April 28, 2017

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Authors Posts by Daniel Yap

Daniel Yap

Daniel Yap
161 POSTS 48 COMMENTS
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

Featured image by Flickr user Vaping360. (CC BY 2.0)

by Daniel Yap

SENIOR Minister of State for Health Amy Khor’s answer to WP Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera’s question about heated tobacco products exposed a weakness in the Ministry of Health’s policy on alternative tobacco products, and its approach to science. Smoking is a big risk for our healthcare system, and if alternative products can lower that risk, then perhaps we need to consider them more carefully.

Heat-not-burn tobacco may be strange to Singaporeans because it is banned here, but it accounts for more than five per cent of the tobacco market in Japan after being on the market for just two years, and is catching on in many major markets worldwide. Its popularity is due to rising fears of the effects of second-hand smoke and also smokers’ desire to quit or reduce harm to themselves and their families.

But since Singapore plays host to research and development facilities of tobacco companies, it’s odd to think that we know so little.

How Philip Morris International's iQOS system works
At least we know how Philip Morris International’s heat-not-burn iQOS system works

Plus, since we are at war with diabetes (of which smoking is a major risk factor), it behooves us to be interested in even preliminary studies of products that claim to reduce risks, including e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.

I have family and friends who smoke and I would like to know whether this product (or any other, like vaping) could reduce the harm they are doing to their bodies (and to mine). I would think every smoker’s family does.

It takes time, of course, but Dr Khor did not say that studies were underway. Are they? I know the budget is tight, but this is a budget for the future, isn’t it? Why not spend a few million now to potentially reduce future healthcare costs by billions of dollars?

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1. Don’t know means don’t know, not “no”

Dr Khor’s reply sounds like a defence of the G’s policy of banning heat-not-burn products, along with e-cigarettes and non-smoking tobacco. If a lack of information exists for an issue as important as smoking, then it is the duty of the G’s scientists to go and find out more.

If we don’t know, we should be open to trying. I’m not saying we should completely legalise alternative products to all and sundry. Even Mr Perera’s suggestion to start with giving these products to smokers trying to quit will be a start.
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2. Citing nicotine levels as a reason why heat-not-burn is bad

Mr Perera was asking about the overall risk of heat-not-burn products. Dr Khor answered with how nicotine levels were comparable to regular cigarettes. This answer is strangely off-track.

Smokers are addicted to nicotine but killed by tar and other chemicals. Shouldn’t the answer be about tar and carbon monoxide instead? Or at least one of the many other chemicals in cigarettes that could harm your body?

And if lower levels of other chemicals are detected in heat-not-burn products, then the same level of nicotine would be a good thing because it would be easier for addicts to switch products because they get the same high while causing less harm to themselves and others.

We practise “reduced harm” policies for other vices. If heat-not-burn products and e-cigarettes reduce harm, we should allow them, and the health authorities should commit to this and then go research it.
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3. Criticise the research, not (just) the researcher.

Dr Khor is a little too dismissive of the research done by tobacco companies when she says “while there have been claims that such tobacco products are less harmful…these claims are made by the tobacco industry”. It is one thing to know that a person or organisation is an interested party in a study or has lied in the past, but that isn’t what makes a study true or untrue.

Research done by tobacco companies on heat-not-burn stretches back to 2008. And it is extensive, with publicly available methodology. Philip Morris, for example, has submitted a two million-page dossier to the US Food and Drug Administration on the effects of heat-not-burn. If heat-not-burn is as harmful as cigarettes, as Dr Khor presumes, then we need to dive into the research, not ignore it.

Since there is currently no research to disprove the tobacco companies, why not peer review their studies? Why not attempt to replicate them? Why not conduct independent studies? That is how one refutes (or proves) another’s research, not by a mere claim that the other party is an interested party. That’s what we do with big pharma, so apply it across the board.

Good science was responsible for linking cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other ailments with smoking. We need to drop the lazy rhetoric and do the hard work of science.
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4. “There is no safe level of tobacco use”

This was the answer Dr Khor gave to Mr Perera’s query about trialing reduced-risk products to help smokers who have registered for smoking cessation programmes quit.

Not only does it fail to answer Mr Perera’s question, the answer hides behind a truism. Of course there is no safe level of tobacco use. There is also no “safe level” of particulate pollution. There is no safe level of red meat consumption. But we know that a PSI below 50 is considered “healthy”. We know that one can eat a moderate amount of red meat and not be considered “at risk” by doctors or insurers.

We want to know whether heat-not-burn is safer than cigarettes, not whether tobacco is bad for you. Big tobacco is claiming that heat-not-burn is safer. There are no claims that it is safe.
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5. The “gateway effect” and other “evidence from other countries”

Dr Khor says that “evidence from other countries” shows that heat-not-burn products have emissions that are not too different from cigarettes. However, a November 2016 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report on heat-not-burn products comes to this conclusion:

“To date, we have not found new independent science that has assessed the harm reduction potential or the acceptability of the current generation of heat-not-burn products… If independent science finds that the new heat-not-burn products do indeed considerably reduce harm and are widely acceptable to smokers, an opportunity would arise for eliminating the sale of the higher risk combustibles.”

So other “evidence from other countries” so far is a well-documented seven-year-long and counting study by UK health authorities disproving Dr Khor’s “gateway effect” fears, and showing the exact opposite.  Dr Khor mentioned the study but didn’t have the time to explain why she didn’t accept its findings.

Instead, her evidence backing up the “gateway effect” is only half a story – that adolescent e-cigarette use in the US is growing quickly (ten-fold since 2011). The other side of the story, which she left out, is that there was a sharp decline in conventional cigarette use over the same period. I’ll not be one to confuse cause and correlation, but telling only one side of the story robs us of the facts.

Add to that the fact that the UK government has concluded that e-cigarettes are definitely less harmful than regular cigarettes and you’ve got to ask: Could the Ministry of Health, in their over-zeal to protect Singaporeans from “potential harm”, also be holding us back from potential benefits? All I know is that we can’t justify our policy positions with bad, bad science.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Vaping360. (CC BY 2.0)

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U.S. President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

by Daniel Yap 

THE race to retrain is playing out in the USA as it is in Singapore. US President Donald Trump was just told last week (Feb 24) that even if he brings the jobs back to “make America great again”, there aren’t enough qualified American workers to fill them.

Currently, some 324,000 factory vacancies are available in the USA and the two dozen business leaders, including Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Doug Oberhelman of Caterpillar, and Inge Thulin of 3M, warned that a skills mismatch meant that many would remain unfilled.

Jobs have not only left the USA for other markets; it seems that some jobs are simply gone for good. Part of the problem that got Mr Trump elected into office, anger over lost blue-collar jobs, has been one that was left un-addressed by the previous administration, and the issue of the job-skills mismatch seemed to be relatively new to Trump himself.

Simply demanding that companies move production back to the USA will not solve the problem. Times have changed, and the USA needs a new solution.

White House staffers were challenged by the President to come up with a program to make sure the American worker is trained for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow.

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What sort of program would that be, I wonder? Would it involve subsidised training for workers to study skills more relevant to where job openings are? Would it include a fund to allow Americans to pursue interest areas that may or may not be related to their work? Will it include education reform to prepare tertiary students for work by focusing on the latest and most relevant industry skills, and get workers matched to small businesses looking for people with the right skills?

Oh wait, you mean something like SkillsFuture?

Singapore is a little ahead of the curve on this. Even as Mr Trump, as the Government, is just learning about what businesses need and want, and scrambles to formulate policy that will address the gap.

But both Singapore and America have yet to prove that their workers, especially the oft-ignored rank-and-file workers, are up to the task of reinventing themselves for the jobs of the future, with or without help from the G.

That’s not to say that Singapore’s programme will solve America’s ills. This island nation is still at the start of its struggle to revolutionise its traditional focus on paper qualifications and America is still many steps ahead of Singapore in parts of the SkillsFuture journey. It has always valued skills at the workplace, even though it has not thought to train people for it.

The ability to get the job done and done well has fuelled many a mailroom-to-corner-office story, because employer culture is generally one that values skills and results above educational qualifications. And Americans are entrepreneurial enough to know not to expect handouts in their highly competitive economy.

Both America and Singapore know the score – as disparate as the two nations are, they are fighting for a bigger slice of the global economic pie, and whichever economy doesn’t transform fast enough is going to get left behind.

In the big picture, this is about national prosperity. The country that is able to provide citizens with the best quality of life and hope for the future is the one that can develop the skills of its people most effectively, but that takes buy-in and commitment from all parties – the government, businesses and the workers themselves.

 

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

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam's portrait
Action man: "In Jurong, We believe in doing it, and doing it with a heart" says DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

by Daniel Yap

PM LEE Hsien Loong’s interview on BBC HardTalk brought the race issue back into the spotlight. The old question about whether Singapore was ready for a non-Chinese PM came up, as did DPM Tharman’s popularity. Sadly, host Stephen Sackur didn’t hit hard on the reserved Presidency.

PM Lee seemed not to favour the odds of there being a non-Chinese PM. He said it would be difficult, but not impossible, “I hope one day it will happen…if you ask whether it’ll happen tomorrow, I don’t think so.”

Indeed, race is a factor. But of what sort? Was PM saying that Singaporeans are racist? Or was he saying that Singaporeans are realists, who vote for someone they feel more kinship and shared identity with? If it is the latter, then how big of a role does race play and can it be diminished with time?

When it comes down to the ballot box, PM’s statement that “ethnic considerations are never absent when voters vote” may be true, but race and racism are not issues that pull at us once every few years. These are daily struggles: for job applicants, for homeowners and tenants, for anyone who has more than 10 friends.

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When do we cross the line between pragmatism into racism? When does a policy designed to defuse racial tensions become a drag on society’s ability to live in harmony as different races?

What kind of a society are we building – one that believes that race issues can never be fully overcome, and must therefore be constantly managed, or one where we hope to foster race-blindness and someday be free of our CMIO definitions? Perhaps it could be something in between.

That’s why it’s time for a hard talk about race and racism. The best way to understand other perspectives and find common ground is to talk it over with one another with the aim to build bridges and share stories and hopefully come to an understanding of the society we currently live in, as well as the one we hope to build for the future.

Dinner won’t hurt either, because that’s just so Singaporean. THat’s why TMG will be the official media for More Than Just to open up dialogue between Singaporeans on the issue of race and racism. We hope you’ll be able to join us for makan and a chat.

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TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Tengku Dato' Sri Zafrul Aziz (Group Chief Executive Officer, CIMB Group) and Shahnaz Jammal (Group Chief Financial Officer, CIMB Group) at the CIMB Group Holdings Berhad 2016 Full Year Financial Results Press Conference in Kuala Lumpur

by Daniel Yap

CIMB is setting their sights on the SME market with the new BusinessGo account, a high-interest current account which waives many banking transaction charges.

The announcement came just ahead of CIMB’s FY16 group performance report, which was headlined by a record group revenue of RM$16.07 billion (S$5.09 billion). CIMB’s Singapore profits shrank by 36.2 per cent to RM241 million (S$76.32 million), however, on the back of slower loans growth and higher commercial banking provisions.

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In Singapore, CIMB hopes to capture SMEs with attractive terms under BusinessGo. It offers 0.78 per cent interest on accounts that meet the minimum monthly average of $30,000 and an additional 1.1 per cent on the first $100,000 as long as the company makes $20,000 of outward telegraphic transfers a month. This beats typical business current account interest rates that hover at or are barely above 0 per cent.

Fee waivers are also part of the BusinessGo offer. Cheques are free, as are GIRO and payroll transactions, while outward telegraphic transfer fees are waived on transactions above S$5,000. Banker’s guarantee commissions, which can be as high as 1.5 per cent at other banks, will also be waived if the client places an equivalent-sum fixed deposit.

Ms Ng Wee Lee, Head of Commercial Banking at CIMB Bank Singapore, said that the bank is able to offer this deal to customers because of its low overheads – CIMB runs only two retail branches in Singapore. She added that the bank would “just barely break even” on this offering.

Ms Ng said that SMEs are typically unable to access better banking terms because they are considered too small for banks to spend time customising solutions for, and that CIMB hopes to be able to offer them cost savings in hard times so that they will remain loyal customers when times get better.

 

Feature image courtesy of CIMB Group.

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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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