Thursday 30 January 2014

PM Lee at NTU Ministerial Forum 2014

Next 50 years exciting for young Singaporeans: PM
He tells them to seize opportunities and build on past generation's achievements
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2014

YOUNG Singaporeans should not worry that they will have a tougher time than their parents because they were born too late and missed out on opportunities, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Speaking to 1,200 undergraduates at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), he said that they lived in an age of tremendous possibility and urged them to seize the day to build and improve on what their parents' generation has achieved. "We have so many more resources today than before, we are starting from a better position than we were. It would be a crime not to make it work."

Speaking at NTU's annual ministerial forum, Mr Lee said he expects the next 50 years to be exciting if uncertain, and that he actually wished he were born 50 years later. The opportunities of a globalised world, where technology advances at a breathless pace, are for the taking, he said.

Whether in the US, China or Israel, young people are dreaming not of becoming billionaires, "but wanting to change the world".

Yet, there are also some filled with angst and uncertainty over stagnating wages, unemployment and the cost of living. These anxieties have spilled over into demonstrations in many countries, with young people often agitating for change, "although, not quite sure what (the) change (should be)."

These duelling perspectives can be seen among young Singaporeans too, he noted, who are better-educated and aspire to much higher personal goals.

Yet, many worry about job security, the costs of living, and whether they can do better than their parents. These are understandable concerns, he said, but asked them to keep in mind that they are in a better position than the previous generation, and that Singapore is better placed than many other countries.

But its continued success depends on unity and cohesion, which are at present under threat from three faultlines, he said.

The first is race and religion, where constant accommodation and adjustment is required. Mr Lee emphasised the Government's preference for "gradual and quiet evolution" over sudden change after heated public debate.

The second faultline he highlighted was the income gap. The incomes of the rich will continue to rise faster than the rest because of the world economy, he said.

So, the successful must give back, and the local social norm of "ping qi ping zuo" must be staunchly guarded, he said, using a Mandarin phrase that means to sit "shoulder-to-shoulder".

"Boss or worker, you sit equal, comfortable, no scraping and bowing," he said.

Finally, Mr Lee brought up the faultline between locals and new arrivals. If foreigners make the effort to integrate, Singaporeans will help them do so, he said.

But social media is complicating already-sensitive relations, he lamented. The "pack of hounds" dynamic online risks vicious over-escalation to any issue.

In the case of British expatriate Anton Casey, whose disparaging remarks about locals set off a storm, Mr Lee said: "Someone has done something wrong, repudiate it, but do not lower ourselves to the same level (of behaviour) that makes us ashamed of ourselves."

Later, in an hour-long dialogue with students, Mr Lee was asked how he would grade the success of Singapore's next 50 years. He had three criteria: good jobs for the people, an improvement in the total fertility rate, and the presence of a capable, trustworthy government with broad support.

"I think if we can do those things, I would give you a high pass grade."

Avoid making meritocracy a dirty word, says Heng Swee Keat - Singapore Perspectives 2014

By Siau Ming En, TODAY, 29 Jan 2014

Society must avoid making meritocracy a “dirty word”, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat as he discussed the subject of social mobility at a conference yesterday.

The minister was responding to a question on how Singapore could build an open and compassionate meritocracy at the Singapore Perspectives conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)

“I think it’s important that in Singapore, meritocracy does not become a dirty word,” said Mr Heng.

Whether in schools or in the workplace, he said maintaining a system of selection that was based on a person’s performance and ability was “the right thing to do”. Every effort, however, should be made to help everyone “ride the wave of globalisation” and assistance should be provided to those who needed it so no one gets left behind, said Mr Heng.

He also noted the “special place” that the national language of Malay has in society here.

“I think in many of our schools, for instance, quite a number of students now take conversational Malay in the schools. And what we need to do is find more opportunities for them to learn,” he said.

During the dialogue, IPS Senior Research Fellow Dr Gillian Koh asked if a good pre-school education or the use of education platforms would help Singapore keep a healthy rate of social mobility. Mr Heng said even a first-rate pre-school system was not the “magic bullet” to ensuring social mobility. Nevertheless, he said all areas of education could be enhanced, from pre-schools to higher institutes of learning.

“(We need) to recognise that there are broader forces of work for the economy that we need to take care of. And unless we continue to restructure the economy, unless we continue to create good jobs, a good education system by itself does not solve the problem,” he said.

The education minister also said he was considering introducing computer programming in schools, not to make everyone a “programming geek”, but to help Singapore harness the impact of technology. Looking forward, former Aljunied MP Zainul Abidin Rasheed also asked Mr Heng how Singapore could balance politics, contest and consensus in a way that would help it continue to be a success story in the next five to 10 years. Mr Heng said while a greater contest sharpened the ability to deliver policies, he noted that it does not necessarily lead to “better results” for the society.

“Being able to work together, being able to take the country forward should not be a matter of just contest among political parties. I think it should be a collective effort, it should not necessarily be (an) antagonistic contest, (so) that we are able to harness the creative energy of people to solve any challenges,” said the minister.

Imagining what life will be like in the next 50 years

By Chan Heng Chee, Published The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2014

IF I am still alive in 50 years, I will have the prospect of living to be 150 or more. This is not a fanciful statement.

Already, the number of centenarians are increasing in many countries. According to United Nations estimates, there are 316,000 centenarians in the world today.

Dr Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer at the California-based Sens Foundation, which studies the social implications of scientific rejuvenation research, suggests that there is a possibility that people may live up to 1,000 years with the new medical and technology innovations.

If that is the case, people in rich countries will live longer; people in poor countries will not have the same advantages.

Of course there is a debate about whether Dr de Grey has made a compelling case. But the fact remains that people do seem to be living longer.

How will people live their lives when they are a healthy 100, 109 or 120? Will they think of age differently?

What will cities and countries look like with a large greying population? What activities, designs and technologies will be needed?

According to a government report released in January 2012, 40 per cent of the Japanese population will be 65 or older in 2060. In 50 years, Japan will have one million people over the age of 100. And in China, a UN estimate in 2010 suggested that the proportion of elderly (over 65) in 2050 will be 30 per cent. This will also happen in Korea, and in Singapore too.

What would a suitable retirement age be in 50 years? We must assume people will be healthier, younger-looking and more energetic in their old age.

Driverless electric cars to take you around?

By Sumita D/O Sreedharan, TODAY, 29 Jan 2014

Trying to book a taxi through a call centre or get a vehicle via a car-sharing scheme could soon be concerns of the past.

With a few taps on your phone, a driverless car could swing by within 20 minutes to take you to your destination and for half the cost of a cab ride.

The team of researchers behind the first driverless electric car developed in Singapore and unveiled yesterday is aiming to make the Republic the first to use such vehicles for public transport.

Dubbed SCOT, for Shared Computer Operated Transport, the vehicle is already plying the roads within the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. The goal of the 12 researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and NUS who are behind SCOT, is for their design to hit public roads, as soon as in a couple of years.

They will be talking to the authorities on possible areas to test the vehicle for public use, such as in resorts, university campuses or hospital grounds.

The self-driving technology developed by Google and which has been tested on car models such as Toyota Prius, Audi TT and Lexus RX450h is mainly for private use.

Similar to Google’s self-driving car, SCOT also runs on a system using laser sensors mounted in front of and on top of the vehicle to detect obstacles in its path and for navigation. But it needs to be driven along a new route once for the system to map out the surroundings, unlike Google’s, which relies on a Global Positioning System.

Before SCOT can hit the roads, however, there are several speedbumps to overcome, such as the traffic regulations that should apply to these driverless cars and insurance liability issues when accidents happen.

MediShield Life to focus on three areas in second phase of review

'Strong call' for Govt to help elderly, needy with premiums
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2014

THE MediShield Life Review Committee said it will call on the Government to help the elderly and low-wage earners pay the premiums for Singapore's next-generation national insurance scheme.

It also revealed yesterday that the next phase of its work will focus on three aspects of MediShield Life, including how to make sure the healthy are not unfairly taxed to cover those currently uninsured, either due to their old age or existing diseases.

MediShield Life, an upgrade on the current MediShield, will cover all Singaporeans, regardless of their age or health, when it is launched next year.

Since being set up almost three months ago, the committee tasked with shaping the new scheme has already been involved in 14 focus group discussions involving 500 people from all walks of life.

Yesterday, during the committee's first update of its work, chairman Bobby Chin revealed it heard a "very strong call" during the discussions for the Government to chip in with premiums for the elderly and lower-income group.

He said the committee will be raising this point with the Government, and will urge it to "support premiums for the elderly and lower-income group".

While MediShield Life premiums are expected to be higher than MediShield's, the increase will depend on how far benefits are expanded and the limits on how much can be claimed.

This task of ensuring that MediShield Life will take care of people's health needs and yet be affordable has been given to a sub-committee led by Dr Tan See Leng, group chief executive officer of Parkway Pantai.

A second sub-committee, led by Changi General Hospital chief executive officer Lee Chien Earn, will study how every Singaporean can be brought under the Medishield Life.

This includes people who are uninsured, such as those past the insurable age and those with existing diseases which exclude them from coverage, as well as new citizens. Some in these group could make claims from the start.

Health-care costs biggest concern of PAP's new wing for seniors

By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2014

MEMBERS of the PAP's new wing for seniors met for their first dialogue last night and came to a consensus that health-care costs are their biggest concern.

However, they differed on how best to set the qualifying criteria for the Government's planned Pioneer Generation Package to help seniors pay for the costs of health care.

The more than 100 PAP activists found that their views diverged over the cut-off age - 60, 65 or 70 - and whether income level should matter too.

As to what happens to someone who was, say, a day younger than the cut-off age, they also came up with varied ideas.

These include a tiered scheme of different packages for different generations, and an appeals committee made up of social sector representatives to decide on borderline cases.

The two-hour dialogue was the first on the package held by PAP.SG.

Details of the package are to be announced at the Budget next month. It is expected to help seniors who qualify offset higher premiums of the universal medical insurance scheme, MediShield Life, that protects against large hospital bills.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, who led the dialogue, warned that the issue of who should qualify for this package could become contentious, and that would then detract from the purpose of the package to honour the pioneer generation.

He said: "If we quarrel over who gets more, who gets less, then we would have failed."

PAP.SG chairman Halimah Yacob, who is Speaker of Parliament, said most participants supported setting a baseline of support for all members of the pioneer generation, but that more help should go to those from the low-income group.

"We understand the millionaire and the cleaner should not be treated the same," she said.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

$50 off CGH emergency bill if you see GP First

By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2014

FACED with a busy accident and emergency department (A&E) that sees more than 400 patients a day, Changi General Hospital (CGH) has come up with a novel way to try to reduce the crowd.

It is offering a 50 per cent discount to patients who see a general practitioner (GP) first. With the offer, it hopes to divert as many as 100 patients a day.

Between a third and half of the patients who show up at the emergency department every day can be easily treated by a GP, said Mr T.K. Udairam, head of the Eastern Health Alliance to which CGH belongs.

The offer of a $50 discount off the $100 A&E bill is to remove "a perceived disincentive" - some patients do not go to a GP first as they think they would end up paying both the GP and the hospital and hence pay more, he noted.

But this may not be the case. As most of them do not need hospital care, seeing a GP first will likely save them money, noted Mr Udairam. Most GPs charge $30 to $50 in the day, which is when most A&E patients show up. And in the event patients have to go to both the GP and the hospital, the $50 discount should cover the GP's charges.

Currently, about 20 patients are diverted from the hospital to a clinic a day. They can save themselves a trip to the hospital and a long wait by going to a GP near their home first, he said.

"This will leave the medical staff more time to spend with patients who are more critically ill," said Mr Udairam at the launch of the GPFirst scheme yesterday. So far, 132 out of more than 200 GP clinics in eastern Singapore, in places like Tampines or Pasir Ris, are taking part.

Those referred to CGH by a participating GP will be given priority, said its chief executive officer, Dr Lee Chien Earn, as they have already been assessed by a qualified doctor to require emergency department care.

Government Selects Three New Pre-School Anchor Operators

Three more pre-school players get 'anchor operator' status
New operators, including private ones, must keep fees low in return for aid
By Priscilla Goy And Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2014

PARENTS can look forward to big-name private operators setting up more childcare centres in the heartland and charging a fraction of their current fees, from as early as July.

Three more pre-school players have been appointed anchor operators under a scheme that requires them to keep fees affordable in return for government subsidies.

They are: EtonHouse International's E-Bridge Pre-school, Kinderland Consortium's Skool4Kidz, and Metropolitan YMCA's MY World Preschool. The first two are private operators, while the third is a non-profit organisation.

The operators, which have been appointed for a tenure of five years, were the first to qualify for the expanded anchor operator scheme announced last year to include private players for the first time. The expanded scheme attracted 16 applications. Previously, the scheme was open only to non-profit organisations and the anchor operators were NTUC's My First Skool and the PAP Community Foundation.

The five anchor operators are expected to provide about 16,000 more childcare places by 2017. This year alone, at least 45 childcare centres will be built islandwide, of which 33 sites have been set aside for anchor operators.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing presented certificates of appointment to representatives of the five anchor operators yesterday.

Mr Chan gave the assurance that "the fees will be affordable to parents". Anchor operators' monthly fees for a full-day childcare programme cannot cost more than $720. The industry median as at last month was $830. "I think they've made a commitment that the profit motive cannot be their No. 1 objective," he said, adding that there are "strict financial regulations" on the separation of the operators' accounts.

Besides providing affordable and quality programmes, he said, the selection process also factored in other key requirements.

More job vacancies in 2013 than the year before, mainly in services sector

Front-line sales assistants top list of wanted workers
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2014

WANTED: sales assistants, waiters and cleaners.

These three jobs were among those with the most vacancies last year, when overall openings grew nearly 10 per cent from 2012 amid a labour squeeze, according to yesterday's Ministry of Manpower (MOM) annual report on job vacancies.

Last September, which is representative of the year according to the report, there were 61,900 vacancies, up 9.7 per cent from that of a year ago. One in four positions, making up the largest share, was for service and sales workers. These include 3,510 openings for shop sales assistants, putting them at the top of the wanted list.

Waiters were also highly sought after, with 2,190 vacancies, while there were 2,010 cleaner positions in offices and other establishments available.

As for the professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) segment, the highest number of job openings was for teaching professionals, with 2,380 places available.

Four in 10 of all openings went unfilled for six months or longer. But this problem was far more acute for non-PMET positions, with more than half staying unfilled for that long, compared with just 17 per cent for PMET ones.

Shop sales assistant, cleaner, and waiter were the top three occupations with the most long- term vacancies as each had about 1,500 positions staying open for at least six months.

And they were also the most difficult to fill with Singaporeans and permanent residents, a common trend among "lower-end" openings.

Overall, local hires were deemed hard to find for 90 per cent of such vacancies, compared with just 36 per cent in the PMET sector. The top reasons for this, said employers, were unattractive pay and the strenuous work.

Innovation and Capability Voucher: SME help scheme gets another $10m, its scope broadened

By Rachel Scully, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2014

AN ADDITIONAL $10 million has been set aside to expand a grant that helps small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) improve their operations.

The measure will bring total funding for the Innovation and Capability Voucher to $42 million, said the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and SPRING Singapore yesterday.

The scope of the scheme will also be broadened.

Previously, firms could use it to pay for consultancy services only in the areas of innovation, productivity, human resources development and financial management.

An SME can use up to two vouchers, valued at $5,000 apiece, in each of the four areas.

But from March 1, firms will also be able to use some of the vouchers to pay for implementing solutions within these categories.

The changes were prompted by feedback from company bosses who said that they "may not necessarily require consultancy services to diagnose a problem or propose solutions", said the MTI and SPRING.

The cap of eight vouchers per firm and two vouchers per category of consultancy services remains the same but SMEs can now redirect two of those eight vouchers to implementing solutions.

These include buying equipment and hardware as well as design and renovation.

The vouchers are aimed especially at smaller SMEs, which may not be able to qualify for other government-sponsored schemes to raise productivity.

"Expanding the scope of the (scheme) will help SMEs, especially heartland businesses, further their productivity improvements," said Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck.

'Halal pork' Net hoax resurfaces, prompting calls for police probe

By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2014

THE police are being urged to investigate a religiously insensitive Internet hoax that has appeared on Facebook more than six years after it first circulated via e-mail here.

The image shows a packet of grocery retailer FairPrice's Pasar Fresh Pork bearing a green halal sticker.

The supermarket chain issued a statement yesterday, calling it a "mischievous hoax that is both insensitive and done in poor taste".

A spokesman assured the public that the original packaging did not carry the halal sticker.

The halal certificate and logo, which indicates that food or drink is permitted for consumption by Muslims, is issued by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).

It can only be carried on food and drinks that are permissible and have been prepared according to Islamic law.

Pork is considered "haram" or "forbidden" in Islam.

Said the FairPrice spokesman: "We are mindful of the serious religious implications of this matter and regard this as a wilful act of mischief."

A police report was lodged when the image of the tampered packaging was first circulated via an e-mail hoax back in 2007. Since then, "multiple" police reports have been lodged, said a FairPrice spokesman.

The spokesman added that the supermarket chain "has yet to lodge" a police report with regard to the latest case.

Under Section 88A of the Administration of Muslim Law Act, anyone found guilty of abusing the MUIS halal certificate and logo is liable to a fine of up to $10,000, a maximum jail term of a year, or both.

MUIS said it was aware of the case and has advised the public to refer to the statement issued by FairPrice.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Foreign workers get new emergency shelter at Serangoon Road

By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 27 Jan 2014

A FOREIGN workers advocacy group backed by the labour movement has set up its first emergency shelter, offering a temporary bed for workers who may have problems with their bosses over pay or other work issues.

The new shelter, opened by the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) yesterday, can house eight workers in its new office in a two-storey shophouse in Serangoon Road.

Previously, foreign workers who needed temporary shelter were put up overnight on couches at the group's offices in Geylang and Little India before being sent to workers' dormitories.

This was the practice even though the offices were not officially approved by the authorities to be used as workers' quarters.

The group is now leasing 48 beds from a private dormitory operator to house workers receiving help.

The new shelter, about the size of three five-room flats, has beds and rooms for recreation and counselling.

By March, the MWC will also start a 24-hour hotline for foreign workers.

Its chairman, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, said the shelter's proximity to the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) office in Bendemeer Road - some 2km away - will make it easier for the ministry to refer foreign workers in distress to it.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general and MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC stressed that the opening of the shelter was not related to the Little India riot last month.

The shelter is opening its doors following an increase in distress calls that the MWC has received from foreign workers in the past few years.

Monday 27 January 2014

Govt position on tudung 'not static', says PM Lee in closed-door dialogue with Malay/Muslim community, 25 January 2014

PM Lee outlines key concerns in two-hour dialogue with Muslim community leaders
By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

The Government's position on the Islamic headscarf is not static, but Singapore cannot take actions precipitously that can have unintended consequences, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a dialogue with leaders and representatives of the Muslim community.

There has been change over the last 10 years and more statutory boards now allow Muslim women officers to wear the tudung, or have incorporated some form of the headscarf into uniforms, he said.

But he reiterated the Government's stance, which is that it must balance the needs of all communities to keep the country multiracial and multi-religious, he told the media after the closed-door dialogue at the Old Police Academy.

"If we are going to have anything happen which can change the status quo, we want to make sure that the change takes place gradually and for the better," he said.

"We do not want to make precipitated moves, which can lead to either a push back from other communities, further demands from the other communities, a weakening of our multiracial ties, which will mean a much unhappier society."

Attended by more than 100 participants, yesterday's two-hour session was the first such dialogue Mr Lee has held with the community on the issue, which has generated a swirl of debate since last September after a lecturer asked at a forum why nurses were barred from wearing the tudung.

Community leaders including Malay MPs, the mufti, the highest religious figure, and from Muis, or the Islamic Religious Council, said that it was candid and sincere, and they appreciated Mr Lee hearing their views on the issue.

The PM noted that the issue over the tudung is an old one, with more in the community now wanting women to be able to wear the tudung at work. But when the issue became hot on the Internet, he felt it was best to have "a candid, heart-to-heart discussion with community leaders".

While he fully appreciates the desire of those who want the headscarf to be able to be worn by women more freely, the issue is broader than the tudung itself, he said.

It is about "what sort of society do we want to build in Singapore", he said. This is to build a multiracial society, "where everyone has full and equal opportunities, the minority community can live its own way of life, practise its faith to the maximum way possible and not be... marginalised by the majority".

"That is why we became Singapore, and that is what the Government is trying to achieve."

Wherever possible, the Government "leans in favour of the minority community", in order to give them extra help, and they can participate in the success of the nation and be integrated, whether through the Mosque Building Fund, self-help group Mendaki or other programmes.

To do this, the balance is managed in a "broad and informal way" and not have it taken issue by issue, by rights and entitlements, or to find a legal interpretation of the laws. It is an approach that has worked for the country, he added, and Singapore is more integrated than it was in the past and also compared to many societies today.

Dr Paul Choo: Healing with help and hope

Shenton Medical founder is happiest lending a hand to those who need it most
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

By the time he was 34, an age when many are still struggling to find their professional feet, Dr Paul Choo was already pretty set up for life.

The Shenton Medical Group - which he had founded nine years earlier in 1973 with two partners - was doing swimmingly, with half a dozen branches in the Central Business District and more than 10 doctors on its payroll.

Success offered many perks; he could afford fancy cars and spend his afternoons on the greens if he wanted.

Unfortunately Porsches and golf were not quite his thing.

Then he befriended a teenager named Daniel Khoo whom he heard was helping poor folk in Chinatown.

And so one day, with Daniel in tow, he got his driver to drop him off in his Rover at Craig Road in Tanjong Pagar.

He could not believe what he saw.

"Old women were sitting in steel meshed cages, waiting to die. Mind you, these were not even the death houses in Sago Lane," he says, referring to the area in Chinatown once synonymous with funeral parlours and homes where the chronically old and sick were left to die.

"Craig Road was just three or four streets from where I had my nice office, sometimes doling out placebos to corporate types. But here were women suffering from tuberculosis and skin diseases and nobody was doing anything about it. It was unreal," he recalls.

It changed his life.

More than heading a medical practice, he believed his calling lay in helping the poor and those in need.

In 1995 Dr Choo - who had by then bought out his partners - sold his thriving chain of clinics to Parkway Holdings for $6.5 million.

Today, he happily gallivants around the region as the founder of Goducate, a non-profit group which helps to educate and train the poor and needy so that they can have better livelihoods.

Kangkung? Watch it fry in cyberspace

In the new landscape created by social media, reverence for leaders is not the default setting
By Carolyn Hong, the Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

First, it was kangkung, then came sotong. And together, these two cheap food items made for an unfortunate two weeks for Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak.

It began when Datuk Seri Najib lashed out at critics two weeks ago for blaming the government when food prices go up but not praising it when prices come down. He made the argument that the government could not control market forces, and used kangkung to illustrate his point.

It was an unfortunate choice that immediately stirred a backlash on social media. Kangkung, or water spinach, is seen as a cheap vegetable that grows in unappetising places like drains.

Mr Najib's message was soon lost as netizens invented a huge range of jokes - from McKangkung burgers to kangkung-fuelled cars - to mock him for apparently asking them to downgrade their lifestyle.

Last week, sotong came into the picture as he sought again to explain market forces. Speaking at his monthly address to the Finance Ministry, Mr Najib reiterated that the government could not control the price of every food item.

"When it is the monsoon season, prices of fish go up and even vegetables," he said. "I had used the kangkung as an example of the supply-demand principle. My favourite foods are kangkung and sotong (squid)."

This addition of sotong to the dish proved irresistible to netizens as "sotong" is colloquially used to refer to a person who is confused or weak, triggering a second round of jokes.

But jokes aside, the kangkung- sotong saga illustrates just how much social media has changed the political dynamics between the people and the country's leaders. Reverence, or at least some level of deference, is now no longer the default setting.

The social media has created an entirely new landscape that is making it increasingly imperative for politicians to up their game.

The power of local culture

A growing interest in heritage issues is a sign of local cultures responding to national and global forces
By Wang Gungwu, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2014

OVER the years, the Peranakan Museum, the Kampong Glam Heritage Centre, the Wan Qing Yuan (Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall), and many others, have pointed to the growing interest in heritage among the various communities in Singapore. The recent campaign to save the Bukit Brown cemetery marks yet another milestone.

Many would have noted the rise in curiosity about family history and about idiosyncratic designs of a great variety of artefacts, notably dress, furniture, utensils and homes. These are all reminders of how the culture of old customs and practices have survived.

What is striking is that this interest is less about heritage being national and more about it being local. The emphasis on the concrete and the specific is particularly suited to the descendants of immigrants who sense that their links with their ancestral homes have become precarious.

But it is also more than that.

The heritage phenomenon is a measure of cultural resilience, something that comes from living and caring for what is natural and familiar. This becomes important in a bewildering, fast-changing environment when larger, impersonal national and global forces press hard.

What is the source of one’s culture?

In the era of empires, the gap between what was local and what provided the glitter and glory of life among the elites was great.

History records more about the latter than about the former. But the gap also protected local culture precisely because the latter was often ignored, being far from the centre of power.

Sunday 26 January 2014

Big bash 'for all' as little red dot turns 50

Public's ideas sought on how Singapore can mark event, with emphasis on inclusiveness
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2014

SINGAPORE turns 50 next year and the chief party planner, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, yesterday invited all Singaporeans to pitch in with their ideas on how best to celebrate the occasion, with an emphasis on including everyone.

He made special mention of the pioneer generation, who played a key role in helping the nation overcome tough odds in the early years of independence.

The first major SG50 event will be a tribute to these pioneers that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will host at the Istana next month.

But the year-long birthday bash and series of activities tied to it are for people of all ages and walks of life.

Mr Heng and the members of the SG50 Steering Committee he chairs stressed inclusiveness, and urged everyone to share their celebration ideas and favourite local icons, sights, sounds and flavours.

"If it is what you love about Singapore, we want to celebrate it," Mr Heng said. "Singapore's 50th birthday belongs to all Singaporeans."

Agreeing, SG50 committee member and former nominated MP Kanwaljit Soin said it was a celebration for all, regardless of "colour, age and political ideology". Singapore National Olympic Council vice-president Annabel Pennefather said that while not all is perfect, "there are good times that people can remember, having family and friends around them".

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said the SG50 Programme Office hopes to support individuals or groups who are "passionate about showing their love for Singapore and who want to inspire others to do the same".

To give the two-month call for celebration ideas a boost, each idea approved by an evaluation panel can receive up to $50,000 in funding. More information is available at

The committee is looking for ideas that inspire a sense of community or belonging. These could range from celebrations of food, such as getting neighbours to share family recipes; or heritage, such as apps about historic milestones; to events with a heart, such as a festival for the elderly.

The SG50 logo, launched yesterday, is a little red dot that symbolises Singapore's ability to punch above its weight. People can customise it with their own colours or motifs, and logo designer Jackson Tan said it can even be turned into an art installation, a football or a pattern to decorate buildings.

As Mr Heng reflected on what it is this city state has to celebrate at this juncture and why, he said that at 50, nations and people "come closer to wisdom about the people and things that are truly important to us".

That includes appreciating the older generation, he said, who passed with "grace and resilience... through the same stages in life we undertake today, only under far more challenging conditions".

Denise Phua: She wants to end segregation in schools

She's been called the People's Action Party's conscience, and a "lone voice in the wilderness" on topics like the casinos, which she opposes for economic and moral reasons. Known as an advocate for people with disabilities, Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, 54, took on the whole education system this week by proposing a pilot scheme of 10-year through-train schools with no streaming or high-stakes exams. She talks to Rachel Chang about the importance of taking a stand.
The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2014

You made a speech in Parliament this week about your vision for a new type of education in Singapore. But wouldn't stripping away all streaming and high-stakes exams come with the trade-off of lower achievement of the brightest?

I am not advocating a "let's- cruise" no-assessment, no-rigour type of system at all.

But the different needs of students can be met without putting them geographically in different places for years, (but) by programme-based solutions.

If I am gifted, I don't have to go to a gifted school where I mix only with other gifted students. I go where there are other types of learners and I benefit from a gifted programme during certain hours. But during other hours, I wouldn't catch any disease by being with people who learn in different ways.

After the 10-year through train, they can rejoin the typical system. Those who are more academically inclined go in with an O level or International Baccalaureate qualification; those who are more vocationally inclined can exit into other pathways.

The best thing is to pilot this, and then scale it. If not for this generation, then for the next.

I really hope I can see this in my lifetime. Sure, it's utopian, but the school I helped create, Pathlight (in 2003, the first autism-focused mainstream school) was created out of nothing. And today, it is the largest autism school in the world. We have over 900 students, with applications of 200 a year.

I do believe that if we are able to assemble a team of right people with the right vision, things can happen. I've yet to have full discussions with the ministry, but I think this is a minister (Mr Heng Swee Keat) who has been steadfast in the right direction.

To make principles matter, they have to be applied across the board

By Devadas Krishadas, TODAY, 25 Jan 2014

In recent years, several individuals have been arrested for making racist comments online. The arrests are typically under the powers of the Sedition Act; the justification given being that undermining racial harmony is a threat to the nation.

The case of Mr Anton Casey is an opportunity to clarify government policy on the issues of permissible views on nation and nationals, and how that harmonises with its approach to dealing with race matters.

Mr Casey’s comments about “these people” — meaning Singaporeans — prompt important questions. Are Singaporeans “a race” or “a nation”, and should there even be a distinction if the fundamental point is that slurs on the nation are also tantamount to a threat not dissimilar to racial taunts?

This is because comments such as Mr Casey’s pit Singaporeans — whatever their ethnicity, and let us keep in mind that being “regardless of race” is the aspiration of the national pledge we all take — against foreigners residing here.

This is an important consideration given that, as a result of government policy, foreigners are represented in large numbers and, as a phenomenon, are and will remain a permanent feature of our island community. A feature which the Government, in defence of the Population White Paper, has repeatedly described as being critical to our economic viability and, by extension, to our national continuity.

Hence, logically speaking, provoking disharmony between Singaporeans and foreigners should be treated with equal seriousness as provocations of disharmony between different local races.

While Singaporeans may cheer if they stopped reading at the preceding paragraph, they will soon stop if they follow the rest of the logic train. If it is seditious for foreigners to provoke disharmony with locals, then it is equally seditious for locals to provoke disharmony with foreigners here. A quick browse through popular online forums will quickly reveal how common the latter practice has become.

So, the bottom line is that it is important to deal with matters at the level of principle, but also to accept that when doing so, for principles to matter, they have to apply universally.

In other words, if Singaporeans are upset at Mr Casey’s comments, they should also be upset at many of their own. There are ways to hold Mr Casey to account.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Where has all our empathy gone?

By William Wan, Published The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2014

SOMETHING has gone wrong with us Singaporeans.

The year is barely a month old, and look at what's happened.

In three short weeks, we have made famous Anton Casey and "Heather Chua". The latter, we now know, is a man pretending to be a woman online and trolled his way into the police investigation room.

Meanwhile, Anton Casey, a British wealth manager, is deeply embroiled on several fronts because of his unacceptable social media posts. In one, he had expressed relief that his Porsche was out of the workshop and he could wash off the "stench of public transport". The post went viral, sparking anger online from Singaporeans.

They join an infamous list of social media users whose unfortunate choice of words resulted in rather serious consequences - Amy Cheong, Eve Tan, Andy Chan and a host of others who, at one point or another, said things on their social media pages which outraged a nation.

The incidents reiterate the need for us to reassess our social media habits. The common misconception is that our own Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Google+ is our own space.

That we keep behaving as though comments and posts to such media are private comments, says something about how habits are hard to break, demonstrated in our resistance to adapt to social media norms.

But that, however, isn't what is terribly wrong with us today.

A more disturbing phenomenon is the concept of social media justice.

Social service network to expand with 9 new offices

By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2014

THE Government is close to its goal of putting social service aid within 2km of almost all needy residents.

Nine more Social Service Offices (SSOs) will be set up this year, announced Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday. This brings his ministry close to its target of having 20 SSOs in HDB towns islandwide.

Together with the 43 Family Service Centres (FSCs), this will create a network that will put help within 2km of where 95 per cent of needy residents live or work.

Apart from the previously announced offices that will be set up in Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Queenstown and Sengkang by June, the other five will be in Yishun, Taman Jurong, Bukit Panjang, Clementi and Serangoon.

Mr Chan gave these details on the sidelines of the official launch of Choa Chu Kang SSO at 8A Teck Whye Lane.

The SSOs, which are run by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, work with voluntary welfare organisations and community partners in their areas to plan and coordinate the provision of social services. They also give out financial aid under the national ComCare scheme.

FSCs mainly do counselling work and run local programmes.

The Choa Chu Kang office is one of 10 SSOs which have been set up since last year. Five of them are located within the five community development councils (CDCs), such as those in Toa Payoh and Tampines.