May 27, 2017

Authors Posts by The Middle Ground

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BECOMING a financial consultant opens a world of opportunities, and the options can be overwhelming. There are many financial advisory firms in Singapore with distinct cultures and philosophies. If you’re just starting out, or looking for a change, here are some considerations you should take into account:

Critical things to look for in a good financial advisory firm to work with

Whether a financial advisory firm is “good” depends just as much on your own aptitude and inclinations. Find what’s right for you, instead of just taking others’ opinions at face value. Here are key things to look for in your search for a potential financial advisory firm to work with:

  1. They should not come between you and the best interests of your clients
  2. Good career progression prospects
  3. Holistic benefits and growth opportunities – look beyond just a pay cheque
  4. Provides the right working culture and support you need
  5. Provides mentorship and guidance

If any of these five points resonate with you, perhaps it’s time to think about what Manulife FA has to offer you.


1. The financial advisory firm should not come between you and the best interests of your clients

A good financial advisory firm will never push you to sell financial products that don’t fit your client’s profile. They will always respect your decision to place your client first, so there’s no conflict of interest.

Manulife FA has a team of financial consultants who are always taught to find the best policies for their clients. Contrary to popular belief, Manulife FA financial consultants do not just advise on Manulife products – they will even recommend policies from other insurers (such as Aviva, Tokio Marine, NTUC Income, China Life and Swiss Life) if they offer a better fit with their clients’ needs.  Manulife FA also works with a range of other partners’ platforms such as iFast, FAME and Navigator.

With the flexibility of various product offerings and a range of available platforms, Manulife FA’s financial consultants are able to truly put their clients’ needs first, instead of being pressured to advance sales of products by a particular insurer. You can speak to Manulife FA directly for details on how their multi-insurer and multi-product model works.


2. Your financial advisory firm should provide good career progression prospects

A good financial advisory firm to work for is one that shows good career progression prospects. You should also feel empowered to step out of your comfort zone, enabling you to grow professionally and demonstrating qualities you may have, such as leadership potential. Following the same routine day-in and day-out can stifle your career development due to the lack of exposure in other areas.

For example, a good financial advisory firm will clearly communicate the different career stages that lie ahead in your professional journey. They will be upfront and candid when assessing your strengths, while ensuring that you’re aware of your blind spots or weaker abilities. Feedback from your bosses and peers should be constructive, empowering you to better yourself.  Regardless of what your ‘end game’ might be – from providing better solutions to your clients, to becoming your own branch director– you will need a good financial advisory firm that will reward your hard work and recognise your talents for what they’re worth. You should feel empowered to get to where you want to be.


3. Holistic benefits and growth opportunities – look for benefits beyond just a pay cheque

It’s important to see the bigger picture: the right financial advisory firm will allow you to achieve your full growth potential by providing you with the right opportunities. While commissions may seem attractive, these might not be sustainable in the long run or be subject to cuts. Good financial advisory firms should take longer-term considerations into account, such as ways to derive recurring income, so as to future-proof their financial consultants’ needs.

A diversified product mix also ensures that you won’t have to face the conundrum of only having a fixed number or type of products to sell, since there will always be alternatives you can rely on to find the best-fit product for your clients’ needs.

Providing training budgets and allocating the necessary resources to ensure you’re adequately equipped to help your clients reach their financial goals are also important.


4. Find a financial advisory firm that provides the right working culture and support you need

While there is no “correct” working culture or environment, it’s important to find a culture that fits you well. With 17 different branches among its group of over 600 financial consultants, Manulife FA offers a wide range of options – chances are you’ll be more likely to find a branch whose values and ideals coincide with yours.

Having the right support and sufficient resources are also important. Having a reliable and trustworthy partner for support provides assurance that your financial advisory firm has fundamentally secure backing, instead of being a random ‘fly-by-night’ operation. As part of its unique operating model, Manulife FA enjoys the corporate support of Manulife Singapore. As a large financial institution that has been in Singapore since 1980, Manulife Singapore is a key player in the local life insurance industry. Manulife FA’s financial consultants can therefore tap onto resources and support from Manulife Singapore, which otherwise wouldn’t be available at other financial advisory firms. Such support only goes to show how much importance Manulife FA places on empowering its financial consultants to provide the best possible client solutions and experience.


5. The financial advisory firm should provide mentorship and guidance

Most insurers will place new financial consultants under mentorship; this is quite routine and expected. However, here’s an important thing to remember about mentors:

Effective mentors are not just people who teach. They are people in whose presence you can learn.

It’s possible that the methods used by some mentorship programmes will not work for you. For example, some mentorships will have you start learning by ‘classroom-based’ learning: getting a theory-based basic understanding of what you’re meant to do, before gaining more practical exposure.

Other mentorships may be more focused on practical experience; you may be told to go out and talk to people first, and receive pointers on how to improve only afterward.

None of these methods are objectively “more correct” than another. But you need to ensure that the methods are working for you, and you’re in a financial advisory firm which actually teaches you what you need to know.

Sometimes it may take a bit of searching to find the right fit and what works for you – that’s perfectly normal. With 17 different branches under its wing, Manulife FA would be a good place to start your search.


This is an editorial series done in partnership with Manulife Financial Advisers.

Featured image From Pixabay user AlexanderStein.

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by Danielle Goh & Sharanya Pillai

AS PATRONS of the Happy Hawkers coffee shop at Tampines Street 86 have their late-afternoon meals, child-like voices ring out in the background: “Excuse me, I’m helping with tray return.”

When customers obstruct the pathway, they are greeted with sad eyes.

The voices and facial expressions belong not to actual children, but two humanoid robots, each over 1.7 metres tall, manufactured by local company R Factory. As part of their daily duties, the nameless robots patrol the premises – about the size of a classroom – on wheels. One robot is reserved for Halal food, and the other for non-Halal food.

As businessman Mr Patrick Tan tucks into a bowl of ramen, one of the robots rolls along past him. Amused, he says: “These are just gimmicks. When we come to an eatery, what we want is just good food, a clean place and (being able to) make sure that we don’t get food poisoning.”

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The non-Halal food robot at the Happy Hawkers coffee shop in Tampines.

The Happy Hawkers outlet, run by Koufu, is one of two heartland coffee shops developed using innovative business models under the G’s Food Services Industry Transformation Map. The other is the FoodTastic coffee shop at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1, run by Chang Cheng. Both outlets opened on Sunday (May 21).

But customers are having mixed feelings about the hi-tech trappings of the “productive” coffee shops.

A major feature of the coffee shops is the emphasis on making ordering more efficient, while encouraging customers to go cashless.

The Tampines outlet boasts touch-screen panels next to every stall for self-ordering and payment with cash or card. Customers are given a five per cent discount when they use cashless payment methods like NETS, credit or debit cards.

Few patrons actually used the panels, instead reciting their orders to the hawkers as usual. The hawkers themselves then stepped out of their shops to complete the order on the machines and show customers how to pay.

For housewife Ms Joanne Teo, the new system introduces too many intermediary steps. The 40-year-old ordered rice and mixed vegetables on the touch-screen panel, but said that the hawkers did not start preparing the dish until she realised that she had to pass them her receipt.

“It would be easier for me to just tell them what I want,” she said, adding that the elderly living in the rental flats nearby might struggle with using the system.

But some elderly that The Middle Ground (TMG) spoke to actually enjoy the new technology. Retiree Mr Bernard Loy, 60, is an avid user of Koufu’s Beat the Q app, which lets him browse the menu and order using his smartphone. Users also enjoy a ten per cent discount.

“The prices are reasonable with the app,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Over at the Choa Chu Kang coffee shop, another senior had a different opinion. As she settled down at a table with her friends, 62-year-old Ms Judy Eu was visibly flustered, uttering “hen ma fan” or “very troublesome” in Mandarin.

Unlike the Tampines coffee shop, FoodTastic has six centralised self-ordering kiosks at the front of the outlet – similar to those at fast food chains. Most kiosks only accept card payment, some accept both cash and cards.

The interior does not consist of individual stalls, like a typical coffee shop, but instead has collection counters. While this greatly reduces manpower, it also means not being able to see the chicken hanging from the hook at a chicken rice stall, or hand-pick ingredients for yong tau foo, which Ms Eu resented.

She also found it difficult to use the touchscreen interface at the kiosk, saying that it was slow in response. “If I have special requests, like less ice in my drink, I also can’t (specify) it in the machine,” she added.

And it also gets a bit more complicated with ordering drinks. While it was a breeze to select an order of milo gao (concentrated milo) or milo xiu dai (milo with less sugar), there was no option to order a combination of milo gao xiu dai (concentrated milo with less sugar).

When TMG tried to make a special request on an order – mee goreng without bean sprouts – a member of the staff had to personally pass the message to the kitchen.

However, staff whom we spoke to were receptive towards the new technology. Ms Yong Mui Mui, 64, a part-time cleaner at FoodTastic said that a new automated tray return system, which has yet to come into operation, would ease her workload during peak hours.

A new cleaning robot also assists Ms Yong with nightly duties.

Similarly, Mr Ng Siew Boon, a worker at one of the Happy Hawker stalls, felt that the efforts are a “start” to becoming more efficient. “With this, we really can save on manpower in the future. It’s good to take the first step and not be afraid to try it out,” he said.

The Tampines outlet even has two extra robots that can be deployed if it gets more crowded, Mr Ng added.

This is not the first time that the G is encouraging coffee shops to become “smarter”. In 2014, food centres started introducing NETS FlashPay terminals to encourage cashless payment.

However, the reception was lukewarm. Some stall owners have stopped using FlashPay as the payment did not go through at times or that the device took up too much space in the stall, Channel NewsAsia reported in March.

It remains to be seen if the latest productivity drive – which came at a cost of $1 million for Chang Cheng and a 70 percent cost increase for Koufu – will bear fruit. For now, operators seem to bear the brunt of the costs, with customers interviewed at both food courts noting that prices remain affordable.

For many patrons like Mr Tan, the difference between a “productive” coffee shop and a typical one is not that visible yet – except for the “new and shiny” tray-bearing androids.

Even then, some things don’t really change. As Mr Tan finished his noodles, he eyed the robot – but a cleaner approached him first and cleared his tray for him.

Featured image by Danielle Goh.

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By The Middle Ground

BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday (May 23) that police and security services believe they know the identity of a suspected suicide bomber who killed 22 people, many of them children, at a concert in Manchester Monday (May 22) night.

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The Prime Minister, speaking outside her 10 Downing Street official residence, said the authorities were not ready to announce the identity of the attacker. She also said the attacker had carried out the attack alone but it was not yet clear if others had helped in the preparation. -REUTERS

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WHAT has technology really done to the dating scene?

Sure, it has helped singles reach out to a wider pool of potentials and given shy individuals a way to step out of their shells. A new set of challenges has arisen with the advent of online dating however.

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We spoke to the founder of Lunch Actually, Singapore’s largest and possibly oldest dating agency in Singapore, Ms Violet Lim, about the difficulties arising from the era of technology dating. One issue she pointed out was the sheer number of matches that dating apps provide singles with – so much so that dates don’t become special anymore.

Ms Violet Lim, CEO of Lunch Actually Group

Said the mother of two, “Because of the abundance of matches, singles nowadays do not value dates anymore and don’t feel the sense of urgency. They talk to multiple people at one time and arrange for dates with different people, it’s easy to lose interest and take the matches for granted.”

Technology has also resulted on “mini dates” through online chats such as WhatsApp. The problem with conversing online however, is that you can’t tell how a match is really like, and that might cause you to write him or her off prematurely if they appear boring or if they say something wrong, said Ms Lim.

Here are some other interesting insights into the largest dating agency in Singapore, which celebrates its 13th year in business this year.

1. How has the dating scene evolved these past 13 years?

Ms Lim: When we first started 13 years ago, there was a huge stigma attached to dating services. Many people had the impression that only “losers” – people who are not able to find someone on their own would go for such service. However, in the last decade, the perception has changed. In fact, some of my friends who used to be skeptical about dating services are now introducing their siblings or friends to join our service.

Over the years, it is evident that dating services serve a need for many singles out there. We are living in an era where people are used to outsourcing many aspects of their lives. For instance, when we are going on a holiday, we look for a travel agency; when we are looking for a job, we turn to a recruitment agency. It’s the same for many singles who are looking to find love. Rather than waiting for friends to introduce potential partners to them, many of them are now turning to a professional dating agency like Lunch Actually.

2. What are your most insightful observations about the dating scene in Singapore?

Ms Lim: WhatsApp has replaced phone calls as the most used communication tool between singles. While WhatsApp may be accessible and convenient, many singles have shared that it could also be a source of miscommunication, confusion and frustration. Unlike phone calls where you can hear the person’s voice and tonality, instant messaging apps are one-dimensional, and often one single sentence might mean A to the sender, but might be interpreted as B by the recipient. WhatsApp conversations could also be filters or “mini dates”. If one says something “wrong” or come across as “boring”, this could result in the single being “ghosted” or a planned date being cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

After each date that we arrange for our clients, we would ask them for their feedback and also if they were planning to go on a second date. For clients who say that they were not going on a second date with their match, when asked why, the reason is often – “no chemistry”. Many singles expect instant chemistry on the first date; many are looking for love at first sight. However, from what we have observed from our successful couples, it is often NOT love at first sight.

They had a good impression of each other, and continued to see each other for a second, third, fourth date. And from there, love blossoms. We always tell our clients to keep an open mind and have a positive attitude when going on first and subsequent dates. Rather than using the yardstick of how much you like the person to measure whether to go on a second date, we advise them to use the yardstick of whether you dislike the person. If you do not dislike the person, give the other person a chance. You are actually giving yourself a chance as well.

With the advance in technology and the number of mobile apps flooding the market, it has never been easier to meet other singles. At the same time, mobile dating apps also present a new set of challenges.

Because of the abundance of matches, dates are now seen as commodities. Compared to the past where each and every date is seen as important and precious, singles nowadays do not value dates as much. They are often chatting to multiple people online at any one time and are arranging simultaneous dates with different people.

Thus, it is easy to pick and choose, lose interest and take the matches for granted. Hence, the focus of all our services is to bring singles offline as quickly as possible. Like what one single has asked me, how do you know if someone is also dating others on the side? Well, the truth is, you will never know for sure. It is so easy to be messaging multiple people at the same time. However, he or she can only be seeing one person offline at any one time.

If the person is willing to invest most of his or her offline time with you, chances are, he or she is serious about you.

3. What are your most surprising revelations about the dating scene in Singapore?

Ms Lim: A survey we conducted last year with over 700 singles in Singapore revealed that while technology has helped singles to expand their social circle easily, it has also made dating more complicated. A total of 38 per cent of women, who are dating men they met from online dating platforms or dating apps, are unsure if the men are still dating other people. On the other hand, 36 per cent of men admitted to losing interest easily even before meeting the ladies after talking to them online. Therefore, they are not even giving their online match a chance to develop their connection offline.

Additionally, in relation to the increasing usage of mobile dating apps, many singles tend to misrepresent themselves in online dating as there is no verification that they are really who they say they are. This is echoed by the results of the Annual Dating Survey that we conducted with 2,000 singles in Southeast Asia late last year. When asked “Have you spent a long time chatting with someone online, only to be disappointed when you met the person in real life”, 60 per cent of women responded in the affirmative. Echoing the same sentiment, an overwhelming majority of 84 per cent of women felt that chemistry when chatting with a match online could not translate into the same chemistry when eventually meeting up offline. Lastly, 37 per cent of women also indicated that they felt that their online matches misrepresent themselves “all the time” or “most of the time”.

4. How has dating apps such as Tinder, CMB, Happn, Paktor, etc., affected Lunch Actually?

Ms Lim: And at the end of the day, there will always be new trends and new entrants to the market. I do not see the apps as competition, but as opportunities for us to also evolve and keep innovating. When we first launched esync (our online-offline dating platform), people in our team asked us why. With its lower price point, photos and so on, wouldn’t that be bad for us? Similarly with LunchClick, people feel the same way. LunchClick is free. However, at the end of the day, it educates people to outsource their dating life.

Having said that, I don’t think that the need for personal touch will diminish, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for singles. I think there will always be a need for different business models. Everyone is different and each single has different preferences. Some enjoy the convenience of a dating app where they can do everything within the app itself, but some would still prefer a personal service where they can interact with the dating consultant and enjoy the luxury of not having to do anything besides going on the date and meeting their match.

5. What have been your most memorable experiences?

Ms Lim: Probably when we signed up our first ever client. The first person who actually came to our office for a consultation was a friend of a friend after we spread the word around about what we do and our friends were also sharing about us to their single friends. That’s mainly how we got our earlier leads. So we did many role plays before that, and when the client actually came, the consultation took much longer than it usually does, and ultimately, the client said “Yes, I’ll sign up”.

Everybody was very excited and happy because that point was when it stopped becoming just a concept but something that is real, which someone was willing to put down money on.

Our most memorable set up was our first couple who got engaged.

Chris is a lawyer. When we first matched her up with Ben, she was furious. She didn’t understand why we would match her up with Ben, who is an entertainer (he does juggling, unicycling, etc.) As we had met up with both of them, we realised that they are very compatible, have many similar values as well as share a similar sense of humour. Furthermore, Ben is actually very well-educated, having a Masters from Oxford.

After much persuasion from our dating consultants, Chris reluctantly went on the date. In their own words, they got on like “house and fire”, and they got engaged within three months, and married within one year. They now are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters. We are very proud of this match as both of them would probably not have crossed paths if they had not met at Lunch Actually. And to cynics out there who might say that dating services take the romance out of dating, take it from Ben: “Love is love, no matter if you have met at a bus stop, a bar or a dating service!

6. Can you share any upcoming plans for Lunch Actually?

Ms Lim: We would like to expand into more markets in the region as well as offer more services to reach out to more singles. We would also continue to build on our positive company culture to grow and develop our Cupids and Transformers as we work together to hit our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) of creating one million happy marriages!

7. Any advice for singles who are looking for love?

Ms Lim: Yes, of course!

Like everything in life, it’s all about the mindset. Are you open to meeting the right one, are you telling yourself every day that all the good men or good women are taken? If you do not believe that you can actually meet him or her, chances are you won’t.

Create opportunities and platforms to meet new people. Dating is a numbers game. If you are not even meeting 10 single men or women a year, what are the chances you will actually meet the one?

Love at first sight usually happens at the movies. After the first date, if you did not experience fireworks and instant chemistry, know that most married couples did not experience that when they first met their soulmate. Go on a second and a third date to get to know each other better. Give your date a chance, give yourself a chance. Give love a chance.


This advertorial is brought to you by Lunch Actually.

 Featured image from TMG file.

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AT LEAST 22 people are dead, and over 50 injured after a blast at a concert in the English city of Manchester, where US singer Ariana Grande was performing. British police said that the incident is being treated as a terrorist incident.

According to Reuters, two US government security sources revealed that the incident is strongly suspected to be a suicide bombing. The Islamic State is known to encourage suicide bombers to choose soft targets, including concert venues.

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Chaos ensued at the Manchester Arena, as people scrambled out for safety. One concert-goer told Reuters: “It was a huge explosion — you could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out.”

A spokesperson for Ms Grande’s record label said that the singer is “okay”. Ms Grande later tweeted that she was “broken” and did not “have words”.

The blast is reminiscent of the Paris attacks in Nov 2015, where a concert at the Bataclan theatre was one of several targets. Three armed gunmen shot and killed over 90 people at the venue itself.

Britain is now on its second-highest security alert level of “severe”.



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by -
0 0

WHILE Singapore has enjoyed haze-free air in May, the skies aren’t as blue on the other side. Thick smog hanging over cities has become the norm these days.

Pollution is becoming an increasingly deadly problem and the degree to which this issue is overlooked is unsettling. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported (Mar 6) that environmental risks, such as air pollution and unsafe water, take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years old every year. And this past week, many countries received grim reminders of just how severe the problem is.

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1. London, UK: No fresh air to go with your tea and crumpets

Image by Wikimedia Commons user George Tsiagalakis. 

Clean air is harder to come by in the United Kingdom (UK) than other comparable countries such as Sweden and the United States (US). In its World Health Statistics report (May 17), the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that people are 64 times as likely to die of air pollution than those in Sweden, the cleanest nation in the European Union (EU).

Traffic, power plants as well as oil and wood burning are just some of the factors that have contributed to the air pollution in the UK. The country has an average of 12.4 micrograms of fine particulate pollutants for each cubic metre of air.

WHO issued a statement urging national and international policymakers to be responsible for tackling this air crisis. Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, is also hopeful that the problem of air pollution can be resolved. “We are in the fortunate position of having the technology and resources to fix this problem. It’s time to use what we have to sort this problem out as a matter of urgency and clean up our filthy, poisonous air,” she said.


2. Henderson Island, The Pacific Ocean: Remote island full of trash

Image by Flickr user Justin Dolske. CC BY-SA 2.0.

For an uninhabited place, Henderson Island has “the highest density of plastic” that research scientist Jennifer Lavers has ever seen. According to a study published by Ms Lavers and her team on Monday (May 15), 17.6 tons of debris occupy the shores of the remote island. This is also the same amount of plastic produced by the rest of the world in 1.98 seconds.

The island, which was a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998, had more than 53,000 pieces of man-made debris in 2015. Most of these things were “everyday consumer goods” such as bottles, cigarette lighters and fishing equipment.

Remote islands such as Henderson have become collection points for the world’s waste. With the accumulation of trash over the years, there is no doubt that this number has increased in 2017.


3. Lumbini, Nepal: Air for the enlightened soul? Not anymore

Image by Flickr user Carlos Adampol Galindo. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In yet another case of historic sites being plagued by pollution, on May 10, scientists and officials have warned that Buddha’s birthplace, a Lumbini World heritage site, faces a serious threat from air pollution. It is located in a pollution hotspot.

While the WHO’s safe limit for the pollutant is 25 micrograms per cubic metre, the Nepal government has set the national standard at significantly higher at 40. Locals and tourists are bearing the brunt of the low air qualities which comes as a result of the growing industrialisation surrounding the sacred site.


4. Jerusalem, Israel: Cross-border environmental woes

Jerusalem seen from the Mount of Olives. Image by Flickr user Dan. CC BY-SA 2.0

Water pollution in Israel is a cross-border environmental crisis. The strained relations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority are making it difficult for authorities to implement viable solutions to tackle water pollution. On Tuesday (May 16), Israel state comptroller Joseph Shapiro slammed the government for its failure in addressing “Israel’s most serious ecological hazard”. Problematic spots include the Kidron, Hebron rivers and pollution from rivers in Gaza. The Gaza strip has been under the de-facto Hamas government since 2012. It has been the site of deadly clashes between Israel and Gaza.

“Such widespread pollution not only damages the groundwater of Israel and its neighbours, but also harms public health and quality of life,” noted Mr Shapira in this year’s annual report. The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) was set up in 1995 as part of the Oslo II accord. It was discontinued for several years, before it was eventually revived this year. Mr Shapira said that the low involvement of the Israeli government and local water corporations, resulted in delays and failure to reduce the level of water pollution.

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry emphasised the need for cooperation with the Palestinian authorities to reduce the threat of water pollution. “The ministry is convinced that only concerted government action and significant investment in appropriate infrastructure will improve the environmental situation in the future.”

5. Yangon, Myanmar: Canary in the coal plant

Image by Pixabay user Pavlofox. CC0.

Closer to home, Myanmar’s plans to expand its coal-fired power plants runs the risk of endangering the lives of at least a quarter of a million people in the next decade, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) reported on Thursday (May 4). The Burmese government faces a catch-22 as these power plants, as harmful as they are, provide electricity to more than 50 million people by 2030.

Currently, less than a third of its population have access to electricity through a dilapidated power grid, which is prone to breaking down. The country’s energy dilemma not only affects its citizens but also foreign investors.

The extra pollution from these growing power plant networks are likely to kill 280,000 people with an increase in the risk of heart attacks, breathing problems and lung infections. “These plans do not take into account the human health costs when making choices about the country’s energy future,” said Lauri Millyvirta, Senior Global Campaigner from Greenpeace.


Featured image by Pixabay user JuergenPM. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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by Hasan Jafri

CHINA’S reported snub of Singapore by not inviting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in Beijing last week is being blown out of proportion. Keyboard warriors have rung alarm bells that relations have hit rock-bottom; politicians and analysts have advocated a shift in Singapore’s position to mend fences.

Are bilateral relations strained? Yes, they have been for more than a year now. Are they broken and heading over a cliff, as some claim? Absolutely not. Neither Beijing and clearly not Singapore wants an escalation. There is no war of words at the leadership level, no withdrawal or downgrading of diplomatic ties, no international campaign to discredit Singapore, no economic sanctions or barriers and the People’s Liberation Army is not coming anywhere near Singapore. Differences between two friends manifest occasionally – and sometimes irritatingly.

So, chill.

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Beijing knows Singapore can be prickly and it also knows that the cost of escalation could be high. Why? Because there is interdependence. China is Singapore’s third biggest trading partner and a source of many jobs here at home. China is an emerging power, one with which Singapore has cultivated a deep, multifaceted relationship.

Will Singapore miss out on BRI because of a little friction? Reports playing up PM Lee’s absence from the meeting overshadowed the presence of a delegation from Singapore in attendance, led by National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong. That can hardly forbear the exclusion of Singapore from the BRI, but does point to some friction between the nations. Cooperation, officially, is still strong.

Take a few examples, beyond the BRI. For China, Singapore is a key offshore RMB trading and clearing centre which China needs because Tokyo, the other major hub, can’t be tasked with its long-term strategic objective of turning the RMB into a global reserve currency. Two, China is a recipient of more than a $100 billion in foreign investment from Singapore. Singapore has benefited but so has China, gaining expertise, global connectivity and intellectual property, some of which it can now export to developing countries under the BRI.

This flow of financial resources, expertise and know-how is not disrupted. In fact, former DPM Wong Kan Seng – whom the Chinese respect – was at the World Cities Summit Mayor’s Forum in Suzhou. While Singapore may not be seen as an active participant in the BRI or court China for investments, it is deeply involved in upgrading China’s western region, which is critical for the BRI to succeed.

To be sure, the relationship is strained, primarily around the issues of relations with Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Singapore has taken a strong position on the SCS issue as a non-claimant state but one that has a strong political interest in maintaining Asean unity when it is under strain and to protect its economic interest to ensure sea lanes remain unhindered.

That position is for protecting Singapore’s interests, not one at the behest of the US, as some have argued.

If Singapore had bent to the US over the years, there would be a permanent military base in Changi and there would be a treaty-level relationship like the US has with Japan, Australia or New Zealand. If Singapore didn’t sell out to the US, why should we sell out to the Chinese? It’s strategic balance – tough to execute but necessary because the cost of “alignment” for Singapore is too high a price to pay.

It is different scenario for others. Some of our neighbours court China because they need the investments and the deeper political ties as they also do not have the deep international economic, political and military ties that Singapore has. They have their own interests, different from Singapore’s. In fact, if Singapore were to bend, some in the same countries would conveniently sneer: See, Chinese Singapore sold itself to the motherland. Singapore is not dependent on China and can afford to take an independent line, articulating and advocating its own interests – sometimes forcefully.

So why all this fuss? It is to influence public opinion, a drip-drip-drip strategy to force Singapore to bend. Highlight that PM Lee was not invited but ignore that he was in China only last September at the invitation of the Chinese for the G20 annual meeting. Highlight the Taiwan issue but ignore that the Chinese and the Taiwanese met face-to-face – in Singapore.

There are times when states disagree – and this is one of those moments. But this is not a disaster. If anything, this is a time to continue engaging even more frequently from a position of strength.

Hasan Jafri is a regional political risk analyst.


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HACKERS are having a great weekend, with the recent spate of cyber attacks. At home, concerns over internet security hit a new high when the the Ministry of Education revealed that the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University were targets in a “sophisticated” cyber attack last month.

And in the rest of the world, a major cyberattack on Friday (May 12) hit schools, companies and even hospitals in over 70 countries. The choice of weapon? A ransomware tool called “WannaCry”, that locks people out of their computers unless they pay up.

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More worryingly, experts suspect that the hacker group behind the attacks, the sinister-sounding “Shadow Brokers”, was using software stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. We look at some of the countries affected, alongside other developments in the hacking world:

1. London, UK: Healthcare calls in sick

NHS Ambulance, United Kingdom. Image by Flickr user Lee Haywood.

British hospitals affected by “Wannacry” were forced to divert patients needing emergency treatment to other neighbouring hospitals. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May said this was not a targeted attack at the National Health Service. “It’s an international attack and a number of countries and organisations have been affected,” she said in response to the cyber attacks. More than 40 hospitals and health facilities reported that they had been hit by the virus on Friday.

The attack had affected X-ray imaging systems, pathology test results, phone systems and patient administration systems. Doctors warned that this attack, the biggest in The National Health Service (NHS) history, could cost lives. Important information, medical records, and patient details could be lost if hackers delete the files. On Friday, doctors and nurses were left to treat patients without access to their medical files. Some patients had their operations cancelled. However in a statement, the NHS said, “At this stage we do not have any evidence that patient data has been accessed. We will continue to work with affected organisations to confirm this.”

The scale of the attacks on NHS raised questions about the security of its systems. Cyber experts said that this was because some health care organisations were using obsolete systems, while others failed to update their software.

2. Madrid, Spain: Phone companies stay on hold

Telefonica building, Madrid, Spain, Image by Federico Jorda.

Victims of the “Wannacry” virus in Spain included Telefonica, the nation’s biggest telecommunications firm, power company Iberdrola and utility Gas Natural. Spain’s government warned organisations of a possible cyber attack on Friday. Some organisations took precautionary measures as a result.

It is not clear how many Spanish organisations were affected by the attack. Telefonica said that the attack was limited to some of its employee’s computers on an internal network and did not affect its clients or services. After the attack on Friday, Telefonica switched off all the computers in its Madrid headquarters, and staff were told to shut down their workstations.

The Spanish government said in a statement that, “The cyber attack had not affected the provision of the companies’ services or the operation of their networks and the national cybersecurity institute was working to resolve it as soon as possible.”

3. Moscow, Russia: “We’re victims too!”

Palace Square, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Image by Flickr user Ninara.

When news of the cyberattacks broke, heads immediately turned to the Kremlin, which is facing allegations of using hackers to influence elections in the US and France. Russia was quick to assert that it wasn’t the criminal here, but a fellow victim.

Experts assessing the damage so far have concluded that Russia is the worst hit, followed by Ukraine and Taiwan. The Russian Interior Ministry confirmed that 1000 of its computers were hit, although its servers were unharmed.

But suspicions still abound, with pundits pointing out the possible links between the Shadow Brokers and Russia. Last year, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted out suspicions that the hacker group is backed by the Kremlin. Guess it all adds to the palace intrigue.

Edward Snowden tweets on links between the cyberattack and the Kremlin. Image from twitter.

4. Washington, DC, US: The Russian plot thickens

Former FBI Director James Comey and Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at a briefing in 2016. Image by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Other than the PR disaster that the NSA now faces, the US has emerged relatively unscathed from the cyber attacks. International courier FedEx reported that it is “experiencing interference” due to the attacks, but did not provide any further assessment.

The Americans, meanwhile, are preoccupied with the allegations of Russian hacking into the presidential elections. While President Trump has ousted FBI director James Comey off his back for now, he faces even more pressure to find a new FBI director – will the new head continue the investigations?

And a fresh set of revelations suggest that there is precedent for Russian meddling in US elections. A new report alleges that the Russians attempted to hack the US election as far back as 2007, targeting Barack Obama’s campaign managers. Maybe the Russian hackers were there all along, just that no one noticed them?

5. Paris, France: What doesn’t kill you

Ensemble la France! Emmanuel Macron campaign poster, Paris, Image by Lorie Shuall.

Hackers prey on flaws in cyber security, but they can’t attack your psychological defences, as the French have proven. Right before the end of campaigning, hackers dumped frontrunner Mr Emmanuel Macron’s emails and financing documents online – in a eerie echo of the cyber attack on Mrs Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Once again, fingers pointed at Russia.

But unlike the US, France acted quickly the control the fallout. The election commission warned the press against republishing the information during the “quiet” period when candidates are not allowed to campaign. Some commentators think the US should emulate the French system of having a cool-off period.

And as satirist Andy Borowitz put it, the “French annoyingly retain (the) right to claim intellectual superiority over Americans.”


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by George Khoo

I saw the signs a couple of months before my daughter’s wedding. The year running up to this point had been rough. I was feeling upset, tired, irritable and angry almost every day. I teared up easily and was constantly thinking negative thoughts, sometimes even suicidal ones.

Even though I was so tired most days, I wasn’t able to sleep properly, often waking up in the wee hours of the morning. How I felt added to my fatigue, frustration, hopelessness, guilt and feelings of worthlessness.

While the truth that I was clinically depressed started to sink in, I was probably still in denial and hoped that with time, rest and exercise, things would improve. However, it just got worse and the low moods and negative thoughts persisted.

Part of the reason for not seeking help early was because I’m from the medical profession. I felt that admitting that I needed help would not reflect well on me – a healthcare provider who’s not even able to care for himself.


How did it get this bad?

It wasn’t the volume of work that affected me most but the issues in my relationships. I have always tried to live peacefully with my fellow man and it’s not in my nature to confront others. However, the leadership roles I’ve taken up at work and in my church have increasingly put me into situations that require confrontation.

I had patients that year that I expected would be grateful to me but turned around to question me on the wisdom of the recommendations I had made with their best interests at heart. I had a colleague who was pushing me to pursue something I was not comfortable with. And I had to confront people who had made wrong choices and required disciplinary action. Meanwhile, in church, a man told me to my face that he wanted me to step down as a church leader.

The worst was when a leader at work, unhappy with a policy I was trying to revise, accused me of being more interested in systems and policies than in caring for patients. I had spent sleepless nights worrying for my patients and trying to get them good healthcare and while what the leader said was absurd, it really hurt to hear him say that to me.

All of this played into my feelings of worthlessness and frustration, causing me to feel even more irritable and upset than I already was.


An unusual sense of loss

At some point, however, I realised that these were not the only causes for what I was feeling. It dawned on me that a big factor was the prospect of ‘losing’ my precious daughter once she gets married. That year, we must have attended close to 10 other weddings and I dreaded going to them because they just reminded me that soon, I was to give away my own daughter. Each wedding became more and more difficult to attend and the worst was the one two weeks before her wedding. I teared throughout the wedding thinking of what it was going to be like on that day!

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I was unable to make sense of how depressed this made me feel until I read Unmasking Male Depression by Archibald D. Hart:

“Then there was the time when my first daughter was going to be married. I found myself quite depressed a few months before the wedding. Finally, it dawned on me that my little girl was saying goodbye to me in favour of a young man who was not part of me. Like it or not, being excited for my daughter was not enough to overcome my sense of sadness. I was facing a loss that could never be replaced. There were those who said to me, “You’re not losing a daughter but gaining a son-in-law.” What a ridiculous idea! What I was losing could not be counterbalanced by what I was gaining. Every father of a daughter knows that a son-in-law does not equal a daughter!”

Coming across that passage was like hitting the jackpot (not that I play). Finally, someone understood how I was feeling – he had been through the same thing and knew how I felt.


Getting help

I finally plucked up the courage to make an appointment with a psychiatrist to confirm my own suspicion. I needed to know for sure, to be fair to my family and my loved ones. In any case, I had reached a point where not much else mattered and I wasn’t bothered about the stigma associated with taking anti-depressants 

I had reached a point where not much else mattered and I wasn’t bothered about the stigma associated with taking anti-depressants

I was put on Lexapro (escitalopram) and during my review, three and half months after my first appointment, my psychiatrist doubled my dosage. I was definitely feeling better in terms of having less frequent thoughts of hopelessness and a stop to the suicidal thoughts but I was not “walking on clouds”. About a week later, I distinctly remember waking up one morning and thinking: “Oh, this is what it feels to be normal?” That morning, after many months of feeling down, moody and negative, I felt that burden lift. My medication was working well.

The other thing that helped me greatly was reading the Bible and other Christian literature on depression and burnout. I found them to be great in creating self-awareness and for self-therapy.


“I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”Psalm 27:13-14

“Despite being a dedicated gospel-hearted Christian who preached grace, the truth is that I was dangerously close to living a gospel of works, not grace.” – Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout

“The surprising truth is that the person who pauses long enough to refresh his soul along the way actually becomes more alert, more alive, more efficient.” – W. Phillip Keller, Strength of Soul


The other main factor on my road to recovery was the tremendous support given to me by my beloved wife and family. At the end of our family holiday, six weeks before my daughter’s wedding, I decided to be open with them at the airport while waiting for our flight back to Singapore. I am thankful that they took it very well and were very encouraging.

My wife, who knew my struggles all throughout, was a pillar of strength when my whole world was crumbling emotionally. She is not only my best confidante and my best friend, she also makes me laugh and reminded me to rest. She was ever patient with me when I was negative and moody and even scratches my back to help me sleep! God gave her the strength and grace to put up with me.

It’s been a two and a half year journey and while my psychiatrist has encouraged me to try weaning off the Lexapro, I realise that as long as I am in my current role, in church and at work, it would not be possible. I have tried weaning it off but have had to go back on my medication rather quickly. Nonetheless, my dosage has halved and my recovery has been steady.

Having been through the worst periods has helped me to be more disciplined about taking regular breaks. Now, I take a week off every three to four months and am intentional about observing the weekly Sabbath as a time of rest from work. As the writer Christopher Ash puts it in Zeal without Burnout, “God needs no day off. But I am not God, and I do.”



I have chosen to be open about the fact that I am still on anti-depressants because there is a need to remove the stigma associated with it. In Singapore and in this part of the world, to be on anti-depressants is still very much taboo. Thankfully, I work in a Christian organization that fully understands and supports my stand. However, other employers may not be as understanding and that is probably one of the main reasons why people do not speak up – the fear of losing their jobs or not getting one should they be honest.

While it is probably too idealistic to expect no discrimination at all, I hope that we can help employers be open to accepting applicants with a history of mental illness but are stable on medication. They should be at least considered in the same way as those with other chronic illnesses such as hypertension or diabetes. As long as they are capable of performing the tasks and do not pose a danger to themselves or others, they should be given equal opportunities.

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. – Psalm 16:6


Dr George Khoo is a general practitioner in his late 50’s and serves as the Medical Advisor for a Christian organisation. George is married to Mabel and has two grown up children, both happily married. George and Mabel have a newborn grandchild and are expecting a second within the next few weeks.


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by Brenda Tan

ON LABOUR Day, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend whose daughter takes the same school bus as my 11-year-old girl. Her daughter had told her that Ah Girl was watching a clip from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” – and was concerned.

“13 Reasons Why” is a television series based on a story written by Jay Asher, in which the teen protagonist who commits suicide leaves behind 13 tape recordings on why she ended her life. Each tape implicated a person whom she blamed for her choice to kill herself.

It seems an intriguing and well-constructed piece of fiction, except that when translated into a highly-publicised teen drama series, alarm bells begin ringing for parents and the international mental health community.  They understand how easily a Hollywood treatment of such a complex issue as suicide may glamorise suicide instead.

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A couple of days before receiving that WhatApp message about “13 Reasons Why”, a parent in my 9-year-old son’s class parents’ WhatsApp chat group shared a news article about the “Blue Whale Suicide Challenge”. The report, which was picked up by other major news media, linked the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia to playing the “Blue Whale Challenge”, in which youths followed the commands of a game-master in ever-escalating acts of danger, culminating in their own suicide. Although fact-checking site said that the claims are unconfirmed, it’s nonetheless of concern that our young people may be susceptible to such sinister suggestions which put so little value on life.

The concerns of parents here were enough for the Education ministry to post a comprehensive advisory on regarding suicide games in the online media and how parents should handle it.

Of course, our concerns and fears for our children’s mental health is not new. No one doubts that our high-stress and exam-oriented school culture can easily create a tragic situation where failing to meet parents’ and the school’s expectations may cause yet another student to contemplate suicide. It only remains for parents and school counsellors to be vigilant when dealing with our children, to take note of their behaviour and well-being, and to create an environment where our children can feel safe enough to share their feelings of insecurity with us.

I read the news about the Blue Whale Challenge, I immediately shared the story with the kids and we had a chat about the implications of this challenge. I asked them what they thought of the challenge and how similar or different this challenge was to other internet viral challenges like the ALS ‘Ice Bucket’ Challenge and the more dangerous ‘Cinnamon’ Challenge. We talked about our responses to such challenges and dares, and what separates cowardice and bravery.

For my 18-year-old son, however, I had to be a little more subtle and a whole lot more ‘clueless’. “What’s this Blue Whale Challenge hah?” I asked him – and had him explain it to me. My “Why are they like that?” question encouraged him to give his views on the people who participated in the challenge and the game convener. It’s really good to know that he’s up-to-date with current affairs and, more importantly, to be assured that he places a high value on life.

I had to be a bit careful about talking about “13 Reasons Why” with Ah Girl though, because I didn’t want it to affect her relationship which her friend who had told her mother about her viewing the clip.

It turned out Ah Girl was watching a YouTube video on a friend’s smartphone (because her mobile doesn’t have data roaming), and the Netflix video ad for the series had to play in full before she could watch her TED-Ed video.

I asked her what she knew about “13 Reasons Why” and she shared that she knew it was an M18 show about a girl’s suicide, but she wasn’t interested to watch a show like that. Her younger Di-di, aged 9, chimed in to say that he also saw the ad for the series when he surfed YouTube, but won’t watch it “because it doesn’t have a funny part!”.

“Is there a difference between watching ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Star Wars’?” I asked.

“One is real, but the other is not,” the boy replied.

“Actually, both are not real,” I corrected, even though I knew what he meant. “They are both stories written by people and made into movies.”

I felt that it was important for my kids to see the difference between fact and fiction. If they mistook a fantasy for reality, it would create the basis for their behaviours and actions. This is why it is highly unlikely that playing ‘Counterstrike’ would turn Kor Kor into a terrorist, or watching ‘Star Wars’ would turn Di-di into a Sith Lord, even if we did encounter quite a number of these cosplay characters over the Star Wars Weekend at Gardens by the Bay.

However, if my kids believed that Hannah Baker’s suicide story is real, they may just simplify suicide as an option for revenge and justice from beyond the grave, and an action worth carrying out when they encounter difficult times.

Therein lies the true danger of headline news like the unverified ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and the concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Both suicide-focussed stories cut too close to the divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. For vulnerable youths seeking attention or help, these stories may provide an unanticipated call to action that we are not prepared for.

We can’t stop them from watching such videos and clips all the time, but we can start talking to them about the value of life and steer them into healthy pursuits. This is in the hope that the suicide option will never cross their minds as a way to overcome what problems they face. They must know that life is very much worth living whatever the fantasy or fiction might portray.



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