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Our stolid young people

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

I asked my class of undergraduates this morning if they knew about the happenings in Hong Kong. They knew there were demonstrations but didn’t know what they were about. Nor did they know that the demonstrations were student-led. So I had to tell them that the young people of Hong Kong were unhappy that they were unable to pick their own leaders or rather, they had to pick them from a slate of Beijing-picked candidates.

I got to asking them if they would ever do what their peers in Hong Kong were doing – skip classes, get out on the streets and agitate for a cause. They looked flummoxed at the question. None could come up with a cause that could galvanise them. So I suggested: What if a neighbouring country decided to block access to Singapore? The answer:  the people should do nothing because it might bring more problems for the G which already had to deal with another government. Well! That was extremely thoughtful!

I pressed the issue and one undergraduate thought they would be moved to act if, say, a “bumiputra’’ policy of sorts implemented here, in the form of quotas based on race. The rest of the class nodded sagely. So, I asked, that’s because it affects you directly I suppose….They agreed.

They also agreed that they were more concerned about studying and stability than agitating for any kind of big picture cause. There was some laughter about being “brainwashed’’ and focusing on the immediate; about being brought up to value peace and stability. There was also talk about whether protests and demonstrations would lead to anything at all. In other words, we should do a cost-benefit analysis first. What a practical group, I thought. Lost cause, I thought. Then again, even in my time, some time ago, there was little “political’’ activity on campus. It was mightily discouraged and the one time an attempt was made by the students’ union to convey a sentiment on a political matter – selling tee-shirts saying no to the since-rescinded graduate mothers policy – the university administration came down on the undergrads like a ton of bricks.

Given that the class was talking about protests, we of course went on to talk about another protest – the Return Our CPF lobby which created such a ruckus on Hong Lim Park over the weekend.  They didn’t realise that the lead organiser Han Hui Hui  is all of 22 years old, their peer.  They were shocked. They wondered why she had “so much time’’. After all, they were studying so hard. Plus, it is not likely that she had any CPF to collect. They saw the video of the little altercation Ms Han had with the authorities. They blanched and pronounced her “immature’’. As for her motivations, she was an “attention seeker’’. I said she was a student and another undergraduate immediately went online to find out that she was a “full-time political activist’’. They wondered what she lived on.

I don’t agree with Ms Han’s near-anarchic antics and I wouldn’t want to hold her up to her peers as a model to emulate. I marvel at her energy and wish it could be directed to better use than working up crowds. Then I looked at my class of stolid undergraduates and wish they were more interested in what’s happening around them, rather than what’s before them. I told them about the Population White Paper protests and the rage against the 6.9 million figure by 2030. I said the supporters were mainly old(er) people, when it was actually an issue that should bug the young(er) people. (By that time, I hope to be resting by the beach…)

Is there any way we can build a young generation of people who are in between the stable/stolid and the hysterical/anarchic? Should we? Or should we make sure they burrow into their books and don’t get too interested in other matters in case they feel the urge to get “involved’’ in the “wrong way’’? By the way, I am NOT fomenting revolution. And I am very sure people will argue that youthful ideals need not be channelled into political activities. In other words, we should get them involved in the “right way’’, like join the Youth Corps and do good.

But I am aghast at how ill-informed and un-interested (much less uninvolved) our young people are in the issues of the day. “No time,’’ is what they cite as a reason. I always retort that they should “make time’’ if they want to be citizens engaged in the life of the country. What is the point of being a person if you care about nothing bigger than yourself? No need to demonstrate; but at least KNOW what’s happening.

I read today ESM Goh Chok Tong pronouncing that the jury is “out’’ on young Singaporeans. He cited that old saw about the first generation building something good, the second generation maintaining it and the third generation squandering everything. Hmm, I think I belong to the second generation….I catch myself agreeing with him and then wonder if I am being “ageist’’. The older people said the same thing about my generation too, and I guess we will do the same for the younger lot, like calling them “strawberries’’.

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe I’m being unfair. I don’t think I was very interested in current affairs when I was their age. I too wanted to study and get As. I suppose I am hoping that they will reach the age of enlightenment (not entitlement) earlier than I did.

Where were we when Gabriel died?

In News Reports, Society on September 25, 2014 at 12:37 am

I am no bleeding heart but my heart goes out to the 32-year old single mom who pushed her nine-year-old son out of the window of their fifth-floor flat. I cannot but wonder how the poor boy felt as he struggled to break free and clung on to the bamboo poles outside the window before his mother pushed his hands away. What terror to know that your mom is trying to kill you. Or was she?

According to court documents, she thought that injuring the boy would make the authorities take him away from her. His father is described as an “acquaintance’’ who left her soon after Gabriel was born. She held down jobs at fast food joints but had been jobless for nine months when she “snapped’’. Her mother is supporting the family, as an $800 a month bakery assistant. And what must the old lady feel having to deal with daughter and grandson?

We are not told why the father left, he must be a Mr Loh, by the way. Gabriel was born with a host of medical problems affecting the liver and bones. He was small for his age and malnourished. I wonder about his medical bills over the past nine years. Was there a medical social worker around? Because it does seem like the family would be hard pressed on the health-financing front. We don’t even know if he goes to school and whether his teachers or classmates rendered help in any way.

But it seems that two years after Gabriel’s birth, the woman was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m not a medical person so I don’t know if her mental condition was triggered by the stress of looking after a brittle boned and jaundiced baby.  No husband around and we don’t know if she has any siblings to help out…

It went downhill for Rebecca (that’s her name) after that. It seems she was in some kind of denial over her medical condition, refusing to keep up with her medication or going for followup treatments.  For a one-year period between February 2012 and February last year, she was remanded at IMH three times after she..

  1. Appeared at a coffeeshop with a chopper looking for someone whom she thought had made fun of her.
  2. Hitting her mother who wouldn’t let her go to a movie
  3. Nearly strangling her mom.

So four months after her last stay in IMH, she took the step of “injuring her son’’. I don’t know what the medical term is but it sure looks like she was “escalating’’. So the police know of her and the IMH doctors. In other words, “professionals’’ know of her condition. Okay, she can’t be arrested for being a “threat’’ or “remanded at IMH’’ if she didn’t give her consent I suppose. Or could this have been done if her own mother gave consent? But what about follow-ups from agencies? She didn’t pick up her medication or attend follow-up sessions at  a community hospital. Did no one think to check up on her? Sic a VWO on her? Or am I asking too much of the State?

On June 1 last year, she grabbed her son who was playing a handheld game and decided to pitch him out of the window. She was charged originally with murder and this was downgraded to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, that is, for an offence “committed knowing that it would likely cause death but without the intention of causing death or cause a bodily injury likely to cause death’’. Such weird wording that you would think it’s tailored for the deluded. She was handed the maximum sentence of 10 years, which was what the prosecution asked for.

Now here’s where the State should do a little education so people won’t think its merely locking up mentally ill people and throwing away the key. She’s been sent to prison, a “structured setting’’ so she won’t be a threat to herself or others. According to TNP, she will receive proper treatment for her psychiatric condition. I wonder how this is different from remanding her at IMH? I guess it’s the stay in jail for 10 years; doubt that IMH has 10 year patients? The prosecution gave psychiatric reports but her lawyer also wanted another report to be given to the court before sentencing – on whether she could be cured, will relapse or spiral downwards.  He added that she may need treatment for the rest of the life but this need not be in a prison setting.

TNP phrased his request pretty strangely: The lawyer wanted the court to order an IMH consultant, who had assessed her, to submit a report before passing sentence.

The judge said no, adding that he would be surprised “if any doctors come with such a prognosis’’. I wonder why the defence – is this pro bono? – had to get the court to “order’’ the report to be submitted and didn’t submit the report earlier. Is the judge only reading doctors’ assessment given by the prosecution? I mean no offence, but the judge is no doctor.

This is all so sad. A boy has died, his mother locked up. I wonder about the 65-year old granny, who didn’t appear at the sentencing yesterday. I hope SOMEBODY is looking after her. It would be tragic if yet another member of the family falls through the holes in our net.  I don’t know about you, but I sort of feel we’ve let the family down somehow.

Selling travel to ISIS

In News Reports, Politics on September 23, 2014 at 4:05 am

All this news about ISIS is scary. Did you know that travel agents were trying to get people to Syria and Iraq? What? You didn’t? Okay, this is why they failed even though they had booths at the Natas travel fair.

Booth 1: Return ticket guaranteed!

Come and enjoy the sights and sounds of the Islamic State! Explosives guaranteed to deafen you. Not using acid yet but there is potential for blindness! And of course, we guarantee you a ticket home! Either in one piece or several pieces…Your choice! Souvenir box included. Oh, and please patronise the life insurance agent next door!

Booth 2: Learn new skills!

We soooo agree that Singaporeans need to upskill and re-train! So take the next plane and learn how to wield explosives and even a big knife! Here is a free demo on beheading processes! Wait! Wait! We didn’t smuggle that sword through! Hey! We declared it at Customs! It’s not a weapon! It’s a demonstration prop!  Hey, come back with my swooooord!!!! Bloody customs!

Booth 3: Discount for those with accents

Yup! We will give a 10 per cent discount of airfare if you can speak English with a British, American or Australian accent. We will, however, require you to agree to be recorded and video-ed (hood will be thrown in). You want to try Sir? Eh, that’s not an American accent. Not even English you talking….Eh, what leh? Singlish cannot. Cannot. Cannot! Bloody Singaporeans… anything for a cheap flight…

Booth 4: Do community service abroad!

Tired of visiting old folks homes? Taking care of abandoned pets? Go further! Go abroad and teach English to the children of fighters! No need for qualifying test, so long as you had pre-school education by PCF or NTUC. Montessorians also welcomed. The children need a basic foundation in English to communicate with the rest of the world. Teach words like slaughter, kill, behead, slay, assassinate and….eh, where’s my thesaurus?

Booth 5: A family vacation in sunny Syria

We are a family-friendly place and welcome whole families, including your wife and sister who will find our handsome men irrrrrisistable and virrrrrile. (Psst…It’s a quick way to get rid of that nag at home) Your children will be inducted into boy scout/girl guide camps and leave with badges and a certificate in guerrilla warfare which they can show off to their schoolmates! Oh wait. I see the women from Aware…Quick! Pack up!

Booth 6:  Club Med extra-ordinaire

Our Guest Relations Officers will provide a variety of entertainment and make sure you are comfortable in our bunkers. You must try our special cocktails of the Molotov kind. Guaranteed to make your insides burn so that you will thirst for more! Try your hand at building sand castles and air raid shelters in the wonderful desert sand. Or go partake of the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia. All destroyed JUST FOR YOU!

Booth 7:  Come and be terrified!

Why go to Disneyland or even Sentosa’s Universal Studios to experience terror? Roller coasters are archaic! And House of Horrors? Pah! Come and be terrified as you have never been terrified before. Dodge explosives and machine gun fire! Escape burning buildings…! Good practice for your next IPPT! Endorsed by the SAF! Eh, what’s this? Military police? Aw come on! Just promoting a career as an armed force…Hey! Where are you taking me?

Booth 8:  Be a terrorist-tourist!

Why be a tourist when you can be a terrorist and be on the watchlist of every law enforcement agency in the world? Get your mugshot on every spy screen and be a household name! Then return home to great acclaim after your tour and enjoy the confines of a cell. One good experience deserves another! Two vacations for one price! Helloooo… You are ISIS agents?  No? ISD? What is that? Never heard of it….why are you giving me a bracelet?

Booth 9: DIY travel

No gimmicks here. Just good advice on how to get to ISIS. Talk to our consultants one-on-on on which websites to go to, how to evade law enforcement and crowd source for funding and travel insurance. Do so quickly before the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution making it more difficult and the different countries get their domestic laws in place. Remember the window of opportunity is getting smaller. The door is about to close. We will be running out of runway. We willllllllll…..aaahhhhhh…eeeyaaa….

Sheeesh. Singaporeans can’t recognise satire.

More jobs, higher wages, more pain?

In Money, News Reports on September 16, 2014 at 3:03 am

I suppose we should be happy with the half-year manpower report that was published in MSM today. Wages are going up – because employers can’t hire as many foreigners as before. Real median wage went up 4.6 per cent last year, and is likely to go up further. (Nope, got no updated half-year figures on income.)

I guess employers have no choice but to raise wages to attract locals to work. There are 63,900 jobs going a-begging as of June. So more jobs, higher pay for locals, as ST trumpeted today. But there’s a cautionary note that ST sounded as well, backed up by experts and economists.

What if employers just passed on the increased manpower cost to consumers? So, everything cancels out and real income growth, said one economist, will be “muted’’.  And it looks like this might well happen given how productivity is going down. It’s gone into “negative territory’’ or to put it simply, people are actually doing/producing less than before in the second quarter. It’s -1.3.

You can blame the construction sector. It’s the biggest drag on productivity. (I sort of wonder if this is because the construction sector is skimping on employment of foreign workers because of higher levies they have to pay. And if lack of labour is also a reason for more people dying on worksites.)

But hey, most of us are NOT in construction so wages shouldn’t be affected, right? Except that the services sector isn’t doing too well on the productivity front as well – and this is the sector that is facing a foreign labour squeeze in numbers. You wonder where the hotels and malls that will be opening will get their workers…They just have to pay more to get the fussy locals to work then?  Higher and higher wages, and higher and higher cost of living. What’s the point of holding more money if it buys you the same amount of stuff as before?

What if employers simply cannot find workers despite offering higher pay? They can do a few things – re-locate, bug the G for more foreign workers or fold.

MOM said in its statement: “The manpower-lean environment will continue to be a feature of the Singapore economy. As the economy restructures, some consolidation and exit of less productive businesses is expected.”

We’ve been hearing so much about wages that I wish we had a handle on how our employers are holding up, like how many had to “exit’’ less productive businesses. It will be good to look at bankruptcy figures to find out how SMEs are faring. Is this rate increasing? It should be, given that economic restructuring does mean that companies would have to “consolidate’’ or “exit’’. If so, retrenchment figures should go up too. But a total of 2,410 workers were laid off in the second quarter of this year, lower than the 3,110 workers who were retrenched in the previous quarter. What does this mean? Are we over the worst?

Experts interviewed by ST don’t seem to think so.

They noted that the authorities tightened foreign worker hiring policies with the aim of forcing firms to work more efficiently. But the reverse has happened in some companies. It quoted Singapore Business Federation’s chief operating officer Victor Tay as saying that a lack of workers has pushed some firms to focus on day-to-day operations instead of planning ahead to raise productivity.

In other words, some companies are too busy trying to keep head above water to think long-term.

ST also quoted Mr Victor Mills, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, as saying that curbs on employment pass renewals have led to the rejection of “talented, committed and productive’’ foreign employees who could have helped raised productivity levels.

Hmm…they weren’t replaced by locals? Or the locals not as good?

Only 11,000 or so foreigners were hired in the first this year, mainly for construction. And this is half the number the year before. The labour market report, however, didn’t break down the figure into employment or S pass or work permit holders.

I think the people who wanted fewer foreigners here have got their wish. Except that now, we’ve got to persuade Singaporeans to do the jobs that foreigners used to do – for the pay that they did. Or if we want to make even more money, we simply have got to be better (read: productive) than the foreign workers were.

It’s time to make productivity sexy.

The widow and her millions

In News Reports, Society on September 15, 2014 at 1:29 am

Okay, I think everybody who’s been reading about the tussle over the $40million fortune of the old widow would have formed an opinion now…You just can’t help it from reading the news reports. So it seems a 40 year old tour guide from China has somehow managed to inveigle himself and his family into the widow’s bungalow – and will.

The 87-year old Madam Chung turned over all her affairs to him, giving him lasting power of attorney in 2012. (Before anyone asks, seems she was diagnosed with dementia only this year.) She has left all her assets to him as well, effectively cutting out the family (she has a younger sister and a niece – mother and daughter) as well as a long-time friend who used to stay with her and who actually introduced her to the said tour guide. Needless to say, the friend thoroughly regrets the introduction. And the niece has started legal proceedings to revoke his power of attorney which gives him control over Madam Chung’s life.

Mr Yang Yin looks like he’s in hot soup. It’s not just the family who is gunning for him. Questions are now raised about his permanent residency status which the immigration authorities are investigating. Seems he obtained his employment pass when he moved here in 2009 by setting up a dance studio, with Madam Chung of course. But somehow he’s now a PR. (Which, by the way, means he can’t be quietly repatriated) Then the Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry is wondering why he’s describing himself as an SCCCI director on business cards, when they don’t even have such a position. And an MP has denied knowing him as her grassroots leader, when pictures of him at community events turned up.

Of course, Mr Yang didn’t do himself any favours by uploading holiday pictures of himself and his family and bragging online about his luxury watches and how he’s into big money, right after he moved into the Gerald Crescent bungalow.

He’s moved out of the bungalow and is now in a Toa Payoh flat it seems. There was an unseemly row between the niece, herself in the tour agency business, and his wife, when she turned up to evict the family.

He’s sticking to his guns though maintaining that the old widow had asked him to be her “grandson’’ and that her family cared nothing for her. He even hinted that her long time friend was in a relationship with the widow’s late husband, something which the old lady, now 84, has vehemently denied.

He transferred her money into his account – so he could “manage her finances more efficiently’’. He claimed that Madam Chung made regular payments to her younger sister and her niece but he stopped the payments when he took over her finances. He did not say why he did so but thinks that “this could be the reason for (them) to be upset with me.”

He got his family to move over from China and into the bungalow – so that he did not have to travel to China and back which would have “hampered  my ability to look after Madam Chung’’.

He gave Madam Chung’s long-time driver the boot in 2009, saying that the old man, now 80 years old, had tried to attack him. He’s now Madam Chung’s chauffeur.

He sacked her Indonesian maid in 2011 because she was always “asking for money’’ and because he and his wife were around to take care of the household chores.

Yes, he did buy and sell a $1 million Amber Road condominium unit last year, for a $200,000 profit. But this was an investment on Madam Chung’s behalf and had “her knowledge and consent”.

As for the niece maintaining that her aunt had been manipulated into signing over her legal rights in 2012, he said that a doctor accredited with the Public Guardian office had declared that Madam Chung had the “requisite mental capacity’’ when she did so. I wonder who this doctor is. The media didn’t say. And I also wonder who her lawyer is….

The case has yet to go before the courts and both sides seem to have gone to the media to air their views. Predictably, Mr Yang is being painted very black in social media. And the pity is, so are his compatriots from China.  Yet he is one man among millions and Justice Bao has yet to rule on the case. (Seriously, it sounds like a Chinese drama serial).

This is probably the first, or at least rare, case of someone trying to revoke another person’s power of attorney. It must be an interesting time for the office of the Public Guardian which surely has a vested interest in making sure that its processes are water-tight. I wonder what sort of questions the public guardian asks of anyone who is signing away his legal rights and how it ensures that the person hasn’t been influenced in any way, especially a childless widow with millions.

And in the middle of it all is the old lady, a retired physiotherapist, who has no children. If the man and his family have moved out of the bungalow, and she no longer has her driver and maid, I wonder who’s looking after her now.

Is it CPF-only for retirement?

In Money, News Reports on September 11, 2014 at 2:59 am

I was a bit disappointed to read the terms of reference for the panel to review CPF. It seems to me so itsy-bitsy. I guess that’s the point. The Prime Minister has made clear the CPF isn’t in need of an overhaul but some tweaks. So the panel now has to think about what sort of minimum sum would be needed in future, after next year’s $161,000 for those who turn 55. The PM has promised a moratorium of sorts on the rise so I guess it will be for the panel to decide how much, and when.

Then the other terms of reference are what the PM has already let fall in his National Day rally speech, on the possibility of lump sum withdrawal, allowing some people to get higher returns on their CPF and a graduated re-payment scheme (small to bigger returns over the years).

ST was predictable in getting the panel members to talk about their role. TODAY went further to ask non-panel members what they thought of the terms of reference. I agree with those interviewed that they do seem narrow.

TODAY reported NUS economics lecturer Chan Kok Hoe saying that the CPF’s adequacy as a retirement vehicle depends mainly on two factors: How much funds people are able to accumulate for retirement and what returns they can obtain relative to inflation.

It reported:

The terms of reference do not include looking into the first factor, which would involve the allocation of funds between housing and retirement as well as overall CPF contribution rates, he said. On the second factor, the panel is tasked to study how to adjust CPF payouts to increase nominally over time, but not to examine whether CPF funds should be invested in special inflation-indexed government securities, he said.

I agree. If the issue is retirement adequacy, shouldn’t we go further than examining what sort of  minimum sum would be able to give a regular payout till day of death? Like looking at the ratio between setting aside cash in the CPF and putting money into housing? Or have we settled that retirement adequacy includes assets such as housing? Well, there needs to be a big mindset change over “unlocking’’ the value of housing if so. And shouldn’t we also be looking at CPF contribution rates now set for employee and employer?

But I could be wrong. These could well be questions subsumed under the Minimum Sum scheme re-look.  

Then again, there is the big explosive question on withdrawal age. So it’s still 55 at the first key unlocking CPF and later, at 65, you start getting payouts? Or should be 60, and then 65 given the rise in retirement age? It will be immensely unpopular to raise if you think back to the days of the Howe Yoon Chong report. I really think that is a question the panel could pursue and give all the numbers that go with its recommendation. It doesn’t mean that the G would have to adopt whatever the panel  proposes – it will be a political decision outside the panel’s ken – but it would be a good education for all concerned, especially who want their CPF, like, now.

ST has an interesting piece by academic Donald Low commenting on another aspect of retirement adequacy outside of the CPF scheme, the Supplementary Retirement Scheme which gives tax savings if you put aside a certain sum in a bank every year contingent on withdrawal at age 65. It’s not a very well-known scheme and taken up mainly by the higher income. Mr Low talks about making it compulsory or at least an “opt-out’’.

I suppose if the panel had to look at so many different aspects, like what sort of interest the CPF should make or what the money should be invested in (inflation-indexed securities?), it would take more than its allotted one year time frame.

But I also wonder if we should move away from looking at CPF (cash and home) as the people’s sole retirement income. Mr Low’s SRS option is one. Maybe other groups should be working in parallel with the panel, to study the amount of insurance among various groups of people, for example, as well as what sort of family financial support is now given to the elderly. Just like parents give pocket money to their children, I am sure adult children do the same for the elderly. Or has this gone out of fashion and the elderly are now supposed to fend for themselves?  

This is just my one cent worth. Not accounting for inflation, of course.

Danger: bad film

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 11, 2014 at 12:57 am

Sheesh! So Tan Pin Pin does NOT have plans to upload her banned film, To Singapore, With love, on YouTube. At least for the moment. And there I was hoping to get a free screening! She’s going to re-submit it for rating although how this would get past MDA’s strictures without making further cuts to the tales of the nine exiles, she didn’t say.

 May she succeed like Ken Kwek did, getting an R21 rating for his Sex.Violence.Family Values film which was initially banned from public screening in 2012. ST had an intriguing bit of info, indicating that a “purely private’’ screening is allowed. Now, this is odd given that the film was deemed “Not classified for all ratings’’. So what is a purely private screening? At the home of Tan Pin Pin?

Unlike Mr Kwek’s film which was deemed racially explosive because some parts could offend Indians, Ms Tan’s film was whacked with the “undermining national security’’ label. That’s heavy.

According to MDA, she let the interviewees get away with untruths about their past, like forged passport info and absconding from National Service. It is not true that they had to leave and not true that they can’t return to Singapore, it said. I guess this means that they probably haven’t been put on the “ban’’ list of the immigration authorities to be turned them away if they showed up at the airport. Nor are they on some “wanted’’ list.

ST helpfully included some background on ex-Communist Party of Malaya members such as Eu Chooi Yip and P V Sarma, who returned from China in 1991. I wonder what the two had to do when they got home. Because it seems that the nine would just need to agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past – probably a renunciation of communism. But there was also this line “Criminal offence will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law’’. Goodness! Isn’t this an indication that the NS abscondees and passport forger would charged for crimes? You wonder then why they wouldn’t want to return home…

In any case, ST said that about 40 members of the filmmaking and arts community have criticised the ban, calling on the G to release the film so that viewers can make up their minds. You know, whatever these exiles did, it was a very long time ago. I doubt that there are many people here who would want to pursue the communist ideal in modern Singapore. But many people are interested in the past, having only heard about some of the names that Ms Tan interviewed, like Tan Wah Piow, now 62.    

But the key point is whether the G believes that such paternalism is needed to safeguard national security – or whether it is merely insisting on its own narrative of history. As an IPS academic said in TODAY, a determined audience would get hold of the film somehow. Better to un-ban it and have the G release its own version of events. After all, if the film makes its rounds on the Internet, wouldn’t the G have to counter it? If it is such a detriment to national security, it would have to do something about its exposure.

Actually, my other question is whether Ms Tan considered taking into account the G’s view of what the exiles might have said in her film. That would have made for a more complete film-cum-documentary. Or, the G can always make its own…

Great grad dreams

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 10, 2014 at 1:19 am

I’ve met several parents over time who have sent their children abroad to study for a degree. And there have been times that I’ve been taken aback at the course of study. Like criminology, art history, media studies, psychology or sociology. I wondered if this was because they were “sexy’’ subjects. I don’t hear so much of those who take up “hard’’ subjects, like engineering. Of course, I hear of plenty who study law abroad, now a headache of the Law minister who wonders if the Singapore Bar would be big enough to accommodate them.

Going by what MPs say in Parliament, there are many different kinds of parents:

  1. Those who think a degree of any kind would lead to a good job and would therefore fork out big money to get their students into a university abroad, especially if they can’t get into a university here.
  2. Those who want to pigeon hole their children into degree courses that they think would bring in big money for their children in their adulthood. They want to set them up “for life’’.
  3. Those who let their children pursue their “dreams’’ regardless of whether they have the aptitude or can fit into the economy here later. They proudly proclaim that they let their children be, even if their children are really mistaking infatuation for passion.

I pity Education minister Heng Swee Keat who seemed to be contorting himself to explain that he wasn’t dissing the worth of a degree.

“Qualifications matter, but they must be the right qualifications and of the right standard for what we want to do,” he said, citing doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists as examples of occupations that require professional qualifications. “But not all qualifications matter — not if they do not help us build the right skills for what we want to do,” he added.

At the risk of over- summarising, I think he was also trying to say that even a diploma could be as “good’’ if it means the diploma holder has the depth of skills that the course required of him.

He’s in a bit of a bind because his predecessor had already stated that all primary school teachers will be degree-holders from next year. The assumption is that grad teachers will have a stronger mastery of content and pedagogy. So now Mr Heng has to say he will continue to hire non-grads who have the aptitude and passion. Nothing was said about whether they can master “content and pedagogy’’.

In fact, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing sounded a bit gleeful (sorry!) when he said that early childhood educators – the people under his domain – don’t need degrees. Just like our parents didn’t need degrees to bring us up.  

Actually it’s all back to what the education system is all about. Mr Heng said it was about the quest for skills rather than paper qualifications. I think he should be blunt and say that it is about churning out people who can fit into the economy.

That’s what it’s about isn’t it even if it isn’t politically correct to say so? People can’t expect that the economy in future will accommodate jobs of all kinds or even the number of jobs in a particular profession. (Hence, lawyers being pushed into doing criminal and family law instead of “big money’’ law). I can sort of imagine bureaucrats toting up numbers of workers needed to fill different sectors in the short, medium and long-term and collaborating with the university, polytechnic and technical institutes of the number of places for courses every year.

The difference is that instead of setting up a three-tier structure with the technical institutes at the bottom, then the polytechnics and universities stacked on top, the push is now to see them all as parallel structures with the formerly bottom two rungs supplemented by workplace training and extensive skills to reach the level of university graduates. So Singapore doesn’t want just an ITE grad, it wants an extremely skilled ITE graduate with the opportunity to catch up with their university peers later in life.

Now, whether that will work or not is something, to use that trite phrase, “time will tell’’.

So now, we are deluged with media reports of ITE/poly students who did well. Actually, we should also be exposed to the other side: graduates with esoteric degrees who discover that they can’t advance as far as they want. In fact, MPs are already saying that more grads than non-grads go to their Meet-the-People sessions looking for jobs. I can just imagine what these disappointed people are thinking: “I am a grad, and I still have no job’’. And then going to Hong Lim Park to claim that foreigners were taking their jobs…

Sigh.

Everything is so inter-connected.

Sounds and silence

In News Reports, Society, Writing on September 7, 2014 at 6:49 am

The Prime Minister said something a couple of weeks ago which I think we should heed. He said that the Internet, far from leading to a great convergence on universal truth, has led to divisions of all kinds. People seem to think they have grasped the “truth’’ with the emergence of groups that are completely antithetic to each other. “We have to make sure we don’t get seduced by the delusion that we know everything, that what we know is the truth and that we are the sole possessors, and therefore we will fight it out to the very end.’’ It leads to a fractured society, he said.

He doesn’t think human society was designed with the Internet age in mind, like the good ole days with information lags and time lapses to let stuff sink in before coming to a considered and wise consensus. “But today, all of that is telescoped and the splash goes out tonight, and tomorrow morning, everyone knows the answer, which may be the wrong answer.’’ Far from having a faster circuit, we have a “collective short circuit’’, he added.

ST followed it up with a Pew survey report which talks about how people online tend to keep quiet when they think they have a minority view. Yesterday, it followed up with a major spread on whether the same “spiral of silence’’ applied to Singapore. The Anton Casey and Amy Cheong cases were brought up as examples of online vitriol, with moderate voices only emerging when the din has died down. The ease of the “sound bite’’ online with no need to substantiate views makes it impossible to have a good conversation, you have experts saying.

I agree somewhat.

I have watched different groups emerge online and those who push a line or agenda regardless of the topic at hand. If you watch the many conversations closely, you get an idea of who are among the like-minded and who sticks together, whether friends or not. The various Facebook groups which are agenda-based don’t help. They start off by promoting a cause which gets hijacked by immoderate elements who are countered by yet other immoderate elements. Hence, this wonderful term: polarisation.  

It’s the word of the day, week, month and maybe even year given the way people are agonising over east being east, west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Here in Singapore, I think we’re still novice navigators of the free speech space. It wasn’t too long ago, you know, that rules were relaxed for rallies at Hong Lim Park and you don’t need a public entertainment licence for indoor events. It used to be that you can’t even use a loud hailer at Speakers’ Corner and it was the police, not the parks or performance authorities who monitored your events. The internet hastened the pace of liberalisation and the flowering of views everywhere, yes. But here, it meant liberation of a different kind. Suddenly, it seemed the shackles were off and we don’t quite know how to use the new-found freedom.  So there’s a torrent of voices, a cacophony, so loud that it intimidates those who want to say something not quite “mainstream’’ – or rather, fits with what the supposedly online mainstream is saying.

I have been asked many times if it’s possible to bridge the different groups or bring a level of reason to discussions on the Internet. I reply that there are probably plenty of reasonable people on the Internet, those who watch and don’t post a word because they’re scared that they’re being watched. They’re scared that they will be called to account for their views and can’t answer rationally – all “gut instinct’’ you know. They worry that the more articulate will out-talk them and make them feel small. Worse, being called names and feeling bullied. They think of Anton Casey and Amy Cheong. They’re not like them at all, but what if….?

I call them the internet spectators. Funny that the climate of fear that people perceived as emanating from the authorities has become a climate of fear of fellow netizens.

There are probably many, many groups of people out there online who discuss issues rationally. But they are probably “closed’’ groups, that is, like-minded individuals who do not want to have their reasonable conversations interrupted by the unreasonable. That’s the problem isn’t it? Reasonable people don’t want to reason with the unreasonable and the unreasonable pitting themselves against other unreasonable people. No wonder it’s so noisy on the Net.

Ask you. Do you have any of the following traits?

  1. I have a view which I hold very dearly and will inject it into every conversation because MY view is important and everybody MUST share them.
  2. Everybody who disagrees with me is wrong. They have been brought up badly, are intrinsically bad or went on the wrong path somewhere along their miserable life.
  3. I cannot listen to other people’s arguments because they go against something very fundamental for me, for example, the PAP is evil, religion is evil, homosexuals are evil.
  4. I don’t care about the totality of your views. So long as ONE aspect offends me, you are not worth “friending’’.
  5. I have a right to my views and I don’t care how in-your-face I get. The internet is free space. So suck it up.
  6. I shouldn’t have to pick my words carefully because that won’t be ME talking or reflect exactly how I’m feeling.
  7. I don’t see the need to self-censor even if others are offended because censorship is just plain wrong.
  8. I will never say sorry for my views or acknowledge that I might have interpreted things wrongly because I know, at the end of the day, I am right.
  9. If you have not experienced what I have, you have no right to talk to me because you don’t know what you are talking about. So shaddup.

Narcissism, egotism and self-righteousness is everywhere on the Net. I tend to think that maybe some people don’t want to be any of the above but lack the tools or experience to communicate effectively. They come off as blunt and abrasive because they’ve never had to engage in the cut-and-thrust of debate in the past. And they haven’t collected a body of knowledge with which to defend their viewpoint against the more erudite. So they either come off as defensive or they seek solace in silence. Or these people might really hold those positions from a. to h. In which case, I don’t see how any sane discussion can be had with them.

I liked what Mr Baey Yam Keng said in the ST report: “Facebook itself is a neutral platform. What is the style or character of that page depends on the people in charge of that page.’’

There is something to be said for having “moderators’’ and rules of engagement. Too often, people are turned off from voicing views when they see a few dominant voices making a point so aggressively that they seem to be spoiling for an online fight. Or the page or chatroom becomes so sour that you are worried about being infected by it. Of course, blocking and deleting views is an option – for which you get vilified elsewhere.  Questions will be raised about “censorship’’ – and you will simply have to bear with it. The bottomline is this: If “censoring’’ or editing some people can lead to more people taking part in the discussion and bring more views on board, why not?

I have blocked a grand total of three people on my FB wall, and this after many, many nice warnings to them to behave and get with the programme. My rules of engagement are simple: No vulgarities, personal attacks, hijacking of conversation threads or protracted bilateral feuds. There must be space for moderate voices or reasoned voices that doesn’t descend into name-calling or pure assertions. I like the way some people try to tamp down tempers by resorting to humour. I like people who are clever but also self-deprecating. Those who put down others oh so nicely are also appreciated. There can be “hurt’’ feelings but there should not be long lasting “hard’’ feelings. And I get a nice, warm feeling when someone who is defeated in argument actually admits it.  

This is the way the Internet space should be : where no one need fear one another and where you – and me – can admit that we are not always right. With humour and elegance, of course.     

 

Chatting with Lim Swee Say Part 1

In News Reports on August 29, 2014 at 6:50 am

So we have Mr Lim Swee Say weighing in on productivity today on ST page 1. Do I hear a yawn? We’ve been hearing so much about how low our productivity is and how we should be raising this by turning to manpower-saving devices and training to a high level that I’m not sure anyone can say anything new anymore.

Except, of course, if the G throws in yet another acronym announcing yet another fund for SMEs to take advantage of or for low-wage workers to enjoy. But I’m going to listen a little harder to Mr Lim because the labour movement has in recent time been doing what it should be doing: focusing on its core mission of protecting the workers. And also because I had a long chat with him about the NTUC to clarify some of its workings. (No, I have not been brainwashed and no, he did NOT give me NTUC Fairprice vouchers)

I’ve never been a fan of the NTUC. I recall how last year at a dialogue on fair employment practices, nobody in the room raised the role of the labour movement in ensuring equal employment opportunities for foreigners and locals. It would have been natural, I thought, for workers to say that this should be something to be taken up by the NTUC, instead of being a Government-led process. What does it say about the NTUC’s image with the people?

In recent time, however, the NTUC seems to have been weighing in quite heavily on the issue of wages and the protection of workers’ rights. Like how it wrangled with employers in the National Wages Council to get an absolute quantum increase for low wage workers. Like how it’s been getting more workers unionised. Like how it is pushing for the progressive wage ladder for certain industries. I tell myself that it is acting more like a union these days, and less like a social organisation. I told Mr Lim that too. He, being a nice man, overlooked my condescension.

Mr Lim said the NTUC has a higher unionisation rate than in OECD countries. Over the past year or so, it got 95 firms to agree to let their workers join unions, boosting its membership numbers from 770,000 last year to 830,000. It seems that two were reluctant to do so and the union members went into “organising’’ mode, waylaying workers outside the gate to conduct a secret ballot. How cloak and dagger, I thought! I also thought to myself: Why would any firm object to the rather tame union that Singapore has?

It’s a question I posed to Mr Lim. He said he met a foreign boss of a very, very, very big company who didn’t want a union in-house. He saw no reason for this since he is a good employer who rewards and trains his workers well. There was no need for a union to stick its nose in.

Mr Lim’s answer to the man floored me. He cited three reasons which got the boss to say OK to letting the union in:
a. Recruitment and retrenchment: It was the labour movement which placed his workers, through e2i. And if he ever had to retrench his workers, the union would help place them in other jobs. As a good employer, he must surely be concerned for his worker’s welfare
b. Training. If the company is unionised and meets certain industry standards, the union would help him pay for the training of its workers.
c. Stretching the dollar. His workers might be happy with their salaries but if they are union members, they would be entitled to benefits that will further stretch their dollar.

A rather bad thought crossed my mind: Hmm. No wonder bosses and unions seem to be in cahoots! You don’t cause trouble. Shouldn’t you cause some trouble? Are employers always so nice? And what of the unionised workers themselves, what do they gain?

In this instance, I think the NTUC does itself a disservice by not trumpeting what it does on behalf of workers in terms of its core mission. What is “organising workers’’? How does collective bargaining take place? Do workers know that whatever the union negotiates with bosses only applies to members – unless the bosses extend it out of “goodwill’’. Ditto for retrenchment benefits to be paid out? What, in other words, do union members get that non-unionised members don’t? What is worker protection?

Here, he referred me to the Industrial Arbitration Court. Last month, the Singapore Manual & Mercantile Workers’ Union and China Airlines Limited argued over the salary ranges for bargainable employees in the proposed collective agreement. The union wanted an increase in the maximum of the salary ranges, while the company wanted to raise only the minimum. It’s still pending.

Last year, the Singapore Industrial & Services Employees Union asked the court to order First Defense Services to pay workers an annual salary increment of 5 per cent with effect from 1 Jul 2011, or alternatively a one-off lump sum equal to a month’s salary. The Court decided that the company should pay a built-in increment of $50 on the monthly basic salary of employees earning up to and including $2,000 per month and a built-in increment of 2.5 per cent of the monthly basic salary for employees earning above $2,000 per month.

Other unions have gone along this route although not all were successful. The Singapore Catering Services, Staffs & Workers Trade Union, for example, went to court on behalf of an ex-employee of Hollandse Club over termination of service and reimbursement of medical expenses. The court dismissed the case.

Mr Lim didn’t say so but I think he believes I’ve been pretty myopic about the role of the trade union in Singapore. It isn’t about just representing people who are unionised, but raising the salaries and ensuring the welfare of all workers across the board. That’s why he’s been weighing in on productivity, trying to encourage early adopters to make the move towards labour-saving devices so that others can see the benefits. That’s the only way higher salaries can be sustained, he said, besides mandating wage increases for low-wage workers or getting the G to keep giving Workfare Improvement Supplement for low wage workers in cash and in their CPF.
Before you yawn, here is one interesting project I thought worth highlighting known as the Inclusive Growth Programme. Can bosses of SMEs which employ a lot of manual workers please, ahem, take note.

It works this way:
A company spots some ultra-new labour saving device but can’t afford it. It can go to NTUC which will pay for 80 per cent of the cost of the machine. As for the rest of the bill, it can go get it from the Productivity Improvement Council. In other words, it has obtained the machine for free. But after buying and training workers (this is subsidised too) to use them, it has to commit to raising the pay of the workers by at least 10 per cent. How come? Because the company would need fewer workers with the device. Mr Lim reckoned that the wages of 70,000 workers have been raised this way over the past three years.

The hope is that other companies in the same business would see what’s happening and do the same. And no, it doesn’t mean the union will fund everyone who buys the machine. Hence, this is a reward for early adopters. Seems that a noodle maker got a noodle packing device this way. A couple of hotels also managed to get a pump which lifts beds, a great help for chambermaids.

But what of those who get laid off then? I suppose it will be the foreigners who get laid off first. And possibly, just possibly, locals will be more attracted to the jobs.

Such a slow process, I thought. Well, the faster progression will be for cleaners, some 45,000 in some 900 companies. Starting Sept 1. Mr Lim then told me the story of how he got involved over the issue of cleaners’ pay. It was while he was at a hawker centre.

Tomorrow: Mr Lim and the hawker centre cleaners

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