Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Life and death

How can a 25-year old platoon commander from the Officer Cadet School of the Singapore Armed Forces, who just last month came in 23rd out of 1,369 runners in a 10-kilometre marathon collapse and die in the 21-km Singapore Bay Run, which is also known as the Safra Sheares Bridge Run & Army Half Marathon 2007?

Yes, this run is twice the distance of the previous run, but being an active soldier and a marathoner to boot, it shouldn't have been a problem. But surprisingly, it turned out differently - all of which goes to show that one can never be certain about life, how long one will live, or even how healthy we will remain.

My condolences go out to the family of the deceased.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Summary judgements

There are legitimate businesses and there are questionable businesses. Oh, no, I am not referring to illegal businesses or illegitimate businesses. I am referring to businesses that makes money by using the law to intimidate and coerce children to cough up S$3,000 to S$5,000 a pop. All this is legal, of course, but nevertheless questionable.

Those who have followed the news on this little island of ours know what I am referring to. There is a company called Odex which is going around town doing the following:

1. Legally coerce two of the biggest telco/ISP companies to reveal details of their customers' activities on the internet

2. Sending intimidating letters of demand to kids not yet able to make their first $10 to pay thousands of dollars to settle their illegal download of Anime pictures, which Odex claims it has licenses over their distribution, at least in Singapore

What is surprising is that none of the cases has gone to court. Parents of these kids prefer to pay up rather than incur possibly greater costs in fighting the claims. As this situation unfolded in the press a couple of weeks back, another incident came to mind.

Not too long ago, there was an electronic Map maker called Virtual Map which was also going around town with lawyers' letters demanding payment from commercial firms which had unwittingly taken maps off its internet website and put them on their internet homepages. The sums demanded were much larger the the 3-5K, but like the situation now, many companies paid up without going to court. It came to a point when one wondered if this company derived its main revenue stream from attempting to sue companies for breaching the copyright law. I say attempting because, like the Odex situation now, none of the cases then made it to the law courts. Apparently this company stopped sending lawyers letters when it received a lawyer's letter itself from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) suing it for using maps which license had expired.

Apparently, the same may be happening in Odex's case. In the latest incident of this saga, the District Court of Singapore rejected Odex's application for Pacific Internet to give it the list of names of those who had illegally downloaded Anime from Pacnet's website. This decision surprised everyone, including lawyers, because the basis for the application was the same as that for Singnet and Starhub. It appears now, after the judge released his basis of judgement, that Singnet and Starhub never really fought for its customers, never really took pains to protect their privacy, never really questioned if Odex in fact held the exclusive rights to the Anime in question to commence legal proceedings. In the PacNet incident, the wise judge felt that some pertinent questions were not addressed adequately and so rejected Odex's application. Good for you, Judge Lau!

Now, I can see parents holding back paying Odex because enough questions have been raised that, even if the matter went to court, Odex may not win its case. Its just sad that some have already paid up. But certain things have now transpired: Odex has lost much goodwill, Singnet and Starhub has lost its users' confidence, and the law is not an ass after all.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Moving transportation

I am ambivalent about the latest pronouncements from the Public Transport Council (PTC), a body that was set up to look into public transport issues, including approving increases in public transport fares, which it needs to do soon. It has upped the performance standards by requiring that transport companies - mainly bus services offered by SBSTransit and SMRT - to maintain frequency of its buses to 10 minutes for 80% of the time. As someone else pointed out, how PTC is able to monitor compliance remains a very big question.

But even supposing that they can police this standard, who will end up paying the cost of the penalty? I am highly suspicious that the commuters will end up paying because these penalties become a part of the operating cost of the company, much like insurance costs. So hopefully, buses are more regular during peak hours (that it isn't now is criminal because the bus service is a monopoly bestowed upon it by the transport authorities), but commuters should be prepared to pay more. There are no free lunches, and neither are there free buses - except those offered by huge shopping malls which aims to cart you off to their malls to help you empty your pockets there.

Whether the bus service improves or not remains to be seen. In my experience, such a step in tightening the service standard is not needed as the current service standard would have sufficed. The problem is that the operators are failing in fulfilling these standards and nobody, not least the PTC, can effectively police these standards. The PTC has all along relied on anecdotal feedback and reacts by upping costs. That's the ONLY thing it can do. Having new, more stringent standards wouldn't help. It is a sad day when a commercial firm must rely on external threat of penalties from the regulatory bodies to improve its service standards. Improvements in service standards must come from within. Only then will improvements become entrenched.

Managing expectations is important. For example, you would get uptight when the subway train doesn't arrive after waiting for 7 minutes. Waiting for a bus for 10 or even 15 minutes, on the other hand, is acceptable, so long as there is consistency, as is the case with subway train services most of the time. The main problem is some specific bus services run on inconsistent timings whilst others perform better. If every service is consistently bad, then there is a case for stipulating a more stringent performance criteria. If it is inconsistently good, then a fine may not work its magic. I hope I am wrong, but as I have mentioned before, the problem, really, is in how bus captains and supervisors watch and keep time. Unlike train operations, which makes use of sophisticated monitoring and control systems, bus service frequency quality depends very much on these people.

Now some of them who cannot consistently keep good time may result in commuters paying more. Is the PTC barking up the wrong tree?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

When is a Fatwa a Fatwa?

Islam can be expedient - a fact that is increasingly on display in the violence that is gripping the world today. In peaceful Singapore, however, the Islamic religious authorities have declared that Muslims (in Singapore, where their authoritiy is limited to) can now assume that they have been given consent (by the highest Islamic religious authorities) to having their organs 'harvested' upon their death unless the particular individual Muslim has opted out while he/she was alive.

But before this can become reality, Singapore's HOTA - Human Organ Transplant Act - will have to be amended through Parliament because, in its current form, this particular law excludes all Singapore Muslims.

Why the change of heart, or more specifically, the change of a religious edict? We are told that because of the scarcity of available organ, not enough is available for transplant purposes. As a result, 130 Muslims have died while waiting, in vain, for an available, and more importantly, matching organ. While the reversal in position on HOTA by the Islamic authorities is laudable, one must wonder how authoritative their fatwa is when it can be changed out of expediency. It is beginning to sound that a made-in-Singapore fatwa, like almost all fatwas that Muslims make all over the world today are arbitrary rulings that are self-serving. I think Singapore's Islamic authorities had better think deeper next time they issue a fatwa. We can't help it when Muslim terrorists do senseless fatwas (like that one that still stands against Salman Rushdie), but the rest cannot be seen to be just as unthinking of the 'bad' that a fatwa might bring. Otherwise, mainstream Islam risk making a mockery of a fatwa.

See BBC, Today Online

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