March 30, 2017

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Authors Posts by Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md
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You can reach me at suhaile@themiddleground.sg

by Suhaile Md

MY CHINESE friend once told me that a practising Muslim will support ISIS. He hates ISIS with a passion. I consider myself a practising Muslim. I quietly wondered if he hated me.

If I really know my own religion, he continued, I would either support ISIS, or convert. It’s the western education that prevented me from becoming like them. There’s a reason why Muslims don’t get into sensitive roles in the army, or civil service, he said.

I did not know how to respond to that. It hit a sore point.

Muslim loyalty to Singapore has been in question for a long time. For years after National Service (NS) was instituted in 1967, Muslims were not called up for conscription. The policy was eventually reversed. But the feeling of being untrustworthy has remained among some people here.

When I attended my brother’s passing out parade at the Civil Defence Academy in 2015, all I saw was a sea of brown faces. I remember the Chinese uncle sitting with his family in front of me, looking around and noting: “Wah, we are a minority here.” Singapore is 74.3 per cent Chinese.

I guess I was lucky to have served in the Army instead. But while serving, the feeling that I was not trusted because of my religion intensified at times. Sometimes my NS job required me to drive to other military camps that had no halal food catered in the cookhouse because there weren’t any Muslims posted to that unit. In the cookhouse at my camp, the Muslim queue was about as long as the non-Muslim queue, even though less than 15 per cent of Singaporeans are Muslim.

Why? Security reasons, I heard. 

I met national servicemen in the army who were Chinese nationals just a year or two before enlistment. They could not speak a word of English – I always needed a translator. I always wondered if they understood the pledge, the national anthem, or what they were defending? Yet they serve in the army when many of my Muslims friends who grew up here can’t.

Someone once told me Muslims shouldn’t complain. Go online and you’ll see similar sentiments: Look at other countries, they don’t treat their minorities as well as Singapore does, so be grateful.

So I should just shut up about how I feel here, in my own home? Swallow my words? Do they hate my voice? Such comments confound me, frustrate me. I am not from those countries, how is it even relevant here? 

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I am not ISIS

In junior college, my class saw a documentary on violence against women in Pakistan. In a particular scene, a man used Islam to justify burning his wife. I was the only Muslim in the room. A few classmates glanced at me. I don’t think they could help it. Still, it was enough to get me tense.

But I understood their curiosity, and concern even. After all, supposedly non-violent-me based my life on the same Quran (holy book) as the violent man. So I marched into class the next day, notes filled with quotes and arguments, ready to defend myself. I told my classmates context matters. A violent man will find any justification. Hate the man, not my faith. Not me.

Hate the man, not my faith. Not me.

Not much has changed in the years since. Every time there’s a terror attack somewhere, it’s expected that as a Muslim, I take a moral stand against ISIS or its like. 

A tall order, given that there have been at least 140 terrorist attacks by ISIS, or inspired by it, in 29 countries in the 30 months since the group declared its caliphate in June 2014. Most recently, one of its followers shot up a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve.

On average, that’s just over an attack a week. And it does not include other brutal groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al-Shabaab in Somalia. It’s hard to apologise so frequently, publicly, for something I have no hand in and do not believe in.

There were times I got fed up and remained silent, especially on social media. ISIS is evil. It burns people alive and blows out their brains. It should be obvious that like everyone else, I am just as disgusted by these. Why do I have to continually prove my humanity by repeatedly condemning the same acts over and over again? Every time I disassociate myself from them, I am clumped together again the next time they attack, guilty by association. It gets tiring.

Still that does not mean I do not own the problem of extremism (read more here). Many Muslims do so too (here’s a list) because our faith demands that we speak out against oppression, inhumanity and injustice.

Taking a moral stance against extremism also means we speak up against the oppression of Palestinians by the Israelis and the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. 

Which is why we find it hard to quietly accept that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be warmly welcomed in Singapore next month. Or when Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has yet to condemn the atrocities being committed in her country, enjoyed a friendly tour here recently. 

When I speak out on such issues, I’ve had non-Muslim acquaintances dismiss it saying it’s just politics, just business. Funnily enough, these are the same people who ask me why Muslims don’t speak out against violence. As if my conscience can be turned on or off at their convenience.

Sometimes it feels as if Muslim voices only matter when it suits an agenda. Sometimes, it even feels like Muslim suffering overseas does not matter at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it, there are economic and security considerations Singapore needs to make. I understand why the G does not officially speak up on these issues, why it has an official policy of non-interference, while quietly allowing non-governmental donations to help Palestinian and Rohingya victims. At times the G donates a small sum too. There are pragmatic, political considerations.

But where does that leave its citizens, who feel slighted? The pragmatic and the political can leave a bitter aftertaste. Extremists capitalise on this, blurring complexities, obliterating nuance, drawing thick lines in the sand between Muslims and the rest of the world.

This divide is made stronger every time someone asks me if I’m a Muslim first or a Singaporean first. The question stops short of asking outright: Where does my loyalty lie?

It’s a ridiculous question, like asking if I’m a son first or a brother. I can’t imagine life outside either role. I don’t know where one relationship ends and where the other begins.

It’s a ridiculous question, like asking if I’m a son first, or a brother. I don’t know where one relationship ends and where the other begins.

Likewise, I don’t know where the Singaporean part of me ends and where the Muslim part begins. Besides, I thought we are Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion.

So why the need to squeeze me into two categories – Singaporean and Muslim? It’s suffocating. I am Muslim Singaporean, Singaporean Muslim. I am both, at once. Don’t break me into two, please.

Thankfully, I have non-Muslim friends who get it.

Like Young-hwi, who in my absence, of his own accord, made sure the restaurant that the group booked was halal. Or the former classmate, Jianwei, who apologised to me for particular nasty racist comments on Facebook. The comments weren’t even directed at me personally and the commenters were online trolls in no way related to him. My friend had no obligation. Yet he apologised, to let me know that my concerns mattered to him, that he cared.

I wish more people around the world stand up for Muslims like my friends did. But the popular support and rise of anti-Islamic right wing figures like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands scare me. Most troubling was the recent successful presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States, in spite of his anti-Muslim prejudice.

At the end of the day though, do I think the world hates me? No, but sometimes it feels that way.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

CARRYING cash, counting change and a wallet full of jingling coins may not be your thing. Or you might have just forgotten to withdraw money to buy groceries. If so, there are various cashless payment options, like using your EZ-link or credit card, to pay for your groceries the next time you shop at supermarket chains like NTUC FairPrice and Giant.

Here’s a list of those available options at NTUC FairPrice, Giant, Sheng Siong, Cheers and 7-Eleven.

 FairPriceSheng SiongGiantCheers7-Eleven
VisaYesYesYesYesYes
MastercardYesYesYesYesYes
Diners Club InternationalYesYesYesNoNo
Samsung PayYesYesYesYesYes
Android PayYesYesYesYesYes
Apple PayYesYesYesYesYes
Ez-LinkNoNoYesYesYes
MasterCard PayPassYesYesYesYesYes
Visa PayWaveYesYesYesYesYes
Nets FlashPayYesYesYesYesYes
Nets
YesYesYesYesYes

NETS

Most of us are familiar with this. Insert the card into the card reader; type your pin. Money is deducted straight from your account. If you lose your card, a stranger has to know your PIN number to be able to use it. Even if it’s stolen and the thief knows your PIN, your losses are limited to your withdrawal limit.

 

Credit cards

Payment via VISA and Mastercard are still the most widely accepted. Diners International, not so much. As the names suggest, you buy on credit and pay the bank at the end of the month.

Cancel your card immediately if you lose your credit card though. Transactions below $45 (sometimes below $100 depending on the card) don’t require a signature. So if the cashier is not alert, anyone can use your card to make numerous transactions.

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EZ-Link

EZ-link payments are accepted at Giant, Cheers and 7-Eleven only. The stored value card needs to be topped up once you’ve used up its value. Given that most Singaporeans use EZ-link cards for public transport, you’d think that this method of payment would be widely accepted. But nope.

One reason could be because unlike credit cards and Nets, EZ-link cards have no security feature. No PIN number or signature is required for transactions.

Note though, that if you register your EZ-link card online, you can cancel the card if you lose it. The cash value of the card, at the point of cancellation, can be transferred to your new card when you register it.

 

Using your phone

If you see the “NFC” sign and you use a Samsung phone, iPhone or Android phone, chances are you can pay with your mobile phone. All you have to do is tap your phone on the Near Field Communication (NFC) reader.

Image Mobile payment terminal, in Fornebu, Norway. Operated by NFC technology. Telenor. taken from Wikicomm user HLundgaard.
Image Mobile payment terminal, in Fornebu, Norway. Operated by NFC technology. Telenor. from Wikimedia Commons user HLundgaard.

Apple pay, Samsung Pay and Android pay are services rolled out by the tech giants that allow users to input their credit and debit card information into their phones. But it’s not the sensitive 16-digit card number that is stored. Instead, a separate, unique digital code is generated. It’s this code that is used during the transaction. This way, your credit card information is not at risk of being stolen by anyone who has access to your phone.

Apple Pay and Samsung Pay require either a fingerprint or PIN authentication for every transaction. Android pay only requires it after every third transaction.

 

Contactless card payments

Nets FlashPay, Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass are basically cards that you can just wave over a card reader to pay. No PINs, no signatures required. Read more about the cards here.

If you lose the card, cancel it as soon as possible. Otherwise, anyone can just use it until the credit limit is reached without ever getting caught. Contactless payments tend to be limited to $100 per transaction. Some cards however, do not have limits. Check with your bank for details.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

MOST Singaporeans (69 per cent) do, said a report released on Sunday (Jan 15) . Which is more than can be said about Americans (47 per cent), the British (36 per cent), Australians (37 per cent), and Malaysians (37 per cent).

Of the 28 nations surveyed in the report, three out of four governments were not trusted by their people. Actually, only citizens of four other countries besides Singapore had faith in their political leaders: Indonesia, India, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China, where 71 to 76 per cent of citizens believed in the government.

While it’s commendable that the G inspires so much trust compared to its counterparts in the rest of the world, this year’s (2017) figure is a 5 per cent drop from the 74 per cent trust it enjoyed last year, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. In 2015, 70 per cent trusted the G, and in 2014, 75 per cent kept faith. By the way, the People’s Action Party won 69.86 per cent of the vote share in the last general election in 2015.

The Trust Barometer was introduced in 2001 by Edelman, a global public relations company. Initially it measured trust in a handful of European countries and the United States but expanded over the years and eventually included Singapore from 2011 onwards. Surveys are conducted online, asking 1,150 adult citizens per country about the level of trust they had in the various institutions in their own country.

Note that the surveys were done between October and November of the preceding year to gauge the trust level in the new year. For example, the survey for trust levels in 2017 was conducted around October of 2016.

The dip in trust is not unique to Singapore. Last year, China scored 79 per cent and UAE came in at 80 per cent. So they dropped by 3 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. Citizen’s trust was even higher for them in 2015: China had 82 per cent trust and UAE had 90 per cent.

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In all, 10 countries bucked the trend of declining trust. The largest gains were in Indonesia and India, which saw an increase of 13 per cent and 10 per cent respectively from last year. 

The trust in the G was not the only institution measured. Three others were considered as well: Businesses in general, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and the media. Singaporeans don’t trust these as much as they do the G.

Compared to last year, trust in businesses this year went down 2 per cent, to 58 per cent. In NGOs, it was down by 1 per cent, to  61 per cent. And the media had the lowest level of trust at 54 per cent, which is a 6 per cent drop from 2016. In fact, Singaporean’s trust in the media has not been this low since the barometer included Singapore in 2011. “Media” refers to both online and offline media.

Singaporeans have a 60 per cent trust level in the system, that is the four institutions in sum. Again, it’s one of only five countries with this level of confidence. India, Indonesia, China, and UAE have 72 per cent, 69 per cent, 67 per cent and 60 per cent trust levels respectively. Two out of three countries’ citizens distrust the systems of their nation.

What do the results mean for the future?

According to Edelman, if trust in the system erodes, it leaves citizens “vulnerable to fears” of job loss, erosion of social values, immigrants damaging local culture and so on. But with no trust in the system to address these issues in the first place, the fears increase, which in turn erode more trust. A vicious cycle ensues. It leaves citizens with a sense that elites gain at their expense, that hard work is not rewarded any more and that leaders are unable to fix things. There will then be a desire for a populist, “forceful reformer” to bring change.

About the survey

Survey participants were asked to respond on a nine-point scale, how much they trusted a particular institution “to do what is right”. On the scale, one meant “do not trust them at all” and nine meant “trust them a great deal”. Unfortunately, it’s unclear exactly how many questions were asked, and what specific institutions within each of the four categories were referenced.

All surveys were conducted online. Respondents are at least 18 years old. There were 1,150 respondents per country. Quotas were set according to age, gender and region.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Suhaile Md

WHEN it comes to food, Singaporeans are a passionate bunch. No wonder, then, that our story about late lunches in primary schools was shared more than 500 times on Facebook. You can read the story here if you missed it.

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After we posted the story on social media last Friday (Jan 6), a lot of people wanted to know why. Why are our primary school children having lunch as late as 3pm?

We went to the Ministry of Education for some answers. They didn’t say much – except that the lunch schedules are planned by the schools and are “reasonably spaced” from recess breaks. A quick check online found most schools did not schedule any lunch breaks but had recess breaks in the mid-morning.

Here are the questions we asked MOE. See their full response copied below.

1. Does MOE have guidelines for primary and secondary schools when it comes to scheduling time for recess? If not, why not? If there is, kindly elaborate on the guidelines. E.g. recommended duration, timing, etc.

2. Or is it completely up to the schools to decide when and how long they decide to schedule time for recess? Why or why not?

3. Are there guidelines for when normal class schedules for schools (primary and secondary) should end? That is, formal classes which exclude CCA time and remedial classes.

4. Does MOE have guidelines for primary and secondary schools when it comes to scheduling time for lunch? If not, why not? If there is, kindly elaborate on the guidelines. E.g. recommended duration, timing, etc.

5. Or is it completely up to the schools to decide when and how long they decide to schedule time for Lunch? Why or why not?
6. Some schools have 10 min break during a time when people usually have lunch (12-1.30). Is that an MOE guideline? If so, why is it only 10mins, it seems too short for lunch.

Furthermore, is this restricted to the classroom or can student go down to the canteen? Can they eat meals in class? Or is it restricted to snacks?

… And here’s MOE’s response, in full:

“Our schools are mindful of student well-being when they plan the school schedule. Schools take into consideration the length of the school day and the size of the cohort to determine the duration and timing of the recess. This may require recess to be staggered for different levels.

“In addition, many schools include a snack break during formal curriculum time to allow students to eat regularly without increasing school hours further. Schools with any afternoon classes or programmes provide lunch breaks of about 30 min for the students. The timing of the lunch breaks are reasonably spaced from the recess break.”

 

Read our other stories on primary school late lunches:

Why do our primary school kids have such LATE lunches?

5 quick and easy meals for a lunchbox

 

Featured image from Little Fairyland Childcare & Development Centre‘s Facebook page.

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by Suhaile Md

EMPLOYEES who turn 60 can no longer have their wages cut because of their age. The re-employment age will also be up from 65 to 67, with effect from July 1 this year. These amendments to the Retirement and Re-employment Act (RRA) were passed in Parliament yesterday (Jan 9). The retirement age still stands at 62.

Prior to the amendments yesterday, employers were allowed, by law, to reduce up to 10 per cent of their employees’ wages when they turned 60. So now, workers will continue earning the same after their 60th birthday. However CPF contributions, which drop from 13 per cent to 9 per cent for employers, and 13 per cent to 7.5 per cent for employees, upon hitting 60, will continue. No changes have been announced on that front.

When workers turn 62, they can either choose to retire, or take up an offer of re-employment. The RRA obliges employers to offer re-employment to citizens and permanent residents. Yet, it may not be in the same role with the same wage. Also, workers have to be medically fit, serve the company for at least three years before turning 62, and have performed well enough, as judged by their employer.

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Why not just increase the retirement age then?

“When you raise the retirement age, the expectation is same job, same pay.” For re-employment though, “the concept is not necessarily the same job, not necessarily the same pay,” said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament yesterday.

“When you raise the retirement age, the expectation is same job, same pay.”

So, it seems the removal of wage cuts when a worker reaches 60 is about “same job, same pay” being secured for at least two more years, with changes in a worker’s income only expected after 62. About 12 per cent of Singapore’s labour force was 60 or older in 2015, which is more than twice the 5.5 per cent proportion in 2006, reported The Business Times today (Jan 10).

About 12 per cent of the labour force was 60 or older in 2015, more than twice the 5.5 per cent proportion in 2006.

Also, CPF monthly payouts only kick in when Singaporeans turn 65. Increasing re-employment age to 67 provides older workers two more years of employment, hence reducing or even delaying their reliance on CPF payouts accordingly. On that note, current CPF contributions drop again at 65. Employers’ contribution decreases from 9 per cent to 7.5 per cent, while employee contribution drops from 7.5 per cent to 5 per cent.

 

Finding re-employment elsewhere

Another change: A company can find re-employment opportunities for its worker in another company, which is agreeable, and handover the obligation to that company. That is, the new company will be responsible for the re-employment of the worker until he’s 67 years old. This was not allowed prior to the amendments yesterday.

However, if the worker in question does not want to take up the offer to work in another company, his current employer must still find a role for him in-house. If there’s no opening available, the employee must be offered an Employment Assistance Payment (EAP). The one-off payment is to help with the loss of income, as former employees look for jobs on their own.

In response to the amendment in Parliament, the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress, and Singapore National Employers Federation updated the joint guideline that recommends a payment range for the EAP. It’s recommended that the EAP be equal to three and a half months’ pay, with a minimum sum set at $5,500, and limited to $13,000. This comes into effect on July 1 this year. Presently, it’s set at three months’ pay, with the range between $4,500 and $10,000.

 

Incentives and help for employers

Businesses get some help too. Currently, employers who hire Singaporeans older than 55, and who earn less than $4,000 a month, will have up to 8 per cent of the monthly wage covered by the G under the Special Employment Credit (SEC) scheme. This scheme will end in 2019.

If a company voluntarily employs workers above 65, a total of 11 per cent of the monthly wage is offset.

If a company voluntarily employs workers aged above 65, an additional 3 per cent is offset. That is, a total of 11 per cent of the monthly wage is offset under the SEC scheme. The additional 3 per cent offset expires on June 30 this year, but the G is considering an extension, said Mr Lim. Details will be out later.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

MOST of the 6 per cent of Singaporeans who used their SkillsFuture Credits for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were below 40, reported SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) on Sunday (Jan 8). Busy with work and with little time to spare, it’s no wonder that MOOCs, which allow users to learn at a time and place of their choosing, appeal to the busy working Singaporean. Given its flexibility and eligibility for credit use, you might want to consider it too.

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SkillsFuture Credits cannot be used for just any MOOC though. It has to be one that has been approved by SSG. Still, there is a wide variety of over 2,000 courses that SSG has identified on its website. The three most popular courses were on business administration, Python programming language, and web development.

Currently (Jan 09), there are 2,212 MOOCs on the list. The courses range from general topics in problem solving to specialised ones like how to code and develop apps.

Here’s a breakdown according to course categories, costs, and duration:

.

All 2,212 courses are categorised into 36 areas. The top 10 subject areas, shown in the graph above, make up nearly 92 per cent (2032) of all courses. Most courses are provided by either Coursera or Udemy.

Information and Communications by far has the most number of courses at 829 offerings (37 per cent). It includes courses on web development, programming languages like Python, Javascript, and C++, among others.

Business Management stands at second place with 325 courses (14.7 per cent). These include project management, foundations of business strategies, and conflict resolution, among others. There are some topics, like learning how to use Excel spreadsheets, or making a PowerPoint presentation, that some would consider under Business Management. But on the SSG site, these fall under “Administration”, which is a separate category on its own.

Likewise, subjects that can fall under advertising, sales and marketing, or accounting and finance, have separate categories of their own. They do not fall under the generic Business Management grouping. If these areas are considered business-related topics on the whole, then a total of 586 (26.5 per cent) of courses are available.

Beyond the top 10 categories, the remaining 26 make up only 8 per cent (180) of all courses. Some areas like fashion, sports, real estate, and marine and port services, have only one course each. 

 

 

The most expensive course ($795, before GST) on the site is a 100-hour business and financial modelling course. It’s a five-module course, created by the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, offered on the Coursera platform.

The cheapest costs $20 for about four to 12 hours of courses, on varied topics from learning how to use Excel, to launching social media marketing campaigns.

You can search for courses according to price range, but the values are preset on the site. The ranges are: Between $0 and $10, $10 and $50, $50 and $100, $100 and $500, $500 and $1,000. It goes higher, to $5,000, but there are no courses that reach that price range.

Note though, that the G gave $500 worth of credits to those 25 years old and above. Exceed the credit in your account, and you pay for the balance out of your own pocket. Also, there are plenty of free courses on Coursera and Udemy that are not reflected on the SSG site.

 

 

How much time do I need?

You can also search for courses according to the time commitment required to complete it. Like the price range search function, the time values are preset to specific ranges: Less than a day to one day, one day to one week, one week to a month, a month to six months, six months to a year, and over a year.

However, there is no clear definition of what “a day” actually means. Courses listed “a day” long range from 8.70 hours to 11.70 hours, the last of which is in effect longer than a full work day. However, you don’t have to complete the required hours in one shot, so you can spread it over a week, for instance. The shortest courses are three and a half hours long, and are considered “less than a day”.

The longest courses take 280 hours – there are only two of those. These fall under the one month to six month range. Search for courses longer than six months, and nothing turns up. So, assuming 280 hours over six months amounts to about 11.5 hours a week, or about one and a half hour per day, every day.

Yet there are also 90-hour courses that are categorised between the one week to one month range. Even if a full month is taken, it amounts to 22.5 hours a week – no small commitment if you’re working!

Basically, course duration is a very rough guide. Read the details of each course to find out more.

 

Featured image Julia Roy – Gmail Mastery Photoshoot by Flickr user Julia Roy(CC BY 2.0)

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by Suhaile Md

EXPATS may earn the big bucks in Singapore, but their expenses are not cheap either, according to surveys released last month.

In 2016, Singapore was globally the seventh most expensive country to study in an international school, reported Expatfinder.com (Dec 6). And according to ECA international (Dec 14), Singapore was also the 16th most expensive place for foreigners to live in, up from 33rd place in 2011.

Is it still worth it to live and work here as an expatriate? At a simple level, it’s about expenses and earnings.

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First, the expenses.

The median annual school fee for a sixth grade student in Singapore is US$21,700 (S$31,400). China is ranked most expensive at US$36,400, followed by Switzerland at US$28,300. Hong Kong came in fifth (US$23,360), while Malaysia (US$21,000) and Australia (US$20,100) stood at eight and 10th respectively. Singapore’s local schools are much cheaper for foreigners, costing $6,000 to $10,000 a year. But there are limited spaces for them, as citizens are given priority.

Expatfinder.com looked at 707 international schools in 98 countries. It did not include other costs like boarding, meals, books, and so on. As it’s a new survey, earlier rankings are not available. But globally, Expatfinder.com stated that tuition fees have gone up 3.43 per cent.

Globally, Expatfinder stated that tuition fees have gone up 3.43 per cent.

ECA International ranked Singapore as the 16th most expensive city to live in 2016. The year before, it was 18th. Singapore became relatively more expensive due to the strength of its dollar, not because of inflation, said Mr Quane Lee, Asia regional director for ECA International, in an interview with The Straits Times (ST). The strong Singapore dollar made “goods and services more expensive when converted into other currencies (such as the US dollar)”. The most expensive city globally was Tokyo. Places like Geneva (4th), Hong Kong (11th), Seoul (12th), and Shanghai (13th) were also more expensive. Up north, Kuala Lumpur ranked 192nd.

ECA International ranked Singapore as the 16th most expensive city to live in 2016.

The ECA survey, however, does not factor in big ticket items for expats, like costs of home rent, cars, and school fees. Instead, it compares the costs of food like meat and vegetables, basic household items, and recreational goods, and miscellaneous items like electrical goods, alcohol, and tobacco. Read more here.

If ECA International had factored those in, Singapore would be much higher in the rankings. Like in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report on March 10 last year, where Singapore was ranked the most expensive place for expats in 2015. Hong Kong was a joint second with Zurich. Geneva was third. Shanghai and Tokyo were a joint 11. This was the third year in a row that Singapore topped the rankings.

In the latest EIU report, Singapore was ranked the most expensive place for expats for the third year in a row.

The EIU survey is more thorough than the ECA International effort. It looks at over 400 individual prices across goods and services like food, home rent, transport, utilities, private schools, domestic help, and recreation, among others.

So with high expenses, surely the high salaries of expats more than make up for it?

Singapore expats earn an average of US$139,000 (S$201,479) a year, according to the 2016 HSBC Expat Explorer Survey. Expats in Switzerland earn US$188,000 a year, while those in Hong Kong earn US$170,000 a year. The survey was conducted between March and April 2016.

Yes, the various surveys are not directly comparable due to different methods and approaches. But broadly speaking, taking into account the EIU results, not only is Singapore more expensive than Hong Kong and Switzerland, expats here make substantially less money. Furthermore, international school fees in Hong Kong cost US$1,660 more than Singapore’s. Switzerland is a little more expensive (US$6,600), but the US$49,000 difference in average salary is still significant. So Singapore expats don’t seem to have it as well as the rest.

Not only is Singapore more expensive, expats here make substantially less money.

However, not all expats are the same. There are two main types, according to Dr Yvonne McNulty, founder of Expat Research, in an ST report last year (Mar 27). The “localised expats here on local terms” and the foreigners who are on “expatriate contracts”, said Dr McNulty.

Those who are on expatriate contracts are the ones who have housing and car allowances, to mirror the lives they lived back home. Those on local terms earn at least $3,300 a month, which is the minimum income required for foreign professionals to qualify for an Employment Pass (EP) to work here. From Jan 1 this year, they must make $3,600.

Older applicants are expected to earn more, commensurate with their experience level. According to the latest Ministry of Manpower (MOM) figures, there were 189,600 EP holders in Singapore last June. However, the distinction between “localised” expats and “expatriate contract” expats is not made in either the studies or in the MOM figures.

So do expats have it good here? Only if they are here on an “expatriate contract”.

 

Featured image The Expat by Flickr user The Preiser Project(CC BY 2.0)

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by Suhaile Md

INTELLECTUAL humility is a buzzword these days when it comes to hiring. Grades matter, of course, but they’re not everything – your willingness to learn is another measure of how valuable you are to a company in the long run.

Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs announced that it would be looking beyond the usual on-campus interviews at elite universities like Yale and Harvard. Instead, candidates from any school can apply, and they will be screened via a video interview, reported Human Resource Magazine in June. The bank wanted to hire candidates with a wider variety of background, not just elite schools.

“Smart people tend to think they know it all and that prevent [sic] them from learning. People who are not from elite background [sic] tend to be more adaptive to learning that is important for the company to grow,” said Mr Darren Tay, director at executive search firm BTI Consultant, in the HRM article.

In other words, intellectual humility.

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Being curious

The idea is not new. Two years back, the person in charge of Google’s hiring processes, Mr Laszlo Bock, spoke about the need for intellectual humility at an interview with the New York Times.

Said Mr Bock: “Without [intellectual] humility, you are unable to learn.” Humility is also required to be able to explore ideas different to your own. The point is to come up with the best solutions to problems.

Furthermore, successful candidates who are too used to winning don’t know how to deal with failure. They “commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius”. If something bad happens, they tend to blame others and not reflect on their own mistakes.

It’s a sentiment echoed by 42-year-old Mr Tan Choon Ngee, CEO of aZaaS, a Singapore-based Information Technology firm with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

When TMG asked for the most important quality he looked for in candidates, he said it was the “willingness and ability to learn”. A candidate, no matter how qualified, “would become obsolete very fast” if there’s no intellectual humility. Having the humility to continuously learn throughout the career is important.

While Mr Tan requires candidates to have at least a diploma due to the “technical nature” of the work, he said there is no “huge preference between diploma or degree… we have diploma holders outperforming degree holders”. Learning does not stop when school ends.

“Our industry experiences high rates of change. Learning, admitting to mistakes, and re-learning is critical to success,” he added.

It’s not just the IT industry that has such demands. Mr Wesley Gunter and Mr Marc Bakker, who head a public relations and marketing firm, wrote in a commentary for TMG last month: “It would be useless for us to hire someone who thinks he/she knows everything based on their degree, compared to someone who is less qualified yet willing to learn.” It’s the “humility to accept guidance that sets [candidates] apart and allows them to grow”.

Again, these views echo that of Google’s. The most important quality Google looks for is “learning ability”, said Mr Bock.

Real-life successes

This principle of lifelong learning was underscored by former Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat at the Committee of Supply debate last year. He said that we need to “shift our mindsets about education”.  There’s a need to go “beyond learning in school, to learning throughout life”.

So it’s a good thing many Singaporeans have not stood still. Over 80,000 people have signed up for the SkillsFuture initiatives in the first eight months of this year, reported The Straits Times on Tuesday (Dec 27). Of these, 62 per cent are above 40 years old. SkillsFuture, a skills development framework that supports lifelong learning from school days to working life, was introduced by the G last year.

But SkillsFuture is not the only avenue for continual learning. There are other opportunities to learn, at the workplace for example, or online, and even the library.

Ms Amanda Ong, for example, picked up copywriting and marketing skills from books she borrowed from the library, and a year-long online course which she paid US$100 (S$144) for. She had graduated with a Political Science degree from the National University of Singapore and worked at the Ministry of Defence for over a year before leaving, as she wanted more flexible working hours.

She was giving tuition to earn her keep at first, and picked up copywriting skills on the side. It paid off, the 27-year-old is now fully employed as a copywriter at Wordplay, a copywriting and marketing firm.

Even though she has secured a full-time job, she’s still continuing with her self-education. She has just spent $400 on a self-study sales course. She wants to understand what motivates buying decisions and so on.

Her efforts are already paying off. Ms Ong said she can now “close sales with clients independently”. Previously, she needed help from her boss to do so.

 

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 Suhaile Md

ABSOLUTE freedom of speech should not be allowed. Neither should our words require approval from the G. Instead, people should be able to speak their mind and face the consequences of their words. At least that’s the view taken by over 500 youths, according to the Dream Future report referenced in a TODAY article (Dec 20).

Of the 500 participants, 54.7 per cent feel that in place of explicit OB (out of bounds) markers, people should be held responsible for what they say. The remaining 45.3 per cent felt that speech which promotes hate and discrimination should not be allowed. Otherwise, there should be complete freedom.

The youths, mostly students from junior colleges, polytechnics, universities, and Institutes of Technical Education, were polled at the Dream Future forum organised by the Association of Public Affairs, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in July last year. The report was published a month later.

Students initially voted for one of five options: complete freedom of speech (6.8 per cent); priority on law and order where protests are regulated (3.4 per cent); only speech that promotes discrimination to be restricted (25.8 per cent); speech with consequences as opposed to a proactive ban (39.7 per cent); and acceptable speech to be defined by community norms instead of laws (24.3 per cent).

The two most popular options – speech with consequence and speech without hate – were then isolated and voted upon, in a subsequent round, by all 500 forum participants.

Various positions were argued and discussed by the students before polling. Their opinions can be divided into three camps: Completely free speech, highly restricted speech and free speech with some restrictions.

The first two positions are summarised below. The final position, where the majority of students stood, is reproduced in full at the end.

 

Complete freedom of speech will push SG forward
Position paper written by Mr Clarence Ong of Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Read the full paper on page 58 here.

The suppression of speech will lead to the “denial and avoidance of sensitive issues” like race and religion, said Mr Clarence Ong.

Absence of open debate breeds a society that is oblivious to what appropriate speech is. Political correctness will prevail and the opinions of the “majority and powerful” will dominate without challenge, creating a “socially myopic society”.

Mr Ong believes the community should collectively decide what’s socially acceptable speech and not rely on the “indistinctive counter measures [by the G] that limit free speech for the sake of public order”. Furthermore, these measures promote “short-term tolerance rather than long-term acceptance”.

But, the “freedom of each individual must be balanced with the freedom of others”, added Mr Ong. To that end, Singaporeans, and the G, have  the “great responsibility” to know the difference between evidence backed criticism and personal insult.

Yes, there is a risk of disorder, but without free speech, Singapore risks social and cultural stagnation, said Mr Ong.

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Stricter free speech laws in SG please
Position paper written by Mr Colin Chua of Jurong Junior College. Read the full paper on page 61 here.

The speech laws here protect Singaporeans from hate speech, sedition, and public disorder but the “infringement of these limits are subjective in nature”. So people can still “bypass these laws”, said Mr Colin Chua.

The message of the Wear White movement for example, can be considered hate speech for two reasons. First, it paints homosexuals as being immoral and isolates them. Second, the movement accuses the homosexual community of “some form of hidden political agenda” even though there’s “no concrete evidence beyond conspiracy theories”. Yet, the movement has not been outlawed as it is the “societal standard set by a conservative Singapore”, said Mr Chua.

Asked Mr Chua: “Is ‘freedom of speech’ only to be used when it suits the agenda of the larger society?”

So to prevent the abuse of freedom of speech laws by the majority, stricter and more thorough controls are needed.

 

Speak your mind, but no hate or violence allowed
Position paper, reproduced in full, written by Ms Grace Tang of National University of Singapore.

I would like to first define the term “complete freedom of speech”. Absolute freedom of speech would mean no buts, no exceptions. This would connote that one has the freedom to challenge authority, the freedom to confront power, the freedom to disturb public peace and public morality and the freedom to insult and offend. Everyone should be able to say whatever they like, whatever the consequences.

The crux of the argument then lies if one truly has the right to offend? I think not. Almost all countries have laws against harassment, or incitement to commit crimes, as well as restrictions on libel or slanderous speech. If these laws are not in place, we are jeopardizing our personal safety within the community & the country we stay in. With these laws in place, would you still think that there is indeed real complete freedom of speech even in countries like America and France?

It’s very easy to say there should be ‘no limits’ to freedom of speech. But in the first place comments promoting discrimination, hate, or violence do not value add to the community at large. Remember Je suis Charlie? In response to the terrorist shooting of Charlie Hebdo editors, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once said: “Turkey will not allow (Prophet) Muhammad to be insulted…Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to insult.”

Typically, upon analysis, you will notice that countries that support the complete freedom of speech are mainly from the western countries. Ethnocentrism- the act of judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture, may be at work here. Singapore is still traditionally rooted in Asian values. A key feature of Asian values: to place society before oneself heard of sacrifice oneself for the greater good of all? Complete freedom of speech will not serve to contribute to social progress, a conditional one like my topic suggests does.

Oppositions may be quick to judge that my brand of freedom of speech is not truly free but just think about this, if there is general consensus that democracy varies within the context of countries. Who is then to say that my brand of freedom of speech suggested in Singapore’s multi racial and multi cultural context, is not truly free?

The real question should then be who regulates what and the extent in which comments promoting discrimination, hate, or violence are permissible. If speech legislation is overly-strict, can it encroach upon our right to free speech? Who should decide where the limits lie, and what is acceptable?

Many of you may have been following the court case of Amos Yee. He was charged as a criminal as he violated the Penal Code Section 298 and Section 292(1)(a) of the Penal Code. Despite the heavy handed approach that is contentious, the authorities on Section 298 has historically been charging people under the violation of section 298. For example, in 2008, a local blogger was charged for ranting against a man of an another race he saw sitting on the floor of an MRT train and subsequently his race.

The issue that relates to freedom of speech is that where should the line be drawn? With laws laid down, who actively enforces them? Is there a consistent standard in handling these cases? Why in some cases a warning is sufficient while some are charged? Speeches of hate, discrimination and violence should be excluded from free speech but the enforcement of such admittedly, is a difficult task and hence, this brings out the greater issue of if regulations and controls are in place, how will execution of these rules take place.

Perhaps advocating for conditional freedom of speech might be unsettling to the authorities and what might be the most discomforting to them may be the question that can Singaporeans think? Are we that easily manipulated? Past 50 years, we have had very phenomenal growth, good governance and that as a result has caused us to lose some of our discernment. As we progress, Singaporeans needs to develop skills to handle and discuss controversies on a more meaningful scale and develop the ability to differentiate valid content from fallacies. This can be achieved via conditional freedom of speech.

All in all, I conclude with this: If you agree with me that no one has the right to offend since it is morally irresponsible to do so, then there can be no complete freedom of speech. Our next best alternative would be exactly what my topic suggests.

If you think that yes you have a right to offend or insult and make comments promoting discrimination, hate, or violence; think deeper. Is this truly beneficial to the community, is this what we value in Singapore and as a society, what is truly at risk.

Finally, if you think that more regulation and controls are to be imposed, how does this then affect our individual media and political literacy. Are we progressing as a nation?

 

Position paper reproduced with permission of Association for Public Affairs president and Organising Chairman of SG100 Compass Charles Phua.

Featured image Speak Your Mind by Flickr user Ben Grey. (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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by Suhaile Md

QUEEN’s Counsels (QC) may be some of the best lawyers in the world, but our Senior Counsels (SC) are no less. So the only time QCs, a title awarded to top lawyers in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth states, will be admitted here, is when the case requires specialist skills that are beyond the grasp of existing talent in Singapore, said the High Court last month.

This was in response to law firm Rajah and Tann’s application to bring in a QC to argue a US$129 million (S$185 million) arbitration award, reported The Straits Times (ST) last Monday (Dec 12).

But foreign counsels were not always restricted in Singapore. The restrictions only came into effect after the Legal Professions Act (LPA) was amended in 1991. The change was made because there was an increasing trend of QCs being used for cases that could have been done by local lawyers. This impeded the growth of local legal experts.

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Said then Law Minister S. Jayakumar in Parliament: “They [QCs] are obviously to be admitted for cases of complexity or difficulty where the needed skills or experience or the specialist knowledge is not readily available here.”

So the current stand of the High Court is consistent with the original intent of the amended LPA in 1991.

After the bill was passed in 1991, the number of QCs admitted halved to about 20 per year, according to an ST report in 1995. Between 1980 and 1990, an average of 40 QCs were admitted per year. ST reported that a total of 410 applications for QCs were made throughout the 1980s.

In October 1996, the criteria for QCs were further tightened for criminal cases. The aim was to eventually phase out QCs in criminal cases once there were enough Senior Counsels, Singapore’s version of the QC. In 1997, the Senior Counsel (SC) scheme took effect – 12 SCs were appointed. Today, there are 76 SCs.

A spokesperson for the Law Society said that there were a total of 17 applications for QCs in the past four years. It’s not clear how many were approved though. But QCs are usually brought in for commercial disputes with the occasional civil case, like defamation.

Here are some of the more well-known cases, in the past 25 years, for which applications for QC were made.

 

Defamation, QC approved

Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and 10 other People’s Action Party (PAP) members sued Workers’ Party Chief J. B. Jeyaretnam. They alleged that Mr Jeyaretnam, during an election rally on Jan 1, 1997, used words that painted them as dishonest without any proof.

Mr Jeyaretnam had argued for a QC, who specialised in defamationon the basis of the complexity of the case. Complexities included determining what Mr Jeyaretnam’s words actually meant, whether the audience knew to whom his words were directed at, and if he could even be held responsible for the publication of what he said when he was not the one responsible for publishing it.

The court agreed that the case was complex enough, and so approved the application for a QC to represent Mr Jeyaretnam in court.

Mr Goh won the suit. He was awarded $100,000 in damages, and Mr Jeyaretnam had to pay full costs as well. The other 10 PAP leaders agreed to be bound by the Judge’s findings that Mr Jeyaretnam words during the rally were defamatory. If they sought further damages, they would have to prove Mr Jeyaretnam was referring to them at the rally.

 

Defamation, QC rejected

Fast forward to 2014 when blogger Mr Roy Ngerng was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Mr Ngerng’s blog post alleged that the Mr Lee had criminally misappropriated monies from the Central Provident Fund. He eventually took it down and apologised after Mr Lee’s lawyer sent a letter, only to repost the same allegations in videos and other online posts. The court ruled that Mr Ngerng had defamed Mr Lee and so Mr Ngerng was required to pay damages.

Mr Ngerng then applied for a QC to represent him in the High Court hearing that would decide the damages he owed to Mr Lee. Mr Ngerng’s lawyer argued that it was the first time a blogger was being sued, and so it required a specialist to argue the case.

The Court rejected his application. Said Justice Steven Chong: “The fact that this was the first time that a blogger has been sued by a public leader might invite significant media attention, but that did not mean that the decision was of significant legal import.”

There were a few other reasons.

First, the assessment of damages was a straightforward task that local experts are qualified to deal with. It did not require foreign expertise. Second, Singapore has its own set of legal principles in the context of defamation and political culture – something a British QC may not necessarily be sensitive to.

Finally, with regards to the idea that Mr Ngerng needed a foreign lawyer to match the calibre of the lawyer representing Mr Lee, Justice Chong said that the “the touchstone for admission [of a QC] is ‘need'”, and not an “equality of arms” on both sides.

 

Patent, QC approved

In 1999, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and British Airways (BA) got into a tiff over the patent rights to first-class sleeper-style seats. BA first sent a lawyer’s letter to SIA alleging that SIA’s new first-class seats infringed the patent rights of BA’s design. SIA responded by suing BA for making groundless claims of patent infringement. BA countered by suing SIA for patent infringement. Both SIA and BA applied for a QC each.

Said BA’s lawyer: “The development of Singapore’s patent law is still in its infancy, and it would assist the court tremendously to have specialist counsel present the technical evidence, elucidate on what the law and practice is in the United Kingdom, and to guide the court in coming to its decision.”

Chief Justice Yong Pung How approved the applications since there were no objections from the Attorney-General as well as the Law Society. Furthermore, it seems the court agreed the case was sufficiently complex or approval would not have been granted.

Both SIA and BA eventually dropped the lawsuits, choosing instead to compete in the marketplace. There was no payment from either side.

 

Patent, QC rejected

Interestingly, in 2005, the request for a QC for a patent case was first approved by the High Court, only to be overturned by the Court of Appeal.

ThumbDrive manufacturer Trek 2000 alleged that its patent for its thumb drive was infringed upon by four companies. Trek 2000 won the suit in the High Court but three of the four companies appealed the decision and also, applied for a QC. The High Court approved the QC application, over-ruling the objections of the Law Society and Trek 2000’s lawyers. Their objections were basically about the lack of complexity of the case and that there were sufficient lawyers in Singapore to handle it.

Addressing the objections, Justice Judith Prakash had said that the “occasional admission in the right case is not going to damage the development of the local Bar, but will enhance its independence and competence.” She added that patent law was explored to a greater depth overseas and “foreign counsel who have spent many years specialising in patent law, can… be of great assistance to our local courts as they strive to develop patent law in Singapore.”

Trek 2000, backed by the Law Society, successfully appealed the High Courts decision to allow the rival companies to have a QC. The Court of Appeal agreed that the case was not complex enough. Furthermore, it could set off a trend where more QCs are brought in when there is no real need for them.

Trek 2000 won its lawsuit. The four rival companies were ordered by the court to stop selling the thumb drives. The damages and costs awarded to Trek 2000 is unclear.

 

Moving forward

In 2012 however, the LPA was amended to broaden the scope for QCs to be allowed in Singapore courts.

In proposing the amendment, Minister for Law K Shanmugam said that many SCs were from large firms that serviced many big corporate clients. As a result, SCs were unable or unwilling to take up any case against large corporate bodies leading to a lack of access to senior lawyers. The amendment was proposed to address this.

The courts have more discretion now. The high complexity of a case as a pre-requisite to approve QCs have been removed. Instead, the courts will consider if the foreign counsel is the equivalent of an SC and whether the counsel has special qualifications or experience relevant to the case.

The courts may also consider the nature of the factual and legal issues, the necessity for the services of a foreign legal counsel, the availability of local senior counsel and whether it is reasonable to admit foreign senior counsel for the case. You can read more here.

The use of foreign counsels however, will most likely be declined, unless there’s a special reason to allow them in cases involving constitutional law and administrative law, criminal law, and family law. This is because the legal principles in these areas are unique to Singapore and it’s doubtful that a foreign counsel can contribute more than a local counsel can.

 

Featured image State Courts of Singapore prior to renovations by Chensiyuan. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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