Tuesday, October 31, 2006

That pound of flesh

Shylock - http://www.scn.org/It would appear that Singapore bankers are a bunch of swindl...er..Shylocks. Unsurprisingly, even the Association of Banks of Singapore are backing them up over the issue of multiple Floating Board Rates (FBR) that banks maintain to compute interest on loans. And many who have borrowed from these banks to fund their property purchases must be biting their nails now that they know their interest is pegged to whatever rates the banks decide to charge. What's the difference compared to if they went to a casino to bet their life savings? The first one squeezes you dry without your knowing about it, the other is more open about it. Somehow, the image of Shylock comes to mind.

'Trust us' - the banks say, but the banks are hardly those who trust anybody. They send their debt collectors to foreclose on your house and business loans the moment they smell something ratty - and they have first charge on the moneys to boot.

But of course I may be wrong about all this. However, so far, replies in the press from banks over the issue of multiple FBRs have been far from convincing. That pound of flesh is difficult for its customers to swallow.

On the other hand, NTUC seems more reasonable. They only have one FBR, so I understand, making loan computations more predictable and comprehensible, not to say fair. I am glad that I borrowed that huge gob of money from NTUC. Perhaps re-financing with NTUC may be a good idea for the rest?

Disclaimer: I do not work for NTUC nor its affiliate organisations. Heck, I am not even a Union member. I am just a satisfied customer who does not have to toss and turn in bed worrying about banks' arbitrary FBRs.

Image source: http://www.scn.org/

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The race in life

Multi-racialism by food - http://www.lafoodnotbombs.org/When I was young and lived in the Naval Base, played with people of diverse races. I am a Chinese and there were Indians, Sikhs, Malays and smaller number of Eurasians in that community. We played Rounders and went fishing together. They celebrated Hari Raya and Deepavali, and I, Chinese New Year. Some Indians have even invited me for lunch and that's where I learned to use more of my hands.

We never thought that doing all of these violated any of our religions, which we maintained in our own way. So I am sad when some extreme Muslims begin to preach 'separateness' at the social and community level. Certainly, religious beliefs separate us at a fundamental level, but that does not mean that we cannot enjoy the customs and cultures of a different race. My life would have been poorer if I had not had the chance to interact with people of other races. In fact, today, I still maintain links with these people, many of whom I went to school with, and who I will ever regard as my friends.

It is sad that such multi-racial hodgepodge communities as the one that existed in the Singapore Naval Base, and I believe many other places in Singapore as well, has become almost extinct, what with everyone living in their pigeon-coop fashioned government housing (HDB) and private apartments. For all the government's quota policy and sustained effort at ensuring that each HDB block has a mix of Chinese, Indians and Malays, I must say I have never interacted with any other race in my many years living in one.

My life, and probably my children's life, are the poorer for it.

Image source: http://www.lafoodnotbombs.org/

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The heart of dining

Japanese grilled - http://web-japan.org/I rarely write about dining experiences. No, let me correct that. I have never written about my dining experiences, because eating is not a hobby for me, unlike many others in Singapore. Until now.

Vivo City is the hottest place in Singapore right now. Even on a 'working' day, you can meet throngs of people at this new spanking mega shopping mall, as I did yesterday afternoon. This wasn't my first time there and I amused myself identifying the new shops that were opened since my last visit a week ago. I decided to have dinner there. My companion seemed very interested in a Japanese Restaurant called Shin Kushiya which is billed as a Japanese Charcoal Grill restaurant. A look at the prices on its menu suggested that it was a mid-priced restaurant. I could afford that. The only problem was it opened only at 6pm for dinner. Well that gave us time to wander around a bit more - something not difficult to do in this vast mega-complex. We joined the queue at 5.50pm as the queue had already formed - by two young couples.

That's when everything went wrong. We could see many restaurant staff going about their preparatory work in the restaurant and were expectant of a good dining experience. The hour came and passed, and nobody came to welcome us into the restaurant. Well, time is relative, so we waited. Another 5 minutes and we could see the staff still busying themselves in the restaurant except welcoming guests - and I thought that the customer is king. In this case, the customer seemed to be a peripheral concern. My companion said that we would wait another 5 minutes, after which we would take our business elsewhere if we continued to be ignored. Before the next 5 minute mark was breached, others in the queue were also vocally frustrated. I was thinking of an alternative restaurant already. At the eleventh minute mark, a waiter finally deigned it appropriate to lead the first couple in, after which he disappeared elsewhere, seemingly ignoring the second couple at the door. I wondered, "Did the first couple have a reservation?" We could see a number of other waiters and waitresses inside the restaurant, but I suppose in a Japanese organisation, each one has his/her appointed position, and they do not cross each other's assigned responsibilities. We had to wait another 2 minutes before the second and third couple (us) were ushered in. At last to dine in a restaurant with a tinge of exclusivity. But that was not the end.

Many restaurants in Vivo City have marvellous sea-view frontage. We were the third couple in, so we expected that we could sit where that sea-view would be ours for the evening. But no, the restaurant has blocked off the section of tables nearest the sea-frontage and what's more, it had a black, albeit see-through, curtain separating the sea-view from the diners. What a royal waste of view. But customers cannot be choosers, can they (?)

Well, at least we were seated. As the restaurant did not have set menus for dinner - it is all ala carte, we took a while placing our orders, though not much longer than the other diners. Then we waited and waited and waited for our food. For the first half-an-hour, the only thing available to our famished tummies was a small cup of salad and a cup of green tea each. That salad consisted of two bite-sized wedges of carrots and cucumbers and several small pieces of chopped cabbage, all contained in a typical Japanese-sized cup - small and dainty, that is. It was already close to 7pm and other diners where already well into their meal. Many of them had come in later than us. In fact, the first couple had already left the restaurant after their meal. We felt like the invisible couple but more so that the waiters needed some prompting. Sure enough, the reminders seemed to work as our dishes were served up to us in quick succession. What if we had not asked?

Only, my companion noticed that some grilled items in a dish she remembered she had ordered did not appear on the dish. So it was clarification time. Then only did the restaurant realise that they had missed out those items. Then only were we also informed that one of the missing items was no longer in stock, so they cancelled this off the bill. The restaurant was busy, but not serving up the customers' orders promptly and correctly is a sin where restaurants are concerned. There is just no excuse, especially when something has run out of stock and you are not told. If we had not noticed the discrepancy and settled the bill, we would have paid for some things that were never offered. Tsk tsk, this is no way to run a restaurant. We reminded each other the last time we dined at a fine-dining Japanese restaurant and encountered similar delays. That restaurant has since closed.

Well, what about the food? you may ask. I am no connoisseur, but I would say that the food is good though not something to shout about. Its Saba couldn't compare to the one that I ate in a neighbourhood restaurant in Korea some one and a half years ago. The portion was what you'd expect, not overly generous, but enough to fill the tummy, though my companion, a women, may not agree. The ambience is good and could have been better if they had offered the sea-view. Surprisingly, their waitresses, all of whom do not appear to be more than 20 years old, are very polite and helpful

So the next time your are at Vivo City and you are thinking of dining here, note the time. The accuracy of their Japanese watch remains much to be desired. And watch that you do not get overcharged for food that was never served. If you want sea-view frontage, you'd probably have more luck with the other restaurants.

This restaurant has the Chinese/Japanese 'heart' word displayed prominently at its entrance. I suppose it sits there proudly too. However, if our dining experience is anything to go by, it has already lost its 'heart' in putting the customer first.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Credit Boon and Bane

Credit Boon and Bane - http://www.frbatlanta.org/Credit cards are the bane of modern living, that is unless you can or have tamed this animal. Then it becomes a boon. Many people either realize it or pretend not to that it is a very very costly way of obtaining money to spend for the here and now.

When I first got my credit card bill, I paid only the minimum sum required. This is not because I had no money to settle the bill in full, just that it felt nice that I had the power of credit in my hands. And I think that is why people rack up huge credit card bills over time by just paying the minimum sum - a misplaced sense of pride and power. I often wonder, when I see a person whip out a wallet full of credit cards, if it shows the person is wealthy beyond imagination or if the person is not knee-deep in debt. If not in debt, that person is wasting money paying the bank card membership fees, which always works out to a net loss - to the card holder. Surely you don't think that banks are in the charity business?

The parties who has this real power are actually the banks who issued the card. They are the ones that make the money - a lot of it - out of our folly. That is why banks are falling over each other to give 2-year-free credit cards away. I've often said that the interest charge on the credit is just not worth the false sense of financial power that one pretends to possess.

So after I received my second bill, I sheepishly paid up the entire bill, including interest charges. I have never lived on credit card debt ever since, except the portion that the bank advances for the first 55 days, interest-free. By settling my credit card fully every month, I ensure that the debt demon will never come near me. That's how you make the credit card work for you and not against you.

Read: Credit card payments: Can consumers handle the minimum?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Thumbs-up for SMRT

Thumbs-up - http://www.csicop.org/We should give SMRT a good pat on the back to say, 'Well Done!' In a coup of sorts, it has indirectly contributed to bringing back together again a mother and her missing son through allowing Crime Library to put up its posters of missing persons at its business premises - it wide network of MRT stations. That's an excellent exercise in good corporate citizenship. They have certainly scored a charity dividend here.

One the other hand, TransitLink and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) should be roundly booed for refusing Crime Library's request to make use of bus stops and train stations for the same purpose. I cannot accept excuses that say the posters will make a mess of these places. Surely, if we are intelligent enough to build a bus stop, we should be intelligent enough to put up notices that contribute to the greater good. I think its just plain laziness or carelessness (or both) on the part of these huge organisations to do anything else except make money. Ironically, Transitlink is part-owned by SMRT. A case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?

LTA is a bureaucracy, 'nuf said.

Image source: - http://www.csicop.org/

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Beware of self-serving advice

Divorce - http://edition.cnn.com/Singapore's 8th Oct 2006 issue of its Sunday Times carried a story about how divorced couples find it necessary to continue living together in their public housing apartments in spite of their legal separation because selling out these days will incur negative equity.

I sympathise with them and if they can still live under the same roof, though not under the same arrangements as husband and wife, why not? This is not very uncommon if you have ever been overseas to study. Very often, you might end up sharing an apartment with the opposite sex, though of course, all of you have separate rooms. It is also not uncommon for some in the apartment, especially the ladies (and I am not type-casting anyone here) to cook for the guys and increasingly vice versa too. Coming back, this arrangement is doubly important if there are kids involved. Tearing a child's heart apart is the last thing anyone would want to do in spite of the hurt that others have caused.

So I bristled when the Propnex Realty's CEO Mohamed Ismail advised couples in such situation to cut their losses and move on. If the couples moved out, they will incur greater losses, not only financially, but get their kids involved emotionally too. I have come across many students who don't do well in school precisely because they are affected by broken homes. The sad thing is some of these students are quite bright but the emotional trauma and sense of confusion and loss over-rules it.

Mr Ismail's interest and advice are hardly difficult to fathom. However, if he wants to give such advice, he may as well jump into the Singapore River first before one or the other of his advisees do so as a result of increased financial trauma. Come on, Mr Ismail, I know you want to buy and sell houses, but surely not at the expense of others?

Besides, time is a great healer. If there is no 3rd party pushing for separate living arrangements, then over time, the relationship might just heal - so long as both couples keep in touch and Mr Ismail keeps away.

Image source: http://edition.cnn.com/

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The cable guy needs checking

The Cable Guy - http://www.sonymusic.com/artists/CableGuy/Cableguy.gifNow several people have written to the press claiming that whatever real effort they have put in to reduce their consumption of electricity, such as reduced air-con usage, moving to a small house, making sure the TV is switched off when no one is watching, etc., etc., they do nothing to the size of the electricity bill at the end of the month.

We all know that the electricity metres are not read at the end of every month. It is common for the electricity company to estimate usage based on past patterns and only adjust the charges when the metres are actually read. But hands up anyone who monitors and makes sure that estimates are corrected at some point in time and you would probably be hard put to get a roomful, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of households consuming electricity.

I am beginning to wonder if the electricity company is having us on, taking advantage of consumers' trust or ignorance or both. Are they neglecting to do their job in ensuring that the numbers are correct at the end of the month? Yes, electricty tariffs change quarter to quarter, but even accounting for such fluctuations, it cannot be that the bill size is the same every month? My bills seem to be climbing every month, but of course that's because of the price of oil. But I have noticed that even on months when I am away on vacation for a week, the bill size never fell significantly. I always rationalise this anomaly by assuming that my bill for that month is an estimated one based on prior months' average usage. Now I am not too sure that I should be doing the rationalizing on behalf of the electricity company.

I think it is high time some audit is done on the electricity companies instead of dissipating resources on the witch hunt that is going on in the charities sector.

Image source: http://www.sonymusic.com/

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Sacred Cow is slayed at last

Sacred cow killed? - http://www.homeeconomiser.com/Singapore's discretionary policy of putting its students along different educational paths according to ability has been slayed. Many would say that this has been long overdue. I am referring to the educational policy of streaming Primary school students from level 4 onwards (Primary 4) into EM 1, 2 and 3 where the poorest students are put into EM3 as a group to follow a specific (read dumbed-down) curriculum. The assumption that mediocre students, when put together and taught at their appropriate level, will learn better together and at the right pace has now been acknowledged officially as flawed. Of course, many who have been affected by the policy, such as students and their parents, have known it all along. Local film maker, Mr Jack Neo, has even made a movie, 'I not stupid', that addresses the practical problems and issues with the implementation of this educational policy. That it took so long to change this policy (Primary school streaming has been around for more than 10 years) is a marvel in country where change is a constant way of life.

The new received wisdom is called ability-driven education where there is more opportunity for students of different abilities studying differently to interact, thereby enriching the learning environment and experience. In this way, weaker students will no longer feel ostracized by being identified as belonging exclusively to a certain group. I think this new policy can only be a good thing but we need good people to implement not only the letter of the policy but, more importantly, the spirit of the policy. Let us not want to abolish anything 10 years hence because the implementation has not been well carried through.

Image source: http://www.homeeconomiser.com/