Feb 24, 2011

Maids and The Singapore Family

A letter in the Straits Times Forum:
Most families can do without maids
THE issue of maid shortage is an ongoing problem, not only in Singapore but also in neighbouring countries.

In the past, having a live-in helper was a luxury, but now, many families with working parents have come to see a maid as a necessity.

I believe only two types of families cannot do without maids: those with young children, and those with elderly or sick members.

For all other families, there are many other options, such as day care, childcare or part-time help.

Feb 21, 2011

Editorial Indiscretions by the Straits Times

Somebody working at the Straits Times propanganda department has goofed up. The newspaper published two particular articles today, and it obviously shouldn't have, because one article contradicts the other.

The first article declares that the government has done a great job (and has the resources to do it), as far as making life better for Singaporeans is concerned. There is even the bold assertion that what the Singapore government has done, "very few" other countries in the world can do.

Feb 18, 2011

Our Brand New MRT Stations

Two posts ago, I had mentioned the problem of leaky ceilings at our MRT stations. I said that quite apart from giving rise to the hazard of slippery floors, the constant exposure to rainwater had discoloured the floor tiles.

Yesterday I took a few more photos, just to show you what I mean. Here they are - two images of the floor tiles, in their dry state:

Feb 17, 2011

Today No Bucket

Took this photo with my iPhone this morning.

It wasn't even raining today. But the MRT station was still leaking water from the ceiling.

The dripping was not so bad today. They didn't need a bucket. They just placed several layers of rags on the floor to soak up the water.

Still, one wonders - if not the rain, then where is the water coming from?

Leaky water pipes? Leaky air-conditioners? Leaky sewage pipes? Hmmm.

Feb 16, 2011

The Slow & Steady Deterioration of Singapore

Right now, I am living near an MRT station. So every morning I take the MRT to work. The station is almost brand new - it's on the Circle Line which only started operating last year - and in terms of aesthetics, it is quite pleasing. The colours and the materials they have chosen are rather nice.

However, the ceiling leaks water. Every time it rains, the ceiling leaks water. I am not talking about the heavy, torrential kind of rain that we get once in a while. I am talking about moderate rain - that's already sufficient to cause a leak, a steady drip-drip-drip of water that falls down to the platform waiting area.

Then the MRT station officers place a large piece of canvas on the floor to soak up the water, and on top of the canvas, they put a big plastic pail to catch the water, and next to the canvas, they place a big sign - "WARNING - WET FLOOR" - so that passengers don't slip and fall.

This isn't the only MRT station where I have noticed such leaking. I have also seen the leakage problem at the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station (note that this is a major train interchange, in the heart of town, where three MRT lines intersect). In fact the leakage is so bad that you can see - at the area where the rain falls through - that the floor tiles have become stained and discoloured (rain water is not pure water, so constant exposure to rainwater causes the marble tiles to discolour).

To me, the leakage at these stations - and who knows how many other stations - is like a poetic metaphor of Singapore today. Superficially, things look okay, even nice. In truth, the system is breaking down, and leaking water.

There was a time in Singapore, when the idea of having a wet MRT station was just unimaginable. Back then, as a nation we were known as efficient and productive, and to take pride (an almost-obsessive pride) in our basic public infrastructure - trains, airports, housing, schools, hospitals and so on. Things worked. The basic things, at least, worked, and worked well. The thought that our clean, modern train system could leak water on a rainy day would just not have been acceptable.

That has changed. I suspect that many Singaporeans have not actually noticed, because many Singaporeans have short memories (that is my polite euphemism for saying that many Singaporeans are actually quite stupid).

Every year, the Singapore government announces some new grand plans - to be an international hub for this, or that, or something else - but the truth is that the Singapore government has been failing. Let's not even talk about the grand plans. The Singapore government has been failing on the basic, basic stuff .... such as:

(1) providing affordable public housing;
(2) providing affordable healthcare;
(3) narrowing the income gap;
(4) creating an environment where Singaporeans feel it's actually safe and okay to have children.

What is the use of having world-class casinos? What is the use of paying ministers their world-class salaries? What is the use of hosting the Grand Prix, or becoming a medical tourism hub, or giving foreigners scholarships to study in Singapore? What is the use of spending $1 billion to build beautiful flower gardens at Marina Bay?

When you cannot even get the basic things right.

Feb 15, 2011

Healthcare for Singaporeans in Malaysia

This is one of the rare occasions on which I disagree with Lucky Tan (who is, by the way, one of the most read-worthy bloggers in Singapore).

In a recent post, Lucky discusses a New Paper article which talks about Singaporeans being able to use their own Medisave savings to seek medical treatment in Malaysia. Lucky writes:

If your healthcare system is not universal and becomes so expensive that citizens have to go to a developing country for treatment, it is a tragedy, not an achievement. However, if you read today's New Paper, it seems to be saying the MOH has helped Singaporeans to save money by allowing them to use their Medisave for hospitalisation in Malaysia. All of us have to thank Minister Khaw for this flexibility of being able to save money by travelling to Malaysia when we get sick.

The article doesn't ask about adequency of govt support for poorer Singaporeans when the cost of private care in Malaysia is less than half (according to New Paper) that of subsidised care in Singapore. It doesn't ask why these people have to go to Malaysia to save money when Minister Khaw can get his heart fixed for $8....so poor people pay more and rich millionaires like Khaw get cheap healthcare - there is certainly a moral issue here.

The New Paper article is filled with smiling patients who are happy to save money going to Malaysia for treatment but I believe the story in many real cases sound more like tragedies. Take Singapore singer Yue Lei case as an example[Link]. He had to sell his home and go to Mahkota Hospital for cancer treatment because healthcare in Singapore is too expensive. Singapore often boasts of having one of the highest standards of medical care in the world but when the govt wants to keep its expenditure on subsidies down by sending poorer sick Singaporeans to Malaysia, it says the standard of care in a developing country is just as good as Singapore's.

Being able to get poor Singaporeans to go to developing countries for medical care takes the pressure off the govt to do more to contain costs and ensure universality in our system. We shouldn't have allowed this ...it is a tragic development for poor Singaporeans who get sick and don't get adequate help.

I disagree with Lucky, because I think that the New Paper article did the public an excellent service, by highlighting the fact that Singaporeans can use their Medisave to seek medical treatment in Malaysia.

It is important for more Singaporeans to be aware of this, especially because the costs of healthcare in Singapore can be so high. It is useful for all of us to know that there are viable alternatives for us, just across the Causeway.

Lucky goes on harping and complaining about why isn't the Singapore government providing affordable healthcare for Singaporeans in our country. These are ridiculous assertions and the sooner you realise it, the better for you.

The government isn't here to take care of you. The government isn't here to serve Singaporeans. The government isn't here to care for the poor and the sick.

The government is just a large, unwieldy, faceless piece of machinery programmed to carry out its own political agenda; pursue its own policies; and serve its own interests. Those interests may or may not coincide with your interests. If they do, well, that's just a coincidence.

YOU need to take care of you. The sooner you understand this, the better for you. You will see the pointlessness of complaining about why the government is not providing affordable healthcare to Singaporeans. You will see the value of gathering knowledge about how to better survive on your own resources.

Knowledge such as how to go to Malaysia and get medical treatment there.

Mr Wang and South Africa

    A Completely Safe, Good Poem

    It is about nothing you love, hate or desire.
    It avoids sex, God and politics.
    The line breaks are unadventurous
    And the shape of the poem is prudent.
    The words do not take up arms,
    Tear down walls or otherwise conspire.
    As you put them down on paper,
    They neither protest nor demonstrate
    But merely compose themselves
    With a careful, calculated blankness.
    They will do exactly as they are told,
    And nothing more. One late night
    When sleep evades and the questions burn
    You return here to your own words
    To find the answers to yourself.
    And it is too late. The words fold their arms
    And smile in silence. They take no risks.
    They know what they know, but they
    Will tell you nothing.

This old poem of mine, which has been published in various places over the years, will soon make another reappearance in a new book.

I don't even know the title of the book yet, but it's going to be ready quite soon, in the next few months. The book is a collection of short stories and poems from writers in Singapore and ..... South Africa.

This is part of this year's Spotlight Singapore programme. It's a cultural diplomacy platform hosted by The Arts House. Spotlight Singapore uses artistic, economic and educational activities, to bring together the arts and business communities of Singapore and other countries.

Over the years, Spotlight Singapore has focused on Hong Kong, Japan and Russia. This year, Spotlight Singapore is tying up with South Africa.

Feb 1, 2011

Mr Wang Writes a Book Review

Late last year, I was invited to review a book for Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, so I did. The book was Reaching for Stones, a collection of poems by Chandra Nair. You can read my review here.

Paying for Your Financial Advice

An email from a reader:
Dear Gilbert,

I read your recent post, as always, with much appreciation for its practical content that impacts on Singaporeans from all walks of life. I do have a quandary though and in your post where you mentioned that you just hired a financial adviser sparked me to write to you.

I'm not exactly that savvy with my investments and I have come to a point where I seriously need to find a financial adviser that is not some run of the mill insurance agent type peddling products that I might not necessarily need at all to boost my nest.

I'm 26 and I have no qualms paying for one that could really help me before I fall back even further. Not asking for a recommendation, simply a finger to point in the right direction to find a decent one adviser and the basic points to take note of when choosing a financial adviser. Hope you can take some time off your busy schedule to write back with your thoughts.

A happy Chinese New Year to you..

[ xxxx ]
I recently got a financial adviser, because I recently made my first investment as an "accredited investor". For me, this is a new corner of the investment universe, so I need some advice to help me get acquainted.

"Accredited investor" means an investor whose income, net assets or lump size investment exceeds certain levels, such that the law no longer regards him as an ordinary retail investor. Therefore he can be offered different types of financial products which may not be approved for the ordinary retail investor in a particular country.

But anyway, back to the question of financial advice, for the general investor.

Financial advice comes with a cost. You have to pay for it. A financial institution cannot carry on a business that includes providing financial advice, without finding some way to charge for it. Otherwise it would be losing money. Because the financial adviser is himself a fixed cost - the financial institution has to pay him a salary - and because the ability to provide financial advice needs to be backed by an infrastructure that itself costs money to run (for example, a bank's research department).

The cost of financial advice can be passed on to the customer - (that's you, dear reader) - in a variety of different ways. For example, theoretically it could be a flat fee or time-based fee (although this is uncommon in Singapore). Or it could be a trailer fee (charged quarterly or annually) on the total amount of investments you place with your financial adviser (that's "Assets Under Management", or AUM for short). Or it could be built into the upfront sales charges for the investments you make.

Let's look at the following illustration. Here are three scenarios.

Scenario 1

You are an ordinary retail customer. You walk into a bank branch. You ask a financial consultant to recommend some investments to you. She asks about your financial goals; discusses any other investments you already have; determines your risk profile through a questionaire; talks about market conditions etc.

Then she recommends XYZ Equities Fund to you. You agree. You decide to invest $10,000. You pay 5% in sales charges, which is typical for an equities fund. That works out to be $500.

Scenario 2

You are a "priority banking" customer (this typically means that you have placed at least $200,000 with your bank). You walk into a bank branch.

You ask your relationship manager to recommend some investments to you. She asks about your financial goals; discusses any other investments you already have; determines your risk profile through a questionaire; talks about market conditions etc.

Then she recommends XYZ Equities Fund to you. You agree. You decide to invest $10,000. Being a priority banking customer, you typically get a discount and pay 3% in sales charges, for an equities fund at a bank. That works out to be $300.

Scenario 3

You are an ordinary retail customer. You visit a website such as Fundsupermart or Dollardex. The website has dozens of articles about financial planning, regular updates on market news and plenty of online tools. However, it's essentially a DIY process. You do your own reading and research. No one is there to specifically talk to YOU about your money.

You then decide to invest $10,000 online, in a particular equities fund (gee, guess what - it happens to be XYZ Equities Fund). Typically, you pay 2% in sales charges. That works out to be $200.

* * * * * * * *

Note that in all three scenarios, you bought the same exact equities fund (the XYZ Equities Fund). However, in Scenario 2, you paid less than in Scenario 1. And in Scenario 3, you paid less than in Scenario 2.

Despite being an ordinary customer, the Scenario 3 ordinary customer actually got a better deal than the priority banking customer in Scenario 2. Why? Because financial advice costs money.

That financial consultant, or that relationship manager, may have been pleasant, well-informed, patient and helpful. You may indeed have found her advice clear, informative and useful. But you have to pay for that. The payment is ultimately reflected in the extra 1 to 3 per cent you pay, in the sales charge.

This is not to say that paying for financial advice is necessarily a bad idea. This is to illustrate that financial advice does come with a price - even if you are not explicitly told that it comes with a price. What you then have to decide is whether the value of the advice you get is worth the price you're paying for it.

That in turn depends on a variety of factors, two of which are (1) your own level of financial knowledge, and (2) your willingness to learn on your own.