Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Being Lee Kuan Yew

In Society on March 27, 2015 at 1:36 am

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew. Beyond obvious gender differences, I don’t have his searing intellect and that ability to cajole, persuade and bully. I don’t even own knuckle-dusters.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew, because I can’t see myself obsessing over the big picture every day, like how to make Singapore a better place to live in. I think I will go mad if I can’t make small talk.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who took studying a language so seriously he hired a tutor even in his old age. I am younger and I prefer to study a language in a less stressful way by watching television serials.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who can talk about the internationalization of the Singapore dollar and cleaning up the Singapore River. I don’t understand the former, and I take the latter for granted.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who made pragmatic decisions based on changing circumstances, like having casinos in Singapore as an economic piston. Although, like him, I am a non-gambler.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who was always so convinced of the rightness of his decision that he swept obstacles out of the way. I am too tentative and I worry about not being “nice’’.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who was so devoted to his wife that he would talk to her every night, although she couldn’t speak – no matter where he was. I am also not disciplined enough.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who was so frugal in his habits and lifestyle that he bathed by ladling out water from a jar. I like my hot showers.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew, although sometimes I wish I can.

Mourn now – fight later

In Society on March 25, 2015 at 7:55 am

Such a strange thing is happening in the ether. The normally silent majority seemed to be speaking up. They are thumping those who had hogged the online space with their cutting, unkind comments about anything to do with the Government. Or the People’s Action Party. Or Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

I was surprised at first at the outpouring of online emotion, so protective of Mr Lee and his legacy. I can’t help but think that those who have been sitting at the sidelines of the Internet space have decided to put their gloves on. Woe is you who dare to say anything rude about Singapore’s first prime minister! Whack! Bam! Slam!

As for those who think that the Internet is about letting anyone speak their mind, however inane and insane their words, they are finding out that this is not the case. The internet herd, typically anti-establishment and even rude, is turning the other way.

Yet I wish we could stop fighting, at least for the next few days. Can we stop arguing about the merits and demerits of the man who’s just died? About whether people are right to want to wear black this Sunday or whether some MP’s idea of a tribute being a workout is daft? About whether too much expression is symptomatic of the mentality of sheep or any kind of criticism of the man is out of line?

I gather that online friendships have been broken; a lot of “unfriending’’ going on these days.  Some people are vying to be more demonstrative of their admiration than others, at least that is how it is being construed in some quarters. Others who have always taken a hard anti-LKY line have softened, prompting charges of bending with the wind. Gosh. The death of Lee Kuan Yew is inspiring a lot of emotions. May we not let them pit ourselves against each other.

Last night, friends and I encountered an admittedly drunk young woman alone in a bar, telling us about how she had split up with her boyfriend after an argument about the kind of leader Mr Lee had been. It seemed to be fundamental point of difference for her. I guess at any other time, the couple wouldn’t have had such a big blow-up. The difference is the timing: Mr Lee has just died.

Yes, he has died, which is why I don’t think we can have much meaningful or rational discussion – at least online – at the moment. Think of those times when you lost a loved one, you would sit quietly and cry, recall last moments or reminisce about good times. Friends at the wake will be respectful, even if they did not know the deceased.  Mr Lee has a large family, and I don’t mean his immediate one. That’s why people jump at any sign of impropriety. Even family members will quarrel about funeral arrangements, like whether wearing black is the right protocol. I, for one, had wondered if it was “good form’’ to clap while his funeral cortege passed along the road earlier today and decided to close the FB discussion because I was worried that it would get out of hand.

Therefore, we are now commenting on the eulogies. Should eulogies be positive or are they actually propagandistic? Should they have some critical comments or would this be considered nasty? Or should they be balanced? And “balanced’’ according to who? It is inevitable that when a public figure has passed on, people feel the need to pass judgment.  On him. And on others who have passed judgment on him Methinks Mr Heng Swee Keat wrote the best eulogy and that is because he did “reporting’’ – he told us what we didn’t know about Mr Lee’s working style. His use of the “red box’’ (plus picture) to hold all the parts together is brilliant.

Frankly, I am beginning to have my fill of foreigners weighing in on the man’s legacy, after not being able to get enough of it earlier on. The key players have weighed in, and now the fringe actors are doing so. I can’t even recognize the Mr Lee whom some of them have described. He was either saint or Satan. Then there are those who put a sting in the tail, to conform to their own ideals of what a leader should be like. I think Mr Lee would have waved away all these speeches and eulogies. He had said before that it was for Phd students to mull over. In other words, history will decide.

I agree. I think we should mourn now – and fight later.

A reporter’s notes on Mr Lee

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 24, 2015 at 2:55 am

If there was one man I was really terrified of, it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I thought it was because I was so much younger than the man, until I realized that people far older than I and who had met him far more often, felt the same. I guess it was the way he stared at you and that interrogative tone he used while talking to you. It seemed to me that he was always sucking in his breath when he had to answer any question from me as though he’s thinking “what am I supposed to do with this stupid young thing?!’’

But no, he never lost his cool with me. I think he saw me as a young journalist who could be “taught’’ or set on the right path, so to speak. He was not a man for small talk and that was part of the terror. Your brain got no rest, even when you were having (very healthy/fruity) lunches with him. Even questions on the type of refrigerators on sale seemed to be mere data to him, like some kind of proxy on Singaporeans’ values or indicator of economic wealth. You feel like he was collecting answers on everyday life because he was using them to plug some gaps in a big picture he was drawing in his head.

My ex-colleagues and I who had been invited for those lunches would come up with a list of issues that we will broach with him. Yes, we were interested in them, but it was also so that he could launch forth – and we could eat. So long as we listened, we didn’t have to sound stupid answering his questions.

I remember my first overseas trip with the man. He was then still Prime Minister and was making a trip to Malaysia. He was going to see Tunku Abdul Rahman in Penang and then hop over to Kedah and Langkawi island. He practically jumped  out of the car before it had come to stand still because he saw the Tunku waiting for him at the porch. He did not want to keep the former Malaysian premier waiting. He spoke loudly to the bent old man, because the Tunku had become hard of hearing. His solicitousness towards the Tunku touched me. The way he held his arm and sat with him… Clearly, Mr Lee knew how to treat his elders, never mind their sad/bad history.

It was quite a different treatment he meted out to a foreign journalist who had barged in on a press conference during the trip. The Caucasian man, who told Mr Lee he was actually attending another event in the same building and had taken the opportunity to gatecrash, had asked some human rights question. (I can’t remember what) Mr Lee returned with a stinger on whether he was asking him if he beat his wife.  And that the journalist should have done some homework before asking questions. And come visit Singapore.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Mr Lee angry…it was not a pretty sight. The journalist sat subdued and silent throughout. I felt like going over to pat him on his shoulder but thought again: Stupid bugger! Think you can just swing by and take on Lee Kuan Yew without doing any homework?

I’ve covered him on several occasions, feeling very much like an inadequate young journalist. Because he was THE man, he had to be reported fully. It was so stressful…

I recall how in Penang I left the press delegation en route to an official dinner at a hotel and took a trishaw to a telecom building in Georgetown to file my story. I returned in time for dinner rather smug that I had finished my work before any of my colleagues – and that I could finally eat in peace. Except that Mr Lee decided to get up to make a speech…The media crew thought this was it then, we’ll never be in time to get to our hotel in Batu Ferringgi to file.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I approached a nearby table of towkays in my most ingratiating manner and asked if anyone had a car phone that can reach Singapore. One of them did. Phew! By the way, in case you’re thinking, there were no cellphones in those days. No internet also.

Mr Lee was responsible for giving me the biggest journalist scoop of my career. After one of those healthy/fruity lunches, I asked if he was willing to be interviewed about his son’s cancer. That was in 1993. The then DPM Lee Hsien Loong had been diagnosed with lymphoma, at the same time as DPM Ong Teng Cheong. Besides the “human interest’’ potential that such an interview would have, there was also the big question mark over political succession should the worst happen to the younger Lee. (Insensitive question for a father to answer, but come on, surely, anyone would want to know what he thought?)

Mr Lee thought for a while and said that it might be a “good idea’’ to have the interview. Terrified, I told my bosses he said yes. I had a more than two-hour interview one-on-one with the man at the Istana, with an information officer who was recording everything. (There was an awkward moment when she had to interrupt the interview to switch cassette tapes.)

Mr Lee was forthright enough; he knew what he wanted to say. He also knew what he did NOT want to say. How, in heaven’s name, was I going to ask him what the illness would mean in “big picture’’ terms? I had to ask him three times, in three different ways, at three different points of the interview before I thought I got a full answer. Once, he laughed off the question by saying that anything can happen, like anyone could get hit by a car, for instance.

One reply:  “Singapore needs the best it can get. If Singapore can get a man who has never had cancer and will never get a relapse and who is better than Loong, then that man is the answer. But if it can’t, then you take the best that’s available. Right?”

But what would happen to the political succession plans if the worst were to happen to BG Lee, I asked, hoping that this was specific yet polite enough to get an answer.

His reply: “Well, unfortunately, it’s a fact of life. We may be lucky and it may not come back. So the problem may not arise. If the problem arises, the answer may have to be found in two or three persons to do the things he has been doing. That is life.”

I tell you now that I felt very, very sorry for Mr Lee then. And I felt very, very bad. I was a cad trying to pry open a private space for public consumption. I could see and feel the depth of his emotions then.

What followed later though was near-comical.  Mr Lee wanted to see the article before publication. I said I had to ask my boss first because we normally wouldn’t allow it. (Very brave right?) Well my boss said yes and the print-out was duly faxed over to the Istana. Note that these were the days when printers were of the dot-matrix kind and you can’t adjust the size of type. I got the fright of my life the next day when I got a phone call at home from the newsroom that Mr Lee wanted to see me in the Istana that afternoon. Oh dear! Was it so badly written? Did I get anything wrong?

He started by complaining about the quality of the print – too faint, too small, difficult to read. I told him I would tell my boss to buy new printers (such good scapegoats bosses are!) Then he asked if I thought the article was too long. I said I had run it past colleagues who thought the length was fine. He damn near shouted at me: But they are your colleagues!!! What about ordinary people?? Oh dear, this young person did not want to tell him it was not a done thing to show drafts to outsiders but I ended up telling him that if it was about Mr Lee and his son, everybody sure read everything. (Okay, I put it more elegantly than that)

It transpired that he wanted to give me more information because he thought there was something “missing’’ in the piece. Then he told me of his son’s meditation. I scribbled away, thinking what a fantastic newsmaker he was for volunteering more interesting information without being asked to.

The story was published in The Sunday Times and picked up the world over.

I had covered him as a journalist a few times since but I will never forget the interview(s) because it was the most intimate moment I have ever had with the man. I saw him then as a politician, a statesman and a father. Whatever his bullying tactics, his terrifying demeanour and fierce outbursts in the public eye, I had managed to catch glimpses of the private man. I think some of my ex-colleagues had a lot more experience with him especially in the course of writing his books. I can only offer you a few paltry insights.

Once, I sent him a note saying that I was unable to turn up for lunch because I was ill. He returned the note with a message that he hoped I would be all right soon. It is to my great regret that I have lost the note. But I still have that full transcript of those interviews with some of his comments written in red.

I will cherish them.

PS. I found that cancer story online

No man like him

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

And now the grieving starts. I had a look again at the television broadcast of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of his father’s death. I saw it at 8am online – but you know how live streaming sucks. Now I see clearly how tough it must be to remain prime ministerial when it’s your father who has just died. Nobody would fault Mr Lee if he broke down in tears instead trying so bravely to hold them back. But he did. The son remained prime ministerial.

So many things have happened since the announcement of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s  death in the early hours of the morning. Flags are down half-mast, people are streaming in to pen their condolences in books that will be kept for posterity, the great and good the world over have sent messages. They praised him as a visionary leader whose counsel on geo-politics was sought and who cut through the chase. There was no bullshit about him.

I was taken aback when I read that Dr Henry Kissinger, now 91, recalled how Mr Lee’s first words on their first meeting was “You make me sick’’. It had to do with the US involvement in the Vietnam War and how some top American academics had wanted the country out. Mr Lee wanted the Americans to stay. “That took courage,’’ said Dr Kissinger as ST reported today.

Singaporeans can take pride in how world leaders regarded their first prime minister. Messages via official channels and even social media have come from world leaders, including Malaysia’s Najib Razak. The Brunei Sultan has already called at Sri Temasek where Mr Lee’s cortege has been placed for a private wake. Indonesia’s Jokowi is coming to the funeral on Sunday.

In fact, my worry is that with him gone, would the international glow on Singapore fade too? Mr Lee’s international stature had much to do with how much regard big countries had for this little red dot, as his successor Mr Goh Chok Tong himself testified. New leaders would stop by Singapore to take his counsel and I am still a little pissed that US President Barack Obama didn’t do the same. It is too late now for him to meet the man he described in his White House message as a “true giant of history’’. Harrrummph.

Major media have spewed forth obituaries, some positive, some negative. Even as they lauded his achievements as a pragmatic politician who took Singapore from Third World to First, they also highlighted the more draconian aspects of his “reign’’. References were made to detention without trial, political prosecutions/persecutions and the chewing gum ban. From the Western media was this tone: “Singapore is successful BUT’’, rather than “Singapore is successful DESPITE’’. A Foreign Policy commentator even called him the world’s “most successful dictator of the 20th century’’. I can’t decide if it was derogatory term or a backhanded compliment. Go read for yourself. The Economist called him the “wise man of Asia’’ while recalling descriptions of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty’’ and “Pyongyang with broadband’’. I want to harrrummph again…

Of course, there were obituaries and tributes that were “over the top’’, with nary a negative word. I guess we should expect this. Sometimes what’s said reflects a depth of feeling, sometimes, a sheer lack of words.  After all, we are not used to expressing emotion, according to some survey. Also, it is not “nice’’ to say bad things about a man who is dead, however glad you are that he is. (Shut up, will you?)

Yes, I have been reading obituary after obituary. I can’t get enough of them. It is so interesting to have the man viewed through different lenses. Some facets have come out. I was so surprised to read Mr Lee Hsien Yang saying that the family bathed by ladling out water from those big dragon-motif salted egg jars, and that his parents did so for almost six decades until a shower was finally installed in the bathroom in 2003 after his mother had a stroke.

My goodness!

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Mr Lee was well-known for being frugal and for his distaste for ostentation. I remember once walking behind him with my eyes glued to a hole in the singlet he had on under his CYC shirt. This was no ordinary man who knew about ordinary things or cared about the material stuff. He once told me of how his refrigerator had been in family since forever and asked me what sort of fridges were on sale now. I don’t know Sir, I’ve never bought one, I told him. I felt like sinking into the floor…

Then there was former Speaker of the House Abdullah Tarmugi who said that Mr Lee was the only MP who always sent him a note explaining his absence from Parliament. Again, I went “my goodness!’’. You mean the rest of the MPs…?

Anyway, this was a man who stuck by the rules. It showed discipline and an inclination for order. Would that others follow his example.

Now we will be treated to (or is flooded with?) more black-and-white footage, some of which we’ve never seen before. We will be facing reams of text and old photographs. The older generation will have a fine time pointing out to the young ones who’s who  seated/standing near the young Harry Lee. Old names will surface again, the likes of Ong Pang Boon, Jek Yuen Thong, Toh Chin Chye and other members of the Old Guard, both living and dead. Already, I hear the “silent’’ majority speaking up, talking of water rationing days and other hardships they faced while bringing up a brood of children. Now, as my mother would say, “people are born into air-conditioning’’ and still think life sucks because they can’t afford a new car or house.

I hope our young people are taking it all in. His many books on his ideas and thoughts can be heavy going but, surely, plonking yourself in front of the television to watch some local history isn’t too strenuous an exercise?

I hope they get to know the man. PM Lee said “we won’t see another man like him’’. I agree. Not here, not in the future, not anywhere.

I’m glad that we can boast that we had a man like him.

NOTE: President Obama did meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I apologise for my error and am swallowing my Harummph.

Rest In Peace, Mr Lee

In Society on March 22, 2015 at 9:46 pm

And so it’s happened…he’s gone.

That’s the news Singapore will wake up to this morning. Mr Lee Kuan Yew died at 3.18am. He was 91.

I’m looking at the PMO website done up in black. At other times, I might have appreciated the artistic effort. Instead, I just feel terrible. It was my mother who rang me at 5am to give me the news – when I was in the middle of brushing my teeth. She was already awake and had turned on the television. She sounded terrible too.

I’ve been wondering what I would feel when the “wait’’ was finally over. Now I know. It’s like a kind of choked-up release of emotions.

We’ve all been keeping some kind of death watch haven’t we, although there were those who thought a recovery was possible. I had been wondering how his family felt having to talk to well-wishers and the well-meaning as they made their way into the hospital ward these past few days. If it were me, I would like to be left alone and not have to pose for wefies…

But this was not just any old man, but Singapore’s grand old man. People read every word of every PMO statement about Mr Lee’s condition. They wished for more info, and wondered if he was conscious or not. And whether being on a mechanical ventilator is the same as being on life-support. People asked why his family didn’t just pull the plug on him and stop any pain he might be feeling. People prayed for a miracle recovery; they brought flowers, cards. To think that we were once labelled the world’s most unemotional people.

And, of course, some unkind people made stupid jokes.

There was a certain tightness in the air, of a collective breath being held, especially on Wednesday when the country was told his condition had “taken a turn for the worse’’. Then, it was him remaining “critically ill’’ before he “worsened’’ on Saturday and “weakened further’’ on Sunday. Then the final bulletin came while Singapore was sleeping.

I don’t want to think of Mr Lee as lying on a hospital hooked up to some machines. I want to think of him as the man who held the stage, who strode rather than walked and had eyes that bore through you. The media had tried to protect him, declining to publish or broadcast signs of his frailty, such as him seated in a wheelchair. But nobody was fooled. The grand old man was withering away in front of our eyes.

What now?

Life for the rest of us will, of course, go on. We’ll be hearing a lot of “death is inevitable’’ comments by those puzzled or embarrassed by displays of sentiment. Callous young ones will say “but he’s already so old what…’’

I think the older folk will feel a sense of loss. He was the man who would “come out’’ to set things right. Like it or not, they listened and followed. He was a bulldozer, true, but it was so that he could build a house, the Singapore house. They can forgive a lot of things he did, because they too believed in building the Singapore house. After that, we started furnishing the house with better and better things, and started quarreling about what to buy. Now? We want to upgrade but can’t decide what sort of house to move into…

People like my mother are worried. He might not have been on the national stage for years, but we all knew he was around. And if he was around, we’ll be all right, which is how people like my mother think. To think that when he became Senior Minister, Minister Mentor and later, former Prime Minister, she wondered why he just didn’t get out of the way so that his successor and later, his son, can work independently. You know the analogy, the banyan tree under which nothing grows. We forget that it also gives shade.

Some people think that the outpouring of emotion is overdone, and that there were plenty of other people/individuals involved in the establishment of Singapore as a successful city-state. Of course. They are members of the pioneer generation.  And the grand old man was their leader. There is no shame in grieving for a man who gave his life to this country. Yes, he was powerful. Yes, he was autocratic. But he was often more right than wrong. In fact, the qualities that people dislike about him might just be the qualities that brought us to today.

The State, I’m sure, will honour him fully. Obituaries will appear. The media will be full of tributes.  International figures will have some words for him. The citizens? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can summon up a smile today. The best thing we can do now is to wish his family well in their time of grief. And to thank them for sharing him with us while he lived.

Bringing bloggers to heel Part 1

In Society on March 20, 2015 at 4:15 am

I want to be a lifestyle blogger. I will call my blog High Heels. It is intended for working women between 30 and 55. I picked this age group because I belong in it, and because this is when women most worry about their spouses being distracted by younger women of foreign extraction.

So I want to do my fellow females some good by talking about good skincare, how cosmetics can cover up blemishes on the face and how to lose the jelly belly. I will put myself up as an example, after I have taken a subsidized SkillsFuture course on expert photoshop skills.

I am not a fashion “maven’’ – my clothes are cheap and I can pass off as someone’s domestic help any day except Sunday, when they all look better-dressed than me. So I think it’s time I start looking at fashion magazines, websites and attended a fashion festival or too. (Is Milan expensive?) This is not just to gain some expert knowledge but also in the hope that big brands like Prada or Chanel or the $2 shop will use me to endorse their designer wear. My wardrobe has a lot of space.

I will swear till I’m blue in the face that the cosmetic brand has gained me admirers, so long as I am compensated for my face-painting pains. I will even  swear that a certain slimming programme works, after I have fixed my faulty weighing scale. Because I tell you, in all honesty, that I am an honest blogger, and you will know this if you click through to my sponsor’s site and try the product or service yourself. I do NOT lie, although I might sometimes be prone to exaggeration.

I did think of becoming a food blogger since I already serve breakfast, lunch, tea and even supper sometimes.  But instead of cooking a lot, I would have to EAT a lot – and what will that do for my slimming sponsors? Still, it is a nice thought to be feted and fed for free at fancy restaurants that I can’t afford. I might learn the names of some European cuisine beyond pasta and laksana. I might even learn to write and pronounce them right.

Maybe I should join some network like Hushcloud or enuffnag. I gather that membership earns me the privilege of being known as a social or marketing “influencer’’. I am quite sure I wield a lot of influence due to my age and experience. My face-painting experience spans more than 30 years, more than the life-time of typical lifestyle blogger. Plus I have eaten more salt than rice than most of them, and even know the colloquial local names of vegetables and fish. Batang fish, I assure you, is not a bad name.

But I would be in a bit of a pickle if I really hate the product or service that I have been paid to review. Would it help if I tell the sponsor right from the beginning  that I can’t guarantee a favorable review? I will insist that it is paying me for my time and writing skills, rather than a positive outcome. In other words, you’re taking a risk hiring me. But… I won’t get repeat business after I have slammed the product leh…. Never mind, I can always focus on its positive points. I will cherry-pick. I will say: “The restaurant has a wonderful ambience and the food looks good. Great cutlery and crockery too.’’ That’s still being honest…

Or maybe the product or service is so bad that I don’t have anything good to say. Then I guess I just won’t write anything at all. I will return the cash, discount voucher, freebie or whatever I’ve been given. Does that sound honest? Or stupid? Sheesh. Maybe I should only work for established names with established products that are universally acclaimed. I’m sure they pay better too.

Oh no! Wait a minute. Do I have to tell people that I’m being paid to write something? Do I have to say it right up front and attach the sponsor’s logo as well? Won’t readers be turned off by this? They will assume I am being paid to be positive, even though, I swear, sumpah, hand-on-heart, that I am giving my honest opinion. Hey, I can’t lose my readers because my sponsors will lose interest and I will lose…everything!

Can’t I just say that I “stumbled’’ while in high heels (must brand…) on this restaurant or that “a friend’’ recommended me this product? After all, what is more important is the content of my review, rather than how I came to review it. So, it’s still honest right? But what if some pesky people ask me how I stumbled on it, what day and what time and to name the “friend’’ who recommended the product? What if they want silly things like attribution, comparisons and whether that bit of info was a cut-and-paste job from the company brochure? And whether my review is based on technical expertise or just whether I “like’’ it or not?

These silly questions…You just want my opinion right? That’s what really matters right? That’s what a review is about right? Why are you trying to flat-foot me? After all, YOU are not paying me for what I do. I’m just a social influencer…

Part 2 coming up. Promise to be serious.

A non-cynical response to National Day 2015

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 16, 2015 at 6:06 am

So it’s going to be a long holiday in August…a four-day weekend! Hey, if Polling Day was tagged on Thursday Aug 6 or Tuesday Aug 11, it would be five days of no work! But, sheesh, we would have to vote before leaving town or come back early enough to vote. We DO want to be in town for the general elections don’t we? But if the GE wasn’t held in that period, would we stay in town for the National Day/SG50 celebrations alone?

I don’t know why there is so much cynicism towards the SG50 celebrations. Some people think it is just SG50 fatigue. The drum roll started too early and we are tiring of the beat. News everyday about all the grassroots groups, schools and commercial types getting on board are becoming wearisome. That red dot with SG50 stamp is so wide-spread that it is ceasing to be meaningful. I wanted to get on the bandwagon too. I wanted to get a grant from the celebrations committee for a book to commemorate SG50…but then, there will be so many, many books I gather. As well as films, exhibitions, songs and whatever creative way anyone can think of to talk about this nation.

Hopefully, the people behind the celebrations pulling the strings will be able to build things up to a climax, on National Day. On that day, I hope a lot of people take in the celebrations at home (by staying in the country) and as many Singaporeans abroad return to see how Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday. Serious.

People ask a lot of black-and-white questions about whether it’s patriotic to go away at this time. It’s not unlike the angst every year when people take a holiday during the Chinese New Year period instead of hanging around for reunion dinner with the extended family.   I am sure there will be people who go away because it’s not often you get such a long break that isn’t part of annual work leave. And there will be people who say there is “nothing to do’’ in Singapore anyway. Or people who say we don’t have to be at home to celebrate, we do so in our hearts.

I just look at it this way. Your granddad/mom or dad/mom is having his/her 70th

/80th birthday bash and wants his/her whole family to be around. The most enthusiastic takes over the organization and even the most distant relative, whom you see once a year, expects an invitation. Sibling rivalries are tamped down and we seat squabbling relatives far from each other. Everybody is determined to have a good time or at least not to let the grand old man/lady down, even though we think he/she might be the devil himself/herself. And when the birthday cake is rolled out, we sing the birthday song lustily and throw in several yam sengs.

What counts is the years that have passed and the whole family still made it through – more or less. That’s my poor analogy for SG50.

So can I ask that we see this year’s National Day this way instead of tainting it with sourness? That we do not link the party with our constant pre-occupation with MRT breakdowns, the coming elections and the foreigners in our midst? Or who is getting free tickets or not? Or why there are some freebies and not others? Let’s not dampen the mood so early in the year over some thing that will happen several months later.

Master of nothing

In Money, News Reports, Society on March 11, 2015 at 11:29 am

My class of undergraduates told me recently that they had to do a compulsory module to get themselves “future-ready’’. They told me of how they were being taught to write a first-class resume, by filling it with stuff that employers want to read, and how to ace job interviews. I was frankly flabbergasted that undergrads would need to learn such techniques that can easily be “googled’’. A compulsory module? Sheesh. Employers would need even more skills to cut through the façade, to find the true person underneath the polish, methinks.

I think about how I have come across too many job entrants who seem to want a work-life balance even before work starts. And how they were more keen to know what the employer can do for them, rather than what they have to give to employers. Now, I suppose they will camouflage their motivations under a veneer of earnestness and politesse. And their resumes will be filled with community service and plenty of “outside courses’’ to show off their versatility, never mind that they hate them. How fake!

If there is something I wish could be taught, it is the value of having a good work ethic. Of how you can’t get that big salary and promotion at once or even in the immediate future. How you can’t compare what you do and what you get paid for with what your bosses do and get paid for. How you should start by doing the small stuff instead of insisting on “policy’’ or “strategy’’ work. In other words, never mind that fancy degree, you still have to learn to walk before you run.

This got me to thinking about the recent debates in Parliament about education, learning and training. I like what Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said about having mastery of skills. We’re no longer just talking about lifting all boats with a rising tide or creating peaks of academic excellence. We’re talking about achieving master craftsman status. It reminds of the guilds of old when the title of master is only conferred after years of apprenticeship. There are now Place, Earn and Learn programmes for the technically inclined to serve paid internships at companies and who will then be given the option to stay on the job on graduation. It’s a good thing. But what happens after that?

Amidst all that talk of mastering skills, I haven’t heard much being said about the stamina needed to become a master. What do we see today? People who job hop for an extra $50 a month, who think that their job scope is too small, who actually believe that they have flattened their learning curve in a year. How long do the young people stay on in one job these days I wonder before they get dissatisfied with its rewards or complain about “burn out’’? I think people prefer to short-cut their way to bigger pay, and that means going to the next highest bidder. I don’t know about you but I look askance at a serial job hopper, never mind their protestations that they changed jobs, switched companies to “learn something new’’ or for bigger challenges. They will say that they are “mobile’’. But if you don’t stay put in one job long enough to know everything there is to know about it, how do you even begin to say that you mastered something?

Because of the tight job market, it’s easy to find jobs that pay $50 extra. What happens is that even the mediocre gets rewarded in the frantic hunt for heads. So after a few years of job switching, someone has a fancy job title which does not reflect the brain power or the skills the title implies. Think about it. Don’t you know people like this? Then there is another group who like the glamour of working in big companies, so that everyone else will go waah no matter that they are a small cog in the machinery. I even know of well-educated people who do not even want to name the companies they work in, because they are small SMEs.

Moving from white collar to blue collar…Look at the aircon repairman, the car mechanic or the plumber. These are small SMEs who complain about not being able to get foreign labour. The locals don’t think it’s worthwhile training to be the best aircon repairman, mechanic or plumber. If everyone thinks that way, how can we pay them more for better service and expertise. In fact, they prefer to go into the crowded F&B market, preferably to be their own boss.

Yup, a mindset change is needed. A new eco-system. An improved work culture. They sound like meaningless phrases that are now so often bandied about. Yet the problem is real. Nobody will be a master of something when people keep jumping ship for a few bucks more. At the moment, the prize is not about being at the top of your game in the long-run and earn big bucks, but a bigger and bigger pay packet as quickly and as frequently as possible.

A Valentine’s Day story – The odd couple

In Society on February 13, 2015 at 2:59 pm

Roses, candlelight and wine. The stuff of Valentine’s Day. Pappy Gee despised such sentimentality. What a waste of hard-earned, carefully-husbanded resources, he thought. Some people actually dug into their reserves simply to get a dining table facing Marina Bay! And what was all this about 50 shades of grey? He himself preferred white, pure white, pristine, virginal, hygienic. But then he had to deal with Wy Yang and her demands…

What a spendthrift! He had had enough! Just last week, she bought a Chanel bag without checking the price. Then she handed over the supplementary credit card he gave her to that so-called best friend of hers. Who knows what next month’s bill will come up to? Did she really expect him to pay for everything?

They’ve been “together’’ for some time now, especially after 2011. Not quite going steady but more or less thrown together by force of circumstances. It was an uncomfortable relationship. You know the kind…He drives the car but she insists on being the navigator. If not for his superior sense of direction and GPS technology, they would have got lost a million times…What a hopeless co-driver she was turning out to be, he thought.

He wondered if he should make his feelings clear to her on their next date. Not that he liked going to her apartment. It was a mess with clothes strewn all over. She was always missing things, looking for this ring or that pair of shoes…Knowing her, she might have thrown them down the rubbish chute! That maid of hers is doubly useless. He had a feeling she was taking things from the house and selling them on her mandatory day off. But Wy Yang seemed to like her so much. Wouldn’t hear a thing against her.


He thought again about what life would be like if they got married. He would have to bear with her whole extended family. He bit his fingernails. They would hammer him and he would have to fight them tooth and nail. It would be a deadly serious fight every day of his life. He would be ruined! Bankrupted! He would have to ditch his car for a Brompton bike.

He caught himself. Have to ditch such negative thoughts, he thought, or their relationship would not survive. Look at the bright side, he told himself. At least, they had enough in their CPF for a BTO flat. He would continue to be productive and strive for excellence. They would have three or more children if they could afford it. They would collect every baby bonus and grant available to the traditional family unit.

Then he thought about his CPF and whether he would have enough of a minimum sum when he retired…Wait a minute! Would he have to top up her CPF account as her spouse? His thoughts turned dark. If only she wasn’t so fussy about taking on a job and insisting that she must receive a minimum wage that would fund her lifestyle. Then she would have more money in her Ordinary Account. Instead she wants to be her own employer, run a blogshop and become a social influencer…

He shook his head. What in heaven’s name do they have in common anyway? She doesn’t like taking selfies. When he asks her questions, she sulks and won’t answer. She says she will have to “think’’ before replying. Or she needed to clean the ceiling fan first. Or attend some trade fair she helped organise. When she talks, it was always to oppose him. Anyone would think he bullied her. Of course, he’s no bully. He was simply trying to set her right… He tried to recollect their last decent conversation…and couldn’t. Then again, at least she’s not like that distant cousin of hers who is always hobnobbing with the human rights types abroad. That girl is such a pain…and like a butterfly too, flitting from lover to lover

For the last two days, he had said some harsh things to Wy Yang. She fought back, and even broke one of her manicured nails. He wasn’t sorry for what he said. And she certainly wasn’t going to give in either.

And tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. She would expect to be taken out to some place nice. Or maybe not. She wasn’t answering her WhatsApp, email, messenger or text. Maybe he should actually call her…But she would definitely hang up. Maybe drop by her place? Nah. She won’t open the door. Maybe he should just send her a card.

He stopped at a gift shop, looking at the variety of sickly sweet cards on display. So expensive! In the end, he picked out one. Given her current state, he thought it was just the thing she would appreciate. It said : Get well soon!

CPF minimum sum – in Small, Medium and Large

In Money, News Reports, Politics, Society on February 4, 2015 at 1:54 pm

I was thinking of doing a listicle, a brainless but, hopefully, funny way of conveying information. Except that the CPF review panel’s recommendations have left me brain-dead and I am not feeling terribly funny. Bear with me please because I think this is too big an issue not to destroy some brain cells over.

Now, the panel wants us to leave this gawdawful term “minimum sum’’ alone for the moment and work backwards. Let’s not think about how much money we have in our CPF when we turn 55, it says, but what we hope we will get when we turn 65, when monthly payments kick in.

Here’s how the panel wants the changes framed:

If you are 55 now, in 10 years, you’ll need about $650 to $700 a month. The panel has factored in inflation AS WELL AS rising standards of living. So it’s not just for bread and water, but kaya and kopi as well.

To get this kind of payout means leaving $80,500 in your CPF. That is, if you own your home. Why? You can rent it out if you need money. If you sell it because you prefer to rent a home, the CPF money you used to pay for it will still go back into your CPF – so it’s back up again. (Forget everything that has been said about being able to pledge your property ecetera. Serious.)

If you do not own property, that $80,500 is doubled to $161,000 (Yup, that’s the minimum sum for those turning 55 next year) It means higher payout which is also to cover for expenses like rent, which a homeowner wouldn’t have to worry about.

If you actually want to put in more money into your CPF, you can. Up to $241,500. Now, why would anyone want to do it? Because, hey, the CPF pays better returns than the banks or even commercial insurance companies. And yes, even higher payout of close to $2,000 a month

So that’s why the panel doesn’t want to use the term “minimum sum’’ anymore but RETIREMENT SUM. Besides sounding like a ransom demand, it now applies to three different S/M/L sizes – Basic, Full and Enhanced.

To recap:

Basic is $80,500

Full is $161,000 (doubled)

Enhanced is $241,500 (tripled)

In case you’ve forgotten everything about what happens at 55…

  1. You can take out everything in excess of Basic if you own your home. If you don’t even have a Basic, you can take out $5,000. Yup, nothing has changed.
  2. What’s new: that Basic sum will increase by 3 per cent a year so that you wouldn’t be so suddenly surprised by an announcement when you’re 54.

But quite a lot can happen in 10 years time when you hit 65.

  1. You can decide to withdraw 20 per cent of the sum you left inside. It’s been accumulating interest after all (and you need to pay for your son’s wedding or your daughter’s overseas education). Remember though that getting a lump sum early means smaller monthly sums later on. So you can expect some incentives from the G to get you to leave your 20 per cent alone. Now, for those with really really low balances, it’s no-go.
  2. You can decide to leave your money in there because you really don’t need it yet. Instead, you can accumulate even more interest and get a bigger pay-out – about 6 to 7 per cent more – later. You can do this at most for five years. (The CPF isn’t supposed to make your fortune but provide for retirement after all.)

Okay, so far, the panel hasn’t said anything about those with not enough to meet even the Basic. First off, they aren’t going to be penalized or have their homes taken away from them. They will still get an income until they die, albeit a smaller sum. Still, what can be done to help them?

There are some things in place already such as an extra 1 per cent interest for those with $60,000 in CPF balances. Plus there is the Work Income Supplement for the lower paid which also goes into their CPF. (I guess we have to see what the Budget will bring but there is a Silver Support in the offing in which the G is expected to give cash/CPF bonuses to older folk)

The good news is that increasingly over the years, more and more people will be able to meet the Basic sum. Right now, 55 per cent of CPF members can. And by 2020, 70 per cent will be able to do so. Hey, that’s what the panel says okay…!

Those are the panel’s key recommendations but it also raised other matters for the G to consider. For example, the panel…

  1. Agreed with the NTUC’s suggestion to bring back up the CPF contribution rates of those aged 50 to 55 who are working. This was cut to encourage employers to employ older workers and it’s working well enough already it seems.
  2. Like the NTUC, it wants the salary ceiling for CPF contribution, which is now $5,000, raised. In two swoops, voila! More CPF money! (Although how employers will react to this I don’t know)
  3. Wants spouses to be allowed to start CPF Life accounts for their non-working partners.

As you can tell, I am not commenting on the changes because I am still trying to wrap my head around them! At first glance, they seem populist, a bid to satisfy as many differing demands as possible (except the Return my CPF at age 55 lobby). Or it can be framed as a matter of choice and giving people a bit more control over their money. The panel prefers to use the word “flexibility’’. Flexibility is so complicated isn’t it? And that’s just Part 1 of the recommendations. Part 2 will be about “flexible’’ payouts.

Don’t forget that there isn’t just one CPF Life plan, but a few…you pick one. I’ll bet anything that most people have forgotten this.


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