Jan 30, 2009

It's Good To Be Optimistic, But It's Bad to be Stupid

I feel that the Straits Times is trying too hard to be optimistic, in the following article. Observe how it violently twists its numbers, to paint a more positive picture:
ST Jan 30, 2009
Expect 2% less pay
Drop due to firms cutting bonuses, but basic wages likely to be on uptrend
By Fiona Chan

TOTAL pay packages are likely to take a hit this year as the rapidly worsening economic crisis exerts a heavier toll on Singaporeans.

A new survey by the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) has found that employers plan to give out less in bonuses this year, with the lowest payments coming from small firms and United States-based companies.

..... 'It is heartening that companies are cutting costs to save jobs and not cutting jobs to save costs,' said SHRI, which polled 208 companies on their wage, bonus and recruitment plans.

The survey, done in conjunction with RDS Remuneration Data Specialists, found that while virtually all companies have been affected by the worldwide downturn, many 'are hopeful of being able to weather the financial storm'.

Just 7 per cent have retrenched or plan to retrench staff this year - less than the 10 per cent last year. However, only four in 10 companies will be hiring this year, compared with more than six in 10 last year.
Okay, back up and read that sentence again - "Just 7 per cent have retrenched or plan to retrench staff this year - less than the 10 per cent last year."

What does that mean? It means that in the entire year of 2008 (that is, over 12 months), 10 per cent of companies retrenched or had plans to retrench staff. And it also means that in the very first month of 2009 (today being 30 January 2009), 7 per cent of companies have already retrenched or made plans to retrench staff.

That doesn't strike me as particularly "heartening" or "hopeful". What will the next 11 months bring?

Jan 29, 2009

Do We Really Care What Lee Hsien Loong Does With Ho Ching in Bed?

No, we do not. Well, I certainly do not. In fact, I don't even want to think about it. As a citizen of Singapore, I am only interested to know what Lee Hsien Loong does in his capacity as Prime Minister of this country. His sex life is of no relevance to me.

I write this, because it seems to me that in Singapore, many people are still very unhealthily obsessed with other people's sex lives. NMP Thio Li-Ann, campaigning in Parliament last year against gay people, is one such example.

I guess it's just as well for Li-Ann that she lives in Singapore, not elsewhere. If she were living in Iceland, people might view her as being somewhat perverse, for being so concerned and passionate about how other people choose to have sex.

ST Jan 29, 2009
Iceland's new PM is gay

REYKJAVIK - ICELAND'S next leader will be an openly gay former flight attendant who parlayed her experience as a union organiser into a decades-long political career.

Both parties forming Iceland's new coalition government support the appointment of Johanna Sigurdardottir, the island nation's 66-year-old social affairs minister, as Iceland's interim prime minister.

'Now we need a strong government that works with the people,' Ms Sigurdardottir told reporters on Wednesday, adding that a new administration will likely be installed Saturday.

Ms Sigurdardottir will lead until new elections are held, likely in May. But analysts say she's unlikely to remain in office - chiefly because her centre-left Social Democratic Alliance isn't expected to rank among the major parties after the election. In opinion polls, it trails the Left-Green movement, a junior partner in the new coalition.

Iceland's previous conservative-led government failed Monday after the country's banks collapsed last fall under the weight of huge debts amassed during years of rapid economic growth. The country's currency has since plummeted, while inflation and unemployment are soaring.

Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde won't lead his Independence Party into the new elections because he needs treatment for throat cancer.

While Mr Haarde endured angry protests for months and had his limousine pelted with eggs, polling company Capacent Gallup said Ms Sigurdardottir was Iceland's most popular politician in November, with an approval rating of 73 percent.

She was the only minister to see her rating improve on the previous year's score, Capacent Gallup said on Wednesday. The poll of 2,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 per cent.

'It's a question of trust, people believe that she actually cares about people,' said Olafur Hardarson, a political scientist at the University of Iceland.

Ms Sigurdardottir is seen by many as a salve to the bubbling tensions in Iceland. Thousands have joined anti-government protests recently. Last week, police used tear gas for the first time in about 50 years to disperse crowds.

'She is a senior parliamentarian, she is respected and loved by all of Iceland,' said Environment Minister Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, a fellow Alliance party member.

The new leader is known for allocating generous amounts of public funding to help the disabled, the elderly and organisations tackling domestic violence.

But conservative critics say Ms Sigurdardottir's leftist leanings and lack of business experience won't help her fix the economy.

'Johanna is a very good woman - but she likes public spending, she is a tax raiser,' Mr Haarde said.

Iceland has negotiated about US$10 billion (S$15 billion) in bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund and individual countries. The loans are currently being held as foreign currency reserves.

Banks that were nationalised last year are once again open and trading - but Iceland still owes millions of dollars to foreign depositors.

After acting as a labour organiser when she worked as a flight attendant for Loftleidir Airlines - now Icelandair - in the 1960s and 1970s, Ms Sigurdardottir was elected to Iceland's parliament in 1978. She served as social affairs minister from 1987-1994 and from 2007.

'If there's anyone who can restore trust in the political system it's her,' said Eyvindur Karlsson, a 27-year-old translator from Reykjavik. 'People respect her because she's never been afraid of standing up to her own party. They see her as someone who isn't tainted by the economic crisis.'

In 1995, Ms Sigurdardottir quit the party and formed her own, which won four parliamentary seats in a national election. Several years later, she rejoined her old party when it merged with three other centre-left groups.

While a woman has served in the largely symbolic role of president, Ms Sigurdardottir will be Iceland's first female prime minister.

She lives with journalist Jonina Leosdottir, who became her civil partner in 2002, and has two sons from a previous marriage.

Ms Sigurdardottir is best known for her reaction to a failed bid to lead her party in 1994. 'My time will come,' she predicted in her concession speech. -- AP

Despite the title of the article "Iceland's New PM is Gay", only two sentences in the entire article actually say anything concerning Ms Sigurdardottir being gay. It goes to show how very little a person's sexual orientation has got to do with anything other than her own private life.

Jan 27, 2009

The Association of Bloggers - My Prediction is a Quick Death

Some time ago (I can't remember exactly when), I received an email inviting me to be a committee member of some soon-to-be-formed national association for bloggers in Singapore. The email was quite long, and set out in detail what the aims of the organisation were supposed to be, etc etc.

If my memory serves me correctly, I never replied to the email at all. I did not mean to be rude. It's just that I constantly receive a variety of emails in my "Mr Wang Says So" email account, and some of these emails are interesting, and some are not so interesting, and some just elicit a general "Huh?" response in me.

This particular email drew a "Huh?" response from me. I did not know what to say, and therefore never replied to it.

Now I see that the association has indeed been formed - (here it is) - and they have gotten themselves formally constituted (I assume, as a registered society under the Societies Act) and gotten some publicity in the mass media.

Oh yes, and the Association of Bloggers seem to have attracted a general "Huh?" response from the blogosphere as well. Or perhaps that is an understatement. Sample responses are here, here, here, here and here.

I'm predicting a fairly quick death for the Association of Bloggers. Not being mean (and anyway I might be wrong). It's just my prediction. I simply don't see any compelling reason for the existence of this association; I don't see how it would be relevant or useful to me personally as a blogger; and I don't see how this Association of Bloggers is going to be relevant or useful to bloggers, more generally speaking.

So I predict a quick natural death for the AOB. It will just fade away and be forgotten.

Jan 21, 2009

300,000 Job Losses is a Scary Thought

I've mentioned a couple of times that I've been house-hunting. In the past two days, one of the property agents that I had met has been repeatedly calling me. Why? Because the developer has cut prices (again), for one of the residential projects that I'm interested in. However, I told the agent that I'm not buying .... yet.

The residential property market has been sinking, and I think it will sink some more. The patient house-hunter will be rewarded. I had previously written about the implications of the DPS, the effect of which should really start to show in a big way, around June 2009. In addition, today the media also has other news to suggest that the property market is in for a huge dive:
Grim forecast of 300,000 job losses
Most expected to beforeigners hired in past 5 years
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Ansley Ng, TODAY

IN what an expert called a “doomsday prediction”, two economists say Singapore may lose 300,000 jobs by next year, of which two-thirds would belong to foreigners.

As the Republic grapples with what is likely to be its worst recession, “recent surveys all point to many more firms planning to fire than hire, a finding backed by anecdotal reports of job cuts by leading firms in their sectors,” said economists Cem Karacadag and Kun Lung Wu of Credit Suisse Group in a report that has raised many eyebrows with its alarming forecast.

Credit Suisse had similarly drew attention last May when it issued a deeply bearish outlook for the Singapore property sector and while there was some initial scepticism, subsequent data have largely borne out the accuracy of its call.

But analysts Today spoke to — though agreeing that a higher-than-before number of jobs will be lost this year on the back of the increasingly grim economic outlook — felt that the Credit Suisse jobs report was too pessimistic. Barclays Capital economist Leong Wai Ho said: “I think we have already seen the nature of the severity, I don’t think we will get much worse than that.”

Mr Leong predicted retrenchments to reach around 35,000, with the unemployment rate to peak at the second-quarter of this year at just over 5 per cent.

The Credit Suisse report gave a sectoral breakdown of its headline 300,000 number: About 160,000 positions will be shed in the services industry; 100,000 in manufacturing; and another 40,000 in the construction industry. “As harsh as our assumptions may seem, they only imply that the economy gives up all of the jobs it created in 2008 and a portion of the new jobs in 2007,” the Credit Suisse economists wrote.

Two out of three of the jobs lost would be held by foreigners and permanent residents. With the exodus of these foreigners, Singapore’s population will shrink 3.3 per cent to 4.68 million next year from 4.84 million now, said Credit Suisse.

Real estate experts say the property market — which has already been hit by the fallout of the global financial crisis — will be further buffeted by the repatriation of expatriates as companies downsize.

“The first market to be affected would be your residential and your prime residential market, because an immense source of leasing activity comes from foreigners,” said Mr Donald Han, managing director of property consulting firm Cushman and Wakefield ....
I kinda foresaw this coming. Three months ago, I wrote on this blog:
According to my crystal ball, residential rentals must fall sharply this year. A host of new, big residential projects (all of which were launched in the recent bubbly years), will get completed soon. What happens next? The market will be flooded. At the same time, due to the economic slowdown, many expats might predictably pack their bags and go home. This would lead to a further collapse in residential rentals.

The stock market has also crashed very badly. Many Singaporeans would have lost serious money. Bonuses will shrink. Thus many potential property buyers would be eliminated. Furthermore, a real recession is very likely to be on the way (the technical one is already here). Some people will lose their jobs. And among them, the highly-leveraged home-buyers of the past few years will be blown apart.
Of course, none of the above was particularly difficult to foresee, even three months ago. What's staggering about the Today report is the size of the figure - 300,000 jobs - predicted by Credit Suisse.

How quickly the residential property market will collapse will actually depend on the proportions of expats in Singapore who are on an Employment Pass, and on a Special Employment Pass. What's the difference?

Both passes enable the expat to reside legally in Singapore. However, an Employment Pass is tied to a specific employer. If the expat loses his job, the EP becomes invalid and the expat has to leave Singapore more or less immediately (7 days, to be precise). His family has to leave with him too.

A Personalised Employer Pass affords more flexibility. The PEP is not tied to a specific employer. If the expat loses his job, he can stay for up to another six months in Singapore to look for another job.

PEP was introduced only in January 2007. It was one of those "we embrace foreign talent" schemes. Most expats who had come to Singapore prior to January 2007 are probably on the EP, not the PEP, unless they had had the foresight to effect a conversion of their EP to a PEP earlier on (I'm assuming that there's some procedure to do this).

Of course this is precisely the kind of precautionary step that most human beings don't bother to take, when times are still good. An EP is as good as a PEP, when job security is not in doubt. But now, when times are bad and unemployment is rearing its ugly head, the government will not be so free and easy with EP-to-PEP conversions.

As for myself, I am being prudent by deferring my property purchase. After all, I work in a bank, not exactly the safest place to be, nowadays. I have fairly substantial back-up funds, but still ....

Jan 18, 2009

A Song & Dance About CCAs

CCAs in the school system can be viewed in many different ways. Here are three examples:

1. CCAs are unimportant and a waste of time. They need not be taken seriously. The student should focus on studying.

2. Every student needs a break from studying sometimes. CCAs are a great way to relax, have fun and do something other than homework.

3. Students need to strive to excel in both studies as well as CCAs. Therefore CCAs add even more pressure to a system that's already too stressful.
All three views have validity. How valid they are, for any individual student, really depends on his own opinions, beliefs and personal circumstances. There is no right or wrong. However, there are more-optimal and less-optimal possible paths (again, for each individual student). Some relevant factors to consider would be (1) how well or badly the student is already coping with his studies, (2) how interested he is in his CCAs, and (3) what he expects to learn or gain from the time and effort spent on his CCAs.

Personally, as a student I had participated very actively in CCAs and had enjoyed myself enormously. In fact, all my happiest memories of school days are associated with my CCAs and my CCA friends. I also feel that from my CCAs, I had gained certain skills and attributes which continue to serve me well today. (In contrast, I regard a significant amount of my classroom knowledge as practically useless to me today).

In its ideal form, the school CCA system can be seen as providing the infrastructure to help students explore and pursue their individual interests. If you like sports, the system provides you with the facilities, the the coaches, the opportunity to compete, and so on. If you like art or music or something else, the system similarly provides with the necessary resources.

If the school provides all these resources, and you don't make use of them, then that is your own loss. It is a loss that you may rationally choose to suffer - for example, you judge that you are better off spending the time studying your textbooks. It's still your loss, anyway.

I recently blogged about my son's school offering various optional courses to the students. My son himself is at the age when he's tentatively interested in almost everything, but hasn't got any strong specific preference. After some discussion with Daddy and Mum, he chose Speech & Drama. So we signed him up for that.

I think that Speech & Drama could help him to be more self-confident (with things like standing in front of an audience, or even expressing a view in class). He'll probably have a lot of fun with the drama activities and make some new friends. I think it's reasonable to expect that his speaking skills should also improve.

Taken far enough, this Speech and Drama course will lead to some sort of international examination / certification in speech and drama, from Trinity Guildhall in London. I am not sure whether my son will go that far, or whether that would be a good thing. It is quite possible that he may lose interest halfway, or become interested in something else (or perhaps the time will come when he is better off spending the time studying).

I wouldn't know, at this stage. I don't think it matters. My son can just jump in first, and get his feet wet. And have fun. We'll figure out the rest later.

Jan 17, 2009

The Most Exciting Piece of Non-News In Yesterday's Newspapers

A brilliant deduction! A stunning insight! Could Singaporeans have possibly figured this out, all by themselves?

Of course not. Let us give thanks for the wonderful leadership of our great wise leaders.

Not forgetting the powerful journalistic standards of the nation's leading newspapers, for delivering such big news to us.

ST Jan 16, 2009
Likely Mas Selamat has fled

ALMOST a year after he escaped from custody, where is terror fugitive Mas Selamat Kastari?

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng narrowed it to either of two scenarios: one, he is in Singapore and hidden by sympathisers unknown to the authorities, or, two, he has fled the country.

Asked which was the more likely, Mr Wong told The Straits Times: 'It's very hard to say. Both scenarios are plausible. Maybe the second one is more plausible.'
Seriously, if you go to your neighbourhood chicken-rice seller and ask, "Uncle, where do you think Mas Selamat is today?", what do you think his reply would be?

Probably something like this: "Aiyoh, how I know!? You ask me, I ask who? But he's been missing for so long, I think surely by now he run away from Singapore alreadi laaaah!".

In other words, the neighbourhood chicken-rice seller's reply would essentially be the same as Wong Kan Seng. We should be proud! This shows that Singapore's neighbourhood chicken-rice sellers are of ministerial calibre!

Jan 13, 2009

Ministerial Salaries And A Sentimental Stroll Down Memory Lane

Time flies, and it flies especially fast in cyberspace. 21 months ago, Singaporeans questioned the need for our government ministers to raise their world-class salaries to even greater highs, and Lee Kuan Yew replied indignantly as follows:
"You know, the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you'll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again... and your asset values will disappear, your apartment will be worth a fraction of what it is, your jobs will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries, foreign workers." - (Straits Times, 5 April 2007)
And isn't all very ironic? Click on the links, if you don't know why. You gotta hand it to Senior Lee, sometimes he can be really prophetic.

Maybe we should give them another pay raise, before we get another good dose of incompetent government.

How to Manufacture All-Rounded Students

So I had been told that Little Wang's school does not have any co-curricular activities for Primary One students. CCAs are for the older kids (I believe they start in Primary Two or Three).

However, Little Wang comes home with a stack of application forms yesterday. "Daddy, look", he says. These application forms are not for CCAs. They are for optional courses, outside the usual school hours, but conducted on the school premises.

I browse through the forms and I am very impressed. The range of optional courses is wide. For example, there's speech & drama; a variety of music classes (guitar, cello, violin, keyboards, drums); and art courses.

Furthermore, unlike most of the CCAs in my day, these optional courses appear to be well-organised and conducted with some genuine expertise. They are not conducted by the school's own teachers (whose specialties are really teaching English, Maths, Science and 2nd Language, not other things). Instead, external service providers (for example, full-time music teachers at music schools) will come to the school to conduct these courses.

As I had mentioned, the courses are optional. Almost all of them lead to some form of a final examination conducted by some independent external body. However, the application forms make it clear that the activities are optional, and the exams are just as optional. Students can come to participate just for fun and enjoyment.

I start thinking that perhaps the education system has really changed a lot. Maybe it's now really focused on learning and all-round development, not just grades. Perhaps it really is striving to make schooling an enjoyable experience for kids nowadays.

Then suddenly, I notice the acroynm "DSA" on one of the application forms. The form says that one of the objectives of the course is to help students succeed with the DSA process. Ooooh, I see.

For those who don't know, DSA stands for Direct School Admission. It is still relatively new and was an invention by ex-Education Minister Tharman. Tharman's vision was to create an education system with "alternative avenues of success". He didn't want an education system where everyone was constantly just fretting about grades, grades, grades. The DSA was one of his ideas.

Basically, the DSA allows schools (such as secondary schools) to select and admit students on selection criteria other than formal academic grades (such as PSLE results). What are those other selection criteria? It depends on the school. Schools participating in the DSA have the discretion to set their own DSA criteria, and to select and admit a certain number of students every year, based on those criteria.

For example, one school may decide that its criteria is "sports excellence in soccer, basketball and tennis". Another school may decide that its criteria is "music and drama" or whatever. The DSA has become quite widespread. According to the Education Ministry's website, there are more than 60 secondary schools in Singapore participating in the scheme.

So now it has become possible for a Primary Six student to secure a place in a good secondary school, even a top secondary school, even before the student has taken his PSLE examination. (DSA admission results are announced, before the PSLE exam season begins). Clearly, this can go a long way in making the PSLE a less stressful and traumatic experience for some little kids in Singapore (not to mention their parents).

Overall, I think that the DSA is an excellent idea. Among other things, it provides some encouragement to parents to allow their children to pursue their hobbies or interests (apart from merely making them study their school subjects). Now parents, for example, may be more willing to allow their young children more time to paint more pictures or play more soccer or join the Boy Scouts. That's because all these activities all have some potential of helping the children to get to the next stage of education (i.e secondary school).

However, one can also see how the DSA can backfire. Arguably, this has already happened.

All these years, the traditional problem in Singapore is that the system (and that includes parents and teachers) pushes students too hard towards academic excellence (i.e scoring A's for English, Maths and Science etc). Now, however, if the DSA backfires, it will be because the system pushes the students too hard towards academic excellence AND something else.

Soon Singapore's stressful paper chase may become not just a chase for A's in English, Maths and Science. It will also become a stressful chase for that certificate that proves you can play the piano or sing and dance or swim well.

After all, your place in a good secondary school could well depend on that.

Jan 12, 2009

Seems Like Everybody Needs Some Kind of Training Nowadays

A few days ago, the Straits Times published this letter:
Jan 9, 2009
Help parents too

LAST Friday, my daughter entered primary school for the first time. Like any eager parent, I oversaw her first few days in school, including orientation, and attended a curriculum talk by the school.

During this talk, the school emphasised the role of parents and its importance in the child's development. While some parents listened attentively and even took notes, some actually dozed off.

It then dawned on me that, after spending hundreds of dollars on books for my child, I did not buy a single book about parenthood for myself or invest any time or money to be a better parent as my child goes on to the next stage of learning. I felt slightly better when I could not find any book for parents on the booklist given, but I still felt something is wrong.

Primary school is a big step for a child, so I searched the Ministry of Education (MOE) website for anything to help clueless parents like me. I hoped to sign up for an intensive parenting course or at least find a recommended reading list on parenting, but I found only information on the education system.

Parenting is a learning journey for both parent and child. When parents are highly involved with the teacher, the school and the child, the result is a more successful student and learning journey.

I hope MOE views education as a tri-party effort involving teachers, children and parents. A strong parent programme will ensure a stronger casting of character and upgrade the current academic system. While you may not need to win a prize for best parent, seeing your child grow up to be a successful and capable individual is the ultimate prize.

Syu Ying Kwok
An "intensive parenting course" organised and taught by the Ministry of Education? Heheh. To each his own, but this one is not for me.

And anyway, the principles of good parenting are very simple. You don't need a course to teach you those principles - some common sense would take you a long way. The real challenge is to consistently apply those principles in daily life.

And no MOE course is going to help you with that.

Jan 3, 2009

The Primary School Adventures of Little Wang

How time flies. Seems like only yesterday when my little son was learning to take his first baby steps. However. what really happened yesterday was that he went to primary school for the first time, lugging an oversized school bag filled with textbooks. Mrs Wang and I tagged along to make sure that everything was okay on his first day at school.

It was largely unnecessary. My son didn't seem to have any difficulty adjusting. He cheerfully made a few new friends within his first hour at school, and rapidly became good pals with the boy sitting next to him. Pretty soon they were chatting happily and comparing the stationery in their respective brand new pencil boxes.

I do remember that on my own first day at school (yes, a few decades ago), I did feel quite nervous and shy. Back then, I think that was fairly usual for six-year-old boys on their first day. In fact, I remember that I had a few classmates who cried or panicked, when their mummies "abandoned" them in the strange, unfamiliar classroom to go wait outside. Separation anxiety, and all that.

My son had no such problem. Not only that, I noticed that none of the other Primary One boys seemed to have any such problem. The parents looked more concerned than the kids themselves. Most of the kids looked secure and confident, and a few even looked bored, like they'd seen it all before. In general, it was as if the kids knew exactly what was happening; why they were here and and what was expected of them, even though this was just their first day at school.

This, I suspect, is one unintended consequence of the modern Singapore style of raising little kids. Before they ever step into primary school, the kids have already gone to Kindergarten One, Kindergarten Two and Nursery. In addition, many would also have attended one or more of the following - playschool; swimming class; music lessons; Chinese enrichment class; ballet class; art lessons; maths class etc etc.

So at quite a young age, these kids have already been exposed to a variety of different environments. Been there, done that, and survived, no sweat. Steady, lah. They might only be six years old, but they're already adaptable, confident, cockily self-assured.