Monday, February 26, 2007

Priorities in life

In a bid to sustain the standard and way of life that Singaporeans have become used to, very often, both husband and wife, mother and father, MUST hold down a job in ultra-competitive Singapore. I remember a time (my time) when the wife stays at home to raise the kids while the man brings home the bacon. But of course, that is a bygone era. With both male and female getting equal educational opportunities and career options in Singapore, it just doesn't make any sense for the wife to stay at home when she can be more productive, for home, country and vacations, holding down a job that provides more of the good material things in life, not to mention the spa holidays for relaxation and re-charging of the spirit and soul from time to time.

But the cost has been found to be in the declining birth rate among Singaporeans. We are already in crisis because apparently, we are not reproducing enough to replace ourselves. In time to come, we might just become extinct, to be replaced by migrants from other lands, just as our parents and grandparents themselves were migrants in Singapore in their time. So who are we building our homes for anyway? Does all this even make sense when we cannot reproduce enough of ourselves? I think we must come around to changing our expectations of what should be before this reversal will take place. Importing people will only go so far because in time to come, they will be just as unproductive as they assimilate and, inevitably, adopt the Singapore way of family and working life.

I argue that in Singapore, every couple should strive to work towards a single breadwinner family, the sooner the better. This means that Singaporeans must radically change their priorities. So instead of acquiring a car and a condo first, they must ensure that one of them earns enough to support the rest of the family - children and, preferably, grandparents included. Many would protest that this is impossible to do in Singapore, but really, with the re-arrangement of priorities, it can be done. I often marvelled that my father, with a salary not exceeding $500 a month, managed to raise 5 kids with the help of a very shrewed and thrifty wife. They knew where their priorities lay.

Some of you will not be convinced because you'd say, that was thirty years ago. Society has changed, and the standard of living has changed and all that. I can only say that I have done it. My wife doesn't work. She stopped working 4 years ago. I am the sole breadwinner, and by God's grace, we live in a condo. And I am just a salaryman, not even near one of the many millionaires that are sprouting up on the island these days. I just do not drive a car. That saves a lot of money, so I am told by people who do own a car. Well, I do have to live with the vagaries of public transport, including figuring out the pysche of Singapore taxi drivers. But its a trade-off that I have gotten used to. I can take my family on overseas vacations not once, but twice a year. And no, I do not try to supplement my income on 4-D and Toto. I don't make a cent from the stock market either because I am not good at it at all. If nothing, all my small and infrequent investments in equity have lost money.

So I am not convinced that, Singaporeans, when presented with a choice between family and work, work (the rice-bowl) must necessarily always come first. It is a matter of priorities. You can live relatively comfortably in Singapore without both husband and wife working. This is a myth that must be slain here and now.

What are your priorities?

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Queue Logic

Getting a taxi in Singapore in certain locations at certain hours of the day on the island is a real bugbear. It is not uncommon for people to stand in line for over an hour before they can board one. So the LTA (Land Transport Authority) has come up with a 'brilliant' idea - put up signs at the taxi stands to inform would-be commuters the average waiting time for a cab. This will allow them to make an inform decision either to wait or to go somewhere else to wait. Apparently this has reduced the waiting times at 'notorious' taxi queues at Ngee Ann City, Paragon, etc. I wonder how long this heavenly state of affairs will last, though. (Well, not long, going by yesterday's Straits Times story about the waiting woes at Ngee Ann City).

One would have thought that the natural logic of clearing queues is to broadcast queue info to the taxis (instead of commuters) so that these drivers can head straight for the business instead of cruising aimlessly. Curiously, it doesn't work in Singapore. It isn't that our taxis are not equipped with the necessary receivers. In fact, almost every taxi in Singapore has an LCD-equipped, voice-enabled and satellite-based system that allows the taxis to take bookings. Strangely though, it isn't used to track places where there are most people waiting for a taxi.

You know why this is so? Because taking a taxi booking is more profitable than driving to a location to pick up passengers. Unlike Changi Airport and some selected remote corners of Singapore (e.g. Singapore Expo), cabbies are not re-imbursed for the trouble of getting to a particular location. Well, surely there must be cabs nearby that will take that little extra step to earn their keep? The problem, my friend, are those 'trigger happy', impatient and oh so superior people who cannot see themselves as queuers. Once they see more than 1 person in a queue, they would immediately whip up their cell phones to book for a taxi, 'spoiling the market' in the process. When cabbies detect that people are placing calls in the vicinity (yes, their equipment are THAT sophisticated), they'd naturally slow down, dive into a car park and wait for a booking. Its at least $3 extra for the dodging effort.

What can we do? This isn't a new problem. Its been there for a long long time. The only thing that solved this problem, for a while, was the economic recession of 2003 when everybody was careful about their last penny. Now in these times of plenty, they find it easier to throw a couple of bucks away. We are caught between a rock and a hard place indeed.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Springing a leak

Everyone knows by now about the incessant rain that poured over Singapore, and much of the region, causing floods and loss of life, over last December and January. Although Singapore has, over the years, built canals and other civil works that ensures the efficient drainage of water, a part of the island was still inundated with significant losses to businesses in and around the vicinity of these floods. Fortunately, no life was lost.

Then my wife noticed that a corner of the ceiling in one of our rooms was mouldy and, on closer inspection, we were horrified to note that the wall was wet - on the inside! Apparently, the sustained 'pounding' and 'pouring' of the rain waters against the wall had caused water to seep through it! Coupled with the heat (it had stopped raining for a couple of weeks then) and wallah - we had mould growing on the cornice, ruining it. And to think, this was only a 5 year old house and cost us almost $700K!. I was incensed and dismayed, but not surprised. We complained to the management and they quickly arranged for the thing to be fixed, as if this was a common occurrence. I mentioned this to a colleague in the construction business and he seemed to be saying that this is quite common. I cannot understand how the construction industry can be so seemingly nonchalant. Even my aging $2K widescreen TV (pre-dating the LCD TVs increasingly becoming common today), which is more than 10 years old, is still working fine. It hasn't had to be repaired at all in all the years of faithful service it has provided me.

I supposed buildings nowadays are not built to last. Cracking walls are not uncommon to Singapore. Ask any Singaporean living in public housing and even condos and they will have a 'cracking' story for you. Witness the en-bloc fever and you begin to understand the psyche behind modern architects and builders. I suppose nobody nowadays expects their house to be a castle anymore - more like a pile of virtual cash to be used as a springboard to another pile of virtual cash. They'd sell at the first opportunity of making a profit and start anew in another house. Meanwhile, the house gets torn down and another brand new one will rise in its place. That's permanence for you in Singapore.

Which reminds me of the civilian quarters in the Naval Base I used to live in during my childhood. Those walls were rock solid. I know because one day, my father attempted to drill a hold in the wall (using a power drill, no less), but he wasn't able to make much headway at first. I remember him saying that those walls were tough, as only the British would make them. I am also reminded of a colleague who bought a house in Britain to live in as he travelled there every year. In itself this is uninteresting, except that this house is probably over a hundred years old. I am not praising the British for building houses that last, it is just a fact, and probably not a good idea in hindsight. If we did this in Singapore, our civil engineers will soon be out of work once the island is fully 'built-up', and doing SERS and MUPs and such can get very painful and expensive.

So I am not sure how long those billion $ IRs that many Singaporeans are looking forward to will last. Probably as long as necessary to recoup the investment, only to be redeveloped some time down the road in the name of progress.

I only regret that the concept of permanence in housing is as foreign on our soil as snow is. Can you blame people who cannot think of Singapore as a permanent home?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Whither the goodies?

The latest Singapore budget, announced by 2nd Minister for Finance, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, contains a lot of goodies for the low income worker and for businesses. But as usual, the middle-income earners get the the least even though, I must say, they probably are the cogs that keep the economic machinery well-oiled and running. It is not the government, stupid!

The press has gone to town praising the budget and businesses are over the moon in spite of the rise in the CPF contribution rates. Someone has rightly pointed out that the most anyone will get from this rise is $67.50 (i.e. 1.5% x $4,500, which is the income ceiling that will attract CPF contributions) - all of which must go into the enforced long term CPF deposit account. So for day to day expenses, there will be a net decrease in disposable income when the full effects of the 2% rise in GST kicks in. As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, a 2% rise usually translates to a greater than 2% rise in prices. Did I hear GST credits? I don't know what form this rebate or credit is going to come to me. Outright cash in my bank, or will it be in the form of an income relief that I can claim when filing my income tax? If so, it may make little difference in reducing my personal income tax bill depending on whether the relief is offset before or after computation of the taxes. Good luck if you don't pay income tax at all (for whatever reason).

And worst if you are a middle-incomer who does not live in public housing. By the government's quirky measure of wealth, applied for the umpteenth year now, the budget has denied a substantial amount of the giveaways to this constituent of citizens although it now admits that people living in HDB Executive Apartments are also entitled to some rebates as those living in 1 - 5 room apartments. Why they didn't see this when I was living in one I will never understand. That was one of the reasons why I sold my EA and bought a condo. I wasn't getting ANY S&C rebates at all when I owned an EA. I should have waited longer for these people to make up their minds. This measure of wealth is, dare I say, so arbitrary.

So again, as in previous budgets, I get the least of the handouts because of the type of housing that I own and stay in. I am not so poor that I get the lion's share of the handouts nor am I rich enough to care about handouts at all. Sigh... and I wonder why people are rushing to buy the next condo property launch? Don't they realise that that will put them outside the bracket of people entitled to the most rebates and goodies come budget time? (But of course, many are speculators. For these people, there is a whole different set of logic that drives their often risky action). It has a feeling of "you're own your own, buddy", we hack care less for your votes come election time.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Humility in service

Japan Railway - Singapore, the train tracks are now a preferred route to heaven , or hell, as the case may be. Instead of jumping off the 20th floor of a highrise (and Singapore is full of highrises), suicidal people would rather throw themselves in front of train that is coming into the train stations. I suppose they choose to do so because it would guarantee instant entry into the netherworld, or wherever they think they are headed, in three pieces, no less. You see, a person reportedly fell from the 14th floor the other day, and survived! And no, he wasn't committing suicide. Failing in a suicide attempt can be very painful in more ways than one.

But using the rail system to commit suicide inconveniences many people as train operations must grind to a complete halt. Everyone down the rail line will be delayed and some even have to cancel their appointments. If the suicider had jumped down the 20th storey of a highrise, nobody will be inconvenienced. So I plead with would-be suiciders to avoid the trains stations.

But train suicides are not peculiar to Singapore. In Japan, where the rail network is much more extensive than Singapore's, people also use it to commit suicides. And there will be the resultant delays. But unlike Singapore, Japanese train officials go to great lengths to bow and apologise to commuters for the delays. They also issue a piece of paper to commuters that reads:

Proof of Train Delay
This certificate is to indicate that the train you boarded was delayed by the time [in minutes] indicated by the punch marks on the right, at the date and time stamped above. Japan Railways humbly and unreservedly apologise for this delay.*

Well, this paper is proof for the company that your delay is caused by the train arriving late rather than any attempt to skive. Maybe Singappore's SMRT and Transitlink should be more humble in their dealings with its customers, the commuters, in the future, even if the fault is not entirely theirs.

* As related in "The Blue-eyed Salaryman" by Niall Murtagh, page 61, published 2005 by Profile Books Ltd.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lucky team

Good for Singapore. It retained its Tiger Cup. They are champions of the Asean Championship 2007. But for much of the first half of the match played on Sunday, they didn't look like a championship side at all. Every time the Singapore team gained possession of the ball, they would lose it the next minute. No, wait, change that to next second. I thought, "Now what kind of championship side is this?" I have seen this all too often and I feel that Singapore soccer will never progress beyond this region. It got painful to watch as the match progressed and I thought if Singapore continued to play like that, it was only a matter of time that the Thai team wacked a ball into Singapore's goal, as it did eventually. I turned off my TV. I just couldn't bear to continue watching Singapore's tiger torn to shreds by an obviously revived Thai side.

As it turned out, Thailand faced one person it couldn't crack - Lionel Lewis and was floored by the fantastic individual effort of Khairul Amri. Singapore should play more like Khairul - get the ball, retain possession, and go for goal! Unfortunately, the Singapore team is still far far away from a great team. Do not forget that the scoreline for the second leg is 1-1 - hardly a convincing victory. After the euphoria has died down, it should reflect and re-evaluate upon this.

I don't hope ever to switch off the telly in the middle of a match between Singapore and its opponents.