March 23, 2017

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THE rate of volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, rising from 18 to 35 per cent. And this trend – according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016, conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) – “could be related to the resurgence in informal volunteerism” (emphasis mine), through which Singaporeans volunteer directly without going through an organisation. In its press release, NVPC then detailed examples of social and ground-up movements in Singapore, to illustrate a second point that the number of volunteers who serve informally has increased from 25 to 51 per cent, over the same time period.

Straits Times christened this “a resurgence of the kampung spirit” (Mar 16). TODAY quoted NVPC director for knowledge and advocacy, Jeffrey Tan on this “giving revolution”, “where people are volunteering and donating informally, directly with beneficiaries, without going through the formal routes” (Mar 16). Notwithstanding the questionable hyperbole, everyone seems to take for granted this causal relationship between the rise in the volunteerism rate and the increase in informal volunteerism. Correlation is not causation. In fact, we still appear to know little about what exactly drives volunteerism in Singapore, and how it can be sustained in the long-term. NVPC said it could be informal volunteerism, but we do not know for sure.

And in its current incarnation, the NVPC’s Individual Giving Survey provides few useful answers.

Volunteer rate and sample size

In the 2012 survey, when it was found that 32 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered – the previous high – the cited reason was also informal volunteering. In the 2010 survey, when the rate increased to 23 per cent from the previous high of 17 per cent in 2008, no explicit reasons were offered. And likewise nothing insightful was offered in 2014, when the volunteerism rate fell by almost half from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent. The accompanying media release in 2014 briefly mentioned the lack of time as a top reason for non-volunteers, as if it was a new finding, yet this concern was already established from the very first edition of the survey in 2000, when 74 per cent of the respondents said that “no time” was their main reason for not volunteering.

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Just knowing how the national volunteerism rate has changed from survey to survey is not enough. If the intent is to encourage more Singaporeans to volunteer – and to make sure they keep volunteering – then the NVPC needs to better understand the needs and the motivations of volunteers and non-volunteers alike, and to shape endeavours accordingly. Suppose the NVPC is absolutely convinced that informal volunteerism does cause higher volunteerism rates. It should therefore channel its resources to more financial grants for these community groups, for instance, to facilitate capacity-building and to reach out to more in Singapore.

Such causal findings will be productive for government agencies too. The Ministry of Education can ascertain whether learning experiences through Values in Action – in different permutations, such as within-school or community activities – increase the likelihood of volunteerism in the future. The National Council of Social Service, with similar information, can better advise the volunteer-management units of charities, in terms of how they can appeal to and retain long-term volunteers.

Comparisons of the findings across the past eight editions reveal something more troubling about the sampling size. Only 389 respondents were interviewed for the 2016 survey compared to the 1,828 interviewed in 2014. The mean or average across the eight biennial surveys from 2000 to 2014 was 1,698 (the median was 1,752), and so the sample size for 2016 is barely one-quarter of that. The disparity raises obvious questions about the sampling method, the representativeness of the findings and if it can be generalised for the whole population, and whether comparisons can be fairly made across demographic or socio-economic indicators.

Further doubts emerge when the 2016 is compared with the World Giving Index 2016 – released by Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation – which found that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered their time and efforts for a cause in the past year. In this particular area Singapore ranked 54th out of 140 countries, compared to its ranking of 19th for donating money to charity. The World Giving Index collected questionnaires, face-to-face, from exactly 1,000 Singaporean respondents. But like the Individual Giving Survey, it provided no additional details on the potential factors which will prompt more to volunteer.

So in addition to the woeful sample size, what changes can be made to the Individual Giving Survey? Or what more can it do?

Three related proposals. First, having determined the reasons for non-volunteerism – from the lack of time to the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, for example – focus group discussions with existing volunteers will allow for the aggregation of practical perspectives or good practices, on how to overcome these challenges. Second, with these perspectives and practices, the NVPC can better design interventions for Singaporeans of different age-groups, in different industries, and for different beneficiaries, and use the survey as an instrument to measure the effectiveness of these implementations. In other words, did a new volunteer programme or an awareness campaign drive more Singaporeans to actually volunteer? And for how long?

And finally, a longitudinal component to the Individual Giving Survey could yield valuable information too. In an experimental set-up like this, having identified a representative sample, NVPC will track the same group of respondents over two, four, or even six years, measuring their rates of volunteerism and how they respond to volunteer programmes or awareness campaigns. If implemented effectively, the NVPC could even track the impact of nation-wide policies – such as the inception of the Youth Corps and the changes the MOE made to the community involvement programme in schools – over the same time-frame.

The Individual Giving Survey and its top-line figures may have sufficed in the past 16 years. Much more is desired – and needed – if we want to turn Singapore into a more compassionate nation of regular and committed volunteers.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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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.

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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.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

The North Korean saga in Malaysia is still playing out 33 days after the murder of a Kim family member. This is part two of our murder mystery novel.

 

MALAYSIA’S top cop wrung his hands. How many times did he have to say that the body lying in the morgue is Kim Jong Nam?

Heck, even if he isn’t to be trusted, just read the news. When every single media outlet from the New York Times to the Yonhap News Agency is saying the same damn thing… Yet those North Koreans have the gall to say otherwise. How would they know? They’re in Pyongyang. Did they think he didn’t know how to verify the identity of a corpse??

Back in the office from yet another media conference, the Inspector-General settled down to yet another cup of kopi. What was he to do about the two pesky North Koreans from the embassy? The jokers had tried to force their way into the KL morgue, much to the consternation of the security guards. How in the world was he going to interview them about the murder if they refuse to leave the compound? Or the 1,000 North Koreans still working in Malaysia – what if they’re sleeper agents who will now come out of the woodwork? Hopefully not, because the foreign ministry just issued a directive barring 315 of them from leaving Malaysia…

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The situation was deteriorating, and fast. For heavens’ sake, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein even spoke to the media the week before about the possibility of war with North Korea. War! With a rogue nation armed to the teeth with nuclear and conventional weapons? Not the wisest of ideas.

The Inspector-General shook his head. He knew that the visa arrangement should never have been agreed to. North Korean elites are always trouble, let alone the first-born son of Kim Jong-il. He groaned. And what of the 11 Malaysians held hostage in Pyongyang? The foreign ministry had better act soon, or else a complete diplomatic crisis would be on the cards. These North Koreans are barbarians!

He burped as he briefly entertained the idea of sending in a SWAT team. The foreign affairs minister would throw a fit, but how dare the suspects hide in their embassy? The sheer gall of planning a murder on Malaysian soil, using chemical weapons in an airport waiting area, and then fleeing back to the embassy where police couldn’t reach them. His blood boiled. To hell with diplomatic immunity.

What a bloody mess. It was barely a month since the murder happened, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

The Inspector-General recalled how he’d been interrupted from his lunch break on Feb 13, with the call that someone had collapsed in the KL International Airport. He was incredulous at first, irritated that someone would bother him over a routine case of heart attack. But as the investigations proceeded apace, it soon became clear that this was much more than an open-and-shut case.

It seemed as if answers only begot more questions. How did the North Koreans manage to smuggle VX toxin into Malaysia? Why in the world was Kim murdered? Was the North Korean government involved? If they were, what was their degree of involvement? Were his murderers really tricked into killing him, as they claimed?

He sank back into his chair. Even the days managing security for the Bersih protests and the 2014 General Elections didn’t compare to this. Strange, wasn’t it. It was easier to make sure 100,000 protesters didn’t come to blows with the opposition, compared to investigating the murder of a single man.

His secretary rapped on his door, derailing his train of thought. “Uh Sir? Media here again. For the three o’clock update, they’ll need you in the press briefing room soon.”

I’m really not paid enough for this. Sighing, he made his way to the briefing room. The media is just going to ask the usual questions, I’ll give the usual answers, they’ll demand more answers as usual, and I’ll tell them that the case is still ongoing – as usual. Why do we even bother with this charade?

The press update, as expected, was more of the same. Yes, the body is Kim Jong Nam’s. Yes, he died of acute respiratory and heart failure. No, cause of death cannot yet be confirmed. Yes, we suspect it’s some sort of nerve agent. Yes, a group of individuals tried to break into the KL morgue last week; no, we can’t tell you who they are, but we know who is responsible.

“Inspector-General, Sir, how do you respond to the North Korean ambassador’s remarks that the ‘Malaysian police investigation cannot be trusted’?”

“The ambassador is entitled to his opinion. But my men are professional and competent, and it is disappointing to see their work being criticised when the North Koreans have given us nothing but trouble so far.” He rolled his eyes. He’d be glad to see the back of the ambassador – the man was mouthing off about the investigations almost every day.

Worst of all, he still had no idea what to do with the body. It’s got to end up somewhere, maybe buried six feet under or put in a deep freezer where the North Koreans can’t steal it. Why doesn’t his son just come and take the damn thing with him back to Macau? Or… maybe he shouldn’t.

One dead body is more than enough, thank you very much.

 

This article is part of a series on the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam. Read the other piece here:

  1. Fact Fiction: A North Korean murder mystery

 

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

 

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police car, law and order

by Daniel Yap

THE Singapore Police Force has come under fire of late for how its officers followed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and arrested a 74-year-old woman for her summons over a Town Council fine. The Singapore Prison Service (often and easily confused with the Police) then bound her hand-and-foot to transfer her from custody to a cell.

SOP again, and surely excessive for a geriatric with no criminal past, wanted for putting potted plants in the wrong place. But rules are rules.

But are SOPs rules? Not really. In the army, it is military law that governs us, and then every unit has its standing orders – formally given down the chain of command. An SOP, on the other hand, is simply a set of default reactions and decisions we use when faced with common situations.

Here’s where Robocop steps in to be the hero we deserve, but not the one we really need right now (or is that someone else?). The parable of the police-man-made-machine, and I’m talking about the glorious artistry of the 1987 film, is pit against not just all manner of criminality and pseudo-criminality, but held in contrast against ED-209, the completely robotic but massively powerful law enforcement droid.

ED-209 only reacts to rules and set-in-stone procedures, but Robocop, with the frailty and power of a human mind and emotion, is the hero that saves the day. Our everyday heroes at the Police need to be able to apply Robocop’s humanity, lest they be seen as the cold, marginally vile, by-the-book-only ED-209.

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An SOP is a great thing. Like Robocop’s “prime directives”, it saves us the trouble of having to hum and haw excessively over each case. Like Robocop’s targeting computer, it helps speed up our reaction time and decision-making. Like Robocop’s armour plating, it is something to fall back to when things get too complicated or too risky. But SOPs can’t possibly cover every contingency. Things can still go wrong.

Following SOPs does mitigate our actions when things go wrong, but it does not mean that what we did wasn’t wrong. It acts as a reasonable explanation for our chosen actions, but doesn’t absolve us from responsibility.

In other words, the thinking person is not slave to his or her SOPs, and commanders should not teach their charges to become slaves to an SOP. Everyone at all levels of an organisation should be told to think for themselves and then take responsibility for their own decisions.

An SOP is supposed to be a tool that enhances the thinking officer’s effectiveness, not a crutch for mindlessness or a machine to set in motion and forget about. That would make us no better than robots, and in today’s technological world, we really need to differentiate between man and machine, lest our jobs be on the line.

So henceforth let, “we followed procedures” never again be an excuse for not engaging the brain, or doing things with a heart. We’ve got to ask ourselves: what would Robocop do?

 

Featured image from Flickr user Vetatur FumareCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Ryan Ong

BUSINESS Times just published a report on how Singapore may be experiencing a two-speed economy. By that, it means our entire economy is not operating at the same pace; one side of it is doing very well, and the other side is about to grow its hair long and drop out of school. The divergence seems to be between export oriented businesses, which mainly make money from customers abroad, and domestic businesses that rely on a local customer base. Here’s what it all means:

by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:
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Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.

 

Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.

 

The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.

 

Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WE’LL all be hearing more from Mr Peter Ho, the former head of Civil Service, because he’s been picked to give the Institute of Policy Studies series of lectures. TODAY ran an interview with him on aspects of the civil service. Perhaps, he could expand on some points he made in his interview when he gives his lectures.
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1. Mr Ho said that increasing complexity of policies and higher order needs of the populace means coming up with new ways, such as more risk management, to solve problems.

”It’s not that traditional tools are no longer important; tools like cost-benefit analysis are still relevant. But cost-benefit analysis in a complex environment, in and of itself, may not provide you with the complete answer. Cost-benefit analysis is quite linear, and traditional tools don’t help you get your arms completely around complex problems.”

(What traditional tools are less important then? Can he cite instances when the solution did not address the problem because traditional tools were used? Was there a moment of epiphany for him?)

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2. We don’t know when the interview was conducted, whether before or after the Prime Minister said that he didn’t want to be surrounded by naysayers. But clearly, he agrees that the rules-bound culture has to change, going by his message to the younger generation of civil servants.

”Your job is to find ways to improve Singapore’s position and the lot of Singaporeans in a period of accelerating change and uncertainty. Of course, you’re not going to be criticised for following the rules, but if you want to lift the quality of your policies and plans, and raise the level of good governance practised in Singapore, then it cannot be just about saying: “I followed the rules.” Instead, it should be that “I tried to make things better.” The basic misconception some younger civil servants may have is that what worked well in the past will be what propels you into the future successfully. Our civil servants must be able to keep up with the pace of change. You have to ask yourself if the rules, plans and policies still serve the purpose for which they were designed, or if we need to change them in order to do things better. ”

(There’s no point speaking in generalities. Can he enlighten with examples when sticking to the rules is to the detriment of policy outcomes? Or when rules work against the desire of the public service to be emphatic or to “have a heart’’. Can he also tell what rules have been changed because they are no longer relevant. Would policies on single mothers be one of them?)
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3. Mr Ho talked about the need to be bold which is more difficult now because the basics have been achieved and Singapore is now “competing at the top’’.

”Today, of course, you still want that spark — that ability to think boldly about the future. But the big challenge now is, how much risk are you prepared to take? These are serious risks because we’ve achieved so much, that a bad miscalculation can mean losing it all. The stakes are much higher.”

(Can he give examples of what areas require bold but risky changes? Would the report of the Committee of the Future Economy or the reserved Presidential Election be among them? If so, what are the risks involved? Also, the general perception is the G prefers to make “tweaks’’ rather than take bold steps – or is this the wrong perception?)
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4. Mr Ho talks about how many ingredients go into making a judgment call.

“…every major decision and every major policy are not an exercise to find the right answers. They are always an exercise in making the right judgment — not a hard right or hard wrong — but a balanced one that serves the best interests of the majority and the country. You cannot make everybody happy. Also, judgments always have to be revisited now and then — to go back to my point that things are changing. What seems to be sensible now may in a few years’ time no longer be sensible. You have to be prepared to constantly change.”

(Again, examples are needed. But there’s another point to consider: The public service shouldn’t think that a change is an acknowledgment of a mistake and therefore paper over the “change’’ as something that is a natural follow through of the old policy. When policies make a sharp turn, the people must be brought on board in understanding the changed circumstances or even objectives. Would he consider that enough explanation was given for the sudden announcement of the increase in the water price? Could Hong Kong’s seizure of the Singapore’s Terrexes be better explained to the people as an example of the changed geo-political realities that Singapore faces?)
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5. This wasn’t touched upon but hopefully, Mr Ho will pick up the subject in one of his lectures. The civil service has always been accused of “group think’’ with its top echelons being a closed circle of like-minded individuals. That so many top civil servants cross into the political sphere doesn’t add to people’s confidence that radical or bold ideas can surface from the G. One example is how the Committee for the Future Economy is stuffed with Old Economy members. Singapore’s Establishment seems to be a closed rank of people who went to the same schools and move in the same circles with very few gaps allowing for “mavericks’’. Please do not use the sole example of Mr Philip Yeo. He’s just one man.

 

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by Bertha Henson

a. IT’S the end of Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) because the last bastion, Braddell View, is going en bloc. Don’t remember HUDC? It’s the predecessor to the executive condo, except that it’s still built by HDB. It’s for those who just missed out of a new flat because they earned too much to be eligible for one. Oh, and if you’ve been to a HUDC flat, you know the apartment sizes are bigger than those in exec condos. Seriously worth paying for…then.

b. Paying for a taxi ride is going to be a different experience soon. You can pick to pay by the meter or have a fixed payment set at the start of the ride. The cab companies, minus the biggest player ComfortDelGro, are joining up with Grab to launch JustGrab for the fixed payments. There’s still the usual GrabTaxi if you want to pay by taxi. So you’d better have the app on your phone because you might just be standing along the road, hoping to flag a taxi down and finding that they’re passing you by. 

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c. UniSIM is now SUSS. This is not a joke. The former little private institution which is gearing up to be Singapore’s sixth university will be re-named Singapore University of Social Sciences to reflect its focus on social courses. Not everyone is enamoured of the name change with some people pointing out that SUSS also has finance and business degree courses. Seriously, that’s a small thing. Look at Nanyang Technological University which keeps adding non-tech courses all the time…

d. Businesses are getting more help. More than 85,000 employers here will receive about S$660 million in Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) payouts, with small and medium-sized enterprises getting 70 per cent of the sum disbursed the end of this month. Not a big deal you say because you’re just a paid grunt? Well, you’ll have to remember that some of this money should go into supporting the wages of those who earn $4,000 a month and below. For them, it’s something.

e. We’re into fake news big-time. Thirteen People’s Action Party politicians, including a Cabinet Minister, have had their Facebook profiles faked. They look like them but aren’t by them, in what is known as a phishing attempt to get data. They’ve all been taken down so you can’t see what the fake Chan Chun Sing said and how it compares to the real Chan Chun Sing’s tone of voice. It isn’t known who’s behind this prank/attack. Needless to say, the politicians AREN’T laughing.

 

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A group of employment pass workers at Changi Business Park during lunchtime.

by Suhaile Md

SINGAPORE is too small a base for global-minded businesses to experiment and refine innovative ideas. At least that’s the view of tech entrepreneur Mr Tan Min-Liang and venture capitalist Mr Isaac Ho, reported the Business Times (BT) on Monday (Mar 13). If entrepreneurs intend to expand beyond Singapore, they should test-bed in larger markets from the start.

Simply put, a test-bed is a space to experiment and develop innovative products before bringing to market. Last month (Feb 7), the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) proposed in its report that the G set aside “special test-bedding zones” for Singapore based enterprises to develop products that can be exported.

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But there are three reasons why Singapore might not be the best place to test-bed.

First, you need entrepreneurs and Singaporeans are not “hungry” enough, said Mr Ho. “Most entrepreneurs know there’s always another job for them… Singaporeans are well taken care of by the government.” Which is why he proposed that the G focus on youth exposure to technology and innovation through overseas attachments for instance. That way they “will be exposed to real hunger and passion, and see how fast the other countries are racing ahead”. Mr Ho is the CEO of Venturecraft, a Hangzhou based biotech and medtech incubator.

Second, to grow the business, an entrepreneur will eventually have to enter larger markets like the United States (US) or China.”By the time you’re done with test-bedding in Singapore, somebody’s already tested” the same idea in China or the US. So “you’re better off starting in the US or China from the get-go”, said Mr Tan. In other words, being based in Singapore could make startups too slow to capture a large global market share. Mr Tan is the CEO of Razer, a San Francisco based gaming hardware company.

Third, a product catered to the Singapore market may not be suited for larger markets. “If startups test-bed here, they will need to expend effort to undo what they’ve built for use in other markets,” said Mr Ho. This raises business costs. Besides, delivering products in Singapore does little to develop a start-up’s capacity to handle “large volume transactions”. This could “result in under-building a product”.

Contrary to Mr Ho and Mr Tan, the G sees Singapore’s size as a selling point. Said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Founders Forum Smart Nation Singapore Reception in 2015: “It’s (Singapore) compact… If you can make it work in Singapore, you can have the chance to adapt and apply to other contexts. If it doesn’t work in Singapore, it’s probably worth a rethink.”

More recently, the CFE report stated that Singapore’s small size has its advantages. Similar firms are found close to each other and so, can “attract talent, create critical mass for shared infrastructure, and generate knowledge spillovers among firms and people”. In other words, it’s easier for ideas to cross-pollinate. When new ideas arise, there’s better coordination between different firms and G bodies to make it work.

Mr Kevin Foo, head of investment at venture capitalist firm Cap Vista Singapore, agreed with the G on this, reported BT on Monday: “The level of infrastructure development within our small cityscape allows for close cooperation between different organisations, public or private, to co-develop and test technologies.”

Last October for example, Straits Times (ST) reported that the Economic Development Board together with national water agency PUB successfully completed the initial stages of its renewable-energy test-beds.

10 different floating solar panel systems, from both foreign and local companies, were installed at Tengeh reservoir. The test-bed will establish how viable the 10 systems are – both in the economic and environmental sense. If viable, then the systems can be scaled up for large-scale use.

There are other test-beds underway too, in water technology, and maritime and port services for instance. As the CFE report states, Singapore can be a “living lab for innovative urban solutions” like experimenting with new modes of transport, sustainable energy usage, and water and food resilience. Read more in the report here.

Test-beds are not to be confused with the regulatory “sandbox” the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) proposed last June.

The financial world is kept in check with numerous regulations. But these can stifle the growth of innovative financial technology, or fintech, startup firms. A sandbox relaxes, for selected fintech firms, certain rules like credit ratings, minimum paid-up capital, and so on, to encourage innovation.

That is not to say however, that the sandbox is exclusive to the financial sector only. The CFE report cited this regulatory innovation by the MAS positively. It suggested that like MAS, the G “design a regulatory environment that supports innovation and risk-taking, even as it balances this against risk” such regulations are meant to reduce.

At the end of the day though, is Singapore’s small size a boon or a bane as a test-bed for global innovation?

It’s hard to answer definitively. But the fundamental issue, it seems, is market access. A mass market app based product like Uber for example, would likely do better to test-bed in a larger market like the US and not in Singapore. Here, the arguments of Mr Ho and Mr Tan would make sense.

But if the product is more complex, requires the coordination of multiple sectors, and the main customers are not mass market individuals, Singapore is likely to run ahead. Singapore helping build the new capital city of the Indian state Andhra Pradesh comes to mind.

 

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