Dec 29, 2011

The Project Begins

I have started on my 6 PM Project and I wanted to tell you about the first few steps that I am taking.

Firstly, I am aiming not merely for a Clean Desk, but for an Almost Bare Desk. No piece of paper shall be on my desk, unless it actually requires me to take some specific action on it. Once the action is taken, the document must be thrown away or filed away.

Next, I am tidying up my hard disk. I am setting some new rules to create a more rational system for organising all my soft-copy reference materials. This will save me time whenever I need to search for something.

One new idea is not to just save one copy of a document, but to make multiple copies, and cross-file; them in all relevant folders. For example, if I have a document concerning commodity derivatives in Thailand, I would not file it just under my "Commodity Derivatives" folder, nor just under my "Thailand" folder, but in both folders. So in future, the document should be easier to locate.

As for relevant information available from public online sources, I will continue to use my blog, The Asian Banking Lawyer, to hyperlink to them. I will also be making greater use of Google's Email Alert service, to track industry developments relevant to my work.

You might be impressed to know that I usually have less than 10 emails in my office email inbox. I have a system for processing my emails quickly. They are rapidly filed away in a system of moveable folders and subfolders in Lotus Notes. These folders and subfolders themselves become my to-do list. Low-priority matters are pushed to the lowest parts of the list, while important matters go to the top.

I am setting an alarm in my iPhone to go off at 5:30 pm, from Mondays to Fridays. The alarm is to remind me to start wrapping up my work, in preparation for leaving the office at 6 pm.

I will be getting an alarm clock and placing it on my desk. If I need to focus on an important piece of work, I will hang up my phone and set myself a definite time (eg 45 minutes) to tackle the piece of work. I won't be taking any calls during those 45 minutes.

I have printed out a monthly calendar. This one gets to stay on my desk. I will tick the days on which I do succeed in leaving at 6 pm sharp. For the days on which I fail, I will jot down the reason why. After a few weeks or maybe a month, I think that I will have some useful data to to identify any recurring obstacles for my 6 pm project.

That's it for now. I expect to roll out more ideas in the near future, for greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Dec 27, 2011

My Six O'Clock Project

When I was a kid, my parents often emphasised the importance of hard work. My mother would even say, "It doesn't matter if you score badly in your exams, so long as you had studied hard and tried your best". At first sight, this philosophy sounds plausible enough. However, upon closer scrutiny, you might find that it doesn't quite hold up.

Consider your workplace. Make a list of the most successful people (those who are on the promotion track, those who got the biggest bonuses, and so on). Then for each of these people, write down what you think are the top 3 reasons for his or her success. I suspect that you'll end up with quite a variety of different reasons. For example:

"good interpersonal skills",
"smart and talented",
"very experienced",
"handles the high-profile work"
"outstanding problem-solving ability"
"because he has plenty of important clients"
"excellent communication skills"

Less politically-correct reasons (which is not to say that they are invalid) may include:

"his skin is of the right colour"
"sucks up to the Boss"
"very good at taking credit for other people's work"
"her father is the CEO"
"PSC scholars always get promoted even if they are idiots"

Anyway, my point is that there is little correlation between hard work and career success. People who actually get ahead in the workplace may get ahead for a wide variety of reasons, other than old-fashioned hard work.

Laziness is probably detrimental to your career progression. But diligence is definitely no guarantee of success. To see if this is true, check your workplace again. Make a list of the most hardworking people. You'll probably notice that some of your colleagues work very hard, but don't seem to even get appreciation, much less achieve career success.

(Actually, this is true of our education system as well. There are plenty of students who slog very hard and produce only mediocre grades).

Unfortunately, many Singaporeans are culturally conditioned to work hard. I say that this is unfortunate - because as I've already pointed out, hard work doesn't necessarily get you anywhere. On the contrary, there is a personal price to pay for hard work (think migraines, heart disease, stomach ulcers and hypertension). And excessive diligence at work will also deprives you of your personal time, including time with your family.

So ....

Come 2012, I am going to launch a new personal project. I call it my 6 p.m. project. My mission is to leave the office at 6 pm sharp as often as possible. Ideally, 5 days a week, for most weeks. I'll even keep a log.

On average, in 2011, I left the office around 8 pm. So if I now succeed in leaving at 6 pm instead, I save 10 hours per week, or 40 hours per month. That sounds pretty good to me.

I don't intend to get sloppy with my work. I do intend to become more efficient and productive. I plan to find good ideas and clever ways to get all my usual work done on time and done well, despite my working 40 hours less per month.

How exactly will I do that? Stay tuned. I'm still figuring it out myself. As the 6 p.m project progresses, I'll let you know the details.

Dec 19, 2011

Poetry by the People

Moving Words was a literary project that launched in Singapore earlier this year. I was one of the 12 featured poets in Phase One, which meant that a poem of mine was chosen and displayed on a billboard featured at various MRT stations. If you are a regular train user, you've probably seen some of those poems from the different writers.

This was part of the promotional publicity for Phase 2, a writing competition which was open to all members of the public. The response was quite excellent, and the organisers received nearly 2,000 entries. In the final phase of Moving Words, about 125 of these entries were selected for publication in a book, which was then launched during the Singapore Writers Festival. The editor was Alvin Pang, a well-known face in the Singapore literary scene.

One interesting thing about such a book is that it shows you new, fresh writing by people whom you had never even heard of before. The vast majority of writers featured in the anthology have not previously published their own books nor won any literary award. Nevertheless the quality of writing remains decent, for these are, after all, the best 125 pieces culled from a much larger pool of nearly 2,000 entries.

As Moving Words was a multi-lingual project, the poems come in four languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. All the non-English poems in the book also come with an English translation. The editor You can order the book directly from the publisher here or from Select Books.

From the book, I offer a sample poem, written by one Gan See Siong, who is a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic. It's a rather mischievous poem, with a particularly naughty ending.

You Need Me

"You like to enter me in the wee hours of morning
That part of yours in protective sheath
And go romping with me
Three to four times a week.

A gentle man you are not
For without warning you would spread me wide
To accommodate the full extent of you.

You strapped me up
With those dexterous fingers
So close I can see your grim determination
The even rise and fall of your chest.

And just like that
You would head me
Down the pleasure road
Growing all hot and hard in me.

If only you knew how I long for these sessions,
They are the reason why I even exist," said the pair of running shoes.

Dec 18, 2011

The Ups and Downs of 2011 for Me

As the year draws to a dark and rainy close, I thought I would pen a few thoughts about how 2011 has played out for me.

It wasn't the best of years. It wasn't the worst. The biggest change was moving to my new house, getting all the renovations done and helping everyone to adjust and adapt to the new home. It wasn't always easy, but now we are nicely settled down and I'm grateful.

We had a few incidents with unpleasant neighbours. There were also various unhappy incidents between other neighbours (not involving me). One of them reached the point when a defamation lawsuit was actually threatened. I spoke to friends and acquantances and it seems that such unhappy incidents aren't exactly that uncommon in cluster houses.

A contractor told me point-blank that in his experience, the owner of the largest unit always has problems with neighbours (I happen to own the largest unit). According to the contractor, the underlying cause is their jealousy. Well, I put all that unpleasant stuff behind me now. But there is a particular neighbour whom I will completely ignore for the rest of my life. Either that, or I will give her a cold glare. My children call her the "fat bitch". In this particular instance, I won't object to their language.

I was pleased that at the start of the year, we managed to get our son transferred to a better primary school. He is now a Catholic High student. He has adapted well to his new school and enjoys being there. At his previous school, he was shy and quiet and had been targeted by bullies more than once. Catholic High seems to have given him more confidence and he has even assumed a leadership role as class monitor.

My daughter had a great Primary 1 year in school and enjoyed herself thoroughly. She isn't in one of the top schools, but sometimes maybe things work out better that way. She's having a fun time being one of the top students. It's a self-esteem building experience which  she probably couldn't have had, if she had gone to a more competitive school.

At work, I had two surprises in the early part of the year. The first was a surprise of the disappointing kind. Despite many earlier promises and positive words, I didn't get promoted. The second surprise was that I received what was a rather large bonus (considering the state of the financial industry these days).

I think that to some extent, the organisation was trying to make up for my non-promotion by giving me a bigger bonus. Oh well. All in all, not such a bad deal, after all. Between an improved corporate title and a big sum of cash, I'll take the cash anytime.

The work itself was pretty interesting. I did a lot of legal work relating to very new developments in the industry, concerning how the governments in various  countries are creating new laws to regulate the OTC derivatives industry, post the 2008 financial crisis. I think I've carved out a niche in this area. I was invited this year to speak at a conference on such topics, and I have another invitation to speak at a conference in April next year.

I took another CMFAS exam, and passed. I am now qualified to be both a stockbroker and a personal financial adviser. Not that I have any concrete plans to do so anytime in the near future, but hey, everyone needs some kind of Plan B. In 2012, I may sign myself up for more CMFAS exams.

I didn't travel much this year. I did take the family to Penang and Langkawi in June, and to Korea this month. Penang has plenty of good food, and a temple or two that's worth a look, but otherwise it's still a rather sleepy town. I found Langkawi more interesting, for the eco-tourism aspects. We explored a bat cave and fed some eagles and visited a fish farm, things like that.

It was very cold when we visited Korea. The temperature was down to -2 degrees in Seoul, and even colder when we went to the mountain area to see their national park. But the kids had plenty of fun in the snow and ice. We also went to the northernmost point of South Korea, where after passing several military checkpoints, we got to peer at the mysterious land of North Korea, using telescopes at an observatory.

On the writing front, I had a few old poems published in new anthologies. I was a featured writer in the Singapore Writers Festival. I was also part of the Moving Words project, and had a poem featured on Singapore's MRT trains. Those were the highlights, but overall it wasn't a great year as I hardly wrote anything new.

A dear old aunt of mine passed away in February. Colorectal cancer. I worry sometimes about my uncle (her husband), who's in his 80s and now lives all alone in a little HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio. I know that he was very, very affected by my aunt's death. I hope he's gotten over it by now.

It waa a crap year, as far as my own health and fitness was concerned. For a while, it appeared that I had borderline high blood pressure. I resolved to exercise regularly, but it didn't quite work out that way; I just never managed to stick to the plan. All the good intentions would peter out in a few weeks, then two months would pass, then I would try again, then the cycle would repeat.

I did succeed in eating more healthily (I now often have a salad for both breakfast and lunch). My BP has fallen back into the normal/healthy range, but whatever the reason was, it sure wasn't because of exercise.

I'd say a few things about Mrs Wang's year too, but she's told me not to. She likes her privacy.

My happiest moments of the year were the same kind as the happiest moments of the past seven years or so. Private moments with my two children - playing with them, talking to them, hugging them. I love being a dad, and watching them grow up.

P.S. My daughter just asked me why my blog is known as "Mr Wang Says So", and not "Mr Koh Says So". Long history, my dear. Tell you another time.

The MRT Train Breakdown - Passing the Buck in a Blame Game

One year ago, I had already written several posts about the falling standards of public transport in Singapore. Of course, those posts attracted a few of the usual criticisms that I was irrationally anti-PAP.

Well, as you know by now, the MRT trains broke down very badly a few days ago. Service was disrupted for many hours. Passengers were trapped in darkness without ventilation. Someone had to use a fire extinguisher to smash the glass panel of the train door, so that everyone else could breathe. Passengers had to force the doors open themselves, in order to get out.

Problems like that don't happen overnight. They never do. They are just symptoms of deeper systemic failures. What those failures are, we'll eventually know - if the goverment actually reveals its findings in an honest manner.  But the point is that when something like this happens, it's typically the result of an extended period of time over which the trains are badly managed. If the train system had been regularly inspected and properly maintained, it wouldn't just massively break down like that.

I read the news, and I see that Mr Lui Tuck Yew, the Transport Minister, is making a big hue and cry. Oh, how clever. Immediately, he shoves all the potential blame at SMRT and talks about how he's going to get a panel of experts to inspect SMRT and find out the problems yadda yadda yadda.

Well, I'm sure that SMRT is to blame. But what about the PAP government itself? After all, this is public transport. Mr Lui, do you mean to say that the government has no regular role in making sure that the public transport actually works? That the trains run properly, that buses are safe, and so on? Come on, Mr Transport Minister. What has your ministry been doing all this time?

I'm scared, you know. I am a regular train user. I don't want to be trapped underground, for who knows how long, in the dark, without ventilation, on a crowded train, with oxygen running out.

If Lui and the SMRT can't solve the problem quickly, I suggest that as an interim measure that every train must be equipped with emergency torchlights and sledgehammers. The torchlights are for lighting, and the sledgehammers are to prevent suffocation.

"Singaporeans must be self-reliant and not expect the
Government to do everything for them."

Nov 26, 2011

Commodity Derivatives in a Rapidly Changing World

I just got invited to speak at another conference. This one is about commodities and will be held in April next year. The organiser is Marcus Evans.

My topic will be something along these lines - "The Global Regulatory Landscape: Developments for OTC Commodity Derivatives".

I'll be speaking on recent developments in the U.S., and then I will move on to talk about Europe. Finally I'll wrap up by discussing a few countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

I will probably have just one hour to cover all that. So the talk is going to be quite "big picture" and "high-level".

I used to do a lot of legal work relating specifically to commodities - oil, gold, sugar, steel and coal, for instance - but I haven't done much of it in the past year. However, I have been doing plenty of work relating to the G20 commitments made in September 2009.

The G20 commitments aim to revamp the derivatives industry worldwide. To a greater or lesser extent, they will affect all classes of derivatives, including commodity derivatives. And for the purposes of my April conference, the commodities angle is what I'll be focusing on.

From a career perspective, many people in the derivatives industry are worried about the G20 commitments. Potentially, the changes might greatly benefit the exchanges (such as SGX). But they will hurt many bank employees currently working in derivatives-related jobs. I predict that many of those jobs will eventually disappear, perhaps by as soon as the end of 2012.

As for myself, well, I too am a bank employee working in a derivatives-related job. So I think that I am at some risk too. But for at least the next two years, I should be okay. That's because with a little luck and strategising, I've managed to position myself as an expert on the legal issues arising out of the G20 commitments. In other words, I'm still needed to guide and advise my employer - on those very same developments that will eliminate many other people's jobs.

In fact, because the legal developments from the G20 committee are so new and complex, there are still relatively few lawyers who know them well. That's why I even get invited to be a conference speaker on such topics.

Nov 23, 2011

What Shall I Do With This Blog?

I really don't know. I do know that I am not interested in blogging about social issues and political stuff anymore. On the other hand, I'm also not the kind of person who will blog freely about my private life, for anyone in the world to see.

I could blog about my various interests. On the other hand, I have many varied interests, more than most other people. Over time, this blog could grow rather incoherent and messy, just because my interests are so varied.
Then again, since I am not aiming to make a living from Google Adsense, do I care if my blog grows incoherent and messy? Probably not.

I thought I might use this blog as a platform for my creative writing. Some draft poems, some excerpts from draft short stories and so on. The first problem is that I don't do much creative writing anymore. The second problem is that I have to get used to the idea of putting draft work out into the world. Most writers don't like to show their raw, unfinished pieces to the world.

One possibility I am considering is writing reviews about the books I read. "Reviews" may be an overstatement - I don't want to write real, heavy-duty reviews - it's more just like sharing some observations and thoughts and excerpts about any interesting books that I come across.

Mmmmm, with a bit of work, that might get me to the point where publishers send me free books, to entice me to give them some publicity. Done some of that in the past, but I didn't quite sustain it long enough to get that many free books. I did get a couple though, hahaa.

Nov 9, 2011

Investing in Death

One year ago, I engaged a financial adviser. We had a review of my portfolio this week. The portfolio has done well. I made about 8% over one year, which is very good, considering how disastrous the year 2011 has generally been, for stock markets around the world.

This performance has been possible, because a good part of my portfolio was not in the traditional sort of equity funds. In fact, a good part of the portfolio was not in equities at all. The advantage of being an accredited investor is that I get to invest in more esoteric instruments that may not be accessible for ordinary retail investors.

Of course, this doesn't mean that esoteric instruments always make money. They can lose money too. However, they do significantly broaden your diversification options.

My financial advisor is now recommending that I consider a life settlement fund. I already know about these. I've never invested in these before, but I've read about them. In principle, they make sense to me. However, they have been the subject of some controversy in the US (which is also the only major market for such investments). How do they work?

A life settlement fund invests in life insurance policies. Where do they get these policies? They buy them from the policyholders. Who are these policyholders? Typically, they are people with a low life expectancy. They could be very old, or they could be suffering from some terminal illness such as AIDS or cancer.

So let's say you have a life insurance policy that promises to pay $1,000,000 when you die. And you happen to be very ill. You can't get the money while you're alive. And the money will be useless to you, when you die. You would rather have the money now, which you can immediately use either for your medical treatment, or just to enjoy what's left of your life.

In that case, the life settlement fund could buy the policy from you for, say, $800,000 (I have no idea what the typical pricing is like - I'm just using the $800,000 figure as an example). You get $800,000, to spend as you please. Two years later, you die.

The life settlement fund then gets to collect $1,000,000 from the insurance company. So essentially, over a two-year period, the life settlement fund has made a $200,000 profit, out of its $800,000 investment (less the premiums that the fund paid over that period).

This is the kind of investment that a life settlement fund makes. Of course, it does not just invest in one or two policies. Instead it invests in large numbers of life policies.

It's rather morbid. The faster these people die, the more money the life settlement fund makes. Conversely, the longer these people live (and who knows, a few people may even manage to recover from their supposedly terminal illness), the less profitable the fund will be. A "good" investment is someone who is very ill, has high chances of dying soon and owns a policy with a large payout.

For the investor, what are the advantages of investing in a life settlement fund? Well, it is excellent for diversification purposes. There is very little correlation to equity markets, or bond markets, or commodities, or other more-traditional classes of financial investments. Thus your investment could continue generating good returns, even if stock markets collapse badly.

The way they did, this year.

The Children's Poem

So I did write that poem for the Straits Times (they wanted a children's poem). I still don't know whether they will select it, but chances should be reasonably good.

The Straits Times is increasing its fee to $300. This is for wider copyrights to the poem. They want permanent copyright to the poem, which means that they can use it as many times they like and they can publish it in other SPH publications too.

Oh well, whatever. I'll take the $300.

It was an enjoyable experience - writing a poem for kids. I wrote one that had plenty of action, drama and sound effects. It would be fun for kids to read and act it out in a kindergarten class. My poem is entitled "The Monsters Under My Bed". I would like to reproduce it here on this blog, but I think I'm not supposed to.

Anyway, I tested it out on my kids and the response was good. My son kept laughing out, as he read it, which meant I achieved the desired effect (it's supposed to be a humorous poem).

Oct 31, 2011

Why Facebook Killed The Blogger

The Singapore Writers Festival has just ended. I was a "Featured Author" (that's the term they use) for an event on the last day. It was a panel discussion at the National Museum. The other panellists were Pat Law and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, and the moderator was Dr Gwee Li Sui. The session was provocatively entitled "Why Facebook Killed The Blogger".

When I first showed up at the venue, it struck me as rather large. I had expected a smaller venue. To my surprise, people streamed in steadily and the seats were filled up pretty quickly. It was almost full-house by the time we got started. I didn't do an exact count, but I estimate that about 100 people showed up for our one-hour discussion (which was about writing on the Internet).

I spotted a number of other writers in the audience, including Felix Cheong, Chris Mooney-Singh and Dave Chua. The audience was very lively during the Q&A session, and the questions came thick and fast. There were questions about whether the popularity of Facebook was rendering the blogging platform obsolete; and the importance of writing quickly about hot topics in order to get high readership.

Someone asked about whether prolific bloggers were better off spending their time writing actual books and getting them published. Another person asked if blogging (as well as other electronic media such as Twitter and SMS on phones) was lowering the standard of written English. Juz cos many guys n gals will rite like dis, u know. :)

It was an interesting session, and we eventually ran out of time. I didn't get to respond to all the questions as thoroughly as I would have liked, but I guess that was somewhat inevitable. The National Arts Council paid me $250 for my time, which is nice because I do several talks in different capacities on different topics every year, but I rarely get paid.

The guy standing on the left of the billboard is Aaron Lee.
Mr Wang is one of the folks shown on the billboard itself.

Oct 28, 2011

Poetry, Music and Some Memories

So last Tuesday night, I found myself back in my old secondary school. At least that's what it's used to be. Today it's more commonly known as the Singapore Art Museum. I had a few small moments of nostalgia, wandering through its hallways trying to figure out where the school canteen and the P.E. room used to be.

I was there for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, held in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival. QLRS is a website founded by my friend and fellow writer Toh Hsien Min which over the past decade, has published a rather impressive collection of poems and prose  from many writers, both local and foreign.

It was a pretty decent turnout. I estimate that there were more than 100 people in the audience. I was one of the invited readers, and I chose to read three of my old poems published in QLRS 10 years ago. Here's one of them:

Garden City

Let there be trees, the man said, and lo and behold,
there were trees – rain trees, angsanas, flames of the forest,
causarinas, traveller’s palms and more – springing up against
the steel and concrete of the expanding city.
Even as the true towers of the city climbed higher
and higher for the heavens, the trees were planted, replanted,
transplanted, watered, fertilised, and groomed to grow
and grow. They appeared overnight, abandoned the
chaos of jungle, bent to the will of man, grew in straight lines,
in squares and rectangles, in allocated corners,
in car parks, along highways, outside banks and buildings,
faithful to the commandments of urban developers.
The hard lines of architecture were softened,
the rain did fall, the green did gently, gently grow,
and in his seventieth year, the man was pleased,
as he rested, as he viewed his work, as he felt the weight
of a nation’s soil run slowly through his old green hands.

The poem is about Lee Kuan Yew and one of his pet projects - the greening of the Singapore cityscape. At the same time, the poem also alludes to his vast power and his grip on the country, and reminds us of  the extent of social engineering that goes on in our interesting little island-nation. 
At the QLRS event, apart from the literary readings, there were also musical performances. One of them was by Kelvin Tan - a writer, singer & songwriter who is also a part-time lecturer at the Lasalle School of Fine Arts. Here is Kelvin's folksy, unplugged performance, of one of his own original songs:



I liked that. It starts off on a quiet note, but gets more exciting later. Yes, if you want to be fussy, you can quibble about some details - but overall, it was a very good performance, done with passion and feeling. And Kelvin's hat is so Elton John-ish. :)

Oct 9, 2011

On Sonny Liew, Art and Poems

Several developments on the creative writing front, for me.

Firstly, the Straits Times and the National Arts Council have invited me to write a children's poem, for publication in the newspaper. It would be part of a series to promote little kids' interest in reading and writing. This is quite a new thing for me, as I have not written for children before. But I figure I'll give it a shot. I have promised to deliver a limerick or a nonsense poem - not the kind of writing I would normally do, but I think that this would be fun for kids.

Next, my publisher tells me that he's in the midst of negotiating a contract with Singtel. I'm not too clear on the details yet, but it's got to do with Singtel wanting to purchase Singapore creative writing for an e-platform that it will be launching. If this works out, then some Singapore writers' poems and short stories - including mine - may soon become downloadable on your iPad, iPhone or other smartphone.

Also, on 25th October, I'll be reading some poems at the 10th anniversary celebrations of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. QLRS is a well-known literary website in Singapore, manned by a team of editors including Toh Hsien Min, Yeow Kai Chai and Cyril Wong. Unlike many other short-lived wannabes, QLRS has actually succeeded in staying alive for a decade, regularly publishing poems, short stories and book reviews. Very commendable, and I'm pleased and proud to participate in their upcoming event.

A few days later, on 30 October, I will be a panelist on a discussion entitled "Is Facebook Killing The Blog?". This event is held in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival. Feeling a little unsure about how this particular event will pan out, but what the heck, I'll just go and fearlessly give my two cents worth.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, my publisher tells me that he's been approached by HDB and NAC, concerning one of my poems. Apparently, the proposal is to use this poem to decorate a new HDB block somewhere in Sengkang, together with a mural by award-winning comic-book artist Sonny Liew (who will paint something to illustrate his interpretation of my poem).

Now, that would be something really new and fun for me - to see my poem with a painting, up on a building wall.
Sonny Liew's art.

Oct 3, 2011

Singapore Writers Festival

Hey, look who's right over here. Me.

Okay, that is not really the point. The point is that the Singapore Writers Festival is coming up soon - in the last week of October (from the 22nd to the 30th), and there will be many interesting events for those of you who like to write, as well as those of you who like to read.

The writers participating in the Singapore Writers Festival include the usual suspects from the local scene (Catherine Lim, Alfian Sa'at, Ho Minfong, Edwin Thumboo, Toh Hsien Min, Dave Chua and SuChen Christine Lim, to name a few). And there is also a generous dose of foreign authors including Francis Lelord, Joe Haldeman and Steven Levitt.

Stephen Levitt, author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics.

The Singapore Writers Festival includes events such as lectures, writing workshops, panel discussions, meet-the-author sessions, book launches and more. For full details, visit the SWF official website.

Sep 25, 2011

Mr Wang's Textbook Project

Recently I was approached to co-author a textbook. It would be about financial derivatives in Asia, with a focus on the legal aspects. This topic happens to be exactly what I do for a living (and have been doing for a living, for many years now). So I have the right type of professional knowledge and expertise.

I've checked out my co-author's profile. As he may want his privacy, I shall not mention his name here. All I shall say is that his credentials are pretty respectable. Among other things, he has previously written more than half a dozen legal textbooks, which were published by two well-known legal publishers, namely Sweet & Maxwell, and Lexis Nexis.

So he has solid experience in writing legal textbooks, and I have solid experience in derivatives. I guess we could make a pretty good team. Right now, we are at a preliminary stage of planning - sorting out the contents page, which is an important first step as it will give a clear framework for the entire book.

I do not know how long it will take to get the entire manuscript written. I suspect that it would take somewhere between 9 months and 2.5 years. Obviously this project will require a fair amount of commitment and hard work. But I am willing to go for it because I think that it is a very worthwhile goal, with good rewards to reap for all that labour.

Among other things, successfully writing and publishing a textbook is an excellent showcase of one's professional knowledge. Furthermore, the shelf life of such an achievement is fairly long. Years after the book is published, people in the relevant circles may still have a copy in their personal library, and will remember you because of that.

But quite importantly, I also enjoy writing, and editing, that sort of stuff. Organizing facts and ideas onto a written page is intrinsically appealing and interesting to me.

After Two Baby Hands was published, I always knew that one day I'd get around to a second book. I thought that it could be poetry again, or perhaps a collection of short stories, or a novella. But now it looks like Book 2 will be a legal textbook. Who would have guessed? But I'm game for it.

Sep 22, 2011

Friends, Romans and Countrymen

Over the past few months, I have received many emails from you readers - firstly, concerning my lack of posts, and secondly, concerning my lack of political posts. Some fans have been shocked that I actually let the entire Presidential Elections go by, without writing a single post about it.

That is one of my regrets. Mainly because now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Tan Cheng Bok (whom I voted for) ultimately lost by the tiniest of margins (just a few thousand votes).

If I had just written three or four pro-Tan Cheng Bock posts during the campaign season, I would easily have swung a few thousand votes in his favour. And the history of Singapore would have proceeded in a different direction.

But as I said, this observation is made with the benefit of hindsight. If we had the psychic ability to predict our probable futures, there would be many things that each of us would do differently. Since I don't have such psychic ability, well, I'll just have to move on with life and its miscellaneous regrets.

Anyway, after all these years, I am tired of my label as "Influential Singapore Socio-Political Blogger". It cannot be my problem that there are tens of thousands of you who want me to carry on writing about that sort of stuff. I have done much more than my fair share of National Service in the blogosphere. I think that it's time that some of you step up and fill that gap.

As for this blog, well, I will probably go on writing here. But I will write about any topics that interest me, not just politics. In fact, politics will probably get relegated to "Occasional" status. Increasingly I will use this blog as a personal diary of my own life. (As you may recall, that was the original reason why blogs came into existence).

Some of you long-time readers, who came here primarily for the socio-political  content, will quit reading this blog. This decision I do understand, and to you I say - thank you for reading, all these years. We all have to move on sometime. Me included.

Sep 21, 2011

Mr Wang Gets On Stage

Apart from my exam, I will be speaking at a industry conference sometime next week.

It's a highly technical topic - legal issues concerning the central clearing of OTC derivatives, as mandated by the G20 countries.

(If this topic isn't actually relevant to your career, you would probably find my presentation to be an excellent cure for insomnia).

This would be my 3rd or 4th time speaking at an industry conference. So it's not a new experience for me. In case you're wondering, no, I don't get paid for speaking. But in return for doing a one-hour talk, I get to attend the entire conference for free (the usual fee would be a few thousand dollars).

The other benefit of speaking at a conference is that it is a very good self-learning experience. You may already be an expert in a particular area. But the process of preparing your presentation will itself compel you to do more research; check your facts and deepen your own understanding. So you become an even better expert.

Occasionally, one or two colleagues of mine will also get approached to speak at a conference. They often reject the invitation. I think that part of the reason is that they have a fear (or at least some apprehension) of public speaking.

Today, I can honestly say that I have no fear of public speaking. Of course, it wasn't always that way. But over the years, I have done public speaking so many times (and in so many different contexts) that today, it is an entirely non-frightening thing for me.

I have emcee'd many events (wedding dinners, legal seminars). I have done poetry readings. I have argued cases in court. I have conducted many in-house training sessions. I performed some drama when I was in university. Oh, and I love to lead the yaaaaamm-SENG! cheering at every traditional Chinese wedding dinner.

So I have no fear of public speaking.

How to deal with nervousness about public speaking? The main thing is just to remember that the audience doesn't bite.

They aren't there to embarrass or humiliate you. They don't want you to fail. Instead they just want to learn something useful, to hear something new or interesting. They are hoping that you will be able to tickle and entertain  their brain cells for an hour or so. That is all. And if you can do it with a dash of colour and style, so much the better.

So just get out there and speak. Remember - they don't bite.

Sep 18, 2011

On Life, Love & Learning - in Singapore

I'm taking an exam this coming week.

It's one of the papers in the Capital Markets & Financial Advisory Services (CMFAS) series. There are 13 exams in total, but nobody needs to take all of them.

Which exams you take depends on whether you want to work as, say, an insurance agent; a financial adviser or a stockbroker. You sit for the relevant papers, you pass and then you can apply for the necessary licence.

However, I am not planning to be an insurance agent (nor a financial adviser, nor a stockbroker). I don't need to take the paper. I am taking it just for fun. Yes, it's something I could mention in my resume, but the real purpose is just to challenge myself; explore an area outside my own work scope; and learn something new.

The paper requires a fair amount of studying and preparation. You need to read and get familiar with what securities firms and their employees can or cannot do, when carrying on their business on the Singapore stock exchange. Topics covered include preventive measures against market manipulation; the rules on handling customers' assets; variation margin calculations for stock futures etc.

Considering my work and family commitments, I do feel a little proud of myself. Firstly, for having signed up for the CMFAS exam at all. And secondly, for having mustered up the discipline, in the past month or so, to regularly sit down and study on the weekends. Whatever may happen on the exam day, I feel that I have already gained.

One unexpected side benefit is that I've been able to be a positive example, to my children, on good studying habits. When they sit down to study, I sit down with them. And I tell them, "Now, we are all going to be quiet and study properly for one hour, okay?".

They are little kids. They tend to get distracted easily. But when they see Daddy sitting down at the same table and studying hard, they feel motivated to do the same. Because now we are all really in the same boat, sailing along together. They try to do the little things that I do, like highlight key points in the textbooks; make short notes and so on. And they try to look as serious as I do, when studying.

As I look at their earnest little faces, I'm secretly laughing and smiling inside myself. They're adorable. I love being a father. : )

Aug 16, 2011

No More Baby Hands

My poetry book Two Baby Hands has sold out. I found out by chance a few weeks ago, but it must have sold out before then.

I was looking at the publisher's website, which has a catalogue of all their books. And I noticed that for "Two Baby Hands", the website stated "This title is currently out of stock. Please send us an email at if you wish to be informed once new stock is available".

The first print run was 1,000 copies - which is the standard number for each local fiction/poetry book that this publisher (Ethos) publishes. So it looks like 1,000 copies of Two Baby Hands have been sold.

This is pretty respectable for a poetry book in Singapore. Poetry has a small following here and many poetry titles never sell out; instead the remaining books get scrapped after sitting in a warehouse for too many years.

But it is also a little sad for me that the book has sold out. In a way, it's like a clear sign that a certain part of my life is closed and over, and it's time to move on.

But then I've always been good about moving on. Hmmm.

Jun 6, 2011

Before We Forget

Here's an email from Xian Jie, one of my readers. He is a documentary filmmaker and his latest project, supported by the Lien Foundation, aims to raise awareness about dementia.
Hi Gilbert,

I have been following your blog for a couple of years now and thought about letting you know about Before We Forget, a campaign I'm working on with a couple of friends to foster conversations about dementia.

We have been working on a documentary and following two families for close to a year; this documentary will be released in September alongside 2 exhibitions. Right now we have launched this website - Before We Forget - to encourage Singaporeans to share their stories. We have also started a Photo Challenge.

You don't need to personally know anyone with dementia to contribute. You could share your thoughts about dementia, ageing, forgetting, and dying in the form of short stories or poems. Every story that is shared goes a long way to de-stigmatise and humanise dementia. It would be fantastic if you could let your blog readers and Facebook friends know about Before We Forget ....
Dementia is a disease most commonly seen among old people. It's also commonly referred to as senility. The person's memory, attention and language and problem-solving abilities can all be affected. Badly affected persons may become so disoriented that they do not know what day of the week it is, or where they are, or who they are. They can fail to recognise their own caregivers and loved ones.

Do check out the links above, for more information. The organisers are also planning to organise two exhibitions (one at VivoCity and the other at the National Library) to raise public awareness about dementia.

My grandmother had dementia, in the last few years of her life. I was a kid then. I still remember clearly how emotionally and physically exhausting it was for my family to care for her, in those days.

By then she was already bed-ridden. My grandmother would have a meal (or a bath), and then an hour later, she would have completely forgotten that she had already had her meal (or her bath). And she would moan in agony, saying things like how come we didn't love her anymore and wouldn't let her eat nor bathe for days.

One thing she constantly worried about was who would care for her beloved garden, after she died. To give her the comfort and reassurance that her garden would be okay, I took over the regular gardening duties. To me, looking after the garden felt like something that I could do, to help her die more peacefully.

Here is a poem I wrote about those days. This poem appears in my book Two Baby Hands, and was also previously published in Singa, a now-defunct publication of the NUS Centre for the Fine Arts.
Grandmother's Garden

In later years, she sat here rarely. Most of the time,
she lay on her bed in a darkened room where
the air was musty and sunlight never shone.

As well as I could, I kept it growing
for her. She could no longer do it for herself.
Yet her life was linked to this place.

I watered her orchids of golden shower,
unchoked her potted plants from weeds. With a stone
I crushed the life from snails and fed them
to the earth. After storms, I helped fallen shrubs
to climb to light again.

Sometimes a sunbird would come to sip nectar
from my grandmother's flowers, and every New Year
the kumquat branches would fill with orange fruit.
In the years that passed, not a single bonsai died.
A tree can live forever.

She would go more easily, I sensed,
if she knew that the life here would endure,
long after she herself had left.
That was a simple yet effective poem (I think). Much later I looked back and explored my memories of those days, and produced another poem - short, but much more challenging and psychologically complex.

This later poem, entitled Not Home, was about my anxieties (as a child) that one day, my grandmother might be dying at home and I would be all alone at home with her, not knowing what to do. This is a right-brained poem, laced with magical thinking, irrational guilt, subconscious associations and a child's fearful imagination:

Not Home

I was eight, and alone.
Waiting in the garden I talked
to trees. Seeds sprouted.
Crickets sang. In the house
Grandma lay dying.
Caught an insect, held it
in my hand. Plucked a leg off,
as I softly sang. Very cruel,
very bad. Surely Papa would
come home, if I were bad.
Make me hurt, for being bad.
One more leg then, and another.
Time crawled. I lost count.
Finally there were no more legs,
but Papa wasn't home.
I dropped the useless insect
on the ground. In the house
Grandma went on dying.
On and on her body twitched,
till I crushed it with a stone.
Papa wasn't home.
Asian Cha is a website dedicated to poetry in Asia. In 2009, they published this poem. They were also sufficiently impressed to devote an entire essay to it. For the literature buffs among you, here's their commentary.

May 31, 2011

PM Lee Defends His Own Grassroots Activists From Internal Flak

As the PAP continues with its post-election reflections and musings, a certain new theme emerges. It seems as if the PAP's grassroots activists are getting some of the flak, for the party's poor performance in the elections.

The allegation is that these activists failed to give the MPs adequate feedback, causing the MPs to lose touch with the ground (that is, with the people of Singapore). Here's PM Lee leaping to their defence.
Don't be discouraged, PM Lee tells activists

by S Ramesh (TODAY)

SINGAPORE - Citing the criticism levelled at grassroots activists in the aftermath of the recent General Election (GE), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday defended the work of the activists who had given "their honest feedback, which unfortunately we sometimes failed to interpret correctly".

Speaking at a dinner to thank volunteers of his Teck Ghee division in Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Mr Lee also acknowledged that "clearly there were problems which were missed" and areas where the People's Action Party (PAP) "can and must improve".

But it would be unfair to blame the activists, said Mr Lee, as the majority have committed time and energy to community work and have done their best to serve residents.

He said community leaders and PAP activists played a crucial role in the run-up to the GE, with some even taking leave during the nine days of hustings.

"People say various things: They say that (the activists) stood between the Members of Parliament and residents, you shielded the MP, or you didn't respond enough to the residents' needs, or you didn't speak candidly enough when the residents were giving feedback and the MP didn't get a good sense of what was on the ground," he said.

"Some grassroots leaders and party activists reading this have been discouraged. My response is, don't be discouraged."

The Prime Minister said that shortcomings in the PAP will be remedied and the party will strive to do better.
I don't know how much the PAP MPs rely on their grassroots activists to give them feedback about the ground. I do wonder if the PAP MPs are aware of the inherent weaknesses of such a feedback mechanism.

The first problem is that some grassroots activists are probably not genuinely interested in helping the PAP. They are there just to gain certain specific personal advantages for themselves.

For example, years ago, my wife once considered becoming a PAP volunteer. This would enable our son to  gain priority for admission into the PAP kindergarten near our home. The kindergarten was three minutes away from our home, so it would have been really convenient.

In the end, we decided not to do it. One reason was that the kindergarten looked rather run-down. Neither the curriculum nor the teachers impressed us, when we went for the open house.

However, the fact is that even if my wife had decided to become a grassroots activist, she would have done it just to clock the hours and get the admission priority. Mrs Wang has no love for the PAP. She wouldn't have been interested at all in giving genuine feedback to the MPs.

Especially if the feedback was negative and would annoy the MPs (therefore jeopardising the priority for kindergarten admission).

Now, the second problem for the PAP is that some grassroots activists ARE genuinely interested in helping the PAP. These are the hard-core, true-blue PAP supporters, who will take nine days of leave from work to help out during the GE; and wave the flag and banners; and hug their MPs; and take the chartered bus from one rally to the next and to the next, just to make up the crowd.

The problem here is that such grassroots activists are inherently unable to give negative feedback to the MPs. You can safely assume that a large part of of their loyalty is blind. Whatever was the result of a PAP policy or decision, these activists will automatically view as wonderful, and good, and desirable. Asking them for criticism is like asking an ardent Lady Gaga fan to criticise Lady Gaga - it's an exercise in futility.

That is why such grassroots activists are lousy at providing feedback. (They are good for some things, such as waving flags and banners. But they are lousy at providing feedback).

In the near future, I may blog about how the PAP can get its best, most useful feedback. Of course, such feedback comes from its worst enemies - the Opposition.

May 30, 2011

Lui on the Train - Much Ado About Nothing

Today the Straits Times has an article about Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew being spotted on an MRT train. The article goes like this:
NEW Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew was once again spotted taking the public transportation. This time, he was seen riding a MRT train during morning rush hour on Monday.
A commuter identified only as Nat snapped photos of the minister after seeing him in the crowded train, and posted them on citizen journalism website STOMP.

Nat said: 'I snapped pictures of him on the train this morning at 7.45am, on the North South line heading towards Jurong East at Bukit Gombak. Welcome to the crowd!'

Mr Lui was last week seen riding a public bus last Tuesday, and photos of the sighting were also posted on STOMP."

Well, it's not a bad thing if he takes the public transport to see what it is like. But to me, it's an overkill  to pitch this as a good thing. If some Singaporeans think that this is a good thing, then I have to say that their expectations of our government are too low.
Personally, I would expect the Education Minister to visit schools from time to time, to see what's going on. I would expect the Defence Minister to visit army camps and bases for the same reason. I would expect the Heath Minister to visit our polyclinics and hospitals, and yes, I would expect the Transport Minister to ride on the trains and buses. 
Expecting any less from our ministers is to have unduly low expectations for them. We're not paying them peanuts - we shouldn't be getting monkeys.

May 29, 2011

The Presidential Elections

Very shortly after the PAP had lost in Aljunied GRC, the media asked ex-Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo if he would run for President. He replied quite affirmatively that he would not.

The decisiveness in his response would have surprised some political watchers. After all, George had just become jobless. Furthermore he has the right sort of background to be President. One would have expected George to at least reserve his position and say something along the lines of "I don't know yet. I'll think about it and decide later."

But a more recent TODAY article (that is not even about George Yeo) gives us a clue as to why George Yeo had been adamant about not running for President. The background to this article is that ex-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock had just expressed his interest in running for President. And this is what his ex-fellow PAP MPs had to say about it:

PAP MPs surprised Dr Tan might run for President

04:47 AM May 28, 2011
by Teo Xuanwei

SINGAPORE - News that his former comrade-in-arms Tan Cheng Bock, 71, has declared his intention to run for President caught veteran backbencher Inderjit Singh off guard.

The Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency Member of Parliament (MP) told Today: "For Presidential Elections, there's always been a candidate that the Government supports ... it's quite clear that we will be fully behind this person so it will be very awkward (to have Dr Tan in the contest)."
What do these lines tell you? Firstly, that the PAP had already decided who should run for President. Secondly, that George Yeo was not the guy. Thirdly, that the PAP groupthink is so strong that George absolutely would not consider rocking the boat. George does not dare to be the President, if the PAP has already decided that someone else should be.

This brings to mind George Yeo's parting words, when he spoke to the media and said that he would not run for President. He said something like this, "I'm too much of a free spirit to run for President". This was a somewhat curious choice of phrase - and in fact, it attracted a degree of speculative twitterings among Singaporeans. One can't help but wonder - why would being a free spirit obstruct a person from being the President, any more than, say, being the Foreign Affairs Minister?

Perhaps I'm reading too much between the lines. But my instinctive feel is as follows. As mentioned earlier, the PAP has already decided who should be the President - and the PAP has decided to give him its full support (note Inderjit Singh's words - "we will be fully behind this person"). Whoever he is, this person himself would no doubt have been heavily involved in the discussions.

And if he does become President, it may well transpire that he feels beholden to the PAP (which selected him, and endorsed him, and gave him its full support). The expectation may arise that he is obliged to lend his support to the PAP. In other words, the President would not be a "free spirit". He can't do what he really wants. He can only do what the PAP wants. The favour has to be repaid.

This is pretty scary - especially if you understand what the President's role is all about. Let me explain. One of the President's main functions is to preside over the the appointment and dismissal of very senior civil servants and public officers. Specifically, the President has veto powers to stop the government from dismissing these people:

(1) the Chief Justice, Judges and Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court;
(2) the Attorney-General;
(3) members of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights;
(4) members of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony;
(5) a member of the Legal Service Commission;
(6) the Chief Valuer;
(7) the Auditor-General;
(8) the Accountant-General;
(9) the Chief of Defence Force;
(10) the Chiefs of the Air Force, Army and Navy;
(11) a member of the Armed Forces Council;
(12) the Commissioner of Police; and
(13) the Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

What's the idea here? Well, the President is supposed to protect these senior civil servants / public officers so that they can perform their duties without fear of political reprisal. This is a very important check & balance.

Just for example, suppose one day, a PAP minister is suspected of criminal wrongdoing - let's say that it's something to do with misuse of government funds. The Auditor-General discovers this while performing an audit, and would want to make a police report. The Commissioner of Police would want to launch a full-scale investigation against that PAP minister. If there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the Attorney-General of Singapore would want to prosecute the case, and the District Judge would want to hear it.

But at the same time, all these persons - the Auditor General; the Commissioner of Police; the Attorney-General; the District Judge - could be afraid to do the right thing. After all, they might get sacked (it's the government that employs them, after all). This is where the President comes in. The President has the power to protect these people. Unless the President agrees, none of these people can be sacked or otherwise removed from their posts.

That's why it is important to have a truly independent President. A free spirit, if you want to call it that. A President who didn't receive any favours from the PAP, and who doesn't feel obliged to return any.

May 26, 2011

Possible Formulae for Determining Ministers' Salaries

Mak Yuen Teen is an associate professor at NUS Business School. He has an article in TODAY which discusses ministerial salaries. Excerpts below:
Reviewing ministerial salaries: Seven lessons from the private sector
04:46 AM May 26, 2011
by Mak Yuen Teen

Last week, I taught executive and director pay to an executive MBA class and, during lunch, the subject of conversation at my table was ministerial pay in Singapore - a regular topic among the executives attending the programme over the years.

While most of the rest of the world is concerned with high executive pay, this must be the only country where ministerial salaries are of more interest.

Quite coincidentally, on Saturday morning, I had begun writing a commentary with the tentative title of "Ministerial pay: Lessons from corporate scandals and the financial crisis". That night, I saw on the news the Prime Minister's announcement that he was setting up a committee to review ministerial pay.

When you pay poorly, you might still get good people but, undoubtedly, the pool you select from will be smaller. You may also attract some who are willing to take low pay because they want to use their position for other benefit, such as taking bribes or getting directorships in companies.

When you pay very well, the pool will be larger, but you also risk attracting the wrong people who are motivated purely by money. People who are attracted to politics because of the money (or power) might still want to use their positions for their own benefit because for some, it is never enough.

I personally do not believe that high pay is effective for fighting corruption; I think it is an affront to the many who make an honest living on low pay to suggest that paying little encourages corruption.
I agree with Mak. Not only that, I think that it is also an affront to the many who make an honest living on high pay to suggest that paying them less would encourage corruption. I mean, just take a look at this nice, honest-looking man over here:

This man earns a lot of money (about 3 or 4 million dollars per year, excluding bonuses). He is also a well-respected man, who has held public office for many years. And in all those many years, there has never been any reason to believe that he has ever done anything corrupt.

But you know what his father says, and has said for many years, right? According to Daddy, if his son's salary was cut (for example, to only 1 or 2 million dollars per year), then he would feel tempted to become dishonest, and to cheat, and take bribes.

Now, if I were the son, I would feel very insulted by such remarks. For if I were a genuinely honest man, I would never think of taking bribes and Daddy's remarks are therefore indeed an insult to me. And the only temptation I would feel is the temptation to slap my father's face.

But that wouldn't be very nice. At least, I wouldn't do it in public - it would be politically incorrect. Daddy, after all, is a pretty powerful man. In practical terms, perhaps my only feasible course of action would be to  wait, wait and wait ... until Daddy grows very old, and retires. Then I could go about taking steps to change his long-standing policy on ministers' salaries.

However, it is very difficult to determine what is the "right" pay for CEOs, people with very specialised skills - and government ministers. For CEOs, certain "benchmarks" have been suggested, such as some percentage of profits, some ratio to average employee pay, the pay of sports stars and celebrities or fellow CEOs. None of these are wholly satisfactory.

Benchmarking ministerial pay to other professions has its limitations because they are totally different jobs, and different jobs come with different lifestyles and employment risks. When I look at my peers who have gone to the private sector, many are earning a lot more than I do now, but they do not have my more flexible lifestyle as an academic, and they are not able to achieve tenure which gives better job security.

In any case, I believe that the best people in any field are those who are driven first by their passion and calling.


As a corporate governance advocate, it has never been my concern if someone is well paid and earns it in the right way. I would be outraged if someone makes a lot of money but does so in an illegal or unethical manner, where it is not related to appropriate measures of performance, or the pay determined is through a contaminated process.

The corporate sector suggests the following "best practices" which should be followed in setting senior executives pay:

- An "arms length" process for determining remuneration policy and packages
- Benchmarks used should be comparable (similar job responsibilities, similar size and industry, etc)
- There should be a reasonable mix of short- and long-term pay
- Pay should be based mainly on factors within the executive's control
- Performance measures used for evaluation should have strong links with the corporation's long-term performance
- There should be minimal benefits and termination payments that are generally unrelated to performance
- There is good disclosure and transparency
A private sector approach which treats running a country as equivalent to running a corporation is, of course, flawed to start out with. After all, a government can always print money, raise taxes, determine whether it wants to make a profit (budget surplus) or a loss (budget deficit) and so on.

Tying ministerial bonuses to annual GDP growth can create the same perverse incentives as tying CEO pay to annual revenue growth. For example, it can lead to incentives to invest in projects with high economic payoffs, but with attendant high social costs and under-investing for long-term growth.
"Projects with high economic payoffs, but with attendant high social costs" ...? Hmmm, that sounds like two things to me.

Firstly, our massive import of foreigners - which leads to economic growth, but strains our public infrastructure such as housing and transport.

Secondly, our two new casinos - which lead to economic growth, but also cause a variety of social ills such as crime, gambling addiction and the destruction of families.

What's also quite tragic is that many Singaporeans still don't realise that high economic growth doesn't necessarily translate into a better standard of living for citizens in general. High economic growth simply means that:

(1) Companies are producing and selling more goods and services; and
(2) The government gets to collect more corporate taxes.

Normally, (1) means that citizens get to earn more money, because successful companies can pay better salaries and bonuses and hire more employees. However, if labour & immigration policies are extremely lax, the companies don't actually pay citizens better, and won't invest in training them. Instead the companies will just hire plenty of cheap foreigners who earn a very large part of the extra money that might otherwise have gone to the citizens.

Normally, (2) means that the government has plenty of extra money which it can reinvest in society and redistribute to the people, for example, in areas such as education, healthcare and housing. However, if the government has the obsessive mindset that every extra cent must be channelled into the reserves and the reserves must never be touched until the end of the world has arrived, well, basically the people won't gain any benefit from (2).

Other problems are that high economic growth typically leads to increased inflation, which means that the cost of living escalates (hmmm, coincidentally that was the top election issue in Singapore) and furthermore the wealth created by a high GDP doesn't necessarily get distributed evenly across society (i.e, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer - and guess which country holds the world record for having the largest income gap?)

But I digress. Back to Mak's article: 
But if we are determined to follow a private sector approach to setting ministerial pay, then we should go the whole nine yards and adopt similar sound pay practices, which could involve the following ....


One, have an independent ministerial pay committee to oversee ministerial pay policy and levels (members must be independent and perceived to be so).

Two, adopt a small number of macro performance measures which capture overall performance in a holistic way (such as average GDP growth, average wage growth, Gini coefficient and unemployment rate) and micro performance measures which directly reflect a particular minister's performance (such as traffic accident rates, average expressway speeds, admission rates of Singaporeans into local universities, percentage of low-income families owning HDB flats).

Three, tie a minister's pay primarily to his individual responsibilities and performance, based on his portfolio (a small component can be tied to more macro measures but these may be more relevant to assessing the performance of the "chief executive", that is, the Prime Minister).

Four, benchmark targets such as GDP growth to trends in comparable economies, to better ensure that improvements are not largely due to external factors (for example, a significant increase in GDP growth - just like a significant increase in a company's stock price - may be driven more by general trends in the inter-connected global economy).

Five, defer a part of a minister's pay for a number of years and put in place conditions under which the deferred pay may be reduced.

Six, eliminate or significantly reduce pensions and other benefits not linked to a minister's performance. And seven, publish a report each year on the actual amount of each minister's pay and its breakdown.

This may sound like an awfully tedious process for setting ministerial pay. Unfortunately, corporate scandals and the recent financial crisis have taught us that poorly designed pay schemes set through a flawed process and which lack transparency can create perverse incentives and undermine governance. The current approach to setting ministerial pay emulates the pay levels in the private sector but not the sound pay principles that well-governed companies follow.
Some good ideas there, and all worth considering.

There is also a simpler idea which Mak did not mention. Yes, I know that it needs some tweaks and adjustments, but basically the idea goes like this. Firstly, ensure that the civil service has a rational system for determining salaries. Secondly, extend this system to the ministers.

Why? Well, in any normal organisation (and the civil service is not different), your salary depends on where you stand, in the hierarchy. Junior employees earn less than middle management, and middle management earns less than senior management. And the most senior guy in senior management earns more than the other guys in senior management.

A minister occupies the highest position in his ministry. The Permanent Secretary of that ministry occupies the 2nd highest position. So the minister should earn a salary anywhere from 5% to 20% higher than the Permanent Secretary. Similarly, we would expect the Perm Sec to earn 5% to 20% more than the civil servants who occupy the rank immediately below him.

Now, if the pay structure of the civil service is correctly rationalised across the board (and that should be the ongoing aim of the civil service anyway), what we would get is a natural pegging of ministers' salaries to private sector salaries anyway.

Why? Because the civil service and the private sector are in natural economic competition for employees all the time. For example, government hospitals and private hospitals are continuously competing to hire  doctors and nurses all the time. Government schools, private schools and tuition centres are continuously  competing to hire teachers. Any ministry which wants to hire fresh grads has got to compete with private-sector companies who also want to hire fresh grads.

If civil service salaries are generally fair and competitive at every level, then pegging our ministers' salaries to the permanent secretaries (and paying the ministers incrementally more) makes good sense.

Of course, this logic will probably reveal that currently, our ministers are grossly overpaid and have been grossly overpaid for many years.

But then we already knew that. Didn't we?

May 25, 2011

Poems on the Radio and on the Trains

Mediacorp contacted me yesterday and asked for permission to read out a poem of mine on one of their radio programmes. I said yes, and planned to tune in, but woke up too late this morning and missed the programme (it started at 7:10 am). Oh well.

The poem was Palmistry, which I also read at a poetry event at the Esplanade Xchange last weekend. That event was part of the Moving Words project (jointly supported by the National Arts Council, The Literary Centre and SMRT). Selected poems by 12 Singapore poets will be featured - in the coming weeks - at various MRT stations and on the trains.

The poems come in the four official languages. Here's a nice one from Liang Wern Fook (梁文福), who is also well-known as a songwriter.




(人们都说:这么年轻 这个父亲)











(看起来还这么年轻 人们都这么说)






放轻一点 别说得太急

他就可以 字字句句都听进去



路还很长 再往前走



The Moving Words project comes with a competition that's open to the public (click on the earlier link). Prizes include an iPad2; book vouchers; and the chance to be published in a new book to be launched later this year in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival. Winning poems will also get featured on the MRT stations and trains. So wake up your muse, and start writing.

May 12, 2011

George Yeo and His True Legacy for Singapore

Now that George Yeo is quitting politics, many people are saying that this is such a pity for Singapore's foreign affairs. Personally I am somewhat hazy about what George Yeo actually achieved in this area, but perhaps that's just because Singapore's foreign affairs is not an area to which I've paid that much attention.

Instead I will remember George Yeo as the minister who brought the casinos to Singapore. Yes, in case you've forgotten, George was the guy who first proposed the idea and pushed for it. Even within the PAP, there was plenty of debate and resistance about the casino proposal (to such an extent that another ex-minister, Lim Boon Heng, recently broke down in tears when he revisited those memories). But in the end George prevailed.

(George Yeo was also the man who famously said, "But we are building integrated resorts, not casinos". I found this statement very annoying, not merely because of its inherent dishonesty, but because it also assumed that Singaporeans were so stupid that they would fall for it. However, let's not digress.)

George Yeo's true legacy for Singapore is the casinos, for they will continue to exert an influence and impact on our society long after George himself is dead and gone. Billion-dollar infrastructure projects backed by serious international investors will not just fold up and expire tomorrow - once they are here, they are here to stay.

I am not one of those people who are fervently against casinos. Firstly I am not a Christian nor a Muslim and therefore have no religious objections against gambling.

Secondly, I recognise that the casinos do earn easy tourist dollars and create jobs (even though I do not think well of many of these jobs - would you really encourage your son to pursue a career as a professional croupier?).

Thirdly, I am not terribly persuaded by the argument that the casinos will spawn widespread gambling addictions among our people. That's because (in my view) such addictions may just as well arise in relation to 4D, Toto, Big Sweep or mahjong, all of which are forms of gambling which were here in Singapore long before the casinos ever came.

My concern about the casinos is that they will breed a lot of crime in Singapore. As long-time readers of this blog know, I began my legal career as a DPP, working frequently with the police as well as with CPIB and the Central Narcotics Bureau. Through my work experience, I have developed an intuitive sense of the kinds of environments and conditions under which crime, like magic, will spontaneously appear and flourish.

Casinos strike me as a rich, natural breeding ground for many types of crimes. Casinos are to criminals what garbage dumps are to rats, or shit is to houseflies. Specifically, a casino environment is supportive of the following species of criminal offences - theft, robbery, extortion, cheating, drug trafficking, consumption of illegal drugs, illegal moneylending, money laundering, vice activities, human trafficking and other immigration-related offences.

The two casinos have opened only in the recent past, so some of you will argue that it is too early to say if I am right or wrong. In fact I hope to be proven wrong about what I have said about the casinos - for who would want to live in a crime-infested country? Nevertheless, we can already begin to get a flavour of George Yeo's true legacy for Singapore. See below:
"AN UNEMPLOYED man was charged in court on Thursday with armed robbery of $450,000 from a businessman at a hotel room in Marina Bay Sands last week. No plea was taken from Octavius Tok Tien Howe, 37." LINK

"SINGAPORE: A punter who cheated the Marina Bay Sands casino of S$31,500 (US$24,800) with the help of a dealer was sentenced on Monday to 54 months jail. Thirty-two-year-old Tan Tiong Loon is the first person to ever be convicted and sentenced for being in cahoots with a dealer to cheat a local casino." LINK

"A VIETNAMESE woman was fined $700 on Wednesday for soliciting at the Marina Bay Sands casino after she lost money in gambling ... A district court heard that at 1.30am last Saturday, police received a call from security staff of the casino that they had detained a woman for soliciting for the purpose of prostitution." LINK

"SINGAPORE: A former croupier at the Resorts World Sentosa casino and a full-time gambler were jailed Tuesday for working together to cheat the attraction of nearly S$29,000 between October 2 and 9 last year." LINK

"A Singaporean man has been charged with acting as a bookie at the Resorts World Sentosa casino. 50-year-old Ng Ah Chye allegedly committed the offences between 11 July and 17 August, last year." LINK 

"SINGAPORE: A court in Singapore has framed charges against five Indians for allegedly using fake casino chips at a resort in the city state, local media reported on Saturday. The Indians are accused of using an unknown number of counterfeit chips valued at SGD 1,000 each ..." LINK

"After gambling and losing the $1000 he had brought to the Resorts World Sentosa casino, an Indonesian tourist resorted to theft. 49-year old Paulus Djohar has been sentenced to 4 weeks' jail for the attempted theft of a $500 cellphone. He followed 18-year old student Lim Tse Min from behind at Changi Airport and took the phone from her backpack." LINK

"A CHINESE national gambled with $250 in casino chips that did not belong to him while an Indian national stole $12,180 worth of electrical cables meant for Marina Bay Sands so as to get some money to bet with. On Wednesday, the two construction workers pleaded guilty. Ni Guo Jian, 45, was jailed nine weeks for criminal breach of trust. Kakkayan Govindarasan, 26, was jailed seven months." LINK
For better or for worse, this is George Yeo's legacy. For all of us, in this country.

May 11, 2011

The Recycling of PAP Ministers and the Fall of the US Dollar

From the TODAY newspaper:

Risk of crisis if US loses AAA rating: GIC
04:46 AM May 10, 2011

by Chris Howells

SINGAPORE - A major crisis could erupt if the United States loses its triple-A credit rating, according to Government of Singapore Investment Corp (GIC) deputy chairman and executive director Tony Tan.
"We face the possibility of another major financial and economic crisis if the world's risk-free asset, hitherto US bonds, loses its AAA credit rating in a disorderly manner," Dr Tan said at a 30th anniversary conference of GIC yesterday.
Speaking at the same event, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is also a deputy chairman of GIC, said: "The US has had its credit rating put on negative watch. It hasn't affected bond rates so far. But whether or not the rating agencies' views affect the market, the reality of the unsolved problem is that this fiscal challenge is looming and growing. That must eventually affect the confidence in the economy and the ability of Americans to continue to finance their debt, and, ultimately, with international implications, the value of the US dollar."
The comments come after Standard & Poor's last month cut its long-term outlook on US sovereign debt to negative, from stable, while keeping its triple-A rating. The ratings agency cited political gridlock in Washington over plans to cut government deficits as a key reason for the downgrade. 
First, a small digression. Some of you are still misguidedly mourning the defeat of foreign affairs minister George Yeo in the recent General Elections. For you believe that this means that Singapore has lost the services of a very talented, capable man.

But look carefully at the article above. See that name Tony Tan? Yes, that's our former Deputy Prime Minister (who was also our ex-Defence Minister, ex-Education Minister, ex-Home Affairs Minister etc).

Tony Tan retired from politics in 2005. But as you can see, he didn't end up as a quiet old man passing his days away by doing taichi and growing orchids in his garden. Today, Tony continues to hold a variety of important appointments. Among other things, he is the Deputy Chairman of GIC; and the Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings.

Ex-PAP ministers never really die, until they are really dead. They just get recycled into other lucrative roles, whereby they still get to control your CPF money, your mainstream media and various other aspects of your life. Sure, their public profile ceases to be so high, but they're not going to give up on the money so easily.

So members of the George Yeo Fan Club need not fear. Hsien Loong is probably identifying job vacancies for George now. If there isn't any existing vacancy, Hsien Loong will probably just create a new job for George.

Back to the TODAY article. I think that the title is misleading. Tony did not say that there is a risk of a crisis if the US loses its AAA rating. Tony said that there is a risk of a crisis, if the US loses its AAA rating in a disorderly manner. There's a difference.

Personally, I do not think that the S&P decision to place the US on negative watch was a surprise to anybody. Since the financial crisis, no one really cares that much about S&P ratings anyway, since they are no longer considered that reliable - remember how AAA-rated CDOs collapsed almost overnight into less than junk?

Relative to Asian currencies, the US dollar has been steadily declining for a long time, and the decline will just go on and on, quite irrespective of anything that S&P has got to say about it. My own financial adviser has told me to stay out of US dollar assets, unless they are one of those funds which also use USD/SGD hedges. And the main reason why gold and silver prices had been going crazy is that investors worldwide have been getting out of the US dollar and needing somewhere else to jump into, eg precious metals.