April 26, 2017

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Dr Tan Cheng Bock speaking at the press conference.
Speaking at the press conference at MHC Asia Healthcare building today, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, 75, announced his intentions to run for the next presidential election.

by Suhaile Md

MONTHS after constitutional amendments were made to the Elected Presidency (EP), we finally hear from former presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock. He called a press conference on Friday (Mar 31) and questioned the timing of the reserved election.

Unlike the G, he thinks that the presidential election later this year should be an open one, not reserved, as was announced on Feb 6. This is important to address, otherwise “the Elected Presidency will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserve elections of 2017 was introduced to prevent my candidacy,” said Dr Tan.

At the heart of the matter is the definition of who the first EP is. If there has been five consecutive presidential terms where a Chinese, Malay, and Indian or Other minority race member does not become President, the next Presidential Election would be reserved for a qualified member of that race. Singapore has not had a Malay President since Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office in 1970.

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So who’s the first Elected President?

The G said the late Dr Wee Kim Wee is the first EP. Yes, he was not elected, but the EP came into effect in 1991 during his term, making Dr Wee the “first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President,” said Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong last year in Parliament (Nov 8). Following Dr Wee, was Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan, and Dr Tony Tan. Mr Nathan served two terms. PM Lee also mentioned this was in line with the Attorney-General’s Chamber’s (AGC) advice.

Dr Tan disagreed on Friday, and questioned if the “AGC’s method of counting was in line with the spirit of the Constitutional Commission’s Report”. The report, said Dr Tan, talked about a reserve election being triggered only “if open elections” do not produce presidents from a particular community for five consecutive terms. That is, an election that is open to candidates of all races. He emphasised the word “elections”. Simply put, Dr Wee was nominated, not elected, but Mr Ong Teng Cheong was, therefore Mr Ong is the first President from an “open election”.

I question whether AGC’s method of counting is actually in line with the spirit and purpose put forward by the Constitutional Commission for having a reserved election.

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A familiar argument

It’s an argument that was raised in parliament by the opposition earlier this year (Feb 6). The AGC’s advice to count Dr Wee as the first EP “was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans, given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office,” said Workers’ Party Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim. Minister in Prime Minister’s Office and Government Whip, Chan Chung Sing replied that the G was “confident of the advice” from the AGC, and not going to rehash the arguments made by PM Lee in Parliament on Nov 8.

On Nov 9, Ms Lim had also asked if the G was “prepared to publish that advice” from the AGC. To which, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean responded that “it was not normal… to publish a lawyer’s advice because that is something which is provided to the Prime Minister.” If Ms Lim felt that the AGC had not advised correctly, she could “challenge judicially”.

Although Dr Tan Cheng Bock did not mention these exchanges specifically on Friday, he did say this: “Unfortunately, there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly. The Government also declined the opportunity to explain this in Parliament.” Furthermore, he said that “a recent high profile” Court of Appeal case showed that the AGC can be wrong in their legal opinion. He did not specify the case he was referring to.

Unfortunately, there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly.

He added: “If the Government double-checks the AGC’s advice with the Court, then Parliament and the people of Singapore can be satisfied beyond doubt that the constitutional changes they are making stand on strong legal foundations.”

Otherwise, he concluded, the 2017 reserved elections will be “tainted with the suspicion” it was introduced to prevent him from running.

When asked if he would go to the courts himself if the G declines his invitation. He replied: “The courts should be the last resort. Good politics… not everything should go to the courts.”

When TMG asked if he thought the G made the changes to affect his candidacy, he said, “I hope they didn’t plan it that way, but it seems to be that way because” of feedback from “the ground”.

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Why speak up now?

Last March, Dr Tan had announced his intention to run for President. The report was out last August. The G’s response was out the following month. And on Nov 9, the amendment bill was passed.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he was initially “resigned” to the fact that he would not qualify for the Presidency due to the changes proposed in the report, and later accepted by the G (read more here). However, the lack of clarity in parliament spurred him to look into the issues deeper. He added that when he’s “silent, always remember that I’m thinking”, not doing nothing.

A Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) spokesman, in response to media queries later in the day, said that the issue “has been considered and debated extensively for more than a year”, and that “Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response.”

Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response.

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The press conference

The press conference on Friday was a humdrum affair – no rallying cry or rousing speech. Instead Dr Tan stuck to script throughout his presentation, driving home his point about who the first EP should be. He came prepared, with multiple references to the Hansard to back up his assertion that in all his “26 years in Parliament we had always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President”.

Former presidential candidate Mr Tan Kin Lian, who was in the audience, thought Dr Tan “made a convincing case”. He had run for the 2011 elections against Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Dr Tony Tan, and Mr Tan Jee Say.

Added Mr Tan Kin Lian: “He (Dr Tan) and his team did a lot of work to research… and found many instances where the MPs referred to Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected president. I agree with his interpretation of the intent of the Commission. I am surprised at the incompetence of the government.”

There was a smattering, albeit enthusiastic, applause later during the question and answer session when Dr Tan talked about what he thought should define a President: “You must define (the) presidency by people who believe in multi-racialism, people who have the… character, who have served this country for a long time, who believe in the people… but if you want to define the Presidency by money…it’s very sad for this country.”

if you want to define the Presidency by money… It’s very sad for this country.

Dr Tan did not specify, but he was likely referring to the qualifying criteria, where potential candidates from the private sector must have experience at the senior-most executives levels in companies with shareholder equity of at least $500m.
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The Constitutional Commisson

The qualifying criteria was one of three issues related to the Elected Presidency scheme that the Constitutional Commission was set up to review, early last year. The other two areas had to do with the framework governing the President’s custodial powers, and ensuring that there was minority representation time to time. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon led the nine member commission.

Public feedback was sought but notably, Dr Tan Cheng Bock had not submitted any suggestions or proposals. This fact was not missed by the MCI spokesman who said, Dr Tan “did not… give his views to the commission”.

When TMG asked Dr Tan on Friday why he did not, he smiled and said: “I’m an interested party… let them (commission) decide.”

I’m an interested party… let them (commission) decide.

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Can Dr Tan run for election again?

In 2011, he had lost the race to Dr Tony Tan by just 7,382 votes. Dr Tony Tan won with 35.20 per cent of the votes while Dr Tan Cheng Bock secured 34.85 per cent of votes.

This time round though, even if there is no reserved election, Dr Tan would find it hard to qualify. He was a non-executive chairman of Chuan Hup Holdings – not a company with $500 million in shareholder equity.

For Dr Tan to successfully qualify to run for the President this coming September, a few things must happen. First, race must no longer be a factor. So either the G reverses its stand that the election this year is reserved, or if there is no qualified Malay candidate. But that’s unlikely (read more here).

Second, Dr Tan must convince the Presidential Elections Committee that he is qualified, through the deliberative track. That is, his past roles in the public or private sector were of sufficient complexity to prove that he can handle the responsibilities of the President.

When asked if he was speaking up too late in the game, he replied: “I think it’s never too late for anything.”

He later added: “Anytime you call an election, my men is ready. I have a team now… I am prepared to assume that role, to look after your reserves, to make sure the appointments of people in the government are in the right order… If I can’t, well, I suppose there’s other ways for me to contribute.”

 

Featured image (taken during press conference in 2016) from TMG file.  

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by Erin Chua

“AUNTY, do you have any items that are selling for 10 cents or less?” I asked the stall owner. She threw her head back, laughed a little and replied, “I doubt you can buy anything for 10 cents nowadays.”

On March 16, the Monetary Authority of Singapore announced that it was seeking public feedback on the proposed new legal tender limit of 10 coins per denomination across all denominations in a single transaction. In response to the aforementioned, a proposal to stop the circulation of 5 cent coins in Singapore surfaced. We thought that it might be too tough to find 5 cents worth of anything in Singapore today but saw a possibility of shopping with 10 cents.

Hence, my quest for 10 cheap (and rare) finds in the midst of constantly increasing prices.

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1. Using the public toilet 

When asked what one can still get for 10 cents in present day Singapore, most would reply that 10 cents will gain you an entry to a public toilet at hawker centres, wet and dry markets.

 

2. Selected assorted sweets .    

You can get assorted sweets from some provision shops at 10 cents each. Fortunately, I managed to find sweets at this price at Jumbo Minimart (5 Dover Crescent) and Selvi Stores Pte Ltd (Tekka Centre). However, you may not find sweets costing 10 cents at every provision shop and you definitely will not be able to buy all brands of sweets (individual) at that price!

 

3. A packet of Bee-Bee Snack 

This orange packet of Bee-Bee Snack is a childhood snack that most remember and love. That said, finding this gem priced at 10 cents at Jumbo Minimart was an extremely rare find!

 

4. Photocopying at Bras Basah Complex

Located on the first floor of Bras Basah Complex, the Music Book Room offers one of the best photocopying deals in the building. The first 20 copies are charged at 10 cents each and the subsequent pieces cost 5 cents each. But do take note that this deal only applies to A4 size photocopying.

 

5. A pen

This pen was bought from the soon-to-be-extinct Sungei Road Thieves Market. Although its original price was 50 cents, you can try bargaining it down to 10 cents with a little skill.

 

6. A fork

As with the pen, the fork was bought at 10 cents after some tough bargaining at aforementioned the Thieves Market. However, it is very rare for a vendor to be willing to cut down the price of an item to 10 cents. In fact, the starting price of most of the items sold range from $2 to $5 each.

 

7. A screw

.Another steal from the Thieves Market. Most vendors sell used screws and other metal parts. Since the Thieves’ Market will be closing for good on July 10 this year, you might want to visit Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market for the last time.

 

8. Using the payphone (for two minutes)

With the increased use of mobile phones, the number of public payphones in Singapore has dropped to just over 2,000 as of last year. According to Singtel, local calls using a Singtel payphone are charged at 10 cents per two minutes but the same do not apply to all overseas calls. Exceptions are calls made to Malaysia and China which are priced at about 10 cents per minute.

 

9. A matchbox

You can get a matchbox from a provision shop for 10 cents.

 

10. A small packet of betel nut

This is an item more commonly sold in provision shops in Little India. According to the owner of Selvi Stores, her customers wrap the betel nuts in leaves and chew them. It is worth noting that chewing on betel nut is highly addictive and potentially detrimental to one’s health.
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Surprisingly, I did not find any items sold at 10 cents in wet and dry markets. Instead, most of the items were sold by weight at the markets.

During my little adventure, many of the stall owners I approached responded to my inquiry with amusement. They said matter-of-factly that it’s impossible to buy something with 10 cents unless we are living in the past. Their replies are revealing of the resignation towards the high costs of living in Singapore. 

So… does anyone have 10 cents to spare?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by The Middle Ground

FAKE news doesn’t just spread misinformation and hate – it costs companies money too.

It is predicted that out of $80 billion of digital ad spending in 2017, over $16 billion will be eaten up by problematic content – the placing of advertisements next to unsavoury material, for instance, could hurt instead of help a company’s brand image.

A recent Times of London investigation revealed that YouTube channels promoting hate speech were earning tens of thousands of dollars thanks to ads placed by Google. Volkswagen ads, for instance, were shown on the channel of Wagdi Ghoneim – an extremist who has been banned from entering Britain for promoting terrorism.

As hundreds of companies in the UK pull their ads from Google, the company has been forced to announce new measures that will allow advertisers to avoid displaying their messages next to hate speech and fake news.

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Google’s move demonstrates that ad networks (and tech companies which profit off ads) can no longer be cavalier about where they place clients’ messages, or about the kind of content they allow on their networks. After criticism that it was not doing enough to prevent the spread of fake news, Facebook rolled out a fact-checking alert four days ago (Mar 22), notifying readers if the facts of an article are disputed by reputable sources.

Back home, fake news is causing consternation among local policy-makers and politicians. During the Committee of Supply debates on March 6, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, noted that there is a need to “harmonise legislature for the technological and online space”. He emphasised the G’s position that when online content is “directly targeting Singaporeans”, there is a need to ensure that it is “in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony”.

Amendments to both the Film and Broadcasting Acts are due to be announced soon. Dr Yaacob indicated that more will be revealed, after consultation with the business community and the public.

This is a whole-of-government concern: In response to the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in which Mindef was found to not qualify as a “person” under Section 15 of the Protection Online Harassment Act, the Ministry of Law issued a statement condemning the “scourge of false information.”

“Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published and have the true facts brought to public attention,” said a MinLaw spokesman. “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information.”

In light of the controversy surrounding the spread of fake news, we take a closer look at what countries and tech companies are doing in response to this phenomenon.

 

1. Berlin, Germany – Facebook to potentially face “fake news fines” of up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million)

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Mr Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, has proposed new regulations to crack down on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for publishing fake news. Social media companies may be fined up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million) if they fail to remove flagged posts.

Social media companies will have to delete offending material within one week. This doesn’t just include fake news, but also illegal content such as hate speech or racist language. Companies will also have to run 24-hour helplines for concerned users.

The proposals are more extensive than previous suggestions to impose €500,000 (SG$755,000) fines on the companies. This is part of a Bill that will be put to the German Parliament in an effort to combat malicious activity and disinformation campaigns online.

The German federal elections are due to be held in September this year. The proposed Bill aims to address fears that online hoaxes could influence the election outcome in favour of populist right-wing parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

 

2. Beijing, China – The “Great Firewall” blocks out non-mainstream news; fake or otherwise

Image from Flickr

In November last year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated tabloid The Global Times weighed in on the fake news debate, saying that the controversy only strengthened the Chinese government’s case for controlling the internet.

In an editorial titled “Western Media’s Crusade Against Facebook”, the Global Times asked pointedly: “So long as the mainstream media is free and open, online rumours would do no harm in the big picture – isn’t that the consistent argument from the West?” It argued that, in trying to curb rumours and fake news, the West was being hypocritical in its push for free speech.

The CCP has long used the “Great Firewall” to limit Chinese citizens’ access to information. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the country, and Google withdrew its services in 2010, protesting the Chinese government’s onerous regulatory demands.

Fake news, however, is not the only thing that is censored. Politically-sensitive content, like references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is also blocked. Many have criticised the CCP for its authoritarian habits, including artist and civil activist Ai Wei Wei, who has condemned the government for using “brute power to control information”

 

3. Brussels, Belgium – EU has 11-person task force to combat Russian disinformation

Image from Wikipedia Commons

In light of on-going political developments in the European Union (EU) – the French, German and Dutch elections, it is unsurprising that EU leaders are taking action to combat the rise of fake news and anti-EU propaganda aiming to stir up anti-establishment sentiments.

To this end, the EU has a task-force that tackles the problem of fake news in Europe – the East Stratcom. East Stratcom, an 11- person team consisting of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists, serves as Europe’s front line against fake news. It was created by EU to combat “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. In the 16 months since its inception, it has discredited 2,500 stories (many with links to Russia). But it’s facing an uphill task given the volume of fake news.

Apart from the team in Brussels, similar groups to tackle fake news were formed in countries such as Finland and the Czech Republic. Countries are also enhancing online security to address potential hacking attacks and European media outlets are improving fact-checking mechanisms to prevent false reporting.

On top of taking action, EU and its members are also pressurising social media companies such as Facebook to take a stronger position against fake news or face action from Brussels as a consequence.

 

4. California, United States – Facebook partners with fact-checkers to tag “disputed” articles

Image from Flickr

In response to allegations that the phenomenon of Facebook becoming a platform where ‘fake news’ proliferate is in its business interest, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, asserted that Facebook is also a victim of ‘fake news’ but it is extremely difficult for the site to clamp down on ‘fake news’ as “it’s not always clear what is fake and what isn’t”.

Still, Facebook has taken action to combat ‘fake news’ by rolling out its third-party fact-checking tool which informs users of “disputed content”. The site is partnering with five independent fact-checkers: ABC News, Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes.

When a story published is proven to be false, users attempting to share the disputed story will see a red alert stating that the article has been disputed by the relevant independent fact-checkers. Users who clicked on that warning will be greeted with more information about the disputed content.

Even when users choose to ignore the warning and publish the story, there will be another pop-up reiterating that the accuracy of the story has been disputed. When the user clicks “Post anyway”, other users who view the shared story on their timelines will be able to see that the story has been disputed.

On top of independent fact-checkers, the site will pass a story to third parties to fact-check if sufficient numbers of users report a story as fake.

However, the new tool was only made available to a limited number of users. This is unsurprising as Facebook is known to test pilot features on a small group of users before applying them across the entire site.

 

5. California, United States – Google deploys “anti-fake news army”

Image from Pixabay

Google is employing a team of 10,000 content-monitor contractors to examine “fake news” articles, in the hopes of restricting the spread of questionable content.

The Google contractors are not new hires – they are known as quality raters, and have long been assessing search results for accuracy. However, Google is now asking them to qualitatively examine search requests and to rate the results that follow. Content that is “offensive-upsetting”, as Google terms it, will be highlighted. It also aims to identify information that is “demonstrably inaccurate”.

“Offensive-upsetting” content includes material that “promotes hate or violence against a group of people based on criteria including (but not limited to) race or ethnicity, nationality or citizenship.” This may include racial slurs, child abuse, and instructional information on terrorist attacks.

Such content will not be directly removed, or changed. But it will be used to improve underlying search algorithms, so future searches will be more accurate and factual.

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

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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 Daniel Yap

THE late Mr Lee Kuan Yew worked out for about an hour each day, including during lunchtime. President Barack Obama exercises for 45 minutes, six times a week. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour plays tennis daily. The “Oracle” Warren Buffet exercises regularly as well, and they all swear it makes them more productive at work, in addition to the obvious health benefits.

It’s something companies have caught on to as well. As a matter of fact, the short-term productivity benefits of regular exercise – happy workers and sharper minds from naturally-produced endorphins and stimulants – are significant enough for bosses to start consider exercise to be part of a workday.

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Those of us who have worked at Japanese or Chinese firms may have experienced a bit of that “workout” workplace culture – stretches and simple calisthenics at the start of each workday. But many companies are taking it further than that.

One study of more than 200 workers at three sites: a university, a computer company and a life insurance firm, showed that 30-60 minutes of exercise resulted in a 15 per cent boost to work productivity that day – that’s 6-12 per cent of an 8-hour workday in exchange for a 15 per cent boost.

On top of that, workers felt better about their work and about themselves after exercising, which could have longer-term benefits in terms of worker retention and mental wellness.

In the long-term, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that replacing 2.5 hours of work with exercise in six healthcare workplaces led to a noticeable reduction in absences, higher productivity and more patients seen.

Locally, OCBC, AIA Singapore and KPMG have launched programmes to reward employees who exercise regularly. The advent of wearable fitness trackers has enabled easy and accurate tracking of employee activity and disbursement of incentives, which can be worth as much as $100 a month.

But what’s the cost to set up such a programme for other firms, especially smaller ones? Building an in-house gym may be out of reach for most, and gym memberships can be costly to reimburse, and usage hard to track.

Some HR consulting firms can help plan a programme for a fee, or one could turn to a growing number of fitness incentive apps from vendors in Singapore and abroad.

The AIA Vitality wellness programme, which is exclusive to AIA policyholders at $36 a year, is also made available to companies that wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

Nevertheless, a determined worker shouldn’t let the lack of a company policy stand in the way of better performance. Aim for a 20-30 minute activity during your lunch break, which should give you time to cool off and grab a quick bite before getting back in the hot seat.

The science is clear: It’s high time we considered fitness and exercise to be part of the job.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

SINGAPORE’S got talent – or so it seems, pipping Silicon Valley for top spot in the “talent” category in the Global Startup Ecosystem Report and Ranking by Startup Genome released last week (Mar 14).

That Singapore has snatched the top billing shows a changing startup environment here. Startup Genome, a research team which specialises in analysing the global startup landscape, said that Silicon Valley has “lost the edge… five to fifteen years ago” when it “enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on very experienced back-end engineers”.
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What does it mean to be top at “talent”?

How proud can Singapore be of this accolade? Does this mean Ayer Rajah Crescent is poised to be the next San Francisco Bay Area? Not quite.

Although we’ve achieved a top ranking for startup talent, it’s important to understand how this was assessed. “Talent” was evaluated using three criteria: 1. Access; 2. Cost; and 3. Quality of Talent.

Singapore was ranked third best in the world when it came to the accessibility of talent. It is easy for local startup founders to hire experienced engineers, and “obtain a visa for hires from abroad”. It is no surprise that Singapore did well on this metric – even in light of opposition to immigration; the political leadership wants to maintain a reasonably liberal immigration policy. This makes migrant talent far more accessible, compared to other countries.

Singapore was also ranked fourth best in the world for the cost of talent. This refers to “engineer salaries”, which is fairly straightforward: For comparison, the mean annual salary for a software engineer in Singapore is $49,381 whereas an equivalent software engineer in the United States would earn $80,745.

The only other startup ecosystems where talent was cheaper than in Singapore were Bangalore, Shanghai and Beijing. Unlike these cities, however, the cost of living in Singapore is far higher. According to the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2017 conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore is the most expensive country to live in as an expatriate – for the fourth year running.

Why is engineering talent in Singapore so cheap? One reason is that startups employ cheaper local engineers or foreign talent because the more expensive local engineers (who command higher wages) are based overseas, or work for established companies back home. Mr Chia Zhe Min, 23, an NUS engineering student, shared that “the really talented and adventurous Singaporeans” tend to go to Silicon Valley due to the “more interesting and vibrant startup culture, and the higher pay.”

Mr Agrim Singh, 24, an SUTD graduate, agreed: “Singaporeans prefer to play it safe, and large companies provide a stable wage and contract benefits that (local) startups may be unable to match.” With startup ecosystems in Silicon Valley and Toronto offering far more competitive pay packages, few home-grown top engineers stay. And when they do, they work for large multi-nationals such as Google.

Many local engineers are also lured into mid-career switches, moving into more lucrative jobs in banking or consultancy. Mr Edwin Khew, President of the Institution of Engineers Singapore, said in an ST report last year: “Engineers, due to their versatile skill sets and problem-solving abilities, continue to be highly sought after by sectors such as business and finance.”

Foreign-born engineers, who are willing to accept lower wages, then take the place of local engineers in Singapore. This depresses wages, which in turn affects the number of promising students who want to study engineering in the first place.

In a Facebook post (which has since been made private) cited by media platform Tech in Asia, Mr Lam Keong Yeoh, former chief economist for the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), blames Singapore’s overly-loose immigration policy: “We have been far too liberal in importing cheaper regional engineers and IT staff for over two decades. This has bid down the real wages and working conditions of such professions such that the return on investing in such a tertiary education and career is unattractive to locals.”

This explains why Singapore was placed 10th for the quality of talent. Even though we have easily accessible and affordable talent, it is questionable whether the startup employees here can rival their peers in America or Canada. If you could earn more and work alongside the best engineers in the business by going to Silicon Valley, why wouldn’t you?

It is important to note that Singapore only beat out Silicon Valley on talent because Silicon Valley ranked 20th on cost, while Singapore ranked fourth.

On the metrics of accessibility and quality of talent, Silicon Valley still topped the world. If the G truly wants our startup talent to be world-class, then we may end up slipping down the rankings – because the quality of talent is directly tied to the wages they can command.

 

Modified from the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

 

Singapore: A world-class startup ecosystem?

Even if one were to accept that Singapore is a world-leader for startup talent, Singapore still fell two places to finish overall 12th in the global startup ecosystem rankings. Singapore ranked behind ecosystems such as Tel Aviv (6th) and Silicon Valley (1st).

The new inclusions of Beijing (2nd) and Shanghai (8th) in this year’s report are a sign that other cities in Asia have no problems catching up with, and surpassing Singapore in the startup scene.

 

Modified from the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

Of the top 20 startup ecosystems, Singapore was dead last for startup experience. The report defined this as “the pool of knowledge and networks that startups can draw on”. As a relatively new player, Singapore lags behind other cities in the number of unicorns (startups valued at over US$1 billion) produced.

We also have the fewest experienced entrepreneurs. It was noted that startup founders based in Singapore were the “youngest in the world”, with a median age of 28 years.

For now, it remains to be seen whether nascent companies can replicate the success of homegrown startups like Lazada, which was sold for US$1 billion in 2016. As the G continues to invest in startups via the Startup SG umbrella, the hope is that it will only be a matter of time before the startup scene here matures. But how much time can Singapore afford in the frenetic race of global tech and entrepreneurship?

We need to look behind the headlines. Is startup talent in Singapore cheaper than that in Silicon Valley? Of course. Is it better than that in Silicon Valley? Hardly.

Is this the Singapore brand we want to present to the world?

 

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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 Kwan Jin Yao

THE rate of volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, rising from 18 to 35 per cent. And this trend – according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016, conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) – “could be related to the resurgence in informal volunteerism” (emphasis mine), through which Singaporeans volunteer directly without going through an organisation. In its press release, NVPC then detailed examples of social and ground-up movements in Singapore, to illustrate a second point that the number of volunteers who serve informally has increased from 25 to 51 per cent, over the same time period.

Straits Times christened this “a resurgence of the kampung spirit” (Mar 16). TODAY quoted NVPC director for knowledge and advocacy, Jeffrey Tan on this “giving revolution”, “where people are volunteering and donating informally, directly with beneficiaries, without going through the formal routes” (Mar 16). Notwithstanding the questionable hyperbole, everyone seems to take for granted this causal relationship between the rise in the volunteerism rate and the increase in informal volunteerism. Correlation is not causation. In fact, we still appear to know little about what exactly drives volunteerism in Singapore, and how it can be sustained in the long-term. NVPC said it could be informal volunteerism, but we do not know for sure.

And in its current incarnation, the NVPC’s Individual Giving Survey provides few useful answers.

Volunteer rate and sample size

In the 2012 survey, when it was found that 32 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered – the previous high – the cited reason was also informal volunteering. In the 2010 survey, when the rate increased to 23 per cent from the previous high of 17 per cent in 2008, no explicit reasons were offered. And likewise nothing insightful was offered in 2014, when the volunteerism rate fell by almost half from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent. The accompanying media release in 2014 briefly mentioned the lack of time as a top reason for non-volunteers, as if it was a new finding, yet this concern was already established from the very first edition of the survey in 2000, when 74 per cent of the respondents said that “no time” was their main reason for not volunteering.

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Just knowing how the national volunteerism rate has changed from survey to survey is not enough. If the intent is to encourage more Singaporeans to volunteer – and to make sure they keep volunteering – then the NVPC needs to better understand the needs and the motivations of volunteers and non-volunteers alike, and to shape endeavours accordingly. Suppose the NVPC is absolutely convinced that informal volunteerism does cause higher volunteerism rates. It should therefore channel its resources to more financial grants for these community groups, for instance, to facilitate capacity-building and to reach out to more in Singapore.

Such causal findings will be productive for government agencies too. The Ministry of Education can ascertain whether learning experiences through Values in Action – in different permutations, such as within-school or community activities – increase the likelihood of volunteerism in the future. The National Council of Social Service, with similar information, can better advise the volunteer-management units of charities, in terms of how they can appeal to and retain long-term volunteers.

Comparisons of the findings across the past eight editions reveal something more troubling about the sampling size. Only 389 respondents were interviewed for the 2016 survey compared to the 1,828 interviewed in 2014. The mean or average across the eight biennial surveys from 2000 to 2014 was 1,698 (the median was 1,752), and so the sample size for 2016 is barely one-quarter of that. The disparity raises obvious questions about the sampling method, the representativeness of the findings and if it can be generalised for the whole population, and whether comparisons can be fairly made across demographic or socio-economic indicators.

Further doubts emerge when the 2016 is compared with the World Giving Index 2016 – released by Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation – which found that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered their time and efforts for a cause in the past year. In this particular area Singapore ranked 54th out of 140 countries, compared to its ranking of 19th for donating money to charity. The World Giving Index collected questionnaires, face-to-face, from exactly 1,000 Singaporean respondents. But like the Individual Giving Survey, it provided no additional details on the potential factors which will prompt more to volunteer.

So in addition to the woeful sample size, what changes can be made to the Individual Giving Survey? Or what more can it do?

Three related proposals. First, having determined the reasons for non-volunteerism – from the lack of time to the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, for example – focus group discussions with existing volunteers will allow for the aggregation of practical perspectives or good practices, on how to overcome these challenges. Second, with these perspectives and practices, the NVPC can better design interventions for Singaporeans of different age-groups, in different industries, and for different beneficiaries, and use the survey as an instrument to measure the effectiveness of these implementations. In other words, did a new volunteer programme or an awareness campaign drive more Singaporeans to actually volunteer? And for how long?

And finally, a longitudinal component to the Individual Giving Survey could yield valuable information too. In an experimental set-up like this, having identified a representative sample, NVPC will track the same group of respondents over two, four, or even six years, measuring their rates of volunteerism and how they respond to volunteer programmes or awareness campaigns. If implemented effectively, the NVPC could even track the impact of nation-wide policies – such as the inception of the Youth Corps and the changes the MOE made to the community involvement programme in schools – over the same time-frame.

The Individual Giving Survey and its top-line figures may have sufficed in the past 16 years. Much more is desired – and needed – if we want to turn Singapore into a more compassionate nation of regular and committed volunteers.

 

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by Daniel Yap

SINGAPORE is engaging in a long-term war, with high stakes. It’s the war for our health and overall well-being, and for disease prevention which has long-run payoffs – better quality of life, reduced costs, lower risks. The details of NurtureSG, a Ministry of Health plan to instill healthy habits in our children, will be announced later this year, but any plan needs to consider potential obstacles.

The first thing standing in the way of healthier children is unhealthy adults. We need no reminding that children are most influenced not by what they are told by their parents and teachers to do, but by what they see their parents and teachers doing. Thus, any aim to change the health-wise behaviour of the next generation must take into account the behaviour of this generation.

It may be straightforward enough to try to drill healthy habits into our children, but how then can we incentivise adults, whose habits have already been formed and practiced for decades, to change? We would not want to train our children up a certain way only to have them slip back into an unhealthy adult lifestyle because they were following their parents’ footsteps.

Adults need to replace old habits by forming new ones, and new habits are formed by repetitive behaviour. Without long-term goals, such sustained change would be difficult.

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For starters, we need to address the psychology that defeats long-term goals: affective bias, risk discounting, and hyperbolic discounting.

Affective bias, that is, bias that is rooted in our emotions, causes us to hear only what we want to hear. For example, the strong emotion associated with comfort eating can cause us to put too much stock in a “reduced fat” label on an unhealthy snack…and there goes the diet.

Uncertainty about the goals we set is what leads to risk discounting, where we downplay the risky effects of our behaviour. If you didn’t know how much you needed to eat to lose weight, would you have chicken nasi briyani for dinner, and a large bag of potato chips at the movie afterwards? Probably. But if you knew you had to eat under 1700 calories a day to lose weight, then it would be immediately clear to you that the 900 calorie nasi bryani and the 1000 calorie bag of chips would completely wreck your goals, especially if you already had a typical 500 calorie breakfast and “diet” 400 calorie lunch.

Hyperbolic discounting is the cognitive bias that favours short-term gains – why someone would choose to get $50 now than $1,000 a year later. It is why diet plans fail, why savings plans fall through, why we won’t cut our carbon footprint even though we know we put the future in peril.

How can children and adults get past these roadblocks to a healthier life? First, the emotional appeal of a long-term healthy lifestyle needs to stay strong. We need constant reminders that this is good for our family, good for our children and good for our silver years. Strong campaigns and culture-building are key to achieving this.

Then, we need instant gratification for our efforts. This is the short-term counter to short-term temptations, and this has so far been the hardest to achieve on a national scale.

This is why people post their workouts and gym bods on social media – to soak up the likes and encouragement as fuel for the next workout. This is why wearables are effective, because they are a constant reminder on your wrist of whether you’ve covered your 20,000 steps today, or gotten enough sleep, or pushed your heart rate frequently enough this week.

Instant gratification is why we need incentive programmes like the national steps challenge, in-house corporate fitness or weight-loss competitions, or programmes for individuals like AIA Vitality to reward workouts with vouchers, send encouragement, form support groups, set reminders, and do anything necessary to keep our eyes on the short-term goal for as long as it takes to reach the long-term one.

We are all, in one way or another, attracted by short-term gain. And if healthy living isn’t attractive in the short-term, then unhealthy living will win out. And what happens in the short term determines who wins the long-term war for our well-being. If we lose the war for our own well-being, we’ll be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of the G’s push to make our children healthier.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.

 

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

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