March 27, 2017

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Authors Posts by Daniel Yap

Daniel Yap

Daniel Yap
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Daniel has spent most of his career working in media agencies and enjoys the challenge of running a publication, and of building a better tomorrow. He can be reached at daniel@themiddleground.sg

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by Daniel Yap

I CAN’T say it’s a bad thing when PM Lee and senior civil servants call out in praise of constructive naysayers. It is heartening to hear those words from him.

At no other time in our history has Singapore so needed Steve Jobs’ “crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently”.

But when I look around me, I see a civil service rife with yes-men, round pegs worn ragged into squares, and all the rebels on the outside looking in. I see a society that is unnecessarily harsh on dissenting voices, a situation where promising alternative thoughts are never voiced aloud in the upper echelons of the G, and where leaders are conditioned to mount a robust defence of the status quo (with nearly no admission of mistakes) in the face of failing policies and ever-deeper problems.

So then in that context, PM’s words become the deep irony (I’ll be kind and assume it’s simply a lack of insight; if deliberate, it’s propaganda) of Orwell’s Oceania. Naysayer means yes-man. Reform means status quo. Respectable means conformist.

His description of how they grade potential MPs and political office holders is telling – “very high marks” are given to those who have a coherent, strong view of policy areas that need Government change. At this point, my jaw drops and I have a little giggle.

It would have been my assumption that every single MP and office holder must have a coherent, strong view on policy areas they want to be changed all the time because no administration is perfect. And that’s not a throwaway line – it doesn’t mean that there are small flaws in any administration. Every administration has serious policy failures that beg to be changed (it’s not always an indictment of policymakers, but a reality of a harsh environment).

What should have been the baseline requirement for an MP is now cause for “very high marks”.  

Not that MPs should never defend policy, but every policy area needs to have its supporters and critics in Parliament. Without discounting the current small voices of dissent, we want for champions.

By my estimation, fewer than half of our current office holders and MPs appear to have coherent, strong views on policy areas that need change. Gone is the sharp-minded sparring of the Lee Kuan Yew era. The bulk of airtime and effort seems to be spent reading from scripts, raising petty issues and defending the status quo rather than pushing for urgent re-thinking and reform on issues such as our population predicament, education arms race, weak civil society, diluted national identity,  lack of innovation, low productivity growth, greying generation, and more.

PM is big on tech solutions, so why not write an AI “policy defence” cliche script and vocaliser that can replace non-functioning MPs? Win-win, yeah?

The marketplace of ideas that Parliament should be requires the energy of productive disagreement. Instead, a few questions are asked, lame answers are given, and nobody actually pursues the matter to the end. The opposition then shakes its fist helplessly at the supermajority.

PM rightly observes that big organisations like the G are obsessed with wanting to avoid malfunction. The truth is that they are currently obsessed to the point where they are effectively in denial of malfunctions where they exist, or are paralysed to the point of being unable to fix significant malfunctions.

The G’s insistence on using small tweaks to solve deeper, underlying problems is not only ineffective, but misguided. It then proves to Singaporeans and a watching world that this nation is not interested in meeting its fundamental challenges, but would rather spend effort upholding the status quo.

Case in point: The lack of effective naysaying in the public sector.

It’s now become “naysay-ception”, where the problem of a lack of constructive naysayers remains unsolved because of a lack of alternative ideas from constructive naysayers.

I have heard for over a decade from friends in (and now out of) the public service bemoaning their inability to effectively change or talk about the things they feel strongly about simply because their bosses are yes-men, or paralysed by the fear of other yes-men further up the chain of command.

The G actively puts a chill on not-yet-constructive naysayers in their infancy, depriving them of guidance and opportunity, relegating them to the fringes, teaching them to stay silent. In the words of a friend of mine, “we crush the caterpillars and complain there are no butterflies”. And we keep breeding worker drones to take their place.

And then there’s the irony of PM saying in the same session that “leaders must be able to acknowledge mistakes”. So far, there seems to be no acknowledgement on his part that he and/or his administration are the fundamental cause of, and finally responsible for, the lack of effective, constructive naysayers in public service. If someone’s got their hand on the lever, it’s the men at the top. Perhaps it takes a woman to pull it?

It’s always going to come down to these things: put your money where your mouth is and let the results speak for themselves. The day that constructive naysayers function effectively and openly in the public service is the day I’ll take the call for alternative views as a sincere one.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Daniel Yap

I’M A rider. My trusty motorcycle has been my means of transportation over long distances for more than a decade. This week, the G dropped a bombshell tiered tax of up to 100 per cent of a bike’s open market value.

My current, very, very modest ride is my Suzuki DRZ 400SM. Even though I don’t fawn over it as much as other bikers do their rides, I love it. It’s considered a small capacity bike in any other developed country. Here, the G has suddenly deemed it a “luxury”. My bike is now a luxury I cannot afford.

I’m venting now, excuse me. I don’t care what you think of it.

When my bike was new it would go for $16,000 or so, COE included. Today, the latest iteration of such a bike will cost about $1,500 more thanks to the G’s new tax regime. A larger bike, even a modest-sized 600, will cost $6,000, $12,000, $20,000 more than before. Madness.

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But I know the score, it is the G’s prerogative to tax what they will. And it’s my prerogative to feel how I feel about it. And I’m not alone.

It seems like the G doesn’t understand us bikers. Biking is in our blood. Biking is a lifestyle, a community. I don’t greet other drivers in my multi-storey car park when our paths cross. I only greet other bikers. “Be safe out there, bro”, “it’s raining up north”, “nice ride”. The bike was the poor man’s hope for that feeling of freedom, of empowerment. And now it’s out of reach.

You’ve hurt us, G, you’ve hurt us. We aren’t “dismayed” like the Today article says. We are pissed off. Outraged. Livid. I’ve heard biker friends screaming blue murder, trying to migrate, crying, frantic because the dreams and plans they’ve been cherishing for the last few years, working slowly up to the next-level ride, it’s all up in smoke now. It’s crushing.

And for what? The new tax on bikes is supposed to “solve” a problem created by another more or less pointless policy decision – the slashing of bike COE supply.

The COE for bikes has risen from under $900 in 2010 to well over $6,500 today. The massive jump is because LTA decimated the bike COE supply as a proportion of all COEs. Why did they do that? To move the quota to the car COE supply because, I don’t know, somehow bikes cause the same congestion as cars in LTA-La-Land. Or maybe because car COEs make a lot more money. Or poor people should not be on the road. Or car owners were lobbying, I don’t know.

This price rise is the cause (not the result) of the surge in popularity of bigger bikes because the kinds of people who could only afford to buy a small bike like a brand new $6,000 kupchai in 2010 will never ever be able to afford a $6,500 COE in 2016. This prices them out of the market, leaving the COE supply for buyers with slightly deeper pockets. And which idiot would pay for a $6,500 COE to buy a $3,000 bike anyway?

Of course those poor unkers and delivery riders whose livelihoods got screwed over complained, and rightly so. These days even food delivery riders and couriers ride 400cc bikes. In the past, it was rare to see anything past 200cc for these jobs.

Guess what? This new tax isn’t going to make a difference for those poor bikers who got shafted by the COE crunch. It will simply put more bikes out of reach for more Singaporeans. It will just make more money (pennies, really) for a G worried about balancing the budget.

And does this tax make things more “progressive”? In a sense, yes – those who can afford to pay for a better bike will have to pay more. Cars are subject to such a tax regime (although the price of a luxury car is still ten times or more than that of a luxury bike).

But don’t make a pretence of being “progressive” when what should have been done is to make COEs more affordable for lower end bikes (and therefore more progressive) by introducing a tiered COE system, which bikers have been agitating for. Now low-income bikers are penalised with high COEs, while middle-income bikers are penalised by COEs and high ARF taxes.

No doubt, this new scheme makes good money for the G, as fellow rider Ian Tan has calculated. It makes some sense in itself, although the implementation is as shocking as the 30 per cent hike on water. Why crimp our move towards a “car-lite” society? Bikes are the definition of “car-lite”.

I could defend bikes all day. They ease congestion. Riding helps develop better driving habits. They pollute less. Riders are more community-minded. Bigger bikes are safer because they have better design, control, better brakes, and more power for responsible riders to escape danger.

Maybe I’ll still buy a bigger bike someday. I’ll just have to work hard and save more for it. But today I feel pain, a pain echoed by my fellow bikers in Singapore.  My dreams are further out of my reach. I can forget about that Speed Triple now that it costs $6,000 more. Or that Ducati Scrambler in yellow with the racing stripe. I can forget about ever feeling the exhilaration of mounting a litre bike… maybe if I move abroad. Wait, did I just think of migrating?

This is a heart issue, and the new and mostly senseless tax regime is causing us pain. I don’t want to hear the “justifications”. That you’re trying to open up the supply of bikes to lower income bikers. If the G wanted to do that, they would have raised the COE numbers.

I don’t want to hear how the G said over half of new motorcycle buyers will not be affected by the new system because they buy small bikes. We are all affected because we all dream about owning a bigger bike, a better bike. To me, this is about the G making more money, money, money, and making it off regular joes with mid-sized and low incomes.

I’m not going to listen to attempts at “reason”. Deal with it. Just like I’m going to have to deal with the new bike tax.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Filmwek-kiel. (CC0 1.0)

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Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season
Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season

by Daniel Yap

AFTER a run of 13 years, food and beverage maker Yeo’s will no longer be sponsoring the S. League.

The company confirmed in a statement it would pull out of supporting the 2017 season after weeks of back-and-forth, including reports of Yeo’s desire for a five-year plan for the league, and the league’s lack of such a plan.

New sponsor Hyundai will step in to take Yeo’s place, while co-sponsor Great Eastern has already confirmed its support for the 2017 season. Komoco Motors, the local dealer for Hyundai, with its Chairman Mr Teo Hock Seng has been a long-time patron of Singapore football. Mr Teo was the former chairman of Tampines Rovers FC.

The two-year deal means that the league will now be called the Great Eastern-Hyundai S. League. And after much hand-wringing about long delays in jersey printing due to the late sponsor announcements, the league will kick off this Sunday (Feb 26) at 6pm at the National Stadium with the Great Eastern Community Shield match between defending league champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) and Tampines Rovers FC.

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The S. League is in a bit of a leadership pickle now that CEO Mr Lim Chin has resigned, leaving the reins to director of operations Mr Kok Wai Leong in the interim. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS), which runs the league, is also facing its first open elections in the wake of reports of under-spending on grassroots football, a FIFA order to end political nominees sitting on the council and hold fair elections, and a lack of confidence in the current leadership.

Tote Board funding for the FAS has also now been given to statutory board Sport Singapore to administer, another sign that confidence in FAS management is less than complete. It used to be disbursed directly to the FAS, although it is not unusual for Sport Singapore to administer funds to national sports associations.

Hyundai’s sponsorship also means that chances are now slim that Mr Teo might run for the hot seat of FAS President. Mr Lim Kia Tong, current President of the FAS Provisional Council, former Woodlands Wellington General Manager Mr R Vengadasalam and Hougang United Chairman Mr Bill Ng are rumoured to be in the running for the FAS top spot.

 

Featured image courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore.

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by Daniel Yap

TWO op-eds on tobacco in the run-up to Budget 2017 caught my eye.

The first is one by the economist Mr Donald Low in the Business Times on Feb 17, calling for a “grand bargain” – an exchange of cigarettes for reduced-risk tobacco products.

The second is by Dr Chia Kee Seng, professor and dean at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, and Dr Kenneth Warner, Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health at the Michigan School of Public Health, University of Michigan, published in Straits Times (ST) on Feb 18.

The two doctors called for an end to the scourge of smoking, pitching once again the G’s already-proposed measures of age limits, flavour bans and packaging changes as the way forward. These ideas are already being implemented by other nations.

Both pieces agree on this point – courageous action must be taken to mitigate the high cost of tobacco on our society. But do Singapore’s policymakers have the courage to save lives?

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Singapore’s tobacco policy of ever-higher taxation, bans and graphic marketing has not put a significant dent in the smoker population in Singapore over the last decade. Smoking prevalence has hovered between 12 and 16 per cent, with male smoker prevalence around 25 per cent.

One should note first that in Singapore, one-fourth of those below 18, the current legal age, had already tried smoking. It stands to reason that more laws will not stop this segment of curious youth from engaging in risky, illegal behaviour. And with the youth segment being the true “gateway” to smoking (a huge majority of smokers get hooked before the age of 21), it seems that more laws alone are unlikely to put a significant dent in the smoking rate.

The Health Ministry has set an ambitious target of 10 per cent smoking prevalence by 2020. It is admirable, maybe even attainable, but it is a big reach nonetheless. Dr Chia and Dr Warner pointed to New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Sweden and France as countries that have set a goal for a smoke-free society in eight to 23 years.

What is notable is that these countries, and many others at the forefront of the anti-smoking movement, allow reduced-risk tobacco products as a way for smokers to either quit or at least reduce the cost of smoking to society.

Singapore remains stubbornly behind the times in this area, maintaining a ban against reduced-risk products and constantly citing worry about a “gateway effect” where e-cigarettes, snus (chewing tobacco popular in Sweden and Finland), and heat-not-burn products would lead youth and non-smokers to pick up smoking.

Studies in the United Kingdom (UK) over the last few years, however, have shown that the gate swings almost uniformly in one direction: helping smokers quit (and typically become e-cigarette smokers) rather than enticing youth or non-smokers to “upgrade” to smoking. You can find the Department of Health’s findings published here.

 

Taking on some risks for greater good

That’s where Mr Low’s “grand bargain” comes in.

Based on the UK research, would it not be more prudent to lift the ban on reduced-risk products while at the same time clamping down on smoking tobacco? No doubt e-cigarettes are harmful to health, but this is a risk mitigation situation, much like how the G wants gamblers to put their money with well-regulated casinos or with entities like Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, which will redistribute to social causes.

We must remember why we want to bring the smoking rate down: the health and social costs of smoking are high. If there is a way to reduce the costs by allowing alternative products, why not? Reduced-risk products can continue to be regulated and taxed as cigarettes currently are. And with alternatives in place, we can look to the other side of the “grand bargain” – cutting down on smoking, perhaps even to the point of banning it altogether.

It seems that harsher laws against smoking would be most effective in tandem with the availability of alternative tobacco or nicotine products, with a complete smoking ban as the end game.

Perhaps Singapore can lead the world in this area as well, and become a smoke-free nation by 2030? What will it cost us? Likely nothing more than converting smokers to lower-risk non-smoking tobacco and nicotine products. Courageous policy-making like this, I think, is the best care that this nation can provide for the long-term health of its smokers – and non-smokers too.

 

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by Daniel Yap

MY BIGGEST disappointment with the 2017 budget is not just how “same old” it is, it’s how nothing is being done to overhaul the Baby Bonus Scheme. A same old budget would be fine if things were all working out, but that’s not what Singapore is looking at in the next 10 years.

Taking a page from the “same old” Committee for the Future Economy report is not going to cut it with yet-unsolved issues still staring us in the face. Healthcare costs are rising and will continue to rise. Labour supply is tight.

All talk about a budget for Singapore’s long-term future is rubbish without a clear action plan for Singapore’s dismal total fertility rate, which fell to a pathetic 1.20 in 2016 from an equally low 1.24 in 2015. All this while, we have been rah-rah-ing about a spike in births (although not the birth rate) during the SG50 jubilee year.

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A low birth rate has negative repercussions on a host of national issues: labour supply, immigration, national identity, the ageing population, healthcare, and economic growth, to name a few. Why then is Budget 2017 providing no new ideas for this? Why aren’t we focused on changing up the Marriage and Parenthood Package and Baby Bonus Scheme since it clearly isn’t having the effect we need it to have?

PM Lee has talked about ruthlessly discarding ideas that aren’t working, and after 16 years, haven’t we realised that this is not going the way we want it to?

Has Singapore simply given up? Are we not spending more to highlight the importance of a healthy birth rate?

Or has the G made some quiet internal calculation and realised that it is cheaper to naturalise citizens from abroad, making other nations pay for child-raising, and then Singapore picks the best and reaps the benefits of their productive adult years, leaving only their silver years for the state to pay for?

It is a shrewd but cold way of thinking about it, and a fantastic way to balance the budget – don’t spend on trying to fix what you’re already horrible at. Just work on the economy and on what attracts new citizens, like security and HDB grants. Cover up Singapore’s weak spots by leveraging on its strong points (attractive to migrants). Never mind if the end result is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, right?

Suggestions, anyone?

But what’s the point of a get-by city where the future belongs to someone else’s children? Let’s not treat the situation lightly. Falling birth rates reflect entrenched attitudes that will take Herculean efforts to move. Where are the Herculean ideas?

Here’s one idea: give each Singaporean child a living wage (sometimes called a child benefit or allowance). Say, $500 a month from birth to 18 years (then the boys can start living off their NS allowance). And 20 per cent goes into CPF (because we’re Singaporean like that). Inflation-pegged increases kick in every two years. Two kids could buy you a 2-room HDB flat. At age 18, they would have $27,000 in CPF to pay for university or a house.

It’s a Singaporean version of what some other states are doing – countries like Sweden and Finland have a state child allowance (about S$170 for Sweden, plus a bonus for larger families; Finland pays a child allowance of S$140-250 depending on birth order; Ireland has a child benefit of just over S$200 per child, with a multiplier applied for multiple births). Total fertility rates there hover around 1.8 and 2.0; a healthy situation once you factor in some immigration.

Such a plan will cost us $5.4 billion a year if we have 50,000 babies (right now with 30,000 babies it will cost about $3.3 billion). We’re already spending $2 billion a year on the marriage and parenthood package. The extra billions spent will have a better long-run payoff than GIC’s impressive track record (GIC contributed $15 billion to the 2016 budget).

Want to tweak it further? Consider this – those who want children will want children, and those who don’t will not be convinced. So structure benefits so that parents will plan to have three or more children (i.e. the biggest bonuses kick in at child number three).

The current Baby Bonus is trying most of all to incentivise people to have children in general, and the incremental bonus for the third child and above is small. Make it such that the first two children receive an allowance of $250 each, but the third child receives $1,000. It’s not stingy, but it will definitely tip the balance towards already-parents making the decision to have yet another kid.

What about reforming education, a major reason for people to not have kids, within the next 10 years so that we no longer feel like it’s a pressure-cooker arms-race winner-takes-all mugger-fest that then feeds into our working life?

Instead, all we are talking about now in the kopitiams is a 30 per cent water rate hike, while the G is trying to convince us that this is a budget to “secure our future”. I don’t care much for either narrative.

 

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by Daniel Yap

PRESIDENT Trump’s two-part travel ban against refugees and against nationals of seven countries has been called many things – incompetent, counterproductive, illegal, discriminatory, and cruel. And as the admonishments are (quite justifiably) poured out, I find many Singaporeans joining in the chorus and can’t help but point out a little irony.

Singapore bans all refugees, and we pick and choose other immigrants based on income, age, nationality, race, religion and a host of other factors.

Sure, we temporarily housed a few thousand Vietnamese boat people in the 70s as a transit point to third countries, but we never naturalised any of them. Until today the G stresses that the island is too small to take in any refugees at all.

What it really means is that Singapore, once a haven for Chinese refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese war, is unwilling to bear the risks and costs associated with taking in refugees in order to reap what benefits may come of it. It is pragmatic, and we have reaped the benefits of keeping refugees out.

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That Singapore is land scarce is no exaggeration. This nation must be judicious about how we add to our population. At the same time, the terrorist threat to the USA is no exaggeration either, and they must have the liberty to take what measures the current administration thinks is right (however mistaken) to mitigate their risks.

Singapore is an attractive destination for many migrant workers, and work pass applicants and would-be permanent residents and citizens are put through some pretty extreme vetting here in Singapore too. We screen for terrorist links, for which birthplace, culture, gender and personal relationships are all risk factors.

The difference is that in Singapore the process is longstanding, opaque and hush-hush. In America, Mr Trump is making a public show of making big changes to keep a campaign promise, no, several campaign promises. But with great publicity comes great opposition. The rule is that what you are seen doing is often more important than what you actually do.

So any case we make about the cruelty of President Trump towards immigrants is also a reflection of our own situation. We are still free to decry the US refugee ban, especially if our consciences believe that nations must, in principle, take in refugees. But we must temper our criticism with the knowledge that we continue to abide a “no refugee” policy domestically. Where is the fervour on home ground?

We need to recognise that, as long as Mr Trump’s orders are legal, it is America’s (or any other nation’s) sovereign right to admit or reject any refugee or immigrant for any reason. Moreover, the ban is temporary and the refugee quota for the rest of the year is set at a reasonable 50,000. President Trump’s America will be taking in more refugees than Singapore will.

What is often overlooked in the executive order is Mr Trump’s call to create a “safe zone” in Syria for the Syrian refugees he has banned from US shores. At the very least there is the will to do that.

Perhaps all the angst is simply due to the expectation that America should ever have its arms open to immigrants and refugees, as per the oft-quoted Emma Lazarus plaque on the Statue of Liberty. But poems can’t count the cost and risk of open borders, or answer to those who lose out because of mass migration into their homeland (just ask the previous natives of America). At some point, pragmatism must step in to draw the line.

Luckily for Singapore, there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that our tight-bordered, no-refugee stance is going to change. So as we criticise what we feel is unjust, please temper it with the realisation that the same ‘injustice’ is at our own front door.

 

 

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by Daniel Yap

I HAVE no particular love for chickens, unless they are cooked well. But in the case of the Sin Ming chicken culling, I was left clucking at the number of complaints it took to spur the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) into action: 20.

That’s over the course of a year, mind you. And it’s not clear if the complaints were from different people, or the same fella over and over again.

It’s a small number, given that cocks crow at least 365 times a year, and that there must be hundreds of households within earshot of one aspect of the kampung spirit everyone keeps saying we need more of. The kampung is truly gone for good.

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It brings to mind the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) bizarre order to effectively shut down a zoning-compliant football school at Mattar Road over a mere five bellyaching residents. JSSL, the academy, were ordered not to let children (or anyone) play on weekends and after 7pm on weekdays. As a result, hundreds of children had their classes affected, and a football academy had to move out while rents (charged by SLA) stayed as high as they ever were.

And it wasn’t even kampung football – it was one of Singapore’s largest football facilities, 2.5 hectares all design-approved by the G.

Meanwhile, dogs urinate and defecate all over my neighbourhood and my grouses go unheard. I think I need to rally four other neighbours to help alter our reality. Or was it 19? Can someone provide me with clarity about the golden number I need to hit to get things done?

I’m confused. Some petitions garner hundred or thousands of signatures and go completely unheeded. There doesn’t seem to be any consistency for how much angst I need to generate to move the G’s hand. Perhaps it’s a question of which hand I’m trying to move. It seems that SLA and AVA are pliable while ministries are harder to convince.

In 2012, a nursing home to be built in Bishan East drew the ire of residents, but a petition with 40 signatures failed to put a dent in the Health Ministry’s plans. In 2008, some 1,400 residents of Serangoon Gardens signed a petition against a foreign worker dormitory to be built in the estate, but the Ministry of National Development allowed the dorm to open anyway. I suppose chickens are easier and cheaper to remove.

Or is it that they had wanted to cull the chickens anyway but found it convenient to pin it on upset residents? I can’t tell. AVA says that it will take action whenever it receives complaints about noise.

You know, there is this koel bird in my neighbourhood… Could I get AVA to kill it for me? I kid.

There is, however, a perfectly valid ecological reason for culling chickens – the preservation of the endangered red junglefowl. But that bird is said only to live on Pulau Ubin and in the Western Catchment Area, and culling for ecological reasons is the ambit of the National Parks Board.

So did the AVA really only execute the culling because a bunch of residents made noise (like the chickens did)?

It’s always been the G’s stand not to let a few noisy voices drown out the sentiment of the (oft silent) majority. You don’t want a handful of argy-bargy neighbours dictating the ebb and flow of community life. What’s happened now? Why doesn’t the rule apply to chickens and children’s football?

As soon as I unravel this mystery, I’ll form my army of petitioners and reshape the world in my image.

 

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by Daniel Yap

IT USED to define a person, this “graduate” label. Especially so in the civil service, which until Jan 1 classified all staff under Divisions I, II, III and IV, with Division I being graduates, and the other divisions being lesser mortals without degrees and with stunted pay scales, promotion prospects and a clearly numbered class divide.

When I finished my diploma, I knew that I could not take to joining the civil service as a second-class employee, and I had no intention of pursuing a degree course that simply repeated what I learned in polytechnic, albeit with expanded theory. If I had graduated today, I would have seriously considered the civil service: I had confidence that my skills and potential were at least equal to a uni grad’s.

Now that system has been done away with and civil servants will only be classified according to their grade, which reflects their responsibilities and remuneration. This dismantling of an outmoded system was announced in 2014 and was put into practice gradually since 2015, with uniformed services and the civil service beginning the practice of hiring non-graduates into graduate career schemes.

What will these changes bring about in reality?

 

A different way to get ahead

Now, a polytechnic diploma holder will typically have a two or three-year career head start over a degree holder. This is a huge boost for those pursuing non-specialist management roles.

Although there’s still practically no way for someone to “become” an accountant or maritime engineer just by plugging away at work, some management roles can be trained up easily on the job. Employees should ask their supervisors which skills they need to work on and take the feedback seriously by asking about short courses that would help.

With the glass ceiling removed, everyone is incentivised to perform better and even innovate, if no other bureaucratic constraints come in to squash new ideas.

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Slow mindset change?

Today, those with the will and the skills need not feel that there is a bureaucratic barrier holding them back from rising up the ranks. But certainly some vestige of the old way of thinking will still be left inside and certainly outside the civil service. Some people do cherish their often hard-earned status as a “graduate”, even if it means little in practice.

Habits die hard and worldviews die even harder. If someone has spent their life preaching (and hearing mother preach) that a degree is THE path to success, they will be loathe to change their bearing, even when the tide is against them.

It will be the middle and top managers with this dated mindset that will be a drag on culture change. They could potentially hold back thousands of capable individuals and trigger a loss of confidence that the civil service really wants to change. The organization will be accused of hypocrisy and reform will be grindingly slow.

 

Private sector change

Surely, one of the hoped-for effects of the civil service change will be for the private sector to embrace a skills-based future and tone down on paper-chase hiring practices.

But Singapore’s largest employer will probably have a more robust assessment and review system and good HR practices, compared to many smaller companies. Their promoting managers are going to be guess-timating level of performance and, sad to say, guess-timation often regresses to the lowest common denominator – that piece of paper earned 10 years ago.

But for small companies, simple solutions like having an annual or bi-annual review checklist will help greatly. Ask questions such as whether the employee enhances his team’s performance, whether his attitude is positive and productive, and make a list of skills that he has and a list of skills that he needs to improve on. Then plan what new responsibilities he will have to take on in the coming year and when (and how) you expect him to pick up the skills for the new responsibility.

When hiring, look for a culture fit, chat about the industry and administer a simple (and practical) knowledge test. Even outsourcing part of the hiring process can be financially prudent, relative to the cost of hiring (and the cost of hiring a poor fit for the job). If you have no HR experience, there are short courses that are available via ASME, SNEF and public and private institutions. You could search the SkillsFuture course directory too.

 

Education must offer more

I’m not talking about the fact that the salary structures for grad and non-grad teachers have merged since October 2015. If and when skills, knowledge and gumption become the hardest currency in the career game, then education will have no choice but to evolve to produce students with exactly those characteristics.

Education and career guidance will help sharpen students’ skills development pathways even when they are still in school, and with such centres already in every polytechnic and ITE, students will be better equipped to meet employer and industry skill demand right out of the box.

Universities, both private and public, would have to justify that two or three year delay to starting a career by imparting skills and knowledge that puts their students four years ahead of the curve. Is it even possible?

Let’s answer the question with another question: do graduates succeed because they are intrinsically talented, or because they used their talents to earn a degree?

 

From flipping burgers to the corner office

I’d love to see the day when some gutsy post-secondary school dropout climbs from an operations support role into management (like they sometimes do at companies like McDonald’s). It would signal that on the job training is very strong in the civil service and that any person in the system has a chance of realising their full potential, even if they had a bad start.

Can a dropout beat a scholar? In Silicon Valley they can. Will a “nobody” rise through the ranks and join the Admin Service? Become a Perm Sec? Or are the paths of PSC scholars still closely guarded, and excluded to everyone else?

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

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by Daniel Yap

IT’S a comprehensive, well-researched proposal on a big topic. The Workers’ Party’s redundancy insurance proposal sets all the numbers out for us like a 10-year series answer sheet, but doesn’t shed so much light on what lines we are being asked to cross with this plan, and how we will deal with the risks.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard of the opposition party raising this issue, also known as unemployment insurance. Workers’ Party Chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim, first called for an insurance scheme for workers made redundant on April 4, during the Budget debates. But it’s the first proposal put together in such a comprehensive way. There’s certainly no lack of numbers to support their push for it.

While the numbers look promising on the face of it, variables remain. We are talking about a departure from the status quo, and a measure that has been offered before in a different form, but with little success.

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The question that we expect from the G, as always is: Why do we need it?

The G’s position has always been that we don’t need redundancy insurance because we have something better. Incentives to work, rather than for loss of work, light a fire under people’s bums. Skills upgrading helps them get employed. Insurance makes for moral hazard.

Early in May, during his NTUC May Day rally speech, PM Lee said: “we have something even better than unemployment insurance… The scheme is not paid by the workers or the employers. It is paid by the government and the scheme is not to help you stay unemployed but to help you get employed.” – responding to MPs calling for stronger safety nets for retrenched workers.

Labour Chief Chan Chun Sing has also gone on record saying: “The best way for us to take care of our people is to make sure they have a good job and they can take care of themselves.” He emphasised that union leaders must mobilise workers to make use of resources available such as the S$1 billion worth of SkillsFuture credit to upgrade themselves, to ensure that they stay employable in the long run.

Redundancy insurance is a different way of protecting workers. It’s untested, but there’s only one way to know if it works. Do it.

Redundancy insurance is a different way of protecting workers. It is as yet untested in Singapore but after all the theoretical debate is done, there’s only one way to find out if it works as intended. It is what the G did for the Progressive Wage Model – design it as well as you can, put it into action and then fix, fix, fix.

But is the leap worth it? Do we need more protection? There is such a thing as over-insurance. Singapore has always eschewed socialisation when it comes to worker risks. Every man must be responsible for his own upkeep. Yes, with socialised risk, we help one another, but shouldn’t that be something that happens organically, rather than a mandatory scheme that WP is proposing?

Most of all, we enter uncharted territory. WP’s proposal needs to be mitigated at the very least, and risks need to be pared down.

 

Prior work requirement

To reduce the risk of people exploiting the system by engaging in falsified employment and falsified redundancy, a three-month period of CPF-contributing work in the last 12 months should be mandated for a worker to qualify for the benefits, which are pegged to CPF contributions.

This also gives the self-employed more impetus to contribute to their CPF. The current norm of the self-employed not contributing to CPF (as a result of having little concept of retirement planning) is antiquated and needs to be further discouraged.

 

Pay it back

To reduce the over-socialisation of the risk, the scheme can have a mechanism that has beneficiaries of the insurance pay back to the funds after they have found re-employment.

For a period equal to the benefits they received (ie, up to six months), re-employed workers will have 1 per cent of their wage (20 times their normal premium), paid back to the scheme from their CPF Ordinary Account (so as to preserve their already-tight cashflow). Employers pay the usual 0.05 per cent.

 

Mitigating worker complacency

One theory says that worker psychology will change and damage our productivity. Another theory says that a safety net will enhance our risk appetite and spur productivity and innovation. There is no real way to find out which will happen without implementing the proposal.

Two tweaks can be made to the proposal to reduce this risk factor. One, stage the introduction of the redundancy insurance and monitor its effect on worker psyche. In the first year, payouts can be capped at 20 per cent. Up it to 30 per cent in the second year and 40 per cent in the third year. If at any time there seems to be a detrimental effect on worker psychology, Parliament can move to delay the next increment or reduce the payout levels.

Two, a waiting period can be introduced before payouts kick in. Retrenched workers receive no benefits for one month after their job loss and the payouts kick in the month after. If all goes well, this waiting period can be reduced to two weeks or less.

 

Not enough time

Singapore is on the cusp of a recession, and possibly a prolonged one. If redundancies keep climbing (see our summary of the Q3 2015 labour market report here), then the scheme will have no chance of becoming self-sustaining without injections from the G.

WP’s proposal is not ignorant of this, and urges implementation while the economic going is still good. But is it good enough today?
screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-11-10-21-pmHere’s an extension of WP’s math for today’s situation. Conservative estimates skirt the break-even point.

It will be worse by end 2016. Redundancies have been about 35 per cent higher in the first three quarters of 2016 than in the same period in 2015. If Singapore wants to implement this without a G top-up, it will probably have to wait until the next growth cycle.

 

Resignations as retrenchments

You can always expect some deviant to try to game the system. The simplest way to betray the social compact here is for workers and employers to collude, declaring resignations as retrenchments. Employers may even get kickbacks from departing workers.

Granted, the incentive for this to be rampant is small – even if an employee resigns, how many really want to be living on 40 per cent of their wage? This will be most appealing to the currently unemployed, who may flit in and out of employment just to get the 40 per cent benefit. Such behaviour is not easy to weed out.

This has already been mentioned as a risk in the proposal. The plan to counter it, is to incentivise companies that don’t declare retrenchments with financial rebates. It is a fair suggestion, but it does not mean that it will work. Already, current schemes such as Wage Credits and Productivity and Innovation Credits have experienced abuse through exaggerated claims or filings, some of which are hard to detect.

 

A question of culture

A system like this, once in place, is like a foot in the door. It is easier to tweak rates and percentages than to pass new legislation. The question Singaporeans must ask ourselves is whether we are willing to pool risk in this manner.

What does it come down to? First, how communal are we? Do we expect everyone to play fair, or at the very least, do we expect that cheaters will get caught? Do we feel a burden for those affected by redundancy to the point that we are willing to bear a cost (of a kopi a month) to fund relief schemes? Think about your current contributions to CDAC/Mendaki/Sinda/Eurasian Association: how do you feel about that?

Second, given our existing framework for dealing with redundancies (training, placement, and financial aid only to the most vocal desperate), are we to see this very conservative scheme as a cash component supplement to the existing system (and we have such payouts currently in the limited form of Workfare) or will this trigger “welfare state” alarm bells among our most conservative?

 

Parliament

Is there a chance that this could be passed in Parliament? No. Not in its current configuration anyway. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already made public the G’s stand (and we assume the ruling party’s as well) that the system we currently have is “better than unemployment insurance”.

Yet there are other MPs who have been vocal about exploring redundancy insurance, even unemployment insurance. NTUC’s Patrick Tay called for further study on the concept in a CNA interview earlier this year, even though fellow unionist Zainal Sapari’s comments to TODAY seemed to pour cold water on the WP proposal.

No doubt WP will try to take this proposal as far as they can in Parliament. But if it comes down to a vote, will NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing, also the PAP party whip, allow PAP MPs to vote with their conscience?

 

Read our other article on WP’s proposal: Everything that’s right about The Workers’ Party’s redundancy proposal

 

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Daniel Yap

BASED on some of the conversations I’ve had over the last two days, not many people have read the Workers’ Party redundancy insurance proposal. The proposal sets all the numbers out for us like a 10-year series answer sheet and will answer about 90 per cent of the questions currently in circulation.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard of the opposition party raising this issue, also known as unemployment insurance. Workers’ Party Chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim, first called for an insurance scheme for workers made redundant on April 4, during the Budget debates . But it’s the first proposal put together in such a comprehensive way. There’s certainly no lack of numbers to support their push for it.

Solid statistics from official sources form the basis of all their calculations, including modeling based on the 2009 downturn. The numbers look promising on the face of it, but variables remain. It’s an interesting read and you can get it here.

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The pushback from the G, and perhaps from other critics, will be: Why do we need it?

The G’s position has always been that we don’t need redundancy insurance because we have something better. Incentives to work, rather than for loss of work, light a fire under people’s bums. Skills upgrading helps them get employed. Insurance makes for moral hazard.

Early in May, during his NTUC May Day rally speech, PM Lee said: “we have something even better than unemployment insurance… The scheme is not paid by the workers or the employers. It is paid by the government and the scheme is not to help you stay unemployed but to help you get employed.” – responding to MPs calling for stronger safety nets for retrenched workers.

Labour Chief Chan Chun Sing has also gone on record saying: “The best way for us to take care of our people is to make sure they have a good job and they can take care of themselves.” He emphasised that union leaders must mobilise workers to make use of resources available such as the S$1 billion worth of SkillsFuture credit to upgrade themselves, to ensure that they stay employable in the long run.

But it’s a strange argument. It’s like saying MediShield Life encourages people to stay sick. It’s like saying home insurance causes people to become careless about safety and security. It’s an implausible indictment against any sort of insurance, including savings and CPF (which, what, encourages people to retire early?)

By all means incentivise people to stay employed. The biggest incentive for this is a regular paycheck. That’s why most of us are working, right?

Redundancy insurance is a different way of protecting workers. It’s untested, but there’s only one way to know if it works. Do it.

Redundancy insurance is a different way of protecting workers. It is as yet untested in Singapore but after all the theoretical debate is done, there’s only one way to find out if it works as intended. It is what the G did for the Progressive Wage Model – design it as well as you can, put it into action and then fix, fix, fix.

Why socialise? The reason is the same as why we pool insurance. If everyone could only pull themselves up by the bootstraps, then we should all just get access to a small fraction of our CPF money when we are made redundant.

With socialised risk, we help one another. It’s all right if you don’t like the idea – it is simply another way of dealing with risk in a society. We already do it with taxes and G social spending. We already do it with insurance.

 

Financially unsound?

It isn’t financially unsustainable. The numbers are well-researched and there are hard caps on payouts. Modeled scenarios are extremely conservative. The only open-ended risk is very high redundancies (more than 10 per cent of the workforce) over a long term, a scenario which is not impossible, but which is ridiculous as a criticism.

The truth is that, if Singapore enters a prolonged economic crisis, then all bets are off – workfare, skills upgrading, even insurance will become unsustainable or ineffective. This means that un-sustainability in a doomsday scenario isn’t a fair criticism of any proposed or existing policy.

 

Extra costs for firms?

TODAY has UOB economist Francis Tan questioning if firms would be keen on taking extra labour costs in the current climate. Yet employer CPF contribution rates were raised by 1 to 2 per cent in 2015 and again by up to 1 per cent in 2016, with nary a squeak from employers.

Will they balk at a 0.05 per cent payout? They have no reason to.

 

Lower reliance on risky funds

A safety net means that when lower-income earners are made redundant, they have a flow of cash that reduces their exposure to risky loans. These include loan sharks, licensed moneylenders, unsecured debt, and even the sort of loans from friends and family that would strain relationships.

 

More time to get a better job fit

We’ve heard recently about how cleaners get their wages reset to the baseline every time their contract changes hands. Sometimes they stay in the same job because they desperately need the cash flow and get taken advantage of by employers because of their desperation.

Other workers may desperately jump into ill-fitting jobs to make ends meet, only to end up resigning or getting retrenched – becoming a drag on company productivity and also increasing their total unemployment period.

 

Something for those not getting anything

Current retrenchment guidelines (not laws) provide inadequate protection for workers in high-turnover industries and roles. Workers in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) get cut all the time with no benefits whatsoever (just a notice period). Even unionised companies provide only retrenchment benefits to those who have been in the company for more than two years.

Younger workers in SMEs tend not to have any real protection from existing redundancy legislation.

 

Enhancing training take-up rate

One reason why many redundant workers don’t go for training is because they can’t afford the time due to financial commitments. Better to go get the next available $1,000-a-month job than go for a one-month course and try thereafter for a $1,200-a-month job because there’s a debt collector hounding you and your mailbox is full of red letters.

Redundancy insurance gives a little more breathing room for people to seriously consider skilling up.

 

Worth looking into

There are PAP MPs who have been vocal about exploring redundancy insurance, even unemployment insurance. NTUC’s Patrick Tay called for further study on the concept in a CNA interview earlier this year, even though fellow unionist Zainal Sapari’s comments to TODAY seemed to pour cold water on the WP proposal.

If nothing else, this proposal needs a full debate and close scrutiny. If the benefits are there, why not be forward-looking and give it a try, while working to mitigate risks?

 

Coming up: Everything that’s wrong with The Workers’ Party’s redundancy proposal

 

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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