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.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Master and Disciple - the Far Side of the Law

It is nothing short of irony that the follower of the NKF shenanigans, Mr Richard Yong, should end up serving a sentence 5 times the length of his boss'. Mr TT Durai had been sentenced to 3 months jail time earlier. But of course, the reason for that extra long sentence is because Mr Yong did more shenaniganing AFTER the NKF affair than before it, all of which raises doubts about the character of the man.

In particular is his attempt to spin a wholely unbelievable story about how he had to chase his wife from Singapore to Johore and all the way to Hong Kong to get back his money which he said his wife had stolen from him and planned to leave him with. Well, he should have left things be because he will now lose those money anyway and he has caused his wife to be charged with money laundering, for which she is in custody in Hong Kong. One wonders if his lawyer did not help him craft this incredible story. A lawyer is supposed to help the court clarify points of the law in favour of his client's case, not pull wool over the eyes of everyone, including the judge, by helping to spin fairy tales. But then, I am indulging in some speculation myself.

Thus of the two, it would appear that Mr TT Durai is a more responsible and honourable man. At least now he is out of the country legitimately working to pay off his debts rather than trying to liquidate everything and running away with the 'booty'.

Truly the love of money has undone Mr Richard Yong and his wife. Let us hope that both of them will find the light during the time that they is incarcerated.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Shifting Track

Well, you must give the government credit. In spite of PM Lee Hsien Loong's very public pronouncement that all Singaporeans under 50 years of age MUST buy an annuity to tide over the rest of their life's needs, the government has backed down. In Parliament yesterday, the Manpower Minister, Mr Ng Eng Hen, said something to the effect that this annuity thing may not be compulsory after all. Yes, people have different needs and different people have different means. You just can't treat everyone the same and say everyone MUST buy into the annuity plan structured by the government. Yes, the government wanted to achieve mass participation so that the cost of the annuity will be low enough to be affordable, yet the yields are high enough to satisfy. But I suppose the people in charge of aging issues were not listening to their colleagues over at the Education Ministry.

The people in charge of education have been saying for some time now that people have different abilities and interests, that we shouldn't treat everyone with a cookie-cutter. Some are more artistic, others are more analytical. Some learn slower, others faster. Some are better with their hands, others are good with their minds. So education has taken a much more diverse offering in recognition of these differences. This, if nothing else, is an enlightened piece of thinking.

Yet, the people at the government's old folks department insist on using the cookie-cutter which the education people have very wisely discarded. What happened to the careful deliberation process, which the Singapore government is well known for, on this issue? It seems that someone or some people just pushed out a half-baked cake for the PM to sell at a very public occasion, which caused a lot of indigestion. Is the nation beginning to be short-changed by some very costly scholars in the civil service who cannot figure out what the man in the street takes a second to do so - that a compulsory annuity takes away PEOPLE's OWN hard earned money without the certainty that they will benefit from it at all. Well, yes, you may say that Singaporean's give generously to charity, but that's all voluntary.

The proposed forced annuity is but another form of deferred taxation, is it not? And worst, it is regressive in nature, like the GST. Poorer people pay proportionately more than do the well off. The premiums paid are effectively redistributed in favour of those who live longer - possibly the more well off because they can better afford life-sustaining medical care.

A committee will now be formed to consider the matter in greater depth. Its seems that the original people/committee that were/was considering this matter in depth (in the PM's department, no less) didn't do that thorough a job. Let's hope the new committee does better.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Annuity Chicken and Egg

Great, now we hear something sensible - that those people with chronic illnesses should be exempt from having to buy into the 'compulsory' annuity scheme announced by the Prime Minister in his National Day Rally speech. The reason is very simple. These people will definitely not live until 85, and thus forcing them to put aside their money for a life-long income stream, starting at 85, which they will never enjoy, is manifestly unjust.

Of course the Minister who suggested this, Mr Lim Boon Heng, has just opened a can of worms. If we want to be transparent about the whole thing, as this government trumpets a lot about, we raise the question of who else, or which group of people, would definitely not live until age 85. I see a scramble for various claims for this. In my case, I have a condition that insurance companies found necessary to 'load' my premiums for ANY insurance policy that I bought. This is a statement from them that my life expectancy is not considered, on probability, to be longer than most people. Since a professional actuary has made that decision about me, can I then be exempt from the 'compulsory' annuity scheme? If yes, then the pool of contributors to this annuity scheme will be reduced further by the number of people in a similar situation, calling into question the eventual attractiveness of the returns. If not, then, why not? You can't get any better advice from a professional actuary or doctor, can you?

Already, we are hearing that those who have already bought annuities will be exempt. Quite sensibly, why would anyone be forced to buy another annuity? My point really is that compelling people to buy into annuities is not a good idea at all. Instead, improving the attractiveness of annuity and then pursuading people to buy into annuities seems more sensible. But buying annuity remains a chicken and egg question. The way the Singapore government works is to slaughter the chicken first and create the egg, however that is going to be realised. But Singapore has been described as a miracle from day one. I suppose it intends to continue performing miracles, this time at the expense of its citizens.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In the middle of the night

I got off work rather late yesterday, about 7.30pm due to a meeting in the office. These after-offfice-hour meetings happen from time to time, though mercifully, it isn't that often. One of the reasons might be that the air-condition goes off exactly at 6pm, so staying in the office would be very bad for health, especially when you start to inhale each other's carbon dioxide. Another reason, of course, is that the participants, because of their work commitments, cannot meet until after 5pm.

In any case, I took a taxi home. I usually take the bus/MRT. I was hungry so getting home faster at extra cost was justified, I thought. It turned out that the trip wasn't much faster as traffic was still quite heavy at that hour. What were people doing on the roads at that hour? Don't they knock off at 6pm? I haven't come across a company where office working hours stretch right up to 7pm, except those companies that works shifts - at least not officially. But I am ignorant. There are still many office workers heading home at that hour. In fact, last evening, LTA's EMAS warned that there was massive traffic jam after Thomson Road right up to Eunos. Either an accident had taken place, or some vehicle breakdown, or some road works, or more likely, office workers were fighting their way home in their expensive vehicles.

I recalled a friend from Mauritius tell me that in his country, shops close at 6pm and there was hardly any vehicular activity after that hour. That's difficult to imagine in Singapore on ANY day of the week. I venture to guess that after 8pm, the traffic would be even heavier. As it is, I had to pay a surcharge of $2 for taking a taxi between 5 and 8pm

Because of the heavy traffic, I got home not much earlier that if I had taken the Bus/MRT. There truly is no downtime for traffic in Singapore. Let the visitor beware.

P.S. Interestingly, this was the first time that I had seen a taxi using a GPS device. The vicinity of the roads that we were approaching was shown up on the device. But the graphics were terrible. How I wished the images were life-like. But I suppose that, as far as technology goes, it is only a matter of time.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

New Challenges

I was talking with a number of friends the other day, bantering around and we concluded, half jokingly, that Singaporeans below 50 years old, which includes your infant sons and daughters, now have a new challenge. We must ensure that all of us live beyond 80 years old - otherwise whatever money we are forced to put aside for the 'greater good' will never be recovered by ourselves. Of course, I am referring to the compulsory national annuity scheme just announced by the Prime Minister on 9 August 2007.

So not only have our children got to do well in school to secure a place in one of the local Universities (there are only 3 right now, with not enough places for everyone), they also have to secure a good job (career may be an afterthought) that pays enough to pay for the skyrocketing costs of housing and that car too, and earn enough to pay for 10 private tutors for that one son/daughter, never mind that he/she already attends a fee paying 'independent' school, but now, above all, he must ensure that he doesn't work, worry and stress himself so much that he will never see a cent of his forced annuity at age 80 (because he won't live till 80).

Sigh, we can put effort into pursuing our education, work at securing a good job and strive to give our children the best, but to live to a ripe old age is often something that is not entirely within our control. Yes, we can eat wisely and exercise regularly, but even the most health conscious are not guaranteed a long life. Some would say its the luck of the draw, so even before gambling starts at Marina Bay or Sentosa, we are already well on our way to instituting a scheme that is a game of chance - he who reaches 80 and beyond will win that pot that everyone has contributed to.

There are people who extol the virtues of saving for the greater good, that a community spirit of shared risks will usher in a gracious, caring and cultured society. I, too, look forward to such a society, but if it is going to be obtained by coercion, then I am not too keen about it. What kind of compassionate society can result from coercion?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

When you grey

There the government of Singapore goes again - trying to lock up my money because the other person can't keep his hands off his. That's the latest proposal to tweak the national savings scheme, the CPF. While the details have not been worked out yet, I can understand why our insurers are over the moon. Out of the blue, the government is giving them a sure-thing - money from all working people in Singapore in the form of an annuity scheme. What's so sweet about this is that it will be compulsory - i.e. every CPF account holder currently under 50 years of age must join this annuity programme - no matter that the details of this annuity hasn't been spelt out.

We, the CPF account holders, are apprehensive. The reason that we haven't invested in an annuity so far has been due to the poor returns. In spite of what the government says, we still don't expect to live many years beyond our 80s. The government may have had a say in a lot of what we must do with our salary up till now, but it has no control over when we die. The current lifespan of 80 is but an aggregate number that may not truly represent my situation. I may live longer than that, but I will make provisions such that my children will not be burdened financially. That is only prudent and wise.

I am not against annuities per se, and it does seem that the annuity that will be proposed by the government will not cost a lot. But the problem is that when my moneys are broken up into small investments, on aggregate, they will not give me better returns than if I had invested a larger chunk of it otherwise. For example, a local bank is offering interest at 1.5% for savings up to $50,000. Beyond this, the interest is 2%. Financial institutions will be able to find and make more money from more money than less money you make available to them. Thus these investment choices are taken away from me. This is one of the resentments against this latest paternalistic act of the government of Singapore.

True, the government is only being proactive, to think ahead for the good of the populace. I don't think there is anything sinister about locking up our money for longer periods because they cannot handle the volume of payouts in future when the baby-boomers cash out. But I'd just wish that they hadn't use the word 'compulsory'. That's like a father talking down to the son.

The danger in constructing all these safety nets is that people begin to feel that they do NOT need to plan for their old age themselves, outside of whatever governmental schemes there are. When that happens, and when people get old, as they must one day, and the returns on the annuity cannot keep pace with the cost of living, they will be begin to regret they trusted the government too much for their old age needs. Of course this will become a political issue, but I am sure no senior citizen want to be treated like political football when they should retire with a certain level comfort from the savings and investments they made over and above what is prescribed for them. Ironically, with all the social safety nets that are being erected, complacency will set in.

So far from securing the aged's future, it may come back to haunt and jeopardise them. I can hear now the government saying then that 'nobody owes you a living...'