April 28, 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

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

 

 

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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

 

 

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by Daniel Yap

The Labour Market Report for the third quarter of 2016 shows signs of a gloomy season for Singapore.

Total employment for the period was down by 2,700 – while it isn’t a big number in itself, it shows growth dipping into the negative for the first time since Q1 2015. The previous time it dipped was during the 2008/2009 downturn.

Total employment growth in the first three quarters of 2016 is also the lowest since 2009, at 14,500. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that the job losses affected mainly Work Permit holders and was due to contractions in manufacturing and construction.

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Layoffs up until September are also the highest since 2009. But a small positive counterpoint to that figure is that resident re-entry rates (re-entering the workforce after a redundancy) have bucked a nine-month long slide to come in at 49 per cent, an improvement of over 45 per cent compared to three months ago.

Long term unemployment (more than 25 weeks) for Singapore residents also rose from 0.6 per cent to 0.8 per cent compared to the same period in 2015. Seasonally adjusted overall unemployment stayed level between the second and third quarters at 2.1 per cent.

The Manpower Ministry’s conclusion: “The contraction in total employment, heightened redundancy levels and decline in job vacancies to unemployed ratio reflect the current subdued global economic conditions and ongoing economic restructuring.”

And with the global outlook showing no signs of improvement, that means tough times ahead.

You can find detailed numbers from the report on MOM’s website.

 

 

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by Daniel Yap

WITH Singapore suddenly caught in the spotlight of the nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles (ICVs) coming from Taiwan, Singaporeans have been reacting in the extremes. Some have asked for Singapore to apologise to China and accede to the superpower’s demands to secure survival. Others have insisted that the island-state be belligerent and demand our right to our legally-shipped military hardware, and escalate the row if need be.

What do Singaporeans need to pay heed to when trying to process this latest turn of events? How should we react to the unfolding drama?

 

This selection of Hong Kong as the seizure port is deliberate

It’s no accident that Singapore’s Terrex ICVs were seized in Hong Kong. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has been using APL to transport its military hardware for years (APL is a subsidiary of former national shipper NOL) and APL’s Kaohsiung-Singapore route passes through Xiamen and Hong Kong before going to Chiwan (Shenzhen), Port Klang and then Singapore.

Had China really wanted to have the ICVs more firmly in their hands, they would have chosen to stop them at Xiamen or Shenzhen. It is possible that Hong Kong was selected because it presented the most effective mix of control over the port, “leaked” press coverage and acts as a sign to Taiwan about how Beijing sees them as another territory, like Hong Kong (more on that later).

Hong Kong also provides the most effective way for the ICVs to be returned to Singapore. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), it was a case of botched paperwork that was presumably detected in Xiamen, but Chinese authorities left it to Hong Kong to do the seizure.

Even though such a situation could have been resolved quietly between customs officials, China engineered a bilateral blowup in Hong Kong, where it would be easier to contain any escalation that would impact ties more than Beijing wanted.

Hong Kong’s Factwire said it was given the news of the seizure by Chinese customs sources. It’s not a big leap to think this was a deliberate leak of information to a non-state-owned media outlet to give maximum impact to the news break and make the incident as international as possible.

 

It may be as much about Taiwan as Singapore

Taiwan’s relationship with China has become tense again with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen refusing to disavow calls for Taiwanese independence, and her failure to acknowledge China’s “one China” policy that considers Taiwan a renegade province. Beijing cut off diplomatic communications with Taipei in June after years of warming relations under Mr Ma Ying-jeou.

This tactic of isolation is being extended to Taiwan’s friends, in the hopes that it will lead them to distance themselves from the territory.

This is not to say that China doesn’t want to make the most out of this incident to impose itself on Singapore as well. Beijing still bristles from Singapore’s stand of supporting an international ruling that rejects China’s claim over parts of the South China Sea, and will want to pressure the city-state to reconsider its position.

China considers control over the South China Sea as a “core interest”, and therefore we can expect its more propagandist and nationalistic publications like the Global Times to continue to attack Singapore for its refusal to submit to China’s stand on the matter.

Seizing military vehicles, however, does not seem to be an action well-suited to achieving the goal of getting Singapore to buckle on its adherence to the rule of international law. It is, ironically, adherence to international law that allows military vehicles to be seized given botched paperwork.

While the move may be retaliatory in nature, it is likely to achieve nothing more than to strengthen Singapore’s resolve not to be bullied by a larger power. The Republic will stick to its guns on the South China Sea issue, and its citizens may galvanise against those who call for submission to China’s demands.

 

Kowtow? Protest? Neither?

Singapore seems to be pushed into a position where it feels pressured to acquiesce to Beijing’s demands to cut off ties with Taipei, as well as to ease off on defending Asean interests in the South China Sea.

In reality this cannot be done without severe consequences. Singapore’s military relationship with Taiwan goes back to our early years as a nation – the Operation Starlight training agreement began in 1975 and is an open secret. Taiwanese officers have held the top posts in Singapore’s Air Force and Navy.

And Asean is Singapore’s immediate neighbourhood, and a bloc that Singapore benefits from being a part of. If Asean interests are jeopardised, then Singapore stands to lose out as well. Complicating matters is Singapore’s current role as Asean co-ordinator with China. Perhaps the Chinese had expected Singapore to nudge the grouping in favour of China’s claim.

Yet Singapore’s military dealings with China have also grown in the last decade. The island city also sends its troops to participate in joint exercises with the People’s Liberation Army, a move that has been noted by Taipei and is also closely watched by Asean nations.

Given that China is a nation which Singapore has many close dealings with, it will also be unlikely that either side wants this to become a serious bilateral spat, even as both nations feel the pinch of slowing economic growth.

When stuck between a rock and a hard place, it is good advice not to try and move too much. Singapore’s best bet will be to keep a low profile, minimise reactions and simply wait for China to release the ICVs once it feels that it has milked all the diplomatic capital it can from their seizure.

Singapore will now also have to be more cautious about taking sensitive shipments for granted – Beijing has shown that it is willing to kick up a fuss at Singapore’s expense, even though it had let such shipments through in the past. Any dealings with the now-disfavoured Taiwan will have to be kept clear of China’s shores.

 

Hold out against a world power

Singapore knows that its options are limited as a small state with an open economy. It cannot afford to fully ally itself to one world power or another. Not only would that ultimately result in vassal-dom, it would also close it off to options to pursue international political, economic and social objectives that are in its own national interest.

Its only recourse when large powers flex their muscles is summarised in this statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the South China Sea dispute: “We support the peaceful resolution of disputes… in accordance with universally-recognised principles of international law… without resorting to the threat or use of force. As a small state, we strongly support the maintenance of a rules-based order that upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states.”

 

 

Read the other articles on the seizure of Terrex ICVs here:

  1. Return our… SAF vehicles!
  2. Return our… SAF trucks! Part 2
  3. Toy Story: The return of the SAF trucks
  4. Terrex tank seizure: Hold your fire

 

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by Daniel Yap

I AM proud to say that I know ousted NKF CEO Edmund Kwok. He was my mentor and leader when I was in my teens and a part of my church youth group, and I looked up to him. In many ways, I still look up to him.

He was an example to me of what a good man would be like: he raised a loving family, he was respected by his colleagues, he shared in earnest about himself and his life, and he was never preachy in the decade or so that I was under his leadership, even though it seemed to be his right as a leader in the church.

I was excited when he joined National Kidney Foundation, not just because his professional experience would benefit many, but because I knew the spirit and values he would bring with him there. I thought that maybe he could be the one to help NKF shed the running-joke legacy of TT Durai. It was not to be.

It is painful for me to watch this drama unfold in the news. That pain is shared by those who know him as well as I do, as we watch everything unravel slowly in a story that only promises more sordid detail and public judgment.

Any wrong that he has done has not taken away my admiration for him. He confessed when he was confronted and will face the full consequences of his actions, as he taught me that a good man should do. I am glad that NKF, apart from that very sketchy first announcement, has said that it will not cover up this incident.

Any wrong that he has done has not taken away my admiration for him. He confessed… as he taught me that a good man should do.

Mr Kwok is still, as NKF chairman Koh Poh Tiong put it, “one of the best”. Not just one of the best CEOs, but one of the best people I have known in my life. It seems fitting to remind myself again today that the best people are human.

It is not the first time that I have seen someone I looked up to fall from grace. There have been other less public but far uglier “indiscretions” in the communities I have been a part of. Some of these were covered up, to my disdain. Others were made public at the earliest opportunity.

Each time, a community of people was let down. Sometimes, people in that community were crushed.

At each of these revelations of human weakness I relearnt the lesson – never put a man on a pedestal. It is not that we should not trust or admire or love, but that when we do, we must see the real person behind it all, shown with all his weaknesses.

It is only then that our admiration becomes real, and that the one we admire becomes confident of his value in our eyes.

At each of these revelations of human weakness I relearnt the lesson – never put a man on a pedestal.

We sometimes idolise sports stars, business leaders and politicians – somehow they can do no wrong. This is the realm of the die-hard. The counterpoint to such idolatry is unreasonable criticism – blaming them for weaknesses and failures as if we expected them to do no wrong. This is the realm of the hater.

Both of these types of idolatry are dangerous things for us. One is the fantasy of complete security as you walk along the edge of an abyss. The other is a bloodthirsty attack that scars the attacker more than it wounds the victim.

That is why I am extremely distrustful of leadership styles that rely on a facade of un-impeachability, where leaders are slow to confess to failure, because I know that the image of the perfect leader is simply one that has been covered up, smoothed over, even falsified.

To maintain it, one must lie, believe the lie and feed the lie.

I too am someone’s hero. Even though I am not some high-ranking CEO, I know I carry the weight of my children’s adulation. Someone, somewhere, hopes that they can become something like me, but I hope I can teach them that they must be better than I am. I hope to show them my weaknesses and I hope that they will help me overcome them, or at least hold me accountable for them.

In this respect, I do not believe Mr Kwok (“Uncle Edmund” to me) has failed. In all the years I have known him, he has not been one to put up a false front of perfection. I trust he will make things right.

I am praying for him. I believe he will stand tall again, even if it is just in the eyes of those who trust, admire and love him.

 

See our other related stories here:

NKF scandal: CEO sacked over ‘personal indiscretion’ with male staffer

NKF scandal: So, was it sexual or not?

 

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by Daniel Yap

INNOVATE. Our bosses urge us to do it, teachers equip us to do it, and the G desperately wants us to do it. Innovations can pay off and change the way we live, but even when they have a huge potential to benefit people, they are sometimes seen with scepticism, even hatred.

Every significant-enough innovation will have its share of fans and haters. How do we cut through the ideology, rhetoric and force of habit to really figure out what is or isn’t a step forward?

Whether it is simply a distrust of technology, incumbents fighting disruption, or a culture clash, there have been many reasons why mankind has stood against innovation.

Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo could hardly be counted as the first men to have their innovations and new ideas beaten down by dogma. Nikola Tesla too fell victim to the politics of innovation in business when his alternating current system (and a host of other inventions) was made unpopular in a smear campaign by business rivals.

More recently, the blockchain, the technology that powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, was viewed with simultaneous wonder and scepticism: a “wild west” for finance. The financial world kept its distance, sometimes decrying the market as nonsensical.

Today, banks and governments are falling over themselves to implement the underlying technology into new systems that could secure and track assets at a fraction of the cost.

 

Fear of innovation

Uber is a name often associated with disruption, and it is no stranger to being the unpopular new kid on the block, especially when taxi drivers feel that their livelihoods are being threatened.

Imagine how they would feel about the push towards self-driving cars – a technology that Uber, Google and a host of other companies are spending heavily on.

On principle, most people today don’t trust driver-less cars. It’s a bit too much to remove the driver from the driving equation and trust a computer to do what is considered a complex series of measurements, calculations, decisions and actions. It’s even more of a leap to put your life in the hands of a robot.

I had a friend tell me, soon after Nutonomy announced its world-first on-road driver-less taxi in Singapore, that he would not under any circumstances step into such a vehicle, and that he would steer clear of them on the roads.

Driver-less cars have pros and cons – code ensures that such cars make cold calculations. Without the vagaries of emotion and fatigue, the mistakes that driver-less cars make can be corrected permanently with updates, for example.

On the other hand, one downside is that there is no clear precedent on who is at fault when a driver-less car gets into legal trouble. We don’t trust the technology and don’t know how to manage it within the current framework of society.

 

Smoke and mirrors

When Philip Morris International rolled out their new iQOS tobacco product in Japan in September last year, nobody expected it to capture three per cent of the market in 12 months (NOTE: the iQOS market share as of end-September is now 4.1 per cent, the original figure was based on the end-July numbers).

The innovative product isn’t vaping – it ditches vaping’s liquid nicotine for a heating device that brings tobacco to just below combustion point, producing a nicotine vapour that tastes a lot like a cigarette, but with no smoke and, presumably, reduced risk of cancer from carcinogen exposure.

Philip Morris International opened up its Swiss research facility to major news outlets at the end of last month and is telling people to quit smoking.

It’s not altruistic for the company, which made US$74 billion in revenues in 2015. If their innovation catches on because it is truly healthier, then it will mean a huge market swing away from their competitors. That’s business – if you can put out a better product, you have a great shot at huge profits.

But anti-smoking lobbyists and the World Health Organisation’s “quit or die” approach to reducing smoking risks (which Singapore adheres to religiously) stands in the way.

Smoking is a notoriously hard habit to kick. In Singapore, high taxes and ever-harsher bans and regulations have only put a dent in the smoker population.

New innovations are banned outright, even if they pose a lower health risk. Given the presence of addiction, would it be a good idea to try innovative products that work on reducing risk, or would it be a half-measure?

Yet anti-smoking lobbyists have been decrying both vaping and tobacco heating technology as gateway products that will raise the smoking rate.

If they are right, then it will be down to assessing the public health impact of these new products, and whether they do end up helping or harming the population in markets like Japan, where they are becoming widely accepted.

Governments, including Singapore’s, need to research the health impact of the new technology to reformulate policies that will get the best result for the country overall, even if it means that it gives more room for tobacco.

 

Cultural cover-up

Who would have thought that clothing would raise emotions so? The infamous French burkini ban is a classic example of a culture clash over clothes, and innovative clothing at that.

Just as France’s Muslim community began to celebrate the newfound freedoms that the burkini – a full-body beachwear innovation that meets Islam’s typical modesty standards – offered, there was an outcry about how “un-French” it was to don the outfit.

An innovation that could have brought cultures closer together instead became a flashpoint for debate. Burkini-haters poured scorn on covered-up women at the beach, several waterfront towns banned the outfit, and the highest court of France had to step in to declare such bans unconstitutional.

The course of innovation never did run smooth, but in the end, reason has to prevail for technology to move forward – seeing advances in the way we do things not as threats to us personally, but to ways of thinking that may need to be transformed, and we along with them.

 

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by Daniel Yap

OH MRS Josephine Teo. I know it is tempting to drop the sound-bite about how much space you don’t need to have sex. But don’t go down that route of locker room talk. Having a child is not just about having the space to bang, and your now-immortal quip misses the point (and the opportunity to have a serious talk).

Sex makes babies, but Singaporeans (all humans, actually) don’t have just sex to have babies. Were you under the impression that more sex=more babies? The math doesn’t work that way. You could make this nation sex-mad and horny (think of all the porn we’ve banned), but our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) will still remain dismally low.

Having sex and having babies are on two separate decision trees. You can have sex and not have babies. You can have babies without having sex (and I’m not talking about the Virgin Mary).

When Singaporeans want to have sex, we have sex. Just go and search Stomp for pictures of teens making out and making love in HDB void decks, HDB car parks, HDB stairwells, but it is not the “HDB” that turns people on.

A HDB flat is not sexy, it doesn’t arouse anyone, and doesn’t improve sexual performance. It is a symbol of security and stability and THAT is what makes people who want to have babies, have babies. Having a HDB flat (and the security it comes with) doesn’t make people who don’t want to have babies, have babies.

Families crave security. So if you can’t give out HDB flats willy-nilly (you might be able to after a few more years, though), how else can you provide the security that couples who want to have babies need (to start having babies)? How will Singaporeans believe that this nation will ensure that her children are cared for?

Our TFR is a radical problem, and we need radical solutions, not just radical words. More of the same small tweaks (money, leave, perks) will not do.

Give free antenatal care, free childcare, free education, free healthcare for children. Give a nearly-free HDB flat to families with four or more kids. Give a living wage to every non-working mother of a child under three years old so she doesn’t have to worry about work. Give a living wage to every child. Relieve our financial fears. Radical ideas, maybe, but give us the ultimate backstop and watch the babies (and human juices) flow.

But if you cannot do away with the G’s crippling fear of moral hazard, its policy risk aversion and its obsession with making “economic sense”, then you cannot provide this security to Singaporeans who want to have babies. Then we will have a small space we can have sex in, but no babies to show for it.

 

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by Daniel Yap

THE G does not condone gambling. That’s the official line, whatever you think that the latest exemptions granted to Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club seem to signal. The Remote Gambling Act that the exemptions fall under was debated and approved by Parliament in 2014, and came into force in 2015.

As Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said, it is well and good to have an ideological position about gambling or any vice, but the G also has to deal with the real-world effects of such problems, and sometimes (maybe often), hard-line legislation that mimics hard-line ideology will make the problems worse (like it did during America’s Prohibition era).

Here are some reasons given, by the G and by others, for granting exemptions for Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club.

Safe space

If you want to take risks, we want to provide a safe space for you to take them. That’s the G’s approach to online gambling. It’s like a closed track and safety gear in motorcycle racing. It’s like the yellow box and indoor bans for smoking. It’s like the regular health checks and regulation of sex workers in Singapore’s registered brothels.

Stringent safeguards are part of the criteria for Exempt Operators. A 21-year age limit, in-person registration to prevent fraud, exclusion orders, two-factor authentication, prohibitions on credit and on advertising, mandatory daily funding limits, published odds, mandatory daily loss limits, and a host of red flags and notifications are in place to make these gambling sites some of the most controlled in the world.

The exemptions are only granted to betting products such as draws, races and sports, and not to casino-style games, which are more addictive and immediate in nature. So no poker games.

But is safe too safe? Who exactly are the Exempt Operators trying to attract, new gamblers, in-person gamblers or illegal gamblers? It has never really been said. Will it work? Do gamblers even really want a safe or safer space?

 

To solve nothing about problem gambling

Channel NewsAsia asked Mr Tan about how the Exempt Operator regime would achieve a goal of curbing problem gambling given that the Thye Hua Kwan Problem Gambling Recovery Centre and the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) at the Institute of Mental Health reported a 60 per cent increase in problem gambling cases over three years.

Mr Tan did not directly answer that point during the interview but has admitted that the G is under no illusion that allowing exemptions for online gambling is going to solve the problem. With online gambling as a growing phenomenon and with more people learning how to use VPNs and proxy sites to circumvent bans, a determined gambler will have no problem harming himself to get his fix.

The G said the effects of legalising online gambling in places like Norway and Hong Kong have shown that there is very little impact on the incidence of problem gambling. It did not grow or shrink the number or rate of cases significantly.

And what’s so new about online betting in Singapore? You can already place bets with Singapore Pools through your mobile phoneTelebetting (mobile and online) has already been available as a form of remote gambling for Singapore Turf Club since 2011.

 

Reduce law and order problems

Before the 70s, gambling was largely controlled and operated by Chinese secret societies. It brought with it the spillover of violence in the form of fights over turf, loansharking, debt harassment, and other violent crimes. The setting up of Singapore Pools in 1968 was designed to combat this law and order problem, even though it did not necessarily reduce the problem of gambling itself.

The G has said that the approach to legalising online betting for the two companies is similar – online gambling is a phenomenon now and it must be controlled in the same way to avoid the same problems.

There has not yet been much of an opportunity to quantify the extent of the problem. Online gambling has only been illegal since Feb 2 last year, so it is nigh impossible to track trends in terms of offences and arrests over two incomplete years.

Has loansharking, bookie and harassment activities been on the rise since online gambling started taking off at the start of the decade? This information is not immediately available. If there is indeed a problem with law and order that is strongly linked to online gambling, we would already have been able to see the numbers change over the last five years. We know nothing about whether such a trend exists.

In addition, there has been much prodding about whether a similar approach should be taken with other vices. Should exceptions be made for the recent bans on alcohol consumption and sale after 10:30pm? Maybe only local brands can be sold – Tiger Beer anyone?

Could the same concept be applied to drugs to reduce the scourge of trafficking, or to cigarettes to cripple the effects of smuggling syndicates?

 

Improve visibility of online gamblers

Minister Tan said in the interview with CNA that the exemption meant that the G “could manage (gamblers), and we can begin to intervene in a much more constructive way to help when problems begin to arise”.

Walk-in punters are not easy to track because they are not required to show any identification when they place bets. It is hard to detect from the operators’ end who gambles how much and therefore flag potential risk cases to the authorities.

The technology and structure behind the two upcoming online gambling sites makes it easier to capture and cross-reference such data.

 

Raise revenues

Here’s what most people seem to think (based on comments online) is the main reason the G has given exemptions to Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club – money. And this is also the area where very little information is available.

Back in 1968, the Ministry of Finance set up Singapore Pools to combat the spillover crime impact of problem gambling. It said then that “it is necessary to recognise the existence of gambling and to place it on a legal footing so that those who by nature are inclined towards betting can do so without breaking the law. At the same time, part of the amounts paid as stake moneys can be utilised for the benefit of the citizens of the Republic.”

There is clearly a monetary upside for the two organisations, although they are owned/controlled by the G and disburse their profits to charitable causes. We haven’t heard a word from MSF or the companies on what the expected increase in revenue is, or what cost savings might look like using the new technology.

Singapore Pools contributes about $2 billion annually to the G in the form of taxes and duties, and for the funding of good causes.

The Totalisator Board (Tote Board) is a Statutory Board of the Ministry of Finance which has Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club as agents (fully owned and proprietary). The Tote Board ran a deficit of $360 million in its last financial year after making donations of $578 million. The year before it had a surplus of $139 million after $541 million in donations. The year before that the number was even healthier – a surplus of $418 million after donations of $397 million.

http://www.toteboard.gov.sg/publications/annual-reports
Source: http://www.toteboard.gov.sg/publications/annual-reports

 

Follow the money. Tracking income and market trends through the finances of these three entities shuold give the G (and the public) a clearer picture of how people are behaving and reacting to the growing market of online betting, or whether it is putting a dent in illegal activities.

At the very least, we will know if we have more money in the charity pool and for the G to spend.

 

Featured image Bet by Flickr user Lionel Roubeyrie. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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