Friday, September 28, 2012

Affordable Houses

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) has a two-fold problem, built more flats and make them more affordable. First one is easy, and suits the appetite of the GDP growth junkies to a T. More flats for sale mean more money in the state coffers - just think of the contribution from the mysterious "reserves" portion of the pricing policy.

The good news is that $75,000 will now actually buy you a brand new flat (cheaper than those affordable $100K units), if you can contend with 35 sq metres in a non-mature estate. That's HDB nomenclature for an ulu part of the island which may lack certain amenities like schools, supermarkets, clinics, hawker centres, as well as sports and recreational facilities. On the plus side, the relatively remote locations may suit those planning a discreet afternoon tryst with a female IT sales executive. Just imagine, if they deliver on the $60,000 housing grant, a studio flat will cost only $15,000.

Before you rush out to nominate the HDB for a humanitarian award in finally reducing the entry level for basic accommodation, read on. The new flats will not be fitted with sanitary essentials like wash basins and taps. Those are optional items which HDB will happily supply at a mere $4,300. Recall the gold plated tap that caused NKF's TT Durai a lot of bother was priced at $990, including discount and GST.  Sure that was in 2004, and them HDB executives have had their paychecks revised upwards umpteen times since. For those on a tight budget, say earning $1,000 a month, please make do with a plastic pail and stand pipe. It will add a touch of nostalgia, and bring back fond memories of kampong days in the 50's, before ministers award themselves million dollar salaries. At Teck Ghee Parkview, HDB will even offer you a partition to separate the kitchen from the living room, at $2,000 extra.  Do you really need to prepare curry and risk a police report from the PRC neighbour?

Once again, the guys in charge missed out on another golden opportunity to appease the unhappiness of the disgruntled citizens. Then again, if the wealthy foreigners can have their Formula 1 races for another 5 years, Goh Chok Tong's concept of net happiness is attained. Didn't Lim Hng Kiang just remind us that while foreigners currently account for about 20 per cent of all income taxpayers, they contribute more than 25 per cent of Singapore's total personal income taxes?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Follow The Corruption Story

Mercifully, the kids are busily engrossed with the Primary School Leaving Examinations which starts today, Thursday 27 September. Spare the innocent children from the sordid details the mainstream media is wallowing in with the prurient aspects of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) corruption case.

Even blue-nosed matrons will empathise when an upset Ms Sue warded off the Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP)'s relentless enthusiasm for a stroke-by-stroke account of the in-vehicle gymnastics with: "I can't remember.  I don't want to remember." The DPP isn't the only one inordinately fixated with an immoderate or unwholesome interest on anatomical matters. Our so called journalists also had a field day with headlines like "Woman had 'high degree of contact' with at least four officers". And we thought the court hearing was about corruption, you know, bribery, kickback, or, in the Middle East, baksheesh.

With all the sensationalism in the front pages, it is easy to miss that poor manufacturing output is heralding a technical recession. Instead of the anticipated 1 percent expansion in industrial production,  output slumped by 2.3 percent. This adds to the bad news of the 11 percent fall in exports in August, and the 2.9 percent drop in retail sales. Even the hallowed gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 0.7 percent in the April-June quarter.

It's one thing deflect from ill tidings - hence the series of salacious stories in the pipeline - it's another to make up for the numbers (spoiler alert: GDP bonus at stake!). But who would have thought they'll pick on the hawker center cleaning fees? The National Environment Agency (NEA) hiked the Holland Village Market and Food Centre monthly charges from $240 to $614. NEA claims the new rates are attributable to higher wages for cleaners - the same lowly paid workers who were denied the pay rise proposed by Lim Chong Yah - and training costs incurred by accredited contractors. The cleaning services of the 107 hawker centers and markets managed by the NEA are outsourced to NEA's contractors. Since our cleaning auntie probably won't be enjoying a near 3-fold jump in her pathetic takings, the cut is obviously going into the wrong pockets. Follow the money, and we may get to see what corruption is really like.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What Foreigners Have Done

You know they are running out of excuses when the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) puts up a half hearted defence for squeezing Singaporeans out of jobs (and living space) with the 1 million foreign workers shipped ashore over the recent years. The five key contributions listed by MTI would be laughable if they weren't so sad.

Foreigners pave the way for new industry sectors -

This was the case during the early years of industrialisation when companies like Rollei, Seagate, Hewlett Packard, etc, pioneered manufacturing operations for cameras, Winchester disk drives, computer peripherals, etc, and trained a legion of line production staff. More important, they transferred the technology to local staff and then the expatriates went home. Is that the situation with the biomedical sciences and aerospace engineering examples quoted?

Foreigners provide the buffer for firms to grow or downsize quickly -

Shipyards always have had a bad rap, jobs there are associated with the 3 Ds - dirty, dangerous and demanding. A CEO of a local yard was honest to admit that they are just big time subcontractors, the real engineering is done by overseas experts.  They even have their own terminology for foreign labour, such as NTS, meaning non-traditional sourced. They'll close shop in a hurry during a business downturn, employee loyalty is not an option. Ask the many retrenched middle managers driving taxi cabs.

Foreigners complement the domestic workforce -
In a perverse twist about jobs shunned by local workers, MTI claims consumers will have to pay more if the retail and F&B employers run out of cheap foreign workers. Well, we'll be happy to see the extra money go to our own Singaporeans manning the check-out counters than the imports from PRC who can't speak English. It is obvious that the foreign talents have spread from the hot and dusty construction sites to the air conditioned environs where no locals have shunned. That includes those cushy IT jobs.

Foreigners add diversity to the workforce -
How is that even a justification for more foreign influx? What economic advantage awaits P&G's setting up a beauty and male grooming facility? Sure we know Minsters with bad haircuts like Lui Tuck Yew's are in dire need of an extreme makeover, but do we really care? Ptui! Next, they'll be saying A*Star's Center of Excellent in Advanced Packaging is strategic in selling the national conversation package.

Foreigners build Singapore's physical and social structures -
Ah, the olde argument about builders of road and houses, and now filtered down to the nursing homes and hospitality suites.  The fact is that there are lots of retired nursing staff who can take up the slack except for the availability of cheap alternatives who abuse our senior citizens at places like the Nightingale Nursing Home.

Asked if the hard sell was a prelude to the reversal of tightening of the inflow of foreign workers, Minister Lim Hng Kiang said, "No, I don't want to go into that". And why not, pray tell - is it hurting the GDP bonus?
What Foreigners Have Done

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pause And Reflect

Baey Yam Keng (born in the year of the dog) got a lot of flak after telling Singaporeans to reflect upon themselves following foreign talent crap Sun Xu's odious observation that our senior citizens are dogs ('We need to reflect upon ourselves, are we the way they described?").

Now Senior Minister of State for Education, and Information, Communications and the Arts Lawrence Wong is using the same "r" word: "we should really pause  and reflect, and ask ourselves whether this is the kind of society we want." He was weighing in on the public relations disasters of (1) the Prince William wayang, and (2) the con in the national conversations.

Feigning "some heaviness in my heart", Wong expressed dismay that the politically staged events were politicised. That sentence doesn't even make sense. Next, Wong will be telling us he's not in politics to practise politics. Politics (from Greek politikos "of, for, or relating to citizens") as a term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, and modern political discourse focuses on democracy and the relationship between people and politics. If Wong plans to take the people out of politics, dream on. If there's a suppurating political divide in society, surely the blame should be on those running the government, not the people they are trying to govern. As the popular saying goes, if you can't stand the heat, get the fish out of the kitchen!

Unlike Baey, Deputy Managing Director of Hill & Knowlton, Wong the minister may excused for  having a tenuous grasp of public relations. For that matter, he's also probably ill prepared for Education, and Information, Communications and the Arts. Hey, he's simply there because of the GRC. And as for Baey, he should really deserve a royal reprisal for insinuating that Kate's choice of fashion wear in Singapore was attributed to the wayang motive. Reflect on that.
[Refer to Anonymous @ 9/26/2012 8:30 AM for an excellent translation of Baey's Facebook post]

Monday, September 24, 2012

Myth Busters

"The pigs begin living in the farmhouse, and rumor has it that they even sleep in beds, a violation of one of the Seven Commandments. But when Clover asks Muriel to read her the appropriate commandment, the two find that it now reads “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.” Squealer explains that Clover must have simply forgotten the last two words. All animals sleep in beds, he says—a pile of straw is a bed, after all. Sheets, however, as a human invention, constitute the true source of evil. He then shames the other animals into agreeing that the pigs need comfortable repose in order to think clearly and serve the greater good of the farm." (Chapter VI, "Animal Farm" by George Orwell)

Poor Clover, it's tough separating telling myth from fact if the story telling keeps changing.

The Government has set up its own "myth busting" web pages called "Factually". Nestled within the tabs of the official website, is a section for "cutting through the swirl of rumour and distortion online". One of the "bite-size answers" is a nugget about HDB flat sizes. Of the 399 words, only the following really matters:

It was at the annual REACH Contributors' Forum on Wednesday night of 2 May 2012, that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told a student from the National University of Singapore that HDB flats are not shrinking, contrary to popular belief. In fact, sizes of HDB flats have been the same for the past 15 years.

Thanks to online feedback we soon discovered why the minister chose the magic year 1997. Those have lived longer distinctly remember that a four-room HDB flat in the 1980s boasted a size of 105 sq m, or 1,130 sq ft. Today, four-room flats built by HDB have shrunk to about 90 sq m, or 969 sq ft.

Khaw must have a shorter attention span, since HDB chief executive Cheong Koon Hean had already told the audience at the HDB Professional Forum at DB Hub Auditorium in Nov 2011, it reduced flat sizes in the mid-1990s. It is significant that the true picture emerged from online sources. Not all websites are created equal.

Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran must be having problems with his memory too, the Formula 1 race was supposed to be economically viable. Yet he has signed on for another 5 years without presenting the financial tally for a single race. Instead he's keeping mum about the bleeding ink, just because Ecclestone the Hitler lover said, "A gentleman should never speak about money". Let's see how the "Factually" pages put the spin on this one.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Playing The Numbers Game

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is also our Finance Minister, which makes it difficult for us to doubt his arithmetic. But when he said the male median earner who enters the workforce today can achieve an IRR of 70% over his working life, one starts to speculate what he had to drink at the two-day Singapore Human Capital Summit 2012, held at Resorts World Sentosa.

Fortunately the guy put in charge of our finances was referring not to the more common accounting measure of Internal Rate of Return, but to something called Income Replacement Rate. The OECD definition refers to the old-age pension replacement rate as a measure of how effectively a pension system provides income during retirement to replace earnings which were the main source of income prior to retirement.

Make it clear, we lesser mortals don't have a pension scheme to speak of. What accumulates in our Central Provident Fund (CPF) account is our lifeline when employers decide we are no longer welcomed in the work place. Putting away 36 cents (age 36 and below) out of every dollar earned into the kitty should be enough buffer for a rainy day. Even with 7 cents deducted for medical contingencies, 29 percent is a pretty decent savings rate.

What the key findings from the Ministry of Manpower-commissioned study don't say is that a big chunk is swallowed up by "subsidised" housing. It's nice to hear that a $200,000 flat has been sold for say, $800,000, but a similar size flat would probably be asking for a similar price. Unless the long term plan is to cash in the enhanced asset, and move to Johore, Batam or Bintang, the majority will still end up asset rich, cash poor. The "independent" study estimated the rosy IRR's using all CPF savings accumulated by a member up to age 65, including savings above the Minimum Sum. They are assuming people actually have CPF balances in excess of the Minimum Sum. Until they show us the mathematics, it will just be any variant of the $100,000 flat afforded at $1,000 a month.

One is reminded of Mitt Romney's gaffe about middle income Americans earning between $200,000 and $250,000. The reality is that such an income is only enjoyed by the top 4% of the population. The median US income is around $50,000. But if you are pretty rich, you may well mix only with people in your income bracket, and assume everybody else is also well off.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Model Answer

With the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) round the corner, kids are busy swotting over their ten-year series. That's the compilation of past years' examination papers, the questions and the supplied sample answers.  Hopefully their diligence will result in some "spotted" questions, for which they have memorised the "model" answers.

The people behind the "Ask The PM" charade (a website created 3 weeks ago, coincidentally at the same time the government launched its “National Conversation” project) have also been busy with the preparation of  questions which will be submitted to the prime minister.  Whether they will go the whole hog and supply the politically correct answers as well remains to be seen. The editors say they have shortlisted 25 questions, and only the top 10 will actually be presented.

One of the curious shortlisted (No. 15) asks:
"Are you grooming your son for politics?"

Whatever the answer to be provided, the feeding frenzy that follows will make the protest over the Bacile film look like a picnic. It's the classic situation of do and be damned, do not and still be damned.

On the other hand, Lee Kuan Yew did have his printed version of the answer in "Hard Truths" (page 752):
"He (Goh Chok Tong) discussed it with Choo (Mrs Lee) and me. I told him that if he missed the coming elections he would have to wait for four or five years before he had another chance. With every passing year he would find it more difficult to change and adjust to political life, especially learning to work with people in the constituencies and the unions. Most of all he had to feel deeply for the people, be able to communicate his feeling for them and move them to go with him.

I appointed Loong a junior minister in the ministry of trade and industry.  His minister immediately put him in charge of a private sector committee to review the economy just as we entered a severe recession in 1985.

In November 1990, when I resigned as prime minister, Loong was appointed deputy prime minister by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong."

Long term planning is this guy's forte. Did you ever imagine him leaving anything to chance?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pride In Our Standards

In one of his rare public appearances, Lee Kuan Yew joined in the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) 60th anniversary celebrations where his Son the prime minister said, "Anyone who breaks the rules will be caught and punished. No cover up will be allowed, no matter how senior the officer or how embarrassing it may be."

Lee himself (the Father) issued his own press statement to comment that the latest revelations involving sex being exchanged for favourable outcomes are "new forms of corruption", adding, "There is no end to human ingenuity."

Going back a few years, in a speech to the Singapore Advocates and Solicitors Society on March 18, 1967, the same man made the following observations:
We live in an area where to be corrupt is a way of life.  And there are scales starting from 20 cents for this and 40 cents for that, to two dollars for this.  There are rates for the job. You know it, I know it.  What is most important really for us is that because it is a way of life for others around us, it has to be understood.

What is your answer? I say unless you are able to give our civil servants that pride in their standards and reward them for being able to maintain those standards, the standards in the end will be undermined. (LKY, The Man and His Ideas, page 196)

Well, those 20 to 40 cents are now in the rarefied atmosphere of hundreds of thousands, and yet the evil has not been expunged. The price of pride to maintain the elusive standards continue to be escalated with no ceiling in sight. Recall the member of parliament who once said one of our ministers will be embarrassed when clinking glasses in the cocktail circuit of businessmen if his salary was short of a million bucks. It was an ingenious argument of course, the same sort of human ingenuity referred to by one of the Republic's founding fathers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dumb Idea

The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is the culmination of a child's first 6 years of formal education and certification of suitability to move up the higher ranks of scholastic pursuit. Not everyone is inclined to a life of books, some just want to go ahead and do it, like Nike suggests. And come home with a genuine Olympic medal, not a store bought one from foreign sources.

Yet the ability to pass a school examination is a valuable quality. It shows a student has acquired a certain level of competence in some subject and is able to express his thought and ideas in a manner others can understand. If a sportsman, or auto mechanic, has intent to pass down his area of expertise to the next generation, he has to document his skills with educational tools for enquiring minds. It is believed that the mind of a student, even if he is dull, receives good exercise when he prepares for an examination. A student’s success in an examination, therefore, helps employers and others to assess his mental or general ability.

It is strange, therefore, to read that some Members of Parliament (MP) are advocating that the PSLE be scrapped. The teachers who are supposed to prepare their young wards for the big test, are going to be relieved of a bundle of work.  Makes one wonder what the 8 percent salary increment was meant for. Teach even less, to learn more? Work less, earn even more, was that the original lesson plan in mind?

Then again, most of the MPs skipped their own big test of facing the electorate mano-a-mano - instead of getting an individual  passing grade from the ballot box, they simply rode on the coat-tails of someone else more senior (who probably scooched into office the same way). Hri Kumar said there must be an alternative way of deciding who goes to which secondary school, other than by way of a common exam. Let's hope he's not thinking of a GRC system for the kids, or an invite to tea at the Istana, the way guys are invited to participate in the National Conversation.

Folks, there's nothing wrong with exams. One needs to pass a test to drive a car, operate a crane, fly an aeroplane, or pilot an ocean going vessel. The real problem is the preparation, specifically the reliance on private tuition, which would not have been necessary in the first place if teachers are earning their pay the correct way. If Hri Kumar is serious about slaying a sacred cow, how about nationalising private tuition?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Too Good To Be True

Even Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam was surprised, he commented on Facebook: "Sakae Sushi boss says they are offering $3,000 per month for dishwashers but can't find people?" The exaggerated incredulity was apparently directed at picky Singaporeans who supposedly refuse take on jobs that had to be done by foreigners. Zainudin Nordin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, was more gullible.  He lauded Sakae Sushi for paying its dishwashers a salary comparable to its managers and supervisors, "If one company can do it, it just shows it's not impossible." But then, in the aftermath of the Woffles Wu waffle, the IQ level of the MIW has always been in suspect.

When some 300 enquiries and applications poured in, brand and communications manager Gregg Lewis back peddled and qualified the original offer by saying the dishwashers will need to slave/work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week - from 10.30am to 10.30pm - with breaks to come up for oxygen. This differed significantly from the 9 hours that Sakae Sushi chief Douglas Foo told UFM 100.3 radio on Friday, and subsequently confirmed with Chinese paper Lianhe Wanbao, when he claimed that he had trouble filling 10 cleaning positions at $3,000 per month. Foo said the earlier description of the job had been amended after the management found that a 9-hour workday was not feasible due to crowd volumes the restaurant faced. What he did not say was what his present crew of cleaners are actually paid. Fooled you again!

However creative Sakae Sushi may be in attempting to wriggle out of a public relations disaster, and possible outright lie, there are laws in Singapore about working hours:

The law also specifically stipulates that an employee is permitted only to work up to a limit of 72 hours of overtime in a month. This limit may be exceeded only if the Ministry of Manpower has granted an exemption under section 38 of the Employment Act. In other words, Sakae Sushi's current practice may be contravening the labour laws -  4 hours of OT every day for a month, do the math. Where are the cops when you need them?

This is really a bad example in that crockery for sushi food is definitely easier to clean than, say, curry rice or chilli crab. This is an ideal candidate for automation; washing machines can work round the clock and complete the cleaning task more productively than human hands can. However that means that management will not have the excuse to bitch about cutting the quota for foreign labour, which seems to be the underlying intent for the whole charade in the first place. Khaw Boon Wan famously asked, "Did I jump the gun?" about his premature endorsement of the NParks purchase before appreciating the scale of the Brompton scam. Hopefully Ministers will one day learn to aim first before they shoot.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Loading The Dice

Responding to queries from the state media on the glaring omission of opposition politicians, civil activists and prominent bloggers, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was asked by PM Lee to chair the "National Conversation" committee, had said:

“This is not a partisan exercise….every Singaporean is welcome to provide their views, including members of the Opposition, and the committee will be happy to receive their feedback and ideas.”

It just happens that some are more welcomed than others. (Thanks,  Anonymous @9/15/2012 11:10 AM )

Hougang by-election, circa May 2012
CNA forum "A Conversation with PM Lee", Friday 14 Sep 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Con In Conversation

Herbert Paul Grice (1913 - 1988) is best known for his work in the philosophy of language, in particular, his analysis of speaker's meaning, his conception of conversational implicature, and his project of intention-based semantics. In "Logic and Conversation" (1975) Grice offered a theory about what a person's words literally mean and what a person means by his or her words over and above what his or her words literally mean.

Paul Grice proposed the following conversational maxims in "Logic and Conversation":

The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence. According to the first rule – people are expected to say what they know to be true. When talking with each other – we expect people to tell us the truth. Lui Tuck Yew telling us that public transportation is subsidised is stretching it a bit. How can SMRT be subsidised when the CEO is paid more than Barack Obama, the U.S. President who can rightfully boast: Osama is dead, GM is alive?

The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more. According to this rule – when talking, people are expected to provide just enough information to get their point across. It is fruitless to quote 35,000 private homes are still under construction, 45,000 units are in the pipeline, plus 17 private residential plots which developers can build 8,100 units, when it is still a myth $100,000 flats are affordable for individuals earning $1,000 a month.

The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion. According to this rule – you are expected to stay on the topic. In other words, make sure that your comments fit with what is being talked about - make sure your comments are relevant. Sure, the guy can quote lots of people who got caught for speeding and are not sent to jail, but how many colluded with their staff to deceive the authorities?

The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity. This last rule states that your comments should be direct, clear, and to the point. You should avoid using vague or ambiguous language when speaking. Promises of hope, home and heart are too nebulous when COE breaches $100,000 (no hope), HDB flats go for a million (no home), Medisave minimum sum raised to $38,500 (no heart).

Still interested in talking? Go for your life.

[Historical aside: Differing views and solutions to national policy were encouraged during Mao Zedong's Hundred Flowers Movement (Chinese: 百花运动 ) of 1956. Soon after, he abruptly changed course and acted against those who were critical of the regime and its ideology. Mao remarked at the time that he had "enticed the snakes out of their caves."]

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Not Exactly Conversational Mode

Not too long ago, a minister of state got an old man evicted from his HDB flat after intervening in a typical spat between neighbors. The poor chap is adamant that he had been framed by his neighbour, a 74-year-old woman. MP for Marine Parade GRC Tan Chuan-Jin wrote on his Facebook page that the resident had been “bullying his downstairs neighbour repeatedly” until the “poor woman was distraught and at her wit’s end”.

Now another heavy weight minister is crossing swords with an ordinary citizen, and a woman at that. Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat used his office to deliver a "stern response" to Mdm Ong for going to the police after her 12-year-old had his $60 haircut ruined by a scissors wielding teacher. The "simple fact", he preached, was that the boy had been reminded "over and over again" to trim his hair, and the school had sent a letter to the parent about the subject. Quoting a media commentary, Heng claims "the mother... did herself and her son no favours."

Mdm Ong's story: She made the police report to file a "personal record" only after calling up the Ministry of Education (MOE) and was told by an official that it would be fine to go to the police. That's Clint Eastwood phraseology for "Go ahead, make my day." Whatever your take about an overtly protective mom or an overtly obnoxious official, we share the same sentiments about Mdm Ong's last words on the hullabaloo, "There is no absolute right or wrong in this matter... it also takes two hands to clap."

Ashraf Khalil (see yesterday's post) explained in his book why the post Mubarak military men didn't have the mindset to handle being thrust into a democracy:
You're are talking about a military mentality. It's the first time anyone has tried to discuss anything with them.

A normal military general, he's either giving orders or receiving orders and carrying them out. The idea that that we can sit down together and I can tell them, 'This decision was wrong', it's outside of their culture.

Couldn't have put it better.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Rigged Game

Lee Hsien Loong really took the air out of the national conversations initiative when he threw in the caveat, "As I used to say, we leave no stones unturned. But some stones, after we look at them, the original place was quite nice, and we put them back." So what are the stones that they dare not to move? There must be many, too long to list in a short post, but the words of one author (Ashraf Khalil, "Liberation Square, Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation") come to mind.

Khalil was covering the events unfolding at Tahrir Square for the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm when he had the exchange with a police officer in plain clothes:
I told him that the main problem with Egypt regarding elections is that there was no distinction between the government and the National Democratic Party.  Every government function - from police work to election monitoring to the committee that permits the formation of political parties - were all under the controlI of a single political party. I quoted a Muslim Brotherhood politician who liked to refer to the Interior Ministry as "the military wing of the NDP".

So what chance did any opposition party or candidate have if all the levers of power and enforcement were controlled by a rival party with a vested in the results? Egypt would never know true democracy, I told him, until the NDP had just as much power and government control as any other party.  As long as the government was the NDP, then everything was fake. (pages 95, 96)

Sounds familiar? Make the appropriate substitutions and you can see many sacred cows will continue to enjoy immunity in perpetuity. And even Mubarak did not have the despicable GRC invention.

It is too early to read into the surprise largess of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, accepting a $30,000 composition offer that will effectively annul the bankruptcy of Chee Soon Juan declared for damages of $500,000. Perhaps the new boys in charge have no taste for the turmoil of an Arab Spring.  They just want to talk the issues to death, not face up to reality and solve them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Keep The Questions Coming

The simple question raised by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Gerald Giam illustrates why more alternate voices are needed to represent the people's interest. For decades, nobody raised a single query about the large sums expended for a birthday party, money which is much needed for social welfare and healthcare requirements, among others.

Amidst the doldrums of worldwide financial meltdown in 2008, $14 million was still splurged (record high in that year), not a single cent was trimmed to entertain the VVIPs who were hosted to exclusive cocktail parties while the common folk make their way home in the over crowded trains and buses. Only VIPs are allotted parking privileges.

The most expensive undertaking was the extravaganza in 2010, costing a mind blowing $20.6 million. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Padang had to be hardened for a heavier load, large LED screens, and supporting towers. Without a detailed accounting, we are unable to tell if the procurement for top dollar items were approved along NParks procedures and similar standard operating guidelines.  Of course these numbers pale in comparison with the budget allocated for military toys.

Aljunied GRC's Pritam Singh also attempted a goal kick by asking what role the online media played in the Ministry of National Develpopment (MND) decision to report the matter of the folding bikes to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). But Minister Khaw Boon Wan deftly deflected the shot, denying credit to the netizens' detective work, by stating, "What was material to our decision... were some disclosures by certain parties  interviewed by the Audit Team."  He pointedly did not elaborate  on what the source of the disclosures were. Go on, ignore the online media, if that's the way the Minister wants national conversations to be carried out. Even before the advent of the internet, the kopi-tiams have always known where to look for the real stories.

Celebrating in style, membership has its privileges

Monday, September 10, 2012

If You Can't Trust Your Doctor...

It's always wise to seek a second opinion when it comes to medical advice. A friend saved quite a few dollars when he ignored his doctor's recommendation to go for a MRI after being examined for a pain in his arm. It turned out to be a minor sprain that began to heal itself naturally after a few days.

Ms Tan was determined to go one step further. She googled the physician who was supposed to attend to her relative, and discovered that the fellow was actually struck off the medical register in Florida, USA. And that was not all, he is currently the department head of radiation oncology at the National University Cancer Institute of Singapore (NCIS).

Prof Lu was a registered medical practitioner in four American states when he was caught in 1999 selling erectile  dysfunctional drugs on the internet, in gross violation of acceptable medical procedures. He claimed the summons was sent to a wrong postal address, resulting in his non-appearance at a Florida hearing and the revocation of his licence. We're talking about a country who could successfully track down Osama bin Laden and snuff him out, but not able to trace the whereabouts of a Chinese doctor from the PRC? Somehow the other 3 states did manage to trace his geographical whereabouts and fined him US$10,000 (New York and Pennsylvania) and US$2,000 (Indiana).

By which time he had already headed for Singapore in 2001, where his compensation package as a cancer radiologist was substantial enough not to require a side income from an illegal online business. He still holds a licence to practise in his home state in New York.

Prof John Wong, head of NCIS, insists that Lu "has done nothing in the past 11 years to make us doubt his competence, professionalism and integrity." Wong was forgetting that when the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in 2009 required all practitioners to declare any past or present instance of being investigated by the authorities, Lu had conveniently skipped a response to that particular query while applying to renew his licence in April 2010. This was way before the Woffles Wu stratagem of roping in an oldish fall guy became public knowledge. Wong claims Lu subsequently apologised to the SMC after being guided/advised/instructed to do so, and the American import was allowed to practise in Singapore inspite of the brazen attempt at deceit.  As recent as March 2011, Florida Board of Medicine records his decision to withdraw his application for licensure, implying there was more than a postman problem behind his original transgression.

Chief executive of National University Hospital (NUH) Joe Sim, also threw his weight in support of Lu, saying it was "a dumb mistake", whilst declaring in the same breath, it was not something NUH condones. Both Wong and Sim are telling us that Lu has been punished, without spelling out the type of punishment meted out to the surreptitiously errant doctor. Maybe they took away his Herman Miller chair entitlement.

Heck, if Ms Tan had not been industrious in her research, the cover up by Lu, Wong and Sim would never have been brought to light. Since SMC told the press it is looking into the case,  we have yet to find out if it too will join in the sorry stonewalling saga. For all we know, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who was copied in the whistle blower email, might even go to bat for the doctor. A precedent has been set.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Of Hate And Prejudice

The cheap pot shot from Sim Ann (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) was blatantly targeted at Gerald Giam ("I had expected better from Mr Giam") for speaking a hard truth:
"Anyone who examines the online comments about the foreigners will realise that much of the anger is actually not directed at the foreigners, but at the Government for its liberal immigration policies."

In other words, hate the sin, not the sinner. If it's not a sin to strain our little country's resources of housing, transportation, healthcare, education and job opportunities, why did the Government bother to make another U-turn and tighten the flow of immigration? Are we witnessing an act of repentance?

Sim Ann wrote about her personal experience of real-life disquiet on the ground, and ended up admitting as much: "I support the shift". In her tale of two neighbors bickering over common corridor space, she excluded the wife of one family from the mediation table because she had originated from a province in southern China. In her own words, the other disputing husband and wife were "true-blue locals". Why the discrimination against the PRC housewife if she still quotes PM Lee's personal appeal for fair play: "Singaporeans, let us treat foreigners as we would want to be treated ourselves"?

The word is hate for her political adversary. Hate to be reminded that from 2009, she was the Director of the National Population Secretariat, working under "population czar" Wong Kan Seng at the Ministry of Home Affairs to unleash the tsunami of foreign invaders. Hate to be at the receiving end of her own faulted policy making. Hate to have the skeletons in her cupboard exposed.

Sim Ann used the mainstream media disingenuously to claim support of vigorous and honest, but civil, debate. If that's the truth we wants us to believe, she should engage the Workers' Party in parliamentary debate on the subject. Not resort to underhanded tactics with a sycophantic press ranked 150th by U.S. NGO Freedom House.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pampering The New Arrivals

The Singapore Action Group of Elders (SAGE) organisation that pioneered the concepts of active aging, which was founded by former parliamentary secretary for social affars Chan Chee Seng, closed its gates permanently two months ago. It's activities, like matching services for the elderly, free health screenings, educational talks on road safety and first aid, took a fatal toll on its finances. A spokesman for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) said the Institutions of a Public Character (IPC) status for SAGE was withdrawn because it faced "recurrent deficits". If MCYS did not allow donations for SAGE to be tax deductible, how could the organisation ever hope to raise funds to clear it's debts? Duh. Retiree Koh sighed, "I am bitterly disappointed. The Government should have stepped in to help the ailing organisation." The Government who would probably ask, "Where is the money coming from?"

The same question was not asked when $8.6 million was spent to create a fancy climate controlled home for two pandas from China.  Kai Kai , 5, and Jia Jia, 4, not exactly elderly citizens, are flying in from the Ya'an panda base in a specially fitted Singapore Airlines 747. The giant 1,500 square metres complex at River Safari, Mandai, will be scrupulously maintained at 18 to 22 degrees Celsius around the clock. To simulate their original natural habitat, lush live plants, boulders and water features, waterfalls with shallow pools, climbing structures and enrichment features are constructed so the pandas can rest, explore, climb and swim. The foreigners will also create new jobs, but their special keepers will be sourced from China.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan, who flew to China for the grand send off party, assured everybody the panda newcomers will be well looked after in Singapore, there will be no deficit of funds when it comes to pampering the new residents. There's even a special conservation programme to "adopt" the pandas for an annual contribution. Needless to say, the senior citizens at SAGE were never subjects of such adoption initiatives.
Not exactly your average retirement home for senior citizens

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Separating Fact From Myth

The last time we heard from Hri Kumar was when he blogged about "the fine of $1,000 imposed on Woffles Woo (sic)." Then he went silent like a broken Japanese transistor radio. This time he is up against an accountant well known for his expertise in providing insolvency services to industry circles.

The Malaysian is alleged to have misappropriated  $16.5 million from his client, breaking the record sums of previous cheating cases of rogue lawyer David Rasif ($11 million) and two Singapore land Authority executives ($12 million). Since this involves his day job, Kumar will have to get his facts, and names, right.

After his hiatus since the June posting, his 3 Sep comment indicates he has problems discerning between myth and fact when it comes to the many failings of the Ministry of Education (MOE)'s primary education record.

The mother who wrote to the press said nothing new.  A Norwegian lady who was here for her doctorate at NUS some 8 years ago had sent her daughters to a neighbourhood school for their primary education. Her astute observation then, and still valid now, was that the teachers expected her kids to have private tutors cover the balance of the syllabus not taught in the class room. And that's how the rich kids always fare better in grades, they can afford the tutors the poor could not. Parents are even paying big bucks so their tiny tots will stand a better chance of being selected for the Gifted Education Program (GEP). Urban legend has it even undergrads in our local universities engage private tutors. The real kaisu types must be sending their daughters to campus, loaded with Mont Blanc pens, iPods and tailored shirts, so an accommodating professor will provide extra attention after the tutorials.

With pre-school education added to the mix, the number of horror stories can only increase - MOE scholars are now known to include pedophiles. Do you think Education Minister Heng Swee Keat knows what really goes on in his ministry? He used to be Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) from 2005 to 2011, and yet thousands were not warned of the toxic investment products. Parents have blindsided for so long, let's hope the people in charge will open their eyes and get their facts right.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Stop Reading This

The last revision for the learning of Mandarin was targeted at emphasis on conversational skill, not reading, which brought howls from those fearful of diluting the mastery of the language. It looks like the teaching of English in our schools is heading that way too.

The official spiel is that the focus will be on speaking the language more confidently, never mind if they end up not being able to read the road signs. Or the letter from LTA requesting particulars of the driver of the car caught speeding. The trick is the use of visuals.  Instead of the current written instruction on a test paper to, say, pen an essay on a fixed topic, the student will be presented with three pictures as guides to compose their masterpiece. Presumably, the drawings will be detailed enough to differentiate a HDB block from a Sentosa Cove condominium, an Ikea chair from a Herman Miller, a local born and bred from a foreigner.

Wong Siew Hoong, deputy director-general of Education (Curriculum) at the Ministry of Education (MOE), claims the aim was to prepare pupils for the "21st century workplace" where, presumably nobody will need to decipher the permutation of the English alphabet.  "Didn't you read the memo" will no longer be an excuse for missing another office meeting. Those handicapped by dyslexia will welcome the good news, no longer will they be mentally challenged  at determining the meaning of a simple sentence. All too soon, we will be moving on to communicating with sign language and flash cards. The question to ask,  is this progress worth the 8 percent in salary increment for the teachers?  Well, if reading anonymous online blogs drives up your blood pressure, this may just be the solution for you