Posts Tagged ‘PM’

Dear PM, can you pass me your minister?

In News Reports, Politics on January 24, 2015 at 4:21 am

I wonder which country in the world has a labour movement which writes to the head of Government to ask that he release an office-holder so that the man can vie for office in the…labour movement. But I guess it’s better than the parachuting of an unknown into a big office on someone’s say-so.

It says much about the symbiotic relationship between the G (or is it the People’s Action Party?) and the NTUC, that no one has said anything about the above “poaching’’ process. One guess is that the concept is so in-grained or well accepted  that nobody talks about it anymore. The vision of the union and the G is aligned, and leaders move in and out. They even maintain offices on both sides of a (non-existent) fence!

So Mr Chan Chun Sing is the man of the moment. The PM has said okay and Mr Chan has to win the votes of delegates in October to get the top job of secretary-general. We all know that the head of the NTUC has to be politically acceptable. As well as the ability to win the hearts and minds of workers. So both have to go together.

There is a precedent in the form of Mr Lim Chee Onn, once the flavor of the month and among the front-runners for the premiership. Although he got the top job with the blessings of the political leadership, he was removed as the secretary-general because his leadership style rankled on the rank-and-file. I’m basing this on memory because I’m having a hard time researching the background. I’m not sure if he was removed at a conference or simply told to step aside in favour of someone more palatable, in this case, the late president Ong Teng Cheong.

I am among those who were surprised at the choice of the NTUC central committee. MSM reports that even unionists were surprised. In fact, I am more surprised that there has been no successor groomed for Mr Lim Swee Say’s job after all these years. Nobody knew that Mr Lim was going to turn 62 soon and has to retire? Its current crop of deputy/assistant sec-gens not good enough?

As for the choice of Mr Chan, the surprise is that a career civil servant whose only experience has been in one “unique” sector, the military, should have been the choice of the key union leaders. Perhaps, it is because he heads the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which deals with bread-and-butter issues of the less privileged that makes top union leaders think he is a good choice? It cannot only be because he drinks coffee with taxi-drivers; he’s an advisor to the taxi drivers’ unions. Or because he can adopt as folksy a manner as Mr Lim?

All I can say is that we seem to have an amazing paucity of talent, so much so that established institutions here have to raid each other, like companies poaching in the private sector. Or is there a bigger, long-term objective in sight, such as Mr Chan is being tested for an even bigger job. Much as Mr Lim Chee Onn was. Getting the endorsement of the labour movement, which has nearly one million members, is a big deal. Given that Mr Chan is a first-term MP, you might call this “hot housing’’.

Okay, I am rambling. Sorry.

Anyway, I have always liked Mr Lim Swee Say, since the days he was an officer in the Economic Development Board. Power and position hasn’t changed him one bit. I liked him even more in the past few years for what he was doing for the labour movement. For too long, I’ve always thought the NTUC was placing too much focus on the “social’’ aspects of its mission, such as setting up its “finest’’ supermarkets and pre-skools which it can’t spel, instead of the “organising’’ aspects of a trade union. It should be looking at wages, recruitment and workplace practices. I blame the union for not detecting the long stagnation of wages at the lowest levels.

But I can see more “organizing’’ work done in recent time. It has managed to pry open the two integrated resorts and unionized their workers. It has tried to rectify the low wages of some sectors by combining a wage floor with a productivity ladder. It has pushed for $50 salary raises within the National Wages Council. And it has finally managed to get PMEs under the labour movement’s umbrella. I still think it needs to do a better job of selling the “re-hiring’’ of older workers to the people. That is not about working till you drop dead, but about being able to work beyond a certain age if you want to.

It has also always been a source of wonder to me that the NTUC does not have its own labour experts in a strategic policy unit who can crunch the numbers on wages and employment. The labour movement should be leading the charge, rather than depend on the statistics and pronouncements of the Manpower ministry.

If Mr Chan does get the vote in October, I hope that he will carry on the organizing aspects of the movement. After all, he has headed a big organization like the military and is now the PAP organizing secretary. Perhaps, under his charge, the NTUC will be the first thing that comes to the minds of workers who feel they have been short-changed in some way. And that it is not just a place to buy groceries.

It remains for me to wish Mr Lim and Mr Chan all the best!


Is it CPF-only for retirement?

In Money, News Reports on September 11, 2014 at 2:59 am

I was a bit disappointed to read the terms of reference for the panel to review CPF. It seems to me so itsy-bitsy. I guess that’s the point. The Prime Minister has made clear the CPF isn’t in need of an overhaul but some tweaks. So the panel now has to think about what sort of minimum sum would be needed in future, after next year’s $161,000 for those who turn 55. The PM has promised a moratorium of sorts on the rise so I guess it will be for the panel to decide how much, and when.

Then the other terms of reference are what the PM has already let fall in his National Day rally speech, on the possibility of lump sum withdrawal, allowing some people to get higher returns on their CPF and a graduated re-payment scheme (small to bigger returns over the years).

ST was predictable in getting the panel members to talk about their role. TODAY went further to ask non-panel members what they thought of the terms of reference. I agree with those interviewed that they do seem narrow.

TODAY reported NUS economics lecturer Chan Kok Hoe saying that the CPF’s adequacy as a retirement vehicle depends mainly on two factors: How much funds people are able to accumulate for retirement and what returns they can obtain relative to inflation.

It reported:

The terms of reference do not include looking into the first factor, which would involve the allocation of funds between housing and retirement as well as overall CPF contribution rates, he said. On the second factor, the panel is tasked to study how to adjust CPF payouts to increase nominally over time, but not to examine whether CPF funds should be invested in special inflation-indexed government securities, he said.

I agree. If the issue is retirement adequacy, shouldn’t we go further than examining what sort of  minimum sum would be able to give a regular payout till day of death? Like looking at the ratio between setting aside cash in the CPF and putting money into housing? Or have we settled that retirement adequacy includes assets such as housing? Well, there needs to be a big mindset change over “unlocking’’ the value of housing if so. And shouldn’t we also be looking at CPF contribution rates now set for employee and employer?

But I could be wrong. These could well be questions subsumed under the Minimum Sum scheme re-look.  

Then again, there is the big explosive question on withdrawal age. So it’s still 55 at the first key unlocking CPF and later, at 65, you start getting payouts? Or should be 60, and then 65 given the rise in retirement age? It will be immensely unpopular to raise if you think back to the days of the Howe Yoon Chong report. I really think that is a question the panel could pursue and give all the numbers that go with its recommendation. It doesn’t mean that the G would have to adopt whatever the panel  proposes – it will be a political decision outside the panel’s ken – but it would be a good education for all concerned, especially who want their CPF, like, now.

ST has an interesting piece by academic Donald Low commenting on another aspect of retirement adequacy outside of the CPF scheme, the Supplementary Retirement Scheme which gives tax savings if you put aside a certain sum in a bank every year contingent on withdrawal at age 65. It’s not a very well-known scheme and taken up mainly by the higher income. Mr Low talks about making it compulsory or at least an “opt-out’’.

I suppose if the panel had to look at so many different aspects, like what sort of interest the CPF should make or what the money should be invested in (inflation-indexed securities?), it would take more than its allotted one year time frame.

But I also wonder if we should move away from looking at CPF (cash and home) as the people’s sole retirement income. Mr Low’s SRS option is one. Maybe other groups should be working in parallel with the panel, to study the amount of insurance among various groups of people, for example, as well as what sort of family financial support is now given to the elderly. Just like parents give pocket money to their children, I am sure adult children do the same for the elderly. Or has this gone out of fashion and the elderly are now supposed to fend for themselves?  

This is just my one cent worth. Not accounting for inflation, of course.

The challenge of writing an assessment

In News Reports, Politics, Sports, Writing on August 12, 2014 at 2:07 am

I guess not many people realise that today marks the 10th anniversary of PM Lee at the helm of Government. Well, The Straits Times remembered and has a long essay assessing the Lee decade. It is a fine balance of he did this, but…he didn’t do this, still…
And it starts off by using the catch-all word “challenging’’ to describe the PM’s first decade.

Sigh. It’s a safe word, of course. Challenging can mean anything. You always rise up to challenges, you never merely solve problems. Challenges mean tough times, but not so tough as to not be able to overcome them. A challenge is like a dare. It evokes courage.

It must have been a challenge to write this piece. You have to give credit where credit is due and not over rah-rah such that the article becomes sycophantic. Every action should have a reaction. The piece must be very clearly analytical, with no biases that are detectable.

So the article goes this way….(excerpts are in italics)

GOOD…Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee’s top achievements in the decade. (Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year. GDP per capita went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year)

BUT…The global buzz also comes at a price – cohesiveness.

STILL…. One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee’s Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

THEREFORE… By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412. (Major re-ordering of the social compact)

BUT…. Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs. Instead, anxieties on overcrowding abound. Over the past decade, the population went up too fast, before transport and housing infrastructure could cope. Some observers consider this the greatest policy failure of the last decade. How did a government that prides itself on keeping close tabs on numbers allow an influx of foreigners beyond the housing and transport infrastructure’s capacity to cope?

STILL…. Mr Lee himself did not shirk this responsibility. In the heat of GE 2011, he surprised many when he apologised to the people of Singapore for the mistakes made, in an election rally at Boat Quay. That public mea culpa and events after GE 2011 raised widespread expectations of political change. (Which are in the form of nips and tucks, such as liberalising the use of Speaker’s Corner)

ALSO…he stopped doing some things. He sought to be seen to be fair when he called for polls, reducing the surprise element in timing them. Nor were there wholesale changes to electoral boundaries. He stopped using estate upgrading as electoral carrots. In GE 2011, opposition candidates’ views, not their personal character, were attacked. In choosing fair election campaigns, and in refraining from browbeating opposition candidates, Mr Lee made it less risky for people to enter the opposition fray. Hence, more opposition members got in.

BUT… Mr Lee stopped short of fundamental reforms to the electoral system that some sought, ignoring calls for an independent election commission, for example.

ALSO… still very much top-down/command and control approach, like the Population White Paper introduction. (Backed by an opinion from a commentator, that is, not writer’s words)

WRITER’S FINAL ANALYSIS… What is one to make overall of Mr Lee’s roller-coaster decade? One can take the optimistic view and say Singapore has weathered crises remarkably well and remained intact as a society, despite the train breakdowns, the Little India riot of last December, a bus drivers’ strike, and the sex and corruption scandals. Critics might say there are signs of a ship that is cruising, or even adrift, tossed about by the global winds of change. I would say that the truth as usual lies in between.

See? Told you it would be a challenge to write the piece….

Musing over the PM’s message

In News Reports, Politics on August 9, 2014 at 5:32 am

The PM actually looks nice in pink but someone should teach him what to do with his hands. They look better off holding on to a mike than flapping along his sides. Last year, he planted himself at ITE College Central, using it as a backdrop for how Singapore has come. This time, he planted himself at the Alexandra Park Connector to make the same point. Wonder what place he will pick next year? Sports Hub?
But, hey, who cares about what he looked like or where the television cameras were placed? Matters more what PM Lee said in his National Day message.

What struck me was how he eschewed the vulnerability narrative. You know, about how Singapore struggled against the odds, no one owes us a living, everybody else wants to eat our lunch and how we are so small and, yes, vulnerable. But there was the familiar refrain about how foreigners are impressed with us….and we should be too?

He was pretty forward-looking with a focus on that great swathe of young people in the ITEs and polys. I suppose those at the higher levels of education in the universities can fend for themselves. He wants to give the middle level a boost, to get them ready for the workplace and to keep on learning. (Notice he didn’t say they should all go on to university.) There’s yet another acronym-ed committee called ASPIRE to help them to reach their aspirations.

Of course, he talked about economic growth, to be achieved within a much smaller band now which he didn’t say. We can forget about hitting top end of 4 per cent forecasted; it’s 3.5 per cent at the upper end. I half-expected him to talk about productivity which has been pretty dismal despite years of effort, and which so many economists and commentators have referred to. He didn’t. Nor did he talk about how the economic restructuring might not be working as well as it should or the pain it is causing to businesses.

He did go on about retirement planning. That’s really the big thing that everybody wants to hear at his National Day Rally next weekend.

“Singaporeans know that they have to prepare for retirement. People are working longer and saving more. For most of you, your HDB flat and CPF savings are key ways to fund your retirement. The HDB flat has allowed Singaporeans to build a home, and to grow a valuable nest egg for old age. Your flat is an asset which appreciates as Singapore prospers. My team is studying how to make it more convenient for retirees to get cash out of your flats, in a prudent and sustainable way.’’

“Besides your flat, the CPF has helped you to save for your old age. It ensures you have a stream of income in retirement. The scheme works well for many of you, but it can be improved.’’

So it’s time to play a guessing game on what’s coming up. A re-look at the minimum sum requirements? More CPF money freed for the financially-savvy to invest? More “reverse mortgage’’ plans to get the elderly to unlock their assets? I hope that something more radical will be announced than such tweaking along the sides, such as whether CPF money should used to buy a home for the first, second, third and umpteenth time so much so that even though we can’t quite maintain our standard of living in the last home, we insist on keeping it. Because it is our home. As I’ve said before, people look at retirement planning in terms of cash; not cash that must be unlocked from assets. A massive mindset change needs to occur for people to “touch’’ their houses to pay for day-to-day living. (You don’t suppose he will speak about Roy Ngerng do you?)

There’s something else that he said that resonated with me: “As Singaporeans, we must judge a person not just by his educational qualifications, but also by his skills, contributions and character. This is how we keep Singapore a land of hope and opportunity for all.’’

This might be naughty of me but is that why he didn’t talk about ITE and poly students going on to uni? In any case, he’s correct to say that a person shouldn’t be judged by whether he was from the Normal or Express stream, has a diploma or a Phd. It would be good if he put a brake on this paper chase so that no one need feel embarrassed about cutting short his education or having his education cut short for him. And people realise that they don’t have to buy Phds online to earn respect or look good.

By the way, I almost expected that he would say that you should not judge a person by his sexual orientation or views on the family…he didn’t. Nothing on the cultural wars fought over library books beyond how “our interests and opinions are more diverse and deeply held’’. I wonder if he thinks the cultural divide is important enough to merit a mention in his rally speech. Is this more a pre-occupation of the vocal few than a national issue?

In all, a very “safe’’ message. I hope his rally speech will be more uplifting. I have always thought the Prime Minister doesn’t address the nation often enough. He should, to pull together the diversity of voices or set the nation on a path. May he do so in brilliant fashion next week. I’m looking forward to it.

Why can’t people be more polite?

In News Reports on May 21, 2014 at 6:25 am

There are some things that you do not do, not even in name of freedom of speech. Like, you don’t call someone a liar or cheat by alleging criminal wrong-doing – unless the person is really a liar and a cheat and you have evidence to prove this. (As an aside, it makes me wonder why the Workers’ Party doesn’t sue MEWR Minister Vivian Balakrishnan for accusing them of some errrm…improprieties in its town council management. Fudging here because I don’t want to get sued too).

So Mr Roy Ngerng has made it into the rareified group of bloggers who have received love letters from Singapore’s busiest defamation lawyer, SC Davinder Singh. The lawyer for the People’s Action Party, a former MP, had been busy in the past on behalf of other ministers but seemed to have taken a break. Seems the break is over.
I don’t follow Mr Ngerng’s blog closely but I have the distinct impression of it being somewhat erudite, with lots of infographics and statistics. He takes the trouble to dig out statistics. Now, whether he dug out the right statistics and interpreted them rightly – I confess I don’t know.

I read his piece on the CPF system and came away with this: how come CPF interest rate is low when the GIC and GLCs etc have a much higher rate of return? Some answers would be good simply because it would be educational. We all take the CPF system somewhat for granted. It is there to pay for our housing and medical bills although now we worry whether there will enough for retirement. The minimum sum scheme has had its quantum raised to match inflation and today, we read about experts saying that more money should move from our own pocket into the CPF to fund future retirement needs.

But it seems that the CPF Board has replied to some of Mr Ngerng’s allegations on Factually.
This is what it said: Our CPF funds are invested in risk-free Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGSs). The returns on SSGSs are pegged to the returns of other bonds in the market with similar risks. There is no connection between GIC’s rate of return and the interest paid on our CPF accounts. GIC invests our foreign reserves in stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets that carry higher risks that SSGSs. The value of SSGS is assured, as they are guranteed by one of the few remaining triple-A credit-rated governments in the world. With our CPF funds being invested in SSGSs, we can be absolutely certain our funds will be there when we need them.

CPF interest rates are guaranteed and risk-free. The interest is paid whether or not the Government’s investments backing its liabilities to CPF, including investments managed by GIC, do well or not. So if GIC’s investments actually lose money, as they did during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, CPF members will still get the 2.5% interest on our funds in the Ordinary Account.

Finally, apart from the CPF system, it should be remembered that we Singaporeans benefit from GIC’s and Temasek’s returns though these are not linked to the returns we get on our CPF funds. GIC’s and Temasek’s returns supplement the annual Budget through their Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC), which amounted to $8.1 billion this fiscal year. This money allows our Government to make further investments for our future, such as in education, R&D, healthcare and improving our physical environment.

Aside from the return on our Ordinary Account, Singaporeans enjoy higher interest rates on their other CPF accounts- 4% on our Special, Medisave and Retirement Accounts, and an additional 1% on their first $60,000 in all our accounts:

Mr Ngerng also said that Singapore has the least adequate pension fund in the world, which makes me wonder why other countries bother to study our system if so.
The CPF’s response to this: Your CPF money is your nest egg upon retirement. The uniqueness of our system is that you can also use your CPF monies to pay for housing. Many Singaporeans have indeed done so and some have fully paid for their homes by the time they retire. The homes that we own are part of our retirement assets too, allowing us to save on rent while providing us with the option to sell our homes when we need to.

When international studies on pension systems make comparisons across countries, they often ignore this fact. They paint an incomplete picture of what members have in their accounts. They do not take into account the fact that Singaporeans also have used their CPF monies to pay for their homes.

Kudos to the G for giving answers lest people get away with the idea that the CPF scheme is …eerm..bankrupt. Now Mr Ngerng has written plenty of articles on the CPF system and wages. And frankly, I am uncomfortable with the picture he paints; however bad anyone might think of the G, I doubt that it creates systems to line its own pockets or is out to defraud the people (please do not say it’s so as to pay minister’s salaries)

While commentators have the liberty to ask questions, newsmakers also have the liberty to rebut. I had wondered why the G wouldn’t simply sit down with Mr Ngerng and give him a lesson on the CPF system, but it seems it had already taken some steps on Factually. I suppose the idea is to counter what is online by posting online.

While Mr Ngerng might have asked questions that the less mathetically inclined might have ignored or the conspiracy-minded might have, there was no call for him to defame the Prime Minister in such a personal way by drawing parallels with the City Harvest case. That was out and out defamation. He is saying that the PM has a criminal case to answer just as the church leaders do. He should drop all pretence that he has a leg to stand on where defamation is concerned.

And now he wants to speak in Parliament.

At the risk of giving him free publicity, this is what he said:

I have received ongoing support and encouragement from Singaporeans to enter Parliament and I thank the vote of confidence and belief that many Singaporeans have given to me. I also thank this nomination and the publicity that has come with it. (Arrrh??? You mean he colluded with the PM? Or Mr Singh?)

It is in the interests of a democratic Singapore for even the smallest voice in Singapore to be heard. It is also in the interests of the Singapore government to be able to hear what Singaporeans from all segments of society are thinking and saying. I present myself as a bridge for the government, and for the people of Singapore. As a known blogger who has a keen interest in our country and who has amassed support from the blog, through the nearly 2 million views on the blog, I hope to continue to engage Singaporeans on issues that matter to us and present these in Parliament to allow Singaporeans to have a bigger role in the democratic institutions of Singapore.

The selection of representatives into Parliament will send a clear signal as to what the government is ready for. The publicity generated from this selection will also garner significant interest and anticipation of further representation in Parliament.

I keep wondering what he is really saying. That this is a publicity stunt? And that if he didn’t get selected, it would be proof that he has been gagged? Or that the G isn’t listening to people?

The “better’’ publicity is this: I keep wondering if there is a link between the love letter and the President’s announcement that the CPF system will be re-looked.

Both have generated plenty of interest which means that the CPF will have to extremely forthcoming about the workings of the system during its review to give everyone a comfortable retirement. Or Mr Ngerng would have to prove what he said if he goes ahead to fight the case.

Then those nitty-gritty questions on the Minimum Sum Scheme and how it is calculated, whether too much of the Ordinary Account is going into housing and how employer and employee contribution rates are decided can be brought up.

We need an active citizenry which can only come about with more information disseminated as widely as possible. But we do not need to disrespect our leaders when we engage in debate.

Open Letter to ST Readers Editor

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 21, 2014 at 12:42 am

I am writing to convey my great disappointment over ST’s reporting of the online protests against the holding of the Philippines Independence Day celebrations.

In your first report, you said:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately. Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.
The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

This is inaccurate. The 26,000 “likes’’ are for the page itself, which was set up a few years ago and has a wide variety of posts including those not associated with foreigners. The post calling for the protest amounted to some 300-plus “likes’’.

This mis-reporting has caused consternation as it implied that 26,000 citizens or so support the protests – which is not true. For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.

There was no correction nor clarification, which would be important for readers who read only your august newspaper. Nor was there an attempt to set the record straight in your next article on the protest organisers receiving threats. Or in subsequent articles and in your editorial.

In your Sunday Times article, Filipino group heartened by support, you chose again not to correct the misimpression. You quoted selectively from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook post, focusing only on his point that xenophobia should not be tolerated.

You ignored this point: “That there are xenophobes wasn’t the surprising part since there are these sad elements in any society. It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page … that raised my brows. As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate.”

Likewise, you quoted selectively from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page on this issue, neglecting to incorporate this line: “Fortunately, it was the work of a few trolls.’’

It would seem that ST has gone to great lengths to sweep its mistake under the carpet, an ignominious thing to do for a newspaper which prides itself on accuracy. For ST-only readers, the 26,000 figure is what will stick in their minds, tarring the online community as a bunch of rabid xenophobes. Foreigners who read ST only would also come away with the impression that Singapore is on the verging of losing its sanity over the immigration issue.

In her column on April 19, your writer Ms Chua Mui Hoong used the online protests as a launch pad to discuss whether such online views are representative of Singapore society at large. She too made no mention of ST’s mistake of exaggerating the protest numbers although she did say this: From all acounts, that anger seems to be an over-reaction from a segment of Singaporeans against a perfectly pleasant, legitimate event. Many others spoke up against such anti-foreigner sentiments.

She also said: Unlike blogs in English which delight in ripping off mainstream media’s reports, Chinese language bloggers used mainstream media reports as sources of information, not as fodder for criticism.

I would like to point out that this is precisely why ST should be careful with its news reports – because the mainstream media is used as a source of information. This means that when it is inaccurate, it must brace itself for criticism, acknowledge its failings and not dismiss the comments of those, whom as Ms Chua put it, “delight in ripping off’’ its reports.

Ms Chua concluded: So it’s never a good idea to generalise from a group of angry netizens to Singapore society at large.

I agree. And it would help if ST was more careful in its reporting and upfront about its mistakes instead of adding to the misperception.

More than grade expectations

In News Reports on April 10, 2014 at 12:05 am

Every time anything goes wrong, it’s de rigueur to blame the education system. My class of undergraduates, too, are prone to laying the blame on the system which has allowed them to get this far. And I would have thought they would be appreciative of how, rightly or wrongly, they were beneficiaries of the system.

Is this why some people are sniffing at the results of the PISA test on problem-solving? Singapore is No. 1 but not many people are cheering the accolade despite the best attempts of MSM to rah-rah Singapore’s pole position. The Prime Minister and Education minister have weighed in too, pointing out that the scores debunk the stereotype that the education system is based on rote-learning.

Still, many people are asking questions of PISA, including Western academics who decry the poor positions of the teens of the West. (Predictable, you say?) Even over here, people including me, wonder if those rose-tinted glasses are firmly on the nose of those who blow the trumpet.

So what’s the beef?

A lot is about the “so what’’? So what if our 15 years old are better at problem solving than other teens their age in the rest of the world? They can’t string a sentence together to save their lives, so detractors say. I agree somewhat. Articulation is not the best trait in our young people. I don’t mean “outspokenness’’ but simply being able to communicate their thoughts. They can probably do it on paper, after several revisions. But to get them to do so on their feet and you will see their tongues tied and, if loosened, tripping over what they want to say. The brain isn’t connected to the vocal cords. Sometimes I wonder if they even know what they want to say or if those words that emit from the mouth is merely taking up air space…

Is this a big deal? I know of several people with a language handicap who somehow manage to express their ideas clearly, even if not grammatically. I am full of admiration for them because at least, they KNOW what they want to say and will do their damnedest to express it. They are not shy. And because they do not have a vocabulary of big words, they use simple language effectively.

I have to add that this is a phenomenon I see in foreigners, including foreign students. When educated Singaporeans speak up, however, they speak in the language of  the press release or the academic thesis. That was my experience when undergraduates started writing for Breakfast Network, the poor ole’ site which has been shut down. It took a few months to get them out of their preachy, grandfatherly language and rid themselves of flabby words that contribute to nothing more than adding to length. I found that the less time I give them to ponder, the better and clearer  their written work. Nothing contributes more to clarity than stress!

Asked about this, fingers are pointed firmly at how they were taught. This is the generation which was not taught the rules of grammar. They say that their primary school teachers place a premium on the number of “big’’ words they use. So a test of vocabulary, I asked? Not really, they said. More a test of polysyllables that are descriptive in nature. They take this habit with them when they go higher up the education ladder and have to write “argumentatively’’.

Also, there is a tendency to ask about “word count’’. This is normal in academia where teachers expect essays of a certain length.  Students write to fit 1,000 words or 8,000 words as directed. It becomes a numbers game where words become more important than content. It is hard for them to grapple with an instruction such as “give it what it’s worth in as short a space as possible’’. Numbers act as the end point for thoughts. That’s why the stuff they write is usually so florid. It should be florid because writing simple sounds stupid.

As someone who champions clear and simple communication, that kind of thinking is what is stupid.      

But the young people are not surprised that Singapore is No.1 at problem solving. Throw them a problem and they will get cracking. That’s what they are used to and good at.

PISA detractors note that the teenagers solve problems individually in front of a computer. So it is a very individual activity which requires no socialisation or brain-storming. It’s straight-line thinking. I wonder what would happen if the Singaporean students are asked to say HOW they solve the problem. Will they be able to articulate their solution? Or if they have to solve problems in a group or deal with a problem which has no solution.

Employers are quick to lament the poor presentation skills of Singaporeans. In the big world where they have to interact with others, they fall short because they cannot express themselves clearly and will not put themselves forward. One wag talks about cringing when the locals have to take global conference calls or meetings. Mangled tenses. Long pauses. Jumbled phrases. They are outshone by those less intelligent but more articulate than they are. Well, an empty barrel makes the most noise too.

I think it would take a patient employer to find out what gems are hidden in the silent bodies of their workers. Maybe our young people are better at connecting via email or Twitter or SMS – an individual activity which does not require anyone to stand in front of a crowd and argue or defend a point on the spot. They are so used to individual activity that they become socially awkward. Not good. Not good.

Our education system is cognizant of this. So classes are now more interactive and project or group work encouraged. I only ask that when we teach our young people to speak up, they also make sense…

Okay. Back to those PISA scores.

 Methinks we are being too hard on the education system which has, after all, built the world’s No. 1 problem solvers. It’s a great achievement. We shouldn’t expect international tests to examine all aspects of education to our satisfaction. It’s probably difficult enough to come up with a problem solving test that would be applicable across all nations. Just think. If Singapore was No. 40, we’d be kicking up a greater, bigger fuss.

Our cynicism probably lies in the high expectations of what we expect of the education system which unfortunately cannot be one-size-fits-all. If our young people suddenly become vocal paragons, we’d probably have something bad to say about it as well. Perhaps we’ve also become blasé about reports of Singapore being No. 1 in this or that and can’t help but pour cold water over results because the reality the individuals among us face or see doesn’t fit the high scores.

We ask ourselves: Are we really that good?

Well, we’re definitely not perfect. But maybe sometimes we should admit that we’re good. Somewhat.



The politics of invitation

In News Reports on February 10, 2014 at 3:08 am

So interesting! Now we have the politics of “invitation’’. When someone invites you to something, should you attend even if you don’t want to so as not to appear rude? How do you turn down an invitation graciously? For the inviting party, how to cancel an invite without provoking hurt feelings? Is there such a thing as “uninviting’’ someone?

We’ve all been invited to something or other or wish we had been invited – or not. Because it’s something almost everyone has experienced at one time or other, we all have a personal view on how to react to “troubling’’ invitations or non-invitations.

So being invited to a wedding means sending an ang pow even if you cannot attend the wedding. You don’t change your mind about attending something which you have been invited to at the last minute, especially if your presence had been catered for. If you have to, you apologise profusely.

When someone says “sorry, you were wrongly invited’’, you have a right to feel miffed and the inviting party should go red in the face. If the inviting party deliberately rescinds an invitation for no good reason other than “we changed our mind about having you here’’, then it’s a sure bet that the inviting party wants you to feel miffed.

So we have two sets of “invitations’’ in the news.

a)     The case of “sorry, you were wrongly invited’’

So PA chief Lim Swee Say calls Dr Tan Cheng Bock to say “Hey, sorry doc, someone in PA looked at the wrong list when we invited you to the Istana. Actually we just changed our policy to only invite ex-MPs who stepped down in 2011. Sorry, doc, you didn’t make the cut. Paiseh. So sorry. You left way too early in 2006’’.

Possible responses from Dr Tan:

“I hope you sack the PA fella. Make you so paiseh like this. And do I get something in black-and-white since I already have the invitation card? I need to show my wife.’’

“It’s okay lah. I have better things to do on a Sunday night. Also, I know you just invited 1,000 pioneers and the Istana isn’t big enough. Wait a minute, I think I’m already 73 years old…’’

“It’s okay, I understand. Very hard to invite someone who almost became President to your party. Plus I was so popular when I was in the PAP that I was actually in the CEC. Plus I was also your top vote-getter for several elections. Plus everyone knows I am/was Goh Chok Tong’s very good friend – we go back so long. Plus it’s not nice if more people shake my hand than shake yours…’’

“Did I miss the memo? Did you write to the rest who are probably expecting to go again this year? You mean all us old-timers cannot go for free makan? Next time, make pot luck.’’

“Dear Swee Say, thank you for alerting me or I would have found myself without a seat on Sunday. That would have been even more embarrassing. Thank you for saving me some face.’’

Now Dr Tan has put out the invite fiasco on his FB. Seems he got all the details accurate because Mr Lim confirmed them. But Mr Lim pronounced himself surprised that Dr Tan made it public after accepting his explanation. Hmm…it’s to be expected that the PA would rather it be kept under wraps. But should it expect the other party to keep quiet simply because he accepted the explanation? If I have been “un-invited’’ to an important party which I have attended every year, I would be pretty unhappy too.   

It’s naive of PA to expect a seasoned politician like Dr Tan to roll over and play dead. Unless it extracted a promise from Dr Tan not to make it public? Cannot be. The PA can’t be so kiasi.

And it is one of the wonders of social media that anyone can have an audience. Imagine! Dr Tan would have had to issue a press release or call a press conference if he wanted to make his unhappiness public in the past – and he would still not be guaranteed a mention in the media. It is also one of wonders of social media that you need not answer queries from those online – Dear Doc, just how unhappy are you? Didn’t you expect this? Are you trying to make the G look bad? Going on social media guarantees him an audience – and forces the MSM’s hand too, especially since MSM seems to think that anything that has gone “viral’’ should be published.

I read MSM carefully today to see who else should have been “un-invited’’ but who still turned up. (I didn’t get invited – so I can’t tell lah) But it seems that PA has a second line of defence – only those ex-MPs who are still active in the grassroots can attend. So it seems the likes of Mr Andy Gan, a one-term MP, was invited.   

What are Singaporeans to make of this? The PA can declare all it likes that it is non-partisan, and people will still believe it? It invited Mr Chiam See Tong though even though he is no longer an MP, hails from the Opposition and was never part of the PA grassroots. Well, very nice of the PA, especially since he made a good foil for its fiasco.

b)    The case of the “sorry, we just cancelled your invitation’’

So Singapore did a little tit-for-tat. You name a warship after MacDonald House bombers, I cancel your tickets to my air show. So the Indonesian Navy chief and his 100 officers or so won’t get to come here for the grand affair.  Mindef isn’t confirming the Indonesian media reports but it isn’t denying them either – which means they’re true.

Then it seems a meeting between Indonesia’s top military brass (including army and air force chiefs and a deputy minister) and Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing had to be re-scheduled, after which the Indonesians decided not to come. At least, that’s what I think it looks like from reading MSM. So the Indons “un-invited’’ themselves.

Said an Indon Defence ministry spokesman:  “We understand their concerns given public opinion in Singapore over recent developments…the deputy minister decided not to take up the invitation.’’

What to make of this? Well, since one invitation has been cancelled for the Navy chief, the airforce and army leaders can’t be expected to be thick-skinned enough to turn up. Or they want to signal “their’’ displeasure by not turning up even though the invitation still held. Or they were afraid(?) of coming to Singapore given the sentiments here? Or they didn’t want to get entangled with questions on why a frigate was named after bombers? Or they actually respect the sensitivities here. (You know…it’s not often that Singapore can actually use the term “insensitive’’ concerning a neighbours actions or words. It’s usually used against us…)

But ST said that an Indonesian air force team is scheduled to perform at the air show. Is this still on or off? Seems nothing’s changed. Hmmm…so we have Indon planes buzzing in our airspace at this time? Is this something to be concerned about or is this a reflection that both sides are NOT intending to take the naming saga too far and an expression of a solid foundation of military ties?   

Anyway, looks like there’s plenty of empty seats which Mindef could fill. It should use the PA’s “outdated’’ list of Istana invitees.




What’s for breakfast in 2014

In News Reports on January 1, 2014 at 2:04 am

The year 2014 looks set to be interesting for Singapore, going by just a couple of lines in the Prime Minister’s New Year Day message last night. He is going to prorogue Parliament after the Budget session in March and come up with a new agenda for the rest of the parliamentary term which will end in 2016.

Here’s hoping that in July, the G will pull together all the threads of the “new way forward’’ that the PM has espoused and that it shows clearly in each ministry’s statement on what it will do for the rest of the term. What I’d like to see: That the sentiments expressed in the Our Singapore Conversation have been incorporated into policy directions.

Doubtless, the G is positioning itself for the next general election and is laying the groundwork early.

Anyway, with tongue only half in cheek, here’s my take on what’s cooking in 2014. Enjoy with a pinch of salt, because I’ve already sugared and spiced it up.

Burnt toast and pineapple tarts with sour milk

He’s already burnt himself, the CPIB man who has pleaded guilty of mis-appropriating $1.7m from the G. Wish Edwin Yeo didn’t so that we can hear a lot more about how he filched the money. In case you don’t know, what we’ll get to read is a statement of facts put up by the prosecution, which won’t be challenged since he isn’t claiming trial. That’s usually quite bald. If there was an inquiry done in-house, we probably won’t hear much about it. There’s hope in learning a bit more when he puts up his mitigation plea for a more lenient sentence, although he will probably wax on about his gambling addiction and give the anti-gambling crowd another reason to say that casinos are baaaad.

But there’s still more than 10,000 of boxes of pineapple tarts to look forward to, which foreign service officer Lim Cheng Hoe ordered for ministerial trips. Except that he only bought 2,200 boxes.  It’s likely he’s going to plead guilty too of cheating the ministry of almost $90,000 but you sort of wonder what other delicacies go into a minister’s diplomatic bag when he’s goes courting abroad. Does it include kueh lapis? Or is that not part of protocol?

No word yet on how he will plead but it’s pretty shocking to have a cop accused of murdering a father and son pair. The Kovan case, which had the media chasing its tail over a fat 50-something  year old suspect, came to roost on a nice-looking 34 year old senior staff sergeant who had earlier (official) dealings with the elder victim. We can probably handle burnt toast or un-baked pineapple tarts but a double murder on the part of a cop is too difficult to swallow. If Iskandar Rahmat is indeed guilty, it’s not good enough to lock him away and throw away the key. He should hang.


Take your pick: bubur ayam, fish porridge or Crystal Jade style pei tan chok? Whatever makes it easy for old people to chew and swallow. Here’s waiting to see what will be served up on the Pioneer Generation Package, Singapore’s reward for the generation which has slogged it out here. Ingredients will definitely include something on healthcare financing – free ward upgrade? Or free dentures? Or free reading glasses? Maybe a bigger portion of shares/dividends of a GLC? Let’s hope the package isn’t delineated or means-tested by household income or house type or you can bet that there will be some flinging and not just banging of pots and pans. This looks though like something the G really wants to give out to the generation which has been its keenest supporters. So the bet is that it won’t be watery gruel of the Oliver Twist variety

Nasi lemak

How more lemak can you get? A big church, a preacher’s wife with sights on Hollywood, an Indonesian tycoon and an accounting tangle so complicated you’d need a chopper to cleave through. The City Harvest trial continues but it’s no church versus state clash, it’s about the diversion of dirty lucre. No ikan bilis sum either: more than $50million of church funds involved. As for the sambal, that’s provided by Serina Wee whom Netizens are going nuts over.     

Indian rojak

Not intending to be racist or anything but Chinese style rojak simply doesn’t fit the story of the Little India riot and its aftermath. Here’s looking at what the Committee of Inquiry will say about the cause of the riot and how it was handled by the authorities. It’s going to be contentious because many issues are involved besides the fact the rioters broke the law. What sparked it? Alcohol-inflamed emotions over the death of a compatriot on the road? Were there some rioters who were more culpable than others? Then comes the question of whether bigger concerns were at play – such as treatment of foreign workers here, allegations of police brutality, the rules regarding repatriation. Don’t forget that there will be a trial(s) and it’s clear that some of the accused, including a tourist, aren’t going to roll over and play dead. Expect plenty of gravy.  

Scrambled eggs

Anonymity didn’t bring any comfort or consolation to the hackers who wanted to do a Guy Fawkes and disrupt the country’s infrastructure. So James Raj Arokiasamy and other hackers who disrupted the websites of organisations like the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ang Mo Kio Town Council have been hauled to court. One said he did so because his fingers were “itchy’’. The trials will be a thing to watch as James Raj is being defended by the inimitable M Ravi. Watch also for offline curbs on online activity, with coming laws on harassment. Rather than serve eggs sunny-side up, poached or hard boiled with individual pieces of legislation scattered through the rule books, the G has decided to scramble them and serve it as some kind of omnibus legislation against any sort of harassment, whether cyber bullying or stalking. Another dish of scrambled eggs to be served up: changes to the Broadcasting Act – to make sure that online news is the same as offline offerings – that is, all should taste the same.

Oodles of noodles

Hawker variety or spaghetti? The roads look like a tangled mess and in some places, all starched up. So we wait for Monday to see if the Marina Coastal Expressway is what it’s cracked up to be – a quick journey. Or will motorists be throwing up their breakfast in their cars as they figure how to navigate their way to work. Besides the roads, you can bet commuters are crossing their fingers that transport operators can keep the trains going without stopping. They’ve been hard at work replacing old infrastructure but do keep an eye on the new Circle line hor. Terrible to break down after PM opened it. And what’s with the fare increase eh? It’s like introducing chilli padi to the dish. Very hiam.

Essence of chicken

Every parent’s favourite tonic for their kids. They will need it themselves when Primary One registration comes along with new rules that will open up spaces in “better’’ schools (since every school is a good school). Then there are changes to the PSLE scoring system as well. No more T-scores???? How like that? So there will be two sets of confused if not howling parents, those with kids about to enter the school system and those who want their 12 year olds to go to RI or RGS. Prediction: More eyeballs on the kiasuparents forum.

Fruit, yoghurt and all that’s good

And this healthy dish is NOT an optional item on the breakfast menu. Which is why everyone had better pay attention to moves to introduce Medishield Life, which will cover everyone’s health needs. Better have a say in how much premiums you have to pay at various stages of your life and how much cover you will get when you get sick. Confused even at the present situation? Get a crash course in the 3Ms and check what health insurance you already hold. Healthy food is hard to swallow – but you know it’s good for you.



A buay song year

In News Reports on December 31, 2013 at 3:10 am

I was reading the Christmas bonus issue of the Economist on the plane home and an article about the French got me thinking. The magazine described the sense of malaise, ennui and negativity that pervades the French people. Everybody was fashionably downcast it seemed. I couldn’t tell whether the magazine was taking the mickey out of the French or dead serious. After all, the headline was Bleak is chic. It coined a new word: “ miserablism’’.

I wondered if some phrase or word would fit Singapore’s sense and sensibility in the year 2013. After an intensely intellectual conversation with my brother, we declared that the right word/s were buay song. The year of discontent? Naah. Too cheem. Just buay song.

Singaporeans seem very buay song over everything this year. What is it? A simmering resentment? A mass of confusion? Too many things happening in this country? Too many voices competing for attention? Disillusionment with the present? Discouraged about the future?

The year opened with the hated 6.9million population figure and unprecedented protests as people tried to wrap their heads over how to fit the figure here. Everything that was bottled up boiled over. Resentment over crowded infrastructure, rising car and property prices and the sneaking feeling that foreigners here were eating our lunch instead of helping us make it.

Other sneaking feelings: That the elites were perpetuating themselves and their progeny through the education system’’; That somebody somewhere was getting ahead of the individual-me  – unfairly – in the meritocratic system; That we actually have poor people.

Telco and transport glitches didn’t help. Neither did the visit of the haze. No wonder tempers frayed. Suddenly it seemed that wonderfully efficient Singapore was breaking down although frankly, we couldn’t have done anything about the haze except distribute masks.

If we thought having an unprecedented illegal strike by the Chinese bus drivers last year was a shock to the Singapore system, the Little India riot shook us to the core.  Foreign imports bring more than just bodies to the economy. These are people schooled and acculturated differently in their home countries. They didn’t belong here.

Then there was the mechanism that threaded everything. And for the first time, it wasn’t the G. It was social media or variously described as the Internet beast. It had a presence in everything. It initiated. It rejoiced. It informed. It thrashed, amplified and distorted. It did both good and bad. For the voiceless or those too scared to put up their hand, it was a release valve allowing for ventilation and vitriol. For those with opinions, it was space for both cranks and geniuses.

It was also a place for the buay song to kpkb as the PM so eloquently put it. But I daresay that other non social media users felt pretty buay song too. Of course, now you will ask for evidence. I don’t have any although the G will probably have plenty of surveys that say differently.  If there is a “buay song’’ result, I wouldn’t make it public if I were the G.  In fact, the common retort is that the buay song quotient on the Net is no reflection of offline sentiment. I am not so sure.

It was also a year that the G moved fast. More flats. New rules on lending, transport fares. Changes to Primary One registration. Embarking on a scheme of universal health insurance although that is what it would not choose to call it. And of course, clumsily patching together rules to regulate online conduct if not content.

The poor G is in a conundrum – if it gives in, it is accused of pandering; if it doesn’t, it is accused of being arrogant.

Should we really have been so buay song in the past year? There are bright spots and things to look forward to after all, like the Sports Hub’s completion and the URA Masterplan which evoked a grand vision for Singapore. There was one big bright moment methinks, such as the Our Singapore Conversation. We discussed the trade-offs we have to make to move ahead from the status quo. There is the promise that conclusions will be incorporated into policy. We have seen a couple – a move to the left on welfare and a nuanced notion of meritocracy.

Even then, it is in the Singapore nature to whine. Still very buay song.

You would have expected the opposition to capitalise on the buay song-ness of Singaporeans especially since it won the Punggol East byelection but the Workers’ Party has been a damp squip. Other parties are relegated to online statements and forums although this probably more activity than we have seen in a long time from them. Not just at the G, plenty of people are buay song about the opposition too.

It looked like everything went wrong in 2013 and needed patching. Did it?

I have just come back from Lombok, a thoroughly laid back place where the Ferrari is a horse and carriage. I was thinking it was not a bad place to spend a month out of every year just vegetating. Then again, I can afford to do that because I am a middle class Singaporean holding on to a strong currency. A beneficiary of a system (now broke?) that allows me to even consider something like that.  

At Changi,  I get a thrill when the immigration check-in machine welcomes me home by name. I hear Singaporean voices. I see the Christmas decorations lining the route to and from the airport. I marvel at the green spaces and parks I pass by, the tall HDB buildings and the hustle and bustle of people and cars.

Of course, I also read about the jams on the MCE. And people unhappy with the DNC exemption moves. And I think to myself, if this is all the news there is in Singapore, the place can’t be too bad.

Perhaps, we have unreasonable expectations of ourselves and everyone else. We want improvements by leaps and bounds. We want First World comfort at Third World prices.  We want a say and don’t like being contradicted, especially by the G. Maybe we’re just unreasonable people.

Or maybe I’m the unreasonable one. Just buay song.

In any case, I am glad to see the back of 2013. Happy New Year everyone!