Jul 31, 2009

How To Understand Information in the Age of Lots of Information

Early this year, I wrote a post entitled The Modern Risks of Information and Advice. In that post I explained why we must be careful how we interpret information and advice, even when it comes from expert sources.

The key point is that no matter how knowledgeable an expert may be, his interests are not necessarily aligned with yours. Therefore he may or may not tell you what you really need or ought to know. Also, he is likely to say the things which are in his own best interests to say.

It doesn't mean that all experts are always out to deceive or mislead you. It does mean that whenever you come across any expert providing his views or opinions, you should take a moment to consider his possible motivations in providing such views or opinions.

A case study below. Suppose you are a property developer, with many units left to sell. Further suppose that it is suspected that a property bubble might be forming. Is it in your own personal interests to say that there is a bubble forming ... or that there isn't?

July 31, 2009
No property bubble forming
They say buying frenzy hasn't reached point where Govt needs to intervene
By Joyce Teo

PROPERTY developers are enjoying the surge in interest from buyers but they do not believe that speculation has reached a stage where the Government needs to step in.

They also maintain that the prevailing economic conditions will begin to cool the buying frenzy and stop a bubble forming in its tracks.

'It's not a bubble, it's just a blister after the pain we experienced in the global financial crisis and it comes before a recovery,' said Cushman and Wakefield managing director Donald Han.
Meanwhile the TODAY newspaper reports that yesterday, at a showflat in Tanah Merah, hundreds of people showed up yesterday and started queueing to get in - even though the showflat was supposed to open only today.

So the developer TID opened the showflat last night at 8 pm. It started sales by open ballot sometime after 11 pm. The balloting carried on "well into the wee hours of the morning" - we assume this must be 1 am or 2 am.
Bubble or not? Hmmmm ....
A late night property ballot ... is this a sign of the times?
Jul 31, 2009

The showflat was only due to open today.

But on Monday, some, mostly property agents, were already lining up for units at the Optima condominium at Tanah Merah. They went home after developer TID made it clear the queue would not be recognised.

However, this did not stop hundreds from turning up early yesterday - leading to a massive queue and the occasional ugly spat over queue-jumping. The result? TID decided, at about 8pm, to open the showflat doors and, unusually, kick off open balloting.

The process began after 11pm last night and carried on well into the wee hours of the morning. Successful applicants paid the 5-per-cent deposit on the spot.

Jul 27, 2009

Population Demographics and the Property Market

Population demographics are often viewed as one of the most important fundamentals of the property market. The rationale is simple to understand. A growing population increases the demand for housing, and the younger the population, the better for property investors. This is because in the coming years, a relatively higher proportion of people can be expected to grow up, move out, start families and need their own homes.

However, all rules of thumb are only approximately correct. Various factors might eat away at their correctness. What factors might nibble down the "population demographics" property rule? Here are a few suggestions.

(1) An increasing average lifespan. The longer the average citizen lives, the longer the period of time he will require a home (thereby propping up the property market). Suppose for example that in the past the average citizen lived to age 65, but that in the future, the average citizen lives to 85. Then on average, he will contribute to housing demand for an additional 20 years.

(2) Decline of the extended family. In the past, it was very common to find extended families. For example, three or even four generations might share one roof. However, nowadays it is more common for young adults to move out upon getting married, and for their parents to live on their own. This leads directly to additional demand for housing.

(3) More singles living on their own. Nowadays, young people in Singapore may not even wait until they get married, before they move out. For the sake of privacy and independence, they may move out earlier, renting a place of their own if they cannot afford to buy one. This change in lifestyle norms would contribute to greater demand for housing.

(4) Low interest rates. If bank interest rates are perennially low, then more cash-rich individuals will be driven to park their cash in other assets, such as shares, bonds or property. Thus if you have an extra $500,000 to spare, then instead of putting it in a bank, you might well choose to use it to buy an additional apartment and rent it out (consider that DBS pays only 0.45% for a 12-month fixed deposit of $500,000).

(5) Increasing foreign ownership. If the laws of a country are favourable to foreign ownership of property, then foreign ownership of property will increase. The clearer and more transparent those laws are, the stronger that trend will be. Many of those foreigners don't even need to be living in that particular country. They are just high net-worth individuals who hunt around the world looking for places to park their cash.

(6) Divorce rates. According to Wikipedia, divorce rates in Singapore have doubled over the past decade. If this social trend persists and grows, in time we may expect to see, at any given time, a higher proportion of individual adults needing to rent or buy a new place, because they have just separated from their ex-spouse.

Jul 25, 2009

The Property Boom is Back

Hard to believe, but it's true. The facts speak for themselves. Latest news on the HDB market:
ST July 24, 2009
HDB prices hit record high
By Jessica Cheam

PRICES of Housing Board flats have reached a historical record, rising 1.4 per cent in the second quarter this year, reversing a first-quarter dip of 0.8 per cent.

Fresh data released from the HDB on Friday shows the resale price index rising to 140.2 - beating the previous record set in the fourth quarter of last year when it hit just over 139.

The figures have come in slightly higher than flash estimates released earlier this month which showed that prices rose 1.2 per cent.

Sales of HDB resale flats also surged 58 per cent, reflecting improved market sentiment, to reach 10,184 transactions in the second quarter, compared to 6,446 in the first quarter.

And here's a snapshot of the private property market:
July 24, 2009
Buyers snap up home deals
Lower prices, pent-up demand driving surge in sales of private homes
By Melissa Tan & Smita Krishnaswamy

THE current recession-defying surge in home sales is being driven by pent-up demand from local buyers with enough savings to swoop on lower-priced units and a determination to invest or upgrade.

These buyers are not acting on impulse but have been saving up for years.

Another key factor is the fear of missing the boat ahead of another property boom, The Straits Times has found after speaking to buyers and market analysts.

Last month, an all-time record of 1,825 private homes were sold, continuing a major upswing that started in February. The June figure exceeded that of August 2007 - the height of the last property boom.

On recent weekends, showflats have been crammed with families, couples and singles. Some want to buy a condo as an investment with prices still quite low; others wish to upgrade from HDB flats.
And just six months ago, practically all the real estate analysts were saying that 2009 would be a disaster for the property market. In fact, June was cited as the time when things would go really, really sour, just because of the number of projects that would TOP around then.

One of those situations where truth turns out to be stranger than fiction.

Jul 24, 2009

Same Old Temasek Again

An article from Today:

Did somebody forget this thing called culture?
by PN Balji

AS THE buzz about Mr Charles Goodyear's sudden departure from Temasek Holdings continues to dominate discussions, one can't help but ask this question: Could a no-nonsense CEO who bulldozed his way through a traumatic merger to form mining giant BHP Billiton, retrenching thousands in the process, have fitted into a Singapore culture, which for all its outward glow of modernity, is essentially conservative?

Temasek is no ordinary company. To run it, having good business acumen is not enough. You need to understand not just the dynamics of the company, but that of its associate companies, the Ministry of Finance, the Cabinet and the people of Singapore. It is a jewel in Singapore's crown and the person protecting and growing it must have the clout to push through his initiatives. If not the clout, then at least the savvy to win over its stakeholders.

Pity Mr Goodyear. It looks like he did not even have the time to go on a charm offensive, assuming that plan was in his briefcase at all.

Just four months after he was appointed to the Temasek board and just two-and-a-half months before becoming the CEO of the sovereign wealth fund, the 51-year-old American businessman is leaving with questions being asked about not only his style but about Temasek's ability to pick the right person and about whether a foreigner can ever run an outfit like Temasek.

His credentials are impeccable, they have been talking to him for two years, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew described him as one who had an affinity for Temasek's values, yet Temasek and Mr Goodyear are parting ways. Strategic differences was given as the official reason. How could that be?
PN Balji, you'll never know. You can speculate, and make your guesses. Maybe from somewhere within your personal network, you might even hear some rumours of the "inside" story. But you'll never know for sure.

Why? Because this is Temasek. You know their style. Through all these years, it has not changed. Basically, Temasek will never tell you anything, except perhaps the reasons why it will never tell you anything. And even those reasons will be vague and obscure.

Take Goodyear's departure, for instance. It is revealed that he left because there were "strategic differences". No further details. This kind of answer could mean anything and everything, and therefore means nothing.

Except one thing. It means - Temasek doesn't want to tell you, lah.

Perhaps one day, Singaporeans will understand - how risky it is, for so much of the nation's money to be managed in this way.

Jul 19, 2009

My Thumbs Up for Own Time Own Target

So I watched the play Own Time Own Target yesterday. It was almost full house; the sales must have been doing well, and for good reason. The show was very, very good, and both Mrs Wang and I enjoyed it a lot. Try to catch it if you can - it's on for one more week.

Here's the Straits Times review if you want to know more about the show.

The first show - Full Tank, by Laremy Lee - weaves a highly improbable scenario into a hilarious comedy. An SAF tank commander is angst-filled about his career decision to stay on in the army. In a moment of folly, he commands his crew to leave a military exercise and drive their tank to Orchard Road. The plot is interwoven with the story of an escaped terrorist and how the incompetent Minister of Internal Security tries to cover up his bungles by exerting his power over the press.

(I'm sure Wong Kan Seng won't enjoy this show though, LOL).

The second show - Botak Boys, by Julian Wong - is a musical about five recruits thrown together for the first two weeks of BMT. All its colourful characters were memorable, from Simpson the chow ah beng, to Eusoff, the guitar-playing Malay relak jack. The main character Justin Lim was, errrr, a much more challenging role to play (you'll know what I mean, if you watch the show) - but he stood out with his singing performances and was the star voice of the show.

The highlight of both shows were the assortment of funny, colourful, true-to-life and yet bigger-than-life characters. Great acting by all the cast members.

I cannot help but look back at Madam Wee Hua Boey's letter, which I had blogged about several days ago. About the show, she had written:
"I am sure I was not the only one who was disturbed by the excessive cursing and swearing by the officers at the recruits. My observation was that people laughed out loud not at the clumsiness of the recruits but mostly because they felt uncomfortable with the profanities."

No, Madam Wee. I think you really might have been the only one. Other people laughed out loud, and kept laughing throughout the show ... because the show was really very funny!

Jul 14, 2009

Baaaad Language

A letter to the ST Forum:
ST July 14, 2009
Horrified by many profanities in matinee show on NS life

I ATTENDED the matinee show Own Time Own Target at the Drama Centre in the National Library building over the weekend. One magazine lauded it as a 'laugh out loud, rediscovery of zany side of national service'. I presumed this meant it was a family-type show and took my two teenage sons, aged 16 and 14, to the show on the premise of a MediaCorp-owned magazine review.

To my horror, I was cringing uncomfortably in my seat the whole show, highly disturbed by the language used. I do not have a problem that the language was coarse and in dialects. But it was offensive when every sentence and curse uttered by the officers (rightly or wrongly, provoked or otherwise) at the NS boys in the drama was a profanity of the female genitals.

The show was a full house, with young and old, males and females equally represented. I am sure I was not the only one who was disturbed by the excessive cursing and swearing by the officers at the recruits. My observation was that people laughed out loud not at the clumsiness of the recruits but mostly because they felt uncomfortable with the profanities.

As a mother, I find it hard to imagine that after years of sheltered school life where students are taught values, to be gentlemanly and polite and respect their elders, these boys have to do NS run by officers who do not blink an eye when they curse their mother, sister, girlfriend and the whole female population by way of conversation.

My boys were shocked to realise that NS is a rite of passage where they will be officially subjected to bullying, shouting and cursing - nothing gentlemanly at all.

If this is a light-hearted look at life of NS boys during basic military training, I fear to know what my boys will face in their real-life situation when they enlist. Please, someone, assure me this is not so.

Wee Hua Boey (Mdm)

Laremy Lee is one of the two playwrights for the above show. He happens to be a fan of my blog and my poetry book. He also gave me two free tickets to watch his play. I'll be going this weekend, with my wife. Thanks again, Laremy.

But no, I am not bringing my kids to the show. Why not? Well, the MDA advisory for the show clearly states, "Strong language (16 years and above)". My kids are below 16, so that's that.

Mdm Wee should have read the advisory too. What's she doing, bringing her 14-year-old kid to the play? Surely the MDA advisory was clear enough. She has no grounds to complain now.

But don't worry, Mdm Wee. When your sons go to NS, they will definitely receive their fair share of curses and swear words. But if they're most other people's sons, they'll quickly get into the habit of doing a lot of army cursing and swearing of their own. It's just another kind of vocabulary. :D

I couldn't help but feel amused by Mdm Wee's sentiments. "My boys were shocked to realise that NS is a rite of passage where they will be officially subjected to bullying, shouting and cursing - nothing gentlemanly at all."

That's so ... quaint. This is the army, my dear. The boys are supposed to learn how to shoot the enemies, bomb them to bits, kill them with a bayonet etc. No, there's nothing very elegant or gentlemanly about war.

What are my views about the use of profane language in movies and plays? I don't think well of gratuitous profanities (that is, where profanities are used just for the sake of using them). On the other hand, in some contexts, profanities are pretty much ... necessary.

It would be very seriously difficult to do a proper movie/play about soldiers and military life, without featuring some profane language. The show just wouldn't be authentic or realistic. It would just be ... fake and dishonest.

I once watched a BBC documentary about the British commandos (it was on the Singtel Mio channel). That was a documentary, so it's as real as any TV show can get. The BBC featured the commando training and also interviewed some commandos. For the interview segments, about every 15 seconds or so, the soundtrack would go beeeeep, to edit out a bad word popping out of the soldier's mouth. And that's when the man was trying to speak politely (because he was being interviewed on TV).

That's the reality. The army is just not the the place where people go around saying please, thank you, excuse me, you're welcome etc.

Incidentally, my own poetry book, Two Baby Hands, contains a few instances of profane language too. Profanities show up in three or four poems (out of a total of about sixty poems). As a poet, I am very, very particular about every single word I use in each poem. It just turns out that sometimes, a profane word is the best word. And artistically, you just gotta stay true to your vision, you know what I mean?

Below is one of those poems. Somewhere in it, I used the word fucking. There was really no other option. Making love would have been totally wrong, for the context involved no love. Fornicating would have been too pretentious. Having sex would have been just too colourless. But fucking ... In the poem's context, it was definitely the best word. No regrets.

Incidentally, this poem was part of a set that won me $10,000 in a national literary competition.

Kuala Lumpur

Outside a noisy bus station
on a bright hot day,
I met a young man
about my age
who wore jeans, a singlet
and a smile as bright as
his twinkling eyes.
He knew I was from
out of town and
to make sure I understood him,
he spoke in Malay, Hokkien,
Cantonese, Teochew
and broken English,
offering to get me anything,
anything I might possibly need -
a taxi, a cab, a place to stay,
a coach ticket or a woman
("All my girls, clean!" he said confidently)
and a room to go, immediately available,
here he jerked his thumb up
to point out the upper floor of the
old coffee shop next to us.
Downstairs, there were students,
clerks and blue-collar workers
having lunch, but
upstairs, by a
dark narrow stairway,
was another kind of trade altogether.

That night I stayed at the
hotel puduraya,
looked out from
my eighth floor window,
and saw him, still there,
on the other side,
cheerfully accosting passers-by
with his offers.
I could not help but
imagine it:
in a little room
above a coffee shop
to the sound of honking traffic
warm naked flesh pressing mine
working hard
while downstairs he talks
to strangers, trying to get
my lover
one more body
for the night.

Jul 13, 2009

If You Are In Hong Kong and You Like Art ...

... you may want to visit my brother's latest art exhibition. His show is on until the 28th of July, at the Gallery by the Harbour, Level 2, Ocean Centre, Harbour City, Tsimshatshiu. More details here.

This is my brother's sixth exhibition of cat paintings, all of which are inspired by his real-life pet cat. He uses acrylics on canvas. He has a whimsical, humorous and cheerful style, and what he often likes to do is place his adventurous little cat in all sorts of wacky scenarios.

My brother has even done cat paintings with satirical social commentary. Not for the current exhibition. But here's one example, from a previous exhibition:

And here's another. I guess this is about HDB's prohibition on flat owners having a pet cat:

Jul 11, 2009

The Very Wise are Happy, and the Stupid are very Sad

ST July 11, 2009
In this meritocracy, there's no time to smell the roses

I REFER to Thursday's letter by Mr Anil Bhatia, 'Wealthy and yet unhappy - how come, Singapore?'

There is a systemic flaw in our meritocratic system where we strive to be the best in everything, in meeting wants, in careers, in infrastructure. In the process, our human capital is put through various stress tests from a young age until retirement and even the grave.

The young are put to a stress test the minute they start formal education at primary level with homework and remedial classes. School holidays are filled with more lessons, remedial classes and co-curricular activities for upper secondary students. To gain entry to top junior colleges or polytechnics, students must achieve an aggregate score of eight points or less, compared to 10 to 15 points years earlier. How not to be stressed out?

Young adults struggle with work from demanding bosses who expect 24/7 due diligence from employees. Many in this age group struggle to acquire material wealth at the expense of pro-family, procreation activities. Mature workers worry about job security and those who are retrenched often remain chronically unemployed for a long while. Many in this age group (45 to 55) are most vulnerable, with massive expenses to take care of, such as children's education, housing loans, elderly parents' medical bills and retirement expenses. How to be happy?

The elderly are also vulnerable as their children may fall into the mature age group who are either struggling to maintain their livelihoods or unemployed.

With little financial support from their children, many are forced to work as cleaners or do other manual work with their limited skills. Retirees who have exhausted their Central Provident Fund savings are forced to go back to work with limited scope of employment in the current economic climate.

There is hardly any stage in the human cycle where we can slow down and
make an effort to smell the roses in society.

Roland Ang

To understand the topic of happiness, we must first understand an important point - happiness is the only thing that we ever really want. Whether we realise it or not, literally all our actions and behaviours are based on the same ultimate motivation. We are always either seeking to move towards happiness, or to move away from suffering.

It could be a child asking for a toy or ice-cream. It could be a CEO busily building MNCs. It could be a student slogging for his exams. It could be an old man about to commit suicide. It could be a dog chasing a ball, or a cockroach running away from an insecticide attack. In all cases, the ultimate underlying purpose is always the same - to move towards happiness, and away from suffering.

But we do not move with equal skill and efficiency. A tiny minority of the human race are very, very good at it - they are the wise ones. The majority of us are clumsy at it - when happiness occurs, it occurs more like a random accident or a stroke of good luck. And some of us are downright bad at it. These are the people who find that their lives are plagued by anger, fear and pain .... day after day, year after year.

A thought for the weekend. If the ultimate motivation of every human being is happiness, then the world's most successful people are those who are happy every day. That is the only logical benchmark. It doesn't matter whether the person is a villager, a housewife, a top doctor or the president of a nation. After all, they all have the same goal. Their goal is to be happy.

So the happiest person among them is the winner.