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Five points from Ho Kwon Ping

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

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

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

He makes five points which I will place in quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose story is history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the sexes – the FOtF way

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

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

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

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

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

Girl: Shaddup!

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

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

Guy: You lie down also I dowan!

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

Guy: Like what? Her new iPhone?

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

(Guy looks at gal meaningfully…)

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

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

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

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

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

Guy: You also need a bullet in your head!

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

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

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

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

Over-charging over over-charging

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

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

Here’s the background:

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to the latest twist:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Legal assessors’ fees

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

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

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

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

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

3. Expert witness fees

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

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

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

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

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

4. The ring binders

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

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

Eurasian answers to pesky questions

In Society on October 6, 2014 at 2:59 am

Sunday Lifestyle has a piece on how Eurasians deal with pesky questions about their identity in the wake of the Joseph Schooling nationality “crisis”. I don’t think those interviewed gave the full works. So here’s how I deal with it. Yup, this is a Eurasian talking – father of Danish descent and mother who is a nonya.

Q: How come your name so funny?

A: Funny meh? How come your name so common? Very big family ah? (This way, you divert attention from yourself and the questioner will have to say his family not so big)

Q: You look like you mixed blood…are you?

A: Ya, like cocktail like that. (Emphasis on the word “cock’’. In case you didn’t know, mixed blood is derogatory, like mongrel )

Q: You look like angmoh. Which country you come from?

A: From Singapore. You look like Chinese. You come from China ah? (Because Chinese Singaporeans don’t like being mistaken for a PRC…)

Q: You talk like Singaporean, but you can’t be right? Live here long time liao ah?

A: Ya, since the day I was born. You?

Q: How come you can speak Mandarin?

A: Learnt in school. I can also speak Hokkien. Want to hear? (Proceed with some swear words. Bound to create instant camaraderie)

Q: I hear all Eurasians very laid-back, can sing, play guitar.  True or not?

A: Not sure. You can play the er-hu?

Q: You supposed to put down your race…

A: Ya ok. I am putting down 100m sprint.

Q: How come you still here? Haven’t moved to Perth or Sydney?

A: Actually, thinking Iskandar nearer. You bought place there yet or not?

Q: Eurasians all very nice-looking. Like you.

A: Thank you. I’m just lucky.

Chatting with Heng Chee How

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So people want to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding who gets PR

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

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

Couple of points I thought worth noting…

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

Gosh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above are just some points that come to mind.

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

Our stolid young people

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

I asked my class of undergraduates this morning if they knew about the happenings in Hong Kong. They knew there were demonstrations but didn’t know what they were about. Nor did they know that the demonstrations were student-led. So I had to tell them that the young people of Hong Kong were unhappy that they were unable to pick their own leaders or rather, they had to pick them from a slate of Beijing-picked candidates.

I got to asking them if they would ever do what their peers in Hong Kong were doing – skip classes, get out on the streets and agitate for a cause. They looked flummoxed at the question. None could come up with a cause that could galvanise them. So I suggested: What if a neighbouring country decided to block access to Singapore? The answer:  the people should do nothing because it might bring more problems for the G which already had to deal with another government. Well! That was extremely thoughtful!

I pressed the issue and one undergraduate thought they would be moved to act if, say, a “bumiputra’’ policy of sorts implemented here, in the form of quotas based on race. The rest of the class nodded sagely. So, I asked, that’s because it affects you directly I suppose….They agreed.

They also agreed that they were more concerned about studying and stability than agitating for any kind of big picture cause. There was some laughter about being “brainwashed’’ and focusing on the immediate; about being brought up to value peace and stability. There was also talk about whether protests and demonstrations would lead to anything at all. In other words, we should do a cost-benefit analysis first. What a practical group, I thought. Lost cause, I thought. Then again, even in my time, some time ago, there was little “political’’ activity on campus. It was mightily discouraged and the one time an attempt was made by the students’ union to convey a sentiment on a political matter – selling tee-shirts saying no to the since-rescinded graduate mothers policy – the university administration came down on the undergrads like a ton of bricks.

Given that the class was talking about protests, we of course went on to talk about another protest – the Return Our CPF lobby which created such a ruckus on Hong Lim Park over the weekend.  They didn’t realise that the lead organiser Han Hui Hui  is all of 22 years old, their peer.  They were shocked. They wondered why she had “so much time’’. After all, they were studying so hard. Plus, it is not likely that she had any CPF to collect. They saw the video of the little altercation Ms Han had with the authorities. They blanched and pronounced her “immature’’. As for her motivations, she was an “attention seeker’’. I said she was a student and another undergraduate immediately went online to find out that she was a “full-time political activist’’. They wondered what she lived on.

I don’t agree with Ms Han’s near-anarchic antics and I wouldn’t want to hold her up to her peers as a model to emulate. I marvel at her energy and wish it could be directed to better use than working up crowds. Then I looked at my class of stolid undergraduates and wish they were more interested in what’s happening around them, rather than what’s before them. I told them about the Population White Paper protests and the rage against the 6.9 million figure by 2030. I said the supporters were mainly old(er) people, when it was actually an issue that should bug the young(er) people. (By that time, I hope to be resting by the beach…)

Is there any way we can build a young generation of people who are in between the stable/stolid and the hysterical/anarchic? Should we? Or should we make sure they burrow into their books and don’t get too interested in other matters in case they feel the urge to get “involved’’ in the “wrong way’’? By the way, I am NOT fomenting revolution. And I am very sure people will argue that youthful ideals need not be channelled into political activities. In other words, we should get them involved in the “right way’’, like join the Youth Corps and do good.

But I am aghast at how ill-informed and un-interested (much less uninvolved) our young people are in the issues of the day. “No time,’’ is what they cite as a reason. I always retort that they should “make time’’ if they want to be citizens engaged in the life of the country. What is the point of being a person if you care about nothing bigger than yourself? No need to demonstrate; but at least KNOW what’s happening.

I read today ESM Goh Chok Tong pronouncing that the jury is “out’’ on young Singaporeans. He cited that old saw about the first generation building something good, the second generation maintaining it and the third generation squandering everything. Hmm, I think I belong to the second generation….I catch myself agreeing with him and then wonder if I am being “ageist’’. The older people said the same thing about my generation too, and I guess we will do the same for the younger lot, like calling them “strawberries’’.

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe I’m being unfair. I don’t think I was very interested in current affairs when I was their age. I too wanted to study and get As. I suppose I am hoping that they will reach the age of enlightenment (not entitlement) earlier than I did.

To those who use the Speakers’ Corner, with respect

In Politics, Society on September 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm

I have been doing some research on the Speaker’s Corner for an article I have been commissioned to write, right from the time it was first mooted by, yes, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It was PM Goh Chok Tong of the kinder, gentler nation mantra who actually balked at it at first before deciding that it was “safe’’ to go ahead  without the social fabric getting torn up or burnt down. Those with long enough memories will recall what a joke the Speakers’ Corner was then. No microphones, no loudhailers, topics to be given in advance ecetera and definitely no protests or demonstrations of any sort. Oh, and you sign up with the police, not the NParks if you want to use the space. That was way back in the late 1990s when even indoor events needed a public entertainment licence. People wondered at that time if raising your hand would constitute a “demonstration’’.

Then the rules started getting relaxed to allow for performances and you can actually have a stage and a microphone. Then more and more people started using the space. Why not? It’s nice and big. And free of charge. Whether you want to stage a vigil or carnival or do an election-style rally or rant, Hong Lim Park is a great venue, with MRT stations so close by. No need to book weeks in advance. You wonder then why it is such “hot’’ property with people vying to hold events there. I suppose we have to thank the father of Hong Lim Park, Gilbert Goh, for turning the park back to the landmark place it used to be. Every other week, there seems to be a political event of some sort.

It’s a confined space, yes, and those who have wanted to stage marches from or to Hong Lim Park have been told no. So Ms Han Hui Hui wanted to do a march ON the park grounds, like some kind of parade. Interesting. A better idea than asking people to bring posters lambasting politicians or setting effigies on fire or spitting on portraits of people you don’t like.

I love being at Hong Lim Park to watch the range of people, including clueless tourists, who attend various events. This was a place for people to “let off steam’’, for those who feel disenfranchised or marginalised to say their piece, for non-mainstream groups to feel at home together. Of course, plenty of mainstream groups use it too, like the YMCA today. I think of those days when individuals would bring their own crates to stand on to speak to a sparse crowd (if you can even call it a crowd) and I think about how far we have come. Of course, it is never far enough for some people. We watch the demonstrators in foreign countries on TV and we think about how exciting it looks. We wonder why not do it here as well, or we ask ourselves – can we?

Truth to tell, a lot of the stuff of the political kind is pretty defamatory. But no one seems to have sued anyone for anything – yet. I guess there is a consensus even among the thin-skinned that this is the place for you to rant if you can’t be rational. Do you realise it’s actually safer to rant at the park than rant online? It is like exercising parliamentary privilege! And plenty of rants we’ve heard. I have heard reason too, by speakers are more concerned with laying out the facts, than working up the crowd. For some of the more outrageous “facts’’, I try to check on them when I get home, just to see if they were put in the right context. Again, sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s amazing what adding a few more words or subtracting a few more words can do to a “fact’’.

Even if everything said there is fiction, I think it is good to know how people are perceiving things. It is “feedback’’ and an opportunity for the powers-that-be to correct misperceptions and dispel rumours in other ways – even if they do not want to engage speakers directly. Hong Lim Park might not be the “pulse’’ of the people, but there are beats that should be heard, countered or responded to.

As for the “thousands’’ who turn up for some of the bigger events, I wonder if they should be counted as “supporters’’. I can bet anything that a big proportion of people are there just to watch if there would be fireworks. They are “spectators’’, not “supporters’’. Of course, there will be supporters who carry placards or are fervent believers of the cause. I wish I was there today, as a spectator to see the fireworks.

So what was the problem today….let’s see…

It’s about NParks letting two events go on at more or less the same time. They were quick enough to say no to the Lawrence Khong group which wanted the same date as Pink Dot, so why were they tardy here?

I guess it’s because Pink Dot would have occupied the whole space and whatever the Khong camp says, it is clear as daylight to anyone that the event was meant to compete head-on. But Return My CPF versus a YMCA concert? In any case, NParks claims that multiple events on the park is pretty normal. I guess it will have to re-write its manual after today.

And what was all that fuss about the YMCA being a People’s Action Party front? So what if it is? So what if a Mayor graced the event or the Prime Minister? Ms Han says she had been advised to cancel or postpone the event by “grassroots’’ people and the police. It seems to me that they were right (!) to advise her to do so. What a farce! No one will remember what was said at the event – but they will remember adults heckling special needs children and marching around the concert stage! I think their CPF should remain locked up forever!

I thought the authorities were superbly patient with Ms Han and her attempts to hold them to account with her repeated questions for names, designations and sections of the law. She sounded like a broken – and a very high-pitched – record. I really don’t see what the fuss is about moving the event to a more secluded space so as not to distract people who want to be at either event. Sure, everyone has “rights’’, but to insist on “rights’’ when there is a solution or compromise is not exercising those rights responsibly or graciously or respectfully.

I hope nothing drastic happens to the park because of Ms Han’s antics. Like registration being handed back to the police and having to sit down and not move around (that is, no march, no placards) when an event is taking place. We have won the space by respecting the law and respecting the views of others. It took time, it was hard earned. I dread to think that some hardliners will want the OB markers drawn tighter because adults do not know how to behave respectfully towards the authorities, fellow citizens – and even children.

It’s just a matter of respecting others, the way we want to be respected too.

Where were we when Gabriel died?

In News Reports, Society on September 25, 2014 at 12:37 am

I am no bleeding heart but my heart goes out to the 32-year old single mom who pushed her nine-year-old son out of the window of their fifth-floor flat. I cannot but wonder how the poor boy felt as he struggled to break free and clung on to the bamboo poles outside the window before his mother pushed his hands away. What terror to know that your mom is trying to kill you. Or was she?

According to court documents, she thought that injuring the boy would make the authorities take him away from her. His father is described as an “acquaintance’’ who left her soon after Gabriel was born. She held down jobs at fast food joints but had been jobless for nine months when she “snapped’’. Her mother is supporting the family, as an $800 a month bakery assistant. And what must the old lady feel having to deal with daughter and grandson?

We are not told why the father left, he must be a Mr Loh, by the way. Gabriel was born with a host of medical problems affecting the liver and bones. He was small for his age and malnourished. I wonder about his medical bills over the past nine years. Was there a medical social worker around? Because it does seem like the family would be hard pressed on the health-financing front. We don’t even know if he goes to school and whether his teachers or classmates rendered help in any way.

But it seems that two years after Gabriel’s birth, the woman was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m not a medical person so I don’t know if her mental condition was triggered by the stress of looking after a brittle boned and jaundiced baby.  No husband around and we don’t know if she has any siblings to help out…

It went downhill for Rebecca (that’s her name) after that. It seems she was in some kind of denial over her medical condition, refusing to keep up with her medication or going for followup treatments.  For a one-year period between February 2012 and February last year, she was remanded at IMH three times after she..

  1. Appeared at a coffeeshop with a chopper looking for someone whom she thought had made fun of her.
  2. Hitting her mother who wouldn’t let her go to a movie
  3. Nearly strangling her mom.

So four months after her last stay in IMH, she took the step of “injuring her son’’. I don’t know what the medical term is but it sure looks like she was “escalating’’. So the police know of her and the IMH doctors. In other words, “professionals’’ know of her condition. Okay, she can’t be arrested for being a “threat’’ or “remanded at IMH’’ if she didn’t give her consent I suppose. Or could this have been done if her own mother gave consent? But what about follow-ups from agencies? She didn’t pick up her medication or attend follow-up sessions at  a community hospital. Did no one think to check up on her? Sic a VWO on her? Or am I asking too much of the State?

On June 1 last year, she grabbed her son who was playing a handheld game and decided to pitch him out of the window. She was charged originally with murder and this was downgraded to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, that is, for an offence “committed knowing that it would likely cause death but without the intention of causing death or cause a bodily injury likely to cause death’’. Such weird wording that you would think it’s tailored for the deluded. She was handed the maximum sentence of 10 years, which was what the prosecution asked for.

Now here’s where the State should do a little education so people won’t think its merely locking up mentally ill people and throwing away the key. She’s been sent to prison, a “structured setting’’ so she won’t be a threat to herself or others. According to TNP, she will receive proper treatment for her psychiatric condition. I wonder how this is different from remanding her at IMH? I guess it’s the stay in jail for 10 years; doubt that IMH has 10 year patients? The prosecution gave psychiatric reports but her lawyer also wanted another report to be given to the court before sentencing – on whether she could be cured, will relapse or spiral downwards.  He added that she may need treatment for the rest of the life but this need not be in a prison setting.

TNP phrased his request pretty strangely: The lawyer wanted the court to order an IMH consultant, who had assessed her, to submit a report before passing sentence.

The judge said no, adding that he would be surprised “if any doctors come with such a prognosis’’. I wonder why the defence – is this pro bono? – had to get the court to “order’’ the report to be submitted and didn’t submit the report earlier. Is the judge only reading doctors’ assessment given by the prosecution? I mean no offence, but the judge is no doctor.

This is all so sad. A boy has died, his mother locked up. I wonder about the 65-year old granny, who didn’t appear at the sentencing yesterday. I hope SOMEBODY is looking after her. It would be tragic if yet another member of the family falls through the holes in our net.  I don’t know about you, but I sort of feel we’ve let the family down somehow.

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