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Meritocracy and mediocrity

In News Reports on August 9, 2018 at 3:27 am

Four years ago, I wrote about a slow-acting poison in Singapore’s political system: ministerial salaries. I argued that it had reduced the relationship between the ruler and the ruled into a commercial transaction, based on whether voters thought they were getting their money’s worth.

The topic is a lightning rod, with very few people weighing in on the merits of such a rational, pragmatic way of paying for good leaders who might otherwise be tempted to aggrandise themselves in other ways. It is, in today’s parlance, a clean wage shorn of hidden perks and privileges. Those who rally behind it are quickly shot down by others who think the pay formula is a disgraceful way of putting a value on national service.

Now, one of the chief champions of ministerial salaries, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, has ignited a fire-storm with his comments on ministerial salaries during a recent dialogue. Looking at the transcript of what happened, it appeared that Mr Goh got carried away when he was asked to give his perspective regarding  a question about whether a pension fund could be created by reducing defence spending or ministerial pay and so relieve them from slogging at cleaning tables. (He was sabo-ed by Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman).

He started by engaging the audience over whether they would do cleaning jobs for $1,000 a month, which segued into the problems of hiring too many foreign workers and then to the imposition of minimum salaries. It was an answer that was supposed to show how policy making is difficult, with one limb affecting the other and not necessarily in the national interest. But he also seemed very taken up with the “populist” question and made the point that ministers are hard to come by.

“I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government, because civil servants now earn more than Ministers. Are you aware of that? And where do we get our future office holders from? From the private sector?”

He went on to say he tried to recruit two from the private sector in the last election, but they turned it down because of the salary sacrifice.

Mr Goh took a blunt approach which is unlikely to elicit empathy from people who are grumbling about the cost of living.  People are not likely to say that ministerial salaries are low, especially when compared to their own, and even compared to political leaders in far bigger countries. Ministers who tried in the past to talk about the cut in their private sector salary, or whose past salaries were referred to, have regularly been flamed. It is now the unfortunate Edwin Tong’s turn to have his past earnings (more than $2m a year) splashed in the media. The Senior Counsel has just been appointed Minister of State, therefore making far less. Mr Goh said Mr Tong had sought his counsel because he had “a house, parents-in-law and his own parents to support”. To highlight the travails of a high-income earner, no matter how honest, was bound to attract derision since these are normal circumstances for most breadwinners.

What was more disturbing was his comment equating merit with salary. He wouldn’t recruit someone who earned less than $500,000 a year because “you are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister.”

“Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?”

Okay, so let’s think about it.

First, it’s odd that our civil service salaries have outpaced those of ministers. I suppose Mr Goh meant the salaries of junior ministers rather than full Cabinet ministers. But I don’t know the facts here. In fact, one of niggling problems I used to have was how civil servants (and not really top-ranked at that) had been parachuted into key government positions on their election. Doesn’t this leave them open to questions about whether they are in politics for the higher pay, which they might never achieve if they stayed on in the public sector? I suppose the counter would be that because they are civil servants, political leaders would have a better measure of their character, competence and ability. They would have worked together, you know.

Hence, this self-perpetuating closed circle of members of the Establishment.

Second, the difficulty of canvassing candidates from the private sector has been a long-standing complaint. The way I see it: the People’s Action Party wants only the top brass, but these head honchos do not want to put nation before family and wealth. And the PAP is critical of the not-so-at-the-top private sector types, because it thinks their salary is a reflection of their lack of brilliance. Worse, it is suspicious of this “type” whom it perceives as wanting political positions because they pay better. (Read: opposition politicians).

Conclusion: The PAP doesn’t know or trust enough private sector people. (And vice versa?)

Mr Goh has tried to correct his faux pax by posting this on his Facebook: “Salaries is not our starting point in looking for Ministers. Character, motivation, commitment, selflessness, practical abilities, competence and proven performance are the main attributes we look for. The first four attributes are veto factors.”

He stuck to his point that when it comes to assessing abilities, it is a person’s salary which reflects his competence and performance. (I don’t suppose he ruled out self-made businessmen who pay their own salaries? Or will this come down to the size of the business?)

The two points aside, his statements merely reinforces the notion that everything in Singapore can be bought, “from durians to clothes to football players to military weapons”. So too quality political leadership.

This is the attitude that pervades our society which is why I have been writing columns to argue that the move towards a skills-based mindset can only come about, sadly, if there is “money” – not even power – attached to it. Why would any parent want his kid to enter a trade or be a master craftsman when the pecuniary rewards are small-ish?

Here, we calculate everything in dollars and cents – how much sacrifice, budget constraints, trade-offs. Then we laud ourselves for being pragmatic and getting our money’s worth. We apply the same yard-stick to ministers and ask if their exceptional salaries lead to exceptional performance? (By the way, no one even knows what performance bonuses are paid to ministers, except the Prime Minister.) Sometimes, we are simply hypocritical, arguing that we should not expect the ministers to be governed by the same calculations that we have.

At the end of the day, the issue of ministerial salaries will always stand between the rulers and the ruled. You cannot engender trust, if people can only think of the payment made.

I made this suggestion in a column in January this year about the sort of imprint the 4G leaders might want to make: To ditch the ministerial salary formula and come up with another one.  “Then maybe people won’t be so tetchy and demanding of their money’s worth and the talented wouldn’t be so afraid to be derided for working for money.”

I am not hopeful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hack of a little to report, actually

In News Reports on August 6, 2018 at 11:46 am

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a news report, because there isn’t much new to report regarding the SingHealth hack. But I suppose I will share with you some of the acronyms which came up in Parliament.

  1. CII, which stands for Critical Information Infrastructure. There are 11 sectors like media, transport and telecoms and they straddle public and private sectors. When the Cyber Security Act passed in February takes effect, the CSA or Cyber Security Agency will set some minimum requirements for these sectors to comply with to secure what data they have on you and me.
  2. APT, which stands for Advanced Persistent Threat. Such APT groups are usually state-linked and make it their business to steal data or disrupt operations. SingHealth was hacked by an APT group but the G can’t say which or what or who because of national security considerations. In fact, it might not even get it right – at least it might not stand up in a court of law. Such an APT group had done the same before, attacking National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University’s computer systems.
  3. ATP, which stands for Advanced Threat Prevention. This is not a group but some kind of security system that is being put in place in the health sector. There is also a “visual router’’ that is being piloted somewhere in the healthcare system.

Phew. Now that the technical part is over, here are some interesting bits.

What has the G got to do with SingHealth?

We already know that the July 20 press conference announcing the hack was fronted by Communications Minister S Iswaran and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who apologized for the hacking incident. Personal data of 1.5 million patients and outpatient medication records of 120,000 people, including the Prime Minister, were stolen.

But why was Mr Gan apologising and not the SingHealth people, asked Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim.

Mr Gan said it was because he was part of the healthcare family, adding that SingHealth had apologized too. Mr Iswaran had the better response. Right from the start, he said that SingHealth was a private company “not a statutory board’’ but because it was part of Singapore’s critical infrastructure, the G had to get involved.

That delay between discovering the hack on July 4 and telling the public on July 20 – what gives?

Mr Gan gave a long answer about having to secure the system, to make sure there were no remants of malware and to investigate what happened. Right up to July 19, there were attacks and that was when the decision to do an ISS was made (Sorry. Forgot about this acronym – Internet Surfing Separation). It’s a pity that there wasn’t more dogged questioning on this point – were the authorities really so convinced even at such an early stage that no patient will be affected by the stolen data in the meantime?

Would ISS, if put in place earlier, have foiled the hackers?

This is where it gets interesting. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had said after the hack that ISS would have done the trick. Yesterday, Mr Gan didn’t give a yes or no answer but went to great lengths to explain why this was difficult to do in the healthcare sector. It would inconvenience patients and doctors and lead to longer waiting times. He also made it plain that the healthcare sector wasn’t asleep; its professionals had been trying out different ways in the meantime to secure data with as little inconvenience to patients and doctors as possible.

He added that the ISS, a temporary measure, might well become permanent for some parts of the healthcare sector.

Was there any negligence on the part of SingHealth, asked Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh. Mr Iswaran’s answer was to ask that people do not go “down the path of allocating blame’’. He noted that a Committee of Inquiry had been set up to look at what happened. The police and the Personal Data Protection Commission will be investigating as well. The COI will deliver its report by Dec 31.

Should we worry about our stolen personal data?

Mr Iswaran wasn’t as blunt as CSA head David Koh who has been pilloried for saying they were of “no commercial value”. Instead, he made it clear that very little use can be made of them, because most online transactions required much more than personal identification details to proceed. (Unless, of course, you’re silly enough to use your IC number as your password).

Both ministers stressed that only name, birthdate, gender and race and IC number were stolen, not credit card numbers, email addresses or telephone numbers. Nor were any details in the system changed.

I wondered at that point if Workers Party MP Png Eng Huat would stand up from his seat to ask the question he had tabled: whether the G would bear responsibility for any stolen identity crime committed as a result of the hack. He didn’t.

Sitting in the gallery, I thought the MPs were pussyfooting about the issue. First, no one asked why the SingHealth cyber people only spotted the hack on July 4, when it actually started on June 27. Second, since an APT had been levelled at the two universities in the past, what has been the outcome of those investigations that might have been learning points for others? Third, even if the APT group can’t be named, did our cyber sleuths let the supposed state know that we know? Or do they already know that we know?

I suppose we should leave everything to the COI, which will open some hearings but not those which touch on national security. Then it will publish its report.

Goodness! That will be next year!

 

 

 

Ben Davis is no Joseph Schooling

In News Reports on August 6, 2018 at 9:58 am

Dr Ng Eng Hen didn’t just shut the door on Ben Davis’ application to defer his National Service stint. He locked and bolted it.

In fact, he was tougher than the Mindef statements on the youth’s aspiration to play for English club Fulham, which has led to some pretty polarizing discussions on the internet. It wasn’t just about deferment for “exceptional talent’’ (you might as well use “exceptional circumstances’’ too) but exceptional talent that serves the national interest, said the Defence Minister. As far as Mindef was concerned, Ben Davis was putting aside his citizen’s obligation to pursue a personal interest.

It was by far the most convincing statement I’ve heard about the rejection of the youth’s application. Dr Ng referred to the Enlistment Act which made plain that all male citizens must be treated equally and should not be allowed to enlist at their “own personal convenience and choosing’’. The judiciary too had emphasized “equity’’ when it upped sentencing benchmarks for NS defaulters last year. So far, 13 such defaulters have gone to jail.

There were little nuggets of information that Dr Ng let fall which hadn’t been widely canvassed in the media. One of them: That Davis would be playing for Fulham as an Englishman and, according to Fifa rules, he will always have to play as an Englishman or for England. That sort of puts to rest arguments that he be allowed to hone his professional footballing skills abroad so that he can bring glory to Singapore at a later date.

The youth’s father, Harvey Davis, didn’t come out looking good at all in Dr Ng’s ministerial statement. Mr Davis wouldn’t give a time frame for his son’s return to do NS. In fact, the senior Davis’ pronouncements made it clear that he intends for his son to pursue a professional footballing career for as long as he can, said Dr Ng. He had said, for example, that Ben could be given an extended contract by Fulham, be sold or loaned to other clubs or sign up with another club. He had also raised the notion of renouncing citizenship.

“The application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son’s deferment is to further his son’s professional career first and to the longest extent possible… Singapore and her interests, including his son’s NS obligations, are secondary consideration, if at all.’’

Whether he intended to or not, Dr Ng pointed to a possible pecuniary incentive for the Davis’ posture. Mr Davis had said the successful deferment would be an inspiration for the students registered with his company Junior Soccer School and League Singapore (JSSL). It is a youth football club and academy business run by Mr Davis and “advertises itself as having links to Fulham FC”. It also has 500 Singapore youths…

He also suggested that after receiving hundreds of pounds playing for Fulham, and possibly a lot more later, the youth would be unlikely to return to Singapore.

Did the ministerial statement answer all the questions that have shrouded the NS enlistment issue?

In some ways, yes. Deferment is a privilege and comes with strings attached. Swimmers like Joseph Schooling have benchmarks to meet – or risk having his deferment curtailed. Dr Ng also spoke of medical students who are allowed to defer their stint but this was because they would serve as medical officers during their NS. In 1992, Singapore disallowed deferment for those pursuing overseas medical degrees, because enough doctors were produced locally.

While Dr Ng appeared to have used the term deferment and disruption inter-changeably, he didn’t touch on the issue of Government scholars who seem to have been given some leeway on national service. He should have, because the concern isn’t just over the building of sporting or artistic talent, but how it is balanced against developing young people with good grades.

Nor did he talk about the conscription systems in other countries such as South Korea, which is popularly believed to be less stringent in its enlistment requirements. Perhaps, it was because no MP raised the point, which is a pity.

There was a question from MP Lim Wee Kiat, who asked if the youth would have got his deferment if a deadline on his return was pledged. Dr Ng went back to first principles – was this in the youth’s personal interest or the national interest?

The door has been shut, locked and bolted. I think Dr Ng also threw away the key.

How do you age gracefully?

In News Reports on August 2, 2018 at 5:03 am

Are you afraid of growing old? I am.

Now that I’m back in the neighbourhood I grew up in, I see the formerly hearty coffeeshop owner silenced and in a wheelchair after a heart attack. I see a gregarious grassroots leader without a foot because it had to be amputated because of diabetes. I see formerly sturdy men hunched over a walking stick ambling somewhat aimlessly at all hours of the day.

Even the well-off elderly, dispatched by the family members to the elderly day care centre nearby, look grim, either staring at the wall or each other when the social workers or volunteers aren’t conducting a singing session or a game.

It’s scary, even if ageing is a natural part of life. You start realizing your mortality when your eyesight starts failing and you get strange aches and pains in various parts of your body. And when you are no longer as quick to grasp things as before and, worse, you’re getting deaf. It is enough to make anyone depressed.

I have always wondered at the way older people are portrayed in the media. They are either extremely sick or terribly healthy. Or dead. We are assailed with messages to eat right and exercise more and are presented with picture-perfect grinning old folk who run marathons. On the other hand, we are told about the travails of the elderly poor, who kill themselves out of loneliness or some other trauma.

Nobody really talks about the people in-between or the “young elderly’’, to give advice on how to grow old gracefully and how to accept that we might never be able to do the things we used to do, at least not as fast and as efficiently as before.

I notice two ways people react in the face of ageing.

There’s a group which will make much of growing old, complaining and exaggerating their “defects’’ in the hope of eliciting sympathy. The other group will fight against nature and insist that they are still as energetic as before and even attempt to demonstrate their youth – to the amusement of younger people, or to their horror.

What is the balance that should be struck? How do you cope with realizing that you are hard of hearing and that young people shy away from you because it’s just so difficult to talk to you? How to acknowledge that what other people say about you being “slow’’ is really true? What sort of feelings are the “right’’ feelings when you realize you need to sit down or lie down when other people are bustling all round you?

Nobody really prepares you for this stage of life. (Instead, you’re told how to die a good death!) Sure, we try to meet the elderly’s outward needs, like making sure a hospital bed is always available, the CPF retirement sum is adequate and social workers are on hand. There’s the Pioneer Generation package of generous discounts and the Silver Support scheme which helps the elderly poor financially. We’ve become much better at respecting the elderly, giving up our train or bus seats for them – so much so that it has become a societal trait!

But we seem to have missed a step – on adapting our minds to acknowledge that we’re ageing (as individuals) and have the capacity to cope with the changes that come with it.

These days, I think about growing old more often. It might have to do with living with my mother who insists that she is as young and as strong as before and gets upset when she realizes that she isn’t. Her laments are loud and long. Yet I would think my mother is a wonderful advertisement for growing old gracefully. She dresses well, manicured and pedicured and never leaves home without lipstick on. We can pass off as sisters rather than mother and daughter.

But underneath the shiny facade is a resentment about ageing, which I assume is the case with most of the elderly.

Nobody really wants to grow old or be acknowledged as elderly. Once, when a younger woman gave up her MRT seat for me, I told myself it was time to dye the grey in my hair. Should I? Why is so hard for me to accept that my hair will turn grey or even fall out?

Then over the weekend at a school alumni re-union, I met up with my ex-classmates of 37 years ago. We joked about how much older we looked especially when compared to the current students. We tried to pass ourselves off as 10 years younger. It was all in good fun of course.

There was one ex-classmate who turned up with a full head of beautiful silver hair. I asked if the hair had been bleached or coloured and was told it was natural. She went through some lengthy hair treatment to make sure that the grey would eventually even out, rather than come out in patches on the head.

I thought to myself that that this is one way to grow old gracefully. Nature will take its course – and we can also help it along.  We can’t all be marathon runners and we are not yet on the verge of death.

We need to find a way to reconcile ourselves with getting old. Or, maybe, it’s just me.

 

 

I’m a great person, you, on the other hand…

In News Reports on July 31, 2018 at 1:43 am

Sometimes I think we’re a nation of hypocrites. We believe ourselves to be imbued with great personal values like honesty – but everybody else is kiasi, kiasu, complaining and materialistic and so forth. The survey on values released yesterday didn’t reflect many changes in the way Singaporeans see themselves, society or what they want society to be like. ST tried to make much of fun and humour being added to the top 10 personal values but the news is really – not much news. We’re still what we were six years ago.

It’s interesting how the Institute of Policy Study researchers viewed the dissonance between personal values and society’s behavior. ST reported Dr Gillian Koh as saying: “When people step out of the door in the morning, when they get to their workplaces or their schools, or whatever it is, it sounds like they have to put on a different persona.”

She added that this stems from how some Singaporeans feel that the way their life is structured makes it difficult to exercise their personal values outside of their homes and in society.

Is this so? I doubt if any of the respondents seriously believe they change stripes when they step out of the home. They probably think that everybody else is just quite, quite bad. I have inserted ST’s chart below.

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 8.47.45 AM

The significance of the survey, methinks, is about how “potentially limiting’’ and destructive those negative traits we have about our society can be. They made up 41 per cent of all attributes, higher than the 37 per cent in 2015. (Complaining got added to the list this year).This is better than Sweden’s 44 per cent and Finland’s 49 per cent, but worse than Bhutan’s 4 per cent, United Arab Emirates’ 12 per cent, and Denmark’s 21 per cent.

Again, the researchers tried to put a good spin on it. That the higher score could be due to a higher level of self-criticism, rather than a sign of cultural dysfunction.

I like their “positive attitude’’ which, by the way, has dropped out of the list of personal values.

I wish more was said about the “potentially limiting’’ effects of our views. What does the phrase mean? Should we try to change some things about ourselves or be more charitable about the way we see others? And what does Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser, one of the researchers, mean when he said we needed an “affirming culture’’?

I can only guess that viewing society in such a negative way merely entrenches, or even justifies, bad societal behavior.

  1. If everybody is complaining, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you say otherwise. So you shut up. (Because courage isn’t on your list of personal values)
  2. If the buffet table is crowded with kiasu people, you have “no choice’’ but to join in. (I wonder if the list included “pragmatism’’.)
  3. If everybody is making money out of something, you look stupid if you don’t do the same. (Even though you swear you’re not materialistic)

What’s worse is if we see no sense in doing good because society is “like that’’ – a mean-spirited, grasping whole.

Another point: I was surprised that the reports did not refer much to how peace and security have dropped out the list of societal values and do not even feature in our ideals for society. Is this now something we take for granted despite repeated calls for vigilance? Isn’t safety and security one of the greatest attributes we have?

What also surprised me was how “respect’’ has edged into the list of ideals, trumping quality of life, peace and employment prospects. What has accounted for this change? Are we referring to respect for each other, regardless of socio-economic status? Is this the result of our debate on meritocracy (which doesn’t feature anywhere at all in the survey?) Or maybe it’s about respect for society’s wishes and desires?

I wish the researchers had shed more light on the findings. Survey results are “fun’’ but they are useless if they do not tell a story.

 

 

The PAP should get a move on….

In News Reports on July 30, 2018 at 2:31 am

For a country that is said to be politically apathetic, we seem to have no dearth of political views.  Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s possible foray into opposition politics have got tongues wagging at a faster speed than usual. One camp welcomes his possible entry as a shot in the arm for opposition politics, while the other derides him for attempting to do a “Mahathir’’ resurrection. Then there are those who think he shouldn’t associate himself with “losers’’ and tarnish his political reputation. That he should stand as an independent candidate.

I think the opposition’s courting of Dr Tan is only to be expected. For years, the motley crew of smaller players hasn’t been able to come close to even winning a parliamentary seat. It doesn’t help that the Workers’ Party has never seemed keen to lead the pack, preferring to build its own image and following.

And it is still sticking to its position. Asked about the WP’s absence at the talks with Dr Tan, its media spokesman Daniel Goh would only say that the party “is going through a leadership transition and is focused on organisation-building to better serve Singaporeans”.

Note that even Mr Chiam See Tong’s Singapore People’s Party did not throw its hat into the ring, although he had initiated such an alliance in the past. His wife SPP chairman Lina Chiam said its priority is “intensive ground engagement to understand the feelings and sentiment of Singaporeans”. But, she added, “we are open to having a conversation with Dr Tan Cheng Bock to hear his views and thoughts about the future of Singapore”.

(Take a look at the quotes. They’ve certainly learnt to speak like bureaucrats.)

So an opposition alliance without the WP and SPP?

Besides the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), National Solidarity Party (NSP), People’s Power Party (PPP), Democratic Progressive Party, Reform Party, Singaporeans First, the “alliance’’ includes an unregistered party called Peoples Voice, which former NSP chief Lim Tean has applied to form.

In my view, while including the WP would be good for electoral purposes, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t share a common vision or philosophy with the rest other than being anti-People’s Action Party.

For better or for worse, WP’s former chief Low Thia Kiang has always eschewed the driver’s seat, preferring the role of a checker in Parliament. It has yet to be seen if new leader Pritam Singh will set a different direction.

But the opposition “alliance’’ aren’t coy about their intentions at all. This is what Mr Lim Tean said in a speech at the Saturday meeting with Dr Tan: “Our Alliance must strive to form the next Government in the upcoming General Elections. We must offer real change to better the lives of Singaporeans. We must be a real alternative.’’

Evidently, he’s caught the Malaysian bug, and believes that the PAP can be trounced by a Singapore version of Pakatan Harapan. Mr Lim also suggested that people who think otherwise are “in denial’’ and cites the “winds of change’’.

I don’t think the Singapore situation is anywhere like the circumstances that led to the downfall of Barisan Nasional. We are beset by problems of prosperity, which is what I call income inequality. We grumble about car park fees for teachers and whether our meritocratic system can carry us forward. Our G leaders might seem callous to us (cue rise in gas, water and electricity prices), but they are not corrupt. Our economy is still humming along. And while there are things that bug us (and will always bug us) in the economic, social and political landscape, I don’t think we’re doing badly at all.

But I do think the PAP should sit up and take notice of what’s happening at the other end of the political spectrum. The WP has a new leader. The motley crew seems eager to get its act together. On the other hand, the PAP appears to have flubbed the political succession process – despite what it might say about giving potential successors time to cut their teeth.

Yes, it seems to be doing its damnedest to put the contenders in the public eye, and to have them interact with people. I guess this is so that the public would have a measure of the person who would finally become first among equals. But I wish the PAP would just hold a vote among its members to decide the issue, because the public certainly doesn’t have a say in who becomes Prime Minister – not at least till the general election.

It might be true that people vote for the political party and not the individual. But by party, they look at the man – or woman – in charge. That person is the personification of the political party and what it stands for. And we must have time to measure the person against Dr Tan, if and when he decides to take up offer of opposition leadership.

I know what people will now say. That it’s not just the party or the person, but the policies. Sure, and that’s a great advantage the PAP has. But it’s nice to know there is a face behind them.

Someone’s watching you…

In News Reports on July 28, 2018 at 12:17 am

It’s a great time to engage in people watching, because nobody is watching you. This is not a reference to data privacy and intrusion, I mean exactly what I say: watching people.

So I can scan the faces of the people on the train and they would be staring too hard at their phones to notice me. I don’t need to worry about a gangsterish “What are you looking at?’’ challenge. So I take in the way they dress, look at how many people wear shoes or sandals or slippers and what’s the latest fad in tee-shirts. I can look them up-and-down unabashedly.

They see nothing else and most also hear nothing else except what’s going through their ear plugs. It will take a big bang or physical movement to get them to look up. Because they are so busy staring at their phones, they also say nothing – unless they have to pick up a call. That’s normal I suppose because you board the train alone – and know no one else. But this exercise in cellphone absorption applies elsewhere too, whether at dinners or get-togethers. Whatever is in the phone is lot more interesting than a real, live person. We’d rather smile at a screen.

I wonder if people ever make “new’’ friends anymore. I can’t strike up a conversation with a stranger when I can’t even catch his/her eye. And it seems almost rude to speak up when everybody else is in a phone reverie. It’s so odd when you think that not so long ago, we’d be castigating people for being impolite to ignore the presence of others. Maybe we’re content with “virtual’’ friends because it is a relationship that requires no commitment and we wouldn’t want to see virtual friends too because, as we’ve been warned oft times, they could all be serial killers in real life.

I tell myself that there will be no “Girl on a train’’ moment, who catches sight of a murder while peering out the train window. I don’t even think there’s much of a “The Commuter’’ incident, where people who regularly board the same train at the same time form a sort of bond with each other. In other words, they become “friendly’’ if not friends. I find it ironic to hear announcements about reporting strange people and so forth to the train authorities when commuters are so inert about their surroundings.

Maybe we’re really shy people and take refuge in interacting with machines. I have to add that “older’’ people are quite different. They’re not on their phones and are amenable to some chit chat. Other “available’’ channels of communication: Tourists. Of course, we do not speak at the top of our voice and engage in a low monotone of banter, so as not to distract those busy people on their phones.

We make very little use of our five senses methinks. Even if we’re not in a speeding train or bus, we don’t notice if a big tree on our route has been suddenly chopped down or how a shop we pass by everyday has since changed hands. That’s because even while walking, we’re eyes-glued and ears-stucked onto some device. This is dangerous (serious) given the number of mobility devices which now fill our pavements.

Okay, now people will say that this is normal behavior in big cities… But this doesn’t mean we have to emulate them. I think about the current discussion on moving beyond grades and embracing creativity and innovation and I wonder how we are ever going get anywhere when we’re so bereft of curiosity and uninterested in our flesh-and-blood fellow men. We’d rather pore over big data than engage in small talk.

But I am just musing aloud. Don’t mind me. Get back to your phone

So I failed my PSLE…how?

In News Reports on July 27, 2018 at 2:22 am

I was surprised to read that O level results matter in a polytechnic student’s application to study at university. So it counts for 20 per cent of the university admission score with the rest based on how well they did in the poly.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung thinks it should be removed: “A practice like this will raise the stakes of O-level examinations. This sends the signal that the results of this exam have long-lasting impact on your life. Perhaps, it is time to review it.”

I suppose the O level component was put in place when there wasn’t enough confidence in the value of a polytechnic education. Now, the polytechnics are seen as on a par with junior colleges, and even a more attractive option because of their skills bent.

I quipped on my Facebook timeline that looking at old exam results is like an employer asking for a potential employee’s PSLE scores. I was amazed to find out that employers, including those in the public sector, still do.

I said in my earlier column that if we want to change mindsets of society, especially parents, about the value of academic grades and skills mastery, then we should be concerned about the end point. Parents want their children to have good grades to aim for places with money and power. And employers who ask for grades obtained in examination halls eons ago add to this mindset that grades matter, even those you attained when you were 12.

I ask myself whether this is a reflection of employers wanting to keep detailed records (can you take back your resume if you’re not employed in the end?) or whether such scores really matter when deciding who’s good for the job.

Some thoughts:

  1. Maybe academic records will show consistency in performance, which might be a factor if, say, you are gunning for a scholarship.
  2. Maybe, poor results can be read as evidence of a late bloomer! Somebody who overcame the odds and got better and better!
  3. Maybe blips in an academic record is evidence of erratic genius. (Do employers ask what co-curricular activities you took part in in primary school?)

I guess that in an employer’s market, you simply have to give up what records employers want because you’re too desperate to land the job. Nobody wants to call such data “private’’ lest they be deemed potential troublemakers even before making it through the door.

But this column isn’t about data privacy, it’s about bringing people round to the idea that grades aren’t everything. It’s fashionable to blame the education system, not matter how much it changes its curriculum to include thinking rather than memory skills or to include more “applied’’ components.

It’s even fashionable to blame parents. There was this term “effort inflation’’ Mr Ong used for students who still slog as intensively even when such effort wasn’t demanded of them or even necessary. Somehow we simply cannot believe that school is not stressful.

Talk to employers and they will say that grades don’t count for everything. That’s the politically correct thing to say in public. You hear of their aptitude tests and interview skills and how they are more important than exam scores. They don’t tell you that the exam scores are the first cut. They don’t explain why they want your PSLE, O level and A level scores. More often, they cite “policy’’ as if it is the answer to all pesky questions.

Those with long memories will recall how during the 1984 general election, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had compared the O level results of Potong Pasir candidates Mah Bow Tan from the People’s Action Party and the opposition’s Chiam See Tong.

He said: “Mah Bow Tan, age 16, took his ‘O’ Levels – six distinctions, two credits. Mr Chiam, age 18 – six credits, one pass.”

The voters didn’t care and MrChiam won 60.28 per cent of the votes. I suppose people will now say that electing a politician and employing someone require different considerations. Maybe. But my thesis still applies. Why would you care how a person did in school so long ago when the concern should be whether they can do the job that is placed in front of them.

Now, if the university admission criteria can be changed for polytechnic students, the same question can be posed to employers who want all sorts of academic data – why is it so important for you to know?

Maybe Mr Ong can assert his authority in the public sector and, at the very least, drop this notion of PSLE scores as an application requirement.

PS. I didn’t fail my PSLE.

 

 

 

 

Don’t ask me personal questions

In News Reports on July 23, 2018 at 8:42 am

I was thinking that if I wanted to turn the SingHealth hack into a national crisis, I could. After all, 1.5 million sets of personal particulars have been stolen, including the outpatient medication data of 160,000 people. It also seems to be state-sponsored attack, said our own state, and the people who are in the know might even know who’s behind this. So is it the Americans? The Chinese? The Russians? The, ahem, Malaysians? Shades of cyber-terrorism! Conspiracies! We should be on national alert!

What a good time this would be to roll out a cyber protection campaign, sign up the best and the brightest for cyber-security classes and have a top 10 list of the best anti-virus products (and we’re not talking about the health kind)! What about a Change-Your-Password Day? Time to close ranks, ring fence and hold hands.

But it seems everyone is taking it all in their stride, a testimony to how well the “when and not if’’ anti-terrorism mantra has sunk into the national psyche. Of course, there is the other type of reaction: why aren’t our cyber-security protocols strong enough? Why didn’t the health sector de-link their computers from the Internet like everybody else in the public sector? Why did it take more than a week for the G to tell us what happened?

I almost forgot a third type of reaction: “It could have been worse’’, which is the sorriest excuse for any bad circumstance.

I’d wager, though, that the relative calm is more a result of ambivalence and depends on how deeply an individual feels about privacy. So after an initial “Wah, even the Prime Minister kena hack’’, we leave it alone and trust that the G would deal with it. That would be good news for the G – we leave things to the experts and the Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate what happened.

But it won’t be good news if the calm is due to people not caring about what had happened.

Perhaps, there is a presumption of safety in numbers – “so many people, can’t be about me’’. Also, it “can’t be about me’’ since the G keeps maintaining that the target was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. So it’s about him.

I am not one of the people affected. And those affected whom I know seem more pleased to have been personally informed via SMS than worried about what people will do with their name, address, race, gender, IC number and date of birth. It doesn’t help that Cyber Security Agency chief executive David Koh said the stolen information are “basic demographic data” which has “no strong commercial value’’. Commentators have wondered if he was right to dismiss health data so easily.

I wonder too.

I mean, I could sell the data to a drug company which would know how to price its medicines properly or where to open a pharmacy, set up a clinic – and which drug I should tamper with if I want to get rid of a whole lot of people.

My bigger wonder is over the G’s messaging – should we be worried or not? If there’s no strong commercial value, then the hack is more for strategic and political reasons. Shouldn’t this be more worrying? Or we should leave it to the G to worry about it?

In any case, I doubt that many people are worried, so used are we to giving our personal data willy-nilly that we have to be told that you don’t have to leave your IC at the security counter of a building and agencies should stop publicizing such numbers even if they belonged to lottery winners!

I am one of those pesky people who always give receptionists, security guards and nosey parkers grief when asked for personal details. I admit that I sometimes give false info when I see no reason for the company, agency or nosey parker to know more about me than I want to divulge.

Q: “We just need your address, email, contact number in case we need to contact you.’’

A: “But why would you need to contact me at all? I don’t want to be contacted by you.’’

Q: “We need your date of birth for our records…’’

A: “Why? Are you sending me a birthday present?’’

Q: “Look, we just need your IC number…’’

A: “Why do you need to verify who I am? I’m just another customer!’’

Wags will say there is nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. My reply will be “I have nothing to hide, but why do you want to know?’’

My private data is part of me. I am no mass produced robot with a manufacturer’s stamp and which can be opened up for some stranger to peer into my component parts.

You can bet that I would be rather furious if I was one of the 1.5 million and worse, if I was among the 160,000. I would argue that SingHealth is not part of the public sector but operates restructured hospitals and clinics under  what is legally a private company. I mean, that’s why it didn’t follow public sector rules on ‘’de-linking’’, right? So the PDPA should be thrown at it. After all, that’s what’s likely to happen if a private medical group faced the same problem.

It is right that the end-user should be careful about passwords and so forth, or about simply leaving a work-station un-attended. It is right that we should have protocols that might make life more difficult – but safe from cyber attacks. It is right that we train experts.

Methinks the key to firming up attitudes on cyber-security is not to look at whether the stolen private data is valuable.

It must start with us, by putting a value on our own private data.

 

 

The meritorious path and the money trail

In News Reports on July 21, 2018 at 2:27 am

There’s really nothing more to say about meritocracy, whether of the compassionate or rigid kind, because so much has been said about it. But I’m glad that there is not much of a quarrel with the “core’’ of the idea – being assessed based on what you have done, and rewarded or penalized, as a result.

We grumble about the hard edges of meritocracy, lamenting that there will be people who simply cannot keep up whether through inability or circumstances. Or how some have a head-start simply by being born into the ‘right’ family.  We all know, however, that we have to run the distance.

The meritocracy issue about whether some people are “advantaged or disadvantaged’’ through no merit of their own has actually morphed into something else in recent time. It’s not so much about how a person managed to accumulate the merits, but what exactly ‘’meritorious’’ refers to. Clearly, the G is trying to get people to look at merit in broader ways than merely academic grades. So the new mantra is that being an expert technician or craftsman is also good.

Nothing, however, is said about what merit ultimately translates into – money and power.

So try as anyone might to redefine merit, we’re always up against the almighty M. It’s the way we are, transactional beings who laud ourselves on being pragmatic when we might really be grasping mercenaries who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

I got to thinking about this when I had to move house and deal with people I would have no reason to otherwise. (I admit to being in a closed circle too) There was the father-and-son team of renovation contractors, with an uncle who is an electrician. There was a grandfather who supervised the moving of furniture and belongings, including doing most of the heavy lifting. There was a young PRC national with a wonderfully hardworking, resourceful and cheerful work ethic. Then there were three from the Indian subcontinent who clicked together beautifully to fix my fibre optic wiring.

I ask myself how much they earn from doing the things that I don’t know how to do, or will not do.

The young and old men who expertly and efficiently wrapped my furniture, including odd shapes that defy closure, for example. Each time they lifted a particularly heavy carton, I worry about their backs. It looks easy – moving stuff from point A to B. Only brawn needed, so it looked from the outside. I thought to myself that we’d never say something like “only brain needed’’.

We don’t think much of manual labour even if the labour involved adhering to a system and some skill. The movers told me they had to go through short courses on the different ways to handle different types of cargo. It was just a matter of load up and go. Truth to tell, I was particularly impressed by how they never needed to wield a pair of scissors – bubble wrap, shrink wrap and scotch tape simply yielded to a mere twist of some fingers. The knife was reserved for slashing cardboard only.

I ask myself if, over time, they could be replaced by robots. Would robots be as careful with a person’s belongings? The fact is, robots haven’t arrived yet and we’d still need people to do the work. Maybe, they would be teaching the robots what to do, and move into working in an air-conditioned robot factory.

I didn’t ask them about their salary, but I tipped them handsomely because I admired the amount of strength and skill they had exhibited. I asked the grandfather, a wiry fellow who could lift an ancient Singer sewing machine solo, about his family. Very proudly, he tells of a son who is an elite police unit, a much better job than his, he said. He made a distinction between his type of labour and his son’s job. I think his son should be as proud of his dad too.

I was totally heartened that the contractor’s son, an undergraduate, was learning his father’s trade. There seemed to be a division of labour, with the young man doing the administrative work while the father dealt with the nitty-gritty of measurements and material. The father lauded his son’s design skills (“he is in university!’’) – but it was the father’s long experience which showed through. He knew better what was functional and what was merely pretty. We went with the father’s recommendations. Doubtless, over time and under the tutelage of his father and uncle, he would know all facets of the job and be as much of a master craftsman as his seniors. With educational qualifications, he would have an edge over others if he attained the skills. That, I suppose, is what those in the trade should aim for – skilled professionalism.

And what about their PRC foreman with the ever-smiling face? They said he was worth his weight in gold. Curious, I asked the man about his family. They were back in China and his eldest daughter, he said with under-stated pride, is ‘’studying in  university’’. I thought to myself that he would make a great new citizen, a worthy addition despite his work permit status. My mother told the contractor that she hoped he was paid well.

The trio who fixed my wiring spent less than a half hour in the house. I got to talking to their local supervisor who said that while he was the “engineer’’, he would be hard pressed to do the job as efficiently as they could. But why three people, I asked. One driver, one technician and one group leader, he replied. I was beginning to think this was a waste of manpower until I saw that all three were working as one. The engineer said though that he knew of one Indian national who could manage the job solo, and in even shorter time. He was simply so skilled after doing the same job for years. But he was booted out of the company because of a customer complaint. I thought to myself the company could pay one man to do the job of three. But would he be paid the job of three people?

When we talk about meritocracy, do we think about the people who do things we don’t know how to do or don’t want to do? Or do we label them as “unmeritorious’’ or casualties of meritocracy? Do we sniff at their jobs and connect them with a lower socio-economic status instead of looking at how well they do their jobs?

Sure, we pay people to do things for us. The sad thing is we pay them low wages because we don’t think the work deserves more. I’d wager that the more skilled a person and the less time he takes on a job, the more we balk at paying them a good fee. We think the work is too easy. My mother and I, for example, balked at paying $50 for a locksmith to come unpick a lock – a task done in under a minute. But that is the price of a skill that we don’t have.

I wonder if our mindset will change if we had to do things by ourselves – paint our own walls, make our own furniture, fix our car when it gives trouble, do our own plumbing and electrical wiring and so forth. We know that in developed countries, the DIY mentality is deeper ingrained. That is why their plumbers and electricians charge a bomb – because they are fewer in number and because they are probably called upon to do complicated work.

We’d never look at skills differently if we think we can easily afford to pay for them. We’d need a drastic over-hauling of the system – fewer foreign workers and an appreciation for manual labour and technical expertise. We’d need to re-brand our jobs, re-calibrate salaries and acknowledge that sometimes, people who can do the jobs we can’t or won’t deserve acknowledgment. This is so we won’t go: “Wah only technician/plumber/carpenter but can drive big car!’’

In other words, there is merit everywhere, but it has to come with the money. Or parents will simply look at the money trail and equate it with the meritorious path.