Saturday, November 29, 2008

Real pain

Terrorism is truly the scourge of this decade. It isn't that terrorism started in the new millenium. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, terrorism reigned for various, but largely, non-religious reasons. At least there wasn't a feeling that any major religion was using terror for its ends. Then, reasons for terrorism were politics, nationalism, mafia and money, not in any order of prevalence.

Ever since 911, Islamist terrorism appears to have defined this decade. Even today, towards the end of 2008, and soon, the first decade of the new millenium, Islamist terrorism still wreaks havoc. This last week, India's Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) suffered its own 911. Having lived through the decade, one is almost numb to these terrrorist acts. First, they killed because US and the UK supported Israel. Today they still do so for the same reason, but in the process, more innocent people of other nationalities have been killed. This week, Singapore suffered its first casualty of this madness. A young lawyer, only 28, was reportedly killed by Islamist terrorists in the Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai. Her body was found on the 19th floor of that building. Ms Lo Hwei Yen, the lawyer, was in Mumbai on assignment.

What more can we say that has not already been said about the cruelty, the indiscriminate, no, the madness of these killers? That's what they really are. Not martyrs, not by any means religious, not god-loving, not compassionate, not human and most of all, not Islamic. They say that their martyrdom will usher them into heaven. Why then are their leaders still living? To send even more naive Muslims on their way to heaven? Utterly ridiculous but painfully real. Sadly, there are probably many closet terrrorists, Muslims who quietly applaud such acts, but who appear to be god-fearing and law-abiding. Is this why Islamist terrorism cannot seem to be defeated?

This blog writer would like to express his condolences to the family of Ms Lo, a fellow Singaporean.

As for the these terrorists and those in the closet, may they never rest in peace. May they rot in hell, forever.

Half a century of terrorism, and counting ... Terrorism 1951-1960 ... Terrorism 1961-1970 ... Terrorism 1971-1980 ... Terrorism 1981-1990 ... Terrorism 1991-2000 ... Terrorism 2000-2010

Image: Author: Eleanor & Will

Friday, November 28, 2008

Best is less

The Singapore National Library (NLB) is a great institution. Over the years, it has grown from strength to strength. Its decision to site its branches in busy shopping malls was an inspired move that has brought its books literally closer to a wider reading public. There is much to say for this institution, which services remain free of charge.

But I was choked when I read its READ! Singapore 2009 campaign. It isn't a new idea, but its still a great campaign, except when it asks the public to "recommend their favourite inspirational books to be promoted for nation-wide reading during READ! Singapore 2009" ( It then goes on to stipulate that the recommendation must be an international bestseller or an award-winning title which length is "between 50,000 to 75,000 words (less than 380 pages), and should reflect the theme of READ! Singapore 2009".

To start off with, these conditions do not exactly inspire. If the NLB wants international bestsellers, it can just go up the already published popularity/recommenation list from publishers, book reviews, etc, which are readily available. Why get recommendations from readers? These bestseller lists are a result of public 'voting' through their purchases. If it is an award-winning book, well, there aren't that many awards anyway (if there were, the awards become dubious). With only a handful, what's there to exclude? My point is, what is the point of recommending what has essentially been recommended? Isn't it a waste of time? Further, the restrictive conditions prevent people from recommending a book they have read and were genuinely inspired by notwithstanding that it is not an international bestseller or award-winning book. These are called gems which are not easily found and may have missed the popularity stakes. Not all bestsellers are, after all, inspiring. Some of them are 'engineered' to be bestsellers for wholly commercial reasons.

I think, in this instance, the NLB has mis-directed the public, which is a shame.

Image: Author: Clara Natoli

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Follow the porridge

Why am I underwhelmed to hear of the government ministers and top civil servants taking huge pay cuts next year? That is because the rich, people earning a million dollars and upwards a year, can afford to lose a couple of hundred thousands of dollars any time. It will not affect their day-to-day expenses - nobody needs to start eating beans and porridge instead of the power breakfasts, power lunches and power dinners. I would also surmise that it wouldn't affect whatever downpayments they may have on the house they live in, nor would it upset the family budget in any significant way.

While I acknowledge PM Lee Hsien Loong's gesture that he will donate his increments to charity for the next 5 years (demonstrating that he doesn't need the money, anyway), his Ministers are not in any practical way less well-off after the 19% cut.

On the other hand, why am I worried? If this signals to employers to cut people's pay, then hardships may be the order of the day. If I earned $3,000 and I get even a 10% pay cut, and I have 2 kids and my wife just lost her job, that may drive me to eating beans and porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or maybe even skip a meal, which will be detrimental to my health. We all know that we can bear with the beans and porridge, but we just cannot afford to be hospitalised. Not in Singapore, not ever. That'll kill whatever savings we may have, savings that are suppose to tide us over the next few years of 'famine'. Yes, the Health Minister has promised that he will be compassionate as far as the bills are concerned, but that'll turn us all into beggars of sorts (begging the hospital to waive the high charges, i.e.) wouldn't it? You wonder if we have made any progress in the last 40 years or so where healthcare costs are concerned.

And what about all those monthly payments for the housing loan, which is likely taken from my CPF account. My monthly contributions to that CPF account will be reduced together with the pay cut. Do I have to fork out extra cash every month? The alternative, of course, is to sell the house and downgrade. But in these depressing times, selling the house will be the last resort. You don't want your house to be someone else's discount opportunity of a lifetime.

Already, DBS is playing follow the leader. I am not sure that this leadership by example is an example which all of us salaryman and woman want our bosses to follow, nor can afford for them to follow.

Image: Author: Orchid

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Stand Up for Singaporeans

Mr Tan Kin Lian, erstwhile CEO of NTUC Income for 30 years, says he will consider standing for election for the office of President of Singapore or an independent MP. I think many in Singapore have been waiting for him to say this, but Mr Tan says he will only proceed if 100,000 Singaporeans (i.e. eligible voters?) say they want him to stand.

I have suggested this in an earlier blog entry, that he should run for Parliament. I didn't know whether he would, if he did so, run under the PAP or one of the Opposition Parties. I thought the Mr Tan would have more sense than throw in his lot with the likes of Mr Chee Soon Juan, so it would make sense if he joined Mr Low Thia Kiang's Workers' Party since he has left the PAP. But now that he has indicated that he will run as an independent, there are only so many single-seat wards available in Singapore. With all due respect to Mr Chiam See Tong, who may still have the will but perhaps not the strength to continue serving his constituents in Potong Pasir as MP, he should pass the baton on to Mr Tan Kin Lian.

There has always been the question: what next after Mr Chiam, who has stood alone for Potong Pasir as MP for 24 years now? Would the PAP just 'walk' in to re-claim the ward, just like that? Of course the PAP candidates have been gaining ground on Mr Chiam in the last two GE, so it isn't like there are no supporters for the PAP in Potong Pasir. But if the PAP were to regain control, then it would be a loss to Singapore for independent voices. Sure, Mr Low would try his level best to prevent that, but he may not have the right person on the ground in Potong Pasir to mount a credible challenge. Remember that the PAP has been working the ground for some time now, if only to nurse a sore thumb that never seem to be healed. So who better to stand in Potong Pasir than the independent Mr Tan Kin Lian?

Like Mr Barack Obama, Mr Tan is internet savvy. I hear that he is quite good in IT too. Like Barack Obama, Mr Tan represents a fresh voice for the people. But I think the most important thing is that he cares to speak out for the people. This is what Parliament needs more of.

If Mr Tan want's endorsement, he has got mine. But of course you cannot rely on an anonymous name for endorsement. So let Mr Tan put up a platform to collect this endorsement and I will put my real name down. Of course I cannot promise to move house to Potong Pasir to give him my vote, nor can I prevent the PAP government in redrawing the electoral boundaries, but he has my encouragement, however much that is of value to him.

How about it, Mr Tan?

Image: Author: Nicolas Raymond

Friday, November 21, 2008

Shifting sands

"Sands said that it had also received word from the Casino Regulatory Authority of Singapore that it had approved the company's proposed casino floor plan for up to 1,000 gaming tables, instead of the originally planned 600 tables."
Straits Times, 8 November 2008

This news refers to the casino being built in Singapore on the Marina Bay. When it was first proposed, there was a huge outcry by many Singaporeans against it. Even the Government Cabinet was reportedly divided. But it was finally approved for the long term good of the economy. The stated intent was to grow the tourism and business meetings sector of the economy in the light of competition from places like Australia, Macau and possibly the Philippines. Something was needed to attract more people to the island. Citing the Chinese as "inverterate gamblers", the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who for decades said 'no' to a casino on the island, also relented. Why? Because this development was not about a casino, it was about an Integrated Resort (IR) and the casino was but one of the many facilities that international travellers, company executives and fun seekers could look forward to. That is why, up until now, the development is never referred to as the Marina Bay Casino (not a bad sounding name, actually), but (euphemistically) the Marina IR.

Now, a financially strapped LV Sands has asked for two things. The first is to increase the number of gaming tables from 600 to a whopping 1000, representing a 66% increase over the original. The second is to open the IR in phases, though it did not indicate which part of the IR it would want to open first. If I read their thoughts correctly, they would probably propose to the government to open their casino first. Why? Simply because that is potentially the single (if not only) most profitable attraction in the IR right now. With disappearing conventions, corporate meetings and the like (I was with some traveling industry executives yesterday, and they all told me that they are having to chase down leads and not wait for orders to roll in, as before).

There is a Chinese saying, "Hard times reveals true intentions". In this case, the true intent of the IR is no more about operating a casino. It is the only intent. The other resort facilities, the places for meetings and conventions? Well, they are really distractions, sideshows at best, aren't they? Some would even say they are the excuses, the smokescreen, to hide the real intent of setting up a gambling den - all prim and proper, blessed by the government. Ditto for the Universal Studio Theme Park in the Sentosa IR. They wouldn't make a cent in the current economic downturn. That is probably why the Casino Regulatory Authority of Singapore authorised the 400 more gaming tables. And don't bet against the casino opening second. It'll be the first. Now I wonder if the $100 fee for entry into the casino for locals will not be reduced, or even lifted altogether.

After all, desperate times demand true action.

Image: Author:Kevin Rosseel

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hazydous act

Hazing (pronounced hae'zing) - the juvenile act of subjecting a person, male on male, female on female, from simple to extreme pain, discomfort and humiliation, though avoiding the possible loss of life or limp. Popular amongst students, from Secondary Schools to Tertiary Institutions, particularly elite schools such as Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC), the act avoids sex but can be sado-masochistic in nature for the very fact that torturer and toturee are willing parties to the act and both apparently enjoy it. It is recognised by some authority figures that the boys and girls are just having a bit of fun.

Highly controversial act, which gives it its popularity among juveniles and some adults.

View a sample video of Hazing

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Sunk Fund

Wow! 12 big fat ones, all gone. I am, of course, referring to the report in Parliament yesterday that two of our Town Councils (TCs), both helmed by PAP government MPs, have lost $12 million dollars of the people's money - held as the sinking (no pun intended) fund for the purpose of repairing and improving the common properties in and around the residential estates - by investing that money in the very risky Lehman structured financial products.

The government, to its credit, disclosed these losses in Parliament yesterday, saying that these losses represented 6% and 2% of the sinking fund of these TCs respectively, but that these TCs remain in the black. Well, black, red or white is not the issue here. The issue is that a substantial amount of the people's money, kept in trust, to be used for the people, have vanished into thin air. And the shocking thing this, nobody is standing out to take responsibility for it. Everybody is hiding behind Parliamentary disclosures, announcements and, it would appear, exoneration. No, we don't want to go witch-hunting, but we want accountability. No we don't want to sack anyone, but we want, perhaps, some contrition and admission of wrong by some parties. All that I am hearing now is that the town councils will now adopt a more conservative investment strategy - itself a tacit admission that they were wrong in investing in these highly risky products in the first place, but nothing more. Maybe instead of lambasting and ridiculing the opposition the next time, the PAP MPs and government should take a leaf out of them this time. Hindsight is always a better teacher because we can see with perfect vision what we should and what we should not have done. If the town councils involved - Holland-Bukit Panjang and Pasir-Punggol, who respectively lost $8M and $4M - had that vision BEFORE the event, they wouldn't now have ended with mud on their faces today. Some have made the point that sinking funds are exactly that - stashed away, sunk in a hole, sealed up in very safe fixed deposits. But no, somebody figured that structured products made more money and, without understanding the product, went to market and bought $12million dollars worth of it. When it is not your money, or when you feel that you have 'earned' it through positive investments in the past, the decision to take on riskier investments seem easier. But it is still the people's money, no matter if they are accumulated surpluses or however well one has invested it in the past. All investment gains still accrue to the people's account, just as the losses do now.

Residents now have $12million less to help improve their lives. They have$12million less to cut the fees that they are paying monthly. They have $12million less to put in the bank that will at least earn some more interest. Even at 1% annual interest in an FD account, it will still net $120,000 a year. Sure, its peanuts (now where did this word last cause an uproar?) when you consider the cost of maintaining not one town, but several, but it is money that belongs to the people. Singapore has always prided itself on accountability of public funds. Is it now being conveniently swept under the carpet?

Many in Singapore feel that, with government MPs behind them in their constituency, they can only gain - they stood to stand in the front of the queue for more and newer amenities as well as upgrading works - so people vote for them. But it appears that they also had their money gambled away by the local government, which inextricably, had a huge appetite for risks - risking other people's money, i.e. Obviously they cannot take their grievances now to Mr Tan Kin Lian. The only thing the TCs can do is hang their heads down in shame the next time they ask for more money for the S&C fees. I don't know if they would die of embarrassment. The only way they can demand increases in the fees is if they changed the entire team who lost all those money. For that, we will probably need a GE, which we are told is not on the cards yet.

The constituents, lost big this time around without even stepping into a casino. Will the government reimburse the TCs? Nope, that's not what its going to do, that's not their style, which is well and good. The TCs have to make up their shortfalls - or is there any shortfall to be made up for in the first place. It appears not.

Which disturbs me.

If the loss of $12M is of no consequence to these TCs at all, then what is it doing with so much excess money - money which it still collects from the people every month, money which belongs to the people? The question is - are the people paying too much already in Service and Conservancy fees in the first place? Have they been paying so much over the years that the TCs have found in its kitty sums of money which it can afford to lose? For the sake of the people, I hope not.

Image source: Author: Dawn M Turner

Saturday, November 08, 2008

As the sun sets

One of the things about growing old is, as many middle-aged person realise, is that many faculties begin to fail. Not only that, some faculties are probably never going to be restored, like your tooth. Once an adult tooth is lost, it is lost. Of course there are dentures to cover up for the awful look otherwise, but dentures are still not the real thing.

What else fails?

The eyes for another. You may have 20/20 vision all your life, but when you hit the big 4-O, you discover how necessary reading glasses become, especially in the light of the night. Then your language also begins to fail. Where once you could have been a spelling bee, you struggle increasingly to remember how to put together a word - that erstwhile ability to spell anything deserts you.

And don't many of us find our legs failing us, even at the relatively 'young' age of 42. Suddenly, Glucosamine is more familiar to you than Panadol or even Vitamin C. Your hair also becomes perceptibly thinner at the top. Your scalp is more visible at the top although your beard and nostril hair never seem to stop growing.

Of course, you look rougher by the months. Ever deeper lines appear on your face as your hand look shinier by the year, not because of the lotions you might have applied, but that's how aging skin seem to look. You also notice black spots appearning on your face and hands and arms. No, that's not the black plague, its just cells dying.

Worst of all, your memories also begin to fail. What happened last year this time, or 3 months ago, or even 2 weeks ago. You struggle to remember and are dismayed that that part of your life is not history, but an emptiness, an inexistence that eludes you, perhaps forever now.

All these gets progressively worse. Yes, modern medicine can mitigate a lot of the ill-effects of aging. Just look at the roaring business that personal care shops such as Watsons, Guardian and the Body Shop, and even Spas and Gyms do and you realise that you are in the wrong business otherwise.

But that curative ability of modern medicine becomes a problem eventually, when medicine is used to prop one up at the gates of heaven (or hell, whichever the case may be). Advanced Medical Directives (AMD), Euthansia, these controversial terms, take on real meaning. Did you remember to let your loved ones know how you prefer to be treated, when you have lost all your communications faculties? Would you have preferred that your loved ones stop wasting expensive medicine just so that you can continue lying on a bed, doing not much more than being fed through a plastic tube? Or worst, when you, an adult, begin to behave no differently from a baby, remembering nothing, no one, and defecating anywhere and everywhere because, like a child, you have lost all control of your bowel movements and your sense of shame. You cannot instruct anyone to kill you because death is no longer in your vocabulary.

Can someone do you in, legally, since you no longer know better, and probably would have preferred it? The answer is simple, isn't it? Or is it?

Image source: Author: Mary Thorman