Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ng Eng Hen : PAP not looking for yes-men...(or yes-women)

"If someone believes in a system that's so fundamentally different from
Singapore's, it would be hard for him to accept how we do things," he

"You have to persuade others that your view makes more sense, makes
for Singapore a better decision, a better framework." - Ng Eng Hen[Link]

In my last posting, I wrote that the PAP candidates look like people who won't rock the boat. I looked through the next few candidates the PAP announced -  CEO of NTUC Employment & Employability Institute, Ang Hin Kee and an MAS managing director who has stepped down and expected to be officially announced as a candidate soon[Link]. Yes-men? ...Perhaps people who cannot say NO.[Link].

At this point, I would urge my fellow netizens to refrain from personal attacks and getting carried away with speculation about a candidate's personal life. I support Siew Kum Hong call for netizens to stay out of the gutter[]Link]. While we disagree with them on policies and ideas, we should not drag people's personal's life into the fray - it is not only unconstructive, it will discourage capable people from entering politics. Although the PAP has engaged in this type of politics in the past to preserve its dominant power - remember the campaign against Francis Seow? - we should be mindful never to put our own interests above the interests of Singapore.

Recently the PAP introduced  a young candidate, Tin Pei Ling, to "connect" with Generation Y. Our restless youth today, like those of many other countries, are starting to ask fundamental questions about our socio-political system. I like to think many visit my blog because they are starting to ask "deep" questions and have taken an interest in politics because they are looking for answers and ideas that will shape their future in Singapore. You don't coonect with  Generation Y just by being young is  about ideas....and change.

"To be honest I don’t have any specific policies I feel strongly against” - Tin Pei Ling in reply to a reporter on RazorTV[Link].

Here is a speech by Tin Pei Ling in which she "explained" why the widening income gap is not the responsibility of the govt[Link]. I suggest you click on the link to read the speech yourself to appreciate for yourself how deeply rooted PAP ideology is in the mind of this candidate. It is mindboogling how someone can say that about a dominant govt like the PAP that controls influx of foreign labor, tax structure, medical care system, labour uniions, public housing etc is not responsible for the income gap. Singapore has the highest income gap in the developed world yet the govt is not responsible? If a young candidate from the PAP thinks like that can you imagine the thinking of people who are in the PAP establishment for a loinger time.

It is wishful thinking to expect najor positive change to come from the PAP internally. Looking at the type of candidates they have chosen, it looks like they are looking to preserve the status quo at a time when many Singaporeans can see the need to remake and reshape our future. We have seen the outcome of PAP policies for the past 10 years. Voting for the PAP will mean we will continue along the same trajectory for the next 10 years.  The income gap will continue to widen, the cost of living will continue to go up with housing going up faster than wages, poverty will continue to spread, pace of life (stress) will keep going up, quality of life down and the quality of retirement will keep going down that is if retirement does not become history. You cannot vote the same type of people with the same mindset and expect a different outcome for you, your family and your future.  If  you struggle and falter due to the challenges they create to make life difficult for you, your PAP MPs will  say the govt is not responsible for your plight. If you get sick and you're burdened by bills that wiped out your savings, the PAP men will not say that medical cost is too high due to the PAP''s aspiration to turn this place into a medical hub for the rich putting profits above people ....they will keep shifting the financial burden to the sick and their families and take no responsibility. They have taken no responsibility for depressing the wages of the bottom 30% by opening the floodgates to cheap foreign labor ....they don't take responsibility for the sharp rise in the cost of housing that has resulted in the lower income families not able to afford housing anymore.

This is a dominant, govt that pays its ministers' millions but it is not responsible for the deterioration in the quality of life of ordinary Singaporeans.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Vote for PAP and Your Future is just like Your Past..

"THE People's Action Party (PAP) chairman Lim Boon Heng said on Monday that a key issue that the party will fight the coming election on is the kind of future Singaporeans want for themselves and their children" - PAP will fight for Singaporens' Future,Straits Times.

I was looking through the PAP candidates and the list goes something like this - former Chief of Army, high flying civil servants, NTUC leader, a few successful bankers...and a 27-year old [Link](wife of a civil servant who is the Principal Private Secretary for the PM). These are precisely the type of candidates you would choose to preserve the status quo - people who will not rock the boat. There was once a PAP candidate whom everyone thought will bring great change to govt, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Remember the Remaking Singapore Committee? The outcome of that tells us there are just too many constraints to change the PAP from within. Singaporeans are pragmatic people - if the PAP can deliver the change they want, why go for the opposition? The PAP has had its chance already and after all the remaking, people can see the limitation to the rate of change and type of change the PAP is willing to make.

Lim Boon Heng now says the PAP will fight for the future of Singaporeans. Really? Lim Boon Heng was the labor chief when the floodgates was opened to foreign labor.

Without major changes to our system, our future will simply look like our past. The next 10 years will look like the past 10 years - rising cost of living, widening income gap, stagnant wages and continued deterioration of the quality of life in Singapore. In the past 10 years the real median income grew by 1.6% per year [Link]and a meager 0.3% in 2010 [Link]when the GDP growth was 14.5%. Income inequality measured by GINI grew to 0.452, the highest among developed countries. Cost of housing and medical care rose much faster than wages. There are many things not measured by numbers - stress levels, pace of life, overcrowded (public transport), job insecurity etc - that have deteriorated over time.

The PAP had the last 4 years and the last 4 decades to set things right. They had every opportunity to demonstrate to Singaporeans that Singaporeans come first and their future is the highest priority for the PAP govt. Opportunities they had and opportunities they squandered away.

 "If native Singaporeans are falling behind because the spurs are not stuck into the hide, that is their problem " - MM Lee [Link

Singapore workers clock the longest hours according to ILO's report[Link] and experience the 2nd highest stress levels in the world[Link].

The one time I see the PAP leaders fighting very hard was when they wanted to hike their world's highest pay to even higher. The PAP leaders fought against minimum wages, they fought against lowering GST, they fought against putting Singapore first in employment, they fought against suggestions to make pre-school education compulsory which will benefit children from the low income group, they fought against safety nets for the unemployed,old, sick and poor, ...over time they fought to restrict our democratic freedom -our right to assemble, right to speak in public - they bankrupted and jailed people without trial for wanting to bring about democracy, justice and equality to our society.

Now they say they will fight for Singaporeans' future which is very quickly diminished by their policy to open the floodgates to foreigners and convert them to citizens. This influx will result in a tougher future for ordinary Singaporeans - more competition for jobs, housing and cars, tougher for our children to get into good schools and places in the universities. It will mean Singaporeans struggling in the future unless something is done to bring about change in Singapore.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Targeted help - PAP's euphemism for barriers to those getting help...

I was watching this video in which Chee Soon Juan completely demolished and embarrassed Michael Palmer for bringing up this concept of "targeted assistance". If help is targeted based on need, why are millionaire ministers getting subsidies when they are sick and pensions when they retire....while the middle class have much of their subsidies eliminated.

If you go through my blog, there are numerous instances where needy Singaporeans are denied help simply due to numerous rules put in place to prevent them from getting help. One caller to 93.8 called to say he was "near homeless" and now begging relatives one by one because he was unable to get a rental flat - he had very low income of $1000+ and cannot afford to buy a flat. So why was he denied help? HDB had this rule that a person cannot apply for rental flats within 30 months of the sale of his flat[Link]. This caller sold his flat because he was in financial difficulties and he still had financial difficulties after he sold his flat but couldn't get a rental flat simply because he couldn't afford to hang on to his flat[Link] These rules were further tightened when the waiting time for rental flats grew to 4 years[Link]. He went to see his MP but his appeal was unsuccessful.

We often hear, Minister Khaw say we are fully covered for medical care because of the 3Ms (Medisave, Medishield, Medifund). If that is so, why do some Singaporeans have to seek treatment in Malaysia? Why do people have to sell their homes to pay for medical treatment[family sells home and owed bank $400k for daughter's cancer treatment] if they have access to Medifund ? How come Olympic hero, Tan Howe Liang, who is 77 years old could not get Medifund fo his wife's treatment and end up with medical debts of $100,000[Link]? Medifund eligibility criteria has never been spelt out - it is believed to be based on housing or income - either one can be used to reject applicants[Leong Sze Hian has been asking for the criteria and has been given the run around]. If someone like Tan Howe Liang or a father that has to go into debt to the tune of $400K cannot get it, you can imagine how hard it is to get help.

Minister yesterday announced that PA allowance would be increased by $30 a month, from $260 to $290, single constituents told me that they needed to skip one meal a day to live on the $260 per month. And now, MCYS is going to give them $1 more a day. But, Sir, $1 a day will not be able to buy them one meal a day in any hawker centre.” - MP Lily Neo in Parliament
There are numerous issues with Workfare[Link] even for those who believe it is superior to minimum wages (which I'm sure it is not), the PAP ruins its own solution with rules and barriers.
At a time when poverty is actually rising and spreading as the income gap and cost of living increases mean that more Singaporeans suffer unnecessarily and unjustly each year because as a nation we have more than sufficiently resources to help those really in need. We need a govt that is honest and sincere in distributing help not one that hides behind euphemisms and rules. What we have today is a govt that will debate endlessly over whether $1 per day increase for Public Assistance for the most needy people in our society is too much but wants to compensate its ministers and top civil servants millions a year and handout 8 month bonuses to people who are suppose to serve the public. This is a govt that has lost is has lost is values, its conscience and its sense of reality....and we better put all these back in govt and we have to be serious about it before its too late.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Opposition - the 3 corner trap...

In the most closely fought election ever in the US, liberals blame independent candidate Ralph Nader for shaving off a roughly 1% of the votes from Al Gore resulting in a win by George Bush and the subsequent 8 years of pain and mismanagement US and the world had to go through.
Our opposition is not the Democractic Party and their candidates are not expected to win most of the time. However, 4 years of rising unhappiness with the PAP tells us they will have a chance to increase their representation in parliament. Hopefully, the PAP threatened with a loss of support wakes up, do some soul searching and start to do what is right for the people. If not, they face even a tougher time in the election after the next. The problem with this optimsitic scenario is our opposition consists of many small parties and run the risk of a disorganised dis-coordinated campaign and the greatest fear among opposition supporters is the emergence of many 3 corner contests all over the election map.
When opposition parties contest each other, the PAP candidate definitely win even in places where most people oppose the PAP. At the end of the day, the opposition and their supporters will be losers. Some people argue that it should be "the more the merrier" why limit the choice of voters. We have a winner-take-all system (vs a proportional representation system) and the PAP offers only one candidate for each seat so the notion of giving more than 1 opposition candidate to voters does not make sense because it is not a real choice - they choose but do not get what they want in terms of representation because of the winner take all system. This artifact in our system means the opposition needs coordinate among themselves so that system can work properly and deliver the "correct" results. Given the ideological similarities and close clustering among opposition parties relative that of the PAP, the process to avoid 3- and 4- corner fight is an essential phase of the election preparation that has to be done successfully to avoid the outcome of PAP winning seats where it does not have majority support. I don't see this just as something the opposition need to do to help themselves but something that has to be done for our democracy to work properly.

Unfortunately there is no formal process in place to do this. Our opposition parties organise negotiation sessions and in principle agree to avoid such 3-corner fights. In the past when there was limited resources and candidates, there were plenty of uncontested constituencies for opposition parties to choose from to avoid contesting against each other and wasting limited resources. Ironically, thanks (or rather no thanks) to rising unpopularity of the PAP, the number of people joining the opposition has swelled. The opposition now collectively has more than enough resources and candidates to contest every single seat. Now each party has to take painful cuts to avoid 3 corner fights. Ideally a systematic process that everyone can agree on and trust is in place e.g. selection panel, objective criteria, quota, draw lots etc. There is none ...worse still, there is a tendency for multiple parties to want to contest in places where the PAP candidates are believed to be unpopular e.g. Radin Mas (?) - they end up handing over the seat to the weak candidate.
Negotiations appear not to have gone on too well. A few parties have gone on to play hard ball by simply staking their claim (and determination) to run at certain SMCs and GRCs knowing that other parties are also interested in the area. Unfortunately our election laws don't allow for joint teams spanning across parties for GRC contest that would have allowed opposition parties to combine forces. It will be a bad start to this election for opposition supporters if there are many 3-corner fights declared on nomination day - the wind has been blowing favorably for the opposition and it will be a great waste of opportunity if these issues cannot be resolved ahead of the election.
A few people I spoke to feel that the opposition is better off drawing lots to resolve this than to go into a 3-corner fight. If the candidates are more or less equally qualified and are headed for a sure-lose 3 corner fight and all negotiations have failed - what is left in terms of process is to pick a stick or toss a dice....and you're still better off than a getting involved in a 3-corner fight.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gaddafi : Against all enemies...

"‘I would say he is an introspective person, reflective, thinking about the problems of his country. Certainly an astute person" - SM Goh Chok Tong on Gaddafi, May 2008[Link]
A few weeks ago when the uprising started in Libya. Colonel Gaddafi said that the Al Qaeda was behind the uprising and the rebels were under the influence of drugs. Listen to what he said a few weeks ago:

After coming under attack by allied forces (France, US, UK) implementing a no fly zone, he now says he will fight Christian crusaders[Link]. Whether you believe western powers are going all out to save civilian lives or have other political motives, they are dealing with a volatile aggressive dictator likely to be delusional and violent.

What surprised me is Gaddafi's ability to fight back against the rebels and the thousands of loyalists willing to die for him. After watching the last few of his speeches (unedited, translated), many people from other parts of would have come the conclusion that he may not have a sound mind. Yet he command the loyalty of a significant segment of his population.

".....In Libya, education and health care are free. Petrol costs 10 US cents (14 Singapore cents) a litre, 'way below market rates'. When a Libyan gets married, the government provides the couple a flat about the size of a three-room flat in Singapore. " - Report on SM Goh's Libya visit]Link]

Gaddafi's 41 year rule benefited many Libyans in particular members of his elite forces, security forces and his own tribe. Despite his questionable mental state and authoritarian rule, he has a large group of loyalists behind him and many whose future depends on keeping him in power. The Libyans fighting him come from impoverished parts of the country - people he deliberately neglected because they belonged to other tribes. If Gaddafi had not given those 3 room flats to his supporters, generous subsidies for everything from education, medicare to electricity he would have fallen very quickly because his support base would have been very small. If he kept the oil wealth concentrated in a small number of elites, say his ministers, he wouldn't be able to hang on to power for so long. Despite his weird volatile and irrational leadership style, his understanding of the need to distribute wealth is what is preventing him from losing power quickly. If he had distributed oil wealth to his "enemies" and treated them with greater equality, they, perhaps, would not be rebelling so strongly against him.

Gaddafi is an extreme example and Libya has oil but at the end of the day, there is a lesson here on of the distribution wealth in a country. You cannot have one part of the country living in wealth & comfort and large segment of the populace struggling in poverty. You can maintain such large inequalities with authoritarian rule only for so long and at some point cracks will appear and a large number will turn against you.

I hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Libya. However, I'm not too optimistic. Libya is a country divided and polarized by the way wealth was distributed. There are people who love Gaddafi and people who hate him. These groups looks like they will fight to the bitter end.

I did a quick back of the envelop calculation on Libya's wealth. Libya produces about 1 million barrels of sweet crude per day (before the uprising) At today oil price of about US$100 per barrel, this translates to US$100M per day coming from the ground. Libya has 6.4M people which means the people get US$15 a day without doing much work - enough for food and lodging. If he distribute this money more equally, he could have maintained his socialist authoritarian state for much longer. Not that this is an ideal way to rule and govern a group of people but he could have avoided the rebellion he is facing today.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nuclear Crisis : Separating Hyperbole from Reality....

I haven't blogged much in the past 1 week. The reason is I've spent most of my spare time collecting facts and analysis of the Fukushima nuclear incidents.

Remember H1N1? The fear started when several hundred people died of flu in Mexico. When it broke out and alert levels were raised, suddenly there was a rush to buy Tami-flu. More reports of death from H1N1 in US and Europe. Panic ensues. Pundits on TV call it a deadly strain - a "swine flu" and these people had expert qualifications. Later there was speculation that it would mutate to a deadlier strain and so on. At the height of the panic, Minister Khaw raised the alert level in Singapore and measures to put in place after SARS was activated - people visiting loved ones at hospital had to be checked for temperature, and visit to patients limited to 2 at a time. I have to give some credit to Minister Khaw for he appeared quite calm and was probably moved into action by the fear among the puble rather than reality - he had to putting in precautionary measures to reassure the public. One talking head on CNBC said this flu will sink the global economy.

The H1N1 scare started in May 2009 [my posting on H1N1]. It turned out that H1N1 was just a normal flu. WHO which raised the threat level later came under fire for calling it a pandemic[WHO under fire] and has been criticized for relying too much on experts with vested interest from the pharmaceutical industry. Lets get this clear, I'm not criticizing WHO using hindsight - there was a real possibility that H1N1 could have been a deadly strain since little was known about it at that time. I'm pointing out the tendency of the media today to feed our fears with a deluge of "worse case scenarios", expert opinions and fan our fear to a point that we lost the ability to make sound judgement and take the best course of action.

Lets take the on-going "nuclear crisis" in Japan. Let me ask you what is the most likely outcome of this "crisis"? Actually nobody can say for sure what it is because it is still unfolding.
"This is worse than Chenobyl because multiple reactors are involved" - pundit on TV.
While the potential for a disastrous outcome e.g harmful radiation all the way to Tokyo is there are we made to think that these are outcomes are more probable than they really are? For example, our NEA put out a public assurance that there is no danger in Singapore [No cause for alarm here] because some Singaporeans, a very small minority, became fearful that radiation will spread to Singapore.

The panic and fear reached a high on Wednesday when several govts issued warnings and offered transport to bring their citizens out of Japan. When you look at this, there is a tendency to conclude that govts with the best expert advice have made this decision because there is a real danger of something sinister happening. But remember govts are also under pressure to act because they are made up of politicians - also they may be making precautionary moves because they have little to lose and have to be seen as being pro-active. How real is the danger of harmful radiation reaching Tokyo and should you leave if you're in Tokyo? There were many people doing a "wait and see" before Wednesday but once the US & UK govt called for a pull-out, the fear factor rose several notches and if you're a Japanese in Tokyo watching all the foreigners "abandoning" your city, you start to feel some anxiety and later panic. One EU official used the word "apocalypse"[Link] to describe the situation in Japan and the fear index hit the roof....then a whole herd of experts came out to paint more dire scenarios saying the Japanese have lost all control of the nuclear plants. All this lead the public to think that calamity is the most likely outcome of the unfolding saga and if make a decision from all this, you will just run for the exits if you're in Tokyo. All this is happening while the Japanese govt is trying to calm the people and prevent a pandemonium after the triple disaster hit the country. In China, people have emptied the supermarket shelves of iodized salt because of media reports that the consumption of iodine can block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by thyroid glands causing thyroid cancer. There are also reports of people getting ill after ingesting iodine pills out of fear of radiation.

How do we go about to find the "worst case scenario" and the "most likely scenario" given this confusing mix of expert opinions, statement from officials, media fear mongering? It is a challenge to get to the "reality" and filter out all the noise. It is also a good exercise in critical thinking, organizing your thoughts to make the best decisions. We do not know when the next crisis will hit us (touch wood) and when it does we do not want to over-react, under-react or react in haphazard manner. We want to react in a way to get the best possible outcome. So how do we do this?

Step 1: Gather all the facts. The plain facts.
Step 2: Analyse it scientifically. To figure what you know and don't know.
Step 3: Work out how the situation will evolve - worse case, best case, most likely case.
Step 4: Monitor the situation to see where we are headed and act at the "right" time i.e. when there is some clarity.

The facts surrounding the nuclear incident is collected at this wikepedia page[Link] - much of it is factual, what temperature was measure and when, which reactors are known to be damaged (cracked), and specific problems with each reactor and so on. The next part, the analysis is difficult if you're not an expert you have to rely on an expert. Suppose you're are a IT manager managing a large IT project and somehow there is a system failure involving the database system and you're no expert in database so you talk to the expert to understand fully what happened before you can make a decision. For the Fukushima incident, there is no lack of expert analysis given the scale of this event and public interest in it. Next you follow what the Japanese are trying to do to see where we are headed.

The wikipedia page provides a summary of various solutions used and the effectiveness of these solutions[Link]. Right now the focus is to cool down the reactors and the spent fuel pools. While the whole situation is dynamic, there is no sign that it is a lost cause. Even if the cooling fails, and a meltdown occurs, containment of those nuclear reactors will limit the amount of radiation in the air. There is some fear that these are damaged leading to more radiation leaks. There is also the problem of spent fuel rods kept in pools of water - when the water level falls these fuel rods are exposed to the atmosphere and radiation is leaked. They are firing water from water cannons to into the pools to prevent this from happening. If cooling fails, and a meltdown ensures, they have the option to do what the Soviet Union did in Chenobyl and that is to encase these nuclear reactors in concrete. Most of the massive amount of radiation from the Chineobyl incident spread because of the explosion of the reactor - there is no possibility of this happening here as the reactor design is different.

During the early part of the week, the media and pundits stepped on the "fear creation accelerator" focussing on the possibility of disastrous outcomes while ignoring possible solutions and options. For example, pundits played up the risk of the SFP (spent fuel pools) running out of water in reactor 3 causing the rods to be exposed to the atmosphere and releasing massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. The Japanese fixed this with a relatively simple solution of spraying water into the pool from fire trucks. There were also pundits who claimed the Japanese authorities were not transparent (and dishonest) further fanning fear and suspicion surrounding the situation.

"I prefer not to speculate about the future, but as days go by, the risk of a total meltdown is reducing" - Graham Andrew, IAEA, 18 March 2010.
Nobody can say for sure how this crisis is headed. As of today, the risk of a total meltdown has been reduced. However, if one was listening to some segments of the media earlier this week, disaster was the only possible outcome. Fear and panic itself would have caused a disaster Imagine the mess created by millions fleeing Tokyo in a haphazard manner - the sick, old and invalid left behind, food & water distribution disrupted - would have led to more deaths much worse than the worst case meltdown that would have led to reactors being entombed. It also shows us the importance of leadership we can trust - the Japanese Minister Yukio Edano held 5 press conference every day[Link] to update the nation on the dynamic situation (compare that with the initial handling of SARS outbreak).
I hope the Japanese succeed in getting the nuclear reactors under control. Extraordinary crisis requires extraordinary leadership, extraordinary sacrifice and extraordinary courage. In the confusion and fear, it is hard for people not to panic and flee but most of the Japanese in Tokyo stayed calm despite all sorts of scares. If another group of people are put through a crisis, the response may be completely different (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, were people fought, robbed and looted).

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fukushima 50 : Lessons in worker loyalty...

Here is an interesting letter from the ST Forum (see below) discussing what was lost when we switch from a culture in which worker loyalty was highly treasured to a "hire-fire" type corporate culture that puts profits above people.

But it is not just work culture but the way the country is led and run. There was a time when govt had a socialist touch and socialist heart, tapping on capitalism to produce wealth with to goal of sharing to elevate everybody. In 1975, the PAP resigned from the
Socialist International before they were expelled[Link], Gradually this socialist heart disappeared over time and Singapore adopted a form of unbridled capitalism to maximize GDP growth. Independent workers' unions disappeared, income gap ballooned, wealth became more and more concentrated in a small segment of the population. A ideology of free market start to conquered all facets of our life - expansion of for-profit medical care, public housing with prices linked to open markets,. for-profit public transport system ,...even our utilities company was sold off to private hands. It is now an every man for himself system and what you get purely depends on your ability to make money. In the 80s I used to think that Hong Kong was a society where the rule of money was so strong people became obsessed with the pursuit of money over everything else - they could be forgiven because they were technically a colony and not a nation. But today the Hong Kongers fought to put in minimum wage for low wage workers, welfare for the old and unemployed and prevented the govt from imposing GST because it will hurt the poor. They don't even have to pay their leaders less than one-fifth as much as ours to serve.We have strayed so far from the middle, we better find our way back soon. This inequality in our society, the largest among developed nations, is exacerbated by an ideology that results in policies that gives as little to those in need as possible.

"Singapore Inc risks being turned into a mercenary, alien and transient space peopled by workers with little sense of belonging" - Liew Kai Khiun

If nothing changes, this nation risks turning into a hotel where people have no sense of belonging and will only take care of their own interests and leave when they find greener pastures else where. Resilience of a society comes from the bonds between people and that bond is nourished by how much we share with each other and how we care for those in need.


Fukushima 50 - lessons in worker loyalty

THE extraordinary courage of the Fukushima 50 - the Japanese engineers and technicians battling to contain the nuclear fallout from reactors damaged in the earthquake and tsunami - offers lessons to Singaporeans.

One important factor behind the dedication of these workers is Japan's collectivistic corporate culture that values loyalty and ensures long-term employment security. This is in contrast to the American model, which is characterised by individualism and short-term profitability.

These values are reflected in the salaries of senior executives: CEOs in Japan are rewarded far less than their counterparts in the United States and Europe.

While the Japanese corporate culture has often been criticised for breeding conservatism and inertia, and for rewarding riskaverse senior management, it has also fostered an exceptional sense of team spirit and commitment that transcends short-term gains. This sense of esprit de corps is evident among the Fukushima 50 workers, and it is through them that the best of Japan Inc is being shown in these harrowing times.

Singapore Inc has been moving towards the US model with its emphasis on rewarding 'top talent' generously. Over the years, we have been seeing increasingly disproportionate levels of remuneration for senior executives in contrast to workers down the line who have to face the prospects of redundancy and wage reduction in tough times.

Also, given the ease of replacing local staff with foreign labour, Singapore Inc risks being turned into a mercenary, alien and transient space peopled by workers with little sense of belonging, loyalty and commitment that is found in the Japanese worker.

Liew Kai Khiun

Thursday, March 17, 2011

During Crisis who stays who leaves...

By now you would have heard of the Fukushima 50[Link]. They are the last line of defence for the failed nuclear reactors in Japan. These 50 men working continuously for days have exposed themselves to very high doses of radiation and are risking their lives to prevent a nuclear disaster in Japan. TEPCO the Japanese company that owns those reactors asked for more nuclear plant workers to volunteer to this dangerous mission and 130 Japanese were willing to take up what may be a near suicide mission.

On Twitter, one woman expressed her pride -- and anguish -- at the news that her father had offered to take part in the risky operation at the plant.
"I fought back tears when I heard father, who is to retire in half a year, volunteered to go," the message read.[

Remember a few weeks ago, MM Lee said, "You must want to die for each other."[Link] Many us find it amusing that he thinks we should make the ultimate sacrifice for each other when he can't get his own ministers to accept less pay. If a situation like Fukushima surfaces in Singapore and volunteers are asked to be part of a mission to save others by risking their lives, how many will volunteer? The situation is different from a war and you're asked to be part of an army....this one is a suicide mission where your health and very likely your life has to be sacrificed away with a high level of certainty.

Why are these people willing to do it? Lets put this question aside first to look at something else.

There are numerous reports of foreign nationals leaving Japan out of fear of radiation. The US & UK actually asked their citizens to leave Japan [Link] sparking a mini-panic...who wants to be left behind when people start leaving? Actually you can't blame foreign nationals for wanting to leave. They are there to earn money and when they perceive that there is some risk, they will pack their bags and go. I saw this Japanese woman interviewed on TV about the radiation - she was asked if she was afraid. She said, "A little bit", Then the reporter asked her if she was staying or trying to leave. She said, "This is my home..where am I going to go?". She was willing to accept some risk and not going to flee at the first sign of trouble.
In Japan the % of foreigners is actually quite small and most are in Tokyo but the impact of seeing so many people trying to flee the country at the first sign of trouble during crisis is highly demoralising for the people who want to stay and rebuild the country. Of course nobody wants to the last guy out should the situation worsen and pose a danger for the living in Tokyo. We won't know if the radiation will rise to harmful levels in Tokyo but the window we are talking about is a few days before we know. However, it is best for such a large scale evacuation to be done in a coordinated manner . Given the distance from the troubled plants, the radiation level in the worse case scenario will harm a person in Tokyo only after prolonged exposure of weeks and months versus the certain serious damage within hours to the health brave workers at Fukushima. Panic is the worst response and that in itself will endanger others even if radiation doesn't to rise to harmful levels - peoeple hoarding food and water, for example, can cause others to starve. So it is in the common interest of people to stay calm, take care of each other and think of others.

0700 GMT: Japan's government has urged people against panic-buying of food and supplies, as the country grapples with a massive natural disaster and resulting nuclear crisis. Daily necessities are in desperately short supply in the northeastern region worst-hit by Friday's earthquake and tsunami[Link]

We can see the different responses of various people in Japan - the foreigners will flee when there is risk , the average Japanese citizen who is frightened but willing to stay put and brave ones who are willing to die for others in the society. You cannot expect foreigners not to flee. A few years ago I sent a few Singaporean engineers to a foreign country but the political situation there became a bit tense - the risk was very low but my boss told me to pull back everyone immediately . I would do the same if I am working in another country and my family is back in Singapore. So these foreigners are not doing anything wrong - it is not their home, the people they love are somewhere else. Yesterday on Sky News a young British man living in Sendai (much nearer to Fukushima than Tokyo) skyped with reporters. He was asked why he wasn't leaving and he told them his girlfriend is Japanese so he did not want to leave without her and she refused to go with him because her family is staying.

Japan's population consist of 1.5% foreigners and Tokyo has the highest concentration 2.3%[Link]. When faced with the greatest crisis any one group of people can face, you need the people to stay cohesive not fall apart with each person only willing to take care of his own interests. It is never possible to integrate foreigners fully - many of the foreigners fleeing Tokyo have been there 5 or 10 years....and this "dis-integration" will show up during crisis. Imagine if Tokyo is made up of 40% foreigners, what will happen? ...and if these foreigners are involved in essential services e.g. hospitals, what will happen? The crippling effects of 40% of the people getting out will deepen your crisis to a point that you may never be able to recover.

The Japanese are a resilient people. They survived the humiliating defeat and atomic bombs of WWII. They are also one of the most cohesive people in a world and have preserved a common identity for hundreds of years. They will survive this crisis no matter how bad it gets because they will stay together and not fall apart. If the common identity of a people is destroyed, they lose their cohesiveness and things will fall apart during crisis. When you need 50 men willing to die to prevent (or reduce) a calamity will you be able to find them in a place where people are conditioned to act selfishly for their own interets?? it possible in a country where the leadership shows an inability make sacrifices (hey, its just money) ?? Is it possible to have this cohesiveness if the primary goal of running the country is to achieve GDP growth and not care for people?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Panic over impending Japanese nuclear meltdown...

FURTHER UPDATE: I found the wikipedia writeup on the incident quite useful - highly factual, and essentially captures all that has happened [Wiki link]

UPDATE: I'm surre there is still great anxiety among the public on the risk of radiation leakage and meltdown at the Japanese reactors. I want to thank the person who posted this excellent step by step explanation of how things will unfold at the reactor. Right now the Japanese are pumping saltwater mixed with boron into the reactor. The boron slows the nuclear reaction and causes the reactors to cool faster - this should work according to the MIT professor but will permanent damage the reactors. Even if this fails completely, the worse case scenario is a systematic cleanup:

Right now there is small radiation leakage because they use salt water instead of pure water which has a tendency to absorb some of the radioactive material. They also have to reduce pressure in the reactor by opening values to and that also leads to limited amount of radioactive material to go to the atmosphere. These amounts are small since they evacuated a large area around the nuclear plants..

We are seeing panic due to a lot of misinformation and the media playing up the situation. Foreign govt precautionary moves such as UK & China wanting to evacuate their citizens from Tokyo is causing panic.

Based on another expert's view roughly 24 hours from this afternoon we will know exactly what is going to happen - success, failure or calamity. I guess in the mean time there is just no way to get people to calm down as it is difficult to get them to gather correct information and think through the situation in a calm manner. When people just read headlines such as this one that just appeared : More nuclear reactors show signs of trouble it can be really scary but actually the Japanese govt was just reporting that 2 other reactors have slightly higher temperatures - the trouble, if any, is small and contained.

Right now there is a panic going on among people and financial markets surrounding the nuclear plants in Japan. Expats are reported fleeing Tokyo and foreign govts have issued warnings about the dangers of radiation for citizens located in Japan. The 24 hour news media reported several blasts and a fire at 3 nuclear plants. The Japanese stock market (Nikkei) plunged by 14% setting off a full blown financial panic in Asia. This is an exercise in cool heads and ability to analyse information in a situation where there is panic, confusion and all out fear.

Nobody actually knows what is going on in those nuclear reactors because they cannot get close enough to take measurements. The official information released talk of a "possible meltdown" adding to the panic.

While there is a possiblity of catastrophy and calamity, human emotion has mingled together with sketchy facts and precautionary assumptions to react as if the worse case scenario which has a finite probabilityof occuring is the primary outcome. The worse case scenario goes something like this - meltdown of the reactor, failure of 2 layers of containment and leakage of radioactive material into environment. Some people are saying the containment vessels might have been damaged by the quake.

Yesterday I watched an expert trying to explain to a reporter the technicalities of these nuclear reactors. The reporter eager to pump up the excitiement surround their failures seemed to ignore what the expert from a university tried to say - the containment vessels are built with safety margins far in excess of what was necessary to withstand the Friday quake. Even if there is a meltdown, radiation would leak but nothing like the Russian Chernobyl disaster would occur. But cleaning up would be extremely messy.

Breaking Headlines such as this one add to the panicL

It is a warning by the Japanese govt that the area surround the plants have dangerous level of radiation after the explosion. You think about it - one would expect radiation at the nuclear plant compound to be quite high after explosion - the explosion releases some of the radioactive gases collected in the reactors.

The final mess assuming that everything fails and nuclear material leaks out of the containment vessels melthing through the surface probably will be quite serious to the environmental. However, the place has been evacuated and an eventual cleanup probably cost several billion dollars.

Compare the damage to the reaction of the financial markets. The Japanese market lost 14% of value - that is equivalent to US$400B and you include losses in regional bourses it will total about US$500B or half a trillion dollars. ....and these losses occurred even before anyone knows what is actually happening in those nuclear reactors. - the explosion seem to have set off the panic. Quite incredible....I would say how panic can set in and spread....

Here a minister tries to explain to the public that people outside the 30Km should stay calm but to no avail:

Foreign investors have flee the Japanese stock market causing a total drop over 1.5 days of 20%. In the Kobe earthquake the Japanese market fell about 21% but that fall took more than 3 months. In the 1st 2 days of the Kobe earthquake, the fall was about 5-6%.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

SM Goh : Singaporeans are too dependent on govt...

I've down with the flu for the past few weeks. Went to see the doctor 3 times, had an X-ray of my chest taken and still coughing profusely. The medicine the doctor gave me makes me sleep all day. I think the strategy is to force me to rest so that my body can recover but it has affected by ability to think and work. This flu has been circulating in my office and I heard from the doctor it has been going around and many people take more than a month to recover from this strain.

"SM Goh said one worrying trend is that Singaporeans are becoming too dependent on the government, and more needs to be done to make Singaporeans more self reliant.

He quoted an example of how Singaporeans reacted strongly to the Orchard Road floods that happened last year, saying that Singaporeans should not complain too much but instead learn from the Japanese tsunami incident, and approach situations calmly."

- Straits Times Report (see below)

I've been following the news very closely about the calamity in Japan. It is a human tragedy of overwhelming magnitude. I don't understand why SM Goh said that the Japanese people reacted to this event "calmly" when we can see the panic, fear and sadness of the Japanese people on TV. The Japanese govt is the most prepared in the world when it comes to earthquake and tsunamis given Japan's history of such natural disasters. Within hours, they had 100,000 troops on the ground for rescue missions. Unfortunately, despite the preparations, nature unleashed a force so great that the death and human suffering cannot be avoided.
Using this tragic event to chide Singaporeans for being "dependent on govt" is inappropriate and insensitive. On normal days when their lights go out or their telephone system is not working, I'm sure the Japanese will complain as much as a Singaporean. As for the Orchard Road, floods SM Goh said SIngaporeans reacted "strongly" - strongly is a subjective word, there were no protests on the streets, nobody hackled the minister in charge, etc. The floods affected people's llivelihoods and destroyed property. Singaporeans only reacted because the PAP govt said nothing can be done about the floods. Many who spoke up were not doing so for themselves but out of concern for the other Singaporeans who suffered losses from these floods. He rather have Singaporeans "not care" and remain silent while their fellow Singaporeans suffer from the floods?
As for Singaporeans, "being dependent" on govt. I think it is quite an absurd remark. He should be happy that Singaporeans think they need the PAP govt because an increasing number rather have this govt kicked out or reduced in power so that change can come Singapore and their quality of life which has been declining for more than a decade can improve. Singaporeans shoulder the heaviest financial burden when they get sick relative to govt expediture compared to all other developed nations. Singaporeans are more responsible than people of other developed countries for their own retirement given the lack of a govt pension scheme and safety nets when they become old - in fact many Singaporeans continue to work at an advanced age because they cannot afford to retire. Singaporean workers have the least protection among all workers in developed countries - they are easily retrenched, replaced by foreigners, get the least retrenchment benefits and the labor laws favor employers over employees. The Japanese have unemployment benefits, universal healthcare, minimum wages and pension for the aged. Where else in the world compared with Singapore does a govt amass so much resources in terms of reserves out the people and take so little responsibility when the people get sick , old or unemployed? Where in the world can you find a govt that increases its own pay by 30% and gives out 8 months of bonus to itself when the median income of the ordinary people grew by only 0.3% in real terms....and the poor in this country have to cut down the number of meals per day to 2 and live on porridge due to food inflation.
I may be sick with flu but SM Goh's ridiculous and insensitive remarks just make me angry enough to overcome my drowsiness to write this post.

SM Goh: Singaporean opinions matter[Link]

SENIOR Minister Goh Chok Tong said the government welcomes all feedback from Singaporeans, including opinions on controversial issues such as immigration.

SM Goh was speaking to some 200 REACH contributors at a forum held at the Marine Parade Community Club on Saturday.

SM Goh said one worrying trend is that Singaporeans are becoming too dependent on the government, and more needs to be done to make Singaporeans more self reliant.

He quoted an example of how Singaporeans reacted strongly to the Orchard Road floods that happened last year, saying that Singaporeans should not complain too much but instead learn from the Japanese tsunami incident, and approach situations calmly.

Other topics discussed include providing affordable housing for the elderly, foreign competition in Singapore and whether the two casinos would create more social problems.

The reach forum is an annual event for citizens to air their views and give suggestions on government policies and national issues. For more, watch RazorTV.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

How the Poor cope with rising food prices in Singapore

I have been down with a flu that took a turn for the worse last Friday. Started recovering only yesterday. I think I caught the epidemic flu strain on the public transport system. You better be careful when you're on the MRT and buses because this strain appear to be highly infectious. My cough was so bad, I was sent for chest X-rays. I was given a heavy dose of steriods to get rid of the inflammation.

Mar 7, 2011
How Singaporeans fight food price hike[Link]
By Rachel Scully, Multimedia Journalist

IT'S been years since they last ate at a restaurant, and special occasions are celebrated at a hawker centre close to their home.

33-year-old Merry Sumeily is a mother of two who lives in a 4-room flat in Ang Mo Kio. Her husband is the sole breadwinner and brings home an average of $1,500 per month. Of that, about $350 to $400 is spent on groceries and food items.

To combat the recent price hikes, Merry and her family have two dishes, instead of three for dinner. And to save more money, they have switched from rice to porridge for dinner since December last year. Merry also happens to be a benefactor of the 'Talking Dollars and Sense' workshop organised by the People's Association.

Chief trainer, Tess Lim started this programme nearly seven years ago in April 2004 to educate lower-income families on budgeting. She has since helped over 2,000 families and taught them ways to manage their finances, including reducing their grocery bill.

Be it a twenty-cents increase in the price of a piece of fruit, or a two-dollar increase for a bottle of cooking oil, Tess offers reassurance that rising food prices have yet to severely change consumption behaviour among the families she's helped.

So how has rising food prices affected Singaporeans? RazorTV brings you stories straight from the heartlands on this week's Point Blank, as well as tips on how you can stretch your dollar.

The above story appeared in RazorTV. You can see the family on video by clicking on the link then going to part 2 of the video. The family survives on an income of $1500. When your household income is so low, a large part of it is spent on food. That is why many (may be all other) countries with GST exempt raw food and medical services from GST.

"The GST would replace the existing taxes on sales and services and would not put pressure on prices, he said, adding that to ease the burden on consumers, staple foods such as rice, sugar, cooking oil and flour will be exempted" - Malaysia Plan 4% GST in 2011[Link]

It was a simple move that would have made food and medical services cheaper for the poor but the PAP govt refused to do it when they implemented GST claiming that it was too "complex". Yes, we know doing simple things to help the poor is often too "complex" for this govt.

For poor families in Singapore, whose incomes have been relatively stagnant in real terms for more than a decade, rising food prices mean less and poorer quality of food for the family. For many, if not all developed countries, the solution is very simple. It comes in the form of food stamps that the poor can use for eggs. milk & staples to ensure poor nutrition never happens due to poverty. Here in Singapore, the govt takes a different approach.

Remember in 2007 when oil prices rocketed (higher than what it is today), our utilities rate hit the roof and many poor families ran up arrears as they could not afford the electricity in Singapore. In other developed countries, the govt helps such families by either providing electricity at a cheaper rate under various low income schemes or money to offset the rising rates. The poor people are seen as "innocent victims" of inflation and no means or option to cope with it. In Singapore, the govt installed PAYU systems in the homes of poor families so they cannot electricity unless they have money in their cash card that they have to insert into PAYU [Link]. The system helps to solve Singapore Power's problem with arrears collection[Link]. The govt and its propaganda machine euphemistically portrayed PAYU as system that helps the poor not to "overuse" electricity.

"At the same time, the PAYU scheme has provided these families the flexibility to settle their arrears over time and to budget their utility expenditure." - Minister Lim Hng Kiang[Link]

When poor folks cannot afford to pay for the electricity bills, the govt does not see our high electricity tariffs [2nd highest in the world] as the problem but see the way the poor budget their expenditure as the problem - that is why it conducts so many "Talking Dollars and Sense" workshop of the poor instead of giving them more direct aid. When the cost of living goes up, our govt solution is for the poor to use less electricity and water, eat less food and stay within budget.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

2 S-chips suspended for accounting irregularities...

I made a routine call my stock broker on Monday just to catch up on various events on the market. She told me she was busy in the morning handling distraught clients who lost money due to 2 S-chips getting suspended over the weekend for accounting irregularities. There is nothing unusual about S-chips going bankrupt overnight or their CEOs running off and cannot be found and so on. What rocked the market was it happened to 2 companies at the same time . For those of you not familiar with the stock market, S-chips are mainland Chinese companies listed in Singapore. I wrote about them a few times (S-Chips : From Red Hot Chips to Rotten Chips.... , Confession of an S-chip CEO. ). The 2 companies that were suspended were China Hongxing and Hongwei.

The authorities have not done much about the situation. 2 years ago when these companies started failing one by one, SM Goh made this remark:

"If they allow a small percentage of these companies to defraud investors, that's going to spoil the reputation of other Chinese companies, good companies, listed in Singapore. If we tighten (regulations) too much, we can lose some of these companies from being listed every year" - MAS Chairman, SM Goh Chok Tong, Friday March 27 [Link]

A few years back, many companies in China wanted to get listed in China. The Chinese authorities wanted to prioritise these listings by letting the bigger state oowned companies get listed first on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchange i.e. the top quality companies got listed in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Smaller companies had to wait their turn. Singapore wanting a piece of the IPO action decided to entice these smaller companies to list in Singapore. The listing regulation was loosened up as what SM Goh said, if the regulations were tight, these companies wouldn't come here. So if you're the head of a Chinese company with dubious accounts where would you go? Singapore, Shanghai or Hong Kong? ..The answer is obvious but it is more obvious when you consider the fact that Singapore has no means to prosecute the wrong doers without the help of China. In a few cases, the CEOs have simply disappeared. I recall only one case of prosecution - that of Chen Jiulin for the accounting iregularities in China Aviation Oil(CAO). That case was a rare exception because a state owned enterprise was involved and the Chinese leaders probably didn't want to appear to be haboring fraudsters.

SM Goh spoke of a "small percentage" of companies defrauding investors. The number has since grown and we are no longer talking about a small %. From Wikipedia[S-chip Scandals]:

Fibrechem Technologies Limited (SGX: F12) (Bermuda)
FerroChina Ltd. (SGX: F33) (Bermuda)
China Printing & Dyeing Holding Limited (SGX: M67) (Singapore)
Zhongguo Jilong Limited (SGX: Z03)
Zhonghui Holdings Ltd. (SGX: Z04) (Singapore)
Sino-Environment Technology Group Ltd. (SGX: Y62) (Singapore)
China Hongxing Sports Limited (SGX: BR9) (Bermuda)
Oriental Century (SGX: 5II) (Singapore)
China EnerSave (SGX: 531) (Singapore)
China Sun Bio-Chem (SGX: C86) (Cayman Islands)
China Aviation Oil (SGX: C47) (Singapore)
China Fibretech Ltd. (SGX: F6D) (Bermuda)
Sino Techfibre (SGX: AD8) (Bermuda)

The number of Singaporeans hurt by S-chip fraud is not small. In a statement yesterday, SIAS reported that there were 14,000 shareholders[link], I believe mostly Singaporeans, with stakes in China Hongxing and Hongwei.

"Valuations have eased to a more attractive
level, following the recent market sell-down and with net
cash of some 20 Scts per share backing the stock, we
upgrade China Hongxing to a BUY, with a target price of
S$1, based on 20x FY09 earnings" - Analyst Report on China Hongxing[

Right now I know some of you may be thinking that the losses of these investors are part and parcel of stock investing so they only have themselves to blame. I suggest you think a little more about this. Didn't our regulators open the doors to allow this to happen? Our SGX is itself a profit-oriented company, various IPO managers and brokerage stand to gain in the form or fees and commissions benefited from this and ordinary Singaporean investors are the ones who lost their hard earned money in these companies. Is its right for govt to have a system so lax that foreign companies can defraud ordinary investors and do nothing about it as long as a select group of businesses benefit from the scheme of things?

Tens of thousands of Singaporeans have been hurt by these scandals. Yet the authorities have not done anything to prevent these scandals from happening board of inquiry,, no investigation, no lessons learnt, no shouldering of responsibility for this mess. Some of you have a resigned acceptance of this "you die, your business" govt.....I don't and I'm angry they are doing nothing about this and so many Singaporeans have been and will be hurt by all this.

PAP MP : Cutting GST does not help the poor....

You know how far down the standard of debate has fallen when an MP stands up and argues that cutting the GST does not help the poor. GST is a regressive tax that penalises the poor the most because they spend most of their income. If you're Wee Cho Yaw or Peter Lim you spend maybe 2% of your income and invest the rest, so you pay 0.0014% of your income in GST. Why was GST implemented? Before our income gap ballooned to what it is today, the PAP govt openly admitted that the purpose of GST is to cut corporate tax and the income tax of high income earners. This is seen from the 2003 budget statement by the then Finance Minister Lee Hsien Loong:

"4.3 From YA 2003, I have decided to cut the corporate income tax rate from 24.5% to 22%. This 10% reduction will save businesses $700 million a year.

4.4 Also with effect from YA 2003, the top marginal personal income tax rate will be cut from 26% to 22%, with corresponding cuts in all income bands. This will reduce the tax payable by most taxpayers by 13% to 16%, saving them $620 million every year.

4.5 I have decided to raise the GST rate from 3% to 5% from 1 Jan 2003. The increase in GST is expected to raise an additional $1.3 billion of tax revenue per year."

If you total up loss of revenue from the corporate tax cuts and the tax cuts for highest income earnings, it is equal to the amount gained from the increase GST. This means that the poor who did not pay income tax had to fund the cuts for the rich through GST increases. In 2007, many Singaporeans became concerned about the income gap and the poor among us, the govt used this as the reason for GST hike ("gst hike to help the poor"). As they do this, they slashed corporate taxes again by 2%, that alone would take away more than half the amount raised by the increase
in before any help got to the poor more than half the GST hike went to fund corporate tax cuts[Link]. To date we have not seen govt figures of how much help eventually got to the poor - according to Leong Sze Hian ..not much[Link].

What I'm very sure of is our poor are worse off today than they were before the 2007 GST hike. The combination of rising cost of living and stagnant wages means much more needs to be done. If you look at the escalation in the cost of medical care, housing, transport, utilities and food, they simply overwhelm the meager help from the govt. We are all frustrated with govt dithering, bogus intentions and dubious arguments - Tharman actually came up with numbers to show the govt helped the "generous subsidies"[Link]. The true measure of whether the poor are really getting sufficient help is their quality of life...has it improved in the past 4 years? Find me a person who dares to say "yes" and I'll show you he's a liar!