Friday, February 28, 2014

Money Matters

Recently, Lawrence Wong, Chan Chun Sing and Grace Fu were serendipitiously caught on camera, nodding off in parliament as the budget was presented. No wonder, the glaring omission in the grand show and tell was the traditional gee-whiz powerpoint slide-fest favoured by the Old Man. And for good reason too, it would showcase the biggest slice of the pie once again goes to.... (drum roll).... Defence, to the tune of $12.6 billion or 22.2% of the total expenditure for FY2014.

Taking second priority in the grand scheme of things is Education, allocated $11.5 billion or 20.3%. They don't want our kids to get any smarter, not when they can spot a Lieutenant Colonel at Pasir Ris Camp beating the daylights out of a stray dog with an truncheon and recognise that as an act of cruelty to animals. The outraged father said his son and 8 others were threatened to be charged if they did not keep their traps shut, not exactly the best of education in the military honour code.

With all those billions to spend at will, it makes you wonder why they still need the hike in town council charges. Maybe Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam should be blamed for announcing, as part of the budget measures, one-off Service & Conservancy Charge (S&CC) rebates of one to three months. That should be the signal for 8 People’s Action Party-run town councils to get greedy. The other 7 PAP town councils had already jumped the gun and implemented their increase in 2012.

Sembawang Town Council General Manager Soon Min Sin said, “With rising costs, some town councils will run into deficits even with the help of government grants in FY 13/14 and FY14/15 if there is no revision in S&CC.” Some of those rising costs may be traceable to "cost saving measures such as the implementation of LED lights". We don't know where they "leverage on bulk procurements" - hopefully not from some $2 company -  but 4 LED bulbs in a lift should easily cost more than $100, to do the job of a $6 fluorescent tube. Which begs the question, how many PAP town council employees do you need to change out a light bulb.......

The S&CC rates are not exactly small potatoes, they range from $19.50 (one-room flat) to $88.00 per month. Depending on where you stay, the hikes represent 2.5 to 5%, every month, for the rest of your life serving the 30 year mortgage. Tharman's act of kindness is good only for one to three months.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Define Run Away

When it comes to communication with Singaporeans, Singlish is often blamed for a lot of misunderstanding. It's not the same problem other countries face. For instance, George Bernard Shaw is attributed to have said, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." Here, even Singaporeans sometimes fail to understand what other Singaporeans are saying.

When bus drivers stop work, it's an industrial action, not a strike. When roads are immersed under water, it's due to ponding, not a flood. When a track circuit failure occurred on the south bound line between Yew Tee and Kranji MRT stations on Monday, SMRT insisted the incident did not amount to a service disruption as the trains did not stop, "although trains ran at a slower speed." So when SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek says he will continue to make "improvements" to the system, you have to wonder whether he's referring to the language manipulation or efficient train operations.

Committee of Inquiry (COI) Chairman G Pannir Selvam must have wished he had a dictionary in hand when he had to ask pointedly whether the police at Little India "were cowardly or displayed signs of cowardice". Mr Selvam was referring to the impression conveyed by Youtube videos that the policemen were frightened and ran away from the scene - in full panic mode, abandoning expensive cars in the middle of the road. State Counsel Joshua Lim was more blunt with the choice of words for Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Edwin Yong: "Were you cowardly getting into the ambulance?"

Yong's officer, Constable Sergeant Abdul Aziz, had a easier time explaining the Singapore Police Force (SPF) definition of "running away".

Another officer explained "I was not taught how to deal with riots as our training programmes dealt more with anti-terrorism measures". That makes rioters more terrifying than terrorists like, say, Mas Selamat Kastari.

Maybe the cops who lost their innocence at Little India deserve a slice of the Pioneer Generation Package, since everything they did there seems to be a pioneering effort. As in never. done. before. But not everyone wants to be a pioneer. Pioneers, as you see in Western movies, tend to be shot by Indians.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gimme Back My Money

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office (sounds much better than Minister Without Portfolio) Grace Fu must have felt inadequate to address the 200+ mostly dialect speaking seniors roped in to be convinced about the merits of the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP). It was not enough Lianhe Wanbao editor Lee Huay Leng was there for linguistic support, but former Rediffusion DJ Lin Ruping could speak in Hokkien and Mandarin. The million dollars may have changed her mind about the of loss of personal time with her family, but they sure didn't do a darn thing for her communication ability with the older folks.

The question would resonate in any language. Speaking in Hokkien, an auntie asked if she could get cash instead of Medisave top-ups. Ms Lin, using also Hokkien, correctly said the Government had planned for the money to go to towards health care and insurance premiums. Not to put food on the table or make sure the taps won't run dry because the utility bill is not paid on time. Then, when auntie is starving (humans can live for 46 to 73 days without food, 10 to 14 days without water), she can make her way slowly to the nearest subsidised clinic. That's how they plan to give the pioneers peace of mind. And truckloads of profit for the insurance companies.

A recent Nielsen survey reported that, when it comes to ageing, the greatest fear among Singaporeans is not having enough money to pay for medical bills during retirement. 4 out of 5 said they will have to rely on personal savings and investment as the main source of sustenance during their evening years. Their kids have their own 35 year mortgage to worry about. Nielsen's Head of Financial Services said the poll showed that Singaporeans desire to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Here's the non-PC part: respondents consider CPF as the "government-run plan" option rather than "personal savings and investments". That must sound better in Hokkien, with the colorful dialect expletives thrown in for good measure.

Retirees told The Straits Times they try to stay active to keep healthy so they do not have to visit the doctor. They should also avoid listening to the PGP crap, in English, Mandarin or Hokkien, keep their blood pressure from sky rocketing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hidden Treasures

A relative had passed on, but he made sure his worldly affairs were put in order first. Although he listed all his bank accounts and particulars, he missed out on the names of nominees for his Central Provident Fund (CPF) balance. CPF would not release the information, claiming confidentiality between the statutory board and the deceased. The lawyers said they could get a court order for the details, but the next of kin decided not to take that potentially contentious route. If the beneficiaries wanted to keep it a secret, let them carry it to their own graves. Nobody knew what happened to the $80K.

The unclaimed monies at the CPF total $7 million and up. More than $50m lies in other statutory boards - Inland Revenue Authority $36m, Media Development Authority $4.2m, Public Utilities Board $1m. Unless they are claimed within 6 years, they disappear into the government coffers. It was reported last month that $118.5m are kept at the ministries and courts.

People are evicted from their flats if they missed out on the Service & Conservancy Charges (S&CC), issued with an arrest warrant for a misplaced parking fine, cut off from electricity and water supply if the bill is not paid. But when they owe you money, it's a different story.

The Ministry of Finance may oversee the sums held by the statutory boards, ministries and courts, but they sure ain't too bothered about making them report on the unclaimed money stashed away. To have an idea of the numbers involved, mosey over to and see how many debts are outstanding:
Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth - 464
Ministry of Finance - 248
Ministry of Home Affairs - 196
Ministry of Manpower - 2566
Central Provident Fund Board - 1744
Housing and Development Board - 1856
Land Transport Authority - 6054
Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board - 301
Factory Registration Fee - 2218
Registration fees for sale, resale and transfer of flats - 441
Miscellaneous - 3399
Rental Deposit - 582

The blurb on the website says that public sector agencies holding on to these monies would very much like to return the monies to the rightful owners, but have not always been able to do so because they could not contact the owners despite repeated attempts to do so. Try explaining that to the people who owe money to the same public sector agencies.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The $8b Con Job

The local paper (now ranked 150th by Reporters Without Borders) made like the FY2014 budget is in deficit to the tune of $1.16b because of the $8b boondoggle for the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP). The last time Singapore ran a deficit was in 2009 at the height of the global financial meltdown, "this year the short fall is aimed at helping the needy and elderly". Let's get the facts straight.

Half of the money is expected to be expended over the next 10 years, after which the rest of the 450,000 eligible seniors (this number is also up for debate) who are still alive will be facing other challenges - higher Goods and Services Taxes (GST), train fares, utility charges, town council tariffs, etc. You were thinking perhaps $8b divided by 450,000?

Although the Finance Minister made the announcement in February, the goodies will trickle in at a snail's pace. Additional subsidies for specialist outpatient clinics (SOCs) and polyclinics kick in only in September. Subsidies for Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) at general practitioners (GPs) and dental clinics will be available only in January 2015. Subsidies for MediShield Life premiums won't be seen until late 2015, or later. Before you even know it, 2014 will be over, and a few of the qualifying seniors would have kicked the bucket, without benefiting a cent from the "move which honours generation who built nation". There are no subsidies for burial or cremation expenses.

Bottomline, nobody will ever know how much of the promise will be delivered. What will definitely be expended in 2014 are these boondoggles:
$12.6b for Defence (up 3.2%)
$6.2b for Transport (up 3.8%)*
$4.2b for Home Affairs (up 8.4%)
$0.5b for Prime Minister's Office (up 18.5%)
$0.5b for Organs Of State (up 18.2%)
* on top of the many increases planned in collaboration with the Public Transport Council (PTC)

Economists said that the $1.16b represents a relatively small budget deficit, easily recoverable by tweaking, say the collectible $10.1b GST (up 6.1%), which is payable by all, young or old, infirmed or healthy, unemployed or salaried.

Khaw Boon Wan is obviously the wrong guy to "definitely debunk the perception that health care is unaffordable". They use to say that economic growth has priority over democracy because you can't eat democracy. Guess what? You can't eat subsidies either. Because of the co-payment element of the healthcare system, you can't afford to see a doctor without cash in your wallet, even though there's still money sitting pretty in your MediSave account.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Follow The Money

The nomenclature used in the Singapore Standard on Auditing SSA 700 “The Independent Auditor’s Report on a Complete Set of General Purpose Financial Statements” and SSA 701 “Modifications to the Independent Auditor’s Report” deals with the auditor’s responsibility to form an opinion on financial statements, using a section with headings ranked in order of severity such as:

Unqualified Opinion
The auditor “concludes that the financial statements give a true and fair view or are presented fairly, in all material respects, in accordance with the applicable financial reporting framework.”
Emphasis of matter (EOM)
This is to "highlight a matter affecting the financial statements which is included in a note to the financial statements that more extensively discusses the matter. The addition of such an emphasis of matter paragraph does not affect the auditor's opinion.”
Qualified Opinion*
This is expressed when the "auditor concludes that an unqualified opinion cannot be expressed but that the effect of any disagreement with management, or limitation on scope is not so material and pervasive as to require an adverse opinion or a disclaimer of opinion.”
Disclaimer of Opinion*
It is expressed when the "possible effect of a limitation on scope is so material and pervasive that the auditor has not been able to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence and accordingly is unable to express an opinion on the financial statements."
Adverse Opinion*
It is expressed when the "effect of a disagreement is so material and pervasive to the financial statements that the auditor concludes that a qualification of the report is not adequate to disclose the misleading or incomplete nature of the financial statements.”

* - with or without EOM (Emphasis of Matter)

It has now surfaced, and confirmed by the People's Association (PA) this morning ("PA responds to online reports on its accounts"), that the PA accounts for 2008 through 2011 have been slapped it with an "Adverse Opinion" by auditors, year after unrepentant year. That's auditor lingo saying that PA financial statements do not present the true state of affairs of the Association. Specifically, the financial position of the 1,803 (as at 31 March 2011) grass-roots organisations (GROs) under its purview are not consolidated, and no audited financial information of the entities under its control are available.

Apparently Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang did raise a red flag in 2008, but the blinkered eyes of Parliament decided it "was fully responded to." Nevertheless, their spokesman is now responding with a confessional, "PA is on track to present  fully consolidated accounts for FY2013." Does that mean senior anti-graft officer Edwin Yeo does not have to go to jail for 10 years if he makes amends and undertakes to stop pilfering from the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau?

We are not dealing with peanuts here (unit of currency defined as $600,000 by Mrs Goh Chok Tong), PA’s operating expenditure for FY2012 increased by $46 million to $483 million, of which $434 million have been siphoned off from taxpayers in the guise of Government grants.

The Auditor-General's Office (AGO) has just been ordered to conduct an audit of the opposition-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council’s (AHPETC) FY2012-13 accounts for a "Disclaimer of Opinion". Did they do that just to distract the AGO and avoid the elephant in the room?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Leave God Out Of This

Recently Lawrence Khong wrote this on his Facebook posting:
"The Lord is our Lawgiver, The Lord is our King; He will save us (Isaiah 33:22 NKJV). This means our faith should not be confined within the walls of the Church, but spread outwards throughout our nation so that Kingdom values are manifested in our communities. The Lord is not just the Lord of the church, He is the Lord of the jury of our nation for He is our Judge. The Lord is not just the Lord of the Christian community, He is also the Lord of the legislature of our Parliament for His is our Lawgiver."

His active response to the Health Promotion Board (HPB)'s FAQs on Sexuality - including the controversial pro-377A guide - prompted one commentator to highlight the legal angles in play:
"This and his lobbying letter clearly fall under section 8(1)(b) and (d) of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: The Minister may make a restraining order against any priest, monk, pastor, imam, elder, office-bearer or any other person who is in a position of authority in any religious group or institution or any member thereof for the purposes specified in subsection (2) where the Minister is satisfied that that person has committed or is attempting to commit any of the following acts:
(b) carrying out activities to promote a political cause, or a cause of any political party while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief;
(d) exciting disaffection against the President or the Government while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief."

The assumption on both sides is that Parliament believes in a higher entity, and is prepared to submit itself to a higher authority than the one it has already signed a Faustian pact with.

Lee is pretty candid about his personal beliefs, "If you ask me, 'Is there a God?' my answer is 'I don't know.' (LKY: The Man And His Ideas, page 245). He makes it quite plain, "I don't think I have ever, in times of great danger or peril, gone down on my knees to pray, or gone to the temple and hoped for a miracle. I do not believe strength comes, necessarily, from a belief in God." If his parliamentarians have a guiding principle, it has to be "In GDP we trust, everybody else pays cash."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Force Is With Them

"Under the enhanced powers, police officers would be allowed, for instance, to strip search a person for alcohol. Police officers holding the rank of sergeant and above would be empowered to raid any place within Little India, without a warrant, if the officer reasonably suspects an offence has been, is being, or likely to be committed."

On Jan 20, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) introduced a temporary Bill that would provide the Singapore Police Force (SPF) with enhanced powers. Which as passed as law in parliament yesterday. When Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran downplayed the bodily invasion by claiming that the provision is adapted from the existing Public Orders Act which upholds law and order during such events like the National Day Parade, he failed to address the possibility of an inebriated law officer using the law to cop a feel. Just peruse the recent headlines about cases of misbehaving men in uniform, with or without the inducement of alcoholic temptations.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) was more specific about the violence visited upon us in the name of stamping out violence: "When we make laws that are not in keeping with established principles of administrative law, when we allow our citizens and all who work for us and with us to live in fear of such wide and discretionary powers without recourse, when we dismiss out of hand the valid concerns of many in civil society, we are also violent." (italics mine)

As for the right to raid without a court issued warrant "if the officer reasonably suspects an offence has been, is being, or likely to be committed", we know they borrowed that idea from Tom Cruise in "Minority Report". That film's central theme is the question of free will versus determinism, in a state where the role of preventive government goes overboard in protecting its citizenry by making arrests before a crime is actually committed. Their "PreCrime" police force makes use of visions of the future generated by three "precogs", mutated humans with precognitive abilities, to stop murders before they happen. The precogs are maintained only for their brain functions, their bodies kept barely alive by being suspended in a pool of special fluids. That's one helluva use of an ageing body way past the expiry date.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Time Out For A Reality Check

In 1995 Fidel Ramos - he called Contemplacion a heroine - was so frustrated when Goh Chok Tong failed to grasp the uproar in the Philippines caused by the execution of Flor Contemplacion, he bundled a stack of local papers and couriered them over. There it was, splashed in large font on the front pages, the name of our sovereign nation prefixed by a four-letter word expletive. Our sheltered prime minister, and most Singaporeans, were shocked and awed by the wanton rage of a foreign people. It was never understood that Contemplacion could be a cause célèbre for Filipinos to vent their frustration over the helplessness, abuse, and mental stresses that many overseas workers face around the world. The Alex Boncayao Brigade, a Communist terrorist group in the Philippines, threatened to punish Singaporean and Filipino officials.

Which is one good reason to stop finger pointing about right and wrong.

"The Act of Killing" just won best documentary at the 2014 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards. Based on the mass killings of 1965–66 that followed Suharto's overthrow of Sukarno, it tells the story of gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry. It was a time when anyone opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being communist, and murdered. Anwar is revered as a founding father of the right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers. Jusuf Kalla, Vice President of Indonesia (2004 to 2009) and potential candidate in the upcoming Indonesian presidential election 2014, is on screen extolling the spirit of Pancasila Youth, "Gangsters are people who work outside the system... The word 'gangsters' comes from 'free men'. This nation needs 'free men'... We need gangsters to get things done."

At the reenactment of the Kampung Kolam massacre, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sport Sakhyan Asmara has this to say of the filmed violence, "Don't erase it! Use it to show how ferocious we can be! In fact, we can even be worse! So, think of it as a simulation of our rage - if anyone disturbs our country."

Pancasila Youth has 3 million members. Their leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno has a clearer message, "All Pancasila members are heroes. From exterminating communists - to fighting communists and left-wing extremists - and those who want to destroy our country... We Pancasila must take a stand. They say Pancasila Youth is a gangster organisation. If we are gangsters - I'm the biggest gangster of all!"

The scariest part about the movie is that American director Joshua Oppenheimer's co-director had to remain anonymous, couldn't appear at the BAFTA awards, because of the secrecy needed to protect him. As the last scene fades, and the credits roll, you will note most of the staff involved in the production are also named Anonymous.

Monday, February 17, 2014

In Praise Of Foreigners

Senior expatriate managers are considered by Transnational Corporations (TNCs) to possess high levels of technical and business expertise and are rewarded accordingly. They form the upper echelons of the core workforces of TNCs and are despatched to foreign geographies to implement corporate globalisation strategies. Helen Sakho wrote that in her abstract for her paper, "The Role of Expatriate Managers In Global Economic Restructuring: Some Key Components and Constraints".

Bona fide foreign talent
Those of us who have benefited from being tutored by such expertise expats are eternally grateful. From Albert Winsemius, the Dutch economist and United Nations Survey Mission to Singapore economic advisor, to the American technician who set up the first hard disk assembly line from Seagate, we owe them thanks. They were the pioneers who helped us grow from Third to First World status.

Here's how the general manager of an oil TNC saw his role:
The big thing here is technical expertise and management skills. Our partners know how to build and operate a company using 35,000 locals.  They do not have any indigenous high quality technologists. So what they want from us is technology. We give them that in return for presence and access to market.  Secondly, they want to know how to form and operate a company to modern international  standards. My skill is to run that factory with 4,000 people. That is the skill that the locals do not have. They need a small number of expats, people from the Centre, from the UK who know how to run things.

No Singaporean in his right mind would want to shut its doors to foreigners. The guys we don't want in are the closeted racists and the exploitative capitalists attracted by low taxes and fast growing reputation of haven for dirty money.

Don't mistake foreign talent for foreign labour, especially the cheap kind sequestered in inhumane quarters. Before the advent of the flush toilet, night soil was carried away in buckets slung over the backs of Singaporeans. Seamstresses making Levis in factories may have moved up to semiconductor production lines, but there are at least 4 aunties at a nearby wet market happily altering trouser lengths for $4 a pair. Who says Singaporeans are selective about tasks? And what Singaporeans are turning away cushy jobs as receptionists, manning customer support, providing IT services? Why is there a foreign sounding voice at the other end of the telephone line?

The balance between local and foreign workers is a “tricky issue”, so claimed a local politician. The trick here is the maximisation of profit over care of its own citizens. Spare us the image of globalisation as whipping boy. When the minister said, “Foreigners, in a sense, are competing with us," he's obviously not including himself in the mix.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Wit & Wisdom Of Lee Kuan Yew

If you are shopping for a book of quotes as a Valentine's Day gift, you have to be blinded by Cupid's arrows to mistake this for Francis Seow's "Confucius Confounded: The Analects of Lee Kuan Yew". There's no author associated with this Editions Didier Millet (EDM) publication of 600+ quotations. There is a mention though, in the very last page, that Professor Chan Heng Chee had reviewed the book's manuscripts. Seow's compilation has forewards penned by Mahathir and Derek Davies.

The quotes are arranged according to year of citation. There is no indication of context to add panache to the words, be it battling the colonial Brits, debating the Malaysian ultras or brow beating the interfering foreign journalists. Some samples:

On Singaporeans:
"I do not want a suppliant, an inert society where people just say 'yes' to everything I say because that means it is a society with no verve, no vitality." - 1966

On Colonialism:
"The day I can say, 'I am a free man. This is my country', that day I will welcome you as a friendly host would do a guest.  But I will not be a guest in my own country." - 1955

On Democracy:
"If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally.  If you believe that men should be free, then they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication." - 1955

On The PAP:
"My party may have a lot of faults, but there is one fault that it has not got - too much money." -1957

On Immigration:
"For cheap labour, they [the British] allowed unrestricted immigration without any plan, without any policy and without any intention of creating or preserving the self." - 1957

On International Relations:
"No people like to be told by their neighbours, particularly a smaller one, what they should do about their leaders." - 1963

On Prosperity:
"The poor know that you don't get manna falling from heaven, not in Singapore anyway." - 1976

On The Welfare State:
"There is nothing wrong about free health and education, if a society can afford it." - 1970

Above quotes are taken from the EDM book, not Francis Seow's. It is easy to see how the pioneer generation fell deeply in love during the golden years. Too bad the party could not last forever.

This being Valentine's Day, we must have a quote with "love" in it:
"Repression, sir, is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love - it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course, with constant repetition, you get more and more brazen in the attack and in the scope of the attack".
- (Hansard, Oct 4, 1956)
That one is not from the EDM publication, but the Francis Seow book (page 20).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Of Heroes And Terrorists

Husband-wife relationships turn sour for various reasons. We are not talking about Murdoch fuming over his wife's email exchanges with Tony Blair. Or how a stoic Hillary dealt with her husband's infidelities. Something must be really awful for Nelson Mandela to will money to children and grandchildren, staff and the African National Congress (ANC), but gave zilch to his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Justin Chadwick's "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" has an explosive scene when Winnie told him "the people are still angry". While he prevaricated, she remained solid. Mandela had decided to reconcile with and forgive the Apartheid thugs who had murdered and destroyed families but he himself could not reconcile with and forgive ANC's "Great Mother".

We are talking the same hero who had pleaded guilty to 156 acts of public violence including mobilizing terrorist bombing campaigns to plant bombs in public places, including the Johannesburg railway station (thanks, anon @ 2/11/2014 4:12 PM). South African President Botha had offered to free Mandela from prison, on condition he renounces terrorist violence. This he steadfastly refused to do so. Winnie was just doing same. Mandela's statement from the dock at the Rivonia Trial include these lines:
"Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision."
Not exactly the prescription Gandhi had in mind when he preached, "an eye for an eye, and the whole world will be blind".

Just when you think you can tell heroes from terrorists, the New York Times revealed that the American backed Karzai has been negotiating secretly with the Taliban, the bad guys U.S. military spent US$4 billion per month to defeat. One theory about the change of face is that the Afghan President remembers what happened to the Soviet Union installed Mohammad Najibullah. When the Taliban rode into Kabul, he was denounced as a foreign puppet, castrated, body dragged through the streets and then strung up at a traffic barricade. Not everybody is prepared for the supreme sacrifice when the dirty politics get out of hand.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gross Domestic Problems

To author Lorenzo Fioramonti, GDP stands for Gross Domestic Problem, not the Gross Domestic Product as we know it.

His small book, only 200 pages long, traces the history of GDP, discusses how its formula was developed, analyses the key political and economic interests supporting the use of GDP  and the type of society it contributed to building. It also provides a comprehensive review of the most important criticisms against GDP. Criticisms such as this:
"Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all? The answer to this question can now be given with somewhat greater assurance than twenty years ago... It is "no"... Put generally, happiness, or subjective well-being, varies directly with one's own income and inversely with the incomes of others. Raising the incomes of all does not increase the happiness of all, because the positive effect of higher income on subjective well-being is offset by the negative effect of higher living level norms brought about by the incomes generally." (R.A. Easterlin, 'Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence', New York and London Academic Press, 1974)

Maybe Warren Fernandez was right when he told his audience at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos that we attained the Swiss standard of living in 2000 ("we managed to hit the mark”). And yet the choice by Swiss voters to reimpose curbs on immigration is sending shock waves throughout the European Union. With more than one million EU citizens living in Switzerland, there could be far-reaching political and economic consequences to Sunday's 50.3 percent "yes" vote in favor of imposing quotas on foreign workers.

It sounds all so familiar. Maybe mom was right after all, money can't buy happiness.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An Exercise In Brinkmanship

Jupiter Aerobatic Team - ambassador in the sky
It was a cinch for Lim Swee Say to uninvite Tan Cheng Bock, since both of them have roots from the same political camp. Tan may have ruffled a few feathers by going public with the insult on social media but, like the neutered Ngiam Tong Dow, he's quickly put in place. Uninviting the military top brass of the world's fourth most populous country is altogether a different exercise.

The strongest words to date on the fracas kicked up by Teo Chee Hean et al came from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Speaking through his spokesman on foreign affairs, the message was stark and devoid of rhetoric: Singapore risks overreacting on warship issue.

Indonesia's Defence Ministry confirmed on Sunday the chain of dominoes started tumbling when Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing cancelled a scheduled meeting with their Deputy Defence Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin. Slighted, Sjafrie decided to give the air show a miss.

In a demonstration of unity, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Moeldoko, Army Chief Budiman and Air Force Chief Ida Bagus Putu Dunia also decided not to attend, although they were not uninvited. "If my men cannot go, and the commander of the TNI goes, it's not good. So no TNI officer will attend the Singapore Airshow," General Moeldoko made clear his stand in the Indonesian parliament. The Indonesian Air Force's Jupiter Aerobatic team will still take to the skies, "But we are ready to withdraw if we are not given time to do so."

General Moeldoko has also cancelled a lecture he was supposed to deliver at a Singapore university. Putting his military foot down firmly, Moeldoko said their navy would not rename the ship, "It's up to them to raise the issue but when it comes to sovereignty, there's no way."

Chan Chun Sing had spent two years in Jakarta as Singapore's Army Attache, but if he made any friends at all, none of them raised their hands in support ("keechiu"). Not too long ago he plagiarised Winston Churchill's speech to wage war on our citizenry. Now he takes cowardly cover in a mountain of weasel words, "I suggest we interact boldly, dialogue openly, network assiduously and train together professionally." Right, like the best way to open a dialogue is to cancel a scheduled meeting.

Monday, February 10, 2014

28 Year Old Pioneers

The Pioneer Generation Package is planned for Singaporeans aged 65 years and older at the end of this year, and those who received their citizenship by December 31, 1986. Say again? To qualify for the goodies, Singaporeans need to be 65+ at the end of 2014, foreigners need only be 28+ -- including, say, babies entitled to an American passport because mom was from Puerto Rico. That has to be the most blatant form of discrimination ever instituted in this country. Even if we have someone born in 1949 or earlier, but decided to swear allegiance to the flag only decades later in 1987, do we want to honour this type of citizen? Have we so quickly forgotten the renegade racist who professed, "After 11 years of residency, I am still trying to understand THESE people!" ?

Lee Hsien Loong broad-brushed the much anticipated financial support for "senior citizens" in three important areas:
  • 1) Premium subsidy for MediShield Life;
  • 2) Extra subsidies for outpatient treatment at polyclinics, specialist outpatient clinics and general practitioners (GPs) under the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS);
  • 3) Annual top-ups to Medisave accounts, which can be used to help pay for MediShield Life premiums (needed probably because the "premium subsidy" in (1) won't be enough to offset the voracious hike in insurance premiums).

Playing with words again, Lee insists that the package is not just a subsidy, but a means to help the pioneer generation live better in their old age. By any world standard chronological consideration, age 28 is hardly pioneer generation status, so we worry what are the "extra subsidies" for outpatient treatment. Will they mark up the health care charges, and then tag a "discount" to the inflated rates? That was the accounting trick employed by TT Durai at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) to generate fat profits out of "subsidised" medication for umpteen years.

"No matter how we design the package, it can never fully reflect the contributions our pioneers have made to our nation. But I hope you will accept it as a sincere expression of our gratitude, and that it will be of help to you and your families," Lee said to the 1,000+ "Singaporeans" attending the Pioneer Generation Tribute Party at the Istana on Sunday morning.

We are told the actual details of the Pioneer Generation Package will be formally unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the upcoming Budget. They probably need the extra time to come up with more ingenious definitions of "Singaporeans", "contributions", "nation", "sincere", "gratitude" and "help". What the electorate really need is a dictionary to decipher the coded deceit they are lining their slippery tongues with.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Endangering Our Nation

KRI Usman Harun 359 is on the right
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Foreign Minister Shanmugam are all simultaneously saying that naming an Indonesian warship after two marines who parachuted into Singapore at a time of war would reopen old wounds. What they should really reflect upon is what Lee Kuan Yew had hoped to achieve when he shocked President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with the uncalled for commentary that SBY could only achieve one third of what he set out to do for his country.

Usman Hj Mohd Ali and Harun Said were obeying orders from their military commanders when they planted 25 lbs of explosive at MacDonald House in Orchard Road on March 10, 1965. During the Konfrontasi, there were 37 bombs exploded in Singapore. For their bravery and supreme sacrifice, president Soeharto honoured them with a state funeral at the Kalibata National Heroes Cemetery in South Jakarta. A National University of Singapore don put it in perspective, "It's perfectly all right and normal to name ships after the heroes of the nation."

Two other ships expected to enter service in June are named KRI Bung Tomo 357, after Sutomo, who led the popular resistance against Allied British and Dutch forces in the Battle of Surabaya in November 1945; and KRI John Lie 358, after John Lie who smuggled agricultural produce to buy and smuggle arms from Malaya to assist the Indonesian independence struggle against the Dutch from 1945 to 1949. Lie completed his career in the navy with a rank of rear admiral.

This is not the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Jinja (Shrine) that created uproar both in China and South Korea. Of the 2,466,532 people contained in the shrine's Book of Souls, 1,068 were convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court, 14 of which are Class A war criminals.

Ensconced in their ivory towers, the paper generals thought a sprinkle of flowers on the soldiers' graves would soothe old wounds. They thought a simple telephone call could change the Indonesians' resolve to name the navy frigate KRI Usman Harun. They never even considered a personal visit to talk things over - even Vivian Balakhrishnan had to play dispatch boy to deliver a letter over the haze issue. They are too used to lording over mere mortals. Their super-ego is our nation's greatest liability.

Relations between Indonesia and Singapore reached a nadir in the late 1990s when B.J. Habibie famously conferred the sobriquet of “little red dot” after some big mouth said the rupiah would fall if Habibie was elected president. Ties are supposed to have improved considerably in recent years under the stewardship of Lee Hsien Loong, notwithstanding the inconvenient mention in Yudhoyono's book "Selalu Ada Pilihan" (There Is Always A Choice).

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Truth In Feng Shui

Straight from the horse's mouth
The horse in the Chinese zodiac is part of a 12-year-cycle of animals that interact with the 5 elements: wood, metal, fire, water, earth. 2014 is the year of the wood horse, taking over from the year of the water snake.

Canadian Feng Shui expert Paul Ng predicts businesses involving wood or fire you will do well e.g.lumber companies, agriculture and media companies. Property companies won’t do as well and as the horse is a galloper, the potential is for the prices to gallop downwards over the first 6 months. The last bit seems to be pretty accurate.

In Homer's Odyssey, the horse used by the Greeks as subterfuge to enter and destroy the city of Troy from within is called a "Wooden Horse" (Δούρειος Ἵππος, Doúreios Híppos, in the Homeric Ionic dialect). Also better known as the "Trojan Horse", metaphor for any trick or stratagem that causes a target to allow a foe into a securely protected bastion or space.

The stratagem that floods our country with foreigners to boost economic gains is doing more than dilute the Singapore core. It has exposed the shortcomings in infrastructure planning, rot in the civil service reputed to be corruption free, ineptitude at the top echelons who cling tenaciously to perpetuity of political power. Instead of attending to the cracks in the system, referred to as fault lines by the guy who opened wide the gates for the Trojan, they paper over their foibles. Just because his father said Singaporeans are wuss:
"The Taiwanese are ruthless, Hong Kongers are shameless and Singaporeans are ignorant. People who are ignorant are not corrupt and reliable."

Margaret Thatcher once said of Lee Kuan Yew, "He had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our times and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong." Maybe that's the perspective from 6 feet under. Up here at ground zero, we know better.

Feng shui practitioner Raymond Lo told Reuters: “The upcoming Horse year is also a 'yang wood' year, when people will stick more to their principles and stand firm. So it is hard to negotiate or compromise as there are more tendencies for people to fight for their ideals.” It's a good year to start believing in Feng shui.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Paying For The Rest Of Our Lives

The Collins English Dictionary definition of "manipulative" can be easily applied to Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, as in "calculating and manipulative".

Since April 1984, the national medical savings scheme mandates that every employee contributes 7% - 9.5% (depending on age group) of his monthly salary to a personal Medisave account. Compulsory savings which are allowed to be withdrawn only to pay the hospital bills of the account holder and his immediate family members. Savings which are deducted from his own hard earned wages. Semantics aside, co-payment and Medisave mean the same thing - you pay your medical bills out of your own pockets.

When Gan said that, under the new Medishield Life scam, patients' share of big hospital bills will go down from what they have to pay now, what he means is that the Medisave portion is going up. This is confirmed by the next line, where he promises "Medisave contributions will have to go up at an opportune time". This is on top of what all of us, including Han Fook Kwang the Lee Kuan Yew apologist, experienced early this year when we were advised of the hike in Medishield premiums for existing coverage plans. This bears repeating: Medisave monies come from our own pockets. Not from the national budget allocated for public health or welfare.

The same "calculating and manipulative" agenda is probably behind the snake oil from Chan Chun Sing's "Pioneer's health care 'covered for the rest of their lives'" blather. We would like to be wrong for once, but only one very old guy is enjoying the state's largess - he gets the full member of parliament allowance entitlement without rising from his comfortable bed to attend meet-the-people-sessions (MPS). The rest of us minions have limited number of days for paid medical leave.

Last year we helped a relative to apply for the use of Medisave to pay for outpatient treatment under the Chronic Disease Management Program. As in deductions from his Medisave account instead of out of cash expenditure. We were not aware, or advised of, the small print:
"The cost per transaction for each Medisave claims (sic) is $X.XX (excluding GST). This cost is not claimable from Medisave."

Translation: We have to pay for the privilege of using our own funds.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

It Is The System Now

Credit should always be given where credit is due. And Mr Lye deserves to be thanked for highlighting the fact that disputes over hawker centre cleaning and trade fairs are attributable to politicisation of grassroots organisations. It's an anomaly we have lived with for so long, we forget it's an aberration in civil society - People's Action Party (PAP) members of parliament (MP)s are appointed grassroots advisers, but opposition MPs are not. Even when in wards where the PAP incumbent has long been kicked out of the turf.

Sylvia Lim was once a police officer and a practising lawyer. She should appreciate the ruckus some picky law enforcer could kick up over a safety issue such as anchoring a tentage rope to a railing instead of a proper peg in the ground. The terminology in the Town Councils Act clearly spells out obstruction and safety risks. The kind of construction and safety risks that, when not properly paid heed to, left one foreign worker dead and 10 others injured at the Palawan Beach worksite on Sentosa island. The death of the worker at Sentosa brings the number of fatalities at worksites to nine this year. Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin warned that irresponsible contractors who cut (safety) corners will face harsh penalties under the law, including imprisonment.

The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) duly served notice of the infringement to the Kovan Mechants' Association. Not surprisingly, the response came not from the Kovan Merchants, but a chairman of the Bedok-Reservoir-Punggol Citizen Consultative Committee (CCC). And not just any chairman, but the one who assumed the PAP chairmanship from ousted George Yeo, who was so forcibly ejected by the electorate, the trajectory propelled him all the way to Hongkong. For a classic example of politicisation in print, don't miss out on Lye's letter to the forum (ST Tues 4 Feb).

For further clarification of the status quo, Baey Yam Keng will be more than glad to oblige, "And you have to take my word for that because I know more than you on CCC.”

Monday, February 3, 2014

Who's Watching Who?

An injured elderly man was found unconscious close to the elevated train tracks between the Tanah Merah and Expo MRT stations on Saturday afternoon.

SMRT was quick to declare that the man was not hit by any train.

According to the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), the 70-year-old suffered multiple lacerations to his body and was sent to the Changi General Hospital, where he is now in critical condition at the Intensive Care Unit.

Channel NewsAsia reported that he probably climbed over the platform screen doors at Expo station and walked 900 metres along the track towards Tanah Merah station, but stopped short of an explanation for the injuries inflicted.

Now the Singapore Police Force (SPF) getting into the act, peering at CCTV footage of the MRT station covering the vicinity where the intrepid senior citizen was found. What the SPF should also examine is CCTV footage of SMRT personnel manning the security cameras. Assuming that has not been declared highly classified information by the army generals in charge.

In the aftermath of Swiss national Oliver Fricker, 32, being charged with vandalism and trespassing, SMRT admitted that for two whole days after the 2010 intrusion, it had absolutely no fricking clue that a gaping hole in the perimeter fence had allowed two foreigners easy access into the depot - a restricted zone ringed by high fences and topped with barbed wire - where they could indulge in spray-painting graffiti to their hearts' content. Additional counter terrorism measures were quickly put in place by the Public Transport Security Committee to enhance depot security, meaning more fencing, more expensive cameras - they even hired a "professional" dedicated to the task - all ultimately charged to the commuters via fare hikes and other clever PTC sanctioned mechanisms.

To paraphrase a popular anti-gun control slogan (“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”), CCTV cameras don't catch people, people catch people. Worse, CCTV cameras are known to be "under maintenance", as in the Mas Selamat great escape (2008), or simply not to be accounted for, as in the put down of Dinesh Raman (2010). SMRT claims that, following  investigations of three MRT service disruptions that occurred earlier this month, two were caused by human error. That's got to be the mother of all understatements.