May 27, 2017

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Sharanya Pillai

PRIVATE-HIRE cars are now the rage on Singapore’s roads. Thanks to the likes of Uber and Grab, the number of chauffeur-driven private cars in Singapore is at an all-time high of over 40,000, The Straits Times reported yesterday (May 24). This is a 70-fold increase from 2013, when the ride-hailing disruptors first entered the scene. 

The taxi industry is facing stiff competition, given that the number of private-hire cars is now 1.5 times the number of taxis. The bulk of the increase comes from passenger cars that are converted into commercial ones via Grab and Uber. We look at the ways anyone can ride a car now:

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1. Economy and luxury cars

Ride-hailing apps Grab and Uber offer private rides on different price levels. Uber comes with the choice of UberX, regular economy cars, or UberExec, which offers models such as the Audi A3 and BMW 3-Series.

Similarly, GrabCar has two price ranges: Economy and Premium. For an extra $2, you can also hire a GrabFamily car, that comes with a booster seat for a child.

Both companies also offer SUVs that can seat up to six people.

2. Pool for a lower price

Sharing a ride isn’t just in vogue for late-night TV hosts, but also for budget-conscious customers. Uber rolled out the ride-sharing service UberPool last June, which matches passengers travelling along the same route, for a cheaper fare. Last year, one in every three UberX rides was pooled.

Not to be outdone by its rival, Grab launched a similar service, GrabShare, in December. One difference is that Grab only allows for two bookings to be pooled – minimising interruptions to the journey.

3. Get social with strangers

Grab’s social carpooling service GrabHitch lets customers share the ride with drivers heading to the same destination. Unlike the other services, GrabHitch is marketed as a “social” platform to meet new people, where customers are encouraged to take the front seat and talk to the drivers – not really for those who might prefer a quiet ride.

Another carpooling startup, RYDE, also markets itself as a social platform. Like GrabHitch, RYDE customers can choose their drivers, and the fee is determined based on distance. Prices are generally cheaper than regular taxis.

4. Getting the best deal

With the expanding number of choices, it can become difficult to determine which might be the most affordable or value-for-money option. British startup Karhoo was poised to help with that, by offering a ride-booking app that compares prices across all the competitors – but its Singapore office abruptly halted operations last year. For now, it seems like math skills and reading online reviews might be the best way for the budget-conscious.

With all the excitement over the disruption, it may seem like ride-hailing apps are the new royalty on the roads, it doesn’t seem like the traditional taxis are going away anytime soon. In its bid to take over SMRT’s taxi business, Grab faces obstacles in the form of concerns over the jobs of taxi drivers.

The ride-hailing apps may also need to rejig their business models to ensure stability, according to experts interviewed by The Straits Times. While Uber and Grab have tried to “out-discount” each other, offering promotions into the long-term is unsustainable, the experts said. Notably, Uber has been bleeding money at an alarming rate – which raises the question of whether the private car model is truly a profitable model.

But for now, as the incumbents and disruptors compete to dominate the roads, it looks like consumers can continue to benefit from the sweet deals arising.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Johannes Tjendro

THE notable thing about Mr M Ravi’s application that the recent amendment to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme is unconstitutional is that not a single Member of Parliament (MP) raised this point during the two-day debate. Presumably, since they were sitting to discuss changing the Constitution, the thought did not enter their minds.

The closest that anyone got to was Workers’ Party’s Ms Sylvia Lim’s opinion that Parliament should not “arrogate to itself the right to decide such fundamental matters concerning the political system and state power” (Hansard 8 Nov 2016). She further suggested that the constitutional amendment on the Elected Presidency be put to a national referendum instead. She did not, however, provide a clear legal basis as to why a national referendum would make a more appropriate platform than Parliament.

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The Challenge

In a Facebook post dated May 22, Mr Ravi summed up his challenge as claiming that the amended EP scheme deprives citizens of their right to stand for public office. As a matter of fact, Section 45(1) of the Constitution does stipulate categories of people who are disqualified from running for office, such as those who are “declared to be of unsound mind”, “undischarged bankrupts”, or have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of one year or more, or not less than $2,000.

But Mr Ravi also added that the amended EP scheme discriminates specifically on the ground of ethnicity. He is convinced that this renders the EP scheme amendment unconstitutional.

This places Mr Ravi’s challenge to the amended EP scheme in much broader terms than Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s challenge. Dr Tan objects to the Government’s counting of the five presidential terms that is needed to trigger a reserved election. He contends that the counting of five terms should start with Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was the first elected president, in 1993, rather than from the term of Mr Wee Kim Wee, the first president vested with the powers of the elected presidency. He was in office when the elected presidency took effect in 1991.

Mr Ravi contends that the reserved presidential election violates Article 12 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against Singapore citizens on the ground “of religion, race, descent, or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority”.

However, the EP amendment makes it clear in Section 19B(5) that a reserved election cannot be struck down “on the ground of inconsistency with Article 12”. Furthermore, Article 12 provides for exceptions so long as they are “expressly authorised by this Constitution”.

Hence, it does seem that the amended Elected Presidency is precluded from any constitutional challenge. Mr Ravi himself acknowledged this in a live video on Facebook yesterday (May 23): “I know they made one amendment in the Constitution… to exclude the judicial challenge on this.”

When TMG asked him about this, he said that he would address it in his court submission.

The Basic Structure Doctrine: Is Parliament above the Constitution?

Mr Ravi also evoked the Basic Structure Doctrine, which originated from a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that no constitutional amendment should “destroy the basic structure of the constitution”, with the help of Prof Andrew Harding of National University of Singapore (NUS), who is “a leading scholar in the fields of Asian legal studies and comparative constitutional law”.

It is noteworthy that the first articulation of the Basic Structure Doctrine in Singapore was rejected by the Singapore High Court in Teo Soh Lung v Minister of Home Affairs [1989].

In 1987, Ms Teo was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), but was subsequently released following a successful judicial review in the Court of Appeal. She was then served with a new detention order signed by the President. A month later, Parliament enacted amendments to the Constitution and ISA. Ms Teo’s counsel argued that the Parliament had retrospectively usurped “judicial power exclusively vested in the judiciary, in breach of the separation of powers”.

Justice F.A. Chua ruled that, on the contrary, if Courts had the power to impose limitations on Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution, they would be “usurping Parliament’s legislative function contrary to Article 58 of the Constitution”. He further held that since Parliament gave the constitution, Parliament could also take it back.

Nevertheless, in 2012, the then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong delivered a lecture where he conveyed his belief that the Basic Structure Doctrine does apply to the Singapore Constitution. In his notion of the basic structure of the Constitution, he specifically included judicial power and the exercise thereof through judicial review, which is the means by which the courts check the illegality of legislative or executive acts.

Finally, while the High Court is bound by decisions made by the Court of Appeal, a High Court judge is not bound by decisions made by other High Court judges. On this note, he pointed out that the Court of Appeal, which upheld Justice Chua’s ruling, had declined to decide whether the High Court was correct to hold the basic structure doctrine inapplicable.

Ravi’s rant: A puppet President?

Mr Ravi went live on Facebook yesterday (May 23) to talk about his constitutional challenge against the EP scheme. Although his application was that it was unconstitutional for the presidential election to take into account race, he also lambasted other criteria for being unmeritocratic. He said that these criteria include being “wealthy” and having “$500 million or so”, being “well-connected”, and “being in certain institutions”.

He was perhaps referring to the private sector service requirement that says that presidential candidates must have served as the chief executive officer of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity for a minimum of three years. Alternatively, presidential candidates must fulfill the public sector service requirement.

He also veered into other matters such as the President being “a puppetry role”, especially judged by the fact that the President does not actually have the power to pardon death penalty cases. He recounted that he challenged this in court in 2010 only to find out that the President only has the said power “in theory”, but “in practice, it is actually the cabinet (who has it)”.

In October 2016, Mr Ravi was barred from applying for a practising certificate for two years by the Court of Three Judges — comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang. The judges said that Mr Ravi, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006, had conducted himself “deplorably in relation to the judiciary, his clients and the profession as a whole”, including making “baseless, racially-charged allegations”.

Meanwhile, the hearing for Dr Tan’s challenge will likely be held in June, reported The Straits Times.

 

Featured image from Mr M Ravi’s Facebook page.

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By The Middle Ground

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

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

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AN ADVERTORIAL

WHAT has technology really done to the dating scene?

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

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

Ms Violet Lim, CEO of Lunch Actually Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What have been your most memorable experiences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lim: Yes, of course!

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

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

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

 

This advertorial is brought to you by Lunch Actually.

 Featured image from TMG file.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Reuters

 

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by Lim Qiu Ping

INNOVATION, technological change, internationalise – words and ideas like these are nothing new regarding how Singapore economy is steered. The SkillsFuture initiative and the principle of lifelong learning are being pushed hard. And the report from the Committee on the Future Economy released in February recommended strengthening the innovation ecosystem and raising the profile of startups.

Singapore is trying to reinvent itself, especially economically, at the individual, organisational and national scale. At the bleeding edge of this re-invention is the startup scene. Singapore’s quest for Silicon Valley-ism has seen the development of ecosystems that contributed to the vibrancy of startup hubs the world over.

One notable ecosystem piece is the accelerator: an intensive, short-term and structured programme available to founders that assure mentorship, funding, emotional and educational support, networking with potential partners and investors; all culminating in a public pitch event known as demo day. In exchange for participation in their programme, accelerators take equity, typically less than a 10 per cent share, from the startup. They earn when the startup successfully ‘exits’ – referring to how startups are to develop till they can either get publicly listed or be acquired by another business entity.

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Questioning Singapore’s accelerator boom

So, what are the bearings on a startup ecosystem if accelerators are the ones finding it difficult to survive? During mid-2016, at least 15 accelerator programmes could be found in Singapore, not least due to efforts by the wholly-owned investment arm of the Infocomm Development Authority, known formerly as Infocomm Investments (IIPL) and revamped as SGInnovate in November last year, which helped fund and launch several accelerators.

Questions were raised if there have been too many accelerator programmes here. Since 2014, IIPL (now SGInnovate) has embarked on an accelerator strategy to pump up the startup ecosystem of Singapore. It began signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with commercial accelerators and corporations, creating partnerships where IIPL supported accelerators to run their programmes for a certain length of time. The first such partnership was with Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI), a commercial accelerator, in March 2014. Other examples included the European financial tech accelerator Startupbootcamp FinTech, brought in in October 2014. And the partnership that sprung up with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and California-headquartered accelerator Plug and Play in April 2015, formed SPH Plug and Play. Meanwhile, corporations such as DBS Bank and Mediacorp jumped on the bandwagon, setting up their own corporate accelerator programmes.

Then on Sep 14 2016, JFDI announced in a blog post that it would cease operating as an accelerator. It had not only been the first accelerator partner of IIPL but also Singapore’s first ever accelerator programme, founded in 2010. Three months later in January 2017, SPH Plug and Play confirmed that they would be closing.

 

How viable is the accelerator model in Singapore?

Ultimately, accelerators are businesses and businesses, no matter how valid its products and services to a community, survive according to the calculation of dollars and cents.

Mr Hugh Mason, 50, the co-founder of JFDI, explained the difficulty of sustainability in his company’s blog post. “In Asia, the time to exit is more like six to eight years and the valuation at exit is perhaps 30 [per cent] of that it would be in the US,” he wrote. In short, JFDI was unable to generate sufficient returns (from equity obtained) fast enough to cover the “high costs” incurred while operating in Singapore. He further recognised that the accelerator business model carried over from US did not fit well in the local and Asian context.

The model consists of setting up a team, which could include paid personnel such as programme directors, facilitators and a full-time secretariat. This team is only able to handle so many startup cases per programme batch, even if it benefits the accelerator to groom as many startups as possible in hopes of hitting gold with one that could garner a high valuation.

With this business model, the accelerator outfit is non-scalable. Mr Jarrod Luo, 32, a startup founder as well as startup consultant, explained the model and how the profitability of an accelerator is curtailed because of this. “To scale, you have to do a one-for-one multiplication… if you want to increase the cohort size, you have to increase your team size. [It is] logistically heavy, it takes a toll on your corporate communications, internal qualification… co-ordination gets more expensive as the team grows.”

Mr Luo’s role as a startup consultant from his consultancy firm 2Bite is akin to that of an accelerator programme. It has been financially tenable for him, so far. He has served as mentor to and point-of-network for startup founders, tailoring knowledge and advice on growing a startup to the needs of his clients, who were travelling on their own entrepreneurial journey. Payment type, however, is negotiable, rather than following the rule of equity in exchange for participation.

 

Accelerators in perspective: just one piece of a bigger puzzle

To point, the function of and need for accelerator programmes should be subordinate to the progress of the entrepreneur, who encounters different issues at different phases of growing a startup. The accelerator as a device has its place in the startup ecosystem because its structured curriculum provides some form of stability in an industry characterised by risk and unpredictability. Nonetheless, it is possible for the individual to gain guidance, know-how, contacts and even funding through other means.

As startup founders, Mr Luo and his two partners chose to skip the accelerator experience when Tembusu Systems, their financial technology startup, was founded in 2014. They already possessed the skills, vision and structural knowledge to develop their business idea. “We weren’t like newly graduated students with no contacts in the world and no exposure; no experience… We were already quite well-placed in whatever we’re doing. We’re already consultants. We had the necessary contacts in the local Singapore scene,” he explained. Participating in an accelerator programme was not cost advantageous to them and what the accelerators offered was not “critical”.

Other founders have also bypassed the accelerator programme experience, such as those from startups Shopback and ViSenze. The first is an e-commerce business and the second a visualisation and artificial intelligence technology used in e-commerce. Their source of support and grooming comes from NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

 

A bigger vision?

NUS Enterprise facilitates entrepreneurship in a wider scope than the accelerator concept, more like a matrix of human and infrastructural resources as well as knowledge base. Truly, its greatest asset is its community – and relationships within – built through time. Though officially beginning in 2001, its roots could be traced back to 1988 when a university-level centre called the Centre for Management of Innovation and Technopreneurship was started. It was meant to “nurture entrepreneurial learning and venture creation among the NUS community”.

Describing how it stood apart from standalone accelerators, NUS Enterprise acknowledged the “significant benefits” of being set in a university “with strong roots in education and research”, even as it remained open to those outside of the NUS fraternity. The aim is to create culture, not only success stories. Part of student life could include six months to a year’s internship in startups for immersive learning, facilitated through a NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme. Shopback was started by alumni who knew one another as course-mates or through NOC. NUS researchers or serial startup founders could also mentor and re-invest in younger entrepreneurs, as they did with ViSenze. University alumni could return and tap into the entrepreneurial community established, gaining support and resources for startups planted within the ambit of NUS Enterprise. Other advantages include “access to technologies, research and intellectual property developed at NUS”. Start-ups such as ViSenze, have been spun out of technologies developed in NUS.

The accelerator is but a part of the NUS Enterprise mechanism, called the NUS Start-up Runway. NUS Enterprise explained it as “a series of initiatives and activities that help [startups] to grow and scale”. On its website, NUS Start-up Runway calls itself “the most comprehensive university-based incubation/acceleration programme in Singapore”. Access to it is part of the package of participating in the wider ecosystem unique to NUS Enterprise. With or without utilising the accelerator, people thrive in the startup industry. Therefore the industry thrives.

Perhaps, questioning what bearings the business survival of accelerators has on the startup ecosystem is to miss the forest. Rather, the thought for how healthy and self-sustaining the ecosystem is should frame the challenge of figuring out the most apt model for accelerators in Singapore.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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

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

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

Image by Wikimedia Commons user George Tsiagalakis. 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

4. Jerusalem, Israel: Cross-border environmental woes

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

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

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

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

5. Yangon, Myanmar: Canary in the coal plant

Image by Pixabay user Pavlofox. CC0.

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

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

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

 

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by Hasan Jafri

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

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

So, chill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasan Jafri is a regional political risk analyst.

 

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by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

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by Bertha Henson

MR PETER Ho isn’t like Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the entrepreneur who threw a couple of grenades when he was the first to take on the S R Nathan lectures. Nor is he like Mr Bilahari Kausikan, the veteran diplomat who made no bones about what he thought about soft-headed approaches in diplomacy. Mr Ho, the former head of the Civil Service who gave his fourth and final lecture yesterday,  is gentle and scholarly. His lectures can also be described as an attempt to get people to understand that…

a. The world is moving is so fast that it is well-nigh impossible to predict problems.

b. Today’s problems are so complex and intertwined that new approaches which encompass the big picture are needed to solve them – and even then, not everyone will be happy.

c. Singapore needs a new, broader mindset that goes beyond the traditional idea of a national identity bounded by natural borders if it wants to prosper.

It is in his fourth and final lecture that Mr Ho makes his recommendations for the future. The first three are a lead-up to his point about not letting Singapore’s constraints get us down. The above points probably over-summarise his lectures, which were extremely scholarly and delved deep into how to develop a mindset to deal with the unexpected.

So here is a selection of quotes that struck me, as well as my one cent worth of thoughts.

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Besides Black Swans, he talked about Black Elephants

“The black elephant is a problem that is actually visible to everyone, but no one wants to deal with it, and so they pretend it is not there. When it blows up as a problem, we all feign surprise and shock, behaving as if it were a black swan,” he said, giving the example of how the British establishment didn’t think that Brexit could happen and was caught flat-footed when it did.

Nope, he didn’t give a Singapore example of a Black Elephant which is cross between the black swan and the proverbial elephant in the room.  Perhaps, the swelling of the foreign population in Singapore in the late 2000s could well be one of them. It needed an election and a backlash over the White Paper on Population to get the G to rethink its foreign manpower policies. As for a Black Swan event, there’s the 2003 Sars crisis which Singapore responded to magnificently with a Whole-of-Government (WOG) approach. See next point.

He talked about a WOG approach to coming up with solutions

“But while Whole-of-Government may be an imperative for dealing with wicked problems, it is not easily achieved. Governments, like any large hierarchy, are organised into vertical silos. For Whole-of-Government to work, these vertical silos need to be broken down, so that information can flow horizontally to reach other agencies.

“It requires not just a lot of effort but also a real change of culture to surmount this instinct to operate within silos, in order to make Whole-of-Government work properly. Often, the leader must nag his people to remind them that the Whole-of- Government imperative takes precedence over narrow sectoral interests and perspectives.”

Nope, he didn’t give any examples of difficulty. Rather, he gave examples of how the G was already taking this approach, which includes establishing institutions which work in the WOG way, such as the National Security and Coordination Secretariat and more recently, the Smart Nation & Digital Government Group.

He talked about the difficulties of challenging the official view

“But even if they try to do that, it is not always easy for the planner or policy-maker to challenge the official future, especially when that future is consistent with an organisation’s biases and preconceptions. Those who articulate a radically different future are at danger of being branded as subversive or lacking a sense of reality. So they will have a real incentive to make their scenarios more palatable for their audiences. But in so doing, they also inadvertently reduce the impetus for the organisation to confront uncomfortable alternative futures and to prepare itself for them.”

Maybe the paragraphs above reflect his thinking about the paucity of naysayers and the dangers of groupthink, which was a hot topic recently. Note, however, he is taking an organic approach – that all big hierarchical institutions have the same problems.

He talked about mavericks

“Some will argue that leaders should be more tolerant of mavericks. My response to this is “Yes, but only up to a point.” A maverick is a maverick only if he is fighting the establishment. If he believes enough in his ideas, he ought to have the courage and conviction of his beliefs to push them, even against resistance. If he gives up the moment he runs into some opposition or official rebuff, then in my book, he is not a maverick. I think this is a sound approach. It is essentially a Darwinian process in which only those who have thought through their ideas, and are prepared to stand up and defend them, deserve the chance of a second hearing. Some mavericks will survive.”

This was in his second lecture, delivered on April 19. So it wasn’t directed at a certain someone who wrote an unfortunate Facebook post.

He referred to the blame culture

“When things go wrong, as they often do, how do we respond? Do we just look for someone to blame, or do we work to solve the problem? A blame-seeking culture can be both destructive as well as unproductive. It might satisfy a human impulse to hold someone accountable. But it certainly does not solve the problem.”

So decision-making is an imperfect process. There’s so little time to come up with a solution, which can’t please everyone anyway. But surely holding someone accountable is not just a human impulse but also the right thing to do, just as we reward the meritorious? It is part of the process of transparency, which he didn’t touch on.

He said that Singapore can be more than a little red dot on the atlas.

“The central question that is posed in this evening‟s lecture is whether Singapore is merely a price-taker, or whether it has the ability to influence and alter the factors that shape the future?

“A thread running through all these four lectures – and this evening‟s in particular – is a hopeful view that even small city-states can influence, shape, and even create, not just markets, but also their operating environment. It is a belief in this view that hope can be redeemed for even a little red dot like Singapore.”

This was from his final lecture where he referred to small countries like Estonia and Denmark which envision e-nations in their future. But that is the subject of another column.

 

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