March 24, 2017

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by Daniel Yap

WHEN the G’s feedback unit Reach conducted a random, demographically-weighted phone survey of 1,111 Singaporeans over 20 to ask about public support for budget measures, it found that the 30 per cent water price hike was, unsurprisingly, unpopular.

The 52 per cent overall support level for the budget is the lowest by far since Reach started polling in 2010. The next most unpopular budget was in 2011 at 60 per cent, while the post-GE budget of 2012 garnered 93 per cent support.

But what is most intriguing is the serious gap between the support level for the overall budget and the 58 to 80 per cent support for individual measures (sans water price hike) polled. What gives? Did the water issue contribute so significantly towards the overall lack of support for the budget? Or is there something else out of whack?

Other highlights from the Reach press release were unusual as well. Questions asked seemed to try and measure agreement with statements of cause-and-effect rather than polling for support levels.

For example, the question “The enhancements to the Adapt & Grow initiative and other training support under the SkillsFuture initiative will help create better employment opportunities for Singaporeans” does not actually asks respondents whether they agree with the policy – only whether they agree with the stated effect.

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Seven out of the nine questions in the survey were of this nature, with the exceptions being “Overall, I support the initiatives announced in the Budget” (52 per cent agree) and “It is reasonable to increase water prices to fund the higher costs of water production and to encourage water conservation” (32 per cent agree).

That probably accounts for the vast difference between the overall support and the apparently positive results for individual policies. In other words, people agree that the policy will have the stated effect, but probably disagree that the policy should exist.

Reach surveys face problems as indicators of real ground sentiments. Academic Derek da Cunha said in a Facebook post that “public opinion polls conducted in Singapore by a government or government-affiliated agency are not worth much, if anything.” He said that a high percentage of “neutral” answers was an indication that respondents were fearful of articulating their real thoughts about G policies to someone who had identified as a representative of the G.

“Neutral” answers to questions asked ranged from 15 per cent to 35 per cent.

Policymakers, the G and the public will probably want to read the Reach poll results with a sceptical eye, and Reach will need to look for better ways to conduct its polls if it really wants to know what Singaporeans are really thinking.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

FEELING down recently? According to the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations (UN) on Monday (Mar 21), you may not be alone: Singapore has been ranked the world’s 26th happiest country, down four places from 22nd last year.

Respondents from each country were asked to evaluate the quality of their current lives on a scale of zero to 10. The figures from 2014 to 2016 were then averaged, to obtain a mean happiness score. Singapore’s score of 6.572 puts us one place higher than the South European nation of Malta (6.527), and one place lower than Mexico (6.578).

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While Singapore has indeed slipped down the happiness rankings, this doesn’t tell the full story. We remain the happiest country in all of Asia, with next-best Asian countries Thailand and Taiwan coming in 32nd and 33rd place respectively. Among other developed Asian economies, Japan ranked 51st while South Korea placed 56th.

So, relative to our regional counterparts, Singapore isn’t doing too badly. But should that be the only thing which counts? Why can’t we match up to our Nordic counterparts who consistently top the happiness rankings?

The answer lies in the way the UN calculates the happiness index. Each country’s score is derived from its own citizens’ perception of happiness, rather than objective metrics which measure for quality of life. A country with a comparatively worse education and healthcare system could perform better than its neighbours, so long as its citizens perceive their lives to be happy.

 

Modified from the UN World Happiness Report 2017

Take the chart above as an example. Singapore ranks below Mexico and Argentina on the index, yet a large portion of our happiness score can be attributed to positive standard of living indicators: Happiness can be explained by Singapore’s high GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, healthy life expectancy, and low levels of government corruption.

Where we lose out to Mexico and Argentina, though, is the grey bar labelled “Dystopia (1.85) + residual”. The figure for “Dystopia (1.85)” is a constant across all countries due to the UN’s methodology when compiling the report, and can be ignored.

The component called “residual” is where it gets interesting. It “measures the extent to which life evaluations are higher or lower than predicted by (the UN’s) equation (earlier in the report). The residuals are as likely to be negative as positive.” In other words, it shows the difference between what the UN predicts a country’s happiness score should be based on available data, and what the actual happiness score is when residents are surveyed.

Singapore’s “residual” is low, and might even be negative (no breakdown was provided in the report). This indicates that our unhappiness is not the cause of endemic corruption or government failure, but rather based on residents’ perception of life in Singapore. The difference is even starker when we compare Singapore to the top-ranking country, Norway:

 

Modified from the UN World Happiness Report 2017

Singaporeans are actually happier than Norwegians, if we only consider the six quantifiable components the UN listed: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruptions. Where we lose out considerably is on our “residual” – Singaporeans just don’t feel happy.

I’m not saying we should ignore how people feel. The survey results could well mean that the G has failed to account for the non-quantifiable components of a happy life, such as our stress levels and non-career aspirations.

All I’m saying is that our ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report isn’t so bad. By all objective metrics, Singapore residents are richer, healthier, and less corrupt than our international counterparts (even more so when compared within Southeast Asia).

Our poor score in the “residual” component will serve as a reminder to the G that an obsession with Key Performance Indicators isn’t enough; sometimes there is a need to also focus on the softer aspects of life. Trade-offs between our pace of life and our GDP per capita may have to be made. Home is, after all, where the heart is.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

AHPETC signboard
Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

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by Daniel Yap

IT’S been a bit of a day of thanks and accomplishment for me, when Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng announced in Parliament this morning that open strollers would be allowed on buses from Apr 2. I’ve been campaigning for this change for years, alongside other parents and groups like Young NTUC.

As soon as news broke of the new rule, a mixed response of praise for the decision and anger over it erupted online. Critics of the move cited a variety of reasons, which deserve a response.

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  1. Lack of space: strollers don’t fit in the door/aisles, and some are bigger than others

Response: The idea is for strollers to board buses the way wheelchair users do. They aren’t meant to go down the narrow aisles. The Ministry has said that bus captains will make the final call on when strollers have to be folded to make space for others.
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  1. Fear of abuse

Response: Inconsiderate people are a feature of life but their existence doesn’t mean that the rule is a bad one. Call inconsiderate parents out and ask them (nicely) not to abuse the system. Support others who are publicly calling out anti-social behaviour.
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  1. Demand for segregation

Response: The whole reason why this rule is being changed is so that parents can feel more integrated into society. It takes compassion and maturity to welcome and cater to others whose needs differ from our own.
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  1. In my day…


Response: Parents have suffered in the past, but we need to see that it is a good thing that they should no longer suffer needlessly. If a new rule comes along that benefits others, we should be compassionate and be happy for them.
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  1. It is unsafe

Response: Bus companies used to cite safety reasons for forbidding open strollers, but there is no solid data to back this up, or explain why other cities in Europe, North America and Japan allow it. Perhaps the status quo was from a time before wheelchair-accessible buses, but times have changed.
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It’s heartening to see the change that you fought hard for come to fruition, and to know that it points towards a more inclusive, more family-friendly future for Singapore. And it’s good to see compassion and thankfulness reign in the online comments, even though there will always be a few who disagree.

 

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Lady using Pair taxi app by the road, while a blue and yellow taxis pass by.

by Wan Ting Koh

WORKING in the gig economy doesn’t necessarily make you a freelancer, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament today, in his Committee of Supply speech on the gig economy in Singapore.

In fact, according to Mr Lim, you can technically still be an employee under contract with an employer even if you work in the gig economy. Mr Lim termed these group of workers “gig employees”. But this distinction means that gig employees should be covered under labour laws, such as the Employment Act – a right which freelancers are not entitled to.

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And this throws into uncertainty the fate of full-time Uber and Grab drivers here, who are currently considered self-employed.

Responding to questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) about the increasing number of freelancers in Singapore, Mr Lim said that whether a gig worker is an employee or freelancer depends on his or her contractual arrangement.

He raised the example of a private car driver. If this driver joins a transport company with an employment contract, but primarily takes on jobs offered via an app, he is still an employee of that company, even if he is on a short-term employment contract. In other words, gig employees are no different from those employed under “contract of service”.

Freelancers, on the other hand, are those who do not enter into employer-employee relationships. They provide service for a fee and are not overly constrained by the conditions imposed by the platform owner, or a service buyer, said Mr Lim.

Mr Lim’s announcement is timely as it follows a booming gig economy where an increasing number of workers are turning to “on demand” gigs to gain an income, instead of conventional, stable nine-to-five jobs. The phenomenon raises issues of employment rights for a group of workers who often go unprotected by labour laws.

Although there is no official definition of the gig economy worldwide, said Mr Lim, gig workers are commonly referred to by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as workers who work on the “platform economy”. This “platform economy” refers to online platforms which match service buyers with workers who take up the short-term jobs.

New survey findings released by Mr Lim in Parliament showed that there are about 20,500 gig workers here. Of these, around 10,500 come from the private car driving industry such as Uber and Grab, while workers from the professional services, creative services, delivery services and media and communications make up the rest.

The survey also found that of a total of 200,000 freelancers here, some 167,000 freelanced as their main job, while the rest did it part-time alongside other jobs.

A further breakdown of survey findings revealed that more than eight in 10, or 81 per cent of freelancers chose freelance work as their preferred job, while the remaining 19 per cent did not freelance as their preferred choice.

The survey also asked freelancers their top concerns or worries, and these were: The lack of income security, the lack of employee benefits and savings for housing and retirement, and the possibility of untimely payment from clients, said Mr Lim.

The growing numbers of freelancers are enough to make the G look into providing more employment protection for them, so the G will be forming a tripartite workgroup, comprising of representatives from the labour movement and employers, to study the issues they face.

He said: “While these concerns may not be new to freelancers, we are taking them seriously. This is because the number of freelancers may grow in our future economy, in tandem with the growth of the platform economy.”

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has also been giving freelancers some coverage. It set up the Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit about two years back to provide a range of benefits for members for a fee of $117 per year. Read our article about it here.

Even though Mr Lim did not mention any names, his example of the private car hire industry brings to mind the situation of Grab and Uber drivers in Singapore. They are currently considered self-employed, that is, they do not have CPF contributions, are not equipped with insurance, and have no leave days.

With distinctions between gig employee and gig freelancer being made, Uber and Grab might have to do something about their practices here, which might conceivably affect their bottom-lines. Hopefully, this won’t affect their fares. Conventional taxi drivers, who often complain about the competition, will be pleased though.

 

In other countries, the employment status of Uber drivers has become a source of contention between drivers and their employer.

In the US, a group of drivers representing 5,000 Uber Technologies drivers in New York filed a lawsuit against Uber last June, accusing the company of depriving drivers of various employment protections by misclassifying them as independent contractors. On one hand, drivers say they were promised decent wages, but a majority of earnings went toward company surcharges and vehicle payment. On the other hand, Uber insists that their drivers are self-employed and hence have no contractual obligation to subsidise rental or surcharges.

By October, two drivers had successfully sued to be considered employees of Uber rather than independent contractors. The court’s decision meant that the two would be entitled to unemployment benefits from their work with Uber, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

In the UK, a landmark ruling by a London employment tribunal last October ruled that Uber drivers are not self-employed and should be paid “national living wage”.

The ruling by a London employment tribunal involves a case taken by two drivers, Mr James Farrar and Mr Yaseen Aslam, who argued on behalf of a group 19 Uber workers that they were employed by Uber, rather than working for themselves. Uber said in response that it would appeal against the ruling.

 

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by The Middle Ground

HOW time flies – it feels as if 2017 just started, yet we’re already done with February! The start of March also marks an important Christian tradition, the observance of Lent.

During Lent, Christians commit to greater spiritual devotion to God and abstain from luxuries (such as avoiding profligate spending). Most adherents, notably the Roman Catholics, also observe Lent by giving up the consumption of meat. The period of Lent traditionally lasts forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday (Mar 1) and includes the holy week that immediately precedes Easter (Apr 16).

The holy week comprises Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday is widely observed in Singapore where Catholics receive new palm leaves blessed by the priest to bring home. Similarly, on Maundy Thursday, churches are crowded for Maundy Thursday service and the ritual feet washing ceremony, where the priest or Archbishop will wash the feet of some of the parishioners. This particular rite was only limited to men and boys until Pope Francis issued a new rule that women should be able to participate as well.

While the purpose of Lent – to draw oneself closer to God through religious penance and resisting the temptations of the flesh – is shared by many Christian denominations, the means through which Lent is observed differ greatly.

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1. Manilla, Philippines – Dedicated devotees carry heavy crosses, self-flagellate

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Some Catholic devotees in the Philippines mark the last week of Lent by whipping themselves in public or carrying heavy crosses barefoot through the streets of Manilla. A small fraction even engages in gory displays of crucifixion, nailing themselves to wooden crosses. This practice is known in the region as pamagparaya (self-flagellation) and is meant for the adherent to experience a fraction of the suffering that Christ went through.

Devotees often go through pamagparaya to petition for good health, either for themselves or an ailing relative. Some devotees also put themselves through pain as penance for their sins, as an act of religious cleansing.

The Catholic Church has criticised this tradition, claiming that it goes against Catholic teachings that the body is sacred. Other religious critics have further expressed discomfort that particular villages and communities have taken advantage of the public spectacle to attract tourists, monetising this practice.

 

2. Moscow, Russia – Two per cent of Russians intend to fully abide by dietary restrictions throughout Lent

Image by falco, from Pixabay
Image by falco, from Pixabay

Russia is home to the Russian Orthodox Church, and nearly half the Russian population identifies as Christian (various denominations, including Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox). A poll conducted by the Levada Center reported that two per cent of the Russian population, or three million Russians, intend to fully observe the strict Lenten dietary restrictions from Mar 1 to Apr 16.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, the strict observance of Lent requires giving up all animal food – meat, eggs, fish, seafood and all dairy products. On the first and last day of Lent, complete fasting is recommended. On the second day, only bread and water are allowed. Throughout this period, believers should refrain from alcohol, with the exception of a little wine on weekends, smoking, sex, swearing, and bad thoughts.

Also reported by the Levada Center: 18 per cent of those polled said they intend to observe Lent partially, for instance by giving up meat. 30 per cent of respondents are prepared to reduce their alcohol consumption during Lent, and 15 per cent will restrict their sex lives.

 

3. Antigua, Guatemala – A grand religious procession to mark the end of Lent

Image by , on Flickr
Image by Arian Zwegers, on Flickr

The Christian faith in Guatemala has its roots in the Spanish conquistadors who spread their faith after invading the territory in the early 1500s. Today, Antiguans mark the end of Lent in distinctive local fashion, by arranging elaborate religious processions which last from dawn to dusk.

During this period, Antigua is well-known for the dozens of large floats which are paraded through the city streets by hundreds of men clad in purple robes. These floats are called “andas”, and either features a statue of Jesus with a cross or a Saint. Andas featuring the Virgin Mary are carried by women dressed in black, and are a rare sight. Before the procession winds its way through the city, the streets are lined with colourful “alfombras” (carpets) that are made from coloured sawdust, grass, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other materials.

 

4. Mompox, Colombia – A night in the cemetery 

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At around 6pm on Holy Wednesday, Mompox residents dress in their finest clothing and gather in the town cemetery to commence a ceremony known as the Serenade to the Deceased – a fusion of Catholic traditions with magic and paganism.

Residents light candles to illuminate the cemetery and stay there overnight, sitting in front of graves of deceased loved ones. They place flowers on the graves and serenade the dead. This lasts till the early hours of the morning, when funeral music is played to bring an end to the ceremony.

 

5. Washington, United States – St. Patrick’s Day to coincide with Lent period
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Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

This year, St. Patrick’s Day – a celebratory holiday where corned beef and cabbage is traditionally eaten – falls on a Friday (Mar 17), clashing with the commonly-held Lenten rule of requiring Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday once every seven years, and this coincidence has not gone unnoticed by some American bishops. Many had already issued dispensations for Catholics in their dioceses allowing them to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day. However, they also advised Catholics to do an additional act of charity or penance in exchange for eating meat.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Alvin Pang

WE PUBLISH here a reply to MPs who suggested that the public service has lost its heart, which was reported in TODAY.

Public service is hard work. I should know. I’ve worked alongside (and lived with) public officers my whole life. I have relatives who were teachers, counter officers, cleaning staff, and I’ve been in the service myself. I’ve manned hotlines. Written papers. Sat in meetings. Put together events, both public and closed door. I’ve analysed, deliberated, drafted, vetted, edited, planned, soothed, cajoled, compromised, stayed back to finish. I still work with many public sector clients today. I’ve spoken with or interviewed folks from all across the Service. So I should know. But the fact is, I don’t.

Because while I have had the privilege to study, behind the scenes, everything public servants do to carry out their duties with integrity, excellence, and a sense of service to Singapore – all the little things within their mandate and control to make life run smoothly for the rest of us, often even before we realise a need – while I have seen these things firsthand as a beneficiary and as an observer, it isn’t in the end my head on the chopping block, every day, out in the frontlines or in front of the auditor’s panel.

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It isn’t me, in the end, who has to implement, in good faith and to the best of my professional judgement, policies that delimit what should and should not be done. Policies that include precisely the sort of checks and balances and constraints on jurisdiction and action that the public has called for to head off potential abuse. I am not the one who has to deal with increasingly demanding and sometimes churlish behaviour from members of the public, often asking to be excepted from the established guidelines.

Think about it: most of us only interact with government services when we have to, and it’s not always for a pleasant task. There’s a bill to be paid, a tax to be declared, a summons to answer, or a rule to be complied with. We may be facing some sort of loss, or a loved one may be in distress and we’re not exactly in our best mood. We want things our way. It’s public servants who have to address our concerns, smile, stay calm and shepherd the process to a reasonable conclusion that is satisfactory, yet at the same time legitimate and fair, according to rules they didn’t make – and now some of the ones who did help make the rules are suggesting they may have lost their compassion. Well, where’s the compassion for the hard-working public servant, who are also Singaporeans, also our loved ones: our parents, spouses, aunts and uncles, children, friends – who labour over things most of us don’t even know needed to be done, so that we can go about our lives and not get in one another’s way too much?

The Public Service hasn’t lost its heart. It is the heart of government. It’s the part of the state that plays an active, hands-on role in improving people’s lives; that translates policy theory into practice. I am not saying public servants are saints. I am saying they are human, and are trying to do their jobs. I am saying they are vulnerable to being made the strawmen and scapegoats when their hands are tied, albeit often for sound reasons.

The Public Service has not lost its heart. But I worry it may lose heart. So I suggest we go talk to someone we know who works in the sector. Find out how they operate and make decisions. What their day is like. What they care about. And worry about. Then think again about who exactly in Singapore is lacking in compassion. Let’s make sure it isn’t ourselves.

 

Alvin Pang is a poet, editor, and former teacher and civil servant.

 

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Green alarm clock showing 8.30.

A CABBY who lied about being attacked by his Norwegian passenger was sentenced to 19 weeks jail yesterday.

Here’s what his victim, Mr Arne Corneliussen, said about the case: “In the greater scheme of things, he is going through what I went through as well. But I still lost my job, I lost money to him and I also spent a lot on legal fees, so I can’t say I feel like justice was done. He has yet to reach out to me to offer compensation of any sort.”

Cabby Chan Chuan Heng had pinned the blame on Mr Corneliussen, who was jailed 10 weeks and had to pay him $30,000. Later, Mr Corneliussen was re-tried and fined $2,000 for causing hurt. The former DHL director had already served more than half his 10-week sentence.

Mr Corneliussen has a point. How is he going to get his money back? Sue the cabby?

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What was also interesting is how this was missed out earlier in the investigations. According to ST, Chan also deliberately did not submit the in-car camera footage that would have captured the sound of his earlier altercation with Mr Corneliussen, and would have cast the entire incident in a different light.

We move from Singapore and Norway to Singapore and China now…

Nothing was said about the retention of Terrexes in Hong Kong when Singapore’s high-powered team went to Beijing to meet their counterparts for the delayed meeting of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation. Instead Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean emphasised the need to be “forward-looking”. So we don’t know if the Terrexes were discussed or not, although Mr Teo did make clear that Singapore was sticking to its One China policy and that biltateral relations were deep and broad enough to weather disturbances.

Much was made of the composition of his team members, younger ministers whom he brought along to build ties with their generational counterparts in China. In the old fold were Ministers Lim Hng Kiang and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Cabinet ministers in the young set were Ms Grace Fu, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Ong Ye Kung. The second liners or junior ministers were Dr Amy Khor (although she can be considered as part of the old fold), Mrs Josephine Teo, Ms Sim Ann and Dr Koh Poh Koon.

Perhaps, he should have brought along a young non-Chinese as well, to make the point that Singapore is multi-racial society that won’t dance to the Chinese tune, now as well as in the future.

 

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WHENEVER there’s money to be given out, you can bet somebody will find a way to get hold of it via dubious means. Remember how companies took advantage of Productivity and Innovation Credit schemes to get cash? Now, that $500 SkillsFuture credit dangling in front of each adult Singaporeans is too tempting for some.

Some people – about 4,400 people – decided to pluck such tempting fruit by submitting false claims for a SkillsFuture course they didn’t attend. It’s intriguing because they all went to the same course by the same service provider – which remains un-named. MSM reported how the scam was uncovered because of data analytics which flagged a sudden spike in claims. The total amount claimed: $2.2 million.

Now the question is whether the system worked before – or after – the claims have been processed and money given out. Well, some 4,400 people are richer by $500 each, more than a GST voucher for most. The G has sent the people letters to return the money in 30 days, but it didn’t say what will happen to those who don’t.

SkillsFuture Singapore said its course directory and claims process were designed to be simple, inclusive and user-friendly, to encourage usage. “It is regrettable that some individuals have abused the system and submitted false claims,” the agency said.

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Investigations are still going on but it’s a wonder how 4,400 people can somehow be making claims for the same course. Was there a mastermind or did they somehow get wind of money to be made this way? If so, how did they get the supporting documents, like receipts for the course fees, to make the claims?

The other theory of course is that they have been unwitting accomplices who had their names used without their consent. If so, no one came forward to say so. Cash in hand is not to be sniffed at?

According to TODAY, SkillsFuture Singapore was asked if there is a risk of the claims system. Its reply: “The SkillsFuture Credit System has never been compromised … SSG’s enforcement system involves data analytics to detect anomalies, regular audits of training providers, and manual audits of individual claims. These measures have allowed SSG to uncover false SkillsFuture Credit claims. We will continue to strengthen the sensitivity of our data analytics system in flagging out anomalies.”

What a thing to say! If giving out $2.2m is not a compromise of the claims system, then what is it?

Still on training – but something that doesn’t look like it can be abused: two universities here are offering work-study degree programmes for its students. The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University have 65 such places which integrate work and training.

Did your eyes glaze over because you’ve heard about such programmes before? The difference is that the students will be spending a lot more time in a hands-on job, like up to four days a week, than in class. Free labour for companies? Nope. They will be contract staff and it will be for employers to decide if they should be given permanent positions after their graduation.

Minister for Higher Education Ong Ye Kung who announced this yesterday noted that with more people getting into universities, “employers need to ensure a good match between talents and skills of the graduates they hire and organisational needs.”

In other words, when the Singapore graduate cohort hits 40 per cent, employers need to be able to tell one grad from another and this scheme will give some students a cutting edge. The universities are beginning to look like polytechnics, aren’t they? It will be more so when the other universities add this scheme to their current internship and exchange programmes.

What sorts of courses are being offered? They include information security, software engineering, hospitality business, electrical power engineering, civil engineering and finance and business analytics.

Now why would anyone want an arts and social science degree?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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8:30am alarm
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FINALLY, the PUB has given some answers on the cost of producing water. What was so difficult about that? Does it think that big words such as “resilience”, “sustainability” and “water security” are enough to move people to accept a 30 per cent hike in water price? Or is it waiting for the Committee of Supply debate on the budget of the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources to unveil the figures? In this day and age, it’s not good to let speculation and discontent fester, simply because they can be spread so much faster via the Internet.

So what do we know now? In response to queries from the MSM, it said that in 2000, it cost $0.5 billion to operate the water system. In 2015, it was $1.3 billion. The money was spent on NEWater production, desalination, used water collection and treatment, and the maintenance of the island-wide network of water pipelines, among others. It did not say which contributed the most to rising cost, although one guess would be desalination plants.

PUB also said that from 2000 to 2015, it invested $7 billion in water infrastructure, and it expects to spend another $4 billion on such infrastructure from this year to 2021. What water infrastructure? Presumably the NEWater and desalination plants that are in the pipeline.

ST reported that besides the cost of producing water, it’s also getting more difficult to distribute water. PUB, for instance, can no longer just dig trenches to lay water pipes underground because the country is so built-up. It has to use pipe-jacking, a more expensive method which involves assembling pipes into shafts and then pushing them into position with a hydraulic jack.

In our heart of hearts, we probably know that it’s time for a rise in water prices, especially since it was last raised 17 years ago. The question is why now and why this much? Minister of State for Finance Lawrence Wong said there is never a good time for water price rises, which is true.

But a hiatus of 17 years?

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CIMB economist Song Seng Wun said at a forum yesterday that the fact that “we are finally charging a bit more for water after 17 years reflects that somebody forgot it hasn’t been done yet”.

Going by what experts say, the 30 per cent rise isn’t good enough. It should be way higher, like doubled. Say this to the people though. At forums on the Budget statement yesterday, the water price was a key issue, which is probably to the G’s chagrin since it wants to bill the Budget as a tool to shift the economy into high gear.

Although the argument is about water security (read: what if we get no more water from up north?), the price rise is also to add to the G’s coffers, which is increasingly under strain.

Now before you get your hackles up because the G is “rich”, consider what the experts have to say about the Budget.

Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin was reported in ST as noting that despite projecting a small overall fiscal surplus of $1.91 billion for the 2017 financial year, the G is looking at a primary deficit of $5.62 billion, worse than it was during the 2009 financial crisis.

A primary fiscal deficit does not take into account investment contributions from GIC or Temasek Holdings, and broadly implies that tax revenues are not keeping up with government spending.

He might as well add we can always tweak the formula on investment contributions, but that would be cheating, won’t it?

Economists are asking for more transparency in accounting and even the setting up of an independent agency to look at the effectiveness of G spending.

They have a point: We’ve seen so many announcements about millions and even billions on this or that G scheme over the years but what have they resulted in so far?

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made no bones about the need to raise revenues, especially since he has ordered G agencies to trim their budgets. So far, he has only talked about making non-GST registered companies which do cross-border businesses here pay the tax. That means the likes of Taobao and Amazon and e-retailers.

But if the G wants to persuade people to part with more money, it has to do better at telling people what things cost. It can start with this: What in heaven’s name is “long-run marginal cost of water supply”, the formula which underpins water prices?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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