Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Affordable Medical Care in Singapore....

Lots of talk now in parliament of wanting to build an inclusive society, upgrading the bus system, and more help for the old and poor. Last Saturday, The New Paper reported that there will be more help for the poor and carried a story about how a poor family - father, mother and  5 kids - living on an income of $1200 is coping. The mother had a liver operation more than 10 years ago. Not wanting to add to the family's financial burden, the mother has not seen a doctor for the past 10 years even when she got sick:

"The last time I went to see a doctor 10 years ago he said that there were some levels in my liver which were very high.....I hope health care will be cheaper, so I can find out what is wrong with me.
Right now, the thought of hospitals and clinics scares me. I don't know who can help me." -   Tan Miu Muay  (below)[Full Story here]

According to The New Paper report, help for her comes in the form of  "a new GST voucher scheme, a permanent system of offsets to help lower-income Singaporean households". I looked around and found out what this voucher scheme is. You can read about it for yourself here : [Link]. There are 2 forms of GST vouchers - Medisave and U-Save Ms Tan's family qualify for the U-Save vouchers but not the Medisave vouchers as these will  be given to old folks. Her family will get $240 worth of U-Save every year. That works out to be $34 per person in her family per year. or $2.80 per person per month.

Mdm Tan has not seen a doctor for 10 years because she cannot afford it. The govt gives each member of her family $2.80 a month and proudly proclaim this budget to be an inclusive budget. A large part of what the govt is giving to her family was taken away from them in the first place when GST was implemented. Remember the GST hikes were actually implemented to cut corporate taxes and taxes of the highest income earners in our society. When GST was implemented in 1994, the corporate tax and the top marginal income tax were cut by 3%. Poor families like that of Mdm Tan previously did not pay any taxes now have to pay GST to fund the tax cuts for the richest members of our society. The GST paid by the family can be as high as $84 (7% of $1200) and the govt shows its generosity by giving them $20 back per month - this is what the govt means when it says GST is implemented to help the poor, it takes their money first then help them by giving back a small fraction of the amount that was taken.

It was revealed in parliament recently that::

"Last year, there were 136,000 bills outstanding for two months or more, translating to S$48 million in arrears.


......some hospitals may refer the case to an authorised debt collection agency to collect the arrears on their behalf. "[Link]


That is a lot of unpaid medical bills. When bills go unpaid, hospital hire debt collection agencies  to go after the debtors. 


It is not hard to predict what is going to happen in the coming years unless our healthcare system is revamped. The rise in medical cost has outstripped median income growth and low income families cannot even hope to keep up with the pace of increase. Our current system has left many people uninsured or under-insured falling through the cracks. Many Singapore families are just one serious illness away from financial catastrophe. There are important lessons to be learnt from the American healthcare reforms that took place shortly after Obama took office. The 1st lesson is if you wait for to long to do something, you face the risk of the problem becoming intractable. You will be left with only bad options. Singapore has all the elements that result in the healthcare crisis in America - we have a large income gap, we have no single payer system, we allow a large part of our medical service industry to be privatized to serve rich medical tourists for profits,...we allow private-for-profit insurance companies  to supply insurance and we have a large segment of the population without any insurance coverage. We need to put in place universal healthcare to ensure everyone is covered and nobody has to worry about about going to see a doctor when they are sick. We have to contain our aspiration of being a medical hub for the rich when our hospitals are understaffed and overcrowded as resources flow to the private sector to seek profits offering services to rich foreigners. We need a healthcare system that does not further amplify the deleterious effects of the income gap - the rich today have luxury wards in Novena Hospital while the poor don't even dare to go to see a doctor when they are sick. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Threats of Defamation Lawsuits : Not a way to win over netizens....

You ever wonder...... why President Obama can run a country with 311 million citizens without ever   threatening to sue someone for what they say and leaders of a small island have to waste their time doing this through their lawyers? There are not enough problems around to keep them busy? Leaders suing ordinary citizens for saying something in public or on the Internet does not happen in any other developed country except one. I thought they were trying to win over the younger generation - the Internet savvy Singaporeans who spend their time on Facebook, discussion groups, reading blogs, online papers etc. The Internet has transformed everything we do and how we think. We now assimilate and process information from multiple sources and exploit this information to make decisions. Because the Internet is open, free and unregulated, people using it have learned to filter, weigh, ignore, avoid and discount information....there is so much information and people have learned to cope with it. There is plenty said about Obama,  Merkel, Ma-Ying-Jeou and Noda on the Internet but they don't threaten to sue anyone.

Richard Wan identified himself as one of 6 editors of TREmeritus and was threatened with multiple lawsuits shortly after his identity is known. Well so much for encouraging people to identify themselves, Alex Au received a letter saying that allegations surrounding some public figures exist...he didn't even said say what the allegations were just that they exist . These threats of lawsuits are a waste of time because it spreads fear among people who have identified themselves and does nothing to control the source of the allegations - the forums, discussion groups. In fact following the report of these threats of lawsuits, I notice there is heightened interest among people in what the actual allegations are. These threats encourages people to post criticisms anonymously and drive legitimate voices underground, when you select some people to threaten for some  allegations unknown to most people, people do become fearful. This is a reminder of our authoritarian past and tendency of our leaders to suppress criticisms using various means. This sensitivity to allegations and criticism is strange and alien to the younger generation that have grown up with the Internet as an integral part of their life- ideas good and bad flow freely, quickly and unhindered.

The best way to deal with the way people and information is for govt to be transparent, accountable and give citizens access to as much information as possible so long as it does not compromise national security. Why can't we have a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) like they do in all developed countries that are democracies? Having access to full and accurate information will reduce the need for people to seek out alternative sources of information. Even when questions are asked in parliament, we see this reluctance to give full disclosure - we can trace the MP Vee's question on scholarship for foreigners ...he had to ask a few times and a few different ways to get the numbers. If this is a govt that is not doing things it has to hide, then allow the citizens full access to information and that is the best way to stop people from speculating and depending on less reliable sources of information.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Govt puts in $1.1B for SBS Transit to buy new buses....

I strongly believe that having a outstanding public transport system is essential. It is an effective way to elevate the quality of lives of many Singaporeans. A high quality public transport system will help to reduce the impact of the large income gap and reduce the demand for cars. I have written many times about our public transport system - the quality of service is not there and the privatization of bus and train services will limit what the govt can do to improve it. Private operators have to answer to shareholders and company decisions will be dominated by the need to make profits. When they build up a cash pile, they rather give it out as dividends than to upgrade their services. The current model means that operators are motivated to just meet the minimum service quality requirements of the PTC (Public Transport Council) to avoid fines and maximize profits for shareholders.

I truly appreciate the efforts of our current transport minister, Liu Tuck Yew, who used the public transport system personally to experience for himself the quality of service during the peak hours of operation. It is also refreshing that unlike other ministers in the past, he did not deny the problems faced by our public transport system using selective statistics to demonstrate that the system is "world class". Liu was on top of the situation when he quickly took charge when the SMRT trains broke down.

Given the services have already privatized, it was unclear to me how Liu would be able to improve the quality of service. The Workers Party suggested that the govt should undo the privatization - something really messy and costly in the short term as the govt would have to pay the shareholders and take over the entire operation.

Liu has decided to make a very bold and controversial move to sink in $1B for SBS Transit for the  purchase new buses. This move has sparked concerns among Singaporeans[Link] because the govt is giving money to a privatized profit oriented company and it is not clear if they will just end up helping the company to enhance its profits as the company can now save some of its own money that it would have had to spend to meet the minimum standards. The current model has left the govt with limited options and poor choices. That is the hazard and disadvantage of "privatizing" something that is "public". Now Liu has to try to "squeeze" as much as possible from SBS Transit and the last thing he wants is the the effects of move to show up on the company's bottom line but not in  quality of service. The bus company also has difficulty getting drivers...[Link] not just buses. The bus company will not be able to spend a billion of its own money on new buses because will not be able justify such a move to shareholders. The next step for Liu and the PTC is to push up the minimum service standard and get SBS Transit to play ball.

This whole episode shows the constraints and limitations the govt faces when it tries to upgrade a public transport system it now no longer controls. The system has been falling short as demand increases and we are still very far from a happy situation - short waiting time, enough empty seats and direct bus routes. These days I'm happy be able to squeeze up a bus. I very often have to stand on the stairs at the entrance - did it 5 times this week. During peak hours, our buses and MRT are not suitable for old folks and pregnant women. Unfortunately, in Singapore, the old folks have to work until they are at an advanced age and they often have to depend on the public transport system to take them to work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Morality in Reality - Secret lives of Singaporeans...

" I'm a member of parliament not a private investigator."
- Low Thia Khiang, when he was asked to take responsibility for Yaw's actions.
[Link]


Low worked with Yaw for 10 years and never suspected that he had such an exciting ECA. Before I tell you a few stories lets start with some numbers. The New Paper on Sunday reported that 20% of Singapore women cheat on their husbands based on a survey done recently. For husbands the number is likely to be worse - you can take the 20% and double or triple it. The number of illegal hookers arrested in 2010 was 7000 and the number that are not caught is likely to be 10 to 20 times this number...you take 7000 multiply by 10 and say, each one has 10 customers, you get a very big number...think about it.

I was looking around to check if any other Singapore blogger discussed this issue and saw things the same way I saw it. I found one. A dentist called Dr. Chan and he wrote about what one group of married men he met did when they were away from home [Preachers, Teachers and School Principals]:

"Let’s backtrack to the time when I was climbing Kinabalu with a friend of mine. We met a group of Singaporean men. They were all married men and they met one another in Shenzhen when their companies sent them there. After their return to Singapore, they found that they missed each other so much that they decided to hold regular gathering. Climbing a mountain seemed healthy enough. But while chatting with them over dinner, the men revealed an interesting (but not startling) fact. They all had frequent sex trysts while working at Shenzhen.

I’ll save the lurid details for people who buy me drinks, but just for my readers, the guys had a whale of a time playing as hard as they worked in China’s economic capital.


These guys were not your regular Hokkien pengs or Ah Bengs. Far from that. They were highly educated people holding MBAs and other impressive degrees that will make them ministerial material. If the identities of these men were revealed and published in our mainstream media, it’s sure to cause an uproar" - Dr. Chan.


When I was in secondary school, I was the 1st batch of students to be taught "Moral Education". My teacher was in his sixties and near retirement. He took out the textbook on the first lesson and said, "According to the textbook, I'm suppose  to teach what is right and what is wrong ..and you guys are suppose to go off and  remember to do what is right. Hmm...this is not going to work".  Actually most people already know what is morally good and what is morally bad so you don't have to tell them what is right and wrong - even a 6 yr old will know that lying, stealing, cheating, is not right. People know the rules - the 10 commandments have been around for more than 2000 years - but following the rules is another matter. Most people won't do something if the retribution is immediate or there is a high chance of being caught later. Most people will also avoid doing something that hurt someone else directly. According to my moral education teacher who tossed the textbook aside after the first lesson and taught the lesson using the wisdom of his own experience, most men are ruined by 3 things - women (lust), alcohol (or drugs) and gambling. Among the 3, he found gambling the most devastating.  Most men who are hook on women (sex) are able to give up when they get old and find this activity too strenuous or  when they are financially strained. It is the gamblers who will get into big trouble because they can't stop even they are broke - they will borrow to feed the habit. Drinkers or drunks usually run into health problems and mostly hurt themselves. Drugs addicts are rare due to effective law enforcement so we don't get many that fall into this trap but those who do often destroy their lives..it is probably as bad or worse for the individual but gambling causes more destruction for society because of the large number people involved.

The key to helping people avoid destroying their lives is not to just telling them what is right or wrong ..moral or immoral because most people already know that but how to handle the temptation and how they can help themselves if they get into trouble. It is pointless to tell a gambler that gambling is bad and he should stop, he already knows. He needs to be able to handle the temptation and treat this problem as an addiction. Similarly those who womanize need to cope with the temptation - I'm sure Jack Neo, Yaw, the ex-CNB chief, ex-SCDF chief, civil servants and the ex-school principal all know what is morally correct but they couldn't stop themselves. Nowhere in our education system and perhaps nobody teaches us how to resist the temptation. In fact the movies, the TV shows, magazines tells us to do otherwise ...admire James Bond when it comes to women....not to resist the temptation but to enjoy the conquest. Yet we are shocked, when sex scandals occur. You shouldn't be because the reality is it is that this bad behavior is far more common than what many people think. A lot of it is hidden like what Low Thia Kiang said - he worked next to Yaw for 10 years and knew nothing about the allegations.

When I was serving my NS decades ago, I was posted to a department where there were a number of civilians, yes, civil servants. One day the department organised a night tour of Singapore. Because the department head whom every one loathed was not going, the organizers decided make it more fun by adding a visit to the red light area at Petain Road - the other places we went were the Central Police Station, the fish market etc. As an innocent 19 year old kid, the tour of Petain Road was an eye-opener. It was my first time going to a place like this and the light, smell, women ...it was overwhelming. We were suppose to just walk around the red light district ...amuse ourselves then get back onto the tour bus and head for fish market. But that was not what happened. As soon as we got off at Petain Road, one of my fellow NS men headed for one of the rooms procured the services of a hooker. Half an hour later, he got back on the bus and had this smile on his face....the civil servants go up the bus and asked him about his experience..the professional skill of the... ...I'll spare you the details but none of them showed any hint of disapproval. This NS man had been sitting next to me every single working day for 8 months and often spoke to me and I had no idea he had this past-time/ECA. Over time, I learned that civil servants are not angels, they are probably the morally same as a snapshot of people you meet if you went to a food court in Singapore or those Singaporeans who went to Suzhou. They are however afraid of being reported to be seen at Geylang or one of the local red light districts. That is why Bangkok is a favorite holiday destination for some of them. The recent scandal involving civil servants using the service of an online vice ring that was busted caused quite a stir. However, if you think about it, they are more unlucky than they are unusually immoral.

While the public is quick to judge and moralize, harsh actions will only suppress bad behavior in the short term. We can't eliminate the temptation unless we treat vice like drug activities and use sledgehammer against the illegal vice rings by raiding them every week. However, if you do that, you're just sending more men to Batam and Bangkok We have to be realistic about values and morals of a society exposed to the Internet, TV,  Hollywood movies and a capitalistic system that often puts money above everything else and encourage people to be materialistic and perpetually tempt people to seek pleasure and instant gratification. It is not entirely the fault of sinners that they sin. You cannot build casinos and expect people not to go there to gamble and some people to become badly addicted. You cannot allow tens of thousands of women to come here on social visit pass and expect our men not to be tempted .The practical approach is to contain rather than try to eliminate. We should also be careful not to over-punish those who have fallen short when such failings are a natural outcome of a system and environment we have created.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Oh, Sim Ann, what are you trying to say?

NCMP Yee Jenn Jong from the WP asked in parliament how many scholarships were given to foreigners and how these scholarship holders are tracked to ensure that they fulfil their obligation. He also asked if the quality of foreign scholars has fallen given countries like India and China are more affluent today and can choose to study elsewhere.

Here's a part of a report on answer from Sim Ann who is the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education:

"She offered an indicator of how well foreign scholarship
holders perform:
Around 45 per cent complete their undergraduate studies with a
second-upper class honours or better; only 32 per cent of Singaporeans do as
well.
" - Straits Times, "
Foreign scholars closely tracked", 18 Feb 2011.[Link]


She was trying to say the foreign scholars we attract are of some quality in her answer to MP Yee - actually not too reassuring since 55% of foreign scholars get 2nd lower or worse . Actually there are better ways to answer Vee's question. Since he was asking about whether foreign scholars fulfil their obligation to work locally, all she needs to do is give us numbers to show that most of them do stay in Singapore to work after they graduate. If she can't give the numbers, it shows that the govt doesn't bother to track these scholars. In terms of scholastic performance, all she needed to do is show us the GPA of these students in the past few years to show there is no fall in standard and what GPA is required for them to retain their scholarship.

However, she chose to use statistics that show that foreigners are better than Singaporeans to answer the question. Maybe she is not aware of the sensitivities that exists among ordinary Singaporeans or the deep unhappiness over using tax payers money to fund the education of foreigners or the persistent suspicion that our elites have this elitist belief that their grand vision is held back by the untalented ordinary Singaporeans whom they don't appreciate.

What is she trying to say? Having foreign scholars is okay so long as SIngaporeans do worse than these scholars? It is a good thing Singaporeans cannot compete? Surely, a foreign scholar with an all expenses paid scholarship, competing against Singaporeans who sometimes have to take up part-time jobs like giving tuition[Like this feller] to make ends meet has an advantage and the difference in outcome merely reflects the unlevel playing field the PAP govt created. What about the NS men who had to run around in the field for 2 years before they restart their rusty academic engines - surely this looks very unfair to them.  Even if they are really better, Singaporeans are suppose to thank the govt for making their lives more difficult by this artificially induced competition?  What does this say about our education system at the primary, secondary, JC level? We put our children through such a tough education system with a complex chessboard style streaming system and the much celebrated "Singapore maths" only to have them lose to the competition at the tertiary level?

There are various interpretations of what Sim Ann is trying to say....and most of them are negative and running down Singaporeans wasn't even necessary to answer MP Yee's question....it doesn't even answer Yee's question since the foreign scholars are not affected by NS which takes half the Singaporeans away from their studies then put them back after a 2 year break. This is a lesson on how not to answer a question. The answer comes with a lot of emotional baggage, shows the bias in govt  for these foreign scholars and deepens the resentment for what the PAP govt is doing.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Budget Tweaks : Small fixes for big problems....

UPDATE: A number of readers have correctly pointed out that the curbs on foreign workers and wage subsidy will have a positive impact. The question is how big this impact is. To put things in perspective, there are 350,000 older workers who will qualify for the wage subsidy, If you net off the increase employer contribution, companies will get roughly an extra $1000 per worker per year.for each aged worker they hire. This translate to roughly $80 subsidy per month per worker. This is no silver bullet but we should appreciate the small step in the right direction. However, given the severity of structural unemployment we are seeing these days, these small steps are a long way from solving this problem.

This blog was started in 2005 to explain and  highlight the key problems in our society. After 7 years, this blog is still up and I'm still writing...you know why? The same problems that I wrote about 7 years ago did not disappear and actually got bigger as time passes. I wrote about the problems with public transport 7 years ago and the problems persisted until the trans broke down late last year. I wrote about the negative impact of the high cost of housing 7 years ago and property prices have more than doubled since. I wrote about the inadequacy of CPF for retirement, the rising inequality, the falling worker productivity, rising medical costs and the impact of the huge foreign influx years ago.....you know what?.After looking at the 2012 Budget and the PAP approach to solving these problems, I think I will still be writing about how things are getting worse in 2020.

Despite all this talk about building a "fair and inclusive" society, what the PAP govt is trying to do is obvious - they are preserving as much of the current system as possible and fixing the most obvious severe symptoms and hope that Singaporeans will accept the system. When they talk about a "fair and inclusive" society, they are not talking about changing the 3rd world wage structure, we have today but offering selective assistance to the lowest wage earnings. Its about tackling the symptoms not fixing the root of the problem.  Recent statistics show that wage growth for the top 20% income bracket has again risen much faster than the bottom 20% in 2011..and the trend of rising income gap continues.

The mainstream media cheered the move by PAP govt to increase CPF contribution of  older workers and their employers as a major step to "flatten the wage scales and improve the employment of older workers"[Link]. If you read the reports, you get the impression that this is a bold new move by the govt to improve the employment situation for older workers. Tharman warns that the govt "cannot make this major move in one step".  So we all get this impression that the govt is doing something brave and new.......


So older workers are big winners? Really?

Actually the PAP govt lowered the CPF contribution rate in 2003 arguing that:


"Why is there a need for lower contribution rates for older workers aged 50-55?

Older workers are at greater risk of losing their jobs. One reason for this is that our seniority-based wage structure results in older workers being paid more than younger workers. The wage differential is sometimes larger than the productivity differential, leading to companies retrenching older workers first when their business comes under pressure." - CPF Board FAQ [Link]
.
So the govt cut older workers' CPF contribution in 2003 to improve their employment and now it wants to raise the contribution also to improve their employment. So its a 2-step backwards, 1-step forwards "cha-cha" dance with a little bit of twist. When they cut CPF contribution they cut only the employers' contribution for workers turning 50 but when they increase the contribution, they raise both the employer and employee contribution - now older workers will have less disposable income. When they cut your employers' CPF contribution they are helping you and you're a winner...when they increase  the CPF contribution, they are also helping you and you're again a winner. You can't lose with this type of govt!

So the major move in a budget that sets out to build a an inclusive society and a stronger Singapore is one that merely restores what was already there in 2003. You call this progress? As for the other little tweaks in the budgets, they only look good only through the colored lens of the mainstream media.  Medishield premiums have been increase to pass more financial burden of higher medical cost to all of us. Curbs on foreign workers like higher levies to tighten the inflows are a mere patch on a problem that has already grown so large I'm not sure were can even solve it given the economy is now so dependent and addicted to the foreign inflow.

The steps taken are not even going to make a slight dent on big problems our society faces. 7 years from now I will still be writing about how the problems have worsened .....along the way, more people are going to give up on the PAP if they have not already done so.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

WP ups the ante with Yaw's sacking....

When TRE had the first scoop on Yaw's alleged affairs, I was wondering how it would be handled by the WP. While the Internet has increased its reach, it wasn't very clear that rumors will die off or keep circulating. The people involved kept silent so there was little to feed the rumor mill and tabloids to keep the momentum on the story going. However, the tabloids were persistent in their reporting and reported another alleged affair involving Yaw after some investigation. This left the WP will little choice. They had campaigned for more transparent govt and accountability in last year's GE. There was immense public interest involved and keeping silent risk the WP being accused of having double standards and its reputation would have been badly damaged.

From time to time, I've had rumors about the private lives surrounding various politicians and public figures  sent to me. I really don't bother about them because I believe that they have little to do with performance in public service....also you can' t really tell what is true unless some witness or physical evidence turn up. Even if it is true what has it got to do with performance? Some people have suggested that public figures are  role models and should conduct themselves properly. Ideally this is the case but the politicians are not saying what they are doing in private is morally correct or promoting any kind of bad behavior. While these rumors don't completely die off, most of the time they fall into the background and have very little impact. 

The question is does the media treat all rumors the same regardless of which party is involved? Reporting it will put the party leadership in a very tight spot and force the hand of the party leadership. It is unknown why the media chose to report and investigate the allegations surrounding Yaw but leave equally serious allegations that involve other public figures alone.

WP has made a clear statement that it will not betray its promise to deliver greater accountability and transparency and will never put the interests of its members above public interest. It is unclear how other political parties will act if the media were to go after their members. While political opponents will try to exploit the current situation to attack the WP, let us not forget that the media has never put them in the same situation and forced the hand of the party leaders. WP has raised the bar by acting decisively against Yaw who refused to come clean, Having said that, let not forget that Yaw has contributed to democracy in Singapore since his university days. We may not condone his conduct and mis-steps but lets not forget he is human and has been made to undergo plenty of humiliation in recent days.  

An incredible basketball story.....

Sports instead of politics for a change.

One of the most inspirational sports story I've ever heard is unfolding right now. An overlooked basketball  player who took the most unlikely path to an unfacied NBA team because nobody else wanted him is making waves in the NBA. He went to college without a sports scholarship and was undrafted when he left college in 2010. His physique is unimpressive - he is shorter and less athletic than the average players. He graduated from Harvard and the previous Harvard player to make it to NBA was 60 yrs ago when the playing standard was much lower- if you want to play basket ball professionally, you wouldn't go to Harvard.  The first team that signed him, the Warriors, put him on the inactive list and waived him to another team, the Knicks,  that wanted him as a backup player. They were 2 weeks away from releasing him when he was brought off the bench because the team was losing badly and became shorthanded due to injury. In the next 3 games, he broke the previous NBA record  for the  highest 3 game point total for a starter since the 1976 NBA and ABA merger. In his fourth game, he outscored basketball superstar Kobe Bryant. In his fifth game against the Raptors Tuesday night he smashed Shaquille O’Neal;s record for the most points scored in the first five starts of a career (136 vs 129).

This player's name is Jeremy Lin....and by the way, he is an American-Chinese

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Understanding morality....and avoiding hypocrisy...

UPDATE :  Workers Party has sacked Yaw Shin Leong. You can deduce from the statement released by WP what their concerns are:


"WP believes strongly in transparency and accountability, and expects no less from our party members, especially our Members of Parliament."


By continuing not to account to the Party and the people,...." - Sylvia Lim


By failing to come clean and apologize, Yaw puts his party at risk as the WP had campaign for a 1st World parliament, govt transparency and accountability.  Some of you pointed out his alleged misconduct was more serious because they involved married women with families.  In times like that people think in terms of black and white ...absolute good or evil. WP' acknowledged the contributions of Yaw and his work for the people of Aljunied.  

A number of scandals have broken out and started to consumed the attention of the public and netizens. The tabloid has fed the masses with exciting stories to fuel their interest and encourage them to pass judgement on those who have erred. I want to start this article with some wisdom from the Bible:

          "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" -  John 7:53-8:11 [Link]


That was what Jesus said when a woman who committed adultery was brought to him and a self righteous mob wanted to stone her. Whether you're a Christian or not there is immense wisdom in this Bible passage for us on how we should treat those who have fallen short morally. The tabloids supply the juice and in some ways encourage us to do the equivalent of modern day stoning - condemnation by the media, public and the Internet.

Yaw Saw Leong has resigned from WP CEC I will not repeat rumours surrounding Yaw Shin Leong but take this opportunity to address some of the issues that emerge from this episode. In an earlier posting "Scandal January in Singapore", there were comments discussing whether voters and the general public should accept such moral failings of those in public office or civil service.

Suppose today a big announcement is made just like the one that was made on Saturday involving something illegal. Police announce that they have monitored Internet use in Singapore and have requested for a list of users who are civil servants from the ISP that have been visiting very deviant pornography regularly on the Internet. At the same time a list of people list of people is obtained by reporters of govt employees, teachers, doctors, bank employees, lawyers who frequent our casinos more than 3 times a week. Lets say the civil service decide to put telephone taps on the lines of all employees to see who are betting illegally, having illicit affairs, doing ...say they monitor Internet use to find out who uses it to do personal stuff like trading stocks (since it is stock market is open only during office hours so civil servants cannot invest?), dating service, MSN chat, online shopping etc  ..throw in a little more detective work to find out who are the ones who are drinkers who get drunk often at pubs, bars and KTV, find out who is gay and violated 377A...check their bank accounts to find out who the overspending shopaholics are...  hmm maybe I miss out 1 or 2 things but the idea is to build a list of people with "flaws".

After the whole exercise, you will have a rather big list maybe 20-30% of  people will be on this list. Now you correlate this list with the performance of these people relative to others...what do you think you will find? Most likely you'll find that the 2 things are independent because these so-called "flaws" that people like to believe are defects in human character are an integral part of human nature...rather than flaws they are part and parcel of being human- the other 70% of the people you think are 'perfect' have issues you cannot fall out of your detection system or have hidden it from you. The ordinary guy will have one or more of these traits ...he may demonstrate strongly one of these traits or his issue may be spread over a number of them.

Before I give you the more stunning examples. Lets warm up with a few smaller ones.  Renown physicists Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman were womanizers - in fact Feynman wrote openly about his appreciation of women and how to pick them up. Famous economist Keynes was gay and is believed to had procured to satisfy his needs. Famous computer scientist, Alan Turing was convicted of indecency[Link]. Newton was a sexual puritan but lost a fortune trading the stock market. Winston Churchill lost a fortune at the stock market and often drank too much. Before I explain how I think such issues should be handled by political parties, civil service and society....lets go through more examples....

What do ex-President Clinton, his vice president Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and  Newt Gingrich have in common? They all committed infidelity....and had extremely good performance in public service.  Perhaps the most stunning example FDR, whom many consider the greatest American president in the 20th century - historians have found out that he kept not 1 but 2 mistresses[Link]. Because it was morally unacceptable,  he was forced to keep it a secret.

The public response to Saturday's events which I saw on the news is to demand that we monitor civil servants closer, check on their bankground more closely to look for clues and if they ever falter, "sack them on the spot". ...and some said it with air of moral superiority. But going after people's private lives can be counter productive -you put in a mountain of effort but you can never get rid of the human weakness of people you hire and most of it has nothing to do with job performance. .  A zero-tolerance for certain human flaws simply encourages people to hide their problems until they get bigger until it transform into an illegal activity. You get better people not by insisting they behave perfectly but to step forward and come clean with whatever problems without major impact to their careers so long as they stay well within the bounds of what is legal, do not hurt others and undergo rehabilitation.

How should the public treat scandals surrounding political figures? Should we always demand they step down? For scandals involving corruption, they have to be prosecuted because they betrayed the public trust and did something illegal. However,  if the politician is found to have a mistress, what happens? There is no black or white when it comes to such indiscretions. Former French president Mitterand had a mistress, Anne Pingeot. In the past, when these things are found out in Singapore, it is believed that they were asked to step down quietly and very often the public does not hear about it. In places where the society is conservative (or pretends to be conservative), the public will demand the politician step down. There is a danger to this because it encourages politicians to dig out dirt to destroy their opponents and because many politicians are not morally perfect, such scandals become regular affairs, tabloids sensationalise and over time causes great damage  to the society as trust for leadership erodes.

Across the causeway, several politicians became embroiled scandals including one repeat allegation that Anwar is gay. If you look at these cases closely, they are likely to involve  political enemies digging dirt on the private lives of their opponents. I spoke to a few Malaysian friends and most of them don't care if Anwar is gay but their main concern is corruption and the motives of those behind hiring private investigators to spy on opponents  - do they want power for some other purpose far more sinister than a politician having a mistress?

In Singapore, so far it doesn't look like sex scandals have not been used by politicians from either side to bring each other down - scandals have emerged from rumour mills formed from normal human networks. We don't get CDs of scandalous liaisons sent to us by mysterious sources recorded from hidden cameras. However, I can think of one case involving Francis Seow in the 80s. During the 1988 General Elections, Eunos  GRC  was closely fought and the campaigning was heated. Half way through the campaigning, some details surrounding Francis Seow's  private life
was circulated - his team lost but secured 49.11% of the votes. Francis Seow said in a recent video that state intelligence resources was used to spy on him and record his conversations with his girlfriend(girlfriends?) and so on. Almost half the people in Eunos GRC didn't care and voted for the opposition anyway - you have to remember it is asymmetric only one side had the resources to check on the other.

We are all tempted to take the moral high ground when such such scandals occur. The more shocked you are or try to pretend to be, the more you feel this air of moral superiority but we forget we have all sinned and fallen short at some point in our life. There are many things leaders can do that are far more harmful than having a mistress - they can start wars, build casinos, ruin the economy and implement bad policies that hurt  the people. Lets not be so fixated with these scandals and make the people embroiled in them go through hell when they have already suffered enough pain from their own failings.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pre-school hot housing and the road to no where.....

On 9 Feb 2012, the Straits Times published an article about the increasing number of parents sending their children to psychologists[Worried Parents taking their kids to psychologists].

According to the article, many parents send their children for preschool enrichment before they start primary one. When these children get to primary one, they already know all the stuff the teachers are supposed to teach so the teachers are pressured to increase the pace of teaching and raise the standard. Because the pace of teaching is increased, the some students cannot cope and parents send them to psychologists. ...okay we are talking about primary one education here - the part of your life that you're suppose to enjoy your childhood, discover the world around you and be filled with infinite curiosity, Unfortunately, extremely intense competition in Singapore at an early age is killing the most important aspect of education - the love of learning.

How did our education system enter this vicious cycle? Blogger, Alex Au, painstakingly drew this amazing maze-like sorting system [Education System high stakes board game] which is  the education system our children are being put through.


Some parts of this "incredible human sorting system" is not shown in the diagram like the gifted program when they are in primary 4 and when the children go to secondary school it is not just the various streams like Express, Normal Academic etc but within the Express Stream you go to secondary schools belonging to different bands (10 bands) depending on your results. As you get sorted downwards, your odds of going to a local university falls and it can fall quite rapidly after primary 6. If you get sent to the Normal Technical Stream after primary six, your chance of ever getting into university is very low.

Because the system judges and sorts students very early in their life and the impact on their future is significant , it causes parents to try to give their children an edge by sending them to expensive pre-school, enrichment classes and tuition centers. As a result of this, a large part of the resources in education system is "hijacked' by a burgeoning private industry setup to give your child an edge. Head of departments and experienced teachers leave the MOE and start lucrative tuition centers. The number of parents hiring tutors and private learning centers for their children shows how much trust (or rather lack of trust) they have for MOE's schools and curriculum. Parents will naturally game the system by giving their children an edge sending them for expensive pre-school and then force the teachers to go faster leaving some students behind - so you get rid of some of the competition because they are slightly less prepared.

In the end what do we get in return for all this pressure and anxiety? We put our students through all this and when it comes to tertiary education, a large number of places are given to foreign students and a limit is put on the % of Singaporeans[Link] who can make it to university and polytechnics[Link]. The system does even give those entering the workforce an advantage - workers coming from places where the education system is far more relaxed are able to compete and secure jobs in Singapore. ....so what does all this anxiety, pressure and intense competition achieve...except to find people to push down and get sorted out...many are not educated to their fullest ability as seen from the large number of parents who have to send their children overseas for tertiary education, those who cannot afford it miss out and do not have their abilities developed fully.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Fixing low fertility with immigration : A dangerous solution...

"Like it or not, unless we have more babies, we need to accept immigrants,"
-Lee Kuan Yew, S'poreans have to understand need for immigrants: LKY

When the population of Singapore was 2 million in 1970, Lee Kuan Yew felt that there were too many people and the fertility rate was too high and put in place a drastic social engineering effort to reduce the fertility rate and discourage women from having more than 2 children.

Today Singapore has 5.18 million people on this tiny island. If Singaporeans don't complain, the PAP govt would like to bring more immigrants  and grow the population. We all know it will be great for the boosting GDP growth, more people means more economic activity. The problem is overcrowding causing housing price to spiral up, public transport to be overcrowded, and increase competition for everything - jobs, places in school and healthcare services etc. The PAP effort to bring in foreigners at an extreme rate is rarely seen anywhere else in the world except in oil rich middle east where the foreigners do all the work while local indigenous people sit on top and enjoy the fruits of  foreign labor. Here Singaporeans are pushed out of jobs, housing and have to struggle with sharp increase in cost of living. Today 36% of the population is foreign - four out of ten people in Singapore.

Workforce expansion not productivity and innovation account for much of the growth in the last 10 years when the PAP govt stepped on the accelerator to bring in foreign workers. The increase in population density strained our infrastructure and caused the price of scarce resources such as housing to spiral up. Cost of doing business (rental, utilities, transport) less labor also went up which drove businesses to seek out cheaper labor to maintain their profits. This vicious cycle created a dependency on the foreign influx for growth - this is evident when slight moderation of this policy last year quickly caused our economy to slow.

LKY is now saying we should import more foreigners to solve another problem - this will surely drive us further into the vicious cycle and make us even more dependent on the foreign influx to solve our problems. Within a decade we will see the % of Singapore born citizens dropping below 50% and Singaporeans becoming a minority in their own country.

The best way to solve the low fertility rate amomg Singaporeans is to do more to raise it. Look seriously at the issues that is stopping Singaporeans from having more children like the high cost of living especially the high cost of raising a child in Singapore. Stop discrimination in policies that target only a segment of our population with incentives. For example, giving tax rebates for having children. Clearly, such policies target higher income families and leave out lower income families than cannot claim all the tax rebate becuase their income is not high enough.  Lower the income gap so that a person working a full time job can afford to get married and start a family.

Arguing that we have to import adults to make up for the short fall in babies today is technically wrong.  When we bring in adults today, it is to compensate for the shortfall between 1980 and 1990. During that period, the fertility rate was below replacement level but still relatively high about 1.8 to1.9. This converts to a shortfall of a few thousand to maintain a stable population but the number of new citizens (not counting PRs)  per year for the last 10 years is triple this figure. This large figure will cause us to have an even bigger ageing population several decades from now when these new citizens grow old....and the problem will be even harder to solve.

Resorting to short cuts like importing people to boost GDP growth and importing people to compensate for the lower fertility rate is unsustainable and putsus  in a vicious cycle of foreign influx dependency. In time to come, the Singaporean identity which we all treasure so much will be destroyed and with that the emotional meaning of being a Singaporean will disappear with it.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Dr. Toh Chin Chye : He fought his own party...

Singaporeans will remember Dr. Toh Chin Chye as a fighter. He fought for independence of Singapore and in the later part of his political career as a backbencher against his own party. After Toh Chin Chye stepped down his posts in the cabinet, he became a vocal backbencher often opposing his own party. Most notable was the graduate mothers scheme in which the PAP govt gave priority to children of graduate mothers for primary school enrolment when he defied the party whip and abstained from voting. He also strongly opposed the use of CPF for Medisave  arguing that healthcare should be a govt responsibility:

"The provision of health care facilities must be accepted as a social responsibility. It is not that an individual who has the misfortune to be inflicted with some particular disease is solely responsible for searching the facilities to cure his illness. This is a social responsibility which is accepted by governments all over the world. This is part and parcel of the organization of individuals into societies. It is a measure of the degree of civilization." - Toh Chin Chye, Aug 1983

Today, the sick in Singapore and their families shoulder the heaviest burden as a % of healthcare expediture in the developed world while the govt expenditure on healthcare measured as a % of total cost is the lowest in developed countries. You superimpose this on a wealth distribution that is the most unequal among developed countries and healthcare cost that is driven up by govt aspiration to pursue profits as a healthcare hub for the rich from around the world and you will understand how our healthcare system is financed exacerbates the inequality in our society.

Dr. Toh also spoke out against the raising of CPF withdrawal age from 55 to 60.  Today, the lockup of the CPF is made more stringent through the implementation of minimum sum  and CPF Life. There is also talk of further increasing the withdrawal age  to 65[Link]. The approach to push as much responsibility of retirement to individuals and their children (through parental maintenace act). Relying primarily on a provident fund  strategy today is only done in 3rd world countries. Due to the large income gap, a big segment of our population trapped in low wage jobs will not be able to accumulate sufficient CPF for a proper retirement. We see an increasing number aged doing tough low paying menial jobs for a living.

3 decades ago, the PAP resisted the ideas of Dr. Toh Chin Chye that would have made Singapore society more equitable and ultimately stronger.  It has now become more urgent to reform and fix the system in place.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

PM Lee : Being poor in Singapore is better than being poor elsewhere!

I really can't believe he said this:

"If you're poor in Singapore, it's no fun, but I think you're less badly off than in any other country in the world, including in the US," - PM Lee in Davos....[Link]

It is an understatement to say he stretched the truth a little. He is not even in the same page ....perhaps not even in the same planet when it comes to what Singaporeans feel on the ground. He actually said that Singapore is the best place to be in if you're poor. If PM Lee believes what he said, he is also saying we are already there when it comes to helping the poor, no need to do much more for the poor in Singapore.

Find me another developed nation, where the poor receives less help from the govt, where public housing for the poor is more expensive, basic utilities like water and elecity cost more relative to wages of the bottom 20%, where there is no minimum wages, where healthcare is less accessible than in Singapore and income gap is bigger than Singapore. Strangely, he said "...including the US" as if the US is the prime example of a country that takes care of the poor - so what are the Occupy Wall Street people protesting? PM Lee forgets places like Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and our own asian neighbors like Taiwan, S. Korea and Japan where the income gap is smaller smaller ....where minimum wage and a universal healthcare system is in place. . Even capitalistic Hong Kong has implemented minium wage and comprehensive welfare so that the poor elderly  woirkers can have a proper retirement....when we still find old folks in Singapore cleaning tables for a living.

PM Lee can't see what ordinary Singaporeans already know....how high is his ivory tower?...It has to be really really far from the ground.

The plight of Singapore's son Fandi Ahmad....

UPDATE: I read through the comments and some people said that Fandi's plight is his own making since he was once a millionaire and lost his fortune on bad investments. That he was once a millionaire is irrelevant to to the issues raised in this posting. You don't have to be an ex-millionaire to face competition from foreigners taking your jobs away, to fall through the cracks in our healthcare system and have problems with housing.....all you have to be is an ordinary Singaporean to face all these problems.

I read his interview in Today and shook my head as I found out how he ended up in his unhappy state.

First he was passed over and sidelined for a coaching job in Singapore. The job has been given to an FT although he has all the credentials and experience to do it.

Even the greatest soccer talent in our history has to concede to the penchant for hiring foreigners and end up making a living in JB where his tremendous talent is appreciated. After contributing to Singapore soccer for decades and so many extraordinary achievements, they simply cast him aside in favor of foreigners who are highly paid but have failed to restore the morale and glory of the Singapore team. Fandi's plight mirrors that of Singapore workers who held the title of number one workforce in the world for decades. The same workforce now has been replaced by a massive influx of foreign workers.

Fandi's problem is compounded by his wife getting sick. Not only sick but she fell through the cracks of our healthcare system for a common but serious ailment, seizure:

"The medical bills are mounting for me and made worse by the fact that her condition is not covered by insurance." - Fandi, Today [Link]

He now has to endure this ordeal as a result of PAP's policy of making the sick and their families shoulder as much financial burden as possible.

After all this, unlucky Fandi, has to grapple with getting a HDB flat, the most expensive public housing in the world today and HDB policies:

"I am in the process of applying to buy a HDB flat. But I don't have enough in my CPF savings. So things are a bit complicated." - Fandi

Fandi was once a millionaire and lost a large part of his fortune due to poor investments. That partially contributed to his plight today - if he had kept his money, he would be sitting around enjoying early retirement. However, not having a lot of money at his age is not an uncommon phenomena in Singapore as many simply don't have enough earning power to build sizable savings. We are also encouraged to be like Fandi - be an entrepreneur and take risks. His present problems are largely due to the system in place..falling through.the cracks and the tendency to value foreign talents over locals.