Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Oppression of the people by officialdom

I am disturbed. I am profoundly disturbed. A news reader of the Straits Times wrote to dispute a Ministry of Finance officer's (a civil servant) claim that charging GST (a Value-Added Tax which was recently raised from 5% to 7%) on a tax item (the Water Conservation Tax) in an Electricity / Utilities bill was normal practice and therefore correct. The letter writer disagreed and backed up his point by citing examples and pointing to the Inland Revenue's website that stated unequivocally that a tax on a tax is wrong. Actually, we don't need IRAS to tell us that. Any right thinking and fair-minded person would have agreed with that principle. The writer, to his credit, cited the example of buying cars in Singapore, where the tax component is huge, to show that taxing tax is wrong. He then appealed to the Government to review the situation, suggesting that such anomalies may also exist elsewhere in the government.

Well, I disagree. I disagree that an appeal should have to be made. What have the people done wrong that an appeal is warranted? It is the people who are being shortchanged. What we, as the people (and consumers) of the country who pay its taxes, no less, should do is to complain to the Consumers' Association, much as one would do when we find ourselves overcharged. Well, you say the Consumers' Association can only go so far because it lacks teeth in effecting change. If the wrong is not righted, an alternative is to commence a class action suite against similar government practices where it may have occurred and may still be happening.

I shudder to think that millions of dollars have been collected wrongly on taxes over taxes over the years. How else is the government giving the short end to its citizens, albeit inadvertently, I wonder?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

'A' levels not on the level

Sir Peter Williams has come out to say that the GCE 'A' level examinations - a British institutional exams adopted by Singapore for decades - have been getting easier over the last few years. No wonder Singapore keeps churning out so many students with straight As. Compared to my time, one would have thought that our children are getting smarter. In fact, it's not so much our student getting smarter but the exams getting 'more stupid'. Sigh, and I thought we have made great advances in our education system.

I'd imagine now that the egos of students (and their parents) who have gotten fantastic 'A' level results to be deflated somewhat by this news from the horse's mouth. It also assuages my ego to know that my 'A' level results were not all that poor compared to our kids' today.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Watching movies with my cat mio

Singtel splashed across the Straits Times newspapers today announcing the immediately availability of its IPTV services for the consumer market. Called mio TV, it uses IP technology. With its already extensive telephone network, it is already all wired up to deliver video on demand. The thing that made me sit up was that you don't have to be tied to a contractual period to enjoy the service, unlike most other telco service plans such as those from Starhub, M1, PacNet, and even Singtel/Singnet.

So I was mystified when, on the same announcement, there was mention of 1 month and 12 month plans for the mio TV service. As all people do nowadays, I surfed over to singtel.com/miotv to check the details yesterday morning. After presenting the home page, that site just didn't work. It just took ages, for example, to load the Promotions page, the Programme Guide Page, and the Channels & On Demand pages. I gave up. I suppose that newspaper announcement must have aroused the curiosity of so many people that morning that the website was just overwhelmed. Now this is good news for Singtel because it showed that people are looking for alternative sources of video entertainment, which so far has been provided by Mediacorp and Starhub. Starhub has never really lowered it prices - it keeps its customers by giving them great gifts and, at the same time, locking them up for at least 2 years (through term contracts). I have always felt, and hoped, that their prices could be lowered, but I have waited in vain all these years. Perhaps with mio TV, things will change?

On the other hand, the inability of Singtel's website to handle that morning's load is cause for concern. It has promised dedicated bandwidth for mio TV, but until mio TV takes off, it remains to be seen. A chicken and egg problem in the making?

In any case, I like it when businesses compete for my money.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

End of the wizard

Today, the last of JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, went on sale worldwide. When you consider the logistical effort it would take to simultaneously release the book across the world while keeping its contents under wraps, you must give credit to the publishers. But then, they may have had Harry Potter and his magic wand's help, so you'd be forgiven if you thought it was no big deal. But the hype was.

People lined up across the world to be the first, or at least the earliest to buy the book. Many camped outside the bookstore overnight. This is reminiscent of the time when Microsoft's Windows 95 was first released. But really, was it necessary? The wait has already been a long one, what difference would another hour or two make? If you had placed an order with Amazon.com (and there was reportedly more than 2 million orders as of yesterday), you'd have to wait even longer to get your hands on the book.

So I am not so sure that those people who spent their lives in the early queue were making good use of their time. I strolled into Popular Bookstore at about 9am and bought the book. I didn't make a special effort to be early. I usually go out for breakfast at this hour. As it turned out, I was only the second person in the queue and there weren't anybody else in the store except the sales staff. When I left the store, one other person strolled in, probably to buy the HP book.

Perhaps all this craze is evidence of Potter's strong magic? Sadly, there will be magic no more, although the way the story ended suggests a sequel some day... That's being commercially sensible quite apart from having a relatively tearless ending.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Don't you hear the whistle blowing

So goes a line in that old nursery rhyme, "I've been working on the railroad". Today, whistle blowing refers to something more controversial, and requires a lot more guts from the person doing it. Corporations can be quite messed up today, and its people may not be behaving ethically. So unless there is a system to weed out such improper behaviour, somebody has to do the whistle blowing. This is when the systems and processes, and more especially when the people who are supposed to be the guardian of proper corporate behaviour are not doing their jobs, not to speak of the guard himself stealing the cake.

Apparently, this also happens in the Armed Forces of Singapore. 2Lt Li Hongyi, erstwhile son of PM Lee Hsien Loong, whistle blew on his superior officer for his improper conduct (going AWOL) when his initial complaints got no response from the army's chain of command. He then let fly an e-mail that he had addressed to no less than Mr Teo Chee Hean, the Defence Minister, detailing the failings of his fellow officer. Normally, this whistle blowing would have been the right thing to do. But what 2Lt Li did wrong was to copy that e-mail to persons that may not need to know about the case. After all, this is the Armed Forces, and you don't go shooting off your complaints so the whole world will know that the Forces stink in some parts. As an officer, he should have had better judgement.

E-mail, as some have pointed out, is so insecure an instrument that I wonder why the Armed Forces allowed it as a channel of communications on Army matters right up to the Defence Minister. Today, it was whistle blowing. Tomorrow, some classified information can be leaked, to the benefit of all our enemies and the detriment to our country. Now, some crook or spy can take a leaf from the 2Lt of how to communicate in the Armed Forces, since that channel does not seem to be restricted.

2Lt Li may have done the right thing, but he certainly did it the wrong way. The Army was right in reprimanding him. He should reflect on the error of his ways.

But let us also give credit where it is due. PM Lee did not shield his son in any way. He let the military law to run its course and, in the process, punish his son accordingly. Now, this one action refutes many aspersions cast on the 'Lee' dynasty. We are a country ruled by law, not 'Lee's' law, but Singapore law. As a Singaporean, this is something to be proud of.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Funny people

The world is still not ready to accept 'funny' people, you know, those people who like their own kind and have relationships with one another? Not even royalty, it seems, or one with an OBE. Although the erstwhile CEO of BP did not resign because of his relationship with a gay, it pretty much started the, ahem, ball rolling.

Well, here in Singapore, a senior political leader, one who had been known for his strict opposition to same sex relationships, has consulted some doctors and come to the conclusion that he had been wrong all along. We need creative people, so we need the homosexuals in our society. I do not know what difference it makes that they are not already secretly homosexuals as against 'coming out' into the open. Would this openness herald an era of unmatched creativity that is outside of the ability of people who are 'straight' in their relationships? How many of the inventors and innovators in history are gay? I am sure there are some, but do they make up the majority? What kinds of creativty do gays dominate in? Have they enriched society in a lasting manner, or has it been merely fleeting?

Well, I don't have the answer to my questions, but one thing I can say it, I don't hate the homosexuals but I certainly do not condone their behaviour (remember how AIDs came about). They will be there whether we like it or not, just not in the open because it may be against the law, as in Singapore. Even if there were no law against homosexuality, gays will still feel the need not to publicise their relationships and sexual preferences.

There was a recent public forum on the topic, with a government official/PAP politician, an NMP, a former Anglican Bishop and a gay rights activist weighing in on the issue of repealing the Singapore law that makes homosexuality a crime. Not surprisingly, a majority of those present, including the government official/PAP politician on the panel stated that they will put their vote to repealing the law, if possible. It looked like he was playing up to the gallery. Well, the only thing I have to say is, "Be careful what you ask for".

Will we be acting like the ostrich which puts its head in the sand so as to pretend that something doesn't exist? Probably, but I see no need to give license to these people to display such behaviour in public. Consider - if they did it in a strict Muslim society, they might be castrated - and this would be the least of their worries...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Rise and rise of prices

Well, its 14 days since the GST was raised from 5% to 7%. The Singapore economy is red-hot at the moment, chalking up no less than 8% growth in the last quarter. Government economists have consistently underestimated economic growth. It is probably better to err on the side of caution. To the man in the street, such as I, these numbers are both a boon and a bane. A boon because, as a civil servant, I can look forward to good bonuses at the end of the year. A bane because all these growth comes at a price - an increase in prices to be precise. What has gone up?

For one, the hop-on price of a cab. It now costs $2.70. Previously it was $2.40. 2% GST increase? You do the Math. It used to be that taxi transport price increases used to be debated hotly, but since deregulation, increases now just happen. But the waiting time for a taxi remains just as poor. You wonder what the increase is for.

I used to get a plate of rice with servings of 2 veges and 1 meat at $2.50 (yeah, that's cheap) but today, it costs me $2.70. And the quantities are the same. Some do not raise prices. Instead, they shrink the size of their products. Those of you who read I-Weekly and 8 Days cannot not have noticed that their sizes have shrunk. Of course, Mediacorp copywriters and editors explained how a smaller magazine kept up with the times (yeah, they are spot on on this), and all, but the fact is, the price may not have risen, but the portion has shrunked, which amounts to the same thing, no?. Don't need to do the Math on this. You and I know that, actually, size matters.

Taking these into consideration, my bonus at the end of the year will actually not be as much as last year. Prices have gone up and somebody has to pay - you and me.

Fact of life.