June 29, 2017


SELAMAT Hari Raya Puasa! As usual, the annual Muslim festival is celebrated with plenty of pomp and vibrant decorations all over Singapore. There’s been the colourful Geylang Serai Bazaar, a giant light-up featuring Malay heritage icons and even jazzed-up trains. Two Hari Raya themed trains were launched last Thursday (Jun 22) to celebrate. This is the first time that trains are decorated for the occasion, with designs including ketupat decals on the windows. Some carriages are decorated to look like a fully-furnished living room; complete with carpet, couch and curtain decals.

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But in other parts of the world, it’s not just all celebration. We look at how muslims around the world would be spending Eid this year:

1. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: holiday extended by a week

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Sreejithk2000.

Government employees in Saudi Arabia will be receiving a longer vacation than they had initially expected after the Saudi government extended the Eid holiday by a week on Wednesday (Jun 21). Previously, employees had the final ten days of Ramadan off work and some time away for Eid as well. Their break began on June 16 and will end on July 8.

However, employees in the private sector questioned the extra time off from work given only to government employees. One Twitter user felt that those in the private sector were “not counted as citizens of this country”.

2. Doha, Qatar: Families face tough decision on whether to leave amid blockade

Image by Flickr user Larry Johnson. CC BY 2.0.

To leave or to stay: This is the question that has been haunting at least 6,500 families with mixed citizenships, as reported by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. The Qatar blockade announced on Jun 5 cut off air, land, and sea links with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt. The first three also told their citizens to leave Qatar by last Monday (Jun 19).

A Qatari single mother, whose ex-husband was a Bahraini, faced the prospect of being separated from her children. After getting divorced in 1999, she had since brought her three children up in Qatar. But her children’s Bahraini citizenship required them to leave the country immediately.

The timing of this crisis could not be more tragic with the Eid holiday fast approaching – a time when families traditionally reunite. “The social fabric of [the region] is being torn apart for political reasons and we will not allow ourselves to be a party to this injustice,” government spokesman from Saudi Arabia Sheik Saif bin Ahmed al Thani said last Monday.

3. Xinjiang, China: Annual gathering of Uighur Muslims closely watched by authorities

Image by Flickr user Carrie Kellenberger. CC BY 2.0.

Living as a Muslim in China can be controversial, given ethnic clashes in recent years. But that has not stopped the country’s 20 million Muslims from having vibrant celebrations of Eid-al-Fitr every year, albeit under the cautionary eye of the local authorities, which introduced fresh regulations clamping down on the community this year.

Of the country’s 56 ethnicities, over ten are majority Muslim – notably, the Uighur and Hui people, from the Xinjiang and Ningxia provinces respectively. In both provinces, Eid-al-Fitr is a public holiday for all residents, and the roads are toll-free on that day.The largest Eid gathering happens in the Uighur city of Kashgar, where the Turkic-speaking Uighurs gather at the Id Kah Mosque for prayers, followed by music and dancing on the streets.

The Chinese government forbids officials from taking part in the celebrations, given the state’s official stance on secularism. Earlier in April, the central government also banned wearing a veil and sporting an “abnormal” beard, a move which was widely criticised as targeting Muslims.

4. Cilvegozu, Turkey: Syrian refugees head home on foot

Image by Flickr user Fabio Sola Penna. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Syrian refugees in Turkey are heading back home this Hari Raya after the capital of Turkey, Ankara, gave them the right to return a month after the Eid festival. Many are thrilled at being given the opportunity to visit their homeland. But some have decided to leave Turkey for good because of the difficulties in finding jobs there. They believe that employment opportunities are better in Syria.

Although Syrians have been given work permits since 2016, they are still unable to make a living out of the scarce employment opportunities which often deprive them of employee rights such as being able to take a leave of absence.

Turkey currently hosts around 3.5 million refugees – the largest number of refugees worldwide. At least 3000 of them have crossed Turkish borders into Syria by foot on Thursday (Jun 15). Anyone who wishes to return to Turkey will be treated as new arrival and go through the normal immigration process.

Featured image from Flickr user Jnzl’s Photos. CC BY 2.0

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by Danielle Goh & Sharanya Pillai

AS PATRONS of the Happy Hawkers coffee shop at Tampines Street 86 have their late-afternoon meals, child-like voices ring out in the background: “Excuse me, I’m helping with tray return.”

When customers obstruct the pathway, they are greeted with sad eyes.

The voices and facial expressions belong not to actual children, but two humanoid robots, each over 1.7 metres tall, manufactured by local company R Factory. As part of their daily duties, the nameless robots patrol the premises – about the size of a classroom – on wheels. One robot is reserved for Halal food, and the other for non-Halal food.

As businessman Mr Patrick Tan tucks into a bowl of ramen, one of the robots rolls along past him. Amused, he says: “These are just gimmicks. When we come to an eatery, what we want is just good food, a clean place and (being able to) make sure that we don’t get food poisoning.”

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The non-Halal food robot at the Happy Hawkers coffee shop in Tampines.

The Happy Hawkers outlet, run by Koufu, is one of two heartland coffee shops developed using innovative business models under the G’s Food Services Industry Transformation Map. The other is the FoodTastic coffee shop at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1, run by Chang Cheng. Both outlets opened on Sunday (May 21).

But customers are having mixed feelings about the hi-tech trappings of the “productive” coffee shops.

A major feature of the coffee shops is the emphasis on making ordering more efficient, while encouraging customers to go cashless.

The Tampines outlet boasts touch-screen panels next to every stall for self-ordering and payment with cash or card. Customers are given a five per cent discount when they use cashless payment methods like NETS, credit or debit cards.

Few patrons actually used the panels, instead reciting their orders to the hawkers as usual. The hawkers themselves then stepped out of their shops to complete the order on the machines and show customers how to pay.

For housewife Ms Joanne Teo, the new system introduces too many intermediary steps. The 40-year-old ordered rice and mixed vegetables on the touch-screen panel, but said that the hawkers did not start preparing the dish until she realised that she had to pass them her receipt.

“It would be easier for me to just tell them what I want,” she said, adding that the elderly living in the rental flats nearby might struggle with using the system.

But some elderly that The Middle Ground (TMG) spoke to actually enjoy the new technology. Retiree Mr Bernard Loy, 60, is an avid user of Koufu’s Beat the Q app, which lets him browse the menu and order using his smartphone. Users also enjoy a ten per cent discount.

“The prices are reasonable with the app,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Over at the Choa Chu Kang coffee shop, another senior had a different opinion. As she settled down at a table with her friends, 62-year-old Ms Judy Eu was visibly flustered, uttering “hen ma fan” or “very troublesome” in Mandarin.

Unlike the Tampines coffee shop, FoodTastic has six centralised self-ordering kiosks at the front of the outlet – similar to those at fast food chains. Most kiosks only accept card payment, some accept both cash and cards.

The interior does not consist of individual stalls, like a typical coffee shop, but instead has collection counters. While this greatly reduces manpower, it also means not being able to see the chicken hanging from the hook at a chicken rice stall, or hand-pick ingredients for yong tau foo, which Ms Eu resented.

She also found it difficult to use the touchscreen interface at the kiosk, saying that it was slow in response. “If I have special requests, like less ice in my drink, I also can’t (specify) it in the machine,” she added.

And it also gets a bit more complicated with ordering drinks. While it was a breeze to select an order of milo gao (concentrated milo) or milo xiu dai (milo with less sugar), there was no option to order a combination of milo gao xiu dai (concentrated milo with less sugar).

When TMG tried to make a special request on an order – mee goreng without bean sprouts – a member of the staff had to personally pass the message to the kitchen.

However, staff whom we spoke to were receptive towards the new technology. Ms Yong Mui Mui, 64, a part-time cleaner at FoodTastic said that a new automated tray return system, which has yet to come into operation, would ease her workload during peak hours.

A new cleaning robot also assists Ms Yong with nightly duties.

Similarly, Mr Ng Siew Boon, a worker at one of the Happy Hawker stalls, felt that the efforts are a “start” to becoming more efficient. “With this, we really can save on manpower in the future. It’s good to take the first step and not be afraid to try it out,” he said.

The Tampines outlet even has two extra robots that can be deployed if it gets more crowded, Mr Ng added.

This is not the first time that the G is encouraging coffee shops to become “smarter”. In 2014, food centres started introducing NETS FlashPay terminals to encourage cashless payment.

However, the reception was lukewarm. Some stall owners have stopped using FlashPay as the payment did not go through at times or that the device took up too much space in the stall, Channel NewsAsia reported in March.

It remains to be seen if the latest productivity drive – which came at a cost of $1 million for Chang Cheng and a 70 percent cost increase for Koufu – will bear fruit. For now, operators seem to bear the brunt of the costs, with customers interviewed at both food courts noting that prices remain affordable.

For many patrons like Mr Tan, the difference between a “productive” coffee shop and a typical one is not that visible yet – except for the “new and shiny” tray-bearing androids.

Even then, some things don’t really change. As Mr Tan finished his noodles, he eyed the robot – but a cleaner approached him first and cleared his tray for him.

Featured image by Danielle Goh.

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HACKERS are having a great weekend, with the recent spate of cyber attacks. At home, concerns over internet security hit a new high when the the Ministry of Education revealed that the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University were targets in a “sophisticated” cyber attack last month.

And in the rest of the world, a major cyberattack on Friday (May 12) hit schools, companies and even hospitals in over 70 countries. The choice of weapon? A ransomware tool called “WannaCry”, that locks people out of their computers unless they pay up.

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More worryingly, experts suspect that the hacker group behind the attacks, the sinister-sounding “Shadow Brokers”, was using software stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. We look at some of the countries affected, alongside other developments in the hacking world:

1. London, UK: Healthcare calls in sick

NHS Ambulance, United Kingdom. Image by Flickr user Lee Haywood.

British hospitals affected by “Wannacry” were forced to divert patients needing emergency treatment to other neighbouring hospitals. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May said this was not a targeted attack at the National Health Service. “It’s an international attack and a number of countries and organisations have been affected,” she said in response to the cyber attacks. More than 40 hospitals and health facilities reported that they had been hit by the virus on Friday.

The attack had affected X-ray imaging systems, pathology test results, phone systems and patient administration systems. Doctors warned that this attack, the biggest in The National Health Service (NHS) history, could cost lives. Important information, medical records, and patient details could be lost if hackers delete the files. On Friday, doctors and nurses were left to treat patients without access to their medical files. Some patients had their operations cancelled. However in a statement, the NHS said, “At this stage we do not have any evidence that patient data has been accessed. We will continue to work with affected organisations to confirm this.”

The scale of the attacks on NHS raised questions about the security of its systems. Cyber experts said that this was because some health care organisations were using obsolete systems, while others failed to update their software.

2. Madrid, Spain: Phone companies stay on hold

Telefonica building, Madrid, Spain, Image by Federico Jorda.

Victims of the “Wannacry” virus in Spain included Telefonica, the nation’s biggest telecommunications firm, power company Iberdrola and utility Gas Natural. Spain’s government warned organisations of a possible cyber attack on Friday. Some organisations took precautionary measures as a result.

It is not clear how many Spanish organisations were affected by the attack. Telefonica said that the attack was limited to some of its employee’s computers on an internal network and did not affect its clients or services. After the attack on Friday, Telefonica switched off all the computers in its Madrid headquarters, and staff were told to shut down their workstations.

The Spanish government said in a statement that, “The cyber attack had not affected the provision of the companies’ services or the operation of their networks and the national cybersecurity institute was working to resolve it as soon as possible.”

3. Moscow, Russia: “We’re victims too!”

Palace Square, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Image by Flickr user Ninara.

When news of the cyberattacks broke, heads immediately turned to the Kremlin, which is facing allegations of using hackers to influence elections in the US and France. Russia was quick to assert that it wasn’t the criminal here, but a fellow victim.

Experts assessing the damage so far have concluded that Russia is the worst hit, followed by Ukraine and Taiwan. The Russian Interior Ministry confirmed that 1000 of its computers were hit, although its servers were unharmed.

But suspicions still abound, with pundits pointing out the possible links between the Shadow Brokers and Russia. Last year, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted out suspicions that the hacker group is backed by the Kremlin. Guess it all adds to the palace intrigue.

Edward Snowden tweets on links between the cyberattack and the Kremlin. Image from twitter.

4. Washington, DC, US: The Russian plot thickens

Former FBI Director James Comey and Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at a briefing in 2016. Image by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Other than the PR disaster that the NSA now faces, the US has emerged relatively unscathed from the cyber attacks. International courier FedEx reported that it is “experiencing interference” due to the attacks, but did not provide any further assessment.

The Americans, meanwhile, are preoccupied with the allegations of Russian hacking into the presidential elections. While President Trump has ousted FBI director James Comey off his back for now, he faces even more pressure to find a new FBI director – will the new head continue the investigations?

And a fresh set of revelations suggest that there is precedent for Russian meddling in US elections. A new report alleges that the Russians attempted to hack the US election as far back as 2007, targeting Barack Obama’s campaign managers. Maybe the Russian hackers were there all along, just that no one noticed them?

5. Paris, France: What doesn’t kill you

Ensemble la France! Emmanuel Macron campaign poster, Paris, Image by Lorie Shuall.

Hackers prey on flaws in cyber security, but they can’t attack your psychological defences, as the French have proven. Right before the end of campaigning, hackers dumped frontrunner Mr Emmanuel Macron’s emails and financing documents online – in a eerie echo of the cyber attack on Mrs Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Once again, fingers pointed at Russia.

But unlike the US, France acted quickly the control the fallout. The election commission warned the press against republishing the information during the “quiet” period when candidates are not allowed to campaign. Some commentators think the US should emulate the French system of having a cool-off period.

And as satirist Andy Borowitz put it, the “French annoyingly retain (the) right to claim intellectual superiority over Americans.”


Featured image by Flickr user World’s Direction.

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L-R: Ms Charis Low, Mr Edmund Chen, Mr Mervyn Hoe

by Ryan Ong

SINGAPORE is a country of opportunities; but opportunity also means tough competition. It takes more than just talent or working hard to succeed. We spoke to some of Manulife Financial Advisers’ (Manulife FA) top financial consultants, and some shared qualities emerged.

In this article, we spoke to three successful young Singaporeans, financial consultants Mervyn Hoe, Charis Low, and Edmund Chen from Manulife FA. Be it ensuring the financial stability of the clients in their care, or gaining a place in the prestigious Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), these top Manulife FA financial consultants display similar traits that took them to the top.

While their roads are different and uncommon, they all lead in the direction of extraordinary success. The key factors that set them apart are:


Success Factor 1: Thinking beyond paper qualifications

Ms Charis Low, Manulife financial advisor. Image by Mohamad Aidil.

Ms Charis Low, who was a Singapore Airlines cabin crew stewardess, graduated with a Degree in Business Marketing. Becoming a financial consultant would seem like an unlikely career trajectory; nonetheless, in the two years since she joined Manulife FA, Ms Low has already become part of the noted Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) circle.

Ms Low believes education has to be backed with the willingness to step out from one’s comfort zone: “Qualifications do matter, in Singapore’s competitive environment; but it’s not the only way to success. There are life lessons that you don’t learn in any school, outside of lectures and books.”

Mr Edmund Chen, another leading financial consultant who became part of the prestigious Court of the Table (CoT) in his first year with Manulife FA, had a more “traditional” background. He began his career in financial planning as far back as 2007, with a degree in Banking and Finance from SIM. He also believes the right qualifications mean little without persistence, and the willingness to keep learning.

“Having a degree is beneficial, as it gets you into many job openings. However, I strongly believe that that is not the only way to get opportunities in life. Being intellectual without having the right attitude will not bring you far,” he said.

“The hard truth is that a degree doesn’t necessarily result in higher earnings.”

“The hard truth is that a degree doesn’t necessarily result in higher earnings.”

“Self-discipline and persistence are imperative qualities to success. And in today’s competitive world, regardless of your line of work, lifelong learning is paramount for building a successful career.”

Mr Mervyn Hoe, another entry into the MDRT, graduated from NUS with a background in Material Science and Engineering. He only got started as a financial consultant when he helped fill out an empty spot at an orientation camp (and even then, he only sold pet insurance at the start). Today he’s a successful financial consultant at Manulife FA, and he values the ability to connect as much as he does a degree: “Academic qualifications are important in Singapore, especially if you want to climb the corporate ladder,” Mr Hoe says, “And I’m quite happy I graduated with a Bachelor in Applied Science. But the ability to meet friends in University was just as important.”

“In NUS you can meet people from all different faculties and disciplines; and it’s important to build good networks. You need to the ability to build friendships and get along with people, as you never know when you’ll need their help later.”


Success Factor 2: Knowing when to keep going, and when to quit

A common quality among the successful is their seemingly perfect timing – they know when to stay invested in something, and when it’s time to try something different.

For Mr Chen and Ms Low, persistence has to be balanced with the costs they’re facing.

“It’s a mistake to give up prematurely – nothing worth doing comes easy, and the middle of the road to success is always messy. But persistence doesn’t mean being to obstinate either,” said Mr Chen.

“We should evaluate the positive trends we see in our efforts. If there are none, and the price of restarting or trying a different approach would be more cost-effective, then perhaps it’s time to cut losses and move on to a new method.”

Ms Low considers the consequence of failure, when it comes to pushing on. While she agrees persistence is important, she takes the view that: “There is no right and wrong in making such decisions; you just have to weigh up the consequences of further failure. Can you manage those consequences? If your instincts and gut feel say you cannot, you should try something different.”

Mr Hoe also suggests that you need to draw a line, when it comes to work and family: “Draw a line and don’t overwork. Don’t forget about your loved ones.”

“Draw a line and don’t overwork. Don’t forget about your loved ones.”

“If you get too into your job, your job will control you, and you won’t be happy. I don’t work on weekends, even if on weekdays I have no choice and have to sacrifice time with my children.”

Ms Low also draws a clear line on when to stop. “Don’t sacrifice your health”, she said, “Because without it, you can’t do anything. And don’t sacrifice your principles.”


Success Factor 3: Setting separate and targeted goals for work and life

Mr Mervyn Hoe, Manulife financial advisor. Image by Mohamad Aidil.

Mr Hoe separates his work and personal goals: “For work, I set a new goal every year after a conversation with my boss. We set the targets to reach, as well as milestones that are broken into specific days, weeks, and months; that’s the way I’ve worked for the past six years.”

“For personal goals, I have three children and aim to spend sufficient quality time with them. I set goals to spend time to teach them and play with them, and for myself I set goals to exercise daily and learn God’s word.”

Ms Low divides her goals along broadly similar lines, although family, career, and financial goals are separated. Each goal is specific and measured: “For family goals, I set a minimum of one family trip per year, and one family dinner per week. For career goals I got into the MDRT last year, and the current one is to set up my own team. Financially, I focus on saving $150,000 a year at minimum.”

For Mr Chen, effective goal setting goes beyond the self. Success comes from also ensuring you bring others with you: “My goal is to help grow the branch, improve the personal growth of newer colleagues, and assist my clients in growing their wealth. My personal goals are to achieve financial independence, and to enjoy life to its fullest.”

However, Mr Chen acknowledges that motivation is important in reaching those goals, and one source of motivation remains: “Having the desire to contribute to and draw inspiration from others.”


Success Factor 4: Cultivating a sense of empathy

Life inevitably brings confrontations and disappointment. What creates exceptional people is the ability to face such situations, and defuse them with empathy.

Mr Chen actively reminds himself to cultivate this behaviour, saying: “I am very adaptable and independent, and I can act in ways that sometimes seem aloof or uncaring. So I make it a point to go out of my way, to be as sensitive as possible; to have more open communications with people around me.”

“We will face awkward or difficult conversations. We have to understand where the other person is coming from, and understand their point of view. Most people are quick to talk, but it’s important to listen,” said Ms Low.

“Most people are quick to talk, but it’s important to listen.”

However, this doesn’t mean agreeing with everything: “There are times when I’ve had to say no to my bosses as well, because of things that clash with my principles.”

Mr Hoe says besides having empathy, the key is finding solutions amidst the tension: “Every now and then I need to tell someone their insurance claim is denied, or that they do not have the right coverage. But even then it’s important to focus on helping them, and keep looking for alternatives.”


Success Factor 5: Being disciplined in routines

Mr Edmund Chen, Manulife Financial Advisor. Image by Mohamad Aidil.

As any NS man who has been on a route march can tell you, rhythm and repetition do wonders to combat fatigue. Having productive routines can help to steady your mind, and keep you focused.

Mr Chen is a big believer in discipline, of which routine is a part.

“I have a practice of waking up four hours prior to my work schedule. I include a daily run, to train my endurance and give me the capacity to keep focused with a sharp mind,” he said.

“My other routine is giving my wife a goodbye kiss in the morning, before I leave for work; and then a kiss when I return. My family, especially my wife, is a pillar of support that makes my career successful.”

“I make it a routine to spend quality time with my children, to know about their day. Engaging them through play is important- carrying them, spinning them around. Before I end my night I catch up with my wife, have a Milo and some cookies, and allow myself a short television session after the children turn in.”

Mr Hoe has a fixed schedule.In the morning, I send my children to school, and I then go jogging and do whatever marketing I need. From noon I start work, and I begin the work day by thinking of client profiles and working out the plans they can use,” he said

“Routines help, and I follow them day by day. They also give my children a sense of comfort.”

Ms Low keeps a routine that prepares her at the start of the day, and winds down toward the end: “I wake up at 9am for breakfast with my husband. I read the newspapers, create the day’s to-do list, and then keep updated (usually on investment or Forex-related issues).”

“At the end of the day I do sports; I exercise two to three times a week. Then I spend time with my husband, maybe enjoy a movie together.”


Looking ahead with Manulife FA

Many of these success factors are straightforward and easy to understand. But it takes effort and discipline to cultivate them, and it’s an everyday process, as these Manulife FA financial consultants have shown.

But the sooner you begin, the sooner success itself becomes a habit.


This is an editorial series done in partnership with Manulife Financial Advisers.

Featured image by Mohamad Aidil.  

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THIS week, MPs will debate recommendations to improve parliamentary procedures, such as increasing the minimum amount of time between the introduction of a Bill and when it comes up for debate, and doubling the notice period for an amendment from two to four clear days. But the 10-member Standing Orders Committee – tasked to periodically review the Parliament’s Standing Orders, or the rules which guide parliamentary procedure – rejected the suggestion to lengthen Question Time.

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Question Time allows MPs to ask questions of government ministers, usually on issues or agencies for which the ministers are responsible for. Yet the one-and-a-half hours currently allocated – at the start of each sitting – may not be sufficient for all the questions tabled. Aggregating the parliamentary sittings from October 10, 2016 to April 4, 2017 (and excluding the Committee of Supply debates on March 6 and 7, when no questions for oral answer were tabled), TMG found that on average, of the 33 questions for oral answer at each sitting (the median is 27), only 13 were answered during Question Time (the median is 15). 66 oral questions were unanswered on November 7, 2016, the highest within the aforementioned range of dates.

In other words, on average, about 39 per cent of oral questions are answered during each Question Time. Questions for oral answer which are not answered during the one-and-a-half hours will be postponed or dealt with as questions for written answer.

MP Louis Ng Kok Kwang and nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had mooted the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time, with more time given for timely and important issues, and also for MPs to ask further questions (TODAY, Apr. 26). Because only about one-third of the oral questions are cleared in each parliamentary sitting, Mr Ng – speaking to TMG – said that Question Time should be doubled to three hours, since the Standing Orders Committee noted that the government had previously, on an ad hoc basis, extended the time limit to three hours. “The number of questions per sitting is already limited, so debate itself should not be limited,” he added. “Oral questions dealt with as questions for written answer lack debate, and the biggest benefit [of having a longer Question Time] is that more or follow-up questions can then be replied to by the office-holder.”

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan Kheng Boon, who served as nominated MP from 2012 to 2014, agreed with the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time. “Typically, in 90 minutes of Question Time, Parliament seldom gets beyond the first 20 questions, leaving 50 to 70 questions filed for oral answers unanswered,” Prof Tan told TMG. While his suggestion of two hours “would still not enable Parliament to get through all the questions”, he added that a longer Question Time “will allow for more questions to be answered, and for more time to be allocated to questions, for a more thorough discussion of the issues.”

And in response to the proposal by Mr Kok and Mr Ng, Leader of the House, Grace Fu – who is part of the Standing Orders Committee – first acknowledged the importance of Question Time, before pointing out that the government had previously extended the time limit to three hours, albeit on an ad hoc basis. The most recent instance was on October 10, 2016, when Question Time was extended by an hour to 4pm for discussions on the rise in cases of online gambling addiction, rewards for Paralympic medallists, as well as the likelihood of an economic recession in Singapore. The committee, furthermore, added that it was prepared “to continue to extend Question Time on an ad hoc basis due to the number of questions and volume of public business” (The Straits Times, Apr. 25)

It is not clear, however, how the government decides when and whether an extension is in order. Based on the importance or timeliness of the issues? Or the number of questions tabled?

Not much can be discerned from the numbers that TMG has aggregated. The last time Question Time was extended – on October 10, 2016 – there were 91 questions for oral answer, and 62 went unanswered. But on November 7, 2016, when 74 per cent of questions for oral answer were not answered (89 questions tabled), and on February 6, 2017, when 79 per cent of the questions for oral answer were not answered (out of 80 questions labeled), Question Time was not extended on both dates.

Along this tangent are the related questions about how the order of the questions is decided, and whether the Parliament – instead of the government – should decide the length of Question Time and how it might be extended.

With more questions than answers, both during and about Question Time, perhaps a broader debate – involving more MPs and their experiences – should be in order.



Featured image by Flickr user Xiquinho Silva. CC BY 2.0

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Mr Zainudin Nordin, President of the Football Association of Singapore; marking StarHub's appointment as official broadcaster and principal sponsor of the LionsXII in 2012.Image by HealthSX at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

by Bertha Henson

THERE’S something to be said about having free and open elections: It allows questions to be aired in the expectation that answers will be given.

I am not a football fan but the saga surrounding the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) upcoming April 29 elections has been riveting. Some might say that challenger Mr Bill Ng’s questions regarding a $500,000 donation he (or his Tiong Bahru FC) made was a distraction and that more attention should be paid to the plans of both teams that are contesting the election.

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I don’t think so.

What it shows is that an electoral process brings more scrutiny and urges more transparency from office-holders and those vying for the job. So world football governing body Fifa finally realised that for decades, the FAS was breaking the rules by having officers appointed by the G. After seven years on the job, Mr Zainudin Nordin has stepped down to pave the way for elections. FAS is usually headed by an MP, and the past list included those who have made it into ministerial ranks such as Mr Mah Bow Tan and Mr Ho Peng Kee.

Doubtless, the FAS is a tough organisation to manage given its myriad clubs, tournaments, programmes as well as the attention paid to it by people at the grassroots. That the G has a hand in its running isn’t surprising since it gives out grants to sports bodies, that is, taxpayers’ money of more than $2 million annually to FAS. Its other major donor is the Tote Board, which used to disburse some $25 million to the FAS annually, but which will now do so through Sport Singapore (SportSg).

Members of the public who are interested in the management of FAS can turn to its annual reports but in the main, the concern is about crowd turn-out, football rankings and whether goals of the football kind are being delivered given the resources poured into the sport. It takes an electoral process to bring matters out in the open, whether among those with a stake or the community at large. Of course, like all elections, there will be agendas and strategies, like rubbishing the old to make way for the new.

Now the FAS is embroiled in controversy with questions raised over the past year about its handling of money, including donations. There have been particularly feisty exchanges between Mr Ng and the FAS through the person of General Secretary Winston Lee over what happened three years ago. To put it bluntly, they are accusing each other of lying.

So what are the issues involved?

The key point is whether Mr Ng knew where the $500,000 donation was going to go. He claims it was for local football but it went to the Asean Football Federation (AFF). There’s no question that the AFF received the money – although it fumbled about whether the money was from the FAS or Mr Ng’s Tiong Bahru FC. The FAS has a paper trail, including a letter setting out the terms of the donation, which Mr Ng, rather improbably said was drafted by the FAS and which he was somehow made to sign.

In any case, even if the money had always been intended for AFF, the question is why such a big sum, which is about half the income of an S-League club, should go to outside entities at a time of a struggling football scene here.

Another issue is whether the sum was properly recorded somewhere. So far, not a single person in past councils has come out to say he had knowledge of the sum. What’s worse is that most people evinced surprise.

Then comes the question of why Mr Ng chose to raise the matter now instead of three years ago. Is this an election gambit to allege improprieties in the FAS which he, a challenger, will want to clean up?

In the middle of it all is the deafening silence of ex-chief Zainudin, which the FAS said was the person who solicited the donation. Mr Ng, however, denied this and pointed his finger at Mr Lee.

Mr Zainudin must know by now that he would have to say something lest gossip and misinformation fill in the blanks, thereby impugning his reputation. To say nothing because he is not standing for the upcoming election is a bad excuse for something that happened during his tenure.

Which brings me back to the point of having democratic elections. They are complicated and fussy affairs and there might even be those who say that such “disagreements” should be dealt with behind closed-doors so as not to give Singapore football a bad name. If so, they forget that it was “closed-doors” which gave rise to the current controversy.

To a spectator, the FAS looks like the Augean stables. It might be better for the challengers to discuss sweeping and mopping up operations first, before moving on to pronouncing grand visions. SportSg has ordered FAS to give a full account of the donation. Hopefully, it will be done before the elections so that there will be more clarity.

Good luck to Singapore football.

BB BE: Relax & Vote

ELECTIONS serve to be pivotal in leadership transition in the higher echelons of leadership in the public sector. It determines the country’s leaders and major decisions that will affect the people and the country on a global level. An election is thus an event that is anticipated.

In Singapore, taking into account the constitutional changes in the Elected Presidency last year and the announcement that this year’s presidential elections will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, Singaporeans will definitely be looking forward to being part of the journey in choosing the next president of Singapore in September this year.

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Here are some leadership transition in the world to look out for:

1. Berlin, Germany – Angela Merkel runs for fourth term 

Dr Angela Merkel. Image by Alexander.kurz from Wikimedia Commons. 

The German federal election has been set on September 24 this year to elect the members of the Bundestag, the legislative body of Germany. Members serve four year terms with elections held every four years unless the Bundestag is dissolved by the president before the said four years.

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s party has won an election in the small southwestern state of Saarland, which is an indication of a trend for the upcoming election in September. Dr Angela Merkel will be running for the fourth term this year. The leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received criticisms for her controversial open-door policy. In September last year, her approval rating fell to a five year low of just 45 per cent.

Far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gained popularity in the wake of the migrant crisis and Brexit victory in the UK. Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz is standing for the SDP in a bid to become Germany’s next Chancellor.

The Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations Mr Piotr Buras said that “despite the criticism of Merkel and her sinking support, a majority of voters support the idea of her remaining Chancellor.” He expects the coalition – made up of the Christian Democrats and SDP – to remain in power after the election. He added that there was an outside chance of a coalition between the SNP, Green Party and left-wing populist party Die Linke.

Dr Merkel has been the chancellor of Germany since 2005 and the leader of the CDU since 2000.

2. Tehran, Iran – 12th Presidential election: President Rouhani runs for a second term

President Hassan Rouhani. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Iran will be holding its 12th Presidential election on May 19 this year.

Cabinet spokesperson Mohammad Bagher Nowbakht said that President Hassan Rouhani will be running for a second term and that he will be the only cabinet minister registering in the upcoming elections. Mr Rouhani is the current and seventh President of Iran. Tasnim news agency reported that a conservative cleric Mr Ebrahim Raisi will run for Iran’s presidency as well. This new candidate “has transformed the race, potentially unifying opponents to President Hassan Rouhani in a strong challenge to his re-election,” Bloomberg Politics reported. Mr Raisi declared his candidacy a day after two other conservatives “bowed out”.

An associate fellow at the Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) described the upcoming elections as a “very serious race with huge consequences.”

3. Beijing, China – 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress

From left to right: (Politburo Standing Committee) Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan. Image from Getty Images by Feng Li 

While the People’s Republic of China does not hold democratic elections, 2017 is an important year for China politically as the Chinese Communist Party will be hosting the 19th National Congress in autumn this year, which will likely determine the country’s top leadership.

In this leadership transition, around 60 per cent of the party’s leaders will retire, including 11 out of the 25 member Politburo and five out of seven members of the country’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee. The only two not retiring in the incumbent group are President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. This event is critical as it will not only affect how China is governed, it will also have an impact on President Xi’s political posture and the continuity of Chinese leadership.

According to Managing Director and Head of China Macro Research for Credit Suisse Mr Vincent Chan, the National Congress “goes a long way in deciding the top leadership around President Xi Jinping and how far he could consolidate his power, and potentially creates conditions for him to extend his rule in China beyond 2022 (his scheduled retirement date)”. In Mr Chan’s words, this meeting could decide China’s political landscape during the next decade.

4. Paris, France – French Presidential Elections

From left to right: Mr Francois Fillon, Mr Emmanuel Macron, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon, Ms Marine Le Pen, and Mr Benoit Hamon.  Image from Reuters.

The French will be going to the ballot boxes in April and May of 2017. The presidential candidates will first run against one another on April 23. If no candidate gets half the vote, the top two candidates will compete against each other in a run-off vote on May 7.

This election comes as a surprise as french elections are usually a fierce contest between the conservative Les Republicans and the left-wing Socialist Party. Yet, this year, the limelight is mainly on candidates from neither of the two parties.

Battered by his lack of popular support, incumbent French President Francois Hollande will not be seeking re-election. There are five prominent candidates running for the presidency this April – Mr Emmanuel Macron, Ms Marine Le Pen, Mr Francois Fillon, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon and Mr Benoit Hamon.

Mr Emmanuel Macron, an ex-banker and former economy minister, is currently hailed as the centrist front-runner as the presidential candidate of his centrist party En Marche. Mr Macron is staunchly pro-Europe and a social liberal. Trailing behind Mr Macron is Ms Marine Le Pen, a former lawyer and leader of National Front. Ms Le Pen has promised to take France out of the euro and the Schengen open-border zone, reintroduce the franc and tighten border controls and trade barriers. She is not dismissing the possibility of calling a referendum on leaving the European Union if the bloc isn’t agreeable to her requests of a radical treaty renegotiation. Third in the polls is former Prime Minister and Thatcherite, Mr Francois Fillon of Les Republicans. Mr Fillon began his campaign as a front-runner in 2017 but saw his popular support plummet after a French newspaper accused him of fictitiously employing his British wife, Mrs Penelope Fillon, using public funds. Despite the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal, Mr Fillon will still run for president and enjoys the loyal support of traditionalist Catholics.

The other two notable candidates in the race are ex-education minister Mr Benoit Hamon who is backed by the Socialists and Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon of left-wing Unsubmissive France. However, it is unlikely that either will make it through the first round of elections in April.

All eyes are on the French elections as the results would not only affect France, but also the European Union and the rest of the world.


Featured image from TMG file.

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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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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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earth by Kevin Gill

by The Middle Ground

MAR 8 marked International Women’s Day, a day to commemorate the women’s rights movement. The campaign theme for this year is #BeBoldForChange: Call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world – a more gender inclusive world.

While there were many activities to celebrate women around the world, it is without a doubt that women still face sexism and discrimination in their daily lives. Here are five different events that happened in the past week that will explain why it is imperative to continue fighting for equal rights.

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1. Luxembourg City, Luxembourg – “Women must earn less than men”

Image by Leonardo1982, from Pixabay 

On Mar 3, the European Parliament decided to launch a hate speech investigation on Polish member of European Parliament (MEP) Janusz Korwin-Mikke, for making misogynistic remarks in his capacity as MEP.

Mr Korwin-Mikke, founder of Polish far-right party Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic — Freedom and Hope, incited outrage when he argued that “women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent” during a European Parliament debate on the gender pay gap.

Mr Korwin-Mikke’s views were immediately rebutted by fellow MEP, Spaniard Iratxe Garcia Perez. In a speech bristling with indignation, Ms Perez stated “I know it hurts and worries you that today women can sit in this house and represent European citizens with the same rights as you. I am here to defend all European women from men like you.”

Rule 11 of the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure states that “members’ conduct shall be (characterised) by mutual respect” and “members shall not resort to defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or (behaviour) in parliamentary debates.” If found in contravention of this rule, Mr Korwin-Mikke may be subject to a fine and/or temporarily suspended from Parliament.
2. California, United States – Former Uber employee speaks up about toxic work culture
Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by
Image from TMG File 
Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer for Uber, revealed the culture of sexual harassment and misogyny that pervaded her former company in a blog post dated Feb 19. She documented her problems with the company – one experience involved reporting a manager who was propositioning her to HR, who refused to fire the guilty manager because he was a “high performer”, and instead advised her to transfer out of her team.
When I joined Uber, the (department) I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another (engineering department), this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organisation, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organisational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organisation.
Uber is facing increasing corporate and employee backlash over its “hustle-oriented” and unpleasant workplace culture. After Fowler’s viral blog post, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sent a company-wide memo asserting that the company would be investigating the claims made, with Holder and Tammy Albarran of law firm Covington & Burling leading the investigation.
3. Britain – Emma Watson can’t be a feminist? 
Screenshot from Twitter user JuliaHB1
Emma Watson’s photo in a white ropy top that exposed most of her breasts got a British radio presenter and commentator questioning Emma’s feminist beliefs. The commentator, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted a photo of Watson’s vanity photoshoot picture on Mar 1.
This tweet quickly received backlash and eventually got to Emma’s attention. She was “stunned by the vitriol she’s received”. In an interview with Reuters, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador said, “They were saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and have boobs.” Julia continued to defend her tweet by saying that Watson “complains that women are sexualised and then sexualises herself in her own work. Hypocrisy.” Another celebrity, Gloria Steinem, when asked for comments, told TMZ that “Feminists can wear anything they f****** want.”
Emma was shocked that people are still unclear what feminism mean and said that “Feminism is about giving women choice…it’s about equality. It’s not — I really don’t know what my t*ts have to do with it.”
4. Manhattan, New York City, USA – New resident opposite famous Wall Street bull 
Image from Facebook page All Women Are Beautiful
On the eve of International Women’s Day (March 7), a 50-inch bronze statue of a little girl was installed opposite Wall Street’s famous charging bull. This statue was sculpted by artiste Kristen Visbal of Delaware and installed by State Street Global Advisors.

Fortune reported that the newly added statue was a representation of State Street Global Advisors’ new commitment to gender parity in corporate boardrooms. The firm also announced that it would pressure 3,500 companies worth $30 trillion in market cap to aim for gender parity on their boards.

However, this much-received attention and praised statue, according to Huffington Post’s Emily Peck “is just a super-sophisticated bit of feminist marketing.” In her article titled: Why the ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue Is Kinda Bull, she goes on to explain about the firm’s failure to mention that the company does not have many women employees and that only three women are on the Board of Directors. “If the goal is gender equality, State Street’s women stats are terrible. They reveal the sculpture and the call to action as a mostly empty seduction.”
5. Washington D.C, U. S. A – How the GOP “celebrated” IWD

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, from Pixabay

On IWD, some members of the Republican Party of the United States, nicknamed the Grand Old Party (GOP), pushed for legislation that wanted to defund Planned Parenthood; America’s most trusted health care provider of reproductive health care which provides high quality and affordable medical care.

A press conference was held in D.C to address changes that the Republicans were proposing to the Affordable Care Act. House Speaker, Paul Ryan said that defunding Planned Parenthood “… is what we’ve been dreaming about doing.” The new bill will end funding to Planned Parenthood and “sends money to community centers,” he said. This new bill will affect poor and low-income Americans the most.

This happened on the same day that Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau announced a a $650 million initiative to fund sex education and reproductive health services worldwide.

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

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by Daniel Yap

MY BIGGEST disappointment with the 2017 budget is not just how “same old” it is, it’s how nothing is being done to overhaul the Baby Bonus Scheme. A same old budget would be fine if things were all working out, but that’s not what Singapore is looking at in the next 10 years.

Taking a page from the “same old” Committee for the Future Economy report is not going to cut it with yet-unsolved issues still staring us in the face. Healthcare costs are rising and will continue to rise. Labour supply is tight.

All talk about a budget for Singapore’s long-term future is rubbish without a clear action plan for Singapore’s dismal total fertility rate, which fell to a pathetic 1.20 in 2016 from an equally low 1.24 in 2015. All this while, we have been rah-rah-ing about a spike in births (although not the birth rate) during the SG50 jubilee year.

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A low birth rate has negative repercussions on a host of national issues: labour supply, immigration, national identity, the ageing population, healthcare, and economic growth, to name a few. Why then is Budget 2017 providing no new ideas for this? Why aren’t we focused on changing up the Marriage and Parenthood Package and Baby Bonus Scheme since it clearly isn’t having the effect we need it to have?

PM Lee has talked about ruthlessly discarding ideas that aren’t working, and after 16 years, haven’t we realised that this is not going the way we want it to?

Has Singapore simply given up? Are we not spending more to highlight the importance of a healthy birth rate?

Or has the G made some quiet internal calculation and realised that it is cheaper to naturalise citizens from abroad, making other nations pay for child-raising, and then Singapore picks the best and reaps the benefits of their productive adult years, leaving only their silver years for the state to pay for?

It is a shrewd but cold way of thinking about it, and a fantastic way to balance the budget – don’t spend on trying to fix what you’re already horrible at. Just work on the economy and on what attracts new citizens, like security and HDB grants. Cover up Singapore’s weak spots by leveraging on its strong points (attractive to migrants). Never mind if the end result is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, right?

Suggestions, anyone?

But what’s the point of a get-by city where the future belongs to someone else’s children? Let’s not treat the situation lightly. Falling birth rates reflect entrenched attitudes that will take Herculean efforts to move. Where are the Herculean ideas?

Here’s one idea: give each Singaporean child a living wage (sometimes called a child benefit or allowance). Say, $500 a month from birth to 18 years (then the boys can start living off their NS allowance). And 20 per cent goes into CPF (because we’re Singaporean like that). Inflation-pegged increases kick in every two years. Two kids could buy you a 2-room HDB flat. At age 18, they would have $27,000 in CPF to pay for university or a house.

It’s a Singaporean version of what some other states are doing – countries like Sweden and Finland have a state child allowance (about S$170 for Sweden, plus a bonus for larger families; Finland pays a child allowance of S$140-250 depending on birth order; Ireland has a child benefit of just over S$200 per child, with a multiplier applied for multiple births). Total fertility rates there hover around 1.8 and 2.0; a healthy situation once you factor in some immigration.

Such a plan will cost us $5.4 billion a year if we have 50,000 babies (right now with 30,000 babies it will cost about $3.3 billion). We’re already spending $2 billion a year on the marriage and parenthood package. The extra billions spent will have a better long-run payoff than GIC’s impressive track record (GIC contributed $15 billion to the 2016 budget).

Want to tweak it further? Consider this – those who want children will want children, and those who don’t will not be convinced. So structure benefits so that parents will plan to have three or more children (i.e. the biggest bonuses kick in at child number three).

The current Baby Bonus is trying most of all to incentivise people to have children in general, and the incremental bonus for the third child and above is small. Make it such that the first two children receive an allowance of $250 each, but the third child receives $1,000. It’s not stingy, but it will definitely tip the balance towards already-parents making the decision to have yet another kid.

What about reforming education, a major reason for people to not have kids, within the next 10 years so that we no longer feel like it’s a pressure-cooker arms-race winner-takes-all mugger-fest that then feeds into our working life?

Instead, all we are talking about now in the kopitiams is a 30 per cent water rate hike, while the G is trying to convince us that this is a budget to “secure our future”. I don’t care much for either narrative.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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