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.