June 22, 2017

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Chee Soon Juan and Murali during their walkabout at Bukit Batok.

by Wan Ting Koh

Photos by Najeer Yusof

CAMPAIGNING has started even before dates for the by-election in Bukit Batok have been announced.

On Monday (March 21), barely one hour after lawyer Murali Pillai was introduced as the People’s Action Party’s candidate for the single-member ward, he was pumping hands with residents living in Block 148, Bukit Batok West Avenue 6 where the party branch was located. As he made the rounds at the four-room flats, a Meet The People session was being conducted by Jurong GRC MP Desmond Lee, the caretaker MP.

He introduced himself as “Murali” and was invited into residents’ homes several times. Mr Murali, who used to be the ward’s PAP branch secretary, between 2007 and 2011, tried gamely to communicate with non-English-speaking residents in broken Mandarin and Hokkien. He also spoke in Tamil and Malay with non-Chinese residents. Bukit Batok has a higher proportion of Chinese voters compared to other wards. In the last GE, voters numbered 27,077.

His opposition contender, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan began staking his claim even earlier, walking the ground a day after news about former Member of Parliament for Bukit Batok David Ong broke last Saturday. He was up and about again on Tuesday night, doing house visits at block 203 Bukit Batok Street 21. When meeting residents, Dr Chee shook hands with them at their doorstep after introducing himself – “Hi, my name is Chee Soon Juan”.

Both men are not political novices. Mr Murali cut his teeth in the last general election when he was part of the failed PAP team in Aljunied GRC which took 49.04 per cent of the vote. Dr Chee, after a hiatus of 15 years, contested in Holland Bukit Timah GRC last GE and won 33.40 per cent of the vote.

We know it’s early days yet but we thought we should try to find out how well residents already know of the men fighting for their vote and what they had to say about their ex MP who resigned after admitting to “personal indiscretion”. Here’s what they told us:

Mr Murali Pillai’s walkabout: 

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Madam Florence Leong, 66, retired, resident of 32 years.

On Mr Murali Pillai: Friendly lah. I heard of him before but I have no impression of him before meeting him. I feel like he will help residents next time.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: I am not clear about him. I have never met him so I cannot say.

On Mr David Ong: He is very good to people and friendly – he will greet us. It is a shame he is not here anymore. He is not proud and very easy to talk to. He managed the area well, it is very clean

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Mr Chua, QT, 70, taxi driver, resident of more than 30 years.

On Mr Murali Pillai: He is okay lah. He is very polite, not fierce and always puts on a smiling face so he must be okay lah.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: He’s coming to contest here? I feel like he’s still too young. I’ve seen him many times on TV but not face to face. He’s a handsome man and good at talking.

On Mr David Ong: He is a very good man. I am sad that he is gone. He is a very nice man. Last time when I got a summons, he helped me by writing a letter so I have a strong impression of him. He is very sincere.

 

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Mr Shawn Koh, 29, IT manager, resident of more than three years.

On Mr Murali Pillai: He is okay. Easy to talk to.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: I have no impression of him at all.

On Mr David Ong: Before the incident he seemed okay. He is nice to people and if anyone had any problem he would help.

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Madam Sandy Tay, 63, cleaner, resident of 30 years

On Mr Murali Pillai: This is the first time I’ve met him but I have a good impression of him. He is friendly and can speak a bit of Hokkien and Mandarin so it is easy to speak to him.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan:  I don’t have a good impression of him. The Opposition party seems very messy. Some people say Dr Chee has talent but he does not seem suitable to run as MP. If it were Workers’ Party then I will consider.

On Mr David Ong: He is very good. Last time I asked him for help as my nephew was going to be expelled by his school as he is very rebellious. But Mr Ong wrote to MOE and the school kept my nephew. He will help residents no matter what.

 

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Madam Vanessa Lu, 34, executive assistant. Visits her parents’ Bukit Batok flat daily.

On Mr Murali Pillai: He is very friendly. I am surprised he can speak other languages when he spoke Mandarin to me.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: I haven’t met him personally but I’ve seen him around the area recently. He is quite aggressive on TV.

On Mr David Ong: His resignation came as a surprise to me. I’ve met him a few times when he walked past us. He will greet us, so it felt like he had quite a personal touch with residents.

 

Dr Chee Soon Juan’s walkabout:

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Mr Tang Siew Siang, 63, retiree, resident of more than five years.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: He is not bad. Slowly he is becoming sincere. When he first came into the political scene, he was inexperienced, now he has grown. Last GE, my views of him changed for the better and I feel that he has grown.

On Mr Murali Pillai: No impression at all. I only noticed David Ong. He is coming to run here?

On Mr David Ong: I never met him before, as he hasn’t been here. I don’t have any comment. He is neither good nor bad.

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Madam Serene Goh, 50, customer service, resident more than five years.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: He has changed especially in the last election in the way he speaks. More mellow than the first time he spoke. And he’s speaking about more relevant topics now.

On Mr Murali Pillai: I am not very familiar with him. I just know that he is from the PAP.

On Mr David Ong: He has been with us for many years. I don’t see him. I just know that he is friendly and will speak up for residents. From a distance, I cannot tell what his person is like but the general belief is that he is nice.

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Mr Terence Ng, 42, theology student, resident of 14 years.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: He looks sincere and up to his game. After persevering for so long, he is inspirational. Last election he had good publicity especially with his family. He knows how to use social media and knows how to connect with the younger generation. I’ve been following his progress in the last 10 years and I think he has changed his style somewhat. His thoughts about democracy might stay but personality wise, he has matured. His tone of engagement has mellowed  – he used to be brash and confrontational. But maybe this was because it was during Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s time. Now he is firm and persuasive but not that aggressive. He has moved with the political scene. Though I am not so sure about his promises, I see him as a strong candidate.

On Mr Murali Pillai: Just from photos and his publicity in the last election, I think he is a person who can speak well. He is the kind of steady guy that the PAP would field.

On Mr David Ong:  He is a friendly chap and I have to commend him for coming all the way to Bukit Batok even though he stays in Bedok.

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Mr Hong Shao Hui, 78, retiree, resident of over 10 years.

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: Based on first impression, he is very friendly.

On Mr Murali Pillai: Haven’t met him, so I cannot tell.

On Mr David Ong: He came once but I have no impression of him.

 

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Madam Chong, 81, retiree, resident of more than 20 years

On Dr Chee Soon Juan: He is quite friendly and 高大威猛 (tall and strong). He is polite.

On Mr Murali Pillai: I’ve only ever seen him on TV.

On Mr David Ong: Honestly, I take care of myself so I don’t have much impression of him. Actually all three are good people.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Bertha Henson

DES Quake was quaking in his SAF boots. He was ready to erupt. After spending so much time commanding staff to wake up their ideas and realize that the company was getting bombarded by public complaints about delays and stoppages, he now has to tell them to wake up their ideas and follow Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

He would have had them court-martialed if he could, for breaking or not following SOP. How many, in fact, have been disregarding them, walking into danger so recklessly without even a helmet on…Wait, were those 15 men on the tracks wearing helmets?

He sighed. Not that helmets would have saved the two boys who were hit by the train. What a train wreck he was facing. He was feeling like a train wreck too. He downed two Panadols and reflected on the past two days. If it was a death in the SAF, there were all the procedures to follow and staff who knew exactly what to do. Besides, you don’t have to tell the public exactly what went on in a court martial or military court and commission of inquiries reports don’t have to be made public.

Now, the public is baying for blood – even after blood has been spilled. What bloody thirsty people! What vampires! It was like we wanted people to die during training… He must check on the sentries guarding the rest of the men who survived, especially the supervisor. Everybody wants to know how they survived when the two men died. Who knows what beans they would spill in an unguarded moment? They were already so traumatized.

Maybe he should say that they “siamed’’ quickly enough to miss a train moving at 60kmh. Maybe he should just say the two boys crossed the tracks too quickly because they were super enthusiastic about their job? Nope, that doesn’t sound right. He would be flamed like Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan who didn’t think anything about mixing celebratory comments with condolences. Thank goodness, those posts were removed!

Des Quake had been wondering for some time if he should have stayed in the SAF, where at least the Government Proceedings Act could prevent it from getting sued. He hoped that the two families weren’t taking the company to the cleaners, for providing an “unsafe’’ work environment. Then again, he’s admitted liability. He thought back to 2010, way before his time, when the SMRT was fighting the negligence suit from by a widow whose husband was hit by an LRT train while he was doing maintenance work on the tracks. He can’t remember if he had been briefed on this when he took on the job in Oct 2012. He would have to give the records a dusting over and see if new, improved SOPs were put up then.

So now it’s a police investigation. He supposed that besides finding out what happened, the police would also ask about who was responsible for which part of the SOP. How much should he tell the public since this was part of a police investigation? Maybe he should do a Home Affairs ministry style “no reply’’, “no comment’’? After all, this would be contempt of court right? Especially since there will be a coroner’s inquiry into the deaths of the two.

He had a look again at the press statement his PR folks put out last night. Just some details, enough to satisfy ghouls and vampires.

Before the team is allowed to step back onto the trackway, the following procedure must be carried out: The team must coordinate with the Signal unit at the station for oncoming trains to be brought to a stop and to ensure that no trains enter the affected sector. Our records do not show that this procedure took place.

Very nifty, he thought. Our records do not show that this procedure took place. It doesn’t say who was responsible for telling the Signal Unit. Then again, maybe there was an alert but the Signal Unit guys were sleeping on the job? He’d have to check.

There was this paragraph he bet people would zoom in on:

Pasir Ris MRT station is a terminal station with two platforms. Trains arriving at Pasir Ris can berth at either platform. Trains can cross from one track to the other as they approach the station. In this accident, the train moving in automatic mode was routed to Platform 2. When the train captain saw staff on the track, he immediately applied emergency brakes but was unable to prevent the accident.

Well, at least the captain pulled the brakes. He looked at the graphic his guys had given to the media : 

smrt1_0
Image sourced from SMRT

He had been wondering if the 15 guys should have been positioned before the tracks crossed rather than after, especially since the train was going to switch berths to Platform 2. He picked up a pen. Something like this? 

hand-drawn mrt accident graphic

Then again, don’t need to be so explicit, he thought.

He looked up. Members of his war team were walking into the room in a single file. They had to because the doorway was just 50cm wide. He himself had bumped his shoulders against the frame several times. He had to get it widened.

“What’s the next thing to do?’’ he snapped.

The answers came:

“We should say how much compensation we will be giving the families. It should be bigger than what was offered to Dominique Sarron Lee’s family. Much bigger. ’’ 

“We should name the supervisor and people who were involved in the SOPs so we don’t come across like the Health ministry and SGH over Hep C.’’

“We should put up a memorial site but it must be some way away from wherever the Founders’ Memorial will be.’’

Des Quake finally erupted: “Maybe we should just stand in front of an oncoming train!’’

 

 

For more SMRT war room stories, read In the SMRT war room and In the SMRT war room Part 2.

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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Chubby Cute
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Wan Ting Koh

WHILE chubby babies are generally regarded as healthy and cute, when do you know if your baby is too fat? In the case of infants – usually defined as the time from birth up to 24 months old – how do you tell if a baby is growing too big, too soon, for his or her own good?

Last month, The Straits Times reported that obesity in schoolchildren has risen from 10 per cent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2014. The World Health Organization said that the number of overweight or obese infants and young children between zero and five years old increased from 32 million globally in 1990 to 42 million in 2013. It added that following the current trends, the number of overweight or obese infants and young children globally will increase to 70 million by 2025.

Obese infants are likely to become obese children, and this obesity may persist later in their lives. Obesity sets a person up for a whole host of complications such as high blood pressure, abnormal blood cholesterol levels and cardiac problems.

The standard measure used to measure obesity in adults is the Body Mass Index (BMI). For babies, two standard weight for length charts – one for girls and the other for boys – provided by the World Health Organization are used. For Singapore, you can get these charts from the Health Promotion Board website.

This chart indicates the growth trajectory of the infant separately by length and by weight in percentile. To check whether your baby is in the “normal” range, his length percentile should match his weight percentile. That is, if he is in the 80th percentile for his length, his weight should more or less correspond. According to the World Health Organization growth charts, a baby who falls above the 98th percentile for weight for length is considered to have a high weight for length.

Speaking to TMG, Clinical Paediatric Registered Dietitian (RD) and member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) Meave Graham said that large deviations across percentile lines would be a cause for concern. Ms Graham said that a baby’s weight and length should be plotted on the growth chart during routine health visits and that these parameters will generally follow a particular percentile line on the chart. Though there can be slight deviations for an infant in the “normal” range, an obese infant would show “dramatic increases in the weight percentile over time”.

The paediatric dietitian with over 18 years of clinical experience in Irish paediatric hospitals stressed that obesity ought to be determined by a skilled professional, such as a paediatrician or dietitian, who will interpret information from growth charts taken in tandem with “other assessments such as clinical examination, dietary history and laboratory investigations”.

“Parents just need to observe the baby. The baby will naturally gain body fat in the first year. But if the parents have a suspicion that it is too much, they will need to bring the child for a clinical weight and length check. That is the safest thing to do,” Ms Graham said.

One sign that your baby might be gaining weight too fast is if they are growing out of their clothing rapidly of if they constantly need clothes labelled for an older child, said Ms Graham.

Why would a baby become obese?

The main reason for a baby to become obese is overfeeding.

Studies show that formula feeding, as compared to breast-feeding, is more likely to turn an infant fatter faster. According to a study done by Professor Ben Gibbs from the Department of Sociology at Brigham Young University, babies who are mostly bottle-fed don’t always learn how to regulate their appetites the same way as breastfed babies. Parents may also tend to overfeed when they’re looking at a bottle of milk and measuring a baby’s serving in ounces, something that doesn’t happen when a baby is being breastfed, the study said.

The team studied 8,000 mothers with nine-month-old babies, asking them whether they predominantly breastfed or formula-fed or did both, and then evaluated the child’s weight at age two. Babies put to bed with a bottle were 30 per cent more likely to be obese at age two. Those fed solid food before four months were 40 per cent more likely to become obese.

Ms Jane Freeman, a dietitian at Singapore-based Food Equation, explained why this may be. She said that the nutrition profile of breast milk is specific to a baby needs and breast milk content changes in accordance to the different stages of nursing. So breast milk would in fact be more “tailored” than formula, which is “static”.

Ms Graham, who agrees with Ms Freeman, said that breastfeeding “ensures optimum growth and development” due to the “unique composition of breastmilk and the body’s metabolic and physiological responses to breastmilk”. These benefits cannot be mimicked by formula milk, said the pediatric dietitian.

A changing fluid, breast milk in the first week is made of colostrum which contains a high amount of protein and a number of immunising factors for the newborn. Mature breast milk is produced about three weeks after the birth of the baby. So the milk essentially “reformulates” to target the growth stage of the baby.

Ms Freeman recommends at least 12 months of breastfeeding as the “ideal” time range. Breastfeeding for up to two years can also be done. However, beyond that, the benefits of breastfeeding are “hard to know”.

The dietitian added that another reason a baby might be too fat is if the infant is overfed, which tends to happen if hapless parents resort to giving bottles of milk to quieten a crying child. “There are lots of cases where parents overfeed milk or sugary drinks, especially if they use milk to pacify children,” she said.

Screen time is an issue

Another possible cause for infant obesity, Ms Graham pointed out, was lack of physical activity, and this may be partly due to the increase in time children, from the moment they can grip, are spending on handheld tablets and similar devices. “When I go to the mall now, it is normal for me to see children as young as two or three years old swiping at their devices,” said Ms Graham. “Parents think it is the norm now and babies are given devices from nine to ten months, basically as soon as they can grip them, in order to keep the child entertained. But this is a big problem as it can cause obesity, and even postural problems next time.”

Instead, she suggests that parents interact with their child more, and it is as simple as singing them a song or tickling their palms. “Parents don’t know that by handing their child a device, they are handing them a problem in their later life,” said Ms Graham.

According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, babies should be physically active several times daily in the form of interactive floor play. Babies less than a year old should be given tummy time, where they are put on their tummies so that they exercise their muscles when they raise their head to look around.

From age one to two years, the recommendation is a total of 180 minutes of activity spread throughout the day, such as floor play. Plus no screen time for those younger than two years old as it is “directly associated with the risk of excessive weight gain for all ages”, added Ms Graham.

What should infants eat to maintain a healthy weight?

The Health Promotion board recommends that an infant between the ages of six months and 12 months eat one to two recommended servings of brown rice or wholemeal bread, half a serving of fruit, half a serving of vegetables and two servings of meat. For calcium intake, HPB recommends one and a half servings 750ml of infant formula. Juices are actually not necessary to the baby’s diet and might in fact ruin their appetite for other foods as they are sweetened. It is also recommended that the baby avoid any processed food.

According to guidelines from Mayo Clinic, from birth to age 6 months, a baby may grow about 1.5 to 2.5cm a month and gain about 140 to 200g a week. It is also expected that a baby double his or her birth weight by about five months. From ages six to 12 months, a baby may grow about 1cm a month and gain about 85 to 140g a week. Expect a baby to triple his or her birth weight by the time the infant hits the age of one.

Other tips to prevent your child from becoming obese is to avoid solid food for at least six months, and once you start solid foods, add them gradually to the baby’s diet. Nurse before offering solids, and make sure that the majority of baby’s calories come from breastmilk through the end of the first year.

Also, something that might seem very logical – don’t push your child to continue eating when he is full. As parents, some might be tempted to use mealtimes to inculcate the value of appreciation in their child. (Cue “finish your food ah boy, don’t waste”.)

Baby knows best

However, in general, perhaps natural instincts rule and should be respected.

According to the author of The Science of Mom: A Research-based Guide to your Baby’s First Year Alice Green Callahan, it is important to follow what your child indicates, or he or she might lose the ability to “self-regulate” especially if taught to ignore signals of hunger. In her book, Dr Callahan, who has a PhD in nutrition, cites a study which shows that babies who were fatter at six months and had controlling feeding practices, only got fatter. Likewise, smaller babies at six months old tend to remain small.

At the end of the day, Dr Callahan said, “When it comes down to how much to eat, baby knows best.”

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

GOOD morning. Here are today’s top stories:

“We take responsibility and apologise for the tragic accident.”

SMRT yesterday (March 23) admitted to a serious lapse in safety procedure that resulted in the deaths of two young men on the tracks on Tuesday. The men were part of a 15-member SMRT maintenance crew. Trains are not allowed to enter sectors where maintenance workers had to step on the tracks. The captain of the train in question said he had immediately applied the emergency brakes but it was too late. SMRT said authorisations are given two to three times every day for staff members to be sent to the tracks while trains are running. It did not specify who was responsible for the safety lapse.

“Train is coming! Train is coming!”

Mr Muhammad Hatin Kamil, 24, was about to cross the tracks when he heard a senior technical officer behind him shout these words. He was a member of the maintenance crew out on the tracks on Tuesday, and a close friend of one of the victims, Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin. “This happened right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t think. I went back to the platform, I couldn’t do anything,” he told The Straits Times. The two men were buried yesterday in the Muslim cemetery in Lim Chu Kang.

“I love Singapore and hope to call it my home permanently.”

Ai Takagi, the editor of The Real Singapore, as she apologised in open court yesterday. The 23-year-old Australian of Japanese descent was sentenced to 10 months’ jail for publishing articles that were intended to “provoke unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore,” the judge said. She is eight weeks pregnant. Her husband, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng, 27, is claiming trial. Follow the saga here.

“Zero risk doesn’t exist.”

Belgium’s Interior Minister Jan Jambon, who said yesterday that even on high alert, authorities cannot be expected to prevent all terror attacks. Belgian police are on a manhunt for a suspect who is thought to have escaped after his device failed to explode in Tuesday’s attack, claimed by ISIS. Two other suicide bombers have been identified as brothers. They were known criminals but not linked to terror activities, police said. Read about the similarities between this attack and the Paris attacks here.

“Unless you turn the entire city into a prison, it’s not going to be possible to counter every possible attack.”

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam responding yesterday to the attacks in Brussels, which left a death toll of 31 and 270 people injured. The minister last week unveiled an ambitious plan to intensify the city-state’s surveillance with more CCTV cameras and security checks. The counter-terrorism strategy follows the announcement of four Singaporeans investigated for links to armed conflict in the same week. “We have to significantly rely on intelligence to deter; and in the case of Singapore, we have the ability to intervene early because we have the Internal Security Act (ISA),” Mr Shanmugam added.

“You asked why I came down today. I have only three words: I miss him.”

Civil servant Diana Lee, 47, who visited the remembrance site for Mr Lee Kuan Yew yesterday. The site, adjacent to Parliament House, was one of three set up to mark his first-year death anniversary yesterday. Mr Lee died on March 23 last year, aged 91, after being hospitalised for severe pneumonia. Across the island, many paid their respects to the founding father of Singapore, including past and present Members of Parliament, who attended a remembrance ceremony held at the Parliament House.

 

Featured image by The  Middle Ground.

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Brussels Bombing

by Reuben Wang

BRUSSELS came under attack yesterday, with at least 30 killed after bombs were detonated at the airport and a subway station. It bore some resemblance to the Paris attacks on Nov 13 last year, which killed 127 people.  Multiple targets were simultaneously attacked, with the aim of achieving maximum damage. Four months later, the French anti-terrorism police released a report which gave little-known details of how ISIS planned and carried out the attacks.

The Belgian connection was already clear right from the attacks, when French authorities found a discarded white Samsung phone in a trash can outside the Bataclan, the site of one of the attacks. The phone had a Belgian SIM card activated only a day before the attack, and was used to contact only one other user – who was in Belgium.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) history of the device led investigators to arrive at the name of Salah Abdeslam, who was in charge of logistics during the Paris attacks – and believed to be the only perpetrator still alive. While Belgian authorities knew his general whereabouts, he faded into the Molenbeek underground where he had grown up.

Molenbeek is a working class district of Brussels that is predominantly Muslim, but has “an even more insular sub-community, made up of small-time drug dealers and petty criminals, unemployed young men with few prospects” according to a New York Times report.

After 125 days of raiding homes, rounding up his friends, drug dealers, thieves and interrogating his family, the authorities shot Abdeslam in the leg as he was attempting to escape and apprehended him. This was last Friday, March 18.

The key raid which led to his capture – which involved a gunfight – found large quantities of ammunition, an ISIS flag, and his fingerprints. Unbeknownst to authorities then, they also found “detonators that were probably meant to be used in the attacks“.

Brussels may be the capital of both Belgium and the European Union, but its seedy underbelly was where the Paris attacks were planned.  Molenbeek seems almost like a case study for the socio-economic conditions needed to ferment self-radicalisation. It suffers from soaring youth unemployment estimated at more than 40%, and is culturally marginalised from the rest of Brussels. CNN has described Brussels as “a recruiting ground for terrorism“.

Investigations into the Paris attacks have revealed further links. While the attack was being planned, most of the perpetrators appeared to have travelled easily and freely between Belgium and France, even though at least three of them were wanted on international arrest warrants.

The attackers arrived at the Bataclan in a Volkswagen Polo with a Belgian license plate.

For access in and out of Europe itself, they used false documents from a high-quality forger in Belgium. Traces of the signature explosive used by European ISIS terrorists were found in the rented Belgian apartment occupied by the perpetrators of the Paris attack in the weeks leading up to the attacks.

In the days leading up to the Brussels attack, unlike Paris, law enforcement told the press they were acutely aware that an attack was imminent, even after months of heightened alert.

On March 17, investigators found the Paris attackers had footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official “as part of seizures made following the Paris attacks”.

For a week in November last year,  in the midst of the manhunt for Abdeslam, Brussels went into lockdown. Shops, schools, and public transportation were shut down as the military patrolled the streets in armoured vehicles. Just a week before the attack, Belgians were warned “that there were dozens more jihadists at large in the city and that more attacks were being planned”.

French security and intelligence agencies said they were working under the assumption that additional ISIS networks were already in Europe after Paris. It turns out they were correct.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong. 

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If I Were A Finance Minister

by Yoong Ren Yan

WHEN I was working for a government watchdog in New York, budget transparency was a big deal. That year, the leaders of both houses of the New York state legislature were arrested for corruption. Their crimes followed a familiar trend: billions of dollars in the budget were hived off for the exclusive use of these leaders. And no one knew what they spent it on – until prosecutors mustered up enough evidence and courage to take them down.

In places where corruption is endemic, everyone gets why the public needs budget data. The New York City government, for instance, makes all its transactions public in Checkbook NYC, searchable by date, amount, recipient, department, and contract number – quite literally a cheque book. Even Jakarta intends to make its transactions public and immediately available, according to Lee Kuan Yew School Dean Kishore Mahbubani.

In contrast, Singapore offers only aggregated budget figures, but in a difficult-to-use format. And unlike New York City and Jakarta, there is no public data on individual transactions.

This is enough to produce some beautiful visualisations, but still isn’t as detailed as some would like. In the 2015 Global Open Data Index, collated by non-profit Open Knowledge, Singapore ranks 23rd overall, out of 122 countries, and tied with Austria and South Korea. But on budget transparency, we scored 10 per cent, and rank 49th.

As Mr Mahbubani put it: “Clearly, we live in a different world when Jakarta becomes more transparent than Singapore about its revenue and expenditures.” Ironically, corruption invites transparency. But in places where public officials are overwhelmingly honest, why bother making data public at all?

But transparency is not all about preventing graft.

In a letter to The Straits Times, Ms Jolene Tan of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) argues that budget openness can improve participation and debate.

Referring to the Open Budget Index, published by the International Budget Partnership non-profit, Ms Tan calls for supplementary reports, both before and after the budget is enacted. These reports provide revenue and expenditure projections, making it easier for non-government groups like Aware to make “constructive, evidence-based” budget proposals.

Currently, many budgetary details are only revealed ad hoc, “at the discretion of government agencies or through the unsystematic process of parliamentary questions” – a point TMG has raised many times and applies beyond just budget data. While genuine progress has been made, especially with the G’s new data portal, there is also room to collate requests publicly, and release data predictably.

Transparency is achievable even on matters as contentious as budgets.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States have independent budget offices that release projections on taxes and spending. Governments, oppositions, and civic groups alike use their budgetary expertise. The UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility even considered scoring the fiscal effects of opposition party manifestos.

Once the public is empowered with budget data, it is equally important that governments listen to proposals.

As Ms Tan points out, public consultations about the budget this year, under the auspices of feedback portal Reach, ended on Feb 26. This left the G with less than a month to read, and consider adopting, any proposals made, including Aware’s plan to support caregivers and enhance long-term care.

It would be sad were we to make our budget transparent simply in response to persistent corruption, and a breakdown of trust in public officials. Instead, transparency – in the form of data, independent expertise, and genuine consultation – serves nobler purposes.

Back in 2010, the Ministry of Finance rolled out “If I Were The Finance Minister”, a game developed in collaboration with Temasek Polytechnic. The game – which you can still play – puts players in the shoes of the Finance Minister, emphasizing the “tough choices” inherent in budgets.

An admirable effort, we think. But the public shouldn’t just be playing games – it should be able to examine the real deal.

"If I Were The Finance Minister", a game developed by the Ministry of Finance and Temasek Polytechnic for the 2010 budget
A screenshot of “If I Were The Finance Minister”, a game developed by the Ministry of Finance and Temasek Polytechnic for the 2010 budget.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong.

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Black Air Purifier. Image sourced from flickr user: Scott Lewis

by Hamzah Omar Yaacob

THINK the haze season is still far away?

Well, thankfully it’s not here yet, though some people have noticed a burning smell in the air recently. The smell is not due to haze but could be due to local burning according to Straits Times reports. However, the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BKMG) is predicting unusually dry weather in central and western Indonesia in March and April this year. This makes these areas susceptible to smouldering forest fires. Depending on wind directions, smoke from such fires could blanket Singapore in haze, sending many of us into a frenzy to combat the bad air.

Air purifiers have proven to be a useful weapon. The Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) performed two tests on 10 air purifiers in April 2014, and found that all were able to clean air with haze particles, removing an average of up to 99 per cent of particles. Furthermore, according to ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist Dr Ronald Brett, air purifiers may prevent the worsening of “respiratory ailments like allergy, asthma and chronic pulmonary disorders”. But with a plethora of models in the market, what should you consider when buying one?

1. The room you intend to place your purifier

Air purifiers have different capacities which determine the rate at which the air in the room is cleaned. It is important to ensure your air purifier fits your room size. Ms Joey Feng from indoor air quality company Air and Odor Management says using an air purifier meant for a smaller room “will take a much longer time for you to get a percentage of cleaner air”.

How do you find out if the air purifier you hope to purchase can clean all the air in your room at a comfortable rate? Look at the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) of the product. This will carry three numbers, with each number measuring how much the machine can reduce particles of tobacco smoke, pollen and dust. The higher the CADR number, the faster the air in the room will be cleaned, and in the case of haze, the rate at which dust particles are cleaned matters most. As a rough guide, you should be looking for a CADR number that is at least 75 per cent the size of your room. However, do note that not all purifiers will carry a CADR, though most manufactures should tell you the ideal room size the purifier can serve.

2. Type of filtration technology used

An array of filtration technologies are available to consumers. Common filtration technologies you will find on the market include High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, carbon filters, ultra-violet filters and photocatalytic filters. But which one is best suited for haze?

Dr Ronald Brett says HEPA filters are preferable and added that “good models have two filters, primary and secondary”. HEPA filters seem to be the best given their ability to remove up to 0.3 micrometers of dust particles. Haze from land and forest fires, the predominant cause of haze here, comprises “very fine particles with a diameter of less than 10 mm” according to ASEAN’s Haze Action Online.

However, some air purifiers do come with a variety of filtration technology, allowing them to filter a variety of particles and bacteria in the air.  For instance, one of the air purifiers in the market, the Dyson Pure Cool, has activated carbon granules. This enables it to remove organic compounds in the air. You may want to consider a model with added versatility allowing your machine to take on other forms of bad air such as bad stench, and not just the haze.

Do be warned though, some air purifiers emit ozone to change the composition of particles in the air in order to mask odors. According to Mayo clinic, ozone air purifiers may worsen asthma in the long term and “inhaling ozone, even in small amounts, can irritate the lungs”, it says on its website. So, even if the manufacturer tells you the product is safe, you might want to do your own research.

Other features air purifiers will come with include mechanisms that humidify the air or give off a scent. However, these features may compromise the efficiency of your air purifier, said Ms Feng.

3. Energy efficiency

Air purifiers for domestic use typically use about 50 to 200 watts of electricity per hour. While most boast a variety of modes from “low” to “turbo”, some have features aimed at reducing energy consumption. Some can automatically sense if the air in the room has been sufficiently cleaned before reducing the cleaning rate, or come with a sensor allowing the machine to alter cleaning rates depending on the presence of people in the room. Ms Feng says that such features could save you “half or one-quarter of electricity consumption, depending on which mode you use”.

4. Portability

Some air purifiers may be bulky. You might not need such a large machine given the size of the room, and large machines might make it difficult if or when you want to move your air purifier to another room. However, according to Dyson’s Microbiologist Guide to Choosing an Air Purifier by Toby Saville, a Dyson microbiologist, there is an exception to this rule, as “certain models of purifiers combine the functionality of a fan with an air purifier”.

5. Long-term costs

Filters need to be changed regularly. HEPA filters generally cost about $80 and need to be changed every six months. Some models have multiple filters, and will cost you more to ensure proper upkeep. Also, different brands come with different warranties. Dr Brett says one should make sure you get a good service warranty to avoid having to pay extra in case your machine breaks down.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Scott Lewis

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by Ryan Ong

Before the 2000s, if you talked about investing in diamonds, you’d get a knowing wink. Diamonds were controlled by a monopoly back then, and people “in the know” realised it was a safe bet. Then in 2010, the unthinkable happened: diamond prices fell, and continued to fall until the present. That’s not the puzzling part either. Despite the drop, interest over the past few years seems to be rising. Here’s what’s going on:

 

Diamond investing “back then”

As an investment, diamonds underwent a radical shift in the 2000s. And you need to understand how it used to work, or nothing about the market now will make sense.

Until the late 1800s, diamonds were rare. But in 1870, British colonisers in South Africa discovered the country was loaded with diamonds. There were places along the Orange River in South Africa where you almost couldn’t sip water without accidentally choking on a diamond. You could walk the riverbank with a big scoop and get bagfuls of the stuff.

This caused panic in the diamond industry at that time, because diamonds got most of their value from scarcity. So in 1888, some financiers formed De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited.

De Beers, a collaboration between various diamond related companies, ended up owning or controlling most of the diamond mines in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana – countries where most of the world’s high quality gemstones come from.

Over time, De Beers also bought or formed diamond trading firms in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland.

By the 1980s, De Beers controlled almost 90 per cent of the world’s diamond supply. They released the diamonds in small and controlled amounts, thus maintaining the illusion of scarcity. Along with that, De Beers launched several interesting marketing campaigns and invented the phrase “a diamond is forever”.

Since they controlled the supply, De Beers could sell their diamonds however and whenever they wanted. They only dealt with invited clients and diamonds were sold 10 times a year at non-negotiable prices. Their clients then polished and cut the diamonds, and sold them to jewellers.

This monopoly of diamond prices rose regardless of market conditions. As far back as the 1970s, investors “in the know” about the diamond business had already begun using diamonds as an alternative investment. They felt that due to De Beers’ control, diamonds were more reliable than stocks or bonds.

An important caveat: There are analysts who dispute that diamonds have ever been good investments, even in the past few decades. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article claiming that, after factoring in inflation, diamonds perform worse than the typical index fund or government bond.

 

Diamonds as an investment now

Around the 1990s, world class diamond mines were opening up in other parts of the world. De Beers, in order to maintain control, had to buy up all the supply from these mines. They had to convince these mines to join what was, in all frankness, a cartel.

Rifts began to form. The Argyle mine in Australia, one of the world’s largest, broke away from the De Beers supply chain. Canadian diamond mines were un-cooperative with De Beers’ scheme and wanted to sell to the market themselves. After all, there was a huge market if they were willing to undercut De Beers by just a little bit.

By around 1998, De Beers only controlled 60 per cent of the world’s diamond supply. By the mid-2000s, De Beers had all but given up trying to control the global diamond supply.

(The De Beers monopoly ended in 2001, when De Beers started to come under fire for anti-competitive practices and for buying diamonds from militant groups in African states. By 2012, the United States Supreme Court had cornered De Beers into accepting anti-trust laws.)

The current diamond market is hence a lot less certain. Without the powerful De Beers cartel to constantly push prices up, diamond values are now susceptible to the whims of the free market. In addition, the diamond industry is beginning to open up to outsiders.

Companies like the Singapore Diamond Investment Exchange (SDiX), or Facets Singapore, are introducing the idea of diamond investments to a wider market. Back in the 1990s and before, investing in diamonds often meant knowing a diamond dealer and having a personal relationship with him.

 

How do people invest in diamonds?

For starters, they don’t buy them through retail shops. When a diamond is purchased from a jeweller, a large part of the cost goes into marketing and craftsmanship. High-end jewellers can mark up the price of a stone by as much as 60 per cent.

Investors purchase from a wholesaler or dealer, and almost never from big jewellery stores. These are increasingly common in Singapore. This is because, besides investors, some buyers have discovered they can get their engagement or weddings rings cheaper by buying the stone from a wholesaler or dealer.

Most investors will look for Gemological Institute of America (GIA) or American Gem Society (AGS) certification. Certificates from other laboratories exist, but can have a negative impact on the diamond’s value as buyers don’t trust other certifications as much.

The Rapaport Diamond Index and IDEX are the most commonly referred indices for diamond prices. However, diamonds are far from being at the level of stocks, bonds or commodities like oil when it comes to transparent pricing. It is possible for individual diamonds to sell for much more or less than they are “supposed” to be worth.

Diamonds are rated according to the four Cs:

  • Carat
  • Colour
  • Clarity
  • Cut

Carat

This is the weight of the diamond. One full carat is around 0.20g. A common guideline for determining value is Tavernier’s Law: the weight in carats is squared and multiplied by the base price of a one carat stone (Wt² x C = price).

In reality, Tavernier’s Law will seldom give you the accurate value of a diamond as the price will also be affected by the other conditions below.

Diamonds bought for investment purposes are almost always three carats or more. Diamonds smaller than that cannot be counted on for resale value.

Colour

The most valuable diamonds are usually clear diamonds (colourless). With fancy coloured diamonds, the most valuable are red, green and blue. In consumer markets, pink tends to be popular and expensive (Gee, engagement rings, take a guess why?), but are not actually as scarce as the others.

Yellow diamonds are difficult to sell in Asia, because the stone does not blend well with the common skin tones of those living in the region.

GIA has an official colour scale. Again, for clear diamonds, value increases with lack of colour. For fancy coloured diamonds, scarcity of the colour affects value.

Bonus tip: If you just want a more affordable clear diamond, a common way to cheat is to go for a “G” grade rather than an “F” grade. This can shave several hundred dollars off the price, and the difference will not visible to the naked eye.

Clarity

This measures how many imperfections there are in the diamond. Imperfections are called inclusions when they are inside the diamond, and blemishes when they are on the surface. Clarity is graded from Flawless (FL) to Included (I1 to I3).

You can check the GIA chart here.

Some inclusions are not visible once the diamond has been set in a ring, pendant, etc. (This is another reason investors seldom get their diamonds from jewellers.)

Cut

The cut of the diamond affects how sparkly it is. It’s determined by brightness, fire (the way the light scatters around it), and scintillation (the juxtaposition of light and dark spots).

Cut ratings go from Excellent to Poor, according to the GIA scale.

 

Are they good investments?

Like any high-end alternative, diamonds derive their value from having low correlation to conventional stock and bond markets.

Diamonds have some of the same problems that you find with wine, stamps, cars, etc. Prices can be unpredictable and there is no single global standard that determines the value of any one gem. It is very different from commodities like oil or gold, where we know for a definite fact how much one barrel or one ounce will be worth everywhere.

A diamond that is worth $2 million to one buyer may be worth half that to another, or perhaps double. Bidding during diamond auctions can drive prices up or down with little predictability. And without the controlling hand of De Beers, the era of controlled supply, and hence steadily climbing prices, has come to a close.

As of last year, diamond prices have experienced a gradual decline over five years. Most notably, De Beers posted a seven per cent decline in profit between 2014 and 2015. While they are no longer the demigods of the diamond industry, De Beers performance is still a good indicator of overall demand.

This has been blamed on falling demand in China. Asia has been a pillar of support for diamond prices since early 2000. When De Beers liquidated a large chunk of their inventory from 2001 to 2005, it was mostly the demand in Asia that stopped diamond prices from plummeting. China’s slowdown has been devastating for the jewellery industry in general.

By all appearances, diamonds are risky investments right now. But they continue to attract a lot more attention, because it becomes easier by the year to buy from wholesalers. In this respect, the dismantling of the De Beers cartel was probably a good thing.

Perhaps in the coming decades, diamonds will be better known as an alternative.

This piece is part of a series on alternative investments. Other alternative investments featured include timepieces, cryptocurrencies and stamps.

Featured illustration by Natassya Diana 

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Lee Kuan New standing on the hill looking at people bowing and praying to him

by Felix Cheong

AS WE approach the first anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death, we pay tribute to him by imagining how he would’ve responded to events after his passing, through a character we fondly name Lee Kuan New.

And so it comes down to today, all the memorials, artillery shell casings, books, collectibles etc. What will Lee Kuan New make of the overwhelming adoration on his first anniversary?

Featured illustration by Natassya Diana 

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PMETs Budget
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Yoong Ren Yan

THEY say you won’t know how it feels until it hits you. There have been signs of an economic slowdown for some time now, but the warnings remained warnings – until now. According to the latest manpower report, 15,580 workers were laid off last year, the highest number since 2009 when 23,430 were made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis.

Why is all this happening? A combination of a gloomy global economy, and restructuring efforts in Singapore, none of which show any sign of changing. Layoffs are actually picking up with a third of last year’s layoffs happened in the last quarter. Our relatively low unemployment rate – 2.9 per cent for Singaporeans – may not hold steady for much longer.

But what might be a cause for greater concern is whose jobs are at stake. Of those made redundant last year, 71 per cent were professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs), many from the professional services, wholesale trade, and finance industries. About 65 per cent were aged 40 and above.

It’s little wonder that Silver Spring, a social enterprise which focuses on professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) aged between 40 and 70, has seen applications on its job portal spike 50 per cent over the last six months. Also, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) helped 50 per cent more PMEs over the past year than the year before.

But targeted job portals or programmes can’t solve the problem if there aren’t enough jobs.

Prospects for those laid off aren’t rosy. Vacancies fell to their lowest level in four years. There are still more vacancies than unemployed people, but only just with 1.13 vacancies per unemployed worker. And just half of those laid off could find jobs within six months, down from 59 per cent a year ago.

As always, PMETs and older workers face the most difficulty in getting another job. PMET vacancies fell by 23 per cent between March and December last year. A quick check on Silver Spring revealed just 39 PME jobs available.

So the skills of those jobless don’t match the jobs available, and thus they are staying out of work longer. These are classic indicators of a structural problem in our labour market – one that the G is already aware of, and is responding to.

West Coast MP Patrick Tay, who is also NTUC assistant secretary-general, has suggested a “sectoral approach” to help industries where job losses are concentrated. NTUC is also giving PMEs union representation to better serve their needs. For instance, as part of NTUC’s U PME programme, the Association of Banks in Singapore now has a jobs portal for retrenched workers to find employment at other banks.

Of course, if banks are retrenching en masse, it’s difficult to see how a jobs portal would help. Instead, workers may need retraining to join other growth industries, including healthcare and information and communications technology.

That’s the objective of the multi-billion dollar SkillsFuture initiative, which may be put to an early test given these employment numbers.

And to incentivise companies to hire middle-aged PMEs, the G is piloting wage subsidies as part of the Career Support Programme. For a 50-year-old PME unemployed for more than six months, for instance, the G is offering a year-long subsidy for jobs that pay more than $4,000 a month. It will pay up to $2,800 for the first six months, and up to $1,400 for the next six months. It already funds PME retraining through the Professional Conversion Programmes.

The G’s response will be clearer come tomorrow (March 24), when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat presents his first Budget. Mr Heng has promised a “strong focus” on the economy, including help for the “variegated landscape” of small and medium enterprises here.

But what about workers? While the global financial crisis was far more severe, the 2009 Budget might offer clues on what the G has planned. As part of the Resilience Package, then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced a temporary Jobs Credit, which subsidised the wages of all employees by up to $300 per month. Such a broad-based policy can weather a recession, which we may be due for this year. But it is very costly seeing as the G tapped into the reserves to fund it, and may not even be appropriate if jobs and workers are mismatched.

In 2009 as well, Mr Tharman rolled out the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience – the predecessor to SkillsFuture – with highly subsidised PME-level courses. Some tweaks to SkillsFuture, targeted at middle-aged PMEs, may be on the cards this time round.

These are trying times to be presenting the first budget of a new term. Mr Heng has already said the G plans to be “particularly prudent”. So while the spike in layoffs is a concern, expect any policy changes to be targeted and incremental for now.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong

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