June 29, 2017

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

GOOD morning. Here are today’s top stories:

“We take responsibility and apologise for the tragic accident.”

SMRT yesterday (March 23) admitted to a serious lapse in safety procedure that resulted in the deaths of two young men on the tracks on Tuesday. The men were part of a 15-member SMRT maintenance crew. Trains are not allowed to enter sectors where maintenance workers had to step on the tracks. The captain of the train in question said he had immediately applied the emergency brakes but it was too late. SMRT said authorisations are given two to three times every day for staff members to be sent to the tracks while trains are running. It did not specify who was responsible for the safety lapse.

“Train is coming! Train is coming!”

Mr Muhammad Hatin Kamil, 24, was about to cross the tracks when he heard a senior technical officer behind him shout these words. He was a member of the maintenance crew out on the tracks on Tuesday, and a close friend of one of the victims, Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin. “This happened right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t think. I went back to the platform, I couldn’t do anything,” he told The Straits Times. The two men were buried yesterday in the Muslim cemetery in Lim Chu Kang.

“I love Singapore and hope to call it my home permanently.”

Ai Takagi, the editor of The Real Singapore, as she apologised in open court yesterday. The 23-year-old Australian of Japanese descent was sentenced to 10 months’ jail for publishing articles that were intended to “provoke unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore,” the judge said. She is eight weeks pregnant. Her husband, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng, 27, is claiming trial. Follow the saga here.

“Zero risk doesn’t exist.”

Belgium’s Interior Minister Jan Jambon, who said yesterday that even on high alert, authorities cannot be expected to prevent all terror attacks. Belgian police are on a manhunt for a suspect who is thought to have escaped after his device failed to explode in Tuesday’s attack, claimed by ISIS. Two other suicide bombers have been identified as brothers. They were known criminals but not linked to terror activities, police said. Read about the similarities between this attack and the Paris attacks here.

“Unless you turn the entire city into a prison, it’s not going to be possible to counter every possible attack.”

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam responding yesterday to the attacks in Brussels, which left a death toll of 31 and 270 people injured. The minister last week unveiled an ambitious plan to intensify the city-state’s surveillance with more CCTV cameras and security checks. The counter-terrorism strategy follows the announcement of four Singaporeans investigated for links to armed conflict in the same week. “We have to significantly rely on intelligence to deter; and in the case of Singapore, we have the ability to intervene early because we have the Internal Security Act (ISA),” Mr Shanmugam added.

“You asked why I came down today. I have only three words: I miss him.”

Civil servant Diana Lee, 47, who visited the remembrance site for Mr Lee Kuan Yew yesterday. The site, adjacent to Parliament House, was one of three set up to mark his first-year death anniversary yesterday. Mr Lee died on March 23 last year, aged 91, after being hospitalised for severe pneumonia. Across the island, many paid their respects to the founding father of Singapore, including past and present Members of Parliament, who attended a remembrance ceremony held at the Parliament House.

 

Featured image by The  Middle Ground.

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Brussels Bombing

by Reuben Wang

BRUSSELS came under attack yesterday, with at least 30 killed after bombs were detonated at the airport and a subway station. It bore some resemblance to the Paris attacks on Nov 13 last year, which killed 127 people.  Multiple targets were simultaneously attacked, with the aim of achieving maximum damage. Four months later, the French anti-terrorism police released a report which gave little-known details of how ISIS planned and carried out the attacks.

The Belgian connection was already clear right from the attacks, when French authorities found a discarded white Samsung phone in a trash can outside the Bataclan, the site of one of the attacks. The phone had a Belgian SIM card activated only a day before the attack, and was used to contact only one other user – who was in Belgium.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) history of the device led investigators to arrive at the name of Salah Abdeslam, who was in charge of logistics during the Paris attacks – and believed to be the only perpetrator still alive. While Belgian authorities knew his general whereabouts, he faded into the Molenbeek underground where he had grown up.

Molenbeek is a working class district of Brussels that is predominantly Muslim, but has “an even more insular sub-community, made up of small-time drug dealers and petty criminals, unemployed young men with few prospects” according to a New York Times report.

After 125 days of raiding homes, rounding up his friends, drug dealers, thieves and interrogating his family, the authorities shot Abdeslam in the leg as he was attempting to escape and apprehended him. This was last Friday, March 18.

The key raid which led to his capture – which involved a gunfight – found large quantities of ammunition, an ISIS flag, and his fingerprints. Unbeknownst to authorities then, they also found “detonators that were probably meant to be used in the attacks“.

Brussels may be the capital of both Belgium and the European Union, but its seedy underbelly was where the Paris attacks were planned.  Molenbeek seems almost like a case study for the socio-economic conditions needed to ferment self-radicalisation. It suffers from soaring youth unemployment estimated at more than 40%, and is culturally marginalised from the rest of Brussels. CNN has described Brussels as “a recruiting ground for terrorism“.

Investigations into the Paris attacks have revealed further links. While the attack was being planned, most of the perpetrators appeared to have travelled easily and freely between Belgium and France, even though at least three of them were wanted on international arrest warrants.

The attackers arrived at the Bataclan in a Volkswagen Polo with a Belgian license plate.

For access in and out of Europe itself, they used false documents from a high-quality forger in Belgium. Traces of the signature explosive used by European ISIS terrorists were found in the rented Belgian apartment occupied by the perpetrators of the Paris attack in the weeks leading up to the attacks.

In the days leading up to the Brussels attack, unlike Paris, law enforcement told the press they were acutely aware that an attack was imminent, even after months of heightened alert.

On March 17, investigators found the Paris attackers had footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official “as part of seizures made following the Paris attacks”.

For a week in November last year,  in the midst of the manhunt for Abdeslam, Brussels went into lockdown. Shops, schools, and public transportation were shut down as the military patrolled the streets in armoured vehicles. Just a week before the attack, Belgians were warned “that there were dozens more jihadists at large in the city and that more attacks were being planned”.

French security and intelligence agencies said they were working under the assumption that additional ISIS networks were already in Europe after Paris. It turns out they were correct.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong. 

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If I Were A Finance Minister

by Yoong Ren Yan

WHEN I was working for a government watchdog in New York, budget transparency was a big deal. That year, the leaders of both houses of the New York state legislature were arrested for corruption. Their crimes followed a familiar trend: billions of dollars in the budget were hived off for the exclusive use of these leaders. And no one knew what they spent it on – until prosecutors mustered up enough evidence and courage to take them down.

In places where corruption is endemic, everyone gets why the public needs budget data. The New York City government, for instance, makes all its transactions public in Checkbook NYC, searchable by date, amount, recipient, department, and contract number – quite literally a cheque book. Even Jakarta intends to make its transactions public and immediately available, according to Lee Kuan Yew School Dean Kishore Mahbubani.

In contrast, Singapore offers only aggregated budget figures, but in a difficult-to-use format. And unlike New York City and Jakarta, there is no public data on individual transactions.

This is enough to produce some beautiful visualisations, but still isn’t as detailed as some would like. In the 2015 Global Open Data Index, collated by non-profit Open Knowledge, Singapore ranks 23rd overall, out of 122 countries, and tied with Austria and South Korea. But on budget transparency, we scored 10 per cent, and rank 49th.

As Mr Mahbubani put it: “Clearly, we live in a different world when Jakarta becomes more transparent than Singapore about its revenue and expenditures.” Ironically, corruption invites transparency. But in places where public officials are overwhelmingly honest, why bother making data public at all?

But transparency is not all about preventing graft.

In a letter to The Straits Times, Ms Jolene Tan of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) argues that budget openness can improve participation and debate.

Referring to the Open Budget Index, published by the International Budget Partnership non-profit, Ms Tan calls for supplementary reports, both before and after the budget is enacted. These reports provide revenue and expenditure projections, making it easier for non-government groups like Aware to make “constructive, evidence-based” budget proposals.

Currently, many budgetary details are only revealed ad hoc, “at the discretion of government agencies or through the unsystematic process of parliamentary questions” – a point TMG has raised many times and applies beyond just budget data. While genuine progress has been made, especially with the G’s new data portal, there is also room to collate requests publicly, and release data predictably.

Transparency is achievable even on matters as contentious as budgets.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States have independent budget offices that release projections on taxes and spending. Governments, oppositions, and civic groups alike use their budgetary expertise. The UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility even considered scoring the fiscal effects of opposition party manifestos.

Once the public is empowered with budget data, it is equally important that governments listen to proposals.

As Ms Tan points out, public consultations about the budget this year, under the auspices of feedback portal Reach, ended on Feb 26. This left the G with less than a month to read, and consider adopting, any proposals made, including Aware’s plan to support caregivers and enhance long-term care.

It would be sad were we to make our budget transparent simply in response to persistent corruption, and a breakdown of trust in public officials. Instead, transparency – in the form of data, independent expertise, and genuine consultation – serves nobler purposes.

Back in 2010, the Ministry of Finance rolled out “If I Were The Finance Minister”, a game developed in collaboration with Temasek Polytechnic. The game – which you can still play – puts players in the shoes of the Finance Minister, emphasizing the “tough choices” inherent in budgets.

An admirable effort, we think. But the public shouldn’t just be playing games – it should be able to examine the real deal.

"If I Were The Finance Minister", a game developed by the Ministry of Finance and Temasek Polytechnic for the 2010 budget
A screenshot of “If I Were The Finance Minister”, a game developed by the Ministry of Finance and Temasek Polytechnic for the 2010 budget.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong.

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Black Air Purifier. Image sourced from flickr user: Scott Lewis

by Hamzah Omar Yaacob

THINK the haze season is still far away?

Well, thankfully it’s not here yet, though some people have noticed a burning smell in the air recently. The smell is not due to haze but could be due to local burning according to Straits Times reports. However, the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BKMG) is predicting unusually dry weather in central and western Indonesia in March and April this year. This makes these areas susceptible to smouldering forest fires. Depending on wind directions, smoke from such fires could blanket Singapore in haze, sending many of us into a frenzy to combat the bad air.

Air purifiers have proven to be a useful weapon. The Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) performed two tests on 10 air purifiers in April 2014, and found that all were able to clean air with haze particles, removing an average of up to 99 per cent of particles. Furthermore, according to ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist Dr Ronald Brett, air purifiers may prevent the worsening of “respiratory ailments like allergy, asthma and chronic pulmonary disorders”. But with a plethora of models in the market, what should you consider when buying one?

1. The room you intend to place your purifier

Air purifiers have different capacities which determine the rate at which the air in the room is cleaned. It is important to ensure your air purifier fits your room size. Ms Joey Feng from indoor air quality company Air and Odor Management says using an air purifier meant for a smaller room “will take a much longer time for you to get a percentage of cleaner air”.

How do you find out if the air purifier you hope to purchase can clean all the air in your room at a comfortable rate? Look at the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) of the product. This will carry three numbers, with each number measuring how much the machine can reduce particles of tobacco smoke, pollen and dust. The higher the CADR number, the faster the air in the room will be cleaned, and in the case of haze, the rate at which dust particles are cleaned matters most. As a rough guide, you should be looking for a CADR number that is at least 75 per cent the size of your room. However, do note that not all purifiers will carry a CADR, though most manufactures should tell you the ideal room size the purifier can serve.

2. Type of filtration technology used

An array of filtration technologies are available to consumers. Common filtration technologies you will find on the market include High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, carbon filters, ultra-violet filters and photocatalytic filters. But which one is best suited for haze?

Dr Ronald Brett says HEPA filters are preferable and added that “good models have two filters, primary and secondary”. HEPA filters seem to be the best given their ability to remove up to 0.3 micrometers of dust particles. Haze from land and forest fires, the predominant cause of haze here, comprises “very fine particles with a diameter of less than 10 mm” according to ASEAN’s Haze Action Online.

However, some air purifiers do come with a variety of filtration technology, allowing them to filter a variety of particles and bacteria in the air.  For instance, one of the air purifiers in the market, the Dyson Pure Cool, has activated carbon granules. This enables it to remove organic compounds in the air. You may want to consider a model with added versatility allowing your machine to take on other forms of bad air such as bad stench, and not just the haze.

Do be warned though, some air purifiers emit ozone to change the composition of particles in the air in order to mask odors. According to Mayo clinic, ozone air purifiers may worsen asthma in the long term and “inhaling ozone, even in small amounts, can irritate the lungs”, it says on its website. So, even if the manufacturer tells you the product is safe, you might want to do your own research.

Other features air purifiers will come with include mechanisms that humidify the air or give off a scent. However, these features may compromise the efficiency of your air purifier, said Ms Feng.

3. Energy efficiency

Air purifiers for domestic use typically use about 50 to 200 watts of electricity per hour. While most boast a variety of modes from “low” to “turbo”, some have features aimed at reducing energy consumption. Some can automatically sense if the air in the room has been sufficiently cleaned before reducing the cleaning rate, or come with a sensor allowing the machine to alter cleaning rates depending on the presence of people in the room. Ms Feng says that such features could save you “half or one-quarter of electricity consumption, depending on which mode you use”.

4. Portability

Some air purifiers may be bulky. You might not need such a large machine given the size of the room, and large machines might make it difficult if or when you want to move your air purifier to another room. However, according to Dyson’s Microbiologist Guide to Choosing an Air Purifier by Toby Saville, a Dyson microbiologist, there is an exception to this rule, as “certain models of purifiers combine the functionality of a fan with an air purifier”.

5. Long-term costs

Filters need to be changed regularly. HEPA filters generally cost about $80 and need to be changed every six months. Some models have multiple filters, and will cost you more to ensure proper upkeep. Also, different brands come with different warranties. Dr Brett says one should make sure you get a good service warranty to avoid having to pay extra in case your machine breaks down.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Scott Lewis

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by Ryan Ong

Before the 2000s, if you talked about investing in diamonds, you’d get a knowing wink. Diamonds were controlled by a monopoly back then, and people “in the know” realised it was a safe bet. Then in 2010, the unthinkable happened: diamond prices fell, and continued to fall until the present. That’s not the puzzling part either. Despite the drop, interest over the past few years seems to be rising. Here’s what’s going on:

 

Diamond investing “back then”

As an investment, diamonds underwent a radical shift in the 2000s. And you need to understand how it used to work, or nothing about the market now will make sense.

Until the late 1800s, diamonds were rare. But in 1870, British colonisers in South Africa discovered the country was loaded with diamonds. There were places along the Orange River in South Africa where you almost couldn’t sip water without accidentally choking on a diamond. You could walk the riverbank with a big scoop and get bagfuls of the stuff.

This caused panic in the diamond industry at that time, because diamonds got most of their value from scarcity. So in 1888, some financiers formed De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited.

De Beers, a collaboration between various diamond related companies, ended up owning or controlling most of the diamond mines in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana – countries where most of the world’s high quality gemstones come from.

Over time, De Beers also bought or formed diamond trading firms in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland.

By the 1980s, De Beers controlled almost 90 per cent of the world’s diamond supply. They released the diamonds in small and controlled amounts, thus maintaining the illusion of scarcity. Along with that, De Beers launched several interesting marketing campaigns and invented the phrase “a diamond is forever”.

Since they controlled the supply, De Beers could sell their diamonds however and whenever they wanted. They only dealt with invited clients and diamonds were sold 10 times a year at non-negotiable prices. Their clients then polished and cut the diamonds, and sold them to jewellers.

This monopoly of diamond prices rose regardless of market conditions. As far back as the 1970s, investors “in the know” about the diamond business had already begun using diamonds as an alternative investment. They felt that due to De Beers’ control, diamonds were more reliable than stocks or bonds.

An important caveat: There are analysts who dispute that diamonds have ever been good investments, even in the past few decades. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article claiming that, after factoring in inflation, diamonds perform worse than the typical index fund or government bond.

 

Diamonds as an investment now

Around the 1990s, world class diamond mines were opening up in other parts of the world. De Beers, in order to maintain control, had to buy up all the supply from these mines. They had to convince these mines to join what was, in all frankness, a cartel.

Rifts began to form. The Argyle mine in Australia, one of the world’s largest, broke away from the De Beers supply chain. Canadian diamond mines were un-cooperative with De Beers’ scheme and wanted to sell to the market themselves. After all, there was a huge market if they were willing to undercut De Beers by just a little bit.

By around 1998, De Beers only controlled 60 per cent of the world’s diamond supply. By the mid-2000s, De Beers had all but given up trying to control the global diamond supply.

(The De Beers monopoly ended in 2001, when De Beers started to come under fire for anti-competitive practices and for buying diamonds from militant groups in African states. By 2012, the United States Supreme Court had cornered De Beers into accepting anti-trust laws.)

The current diamond market is hence a lot less certain. Without the powerful De Beers cartel to constantly push prices up, diamond values are now susceptible to the whims of the free market. In addition, the diamond industry is beginning to open up to outsiders.

Companies like the Singapore Diamond Investment Exchange (SDiX), or Facets Singapore, are introducing the idea of diamond investments to a wider market. Back in the 1990s and before, investing in diamonds often meant knowing a diamond dealer and having a personal relationship with him.

 

How do people invest in diamonds?

For starters, they don’t buy them through retail shops. When a diamond is purchased from a jeweller, a large part of the cost goes into marketing and craftsmanship. High-end jewellers can mark up the price of a stone by as much as 60 per cent.

Investors purchase from a wholesaler or dealer, and almost never from big jewellery stores. These are increasingly common in Singapore. This is because, besides investors, some buyers have discovered they can get their engagement or weddings rings cheaper by buying the stone from a wholesaler or dealer.

Most investors will look for Gemological Institute of America (GIA) or American Gem Society (AGS) certification. Certificates from other laboratories exist, but can have a negative impact on the diamond’s value as buyers don’t trust other certifications as much.

The Rapaport Diamond Index and IDEX are the most commonly referred indices for diamond prices. However, diamonds are far from being at the level of stocks, bonds or commodities like oil when it comes to transparent pricing. It is possible for individual diamonds to sell for much more or less than they are “supposed” to be worth.

Diamonds are rated according to the four Cs:

  • Carat
  • Colour
  • Clarity
  • Cut

Carat

This is the weight of the diamond. One full carat is around 0.20g. A common guideline for determining value is Tavernier’s Law: the weight in carats is squared and multiplied by the base price of a one carat stone (Wt² x C = price).

In reality, Tavernier’s Law will seldom give you the accurate value of a diamond as the price will also be affected by the other conditions below.

Diamonds bought for investment purposes are almost always three carats or more. Diamonds smaller than that cannot be counted on for resale value.

Colour

The most valuable diamonds are usually clear diamonds (colourless). With fancy coloured diamonds, the most valuable are red, green and blue. In consumer markets, pink tends to be popular and expensive (Gee, engagement rings, take a guess why?), but are not actually as scarce as the others.

Yellow diamonds are difficult to sell in Asia, because the stone does not blend well with the common skin tones of those living in the region.

GIA has an official colour scale. Again, for clear diamonds, value increases with lack of colour. For fancy coloured diamonds, scarcity of the colour affects value.

Bonus tip: If you just want a more affordable clear diamond, a common way to cheat is to go for a “G” grade rather than an “F” grade. This can shave several hundred dollars off the price, and the difference will not visible to the naked eye.

Clarity

This measures how many imperfections there are in the diamond. Imperfections are called inclusions when they are inside the diamond, and blemishes when they are on the surface. Clarity is graded from Flawless (FL) to Included (I1 to I3).

You can check the GIA chart here.

Some inclusions are not visible once the diamond has been set in a ring, pendant, etc. (This is another reason investors seldom get their diamonds from jewellers.)

Cut

The cut of the diamond affects how sparkly it is. It’s determined by brightness, fire (the way the light scatters around it), and scintillation (the juxtaposition of light and dark spots).

Cut ratings go from Excellent to Poor, according to the GIA scale.

 

Are they good investments?

Like any high-end alternative, diamonds derive their value from having low correlation to conventional stock and bond markets.

Diamonds have some of the same problems that you find with wine, stamps, cars, etc. Prices can be unpredictable and there is no single global standard that determines the value of any one gem. It is very different from commodities like oil or gold, where we know for a definite fact how much one barrel or one ounce will be worth everywhere.

A diamond that is worth $2 million to one buyer may be worth half that to another, or perhaps double. Bidding during diamond auctions can drive prices up or down with little predictability. And without the controlling hand of De Beers, the era of controlled supply, and hence steadily climbing prices, has come to a close.

As of last year, diamond prices have experienced a gradual decline over five years. Most notably, De Beers posted a seven per cent decline in profit between 2014 and 2015. While they are no longer the demigods of the diamond industry, De Beers performance is still a good indicator of overall demand.

This has been blamed on falling demand in China. Asia has been a pillar of support for diamond prices since early 2000. When De Beers liquidated a large chunk of their inventory from 2001 to 2005, it was mostly the demand in Asia that stopped diamond prices from plummeting. China’s slowdown has been devastating for the jewellery industry in general.

By all appearances, diamonds are risky investments right now. But they continue to attract a lot more attention, because it becomes easier by the year to buy from wholesalers. In this respect, the dismantling of the De Beers cartel was probably a good thing.

Perhaps in the coming decades, diamonds will be better known as an alternative.

This piece is part of a series on alternative investments. Other alternative investments featured include timepieces, cryptocurrencies and stamps.

Featured illustration by Natassya Diana 

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Lee Kuan New standing on the hill looking at people bowing and praying to him

by Felix Cheong

AS WE approach the first anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death, we pay tribute to him by imagining how he would’ve responded to events after his passing, through a character we fondly name Lee Kuan New.

And so it comes down to today, all the memorials, artillery shell casings, books, collectibles etc. What will Lee Kuan New make of the overwhelming adoration on his first anniversary?

Featured illustration by Natassya Diana 

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PMETs Budget
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Yoong Ren Yan

THEY say you won’t know how it feels until it hits you. There have been signs of an economic slowdown for some time now, but the warnings remained warnings – until now. According to the latest manpower report, 15,580 workers were laid off last year, the highest number since 2009 when 23,430 were made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis.

Why is all this happening? A combination of a gloomy global economy, and restructuring efforts in Singapore, none of which show any sign of changing. Layoffs are actually picking up with a third of last year’s layoffs happened in the last quarter. Our relatively low unemployment rate – 2.9 per cent for Singaporeans – may not hold steady for much longer.

But what might be a cause for greater concern is whose jobs are at stake. Of those made redundant last year, 71 per cent were professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs), many from the professional services, wholesale trade, and finance industries. About 65 per cent were aged 40 and above.

It’s little wonder that Silver Spring, a social enterprise which focuses on professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) aged between 40 and 70, has seen applications on its job portal spike 50 per cent over the last six months. Also, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) helped 50 per cent more PMEs over the past year than the year before.

But targeted job portals or programmes can’t solve the problem if there aren’t enough jobs.

Prospects for those laid off aren’t rosy. Vacancies fell to their lowest level in four years. There are still more vacancies than unemployed people, but only just with 1.13 vacancies per unemployed worker. And just half of those laid off could find jobs within six months, down from 59 per cent a year ago.

As always, PMETs and older workers face the most difficulty in getting another job. PMET vacancies fell by 23 per cent between March and December last year. A quick check on Silver Spring revealed just 39 PME jobs available.

So the skills of those jobless don’t match the jobs available, and thus they are staying out of work longer. These are classic indicators of a structural problem in our labour market – one that the G is already aware of, and is responding to.

West Coast MP Patrick Tay, who is also NTUC assistant secretary-general, has suggested a “sectoral approach” to help industries where job losses are concentrated. NTUC is also giving PMEs union representation to better serve their needs. For instance, as part of NTUC’s U PME programme, the Association of Banks in Singapore now has a jobs portal for retrenched workers to find employment at other banks.

Of course, if banks are retrenching en masse, it’s difficult to see how a jobs portal would help. Instead, workers may need retraining to join other growth industries, including healthcare and information and communications technology.

That’s the objective of the multi-billion dollar SkillsFuture initiative, which may be put to an early test given these employment numbers.

And to incentivise companies to hire middle-aged PMEs, the G is piloting wage subsidies as part of the Career Support Programme. For a 50-year-old PME unemployed for more than six months, for instance, the G is offering a year-long subsidy for jobs that pay more than $4,000 a month. It will pay up to $2,800 for the first six months, and up to $1,400 for the next six months. It already funds PME retraining through the Professional Conversion Programmes.

The G’s response will be clearer come tomorrow (March 24), when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat presents his first Budget. Mr Heng has promised a “strong focus” on the economy, including help for the “variegated landscape” of small and medium enterprises here.

But what about workers? While the global financial crisis was far more severe, the 2009 Budget might offer clues on what the G has planned. As part of the Resilience Package, then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced a temporary Jobs Credit, which subsidised the wages of all employees by up to $300 per month. Such a broad-based policy can weather a recession, which we may be due for this year. But it is very costly seeing as the G tapped into the reserves to fund it, and may not even be appropriate if jobs and workers are mismatched.

In 2009 as well, Mr Tharman rolled out the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience – the predecessor to SkillsFuture – with highly subsidised PME-level courses. Some tweaks to SkillsFuture, targeted at middle-aged PMEs, may be on the cards this time round.

These are trying times to be presenting the first budget of a new term. Mr Heng has already said the G plans to be “particularly prudent”. So while the spike in layoffs is a concern, expect any policy changes to be targeted and incremental for now.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong

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Teruk

by Gwee Li Sui

THE words “teruk” and “jialat” have very different origins, but they are brotha-brotha in Singlish. At some point in the history of their use, their meanings started to coincide, and then they became interchangeable. So we now say “The traffic jam is teruk”, but we also say “The traffic jam is jialat”. We may say “The recruits kena tekan teruk-teruk” or we may say “The recruits kena tekan jialat-jialat” – both also can. Their meanings are sama-sama.

“Teruk” means tough or serious in Malay and is used in Singlish in a number of ways. It can refer to how siong or difficult a task is or how horrigible or buay tahan an outcome is. It can also point to very harsh conditions. Which meaning is in play is decided largely by the context it’s used in. So a remark like “The surprise test sibei teruk!” can be quite ambiguous without more info one. It can mean that the test is tough or that the test results kena sai. It can also mean that the general climate involving the test is what kena sai.

“Jialat” comes differently from Hokkien and is more poetic by comparison. But it has nothing to do with eating lard or the Malaysian cartoonist Lat hor. The “lat” here refers to strength. So “jialat” means strength-eating – or rather energy-sapping, like how listening to some taxi-driver rant on and on about PAP is sibei energy-sapping. But “jialat” doesn’t seek to say that a task is tiring, draining, or sian jit puah; the right Singlish word for that is “siong”. “Jialat”, like “teruk”, points to the gravity or impact of something.

So, when a said thing is teruk or jialat, it’s awful, gloomy, no-joke. It’s serious crap, like how a bad case of lao sai is serious crap literally – that, by the way, is teruk or jialat too! You can, in fact, go on to suggest a more active or dynamic form of terukness, and you do this by simply repeating the Singlish word twice. Interesting, right? When you wanna call for a kid to be punished until there’s serious consequence (but dun lah), you say “Whack the si geena until teruk-teruk!” or “Whack the si geena until jialat-jialat!”

Here’s where it gets complicated. Repeating also does another thing: it lets you turn “teruk” or “jialat” from an adjective into an adverb – like magic! So “teruk-teruk” in “Whack the si geena until teruk-teruk!” isn’t quite the same as in “Whack the si geena teruk-teruk!” The latter means punishing the kid severely now. See how “teruk-teruk” functions as an adverb this time? It further highlights a shiok aspect of many a Singlish adjective, which is its versatility. In England, “solemn” may become an adverb as “solemnly”, but “terrible” becomes “terribly” and not “terriblely” – why ha? But, in Singlish, you just repeat the adjective, extend “teruk” to “teruk-teruk” or “jialat” to “jialat-jialat”, and – wala! – it’s an adverb.

We must ask finally: got differences between “teruk” and “jialat” or not? This is a good, tok kong question. The short of it is got, but the differences are quite subtle lah. Your Singlish must be damn steady to understand why I say that it’s more about fweeling than about actual sense. “Teruk” is more solid than “jialat” and signals real difficulty whereas “jialat” includes imagined, potential, and future difficulty and is thus more adaptable. In normal use, nobody really cares about their differences, but, if you wanna how lian-how lian, try using “teruk” just to show that you can be specific lor.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Black clock showing 8.30

TWO young men were killed yesterday (March 22) after being run over by an MRT train near the Pasir Ris station. The men, Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin, 26, and Mr Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were both SMRT staff who joined the rail operator in January.

Their deaths are a mystery. Supposedly they were in a single file of 15 technical staff members on their way to check an alarm that went off on the tracks when the accident occurred.

SMRT said yesterday that it was investigating how the men could have been hit given they had a clear “line of sight” of the incoming train about 150m away from the station platform.

The incident triggered a service halt which drew the usual complaints from commuters who did not know what had happened. Train service resumed a few hours later. Some SMRT employees wondered if the train operator’s zeal to fix train delays had compromised their safety, reported TODAY.

More trouble on land: More than 30 people were killed and almost 200 injured in multiple bomb blasts at Brussel’s international airport and a metro station yesterday. The attacks have been claimed by ISIS, coming four days after the arrest of a man in the Belgium capital believed to be linked to the Paris attacks last November.

As the two men vying to represent Bukit Batok start making their rounds in the single-seat constituency, another election is getting some heat from Maruah, a human rights group.

In its submissions to the Constitutional Commission, the group called the proposed tightening of eligibility rules for the presidency “undemocratic and elitist”.

It said: “If we take the G’s claim that chairmen and CEOs of large companies are intrinsically qualified for high political office, then Donald Trump would be eminently qualified for the Presidency.”

The G had earlier said reducing the pool of candidates based on a company size criterion would produce a better president.

Speaking of heating up, Singapore’s getting hotter and its reservoirs are drying up. There’s no need for islandwide water rationing but you might want to keep an eye on that tap, the G said yesterday.

Today is Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s first-year anniversary since he died last March. He was 91 years old. Lots of activities are being planned across the island to celebrate the former prime minister’s life. For a list of activities, click here. And read Bertha’s take on the buzz about these activities here.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof

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Traffic jam in Singapore. Image sourced from Flickr user: Shaun Garrity Follow

by Hamzah Omar Yaacob

WHEN you next find yourself cursing at bumper-to-bumper traffic, count yourself lucky.

There’s less congestion now, compared to 2014, according to the 2016 TomTom Traffic Index released today (March 22) by Dutch navigation firm TomTom. Singapore was ranked the 45th most congested city in the index, while Bangkok was ranked number two in the world.

This year’s index ranks 174 large cities in 30 countries worldwide according to additional time commuters spent travelling because of clogged-up roads. The index is based on a survey of data from drivers, collected last year through a Global Positioning System. Additional travel time caused by congestion is then captured and compared with travel times when roads are clear. Road conditions such as extreme weather or road works are also taken into account. An average congestion level is then determined, as well as congestion levels for morning and evening peak periods. According to a TomTom spokesperson, they used “6.2 million driven kilometres in Singapore to calculate 2015 congestion”.

The survey found that Singaporean drivers face congestion levels of 31 per cent, on average. In other words, drivers here spend an average of 31 per cent more time getting to their destinations when roads are congested compared to periods when roads are not. This is a dip from 2013 and 2014 where congestion levels were at 34 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.

During morning peak hours, congestion levels dropped from 56 per cent in 2013, and 54 per cent in 2014, to 50 per cent in 2015. Evening peak hours is where the largest drop was seen from 68 per cent in 2013 and 65 per cent in 2014, to 59 per cent last year. Singapore joins 70 other cities which all saw drops in overall congestion levels. Izmir in Turkey and Saint Petersburg in Russia registered a decrease of 4 per cent, the largest fall in the survey. The full list is available here.

Mexico City was ranked the most congested city with an overall congestion level of 59 per cent. Closer to home, Bangkok was the second most congested city at 57 per cent. Also in the top 10 is the Chinese city of Chengdu and car-loving Los Angeles – they came in at number nine and 10 respectively. Both have a congestion level of 41 per cent. Major cities that are more congested than Singapore include London, Paris, Sydney and New York. However, cities like Perth and Melbourne are less congested than Singapore. Other large cities in the Asia-Pacific region such as Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Hong Kong and Mumbai were not ranked due to the lack of sufficient data, Tom Tom said.

This news comes on the heels of recent reports of lower automobile usage among commuters here – 21.9 per cent used a car to get to work against 24.8 per cent in 2010 and 22.9 per cent in 2005. Furthermore, according to the Land Transport Authority, the total number of vehicles on Singapore roads has been on a decline from a peak of 974,170 vehicles in 2013 to 957, 246 last year.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Sean Garrity.

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