Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Ox cometh

Chinese New Year has come and the first 2 days of celebrations have past without your knowing it. In this New Year celebrations, it has been the same old routine, the obligatory CNY eve dinner, the visiting, the eating. Yes, the visiting too. It appears that for some relatives, it is a once a year affair meeting up, unlike friends whom we meet and talk with the whole year around.

But meeting them, the relatives, have been a good thing, I wonder, though, if our meeting will be the last. Why so morose in a time of celebration? The inevitable. Within the last year, I have lost a dear relative, who was the architect of my parents' meeting and eventual union. In a way, I am here today because of her. But she was over 90, and she died peacefully in her sleep, that was a relief. There are those who hang to to dear life, when letting go would be so much better. So I had one less person to visit this. I visited another nonagenarian yesterday, an in-law. She seemed less alert than when I last saw her, no prizes for guessing, one year ago. But she could still recognise me, if barely, and one had to go near her to make oneself heard. But otherwise, she is in relative good health, which is what I wished for everyone I visited this CNY. No, not the wealth and good fortune, not the wish for the presence of the God of Fortune in the New Year, it had all got to be about good health. Priorities and realities, they change as you grow older. Perhaps that is why we grow wiser too. Oh to reminisce the fun and folly of youth, days gone by, never to come again.

We wish the best to all the children and send them along their way with a little money during these times. We genuinely wish them the best of life, good fortune, a life in excess (not of excess), excelling in school and, yes, health in their young lives. Even the young die prematurely, in the prime of their lives. We must ever be mindful of that. The young, some of them act and behave like there is no tomorrow. They speed down the expressways after having imbibed a few glasses, devil may care to claim their souls that very day. Many youth puff their way into addiction, thinking that they can put the stick down some time down the road. It rarely works out that way. I know a friend, a good man, who told me that, try as he might, he could never stop smoking. His regret comes too late. He is addicted till the day he breaths his last.

Why such depressing thoughts, this CNY? Perhaps the old look back with a sense of "seen that, done that" 20/20 vision. For all the good wishes over the years, there have been hard times. And 2009 promises to be the hardest of them all, the mother of all depression, they say. Talk is about possible loss of jobs - not because the company will retrench, but that the company will simply disappear, post CNY. People are on edge. It is part of the conversation this CNY. Everyone, it seems knows someone who has such worries on their minds.

But we remind ourselves that we have to be resilient, as the expansionary Government Budget 2009 suggests. More than at any other time, these people already have a plan B, ironically just waiting for that opportune time to put action to words. As the New Year slips into history, we face the inevitable tomorrow.

Happy Lunar New Year!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A coin has two sides

The blogging community started the buzz, the mainstream print media picked it up and it went all the way to Parliament. This is really a reversal of rolls. Usually, news starts with what is said in Parliament, gets reported in the print and/or broadcast media and then dissipates in the blogging community where everyone weighs in which his/her 2 cents worth. But the story really started innocuously enough in the print media when the subject of interest wrote an article for the Straits Times.

Of course, I am referring to Singapore Permanent Secretary Tay Yong Soon's ill-advised column on his family and his 5-month trip to Paris where they attended a cooking class $15,000 a pop, totaling S$45,000. For this amount of money, you could be enrolled in a full-fledge degree course, or even a master's degree course at SIM University. This is conspicuous consumption of the highest order, although one cannot deny that the PS is just following official policy to learn new skills to remain employable. Thus, before we jump to the conclusion that the PS has indulged himself and his family, we should let him explain.

And from all accounts thus far, the PS appears to be a decent chap. The only error he made was talk to the press about his trip and have it written up. Really, if he has the means to get a top-notch lesson in cooking that costs a bomb, that's his prerogative. There are many others who spent a fortune indulging in their hobbies, so why begrudge a man his pleasures? And he did it with his family, so that's really a good thing. Nothing like family bonding around the fireplace, albeit a costly one.

But chatter on the internet, in blog gossips and such, these are often merciless, subjective and shorn of any mitigating information. Merciless is the keyword here. It does not matter if you are a good man, a generous man, a charitable man. Once you are 'caught', you're toast. So what's the lesson here?

1. Be careful when you talk to the Press.
2. Apologise to show humility, not that you are in the wrong (Good for you, Mr Tay)
3. Don't defend yourself, let others do it for you (his colleagues' comments spoke volumes for him).
4. Be a good boss - the goodwill will be returned in spades later
5. Take internet chatter with a pinch of the salt. (Look, we are not trained journalists, just chatterboxes, sometimes equal to the best auntie gossipers you can find in a market any day)
6. Ignore internet savvy auntie gossipers at your own peril
7. Write for the Press at your own peril. Worst if you are a civil servant

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Worth of Words

I am disturbed. I really am. What is the source of my discomfort, you ask? Well, a Director of our Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has written to the press, in reply to a reader's question, that "Insurance companies are expected to have clear policies...", that "MAS expects the board and senior management to ensure that these policies and procedures are implemented consistently". She was writing in response to a reader's letter questioning the security of having one's personal data stored on insurance agents’ laptops. Some other readers have gone on to question the wider practice of providing photocopied ICs for all kinds of applications, depositing ICs with the security guard, etc.

While MAS may not have oversight over the latter, its reply concerning the former certainly gives no comfort to the person considering an insurance policy. If governance can be executed through expecting that people and organisations will do the right thing, then the frauds that have been surfacing over the last few years, from Enron to Satyam, would not have occurred. But it is precisely because these things do happen, and that even after auditing firms have done their jobs (or not) in conducting periodic statutory reviews. What is alarming in many cases is that fraud can take place with the most respectable people (e.g. Bernard Madoff - described as a long-standing leader in the financial services industry), that something more cries out to be done. I am not suggesting that we stifle the industry with more government rules thereby imposing onerous bureaucratic procedures on businesses that are struggling in these times. But its current 'hands-off' approach is surely too optimistic of human nature.

Might Singapore be waiting for its next Enron, or Satyam or, worse, its Bernard Madoff to make MAS' Communications Director's words come back to haunt her? We have had Leeson-Barings under our belt, but we certainly don't need another.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Health of my Pocket

Great news! 4,500 jobs to be created in the Healthcare sector within the next 2 years. This will surely come as good news to people who are facing retrenchments, or already have been retrenched. I think many Singaporeans have come around to the inevitable - the inevitability that jobs will be lost, but jobs elsewhere will be created, that to remain employed and employable, we just have to change by acquiring new skills.

Except, you wonder what vacancies these 4,500 are supposed to fill in the Healthcare sector? And if the Healthcare sector was missing 4,500 admin and ancillary staff up till now, you wonder how Singapore has gained a good reputation for the efficiency of its healthcare services so far? Or are we padding our hospitals and other healthcare establishments such as Polyclinics? Well, yes, there will be a new Hospital, the Khoo Teck Phuat Hospital come 2010, so recruiting and training people in the next two years makes sense. But does it require 4,500 administrative and ancillary staff to run the hospital? And the long waits at government Polyclinics, a bug-bear for many years, are hardly caused by a lack of administrative staff, it more like not enough doctors.

If these staff are not absolutely necessary, I hope they do not add to the already high cost of medicine in Singapore. Already, means testing has started, and I fear for people in the middle-income bracket ending up paying for these government pump-priming activities. Almost every commercial firms are looking at cutting cost nowadays with not a few deciding that they could do with less staff. While government activity will help to fill these gaps in the employment market, I hope that when better times come around, healthcare cost will not go up because "operational costs have gone up..."

Image: morgueFile.com. Author: Clara Natoli

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Balanced Sight

I must congratulate the Singapore Government, and especially the Singapore Malay leaders, in the courageous and sensible stance they are taking over the Israel-Gaza conflict. People the world over, it appears, are up in arms over Israel's disproportionate response to the rockets that have been lobbed into its soil, and continues to do so.

Well, in the first place, there is no such thing as disproportionate response in war. You mean a person fires two rockets at you and you are only entitled to respond with 2 rockets? Well of course not, you say. But then, where do you draw the line? 4 rockets for 2? or 6 rockets? The argument of proportionality simply breaks down in war, where the ultimate objective is the achievement of specific targets - in this case, Israel wants these rockets fired by the Hamas to stop. But the rockets have not stopped, so Israel continues to wage war on the Hamas in Gaza.

But back to our Singapore government. Its stand is the most practical, from an outsider's point of view. We do not get the bombs and rockets on our soil. Those in Southern Israel and Gaza do. So if we sided one over the other, we are expressing a preference that proportionately more rockets land on one side over another. That is what protesters the world over are suggesting whether they are pro-Israel or pro-Hamas. Rather, Singapore is urging for a ceasefire and for both sides and for both to go to the negotiating table as soon as possible. This is probably the most acceptable way, now that the world wants to care about it, to solve the problem now, if not long-term.

Going out on the streets to stage protests and demos may look good, but it does no good for anyone. Boycotting other's products, like what one former leader north of Singapore is mindlessly suggesting, deprives the Jews, Christians, Muslims, and everyone else affected, their honest and decent livelihood, especially in these depressed times.

The best thing to do is to pray for the conflict to end.

Image: morgueFile.com. Author: Michael Connors

Friday, January 09, 2009

Genocide in our midst

Some Singapore businessmen, they are a bunch of crooks. You don't really have to look for them in Copenhagen, where an erstwhile gangster lives in comfort and respectability, among crooks, i.e., until he was brought down by one of his collaborators recently. Heaven does not have eyes, they say, for this man is still alive and will probably recover.

In Singapore, crooked businessmen are depriving the foreign workers they bring in to work on their projects their just dues - their salary - and worst, in crunch times, as at present, they abandon them to their own devices. These poor souls cannot find alternative employment, and thus cannot feed themselves. They can't go home either because they don't have the money, and worst, their passports are with the crooked employers. The law should come down hard on these employers, whose only interest is in themselves. It is ok if you bring in trucks and machineries, and once un-needed, you dump them in a yard and let them rust and rot. You cannot treat human beings like that, however. But obviously, many foreign workers among us are being treated exactly like that.

Unless our Manpower Ministry takes a proactive approach, this sorry state of affairs will continue to happen. Bodies representing employers wrote to the press after the press brought the plight of these workers to the public's attention. Otherwise, who knows what the end of these people will be. And when the public does come to know about it, the disgust will be so severe that we cannot but hide in a hole, any hole, and be ashamed to call ourselves Singaporeans because educated, civilised and entrepreneurial Singaporeans that we supposedly are, are practicing human genocide, right in our very own backyard. Is the genocide word too strong? Looking at the situation right now, it just about describes the heinous way in which we treat people who build our houses and our roads.

We should hang our heads in shame.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Old and the New

The New Year in Singapore brings something good and something not so good, depending on who you are. First the good news (why must the bad always come first?).

The ban on smoking has now been extended to cover all multi-storey and basement car parks. Why couldn't they include open air car parks too? After all, trees in open air car parks need carbon dioxide, not carbon monoxide. Help save the tree, dammit! But then again, we don't want smokers to have to rent a boat out to sea to smoke, right? Let's remain compassionate. Anyway, they can't smoke in non-aircon public buildings either (that's what the authorities mean when they state Shopping Centres, right?). Lift lobbies, markets, playgrounds and exercise areas (which I take to include all path for walking and running (hey, walking is a form of exercise too) are included too. And oh, anywhere within 5 metres of the entrances and exits of buildings are no-no-land. I suppose that means that you can lean on or hug the walls of these buildings and smoke away happily. This extension of the banned areas is good news for non-smokers, bad for smokers. Now will they stop smoking? No, they'd rather go onto the roads 5 metres away from the buildings and add vehicle exhaust fumes to their cigs smoke. That will mean more will contract lung cancer and whatever other ailments related to pumping smoke into your lungs on a regular basis. Certainly bad news for smokers, which leads to the bad bad news below.

The bad news? The government is going to charge more for B and C class wards in its Hospitals. That's what means testing leads to, generally - unless you are dead broke. Between the two - being dead broke and having the means, the choice is clear - be broke, but don't let anyone find out that you are broke in name only. Like someone who moved millions to dollars to HK SAR and went to jail for it. Singapore's laws are just as tough, if not more so.

So the upshot is, if you smoke, don't be rich. Otherwise, you'll have to pay through your nose, pun not intended.

Otherwise, have a Happy New Year.

Image: morgueFile.com. Author: Pedro Jose Perez