If you thought polyclinic fees are low, wait till you read this….

In News Reports, Society on October 30, 2014 at 7:49 am

Sorry! I thought of trying out this new-fangled way of telling stories these days. In any case, my headline is probably far better than the two I read today in MSM regarding the use of Medifund.

TODAY: 30 % rise in Medifund applications approved

ST: Medifund disbursements rise 27 % to $130m last year

My first thought was, wow, a lot of money. So are more people getting sicker, medical bills getting heavier or what? The applications rose from 587,000 the previous year to 766,000 last year, ST said adding that it reflected the wider range of people getting help, such as children from poor families. Then came this line that inpatients get about $1,579 and outpatients get $103. Outpatients? Since when? I turned to TODAY and realised that Medifund was extended to polyclinics last June. And that there were 68,000 approved applications for polyclinic patients. My goodness! That’s a lot of people who cannot afford $100 in polyclinic fees! What did they do in the past about their medical bills? With Pioneer Generation Package and all, I sure hope the figure will come down.

Still on health, I did a double take when I saw the headline 9% of woman have HPV infections: Study. I read it at first as HIV! But what in heaven’s name is HPV and is it serious? A line below the headline said that although the body naturally clears the virus, some women risk getting cervical cancer. The report said half of this group of HPV-infected have the high risk strains that are associated with cervical cancer. I go on reading about the state of HPV in Europe and Africa and how cervical cancer is among top 10 cancers for women and how 200 women here are diagnosed with it every year and one woman dies of it every three days……..and I am getting more and more worried and then! I read one doctor saying don’t worry, the body flushes out the virus naturally and the chances of HPV leading to cervical cancer are less than 1 per cent!

Seems the message is, please get yourself screened for cervical cancer, ladies.

PS. HPV stands for human papillomavirus

Bikini news

Because I don’t like stuffing news in briefs….

  1. The case of the Starbucks seat-hog

I was wondering when MSM would latch on to this kerfuffle that went viral for a couple of days about a kid who was unhappy that her books were cleared away at a Starbucks outlet. Seems she stepped out for half an hour (I would have finished my coffee by then) and returned to find that her belongings were no longer “choping’’ the seat. And instead of feeling chastened, she proceeded to rant on Starbucks FB page or something. Well, the story is in ST today although subsumed in a general trend story which it believes nobody in Singapore appears to know – that students study in cafes. Predictable comments came from café managers and students – good place to study, hard to shoo them away, we’ll move if we told to…you know the variety.

I have been much too annoyed with such students for too long. May I propose that the café staff wear badges when they move through the premises.

Badges can say:

“Stop hogging the seat, you pig!’’ This is the angry badge

“Is that a person or a bag sitting on the chair?’’ or the sarcastic badge

“A cluttered table reflects an untidy mind’’, which is the more erudite sounding one

“Home is a cool place to study too’’, which champions family togetherness

“You’ll fail anyway’’.

Nuff said.

  1. The ball is thrown back to Parliament again

I admire the tenacity of the people who went to court to challenge the constitutional position on gays. But I wonder if they realised that it would be a forgone conclusion. That section 377A criminalising homosexual sex is something for the legislature, the court reiterated. And the constitution never mentioned sex, gender or sexual orientation when it said it would give people equal protection under the law – just race, religion, place of birth and descent. As for the right to “liberty’’, it means the right to not be unlawfully jailed, rather than the right to privacy and personal autonomy. The court sounded almost chagrined when it threw out the challenge. Nothing this court can do, a judge said. The remedy “if at all’’, is in the legislative sphere. Hmm. Looks like Parliament is the last stop. Seems to me that someone should put forward a motion to debate this. OR continue the trend of putting up Private Members’ Bills (we’ve got one on sex trafficking and animal protection after all) to seek an amendment?

Who guards the security guard?

In Money, News Reports on October 30, 2014 at 7:41 am

So it seems that we have 33,000 security guards, but we need another 10,000. What’s odd is that there are 70,000 people here who are already trained to be security guards. Just that no one wants in because of low pay and long hours. You would have thought that one way is to raise pay and get more people into the business. But the solution, for a very long time, seems to be: give them low basic pay so that they will work extra hours or overtime to cover for that lack of manpower! Sounds so counter-intuitive. In fact, some security firms actually ask to be exempt from the law which limits overtime work to 72 hours a month. It’s more usual for them to work 95 hours of OT each month. No wonder you get rather bleary-eyed security guards. Cleaners get low pay too, but I haven’t heard complaints about long hours.

The G and the labour movement wants to subject the security industry to the same regime as the cleaners, that is, a minimum starting pay scale which will go up progressively as the guard acquires more skills. There are five rungs in all. Seems to me it’s rather more important to fix working hours. Or maybe their connected.  They usually work 12 hour days, six days a week to take home about $2,000 or so a month. If they didn’t do overtime (which is about 1.5 times the hourly rate) you wonder how they keep body and soul together because basic pay is about $800 a month. I can’t imagine a sole breadwinner or a family man taking on the job willingly, especially if there are no career prospects.

I guess if basic pay moves up, and overtime pay goes up in tandem, there won’t be so much need to log/slog long hours. Also, more people – Singaporeans and PRs –  might be wooed back into the industry and we will finally have enough people helming regular working hours. (Yup, this is one industry that is closed to foreigners.) Is this too optimistic a scenario? And how long will it take? Will it still be shunned by locals, like cleaning jobs and dishwashing? After all, there will still be shift and weekend work…

So what happens in Sept 2016 when the new rules kick in? And why wait so long anyway? It seems that some contracts are already in play which would be hard to unwind, but more importantly, it’s to give the guards time to bone up and get the requisite qualifications to make it on the higher rungs. It does seem that the $1,100 a month basic pay might be rather too low in two years’ time given that we’ve been told that inflation is going up. But I gather that this is not a cast in stone minimum figure, it’ll go up along with whatever the National Wages Council recommends every year.

Actually, the G and the NTUC has an easier time of it because the firms are already subject to annual licences administered by the police and Manpower ministry; licensing is a new thing for the cleaning industry. Yet you sort of wonder how security firms even managed to get their licences renewed in the past. There’s an A to D grading system that looks at security operations and working conditions and a firm has to hit D twice to have their licence put in the freezer. Now, there will be a new set of rules attached that will make sure employers stick to what is known as the Progressive Wage Model.

Again, I can’t help but think about how mean we have been to our cleaners and security guards. Yes. Us. We won’t pay more for them to guard our malls, carparks and condos. So the building committees put out a tender and the firms start under-cutting each other to land the job. And since manpower is the biggest cost, the salaries never go up and working hours just get longer. You keep wondering why the firms don’t just get together and fix prices, except that this would be anti-competitive. The market works for the end-user but penalises the worker.

I have been reading the fine print and wondering if people will be willing to pay more for a security guard. I mean, we all like to wring our hands; pulling out our wallets is quite a different thing altogether. Seems end-users do get some kind of help to pay for the higher wages – up to 50 per cent of the increase. So it’s not a big jump. And the firms can also dip into a fund that will pay for technology to help them in their work. This will benefit the forward looking firms who don’t mind juggling rosters and re-designing the job – why have four security guards when you can have one guy in front of a screen monitoring entrances and exits and one or two others on patrol?

Besides Heckle and Jeckle

In Money, News Reports on October 28, 2014 at 2:24 am

What’s the big story about Singapore these days? Heckle and Jeckle? Sorry, that’s my term for Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng who were yesterday charged with being public nuisances – something that their lawyer, the indefatigable M Ravi says he won’t fight against. What he will argue against is whether they were demonstrating without a licence and whether the Commissioner for Parks and Trees really has the power to regulate assemblies and public speeches – because he is supposed to be protecting parks and trees…

So interesting. But not earth-shaking unless there’s a court decision leads to Hong Lim Park being off-limits to any kind of assembly. Still, as Heckle and Jeckle showed over the weekend, whether you have a permit or not, you can picnick on the green.

Methinks it’s the economy which deserves some attention.

Truth to tell, it’s been a bit disconcerting to read gloomy reports of the state of economic restructuring that we’re going through – with no less than the International Monetary Fund making a comment. It said Singapore’s policy of slowing the increase in foreign workers could hurt the country’s potential growth and lower its competitiveness .  Cost of labour is going up and it’s being fed into prices. Yup, eating hawker food is more expensive now as CASE showed.

This is how BT reported it: The policy could usher in a “new era of sustainable growth”, but how and when desired productivity gains materialise is unpredictable. For now, growth and competitiveness will fall below potential, with the prospect of higher costs with no productivity gains opening a Pandora’s box of risks: business closures, layoffs and a rise in non-performing loans, should unemployment rise, cautioned IMF.

This was how Sunday Times commentator Ignatius Low put it: So what the IMF was saying is that in the interim, all we may get from the restructuring is higher costs and higher prices – with little or no real growth. And Business 101 tells you that if you make your customers pay more for something but don’t give them any real added value for it, then all you have really done is make yourself more uncompetitive.

I am not an economist so this is my dumbed-down version of some of the issues

So should we ease up on the foreign worker policy?

PM Lee Hsien Loong has already said that there would no major change from now. So we’re not going to turn the water off and will continue to let it run like it is now. Foreign workers pumped into the economy was what kept it moving so quickly in the past decade. Without the added water pressure, we’re looking at a slower rate of growth. The prediction is 2.5 to 3.5 per cent growth but PM has said we should be content with 2 to 3 per cent.

Businesses would want more workers which I suppose, is one reason the retirement age is being pushed up and more women are being wooed back into the workforce. (I also think that the recent change allowing foreign spouses to be exempt from being part of the foreign worker quota is one way.)

If they don’t get them, business would have to pay more for workers because there are fewer of them to go around. If workers don’t get more productive, the cost of hiring them would go into the final product – so everything gets more expensive.

Then why is our productivity so low?

Labour productivity growth averaged just 0.1 per cent from 2011 to Q2 2014, and 0.4 per cent if construction – often cited as a productivity laggard – is excluded. The target announced in 2010 was for productivity growth of 2-3 per cent a year.

Economist Augustine Tan has hit out at the disconnect between aspiration and reality. Where did the G get the figure from, he asked, according to a TODAY report.

The report continued: The cause of this is a lack of macro-vision in attaining productivity growth while ensuring economic competitiveness, Dr Tan said, adding that “one arm of the Government does not know what the other is doing” in deciding restructuring measures, such as the tightening of foreign labour quotas.

“If I had my way … I’d target sectors capable of more productivity increases and give them more leeway,” Dr Tan said, referring chiefly to manufacturing. “But you’re tightening the quotas so much, we’re not hitting (the 2-3 per cent productivity target). What you get instead is wage effect, cost effect, and the economy becomes uncompetitive.”

Ouch! Is that true? Left hand don’t know what right hand is doing?

Well, the G, in the form of Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Teo Ser Luck, said  Singapore’s economic restructuring journey was coming along relatively well despite the strain on firms. He cited a rise in the take-up of government support programmes such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme, under which about 40,000 firms claimed PIC last year, up 50 per cent from 2011.

I wish we had an idea of whether all that money given away was amounting to anything. Everybody thinks PIC is way to get money from the G, rather than something to build upon

So what about cost of living? That’s the thing that we’re most concerned about after all.

Some of us are probably going to be better paid and we’d have to hope that it’s a real increase in wages. Because the MAS has said that some food and other services firms are not done passing on cost increases. In fact, the strange thing is that core inflation (minus expensive stuff like cars) is higher than overall inflation this year.

Here’s what it’s saying today in its twice-yearly Macroeconomic report: “On a year-ago basis, core inflation is projected to pick up gradually into early next year, before easing in the second half of 2015.’’

So what’s really happening?

I guess we should be careful what we wish for. We wanted fewer foreigners here, and we’ve got it. Now we’ve got to live with the idea that Singapore won’t be going at full throttle. And we’ve got to realise that we’ll be the engine of the economy – we’ve got to get the pistons pumping harder than before.

The engine, however, needs a driver and it would be good to hear from the G, now that we’re halfway through the 10-year economic plan, what it thinks of the restructuring push. Are we going about it right?

Here’s what ST’s Mr Low said: “But as exports continue to flag and the harvest of yet another year is anaemic economic growth, policymakers must do something to alter the trajectory of a narrative slowly going awry, lest it take hold and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.’’


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