April 28, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

I GAVE my students an assignment on Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner recently, and almost all of the 60 undergraduates referred to the restriction on foreign participation laid down last year.

This, they said, was bound to handicap the yearly Pink Dot movement given that most of its sponsors had been foreign Multinational corporations. These companies would now have to apply for a permit to take part or sponsor the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) movement. They can forget it given what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has said: “In general, if it relates to controversial social or political issues, which really are a matter for Singaporeans, then it is unlikely the foreigners will get a permit.”

Many referred to the G’s allergy to foreign involvement in domestic issues and agreed that it was right that non-Singaporeans should keep out of potentially contentious matters that should be for citizens to resolve. But several also saw this as a move to placate the anti-LGBT movement, prevent a different lifestyle from taking root here and keeping the traditional family unit as the basic building block of society.

None thought that local businesses would step up to the plate, even though they noted that unlike foreign companies, these Singapore-owned businesses do not need to apply for a permit.

Why? The usual ideas were thrown up. Chief among them: Local businesses would be too “frightened” to be associated with something the G doesn’t seem in favour of, even if they identified with the LGBT cause. A second one was that local businesses were conservative and did not want to be seen as endorsing an alternative lifestyle.

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But a report in ST over the weekend has overturned the conventional wisdom. Some 50 companies have pledged support and there’s still four months to go before the event takes place. The organisers said that 70 per cent of the target had been met, and they haven’t even started raising funds officially.

One student wondered why local businesses were stepping in only now. Last year, of the 18 sponsors, only five were local. Perhaps, it was because the foreign companies had been in the forefront all along and there was no lack of funds? Some suggested that these sponsors were small, millennial-owned technology and media companies which would be more open-minded about lifestyle choices.

If the G had wished to squeeze the oxygen out of the Pink Dot balloon by the restriction, it has failed. Pink Dot doesn’t look like a foreign adventure anymore and the LGBT community would probably be heartened by local support. One student even thought that it could be a G attempt to gauge the level of local support for the LGBT cause.

It’s not clear if the companies have to make their sponsorship “public” or whether they can go un-named. Just think: 50 banners emblazoned with company name and logo, which is rather more than what a typical charity can muster in terms of support.

A student said that it’s a sign of people becoming more tolerant and accepting of different mores although it’s doubtful that the Wear White contingent would agree. They would point to the 2014 survey in which 78.2 per cent (see chart below) of respondents think that homosexuality is wrong. Now that’s a huge survey with more than 4,000 respondents, although it’s rather odd that while so many are against homosexuality, not as many think that same-sex marriage or a gay couple adopting a child is wrong too.

The Prime Minister himself put forth the G’s position in February in an interview with Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HARDTalk who asked about the possibility of repealing Section 377A which criminalised homosexual acts. Mr Lee Hsien Loong said he didn’t think a conservative Singapore would agree. It is also not the G’s role to lead society in changing social attitudes. He acknowledged that it was a vexed issue which still drew protests even in Western democracies.

What’s the chance that the pro-traditional family movement would react to Pink Dot this year? Given that there is no foreign bogeyman to flog, will we be looking at a culture war? Will it be a row with religious overtones?

Maybe, we shouldn’t be too worried about a potential clash of cultures, so long as it’s done peacefully with neither side presuming to impose its convictions on the other. The trouble with Singapore is that it has never had to grapple with competing, for want of a better word, ideologies – whether politically, socially or culturally. The emphasis is on conformity and moving together harmoniously in lock-step. We see a ripple as a potential tsunami and immediately build dams to prevent flooding.

We don’t see it as civil society in action.

I somehow think that the G should have heeded its own advice and not intervene in the organisation of Pink Dot. (Yes, yes, I know it’s about foreign influence, not Pink Dot per se). It should have let things evolve naturally rather than prompting people (or local companies) to make a stand.

Now, others will too.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Bertha Henson

OKAY, here are the four companies that have been singled out for public opprobrium because of their all-male boards.

1. Genting Singapore: five men
2. Global Logistic Properties (GLP): 10 men
3. Wilmar International: 11 men
4. Golden Agri-Resources: eight men

Half of the boards of 751 listed companies are all-male, so why Minister Grace Fu decided to single these four is a bit of a mystery.

So it seems a quota system is going to be applied in corporate leadership ranks.

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The People’s Action Party Women’s Wing, along with BoardAgender, an initiative of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, want at least 20 per cent of female directors on boards of listed companies and statutory boards by 2020.

Is this a tall order? The current ratio of women directors to male directors is 9.7 per cent – a slow climb from the 8.3 per cent in 2013.

But it’s a good bet that it will happen given that the champion is no less than the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. The women’s lobby wants the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to make gender diversity mandatory, by imposing a “comply or explain’’ disclosure policy as part of its Code of Corporate Governance for listed companies.

Yeah! A victory for the fairer sex who have long been held down by a glass ceiling because the old boys’ club wants to keep them out! Yeah!

Except that it leaves a sour taste in the mouth to have to “force’’ the issue on corporations. It can be seen this way: that men are deliberately keeping women out of the boardroom despite their qualifications; that qualified women have turned down directorships or that women aren’t good enough to be invited in.

Wilmar told The Straits Times that while its board is supportive of gender diversity, its view is that it “should not be the main selection criterion”.

“Board appointments based on the right blend of skills, ability to contribute effectively and experience relevant to Wilmar’s business should remain a priority.”

(Doesn’t it sound like the discussions on the elected presidency? The candidate must have the requisite qualifications first, then race becomes a factor.)

So companies will have to start scouring for women candidates for their boards if it doesn’t want to have to go to the trouble of explaining to MAS why the executive toilet is used by men only.

For a very long time, we’ve resisted attempts to set quotas based on gender, except for female enrolment in the medical faculty some time ago. The emphasis of women’s groups was more on granting equal benefits to men and women and getting men to do right by their women, such as paying for maintenance in divorce cases, and rejecting the objectification of women.

The political sphere was much derided in the past for the lack of female representation in Parliament and in the Cabinet. But over the years, the numbers have increased without any kind of rule or requirement imposed. Now, there are 24 female MPs and one female minister. In fact, the PAP women’s wing wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in its quest for more female directors if it didn’t have a female minister to push for it.

Some people will wonder: What will women directors bring to the boardroom table that men can’t?

ST tried to find out.

Singtel group chief executive Chua Sock Koong said the ability to draw upon a diverse collection of skills and experiences has led to better execution of the firm’s business strategies.

It’s a pity she didn’t elaborate.

DBS Bank, which has two female directors, said the board’s diversity provides a wider range of views and expertise, which helps board members better identify possible risks, pose challenging questions and contribute to problem-solving. Which is so broad that it doesn’t say anything.

SingPost, which has three female directors, said: “A wide range of perspectives is critical for an effective board.” But doesn’t say how.

The companies cited missed a chance to tell of the difference a woman’s input makes. Some examples might open the boardroom doors wider in future.

The push for female representation shouldn’t simply be a diversity issue – or we might as well push for multi-racial representation as well. The men must understand why it is good for them.

What can be said though is that women directors would be good for women who work in the companies. They will understand why women need Pap smears and mammograms among medical benefits, and why they shouldn’t be unfairly penalised in career prospects because they took maternity leave. Likewise they know the importance of having more female toilets than male toilets.

And no, this is not an attempt at being facetious. Hopefully, the women’s lobby will come up with more examples of the corporate kind, in case the men don’t get it.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Bertha Henson

IT SEEMS like ministers here are out in force to drive home the security message in the aftermath of the London attacks. In Vietnam, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for fortitude and resilience should such an attack happen here. Others have called for unity and solidarity. But what exactly do these words mean? We take a stab at it. 

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What to do/not to do in a terrorist attack.
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(A public announcement service not sponsored by SGSecure)

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a. Don’t take selfies at the attack site. Definitely do NOT take wefies with the injured.

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b. Don’t attack police for “allowing’’ this to happen. It was bound to happen. Time enough for reviews and recriminations later.

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c. Don’t jam 999 with calls for updates. Switch on telly, listen to radio or see if there are Twitter updates from police. London police tweeted a total of 20 times in one hour.

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d. Don’t be an ASS and share gossip and speculation from sources which don’t have boots on the ground.

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e. Do run and help if you are in the vicinity. Like British MP Tobias Ellwood who is being hailed a hero. But no one is going to blame you if you run and hide.

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f. Don’t pin the responsibility for the attack on any group without proof. Because if you’re right, you’re just being its propaganda outlet. If you’re wrong, you’ve been very unfair to some people.

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g. Do a Paris Hilton post-9/11 and go shopping. Retail therapy is good and shows that you’re keeping the economy going.

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h. Do go to work as usual. Terrorism isn’t a contagious disease.

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i. Don’t go taking and uploading pictures of what police are up to in the aftermath. You’re just tipping off the bad guys.

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j. Do hand over pictures or videos of the attack to the police if you have them. No need to try and make a name for yourself for “being there’’. You don’t know what info you’ve captured that’s valuable. The opposite reaction applies too: Don’t hoard what you have because you don’t want to get “involved’’. All of us are already involved by then.

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k. Don’t grumble about road blocks, bag checks and security measures that mean you lose time standing in a queue or stuck in a jam on your way to school or work. The good news is that your bosses and teachers are stuck too.

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l. Do look for instances of humanity among the depravity; there will always be people who rise up in a crisis to lift spirits.

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m. Do respond to ground-up appeals for solidarity #WeAreSingapore or #SgStayingStrong.

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n. Do upload the SgSecure app on your phone if you haven’t done so.

 

Hopefully, we will never, ever have to go through any of the above. But you should know the mantra now: it’s not if, but when.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user TheDigitalWay. (CC0 1.0)

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by Abraham Lee

WHILE the old saying goes, “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day of your life”, it’s almost unrealistic to assume that you’ll continue to love your job like the first time you were exposed to it. The lucky ones among us might, but certainly not every worker.

Moreover, although we often glorify the career paths of those who followed their dreams to do what they want like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, life doesn’t always go according to plan. No wonder the old saying has since been ‘updated’ to read, “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day of your life… Because that field isn’t hiring”.

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Nevertheless, having a plan for what you want to do is a good place to start when deciding which university or higher learning course to pursue. At the same time, it’s also good to be realistic – to understand the need to also love what you eventually do and keep an open mind about your career prospects as you plan for the future.

 

Doing what you love

If you don’t yet know what you actually love doing, a good place to begin is to think about your own strengths and interests. This will help to narrow down the industry or field you want to enter. For example, if you’re especially good at analysing and handling numbers, and interested in insurance, finance and risk management, you may want to consider a career in actuarial science.

Or if you love kids, have a passion for a certain subject and teaching that subject, you may prefer becoming a teacher. To help you find the job you’re most suited for, you can apply for internships or temporary jobs in the field of your interest, gain the opportunity to meet new people you may not otherwise have met, and valuable experience towards crafting a career that you’re actually passionate about.

With the emphasis on embracing the challenges of the digital age on innovation, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is organising networking sessions to bring together people from different industries to share and receive insights. The future of the economy lies in this cross-pollination of ideas, and companies are increasingly looking for problem-solvers with skills spanning across different fields. It’s relevant for students planning for their futures to look forward and keep an open mind about how their various strengths and interests can fit into these trends.

For example, through design thinking, an increasingly popular problem-solving methodology, designers can combine their technical expertise with their deep knowledge of their product or company to tweak processes and improve user experiences. While traditional problem-solving processes start by defining the business goal first and working to deliver the user experience that matches these goals, design innovation involves defining the desired user experience and designing the delivery system for the experience after that.

Ms Agnes Kwek, Executive Director of DesignSingapore Council, said that the industry needs “people who are ambidextrous”. That is, “designers who can code-switch between the creative sense and the pragmatic sense and know what can be reasonably implemented, as well as how to navigate the stakeholder environment”. To get started in design thinking, you can consider a design diploma and degree programme, and building a portfolio of projects that implement what you learn.

 

Loving what you do

A 2014 study found that 46 per cent of Singaporeans didn’t like their jobs. We placed second in the Asia Pacific region – only behind Japanese workers, 56 per cent of whom didn’t like their jobs. But as important as it is to know what you want to do, so is learning to love what you do.

While we have ideal career paths in fields we are passionate about, our lives don’t always pan out the way we plan them to in reality. Even if we end up in our dream jobs, we may not always do what we like within that role. A large part of succeeding at what you do lies in putting more time and dedication than other people, and this requires love for the job, especially for jobs you aren’t naturally attracted to. Thus, it’s imperative to be able to learn to love what you do.

We can learn a thing or two from those dedicated to their crafts like Mr Jiro Ono, the 91-year-old sushi chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Tokyo sushi restaurant that has won three Michelin stars. In the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, he said that he entered the F&B business when his parents kicked him out at the age of seven. Yet, he also highlighted the importance of honing deep skills in becoming successful. He said, “Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honourably.” He calls this work ethic as the shokunin spirit – loosely translated to mean ‘craftsman spirit’.

 

Remain flexible and open-minded

It’s also important to adjust your goals as you become exposed to other opportunities and ideas. Mr Lawrence Koh, founder of indoor skydiving company iFly Singapore, had always been interested in flying and skydiving since his secondary school days and “was looking at becoming a pilot or a Commando”. He enlisted with the Commandos and became an officer. Upon the completion of his Platoon Commander tour, he went on to get a degree in Avionics Systems Engineering at the University of Bristol to continue pursuing his love of flying.

It was during his time in the Commandos that he “developed the concept of skydiving simulation for freefall training… to bring the dream of flying to everyone”. At the end of his bond with the SAF, Mr Koh decided against staying on in what would’ve been a “comfortable and secure career”, and instead “stepped out of [his] comfort zone to do something that can change and influence [his] life and others greatly”.

There will always be thoughts of failure but if you don’t try it, you will never know the outcome. Of course, we cannot just make the decision recklessly. We have to plan and prepare for it so that even if we fail, we learn from it and aim to do it better next time.

He left the force in 2008 and became the first to bring a wind tunnel to Singapore when he set up iFly Singapore in 2011. During this time, he drew from his training in skydiving and the Commandos the keen understanding that there was only one chance and failure brought with it “devastating consequences”. Mr Koh said, “I also planned in advance for what I want to do and also contingency plans. This is to eliminate most uncertainties and likelihood of things failing. On execution, I will be pro-active in it so that we can react to the situation if anything unplanned happens.”

He is now planning to expand his business in Asia.

Mr Koh said, “[You] should pursue what [your] dreams are and set [your] minds to it. There will always be thoughts of failure but if you don’t try it, you will never know the outcome. Of course, we cannot just make the decision recklessly. We have to plan and prepare for it so that even if we fail, we learn from it and aim to do it better next time.”

So, to love what you do or do what you love? Why not both?

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

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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.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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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.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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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.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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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.

 

Featured image from Flickr user Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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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.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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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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