Sunday, August 24, 2008

Finding the Equilibrium

Generally, people look out for themselves before anyone else. The exceptions are probably their own child, their parents and perhaps their own 'flesh-and-bloods' siblings. So when a rule comes into play that will advantage some and disadvantage others, then that rule will not likely work out the way it should. One of these is the additional month of leave for mothers that the PM announced in the National Day Rally speech delivered last Sunday. I don't know, but this time, the PM has probably talked 'too much' to the ah-soh and not balanced it with consulting employers, especially those that run a 'tight ship', which will likely become even more lean and mean in the months ahead, given the less than rosy economic outlook.

The economy is sputtering worldwide - in the US, in Japan and possibly in Europe. With China dependent on the US for its exports (it is, after all, its largest customer that can absorb its humongous volumes of exports), it will mean lower production in the months ahead. The sub-prime problem continues to bring down Banks and Finance houses that two years ago was inconceivable, to the benefit of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF) managed by some Middle Eastern countries and that tiny red dot of an island called Singapore.

In this environment, can employers be expected to engage in such largesse of extending 4 months of maternity leave to its employees? Even if the cost of that fourth month is borne by the government so that the employer can bring in some standby staff at no additional cost to itself, it will still be on the losing end. Not everyone is born equal, and not everyone knows the company's business like its employees. The stand-in staff will have to learn the business and the operations of the person she is temporarily replacing first before she can become effective (and equivalent to the person whom she is replacing). By the time that proficiency kicks in, it is time to cede back the position to the person who has been away for those 4 months. There are intangibles that money just can't buy in the short term and money is therefore a necessary but not sufficient solution.

I would expect that with this extended maternity leave kicking in, it will get even more difficult for the women employees in any organisation, particularly the Small and Medium-sized Enterprises. The young and energetic, who are the target lot that the government is encouraging to bear more children, would still not want to bear children. After at least 12 years of going through the Singapore school system (and more if they are graduates), who would want to give up recouping the time, money and effort expended? Having children young goes against all rational thinking. The priority must first be to make enough money, then think about marrying and then having babies. That's the incontrovertible truth about life in Singapore, although it is not uncommon today to have the baby first and then marriage. The young probably do not earn enough yet to make the tax burden onerous at all, so its a non issues as far as taxes go. The increasingly consumption-based tax regime has also made the tax burden more bearable, not to mention the generous tax breaks that everyone seem to enjoy nowadays.

So the women who will really will gain the most are the older set, probably in the late twenties and early thirties. But therein lies the irony. At that age, many would already have established themselves in the company and thus becoming less readily replaceable. With their skills and experience, they are not easily replaced - at least not in the short time of four months. And that's where employers will bear the most anguish. So what is the logical course of action, as far as employers go?

1. Never employ women who are more interested in the family than the workplace.
2. Never train nor promote women to a level where they are hard to replace.
3. And, obviously, never employ a pregnant women. The risks have just gone up a notch. (I imagine that there will be an additional question on recruitment forms asking job seekers (apply to females only, obviously) to declare that they are not pregnant, besides the obligatory 'I am not a bankrupt'....etc.)

The only way these various financial incentives can work is when a women, on balance, can earn more money giving birth to a child compared to what they can earn in a full time job. This is not likely to happen, or if it does, then nobody will be working (and I am not referring to the surrogacy industry).

So what can be done. If women really want a longer maternity leave, they should be given a longer one. 4 months is disruptive. Why not go on a one year maternity? That way, the stand-in staff can put to good use what she has taken perhaps a month or more to master for a longer period. The business suffers less disruption, the mother can really take care of the child without prematurely exiting the industry and the stand-in staff can be more useful. Who is going to pay for the absence? Let's make a 4-4-4 deal - the employer bears the 4 month bill at reduced pay (40% of regular salary), the employee takes 4 month no-pay leave and the government ante's up the balance 4 months. (What's that? tax payers will be screaming bloody murder?).

Frankly, if you want to do something that will make a difference, it is no point taking 'baby steps' by just upping by a month more. You need to be bold, like what some other countries are doing - giving one year maternity leave. But of course this can be a threat to the mother, who would rightly worry whether she has a job to return to at the end of one year. But in Singapore, this problem can probably be legislated away.

The other suggestion is to establish a national registry for 'transient' women workers who are willing to work part-time on stand-in basis. This registry will list their skills and experience, and their availability for employment. Employers can then tap on this registry to find the right stand-in person who can take over the job of a 'maternatied' woman. This will go a long way towards alleviating the problem of getting the right stand-in person who can be productive from day one.

To generate more babies, it is important not only to help the women, but also the employers. A one sided solution, even with the largesse of the government, will not go very far. This is what Economists call equilibrium. Without it, the 'market' will make its own adjustments, which may bring more grief than help to the womenfolk.

Image source: Author: Kevin Rosseel

Monday, August 18, 2008

Baby load

One of the greatest burdens of having a baby in Singapore is not about money. Rather, the problem is how to ensure that that baby grows up to become a government scholar or at least one who isn't ranked in the last 10 in class. This is the real challenge that parents are forced to face in Singapore society - and it isn't pretty. It doesn't matter if a child is scholarship material or not, parents naturally want their child to do well, no, extremely well, in school. To that end, it is common knowledge that almost every school going kid in Singapore has a private tutor on top of their school teachers, to pile them with additional school work and supplementary exercises. Kiasu parents want to ensure that their child does not fall too far behind the rest of the students in the school, whose parents would most likely also have have engaged a private tutor for the same reasons.

And the problem is a real one. Let's get one thing straight. Not everyone can be first in class. No every can get a scholarship. In fact, those who do so are the exception. The rest of us are the ordinary boys and girls who get by. But the competition to be that exceptional student is such that reality is often suspended over fantasy. And this fantasy is often an expensive affair. One has to shell out more than a $100 per subject per student per month. Multiply that with 3 or more subjects and you're really out of pocket by a couple of hundred $$. Multiply that with 3 or 4 kids and you begin to understand the problem with money. But money, really, is not the only problem. The problem is the mental anguish and superhuman effort parents need to put in to ensure that their child do do well. And time really is not on our side, not when we need to work those hours to earn enough to pay the tutors and the additional enhancement lessons during weekends. I know of a parent who has a somewhat wayward (but academically capable) son. In spite of all his effort and that of his wife, he just couldn't get his son to 'do the right thing' in school. In his word, he was '....getting so tired of supervising and managing his son' that he was about to just give up. This mental challenge and anguish, if multiplied 3 times would kill any parent. Which explains why a couple doesn't desire more than 2 kids, no matter how much the financial incentives dangled in front of them by the government. You either kill your child's interest and young lives with after-school tuition after tuition, or your own sanity trying to manage the child, or, heaven forbid, both.

That is why the government's incentive programmes, which have largely revolved around financial help, haven't really worked. The latest reported replacement birth rate in Singapore is 1.2, hardly enough to replace ourselves in the long run. So long as this pressure cooker environment persists in Singapore, the government can forget about increasing the birth rate. It may as well do what it has silently been doing for some time now in increasing the population - import foreigners and make than locals - eventually. But then, the children of these foreigners will eventually still need to join the junior rat race, so that will then lead us back to square one - rationalizing whether having more than 2 kids in this pressure cooker environment is desirable at all.

Image source: Author: manuere

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Spy vs Spy

The Singapore Police has used CCTV (close-circuit TV) in public places for various purposes. The most 'profitable' of these must be those CCTV cameras that take pictures of a speeding cars. Many drivers have been 'caught' in the process and have had to pay up fines according to the traffic rules broken. And yes, CCTV cameras have also already been put up above street level at busy places such as Boat Quay, Orchard Road, Little India, Raffles City, Suntec City and Geylang (reported in Today - 12 August 2008) - places frequented by tourists, and other pleasure seekers.

Now, the Police is going one step further. It is evaluating cameras that have the ability to recognise faces. The use is obvious. If it can instantly recognise a face - the face of a person wanted by the law, then that information can be conveyed in real-time to a monitoring centre where the police can be informed to take the necessary action - immediately. What can be more efficient than that? We don't need so many police patrolling the streets anymore - these cameras will do the job. And in spite of the reduced number of police on the streets, the island will become even more secure. Singapore's famed low crime rate will be set to become even lower, except...

What/who are the police looking for? If it is for criminals and offenders, then even if these cameras can recognise faces, it isn't going to be very useful, eventually. Criminals and those on the Wanted list will probably learn to alter their physical features - grow a moustache or beard (or attach one for the female), put on spectacles, dye the hair - so much so that even the human eye can no longer recognise the person much less a camera. And experts and users of such cameras have admitted, it isn't very accurate now, though they hope that the accuracy can be improved with time.

This doesn't give me any comfort. First, we shouldn't be spending tax-payers money on technology that works approximately 50% of the time, or even 90% of the time. The mis-identified person can be put through such 'inconvenience' that the police can become the subject of lawsuites - unless the law protects them. Which gives rise to the issue of abuse and privacy concerns. I may not have broken the law, but I don't necessarily want anyone to know that I was at Boat Quay on a particular night at a particular hour. Simply put, it nobody's business, and shouldn't be, unless I have committed a crime. That's my private life, my personal preference. Similarly, I wouldn't like to think that somebody is monitoring my movements anyway and trying to determine who I am. Who is this person who has been given such powers? Would anyone feel comfortable being watched?

Yes, there are security cameras all over the island now - at MRT stations, at shopping malls, at bank lobbies, even at swimming pools (acting as pseudo life-guards). When you don't have that many people who can, or want to, walk around these places to keep an eye on everything, we use technology. That's fair enough. Sometimes, these cameras are pretty useful - like capturing the image of a person or persons who may have committed a crime, or looking for lost kids in the mall. But when facial recognition cameras are aimed at people in public places, well, I think a line needs to be drawn - between a need for security and a need for privacy. Otherwise, we may as well have Big Brother take over the running of our lives.

Image source: Author: Rachel Montiel

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Of Diamonds and Apples

I am now a proud owner of the HTC Touch Diamond. Granted, it doesn't have the prestige, hype or snob factor that seems to go with the Apple iPhone 3G. The Apple iPhone 3G has yet to see land-fall on Singapore's shores. It has gone on sale in the US for some time now. There is report that it will be available on the 26th August 2008 through local Telco, Singtel.

I said 'now' because at one time not too long ago, I just wanted to throw it into the river, any river. I was really disappointed and cursed the 'toywan-zai' for their lack of attention to detail. You see, I bought my Diamond from Singtel just a fews day after it was launched back in June. Within a week, I went back to Singtel for a replacement, and the replacement phone continued to give me problems the original one had - the phone would 'hang' at least once a day and the only way of resetting the phone so that it could take and make calls was to remove the battery and put it back. (Of course, there is the soft reset feature, but I didn't learn about it till much later). The phone's back cover was notoriously difficult to remove, requiring almost superlative human strength and gentleness so that it would come off without shattering it. Sometimes, the phone's battery would drain all its power unexpectedly so that I am left with a useless piece of metal and plastic block when I am expecting an important call. And sometimes, it would take hours to charge. What's more, it is also laggy. Response time during the password sign-in felt as if the phone was half-asleep and the highly touted Touch-Flo, well, sometime didn't quite flow at all. And you may say, the list of grouses continues...until one day, the phone just froze up. I couldn't soft reset it, I couldn't switch it off, so I had to pay the HTC service centre a personal visit.

And the people at the service centre admitted as much, that the firmware in my Diamond wasn't all that well written. The Touch-Flo feature, in particular, was taking up a lot of resources. I was told to disable it, but doing so would take away one of the reasons why I bought it. In any case, it appeared that they had a new firmware, which was duly loaded onto my Diamond. Thereafter, the Diamond looked and worked more like a diamond. Just two days ago, another upgrade to the firmware was made available. I downloaded and flashed my phone once more. The phone is now more responsive than before.

But my problems with the Diamond isn't unique, it appears. Early adopters of the iPhone 3G are reporting problems with it too. One of these is Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome fame. The problem he reports almost exactly mirror the problems I had with my HTC Diamond. So I would recommend that Chris flash his iPhone 3G (if Apple has the improved firmware). All of which goes to show that you shouldn't buy gadgets fresh off the oven, not even Apple's much hyped products. I suppose it pays to wait. But somehow, it is only human to want the latest gadget from Apple. Its the defining quality of this company. Me? I just cannot stomach hype and besides, the Diamond came out just at the time my Telco contract expired, so I got a hefty discount on the phone. All things considered, it is a great phone.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Spectacle and pride

The timing was unfortunate, inopportune, one might say. On Friday evening, the 8th of August 2008 (or 08-08-08), China put on a show extravaganza that simply took away everyone's breadth. Costing in the region of billions of dollars, it was simply one of the most spectacular opening ceremonies of an Olympic games. As I watch the TV now, of Singapore's National Day Parade on the banks of the Marina Bay, I must say that I am underwhelmed. And perhaps Mr Lee Kuan Yew feels the same too, having been at the Olympics opening ceremonies less than 24 hours ago. This is not to disparage the effort and sincerity of most Singaporeans on this occasion. It is a fact that somebody else has the resources and the talent and the people to mount something much more impressive. Its just that it probably would have helped if both occasions didn't come back to back on consecutive evenings, not when technology can bring both occasions into the living rooms of anybody anywhere in the world with a TV that is plugged into broadcasters with a license for these occasions.

Spectacle aside, it probably is politically more correct to have a modest celebration in Singapore, after the PM and government Ministers have been on air in the last few days warning the nation of harder times ahead. It just wouldn't do to see millions thrown into pageantry, never mind that it is only a once a year affair. But pageantry there must be, to show the rest of the world that we are not rolling over and playing dead. We are still very much alive and kicking, and if the past is anything to go by, and I am not referring to the recent past, but the past 43 years (or more if we count the year 1959 when Singapore gained self-government), then we should be ok. A people must show that it can enjoy the good times, but also hack the bad times. And I am sure we will emerge the stronger for it. Adversity breeds genuine character, so the Chinese saying goes.

Image taken off Mediacorp's 'Live' Web TV during the National Day Parade 2008 on 9th August 2008.

P.S. This is telling...from Yahoo Singapore:

Whole in the Heart

Yesterday, I attended a National Day observance cum celebration. It was an extravaganza of sorts. Besides the obligatory pledge and Majulah Singapura, which I hadn't sung in one year, the afternoon was filled with very creative and fun activities on stage. There were many stage items put up by various groups. Many of them were comedic to keep the occasion fun and entertaining. There was an item that went retro with dances stretching from the 1950s (a-go-go) right up to today's hip-hop. Some were more cultural - more dances again of which one was put up by our Myanmarese friends, all decked out in their traditional costumes. I didn't know there were that many Myanmarese in this single organisation. They managed to put on garbs from the various ethnic groups that make up Myanmar and did a fascinating traditional dance display. In the midst of this dance, I began to feel adrift as a Singaporean.

These people aren't rich, materially, but they have a culture and tradition they could articulate and call their own. They had come from afar to seek opportunities in Singapore, but they would have a place they would call their home to return to one day, nevermind if those places aren't as well-to-do or sophisticated as Singapore is. Their homes may be rural villages, but it has a history that probably goes back hundreds of years. And they have immediate neighbours who share a cultural and historical continuum. In contrast, Singaporeans have nothing.

We do not have a dance we can call our own. Whatever that it is, it looks awfully (and I mean awfully) like a product or adaptation from Hollywood, Bollywood or Shaw Organisation. Whatever songs we have come up with - "Stand up for Singapore", "Count on me, Singapore", "One People, One Nation, One Singapore", "Where I belong", "We will get there", etc., all of them are effort to try to psycho ourselves to believe that we belong to this tiny island. We do, so why insist on it? It is un-natural. That is why I rarely, if ever, sing these songs. Unlike our Myanmarese friends, we Singaporeans are trapped on this island. China will never accept Singapore Chinese as one of their own. Our fathers and grandfathers perhaps, but not those in my generation and those after. Ironically, many China Chinese seem to have migrated in droves to this island and called it their home - for now, that is. They still have a Shanghai or Suzhou or Tianjin or Beijing to go back to when they choose to. It is such a fluid world we live in today.

But of course, some would argue that the Singaporean can easily uproot himself to places such as the US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. But that is hardly going home. The Singaporean may be cosmopolitan, and he would fit in nicely in these places, but at heart, he knows it is not home, and can never be. Some Singapore Chinese would like to call China our home. That is where our forebears came from anyway. But we know we are not one of them and they know that too. And it doesn't help when our Chinese language abilities are half past six.

So for better or worse, there is really only one home, and that is located on a tiny island on the tip of the Malay Peninsula. We are not old enough to have a unique and ingrained culture and tradition. We should not pretend that we have. We experiment through copying and adapting from others what fancies us at that point in time. It is not us - at least, not yet for people like me who straddle different histories and memories. We still wear costumes that our forebears wore in their countries of birth - China, India... Any pretense at a National dress has been torn in tatters years ago. We may have an island full of engineers, but we have failed dismally when it comes to engineering an identity. That will take time and perhaps we shouldn't rush it. In the meantime, at 47, we can continue (is there a choice?) to be cosmopolitan in our outlook and mercenary in our pursuits. I am sure some time down the road, perhaps 40, 50 years from, we will have evolved a peculiar and genuine Singapore culture and tradition our children can call their own.

We are, after all, only 43.

Image taken off Mediacorp's 'Live' Web TV during the National Day Parade 2008 on 9th August 2008.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Lose that customer

According to a MasterCard Worldwide survey on customers' relationship with the banks, Singapore is the only country in Asia-Pacific where people (61% of them) switch banks because of bad service and not lousy rates and high fees.

Well, this survey finding is spot on where I am concerned. About 10 years ago, I got ditched from being rewarded by a bank whose credit card I had been using regularly for well over 10 years. Credit cards accumulate points which can then be exchanged for rewards. I had a very hectic schedule then and didn't notice that my accumulated points were expiring, until one day after. I called the bank to waive that one day. The guy said he needed to check and duly reverted. I was refused. So this was a higher up decision, not just the front line staff making a hasty 'go-by-the-rulebooks' decision. This meant that the points that I had accumulated, which was quite substantial, was simply just wiped off my account. In a sense, that's cash. I thought that if someone higher up did not value my business, and could be so mercenary with its customer's cash, I'd take it elsewhere. I stopped using that credit card and in all that 10 years since, I have only ever used it a grand total of once. Even today, under the pecking order of cards that I have, it is my least preferred card. There is such as thing known as the lifetime value of a customer. While I don't spend in the 6 digit figure range every month or every year, for that matter, I settle my bills on time and don't give them any problems - re delinquency.

Just the other day, I canceled another credit card one year after I signed up because it slapped me with a card membership fee of S$192. I thought that I had 2 years free use on that card because the telemarketeer said so and the expiry date printed on the card confirmed that. Call me naive if you want, but I do dislike people, and especially businesses, who do not keep their word or who do not have a customer orientation in their business dealings.

Since then, I have only ever used a vanilla credit card (gold, platinum, whatever...they mean nothing nowadays) which rewards with cash rebates. I get the cash which is accumulated through use of the card. So the next time I visit a store that has the facility to inform me of my rebate earnings, I offset my bill at point of purchase - simple, clean and clear. No more having to keep track of expiry dates, no more having to deal with people who cannot waive a one day expiry, or a one year premature membership fee...and the list may go on for others based on my experience with the banks.

Banks are not unaware of this, yet I am still canceling cards. There must be something wrong with the processes in some banks. Ah well, I don't need that many cards, really...

Image source: Author: Kevin Rosseel

Saturday, August 02, 2008

On the road again

Labour Chief and Cabinet Minister Lim Swee Say has reportedly admonished workers "to work together to cope with a global economy which may be heading towards a state of stagflation — one sparked off by low growth and high inflation." The last time that this stagflation word was used widely was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Soaring oil price was a problem then and OPEC was all powerful. It has returned to haunt use again, and to demonstrate to a new generation of people that things can change so fast. One moment, you think your world is perfect - low inflation, low interest rate (well, the feeling is mixed here) coupled with high growth. Growth appears to be slowing (i.e. stagnating), prices are rising (inflation) through the roof though interest rate remains artificially low (which, no doubt, fuels spending).

So I was not surprised to be told that the current NATAS travel fare was bursting with visitors yesterday - a work day in Singapore. I was told that there was a queue stretching right up to the concourse leading to the MRT station for people to GET INTO the exhibition hall. Clearly many have taken leave from work to attend the travel fare. And I don't think they are there to gawk at pretty sceneries, or whatever else they think they may see. They must have come to buy. Which leaves me wondering. Are people suspending reality? Aren't times getting difficult? Sure there are still jobs to be found, but really, how long will they last? Annual affairs such as the F1 race coming up in September can only sustain so much of the economy and for only a few months in a year. Manufacturing isn't doing that well due to the weakening US economy. The Singapore government, with all their competent (though not infallible) economists and policy planners, are already saying that times will get tougher.

So why are Singaporeans spending on things that are really not essential? One would go away thinking that the good times are still rolling on and on. Isn't it time to tighten the belt? Well, there is a certain wisdom in the crowds. In this case, they are beating the Paradox of Thrift and thereby sustaining the economy, though don't ask me where they are getting the money from to splash on these vacations. Air travel has become much more costly with the high oil prices, so no matter what good deals a person may pick up at the fare, it's still going to cost, no matter that one is 'locking-in' the prices of oil and inflation. 'Locking-in' prices will only be good if oil price and inflation will continue to rise - which is a bleak prospect. So why are people still spending like there is no tomorrow?

If NATAS was that crowded yesterday, wait till you see the herd today - a weekend - at Singapore Expo...Still planning to go?

Image source: Author: Dani Simmonds