April 28, 2017

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Authors Posts by Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson
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Bertha was formerly Associate Editor of The Straits Times and worked as a journalist in Singapore Press Holdings for 26 years.

by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

AHPETC signboard
Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user law-8. CC BY-SA 2.0

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by Bertha Henson

THE Direct School Admission (DSA) programme is doing away with its general academic ability tests.

People are going hurrah because it means that their non-Gifted kid can make it into their school of choice because they have another talent that is not exam-smarts.

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That is, if they clear the talent competition for entry. That is, if the school nurturing the specific talent pool is not on the other side of the island. That is, if the school nurturing said talent and achieving non-academic awards do not ignore Ah Boy’s academic work in the process.

That is, if Ah Boy clears his PSLE in the first place. If he doesn’t make the DSA cut-off point, will he be booted out?

Parents of Gifted children have been told their kid will always get a place based on their results. But the DSA isn’t about getting a secondary school place but a guaranteed, booked-in-advance, choped-already programme. That means, no need to worry about how PSLE results turn out, got place already. So, they will still go for the DSA route.

Parents of “ordinary kids’’ will be looking at the niche programmes and wondering if their kids have the requisite talent for, say, robotics or soccer. If not, they will think about sending the kid to enrichment programmes or a sports academy so they can ace whatever interview or competitive process. It’s a different kind of tuition.

Principals of ordinary schools will be wondering if they can even fill the 20 per cent DSA quota space. They’re not top in any sport or talent but merely struggling to bring all its students up to speed. These would be the garden-variety type of schools which, by the way, is still a good school although not the best. So shy if they can’t fill the space…

Parents and principals will be wondering if schools really have the teachers for these niche programmes. Are they experts or have at least mastered some aspects of the programme or are they themselves learning along with the kids? Does the National Institute of Education prepare teachers for such programmes? If principals decide to bring in outside experts, can these experts actually teach?

This is not to pour cold water on the Education Ministry’s changes to the DSA. It’s to show that people, especially parents, will view changes differently depending on their perspective and their knowledge of their childrens’ abilities. Change always leads to more questions.

We just have to be careful about not starting a different kind of rat race.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT’S a reflection of how powerful the G is when it gets whacked even for stuff that’s not under its purview. I’m talking about the uproar over the four-year jail sentence for American Joshua Robinson, probably the most high-profile sexual offender in Singapore.

Clearly, people don’t see the line between the executive and judiciary. Or maybe they are too afraid to slam the judge in the case because that might put them in contempt of court. If there’s anything you want to fault the G over, it’s how the Attorney-General’s Chambers had originally asked for a four to five year jail sentence. Even that, however, is debatable since the G maintains that everything is up to the discretion of the AGC.

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Asked about the matter, Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said: “The decisions on which charges to proceed is a matter within AGC’s discretion. AGC makes the decisions based on precedents, and what kind of sentence is meted out depends on previous cases… Having said that, my understanding is that AGC is looking into this.’’

Robinson, 39, pleaded guilty to nine charges: Three for sexually assaulting the girls, five for making and possessing obscene films and one for showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl. Another 20 charges were taken into consideration during sentencing. Among the 20 are four more counts of having sex with the minors and 12 for making obscene films.

For the first charge, the maximum penalty is 10 years jail and fine. For possession of obscene films, he could have been jailed up to six months or fined $500 for each film, up to a maximum of up to $20,000. Statutory rapists in the past have gotten sentences that ranged from five to 20.5 years.

Of course, each case is different. The heaviest sentence was 20.5 years jail time and 24 strokes of the cane.

So can we whack the AGC then?

The case is a volatile mix. A foreigner who is muscular and trained in the martial arts. Who deals with children. Who takes pictures of sexual acts and keeps the largest stash of porn police have ever seized from an individual – 5,902 obscene films, including 321 films of child pornography.

Who, despite being arrested, continued his deviant behaviour while on bail. Who even preyed on a six-year-old while her father was in close proximity.

What utter brazenness!

It’s no wonder that people are calling for his head. An online petition calling for a higher sentence said: “Is this the message our Singapore Government People’s Action Party is intending to send worldwide: “Spray paint our city or slander our government officials and you get it worse off than if you rape and sexually abuse our children”?

Threaded through the statement is a certain an animus against foreigners here: That they can’t get away with dirtying our city (think Michael Fay and the European graffiti artists) or saying bad things (think foreign journalists and authors), but they can do what they like otherwise. It doesn’t help that some foreigners have been in the news, like Yang Yin, who, on the other hand, got his jail term increased to 11 years in all, instead of six. (Please don’t speculate on whether there are different rules for “white’’ people; that’s unworthy.)

Given the public outrage, should the AGC appeal for a higher sentence even though it more or less got what it wanted? Would bowing to popular opinion be a case of mob justice? Or would it concede that it should have asked for more? Then again, it’s really up to the judge to impose the sentence, whatever the AGC might say.

Gasp! Are we interfering with the administration of justice given that the case is not yet over because there’s still a week to go before the appeal time limit is up? Mr Shanmugam, while conceding that there was “public disquiet’’, said that this wasn’t an appropriate time for him to comment on the case. And probably for the rest of us too.

The AGC has 14 days from the date of sentencing (Mar 2) to appeal. By then, we should know whether it has appealed, as well as why it did so – or didn’t.

 

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by Bertha Henson

FOR the past two days, I have been wondering if I should write something about the imam who was said to have uttered insensitive phrases about Jews and Christians. I asked around and have been flooded with advice, ranging from no, because it’s a sensitive topic and no, because you’re a non-Muslim to yes, because this is an open society tolerant of different views and yes, because it would be good to have a non-Muslim speak who is not, ahem, Mr K Shanmugam.

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As an outsider looking in, I find the issue fascinating although I’m sure Muslims wouldn’t favour my choice of word. I will, therefore, be writing this very tentatively from a non-Muslim point of view and more importantly, from the perspective of a fellow citizen in a multiracial, multi-religious society in a secular state.

The Law and Home Affairs Minister’s comments in Parliament about suspending the unnamed imam from preaching have ignited a firestorm among Muslims on the Internet. The imam had, at Jamae Mosque last month, reportedly recited a prayer in Arabic that said “God grant us victory over Jews and Christians”, among other things. A whistle-blower uploaded a video of what he said. It went viral.

From what I read online, Muslims are upset, and many wonder if the imam’s words which are spoken to the faithful attending Friday prayers were taken out of context. Many erudite Muslims have been offering their opinions on the matter and citing religious sources.

It’s interesting to see how many different takes there are on one phrase and the deep discussions that ensue.

In the meantime, non-Muslims are looking on.

In these times of increasing religiosity, communities need to be careful about being misinterpreted. “Victory’’, in this instance, might well be a spiritual or religious conversion rather than defeat in the martial sense, as some Muslims have said.

The trouble is, the non-Muslim can only judge the words literally and depend on the whistle-blower, himself a Muslim, to say why he thought it was offensive. (It reminds me of how Christians are usually careful about using the word “crusade’’, so as not to offend the sensibilities of Muslims, even though you could be crusading against poverty.)

Whatever the imam said, I would like to think it was between him and his flock. If any member of his flock finds what he said objectionable, then the matter should be taken up with his religious superiors. I was surprised that the imam was “exposed’’ in this way; I didn’t think video-recording was allowed in a mosque. It took planning. It might well be that earlier complaints fell on deaf ears, and the whistle-blower believes this is the best way to gain attention. But I think it’s the worst way, however well-intentioned.

Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said: “While it is correct to whistle blow when one sees wrongdoing, one must also ask whether the manner in which this is done is appropriate, or if it sows more discord and causes tension in our society.’’

Mr Shanmugam weighed in on this point as well: “The right thing to do though, is that when a matter like this is encountered, it should be reported to the Police, and not put out on social media. That will allow police to focus their investigations on the subject of the complaint.

“If instead, the matter is publicly posted, it could lead to a groundswell of feelings, in this case, both from Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It could cause confusion about religion, and increase tensions and so on.’’

I wouldn’t even go so far as to report the matter to the police.

Why get the State involved in an issue that should be resolved by the faithful? Yes, there is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which I had always hoped was more preventive than punitive in nature. But even with the law behind it, the State is a blunt tool, and cannot take into account the different levels of knowledge and religiosity among people of faith. Let the religious authorities police their own leaders. (Unless some people believe that the religious hierarchy has lost its legitimacy and authority, which means opening another can of worms.)

I read with some consternation this exchange between Mr Shanmugam and Opposition MP Faisal Manap.

 

Mr Shanmugam: Can I ask the member whether he thinks that it is all right to quote from a text and encourage violence against others? Can I have a direct answer, please?

Mr Faisal: Madam (Speaker), from my own knowledge, the verses in the Quran are always in the context of giving out mercy to the people and the universe.

Mr Shanmugam: That is not the question I asked, and I didn’t refer to the Quran. Do you think it is all right for someone to refer to any holy text to encourage violence either by quoting directly or speaking, encouraging such violence? Yes or no?

Mr Faisal: It is wrong, Madam.

Mr Shanmugam: Thank you. That is a question the police will be considering. Thank you.

 

Oh dear! I am unfamiliar with the Quran, but I know that parts of the Bible make for blood-thirsty reading, especially the Old Testament. It cannot be that mere mention equates encouraging violence? Or does it? And is this a matter for the police?

In fact, I wonder why, if the statements were so objectionable as to be a security threat, that the Internal Security Department did not step in earlier. Surely, it would have its eyes and ears on the ground and the imam seemed to have said the same words before. A “lim kopi’’ session might have been enough to put things right.

But then, the video was made public. Non-Muslims are watching. The response must be public too or there will mutterings of cover-ups or some nefarious shenanigans taking place in secret. The G has made it clear that everyone involved, including whistle-blower and imam, will be investigated. I presume the police will be looking at the motivations behind their words and actions. I will shut up on this because I have to.

I wish that people will not think of social media as the place for all things objectionable or what they consider objectionable. Also, sometimes what you see or hear isn’t the full story. The truth is usually more complicated. Sometimes, a quiet word in the right ear can do more for peace and harmony than a loud-speaker, especially if directed at the wrong crowd.

 

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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

WHEN my mother was in her 60s, she had both her knees replaced. Last year, when she was 71, she had surgery to her spine. She made a swift recovery but age is telling on her. She laments that she isn’t able to walk as quickly or as far as she could. She laments that she is unable to carry the bags of groceries and has to ask the Sheng Siong staffers to lug it for her to her car boot. Yes, she still drives and I’m thinking of taking away her keys because she has a greater tendency now to confuse her routes.

How does one come to terms with getting old(er)?

Everywhere you see material that caters to the younger set, whether on looking good or dressing well. If there is material on the old, it’s about how some elders are ageing gracefully, like doing the triathlon or something. Or it is the rather more depressing stuff, like end-of-life issues and hospital or hospice care. Or it’s about maintaining enough funds for retirement.

The truth is, ageing is not graceful.

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I see increasing signs of an ageing population everywhere everyday. Like hawkers and stallholders in my neighbourhood who are now wheelchair bound. Like having to make my way through sidewalks crowded with personal mobility devices – and I don’t mean skateboards and wheels for the young. Like seeing an increasing number of foreign helpers who go out marketing with their older charges.

There is a couple I’ve known half my life who walk bent and at a snail’s pace around the neighbourhood. They used to be perky and sprightly. At least, I thought, they have each other and they still hold hands. I tell my mother to straighten her posture when she’s walking or she’ll end up looking like them.

How does one come to terms with growing old(er)? My mother fights age with every ounce of her decreasing energy. She colours the tuft of grey on her head with hair mascara. She dons track shoes for her increasingly shorter walks. She maintains herself well, never neglecting the face powder, lip-stick and earrings when she gets out of the house, even if she’s bound for the wet market. She makes sure her spectacles are youngish – she just bought a red-framed one which she worries would be too flashy for her age.

She knows, however, that she is losing her battle with age. She complains about being “useless’’ because she can’t bake as many cookies as before or cook the big family spreads she used to.

Nothing really prepares you for the slow and steady drip of energy and strength. It doesn’t help when friends you’ve known half your life suddenly succumb to illness. A friend of my mother’s who is one of the most out-going and social beings in her set, collapsed at a mall a few weeks ago and died in hospital a few days later. It’s depressing when people your age suddenly pass on, as it was for my mother.

It’s one aspect of ageing that is seldom talked about: the psychological acceptance that you are not as young as you used to be. We can mend our body parts and even replace them, or slow down the ageing process. We can ensure we have enough funds to live until death, but what is the point when you can’t live life to the fullest in the meantime? You hear it, don’t you? Older folk saying they want to holiday overseas before they become incapable of walking. That they want to enjoy their life with their CPF savings while they are still healthy and sprightly. Yet we tell them to see the big picture: that without funds, society would end up caring for them. It’s a message for the young, who can yet envisage being old.

I feel age creeping on too. Creaky knees, reading glasses and a bad wrist that appears to be the result of too much time on the keyboard. Like my mother, who considers herself young, I look at older folk and wonder about the day I become one of them.

Singapore has to get used to the presence of older folk. I can declare that I have never heard any driver honk at an old person who is taking his time to cross the road. And I have never seen anyone not responding to an older person who asks for help. But I also know that statistics show that the elderly are vulnerable on the roads and die in accidents, and that they are susceptible to scams, especially if the trick involves their children’s well-being.

I read on Friday about an old lady who has kept herself in her own home because she is afraid of falling down when she ventures outside. I smile because my mother is afraid of falling too, not just because of broken bones, but that she would look like a foolish sight in public, sprawled on the ground in an unsightly manner.

Maybe that’s why she always dresses well when she ventures out of the house. You really want to look your best when you are at your worst.

May age be kind to all of us.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
A Comfort cab covered in ads trawling the streets of Singapore.

by Bertha Henson

YESTERDAY, my ride from the National University of Singapore in Kent Ridge to my home in the East cost me $51. It was the most expensive fare I’ve ever had to pay in my life.

It was raining. I was carrying books. And I called for a GrabTaxi, none of which was in my vicinity as I could tell from the app. It suggested that I try for a GrabCar as well. Now a standard taxi ride would cost me about $26 to $28, according to the app. A car ride would be a flat $51.

Decision time. Should I pay that high price or hope that a standard taxi would bid? Or should I just stand around in the rain and hope that a taxi with its green light on come by? I went for GrabCar, a Honda Stream, which was due to arrive in three minutes. As luck would have it, I spied a green-lit Comfort cab coming my way. Should I cancel the GrabCar and hop into it? Yet, I also recall the number of times empty cabs have cruised by or drivers who told me that they were not going my way. I also thought about the Grab driver. He would lose his fare.

I let the cab pass.

Now I’m sure people who think I should have hailed the cab would say it’s because I’m “too rich”. I would like to think it was because I’m “too nice”. Serious. Hey, the GrabCar driver could be the family’s sole breadwinner with four schoolgoing children!

Now it seems that surge pricing will come into play in the taxi industry. All the cab companies want some form of demand-and-supply charging system because it seems to be working for rivals, Grab and Uber in terms of incentivising their drivers to stay on their fleet.

The biggest player ComfortDelGro wants to try something in-between – a choice between fixed fare and surge pricing. The fixed fare system, however, doesn’t assure commuters of a guaranteed outcome. The Public Transport Council is looking over the proposal, although I don’t understand why, since fares have been de-regulated since 1998.

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When canvassed, transport analysts all have something to say about taxi fares. So I thought I should give my take as a passenger too.

a. Cab companies should first get rid of the myriad surcharges it has and streamline fares.

Of course, they should. But they don’t have an incentive to now because nobody hails a taxi and asks for an itemised costing before getting in, like how many ERP gantries the cab would have to pass through and at what cost and whether it’s still peak hour pricing. Cabbies might actually prefer streamlined fares because it saves them from getting into arguments with commuters who accuse them of going “the long way”.

b. Surge pricing might be too heavy a cost for cab companies to carry because unlike their rivals, they don’t have as much money to burn.

I’m no transport analyst, so I don’t know how the change would affect the companies bottomline. But I am a commuter and all I worry about is taxi drivers hiding during non-peak hours and suddenly “surging” during peak hours when fares would be surging too. After all, they already do so now.

c. Surge pricing, if applied to street hailing, would cause confusion for the commuter.

That’s true. A meter system is great because you can actually see the fares going up – and check the cash in your wallet. You can actually stop the cab half-way and get off, which I have done when I think I can save a dollar walking to my destination because my purse is emptying out. Presumably, under the new system, I have to flag a cab down and ask the price – which is given to me. Frankly, my next instinct would be to bargain. Is this allowed? Sigh.

d. Surge pricing may lead to cabbies responding only to calls and avoiding taxi stands.

If you’ve ever been in a taxi queue, you know that feeling you get when a cab comes by to pick up someone who went for a ride-hailing app instead. Sometimes it’s good because it shortens the queue. Sometimes you feel like screaming because the passenger is not in the queue and have therefore “choped” the cab which would have been in the line. I have taken to reading a book while waiting.

Now, what will happen if surge pricing occurs across-the-board. “Unker, how much to Bedok?” “Fifty dollars”. Do you say “No thanks, I’ll take the next ride?” Or do you just get in so as to not lose face with those waiting after you. “Cannot afford, why take taxi?”

At least, the current system is just the booking fee on top of the meter system. You roughly know if you can afford it.

Well, I suppose some would say that surge pricing reflects the true cost of taxi transport. It is, after all, private transport and should not be subsidised.

Don’t you think roads are getting too crowded these days? Those who would have left their cars in carparks are now out picking up fares as Uber or Grab drivers. I think that getting from Point A to Point B is taking much longer than it used to. If the price is too high for too long a ride, public transport would definitely be better value-for-money.

Time to switch mode of transport.

 

Featured image from Shawn Danker.

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by Bertha Henson

SO, MINISTER for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said this in Parliament yesterday: “If we needed any additional water, where would it come from? How much would that additional litre cost? That is what we call the Long Run Marginal Cost (LRMC). That is the cost which consumers must see.’’

Except that we can’t see it because LRMC is a state secret. Revealing this would compromise future bids to build desalination plants. I don’t know how this works but it’s probably like a businessman who doesn’t want to tip his hand to a potentional contractor by telling him what kind of money he has to pay him.

So you can’t see LRMC but you have to “feel’’ it. Which is why the price of water is going up by 30 per cent after staying put for 17 years.

He did give an idea of what went into the computation: a blend of NEWater and desalination costs. Singapore would have to depend more on desalination in the future as there’s only so much water in an urban city that can be recycled as NEWater. And desalination is much more expensive than making NEWater.

Going by what he said, if there was no NEWater invented in 2002, the price of water would have shot up. That’s because after threats by Malaysian elements to cut off water supply from Johor in 1997, we scaled up desalination. To match the cost would have meant a jump in water tariffs. Price did go up from 1997 to 2000 before holding steady. Was there much of a fuss then? A check with the archives showed that Singaporeans were accepting of the increase. Doubtless, it was because we were faced with a clear and present danger of going without water.

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This little history lesson Mr Masagos gave is more illuminating than merely general statements about water security.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing put it more starkly: “How many more desalination plants and NEWater plants must we build in order for water to never be a weapon pointing at our head?”

He also warned that water needs of people in the southern Malaysian state are increasing, and Malaysia is also extracting water upstream of Linggiu Reservoir — which Singapore depends on to draw water reliably from the Johor River.

This is a point that is seldom stressed, that Malaysia’s “upstream” venture,  Johor’s Semangar and Loji Air water treatment plants, along the Johor river means less water “downstream” for Singapore to extract. Can we rely on Johor for freshwater? We already have 17 reservoirs in Singapore.

He sounded a little testy when he suggested that MPs should get the basics right: That water is an existential issue. The former army chief added that a whole generation that has worn uniforms know what this means.

Which is as good as saying, do you really want to see the day when fresh water supply from the north gets cut off or Singapore is subjected to some kind of blackmail over a resource that countries go to war over?

I suppose politicians are constrained from saying things this bluntly but it’s a logical conclusion given the threat that the Linggiu Reservoir might run dry this year if hot weather persists, as Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan noted last month in a parliamentary reply. The water issue was raised at the leaders’ retreat in December with both Singapore and Malaysia pledging to look for new ways to increase fresh water supply.

According to the 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries, PUB can draw up to 250 million gallons (mgd) of water from the Johor River each day. In return, Johor is entitled to buy treated water of the same volume as up to 2 per cent of the water extracted by Singapore on any given day, or about 5 mgd if Singapore draws its full entitlement of water from the Johor River.

Dr Balakrishnan described the agreement as “sacrosanct to Singapore”.

“Should Linggiu Reservoir fail, there will be many more occasions when it will not be possible for PUB to abstract its entitlement of 250 mgd, and the current abstractions by Johor’s Semangar and Loji Air Water Treatment Plants will also be affected. This will cause severe problems for both Malaysia and Singapore.”

I can also speculate that the water increase was timed now because of the dire straits of the Linggiu reservoir which was at 27 per cent capacity on Jan 1.

But there’s still this niggling question of why the G didn’t look ahead and had to impose such a high increase. Was it so happy with NEWater being a substitute? Did it get complacent over the water problem or think there’s always enough in the public coffers to build yet another plant? Because it’s likely.

If the water price hike was put starkly and clearly in strategic terms, it’s likely that people will be more willing to pay the price.

I would.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Bertha Henson

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong sipped from his teacup at least nine times in the half-hour interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur. It made me wonder if someone off-camera had re-filled his cup during the interview. It must surely be drained by sip No. 4.

It was a pretty disappointing interview. Or rather, Mr Sackur had pretty disappointing questions. They included the Western media’s evergreen favorites about freedom of the press, Internal Security Act, one-party rule and criminalisation of homosexual sex. Does it outrage anyone that he presumed so much about the rightness of his views? That he’s stuck in the old colonial mould of suggesting what other countries should do?

PM Lee’s riposte was masterly: “I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?” But before he said that, he turned around what Mr Sackur had said about how UK politicians suggested that Britain not be restrained on human rights issues when seeking a trade deal with Singapore. He said that Mr Sackur himself didn’t seem restrained in his questioning. It took a while for the BBC man to realize that the jibe was intended for him.

(In fact, I found it amusing how Mr Sackur tried to talk up Britain after Brexit. Still a “major power”. You would think that countries are lining up to trade with Britain, rather than with the European Union.)

Even as he went on about how Singapore does not have a two-party system which he thought should be in place for a functioning democracy, Mr Sackur suggested that the PM himself should take the lead in influencing people to take Section 377A, on the criminalisation of homosexual sex, off the books.

How ironic! On the one hand, he dripped sarcasm with his inferences about an autocratic G. But on the other, he was telling the PM that having the section is wrong and the PM should delete it to show that Singapore has changed.

I wish the PM replied: “Change to look good to who? You?” But he was rather more polite, saying instead that it is not for the government to lead on moral values. Even those which did on these issues, such as Britain, France and the United States, have had to deal with conservative protestors.

He made a similar point when he said that the world must embrace diversity and differences in values, outlook and priorities so that countries can prosper together. There is no “monopoly on virtue and wisdom”.

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There was a time when I thought that these evergreen issues made for challenging questions. But I know the answers so well now that I wonder why the Western media don’t learn from their own news archives and their past interviews.

Singapore has one dominant political party in Parliament because the people made it so. That is, unless Mr Sackur can prove that nefarious measures have been taken to rig the vote or that Singaporeans are somehow too frightened to vote for an opposition politician. If he did enough research, he would know that the Opposition didn’t do too badly in the popular vote in recent elections, especially in 2011, and that they have so few seats because we used the British first-past-the-post system.

I guess to many people elsewhere, it is inconceivable that one party could get so many votes. (Here’s where the different values, outlook and priorities come in.)

I wish he asked instead about whether the G is using its power and authority to keep talent out of opposition parties. Or whether complacency, corruption and inefficiency would set in if one political party holds power for too long. On freedom of the press, I wish he asked how restrictions such as licensing are compatible with the Internet age when, as PM Lee said, there is already so much access.

Of course, the old hoary chestnut, the Internal Security Act, was brought up. Mr Sackur didn’t say so but anyone could tell that he was thinking of political prisoners. PM Lee noted that those detained under the Act, in the recent decade, have been people with terrorist links. Now that’s quite difficult to rebut at a time when security is such a big concern, even in Britain. Mr Sackur didn’t press the point.

The points he did press were personal. Like whether the PM Lee would think differently about 377A if one of his children is gay and whether he would accept a non-Chinese – Mr Sackur had in mind DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam –as Prime Minister. PM Lee deflected both questions, focusing instead on what society could countenance and how the next generation of leaders would be the ones to pick the next PM. I half expected Mr Sackur to ask about the elected presidency being reserved for non-Chinese, but he didn’t. I guess his research didn’t include current domestic events.

Mr Sackur’s parting shot was about whether PM Lee, after more than 12 years in power, would go “on and on”. The PM replied he had already said he wouldn’t. (He’s stepping down after the next election.) Frankly, if the interview was with his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Sackur would have gotten hauled over the coals for not doing his homework.

 

Featured image by Facebook user Young Leadership Foundation-Cambodia.

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by Bertha Henson

TODAY, MPs will be talking about the Budget that was announced on Feb 20. Here’s a speech which I am hoping NOT to hear. At the very least, MPs should move away from the clichés.

 

Madam Speaker, I applaud the Finance Minister for a comprehensive budget that positions Singapore securely not only for today, but for the future. With the world in turmoil, Brexit and the protectionistic stance of the Trump administration in the United States, it is right that we take steps to make sure that Singapore remains competitive in an uncertain environment.

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We live in a small country. We have no natural resources. We can only rely on our people. We must do our best to harness our collective energies and look for synergies that will increase our competitive advantage. In this regard, the Global Innovation Alliance is a step in the right direction.

The budget is a good follow up to the report from the Committee for the Future Economy, which the good minister, despite recovering from a stroke, chaired. The report had many good points, such as strengthening enterprise capacities, enabling innovation and growth through partnership, and developing a vibrant and connected city.

Some people have described the Budget as underwhelming. They expect more specific measures or a magic bullet. This is understandable. The focus of the Budget is on transforming the economy so that we can seize opportunities that come our way. We must be agile. Nimble. Flexible. This Budget is to help us achieve this goal.

The Budget’s emphasis on the future economy is therefore appropriate and timely. The sharing economy is on the rise as demonstrated by the presence of Uber and Grab. But it also causes disruptions. We must strike a balance between welcoming new technologies and ensuring that Singaporeans are not left behind. People must be trained and re-trained. I note that many schemes have been put in place. More should be done to make sure that people know what are the resources available to them and how to access them.

Although the G and the National Trades Union Congress have done a great job in ensuring that the unemployment rate remains among the lowest in the world, according to a REACH survey, PMETs worry about their job security. (Insert clichéd anecdote here) We must deal with the problem of skills mismatch, by offering more incentives for training. The SkillsFuture system is one way to change the cultural mindset. It is an excellent scheme. Can more be done to get more people to sign up for courses? Can we be more flexible?

Our small and medium-sized businesses, however, are complaining about the lack of relief in the Budget. Although the Minister has been generous in extending and enhancing the corporate tax rebate, can he re-look other fees and charges as well as rents? Our SMEs are the backbone of the economy. We must help them restructure their operations, upgrade their processes and utilise robotic technologies so that they can compete in the global marketplace. The Industry Transformation Programmes launched last year will help them. I note that this will be extended to more industries. This is a welcome move.

I am also cheered that this is a green Budget. It has incentives for those who use cleaner cars and green technology. It is important that we understand the threat of climate change especially to a small country like Singapore. I look forward to the day when all the buildings in Singapore are environmentally-friendly. We have already done much in this area. However, more can be done.

As for social policies, I am pleased that the Budget is an inclusive budget with help for the disabled and caregivers. This shows that this is a Budget with a heart.

Now, I turn to the rise in water price. People are not happy. This is natural as no one likes a price increase. As Mr Lawrence Wong said, there is no ideal time to raise prices. It is important to educate the people on water security and to treasure the resource. I welcome the G’s move to phase in the increase in two stages so that people have more time to get used to the new price. The rebates will also go some way to lessen the impact on lower income families.

Madam Speaker, it might be timely to introduce incentives to get people to save water. We need both a carrot and stick approach. People who save water deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. This will impress on them the importance of conserving this scarce resource.

In conclusion, this Budget is a blueprint/roadmap for the future. Not only for our future but for the future of our children and our children’s children.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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