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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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…

Ee Boh lah! Thank goodness!

In News Reports, Society on August 16, 2014 at 2:02 am

There’s a joke going around about the scare the Nigerian woman caused when she was thought to have brought the Ebola virus into Singapore. She’s been given the all-clear; in other words, Ee boh lah! I suppose the joke is also a manifestation of a relief, given that we would probably be put in a state of panic if it was the case.

Anyway we have the Changi Airport people all donned up in white suits to do mock simulations if something so untoward should happen.

The wonder is that this little global city hasn’t yet been breached by the virus. We haven’t started barring people from West Africa and wonder if the airport authorities do more than a pat-down when visitors arrive from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia or Guinea. Should we be grateful that they number among the poorest countries in the world and can’t afford air travel? Sounds rather heartless, doesn’t it.

(Actually, the authorities should not do a pat-down because the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids. It is not air-borne, like Sars. And what’s worse is that those thermal imaging machines to detect feverish travellers might not work either, since the fever disappears in the late stages!)

There are two articles in the New York Times republished by TODAY which on reading, gave me a sense of déjà vu. These weren’t about what the World Health Organisation is up to or whether the virus came from infected bats or anything so big picture – and which people’s eyes may glaze over. The articles were about the people who were affected.

So Patient Zero, a two year old, died in December after falling ill. But not before infecting his mother, three-year sister and his grandmother. Two mourners at the grandmother’s funeral took the virus home to their villages and a healthcare worker to another. The healthcare worker died, so did his doctor. The circle got wider and wider.

The virus works so quickly. A woman with the sickness travelled to Monrovia, where she vomited in the taxi. The taxi driver who cleaned her up died. She also infected her husband and two year old child. Then there was a doctor in Sierra Leone in the forefront of combating the virus who emailed colleagues worldwide for stuff including chlorine, goggles and body bags. He died before the supplies came.

And there comes the question of burial. Few came to mourn those who died of the virus and burial workers were in protective suits. Funerals were scary.

I got thinking again about the Sars scare and how healthcare workers were falling down like flies when it was unclear how the virus was transmitted. How burial workers masked themselves with scarfs and tee-shirts. And how there was the battle to be waged against fear, prejudice and ignorance, which is pervading West Africa now.

Those far less developed countries are scrambling to put in measures to protect their people. They seem to be going through what we did – deciding how much information to put out, whether measures would hit the economy and what sort of restrictions on movement should be imposed.

I would like to think that our Sars experience has built our expertise against the invasion of foreign viruses. That alerts and processes are in place once the alarm bell is rung. The authorities and healthcare workers probably know what to do, but what about the rest of us? Sars was in 2003 and from what I can tell, the younger generation’s main recollection of the period was that there was “no school’’ and learning was done online. Perhaps, we should be better exposed to the steps taken by the besieged countries so that as a population, we too would be prepared to buckle down to survive. This wouldn’t be alarmist; it would be prudent.

An online citizen’s National Day Pledge

In Society on August 9, 2014 at 12:41 am

Here’s a possible pledge for online citizens of Singapore. If you don’t like, replace the We with Me. Still works…

We, the online citizens of Singapore, pledge to:

PUT a smiley face on sour news and go kekeke whenever we don’t like something.

LOOK kindly on rabid proponents on all sides of the cultural divide because they have a thick skin, even if they are deluded.

BLOCK trolls who swear and use invective or at least tell them nicely to stay out of our Face(book)

GIVE the benefit of the doubt to the G because we know it is no good at communicating, even if it means well.

BELIEVE in the goodness of our fellow men, even though we see mainly the ugly side online.

PARTICIPATE in every online petition that we are asked to, so as not to disappoint the originators who took the trouble.

ACCEPT as FB friends people from far flung places who are out to get your money – just to see what they try to do.

READ the right stuff, from the right people, in the right way, although we wouldn’t know if they have got it wrong.

RECOGNISE that people have different views and may not articulate them as well as we think they should – or we can.

DECLARE that racism, sexism, chauvinism and xenophobia (even when disguised as patriotism) has no place in discussion threads.

LEAVE the realm of conspiracy theories to writers of fiction even though they are fun to come up with.

REMEMBER that recriminations will be rewarded by more recriminations.

IGNORE those who pour cold water on everything good depending, of course, on our definition of “good’’.

SHARE liberally stories and photographs of heroes, especially those whom you can take home to meet mother.

HAPPY 49th BIRTHDAY, Singapore!!!!

Who’s the boss?

In Money, News Reports, Society on August 4, 2014 at 11:35 am

There is a security guard in my condominium who has changed into four different sets of uniforms over the past nine years. We insisted that he be kept on even as we switched security companies. I always wondered if he got a pay jump each time this happened. I hope so since residents viewed him as such a part of the environment. Then again, I have no real idea of how much we pay each company. I figure it’s probably less and less over time.

So I read in ST today that the labour movement was going to give a second shot at getting the security industry to sign up on the progressive wage model with some interest. Seems the industry rejected it the first time because of cost pressures. Yes, wages will have to go up. But it won’t be the security companies who will be doing the paying. It will be the managements of malls, condominiums and office blocks. So what’s the problem? The rest of us? We won’t pay a higher contract price for security service? We always go for the lowest bid by some fly-by-night operators?

Then I got to thinking that maybe the progressive wage model might not be well understood in the first place.

Here’s what I understand about it:

It looks much like a minimum wage structure, except that it isn’t. There’s a base, such as $1,000 a month for cleaners and a proposed $1,100 a month for security guards. But there’s also an increasing scale of higher pay for higher level skills and higher productivity. Also, for certain kinds of work, you need certain skills and those on the progressive wage model will be armed with certificates which say what they are capable of doing. And this would correspond with the pay grades that have been set.

This is really intervention in the free market, with the G playing enforcer. Cleaning companies who won’t or can’t sign up to this new “industry standard’’ can’t get a licence from the National Environment Agency. They must have this by Sept 1 if they want to continue to be in business. This is a legal thing with penalties, not a guideline or a code of ethics. It seems that as many as four in 10 aren’t ready. Which means they will fold. Which means what for their workers? Move to another company which is on the model? Good for them because they will be assured of higher pay? Especially if they have something to show for skill level?

That doesn’t seem bad at all

The whole industry gets an immediate lift and there will be no more under-cutting of contract fees because there will be no more fly-by-night cleaning companies. And companies will think harder about kicking out people whose pay got too high by dint of years of work and replacing them with fresh blood at the minimum wage. At least, I gather that’s what will happen. Except that everybody who uses cleaners, including town councils, will have to figure out how to pay them more – since a higher baseline will have been set.

I’ve always wondered about the productivity measurements though. Just because you are sent on a course to use certain machines, does this mean you will actually be more productive than before? What if you are employed in a role which doesn’t need more sophisticated handling? Or you are more likely to damage the machine than make use of it well? Still get paid more because you have the requisite qualifications? It will be interesting to see what happens to the cleaning industry after Sept 1.

And now the security companies seem more amenable to the idea, probably because there are so many shady outfits able to put in much lower bids – which their clients are willing to pay for. A third sector in the NTUC’s sight is landscaping. All in, that’s about 200,000 of our lowest paid workers who make a median salary of $800 or so a month.

Sometimes I wonder if we realise that it is we, the people, who put them in that position by keeping their salaries stagnant for years. Those of you who live in condos, do you think you will agree to pay more to the cleaner, gardener and security guard? What will HDB residents say about having to pay more for service and conservancy fees? The money has come to somewhere. The phrase often used is “cost will be passed to the consumer’’ but that’s not accurate.

Because most of us are really the paymaster – not consumer. It’s good to remember that some time.

This troublemaker thanks you

In Reading, Society, Writing on August 3, 2014 at 3:29 am

I had a magnificent time last night! All that stress started dissipating as the night went on. I want to thank those who were at the launch of Troublemaker. I don’t even know most of you personally! I am gratified you came. (More importantly, got buy the book or not?)
The book is available at all major bookstores from mid-August or you can go to http://www.ethosbooks.com.sg to order. Anyway, here’s the introduction to the book.

“Troublemaker’’ was the word Professor Tommy Koh used to describe me when we were talking about the demise of the Breakfast Network site. “But you are a good troublemaker. We need more good troublemakers,’’ Singapore’s veteran diplomat added.

Well, that was a relief!

I came to thinking that the phrase would be a good title for this book, a collection of blog posts and columns I had written in my post-Singapore Press Holdings days. I started on the day after I left my job of 26 years, when my free SPH newspapers did not appear on my door step. The absence of my morning reading material impressed on me firmly that I was no longer a journalist – at least, of the employed kind.
So I started Bertha Harian; the name was given to me by a top level civil servant some years ago. An alternative, he suggested, would be Berita Henson. I didn’t think it had quite the same ring.
People ask me why I write and have variously described my writings as that of a disgruntled ex-journalist, a Trojan horse set by the Government to infiltrate the online community, a political opposition supporter finally free of the fetters of the establishment that my career had imposed on me.

I laugh.

For some people it seems, content should not be assessed on its merits alone. Questions must be asked about the “motivation’’ and “agenda’’ behind the content. I have never seen the need to take an ideological standpoint, whether anti-this or pro-that, although there are certain principles I cherish. I believe strongly in transparency and access to information, which will allow citizens to make informed choices. I prefer less government, not more, with governance underpinned by the rule of law, not the discretion of executives. I uphold the ethical principles of professional journalism especially the need for accuracy and context, because it is the prism through which most information are presented regardless of the widespread use of social media.

After so many years in the practice of journalism, I thought I possessed enough institutional memory, knowledge of the workings of government and media and the ability to “read between the lines’’. I thought they would help me become a useful moderator or filter on issues that affect citizens.
Much of my content is based on mainstream media reports. I regard them to be the best source of information, properly researched and verified. Most of the time. They are my jumping-off point for further reflection. That is why I cannot abide unprofessional work such as sloppy reporting or a lack of reporting which result in incomplete and half-baked reports that misinform the unwary reading public. When I spot them, I feel cheated.

My writing inspiration is a column that used to be published in The Straits Times on Saturdays close to three decades ago. It was titled Look back in wonder by Ms Tan Sai Siong. She didn’t always attempt single-issue columns to fill up her allotted space. Sometimes, she just gave her “take’’ on three of four news items that had appeared over the week. When she did so, the column was extremely readable. Why spin so many words to fill up space when you only want to make one point?

This is one of the freedoms I enjoy from writing online: Freedom of space. Short or long, content must dictate space, not the other way round.

The second joy is freedom from editors who sometimes draw the OB markers far closer and tighter than I think necessary. Sure, I take a risk when I make critical comments about the Government, or the G, as I call it. But I weigh every risk, and right every wrong in my posts when they are pointed out. I have never been afraid to say sorry. Should I equate this with freedom of speech? Perhaps the right phrase is freedom of responsible speech, from a citizen with no greater agenda than advancing the cause of rational thinking for the collective good.
Third is the freedom to experiment with writing styles. The mainstream media’s methods are outdated – news reports with facts framed in a reverse pyramid or in blocks. For print and broadcast, there is that newsprint and airtime space to fill. Frankly, squeezing out regular columns in a regular style in a regular spot of a regular size is a draining exercise and terribly uncreative.

Now, of course, story telling has gone beserk with Twitter, storify, listacles and memes. They cater to people with short attention spans. But not everything can be short-formed. The long form should not be consigned to the Internet trash bin because sometimes it does take a lot of more words to make or argue a point – not pithy one-liners.

Did I make trouble? I gather I did. Civil servants and politicians have me on their radar but, hand on heart, none have ever gone beyond a “aiyah, why you write like that?’’ when commenting on specific posts which affect them. Some have even tried to engage me by giving me the heads-up on policies to be introduced, like they did in my past life.

My blogging segued into the establishment of Breakfast Network, on which I have devoted a section in this book. Suffice to say that I was glad to be back in harness, as a news editor, columnist, reporter. Even temporarily.
The start of my online writing adventure coincided with the post 2011 GE and the “new normal’’. It was an era which tolerated and, in fact, welcomed and fostered the discussion of big and small issues. Much of the news happenings post-2011 are unprecedented. An illegal strike? A riot? A philandering Member of Parliament? A dead prisoner?

So much content.

Why do I write?

I write to be read.

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.

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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