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Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

Under Happy workers

In News Reports, Society on November 12, 2014 at 1:53 am

I was reading ST yesterday and saw this headline on Page 2: Singaporeans “feeling confident over jobs, personal finances’’. It was conducted by Nielson to gauge consumer confidence globally. ST continued to rah-rah the news adding that the survey threshold indicating optimism “crossed for the first time since 2011’’. So what’s the survey about? Nielsen surveys sentiments every quarter, some 30,000 online consumers from 60 countries. From Singapore are 515 respondents. The latest result is that 61 per cent of Singaporeans now feel the future job prospects are “positive’’, up from 53 per cent last quarter. Also, 59 per cent felt their personal finances for the comin year were good or excellent, up from 55 per cent.

I suppose that’s a significant rise although I’m not sure we should be putting much significance by quarter-in-quarter sentiments should we? It might be more useful to compare consumer sentiments country by country. And there I was thinking that Singapore is in quite a happy position until I read in TODAY another survey, this time by the Singapore Human Resources Institute on workplace happiness. It’s to become a benchmark for future surveys. Number of respondents: 5,600 workers here who were given some statements to refer to such as “I have a bright future at work’’. See http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/workplace-happiness-spore-has-much-do

Here’s the rub: The factors of hope, salary and benefits, and culture were ranked most poorly, with scores of 48, 47 and 42, respectively — which fall in the “Unhappy” band which is below 50 points. Self-efficacy, resilience and interpersonal relations were at the other happy end, above 70 points.

Other findings showed that the baby boomers were happier at work compared to younger people; as well as those who work in the social service or voluntary sectors and local SMEs compared to those who work in MNCs.

Now the strange thing is this, according to institute’s calculations, a score of 68 and above is in the Happy band. Between 51 and 67 is Under Happy (yup, Under Happy is the term) and 50 and below is Unhappy. Going by the survey statistics that TODAY published, no worker in Singapore is happy at all! Even the “happiest’’ industry which is the charity and social services sector scored just 64.3.  We are all Under Happy…

I know both surveys are different but I am getting my fill of surveys on whether we are happy people or not. I blame the Gallop poll for starting it all.They tell different stories based on the questions asked and we wouldn’t have a clue of which is the more authoritative one. A lot depends on how the media views the survey results or what the various survey organisers choose to highlight.

TODAY asked an academic whether the recent spate of surveys depicting a less-than-happy Singapore was worrying. Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser sort of hemmed and hawed. He said: “We shouldn’t depend on one survey to tell us what the situation is in Singapore. Results show we’re neither up there nor at the bottom. They sound quite plausible but we need to look at other surveys … Having said that, maybe this is a reflection of the fact that we’re stressed and need to do a lot of balancing of family and work.”

In other words, surveys just tell us what we already know…

Chewing on the Jover Chew case

In News Reports on November 7, 2014 at 12:36 am

There was a man called Jover Chew
We hope his kind are far and few
Too many people did he screw
All they can do is rant and rue
The day they met Jover Chew

What did he do, this Jover Chew?
He made people pay more than their due
So why not sue this Jover Chew?
He cannot be found
He’s made no sound
Or he’ll be skewered, ’tis true

Apparently, there’s a whole new lingo for the unsuspecting people who get conned in Sim Lim Square. You’re an “ayam’’ if you got tricked into paying more, for example. (For the blur, “ayam’’ is chicken in Malay). That’s according to TNP, which reported a variety of ways in which unscrupulous retailers and their henchmen extract more than their due, like adding an extra zero to credit card bills, putting prices in code, placing a finger over dubious clauses, extracting an in-house warranty after the consumer has put his signature on a contract, not allowing refunds because the fine print in the contracts say so, and ominously announcing that the place is “monitored’’ by cameras.

I think that as a local, I would try to face down such rogue merchants. But I would be intimidated if I was a foreigner in a strange land and would probably “give in’’ to save any trouble. It seems that these rogues are on the lookout for tourists, especially those intending to leave the country soon. Then no time to complain mah…

All I can say is that Mr Jover Chew comes across as a thug, so much so that even his wife has distanced herself from him, if you believe her. She runs a mobile shop too and she’s now the owner of the infamous Mobile Air that Mr Chew runs. So quick change name liao! When he was interviewed by TNP, Jover Chew painted himself as a victim of sorts, suffering because of demanding and unreasonable customers. The gall!

So what did Mr Chew do to make himself such a pariah?

Besides the fact that his Sim Lim shop chalked up the most number of customer complaints – 25 – to Case between August and October, his claim to fame is paying an unhappy customer more than $1,000 in coins after the Small Claims court directed him to, and making a Vietnamese kneel and beg for a refund (while laughter was heard all round).

He is now a persona non grata and has been incommunicado since news of his shenanigans broke. In fact, besieged by netizens who CSI-ed him, he transferred his number to that of the TNP journalist, who received more than 200 calls on his line yesterday. He’s a real piece of work, he is.

Netizens are baying for his blood; MPs are asking for tougher laws; the Chinese have sent out an advisory warning its people about buying stuff from Sim Lim Square in Singapore. Sigh. And what is CASE up to? Or even the police? Seems their hands are tied because the thugs didn’t break any law; they just “assaulted our sensibilities’’ as Manpower minister Tan Chuan Jin said in a Facebook post.

You can take them to the Small Claims Tribunal, like the recipient of Mr Chew’s coins did. You can also sue under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act, except they will simply close down, wind up and emerge under a different name. Then, they use friends and relatives as shadow directors of the company, while they run the show.

Seems there’s a Voluntary Compliance Scheme that CASE wants the shop to sign, so that it can take action if it breaches any undertaking. The key word is “voluntary’’ no? It’s not something that can be “served’’ on the shop yes? What’s the bet that Mr Chew will sign? In any case, only a grand total of EIGHT shops signed it between March 2004 and December 2013. Five have had injunctions taken out against it. Seems three others are still “okay’’. The CASE position is, what else? Caveat emptor…!

In the meantime, while the law looks on limply at Mr Chew, lawyers are saying that it can be used against the vigilantes who “exposed’’ and harassed the man and his wife. The new Protection From Harrassment Act isn’t in force yet, but such vigilantes can be hauled on charges of being a “public nuisance’’, it seems. After all, his wife has filed a police report which means that the police would be bound to investigate.

It would be ironic – and tragic – if it was Mr Jover Chew who ended up having the last laugh.

Notes on the news

In Money, News Reports, Politics on November 5, 2014 at 3:55 am

Weighing the WP’s worth

In Parliament, we have the Workers’ Party worrying about the independence of the judiciary, which it argues might be compromised if the Constitution is amended to have retired judges back to serve short stints. The WP wanted secure tenure for judges who should have a higher retirement age than 65.

In Aljunied-Hougang housing estate, the WP town council is chalking up arrears in service and conservancy charges. Seems three households in 10 haven’t paid their S&C fees for at least three months by end-April last year. It stopped submitting monthly reports from the next month on despite reminders. I wonder what has happened since then? Have they collected everything that’s owed or are households owing even more and how much is that in dollar terms? You wonder how the WP manages to fund the needs of the estate like this. Or (gasp!) have the rest of the HDB households outside the WP areas actually been paying too much in S&C fees??

Anyway, I thought today’s news reports on WP highlight the role of MPs very well – as a check on the G and as estate administrators. Put to the vote, the amendment got through of course. The WP made an interesting point about judges but I wish it had done more homework by suggesting where to get/find more judges. If more were available, there would be no need for Judicial Commissioners, a sort of temporary judge, introduced in 1979. Lawyers in private sector prefer short term stints at the Bench, but not many want to do it for a lifetime.

I wonder what is more important to the Aljunied/Hougang voter : the need for a contrarian voice in Parliament or a well-run housing estate.

A case of interest

So a review committee wants a 4 per cent cap on what licensed money lenders can charge in interest. And the licensed money lenders are very unhappy. They charge at least 20 per cent. Now, either their current rates are too exorbitant or the new cap is way too low. You wonder then about the people on the review committee. Some moneylenders sit on it too and they would surely have raised whatever objections then. Actually, while a low interest payment makes it easy for debtors, doesn’t it also encourage more people to take out more loans? Or is the position to make it attractive for debtors to go to licensed moneylenders than the loan shark, never mind if the licensed money lender can’t make as much money as before and might exit the business altogether?

Cabby, cabby, quite contrary, how does your wallet fare?

Plenty of cabby stories today, including an ST report that a simpler fare structure is going to be announced soon. Excellent! The report said that there are now close to 10 different flag-down fares, from $3.20 to $5, three different metered fare structures and more than 10 different types of surcharges. Seems ST got word that the new flag down rate that will apply to all taxis is going to be $3.80 and distance- and time-based interval jumps of 30 cents, rather than the 22,30 and 33 cents today. I’m sure passengers will welcome this, although what the taxi companies will say about such interference in the business operations is another matter. They must be doing okay, since there’s also news that Trans-Cab is going to be listed on the stock exchange.

And they must be pleased too that the Land Transport Authority is looking to regulate the likes of Easy Taxi and GrabTaxi, apps which are taking away their call bookings. The G is thinking of regulation that will protect the passenger, like methods of redress should disputes arise. Cabbies like the apps because their takings go up, although transport experts warn that the apps have not yet been monetised and money is likely to be clawed back from the drivers. Another worry is that over-regulation will kill innovation.

No need to be so jolly

So Christmas came early for manufacturers, crowed the ST on Page 1 today. Well and good! Then comes several paragraphs on how October Purchasing Managers’ Index is up, and at the highest level since April 2011. There was an “uptick’’ in orders from the US. You have to get through eight paragraphs before a note of caution is sounded that it might just be a seasonal thing with Christmas round the corner. I seriously wish ST would stop taking a rah-rah tone and provide a fuller picture quickly for those with short attention spans. Whatever happened to what is known as the double-barrelled intro?

BT has this:  SINGAPORE’S factories were busier than expected in October, with the latest purchasing managers’ index (PMI) rising 1.4 points to 51.9 – a level not seen since April 2011. But economists are downplaying the uptick, chalking up the expansion to year-end seasonal effects, and warning that a patchy global recovery will continue to weigh on manufacturing performance.

Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow

I did a double take when I read that the three-month delay in the completion of the National Stadium meant that the grass did not have time to grow. Seems that the grass had an extra three months to grow! Or do you build the concrete stuff first and then lay the grass? Does it then mean we should have delayed the OPENING of the stadium then? If the Sports Hub people “misjudged’’ the impact of that the events calendar will have on the pitch, then you wonder if what sort of “green’’ expert it has on board. Or whether the targets that it has to fulfill (or does it set them itself?) in terms of events and revenue led to the packed calendar.

Pieces of productivity

In Money, News Reports, Politics on November 4, 2014 at 3:23 am

a) Those who have been scamming the PIC had better watch out. All that equipment being bought for business and charged to the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme have to be “in use’’ and on the company premises before cash claims can be made. I’m glad. I’ve heard too much about how the PIC is great because it gives out cash for anything to do with a business. There’s another bit in the legislation that was passed by Parliament yesterday. It’s about companies “engaged in objectionable arrangements which seek to abuse the scheme’’, according to an ST report. I suppose it refers to so-called consultancies which have sprung up to help people take advantage of PIC? It’s a maximum of three years jail and $10,000 fine.

b) It’s bound to come up. With our dismal productivity record, which averaged just 0.1 per cent from 2011 to second quarter of this year, someone is going to say if we’re measuring it right. So more indicators will be put up for the different sectors, according to the G. MTI’s Lee Yi Shyan said the construction sector, the laggard, uses value-add per worker but this might not be “reflective’’ of growth. If square metre constructed per man day is used, then you’ll see some progress. “If this increase is not reflected in the prices of their contracts, then the net effect may be a reduction in productivity.’’ In retail, there could be other indicators such as sales per square foot of retail space and the turn of inventory.The G might well be right that we need more specific measures, but I can’t help but think we’re also shifting the goal posts a bit because we can’t seem to score?

c) BT has some comments from the Monetary Authority of Singapore about productivity, more or less reiterating the point above. MAS said productivity growth can’t be an end in itself. We need to be more productive so that real wages will rise. It’s MAS’ job to make sure inflation stays low. Also, that low productivity doesn’t mean that welfare has deteriorated. More labour would be needed to ramp up construction, for example, and, mathematically, productivity will go down. I think to prevent people from rolling their eyes whenever they hear the word productivity, we might want to turn the discussion to the end result of productivity growth – more money in the wallet to buy more things. That’s something people can definitely understand

d) In any case, I noticed something interesting in both BT and ST.

Both practically gave the same background information which seems like a response to those who say that the target 2 to 3 per cent annual productivity growth is too high.

BT quoted an MTI statement: “While it was ambitious, it reflected the room for improvement after just 1 per cent growth on average in the decade up to 2009. Productivity is now expected to grow by slightly over 2 per cent per year on average in the first five years of the target period, but with almost all the gains being achieved in 2010 when the economy recovered strongly.”

ST quoted DPM Tharman who spoke on the matter last week: “We had in early 2010 set an ambitious target of achieving 2 to 3 per cent in annual productivity growth over a decade. We are now coming to the half-way mark at the end of 2014. In the first five years, productivity is expected to grow by slightly over 2 per cent per annum on average, but almost all the gains were achieved in 2010, when we were recovering from the recession.’’

Why this reiteration? And I STILL don’t understand what the phrase “almost all the gains achieved in 2010’’….So we already hit the target or what?

Multi-coloured lenses

In Society, Writing on November 2, 2014 at 1:56 pm

It’s the age-old question: Can journalists really be objective? According to Ms Maria Ressa, former CNN correspondent and CEO of Rappler.com in the Philippines, the answer is no. And to say yes would be hypocritical. Every journalist carries a perspective based on his or her upbringing and beliefs and this would naturally feed into the way they report the news. I agree. Each of us looks at issues differently. There’s a difference between the way the Western media and those in Asia view events, as the Chinese government would be quick to say especially over coverage of the Hong Kong protests.

Here, too, politicians say the same thing. Don’t be too quick to agree with everything the Western media says.

Yes, the media lens is a coloured lens. Coloured by the journalist, and the organisation he or she belongs or the views of the paymaster or publisher. Indonesian Solahuddin, a long-time journalist and press freedom activist, said the same. He told of how Indonesian journalists were divided into Christian and Muslim camps when there was unrest in the Moluccas and how the media was divided into the pro-Prabowo and pro-Jokowi camps in the last election. Journalists had to abide by the wishes of their publishers, who had their own political links. No fault of the journalists; they had to do as they’re told.

What to do then? Read everything, he says.

So interesting. All this was said at a Singapore Book Festival event today. I was the moderator, and I felt very small compared to these two journalists who engaged in deep, deep investigative reporting and have written expert books on terrorism. Ms Ressa is a firm advocate of social media, as a way for every citizen to play the role of journalist and to do “authentic’’ reporting. The traditional journalist’s job is to take the “top’’ view, look at all the data provided by social media and discern and analyse trends. This sort of ground up reporting breaks the elite power structure, she says. It’s no longer a top-down approach. The mainstream media is no longer the voice of authority.

Mr Sola talked about how he started an alliance of independent journalists to protest against the Suharto regime’s strictures on press freedom. The media there organises itself to discipline its own. Sure, there were the religious and political affiliations of journalists and publishers but enough people know how the media is aligned to be able to pick and choose what fits their own view of the world.

So interesting. Yet disturbing to this blogger who has been so long in Singapore journalism that she still can’t get her head round the idea that bloggers and those who use social media are journalists. Eye-witness, maybe. Commentator, sure. But journalists? Only if the definition of a journalist is someone who publishes/broadcasts to a wider group of people.   In that case, I am still a journalist, but not in the sense that I am employed by an organisation or paid by readers to do a job.

(This reminded me of a panel discussion I was on yesterday with a young blogger who blogs for a living. I was really interested to know how she managed to survive. She said she was paid to do interviews, got some traction and PR firms started calling on her to do more interviews. No, she didn’t tell readers that she was paid to do the interview nor did she tag her posts as “advertorials’’ that had been sponsored – because “readers don’t like it’’. Nevertheless, she said, she was robust in her reporting and reviews. She tells her sponsors that they were paying for her time and energy, not content. She told of food bloggers who eat for free and still get paid; and beauty bloggers who get skin creams and cosmetics.  I guess there are bloggers and…. there are bloggers…)

And what of the exhortations we’ve been hearing from our politicians that social media is just so much noise, with people gathered in “silos’’? That it’s  hard to sieve the wheat from the chaff and it’s best to depend on “reliable’’ sources which I guess would emanate from the traditional “power structure’’?  Should we embrace a diversity of noises or stick to a single narrative? I guess much would depend on how ready we are to do our own thinking. We need to don clear transparent lenses to see for ourselves.

My problem with social media is that the dissemination of news is usually about the “what’’, and not enough of the “why’’. The “why’’ can’t be condensed so easily into a tweet or two, or one minute of air-time. It usually involves backgrounding; and the more expert your reader want to be, the more backgrounding is needed. That requires the long-form, which people don’t seem to have much time nor inclination for. Yet it is dangerous, methinks, to draw quick conclusions and make judgments based on merely the “what’’

Mr Sola is right to say we should read everything. Whether in MSM or online, all have bits of information and views worth thinking about. The G position is that it should have the biggest voice. I agree because everything about Singapore is so tightly-knit together. But should it be 100 per cent? Or 90 per cent? I think more like 60 to 70 per cent, with the people sector (including experts) contributing the rest. The G can, of course, argue that it represents the people and therefore can claim a much bigger voice. That is, if it thinks the people can’t think for themselves…

Can we?

The economy is in labour

In News Reports on November 1, 2014 at 1:24 am

Every time I see the phrase “good news’’, I ask myself if the news is really “good’’. So when the ST says that the “good news’’ is that “with the economy at full employment, wages will continue to rise’’, it looks like everything is “good’’. Sure, we all want to earn more, but what’s the point if things cost more as well, or rather, even more than wage increases?

We clap ourselves on the back that unemployment is low, so we don’t see that redundancies are increasing. It was 2,710 in the third quarter last year, and its 3,400 lay-offs now. It’s also been increasing every quarter. We clap again when we see that the unemployed have been re-absorbed. We look at how jobs are being created in the services sector, but fail to see that it is also responsible for most of the redundancies. And that redundancies for the year have hit a five year high so far this year.

Oh! And we keep reading about the wonderful young people who leave good paying jobs to pursue their dreams of running a café or a restaurant, or make chocolate, or bake cakes – all of the higher price kind. I thought there was a labour crunch so I guess they must be paying more for staff. I wonder if they are wooing away staff from other – cheaper – F&B outlets which will then have to close because they can’t get staff. I wish MSM checks back on these people a year or two later and see if their business survived. After all, we all know of outlets which close, usually citing staff shortage and rising rentals. And we wonder why food is getting more expensive….

Okay, there are the cautionary phrases from the usual economics experts about the low productivity of our workforce. We pay more, but we don’t produce more, so it’s people like you and I who end up paying more for everything.  We’ve heard enough about our patchy productivity record and how the target of 2 to 3 per cent annually by 2020 looks like a pie in the sky. Yesterday, the ST had this weird phrase in its Page 1, that DPM and Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam acknowledged the patchy report card and said this: “ Almost all the gains were achieved in 2010 when we were recovering from the session.’’  What does this mean? Is it meant to be a response to detractors who have criticised our productivity efforts? ST didn’t elaborate on this point. Other MSM didn’t pick up on the phrase.

It seems though that we could be moving away from overall productivity figures to focusing on different sectors. The G is taking aim at construction, which grew 1.2 per cent annually between 2010 and last year, according to TODAY. Its productivity actually fell in the first half of this year compared to last year. It’s one of the laggards, which include services – and they might well be pulling down overall productivity statistics and eclipsing the good work of other sectors. What’s the new thing? The current 15 per cent of higher skilled construction workers in the industry is to be raised to 30 per cent by 2020 through a quota system for foreign workers . Every construction firm is to gradually raise its proportion of skilled labour – and will be rewarded by lower levies for them compared to unskilled labour.

So many things are happening in the economy. Beneath our efficient and glossy surface, businesses are opening up and closing down; people getting laid off and re-employed; bosses are wondering if they should re-locate their businesses or how to pass costs to the consumer; there are so many grants and subsidies to take advantage of by both workers and employers that it is really a business of its own.

I wish the messaging was more direct. If the news is bad or will be worse, just say so instead of sugar coating bad points or doing the usual “on the one hand, on the other’’ analysis. Experts might be able to cut through the thicket, but the people might need a bigger jolt. Because the usual “we must raise our productivity’’ statement is getting tired and no longer good enough.