Jan 25, 2010

The House of Wang And Other Little Stories

Hi there, miss me? I haven't posted for a week, because we've been busy moving house. Right now, we still have boxes lying around the place, but order has largely been restored and we are settling in nicely.

As regular followers of my blog would know, I bought a cluster house in March 2009 (when the private property market was at a bottom). I also sold my HDB flat in November 2009 (when the HDB market was at a high - I think).

And right now, while the cluster house is still under construction, we've rented a condo apartment (when the rental market is still weak).

So far, so good - it would appear that I am reading the stars correctly. Here's a little more validation, for my astrological interpretations:
ST Jan 23, 2010
Cash premiums for HDB flats hit a high
Q4 median COVs at $24,000, but have since dropped this month
By Jessica Cheam

BUYERS desperate to get into the public housing market are shelling out twice as much in cash top-ups for HDB resale flats as they did just a few months back.

These cash premiums are known as the Cash-over-Valuation (COV), and refer to the amount a buyer has to pay above a flat's valuation set by a bank.

High demand and tight supply drove the median COV paid to $24,000 in the fourth quarter of last year, according to fresh data from the Housing Board (HDB) yesterday.

That is double the $12,000 median in the previous three months and breaks the COV record of $22,000 achieved in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The buying frenzy seems to have abated a little since the new year. The HDB said yesterday that median COV has come down to $22,000 for the first half of this month.

So the COV was at a high in Q4 2009 (when I sold my HDB flat) and seems to be falling now (in January 2010).

Anyway, after moving into our current place, we realise that we like it a lot. It is quiet and peaceful, and the apartment has a nice view and is quite breezy.

The condo also has the kind of swimming pool that I really like. Not just big, but deep (and those of you who like swimming will know that a deep pool is much more fun than a shallow one).

Also the MRT is a short walk away. As the station is on the Circle Line, we think that the the apartment has the potential to appreciate in value, over the next one, two or three years.

That's because currently, only five stations on the Circle Line are operating. When the Circle Line is completely up and running, it will be the longest MRT line in Singapore, covering 31 stations. Home buyers would then be more willing to pay a higher premium, for the convenience of living near a Circle Line station.

So the beginnings of a new game plan has started to arise in my mind. It's all tentative. But who knows, we might end up BUYING the condo from the landlord, and staying here; and selling our cluster house for a good profit (high-end properties are expected to appreciate in 2010).

It seems possible that the landlord will agree to eventually sell, if we really discussed the matter with him. In fact, Mrs Wang has already tentatively sounded out the landlord and his wife and they are open to the idea.

Their main motivation for selling would be to make a clean break with Singapore and just get out for good. They already own a home in Australia and that's where the landlord's wife is staying, most of the year.

The landlord himself is still working in Singapore (and flies frequently between Australia and Singapore) but he is nearing retirement. When he retires, the plan is for the entire family to leave Singapore and live in Australia.

At my end, I'm starting to suspect that the corner cluster house might not be the most appropriate home for my family. The house is very big, with four floors, one basement and a large PES. It's the kind of place where I might have to shout "Where are you?!" a lot, before I can find my own kids, or wife, or maid.

Staying in a condo apartment might be a better idea for us.

Jan 13, 2010

The Mystery of the Missing Pig

First we had that unnecessary hoo-haa in Malaysia, about the word Allah, and it escalated into something really nasty, with churches getting burned and all that.

Now we have another example of foolishness - alas, this time it is happening in Singapore, not in Malaysia. This one won't escalate into a mess, but it is an example of foolishness nonetheless.
    ST Forum, Jan 13, 2010
    Hard to believe McDonald's promotion was not about the zodiac

    I WAS born in the year of the Pig. So, when I first saw the toy collectibles in a McDonald's outlet, I stared at the display for a long while to confirm that I was not mistaken: that McDonald's had omitted my Chinese zodiac sign.

    The pig was not one of the 12 collectible designs representing the dozen animals of the Chinese zodiac. Instead McDonald's replaced it with Cupid.

    I wrote to McDonald's last week to ask why and to say why it was wrong:

    - Cupid is not a Chinese zodiac sign;

    - While McDonald's is a halal restaurant, and the reason for replacing the pig is to be sensitive towards the Muslim customers, the exclusion seems to be disrespectful and insensitive to Chinese patrons.

    - By replacing the pig, McDonald's is suggesting that the Muslim community is not tolerant enough to accept it as part of the Chinese zodiac.

    McDonald's said that as Valentine's Day coincided on the first day of the Chinese New Year, it decided on Cupid.

    It also stated that its Doraemon lucky charms promotion was never intended as a zodiac collection.

    If the 12 designs were not meant to mimic the 12 zodiac signs, why are customers upset?

    Tan Chin Kwang
For goodness sakes, Chin Kwang. It's a McDonald's souvenir. It's a free gift. It's just a little pig toy, for kids!

Okay, there is no pig. You can't get a pig. So go get yourself the tiger, the horse, the bull, the monkey.

What? You're born in the Year of the Pig? And you must have a pig toy? Okay, then go somewhere else and buy it. Die die MUST get a pig toy from McDonald's meh?!!

There are things in life which are worth making a fuss over. And there are things in life which are not. Free gifts from fast food restaurants, in my opinion, belong to the latter category.

Jan 12, 2010

An Alternative Model for Preschoolers

      ST Jan 11, 2010
      Pre-school is affordable

      A VARIETY of schemes and grants has helped make pre-school education affordable for low and mid-income families, said Minister of Education Ng Eng Hen in Parliament on Monday.

      These have ensured that over 97 per cent of children from each cohort do attend pre-school before they enter Primary One, even though pre-school has not been nationalised.

      Mr Ng was addressing the concerns of MPs in Parliament that pre-school education would be out of reach for the low-income unless the system is nationalised.

      Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan expressed the worry that children who do not go through pre-school education will start primary school at a disadvantage. 'It is very important for us to make sure that access is universal,' he said.

Most people assume that kids ought to go to kindergarten. And that if the kids don't go, it's because the parents are too poor, or the family is dysfunctional.

Well, my daughter finished Kindergarten One last year. And this year we are not sending her to Kindergarten Two. (Oh, we are also neither poor nor dysfunctional).

What happened? Well, we realised that she was under-challenged and quite bored in Kindergarten One. It was basically a waste of her time.

She's somewhat more advanced than most kids her age. For example, she doesn't have any problems reading her big brother's Primary 2 textbooks.

Instead of sending her to a normal kindergarten, we are now sending her for a couple of enrichment courses. Maths; Chinese; English; Speech & Drama .... and she has swimming lessons too.

Does it sound like a lot? It's not. The total time she spends in class is less than half of what she would spend, if she were attending kindergarten every day. After all, most of these enrichment courses are only once a week.

These courses are more challenging than the typical K2 syllabus. You'll have to pick & choose your enrichment courses and schools, of course.

The rest of the time - the girl is at home. I supply plenty of books, toys and art materials, to keep her occupied.

I suppose it could get lonely, if she were an only child. But she's not. Apart from the fact that she has a big brother to play with, my wife does also regularly take her to play with other kids.

I don't know any other parents who have done what we've done with our daughter (I mean - about taking her out of kindergarten). Still I must say that so far, it seems to work quite well.

Jan 10, 2010

How Not To Choose Your Aquarium Fish

Yesterday I said goodbye to my two plecos. Fished them out of my tank, put them in a pail and released them into a big pond at a nearby condo development.

When I first bought the plecos, they were 3 cm each, or roughly half the length of my little finger. That was eight years ago. Now they are about 25 cm, about as long as my forearm.

I let them go, because my tank has become too small for them. I really should have done this a year or two ago. However, I've been both lazy, and a little sad to say goodbye to these guys.

Eight years ago, I had bought the plecos, because of their tank-cleaning ability (plecos will suck and eat algae right off your aquarium glass walls). They are also easy to keep in a community tank, as they are completely docile and non-aggressive towards other fish. What I didn't expect was that my plecos would live so long and grow so big.

With hindsight, my purchase of the two plecos was a classic aquarist's mistake. The fish that you see on sale at aquarium shops are usually babies and juveniles. What you need to know is the maximum adult size of that particular species. If your tank is too small for a full-grown adult specimen to be swimming around freely in it (and if you don't want the hassle of upgrading to a larger tank), then you shouldn't buy that species of fish at all.

In the wild, plecos can reach a size that you'd never see in a home aquarium. See this monstrously large specimen:

Another classic victim of the size problem is the arowana. They are highly popular among Chinese businessmen, because they are believed to bring good luck and prosperity. On the other hand, most home aquariums are too small for an adult arowana to feel comfortable in it.

Also, arowanas are very powerful jumpers. In the wild, they have been reported to jump right out of the water to catch insects and small birds on overhanging branches.

In the home context, this means that one morning you might wake up to find that your arowana has jumped right out of its tank and is lying dead on your floor.

To raise arowana properly, you would need either a custom-made and very large fish tank, or a pond. All but the most serious aquarists should stay away from trying this species.

It's only when you see an arowana in a large open water area that you will truly appreciate what a beautiful fish it is. It moves with speed, power and grace - qualities which you won't really see if the arowana is stuck in a little tank.

And here's a fascinating video, showing two arowanas breeding. Stick around to the end, to see what the male does with the eggs! It isn't eating the eggs, it's keeping them in his mouth, to protect them. Really worth watching, if you're a fish enthusiast.

Jan 9, 2010

Another Review of Two Baby Hands

NP Tribune is Ngee Ann Polytechnic's student newspaper. Apparently it's been in production for the past 18 years. A friend just sent me a page from the latest issue, because it contains a review of my poetry book Two Baby Hands.

This reviewer, Grace Yeoh, appears to have enjoyed my poems a lot. Her only complaint is that the book is too short. She finished reading the 99-page volume "all too soon" and that caused her some disappointment.

Elsewhere in the article, Grace is lavish with her positive adjectives, describing my book as "such a good find", and my poems as "enthralling".

The review ends on a very "thumbs up" note:
    "Despite its stark and simple language, Two Baby Hands has the amazing ability to affect you deeply, and leave you in a reflective state of mind.


    That is the lingering feeling that Two Baby Hands leaves one with, long after the last page is turned."
Well, that's another small piece of personal memorabilia, to add to my collection. Thank you, Dr David Fedo, for sending the article to me.

Jan 5, 2010

Singaporeans, Foreigners, Babies and the Property Market

Some news about the property market:
      ST Jan 5, 2010
      Resale HDB flat prices hit new high
      Year's total increase amounts to 8%; private home prices too are up
      By Jessica Cheam

      HOUSING Board (HDB) resale flat prices continue to climb ever higher, with prices in the fourth quarter of last year setting a new record.

      Flash estimates released by the HDB yesterday show prices rose by 3.8 per cent in the fourth quarter, bringing last year's total price rise to about 8 per cent - a surprise outcome for many property experts who had predicted price falls at the start of last year.

      The Resale Price Index (RPI) hit 150.7 in the fourth quarter, up from the third quarter's 145.2 and far beyond the previous peak of 136.9 achieved in the fourth quarter of 1996.

      HDB flat prices have risen almost 40 per cent over the past three years.

Guess who sold his HDB apartment in the last quarter? Heheh.

There is no such thing as a good market or a bad market - it all depends on which side of the market you're on. That is to say, whether you are a buyer or a seller.

Luckily for me, I bought my other home in March 2009, when the market was at its bottom. As a buyer, I caught the bottom, and as a seller I caught the high.

Nevertheless I do feel sorry for young Singaporean families who are now finding it difficult to buy their first home. And here's a big reason for their difficulty:
      ....... PropNex chief executive Mohamed Ismail said that permanent residents easily made up 20 per cent of his agency's total HDB sales.

      At C&H Realty, this group of buyers account for as many as 50 per cent of all HDB resale transactions, revealed managing director Albert Lu.
By now, the Singapore government must surely be well aware of the housing problem. In fact I'm certain that this issue is one reason why PM Lee made such a shocking point - Singaporeans are top priority! - in his New Year speech a few days ago.
      ST Jan 1, 2010
      Singaporeans come first for Govt: PM
      Sharing benefits by raising per capita income is one big aim
      By Kor Kian Beng, Political Correspondent

      SINGAPOREANS are top priority for the Government, which will aim to grow the economy in a way that allows all citizens to share in the benefits, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has emphasised in his New Year message for 2010.

      ... At the same time, the Government will also 'manage and moderate' the inflow of foreign workers so that Singaporeans are not overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, he said.
The question is - what can or will the government do, to make housing more affordable and available again, for the average Singaporean? Back to the ST property article:
      HDB yesterday moved to address supply concerns by announcing it would launch more build-to-order (BTO) flats this year if there was 'sustained demand for new flats'. It would, it added, 'ensure that there is an adequate supply of flats to meet prevailing housing needs'.

      Some 1,300 new flats are to be launched for sale today by HDB in Choa Chu Kang and Hougang.

      As an indication of the red-hot demand for homes, there was an overwhelming response to a recent launch by HDB of BTO flats at Dawson, where some flats were more than 11 times oversubscribed.
These measures are helpful but somewhat inadequate. Why? Because the construction phase itself will take another three, four or five years. Whatever new flats the HDB may launch this year, they won't be ready till 2013, 2014 or 2015.

Meanwhile, many Singaporeans will still be needing a more immediate roof over their heads. One option is to rent. For the average Singaporean, renting HDB accommodation would traditionally be the most affordable route. Alas, what would be the problem here?
    Integrated Resorts in Singapore upbeat about outlook in 2010
    By Wong Siew Ying, Channel NewsAsia
    23 December 2009

    SINGAPORE: Three years in the making and Singapore's two integrated resorts will finally open soon and the operators are upbeat about the prospects. Resorts World Sentosa, due to open in a matter of weeks, expects to attract 13 million visitors in the first year alone.

An entertainment industry like Resorts World is very labour-intensive. It's unlike, say, the pharmaceutical R&D industry at Biopolis, which will go a long way with a few dozen highly qualified, top-notch scientists.

The estimate is that when the two IRs are up and running, they will have created about 50,000 to 60,000 new jobs. If half the jobs go to foreigners, we're expecting a flood of 25,000 to 30,000 new foreigners coming to reside in Singapore, just for the IR jobs alone.

Most of these foreigners won't be the senior management types (the kind who will rent a District 10 condo or house to live in). Instead they will be the croupiers, the ticket sales staff, the cleaners, the ride operators, the F&B staff, the theme park guy who dresses up in the funny costume and entertains the kids.

These are the same foreigners who will need to rent a HDB flat. Their sheer numbers will push up the rental demand for HDB accommodation. When demand goes up, so will the rental price.

Many Singaporeans will be caught out. They can't afford to buy, they can't afford to rent. They will park themselves with their parents or in-laws, and defer marriage and/or childbirth.

A few years later, PM Lee will stare at his charts and numbers, and lament once again about how come Singaporeans are getting married later and later, and why are the birth rates falling lower and lower again.

Then in his great wisdom, he will conclude, "Oh we need to import more foreigners."

Jan 4, 2010

God, By Any Other Name

A big controversy is brewing in Malaysia right now. It's all about whether Catholic publications should be allowed to use the word "Allah" to refer to "God".

The executive government had said "no". Then the High Court said "yes". And now NGOs in Kuala Lumpur are protesting and saying "no".

      Protests in KL, Penang over 'Allah' ruling
      Protests were against the use of the word "Allah" in the Herald, a Catholic weekly.
      -New Straits Times, Jan 04, 2010

      KUALA LUMPUR: Thirteen non-governmental organisations protested here yesterday against the use of the word "Allah" in the Herald, a Catholic weekly.

      Ten police reports were also lodged by the NGOs to express their disappointment over the use of the word in the publication. About 100 protesters gathered outside the Sentul district police headquarters about 3pm before 10 representatives were allowed in.

      The entourage was led by Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia secretary-general Datuk Dr Ma'amor Osman.

      In his police report, Dr Ma'amor said the NGOs requested for an investigation into the publisher and that the publication stop using the word.

      "We are acting based on the Rukun Negara, where Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan (Belief in God), is a general way of describing God in the context of a multiracial country."

      Dr Ma'amor said "Allah" was generally used by Muslims to describe Him exclusively.

      "The issue is very sensitive, especially for Muslims in the country and has to be dealt with in a proper manner to avoid unnecessary racial tension."

      ..... On Thursday, High Court judge Lau Bee Lan granted approval to the Herald to continue using the word "Allah", after dismissing the home minister's prohibition on it.

      In her decision, Lau declared that under Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution, applicant Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam had the constitutional right to use "Allah" in the Herald in the exercise of his right that religions other than Islam might be practised in peace and harmony in the country.

      On Feb 16 last year, Pakiam filed for a judicial review on the usage of the word "Allah" in church publications, on the basis that the word was not exclusive to Islam.

      The church publishes the Herald, a weekly which is available in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil.

      It had challenged the home minister's order to stop using the word "Allah" in a non-Muslim context which was made on Jan 7 last year.

      In George Town, a crowd of about 250 people gathered in front of the Penang High Court at Lebuh Light yesterday to show their unhappiness ....
The above matter does not particularly excite me (since I am neither Catholic nor Muslim). But I do find the matter a little ironic. After all, the Catholics and the Muslims (and in fact the Jews too) all worship the same God.

No doubt some Catholics and Muslims might disagree with my preceding statement. If they do, it's because they don't know the religions very well.

The respective stories of Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) are inextricably intertwined, featuring many of the same figures and places in the Middle East. All three religions can be traced to the same common origin.

Historically, Judaism was first. Christianity came next, followed by Islam. But when a Muslim prays, when a Christian prays, when a Jew prays, each of them is praying to the one and the same God that Abraham worshipped.

That's why the three religions are known as the Abrahamic religions. And what does Wikipedia tell us about the word Allah? An excerpt:

      Allah is the standard Arabic word for God. While the term is best known in the West for its use by Muslims as a reference to God, it is used by Arabic-speakers of all Abrahamic faiths, including Christians and Jews, in reference to "God" ...

                .... Arabic-speakers of all Abrahamic faiths, including Christians and Jews, use the word "Allah" to mean "God". The Christian Arabs of today have no other word for 'God' than 'Allah'.

            There you go.

            In one sense, you could say that the Malaysian controversy is a contest to establish who's entitled to use what word, to refer to the same thing. However, the usefulness of such a contest is unclear to me.

            If I were a Muslim, I would probably say, "Oh never mind, let the Catholics go ahead and use the word Allah."

            If I were a Catholic, I would probably say, "Oh never mind, let's just drop the word Allah and use the word Tuhan instead."

            But then I am neither Muslim nor Catholic. So instead as a member of the human race, I can only say, "Sigh, here we go again, yet another religious spat. Another fine example of love, peace and harmony."

            At this point, I can't help but be reminded of Eckhart Tolle. He hails from Germany and is a non-religious spiritual teacher (and no, that is not a oxymoron). Tolle stopped using the word God, because he found that the word means too many different things to different people. Too much historical, social and cultural baggage is attached, and he found that most of it is unhelpful.

            So Tolle does not use the word God anymore. Instead he uses the word Being. A new word, a fresh word, a marvellous starting point for rediscovering man's relationship with the divine.

            Best of all, with a word like Being, you won't accidentally break anybody's rules about what you can say or think, or cannot say nor think, about ... God.