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Chatting with Lim Swee Say Part 2

In Money, Politics on August 31, 2014 at 12:52 am

Tomorrow, a big change is going to sweep over one sector, or rather, cause a ripple in the way employers pay their workers. It has to do with the 40,000 or so cleaners in Singapore’s 900 companies. From then on, they will have a career progression path, much like most other workers. It means that they won’t be stuck at the $1,000-or-so a month bottom rung of the pay ladder. If they learn to operate machines, they can move up a step or two, and this will be accompanied by a raise in pay. No big deal you say? After all, it is the case in other parts of the labour market. You do more, you earn more. Except that the cleaning sector is an odd place.

And that’s because of people like you and me…   

Mr Lim Swee Say, head of the labour movement, was in story-telling mode. The story had to do with how when he was Minister for Environment and Water Resources in 2003, he visited a hawker centre and watched how cleaners went about their work. A pail of water and a cloth, which became dirtier and dirtier with every table cleaned. He got to talking to the hawkers who said they each paid each cleaner $80 a month to clean the tables.  That was all the cleaners could do in a day. Would they pay them $120 ? They said they would, provided that the cleaners could do their work better and not have customers complain about the state of uncleaned and uncleared tables. That was when he worked with the contractors to see if the cleaners could do a better job as well as handle more stalls. The cleaning trolley, which  people now see in hawker centres, with different compartments for detergents and several “washing’’ containers, is one outcome. It allowed the cleaners to do their rounds a lot quicker. They could handle 12 stalls instead of eight. And it was a lot cleaner too. Their pay, therefore, went up. (He calls it ESS – easier, safer, smarter)

This a reason for Mr Lim’s obsession with labour-saving devic es. Pay can only go up if low wage workers can work faster and better (a Lim Swee Say phrase..). That means using machines. But there is another unique thing about cleaners: They do not work directly for their employers. They really work for third parties: the mall owners, building managements and hawker centre committees who are old fashioned about the way they tender out jobs for cleaners. They usually set a head-count, rather than define the job scope. That means they ask for a certain number of cleaners, which meant that it is in the interest of the contracting company to pay the cleaners as a low a wage as possible to win the tender. Mr Lim calls this “cheap sourcing’’. They should be leaving it to the companies to decide the number of cleaners needed for the job to be done, he said, or “best sourcing’’. (So he has a BSI – Best Sourcing Initiative…)

I thought that made sense. I see it for myself in my condominium when the queries are about the number of security guards rather than whether the job gets done. Because, really, why should we care how many people the cleaning or security company hires so long as the place is clean and security is assured?

But changing mindsets from cheap sourcing to best sourcing is a slow and arduous process. When a company loses a contract the next time bidding comes around or when the contract expires, it does not mean the cleaners or security guards lose their jobs. What happens then is that the new company hires them instead, and since the new company probably got the tender because it under-cut the rest, their pay does not go up. In fact, it might go down, if they prefer to stay in familiar surroundings. Hence, you sometimes see the same people all the time – in different uniforms. This is a spiral which goes on and on, leaving wages stagnant.

To raise their wages, a structural change must take place to “force’’ higher pay in the sector. Enter the progressive wage model which has been described variously as a minimum wage. (He calls this PWM. )

Mr Lim acknowledged that in the cleaning sector, as well as the security and landscaping sector soon, this will be the case. Companies are not allowed to pay cleaners less than $1,000 a month. This is the law and is part of a licencing condition that the National Environment Agency will oversee.  

But more than a floor, a series of rungs have been created, each tied to job scope and productivity. So is an indoor cleaner worth more than an outdoor cleaner? If there were different sets of machines, which ones can workers operate?  A cleaner’s ability will be matched against an industry standard of skill levels. (This, by the word, is WSQ – Work Skill Qualifications). And this is again set to different wage levels. Again, all this is law and a company which flouts this stand to lose its licence – and cannot operate at all.  

I proceeded to irritate Mr Lim with a few “buts’’.

But don’t foreign workers have a role in keeping wages low in the sector? If we kept the numbers small, the wages of local cleaners will go up no?

Mr Lim’s reply: Not with the dependency ratios in place. So if a company hires 10 locals, it can only hire one foreigner if the dependency ratio is set at 10:1. The number of foreigners hired is dependent on the number of locals. If the company can make do with fewer workers, it will lay off the foreigner first – unless of course, companies scream loud enough for dependency ratios to be changed.

But isn’t this intervening in the free market by using the blunt instrument of the law?

Mr Lim’s reply: Yes. And it has to be done because the market has failed to set the wages correctly because of the emphasis on headcount rather than quality of manpower.

But why not set a minimum wage for all labour intensive sectors?

Mr Lim’s reply: This would allow companies to sack people and hire others – at minimum wage. So it doesn’t matter how good you are, you will never be better paid because the headcount only cares about how “cheap’’ you are.

But a worker who is trained may get sacked anyway and what happens if joins a new company?

Mr Lim’s reply: He doesn’t start at the bottom. He takes his qualifications with him which will require that he be paid according to his skill level. (Hmmm….it’s like have a diploma versus a degree) A smart employer will make sure the salary is according to the job scope.

But the cleaning companies would be required to train workers or get new machines and where will they get money for this?

Mr Lim’s reply: Actually, he just rolled off more ABCs….more funds and schemes that will help pay for training. Then there is IGP, Inclusive Growth Programme, that will help pay for new machines. (Go read Part 1 if you want to know more)

But some cleaning companies won’t be able to qualify for the licence and will have to shut down. So where will workers go?

Mr Lim’s reply: Companies have had six months to prepare and it seems that most will be able to meet the Sept 1 deadline. If some have to shut down, others which are licensed will snap up the workers. He doesn’t think people should be too bothered if there is a shake-up because the bottomline is: cleaners’ wages will go up.

I’m glad I had a chance to talk to him. (Our meeting was supposed to be held at TCC at NTUC centre at OMB – yup, his subordinates speak in ABCs too – but was shifted to his office). There are too many complicated policies in Singapore. They are like jigsaw puzzles. Miss a piece and you won’t get the whole picture. The PWM or progressive wage model (may I ask that the NTUC not be so quick to turn everything into acronyms?) looks pretty workable to this layman although I pity the people who have to monitor its workings. I don’t know, though, if there are further ramifications for the labour market, in terms of salary distortions.  

Mr Lim said he’s only looking at the security and landscaping sectors, which suffer the same “market failure’’, for the time being. Slow steps. He went on to say that he hopes other sectors would voluntarily adopt the PWM (I don’t know how he keeps all the ABCs in his head).  

I have to say that I didn’t manage to irritate the genial man.

He answered questions so well, so fully.  

He irritated me instead.

After the rally…the buffet

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 18, 2014 at 4:14 am

I started painting my nails halfway through watching PM Lee’s National Day rally speech last night. Bad of me; I should have been taking notes. But the speech struck me as very administrative and municipal. Plenty of human interest stories of people made it good despite the odds (kudos to them!), with PM in the role of interviewer. And an explanation of how CPF works with the PM playing financial planner to a fictitious 54 year old Mr Tan. PM Lee was a real estate agent last year.

I had to look over the newspapers this morning to find out what I missed. I think it was this point: PM Lee called for a cultural shift – away from chasing grades to valuing a person for his worth and character. He made the point much sharper in his Mandarin speech when he stressed that a university education does not guarantee jobs. And please don’t enrol any old how into any university course which you are not suited for.
Good point. That’s a reason I gather that our universities now do away with grading first-year examinations so that freshman can check out their aptitude and inclination against what’s on offer before buckling down to work. Hence the PM’s emphasis that an ITE and poly education would do just as well so long as it is accompanied by learning in working life. (A freshman in my class told me he was puzzled by the PM’s speech. He was a polytechnic student. For the past three years, poly students have had the carrot of a university education dangled over their heads with the promise of more university places. Now that he’s in the university system, a different song is being sung. *shakes head*)

So it looks like the focus has shifted to equipping the broad swathe of young people in the ITE and polys for the market. For what areas I wonder? To replace foreign S pass holders in areas traditionally shunned by Singaporeans? The PM also gave examples of those who did well despite lack of paper qualification except, as he noted, his examples were all Keppel employees. You need a company that makes money and a good boss who doesn’t look at grades and will give you a chance to move up the ladder. He said that the civil service will lead the way so that the career paths of grad and non-grad civil servants aren’t always so separate.

DPM Tharman will be leading a team to get the nation to “learn as you earn’’ (my phrase). What does this mean? Compulsory continuing education as is the case for some professions? Guess workers shouldn’t think that they have left the classroom forever. Or that examinations and tests are things of the past. It would be interesting to hear how DPM intends to integrate working and learning, as well as starting and raising a family.
I think the cultural shift is something to be encouraged. It’s in line with the compassionate meritocracy that we want to build here. It really shouldn’t matter which school you went to or how well you did in an exam hall; what matters is what you can bring to the table. But it would take people (parents and employers) some time to recognise this. That prized photograph of a family member in a graduation gown and cap is still very much sought after, no matter what sort of degree, course or university the person had enrolled in. One sign to look out for to know if the cultural shift is a-coming: whether people start believing that every school is a good school.

Here’s a run-down of the news points on the CPF front:

a. Four-room flats to be included in lease buyback scheme, which is now confined to three-roomers or smaller. This means that those who don’t have enough cash to retire on can still remain in their homes and get a pay-out in a lump sum and every month. One question: Your child won’t be able to inherit the home then? Or only up to the expiry of the home owner’s lease?

b. Minimum sum for next year’s cohort of 55ers already calculated: $161K. PM stressed repeatedly that the sum is not too much, and people tend to forget that half the sum can be a property pledge. Most people would be able to make the grade – and get a pay-out for life. I think of the minimum sum as a one-off insurance premium you pay in return for a monthly annuity.

c. The poor elderly will get an annual bonus called Silver Support pumped into their CPF. Thing is, what is poor elderly hasn’t been defined yet. Can’t just be looking at minimum sum right…because they might have well-heeled children to count on for support.

d. A committee will be set up to add some flexibility into the system – like allowing those who need money urgently to draw up more in a lump-sum (this is a big change of heart on his part, he admits), or having a scale of payments which increase or decrease with age.

Wonder what the Return My CPF lobby will say…PM Lee didn’t touch on the interest rates earned on Ordinary and Special Accounts which some people think should be pegged to what fund manager, GIC, makes. He didn’t talk about the use of CPF for housing, presumably because he is clear about how both CPF and housing are twin pillars of old age. So we’d better hope that the housing market keeps moving up…

As for what else in his speech was worth noting….Here are my, ahem, news reports:

a. HD: Pick up sticks gain popularity

A fishball stick dropped by a litterbug earned more than one mention in the Prime Minister’s National Day rally speech last night. It was the subject of a complaint by a civic conscious citizen who noticed that it had been lying on the ground for a good two days, well past Singapore’s efficient cleaning standards. His MP, Mayor Low Yen Ling was galvanised into action, as she sought to ascertain the agency responsible for the fishball stick’s continued offensive presence. After intensive and extensive investigations, PM Lee decided that it will be the National Environment Agency’s business to pick up sticks, although people shouldn’t be dropping them in the first place. He used a dialect term “pau kar liao’’, causing many to wonder if he was moving away from the Speak Mandarin policy.

A Municipal Service Office graced by Grace Fu, he announced, will be set up to ensure that all sticks anywhere will be picked up with alacrity. In the meantime, the civic-conscious citizen complained that he had sent a picture to STOMP which obviously did not realise the political potential of the stick which, it argued, could have been holding up a sotong ball.

b. HD: East Coast residents upset with Jurong plans

Hundreds of East Coast residents will be gathering at Hong Lim Park on Saturday to protest plans announced by the Prime Minister to make Jurong more hip and happening. Upset that they will only be getting the Thomson/Marine Parade MRT line, they are organising an online petition calling for the Singapore-KL high-speed rail to terminate in the east instead of the Jurong Lake district. “The Jurongites can keep their Chinese and Japanese Gardens,’’ said lead organiser Tan Kah Tong. “We don’t even mind if the Science Centre re-opens there but we think the Jurong Lake should be filled in and move to the East so that we will have a bigger East Coast Lagoon or East Coast Lake.’’ Planning authorities, dealing with the fallout from PM Lee’s National Day rally speech, said it will meet disgruntled residents to explain that these are tentative plans, not confirmed targets. It is understood that one option is to move the proposed Ng Teng Fong hospital, which has had its opening delayed by six months, to the east to placate the residents.

c. No news is… good news?

The PM didn’t talk about how economic restructuring is affecting the economy and making SMEs scream about not being able to get foreign labour. Nor did he say anything about low productivity.

The PM didn’t talk about the looming culture war (although he spoke about a culture shift) brewing between conservatives and the not-so-conservative a la the book pulping issue and the Pink and White standoff and who really decides what sort of values the people should hold.

The PM didn’t talk about how events in Syria, Iraq and Gaza might affect the Muslim minority here and create tensions although he did use the Ukraine/Crimea conflict as an example of how small nations must stay strong.

And, finally, he didn’t talk about the pesky people online….Thank goodness!

Singapore’s slow poison

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 17, 2014 at 8:11 am

I’ve always been a fan of ex-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He is a decent man. A good man. He is an old-fashioned conservative in the Platonic mould– believing in the establishment of a group of wise men to lead the rest. People should know their place, that is, don’t be boh tua, boh suay.

So I wasn’t surprised when he worried about bonds between the government and the governed being loosened; he’s always been big on social cohesion. But his use of the family as an analogy bugged me.

Here’s what ST reported:
“Speaking at length on people-government ties in family terms, he said that just as parents do for their children, the Government imparts values and sets norms for society through its policies and creates opportunities for people.
People cannot choose their parents but they can choose their government – a privilege they do not always value and “sometimes decide with less care than we should”.
Singaporeans also demand much more from the Government than their parents, accepting their family’s situation but not the constraints faced by the Government.
And while they do not criticise their parents’ imperfections, (“We love them.. Warts and all.’’) when it comes to the Government, they “see only warts… and freely criticise it for its slightest mistakes or when we disagree with it”.

This bit is from The Online Citizen:
“This state of relationship between the people and the government is part of the so-called New Normal,” he said.
“But if this New Normal leads to fractiousness, divisiveness and estrangement in the Singapore Family, then we will be undoing what the Pioneer Generation had painfully and diligently built over many decades,” added Mr Goh.
He said that unlike in the past where Singaporeans were clear about where they were headed, “now people are pulling in different directions.”
“We still discuss and debate, consult and engage’’, Mr Goh said. “But each group is now more assertive than before in pushing its point of view and vested interests. Each side does not want to give an inch without taking a quarter. The common space for Singaporeans is getting smaller instead of bigger.”

Why am I bugged? Because I can see that his comments will create even more fractiousness. Already wags are pointing out that he is harking back to a paternalistic government. Stretch the family analogy further and you get this: “Daddy and Mommy know what’s good for you. So shut up and just do as you’re told.’’

The question to ask is what lies at the root of the discontent or the disengagement between the G and the people. I am going to stick my neck out and say that it is ministerial salaries. I consider it the root of all evil. Serious. It reduces what should be a social compact into a business contract. We cannot see the family analogy because we are run like a business. (The wonderful thing that has happened over the years is that we are no longer known as “Singapore Inc’’ with citizens being shareholders and the government sitting as the board of directors. I have always thought the analogy was unfortunate.)

Consider why there is less respect for our leaders. We pay them so much, they are expected to do well. If they don’t do well, we complain that they are not worth their pay. How is this a family structure? We certainly don’t pay our parents to run the household although we do give them an allowance and take some of the financial load off them when we start working.

I know that every government struggles over this issue of how much to pay each member. Talking about, and approving, your own salary seems rather self-serving and pretty awkward. So salaries are kept low and unseen perks, pomp and privilege are added to the job description. On the whole, they might be paid many times more but the voter is blissfully unaware or complicit in some way.

So rational and efficient Singapore has come up with a formula which sets the pay higher than what other nations pay their leaders. Only that, with performance bonuses decided by the Prime Minister. And nothing else. I think. So clean. So rational. So transparent. So why are people grumbling? After all, if the ministers met their KPIs, why not?

Now, the Singapore pay structure, pegged by a complicated formula to economic growth and private sector pay, has been tweaked over the years. There was even a review committee headed by Gerard Ee which, unfortunately, only did more tweaking rather than examine the fundamental principles underpinning the structure. Ministers have given up bonuses and agreed to pay cuts, like the rest of the hoi polloi, when times are bad. But who remembers this? Who remembers how finely calibrated ministerial salaries are, and how so much thinking has gone into making them “fair’’ or “appropriate’’? Can you recall the sort of “premium’’ given to public service in drawing up salary structure? All the rationalisation is lost on the people. They see only one thing: We have highly-paid ministers. And we measure their monetary worth against every screw-up or warts. We do not cut them some slack, as Mr Goh would like, because we do not see them as our parents but as chief executives and general managers.

Ministerial salaries have never got much air-time in the media, except when the G says something about it. Yet it is talked about at election rallies and brought up in bars, coffeeshops and the Internet every time the G screws up. This sacred cow was not even raised at the Our Singapore Conversation.

I know the argument that the G has for defending their salaries, chief of which is to keep our leaders free from temptation that high office can bring, in other words, money politics and corruption. I would like to think our citizens are made of sterner stuff and our watchdogs far more vigilant than those elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t mind paying the watchdogs a lot more to ensure they do their jobs well. And even have caning introduced for corruption convictions! So why not just pay the politicians more you say? Because leadership is not just a “job’’, it is a “relationship’’ built on, yes, trust.

(Frankly, I also won’t have a problem if, after leaving Government, they are recruited by the private sector or go on the lecture circuit. Let the market dictate then what they should earn. Nothing to do with us voters)
Then there is the other argument about bringing in talent who would otherwise prefer to keep their privacy and their highly-paid jobs instead of venturing into politics. They can’t “lose out’’ too much. So we’ve heard about the salaries of doctors and lawyers who join politics and what they stood to “lose’’ even as ministers. Okay, but if I want to be churlish about it, I can also point out that many ex-civil servants have now crossed into Cabinet, and it is not likely that they would ever get those kind of salaries, would they?

All these comparisons leave a bad taste in the mouth. Of course, no minister would say they are in it for the money. In fact, they seem to be pretty frugal; they drive themselves, for example, and take care not to dress flashily. Their offices are smaller than those of some CEOs. What they say or how they present themselves matters, but not as much as what people think and are increasingly vocalising. It is a slow poison.

I know what the next question will be: You talk so much, do you have a solution? I don’t, which is why I’ve held off writing on the subject for so long although it has been nagging me for some time. But the subject must be brought to the fore and tackled head-on, however embarrassing it might be for the current leadership. When the G talks about building the public trust or its erosion, it never, ever talks about ministerial salaries. It is that big elephant in the room. But still we are trying to pull up the wages of low wage workers and narrow the income gap. We are restructuring the economy and SMEs are feeling squeezed. All this dislocation to work and to pay is being done against a backdrop of public angst over ministerial pay.

We need another formula, one that will not make our leaders paupers but will not make the people laugh when there is talk of “servant leadership’’. We need to put to rest or at least diminish the people’s big bugbear over pay, and build a new relationship between the rulers and the ruled – one that will not be clouded by the monetary worth of a minister nor assessed in terms of dollars and cents.

How? I’m afraid I don’t know…

The challenge of writing an assessment

In News Reports, Politics, Sports, Writing on August 12, 2014 at 2:07 am

I guess not many people realise that today marks the 10th anniversary of PM Lee at the helm of Government. Well, The Straits Times remembered and has a long essay assessing the Lee decade. It is a fine balance of he did this, but…he didn’t do this, still…
And it starts off by using the catch-all word “challenging’’ to describe the PM’s first decade.

Sigh. It’s a safe word, of course. Challenging can mean anything. You always rise up to challenges, you never merely solve problems. Challenges mean tough times, but not so tough as to not be able to overcome them. A challenge is like a dare. It evokes courage.

It must have been a challenge to write this piece. You have to give credit where credit is due and not over rah-rah such that the article becomes sycophantic. Every action should have a reaction. The piece must be very clearly analytical, with no biases that are detectable.

So the article goes this way….(excerpts are in italics)

GOOD…Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee’s top achievements in the decade. (Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year. GDP per capita went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year)

BUT…The global buzz also comes at a price – cohesiveness.

STILL…. One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee’s Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

THEREFORE… By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412. (Major re-ordering of the social compact)

BUT…. Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs. Instead, anxieties on overcrowding abound. Over the past decade, the population went up too fast, before transport and housing infrastructure could cope. Some observers consider this the greatest policy failure of the last decade. How did a government that prides itself on keeping close tabs on numbers allow an influx of foreigners beyond the housing and transport infrastructure’s capacity to cope?

STILL…. Mr Lee himself did not shirk this responsibility. In the heat of GE 2011, he surprised many when he apologised to the people of Singapore for the mistakes made, in an election rally at Boat Quay. That public mea culpa and events after GE 2011 raised widespread expectations of political change. (Which are in the form of nips and tucks, such as liberalising the use of Speaker’s Corner)

ALSO…he stopped doing some things. He sought to be seen to be fair when he called for polls, reducing the surprise element in timing them. Nor were there wholesale changes to electoral boundaries. He stopped using estate upgrading as electoral carrots. In GE 2011, opposition candidates’ views, not their personal character, were attacked. In choosing fair election campaigns, and in refraining from browbeating opposition candidates, Mr Lee made it less risky for people to enter the opposition fray. Hence, more opposition members got in.

BUT… Mr Lee stopped short of fundamental reforms to the electoral system that some sought, ignoring calls for an independent election commission, for example.

ALSO… still very much top-down/command and control approach, like the Population White Paper introduction. (Backed by an opinion from a commentator, that is, not writer’s words)

WRITER’S FINAL ANALYSIS… What is one to make overall of Mr Lee’s roller-coaster decade? One can take the optimistic view and say Singapore has weathered crises remarkably well and remained intact as a society, despite the train breakdowns, the Little India riot of last December, a bus drivers’ strike, and the sex and corruption scandals. Critics might say there are signs of a ship that is cruising, or even adrift, tossed about by the global winds of change. I would say that the truth as usual lies in between.

See? Told you it would be a challenge to write the piece….

Musing over the PM’s message

In News Reports, Politics on August 9, 2014 at 5:32 am

The PM actually looks nice in pink but someone should teach him what to do with his hands. They look better off holding on to a mike than flapping along his sides. Last year, he planted himself at ITE College Central, using it as a backdrop for how Singapore has come. This time, he planted himself at the Alexandra Park Connector to make the same point. Wonder what place he will pick next year? Sports Hub?
But, hey, who cares about what he looked like or where the television cameras were placed? Matters more what PM Lee said in his National Day message.

What struck me was how he eschewed the vulnerability narrative. You know, about how Singapore struggled against the odds, no one owes us a living, everybody else wants to eat our lunch and how we are so small and, yes, vulnerable. But there was the familiar refrain about how foreigners are impressed with us….and we should be too?

He was pretty forward-looking with a focus on that great swathe of young people in the ITEs and polys. I suppose those at the higher levels of education in the universities can fend for themselves. He wants to give the middle level a boost, to get them ready for the workplace and to keep on learning. (Notice he didn’t say they should all go on to university.) There’s yet another acronym-ed committee called ASPIRE to help them to reach their aspirations.

Of course, he talked about economic growth, to be achieved within a much smaller band now which he didn’t say. We can forget about hitting top end of 4 per cent forecasted; it’s 3.5 per cent at the upper end. I half-expected him to talk about productivity which has been pretty dismal despite years of effort, and which so many economists and commentators have referred to. He didn’t. Nor did he talk about how the economic restructuring might not be working as well as it should or the pain it is causing to businesses.

He did go on about retirement planning. That’s really the big thing that everybody wants to hear at his National Day Rally next weekend.

“Singaporeans know that they have to prepare for retirement. People are working longer and saving more. For most of you, your HDB flat and CPF savings are key ways to fund your retirement. The HDB flat has allowed Singaporeans to build a home, and to grow a valuable nest egg for old age. Your flat is an asset which appreciates as Singapore prospers. My team is studying how to make it more convenient for retirees to get cash out of your flats, in a prudent and sustainable way.’’

“Besides your flat, the CPF has helped you to save for your old age. It ensures you have a stream of income in retirement. The scheme works well for many of you, but it can be improved.’’

So it’s time to play a guessing game on what’s coming up. A re-look at the minimum sum requirements? More CPF money freed for the financially-savvy to invest? More “reverse mortgage’’ plans to get the elderly to unlock their assets? I hope that something more radical will be announced than such tweaking along the sides, such as whether CPF money should used to buy a home for the first, second, third and umpteenth time so much so that even though we can’t quite maintain our standard of living in the last home, we insist on keeping it. Because it is our home. As I’ve said before, people look at retirement planning in terms of cash; not cash that must be unlocked from assets. A massive mindset change needs to occur for people to “touch’’ their houses to pay for day-to-day living. (You don’t suppose he will speak about Roy Ngerng do you?)

There’s something else that he said that resonated with me: “As Singaporeans, we must judge a person not just by his educational qualifications, but also by his skills, contributions and character. This is how we keep Singapore a land of hope and opportunity for all.’’

This might be naughty of me but is that why he didn’t talk about ITE and poly students going on to uni? In any case, he’s correct to say that a person shouldn’t be judged by whether he was from the Normal or Express stream, has a diploma or a Phd. It would be good if he put a brake on this paper chase so that no one need feel embarrassed about cutting short his education or having his education cut short for him. And people realise that they don’t have to buy Phds online to earn respect or look good.

By the way, I almost expected that he would say that you should not judge a person by his sexual orientation or views on the family…he didn’t. Nothing on the cultural wars fought over library books beyond how “our interests and opinions are more diverse and deeply held’’. I wonder if he thinks the cultural divide is important enough to merit a mention in his rally speech. Is this more a pre-occupation of the vocal few than a national issue?

In all, a very “safe’’ message. I hope his rally speech will be more uplifting. I have always thought the Prime Minister doesn’t address the nation often enough. He should, to pull together the diversity of voices or set the nation on a path. May he do so in brilliant fashion next week. I’m looking forward to it.

Gentlewarriors or gender warfare?

In News Reports, Politics on August 5, 2014 at 10:08 am

If Ms Ivy Singh-Lim was making a pitch to women to join her Gentlewarrior’s Party, I’m afraid it wasn’t a very good one. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to her interview in The New Paper yesterday for an all-women political party. She complains about the dearth of females in leadership roles. She says that few women enter politics because all women are honest (and I suppose the men who do, aren’t?) Her campaign is to get rid of dishonest people, including dishonest men (who?) and stupid women (who?)

Like the Workers’ Party now (my words), she doesn’t intend to “overtake the PAP’’ but to inject good values such as courage and fairness into the system. But this is not to say that the entire system is bad (her words).

I’m not sure that makes up much of a manifesto even though the intention is noble. Can anyone object to having an honest, courageous and fair-minded political party in the political system? Frankly, all political parties would say that they, too, stood for those values. Even if they comprised only men.

In my much younger days, the paucity of female representation in Parliament had always been a sore point. It said to me: Women are not good enough for politics or the PAP, at least, seemed to think so going by the scarcity of women candidates. When the PAP set up its Women’s Wing, I was both glad and sad. Glad that women were recognised but sad that the wing was more concerned about the welfare of housewives and less-educated women. It looked like a vote-getting campaign rather than an attempt to get women involved in “high’’ politics. It was so good therefore to have Dr Aline Wong and Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon break the gender barrier and give Parliament some much needed colour!
If today, in 2014, there was no woman MP in Parliament, I would think Ms Lim has a good idea about forcing open the Parliament doors. But now, I can’t even recall the number of woman MPs in the Cabinet, much less in Parliament!

Maybe we should not look at numbers but in terms of issues that affect women. Are there woman-only issues that need to be fielded in Parliament that have not been given enough attention? Is there a need for a “woman’s’’ view of issues, if there is such a thing?
Therefore, I got to thinking where a woman’s input would be valuable:

a. Single mothers. Small constituency but probably growing. While there is some relaxation of rules for them on HDB housing, there is always, “room for improvement’’. I believe maternity benefits are a sore point.

b. Views on National Service. Maybe a woman’s voice on all these perks for NSmen and the role of women in the nation’s defence.

c. Women’s Charter. This is going to be tweaked especially on the maintenance front. Ex-wives will not automatically get maintenance from their ex-husbands, it is being proposed. You think a male would object?

d. Female medical issues. There might be gynae-MPs but no one knows a female body better than a female…Just ask the women in the Breast Cancer Foundation.

e. Procreation and abortion issues. Definitely a female occupation.

f. Work-life balance, the role of woman in the household and the monetary value of being a housewife. Or is this politically incorrect given that married women are being called to go back into the workforce?

g. Breaking the glass barrier in the boardroom. But how? We don’t want to go the quota way do we?

h. Spousal abuse, marital rape, sexual harassment in the workplace…

Gosh! I didn’t realise I could come up with such a list! Really!

But it seems to me that any political party worth its salt should be able to add value to discussion on the above. The issues have all been broached in some way or other although not in a concerted manner with the word, female, underlined.
Of course, Gentlewarriors may want to go the way of AWARE with a more aggressive stance on the rights of women. Then it will risk alienating the men, especially those who keep pointing at how they are always at risk of women crying molest and faking their age for sex…. And there will be the misogynists who make wisecracks about women having PMS or undergoing menopause and are hence, unable to make good judgment calls…And there is AWARE itself. It’s already doing a pretty good job of making itself heard.

I don’t think there is a need for an all-woman party even if I believe all women are honest, like Ms Lim does. At the moment, I think political parties know full well the need to respond to women’s specific areas of interest if they want to get elected.
As for an all-women party candidate getting the vote, I’m not sure. Unlike political parties which can hold on to ideological positions, what would be that of Gentlewarriors? The protection and promotion of women in Singapore? What’s next? The protection and promotion of men in Singapore? Enough. We are already a mosaic of different religions, races, cultures and ideological standpoints. No need for another dividing line.

In any case, Gentlewarrior or not, I can fight as well as any man. What say you ladies?

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.

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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