Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Draft of an unpublished story

In News Reports, Reading, Society on December 31, 2012 at 1:59 am

I suppose MSM is waiting for PAP’s Teo Ho Pin’s response on the sale of the town council’s computer information system before it decides to publish anything on the matter. Typical move, except that too much of the action is taking place online to be ignored. Even if sources are un-named, they are worth reporting for wider public consumption. Better still, if the MSM can go out and GET them named, or at least get confirmation of the facts.

So, here’s my attempt to piece the story together from what’s online. Moderately. Carefully. Oh, so carefully….

MORE questions regarding the sale of a town-council developed computer information system to a People’s Action Party company have surfaced, with one individual purportedly escalating the matter to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

The unnamed individual has asked the police to look into how the tender was awarded to Action Information Management, according to documents mailed to TR Emeritus.

Another individual, who declined to be named for “professional purposes’’, has also dug out what he claimed to be the original tender notice announced on June 30, 2010. He charged that it was lacking in details compared to other tender notices. The notice also levied a a $214 fee for interested applicants to “find out more’’, he wrote on The Online Citizen.

These disclosures, which have yet to be confirmed by the CPIB or the town councils, are the latest of a series of questions that is being asked by the online community, which was first alerted to the circumstances of the sale by blogger Alex Au.
The issue came to light after a report card on town councils’ work was made public with Workers’ Party run Aljunied-Hougang TC lagging behind conspicuously behind in the corporate governance category. This was because, WP MP Sylvia Lim said, it had yet to develop a computer information system after the vendor, Action Information Management, terminated its services following the WP win in the ward.

Mr Au and other online commentators unearthed a trove of information about the vendor: That it was a $2 company, which bought the system which the 14 town councils had developed for $140,000. It leased the system back to the town councils for a fee of $785 a month. Ex-MPs S Chandra Das, Lau Ping Sum and Chew Heng Chin were named as directors.

PAP’s co-ordinator of town councils Dr Teo Ho Pin confirmed that the company was People’s Action Party owned, while the company declared that its action to terminate the contract with the opposition-run TC was in line with a contractual clause that it allowed it to do so if there were “material changes in the composition’’ of the TC.

Dr Teo charged that the WP was already developing its own information system, had asked and been granted two extensions and could have asked for a third extension to the lease if it wanted. Ms Lim hit back, accusing Dr Teo of not addressing more fundamental questions of the contract termination.

Online commentary appear to be focused on the following issues:
• Accountability – Whether residents’ funds were used to develop the computer system and the logic behind having it sold to a third party, which happens to be PAP owned, and re-leased for a fee.
• Transparency – Of five interested applicants who paid the fee for more information on the tender, only AIM put in a bid. Drawing parallels with the Brompton bike case, comments included whether the tender process could have been extended to allow for more bidders to take part and whether there was any impropriety in the process.
• Political connections – Implicit in the commentaries is whether AIM’s move to terminate the Aljunied-Hougang TC contract is a purely partisan decision rather than motivated by business or public interest considerations. If so, the on-going saga raises the question of the role of political parties in business and how these businesses operate in the political sphere.

Said former journalist Bertha Henson: “It’s disquieting to read what’s online. The Government has always maintained that its tender processes are above-board. A political party too should maintain the same strictures lest it be accused of using business for political or private gain – at the expense of the public interest.’’
PAP’s Dr Teo said he would give a fuller accounting soon.

PS. I interviewed myself as a quote but apparently the technique just puzzled people…hence, deletion

A media list for 2013

In News Reports, Writing on December 29, 2012 at 5:28 am

It’s that time of the year when the media does a look back and a look forward. On everything from photographs to entertainment to politics – accompanied by predictions of what is to come. On everything, except on themselves or what is expected of them in 2013. At the risk of being accused of pious preaching, here is one news reader’s wishlist for the mainstream media in 2013. Most very do-able. Some already being done some of the time. Here’s to a higher level of journalism!

1. Reject one source stories. By that, I don’t mean merely adding another “voice’’ to the story which says he/she welcomes this or that. I would like to see someone else confirming the news or giving an intelligent facet to the news. By one source stories, I also mean all voices coming from one agency/company/ministry – who are just likely to parrot the same line – or FB and blog postings from individuals that are simply reported without any value added.

2. Expand the list of usual suspects. Aren’t you tired of seeing the same ole people/experts giving comments on issues? Surely there are more academics, economists and political observers around to give a point of view?

3. Reject anonymous comments. You know, recently, there was an article in ST in which a PAP MP who declined to be named (!) gave his views on who could be the next Speaker of Parliament after Palmergate. I can’t believe this! An MP who wants to be anonymous and won’t put his name to what he’s said! Anyways, there are too many “declined to be named” people in the news – and it’s not as though their views (sometimes very innocuous ones) will cost them their jobs or their lives.

4. Get the core story right. I say this because some articles pounce quickly to obtaining reactions or putting in the big picture context without getting the core story right in the first place. You know what I mean, some thing happens and the story morphs quickly into who is at fault or what it might have been instead of just making the news CLEAR in the first place.

5. Bring back explanatory graphics. Nice to have flora and fauna infographics but what about news infographics that explain changes? BT today had a nice graphic on what the US fiscal cliff is all about. Also, what about more charts etc that makes it easier to read numbers? This also means text can be devoted to explaining the implications of the statistics rather than a recital of numbers.

6. Get the corporate hand OUT of the news. I know media companies want to make money and there is always tension between editorial and corporate arms. It’s disconcerting to see pages sponsored by businesses which accompanying editorial that trumpets the business. For some time now, even front pages are being “bought’’. I wonder what Today will do when the hammer comes down on exec condos. For some time now, CityLife@Tampines has been boasting about being the first luxury-hotel style EC on the cover. I hope editorial can keep the advertiser at bay…

7. Steer clear of commentary in the news. Most times, this is adhered to. A news story is a news story and while there might be legitimate analysis or interpretation, there is no outright comment made on the news by the journalist. The thing is, analysis or interpretation should be attributed – unless it’s such a no-brainer that readers would have reached the same conclusion themselves. If not, it will be the news media which is doing the validating or re-affirming – and I don’t think that’s on.

8. Cut down on self-indulgent columns. Unless they are witty, entertaining, make me laugh or cry or offer me an insight I didn’t have, I really don’t know why anyone would want to read about the private lives/habits/quirks/woes etc of a mere 20something, 30something or even 40something journalist. Go blog!

9. Help the reader with “running stories’’. Not everyone follows the news every day and an article really has to be written in its entirety for the fellow who just landed in Singapore. This is true especially for court cases. A “case so far’’ which details what had gone on before would really help the “new’’ reader follow developments.

10. Stop using acronyms in the text of the story. By saying Silver Housing Bonus (SHB) at first mention and then assume readers will remember what SHB stands for when the acronym is used later is really too much to assume. Most times, the readers have to re-read to remember what SHB stands for. Just say bonus plan. Likewise if it’s a company or organisation or association that is unknown, don’t fling acronyms at the reader. The company, the organisation or the association would do. Longer. But clearer.

Politics and business

In News Reports, Politics, Society on December 29, 2012 at 2:07 am

I have got to say that WP’s Sylvia Lim was pretty feisty in her response to PAP’s Teo Ho Pin on the issue of the computer system termination that occurred in Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.

I missed out on quite a bit of the wrangle coz I was too busy eating this Christmas, so I had to look back at past news stories to get a handle on the issue. So the firm in question, AIM, did reply on why it terminated the deal. It was, it said, merely following a contract clause on “material changes’’ in composition of town council.

But Ms Lim is right in saying that the PAP has yet to answer some fundamental questions about the issue. Mr Teo had chosen instead to focus on how the town council had actually been preparing to replace its systems ahead of the termination in their latest exchange of words. And to use a favourite phrase of the PAP, they told WP to “come clean’’. (You know, this phrase is rather over-used…)

This is pretty distracting. The more important question is over AIM’s role and how it came to be in that role. Here’s where I think the online commentators have one over the MSM, asking detailed questions on whether there was any impropriety in the way the system was handed over to a PAP company. It looks clear to everyone that the clause “material changes’’ in composition is codeword for “political changes’’ – unless AIM and Mr Teo can show instances to the contrary.

Mr Teo said he would answer the questions in the next few days. I hope he answers every single question. And for good measure, he should also say if there are other PAP-owned companies and tell us what they do. Finally, he should articulate (or a higher-ranking PAP leader should) the role of the PAP in business. I am sure there’s some code of conduct on business somewhere no? Or do they only apply to members, and not to the party as a whole?

Clarity is King

In News Reports, Politics, Society on December 28, 2012 at 10:37 am

I wish the media would focus on explaining policy changes first before getting reactions from the usual suspects. I had to read ST, BT and Today to get a grip on the changes to get the elderly to “unlock’’ their housing asset. (Okay, I’m stupid) Times like this I just wish the media would put out two boxes on the Silver Housing Scheme and the Enhanced Lease Buyback scheme. Just tell me :

a. Who’s eligible for which scheme and how many of them are in this potential pool. I got a big picture number from BT on the number of elderly households in four and five-room flats who would be eligible for the Silver Housing Scheme, but not for those living in the smaller flats.

b. Take-up rate: applications and approvals which would give an idea of popularity. I gather the Silver Housing Bonus scheme hasn’t been implemented yet despite being announced in February. That’s nice – G listening to feedback ? In any case, why is this scheme better than selling on the re-sale market and then getting a smaller flat?

c. Pay-outs under the current and new scheme. There were 466 cases of people who sold their leases back to HDB. I wonder what they say now about missing out on the “enhanced’’ scheme…

d. Each box accompanied by a case-study, and in the case of lease buyback – a real case (someone who actually did the act then and what he would get if he waited)

I’ve always wondered about getting reactions from the ordinary folk. Their views are important of course but I would wonder about anyone who can give a considered response after a chat on the phone on the implications and complications of the policy changes. If it were me, I would want to look at my CPF numbers first.

Then there was the page 1 story on an exclusive interview with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. I suppose because it was an exclusive, it was given more prominent play than the housing policy changes. But then again, it’s rather thin on the details no? So the G is likely to take a bigger share of the patient bill. Welcome news indeed! But what are we talking about here? What is the G share of the patient bill anyway? One example would do. Or are we lumping healthcare spending – operational and capital expenditure as part of the G share? Or just pure subsidies and grants that go into a patient’s hospital? Medishield premiums have already been raised – so I guess the patient share has gone up?

Anyway, it’s coming to the end of the year – and we can wait I guess.

A by-election agenda

In News Reports, Politics on December 28, 2012 at 10:33 am

So many political parties interested in a vacant parliamentary seat even though there hasn’t been a firm indication that a by-election will be called in Punggol East. It would be tragic don’t you think if the opposition parties start grassroots work and the PM decides that he would NOT hold a BE but just wait till the next GE.

I wonder how many people are betting on the will he or won’t he question, or the when question….I gather that the opposition parties will campaign on national rather than local issues. There’s plenty of fodder, whether in housing, healthcare or transport or cost of living. Here’s a thought: The Population Report will be out in January with a gameplan on how to deal with the no-baby, so -many-foreigners problem. The strategy it puts out will point Singapore’s way forward. How about putting that on BE agenda, should a BE come to pass? That would be a real meaty issue that would concentrate minds in the poll booth.

Fluff, huff and puff

In News Reports on December 22, 2012 at 8:09 am

I was intrigued by Leslie Koh’s article in ST today. He’s calling on the silent majority to speak up lest the vocal online minority sways public opinion. He also thinks it dangerous for decision-makers to put too much store by these vocal online voices.

It’s interesting because I agree that the online “vocalists’’ do not represent the vox populi, but the question I think then should be: who does? Can we say that the mainstream media speaks for the silent majority then? After all, with its resources, it can afford to take the pulse of the people in its reporting and writing. Also, it too has its own share of commentators, plus the usual (very usual) suspects who are called upon to comment on the news. The clout of a newspaper commentator is far greater than that of any online blogger in the eyes of decision-makers, whether in the Government or private sector.

I doubt, however, that any mainstream media or news commentator would claim to be able to speak for all Singaporeans, including the silent majority. It would smack too much of hubris.

(Here’s an aside: If people are silent, how would anyone know what they are thinking anyway? And if someone who was previously silent speaks up, will he automatically be classed among the vocal rabble? Which means… there will always BE a silent majority everywhere and all the time. No point telling them to speak up. Only during election time can the silent majority claim to have spoken, that is, once every four or five years. In-between, most of us have delegated our brains elsewhere while we carry on with our business as usual.)

Back to business. If an online commentator thinks he is the voice of the silent, then he should think again. What he has is HIS view and maybe that of his circle of friends. But what is clear is that the online voices represent a different kind of view, which may or may not be the majority view, and which is not usually seen in MSM.

Should decision-makers take their voices into account? And if so, by how much? Turn the question around and ask if the decision-makers should take the MSM voices into account, and whether the people should as well. I would say yes, because the MSM is an established player in the business of opinion-shaping and privy to a lot more information than the ordinary fellow. But I would say yes to considering online voices too, simply because they are NOT established players, and are NOT privy to privileged information and background. That means, they are MORE like the ordinary fellow. That’s why so many people enjoy reading online stuff; it SOUNDS like them.

Sure, the views can be malformed because they are un-informed, emotional, knee-jerk reactions or even activated by an agenda or motivated by malice. They are individual and independent, actuated by their own world view and experiences.

Filtering the useful insight from the online fluff, huff and puff might be more difficult but it is still a worthy exercise because there are gems to be read online which differ from the national narrative that the MSM adheres to. Even the fluff, huff and puff is worth weighing because it could reflect strands of sentiment that the MSM doesn’t.

As for its influence on the people at large, look at it this way: Just as the MSM is a small group reaching to a big group of mainly passive consumers, so it is too that most people on Facebook and social media are just “watchers’’. I would give BOTH sets of people some credit and believe (or try to believe) that they do not swallow whatever they read or listen. In other words, even if they are not media literate, they should have some common sense.

Still, if MSM cannot hold the attention of its market, the market will move to other sources. For that reason, decision makers should heed the views on those other sources and do the same but more difficult job of filtering out the considered from the crazy; the reality from the propaganda.

You know, it’s really odd that in the past, we used to say that Singaporeans were too afraid to speak up because of a supposed culture of fear. Now that technology allows them to do so easily, we are just as worried that they might get carried away.

By the way….

In News Reports, Politics, Society on December 21, 2012 at 1:06 am

A by-the-way by-election

Those who are not in the habit of reading The Straits Times editorials should read it today. Ignore the lame headline: Weighing the case for a by-election. The bottomline is: ST thinks that a Punggol East by-election should be held soon. Of course, it was carefully couched: “So on balance, it is perhaps best not to delay holding a by-election in Punggol East. Constituents’ expectations outweigh other considerations.’’

(Gosh. ST didn’t believe its own poll of residents which showed most can’t be bothered….!)
In any case, I am glad that after much meandering and huffing and puffing and having to make to case for and against, it came down to making a decision. I was intrigued though at the final paragraphs.

As in Hougang, Punggol East’s constituents should decide how seriously they take the personal failures of their former representative, and how they judge those shortcomings against the record of his party’s work for them. The party’s standing led to a win in Hougang. It is up to voters in Punggol East to decide if the same logic should apply. They should be given a chance to do so.

By the way, the party it referred to in Hougang is the Workers’ Party. So Yaw Shin Leong’s case of infidelity was too small for residents to decide that WP should be thrown out of Hougang. ST is saying that in the case of Punggol East, constituents have to decide if the same logic should apply: That is, whether Michael Palmer’s case is too small to throw out the PAP.
Very nice touch!

IP college? Why?

Everybody’s a-twitter, tittering and in a tizzy over the case of River Valley High principal in a CPIB probe. So there’s a woman involved apparently. Shades of Ng Boon Gay! Anyway, since nobody is really confirming anything and much of what the media is saying is speculation from unknown sources, I am not touching it.

I am more interested in this story about a new JC that will open in 2017 for students from three new Integrated Programme (IP) schools: Catholic High School, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School and Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. It’s in the ST.
The students will spend their first four years in their respective secondary schools. They will spend the final two years of their IP programme at the new JC, which will also accept students from non-IP secondary schools. So now we have 13 JCs, after Innova in Woodlands opened in 2005.

It’s mighty odd. I thought the idea was for the IP kids to do their A levels in their old school, not move on to some other place. This means it’s no different from other JCs except that the three IP school students get a “free pass’’ so to speak, as others will have to rely on their O level results to get in – I presume. You mean three IP schools can’t do the last two years for the students? Why? Shouldn’t the students just sit for the O levels then and compete like everyone else for a place? MOE said more details will come and I hope it will not just be about how the new JC will have wonderful facilities and great teachers etc. We need an explanation of the rationale for this move.

Stressed out kids

In News Reports, Society on December 21, 2012 at 12:32 am

I don’t know about you but I got pretty angry reading the page 1 of Today on what poly students said at the Singapore Conversation. They wanted a stress-free environment with a four-day work week. Which mean, they want their weekends plus a mid-week break. That’s because, said one, people will get tired over the week and would have to drag themselves to work on Fridays if they didn’t rest in between. And this is from someone who hasn’t yet entered the workforce full-time…Sheesh. Is this the sort of values we’re passing on to our next generation? What rubbish is this? Not even in the workforce and already talking about stress?

Are the students reading about what’s happening in Singapore today? About the tight labour crunch? Read BT’s page 1 today for a taste of what’s it like in the F&B industry where restaurants have to trim hours of operation because they can’t get foreign workers to work the kitchen or the tables. Go look at how the SMEs are doing – some are moving out because they can’t get staff. Are these jobs which the poly grads will do? The thing is, the underlying assumption in their request for stress-free work week is that they WILL definitely get a job when they graduate. The wish-list would be quite different if Singapore wasn’t so successful in providing jobs for the people.

You know, if our next generation can’t take the stress, then they might want to work part-time. It’s a popular offering among companies which offer flexi-work arrangements according to media reports today. But I suppose working part-time wouldn’t entitle you to same full-time benefits – and you can bet that people will howl at that. It’s a no-win situation. Our next generation wants no stress, all perks. It’s enough to make a Singaporean cry.

On flexi-work, I have no clue what ST was trying to do with the mass of numbers it was given. I think it believes it’s making reading easier but it doesn’t, especially since someone decided that some percentages should be converted to ratios of 10 and other fractions – but not others. You end up wondering what is less than one in 10 employers – half a body? And it just makes it tough to compare numbers when the base is different.
Take a look:

THE push to improve work-life balance through flexible arrangements is making slow progress. Just over four in 10 employers say they provide them, up from 38 per cent last year. But this mostly entails staff doing part-time work. Other options such as flexi-time or telecommuting were offered by less than one in 10 employers, according to a survey released yesterday by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
The poll of 3,500 private- and public-sector firms looked at employment conditions including working arrangements, leave entitlements and sick days taken. It found that 41 per cent of employers offer at least one form of work-life arrangement…
However, part-time work was by far the most common option, offered by a third of firms. All the other options were provided by fewer than one in 10 companies.
Flexi-time, the second most common, was offered by 8 per cent of firms. And just 4 per cent gave staff the option of telecommuting, which means using information technology to work from outside the office.

Take a look at this one par in Today. Isn’t it so much easier to read?

Forty-one per cent of establishments offered at least one form of work-life arrangement to their employees this year, up from 38 per cent last year. Working part-time was the most common work-life arrangement offered by 33 per cent of establishments. At a distant second was flexi-time (8.2 per cent), followed by staggered hours (7.5 per cent) and tele-working (4 per cent).

Saturday Sighs

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on December 15, 2012 at 8:50 am

Equally fair?
This headline left me scratching my head: “Pay fair wages regardless of nationality’’ in ST. You have to read further to find out what is “fair’’. I don’t know why the headline can’t just say: NTUC not happy with equal pay for equal job for all workers. That’s in the deck.
Why headline it this way? To make the point that being fair does not mean being equal? I sure hope that the day doesn’t come when Singaporeans have to go abroad to work at low-end jobs. At least, I hope our cost of living will be much much lower than it is now because I don’t think a foreign employer will pay us more just to take into account the cost of living over here.

Equally painful?
Students are going to be getting their character education awards soon – at the community centres. I suppose this is like Edusave scholarships and bursaries – presented by MPs at CCs. Are there going to be presented by MPs too in a ceremony that will require students and their parents to wait an hour?
Heng Swee Keat said the venue reflects how “excellence in all domains is valued by the community’’. Hmm, but these students were nominated by their teachers. So now will they have to go for two ceremonies? Are these Meet-the-MP sessions? Why not let the principals do the honours at the school’s annual Speech Day or something?

Calling it quits
I wonder how Daniel Au felt at being woken up by the cops one day three years ago and made to take a breathalyser test. The fellow had dozed off in a parked car after a night out on the town – and got nabbed for drink driving.
What a crazy case. I’m glad he was acquitted but seems he’s yet to get his $4K fine refunded to him although the judgement came out three weeks ago. Then there’s the matter of two weeks jail time he served. The G was reported in ST saying that it was studying the High Court decision and might bring it up for appeal. My goodness! It sure looks like an open-and-shut case to me. Unless you want to signal to drivers that you should NOT sleep in your car when you’re drunk, but attempt to avoid the cops and drive home under the influence…

Building on numbers

In Money, News Reports, Writing on December 15, 2012 at 8:06 am

All those building numbers are making me dizzy. You know, the number of BTO flats to be built, private homes, EC sites and land sales…What I know is that we are building like crazy.

So I had a good look at the private housing numbers that are coming up, depending of course on whether developers buy and build on those sites that the G is releasing as reported today.

Actually, I am not sure I care. Isn’t the problem whether or not people can afford to buy property? Does a bigger supply of homes translate to lower property prices? I had to plough through half of the ST P1 story to find out that it won’t.
I went to BT and found that the land releases for private homes are represented as “joyous tidings’’. I wonder for whom? Private developers? Or home buyers? (you would think that plenty of people are unhoused at the moment)

I am not sure what to think after reading the stories although I’m sure the real estate types would make more of it. BT had a chart on number of homes to be built while ST had maps of plum sites. I wish one paper would have BOTH so I don’t have to read so much text.

What I was interested in was that ECs will form 45 per cent or 3,110 of supply in the “confirmed’’ list in the first half of next year. I guess we’ll see more penthouses for the sandwiched class soon. Isn’t it time we took a look at the sky-high EC prices and see if the policy still holds? I mean, ECs are classified as “private housing’’ even though they are subsidised and subject to some HDB-like rulings. Are EC developers making a killing on taxpayers’ money? I want to be enlightened.

Another numbers story that left me in a fog was over how we spent a record $7.4b on R&D last year. According to ST, it was by both private and public sectors, although it didn’t say who was responsible for how much. Reading the article though, you would think this was all G largesse, courtesy of A*Star. Especially when it mentioned that $16b had been set aside for the next R&D five-year plan – 20 per cent more than over the previous five years.

I had to turn to BT for the full picture. And that is: Private sector research, especially by foreign companies, out-paced that of the public sector. Local companies still lag behind, not a good sign given the productivity push Singapore is embarking on.

Also, here’s an interesting case of how numbers can look good or bad:
ST said that last year’s research spending of 2.3 per cent of GDP brings Singapore “closer’’ to other countries famed for research, such as Denmark.
It added that the Republic’s target is to get it up to 3.5 per cent in 2015, which would put it on par with the top research countries such as Israel and Japan.

BT, on the hand, did not refer to the levels of research in other countries. Instead it pitted Singapore’s achievement against its own target: Despite a red-letter year, the country’s research intensiveness is 2.3 per cent of the economy, still some way off its 2015 goal of spending 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product on R&D.
Amazing what sort of spin you can give to numbers. Also shows why you have to read more than just one media for a full picture.