Saturday, December 29, 2007

Transportation to nowhere

Many years ago, a classmate of mine arrived in class late. When asked, he told our teacher the the bus was late. The class roared and our teacher made the point that the bus is never late. We can only blame ourselves for being late. Granted there is some wisdom in what our teacher said. But it would seem that the logic of his wisdom has been suffering ever since.

Last evening, at 8pm, I was at the bus stop just across from Giant, Tampines, waiting for a bus service 27 to Sengkang, where I lived. For a while, there was no public bus in sight although many cars and private buses were whizzing past non-stop. My wife remarked that there could be a traffic jam that was stopping the public buses from reaching us. I didn't think it was logical as any traffic jam would also have stopped all the other vehicles. I didn't argue because I sensed that she was getting irritated waiting so long for a bus.

When a 27 bus did arrive, it was simple packed to the brim. People who had been waiting for a long time with us for the bus simply crowded around its entrance, trying board. Eventually another couple quit trying to board as there wasn't any standing room left. My wife and I looked at each other and also decided to wait, fingers crossed, for the next No. 27. No. 168 was more regular but it wasn't right for us. My wife said that there is a service 34 which goes to Punggol, and that we might take that detour to reach Sengkang. In the event, we never saw a service 34 the whole time (about 30 minutes) we waited at the bus stop.

When the next 27 came along, it was similarly packed so we resigned ourselves to waiting again. By this time, we were already debating whether we should take the free bus service from IKEA Tampines even though it only ran in hourly intervals. We had already waited for half a hour and by the law of averages, we should have been on our way in that free bus. But we persisted for a Service No. 34 or No. 27. It seems that our trust in SBSTransit is as steadfast as ever - there wasn't much of an alternative, anyway. Not so a Malay family of 3 adults and 4 children. They decided to take a taxi, but repeated attempts to flag one down proved futile. We wondered why taxis would not stop? Surely cruising around on 30% more expensive diesel is not going to add to one's livelihood? But that's another issue.

The 3rd 27 came and, again, it was crowded, but had standing room. So we, including that Malay family and their shopping packages in tow, packed ourselves in, unwilling to wait any longer. Fortunately, the ride home wasn't that far, but we wondered why it took us so long to arrive at our destination (40 minutes) when the journey proper (excluding waiting time) should have taken no more than 10 minutes by public transport. Our wait time was thus 30 minutes, way beyond the effective service level promised by the bus company. I say effective SL because an un-boardable bus that comes by within the promised time interval is of no service to commuters.

This is but one example of why our public bus services remain a dis-service. I can rattle off a number of other service nos. that I take regularly that exhibit the same problems. For all the can-do spirit that is Singapore, this is one aspect of the Singapore system that CANNOT do. Truly, this is a systemic failure in our public bus transportation system, bus lanes and the like notwithstanding. Senior Civil Servants got a huge raise just recently. I wonder if the Transport Minister's pay rise should not be held back until he can see satisfactory resolution to this matter? Irregular bus services, lateness, etc., is nothing new at all. It has been the bane of public bus commuters for umpteen years. Or should we treat the Transport Minister like the taxi-driver? Whether the driver has performed well or poorly in the service, he still gets the same quantum from the fare increases. How can we see improvements if we persist in rewarding both the good and the bad equally?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Council needs Counselling

Singapore's Public Transport Council (PTC) is a very queer body. Its website explains that it was

"...established in 1987 as an independent body to approve and regulate bus services, public transport fares and ticket payment services."

Indeed, over the years, it has just been doing that - approving or disapproving applications for transport fare increases. It has never had to consider applications for decreasing fares, for the obvious reasons that public transport companies need to increase their shareholder value. No public transport company will volunteer to decrease fares so long as there are enough commuters using their transportation services. So I was surprised when I read a report in today's Today (26 Dec 07, page 4) on the PTC disapproving SMRT's proposal to provide public transport to a cluster of private houses in the Yio Chu Kang area because, and this really takes the cake, it reckons that SMRT is NOT charging a premium rate for what it (i.e. PTC) considers a premium service. SMRT had planned to charge S$1.30 but the PTC considers that fare too low, that it should be between $2 and $3! It reckons that the public, whom it is supposed to serve, should pay more rather than less! I never...

Frankly, whether the fare is too low is no business of the PTC. The public transport company takes the risk, not the PTC. That it is willing to charge a fare lower than what the PTC reckons (by a yardstick that confounds me) is 'correct' is of no concern to the PTC at all. SMRT, the public transport company in question, stands to lose anyway if it does not charge enough to at least recoup its investment, if not turn a profit. If it reckons, after doing its feasibility study, that $1.30 is the right fare to charge, who is the PTC to say that that fare is too low? And on what basis is it classifying this as a premium service? Because the tranport service is catering to private house dwellers? And those that live in these houses MUST pay more? What if the service was meant for a poorer neighbourhoods not well served by existing public transport? Would this service be called basic service? Would S$1.30 be too much by PTC's reckoning? I see where the PTC is getting its (flawed) logic from. It is just like the government not reducing the HDB executive apartment owners' tax burden through subsidies on conservancy charges which it does for 3-5 roomers because it reckons that the former can afford to pay more. This more word is appearing once too often nowadays, and to think that the government may be one of the culprits...

Now I understand why the public is not better served by niche transport services - not because of the monopolistic SBSTransit nor even SMRT - but because of the PTC. Sheesh, if that is what the PTC is about, it is time that it re-examines its role as a regulator of public transport. It is now putting up barriers to providers who are willing to take the risk in providing niche transport services where it sees a demand, and thereby serve the public better. And all this while I thought that the PTC was on the public transport commuters' side.

Well, one positive thing that came out of this is that it shows that the MP, Ms Lee Bee Wah, is
serving her constituents well, which is more than I can say for the PTC. That she has, as a ruling party MP, had to overcome so many barriers and spend so much time getting this through, one wonders what chance there is for an opposition MP to do good for its residents vis-avis the PTC (or, for that matter, any government body).

Monday, December 24, 2007

You don't get no respect

Lawyers don't get no respect. Towards the end of the Bee Movie from Dreamworks SKG, a mosquito turned up to join the Bee hero in his new-found, though not an unfamiliar, profession. Without a hint of irony, it said:

"I was already a bloodsucking parasite. All I needed was a briefcase."

Ouch! Lawyers, they get maligned mightily, even from a tiny mosquito. The words here are tiny too!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Round and round the park

Growing up in the Naval Base gave me sprawling grounds to wander around and explore the neighbourhood relatively unimpeded. This was because, being a 'protected area', there weren't too many vehicles on the roads and even fewer impediments to cycling. This is where I developed my love for cycling. Looking back, I never owned a bicycle for my size in those years. My dad's bicycle was so heavy for a young lad like me then that I could only touch and admire it. It was just too heavy to even wheel out of its parking bay. But there was another bicycle available - a hand-me-down, lighter though no smaller than my dad's. We weren't so well off that I could demand a bicycle for my size, so I learnt to ride that bicycle meant really for a grown adult.

At first, I couldn't mount the seat as my legs were too short to reach the pedals seated, so I did the next best thing - I stood while I cycled. That involved putting one of my legs through the triangular frame of the bicycle on the pedal on the other side of the bicycle and the other one on this side of the bicycle. I learnt to balance on the bicycle thus when I first started cycling. Eventually, my legs grew longer as I grew and I was able to mount the seat and cycle. Kids today are so fortunate. Not only do their bicycles fit their sizes, they come in all styles and colours. I developed a love for cycling in those teenage years though that never extended to anything competitive. I just loved the pleasure it gave me as I could go places much further from my house, although always within the confines of the Base. You can imagine how big the Naval Base was!

After I moved out of the Naval Base, I cycled less because roads were busier with vehicles and I would be the last person to challenge them for space on the roads. When I moved to Pasir Ris, I had greater opportunity to do a bit more cycling. Pasir Ris is known as the bicycle town not for nothing. When I moved again to the North-East in Sengkang, I stopped cycling altogether.

Now, I am tempted to resume my cycling because of the Eastern Park Connector Network, which joins several parks in the eastern part of the island into a seamless route for cyclists only. The problem is - I had given away my bicycle and there just aren't any space in my present house to take even one bicycle. Renting would seem the most obvious thing to do, but when I saw in the papers that Carrefour was selling Aleoca bicycles for as little as S$56 a pop, I am sorely tempted.

I look forward to cruising the Eastern Park Connector and re-discovering my love for cycling.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Plague of the lawyers

What is it with lawyers nowadays? They seem to be skipping town one too many times with somebody else's money, obviously prepared to live elsewhere for the rest of their lives. When you think about it, making a home elsewhere outside of this tiny island of ours is not necessarily a bad proposition. With at LEAST a couple of hundred big ones in their bank accounts - they are set for life, especially in countries where the prices of houses and cars are more 'sane'. Of course, they will have the 'noose' hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives, and they can thenceforth only see Changi Airport's T3 (what a marvellous T3 it is!) from the inside only when and if they are passing through. Otherwise, there is nothing to miss in Singapore - not the taxi services, not the bus services, not even the no-nonsense government.

But that's not the only thing about lawyers nowadays. They are also bad for health. It appears that defendants, once they have engaged a lawyer, begin to report a thousand and one ailments stretching back to when they were one year old. Not only that, some of these defendants' psychiatrists, psychologists and anyone in between, will swear by their qualifications that these poor defendants have some kind of psychosis that makes whatever they may have been accused of doing excusable and therefore pardonable.

Lawyers are so good at uncovering such ailments that they put all trained doctors to shame. For example, there is that 68 year-old taxi driver who was discovered to have been suffering from nose cancer, diabetes, chronic heart problems and awaiting open-heart surgery. And these amazing discoveries were made AFTER the taxi driver engaged a lawyer to defend him. The reader who pointed this out in a letter to Today asked a pertinent question: "If he was so sick, how come he was still driving a taxi?" But that's not the only example. Mdm Vialli's alleged exorcism problems are almost all attributed to a deterioration of the body. The only effect it had on the spirit was to make it stronger so that she could fight for the pot of cash that both lawyer and client hope to find at the end of the tunnel.

I often wonder if lawyers have no sense of shame in bringing to the attention of the learned bench such blatant fiction in order to get their clients off the hook. I could have become a lawyer except my mother told me a long long time ago that she didn't like lawyers because they have to stoop so low in order to perform their jobs. Up until recently, I still regretted not having become a lawyer, but those thoughts are getting dimmer and dimmer...

p.s. which is not to say that ALL lawyers are crooks. There are many decent ones, but the pot is easily tainted with just a couple of bad ones. Ironically, the person I admire the most is a lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. He was an honest bloke.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Maelstrom of Madness

When you are young, you think you will live forever. That is the prerogative of youth. It is that time in one's life where, without the 'bonds' of responsibility, one has to try anything and everything that life makes possible, including getting drunk and driving someone else's car. Singapore has seen a steady increase in the number of drink-drivers over the past year. Even when the penalty has risen steeply (custodial sentence + fine + ban from driving), drink-driving - a consequence of heavy drinking remains a high priority in the lives of some of our youth. The worst thing is that many so-called celebrities (heck they are only TV celebs on a tiny island, no big deal) are guilty of drink driving. Christopher Lee and Benedict Goh are recent examples. These people have a strong influence over many starry-eyed youths.

I cannot understand why the young drink so hard. If it is for pleasure, it must surely be convoluted pleasure. Is it because of the stress of living or the influence of buddies and society as a whole? Even worst, I cannot understand some youth's love of hard liquor. Isn't Tiger Beer ok? But then I am a teetotaller, so I am a bit dumb this side of drinking. But there is this crazy man who would rather risk life than throw away the bottle.

The young can do what they want. I will be the last to judge them. The youth can drink-drive and smash somebody else's car or fence or tree. I cannot care less. But when they pose a hazard on the roads, that's when I put my foot down. Drink-drivers are a menace to peaceful and law-abiding road users, which includes you and I. You can never trust the traffic lights anymore because drink-drivers cannot be trusted to obey any traffic rules. So walking on the streets and using the roads as a drink-free driver are becoming hazardous activities. Sure our streets are relatively safe in comparison to many similar cities, but there is always danger lurking from drink-drown irresponsible drivers who speed like the devil and think they can live forever. Yeah, forever in hell when they cause someone else's death. I don't care if these drivers want an early date with hell, but they should not seek innocent bystanders to accompany them on this final destination.

But for a moment of pleasure and bravado, a life of grief can result. The most grievous is not death, but total permanent disability, which one must live with for the rest of his life - and I am not talking about the drink-driver but the innocent bystander caught in the maelstrom of madness occasioned by the devils in the bottle.

If the statistics get any worse, drink-drivers should be locked up longer and thus prevented from being a threat to society. Therein they will see their youth pass away - trapped behind bars instead of the bottle. This is by far the preferred state, if that is what they want. Otherwise, stay away from the bottle - especially during this year end.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

You Pay More

Well, the inevitable has become reality, new increased taxi fares have been announced by the largest operator on the island. It is a steep increase but not un-manageable if one is an occasional taxi passenger like myself. Where I live, the subway is more convenient. It is for those occasions where the subway or the bus is too inconvenient (and there are not many occasions) or I am too tired that I take the cab.

But the way that the fares have been increased, with more surcharges, is more of the same. The operators are not really thinking long term. My initial thought on learning about the new surcharge was: "Let's wait and see what distortions the new surcharge will create". Humans have demonstrated that they needn't behave the way that policy makers think humans should behave by instituting a certain rule. Certainly, there are the docile ones who probably will toe the line, the law abiding ones who will find no other way but to obey. But there are cunning ones who will find a way to circumvent the new rules to their advantage and the really nasty ones who will work things to their advantage through illegal means.

The "I can control you" approach is past its 'use by date'. We should be looking at ways in which taxi drivers will drive their own business towards a service oriented approach. Sadly, taxi operators and policy makers think that money and not service comes first. I know, it is easier said than done, but I do not detect any effort by the policy makers to think any other way right now. I hope that the train operators will react quickly enough and not wait for the complaints to start rolling in before they take action.

My main worry now is the additional pressure this will put on the bus and rail services. More people will now choose to use the bus and subway. Already, I have noticed that the subway trains are bursting at the seams with a drastic increase in passenger volume. When once I could board a train and find a place to at least stand comfortably, it is a squeeze now, not unlike the subway situation in Beijing, Hong Kong and S Korea. At rush hour in the tunnel between SBSTransit's NE Line and SMRT's East-West Line, you can see people marching like an army, five abreast one way. I often thought what if there was a stampede? It could be fatal. With potentially more people taking this mode of transport, this can only become worse.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A tipping we should go

Since I am on the subject, and fare increases have been announced by the biggest operator in town - Comfort Delgro cabs - I like to offer a suggestion. As taxi operators are going to do the metre adjustments in their cabs, why not at the same time remove all surcharges. Many have already made this suggestion and I think it is time we consider alternatives to surcharges.

In place of these surcharges, we should bring back a very service oriented practice - tipping. We should make tipping a regular practice because this rewards the honest, hardworking, friendly and efficient cab driver and 'punishes' the slothful and dishonest ones. For example, if some taxi driver could pick me up in the dead of night and bring me home comfortably and quickly, I will give the driver a big tip. If the driver helps me with the heavy luggage I have, I will show my appreciation over and above what the cab metre suggests that I pay. This is my expression of approval and the premium that I have placed on the taxi driver's service - no need for this surcharge and that surcharge. Anything forced is bound to be resented and any incentive to express generosity goes out the window with it.

I have tipped taxi drivers before, even within the current surcharge-driven regime, but I would consider doing it more often if the understanding between the taxi driver and myself is one of mutual trust and respect with a service-oriented mindset. By all means, continue to run the metre, but let the passenger decide if a reward over and above what is obligatory is deserved. I would say that good taxi drivers may end up taking home more. Best of all, the taxi operator is out of the picture entirely. A good workmen deserves his reward, the bad one deserves only the barest minimum. With the current regime, the good and and bad receive the same rewards. Where is the incentive to excel in this service business?

The government abolished tipping many many years ago because it was felt that the variation in the quantum given wasn't fair. That may have been the right thing to do then, but bringing back this practice should be given serious consideration. When you think about it, the varying quantum in tips is exactly the factor that should drive service providers to give of their best. This is the best and most sustainable practice in the long run without having to invent more and more surcharges that serve only to distort the market, change travel patterns, and disrupt the family hours. Policy makers seem to have no idea how these surcharges are affecting the national birth rates.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gim Kopi

Last evening, I was at the Singapore General Hospital due to an emergency in the family. Eventually, I stayed up to 11pm before I left. The taxi seemed the only way home, which is located at the north-east of the island. I was just too tired to manage walking out to the MRT since the free internal bus service had stopped its services for the day.

Fortunately the queue wasn't very long, I was the third in line. The place was very quiet and I didn't see many taxis around. I began to worry. What if my wait took me over the hour? Then I would need to pay 1.5 times the usual amount. Somehow, in the quiet of the night, with no taxi in sight, your imagination becomes more vivid. Then a taxi whiz pass. Its 'For Hire' lights were not on, but I looked closely and saw no one in the cab except the driver. Oh well...

Then two women joined the queue just behind me, followed by several others who didn't join the queue. I had a sense of dread. Don't tell me these people are going to spoil my wait and beat the queue by booking for a cab? Whenever people did that, taxis just don't show up at all! I surmise that taxi drivers would be alerted to 'booking' business and would thus have no incentive whatsoever to drive up to any taxi queue until and unless called upon. Fortunately, these people 'cleared out' in private cars that came by to pick them up.

Still no sign of a cab. Then I notice the same cab I had seen whiz by before whiz by again - still with no passenger on board. This time, the two women behind me also noticed this. One of them said, rather sarcastically, that the driver is probably going for his Kopi fix before he would pick up any passenger at midnight. Well, it seemed to me that if that were true, he had been drinking his kopi in his car for a while. I thought this cruising around would have stopped with the skyrocketing price of petrol. It seemed that, whether deserved or not, local taxi drivers have gained a notoreity about 'disappearing just before midnight to reappear miraculously at the stroke of the hour. I just didn't want to believe this would happen to me last night, but the cynicism of these women was telling.

This is nothing new. It's been happening for a long long time. Its just that it almost happened to me last night. No wonder that Singaporeans NEED to own a car, probably for occasions like these. Something has gone very wrong in the way cabbies and taxi operators provide their services. I dare say these errant behaviour can be traced back to the people who set the policies and police the transport industry on this island. It is all a sad state of affairs. In Beijing or Shanghai, I wouldn't have this problem. That this has persisted for so long without a resolution to the problem is a crime.

If this is what a world-class transportation system is shaping up to be, I would rather have none of it. Just give me an honest, hardworking cabby and we can toss the world-class thing out the window.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Just dessert

Somebody, likely not a civil servant, complained in the press about the generous bonuses that all civil servants will get at the end of this year - 2 months, to be exact. For those who are better performers, another 0.5 to 0.8-month payout is due in March next year - provided the civil servant remains employed as a civil servant. This question always comes up when tax payers wonder, quite reasonably, why their money must be given to people who may not have done anything spectacular except oil the established machinery. I used to be the questioner, but now that I am on 'this side' of the government, I try to convince myself that I have done enough to deserve this bit of taxpayers' money. One of these reasons must be that as a 'civil servant', I am underpaid, compared to my contemporaries in the commercial sector. However, the question is a valid one and guardians of the people's money should sit up and think.

Like the Singapore Air Force's now infamous act of destroying tonnes of perfectly edible vegetables last week. In the process of testing out some paints for its aerobatic displays, it released tiny spores of it into the air, tainting ready-to-harvest vegetables in a farm nearby. The farmers are asking for compensation - a reasonable demand - but who do you think will foot the bill? Well, its a no-brainer. The footer of the bill is you and I - the taxpayers. In this case, should the bonus quantum be reduced for the perpetrators of this careless act - assuming that full-time Air Force personnel enjoy the same bonus benefits of the civil servants? This would be the right thing to do, but will it in fact be done?

Unfortunately, I am not close enough to the higher echelons of the military to be able to influence nor answer that. Suffice to say that the complainant has a point.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Spiraling Misery

Taxi drivers are asking for an increase in taxi fares. This is nothing new, except that this time around, more commuters may be sympathetic to that request. In the past, whenever public transport providers asked for an increase in fares, they didn't really have a good reason except to say that they are entitled to a raise just like everybody else. Yeah, and I suppose that beggars are entitled to a raise too, in line with that ridiculous line of reasoning. They, or their supporters, who are MPs and government officials, seriously damaged the public transport providers' cause by appearing to be greedy. That is why, in my books, any call for fare increases have mostly been suspect.

But ok, this time around, it is clear to everyone except that those that do not leave their houses, that the cost of petrol has indeed increased significantly that the commuting public should bear part of the increase. The only problem is when the price of petrol comes down, as it must someday, will the fares decrease in tandem? I would be extremely naive to state that it will. Let me be blunt - it won't decrease because these operators will come up with a thousand and one ridiculous reasons to explain why fares cannot come down in spite of lower prices of petrol. They will start by saying that adjusting the metres on their cabs will be extremely costly, as if it doesn't cost as much to tune them upwards to charge higher fares.

So with this in mind, I'd say that any fare increase in response to increases in direct costs is fair. But don't tell me that the taxi fares in Singapore are relatively low compared to Hong Kong, London and Tokyo. Anyone who does that deserves to be sent to these cities to live on their present salary, including certain government officials who are fond of these types of comparisons and 'logic'.

There can be no sense of 'victory' this time around. Everyone will end up paying more as the multiplier effect of costs increases kick in. So friends, Singaporeans, countrymen, lets ride this inflationary wave together and let not one of us push the wave higher by ballooning the increases through our selfish wants - like those people who rent out apartments and rooms.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lelong! Lelong!

At about 1.30pm , I was waiting in line for a taxi. One came by and the driver asked the couple in front of me where they were headed. He then refused to pick them up, which worked in my favour as my destination was more 'acceptable'. Later, in the taxi, the driver explained that he was refusing to pick up passengers who were headed for Singapore Expo because it was jammed packed with people and cars. He had been down there twice that late morning and had been caught in the vehicular jam. He said that even the Traffic Police had been called in to control traffic flow.

Now why are there so many people and cars in Singapore Expo that Sunday? I guess it must be people who were thronging SITEX, the computer and electronics exhibition, to pick up bargains - and there were many to be had. I suppose it also had to do with the fact that this was the last such exhibition of the year and many might have gone Christmas shopping. Another reason is the good bonuses that people are expecting this December. Civil servants, people working in government have been promised at least two months' worth.

Fortunately for me, I had already gone on Saturday, and even then, the place was packed. The entire sprawling parking lot was filled with cars - a rare sight indeed! And it took longer than usual for the buses to navigate the roads to the bus stop in front of the exhibition centre too. I know because I took the bus. And it took a half an hour before I could board the taxi from Singapore Expo in spite of the constant flow of taxis in the queue. The organisers of SITEX this year have struck the jackport, and many shoppers too - what with $899 Samsung 32" LCD TVs, $902 Core2 PC with 400GB HDD and 2 GB RAM (no monitor though) and you won't believe the crowd that was there for the S$598 Eee PC from ASUS. A dedicated tent was erected to hold the crowds interested in this product. You'd be forgiven if you thought this UMPC was for free.

Going by the rules, the taxi driver was violating the rules by picking and choosing his destination, but I can understand why after he explained that he wasn't going into that area a THIRD time.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Gone to the dogs

The country has been talking dogs, some for, some against and, I suppose, many cannot be bothered. I fell into the 3rd category, until yesterday, when, upon stepping into the lift in my apartment block, I noticed dog shit on the floor of the lift. It didn't smell or anything, probably because it had been there some time. The lift user just had to be careful not to step on it.

I was angry. Now who was that irresponsible owner who didn't bother to clean up after the dog? I have nothing against dogs. I once saw an Alsatian in the lift with its owner. In spite of its size, it look timidly at me. There was everything to like about that marvellous creature, which was half the size of its owner. It was on a leash, but it was not muzzled. I thought that was the law. In any case, it didn't bother me. They are man's best friend, and they should be allowed some freedom instead of being leashed and muzzled all the time.

But not every person is like me and not everyone dog owner is irresponsible. I must clarify that I do not own a dog, or for that matter, any other non-human creature. Some feel intimidated by these creatures. At the end of the day, it isn't the dogs that we should have issue with (except those are are openly aggressive), it is the owners who do not know how best to take their pets in hand. To these owners I say, 'give up your pets' because you do not know how to love your pets enough.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Folly or Glory

5 young Singapore men died in Cambodia this past week in their attempt to bring glory to their country and to themselves. It was war of a another sort - competitive dragon-boat racing, to be exact. Ironically, their boat capsized while trying to dock after their race. Of the 22 men on board, 5 did not resurface from the waters. They were found dead (apparently from drowning) some days later. My sympathies go out to their loved ones. They were such young men with so much promise ahead of them.

But frankly, I was disturbed that the team chose not to wear life vests. Their reason was that it would impede their movements, and thereby slow down their rowing. Well, I have only ever rowed competitively once in a dragon boat race, and as is Singapore's rules, wore a life vest. From that solitary dragon boat competition, I am in no position to judge whether a life vest would or would not impede one's performance. Some experienced boaters are adamant that it would not. My life vest didn't come in useful on that occasion, but it certainly was a load off my mind when and if the boat should capsize.

I was once in a sampan off the coast of Penang which capsized many years ago and a friend of mine in the same boat nearly died because (1) both of us didn't have life vest on and (2) he didn't know how to swim. I hauled him up from the water and got him to hold onto the overturned sampan as I tugged the boat back to shore with the help of another boat.

I think people must get their priorities right. Between Cup glory and life, which should you choose? I thought it would be a no-brainer, but competitive spirit, or folly, would rather risk life over a piece of metalic or plastic object which, when placed in the cabinet, serves only to remind of past glory. But without a life, what glory is there to reminisce? I would rather row my best and be safe. Should glory come to the team, at least I can live to enjoy the fruits of my labour. As it is, the dragon boaters' reach for glory has only brought extreme grief to loved ones. When we are young, we think we can live forever but death can snatch us in the prime of our lives without nary a warning.

Life and glory - choose life - all the time.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Foreigners in the midst

Lately, there has been some discussion about foreigners in our midsts. Some of these foreigners have expressed the need for the 'locals' to show them consideration and kindness. Apparently, some locals are treating the foreigners in our midst as the plague incarnate, especially people who are of a different colour, or a different social status (read: construction labourers and the kind).

I have noticed over the last year or so that more Indians, most likely foreign born, are sharing the subway train space with me to and from work. There are also many who, on first appearance, look Chinese, like me, but they give away their true identity when they speak - some tongue that sounded Korean or Japanese, or a tongue-twisting Mandarin that suggests that they are China immigrants. And then there are some darker skinned people (brownish-tanned) who would have looked like my father, who worked under the hot sun most of his life, but who, again, on speaking, revealed that they are probably Indo-Chinese. And then there are those foreigners who have been with us for ages - the Philippinos and the Hong Kongers, the Malaysians (especially Malaysian Chinese) and the AngMos (Caucasians). Each of these speak a distinct language or have distinct tones in their speech that sets them apart.

Truly, Singapore is now a metropolis, and some would say, a melting-pot of diverse races and dialects. It is not hard to wonder why there is increasing friction among the locals and the foreigners. Perhaps this is something new to most people, but for me, this is old hat, for I grew up in the Naval Base which had races and nationals of all types. There were those Indian bachelors who lived in one room hostels with a common bath and toilet, there were Malays and Indians with families living in our midst (I had an Indian family for a neighbour). There were Chinese from Shanghai, speaking the Shanghainese dialect, Babas (a mix of Chinese and Malays), the Sikhs and so on. We all lived quite peaceably. In fact, whenever a race celebrated its special day (Deepavali, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, etc.), our parents would send some of their delicacies to each other for the occasion. This is just one of those bonuses that children, like myself, benefited immensely from, not to mention that we children often formed teams to play 'rounders' the whole day. And because most of us children went to neighbourhood schools, we'd meet up there again as a community, sitting beside each other in class, learning from the same teachers, playing together again in the fields during recess time. So 'foreigners in the midst' is quite common for me.

However, this level of communal living has become rare as Singaporeans took to high-rise apartment living, which picked up pace in the 1970s. There is probably no two generations of Singaporeans who are not used to living among people of a different race. This is a great pity, though this is mitigated by the fact that they continue to see each other in schools.

I was sad when a bunch of Singapore Chinese students told me that they are averse to going to India, compared to, say China or Korea. When probed, the 'black' word came out. Colour is a fact, and nobody needs to be ashamed of or be self-conscious about it. Many hold prejudices precisely because they haven't been living around other peoples as a community. One may live next door but never know what the neighbour's surname is after 10 years! Foreigners need to understand this about Singaporeans. It isn't that they are hostile or rude, its just the way they grew up, in insular pigeon-hole-like apartments.

As for me, I welcome foreigners in our midst, if only because it lends vibrancy to the community, and hearing the different tongues brings back a lot of childhood memories.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language as it is written

I am not a linguist, but I did study linguistics in University. I am not a native English, but I believe I have attained some degree of proficiency in this foreigner's language, though at the expense of my native Chinese language. I hardly write Chinese anymore, except only on occasions when I do need to write my Chinese name for identification purposes (well that's strictly not true. While I do not write the Chinese script, I do 'write' it using my computer).

For some time now, I have been rather uncomfortable with how English is written, especially those that appear in public media (e.g. newspapers and advertisements) and trade flyers. I can understand when trade flyers contain grammatical mistakes because anybody in the office is 'qualified' to put out a flyer, including designing and printing it. But in a mainstream newspaper, ads and formal (official) reports /communications? Copywriters are not what they used to be. For example, many ads routinely misuse the verb 'spend' in the following manner:

" gifts for a minimum spend of $50..."

The correct construct should be '' gifts for a minimum of $50 spent...", or better yet, why not add that personal touch by phrasing it this way: " gifts when you spend $50 or more...". You still use 8 words in these two examples, no more nor less than the erroneous expression.

Then there are cases of 'pluralizing' uncountable nouns such as 'effort' and 'experience'. Granted, there may be certain contexts in which the 's' in these words may be valid. But you shouldn't write:

"...the good results where due to the efforts put in by the team...", or "...the students' experiences from the trip helped them to understand others better...".

Both words are uncountable abstract nouns (not that anything abstract can be counted anyway). As such, an 's' is not necessary, nor meaningful. This is the same with uncountable discrete nouns such as rice and flour. One does not write "rices" nor "flours" to express the plural. Whether it is a grain of rice, or an 'atom' of flour (if there is such a thing), these things are considered as single entities where the 's' is superfluous. Therefore, the right way to write these sentences is:

"...the good performance was due to the effort put in by the team...", and

"...the students' experience from the trip helped them to understand others better...".

I just felt I had to get this off my chest because with the prevalence of this erroneous expressions in mainstream media (heck, even people in the education business routinely commit these mistakes nowadays), I was beginning to question my grammar. Fortunately, I am not too old to remember the English grammar that I learnt in Primary school oh so many years ago, and which I imbibed through my voracious reading appetite ever since.

p.s. I can hear my professors telling me again that there are no rights or wrongs in language...;-)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

With great freedom

'With great powers come great responsibilities', so Spiderman's uncle advised Peter Parker when he discovered his special spidery abilities. For the last few weeks, we have also heard from people citing 'freedom' and 'rights' as important reasons for supporting the repeal of Section 377A of Singapore's Penal Code - the 'anti-homosexual' statute that has stood since the British, Singapore's former colonial masters, first penned it.

But events of past the week or so again shows the truth of the words 'with great freedoms come great responsibilities'. Apparently some in the 'anti-377A' camp know only of freedom but not responsibility.

First, poet Alfian Saat found it civil and right to hurl abuse at Prof Thio Li-ann for her anti-gay speech in Parliament. This 'poet' found it proper to use such words as 'f**k' and 'piss in your grave' in chastising the Prof for her speech. I have never read Alfian Saad's works. After this, I probably won't be bothered to.

Yesterday, Today (pun unintended) reported that the same Prof has reported to the Police a threat she had received in the mail. To quote Today:

"...the contents of this letter was hateful enough...the words 'hate', 'hatred' and 'hurt' were repeated no less than 10 times..."

It is clear that someone is very serious about the 'freedom' part that all 377A repealers cited for their cause, which without prejudice, includes the freedom to hurl abuse and threaten bodily harm. I shudder to think what Singapore society will become if they had succeeded in their cause of repealing the act. Yes, gay supporters such as NMP Siew Kum Hong and Dr Stuart Koe are condemning this attack. I only hope they now realise the worms, that will surely metamorphose into something more terrifying, they almost released had they succeeded in their cause. You really have no control over extreme elements, if one considers Mr Alfian Saat as one, unless you curb their freedoms in order to maintain civil behaviour.

There is no true freedom without responsibility.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Another raving luna

Three days ago, I was seated on the North-East MRT subway train, going to work in the morning. As usual, I was doing some reading, though unusually, I was reading a book I always brought in case I couldn't pick up a copy of Today papers.

In came a bunch of noisy people. I didn't look at them as I was engrossed with my book. But a person among them was talking particularly loudly. It just wasn't possible to ignore him. When you take public transport, you'd get these once in a while. There are always people like that, particularly those who talk into their handphones, as if they cannot wait for the whole world to know their every little deals and secrets.

Suddenly I heard the same voice starting to scold the government, in particular Mr Lee Kuan Yew, about his CPF money. I cannot recall word-for-word what he said, but he said something to the effect that MM Lee had better not 'play' around with his CPF monies and that he would withdraw all his CPF when he reaches 55, and that Mr Lee had better not do anything to stop it. Otherwise he would walk up to Mr Lee to demand the money, that he wasn't afraid of him. Another raving lunatic, I thought. I looked up across from where I was seated and saw some commuters rather uncomfortable in their seats. One was rolling his eyes heaven-ward, as if to say, "Not another...".

Well, I don't know how much direct influence MM Lee has over the running of government nowadays, and about the setting of policies, but some people still do associate him with the government. So when something doesn't go their way, they'd think of MM Lee first to release their invective. I don't personally approve of this as I feel that the sitting PM and his Ministers should be first in line to answer to any unhappiness that the country's citizens might have.

I don't know the circumstances behind the man who uttered those words so loudly and clearly in the enclosed MRT subway train car, and I don't think the opinions uttered reflect any sense of reality. On the other hand, I don't think the man belongs in a mental ward either. The incident does indicate that whoever in government is now plotting to get people to make use of their money in a certain way (no matter if it is to the people's benefit or not) had better think twice, or more, before announcing it publicly (again).

Otherwise, MM Lee, probably through no fault of his, will have to bear the brunt of some disgruntled people's invective (again).

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A raving luna

I sympathise with Mdm Amutha Valli, if all that happened in Court the past week or so is real. Mdm Valli's reportedly disturbing behaviour in Court - alternately 'forgetting' what she had provided the police in her affidavit in her suit against Novena Church, with demonstration of selective memory recall is both disturbing and, well, disturbing.

For the benefit of those not in the know, Mdm Valli is suing Novena Church's two priests and other workers for destroying her life due to an alleged exorcism two years ago. She alleged that she has not been able to live a normal life since - and she demonstrated what she meant every time she stood on the dock to give evidence or was cross-examined by the defendants' lawyers.

I don't know Mdm Valli and I am not a Catholic, but from what I have read thus far, I am inclined to believe that Mdm Valli is a very very good actress. I don't know who framed the charges in the first place against the defendants in this case, but it was certainly not the work of a lunatic. It is really serious business. When time came to back up these charges, what better way than to demonstrate in open court her (alleged) problem so as to gain everybody's (including the judge's) sympathy. That is far better and more effective than a day of learned arguments. Because of her startling behaviour, the Court has had to re-schedule hearings, I suppose, to give her the space to compose herself so that she can provide clear testimony. But with all due respect to the Court's learned officers, giving her additional time won't change her brilliant strategy of acting like a lunatic. She'll just go on playing to the public gallery and the wider media till she gets what she (and/or her accomplice(s)) wants. A person in her condition, if it is genuine, should be seeking live-in full time psychiatric treatment at the Institute of Mental Health, not going to Court to give testimony. What would her testimony amount to anyway, except to gain the sympathy?

If there weren't a hint of fraud in the whole thing, this would have been a tragic situation for Mdm Valli, who had won international sporting honours for Singapore in her younger days.

Now, don't sue me. This is just my opinion. Perhaps the ridiculous and farcical nature of the whole thing is driving me mad to write these lunatic lines, just as Mdm Valli is raving madly in Court.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Misbehaving cabs

Most Singaporeans and the Singapore Authorities frown on any form of touting - propositioning by vendors to buy their services, usually at a higher than normal price. This was, as I understand, still is, the case at certain Food Centres. Over the last week, the Straits Times has reported on touting by taxi drivers, particularly those who drive the luxury Mercedes-Benz cabs. They reportedly prey on tourists and foreigners at popular hangouts such as Boat Quay, etc.

Well, touting is not all that uncommon. I was in Beijing some months ago on vacation. After enjoying a day at an Amusement Park, we had dinner and did a bit of shopping. It was about 7.30pm when we were done. I looked out on the roads and didn't see any available taxi cruising around. But there were quite a few people standing around offering their 'taxi' services, like touts swarming all over you. So we asked for the price and one quoted RMB60. That was RMB20 less than what we had paid for when we came to the Amusement Park (also by flat fare), so we agreed to take his car. It wasn't even a taxi, just a small private car. It was quite a squeeze for four people in the back seat. I sat in the front - the privilege of having the biggest frame size in the group.

The journey was uneventful. But the 'cab driver' asked if he could drop us off at the shopping centre beside our hotel. Funny, shouldn't he just drive us around to the Hotel? I didn't want to argue, but upon nearing our destination, I unwittingly directed the driver into the road just across from our Hotel. He wouldn't drive to the Hotel lobby, but I wasn't prepared to argue. I paid him with a 10 and a 50 dollar RMB notes, but he returned the 50 to me because it was torn at one corner. I exchanged it with another.

At about that moment, I heard commotion outside the cab. Some official had come by to check on us and the driver. They began to question my companions - where we were from, what we were doing, whether we called for the cab, or was offered the ride, and if so, how much we paid.

For the un-initiated, it felt pretty scary - to be stopped in the night by somebody in some official uniform and assisted by a plainclothes person. The person in uniform (the official) told us that we had taken an unlicensed cab. He then asked for my ID, which I duly produced. Then he ticked off a list of questions on his 'form' and recorded my answers, including my HP number, address - the Hotel just across the street, etc. Finally he asked me to sign on the completed form. Mindful of not putting my signature on any document, particularly a document which I couldn't make out in the dark of the night, I didn't want to sign, but the official requested that I write my Chinese name. He did seem to be honest and sincere about the whole thing, so I obliged. He also asked me to write on his pad that the RMB60 I had paid for the cab fare had been returned to me. Indeed, the official had confiscated it from the cab driver and given it back to me.

Throughout the whole incident, the official was totally honest. He wasn't corrupt. He didn't ask for money. He wasn't threatening and he explained his motives clearly to us. He said that so long as we had not initiated the hiring of the illegal cab, it was ok for us. On our part, we cooperated fully with him.

We didn't know what happened to the driver. I was told that he was questioned, but whether he was arrested, fined, or whatever, I don't know, though I would have liked to know. Another driver later told us that a heavy penalty is meted out to such drivers. I am surprised by the active enforcement action against the illegal hiring of unlicensed cabs in Beijing.

We speculated that this enforcement action was to clean up the unlicensed transportation racket ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Certainly, the Central Government does not want to hear complaints of unlicensed activities during the Olympics - that will be akin to the Government of the People's Republic of China losing face over its inability to govern and control.

I must congratulate the Beijing Municipal Authorities on their active engagement in making sure that tourists do not get the short end of a deal.

It appears that to match the effort of the central government of the PRC, their Singapore counterpart have their work cut out for them.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The voting has stopped. The tally is in.

For the Keep 377a faction, it is 15,559 votes, as reported on its website.

For the Repeal 377a faction, the votes have NOT been reported on their website. The last numbers I noticed last night (Sunday night, about 9.20pm) was about 7,900 or thereabouts, but this number also contains duplicates, which the people behind has taken no effort to moderate. So the total unique votes is less than that. A pity that is not willing to share the truth of the numbers it garnered, nor its integrity, having started this numbers game first.

Perhaps that is where the majority's reservation lies - honesty, integrity and its hidden agenda? It doesn't matter how much or how fluently one speaks or writes or produces a video, or how loudly ones speaks when push comes to shove. What matters is if you are honest about your cause. Regrettably, I find that the people falling short here.

p.s. Since writing the above, has reported on the numbers who voted for its cause. That number is 8,120. Apparently, this number is still the un-moderated one, which includes duplicate votes, as mentioned earlier.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Section 377A Again

There is a battle taking place online right now.

Those who disagree with Section 377A of the Penal Code have organised a petition online and are following that up with Parliament for its repeal. It couldn't get a duly elected MP to present this petition - not even an Opposition MP - but a Nominated MP, Mr Siew Kum Hong, is willing to bear the torch for the gay sayers.

The majority who want 377A to be retained have been jolted into action. They have set up their own site for people to register their voices in favour of the majority stand, which is to keep Section 377A. If you belong in this majority, you should make your voice heard.

Let's not allow the minority take for granted thus far the goodwill of the majority.

It appears that the statistic on the total number who signed on the website is not accurate as it double counts. That is certainly not an honest indication of intent.'s total statistic, on the other hand, is more accurate as it appears to discount duplicates.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Paying for extras

The other day, I met with a wealth management professional (well, ok, he was a guy selling insurance) who mentioned that with inflation in Singapore between 1.5 and 2 percent this year, and forecasted to be as much as 3 percent in 2008, I should be re-evaluating my investments. With bank interest rates at less than 1%, my savings are depreciating in value every day. That is quite true, so a re-alignment of investments was necessary. I am sure many others are wiser than I am and have put their money into higher yielding financial instruments, such as the booming stock markets, or gold for that matter. When it comes to investing, I must admit that I am risk-averse. But enough about my money, or lack of it.

We don't have to have MAS or Bloomberg tell us that inflation is 1.5-2% this year. These numbers are aggregates. For some time now, as far as the individual is concerned, prices have risen more than 2%. You don't have to look further than the Food Courts run by Kopitiam, Koufu and Ya Kun (amongst others) which brought spanking new concepts to old businesses and even older products - food. For example, eating 2 half-boiled eggs and two small slices of toasted kaya bread will set you back $3.90 at Ya Kun. If you had DIY'd it, it would not have cost you even a third of that amount with much larger slices of bread to boot. All of us Singaporean Heartlanders are familiar with Food Courts already - which have taken on designer looks and designer prices. Look no further than the new Kopitiam at Hougang Mall. Poems and verses adorn the glass walls. The giant whom beanstalk Jack felled is now supplying his giant chairs to this same Kopitiam outlet. And heartlanders are flocking to them, so there is no great mystery beyond run-of-the-mill economic's supply and demand theory to account for heartland inflation.

But the other day, I had breakfast at Kopitiam in at Sengkang Plaza (in Sengkang Town, of course). Time must have stood still there because I could get a large bowl of very delicious peanut soup for $1. That, coupled with a freshly fried youtiao and a cup of tea was all anybody needed for a filling and delicious breakfast. My wife bought a slightly small bowl of the same peanut soup for 50 cents. Although this foodcourt was air-conditioned, the decor and the furniture was very 1980's - 1990's, and there was no designer decor. It was the real McCoy, and it was clean and tidy. On the other hand, just across this Foodcourt was a Koufu Foodcourt which had been renovated in the new spanking 21st-century style. Predictably, they don't sell anything for less than a dollar.

Truly in Singapore, we are blinded by faux 'coffeeshops' charging high prices for a cuppa that we have forgotten that the cost of these products are actually not high at all. We blindly accept this and end up paying both the Foodcourt operators and the Food stall operators (previously known as hawkers) a premium - and for what? A brightly-lit designer setting, perhaps a convenient location but that's all. I once refused to buy any drinks from one of these Foodcourts because it was obviously overcharging its customers. In these places, you don't get served, nobody asks if you are enjoying the food and you have to 'fight' for a seat, especially during busy hours.

However, nostalgia will never bring back the old times and the old prices. But it is good to have found places where the prices have stood relatively still.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Section 377A

I vote to retain Section 377A of the Penal Code, now and forever.

If you agree, express your conviction here

Saturday, October 13, 2007

New Generation

One day, a middle-aged man was extolling the virtues and courage of Mr Chee Soon Juan, erstwhile tormentor of the PAP and some time clown of the political opposition in Singapore, while waiting at a bus stop. Along came a bunch of teenage girls, who, upon hearing this man's rant, asked, "Who is Mr Chee Soon Juan?"

Another man at the bus stop volunteered that Mr Chee Soon Juan is the Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat Sen) of Singapore. This was because, the man explained, Mr Chee is always out to be revolutionary in whatever he does, whether it is standing outside the CPF building or across the Istana entrance, spouting revolutionary slogans.

To which the still clueless teenage girls asked, "Who is Sun Zhongshan?"

It looks like the PAP has nothing to worry about when it comes to the loyalty of the iPod generation. It seems they cannot care less. The schools, they have their work cut out for them.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The lounge of a bus

Just the other day, I boarded a very crowded Service 151. I could have taken a Service 154 which was just in front of the 151. I don't know why I chose the 151. When I boarded, I regretted my choice. It was standing room only with me beside the driver. My leg was hurting - an old problem had just 'acted up' so I resigned myself to a painful journey. But then I was distracted. The interior of the bus was different - very different.

Instead of two-person seats down the aisle, this bus' seats was just one long stretch from the front right up to the back - MRT-style. When I finally got a seat, I had occasion to observe further. I noticed two 'bar-seats' facing the 'wall' of the bus. It was apparently designed for passengers to read his/her papers or books quite comfortably without disturbing any other passenger. Later, when I made my way in the still crowded bus to the exit, I noticed some 'lounge-like' chairs lined up along the other side of the bus, beginning from the exit door - perhaps 3 or 4 of them. The bus ceiling was padded in red carpet-like material, adding to the cosy feeling. It was surreal.

Wow! Is this what SBSTransit means when it says it wants to value-add to its services? Is this what the annual fare price increases are for? This layout and the seats are certainly unusual for a bus, but I am not all over the moon about it. Buses frequently and regularly start and stop. While this is true also of the subway train, the jerky motion is more pronounced on buses. It took all of my butt muscles to keep me from bumping into both my seated neighbours. You see, unlike the subway trains, the seats in these buses are soft cushioned types - which is a bad idea on buses that frequently start and stop and also when passengers are seated side-by-side.

One thing that was noticeably absent anywhere near the seated passenger is access to the buzzer. I looked left, I looked right, I looked back and I looked front. Heck, I even looked up, but there was no sign of the buzzer. I was worried about how to alert the driver to stop at my destination. You see, the bus was still standing-room only as I neared my destination. I needn't have worried because someone found the buzzer, probably near the exit, I don't know.

What do I think about this whole new experience? Not very much I must say. I still would prefer the conventional seat arrangement and I hated the bouncy cushion. I would much rather prefer those contoured seats that are standard on all SMRT (previously TIBS) buses. At least you get to keep your butt, shoulders and everything in between, to yourself instead of knocking them into another at every stop. I will miss the butt muscle toning exercise, however.

Second, I don't think white cushion colours will last. Yes, the cushions are white in colour! Now who made such a unthinking choice? This is public transport, and we have all kinds of butts which have been placed in all kinds of places prior to resting them on these buses' seats. I know, I know, the red interior with the white cushion just makes you think of a classy lounge, but sister, this is not a lounge. Why do I care? I care because maintaining these seats will cost a lot of money, and who do you think will foot the bill at the end of the day? ME!

Well, I think SBSTransit did try, but they are doing it in half measures and that's what is all wrong with it. They have crossed the concept of a luxury coach with the need to squeeze in as many people as possible. The result is a monstrosity. Now, how can they ask for more money when their best effort is so, err, monstrously incompetent? Perhaps the Transport Minister and everyone on the PTC should ride one of these buses for the experience and decide how much more commuters should pay next year. must be a crowded one, though, so that they can make the most use of their butt muscles. The experience will be different otherwise.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Private Business

Public transport has always been a hot potatoe on this little island of ours. With artificially sky-high car prices (and the taxes that come with it), many are disgruntled when the next best alternative is a public transport service that does not quite live up to the high standards that the traveling public demands of it. And why does the traveling pubic have such high demands? It is because the privately owned public transport companies raise their fares every year, with the blessings of the government, in spite of making 'record breaking' profits year after year.

Under such circumstances, can you blame the public for complaining? Singapore is probably the only country in the world where government officers, the civil servants, the people employed to serve the people - in this case the Transport Minister himself no less, speaks FOR these private transport operators on why transport fares have to be increased annually. While the Transport Minister should rightly be concerned if the service level of the public transport operators can be sustained year after year, it is certainly not his place to defend fare price increases, nor dictate, nor prescribe how and why that can and must be done on behalf of these private, listed companies. If these transport companies need to raise fares, let them justify it. Let them convince the paying public how those increases can translate to better services, or at least why it is that they cannot absorb costs increases any more. Public Utilities companies never had to have their price increases for electricity justified by public servants. The price of oil goes up and it comes down, and the tariffs are adjusted accordingly. That is fair and reasonable. Similarly, the public can understand if the transport fares have to be increased because of the rising cost of oil, but they cannot understand why the same transport fares cannot be decreased when oil prices fall. That's the difference between our public transport companies and our public Utilities companies.

If the the public transport companies cannot provide the service at the prevailing rates, let somebody else who can do it. Yes, this may result in some routes being under-serviced at first, and we may have duplicated services in other area, but if it leads to better service to the public at a sustainable rate in the long run, why not?

The government harps on letting the market decide on certain things, such as health services, so that the true cost of providing these services can be known. It is proud of not subsidising public transport, but does not let the market decide how best to allocate resources to provide the best outcome to the paying customer based on demand and supply. To this, the government always argues that by moderating fare increases, it is helping the public get sustained quality service (read 'new buses'). The fact that the public keeps complaining demonstrates the lie in that argument.

I take public transport everyday, so I can understand what the complaints are all about. For the civil servants who do not take public transport, I can also understand when they don't understand what the complaints are all about. But what takes the cake is that those who do not understand almost always speaks up for the profitable privately owned and operated public transport companies. Who will speak up for the long-suffering man in the street when those elected to do so do not?

Singapore is known for many 'bests' - best airline in the world, best airport, best medical services in the region, best Maths students in the world. It is also probably the best place to operate a public transport company because:

1. Monopoly is assured by the government;
2. Fare increases are blessed by the government;
3. Government officials routinely defend fare increases for free (no under table money, I hope);
4. Profit is assured, sometimes at obscene amounts. (If there is a sure thing on the stock market, this is it)

Heck, if what the Transport Minister implies is true, that annual fare increases benefits BOTH commuters and the transport operators, why are we wasting time arguing about this issue year in and year out?

The obvious answer to that is that the Transport Minister has got his sums wrong - and his heart with the wrong party.

p.s. Actually, I had nothing to comment about this year's fare increases of 1/2 cents. I thought the PTC's decision, under Mr Gerard Ee, was reasonable. The Transport Minister's comments must have touched a raw nerve.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Lincoln Lesson

The National Library Board (NLB) did something fantastic recently. It sent out 800,000 mailers to its delinquent members to request them to settle their outstanding fines. According to reports, some of these fines have been outstanding for as long as 11 years. According to its external auditors, delinquent accounts should have been settled on time - a important practice in good governance.

My concern is that Singapore has 800,000 book reading people who have chosen not settled their fines. We are not talking about traffic fines, parking fines, etc. How much can a library fine amount to? S$1, S$2? But a letter writer to Today stated that he had a 20 cents fine dating back 11 years. That is astonishing as I understand from my many years as an active library member that additional penalties are levied on unpaid fines. So a 20 cents fine 11 years ago would have accumulated to quite a tidy sum today. NLB is probably also remiss in not recording the accumulated penalties on top of fines. To think that all these years, I have been faithfully and honestly paying all my library fines, not that there were many in the first place.

800, that's not a small number of people who are basically not honest. Many of them would probably have thought 20, 30 cents are peanuts that the NLB can absorb. But really, it is dishonesty any way you look at it. It is not so much whether NLB needs the money or not (it probably doesn't going by the fact that it left its debtors alone for so many years), but whether a person, after agreeing to the library rules and profiting from its free services subsequently reneges on it by refusing to settle their fines. All of which reminds me of the oft-quoted stories of how Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, walked 6 miles (that's almost 10 km travelling there and another 10 km for the return journey - a total of 20 km!) to pay back a few cents to a woman who had overpaid for dry goods at the store that Lincoln ran, and on another occasion, finding that he had used a four-ounce weight instead of an eight, he walked miles to deliver to a woman the full order of tea she had paid for. Lincoln was then all of 22 years old.*

So whether one owes 10 cents or $10, the right thing to do is to return what is owed. Somehow, a people who is more much more well-to-do, with all the comforts of modern living compared to Lincoln in 1831, cannot see the virtue of honesty. This is probably symptomatic of a society drunken by Totos, 4-D, Lucky Draws and the specter of Casinos in its own backyard. They don't mind spending time every week, if not more often, lining up to buy those lucky numbers but rationalize to themselves that it is a waste of money driving/walking/taking the bus down to the library to pay a 10 cents fine. Their economics may be spot-on, but their morals leave much to be desired.

I hope these 800,000 see the error of their ways and turn to the straight and narrow. Be honest. It is not about the money, it is about doing the right thing. Make good your debt. Be responsible. You don't want tax payers, like me, to pick up the cost of the mailers for you too, do you?

* Source: Sandburg, Carl (1993), "Abraham Lincoln". Galahad Books, Page 25.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Connecting with your audience

Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, the Northeast MRT subway line broke down. I was trapped in Potong Pasir MRT station, on board the train, for about twenty minutes which isn't all that bad, except it was rush hour (about 7pm) and every commuter was just looking forward to going home pronto after a hard day's work. I was one of them.

To my fellow commuters' credit, everyone remain calm and composed. It was as if these things happen regularly (which in fact, it doesn't). People got to talking grandmother and grandfather stories to pass the time, anticipating that the glitch will be resolved soon. SBSTransit, the operator of this sophisticated driverless subway system, wasn't so sure. But it did its part in giving out periodic announcements on the state of the repairs.

The only problem is that the PA system announcements didn't reach into the train itself where the bulk of its intended audience were. It was ridiculous. Even those, like me, standing near the doors of the train could only guess at what was being announced. Sometimes we took a guess, others just followed what the others were doing, either staying put or leaving the train. After waiting ten minutes or so, we were informed that it would be another ten minutes' delay. Many of us, myself included, abandoned the train and considered alternatives.

Lo and behold, a few moments after I had step off the train and was on my handphone seeking advice from my wife on alternative transport, the train resumed operation. This time, no announcements were made prior to the train moving off. Just when I was in a position to hear any announcement loud and clear, they don't announce anything. It caught all of us who were standing outside the train by surprise. I had to wait for the next train, which, thankfully, came in a short while.

I am sure SBSTransit had been doing its level best to get the system going, but they really really need to fix their mis-performing and mis-communicating communications systems. That is the least one would expect from a state of the art subway system.

Monday, October 01, 2007

All Talk

The last I heard, UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari had a talk with Aung San Suu Kyi.

He also had a talk with senior members of the military government.

He is waiting to talk to Senior General Than Shwe.


Let's not waste everybody's time.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cleaning up the Burmese yard

A few years ago, my colleagues made a trip to Yangon, Burma during their vacation. They asked me to join them. I was tempted, not having gone to that country. Burma would also have presented new experiences since it was the only country in that region that is still mired in the past. Others, such as Vietnam, its immediate neighbour, has since gone on to develop its country and people at breakneck speed. Cambodia has also opened up and Thailand has been hailed as the new destination for business under the Thaksin years, whether one likes Thaksin and his billions or not. Laos is the only other Indochinese nation that is still 'backward', although I am not certain why it is so.

The latest mass demonstrations by monks and students in Burma has brought a spark of hope that the Generals who rule Burma with an iron fist will turn back the years of isolation and deprivation and herald a new era run by, hopefully, more competent civil government that are directly accountable to its people. Apparently this is not to be. If students and monks are the only people willing to agitate for change, with Aung San Suu Kyi the only other visible symbol of hope, albeit an ineffective one for the past 18 years, then Burma deserves to remain under the iron-fisted control of the Generals. Given the poor state of the economy, these Generals know that keeping in control is the only way they have access to the better things in life for themselves and for their children.

The question is, why are the soldiers under them willing to risk life and limb, to the extent of killing innocent people, to prop up greedy, corrupt and oppressive generals who are not doing any good for the people of Burma? Has the entire military sold its soul to these corrupt 'Government-Generals'? They are the ones that really have the power to change. They can stop obeying their military masters and side the people. But no, they are like automatons who do the bidding of their masters to perpetuate their legacy and their livelihood. Perhaps this is the price to pay for rice on the table and a roof over their heads, given that the economy is in shambles and opportunities for alternative livelihood are scarce or even non-existent?

Burma's own adults fare no better. They would rather stand on the side to clap rather than join the team to agitate for change with real visible action. They have Philippines' people-power revolution as an example of what people can do to topple a corrupt government. That said, they still need the rank-and-file and leadership within to throw out the incumbent military government - the undeserving masters whom they serve. Right now, neither party is budging. Neither is willing to put life and limp on the line for the sake of their children and for their country.

The UN and Asean can do nothing beyond persuasion. The best that ASEAN, under Singapore's leadership, has done is to issue a strongly-worded statement against the Burmese government's brutal actions. This is a departure from its long-held practice of non-interference in member countries' affairs. But who are the UN and ASEAN that these Generals should listen to? Even the US refuses to take any action unilaterally this time.

Why should the rest of the world care at all what happens to Burma if the Burmese, except its monks and students, do not want to own the problem in their own backyard?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

To force or not to force?

OK, my straw poll results are in:

To the statement, "Buying an annuity should be voluntary"

A majority 85% (23 pax) preferred a voluntary annuity (aka longevity insurance).

An insignificant 7% (2 pax) would rather it be forced on them.

An insignificant 7% (2 pax) don't know either way. In which case, can they give me their CPF savings since they are so confused?

Total respondents is 27. Level of Confidence: Very.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I expect the Corporate Communications department of any organisation to present a clear position on its policies, practices, processes and actions. That's the raison de'tre of its existence. From time to time, however, the CorpComm department manages to anger stakeholders as it spews forth formulae and nonsense. I know of a recent case of a Corp Comm department that managed to confuse everybody (including the public) regarding the roles of its various departments. It was a mess, and worst, it was perpetrated by the people who are paid to communicate properly.

I would characterise the latest communications from Transitlink regarding a commuter's request to review the 0.9m rule in the same category - formulaic and nonsense (Today, 25th Sep 2007). In this case, a commuter noted that children in Singapore are growing taller at a younger age. I can vouch for this because my 13 year old son is 1.7m tall, just 0.04m, or 40cm shorter than me - his father. In my time, people have always remarked that I am taller than most people. So there appears to be empirical proof that our Singapore bred children are getting taller than children their same age in the past. The commuter also noted that children less than 3 years old but whose height exceeds 0.9m needs to pay adult fares for a ride on the bus or train, unless a Child Pass is obtained. The request was that Transitlink, which runs the fare collection system in Singapore, should revise the 0.9m limit upwards.

In reply to this very logical and reasonable request, Transitlink replied, predictably, in the negative. These were the reasons they gave:

1. It would cost Transitlink a bomb to retrofit the fare gates in all its stations to adjust the height limit. I suppose repainting the height marks on buses will also cost a lot of $$$$. The implied consequence to the commuter is that the huge cost of the retrofit will eventually be passed on to fee paying commuters, never mind if this is a one time exercise. So it doesn't matter if the commuter's suggestion is right or not, true or false, reasonable or unreasonable. The operators get away scot-free by threatening to pass the cost to the commuter. This is called blackmail.

2. It really doesn't matter whether in the past, only infant-in-arms were granted free travel, which was subsequently extended to toddlers 0.9m and below. Transitlink makes its out that it has done enough charitable deeds in the past to merit its untouchable status in transport heaven. A truly arrogant stance if there ever was one. What they don't tell you are the various concessions that they obtained from the authorities over that same period of time that has cemented their monopolistic positions today.

3. Transitlink also made the point that the bus and train companies run a profit-making business and there is already cross-subsidies and all that. What it fails to mention is that SBSTransit and SMRT are effectively monopolies in their own spaces - a status conferred upon them by the transport authorities. Only the other day I learned that a tour bus service that operated from the old Kovan Bus Station was not allowed by the authorities to pick up passengers there and drop them off at JB on its way to its final destinations in Malacca, KL, Penang and Ipoh. The reason, I was told, was that it would adversely affect SBS Service 170's business. SBS 170 is the only bus from Singapore allowed to ply the route now. (Of course, there may be a restriction from the Malaysian authorities' side, but it makes no sense for Malaysia to stop Singaporeans going to JB for shopping and entertainment). This cross-subsidy argument is really an albatross. SBS has to cross-subsidise in any case as a condition for its monopolistic position. This was a condition imposed on it by the authorities who licensed them in the first place.

So I cannot buy any of the arguments they have given. The best thing will be for the PTC to make a stand on this very public issue. As it is, without addressing it, Transitlink and the 2 major transport operators will be getting away with overcharging - daylight robbery if you like. If a commuter gets caught underpaying, he pays a penalty. If these bus and train companies overcharge, its their right! Frankly, that makes them sound like the big bad bullies around every block. But they insists and remind you in the same breadth that they already do charity!

Now is that any way to treat your customer? Is it any way to run a public service business? No wonder that the public has such a need-hate feeling about public transport companies in Singapore.

Friday, September 21, 2007

For a few dollars more

MP Irene Ng waxed poetic in Parliament yesterday when she said that the sometimes very messy en bloc sales activities of late was a "tangled tale of greed, fear, love and betrayal".

I can understand there there was a lot of greed, fear and betrayal, but love in these very acrimonious times? What must the recently married Ms Irene Ng be thinking about? But of course she wasn't romanticising the whole en bloc sales phenomenon, which has been anything but. So what was she referring to? She must be talking about the love of money. Yes, yes, that's it, couldn't be anything else, not least anything to do with the Scottish Highlands. After all, isn't this the sole reason driving so many otherwise sane and sensible people to give up their apartments 'for a few dollars more' (Sergio Leone, 1967, starring Clint Eastwood), even when they have yet to secure an alternative accommodation? (Yeah, I can't help romanticising about that spaghetti western classic of a movie. It does show your age, though).

Well, yes, there are plenty of apartments in Singapore, but there is one caveat - you must be able to swallow the sky high price tags, especially when you plan to rent.

The Math is getting simpler nowadays:

sell high + (rent high|buy high) = (0 net benefit whatsoever) X (multiple grief),

i.e. you end up with nothing, zilch, numero zero, lingdan.

Unless you already have another spare apartment somewhere else. But not everyone is fortunate or rich enough to have spare apartments or spare cash. Even among the 80% or so of the people that agree to an en bloc sale, I would venture to guess that maybe 80% DO NOT have spare apartments nor enough spare cash. How then would an en bloc sale benefit the majority is a mystery to me. Perhaps that's where the romantic part comes in - you find yourself in a desert one day and you have to find that dream home all over again. This is going to be an adventure like no other. Along the way, you hope not to encounter too many mirages, but you need to be prepared, just like in the old wild west.

To these sojourners, my best wishes to you. Just don't let the rattlesnake bite. Unfortunately you won't have C. Eastwood for company. His last western, Unforgiven (1992), was done 15 years ago.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Taking care of HIV

The Singapore government is making it clear through legislation that those who are in HIV high risk groups will find no excuse for engaging in 'high risk sexual behaviour', if and when charged in court. This is in response to the increased incidence of HIV positive people in Singapore. HIV has been around long enough for many to forget that it is:

1. Infectious
2. Incurable
3. Debilitating, and
4. Terminal

Sad to say, the main perpetrators are those who engage in high risk sexual behaviour such as homosexual sex and casual sex with multiple sex partners. The world can't stop such age-old behaviour, but we shouldn't encourage it either. There is a movement in Singapore to repeal Section 377(A) of the Penal Code. The government has very wisely rejected this. Let us hope that the natural instinct of self-preservation remains. Once corrupted by some fancy thinking and yearning to be as free as our 'brethren' in other lands that are more open (and misguided), we will really all be in trouble.