March 27, 2017

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ST reported today that starting this year, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) is letting “large” donors request an “evaluative” report on charities.

Apparently this will “promote a more transparent and informed giving landscape”, according to the NVPC head.

Now, I’m all for more transparent accounting of charities – but why allow only “large” donors access to this “service”? What’s “large” anyway, and to whom?

And oh, the report isn’t free, by the way. Could maybe cost from $100 to “a few thousand dollars” – money, of course, which most donors would probably rather spend on the cause than on paperwork.

I’m sorry, but having these barriers don’t seem to be promoting transparency at all. I thought charities that receive public funding should already be making their reports public in the first place – I’m sure some already do?

Would be good to know if any of the 30 charities in the pilot programme has received a request for these reports – ST didn’t say, but I doubt it.

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TODAY’s story in ST about the Singaporean stranded in Bangkok seemed really kok to me all right.

Besides the fact that it’s essentially a one-source story (Besides the Singaporean, only his brother was interviewed), it’s strange that the Thai authorities would not allow him to come home because of what seems like a pettyish crime – stealing furniture and damaging a rental property. I’m no expert in Thai law, of course, but maybe ST should’ve spoken to one (or any lawyer) to check this.

Moreover, the guy was acquitted last Jan… so why didn’t he come home then? The opposing lawyer’s appeal was overturned on Dec 4, so the Singaporean had almost a whole year to return home? So now the lawyers are asking for a 60-day extension to submit another appeal. Eh, still cannot come home ah?

I’m sure the case and the issues before it are more complicated than what I’m thinking.. unfortunately, it just isn’t very clear going by this re-telling of the story.

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Surprise! NEA announces new bans for smokers but no one seems to care. ST reported today after tagging along with NEA enforcement officers that smokers who were caught smoking in the newly banned areas mostly claimed ignorance. A few people grumbled about having more warning signs in public places.

I thought it was nice that ST got to follow NEA around for the checks, but probably they could have done some checking on their own – such as how many warnings had been given out in previous extensions of the ban, or whether the number of fines have gone up. This would have told us something about how quickly – or slowly – smokers get use to these bans. (or if they care at all)

Maybe at the next round of bans we could also hear from some experts about this subject. Surely this whole smoking ban business has public health and economic implications too.. and not just about who’s smoking where and more warning signs…

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So the courts in the Susan Lim case have finally decided there is an “ethical limit” to what doctors can charge patients. Now they have to decide what exactly this “limit” is. Dr Lim’s lawyers appear to make a good point: According to ST and TNP, they said that since there had been no ethical limit before, how could Dr Lim be guilty of breaching it? (BTW, apparently MOH has no guidelines on doctors’ fees either – thanks TNP!)

Not that I think Dr Lim didn’t overcharge her patient – $25 million is a bit much yes? – but whether or not the State or the law has the right to intervene I suppose is one of the big questions about the case. The problem with saying that there is an ethical limit – and, more importantly, implying that doctors should somehow be self-aware of what this limit is – is that, well, ethics are tricky business.

The courts said that “every profession must have ethical limits. That’s what differentiates them from commerce.” Which means it’s not just doctors who should consult their conscience when sizing up how much their services are worth. (Lawyers too?! Haha)

No disrespect to our judges, but I’m not sure there is one – or an obvious one anyway. Professionals who own businesses have commercial interests they can’t ignore; the near melt-down of the world economy in 2008 had everyone talking about ethics in the banking sector.

In any case, not being a doctor or a lawyer, I have no idea how this case is going to turn out. Would be interesting to hear what people in these professions have to say.

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I opened the newspaper today and saw this: MRT network size to double by 2030.

Wow! Then, lots of numbers: 80% of homes to be within a 10-minute walk; a new 50km Cross-Island Line; extensions of 2-4km on existing lines etc etc.

One big number however was missing: How much was all this going to cost?

Thank you ST for getting an estimate from your sources: between $70 and $100 billion – but… maybe it’s just me being math-challenged but all that said to me was: Wow! That’s a lot!

(Some questions after I picked up my jaw: Is it the most expensive MRT upgrading works to date? How did they come to that figure – just based on length (78km) or did it factor in other considerations – since the Cross Island Line is the “most ambitious” to date?)

What struck me the most,  however, was that apparently no details of the cost were available because “engineering studies have not started”. Reams and reams of text about the big project, but no engineering studies done. Hmm, really?

That seems unlikely.

If true, then perhaps the announcement was premature – hey, maybe the timing was rigged for the by-election, notwithstanding Mr Lui’s chaste denial.

I guess we’ll never know.

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SG Gives, an online donation portal, received $8.5 million in donations last year – this, ST said, was a record amount. Given SG Gives was set up only in 2010, I’m not sure how record-breaking the figure is… it probably would’ve been more record-breaking if the figure had actually gone down I think.

Goes on to explain that the jump is because more people are going online to donate – is this based on just the figures from SG Gives, or is there more info to support this? Have online donations overall gone up? Or off-line donations come down? No idea.

What a shame, because this story could have given some real insight into how technology is changing donation patterns of Singaporeans – these days, you can even donate from your mobile. Instead we get a PR piece about how wonderful this portal is…

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What was most immediately interesting, to me, about The Straits Times’ report on Monday (A6, Jan 14) was not what it reported, but what it didn’t.

Because what it did report was not really new – that a survey by Terence Chong and Hui Yew-Foong, both well-regarded sociological researchers, showed that megachurches appeared to attract an “emergent middle class”; that they saw financial growth as “signs of divine blessing” is also pretty common knowledge these days.

This has become true especially in the last few years, after New Creation announced pans to build a multi-million dollar retail complex in Buona Vista, and the more recent City Harvest scandal, where its top leaders are accused of using millions in church funds to promote its founder’s wife’s fledgling music career in Hollywood.

Among the religious community, megachurches are notorious for recruiting aggressively, compared to mainline churches such as the Anglicans or the Methodists.

If more members of the megachurches are from the working class, it is also because their recruitment efforts have always targeted almost exclusively at the younger generation whose parents are either Taoist or Buddhist, or a combination of the two Chinese faiths.

That’s another reason why church service at megachurches always seem like rock concerts – to attract angsty teenagers.

In fact what the researchers themselves found more interesting was this: That in their survey, conducted from December 2009 to January 2011, they found that mainline church leaders tended to be dismissive of their megachurch counterparts when the subject of its prosperity gospel came up.

In June last year, Dr Chong wrote in the commentary website, New Republic Asia: “Perhaps more interesting for us was the dismissive, even sneering, attitude of some mainline church leaders we spoke to whenever the topic of prosperity gospels was brought up.

“It was not uncommon to see Methodist or Anglican leaders, in private of course, roll their eyes or let fly a rude quip at the expense of megachurch-goers.”

The researcher further noted that because of the megachurches’ tendency to articulate Christianity in the language of business, it was no wonder that they spent so much time and money on branding and packaging.

“The entry of the church into the market as a corporation is the next logical step. The rise of what some have called “pastorpreneurs” is entirely in keeping with the charisma and cult of the CEO,” Dr Chong wrote.

He concluded: “A sober discussion of how the local Protestant middle class community is fragmented is needed. Hopefully, such a discussion will throw some light on the tensions between mainline denominations and the megachurches, and more broadly, on the deeper divisions within our heterogeneous middle class.”

This deeper – and far more interesting – analysis of the two researchers’ survey was completely missing from the Straits Times’ report, which is a shame because it could have sparked exactly the kind of discussion the researchers were hoping would happen.

This is especially relevant given the City Harvest trial is expected to start sometime later this year, and as the religious community in Singapore – not just the Christians, but the Buddhists and other faiths – becomes increasingly diverse.

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It looks like Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had a very busy day yesterday, what with announcing a new max penalty for MRT breakdowns, shortened waiting times (from 6 min to 5 min or less!), and a cautious comment about re-looking the COE system – suggestions to improve it had merited “a much closer look”, he said.

About the COE, he didn’t say much more – though, according to ST’s sources it looks like the changes could be major. What he did say, however, about the record premiums, I found a bit perplexing, but maybe it’s just me: That high vehicle prices do not raise the cost of living for most S’poreans “on a day-to-day basis”. What does this mean?

For the sake of enlightening young, institutional-memory-deficient readers – especially those who don’t own cars (like me) – it would probably have also helped to know if the G has ever come close to reviewing the COE system, why, and a line or two about how the current system came about…(see story here)

Much more was made of a new proposed max penalty for serious train disruptions – from the $1m cap to a percentage of the affected line’s annual fare revenue. (see story here)

I wonder if there is a big gap between the operator’s annual fare revenue versus total revenue – but maybe it’s not a significant concern, seeing the distinction was not made by either ST or GPC for Transport chairman Cedric Foo for that matter.

In any case, we don’t know what this percentage will be (ST implied 5%), but everyone seems to agree it will be more. Will heftier fines really make a difference? It probably will and I suppose that can’t be surprising to anyone who remembers a time when the most popular T-shirt in Chinatown was that Singapore’s a “fine” city…