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Five points from Ho Kwon Ping

In News Reports, Politics, Society on October 21, 2014 at 10:42 am

How does one get to be a “leading public intellectual’’? I guess it has to be bestowed by the media. So now we are treated to a discourse from said intellectual, businessman Ho Kwon Ping,  a day after an erudite speech by former Foreign Minister George Yeo.

The MSM devoted much space to Mr Ho’s three scenarios of how the political landscape could pan out over the next 50 years – Status Quo, PAP dominant and two-party pendulum as a result of a “freak election’’. As Mr Ho himself acknowledged, those are pretty predictable scenarios. What struck me more was what he said about the changing trends that will affect  “governability’’. (Note that he talked in general terms although he did give some “local’’ examples like the “read-in session after the gay penguins fiasco’’ and Pink Dot celebrations.)

He makes five points which I will place in quotes:

First, the ability of governments to control information will continue to erode, despite sometimes frantic and illogical attempts to stem it.’’

How true. Yet we see attempts to control (or should the term be “manage’’?) the flow of information whether through blunt tools like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act or new forms of licensing or regulation. It has come to the point that even supposed “self-regulation’’ is viewed with suspicion as the arts community’s rebuff of self-classification showed. And we still have to see what changes to the Broadcasting Act have been dreamt up.

Mr Ho also said this: “Anything censored is still widely available in alternative media, and therein lies the rub: At what point will control and censorship of the mainstream news, cultural and entertainment media become counter-productive by not really achieving the purpose of blocking access to information, but, instead, end up alienating the social activists who, despite their small size, are influencers beyond their numbers?’’

Clap! Clap! Although I doubt that the G would agree that rules are in place to “block’’ access to information…merely to ensure that the right information gets through to the masses. The G is fighting an uphill battle if it wants to carry on with the old ways of simply saying “Cannot’’ or “No’’ or “No comment’’ to mainstream news media. Word will get out somehow or other. And even if it is, say, disinformation, some will regard it as more credible because there is NO information in MSM. Of course, the G can’t go chasing after every bit of speculation on social media. But what it can do is give the MSM more leeway to operate, that is, widen the OB markers.

Take Ms Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore with love. The G can’t quite ban it because that would be impossible. A ban would mean penalties for those who break it. Does it really want to punish people who get hold of the film online? That serious meh?  So it does what is known as “signalling’’. It doesn’t like the film and decides that it will “not be available for public screening’’. Frankly, I think it’s a new(ish) argument – that the medium is to be blamed more than the contents. It must, therefore, be okay for transcripts of the interview with the exiles to be turned into a book?

As for Mr Ho’s phrase about alienating social activists who are “influencers’’, I’m glad he said this because I’m pretty tired of the G piously dismissing activists as a vocal minority. The majority might be silent, but they are not dumb.

Second, it will be increasingly difficult to hold the political centre together in the midst of polarising extremes – liberals versus conservatives; local versus foreign; pro-life versus pro-abortion; gay versus straight, and so forth. While fault lines along race and religion have been contained and have still not cracked, the so-called culture wars are intensifying.’’

Yup, we’ve been talking about maintaining racial and religious harmony for so long that we forget that different attitudes to fundamental issues  would form – and widen over time. Our laws are directed towards making sure there’s no incitement of racial or religious tension, especially in the media and in the public space. Not that we haven’t tried to hold together with the G initiating numerous talkfests to gather some kind of consensus on the values, beating the Asian gong, strengthening the mother tongue and having National Education workshops…

“Third, diminution in the stature of political leadership will encourage the rise of so-called “non-constructive” politics. Future leaders simply cannot command the sufficient respect and moral authority to decree what is acceptable and unacceptable criticisms. To have the authority to simply deride wide swathes of criticisms as simply non-constructive is wishful thinking.’’

Mr Ho seems to think the “diminution’’ is permanent or at least irreversible. Is it not possible to shore up stature? Or is this a “gone’’ case?

Governing by decree is definitely history. It is no longer acceptable for the G to simply pronounce that something is unacceptable. Mr Ho cited the read-in at the National Library after the “comic’’ gay penguins saga as a local example. It wasn’t a rabid protest but more like a children’s outing, he noted. But the point, he said, had been made.

The political process will take longer and it will be messier. (I wonder what would have happened if the G tried to ban the sale of chewing gum now instead of decades earlier…) Some people might long for the days when decisions were made quickly, so that we could get on with the next thing. Some will even say this little red dot needs to be run efficiently, like a machine without starts and stops, which is what too much “unconstructive politics’’ will do to the system.

How to find a happy mean? Perhaps, the word stature should be replaced by the word respect – and respect works both ways. The G respects the people enough to give an explanation for what it does and we respect the G as the people we elected to lead us.

“Fourth, maintaining an ethos of egalitarianism in an increasingly unequal society will require more than just political oratory.’’

Mr Ho is talking here about the gap between rich and poor – widening not just income-wise but also in terms of values with the rich flaunting their “bling’’. How to fix this? (I hear somewhere in the background that this is the fault of rich foreigners…) I have to say that I’m a little perturbed too by the affectations of the wealthy or what Mr Ho describes as the “ethos of the elite’’ who drive fancy cars and eat in fancy places. Don’t they realise that being “under-stated’’ is classier? Then again, aren’t we trying to raise the wages of the bottom ranks of workers? Maybe that would fix the problem a little.

“Finally, the absence of a galvanising national mission and a sense of dogged exceptionalism as the little red dot that refuses to be smudged out, will lead increasingly to a sense of anomie – which has been defined as “personal unrest, alienation and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals”. It is the disease of affluence which affects individual people as well as societies. We have arrived, only to find ourselves lost again.

“If this seems unnecessarily pessimistic, it is because I personally think the danger of hubris right now is greater than the danger of under-confidence.’’

I’m sure the G would agree with Mr Ho on this. The complacency and sense of entitlement that comes with affluence is numbing. We can view our complaining culture this way – either we have high standards or we just expect everything to go smoothly the first time or all the time.

That’s it folks. Sorry if I was long-winded. I’m suffering from hubris too..

The WP-NEA affair over a fair

In News Reports on October 17, 2014 at 2:50 am

Remember all that fuss about a Chinese New Year fair in Hougang? How the temporary stallholders got hauled up for illegal hawking? And they thought the t Workers’ Party town council had got all the permits ecetera? Well, they compounded their fines but the town council refused to. See you in court, WP told the National Environment Agency.

I had wondered why the WP didn’t just compound the offence and get on with the business of running the town council. From reading the reports over the past couple of days, I can only surmise that it wanted to make a point about the jurisdiction of a town council and the role of the Citizens Consultative Committee (read: pro-PAP grassroots group).

Not that WP has a hope in getting their points across when the issue is so cut-and-dried: You needed a permit, you didn’t get it, you broke the law.

It wasn’t for want of trying though. The WP counsel wanted to look at whether the requirements for a permit for a temporary set-up were even valid or necessary, especially since the set-up is in an area under the town council’s charge. Why then, for example, the need to also get a supporting letter from the CCC which, by the way, approves the setting up of pasar malams etc.

Seems the line of questioning was deemed irrelevant.

Of course, we need to abide by the law. We need to make sure temporary set-ups are safe, hygienic, don’t add to noise, don’t bother residents and don’t pose a problem to traffic. We expect officialdom to do the needful. WP’s chairman Sylvia Lim argued that this wasn’t about “cooked food’’ nor was it a trade fair. It was a community  a mini-fair, with just half a dozen stalls selling CNY paraphernalia – and therefore did not require a permit.  Except that the WP didn’t make this plain to the NEA. It’s not clear from the reports whether even if it did, it still needed to get a permit for the stalls – with the CCC approval. The fact is that the WP TC had started the process of application but stopped corresponding with the NEA half-way. (Guess it got fed up with the red tape? Or saw a chance to get its grievance out in the open?) It went ahead with the fair even though NEA had threatened enforcement.

Sigh. As I did then, I feel sorry for the stallholders caught in the middle. It’s always the small people who get trampled on.

Anyway, the case is over and verdict to be delivered on Nov 25.

Over-charging over over-charging Part 3

In Money, News Reports on October 16, 2014 at 8:45 am

I have got to say I found the Law Society’s letter to the ST Forum Page, Don’t equate reduction of costs with over-charging, pretty annoying.

It starts by talking about how “much ink has been spilled following recent claims of overcharging by lawyers representing the Singapore Medical Council’’. I wouldn’t call a grand total of two letters “much ink’’. I guess my definition of “much’’ isn’t quite the same as the Law Society’s.

It goes on to say: “Without commenting on specific cases before the court and the inquiry committee, it appears necessary to explain the process to the public.’’

(Thank you very much but could you drop the condescending tone? In any case, I don’t think the explanation was very full.)

It then explains the “taxation’’ process. In a nutshell, a lawyer charges a sum of money to a client. Say, he wins the case for his client, then his bill goes to the loser, who can challenge it.

The quantum determined by the court is an amount that the losing party ought reasonably to pay, and not what a lawyer may reasonably charge the client.’’

I am not sure what that means. I guess it is something like this: What a lawyer might charge a client, isn’t the same as what the losing party pays the client (winning party) to defray fees of the lawyer. So if your client has deep pockets, the lawyer is in luck. Because the loser pays whatever amount that is “taxed’’ and I suppose the client foots the rest of the bill.

Then it tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised if there is a difference: “The law actually intends that there will be an appreciable margin between what a losing party pays in taxed costs, and what a winning party has to pay its lawyers. It is an attempt to reach a fair balance between the victor and the vanquished. ‘’

The question then is what is an “appreciable margin’’ – 10 per cent? 20 per cent? 100 per cent? And does the law really intend to have an appreciable margin? I didn’t know that! Yes, yes, I am not a lawyer.

It goes on: “In practice, most bills of costs submitted for taxation are reduced. The winning party’s lawyers have a duty to seek the highest quantum reasonably arguable, and the losing party’s lawyers have a duty to seek the highest possible reduction of those claimed costs. The court will balance both views and decide. That a winning party’s bill of costs was reduced on taxation should not automatically be construed as overcharging.’’

What a strange bargaining process! Keeps the judges busy…But this only happens if the losing side disputes the bill and brings it up to the court no? And the loser needs a lawyer to argue the bill down? What then is the definition of over-charging? How much above the appreciable margin should this be to be construed as “overcharging’’.

According to Rule 38 of the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules on Gross Overcharging: An advocate and solicitor shall not render a bill (whether the bill is subject to taxation or otherwise) which amounts to such gross overcharging that will affect the integrity of the profession.

I would have thought the Law Society would have referred to the above in its letter as part of its explanation of the difference between fee taxed down and overcharging. It would have been educational. And give examples please.

It also goes on to say that “if a client is dissatisfied with his lawyer’s bill, he can also tax that bill in court’’.

So you hire another lawyer to bring down your original lawyer’s fees?  Wow! I wonder if this is common practice? (Is this what the Singapore Medical Council should have done in the Susan Lim case? Or did it think the fees of $1m plus charged twice is a reasonable fee for the SMC to pay? Ooops! Wrong of me to refer to specific cases…)

Final paragraph: “The Law Society does not condone overcharging by lawyers, and complaints about overcharging are subject to a statutory regime. Complaints made to the Law Society are referred to independent committees for investigation. These committees are not appointed by the Law Society, and it has no control over them.  The public can have every confidence that there are long-established safeguards in place to address overcharging, whether by one’s own lawyer or by an opposing lawyer.”

Isn’t that so odd? There is an independent committee, which the Law Society has no control over, to deal with complaints. Which makes you wonder why the Law Society is spilling ink at all. LawSoc could at least give more details on how these committees work or the results of its work.

Here’s my response to the Law Society letter:

Much ink has been spilled by the Law Society on the general process of taxation by the courts. Without commenting on specific cases before the court and the inquiry committee, it appears necessary for the Law Society to elaborate on the phrase “appreciable margin’’ and define the term “over-charging’’. It might also be appropriate to disclose statistics on complaints of over-charging (after taxation and not through fraud or other action) and how many were acted on. This is so as that the public can have every confidence that there are long-established safeguards in place to address overcharging, whether by one’s own lawyer or by an opposing lawyer.

Grieving over grass

In News Reports, Sports on October 15, 2014 at 12:53 am

If you haven’t heard about the state of the field in our National Stadium, you’ve been sticking your head in the sand for too long….

Anyway, here’s the story:

Singapore, the self-styled City in a Garden, acknowledged yesterday that it doesn’t know how to grow grass.
“We’ve never been a people to let the grass grow under our feet,’’ said Mr Si Beh Suay. “We always race to be Number 1, so we’re more used to proper running tracks – not fields.’’

He said the Sports Hub had tried to shine some lights on the root of the problem but the grass stubbornly refused to grow. He sniffed at the suggestion by environmentalists to use manure labour to feed the field, pointing out that the emitted gases combined with the particles in the haze would lead to spontaneous combustion.


“We’ve hit a sandy patch but it’s a growing process,’’ he acknowledged, adding that he would bring in the horticulturalists from the Singapore Botanic Gardens to coax the grass, known by its scientific name as socceritis allergenia.

Brazil soccer stars last night decided to play beach volleyball among themselves in the National Stadium, kicking up clumps of sand and grass. The polite Japanese preferred to go to their green, green grass of home to tend to their bonsai plants.

Mr Si: “Look, we all know the grass is greener on the side. But it only looks greener, it’s really not as green as people think. Actually, it’s plastic.’’

Netizens poured cold water on his comments, noting that Singapore, maker of Newater, builder of Jurong Island and host of F1 race, should also be excellent in the development of grassroots bodies.


Social commentators said the problem was equating excellence with profit making. “You measure your success by how much money you made from people using the pitch, not from letting grass grow. That would be too slow.’’

Whose story is history?

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on October 12, 2014 at 9:55 am

I like reading about the past. In fact, over the past two years, I have eschewed fiction. I read plenty of non-fiction, in particular, history. Whether the books are about adventurers who trek through the wilds, on ice or up the Nile and the Amazon, early pioneers in the United States or Australia or about dynastic families such as the Tudors, Hapsburgs or the Ottoman empire, I devour all. I often wished I did my degree in history rather than in political science. After all, political science is just a multi-varied framework that describes what really is political history.

It is important to know the past because it is a signpost of the future. I read about the different empire builders in history and wonder if ISIS is a repeat: that’s how empires begin, with an idea and then wholesale slaughter of those not in agreement, before coming to something more akin to stability. So it is now in Stage 2?

I read about the Crimean War because of what is now happening between the Soviet Union and Ukraine and was enlightened on four things:

  1. That the Lady of the Lamp Florence Nightingale served during this war and more people DIED under her care than in other hospitals. Because her hospital was built on a leaking sewer system which seeped into the water.
  2. That the Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised by actor Errol Flynn and poet Alfred Tennyson was a suicidal assault by unthinking calvary who obeyed orders of silly, squabbling commanders.
  3. That the phrase the Fourth Estate was coined during this time during a Parliamentary session in England to refer to pressure from the popular press to launch a war against the Russians (I have always thought it was of American origin!)
  4. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was in the war and based some of his characters in War and Peace on real-life officers.

I guess those are the “facts’’ I have gleaned. As for impressions: The English wanted war, the French were dithering over it, the Turks were overwhelmed and Tsar Nicholas I was mad.

History books give the facts but how the facts are presented is another thing altogether. I read Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941 – Countdown to Infamy, on how the Japanese cabinet decided to go to war and I am left with the impression that every minister was either out for himself or very, very stupid. I read the Balfour Declaration and was sorry about how the Arabs appeared to have been conned by the crafty British to carve out Israel during the period of the Great Game played among colonial powers for control over other people’s territory.

Sometimes I read more than one book on the same period or people – and think I am actually reading about a different period and different people. So I read JOP Bland and Edmund Backhouse contemporary record of China under the Empress Dowager and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager CiXi and wonder why she is so much more emphatic/sympathetic to the woman than the Englishmen.

I read Raffles and the Great Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning and want to put flowers under the statue of the great man (so brilliant but misunderstood). But I also read Raffles and the British Invasion of Java (crazy, cruel megalomaniac) – and I wish he stayed in Java.

Now we are being fed reams of newsprint on the Battle for Merger. I will go buy the book because I am interested in history and this has to do with my country. But, dare I say that I am also aware that it will be one-sided reading, from our former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew? Because I was not born during those times, I do not quite know what the communists did nor their views on why they do some of the terrible things they are said to have done. I wish I could hear from the older generation who lived through those times.

Also because then, I will have a better idea of why the G is so adamant that Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore, With Love, cannot be screened in public. (Actually I won’t have a better idea because I haven’t seen it). Some very tough words have been used by both Communications and Information Minister Yacob Ibrahim and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to defend the G stance. The G says that the film is full of drums – distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears. It was self-serving because the interviewees (communists who fled the country) chose to white wash their past and did not talk about their “wrongs’’.  (I hear background noises…like, did the Holocaust really happen?)

It’s so terribly odd. We decided not to screen a one-sided film, but are okay about reading a one-sided book – which is more or less on the same topic (?) or at least of the times. It seems to me it would be good to let both loose on the population, as Han Fook Kwang suggested in Sunday Times today. It is when there are two opposing ideas that people get excited and engaged; a monologue will have the opposite effect. Letting the film be broadcast might generate more interest in Battle for Merger, he says, and make it come alive.

I think it’s a good idea too. PM Lee says that a film is not like a book, and therefore cannot be easily countered. Frankly, I have great faith in the ability of the G to counter “anything’’. It seems lazy to resort to a ban when it might be better to engage the film. In fact, given what he has said, maybe Ms Tan should consider putting the exiles’ transcripts in a book! And they could be packaged together with Battle for Merger for sale! Okay, bad joke.

In any case, here’s what PM Lee said: “Why should we allow through a movie to present an account of themselves (that is) not objectively presented documentary history, but a self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over inconvenient facts than others which will sully the honour and reputation of the security people and the brave men and women who fought the Communists all those many years in order to create today’s Singapore?”

I think the better justification is the later half of the statement on the need to preserve the honour and reputation of those who fought. I would dearly love to hear from them, for a firmer grasp on that period which most of us weren’t born early enough to experience.

But I was taken aback when PM Lee also said the communists were still vying for “a place on the winners’ podium’’. Goodness!  In 2014? I doubt most people understand the first thing about communism, unless they mistake it for consumerism!

I don’t think I will be sticking my neck out if I say that communism will never return nor take root here. Nor do I think Ms Tan’s film will be a threat to national security. Let everyone have their say. People will have different views, sure, but I really doubt that they will be so rattled as to shake the foundations of our country. The past belongs to everyone. Let the present people be the judge.

Understanding the sexes – the FOtF way

In News Reports, Society on October 11, 2014 at 12:19 am

So much coverage on what the Focus on the Family relationship workshop teaches students. MOE is stopping the workshop at the year’s end. FOtF said the workshop supposed to be “light-hearted”. So here’s a “light-hearted” look at what happens in its workshop in school:

Adult: Gals are like delicate flowers, so vulnerable and pretty.

Girl (studious type) : Which flower? Rose or Rafflesia?

Guy (brat): You’re more like a Venus fly-trap!

Girl: Shaddup!

Adult: Gal! Don’t say that! Guys don’t like gals disagreeing with them. They all very macho in their thinking. That’s how their brain is wired even if their body don’t look it.

Girl: But he’s so offensive! I won’t take this lying down.

Guy: You lie down also I dowan!

Adult: Yes you do. Guys can’t help being hormonally hyped. There’s only one thing you want from her…admit it!

Guy: Like what? Her new iPhone?

Adult:  If she’s not in her ugly school uniform and wore fewer clothes, your eyes will be drawn to her like a magnet…

(Guy looks at gal meaningfully…)

Girl (upset) : If he even looks at me, I will slap him! No! No! No!

Adult: You mean Yes! Yes! Yes!???

Girl: No, I mean no! Why can’t guys take No! for an answer?

Guy: Because we’re guys and we will like to have it our way…

Girl: That’s not fair! I wasn’t brought up to be the dependent, submissive type. I want to be like Malala and win the Nobel Peace Prize!

Guy: You also need a bullet in your head!

Adult: Guy and gal, that’s what I mean when I talk about relationship difficulties. You are arguing with each other when you really like each other. Both of you are giving out mixed signals…

Girl: Can you please stop calling me gal. I am a young woman. (walks out in a huff)

Guy: And I seriously don’t like her. As a guy, I mean what I say. (stomps off)

Adult: I now conclude my relationship workshop on understanding the sexes.

Over-charging over over-charging Part 2

In Money, News Reports on October 9, 2014 at 12:40 pm

I don’t know about you but I am getting absolutely confused about charges and fees of professionals. I’m glad I’m not a lawyer or a doctor. It means I am not in a position to impede access to justice or deny medical care to the sick. Of course, I also don’t make as much money. This piece is pro bono, by the way.

Anyway, I was thinking about the Dr Susan Lim case, or rather, its aftermath. How strange it is that the doctor guilty of overcharging a patient is herself now being overcharged. The case isn’t a straight-forward two party fight. So the Singapore Medical Council hired (?) a law firm to handle its disciplinary inquiries into her case. One committee was convened, and it later recused itself. Then Dr Lim tried to stop a second committee from forming by going to the High Court – and failed. She went before the second committee which said she was wrong, and therefore has to pay the SMC’s legal cost for both committees.

So Dr Lim was presented with two sets of bills, for the High Court case and for the two disciplinary committees. In both instances, she – or rather her husband – disputed the amounts that was put up by Wong Partnership to the SMC and so they went to court to get them “taxed’’.

In August 2013, a $1m-plus bill was cut to $370,000 – for the High Court case. And lately, a $1.33 m bill was taxed down to $317,000 – for the two committees. In total, the original bills amounted to $2.33million, and was brought down to $687,000. It is believed that the SMC will be appealing the second amount, as it did the first. We’ve yet to hear anything.

I gather that the process is this: the lawyers bill the SMC, and the SMC sends the bill over to the other side. Two writers to ST Forum page have already weighed in to say that the SMC, a statutory board under the Ministry of Health, seems to be paying private lawyers whatever fees they ask for without much scrutiny.  Bear in mind that the SMC is funded by taxpayers and doctors’ registration fees and you would think it would take greater care over its finances.

One immediate question on the Susan Lim case would be: Even if the amounts were taxed down, that is, Dr Lim doesn’t have to pay $2million or so, how does the SMC pay Wong Partnership then? Does it have to make up for the shortfall? Or did it pay everything first in the hope that the amounts from Dr Lim would not be disputed? The SMC owes the public an answer. If it did pay the full amount of $1m plus for the first set of bills (and I understand that this is the case and I really hope to be told that I’m wrong) then where did SMC get the money from?

Another question is this: Why did the SMC itself not dispute the lawyers’ bill, if not the first time, then the second time? Surely, the fact that the first set of bills was lowered so drastically would mean that it would look more closely at the second set of bills?

The SMC should really clear the air over this or it would seem that it – or its lawyers – was out to get whatever it can from the errant doctor.

Letter-writer Jeremy Lim said that the SMC should have the legal fees it has paid out over the years independently reviewed “to ensure there have not been other episodes of overcharging that have gone undetected’’. I agree. In this case, we have a doctor and her ex-banker husband, presumably with deep enough pockets to hire their own lawyers, disputing the fees. What about other less well-off doctors?

Another letter writer, Mr Peter Chen, said this: “I understand that legal fees incurred by a doctor in his own defence are not recoverable, even if he is cleared of wrongdoing. It is because of these astronomical legal fees that some doctors would rather admit guilt and face a short suspension than try to clear their names – and end up with a bill that might put them out of business.’’

Is that so? How come? Wouldn’t this mean that anyone with a (frivolous) complaint against a doctor can try his luck with the SMC – and not pay for the doctor’s legal cost of defending himself even if the doctor is in the clear?

As for the legal assessors and expert witnesses, surely the SMC is au fait enough with the fees such professionals had charged in the past to ensure that they were not so far out of line? After all, the registrar could cite several precedents involving the SMC when she taxed down the amounts.

Then there are the SMC lawyers themselves, such as the lead lawyer Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo. Dr Lim and her husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, want the Law Society to investigate him for professional misconduct – and that was over the first set of bills. A review committee of the Law Society didn’t think that was needed because there was no evidence of “impropriety’’. (This makes it seems like overcharging is okay, especially since there is a taxation process with the courts acting like a watchdog.   Doesn’t it take money to get the courts to look at the bill? And another lawyer to argue the case? )

Mr Sharma is going for broke and wants the court to review the Law Society’s decision. The irony is that he can’t seem to get a Senior Counsel to represent him (most cite knowing Mr Yeo personally) and is applying to get a Queen’s Counsel to do so. Sheesh. Our legal fraternity is really so small! Everyone knows everyone, or at least every SC knows every SC!

With Mr Yeo’s second set of bills also taxed down, it would seem that Mr Sharma has more fodder…

I am now looking forward to the Singapore Medical Council’s reply to the two Forum Page letters.  Methinks Mr Yeo should say something too, especially since he is a Member of Parliament. He shouldn’t let his reputation and his integrity be called into question. Oversight? Mistake? Commercial decisions? Market rates? Or someone in the firm added one too many zeros?

Over-charging over over-charging

In Money, News Reports, Society on October 8, 2014 at 8:23 am

When I read the news reports last week about super-high fees asked for by lawyers for the Singapore Medical Council for their work on the Susan Lim case, I wondered if I was really reading something new. It all seemed so familiar. So I did a little digging and realised the reason for the sense of déjà vu. This case of lawyer-overcharging-the-overcharging doctor had been played out before – between the same protagonists.

Here’s the background:

Last year, the SMC lawyers, Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo of Wong Partnership, had put up a legal bill of $1,007,009.30. This was for work during a High Court case; Dr Lim had tried and failed to stop the SMC from convening a second disciplinary committee against her.

Dr Lim’s side disputed the bill. It was sent for taxation, that is, for the courts to review. This was slashed to $340,000.

The SMC appealed to get the figure up to $720,000 but the court only revised it up by $30,000 – to $370,000.

All this came to light in MSM in July this year, when her husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, who is funding her case, decided to go public on his complaint of overcharging. He had gone to the Law Society alleging professional misconduct on the part of Mr Yeo and was upset that the LawSoc’s Review Committee had dismissed his complaint as having “no substance’’.

Now he’s gone to the courts to get it to review the decision – as well as to bring in a Queen’s Counsel to fight his case. Why? Because at least 20 Senior Counsel here have turned him down, mainly citing their personal links with Mr Yeo.

Fast forward to the latest twist:  

A few months ago, the same SMC lawyers submitted a bill for $1.33 million, for work on two disciplinary committees convened to hear the case against Dr Lim.

Dr Lim’s side again disputed the bill. This was slashed to $317,000.

No wonder I get the sense that I was reading the same thing. Almost the same figures!

You wonder why the lawyers and the SMC hadn’t learnt from the earlier lesson. Unlike the latest case reported last week, there is no news report on what the first registrar said about slashing the first set of fees. But it appears that somewhat similar reasons were put up by the lawyers to justify their fees – number of lawyers involved and the hours spent, including getting “new’’ lawyers up to speed on the case. Except that the SMC didn’t get permission for more than one lawyer to be “certified’’ (some professional ruling) and it’s odd that Dr Lim had to pay for “refresher’’ courses.

Mr Sharma, who recently retired as global chairman of Citi Private Bank was reported in ST as claiming that in one of its bills, WongP was charging what amounted to $77,102 for each day they were in court. In another, it was $46,729 for each day in court. And, for the third bill, this amounted to $100,000 per hour of hearing.

He cited the difference between initial and final bill as evidence of  “gross overcharging’’ and “improper conduct’’. But the LawSoc review committee seemed to think that just because the bill had been taxed down significantly does not mean there was professional misconduct involved. There must be evidence of impropriety as well. Besides, it added, Mr Yeo wasn’t involved in preparing the bill….(which sounds like it’s his secretary’s fault)

(Everything’s topsy-turvy. Doesn’t that look like a reason Dr Lim herself could give for charging $24million to her Bruneian patient? And I thought the courts had settled on the ethical principle of professionals charging “reasonably’’ and not just what the client/patient can pay.  Or does that apply only to doctors and not lawyers? Okay…I will be very careful now…)

I got hold of what the second registrar, Jacqueline Lee, said recently and they make for really interesting reading. I wish MSM gave the full works but since it didn’t… here goes…

  1. The lawyers wanted $900,000 as legal fees. Taxed down to $180,000

Seems that they were trying to bill for three lawyers rather than just for one lawyer that is certified. The argument: there was just one lawyer (never mind who, junior or senior) at every stage anyway. The registrar described the argument as a “glib’’ one which made “a mockery of the regime for certifying the costs of one solicitor.

She also threw out arguments on needing to “refresh’’ lawyers since there were breaks in between hearings and new people brought on board. One key thing she noted: although there were two inquiries, much had been done at the first one already so it really wasn’t so hard-going for the second committee. Also, Dr Lim didn’t call any witnesses. And she wasn’t responsible for the first committee recusing itself, necessitating a second committee to be set up.

Plus, it seems the lawyers weren’t good at breaking down what they actually did during the hours they billed for: A total of 1,900 hours and $1,229,804.

The lawyers said: “Out of an abundance of caution, the amount stated is a reduced figure of the time spent.’’

The registrar’s reply: “I would approach that statement with great circumspection’’ The more relevant figure, she said, was 718 hours done by four lawyers.

What’s also interesting is how the lawyers threw in Law Minister K Shanmugam’s name into its “skeletal submission’’, saying that they had to handle correspondence from him while he was in the private sector acting for Dr Lim at the beginning of the whole kerfuffle.  The registrar ticked them off roundly and pointed out that the notice of inquiry was given in July 2009, “way after’’ Mr Shanmugam’s involvement ceased. “In my view, it was not necessary, and perhaps even mischievous, to highlight the long procedural history…’’

Woah! Lawyers also very good at name-dropping ah…

2. Legal assessors’ fees

I have been asking what legal assessors are and now I know: They are actually lawyers/legal people that the disciplinary committee can turn to for advice on questions of law. (No, I don’t know how they are appointed. Not public tender I suppose…)

The first disciplinary committee had Senior Counsel Giam Chin Toon who asked for $49,200 (at about $570 per hour) which the registrar described as “slightly above average’’. This was taxed down to $45,000.

The second committee had Senior Counsel Vinodh Coomaraswamy, who asked for $235,635.40 for some 224 hours of work done at $1,050 per hour. This was taxed down to $22,000 in all.

That’s a gigantic drop, mainly because the registrar doesn’t have information on what he did for 180 of those 224 hours that were billed. (Taking out 32 hours that could be accounted for because there were sessions held, it seems the rest of the time was lumped under “attending internal meetings’’ with the committee and “perusing and reviewing documents’’.)

Again, she pointed out that it was the first committee which recused itself, hence another legal assessor who would really only need to read about what happened in the first session. Dr Lim shouldn’t be made to pay for “duplication’’ of effort.

3. Expert witness fees

Dr Tan Yew Oo claimed $12,145, which was brought down to $9,000

Dr Hong Ga Sze wanted $40,000, and this was taxed down to $5,000

The interesting thing here is what constitutes an expert witness. The case was not about botched procedures or medical treatment which would require a specialist in the field, but a question of how doctors decide on what to charge.

In the case of Dr Tan, his expert witness bill was more than what he would charge as a specialist doctor – and his medical expertise wasn’t even required in this case. The registrar looked at precedents before bringing the figure down.

Dr Ho’s case was more interesting. He was charging higher than Dr Tan even though he was more junior, spent less time on the stand and did a shorter report. He was claiming $14,000 for giving expert evidence on just one day, even though it was really about billing practices. He charged $6,000 for “standing by’’ to take the witness stand and $6,000 for preparing his short trial report (Dr Tan charged $1,000). He had a $14,000 bill for trial preparation which started from a date even before the notice of inquiry was issued to Dr Lim!

4. The ring binders

Lawyers say $6 because have plastic sheets inside; but registrar noted they used $2.50 binders before….

That’s the full(er) story…I think. Anyway, I getting tired. Part 2 later.

Chatting with Heng Chee How

In News Reports, Society on October 6, 2014 at 2:30 am

What’s the difference between a chance and a choice? That’s a phrase Mr Heng Chee How keeps using. A chance: To work beyond age 62 and even up to 67. A choice: To NOT work beyond age 62.

But what if there is no choice? That you have to work beyond a certain age to keep body and soul together, that is, work till you drop? Mr Heng counters that there is at least a chance: some people have to work, or want to work – but can’t because employers can “retire’’ you. In other words, you have BOTH a chance and a choice.

Methinks many people have mixed feelings about the retirement age. To think that it was only two years ago that we were told that we can work till 65 and now, we’re talking about labouring till 67!

Much of the misperception about the retirement age is this idea that we HAVE to work till we drop, or at least to whatever retirement age we’ve settled on. Some of us probably have to; some of us can afford to smell the roses earlier.

The confusion – or resentment – is compounded by the CPF withdrawal age of 55. That number is ingrained in everyone’s mind as the time you can start relaxing because there’s money a-coming. It’s a deadline. Then we get a jolt when we realise that the sums will be disbursed in small amounts over time, although with CPF Life, they will be given out until the day we die. (In fact, if you look at the CPF website, its home page has Turning 55 as Retirement. So much for G messaging…!)

Anyway, we’re told/asked to work for longer because we happen to also live longer and CPF savings may not be enough. And we are put on some kind of guilt-trip about burdening our children and the next generation.

Actually, the phrase “retirement age’’ is quite redundant to the worker. It’s not as though you get a gratuity or pension of some sort, at least for most of us. It’s actually something that works to the advantage of employers who want to see the back of some seniors who get too comfortable and fat on the job. Yay! We can retire the fella! He’s always falling sick and we’re paying his medical fees! Time to get fresh blood! Cheaper!

Methinks we shouldn’t be talking about retirement, we should be talking about re-employment. You can retire anytime you want, but if you want to still continue working, you can. Isn’t that a better way to pitch the message?

The question that people, at least employees, should be raising is not whether the retirement age should go up, but what sort of re-employment is being offered, if it is being offered at all.

So what’s the status report? I got to talking to Mr Heng, the deputy secretary in the NTUC, for some background.

From 2012, employers have to offer re-employment to those who hit 62. It’s the law – unless the person is unfit or the employer can argue that there is no suitable job for the person. Yup, it does seem weighted in favour of employers. (Imagine: Yes, you have been doing the same job for years but we’ve decided to do away with the job and we can’t find anything else for you…And then open the job up later for a new worker???)

In any case, the Manpower ministry has a survey of what happened in 2012. From what I can gather, 79 per cent of private establishments had measures to allow their local employees to work beyond 62 in 2011, up from 77 per cent in 2010. As for the rest which didn’t, or 21 per cent of employers, they gave reasons such as lack of suitable job and leadership renewal.

That’s the employer front. Seems 400 people didn’t get offered a job. MOM didn’t say if it did anything about employers who couldn’t give a good reason.

But just because a person is offered a job, doesn’t mean he has to accept it. It seems that 92 per cent or 10,600 of the older workers accepted re-employment.

So people want to work.

Sounds good, but what sort of terms were they offered?

Said MOM: “Of the local employees who accepted re-employment in the same job, only 17 per cent of the employees were paid lower, with a median wage cut of 12 per cent A small minority or 3.6 per cent were paid more, with a median wage gain of 12 per cent.’’

I don’t know why MOM chose to use the word “only’’.

Too often, we hear of older workers accepting terms below what they should be paid for, such as same workload for less pay or no medical benefits. It is as though their worth goes down at age 62, even though they do the same amount of work. They have recourse: to the unions, to the Commissioner of Labour. If they are unionised, or know their rights. ( I wonder what sort of workers accept lower pay for the same work? Probably those who HAVE to work, that is, the low wage worker. So you have a 62 year old trying to keep body and soul together on even lower pay… )

There is one aspect of the Retirement and Reemployment Act that is seldom mentioned:  That an employer who is unable to find a suitable place for an eligible employee

(a) must let them retire (so odd isn’t it? It’s as though the employer can handcuff you to your desk) OR

(b) “offer an employment assistance payment to the eligible employee’’. Tripartite guidelines say that this should be between $4,500 and $10,000.

Didn’t know that did you? I guess it’s because the whole idea of raising the retirement age is to get people to continue working and not view the sum as a sort of retirement benefit.

For those interested in what happens when you are getting close to 62, here’s a dumbed down scenario.

  1. You get a call from your boss/HR manager, like three months before your birthday, to ask if you want to carry on working. That’s assuming you’re medically fit.
  2. If you say no, then its “sayonara’’ and all the best to you.
  3. If you say yes, then the employer will have to try to find you something to do. It could be your old job or a new role and then you start discussing terms. One-year contract, for example, that can be renewed till you hit 65. If you are not happy with the terms and you’re convinced that the employer is making it too tough for you to stay, you can go to the union or the ministry. (Problem then is what is considered “reasonable’’ terms)
  4. If the employer doesn’t want you in your old job (maybe he has someone younger in mind) and can’t find a place for you anywhere, he’s supposed to help you find another job. That’s why he has to give you an Employment Assistance Payment, to help tide you over the job-seeking period.

I asked Mr Heng why this hurry to get the age raised to 67 when people might not be too clear about how re-employment works. Also, shouldn’t we wait till Medishield Life gets underway so that companies can move to a portable medical benefits system and workers can be assured of proper medical care regardless of age?

He cites the current labour market as a reason. Best to do it when employers feel the need for workers – and can’t get more bodies. The flip side, however, is that young workers will start wondering how to get to the top if the higher ranks are filled with “senior’’ people who seem to be staying on “forever’’. He says it boils down to re-designing jobs for older workers so that they still have a role to play, but make way for the younger lot. Like doing part-time work, or becoming mentors or consultants.

He says, very frankly too, that employers always have ways to get rid of older people, with or without legislation. They can, for example, find a reason to let go someone before the person hits re-employment age. The current set of statistics which lump workers within a 55 to 64 year old band isn’t enough, he reckons. Better to have a yearly breakdown to see if employers are playing punk (my phrase).

He asked me for my definition of retirement. I told him it’s about not having to work or working at a slower pace than before. And that, of course, depends on whether you have enough money stashed away to be able to do so. (Which makes me glad that the CPF contribution rate was raised for older workers two years ago, in line with the raised retirement age. Hmmm…Shouldn’t that go up too if we raise the age further?)

The question though is what is what is “enough money’’ to retire on – something which will differ from person to person.

Maybe we should retire the term retirement. And just keep calm and carry on working.

Deciding who gets PR

In Money, News Reports, Society on October 3, 2014 at 4:53 am

Everybody knows now about the famous/infamous ex-tour guide from China who moved into a rich old widow’s home and was granted lasting power of attorney, giving him practically control of her life – and her assets. We can exclaim and call him names and get all xenophobic about his so-called influence, all of which makes for good dinner conversation. Now we will wait to see the outcome of investigations of supposed fraud and of the various official “probes’’ into his status here.

Couple of points I thought worth noting…

I am really glad the Office of Public Guardian stepped into this tangle between the widow’s niece and Mr Yang Ying – over who should be supervising the 87-year old’s finances. We seem to be so entirely sympathetic towards the niece and antagonistic towards Mr Yang that we seem to have forgotten that Madam Chung probably needs a third party’s protection. That neutral party should be the State or the courts because it all boils down to who she is giving power to. So Mr Yang claims he had a doctor certifying that she was capable of giving him power of attorney when she did so. Then, she got the power revoked last week. The niece says she was all right then as well, so a doctor said.

Gosh!

Experts on either side! Best to get an independent doctor assigned by the courts to do so. In fact, I keep wondering why the doctors weren’t named. I guess it is not considered significant who the doctor is – so long as he/she belongs on some list the OPG has.

The bigger point I think is that we might finally get some clarity on how the manpower and immigration authorities decide on employment passes and permanent residency status. It seems that both agencies are investigating now, as ST reported.

Thing is, it seems to me strange that he got an employment pass solely because he and Madam Chung set up a music and dance school. Maybe not strange since we all wonder foreigners to bring money with them. I wonder what’s the paid-up capital? I wonder (actually I don’t) who put up the money…

The address of the school/office is the home of Madam Chung. Amazing. I wonder if dance classes are held there. I wonder if ACRA kept notes of the school’s accounts or whether it is a dormant/shell company so that whatever supposed income Mr Yang gets can be funnelled here.  MOM says salary, qualifications, age and experience counts in assessisng employment pass. So Mr Yang is down as having a $6,000 a month salary and it seems he makes regular CPF contributions and pays taxes. Doing what I wonder? Seems to me it’s rather easy to get an employment pass under false pretences – or am I jumping the gun here? Then it seems the niece has documents which cast doubt on the authenticity of his degree from the University of Financial and Trade Beijing. In 2009. The same year he set up the Singapore company and moved into the bungalow.

The immigration authorities or ICA said they had rejected his PR application once. He applied for it ONE year after he got his employment pass, in 2010. But he got lucky(?) the next year. You know, I have heard plenty of stories about foreigners who “wait long, long’’ for PR status. And Mr Yang doesn’t have the added reason of having “roots’’ here, like a Singaporean spouse. I sure hope the immigration authorities didn’t buy his claim to be Madam Chung’s “grandson’’ or being a grassroot leader or an active member of the chamber of commerce – positions/roles which have since been questioned. I gather, however, that Singapore sponsors are required for permanent residency applications. Besides probably Madam Chung, who are they?

The ICA said it conducts face-to-face interviews, background and document checks in assessing applications. In this case, were they done? Or did everybody give such a good account of the man? The ICA also makes the point that an average of 30,000 PRs are approved every year. It looks like a heavy workload then. I wonder how many are “repeat applications’’ and what sort of average “waiting period’’ a foreigner has to go through before getting PR. Because, seriously, two years seems pretty short to me. It’s not as if Mr Yang is some tycoon whom we want here because of the ability to generate more for the economy….

Above are just some points that come to mind.

You know what? I wonder if Mr Yang had also applied for citizenship…

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