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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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.

Shaddup and sit down

In Society, Writing on July 5, 2014 at 3:05 am

Been thinking about the way people argue offline and online….

How to silence critics
a. Do you have a better idea? A solution? No? Then shaddup and sit down!
b. Do you agree that we should help the poor? Yes. So good, we agree. Now can you please shaddup and sit down?
c. What right have you to talk about poor people when you live in a bungalow in Bukit Timah?
d. You not a doctor, lawyer, teacher are you? So don’t tell me what you think about the medical profession, the law or the education system.
e. You are gay right? Enuff said!
f. How many people did you talk to when you say you represent what people think? 1,000? 100,000? No?
g. You are a member of a vocal minority. Shaddup and sit down.
h. You think cleverer than all the experts we have? No? Shaddup and sit down.
i. You don’t understand anything because you don’t have the full facts. And I’m not giving you the facts because you won’t understand them anyway. So shaddup and sit down.
j. I don’t talk to people who have agendas, even if I not sure what the agenda is.
k. You have a position on the issue? Or are you just wasting my time nit-picking?
l. You usually drive right? Please don’t talk to me about bus fares and stalled trains. No locus standi.
m. You don’t take public transport all the time right? How frequent a user are you to talk about bus fares and stalled trains? No locus standi.
n. You are a property investor and developer right? That’s why you want cooling measures to stop? Vested interests!
o. You haven’t lived through war and riots right? Don’t talk to me about public order
p. You are too young to have accumulated any life experience, and therefore too young to have any views worth hearing.
q. You agree with the G? No wonder you support whatever they say. No place here for you. You’re predictable.
r You don’t agree with the G? No wonder you attack whatever they say. No place here for you. You’re predictable.
s. You shouldn’t just talk, must take action also. In fact, just DO. Don’t talk. So shaddup and sit down.
t. You are going off-topic. Stick to business at hand or shaddup and sit down.
u. You can’t see the big picture, that’s why you are so small-minded.
v. You don’t think long-term, that’s why you are so short-sighted.

FINALLY, with overwhelming force, say: SHADDUP AND SIT DOWN.

Words of mass destruction – a Singaporean lexicon

In Society, Writing on May 26, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Last night, I wrote on my Facebook wall that MSM will be full of constructive politics today so I started thinking about destructive politics. I came up with a list of what destructive people say. Some wags thought it instructive enough to add more to the construction. Therefore, here are the words of mass destruction – a term coined by another wag. Please take this constructively.
I am not xenophobic; I just don’t like foreigners
The Filipinos should not hold their independence day here, because it does not coincide with Singapore’s independence day
You can’t call yourself a Singapore unless you, your father and your grandfather were born here.
My son did badly in school because he is not in a good school
My son did badly in school because the exams were too tough
My son behaves badly because his teachers did not discipline him
Teachers cannot discipline my son because he happens to be MY son
If you are pro-family, you must be anti-gay
If you are gay, you can’t be pro-family
The nursing home should not be in my backyard because I can think of so many other places you can put it
Foreign workers should not be seen nor heard
If you praise a Government policy, you must be a PAP lackey
If you criticise a Government policy, you must be an oppie
If you stand in the middle, you must be Workers’ Party
Everything bad that happens to me is because of the Government, even that cut on my big toe
Everything good that happens to me is because of… me
Prices are high because ministers pay themselves high salaries
I pay so much to own and drive a car, so why should I subsidise public transport?
I am not eligible for an HDB flat, so why do I have to pay property tax?
Men should not do National Service, because the women don’t have to
Men of military age and women of child-bearing age should get the same perks in the name of equality
I don’t have great expectations, only rising aspirations
I want work-life balance because I studied so hard in school
I am all for free speech – when I like what I’m hearing
Vandalism is a manifestation of freedom of expression – when I like what I’m seeing
I must be reading the right stuff because I’m reading The Straits Times
I must be saying something right because the Government is suing me
I must be saying something right because the trolls are flaming me

Doing NS…and what about those who don’t?

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 23, 2014 at 3:49 am

One Facebook wag asked me if I thought the Committee to Strengthen National Service recommendations should be regarded as “perks’’ or “compensation’’. Man, how would I know? And while an organisation like Aware might want to look at “equity’’ issues (it had raised this in the past), I am not about to weigh in on why, or why, are people like me of the wrong gender are left out! No point. And most women have brothers, uncles and male cousins anyway who will (?) be glad with the recommendations.

So they get $6,000 more in their Medisave, on top of the current $9,000. More money if they are fitter, do well in in-camp training as well as if…ahhh, anything untoward happened to them during their stints in camp. They can indicate choice of vocation (whether get it or not is a different matter I reckon), don’t have to go through the hassle of informing Mindef whenever they are out of the country – unless its for more than two weeks and the unfit will get more time to clear fitness tests.

Oh. And there is an SAF Volunteer Corps set up as well to guard installations (do I get to carry a rifle) and in other aspects like medical care, psychology, information and so forth. Of course, there is some training time volunteers must set aside and time allocated for performing duties. The boys in blue, by the way, have had the same system for decades with its Volunteer Special Constabulary of more than 1,000 people. They wear the same uniform as cops and have the same powers. They get paid $3.60 an hour regardless of rank. Makes you wonder why we have to hire Cisco when the police can put out a call for volunteers …
Anyway, what the Committee did not give:
a. Shorter NS stint. (Apparently, two years is short enough)
b. Special priority for kids admission to primary school (Wonder if this had gone through, how priority will be allocated since every guy would have priority. Generals first?)
c. Increase in full-time NSman’s allowances. (Guess this is so as not to “cheapen’’ duty, honour country and turn it into a mere transaction)
d. Forcing new citizens and first-generation PRs to do NS.

I can appreciate that the committee wants to “strengthen’’ commitment to National Service and therefore wants to give a soft touch rather than a hard punch. No doubt, there will be arguments about the “perks’’ being too little, too late.

I just want to raise an unpopular thing. Much of the angst about NS is about the presence of those who skip or get away with not doing it I reckon. Only second generation PRs and progeny of new citizens have to do the stint. I recall a survey on integration last year on the differing views of the local-born and foreign-born citizens. Close to 70 per cent of the local born think the male child should do NS, compared to 43 per cent of the foreign born. There’s a difference in perception here which must bridged and the committee doesn’t seem to have quite looked into this aspect.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said there would be practical difficulties inducting first-generation PRs and new citizens into NS, adding that having them do NS shouldn’t just be “tokenistic or symbolic’’. Hence, the set-up of the Volunteer Corps. I don’t suppose the G is going to force anyone to sign up, but I do wonder why more isn’t made to “encourage’’ sign-ups among them.

This is especially since the guys always get upset at the ability of second-generation PRs to uproot and leave the country before their call-up. And Mindef has never been very clear about the penalties imposed or the numbers who are drained out of the system (I would be quite pleased to be corrected on this). The playing field doesn’t seem fair.

The thing is, NS as a value should not just be passed down through the generations, but also inculcated in those who decide they want to live and work here, and not back home. That they have a duty to do so, to honour their new home country.

PS. In case some guy points out that the same goes for the women, let me point out that we can do one thing you can’t – bear children! And give us a break already. The Women’s Charter is already being reviewed…

Not a Hard Choice: Just read

In Politics, Society, Writing on April 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I finished reading Hard Choices by Donald Low and Sudhir V in one sitting today. Yup. It’s that grabbing. A bit cheeky to call it Hard Choices but it’s appropriate since it challenges some of the Hard Truths we’ve always been told about. It’s a quite balancing act for the authors who also include academic Linda Lim based in United States: They’re careful about not knocking the past too much; instead they maintain that the past might not be a good guide for the future. They are, as they say, challenging the consensus or rather, exploding some myths.
The authors acknowledge that policymakers have made adjustments by, for example, moving left of centre in social policy. One thing they couldn’t avoid saying: The policy of flooding the country with foreign workers over the past decade in the go-for-full-throttle economic growth era is to be blamed for some of malaise we face today: stagnant incomes in the lower ranks, low productivity because of access to cheap labour and pressure on housing prices which now need cooling.
For baby-boomers (and almost baby boomers like me), there was this interesting bit: Singapore’s strong reserves were built on the backs of this generation and it makes sense for the state to return some of it to the generation as it ages rather than find new ways of getting more out of the younger people.
At the risk of summarising, I think the key thesis goes something like this:
a. Some of the strongly-held political and economic mantras that helped Singapore to what it is today might not apply if we want to move forward. The “vulnerability’’ narrative, for example, has outlived its usefulness as an inspiration for most citizens while the vision of a “global city’’ might actually be pretty limiting. Why not try for a vision of a just and equitable city?
b. Rather than look at policies from a dollars and cents or economic point of view, why not look at them from the point of view of strengthening the social compact and social trust. Singapore, in the words of Linda Lim, is more than just its GDP. Citizen “well-being’’ is a better measurement of success than economic growth rates.
c. The G should rid itself of some mindsets such as contending that more welfare leads to an erosion of work ethic or automatically reaching for “co-payments’’ and “means-testing’’ and monetary incentives to achieve social policy goals. Rather, all citizens should be guaranteed a basic level of help, that is, go “universal’’ rather than hew to a targeted approach. Ensure one level, and then means-test for the rest. Also, most “welfare’’ approaches seem to be contingent on “employment’’. But what if people are involuntarily unemployed in these times of economic restructuring? What about wage loss insurance?
d. The trouble with sticking to past models and predicting the future based on extrapolations is that the system becomes rigid, inflexible – and late. Like the drastic imbalance in housing supply and demand in the past, or how more rail lines were needed far sooner than expected.
e. The country’s leadership is an incestuous one (that’s my phrase) populated with like-minded people thrown up through similar channels and reinforcing a group-think mentality. Because they had benefited from the policies of the past, they conclude that what had worked for them would work for future generations. That is, they are already “biased’’.
All in, the authors are calling for mindset change if Singapore wants to move forward. Some of the principles policymakers have held on to may no longer work. Higher income taxes do not necessarily crimp work ethic nor is a universal approach to welfare always accompanied by laziness on the part of the recipients. The view that housing is an “appreciating asset’’ needs to change since it’s so vulnerable to booms and bust and not easily “unlocked’’ as a retirement fallback.
They call on the G to have less of a stranglehold on public discussion and dialogue, contending that political openness is needed for ideas to flower and flourish. The book has some policy solutions or alternatives as well, some of which would be unpalatable to the G, like taking out the “political’’ element out of grassroots bodies, such as the People’s Association.
The Singapore of today, they argue, demands “equity’’ and “fairness’’.
I’m sure I’m not doing the book much justice at all. So why don’t you just go buy it and read?

Open Letter to ST Readers Editor

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 21, 2014 at 12:42 am

I am writing to convey my great disappointment over ST’s reporting of the online protests against the holding of the Philippines Independence Day celebrations.

In your first report, you said:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately. Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.
The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

This is inaccurate. The 26,000 “likes’’ are for the page itself, which was set up a few years ago and has a wide variety of posts including those not associated with foreigners. The post calling for the protest amounted to some 300-plus “likes’’.

This mis-reporting has caused consternation as it implied that 26,000 citizens or so support the protests – which is not true. For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.

There was no correction nor clarification, which would be important for readers who read only your august newspaper. Nor was there an attempt to set the record straight in your next article on the protest organisers receiving threats. Or in subsequent articles and in your editorial.

In your Sunday Times article, Filipino group heartened by support, you chose again not to correct the misimpression. You quoted selectively from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook post, focusing only on his point that xenophobia should not be tolerated.

You ignored this point: “That there are xenophobes wasn’t the surprising part since there are these sad elements in any society. It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page … that raised my brows. As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate.”

Likewise, you quoted selectively from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page on this issue, neglecting to incorporate this line: “Fortunately, it was the work of a few trolls.’’

It would seem that ST has gone to great lengths to sweep its mistake under the carpet, an ignominious thing to do for a newspaper which prides itself on accuracy. For ST-only readers, the 26,000 figure is what will stick in their minds, tarring the online community as a bunch of rabid xenophobes. Foreigners who read ST only would also come away with the impression that Singapore is on the verging of losing its sanity over the immigration issue.

In her column on April 19, your writer Ms Chua Mui Hoong used the online protests as a launch pad to discuss whether such online views are representative of Singapore society at large. She too made no mention of ST’s mistake of exaggerating the protest numbers although she did say this: From all acounts, that anger seems to be an over-reaction from a segment of Singaporeans against a perfectly pleasant, legitimate event. Many others spoke up against such anti-foreigner sentiments.

She also said: Unlike blogs in English which delight in ripping off mainstream media’s reports, Chinese language bloggers used mainstream media reports as sources of information, not as fodder for criticism.

I would like to point out that this is precisely why ST should be careful with its news reports – because the mainstream media is used as a source of information. This means that when it is inaccurate, it must brace itself for criticism, acknowledge its failings and not dismiss the comments of those, whom as Ms Chua put it, “delight in ripping off’’ its reports.

Ms Chua concluded: So it’s never a good idea to generalise from a group of angry netizens to Singapore society at large.

I agree. And it would help if ST was more careful in its reporting and upfront about its mistakes instead of adding to the misperception.

A mid-term report

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 19, 2014 at 3:55 am

ST pulled out its big guns to mull over a mid-term report on Singaporean’s satisfaction with the G. They dissected the views on health, transport and housing and expanded on what they saw as middle class angst over the state of affairs here.

The survey results were generally favourable to the G, noting higher levels of satisfaction over its attempts to fix the housing, healthcare needs of citizens and to alleviate the plight of the old and the poor. Post-2011 GE – and the G seems to have taken into account the woes of the populace. Yet as commentator after commentator pointed out, the disaffected will still say that the measures were too little, too late and the problems were wrought by bad policies, which behoved the G to rectify anyway. Some will point to the small sample size of 500. But students of statistics will allow that a sample, if scientifically picked and polled, would suffice as a more-or-less accurate gauge of sentiment. Far better than the usual street poll, at least…  

In any case, I’d wager anything for comments to surface that the survey was a white-wash, initiated by a pro-G media mouthpiece which sought to present the survey results as the voice of silent majority.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised at the results. Bread-and-butter issues have always been foremost in the Singaporean mindset. People are happy that the problem of affordable housing seems to have been fixed and moves are being made to provide for universal healthcare. Social policies in recent years have been geared towards alleviating the plight of the poor, aided by the G’s constant reminders of the amount of money, subsidies and benefits that go to the group. The Pioneer Generation Package is appreciated. The need to provide medical cover for those who pre-date the CPF scheme and Medisave has been thoroughly welcomed, although experts have noted that the devil is in the details.  

Give us the good life – that’s what we want.

We also want lower COE prices and a train system that doesn’t break down. That’s the biggest bugbear of those surveyed. The G is having difficulty on this front, and no wonder. In housing, it has the levers of HDB and land sales as well as the power to restrict or expand lending through MAS regulations. Its network of polyclinics and public hospitals as well as controls over CPF and Medisave also work as healthcare financing instruments. In transport, besides the Land Transport Authority,road-building and infrastructure, public transport is really in private hands and private enterprises are wily enough to get round private transport curbs. Hence the luckless Mr Lui Tuck Yew.

When it comes to conceptualising policies, this really is a good government, aided by a very able civil service (MDA excepted). Increasingly, a soft touch is being applied to them, which we will probably see more of when Parliament re-opens.

As for the not-as-satisfied middle class and mid-age group, their sentiments have been variously described as conforming to a traditional U-shape for happiness (because this is the segment everywhere which has to deal with the bread and butter issues with car, house, children to support). Or explained as high expectations of an even better life than what they now have.

Now, the G can fix policies to give more people a fair shake, but raising the tide to lift all boats will be a far tougher issue at a time when people are unhappy about life’s stresses and the influx of foreigners needed to fuel the economy.   

How will this translate into votes come election time? There is a chart in the bowels of ST which could shed light. It does not refer to policy issues, but how survey respondents pick their MPs .

Of six factors, national policies and their impact on the individual were rated as “important’’ or “very important’’ for 86 per cent of them; or a mean of 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 5. This bodes well for the G, except that other contrary factors are also at work, such as how about 80 per cent think it “important’’ or “very important” to have checks and balances on the G, especially among the vast swathe of 21 to 54 year olds, and the higher-income. Indeed, a high 35 per cent viewed this as “very important’’. Expressed in terms of averages, this factor scored 4.11.  

There is another statistic: 29 per cent viewed the need for alternative views in Parliament as “very important’’; the same proportion as those who placed such a premium on local constituency issues. The score for alternative views is 4.05. For local issues, 4.02.  

The other two factors are the candidate’s attributes (4.11) and party (4.09).

I wish the survey had ranked the factors as well, so that we know which the people placed the greatest weight on.

Statistics can of course be interpreted any which way. But it is absolutely clear that the People’s Action Party will never go back to the days of a one-party Parliament however it satisfies the people policy-wise. Despite innovations like the Nominated MP scheme, the people’s aspirations for a more diverse Parliament have not been assuaged. In fact, it might have raised expectations instead. You can also expect that some will attribute the G’s performance to the presence of more opposition MPs and the rude awakening call it was administered at the last GE. In fact, it might lead some to think that more opposition would bring about better government.

Of course, the reverse could happen. Those who voted against the current G might feel that it has seen the “error of its ways’’ or the benefits of social policy are felt widely enough for more people to feel that the G has done right – and will continue to do right – by them.  

How the G does in the rest of parliamentary term will be critical. Can it consolidate its gains and ride the 50th anniversary feel-good tide?  Can it “fix’’ the current pre-occupation of residents – rising cost of living?

Truth be told, I am a little uncomfortable with its shift towards more “social’’ governance. Methinks it would lead to greater expectations on the part of the people and invite a greater role for the G in the people’s lives.

But it is so very important to satisfy the people, isn’t it?

  

 

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