Saturday, May 31, 2014

Picture Of The Week

One advantage of the new digital television broadcast transmission (DVB-T2) is the ability to screen capture in glorious high definition, full 1920 x 1080p resolution. You can even see if the speaker is wearing his designer hearing aid or not.

What did his debating adversary say to make him so upset? It's not like some one yelled, "Ooi! Your mother wears army boots!" or "Look out for the flying shoe!" Altercation wise, 10 minutes is not too much of a verbal joust, but somehow a few key blows must have connected. Some possibilities:

"... I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they call it policy shift. I don’t know whether that is a shift or it’s a flip-flop."

"Mdm Speaker, I thank the PM for praising the WP’s ability to fight in the elections."

"We don’t oppose all the policies but where we think that there is a need for us to oppose and it concerns the future of Singapore, like the Population White Paper, we did so. "

"We have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on. But our message has got across."

"... allowing the Government to move forward, not to jam up the Government. It is a mark of a responsible Government and a mark of first world Parliament."

Friday, May 30, 2014

Crouching Tigers Hidden Heroes

The Workers' Party was recently accused of being inarticulate about many things, but come election time, they turn into tigers and heroes. Strangely, their members of parliament (MPs) seem to have quite a bit to say during the "Debate on President’s Address 2014". More than the oldest member in the house anyway. Maybe they should have livened up the proceedings by throwing shoes and stuff.

MP Sylvia Lim’s speech - Towards a Safe, Fair and Just Society - touched on two essential services that are supposed to ensure that we live in a safe, fair and just society, namely challenges for the Home Team and Access to Justice. She was surprised to discover that new NPPs (Neighbourhood Police Post), called e-NPPs or enhanced NPPs, offer electronic services, but are completely unmanned. Ah Kong will have to learn to type if he needs help. Access to justice, she noted, means the rich have the resources to engage expensive lawyers, but the poor have to make decisions based on their means. This sometimes includes pleading guilty, when they do not have the resources to contest their charges.

MP Png Eng Huat’s speech pleaded the case for our pioneer generation workers, in particular the anxiety of not knowing what is to come after retirement. The anticipation and excitement of being able to finally collect their lifelong CPF savings in full at retirement age, which was 55 then, dashed to bits with the shifting of the goal post to 62 and beyond. Instead of looking forward to grandchildren bouncing on their laps, they had better be familiar with bouncing checks.

MP Lee Li Lian’s speech lauded the Presidential commitment to keeping the pathway upwards open to all Singaporeans, regardless of their background or circumstances, but brought home the harsh reality faced by vulnerable groups. Guys ensconced in ivory towers need the occasional reminder of what ground zero is like. Her Mandarin portion commented on financial incentives introduced by the Government such as Baby Bonus and Child Development Account to encourage having more children. They need to be complemented by a change in attitudes and mind-set of employers with regards to flexible work options.

MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap’s speech asked the hard questions. Is the social safety net doing its job? Is the social safety net performing to help Singaporeans pick themselves up after a fall? Is the social safety net pulling families out of the poverty trap? How do we know that the temporary poor are indeed temporarily poor and are moving up the government’s different scales of help closer to median income self-sufficiency? What do you think?
"Madam Speaker, the Prime Minister may be right to say that there are no dead poor in Singapore because no one here lives under the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $1.50 a day. But as he acknowledges, there are the relatively poor and the temporary poor. These are Singaporeans who are experiencing a fraction of the standard of living enjoyed by the average Singaporean. We need to know whether the government’s multiple lines of assistance, the social safety net, is helping them and whether the overall situation is improving year on year."

MP Pritam Singh’s speech weighted on Defence Diplomacy and better management of the Defence Budget. But splurging on expensive F35s is pretty pointless when, "Unfortunately, we are not in a position to determine or prevent a conflict in the South China Sea beyond offering ourselves as a neutral arbiter and an advocate for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea." Focus instead, on more immediate worries closer to home.

NCMP Yee Jenn Jong’s speech on education and social mobility is close to his heart, as he declared, he owns businesses that provide services and products to schools. He frets about the reproduction of class stratification. In 2008, the PSC revealed that 47% of the PSC scholarship recipients that year lived in HDB flats, and 53% lived in private housing. This is an over representation of private housing as up to 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

NCMP Gerald Giam’s speech is about managing risks, incentivising hard work and constructive politics.
MediShield Fund having a capital adequacy ratio of 161% in 2012, which is more than 40% higher than what the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) expects of commercial insurance funds, means that it is collecting a lot more in premiums than it is paying out in claims, transferring too much risk to citizens. Socializing risks, privatising gains - does that ring a bell? That has to be a damper on incentivising hard work.
Low Thia Khiang has more to say about constructive politics.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Going For The Jugular

Devadas Krishnadas, CEO of consultancy Future-Moves Group, nails it when he fleshed out the sweetheart deal between the Government and the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board:
"The Government issues Special Singapore Government Securities or SSGS to the CPF with a coupon rate matching the rate of return on CPF monies.
The SSGS is non-tradable and the CPF is the only purchaser of these securities.
According to the Accountant-General’s Department, SSGS amounted to nearly S$250 billion as of March 2013. What happens is that the CPF monies are transformed, via this mechanism, into investable capital. This capital, when variously invested, then earns a return which permits the paying of the coupon, which in turn allows the CPF to pay interest to its members."

An astute commentator, a Ms Chung, completes the rest of the story which may never see the light day until the current political scene is changed out:
"This article didn't answer the following:-
(i) transparency of how funds flow between CPF, GIC and Temasek;
(ii) the high rates of returns for our SWFs vis a vis CPF interest;
(iii) the rate of increase for MS is higher than inflation; and
(iv) whether there can be increased flexibility for people to use their CPF, esp for those caught in dire life situations not of their making.
v) If you are 55 and you sell your flat... if you don't meet the minimum sum AFTER refunding the CPF utilized + interests; they will withhold the proceeds from the sales to cover the shortfall... Does this makes (sic) absurd sense???"

Until the incumbents decide to come clean, it will always be hard for Singaporeans to understand CPF. The face off in parliament is not about constructive politics, whatever Uncle Tony Tan had in mind.

Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, meaning "of, for, or relating to citizens") is defined as the practice and theory of influencing other people on a civic or individual level. There are no holds barred in the range of unsavoury methods employed in politics, which include promoting one's own political agenda among people, manipulating laws for selfish reasons, and exercising force, including warfare against adversaries. In the latter, short of another Operation Spectrum, we are witnessing high-handed tactics against political opponents and abuse of governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve partisan goals. The type of politics, as Mr Low Thia Khiang pointed out, that is constructive only for the incumbents.
Enjoying a ringside seat of constructive politics in parliament

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Choice Of Colours

The video clip posted by Lee Hsien Loong on his Facebook page of the Indranee Rajah response comes on right after Low Thia Khiang's speech. For a guy whose delivery in dialect is more powerful than in Queen's English, this is one command performance that resonates. The keystone of his message, and probably why it was clipped, is this reminder:
"If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture. If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture."

The mainstream media refers to it as a "heated debate", but if you watch the lacklustre retort of Rajah, it comes across as a tired response, with the speaker looking, and articulating, a decade older than her actual years. You would be tired too, repeating the unchanging rote of a programmed automaton. If her demeanour spells her party's enthusiasm for "putting Singapore at the heart of what we do", it explains the lethargic efforts at addressing the housing, transport and foreign invasion issues.

Anyone playing the devil's advocate could easily twist Low's words, and shame him for blaming the electorate for the current state of affairs. Not unlike blaming the people of Germany for the undulating support of a little corporal from Bavaria during WWII. Maybe not that easy, since criticism is now seeping in from unlikely circles.

Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) is best remembered for taking a leak in the little boys' room to avoid voting for the Population White Paper. This time round he decided to be conveniently overseas, when he posted "hard-hitting" comments on the President's Address:
"I encounter a fair number of residents who question the rationale of government policies. They feel the Government does not understand their needs and concerns but instead craft policy while seated in, what effectively seems like a different world, an ideal clean and sterile policy lab or ivory tower perched high up."

We wish he would give us more leaks, the types provided by a Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. That's the only way for folks to stop swallowing the blue pill, and start opting for the red one.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Question Of Libel

British historian and author David Irving specialises in the military and political history of World War II and believes the Holocaust never happened, just like some Japanese who think the Nanking Massacre never took place. When American academic Deborah Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier, and bigot in her book "Denying the Holocaust", he sued her and her publisher Penguin Books on 5 September 1996.

Although the book was first published in the United States in 1993, Irving decided to sue in an English court. And for good reason: English libel law puts the burden of proof on the defence.

Under American libel law, a public figure who claims to have been libelled must prove that the statements in question are defamatory, that they are false, and that they were made with actual malice. Furthermore, reliance on credible sources (even if they turn out to be false) is a valid defence. In contrast, English defamation law puts the burden of proving the truth of allegedly defamatory statements on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff. A defamatory statement is presumed to be false, unless the defendant can prove its truth, and reliance on sources is irrelevant. This has been considered an impediment to free speech in much of the developed world.

Lipstadt was intimidated by the lawsuit, since she was a humble professor of limited financial means. Irving is the author of some 30 books, including "The Destruction of Dresden" (1963), "Hitler's War" (1977), "Churchill's War" (1987), and "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich" (1996).

To cut a long story short, Irving not only lost the case, but in light of evidence presented at the trial a number of his works that had previously escaped serious scrutiny were brought to critical public examination.  Irving was shown to have misstated evidence; misquoted sources; falsified statistics; misconstrued information and bent historical evidence so that it conforms to his neo-fascist political agenda and ideological beliefs. The expenses arising from the court proceedings forced him into bankruptcy, and he lost his home.

Professor Lipstadt was fortunate in that many rallied to her cause when she was in dire need of support. Although gratified by the court ruling, she reminded us to be vigilant, "I do not delude myself that, though my battle with Mr Irving may be over, the fight against those who will pervert the historical record for their own political and ideological goals has ended". Especially those with the financial clout to unleash expensive litigation.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Too Big To Fall

And you thought the whole shebang was about shaving off some minutes from your waiting time for the next bus. A little birdie just let it be known that the duopoly of public bus transport operators was losing money in recent times, to the tune of some $40 million a year. You'll never glean this from the published figures, the SBS Transit 2013 annual report indicates a healthy operating profit of $15.526 millions, down from 2012's $25.418 millions. The red ink must be stanched at all cost.

The sale of assets to the Government will net a transfusion of cash, whether priced at written down value or cost at acquisition. Whatever's best for dressing up the books. Thanks to the greedy anticipation of large dividend payouts when the huge amount of "free money" rushes in, shares of both companies have soared and closed at their highest in two years.

You will appreciate the popularity of the exercise with stakeholders when you know who stands to benefit most from the bailout:

SMRT Top 5 largest shareholders:
Temasek Holdings Pte Ltd (54.23%)
DBSN Services Pte Ltd (4.97%)
DBS Nominees Pte Ltd (3.70%)
Citibank Nominees Pte Ltd (3.56%)
HSBC (Singapore) Nominees Pte Ltd (2.18)

SBS Transit Top 5 largest shareholders:
Comfort Delgro Corporation Limited (75.21%)
BNP Paribas Securites Services Singapore (3.55%)
DBS Nominees Pte Ltd (1.70%)
United Overseas Bank Nominees Pte Ltd (0.91%)
Citibank Nominees Singapore Pte Ltd (0.52%)

ComfortDelGro Corp's 3rd largest shareholder used to be the Singapore Labour Foundation (after DBS nominees and DBSN Services), which has pared down its stake in the transport giant over the years, from 12.08% (2011), 11.18% (2012) to 2.47% in 2013.

Whither the harassed ordinary commuter? Same old, same old, pay and pay until broke. It's no coincidence that an Australian bus operator has declared their intent to enter the "ideal" Singapore market, where profits are guaranteed by captive consumers who have no alternative but to grin and bear it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Profit Before Service

That whiff in the air, not alcohol, not riot inducing. Smells like.... like another excuse to raise the bus fares.

You get the drift when they pointedly mentioned that in the London system, which is one of two contracting models quoted, fares have gone up by 59% since 2005. In Perth, the Premier of Western Australia is cited as saying commuters may soon have to pay half the costs of running the bus and rail system, instead of the present one third. No data was provided for Japan, Korea or any other country.

According to the Land Transport Authority, operators under current privatised model may not run services if they are deemed to be unprofitable, hence the occasional shortages and tenuous waiting times. Profit before service seems to be the mantra.  It's cold comfort that these operators, namely SMRT and SBS Transit, need not bid for 80% or 9 packages of existing and new routes. They need not compete with the new entrants, which will be fighting for the 20% or 3 packages. Their negotiated contracts will ensure that the new system restructure will have little or no impact on SMRT and SBS Transit balance sheets. SMRT share price actually hit an 11-month high of $1.475 on Tuesday, affirmation that someone upstairs is still taking good care of them. Never mind that if they had done a better job, this whole exercise would not have been necessary.

Meanwhile the talking heads are having a field day debating whether the whole revamp - Government owing all bus operating assets, infrastructure, monitoring and operating systems, fare collection - is tantamount to nationalisation or semi-nationalisation. Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew  says that nationalising public transport will lead to higher fares and a heftier burden on taxpayers. In the absence of any stated objectives to cut costs and reduce overheads, the inevitable hike is a foregone conclusion. Already they are planning to repaint all the buses, in mimic of the iconic red London bus.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

CPF Is Broke

The hot topic of the day is Central Provident Fund (CPF). When the CPF was first started in 1955, both employees and employers had to contribute 5%. Over the years, the rate was gradually increased until it reached 25% in 1985 for both parties. Surely one of the highest compulsory savings rates ever - 50 cents in the kitty for every $1 earned -  ensuring a secure nest egg for a comfortable retirement. It's turning out to be a rotten egg, all sulphurous and foul smelling.

Member of parliament (MP) Inderjit Singh inadvertently touched on one source of the stench, "If we use less for housing, we will have more for retirement". Investing CPF monies in property makes sense only if the asset enhancement model works. But like all investment plans - including CPF Investment Scheme–Ordinary Account (CPFIS-OA) and Special Account (CPFIS-SA) funds going into insurance, unit trusts, exchange traded funds (ETFs), bonds and treasury bills, shares and gold - the game is all about risk versus reward. No one guarantees the pot of gold will still be there after the upturn and downturn cycles. You need more than a pinch of salt to swallow the property agent's snake oil, that rentals will always cover the cost of the bank loan.

Civil servants at the CPF board who were not comfortable stashing the money in biscuit tins or under the matresses knew they had to generate at least interest income to pay out to the citizens when it was time to collect, which used to be age 55. Never underestimate the power of the compounding rate.

MP (Chua Chu Kang GRC) Zaqy Mohamad is proposing an investment-linked plan managed by the CPF board to pool the investments from different members and provide higher returns. But the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is already doling out the CPF funds to investment entities through the mechanism of Singapore Government Securities (SGS). The difference is the quality of returns. Our northern neighbour's Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) declares an annual dividend on funds on deposit which has varied over time, depending on investment results. Recent numbers are 5.90% (2010), 6.00% (2011), 6.15% (2012), 6.35% (2013).

Which brings to mind Chris Balding's observation that, in our topsy-turvy CPF world, risks are socialized while benefits are privatized. Ergo, if the investments do well, the government gets to keep everything above the 2.5-4% CPF interest payment level; if the investments do poorly - as in the Bank of America buy high sell low debacle - tax payers will have to work longer years to guarantee the payment to CPF holders. No wonder the citizenry is upset.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Truth About Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell retells the classic underdog tale in a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk: David, a young shepherd boy armed only with a sling, beats Goliath, the mighty warrior. The story has transcended its biblical origins to become a common shorthand for improbable victory.

Gladwell suggests that Goliath was disadvantaged. His height was clue that he suffered from acromegaly, a form of gigantism with manifestations which include benign tumours, tall stature, and impaired vision. And probably a superego to match. Goliath never realised that David did not intend to engage him in hand to hand combat. All he had was a leather pouch attached to a cord, but Gladwell calculates that the stopping power of the rock projectile was equivalent to a bullet from a 45mm handgun. The lumbering Goliath, weighted down by heavy armour, never stood a chance. The bigger they come, the harder the fall. Gravity's a bitch.

Anyway, that's one view for the optimists. When a sledge hammer is let fly on a mosquito, it's difficult to root for the heavy weight.

When Michelangelo sculpted the statue of David, he broke with all traditional images. Instead of showing Goliath's defeat, Michelangelo chose to depict the young shepherd boy at the exact moment of decision. His look is of concern, but also of conviction. Goliath is nowhere to be seen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Follies Of Youth

The more the establishment tries to come out in support of the atrocious Young PAP (YP) video, the worse it gets.

The first lame line of defence deployed was that it was meant for "internal consumption". Then writer Tham ("Young PAP video: Good message, bad delivery", ST May 17) let the cat out of the bag, leaking that it was first broadcast at the party's convention in December, before being uploaded to YouTube 3 weeks ago. Meaning, for the excruciating period of about 4 months, not a soul within the ranks of the elitist youth wing realised it was a lemon, or bothered to inform the young people behind the ersatz production it was "raw and unpolished". Including the minister who used those descriptives. With friends like those, who needs enemies.

We now know the Media Development Authority (MDA) actually cleared the YP video earlier this year, giving it a “PG” rating. Meaning, MDA sat through the horrific 4 minutes 43 seconds, and deigned to provide constructive feedback to the youngsters. Quite obviously, MDA was more focused on the potential infringement of Section 33 of the Films Act. They must have desperately wanted to save the youngsters from conviction to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, without having to call in the minister for a hall pass.

Many will concur with MDA it was definitely a film without animation and dramatic elements. Put kindly, the cast of inanimates lacked any contribution of dramatic talent. They were more like marionettes manipulated by puppet strings. Pinocchio would have done a better job, his nose would have grown dramatically in length with each utterance of an untruthful message.

Another set of youths is having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them, for delivery of a message of a different kind. Maybe the kitchen sink has been included, if you count the charge for "removing a reflective vest worth $5".

Friday, May 16, 2014

Righteous Anger

It looks like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is treating the screen grab as genuine proof that our national flag was burnt by Vietnamese demonstrators on Tuesday.

Declaring the flag-burning at the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park 1 as a serious incident, the irate MFA fumed: “The flag is a sacred national symbol and should be treated with respect ... The Singapore Embassy in Hanoi promptly conveyed our strong concerns over the flag-burning incident to the Vietnamese government on May 14 via a diplomatic note and also made representations to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Public Security to ensure such an incident does not happen again.”

The Singapore flag was designed by a committee headed by then-Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye. He originally intended the flag's entire background to be red, but the Cabinet demurred on grounds that it might be misinterpreted as a rallying point for communism. In page 342 of "The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew", Lee claims that the Chinese were influenced by the five yellow stars on the flag of Communist China, and wanted stars. The Malays wanted a crescent moon; red and white are their traditional colours for courage and purity. The five stars are supposed to represent  democracy, peace, progress, justice and inequality equality. Lee wrote that there had been much ado over the flag, as racial sentiments had to be respected.

Respect is now a distant memory. Nowadays, the 5 stars might just as well represent the India Indians, Filipinos, Burmese, Indonesians, and the Anton Casey/Mark Franklin type expatriates. With the boat shaped crescent representing the Singapore Sampan 2.0 floating hotel that provides housing, jobs and defence, latter courtesy of the National Service boys. The flag has been desecrated, but the Vietnamese are not the only ones to be blamed.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dog Bites Deejay

If you were tuned in to Class 95FM at around 8 am today, you would have heard a cringe worthy plea for mercy from the deejay who landed MediaCorp a $6,500 fine. As Joe Augustin tells it, based on the unfavorable print media coverage, he admits as much, "I hate myself". That plus the various online calls to have him sacked.

The redemption comes from the context, so he said. Blind girl (a.k.a. "visually-impaired woman") walks into fastfood joint with a dog. Outlet staff busy with kiasu crowd fighting for free burgers. Girl complains on Facebook page about shoddy treatment. Class 95FM’s Morning Express radio deejays Joe Augustin and Glenn Ong discuss the espisode of miscommunication and drops the “derogatory term (a**hole)” on air. The Media Development Authority (MDA) said the remarks contravened the Free-to-air Radio Programme Code and swiftly imposed the fine for this breach.

This has to qualify as the proverbial storm in a teacup. One rants about ill treatment, another rants about over reaction. Anybody notice the dog? Just as there are those conservatives sensitive about any topic touching on LGBT issues, we do have people around who are not enamored of the company of canines. Some actually base their view on religious grounds. But the elephant in the room is the use of asterisks in the offending word. In print, we can't tell the deplorable pejorative is about the rear orifice of a donkey or a human. In print, we now know f**k the P*P is not allowed to see the light of day; that's why we have to refer to online media to check out why the message on a public housing block is objectionable. MDA explains why radio has stricter standards,
"In Singapore, as a media platform for entertainment, information and education, radio broadcast reaches almost all homes and is easily accessible to all people, including the young. Because of its impact, programmes over radio must at all times maintain a standard that is acceptable to the community and does not offend good taste or decency".

We get it, the bar has just been raised. Don't just read the right stuff, hear also the right stuff.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Heat Is On At Sembcorp

The Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP) was first established in 1996, currently snowballed to a total investment of US$6.4 billion to create more than 140,000 jobs for the Vietnamese locals. Since 2005, the VSIP has expanded to a second park within Binh Duong Province, a third park in Bac Ninh Province (2007), a fourth park in Hai Phong City (2010) and most recently,  a fifth park in Quang Ngai Province (2013).

Three factories in two Singapore-run industrial parks have just gone up in flames, thanks to unhappy Vietnamese staging anti-Chinese riots on Tuesday night. The VSIP industrial parks 1 and 2 in Binh Duong are managed by Singapore's Sembcorp Industries. A VSIP spokeswoman said local police have taken over the provision of security at the two parks. The Commissioner of Police must be relieved, since the scale of unrest must be umpteen times that of what happened at Little India. And if any of the VSIP employees are identified by CCTV to be anywhere near the rioting, it would be cheaper and easier to deport them. They are probably not too keen to conduct a COI in Ho Chi Minh City.

Lee Kuan Yew did not have nice things to say about the Vietnamese in his memoirs ("From Third World To First"), claiming that Vietnamese cunningly exploited the fears and desires of the countries of Asia that wanted to befriend them. When their Prime Minister Pham Van Dong visited in 1978, Lee said he found him "arrogant and objectionable". Lee was upset Pham had suggested Singapore should contribute to Vietnam's reconstruction, arguing that Singapore had benefited from the Vietnam War, selling the Americans war material, "hence it was our duty to help them". Lee countered that the materials supplied were POL (petrol, oil and lubricants) from American and British oil companies, and profits to Singapore were marginal (page 350). There was no mention of the bullets from Chartered Industries.

It was Goh Chok Tong who signed the papers for the VSIP development. Whether his friendship has been exploited is something for the history books to judge. But some corporation's assets are being compromised right now, and careless words could easily rubbish money better spent here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Coded Messages In Art

Look carefully and you'll see that the cherubic figure has made a fist with his thumb sticking out between his index and middle fingers. In medieval times and during the Renaissance period, it was called "making the fig". Now we know it as "giving someone the finger", or "flipping the bird". Michelangelo had superimposed a portrait of Pope Julius II over the prophet of Zachariah, and was merely expressing his true feeling toward his patron. To this day when a papal procession enters the portal of the Sistine Chapel, the pontiff passes right under a portrait of his predecessor getting the finger from Michelangelo.

Why would a prominent artist run the risk of incurring their patrons' ire? One reason offered by Rabbi Benjamin Blech ("The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican", B. Blech & R. Doliner) was the righteous indignation of creative geniuses forced to humble themselves before the corrupt rich. In those times, artists were considered no more than artisans on call: well compensated but deprived of any freedom to refuse labors that they considered demeaning. Michelangelo would rather sculpt than indulge in "the two-dimensional falsity of painting". When the Sistine ceiling fresco was finally completed in 1512, he was wrecked with scoliosis, incipient rheumatism, respiratory problems, water retention and vision complaints. For a year afterwards, he could only read a letter by holding it high over his head, as if he were still painting the ceiling.

Instead of blatantly broadcasting his protestation like the graffiti at the Toa Payoh block, Michelangelo coded his outrage annd insults through secret symbols embedded in his artwork. Like artists of his time, he was not allowed to sign his handiwork, so Mike Cool is definitely not Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Teaching Grandma To Suck Eggs

China minced no words when it issued a statement making clear that the South China Sea issue is not a problem between China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and it opposes the attempts of "one or two countries" to use it to harm the overall friendship between China and the regional bloc. Maybe they weren't too excited about Lee Hsien Loong bringing up the recent incidents involving China, Vietnam and the Philippines, and which had nothing to do with Singapore's territorial limits. The language was mild compared to the direct message from Deng Xiao Ping when the old man harped one time too many on the China-Taiwan issue: "This is between family; you are not family".

Still, the television camera showed the words had effect, as Lee struggled to justify teaching others how to suck eggs. His curious explanation goes along the line that while ASEAN does not take a view of the merits of the individual countries' claims, it has an overall view on the disputes which  "which happening on our door step". Explain that to the many Little India bystanders who were deported before having a chance to state their individual perspectives.

Last weekend we had just pushed the shopping cart into the elevator when 10 PRC contract workers hopped in before the automatic doors closed. One of them beat us to the thought, saying to himself aloud in Chinese, "Whoa! There's more of us than them".

The thought of 10,000 flag waving Filipinos establishing their presence in a public concourse recently upset some people. Imagine larger numbers of PRC, or other foreign nationals, demanding to express their "overall views" on everything happening on our doorstep.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Foreigners In Uniform

The slap that was heard around the world
Police Operations Director Lau Peet Meng is one in favour of recruiting foreigners for the Singapore Police Force (SPF). From what he says, it appears that permanent residents can currently be (and probably are already) recruited to police Singaporeans, "what kind of numbers, as an organisation and as a society, we are prepared to take in...  is something that still needs to be further deliberated on”.

Perhaps Lau should also consider what kind of foreign talent will be wearing the blue uniform. We could end up with these types of law enforcers gainfully employed at their respective domicile countries:

Rashid Rangiris, the Philippines Bureau of Immigration (BI) officer who roughhoused a female Chinese national at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 on May 5. Jiang Huixiang was barred entry into the country because she was allegedly teaching in the Philippines without required papers. A cell phone video making the internet circuit shows her being dragged along the floor by the immigration official. Next, the official is filmed shoving her with brutal force and slapping her several times before pushing her into a nearby room and out of the camera's field of view.

Ibrahim Latif, the police chief of Acheh, Indonesia, who is insisting on caning the 25-year-old widow gang raped by a group of 8 overzealous vigilantes enforcing the Shari‘a religious bylaw on sexual relations. Accusing her of adultery, the vigilantes beat up her 40-year-old partner, indulged in their own wanton lust by having their way with her, and then doused the two with sewage before turning them over to the police.

Manila is standing by their immigration officer and plans to file assault charges against the Chinese national. Indonesian Shari‘a police in Langsa plans to go ahead with the public flogging for adultery, and take care of the rapists separately in a criminal court, but not according to Shari‘a penal code.

Do we really need to integrate these bewildering administrations of justice into our legal system? The BI employee may be a good fit in the prison system, with his skill set of making the sure his victim is out of camera range before dishing out the heavy treatment. Which could explain the lack of CCTV footage of Dinesh Raman's final moments. But Lau can't be seriously thinking of implementing Shari‘a law when he said, "We need, to some extent, some sensitivity to understand our foreign population. The danger is if it’s (purely Singaporean), you will lose touch with the people you’re policing." Bringing in the foreigners is bad enough, do we have to ship in their variants of policing methods?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Writings On The Wall

The last time graffiti was used as an expression of public sentiments was when the outer walls of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) headquarters at Kim Keat Road was redecorated one early morning in July 2005.

The New Paper rushed down at about 6 am after a reader noticed the artwork and called their hotline. A wall of spray painting spelt out the messages in bold red, the words 'NKF=liar' written in English, and 'big liar' in Chinese. The word 'liar' was also repeated on every alternate pillar. The 'Hang Turi' was dedicated to the source of much unhappiness, NKF's CEO, T T Durai. A motorcyclist who was delivering newspapers was overheard uttering: "Now the whole world knows."

Nobody knows how the rooftop of Block 85A at Toa Payoh Lorong 4 was accessed since only authorised personnel can sign for the key, which is tightly controlled by the Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council. Andrew Garfield was in town to promote Spiderman 2, but we can safely rule him out for a publicity run. He did play Eduardo Saverin in the Social Network movie, but Saverin is one foreign talent much welcomed by higher ups, thanks to the millions he brought along to our low tax and estate duty free regime.

Like the NKF message, the Toa Payoh literary effort was quickly painted over. Before any attempt to lift finger prints at the site or a close examination of the stylistic handwriting. The see no evil, hear no evil approach must save a lot of police paperwork. But a resident expressed concern  about the motivation, "People are now finding  different ways to express their feelings and unhappiness."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Grapes Of Wrath

Many Singaporeans were (still are) perplexed at the Filipino outrage over the Contemplacion case; even Fidel Ramos called Contemplacion a heroine. My uncle has his own theory.

A couple of days before Contemplacion was executed for the murder of Delia Maga, a fellow Filipino domestic worker, and her charge, 4-year-old Nicholas Huang, all the taxis in Makati seemed to have the radio on at full volume. His cabby explained that a congressman was in court for rape, victim being an under aged girl whose sexual services he procured for a few pesos from her step-father. After eluding the authorities for several months, he was finally in the dock, but everyone was resigned to just a slap in the wrist for the well-connected politician. So when the congressman was convicted, the whole city erupted in jubilation. The system can be breached, justice can be served!

Since the execution had gone ahead despite a personal plea from Ramos, President of the Philippines, the Singapore government was targeted as the next evil system to take down. The Alex Boncayao Brigade, a Communist terrorist group in the Philippines, threatened to harm Singaporeans. Even the Catholic Church in the Philippines condemned the execution.

Not too long ago, Anton Casey was hounded out of the country for his insensitivity to local sentiments. Some see this a Pyrrhic victory, since the sins of the father should not be visited on his son, or Miss Singapore wife.

Now, the owner of a red Vespa is facing the wrath of another vendetta. This time over a section of asphalt at Temasek Boulevard. Will he hightail it out to Vietnam, where his company is headquartered? Or will he stand his ground, and claim his right to the roadway? Bear in mind, the entitlement spelt out by prime minister Lee Hsien Loong:
"Singaporeans, new arrivals, people who are on permanent residence here, people who are on employment pass here, all participating in one big Singapore family... So that we feel that this is a place which is special, which belongs to all of us and where we all celebrate one another’s festivals and happy events together."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Iron Law of Meritocracy

Hunter College High School in Manhattan, USA, sounds just like one of our premier schools, for which parents will change addresses and run their kids through the torturous circuit of tuition centers to ensure a place after the Primary School Leaving  Examination.

Hunter embodies the meritocratic ideal that kids are not created equal, some are smarter than others. The benchmark is an entrance exam which accepts 185 out of the 3,000 to 4,000 applicants. About 45 who test into Hunter Elementary School kindergarten are automatically admitted. In 2007, Wall Street Journal identified Hunter as sending a higher percentage of its graduates to the nation's top colleges than all but one  of its peers.

In 1982, a Hunter alumnus profiled the school in a New York magazine article called "The Joyful Elite" and identified its "most singular trait" as the "exuberantly smug loyalty of its students". Justin Hudson, the 2010 commencement speaker (Hunter does not rank its students, has no valedictorian) was not one of the smug ones.

"More than happiness, relief, fear, or sadness," he told the audience of peers and parents, "I feel guilty." He continued:
"I feel guilty because I don't deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds, or four-year-olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as "gifted," while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us are wallowed in the mire of a broken system.  And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance.
... We are talking about eleven-year-olds... We are deciding children's fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go on to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colours. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we're smarter than them."

The majority of students who make it into the school these days are the product of some kind of test prep regimen. The rationale sounds so similar, "They're doing the right thing to get  the the prize we promised at the end of the process. That's what we told them to do: do well on tests."

The evil that the prescient Hudson espied is what the author refers to as "The Iron Law of Meritocracy". The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will eventually grow large enough to subvert the mechanism of social mobility. The anointed few who ascended the ladder will find devious ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, cronies and kin to scramble up surreptitiously. And give cause to curse the elites.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Of This Place

The reporter had asked how many months did it take for her citizenship application to be processed and approved, and she had answered, "In weeks, in days, actually...  very fast!"

That has to be a new speed record. In Switzerland, we are told, "foreigners with no direct blood ties to Switzerland through either birth or marriage must live in the country for at least 12 years before they can apply for citizenship". The criteria go on to state that the "person must be well integrated, familiar with customs and traditions, law and abiding and pose no threat to internal or external security." In other words, being born here is only one factor, sticking around for at least 12 meaningful years should be another. We have a friend who said he lost his Australian permanent residency status because he was not in-country for the 5 (?) year mandatory requirement.

The writer ("'Are you 'of this place'?", TODAY, 5 May 2014) was making the point that "we do not need indiscriminate immigration and immigrants who treat Singapore like a hotel and fellow Singaporeans as hotel staff." He gathered the impression from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) website stipulations, which seem to be weighted heavily on economic contributions and feather light on the qualitative aspects of citizenship e.g. the United States' prerequisite assessment of English proficiency and knowledge of US history and government.

Few can dispute these sentiments:
"We need immigrants who are "of this place" and our selection processes should be long and tough enough to find such people... If we spend twice as much, take thrice as long and finally get half the final numbers because we cannot find enough, so be it."

In other words, don't make up the 6.9 million just because of some policy maker who didn't bother to put his signature on the Population White Paper.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Outing The Bigots

A local paper is saying that Goldman Sachs here is making a specific recruitment call to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. The company is saying that its planned LGBT recruitment and networking (indoor) dinner at its Singapore office is merely a platform for attendees to "discuss issues and concerns regarding being 'out' in the workplace".

Sympathetic voices chimed in to add that, given the labour crunch, companies should be mindful about closing doors on any specific group of people. After all, the official mantra has always been about welcoming one and all to the melting pot.

One minister flashed the homophobe card, declaring "Foreign companies here should respect local culture and context. They are entitled to decide and articulate their human resource policies, but they should not venture into public advocacy for causes that sow discord amongst Singaporeans." No, it was not the newly minted Manpower Minister speaking, it's the other general. As for discord, so long as the event is not a flag waving spectacle in a public plaza, no fair minded Singaporean will feel offended. Maybe some bigots, defined by Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, thus:
Bigotry is the state of mind of a bigot: someone who, as a result of their prejudices, treats or views other people with fear, distrust or hatred on the basis of a person's opinion, ethnicity, evaluative orientation, race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or other characteristics.

Goldman Sachs is neither first nor unique in embracing diversity in the workplace. Credit Suisse and JP Morgan have had also organised LGBT networking programmes for employees in order "to have a good diversity of talent for their workplace, regardless of gender, sexuality or race". The minister had stressed that discrimination "whether based on race, language, religion or sexual orientation" has no place in our society. Same message, different words. So why has the minister gotten his knickers in a twist?

MyPaper provided the clue: Goldman Sachs is sponsoring the coming Pink Dot event next month. Officially Pink Dot is deemed a LGBT advocacy movement by the higher ups, not just another picnic in the park. And you thought that all you need to do to stay out of trouble is to apply for a police permit.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Grist To The Mill

Soylent Green is a 1973 American science fiction classic about the murder of a wealthy businessman in a dystopian future suffering from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and a hot climate attributed to the greenhouse effect. Except for the dying ocean bit, we are all too familiar with the haze, congestion, infrastructure shortfalls, income gap, and the hot & humid climate of Singapore Inc.

Most of the population in the movie survives on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation, whose newest product is Soylent Green, a green wafer marketed as containing "high-energy plankton". But even the oceans soon ran short of the nutritious plankton from which Soylent Green is supposedly made, and - spoiler alert! - the only conceivable supply of protein that matches the known production rate must be sourced from human remains.

Okay, we are not at that stage yet. But senior citizens are now asked to rejoin the work force, albeit at lower wages. Forget about your education levels, your extensive work experience, you are older, you should get less. Just as young men are roped in as cannon fodder for 2 years of national service, the seniors are to be deployed as grist to the mill of the economic machine.

"At age 65, we are not as strong as before... Rather than expect 'same job, same pay', why not consider suitable jobs, reasonable pay," is a cogent argument. Apparently 800 civil servants are now working beyond age 65, but we are not told what they are doing or how much they are paid. Surely they can't all be members of parliament drawing full allowance without having to show up at meet-the-people-sessions?

At least 3 2 ministers in the cabinet will hit 65 in the year 2017 (Lee Hsien Loong, Khaw Boon Wan, Vivian Balakrishnan were born in 1952) and 3 in 2019 (Teo Chee Hean, Lim Hng Kiang, Lim Swee Say). Will they still be expecting 'same job, same pay'? Can't wait to see how the wayang turns out.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

20/20 Vision

Everybody and his dog is excited about Mah Bow Tan's new found wealth. The newly-released 2013 annual report shows that Mah owns (as at 18 Mar 2014) 365,575,000 shares in Global Strategic Holdings Corporation (GSH Corporation) with a current market value of about $28 million.

Mah was a member of Parliament (MP) since 1988 and he was Cabinet Minister from 1991 to 2011. Assuming an average take-home of a million dollars per year, his government pay alone could easily add up to $20+ millions, without accounting for interest income and returns from other investments. So $28 million is not a big number for the elite crowd.

GSH's original core business was in distribution (Apple, Tamron, Fujifilm, Corum, Noritsu, etc) - its corporate profile said it was established as distributors of IT, photographic, timepiece and healthcare products - until it diversified into property development in 2012. That's the year when Mah was listed as the sixth largest shareholder in the annual report, with a holding of 165,000,000 shares. A year later, his shareholding jumped to 365,575,000 or $28 million based on a share price of 7.7 cents.

The interesting bit is GSH was trading at around 1 cent, not more than 2 cents per share in 2012. Assuming Mah paid 1 cent per share, his total buy-in - there was a 1-for-1 rights issue in May 2013 - could have been as low as $4 million. Now, that's a foresight to die for.

Mah was National Development Minister from 1999 to 2011. Imagine if he had gone into private sector sooner, he could be one of Singapore's many billionaires. Maybe he already is. Lee Kuan Yew did say his ministers could make much, much more in the private sector.