which will take years to unwind. The best bit about America is that the presidents are limited to two terms. Somebody else is always given a chance to contribute his best for the nation. One-man rule, or one-cabal rule, is the cancer of civilisation.

Lee once said he will call it a day when his stories can fit into a thumbdrive. Well, the 2 volumes of Hitler's Mein Kampf take up only 1 megabytes (mb), 3 Lord of the Ring books 2 mb, 7 books of the Harry Porter series 6 mb, and the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare occupy only 7 mb of disk space. Even "The Untold Story of Mao" by June Chang and Jon Holliday, 1780 pages of text and photographs, require only 6 mb. It is doubtful all of Lee's books can even fill up a 2 GB drive. Han said he thought Hard Truths was the last book, and his subject could not endure interviews longer than 1 hour for this one, so why is he still on the payroll?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Blame Faulty Memories

The porcine politicians in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" started off by forswearing the imbibing of alcoholic beverages. Later they made some tweaks to accommodate the true state of their lily white convictions. One day their subject animals woke up to discover that the commandment reading “No animal shall drink alcohol” actually reads “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.”  As with previous revisions of the Seven Commandments painted on the barn, the animals blame the apparent change on their faulty memories — they must have forgotten the final two words.

It was not so long ago we were told the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is not regressive. Never mind what the economics books say. Singapore's GST was first introduced on April 1, 1994, at 3%. It was increased to 4% on 1 January 2003, 5% on 1 January 2004, and 7% on 1 July 2007. Then in 2008, Transport Minister Raymond Lim went the extent of making a vile veiled threat of a further 1.5% hike, "You want the GST to go up to 8.5 per cent, to run a completely free bus and MRT system?”

Speaking at a Channel NewsAsia forum in March 2012, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam still maintained that "most of the taxes are paid by those who are better off and the benefits are received by those less well off." The new permanent GST voucher was introduced in that year to supposedly offset the 7 per cent GST that the lower half of retiree households pay on their expenses.

GST plus vouchers is not regressive. All too soon, the electorate will blame the apparent change on their faulty memories — they must have forgotten the two important words.

This year's GST voucher will not help everybody. Retirees staying in, not renting out, homes with annual value exceeding $21,000 will not be receiving the check. Retirees with zero income will still have to pay GST for goods and services purchased, including the water consumption component in the utilities bill, which is already subject to a hefty 30% Water Conservation Tax. Even if they switch off lights, wash at public toilets, and resort to a free smoke by opening windows to the haze from Sumatra, last we heard, the Mandai Columbarium still charges GST.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Truth Be Told

When his Ministry of National Development staff gave him a tearful send off in September 1992, Dhanabalan told reporters he would be spending more time with his church. When he had to make way for Lim Boon Heng as the new Temasek chairman on August 2013, he said same: spending more time with his church, currently Bukit Panjang Gospel Chapel. You gotta take that with a large pinch of salt.

My uncle met him at a Varsity Christian Fellowship (VCF) gathering eons ago, when he first donned the white and white uniform (him, not uncle), and asked him why his political party seemed to be unpopular among some circles. The cocky response was that, with 70+ of the votes, they had to be popular. Period. End of sharing.

When he was in charge of Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), there was a time when the bank paid the lowest salaries on the island. Asked why, he said he prides DBS as the training center for Singapore bankers. The mass migration to the other banks continued unabated. To halt the stampede, he quietly revised the pay scales to match the market rates.

Then he killed the POSB girl. Many, including yours truly, closed all their accounts and moved their money to another bank, any bank. Queried by the press, he boasted that the impact of the POSB takeover was minimal. Insiders reported a different story, and POSB was revived.

When SingaPolitics wrote in the Sunday Times that "a rare breed of leader (was) lost with Dhana's exit", they must have originally intended a piece on fiction.

Yesterday Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen warned of a new threat on the horizon: the distortion or false information, rumours and smears that emanate from the Internet. That's nothing new. We have seen with our own eyes the source of the distortion, rumours and smears, and mostly it is from the 149 ranked mainstream media.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Headline Makers

Two party faithfuls made the news, albeit not for reasons to cheer about.

The former MP of Joo Chiat Constituency was  fined $2,000 and disqualified from driving for 12 months for DUI (drink driving). “It was totally not intended at all, I made a wrong decision of driving there… it was due to my carelessness,” was how he explained maneuvering his vehicle into a police checkpoint and failing the breath analyzer test. Chan Soo Sen has been sore even since he was dropped from the 2011 GE sweepstakes race, and often seen at Hokkien clan gatherings imbibing huge amounts of strong liquor and belting out at the karaoke mike. His drinking buddy was recently hospitalised for suspected alcoholic poisoning.

The other (existing) MP will go down in history as the man who let Mas Selamat Kastari go out through the toilet window. Andrew Kuan - remember that presidential candidate hopeful? - always said Wong is a hard man. Ever popular with his grassroots leaders, he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He was inducted at the same time as Lee Hsien Loong. And since latter was made minister of state immediately after the elections, someone else had to promoted quickly too. Else the rumour mill will be rife with accusations of cronyism and nepotism. The press statement said Wong will need 2 months to recover from a operation to "remove a small lesion from his liver". The poor guy lives in morbid fear of the "c" word. He lost his mother, and two sisters were visited with the incurable disease.

In the 2013 American romantic drama "Before Midnight", Celine (Julie Delpy) tells her husband Jesse (Ethan Hawke) about a friend who found out he had leukemia, and the first thought that came to his mind was relief. Before the discovery, he always had to worry about money. And he was like, great, now he had more than enough money to live the next 9 months. Never doubt the power of positive thinking.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Disasters At The Mike

Obama's theme of change was invoked by at least two speakers recently. The first was in a sermon that alluded to an apology from a higher authority:
"My son, Kong, thank you, thank you for going through this. I need you to go through this alone, so that you and CHC can be the man and the ministry I called it to be. I'm so sorry, but you need to go through this by yourself, to bring a change to your generation."

We have a guy who also claimed to be able to rise from the dead ("Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up." - 1988 National Day rally), but you'll never hear him utter the "s" word. At best, as when he recanted asking a minority group to be "less strict" with their religion, he would concede a "I stand corrected".

The other speaker who mentioned Obama in passing was this year’s valedictorian of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU's) School of Humanities and Social Science who simply could not resist cocking a snook at the linguistic skills of the Chinese nationals at his campus, “This (something about honouring parents, not peers) is especially so  for the Chinese majors who probably have not gotten what I just said in English.” His speech was vetted by NTU, but he could sneak in the insult because, as he put it, "Guess who's at the mike?" A valedictorian is supposed to be the highest ranking among his or her graduating class, not dog pile.

With these two hard acts to follow, prime minister Lee will need to work doubly hard at his National Day Rally (NDR) 2013 speech scheduled for August 18th. At least we should be spared the hissing delivery style of a Lim Swee Say, punctuated by the sound of air escaping from the gaps of teeth pried apart by tooth picks purloined from elitist eating establishments. There's good reason why dental floss and toothbrushes are recommended means of dental hygiene. Don't expect much too much of a change though, trains will continue to break down, dirty money flow in, prices go up, crowding resume at all manner and mode of infrastructure as usual. The one surprise was the detailed disclosure about BTO flats for singles. Previously, "goodies" were announced at the NDR speech, and followed by "my minister will provide the details."