March 23, 2017

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by Jason Tan

THE first quarter of 2017 is nearly behind us and the global economy seems to have also put its travails behind itself. The world economic outlook is indeed brightening and the world is set for a rosier rest-of-2017.

World trade flows, after a sluggish recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, are increasing steadily; the falls in commodity prices are also likely to be over, putting an end to fears that the world economy may be in deflation mode. Manufacturing in various large economies stands at multi-period highs, driven by rising exports.

This economic upswing on a global level is primarily supported by an accelerating American economy. The United States (US) has certainly taken its time to get back to its feet after the debilitating sub-prime mortgage crisis and its aftermath. The US Federal Reserve’s recent hiking of the Fed Funds Rate – the policy rate which is used as a reference for interest rates worldwide – by 0.25 percentage points in March reflects burgeoning confidence in the US economy.

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The American acceleration is ably supported by a nascent revival in the other large, advanced economies, namely, the Eurozone and Japan. China – a source of global uncertainty in 2015 and 2016 – has also embarked on a path of lower but more stable and high quality growth. This has had the effect of injecting impetus into the global economy through trade and investment flows.

East Asia, including Asean countries, has benefited from the export turnaround and will enjoy greater economic gains in the year ahead. Export-oriented economies such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam will be outsized winners from the resurgence of the G3 bloc and the consequent boost to global trade flows. Even Indonesia and the Philippines will stand to gain from the increased demand for raw materials and other commodities.

This will come as a relief for economies in general as we put behind us the unsettling episodes of the recent past such as the oil price collapse in late-2014, the Chinese stock market crash in mid-2015 and subsequent fears about dwindling foreign reserves as capital outflows fled from China, Brexit and the election of Mr Donald Trump to the presidency in the US.

However, there remain salient risks which could upset the applecart.

First, US President Trump’s fiscal policies remain largely unknown. He has mooted a trifecta of deregulation, corporate tax cuts and large-scale infrastructure development as the cornerstone of his fiscal plans. Yet this fiscal stimulus could cause an accelerating US economy into overheat and force the Fed to adopt a tighter monetary policy stance.

Second, US-China relations remain clouded by Mr Trump’s rhetoric of China being a currency manipulator and unfair trade partner. Any unilateral trade sanctions imposed by the US on China will have knock-on effects in Asia, given the interconnectedness in the region. Furthermore, it will darken the already dimming mood for globalisation and free trade – which Asia is so dependent on.

Third, North Korea is the most pertinent geopolitical risk that could derail the rosy economic outlook. The recent death of Mr Kim Jong Nam, brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, ostensibly at the hands of North Korean agents, brought the spotlight onto an increasingly unstable regime in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Any implosion in the Korean peninsula will definitely lead to financial market turmoil and currency fluctuations in the region.

The bottomline: The world will likely be a better place in 2017 as the global economy re-awakens on the back of strength from G3 and China. Rising world trade stemming from increasing global demand will feed into economic upswings in export-oriented economies in East Asia and Asean. However, some risks loom large. In particular, political spillovers from the Trump Administration in the US could lead to economic detriments as will a regime implosion in the DPRK.


Jason Tan is an economist at Centennial Asia Advisors, focusing on macroeconomic and geopolitical developments in developing Asia. He delves into social, political and economic issues facing Singapore on the side.


Featured image from Pixabay. 

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TECH, tapping, theft. It seems that progress has given humans more ways to steal information and more ways to screw up and leak information online, like the SAF did this week. Here are some of the incidents that occurred across the world this past week that stand as a testament to the need for better cyber security, whether it be from leaks within or threats without.

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.1. Washington, United States – WikiLeaks publishes trove of CIA documents

Image by user:Duffman from Wikimedia Commons

On Mar 7, WikiLeaks released a data trove of secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents, revealing the agency’s hacking operations and spying capabilities. Codenamed “Vault 7”, the release involved 8,761 classified documents. Most security experts agree that the information appears legitimate, but does not reveal any groundbreaking secrets.

If the leak is accurate, it means the CIA has the ability to hack into a variety of internet-enabled platforms – your phone, smart TV, computer, and router. In fact, it seems that the CIA can even read encrypted messages sent on otherwise secure apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. The CIA does this by exploiting iOS and Android vulnerabilities to hack into a user’s phone, allowing them to see what’s on screen, listen to the user typing or dictating words, and capture the original data before it is encrypted.

However, the documents only represent three years of alleged data. It is possible that technology companies have updated their firmware and other data protection measures to deal with these vulnerabilities. It is also possible that the CIA has developed new hacking tools beyond those described in the Vault 7 leaks.

2. Taipei, Taiwan – University graduate arrested on charges of spying for China

Image from Pixabay

Last week, Taiwanese authorities arrested Chinese national Zhou Hongxu, a graduate of Taipei’s prestigious National Chengchi University (NCCU). Zhou has been accused of attempting to organise a spy ring inside the Taiwan government – he allegedly tried to recruit a foreign service officer by offering him a free trip to Japan in exchange for classified information. Prosecutors believe that Mr Zhou was instructed by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to enrol at NCCU where he could make friends and develop a spy ring.

Beijing, meanwhile, has protested the detention. Mr Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Mainland Affairs Office, dismissed the allegation as “pure fabrication intended to stir up trouble.” Criticising the Taiwanese authorities, Mr Ma said the arrest has come at a time when Taiwanese independence forces have been hyping up a “serious infiltration by Chinese spies in Taiwan.”

Citing an anonymous government official, the Taipei Times reported that there are an estimated 5,000 individuals harvesting classified information in Taiwan for Beijing. Chinese nationals who go to Taiwan for business or to study may sometimes be of use to China’s intelligence apparatus.

3. Washington D.C, United States of America – Accusations and allegations 

Image by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos from Wikimedia Commons

President of the US, Donald Trump accused former president Barack Obama of wiretapping him. Mr Trump tweeted early in March that Mr Obama wiretapped him towards the end of his presidential campaign but had no evidence to support. However, a spokesman for Mr Obama said that it was “simply false.”

Mr Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News analyst while on the Fox & Friends programme said that, instead of asking US agencies to spy on Mr Trump, Mr Obama obtained transcripts of Trump’s conversations from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The Secret Intelligence Service commonly known as MI6 has denied the charge of eavesdropping on Donald Trump pre- and post-US presidential election. The charge was made on Tuesday by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano. A British official who is familiar with government policy and security operations described the charges to be “totally untrue and quite frankly absurd.” The US has since apologised to the UK for the statement and promised not to repeat such unfounded claims again.

4. Ottawa, Canada – Sex-toy manufacturer pays C$4m (S$4.23m) to American users due to privacy concerns

Image from Pixabay 

Canadian sex-toy maker Standard Innovation has agreed to a collective payout up to a total of C$4m (S$4.23m) for users in the US, after it was accused of tracking data on the intimate habits of thousands of its customers. A class-action lawsuit was filed last year by American customers who alleged the company violated their privacy rights.

Users took issue with an app – called We-Connect, which connected to the company’s We-Vibe vibrator. The data collected was sent back to the company, including details on temperatures, settings, and usage. Standard Innovation claimed the data was for market-research purposes, but some users felt violated, due to the personal nature of the information. They also voiced concerns that the data could be linked to the email address they provided to the company.

The company has since claimed that there has been no breach of our customers’ personal information or data. Under the settlement agreement, those who used the We-Connect app will be paid up to C$10,000 (S$10,563) each. Customers who bought the toy, but did not activate the accompanying app, will receive up to US$199 (S$280) each.


Featured image by Flickr user geralt. CC0 1.0.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.


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

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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earth by Kevin Gill

by The Middle Ground

MAR 8 marked International Women’s Day, a day to commemorate the women’s rights movement. The campaign theme for this year is #BeBoldForChange: Call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world – a more gender inclusive world.

While there were many activities to celebrate women around the world, it is without a doubt that women still face sexism and discrimination in their daily lives. Here are five different events that happened in the past week that will explain why it is imperative to continue fighting for equal rights.

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1. Luxembourg City, Luxembourg – “Women must earn less than men”

Image by Leonardo1982, from Pixabay 

On Mar 3, the European Parliament decided to launch a hate speech investigation on Polish member of European Parliament (MEP) Janusz Korwin-Mikke, for making misogynistic remarks in his capacity as MEP.

Mr Korwin-Mikke, founder of Polish far-right party Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic — Freedom and Hope, incited outrage when he argued that “women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent” during a European Parliament debate on the gender pay gap.

Mr Korwin-Mikke’s views were immediately rebutted by fellow MEP, Spaniard Iratxe Garcia Perez. In a speech bristling with indignation, Ms Perez stated “I know it hurts and worries you that today women can sit in this house and represent European citizens with the same rights as you. I am here to defend all European women from men like you.”

Rule 11 of the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure states that “members’ conduct shall be (characterised) by mutual respect” and “members shall not resort to defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or (behaviour) in parliamentary debates.” If found in contravention of this rule, Mr Korwin-Mikke may be subject to a fine and/or temporarily suspended from Parliament.
2. California, United States – Former Uber employee speaks up about toxic work culture
Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by
Image from TMG File 
Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer for Uber, revealed the culture of sexual harassment and misogyny that pervaded her former company in a blog post dated Feb 19. She documented her problems with the company – one experience involved reporting a manager who was propositioning her to HR, who refused to fire the guilty manager because he was a “high performer”, and instead advised her to transfer out of her team.
When I joined Uber, the (department) I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another (engineering department), this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organisation, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organisational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organisation.
Uber is facing increasing corporate and employee backlash over its “hustle-oriented” and unpleasant workplace culture. After Fowler’s viral blog post, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sent a company-wide memo asserting that the company would be investigating the claims made, with Holder and Tammy Albarran of law firm Covington & Burling leading the investigation.
3. Britain – Emma Watson can’t be a feminist? 
Screenshot from Twitter user JuliaHB1
Emma Watson’s photo in a white ropy top that exposed most of her breasts got a British radio presenter and commentator questioning Emma’s feminist beliefs. The commentator, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted a photo of Watson’s vanity photoshoot picture on Mar 1.
This tweet quickly received backlash and eventually got to Emma’s attention. She was “stunned by the vitriol she’s received”. In an interview with Reuters, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador said, “They were saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and have boobs.” Julia continued to defend her tweet by saying that Watson “complains that women are sexualised and then sexualises herself in her own work. Hypocrisy.” Another celebrity, Gloria Steinem, when asked for comments, told TMZ that “Feminists can wear anything they f****** want.”
Emma was shocked that people are still unclear what feminism mean and said that “Feminism is about giving women choice…it’s about equality. It’s not — I really don’t know what my t*ts have to do with it.”
4. Manhattan, New York City, USA – New resident opposite famous Wall Street bull 
Image from Facebook page All Women Are Beautiful
On the eve of International Women’s Day (March 7), a 50-inch bronze statue of a little girl was installed opposite Wall Street’s famous charging bull. This statue was sculpted by artiste Kristen Visbal of Delaware and installed by State Street Global Advisors.

Fortune reported that the newly added statue was a representation of State Street Global Advisors’ new commitment to gender parity in corporate boardrooms. The firm also announced that it would pressure 3,500 companies worth $30 trillion in market cap to aim for gender parity on their boards.

However, this much-received attention and praised statue, according to Huffington Post’s Emily Peck “is just a super-sophisticated bit of feminist marketing.” In her article titled: Why the ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue Is Kinda Bull, she goes on to explain about the firm’s failure to mention that the company does not have many women employees and that only three women are on the Board of Directors. “If the goal is gender equality, State Street’s women stats are terrible. They reveal the sculpture and the call to action as a mostly empty seduction.”
5. Washington D.C, U. S. A – How the GOP “celebrated” IWD

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, from Pixabay

On IWD, some members of the Republican Party of the United States, nicknamed the Grand Old Party (GOP), pushed for legislation that wanted to defund Planned Parenthood; America’s most trusted health care provider of reproductive health care which provides high quality and affordable medical care.

A press conference was held in D.C to address changes that the Republicans were proposing to the Affordable Care Act. House Speaker, Paul Ryan said that defunding Planned Parenthood “… is what we’ve been dreaming about doing.” The new bill will end funding to Planned Parenthood and “sends money to community centers,” he said. This new bill will affect poor and low-income Americans the most.

This happened on the same day that Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau announced a a $650 million initiative to fund sex education and reproductive health services worldwide.

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Oo Gin Lee

TAXI companies need to understand why users like me who spend about $500-$600 a month on cabs and rides are choosing Uber over taxis. Unless I am in a hurry, I will actually call for an Uber even if I am standing at a cab stand filled with empty cabs.

The biggest problem with cabs are the cab drivers. Many, though not all, are jaded and have bad attitudes. The crux of the problem is that these drivers do not see themselves as service providers which is why they come up with shenanigans like the “changing shift” excuse. Often, “changing shift” is a cover for them to choose the passengers that fits their plans – financially or otherwise. I don’t use Grab either because Grab drivers have the ability to choose passengers – passenger destinations are shown to Grab drivers before they make the pickup.

Uber drivers, on the other hand, do not get to choose their passengers. They only know where their passengers are going after they have picked up the passenger and started the journey.

The Uber system also means that passengers are always able to get a Uber confirmation within seconds, because the booking system does not need to wait for the drivers to make a decision about the rider’s destination. From my experience, when I get a booking with Comfort cab app, the cab arrives in under five minutes. Uber casts the radius wider, so sometimes I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes before the ride arrives. Many Uber drivers are also inexperienced, adding to the late minutes.

Despite this, I still choose Uber because you always get a booking confirmation the fastest (even if it means you still have to wait another 10-15 mins for the car to arrive). The beauty of booking apps is that you can see where the car is and how long more it will take before it reaches you, so you can maximise your time by doing other stuff while waiting for the ride to arrive.

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The second biggest problem with the taxi business is that the taxi companies act like landlords. Their revenue comes from car rental, which leads to the creation of the two-shift system, where the fairest time to change shift is between 3-5pm. This leads to a shortage of taxis during peak hours, the weakness of the system that private ride companies like Uber and Grab have exploited to the fullest. Ride companies on the other hand, earn by making 10-30 per cent cut of the cost of ride. The difference in the business model explains why you can always get Uber during peak hours. Uber incentivises its drivers to get onto the road during peak hours while taxi drivers are busy putting up their change shift signs and making mental calculations whether the next destination is en route to their handover location.

The third problem is that cabs cost more. Though this isn’t the main reason for me to choose Uber over cabs, I am confident that it is one of the main reasons that even aunties and uncles are choosing to book a ride through Uber and Grab.

So the recent news that the cab companies now want to introduce surge pricing befuddles me. This will drive up revenue for the cab drivers but it won’t solve the three problems why cabs are losing out to Uber. In fact, it will only make it worse. The potential for a more expensive ride does nothing to weed out bad service, and simply makes bad experiences even more unpalatable to customers.

The other problems still remain – customers trying to avoid bad drivers, and cab companies are acting like landlords and not as service providers. And like before, they think they can solve the problem by increasing the “potential revenue” for their drivers, just like when they increased flag-down rates, and introduced new surcharges.

Perhaps in the old days when we didn’t have a choice but to take cabs, this tactic may have worked well enough. But in an age where everybody can be a Uber or Grab driver, or call a car on demand, and at a time when we are hearing stories of cab drivers returning their taxis in droves, this latest initiative to add surge pricing, without first addressing other problems, is surely a recipe for disaster.


Oo Gin Lee was a tech journalist for over 15 years before he left The Straits Times in mid-2015 to start his own PR agency that focuses on consumer tech.


Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by The Middle Ground

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4) to praise the quality of Mr Kok Heng Leun’s speech in Parliament, as well as those of Nominated MP Randolph Tan, Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He said NMP Kok Heng Leun “spoke on how arts and culture can help bond and build resilience in our society, at a time of upheaval and uncertainty”.

He said that “some opposition MPs made good speeches” and ended his Facebook post by saying that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Kok’s speech in full:


Thank you Minister Heng for preparing this budget for 2017.

I recall my experience last year, the first time I stood before the House to speak about the budget. I had noted that culture was not mentioned in the speech. This year, I am thankful and happy that the arts and culture are mentioned, although in only one paragraph… on the good news of the boost of the Cultural Matching Fund.

So, for the next few minutes, I would like make art and culture my subject: Upheavals, Displacement and The Art of Resilience.


We are all acutely aware that we live in a complex world today. We have been forewarned that the times ahead will be difficult. There will be displacements to our seemingly orderly lives.

Last month, I attended a seminar organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar. This organization was set up 70 years ago after World War Two, gathering thinkers, practitioners and policy-­‐makers to consider world issues, articulate problems and propose broad strategies to deal with these problems. For the 2017 iteration, 40 fellows from various part of the world (including myself) participated in the seminar, which was held in a beautiful palace, the Schloss Leopoldskron. The palace is famous because it is the location site of one of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music.

During the seminar, while overlooking the idyllic lake, we shared and listened to stories and experiences that were at times harrowing, heartbreaking and deeply disturbing.

One fellow from Uganda shared that her brother was abducted by rebels, and how her family had to keep silent, despite knowing that he would become a child soldier. Another participant shared about the unbearable lightness of existence—the result of her experience of war and blood shed.

Our American friends said they feared waking up to another executive order that would bring the U.S. closer to isolation. Yet, within the same country, we heard about another crisis, this time from a Native American, through songs and rituals, demonstrated the solidarity of her relatives in their bid to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

There were also stories about other urgent global issues, from climate change to social and income inequality. So many issues, so many crises and so many stories of upheavals, which resulted in a huge sense of loss and displacement.


As I listened to these sharings, I realised that back in sunny Singapore, although we are cushioned from the immediacy of these crises, we cannot deny that they will undoubtedly impact us. For many Singaporeans, myself included , the Rohingya crisis seems far away, when in actual fact, it is really close, refugees in Johor, needing help and support.

A community that is hurt and injured is a world that is not at peace.

Let us also not be complacent and imagine that such upheavals is too far away, or will never happen to us.

For now, while we may not experience such gut-­‐wrenching upheavals, we have our own issues of displacement: Migrant workers who have come to Singapore to make a living despite their personal sense of dislocation; single parents and their children who do not enjoy the same benefits of other traditional family units, and who struggle to make ends meet; workers who feel that their jobs are at risk because technological advancements and artificial intelligence might make their roles obsolete, losing their sense of place at home, in the society, and with themselves.

Displacement comes with change. In physics, displacement maps out the relative change of the position of an object, moving from one point to another. But it does not reflect the distance and time one need to take to move from this point to the other. Just like in real life.

For some it is a straight line, quick and fast. Or others, it is a path with a lot of derailments, bringing them through ups and downs, and in some instances, they never arrive.

Naturally, we want the change that we experience to be good, that it bring us forward and upwards, in a straight line—in other words, positive displacement. But most of the time, negative displacement within our society is real and undeniable. With the widening income gap, the lower to middle income groups constantly feel the squeeze as they try to keep up with change.

At the same time, their lack of resources has resulted in derailment. When they are reminded to catch up or be left behind, it sounds as if the problem is that of a personal failing in their lack of trying, rather than a systemic one.

Change favours the privileged. Privilege comes in different forms. All of us here are privileged because we have the power to affect change. Or so I’d like to believe. You can be privileged in terms of wealth or education… or even as a race. It is thus the responsibility of those who are privileged to speak up for those who are not – those who do not earn as much, those who are not as educated, those who are sidelined by our laws.

In a society that celebrates achievement and progress, no one wants to be seen as a failure. Failure results in alienation. People who feel alienated, who feel helpless, become angry. We see the outcomes of such unhappiness on social media, often resulting in an echo chamber effect, reinforcing collective discontentment.

The frustration that stems from material, emotional and psychological insecurity creates a further polarisation of society. We begin to fear the other. This pervasive sense of threat is dangerous. It not only prevents us from being empathetic and compassionate, but encourages selfishness, and can even make violence and brutality justifiable in extreme situations.


The government is aware of these concerns and addresses them through pro-­‐business policies and enhancing the safety net. In an immediate term, pro-­‐business policies may retain create and jobs, but it might not ensure a trickle-­‐down effect on the economy to individuals. Standards of living may still stagnate.

While the government’s extended social safety net will help, with no substantial increase in income, the reliance on social support may be protracted. But self-­‐esteem is directly related to self-­‐reliance. Rather than hoping the safety net is wide enough to catch them, people would generally prefer to lead a self-­‐sustainable, dignified life, earning a respectable wage that ensures their independence. The late British sociologist, Peter Townsend, once said,

“It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.”

I and many others believe this to be true, and in difficult times, we must be ever more attentive to those amongst us who fall through the cracks.

As such, I wish to hear more from the Minister on how the livable wages of the middle income and lower income can be raised.

This brings me to the next point: while the Committee for Future Economy focused on economic strategies, it is essential that a study on the cultural impact of these economic strategies be made. Every economic structural change affects individuals, family, society, politics, infrastructure, environment, the tangible and intangible heritage, and the arts—in other words, the culture of our society and the city state as a whole.

We must take a proactive approach to anticipate the impact of these structural changes, rather than react to them when they arise. To give an example: technological advancement has progressed so rapidly beyond our imaginations that we as humans are trying to grasp hold of the changes and manage them well without falling behind. Another example is that the impact of the expansionary immigration policy of the 90s to early 2000 could be mitigated if we had done a cultural impact study earlier. Cultural impact of economic strategies will therefore put us in good stead to manage changes and their effects on society.

I would now like to unpack a term I have heard numerous times in the House since our debate began: “deep skills”.

What is deep skill without deep thinking?

What is crucial here is a culture of creative and critical thinking. Such a culture cannot manifest overnight through new state funding schemes. There is no better time than now to scrutinise our current education system, and incorporate opportunities for creative and critical thinking within it, to develop our next generation and generations to come. The government can create scaffolds and support structures for innovation, but the root source of innovation lies in the people.

We often talk about software or HEART-­‐ware, as opposed to HARD-­‐ ware. Software is not just about skills, it’s about human interaction. How lacking are we these days, in the art of conversation? We have reduced our exchanges to monosyllables: ‘Can’. ‘Want’. ‘K’. I’m not talking about language. I’m talking about connecting.

How do employers and employees connect? How do strangers converse? How do we settle a public disagreement in a multiracial and multi-­‐religious society? How do we manage the increasing moral panic? How do we not see ourselve as helpless individuals, alienated, or a powerless observer to surrounding injustice? How do we see ourselves as active change agents for our society and the world?


This leads me to my next point on resilience. To manage change and displacement, we as a society must become stronger; we must actively develop the art of resilience. In trying times, resilience in individuals is key in helping us repulse fear, resist and reject the injustice and oppressive status quo. Resilience embraces difficult yet transformative changes. It takes courage and conviction; it encourages objective and critical thinking. At the same time, it enables empathy, compassion and a greater sense of hope.

I have attended a number of forum last year’s and there was always this call to artist to response to this trying times.

In Salzburg Global Seminar, policy makers, thinkers, NGOs and rep from C40 etc made the call for arts to be the active change agent and building resilience.

In Weimar, a conference on Sharing and Exchange, political scientists, economists, philosophers also stress the importance of collaboration and inter-­‐cultural exchanges.

In Malta, NGOs, CEOs of arts council around the world made the call for resilience and more arts to heal, to repair, to imagine.

As an arts practitioner, I can attest to the fact that the arts can develop resilience, because it opens us up to critical thinking processes, be it as a spectator or audience, participant or creator.

To give an example: Mr Ong, an audience member of my community forum theatre play, shared:

“I used to be a very impatient person. But after watching forum theatre play, when I get into a disagreement with my spouse, I will remember you, Heng Leun. I remember when you will conduct a forum theatre play, and when a crisis happens, you will say, ‘Stop! Take this moment to think, to reflect.’ So I do it. I stop. I think. I reflect. It makes me less impatient, and of course with that, there is less arguments and more discussion.”

For creators, the arts is a means for articulating difficulties otherwise left unvoiced and seething beneath the surface. Take for instance my friend from Uganda, Beatrice Lamwaka, who wrote stories that helped her heal from her pain and trauma of living through arduous times. I urge you to read her award-­‐winning work Butterfly Dream, which can be found on the internet.

At home, we have witnessed the lyrical poetry of our migrant workers in Singapore, who have given us an unflinching glimpse into their lives here. Take Bikas Nath from Bangladesh, a poet and shipyard worker who won first prize at the 2016 Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. He shared that when he is lonely, “the pen and paper are my friends. So when I have the time, I try to write down my feelings.” I quote from his award-­‐winning poem, “Why Migrant?”:

I long to run back

into the warm embrace of my homeland

Among loved ones

Laugh over a steaming cup of home-­‐made tea

to the sound of the impatient strumming of a guitar somewhere

Wearing my blue school uniform

I want to lose myself

Back into my childhood

Like a stubborn child on a rainy monsoon day

Hiding under the safety of Taro leaves in the swamp

What the arts offer is a world of imagination, and in that, the seed of hope. In art-­‐making, an individual encounters the power of art to heal, repair, and bring hope in difficult times.

Aside from individual resilience, we need to build on community resilience. By that, I mean a community that comes together to listen to differences, mediate and recognise that each differing point of view deserves respect and understanding. The resilient community will never neglect the individual voice within the sea of voices.

Again, the arts compel us to be engaged through active listening and collaboration, which are essential building blocks that inform creation. Active listening allows us to develop empathy and to experience views beyond our comfort zone and echo chambers. I therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement.

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐comunity resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐community resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.


It cannot be stressed enough that leadership plays an important role in motivating and inspiring citizens to take greater responsibility for our shared growth, instead of just focusing on individual success stories. This means being politically motivated to gain a better

distribution of wealth and success. It cannot be achieved merely through business-­‐oriented measures or short-­‐term handouts. Rather, in developing long-­‐term strategies to reduce the income gap, our leaders can reignite self-­‐belief, meaningfulness and dignity in the people.

Likewise, an enlightened leadership must respect the differences that exist within our society—not tolerating, not co-­‐existing with, but embracing and celebrating diversity and plurality of views, lifestyles and people. In an era where there is increased polarisation sparked off by religion, politics and class, our leaders have ever more important roles as beacons of reason and mediation. To be resilient is to never allow communities to splinter into us vs. them ideologies, but rather, to make people see that there is a “u” in “us”. We are in this together

As we move our nation forward with the proposals by the Committee of Future Economy, let us remember to become positive forces of change, to find new ways of seeing and listening, and to always be resilient and compassionate to those who fall through the cracks of the system. If we are to become a community of hope in these difficult times, we cannot merely focus on straightforward success stories, but must engage with those who feel most sidelined and marginalised, so that we can become more robust and resilient, together, and never alone.

In Pig Earth, part of a trilogy written by later John Berger, about peasant’s trying to survive under capitalism, there is a scene of a old peasant playing a mouth organ in the mountain, while he was trying to save an old cow. And John Berger wrote, “All music is about survival, addressed to survivors.” Hence, by extension, all art is about survival, addressed to survivors.

And only with that, I support the bill. Thank you.


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by The Middle Ground 

WHAT’S good about Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Randolph Tan’s speech? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4), and said that his speech, as well as those of NMP Koh Heng Luen, NMP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang, showed the quality of Singapore’s Parliamentary debate, even though the House is not as dramatic as it is in some other countries.

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: “They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He commented that NMP Randolph Tan is “tracking our restructuring efforts closely”. He ended his Facebook post by expressing that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Randolph Tan’s speech in full:

Budget 2017 Debate

Speech by Randolph Tan, Nominated Member

Mdm Speaker, thank you, for allowing me to join in this debate.

Madam, I strongly support the current Budget proposals. They address ongoing challenges in the economic restructuring process and, despite the changes the last year has brought, reiterate the vision of a secure future that Minister Heng has set out from last year’s Budget.

The circumstances we face are undoubtedly unique, but there are important lessons from the experience of other countries that we only ignore at our peril. We could just as easily become trapped in our own lost decade, exhausting our limited resources on a dispersed agenda without heed to strengthening our economic foundations. Our priority, therefore, should be to provide a footing for future generations that is even more secure than the one we now have.

Madam, to me, this Budget is about seeing beyond the uncertainty, taking leadership responsibility in issues that matter, and possessing the courage of our conviction to complete the restructuring task at hand.

This Budget takes a strong lead in shaping the environmental agenda. We have enjoyed our entitlements of clean air and clean water for as long as we remember. But the unwelcome reality brought about by changes in our world is that not only are both in short supply, the two are growing sources of contention in an increasingly fractious world. Singapore has developed a lead in clean water technology and we can do the same with green technologies in general. A fundamental element in managing the competing access to clean water and air is to correctly price their availability. The long-term consequences of mispricing water and pollution are severe and incompatible with the direction we intend to take for our future economy, as well as for our society. We should not leave future generations unprepared to confront a problem that is developing now.

The issue is not how much clean water we still have or where the current threats to our environmental air quality lie. The issue is much broader and has to do with our collective responsibility for the environment and societal development. Hence, I would like to urge the Minister to consider price corrections in other areas in urgent need of attention as well. Areas such as electronic waste generation, should be incorporated into a comprehensive strategy for responsible environmental advocacy. By ensuring that pricing is imposed on both water and pollution, Singapore is not just taking a responsible leadership role in pushing forward the agenda for dealing with climate change, we will also be putting in place incentives for nurturing the development of technologies whose global economic potential is rapidly expanding. These lie on the path of our future economy.

Madam, there are some areas, however, where I feel that further clarification on how the long-term vision could be achieved would be useful. The first of these is our manpower policy. We should strengthen the connection between our manpower policy and our skills framework.

Foreign workforce growth has been slowing since 2011. Although the recent weakening in demand has been partly due to economic conditions, there is little doubt that the primary mechanism bringing about this shift is the system of levies and dependency ratio ceilings (DRCs).

Our policy on foreign manpower should not just be about restrictions. It should be about promoting long-term economic competitiveness for the benefit of our overall workforce. In order to realise this objective, we must be open to the type of skills we lack and incorporate foreign manpower contributions into a comprehensive strategy for filling our skills gaps.

The indications are that we have made promising improvements in this direction. In the third quarter of 2016, the number of work permit holders in manufacturing and construction declined, contributing to a rare quarterly contraction in total employment in Singapore. As a result, preliminary statistics from MOM show foreign employment (excluding foreign domestic workers) shrinking over the course of 2016 as a whole, the first time this has occurred since the global financial crisis for the whole year. At the same time, labour productivity measures depict improving performance. Full year 2016 figures show real value-added per worker hitting 1%, after having remained stubbornly negative in the preceding two years. And the quarterly statistics show the improvement was sustained throughout, with fourth quarter real value-added per worker hitting 2.4%. What is reassuring is that these changes occurred gradually, despite the fluid environment and turbulent global backdrop.

The work is far from done, and the productivity challenge is an ongoing one. The delicate balance of maintaining robust domestic employment, ensuring global standards of openness to deep and diverse skills, and injecting momentum into the productivity drive is a challenge that all countries face.

Given the limitations of our domestic labour market, the magnitude of the challenge we face in Singapore is far greater. That is why robust yet flexible policy instruments are so important. There is no doubt that our foreign manpower management policy has encountered enormous challenges. This should not detract from the tremendous success it represents as well. Compared to many other countries, we have taken a lead in this area and we should recognise its effectiveness.

Going forward, we should re-orientate our policy to move away from restricting inflows and focus on growing skills sets that our domestic workforce alone will be too slow to achieve on its own. This idea is not new. The “triple weak” system promulgated by the Minister for Manpower for monitoring companies’ with poor hiring practices already contains essentially the same key ingredients, which is that companies should be assessed on a multi-dimensional metric, rather than a single- dimensional measure.

The predecessor to the CFE, the Economic Strategies Committee, originally proposed the system of levies and DRCs. The CFE has developed the principle further. In its report, it recognises the need for foreign talent with specialised skills sets and calls to develop a more differentiated foreign workforce policy. To achieve this differentiation, instead of using the number of workers as the basic unit of measure, we should measure skills instead, and determine levies based on the extent of the skills gap that an employer encounters within the existing domestic workforce, as well as the changes in the gap over time.

The measurement of skills sets and skills levels should be carried out in coordination with the skills framework constructs being developed by SkillsFuture Singapore. The resulting system should be validated by the needs of the Industrial Transformation Maps (ITMs), merged with the current levels of foreign workforce passes, and used to assess the extent to which gaps at the company as well as sectoral level can or cannot be filled by the existing local workforce supply. Such a system can also be used to track whether the gaps are effectively closed over time through training, and how fast this is occurring.

The system of foreign manpower levies and DRCs forms a clear set of rules for managing foreign manpower participation. In recent years, including the current Budget proposal, the system has been used to moderate the impact of manpower cost pressures when economic conditions are poor. As a counter-cyclical tool, the system of levies and DRCs can be adjusted by sector. On this basis, levy rises in the marine and process sectors have been frozen, while those in construction have been allowed to proceed as earlier announced. And compared to alternatives, such as the CPF cuts that were used in the past, this approach is much more amenable to fine-tuning.

My second concern is about the challenges of scale that we, in Singapore, almost uniquely in world, face. Whether we are prepared for the reality of competing against countries much larger than us, this is something that we will have to deal with as a result of the proposals set out in this Budget. This Budget makes a significant push for internationalisation. This will increase the companies and local talent being given greater exposure to global competition and will serve us well in the long run. While programmes, such as the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), can help Singaporeans gain a foothold in overseas markets, as well as a better appreciation of our global competition, there are adjustments that individuals have to make. Hence, the transformative impact of the GIA will take some years to become visible.

The issue of scale has always been something of a challenge for Singapore’s economy. We have pushed near to saturation point in many of our efforts, but the competition can harness vastly larger numbers without batting an eyelid. This fact is visible in every aspect in which we compete internationally, from trade figures to our workforce composition, to even our robot density.

In 1984, China’s share of manufacturing exports in the world’s total, 1.1%, equalled ours. In 2015, as the world’s leading exporter, China’s share had grown 16 times, to almost twice that of its nearest rival, Germany. Our share, of course, has also grown, more than doubling to 2.3%. Between 1984 and 2015, the share of the US in world manufacturing exports fell by a third. These developments have redefined the global economic balance. They have also brought about the tremendous groundswell of reaction that ranges from the Brexit vote outcome to the repudiation of the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In 2015, world manufacturing exports shrank more than 8% in nominal terms.

Singapore’s trade performance suffered as a result.

The options we have in reacting to these changes are determined not just by our preference, but also by the choices made by the countries we compete against.

China is also the world leader in high-technology manufacturing exports.

However, Singapore’s share of global high-technology exports is about a quarter of China’s, which makes this sector more important to us than general manufacturing.

Across all regions of the world and in many countries, the proportion of manufacturing classified as high technological activity is on the rise. A comparison across countries reveals a visible correlation between this rise and the increasing use of robotics.

As the Minister for Finance Mr Heng had already pointed out last year, China is the world’s largest buyer of robots. And other countries are keeping pace, including Singapore. According to a recent update from the International Federation of Robotics, between 2010 and 2015, the operational stock of industrial robots in Asia rose 70%. The same report placed Singapore within the top ranks of countries in the world, in terms of robotics density, just behind South Korea, and nearly five times ahead of the average global density.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are just two of the things that are often mentioned in the same breath as Uber and Grab when discussing technological changes and disruption. These two groups are obviously very different. However, what concerns those who cite them as examples in the same breadth is not necessarily their economic or technological novelty but the loss of control workers feel in facing the rise of these innovations. This fear of loss of control is the most important reason why ordinary workers today identify with the notion of being caught up in an industrial revolution beyond their control, no different from the original one.

Research supported by the International Federation of Robotics argues that while there have been job losses, their magnitudes are small, compared to the increase in employment over the same period.

Regardless of whether one believes in net gain or loss of jobs due to the introduction of new technologies, such as robotics, there is little doubt that existing jobs will have to give way to new ones and the workforce must, therefore, be prepared to adjust to this reality.

Although we cannot be certain about the precise rate and impact of the change on all jobs, the pattern of change and the nature of jobs of the future are becoming increasingly evident. Job creation is increasingly concentrated in domains requiring high intensity of knowledge and skills. In R&D, for instance, across countries and with very few exceptions, the number of personnel has seen strong upward trends. This is true both in absolute terms and as a ratio of the population.

Singapore, of course, as usual, faces the limitation of size that our competitors do not. Between 1996 and 2012, the number of persons employed in R&D in Singapore rose 265%, way ahead of the 50% gain in the US, 160% gain in China, and even 216% gain in South Korea.

But as a result of our population limitations, our R&D personnel numbers are already among the highest in the world on a ratio basis. China’s ratio is only one sixth of ours, despite boasting the largest number of R&D personnel globally today. This means that in Singapore, we have a far smaller pool of workers from which to draw, and if we continue to grow the numbers in order to keep up with global competition, domestic sectors in need of skilled manpower will be squeezed further. The only solution is for our workforce to push beyond the existing frontiers of skills acquisition that other countries take for granted. To remain competitive despite our limitations, our workforce must be prepared for a continuing process of advancement and workplace transformation.

Madam, Budget 2017’s push to develop Singaporean workers into regional and global leaders will take us out of our comfort zones. Singaporean workers, many of whom juggle their regular jobs with important roles, such as family caregivers, will have to add regular overseas postings to the list. This is what we have to do as an innovation in order to overcome the limits of scale.

Given our size, we are already at the boundaries of what we can reasonably achieve if we go by norms. Both in R&D personnel and in robot density, we are already at the limits. Countries whose sizes are multiples of ours have a lot more scope for expansion in absolute terms, and will reap further economies of scale. Internationalisation will, therefore, expand the potential space within which our companies and workers operate, but not completely overcome the fundamental disadvantage of scale that Singapore has always faced.

It is not just workers who will be challenged. SMEs will also feel the discomfort in operating outside of their comfort zones. The question I am trying to ask is: are the internationalisation initiatives a realistic option for local companies who do not have the basic capacity to scale up beyond their set-up in Singapore?

Madam, my last concern is about the timeline for restructuring. The timeline this time around will, I believe, turn out to be the greatest challenge. Many of the past restructuring efforts had tangible end-points such as the challenge of a recession that it could take reference from.This particular restructuring is a long drawn out process, and it is going to be challenging to focus minds on the intangible aspects of the strategy. Although the restructuring is aimed at addressing the challenges caused by disruption, as the timeline for restructuring lengthens, it will heighten uncertainty among companies and workers. For some, the distinction between restructuring and disruption could begin to blur.

The completion of this restructuring will not be readily marked by new buildings or highways. Instead, it is a process of transformation. Success will probably mean not just an end-point but an on-going process of change.

Hence, in closing, I would like to thank Finance Minister Heng for staying the course in this restructuring journey as well as for providing a personal model of resilience through adversity.


Featured image from TMG file.

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By Louis Ng

MR LOUIS Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, received some flak for suggesting that the public service had lost its heart when he spoke up in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 1). TMG asked him to respond to various comments.


I’m not sure how, but my speech in Parliament about having a system without a heart became about having a civil servant without a heart. My exact words were: “In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart.”

But I’m glad it’s started a debate about this. That is the first step towards change.

This speech has generated response about how public servants actually do serve with a heart. And I completely agree. In fact, in my speech, I stated that “I have worked with many outstanding public servants in the last 16 years of my life as a civil society activist and the last year and a half as an MP. These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore…”

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Beyond the headlines, here is the gist of the points I made in my speech. You can view my full speech here.


1. A system without a heart.
In the example I shared, the HDB officer had a heart and agreed to help the resident but his actions were overridden by a computer, which generated a letter demanding payment. That is the problem we need to urgently tackle.


2. Ensuring we can think out of the box
In another example I shared, the AVA officer knew the solution used to address the human-monkey conflict didn’t work. However, the officer’s hands were tied as the instruction to use this method came from the director.


3. We need to listen rather than explain
This is not a new point and one raised by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam back in 2015. The question is, have we done what DPM suggested?

DPM said, “We also have to stay open to ideas from others, and co-develop solutions with the community, the private sector and civil society and people from all walks of life… We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there… Developing and coordinating solutions together… must be second nature to public servants.”


4. I made suggestions on how we can improve
I made eight suggestions, starting with this one about helping our frontline public servants: “For a start, we need to cut some slack for our ground officers, our frontline staff members who will be the first to detect people who have fallen through the cracks, who can alert us.

Many I’ve spoken to feel that when they bring such cases to their superiors, they are scolded for not following the books. We need to develop a culture where they are not penalised for being different and where they are giving some flexibility when processing cases.”


I have received many comments about my speech. Here’s a sampling.

“Well said Mr Ng, thank you for speaking the mind of many in SG.”

“It is sad that people have not truly understood the message behind your speech, and that you’ve gotten flak when you had nothing but good intentions. Nevertheless, thanks for speaking out, and for this very timely reminder!”

“Public servants serve their best under trying conditions. We serve the ppl under the directions of the Government of the day. It pains me to be “lacquered in honey and staked out to an ant farm” by the very ppl we work for.”

There have also been different views published by The Middle Ground and by Lucian Teo, which I’ve shared on my Facebook page. Some have asked me why I shared those posts and my reply is simple. Everyone has a different view and we should embrace this diversity of views. And so people who are following my page should not only read my views but the opposing views too.

Again, I’m glad our speeches have sparked this much-needed debate. I’m glad it has sparked a wave of appreciation for our public servants, which is also needed and lacking.

But what worries me about this whole debate thus far is that we have not debated nor discussed the solutions offered. Not in the public arena nor in Parliament.

This speech isn’t about pointing fingers. It is about how we can make things better. Isn’t this what PM wished for? In his National Day Rally 2016, he said: “But what I would like to have is that we be blessed with a ‘divine discontent’ – always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”

There is always room to improve and the examples I have highlighted point to a systemic issue and not isolated cases. We need to address this and I hope the next chapter of this debate is about that. About discussing how we can improve the system, the bureaucracy, how we can develop and coordinate solutions together, how we can improve our system so that public servants can work in an environment where they can speak up and can question.

And we need to address this comment from a public servant which was shared with me:

“You think I don’t want to go the extra mile for my countrymen? I got heart, but I got time boh? MOF every year cut budget, we always kena headcount freeze or worse headcount cut. Work is ever-increasing, manpower is decreasing. Sustainable? My foot lah. Keep telling me to exercise compassion and empathy, you think I don’t know? Legislate more support for public officers first then we talk”

I read this out in Parliament (I took out three words “My foot lah”) and I urged DPM Teo Chee Hean to consider this feedback and hope that as we cut budgets, we can also consider the impact this has on individual public servants.

There is one last group of comments I’ve received which is about how I’m going to get into trouble for speaking up. I’d better “take care”. This worries me the most.

At a recent dialogue session, panellist and behavioural scientist David Chan jokingly addressed civil servants in the audience, saying: “You talk so much to me but when the minister is present, in front of him, you’re absolutely silent.” This habit stems partly from a fear of looking bad in front of others and of failing.

We need to make sure we don’t develop this culture of fear. Did I take some flak for speaking up? I don’t think so. I got to hear the views from fellow Singaporeans who might not have otherwise shared their views. And to answer many people, nope, PM didn’t call me after the speech and tell me to keep quiet.

I started my journey as an MP saying that I’m here to speak up, to speak my mind and to help shape policies. I have done so and will continue to do so. But most of all I’m here to listen. As I’ve said in my maiden speech in Parliament “we are not just there just to explain policies to people, to throw them facts and figures but we are there to truly listen and understand.”

Everyone needs to speak up if we care about Singapore. Remember this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts, your frustrations, and your suggestions with me over the past few days. Thank you to our public servants for serving Singapore and Singaporeans. Much appreciated too!


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by The Middle Ground

HOW time flies – it feels as if 2017 just started, yet we’re already done with February! The start of March also marks an important Christian tradition, the observance of Lent.

During Lent, Christians commit to greater spiritual devotion to God and abstain from luxuries (such as avoiding profligate spending). Most adherents, notably the Roman Catholics, also observe Lent by giving up the consumption of meat. The period of Lent traditionally lasts forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday (Mar 1) and includes the holy week that immediately precedes Easter (Apr 16).

The holy week comprises Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday is widely observed in Singapore where Catholics receive new palm leaves blessed by the priest to bring home. Similarly, on Maundy Thursday, churches are crowded for Maundy Thursday service and the ritual feet washing ceremony, where the priest or Archbishop will wash the feet of some of the parishioners. This particular rite was only limited to men and boys until Pope Francis issued a new rule that women should be able to participate as well.

While the purpose of Lent – to draw oneself closer to God through religious penance and resisting the temptations of the flesh – is shared by many Christian denominations, the means through which Lent is observed differ greatly.

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1. Manilla, Philippines – Dedicated devotees carry heavy crosses, self-flagellate

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Some Catholic devotees in the Philippines mark the last week of Lent by whipping themselves in public or carrying heavy crosses barefoot through the streets of Manilla. A small fraction even engages in gory displays of crucifixion, nailing themselves to wooden crosses. This practice is known in the region as pamagparaya (self-flagellation) and is meant for the adherent to experience a fraction of the suffering that Christ went through.

Devotees often go through pamagparaya to petition for good health, either for themselves or an ailing relative. Some devotees also put themselves through pain as penance for their sins, as an act of religious cleansing.

The Catholic Church has criticised this tradition, claiming that it goes against Catholic teachings that the body is sacred. Other religious critics have further expressed discomfort that particular villages and communities have taken advantage of the public spectacle to attract tourists, monetising this practice.


2. Moscow, Russia – Two per cent of Russians intend to fully abide by dietary restrictions throughout Lent

Image by falco, from Pixabay
Image by falco, from Pixabay

Russia is home to the Russian Orthodox Church, and nearly half the Russian population identifies as Christian (various denominations, including Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox). A poll conducted by the Levada Center reported that two per cent of the Russian population, or three million Russians, intend to fully observe the strict Lenten dietary restrictions from Mar 1 to Apr 16.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, the strict observance of Lent requires giving up all animal food – meat, eggs, fish, seafood and all dairy products. On the first and last day of Lent, complete fasting is recommended. On the second day, only bread and water are allowed. Throughout this period, believers should refrain from alcohol, with the exception of a little wine on weekends, smoking, sex, swearing, and bad thoughts.

Also reported by the Levada Center: 18 per cent of those polled said they intend to observe Lent partially, for instance by giving up meat. 30 per cent of respondents are prepared to reduce their alcohol consumption during Lent, and 15 per cent will restrict their sex lives.


3. Antigua, Guatemala – A grand religious procession to mark the end of Lent

Image by , on Flickr
Image by Arian Zwegers, on Flickr

The Christian faith in Guatemala has its roots in the Spanish conquistadors who spread their faith after invading the territory in the early 1500s. Today, Antiguans mark the end of Lent in distinctive local fashion, by arranging elaborate religious processions which last from dawn to dusk.

During this period, Antigua is well-known for the dozens of large floats which are paraded through the city streets by hundreds of men clad in purple robes. These floats are called “andas”, and either features a statue of Jesus with a cross or a Saint. Andas featuring the Virgin Mary are carried by women dressed in black, and are a rare sight. Before the procession winds its way through the city, the streets are lined with colourful “alfombras” (carpets) that are made from coloured sawdust, grass, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other materials.


4. Mompox, Colombia – A night in the cemetery 

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At around 6pm on Holy Wednesday, Mompox residents dress in their finest clothing and gather in the town cemetery to commence a ceremony known as the Serenade to the Deceased – a fusion of Catholic traditions with magic and paganism.

Residents light candles to illuminate the cemetery and stay there overnight, sitting in front of graves of deceased loved ones. They place flowers on the graves and serenade the dead. This lasts till the early hours of the morning, when funeral music is played to bring an end to the ceremony.


5. Washington, United States – St. Patrick’s Day to coincide with Lent period
Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

This year, St. Patrick’s Day – a celebratory holiday where corned beef and cabbage is traditionally eaten – falls on a Friday (Mar 17), clashing with the commonly-held Lenten rule of requiring Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday once every seven years, and this coincidence has not gone unnoticed by some American bishops. Many had already issued dispensations for Catholics in their dioceses allowing them to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day. However, they also advised Catholics to do an additional act of charity or penance in exchange for eating meat.


Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Eugene Tay

IT WAS 5.30pm when I arrived at the Changi Exhibition Centre and made my way to the back of the queue for Pen A (for $300 ticket holders) at the Guns N’ Roses concert on Saturday (Feb 26). GnR would take the stage at 8pm. It took about 30 minutes to get to the first checkpoint and a couple of minutes more to get our tickets scanned and RFID wristbands synced.

The three pairs of gatekeepers were doing a good job keeping the momentum going but they were impeded by the speed at which their devices could process. By the time I cleared through, the line snaked back twice as long as when I first joined. Bag check was next, and went smoothly.

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It was less than two hours to show time. I’ve worked organising concerts and festivals before, and I was beginning to sense things were about to get massively ugly.

How things were laid out at the concert. Enter from the bottom.
How things were laid out at the concert. Enter from the bottom.

The venue was big enough to accommodate the record 50,000 turnout but wasn’t set up for it. Whoever was in charge of the front of house had probably expected a gradual flow of traffic from 1pm to 8pm and did not account for a sudden influx an hour before show time.

It was an obvious miscalculation. Middle-aged concertgoers aren’t as free as when they were younger, when it was normal for fans to camp overnight for concerts.

About those RFID bands. They’re supposed to ease the hassle of payment: you top up a non-refundable amount at one station and then go spend it at the stalls. There were three counters for cash top-ups and just one for credit cards. I queued for an hour to load my RFID tag.

Now that I was e-cash loaded, I started my first queue for drinks. It was 7.30pm by the time I got my first two pints of beer and the queue situation had reached worrying levels. I felt sorry for those in queue behind me but was more relieved that I wasn’t one of them, so I sipped on my beer and made my way to the outdoor area of Pen A.

Wolfmother, the pre-show band, ended their set just as I finished my two pints, clearing the stage for the main act slated to start in about 15 minutes, at exactly 8pm. I “excuse-me”-d my way towards one of the only two drink stations in Pen A and – by golly-mother-of-god – the drink queue was all the way to the back of Pen A and threatening to spill over into Pen B.

“Screw this,” I thought to myself, remembering that there were F&B stalls back in the Exhibition Hall. “I’m going to try my luck with the queue in the Hall”. So I made a quick dash for it.

The Hall was a scene out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

There were more people in the hall than there were in the Pen. The queues for food, drinks and merchandise had exploded out of control, forming a human bulwark against the kancheong latecomers who needed to get from bag check station to the outdoor Pen in the shortest possible time. All around, people were losing their tempers. One guy was yelling at his friend, apparently still in a shuttle bus, over the phone.

I had two options. Screw the drinks and forget my remaining $160 in credits, or run back into my Pen and join the other queue. I decided I needed a head-start away from this chaos in the Hall before it reached the Pen.

That’s when GNR started playing, people started running, and pandemonium ensued. There was no way the gatekeeper could hold the frenzied human horde back to check the validity of our tags. More hell broke lose than you’d see at a death metal concert. By the time I got back to the Pen, there was only a semblance of a queue. It was just a mob of people standing at the back that differentiated themselves from non-queuers by the pissed off looks on their faces.

I waited in the drink line for two hours while the band played. Now I guess I could have gotten pissed off at this point, seeing that I had spent about 80 per cent of the concert in the drink queue. I’m sure some people were. But that’s not my style. What good does it do? Spoil my own fun and waste the $300 I spent because I chose to let the situation dictate how I feel? Being pissed off doesn’t change anything. I ended up singing along with others in the queue and making new friends.

The performance was excellent in the way that only an old-school fan can appreciate. The few seconds of sound glitch during one of Slash’s solos was not an issue as most of us already had the riffs in our head and were happy to fill in the gaps. The boys were pudgy and more subdued than their younger selves, but so were we – the concertgoers.

If you were there purely for the music, you would have enjoyed the show and probably walked away not knowing that there were thousands of angry fans behind you who spent the entire show queuing up for food and drinks that they probably never got.

When it finally came to my turn, the crowd was chanting ‘encore’. I couldn’t really see what was going on and hadn’t been able to for the past half hour, because my view was blocked by the drink tent.

The poor sod in front of me almost broke down because he had just realised that his RFID tag did not come pre-loaded with credits, which he felt a $300 ticket would have entitled him to.

I’m glad they had a 30 minutes encore set. I made it a point to down one pint for every song, to catch up on lost time. By the time the band got to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, I was singing my lungs out and in a largely forgiving mood.

Eugene at the concert
Eugene at the concert.

To me, organiser LAMC Productions made a business decision to slash (no pun intended) costs so that the concert could happen at the given ticket price. As a business, they guarded their bottom line and delivered what they could. They cut manpower, access points, facilities, amenities and probably hired less experienced temps on the ground.

Being a concert promoter has got to be the most thankless job in the world. They get into tough negotiations to bring in the acts, cough up the money, take the risks (GnR’s performance fees are rumoured to be US$3 million, excluding travel and entourage expenses) bend over backwards to accede to everyone’s requests, but when things don’t go right, it will be their fault. It doesn’t matter if you ran ten great shows prior; people only remember the screw-ups.

I don’t doubt for one second that the people who worked there that night had put in their very best. It’s tough work with long hours and shitty pay. Whoever you guys are, thank you.

The show ended, my beer was almost done, and I needed to pee, but discovered that the toilet queue would probably be another two hour wait. I looked at the empty plastic cups lying by my feet… whence it came, thence it shall return…


Eugene Tay is a Singaporean author, entrepreneur and a mindset coach. He runs the Get Naked with Eugene Tay talk show where he interviews interesting people and puts himself through life changing challenges. He eventually decided not to pee into a cup.


Featured image by Eugene Tay.

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