Posts Tagged ‘bus drivers’

A new vision – in hindsight

In Politics, Society on December 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Okay, now that I’ve done my year-end round-up, it’s time for the usual look ahead.

I have to say that 2014 was pretty boring, at least by the standards of 2013. No by-elections, no Population White Paper, no illegal strike by bus drivers and no Little India riot. I suppose I should substitute boring with peaceful. Yup, a peaceful 2014 with long-term worries about low productivity and increasing core inflation. Everything exciting (read: bad) was happening outside Singapore – even flooding! We’re above water this time, so we’re not even grumbling about flash floods as much as before. Even the haze wasn’t as bad.

I am going to sound like the G when I say this but….

  1. we really had it pretty good
  2. we have much to be thankful for
  3. this is a good place to live in

I now await the brickbats.

I liked what Sunday Times writer Rachel Chang said in her column today, that we seem to have reached a stage of melancholia, looking back at our past successes (at least the material ones) and wondering if life will get better. We are angsty people. I see the angst all the time online, and I ask myself if it is merely fashionable to be pessimistic online. Whether we’re making mountains out of molehills and see every bump as a sign of an inevitable decline of this Little Red Dot.

It’s true that things are getting more expensive, the place is getting crowded and we don’t think everything is running as efficiently as before. I’d like to think that to counteract the above, our wages are also going up, more planning is being done to fit in the crowd and maybe we have unreasonable expectations of how things should work because, truth to tell, we can’t seem to separate inconveniences from complete disasters. Of course our train system could be better, but I gather it’s better than most places. We wish our education system was less stressful but we don’t consider that we might be contributing to the stress faced by our children. Some people can’t afford medical bills but that is hopefully being fixed with Medishield Life. And never mind that we can’t see our full CPF at age 55. The thing is, CPF Life will give you money till you die, and to your beneficiaries if you have some leftover.

I know we don’t think much of a Mandai makeover or a Jewel at Changi Airport. They will take years. We know more MRT lines are coming up, but it is not NOW.  So what if the transfers from the G, whether through rebates and credits are increased, we say, when we still have to pay fees, fines and taxes and more for a bowl of noodles at the hawker centre. Give with one hand, take with the other, as a popular sentiment goes.

We are such sour people and maybe we should stop to ask ourselves if our life is so bad that we don’t see anything good ahead. Some things have changed, for which I think the G should get credit. (Except that it is fashionable to say that not enough is being done, or it’s too little or too late.)  I look at what’s been done for the pioneer generation and I (almost) wish I was over 65. I see my mother flashing her PG card wherever she goes in the hope of a discount,  shopping on days for pioneers, getting a free dental checkup and going for specialist medical treatment at lower prices and who will soon be getting medication at even lower rates. I am so glad for her. Even so, the contrarian view is that the G is merely buying votes in advance.

One of our problems is that we have a big G. Everything can be traced back to the hand of the G which is why it is so easy to impute all sorts of motives and blame it for everything. I actually think the G is a convenient scapegoat. That’s the price that a strong government (with good salaries) pays. Yet that is what we voted for in the past. But, as Ms Chang said, we’re no longer at the “developing’’ stage where the household is glad to substitute a black-and-white TV for a colour TV or swop the fan for the air-conditioner. Just look at the kinds of issues that have taken centre-stage this year at least on social media: Penguin-gate, Hong Lim Park protests, rights of foreign workers, Wear White versus Pink Dot, To Singapore with Love, self-classification of arts events. They are hardly bread-and-butter issues for citizens.

“Liberal’’ issues so fashionable in the west have taken root here. Even the G had to concede (engage?) on some points: the death penalty is off the table except in most egregious cases, Pink Dot was left unmolested, the arts community got their way and the penguins did not get pulped. More dormitories will be built for foreign workers and animal welfare legislation was pushed through Parliament. Liberal, civil rights types will claim victory; the G will say it “listened’’.

Of course, the G would insist that Singapore needs a strong government, or every single seat in Parliament. But even the ruling People’s Action Party seems to have conceded that it can’t turn back the clock and looks resigned to facing an uphill fight in the next general election. This is even though it has done a pretty job of fulfilling some promises made during the new normal after the last GE, such as easing transport and housing problems and tightening up on the flow of foreigners into Singapore.

Ms Chang wrote: “It is easy to skip along when economic growth powers ahead.

“What is required of us now is digging deep for correction and re-invention, learning not just to add, but also to subtract. It is perhaps here that we discover the fundamental character of Singapore society and whether cohesion truly exists – not just in a time of abundant growth, but in leanness and fractiousness.

“I think there is already a new vision being forged, and it looks something like this: one with greater social protection that avoids the rent-seeking, morally hazardous policies of Europe; one with leaders who inspire and empathise; one with a brave acknowledgement of entrenched racial and income privileges that masquerade as meritocracy; one with a more open and creative culture whose strength comes from bearing without breaking the weight of political, social and cultural differences, not from pretending those differences do not exist.’’

I agree with the first point on greater social protection. The G is allergic to the word “welfare’’ but I can’t help but think of the various wage support structures and credits for the employed or the write-offs that businesses get for restructuring as “welfare’’. It doesn’t want to have a poverty line or minimum wage but it was okay about mandating a progressive wage model for lower income workers like cleaners and security guards. Save for DPM Tharman, it won’t declare that it is “left of centre’’ but that it would focus on “social policies’’.

On the second point about inspirational and empathetic leaders, I think they are more empathetic than inspirational. In fact, I can’t even name more than a handful of MPs who have done a good job of speaking for the people (and I include the opposition MPs here).

On the third point about privileges that masquerade as meritocracy, the PAP has talked a great deal about busting “closed circles’’ and even amended its constitution to reflect a compassionate meritocracy but I am not sure that the “acknowledgment’’ has led to much action. Unless you count the emphasis on a technical vocation?

As for the last point on an open and creative culture, quite a lot depends on us too doesn’t it? I see the polarisation taking place among various groups staking their claim and I wonder if the accusation we hurl at the G about not being open should be applied to us as well. We no longer pretend that differences do not exist, that is true. But whether we can bear such a culture without breaking is still something we should watch out for. Unless we want the G to intervene…

So is a new vision being forged?

I think so. I agree in the main with what Ms Chang said. But I also think we should cut the G some slack and not see every single word or action as something nefarious. Remember the Our Singapore Conversation? One key thrust was trust. The G should trust us, and we should trust it too. It works both ways.

Dammit! I realised that I haven’t talked about 2015. Sigh. Too tired now.


Dis-located by re-location

In Money, News Reports, Politics, Society on February 13, 2013 at 1:21 am

Now the Restaurant Association of Singapore has joined the chorus of business groups screaming blue murder. They are all saying that businesses will be killed if the foreign worker tap is further tightened. I guess they have their eyes on the middle of the year when levies and quotas are supposed to be changed, never mind that they had time to prepare for this.

Those comments by business groups are hard to connect with if you’re not in business yourself. But restaurants? “Consumers can expect higher food prices without a concomitant increase in quality and service standards due to lack of manpower. In fact, quality and service may decline,” the restaurant people said. (I now invite snickering…you mean quality and service so good now ah?)

Back to being serious. The media have reported time and again about traditional favorite eating places which have closed down, and great foodies that we are, I am sure there is some sighing. I am already disconcerted by Filipinas greeting me in Mandarin at Chinese restaurants. Now the restaurant people are suggesting that foreign students be allowed to work part-time as well. Looks like I will have to get used to a blonde, blue eyed Caucasian reciting the names of Japanese dishes? Ah well, so long as the food is good, even if the ambience is not authentic…

I think we can connect with the restaurant people because we can feel and see the impact of the foreign worker crunch on them. But it’s more difficult when businesses say that they will have to start moving out of Singapore ecetera. So they move lock, stock and barrel – and with them all the jobs, investments and tax revenues we could have collected? Has anyone calculated the impact of such moves if say half of our SMEs and MNCs pull out?

Then again, I read in BT of an OCBC banker saying that most SMEs already have operations abroad. But they base their headquarters at home. What does that mean? SMEs which relocate some but not all of their operations abroad is a good thing? I mean, if they are re-locating because of cheaper labour, that’s okay so long as the money comes back no? And if MNCs which need cheap labour go abroad, that’s also okay no? So long as they do their higher-level stuff here and employ higher-level people?

I have a feeling that I might have over-simplified matters. But I think someone needs to tell non-business people like me what the impact really translates to in real terms instead of scaring everybody with this catch-all “We will have to re-locate’’ mantra. I read in ST today about Japanese firms coming here, mainly services. Legal and advertising. And how more of them are doing so. That looks like a good thing no? So they are not big-name manufacturing types hiring in the hundreds…but that’s not what we are looking for right? So do the entry of such firms out-weigh those who are exiting? This is economic restructuring right, just like the Population White Paper said?

I am getting thoroughly confused. But never mind. I am sure brighter minds will sort out the numbers and the economics.

Then I read about how we are short of bus drivers and ambulance drivers. Oh. So need more foreigners then.

I also read about cabbies saying they can’t get relief drivers easily, even though there is a big pool of them. I think cab-driving is about the only protected Singaporean occupation. You know, I can accept a blonde, blue-eyed Caucasian serving me in a Japanese restaurant, but I will scream blue murder at any disruption to my cabbing experience. I will feel thoroughly dis-located.

This is hard for me to say but, yes, I will pay more to keep a Singaporean at the wheel. Why? Because the confines of a taxi is just about the only place that hasn’t been invaded by the foreign and the unfamiliar.

A fare-y tale

In Money, News Reports, Society on December 14, 2012 at 2:34 am

With Palmergate going on, I guess Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew must be getting some respite from those who have been haranguing him about his comments that bus fares must go up so that bus drivers’ salaries can. Frankly, it was a crazy thing to say. Nobody is going to take that sort of comment sitting down, especially about an essential service like public transport, ran by profit-making private operators who’ve just been handed $1.1b worth of new buses paid by taxpayers.

Mr Lui tried to clarify his position according to media reports today. Note I use the word “tried’’. Now he says it wasn’t to increase bus operators’ profits in the short-term but he just wanted to make clear that the money for salaries must come from somewhere, not just from operators or government subsidies. And of course, he meant that service levels must go up…you ninny.

He added: “What received less notice was my statement that when the fare review committee submits its report next year, we would be better able to see the relationship between any fare adjustment, wage increases, and what government support needs to be given to the groups most affected by the increase’’.

He might as well have said that he should have said nothing at all and wait for the Richard Magnus report early next year. If Mr Lui was flying a kite with his first comments, the kite’s been shot down. In any case, an increase in bus fares is poison for the G in any election…or by-election.

Driving me round the bend

In Money, News Reports on December 8, 2012 at 4:02 am

I don’t know why anyone would bother to ask about how you feel about raising bus fares. Of course, the answer is no. No to higher fares, charges, taxes, fees and the price of kopi-o.

You want us to pay more? Better deliver more. That would be the layman’s answer. So Lui Tuck Yew’s very tentative kite-flying proposal on having to raise fares so operators can pay their bus drivers more has been universally derided. Far more productive is experts had been canvassed for their views on whether this is the only way to get a man to don a uniform and get behind the wheel.

Here’s a look at some facets of the “should we increase bus fare’’ question:

  1. The Government already subsidises the transport infrastructure, even giving away buses for free. That is, with taxpayers’ money. And these are being given practically on a plate to transport operators.
  2. The bus operators aren’t just bus operators. They operate a whole transport system and while the bus services might not be making money, other parts of the business are. And they are making money.
  3. Which raises the question of why revenue from one part of the business can’t be shifted to another, unless there is some accounting barrier that can’t be crossed.
  4. If the problem is paying bus drivers enough, then operators should look at their pay structure across the ranks, from top down and see what sort of re-calibration should be done to get more people to drive buses. They are “essential’’ manpower after all. And what about looking at private transport operators elsewhere which manage to ensure their drivers make a decent living?
  5. A committee is looking at the fare formula which doesn’t seem to be working because it’s pegged too late to inflation. Also, seems costs have gone up what? 30? 40 per cent? Compared to small revenue rises. What’s this cost increase all about? Is there no way the bus companies could have trimmed that down? We don’t know yet what the new fare formula will look like but there seems to be a hint that a fuel or energy component will be included.
  6. The G is tendering out routes to private bus companies, a sign which ST’s Chris Tan said today, of the G dipping its toes into a new way of structuring public transport. In other places, operators tender to run a service, and the G collects the fare. Problem is, operators tend to get tardy in such a scenario and not cost-efficient. Which brings us back to point e. Are the bus companies operating efficiently in the first place?

Finally, are we looking at this all wrong? So a COI was convened to look at MRT disruptions, SMRT is chided for bad HR practices, unions want in on the transport sector, LTA doesn’t seem to be strong enough regulator, a new committee looks at fare formula, bus drivers should be paid more, questions are raised on whether it is prudent for foreign labour to man essential services.

Is it time to take a more (I hate this word) holistic look at Singapore’s transport system than recommend piecemeal changes?


Foreign affairs

In News Reports, Politics, Society on December 3, 2012 at 2:44 am

The dust has settled, or rather the bus decks have been cleared. The “troublemakers’’ are out of the country. I have no problem with booting troublemakers out of the country or into jail – if we are sure that they are troublemakers. And that goes for Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans. The colour of your IC doesn’t matter, It’s whether we do right by other human beings.

So why WERE these 29 bus drivers selected for that one-way ticket home? Rather odd. Going by news reports, some could have been on strike on the first day or second day or both, with or without medical leave….It could mean anyone of the Chinese bus drivers. It was reported that they played a “bigger’’ role – in what way? What did the police uncover? And why were they housed in a prison before deportation when they haven’t even been charged with a crime? As for some of the bus drivers who said they were “coerced’’ into joining the strike – who were the bullies then and why has no one been charged for criminal intimidation?

Many might be tempted to say “leave it be’’. After all, the incident is over and we should be focusing on the big picture, like the role of SMRT, foreigners in essential services, the relevance of trade unions, the causes of industrial action, human resource management. I agree.

But even as we tackle these issues based on the platform that those Chinese bus drivers have given us, we also have to deal with the rights of individuals and the duty of the State. After all, when we work abroad, we’d like to think we want to be treated abroad the way we’re treated at home.

While we are on the subject of foreigners, I was taken aback on reading Han Fook Kwang’s piece on the maid industry needing a cleanup in the Sunday Times. (By the way, that was the headline – which totally killed the supposed surprise element in the introductory paragraphs of the article which asked readers to guess at which industry he was referring to…. )

I was taken aback because of his tone – “If I were the Philippine or Indonesian government, I would…’’ especially as his prescription for foreign governments came after some careful writing on what he thinks the Singapore government should do – abolish the maid levy and set a minimum wage. Of course, he didn’t say this was what he would do “if he were the Singapore government’’.

The column ended with how the citizens of maid exporting countries were paying the price of weak government. I thought this was unnecessary.

Far better to have focused on the origins of the foreign maid levy; how it is different from the foreign workers (intended to make sure local pay doesn’t get depressed), what the levy is now used for and how to ensure minimum wage levels for maids are policed.

Then there was this piece in the Sunday Times on Sunny Verghese of Olam and his efforts to fend off attacks by short seller specialist Carson Block. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t portray him as the white knight charging to the defence of the company he built – just yet. The jury isn’t out on the allegations and counter-allegations.  Perhaps, there is this instinctive need to defend a Singapore company and portray it in the best light?

The above three examples give some food for thought methinks. About our attitudes, consciously or unconsciously, towards those who are “one of us’’ and those who are not.