berthahenson

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The widow and her millions

In News Reports, Society on September 15, 2014 at 1:29 am

Okay, I think everybody who’s been reading about the tussle over the $40million fortune of the old widow would have formed an opinion now…You just can’t help it from reading the news reports. So it seems a 40 year old tour guide from China has somehow managed to inveigle himself and his family into the widow’s bungalow – and will.

The 87-year old Madam Chung turned over all her affairs to him, giving him lasting power of attorney in 2012. (Before anyone asks, seems she was diagnosed with dementia only this year.) She has left all her assets to him as well, effectively cutting out the family (she has a younger sister and a niece – mother and daughter) as well as a long-time friend who used to stay with her and who actually introduced her to the said tour guide. Needless to say, the friend thoroughly regrets the introduction. And the niece has started legal proceedings to revoke his power of attorney which gives him control over Madam Chung’s life.

Mr Yang Yin looks like he’s in hot soup. It’s not just the family who is gunning for him. Questions are now raised about his permanent residency status which the immigration authorities are investigating. Seems he obtained his employment pass when he moved here in 2009 by setting up a dance studio, with Madam Chung of course. But somehow he’s now a PR. (Which, by the way, means he can’t be quietly repatriated) Then the Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry is wondering why he’s describing himself as an SCCCI director on business cards, when they don’t even have such a position. And an MP has denied knowing him as her grassroots leader, when pictures of him at community events turned up.

Of course, Mr Yang didn’t do himself any favours by uploading holiday pictures of himself and his family and bragging online about his luxury watches and how he’s into big money, right after he moved into the Gerald Crescent bungalow.

He’s moved out of the bungalow and is now in a Toa Payoh flat it seems. There was an unseemly row between the niece, herself in the tour agency business, and his wife, when she turned up to evict the family.

He’s sticking to his guns though maintaining that the old widow had asked him to be her “grandson’’ and that her family cared nothing for her. He even hinted that her long time friend was in a relationship with the widow’s late husband, something which the old lady, now 84, has vehemently denied.

He transferred her money into his account – so he could “manage her finances more efficiently’’. He claimed that Madam Chung made regular payments to her younger sister and her niece but he stopped the payments when he took over her finances. He did not say why he did so but thinks that “this could be the reason for (them) to be upset with me.”

He got his family to move over from China and into the bungalow – so that he did not have to travel to China and back which would have “hampered  my ability to look after Madam Chung’’.

He gave Madam Chung’s long-time driver the boot in 2009, saying that the old man, now 80 years old, had tried to attack him. He’s now Madam Chung’s chauffeur.

He sacked her Indonesian maid in 2011 because she was always “asking for money’’ and because he and his wife were around to take care of the household chores.

Yes, he did buy and sell a $1 million Amber Road condominium unit last year, for a $200,000 profit. But this was an investment on Madam Chung’s behalf and had “her knowledge and consent”.

As for the niece maintaining that her aunt had been manipulated into signing over her legal rights in 2012, he said that a doctor accredited with the Public Guardian office had declared that Madam Chung had the “requisite mental capacity’’ when she did so. I wonder who this doctor is. The media didn’t say. And I also wonder who her lawyer is….

The case has yet to go before the courts and both sides seem to have gone to the media to air their views. Predictably, Mr Yang is being painted very black in social media. And the pity is, so are his compatriots from China.  Yet he is one man among millions and Justice Bao has yet to rule on the case. (Seriously, it sounds like a Chinese drama serial).

This is probably the first, or at least rare, case of someone trying to revoke another person’s power of attorney. It must be an interesting time for the office of the Public Guardian which surely has a vested interest in making sure that its processes are water-tight. I wonder what sort of questions the public guardian asks of anyone who is signing away his legal rights and how it ensures that the person hasn’t been influenced in any way, especially a childless widow with millions.

And in the middle of it all is the old lady, a retired physiotherapist, who has no children. If the man and his family have moved out of the bungalow, and she no longer has her driver and maid, I wonder who’s looking after her now.

Danger: bad film

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 11, 2014 at 12:57 am

Sheesh! So Tan Pin Pin does NOT have plans to upload her banned film, To Singapore, With love, on YouTube. At least for the moment. And there I was hoping to get a free screening! She’s going to re-submit it for rating although how this would get past MDA’s strictures without making further cuts to the tales of the nine exiles, she didn’t say.

 May she succeed like Ken Kwek did, getting an R21 rating for his Sex.Violence.Family Values film which was initially banned from public screening in 2012. ST had an intriguing bit of info, indicating that a “purely private’’ screening is allowed. Now, this is odd given that the film was deemed “Not classified for all ratings’’. So what is a purely private screening? At the home of Tan Pin Pin?

Unlike Mr Kwek’s film which was deemed racially explosive because some parts could offend Indians, Ms Tan’s film was whacked with the “undermining national security’’ label. That’s heavy.

According to MDA, she let the interviewees get away with untruths about their past, like forged passport info and absconding from National Service. It is not true that they had to leave and not true that they can’t return to Singapore, it said. I guess this means that they probably haven’t been put on the “ban’’ list of the immigration authorities to be turned them away if they showed up at the airport. Nor are they on some “wanted’’ list.

ST helpfully included some background on ex-Communist Party of Malaya members such as Eu Chooi Yip and P V Sarma, who returned from China in 1991. I wonder what the two had to do when they got home. Because it seems that the nine would just need to agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past – probably a renunciation of communism. But there was also this line “Criminal offence will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law’’. Goodness! Isn’t this an indication that the NS abscondees and passport forger would charged for crimes? You wonder then why they wouldn’t want to return home…

In any case, ST said that about 40 members of the filmmaking and arts community have criticised the ban, calling on the G to release the film so that viewers can make up their minds. You know, whatever these exiles did, it was a very long time ago. I doubt that there are many people here who would want to pursue the communist ideal in modern Singapore. But many people are interested in the past, having only heard about some of the names that Ms Tan interviewed, like Tan Wah Piow, now 62.    

But the key point is whether the G believes that such paternalism is needed to safeguard national security – or whether it is merely insisting on its own narrative of history. As an IPS academic said in TODAY, a determined audience would get hold of the film somehow. Better to un-ban it and have the G release its own version of events. After all, if the film makes its rounds on the Internet, wouldn’t the G have to counter it? If it is such a detriment to national security, it would have to do something about its exposure.

Actually, my other question is whether Ms Tan considered taking into account the G’s view of what the exiles might have said in her film. That would have made for a more complete film-cum-documentary. Or, the G can always make its own…

Great grad dreams

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 10, 2014 at 1:19 am

I’ve met several parents over time who have sent their children abroad to study for a degree. And there have been times that I’ve been taken aback at the course of study. Like criminology, art history, media studies, psychology or sociology. I wondered if this was because they were “sexy’’ subjects. I don’t hear so much of those who take up “hard’’ subjects, like engineering. Of course, I hear of plenty who study law abroad, now a headache of the Law minister who wonders if the Singapore Bar would be big enough to accommodate them.

Going by what MPs say in Parliament, there are many different kinds of parents:

  1. Those who think a degree of any kind would lead to a good job and would therefore fork out big money to get their students into a university abroad, especially if they can’t get into a university here.
  2. Those who want to pigeon hole their children into degree courses that they think would bring in big money for their children in their adulthood. They want to set them up “for life’’.
  3. Those who let their children pursue their “dreams’’ regardless of whether they have the aptitude or can fit into the economy here later. They proudly proclaim that they let their children be, even if their children are really mistaking infatuation for passion.

I pity Education minister Heng Swee Keat who seemed to be contorting himself to explain that he wasn’t dissing the worth of a degree.

“Qualifications matter, but they must be the right qualifications and of the right standard for what we want to do,” he said, citing doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists as examples of occupations that require professional qualifications. “But not all qualifications matter — not if they do not help us build the right skills for what we want to do,” he added.

At the risk of over- summarising, I think he was also trying to say that even a diploma could be as “good’’ if it means the diploma holder has the depth of skills that the course required of him.

He’s in a bit of a bind because his predecessor had already stated that all primary school teachers will be degree-holders from next year. The assumption is that grad teachers will have a stronger mastery of content and pedagogy. So now Mr Heng has to say he will continue to hire non-grads who have the aptitude and passion. Nothing was said about whether they can master “content and pedagogy’’.

In fact, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing sounded a bit gleeful (sorry!) when he said that early childhood educators – the people under his domain – don’t need degrees. Just like our parents didn’t need degrees to bring us up.  

Actually it’s all back to what the education system is all about. Mr Heng said it was about the quest for skills rather than paper qualifications. I think he should be blunt and say that it is about churning out people who can fit into the economy.

That’s what it’s about isn’t it even if it isn’t politically correct to say so? People can’t expect that the economy in future will accommodate jobs of all kinds or even the number of jobs in a particular profession. (Hence, lawyers being pushed into doing criminal and family law instead of “big money’’ law). I can sort of imagine bureaucrats toting up numbers of workers needed to fill different sectors in the short, medium and long-term and collaborating with the university, polytechnic and technical institutes of the number of places for courses every year.

The difference is that instead of setting up a three-tier structure with the technical institutes at the bottom, then the polytechnics and universities stacked on top, the push is now to see them all as parallel structures with the formerly bottom two rungs supplemented by workplace training and extensive skills to reach the level of university graduates. So Singapore doesn’t want just an ITE grad, it wants an extremely skilled ITE graduate with the opportunity to catch up with their university peers later in life.

Now, whether that will work or not is something, to use that trite phrase, “time will tell’’.

So now, we are deluged with media reports of ITE/poly students who did well. Actually, we should also be exposed to the other side: graduates with esoteric degrees who discover that they can’t advance as far as they want. In fact, MPs are already saying that more grads than non-grads go to their Meet-the-People sessions looking for jobs. I can just imagine what these disappointed people are thinking: “I am a grad, and I still have no job’’. And then going to Hong Lim Park to claim that foreigners were taking their jobs…

Sigh.

Everything is so inter-connected.

Sounds and silence

In News Reports, Society, Writing on September 7, 2014 at 6:49 am

The Prime Minister said something a couple of weeks ago which I think we should heed. He said that the Internet, far from leading to a great convergence on universal truth, has led to divisions of all kinds. People seem to think they have grasped the “truth’’ with the emergence of groups that are completely antithetic to each other. “We have to make sure we don’t get seduced by the delusion that we know everything, that what we know is the truth and that we are the sole possessors, and therefore we will fight it out to the very end.’’ It leads to a fractured society, he said.

He doesn’t think human society was designed with the Internet age in mind, like the good ole days with information lags and time lapses to let stuff sink in before coming to a considered and wise consensus. “But today, all of that is telescoped and the splash goes out tonight, and tomorrow morning, everyone knows the answer, which may be the wrong answer.’’ Far from having a faster circuit, we have a “collective short circuit’’, he added.

ST followed it up with a Pew survey report which talks about how people online tend to keep quiet when they think they have a minority view. Yesterday, it followed up with a major spread on whether the same “spiral of silence’’ applied to Singapore. The Anton Casey and Amy Cheong cases were brought up as examples of online vitriol, with moderate voices only emerging when the din has died down. The ease of the “sound bite’’ online with no need to substantiate views makes it impossible to have a good conversation, you have experts saying.

I agree somewhat.

I have watched different groups emerge online and those who push a line or agenda regardless of the topic at hand. If you watch the many conversations closely, you get an idea of who are among the like-minded and who sticks together, whether friends or not. The various Facebook groups which are agenda-based don’t help. They start off by promoting a cause which gets hijacked by immoderate elements who are countered by yet other immoderate elements. Hence, this wonderful term: polarisation.  

It’s the word of the day, week, month and maybe even year given the way people are agonising over east being east, west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Here in Singapore, I think we’re still novice navigators of the free speech space. It wasn’t too long ago, you know, that rules were relaxed for rallies at Hong Lim Park and you don’t need a public entertainment licence for indoor events. It used to be that you can’t even use a loud hailer at Speakers’ Corner and it was the police, not the parks or performance authorities who monitored your events. The internet hastened the pace of liberalisation and the flowering of views everywhere, yes. But here, it meant liberation of a different kind. Suddenly, it seemed the shackles were off and we don’t quite know how to use the new-found freedom.  So there’s a torrent of voices, a cacophony, so loud that it intimidates those who want to say something not quite “mainstream’’ – or rather, fits with what the supposedly online mainstream is saying.

I have been asked many times if it’s possible to bridge the different groups or bring a level of reason to discussions on the Internet. I reply that there are probably plenty of reasonable people on the Internet, those who watch and don’t post a word because they’re scared that they’re being watched. They’re scared that they will be called to account for their views and can’t answer rationally – all “gut instinct’’ you know. They worry that the more articulate will out-talk them and make them feel small. Worse, being called names and feeling bullied. They think of Anton Casey and Amy Cheong. They’re not like them at all, but what if….?

I call them the internet spectators. Funny that the climate of fear that people perceived as emanating from the authorities has become a climate of fear of fellow netizens.

There are probably many, many groups of people out there online who discuss issues rationally. But they are probably “closed’’ groups, that is, like-minded individuals who do not want to have their reasonable conversations interrupted by the unreasonable. That’s the problem isn’t it? Reasonable people don’t want to reason with the unreasonable and the unreasonable pitting themselves against other unreasonable people. No wonder it’s so noisy on the Net.

Ask you. Do you have any of the following traits?

  1. I have a view which I hold very dearly and will inject it into every conversation because MY view is important and everybody MUST share them.
  2. Everybody who disagrees with me is wrong. They have been brought up badly, are intrinsically bad or went on the wrong path somewhere along their miserable life.
  3. I cannot listen to other people’s arguments because they go against something very fundamental for me, for example, the PAP is evil, religion is evil, homosexuals are evil.
  4. I don’t care about the totality of your views. So long as ONE aspect offends me, you are not worth “friending’’.
  5. I have a right to my views and I don’t care how in-your-face I get. The internet is free space. So suck it up.
  6. I shouldn’t have to pick my words carefully because that won’t be ME talking or reflect exactly how I’m feeling.
  7. I don’t see the need to self-censor even if others are offended because censorship is just plain wrong.
  8. I will never say sorry for my views or acknowledge that I might have interpreted things wrongly because I know, at the end of the day, I am right.
  9. If you have not experienced what I have, you have no right to talk to me because you don’t know what you are talking about. So shaddup.

Narcissism, egotism and self-righteousness is everywhere on the Net. I tend to think that maybe some people don’t want to be any of the above but lack the tools or experience to communicate effectively. They come off as blunt and abrasive because they’ve never had to engage in the cut-and-thrust of debate in the past. And they haven’t collected a body of knowledge with which to defend their viewpoint against the more erudite. So they either come off as defensive or they seek solace in silence. Or these people might really hold those positions from a. to h. In which case, I don’t see how any sane discussion can be had with them.

I liked what Mr Baey Yam Keng said in the ST report: “Facebook itself is a neutral platform. What is the style or character of that page depends on the people in charge of that page.’’

There is something to be said for having “moderators’’ and rules of engagement. Too often, people are turned off from voicing views when they see a few dominant voices making a point so aggressively that they seem to be spoiling for an online fight. Or the page or chatroom becomes so sour that you are worried about being infected by it. Of course, blocking and deleting views is an option – for which you get vilified elsewhere.  Questions will be raised about “censorship’’ – and you will simply have to bear with it. The bottomline is this: If “censoring’’ or editing some people can lead to more people taking part in the discussion and bring more views on board, why not?

I have blocked a grand total of three people on my FB wall, and this after many, many nice warnings to them to behave and get with the programme. My rules of engagement are simple: No vulgarities, personal attacks, hijacking of conversation threads or protracted bilateral feuds. There must be space for moderate voices or reasoned voices that doesn’t descend into name-calling or pure assertions. I like the way some people try to tamp down tempers by resorting to humour. I like people who are clever but also self-deprecating. Those who put down others oh so nicely are also appreciated. There can be “hurt’’ feelings but there should not be long lasting “hard’’ feelings. And I get a nice, warm feeling when someone who is defeated in argument actually admits it.  

This is the way the Internet space should be : where no one need fear one another and where you – and me – can admit that we are not always right. With humour and elegance, of course.     

 

After the rally…the buffet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. HD: Pick up sticks gain popularity

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

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

b. HD: East Coast residents upset with Jurong plans

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

c. No news is… good news?

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

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

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

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

Singapore’s slow poison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How? I’m afraid I don’t know…

Ee Boh lah! Thank goodness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An online citizen’s National Day Pledge

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

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

We, the online citizens of Singapore, pledge to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REMEMBER that recriminations will be rewarded by more recriminations.

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

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

HAPPY 49th BIRTHDAY, Singapore!!!!

Who’s the boss?

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I understand about it:

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

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

That doesn’t seem bad at all

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

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

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

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

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

This troublemaker thanks you

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

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

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

Well, that was a relief!

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

I laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much content.

Why do I write?

I write to be read.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 762 other followers