Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Government Generosity

First, the good news: the much maligned Housing & Development Board (HDB) is finally pricing one of its public housing flats at $16,000. Needless to say, there are hoops you have to jump through to land one.

The first batch of two-room flats (in non-matured estates only) are reserved for eligible singles. As in earning $5,000 or less, aged 35 years or older, and applying under Joint Singles Scheme (JSS) to qualify for the $40,000 Additional CPF Housing Grant (AHG). The AHG for Single Singapore Citizen Scheme (SSC) is only $20,000.

That's how the 2-room flats, normally priced at $76,000 (35 sq m) to $133,000 (45 sq m), can be knocked down to $16,000. Okay, okay, two full grown adults will have to share 35 sq m to avail themselves of the Government's generosity. You can't exactly throw a big house warming party, but do note the standard size of a jail cell is usually 5.5 sq m.

The important thing to remember is that what HDB used to sell for $76,000 can actually be let go at $16,000. Without raiding the reserves, or risk HDB going bankrupt. The sour taste in your mouth comes about when you start thinking of the fat profit margins they have been raking in all these years.

Here's another bit of good news that they have been keeping for themselves. The young men serving two years of National Service can have their wisdom tooth removed for free. If it's a matter of simple extraction, the savings may not be much, private dental clinics charge a maximum of $150 per pesky wisdom tooth. But if the wisdom tooth is impacted, and oral surgery is required, we are talking about $1,200 to $1,600 per tooth. If your son or brother was not informed of the dental benefits, and had to go to the government clinic after ORD, the subsidised charges could be $600 to $800 per wisdom tooth removed under local anesthesia. You would think the doting parents are told about this during BMT, right? Wrong! You want freebies from this bunch of Scrooges, you need to learn to squeeze blood out of stone.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hearing From The Court

The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) said, “AGC would like to take the opportunity to reiterate that the proper forum in which factual issues in a pending matter before a court should be determined, is the court itself.”

Yet, in its statement of 29 July 2013, the same AGC said it has completed its review of the investigation papers relating to a cartoonist and decided not to take action against him under the Sedition Act. Meaning, the serious matter of sedition - overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order - has been decided upon without the determination of the court.

The court, a panel of one's peers (as in jury system), or panel of appointed judges in Singapore's case, is meant to hear and determine disputes between litigants, and in criminal matters, to determine the liability of accused persons and their sentences if they are convicted. It's always a collective assessment of minds to deliberate aired arguments about what is truly at stake. Not the whim and fancy of one sole individual.

In the bad old days, yes, we had one Chief Justice who's attitude of the law depended on his satisfaction of what he had for breakfast. Same chap who ruled that some molest or rape offenders will have their sentences doubled if their lawyers persist in asking questions that harass or embarrass the victim. In another benchmark case, he said that offices, clubs or restaurants may be open to the public, but a visitor can still be hauled up for trespassing if the management had banned him from entering the premises. Those were the bad old days.

Law academic Thio Li-Ann, in an article in the Hong Kong Law Journal, noted that the courts here have tended to protect the public interest of upholding the integrity of government leaders, rather than make judgments that protect the right of individuals to make public criticisms of conduct by public figures. Whatever your take of the system, at least those outcomes resulted from a publicly convened court of law. At least we get to hear both sides of the story.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bad Example

Fresh after the retelling of Lim Swee Say swiping half a box of toothpicks from a Din Tai Fung Chinese restaurant - because he could - and depriving other paying customers of their entitlement, we are regaled by another anointed favourite with a narration of his own ungracious demeanor:
"We found him at the hot dog stand - patiently putting ketchup, onions, condiments, et cetera, et cetera onto the three hotdogs! I expected him to bring the three "naked" hot dogs to us. The officer failed the hot dog test. No more future trips with us."

The poor staffer was not rewarded by Philip Yeo for attention to detail - supposedly the teaching point of Lim Swee Say's toothpick heist - but penalised for not playing the obsequious errant boy role to perfection. Those who have worked under the abusive tyrant recognise the trait. Worse, they actually learn from him.

The president of a GLC decided to introduce us, his marketing team, to the EDB counterparts at the fancy Raffles City boardroom. EDB bigshot walks in.
GLC President: "Hello, Tan, ho say boh! Long time no get business from your side!"
EDB Director:  "What the f**k do you f**king mean? Since f**king when are we supposed to f**king generate business for your f**king operation? What the f**k do you think you are f**king paid for?"
GLC President: "Don't be like that, leh!"

All of us, the GLC and EDB minions, didn't know where to hang our heads. Later, we learnt from the EDB secretary the expletive laden director was a "nice guy", always going to lunch with his staff. We don't know whether he hoards toothpicks.

Everybody has a horror story about "PY". Just ask Member of Parliament Chng Hee Kok, who was told to resign  because he dared to voice disagreement about the shame-the-bond-breaker tirade. Then MP, Tan Cheng Bock was incensed: the EDB chairman was getting "too big for his boots". Ngiam Tong Dow had choice words for such characters: "There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews."

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Swee Say claims, "I learnt from him some very important values: never say die, always dare to be different, always want to make a difference." Mavericks are not always viewed in positive light - McCain sure made a heck of a difference with his choice of a running mate in Palin. A maverick is an unbranded range animal, especially a stray calf that has become separated from its mother, a name coined after Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), a Texas rancher who did not brand his cattle. After all these years, they still can't tell the difference between good and bad values.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Beyond Reproach

The Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) is absolutely right when it says commentators "appeared to have misunderstood" how the process works. Problem is, none of us is really sure of how it does work.

On the one hand, the lawyers and parents of Changi Prison inmate Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah were told by State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid that no coroner’s inquiry on the circumstances of his death will be held.

Then, in response to queries from The New Paper, an AGC spokesman had replied via e-mail: “In view of the conclusion of criminal proceedings, the inquiry has been discontinued.” Was the inquiry in progress, then stopped, or never got started in the first place? The classic chicken and egg conundrum. The latest AGC statement says that "The coroner has a discretion to discontinue the proceedings before him if he determines that there is no longer a need for an inquiry to determine the cause of and circumstances connected with the death." Bearing in mind that the prosecution has no powers to compel the coroner - or so we are told - to exercise this discretion, wouldn't it settle all quibbles and disrepute about the AGC if the coroner establishes transparently once and for all Dinesh wasn't unduly pepper sprayed, arm locked in a choke hold, and have a couple of ribs cracked in the process? You know, the whole Shane Todd thingy that demolished conspiracy theories for the whole wide world to see.

The same AGC, supposedly to protect the administration of justice in Singapore and uphold the integrity of one of our key public institutions, is initiating legal proceedings in the High Court against a cartoonist for contempt of court by scandalising the judiciary of Singapore. The offending cartoon strips are alleged  to carry imputations that are scurrilous and false. Imputations that can be destroyed easily if the actual situations depicted are indeed above and beyond reproach. If the intent is to burnish it's shiny image of justice administration without fear or favour, there has to be a better approach then sweeping everything under the carpet with a $10,000 fine.

Lawyers for the cartoonist explained their strategy, "To succeed in our defence, we must show that there is no real risk in the public confidence of the independence of the judiciary." Stripping away the legalese, that's like saying the AGC is built of stronger construct, not some thin skinned wimp with skeletons in the cupboards to hide. Now that is a concept we can understand, and hold our heads high for.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Game Over

According to Teo Chee Hean, minister in charge of the civil service, a study commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office found that 1 in 5 Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) probes involved public service officers. Of the 39  cases each year, two thirds led to persecution or disciplinary proceedings. These highly paid civil servants, from a Senior Research Officer (2002) to a Senior Special Investigator (1997), had discovered that their paychecks, even when indexed to private salary scales, are never ever enough.

During a house search for a posting in Manila, the sales agent said that the security of the gated compound was more dependable than the local police. Apparently a businessman kidnap victim, freed after his relatives paid off the ransom, had proceeded to the nearest station to file the report. The first person he saw was one of his kidnappers, wearing an officer's uniform.

The situation in Singapore, mercifully, has not degenerated to that stage. It is disconcerting, though, when a millionaire minister has acknowledged publicly that he purloined half a box of toothpicks from a fancy restaurant. Toothpicks which were meant for the use of other patrons as well, not just his gauche fetish of picking teeth in public.

The 15-year CPIB veteran and Assistant Director of Field Research and Technical Support was overheard by photographers muttering "game over, game over" as he left the Subordinate Court after being charged for embezzling the watchdog CPIB of over $1.7 million. He must have thought it real funny to be awarded a Commendation Medal (Pingat Kepulian) from the Prime Minister's Office in 2010, when he had already gamed the system of $1,200 (2008), $94,703 (2009) and $56,002 plus $50,825 (2010). Medal in hand, he was emboldened to help himself to more, $323,613 and $370,755 in 2011 and $716,768 in 2012. And where did he spend most of the free money? The biggest gaming center of all, the casino at Marina Bay Sands, brought to you by those ministers on the pretext of creating more jobs for locals.

We can't play those games. Grab more than a handful of the sugar satchels from MacDonald's, and you might end up in cuffs. Kleptomania, an obsessive impulse to steal regardless of economic need, will cut no ice with the judge. Edwin Yeo, the CPIB black sheep hogging the headlines, had no problems with a $500,000 bail while many can only dream of going for early lunch at 10.30 am.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Permission To Panic, Sir

Wait a minute, this has to be deja vu. Barely a week ago, when Moody's Investors Service downgraded the outlook on Singapore's banking system from "stable" to "negative", the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) was quick to come up with an assurance that everything is honky dory. Don't worry about the interest rate hikes, go on buying those properties.

Now (yesterday), MAS is saying the rising household debt in the city state is worrying, and it is “important to act now to limit build-up of leverage”. MAS managing director Ravi Menon reported that 5 to 10 per cent “have probably over-leveraged on their property purchases” — one couple was reportedly granted a new home loan of $400,000 based on a loan repayment schedule amounting to 90 percent of their $6,000 total monthly income. If mortgage rates were to rise by 3 percentage points, MAS warned that the proportion of borrowers at risk could reach 10 to 15 per cent. Which was basically the reason that prompted Moody to revise it's assessment ("Hike in rates and fall in property prices may pose risks to financial stability").

But the house owners are not the only ones holding on to assets founded on shifting sands.

According to its annual report, the MAS had paid-up capital and reserves of S$24.539 billion as at March 31, 2013, down from $35.152 billion of the previous financial year. The Singapore central bank actually made a net loss of S$10.613 billion in fiscal 2012/13, a drastic reversal of fortunes compared to the net gain of S$2.771 billion in the previous financial year. The only saving grace is that its investment returns over the year were more than offset by the strength of the Singapore dollar (which is adjusted periodically by same MAS to "combat imported inflation").

“This is an issue of reporting currency. If we had reported our profit and loss in international currency, it would show a healthy profit,” was how Mr Menon casually explained away the red ink. Whatever. The bottom line is that a big chunk of the MAS paid-up capital and reserves has been chewed off. No MAS official was harmed in the making of the financial report.

Interesting aside: Total MAS assets rose by S$21.21 billion to S$340.405 billion, while current capital and reserves declined to S$24.539 billion, giving total liabilities of S$315,866 billion. Accounting 101 says gearing ratio is debt (total liabilities) divided by equity (capital and reserves). Look, someone else is also highly leveraged.

It looks like the new chairman of Tesmasek Holdings, Lim Boon Heng, may have to stock up on those Kleenex tissues. Temasek and MAS are supposed to be separate entities with distinct roles and mandates, and distinct management teams, but the incestuous links are harder to define.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Another Day, Another Dead

Zhang Kun, 39, driver of  SMRT bus No.700 that flipped on its side after negotiating the sharp corner from Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE) slip road into Daisy Farm Road, told Zaobao that he had applied the brakes but the bus “went crazy” and sped up. “I had no control,” the Chinese national from Henan insisted. "Crazy" is hitting a kerb, skipping four lanes across a divider, and wiping out a barrier on the opposite side of the road.

Given the parsimony of information provided by SMRT - they even declined to confirm the nationality of the bus driver - one can think of several possibilities:
He stepped on the accelerator instead of the brakes;
The tyres were bald, and wheels lost traction;
Bus was travelling too fast to make the 90-degree turn;
Brake line was cut due to sabotage by disgruntled employee (skid marks on the road make this a highly dubious scenario);
F-1 is hiring.

Sheer speculation of course, fuelled by lack of disclosure and trust in public institutions.

Quick on the defensive, Kalai Natarajan, Vice President of Corporate and Marketing Communications at SMRT covered all the standard bases: "SMRT has a fleet of 1,137 buses, which undergo strict and thorough preventative maintenance checks. These include mandatory LTA inspection repair, as well as predictive and corrective maintenance of components such as braking and steering mechanisms. The bus involved in this morning's accident was last maintained on June 21, and was given a clean bill of health. No brake or steering related problems were noted during the inspection."

One passenger, trapped in the bus, was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics, and his body had to be extracted from the mangled bus.

Another death of an individual by a negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide. Not to worry, there's a new precedent, fine is $10,000.

Don't waste money on an independent Committee of Inquiry to look into the circumstances surrounding the accident, and to recommend improvements to existing systems, protocols and processes. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. The "buck stops here" sign is definitely not on the CEO's desk. Zhang Kun may insist his brakes failed, but the system will beg to differ.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Higher Calling

Even George Yeo seemed uncertain why he has been appointed to a special Vatican commission set up by Pope Francis. Contacted by 938LIVE, the usually loquacious Yeo said it "is too early to comment".

The only remotely religious utterance we can recall from the quitter stationed in Hongkong was to tell his comrades, "Go reform thyself," when he felt betrayed at Aljunied. As for counsellor confessor experience, Jack Neo did telephone him when the latter's real-life casting couch role came to inglorious light.

His judgment has been
The Vatican said the initiative is part of efforts by Pope Francis to reform the Holy See and help it move on from a series of scandals and allegations of corruption that made the news under his predecessor Benedict XVI’s reign. Pope Francis himself is tainted by a gay sex scandal: The papal nunciate who lived openly with his male lover in Uruguay was appointed by Francis as his representative at the Vatican "bank", formally known as the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR).

The official Vatican news release on the setting up of the commission goes like this:
The Holy Father, by a chirograph dated 18 July, has established a Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organisation of the economic-administrative structure of the Holy See.
The Commission will gather information, report to the Holy Father and co-operate with the Council of Cardinals for the study of the organisational and economic problems of the Holy See, in order to draft reforms of the institutions of the Holy See, with the aim of a "simplification and rationalisation of the existing bodies and more careful planning of the economic activities of all the Vatican Administrations".
As explained in the Chirograph, the Committee will "offer the technical support of specialist advice and develop strategic solutions for improvement, so as to avoid the misuse of economic resources, to improve transparency in the processes of purchasing goods and services; to refine the administration of goods and real estate; to work with ever greater prudence in the financial sphere; to ensure correct application of accounting principles; and to guarantee healthcare and social security benefits to all those eligible".
The Commission will be able to collaborate, on request, with the working Group of eight Cardinals in drafting a plan for the reform of the Apostolic Constitution "Pastor Bonus" on the Roman Curia.
The aims and the appointments of the Commission are described in detail in the Chirograph itself.

Note the areas in which they are seeking improvement - "misuse of economic resources", "improve transparency"; "administration of goods and real estate"; "greater prudence in the financial sphere"; "correct application of accounting principles";"guarantee healthcare and social security benefits to all those eligible".

Perhaps the Vatican has not been properly briefed. Town council investment in toxic instruments, Brompton bicycles, housing bubble economy, accounting lapses ("Government continues to suffer procurement lapses: Auditor-General's Office"), escalating medicare charges, pathetic social handouts ("you want hawker center, food court or restaurant?"), etc,  are not exactly shining examples of a job well done. Just ask George, he should know, throughout his 23 years of political service, he was going with the flow.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Subdued With Extreme Prejudice

The Australian police has a brochure to explain Positional Asphyxia (restraint asphyxia) as a form of asphyxia (from Greek α- "without" and σφύξις sphyxis, "heartbeat") which occurs when someone's physical position prevents them from breathing adequately.

The following factors are listed as contributors to positional deaths:
Obesity - a large abdomen means that when a person is prone, the contents of the abdomen can be forced upwards under the diaphragm restricting breathing;
Psychosis - stimulation of the heart under drugs can produce cardiac disturbances which combine with difficulty in breathing to lead to fatal results;
Pre-existing physical conditions - any condition that impairs breathing under normal circumstances (heart disease, asthma, emphysena, borobchilities and other chronic lung diseases) will put a person at higher risk when they are physically restrained;
Pressure on the abdomen - even a thin person will have difficulty breathing if there is pressure on the abdomen. The more security officers there are holding a person down in a prone position, the greater the risk that there will be pressure on the abdomen, making it difficult to breathe.

The brochure identifies one of the symptoms and signs of improper restraint as sudden tranquility - an active, loud, threatening, violent, abusive person suddenly becoming quiet and tranquil, not moving.

Slim built 21-year-old Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah had kicked a prison warden while exiting his cell, was subsequently subdued, as they say in the movies, with extreme prejudice by unknown number(s) of officers, before being dumped into the disciplinary housing unit (DHU) cell "in a prone position". You don't need an IQ 0f 180 to appreciate that Dinesh was manhandled with retribution intent in mind. You can read volumes into the startling brevity of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) statement concerning how a young life was snuffed out.

While it was admirable of Deputy Superintendent Lim Kwo Yin to assume personal responsibility for the thuggish tactics of his men - did Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen own up for Private Dominique's death? - there is no account/autopsy of how Dinesh was asphyxiated. If he was conscious and unrestrained while being ferried to his cell, he could have rolled over to gasp for life sustaining breath intakes.

We are simply told the inmate was restrained "according to protocol", left unattended, until Lim re-entered the cell later to check, and found him to be unresponsive.

The family of the deceased is upset that the senior prison officer charged with causing death through negligence received only a $10,000 fine. Three years on, they are still not sure exactly how Dinesh died, and have yet to decide on a legal course of action. If the Shane Todd investigation is anything to go by, the odds are definitely not in their favour. Don't waste money.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Laughing All The Way To The Bank

According to the SMRT Annual Report of FY2012, ex-CEO Saw Phaik Hwa collected $700,000 in Basic Salary, $1,053,000 in Variable or Performance related bonuses plus $60,000 worth of benefits for a total remuneration of $1.813 million. Then there's this extra thingy called "EVA Bonus Bank Balance" of $1,115,000.

The small print explains:
"This amount is her EVA bonus bank balance payable following her resignation (on 6 January 2012, but remained as Advisor up to April 2012 at undisclosed compensation terms). It is made up of $123,000 from FY2012 EVA and $602,000 from her cumulative  EVA bank balance from prior years, both payable in FY2013. The remaining $390,000 will be paid to her in 2014. These payments are in accordance with the rules governing the EVA Based Incentive Plan."

No wonder she couldn't give a damn when her 100,000 PSP and 100,000 RSP shares were forfeited. The SMRT Corporation Restricted Share Plan (RSP) and SMRT Corporation Performance Share Plan (PSP) are incentives schemes that give out fully-paid ordinary SMRT shares and are vested based on three year performance periods. For instance the SMRT PSP grant dated 30 March 2012 covers the performance period 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2014. Presumably, you have to be performing for those years to qualify.

Meanwhile we are told SMRT's new CEO Desmond Quek pocketed $611,000 for the six-month period after taking over from interim  CEO Tan Ek Kia in October last year. There's no breakdown about basic pay and bonuses, but you can be sure he's on track (pun intended) to millionaire status by year end. And we are still no wiser why there are cracks in rails and stalled trains cannot be pushed to the next station.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Blind Allegiance

It was blind allegiance that led Frank Bailey to dedicate one year of his life to help put Sarah Palin into the office of Governor of Alaska. Working eighty hour weeks on pro-bono basis, Bailey was part of the grassroots volunteers Sarah called her "Rag Tag Team", blindsided by the myth and choosing to ignore the darker personas of unhinged diva, think-skinned attacked dog, and self-absorbed zealot.

While they swore they were on a high-road campaign, nobody thought it wrong their candidate would draft a letter to the editor, singing her own praises, but attaching a random name to sign and claim authorship. When the letters were actually printed - appearing in the  editorial pages of the Anchorage Daily News, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Juneau Empire and a host of newspapers that  were important for message building and demonstrating grassroots support - Sarah knew she hit a goldmine, and decided it would become a priority:
"That's brilliant about the letters. It's free, it's powerful... I know I always read the letters to the editor, sometimes I learn more there than in any other parts of media."

To capitalise on the free mileage of publicity, the Rag Tags became a letter-manufacturing plant, churning them out like campaign buttons. Soon, there were letters of high praise for Sarah and harsh criticisms of opponents submitted en masse to the entire print media.

The lame stream media is claiming that certain websites may be popular, and ranks low on credibility, supposedly because they are alleged to publish false information about the incumbent political party. Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng is quoted as saying, "If we have a media-illiterate population that naively believes whatever they read, then we are in trouble." Cheng need not lose sleep over this, it was Lee Hsien Loong himself who once asked, 'Do you believe everything you read in the Straits Times?"

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

“I Say, You Say”

The lamestream media got it wrong again. Zaqy Mohamed did not inititate any legal proceedings, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Chua Chu Kang GRC merely demanded that the website take down an offending post within 24 hours. And will someone please tell the MP only licensed websites have to take down unfavourable posts within 24 hours or risk losing $50,000, and the instruction has to be issued presumably by MDA?

This has to be one of those “I say, you say” situations which Lee Hsien Loong said will leave "a permanent question mark hanging over his reputation, and the reputation of my government."
Zaqy maintains that his credibility hinges on the replacement of railings at the staircase, that the railings have been there for some time and are not new. The lady hurt as a result of a poorly maintained staircase says different:
The "I" and "you" parties involved in the dispute are obviously Zaqy and lady, or vice versa, as both have a conflicting understanding of the incident.  Zaqy said he and the town council will respect the claims of investigations being conducted with regard to the staircase accident in the Chua Chu Kang GRC which left Ms Serene Tham injured. So why is a third party reporter dragged into the fracas?

One plausible reasoning is that the MP does not want to see his name associated/tarnished by the negative publicity in the event the insurance investigators rule in favour of the damsel in distress. Here someone should tell the MP about the Streisand effect. Wikipedia defines this as the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

Thanks to the brouhaha raised about "editorial integrity", we are entertained again by the sight of another MP shooting himself in the leg.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dark Clouds Ahead

Omigosh, the proverbial fecal matter has hit the rotating cooling device. Rating agency Moody's Investors Service has downgraded the outlook on Singapore's banking system from "stable" to "negative".

The anticipated rise in interest rates coupled with the high level of household debt - most of it tied down to mortgages - will present a perfect storm to the local lenders' credit profile. CFO Chng said a rise in short-term interest rates will lift DBS's net interest income and mitigate higher credit costs. That may be good news for the bank, but not the house owners.

The latest round of cooling measures introduced last month were meant to make sure outstanding debt obligations do not exceed 60 percent of monthly income, which is another way of saying many have already committed more than 60 percent to service housing loans. The numbers tell us that since 2009, household debt has risen 40.4 percent while monthly incomes rose only 26.3 percent.

Why are the lemmings still leaping off the cliff?

One reason could be the Minister's lack of resolve to burst the festering housing bubble. He may think he's helping the asset enhancement devotees to realise a fat profit for retirement, but by hoping to offload $400,000 public housing flats at $1,000,000 price levels, that's downright ripping off the younger generation coming into the market. The expression that comes to mind is "kicking the can down the road". Not every young person has a godfather with a million dollars paycheck to help with the mortgage payments.

So has the sub-prime crisis made its way across the globe to the little red dot? Moody's noted that Singapore banks have sufficient buffers to withstand losses under stress test scenarios - without spelling out what those stress scenarios are.  If they are so confident, why has DBS's outlook been rated "negative" since last August?
John Cusack panicking in the movie "2012"

Monday, July 15, 2013

Send The Jokers to Coventry

To send someone to Coventry is a British idiom meaning to ignore or ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by pretending that the shunned person, although conspicuously present, can't be seen or heard.

Grose's The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines it thus:
"To send one to Coventry; a punishment inflicted by officers of the army on such of their brethren as are testy, or have been guilty of improper behaviour, not worthy the cognizance of a court martial."

The list of characters that deserve to be sent to Coventry is getting long and nauseating, think Khaw Boon Wan, Teo Ho Pin, Yaacob Ibrahim, Vivian Balakrishnan, etc. Our patience has been tested once too often. Even Low Thia Khiang has had enough of the petty bickering, and we agree: "We have made our position known both inside and outside Parliament and the relevant documents are already in the public domain, so the public can make its own judgment on the matter."

Lee Hsien Loong was treading on thin ice when he boasted, “If we cannot trust a politician to tell the truth, then we cannot trust him or her to safeguard public funds, to put public interest ahead of personal gain, or to make decisions affecting the well-being and security of Singaporeans.” Is he even aware that Balakrishnan conveniently left out the 7 Feb email from NEA from his so-called dossier of truths?

"If any of my PAP colleagues is accused of lying, I will investigate and get to the bottom of the matter. If he has lied, there is only one option – he has to go." Except that he has yet to investigate Ross Worthington's narration of how Dhanabalan was slapped ("Governance in Singapore" is available at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, page 150). The stakes are high. If Dhanabalan, Richard Hu and Tony Tan are put to the polygraph test, the result could be epic. Hey, we may even get to elect another president. This is how Goh Chok Tong recalled the incident at a National Day Rally:
"You may also have heard this old story about Loong. In case you have not, I'll tell you now.
”Back in 1990, Loong had a quarrel with Richard Hu. S. Dhanabalan sided with Richard. Loong lost his temper. ”He reached across the table and gave Dhanabalan a tight slap. The whole Cabinet was thrown into commotion. “I then forced Loong to apologise. I must be suffering from amnesia. I just cannot remember this incident. Now you know how creative Singaporeans are."

Was Khaw also lying when he said HDB pricing is delinked from private sector market rates? Teo has yet to come clean about A.I.M. and, using Lee's own words, "the matter has to be resolved one way or other. It cannot be left as an “I say, you say” matter of opinion, which leaves a permanent question mark hanging over his reputation, and the reputation of my government."

The whole bunch is behaving like kids, as an Indonesian minister put it, "in a tizzy". Sending them to Coventry is the best recourse, we need to get on with our daily struggle to pay for the house, daily commute, living expenses, kids' education and healthcare.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Saving Private Dominique

The safety recommendations stipulated no more than two smoke grenades, thrown at least 20 metres apart, at least 10 metres away from the closest troops involved in the field exercise. Platoon commander Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal was there, Chief Safety Officer Captain Chia Thye Siong was there, both were aware of the Training Safety Regulations (TSR) when six grenades were expended. Private Dominique need not have died.

So why is the Ministry of Defence trying so hard to absolve themselves of accountability?

Private Dominique Sarron Lee had declared his last asthma attack was 3 years prior to his pre-enlistment check-up date on 4 Jan 2011. Unfortunately he forgot, or forgot to mention, he was treated by a general practitioner for a relapse on 25 Oct 2010. Or maybe he was too gung ho to serve his nation, and did not want to be seen as a wimp hiding behind a desk. Or saving babies' lives in a hospital. Or polishing test tubes in a laboratory. We'll never know, dead men tell no tales. Nevertheless, he did check "yes" in the box for asthma/lung disease. And he was certified combat-fit by the SAF Medical Classification Centre.

When asthma is in remission, it's not necessarily gone for good. One out of three kids who beats asthma by age 18 gets it again by the time they're 26. (Sears MR, Greene JM, Willan AR, et al. "A longitudinal, population-based, cohort study of childhood asthma followed to adulthood", New England Journal of Medicine 2003; 349:1414–1422)

A combat medic testified earlier when the coroner's inquiry started in April that he was not trained to deal with asthma attacks. He has now clarified that SAF medics are indeed certified in basic cardiac support and in dealing with with asthma. The revision in sworn testimony was attributed to an attack of nerves.

The headlines are declaring that Private Dominique "gave inaccurate information" about his last asthma attacks, sounding ominously like he committed perjury in a court of law ("NSF did not report last asthma attack"). He is in no position to offer an excuse of nerves. Private Dominique is dead. We should honour the dead.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Not Clear At All

Can someone explain what Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim meant by his Facebook post, "But let’s be clear – doing good offline does not mean one is excused from acting responsibly online"?

The usual turn of phrase is to say doing something good is no excuse for doing something bad. The context of his rumination was one blogger purportedly suggesting online that the supply of N95 masks was controlled by the Government (bad), and same blogger had distributed free masks to the community (good). Perhaps the Minister was suggesting the blogger was irresponsible for not making a profit by charging for those scarce N95 masks, which would have been more consistent with the "no free lunch" mandate from above.

Yaacob may or may not have cleared his writing with the Chief of Government Communications at the Ministry of Communication and Information (CGC), the son of former president Devan Nair who is salaried to vet communications from official channels. Same guy who Teo Ho Pin apparently depended on to compose his long winded spin on the A.I.M. sorry saga, another installment of gobbledygook verbiage to plaster over the dirt.

The irony here is that we are told online material should be licensed to ensure that we read the right stuff. The haze from Indonesian fires may have cleared, but the lines between right and wrong are still awfully blurred. Even George Orwell may have to rewrite doublespeak, the language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words, first introduced in his book, "Nineteen Eighty-Four".

Edward S. Herman, political economist and media analyst, describes in his book, "Beyond Hypocrisy", the principal characteristics of doublespeak:
"What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program."

We are glad Low Thia Khiang will not deign to engage with the other slippery customer, still spoiling for a fight instead of focusing on saving lives from the Aedes mosquito. "That's why I've stressed... in our press release that it's important for us to work together to forge some understanding and thereby we can do a better job for the benefit of the residents and the hawkers and we stand by what we say and we intend to work along that line, in a good spirit." Well said, Mr Low, and good luck with those numb skulls who are so difficult to understand.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Politician's Waterloo

"Politics is a contest for power but the key principle when you have power is, don't take advantage of people under your charge, and always be honest and upfront with them." The problem with this sentence is that the speaker misses his own message.

For a guy who talks so much about power, he should recognise the demise of his own. Thanks to the careless choice of words in his Facebook post about the haze that triggered the megaphone politics, heavy weight Ng Eng Hen had to be roped in to handle the sensitive issue. His own role was diminished to one of messenger boy, carrying a big white envelope to soothe ruffled feathers.

As for being upfront and honest, we still don't know what went into the $79.8 million "Other Costs" accounting entry of the bloated $387 million YOG budget. That's enough money for a couple of houses at Sentosa Cove. And while he gave away free condoms for the foreign athletes, we had to pay $2.25 for a N95 mask.

Who can forget the gutter politics during the watershed election of 2011?  Thankfully, Vincent Wijeysingha's open declaration of his sexuality has put spade to Balakrishnan's shameful innuendos.

While he's busy wallowing in dirt, another has died of dengue fever, the fourth Singaporean victim, a Chinese male who lived in the Tanglin Halt area. Five dengue related deaths on our shores, if you count the Indonesian. Clearly, his priority is misplaced.

There's only one way to put him out of his misery. Have him repeat his charges outside of parliament house, where he's protected by parliamentary privilege. Calling people liars, when he himself is so generous with half truths, is tantamount to libel and defamation. And he had to pick a fight with an ex-cop and practising lawyer. That's gotta be real dumb.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Third World Justice

"The Fatal Gift of Beauty" is the true story of the trial of Amanda Fox, an American exchange student convicted of the murder of another exchange student, British Meredith Kercher, in the university town of Perugia, Italy. The disturbing elements of the case - conspiracy, corruption, false accusations, police incompetence, abuse, lies and manipulations - highlight a judicial system warrants closer inspection.

A peculiarity of Italian law - by Anglo Saxon standards - is that judges and prosecutors are technically on the same side, even though judges are supposed to weigh evidence impartially. It is not uncommon to find judges and prosecutors lunching together during trials, "ex-parte" meetings forbidden in American courts.

Defense lawyers working in the Italian system are also at an institutional disadvantage. Although prosecutors must theoretically share evidence with the defense, in practice they do not. In the United States, since a 1963 Supreme Court ruling, withholding of exculpatory evidence (so-called Brady materials) from access by the defense team is ground for dismissal of a case. "Theoretically, the prosecutor must give all the evidence to the defense before the trial," said one cynical Perugia lawyer, adding, "In Italy, everything is theoretical."

Investigative journalism as practiced in the UK or USA does not exist in Italy, ranked 79th in press freedom in 2009. In the Amanda Fox case, Florentine newspaper crime reporter Mario Spezi was picked up from his house and thrown into solitary confinement after Spezi's investigation into the case seemed to be deviating from the prosecutorial line.

And there was the police bungling of evidence at the crime scene - they had to concede that traces of DNA material they collected were what's known as "low copy number," meaning that the sample was actually too small to be objectively determinative of anything. The Perugia police clearly did not have the CSI expertise for a high profile case, but they did dust for finger prints. However, when the prosecutor was asked how wide a net investigators had cast in testing fingerprints at the site, she said, "We didn't compare them with Obama's fingerprints, why would we?" After the verdict was announced, Donald Trump urged a boycott of Italy.

Author Nina Burleigh wrote more than a murder story, meticulously researched and documented, it is also a look into how the legal system in a third world country works.

Monday, July 8, 2013

My First Skool Teacher

This is a scary picture. What kind of parent will leave her charge in the hands of a masked stranger?

The human face provides important cues for recognition of both individuals and emotions, cues instrumental for the fight or flight decision in a life threatening situation. Developmental psychologists have long been interested in face recognition because faces provide an early channel of communication (prior to the onset of language) between child and caretaker. It is generally recognised that, from birth, infants possess rudimentary facial processing capacities. Jeffrey and Rhodes ("Insights into the development of face recognition mechanisms revealed by face after effects", British Journal of Psychology 102 (4): 799–815) said that faces "convey a wealth of information that we use to guide our social interactions. Even infants at seven months are able to comprehend facial expressions as social cues representing the feelings of other people, an important development of the early warning system for the dangers of interacting in an adult world. Those who are not developmentally impaired grow up to be streetwise, others end up as trusting souls, forever falling for one scam after another.

The chief executive of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) First Campus, Mr Chan Tee Seng, needs to explain to parents how staff are recruited for his childcare arm of the NTUC First Campus Co-operative. The faceless child abuser had worked at Toa Payoh Lorong 4 branch of My First Skool (MFS) on a part-time basis since 2009. In all those years, Chan needs to explain how the teacher performance review was conducted.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Unfettered Discretion

Don't pop the bottle of champagne yet. The Court of Appeal may have reversed a High Court decision and ruled that the Singapore Prime Minister does not have unfettered discretion in whether to call a by-election when an elected Member of Parliament (MP) vacates his seat, but the devil's in the details. Speaking for the three Judges of Appeal (Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang, V k Rajah), Justice Chao said, "A Member of Parliament represents and is the voice of his constituents. If a vacancy is left unfilled for a unnecessarily prolonged period, that would raise a serious risk of disenfranchising the residents of that constituency."

The learned judges also made it clear that risk applies only in a Single-Member Constituency (SMC). The residents of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) does not enjoy the same protection that their elected voice will always be heard in parliament. The Singapore Constitution has a special provision for that quirk in a GRC.

In current practice, a political neophyte can be justified to ride the coattails of a "seasoned" MP into parliament, since his/her inexperience is supposed to be balanced by the more senior politicians in the GRC team. But when the old codgers finally kick the bucket while in office, the residents may be shortchanged with a set of fresh faces, still desperately trying to keep up with the demands of the expensive on-the-job-training, stomping in frustration, "I don't know what to say".

PM Lee told the DBS Asia Leadership Dialogue gathering that a sustainable economic model starts with politics, "Because if your politics is wrong, your economics is bound to go wrong." Is that why the Gini coefficient is going off the chart (by getting another 10 billionaires to move to Singapore as the prime minister suggests), the infrastructure is strained to breaking point, and good people don't want to go into politics? In his heyday, Lee Kuan Yew would never allow a divorcee to stain his cabinet line up. Once a strong resolve is compromised, it is inevitable the whole house of cards will start to fall.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ultimate Stakeholders of the Fund

The last we saw of him was the indelible image of a grown man bawling his eyes out like a baby on national television, after learning that his salad days as full cabinet minister was over. Not only will he no longer enjoy a guaranteed million dollars each and every year, the ultimate status symbol of his residence being guarded by a daily 4-shift change of Gurkhas will also be a thing of the past. Of course his pains were soon soothed by juicy appointments with GLCs and other similarly related organisations.

Lim Boon Heng, 65, is flagged as the successor to Dhanabalan, 75, for the chairmanship of Temasek Holdings. Lim was Minister Without Portfolio for 8 years (1993-2001), and then Minister in the Prime Minister's Office  for another 10 (2001-2011). Same job, different name, and nobody is any wiser how he earned his money. If Lim Swee Say is pleased as punch about his CPF statements, imagine Lim being delirious over his bank balance. Definitely not something to cry about.

The finance professor of a local university was spot-on when he suggested that if they decide to appoint him, it would be because of his political background rather than his financial experience. Flowing along similar non-politically correct lines, he segued into the more obvious, "It is probably more important that the incoming chair possesses the requisite management skills and has a strong sense of duty to the ultimate stakeholders of the fund, that is, Singaporeans."

Lim joined Temasek's board of directors just last year. He was appointed a member of the powerful executive committee which has the authority to approve new investment decisions. That takes care of the resume. Naturally, his more important role is to maintain the fairy tale, such as "Temasek only manages its own investments and assets. It doesn't manage our CPF savings." Okay, that should explain why the sovereign fund lives it up on 8.86 percent (one-year return to shareholder, the 10-year and 20-year numbers are higher) while the CPF doles out 2.5 percent. As Clinton would say, "define stakeholder".

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Innovation At Risk

On Wednesday 19 June 2013, international rights groups struck out at the Jordanian government who made amendments to their press and publications law last year to regulate "electronic publications," requiring local news websites to register with Jordan's Press and Publication Department (PPD) and obtain a license. PPD has insisted that "the decision does not seek to restrict freedoms," and that "the objective is to organise the work of these websites." Why does this sound so familiar?

On 14 June 2013, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), comprising eBay, Facebook, Google, Salesforce and Yahoo! Incorporated had written to Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, expressing their concern that his draculian licensing scheme implemented on 1 June 2013 could hamper Singapore's ability to continue to drive innovation, develop key industries in the technology space and attract investment in this key sector. They also opined that the scope of the regulation and manner in which it was introduced have negatively impacted Singapore's global image as an open and business-friendly country.

The impact of censorship on the business community is highly debatable - money making deals have always triumphed over scruples like moralising - but if investments for innovative technology are threatened, the minister responsible may have sleepless nights coming.

The Global Innovation Index (GII) is co-published by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The GII is a recognition of the key role that innovation serves as a driver of economic growth and prosperity. According to the  6th edition (2013) released on Monday 1 July, Singapore tumbled out of the top 3 to 8th position. This was attributed to more emphasis being placed on innovation output, such as creativity on the Internet, licensing trademarks under the Madrid system, patents, R&D and exports. Our country's economic growth and prosperity put to risk by licensing and patent issues? The jokers involved should be charged for treason.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Goddamn Idea Was Stolen

The case says so much for intellectual property and copy right protection in Singapore. Two doctors had patented their design (filed in 2002, granted in 2005), yet the court has thrown out their claim because the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) has been using the invention since 2009. The mistake here is that the inventors had pitched their prototype to unscrupulous parties. The Singapore Civil Defence Force was at least one law abiding entity who had applied for, and granted a vendor licence.

Years ago, two of us were invited to make a sales pitch to a GLC for our programmable logic controller (PLC), a standard spiel about the innovative features of our engineered product. We were surprised to face some 50 staff in the meeting room, all armed with note pads in hand. A few exchanges with the eager audience during the preamble raised our antennae, and we cut our technical presentation from the template 2 hour talk to 30 minutes. We were salaried to sell a manufactured product, not give away company secrets. Discrete follow up phone calls confirmed our suspicions, those guys assembled had intended to copy our proprietary design.

Dr Ting and Dr Mak were disadvantaged in that their "mobile first aid post" concept existed only on paper. Mark Zuckerberg was alleged in the movie version to rebut the Winklevoss brothers, who had accused him of intellectual theft, "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook you'd have invented Facebook." The lawsuit against Zuckerberg was settled out of court, and the rich twins were wealthier by an undisclosed sum.

The local lawsuit may not have taken on the scale of the Apple/Microsoft or the Apple/Samsung court cases, with parties arguing about the merits of "look and feel" similarities. The Singapore invention is also about functionality, essentially a mobile medical vehicle that transforms into a resuscitation station with surgical equipment, built-in suction system for removal of blood, fluids and debris, and essential emergency life saving devices.

But if a patent filed and registered with a legal body, not some $2 outfit with a hidden political agenda, can be declared invalid with the stroke of a pen, one doubts we will ever see an Apple/Microsoft/Samsung type litigation in Singapore courts.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cyber Threat

What the fish (WTF) is the minister Hen thinking of when he announced plans to set up a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) surveillance task force to "track cyber trends"? Euphemistically code named "Cyber Defence Operations Hub", the SAF unit will use its arsenal of surveillance equipment to "monitor cyber threats around the clock and beef up its networks against virtual threats." Is he taking the nefarious Internet Brigade, who troll non-PC blog sites and "convey messages" about libellous posts, to the next level?

The world is already polarised after Snowden exposed the plethora of classified intelligence snooping in place, including the interception of US and European telephone metadata and the PRISM and Tempora Internet surveillance programs. There are many who stay away from Google mail because they use bots to read your communications about promote products and services mentioned in the emails to plug the appropriate advertisements. Now we know even Microsoft, Yahoo! and FVacebook are selling you out to the US government. 49 percent of Americans polled thinks Snowden's disclosures the public interest while 44 percent thought it harms it. The rest of planet earth probably thinks votes along the similar lines.

In Singapore, more are likely to share Snowden's perspective that leaks were an effort "to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them." Especially when the dodgy ministers in charge can't even be transparent about simple things like PSI information. If it weren't for leaks, how else would we know that our anointed Minister for Muslim Affairs "has a more open-minded interpretation of the Koran"?

Soon, all of us in will need to master Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), the data encryption and decryption  program for signing, encrypting and decrypting texts and e-mails, to keep the invasive buggers out of our private lives. Like the man says, offence is the best form of defence. Time to hit those manuals.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Window Dressing

It was the rags-to-riches story to beat all rags-to-riches stories. Indonesia’s richest man, Eka Tjipta Widjaja, the semi-retired patriarch of the Sinar Mas group, built a fortune amounting to US$12 billion over the past few years on the back of rising commodity prices.

At age 7 he landed at Ujung Padang, Sulawesi, after a long boat ride from China's Fujian province. By 15, he was running his own business, peddling biscuits and candy door-to-door. Soon it was coconut oil trading, but the Japanese's price controls during WWII put a damper to that. His fortunes revived with the patronage of Suharto, and the founding of Sinar Mas for palm-oil production. It was a strategic tie-up with Salim's Liem Sioe Liong, Suharto's closest business associate.

They even had a bank, Bank Internasional Indonesia (BII), which was relinquished during the Asia financial crisis. The crown jewel of the family business was Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) incorporated in Singapore in 1994. The listing in the New York Exchange and a HQ in Singapore helped offset the dodgy image of investing in emerging markets, and state controlled Indonesian forest concessions.

The family business' relentless expansion required nonstop fund raising, and a former Chase Manhattan banker was recruited to raise billions for the Widjajas. Also recruited, allegedly for cosmetic reasons to keep the image burnished was Koh Beng Seng and Elizabeth Sam, both former senior officials of the Monetary Authority of Singapore -- the country's central bank -- as "senior advisers." But it was rumoured both Koh and Ms Sam weren't given much responsibility at APP, the company's finances remained firmly under the control of Hendrik Tee, the genius from Chase. Both left within 15 months.

Some said their departure sent a signal to some Singaporean bankers that problems might be looming at the company. Window dressing can do only so much. The loss of BII had also deprived the Widjajas of a compliant in-house bank from which to borrow, and APP's short-term borrowing jumped from $561 million at the end of 1998 to $1.85 billion at the end of June 2000 . A flaky bond exchange offering spooked investors and the NYSE-listed stock price closed at 20 cents on a Friday in 2001, down from a 1995 IPO price of $11.50.

But commodity prices has put a smile on their faces again, never mind if the conglomerate’s various enterprises often raise the ire of environmental non-governmental organisations. Who cares if the NGOs  remain skeptical of the group’s public relations campaigns, money can always be counted on to put up willing faces.