Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

A bigger slice of a bigger pie

In News Reports on May 31, 2014 at 2:12 am

Looks like the whole system is bearing down on employers to pay more. So if you are paying workers less than $1,000 a month, give them $60 more, said NWC. (And did you give them that $60 last year? And the $50 the year before? What? You did? And they still make less than $1,000 a month?!? Shame on you!)

I wish I knew exactly how many workers have benefited from the NWC recommendations. Most times, MSM gives just the proportion of employers who have done/or will carry out the proposals. I can’t tell exactly how many bosses because BT and TODAY reported that eight in 10 “private establishments’’ said okay last year, up from six in 10 in 2012. Then ST threw in a confusing six in 10, up from three in 10, and also said that in the unionised sector, it was nine in 10.

Sigh. (I believe the six in 10 refers to non-unionised companies – wonder if they are big companies with plenty of the lowly-paid. NTUC should go take a big stick to them)

In any case, employers who are still dragging their feet can turn to the Wage Credit Scheme which will co-fund pay rises (for those below $4,000 a month). So there’s some help there. And if they’re in the security, cleaning and landscaping business, they have to get on the Progressive Wage model and start paying more if they want to get more business. That’s a push factor. 

Employers probably wish the NWC went back to the good old days of giving “qualitative’’ instead of quantitative guidelines and advised low basic pay but to give bonuses in good times. Remember this term MVC? Merit Variable Component? The term has been marginalised. Thank goodness because I could never grapple with it.

The NWC had seemed so weighted in favour of helping bosses (who, predictably, always say they aren’t doing well, and if they are, will say they don’t expect to do as well..). Its past proposals were aimed at helping the whole economy grow, never mind if people in some sectors earn less than $1,000 a month. Just grow the pie! Don’t worry about how it’s sliced!

Well, it’s been singing a different tune in recent years.

I would really like to see some absolute numbers on those who earn $1,000 a month . According to TODAY, there are 150,000 people earning below $1,000 a month, going by 2012 statistics. The number should be coming down. By how many? And how many more in future?

And is this the…ummm…. definition of “poor’’ ?

Apparently, the labour movement has been lobbying for the threshold to be raised to $1,200 a month.  It thinks others in the bottom 20 per cent of workers need help too. In fact, it wants a tiered increase. So it should be $60 or 5 to 6 per cent for those earning below $1,000 a month, and it should be 2 to 3 per cent for those earning up to, say, $1,500 a month.

Well, while the NWC merely said bosses should give “special consideration’’ to this lot, nothing’s stopping the NTUC from taking that position in collective bargaining. It will be good if it does, and show workers that it has done so, hopefully by the time the NWC guidelines come around next year.

Looking at the news reports, the bosses look like they are trying very hard not to scream blue murder. (Note that they would also have to pay more in CPF contributions soon and they don’t know how the changes to Medishield and CPF Life might hit them.)  

There are mutterings about how wages must go up in tandem with productivity increases. That’s true. Rise in real wages have started outstripping productivity which is still in negative territory but by a smaller margin. But I think looking at only the wood means neglecting the trees. We’re talking about the lowest segment of people here who have had to fight with foreign workers for work. Economists say that for them, it’s a wage catch-up – not a productivity lag. The NWC, after all,  isn’t giving a blanket guideline for all workers like it used to in the good/bad old days.

Now, before we members of the proletariat start berating our bosses and other people’s bosses, we’ve got to remember that some of us are “bosses’’ too. We hire cleaners via the town council and the condominium management committee. If we want to pay our cleaners and security guards more, the money will have to come from us somehow, whether in higher service and conservancy charges or management fees.

When the time comes to “collect’’, will we say yes?   

Keep politics out by keeping policies simple

In News Reports on May 30, 2014 at 4:12 am

From reading the dispersed parliamentary reports in MSM, I think it was MP Baey Yam Keng who made the most interesting speech yesterday. Now, we’ve heard enough about this word called “trust’’ – the erosion, lack of and how to raise levels and all that.

A lot of it are exhortations to the G (and its civil servants) to do better at emphatising with the lot of the common man, by climbing out of ivory towers and putting their ear to the ground. Then there is the flip side: That trust is eroded because of distortions, untruths and a whole lot of drumming – so can everyone just get their facts right?

But I think Mr Baey hit the nail on the head when he talked about better communications and more importantly, HOW to engage in it. The former public relations practitioner talked about making sure policies are in tune with human behaviour and psychology, rather than micro-calibrated to ensure maximum mileage and minimum wastage. He said, for example, it required 16 spreadsheets to explain the different ERP charges here, while London’s Congestion Charge was a flat ten pounds.

Likewise, the initial euphoria over the Pioneer Generation Package appears to have dissipated because of its intricacies which even those tasked to explain find difficult to articulate.

According to ST, he gave this example:

The Pioneer package subsidises MediShield Life premiums and tops up Medisave accounts but this may not be used by healthy seniors.

Instead, the package could have given pioneers free treatment for common chronic diseases in Class C or B2 wards, he said.

This might cost the Government the same as what the actual package did, but would better reassure the 450,000 pioneer Singaporeans as it is easier to understand.

I think the package was done that way to be “fair’’ – so whether you have chronic illness or not, everyone still gets a top-up.  Also, it looks “better’’ than a direct handout, like free treatment for seniors. Good points, but they also make it “difficult’’ for people to grasp what the G is trying to do.

Or take the CPF system. So many conditions and caveats, different withdrawal sums and uses, different accounts and interest rates  – how can anyone truly grasp what the policy is about or remember every step of what will happen to your CPF once you hit 55? Try reading about CPF Life and see if you can figure out how it will apply to you.      

Thing is, policies have become mightily complicated. They start with a sound objective and then other objectives are later grafted on to them. Then it is engineered such that it is not open to abuse, even if the possibility is small.  Then it is criss-crossed with means testing and criteria to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake according to, say, household type, age group, monthly income, ward class ecetera. Then it is criss-crossed again by how much to give out, for what purpose, time period and so forth.   

It’s just like taxi fares! So many levies, time slots and varying starting charges by different companies that the only thing people remember is “don’t take the big black cab because it is definitely more expensive’’. But, hey, that’s the private sector and we are mere consumers who have to abide by caveat emptor.

But with G policies, it’s different. I reckon there is mistrust when policies become complicated because:

  1. People think the G isn’t really serious about “giving’’ because it is making it so hard for people to do the “taking’’.
  2. People will start looking at other people who also benefit from the policy and wonder if they have been given a fair shake, or whether some discriminatory standards have been applied. In other words, why him and not me?
  3. People who can’t understand one point will seldom bother to find out about it themselves, preferring that others – who can be less reliable – tell them. Remember that most people only read headlines – which might also not be reliable!  
  4. People will add more objectives to policies simply because the policies already have so many – and therefore can afford to have more. The G will have hands full explaining why it can’t do that.

 When policies are so complicated, why is anyone surprised that there is so much misinformation about them? Even The Straits Times can’t explain the Wage Credit Scheme properly (see earlier post). And consultancies have sprouted up to dispense advice on how to use the Productive and Innovation Credit more productively and even innovatively.   

 It’s easy enough to say that people should check their facts before mouthing off. Yes, they should but not everyone can do this, and some might even not be inclined to. We haven’t reached that level of sophistication and even fluency when we can debate effectively with facts at our fingertips although some of us try to.

I happen to think it is good politics to simply try and ensure that policies CAN’T be misunderstood in the first place.  Make it simple.  In fact, make it somewhat “intuitive’’ as well. I would like to add that I am also guilty of asking for more checks and so forth on G policy especially on subsidies and handouts. I wonder especially about the WCS and other grants that don’t seem to have factored in an element of accountability on the part of the receiver.

So the G has to make a call – keep things simple and stand its ground when others lobby for more – or less or risk doing a patch up job and then unravelling everything and going back to basics.

I acknowledge that this will be a tough job.

This is just my one cent worth of opinion in the name of constructive politics.    

De-constructing constructive politics

In News Reports on May 27, 2014 at 2:52 am

The trouble with constructive politics is the word “constructive’’. You can’t very well not be in favour of it. So everybody of whatever political stripe does homage to the President’s use of the phrase in his address to Parliament. But what it consists of is a different matter entirely. You see, you can put any kind of construction on what is constructive politics depending on your point of view and your agenda.

So to Workers Party, constructive politics cannot be of the “bullying’’ kind with the subtext that the PAP is a bully with unfair resources on its side. And the PAP talks about integrity because it seems to have found some kind of wrong-doing in the WP which it isn’t quite saying…Both sides are really being extremely constructive.

Now when the President spoke of constructive politics, he was talking about how we can’t let differences pull us apart such that we’d be gridlocked and paralysed. We all have plenty of differences of opinion and I’m betting that the differences will widen over time, whether of the political kind, over religion and sexual orientation or between new and old citizens. I would like to think that that’s what the President is talking about – about how the nation with so many differences will be able to say: let’s stop arguing, agree to disagree, move ahead on this – or move on to the next thing.

I was hoping to see Parliament discuss these differences and how to narrow them through informed discourse but it appears that the political parties are only vying to see which one puts Singaporeans first. They are talking to each other, not to the people.  

(I congratulate Mr Tan Jee Say for his brainwave of a name for his political party. I can’t wait to see how MPs will try NOT to use it in Parliament.)

Constructive politics means – and this is only my one cent opinion – that we can talk from different points of view in a civilised manner and still agree on the way forward. Unlike what Mr Low said, that constructive politics cannot happen “through a national conversation or public consultation’’, I happen to think they are useful tools to determine the will of the people, beyond voting every four or five years. I wish politicians and office-holders would refer more to the values and aspirations that have been distilled through the year-long Our Singapore Conversation when they make their speeches or policy pronouncements. Surely, they point to the light at the end of the tunnel and can be a basis for most conversations?

Okay, I have some personal constructions on what is constructive politics. One would be how it has to embrace an active citizenry, which includes  advocacy and not just volunteerism. I have often felt that the G would rather we shut up and just hand out face masks.  This is not constructive politics. Citizens want a say and have views too. To do this “constructively’’, they need access to information and proper responses – not cavalier descriptions of them as members of a “vocal minority’’.   

Of course, some of us put across our views in ways which are not flattering to either side of the political divide. The outer limit must, therefore, be the laws of defamation. I know this is one of “bullying’’ tactics thrown often at the PAP government but I cannot conceive of civilised discourse without some parameters. It’s hard enough to tell people that their views should be rational and based on fact not rumours. Surely, we can agree that we can do this without name-calling or disrespect.

If the powers that be resort to defamation suits too easily, then they can expect their credibility to be eroded. But if they have a case, they should take it to court. Note that smaller beings can also take the powers that be to court. It will be an expensive undertaking but it should be weighed against the worth of reputation. Then, we have to let the judiciary do its work. The day we believe or are sure that the judiciary is the Government’s play thing is the day we (at least I) should leave the country.

There is another aspect to constructive politics that doesn’t seem to have been well-enunciated – the role of the civil service. We read often now in MSM about how civil servants should have their ear to the ground and implement policies with the people in mind. I am glad that I no longer hear what used to be said in the past – that civil servants should EXPLAIN government policies. I have never thought that was the job of civil servants. Their fate should not be tied to that of their political masters. They should remain faceless, not appear on TV talkshows or give so many speeches, so that they can remain above the fray should there be a… hmmm… change at the top. We need to trust that this institution will remain rock-solid and separate – not part of the monolith that is the PAP government.  

I am going to stop here because Parliament is still debating the President’s  address. Anyway, here’s to constructive politics!

Words of mass destruction – a Singaporean lexicon

In Society, Writing on May 26, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Last night, I wrote on my Facebook wall that MSM will be full of constructive politics today so I started thinking about destructive politics. I came up with a list of what destructive people say. Some wags thought it instructive enough to add more to the construction. Therefore, here are the words of mass destruction – a term coined by another wag. Please take this constructively.
I am not xenophobic; I just don’t like foreigners
The Filipinos should not hold their independence day here, because it does not coincide with Singapore’s independence day
You can’t call yourself a Singapore unless you, your father and your grandfather were born here.
My son did badly in school because he is not in a good school
My son did badly in school because the exams were too tough
My son behaves badly because his teachers did not discipline him
Teachers cannot discipline my son because he happens to be MY son
If you are pro-family, you must be anti-gay
If you are gay, you can’t be pro-family
The nursing home should not be in my backyard because I can think of so many other places you can put it
Foreign workers should not be seen nor heard
If you praise a Government policy, you must be a PAP lackey
If you criticise a Government policy, you must be an oppie
If you stand in the middle, you must be Workers’ Party
Everything bad that happens to me is because of the Government, even that cut on my big toe
Everything good that happens to me is because of… me
Prices are high because ministers pay themselves high salaries
I pay so much to own and drive a car, so why should I subsidise public transport?
I am not eligible for an HDB flat, so why do I have to pay property tax?
Men should not do National Service, because the women don’t have to
Men of military age and women of child-bearing age should get the same perks in the name of equality
I don’t have great expectations, only rising aspirations
I want work-life balance because I studied so hard in school
I am all for free speech – when I like what I’m hearing
Vandalism is a manifestation of freedom of expression – when I like what I’m seeing
I must be reading the right stuff because I’m reading The Straits Times
I must be saying something right because the Government is suing me
I must be saying something right because the trolls are flaming me

Not as a check, but for a change?

In News Reports, Politics on May 26, 2014 at 1:33 am

I met Mr Tan Jee Say many moons ago when he was still serving in the Prime Minister’s Office. Like any good reporter hoping to establish a “contact”, I invited him out to lunch. He picked a really, really expensive place, way beyond my means and I wondered if my boss would approve of me putting up the lunch tab as an expense. I am really sorry but that was my most vivid initial recollection of the man who panicked a poor rookie reporter.

Now, he’s making waves again, much to the chagrin I believe of his ex-bosses in the G. First as an opposition party candidate, then a presidential candidate – and now as head of a new political party. I wonder why anyone would be surprised by his move. He’s already a written a book and is somewhat a fixture at Hong Lim Park events. In fact, his speeches are more electioneering than discursive, calling for an overthrow of the PAP G – through the ballot box of course.

What I’ve always remembered: How he kept maintaining that it was not true that the Opposition could not put up a credible Cabinet. Seems he’s done a scan of opposition members and their credentials to assert that the Opposition was more than ready to take over. I wonder what Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Kiang has to say to this. He’s been pretty circumspect, even modest, about the abilities of his party, which has the biggest opposition presence in Parliament. The WP strategy appears to be to act as a check and veer towards the centre, hence the grumbles that WP looks like PAP-lite.

So now we have Singapore First with a logo that some people say look like an ad for Walls’ ice cream. Never mind the jibes…What does it stand for? Looking at reports of its manifesto, I think Mr Tan and his merry band have simply tapped into a wave of sentiment that is currently prevailing in the “intellectual realm”. That is, to move away from treating citizens as economic digits. Add to this complaints that we look at relationships as “market transactions” and pay ministers like CEOs, you can see where the group is coming from.

It’s a good move to put the party on some kind of “ideological” footing even though some of its “initiatives” on universal healthcare et al aren’t original and have been espoused by other political parties. You can’t, however, define the ideologies of say the SDP or Reform Party (at least I can’t) As for the WP’s First World Parliament, it might have caught on in the last election but I’m not so sure it will next time. The people might no longer just want a check, but some sort of change too.

The PAP itself knows that the “economic” narrative, out and out capitalism and raw meritocracy isn’t what people are looking for. That’s why it has been okay about going for moderate economic growth instead of growth at all cost; why it now uses the term “compassionate” meritocracy with the President making it clear that Singapore is a home, not just a “global marketplace”. (Note: he didn’t use the term “hotel” which was a fave word of the past when EMI-gration, not IMMI-gration was a troubling subject.)

It’s also why it promised a more “social” agenda, pumping more money in the second half of the Parliamentary term into preserving a good retirement for the seniors and eliminating heart attacks via medical bills.

What can Mr Tan and his team offer? Looking at their credentials, they are offering PAP-grown clones with anti-PAP brains. Just tick off the scholars etc he has… Then again, he’s got a couple of cross-overs from other parties. People ask why he doesn’t just join a political party instead so that opposition votes won’t be diluted or split. I thought the answer would be obvious: He wants to head his own party with his own platform rather than subsume himself (and his ambitions) under others. In fact, he’s pitching for a coalition, with himself (?) at the head. This is a man with big, big plans. Not as a check, but for a change.

What happens from here? Seems after the party is registered (question: why didn’t he register it first and then publicise? In case, he can’t get it registered?) various policy papers are going to be put forth. I look forward to reading them, and seeing how they compare with other papers put up by the other parties and what the G is offering.

It’s good to be offered choices. But we’ve got to do plenty of thinking before doing the picking…

Wage credit story – no credit to ST

In News Reports on May 23, 2014 at 5:27 am

The trouble with G policies is that not many people can remember its intricacies or even link its rationale to implementation. That is, unless you can be bothered to go to original sources and do some research. So what do most people do then? They rely on professional journalists to get their facts right and also to set the facts in some kind of context. So it was with me and the workings of the Wage Credit Scheme as reported in The Straits Times.

The WCS has always been defined as a way to raise workers’ wages, by subsidising their increments. To be sure, it was controversial. The immediate reaction is that some employees, that is, those earning below $4,000 a month would see it as an entitlement. The G gives boss, boss must give me. As it turns out, not many companies do this,  as today’s ST report said.  

What would the ordinary reader think? First, why aren’t employers are not passing the “credit’’ directly to workers, which is what wonderful OCBC did with its $3m?  

The answer lies in the workings of the WCS which is not clearly enunciated in the ST story. Wages must go up FIRST, before the G gives employers any money. So if an employer raised wages by $100 a month, the G will give $40 back to the employer. It is for the employer to do what it wants with the $40, although the hope is that they will put it into programmes that will raise productivity and further raise the salaries of workers.

It is not the case that the money should form 40 per cent of pay increase, with the employer footing the other 60 per cent. If this was the case, the wage would actually go up not by, say, $100, but by $140.

That’s the first thing that should be explained to readers. It is really up to employers to decide what it wants to do with the money – although this itself is controversial. (You would expect some guidelines for employers who have been given taxpayers’ money. If not, it can used to build…. a koi pond? Buy a new Beemer?)

Therefore, ST’s story today really make me do a double-take. My immediate reaction: How can the G be so silly? And how can the bosses be so Machiavellian?

Here is the story:

COMPANIES have received their first payouts from a scheme that subsidises wage increases, but most large firms are unlikely to hand the money directly to employees. (The assumption is that they should. In any case, critical backgrounding is missing. It’s $800million that has gone out to 74,000 employers)

More than 10 prominent Singapore companies were contacted (out of 74,000 companies) about their plans for the first Wage Credit Scheme payout, which went out in March.

While almost all declined comment (sounds fishy), The Straits Times understands that many large companies are planning to channel the funds towards training and skills upgrading for staff. (Is this okay or not?)

Under the Wage Credit Scheme introduced in the 2013 Budget, the Government subsidises 40 per cent of pay rises given to Singaporean workers earning up to $4,000 a month. It expires next year. (This is not enough backgrounding as it makes it sound like future pay rises when it is not. The wage credit is given after employers furnish CPF proof that pay has gone up for a period of time)

The scheme came under the spotlight earlier this week when local lender OCBC Bank announced that it would be handing out its first $3 million payout to about 1,500 staff. (A press statement that the bank issued to make it look good) The bank is believed to be the first major company here to completely disburse the money to workers. (“believed’’ because no one really knows since companies not talking)

Mr Victor Mills, the chief operating officer and acting chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, said firms “should do the most appropriate thing for the companies and their employees”.

“Larger companies usually focus on training and development,” he said. “The point is to increase companies’ capabilities.” (Again, no backgrounding on the aims of WCS and what this has to do with “training and development’’. So far, we only know about pay increases)  

Mr Mills added that the chamber has not found it necessary to issue guidelines to members on how to use the money, as “it is entirely up to them”. (Given that readers have no idea on the way WCS should be used except in terms of “pay rises’’, this makes readers wonder if employers are breaking some rule)

The chamber represents more than 700 global companies here.

The Singapore National Employers Federation said feedback it has received shows that most employers are using the funds to offset higher business and manpower costs.  

The federation “encourages companies to share their productivity gains with employees”, said executive director Koh Juan Kiat. (Productivity gains – not the wage credit)

While human resource experts and unionists back the OCBC move (is this really a good thing given that other employees will ask how come they don’t get the credit?), they are also realistic that not every company will be able to follow suit.

“It is a good gesture of showing appreciation to the staff,” said Mr Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, adding: “But only companies that do well have the resources and ability to do it.” (But the reader will say, G already gave you the money – so just give over)

Veteran labour Member of Parliament Yeo Guat Kwang said small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may face difficulties giving the Wage Credit payouts to workers. “Of course we want companies to share the payment with workers, but we are realistic that the SMEs that face cost constraints may not be able to do so,” he said. (But they’ve GOT THE MONEY!)

Mr Zainal Sapari, National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general, said low-wage workers will benefit most if firms share the Wage Credit refunds.

“But if the money can be used to raise productivity which leads to sustainable pay increases in the long run which is higher than the one-time payment, then I would prefer firms invest to raise productivity,” he said. (With the proper backgrounding, readers will still be flummoxed by the productivity point. So why call it Wage Credit?)

(Below is the obligatory “ordinary’’ person’s voice of praise)

But at least one worker who got a raise last year is happy with her higher pay. Madam Chua Yam Khen, a cleaner at a polytechnic, saw her monthly pay rising from $850 to $1,000 last year. Part of the increase was subsidised by the Wage Credit. But the 67-year-old does not expect her employer to share the subsidy with her.

“It is up to the boss, but having more money is definitely useful for workers who do not earn much,” she said in Mandarin. (Like it wouldn’t be…)

This is such a badly written story, I can’t even describe it.

So what should it be?

Companies which have received wage credits in return for raising their employees’ pay are planning to plough the money into training programmes. They are unlikely to pass the credit on to workers, as OCBC did with its $3m.

Some $800m have been given out to 74,000 employers, under a Wage Credit Scheme intended to help companies defray part of wage increments and use the credit to raise productivity levels.

Most of the 10 companies contacted declined to say how they would use the credit, a move which (fiction from here…) experts think is to halt employees’ expectations of higher increases because of the extra money.

Under the scheme, employers who have raised salaries of those earning below $4,000 will get 40 per cent of the pay increase back from the G, after furnishing CPF proof of pay. The hope is that the money would help them improve processes or train their workers so that further pay rises can be sustained.



Doing NS…and what about those who don’t?

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 23, 2014 at 3:49 am

One Facebook wag asked me if I thought the Committee to Strengthen National Service recommendations should be regarded as “perks’’ or “compensation’’. Man, how would I know? And while an organisation like Aware might want to look at “equity’’ issues (it had raised this in the past), I am not about to weigh in on why, or why, are people like me of the wrong gender are left out! No point. And most women have brothers, uncles and male cousins anyway who will (?) be glad with the recommendations.

So they get $6,000 more in their Medisave, on top of the current $9,000. More money if they are fitter, do well in in-camp training as well as if…ahhh, anything untoward happened to them during their stints in camp. They can indicate choice of vocation (whether get it or not is a different matter I reckon), don’t have to go through the hassle of informing Mindef whenever they are out of the country – unless its for more than two weeks and the unfit will get more time to clear fitness tests.

Oh. And there is an SAF Volunteer Corps set up as well to guard installations (do I get to carry a rifle) and in other aspects like medical care, psychology, information and so forth. Of course, there is some training time volunteers must set aside and time allocated for performing duties. The boys in blue, by the way, have had the same system for decades with its Volunteer Special Constabulary of more than 1,000 people. They wear the same uniform as cops and have the same powers. They get paid $3.60 an hour regardless of rank. Makes you wonder why we have to hire Cisco when the police can put out a call for volunteers …
Anyway, what the Committee did not give:
a. Shorter NS stint. (Apparently, two years is short enough)
b. Special priority for kids admission to primary school (Wonder if this had gone through, how priority will be allocated since every guy would have priority. Generals first?)
c. Increase in full-time NSman’s allowances. (Guess this is so as not to “cheapen’’ duty, honour country and turn it into a mere transaction)
d. Forcing new citizens and first-generation PRs to do NS.

I can appreciate that the committee wants to “strengthen’’ commitment to National Service and therefore wants to give a soft touch rather than a hard punch. No doubt, there will be arguments about the “perks’’ being too little, too late.

I just want to raise an unpopular thing. Much of the angst about NS is about the presence of those who skip or get away with not doing it I reckon. Only second generation PRs and progeny of new citizens have to do the stint. I recall a survey on integration last year on the differing views of the local-born and foreign-born citizens. Close to 70 per cent of the local born think the male child should do NS, compared to 43 per cent of the foreign born. There’s a difference in perception here which must bridged and the committee doesn’t seem to have quite looked into this aspect.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said there would be practical difficulties inducting first-generation PRs and new citizens into NS, adding that having them do NS shouldn’t just be “tokenistic or symbolic’’. Hence, the set-up of the Volunteer Corps. I don’t suppose the G is going to force anyone to sign up, but I do wonder why more isn’t made to “encourage’’ sign-ups among them.

This is especially since the guys always get upset at the ability of second-generation PRs to uproot and leave the country before their call-up. And Mindef has never been very clear about the penalties imposed or the numbers who are drained out of the system (I would be quite pleased to be corrected on this). The playing field doesn’t seem fair.

The thing is, NS as a value should not just be passed down through the generations, but also inculcated in those who decide they want to live and work here, and not back home. That they have a duty to do so, to honour their new home country.

PS. In case some guy points out that the same goes for the women, let me point out that we can do one thing you can’t – bear children! And give us a break already. The Women’s Charter is already being reviewed…

Why can’t people be more polite?

In News Reports on May 21, 2014 at 6:25 am

There are some things that you do not do, not even in name of freedom of speech. Like, you don’t call someone a liar or cheat by alleging criminal wrong-doing – unless the person is really a liar and a cheat and you have evidence to prove this. (As an aside, it makes me wonder why the Workers’ Party doesn’t sue MEWR Minister Vivian Balakrishnan for accusing them of some errrm…improprieties in its town council management. Fudging here because I don’t want to get sued too).

So Mr Roy Ngerng has made it into the rareified group of bloggers who have received love letters from Singapore’s busiest defamation lawyer, SC Davinder Singh. The lawyer for the People’s Action Party, a former MP, had been busy in the past on behalf of other ministers but seemed to have taken a break. Seems the break is over.
I don’t follow Mr Ngerng’s blog closely but I have the distinct impression of it being somewhat erudite, with lots of infographics and statistics. He takes the trouble to dig out statistics. Now, whether he dug out the right statistics and interpreted them rightly – I confess I don’t know.

I read his piece on the CPF system and came away with this: how come CPF interest rate is low when the GIC and GLCs etc have a much higher rate of return? Some answers would be good simply because it would be educational. We all take the CPF system somewhat for granted. It is there to pay for our housing and medical bills although now we worry whether there will enough for retirement. The minimum sum scheme has had its quantum raised to match inflation and today, we read about experts saying that more money should move from our own pocket into the CPF to fund future retirement needs.

But it seems that the CPF Board has replied to some of Mr Ngerng’s allegations on Factually.
This is what it said: Our CPF funds are invested in risk-free Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGSs). The returns on SSGSs are pegged to the returns of other bonds in the market with similar risks. There is no connection between GIC’s rate of return and the interest paid on our CPF accounts. GIC invests our foreign reserves in stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets that carry higher risks that SSGSs. The value of SSGS is assured, as they are guranteed by one of the few remaining triple-A credit-rated governments in the world. With our CPF funds being invested in SSGSs, we can be absolutely certain our funds will be there when we need them.

CPF interest rates are guaranteed and risk-free. The interest is paid whether or not the Government’s investments backing its liabilities to CPF, including investments managed by GIC, do well or not. So if GIC’s investments actually lose money, as they did during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, CPF members will still get the 2.5% interest on our funds in the Ordinary Account.

Finally, apart from the CPF system, it should be remembered that we Singaporeans benefit from GIC’s and Temasek’s returns though these are not linked to the returns we get on our CPF funds. GIC’s and Temasek’s returns supplement the annual Budget through their Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC), which amounted to $8.1 billion this fiscal year. This money allows our Government to make further investments for our future, such as in education, R&D, healthcare and improving our physical environment.

Aside from the return on our Ordinary Account, Singaporeans enjoy higher interest rates on their other CPF accounts- 4% on our Special, Medisave and Retirement Accounts, and an additional 1% on their first $60,000 in all our accounts:

Mr Ngerng also said that Singapore has the least adequate pension fund in the world, which makes me wonder why other countries bother to study our system if so.
The CPF’s response to this: Your CPF money is your nest egg upon retirement. The uniqueness of our system is that you can also use your CPF monies to pay for housing. Many Singaporeans have indeed done so and some have fully paid for their homes by the time they retire. The homes that we own are part of our retirement assets too, allowing us to save on rent while providing us with the option to sell our homes when we need to.

When international studies on pension systems make comparisons across countries, they often ignore this fact. They paint an incomplete picture of what members have in their accounts. They do not take into account the fact that Singaporeans also have used their CPF monies to pay for their homes.

Kudos to the G for giving answers lest people get away with the idea that the CPF scheme is …eerm..bankrupt. Now Mr Ngerng has written plenty of articles on the CPF system and wages. And frankly, I am uncomfortable with the picture he paints; however bad anyone might think of the G, I doubt that it creates systems to line its own pockets or is out to defraud the people (please do not say it’s so as to pay minister’s salaries)

While commentators have the liberty to ask questions, newsmakers also have the liberty to rebut. I had wondered why the G wouldn’t simply sit down with Mr Ngerng and give him a lesson on the CPF system, but it seems it had already taken some steps on Factually. I suppose the idea is to counter what is online by posting online.

While Mr Ngerng might have asked questions that the less mathetically inclined might have ignored or the conspiracy-minded might have, there was no call for him to defame the Prime Minister in such a personal way by drawing parallels with the City Harvest case. That was out and out defamation. He is saying that the PM has a criminal case to answer just as the church leaders do. He should drop all pretence that he has a leg to stand on where defamation is concerned.

And now he wants to speak in Parliament.

At the risk of giving him free publicity, this is what he said:

I have received ongoing support and encouragement from Singaporeans to enter Parliament and I thank the vote of confidence and belief that many Singaporeans have given to me. I also thank this nomination and the publicity that has come with it. (Arrrh??? You mean he colluded with the PM? Or Mr Singh?)

It is in the interests of a democratic Singapore for even the smallest voice in Singapore to be heard. It is also in the interests of the Singapore government to be able to hear what Singaporeans from all segments of society are thinking and saying. I present myself as a bridge for the government, and for the people of Singapore. As a known blogger who has a keen interest in our country and who has amassed support from the blog, through the nearly 2 million views on the blog, I hope to continue to engage Singaporeans on issues that matter to us and present these in Parliament to allow Singaporeans to have a bigger role in the democratic institutions of Singapore.

The selection of representatives into Parliament will send a clear signal as to what the government is ready for. The publicity generated from this selection will also garner significant interest and anticipation of further representation in Parliament.

I keep wondering what he is really saying. That this is a publicity stunt? And that if he didn’t get selected, it would be proof that he has been gagged? Or that the G isn’t listening to people?

The “better’’ publicity is this: I keep wondering if there is a link between the love letter and the President’s announcement that the CPF system will be re-looked.

Both have generated plenty of interest which means that the CPF will have to extremely forthcoming about the workings of the system during its review to give everyone a comfortable retirement. Or Mr Ngerng would have to prove what he said if he goes ahead to fight the case.

Then those nitty-gritty questions on the Minimum Sum Scheme and how it is calculated, whether too much of the Ordinary Account is going into housing and how employer and employee contribution rates are decided can be brought up.

We need an active citizenry which can only come about with more information disseminated as widely as possible. But we do not need to disrespect our leaders when we engage in debate.

The President’s Address in layman lingo

In News Reports on May 18, 2014 at 7:54 am

Because this is from the head of State, I will refrain from too much caricature and the use of Singlish. This is not a contemptuous attempt, by the way.

We are going to be 50 years old next year, when we will have a big party or tua seh git as the Chinese call it. We’re not old, not if you measure in terms of a country’s life-span. We’re still young. But if we want to grow old gracefully, we should all remember what we said during our school days when we recite the Pledge. Yes, even you, you 65-year old! Remember how we want to build a fair and just society, regardless of race, language or religion; to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation?

That’s what my G wants to do, from now until the next election. Here’s where I am supposed to recite all the motherhood statements and usual platitudes about better quality of life, improved conditions, fulfilling potential and more opportunities for all. You’ve heard them before. If you still want to read, go google my speech.

First things first. Education. We know all the fuss about this. We said many times that we will go beyond academic success when we measure the worth of our students. So let me say this again: We will continue to improve the system, so that no single point in our education will wholly determine our future.

That means just because your boy boy didn’t get into such and such a school, he’s going to end up sweeping the roads (even if he does, there’s the Progressive Wage model). That’s because, I repeat, “every school is a good school’’. And don’t worry about how well boy boy does in the PSLE, or whether he made it through DSA or whether he is in an IP school, did his O levels or IB or whether he is in ITE or whether his SAT score is good or what sort of GPA he has. (I am talking about education here by the way.)  That’s because boy boy will always have a chance to shift side-ways onto other ladders. We are fixing the ITE system with an Aspire committee to ensure that it’s not the end. We’re making more university places available and will ensure that the courses are “hands on’’, like the polys.

Now we are not just talking about education in school, but also for workers. We actually named an institute for workers after a predecessor of mine.

We come next to social safety nets. In case you don’t know what it means,  it means that when you fall down, through no fault of your own but because you kicked a stone or someone tripped you or the stairs too steep, someone will help you up. Serious.

We’ve already given you a roof over your heads. Even the poor own their homes. I will say this loudly: “No other country in the world has done this’’. We have Workfare for those who need more income. Absolute, not relative income.

We’re now in the middle of looking at healthcare cost, so that you won’t get a heart attack when you have to see a doctor. We’re now looking at Medishield Life, which will cover those with pre-existing illness which you didn’t bother to tell your doctor about earlier. Don’t worry, you will be able to afford the premiums. Cross my heart and hope to … well.

I can tell you that we are going to announce something for the post 65 generation. You know those orange and blue cards that entitle you to discounts at clinics? The Community Health Assist Scheme? The elderly will get even more discounts. We will give them a new card but we haven’t decided on the colour. We left that to Gan Kim Yong to decide.

We’re also going to do something about CPF Life. You know that money that you keep with us and with which we dole out to you every month? We’re not sure what but it will be good. Then we will do something about your flats. There are plenty of ways for you to get income from your flats (no, no, not renting them entirely to foreigners! Not collateral for loansharks!) Well, we already have schemes like some sort of reverse mortgage but we’ll come up with something better. We hope.

As you can see, we’ll be increasing spending. But you know it also means we have to be careful that we don’t spend beyond our means. We need to have enough revenues to balance our budget (no, I am not saying whether we will increase taxes or raise revenues in other ways)

Enough about us. What about you? What are you going to do for this place? For our home, a good home, not just “a marketplace in the global economy”. Note that I repeated the phrases our home and good home several times, in the hope that this will leave a mark on your brain – and even your heart.

Now here comes the part where I talk about collective well-being and community effort as well as active citizenry and personal fulfilment. We need them all to build our (good) home so “we feel sense of responsibility for one another, and not just a sense of entitlement to the benefits of citizenship’’. That’s a good quote by the way, since I am not about to say anything about non-citizens in our (good) home except that we should treat them with “graciousness, kindness and fellowship, even as we expect them to respect our values and our Singaporean way of life’’.      

 I forgot that this will not just be a good home but a smart nation too that will use all sorts of technology to make for a better life too. Picture this: extensive transport networks with green corridors and waterways and the people having a great time with sports and leisure activities, pursuing arts and culture. Wait a minute. I think I have said before in the past. Anyway, worth repeating especially since these are ambitious goals which only “constructive politics’’ can achieve.

 We can debate all we want but remember in other countries, it has led to gridlock and paralysis – like a stuck MRT train. We’ve got to concentrate on the light at the end of the tunnel and not “allow our differences to pull us apart’’.

In case you’ve forgotten, we have made many changes like introducing ComCare and Workfare, the Wage Credit Scheme and the Progressive Wage model. If you still don’t know what they are, go google. But like a record that’s been played to often, we have to sing this song again: we are small and vulnerable, we need a strong defence and diplomatic skills. If the record is scratchy-sounding, go look at what’s happening now in the Ukraine and the South China Sea. So don’t tune out when we say “we must never take our safety and security for granted’’.

As is, and will be, the case for all major speeches from now, we have to talk about the Golden Jubilee and the wonderful pioneering spirit of the over-65s, who can expect the Pioneer Generation Package as a gift. Then we have to add this point about how their spirit is worth emulating. And finally we end with a lot of words that go together: progress and prosper, home and nation and a better and brighter Singapore.

President Tan (in an aside): Oh, if you still don’t know what I’m talking, please wait for the different ministries to send out their agendas. They are supposed to flesh out what I said. Go figure.

Saturday sight-seeing

In News Reports on May 10, 2014 at 3:05 am

At the Padang 

So TODAY did the newspaperly thing and followed up on the refusal to let Touch use the Padang on the same day as Pink Dot at Hong Lim Park. It’s interviewed the irrepressible Lawrence Khong, who is behind Touch, by the way. He said he can’t understand why Ministry of Social and Family Development said no. He’s “confused’’ by its position on the family given that it was meant to support MSF’s effort to strengthen family ties. Then he goes on about how the function was to protect the family against onslaught of bad moral values, including homosexuality.

 Well, that’s done it then! So much for the organiser’s earlier statements that the event, first named Red Dot and then renamed #FamFest 2014, wasn’t meant to be pitted against Pink Dot.  You’ve got to say the pastor has guts, given that you can expect a chorus of howls to greet his statement. He die, die wants the Padang or at least some place more accessible than the heartland sites he was offered.

MSF declined to comment on his statement, beyond reiterating that it would support organisations that strengthen families in a “socially cohesive manner’’. Are we supposed to read something into “socially cohesive manner’’? Thank you Touch, but can you do it in a different way? Like pick a different spot or different day?

What was also interesting was how the use of the Padang is regulated. You need plenty of permits but the main “permission’’ authority is the Singapore Recreation Club or the Singapore Cricket Club, depending on which side of the field. TODAY had an interesting listing of past events, and yes, they were mainly sporting events although there was one concert performance by Linkin Park!

Frankly, MSF could have just left the rejection notice to either club and get out of the fray. Now, it’s caught in-between

On the Parliament stage

TODAY has a round-up of sorts about how Parliament and its MPs fared in the first term. It didn’t give marks of course, but it seems quite congratulatory of the MPs, including NMPs and Opposition MPs. I wish the article went further, with some research work done using Hansard, like who was the MP with the most comments and who spoke the least. Also whether Opposition MPs really raised any innovative proposal or the number of times it agreed with G policy.

Actually, what I want to know is how the batch of NMPs fared, given that there is now some discussion about how the scheme might not be necessary given the number of Opposition MPs. Some sectors, like the labour movement, has put up its candidate. I am not sure about the rules of nomination but I sure hope that the Parliamentary Select Committee doesn’t HAVE to accept a sector’s candidate. Or will it be accused of neglecting a whole sector if it does? I happen to think it is quite silly for the NTUC to have its own nominee, especially with so many labour MPs in the House, including the G. In fact, a look at the different agencies and bodies asked to put up names gives the idea that the Establishment is looking for more names to bolster the Establishment. Even if nothing is changed, I have this hope: That the process will be transparent.

 In Maruah

TNP has this interesting piece about human rights group Maruah being questioned about its finances. Apparently somebody complained to the Registrar of Political Donations about an event it held in an Orchard Road hotel in October. Where did it get its funding from?

Maruah was gazetted as a political organisation in 2010, which means it can’t receive foreign funding. In fact, when it held a fund-raiser the next year, it didn’t get a penny. Members now work out of their own homes. As for the October event, Maruah’s defence is that it had been transparent – the event was co-organised with a European NGO, which paid for the hotel. Everyone in attendance was told. No money changed hands.

Looks like the RPD contacted Maruah in April but there seems to be no update on whether it was satisfied with the group’s response. My question would be: Is there a problem if an event was “co-organised’’ with a foreign partner and no money went into the local outfit’s coffers? You can argue that without foreign input, the event could not be organised and therefore there was foreign influence of some sort. So interesting. Needs clarification.

In and around Singapore

Mr Kishore Mahbubani has come up with his fourth Big idea. Sorry, but I can’t remember the first three. This time, he suggested that a city be noted for its “sacred places’’, security and busy-ness. Singapore has the last two but not the first. He’s talking about icons like Times Square in New York and so forth. Places that tug the heart strings and which citizens will die for. His own suggestion includes the Botanic Gardens, Bukit Brown cemetery and even the (now demolished) National Library. In fact, a list of Singapore “shrines’’.

So is this something for the Preservation of Monuments people and the Singapore Heritage Board to consider – or are current guidelines enough. I keep thinking about what place I would defend because it would offend me terribly to have it desecrated…What’s yours?