Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The right step

Steps are afoot to re-make Singapore's public land transport system. It wants to address the perennial problem of inconsistent timing of bus services resulting in long wait times. It wants people to be able to take multiple buses without incurring additional expenses so that, in case of some delay in a particular service, a commuter can hop on another bus to another bus stop where there are other bus services not otherwise available for them to continue on their journeys. It wants to make the bus lane exclusive to buses. It would encourage premium bus services which would have fewer stops and ply routes that are otherwise not profitable....

All of these sound good. It would be a big step forward if these can be realised. The problem, as they say, is in the details. But this government is a can-do government. What it says it will do it will actually do. I hope it all comes true. But I have some reservations....

I don't know who came up with the story of Ms Jeanne Conceicao's 'circuitous daily commute' story in the Straits Times of Jan 19, 2008 (page H10). In the story, this commuter described her daily pain in getting from her home in Ang Mo Kio to her workplace in the Institute of Policy Studies at Pasir Panjang (NUS). That distance is indeed daunting for a daily commute. But the manner in which she got there was a little strange. Instead of taking the MRT northwards towards Yishun, then to Woodlands and Jurong East through to Buona Vista, I would have thought the faster and more direct route will be to take the MRT south to Raffles Place and then switch to the East-West line to Buona Vista. The northern route has a few obstacles. First, MRT trains sometimes terminate at Yishun MRT station, forcing one to wait another few minutes for the next train. The northern route is ALL above ground. Trains travel slower above ground. So even when the southern route has one more stop compared to the northern route, it would be faster by virtue of the fact that almost half of the track is below ground. Coupled with the possible stop at Yishun MRT station, Ms Jeanne has actually chosen a longer route. So in her case, the solution does not require a radical remake of the transportation system, but simply a change in route.

If our land transport planners are working on the wrong facts to remake the island's transportation system, then I am worried. Ms Jeanne's example is a bad one but it does highlight the circuitous journeys that not a few Singaporeans have to deal with everyday. And it does highlight the need for niche bus services that will operate from point-to-point on workdays to get a commuter from the main thoroughfares to offices located in remote locations. No wonder that nobody has any energy to do anything else except perhaps sit in front of the TV once they reach home in the night. It is not the office that has sapped their energies, it is the travelling.

Image source: Contact

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The next big idea

A*Star is offering US$100,000 to the person or team who can come up with the next generation search engine that will beat Google and Yahoo at its game. Are they serious? They want to attract the best and the brightest to hot and humid Singapore (I cannot imagine a worst type of weather in which to stimulate those grey cells) to cook up such an algorithm.? Yeah, they'll have to burn off a lot of fuel driving the air-conditioners in the office to even begin to stay awake for that endeavor. Islands in the tropics are not unknown as ideal places to doze off and do nothing.

Wait a minute. Let me check my calendar. It isn't 1st April yet. But Singapore's A*Star is a very serious government organisation. Inasmuch as it has gained a reputation for efficiency and can-do-ness, it is not THAT dumb to put out a joke so far ahead of the occasion. This is all inexplicable. As a Singaporean, I am getting worried about the nation's premier organisation that is responsible for driving research and development in the fields of Science and Technology.

A US$100,000 is not even enough to set up a small office in Singapore, (3-month upfront rental deposits, furniture, networks, etc.) much less think of how you can feed yourself on increasingly expensive food, renting or buying real estate at the current stratospheric levels and getting a Chevy at prices that your father will think is a rip-off anywhere in the world - except Singapore. Well, I am wrong. Transportation has always been expensive, not to mention the beers and wines, and the cigarettes, if those are what inspires one to come up with the next big thing.

US$100,000 is peanuts to giants like Yahoo and Google. Who would want to work for A*Star (don't forget, they have many regulations and procedures - hardly a conducive master to start off with the next big thing) when they can work for these companies and earn far far more, just from the stock options alone? Even if you have a good idea and can pull it off, would you settle for any less than a hundred grand? And whose will the idea belong to after they dump the 100 grand in your lap? It appears that A*Star is a Johnny-come-lately, trying to muscle in on the big boys with their peanuts. If A*Star thinks that a competition like this with monetary enticements is the formula for real breakthrough innovation, then it must be living on Mars. It has already put a value on this next big thing - a measly US$100,000. Sun just acquired MySQL for a US$1billion. Clearly the next big thing isn't worth a whole lot.

What Singapore is good for is to frolick in the sun and acquiring a really nasty tan. It doesn't have any breaktakingly inspirational natural views to calm the nerves and get the grey juices working - just lots of shopping malls to empty you pockets. But it is good for getting a Confucian-inspired education. But don't you ever fall sick on this island! You're on your own there, especially when you need to check-in to the hospital.

But if the world still believes that A*Star has the formula that spells success, let the world come a knocking on our doors. A*Star (aka the government...beginning to sound sinister...) will welcome you with its open arms and iron grip!

p.s. I am a patriotic Singaporean. But when idiotic ideas come out if it, I cannot but pretend that I am insane and disloyal.

Image source: Contact

Friday, January 18, 2008

Archive or not

Blogs archived in Singapore's National Library (NLB)? Well, that makes sense if you consider the library as an archival source of all things Singapore and probably South-east Asia. And this is precisely what the NLB is doing with several prominent Singapore-centred and originated blogs such as the notorious, the irreverent and the infamous, amongst others. But it appears that not every Singapore blogger is happy. Many are complaining that the trashy (albeit award winning and profitable) xiaxue blog does not deserve this 'honour' for the fact that it has little by way of substance and lots by way of vulgarity, according to the opinion of not a few Singaporeans. But since when has substance got to do with anything in today's iPod generation? Heck, many of this generation do not even visit the brick and mortar library anymore. Whatever they need to know they can find and read and see on the Internet, period.

I do not belong to the iPod generation. I have never found sticking anything into one's ears from the time one gets out of the house to the time one arrives in school or work pleasurable. That's because for most of the time, one's ear drums are fighting for the attention of so much sound that the music blasting out of the iPods or Sony Ericsson Wxxxx phones becomes part of the sound, or to be precise, noise. But I digress.

I can understand what a thrill it would be to have one's humble blog archived and catalogued permanently in NLB's collections. However, before one goes off and think that he/she is the next Shakespeare, that archival choice is a statement of the blog's existence, not its worth. The jury is still out on whether the writing is of any worth at all. An Archivist's job is to preserve as much of what there is without judging the worth of any particular piece or body of written work. That judgment will ultimately be made by historians, and, with all due respect, the NLB are no historians. By this act of selecting, and thereby making value judgments, the NLB has opened itself up to criticism. Why this blog and not that one? Why is one blog more worthwhile archiving than another? After all, they are all written by Singaporeans. They form a part of Singapore's unofficial written history. By being selective, its does history and historians an injustice by prejudging what is worth keeping and what is not worth keeping. It does Sociologists much injustice by judging that a particular type of behaviour is more representative of current social norms compared to another.

The NLB are archivists and it should do just that. Archive and leave the interpretation of the historical records to the trained historians and sociologists.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Themed Bus

I got on that Nokia-themed SBStransit bus again for only the second time last Friday. This time I made the effort to take some pictures of the inside of the bus - just for keeps sake. Since this whole bus is an advertisement, it will revert to the standard look and seats one day. Since the last time I was on this bus, the interior now looked a bit worn down. Some of the pictures are blurred because I was on a moving bus, but I did manage to shoot two which were focused. Of course, these photos were captured through my camera phone.

Front of the bus, where the driver is. The 'Mobile TV' is not in use and the frame looks like it is falling apart.

Interior of the bus. Notice the white 'bar-counter' stool in the foreground (there are two of these), the shell-seats at the back (the pony-tailed girl in school uniform is sitting on one of them) and the long white cushioned benches on both sides of the aisle.

Interior of the bus. Notice the red-carpeted roof.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Testing times

Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan has been drawn out to comment on how he intends to charge people for Singapore's Health services this past week. Nothing is new. The richer will enjoy less subsidy, the poorer more subsidy. That's reasonable, fair and to be expected in a place with the governance principles like Singapore.

But the problem lies in how you judge whether a person is rich or poor or in-between? The most obvious way is to look at how much a person earns, whether from his or her salary, annual dividends, etc. But the whole means testing thingy has become complicated and controversial because it ropes in the family in the computation of wealth. How many mouths does a particular person's salary goes toward feeding? How many people share in this clothing and feeding responsibility in a household? Some even want to count the number of cars a person maintains to determine healthcare affordability - the more cars, the higher the wealth scale the person is on and thus the greater degree of affordability and consequently the less amount of subsidy deserved. What next? The family dog?

So that age-old issue of how to separate the haves and have-nots is raised. And without surprise, the type of house one stays in is proposed as an objective measure of wealth. That is, the smaller the size of the public housing apartment one owns and lives in, the more subsidy that family will be entitled to. So for example, a family that owns and lives in a 3-room apartment will be entitled to greater consideration for subsidy compared to one who stays in a 5-room apartment. Many people have weighed in on why this may be a flawed measure. This is the same measure that is used to allocate more or less subsidies on utility and conservancy charges whenever the government deigns to use tax-payers' money for its social programmes and policies during times of recessions or elections, as the case may be. So if you stay in private apartments or own private properties, you probably will pay the most and get the least subsidies.

I am not here to argue the merits or demerits of means testing and why it should even be used. It looks like a done deal, no point arguing about it. But a consequence of this policy will see smaller type public housing apartments rise in value over time. I wouldn't be surprised if 3-room apartments become more expensive than 5-roomers in time precisely because of greater demand. When I grow old and my children have formed their own families and bought their own subsidized housing, I plan to buy a 3-roomer, or even a 2-room HDB public housing apartment so that my trips to the hospital, which will increase in frequency in direct relation to my age, will be more bearable - cost wise. I just cannot bear to see all my life savings depleted pronto just because I own a private apartment (which has been made possible through years of hard work and thrift). This will decrease the probability that I die of a heart attack upon reading my hospital bills. I may have a million dollars in the bank, but 3-rooms are enough for my wife and myself. Anyway, we were brought up in our fathers' houses which had less rooms, so when we die in a house with more rooms than those that our fathers could afford, that's an improvement, isn't it?

What about my children? They will be left with the 3-roomer, which will probably fetch a tidy sum as it will be worth more compared to bigger apartments. This is what happens when you have more greying heads on the island. The point is, values 'go out of wack' when a flawed measure is used to determine wealth.

Hint: Its time to acquire small public housing properties, maybe even those overpriced ones sitting on the edge of the city. Remember, it must be public housing.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hype up an apartment

Public housing in Singapore is heavily subsidized by its Government. This is one thing that you must credit the government for providing for its people. In return, however, the government has slapped on a number of restrictions on buyers of these houses, or high-rise apartments.

1. There is a combined salary limit beyond which the family is not eligible to buy the apartment.
2. There must be at least two buyers which forms a family unit - either Husband/Wife, Fiance/Fiancee, Mother,Father/Son, Daughter.
3. The apartment cannot be resold within 5 years of of the issue of the TOP license
4. The apartment cannot be sold to foreigners. Only Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents are eligible.
5. You cannot remodel the house without prior written permisson from the government.

Yet in spite of all these, people are forming a bee-line for the privately developed HDB apartments in Boon Keng. The chief attraction of this development is its proximity to transportation (the Boon Keng MRT subway station), nice view of the City and just outside the City limits. But as someone pointed out, a newly wed couple with little savings in the CPF will be hard put to afford the price of these apartments, which ranges from S$500,000 to S$750,000. The loan repayment, assuming borrowings of 90% of the apartment price, will be staggering, as some Financial Consultants have warned. It wouldn't be a problem for foreigners who are flushed with cash, or middle-aged couples or families, but these latter parties are probably earning more than S$8,000 pm, making them ineligible on restriction number 1 listed above. While the sub-prime mortage phenomena is not likely to happen in Singapore, nobody can stop a person from spending beyond their means, until they find out that they can no longer service the loan. Remember that you may not always have a job and the economy will not always be booming.

Property analyst also warned that the upside is limited. From an investment perspective, one may not be able to resell the apartment for much more in 5 or even 10 years, making this a very bad property investment., particularly when cash not from the CPF is used.

But Singaporeans, they have this herd mentality and when the person next to you go in for the apartments, everybody else follows, like cows to the slaughter (it would be extremely insensitive of me to use pigs in that analogy). Already, the development is over-subscribed and it now becomes a luck of the draw if one gets to be mired in a huge debt for the next 25 to 30 years.

What a way to start the year with a hype.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Taxi as a service

ComfortDelgro gushed that its taxi drivers were already reaping 10% more in take-home earnings with the imposition of the new regime of fare hikes. That may be so at a time of festivities and parties - Christmas, New Year Eve and the New Year. Unusual times, unusual moneys.

But News are coming out that some taxi drivers are resorting to offering discounts because their business has fallen. The number of commuters that they used to ferry have simply disappeared so much so that some cabbies have even offered not to collect the 35% surcharge of taxi fares to entice people to take their cabs - not even the flat S$2 surcharge previously imposed. This shows that the extent of the fare increase is not quite right - its too high by all estimates. Some enterprising taxi drivers are resorting to more personal services to get the customer - something that harks of what I have been advocating some time ago, that the taxi services must revert to a more service-based approach where customers reward good service with tips. Mere imposition of a fixed rate will not be viable for either you don't charge enough, resulting in non-availability of taxis, or you charge too much, resulting in disappearing commuters.

Singapore's private cars are so expensive that the taxi is an alternative. There is no question that taxi services will continue to be in demand. But when one charges a fare that makes the difference between owning a car and taking a taxi insignificant, it will be easier for a person to choose to buy a car. Already we have Geely cars, made in China cars, that sell at a price that requires a repayment of as low as S$240 per month. I remember my wife used to spend S$400 on taxis a month 6 or 7 years ago to and from work. Given the at least 30% increase in taxi fares now, I can easily make a case to buy a car, the price of petrol not withstanding. If hybrid or CNG cars become more common, the decision is even easier.

So where does this leave the taxi drivers? Well, more business for the coffeeshops, according to some, for they refuse to cruise around in their empty taxis trying to look for commuters and burning away money at the same time. Obviously a cuppa is more palatable.

Taxi associations are deliberating this and I hope they will decide with their street instinct and experience instead of the ComfortDelgro analysts trying their hand at social engineering and apparently getting an F for their effort.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Riding on a New Regime

I took a Comfort taxi for the first time since the taxi fare increased, on New Year's Eve. I was traveling around 7pm, which was considered a 'peak hour'. I was shocked to see 2 metres in that taxi clocking the fare simultaneously.

The first metre was the regular distance related one, jumping by 20 cents instead of the previous 10 cents. Then there was the previously static surcharge metre. With the new fare structure, that metre is no longer 'quiet'. It also jumped according to the regular fare chalked up - 35% of it. Although I had known about the fare increases, this first time was nerve racking. I just couldn't take my mind off those metres. It was truly a sight to behold.

Eventually, I paid an extra of 66% over and above the new regular fare. I am confused about the Math here compared to the published rates. In any case, this is indeed a substantial fare increase. I said previously that a fare increase was warranted, but at this quantum? Taking a taxi is no longer affordable if taken on a daily basis. One may as well buy a car, except that petrol is just as, if not more, expensive. Truly a situation between a rock and a hard place.

Whichever way it is, it will guarantee that I will NEVER take a taxi during peak hours anymore, except during public holidays when the surcharges do not apply. An exception would be in cases of emergencies. No wonder I see so many taxis idling at taxi stands nowadays during peak hours. The fare is just so drastically higher that a bus or train makes more sense. Either these, or you'd want to get off a taxi as soon as possible by having it take you to the nearest subway train station instead of the full distance. In this respect, the Circle Line cannot start operating too soon. Unfortunately it has been delayed. Meanwhile, previously long queues at taxi stands will be a thing of the past - not that there are no people queuing for a taxi, just very much less people so that there may now appear to be a surplus of taxis.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Changing Times*

The Chinese, especially the Cantonese, like 2008 because it suggests that it is a year where fortune is easily made (2008 in Cantonese reads yi leng leng fath, meaning 'easy and sure to prosper')

For the rest of us, a new year begins with new hopes and new plans. What will the year bring? On the economic front, much prosperity and growth is predicted for Singapore based on several iconic projects that will see fruition this year - the opening of the Singapore Flyer in March, the F1 race in September, the Olympics in August (oops, that's in Beijing, not Singapore, though Singapore is bidding very hard for the 2010 Youth Olympics). There are the regulars such as the Singapore Airshow in February, Singapore Biennale in September, various Trade Shows and Exhibitions and even the Singapore Budget, which will be announced in March, is soliciting for feedback by the freshly minted Finance Minister, Mr T. Shanmugaratnam.

From the looks of things, time will race us by again and before we know it, 2009 will be upon us. Then we will have the opening of the Integrated Resorts and, hopefully, parts of the Circle Line subway network that, hopefully, will bring a greater choice of moving about Singapore without being tied to the increasingly expensive taxi services and the forever unpredictable bus services. But we are racing ahead of ourselves.

Inflation will be a bug-bear this year too, and as more people look forward to higher pay, they can use the pay rise to pay for the price rise. Unfortunately, not everybody will get a pay rise, so real income will fall, ironically, within a booming Singapore economy. More people will be poorer this year compared to last year.

As in any turn of time, hopes go with uncertainties.

* Bob Dylan - The Times They are a-Changin

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