Apr 29, 2007

The Problem With Error Messages

A reader recently commented that I was "picking bones" with Lee Kuan Yew's speech. The implication was that I was finding fault over small points.

Well, that is that reader's opinion. He's entitled to it. Personally, I think it's important for national leaders to say clearly what they mean. After all, whatever their true intentions may be, their words will simply be disseminated through the mass media into the minds of the general public.

And if the national leader uses inaccurate words, then the danger is that the general public will be infected by inaccurate thinking. Even intelligent people may start thinking inaccurate thoughts.

Here is one example. On the Young PAP blog, there is a post about foreign talent. In the comment section, the YPAP blogger writes as follows:
"Ours is a mere 4 million people state, remember. Our only resource is People. If our women are not producing enough babies to sustain our already depleting talent pool, we have to import them."
Sounds quite familiar, yes? You've definitely heard this reasoning before. For example, in his 2006 National Day Rally, PM Lee Hsien Loong said:
"Two years ago, we introduced major policy changes to encourage couples to have more babies. So far the results have been very modest. I understand why some Singaporeans do not want to have more children. But I have not given up hope and will continue to think of ways to encourage couples to have more babies.

Let me explain why we need new immigrants. To maintain a population of 4 million, Singapore needs at least 50,000 babies a year. Last year, we had 36,000 babies. This means that we are short by 14,000 babies. No matter how hard we try, it would be hard to produce another 14,000 babies. Hence we need to attract more immigrants."
Well, the reasoning is wrong. You see, adults are not babies. Babies are not adults. Before a baby can enter the workforce, it will have to spend 20 to 25 years growing up.

If the talent pool for our workforce is depleting today, it's not because our women are producing too few babies today. It's because our women were producing too few babies 30 years ago. Thanks to the Stop At Two policy in the 1970s implemented by you-know-who.

The YPAP blogger couldn't see that. Well, who can blame her. She probably got misled by PM Lee.

She probably also doesn't see that if today Singapore imports large numbers of foreigners in their 30s and 40s, this only worsens our aging population problem in the year 2030. After all, all those foreigners would be senior citizens in Singapore by then.

I find the aging population issue quite interesting because if you really stop to think it through, you'll see several complex angles to it. Unfortunately, if you only listened to the PAP (or the mainstream media reporting the PAP's views on this matter), you'd never realise that it was complex.

The picture we tend to get is a grossly simplified, straightforward doomsday scenario: "By year 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be over 65! How will our economy survive?! We're dying out!".

And the solutions offered are very blunt: "Import more foreigners! Make more babies!". Sometimes they add: "Your CPF money isn't enough! You'd better save more!"

Did it ever occur to you ......... that if one in five Singaporeans is really over 65 in the year 2030, this could be a perfectly okay situation for Singapore? In a future post, I will elaborate.

Apr 28, 2007

Lee Kuan Yew's Laughable Matter

An article from Today:

Extradition treaty will not harm banks, property: MM
Wednesday • April 25, 2007
By Lee U-Wen

THE agreement between Singapore and Indonesia to sign an extradition treaty will not scare wealthy Indonesians away from Singapore, nor will the pact harm the Republic's banking and property sectors.

Making these points yesterday, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said the treaty — to be signed in Bali on Friday — would, rather, "act as an inhibitor".

"It's laughable. Do you believe that any Indonesian who was likely to be extradited would be here at all? (The treaty) acts as an inhibitor, and does give an extra barrier for any would-be escapee from their system," he said in an interview with Reuters before gracing the opening of its new office at One Raffles Quay.
Lee Kuan Yew's "laughable" remark might soon indeed turn out to be, errr, laughable. On Tuesday, he told us that it's very unlikely that any wanted Indonesians are here in Singapore at all.

Forbes quickly reported that Singapore is believed to be "a haven for as many as 200 Indonesians suspected of embezzlement, many of whom fled [Indonesia] with stolen funds as the banking system collapsed in 1997."

Today is Saturday, and we learn from the Straits Times itself that in fact, the Indonesia government already has 18 specific individuals living in Singapore that they want to investigate:

ST April 28, 2007
Indonesia to go after 18 suspects

BALI - INDONESIA plans to 'go after' about 18 people living in Singapore following the signing of an extradition treaty with the Republic, Attorney-General Abdul Rahman Saleh told reporters yesterday.

'There are a lot of Indonesian assets in Singapore. We need to ask for those assets to be returned.'

Indonesia has said that the treaty would allow Jakarta to chase down alleged corrupt officials and businessmen from the time of former dictator Suharto.

Deputy Attorney-General Hendarman Supanji said a list of 20 people - 'suspected, accused or convicted' - had been drawn up and would be handed to Singapore almost as soon as the signing was over, he told reporters in Jakarta.

Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono said last Sept 25 that an extradition treaty would help track down six Indonesian businessmen living in Singapore with US$600 million (S$910 million) in government debts.

Some 18,000 Indonesians, with a total net worth of US$87 billion, are said to be living in Singapore.

Mr Teten Masduki, founder of Indonesia Corruption Watch, believes tens of billions of US dollars have been stockpiled in the Republic since the 1997 financial crisis.

Jakarta had accused Singapore of delaying the treaty for fear that the suspects' withdrawals would shake its financial system and property sector.

Singapore had denied it was a magnet for laundered funds, saying adequate safeguards were in place.

LKY has been insisting that Singapore has "very strict rules to prevent money-laundering". That's his way of saying that there is no dirty Indonesian money in Singapore. I do agree with Lee that Singapore's anti-money laundering rules are strict. Our rules satisfy the international standards set by the Financial Task Force Action on Money Laundering.

Today the MAS has regulations that spell out in great detail all the anti-money laundering procedures that banks in Singapore must follow. For example, there are rules about checking on the customer's true identity; keeping proper records of his transactions; verifying his sources of funds; and reporting any suspicious transactions to the authorities.

However, there is something which Lee didn't tell you. So Mr Wang will have to do the job again.

These anti-money laundering rules basically came into existence only in November 2002. It was all part of a worldwide response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The concern was that terrorist groups could secretly be using banks to finance their activities. All over the world, countries including Singapore then began to pay serious attention to the need to implement anti-money laundering rules for their financial institutions.

The point is that prior to November 2002,
MAS Notice 626 on the Prevention of Money Laundering simply didn't exist. In those days, Singapore, like most other countries in the world, simply didn't take money laundering as seriously as it does now.

It is alleged that corrupt Indonesians had fled to Singapore after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and deposited their illegal money into our banking system. This sounds quite plausible to me. Singapore would have been a natural destination, because it is so close to Indonesia.

And in those days, our banks simply wouldn't have had any standard systems, processes or policies to deal with the situation. Back then, it may not even have been improper for the bank to simply accept the money and say thank you, no further questions.

So when Lee Kuan Yew says that Singapore has "very strict rules to prevent money-laundering", what this means is that today, we have very strict rules to prevent money-laundering. We didn't have these rules in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 or 2001 - the critical years, from Indonesia's point of view.

These would have been the years when the corrupt Indonesians urgently needed to flush their dirty money through our financial system, to conceal its origins and "wash" it clean. In other words, money laundering.

Apr 26, 2007

Lee Kuan Yew on Emigration

ST April 23, 2007
MM: My job to look after those who built nation
He pays tribute to S'poreans who did the 'hard and dirty work' for country By Sue-Ann Chia

MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had this message for Singaporeans who did the hard and dirty work to build the nation: I am here to look after you.

'I do not believe 50 per cent of Singaporeans can emigrate,' he said at the Young People's Action Party dialogue at the St James Power Station nightspot.

'So as a government, and personally for me and my colleagues, my responsibility is to look after those who cannot migrate.' ..........

He said that while most Singaporeans could not leave, he is aware that the better-educated and talented ones could do so.

He noted that the top 20 to 30 per cent of educated Singaporeans have the skills and abilities to emigrate to anywhere in the world.

And many do, with about 150,000 Singaporeans working in companies, setting up businesses or living abroad.

'We are now into a globalised world where people who are well-educated, well-trained and especially English-educated have enormous options,' he said.

But his point to them was this: 'Can you leave with a clear conscience? I cannot.'

He urged them to think hard about what they owe the country. 'If we lose our top talent, then we will decline as a nation,' he said.

The key, he believed, was to inculcate a particular message in the young - especially those doing well in schools, colleges, polytechnics and universities.

'You are here, you are getting this education, you are getting these opportunities that make you mobile, that make you desirable because this mass of people had discipline, (were) hardworking, provided the stability, the base on which you mounted your career.

'Can you in good conscience say, 'Goodbye! Thank you very much'?'

Lee Kuan Yew is fond of telling stories. Most of them, however, are left incomplete.

In Lee's version of the tale of emigration, it is the well-educated, the well-trained and the talented who get to leave. They leave because they have better career opportunities and can earn more money elsewhere. They leave because they are ungrateful and irresponsible and do not care about their less-advantaged fellow citizens.

The tale has other versions. To know the full story, you must not rely on Lee Kuan Yew's version alone. You should listen to individual Singaporeans tell their own stories in their own words, and then you may begin to piece together the complete picture.

Here are some Singaporeans' stories then. I reproduce only excerpts. Here is the
story of one Singaporean, SS, who did eventually emigrate to Australia:

I love Singapore.

Singapore is where I grew up. Singapore is where my family and friends are. Singapore is where I have called home for over three decades.

I am not emigrating to avoid my citizenship responsibilities. I have served and completed my full time National Service. I pay both my income and consumption taxes to the full extent required by the law. I have obeyed the laws of Singapore. I am not under persecution and enjoy many freedoms.

I am considering emigration for economic reasons. I am emigrating because I wish economic security. Because I believe that the welfare of citizens should not be sacrificed on the altar of rapid economic growth. Because I believe age discrimination is wrong. Because I fear economic non-viability above the age of forty. Because I fear dying old, sick and destitute when I am unable to afford medical care in a society with no social safety net. Because I actually want to be a property owner and not a technical leaseholder. I am considering emigration because I ignore the mass media propaganda and try to actually understand the economic viability of immobile citizens in a topdown-managed tiny nation state in a rapidly changing world.

I am considering emigration for political reasons. I am emigrating because I wish to participate in civil society without having to register a political party. Because I reject the idea of political OB markers. Because I believe citizens (not PRs or foreigners) should have the primary influence in the running of the country. Because I believe a government should serve the citizen, and not rule the citizen. Because I want to live in a democracy, not a oligarchy. Because I believe a free press having their hidden agendas but that agenda should never blindly echo that of the ruling party in government. I am considering emigration because I want to be able to express my love and affection for my country without immediately being scrutinised for a political agenda.

I am considering emigration for personal reasons. I am emigrating because I love long roadtrips, even though I have no interest in cars. Because mountains and cliffs and wide open beaches stir my soul. Because I want to see sparkly stars at night and fluffy clouds in the day right on the horizon. Because every place I hold close to my heart in Singapore is rapidly being torn down, redeveloped and upgraded into glitzy souless tourist attractions. I am considering emigration because I want to be where being a little offbeat, weird, odd or downright quirky is acceptable.

I am considering emigration because I am not wanted in Singapore. Because when a government acts like a utilitarian corporation, the citizens will act like pragmatic consumers. Because I believe in the power economic choice of "taking your dollar elsewhere if you don't like the service".
Here is another story, by ex-blogger Kitana:

The government asks us why we leave. They calls us quitters and deserters, for leaving our country, our homeland, for some other place that we perceive to be greener pastures. Why leave Singapore, where we rank tops for good governance (save for voice and accountability, where we scored a low of 38.2% this year), where we are so clean and safe and secure, and where we are so efficient?

The fact of the matter is, that there are people who will give up all of the above, for more freedom.

I was happy in Canada. Sure, it was expensive, and taxes were a killer. With a 14% combination of GST and PST on all consumer items, and income taxes hitting a high of 40%; it was definitely difficult to make ends meet for someone who did not work there. And of course, on days where the buses went on strike, I’d be stuck in campus and not be able to go to town. Also, we did have a bit of a furor when Parliament was dissolved late last year, only to have the Conservatives voted in after 13 years under the Liberals. Oh and before I forget, yes it was definitely more inefficient. Expect to wait when you queue up to pay for something; the cashier will inevitably engage everyone before you as to how their day was (and their kids, and their parents, and what they think of the weather; etc). Expect to wait for the buses because the bus driver might have stopped somewhere to grab a cup of Starbucks while doing his rounds (yes, with passengers in the bus). Oh, and how can I forget the drug problem: you can get drugs anywhere off the street if you know where to look; marijuana is about as commonplace as cigarettes and alcohol.

But for all the possible gripes that I might have about that place, the benefits far outweighed all the detriments (if you even saw them as that) combined. Firstly, we were really free. I’m not just talking about freedom with regard to political freedom to vote, to protest, to strike, to demonstrate, or to have a point of view; but also real freedom of the mind and the body. You can think differently, dress differently, live differently. Society is inclusive.

The city that I lived in had a whole mix of races and nationalities. I’ve met everyone from locals to the Koreans, Japs and Chinese, Iranians, Iraqis, Philippinos, Latin Americans, French, Africans, Indians etc etc etc. It’s as much a cultural mix, if not more so, than Singapore. And the best part is: everyone more or less gets along. There is no need for the implementation of “Racial Harmony Day” or racial quotas for HDB flats. Everyone just does – because prejudice just does not exist there.
The next story is excerpted from one of my old posts on my previous blog, concerning a Singaporean who had left for New York:

DL's story represents the Conventional Singapore Success Story. In fact it's so conventionally successful that it's stereotypical. DL went to a top junior college, bagged his straight A's, obtained a PSC scholarship, went to NS, became an SAF officer in a "prestigious" combat unit, disrupted his NS, went to a brand-name UK university, bagged his 1st Class honours, came back to Singapore, completed his NS, joined the civil service as a teacher, rose meteorically through the ranks (as government scholars do), and at an early age, became a vice-principal.

In other words, DL typified the kind of Singaporean that the Singapore government would love all Singaporeans to be, or at least aspire to be.

I didn't hear anything from or about DL for a couple of years. Then I heard from a mutual acquaintance that he'd left Singapore for good. Emigrated to somewhere in the United States.

To me, this seemed to be a slightly odd case at that time because DL's profile didn't fit any of the typical profiles of Singaporeans who emigrate (another time, I may elaborate on the typical profiles). But I didn't give it much thought.

As chance would have it, a series of recent coincidences led me to discover his blog in the US. Where he writes freely about his new life in his new country.

Turns out that DL is gay.

And didn't think that it was feasible in Singapore to be gay. So he left.

And won't be coming back.

Well, I know that there are plenty of Singaporeans in our society who would say, "Good riddance." We're pretty backward that way. Still, what a pity, what a waste - thinking of DL from the government perspective.
Another side to the story is related by Seah Chiang Nee, a former Straits Times editor now better known for his writings on the Internet:

Why was he going to China, when tens of thousands of Chinese were coming here to earn a living, I asked. He merely replied: "Tang Jiak kang kor" which means "It is hard to earn a living in Singapore".

Besides, he added. "Everything is expensive. In China things are cheaper."

This was my introduction to a new phenomenon. Singapore is worried about a rising exodus of educated youths abroad, seduced by opportunities in a new global economy, but few are talking about older, lower-skilled people who are slowly facing the squeeze.

Despite HDB and relatively cheap HDB hawker centre food, Singapore - relatively speaking - is one of Asia's most expensive places to retired in.

Cashing in on their HDB flats, cars or other assets, a new type of Singaporean emigrants, many of them older, less-educated, are sprouting "a second pair of wings" to settle down in neighbouring countries - but with a difference.

Unlike the younger, better-educated, they are finding it hard to cope with the rapid move towards higher technology or to fit into this high-cost modern world despite a host of free training opportunities and other help dish out by the government.

They are leaving - not for Australia, Canada, the US - but for poorer neighbouring countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand and India, where their relatively stronger Singapore dollars can stretch a long way.
These emigrants are mostly small-time businessmen, hawkers, taxi-drivers and lower-scale replaced low-income workers unable to find new jobs.

They are leaving because they are reluctant to go for retraining. "We're too old to learn," one said. Some in their 40s. Others have reached 55 years old, so their relocation abroad is financed by their CPF savings.

Because of their advancing age, they are unlikely to return.
I'm sure that there are other versions as well. And I'm sure that more than a few emigrated Singaporeans read my blog. Perhaps they would like to share their personal versions, in the comment section.

There is one thing which by now you will notice about Lee Kuan Yew's version. Singaporeans always emigrate because the Singapore government has been too successful in doing good things. In Lee's version, the world-class, top-talented, best-of-the-best PAP government has provided excellent education opportunities, political stability and a booming economy - Singaporeans have exploited all of those good things to develop their talent, and now they are leaving.

In the emigrating Singaporeans' own versions, you often hear different angles. They leave because they feared for their economic survival in this country. Because they suffered from its lack of freedoms. Because they were tired of living in a company, Singapore Inc.. These are aspects which Lee Kuan Yew won't tell you. Because these aspects do not reflect very well on the PAP government.

Far better for Lee Kuan Yew, if you simply believed his version - that the Singaporeans who emigrated, did so because they were ungrateful, irresponsible, lacking in conscience and uncaring about their less advantaged fellow citizens.

Dick Lee Turns Political

Various songs by local artiste & Singapore Idol judge Dick Lee. The last song is "dedicated" to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Anyone know when this performance took place?

Apr 23, 2007

Lee Kuan Yew on Homosexuality

ST April 23, 2007
Homosexuality: Govt not moral police but it's mindful of people's concerns
By Zakir Hussain

THE Government is not the moral police on the issue of homosexuality here - but it cannot at the same time ignore the concerns of conservative citizens.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew addressed the issue in his reply to a question from Young PAP activist Loretta Chen, who had asked where censorship was headed in the next two decades.

Having related the issue of how the topless revue Crazy Horse was allowed to operate here, he turned to the question of homosexuality.

It was an issue that 'raises tempers all over the world, and even in America'.
There's a reason why I don't like politicians and this is it. They're sneaky. They're always using all sorts of little tricks and verbal sleights of hand to communicate their messages. They can't fool Mr Wang, of course, but Mr Wang knows that the masses often get fooled.

Take for example this seemingly innocuous statement - homosexuality is an issue "that raises tempers all over the world, and even in America". The message which Lee Kuan Yew wants to subtly slip into your subconscious mind is this:

"The Singapore government is already very kind and reasonable in the way it treats homosexuals. After all, even in the United States, the land of the free, homosexuality is a highly controversial subject."
And right around here, the average Singaporean will get fooled, because he doesn't stop to think just a little deeper. If he did, he would realise that the United States example does not in any way show that the Singapore government has been kind or reasonable.

Homosexuality is indeed a controversial issue in the United States. However, the US controversy is about whether gays can get married and whether gays can adopt children. It's not about whether gays can fall in love, or have consensual sex, without being arrested and thrown into jail like thieves or robbers.

So you see, Singapore is still grappling with gay rights issues at a rather basic and primitive level. Much more primitive than the United States, anyway.

Admittedly we are now moving in a more enlightened direction. Albeit rather slowly.

'If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual - because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes - you can't help it. So why should we criminalise it?'

But Mr Lee also noted that there was a strong inhibition towards it in all societies - be they Christian, Islamic, Hindu or Chinese.

Singapore, too, was confronted 'with a persisting aberration'.

'But is it an aberration?' he asked. 'It's a genetic variation.'

'So what do we do? I think we pragmatically adjust, carry our people...don't upset them and suddenly upset their sense of propriety and right and wrong.

'But at the same time let's not go around like this moral police...barging into people's rooms. That's not our business.

'So you have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance.'

When the Home Affairs Ministry announced proposed changes to the Penal Code on a range of offences last year, it said it would retain the ban on acts of 'gross indecency' between men. The penalty remains a maximum of two years in jail.
This is not the real news behind the proposed legislative amendments. That is to say, the real news is not that section 377A of the Penal Code (dealing with the offence of "gross indecency" between men) is still retained.

Last year's
real news was that section 377 (unnatural intercourse) would finally be repealed. This is important, because section 377 says that gays who have sex with each other can be imprisoned for life.

In other words, if two adult men willingly had intercourse with each other, the law considered this to be as serious as attempted murder.

That is how primitive Singapore is.

Apr 20, 2007

Exams for Mr Wang

I received my textbooks today. My new job requires me to pass certain exams, held by the Institute of Banking & Finance and also the Singapore College of Insurance. Rather annoyingly, most of the syllabus has no direct relevance to what I actually do at work.

So these are exams that I'll have to pass for the sake of passing. If I fail, the MAS will not allow me to work in Singapore and who knows, my employer may have to transfer me to Hong Kong (heheh) .

There are, however, some positive aspects to these exams. Some parts of my required syllabus are actually meant for personal financial advisers and insurance agents. I'll have to study in detail certain things like how to conduct a financial needs analysis; how investment-linked insurance products work; the CPF Investment Scheme system; the Supplementary Retirement Scheme; how unit trusts operate etc.

None of this will be completely new to me, as I have, for many years now, been quite hands-on and interested in managing my own money. But this will be a good time to organise the higgledy-piggledy personal financial planning knowledge in my head into a more formal framework. The studying won't be relevant to my job at all, but it will be useful for my own money.

In the coming weeks, I may blog more about such money matters. One of my readers, Ling, had written: "I'd like to get advice from you on how Singaporeans can prosper under the current situation in our country". Personal financial planning would certainly have something to do with that.

I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce one of my regular readers, Christopher Ng Wai Chung. Christopher is an expert on personal financial planning and has published a book, "Growing Your Tree of Prosperity", on the topic. The book was previously reviewed on the Singapore Entrepreneurs blog.

This book is useful particularly because it is written for the Singapore audience. There are always many money-related books available in the stores, but most are by overseas authors (so they wouldn't address Singapore-specific aspects of financial planning).

Apr 19, 2007

The Unnecessary Pains of Learning

One of my readers, Ling, asked the following question:
"... how can we overcome these feelings of unhappiness we get when we see foreigners (talented or not) flood our homeland, taking over our places in the neighbourhood, in companies, in schools... and our children having to face "global competition" at such a young age..."
This present post focuses on the kiddie aspects of Ling's question - in other words, young children, their parents, and the best ways that the parents can prepare their children for life in a competitive society.

At the primary or even secondary levels, I think that the ever-growing foreign student population in our schools does not necessarily make life any more competitive than it would otherwise be. Here's another way to put it - even if there were no foreign students, life in our schools would be highly competitive anyway.

The stressful nature of our education system stems mainly from (a) streaming, (b) the over-emphasis on grades, and (c) the systemic failure to encourage the notion that learning can be, and should be, fun. Not so much from the presence of foreign students.

The good news is that things are probably getting better. Education Minister Tharman does not like streaming. For one thing, he scrapped the
EM3 stream and he scrapped the Gifted Education Programme. These two moves eliminate the anxiety of parents and children who would otherwise be struggling to stay out of the "worst" stream, or to get into the "best" one.

The next big possible improvement depends on the parents themselves. It's about adjusting their mindset. Somehow we have this mentality that we've got to strive for success, and that striving for success would involve stress and suffering.

I know that this is commonly the case. I don't think it necessarily has to be the case. In fact, these days most kindergartens and playschools have already caught on to the Montessori idea that
young children learn best through play and discovery. If a young child doesn't have fun while he's learning, he's probably not learning.

So if you visit any good kindergarten these days, you'll see that much thought has been put into the curriculum to make the lessons as fun as possible. The learning is done through song, dance, drama, games, art and craft, poster colours, fairy tales, crayons, bricks and toy trains. The classroom walls are brightly decorated with art projects and other attractive materials. Teachers use hand puppets of funny furry animals that wiggle their ears and noses as they utter Mandarin phrases. Kids don't have to sit on a chair and keep quiet anymore - talking and laughing is encouraged, and rolling around on the floormat is okay.

The thing is - I don't see why learning has to stop being fun after kindergarten. I believe that it doesn't have to be this way. I think that it must be possible to keep the learning process enjoyable at all stages (using age-appropriate methods, of course - the hand puppets stop working beyond a certain age). Teachers would play a big part in making the classroom or lecture theatre an enjoyable place. But I believe that parents too, can try to inculcate the attitude in their children that learning is fun.

And if the parents succeed, well, then it will no longer matter that their kids may have to face "global competition" at a young age. Because that will just be so much more fun.

Come to think of it, while writing this post, I just realised that I have a habit of asking my son, when he's back from kindergarten, this question - "Did you have fun today?". I hope I keep this up. I think that over time, it will create the subconscious belief in my son that school is supposed to be enjoyable, and learning is supposed to be fun.

Apr 16, 2007

Tomorrow's Model

In response to my previous post, a reader wrote:
Any comments on the legal industry in general and why you have chosen to leave the legal industry?
I enjoyed my previous job, and I like my ex-colleagues (a few of them, including my ex-boss, even read this blog from time to time). I left for reasons which I think they respect and understand very well: (a) new learning opportunities, and (b) better remuneration prospects. They wish me well, and so do I. And that’s that.

My father, who has retired, is always a little alarmed to hear that I’m changing jobs again. He belongs (obviously) to an older generation. For more than three decades, he worked for the same company. I don’t think it ever seriously crossed his mind to change jobs.

Times are different now. My current organization gives out “long service” awards for employees who reach the five-year mark – in other words, five years of service is already considered long. Another anecdote - during my recent induction course, each new employee received his security access pass, which had a five-year validity period. Someone quipped, “Wow, this bank sure is optimistic.”

Employee loyalty is dead, because employer loyalty is dead. This is the reality of the modern working world. People are just digits, and departments are just little square boxes, on a corporate organisation chart. Tomorrow, the organization chart could change - because of a merger or acquisition; or an outsourcing of jobs into India; or a restructuring exercise to cut costs. And some employees will just have to go.

So the modern employee must learn to take care of himself. Employability is more important than employment. You have a personal responsibility to keep your own skills and knowledge relevant. If a better opportunity comes along, take it if an objective, hard-headed analysis tells you that you should.

In my opinion, there is a common mistake that many people make when planning their careers - they rely on yesterday’s model of the world. In fact, they should rely on today’s model of the world, or better still, tomorrow’s model. Of course, no one can predict the future with 100% accuracy. However, because the world is changing so quickly, yesterday’s model, even if true today, will almost certainly be wrong by tomorrow.

I left the legal industry for my new job, because I felt that this was the strategically optimal move for me. Of course, yesterday’s model of the world would suggest that I’m making a bad move. After all, in yesterday’s model, Singaporeans who can should always strive to be doctors, lawyers or PSC scholars, shouldn't they?

However, in a possible tomorrow’s model,
Singapore will be flooded by hordes of doctors from India, and doctors' salaries will be dampened. The noble aspects of the profession will become increasingly obscured by the profit-driven, commercial aspects, as Singapore strives to become a regional medical hub.

Meanwhile, PSC scholarships may become viewed as career traps for the bright but unwary. Outstanding young people may become tied down to a little red dot, even though they are so talented that the whole world could have been their oyster.

As for lawyers in private practice, they may continue working harder and worker to help the investment banks make more money. Their personal lives suffer, and yet in the end, they may end up earning considerably less than the investment bankers themselves.

Some would say that I am wrong. Others would say that my model of tomorrow has already happened today. What do you think?

Apr 15, 2007

Any Suggestions for Mr Wang?

Please see my preceding post, where I wrote (again) about new directions for this blog.

If there is any particular topic on which you would like to hear Mr Wang's views, please leave a comment. I'll blog about it, if I think I have something useful to say about it. Thanks.

To Join or Not to Join

Recently I said that I would change the focus of my blog. I had planned to make it more practical and useful for the average Singaporean, taking into consideration the prevailing social trends, government policies etc in this country.

Well, here goes. Today we look at HR policies in the civil service. There are certain things you ought to know, before you decide to join or not to join the civil service.

ST April 14, 2007
Promotion in Civil Service based on merit

I REFER to the letter, 'Is promotion in Civil Service based on tenure?' (ST, April 11), by Ms Elsie Tan Hwee Lian.

To be promoted, a civil servant has to show potential to handle a bigger job. A person with a high potential can expect to progress more quickly, provided he is also a consistently good performer.

An officer who does not show the potential to take on greater responsibilities will not be promoted, even if he has many years of service. Promotion is based on merit and not automatic, according to his years of service.

Ms Tan also noted that there are officers who continue to perform the same job after promotion. Unlike the private sector, civil servants are paid according to their salary grade and not by job appointment.

It is not unusual to have officers doing higher-level jobs while still in a lower grade. This is to stretch and test them. They will be promoted to the grade commensurate with the job size only when they are able to handle the higher job competently.

All Civil Service salary schemes have a performance-bonus component. Those who do well will be paid performance bonuses, with the better ones getting a higher quantum. Those who just meet the job requirements or under-perform will not get any performance bonus.

Most of our graduate schemes have a variable merit-increment system, where the annual increments are linked to performance.

In short, the appraisal system ensures that officers receive salaries that are commensurate with their contributions, abilities and potential.

Ong Toon Hui (Ms)
Director, Leadership Development
Public Service Division
Prime Minister's Office
This letter is well-written. It is a very careful, very deliberate gloss, over actual reality. Nothing that the letter says is actually untrue. Yet the overall picture that the letter does paint is quite misleading.

To understand how the system works, you first have to understand that performance and potential mean two completely different things in the civil service. They lead to very different, very distinct consequences in the official appraisal system.

For example, a civil servant may be judged to have very high potential, even though his performance is very poor. Alternatively, his performance may be judged to be utterly outstanding, and yet his potential may be judged to be extremely low.

Performance is linked to your annual bonuses and increments. Whereas potential is linked to your promotions. So Ms Ong Toon Hui is correct to say that those who perform well in their jobs will get bigger bonuses.

What Ms Ong isn't telling you is that those who perform well in their jobs may never get promoted. That's because promotions depend on your potential, and potential has nothing to do with performance.

Okay, then. How is a person's potential assessed or measured? It is measured by your CEP score. "CEP" stands for Current Estimated Potential. Theoretically, CEP measures the level of certain inherent, long-term qualities in each employee.

What this means is that once you have been assigned your CEP score, the civil service is probably not going to change that score (at least for the next seven or eight years, if ever). After all, CEP is a measure of certain inherent, long-term qualities in you - which cannot change.

Now, the civil service will assign you a CEP score, on your first day of work. Actually, that is untrue - your CEP score is assigned to you, even before you start work. Thus you can see that in terms of actual work, nothing that you actually do (whether it is utterly brilliant, or utterly dumb) can actually affect your CEP score.

The civil service generally does not tell individual employees what their CEP score is. (If such disclosures were made, no doubt some people would resign in double quick time. Then who would be left to do the donkey work?)

CEP scores depend largely on your educational qualifications (one or two ministries will also consider other things - for example, the Defence Ministry would consider your OCS performance) . There is a pecking order. PSC Scholars automatically get an extremely high CEP score, even before they start work. Non-scholars with a basic degree, no honours, go to the bottom of the pecking order.

I hope that by now, the implications are becomng clear.

If you do badly in school, and then you join the civil service, you will have a low CEP score. Even if you subsequently produce the most utterly outstanding performance year after year after year, you will still get promoted very slowly, if at all.

That's because your potential has been assessed to be low, and CEP is a measure of your inherent, long-term qualities which can't change.

In contrast, suppose a PSC scholar performs quite badly year after year after year. He will not get good bonuses, because bonuses are linked to performance. However, since his CEP score is high, he will still get promoted year after year after year. That's because CEP is a measure of his inherent, long-term qualities which can't change.

Thus how much career success you can achieve in the civil service, by the age of 45 or 50, has already been determined. It was determined when you were 22 or 24 years, at the time you first joined the civil service, on your very first day at work. Sorry, before your first day at work.

Below is an excerpt from an essay written by a US military officer, who had spent some time studying the Singapore Armed Forces. This part of his essay focuses on how SAF scholars and non-scholars are promoted differently. Note that the Government of Singapore uses essentially the same appraisal system for all government ministries (including the Ministry of Defence). So the excerpt below gives you a good idea of how the entire civil service, in general, operates:

"After being awarded a scholarship, scholar officers are commissioned four months ahead of their peers amd miss the second half of their professional military training during OCS. Although they make up some of this training during their academic summers, they are still very inexperienced compared to their peers who have spent four years in operational service.

Despite this vast difference in experience, scholar officers still will be promoted to captain one year after graduation at approximately the same time as their nonscholar peers. This program results in scholar officers being promoted far faster than their nonscholarship peers, despite the fact that they have considerably less operational experience.

.... The SAF uses a system in which officers have a currently estimated potential to determine how far an officer can go and terminal rank during his or her career. For the most part, this CEP is formed during OCS based on the officer's cadet performance and educational background ....

An officer's CEP spells out his or her career path for assignments, education opportunities, promotion and attendance at military schools. The result of this system is that officers are selected and groomed for even the most senior leadership positions in the SAF based on little more than on how they performed as a cadet during OCS and the strength of their high school transcript."

Apr 13, 2007

Are Top Global Companies Really Dying to Hire Our Ministers?

Today we examine another aspect of the official rationale behind the ministers' exorbitant salary increase. This rationale can be expressed as follows:
"Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the pay of cabinet ministers has fallen behind top private-sector earners in Singapore and called for the gap to be closed to keep talent in the government ... Talented Singaporeans are being head-hunted by top global companies as well as by other governments eager to replicate Singapore's success story, Lee said. - Link.

No doubt some civil servants are in high demand by the private sector. Then again, Singaporeans are not complaining about salary increases for civil servants in general. Singaporeans are complaining about salary increases for the PAP ministers.

And these PAP ministers - would "top global companies" really want to hire them?

To investigate this question, all we have to do is draw up a list of ex-PAP ministers, and find out where they went and what they did, after they left politics. If top global companies were really so eager to hire them, we should expect to find ex-PAP ministers working in top corporations such as BP, Shell, Microsoft, Citigroup, British Airways or other
Fortune Global 500 companies.

I did some quick googling, and this is what I managed to find:

    Dr Tony Tan is currently with GIC and Singapore Press Holdings.

    Dr Yeo Ning Hong is on the Board of Directors of Singapore Press Holdings.

    S Dhanabalan is the Chairman of Temasek Holdings.

    Richard Hu is Chairman of Capitaland.

    Yeo Cheow Tong joined Lippo, an Indonesian company.

    David Lim joined NOL for a few years, before quitting. (He seems to be unemployed right now - if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know).

    Dr Seet Ai Mee is with Courts (Singapore) Limited as a non-executive director.

    After retiring from politics, Lim Kim San worked in PSA and Singapore Press Holdings. He passed away last year.

What can we conclude? After leaving politics, our ex-PAP ministers tend to end up, quite predictably, with Singapore's government-linked companies (GLCs). A few, like Yeo Cheow Tong and Dr Seet Ai Mee, end up with non-GLC companies that are definitely not "top global companies".

I could not find a single PAP minister who, after quitting politics, was hired by any remotely "top" or "global" company that wasn't in Mrs Lee Hsien Loong's collection.

Apr 12, 2007

The Price of One Lee Hsien Loong

"No, world leaders like me will NOT resign to join some silly little company
in the private sector, just because we earn less than the average new, inexperienced
PAP minister in Singapore." - Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister.

Did you know? For the price of one Lee Hsien Loong, we could afford to hire :

(1) one US President;
(2) one UK Prime Minister;
(3) one Japanese Prime Minister; AND
(4) one German Chancellor

AND have about half a million US dollars left over, to give away to charity.

From the
International Herald Tribune:

World leader salary comparison
April 9, 2007

According to a government announcement Monday, the prime minister of Singapore will draw an annual salary of slightly more than $2 million starting next year.

A look at how that stacks up:

President George W. Bush: $440,000
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain: $370,000 (187,000£)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan: $360,000
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany: $350,000 (261,500 euros)

Apr 9, 2007

On Maids & Ministers

An excerpt, from the earlier CNN article:

Singapore ministers set for million-dollar pay hike

..... The opposition also argues that a million-dollar pay hike is unwarranted for leaders of a country that has no legal minimum wage and where 20 percent of the population earns an average monthly salary of S$1,500 ($991).

But Lee Kuan Yew -- modern Singapore's first prime minister, who is still the leading voice in his son's cabinet -- will have none of it.

"The cure to all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government," Lee senior told the Straits Times on Thursday, adding that it is "absurd" for Singaporeans to quarrel about ministerial pay and warned that Singapore would suffer it the government could not pay competitive salaries.

"Your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries," he said.

Some very startling leaps in logic there, from Lee Kuan Yew. But let's humour the man. For the sake of discussion, let's assume that we can indeed ascertain the quality of our PAP ministers, by comparing the economic status of maids and Singaporeans.

For starters, we will revisit an
old post of Mr Wang's, from June 2005. Back then, the Straits Times reported that the bottom 20% of wage earners in Singapore earn less than $1,200 a month. Mr Wang had then proceeded to compare the earning power of such Singaporeans, to the earning power of foreign domestic workers in Singapore:

Let's take a moment to think about the earning power of (1) Singapore's poorer citizens and (2) Singapore's foreign maids.

Let's say Madam Jin Pai Mia is a 55-year-old spinster belonging to the Low-Income Singaporean category. She works as a cleaner in a commercial office building and earns $900 a month.

Madam Jin takes the MRT to and from work every day. That's about $1.50 x 2 x 24 days = $72 a month. She pays about $60 for her water and electricity bills at home. She eats three meals a day, each costing an average of $3.00. That's $3.00 x 3 meals x 30 days = $270 a month on food. Let's say Madam Jin falls sick once in a while and needs to see the doctor. We'll put it at $20 a month. She rents a flat from the HDB. Let's say it's $250 a month (I don't know how much it costs - it's just my guesstimate).

That's $672 on basic stuff like transportation, water, electricity, food, medical care and accommodation. After deducting $672 from Madam Jin's monthly salary of $900, she's left with $228.

Now, a foreign domestic maid gets about $300 a month. However, the maid does not need to spend money on public transport to get to work each day. Her employer pays the electricity and water bills and provides three meals a day. The maid's accommodation is essentially free. If the maid falls ill, the employer is, by law, responsible for her medical expenses.

So when the maid gets $300 a month, the maid really earns $300 a month.

However, when Madam Jin gets $900, she's really earning just $228 a month.
The basic idea is quite simple. Although foreign maids get low salaries in Singapore, their employer covers almost all their necessary expenses - food, accommodation, utilities, medical care etc. When you factor all that in, you will see that the average foreign maid's earnings are quite comparable to the earnings of the average Singaporean in the bottom 20% .

Thus, we can say that one in five Singaporeans is no better off than a foreign maid. If we use Lee Kuan Yew's suggested methodology, we would begin to develop strong suspicions that our PAP ministers are not very competent, after all.

However, the relevant statistic - that the bottom 20% of wage earners in Singapore earn less than $1,200 a month - is an old one, from 2005. Perhaps things have improved since then? After all, our PAP ministers can't be that incompetent, can they?

Alas. According to this
Straits Times report in 2007, things seem to have only become worse. Not only has the average income of the bottom 20% of Singaporeans not risen, the average income of the bottom 30% has actually fallen.

Now, if we should once again adopt Mr Lee's methodology, we cannot help but be struck by the aptness of his words. All these years, our ministers have already been receiving the world's highest ministerial salaries. Yet all these years, Singaporeans seem to have indeed been suffering from a "strong dose of incompetent government".

Apr 7, 2007

CNN on Ministers' Salaries

"I can't believe it. I am looking after 301 million citizens,
you are earning 3 times more than me,

CNN article below is posted for my future reference:

Singapore ministers set for million-dollar pay hike

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- The salary of the prime minister of Singapore is more than three times that of U.S. President George W. Bush and about four times that of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But that is not enough.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may soon be getting a hefty pay rise as part of a controversial ministerial salary hike that has infuriated many Singaporeans.

Lee, who is estimated to earn about S$2 million (US$1.32 million) per year, said last month that the salaries of Singapore ministers, top public officials and judges have fallen way below benchmark private sector salaries and may need to be doubled.

"It is critical for us to keep these salaries competitive, so as to be able to bring in a continuing flow of able and successful people," Lee said in a speech in March.

Lee said that Singapore ministers, who currently earn about S$1.2 million (US$800,00) a year, should be earning S$2.2 million (US$1.45 million).

Details of the new ministerial salaries will be announced in parliament on April 9.

Since 1994, the salaries of Singapore ministers have been set at two-thirds the median pay of the 48 best-paid bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and executives in multi-nationals and manufacturing firms.

But the latest salary hike, which comes at a time when income disparity in Singapore is wider than ever, has sparked an outpour of unusually blunt criticism from Singaporeans.

Hundreds have signed an online petition and the readers' letter columns of the state-controlled newspapers -- one of the few outlets for dissenting views in the city-state -- have published a series of letters protesting the planned hike.

"Government always wins"

Some Singaporeans argue that the six lucrative professions on which ministers' salaries are based do not reflect the country's economy or the government's performance.

"No matter what happens to the economy, the government always wins because it takes only the best results," Jacob Tan said in a letter to the Straits Times.

And given that a 2 percentage point rise in sales tax from July will further hit the poor, some said the government plan is tactless.

"I am rather disappointed with the government's insensitivity," reader Vanessa Teo said.

But the sharpest criticism was online. The "awesome raise on top of their already obscene pay is completely unjustifiable," read an online petition that has gathered 304 signatures.

Given the rare public outcry, analysts said the government may now hesitate to raise salaries by the full S$1 million.

"I would be surprised if they implemented the full formula that would give them over S$2 million," said Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University.

The government defends the high salaries as necessary to attract the brightest people and to prevent corruption.

"If we don't do that ... corruption will set in and we will become like many other countries," Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean was quoted as saying in the Straits Times last week.

Singapore government officials' salaries are set by different wage formulas, depending on their seniority. The figures are not readily available to the public, but the prime minister earned S$1.94 million in 2000, according to the Straits Times.

Ministers' wages were last raised in 2000, but were cut in 2001 and 2003 during the economic downturn, although the cuts have since been reversed, the Public Service Division said.

"Able generals"

Some argue that Singapore ministers are not overpaid, but that ministers elsewhere are underpaid.

Singapore is an oasis of wealth, peace and law and order in a region rife with poverty, violence and corruption.
The island state is Asia's second-richest country after Japan, with a gross domestic product per capita of about $31,000.

The World Economic Forum ranks Singapore as the fifth-most competitive of 125 economies in 2006, while Transparency International said the city-state was the fifth-most corruption-free nation out of 163. Isn't that worth a price?

"According to a Chinese proverb, an able general is worth more than 10,000 foot soldiers. So too is the worth of our leaders if they have the wisdom to help us weather global competition," reader Yik Keng Yeong said.

But critics say that the prosperity and security enjoyed by Singaporeans are not that different from other Asian first-world economies such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, where government ministers do not command such high salaries.

Finland, for instance, beat Singapore in the WEF and Transparency International polls -- as second-most competitive and most corruption-free country -- but its Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen earns about a sixth of Lee's estimated salary.

What irks Singapore's opposition parties is that the million-dollar salaries are only accessible to members of Lee's ruling People's Action Party. Opposition politicians have been crippled by defamation lawsuits brought by government ministers and no opposition party has ever held a ministerial post.

The opposition also argues that a million-dollar pay hike is unwarranted for leaders of a country that has no legal minimum wage and where 20 percent of the population earns an average monthly salary of S$1,500 ($991).

But Lee Kuan Yew -- modern Singapore's first prime minister, who is still the leading voice in his son's cabinet -- will have none of it.

"The cure to all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government," Lee senior told the Straits Times on Thursday, adding that it is "absurd" for Singaporeans to quarrel about ministerial pay and warned that Singapore would suffer it the government could not pay competitive salaries.

"Your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries," he said.

Apr 6, 2007

The Stayers Keep Getting Raped

L is a headhunter with many years of experience. Until recently, she was an expat in Singapore. Now she has relocated. My wife and L are friends and so last week, L called Mrs Wang to talk about her new life in Hong Kong.

At some point in time, the conversation transformed into a discussion on future career options.

According to my wife, L was very interested to know about my new job. Furthermore L was quite excited when she found out which area of investment banking I'm now working in.

L declared that investment bankers in this particular area are in very high demand in Hong Kong. Furthermore, she said, they would command significantly higher salaries there. (This is no doubt true - in general, bankers, lawyers, doctors, accountants and many other categories of professionals earn more in Hong Kong than in Singapore).

"But he can't possibly move yet," said Mrs Wang mildly. "He just started in his new job."

"Sure, sure. Maybe not now." said L. "Move in 2008 then, or by 2009. But better move quick, while the market is hot."

"Well, what about ME and my job?" asked Mrs Wang.

"Oh, I'll find a new one for you in Hong Kong, if you like. ," said L breeezily. "That will be quite easy. You'll also earn more. Or if you prefer, you could be a tai tai, at least until your kids are settled in. Now, let me tell you about the education options ...."

The conversation went on and on, and Mrs Wang became more and more excited. Now she has it in her head that Mr & Mrs Wang and the little kids should all pack their bags and boxes and head off to Hong Kong. Where L will no doubt visit us on the weekends to tell us more about schools, restaurants, supermarkets, banks, clinics and other need-to-know places in Hong Kong.

"But I don't want to go to Hong Kong," I said. "I just started in my new job."

"Sure, sure. Maybe not now." said Mrs Wang breezily. "Move in 2008 then, or by 2009. But better move quick, while the market is hot. Now, let me tell you about the education options ..."

* * * * * * * *

I still don't like the idea of moving to Hong Kong. Firstly, I don't want to be too far from my parents. Secondly, the air pollution in Hong Kong is quite bad. Thirdly, I don't speak Cantonese very well. Fourth, the whole idea of relocating my family, the sheer hassle of moving and uprooting everything ..... is daunting.

But from the strategic big picture, as China steadily continues to transform into a global economic powerhouse, it could be better in the long run, for my kids to grow up closer to where the action really is. To me, this idea does have strong appeal.

And I know that in my own head, I am probably exaggerating the adjustment issues. Seriously, every day at work, I meet foreigners who have come from all over the world to Singapore. Many of them come with spouse, kids and/or pet dog in tow. They all seem to have adapted just fine. It is NOT, after all, such a big deal to relocate/emigrate and adjust to a new life.

Mrs Wang happened to have raised the topic at the time when the PAP ministers had just announced their
latest plans to rape taxpayers. This does make me just a little more inclined to consider the possibility of moving to Hong Kong.

It really shouldn't be that relevant. But with each passing year, the Singapore government just keeps finding new ways to undermine my sense of rootedness to this country. Why stay? - if indeed one day I will end up feeling like a stranger in my own home.

Apr 1, 2007

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Back in November last year, on my old blog, I had already posted some thoughts about the then-impending salary increase for PAP ministers. The post is remarkably topical today, so I reproduce an excerpt here. Click on link below to read the original post in full.

Elections Are Over! Time to Raise Ministers' Salaries!

".... It must be fun being a minister. Because unlike the rest of Singapore, you'll never have a bad year.

What do I mean? Well, let's say a cardiosurgeon in Singapore does very well in his career this year, makes a lot of money and is the top-earning cardiosurgeon this year.

Next year he may not do so well. Maybe he will have fewer patients. Or perhaps he just won't have so many complicated cases, so he has to charge less for doing simpler surgeries. Consequently, he will earn much less.

That's life. Some years are good, some years are not so good.

Ministers, however, have no such problem. Their salary is pegged to whoever is earning most, in a given year. When our top cardiosurgeon is earning a lot, the ministers will peg their salaries to him. When our top cardiosurgeon has a bad year, the ministers will just drop him out of the list.

They will then peg their salaries to some other doctor for whom 2007 does turn out to be a great year (eg the most successful neurosurgeon or oncologist in Singapore, for example) ...."