April 28, 2017

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by Daniel Yap

News broke on Channel NewsAsia (CNA) that Zhong Jiang (Singapore) International Pte Ltd, the company at the heart of the crane-top workers’ protest, was fined $8,000 for failing to pay salaries on time.

Minster for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin had posted in Facebook that his ministry’s investigations had shown that the men were not owed any salary arrears, but did not specify the basis on which this was determined other than a lack of paperwork (payslips, specifically).

Last month, ST had reported that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had similarly called the workers’ claims about poor living conditions “false” but MOM came under fire for taking almost a week to inspect the living quarters, allegedly giving the employer ample time to clean up their act.

The $8,000 fine handed out to Zhong Jiang (Singapore) International (owned by a China state-owned construction firm) was for eight counts of late payment of salary, out of 25 counts that the company pleaded guilty to.

The maximum penalty for late payment of salaries (more than seven days after the salary period) is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or six months’ jail. The salary arrears in question, amounting to some $44,000, were between one and three weeks late.

That’s a big sum and one wonders just how many workers, even if the two crame protestors were not among them, had to suffer the tardiness of their employer.

While MOM seems to have plugged the gaping hole of companies not issuing payslips by making amendments to the Employment Act, does it have to come down to drastic action on the part of workers to initiate an investigation? This case as well as the SMRT drivers’ strike were both deemed illegal but have thrown the spotlight on poor company practices and strained employer-employee relations, resulting in investigations, changes to the Employment Act, improved working conditions, living conditions and enhanced awareness of systemic mistreatment of workers both local and foreign.

Perhaps MOM really does need to beef up protection for foreign workers, and the trade unions need to get more involved, after being conspicuously silent on this incident.

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by Daniel Yap

The most recent vandalism of the cenotaph is all over the news (from inSing, omy, to TNP and ST). The word “democracy” and a large “X” had been spray painted in red, obscuring the dates “1914-1918”. The vandalism has since been cleaned up.

It’s not the first time the monument has been defaced. TODAY reported that the back of the monument had been defaced in Dec 2012, but the extent of the damage was minimal and no police report was made. It is not known if the two incidents are otherwise related.

Online, though, comparisons have been made between this act of vandalism (or will it be mischief?) and the antics of “Sticker Lady” Samantha Lo. Most of these draw the line clearly – while we may have room in in our hearts (if not our laws) to smile at the cheeky designs of Lo, the Michael Fay-esque spray-can monstrosity is an affront to our sensibilities as well as to our senses.

And it is certainly nothing close to “democracy”. If anything, this sort of anti-social behaviour will only shift the ground back to demanding more control and less freedoms – freedoms that we have been trying so hard in so many ways to win. If we prove that we are irresponsible with the (some say few) freedoms we already enjoy, then what should we expect the answer to be when we ask for more?

Perhaps the only good is the almost unilateral condemnation of this particular act of vandalism. Perhaps the online community really can be trusted, no?

The only thing left to think about, then is where exactly the G stands on the value of our national heritage. No doubt, the war memorial is a valuable part of our history and it is “disrespectful and deplorable” to deface or otherwise destroy it, but what of non-gazetted icons in the same vein?

No weeping and gnashing of teeth over the graves at Bukit Brown? No clear motion to preserve (for all posterity) our kampong heritage on Ubin? No fury at having to remove the Sungei Road thieves’ market?

What really separates vandalism and “national development”? A gazette? It seems that while the fury at this act is noble, there remains a huge gulf in our national consciousness when it comes to deciding what is worth protecting and what to consign to the void of history.

by Wesley Gunter

Singaporeans’ relationships with their automobiles may take on an entirely new emotional level in the near future.

The Future Mobility Research Lab, a $5.5 million three-year program launched yesterday between German carmaker BMW and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will focus on three areas: next generation batteries for electric vehicles and other applications; mobility research on commuting patterns in a mega-city; and the final one which is the stuff electric dreams are made of – a man-machine interface, which will involve systems that can detect as well predict driver behavior.

Some of the radical concepts the man-machine interface will work on include a car that can “identify the mood of the driver, and the perception of the driver”. Given that Singaporeans are not exactly a cheerful bunch, this mood-meter may be limited to ‘Pi**ed –Off’, ‘Get-out-of-my-face’ or ‘I KILL YOU NOW’. Furthermore, it was not specified how this new car intelligent feature is going to detect a driver’s moods. Will it measure the amount of expletives uttered by the driver to gauge his/her displeasure? In this case it would probably be wise to install a hokkien program as one of the language options.

Other ‘unique features’ from the man-machine interface would be an artificial intelligent feature that gives drivers advice during road situations, such as telling you to calm down if anyone cuts into your lane. Now, but doesn’t everyone know that the worst possible thing to say to anyone who is in a fit of ‘hulk’ like rage is to ‘calm down’?

What other valuable pearls of wisdom can drivers look forward to from this new piece of technology? Telling you to ‘wear your raincoat if it’s raining outside’? ,‘Drink more water if it’s too hot’? Or ‘Stop eating in the car!’? Sheesh! Makes people wonder if they’re buying a car or a wife. Will these things come with COEs or marriage certificates?

While the above mentioned new car features may hopefully take some time before it comes to light, BMW’s upcoming i-series fleet of electric models will be equipped with the technology to calculate the duration and cost of driving a certain route as well as offer information on public transport such as bus and train arrivals.

That’s right, you’ve just spent more than half a million on a state of the art vehicle that will give you public transport information and… Get this… Tell drivers when not to drive.

Hmm… There’s probably something that comes much cheaper which can do the same job and it’s called a mobile app.

by Bertha Henson

There’s a new game in town – a soccer “unfriendly’’ between two home-grown giants, SingTel and StarHub. So exciting for the rest of us watching from the stands!

So the Media Development Authority (MDA) has finally decided to blow the whistle and ordered SingTel to share its EPL soccer screening rights with StarHub. Read BT and you can practically hear SingTel’s Allen Lew spluttering and foaming at the mouth. The playing field has been tilted again, he said. “It makes StarHub more powerful. They pay nothing.’’

He’s shot a note to the minister, not even waiting for the 14 days leave to appeal the decision.

What are spectators supposed to make of this spectacle? The first reaction would be: Hooray! No need to switch set top boxes to catch a game, since it is going to be aired on both pay-TV stations. No different from the way StarHub had offered cross-carriage of the 64 Euro 2012 matches to the SingNet mio TV platform after acquiring exclusive rights last year. All paid $69.55 to watch the games. Now, StarHub didn’t make a fuss about sharing. So what is SingTel going on about?

The thing is, the MDA decision boils down to whether SingTel had an exclusive deal with the Football Association Premier League on broadcast rights. SingTel said it was non-exclusive and it can’t be helped if StarHub can’t get the football bosses to the negotiating table.

StarHub, on the other hands, thinks some kind of deal was done to keep it away, like the football bosses having to pay a “rebate’’ to SingTel if a second operator got the rights too.

All is speculation.

MDA isn’t going to disclose the terms of the agreement and cite chapter and verse on which parts contravene its cross-carriage rules. Now, has anybody gone to the Football Association yet to get its response?

The question then is what price would consumers have to pay to watch EPL? Currently, mio TV customers pay $34.90 for its sports package. They are safe if their packages go beyond the August kick off date.

As for the rest, Mr Lew was pretty blunt: pay more to watch EPL. Because he cannot “upsell’’ other programmes if people are watching on the StarHub channel.

Does the price for the rights matter? SingTel is said to have paid US$200m to US$250m for the rights, lower than its first foray in 2009 when it wrested the rights from StarHub for some US$400million. That’s much lower.

In any case, it seems SingTel is digging in on basis of principle. It maintains that it did nothing wrong and the MDA decision amounts to some kind of unfair penalty. It might even take the legal route to challenge MDA. Woah!

StarHub is naturally gleeful.

Spectators should keep the cheers down – you don’t know how much you’ll be paying and the way both giants are talking, you’d best hope that the matches will be screened after all!

Today’s news in the media about the Coroner’s Inquiry into the death of Private (Pte) Dominique Sarron Lee, due to an asthmatic attack triggered by inhaling too much smoke from smoke grenades, exposes a lot of issues the SAF faces.

It’s easy to take a simplistic approach and blame the officer in charge of this tragedy, who apparently did not follow protocol by throwing six grenades instead of two during the training exercise.

But by looking at the bigger story here, one has to look at the system in place before pointing fingers at the first scapegoat. Another factor that could have caused Pte Lee’s death could be the lack of proper training by the medic in charge to deal with asthma attacks.

According to the Health Promotion Board, 1 in every 20 adults in Singapore has asthma. With such a large percentage of the population with this condition it would be a pretty obvious choice for SAF medics to be trained in dealing with this issue as compared to drowning which would be more unlikely during an exercise.

An interesting comment on TODAY’s Facebook page by a former SAF medic states that they are actually taught how to deal with this condition during paramedical level 2 training.

However, he mentions that paramedics do not have the right to administer life saving procedures due to strict legal implications and can only be certified by a medical officer. While it’s good that the SAF has certain guidelines in place to prevent wrongful medical procedures to be administered, too much red tape in place for situations of life and death will inevitably result in dire consequences.

How should Singapore present itself to the rest of the world? As a glitzy Dubai or a charming Penang? Singapore Tourism Board chief Lionel Yeo thinks we can be both and wants to ratchet up Singapore-flavoured offerings. It marks a change from the days when we were told to be enthusiastic about international attention on Formula One (Oh! Look at the numbers tuning in worldwide!) and how casinos will bring in the well-heeled.

Thing is, can we be both? Or is it already too late?

In the international eye, Singapore is probably more Dubai than Penang – efficient, fast-paced, haven for billionaires. Expensive clubs. Designer boutiques. Playground for the rich and famous. The tourism strategy has brought in a lot of money, as well as foreigners – both the spending kind and those needed to staff the low-wage positions in the hospitality industry. For the rest of us, we can only look in. Not rich enough to play; too rich to want a job tending bar and waiting tables. We might feel proud about how far we have come, as we cruise along the East Coast Parkway and gape at the skyline. We might even feel like tourists in our own country!

What about the new effort to display our local offerings then? Here’s the good: our local designers can expect a leg-up. Also, heritage and conservation, something increasingly dear to Singaporeans, will now have…. an economic dimension! We need to preserve them…because they bring in the tourists!

Okay, enough of that.

Anyway, that was what was reported in ST yesterday. Today, however, the media reported that at a tourism conference, expectations were scaled back on tourism numbers and spending in the future. That’s because those big ticket draws are already in place and have contributed to the spurt in numbers. A rising rate of growth would be “unsustainable’’. (Did anyone heave a sigh of relief at the propect of a not-as-crowded future?). Besides, neighbouring countries are also putting up theme parks and F1 races. Singapore’s first-mover advantage will be eroded.

Media reports said STB estimated that visitor arrivals could grow at 3 to 4 per cent and tourism receipts at 4 to 6 per cent annually over the next 10 years. This contrasts with the record growth posted between 2002 and last year, when visitor arrivals grew at a compounded annual rate of 6.6 per cent. Tourism receipts also grew at a corresponding 10 per cent in the same period.

According to Second Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran, Singapore should concentrate on “high-yield growth’’ (code words for big spenders) and those who come “regularly’’. He wants the industry to create more content for visitors in the lifestyle and business sectors. One example, according to ST, is the Fort Canning Centre and Black Box Theatre, which the STB and National Parks Board are looking at turning into a museum with modern art, for an Asian audience.

One wonders if the big spenders will really be interested in experiencing the Singapore way of life and take tours of the HDB heartland and what not. As for those who “come’’ regularly, they would have “been there, done that’’.

Or maybe the new direction is just a marketing gimmick – to tell big spenders that besides the main showpiece of glitzy stuff, there are still those “curiosities’’ they might have missed. So why not have a cheng teng cocktail at a hawker centre and gawp at the locals in their flip flops? If or when that happens, hopefully, prices of our local deserts won’t be jacked up. According to an ST report, there was a suggestion to create more places like “Newton Circus’’. Hey, there might be a good idea – keep the tourists at these high-priced places with a Singapore flavour! No need for them to import inflation into the heartland!

Does anyone remember the old days when Singapore was merely positioned as a Garden City? That was a good one. Very few of our neighbours can replicate that, unless they want to tear down whole buildings and start re-landscaping. So beautiful, our Singapore. Air-con city in a tropical paradise….Can brand like that also leh!

Mr Yap said something refreshing published in ST yesterday: “The STB cannot do our work in a way that ignores what locals care about. It’s about striking a balance…and being respectful to how Singaporeans feel about what is going to happen to their city.’’

That’s something to think about. Because while we might be consulted – and want to be consulted – about our own living surroundings, we tend to leave the business of luring foreign tourists to agencies, forgetting that their actions would affect the place we live in – and even our way of life.

 

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by Yen Feng

Unsurprisingly, City Harvest Church members are coming out in force to support their beleaguered church leaders.

Last Wednesday, a Facebook group called “COC Must Not Remove the 8 Leaders of CHC” was created by one such member. It’s since received more than 1,000 Likes and appears to be going strong. Fans post pictures and videos of church services, quotes from the Bible, and plenty of exhortations for others to join the cause.

According to a post linked to this page, more than 300 Letters of Representation were handed to the Commissioner of Charities two days earlier. With tens of thousands of church members, the COC can probably expect to be drowning in hundreds more letters – well, until May 13 at least.

That’s the date the commissioner said it will decide if it will overturn its decision to suspend some church leaders permanently and bar the rest for life. It’s also two days before the criminal trial against six of the eight is scheduled to start.

Yes, things are heating up.

The passion of these church members is understandable. Even if they fail to persuade the COC, they will at least send a message to their leaders that they are neither forgotten nor abandoned.

When the trial begins on May 15, it’s foreseeable that such public displays of loyalty and affection for Kong Hee and his crew will multiply. Expect more Facebook groups to pop up, or at least more comments in the blogosphere about who did what in the high-profile case.

But this may be when their supporters should turn from their instinct and take a step back from the storm.

As the case unfolds, details of how millions in church funds were allegedly moved about to support the music career of Kong’s wife is likely to heat up the chatter about the six persons’ guilt and innocence.

It will spark the usual arguments and worries – do church leaders have the right to spend donations as they see fit, for example. In some camps, there will be those determined to conflate the prosecution’s case with religious persecution.

None of this will be helpful.

Worse still will be if church members, in believing their leaders have been wronged, are perceived to be casting aspersions on the court. Or, if their public contributions are seen as tantamount to sub judice.

In a post published last Friday, the creator of the Facebook support group compared the commissioner’s decision to closing a customer’s bank account, and wrote: “Then does the customer have every right to appeal on the account closure? Yes & No. Yes, if you are rich or tenacious enough to contest the unfair treatment in Court. No, when you are only one voice against the institution and the institution always has its T&C to fall back on to justify its actions…”

“The intention of COC to remove the eight leaders of CHC before the trial starts is equivalent to “exiting the customer relationship” even before hearing the verdict from Court… is this really fair?”

The implication here is that the COC has acted in a bullying manner and treated the church leaders unfairly – an accusation as serious as they come.

In this respect, perhaps the COC’s hands were tied because of the pending trial, but it probably could have done a better job making its processes more transparent.

In any case, it would benefit no one – not least the church leaders – if similar hot-tempered claims are made in the public domain next month when the trial begins.

As a matter of law, the six accused persons will have their day in court and be found guilty, or not.

Cooler heads should prevail until then.

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by Daniel Yap

The Business Times’ front page broadcast Manpower Minister’s plan to raise the salary threshold for Employment Pass (EP) holders above the current $3,000 per month for Q1 passes.

Ostensibly, the intention is to make sure that white-collar Singaporean salaries, (particularly for fresh graduates) do not become stagnant because of price competition from abroad, hence the need to shift the EP goalposts ever further. Compare that wage growth and the fear is that EP cut-offs may not have moved in tandem with our economy.

The article included an admission to lack of success in attempts to tighten foreign manpower in “the last few years”. What that meant exactly remains unclear – are we going for fewer foreigners? Higher quality foreigners? Better salaries for Singaporeans? Less social tension from foreign manpower?

The play will have some of the desired effect, namely increasing Singaporean wages, but many side effects are to be expected like higher costs of doing business but if companies are intent on simply keeping costs down, all we are going to see is offshoring, or businesses moving away from Singapore, as the article noted.

Curiously enough, Minister Tan specifically said that he didn’t want a “Singaporean-first” system, but he didn’t specify what kind of system would ensure the combination of outcomes he seemed to want: strong domestic business, growing wages for Singaporeans, economic growth, market competition, and an absence of discriminatory hiring based on nationality.

The overall tone set is also extremely cautious, with small adjustments being proposed. Tan also was bearish about labour market testing, worried about “losing sectors” to global price competition, and made repeated indications that he would wait for more input from yet another round of Our Singapore Conversation.

He was also negative about the minimum wage, saying that he preferred wage subsidies to be paid for with public funds rather than let businesses shoulder the brunt of wage reforms though a minimum wage. It was unclear if he was referring to NTUC’s Progressive Wage Model, which contains a minimum wage structure.

But really, how worried should we be? Are the issues we face here and now significant enough to warrant more risk-taking from the G? Will a cautious approach take too long or fail to address the real fundamental reasons why we can’t seem to keep our wages up? Is losing business to international competition a risk we should take? Are there up-sides like morale, national loyalty, entrepreneurship and dignity that the G can’t seem to quantify that will mitigate higher wages?

We may be so intent on safeguarding Singapore’s business advantages (like transparency, stability and lack of corruption) that we find our hands are tied when it comes to dealing decisively with our business weaknesses.

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by Yen Feng

The Chinese-language community yesterday again called for reintroduction of Chinese dialects in the media, but it’s not going to happen – that’s the main takeaway on the discussion organised by Lianhe Zaobao held yesterday as part of the national Singapore Conversation.

“Singapore already has a ‘complicated language environment’ with its current focus on English and the mother tongue ‘first and foremost’,” Education Minister Heng Swee Keat told the discussion participants, reported ST this morning, adding that those who were interested in learning in dialects can do so at a later age.

The three-hour meeting was attended by 30 Zaobao readers, who spoke with the minister on a variety of topics, ranging from Singapore’s bilingual policy to immigration, social media, and political engagement. They also called for “greater transparency and freedom of information, including access to history archives, to boost citizens’ trust in the Government”, ST said.

Since it was organised by ZB, the Chinese-language paper went big on the story, taking the top story on P1 and all of P6.

On the P1 report, ZB took a broad view of the minister’s comments. It said that the minister urged future participants of the Singapore Conversation to cast their vision towards the greater world at large, and to take a global perspective towards local issues.

This was because Singapore’s fate was closely intertwined with global trends, the minister said. Its economy would suffer if decoupled from other economies worldwide.

Mr Heng told ZB: “The problems we are talking about are not unique to Singapore. Many other countries are facing the same problems and trying to solve them… if we broaden our vision, it will help us see these problems more clearly.”

On the subject of Chinese dialects, the minister said that even in Shanghai, fewer people were able to speak the local dialect as more parents were prioritising English. He said that students in Singapore were already having a difficult time coping with so many subjects – adding dialects to the mix would make things “more complicated”.

ST gave a slightly different take on the discussion. It led the story by reporting on the participants’ suggestion that the “repeated refrain that Singapore is small and fragile, with no natural resources of its own” was one of the nation’s “sacred cows” that needed to be reviewed.

In response, Mr Heng said in ST that Singapore’s small size was not something that has been portrayed as a restriction in recent years.

“In many ways, we have been able to surpass being small,” he said, adding: “What we have to think about next is how to continue surpassing our size.”

Reading the two papers, it’s clear that the G wants to move the Singapore Conversation beyond backyard politics – for people to look at national development with a wide-angled lens. It’s a good suggestion – and one that will likely help to soften criticism that the exercise is just one big Meet-the-People session.

Question is, with both sides talking – who’s doing the listening?

by Donavan Cheah

Madness always ensues every morning at the bus stops and train stations as throngs of people try to squeeze onboard each arriving bus and train. Then came the salubrious idea of pre-peak travel. It would be free for as long as you woke up earlier and stopped at one of the CBD stops before 7.45 am.

And then now, we have many companies claiming that they would try to find arrangements to shift away from the peak hour. But, is it really necessary for all to amend working hours and take advantage of pre-peak travel?

In theory, the idea of the free pre-peak travel works only if some segments of the population travel earlier (and not all of it), so that this alleviates the total peak period crowd. Whether this carrot works in practice is too early to tell, but it makes little sense if too many people get incentivized to turn up for work earlier, only to push the peak period crunch forward in time.

While perhaps it might be easier for older workers to adapt to earlier timings, the same cannot be said for students who have been used to burning the midnight oil, sleeping at times ranging from 2 am, up till even 4 am. However, a new concern arises: how would these private bus companies be able to rearrange earlier transport for workers if they already have very tight schedules: they usually devote early morning shifts to school students who need to arrive at school by 7.30 am, but because of this recent news, might now be asked to do the same for workers who are trying to meet the 7.45 am cut-off timing. Would school bus fees rise because of increased demand for their services?

A more plausible alternative – but one that will take very long to fulfill – is the geographical decentralization of those companies that can afford to do so, without adversely affecting operations. This however means the G must take initiative, since it is easiest for them to relocate from within the CBD to outside.

Perhaps, flexi-hours does not work for everyone, and hopefully, not too many people try to snatch for the carrot and no one ultimately benefits.