Jan 30, 2007

On Real Life & TV

I recently mentioned that I have often tended to disbelieve the government. Shianux has an interesting response. An excerpt:
      Technically speaking, it's not wrong to say that it's a good thing to “disbelieve” the government. That however, is only half the answer. It is incomplete and unsatisfactory, because it assumes that the government is trying to lie to you (they are not), and it provides no actual guidance to answering the question.

      When the government makes faulty predictions for the future, it does not mean that they are lying to you. It simply illustrates the truism that the minutiae of a capitalist economy is beyond the control of any individual or group of individuals, no matter how intelligent.
Shianux has missed out on one element. The government has its agenda. You have your own. The two will often not coincide. Even if we assume that what the government wants is good for the nation, we have to bear in mind that what is good for the nation may not be good for you.

Here is an example. Last night I was watching TV. An ad came on. It was one of those pro-family, it's-fun-to-have-babies advertisements from the government. It showed cute, smiley babies. Happy, joyful parents. Kids doing fun things like camping with Daddy and in-line skating with Mummy. All is light and joy and happiness.

As we all know, birth rates in Singapore have been falling steadily over the years. The ageing population has been identified as one of the biggest challenges for Singapore. For quite some time now, the government has been
hard at work trying to convince more Singaporeans to have children. Pumping the media with happy, ideal images of family life is one of the government's methods.

Raising children can certainly be a joyful thing. It is for me. In fact, my two children are the centre of my life. Nevertheless, for many Singaporeans, having children could well turn out to be a very bad idea. Why? Because they simply cannot afford to have children:
    The income of the bottom 30 percent of the population has fallen. What is more worrying is the fact that the majority of Singaporeans in the middle class has only seen about a one percent increase in their nominal income in the last 5 years.
When you have a child, or two, your monthly expenses will certainly expand by much more than one percent. For starters, think obstetrician, hospital, paedatrician, cot, milk powder, immunisation jabs, baby clothes, toys, domestic helper, food, preschool, kindergarten, school bus & uniforms.

All this could actually be quite okay, if your income also grows steadily to match your increasing expenditure. However, for the bottom 30 percent of the population, and the majority of middle-class Singaporeans, this simply isn't happening. It hasn't been happening for the past five years.

So when you watch TV, just remember this - it's like the movies. Most of it isn't real.

Jan 29, 2007

Freeing Your Speech

For three reasons, the freedom of speech has lately been on my mind. Firstly, two Harvard students doing research on Singapore recently met up with me to discuss the topic. They even bought me lunch (chargeable to Harvard University).

Secondly, last week two NUS students also met up with me last week to discuss the same topic, for their final-year theses. Despite my protests, they also bought me lunch (not chargeable to NUS). Well, thank you again, PJ and D.

Thirdly, this coming Saturday, I'll also be speaking at an
NUS seminar on the freedom of speech - together with a few other scholarly / academic / political persons.

Right now, I have no idea what exactly I want to say, but I still have a couple of days to figure that out.

I had a good laugh yesterday. While chatting with my mum on the phone, I mentioned that I would be speaking at a seminar. She assumed that it was something related to my job - was I going to give a talk on investment banking laws or something like that?

I said, "No, this one is going to be about the freedom of speech."

She said, "Aiyoh! Die lah, you still doing that kind of thing, wait you get into trouble with the government, how? How?"

Singaporeans are afraid, and the fear runs deep. Yes,
Lee Kuan Yew might possibly argue otherwise. Well, he hasn't met my mother. Then again, if he did, she would probably be too afraid to tell him that she was afraid. The fear isn't always completely rational, but it isn't completely irrational either. Irrespective of rationality, it most definitely is real.

Apart from fear, there are other reasons why Singaporeans don't speak up, or decide to stop doing so. Unfortunately, Gayle Goh has decided to close her blog. She shares her various reasons
here. On the bright side, it does sound like she plans to return to the blogosphere sometime, under a pseudonym.

Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, Mr Wang will still be Saying So. For those coming on Saturday, well, see you on Saturday.

Jan 26, 2007

The Problems of Law

From a long time ago, I have been inclined to disbelieve the government. This is a good thing. Today I am earning quite a lot of money, much more than the average Singaporean. And this was made possible, because I had disbelieved the government.

Why do I say this? Let me explain. Back in the early 90s, the government proclaimed that there were too many lawyers in Singapore. The government said that there was a legal glut, a serious problem of oversupply. Young Singaporeans were discouraged from studying law.

Since I disbelieved the government, I decided to study law anyway. As it subsequently turned out, Singapore suffered from a
severe shortage of lawyers. The shortage continues today, and the law of supply and demand keeps my salary high.

Of course, the issues are multi-faceted, so let's now proceed to take a closer look:

    ST Jan 25, 2007
    Law firms move to keep young legal eagles
    By Ben Nadarajan

    AT THE recent opening of the new legal year, Attorney-General Chao Hick Tin drew attention to the problem of Singapore's vanishing young lawyers.

    He referred to the number who drop out of practice each year, and said it might be an 'early sign of an ailing profession'.

    Law Society data bear out his concern. The number of young lawyers - with under seven years' experience - has shrunk by over a third in the last five years.

    There were only 1,004 young lawyers in practice last year, down from 1,537 in 2001.

    This should be seen against the steady flow of 240 graduates from the National University of Singapore each year, plus more who qualify overseas.

    The young lawyers' category is the only one bleeding, causing the overall industry shortage and raising worries for the future.

    Singapore has a total of 3,476 lawyers handling over 350,000 cases a year.

    The issue of young lawyers quitting practice is not new. What is of concern now is the sheer number missing from action.

    Those who quit usually leave in their third or fourth year of practice, opting to become in-house counsel in big companies or to work in foreign law firms.

    Some quit law completely, including those who never intended to make it a career and viewed their training and experience as stepping stones to other less stressful, more lucrative jobs.

    Those who have quit say pay and career path issues are a factor.

    The shortage of young lawyers has seen starting pay rise, with big firms said to be paying between $4,000 and $5,000 for new hires.
AG Chao thinks that Singapore's vanishing young lawyers represent a "problem". Whose problem is it, then?

To AG Chao, "young lawyers quitting practice" means the young lawyers who give up their practising certificate and stop working in a local law firm. Where do these lawyers go? Most of them end up working either in international law firms or as in-house counsel in large companies.

So it's all up to the young lawyers. If they want to stay in local practice, they can stay. If they want to quit, they can quit. They will consider all the relevant factors and decide. If they conclude that the best decision for them is to quit local practice, then obviously it can't be a problem for them to quit local practice.

Whose problem is it then?

I vaguely recall the ex-AG Chan Sek Keong saying something to the effect that the loss of practising lawyers is worrying because the business sector in Singapore would have fewer lawyers to rely on. This is a somewhat mistaken view. Ex-AG Chan probably made that mistake because he's never been in the business sector. He doesn't actually have any first-hand insight into how lawyers operate in the business sector.

If 200 practising lawyers in Singapore quit to work as in-house lawyers in Singapore, there is no net loss of lawyers. The same 200 lawyers are still providing legal services to the economy. The transformation of practising lawyers into inhouse lawyers does not deprive the economy of legal services. In fact, many MNCs have such a big need for in-house legal services that their in-house legal team is larger than the average law firm in Singapore.

So when young lawyers quit practice, it's not a problem for the economy. Whose problem is it then? This next excerpt gives you a clue:

    Courts and clients aside, young lawyers complain about long hours and fulfilling an 'unwritten expectation' that they must slog for long hours to prove their worth.

    The problem is said to be worst for those in small- or medium-sized firms, which take in only a handful of fresh graduates each year.

    Each young lawyer may have to do grunt work like research and filing for up to five senior lawyers, all of whom expect their assignments to take priority.

    'Every partner says his work is more important and to do it first,' said a 25-year-old in a mid-sized firm. 'But other partners also set tight deadlines, so we end up working seven days a week.'
Surprise. The problem of young lawyers quitting is actually a problem only for the senior lawyers (the firm's partners).

When all the young lawyers quit, guess who has to do the grunt work himself and work seven days a week? The senior partner.

When all the young lawyers quit, guess who loses his money-making workhorses? The senior partner.

Should the senior partner care, when young lawyers quit? Yes, of course.

But should the young lawyers care? Nope. Not at all. No logical reason to do so, as far as I can see.

Jan 25, 2007

Mr Wang Will Help These Poor People

    ST Jan 25, 2007
    Pay up or we keep baby, Indon clinic tells poor parents

    JAKARTA - An Indonesian clinic is keeping a baby until her impoverished parents pay the escalating bill for her delivery and care, according to reports on Thursday.

    Her father Sutrisno, who pedals a bicycle-taxi, is 2.2 million rupiah (S$384) short of the 3.5 million rupiah owed to the clinic, The Jakarta Post reported.

    The 33-year-old has so far paid 1.3 million rupiah to the Murni Asih clinic near Jakarta after borrowing from friends to cover the birth of his baby girl, earlier reported as a boy.

    'I don't know where I'll get another 2.2 million rupiah from,' said Mr Sutrisno, who earns between 10,000 rupiah (about S$1.50) and 15,000 rupiah a day.

    The clinic in Bojong Nangka allowed his wife Sumarni, 30, to leave on Jan 2 but is keeping the baby until the bill is paid, said the Kompas daily.

    It said the bill has been mounting day by day as the clinic adds the costs of looking after Alfiah, who was born near midnight on Dec 21.

    'We'll take care of the baby and will return...(her to her) parents as soon as they've paid the 3.5 million rupiah in full,' clinic spokesman Fendi Sihombing told the Post.

    He said the parents had initially agreed to the arrangement, adding, 'We didn't take the baby hostage.' Holding a baby until its parents pay is not uncommon in Indonesia.

    The ministry of health runs a health insurance programme for the poor but the couple did not have the relevant card.

    Mr Sutrisno had failed in his efforts to obtain one as he did not have valid proof that he was a registered resident of the neighbourhood, the Kompas said. -- AFP
If someone will tell me how to contact this clinic or the baby's parents, I will pay for this medical bill. But I want to be sure that the money reaches the right person.

Maybe I can do this through the Jakarta Post. I'll send them an email.

A baby is God's gift to its parents. Clinics should not confiscate babies - it makes me quite angry to read such a story.

Jan 24, 2007

Would ANYONE Be Homeless By Choice?

Let's imagine that once upon a time, life was good in Singapore. You were lowly-educated, but you had a job, a small but steady income. You bought a flat from HDB (quite cheaply too) and you could afford the mortgage payments.

15 years later, you fell on hard times. You lost your job. Your savings ran out. You begged and borrowed. Finally you sold your flat, took the money and repaid the loan sharks, and you stayed with relatives.

You kept on looking for jobs, but except for the occasional odd job as a cleaner or dishwasher, you failed - you became just another one of those "structurally unemployable" Singaporeans. Finally, you couldn't even get the cleaner/dishwasher job anymore, because the foreign workers from Bangladesh beat you to it.

Another year passed, and then your relatives kicked you out. They said that they couldn't go on feeding you forever. They aren't rich themselves. So you decided to rent a one-room HDB flat.

But you got rejected.

The reason? Some technical rule that you didn't even know existed. You had bought a flat directly from the HDB flat 15 years ago, and then you'd sold it - therefore you cannot rent any flat from the HDB anymore. You've been disqualified.

So you start living in a void deck. You're homeless now.

To add insult to injury, the government says that actually, you prefer to be homeless.

    ST Jan 24, 2007
    Are some here homeless by choice?
    Govt says even with 3 options available, some prefer to be homeless. Not always the case, say MPs
    By Peh Shing Huei

    EVERY now and then, the media reports on cases of Singaporeans who live in void decks, or on the beach.

    Yesterday, their plight was raised in Parliament, with different views on how they came to be homeless.

    They are sometimes 'homeless by choice', said Parliamentary Secretary (National Development) Mohd Maliki Osman.

    But four MPs rose to their feet to argue that some people were forced out of their homes and had no choice but to sleep in void decks.

    The debate arose from a question filed by Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Marine Parade GRC).
    Referring to two homeless cases cited by Dr Faishal which were featured in Malay-language newspaper Berita Harian in November and last month, Dr Maliki said that in both cases, the people were 'homeless by choice rather than due to circumstances beyond their control'.

    The first person, said Dr Maliki, made substantial profits through the sale of two subsidised flats. When he applied for a subsidised Housing Board rental flat, he was rejected because he could not meet the eligibility conditions.

    The second person, added Dr Maliki, defaulted on the mortgage payments on his flat, which he had purchased from the open market with a housing grant.

    When the bank repossessed his flat, he applied to HDB for a subsidised rental flat, but was also rejected because he could not meet the eligibility conditions.

    HDB advised him to consider buying a smaller flat or to live with his siblings, or to stay at temporary shelters run by volunteer organisations, but he declined all these suggestions.

    Dr Maliki highlighted three options for families who have trouble finding a roof over their heads: subsidised rental flats, open-market rental flats, and living with extended families.

    Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked: 'Does the Parliamentary Secretary realise that there are also many cases of residents who are in negative equity and, as a result of that, the banks are forcing a sale and therefore they actually don't have excess cash to help them rent a flat, buy a flat?

    'And that these cases are increasing because of the policy change of allowing banks to handle HDB mortgages?'

    Families planning to take up a bank loan should understand the implications of taking on this responsibility, said Dr Maliki.
This government won't rent a public flat to a citizen, but it WILL sell a public flat to a non-citizen. Wonderful, isn't it.

Jan 22, 2007

On Eyes, Ears and Mouths

The following ST Forum letter writer thinks he is making constructive suggestions. And he is - he really is. He even has some very good criticisms.

But the problem with RCs is implicitly underlined in the very title of the following article:
    ST Jan 22, 2007
    RCs can be the eyes and ears of Govt

    PEOPLE'S Association corporate communications director Ooi Hui Mei says in her letter that it is a misperception that residents' committees (RCs) are party- political. ('RCs invite residents to join in building community ties'; ST, Jan 17).

    After having seen how RCs function for decades, could Singaporeans have come to a wrong conclusion?

    Some years back, I attended a number of RC meetings as an observer. I found that many of the issues raised were not the real concerns of residents. They had more to do with ongoing projects or events that offered photo opportunities with MPs or good press coverage


    RCs are a heaven-sent as they can be the eyes and ears of the Government - giving feedback on areas which need improvement, identifying problems of the elderly and the like.

    Despite having been around for almost three decades, the Government has yet to fully capitalise on RCs whose extensive reach into the heartland may just render the Feedback Unit redundant.

    Besides a few guidelines pertaining to racial harmony and grants from the Government to address concerns of those less well-off, RCs should be unshackled from politics.

    Phillip Ang Keng Hong
Philip Ang has high hopes for RCs, but he sees RCs, even in their ideal version, merely as effective "eyes and ears of the Government". In other words, RCs will still be tools of the Government.

It's pretty sad that no one even thinks that RCs could possibly be a "mouth for the people".

No wonder I have nothing to do with RCs.

Trans Fat in the Straits Times Again

I just noticed that my helpful reader Richard Seah also has a letter in the Online Letters section of the Straits Times. An excerpt:
    ST Jan 20, 2007
    Think margarine is healthy? You might be better off with butter

    THE World Health Organisation recommends that the intake of saturated fat should not exceed 10 per cent of total calories, while that of trans fat should not exceed 1 per cent.

    There is an important difference between these two numbers. Ten per cent saturated fat is the healthy level - because saturated fat is needed for many body functions.

    By contrast, 1 per cent trans fat is a compromise level. Trans fats are extremely harmful and not needed at all. The healthy level for trans fat is essentially zero.

    If we compare like with like - which is more meaningful - we will realise that all Singaporeans exceed the healthy level of zero trans fat. And we all exceed that level infinitely.

    Probably the biggest difference is this: Saturated fats are widely perceived to be harmful, while many people still do not know about trans fats - and think that products like margarine, which contains trans fat, are healthy.

Jan 17, 2007

No Cause for Celebration

Paradoxical as it may seem, good news for a country doesn't necessarily translate into good news for its citizens. Especially if the country is Singapore - we saw that in my previous post. Today, Mr Wang will offer you another striking example:
    Business Times - 16 Jan 2007
    HK ranked as the world's freest economy

    HONG KONG - Hong Kong has been ranked as the world's freest economy ahead of rival Singapore in a report released on Tuesday by a right-wing American think-tank, The Heritage Foundation.

    Hong Kong's ranking comes despite criticism that its economy is dominated by a handful of powerful family-controlled monopolies and cartels, which not only control prices of particular goods but also block market access to competitors.

    The ranking by the Washington-based organisation puts the former British colony at the top of its Index of Economic Freedom, for a 13th successive year, as it scores top marks in six of the 10 categories on the index.

    Saying Hong Kong is 'clearly blazing a trial for others to follow' the foundation and co-sponsors, the Wall Street Journal, awarded the city's economy a score of 89.3 points, 1.6 points lower than last year.


    Second-placed Singapore, which was lauded as 'the top country in business freedom and labour freedom,' scored 85.7 points, down 2.8 points from last year.
At first glance, this seems to be something that Singaporeans should be proud of. Okay, we're not world no. 1, but we are world no. 2, and isn't that an achievement too? Furthermore we were tops in business freedom and labour freedom.

Hang on. What on earth does "labour freedom" mean? To find out, click
here. Never mind, the full report is 425 pages long, so Mr Wang will just summarise the relevant details. In assessing labour freedom, the study considers four factors:

    1. Minimum Wage (the minimum salary, set by law, that an employer must pay an employee)

    2. Rigidity of Hours (whether night shifts are permitted; whether workers can be made to work on weekends; whether the workweek can be extended beyond 50 hours etc).

    3. Difficulty of Firing Redundant Employees (whether an employer who dismisses redundant employees will be challenged or scrutinised by 3rd parties such as the government or a trade union)

    4. Cost of Firing Redundant Employees (what kind of compensation must be paid, if an employee fires redundant employees)
On labour freedom, the study gives Singapore the world's highest score, and makes the following comments:
    "The non-salary cost of employing a worker is low, and dismissing a redundant employee is costless. Regulations on increasing or contracting the number of work hours are very flexible."
What does this really mean?

Singapore is the easiest place in the world to pay a worker peanuts; make him work overtime; and then sack him without compensation.

Jan 13, 2007

Real Worlds

November 2006 wasn't that long ago, was it? Back then, Seah Chiang Nee of Little Speck wrote an article where, among other things, he indicated that in Singapore, alternative media (that is, blogs) simply isn't quite that credible. His argument went like this:

1. Singapore is doing very well now and the evidence is clear.
2. But bloggers still persist in painting a very negative picture of life in Singapore.
3. So they seriously lack credibility.

To make Point 1, he wrote this:

    IN the real world, the economy is humming strongly, more jobs are being created than at anytime in the last 10 years, the stock market is near record high and so are high-end properties.

    The Singapore dollar has strengthened to around S$1.55 to the US dollar on speculation that economic growth would quicken, thus encouraging investors to put more funds in the city-state.

    The sanguine mood is reflected on the streets. With the school holidays on, the crowds are out in force. At night, it is virtually impossible to get a cab in the city centre without prior booking.

    Restaurants and shopping malls are full, and people are spending ahead of a hike in Goods and Services Tax from 5% to 7% next April.

    Year-end festivals are a month away but a fairyland of lights already covers the kilometres stretching from Orchard Road and Bras Basah Road to Marina Bay.
To make Point 2, he wrote this:
    While the mood is upbeat, the Internet world, however, is painting a very different picture. Here, the talk is of continued weakness, rising unemployment and people committing suicide.

    Forums are still full of tales of retrenched managers driving taxis, and 70-year-old “uncles” cleaning tables when they should be enjoying their sunset years.

    They also feature pictures of homeless families sleeping in housing estate lobbies.

    To the cynics, the government has lost its economic way, unable to steer Singapore to a better future. “They’re so desperate they need casinos to get out of the rut”, is a frequent comment.

    Ironically, this is happening as the city is flourishing with growth expected to reach 7.5% to 8% this year and new jobs created – 132,000 in the first nine months – being at a 10-year high.

Here - we can imagine - Mr Seah pauses rhetorically, shakes his head, sighs deeply, and then types out the next sentence:

    Why is there such a large disparity between the real world and the blogosphere?

... and then he proceeds to examine the implications of the blogosphere's lack of credibility.

But wait. Let's stop here for a moment. Why would bloggers paint negative pictures of their lives in Singapore, if indeed their lives were filled with light and joy and positive events?

Bear in mind that bloggers are legion. And that mass conspiracies are extremely difficult to coordinate. Can you imagine 1,000 Singaporean bloggers covertly exchanging emails and setting out an elaborate strategy to paint false, negative pictures of their lives in Singapore?

The truth is less diabolical, less dramatic. And for the average Singaporean, a lot sadder. On Thursday, CNA published the following

    Middle class wage stagnation could lead to social instability
    SINGAPORE: Middle class wages have been stagnant in the past 5 years, according to economists, and this could lead to social instability.

    These concerns were shared by economists at the annual Institute of Policy Studies Singapore Perspectives conference, who also added that the government is taking steps to address the problem.

    Economists believe a US economic slowdown in business and consumer spending may cause problems for Singapore, but as Singapore is tops in the ASEAN resilience index, it should be able to weather external shocks, thanks to a diversified economy and strong Asian demand.

    They predict that growth going forward will be above 3 to 5 percent.

    The long-term growth limits for a mature economy was previously in the 3 to 5 percent range.

    However, economists are asking who this growth is for. The income of the bottom 30 percent of the population has fallen. What is more worrying is the fact that the majority of Singaporeans in the middle class has only seen about a one percent increase in their nominal income in the last 5 years.

Looks like the bloggers got it right, after all. And had gotten it right all along, for the past five years at least. Well, they should know - it's their own lives they blog about. What say you, Mr Seah Chiang Nee?

Jan 12, 2007

Cherian George on Media Mental Illness

Just yesterday I was exchanging emails with Prof Cherian George about some Harvard Law School researchers who will be visiting us in Singapore next week. Then today by coincidence I see in TODAY that Cherian has been busy presenting some new views about mainstream media and blogs in Singapore.

The Harvard researchers are in luck, because that's precisely one of the topics they're coming to Singapore to research. And Cherian will probably have plenty to tell them.
    The dangers of dual media regulation
    Friday • January 12, 2007

    Tor Ching Li

    IF the current strict regulation of mainstream media continues unabated while the alternative media freewheels in cyberspace, Singapore could become a "schizophrenic" nation.

    That was the observation of Dr Cherian George, an Institute of Policy Studies adjunct senior research fellow at the institute's annual Singapore Perspectives conference yesterday.

    He said: "A dual regulatory regime has evolved: Stricter supervision of mainstream media — the national press and TV — and more latitude for niche or alternative media. Alternative media are also structured differently, allowing them to act differently from the mainstream."

    While online media like blogs and forums can deliver news fast and loose, mainstream media has to go through layers of checks. And where alternative media can reflect dissenting opinions, traditional media is limited in that respect, he said.

    "The danger is in creating two different worlds and two different set of experiences for Singaporeans. I don't think it is entirely healthy, there needs to be some connection between the two worlds or we'll end up being a schizophrenic nation," he added.

    Regulation on traditional media hence needs to be "loosened up", he said, adding that some media laws could soon be reviewed or passed.
If schizoprehnia is really the problem, then logically there are two alternative solutions. One, as Cherian has mentioned, is to loosen up on traditional media. The other is to (gasp!) tighten up on alternative media.

Unfortunately, I don't see any indications that the government is moving towards the former approach. And I think it's entirely possible that it will move towards the latter.

There is a third approach. It's to simply live with the schizophrenia. I'm not sure why Cherian considers this unhealthy. I see it as an almost-necessary consequence of the technological age. It is the theory of the Long Tail all over again.

In a nutshell, the Long Tail predicts that both culture and economy will shift away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, toward a huge number of niches in the tail. Click here to learn more.

In the blogs/media context, this is what it means. Technology makes so many more options available at no extra cost that people will inevitably gravitate towwards seeking out what appeals most specifically to them.

You can think of it this way - there are 35 million blogs in the universe to choose from, and tens of thousands of online newspapers. If you don't like the Straits Times, why should you read the Straits Times? If you don't like Mr Wang, why should you read Mr Wang's blog? You can jolly well go elsewhere. How do you find your way? Devices like Google and Technorati make the search remarkably easy.

So in the end, we all become highly specialised, highly niche consumers. Faced with a vast number of options, each of us makes our own unique set of choices. We go for exactly what we like. Each of us ends up reading different stuff, and some of us will read extremely different stuff from the rest of us.

That's what Cherian calls schizophrenia. But is that really unhealthy? I. Am. Really. Not. Convinced.

Jan 11, 2007

Poem for the Day

The chap on the left might look vaguely familiar to you. He used to read the nine o'clock news on TV. Anyway his name is Paul Tan and he's a friend of mine.

Paul is also an award-winning poet. I've just finished reading his third book, entitled first meeting of hands, which was published in September last year. A review is available on
Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

In his usual style, first meeting of hands has a generous dose of "social commentary" poems. Paul likes to make poetry out of the everyday stuff of life in Singapore, injecting little insights and ironies. Here's one that I enjoyed:


    Mr Tan, you have written here that I'm not
    task-oriented or adequately equipped
    for the high-performance organisation,
    not creative or committed enough to
    identify problems, plug gaps, form alliances
    to meet all your KPIs. You observe that
    I am not aligned to your corporate values,
    unable to see the helicopter vision,
    myopically clinging on
    some stubborn sense of self.

    I am, as you say, slow track, low band,
    grade E, non-scholar, with no CEP to speak of.

    It's all true. That's why
    I lost - again - that train seat in
    the standing-room-only carriage today,
    sidling aside like a languorous sloth,
    as more focused, purposeful
    commuters elbowed their way,
    eyes trained, like caged predators,
    on those few elusive seats.
    At least I gave them a standing ovation.
In response to this poem, Wee Shu Min would probably say: ".... Huh?".


Jan 10, 2007

Blogospheric Musings

Recently, two prominent bloggers emailed me. Somewhere in her email, Gayle Goh wrote this sentence - I have respect for your work. Somewhere in his email, Mr Brown wrote this sentence - I love your work.

No, the purpose of my present post is not self-congratulation. What strikes me is that both Gayle and Mr Brown used the same word to refer to my blog posts - work. Presumably, they would refer to their own blogging in the same way.

Work implies something to be taken seriously. Something to be done with diligence, skill and care. I believe that as a medium, blogs will continue to matter, because many people out there strive to blog with diligence, skill and care. Of course, how exactly they strive to do it will vary.

When I left my old blog and set up this new one, I did a couple of things differently. For example, I no longer use the Extreme Tracker program. Also, I no longer have a quick, convenient hyperlink to my own page on Technorati. What are the consequences?

I can no longer tell how many readers I get each day. I don't know where my traffic is coming from. I've become much less frequent in checking who's been saying what on the Internet about me.

I deliberately chose this state of affairs. Why? Because unlike Robbie Williams, I'm not a pop star. I'm not an exhibitionist. I'm not here to tickle your imagination nor entertain you for entertainment's sake.

By refusing to track my blog traffic, I will avoid being tempted, even subconsciously, to write things just for the sake of gaining more readers. Unlike TV or newspapers, I will have no incentive to sensationalise for the sake of sensationalising.

So instead I will write only when I think I have something worth writing about.

Which is the way I've decided it should be. For my blog, at any rate.

As I had mentioned, I don't monitor incoming hyperlinks that frequently anymore. I must confess I was a little slow to realise just how much blogospheric debate
my non-appearance on BlogTV.sg had generated. See for instance, this, this and this. I would say that Elia Diodati came closest to reading my mind.

The best commentary on this matter, however, will remain unknown to the public. In his long email to me, ex-TODAY columnist Mr Brown made several very perceptive comments about media & politics in Singapore. Mr Brown is indeed a clever man. But I think he intended the email to be a private communication, so I shall not discuss the details.

Banishing the Fats

For the first three-quarters of my life, I was skinny. Then I became average. Then after I got married, I became, ummm, Slightly Overweight. Hence the New Year resolution. Today's workout was another light, easy, 20-minute run trot, just to get my body used to the idea of exercise again.

Still on the topic of fats, I've recently learned that
trans fats are now a hot topic in the US. Last month they were been banned from about 24,000 restaurants in New York City.

In fact, trans fats have also come under close scrutiny in countries like Denmark, Canada and the United Kingdom. The measures taken have ranged from an outright ban, to laws requiring food manufacturers to state the amount of trans fat on their product labels.

What about Singapore? Bear in mind that Singapore is a country that generally just loves making things illegal. For example, we ban oral sex; gay sex; unlicensed public speeches;
Jevohah's Witnesses; cats from HDB flats; durians from public buses; 4-man public demonstrations and non-constructive critics. One might think that trans fats are a sure target for a ban in Singapore. After all, trans fats have a definite link to heart disease and absolutely no known health benefit.

Surprise. According to this
article, Singapore's Health Promotion Board does not think it's necessary to ban trans fats. It does not even think that it should be compulsory for food manufacturers to state the trans-fat content on their product labels.

The rationale? One reason given by the HPB is that Singaporeans consume less trans fats than Americans. So far, the average Singaporean's trans fats consumption is still within the World Health Organisation's recommended daily allowance (although it baffles me why the WHO recommends the daily consumption of anything clearly bad for your health).

More interesting reasons given by the HPB are these:
    The HPB is hesitant to pass legislation on trans fat as this would result in trade barriers, especially since many food products sold here are imported from various counties.

    "About 70 per cent of packaged food products currently do not carry trans fat labelling and will be affected," said HPB nutritionist Grace Soon. "This will drastically limit the choice of food Singaporeans have right now."

    Legislation limiting trans fat to 5 per cent of a product's total fat content would affect 30 per cent of packaged food here.
Aha. Economic reasons, for not banning trans fats. Commercial reasons, for not requiring trans-fat food labelling. Once again, this sounds like the Singapore we know. Doesn't it?

I feel a little sad to see the Health Promotion Board provide such reasons. I checked their
mission statement - it says things like "to empower Singaporeans to achieve optimal health" and "to ensure accessibility to health information and preventive health services".

It didn't say anything like, "to promote the business of fast-food restaurants" or "to facilitate international trade in food products". Should trade barrier issues really be in the purview of HPB nutritionists like Grace Soon?

Jan 9, 2007

Day 1 - NKF Trial

This is K Shanmugam, one of Singapore's top names among litigation lawyers. Click on the image to read his profile.

I don't really have much to say about the NKF trial at this point. I'm posting the article below mainly for future reference.
    ST Jan 9, 2007
    Durai controlled NKF for personal profit, court told
    He ran foundation like his sole fiefdom, says lawyer
    Destruction of evidence among new disclosures

    By Associate Editor, Bertha Henson

    IN ONE corner of the courtroom was the former face of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) - former chief executive T.T. Durai. With him were former chairman Richard Yong and former treasurer Loo Say San.

    Together with former board member Matilda Chua, who sat conspicuously apart from them, they had been named as members of Mr Durai's 'inner circle'.

    Or 'cronies', as NKF lawyer K. Shanmugam preferred to describe them - until Judicial Commissioner Sundaresh Menon told him to drop it.

    Mr Shanmugam then described them as 'the people who completely abdicated their responsibilities and behaved completely dishonourably'.

    The lawyer was on his feet all day, the first day of what is expected to be an eight-week battle between the new NKF and old one.

    The new NKF is seeking more than $12 million from the four and the absent Mr Pharis Aboobacker, an Indian national who was behind several botched NKF deals.

    It is arguing that the four breached their duties as directors, using the charity to their own advantage and causing it to pay out more money than it should.

    As was the case the last time the NKF went to court - in July 2005 to sue Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) for defamation - disclosures came fast and furious.

    In 2005, the public was told, among other things, of Mr Durai's generous pay and perks, which included first-class air travel.

    Yesterday, what caused the most gasps was how Mr Durai had 'sat through the night' destroying computer files and documents after NKF withdrew its defamation suit on July 13, 2005. A few days later, the tax authorities moved into the NKF building in Kim Keat to sequester all its files.

    The destroyed files had to do with Mr Durai's connections with companies run by Mr Aboobacker.

    Clearly, Mr Durai and his inner circle knew that they had something to hide, Mr Shanmugam told the court.

    Like auditor KPMG's report on the NKF, made public last January, Mr Shanmugam yesterday painted a picture of Mr Durai as a man who pulled all the strings.

    Mr Durai's power in the NKF was so great that he should be considered a de facto director or shadow director, and subject to the responsibilities that directors have under the Companies Act. This responsibility was more onerous, given that he was running a charity, which was dependent on public donations.

    At the very least, he was guilty of neglecting to discharge his duties as its CEO, putting his personal interests before the charity's.

    'First, Mr Durai systematically set about taking complete control by subverting all the organs of the company,' said Mr Shanmugam.

    'Then, secondly, he put up a shield against all external authority, such that the company, the charitable foundation, became his sole fiefdom, and then used it for personal advantage and profit.'

    Mr Durai's strategy was simple: pack the board with his friends, get them to delegate authority to the Executive Committee, and get the Exco to transfer power to him.

    He decided how much information to disclose, and was not above lying.

    The Exco, for example, was not told about SPH's attempts to settle the defamation action instead of going to court.

    They were told instead that SPH would fight the case.

    Nor were they informed of a Queen's Counsel's advice on the risks of going to court as financial management issues would form part of SPH's scrutiny.

    Instead, they were told that the NKF had a good case, for which Mr Durai was hoping to get $20 million in damages, an unprecedented sum in Singapore courts.

    It wasn't just the Exco that was hoodwinked.

    Mr Durai also orchestrated mass campaigns to champion his cause, ghost-writing letters to the press. the court was told.

    In public, Mr Durai took the stance that the NKF was a transparent organisation, accountable to the regulatory authorities.

    He also announced the setting up of an internal audit committee with much fanfare and pointed to the presence of a Finance Committee.

    But this was just so much 'smoke and mirrors', said Mr Shanmugam.

    The audit committee did not meet for almost three years because Mr Durai would not back its recommendations.

    The Finance Committee dealt mainly with investments, not financial oversight.

    The truth was that Mr Durai was averse to any kind of oversight, whether by its first overseer, the National Council of Social Service, or its second, the Health Ministry.

    It made clear that the NCSS had no business looking into its accounts.

    The relationship got so bad that the NKF left the umbrella body in 2000 to come under the Health Ministry's supervision.

    Even then, it resisted attempts by the ministry to have an observer at its meeting, preferring to treat her as a 'spy''.

    Said Mr Shanmugam: 'It's a disparity between the public position and the reality that is disconcerting.'

    That lack of transparency was most apparent when it came to the question of how much he was being paid.

    His total pay package was such a closely-guarded secret that Exco members learnt about it only from news reports on the defamation case.

    Mr Shanmugam, who will complete his opening statement today, has lined up 26 witnesses. They include a witness who saw Mr Durai destroy documents.

Jan 8, 2007

The NKF is Back in Court

This will be very interesting. It's more than just about the $11.5 million that stands to be recovered.

The case is likely to set new standards for board members of charities in Singapore - specifying their legal duties in ensuring that public donations are properly utilised.

A decisive victory by the NKF against its former directors will also help to restore public confidence in the NKF. Which I think is what this case is really all about.
    ST Jan 8, 2007
    Landmark $12m NKF suit set to begin
    Bid to recover money from Durai, ex-board members starts today
    By Selina Lum

    SOME 1 1/2 years after they resigned amid public scorn, former National Kidney Foundation (NKF) chief executive T.T. Durai and members of the old board will meet again today - not in the boardroom, but in court.

    This time, they will have to give an account of themselves, as NKF's new management seeks to recover from Mr Durai and other board members at least $12 million paid out by the charity.

    In what is the first suit in Singapore brought against directors of a charitable company, NKF has accused Mr Durai, former chairman Richard Yong, former treasurer Loo Say San and former board member Matilda Chua of breaching their duties towards the NKF as directors and fiduciaries.

    The case will no doubt be watched with great interest, as NKF's lawyers intend to argue that Mr Durai and the board should be held to higher standards of care as custodians of public money.

    The eight-week hearing before Judicial Commissioner Sundaresh Menon is likely to throw up new twists and revelations about Mr Durai and the former directors, and the public is likely to be gripped again, as it was when sensational revelations came to light about the charity in July 2005.

    With eight sets of lawyers representing nine parties and tens of thousands of pages of documents involved, it is expected to be a drawn-out and fiercely contested case.

    NKF's claims include: $2 million paid to Mr Durai in salaries and benefits; $4 million in lost donations, $5 million paid to companies owned by Mr Pharis Aboobacker, a friend of Mr Durai; and $550,000 in legal costs incurred when the old NKF sued Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) for defamation.
My former law firm, Allen & Gledhill, is acting for the NKF and they have agreed to donate all their earnings from the legal fees back to the NKF. Very noble, three cheers for K Shanmugam.

Jan 6, 2007

Tough Times For Thailand

The Thai stock market crashed on 19 December, and the next day I promptly moved in to buy, buy, buy. In the past, this kind of strategy has made me quite a bit of money. Basically, you swoop in to grab cheap stocks immediately after some disaster has sent prices plunging.

This time, things are not looking so pretty. The New Year's Eve bomb attacks in Bangkok have put a dampener on Mr Wang's money-making plans.

If this was a plain hit-&-run terrorist attack, it wouldn't be so bad. Since September 11, 2001 the financial world has actually become quite used to those kinds of attacks. Thailand, however, is now swimming with rumours of another coup, more bomb attacks and assorted political conspiracy theories.
    ST Jan 6, 2007
    Anxious times for Bangkok
    Coup fears add to uncertainty over political and security situation

    BANGKOK - MANY here welcomed the Sept 19 coup as having broken a tedious and divisive political impasse, but events here this week have made it clear that it may have only created more uncertainty.

    Continuing jitters over a possible coup or new bomb attacks were being seen as the culmination of weeks of uncertainty laced with panic when the stock market crashed on Dec 19, denting the credibility of the military-appointed government.

    Last year, speculation over power politics became a full-time preoccupation of many of the capital's chattering classes.

    The New Year's Eve bomb blasts, which killed three people and injured 42, were a watershed event.

    Although it is no stranger to political violence, Bangkok has been relatively free of terrorist incidents since the 1980s.

    The bombs and the military's inability to swiftly find who had set them further dented the credibility of a government that many analysts saw as indecisive - and some hawks saw as too moderate.

    The bombs also worried pro-democracy activists who see instability as a good reason for the military to justify staying in power longer than the promised one year, or facilitate the takeover of more hardline generals.

    Another conspiracy theory fuelled by comments from the ageing former premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh - who has emerged as an adviser to the Thai Rak Thai party - held that factions in the army had planted the bombs to justify the military clinging to power.
Well, those are the risks of emerging markets. Returns can be spectacular, very spectacular. But you have to accept and live with the uncertainties too.

Looking back now on the
Shin Corp fiasco, I almost feel sympathetic towards Ho Ching. Almost.

Jan 5, 2007

Shooting the Breeze

So my wife bought a new fan today, some brand called Mexus which I've never heard of. Anyway, after I assembled the fan, I took a look at the warranty certificate.

There are two things which are uniquely Singaporean about this warranty certificate. And uniquely stupid.

Firstly, it requires you to state your race, before you submit the warranty certificate. Secondly, the options for "race" are Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasion (sic) and ...... "Others".

After all these years, why do we still not realise that for most things in life (including the administration of home-appliance warranty certificates), the person's race is simply irrelevant.

And that in any case, it's not very polite to refer to minority races as "Others".

By the way, Mexus, if you're reading this - I didn't like your product because it didn't come with any instructions on how to assemble it. Even a simple diagram would have been appreciated.

Jan 4, 2007

Something About Social Work

In the comment section of my previous post, I noted that in Switzerland, Jehovah's Witnesses (whose religious beliefs prohibit them from carrying arms) perform their national service by doing social work. Their service period is double that for non-JWs in military service.

Someone then responded that this wouldn't be possible in Singapore because we aren't a welfare state - therefore there isn't much social work to be done.

This reply startled me. I don't know whether the person is arguing for the sake of arguing, or just truly unaware of what social work means.

Social work doesn't disappear in non-welfare states. If anything, there is a greater need for social work in non-welfare states, because the state takes on much less responsibility in looking after its disadvantaged citizens. In other words, more volunteers are needed.

Social work also comes in a wide variety of different forms. Here's one example from the Straits Times today:
    ST Jan 4, 2007
    Voluntary body makes sure kids go to school
    Singapore Children's Society monitors pupils who skip class

    By Liaw Wy-Cin & Yap Su-Yin

    TEACHERS were not the only ones taking students' attendance on the first day of school yesterday. The Singapore Children's Society was doing the same.

    Social workers from the voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) had been monitoring 11 children who had problems attending school.

    Nine were in their classes, but two were not in their schools yesterday.

    According to the society, one of the two - a Primary 5 pupil - did not have enough pocket money for school. The other was a Primary 4 pupil whose father takes her to school only if he is awake. Otherwise, she remains at home.

    But the VWO has got in touch with the two girls and they are expected to be back in school today.

    Five of the 11 children had failed to register for Primary 1 last year, before the Singapore Children's Society stepped in to help.

    The other four, as well as the two who were absent yesterday, were pupils without regular and sustained attendance in school.

    The society, which was set up in 1952, is the only agency tasked with helping the Ministry of Education to see that all children of school-going age go to school, since a compulsory education act was implemented in 2003.
In Singapore, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre even has an e-matching system which attempts to match your individual preferences and skills to the particular organisation or position where you're most needed or would be most useful.

For example, if you are a doctor, you could specify that you want to volunteer in the "Health & Medical" sector; that you want to help "Sick/Needy" or "Elderly", and that you want to provide "Medical Services". The system will then attempt to match you with the appropriate organisation and vacancy.

Many different types of skills are in demand, for volunteer work. Activity areas include "Admin Services", "Disaster Relief", "Tutoring & Coaching", "Green Efforts", "Befriending / Counselling", "Information Technology", "Marketing/Publicity", just to name a few.

I volunteer in my own way. Last year on my old blog, I regularly provided publicity for various public-awareness, fundraising & charitable events. I intend to continue with this, with greater focus, this year. See, it doesn't cost me that much time or effort, but more than 20,000 unique visitors per month, it must be doing some good.

So you are organising a charitable event and would like some publicity, please send me an email. Details on my sidebar.

Jan 3, 2007

What is a Religion?

Here is a Straits Times article about the government encouraging interfaith dialogue.
    ST Jan 3, 2007
    'Interaction among faiths crucial'
    DPM Wong says increased religious fervour should not hinder open dialogue
    By Zakir Hussain

    SINGAPOREANS are becoming more religious but should continue to engage in frank and open dialogue about their faiths, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng has said.

    The message of tolerance, understanding and respect that comes through in such exchanges must also reach out to the grassroots, he said yesterday .

    Mr Wong, who is Home Affairs Minister, was speaking at a forum at the National University of Singapore, organised by the University Scholars Programme, Ba'alwie Mosque and the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO).

    The forum on religions and peaceful co-existence saw three experts - Buddhist leader Chin Kung, Jesuit priest Thomas Michel and Muslim academic Ibrahim Abu Rabi - speak to 450 participants about common values that faiths share and the role religious leaders can play.

    Underlining the value of dialogue among the various faiths at the forum's opening, Mr Wong said Singapore recognised that maintaining religious harmony required constant communication and contact.

    He noted that increased religious fervour - a trend noted by studies and media reports - may hamper interaction on the part of some people here.

    'While spirituality is important, as Singaporeans become religious, they must continue to engage in frank and open inter-faith discussion. They should not perceive interaction with other religions as a compromise of their beliefs,' he said.

    And, despite examples of tension among followers of different religions abroad, he reminded his audience that world religions in fact 'share many common grounds that have, regrettably, not been given enough emphasis and attention'.

    'Religious leaders should underline these shared values,' he said, citing compassion, charity, peace and respect for humanity as examples.
This is all very good and well. However, it may be pertinent to note that in Singapore, a religion is not a religion unless the government thinks it is.

Once upon a time in Singapore, a particular group of people were involved in preaching, evangelistic and publishing activities. Their central theme was God's rule over the Earth, with Jesus Christ as king. They believed that this rule began with the Second Coming of Christ, which occurred invisibly either in 1874 or 1914.

These people also refrained from becoming involved in social, religious, or political conflicts. They were very conservative - among other things, they frowned on homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion and gambling (and they certainly wouldn't approved of the Sentosa casinos).

There are 6.5 million
Jehovah's Witnesses in the world today. But in 1972, the Singapore government decided to stop thinking of them as a religion. So they ceased to be a religion in Singapore. They are no longer allowed to register themselves as a society, nor to publish any materials for public dissemination, nor to hold any public meetings etc.

Jan 1, 2007

Saddam's Death is Food For Thought for the Singapore Government

Many of you will no doubt recall Shanmugam Murugetsu and Nguyen Tuong Van, two drug traffickers whom the Singapore government hanged in 2005. These two cases received lots of media publicity and briefly put an intense spotlight on capital punishment in Singapore.

Since then nothing has really changed. All our laws on capital punishment remain intact. Amnesty International still believes that Singapore continues to have
"the highest rate of executions per capita in the world". It's a world record that Singapore has held for many years.

And so Singapore remains sharply out of sync with international human rights norms. Many Singaporeans still believe that drugs are such a terrible menace that we should kill their traffickers. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the governments of civilised countries will protest even against the execution of an undoubted master villain like Saddam Hussein.

    ST Jan 1, 2007
    Hanging revives debate on capital punishment

    LONDON - NOT many would quarrel with the fact that Saddam Hussein has finally paid for his crimes.

    But the method of his execution and its graphic display have rekindled debate on the use of the death penalty, particularly in Europe.

    Some of the strongest criticism has come from the Vatican which went so far as to call the execution 'tragic news...that risks feeding the spirit of revenge and sowing new violence'.

    Several European leaders, across the political spectrum, also questioned whether justice was served in Saddam's execution on Saturday and warned of further spiralling bloodshed.

    Finland, the European Union president, and several senior European Commission officials said the 25-member bloc opposes the death penalty as a matter of principle and that Saddam should not have been hanged despite his crimes.

    'The EU has a very consistent view against using the death penalty and it should not have been used in this instance either, although there is no doubt over Saddam's guilt of very serious crimes against humanity,' Finland's Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told Finnish television.

    Mr Louis Michel, a member of the EU's executive commission, said he believed capital punishment was at odds with the democracy that Iraqi leaders were trying to build.