Dec 26, 2007

How To Make Singapore Look More Tech-Savvy Than It Really Is

Basically all you have to do is make the wild claim that every grandmother, grandfather, uncle and auntie who has a phone in his/her home is also an Internet user.

Alas, the truth eventually emerges, as it usually will. And it's a rather embarrassing truth:

ST Dec 25, 2007
End of free Net access to spell 1m dip in user figures
That's because IDA counts all SingTel home phone customers as subscribers of mysingtel service, which will be withdrawn in April
By Irene Tham

THIS is not an early April Fool's joke. On April 1 next year, close to one million Internet dial-up subscribtions in Singapore could 'disappear'.

It raises a poser about one set of figures Singapore has used in claiming to be among the world's most wired cities, although this claim holds, thanks to other criteria and widespread broadband penetration here.

SingTel, which owns most residential phone lines here, ends its free Web access service, available to all these customers, on April 1.

Called mysingtel, the dial-up service was launched in early 2000, before broadband really caught on. It meant that every residential phone line could be connected to the Net, for the price of a local phone call - provided everyone signed up for mysingtel.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) has, in fact, been including every residential phone line in its 'dial-up Internet subscription' figures, The Straits Times understands.

It now seems that even non-users of mysingtel were counted in: Internet subscription figures reflected anyone with a residential phone line.

Hence, Singapore's dial-up base almost tripled in two months from December 1999, after mysingtel's launch. In February 2000, IDA recorded about 1.7 million dial-up subscribers islandwide, or a population penetration rate of 52 per cent.

And let's take a look at how the IDA used such data to toot its own horn:
............ IDA started to publish broadband subscription data on its website only in January 2003, and continued to use the dial-up subscription figures to show how wired Singapore was.

The numbers were published in IDA's annual reports that highlight key national infocomm developments. Dial-up figures were also quoted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in its Economic Survey of Singapore 2002 and 2003 reports.

Come April 1, SingTel's 938,000 fixed-line residential customers, of whom only 7,000 are active mysingtel users, will have to be excluded from IDA's dial-up subscription figures.

A few views from industry observers:
.............. Mr Jonathan Coham, a consumer group analyst at British-based research firm Ovum, said that counting non-users 'will artificially inflate numbers'.

Mr Tim Johnson, chief analyst at British-based research and consultancy firm Point Topic, said: 'This conceals the fact that many people in Singapore may not be using the Internet.'
The moral of the story? The next time you hear the Singapore government make any grand claims - "world's best public transport"; "world's least corrupt government"; "world's most efficient public service"; "world's leading hub in X, Y or Z" - scrutinise the data. Or at least take the claim with a big pinch of salt.

Dec 23, 2007

The Silent Singaporean

Elia Diodati takes a look at the Malaysian political blogosphere and is impressed by its lively, vibrant nature. He wonders why Singaporeans, in comparison, don't seem to speak up very much on important national issues. There are, of course, various reasons and here's one which Elia offers:
"..... Singaporeans simply work insane hours. If we can’t even get Singaporeans to procreate, despite tax incentives and other carrots, what more to get them to clear out several hours at a time to sit down and write coherent, thoughtful blog posts? Think of the vocal blogs you know of that have suddenly veered into neglected quiescence. I’d bet you that many of them were written by students who have since graduated, gotten sucked into the work-marry-birth-nurture dogma and suddenly find that there is no time or place for that mouthpiece."
Well, I work. I'm married. I have two kids whom I nurture a lot (I plan to turn them into little geniuses). Apart from all that, I not only blog a lot, but still find time to pursue several other interests quite seriously.

My secret is really no secret. If you wander into the 'Self-Improvement' section of the bookstore and pick up a book on time management, you'll know the secret too. But since many of you wouldn't be caught dead in that part of the bookstore, that's pretty much all I'll say about it for now.

For Singaporeans who want to blog more about national issues but feel that they suffer from a lack of time, the alternative strategy would be selective about your topics. Focus on the themes and topics that you already know very well, so that you can complete your posts in minimal time.

"But I don't really know any topics that well." Actually, yes you do. You just don't know it, that's all. Once you start to see that the events and circumstances in your personal life are often just reflections of the broader society in which you live, you will rarely find yourself short of topics to write about.

Angry Doctor is a doctor - he blogs a lot about healthcare issues in Singapore. Stressed Teacher is a teacher - he blogs a lot about education issues in Singapore. Cherian George is an ex-journalist - he blogs a lot about the mass media in Singapore. Yawning Bread is a gay man - he blogs a lot about gay issues in Singapore.

These are examples of bloggers who have converted the very stuff of their daily life experiences into blogging material. Well, actually all bloggers do that - but to go beyond the mundane level of introspective navel-gazing, you'll just have to take one step further. And that is to explore the wider social, political or economic issues behind your daily life experiences.

Do you use public transport every day in Singapore? Are you an SAF NSman? Do you study in a local university or polytechnic? Are you a financial planner who helps clients to plan for their retirement? Do you keenly follow the local sports or arts scene? Are you a working mother busily juggling career and family? Do you regularly volunteer with a charitable organisation such as Mendaki or Action for AIDS? Does your job involve ensuring corporate governance? Do you set PSLE exams?

A positive answer to any of the above makes you potentially an expert blogger in at least one distinct area. If you take that extra step ....

Dec 22, 2007

Mr Wang Becomes A National Resource

I exaggerate. What I've really become is a National Library resource:
Dear Mr Wang,

Notification of Website Archiving – Mr Wang Says So

The National Library Board (NLB) is traditionally known to collect published materials for preservation as the nation's published heritage. This includes online and electronic publications of lasting national, historical, research and cultural values. NLB has embarked on a web-archiving project, with the long-term goal of building a comprehensive collection of Singapore-related websites and publications to ensure that Singaporeans have access to their documentary heritage now and in the future.

NLB has deemed both your current website (URL: and former website (URL: to be an important part of Singapore’s documentary heritage and would like them to remain available to researchers and generations of Singaporeans in the future. Hence NLB will be taking snapshots of your websites under the appended terms .........

Yours sincerely
Anne Claudine Tan
For Director (Digital Resources & Services)
National Library Board
Well, the next time that Leslie Fong says that blogs are garbage, you know what to do. Tell him that the National Library Board considers Mr Wang's blog to be an electronic publication of "lasting national, historical, research and cultural values". Oh, and I'm sure mine is not the only blog included in this NLB project.

Incidentally, for those of you who only started reading my blog this year, I have an older blog which ran from May 2005 to December 2006 (this is the "former website" which NLB is referring to in its email above). The former blog - Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma - is
here. A quick selection of old posts, for your reading pleasure:

01. Elections are Over. Time to Raise Ministers' Salaries!
02. Rethinking NS - Part 1
03. Pulling a Fast One
04. Oh Dear. I Feel Worried For PM Lee
05. Open Society. Ha.
06. Who Says Singaporeans Aren't Creative?
07. Party Political Films - Leong Ching Just Doesn't Get It.

Dec 19, 2007

PSLE Results and the Colour of Your Skin

If you've been reading the newspapers lately, you might have noticed that this year's top PSLE student was Malay. Natasha Nabila not only topped the 2007 exams, but also set a record for the highest results ever attained in the PSLE exams.

This would have surprised many people, because historically Malays in Singapore have done badly in school (relative to the other racial groups). Initially I thought that Natasha's success might be a positive sign of a trend that the Malays are finally catching up.

However, the statistics don't bear this out. This MOE chart breaks down PSLE pass rates by race, over a 10-year period. We see that as a group, Malays still lag behind, and the gap isn't closing. So Natasha is an exception to the rule, rather than an indicator of a trend.

The blogger over here (Both Sides of the Johor Straits) notes, however, that in recent years, the minority races (Malays and Indians) seem to be statistically overrepresented among the very top PSLE performers. For example, the top PSLE student in 2005 was Malay. The top performer in 2006 was Indian. The top performer in 2007 was Malay.

This is interesting, because statistically, even if Malays, Indians and Chinese were academically equal (and they're not - as a group, the Chinese do better than the rest), the probability is that the top performer would be Chinese (as the Chinese are numerically, and by far, the biggest group).

So the blogger has a conspiracy theory. He thinks that the MOE is "cheating" to ensure that the top student is non-Chinese. MOE's rationale would be to raise the morale of the minority races and to provide a positive role model (bearing in mind that each year, the top PSLE student receives abundant publicity in the media):
All credits due to our top non-Chinese PSLE students, but I think that the recent trend in top non-Chinese PSLE students may indicate some backroom number-shuffling at MOE. Even though statistics & probability year-on-year predict that non-Chinese students do not fare as well at PSLE, I’ll not be surprised that the people at MOE have ways of ensuring a feel-good factor for all ethnic groups in Singapore (keeping in mind that PSLE exams scripts are marked in secret, the papers are not returned to students, the grades are not contestable and even the full-marks for each exam-topic are not revealed).

Assuming that the top students in 2007 scored full-marks for the Maths and Science papers (which is possible), Natasha must have scored nearly full-marks for English language and Malay language (full-marks in these papers are impossible), as she stood clear above her peers in terms of total marks for all papers. Having said that, a top Malay PSLE student as announced by MOE can do much to lift the spirits of the Malay community in terms of ethnic pride and reinforcing MOE’s ‘educational meritocracy’ policy.

Well, who knows. It's a possible theory, I suppose. However, I have a simpler alternative explanation.

In each year, all the PSLE students take exactly the same exams (English, Maths and Science) - except for the 2nd language paper. Here the Chinese take the Chinese Language paper; the Malays take the Malay Language paper; and the Indians take Tamil Language).

At the top end of the curve, the very best students are all striving to achieve marks as close to perfect as possible. For English, Maths, Science, they all take the same paper, so the same ultimate obstacles to a perfect or almost-perfect score apply to all.

However, if the Chinese Language paper is marked more rigorously than the other Language papers, then there would be a good probability that non-Chinese students would be statistically overrepresented at the very top end of the curve (where everyone is striving for perfect or almost-perfect marks).

It's not necessarily a deliberate attempt by the Education Ministry to engineer a non-Chinese top PSLE student. It may simply be that the Chinese Language exam is marked more rigorously, because that's the way the Chinese Language markers are. The glass ceiling would emerge in those sections of the paper which require the marker's subjective assessment.

For example, if there is an essay section worth 40 marks, and if in practice the Chinese marker is willing to give a maximum 35 marks for an absolutely brilliant Chinese essay, well, there's your glass ceiling.

On the other hand, If the Malay/Tamil marker has no qualms about giving 39 or 40 out of 40 marks for an absolutely brilliant Malay/Tamil essay, then simple probability tells us that there's a good chance that the overall top PSLE student could be non-Chinese.

This differential is too small to have any measurable effect of the respective PSLE performance of the racial groups, when we view them as a group. But this differential matters, when it comes to identifying the very best few students (eg the top 10) in the entire nation.

It's like Matt Biondi in the 1992 Olympics commenting that if he had grown his fingernails a little longer, he could have won the 100m men's butterfly gold medal. With short fingernails, he touched home one hundredth of a second slower than the winner, and had to settle for the silver medal.

By analogy, Singaporeans taking the PSLE Chinese paper could be swimming with short fingernails. Of course, for the vast majority of students, this is a non-issue. They don't swim fast enough for the length of their fingernails to matter.

"My fingernails are too short.
That must be why I coudn't qualify for the Olympics."

Dec 17, 2007

The Annual Life Audit

Haven't been posting much lately, as I've been working on various projects. One project has me busily drawing and redrawing plenty of mindmaps and flowcharts, complete with arrows, squiggles, asterixes, question marks and symbolic doodles.

I'm auditing my life.

I do this a couple of times per year, but the end-of-the-year season feels like a particularly appropriate time to do it. Basically I take time out to reflect on the past 12 months, and all the major events that happened in my life during that time. I also start thinking about my goals and plans for next year (2008).

There isn't any fixed formula for performing a life audit, but obviously it should cover all the major areas of your life. You would want to analyse your successes as well as failures, and the lessons learned. You would identify the things you did well, and think about how you could have done them better.

You would consider all the different aspects of your life. These would include your career/studies; your family and friends; your health; your finances; your spiritual growth / religious life; your relationships; your passions and interests.

You would identify the biggest personal issues that bug you, and think of ways and ideas to address them. You would set some personal goals for next year, and why you're setting them, and you'd create a plan of action for each of those goals.

And within each plan, you would include little sub-targets and benchmarks and milestones to meet along the way (so that you can tell if you're still on track).

I imagine that performing a life audit could be a somewhat frightening experience for some people. That's because the vast majority of people on Planet Earth don't live anywhere as optimally as they potentially can. And a sizeable percentage of people, even by their own personal standards, probably live badly-managed lives.

And so they would rather avoid having to face up to those standards. If you're an obese chain-smoker with young children, it's not nice to consider the possibility that you might drop dead from a heart attack sometime soon and your kids will be orphaned.

If you're an angry, frustrated youth who doesn't know what he really wants out of life, it's not nice to consider the possibility that before long, you might be an angry, frustrated adult who still doesn't know he wants out of life.

If you've been stuck in a job that is meaningless and painful to you, it's not nice to realise that unless you take some concrete action to change things, you could continue to be stuck in a meaningless, painful job for a long time.

If you've had a lifelong dream which you still aren't pursuing, it's not nice to consider the possibility that it might one day transpire to be no more than a lifelong daydream.

And so on.

I suppose that's why many people would hesitate to perform a life audit. You would have to step back and take a good hard look at yourself, the warts included. That could be somewhat painful, sometimes.

One thing to remember is that your current situation, whether good or bad, didn't develop overnight. It took you your entire life, to get to where you are and who you are today. And you still have the rest of your life, to try to get to where and who you'd rather be.

The time will pass anyway. What have you got to lose?

Dec 11, 2007

More on Town Councils & Their Sinking Funds

I just received an email from an SPH journalist who wished to interview me about town councils and their gigantic sinking funds.

She says that her likely angle will be about netizens expressing their unhappiness about how town councils are using the conservancy and service charges paid by Singaporeans.

I still do interviews with
non-mainstream publications, academic researchers, foreign university students etc. But it has been my personal policy for quite some time now to avoid contact with the mainstream media. So I will decline this interview.

However, if any of you netizens out there feel strongly about this matter and are interested in speaking to this journalist, please email me ( or leave your contact details in the comment section below. And I will ask the journalist if she would be interested in getting in touch with you.

A reader by the name of Coder had earlier left many detailed comments on my town council post and has obviously done some good research into the matter. Coder, it might be particularly interesting for you to speak to the SPH journalist - do consider.

And thanks for your earlier comments.

Dec 2, 2007

You Give Your Money To Your Town Council So That It Can Play The Stock Market

ST Dec 2, 2007
New rule to safeguard council funds
By Tan Hui Yee & Mavis Toh

TOWN councils tempted to play the stock market to increase the returns on their sinking funds will now have to meet a new rule that caps how much they can put into higher-risk investments.

Councils, which have had some leeway when investing their cash, must limit their investments in non-government stocks, funds or securities to 35 per cent of the sinking fund.

This new rule, which kicked in yesterday, applies to more than $1 billion in sinking funds managed by the 16 town councils in Singapore.

The money is collected through monthly service and conservancy charges and government grants and is used for cyclical repairs, such as re-painting or re-roofing.

The Ministry of National Development brought the rule in to strike a balance between councils trying to get good returns on their funds and not taking undue risks with residents' money.

Some council cash has been going into shares and corporate bonds, which are considered riskier than government ones.

The president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals Leong Sze Hian said: 'Corporate bonds are only as good as the company can pay. The risk of a company running out of money is higher than that of the Government.'

Before the new rule, council investments were governed by the Trustees Act, which placed restrictions on some instruments. The new 35 per cent cap is seen as stricter, but no council contacted by The Sunday Times said it would have trouble complying.

The Hong Kah Town Council has about $150 million in its sinking fund, with one-third invested in government bonds returning 2 to 3 per cent. Another third is in short-term fixed deposits with returns of 1.5 to 3 per cent, with the rest handled by fund managers.

The investments can include corporate bonds and stocks, which are riskier. But this portion, handled by fund managers, nets about 8 to 10 per cent in returns a year, said council chairman Ang Mong Seng.

Sinking funds are typically parked in safe investment instruments, such as government bonds and fixed deposits. But a few years ago, many councils felt that they could do better by investing in other instruments, such as shares.

Many then let fund managers invest a bigger portion of their cash and reap better returns.

Something has gone seriously wrong somewhere.

Remember why we pay service and conservancy charges to our town councils every month? So that they can provide public services in our constituencies.

You know, things like getting cleaners to sweep your HDB block; planting trees around your neighbourhood; building a few sheltered walkways; upgrading the children's playground; and renovating the public toilets in your town centre.

Obviously, we have been paying too much.

Why else would the town councils be sitting on more than $1,000,000,000 in excess cash!

And now we see what their big concerns are. Things like how to invest all that money; how much should they dabble in the stock market; how much should be used to purchase bonds; how much should be placed in fixed deposits.

It's as if the town council were a fund manager or a unit trust. Except that you as customer are never going to get a cent back.

They took your cash, and used some of it to maintain the physical facilities of your neighbourhood ... and the rest of your money is for the town council to go and play with, according to their own rules!

And you still have to pay them. Every month.