Friday, August 28, 2009

Castle in the air

It was James Otis who first said that a "man's house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle...". Well, I am sad to observe that in Singapore, even the Law acknowledges that this is not necessarily true. There was a recent case where 2 people sued a man for not being dressed at all while he was in his house's kitchen. The inside of this kitchen faced a public area, and as the newspaper account went, these 2 women were walking pass it when they saw the man of the house all naked sitting in his kitchen. Their modesty was so outraged that they sued the man. The Courts agreed with the women and fined the man $2,000 for the indecent exposure and a follow-up act of agression against the same.

So now, I am very careful about being decently dressed while I am at home. All the more so as many public, and might I say also private, apartments face public wakways and other apartments' windows. I once observed that in Hong Kong apartments, you could just reach out with your hands to touch your neighbours' window. Such was the congestion and design of their houses. Nowadays you can say the same about Singapore. At least you could see clearly into someone else's apartment.

Why would anyone move around in his/her apartment dressed to the zeros (as opposed to nines, i.e.?) Well, given Singapore's hot and humid climate, this would be the most sensible thing to do, actually. Nowadays, I sweat even when I remain still, sitting on my sofa chair in the living room. Sometimes, I take off my shirt and go around the house in nothing more than a pair of shorts. How short is my shorts? Well, that is my business. But that is exactly the issue. How much or how little must you have on before you offend the modesty of some prudish women (or men for that matter) and land up in court on the opposite side of the law? Nobody is forcing anyone to look into somebody's castle...err house. You are not forced to be a kay-poh. You choose to be one. If you take a look and see a naked man or woman in the house and am offended by what you see, that is your problem. You shouldn't even contemplate taking the owner of the house to court for exposing whatever. We talk of being tolerant when religion is concerned, but we must be equally tolerant of what the master of the house chooses to do, short of committing a crime. An act of indecency you say? What is indecent to you may be common sense to another, so long as it is done in his castle.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rain or shine

All of a sudden, some locals are now concerned about the safety (and comfort?) that employers employ in ferrying their foreign workers to and from work. Right now, many of these foreign workers sit at the opened back of their employers' station wagons. Some of these station wagons, or lorries or trucks (whichever word you use depends on where you come from) are not covered, so workers hold on to whatever they can to steady themselves while the lorry moves. Some lorries have roof shelters, so when it rains, they are protected. Some have additional fencing so workers can sit on raised wooden planks installed across or along the sides of these lorries, probably making the ride more comfortable.

Responding to safety concerns, some people are suggesting a gamut of things - not about making the lorries safer, but suggesting that employers abandon the use of their lorries in favour of using buses and the like for ferrying their workers. One has even accused Singapore of being worse than what some 3rd World countries practise. For example, someone pointed out that China has laws that disallow the use of lorries for this purpose. Well I am not sure if that law exists in the first place, and even if it does, whether it exists nation-wide. Just becaues a local says so to make a point does not mean it is so.

I think in their fervour to make it safer for our foreign workers,we are forgetting one important thing. And that is to keep costs low for our business owners. Otherwise, these same businesses will lose out to our regional neighbours resulting in the retrenchment of these foreign workers. Then these best safety practices will be moot. It will be a supreme irony - that 'better' laws or rules that are meant to protect our foreign workers' safety will result in their being sent home prematurely. Sure we can have First World best practices. This also means we will have First World costs.

I have ridden behind open-top lorries and station wagons before. While it can be thrilling, I recognise the danger that it poses. But I also think that if passengers practice sensible care, this mode of transport can be quite comfortable and safe. Of course when it rains, it can get uncomfortable, but it is nothing that a tarpaulin cannot fix. Even with a roof, water can splash in, and you'd just have to wear a water-proof overalls for cover. Sure this isn't as comfortable and ideal as a bus, but if it is going to kill the foreign workers' job, which would they prefer? Before we pontificate on what our employers should do, shouldn't was ask them - the foreign workers, what they want?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thank you foreigners!

Tunnel boring for Singapore's MRT circle line was completed today. (Today and The Straits Times, 18 August 2009, p12 and p4 respectively). The Straits Times had a picture showing the large boring mechanism in the background and everyone clapping and jumping in celebration. Normally this is unremarkable. Sure they should be happy. Its a job completed without any more loss of life. But one thing caught my attention about the photograph.

If one didn't know better, one could be forgiven to think that the boring took place somewhere in India. Every single person in the picture looks like an Indian! I don't see any Chinese, or Ang Mo for that matter. It just goes to show that the real credit for Singaporean's getting a world-class transport system is due in no small measure to some of our imports - foreign labours, just as it took our forebears - today's Singaporeans' fathers and grandfathers who hail from India and China, to build Singapore into the modern city-state that it is today. Even as Singapore celebrates its National Day, it bears remembering that our prosperity, our first-class infrastructure, comes from the toil and sweat of the very same peoples who settled in this land more than 50 years ago and whose sons from that same faraway land continue to do so today.

Yes, they are not doing it for free. But the smiles on their faces, and the jubilant cheering (I can only imagine this) shows how much pride they have in their work. Imagine, celebrating an achievement which they may never get to enjoy as they must go home to India (or wherever they came from) one day. Given that most Singaporeans are unwilling to work in such jobs anymore, we owe them a debt of gratitude in helping make our journeys to and from work faster and a lot more bearable.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Truth and pragmatism

"We the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as...."

This National Day, our 44th, much was made of it. We got as many people as possible to recite that pledge at 8.22pm during the National Day celebrations at the Marina Bay and everywhere else. Many would have reflected on the words in the pledge, what it really meant to them, why, as a student, they had to recite it every school day (except when it poured rain or H1N1 or SARS), and whether they even meant what they say.

It would appear that there are some who are dead serious about it. NMP Viswa Sadasivan spoke about squaring our public policies with the words of the pledge, something that, one would say, is obvious. You say what you mean and mean what you say, so the saying goes.

But, as any citizen and long-time resident would know, this is not exactly how Singapore works. There is what the Americans would call affirmative action - positive discrimination in favour of a particular race in Singapore from the very first day it was founded as an independent nation. So it isn't regardless of race. Maybe language, maybe religion, but certainly not race. The Chinese race is dominant but it has been pragmatic enough to realise that it lives in a sea of countries dominant in a race that is a minority on the island of Singapore. And that therefore, it must pay especial attention to this fact - discriminate, regard the race, in order to move forward toward happiness, prosperity and progress.

Some would disagree, as the honourable NMP does, because we would want to be true to ourselves and what we say. But ironically, we have to be schizophrenic if we want to maintain a semblance of sanity and order. On the other hand, when you think about it, a mother does not neccessarily treat all her children the same. One may born less well endowed. Another may be stronger. So a good parent will discriminate against the stronger in favour of the weaker because she knows that the stronger can fend for himself, whereas the weaker needs more support. Of course the wish is that one day, the weaker one will be able to stand up for himself and find his own place in society, confident, independent and contributing in his own way to others. This is called paternalism - a label that Singapore has had for a very long time. So all these are nothing new. MM Lee Kuan Yew reminded Singaporeans in Parliament on Tuesday.

Is this the best state of affairs? I think few would say 'yes'. Those who say 'no' look for a day when it will be. MM says it will take tens, if not hundreds of years, and even leaves it open if it will ever be reached. Many will agree that we are on a journey, that the journey is more important than the destination, because if and when we reach the destination, then what? Is it even a desirable goal in the first place?

But I must give credit to NMP Sadasivan for bring up the issue. I suppose that is what NMP's are for - to challenge the status quo, push the boundaries and provoke thought, whether one agrees with the proponent or not.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Uncock the bottle

Today is Singapore's 44th National Day. Today, Singapore is just as racially diverse as it was 44 years ago, perhaps more so. 44 years ago, we had Indians, Chinese, Malays and Eurasians. There were, of course, the Europeans - mostly British - our former British colonial masters who stayed behind to support a fledgeling nation, if only for a while. And among the locals, there were the sub-groups among the Chinese and Indians - the Cantonese, the Hokkiens, the Teochews, and among the Indians - the Malayalees, the Tamils, the Sikhs. The Malays were probably the most homogenous group, this land being historically theirs, until the British colonised Malaya.

Today, 44 years later, we have just as many diverse people. The Chinese dialect among the younger Singaporeans have almost died out, though there are still among them some, like me, who continue to speak Cantonese (or whichever dialect) at every opportunity. Some people think I am a Hong Konger, but I am never more Singaporean than a Singaporean. Nevertheless, the island's Mandarin only regime (particularly in the mass media) is stifling. It hides our identities, no, it has buried our identities, RIP. Our children no longer speak these dialects, not even if you tempt them with rewards beyond their years.

But we have been joined by people from all over the world - expatriates here to earn a living. Some have stayed - the Czechs, the Serbians, the Hong Kongers, the Shanghainese, the Beijingers, the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Vietnamese, the Burmese, and yes, the Americans too - and married locals, producing yet other species of children among us. Truly, the Singapore of 44 years is now as diverse as it has ever been. Today, we are not puzzled by our neighbours who speak Hakka, or Hokkien. We are puzzled by very much more strange tongues when we travel the MRT subway. Though sometimes disconcerting, it is probably a good thing. We have retained, if not grown our cultural diversity. We remember that it has always ever been this way, though sadly, some feel threatened by strange skins and strange languages, as we did 44 years ago.

But this is the only way Singapore can grow. It is probably the easiest way. The locals want smaller families, either by choice or forced by choice - they want the good life above any toddler who may be a hindrance. They cannot see beyond 50 years later and what they will live by. Perhap the CPF kitty, their wholly-owned apartments, have replaced whatever need for financial dependence on children in our old age that our parents used to have. And anyway, in the hothouse of the Singapore education system, you probably really can only afford one, at most two. Not because of the financial burden - we are much more well-off than our neighbours in surrounding countries, but the social and psychological pressure that comes with having our kids perform in exams - twice a year - for at least 12 continuous years. Surely it is too much for any parent to bear, after they have borned their own 12 years?

But I am thankful for the relative peace and safety of this place. So I take this opportunity to wish all Singaporeans a very happy and meaningful National Day. Let's uncock the bottle!

PM Lee's National Day Message

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Corporate Responsibility

Some call it Corporate Social Responsibility - CSR for short. Corporations see it as good PR to be seen to be generous towards non-profit purposes, for the good of the community, such as acts of donations to charities, organising meaningly charitable events at their expense, and etc.

Great Eastern Life just did that - not in the usual way we associate it with CSR, but it is CSR at its best. Why? Because its payback is not immediate nor guaranteed while it swallows, on behalf of its investors, the losses that have fallen on its GreatLink Choice investment products. My mother made a startling remark about 5 months ago - that bankers have become professional fraudsters. For all her life, she has kept her money faithfully in a bank, not under the bed, nor in the drawer. And she got us all to keep our monies in the bank too, for the interest that it would earn. So can you blame her when she put a substantial amount of that money in what a relationship manager called a high-yield structured investment product? She had wanted to open a fixed deposit account with the cash, actually. After all, she has been trusted banks with her cash for over 40 years. Structured or not, the banks are selling it and they must have evaluated the product's risk. They said it was low-risk high-yield. What's more, they also threw in the principal guaranteed / principal protected words. Little did we know that banks' definition of 'guaranteed' and 'protected' can be so convoluted that it would take a couple of lawyers to untangle it, or make it more confusing, depending on who you spoke to.

So, 'Thank you', Great Eastern Life and OCBC Bank (the parent), for taking what must be a difficult decision to return all the money that people have invested in structured products with you, knowing that their values have plunged 40-80% today. That's good 'ol banking - honouring people's trust and keeping their money safe, like it has always been, until recently.