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Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Personal answers to national questions

In News Reports on January 29, 2014 at 2:13 am

So the Prime Minister fielded questions at an undergraduate forum yesterday. One question was from a foreign student who lamented on behalf of his Singapore friends that doing National Service was only delaying the start of their careers. Nice of him to speak for his friends, but weren’t they in the audience too? Too scared to speak up or were they setting up their foreign friend for a robust rebuttal? In any case, PM Lee was quite kind but firm in insisting that NS should stay.

I agree absolutely.

Have our young people been navel-gazing? All that tension in the South China sea and the saber-rattling is enough to cause worry that there will be a repeat of World War One, when nations sleepwalked their way to war. And it’s the 100th anniversary this year…

Okay. Now that I’ve got that out of my system…

The MSM is filled today with two sets of reports. Besides the PM’s forum, there was yet another portion of an IPS survey released, this time concerning attitudes towards foreigners and some hot-button social issues. Remember that the earlier sets were about race? That we’re not quite as race-blind as we may think we are?

Well, actually there’s no need for a survey to tell me that we are more anti-foreigner now than before. So we’ve somewhat closed ranks among ourselves (very good). And we put up a barrier against other nationalities (not good). According to the survey, 32 per cent of people surveyed said there was “more/much more’’ prejudice against foreigners compared to five years ago. This was articulated by half of the Chinese respondents surveyed. Big number indeed… 

Here’s the part I can’t quite understand…

According to TODAY, about 70.6 per cent of the respondents also felt that the government is responsible for racial and religious harmony in Singapore. However, only 45.8 per cent of them felt that the authorities have done well to improve the integration of new immigrants here.

When asked why this is so, IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews said Singaporeans may expect the State to continue to be a mediator given its prior success with issues such as race and religion. “People have a lot more expectation, just like how we dealt with race or religion, everything was so well-orchestrated, (so they feel that) immigrant issues will be equally taken care of quickly,” Dr Mathews, who headed the survey, added.

There we go again, expecting the G to do everything, including containing our dislike for foreigners. The G actually admits it could do more to “communicate the worth of foreigners’’ to its citizens. Seriously, do we need the G to do everything?

We can hold the G responsible for certain aspects. It was responsible for the huge inflow of foreigners in the past without giving much thought as to how it would strain relations here, and the kind of burden it would put on the infrastructure, which is leading to further strains on citizen-foreigner  relations…

In recent years, it’s making amends. It’s done quite a bit to make a distinction between the privileges of the citizen and the PR in terms of doling out G subsidies. It has set up an employment framework to ensure fair hiring. It has tightened the foreign worker tap, so much so that SMEs are screaming in pain. Now it’s intervened to set quotas in the HDB neighbourhoods to prevent foreign enclaves forming.  

What else? Now this is the part I worry about. Predictably, the Anton Casey case came up in both reports, mentioned both by the PM and the IPS people who did the survey. Mr Casey shouldn’t have said what he did, and this is almost universally acknowledged. But now that he is out of town and out of a job, attention has turned to the “lynch mob’’ and “pack of hounds’’ who exist, where else?, online. The spectre of the rise of fascism here was raised by no less a person than the Government Chief Information Officer who also heads IPS. Already letters have been published in MSM calling for controls on xenophobic and extremist sentiments online.

The G could well say that it has to intervene to calm anti-foreigner sentiments just as it had in the past to quell race/religious tensions. And you guessed it – the clamps will be online. Never mind that the same xenophobic and extreme statements will be made in coffeeshops and bars. So long as not many people are listening, it doesn’t matter eh?

It is for us to police ourselves online. Can we do a better job of shouting down/over the insane, inane and plain unreasonable voices? I suppose people will say there is freedom of speech online, but you wouldn’t want more curbs so that there would be even less freedom would you? And that will happen if the laws come in with a heavy hand, never mind the G’s insistence that it is really a “light touch’’.

Okay, I should really stop lecturing and answer the questions below which I culled from newspaper reports on both events:

a)     Do you like living in the present, or would you prefer to be born in Singapore 50 years later?

Depends on whether there is a Singapore 50 years later…PM Lee said the future is bright and promising for young people. You can’t expect the leader of a country to say anything else, can you?

 But I know this: I am glad to have Singapore as my birthplace and can’t fathom being born anywhere else.   

 

b)    If a Malay/Muslim policeman intervened in a quarrel between your Muslim and Chinese neighbour, do you watch to see if the cop will side with a member of his own race/religion?

I wouldn’t but I know many who would automatically jump to the conclusion that it was race thing if the cop sided with the Muslim neighbour.  This was an interesting point that PM Lee brought up when he talked about women police officers wearing the tudung. It would make the distinction so much more apparent. Frankly, I’ve never thought of it that way. We have to hope that the next generation would be more race-blind. Fifty years?

 

c)     Do you think meritocracy is a “dirty” word?

 

Not at all. I am a beneficiary of the system. My worry is that we will push for so much egalitarianism that merit is no longer a useful marker. The dirty word really is not so much meritocracy as “stress’’. The pursuit of meritocracy does mean some stress. Even in a “compassionate meritocracy’’, can you take the “stress’’ out of the system? Should we?

 

d)    If you’re Chinese and a choice between working for a non-Chinese Singaporean and a Chinese national, which would you pick? 

Can’t answer this since I am only half-Chinese and therefore a minority member. My answer would depend on whether the boss can speak comprehensible English!

 

e)     If you’re against gay marriage, are you also against gay couples adopting children?

I was a bit puzzled by the survey results. About 72 per cent said gay marriage is “always wrong/almost always wrong’’. Yet a smaller proportion (about 61 per cent) said it was okay for gay couples to adopt children. I would have thought the numbers should be about the same. If you are against gay marriage because you think a unions should be between a man and woman, doesn’t it follow that you think this should be the family unit which raises the child?

 

I am against both. I don’t think much of society is ready either. What I am against: the retention of section 377a criminalising homosexual sex. For this simple reason: If something is in the rule books, you either enforce it or you don’t. You don’t dangle it like a sword of Damocles and swear you won’t use it. People shouldn’t live in uncertainty.

I’m probably going to get whacked for the above. If you feel like whacking me, please be nice can?   

 

The luckless Mr Lui

In News Reports on January 27, 2014 at 12:45 am

No one would want to be in Mr Lui Tuck Yew’s shoes today. He’s in Singapore’s  hot seat, driving the transport portfolio. He’s probably also made history as the first minister to have an effigy made of him. Weirdly, it was not burnt; but doused with water. As a fiery action would supposedly be against the law.

Taking charge of Singapore’s transport infrastructure has never been an easy job, from way back in the days of Mr Yeo Ning Hong. Mr Raymond Lim must be glad too that he no longer holds the portfolio.

If anyone wants the job, he would have to make sure he takes the bus and the train regularly, preferably during peak hours. He must not forget the LRT, even if he doesn’t live in Bukit Panjang.

He would also have to drive to experience the jolt the heart makes every time his IU beeps under an ERP gantry. He would have to traverse the more “ulu’’ roads, as there is a sneaking suspicion that the best maintained roads are in neighbourhoods where the leaders live and which they usually travel on.

He would also have to take a cab – at all hours – to experience the bewildering array of surcharges a passenger is presented with. (Did you know that a $3 flag-down fare (the lowest) is going to be a thing of the past? Seems the model is being phased out, according to a cabby who told me that this was probably going to my last “cheap’’ trip in a taxi.)

He has to get on a bicycle and a motorbike as well to get a feel of the danger people on two wheels face because motorists prefer that they go “off’’ road.

Why? Because the public wants him to feel their “pain’’ so that he can come up with a soothing balm. (In the same way that the Health minister should spend time in a C class ward, the National Development Minister should trying living in a rental flat and every minister should be surviving on the minimum wage, if we knew what that was…Gosh, we have high expectations. We want “low living’’ ministers.)

Mr Lui has inherited a “bomb’’. Nothing he does is going to get praised, not even the wonderfully-paved and beautifully-lit MCE. And while bus and train fares are being directed by the independent Public Transport Council, he’ll still have to take the heat for fare rises. SMRT and SBS Transit might not be G agencies but every stoppage will be laid at the G’s door. Likewise, the ups and downs of Singapore’s unique COE system.

The problem with transport is that we’re paying for it every day. We’re aware that the EZ link card value is going down, the IU beeps all the time, you take out card or cash whenever you leave a taxi. Not to mention queuing to board, and waiting in a traffic jam. All the daily inconveniences and cost gets on our nerves. Compare this to housing: it’s a one/two-time big ticket item. Or getting hospitalised once in a blue moon.

Our transport system has become this gigantic snarl that is difficult to untangle. And we seem to be throwing band-aids at it. Want more buses? Give you money and you go buy. Private bus companies welcome to run some routes.  Calibrated penalties and rewards for being on time. Big Public Transport Fund. Tweaking COE categories so that those who can afford to own luxury cars don’t squeeze out others. So much patching up being done.  

Which is why there is some merit in a massive review of transport policy that looks at all forms of transport, whether public or private. Some people want to know how the ERP and COE takings are used. Just go into the Consolidated Fund for re-distribution? That might be financially prudent but the fact is, people want to see a link.

The new fare system has been streamlined but it is still mightily complicated for the laymen. Face it. Fares are never coming down. We’ve already been alerted to a 3.1 per cent rise next year. Bus and train operations might be in the red but no one quite believes it because the companies keep reporting profits. The laymen couldn’t care if their other activities are keeping the public transport side afloat simply because they don’t view public transport as a “private’’ business.

Then there is the joke about how train stoppages are no longer news. What would be news is if we went a week or two without a single stoppage. It leads you to wonder if our entire train infrastructure needs an overhaul, even though it is not as old as other train systems elsewhere. Did someone sell us a dud in the beginning?

So 400-over people gathered at Hong Lim Park on Saturday led by the indefatigable Gilbert Goh to protest the recent fare hike. Frankly, I thought the fare hike was pretty well thought through with subsidies targeted at those who need it. Who would have thought that the train system would start acting up right after the announcement? Now people are suggesting that a new factor  be thrown into the new, just-reviewed fare mix: it’s not just a  question of fare increases to cover operating cost and keep pace with wage increases, but there should be a “service’’ element as well. Never mind that there are penalties for lousy service. You see how complicated it is?

So there was an effigy paraded on Saturday – and people were spitting on their EZ-link cards, probably because spitting on the ground is an offence. Eeew. Frankly, I cringed at the photographs that are being circulated on social media. I say (and I will probably be whacked for this) that it is not the Singapore way. In fact, I am hoping that the action is not a manifestation of the feelings of the majority of commuters.

But, but, but, it might also be a sign that something radical has to take place in transport policy. Just like in health policy.

If not, there should be a re-statement on what our transport policy is all about. What is public/private transport? How big a hand should the G have in it? Should policy be directed at road users of all types or should there be an “equity’’ element? How “firm’’ are we about moving people from private to public transport? How do we balance people’s aspirations to own a car – or should this even count as one of the 5Cs? What is the “private’’ public transport operators’ public transport obligations that would not affect their profit-making obligations to their shareholders?

Gosh, that already sounds like a contradiction!

Anyway, good luck to the much-maligned Mr Lui.  

    

How to be nice

In News Reports on January 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

I have been negative and nasty over the past few days. It is bad behaviour, almost as bad as putting out a video showing your classmate shouting back at your teacher in class. The blog posts about Anton Casey, the SMRT and the Home Team should not have happened. I regret they did. If they had caused anyone pain, I apologise. In fact, I am deeply disappointed and frustrated at my inability to be nice.

Oh man! That was hard, especially when you don’t mean a word…

Oh…Anyone forget that Singapore is going to be 50 years old this next year? The G is not going to let us forget it as plenty of rah-rah stuff is going to be lined up for the following August 9. It’s supposed to be “ground-up’’ movement with ideas from people on how to make sure the celebrations are inclusive.

Therefore, this is my list of nice things I/we can say/post to get in the mood for our 50th birthday.

a)     Write this to SMRT whenever a train breaks down: It’s all right/It’s okay/We will board you every day.

b)    Tell Anton Casey to come back to Singapore: We won’t shout that you’re a lout/Though we never had a doubt

c)     Reply to every troll: Go ahead and do your thing/Your damning words just make me sing

d)    Morale-raising words for the Home Team: When the going gets tough/The tough get going/When the people get rough/Just give a good showing

e)     To hospital CEOs dealing with the bed crunch: A tent will do just fine/But only for one time/Just put up a big sign/And we will sleep in line.

f)      Advice for the still confused motorists using the multi-signboarded MCE: We know that you are blind/But to say so is unkind/Just take the public bus/It’ll save you all the fuss.

Dammit…I am getting sarcastic again…Renewing effort.

g)     Consoling words for the alcohol-deprived in Little India: No liquor/No levity/Means no search up your cavity.

h)    For SMEs facing manpower crunch: Towkay don’t be sad/Things are not so bad/Close shop and start elsewhere/Or stay here and just go mad.

Sheesh…it’s not working. Last try…

i)       For cynical/angry/frustrated Singaporeans: Why are you feeling this way?/When the weather is wonderful today?

 

In the SMRT War Room

In News Reports on January 24, 2014 at 3:10 am

Poor SMRT. January sure is a bad month for the company….

Des Quake has never felt so besieged in his life. Outside the reinforced walls of his War Room, he can hear the howls of anguish and anger. People who couldn’t get to work on time. People who missed important business meetings. People who got no reception on their cell phones. They were baying for blood. And now, the chief was on his back… What did he say? Disappointment? Frustration?

Steely eyes fixed on his subordinates through rimmed spectacles, Quake started railing at them. “Six times this month we came under attack! Where to put my face now?’’

His subordinates stared at their well-polished boots, mandatory footwear for tramping through tunnels and along train tracks. Subordinate 1 decided to speak up: “We evacuated everyone safely. They were de-trained. Then they were re-trained. Those still in training were told to avoid danger zones. We also kept our communication lines opened.’’

Quake’s eyes bored through Subordinate 1. “And where were you when all this happened? Hiding in the trenches? You should be in the front line! I could shoot you for deserting your post!’’

If he had his way, he would have ordered a summary execution, Quake thought. Except that he was now in the corporate sector and had to contend with the likes of HR departments and trade unions. Oh…the days of a swift court martial!

Subordinate 2, a perky young scholar, snapped a smart salute. “Sir, I suggest we take a defensive position and hold your predecessor responsible. She went shopping but forgot to buy essential supplies, like maintenance parts. She also forgot to send out recce missions to scout for danger and defects. We cannot be expected to be battle-ready in such circumstances.’’

Quake looked at Subordinate 2, wondering if he should bust the cherubic face down to bus captain.  But his university grades were too good. And there was HR. He was minded to replace the HR head with a military man. He should log this down…In the meantime, better be polite to this ambitious young man who was a former white horse in the army.

“I admire your strategy. But pushing blame is no way to accomplish our mission. Our target is zero stoppages and a quick response time if any should occur. Remember the new protocol – we get our rations cut if we can’t achieve our mission. Your families will starve during Chinese New Year.’’

Subordinate 3, ever the optimist, said: “We should go on the offensive and hire a PR company to explain our conditions to ensure that we don’t get too much flak. Just like Anton Casey did.’’

Quake was quaking with anger by now. What sort of troops was he commanding? And why was he dealing with trains when he was better with tanks? And who was this Casey anyway? He had never came across the name in military books – and he had read all of them.

Quake wished he was back on manoeuvres in the non-concrete jungle. Life was easier. He could camouflage himself.  

“Are you mad? People will ask us why we’re spending money on PR when they have just been told to pay more.  How is that fair? You think we will fare better than Casey? We’ll be shot and quartered by the media, including international media!’’

Subordinates 1, 2 and 3 looked at each other and telepathically decided on their next strategy: Blame those lower down the line, like the signallers and trackers, liaison officers and drivers… They recited a list. Including recommendations to sack, discipline, cancel leave, dock pay for not meeting KPIs, no CNY holidays.

Quake was about to go ballistic. So now, they’re sacrificing their men, he thought.

He was never one for a cowardly retreat. He would rather die on his sword. Even if it was a ceremonial one. He couldn’t contain himself and machine-gunned the room. With Hokkien expletives.

The War Room went quiet. A map of the North-South line fluttered down from the wall. Someone had forgot to superglue it. It was a bad sign. A line had been breached.

 

The PR case for Casey

In News Reports on January 23, 2014 at 12:34 am

So Singapore’s most reviled expat Anton Casey has hired Fulford, a public relations firm, to burnish his tattered image. His “case’’ has made headlines in the United Kingdom so that his home country knows what a loud lout he’s been in Singapore. Even his company has come out to distance itself from him. Since he has apologised etc and we good Singaporeans should really move on but can’t seem to, here’s some unsolicited advice for his PR firm to help out their client.

a)     Give a back story. Hopefully, he grew up poor in some back alley and made good. A rags to riches story which Singaporeans always like to read about because that’s what we want to go through too. Then somehow he forgot his “roots’’ and lost his way. Now he’s seen the light. Wonderful fairy-tale. Grimm-like.

b)    Get his clients to give testimonials of his good behaviour. Like how he offered a client a lift in his Porsche when the client’s Ferrari was in the workshop.

c)     Start a twitter storm to “forgive Anton’’, just like a supposed member of the Anonymous collective is said to have done to get the G to release the vandals who thought they were helping out Guy Fawkes. Okay, there was no storm…but maybe the PR firm can summon a drizzle.

d)    Do a YouTube video with Anton facing the camera. Without makeup. Insert words like “sorry’’, “apology’’, “never again’’, “contrite’’, “self-flagellation’’ and “absolutely stupid’’.

e)     Have Anton join the integration council on fostering relations between foreigners and locals. Better still, have him join a community centre’s lion dance troupe so everyone can see him in action in smelly places like hawker centres in this coming weeks.

f)       Have him volunteer with SMRT to guide passengers in the stations. Better still, activate him only when trains break down. That should keep him very busy.  

g)     Get him to auction off his Porsche with proceeds going to ComCare.  This is to allow poor people to buy soap for their once-a-week shower.

h)    Let him start a parenting course in which he will emphasise the need to exercise good judgment when speaking to children. Give him the Dads for Life stickers to hand out at bus interchanges.

i)       Let him star in a musical, Beauty and the Beast, that is, if his Miss Singapore Universe wife wants to help him out. Sure sell out tickets! Proceeds will go to the Public Transport Fund.

Hey, Fulford, if you do the above, you’re worth every cent of what he’s paying you. Which is how much ah? 

Shame on the Home team

In News Reports on January 22, 2014 at 2:26 am

As a daughter of a cop, I’ve always had a soft spot for the men and women in blue. Sure, I make fun of them mercilessly, but it was done without malice. Hey, I even tried to get an SPF scholarship way back when but the misogynists didn’t take in women then…

So when people start hammering our policemen for running away from rioters in Little India, I preferred to hold my counsel. It can’t be easy to confront a crazed mob and they did get the beleaguered bus driver and conductor to safety after all. All the questions about whether the rioters were fuelled by drink or whether repressed sentiments were coming out in the open are important no doubt. But I happen to agree with the G that the more important thing was how our law enforcement people reacted.

I am sure there were acts of bravery. Individual courage in the course of carrying out one duties is to be applauded and commended. More important, however, is whether the “system’’ is robust enough to withstand or react to a shock or an unprecedented event. In this case, I cannot  fathom the reasons for the close to one-hour delay in getting the Special Operations Command guys to Little India when the riot happened. According to ST, DPM Teo “explained’’ (why did ST use this word instead of plain “said’’?) that it was “reaction, decision-making and travel time’’ that accounted for the time.

Consider this:

a)     It took the police chiefs 19 minutes to assess whether the SOC should or should not go. DPM Teo said that if they were “deployed for one thing, then you may not deploy them for another thing’’. I wonder how many “things’’ could be happening that night that would warrant the SOC’s attention.

b)    DPM Teo said that some SOC troops were at their base on “high alert’’ and can be activated within minutes, but one group was out on patrol that day.

c)     So when the decision was made to deploy, the officers “recollected themselves and then deployed’’. What gives? So many SOC guys were out on patrol that the fellows at the station couldn’t go to the scene without them? Is this because some bureaucracy or red tape is involved? You need to collect all the men, give a briefing and then distribute instruction notes? Can’t be!

d)    Then DPM says that Singapore might be small but it does “take time to move from one place to another’’. How come? The SOC trucks didn’t have their sirens on? Other vehicles won’t give way? The roads were blocked by illegally-parked cars?

In the meantime, 23 vehicles were damaged, including three burnt. It was Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Kiang who asked about the one-hour response time. It was a legitimate question and the rest of the House should have joined in in asking for clarification. No one did. Hopefully, this is something that the Committee of Inquiry will get to the bottom of.

The question remains: whether our system is resilient (uurrrgh…hate the word but it’s most appropriate in this instance) enough to react to the unexpected. Have our policemen become so used to routine and day-to-day work in peaceful Singapore that they cannot react fast enough to something new? I sure hope our men in green aren’t like that. You train in peacetime to prepare for unforeseen eventualities that you sincerely hope will not occur. But if they do, you get up and get going. Quickly please.

I wanted to write this yesterday but I didn’t have the time. Now is as good a time to do so given the tragic-comedy over the past few days involving a Malaysian woman driver who “slipped’’ through Woodlands checkpoint. Now I would have thought that border security would have been stepped up over the year, given that our neighbours in the north have let out those it had detained without trial.  Surely, we need an even stronger perimeter to prevent undesirables from entering?

I don’t know enough about the layout of Woodlands checkpoint but I gather it’s not easy to speed off without getting your passport looked at. So simply tailgating a vehicle is enough to “slip’’ through customs and immigration… There are too many questions here. Is the ICA only trained in sniffing out drug couriers and importers of exotic animals? Are the officers trained to stop drivers going in and out? Two minutes is too long a time for an alarm to be sounded that someone had intruded. You start wondering if the officers were standing around in “disbelief’’ and whether they had to tackle some red tape like alerting their superiors before taking action.

Never mind that. What happened in those missing three days? Maybe I’ve been watching too many crime movies but you would have thought all patrol cars would have been alerted to red Malaysian-registered car prowling the country illegally. It had been caught on CCTV at the checkpoint, it seems. Apparently, there was an “island-wide alert’’. I’ll stretch it further. Even if the patrol men can’t find the car, the police could have engaged the services of our cabbies to be on the lookout. As for those cameras around the island, are they only for nabbing speeding motorists?

Now, it’s not clear what happened but the woman driver tailgated a taxi driver who seemed to have driven straight to Police Cantonment Complex. Seems he had the presence of mind to drive there. And seems that the cops were waiting too. But the policemen were waiting for a “tailgater’’ not an intruder. Because they didn’t recognise her or her car despite the “island-wide alert’’.

It’s even more unclear what happened next. So she drove from Cantonment Road to Minden Road where the Foreign ministry is based. That’s quite a distance and the cops could have caught up with her if they had given chase – which they didn’t. Anyone who has been to the Foreign ministry would know that it is mighty difficult to slip through. No, she didn’t have to crash through any barrier, she simply tailgated another car. The scene that must have followed would have made for a good movie. Two cars driven by security chasing her round the compound before finally boxing her in.

So who is she? A 27-year Malaysian teacher from Kuala Lumpur who is a bit “mental’’, it seems.

DPM Teo, fresh from facing Parliament on the riots and appealing to people not to “indulge in speculation’’ on what happened, has come out to express his “deep dissatisfaction’’. He slammed both the commissioners of ICA and the Police for the way this was handled/or not handled. I wonder what’s the coded meaning behind “deep dissatisfaction’’. Thank goodness he did not say it was a “regrettable’’ incident and he was sorry that it happened…  Because we are all sorry that it happened.

The ICA deputy commissioner said he was “disappointed’’ by the incident. Eh?  Where’s a proper apology when you are expecting one?

I am sure some people will have a field day demanding that heads roll, and I am inclined to join the chorus. If this “lapse’’ is not symptomatic of some kind of systems breakdown, then I don’t know what is. It would be ironic if our law enforcement agencies and their officers are taking peace and security for granted.

 You know, I can take any kind of policy screw-up and acknowledge that not everything can go smoothly or be “perfect’’ as Ms Josephine Teo put it. But I do expect “perfection’’ and “smooth execution’’ in matters of law and order. That’s the basic duty of the state.   

     

Parliamentary pieces

In News Reports on January 20, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Or what you need to know about what happened in Parliament

That bed crunch

It’s old people lah. More of them over the years taking up beds in hospitals and spending more and more time there. Well, that’s the answer given by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on why the bed crunch happened. For evidence: the proportion of patients aged 65 and above admitted to public hospitals rose from 28.6 per cent in 2006 to 33.4 per cent last year. Now you would have thought everyone knew Singapore was greying. And why use 2006 as a year of comparison? For dramatic effect? What was it last year? The proportion couldn’t have suddenly jumped! Also, he didn’t address the question of why this happened at the year end? Is it because their families don’t want them disturbing their festivities?

Solutions proposed: More beds of course and a “transformation’’ of the healthcare system away from a hospital-centric one. That’s been suggested over the years – to focus on primary care and step-down care. Perhaps, a reason people like staying in hospital is because it is heavily subsidised and they can use Medisave and Medishield. Seems that the current health financing should be skewed towards the other two ends of the system to get patients out of acute hospitals. That’s one for the Medishield Life review committee.

That riot

So was it drink? The G said there were “indications’’ that alcohol was one thing that fuelled the riots in Little India but would rather leave it to the courts to ascertain. Seems the House can’t quite decide on the right way to control alcohol consumption and sales. Workers’ Party’s Pritam Singh seems to be advocating a lifting of the restrictions in the area or that the rules be applied “across the board’’. Is he worried that the rules looked like only Indian nationals were being targeted? So the misery should be spread around to keep everybody dry? Anyway, the police are getting more powers to control the alcohol restrictions. For a year. And only in Little India.   

So was it abuse of foreign workers? The G said there was “no basis’’ for concluding that this was a cause of the riot. For evidence: the Manpower ministry helped some 7,000 foreign workers with difficulties last year, or less than 1 per cent of the 700,000 work permit holders. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) referred about 640 cases of mistreatment, or less than 0.1 per cent of work permit holders. “I therefore find it puzzling as to how some individuals can so quickly conclude or criticise that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; or that these were the reasons for the riot,” said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin.

Anyway, more recreational centres with amenities such as remittance services and supermarkets will be built to add to the current four centres for foreign workers. No, don’t know how many. Don’t know when or where.

That expressway

The good news: ERP rates along the Marina Coastal Expressway and the East Coast Parkway, which goes as high as $6, will be revised. This was the G’s response MP Liang Eng Hwa, who pointed out that traffic speeds on the two expressways exceeded 65kmh at certain times of the day. Thank you, Mr Liang! Now when will this happen? In “due course’’. Seems the LTA conducts a review of traffic conditions on roads and expressways with ERP gantries every quarter. Let’s hope the ERP rates are coming down sooner than that.

As for the MCE, you’ve heard all the reasons for the jams in the initial days of operations. They remain the same: Not enough pre-publicity and not enough signs. Not because of design.  

“I think that was a premature conclusion; if indeed there had been a design flaw, we would likely have seen congestion not only on that particular morning, but on a number of mornings to follow and perhaps even in the evenings as well,” said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.

Bus/train fares: Making a left turn

In News Reports on January 16, 2014 at 10:55 pm

So the bus/train fare increases are out, based on new formulas devised by the Fare Review Committee. What would they have been under the old formula? Dunno. Should be higher since the old formula used inflation which included the cost of cars, rather than “core inflation’’. In any case, the G maintains that the new fares are at the level of 10 to 15 years ago, if anyone still remembers what they paid then.  

Here are some things you might have missed while you’re trying to figure out how much you have to pay for your usual bus/train trips from April 6.

  1. The 3.2 per cent increase is less than the 6.6 per cent the transport operators asked for and what the fare formula dictates. Don’t think that your fare per se will go up by 3.2 per cent. It refers to the extra revenue that the operators want. What 3.2 per cent means: $53.5 million for the two operators.
  2. The other 3.4 per cent increase will be “rolled over’’ to next year. So does this mean it will be 3.4 per cent plus whatever the formula says for 2014? According to the PTC, the 2014 rate should be “negative’’ or -0.3 per cent, according to its “estimates’’. That means next year’s rise should be 3.1 per cent.  Remember that!
  3. Transport fares have actually got more affordable over the years. They might have gone up in dollars and cents, but not as a proportion of total spending. Really.
  4. It’s cheaper, very much cheaper, to use CARD, not cash.
  5. There’s a new Adult Monthly Travel Pass which anyone can apply for. It’s $120 a month for unlimited travel. You might want to check what your transport bill is like under the new fare structure before jumping too quickly to buy one.
  6. There’s a new $60 a month card for senior citizens. Also for unlimited travel.
  7. A whole lot of new concessions were introduced which should make polytechnic students in particular very happy because their fares get cut by half.
  8. If you are on Workfare Income Supplement, you can get a 15 per cent discount off fares. If you are disabled, you get 25 per cent off. That starts from July 6 and is funded by the G. Yes, both are new schemes. G payout: $50 million.
  9. In the meantime, this group can  apply to community centres for transport vouchers. Some 250,000 vouchers worth $7.5 million will be available. That’s funded by the Public Transport Fund which the operators contribute to. Operator payout: $11.5 million.

There’s a contradiction between the ST report and what the PTC says. ST said that the $11.5 million will come from the $53.5 million extra revenue the operators will get with the fare increase. But the PTC said in its press statement that the “gain in revenue does not include money to be set aside by the operators for the Public Transport Fund’’.  Guess the operators will have to get the money from elsewhere…

The interesting thing about this exercise is that while the operators will get a $53.5 million revenue rise; the G is subsidising some commuters to the tune of $50million. This special group is known in transport jargon speak as LWW or low wage workers and PWD or person with disabilities. Yucks. Ugly acronyms…

That’s real good of the G. It’s turning left…

But I’m hoping a transport economist weighs in. What does this mean? That the G is actually footing most of the total fare rise through its subsidies for the two groups or what?  So hard to figure out or maybe I am just stupid. I would be more than happy to be corrected and labelled stupid.

Anyway, for the commuter, you will know what all the numbers mean to your pocket on April 6.

 

Thrown to the dogs Part 2

In News Reports on January 16, 2014 at 11:00 am

 I have been thinking through what the ST Readers’ Editor said in Monday’s edition defending the commentary which mentioned North Korean Kim’s uncle being eaten by dogs. I know I’ve written about it before, chiefly to say that the ST could have got itself out of the mess if it had simply written a news story on the stories being circulated on the mode of execution first, and then do a commentary later.

But I am not satisfied. Because the ST’s defence of the commentary including turning journalism on its head. Some people have written about it already so maybe I am not adding anything new. But let me just go over the piece line by line. Bear with me please because ST’s defence is like a cabbage, many layers of overlapping big and small leaves. Have to peel off.  

MR CHING Cheong, a Straits Times senior writer and an old China hand, didn’t see it coming and neither did his supervising editors when they signed off on one of his regular commentaries about East Asia which the paper published on Christmas eve last month (“Jang’s execution bodes ill for China”). His piece lit up the Western media shortly after the new year but not in a way he meant because they were piqued by its peg rather than its point.  

In other words, no editor saw anything to worry about. Funny. If the anecdote about the ravenous dogs is new, surely it would have been worth a story on its own? News instincts should have kicked in, as it did for the foreign media – unfortunately. There is nothing wrong with being piqued by the peg rather than the point. In fact, many news stories have been developed from pegs contained in long-winded features, because the writer did not see their news significance.

After a few paragraphs reprising the supposed execution by dogs, the article goes on to say:

It wasn’t so much the horrid tale that prompted Mr Ching to use it in his commentary but the fact that the story was picked up by Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po newspaper which Mr Ching knew to be a proxy for purveying China’s political attitude. Forty-eight hours later, The Global Times, another Beijing proxy, launched a second broadside by rebuking Pyongyang for the primitivity of its political system. The two timed attacks convinced Mr Ching that China was signalling that it had had enough; Beijing was recusing itself from the thankless task of tamping the lunatic unpredictability of East Asia’s political wildebeest on behalf of the world.

So the defence is that it wasn’t whether the content was true or false, but Wen Wei Po’s decision to publish it in all its grisly detail. The writer “knew’’ Wen Wei Po to be a proxy of China, so the assumption is that Beijing either directed the publication or at least closed one eye. Note that this is an assumption. I find it incredibly funny. It is like how ST has always been tagged as a G-controlled newspaper and mouthpiece of the G. Does this mean that whatever is published by the ST is a reflection of G thinking or direction? Surely, even the ST editors would disagree with this. The writer has no way or knowing whether Beijing did or did not have a hand in the hungry hounds story. It was an assumption. The same kind of assumption that ST dislikes being used on itself.

As for the second piece of “evidence’’ of Beijing’s displeasure, the Global Times did not mention the hungry hounds in its editorial. So an assumption must be made that accusations of “primitivity’’ refers to the mode of execution. If Beijing really wanted to signal its displeasure, it would have done better using its unabashed up-front People’s Daily. Wen Wei Po? What’s that?

Then the ST got nasty…

Until Mr Ching’s commentary, major  Western media were oblivious to the story. Blame it on the long festive holiday out West or the likelihood that most journalistic grunts manning the frontlines of Western media cannot read  Chinese. If they did, they would have caught the story in  prominent Chinese-language publications like Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and Taiwan’s China Times which had published it well before Mr Ching included it in his commentary. A third possibility, that the West ignored the story because they knew it wasn’t true, is unlikely. If they had, then the major media on both sides of the Atlantic would not have subsequently gobbled up the story virtually unverified, the very same reason critics scolded  The Straits Times for doing. In the United States, NBC News, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, online’s The Daily Beast and the Washington Post ran or reacted to the tale. Ditto the Daily Mail, the London Evening Standard and the Guardian in Britain. These publications copied the story from Mr Ching’s commentary, and largely credited the tale’s traction to The Straits Times.

It was unnecessary – and unworthy – of a paper like the ST to take such a swipe at fellow professionals. Perhaps the Western media did not run the story not because they were too busy carousing or can’t read Chinese or that they “missed’’ it, but because the ST had chosen to run it. Perhaps, they viewed ST as an authoritative source on Asia and decided that if ST had used the anecdote, maybe there was something to it after all. So, it seemed the Western media’s trust in ST was misplaced in this case.

The article added that HK’s Apple Daily and Taiwan’s China Times had run it too, way before ST ran the commentary. Now this begs the question of why the writer did not include these “sources’’ in the commentary – or was it because they were not “Beijing-backed’’?

It was unfortunate but understandable that they mined Mr Ching’s article for the news they missed, rather than for the reason ST published it. News drives media content and commands a hefty premium on readers’ attention. So, the first sniff for media professionals like editors and journalists when they hunt for content globally is usually directed at information, raw and reflexive, rather than analysis which requires focus and reflection. What could be meatier than a bizarre, undiscovered anecdote about men being used as canine fodder that ratchets up the imagination and reels in the reader; and plausible too, given Pyongyang’s Kim-quilted reputation for Caligulan depravity? Thus was Mr Ching, and ST, caught in the crosshairs of criticism for rushing to print without verifying the “truth”.

This is damn odd. Of course editors mine for news, not analysis. That’s why they print news first, and do their own analysis later. Unlike ST which in this case fused both. And then the article goes into the existential question of what is the truth….a huge cabbage leave. Or is it fig leaf?

But the truth in media is as much a function of opinion as it is of fact. These two elements meet in the newspaper, sometimes with conflicting consequences, as Mr Ching’s article showed. Readers often think that newspapers must publish only the ultimate Tao – unimpeachably verified facts – and if they do not, editors and journalists are being tardy and unprofessional. In fact (and this is technically an opinion, see what I mean?), truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey. In practice, getting the facts to tell the truth can be next to impossible anywhere.

So many words but what do they mean? Do readers really expect the truth? Or just the facts? If it is indeed the case that readers expect the Tao of truth, there would be no newspapers at all. That is why news media have a clear distinction between fact and opinion. A commentary is an opinion or analysis based on facts. The only fact here is that Wen Wei Bo published the story. Is that piece of information enough for the writer to build a case? No, because he cannot show that China directed it. Was Kim’s uncle killed by dogs? The article does not say yes or no, but sought to cover itself with the distant “according to Wen Wei Bo’’. Is it too much for readers to expect that the writer point out that this was the story supposedly put out by Wen Wei Bo, which did not state how it got the information? So ST is reporting hearsay.  

It virtually is in a closeted state like North Korea.  Also, facts may not necessarily be accepted as the whole truth and nothing but, even if they are certifiable. The reason is that a publication not only reports what happens, it also publishes what it – or any number of people – thinks happened.

Now, really! This defence would cover reporting gossip, rumours and speculation. So if enough people think that the G is really out to do in the poor, would ST publish this? Or if enough people think the Little India riot was caused by discrimination against foreign workers – and that’s why it happened. Would it publish it, like the New York Times did and got a rebuke from the G? You might as well depend on social media for all your “news’’ if so. Hmm….    

The truth can be opaque in nations with an open media as well. Otherwise, the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy should no longer be a story that remains muddled and addled by the lack of “truth”, 50 years on. The only certifiable truth is that he was shot dead. The rest remains, well, opinion.

Except that a commission of inquiry was held and certain facts were ascertained. Any major controversy would have its share of conspiracy theorists – but do major newspapers publish them because they “believe’’ them or enough people “believe’’ them?

If one were to read Mr Ching’s commentary from the first word to the last, it is plain that he was offering an opinion of what the latest political tea leaves were presaging about China, not a definitive news report about how Jang was killed..

Ah. But if even professional journalists are confused about whether he is offering an opinion based on the facts, what more the laymen?

To be sure, the article should have offered a clearer layer of caution apart from scrupulous attribution. Given the incredulity of the tale, the article should have declared the story’s lack of independent verification

Here’s where the “sorry’’ should have come in.  It didn’t, enmeshed as it was in this whole tale of what is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Could the ST have fixed the story?  Yes. For example: A grisly tale was published in Wen Wei Bo over the death of Kim’s uncle. The newspaper, widely known to be a mouthpiece of Beijing, claimed that sources told the newspaper that he had been torn apart and eaten by dogs. Whether this is to be believed or not, the fact that the newspaper published showed one point: China is upset by North Korea. (Except that there is no evidence to show that China had a hand in this…) Then follows yet another cabbage leaf…

Still, the critics who insist that ST should have established iron-clad validity prior to publication should also ask themselves why they would dismiss this version of events, and believe the first. Both were premised on assumption, not factual verification.  If truth in publication is predicated solely on facts, no account of the way  in which No. 2  was executed should have seen print. Every version thus far is based on conjecture. Pyongyang’s official version did not say how he died, only that he did. Even if a formal description had been issued, could it be believed? It would have originated from the same official agency  which reported as fact that Kim Ill Sung – founder of Pyongyang’s communist dynasty and the current Kim’s late grandfather – was conceived divinely and saved the world by the mere fact of his birth.

So if Pyongyang said he was devoured by dogs, would anyone believe it? It’s immaterial. The fact is that it came from Pyongyang, not a newspaper citing unnamed sources. You have to take what the “authority’’ says at face value. It’s the same if the G arrests people under the Internal Security Act because they are deemed security/terrorist risks. The media can ask for evidence. If the G doesn’t give up proof, the media will have to take what the G said at face value and leave it to the readers to decide. Quoting Pyongyang and quoting Wen Wei Bo is not quite the same thing.

 It is true that a newspaper’s duty and credibility depend on getting the facts right. It is equally true that the inability to verify the accuracy of a story may still require a newspaper to run it because of the tale’s portent. For better or for worse,  this is the Tao of media practice, which is the daily grapple in deciding how to offer readers an informed, best guess about what happened and why, when there is no factual way of knowing. That was what Mr Ching did and ST published, as most reliable  newspapers would.  

So many cabbage leaves by now to obscure the fact that ST should have just apologised for not making its commentary clearer.  Or at least issue a clarification.  The thing is, this “defence’’ has given short shrift to the work of  journalists, which is really verification, verification, verification. It is a hard slog. And honourable work. If something cannot be verified, you do not print. Full stop.  As for publishing an “informed, best guess’’, I am appalled. Because it makes the work of a professional journalist no different from my current hobby, blogging.     

 

Random thoughts on today’s news

In News Reports on January 14, 2014 at 12:11 am

Sometimes, things strike me as I’m reading the news reports. I don’t know if the same things would strike you but I thought I’ll just share them. 

A Bishan maisonette has just been sold off to a couple for $1.05million, which is $250,000 over valuation! This, in the days of property loan curbs! More interesting tid-bit in the ST story is that there are 285 “landed’’ “public’’ homes here. A corner terrace house in Whampoa recently fetched $1.02million. They were built by HDB’s predecessor, Singapore Improvement Trust. Who are these lucky fellas who are sitting pretty in them!?!    

Wow! Strong words in court: “Mercifully he passed away… and did not have to witness the proverbial washing of his family’s dirty linen in public.” That was from Justice Quentin Loh who said the sons of the late Singapore scouting pioneer Dennis Goh had instigated the suit to get their sisters removed as joint owners of the Clementi flat he left behind.

Am tempted to talk about a man who wanted to light his girl’s fire but chose to set her alight but it doesn’t seem very PC. Anyway, the scorned and love-lorn ex-cabby pleaded guilty yesterday. Here’s what’s interesting: The man, who was suffering from a major depressive disorder, had been detained not once, but three times, under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows suspects to be held in custody without trial, according to ST. This provision is for people considered a danger to society. Hmm…

The Thai teen who lost her case against SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) may not have to pay trial costs which amount to more than $200,000. That is, if the teen, who lost her legs in the accident, doesn’t appeal, said SMRT and LTA. That seems like a lot of money to deter anyone…It’s a warning that the girl is going to have to pay through her nose if she fails again in the next round. Or it’s a plea to her to think very carefully about whether she really has a case against them. All that would really depend on how her lawyer advises her. Got case or no case? Can get that $3.4m in damages or not? The authorities should come out quickly with those guidelines on legal costs as promised by the Chief Justice earlier this year. I still can’t get over the fact that the two doctors who sued Mindef for infringing their copyright for mobile medical stations said they stopped pursuing the case because they ran out of money to fight it…

Our schools are good. No, they’re great going by the O level scores of the 2013 cohort.  Of the 34,124 who took the exam, 82.7 per cent attained at least five passes, matching the record set in 2004, said ST. That’s the big picture. What about the weaker students? According to TODAY,  the 4,170 students from Normal (Academic) course who sat for one or more subjects, 90.3 per cent have obtained at least one O-Level pass. Is this an improvement? Maybe, we should turn out attention to this group of students next and see how we can help them level “up’’?

New transport fares are going to be announced on Thursday and the G is promising help for the lower income. They can expect fares to go down to the levels of 10 to 15 years ago. Anyone remember what that was like? The thing is, the G talks about public transport vouchers again. Now if I remember correctly, hundreds of vouchers in the past hadn’t even been taken up…Either people really don’t need them – or there wasn’t a good plan to get them to the needy. Perhaps, that should be fixed first.

Here’s an ST Forum letter writer’s appeal: “We have the police force to protect us from bullies. So why not set up a social media police force to protect us from cyber bullies?’’ Who wants to apply for the job?