Sunday, January 29, 2006

A crooked relationship

Surprisingly, Malaysia is reportedly proceeding with its plans to build a half-bridge on its side of the Singapore-Johor Causeway. This idea was first mooted a couple of years ago by the Mahathir Administration during one of the worst periods in the relations between Singapore and Malaysia. Post-Mahathir relations have improved considerably, with the idea of a half-bridge put back onto the negotiating table.

Singapore-Johor CausewayI guess a reason must be that Malaysia has become impatient with the progress of the talks and think that such a drastic action will help kickstart this aspect of its negotiations. Whatever it is, if such a half-bridge were to be constructed, it will be a distinctive landmark and probably a freak show of the extent to which sour relations between two nations can lead to. Heck, from a Singaporean's perspective, Malaysia is much much larger than Singapore, and its potentially much much greater than the small island state. It doesn't need Singapore's lands, or its national's money currently locked up in the Singapore CPF system. I am speculating - does it want unimpeded sea passage through the Straits of Johor so that its Tanjong Pelapas Port and other ports it may have in mind along the Johor coast can become more convenient for shippers?

When, and if, the Causeway is demolished, another part of Singapore's historic landmark will also disappear. That is a lot to pay for benefits that are speculative at best.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Profiting from good news

SMRT Corp is reported to have made 26% year-on-year rise in 3rd quarter net profit due to higher fair revenue. That is good news for SMRT, and probably both good and bad news for commuters.

Bad news because commuters now may feel vindicated about their suspicion that SMRT has all along been making a lot of money from them by raising its train fairs a few years ago. Many will feel now that they have been taken for a ride (no pun intended).

SMRT TrainBut it is good that the corp is making money off train fairs because there will not be any good reason for fair increases now, at least for the next couple of years, I hope. I just can't imagine how its $30 million net profit (obtain in only one quarter, mind you) can be dissipated into costs except through raising wages to exorbitant levels, or skyrocketing fuel costs. Even if there is no further growth, the land transportation business in Singapore is fairly stable and predictable, so the profit will not fluctuate much.

There will be even greater sceptism now if the other major transportation provider, SBSTranit, were to clamour for fair increases any time soon. Which is a good thing.

So cheers to the profit reports!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Staircase to heaven

What is wrong with civil architects, designers and engineers in Singapore today? They build spanking new public buildings, or refurbish old ones, like one in Chinatown, with mechanical escalators to boot. But there is one problem, there is only one escalator, and it is either up-riding or down-riding at any one time. Mediacorp reported on site that people didn't know how to get down to the ground floor after they took the escalator up. Apparently, the staircase wasn't that obvious or visible either. Obviously, this has annoyed many people who visit Chinatown. Who will have expected that a spanking (albeit refurbished) building will take a step back in terms of useability? Why are we paying taxes for?

This is not new. In one of its unique civil developments in Sengkang central - the Integrated MRT/LRT/Bus Terminal/Compass Point/Compass Heights development, built about 4 years ago, there is also only one escalator at the end of an overhead bridge which is connected to this integrated development. The escalator is almost always up-riding, and there is only one of them. While finding the staircase in this instance is not a problem, it is positioned AWAY from the bus stop. This means that people who need to reach the bus-stop from Compass Point must walk a much further distance. Sometimes, this can mean the difference between missing a bus, the consequence of which is at least a further 10-minutes wait for the next one.

What is surprising is that these developments were designed and built in the 21st century and in Singapore too, which is renown for its civil housing programme! We've built hundreds of thousand of houses (albeit skywards) over the last 30 years. There seems to be a regression in standards, ironically, in the new century. The designs are certainly not well thought through - a 'crime' if I can call it - after all those years of experience. What do they teach in civil design / engineering schools nowadays, I wonder?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Will there be a tomorrow?

MindefOn Monday, 16 January 2006, Singapore's Defence Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, proposed to Parliament to amend the relevant laws that will increase the punishment to those who default their National Services duties. This is both fair and sensible. Fair because we cannot allow defaulters to go away feeling that they have cheated the system by paying a relatively light penalty (S$5,000 and/or bond), which can easily be recovered in less than a year of hard work while also at the same time accumulating relevant working experience.

One of the most moving points he made was whether there will be a Singapore to return to if its able-bodied boys are given exceptions to 'opt-out' of serving in the National Defence force. This point bears repeating here:

Several Members have expressed sympathy for Melvyn Tan. Sir, I ask them to consider: who will shed a tear for Singapore if there is no Singapore for such people to return to, because the institution of National Service has been undermined, young men do not serve, no one defends Singapore and Singapore is no longer there for them to return to? Who will shed a tear? Mr Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Defence in his speech in Parliament. See below.

Surely, this is the most important point of it all. Defence is a shared responsibility. I protect your house and family and you protect mine. Who will protect the families of those who have willfully evaded their obligations and left the country, perhaps leaving their aged parents to fend for themselves? Worst, does the evader expect others to do that which he is unwilling to do? We need to be ready at any moment to defend our land, our homes and our families, come what may, because we have no other home to go to.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13

What does talent count for if there is no conducive environment to nurture it, and display it? How much talent was lost in the World Wars last century we can only speculate, but you will agree with me that it is not insubstantial. The first order of things, surely, is the protection of our livelihood. Talent, and the opportunities that will grow and nurture it, will then naturally follow, will it not?

Those who are overseas and who do not want to serve, then like some MPs suggested, let them leave and only return on the pain of serving a jail term and a fine. That is only fair.

Defence Minister's Speech in Parliament on this issue

Monday, January 16, 2006

The White Elephant Rolls

Buangkok MRT StationWell, at last, the Buangkok MRT station was opened yesterday, not a moment too soon for the residents who live around that area, it seems. Many were filmed rushing towards the faregates for their first...errr...ride? Heck, haven't these people been riding on the subway trains for well over 2 years? So why the rush? The scene reminded me of the day when Windows 95 was released in the US. People just rushing up to pay money for the next new thing.

Taking the train yesterday was certainly not free. The place may be new, but the novelty of the place will soon wear out. And there are no prizes for being first, unless you feel that being featured on the News that evening is a good enough prize. Unfortunately, the first person attempting to enter the faregates had some problems, either with his farecard or something else. He had to have some help from the station staff. Well, so much for a smooth start to the service on the first day.

One thing is for sure, we'd probably have a bigger crowd now when people commute to the office. We are told that about 3,500 additional people will be added to the crowd. Well, let's brace ourselves for a squeezy ride.

Actually, we should call this station the Elephant station for the notoriety gained through the White Elephant incident. It looks white from the outside, anyway.

Picture source:

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Open Sesame

George SorosGeorge Soros is on record as saying that "Singapore does not qualify as an open society". This remark was made at the Raffles City Convention Centre during the Singapore Perspectives Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies on January 11, 2006. Singapore's Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) pointed out that if Singapore were not open, George Soros would not have had the opportunity of making that remark in Singapore, much less at the Raffles City Convention Centre.

Many other more sensible rejoinders have been expressed, by Professor Tommy Koh, Dr Catherine Lim and even Mr Vivian Balakrishnan of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. But I thought that MICA's remarks were a tad defensive and really, stating the obvious. MICA said:

If we were not an open society, George Soros would hardly be able to make the comment at an open forum in Singapore, and be reported in the Singapore media.

It gave the impression that MICA didn't really appreciate the central message that Mr Soros, and others, were making - that open-ness covers a wide spectrum, that Singapore just hasn't covered it all yet. The choice here is not between a totally open society and a police state. So there was really no need to say anything, reply to anything. But government departments have been conditioned (obligated?) to rejecting and replying to any and every criticism that it has become predictable and formulaic. I don't think people would miss anything if MICA had kept its peace.

As all growing people, and nations, know, changes happen over time. Attitudes and behaviour yesterday may not (will most likely not) be the same tomorrow. That's a sign of movement and hopefully, progress. Ariel Sharon's political moves in recent times is a prime example of this. I think we are opening up gradually. Only those who are figuratively blind or literal babes are not able to see or appreciate the shifting social environment toward more open-ness in Singapore.

For the original report, see this TODAY report

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Whistling in the wind

Whistle-blowingOne of the expected consequence of the (old) NKF saga is a tightening of rules and oversight procedures in the affairs of institutions of public character, or more commonly known as charities. Governance issues have already been raised and addressed in the corporate sector for some time now, particularly since the Enron debacle through the Sarbannes-Oxley Act.

This is all well and good. People just should not go off and spend the millions given in good faith on any and everything that the charity thinks is justified. There must be regular accounting, not creative accounting that misleads the donors and stakeholders. That was what happened in the old NKF. However, there are some who are now suggesting that a process of 'whistle-blowing' - that of telling on the 'wrong' practices of an organisation or person in that organisation - should be institutionalised. The authorities have so far very wisely resisted this move. A whistle-blowing culture is a stifling culture. When is an action considered illicit? Who decides? What if someone, in all good faith, uses an unconventional way of bringing good to the organisation as a whole and in the process, benefiting the mission and purpose of that organisation? In a whistle-blowing culture, such unconventional practices will attract suspicion of wrong-doing, and the consequent blowing of the whistle. So somebody who is imaginative enough to do things differently will be penalised.

Whistle-blowing has a stifling effect on people and innovation. It supposes that there is only one way of doing things - the tried and tested, conventionally accepted way. It brooks no deviation. It will be the death of progress and improvement. We shouldn't swing from one extreme of unfettered excess to the other end of sterility and immobility.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

General Elections, they are a'comin

Ballot Box c. 1900In quiet little Singapore, where there are no protest marches, loud signboards or placards agitating for a particular cause, General Election rumours are going around quite loudly. The incumbent government, through its constituencies and wards have, of late, been announcing grand and ambitious civil works over the next few years that will add to the people's enjoyment of their neighbourhood. At the national level, the government has promised to give a once-only subsidy to poorer sections of the population, identified by the type of government housing that they live in. Furthermore, SBSTransit has relented (through government persuasion, perhaps, and certainly through the hard work of Mr Charles Chong, MP for the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and will open its Buangkok MRT station (closed for over 3 years) earlier than scheduled this Sunday, 15th January 2006, which will add 3,000 commuters to its trains everyday.

Good news rarely come in such a gush or should I say, a torrent. The only conclusion is that the General Elections are coming. It is due 2007 anyway. The Straits Times speculate that this election is going to come sooner rather than later, most likely in March 2006. March is when all the holidays are over so that vacations will likely not be disrupted (an expensive thing from any angle), the students settled down in their schools, and government school teachers are available for election duty for a week in March. Further, we never know how the world economy will be doing in 6 months' time, so the government would want to catch the 'feel-good' factor while it is still there.

I suspect that every opposition party is gearing up for the fight. I expect more new faces to show up in the opposition camps. It will be an interesting General Election - if nothing but to wake up sleepy 'ol Singapore - politics-wise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Singapore Life and Times

I am starting this blog to focus on issues and events that has all to do with Singapore. Often, the things I write about are rather parochial - a natural thing for any journal - which perhaps appeals only to Singaporeans or people familiar with the local environment. My experience with blogging has shown me that more people outside of Singapore reach my blogs than those on this island I live on. I suspect that many a times, some visitors may not know what I am writing about because they lack the context and also because of the local references that I make and assume readers will understand and appreciate them.

So this blog is explicitly about life and experiences in Singapore, but I will try to point readers who are otherwise not Singaporeans, or live far from this part of the world, to links and resources that will help them learn more about this island state.

Actually, to start knowing about Singapore, there is no better website to visit than here.