Thursday, November 16, 2006

Can an increase in GST help the poor?

The Government said increasing GST is a strategy to help the poor.

I am still trying to work out how that can be so.

Imagine a 'poor' family who does not pay any income tax now.
And it spends, say $1050 a month on all purchases of goods and services (for which it is currently paying $50 in GST).

When GST rises to 7%, it would be paying $1070 a month for these purchases.
So, that is $20 more.
Now how does an increase in GST help the 'poor'?

Contrast that with the 'not-so-poor', who currently pays some income tax.
The GST increase would be timed with cuts in corporate tax rates.
And to minimise any loopholes, similar cuts in personal income tax rates would also be implemented.
So, the 'not-so-poor' would enjoy a lower personal income tax rate when GST goes up.

If a 'not-so-poor' household has an annual income of $100,000, a 2% cut in personal income tax rate would make it $2,000 'richer' a year.
But, to work out if they are 'better/ worse off' than current, they will have to offset this against the increase in 2% GST.

The 'break-even' consumption for him to be 'worse off' under the new tax regime is if his annual consumption is $100,000 (ie $2,000/ 2%).
Since the household only earns $100,000 a year, it is not possible for them to spend more than $100,000 (housing mortgages aside).
So, it seems the 'not-so-poor' will benefit, at the expense of the 'poor'.

Unless, of course, the price levels fall by 2% or so, so that the total price after GST increase remains the same.
But, our CPI had been hovering at about 1% each year.
What scope is there that price levels would go down by 2%?

Since there are indications that the 7% figure is not the final one, it is time for the government to consider implementing different GST rates for different goods and services.
In the UK, eg, VAT has three rates - 17.5%, 5% and 0%.
The reduced rates apply to things like domestic fuel and children's car seats, etc.
Zero-rated items are what would be considered essential items like food, medicines. Full lists here and here.

Australia is another country that implements zero-rated GST for its 'essentials' like food.
And perhaps due to such measures, it has a lower cost of living than Singapore.
In a report by the UBS recently, Singapore's food and household appliances were surprisingly more costly than Sydney's.
Although people in Sydney pay more tax than people in Singapore, and price levels are generally higher, Sydney's purchasing power was found to be higher than Singapore's.
I'd extracted bits of the report and posted it here as I had some trouble posting the table here in blogspot.
In the table, I'd used Sydney's prices as 100 where appropriate to facilitate comparisons across Singapore, KL, HK and Mumbai.

To soften the impact of the increase in GST, the Government will be implementing some offset 'Packages' (eg Economic Re-structuring Package, etc).
However, these will disappear after a few years while the increased GST will continue.
A more 'poor-friendly' package would be to implement differential GST rates.

Continue to raise GST for non-essential items by all means.
But, unless we have different rates of GST, a GST increase cannot be helping the 'poor'.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Heavenly Sword posted his views of the nation being likened to three metaphors – a person, a place and a club. On the issue of Singaporeans leaving, he mentioned that a country ‘loses’ only if the person who left is ‘professionally skilled and talented’.

Perhaps because of my background, I would interpret this term in the broadest sense to mean 'Everyone'.

To me, a kway teow man is as talented as an IT engineer, or a doctor, or a lawyer.And even the handicapped would be considered talented for they bring joy, bonding and happiness to those around them.

I hold the view that a country should not 'evaluate' its citizens based only on the 'level' of skills they have.
An individual brings a package of offerings to his world.
Economic value-add is only one of these components.

Perhaps because of the emphasis on the primacy of economics, we tend to ignore the social value-add of our people.

To me, this is an important aspect of creating a sense of belonging beyond the dollars and cents.

I have appended my rather long comment to Heavenly Sword’s post below:
Hi, Master Heavenly Sword,
I would suggest that 'loss' is function of both the quality of the people leaving and the quantity of the people leaving.
For example, if the top kway teow man leaves Singapore for Perth.
This would be a loss for Singapore and a gain to the Singaporeans (and others) living in Perth. This would fit the case of 'loss' you had mentioned because someone talented (in whatever 'profession') has left us.
On the other hand, suppose we are left with only a handful of kway teow men and none of them fries good kway teow. If any one of them leaves, it would still be a loss because we now have one fewer person to serve Singapore's kway teow needs. So, a not-so-highly-skilled person can also cause a 'loss' to Singapore because he is a 'scarce' resource.
Even if one is not part of a scarce resource now, if enough of them leave, the remaining becomes 'scarce'.And I would go to the extent of suggesting that even if one is not a scarce resource, eg a low-skilled worker, his departure can still bring ‘loss’ to a country.
This is because no man is an island.
A child brings joy and happiness to his parents, in spite of his zero economic value-add in much the same way a low-skilled worker brings joy to his parents and family.
When such a person leaves, taking the laughter and happy moments that his/her parents would have enjoyed had he/she remained, has the country ‘lost’ anything?
To the extent that the total level of ‘happiness’ has come down, I would say yes.
Happiness is not as easily quantifiable as GDP per capita.
But, since management gurus consistently tell managers that a ‘happy’ workforce is a productive workforce, happiness probably has a knock-on effect on economic activity.
Even if there isn’t, happiness itself is something that all pursue and what all governments aspire to help its people achieve.
As such, I think that it does not matter whether one is 'professionally skilled and talented' or otherwise.
Any departure causes a country to ‘lose’ something, whether this be ‘economic capital’ losses or ‘social capital’ losses, or both.
Of course, one can question the size of these losses.
While any departure causes losses, is the loss from one segment 'more significant' than that from another?
Perhaps because of the primacy of economics, it is easy to be more concerned over the departure of the top-earners, which are often the ‘professionally skilled and talented’.
But I fear that in doing so, a country risks deepening the fault lines between its haves and have-nots and causing more losses all round.

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National Day Offerings

From First World to Next Stop
Singaporeans share their views on Vibrant, Global City

Derrick A Paulo
9th August 2006

GOING by events of the past year, one thing is becoming clear: First World is so passé.

Singapore's next objective is to reinvent itself into a Vibrant, Global City. Last year, we hosted the International Olympic Committee. Next month, we welcome the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and some protesters.

But as Singapore peers into its future, complete with one of the great shopping streets of the world, two iconic integrated resorts and three world-class gardens, how excited or worried are its citizens about the transformation of their homeland?

To get a feel of their pulse, Today conducted a poll of 201 Singaporeans. We asked them to rate the developments coming to our shores and about the depths of their roots in Singapore.

One thing that the average Singaporean was emphatic about was that he wasn't about to up and leave the country for good.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most appealing, the average Singaporean gives emigration a 4.0 score. It was the lowest score of 14 items on the survey in total using the scale.

Respondents gave the highest score — a 7.26 — to the possibility of keeping their roots here while having more opportunities to live and work abroad.

They gave a 6.53 score to the option of living in a Singapore that promises to strive to become vibrant and global.

If you can’t have the opportunity to work abroad, then, I guess the next best thing would be to transform Singapore. This will require less ‘adjustments’ than say, emigration.

The appeal of that promise seems to be very much linked to the confidence we have in our city-state's chances of succeeding in its Global City goal. Here, the survey pointed to a confidence factor of 6.52 on the scale of 10.

From the buoyantly upbeat to the downright pessimistic, the survey captured the opinions of ordinary people on this particular issue.

The more optimistic put their faith in the Government's ability to deliver results.

"Singapore is an oasis for calm, stability, high performance, excellent governance, reliability and consistency. Short of a prolonged worldwide recession, natural calamity and revolution, I have every confidence we can make it," said retiree Ho Kong Loon, 59.

But whether they believe Singapore can make it or not, a common thread to the comments we received is that the buzz of a global city must come from its people much more than from its physical developments.

Product manager Gary Chan, 31, said, "Transformation doesn't happen simply when we complete projects or bring in talents and attractions to add to Singapore as a product. Transformation needs to happen in the hearts and minds of the people before Singapore can truly become a vibrant, global city that competes with the best."

In the same vein, several respondents commented that the upcoming developments in Singapore would succeed only if Singaporeans take to them well.

"All these developments are largely external and the effects of these projects will only last as long as people are excited by them," said analyst Chin Yingwen, 24.

So, how excited are Singaporeans about the various plans in store for our city-state?

Our survey results say that the Garden City at Marina Bay — including three gardens, watersports and a giant Ferris wheel — gets the best response from the public, out of nine types of developments designed to bring the world to Singapore.

Coming in second is the Sports Hub at Kallang and the possibility of Formula 1 racing coming here.

The Integrated Resorts ended up at the bottom of the Excitement Factor. "It shows we've got our priorities spot on," said Mr Tay Kheng Soon, principal partner of architectural firm Akitek Tenggara. "The Gardens by the Bay really represent the things that people can participate in – its festivals, its green loop for people to jog, the water sport activities there. And sports at number two? That's public participation, too, whether the active or spectator sort."

Rounding off the top three most exciting developments in the eyes of our respondents is the Intelligent Nation 2015 Masterplan, which aims to transform Singapore into an "intelligent nation and global city powered by infocomm", including a faster broadband network, by 2015.

Dr Ooi Giok Ling, associate professor of humanities and social studies at the National Institute of Education, is not surprised that it edged out the "rejuvenation" of Orchard Road among our respondents, two-thirds of whom hail from the post-65 generation.
"I suspect they will shop on the Internet and they will shop from everywhere," said Dr Ooi, who is also an Institute of Policy Studies adjunct fellow.

"We're one of the most globalised countries in terms of SMSing, Internet usage, the number of overseas telephone calls. We are so hooked up, and these networks are so central to us … and the Internet space is also the new civic space."

The IRs had their supporters, too, like undergraduate Lim Wen Ying who is excited about "lots of tourists, investors and jobs" coming this way.

Others were less upbeat. "To make Singapore more attractive to tourists, the developments must be innovative. Singapore needs to get an edge over other countries, but this cannot be possible if what it is developing already exists in other countries," said Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim, 40.

In a way, it seems our thoughts about Singapore as a vibrant, global city depend largely on what we view as the most positive or the most worrying aspects of these developments, and how likely we will feel the impact.

Our survey respondents rank a stronger economy and a higher GDP as the most promising impact of all the changes planned. More than 56 per cent of them had this in their top three choices and almost 32 per cent put it as number one.

A close second, and also in the top three of more than half of the respondents – and number one for 18 per cent of them – is the prospect of a greater variety of lifestyles.

On the flip side, the average Singaporean worries most about cost of living rising faster. This is the top concern of close to half our respondents and one of the top three concerns of about 83 per cent of them.

About 16 per cent of them rank a more stressful rat race as their second biggest worry, with close to half of them ranking this in their top three.

Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, said that on the surface, our respondents seem to be "thinking along municipal lines".

"It seems people are fairly parochial and haven't caught on to the vision of a vibrant, global," he said.

"People must feel that like the global city is part of their country and not to a country where someone else calls the shots. A global city must benefit them, be within reach and is worth having. The more organic it is, the more these two factors will be satisfied."

According to architect Mr Tay, the biggest challenge will be to expand the scope and benefits of a "global city sector" so that most people do not miss out.

In the ride to Destination Global City, most respondents mentioned the need to adapt to changes, to work hard to keep our values.

But as NIE's Dr Ooi pointed out, global cities are such. "No one is going to say life in New York is laid back and sedate. It's just go, go, go. With globalisation, there's no help for that and Singaporeans will have to get used to it. But I'm quite confident they can be resilient. After all, look how much we've changed over the years."

I love statistics.
To borrow the quote that wert left the other day in one of his comments to my blog entry:
"Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital"
~Aaron Levenstein

According to the TODAY survey, the Singaporeans polled had placed emigration in the bottom of a list of 14 items in the survey (emphasis mine).

It is not clear what the 14 items are. But, it is not difficult for any item to be ranked top of any list, or for that matter, bottom of any list. Simply come up with a list of items where all of these items are 'inferior' (or 'superior') to the item you want to rank against. Voila, you will then have your item ranked top (or bottom) of the list.

It is also not clear how much difference there is between the item ranked in the 14th place and the one ranked in the 13th place. Depending on the size of this difference, it might or might not be significant in statistical terms. For example, I could have earned $20,000 last year, better than my neighbour who earned $19,999.
Sure, I did earn more than my neighbour.
But, I would be delusional if I considered myself better-off than my neighbour.

It seems the respondents ranked the top option as 'keeping their roots here while having more opportunities to live and work abroad'.
Surprise, surprise!

All things being equal, one would expect any rational person to want to have the best of both worlds. People want to have the cake and eat it too, if they can help it.

And so, what do we find?Lo and behold, the option of keeping our roots here but being able to latch onto the dynamism in the region comes up tops.

Actually, those were not the biggest piece of news to me.
I reserved that for the finding that 'Intelligent Nation 2015 Masterplan' was ranked 3rd most exciting amongst all the developments that will bring the world to Singapore (emphasis mine).
The Integrated Resorts was ranked last.

That is BIG news to me.
I had not known Singaporeans to be so knowledgeable.
I heard that many people had trouble identifying their MPs and Ministers from photos. Yet, all of them knew enough about an IT plan to rate it 'more exciting' than the Integrated Resorts?Who had they been polling?
The IT technicians and programmers working on the project?

Now, who was it who had recently complained about our Intelligent Nation Masterplan?
Whoever that was - you are WAY out of touch with the public.

Ok, enough said.
I think I shouldn't be so critical.
To be fair, TODAY did have a brush with MICA over some column just last month, and today being National Day, does seem like a pretty auspicious day to make the appropriate offerings.

Peace be to all.
Happy National Day, Singapore.

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Kway Teow Man's post on loyalty led me to think a little further on my earlier post.

I must have mis-read his post.For I seem to get the impression that to get more loyalty from its citizens, besides being gracious to those who left, the government should also put up a better 'wayang' show. This would help satisfy the group of Singaporeans who feel that their feedback had not been taken in.

I am not sure if I had understood him correctly on this.

In a sense, the government's current wayang had already garnered the support of the majority of the population (about 67%). That, by global standards, is already a pretty good show(ing).

Will a better wayang garner more support from the remaining 33%?
How many are at the margin?

I don't know.Going by the
comments in the blogosphere, I will speculate that a number of bloggers will not be thrilled by more wayang.In fact, some might say that more wayang might even cause some from amongst the 67% to lose heart, as insincerity is not the mark of someone trustworthy.

Marketing texts often say that if one has a poor product, no amount of marketing can sell it.Now, I am not suggesting that the government is a poor product.But the point from these texts is that marketing can only do as much as the product's features can support.

It is in this context that I am suggesting going back to fundamentals.This fundamental I am referring to is part of the Confucius quotation that Kway Teow Man had cited in his post.And that is 'xiu shen' - 'cultivate one's self'.

According to Confucius, 'xiu shen' should take place before setting one's house in order, governing one's country and bringing peace to the world.

To Confucius, 'xiu shen' would be the source of any government's credibility and moral authority.Has a government been aboveboard in all its dealings?Where trade-offs have to be considered, whose interests are being traded off against whose and are the reasons for these trade-offs sound and reasonable?

But, what seems reasonable to one may not be to another.So, where is the benchmark for making assessments of 'reasonableness'?

I don't know.I heard there is such a thing as the 'rational man' in the eyes of the court.I heard also that since a government is 'for' the people, I guess the opinions of the public should count somewhere. So, perhaps public opinion can also help to provide a good benchmark.As an example, in the NKF case, I thought the public's opinion over the issue provided one with a good idea of what some of the benchmarks could be.

Since values differ from one group to another, whose values should it be pitched at?Should a government be looking only at the majority values?How can a government also consider the minority's values?How much should it do in 'leading' change rather than merely following the wishes of the majority?

Perhaps it is a matter of following the majority sometimes and the minority for others.But which times?

I don't know.

waterchild is only a child.It knows nothing about the world of governance.What waterchild knows is which adults it likes to play with and which it shuns away from.

In waterchild's simple world, everything revolves around only one thing.Its heart.

Its heart not only gives it life.
It also guides its life.

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When Loyalties Clash

Emigration no certainty of 'greener pastures'
Letter from Liew Kai Khiun in London
Today, Voices, 28th Jul 2006

I once asked my Filipino friend — who was a tutor at a local university — how he addressed his Singaporean students' grouses about their country. His solution: Send them to the Philippines and they will see the cruel reality of human existence, and how trivial their concerns are.

I feel we should benchmark against the best, instead of comparing only to the less fortunate.

Living in London where temperatures in the London Underground (which has no air-conditioning) have reached a suffocating 40°C, and delays last year were estimated to have cost commuters 1,800 years — makes reading about the outrages over the rare hiccup on the North East Line seem surreal.

In spite of the fact that luxuries unimaginable to many — such as electricity and air-conditioning — are taken for granted in Singapore, many of my fellow countrymen are very unhappy and more than half of the younger ones are even considering emigrating, according to recent reports.

To many who visit and stay in other developed countries in Western Europe and North America as wealthy tourists, students and expatriates, instead of as migrant labourers and asylum seekers, the images of these societies are definitely rosy.

Compared to the nanny state of Singapore, there seems to be so much more sun, sand, sea and freedom in these places, where life is apparently more relaxed. But while I belong to this category of overseas Singaporeans, I have no illusions about the social realities in these countries.

I am not implying that we should not be moving out of the little red dot, nor should we complacently fold our arms in gratitude. As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once advised, Singaporeans with the opportunity should spend about six years working outside the country and bring their experiences back.

What is more important to note is that the grass will always seem to be greener on the other side. The contrast between Singapore and the "greener pastures" exists more in our minds.

At this moment, when the poorly-maintained grounds of Hyde Park in London resemble a desert in this unusually hot summer, I am sure that the grass in our parks in Singapore is still lush and green, and that we can slip into air-conditioned places and sheltered walkways quite quickly away from the equatorial sun.

Only when Singaporeans realise and appreciate that their surroundings are tirelessly man-made rather than God-given, will they stop ranting about emigrating.

Given the current situation of small countries in the Middle East, we should be thankful that Singaporeans can still afford the luxury of feeling angst and that our fighter jets and new Apache Longbow helicopters are used as government "propaganda" for celebrating Singapore's 41st birthday.
Reading the various posts by Xenoboy, Heavenly Sword and Singapore Serf on the topic of emigration started me thinking more about the topic.

This letter-writer highlighted why the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ exists only in the mind and not in reality. Those who are contemplating emigration had taken for granted the many luxuries that we have, eg electricity, air-conditioning, lush greenery, sheltered walkways and the security afforded by our Apache helicopters and fighter jets. In addition, they had not factored in the social realities of a migrant worker that would not normally be experienced by the casual tourist.

The writer’s main line of argument is called the ‘halo effect’ in psychology terms. This is used to describe a situation where one particular aspect or feature of something has disproportionately influenced its overall assessment. This often happens in recruitment interviews where the candidate’s dressing can sometimes heavily influence (positively or negatively) the overall assessment of the person.

What I had some trouble with was the writer’s implied message that emigration is an act of ingratitude (2nd-last paragraph, emphasis mine). That despite what had been ‘tirelessly’ done for its citizens, some still chose to complain and emigrate.

To me, emigration is an integral part of living.
Each of us plays several roles in life.
Besides being individuals in our own right, we are also children to our parents, spouses to our partners, parents to our children, members of our community and citizens to our country.

Each of these roles carries a distinct set of responsibilities.
For example, as an individual, we have to make a living and meet our basic needs.As a parent, we provide for and educate our children.As a citizen, we contribute to the well-being of Singapore.

Most of us want to do the best that we can within each of these roles. Joseph said that as Singaporeans, we want to be heard. If you are a parent, you want to provide your children with the ‘best’ environment; however you define ‘best’ to be. Some believe in sending their children to the top schools. Some believe in letting their children develop at a slower pace.

The world is not static.
As our environment changes, we respond to these, keeping in mind our responsibilities for each of these roles.As we grow older, our values system may also change along with our experiences. And this might affect the way we discharge these responsibilities.For example, we might have placed a lot of value achieving the 5Cs at the start of one’s working life. Years later, we might abandon that altogether.

At each point in life, we evaluate how well we are discharging each of our responsibilities.If a person believes that he cannot fully discharge his responsibilities in Singapore, he would start to look elsewhere.

Of course, in doing so, he should be aware that the adage ‘Nobody’s perfect’ applies to countries too. When he emigrates, he has to take the new country as a total package – wart, gloss and all.

But, in the migrant’s reckoning, there is probably a certain component in this new package that is better than his current package. And this component is something he values more than any other components in the entire package and for which he is prepared to trade-off the other components against.

This component can be different for different people.
It could also depend on the life-stages of the individual.

I used to think that only retirees and those facing mid-life crises emigrate. Reading the forum discussions on this topic, I found that even those in their late-teens have put in place plans for their emigration.
I came across a teenager who is currently studying hair-dressing in the ITE because a certain country is in dire need of hairdressers.
Some in their twenties left in search of a better livelihood.
Others left in search of a ‘better’ future for their children, where ‘better’ could be employment prospects, a less-stressful education system, etc.
In emigrating, each is trying to fully discharge his responsibilities in his respective roles.

So, is emigration an act of ingratitude?
If emigration is being ungrateful to the country, then, non-emigration could mean being irresponsible to the emigrant’s other constituents.
When the various ‘loyalties’ (to himself, his family, community and country) clash, how should he decide?

I think emigration is very much an integral part of a person’s life journey.
It is a path that he had chosen in fulfilling the expectations derived from his various roles.
It is a gamble, for no one is sure, at the point of emigrating, if it is the right path.
Much like nobody is sure if the person you are going to marry is the right one for you.
After the necessary ‘due diligence’, the final decision is always a leap of faith.

But, not emigrating is also a gamble.
If emigration is no certainty of ‘greener pastures’, then, non-emigration is no certainty of ‘security’ (which seemed to be what the letter-writer valued most).If anything, the 9-11 incident and the London Underground bombings had shown us that no country is free from security threats, in spite of the best technology and weapons that its military could buy.I am not suggesting that Singapore is vulnerable to security threats.
But this is a point that our Ministers had consistently been drumming into our heads.

To me, whether emigration is an act of ingratitude is irrelevant.
Instead, what matters more is whether the emigrant continues to contribute to the well-being of Singapore and Singaporeans even after leaving the country.

In the words of Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, can we build a nation bigger than our country?

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Separation Anxieties

According to Zaobao, MP Seng Han Thong had urged Comfort-Delgro to release the reasons why it terminated the contract of the ex-cabby so that the public is aware of what transpired 4 years ago.

This is alarming news.
From what I understand, such matters are private and confidential. In fact, I was surprised a Comfort spokesperson actually told the press why the ex-cabby was terminated when the news first broke last week.

The question I have is : Does the 'private and confidential' contract continue to hold even after one had left the company? If not, this will be a watershed development.

By releasing such information, Comfort-Delgro will be signaling a new employer-employee compact.
If ex-employers start releasing private and confidential information, you can expect ex-employees to jump into the fray, releasing information about their ex-employers. The mainstream media will have a field day covering the juicy inside news about the practices of employers and their management, some of which you can be sure, would not be very flattering. The blogosphere will also be on fire with posts and comments.

What would it mean for Singapore?
If such a day comes, productivity will fall for 2 reasons:
(1) the level of motivation falls as mistrust rises
Knowing that your ex-employer may one day decide to 'taint' your name breeds mistrust. Job commitment and performance will suffer.
(2) the total time for productive work drops
Time that could otherwise be spent on productive work is instead directed towards the collection and organisation of information. Employees will keep copies of emails, documentation and recordings of events that may be used in their 'defence' (or 'offence' if necessary). In turn, employers will also impose measures to counteract any damage that an ex-employee may launch. This may include preventative ones restricting the keeping of copies of emails and documentation. It might also include the monitoring of those it deemed to be 'troublesome'.

For consumers, it may signal the onset of video cameras monitoring your every move. Imagine stepping into a taxi and having your every word and action being recorded by a video camera in the taxi in case of disputes and wrongful dismissals.

Who knows?
In future, even a 'bak-chor mee' stall might have video cameras installed. And I am not being sarcastic here.

Of course, if an employee had not done anything wrong, he should not be concerned over this greater transparency.
Unfortunately, those who had worked long enough will know that in most staff matters, there is usually no right and wrong, unless a criminal offence (eg fraud) is involved. In such a case, the issue would be best left to the judicial system where we will defer to its considered judgement.

In non-criminal matters, it can sometimes boil down to a difference in priorities or values between the two parties. The employer may not always be right in terminating the employee's services. As the employer holds the executive power and authority over decisions, so long as there had been due process and the decision had not contravened any legal or contractual obligations, the employer has every right to make these decisions.

To be sure, some employees deserve to have their services terminated. But, if employers pursue an approach of 'transparency' of work performance, then, it is only fair that the same level of transparency be given to employees to reveal the employment and management practices of their employers. This is very much what the government had always advocated as the 'right of reply'.

This brings me to the other issue. A-Star and Johns Hopkins had decided to go their separate ways after 8 years. Going by the press release by A-Star and media reports, the separation boils down to a difference in perspectives. A-Star wanted big brand names to reside and do research in Singapore, Johns Hopkins preferred to deploy and nurture younger un-established talents. Intelligent Singaporean has a fuller write-up. takchek also has a list of reasons why having bio-science R&D in Singapore has its problems.

To me, this is another example of the mobility of capital. Foreign investors can locate in Singapore because of incentives. They can also calibrate their level of commitment according to the attractiveness of our incentives vis-a-vis what they may receive from other places, including their home countries. Is it possible that Johns Hopkins could have deliberately withheld its more established talents from Singapore because deploying them elsewhere was more 'lucrative'? I don't know.

A talented R&D professional who is blazing the trail in his research efforts derives his motivation from the stage that he is performing in, the environment that he works in and the kinds of people he interacts with in his learning and discovery process. If he were to move to Singapore, he must see Singapore giving him that platform and environment. Perhaps the reason why Johns Hopkins had not deployed any established scientists here is that these scientists did not think Singapore could provide them that platform?

Our strategy so far is akin to building a big mansion, complete with luxury facilities and a dedicated group of butler and servants to see to one's daily needs. And then, we have an open house and invite world-class tenants to take up accommodation in these huge and fully-equipped mansions.

It had worked 30-40 years ago when Singapore first embarked on its industrialization program. Then, Singapore was what many would consider a third-world country with low labour costs.

Fast forward 40 years. Singapore is still using the same strategy, although the mansions are now far more hi-tech and the butler and servants much more sophisticated. Unfortunately, we are now competing in a much more competitive league. Our costs are also higher.

The Johns Hopkins incident seemed to indicate that this strategy had hit a snag. Perhaps it is a transient one. As with all relationships, one can expect disagreements and separations.
For the sake of Singapore, I hope so too.

Otherwise, we have a problem.
And it is a big problem.

We want to play in the big league.We do not have the talents to play in this big league, so, we try and attract top talents to help us break into this league.Unfortunately, the others in the league may not want to play with us.

There is a price to pay to enter this league. And the Johns Hopkins incident is an example. Here, even after paying this 'membership' fee, we are still not accepted as a player because we are not seen as possessing the credentials for a big league player.

To be fair, the government is trying to solve this problem, even if it may not know if it is the right answer. It seems to me that their approach is to trade-off time with money. It does not intend to spend time to build up a local industry (or perhaps it might think it cannot afford the time to do so). So, it 'buys' this time by attracting investors to come, hoping to short-cut the process. Hopefully, the money we had spent in attracting and working with these investors would have helped given us a leg up in terms of time.

Had we?
Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that we are back to where we were 8 years ago?
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When I am 74

Elderly man arrested for hitting MP

AN elderly man was arrested for punching Member of Parliament Seng Han Thong on Thursday evening and leaving him with a bruised lip.

The punch came during Mr Seng's meet-the-people session, when the Chinese man — a former taxi driver — came to seek the Yio Chu Kang MP's help to reinstate his terminated taxi contract.

When it was his turn to see the MP, he reportedly raised his voice at Mr Seng and stunned those present by hitting him.

In a statement, the police said it received a call for assistance at about 9.35pm on Thursday. And when its officers arrived, the staff at Ang Mo Kio's Community & Education Centre — where the session was conducted — had already detained the man, who is in his 70s.

Mr Seng had "suffered a bruised lip and had declined medical attention", the police added. The man, who was arrested for assaulting a public servant, cannot be named as the case is under investigation.

Today understands that the 74-year-old man, who is currently out on bail, was formerly a taxi driver with ComfortDelGro and was unhappy with the company for terminating his contract.

When contacted, ComfortDelGro spokesperson Tammy Tan confirmed that the man's contract was terminated in February 2002 for "rude behaviour and for a threat made against a customer".

Said Ms Tan: "As (he) is no longer a hirer with the company, we are not able to go into details about the case. We however stand by our decision to terminate him based on the threats he made to the customer in a letter he wrote."

On the assault, Ms Tan added: "The police is currently investigating the matter and we are rendering them all assistance."

Mr Seng is currently in Shanghai on business. When contacted, the divisonal director for the National Trades Union Congress' administration and research unit told Today that he was "all right" but declined to comment further. Nonetheless, he said that he was not unduly shaken by the assault.

"I continued meeting the residents until around 11pm and then went to board my flight at midnight," he added.
— Loh Chee Kong
Mr Seng was a journalist with Zaobao before entering politics. He is probably best-known for his role as the editor of MM Lee's memoirs. According to the NTUC, he is also an advisor to the taxi operator associations.

This incident interested me for two reasons.
Firstly, this is probably the first time anyone had ever punched an MP in Singapore.
Secondly, and more importantly, was that a man as old as 74 years old, having been unemployed for the last 4 years, was still desperately looking for help to secure employment.
I would be interested to understand his financial situation.

Is he single?
Or had he been neglected by his children?

Are his children still dependent on him?
Or are his children already financially independent but are themselves also struggling?

Had he been living beyond his means?
Had he exhausted all his savings in the 4 years of unemployment?

Is he mentally unstable?Or driven to rage by his circumstances?
Does he have any other siblings or relatives?
Who else can he turn to for help?
Does he qualify as a 'needy'?
Where is our safety net for people like him?

Until more facts emerge, it would be difficult to comment on his actions.
But, given that this is probably the first time anyone dared to punch an MP, is this a sign of times?

Something must have cracked inside a person to cause him to punch someone whom he is asking for help. I have many questions but no satisfactory answers.

Is there a group of low-income badly hit by cost of living pressures and unemployment?How do they perceive the help that had been given so far?

Had their MPs been helpful?Are they seen as giving voice to their concerns or had they been perceived as being the government's voice instead?

The prevailing assumption is that the support base of the PAP is those born before 1970.Is this an indication that the older generation is also unhappy with the PAP?

For me, this incident is a wake-up call.
Will I be financially independent at 74?
Can I afford medical expenses?

I value my financial independence very much.
Many Ministers had suggested that one should rely on your family as the social safety net.
In an increasingly volatile environment, I think it is unrealistic to expect your children to be able to support their families and you. I had come across several taxi-drivers who resumed driving taxis after a break of 5-10 years when their children went out of work.

Well, as the Ministers urged, we should all continue to work for as long as we can.
Yeah, right.
Not many organisations are prepared to employ people well into their 80s.

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How compassionate are we?

Workgroup to look into financial security of kids with special needs
By Noor Mohd Aziz, Channel NewsAsia Posted: 19 July 2006 1806 hrs

SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) has formed a nine-member parents' workgroup to look into the financial security of children with special needs. President of Autism Resource Centre and MP for Jalan Besar Denise Phua has been appointed to lead it. To ensure a good representation, the workgroup comprises parents who have children with disabilities. Ms Phua is herself the mother of a 10-year-old child with autism. The workgroup will gather and analyse the views of parents of children with different special needs through focus group discussions. Based on the feedback, it will recommend initiatives on how such parents may enhance the financial security of their children. The workgroup is expected to submit its recommendations to the Ministry in September.
When I read the headline, I thought the government has finally decided to do something for the needy. But after reading the text, I was disappointed. (Please see bolded text, emphasis is mine)

It looks like the message continues to be : 'You look after yourselves, ok.'

I had always thought that as a nation, we don't look after our needy enough.I used to have a colleague with an autistic child. Seeing her shuttling all over the island putting her child through the various institutions every week while meeting work targets was heart-wrenching. Despite these demands, she faced life stoically.

According to the MCYS, the subsidy given to families under its 'Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children' (EIPIC) this year is between $368 - $506. This programme is targeted at children under the age of 6 who are diagnosed with a handicapping condition or special need that will affect his or her development.

This works out to a total subsidy of about $36,500 for the entire 6-year duration.
Contrast this with the amount spent on a government scholar. The A-Star had just given out 40 scholarships this year. Each overseas scholarship is valued at more than $200,000 - $300,000 (tuition fees, allowances, airfares, etc).

Now, I fully support the importance of nurturing our local talents. But, I also believe that those who are blessed should help the others around them. As a tax-payer, I will have no qualms if more of my tax money is diverted towards helping those in need. As it is now, the relativity of spending between our talents and our needy is skewed in favour of our talents.

I know that the government had always been concerned about creating a moral hazard in drawing up its financial assistance programmes. I fully support that.I would not want to see a society reliant on welfare instead of individual efforts.I would not agree for my tax money to be given to those who can work but choose not to. These are people who can control their own fates but had opted for the easy way out.

But, in the case of those diagnosed with palsy, autism or other learning disabilities, how much control do they have over their conditions, much less their fates?What moral hazard is there if we set aside more money to help them?

I think I have said enough.
Over to you.

Speak Good English during Recess

Study says many Singaporeans speak non-standard English
By Valarie Tan, Channel NewsAsia
Posted: 18 July 2006 1640 hrs

Singaporeans generally may say they speak English but a survey shows that 6 in 10 of them actually speak non-standard English in their daily lives. The study by the Singapore Polytechnic involved some 3,000 English-speaking Singaporeans. So this year's Speak Good English Movement hopes more Singaporeans make it a habit to speak standard English.

Students will be roped in to help highlight the importance of communicating in good English. Ashraff Abdul Samad, Student, Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, said: "Now I would say "How are you doing? Is everything great?" instead of "What's up la? Relax la" that kind of stuff. It's not difficult. When you speak standard English, you need to watch your grammar, there will be no Singlish 'la'."

And that is exactly what the movement hopes to encourage in all Singaporeans, especially the students. Organisers say a recent poll might have indicated that many are still comfortable in Singlish. But Good English is the way to go to give Singapore a more competitive edge, especially in the service industry.

Professor Koh Tai Ann, Chairman, Speak Good English Movement, said: "We would need workers who can communicate with not only the non-Singaporeans among us but all the visitors we are attracting to Singapore - tourists, those who come for conventions, meetings and so on. It would so ironic if we find many Singaporeans' English not suitable and we have to bring in foreign workers to work in these industries who can speak better English than we do."

The straw poll of students also showed that more students speak better English only in formal settings like a class presentation. So this year's movement hopes to encourage them to speak standard English even casually like during recess with their friends. This year's Speak Good English Movement will be officially launched on July 25.

I did a double-take when I first read this.

Yes, the government is all-pervasive. But, I had not thought that they would also want to have a say in how we talk to our friends.

No wonder foreigners have the impression that Singapore is a police state.We cannot tell the Government we are unhappy without providing the solutions to our unhappiness. We cannot laugh.We have to smile when the government says so.

And now, we can't even speak to our friends the way we had always been!
What will they think of next?

I can see a few coming in my crystal ball:
(1) All SMSes must be in proper English
(2) You must speak proper English to your parents and children
(3) Eating establishments will have a Proper English section and a non-proper English section. Patrons at the Proper English section will be given headphones. These headphones will play recorded speeches by Queen Elizabeth II to prevent the "2nd-class" language wafting around them from 'contaminating' them. Patrons sitting at the non-proper English section will have to pay more for their food to help defray the costs of these headphones (and for the royalties of the speeches).

I do not know what seems to be the problem here.

I assume that the standard of our English is poor.
If so, should we not be looking at the way English is taught in schools?Unless we are saying that yes, we are already looking at that issue, employing native speakers is one strategy. But, we think that alone is not enough.

But, if the standard of English in a formal setting (in the classroom) is already poor, how will the students know what is proper English during their recess?Wouldn't you be much better off tackling the problem at its source (in the classroom)?

Unless we are saying that "No, the students already know what is good English. We score well in literacy tests compared to some OECD countries. But our students are 'lazy' to practice them during informal occasions".

This is where it escapes me altogether.
If the students already know how to speak proper English, then, what is the problem here?

Is it the case that the frequent use of Singlish had been causing problems for our standard of English?
If so, this is no different from 40 years ago when most students spoke dialects at home and with friends.
And I think our standard of English seemed to be ok, without the Speak Good English campaign.

Having said that, I do sense a slip in the standard of English amongst the young these days.My view is that it could be due to several reasons:
(1) More are graduating from the universities these days. It used to be the top 15%. Now, it could be closer to the top 40%. The 'average' of each cohort is now lower than the 'average' of the past, compared to their peers
(2) A generation of students did not do grammar in their English studies
(3) The standard of English amongst teachers is now more variable. I think teachers of 40-50 years ago seemed to speak better English than the current average. This is probably a result of (1) and (2).

As an educator, I would have opted to pay more attention to what is taught in the classroom. Have teachers model good English speech. Actively point out the right speech or grammar whenever you hear students speaking improper English. Show students how to distinguish between informal settings and formal settings where proper English should be used.Have some fun activities 'translating' proper English and improper English to reinforce that each has a different platform and audience, etc. But if it is the standard of written English we are concerned about, then, it is another story altogether.Perhaps more about this on another occasion.

For now, I feel sad for students.
Even that little space where they can be themselves has to be governed by the norms set by the government.

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So Sian We All

Inspired by the song 'SIAN' and the 'So Say We All' podcasts by mr brown:

The weather remains the same from Jan to December

The leaves on our trees never turn amber

The MRT is so noisy and crowded
Each time I take it, I feel so bombarded

I did not have my teh tarik today
The uncle went for certification with the WDA

I had chicken rice last weekend
It is now more expensive, thanks to the Invisible Hand

My boss tells us: "Good work,
Keep going for that extra mile."
My Government tells us: "Cheer up,
Please remember to

I live in a HDB flat
My kitchen is very close to the opposite flat

My children prepare for CA 2
My wife and I re-learn too

I am a Singaporean
And feeling very sian

So sian we all
So sian we all

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Student guardians very welcome

New MOM policy for 'study mamas'?
Letter from Andrew Teo
Voices, Today, 15th July 2006

I refer to the recent issue of "study mamas". The question is not what jobs they are or are not allowed to work at, but why they are even allowed to work here in the first place.

Will banning these mothers from masseuse jobs simply mean they will find other ways to "service" men here? It's just a matter of time before these "foreign talents" get creative and find other loopholes to exploit.

My Indonesian maid has been of great help to us, and she (and many other maids in Singapore) has the right to be with her children. Yet, are Indonesians allowed to bring their children here to study while they work as maids? Why not?

They don't work as masseuses, so they don't cause any trouble. In fact, they will work harder if their children are here.

My wife and I are willing to let my maid's child live with our family. We are most willing to pay for the child's expenses because our maid deserves this form of assistance.

When my wife and I were studying in New York, we had to show our bank accounts to the authorities as proof that we had enough funds to survive in the United States. Our tuition fees were approximately $15,000 per quarter, yet we were only given an F1 visa, which allowed us to work only within the university campus. A student's accompanying spouse was given an F2 visa, which didn't allow any sort of employment. Spouses were regarded as dependents.

There are many other types of visas, but my point is this: The Ministry of Manpower needs more sophisticated policies that cater to different situations and nationalities. The study mamas should never be allowed to work here in the first place.

Another concern: Should not the children of these foreigners be enrolled in international schools here? Why let them into our public schools, and on what criteria do they get accepted?
I had, earlier, written about this issue.
The letter-writer too questioned the level of sophistication of our visa policies. The way it is currently drafted, our policy of granting work visas for student guardians effectively means that Singaporeans are funding the education of these foreign students. And I thought the Government had been promoting our education services as a means to earn foreign exchange and boost our GDP!
Going by the Australian and the US examples, Singapore's policies on student guardians could well be one of the most liberal around.
This is yet another example why Singaporeans feel that foreigners receive very good treatment, sometimes even better than locals.
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It is all about Money

It's not all about money, work survey finds
Employees' commitment tied to good environment

14th July 2006

So, money isn't everything after all — even when it comes down to determining how committed one is to a job.

Just one in four employees said money was an important factor in driving job satisfaction, compared to 56 per cent who chose having a good working environment as their key motivator.

A new survey on employee engagement released yesterday by the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI), which involved 127 companies that employed between 50 and 800 people, found that monetary rewards may have played a significant role in attracting people to a company, but in driving employee loyalty and commitment, cash plays a small role.

Instead, topping the list of motivators are: A good working environment and bosses who involve staff in decision-making.

Indeed, there seems to be a large gap between what workers truly want and what bosses are willing to offer. Take good career prospects, for example. In the poll of 127 workers, more than half ranked this of third in importance, out of a list of 10 job satisfaction factors (see table). In contrast, nearly four out of five companies (78 per cent) placed this value second-last in importance.

This indicated a distinct lack of awareness on the management's part of the wants of the workers, said the institute.

Its executive director, Mr David Ang, said: "Companies in general are not up to the expectations of their employees. Perhaps companies don't regard things such as career prospects very highly because they eat into business costs. But now that they are starting to realise the worth of their employees, perhaps things will change."

Such disparities in perception are believed to have an adverse effect on staff turnover, too.

In another SHRI workforce survey released yesterday, nearly half of the 61 respondents said their company has difficulty retaining staff, citing three top reasons: A better paying job in another company (71 per cent), better prospects (71 per cent) and failure to move up the corporate ladder (44 per cent).

And when it comes to hiring older workers, Singaporean employers are, surprisingly, more than happy to do so.

A key reason is that most bosses have fewer problems with a mature workforce. Four in 10 companies said they are keen to redesign jobs to meet the needs of older workers.

SHRI also found that 75 per cent of workers describe themselves as "engaged" in their work, meaning they are committed to their work and enjoy it.

The most engaged employees are those working either at universities or voluntary welfare organisations (83 per cent).

Only 55 per cent of workers at small and medium-sized enterprises say they are engaged in their jobs.
I had been daydreaming.

I dreamt that I was heading a Department. I was giving good results, meeting targets aggressively and paid well. Unfortunately, I had a nagging feeling of restlessness. What's wrong with me?

Maybe it was the departure of my good friend Mark who was made redundant last month. Big Boss said market was tough, need to cut costs to stay 'competitive'. So, half the Department was 'outsourced' to external contractors who could do it at 70% of the costs of doing it ourselves.

Maybe it was the talk in the grapevine about the company re-locating to China. The engineers in China cost one-fifth that in Singapore.
Maybe it was the letter inviting me to sign up for "Eldershield". I am now officially a statistic of the 'elderly'. And the elderly in Singapore are not particularly popular.

No. I think I know what's wrong.It is my mother. She's been watching these serials about "Yue Fei" recently. And the politics in the serials bear such a striking resemblance to what is happening in my company that I am beginning to see shades of "Yue Fei" in some of my colleagues. They are not quite popular with Big Boss.

We all know what happened to "Yue Fei". Loyalty has its costs. And I don't fancy being a "Yue Fei" for anyone.

So. That's why I am restless.
In the past, I had pledged company loyalty in return for lifelong employment. Now, with the rapid pace of change, the adoption of hire-and-fire practices and outsourcing, this compact is shattered.

It would be too onerous to expect any company to look after me under an increasingly competitive environment. Even if your direct boss wants to, his boss might not.Likewise, I don't think any company should expect company loyalty from me too.

Instead, I will look after myself, whether the company involves me in decisions or promises me excellent career prospects, or otherwise.

Which is why I am quite puzzled by the findings of SHRI.Issues like involvement in decisions and career prospects had been highlighted as the most important components of an employee retention strategy.

Perhaps the respondents were all young workers, who look forward to being heard and promotions ahead of them. For me, "Cash is King", as Oscar Wilde once said: "When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing; now that I am old, I know that it is."

Of course, it does not mean that money can solve all problems.But, money forms the base.Without the right salary, you cannot even start to talk about recruitment or retention.

To be sure, strategies like involvement in decisions and career prospects help.But, if the SHRI is trying to advise employers that the way to secure employee loyalty is to involve staff in decisions and enhance their career prospects, then, I think it is too naive.I do not think any employer can expect employee loyalty, regardless of what they can do.

And there is sometimes very little an employer can do.In an environment as competitive as we are now, employers are sometimes as much a victim of the larger environment as employees are.So, if they cannot look after themselves, how can you expect them to look after you?

For me, the bottom-line is still Cash.
It's the only thing that counts.
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MM Lee clarifies GIC's earnings not linked to CPF interest rates
By May Wong, Channel NewsAsia

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has clarified that GIC's earnings are not connected to the interest paid on CPF accounts. He was speaking at GIC's 25th anniversary dinner at the Ritz Carlton.
The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) is a global investment management company established to manage Singapore's foreign reserves.

MM Lee said that the GIC invests the government's reserves abroad in assets which carry higher risks like equities, bonds, real estate. Therefore these are expected to earn higher returns on average over the long term.

The returns are not related to CPF investments. "The CPF invests members' savings only in absolutely risk-free Singapore government bonds," MM Lee said.

"CPF members are paid market-related interest rates based on the 12-month fixed deposit rates and the savings account interest rates of the major Singapore banks, subject to a floor," he said.

"CPF members who are willing to accept higher risks for higher returns have many channels to do so on their own through the CPFIS scheme," he added.
Mr Lee said that the GIC has significantly enhanced the value of Singapore's savings.

But the growth of China and India will present more opportunities in the future. So he feels that the GIC needs to continue to build up the quality of people as one of its success factors. But it is not just about retaining home-grown talent.

"We need to create an environment where professionals can be deployed where they can best exercise their skills and maximise their contribution," MM Lee said. "As a global investor operating in many asset classes across 40 countries, GIC can offer abundant opportunities for exceptional professional growth and experience," he added.

Mr Lee also said that the training opportunity and exposure at GIC are probably unmatched among large investment firms in Asia. He hopes that the professionals will view their work at GIC as a long-term career.

Over 25 years, GIC has grown to an outfit that invests in over 40 countries through nine asset classes, handling over a hundred billion dollars. And its track record has been good.

Over a period of 25 years to March 2006, the annual rate of return on the foreign reserves managed by GIC averaged 9.5 percent in US dollar terms, and 8.2 percent in Singapore dollar terms.

The average rate of return over global inflation was 5.3 percent per annum.
The CPF Board invests our CPF funds in Singapore Government Securities (SGS) issued by the Government. The Government then passes this money over to GIC to invest on its behalf.

When MM said that our CPF money is invested in 'risk-free' instruments, he meant that our CPF money will definitely be refunded, because SGS are 'guaranteed' by the Government.

However, when the GIC loses money on its investments, where would the Government find the money to repay us our CPF?
It can do so through several means. For example, it could increase taxes, eg GST. It could devise new sources of government revenue, like the COE did for the Government when it was first introduced.

"There is no free lunch.", Mr Mah Bow Tan once said.Any loss made by the GIC has to be made good elsewhere. I fear Singaporeans would ultimately have to cough up this difference. And it would be those working who would be 'paying' for the CPF of the retirees.

Of course, the Government could cut down on Government expenditures (eg salaries for civil servants and politicians). It could also consider deferring or cancelling projects like HDB or school upgrading projects. Given the kind of candidates (please see blog entry below) that the PAP had been getting these days, I do not think salary cuts woud rank high on their list.

Which brings me to the other point in the article. The GIC had been making an annual return of 9.5% in US dollar terms over the last 25 years. Is this a good or bad return?

If you look at the S&P 500 index over the past 25 years, it had been making an annual return of about 10.5%. This means that if we had just parked the entire sum of US$100 billion in the S&P 500 shares and left it there for 25 years, we would have done better than the GIC.

Of course, the GIC could have done worse. Temasek recently had to quickly 'off-load' its investments in ShinCorp and Southern Bank Bhd when it found that these investments went above the limits specified by the respective local authorities governing foreign investments.
What puzzled me when I read MM's announcement is : The GIC had always been operating under a climate of secrecy, why did MM talk about its returns all of a sudden? I hope it's not the Chinese proverb – 'There are no 300 taels of gold here'.

Could it be that what happened at Temasek had also been happening at GIC and that had prompted the Government to 'pre-emptively' assure Singaporeans of the security of their CPF?

Perhaps I had been too cynical. It could very well be the start of a 'more transparent' era as far as our investment decisions go.
That would be good news. For most Singaporeans, the CPF is their main, if not only, asset. God forbid if anything were to happen to it.
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A Milestone Protest

Last week, a particular community living in Singapore achieved a milestone for itself. It organized a protest for what it saw as an injustice committed by the Government. The community was outraged that the Government had taken a heavy-handed approach in regulating the industry. It was also unhappy with the majority of Singapore for siding with the authorities.

I was, of course, talking about the 'Study Mamas'.

Oh yes, before I forgot. The community of bloggers too achieved a milestone last week with their silent
protest at the MRT station. They managed to round up about 30 protesters, compared to the 100 that the 'Study Mamas' managed to mobilize.

Back to the 'Study Mamas'.
Study mamas in embassy protest
Loh Chee Kong

Upset with the negative glare cast on them in recent weeks, close to 100 study mamas gathered at the Chinese Embassy to register their unhappiness on Friday.

Their grouse: The "unfair" accusations heaped on study mamas ever since a high-profile murder of a Chinese national masseuse exposed the sprouting of sleazy massage parlours in neighbourhoods.

It is alleged that many study mamas — a term for foreign women accompanying their children who are studying here — drive these parlours, which have now come under tighter regulations.

Mdm Lee, who had worked as a technical officer in China and has a 10-year-old son studying here, told Today: "We came here to show our unhappiness with all the unfair accusations hurled at us.

"Many of us are not doing anything shameful or improper, yet Singaporeans seem to view all of us through tinted glasses after what happened. In one fell swoop, all study mamas are accused of being involved in indecent activities and it seems they want to drive us out."

The 38-year-old masseuse was among the steady stream of study mamas who gathered in front of the embassy from 9am on Friday, after being notified through SMSes by their peers. Barely two hours later, the gathering along the narrow Tanglin Road swelled to almost 100 of them, prompting police officers and embassy staff to disperse the crowd.

They left after an embassy official assured them "their concerns will be reflected to the Singapore Government", said Mdm Lee.

As of July last year, there were about 6,800 study mamas here, mostly from China. Since August 2003, following revelations that some of them were giving sexual favours for cash, the Ministry of Manpower stopped granting work permits for study mamas in the massage industry.

It is understood that while study mamas can work after staying in Singapore for a year, they cannot operate in "objectionable occupations" such as massage parlours and food stalls, or as bar or dance hostesses.

But another study mama at the protest, who gave her name as "Alice", said: "We don't really have a choice in working as masseuses.

"We can't work at coffeeshops or as toilet cleaners as employers think it's troublesome that we need to renew our work permits from time to time."
Singapore had chosen the education services as one of its key economic pillars. It is a relatively new-comer in this game, compared to countries like US, UK and Australia, for example.

Like Australia, Singapore allows the student to be accompanied by a student guardian. To accompany a foreign student in Australia, the student guardian must show proof and declare that she has the means to support herself and any other dependent (eg children) that she may bring along to Australia.

Depending on the country of origin, this 'financial capacity' should provide for her living expenses ranging from 1 year to the entire duration of the student's programme. The amount set by the Australian government includes a living expense of A$12,000 per year (for self) and A$1,800 – A$2,400 per year for each dependent child that she may bring. Student guardians must also declare that they have enough funds to pay for return airfares for both self and each child.

What is important to note is that this 'financial capacity' is over and above the 'financial capacity' required for the student that the guardian is accompanying. For the student, this 'financial capacity' will include the tuition fees and living expenses for this student for the entire duration of his/her studies.

Suppose a foreign student enrolls in a 2-year high school programme in Australia, which may charge A$5,000-A$15,000 in school fees annually. If he were to bring along a guardian, the total 'financial capacity' of both could amount to as much as A$75,000.

In Australia, student guardians are not allowed to work, although the foreign student may engage in part-time work of at most 20 hours per week during his studies.

In contrast, a foreign student in Singapore needs a local sponsor who must post a security deposit of at most S$5,000. The student guardian can work after 1 year in Singapore, although not in the 'objectionable occupations', as determined by the Government.

It seems to me that Singapore is more 'lax' than Australia in granting student and student guardian visas. Lest you have the wrong impression about me, I have nothing against foreign students and their guardians. They help bring about a more cosmopolitan and vibrant Singapore. I have many non-Singaporean friends and had always found them to be a refreshing change.

We all know that price conveys the market segment one is targeting. Looking at the 'price', my guess is that Singapore is targeting a different market than, say, Australia. It could be a deliberate policy, as Singapore is new to the game and sets out to capture greater 'market share'.

In my view, as far as the China market is concerned, it is such a huge market that there is sufficient volume in every segment of its market. In any case, a small market like Singapore can never cope with nor absorb the 'volume' that China has to offer. With rising income levels, a Chinese friend commented that the current 'fine' for having more than 1 child in China of 50,000 RMB had become less effective in birth control as the amount had become pretty affordable to many Chinese nowadays.

As such, we need not be so concerned about 'pricing' ourselves out of the market. By re-defining our target market, Singapore can also reinforce its standing amongst an increasingly sophisticated international student market.

Otherwise, for as long as government has to define a list of 'objectionable occupations', the unhappiness that some Singaporeans have over student guardians who flout the immigration laws may escalate. As will incidents like the protests by the student guardians who feel 'wronged'.
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Participation and Psychology

I had been daydreaming.

I dreamed that I was running my own pretty successful company. Unfortunately, there was this one columnist that absolutely hated my product. He makes use of his regular columns to criticise them. And, I fear, this had affected customer perceptions of my products. I thought hard. In addition to writing in to address his peeves, are there any other options available to me?

Well, I could ask myself if there had been any truths in the columnist's comments. If so, I could ask the Engineering Department to look into enhancing the product features. If the faults lay with perceptions, I could ask the Marketing Department to look into the right campaigns to address these. Of course, I could also get to know the columnist better. With a more open exchange of views, I could hopefully correct any misperceptions he may have of my products.

Had there been another media company, I might also try and 'influence' the other media to write good stories about my products. Hopefully, positive reviews will then outnumber negative ones.

But, in the case of the Government, it probably has several more options than a company does.

For one, as the regulator of the media industry, it could exercise controls through the law or licensing requirements on the media company. For example, it can set rules on how the media industry is supposed to operate. In this case, the government could decide that no media company is to 'champion' against the Government, as a rule of operations. I am no lawyer. I understand
some had questioned the legality of such a requirement. But, I believe this rule could have been in existence since independence. Given the recent episode with mr brown, this rule is very much in force, and I think, will continue to be the guiding principle of governance in Singapore for a while yet.

The new Government, under the leadership of PM Lee Hsien Loong, talked about heralding a new era of 'inclusiveness' and 'participation' from all. To some
bloggers, this episode had set this 'promise' back by at least 12 years (In 1994, Dr Catherine Lim's column in the Straits Times was similarly terminated after she wrote a series of critical articles about the Government).

I believe the Government could consider this episode as clearly breaching the 'OB' markers and so, has nothing to do with the concepts of 'inclusiveness' and 'participation' that it envisions. Its vision about 'inclusiveness' and 'participation' relates to an active citizenry contributing ideas to make Singapore a better place to live in. Not a group of citizens who complain and 'campaign' against the good work that the Government had been doing without any constructive suggestions.

What puzzles me is how a person would be able to contribute ideas to make a place better if he has no complaints/criticisms in the first place. They say that "Necessity is the mother of all inventions". If I have no complaints about a place, then, wherefore my suggestions to improve the place?

I believe, therefore, that active citizenry must be founded upon a certain level of 'unhappiness' about the present state of affairs. That might help explain the high level of 'apathy' amongst Singaporeans as perceived by observers. In a sense, most things are already working pretty well in Singapore.

I think the Government accepts that there are differences in opinions. For if it is not, then, I think Singapore will be in deep trouble. With technology facilitating more interactions, perspectives will diverge. Not just amongst its citizens, but also amongst the many foreign peoples that Singapore relates to – in business, in international affairs, etc. Ego-centricity does not bode well for Singapore – both domestically and internationally.

I think the Government also does not mind people being unhappy or complaining/ criticising the Government. The "Ah Pek" in the coffeeshops had been complaining for ages and there had, as far as I know, not been any public Governmental reaction towards them.

The issue, it seems to me, is over the use of the mass media to criticise the Government. The mass media, as a channel of communications, is 'sacrosanct'. No one should be 'abusing' this channel. Any potential transgressor must be re-directed to the political arena to be managed within the framework defined by the political system.

This brings to mind the theories of cognitive development espoused by Piaget, one of the 3 titans in the field of study of Psychology. According to Piaget, children (and adults by extension) learn through a process of 'assimilation' and 'accommodation'. Children construct 'cognitive schemas' to explain what they see around them. When a new experience presents itself, children will 'assimilate' this new experience to an existing schema. If that presents a conflict, then, it would create new schemas to 'accommodate' the new experience.

In describing MM Lee's leadership style in "Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas", the
biographers said that MM concluded that Singapore and Asian societies required firm leadership to produce social and political stability.

To me, the letter from MICA is an indication that this 'schema' had prevailed. Assimilation had been deployed. Yet again. If the approach had been less 'firm', we might have seen a more toned-down letter asking mr brown to come up with constructive suggestions in his next column. And if mr brown continues to take a 'sarcastic' tone the following week, we might have seen the government escalating the tone of that letter. Instead, the government had decided to come up with a 'firm' letter straight away.

Will we likely see 'accommodation', the construction of a new schema to deal with future such occurrences? Does the government see a need to, in the first place?

There are many related questions to this. For example:
"Will firm leadership continue to be a pre-requisite for 'social and political stability' in an Asian society increasingly being exposed to Western media influences?"
"How does 'firm leadership' square with a generation of Singaporeans who had been brought up differently by their parents who may not value nor practise 'firm leadership'?"

"What would happen to Singapore if it were to experience social and political instability?"
"Would we not see the foreign investors taking their money out of Singapore?"
"Would we not see thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs?"

If the Government 'relaxes', investors may lose confidence. On the other hand, if the Government continues to run Singapore tightly, then, the more liberal citizens lose confidence.

Damned, if you do; damned, if you don't.
It's not an easy decision.
That's why Singaporeans want to have a world-class government who can make the right decisions.

What do the public feel about this episode?
At the extreme ends of the spectrum, I think this episode had merely reinforced their perceptions about the Government.

At the margins, however, with due respect to my fellow Singaporeans, I think most of them cannot see that clearly what is so 'special' about the print media. Most of them will likely see this as a reinforcement of the government's firm control of the media (and probably infer that the Governmet has a low tolerance for disagreements) and a step back in encouraging greater 'participation'.

At the end of the day, it is a judgement call.
For now, the Government's assessment could be that the fallout from this episode (if any) is small and most likely transient, compared to the benefits of maintaining 'social and political stability'.
Only time will tell if this episode will become a turning point in Singapore's future growth and development.

For me, this episode had illustrated clearly Piaget's theories in action.
The processes of 'assimilation' and 'accommodation' take place throughout a person's life. The pace at which they take place depends on the intensity of a person's experiences and varies from one person to another.

For the progress of our nation, I hope to see this pace quickened for all concerned - for a person who is not quick in 'assimilating' and 'accommodating' can be seen as inflexible and proud.

And we all know what takes place after Pride
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