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Work hard; Be happy

In News Reports on July 19, 2014 at 5:52 am

There’s an interesting report today in ST about a 1,000-worker and 500-boss survey on work-life balance. It threw up some odd results, like how most thought they were “in control’’ of their work-life arrangements although very few took up flexi-work options. Extrapolate further on why they thought they were in control and what comes across is that they can take “emergency leave’’ and “time off’’ at short notice.

Seems we have a very low threshold of pain… I liked what Guardian Health and Beauty chief executive Sarah Boyd said about the survey: “I think for me, the ability to take time off at short notice or emergency leave shouldn’t be considered a part of the frame of reference for work-life balance – it should be a basic human need… If Singaporeans were able to see what work-life balance and flexi-work means in other parts of the world, they would get a very different frame of reference for their decisions.”

I wish this part of the report was expanded further. What DO work-life balance and flexi-work mean elsewhere?

Clearly, Singapore is way behind developed countries in flexi-work arrangements and their take-up rates. Employer Alliance chief Claire Chiang thinks it’s because they had to tackle the problem far earlier – more usual for both men and women to work (gender equality) and families did without maids.

But when it comes to employers staggering working hours or having telecommuting arrangements, the numbers here aren’t that bad. Close to half of employers say they have such arrangements. But workers don’t seem to be taking them up. Some analysts put this down to an addiction to work, and how so much of life now centres on work.
Strikes me that maybe, workers may not know they are available. Or maybe, these are not “structured’’ arrangements offered by the company but ad hoc ones given to those who ask.

Or maybe, as Ms Boyd, said the Singapore workers’ “frame of reference’’ is quite different from elsewhere. (Because there is a maid and family support at home?) So even if we do work long hours, we still find satisfaction in work, as a survey on teachers earlier showed. Our idea of balance is to be able to get time out when there are emergencies, for which we seem to be thankful that bosses understand this “basic human need’’.

Worker: Boss, my 80-year old mother had an accident and is now in hospital ICU. Can I leave now to go see her?
Possible responses:
Boss: No, finish your work first. Your mother will still be in hospital when your work is done.
Boss: And who is going to do your work while you’re away? Me?
Boss: You have no brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, people related to you by blood or marriage who can be with her now?
Boss: Go! Go! This is all part of work-life balance that the company and the country is promoting. Go with my blessings. (Worker keels over in gratitude at the magnanimous gesture.)

Anyway, some interesting findings beyond the top line results:
a. Working mothers with young children is the group most worried about being looked askance if they took up flexi-work arrangements. The survey doesn’t say why but it’s probably because this is the group which most probably HAS to ask for leave and such when boy-boy or girl-girl get sick or get into trouble.

b. It’s the men who want more work-life balance than the women, saying that their well-being, personal and family life as well as work productivity will be enhanced.

c. While most people say they would be attracted to work in a company which promotes balance, not as many say they will quit if it doesn’t. Guess they are stuck or maybe the pay is good…

d. The 20-somethings form the group most in favour of work-life balance, saying that their family/personal life would “improve significantly’’. Gosh! So young and already want “balance’’, more so than the older cohorts who probably have children and elderly parents to look after…wish they would just work first before insisting on “balance”.

e. Bosses interviewed aren’t tough about demanding face-time with workers or that they work long hours or that they take work home. Seems it’s all in workers’ imaginations. But, here’s the rub: Some 54 per cent of bosses say they should be available to “meet business needs regardless of business hours ‘’ but only 37 per cent of workers agree. So it seems that workers want “real’’ time-out, and not be at the bosses’ beck and call.

g. At the end of the day, it’s the workers’ direct supervisor who is the face of a company in support of work-life balance. About 61 per cent of respondents said their supervisor was “more’’ and “much more’’ supportive compared to the company.
I think (g) is the most important point. A company can put out all the arrangements it wants but it is usually the direct line supervisors who decide access – as well as performance appraisal (!)

Earlier this month, 69 companies and individuals received the “Best Companies for Mums” Awards organised by the National Trades Union Congress Women’s Development Secretariat and Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). It also awards “most supportive supervisors’’. This year, it remembered Dads and added: “Most Enabling Companies for Dads”.

I got hold of a citation for one of the “most supportive supervisors’’ award – for Chan Hoi San of StarHub.

Here is an edited excerpt of the nomination by Eloise Yeo:

“I am a mother of three, and have to rely on family support to take care of my children. Despite the long distance to and from work, Hoi San supports me in times when I have to leave work half an hour earlier so that I can take over the childcare from my mother. The challenges that I have to overcome at home grew when my Dad was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011. He eventually passed away within a month of diagnosis. During that one month, Hoi San allowed me to work from home so that I can take care of my girls while my Mom takes care of my Dad. ..Things weren’t over as after this, my father in-law was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and had to go through rounds of treatment. Hoi San showed her care and concern as a confidant and gave me advice as a friend. When I had to drive to and from work so that I can fetch my girls, she even helped me to seek approval for limited carpark lots in the office so that I do not have to pay a huge amount of carpark fees every day. At this juncture, I am faced with the illness of my mother and the birth of my third child. I am truly at the most difficult moment of my personal and work life. Hoi San once again supported me in my half day work arrangement to manage the home front and work demands. Through my trials and challenges faced at home and my family, Hoi San has never doubted me. She gave me her full trust and support time and again. I really wouldn’t be able to continue my work and manage my family if not for her constant support, reassurance and advice.”

At the end of the day, it’s really the people you work with that counts.

In another person’s shoes…

In News Reports, Society on July 14, 2014 at 2:35 am

I am a frequent visitor to Katong Shopping Centre because I am in the hunt for yet another maid. The first one didn’t last long…Then I read in an ST commentary today that only 42 per cent of maids placed by agents last more than a year with their employers. Those are Manpower ministry statistics from Feb 2011 to Feb last year. And I don’t feel that bad – except I wonder if “good job-matching’’ is one of the criteria for maid agencies which acquire the CaseTrust mark.

The media has been full of stuff about maid agents of the unscrupulous kind, as well as employers of the horrible kind. NGOs are weighing in on the way prospective maids are “put on display’’ in a demeaning way and the slave labour rates that they get – no money for several months because of loan payments that the employer had paid the bill for.

It’s hard not to sympathise with the plight of those who have to leave the country in search of better pay. I cringe when I see maids lined up behind glass walls and supposedly doing chores like ironing and coo-ing baby to sleep (they carry a doll).
What if I were put in their shoes? I think I would be rather too proud to do the same, unless I am in desperate straits – which I guess most of them must be.

Then I also hear some horror stories about maids and am reminded that I must install a CCTV in my mother’s home to monitor the maid’s movements. I was told of a maid who was caught “napping’’ everyday, lazing around the house before hurrying to do the housework before Sir and Mom get home. Not so bad, I thought. Then I hear about how she was caught thrashing the pet dog with a chair. And more mysteriously, how she took a loaf of bread from the kitchen and then put it back in its place untouched after several hours. Hauled by the employer to the maid agent, she steadfastly refused to say what she was doing with the loaf of bread in the meantime. Needless to say, she was “returned’’ to the maid agent to be unleashed, I suppose, as a transfer maid on another unsuspecting employer.

That loaf of bread bugged me and I am now wondering if I should extend surveillance coverage to bedrooms and bathrooms as well. I know I shouldn’t. Everyone deserves privacy. I put myself in their shoes. I wouldn’t want to live under 24-hour surveillance.

I read also today about how employers are keeping tabs on their workers especially those who have to go out in the field to do interviews or surveys. ST quoted employees who, OF COURSE, said they didn’t mind such surveillance. Bosses, OF COURSE, insist they are not spying but just want to improve efficiency. I guess it’s no different from spot checks being done, except in a more efficient way using technology. It crossed my mind that the G should invest in them because I recall how the Auditor-General had noted that most of its parking enforcement officers are never where they are supposed to be on their rounds. Good for motorists but you wonder about what they are up to on the taxpayers’ dime. Catching a movie?

Then I put myself in their shoes. Would I like to have my employer checking up on me all the time? Even remotely? Good for company productivity but what about my privacy? Does a worker’s life belong to the employer during working hours?

Lines are getting blurred because the nature of the jobs we do are changing. We’re no longer tied to a bench in an assembly line where a few minutes of stray thinking might lead to a finger getting sliced off. So many of us are “up and about’’ during company time, for work, sales and outside meetings. Some of our work requires creativity or “down time’’. It’s not manual labour or quantifiable. I guess companies have other ways of monitoring laggards, like setting targets for sales. So, don’t care what you do, so long as you meet targets – and commissions for whatever you sell beyond. Of course, for bosses, it would be more efficient to set targets extremely high and for workers, not to spoil market for the rest by meeting targets too easily.

But when we keep applauding the use of technology in monitoring workers, I wonder if we’re missing another point – the extent of control companies can have over their workers. Can a company really install hidden cameras anywhere it wants, even the bathrooms to monitor pee-breaks? I suppose so since it is on its premises. What about tapping phones or monitoring email? Okay too because company property is being used? What if it made every worker out on the field carry an electronic monitoring device? Is that okay too? Sure, since GPS devices can be used in company transport to monitor deliveries and such.

I suppose such restrictions represent a contract or compact between employers and workers. I pay you, you do as I say. Except that most workers are probably not aware of any monitoring going on if technology is used. We’re probably not going to make a big fuss about it even if we do. Most of us are not “western’’ enough to insist on our right to privacy. Hey, we even welcome the instalment of CCTV cameras everywhere as a crime deterant. Privacy issues come second. And if anyone doesn’t like the surveillance, they can always walk out and walk into another company.

I am actually wondering if there are any lines drawn at all between the employer and the employed with regards to “proper’’ working conditions. You might say that this is a “rich’’ country question when there are other more pressing issues such as housing and paying foreign workers appropriately. You might also say that common sense will prevail – CCTV to monitor bathroom breaks? Is this something that a worker can complain about to MOM or any labour union representative?

Maybe, I am over-thinking the issue. I am only raising this because I am wondering about extending CCTV coverage to monitor a maid’s movements. Like any employer, I can come up with all the reasons to say that I am well within my rights to do so. But as a human being, I am not certain. That’s because I would mind, even though I am sure I would never do anything wrong, if I were in the other person’s shoes.

Two daddys and no mommy….

In News Reports, Reading, Society on July 13, 2014 at 9:30 am

I asked my mother yesterday if she kept watch over what I was reading when I was growing up. She said no. She said she was happy enough that I was reading something – whether it be crime or romance novels or comics. I think she would have flipped if she had come across I book I had bought in much younger days which had a homosexual theme. Not that I knew. I just grew increasingly uncomfortable until I reached the pages which graphically described homosexual activity. I shut the book, totally embarrassed. I never spoke of it to anyone and it was at least a year before I re-read the book. By the way, this is not a trashy book of pornography or a book in the children’s section. It’s by Tom Hollinghurst, mind you.

My second introduction to the LGBT community was way back in the 1980s when I was in San Francisco, perambulating along Castro Street at night. After catching sight of a few same-sex couples openly kissing along the street, I took a taxi home to my hotel. My companion, an Israeli, was shocked that I was shocked by the scenes as well as my explanation that I have never seen such sights in my own country. “What sort of country is Singapore?’’ he asked. Would that he came down to our little red dot a couple of weeks ago to see a park filled with pink! How far we have come…

I wonder how I would react if my five-year old nephew starts asking me questions about Tango Makes Three. “Godma, how come there are two Daddy penguins and no Mommy penguin?’’

I read him plenty of fairytales and bedtime stories as well as made-up ones with plenty of giants, dinosaurs, monsters and aliens. He laps them up, asking me why there is a man named Friday in Robinson Crusoe and why the Lady in the Lake in King Arthur doesn’t drown. Parents know better than me about the questions children ask. There’s not enough time to google the answers and so you come up with your own made-up answers. Because Friday appeared on a Friday, I said, which is what the book says. And the lady of the lake (here’s the cop-out) has very special, magic powers. Monsters are, of course, “very bad’’, witches and wizards are “evil’’ except Merlin in King Arthur who is “good’’. Dinosaurs are usually very big but there are also smaller ones which do not eat people. I think I confused the poor boy thoroughly.

I pity parents. The world is not so black and white but how do you explain the shades of grey to a mere child? Or should you paint the world in black and white while they are young in a “foundation-laying exercise’’, and leave them to figure out the colours in-between as they get older? That’s what happened to me anyway. I don’t think I turned out too badly.

So what is this fuss about penguins and swans all about really? Am I worried that my five-year old nephew reading the books will start thinking that homosexuality is a normal way of life? And what if I get asked the question? I might resort to a made-up answer that they are “special’’ people, different, not like your mommy and daddy. Not like me. Then cop out with “when you grow up, you will understand’’. Better, I suppose, than “when you grow up, don’t be like them’’? Then again, I am not a parent. It would be well within a parent’s right to bring up their children in whatever way they want. So long as they don’t teach them to hate.

The thing, though, is just that the world has changed, and Singapore too, so has the variety of books available for children and adults. Books with homosexual themes are more prevalent than ever. As adults, we pick what we want to read. It is a choice. Read or don’t read. The National Library Board’s concern is that unsupervised children may unwarily pick up books that it deems “unsuitable’’ on its premise. I suppose it is worried about some insidious brain-washing taking place. It is therefore policing morals, and using the State’s position that this is reflective of moral values of the mainstream to justify its policy. I suppose it can go further and say it is funded by the State, therefore…you know how the argument goes.

But the flip side is what the role of a library should be. Should it be a mere repository of words, both informed and uninformed and whether right or wrong (in whoever’s point of view)? Or should there be other social and even political objectives grafted onto its being?

The whole NLB kerfuffle boils down to playing “nanny’’. The NLB/G doesn’t think parents supervise children well enough and so makes the decision on what it believes are on the parents’ behalf to make books unavailable. Of course, you will have people jumping up and down at this presumption that the G knows the right stuff for children to read. (It’s not unlike how the G thinks we don’t know how to invest our money to make better returns than what the CPF/GIC can.)

I think parents today can no longer take the position that my mother did with me given the variety of books unless they hahaaha ban their kids from going to the library unsupervised! (Quite different from “buying’’ books, because there will be “parental supervision’’. I don’t think any parent will pay for a book without flipping through it.)

It is not politically correct to say so, but I bet there are plenty who just let their children be when it comes to reading material. Just like those who leave their children free to use the Internet or watch whatever television programme they want. I figure such parents would happy that the State will do the policing, any sort of policing, because they don’t have the time, cannot be bothered to or don’t know how to.

I am not in favour of the G being a nanny. But I can see how some parents would be quite happy for the G to make decisions on their behalf. Educated parents can fuss over what their children read, and explain or advocate for the values that they want their children to grow up with. But there are those who can’t.

Just as we have different grades for movies and theatre, I don’t see why supposedly non-conformist books for children need to be destroyed. Put them in a section which calls for parental guidance – not to be loaned out. Wouldn’t that solve the problem of parental choice? It’s a compromise between those who want them banned and those who want free circulation.

But, hey, we are all feeling our way around this brave new world.

MSM: You don’t need the G’s help. Really

In News Reports, Politics on July 12, 2014 at 4:17 am

There’s an interesting column in ST today calling for a re-think of the role of the media. The key issue is whether the role of the media is to strengthen the public trust in the G and if so, how to go about doing it. The writer sort of skims over the question of whether this should be the role. Instead, he plunges more quickly into how this should be done – if so.

He talks about the old knuckle duster approach of ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew and the gentler hand of the G these days, focused more on cajoling and persuading journalists and editors to “do the right thing’’ (my words). There is a mention of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, but he does not call for a re-look of this piece of legislation with its annual renewal of publishing licences and allotment of “management’’ shares.

Instead he asks that the Government “help strengthen public trust in the media’’. It can do this by being forthcoming with data so that the media can do a better job of reporting and analysing the news, he said. Then he segues into how the MSM must be a thought leader that contributes a diversity of views – without saying what role the G plays in this regard. Instead comes an exhortation that the G should “respect and trust’’ MSM journalists to act in the interests of the nation, and give them a wider space to operate in.

It’s an old familiar rumble. MSM would never call for a re-look of the legislation or any regulations that govern them. I doubt that any editor or publisher would let such questioning of media rules see light of the day. It therefore has to resort to asking for the G to be more transparent with information and wield less of a big stick when it publishes more “controversial’’ views. As for what sort of “persuading’’ and “cajoling’’ is done, just go read my ex-boss’ book, OB Markers.

But I think the writer has got the wrong end of the stick. There is really no need to ponder over whether it is MSM’s job to strengthen public’s trust in the G, even less how the G can “help’’. It is MSM’s job to strengthen the public’s trust in the media by professional reporting that would make BOTH the G and the people turn to it as a conduit of information and views. That has always been the role of journalism, unbeholden to any institution or in need of outside “help’’. Both the people and the G must trust the media – it is the mediator, middle ground for both sides to connect with each other.

The writer laments the criticisms levelled at MSM, calling some of them unfair. I agree. The MSM is fair game precisely because it is so closely identified with the G – that’s why I really don’t think the writer should be asking the G for “help’’. So there are plenty of online rants about MSM being biased towards the G and having a pro-G spin. Most of them are just that, “rants’’. A word from the wise (namely, ahh, me) to young journalists who are disheartened: Pay them no heed. There is only one thing the MSM journalists should consider: and it is whether you have done the best journalistic job you can, especially in the business of asking the tough questions which seems to be an increasingly rare trait.

But MSM must take seriously legitimate complaints about its work. Whether they are about grammar mistakes, factual errors or lack of perspective in reporting. This is no longer a field in which MSM plays alone; there are too many sources out there that serve as counter-checks. Keep professional reporting standards high and people will trust you. So will the G. No need for any help. Just help yourself.
At the risk of preaching/teaching/over-reaching, I would like to suggest the following steps for MSM :

a. If the G doesn’t want to give you info for any reason, you must always tell readers you asked for the info and say why it wasn’t given. This is to make clear to readers that you know what your job is about. There is a temptation to ignore this because the journalist’s job is to give information you’ve gathered. So nothing gets said when nothing is gathered. But in many instances, you should also show that you’ve tried especially if there’s a big hole in your article which the readers expected you to fill. Do this often enough and, perhaps, the G will be shamed into telling you the next time.

b. Even if the G doesn’t want to give you data, go around it by asking experts or near-experts to give an estimate/guess-estimate. If it is wrong, the G will correct. If the G doesn’t correct, then the G is complicit in abetting the circulation of false info. Very soon, the G will realise that it is better for it to fill in info gaps, than let others do it for them or speculate.

c. Name everybody in your story, INCLUDING spokesmen. Again, the temptation is to keep stories short and say ministry spokesman or agency spokesman instead of naming the person. G spokesmen will be more aware that they are talking to “people’’ if they are named. And held accountable to more people than just their bosses. It is also rude for a spokesman to think that he/she doesn’t owe the reader a name.

d. More on names…for goodness sake, try and name everybody in a story instead of resorting to quoting Netizen rubbish123 or porkypig. It’s plain sloppy and gives the idea that that was the only “appropriate’’ quote that you can get. And by the way, please go beyond getting the views of 20somethings because it is becoming too obvious that young journalists are canvassing their friends.

e. Try not to go for label headlines on G news that don’t give news. Motherhood headlines like Parliament wraps up debate or So-and-so on need for social defence isn’t doing you any favour. (And I’m not even saying how the G comes out looking. Nag, nag, nag.)

f. Avoid the temptation to “rah rah’’ G news. It’s enough just to report the facts without any adverbs or adjectives to dress them up. All you need to do is remember that you are not writing advertising copy. Serious. It works wonders if you can discard phrases like how people can LOOK FORWARD to something or will WELCOME something or say that they CHEERED something. Just report facts.

g. Have a proper policy on what should remain online and what should go into print. I have yet to hear any media say how it selects news that emanate from the online sphere for print, which I assume is still the anchor medium. So what is the MSM definition of viral? This is important because it saves those online from guessing WHY something made it into print/and why something didn’t. Stops people speculating on whether there are other motivations that aren’t clearly “editorial’’ behind the choices.

h. Even as there are online posters who castigate MSM, the media should also stop painting online views as just noise and rubbish from a “vocal minority’’. It doesn’t make you any friends and a careful look will show that there are plenty of views online that are far better, deeper and richer than most letters the MSM print. So acknowledge that there are good views out there as well.

Anyway, that’s my one cent worth. Journalists can take it or leave it. No skin off my nose. Really.

What entrenching means

In News Reports, Politics on July 11, 2014 at 9:03 am

If no one understood the news reports on Law Minister K. Shanmugam’s reply to NMP Eugene Tan on not being able to activate a part of the Constitution, no one is going to blame you. It’s taken me some time to get to the bottom of it – and I am still not sure I’m right.

To re-cap, this is the question the NMP asked:

To ask the Minister for Law (a) what are the reasons for not bringing Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force given that the constitutional amendment was first passed in 1991; (b) under what conditions will the Government be ready to bring Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force; and (c) whether the Government will instead bring into force Article 5(2A)(b) and Article 5(2A)(d) to entrench the constitutional provisions relating to fundamental liberties and general elections respectively ahead of the constitutional provisions entrenching the elected presidency.

Now, what is this about exactly?

First, about this Article 5(2A).
This was introduced way back in 1991 when the elected presidency was put in place. And yes, it was a constitutional amendment which required a two-third majority in Parliament. It is basically an elaboration of the elected President’s powers.

So what is this Article?

Here it is in its unvarnished form:
A Bill seeking to amend any provision in this Constitution shall not be passed by Parliament unless it has been supported on Second and Third Readings by the votes of not less than two-thirds of the total number of the elected Members of Parliament referred to in Article 39 (1) (a).
*(2A) Unless the President, acting in his discretion, otherwise directs the Speaker in writing, a Bill seeking to amend —
(a)this clause or Article 5A;
(b)any provision in Part IV;
(c)any provision in Chapter 1 of Part V or Article 93A;
(d)Article 65 or 66; or
(e)any other provision in this Constitution which authorises the President to act in his discretion,
shall not be passed by Parliament unless it has also been supported at a national referendum by not less than two-thirds of the total number of votes cast by the electors registered under the Parliamentary Elections Act (Cap. 218).

Still don’t understand?

Basically, any change to the Constitution that affects fundamental liberties (very broad section which covers freedom of speech, religion, forced labour…) or to do the General elections (Article 65/66) and other money matters like use of reserves now requires two-thirds of Parliament to get passed. And then Presidential assent.

This Article adds another line of check: The G has to go to the PEOPLE as well in a referendum, UNLESS the President says No Need.

Now this particular Article has been passed, but is “not in force’’ or “entrenched’’. This means that it remains in the books, but is not “activated’’. Usually, all laws will come into force or “gazetted’’ with a date which states when this will start.

Interestingly, this is actually a a 1996 version. Yup, the 1991 version that was “not in force’’ was amended in 1996 and is still “not in force’’.

Of course, the question then is: why is it taking so long?

Apparently, there’s no set time between parliamentary approval, presidential assent and final force. It’s to up to the G.

According to the Minister, it hasn’t been “entrenched’’ because we’re still feeling our way about the powers of the presidency. So many amendments have been made since 1991 to the powers, the last one being in 2008 on the G’s ability to use the Net Investment Returns on Singapore’s reserves. In fact, there were eight years in which Parliament had to meet to agree on changes in the powers of the President, mostly in connection with financial safeguards and ability to veto key appointments.

Said Mr Shanmugam: “To bring Article 5(2A) into force before that would otherwise potentially trigger a national referendum each time we needed to make a further refinement or adjustment. Our view is that we should give ourselves more time, before entrenching the provisions.’’

His argument is that Singapore can expect to tweak the way it spends and invests over the next decade, since it has to cater for so many changes with an ageing population. Think G subsidies for health and so forth. It would tie the hand of the G significantly if it has to go to the people whenever it wants to make a change, like if it wants to raise taxes or the amount of NIR which can be used from the reserves.

He added: “We must therefore preserve our ability to make necessary adjustments in due course, so that we can maintain Singapore’s strong financial position, and our fair and progressive system of taxes and transfers. For these reasons, it remains the Government’s intention not to bring Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force until the position is clearer.’’

Okay, that looks clear enough.

But what of the NMP’s last question? If we don’t activate anything to do with spending/investment/appointments, we can surely do something about other sections, like the ones to do fundamental liberties and elections? There hasn’t been much, or even any change, on this front as related to the powers of the President as far as I can tell. The system of dissolving Parliament and holding elections has been in place since the last big change to introduce Group Representation Constituencies in 1988.

Mr Shanmugam chose to repeat what his predecessor said in 2007 in reply to this part: “As the previous Minister for Law explained, the Attorney-General had advised the Government that, having regard to the provisions concerned, that the implementation of Article 5(2A) cannot be staggered, as this would go against the intent that Article 5(2A) should operate as an integrated package.’’

Now what exactly did ex-Law Minister S Jayakumar say in 2007? I checked and interestingly, it was another lawyer-NMP, Thio Li-Ann who asked practically the same question as Mr Tan.

The question:
Whether Article 5(2A) of the Constitution which entrenches the elected presidency will be brought into operation soon and, if not, whether the Government will consider bringing into effect Article 5(2A) insofar as it entrenches basic constitutional provisions relating to general elections and fundamental liberties.

Prof Jayakumar gave somewhat similar answers on how the Presidential safeguards, particularly over finances, were still being refined. Hence, not yet time to entrench the provision. At that time, the issue was also over the use of NIR (then known as Net Investment Income). As for the section on elections and fundamentals, he didn’t say anything more than that this is was the AGC’s advice.

He did have this to say in closing though:
“Whether the Article is entrenched or not, the Government has made it a practice to always seek the President’s views whenever it intends to move Constitutional amendments that affect the relevant provisions. The President’s views have been reflected in the respective Second Reading speeches in this House. We have not made any amendments which the President had not agreed with, except once in 1995 when we referred a legal question to a Tribunal of Supreme Court judges set up under Article 100, which ruled in favour of the Government’s interpretation o f the Constitution.”

That was in the late Prez Ong Teng Cheong’s time – and a whole another story…

So, that’s the background I’ve dug up.

Do NOT shoot the messenger.

Freelancing in Syria

In News Reports, Politics on July 11, 2014 at 6:50 am

I learnt a new term lately: Freelance jihadists. It was used to describe Malaysian Muslims who suddenly take off to Syria, fire off weapons at people in the name of their religious cause and then return home (or not?) to lead their former lives. Sounds like a holiday filled with adventure – in which you can maim and kill or get maimed and killed.

Here in Singapore too, it seems, the jihadist call, however misguided, is gathering adherents. Of course, as usual, a lot of the blame is put on social media and the proliferation of radical sites and “selfies’’ that making posing with a machine gun look sexy.

But I also noted something quite interesting when DPM Teo Chee Hean talked about this in Parliament recently. He said there was a whole family of husband, wife and two children, who had decamped there. The husband is a foreigner. But his nationality was not given. An earlier freelance jihadist named is a naturalised Singaporean of Indian origin. He also took his wife and three kids along with him. So it looks like a family affair? Is there a “foreign’’ element in this?

Then there were three others now detained under the Internal Security Act. All locals but there’s no information on whether they wanted to bring their entire family with them.

Said DPM Teo: “There are others who have expressed interest to go Syria to join in the fighting, and are presently under investigation. We have established that they were radicalised by videos, articles and social media postings online. They subscribed to the sectarian-religious or ideological rhetoric that calls for engaging in militant jihad in Syria.’’

Ooh. Which videos, articles or postings? Have they been taken down? Blocked?

We haven’t heard from the Singapore born-or-bred jihadists but the Malaysians have been hearing from their own: One blew himself up in Iraq and took along with him another 25 lives. Another 15 died fighting in Syria. It seems that Malaysian freelance jihadists number as many as 100 and the authorities have detained at least 18 people, including two who belonged in the Malaysian Navy. Apparently, they were drawn by the clarion call of correcting “injustice to Muslims’’ more so than any identification with the formation of the Islamic State that has taken form in Syria. Another theory for the fan following: the puritan form of Sunni Islam called Wahabism that is at odds with Shi’ite teachings is taking root in this part of the world (Yup, yup. Different strands of the Muslim community fight each other too…)

Why would Muslims in this part of the world want to go so far away to fight someone else’s battle? Do they consider this a religious obligation or feel they should have some sort of solidarity with their fellow Muslim brothers, at least a strand of them? I mean, they are shooting at fellow Muslims aren’t they? I am not Muslim, so I don’t know and I don’t understand.

Or would anyone say this is not unlike how the overseas Chinese felt during the communist/nationalist tussle in China early last century or how the Tamils here feel during the civil conflict taking place in Sri Lanka a couple of decades ago? The pull of religion, race and old country is still prevalent everywhere it seems.

The problem appears to be bigger in Europe, with its large and relatively more recent immigrant Muslim populations. ST reported that the Netherlands, with a population 900,000 Muslim citizens, has produced 130 fresh terrorist recruits. Belgium, with an even smaller 630,000 Muslims, turned out 300 volunteer fighters. France, home to 7 million Muslims, has 900 volunteers in Syria alone.

You wonder if many of these people who go on military adventures come back or stay there. If they do, how will they fit in the nice, normal routine of home life? The worry the G has is that they won’t and bring in their extreme views/actions to home ground as well, like the Frenchman who shot dead four people at the Brussels Jewish Musuem. BTW, he travelled through Singapore to get from Syria to Europe, apparently to avoid detection.

Said DPM Teo: “This threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans. Indeed, any Singaporean who assists violent organisations like the Al-Nusra Front, IS or any other violent group, has demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause. ‘’

I wish he had said more. Like what did those captured by the ISD say? What were their key influences? And if radical websites are the key recruiting tools, why not block access to them like the French are doing? Would this be too controversial a move? Surely not. Or do the authorities think it better to just monitor interest levels on the site and nab people thinking of a Syrian holiday?

I read an ST commentator talking about the counter-measures adopted by Malaysian religious authorities. He said these had been “largely confined to relatively tame expressions of disappointment about misguided thinking and the lack of proper education’’. He preferred the feisty, plain speaking of ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad who suggested that more people go wrap themselves in bombs and blow themselves up if they want to go to heaven quickly. But the writer makes no comment of the response of authorities here, which looks to be led more by the G than the Islamic leaders.

Today, though, it was reported that mosques, religious teachers and madarasahs will be roped in to put the “right message about the Syrian crisis’’ which, I suppose, would be that the rebels call for jihad do not fulfill the teachings of Islam.

I wonder if this is too lame/tame to counter the romanticism of a foreign adventure fuelled by religious fervour. Remember the Crusades of old when the Europeans flocked to the middle east to fight “infidels’’ so as to guarantee themselves a place in heaven? So many stories, movies, books on them! More fiction than fact! So glam.
I hazard a guess (don’t shoot me) that it is probably more adventure and emotion and less religion and rationality that draw people to Syria and Iraq. And the Internet can be a greater preacher with a greater following than any uztaz that we have here.
So I am straining against every fibre of my being to say this: Go block the sites. Sure, more will pop up. But why make it easy to recruit freelance jihadists?

I wish the Muslim leaders all the best in your efforts.

Brazil-Germany post-match commentary

In News Reports, Sports, Writing on July 10, 2014 at 3:07 am

Ah Seng, bookie extraordinaire holds court in a coffeeshop after Brazil was trounced 7 – 1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals.

Wah lao eh! Got watch football or not? Brazil kena hantam terok terok. Seben one! One masuk…two masuk…three masuk…The goalie stand there like gong cha cha…No! No! Not kelong. More like Brazil after first few minutes already pengsan. Stress lah. So much pressure. Such big crowd. How to tahan? That’s why I tell my boy no need to study so hard for exams. Never mind if get relegated to lousy stream. Just don’t break down during exam…

But Brazil also so malu….Where the team going to put face like dat? Where got such thing as seben-one scoreline in World Cup? Okay lah, better than seben jiro.
Anyway, shiok to watch although not much fun since already know winner before half-time…You should watch Brazil panick. Dive here. Dive there. I tell you that Scolari!

He don’t know what he doing lah. Donno how to pick his team. Just because Ney-ah-mar not there, whole place collapse. Then the coach go and pick this fella with big permed hair to become captain! What sort of captain! Run around like headless chicken…and after the game, crying all the time. And everyone in Brazil crying. All very upset. One place, got bus burning. Like Little India riot like that. No, sorry, salah, on beach, got shots fired some more. So not like Little India. Maybe our own police should go there to do crowd control during finals on Sunday. Practice! Like what that Sylvia Lim wants!

Actually, quite heart-break for me. I follow Brazil since dunno how long. I got yellow jersey. Brazil now not like the old time of Pillay, So-crates and those old fellas. I see on Internet Pillay so embarrassed, he want to migrate to Ghana. Donno true or not. Cannot always believe what you read on the Internet.

But I tell you something…our council for problem gambling very good. Say to bet on Germany. Wah. I hope got second advertisement from them. Anyway, there’s this tall German, some Close fella. Wah, already 30-something and still so fit! Very good active ager. Old is gold! Old is gold! All-time World Cup top scorer! Beat even Ronaldo! You saw him do back flip? I cannot even do IPPT standing broad jump!

This German coach Mr Low very, very good lah. He don’t smile very much but he got nice hair-style. Like mop like that. Germans also quite humble. Hug and kiss the Brazil boys. Didn’t over-celebrate. Got no champagne like F1. Maybe they regret scoring so many goals, like hu-mi-li-ate Brazil. Not nice. But the Brazil people actually seem quite sporting. Cheer them and so on. Still don’t think the garment going to last long lah. So many problems hosting this World Cup, so many million dollars spent, like they raid their reserves like that…and then got no World Cup trophy to hold…

Anyway, see how the Brazil team play against Netherlands lah in next round. Donno whether they finish crying by then or not. Maybe they not condemned yet. Maybe Netherlands will give chance and don’t have such big margin to hu-mi-li-ate. Maybe I keep my yellow jersey.

Okay, I taking bets now…

PS. If you can’t read this, you can’t have been living here for very long…

CPF – Completely Perplexing Fund

In Money, News Reports on July 9, 2014 at 4:54 am

So two ministers have spoken on the CPF system, probably the most extensive elaboration we’ve heard in recent years. Funny how the CPF system has been in place for so long and it is only now that we’re told the ins and outs of its operation. I don’t suppose we have to thank blogger Roy Ngerng for this? Or would the explanation have come in any case because people no longer take increases in the CPF minimum sum as something that just sorta happens every year?

The pity is that the G’s explanation is not going to reach many people. Its feedback arm says that while eight in 10 have heard of the CPF system, too many do not know how it works. Half of the 1,000 plus people polled don’t even know that CPF Life will give them a monthly sum from age 65. But why would anyone really bother so long as the money goes to them, in full and in time? No one has received a bounced cheque from the CPF have they? In fact, the fund is ticking away just fine compared to other retirement funds elsewhere where benefits have to be cut or where there’s a risk of the funds going bankrupt. Why the kerfuffle now?

At the risk of over-simplifying, people simply want more/all of their own money back earlier. They think they know how to deal with their own money to plan for their retirement and can the G please butt out, thank you. Also, there’s this desire to want all their own savings to themselves before they die. In fact, what I would really like to know is, how much do people leave behind in their CPF when they die? Nothing? Very little? A lot?

I suppose the trigger was the increase in the Minimum Sum to $155,000. You know, this really affects those who turn 55 this year but many other people are hopping around thinking it applies to them too. Hmm. Well, the bad news is that it will get higher given rising cost of living. It has to, to be able to provide between $1,000 and $1,200 pay out every month after age 65.

Then the G makes it plain that people shouldn’t be panicking at the $155K figure. It’s really just half that because you can use the property to pledge the other half. The figure I would really like to see is whether this current cohort of 55ers do have the Minimum Sum, in cash and kind. I don’t see the figure anywhere although it must exist. But last year, just 15 per cent of the 55ers put up property pledge. That sounds not too bad; most still can handle the cash portion.

There’s a point that I am confused about regarding this property pledge. So we have CPF Life which is like an insurance scheme pooling everybody’s retirement accounts (which I gather will include the property pledges) So what happens to our “property’’ if something untoward happens to CPF Life? Is this so as to provide room for us to finally sell our homes if need be? Or forced into doing some kind of reverse mortgage? (Okay, my questions might be seem silly, but I really don’t mind an education)

BTW, I thought Finance Minister Tharman did an excellent job explaining the workings of the CPF system. There will of course be queries, like why set the CPF interest rate to a formula involving G bond yields anyway – and not closer to projections of how much GIC can make, which might be higher than the 2.5 per cent for Ordinary Account and 4 per cent for Special? After all, the G is confident of guaranteeing rates of return and has a buffer of “net assets’’ if GIC underperforms. Too volatile to do so? Too much dependence on market vagaries?

But what IS this thing about net assets? So the G sells stuff and uses the money to subsidise the CPF in the GIC’s bad years? It seems to have done so for eight years – and no one noticed or recorded it?

What I also found interesting is his explanation of why the CPF fund can’t be managed as a standalone fund but needs to be co-mingled with other assets to be invested. It’s to give GIC a much bigger base to play with so that it won’t be TOO conservative about investing simply to meet CPF interest rates.

Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin also gave some interesting statistics.

a. 20 per cent of last year’s cohort of 55ers – about 12,000 people_- didn’t withdraw their excess OA even though they could. So I guess this was pushed into the Retirement Account which gives higher interest. I wonder who these people are. Probably those with enough money to spare and can’t be bothered to take it out to invest elsewhere. So they leave it to the G to make money for them. It would be good to hear from some of them

b. 10 per cent of those 55 years and older are still using their CPF to service their mortgages. I guess this is from the Ordinary Account. Half of them have to put out cash as well. How many exactly? Don’t know but Mr Tan said it was a “small group of people’’. I wonder why they still haven’t owned their homes by then. Because they have been upgrading homes through the years and been enjoying the asset enhancements without figuring that their CPF might run out?

c. Every year, about 500 of the post 55ers ask to be able to use their Retirement Account to service mortgages, that is, they’ve already exhausted their Ordinary accounts. About two-thirds are approved. The other one-third will be given other “financing’’ or “housing’’ options. I wonder what they are. Will they be asked to take a reverse mortgage or a lease buy back scheme? It would be good to know if people have had to do so.

I hope the above isn’t too hard-going. Oh. I didn’t give the mechanics of how CPF works because I did so in an earlier post. Read The Old Lady and her CPF Part 2.

Ban these books too!

In News Reports, Reading, Society on July 9, 2014 at 1:16 am

So three books have been pulled from the National Library shelves because they went against the “pro-family’’ values. In other words, they talked about same sex couples and other variations of the single family unit of father, mother and child. I suppose those against such books see them as a slow, insidious undermining of values that they hold dear. An attempt to corrupt innocent children. I also suppose they see parents as irresponsible idiots who do not care about what books dear boy-boy or girl-girl brought home from the library.

I think the following books are “suspect’’ too.

a. Little Red Riding Hood. I think it should be banned because the big bad wolf is too scary for children and the woodsman was rather bloody with the axe. On the flip side though, it shows the value of living close to the elderly so that you can check on them easily instead of trekking through the woods. Endorsed by the HDB.

b. The Three Little Pigs. Should be banned because it encourages vandalism. But then again, a great endorsement of good construction techniques. Build homes of straw and wood and you risk getting the house blown down. Endorsed by the Building and Construction Authority.

c. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Methinks a bit too kinky to have a single female living in a house full of small men. No redeeming quality. Biased against apples which we know keeps the doctor away, says Singapore Medical Association. Should be banned immediately. Not sure. What if she ate a banana instead?

d. Hansel and Gretel. Health Promotion Board is against this book because the duo stuffed themselves with cakes and sweets much to the detriment of their teeth. Plus they baked an old lady in the oven. Should be banned immediately. Agree.

e. Cinderella. Hard work scrubbing floors pays off for young woman. Endorsed by the Manpower ministry. But the National Trades Union Congress noted that she worked without pay which is against collective bargaining rules. The final call was made by SDU: Get out of the house once in a while and you might find your soul-mate. Commercial sponsor: shoemakers Jimmy Choo and Ferragamo

f. Sleeping Beauty. Encourages belief in superstition because the witch’s curse comes true. Plus, imagine what it is like to kiss someone who has been asleep for 100 years. Tussle in court now as mouthwash companies seek to trademark and copyright the lass for their products. Verdict to come.

g. Jack and the Beanstalk. Absolutely no redeeming quality. Trades family’s last belongings for a bean – no regard for his mother. Steals stuff from the giant – he’s a thief. Chops down beanstalk – environmentally unfriendly.

h. The Emperor with no clothes. Pornography. ‘Nuff said.

For the love of Mandarin….drama serials

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on July 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm

For the past three years, I have been watching Chinese drama serials almost every day. I started because I had a vague notion of wanting to work in China and thought that I had better brush up on my secondary school level grasp of the language, especially its spoken form.
I can now say that I can craft imperial decrees with the right amount of gravitas and converse fairly fluently, almost like water, on any period of Chinese history pre-1900. I would be even better in a court of law presided by Justice Bao and any magistrate with a peacock feather in his hat. You should watch my rendition of a wronged victim who is asking for her life to be spared.
It was a tough remedial lesson for me when I started because I chose the China-produced Three Kingdoms series as a starting point with its extremely fine, poetic language and four letter words that every student of the language knows is an abbreviation for something far deeper. Plus, there were no English subtitles.
But it got me going on to a eunuch’s sea voyage, court intrigues, magisterial incompetence and plenty of bloody wars and sword-fighting battles that involved demi-gods and semi-devils. After a few months, I no longer needed English sub-titles but I still needed the Chinese subtitles to follow the dialogue.
When I started, I made a pact with my DVD vendor that I would only speak to her in Mandarin while I was in her shop. We continued the charade for more than a year until her shop closed down. In the meantime, I got to know the vendor of almost every DVD shop that hawks Chinese drama serials in the east, whether it be TS Laser, Blue Max, Poh Kim or Veego.
I am now the proud owner of several hundred drama serials and have to trawl shops like Canton Video for really old serials in VCD format because China cannot keep pace with my demand for period drama.
I didn’t grow up loving the Chinese language. Learning it was a mighty chore as no one in my family spoke Mandarin. I thought in English and spoke in Mandarin, which can be hilarious because of mixed syntax and sentence construction. Still, I scored relatively well in examinations, mainly because of rote-learning.
Now I am listening to Chinese dialogue or reading the Chinese subtitles that fly past my television screen every day. I am also devouring books on Chinese history – the English translations.
I have learnt to love the language, especially the construction of four-letter or rather, four-character, phrases that mean so much more than they seem and the use of homonyms as riddles. I still cannot grasp Tang poetry or the more philosophical works, but I think it is good enough that I know of them.
For me, historical dramas are best because they serve so many objectives – purity of language, Chinese cultural values and of course, a bit of history even if it is more fiction than fact. My mother was flummoxed when I offered to serve her her meal personally, because it was an expression of filial piety, much like the patriotic general Yue Fei washing his mother’s feet. I see how examinations play such a big role in gathering mandarins for the use of the state, or rather, the kingdom. Missing the examinations meant a wait of several years, making top scholar brought pride to the village and those who didn’t excel went on to lesser court posts.
I see so many parallels with the Singapore system. But I also see how corruption and venality can destroy a kingdom and how even the most enlightened ruler needed a coterie of good and unselfish advisers.
There is, of course, the dark side of Chinese history, with its numerous patricides and fratricides committed in the struggle for power. I think I have seen enough torture methods to declare that the worst that anyone can ever experienced is to have his eyes gouged out, tongue cut and all four limbs chopped off and be left alive to root around like a pig. At least, that is what a deranged empress did to a concubine.
The great failing of my pursuit of the language is that I decline absolutely to watch anything “modern’’. I don’t know, therefore, the equivalent Mandarin terms for technological gadgets and everyday working life. When I am asked why, I give the very unsatisfactory but nevertheless truthful reply that I like looking at fancy costumes.
Several times, vendors have also offered me Hongkong-produced period dramas to watch but I always end up a little disappointed at the quality of the Mandarin dubbing. The language is not as refined as those produced by the Chinese even though the plot might be superior. I was told I should listen to the original Cantonese version and then read the Chinese subtitles but I believe that would put too much pressure on my ability to hone the language.
The Speak Mandarin campaign is now in its 35th year and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on Singaporeans to stick with Mandarin despite the increasing calls to return to the use of dialects. There is room for dialects but not as a replacement for Mandarin. I agree. It would be so much more difficult for me to have to grasp the variations of the language. Then again, I am not Chinese and do not know what the loss of a dialect means to dialect-speakers.
What I know is this: I have chafed against having to learn this complicated language all my life but am now grateful that I had mastered the basics in school. I know the meaning now of learning a language so as to “open a new window’’ on the world.
It is not an empty phrase.

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