Monday, March 31, 2014

Affordability Questioned

When the mainstream media puts out a full page article with the heading "Building affordable homes for S'poreans" you know that even the spin masters are tired of spouting out the same old lies. Hiding the truth just got difficult.

There was this 1992 quote attributed to Goh Chok Tong:
"It is in your interest to ensure that the value of your flats continues to rise."
And this one from Khaw Boon Wan:
"If Singapore's economy were to decline permanently, all properties would drop in value."
The most recent quote about chasing up the prices came from Lee Hsien Loong:
"The HDB programme is not just about the roof over our heads. It is also a valuable nest egg."
Quite obviously, the tiresome triumvirate shares same agenda, keep racking up those numbers.

The whole affordability problem started when the Housing and Development Board (HDB) deviated from it's original 1969 charter of providing basic housing for the masses. In 1971 public flats could be put on the resale market, instead of being sold back to the HDB at fixed prices after the 99 year lease was up. Conveniently excluded from the telling of the deviant history is the part when the cost of land is imputed into the price tag of the flat. There's a quote somewhere with Dhanabalan saying that land set aside for public housing would make more money if allocated to private developers. Henceforth the opportunity cost of land was foisted on the peasants. The article did record that in 1988, Dhanabalan said land-scarce Singapore could not afford to let every single person have a flat of his own". But it's okay for billionaire singles from overseas to buy up a whole penthouse or bungalow. Just for that, he deserves to be slapped on the left, and then the right cheek.

Members of the pioneer generation recall 3-room flats could be had for $7,000 in the good old days. So the $10,000 for a new flat in Sembawang is not the result of a typo. Perhaps it's the subsidy that is padding the inflated prices. Which begs the question, does HDB pump up the sales revenue with the inflated numbers, or nett off the subsidies and report only the "discounted prices"? We would like to think the HDB had a good system in the past, and should revert to the original guiding light of Lim Kim San.

Lee Hsien Loong told Sir Malcolm Rifkind at think-tank Chatham House that it is not the system that will continue keeping (Singapore) clean, it is the people who run it who will do so. Problem here is that we already have people who keep running the system to the ground.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Massaging Profits

uSqueez for the U.S. prez
Although George Bush was one of America's most unpopular presidents in history, he was clearly a favourite with foreign leaders, who showered him with lavish presents during his last year in office. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, sent a £2,700 Mercedes mountain bike. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria, and French leader Nicolas Sarkozy sent richly decorated saddles, probably thinking of Mr Bush's Texan roots.

Sadly for Mr Bush, the goodies had to be handed over to the State Department. Rules forbid U.S. officials from keeping most gifts given by foreign representatives - Singapore officials declare their gifts, have them valued by a government estimator, and then are allowed to buy them at a discount. One item Bush was probably happy to hand over must be the $579 OSIM uSqueez calf-and-foot-massager contributed by a Singapore official.

OSIM is in the news again. Brookstone, the loss making unit of lifestyle group OSIM, is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States, and may be sold off within days. OSIM made a $77 million write-off of Brookstone in 2009. Then, in 2013, OSIM also made a $31 million "impairment and foreign translation loss." That's a good $100 million down the drain.

Brookstone was Nasdaq listed until it was taken private by OSIM in 2005 together with Temasek Holdings, in a US$456 million buyout. As late as Sept 2013, OSIM was boasting it had 258 Brookstone outlets. Months later in January 2014, Brookstone, with $140 million of debt, missed a payment. It had only US$1.1 million in cash on 28 Sep 2013, having burnt away the US$32 million in the kitty just a year ago.

Privately owned retailer Spencer Spirit is rumoured to offer US$120 million for the OSIM/Temasek's US$456 million acquisition in 2005. That's pittance compared with the US$4.2 billion dangled by Temasek to take over Olam International Ltd. (OLAM). “Temasek is already a large holder of Olam so they probably know the business better than everybody else,” said the Singapore-based head of equity investment strategy at Standard Chartered Plc. It may be easy to tickle George Bush's tootsies with the uSqueez calf-and-foot-massager, but squeezing blood out of stone in a bad buy is quite a different matter. You need fingers and toes crossed to pray that public money is not poured down the drain.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Matter Of Trust

Stop the presses: Two-room flats in sizes of 36 sq m and 45 sq m in Sembawang can be yours for just $10,000.

The price of two-room flats at the EastLace@Canberra and EastCrown@Canberra projects are actually priced at $70,000, less the Special CPF Housing Grant (SHG) of $20,000 that was introduced in 2011, and the Additional CPF Housing Grant of $40,000 for first time buyers. The big question is how many of the 3,497 new flats launched by HDB in the non-mature towns of Sembawang, Sengkang and Yishun are priced at this level.

The EastLace and EastCrown flats are not the cheapest in terms of overall price. In June 2010, the price tag for a two-room flat at Rivervale Arc was $68,000. Still, this is proof that housing can be truly affordable, if they have the political will to make it so.

The newly minted permanent secretary at the Law Ministry said it was vital to find ways to understand what the silent majority is talking about, "Otherwise, your policies and laws may well be shaped by a very loud and noisy minority." Which is a strange thing to say. As long as anyone can remember, policies and laws have always been shaped by the small but voluble coterie of elites ensconced in ivory towers. The Population White Paper may not carry any signatures, but you know where the perpetrators can be found. Hint: their pay starts at $300,000++.

Speaking at the promotion ceremony for elite public service officers at the Marina Mandarin Hotel, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the Government faces a challenge of retaining the public's trust in a new and more challenging environment. “If we fail to manage public trust and if we end up with the deep scepticism about government seen in many other countries, it will reduce our space (to) manoeuvre." The latter will mean gerrymandering and all manner of manipulation of electoral boundaries will be more difficult to carry out. That's what the silent majority in this country is really talking about, the schemings to perpetuate the ruling class and protect their iron rice bowls. With the occasional crumbs for the peasants to nibble on, like a $10,000 public housing unit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Playing The Numbers Game

The Commissioner of Police's response to the Little India riot debacle was predictable: blame everybody except the guy in charge. We have read about their requisition for a souped up police car, and more CCTV - including new fangled wearable ones, which could be a subtle suggestion for expensive Google glasses - but effective police work depends on the quality of men on the ground.

True to his scholarly background, Ng rolled out statistics to prove he is grossly under-manned, and wants money for 1,000 more officers. As of Dec 31, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) has 8,784 officers, which works out to be a 614 ratio of population to policemen. This is nearly twice Tokyo's 303, which is worse off than Hongkong's 252 or New York's 242. It looks like 1,000 more men in blue won't improve the ranking by much. And the SPF does have the 3,688 full time National Servicemen and 2,000 volunteer policemen to beef up the numbers. All they need to do is put on the impressive uniforms and scare the rioters to submission. That was the commissioner's original bitch, 54 "policemen at best" to face off 400 rioters. The numbers vary depending on who's doing the telling, and whether you include bystanders and busybodies whipping out smartphone cameras.

Ng admitted communications were "totally screwed up" and "non-existent". Then we are told there is a "large technological enhancement" in command and control that is currently being installed. Taking years to implement, Ng says it should be in place  by year-end. Since we don't know when the project was first initiated, we can't tell if the delay is worse off than the 40 odd minutes it took for the Special Operations Command (SOC) troops to dash from City Hall to Little India. Hopefully it will all happen before the  powder keg that is Geylang will blow up. Last year Police Tactical Troops were sent to Little India for anti-crime patrols only 16 times, compared to 41 times in Geylang where, we are told, there is "overt hostility and antagonism towards police presence".

Whatever happens, the Commissioner is in no danger of losing his decorative medals anytime soon. Quite unlike former Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) protocol chief Lim Cheng Hoe, who has been stripped of all his public service awards -  Public Administration Medal (Silver), Commendation Medal, Efficiency Medal, and Long Service Medal - for his predilection for pineapple tarts. Scholars never fail, they are just promoted according to Peter's Principle.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

More Money For Outsiders

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop must have run out of discussion points with Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong when she moved from the Nuclear Security Summit talk to something called "reverse Colombo Plan." And probably any other topic since it must be ridiculous to have a fireside chat with a country with no nuclear facility to speak of.

Many Singaporeans have benefited from the Colombo scholarship which have allowed more than 40,000 Asians to study in Australia for free during the mid-1950s to 1980s. The late Dr Tay Eng Soon actually studied nuclear science under such scheme, but ended up a lecturer because there was nothing in the field in Singapore for him when he returned from overseas. He was to have a more financially lucrative career as a politician.

Digression aside, the reverse plan is intended for sending Australians to study in Asia. And progress on to internships with companies who will probably hire them after the industrial attachment. In Singapore, latter mechanism usually comes with a bond of some sort. Which means 3 to 4 years with a Singapore based company, and robbing born and bred Singaporeans of another place in the employment market. In the case of a Singaporean male, it also means a 2 year career head start for the foreigners, thanks to the onerous National Service commitment.

We don't know how much of the taxpayers' money go into these scholarships. What we do know is that the four Government-funded universities are raising their tuition fees again. Someone calculated that tuition fees have increased about 7.5 per cent per annum for the past 26 years. With all the brain power on campus, you would have thought someone could come up with a way to reduce operating costs.

Pursuant to Sylvia Lim's question in parliament in 2008, we are told about one-third of our local students who graduated between 2005 and 2007 took up tuition fee loans to finance their undergraduate studies. Most students would have graduated with an average debt of about $20,000. Another opposition party member Png Eng Huat got Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat to admit that the government dishes out more than $210 million in tuition grants for foreign students every year.

Once again, the Government is claiming to enhance the financial assistance schemes for needy students with more subsidies. It is starting to sound like a broken record, each hike being justified by another subsidy. Instead of giving more to Singaporeans to achieve a higher education, they prefer to help the foreigners. That, too, is a familiar refrain.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Money To Be Made From Kids

My sister knew something was amiss when she picked up her young one from the daycare centre. Instead of the cheery face that used to greet her, the poor girl was looking downright miserable. And no wonder, she had soiled her pampers, and none of the caregivers were any wiser. The child could have been soiled for hours. Makes you wonder how childcare fees could be justified for being hiked again, this time by at least 10 percent, the highest over the last 8 years.

According to the Early Child Development Agency (ECDA), the median monthly fee was $830 last year, $80 more than in 2012. Childcare centers claim that teachers are more qualified, but are they good at their work? Maybe they should  spend the extra 10 to 20 percent for automatic poo detection equipment, instead of more money for salaries of heartless - and olfactory challenged - caregivers.

Then again, the government has been ramping up the building of more childcare centers. There were 1,083 centres last year, up from from 1,016 in 2012. More centres mean more money to be made from working mothers, mothers who had to join the workforce because a single income can no longer support a family in Singapore. Debunking Chan Chun Sing's "focus on lower-income and middle-income families", parents are crying foul, rightly pointing out that the increase in fees are eating into the "savings" from subsidies. It won't be long before the kids will be housed in tented facilities, since a "seasonal overflow" in demand will mean more collections from the working moms. Like the hospital crunch, there's no reduction in ward charges for being parked in corridor space.

Dr Amy Khor really insulted our intelligence when she attributed the current hospital bed shortage to “seasonal peak” demands, and then added injury to insult by saying “But we need to realise that this could happen again.” One doesn't have to look further for proof that money won't necessarily attract better talent, in teachers, caregivers or administrators. They pay ministers millions, and they still can't see beyond their noses. Singapore’s number of hospital beds per 1,000 people decreased from 2007 to 2012, dropping from 2.5 to 2.2. They probably didn't notice the stench from the liberal influx of foreigners.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Far, Far Better Thing To Do

In Charles Dicken's 1859 novel "A Tale of Two Cities", English barrister Sydney Carton willingly takes the place of Charles Darnay at the guillotine, and gave us the immortal thought: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

After waking up to the misery in this country, Charlotte Ashton did not die. Instead, she left Singapore last week to return to Britain to deliver her baby. It is indeed a a far, far better rest that she's going to, a place with no stinky trains,  no overpriced housing, no COE, ERP, S&CC and all the hated acronyms we have to put up with. Best of all, the National Health System takes a humongous big load off the worry about maternity bills. And she won't have to deal with doctors who pretend to serve national service obligation by "saving babies' lives". And the rip-off co-payments of the MediSave scam.

Australia also takes care of the delivery bills, unless one opts for a private hospital. For all three babies, if you go the whole hog to produce one for mom, one for dad, and one for the country. We had to confirm this when we spotted an expectant Aussie mum queuing up at one of our food courts. Yup, she said cheerily, you mean you have to pay? Dr Toh Chin Chye was one who believed health care should be free.

Ms Ashton not only sparked debate with her BBC Viewpoint piece headlined “Does Singapore deserve its miserable tag?”, she also gave us a rude reminder that all is not well in our so-called First World country. In follow up of same article, she said, “In terms of my report for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme, it comes from a personal perspective based on my experience of Singapore and various conversations I’ve had with Singaporeans and expats living in Singapore." Ain't that the whole truth, and nothin' but the truth. Now, it is a far, far better thing that we do, than we have ever done, when we remember this the next we march to the polling booth.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Gag Order Gone Wrong

Mothers please take note. Whether your ward is the result of a natural procreative act or legally accepted procedure (adoption, in-vitro-fertilisation, sperm donation, surrogate mom, etc), it is the maternity obligation to care for, nurture  and protect that matters most. Having to bury your own child is a horrible situation no one likes to envisage, and dragging her to court and sue the pants off her is just as horrific.

After selling her husband's Lornie Road property and evicting step-daughter Wendy Chan, Madam Eleanor, 79, Tan made her sign an agreement not to say or write anything defamatory or scandalous about Tan and her family in the mainstream media or the internet.

What got Wendy in the hot soup was her posting in a ChannelNewsAsia forum discussion about a parliamentary question on public housing prices ("Wow Ms Foo Mee Har wants to know is $1 mil HDb flat a norm in future"):
"I obviously cannot comment  on your bimbo statement but it is a fact that she is with stan chart. A simple google search should also bring up her position in the bank."

Thanks to the Streisand effect, we now know The Member of Parliament for West Coast GRC is Tan's daughter-in-law. It's hard to read anything "defamatory scandalous, or untrue" into the question on HDB pricing, or her position in the bank. Nothing is mentioned about the rumor of her husband being declared bankrupt by said bank. But HDB may have been scandalised by the preposterous suggestion that public housing will be henceforth priced $1 million and up. In that case, HDB should be the one to drag the questioner to court.

Tan was well prepped for her day in court, answering difficult questions with "cannot remember" or "did not know". Perry Mason should be so proud. Then she was presented a statement that does not tax her senior citizen memory, "You have conflated a legal basis to come to court and an emotive desire to want the commenting to stop." Stripped of the high falutin legalese, that could be construed in laymen terms as, "Try to fool me, hah?" Tan responded with, "I really don't know, my feelings are all confused." The mother instinct could still well be alive.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Rise Of Cronyism

When TIME (Mar 17, 2014) highlighted Ho Ching is 26th of the 50 Most Powerful Women In Business (according to Fortune magazine's ranking), they took pains to mention that "hers is not a political appointment". Singtel's Chua Sock Koong, 56, is ranked 22nd, is also not a political appointment. But no need to say that.

Everybody's nervous about the new "c" word, with corruption fast becoming blasé thanks to it being over used in the past couple of years. The Economist’s latest cover story warning readers of “The New Age of Crony Capitalism” has been commended for shining a journalistic light on cronyism’s rise and the corrosive effects of rent-seeking behavior - grabbing a bigger slice of the pie rather than making the pie bigger.

At the U.S. Government Accountability Institute, “cronyism” or “crony capitalism”  is as defined those instances when government gives certain companies favorable rules or taxpayer monies others don’t enjoy. Those not in favour of the cash going to Olam International (Olam) will have a field day, given the darts thrown at Singapore Exchange (SGX) for being less involved in the Temasek Holdings initiative. SGX's hastily prepared statement regarding Olam served only to muddy the waters further.

Critics are arguing that The Economist’s index is not constructed to capture the critical moves cronies make. Indeed, a more complete cronyism index would include metrics such as the number of government-backed loans a company or individual has received, subsidies or set-asides, and the number of concessions scored by so-called “offensive” lobbying efforts. The Economist’s crony-capitalism index also isolates business sectors like casinos, oil and gas, and real estate as crony sectors while ignoring things like high-tech, healthcare, and entertainment.

Thus, the magazine concludes that the United States ranks number 17 and China fares even better with an index score of 19. And oh, Singapore is ranked 5th place in that index. Yes, Singapore did score 23 points for institutional strength but The Economist said that indicator is no guarantee that cronyism here can be kept in check.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Good Money Chasing Bad

Yet another announcement that the interest rate for Central Provident Fund (CPF) Special and Medisave accounts (SMA) will remain at 4 percent from April to June 30. The Government had already announced in September last year that the floor rate for SMA would be maintained at 4 percent until Dec 31 this year. This periodic broadcast is just a painful reminder that our CPF pays a petty 2.5 percent, while the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) (Kumpulan Wang Simpanan Pekerja) across the Causeway declared a 6.35 percent dividend for 2013 (6.15 percent in 2012).

Earnings from savings in the SMA is pegged to the 10-year Singapore Government Securities (10YSGS) yield plus 1 percent, or 4 percent, whichever is higher. The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) website provides the link between CPF and SGS:
Q. Does GIC invest CPF monies?
A. The short answer is that GIC manages the Government’s reserves, but as to how the funds from CPF monies flow into reserves which could then be managed by either MAS, GIC or Temasek, this is not made explicit to us. What we do know from public sources: Singaporeans’ CPF funds are invested in bonds called Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS) which are fully guaranteed by the Government.

According to its Annual Report, Temasek’s Total Shareholder Return (TSR) for the year as of 31 March 2013 was 8.86%. Compounded annual return to shareholder over the past decade was 13% while TSR since the company’s inception in 1974 was 16%. Impressive.

Moody says different. Explaining why the offer to buy the remaining shares in Olam International is credit negative, Moody's vice-president Alan Greene said Olam's dividend yield of 2 percent in 2013 is "well below" Temasek's overall dividend income yield of about 3 percent in the year to March 2013. Temasek must have a basket of super performing investments to make up for the proposed cash injection into a commodities firm with a gross debt of $9.1 billion and EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortisation) of just $1.2 billion. Analysts said they did not expect a competing offer for Olam; only fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Massive Compassion Deficit

Thanks to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the world knows we are the most expensive city in the world. Now the BBCNewsmagazine is helping to broadcast that Singapore has a massive compassion deficit. As if to add credence to the BBC article, Lee Hsien Loong prefaced his comment on the observations with "We needn’t accept everything the writer says".

Freelance writer Charlotte Ashton, who moved to Singapore last year, wrote about her experience on an MRT train when she was pregnant:
"One morning the nausea finally got the better of me just as I had stepped onto a packed train. Worried I was going to faint, I crouched to the floor, holding my head in my hands.
And so I remained, completely ignored, for the full 15 minutes it took to reach my station. Nobody offered me seat or asked me if I was okay."

Couple of years ago, while walking the busy underground linkway between Liat Towers and CK Tang, a young mother with a baby in arms was trying to persuade her older child to get on her own two feet so mom could carry the collapsible stroller up the stairway. The 2-3 year old girl would not surrender her ride. I approached the little one and told her I could carry the stroller up the flight of steps, but she had to hold on real tight so she won't fall out. She nodded in assent, and mom and kids made the ascend safely. But there was no word of thanks, just a blank look which made me wonder. Back in the office, colleagues lambasted me for being kay-poh. What if she had reported me for kidnapping?

A decade earlier, I was at a bus-stop in Australia when another mother with a pram was in queue. She maneuvered the pram to the entrance of the bus, picked up her baby, and went into the bus. Without a single  word exchanged, the driver got out, and carried the pram to the back of the bus where there were brackets to hang the pram. When she reached her destination, she got off the bus and waited at the curb.  Said driver went to the back of the bus to retrieve the pram, so mom and baby could continue their journey. "Thanks, mate," she managed.

Ms Ashton's Singaporean friend - who chose to remain anonymous because "in this authoritarian democracy, the majority of people are very reluctant to go on the record with anything remotely negative about Singapore" - enlightened her about the difference between Singapore and other countries:
"The problem here is that we measure everything in dollar bills - personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth - it is all linked to how much money you have. But only the top few percent earn serious cash - so everyone else feels worthless and apathetic."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Monetizing Volunteers

A typical Volunteer Welfare Organisation (VWO) welcomes volunteers who wish to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate, alleviate the pain and suffering of the needy, and allow them to live their lives to the full. Some volunteer opportunities package activities like:
  • Providing tuition to primary school students
  • Assisting in after-school care for children
  • Befriending elderly residents
  • Engaging in recreational activities for the elderly

For free. No obligation or hidden agenda involved, the objectives are strictly led by the heart. For funding purposes, donations, from pockets of the volunteers or supportive third parties, pay the bills.

The National Council of Social Services (NCSS) now wants to get a firmer grip on the VWOs. "We hope that in 10, 15 years .. we will groom a new generation of social service leaders," said the minister leading the charge. The scheme will involve social service scholarship holders, who will probably be stuck with the obligatory government bond. Each year 8 candidates are picked from NCSS scholarship holders or outstanding social service professionals for further training  or seconded to the ministry, NCSS or other VWOs. Deployed  to wherever the government sees fit. One senior social worker expressed doubt about the practicality of moving staff across different fields of work e.g. folks who enjoy working with young children may not have the skill set to deal with senior citizens. A scarier thought is that VWOs will lose their painstakingly recruited and altruistically nurtured volunteers to a central pool controlled by the NCSS.

VWOs funded by the ministry will be incentivized by getting more, and made to share the salary benchmarks in the sector. Before we forget, our public servants' pay are indexed to the top earners. Why do we get the feeling that the most expensive city in the world will be getting even pricier?

The worry is not just about VWOs being swamped by mercenary professionals, with all manner of KPIs tuned to the GDP goal. We have seen how the People's Association (PA) do gooders end up being politicized. Will the VWO vanguard be sharing the same fate?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Maintaining Healthcare Hikes

Amidst all the jabber about helping seniors cope with health care costs, one sentence stands out: Medisave deductions will be increased by 1 percent next year. The current contribution as a percentage of wage to the Medisave Account ranges from 7 (age 35 and below) to 9.5 (65 plus). That 1 percent is a helluva hike.

When they say purse strings will be loosened further to help people, they conveniently omit the tightening of the noose around those struggling to cope. Yay, the $30 deductible patients must pay for usage of Medisave for chronic treatments is waived - yes, Virginia, Singaporeans have to pay extra to access their own hard earned money - but  the 15 percent co-payment remains. No cash in your pockets? Forget about those "generous" subsidies being touted in the Budget.

Watch the small print. People can use up to $300 a year for non-cancer-related scans for outpatient diagnosis. But the $300 cannot be used to cover the payment for cancer scans beyond the $600 cap. It's a double whammy if the non-cancer-related scan spots a nasty looking tumour. From next year, older people can withdraw up to $200 more a year from Medisave for outpatient payment, except details about who and what qualifies have yet to be worked out. In this instance, this small print is not even available.

Somewhere else in print is the news that more than 4,000 doctors and dentists in the public sector will be rewarded with a 9 percent pay increase. That's about 4,150 votes for the incumbents. That should help maintain Singapore's reputation as the most expensive city on planet earth. That should also help keep health care costs affordable.

Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said the ability to attract talent with cash is the key to success in upscaling our health care capacity, such as clever usage of tented facilities charged at normal hospital ward rates. The Old Man tried that move, and we get to see the types that sneak into parliament.

Quote of the day from Low Thia Khiang, on subject of hospital bed crunch and other class act stumbles: "One certainly hopes that Singapore does not make history by going from Third World to First, and back to Third within one generation."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Angry Ang Moh On The Loose

ST has a nicer picture
Hopefully, Dawn Ho misheard when she was told by the police that they could not arrest expatriate Aaron Jeremiejczyk. Latter had reached into her friend's car where she was seated in the back, and punched her in the nose. Then the director of marketing for Tadcaster Hospitality - owner of Australian themed bar and eatery in Asia Square - put a marketing spin on the assault, "Why did you punch yourself?"

Ms Ho made the mistake of coming to the defence of a poor cabby, suffering a torrent of abusive insults because the Ang Moh was not happy with the $43 per trip fee for the limousine service. Hey, Singapore has not been named the world’s most expensive city by the Economist Intelligence Unit (E.I.U.) for nothing.
"So as I was leaving to jump into friend’s car, I told him what he’s doing is not cool and he didn’t have the right to talk to people like that. Angry guy started verbally abusing me with vulgarities and chasing after me as I made my way to the car."

Romanian diplomat Silviu Ionescu was also treated with kid gloves when his car was not impounded after he ran 2 red lights and hit 3 pedestrians, injuring 2 and killing 1. He was allowed to take flight, and escape arrest. It took a long 4 years before justice was finally meted out.

Jeremiejczyk won't be needing a fake passport if he's heading for Changi Airport. The story might be different if he had punched the car instead of Ms Ho, denting an expensive automobile or cracking the windscreen. There's at least a $650 deductible for most car insurance policies.

"None of us, I think, would be bold enough to say, or stupid enough to say, property is more important than life," said chairman of the Little India Committee of Inquiry, Pannir Selvam. Same fella who gave Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu a rough time for pointing out that while properties were damaged at the riot, "These are things we can buy. If a life had been lost, no money would bring him back..." Selvam is now saying he never said those stupid things, arguing "But it was not a life threatening situation... Fact of the matter is, there is no evidence of them wanting to kill anybody." Tell that to Ms Ho and her bleeding nose. Does the lady have to die before the cops do anything?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not Exactly Helping Hands

Lee Hsien Loong was the first to introduce the Pioneer Generation Package, stealing the thunder from Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam who bored everybody to tears in parliament - some ministers actually nodded off - while trying to extoll the benefits in his Budget speech. Even Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam has admitted that there has been feedback of a "substantial disconnect" in awareness about the touted benefits. If it's that good, the reception says otherwise. Snake oil artists don't give up easily. "We are going to bring across the substance of the Pioneer Generation Package, and all the other substantial benefits that are in the Budget this year, to every single person,” said Mr Shanmugam.

"It is timely to revisit (the) reverse mortgage as an additional option for our seniors...," said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament on Monday. Reverse mortgages are essentially loans taken up by a homeowner using his property as collateral, not unlike refinancing schemes resorted to by cash strapped commercial companies. Securitization, the exchange of assets for cash, comes with a price - the principal and interest on the debt.

Reverse mortgages have been tried before by NTUC Income, but only 24 households took it up between its introduction in 2006 and discontinuation in 2008. And for good reason, why should a senior citizen with no steady source of income want to incur extra bank charges?

The other alternative to pay the monthly bills is the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme, by which part of the homeowner's lease on the HDB flat is sold so that the proceeds can go towards topping up their CPF accounts. Which means that if there're insufficient funds to meet the Minimum Sum requirements, the money is as good as frozen in limbo, untouchable and unreachable for meeting even daily needs.

The problem is not limited to the old and the poor. The asset rich, cash poor anomaly is a common refrain.

Khaw promised, "This year, I want to do more for the elderly, the vulnerable groups, and help extended families live near one another." Seriously, the proof has to be in the pudding. All these schemes, some say scams, won't be of much help if the poor are still poor. And HDB flats continue to be over priced.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Of Men And Machines

A Singapore military transport plane, two warships, a naval helicopter and a submarine support vessel - equipped to search underwater, with divers on board - are involved in the search for the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) plane that went off the radar on Saturday:
  • aircraft (C-130 )
  • naval helicopter (Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk)
  • submarine support vessel (MV Swift Rescue)
  • frigate (Formidable class)
  • missile corvette (Victory class)

The Vietnamese, using a Soviet AN-26 (produced in the USSR in 1969–1985), were first to spot the oil slick and then two broken objects in the sea off Tho Chu island which could be part of an aircraft disintegrated at mid air. Which revives the age old debate of whether the man or the machine is the deciding factor in determining results.

Ng Eng Hen's show-and-tell list of what the Singapore Armed Forces has to date includes the advanced (and expensive) G550 Airborne Early Warning aircraft which is also convertible into a luxurious corporate jet. There're also the Heron-1 and Hermes-450 UAV which are probably not too useful in the air and sea search for the missing MAS Boeing 777-200ER. Maybe they should deploy the Archer-class submarines to do some useful work. Toys are pretty pointless when they are put up for show only.

We have seen how the "cat-claw" security barriers failed miserably at the Woodlands Checkpoint when the cops manning them were a tad too slow to activate it - maybe they were busy tucking in their shirts and checking out their uniforms in the mirror before making an appearance for the inevitable Youtube 5 minutes of fame. The police said the barriers "did not operate optimally" - typical euphemism in the similar fashion of SMRT and Singtel "technical glitches". As usual the blame is on the equipment, not the men, if you listen to Teo Chee Hean: "the alarm and barrier systems at the checkpoints are inadequate, and they need to be improved and strengthened considerably." At additional cost to the taxpayers, of course.

Ng may be eyeing the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and Littoral mission vessel, but do we really need them? The 6 long range A330 MRTTs are meant to replace the 4 KC-135s, which couldn't have seen much service when our island is only 42 km in length and 23 km in breadth. The littoral combat ship (LCS) is a class of relatively small surface vessels intended for operations in the littoral zone (close to shore), but we hope the minister does not plan on sending them all the way to Somalia for anti-piracy duties. If you saw Tom Hanks in the "Captain Phillips" movie, you'll appreciate real men are needed to handle the wily pirates. Leave the wayang in parliament where they excel in it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Other Puthucheary

Armchair critic would be a gross misnomer for James Joseph Puthucheary. As an active anti-colonialist, he actually signed up with the Indian National Army (INA) to join thousands of youths to fight for India's liberation at the battle of Imphal. He was captured and detained as a prisoner of war until his return to Malaya to read Economics at Raffles College.

There he joined the Anti-British League (ABL) and published Malayan Orchid, which attacked British colonialism and demanded independence for Malaya. All 6 members of the Malayan Orchid group were detained by the British in January 1951, and James was released only in 1951. Resuming his studies at the University of Malaya, he joined the University Socialist Club (USC) in 1953, and the editorial board of Fajar in 1954. The entire editorial board was subsequently charged with sedition for the "Aggression In Asia" article, but eventually acquitted.

In October 1956 he was with the Middle Road group of trade unions when he was detained together with Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Devan Nair and Sydney Woodhull. They were under political detention until 1959, when the People's Action Party won the general elections.

He was detained a third time on 2 February 1963 under Operation Cold Store, a mass arrest of political opponents originally planned for December 1962. The justification for the round up was debunked in official classified British documents: "The fact that interrogations have so far produced little evidence about the Communist Conspiracy or the link up between the Barisan Socialis and the Brunei revolt... This is embarrassing but not altogether unexpected." (CO:1030/1573 p.75, 2 April 1963)

Three detentions are one too many, and James, together with Sydney Woodhull and Lim Shee Ping, were the first among the Operation Cold Store victims to capitulate and sign personal renunciations of their political beliefs as a price for freedom.  Lee Kuan Yew himself said in January 2008, "The biggest punishment a man can receive is total isolation, in a dungeon, black and complete withdrawal of all stimuli. That is real torture."

Not everyone has the steel and resolve of Dr Lim Hock Siew, who spurned the Special Branch's offer of unconditional release "so that Lee Kuan Yew would be in a position to explain why you have been detained so long":
"I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew's face. This is not a question of pride but one of principle. My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable." (The Fajar Generation, Poh Soo Kai et al, page 151)

A stroke rendered Puthucheary speechless for the last 5 years of his life.  He passed away in 2000 after suffering a second stroke. Among the many who gathered to pay tribute to the true politician was former Malaysia Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Crisis Averted

The Provost of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Tan Eng Chye has, via an internal communication circulated to faculty members, staff and students, informed them that Facebook comments posted last week by Associate Professor Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied on lesbianism "contained provocative, inappropriate and offensive language". The Provost also said he has counselled Khairudin Aljunied, who acknowledged that while his only intention had been to convey his point of view, his original posts reflected poor judgment in the tone and choice of words. That's it. Period.

The provocative Associate Professor, hailed by some quarters as "an icon of the Malay/Muslim community", got off easy.

In 2005 an archaic British colonial sedition law used to fight communist insurgency was deployed to prosecute three ethnic Chinese accused of writing nasty remarks about the minority Malay community.

Edward Jenks (1936), in The Book of English Law, has this to say about sedition:
"This, perhaps the very vaguest of all offences known to the Criminal Law, is defined as the speaking or writing of words calculated to excite disaffection against the Constitution as by law established, to procure the alteration of it by other than lawful means, or to incite any person to commit a crime to the disturbance of the peace, or to raise discontent or disaffection, or to promote ill-feeling between different classes of the community. A charge of sedition is, historically, one of the chief means by which Government, especially at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, strove to put down hostile critics. It is evident that the vagueness of the charge is a danger to the liberty of the subject, especially if the Courts of Justice can be induced to take a view favourable to the Government."

25-year-old Lim's views expressed on an Internet forum for dog lovers about whether taxis should refuse to carry uncaged pets out of consideration for Muslims were deemed disparaging, and Koh's tone and choice of words were taken to advocate desecrating Islam's holy site of Mecca. A 17-year-old student was also dragged to court to face sedition charges for allegedly making racist comments about Malays on the Internet.

According to court documents, Lim and Koh were accused of committing acts "with a seditious tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of the population of Singapore."

Perhaps Provost Tan managed to nip it in the bud before the "s" word came into play. Perhaps the LGBT community is too small to be considered one of the classes of the population of Singapore. Perhaps the police is just too busy fending off attacks about their poor judgment on the night of the Little India riot.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Buck Stops Here

Good cop, bad cop, and vice versa
The contrast was stark, one guy was grilled for 4 hours, another was let off after 30 minutes. One was in the thick of the action, the other took 30 minutes to mobilise the action squad - discounting the extra 10 minutes he waited for a return call to confirm the situation report. Precious time needed to dress up niftily before swinging into action - or face the wrath of ex-police commissioner Tee Tua Ba, a man who obviously likes his officers to be dressed up in uniform to the Teeth (sorry, couldn't resist that).

Extensive use of the objective pronoun rained like projectiles hurled at Little India, and there was no dodging the accusations let fly:
"You did not know because you chose not to know"
"That is your imagination, not reality"
"You have somehow made it worse by not taking any action"
"You don't know means there must be something wrong with the system"
"We believe that you have read the crowd wrongly"

"So was it a failure of you or a failure of the system?" It was a question that prompted the beleaguered Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim to respond with: "Is the honourable member asking for an opinion or a question?" From the line of questioning rolled out in the terrifying tirade, the politically correct answer has to be about the man. Opinion-wise, the system has to be at fault. The same system that allowed a limping terrorist to make it across to Johore, and a mentally challenged female to drive pass the immigration checkpoint unperturbed.

Maybe the whole charade was just a test run for the limits of the new anti-harassment laws proposed. If Lu is indeed being laid out as sacrificial pawn, he deserves a medal for not letting the buck stop at a higher rank - where it should really belong.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gangster Movie

Scene from Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing"
Aw shucks, Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing (Jagal)" lost out in the best documentary category at the 86th Academy Awards. Oppenheimer says the film takes people to an uncomfortable place and asks them to look at painful truths. It's a rude reminder that gangsterism still exists today.

In the commentary track of the Director's Cut of the movie, Oppenheimer revealed that he did not want to film the gangsters making their rounds collecting protection money from Chinese merchants, he did not want be an accessory to the extortion. His Indonesian crew told him, "Pak, you must film this, it happens everyday, in every market." Co-commentator Werner Herzog chimed in, "It's frightening, because they are always smiling, both the extortionist and victim, to this transaction, with a lot of smiling."

Not many motorists smile each time they pass an ERP gantry - Everyday Rob People - the scam that does nothing for relieving traffic congestion. One bright young lawyer once argued in court successfully that it was illegal to charge for usage of the public roads when Road Tax is already collected. So they amended the law to make it legal. Such was the inglorius start of the Central Business District (CBD) scheme, which expanded to Restricted Zone, and current Electronic Road Pricing.

There's good reason to be unhappy about the latest round of S&CC hikes. Sembawang already has an accumulated  surplus of $11.6 million in the town council kitty, and another $20.4 million had been transferred to the sinking fund. Since it is sitting on a current surplus of $3.2 million,  what danger is there of running a big tab and crossing over into deficit? Even if that happens because of some investment in toxic financial instruments, isn't the accumulated  surplus money meant for a rainy day? You don't want to get started on the sinking fund. Under section 34 of the Town Council Act, upon issue of a writ of election, 80% (100% if the party that wins is a different party from the incumbent) of the accumulated surplus disappears into the black hole of the sinking fund. With the stroke of a pen, 80% of the town council collection goes poof at every election.

Someone should organise a screening of Joshua's movie at Hong Lim Green. That way, we get to see who are the real gangsters making the rounds.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kinky Laws in Political Play

Just click, and Facebook will reveal more...
Associate Professor (with tenure) Khairudin Aljunied of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Malay Studies department thought he could cover his tracks after three students complained his online behavior was “unbecoming of a university professor”, and his choice of words were “tantamount to hate speech”.

Facebook has a facility to allow all and sundry to see that he had indeed modified the offensive pejoratives "diseases" and "cancers" in his initial post to politically correct "social issues" and "developments". He also deleted one sentence that spelt out his agenda: "Make the pure message of Islam viral to cleanse liberal Islam and lesbianism from the hearts of the faithful." One suspects even Lawrence Khong would say amen to that.

Khairudin is also alleged to have refused to apologise, and removed the post that argued that his comments were borne out of his religious convictions, and to prevent him from voicing his views is akin to acting to “censor” him.  Commenting, a spokesperson for the university said, “NUS advocates a culture of respect for individuals regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, political or sexual orientation.” She did not say that NUS advocates a culture of respect for freedom of expression. Therein lies the conundrum.

It is unfortunate for the outspoken don that we do have a law (section 8(1)(b) of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act) which stipulates that the Minister may make a restraining order against any priest, monk, pastor, imam, elder, office-bearer or any other person who is in a position of authority in any religious group or institution for:
"(b) carrying out activities to promote a political cause, or a cause of any political party while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief"

Since its publication, the Health Promotion Board's FAQ on homosexuality seems to have kicked a hornet's nest, with some good folk stung for veering too close to the topic. Whoever's responsible may be testing the waters about Section 377A of the Penal Code, or it could be just a ploy for the gay vote. Whatever the political price, it's definitely cheaper than $8b for the Pioneer Generation Package.

There are some who still maintain that Tey Tsun Hang was persecuted for his political commentary. The former law professor has just been acquitted by Justice Woo Bih Li who ruled that trial judge Tan Siong Thye had wrongly equated conduct which is morally reprehensible with conduct which is legally wrong according to the Prevention of Corruption Act. Call him a cad, scoundrel, philanderer - feel free to add your choice of invective - but in the eyes of the law, Tey was not corrupt as charged. And then there were the alleged  threats, inducements and/or promises made by officers from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau - Tey's lawyer cited purported comments by graft officers that his client had taken as threats to arrest his wife - when they were fantasizing about a dream job at Abu Ghraib.

And who can forget the police commissioner - the missing person in the Little India riot Commission of Inquiry - who blackmouthed Ng Boon Gay when he was found not guilty after another drag-through-the-mud type court case. The same Ng who prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, in January 2102, had remarked, "If he did wrong, he must be punished; if he did nothing wrong, he must be exonerated."

The chief justice who used to dispense justice based on the satisfaction of his morning breakfast is no longer around, but the legal system still has a few kinks to be ironed out. So how should Khairudin Aljunied be judged, by the law or by his peers? What do you think?