Thursday, November 30, 2006

Declining language

Some have bemoaned the decline of English language competency and an interest in speaking well in the same language in Singapore. I am not. Let me explain why.

Throughout my school years, I have been taught by one expatriate teacher or another (mostly hailing from Great Britain). Equally, if not more so, I have been schooled by locals whose mother tongue was probably either Chinese, Malay or Tamil, but who were just as competent in written and spoken English. For whatever reason, but certainly not smugness nor arrogance, I developed the habit to speak in complete English sentences, so much so that some people who did not know me better tended to think that I had been schooled in Britain or some ang moh country. That's because they taught I spoke like them, intonation, language construction and all.

The fact is, I wasn't them, and didn't want to appear to be them. So whenever I was interacted with Singaporeans, I tended to 'step-down' my language and learnt to speak Singlish all over again. Will this destroy the standard of the language I had spent many years to learn and attain? I do not think so. I found that conversation among fellow Singaporeans just felt more natural the Singlish way. People could understand me better and faster without my speaking in complete sentences. To a certain extent, that was a revelation to me. I had re-discovered my childhood 'tongue'.

Does that mean my schooling in the English language all those many years (right up to University) was all wasted? No, I don't think so either. I still speak in complete sentences when the occasion calls for it, and of course, I write in complete sentences too, when it is appropriate. I think people tend to adopt the correct register for the appropriate occasion. To say that a person's English competency is necessarily sloppy just because he doesn't speak in complete sentences, or speaks Singlish, is plain rubbish. This is not to encourage students to speak pasar English in class. There is a difference between the formal and informal use of the language. Both are important. Both are necessary.

So one should never jump to conclusions about any perceived decline in the English language in Singapore. As in all longitudinal changes, it will take a while before a pattern becomes consistently clear. Then, when the evidence suggests so, can a clearer statement be made.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Roundabout streets

I cannot help but feel a sense of Virtual Map getting a taste of its own medicine. It is now being sued by the Singapore Land Authority for alleged copyright infringement on the use of the land maps that it once licensed from SLA. Why do I feel this? Because for too often in the past, Virtual Map has sued companies left right and centre over their alleged infringement of VM's 'copyrighted' maps.

Well, what's wrong about that, as VM is protecting its licensing rights? What's wrong is that they went after anybody who so much as put up a single map taken from their free service on their websites or printed materials, no matter if they are for profit or for social purposes. And they seem to be doing it with relish without giving so much as a warning letter first. It became so common that one gets the feeling that suing companies for copyright infringement was their main business activity. The only other party that was happy were probably the lawyers.

I had a young friend, hardly out of school, who did a website for a company (not paid a lot actually, he wasn't a professional) who, like many then, didn't realise that putting a map taken off could attract a law suit. The company got sued and this friend of mine felt so bad about the whole thing. Sure, VM has right on its side to sue, but in the process, it lost a lot of goodwill from the rest of the business community as well as from people who learnt about this almost gangster-like behaviour. And it isn't only my experience alone. I have friends and colleagues who know of similar cases and all of them are agreed that VM is a big bad bully.

Well, now, the bully is facing a 100lb gorrilla. I'd like to see how this pans out. No prize for guessing where my sympathies lie.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Money clobbers privacy

Some people have the gall to ask, "Is selling personal data legal". Well, of course it is. It's been going on for as long as God invented the binary thingy - the computer. Have you heard of any bank being sued in Singapore before over this issue? Have you heard of the local telcos being sued for the same thing? Have you heard of Shopping Centres, Department stores and Hypermarkets being sued also?

No? That's strange because these organisations collect information from people ALL the time. When was the last time you handed over your particulars to participate in a lucky draw (which nobody ever wins)? Just yesterday or a week ago?

The problem with the way people treat privacy in Singapore is horrendous. Just because someone gave you their particulars such as NRIC number, address, telephone number, etc., does not mean that you are free to share or sell that information with other people or parties. If there is no explicit statement to the contrary, then there is an implicit trust that that information will only be used by the organisation collecting the information and no one else. But that's not what many commercial firms think. They believe that whatever information that is collected belongs to them to do whatever they want with with it, to damn with those people who surrendered those information.

Take for example, a listed local telco. We give our particulars to that telco so that we can get listed on its phone directory. They even give away an electronic image of the phone book. This is all well and good. But I know that this information ends up in OTHER commercial firms' products, without the telco asking your permission to release that information. Now, that's unethical. Imagine my shock when I saw my details on this OTHER company's products the other day. I've never had any dealings with this company and don't use their products because I have no need to. Well, that data could have been sold by those banks or department stores too, though that is not likely because the information covers virtually the entire island's residents. Now, ask yourself which organisation has that extensive information on its customers in Singapore (and we are not talking about the government)?

So, if the big boys do not respect the privacy of its customers' information, what do you think the small flies will do? Uphold ethics and be laughed out of business?

There should be a way in which people can come together to sue the offending organsations. Right now, there isn't.

After all, money speaks.

p.s. Interestingly, I signed up for a Carrefour Lucky Charm card the other day, giving them a lot of info about myself. But I am gratified to read in their terms and conditions of usage, under Data Protection Policy that my personal data "will be kept confidential by Carrefour Singapore Pte Ltd and not released to parties outside the Carrefour Group". That's doing the right thing, unlike some telco company.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Pity the worker ants

I used to work in the old Pidemco Centre, just beside OCBC Building. It has since been demolished. Every day, I would get off the train at Raffles Place MRT and walk the rest of the way. That must be 5 years ago.

Last Friday, I had some business in Shenton Way in the morning, so I made my way to Raffles Place MRT again before I disembarked for my destination. I was shocked. So many people were just pushing past me as I walked out of the MRT station. What was the hurry, the seeming eagerness to get to that desk in the office? They've got all day in the office ahead of them, up to 7 or 8pm for many. There's enough time yet to take a more leisurely walk to the office, surely?

I am glad I am not one of these worker ants anymore. No wonder people speak of stress and the hectic way of life in Singapore. But I believe that all of these are due to our own making. For that, we cannot blame anyone nor wallow in self-pity. The choice actually is ours to make. If we let others make it for us, then we are of all people not to be pitied. You can be pitied only when the choice is not yours to make.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

The truth is out there - in the pasar

Actually, the value of the S$ has gone done - domestically, that is. According to my wife's pasar economics, in the 4 years that we have lived in Sengkang, which is a suburban satellite town in the north-east of Singapore, the things that the S$ can buy has been reduced. This is what economists (I mean real economists) call 'purchasing power'.

  1. It used to be that one could buy 5 rolls of chee cheong fun for S$1. Now, you only get 4 rolls for a S$1. That is an increase of 20% in cost to the consumer. With the impending rise of the GST, I don't expect to get more than 3 rolls for the dollar.

  2. It used to be that one could get 12 fishballs for S$1.30. Now the stallholder will only give you 10 fishballs for the same S$1.30. That's an increase in cost to the consumer of about 16%. Who knows, with the latest proposed increase in GST, we may end up with just 8 fishballs for the same price.

Well, people do raise prices but do not follow GST quantums:
  1. An average meal (not including drinks) at our ubiquitous foodcourts used to cost S$3. Now it is S$3.50. That's an increase about 17%.

  2. It used to cost S$1 for a packet of fried rice noodles (chow mee fen). Now, for the same quantity, that's S$1.20 - an increase of 20%.

My point, really, is that besides looking at the numbers crunched by the government statisticians, the government should also consult our pasar economists to find out the true impact of any increase in indirect taxes. A 2% increase in taxes does not necessarily translate to a 2% increase in prices or a 2% reduction in purchasing power. Inflation numbers from the DOS fails to consideer certain dynamics at play on the ground. Ceteris paribus doesn't work when you deal with the pasar, does it?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Flogging the wrong horse

First, it was 3%, then it became 5%. Now it is going to be 7%. What are these percentages? Many Singaporeans would have known by now that the Goods and Services Tax (GST or otherwise known as the VAT in other lands) is going up again from 5 to 7%. The amazing thing is that no one, short of those in the know, were prepared for this. Not the rumour mill, which often are not too far from the truth, not from more reputable sources, where one can put greater credibility to the rumours. Well, most only knew when PM Lee made the announcement in Parliament last evening.

It is unpleasant news, especially when Parliament has been spending the last few days on the plight of the low-income people amongst us. This impending increase in GST will make it even more difficult for them as the GST applies to all goods and service, irrespective of whether you are from the low income segment, the middle or high income. It applies equally across the board. But of course, the government has thought about the effect on the low-income segment and PM Lee took pains to explain to Parliament that the government will come up with a package of mesures that will help this segment of the population overcome the increased financial burden. This was expected.

What caught my attention was how PM Lee hesitated when he mentioned the effect of the GST on the middle income people. He said, with seemingly much reservation, that this segment of the population will do OK. Now what does that mean? Does it mean that he acknowledges the raw deal that this segment of people have been dealt, but that they can work a bit harder on their own to overcome the inevitable rise in prices of goods and services across the board? Does that mean that the government has nothing in mind to help this segment of people, that they will have to swim on their own? His hesitant demeanor speaks volumes about the adverse effect the 2% increase will bring. Almost certainly, a rise in prices of goods and services beyond 2% is to be expected when we factor in the significant rise in oil prices recently. Retail establishments, and all business down the line, have held back so far, but the floodgates will now be opened, thank you very much, Mr Government.

The low-income people - the government will look after and the high-income people can look after themselves comfortably. The middle-income will be squeezed in-between and are expected to bear with it. How I wish more opposition politicians were in Parliament now to speak on behalf of the oppressed middle-class. In this context, Parliament has been flogging the wrong horse all this while. Why speak up for people which the government will help anyway? Why not speak up for the people the government does not seem to have any plans to help?

Image source: Don Monet's Studio

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Surf's up, pants down

Wireless is becoming so pervasive in Singapore that people expect to be able to connect to the internet from their PC Notebooks anywhere they are in a building full of people. That includes high-rise apartments and shopping malls. Starbucks offers it for free when you dine at their cafe, and increasingly, many shopping malls too are offering free internet access bandwidth within their premises. Even the government in Singapore has jumped onto the bandwagon by offering free wireless connection everywhere on the island in 2007, albeit for a limited period of two years.

But anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggests that many people already tap into anybody's unsecured wireless internet access point to surf the net. Many people do it out of curiosity but never rely on it in the long run because the connection is generally weak and unstable. That limits the speed and adversely affects the surfing experience. Nevertheless, there are people who rely on it for all of their internet surfing needs, particularly from a fixed place, like the home. All they need to do is look for an unsecured wireless access point, select the one with the best signal strength, connect to it and surf away.

This is where knowing a bit of something can work against you. People are so taken with the ease of mobile surfing within the house through a wireless router they have installed that they do not bother or do not know to 'lock down' their access point to prevent access from unwelcomed intruders. It is tantamount to keeping the door to their house unlocked, nay, opened, allowing strangers to come and go as they please.

So I don't know who to blame when a local boy got charged in court recently for doing exactly this - the boy had made use of a neighbour's unsecured wireless point(something which would become common place with free internet access points) without permission, or the victim (if one can call him/her that) for not securing his/her access point. Truth be told, what the boy did is VERY common. It does not require sophisticated technical skills such as what crackers may need to have, so I wonder if this court case is meant to serve as a warning to internet users at large to lay their hands off this practice. Make no mistake, stealing bandwidth is wrong but exposing your access point would seem like an open invitation to use, at least implicitly.

We must certainly regret that a 17 year-old boy is now a 'scapegoat' of sorts. I personally think that the 'victim' could have resolved his quarrel man-to-man instead of involving the police and the courts. But I suppose the 'victim' didn't like the fact that he was caught with his pants down. Even if the boy is not convicted (not likely), the relationship between neighbours is now all but shattered. Ultimately, somebody will have to move.

Therein lies the lesson for today - secure your wireless access point if you want to keep your pants up.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Transport my foot

Well, if this picture is anything to go by, SBS Transit has still got a long way to go before it can call itself world class. Yesterday, I boarded a bus service 151 and was shocked that one of its seat was sitting on another and strapped to the window bars for stability. Many other passengers who boarded the bus were also visibly shocked. Some, though, were amused. But none were happy as nobody took the seat, even when all other seats were occupied. Does SBS Transit expect its fare-paying commuters to sit on this?

If something untoward happens - the seat is dislodged and the commuter ends up hurt (whether the commuter was sitting on the seat or standing beside it or seated across from it at that time - I wonder what type of compensation SBS Transit will pay the affected commuters.

Come on, SBS Transit. With the millions you make every year, surely you can afford to fix this seat before you allow the bus to operate again. There seems to be a disconnect between what is said and what is done. A world class transport my foot. SBS Transit should be ashamed of its product quality.

I don't wonder that the car is still the best...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

To sit on a potatoe is bliss

Public transport in Singapore is a political hot potatoe. Was in the past, still is today, and still waiting for a satisfactory resolution of the issues. How do we improve bus services? The waiting times and long journeys are oft cited ways of improving the situation. There is another, related, target that I think all public transport companies should strive for - no standing in buses.

Why should anyone have to stand in buses when the fare paid by everyone, seated or standing, is the same? It is not just a matter of posture, really. In a bus, when you stand, you need tremendous physical strength to stay standing. You need strength in your hands to hold the handle-bars (and reach too, to reach those bars), strength in your arms and legs to ensure that you keep steady as the bus turns left and right, and an even greater strength on the feet to avoid ending up floating in the air. Standing in a moving bus can indeed be a physically, if not mentally, challenging ordeal.

I suspect that if this mentality of having to make full use of all standing space in the bus persists, bus services will never improve and may be the root of many of the complaints about bus services. Buses will come at long and unpredictable intervals because the bus company supremos will view a half empty bus (i.e. all passengers seated, non standing) as sub-optimal. Do these supremos know how long it takes people to board a crowded bus and just as long to disembark? Those who take public buses day in day out, like me, will know. Those who don't can only live in their spreadsheet bliss of ignorance.

It will certainly cost more, but I think people won't mind paying more if the service is excellent. Current transport executives just cannot and would not understand this.

So if you want people to start taking the bus, give them a seat first. Its as simple as that.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Between a rock and a hard place

Rock and a hard place -, who wants to take the bus in Singapore if they had a choice not to? In status conscious Singapore, everyone will prefer to be driving and seen to be driving a car - the latest model if possible, just like their handphones. The only way you can do that is to make the cost of owning your own set of wheels so prohibitively expensive that you have no choice but to take the bus and/or the train to get around.

Which is what the Singapore government is doing with its slew of costly car taxes, petrol taxes, road taxes, electronic road pricing (ERP) fees and life-span taxes (I mean the car, not the driver's, though it can come to that). Still people continue to buy and drive cars in Singapore. And what do they do in order to cough up all those money to pay for all those taxes? For the marginal bunch (and I believe they form the majority), both couples have to work to pay off the car loans besides the various taxes incurred everyday they use the car. This results in substantially less savings which could have been put into long term investments. For couples, the trade-off is to keep the kid in the childcare. Parents rationalise, ironically with the help of the government, that the car is more important. The government encourages every adult, male and female, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, to work so that next year's economic growth will be a record breaking one.

But I digress. One of the ways to resolve this perennial transport problem in Singapore  is to make owning and driving a car even more expensive than it is today. This will be akin to political suicide. So the only real solution lies in making public transport more convenient and comfortable than it is today. The problem is, doing this will make Singapore's public transport the most expensive in the world. This is inevitable. Private transport companies will want to maximise on profit, so for any public transport that is made any more convenient than it is today means raising cost substantially. Coupled with the  Singapore government's reluctance to distort the market through subsidies and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

Since I don't drive, let me list the reasons why I would want to own a car:
1. Unpredictable arrival times of buses ** number one grouse **.
2. Long waiting times for buses and sometimes taxis too.
3. Unpredictable waiting times for taxis.
4. Unavailable buses, taxis and trains.
5. Disappearing taxis
6. Uncomfortable buses (particularly non-air-con ones).
7. Uncomfortable, broken and dirty seats.
8. Selfish commuters (who do not make room for people to enter the bus, people who sit on the aisle of seats - as if to say, "sqeeze in if you want the seat, otherwise, stand").
9. Bus stops that are far away (walking in the blazing sun spoils the make-up).
10. Bus stops that are too near (results in a noisy and filthly house).
11. Buses that take a roundabout way to reach your destination.
12. Boarding and alighting buses can be physically and mentally challenging.
13. Missing the bus/train.
14. Cross-border restrictions on travel (for that drive to JB)

But I suppose owning a car has its top ten list too. Since I don't own a car, I can only surmise the cost involved. A rock and a hard place indeed. Which is why the government is proposing that you have the cake and eat it too. I am not sure this will not be even more expensive.

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