Monday 31 December 2012

How to be happy: Tommy Koh

Polls show Singaporeans are a dissatisfied lot. So here are 10 rules to help them lead happier lives
By Tommy Koh, Published The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

The results of the recent Gallup poll, as well as other surveys, seem to indicate that Singaporeans are an unhappy people. This surprises me because, objectively, we should be a happy people. I consider myself a happy person. I would therefore like to share with my fellow Singaporeans 10 rules which may help to make them a more happy people.


Be a positive, optimistic and kind person. Whether you are a happy or unhappy person depends largely on yourself. Negative and pessimistic people are generally unhappy people. Be kind to others. Kindness begets kindness. Try to do a good deed every day. You will find that by brightening the lives of others, you will brighten your own life.


Have a happy family. Be good to your parents. If they are elderly and living by themselves, try to visit them at least once a week and share a weekly meal with them. One of the problems encountered by our older folks is loneliness.

Be on excellent terms with your spouse. Whenever I am asked to speak at wedding dinners, I always advise the groom to do three things: Be faithful to his wife, treat her as if they were still courting and give her all his money. The last advice does not apply in cases where the wife is a spender and not a saver.

As for how to behave towards one's children, I have always liked the advice given by Kahlil Gibran: "And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts."

If you are lucky enough to have grandchildren, love them with all your heart.

Moving from value to values

Singapore is seeing a subtle shift from an almost exclusive focus on economics to softer social values
By Willie Cheng, Published The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

WHICH subject most engaged Singaporeans in 2012?

Typical answers to such a question could range from the sex scandals to happiness and other topics in Our Singapore Conversation.

I would suggest that underlying the keen discussions on many of these topics is a subtle change, perhaps the beginnings of a tectonic shift, in our value system.

From value to values

CERTAINLY, there is a palpable move from an almost exclusive focus on (hard economic) value to (softer social) values.

In a previous article, I argued that we, as a nation and a society, had been driven largely by economic imperatives. In the words of Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, who made this observation of many developed countries: "We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society, (where) everything is up for sale and where market values govern every sphere of life."

And the consequences of our market society have been increasing inequality and the devaluation of social values.

However, there has been pushback against widespread marketisation and its effects, particularly in this last year. For example, there were calls for a national happiness index, not just gross domestic product, as a measure of progress. Educational reforms to remove school banding and reduce PSLE stress and other forms of excessive competition (competition being a core market-based trait) also began in earnest.

One reason for this pushback may be the result of the significant economic progress we have made. In Abraham Maslow's theory of human motivation, people naturally first seek to fulfil their basic physiological needs, then quickly progress to fulfil higher-order needs such as aesthetic needs and self-actualisation.

As a country, we have largely met our basic economic needs. Most of us have our stomachs filled and a roof over our heads. And in looking over the horizon, some citizens find that there are good role models such as the Nordic economies where there are equitable distribution of income, work-life balance, and sustainable development.

The dirty truth about Singapore

Singaporeans' poor social graces a result of a weak sense of community
By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 30 Dec 2012

I couldn't find any public dustbins in Taipei where I was visiting about a week ago.

The city was clean and as well kept as any I have seen elsewhere.

But nobody throws rubbish here? What happens if you've a piece of tissue paper you want to get rid of?

Leave it in the pocket?

That's what the Taiwanese do, said my guide. They dispose of it when they get home so they can separate what can be recycled from the rest.

That's really impressive, I thought, especially considering how difficult it is to get Singaporeans to recycle their waste, let alone carry it home with them.

I had to remind myself I was in Taipei, not Tokyo where you expect the Japanese to be ultra civic-minded.

It was one of several surprises about Taipei and its people, which overturned my previous preconceptions about the place.

Truth is I didn't know very much about Taiwan, not having visited for more than 20 years - I was last there on a brief news assignment.

Much of what I knew came from reading the papers and watching the news on television, and it was mostly negative - the unruly politics, fist fights in Parliament, and headline-grabbing melodramatic elections (remember the mysterious shooting of then President Chen Shui-bian a day before the 2004 presidential election?).

There were other revelations from my visit.

Finding the Words to Say Goodbye

By Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, 30 Dec 2012

MY father spoke to his college roommate every day for 50 years. Though the two lived in different states, 800 miles apart, they were business partners, sounding boards and friends. Then one day my father called and his friend wasn’t there. He had died the night before of a terminal illness, which he had never told my father about. The two never said goodbye.

I was reminded of this episode last summer when Nora Ephron, the famed raconteur, director and (by all accounts) friend, died after keeping her terminal illness private from nearly everyone she knew. Meryl Streep captured the frustration of many.

“We’ve been ambushed,” she said at Ms. Ephron’s memorial service. “It’s really stupid to be mad at somebody who dies, but somehow I’ve managed it.” Frank Rich added in New York magazine, “Some of us — and that would include me — were pissed off at first.”

Afterwards I called my dad. He wasn’t upset with his friend, he said. Final conversations are difficult. The following day he sent me a poignant, one-sentence e-mail, “What do you say after you say goodbye?”

I’ve wondered about that question ever since. What is the best thinking about how to make farewell conversations less stressful and more meaningful?

Sunday 30 December 2012

2013: A new consensus

The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

IF THE year 2012 could be characterised by a single symbol, it would be an exclamation mark.

From a string of sex scandals to the first strike in 26 years, there seemed to be no end to the number of surprises being sprung on the population.

In contrast, 2013 would probably be characterised by a big question mark.

Next year could see a host of questions asked and answered, as the Government tries to consolidate its position after a year of surprises, and rebuild cohesion among an increasingly divided populace.

For a start, the national conversation will be wrapping up - hopefully, with answers to the question about what kind of future Singaporeans want to see for their country.

Its organisers have set out three main themes - Hope, Heart and Home - that could very well undergird the Government's plans for 2013.

In meeting aspirations (hope), it will attempt to chart a new direction for Singapore that includes a more inclusive society (heart) and an increased sense of belonging for citizens (home).

Will the Government be able to achieve this?

Tan Chuan-Jin to focus on productivity, labour ties

By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

STRENGTHENING industrial relations and increasing productivity will be among key areas to improve on in 2013 - a year "likely to be challenging", said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

He said 2012 was "a reasonably decent year" with real median income growing nearly 1 per cent, citizen unemployment staying low and improved laws to protect foreign workers.

Yet there is room for improvement in areas such as workplace safety, labour relations and looking after vulnerable workers.

For instance, tripartite partners "will have to work even harder to strengthen industrial relations", he said, adding that last month's bus drivers' strike "underscored this important lesson".

In a post on the ministry's blog, he said 2013 includes such "sobering realities" as low projected economic growth of 1 to 3 per cent for Singapore, and "painful" economic restructuring.

But the latter process is essential for sustainable growth, he added. Productivity-led growth - not growth fuelled by adding more workers - is what will create higher-value jobs with higher wages.

The Government will continue supporting firms' efforts to innovate, through schemes such as the Inclusive Growth Programme. It will also "look at doing more" in job-matching, said Mr Tan.

Workers can also tap the Workfare Training Support Scheme, which gives incentives for training. The amount given out is being reviewed to ensure that it provides "adequate encouragement".

The eligibility criteria for that and the Workfare Income Supplement Scheme - which tops up the income of low-wage workers - are also under review, with the outcome to be announced early next year, said Mr Tan.

The ministry has much more on its plate for 2013, such as the review of Singapore's main labour law. Mr Tan ended his post with a reminder that the Government is not the only factor.

Tight foreign worker policy 'could stifle growth': Singapore Business Federation

Business federation wants labour rules calibrated in targeted approach
By Jonathan Kwok, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

SINGAPORE'S largest business grouping yesterday sounded its loudest alarm yet over the Government's tighter labour policies.

The Singapore Business Federation (SBF), representing more than 18,000 firms, warned that the foreign worker policy could stifle economic growth, drive some businesses to the wall and others overseas.

It said the Government's goal of higher productivity could not compensate for labour shortages in the short term.

The SBF also warned that the official 2 per cent to 3 per cent a year productivity growth target may not be achievable in a developed nation such as Singapore.

The Government has progressively imposed tougher restrictions on foreign worker numbers and urged firms to focus on productivity.

"Given the shortage of local workforce, foreign manpower is integral to the workforce," SBF said. "Singapore should continue to keep its door open to them. This approach will enable the Singapore economy to remain competitive and dynamic to fuel higher standards of living for all Singaporeans."

It said the "foreign manpower policy should be calibrated in a targeted approach".

The Government has acknowledged the tight labour market.

In a blog post yesterday, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said that overall, the labour market will continue to remain tight, if not become tighter, next year. "The pressure on businesses to expand through product innovation and making their workforce more productive will be more intense," he said.

The SBF held a briefing to present its wide-ranging position paper on population issues. It had been invited to give its views by the Government's National Population and Talent Division (NPTD).

Foreign workers and ageing citizens in the spotlight

The year 2012 was an eventful one for the political arena, and next year promises more of the same. But what kind of politics can Singapore expect to see in the year ahead? Dr Reuben Wong, Dr Chua Hak Bin and Shaikh Syed Isa Semait discuss with Andrea Ong the defining issues of 2012 and how Singapore can move forward in 2013. Dr Wong is a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, Dr Chua is an economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Shaikh Syed Isa is the former mufti of Singapore and the vice-president of the Inter-Religious Organisation.
The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012
What do you think were the issues that defined 2012?
Dr Reuben Wong: Nimby (not in my backyard). It's defining because we are on the cusp of having a very large proportion of aged people in Singapore and yet we are not very well prepared. We are preparing the infrastructure, but socially and attitudinally, Singaporeans are not prepared.

One in three Singaporeans will be at least 65 by 2030. That's only 17 years away.

Our whole population make-up and infrastructure, everything has to change. We need eldercare facilities in the neighbourhood, not some far-off place. If one in three of the population is elderly, you shouldn't be making him take a taxi halfway across town.

Dr Chua Hak Bin: The theme of this year seems to be restructuring - the deliberate and calibrated shift towards a less labour-dependent and higher-quality growth model. That's been the ongoing experiment, but it has come with mixed results.

Ideally, the hope was that the shift would drive productivity growth and inflation would not result.

On the good side, core inflation is contained somewhat, wages are rising for the low-income group and the labour market remains fairly tight.

On the more disappointing side, growth has been somewhat lacklustre, with the risk of a technical recession a very likely reality. Productivity growth has been somewhat elusive.

All those efforts and initiatives, budget incentives and so on, but the results are clearly not visible.

Foreign worker policies through lens of economics

Problems posed by large number of foreign workers in Singapore require not just the right incentives but also right norms and institutions
By Donald Low and Rachel Hui, Published The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

THE recent strike by a group of bus drivers from China at public transport operator SMRT has polarised public opinion in Singapore.

On one side, civil society groups have framed the issue as one of human rights and morality. They have decried the uneven distribution of power between corporations and workers, the unfair wages paid to foreign workers, and the poor conditions they labour under.

On the other side, the Government has emphasised the illegality of the drivers' actions, the availability of legitimate channels for workers to voice their grievances, and the country's "zero tolerance" of acts which disrupt industrial harmony.

What seems to be missing from the debate is an economist's perspective. There has not been a wider discussion of the economic rationale and implications of the Government's foreign worker policies.

Analysing Singapore's foreign worker policies through the lens of economics leads to some surprising conclusions which suggest that neither the position taken by the civil society groups nor the current government approach is viable on its own.

A good place to begin our economic analysis is to ask whether foreign workers are properly priced. Foreign workers are prepared to work for lower wages than Singaporeans doing the same job. Allowing low-skilled foreign labour unfettered access to Singapore would therefore depress wages in those sectors that are more dependent on foreign labour.

A tempting, but economically flawed solution, is to require employers to pay differential wages so that a Singaporean worker earns more than the foreigner doing the same job. But somewhat counter-intuitively, this does not serve the interests of Singaporeans. If Singaporeans are paid more than foreign workers who are equally productive, what incentive would employers have to hire the Singaporean worker?

The argument that Singaporeans should be paid more because they have more needs or face higher costs is also misguided. Wages should reflect the marginal productivity of the worker, not his needs. If wages are based on needs, workers would be justified in demanding a wage increase from their employer for having more children.

Iskandar: Boon or bane for Singapore real estate?

by Tan Chin Keong, Published TODAY, 28 Dec 2012

Iskandar Malaysia was launched in November 2006 with the aim of developing the southern Johor region into a strong and sustainable metropolis of international standing.

With a total area of 2,217 sq km, the region will have five flagship zones including the Johor Baru City Centre, Nusajaya and Senai-Skudai, and will incorporate work, live and play elements. A number of key projects have been planned to attract investments into Iskandar, and some have been successfully completed, such as the Johor Premium Outlet and LegoLand.

According to recent reports, as of last September, Iskandar had recorded nearly RM100 billion (S$40 billion) in investments, about 40 per cent of which came from foreign sources.

A number of Singaporean companies such as Ascendas and Raffles Education, and even Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, have invested in Iskandar-related projects -proof that it is gaining momentum and critical mass.

Given Iskandar's rising prominence and proximity to Singapore, one cannot help but wonder what impact it may have on the property market here.

Industrial real estate to get hit

In my view, the impact will be felt most keenly in the industrial property sector.

Due to the recent shift in government policy, Singapore's immigration and foreign worker rules have been tightened, resulting in rising wage costs, especially for labour-intensive industries such as manufacturing and construction.

PAP, WP in war of words over IT firm

Both sides hit back in dispute over contract for opposition town council
By Goh Chin Lian and Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

AN ARGUMENT over the termination of an IT contract for an opposition-run town council continued yesterday, with officials from the People's Action Party (PAP) and Workers' Party (WP) exchanging more accusations over the issue.

The coordinating chairman of PAP-run town councils, Dr Teo Ho Pin, took Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) chairman Sylvia Lim to task, asking why the council had "suppressed" the fact that it had wanted to develop its own software even before the IT firm, Action Information Management (AIM), ended the contract last year.

The town council had told AIM that it wanted to do this on June 10 last year, he said. "Thereafter the contract was terminated with mutual agreement on Sept 9, 2011, after two extensions had been given at AHTC's request. AHTC thanked AIM for the extensions."

Ms Lim, however, said that in June, the town council was "acutely aware" of the possible termination by the PAP-owned firm. AIM yesterday released an exchange of letters between the town council and the firm leading to the termination.

The controversy had arisen earlier this month when a town council management review gave AHTC the lowest banding for arrears management and did not rate its corporate governance, as its auditor's management letter had not been submitted in time.

Stand Up for Our Singapore This Christmas!

Spreading Some Cheer - Stand Up For Our Singapore - Christmas 2012 from Big Red Button on Vimeo.

Saturday 29 December 2012

Silver Housing Bonus and Lease Buyback schemes enhanced

More cash for elderly downsizing flat or selling lease
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

ELDERLY Singaporeans can now get as much as $100,000 in cash, plus up to $20,000 in cash bonuses, if they downgrade to a smaller home or sell the tail end of their Housing Board (HDB) flat lease back to the Government.

The hope is that these payouts will entice more low-income flat owners here to unlock the value of their homes in old age and be better funded for retirement.

Both schemes are targeted at the lower-income elderly, whom some commentators have termed "asset-rich, cash-poor".

Often, they own the flats they live in, but lack family and financial support, and need more cash to cope with daily expenses.

The Silver Housing Bonus is a new scheme announced in February. It aims to give a $20,000 bonus to elderly home owners who may no longer need a large flat, and choose to downsize.

However, before the scheme was even implemented, it was met with scepticism because rules dictated that to get the bonus, the net proceeds unlocked from the sale of a flat had to be used to top up the CPF Retirement Accounts of flat owners.

Because the top-up had to be sufficient to cover the CPF prevailing Minimum Sum, which currently amounts to $139,000 per person, or about $278,000 per couple, most flat owners would receive very little cash from the downsizing exercise. This, in turn, meant that the "Silver Bonus" of $20,000 was not a strong enough draw, said critics.

MND said yesterday that after receiving public feedback, it had decided that flat owners should need to top up only $60,000 into their Retirement Accounts per household, and be able to keep the next $100,000 of the net proceeds from the flat sale.

Any proceeds in excess of $160,000 will be used to top up CPF Retirement Accounts.

CPF Housing Grant

Retirees are buying already-subsidised new flat

MR CHANG Fook Keong wrote that he was denied a housing grant as he and his wife are retirees, in his letter ("Denied housing grant - Reason given: We are retirees, first-timers claim"; Dec 18).

Mr and Mrs Chang are the owners of a five-room HDB flat in Depot Road, which has been fully paid up. They applied for a new five-room flat in Bukit Merah under HDB's September 2012 Sale of Balance Flats exercise. They are eligible to buy a subsidised flat from HDB; their eligibility is not affected by their retiree status.

However, whether they will be able to book a flat will depend on their balloted queue position, just like all other flat applicants.

If they are successful, they will enjoy a government subsidy that is implicit in the pricing for all new flats, as the prices are well below the market prices of comparable resale flats in the vicinity.

The CPF Housing Grant, which is meant for the purchase of a resale flat in the open market, is not applicable for the purchase of a flat from HDB, as flats sold by HDB directly are already at subsidised prices.

Loh Swee Heng
Director (Sales)
Housing & Development Board
ST Forum, 28 Dec 2012

Major review to keep health care affordable

Govt's share of patient bills likely to be larger to help S'poreans cope: Gan
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

THE Ministry of Health (MOH) is embarking on a major review next year to ensure that public health care remains accessible and affordable to Singaporeans.

A likely outcome of the review is that the Government will take on a larger share of patient bills, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told The Straits Times.

Currently, these bills are paid for through a combination of government subsidies, risk pooling through insurance and individual savings.

The Government may need to re-examine the balance among the three because Singapore's demographic is changing, and the current system may not be robust enough to ensure that everyone has access to basic health care in the future, said Mr Gan.

The Government announced plans early this year to double yearly health-care spending from $4 billion to $8 billion over the next five years.

They include increasing the number of beds in acute public hospitals by 30 per cent and more than doubling beds in community hospitals by 2020.

Public health care in Singapore is subsidised to various degrees depending on the class of stay and treatment in hospitals and polyclinics.

Patient bills are then paid for by what is known as "the 3Ms": compulsory Medisave savings, MediShield insurance and Medifund subsidies for the poor.

Ease Jakarta's jams? The odds are poor

By John Mcbeth, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

WILDLY popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, known to his legions of fans as Jokowi, may have finally spoiled his copy book by moving to phase out the three-in-one traffic system that has allowed foreign residents and upper-crust residents alike to socialise with so many interesting, less privileged Jakartans.

Introduced in the early 1990s in a bid to reduce traffic snarls, the three-in-one regulation banned cars with fewer than three occupants from using several main downtown avenues during morning and evening rush hours.

In doing so, it spawned a whole new industry in which so-called "jockeys" - mostly people from adjoining low-income neighbourhoods - hire themselves out, for about 15,000 rupiah (S$1.90), to get around the restriction.

Mr Widodo wants to change all that, replacing the three-in- one with odd-even licence plate controls along routes used by the Transjakarta Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and over an expanded period - between 6am and 8pm on weekdays.

The plan is to restrict vehicles on certain streets on alternate days depending on whether their licence plates end in odd or even numbers. City managers hope it will eventually serve as a transition to electronic road pricing (ERP) - a giant step for Indonesian mankind that Mr Widodo hopes to preface with improvements to the BRT and inner-city railway services.

But is the odd-even licence plate system a good idea? Most traffic experts do not think so. They see it as what one called "shock therapy" - an effective expedient to show short-term results and pump up popularity.

Li Jiawei retires

Hard for Li to say goodbye
Former world table tennis champion retires after struggling with knee injury, may take on STTA role in future
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

SHE has displayed nerves of steel against some of the world's best players. But as Li Jiawei yesterday called time on her illustrious table tennis career that included two Olympic medals and a world title, she struggled to fight back the tears.

"I've been in Singapore for 18 years," the 31-year-old said at the Singapore Table Tennis Association's (STTA) headquarters in Toa Payoh as she announced the decision to hang up her bat for good.

"It's impossible to describe my feelings now in just one or two sentences."

It is not hard to understand why, since her link to her adopted country goes beyond simply sharing the same birthday - Aug 9.

Li has spent more time here in Singapore than in China, her country of birth.

It was here where she matured from a doe-eyed 13-year-old to Olympic medallist and world champion.

It was also in Singapore where she became the face of table tennis for close to a decade.

Her near misses in the bronze medal play-off at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics gripped a nation.

Dump illegal substances into sewers? Sensors will smell a rat

Devices placed near factories help PUB protect S'pore's water network
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

COMPANIES that dump their waste chemicals into the sewage system will now be up against a smarter opponent.

National water agency PUB has installed a $2.5 million network of 40 sensors across the island to help it nab such offenders.

They can detect up to 400 chemicals and are sensitive enough to pick up highly diluted concentrations of the substances.

Previously, PUB officers had to check the sewers with hand-held devices to identify toxic compounds like solvents and paint.

The new sensors are placed at points in the sewers that serve large clusters of factories, such as those in Kranji and Jurong's industrial areas.

These include sectors which are heavily reliant on chemicals, such as pharmaceutical and food companies, and toxic industrial waste collectors.

Supermarkets to maintain rice prices

Three chains pledge to hold prices of house brands steady for now
By Jessica Lim, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

SUPERMARKETS here said yesterday that they will be maintaining the prices of their house-brand rice for now.

This move will bring relief to consumers worried by recent talk that rice-exporting nations might band together to raise prices.

NTUC FairPrice, the first supermarket chain to make the announcement yesterday, said it would maintain prices for all its 10 Thai and Vietnamese rice house brands until the end of March. It started freezing prices for its house-brand rice in November 2011, to allay consumer fears.

The Dairy Farm Group of supermarkets - Giant, Shop N Save and Cold Storage - told The Straits Times that they would also maintain the prices of 12 house brands of rice from Thailand, Vietnam, India and Pakistan until March.

Sheng Siong will be doing the same for its four house brands of rice until the end of June.

The announcements offer reassurance to consumers, following talk earlier in the year that South-east Asia's rice-exporting nations - Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar - would create a formal alliance to boost prices and export revenues.

The price of Thai fragrant rice, which importers say accounts for about 70 per cent of the market here, has rallied about 4 per cent this year compared with last year.

Friday 28 December 2012

Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review 2012

Families better off despite rise in prices, says report
Income snapshot shows wages rose and income gap narrowed last year
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2012

FAMILIES in Singapore were better off last year despite the rise in inflation, according to official figures.

Even the lower-income enjoyed greater spending power as wages rose amid a tight labour market.

At the same time, the income gap narrowed, due to government transfers to the needy and taxes on higher-income earners.

This income snapshot is part of a review of the nation's health, education, manpower, housing and other policy areas in the past two years.

Released yesterday, the Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review (SPOR) painted a generally positive picture of the desired outcomes it evaluated. One outcome is that income is growing and social security is strengthening.

After taking inflation into account, the real median monthly income per household member rose from $1,799 in 2010 to $1,848 last year. This means half of them earned more than $1,848. These sums are in 2009 dollars.

Earlier government figures, however, showed that the median monthly income per household member was $1,994 last year because inflation had not been taken into account.

This means real income rose by 2.7 per cent, as was reported earlier this year. The rise is seen in both middle- and lower-income households.

The real monthly income per household member at the 20th percentile - marking the bottom fifth - grew by 2.8 per cent a year from 2006 to last year.

Two factors pushed household incomes up, said the report.

2012: The year of values

A year of scandals excavates the fundamental notion that moral gravitas is needed for public leadership
By Asad Latif, Published The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2012

THERE is the story of a Singaporean academic who attended an overseas conference many years ago. A foreign colleague asked him, in all seriousness and without condescension, whether Singaporeans live on trees. "Yes," the academic replied without rancour, "and we use lifts to get up there."

High-rise Singapore, transplanted by the questioner who knows where, came out well in that repartee.

Not so, however, in another story of an international gathering where the host asked what the guests thought of having mutton for dinner. "Mutton? What is that?" asked a hungry visitor from an impoverished Latin American country. "Dinner? What is that?" inquired a famished participant from an even poorer country in Africa. "Think? What is that?" wondered the fat Singaporean.

The second story is a fiction, an urban legend cooked up most probably by a fat and clever Singaporean, but the first tale, I am told, is true.

Between them, these two stories capture an enduring caricature of Singaporeans - an economically prosperous but a politically primitive people who have relegated their powers of thinking to an authoritarian state imbued with almost mythical powers of coercion.

The motif that runs through this caricature is one of absence: the absence of self-generated and self-sustained social and political values needed to underpin the country's survival and success in the long term.

If the year that is passing proves anything, it is how laughable such snapshots of Singapore are nowadays.

COE system is working fine

THE certificate of entitlement (COE) is essentially a system of control - it is meant to make prices unreachable to certain segments of society ("Car buyers want COE system reviewed"; Tuesday).

People who buy several cars are not the ones responsible for road congestion.

These car owners have essentially paid for the COE to keep the cars they are not driving in their garage. This lowers the utilisation rate of the vehicles and thus the congestion they may cause.

The most effective way to clamp down on both the COE and car prices is to restrict the loan quantum.

Let people save for their cars instead of driving away in a new car without any payment. Slap a 20 per cent or even 50 per cent down payment requirement on buyers.

However, it should be noted that only high COE prices will push people towards using public transport, or opt for car-sharing.

The system is not broken. If cars were "affordable" and freely available to everyone, it would defeat the purpose.

And some people will sing a different tune when they get a car and find that the road is too congested.

Let us keep the COE system.

Jack Lin
ST Forum, 27 Dec 2012

Thursday 27 December 2012

Eight private estates selected for upgrading

By Monica Kotwani, Channel NewsAsia, 26 Dec 2012

The Ministry of National Development (MND) will spend about S$29 million over the next two years to upgrade and develop the infrastructure in private estates.

Eight private estates have been selected - Goldhill, Mayflower Gardens and Yio Chu Kang Gardens, Cashew and Hazel Park Terrace, Greenleaf, Bartley Neighbourhood, Carmichael, Haig Road, and Limau.

The Ministry said these are the older private estates which have a greater scope for improvement.

Works include landscaping, play and fitness equipment, park furniture and widening of footpaths.

More than 7,000 households in these estates are expected to benefit from the improved facilities when works are completed in three to four years.

Since 2000 when the Estate Upgrading Programme first started, MND has spent S$138 million benefiting more than 34,000 households in 46 private estates.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

ECs: Excessively cushy homes?

Should buyers of executive condominiums costing more than $1.5 million with luxurious facilities still receive government subsidies?
By Esther Teo, The Straits Times, 25 Dec 2012

EXECUTIVE condominiums (ECs) have been all the rage this year, hogging the headlines not only for robust sales but also fancy designs that rival private homes.

These public-private housing hybrids are pushing size and price boundaries, with large, luxurious units increasingly crossing the $1.5 million mark.

A 2,845 sq ft penthouse unit at Heron Bay in Upper Serangoon fetched an eye-popping $1.77 million in October.

Another 4,349 sq ft "presidential suite" at CityLife @ Tampines is expected to eclipse the $2 million mark when it is open for sale at the end of the month.

These large, pricey homes have raised eyebrows and led to a raging debate on whether buyers of such expensive ECs should be entitled to Housing Board (HDB) grants. These grants for first-time home buyers are tiered according to the buyer's household income, with some buyers eligible for up to $30,000.

But it is not only grants these EC buyers receive that are getting people up in arms.

Since there are restrictions on who can buy EC apartments, land for EC sites is tendered out by the Government for less money than they could otherwise fetch if the land was zoned for private residential development. In other words, there is an implied subsidy for land used to build EC units.

Buyers of larger EC units get a proportionately larger "subsidy", upsetting some Singaporeans' sense of justice.

To be sure, there are only a tiny number of such upscale units in EC developments. At the 514-unit CityLife, there is only one presidential suite and six skysuites.

But given the intent of the EC scheme, it's not surprising that the emergence of huge units costing over $1 million has drawn flak. Even National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has weighed in on the hot-button issue, reminding developers to keep to the "intent and spirit of the EC policy" in a recent blog post.

AIM vs AHTC: Computer firm says town council's claim "inaccurate"

By Tan Qiuyi, Channel NewsAsia, 24 Dec 2012

A disagreement between Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) and a company that used to provide its computer and financial systems continues.

In a letter to the media, Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM) said AHTC Chairman Sylvia Lim's allegation that a service extension with AIM had to be "fought for" was inaccurate.

AIM said two service extensions were granted - in August and September 2011 - before the contract lapsed.

AIM also said it would have agreed to a further extension if the AHTC had asked for it.

As AHTC did not do so, the contract was allowed to lapse.

Ms Lim had said they did not believe any further extension was forthcoming.

AIM Chairman S Chandra Das said the company's current directors, three former People's Action Party (PAP) MPs, namely himself, Chew Heng Ching, and Lau Ping Sum do not receive directors' fees or any other benefits.

In a separate letter, PAP Town Councils said its Town Councils Management System (TCMS) was sold to AIM through an open tender, and their contract was in accordance with the Town Councils' Financial Regulations.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

One woman's efforts to spread some cheer

42-year-old organises charity distributions of food, necessities
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2012

HOUSEWIFE Joanne Guo - who has six children, three of whom have special needs - received some welcome help yesterday in the form of a 100kg hamper filled with necessities.

Another 549 needy families also received similar hampers, thanks to the efforts of a one-woman charity force known as Madam Fion Phua.

The 42-year-old club membership broker has been driven to help those less fortunate for more than 20 years now.

Mrs Guo, 28, for example, lives in a two-room flat in Aljunied Crescent. Three of her children have cleft palates, including the youngest, just one year old, who was also born with a chronic intestinal disease.

Her husband had to leave his job as a caterer to help take care of the children, making it hard for the family to pay their medical bills. They rely on help from family, friends and neighbours.

Yesterday, the family got some respite as the necessities in the hamper, such as eggs, cereal, rice and cooking oil, are enough to tide over households for three to six months.

While the essentials were stored away in the kitchen, the children pored over other gifts, including drawing books and toys.

Madam Phua counts on friends and even strangers to donate items and help distribute them.

"I don't take cash. I prefer people to give items and take the time to visit the families. It really opens your eyes," she said.

Turning point for gun-toting America?

School massacre raises hopes of shift in public opinion towards gun control
By Tracy Quek, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012

Long-time gun enthusiasts Dennis Burgner and his wife, Elsa, own a collection of pistols, rifles and shotguns, which they use frequently at the shooting range, for hunting and competitive sport shooting.

They have never had to use a firearm in self-defence except in an incident about 20 years ago, said Mr Burgner, 46, chairman of the Marshfield Shooting Club board of directors in Missouri.

He told The Sunday Times: "I might have been stabbed but my wife pulled out her gun. She didn't have to fire it; just the sight of it defused the situation." He declined to give more details.

This personal experience and a lifetime of handling guns have convinced him that if the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, had been armed and properly trained, their attacker would not have shot and killed so many people.

Even as United States President Barack Obama announced his intention to push for new gun restrictions after the Dec 14 massacre of 20 children and seven adults, he is running into heavy resistance, much like all previous attempts to restrict gun ownership.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Singapore win AFF Suzuki Cup 2012

Online voices = vox populi?

Social media is a force to be reckoned with, but its users may not represent the voice of the majority
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2012

IT IS time for the silent majority to speak up.

For too long, a small but vocal group has appeared to dominate public debate in Singapore, making its judgments so strongly that it often shapes public opinion as fast as the public can form one.

Its members are quick to comment on significant events and often, they do reflect the sentiments held by at least some quarters of the populace.

But there are times when this group makes bold declarations that may not sit well with the majority. Or when it compels organisations and companies to pre-empt their judgments, or to respond to situations faster than they might prefer.

There are also times when it is quite intolerant of criticism and differences in opinion, occasionally responding with a vindictiveness that is akin to bullying.

All of which might be somewhat acceptable, if social media truly represents the majority of Singapore society. Then its views, no matter how extreme or biased, should be taken more seriously.

Looking back at some examples of the impact of social media over the past year or so, however, that is clearly not the case.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Transforming an island from nothing

How did Singapore build a "paradise" island from "nothing"? The key is good public administration based on a realistic understanding of human nature
By Wen Quan, Published The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2012

SINGAPORE'S success is nothing short of a miracle.

From a small country with no hinterland or huge domestic market, no natural resources, and not even a natural freshwater river, it managed to enter the ranks of the world's developed countries after more than 40 years of hard work.

People of different races, religions, languages, cultures and lifestyles co-exist in harmony and progress in today's Singapore.

Even though an illegal strike by China bus drivers took place recently, the tripartite partnership of Government, employers and workers is a consultative and cooperative relationship which shares the fruits and challenges of development.

Singapore today is politically stable and peaceful. It is also dynamic, vibrant and prosperous. While other places in the world are facing debt and fiscal crises, corruption, racial hatred, terrorist attacks and extremism, this small island-state would seem to be a paradise.

How did Singapore create "something" out of "nothing" and develop into what it is today? What is the recipe for its success?