Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Unhappy in Singapore

Much has been made about Singapore being a place with many unhappy people. I overhead some Singaporeans talking about it, and came to realise that there are indeed many things that Singaporeans are not happy about. And these are not new. They have been there, festering as it were, and the powers that be thus far can only suggest that Singaporeans talk about it, perhaps even talk its way out of its unhappiness. Someone pointed out that the sexual and financial shenanigans may even be symptomatic of the underlying stress and unhappiness that Singaporean's in general feel. They may be right. Money and sex often go together, and even if they don't, each is able to raise the emotions a couple of notches in the direction of delirium, at least for a moment. Then you need to go back for more...

But seriously, there is a lot to be unhappy about in Singapore. For motorists, it is the sky high Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which is priced around $80,000 - $90,000 now. People whose current car entitlements are nearing 10 years fret about the prospect of spending $130,000 for a car which they got for $40,000 (with COE) the last time. That's exacerbated by noticing that their richer neighbours own 2 or even 3 cars. No wonder we can never earn enough on this island. Is it any wonder that making money is the top priority over having children? How can anybody be happy chasing after an elusive car?

Then there is the perennial concern of parents over their children's education, in ensuring that they ace their exams so that they gain admission to prestigious schools. How can anyone be happy over the stress of the competitive educational environment?

And then there is the public transport squeeze, which hasn't abated much, with trains continuing to break down at a stretch. How to be happy when you suffer from claustrophobia every day you go to work in a bus or train?

And then there is the perception that while rich foreigners who prefer PR status are lapping it up both sides of the Causeway in perks, entitlements and loopholes, Singaporeans live with so much restrictions each side of the Causeway. You begin to wonder if Singapore citizenship is a hobble than a privilege. The thought that you have to squat 2 years in uniform doesn't help to assuage the discontent with rich foreigners who get PR at a drop of the hat. How to be happy when you thought that you were the privilege ones because you are citizens?

And then there is the continued high cost of living. Though inflation has abated somewhat, it is still above 3%. That is 3% too much already for Singaporeans whose pay has stagnated or will soon stagnate going into the new year. How to be happy when your money keeps shrinking?

And who can forget that public housing is now virtually out of reach of a couple starting life together in their twenties. Hold on, nobody gets married in their 20s anymore. If you can't afford to buy public housing, you don't want to get married. And when you do get married when a house is affordable (because you earn more and not because the housing prices have fallen), you would have missed the period where you can have children, which may or may not be a good thing. The upshot? Nobody is happy.

There is really no good news going into the last mile of 2012. Singaporeans are probably expecting more of the same next year.

How to be happy like that?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Unhappy Riches

It is sad that Singaporeans don't feel happy. According to a recent Gallup Poll, not only are Singaporeans emotionless, they feel less positive compared to people in countries where war is, or at least recently has been, the norm.

Actually, it is not difficult to understand this result. Singapore is a goal-oriented high performing country with an almost religious bent on efficiency, in terms of the economy, education, healthcare, finance, infrastructure, and whatever else it feels it must be first in, which just about includes everything. We have been brought up with a siege mentality - either we make the island succeed as a nation or we are consigned to the dustbin of history, easily absorbed by our neighbours, Malaysia or Indonesia. If this were to happen, we would be consigned to the backwaters, controlled by others where discrimination is the constant monotonous tune.

No, we don't want that, and therefore, we strived hard and succeeded. But success breeds success, and soon, we find ourselves condemned to a life of ever striving after the best. There is just no going back. Yes, we became rich, materially, but something had to give. And what gave was a simpler lifestyle where people and not money, matters more, where the simple things of life will suffice on the happiness index.

But it is not really our fault. As they say, we are victims of our circumstances. Perhaps now that we know how miserable we are compared to the rest of the world, we can engineer a lot more happiness and emotions among ourselves. It is ironic that we have to do this because we thought that our strivings for a better life will give us happiness, but it turned out to have the opposite effect. Is happiness and economic growth inversely related? Maybe someone economist or sociologist somewhere at sometime studied this and has the answer. In characteristic fashion, we need to study this carefully so that we can tune the system to yield more happiness though not at the expense of economic growth and efficiency.

Given Singapore's track record, I have no doubt that this can be done. Then we can share the formula with the Gallup organization.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

By-election effect

A by-election afoot again! And the cause of it? Sex. Singapore is beginning to look like a sleazy place for people in high err, places.

Mr Michael Palmer, erstwhile MP for Punggol East, has suddenly and unexpectedly resigned both his Parliamentary seat and his membership of the PAP. What triggered this is a reportedly illicit sexual affair he was having with a female (what else) member of the Pasir-Punggol GRC office. The end came about as swiftly as it was sudden. The talk on the streets, of course, is when, and not if, the by-election will be held. I say when because of the hooha over a similar incident at Hougang not too long ago. The drama then was that a citizen sued the PM for his ambiguous stance on the need for a by-election. It was eventually held, with the Workers Party retaining its seat in Parliament. Since there is a precedent, it will be very difficult for the government to deny the people of Punggol East of proper representation.

What's that again? The government has more important things to take care of? National issues and the budget next year? The same old excuse. Surely they can be more original and not treat its citizens like children. There will ALWAYS be national issues to handle, and the budget is an annual affair. I assume that the process is already in place that it does not require resources that is not already deployed for this purpose? So this reason, really, cuts no ice. A simple reply, that the government will consider a by-election, without going into details, would have sufficed. I wonder why, with the benefit of hindsight and the experience gained not too long ago, that they are repeating the same misstep in its stance and communications with the people of Singapore?

Which of the Opposition Parties will throw their hats in the ring? Will more than one contest the ward, split the vote and hand the ward back to the ruling PAP? When will the by-election be held? After Chinese New Year? After the Budget announcement, which may have a sweetening effect? The country waits with bated breadth.

Friday, December 07, 2012

A raw deal

Goodness gracious me, did I hear wrongly or is it just a nightmare? According to reports, the Transport Minister appears to be blaming, albeit indirectly, the long-suffering public transport commuting public of being responsible for the unhappiness of the China bus drivers, and eventually their strike action. Oh no, its not the management of SMRT, you see. They are just trying to run a bus and train company, like any other profit making entity. They need to minimise cost and thereby increase profit. And it is not the innocent shareholders of the public-listed SMRT. They just want SMRT to make money so that they get their money for their money. And it is certainly not the government. See how they have virtually given away S$1 billion of taxpayers money to the public transport operators, of which SMRT is one of them, because these operators probably claim they cannot afford to buy their buses, never mind that they report profits every year. Yep, there is no better business than public transport in Singapore. The authorities have made owning a car so exorbitantly expensive that folks like you and I have no choice but to give over part of our pay to these companies every day. And now we learn that they have been squeezing every last cent out of its drivers, especially from those long-suffering China drivers. After all, isn't it the responsible thing for a listed company to do? Maximise profit? CSR? Yah, that's what you do AFTER the profits roll in.

It would appear that the management of SMRT can sit around twiddling their thumbs and whatever else they can touch in ecstasy as they look at the cash rolling in every second, from the commuters, from the government, and from its own employees. We'll just call this reverse cash flow. But the flow ends up with the company. Heck there is no real need to think. And that's when we now get trains and tracks malfunctioning for extended periods of time, with buses and trains overflowing with people. I can just hear the curses under everyone's breadth. The commuters who are just trying to get to work, or home. The transport operators' management, for having their mid-afternoon breaks interrupted rudely.

Its all the common folk's fault, you see. They just don't pay enough for their bus and train trips. When we trace the problem to its root, it is we, the common folks, who are the bloodsuckers, and the cause of all the transport problems we have been having. That's why they are looking to raising the bus and train fares, and not cutting the big fat bonuses of the kopi-drinking senior management. Yep, there is one who broke the management, took the money and has now fled the coop. And who allowed this to happen?

So, if I follow the logic correctly, we eventually have to pony up more cash from own pockets to pay for increasing the salary of its bus drivers, which by the way is shrinking as inflation stays at 4-5%. This whole thing is now so convoluted that I cannot believe this is the Singapore I grew up in. How did we arrive at this situation, anyway? And we are paying millions more to people who are suppose to protect the people's interest?

Give me a saw so that I can sink my teeth into it. It is probably more bearable than witnessing the farce taking place in front of me.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A whistle stop

A police whistle hung on the wall in my boyhood house in the Naval Base. It was made of brass, so it wasn't a toy. I didn't think much more about it, until years later, after the family had moved away, my mother reminisced about those days. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot of labour unrest. Workers were going on strike. This also happened in the Naval Base. These agitators came by our house to persuade my father to join their cause, to strike. My father was steadfast in his refusal to make common cause with them. I learnt that they subsequent threatened my father and the family with harm if he continued to hold out. So any time these rabble-rousers came by again, my father would just blow the police whistle in an effort to summon the authorities. I am not certain if the police were responsive then, but I understand that it had the effect of scaring these bunch of people away. That whistle was still hanging off the wall in the late 1960s into the early 1970s, when labour unrest had subsided significantly.

So I can sympathize with the small number of SMRT's Chinese bus drivers who were reportedly forced to go on strike recently. They could possibly have been faced with harm if they had not gone along with those who initiated the strike action. To its credit, the government took the effort to investigate and separate the perpetrators from the willing and those others who were forced. One should not, to use a Chinese saying, apply the same brush to one and all.

When something works, although not to perfection, you think nothing of it. But when your daily work and routine is threatened, that's when I can understand why people are calling for the heads of all the Chinese bus drivers. I think this labour unrest was handled in an even-handed, deliberate and wise manner. Due process was followed to determine the facts of the case, and action taking accordingly. At no time did the situation get out of control. Otherwise, many commuters' lives would have been seriously disrupted. And I am glad that both the workers and the employer were taken to task. If one was favoured over the other party, this episode would have been left to fester, and the symbolic whistle would still have to be left hanging on the wall. But I suppose, given the paranoia this latest episode of industrial action has created, that whistle must  be readily available when called upon.