April 25, 2017

24
PSI
CONNECT WITH US
 
 

by Mahita Vas

IN OCTOBER 2015, my husband and I contacted one of the participating insurance agencies about signing up for the Integrated Shield Plan (IP). We were keen on a better coverage than what was offered on our MediShield Life plans. Within days, we heard that my husband’s application had been approved. Mine was rejected, but the agent said she would appeal. Less than a week later, I was told the appeal was also rejected. No other option was offered.

I tried all the other agencies. At that time there were five – AIA, Aviva, Great Eastern, NTUC Income and Prudential. I was rejected by all of them. Great Eastern told me not to bother applying because my application would definitely be rejected.

Disheartened, I pointed out that I was fit and healthy. I exercised regularly and was careful about what I ate. Neither a smoker nor a drinker. Minimum eight hours sleep. But the answers were all the same – nope. Not approved.

You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.

All because I share one thing in common with these people – Catherine Zeta-Jones, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, Nina Simone, Lee Joon, Demi Lovato, Carrie Fisher and Eason Chan. The list goes on: Mel Gibson, Stephen Fry, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale. The list does go on but I’ll stop here.

They are amongst the greatest artists, musicians, performers, writers and thinkers who ever lived. I cannot, dare not, compare myself to any of these leaders in their respective fields, being nowhere nearly as accomplished as any of them. Great as their achievements have been, they are also, first and foremost, people. Just like me. And like about 2 per cent of the world’s population, including Singapore’s.

People with a dreadful illness once known as manic depressive illness, now known as bipolar disorder. An illness marked by extreme mood swings, where patients go from feeling overly happy to feeling empty. Bipolar disorder is indiscriminate, incurable and requires lifelong medication. With diligent medication and visits to the doctor, it is possible for patients to function as normally as anyone.

When I appealed to the insurance companies, I provided them with a doctor’s report from the Institute of Mental Health, which stated that I was compliant with medication and in full remission. Still, my appeals were rejected. I questioned the discrimination – after all, they could simply provide exclusions for any psychiatric treatment or injuries arising from my condition, for instance, injuries sustained in a failed suicide attempt. Some of the agencies raised the issue of two other minor and common ailments but when challenged, agreed that without bipolar disorder, I would get an IP with exclusions for those ailments. The rejection was blamed squarely on bipolar disorder.

Discrimination forces people to keep fighting for equitable treatment. So, on a friend’s advice, I went to see my MP at a Meet-The-People Session armed with an appeal letter, along with all the rejection letters. I didn’t get to meet my MP but his team of volunteers who looked into my case were very helpful. They said it was unlikely that any of the international agencies would bother about a letter from an MP, and advised focusing on NTUC Income as it was my best chance. I left feeling hopeful because my MP was none other than Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Several weeks later, I received a letter which said this, among the usual official phrases:

“We hope you understand that it is our duty to underwrite each case according to our underwriting guidelines consistently so as to be fair to the others who contribute to the risk pool.”

Please help me understand how I could be at a greater risk than someone who drinks and smokes heavily and may even be obese? Risk of what, exactly?

Followed by this:

“Moving forward, we are willing to assess your coverage in future, when you have fully recovered and have been discharged from your follow up for your bipolar disorder condition without the need for medication.”

Brilliant. The day I am discharged from my follow up, when I no longer need medication, will be the day I die. Bipolar disorder is incurable.

Mental illness has no known comorbidity with physical illness. By rejecting my application and appeals, these insurance companies are deliberately denying me coverage for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, all of which have no relation to my mental state.

I made a random check with the overseas offices of two of the international insurance agencies which rejected my application. All offered critical illness plans for psychiatric patients, though with exclusions. Some plans offered supplementary coverage for psychiatric care. So why exclude psychiatric patients in Singapore? Because they can?

If I could bring Isaac Newton, Beethoven or Charles Dickens back to this future, living in Singapore and requiring an IP, I wonder if these companies would deny them coverage.

I also wonder why NTUC Income thought it fit to use me, specifically my condition, on their first Future Peek campaign, and yet think I am unworthy of their insurance policy. Use my condition for marketing but spit me out when I want to buy an IP. Such hypocrisy.

NTUC Income’s website states “Insurance Made Simple, Made Honest, Made Different” and with great emphasis, “People. First”.  I wonder what they really mean by those claims.

 

Mahita Vas is the author of ‘Praying To The Goddess Of Mercy: A Memoir Of Mood Swings’. She spends her time on advocating mental health issues and pursuing personal interests including reading and writing.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

by Abraham Lee

YOU, at work, not getting enough exercise, not eating right and stressing out. That’s going to cost you – years of life and insurance money, compounded by a medical inflation rate of 15 per cent in 2015. It’s going to cost your employer – lower productivity from the time you spend, sick days and medical claims. It’s going to cost the nation – more than $1 billion from diabetes alone in 2010, and expected to be over $2.5 billion by 2050. 12 per cent of Singapore’s population is pre-diabetic- it will get worse.

But who should be concerned about employee health? Employers currently have the most control over workplace culture, but how can employers, human resource professionals, and even employees, build a healthy culture at the workplace?

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.

No budget? No problem. While the first step to building a healthy culture in the workplace requires commitment from the company’s (or the department’s) leadership, it can be simple and cheap to implement. Mr Alexander Yap, Global Rewards Director at United Test and Assembly Center, shared about how his department, after talking about losing weight and getting healthier for ages, decided to set team health as one of their Key Performance Indicators.

Mr Yap said that it “starts with an awakening” and leading by example. He formed a cycling team at work and started off with just short routes around the company premises. Over time, the team cycled longer distances and more often, at times covering 200km a week. In just five months, Mr Yap lost 16kg, and every member of his team clocked some healthy weight loss.

Offering smart incentives is also key to guiding workers towards developing healthier habits because of the short-term judgement errors likely to be made when it comes to decisions on health. Mr Yap highlighted that since the company became an existing AIA customer, the corporate AIA Vitality programme encouraged him and his colleagues to pursue healthier choices.

Encouraging a culture of health can also come from the choice architecture of our office spaces. For example, placing prominent staircases in the layout of an office building can encourage employees to climb stairs. Low uptake on the free fruit basket? Simply moving the complimentary fruit from the corner pantry to a well-lit, accessible part of the office would increase consumption two-fold. Introducing standing desks will encourage workers to get off their bums more often.

The panel experts also emphasised the importance of not procrastinating and taking small, repeatable actions. Dr Derek Yach, Chief Health Officer of Vitality Group, talked about how physical activity triggers more healthy activity and encourages healthier habits, and that this cycle can lead to more success.

He shared data showing how companies that participated in the AIA Vitality programme saw fewer medical certificates being taken and produced lower rates of absenteeism. There was also a correlation between companies with more active participants in the programme and those that saw lower medical costs. Healthier employees are also more productive and motivated at work.

Senior Consultant of the National Heart Centre, Dr Carolyn Lam echoed these sentiments and said that “we have to start somewhere” and that “that feeling of being on the right track… is addictive”. As a cardiologist, she was more eager to preventing heart disease than treat it, and started encouraging the medical staff on her shift to walk up and down the stairs between wards instead of taking the lift.

These small, measurable changes, she said, help to build habits and it is best when these habits are reinforced with small rewards. When asked how long results take to be seen, Dr Lam said, “We expect a response to lifestyle measurements in terms of the reduction in blood pressure or reduction in cholesterol levels and so on, within three months.”

Perhaps it’s time we started taking our workplace health as seriously as we do our careers. The end of a career is retirement, usually at 63, but our health choices stay with us until the very end of our lives.
.

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

Featured image by Flickr user Ray_LAC CC BY 2.0

by Abraham Lee

DIABETES isn’t a disease you “catch”, and that means that nobody can “give” it to you. But it’s not far-fetched to say that your job could put you at risk. Lifestyle factors form many of the risk factors for developing diabetes, and since we spend about a third of our day working (and for some of us another third of our day thinking about work), your job, work environment and the people around you become key factors in the war against diabetes.

Singaporeans work among the longest hours in the world. In 2015, we worked “an average of 2,371.2 paid hours” – longer hours than those in reputedly ‘workaholic’ nations like South Korea and Japan. Work habits and culture have a great deal of influence over our lives simply because we spend so much of our time at work.

While great habits at work can promote positivity, bad ones can debilitate other areas of our lives, especially our health. Singapore ranks second among developed nations for diabetics as a proportion of the population, with 11.3 per cent of Singapore residents suffering from diabetes in 2010. That number is projected to rise dramatically to 20 per cent by 2050.

None of us wants the lifetime burden that diabetes promises. The incurable disease is also the gateway to heart disease, stroke, blindness and other complications. The most common strain, Type 2 diabetes, is largely due to lifestyle factors and is usually seen “in people aged 40 and above who are overweight and physically inactive”.

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.

So what are the riskiest things about our job, diabetes-wise?

Working late can disrupt your mealtimes, sleep patterns, and heighten stress levels. Irregular meal times from skipped meals or late lunches or working late “are linked to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome”, a group of factors that increase the risk of heart disease and problems like diabetes.

Stress from work also messes up your hormone levels, including cortisol which increases appetite and can lead to overeating when its levels remain elevated due to continued stress.

Entertaining clients over drinks, or going out drinking with colleagues, if done too frequently, can also become a hazardous habit as alcohol intake is linked to Type 2 diabetes.

Your work posture can cause tension in your muscles which in turn changes our hormone levels. Sedentary, desk-bound work also lowers our activity levels, which puts us at risk of weight gain, which can lead to diabetes.

Fatigue from work often discourages us from spending time in the evening exercising – it’s much more tempting to veg out in front of the computer or TV, and then go to sleep.

While workers should take responsibility for their own choices, companies are also key stakeholders in promoting healthy lifestyles for employees through healthier work culture. Promoting work life balance, encouraging workers to exercise more and reminding them to practise self-care will result in healthier and more productive employees.

It’s not all that difficult to do either. The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has led the way with healthy eating campaigns and the National Steps Challenge which encourages walking 10,000 steps per day with in-kind rewards. In its second season, it introduced the Corporate Challenge pitting companies against each other with cash prizes at stake and setting up a platform for intra-company challenges.

Complementing HPB’s National Step Challenge is AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme, launched by AIA Singapore to help users make real change to their health. The programme offers weekly rewards to members when they meet their weekly physical activity targets, cashback, discounts on gym memberships, airfares and more to incentivise them in making healthy choices. This wellness programme is also made available to companies who wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

It’s going to be a tough fight to live a healthy lifestyle at the workplace, but with the commitment from both the public and private sectors to create a healthier workforce, we can win the fight against diabetes. In the end everyone stands to gain – us, the G, employers and our children.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Ray_LAC. (CC BY 2.0)

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

by Daniel Yap

THE late Mr Lee Kuan Yew worked out for about an hour each day, including during lunchtime. President Barack Obama exercises for 45 minutes, six times a week. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour plays tennis daily. The “Oracle” Warren Buffet exercises regularly as well, and they all swear it makes them more productive at work, in addition to the obvious health benefits.

It’s something companies have caught on to as well. As a matter of fact, the short-term productivity benefits of regular exercise – happy workers and sharper minds from naturally-produced endorphins and stimulants – are significant enough for bosses to start consider exercise to be part of a workday.

You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.

Those of us who have worked at Japanese or Chinese firms may have experienced a bit of that “workout” workplace culture – stretches and simple calisthenics at the start of each workday. But many companies are taking it further than that.

One study of more than 200 workers at three sites: a university, a computer company and a life insurance firm, showed that 30-60 minutes of exercise resulted in a 15 per cent boost to work productivity that day – that’s 6-12 per cent of an 8-hour workday in exchange for a 15 per cent boost.

On top of that, workers felt better about their work and about themselves after exercising, which could have longer-term benefits in terms of worker retention and mental wellness.

In the long-term, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that replacing 2.5 hours of work with exercise in six healthcare workplaces led to a noticeable reduction in absences, higher productivity and more patients seen.

Locally, OCBC, AIA Singapore and KPMG have launched programmes to reward employees who exercise regularly. The advent of wearable fitness trackers has enabled easy and accurate tracking of employee activity and disbursement of incentives, which can be worth as much as $100 a month.

But what’s the cost to set up such a programme for other firms, especially smaller ones? Building an in-house gym may be out of reach for most, and gym memberships can be costly to reimburse, and usage hard to track.

Some HR consulting firms can help plan a programme for a fee, or one could turn to a growing number of fitness incentive apps from vendors in Singapore and abroad.

The AIA Vitality wellness programme, which is exclusive to AIA policyholders at $36 a year, is also made available to companies that wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

Nevertheless, a determined worker shouldn’t let the lack of a company policy stand in the way of better performance. Aim for a 20-30 minute activity during your lunch break, which should give you time to cool off and grab a quick bite before getting back in the hot seat.

The science is clear: It’s high time we considered fitness and exercise to be part of the job.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

by Daniel Yap

SINGAPORE is engaging in a long-term war, with high stakes. It’s the war for our health and overall well-being, and for disease prevention which has long-run payoffs – better quality of life, reduced costs, lower risks. The details of NurtureSG, a Ministry of Health plan to instill healthy habits in our children, will be announced later this year, but any plan needs to consider potential obstacles.

The first thing standing in the way of healthier children is unhealthy adults. We need no reminding that children are most influenced not by what they are told by their parents and teachers to do, but by what they see their parents and teachers doing. Thus, any aim to change the health-wise behaviour of the next generation must take into account the behaviour of this generation.

It may be straightforward enough to try to drill healthy habits into our children, but how then can we incentivise adults, whose habits have already been formed and practiced for decades, to change? We would not want to train our children up a certain way only to have them slip back into an unhealthy adult lifestyle because they were following their parents’ footsteps.

Adults need to replace old habits by forming new ones, and new habits are formed by repetitive behaviour. Without long-term goals, such sustained change would be difficult.

To support TMG, visit our Patreon page. Thanks!

For starters, we need to address the psychology that defeats long-term goals: affective bias, risk discounting, and hyperbolic discounting.

Affective bias, that is, bias that is rooted in our emotions, causes us to hear only what we want to hear. For example, the strong emotion associated with comfort eating can cause us to put too much stock in a “reduced fat” label on an unhealthy snack…and there goes the diet.

Uncertainty about the goals we set is what leads to risk discounting, where we downplay the risky effects of our behaviour. If you didn’t know how much you needed to eat to lose weight, would you have chicken nasi briyani for dinner, and a large bag of potato chips at the movie afterwards? Probably. But if you knew you had to eat under 1700 calories a day to lose weight, then it would be immediately clear to you that the 900 calorie nasi bryani and the 1000 calorie bag of chips would completely wreck your goals, especially if you already had a typical 500 calorie breakfast and “diet” 400 calorie lunch.

Hyperbolic discounting is the cognitive bias that favours short-term gains – why someone would choose to get $50 now than $1,000 a year later. It is why diet plans fail, why savings plans fall through, why we won’t cut our carbon footprint even though we know we put the future in peril.

How can children and adults get past these roadblocks to a healthier life? First, the emotional appeal of a long-term healthy lifestyle needs to stay strong. We need constant reminders that this is good for our family, good for our children and good for our silver years. Strong campaigns and culture-building are key to achieving this.

Then, we need instant gratification for our efforts. This is the short-term counter to short-term temptations, and this has so far been the hardest to achieve on a national scale.

This is why people post their workouts and gym bods on social media – to soak up the likes and encouragement as fuel for the next workout. This is why wearables are effective, because they are a constant reminder on your wrist of whether you’ve covered your 20,000 steps today, or gotten enough sleep, or pushed your heart rate frequently enough this week.

Instant gratification is why we need incentive programmes like the national steps challenge, in-house corporate fitness or weight-loss competitions, or programmes for individuals like AIA Vitality to reward workouts with vouchers, send encouragement, form support groups, set reminders, and do anything necessary to keep our eyes on the short-term goal for as long as it takes to reach the long-term one.

We are all, in one way or another, attracted by short-term gain. And if healthy living isn’t attractive in the short-term, then unhealthy living will win out. And what happens in the short term determines who wins the long-term war for our well-being. If we lose the war for our own well-being, we’ll be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of the G’s push to make our children healthier.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

by Bertha Henson

I HAVE been swimming four times a week for the past four years. Okay, I’m lying. I have bouts of down time which usually last a couple of weeks. The last bout lasted two months, until the middle of February.

I suppose I can trot out the usual excuses like no time, crowded pool, rain etcetera to justify my sloth. Truth is, as anyone who exercises regularly knows, it’s so hard to get back into the groove if you’re out of it so long. So during the two months of inactivity, I did what I’m sure no doctor would recommend: I ate less. I figured that less exercise should be accompanied by less calorific intake. After all, my mantra is, I exercise so that I can eat whatever I want.

People say that even if the rain was pouring down or the pool filled with screaming kids, there’s always the gymnasium or other exercises that are weather and child-proof. I agree. Except I think swimming is the least disruptive of all exercises both pre-and post-wise. At least for me.

You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.

I just change into my costume, drape a towel around myself and my feet in flip flops and take the lift to the ground-floor to the condo swimming pool. I do so in the mornings, when children are already in school and tai tais haven’t readied themselves for public exposure. Neighbours always ask me the same question when they see me in the pool: “Isn’t it cold?” I tell them it’s cold only if you decide to stay put in the pool, which is surely not the point of the activity.

I am no swimmer, frankly. I’ve always feared water and won’t get into a pool where my feet can’t feel the floor. I swim breast-stroke only and keep my head above water all the time. I do not wear goggles or a swimming cap. I find them “fussy”.

While I don’t know how to tread water, I am very good at walking, jogging and doing a whole bunch of exercises in the pool. I don’t know if they qualify as aqua-aerobics but they are, believe me, tiring.

When I am done, usually in 40 minutes, I get out of the pool, drape a towel and proceed home for a bath. It’s so much easier than getting into jogging gear with socks and the right shoes. And then having to get out of them.

How did I get myself back in the groove? By that most mundane of methods: looking in the mirror. People who exercise look healthier. I look thinner but unhealthy. Then there’s the other big difference between people who exercise and those who don’t: watch the way they walk. The fitter person seems to float on air while the sloth drags his weary body. I was starting to “feel’’ heavy.

Then there are the eight sets of swimming costumes that lie un-used in my wardrobe. I hesitate to get into them because I’m worried about looking flabby. Yet I know I will get flabbier if I don’t get into them. I did the next best thing: I bought myself another swimming costume. Now…if you buy something, you will use it. I don’t regret paying for the new costume because of what I have been able to receive in terms of healthier skin and lighter feet.

It also means I can eat more.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season
Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season

by Daniel Yap

AFTER a run of 13 years, food and beverage maker Yeo’s will no longer be sponsoring the S. League.

The company confirmed in a statement it would pull out of supporting the 2017 season after weeks of back-and-forth, including reports of Yeo’s desire for a five-year plan for the league, and the league’s lack of such a plan.

New sponsor Hyundai will step in to take Yeo’s place, while co-sponsor Great Eastern has already confirmed its support for the 2017 season. Komoco Motors, the local dealer for Hyundai, with its Chairman Mr Teo Hock Seng has been a long-time patron of Singapore football. Mr Teo was the former chairman of Tampines Rovers FC.

The two-year deal means that the league will now be called the Great Eastern-Hyundai S. League. And after much hand-wringing about long delays in jersey printing due to the late sponsor announcements, the league will kick off this Sunday (Feb 26) at 6pm at the National Stadium with the Great Eastern Community Shield match between defending league champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) and Tampines Rovers FC.

You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.

The S. League is in a bit of a leadership pickle now that CEO Mr Lim Chin has resigned, leaving the reins to director of operations Mr Kok Wai Leong in the interim. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS), which runs the league, is also facing its first open elections in the wake of reports of under-spending on grassroots football, a FIFA order to end political nominees sitting on the council and hold fair elections, and a lack of confidence in the current leadership.

Tote Board funding for the FAS has also now been given to statutory board Sport Singapore to administer, another sign that confidence in FAS management is less than complete. It used to be disbursed directly to the FAS, although it is not unusual for Sport Singapore to administer funds to national sports associations.

Hyundai’s sponsorship also means that chances are now slim that Mr Teo might run for the hot seat of FAS President. Mr Lim Kia Tong, current President of the FAS Provisional Council, former Woodlands Wellington General Manager Mr R Vengadasalam and Hougang United Chairman Mr Bill Ng are rumoured to be in the running for the FAS top spot.

 

Featured image courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore.

If you like this article, like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

by Daniel Yap

TWO op-eds on tobacco in the run-up to Budget 2017 caught my eye.

The first is one by the economist Mr Donald Low in the Business Times on Feb 17, calling for a “grand bargain” – an exchange of cigarettes for reduced-risk tobacco products.

The second is by Dr Chia Kee Seng, professor and dean at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, and Dr Kenneth Warner, Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health at the Michigan School of Public Health, University of Michigan, published in Straits Times (ST) on Feb 18.

The two doctors called for an end to the scourge of smoking, pitching once again the G’s already-proposed measures of age limits, flavour bans and packaging changes as the way forward. These ideas are already being implemented by other nations.

Both pieces agree on this point – courageous action must be taken to mitigate the high cost of tobacco on our society. But do Singapore’s policymakers have the courage to save lives?

You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.

Singapore’s tobacco policy of ever-higher taxation, bans and graphic marketing has not put a significant dent in the smoker population in Singapore over the last decade. Smoking prevalence has hovered between 12 and 16 per cent, with male smoker prevalence around 25 per cent.

One should note first that in Singapore, one-fourth of those below 18, the current legal age, had already tried smoking. It stands to reason that more laws will not stop this segment of curious youth from engaging in risky, illegal behaviour. And with the youth segment being the true “gateway” to smoking (a huge majority of smokers get hooked before the age of 21), it seems that more laws alone are unlikely to put a significant dent in the smoking rate.

The Health Ministry has set an ambitious target of 10 per cent smoking prevalence by 2020. It is admirable, maybe even attainable, but it is a big reach nonetheless. Dr Chia and Dr Warner pointed to New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Sweden and France as countries that have set a goal for a smoke-free society in eight to 23 years.

What is notable is that these countries, and many others at the forefront of the anti-smoking movement, allow reduced-risk tobacco products as a way for smokers to either quit or at least reduce the cost of smoking to society.

Singapore remains stubbornly behind the times in this area, maintaining a ban against reduced-risk products and constantly citing worry about a “gateway effect” where e-cigarettes, snus (chewing tobacco popular in Sweden and Finland), and heat-not-burn products would lead youth and non-smokers to pick up smoking.

Studies in the United Kingdom (UK) over the last few years, however, have shown that the gate swings almost uniformly in one direction: helping smokers quit (and typically become e-cigarette smokers) rather than enticing youth or non-smokers to “upgrade” to smoking. You can find the Department of Health’s findings published here.

 

Taking on some risks for greater good

That’s where Mr Low’s “grand bargain” comes in.

Based on the UK research, would it not be more prudent to lift the ban on reduced-risk products while at the same time clamping down on smoking tobacco? No doubt e-cigarettes are harmful to health, but this is a risk mitigation situation, much like how the G wants gamblers to put their money with well-regulated casinos or with entities like Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, which will redistribute to social causes.

We must remember why we want to bring the smoking rate down: the health and social costs of smoking are high. If there is a way to reduce the costs by allowing alternative products, why not? Reduced-risk products can continue to be regulated and taxed as cigarettes currently are. And with alternatives in place, we can look to the other side of the “grand bargain” – cutting down on smoking, perhaps even to the point of banning it altogether.

It seems that harsher laws against smoking would be most effective in tandem with the availability of alternative tobacco or nicotine products, with a complete smoking ban as the end game.

Perhaps Singapore can lead the world in this area as well, and become a smoke-free nation by 2030? What will it cost us? Likely nothing more than converting smokers to lower-risk non-smoking tobacco and nicotine products. Courageous policy-making like this, I think, is the best care that this nation can provide for the long-term health of its smokers – and non-smokers too.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user markusspiske. (CC0 1.0)

If you like this article, like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

skillsfuture_300x250

FOR a paper published in this month’s issue of the Environmental Research Letters journal, Ms Yuan Lin, Mr Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm from the National University of Singapore (NUS) asked 390 people of varying ages and income brackets this: from a range of 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent, how much of one’s annual income is worth giving to secure clean air?

About 0.97 per cent, it turns out. In real terms, that amounts to USD$643.5 million (SGD$913 million) a year.

Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land. Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.

“[Sufficiently] negative impacts” from the air pollution make compelling enough the reason to trade-off “personal financial gain” for an improved environment, the NUS researchers concluded. At least it is, to a certain point, and to most people. Three out of 10 interviewees remained unconvinced of the need to pay at all.

The underlying challenge between personal comfort and environmental responsibility is valid too for people of these countries. 

 

1. Beijing, China – smog data control tightened

beijing

Image from Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

It was announced on Tuesday (Feb 7) in People’s Daily, China’s state newspaper, that the Beijing government has established a national network that will track the smog affecting several major cities. It will use a combination of data gathered from manual sampling stations, satellite sensing and airborne platforms to generate reports about the air quality. This national system replaces the manual smog tracking system of local meteorological stations, which smog alert services the China Meteorological Administration suspended on Jan 17.

The People’s Daily’s article reported that this change of monitoring structure was to better pollution reduction and prevent falsified data. Last year in October, environmental protection officials in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, were caught producing false numbers about the air quality by tampering with the monitoring equipment.

Public anger against China’s infamous smog condition has been rising. When the local smog alert service was suspended, citizens took to severely criticising the authorities online and raising suspicions of information suppression. Independent media outlets have complained about being told to take down articles that are derisive of Beijing’s efforts.  A Peking University study published on Feb 4, 2015, claiming that the smog had caused 257,000 excess deaths in 31 Chinese cities cannot be found online.

The Middle Ground needs your support to continue serving up credible, balanced and independent news. Help us make a difference by being our patron! Thanks!

 

2. Fukushima, Japan – radiation reading the highest since 2011

fukushima

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Digital Globe.

On Monday (Feb 6), China urged the Japanese government to detail plans on how to tackle the radiation from the broken reactors of the defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. It was responding to utility operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revelation that radiation level in the containment vessel of reactor 2 was at 530 sieverts per hour.

This is the highest reading calculated since the March 2011 meltdown of the three reactors in the plant, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami and followed a few days later with the breaking down of the fourth reactor. The previous highest reading was 73 sieverts per hour.

According to Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, 4 sieverts of radiation exposure already would kill 1 in 2 people. Japan Times, an English language newspaper in Japan, reported that experts have claimed this reading as “unimaginable” and that an institute official said medical professionals have never considered dealing with this level of radiation.

Mr Azby Brown, a member of a radiation-monitoring citizen science organisation called Safecast cautioned against unnecessary alarm by noting that this reading reflected radiation activity inside the reactor and not what was happening in the wider area of Fukushima.

 

3. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – toxic smog failed to abate

mongolia

Image from Flickr user Einar Fredriksen.

Reuters, the international news agency, produced an article this week about the smog that has been shrouding the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, created from the smoke from thousands of chimneys. The World Health Organisation has set acceptable standard of harmful breathable particles existing in the air, known as PM2.5, at 20-25 micrograms per cubic metre. Late last month, the reading in Ulaanbaatar hit 855 micrograms per cubic metre, at least over 30 times that limit.

But this pollution is also a socio-economic problem.  About 80 per cent of the smog comes from what is known as the “ger” districts found at the edge of the city, said Mr Tsogtbaatar Byamba, director of Mongolia’s Institute of Public Health. “Ger” districts are a mass of traditional tents, housing ex-herders who migrated to the city upon losing all their livestock to the harsh environment and weather conditions. Winter could be fierce in Ulaanbaatar and these poor would burn whatever they can get their hands on – coal, wood and even trash – to keep warm.

To tackle the smog, the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar, Mr S. Batbold, had announced on Jan 9 measures that heightened restriction of migrants to the capital. It would accept only those who need long-term medical care, already owning homes or mortgage loan.

Still, the pollution failed to abate. So, on Jan 28, near 7,000 protestors gathered in the capital’s Chinggis Square to signal their dissatisfaction against the authorities’ inability to improve air condition.

 

4. London, United Kingdom – multiple failings in applying environmental laws

london

Image from Flickr user David Holt.

The European Commission released the Environmental Implementation Review on Monday (Feb 6) which pointed at the United Kingdom (UK) as one of the 23 member states within the European Union (EU) that failed to meet air pollution quality standards.

The review aimed to improve implementation of EU’s current environmental legislation and policies, which UK has been in breach of since 2010 when it first crossed safety limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In fact, within just five days of 2017, it was reported that London overshot its annual air pollution limit. Not only has UK failed in effectively applying laws on air quality, laws on water standards and conservation of several species, particularly marine porpoises, have not been followed. Until the Brexit deal is realised, UK remains obliged to fulfill all EU’s environmental regulations.

According to the review, about 50,000 Britons have died prematurely from illnesses related to the country’s air pollution. Also, six million working days are wasted, at the cost of €28 billion (or SGD$49.7 billion) per year.

 

5. Dakota, United States – US Army has given approval to complete Dakota Access pipeline

Dakota

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

On Tuesday (Feb 7), the United States (US) Army granted the last permit, or easement, needed to allow the final section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline to be built under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, which forms part of the Missouri River system. Should construction process goes well, the USD$3.8 billion pipeline can begin operation by June.

This project became controversial because of resistance by The Standing Rock Sioux, a native American tribe which contended that the pipeline desecrates sacred sites and could potentially pollute its water source. Protest camps sprung up in the North Dakota plains, where thousands gathered last year to show their support for the tribe. Activists clashed several times with law enforcers, with more than 600 people arrested. In late November, the police even used water cannons in the -4°C weather against them. The previous US president, Mr Barack Obama, allowed a delay in the completion of the pipeline because of this protest and instructed last December for an environmental study to be carried out.

However, the suspension of the project was overturned when the current president, Trump, ordered on Jan 24 a continuation of the construction. Supporters of the pipeline believe that it is safer to transport oil using a pipeline than by rail or trucks. Then, less than a fortnight after, the Army said that it would cancel the study. Mr Robert Speer, the acting secretary of the Army stated that there was already enough information on the likely effect on the environment to make a decision about whether to grant the easement.

The tribe and its supporters are not accepting the recent development. Mr Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the activist groups, promised even greater “mass resistance”.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin Gill. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Man in a purple shirt sitter and pondering while two businessmen walk by, at the CBD.

by Wan Ting Koh

IT’S all about workers’ rights early this year, with a few prominent cases making headlines and even into Parliament. The issues all revolve around what is fair for an employee – whether it concerns his or her termination, taking sick leave, or even whether he or she is getting paid.

In Parliament this afternoon (Feb 7), MP Tan Wu Meng asked for updates on the Surbana Jurong terminations, with NCMP Daniel Goh following up on what constitutes due and fair process in dismissing employees due to poor performance, and how employees can seek redress.

Surbana Jurong, a Temasek Holdings-owned infrastructure consultancy, came under the spotlight last month for terminating 54 of its employees, a practice which it said was part of a performance review. The lay-offs raised concerns that the company was retrenching workers under the banner of poor performance so that it wouldn’t have to pay additional compensation to its employees.

Surbana has insisted that the terminations were not a retrenchment exercise. Its chief executive Wong Heang Fine sent an email to staff following news of the terminations, informing them that the company “cannot allow a small proportion of poor performers to be a drag on the rest of the organisation”.

“We cannot allow our 1 per cent of poor performers to continue to affect the rest of the 99 per cent of staff who are performing,” he said in the email.

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.

After their dismissal, terminated employees took the issue to two unions, the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union and the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union, and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Surbana later acknowledged in a joint statement with the unions that the process “could have been better managed”. It added that it would work closely with the unions to provide an “equitable and mutually agreeable arrangement” for the affected workers and to help them find new jobs.

When asked for an update on the Surbana case, Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say said that the company and unions have reached a “fair settlement” of ex gratia payments. This means that Surbana will pay a sum of money to affected workers even though there is no obligation for it. Mr Lim added that Surbana’s mass termination and then public labelling of the employees as poor performers were “unacceptable”.

There may be other factors such as working environment and HR practices, said Mr Lim, adding that a poor performance in one company doesn’t mean it will be the same for the next company.

Mr Lim said that companies dismissing employees over poor performance have to substantiate their claim with documented evidence. “If the employer cannot substantiate, he may be ordered to reinstate the employee or pay compensation,” said Mr Lim. He added that employees who feel that they’ve been unfairly terminated may approach MOM, which will ask the companies for proof.

Being prematurely dismissed is one matter. What if you’re not being paid your salary?

 

Salary issues

Some 6,000 salary non-payment and short payment cases were lodged by employees last year and in 2015. Mr Lim gave the breakdown of cases in a written answer to NMP Kok Heng Leun’s parliamentary question last month about how many such cases had been referred to the Labour Court.

Of the 3,000 cases referred, 1,400 cases had the Labour Court issuing court orders in favour of employees. Out of these, 800 cases saw employees being paid within 14 days while 250 cases had employees who were paid after 14 days. A total of 350 cases were defaulted as the 200 companies involved were in financial straits or had ceased operations.

Some 25 employers were charged in court for more egregious offences each year for the past two years, Mr Lim added. These charges may include failure to pay salaries on time, or not paying a dismissed employee within three days of termination, and each charge carries a fine of not more than $15,000, or a jail term not exceeding six months, or both.

 

Sick leave entitlement

Employers are expected to excuse employees with sick leave or hospitalisation leave from work too. MOM called these “basic protections” after several Singapore Airlines (SIA) employees claimed that taking sick leave would affect their chances of promotion. Their allegations came after SIA stewardess, Ms Vanessa Yeap, 38, was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room on Jan 31 (United States time). She was reportedly ill two days before her death.

According to crew members interviewed by ST, every employee has 10 incentive points each year and these are docked when the employee submit medical certificates for common illnesses. All points are lost when the member of the staff accumulates 12 medical certificates.

Points are considered in the staff’s annual appraisals, though they account for less than 5 per cent of the weightage.

When contacted by ST, SIA said that operating with a medical certificate is a disciplinary lapse. It declined to say how it measured performance of its staff, but said that it takes into account many other factors apart from crew attendance.

It said: “As with all other businesses, employee productivity and attendance at work are important for a successful airline operation. Although crew attendance is a component in the performance management process, we would like to emphasise that crew performance is measured across many other factors.”

In response to concerns, MOM issued a statement yesterday saying it expects all employers to excuse their employees from work if they have a medical certificate.

It added: “Paid sick and hospitalisation leave is a basic protection under the Employment Act and is also a core benefit in collective agreements… employers should avoid penalising an employee solely based on his consumption of sick leave.”

According to ST, MOM is in touch with the SIA Staff Union and SIA’s management over the issue.

Under the law, employees with three months of service get five days of sick leave and 15 days of hospitalisation leave.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.