A line in the sand for Ben Davis?

In News Reports on July 18, 2018 at 10:06 am

So some people are getting hot under the collar over a young man’s possible non-footballing future. And others are wondering what the fuss is about given that National Service is a duty that every single 18 year old male citizen must shoulder. Should (or why should) Ben Davis be the exception to the rule?

I am ambivalent towards the issue. But what amazes me is the range of issues that have been thrown up in the wake of the Defence Ministry’s refusal to grant the youth deferment from NS. In fact, we can’t even get the jargon right. Is NS deferment and disruption the same thing? Apparently not. Very few people get NS deferment, that is, a postponement but quite a number get NS disruption, which means they serve some time and reserve some time for later.

So Davis is asking for a deferment because he has an offer from  English Premier League football club Fulham, which some people consider a feather in the cap for a Singaporean.

What has popped out of Pandora’s Box?

  1. Discrimination – how come some people can get long deferment and some can’t? That hoary old chestnut about the former President’s son, Patrick Tan, gets dredged up. (Very old story)
  2. Discrimination – but medical students and government scholars get deferment/disruption all the time! Why not aspiring sportsmen and artists? Why this emphasis on brains and academic ability?
  3. Discrimination – If Mindef agrees on deferment, then the slippery slope/open floodgates argument kicks in. What would prevent another parent from lamenting a lost opportunity for for his son?
  4. Defence – Is it really so hard to let one youth go especially in a 4G army? (Cue slippery slope and open floodgates) Why not look at how other countries with conscription deal with this?
  5. Nationhood – does the family even know what are the duties of citizenship? There’s plenty of self-righteous mutterings questioning the family’s commitment to the country (By the way, the eldest boy has already served NS)
  6. Nationhood – is he really a Singapore citizen? His father is English and his mother, a Thai. He can play for England or Thailand as well according to international footballing rules. (NOTE: He’s been a citizen since age 9. And given his parentage, he’s a Eurasian.)
  7. Personal dream versus national duty – which is Mindef’s point. This is not Joseph Schooling attempting an Olympic Gold for the nation but a commercial transaction benefiting the individual. The counter-argument is that if Davis doesn’t take this window of opportunity, it might close forever because athletes, unlike brainy people, have a short shelf-life. And who knows? He might play for Singapore and bring glory…later.
  8. Hypocrisy – all that talk about chasing rainbows, pursuing dreams and fulfilling potential is mere hogwash. Anyone still remember Singapore’s World Cup dream?
  9. Bureaucracy – Should Mindef stand behind what it says are principles that should apply to everyone? That is, deferment is not just for the exceptional, but those who can claim that it would allow them to represent the country. Or is this too rigid for a country that has passed a certain stage of development?

I can only say that Fandi Ahmad got his timings right for his two sons, enlisting them for NS early enough to enable them to join the Dutch clubs later. Then again, he’s a born-and-bred citizen who probably knows about the complications of a two-year stint better than a transplanted foreign resident.

Mindef has drawn a line in the sand. Senior Minister Of State for Defence Heng Chee How said that unless new “facts’’ entered the picture, the decision is final. Even in a court of law, new arguments can be surfaced, but he doesn’t seem to give any room for this.

There is an interesting column about how this incident is symptomatic of a deeper Singapore problem – everything is transactional here. I will add a few phrases: rule-based, means-tested, actuarially sound and clean wage. Singapore is all about hard edges, even towards its own citizens.

I think that this is somehow related to the insecurities of the new 4G leaders – the desire to look tough on principle, to be able to toot about taking a hard line rather than “succumb’’. Or maybe it is easier to defend the status quo than deal with consequences of change.

I don’t doubt that almost everyone agrees that defence is an important facet of the country and survey after survey has shown how valued NS is. It explains the angst against NS defaulters, who pay heavily for skipping NS.

Keeping to the core of NS doesn’t mean we can’t blunt its edges. In an era that lauds out-of-the-box thinking, can we not come to some sort of compromise? I am a mere female but I say make him do his basic military training and then defer the rest of his stint to be completed by a certain age. Bond him if we have to. Write to Fulham if we have to.

Yes, there will be more cases like Davis (a trickle, not a flood) and it will be more problematic for bureaucrats who would have to justify their decisions to allow deferment or disruption. They might even lead to minor political explosions. This is to be expected in a polity that wants a say in governing, and especially if the governing concerns its youth. More so in an age of disruption, the innovation campaign and for passion to be made possible. For politicians, such contentions should be par for the course.

No one is asking for the slaughter of a sacred cow. Let’s keep the cow – and the Singapore son. Can we shift that line in the sand sometimes?






No longer footloose and fancy-free

In News Reports on July 17, 2018 at 3:41 am

This morning in my neighbourhood centre, I chanced upon an itinerant hawker selling fans. It was made-in-Taiwan, 12-volts, plastic and can be clamped onto a shelf. It costs $15. Ordinarily, I would have bought it without a second thought. But this time, I asked my mother. You see, I’ve moved into my mother’s flat and am pretty conscious about buying things for the house which she doesn’t approve. Plus, I would have to bear with the constant nagging about buying electronic stuff from the road-side. They might explode.

I ask myself if this is one of those little sacrifices of independence that I would have to experience now that I am not living alone. My mother, bless her heart, is extremely pained by what she calls the sacrifice I am making by forsaking my interior-decorated apartment on a high floor on a hill with a view of trains, planes, automobiles and even ships, for a bedroom in a 40-year old HDB flat on a low floor facing a Sers construction site. This is despite her “Praise the Lord!’’ when I told her of my plan to move back in.

I am writing this column because I identified somewhat with what my ex-colleague Tee Hun Ching said in her Sunday Times column, about getting her parents to move in with her family. I am doing just the opposite.

Ms Tee wrote about how her parents had to whittle down their belongings in order to fit them into her home: “Moving with me means giving up part of their freedoms and lifestyle habits, far more daunting prospect. For starters, the place is no longer theirs to do as they please.’’

Like her father who gave up 80 per cent of his book collection, I gave away more than 300 of mine so that I could fit the rest of them – about 40 cartons – into my mother’s flat. I would have been able to fit even fewer if I had not ordered a full-scale renovation of the five-room flat with floor- to- ceiling shelving in the living room and bedroom. But I still had to ditch half of my DVD collection of some 100 Chinese and English drama series, and console myself that they are available online. What is intact: My Lego collection.

So used was I to so much space that I knocked down the wall between two bedrooms to have my own gigantic bed-cum-study area. I am writing this now in this space, which was fitted with an Internet connection only over the weekend, a major undertaking in my mother’s book.

Ms Tee’s column about planning for this eventuality made me a little envious. I too had planned to buy a bigger place and sell both my apartment and my mother’s HDB flat. But I was stymied by A Bad and Stupid Deal because I am single and will not be able to claim the additional buyers stamp duty even if I sold my apartment within six months. I couldn’t see why I should sell my place, move into mom’s place, then buy a new place and move both of us out. You can read it here.

We probably have the same reason for wanting our parent(s) with us. They are getting old and frail. And try as I might to get the “right’’ domestic helper for my mother, she is simply too set in her ways to have another individual in the house moving her things around. Nor would she countenance living with me (I am just a stone’s throw away) because my kitchen, according to her, is too small and badly configured for cooking.

I figured that the next best thing was for me to move in and have a domestic helper in the house, and to rent out my own place. When I tell people this, there are two reactions. First, some praise about being such a filial daughter. Second, some wonderment at the freedom and independence that will be forgone.

I suppose I cannot “do as I please’’ in my mother’s house, like stare at the view from my balcony without someone asking if anything is wrong or read for hours in silence or binge-watch Chinese period drama serials. Can I come and go as I please without telling my mother where, when and with whom? Can I, ahem, bring a guy home?

Friends who like lolling about my apartment with wine, beer and cigarettes fret about losing a place to chill. It got so that my mother got on the line with one of them to assure her that she would be more than welcomed at her flat and everything with Bertha will be the same.

I suppose little sacrifices are inevitable but I would like to look at it as going “home’’ because it is now my turn to look after the woman who has been looking after me all her life. There is also something to be said for the discipline that comes with living with people in the house – whether self-imposed or imposed from outside.

I used to have three bathrooms. Now I have to share one with my mother. But I also know that I will have three regular meals – because she will ensure that I am fed. I don’t have to worry about strange noises in the night because I no longer sleep alone (in a house). And I like the fact that I am living in a familiar and vibrant neighbourhood with some of the best hawker stalls in Singapore, with NTUC FairPrice and Sheng Siong supermarkets close at hand.

I also don’t have to buy soap and toothpaste anymore.



We love teachers more than…

In News Reports on June 30, 2018 at 4:13 am

Clearly, we love our teachers much more than we do our politicians – or there wouldn’t be such a fuss about how much (or how little) politicians pay for parking. I suppose we’ve all met teachers or know one, so it becomes “personal’’. Not as many people see the work that politicians do, whether at the constituency level or even in Parliament.

There’s so much cynicism about that $365 yearly parking fee that MPs pay that I would feel embarrassed if I were a politician. Perhaps that’s why no single MP has come out to say anything about the fee. Justifying it would be too much like self-interest coming into play. In fact, it might open a  Pandora’s Box about how they spend the money, which amounts to $210,000 per year.

How many times do they go to Parliament, for example. Or how often are they at their constituency? Or do they hire legislative assistants to help them out with parliamentary work?

I am sure almost every MP takes money out of his or her own pocket occasionally or even frequently, to help a constituent tide over rough times for instance. And they wouldn’t begrudge holding get-togethers and celebrations on their own dime for their community leaders and party supporters. In that sense, they would be like teachers who use their own money to buy stationery items for poorer students or splash out for food and drinks for their pupils.

The MP parking issue has taken on many facets, compounding and complicating matters farther. On the face of it, it’s  about whether the “clean wage’’ policy extended to teachers who park in schools should also apply to G office-holders and MPs. On another level, it’s about the value we place on political service.

So what does the G mean by the “clean wage’’ ? It means that whatever remuneration office holders get is clear and there should be no hidden monetary perks. Here, G office-holders do not receive benefits such as housing and cars for personal use or tax exemptions. Only the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament are accorded the use of an official car. And their medical benefits are the same as for civil servants. That’s always been the official position.

Presumably for MPs, the allowance is all there is to it. The $210,000 a year includes the 13thmonth bonus and assumes a one-month Average Variable Component for the year. So the basic allowance is $15,000 a month. Add on how most of them also hold full time jobs and you double that sum (at the very least), and you can see why the green-eyed monster surfaces.

I don’t think the G expected that its clean wage policy will rebound on it when it made the case to have teachers pay for their school parking lots. That was, after all, a recommendation from the Auditor-General.

But it goes to show that if you want policies based on dollars and cents, it will affect the special relationship that people have formed with others. Or turn the relationship into something that is purely transactional.

Hard nosed calculations mean that it is right that teachers should be treated like every other civil servant who pay to park at their ministries and agencies. In fact, some schools already charge teachers for parking. So the policy is equitable. The flip side : It also means we mustn’t be surprised when  teachers  start asking for re-imbursements for whatever they have spent out-of-pocket on their classes and the students.

The sympathy for teachers is actually a nice reflection of the esteem we hold for them. The antipathy that surrounds the announcement of the MPs’ parking fee is something else.

The calculators come out.

How does $365 a year compare to a resident’s HDB season parking rates or hourly parking? Even if MPs don’t park overnight, how many hours do they actually spend on the ground in a week besides tending to Meet-the-People sessions? What is Parliament’s parking charges for outsiders? Do enough MPs attend parliamentary sessions to deserve this “perk’’?

You see how grubby it can get.

It’s not unlike the way some people feel about ministerial salaries. People don’t remember that the G didn’t raise salaries in the last round and have even taken pay cuts before. They just know that it is high and based on some kind of formula they can’t recall. The parking fee controversy is akin to that over ministerial salaries – it’s about whether you deserve the money given or saved.

About teachers’ parking fee,  MP Seah Kian Peng said this in Parliament: “For too long, we have made decisions based more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar has the moral equivalence of the loss of another… It is time we recognise money is merely a proxy for value, and at times, a very bad one.”

I wouldn’t use Mr Seah’s term, “moral reasoning’’, but I’m afraid I can’t come up with a better term to describe the value of service that goes beyond money’s worth.

To Mr Seah’s speech, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung replied: “We have to respect our internal system of checks and balances. We cannot pick and choose which finding to address or comply with – we take them all seriously. This is about upholding the value of self-discipline.’’

This brings a new wrinkle into the debate, as people start wondering if the politicians should practise the same discipline that they ask of others. Another wrinkle is why the politicians should fare so much better than residents who pay for parking. They can, after all, afford the charges or take it out of their allowance.

Although the G has been upfront over ministerial salaries with the late Lee Kuan Yew been its staunchest defender, the same cannot be said about how the present G seemed to be so coy about the parking issue. It doesn’t look good that Parliament staff told ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong that MPs park for free in Parliament only to be contradicted by Leader of the House Grace Fu. (I’m quite sure new SOPs have been drawn up on answering questions from the media.)

As I’ve said before, Ms Fu’s supposed clarification was extremely unsatisfactory because she neglected to give the most important point: how much MPs pay for the label. Then it was total silence for some two weeks until the National Development ministry gave that $365 answer on June 25.

Did we get more information from MND? Yes, the fee was revised from $260 in 2016. There’s also one point which should be noted: The parking privilege is not for every HDB carpark, as some people thought, but for those in areas that the MP serves in.

It would have been so much better for the G to have been transparent much earlier, rather than beat around the bush. It only raises questions about why it was trying to hide something as innocuous as a parking label. It has never been afraid to justify its position to the public before, yet there is a total silence from both the ranks of the G and the MPs, including the Opposition.

Frankly, I am not too fussed about how much MPs pay for parking. I’m even okay about giving them free parking because I think it’s a privilege that citizens can easily afford to give to their elected representatives to do their duty. (That’s just me.)

What I object to was why such a simple fact took so long in coming.

So the MPs, I say: Stand your ground, for crying out loud. Or shift it, if you think you should. Don’t just hope for the whole thing to  go away.