Archive for October, 2014|Monthly archive page

If you thought polyclinic fees are low, wait till you read this….

In News Reports, Society on October 30, 2014 at 7:49 am

Sorry! I thought of trying out this new-fangled way of telling stories these days. In any case, my headline is probably far better than the two I read today in MSM regarding the use of Medifund.

TODAY: 30 % rise in Medifund applications approved

ST: Medifund disbursements rise 27 % to $130m last year

My first thought was, wow, a lot of money. So are more people getting sicker, medical bills getting heavier or what? The applications rose from 587,000 the previous year to 766,000 last year, ST said adding that it reflected the wider range of people getting help, such as children from poor families. Then came this line that inpatients get about $1,579 and outpatients get $103. Outpatients? Since when? I turned to TODAY and realised that Medifund was extended to polyclinics last June. And that there were 68,000 approved applications for polyclinic patients. My goodness! That’s a lot of people who cannot afford $100 in polyclinic fees! What did they do in the past about their medical bills? With Pioneer Generation Package and all, I sure hope the figure will come down.

Still on health, I did a double take when I saw the headline 9% of woman have HPV infections: Study. I read it at first as HIV! But what in heaven’s name is HPV and is it serious? A line below the headline said that although the body naturally clears the virus, some women risk getting cervical cancer. The report said half of this group of HPV-infected have the high risk strains that are associated with cervical cancer. I go on reading about the state of HPV in Europe and Africa and how cervical cancer is among top 10 cancers for women and how 200 women here are diagnosed with it every year and one woman dies of it every three days……..and I am getting more and more worried and then! I read one doctor saying don’t worry, the body flushes out the virus naturally and the chances of HPV leading to cervical cancer are less than 1 per cent!

Seems the message is, please get yourself screened for cervical cancer, ladies.

PS. HPV stands for human papillomavirus

Bikini news

Because I don’t like stuffing news in briefs….

  1. The case of the Starbucks seat-hog

I was wondering when MSM would latch on to this kerfuffle that went viral for a couple of days about a kid who was unhappy that her books were cleared away at a Starbucks outlet. Seems she stepped out for half an hour (I would have finished my coffee by then) and returned to find that her belongings were no longer “choping’’ the seat. And instead of feeling chastened, she proceeded to rant on Starbucks FB page or something. Well, the story is in ST today although subsumed in a general trend story which it believes nobody in Singapore appears to know – that students study in cafes. Predictable comments came from café managers and students – good place to study, hard to shoo them away, we’ll move if we told to…you know the variety.

I have been much too annoyed with such students for too long. May I propose that the café staff wear badges when they move through the premises.

Badges can say:

“Stop hogging the seat, you pig!’’ This is the angry badge

“Is that a person or a bag sitting on the chair?’’ or the sarcastic badge

“A cluttered table reflects an untidy mind’’, which is the more erudite sounding one

“Home is a cool place to study too’’, which champions family togetherness

“You’ll fail anyway’’.

Nuff said.

  1. The ball is thrown back to Parliament again

I admire the tenacity of the people who went to court to challenge the constitutional position on gays. But I wonder if they realised that it would be a forgone conclusion. That section 377A criminalising homosexual sex is something for the legislature, the court reiterated. And the constitution never mentioned sex, gender or sexual orientation when it said it would give people equal protection under the law – just race, religion, place of birth and descent. As for the right to “liberty’’, it means the right to not be unlawfully jailed, rather than the right to privacy and personal autonomy. The court sounded almost chagrined when it threw out the challenge. Nothing this court can do, a judge said. The remedy “if at all’’, is in the legislative sphere. Hmm. Looks like Parliament is the last stop. Seems to me that someone should put forward a motion to debate this. OR continue the trend of putting up Private Members’ Bills (we’ve got one on sex trafficking and animal protection after all) to seek an amendment?

Who guards the security guard?

In Money, News Reports on October 30, 2014 at 7:41 am

So it seems that we have 33,000 security guards, but we need another 10,000. What’s odd is that there are 70,000 people here who are already trained to be security guards. Just that no one wants in because of low pay and long hours. You would have thought that one way is to raise pay and get more people into the business. But the solution, for a very long time, seems to be: give them low basic pay so that they will work extra hours or overtime to cover for that lack of manpower! Sounds so counter-intuitive. In fact, some security firms actually ask to be exempt from the law which limits overtime work to 72 hours a month. It’s more usual for them to work 95 hours of OT each month. No wonder you get rather bleary-eyed security guards. Cleaners get low pay too, but I haven’t heard complaints about long hours.

The G and the labour movement wants to subject the security industry to the same regime as the cleaners, that is, a minimum starting pay scale which will go up progressively as the guard acquires more skills. There are five rungs in all. Seems to me it’s rather more important to fix working hours. Or maybe their connected.  They usually work 12 hour days, six days a week to take home about $2,000 or so a month. If they didn’t do overtime (which is about 1.5 times the hourly rate) you wonder how they keep body and soul together because basic pay is about $800 a month. I can’t imagine a sole breadwinner or a family man taking on the job willingly, especially if there are no career prospects.

I guess if basic pay moves up, and overtime pay goes up in tandem, there won’t be so much need to log/slog long hours. Also, more people – Singaporeans and PRs –  might be wooed back into the industry and we will finally have enough people helming regular working hours. (Yup, this is one industry that is closed to foreigners.) Is this too optimistic a scenario? And how long will it take? Will it still be shunned by locals, like cleaning jobs and dishwashing? After all, there will still be shift and weekend work…

So what happens in Sept 2016 when the new rules kick in? And why wait so long anyway? It seems that some contracts are already in play which would be hard to unwind, but more importantly, it’s to give the guards time to bone up and get the requisite qualifications to make it on the higher rungs. It does seem that the $1,100 a month basic pay might be rather too low in two years’ time given that we’ve been told that inflation is going up. But I gather that this is not a cast in stone minimum figure, it’ll go up along with whatever the National Wages Council recommends every year.

Actually, the G and the NTUC has an easier time of it because the firms are already subject to annual licences administered by the police and Manpower ministry; licensing is a new thing for the cleaning industry. Yet you sort of wonder how security firms even managed to get their licences renewed in the past. There’s an A to D grading system that looks at security operations and working conditions and a firm has to hit D twice to have their licence put in the freezer. Now, there will be a new set of rules attached that will make sure employers stick to what is known as the Progressive Wage Model.

Again, I can’t help but think about how mean we have been to our cleaners and security guards. Yes. Us. We won’t pay more for them to guard our malls, carparks and condos. So the building committees put out a tender and the firms start under-cutting each other to land the job. And since manpower is the biggest cost, the salaries never go up and working hours just get longer. You keep wondering why the firms don’t just get together and fix prices, except that this would be anti-competitive. The market works for the end-user but penalises the worker.

I have been reading the fine print and wondering if people will be willing to pay more for a security guard. I mean, we all like to wring our hands; pulling out our wallets is quite a different thing altogether. Seems end-users do get some kind of help to pay for the higher wages – up to 50 per cent of the increase. So it’s not a big jump. And the firms can also dip into a fund that will pay for technology to help them in their work. This will benefit the forward looking firms who don’t mind juggling rosters and re-designing the job – why have four security guards when you can have one guy in front of a screen monitoring entrances and exits and one or two others on patrol?

Besides Heckle and Jeckle

In Money, News Reports on October 28, 2014 at 2:24 am

What’s the big story about Singapore these days? Heckle and Jeckle? Sorry, that’s my term for Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng who were yesterday charged with being public nuisances – something that their lawyer, the indefatigable M Ravi says he won’t fight against. What he will argue against is whether they were demonstrating without a licence and whether the Commissioner for Parks and Trees really has the power to regulate assemblies and public speeches – because he is supposed to be protecting parks and trees…

So interesting. But not earth-shaking unless there’s a court decision leads to Hong Lim Park being off-limits to any kind of assembly. Still, as Heckle and Jeckle showed over the weekend, whether you have a permit or not, you can picnick on the green.

Methinks it’s the economy which deserves some attention.

Truth to tell, it’s been a bit disconcerting to read gloomy reports of the state of economic restructuring that we’re going through – with no less than the International Monetary Fund making a comment. It said Singapore’s policy of slowing the increase in foreign workers could hurt the country’s potential growth and lower its competitiveness .  Cost of labour is going up and it’s being fed into prices. Yup, eating hawker food is more expensive now as CASE showed.

This is how BT reported it: The policy could usher in a “new era of sustainable growth”, but how and when desired productivity gains materialise is unpredictable. For now, growth and competitiveness will fall below potential, with the prospect of higher costs with no productivity gains opening a Pandora’s box of risks: business closures, layoffs and a rise in non-performing loans, should unemployment rise, cautioned IMF.

This was how Sunday Times commentator Ignatius Low put it: So what the IMF was saying is that in the interim, all we may get from the restructuring is higher costs and higher prices – with little or no real growth. And Business 101 tells you that if you make your customers pay more for something but don’t give them any real added value for it, then all you have really done is make yourself more uncompetitive.

I am not an economist so this is my dumbed-down version of some of the issues

So should we ease up on the foreign worker policy?

PM Lee Hsien Loong has already said that there would no major change from now. So we’re not going to turn the water off and will continue to let it run like it is now. Foreign workers pumped into the economy was what kept it moving so quickly in the past decade. Without the added water pressure, we’re looking at a slower rate of growth. The prediction is 2.5 to 3.5 per cent growth but PM has said we should be content with 2 to 3 per cent.

Businesses would want more workers which I suppose, is one reason the retirement age is being pushed up and more women are being wooed back into the workforce. (I also think that the recent change allowing foreign spouses to be exempt from being part of the foreign worker quota is one way.)

If they don’t get them, business would have to pay more for workers because there are fewer of them to go around. If workers don’t get more productive, the cost of hiring them would go into the final product – so everything gets more expensive.

Then why is our productivity so low?

Labour productivity growth averaged just 0.1 per cent from 2011 to Q2 2014, and 0.4 per cent if construction – often cited as a productivity laggard – is excluded. The target announced in 2010 was for productivity growth of 2-3 per cent a year.

Economist Augustine Tan has hit out at the disconnect between aspiration and reality. Where did the G get the figure from, he asked, according to a TODAY report.

The report continued: The cause of this is a lack of macro-vision in attaining productivity growth while ensuring economic competitiveness, Dr Tan said, adding that “one arm of the Government does not know what the other is doing” in deciding restructuring measures, such as the tightening of foreign labour quotas.

“If I had my way … I’d target sectors capable of more productivity increases and give them more leeway,” Dr Tan said, referring chiefly to manufacturing. “But you’re tightening the quotas so much, we’re not hitting (the 2-3 per cent productivity target). What you get instead is wage effect, cost effect, and the economy becomes uncompetitive.”

Ouch! Is that true? Left hand don’t know what right hand is doing?

Well, the G, in the form of Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Teo Ser Luck, said  Singapore’s economic restructuring journey was coming along relatively well despite the strain on firms. He cited a rise in the take-up of government support programmes such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme, under which about 40,000 firms claimed PIC last year, up 50 per cent from 2011.

I wish we had an idea of whether all that money given away was amounting to anything. Everybody thinks PIC is way to get money from the G, rather than something to build upon

So what about cost of living? That’s the thing that we’re most concerned about after all.

Some of us are probably going to be better paid and we’d have to hope that it’s a real increase in wages. Because the MAS has said that some food and other services firms are not done passing on cost increases. In fact, the strange thing is that core inflation (minus expensive stuff like cars) is higher than overall inflation this year.

Here’s what it’s saying today in its twice-yearly Macroeconomic report: “On a year-ago basis, core inflation is projected to pick up gradually into early next year, before easing in the second half of 2015.’’

So what’s really happening?

I guess we should be careful what we wish for. We wanted fewer foreigners here, and we’ve got it. Now we’ve got to live with the idea that Singapore won’t be going at full throttle. And we’ve got to realise that we’ll be the engine of the economy – we’ve got to get the pistons pumping harder than before.

The engine, however, needs a driver and it would be good to hear from the G, now that we’re halfway through the 10-year economic plan, what it thinks of the restructuring push. Are we going about it right?

Here’s what ST’s Mr Low said: “But as exports continue to flag and the harvest of yet another year is anaemic economic growth, policymakers must do something to alter the trajectory of a narrative slowly going awry, lest it take hold and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.’’

Five points from Ho Kwon Ping

In News Reports, Politics, Society on October 21, 2014 at 10:42 am

How does one get to be a “leading public intellectual’’? I guess it has to be bestowed by the media. So now we are treated to a discourse from said intellectual, businessman Ho Kwon Ping,  a day after an erudite speech by former Foreign Minister George Yeo.

The MSM devoted much space to Mr Ho’s three scenarios of how the political landscape could pan out over the next 50 years – Status Quo, PAP dominant and two-party pendulum as a result of a “freak election’’. As Mr Ho himself acknowledged, those are pretty predictable scenarios. What struck me more was what he said about the changing trends that will affect  “governability’’. (Note that he talked in general terms although he did give some “local’’ examples like the “read-in session after the gay penguins fiasco’’ and Pink Dot celebrations.)

He makes five points which I will place in quotes:

First, the ability of governments to control information will continue to erode, despite sometimes frantic and illogical attempts to stem it.’’

How true. Yet we see attempts to control (or should the term be “manage’’?) the flow of information whether through blunt tools like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act or new forms of licensing or regulation. It has come to the point that even supposed “self-regulation’’ is viewed with suspicion as the arts community’s rebuff of self-classification showed. And we still have to see what changes to the Broadcasting Act have been dreamt up.

Mr Ho also said this: “Anything censored is still widely available in alternative media, and therein lies the rub: At what point will control and censorship of the mainstream news, cultural and entertainment media become counter-productive by not really achieving the purpose of blocking access to information, but, instead, end up alienating the social activists who, despite their small size, are influencers beyond their numbers?’’

Clap! Clap! Although I doubt that the G would agree that rules are in place to “block’’ access to information…merely to ensure that the right information gets through to the masses. The G is fighting an uphill battle if it wants to carry on with the old ways of simply saying “Cannot’’ or “No’’ or “No comment’’ to mainstream news media. Word will get out somehow or other. And even if it is, say, disinformation, some will regard it as more credible because there is NO information in MSM. Of course, the G can’t go chasing after every bit of speculation on social media. But what it can do is give the MSM more leeway to operate, that is, widen the OB markers.

Take Ms Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore with love. The G can’t quite ban it because that would be impossible. A ban would mean penalties for those who break it. Does it really want to punish people who get hold of the film online? That serious meh?  So it does what is known as “signalling’’. It doesn’t like the film and decides that it will “not be available for public screening’’. Frankly, I think it’s a new(ish) argument – that the medium is to be blamed more than the contents. It must, therefore, be okay for transcripts of the interview with the exiles to be turned into a book?

As for Mr Ho’s phrase about alienating social activists who are “influencers’’, I’m glad he said this because I’m pretty tired of the G piously dismissing activists as a vocal minority. The majority might be silent, but they are not dumb.

Second, it will be increasingly difficult to hold the political centre together in the midst of polarising extremes – liberals versus conservatives; local versus foreign; pro-life versus pro-abortion; gay versus straight, and so forth. While fault lines along race and religion have been contained and have still not cracked, the so-called culture wars are intensifying.’’

Yup, we’ve been talking about maintaining racial and religious harmony for so long that we forget that different attitudes to fundamental issues  would form – and widen over time. Our laws are directed towards making sure there’s no incitement of racial or religious tension, especially in the media and in the public space. Not that we haven’t tried to hold together with the G initiating numerous talkfests to gather some kind of consensus on the values, beating the Asian gong, strengthening the mother tongue and having National Education workshops…

“Third, diminution in the stature of political leadership will encourage the rise of so-called “non-constructive” politics. Future leaders simply cannot command the sufficient respect and moral authority to decree what is acceptable and unacceptable criticisms. To have the authority to simply deride wide swathes of criticisms as simply non-constructive is wishful thinking.’’

Mr Ho seems to think the “diminution’’ is permanent or at least irreversible. Is it not possible to shore up stature? Or is this a “gone’’ case?

Governing by decree is definitely history. It is no longer acceptable for the G to simply pronounce that something is unacceptable. Mr Ho cited the read-in at the National Library after the “comic’’ gay penguins saga as a local example. It wasn’t a rabid protest but more like a children’s outing, he noted. But the point, he said, had been made.

The political process will take longer and it will be messier. (I wonder what would have happened if the G tried to ban the sale of chewing gum now instead of decades earlier…) Some people might long for the days when decisions were made quickly, so that we could get on with the next thing. Some will even say this little red dot needs to be run efficiently, like a machine without starts and stops, which is what too much “unconstructive politics’’ will do to the system.

How to find a happy mean? Perhaps, the word stature should be replaced by the word respect – and respect works both ways. The G respects the people enough to give an explanation for what it does and we respect the G as the people we elected to lead us.

“Fourth, maintaining an ethos of egalitarianism in an increasingly unequal society will require more than just political oratory.’’

Mr Ho is talking here about the gap between rich and poor – widening not just income-wise but also in terms of values with the rich flaunting their “bling’’. How to fix this? (I hear somewhere in the background that this is the fault of rich foreigners…) I have to say that I’m a little perturbed too by the affectations of the wealthy or what Mr Ho describes as the “ethos of the elite’’ who drive fancy cars and eat in fancy places. Don’t they realise that being “under-stated’’ is classier? Then again, aren’t we trying to raise the wages of the bottom ranks of workers? Maybe that would fix the problem a little.

“Finally, the absence of a galvanising national mission and a sense of dogged exceptionalism as the little red dot that refuses to be smudged out, will lead increasingly to a sense of anomie – which has been defined as “personal unrest, alienation and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals”. It is the disease of affluence which affects individual people as well as societies. We have arrived, only to find ourselves lost again.

“If this seems unnecessarily pessimistic, it is because I personally think the danger of hubris right now is greater than the danger of under-confidence.’’

I’m sure the G would agree with Mr Ho on this. The complacency and sense of entitlement that comes with affluence is numbing. We can view our complaining culture this way – either we have high standards or we just expect everything to go smoothly the first time or all the time.

That’s it folks. Sorry if I was long-winded. I’m suffering from hubris too..

The WP-NEA affair over a fair

In News Reports on October 17, 2014 at 2:50 am

Remember all that fuss about a Chinese New Year fair in Hougang? How the temporary stallholders got hauled up for illegal hawking? And they thought the t Workers’ Party town council had got all the permits ecetera? Well, they compounded their fines but the town council refused to. See you in court, WP told the National Environment Agency.

I had wondered why the WP didn’t just compound the offence and get on with the business of running the town council. From reading the reports over the past couple of days, I can only surmise that it wanted to make a point about the jurisdiction of a town council and the role of the Citizens Consultative Committee (read: pro-PAP grassroots group).

Not that WP has a hope in getting their points across when the issue is so cut-and-dried: You needed a permit, you didn’t get it, you broke the law.

It wasn’t for want of trying though. The WP counsel wanted to look at whether the requirements for a permit for a temporary set-up were even valid or necessary, especially since the set-up is in an area under the town council’s charge. Why then, for example, the need to also get a supporting letter from the CCC which, by the way, approves the setting up of pasar malams etc.

Seems the line of questioning was deemed irrelevant.

Of course, we need to abide by the law. We need to make sure temporary set-ups are safe, hygienic, don’t add to noise, don’t bother residents and don’t pose a problem to traffic. We expect officialdom to do the needful. WP’s chairman Sylvia Lim argued that this wasn’t about “cooked food’’ nor was it a trade fair. It was a community  a mini-fair, with just half a dozen stalls selling CNY paraphernalia – and therefore did not require a permit.  Except that the WP didn’t make this plain to the NEA. It’s not clear from the reports whether even if it did, it still needed to get a permit for the stalls – with the CCC approval. The fact is that the WP TC had started the process of application but stopped corresponding with the NEA half-way. (Guess it got fed up with the red tape? Or saw a chance to get its grievance out in the open?) It went ahead with the fair even though NEA had threatened enforcement.

Sigh. As I did then, I feel sorry for the stallholders caught in the middle. It’s always the small people who get trampled on.

Anyway, the case is over and verdict to be delivered on Nov 25.

Over-charging over over-charging Part 3

In Money, News Reports on October 16, 2014 at 8:45 am

I have got to say I found the Law Society’s letter to the ST Forum Page, Don’t equate reduction of costs with over-charging, pretty annoying.

It starts by talking about how “much ink has been spilled following recent claims of overcharging by lawyers representing the Singapore Medical Council’’. I wouldn’t call a grand total of two letters “much ink’’. I guess my definition of “much’’ isn’t quite the same as the Law Society’s.

It goes on to say: “Without commenting on specific cases before the court and the inquiry committee, it appears necessary to explain the process to the public.’’

(Thank you very much but could you drop the condescending tone? In any case, I don’t think the explanation was very full.)

It then explains the “taxation’’ process. In a nutshell, a lawyer charges a sum of money to a client. Say, he wins the case for his client, then his bill goes to the loser, who can challenge it.

The quantum determined by the court is an amount that the losing party ought reasonably to pay, and not what a lawyer may reasonably charge the client.’’

I am not sure what that means. I guess it is something like this: What a lawyer might charge a client, isn’t the same as what the losing party pays the client (winning party) to defray fees of the lawyer. So if your client has deep pockets, the lawyer is in luck. Because the loser pays whatever amount that is “taxed’’ and I suppose the client foots the rest of the bill.

Then it tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised if there is a difference: “The law actually intends that there will be an appreciable margin between what a losing party pays in taxed costs, and what a winning party has to pay its lawyers. It is an attempt to reach a fair balance between the victor and the vanquished. ‘’

The question then is what is an “appreciable margin’’ – 10 per cent? 20 per cent? 100 per cent? And does the law really intend to have an appreciable margin? I didn’t know that! Yes, yes, I am not a lawyer.

It goes on: “In practice, most bills of costs submitted for taxation are reduced. The winning party’s lawyers have a duty to seek the highest quantum reasonably arguable, and the losing party’s lawyers have a duty to seek the highest possible reduction of those claimed costs. The court will balance both views and decide. That a winning party’s bill of costs was reduced on taxation should not automatically be construed as overcharging.’’

What a strange bargaining process! Keeps the judges busy…But this only happens if the losing side disputes the bill and brings it up to the court no? And the loser needs a lawyer to argue the bill down? What then is the definition of over-charging? How much above the appreciable margin should this be to be construed as “overcharging’’.

According to Rule 38 of the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules on Gross Overcharging: An advocate and solicitor shall not render a bill (whether the bill is subject to taxation or otherwise) which amounts to such gross overcharging that will affect the integrity of the profession.

I would have thought the Law Society would have referred to the above in its letter as part of its explanation of the difference between fee taxed down and overcharging. It would have been educational. And give examples please.

It also goes on to say that “if a client is dissatisfied with his lawyer’s bill, he can also tax that bill in court’’.

So you hire another lawyer to bring down your original lawyer’s fees?  Wow! I wonder if this is common practice? (Is this what the Singapore Medical Council should have done in the Susan Lim case? Or did it think the fees of $1m plus charged twice is a reasonable fee for the SMC to pay? Ooops! Wrong of me to refer to specific cases…)

Final paragraph: “The Law Society does not condone overcharging by lawyers, and complaints about overcharging are subject to a statutory regime. Complaints made to the Law Society are referred to independent committees for investigation. These committees are not appointed by the Law Society, and it has no control over them.  The public can have every confidence that there are long-established safeguards in place to address overcharging, whether by one’s own lawyer or by an opposing lawyer.”

Isn’t that so odd? There is an independent committee, which the Law Society has no control over, to deal with complaints. Which makes you wonder why the Law Society is spilling ink at all. LawSoc could at least give more details on how these committees work or the results of its work.

Here’s my response to the Law Society letter:

Much ink has been spilled by the Law Society on the general process of taxation by the courts. Without commenting on specific cases before the court and the inquiry committee, it appears necessary for the Law Society to elaborate on the phrase “appreciable margin’’ and define the term “over-charging’’. It might also be appropriate to disclose statistics on complaints of over-charging (after taxation and not through fraud or other action) and how many were acted on. This is so as that the public can have every confidence that there are long-established safeguards in place to address overcharging, whether by one’s own lawyer or by an opposing lawyer.

Grieving over grass

In News Reports, Sports on October 15, 2014 at 12:53 am

If you haven’t heard about the state of the field in our National Stadium, you’ve been sticking your head in the sand for too long….

Anyway, here’s the story:

Singapore, the self-styled City in a Garden, acknowledged yesterday that it doesn’t know how to grow grass.
“We’ve never been a people to let the grass grow under our feet,’’ said Mr Si Beh Suay. “We always race to be Number 1, so we’re more used to proper running tracks – not fields.’’

He said the Sports Hub had tried to shine some lights on the root of the problem but the grass stubbornly refused to grow. He sniffed at the suggestion by environmentalists to use manure labour to feed the field, pointing out that the emitted gases combined with the particles in the haze would lead to spontaneous combustion.

“We’ve hit a sandy patch but it’s a growing process,’’ he acknowledged, adding that he would bring in the horticulturalists from the Singapore Botanic Gardens to coax the grass, known by its scientific name as socceritis allergenia.

Brazil soccer stars last night decided to play beach volleyball among themselves in the National Stadium, kicking up clumps of sand and grass. The polite Japanese preferred to go to their green, green grass of home to tend to their bonsai plants.

Mr Si: “Look, we all know the grass is greener on the side. But it only looks greener, it’s really not as green as people think. Actually, it’s plastic.’’

Netizens poured cold water on his comments, noting that Singapore, maker of Newater, builder of Jurong Island and host of F1 race, should also be excellent in the development of grassroots bodies.

Social commentators said the problem was equating excellence with profit making. “You measure your success by how much money you made from people using the pitch, not from letting grass grow. That would be too slow.’’

Whose story is history?

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on October 12, 2014 at 9:55 am

I like reading about the past. In fact, over the past two years, I have eschewed fiction. I read plenty of non-fiction, in particular, history. Whether the books are about adventurers who trek through the wilds, on ice or up the Nile and the Amazon, early pioneers in the United States or Australia or about dynastic families such as the Tudors, Hapsburgs or the Ottoman empire, I devour all. I often wished I did my degree in history rather than in political science. After all, political science is just a multi-varied framework that describes what really is political history.

It is important to know the past because it is a signpost of the future. I read about the different empire builders in history and wonder if ISIS is a repeat: that’s how empires begin, with an idea and then wholesale slaughter of those not in agreement, before coming to something more akin to stability. So it is now in Stage 2?

I read about the Crimean War because of what is now happening between the Soviet Union and Ukraine and was enlightened on four things:

  1. That the Lady of the Lamp Florence Nightingale served during this war and more people DIED under her care than in other hospitals. Because her hospital was built on a leaking sewer system which seeped into the water.
  2. That the Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised by actor Errol Flynn and poet Alfred Tennyson was a suicidal assault by unthinking calvary who obeyed orders of silly, squabbling commanders.
  3. That the phrase the Fourth Estate was coined during this time during a Parliamentary session in England to refer to pressure from the popular press to launch a war against the Russians (I have always thought it was of American origin!)
  4. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was in the war and based some of his characters in War and Peace on real-life officers.

I guess those are the “facts’’ I have gleaned. As for impressions: The English wanted war, the French were dithering over it, the Turks were overwhelmed and Tsar Nicholas I was mad.

History books give the facts but how the facts are presented is another thing altogether. I read Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941 – Countdown to Infamy, on how the Japanese cabinet decided to go to war and I am left with the impression that every minister was either out for himself or very, very stupid. I read the Balfour Declaration and was sorry about how the Arabs appeared to have been conned by the crafty British to carve out Israel during the period of the Great Game played among colonial powers for control over other people’s territory.

Sometimes I read more than one book on the same period or people – and think I am actually reading about a different period and different people. So I read JOP Bland and Edmund Backhouse contemporary record of China under the Empress Dowager and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager CiXi and wonder why she is so much more emphatic/sympathetic to the woman than the Englishmen.

I read Raffles and the Great Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning and want to put flowers under the statue of the great man (so brilliant but misunderstood). But I also read Raffles and the British Invasion of Java (crazy, cruel megalomaniac) – and I wish he stayed in Java.

Now we are being fed reams of newsprint on the Battle for Merger. I will go buy the book because I am interested in history and this has to do with my country. But, dare I say that I am also aware that it will be one-sided reading, from our former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew? Because I was not born during those times, I do not quite know what the communists did nor their views on why they do some of the terrible things they are said to have done. I wish I could hear from the older generation who lived through those times.

Also because then, I will have a better idea of why the G is so adamant that Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore, With Love, cannot be screened in public. (Actually I won’t have a better idea because I haven’t seen it). Some very tough words have been used by both Communications and Information Minister Yacob Ibrahim and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to defend the G stance. The G says that the film is full of drums – distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears. It was self-serving because the interviewees (communists who fled the country) chose to white wash their past and did not talk about their “wrongs’’.  (I hear background noises…like, did the Holocaust really happen?)

It’s so terribly odd. We decided not to screen a one-sided film, but are okay about reading a one-sided book – which is more or less on the same topic (?) or at least of the times. It seems to me it would be good to let both loose on the population, as Han Fook Kwang suggested in Sunday Times today. It is when there are two opposing ideas that people get excited and engaged; a monologue will have the opposite effect. Letting the film be broadcast might generate more interest in Battle for Merger, he says, and make it come alive.

I think it’s a good idea too. PM Lee says that a film is not like a book, and therefore cannot be easily countered. Frankly, I have great faith in the ability of the G to counter “anything’’. It seems lazy to resort to a ban when it might be better to engage the film. In fact, given what he has said, maybe Ms Tan should consider putting the exiles’ transcripts in a book! And they could be packaged together with Battle for Merger for sale! Okay, bad joke.

In any case, here’s what PM Lee said: “Why should we allow through a movie to present an account of themselves (that is) not objectively presented documentary history, but a self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over inconvenient facts than others which will sully the honour and reputation of the security people and the brave men and women who fought the Communists all those many years in order to create today’s Singapore?”

I think the better justification is the later half of the statement on the need to preserve the honour and reputation of those who fought. I would dearly love to hear from them, for a firmer grasp on that period which most of us weren’t born early enough to experience.

But I was taken aback when PM Lee also said the communists were still vying for “a place on the winners’ podium’’. Goodness!  In 2014? I doubt most people understand the first thing about communism, unless they mistake it for consumerism!

I don’t think I will be sticking my neck out if I say that communism will never return nor take root here. Nor do I think Ms Tan’s film will be a threat to national security. Let everyone have their say. People will have different views, sure, but I really doubt that they will be so rattled as to shake the foundations of our country. The past belongs to everyone. Let the present people be the judge.

Understanding the sexes – the FOtF way

In News Reports, Society on October 11, 2014 at 12:19 am

So much coverage on what the Focus on the Family relationship workshop teaches students. MOE is stopping the workshop at the year’s end. FOtF said the workshop supposed to be “light-hearted”. So here’s a “light-hearted” look at what happens in its workshop in school:

Adult: Gals are like delicate flowers, so vulnerable and pretty.

Girl (studious type) : Which flower? Rose or Rafflesia?

Guy (brat): You’re more like a Venus fly-trap!

Girl: Shaddup!

Adult: Gal! Don’t say that! Guys don’t like gals disagreeing with them. They all very macho in their thinking. That’s how their brain is wired even if their body don’t look it.

Girl: But he’s so offensive! I won’t take this lying down.

Guy: You lie down also I dowan!

Adult: Yes you do. Guys can’t help being hormonally hyped. There’s only one thing you want from her…admit it!

Guy: Like what? Her new iPhone?

Adult:  If she’s not in her ugly school uniform and wore fewer clothes, your eyes will be drawn to her like a magnet…

(Guy looks at gal meaningfully…)

Girl (upset) : If he even looks at me, I will slap him! No! No! No!

Adult: You mean Yes! Yes! Yes!???

Girl: No, I mean no! Why can’t guys take No! for an answer?

Guy: Because we’re guys and we will like to have it our way…

Girl: That’s not fair! I wasn’t brought up to be the dependent, submissive type. I want to be like Malala and win the Nobel Peace Prize!

Guy: You also need a bullet in your head!

Adult: Guy and gal, that’s what I mean when I talk about relationship difficulties. You are arguing with each other when you really like each other. Both of you are giving out mixed signals…

Girl: Can you please stop calling me gal. I am a young woman. (walks out in a huff)

Guy: And I seriously don’t like her. As a guy, I mean what I say. (stomps off)

Adult: I now conclude my relationship workshop on understanding the sexes.

Over-charging over over-charging Part 2

In Money, News Reports on October 9, 2014 at 12:40 pm

I don’t know about you but I am getting absolutely confused about charges and fees of professionals. I’m glad I’m not a lawyer or a doctor. It means I am not in a position to impede access to justice or deny medical care to the sick. Of course, I also don’t make as much money. This piece is pro bono, by the way.

Anyway, I was thinking about the Dr Susan Lim case, or rather, its aftermath. How strange it is that the doctor guilty of overcharging a patient is herself now being overcharged. The case isn’t a straight-forward two party fight. So the Singapore Medical Council hired (?) a law firm to handle its disciplinary inquiries into her case. One committee was convened, and it later recused itself. Then Dr Lim tried to stop a second committee from forming by going to the High Court – and failed. She went before the second committee which said she was wrong, and therefore has to pay the SMC’s legal cost for both committees.

So Dr Lim was presented with two sets of bills, for the High Court case and for the two disciplinary committees. In both instances, she – or rather her husband – disputed the amounts that was put up by Wong Partnership to the SMC and so they went to court to get them “taxed’’.

In August 2013, a $1m-plus bill was cut to $370,000 – for the High Court case. And lately, a $1.33 m bill was taxed down to $317,000 – for the two committees. In total, the original bills amounted to $2.33million, and was brought down to $687,000. It is believed that the SMC will be appealing the second amount, as it did the first. We’ve yet to hear anything.

I gather that the process is this: the lawyers bill the SMC, and the SMC sends the bill over to the other side. Two writers to ST Forum page have already weighed in to say that the SMC, a statutory board under the Ministry of Health, seems to be paying private lawyers whatever fees they ask for without much scrutiny.  Bear in mind that the SMC is funded by taxpayers and doctors’ registration fees and you would think it would take greater care over its finances.

One immediate question on the Susan Lim case would be: Even if the amounts were taxed down, that is, Dr Lim doesn’t have to pay $2million or so, how does the SMC pay Wong Partnership then? Does it have to make up for the shortfall? Or did it pay everything first in the hope that the amounts from Dr Lim would not be disputed? The SMC owes the public an answer. If it did pay the full amount of $1m plus for the first set of bills (and I understand that this is the case and I really hope to be told that I’m wrong) then where did SMC get the money from?

Another question is this: Why did the SMC itself not dispute the lawyers’ bill, if not the first time, then the second time? Surely, the fact that the first set of bills was lowered so drastically would mean that it would look more closely at the second set of bills?

The SMC should really clear the air over this or it would seem that it – or its lawyers – was out to get whatever it can from the errant doctor.

Letter-writer Jeremy Lim said that the SMC should have the legal fees it has paid out over the years independently reviewed “to ensure there have not been other episodes of overcharging that have gone undetected’’. I agree. In this case, we have a doctor and her ex-banker husband, presumably with deep enough pockets to hire their own lawyers, disputing the fees. What about other less well-off doctors?

Another letter writer, Mr Peter Chen, said this: “I understand that legal fees incurred by a doctor in his own defence are not recoverable, even if he is cleared of wrongdoing. It is because of these astronomical legal fees that some doctors would rather admit guilt and face a short suspension than try to clear their names – and end up with a bill that might put them out of business.’’

Is that so? How come? Wouldn’t this mean that anyone with a (frivolous) complaint against a doctor can try his luck with the SMC – and not pay for the doctor’s legal cost of defending himself even if the doctor is in the clear?

As for the legal assessors and expert witnesses, surely the SMC is au fait enough with the fees such professionals had charged in the past to ensure that they were not so far out of line? After all, the registrar could cite several precedents involving the SMC when she taxed down the amounts.

Then there are the SMC lawyers themselves, such as the lead lawyer Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo. Dr Lim and her husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, want the Law Society to investigate him for professional misconduct – and that was over the first set of bills. A review committee of the Law Society didn’t think that was needed because there was no evidence of “impropriety’’. (This makes it seems like overcharging is okay, especially since there is a taxation process with the courts acting like a watchdog.   Doesn’t it take money to get the courts to look at the bill? And another lawyer to argue the case? )

Mr Sharma is going for broke and wants the court to review the Law Society’s decision. The irony is that he can’t seem to get a Senior Counsel to represent him (most cite knowing Mr Yeo personally) and is applying to get a Queen’s Counsel to do so. Sheesh. Our legal fraternity is really so small! Everyone knows everyone, or at least every SC knows every SC!

With Mr Yeo’s second set of bills also taxed down, it would seem that Mr Sharma has more fodder…

I am now looking forward to the Singapore Medical Council’s reply to the two Forum Page letters.  Methinks Mr Yeo should say something too, especially since he is a Member of Parliament. He shouldn’t let his reputation and his integrity be called into question. Oversight? Mistake? Commercial decisions? Market rates? Or someone in the firm added one too many zeros?