Thursday, October 31, 2013

From Cruise Ship To Sampan

Koh Buck Song's choice of a metaphor was pretty neat. The cruise ship is just a floating version of Hotel Singapura, where foreigners are perennially welcomed to enjoy themselves on short stays while the locals struggle to maintain the vessel ship shape for the long haul. Heck, young men are mandated to sacrifice two best years of their lives to bear arms and defend the premises so the high rollers can live it up at the casinos, F-1 races and what not.

One reason Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong got his knickers in a twist over the commentary ("Sink the old sampan, S'pore now a cruise ship", ST 28 Oct 2013) could be the reference to the inequality of life that has come about. You can book a table for fine dining, or join the buffet line - we're talking hawker center, food court or restaurant here. The elites have $10 XO sauce chye tow kuay, the minions have $3 two meat and one vegetable fare. Moreover, like the voyage aboard the Titanic, when survival is at stake, first class passengers have priority over the cattle class.  The analogy of limited life-boats brings to mind there's no shortage of Sentosa Cove type developments, while public housing is always in short supply.

Then there's the rude reminder that "cruising is a well-oiled business with precise planning and untiring hard work behind the scene." The fact that trains break down with embarrassing frequency, roofs collapse at shopping malls and floods continue to disrupt daily living confirm that the people who are supposed to keep the system well-oiled are not as hard working, or as bright, as the first generation political leaders. It all makes sense only if they pay themselves sampan wages.

If the country is not yet a cruise ship, it must be more like a Roman galley. With the citizens chained to the oars, while the party is going on at upper decks. Each time some big shot drops in to make an inspirational speech to spur the rowers on, one is reminded of the joke:
"I have some good news and some bad news," the galley master told the rowing slaves, toiling at the oars. "The good news is that today's gruel ration will be doubled. The bad news is that the captain wants to go water skiing."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Sight For Sore Eyes

You gotta see it to believe it. Located at Jurong Street 21, and winner of the BCA Green Mark Award 2013 (Platinum), is a brand new building with the name emblazoned in big bold letters:
Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability.

It is the site of two new centres set up by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to support low-wage workers and professionals, managers and executives (PME). NTUC Secretary-General Lim Swee Say himself was the one who announced the "one-stop centres" during a dialogue session with union leaders at the institute on Tuesday, 3 September 2013. Will miracles never cease.

Devan Nair is the ex-president who resigned under contentious circumstances in 1985. Prime Minister of the day Lee Kuan Yew aired the dirty linen in Parliament about alcohol fueled fondling of nubile lasses in Borneo longhouses during a state visit, attributable to alcoholism which Nair vehemently denied. For a while, his blackened name was acronym for No Alcohol I Resign.

In 1999, the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail was sued by Lee over an article about the acrimonious parting of friends. Lee's press secretary Yeong Yoon Yiong challenged the New York Times for reporting the suit was dropped because of a countersuit filed by Nair:
"In fact, the suit also took issue with defamatory allegations that Nair made against Lee, and Lee agreed to discontinue it only when two of Nair's sons issued a statement, reported in the Globe and Mail on July 1, 2004, maintaining that Nair was no longer mentally competent to give evidence in court."

The sons' statement acknowledged that "the article quoted Nair as saying that Lee had Singapore government doctors slip hallucinatory drugs to Nair to make him appear befuddled." And the statement concluded that "having reviewed the records, and on the basis of the family's knowledge of the circumstances leading to Mr. Nair's resignation as president of Singapore in March, 1985, we can declare that there is no basis for this allegation." It was a biggy when Lee turned on his comrade-in-arms who spent serious time in prison to fight the colonial Brits. That his own flesh and blood would turn against him must be worse torment than a dank British cell..

One of his sons is none other than Janadas Devan, Chief of Government Communications at the Ministry of Communication and Information (CGC). More famously, he gained notoriety as the ghost writer of Teo Ho Pin's long winded exposition about the Action Information Management (A.I.M.) dealings. Janada's pensmanship may come in useful again if Lim Swee Say needs a fairy tale accounting of the naming of the building at Jurong Street 21.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lawless In Singapore

Established in 1999, the annual Transport Gold Awards were intended to encourage higher standards of service quality in the public transport domain. This year the joint National Kindness Award – Transport Gold is a collaboration with the Land Transport Authority, Traffic Police, 13 public transport companies and two transport associations.

This year, 425 service stars were awarded to front line staff and drivers from the public transport companies and associations to honour their exemplary service for offering commuters a more pleasant travelling experience.

See no evil, hear no evil....
Too bad none of the nominees were around when the poor lady received a face wash from the deranged spitting man at the Woodlands Bus Interchange. The official statement from SMRT said the police was contacted, and their intervention was awaited. Meanwhile uniformed staff stood by, a safe distance away, while the stoic victim of the physical abuse put up with the indignities.

At another public place, security guard Mak exercised his initiative to shoo away a man peddling key chains at The Cathay's Open Plaza. When the peddler turned aggressive and attacked the guard, the latter's black belt in taekwondo came in handy. Unfortunately, in the eyes of officialdom, it was the wrong call. His employer said what he should have done instead was to contact the control room. The police apparently subscribes to similar protocol, encouraging "anyone with information to lodge a report so that they can look at the facts and circumstances of the case before taking any appropriate actions." In other words, follow the example of the long suffering lady, just take the torrential rain of saliva in good stride until the boys in blue finally show up. If they bother to show up at all.

The law intervened more weightily in the case of the dog who was put down because it turned aggressive and bit his owner. The law minister himself, no less, called for interested parties to lawyer up. Sun Xu, if you are reading this, we owe you an apology. Indeed, there may be more dogs than people in Singapore.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monster On Two Wheels

The big "W" behind is for Wanker
Parliamentary Secretary for Transport and Health Dr Faishal's Facebook post about a road bully of Australian origin rings a bell: "Instead of assigning blame, it is important for us to remember that we must be gracious and respect one another on the roads."

It has to be a paraphrase of Member of Parliament (Tampines GRC) Baey Yam Keng's ringing endorsement of PRC scholar Sun Xu's diatribe (“There are more dogs than people in Singapore”) directed at our senior citizens: "We need to reflect upon ourselves, are we the way they described?"

It all looks so familiar: Foreigner Talents 1, Singaporeans 0.

Faishal's expressed rapport is for a serial cyclist offender, striking terror into motorists unfortunate to share the same roads. The housewife was driving home to her condominium at Keppel Bay when she had a brush with the monster on wheels: “He was violent, aggressive and used vulgarities. He even threatened at one point that he’d make sure I got my licence revoked.” The guy who is giving Aussies a bad name banged his fist on her car window, and reached in to open the door. The New Paper quoted Kenneth's version of the run in, “She tried to run me over.” He claims to have started cycling at age 3, dating his terrorist days all the way to the kindergarten sand pit.

Just last week, my female colleague was flabbergasted when a Caucasian jogger ran straight into the side of her stationary SUV, and then hurled invectives at her for being in his way. Unlike Kenneth's milder victim, she gave him a tongue lashing and threatened to call the cops if he persisted with the nonsense. The best way to treat such abominations is to face them down, not take the contemplative route advocated by Faisal and Baey.

Although a police report has been made, it remains to be seen if the road bully will get away with a slap on the wrist. For all we know, the parliamentarians may use the incident to initiate a "Be Kind To Foreign Talents" campaign, tapping the $10 million fund made available to the National Integration Council for the welcoming party for foreigners. Channel NewsAsia (CNA) quoted the police as saying "appropriate actions will be taken against the parties involved if they are found to have flouted any rules", implying that the motorist could be taken to task for not being sympathetic to road users who cannot afford a $100K COE.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Properly Fixed

Hours after being convicted for 6 charges of corruption and sentenced to 5 months in prison, law associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Tey Tsun Hang was dismissed by his employer. Tey claims that Dean of NUS Law Faculty Simon Chesterman had telephoned to apologise a few days later, saying that he had merely been the executor of orders from upstairs.

It would have been nice to have Lieutenant-General Desmond Kuek apologise for the sacking of blogging trainman "Gintai", citing similar lame excuse of merely being the executor of orders from upstairs. It would fit nicely into the template of rule by law, not of law. Really langgar.

SMRT Director for Media and Marketing Communications Ms Boey said that his "misconduct" would have compromised the public as well as his own safety, giving impression that Gintai was a recalcitrant repeat offender. Boey would not divulge further how many times he was counselled and how many warning letters he had ignored. Apparently entering the train via the rear cab instead of the front one was deemed an act of "compromising safety and security breaches." By those draconian standards, the CEO who stinged on maintenance to maximise bonuses should have been sent to the firing squad.

Gintai may have dedicated 18 years of his working life making sure the trains were launched on time, but he compromised his own safety and security when he blogged from 20 Oct 2011 to 20 Oct 2012. Unbeknownst to this innocent soul, his career was already derailed when some Benedict Arnold of a grassroots volunteer delivered him to the den of K. Shanmugan over a post on affordability of HDB flats. Be aware of smiling tigers. The Bard had warned:
Where we are,
There's daggers in men's smiles: the near in blood,
The nearer bloody. 

Gintai was also accused of passing an underground station without stopping, but the experienced train officer knew it was on auto mode. What he is learning the hard way is that the executing hands are always in control, always on the look out to fix the opposition. Whether the SMRT CEO was another pawn, like Simon the law faculty dean, or the one with finger on the firing button is another addition to the skeletons in the cupboard. On the day of reckoning, those with stained hands will have a hard time hiding:
"Here's the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
little hand. O, O, O! "

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Being Poor Is Your Own Fault

At the dinner table was a friend holding a USA passport, trying to explain the 401K system. He also compared Social Security with our CPF system, the key difference being that CPF is our own individual money. Social Security is a pool, from which the needy has access to contributions from the well off. If your CPF account can't even meet with Minimum Sum requirements, even Bill Gates can't help you. With CPF, you die, your problem.

The Economist really nailed it when they wrote about "The Stingy Nanny", providing the best quote about the (lack of) welfare in Singapore:
"The state's attitude can be simply put: being poor here is your own fault. Citizens are obliged to save for the future, rely on their families and not expect any handouts from the government unless they hit rock bottom. The emphasis on family extends into old age: retired parents can sue children who fail to support them. In government circles “welfare” remains a dirty word, cousin to sloth and waste. Singapore may be a nanny state, but it is by no means an indulgent nanny."

The author has obviously done his/her research well, with insights accessible only from the ground level:
"Even among the social workers who work in hard-hit communities there is surprisingly little frustration at the meagreness of the handouts on offer or at the lengthy application process. One explains that Singapore needs to weed out undeserving claimants and shakes his head at the potential cost of a comprehensive welfare service. Yet in his next breath he mentions a number of local families who have been forced to sleep rough since mortgage lenders foreclosed on their flats."

As expected, the government would not allow such views to go unopposed. In challenging so, Michael Eng Cheng Teo, High Commissioner for Singapore in London, added salt to the wound by confirming the cold-hearted approach: "Each generation must earn and save enough for its entire life cycle." Never mind if the individual happened to be born physically or mentally challenged. Or sudden disease has struck down a once healthy bread winner. You die, your problem.

There are exceptions of course, the most glaring example being the nonagenarian who is drawing full MP allowance without performing the minimal of MP duties, piled on top on multiple counts of pension draw downs.

High Commissioner Eng's Parthian shot is typical official response: "The burden of proof is on its critics to demonstrate that their proposals will in fact work". While paying themselves handsomely, they expect others to come up with solutions to problems created by themselves in the first place. The form for welfare that exists in Singapore is spelt differently. It's "Wealth-fare", the buffet spread laid out for high networth individuals welcomed with attractive income tax rates, waiver of estate duty and other goodies like trading in gold without worrying about additional tariffs.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

No Poverty Line Please, We Are Singaporeans

Not only is his EQ level suspect, the keechiu general may need to have his IQ reassessed. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said that "Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance."

The real catastrophe the Mad-dog General is trying to sweep under the carpet is the Pandora's Box that will be opened. Hong Kong's government-appointed Commission on Poverty has set its first poverty line at half of the median monthly household income. By doing so, it is boldly confronting the problems of wealth gap, labour disquiet, housing affordability and myriad problems that come about when the rich have too much, while the poor are ignored. Politicians may tell you different, money is a zero sum game. The MG does not have the cajones to face facts like the top 1% in Singapore has an annual salary that is more than 58 times that of the bottom 3.4%.

In economics, cliff effect is the disproportionately positive or negative result of an action. In telecommunications, the (digital) cliff effect or brickwall effect describes the sudden loss of digital signal reception, where the digital signal "falls off a cliff" instead of having a gradual rolloff. Chan's version is that by  using a single poverty line to assess the family status, those below the poverty line will receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line will be excluded. Well, the means test - which Khaw Boon Wan promised not to implement, then went ahead after the elections - has already afflicted that kind of damage several times over.

The "cliff effect" we have seen is the 60.1 percent of the 2011 electorate marching like lemmings into the dark void. And if they continue to swallow the bit about being able to receive "all forms of assistance", more will be tipped into the abyss of lies in 2016.

The truth is that you have to grovel before a member of parliament being getting a $10 food voucher at the weekly meet-the-people session (MPS). If you happen to be starving to death in the interim between MPS days, don't bother to call. There's no help centre giving out food stamps within walking distance. Vouchers to help pay for utilities are harder to come by, last we heard, those are not available at opposition wards.

Someone hiring a maid for the time learnt that the maid levy for a caregiver is halved if her aging mother is above 65. Her maid agency was ignorant of the fact. The social worker who told her about the "discount" disclosed the useful input like divulging a state secret. The government does dole out financial assistance, they are just too damn stingy about it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

HIdden In The Budget

The quote is from the 29 July 2013 Defence Writers Group interview of General Herbert J. "Hawk" Carlisle, Commander, Pacific Air Forces. "Hawk" was expounding on the Theater Security Plan of the United States Air Force, balancing of their "rotational presence" through the Pacific, increasingly moving south to Darwin, Tindal, Changi East in Singapore, CARAT in Thailand, Trivandrum in India.

If anyone missed the reference, Hawk also talked about the speed of response of the Navy, "And again, going into Singapore, for example, for the USS Freedom that's there now. Our ability to land at [Pilbara], Changi East and unload and reload right away with [assembling] LCSes in the — that’s one of our ConOps."

We may not have achieved the Swiss standard of promised - except maybe for the elites and their cronies - but it must make better sense to aim for the Swiss standard of neutrality. The Swiss Confederation  has not been in a state of war internationally since 1815, and its non-alignment with warlike factions must have contributed to its suitability as the  birthplace of the Red Cross and home to a large number of international organizations, including the second largest UN office. That stance has not prevented it from pursuing an active foreign policy and being involved in peace-building processes around the world.

Welcoming the American military hardware to Changi to "rebalance to the Pacific" when China is getting antsy about Diaoyu Islands doesn't sound very prudent a strategic move. Especially when we already have so many PRCs in-country. When push comes to shove, identity crisis may clash with nationalistic loyalties. Dogs are known to bite those who feed them, we have seen one ugly episode when our own senior citizens have been castigated as canine equivalents.

The most troubling bit about Hawk's statement is about "where they're are putting it in their budget". If Uncle Sam does not have the answer to that, you can bet Uncle Tony Tan will not be volunteering the information any time soon. Unlike the US, which has committees to oversee defence procurement, Singaporeans are treated like mushrooms in this purchase - keep them in the dark, and feed them shit. Even with the price of the F-35B having fallen to US$104 million per aircraft (sans engines, which have to be bought separately), that's an awful lot of money that could be expended on making housing affordable and transportation reliable.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Going After James

Acting Minister Tan Chuan-Jin was talking about the ire stirred up by discriminatory job advertisements, in blatant breach of the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, when he counselled, "It is important to not stoke up hate and ill-will as some are doing.” One can understand that the PRCs, India Indians, Bangla and Pinoys, flown in to take away jobs and swamp the limited spaces of housing and transportation, will bear the blunt of the negative sentiments, but the real targets are shirking the blame.

That is about the only way to comprehend the raw hatred expressed by the Sunday Times feature writer.

Dinki di Aussies are nice people, especially the country folk at places like the wheat bins of Ejanding, Minnivale, Western Australia. Not only do they throw an extra shrimp and chook on the barbie for the guest, they even let you try their mean version of a home brew.

James is not able to defend himself, but it was unlikely he blew his gaskets if he was enlightened nicely about the Singaporeans only party. The one organised in a public garden by the Overseas Singapore Unit (OSU) of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). Their apologists are even attempting to lay blame on the park management for allowing external organisations to book a public space for exclusive events. Ergo, the OSU, proxy of the PMO, can do no wrong.

One could speculate that the author ("Guard against the tyranny of the minority") did not have a pleasant experience during her last visit Down Under. Maybe they mistook her for a bloke, instead of a sheila, But the picture used for her byline is not exactly the mugshot of a face only a mother could love, the hate can't originate from her personal self.

The big picture has to do with identifying the real culprits. The guys who make the mistakes but refuse to concede their failures of falling on the job. Sigmund Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity, allowing people to function normally in culturally acceptable ways. In a sense, the true negative thoughts have been merely sublimated into angry voices. It is unlikely the wimps in white can handle the uglier alternative of being physically tarred and feathered.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Wet Blanket

Minister for Law K Shanmugam was first to cheer the announcement that SIM University (UniSIM) was chosen to host Singapore's third law school. Earlier in May this year, he had welcomed the recommendations of the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers to establish a new law school. On his Facebook pages, Shanmugam expressed delight that "we have today reached another milestone".

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat was just as effusive, "Many new university sector learning opportunities are in the making, to better cater to the diverse aspirations of our young." During Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) sessions, Heng had asked students what they want to be when they grow up, and was confounded with answers "involving terms which I am completely unfamiliar with." He concluded, "Unless we are able to create opportunities, many of our young people are going to be disappointed."

Parents are just relieved that their kids with qualifying grades can have a better chance of studying in a local university, instead of being displaced by foreigners admitted with shady academic records. And having to downgrade their accommodation to finance the expense of an overseas university education.

So what was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thinking of when he said tertiary education should not only be about increasing university places? He even put a damper on the success of the National University of Singapore (NUS) being ranked as the top university in Asia according  to the latest global rankings from higher education information provider Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), by saying "universities here should not be measured solely by their international rankings." A wet blanket is defined as a dull or depressing person who spoils other people's enjoyment.

He quoted South Korea where, we are told, 70 percent of each cohort attend university but unemployment among university graduates is higher than that among graduates of vocational schools. And in Denmark, over a quarter are unable to find a job a year after graduation. He is worried about delivering what a good government promises - jobs for its own people.

So when the future generation ends up being crane operators and domestic helps, the people have themselves to be blamed. Unless you subscribe to the spin that these are skills that are relevant to the future (of Singapore). Or are able to put up with the logic of Khaw Boon Wan:
"You own a degree, but so what? You can't eat it. If that cannot give you a good life, a good job, it is meaningless."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Training For Prospective Lawyers

When Chief District Judge Tan Siong Thye passed sentence on National University of Singapore (NUS) law professor Tey Tsun Hang in June 2013, it was reported that his supporters - about 10 former students, former colleagues and friends who had been religiously showing up in court - cried and hugged him after the horny professor was found guilty of corruption. Even his $150,000 bail was posted in part by colleague and associate professor Chan Wing Cheong.

Tey's affiliation with the legal circles was not limited to NUS. He was previously Law Clerk to the former Chief Justice of Singapore, District Judge of the Subordinate Courts, and State Counsel at the Legislation Division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers of Singapore. He was a member of the editorial committees of the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies and the Singapore Journal of International and Comparative Law, and the Executive Committee of the Centre for Commercial Law Studies. Until 2008, he was the Deputy Chief Editor of Singapore Year Book of International Law. He was the Director of Centre for Commercial Law Studies and the Editor of the Asian Journal of Comparative Law.

Someone with such impeccable credentials should know about the law, or so we thought.

At the least, Tey should know the ramification for not showing up for his appeal - which was strangely launched after he had already served his sentence - the Criminal Procedure Code allows judges to throw out cases where appellants are absent. His own lawyer was informed of his planned absence 5 minutes before the court proceedings started, which reflects the kind of respect the don has for him, and other like professionals, in the legal system.

Why then, one might ask, bother to produce a new law school ("SIM University to host third law school") to focus on training prospective lawyers if law teachers don't know, or respect, the law? Professor Simon Chesterman and Dean of NUS Law Faculty said the new programme will increase options for Singaporean students with a passion for law - not nubile law students - and help ensure access to justice for all. Chesterman is rumoured to sympathise with Tey's predicament, supposedly holding view that the punishment was too harsh for philandering predilections. What is not rumour is that Chesterman is related to The President by marriage.

Don't even get started about "access to justice for all". High Court Justice Tay Yong Kwang has just dismissed an application for judicial review over the inquiry into Dinesh Ramesh's death. Apparently the Coroner’s Notes reveal that the Coroner asked one and only question, “What should he (prison officer) have done?” Pontius Pilate is reputed to have asked, "Truth? What is truth?" (Latin Quid est veritas?) and would not stay for an answer.  Tharman Shanmugaratnam is not a lawyer, but his answer (for Charles Goodyear’s abrupt resignation from Temasek Holdings) could well be taken as law:
"People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Exclusivity For Elites Only

Member of parliament in charge of the area, Teo Ser Luck, torpedoed the nascent formation of a Filipino sub-committee to cater exclusively for the Tagalog speaking community of Punggol Central. Teo “counselled the RC members” behind the idea and told them that creating such nationality-based sub-committees was not the right approach to integrate the spectrum of foreigners welcomed into the crowded city. Pity, the group could be useful for spearheading disaster relief for victims of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in the Philippines.

Meanwhile down under, organisers of a "Singaporean only" event face charges of breaching anti-discrimination laws for turning away Caucasians at the door. The Royal Botanic Gardens acting executive director, Brett Summerell, told The Daily Telegraph the organisers booked the premises for the entire day and had originally promised to only turn people away if they were at full capacity.

Accusations of racism were let fly after two white men, father and son, were allegedly barred from entering Sydney's Botanic Gardens because they were not Singaporeans. Irate people phoned 2GB radio talkback host Ben Fordham to complain that "white people" had been "turned away in droves" from the Singapore Day event.

The Singapore Day website stated in no uncertain terms that the event is "an exclusive event for Singaporeans and their families". Proud attendee Anthony Sim took to his blog to applaud the organisers, "It is quite heart-warming to know we are not alone. Everyone of us were on the same page," Sim penned. "There were no PRCs, India Indians, Bangla or Pinoys to annoy us." It would appear fair dinkum Australians were included in the persona non grata mix.

Boy, is Sim in for a surprise when he returns to Singapore. There's an ongoing $10 million welcoming party for the pesky foreigners, spearheaded by some National Integration Council. If he wants to hang out with core Singaporeans only, he may have to be more sensitive to the denizens of his host country.

Buggered by the unpleasant whiff of xenophobia, Mr Summerell huffed, "Obviously it has created a bit of community concern and that is enough for me to review it and see if it's appropriate for the Botanic Gardens to be involved with them in the future."
"We've had a lot of participation from our Singaporeans here."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Half Empty Or Half Full

Is the glass half empty or half full? Should you break out the bottle of champagne to celebrate? The lame stream media boasts of "strong showing" due to recovery in manufacturing and expansion in services that resulted in better-than-expected third quarter growth of 5.1%. Just the thing to kick in a GDP related bonus.

Look at the table carefully. The bottle half has more negative numbers.

Vishnu Varathan, senior economist at Mizuho Bank told CNBC on Monday, pouring cold water on the jubilation, "I expect growth to be rather volatile. Singapore is vulnerable through trade and financial channels, I think it's going to be a bumpy recovery." He was pointing to the advance estimate showing the city-state's economy shrinking 1.0 percent on quarter in the July-September period, instead of a gloomier expected 3.6 percent contraction, and a significant deceleration from 16.9 percent growth in the previous three months. Hang on to those bonus cheques. Unlike Ngiam Tong Dow's astute observations, once issued, these cannot be retracted.

Somebody gets the credit, and somebody gets shafted when the economy tanks. Singapore’s Minister of Finance, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, was just named "Finance Minister of the Year 2013" and is slated to receive the award during a private presentation at the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington this week.

In conferring the award, Euromoney painted Tharman as having played “an over-arching role in enabling Singapore to shift its growth model from population-driven to productivity-driven expansion”. Euromoney must have missed out on the Population White Paper report. As for productivity, they should check up on the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website to get a better picture of the struggle to stay above water. Business Times ("Need to tweak policies on productivity and workforce") summarised it quite succinctly:
"It is indeed vital for Singapore to reduce reliance on cheap foreign labour and raise productivity. This mantra needs to be taken more seriously and more effort needs to be put in place, especially if we want to reduce the widening gap between top and low earners here."

IMF must have good reasons for the vote of confidence. It was in September 2009 when Singapore first announced it will "significantly expand" its contribution to the resources of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the tune of 2 billion U.S. dollars under its New Arrangements to Borrow (NAB). This represented an increase of US$1.5 billion from the then existing contribution under the NAB. Singapore had been a contributor to the NAB since its inception in 1998.

Questions were raised in Parliament in July 2012 about the US$4 billion generosity pledged to the IMF. The Prime Minister's explanation was not convincing: “In the event that Singapore’s commitment is tapped upon, the money will not come from the Government Budget." As long as the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has unfettered access to the cookie jar via all sorts of inventive accounting entries, there is nothing to stop the Singapore government from making bad investment decisions and squandering our hard earned reserves. Once again, is the glass half empty or half full?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Silencing Of The Lamb

A simple "I stand corrected" obviously would not suffice. Still, it is sad to see someone of his senior citizen status to stoop and grovel, and eat his own words. For someone who once had the chutzpah and panache to declare, "I have always been outspoken," the taste must be as disagreeable as canine excrement.

In an unsolicited "Clarification Statement" dated 10 October, former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, 60(?), retracted his earlier remarks documented in the Singapore Medical Association newsletter.

He is recanting the charge that today's ministers are afraid of speaking up in Cabinet because of their high salaries, saying it was "illogical" and unfair. Original quote from SMA interview:
"When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister – no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever – will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him."

He also recanted labelling the ministers as elitist, claiming that he had spoken without realising many in fact come from humble backgrounds. Original quote from SMA interview:
"The first generation of PAP was purely grassroots, but the problem today is that PAP is a bit too elitist. I think that they don’t feel for the people; overall, there is a lack of empathy."

The other things he had to say sounded awfully like the scripted 1988 televised confessions of the "Marxist conspirators":
  • "...I have not attended any cabinet meetings, and have never seen one chaired by PM Lee Hsien Loong. Thus my statement that ministers will not speak their minds before PM Lee is unfair as it was made without knowing what actually happens at cabinet meetings today." 
  • "I have been told by civil servant colleagues that cabinet discussions are robust - as robust as they were when I attended cabinet meetings as PS (PMO), when Mr Goh Chok Tong was PM, and Mr Lee Hsien Loong DPM."
  • "They have no reason not to speak their minds when they are convinced that they are doing right by Singaporeans."
Ngiam nuked the last semblance of his credibility when he segued into saying he knows "some ministers have given up successful and well-paying careers in the private sector to join politics at lower pay, while others could have chosen to join the private sector to make more money but did not". Age 60 is too early for senility to set in and, ruling out lobotomy - the operation would be expensive even with his life time civil service free medical entitlement - one has to conclude that a Faustian pact with the devil must have been contemplated to stave off an unpleasant trip to the woodshed.

Friday, October 11, 2013

SNAFU At Singtel

Situation Normal, All Fouled Up
The fire was so insignificant, it took only 20 minutes to put out. Or so we were told. Then the number of cables damaged was revised from 33 to 51 on Thursday morning, when normal service was supposed be restored by 6 am of same day. This was subsequently changed to 7 am on Friday for corporations affected, and 7 pm for residential services.

Something was already wrong when internet services went on the blink at around 3 pm on Wednesday afternoon. The Singtel hotline was no help, with their useless robotic responses and irksome elevator music. About 2 hours later, a pre-recorded message made reference to a fire at their Bukit Panjang exchange. Another couple of hours later, even the hotline gave up the ghost, inundated by irate callers. The radio or television broadcasts provided little or no clues. It was only much later at night that the scrolling news feed made cursory mention of the cable meltdown at Singtel. Onscreen the videos were about a fire in Bangladesh (?) or some disaster in other faraway countries. Could this be due to one clown's grouse about Singaporeans focusing attention on the roof collapse at a Jurong shopping mall, instead of the shoot out at a Nairobi shopping mall?

100 mobile base stations, 60,000 fixed broadband lines, around 30,000 mioTV customers, and around 30,000 voice lines were affected. As of Friday morning, the total number of cables damaged was updated to 149. As for the accounting of information coming in by dribs and drabs, we are told the fibre chamber - one of three at the exchange - measured "only 40m by 5m". Meaning it took a long while for someone to dare venture into the actual site to assess the exact scale of the disaster. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said he was “quite happy” with the way SingTel handled the disruption.

While waiting for the service LED on the modem to come back to life, many Singtel subscribers must have wished they have an alternative access to the world wide web.

When the data cables were laid for the distributed communication system (DCS) at Pulau Seraya Power Station, we were surprised that the industry standard dual pair of ethernet lines - one active, one on standby mode - was considered insufficient redundancy protection by the power engineers. They had insisted on another dual pair, routed separately, in case an errant forklift truck or excavator should cut into one pair, and trigger a national blackout. This was one wise career move.

The companies whose services were brought down by Singtel, including ATMs operated by DBS, UOB and OCBC, must have wished they had satellite dishes installed for internet access. Only corporations are permitted to have such equipment, private residential homes in Singapore are barred from receiving signals from the sky. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have no such ban from this communication alternative.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Belated Birthday Felicitations

It was not the perfect birthday greeting ("Happy birthday you old coot", Phnom Penh Post, 23 Sep 2013), but Roger Mitton had to begrudge that Lee Kuan Yew had always been among the most rewarding interview subjects. At his close encounter of an unpleasant kind at a National Day reception in 1991, Mitton's polite enquiry about an Asiaweek cover story was gruffly rebuffed with, “Oh? Is that important? Does it matter whether I am happy or unhappy with it?”

Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent with Asiaweek and a former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for the Straits Times. While working at Asiaweek, Burma's U Sein Win said of him, "Mitton seems to have a spy network everywhere in Burma... if you are bored with politics in Burma, you will be amused (reading Mitton’s stories). His inside stories are very entertaining."

If Mitton had been frequently criticized for writing stories that were seen to be pro-junta, Tom Plate shares similar barbs from American journalists for penning accommodating stories about another strongman.

In his version of a birthday greeting of a different kind, Plate explained his unfettered access in the opinion piece "The good side of Singapore icon Lee Kuan Yew" (Japan Times, 22 Sep 03):

As far as I know, Lee never denied me an interview if he was in town and available and I once asked an aide why. The answer was something like, for one thing, my being the first American journalist who didn’t try to tell him how to run Singapore!

Plate once actually asked Lee why he bothered with an interview by him. Lee responded with a look as if Plate was crazy: “Because it is my job to influence the people who influence people’s opinions about Singapore.” Whatever. Plate's book about the old coot did help launch his series of Giants of Asia books that followed (Mahathir of Malaysia, Thaksin of Thailand and Ban Ki-moon of South Korea). Some will call the Faustian deal a classic example of quid pro quo.

Whether you subscribe to Mitton's or Plate's perspective of one man depends on your political agenda. The man himself doesn't exactly help when, as the Huffington Post review of Plate's Conversations book highlighted:
Lee Kuan Yew only seems off base when he violates his own rules. For example, he projects from his experience with Malaysians that America will inevitably decline as Latinos dilute the Anglo-Saxon core America once was.

This is the same man who wrote on page 223 of his 'One Man’s View Of The World' book, "DPM Teo Chee Hean has put up a White Paper. Let’s wait a few years for it to be implemented, to see if the measures work”. Did he really mean to see if Singapore will inevitably decline as foreigners dilute the core Singapore once was?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Chicken Games

According to CNN International, Singapore's prime minister openly criticized the United States over the government shutdown and ongoing deadlock over the debt ceiling, calling them "problems you have created for yourself in a game of chicken."

CNN's interviewer Patricia Wu turned the tables back on him, asking if the U.S. would benefit from a system like Singapore's, where government ministers are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars (actually the figures are in the millions) in salaries. Predictably, Lee gave the stock answer, that he believes his country runs a clean system in which officials are paid "what their job is worth and what the quality of people is worth." Lee actually said, "We may have competitive salaries but we are far from being the richest law makers in the world."

The game of chicken, as played out in the local context, is "Killing the Chickens to Scare the Monkeys". Quite different from the game of chicken (also referred to as playing chicken) in which two players engage in an activity that will result in dire consequences unless one of them backs down in time.

No local media journalist would dare to play that game. Even to call out the obvious white lies about "competitive salaries" and "far from being the richest". In April this year, the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama will voluntarily return 5 percent of his US$400,000 annual salary to the United States Treasury, in a demonstration of solidarity with federal employees who are seeing pay cuts or furloughs as a result of sequestration. To avoid embarrassing Mr Obama, Lee's salary, even after the token reduction to regain a few votes, will not be printed here.

Grace Fu's personal reaction to the compensation adjustment has been immortalised by her Facebook posting: "If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office." Now, that line sounds more like a game of chicken. Thanks to her subsequent promotion, her family "would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income".

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Intelligence At Stake

Scientists at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) just announced the discovery of molecular mechanism E2F, a DNA-binding protein that affects cell growth. Professor Nick La Thangue of Oxford University who supervised the project explains the unique properties of the potential cancer killer: "With the molecular flag on one shoulder, E2F goes into cell kill mode. With the flag on the other, it goes into cell growth mode."

Plenty of molecules come in two forms, identical except for the fact they are mirror images of each other. Scientists refer to them as left- and right-handed forms. One enduring quirk of nature is that the handedness of molecules matters, in some cases with profound consequences.

During the 1960s, Thalidomide was recommended to pregnant women to cope with morning sickness. As an unhappy result, more than 10,00 children are estimated to be born with major defects. The drug was administrated as a mixture of left- and right-handed molecules, but scientists now know that only one form addressed the morning sickness, the other caused the birth defects, probably by interfering with the activity of genes in the developing baby. The double helix of our DNA happens to be right-handed, as are the amino acids it is made of.

In 1988, Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam said in a lecture commemorating Paul Dirac, the failed engineer turned scientist who married quantum mechanics with relativity, "There is a growing confidence today that the electroweak force (from Steven Weinberg's November 1967 paper on elementary particle physics) is the true "force of life" and the Lord created the Z particle to provide handedness for the molecules of life." ("Massive, The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science", pages 86,87).

The book by Ian Sample, science correspondent at the Guardian, has lots of fascination inputs that would buttress support for Intelligent Design (ID), a version of the theological argument that suggests "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." The ID inherent in the complexity in nature is used to demonstrate the existence of God. However, non-intelligent instances of religious leaders scrapping for a fight with politicians in power, or utilising church funds to finance whorish music videos, make one wonder whether the designer or the design is flawed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Eroding Respect For The Teaching Profession

The subject of teachers caught moonlighting is in the news, this time scooped by the MSM and not social media. According to the figures quoted by SchTutors Tuition Agency, 60 percent of their staff of 3,000, or 1,800 in one center alone, are current Ministry of Education (MOE) teachers.

To demonstrate the dominance of pecuniary priority over pedagogy, one teacher puts it best: "It is a free market, giving tuition is very good money." Until we saw it in newsprint, many did not realise that MOE actually sanctions the go ahead for teachers to indulge in up to six hours of off hours private tuition a week. And to think online posts painted a pitiful picture of teachers too tied up with CCA work, and had to resort to private tuition to pursue their love for teaching. For once, credibility tips on the side of the MSM.

You can see how the slippery slope works. Teacher covers only part of the syllabus, and drops subtle hints in class that the balance is available after school hours at negotiable rates. No parent can resist the strategic advantage of having a private tutor who is also the form or subject teacher. India banned all teachers from giving private tuition last year, and errant teachers have been charged in court.  But enforcement remains challenging, as the educators are lowly paid and need other sources of income to put food on the table. Singaporean teachers, according to the Varkey GEMS Foundation Global Teacher Status Index
study, are the highest paid among 21 countries, earning an average annual salary of US$45,755, ahead of the United States' US$44,917 and South Korea's US$43,874.

Member of Parliament for Mountbatten Lim Biow Chuan must have been dropped on his head as a child. He actually said that disallowing teachers from giving tuition on the side could lead to "good, passionate teachers leaving the service." The passion has to be for money, not education.

To stomp down on corruption, the Public Service Division (PSD) recently made it mandatory that civil servants must make a declaration within seven days if they visit casinos more than four times a month or buy an annual pass for unlimited visits to local casinos. Officers in more critical roles than others, for instance in regulatory or enforcement jobs, will have to declare every visit to a local casino within seven calendar days. The MOE should also mandate that teachers must make a declaration of how many hours they are engaged in private tuition for extra curricular sources of income, and where the hell did they manage to find the extra time.

Friday, October 4, 2013

S'pore's Highest Paid Teachers

There is a new study out this October that ranks the status of teachers in various countries. It’s called the “Global Teacher Status Index ” and is published by the Varkey GEMS Foundation. The data was collected by the polling company Populous, which used a web based survey (WBS) instead of a conventional face-to-face (F2F) approach because, amongst other considerations, WBS is cheaper and faster. The Global Teacher Status index is the world's first comprehensive attempt to compare the status of teachers across the world.

According to the findings, teachers in the United States are paid considerably more than people estimate. They are also paid more than people think of as a fair amount.  The only other countries polled that think that teachers are paid more than they deserve in the survey are Japan, France, Singapore, South Korea, China and Egypt.

Singapore ranked 7th in the Teacher Status Index, with a score of 46.3. Apparently only a small percentage of Singaporeans believed children don't respect teachers, despite horror stories of pedophiles being awarded Ministry of Education scholarships, and school principals jailed for proclivities for under aged online prostitutes.

On the other hand, the majority of respondents believed that the fair wage for a teacher should be below what they are actually paid. As a matter of fact, they believed the teachers are overpaid by as much as 14 percent, since the average "qualifying teacher wage" of US$37,144 (S$46,400) is the highest among the all the nations in the study ("qualifying teacher wage" in USA is US$25,770). At least that's consistent, our prime minister is the highest paid among all the nations in the world.

It is no wonder that four in five respondents here — the fifth-highest proportion among the 21 nations surveyed — said they would encourage their children to pursue a career in teaching. Which parent wouldn't shove their kids in the direction of the big bucks? It looks all the money invested in private tuition may pay off after all.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Morality Tale

Pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) Lawrence Khong likes to claim that he is a man of principles, "I cannot allow a ruling that is passed that I feel is unjust to the church, that restricts the way we run a religious organisation." As an example of his principled rules, he maintains smoking is not acceptable for his employees - at the risk of termination - and it's not just that they can't smoke in the office, they can't smoke even outside or at home.

That could be one reason he has decided to take on Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, by asking the court to "give guidance" on the sanction to compensate an employee who was terminated without insufficient cause. Being an ex-military man, Tan is not accustomed to having his orders questioned, much less having to tangle with someone of such rigid convictions.

Engineers know that a rigid bar of metal can still be bent, stiffness is just the mechanical property of a solid body to resist deformation. Many years ago, Khong's daughter bore a child out of wedlock. Apparently the amorous young couple had the proverbial tumble in the haystack, strict parental upbringing notwithstanding, and a church sanctified marriage was not in the plan. Here's how Khong explained his non-malleable principles in that particular case of an unwanted (as in non-church approved) pregnancy:
"I understand it's not easy to be a single mother. However, I want to make the point that my daughter's case was different. My daughter was a single girl who made a mistake and was pregnant. In this case, she was a married woman who was in an adulterous relationship. I think the context is different. However, even for my daughter, I expect her to come to a place of repentance. We assigned leaders of the church to hold her accountable, to check on her. I took her off from any leadership role in the church until many years later. I hold the same standard for my own daughter."

If Khong could forgive his daughter and made her a pastor of his God fearing congregation, why is he not kinder to BG Tan? Some member of parliament once said Lui Tuck Yew would be uncomfortable meeting with CEOs if he was paid less than a million dollars. Hence, even after the token hair-cut, Lui is still one of Singapore's millionaires. Now, if Tan had been promoted to full minister, he could have been be spared the ignominy of having to show up in court like a common criminal. Is this just a case of "see me no up"?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Musings Of A Singapore Administrator

With forty years in the civil service, and a ringside seat with the likes of Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, Ngiam Tong Dow should have more war stories to tell about Singapore's history of governance, twists and turns, success and setbacks. Unfortunately the compilation of speeches, interviews and articles delivered and written between 2004 and 2010 quickly become repetitive, and the same anecdotes are sprinkled with each retelling.

Some are rehashed in the recent interview with Dr Toh Han Chong, published in the September issue of the Singapore Medical Association’s newsletter. Included are his pet peeves about F1 as a “frivolous” use of taxpayers’ money, what today’s younger politicians lack, and the folly of millionaire ministers.

In the light of Mah Bow Tan's revisionist recollection of the reason for his retirement (“There have been numerous rumours about why I resigned from the Cabinet, including bearing the responsibility for high HDB prices. I disagree."), some of Ngiam's quotes should be enumerated for posterity, lest our memories be challenged by unscrupulous politicians.

The secret origins of the COE:
Citing an example of creativity in government, Ngiam thought it was brilliant of Goh Keng Swee to put a tax on public utilities, arguing that the tax was small enough for people not to feel the pinch.
"Another example was is the Certificate of Entitlement. This was then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's idea. It is quite a feat to create money out of nothing. It is only a piece of paper, but the revenues are substantial." (page 138)

Planning for the floods:
It was the Ministry of Finance's practice of "robust" brand of economics that established Singapore's Bird Park at Jurong before the Zoo at Mandai because, Ngiam wrote, birdseed costs considerably less than meat for tigers and lions.
"The Ministry of Finance also rejected flood alleviation works at the Bukit Timah Canal. As it flooded only three or four times a year, it was too costly to build flood control works to enable motorists to arrive home in time for dinner." (page 122)

Separating chaff from the wheat:
Indranee Rajah may be forgiven for not understanding why tuition is essential for the PSLE survival course. At the heart of it is some notion why there should A* and "ordinary" A's. Ngiam thought it makes for the difference between the competent and entrepreneurial.
"I suggested to the National University of Singapore that we ask external examiners to set two out of ten examination questions from topics outside the core syllabus to identify the brilliant from the merely competent. We need to differentiate the firsts from the upper twos.
They told me I had misunderstood the external examination system. In fact, our own professors set all the questions." (page 134)

The Trojan Horse identified:
The politically correct story is that foreigners are essential to address the declining birth rate. Then there is the other story.
"Singapore's GDP increases of the last twenty years were due largely to expansion rather than growth. Import large numbers of foreign work permit holders enabled the economy to expand at GDP rates of 6-8 percent. Productivity stagnated at one percent. In some years it was negative.
This is the Archilles' heel of the Singapore success story. We expanded but did not grow. We scaled up but failed to skill up." (page 6)

Housing before Mah:
Once upon a time, HDB flats were truly affordable. Then the Minister invoked the existence of The Valuer who alone decides how much HDB has to pay for land, with rates marked to market. Back then, the valuer used to be a nicer guy.
"The chief valuer does not take into account the potential commercial value of the land. The economic rationale is that it it the state that builds the infrastructure, such as roads, utilities, sewerage, and rail transit systems.  The community pays for public infrastructure out of tax revenue." (page 148)

Enough of the Mah bashing already; another hit of the hammer, and his short stature may not survive another diminishing whack on the head. Truth be told, the germination of greed started earlier.
"In the 1960s, Dr Goh Keng Swee's viewpoint was that a normal family has a household income of only S$400 a month. Therefore, the monthly rent could not be more than S$40. Lim Kim San had argued with him then and asked, "Isn't that like asking me to build slums?"
("HDB Should Also Build Condos", interview with Lianhe Zaobao, September 23, 2007, page 156)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Spoilt Rotten

It was the kind of action you would expect from a Fight Club scene. Two women, ages 65 and 41, were caught slugging it out at a HDB lift lobby. The older female had her faced rearranged, the gory images captured by a CCTV camera her family had installed for personal protection since cops are not always around when you need them most.

The response from the law enforcers was swift, but instead of deadly assault or disorderly behavior, one female combatant was charged with using abusive language and voluntarily causing hurt to two female police officers who responded to the punch up. Apparently it's a more heinous offence to upset the mata-mata, than to injure a very old woman. It gets to the point where one wonders what is more laughable, the plot lines in the tv serial of the same name, or the situation in real life.

Was it a fortnight ago, when we learnt about the super duper car that the police decided to treat themselves to? The one with the specifications for onboard video and sound system to match, and GPS navigation for assistance when they can't locate the place where help is needed? Roadside sign boards are sprouting all over residential areas in our peaceful tropical island paradise, detailing house break-ins and requesting witnesses to come forward. Instead of patrolling the crime infested areas, on foot or on bicycles, they are probably waiting for the spiffy vehicle to cruise the neighborhood in. When did the police start getting so pampered?