June 26, 2017


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by Suhaile Md

MY INTERNSHIP with TMG has come to an end.

So much has happened in the three months that I’ve been here. The General Election, the City Harvest Church trial and the protracted haze situation just to name a few. This is my first experience as a rookie journalist. I’ve learnt a lot in my short three months at TMG, like research, cold calling, street interviews, critical thinking, events coverage, content presentation and multiple writing styles. Here are 10 of the more important things I’ve learnt.

1. Worship at the altar of accuracy

Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.

I realised that at the end of the day, the work of a journalist is built purely on trust between the reader and the reporter. What use is a scoop or an exclusive if your readers don’t trust you enough to take it seriously? What use is analysis without the facts to back it up? And if the facts are wrong, the analyses will be off!

If I had to condense everything I have learnt at TMG into just one point, it would be this.

2. It’s about your readers, not about you

A reporter’s job is to clarify, not confuse. So I had to ditch – and I am a little embarrassed to say this – my tendency to try and sound smarter than I am. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“Thoughts and ideas are temperamental consorts sought by many but held by none. The only way to securely grip a wispy strand of flighty intangibles is to construct a virtual proxy that links the dimensions of our mortal conscious to the immortal. That construct is what we call language.”

What a load of rubbish! How does this help the reader? Not only does it waste time, the reader is no clearer at the end of the day. It would have been better to write: Language helps us think and communicate clearly.

So yes, I wrote like that once. Thankfully, no more.

3. If it’s too easy, chances are you’re not thinking

At the peak of the haze in October, online grocer Redmart claimed it enabled customers to search for sustainable paper and tissue products on its website. So of course, I had to check it out. Lo and behold, it looked like the function was not ready. I was tempted to write about false advertising but I remembered my editor’s exhortation: Think deeper, always ask why.

It’s almost trite, but no less true. Further thought made me realise that perhaps the grocer did not have a working system because the market, that is Singaporeans, did not demand it. So I ended up writing an article that probed a little deeper, and hence added more value to the reader, instead of being just another person pointing out how the business is not delivering what it promised.

4. Professionalism, always

We have our biases. But as much as humanly possible, it must never get in the way of reporting the facts. We are not here to judge – that’s what the courts are for. The public will decide for themselves based on the facts we provide. And if we allow our bias to skew the facts, we do our readers and the people we report on a disservice, a wrong even.

5. Be deliberate with words

She said, she shared, she pointed out… they may seem synonymous but each has its own shade of meaning. Said is perhaps the most neutral, very factual. Shared is more intimate, personal. Pointed out is well, pointed out.

So even seemingly simple words, I’ve found, are not “just words”. They make a difference. I’ve learnt to be more judicious about their use.

6. Anticipation and preparation

Imagine you come across breaking news but you can’t publicise it because your phone is dead and you have no extra battery. Or you get dehydrated from all the running around and you’re too sick to report as elections results are announced. Or your shoes give you a blister and you lag behind all other reporters.

These are nightmare scenarios for a reporter – and all completely avoidable if you think ahead. While I did not face those situations, I know I would have if my seniors in the newsroom did not give me a heads up.

And that’s just the logistical aspect. Doing background research, looking for a sweet spot to approach an interview subject out in the field, all these are the back-end work that makes a world of difference to the quality of your work.

7. Just ask

Don’t worry, just ask.

The story, 50 faces of Punggol East SMC, was one of my first assignments. My colleagues and I had to ask 50 people about their political views. Now, you know how reticent Singaporeans are about airing their political views publicly. It was a challenge for me because I’ve never really been comfortable asking strangers for anything, not even directions, much less their political views.

But repeatedly approaching others has taught me that not asking gets you no where. And you learn not to take things personally. I came to realise my discomfort had more to do with me feeling stupid than anything else. Which come to think of, is rather silly in and of itself, no? At worst you get a rude no!

8. Numbers are subjective

I used to have this impression that numbers are unbiased. How wrong I was. Do the numbers not have meaning? Do they not represent something? Of course they do. Especially in surveys: Numbers are just opinions quantified.

For instance the global ranking of universities. The same university can be ranked differently according to different benchmarks. Why those benchmarks are set in the first place, is a question that requires probing. Are those benchmarks the ones we should set for ourselves? Notice how deciding the benchmark is itself a subjective exercise?

9. Exposed my stereotypes

One of the great perks of journalism is the sheer diversity of people you meet in the course of your work. You are exposed to the many faces of humanity and in the process shatter your own stereotypes.

One memorable instance was seeing an elderly lady going fan girl crazy upon seeing Dr Ng Eng Hen during election night. She pounced on him with a cry and a huge hug. Which surprised me as I wasn’t expecting fan girl moments from an elderly lady. But my own surprise led to a moment of self-awareness. That was the first time I realised I had stereotypes about the elderly – that they were not comfortable with showing great enthusiasm.

10. We are all human

Yes, that’s a cliche. But it’s one I have learned anew in my few months here.

My work at TMG was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to observe our leaders (I covered the PAP mostly) up close, especially during elections. Seeing PM Lee with a weary smile at the end of elections night, or DPM Tharman giving Dr Yacob Ibrahim a friendly pat on his back are some of the more memorable moments.

These small actions made such huge personalities… more human to me. Of course most of us have an intellectual understanding that we are all the same. But that was the first time I felt it.


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Youth unemployment - where's the evidence?

by Bertha Henson

BECAUSE I teach a class of undergraduates, there are certain articles in the media which capture our interest. I’m referring to ST’s Page 2 story headlined Tougher job market for new entrants. We looked at the article line by-line and ended up wondering how this became news, much less a top news story.

Here’s why:

Acturial science graduate Michelle Lew has sent her resume to more than 100 firms since last December, hoping to land a permanent job.

(First word of the article and its spelt wrongly. The thing is, it’s spelt right just two paragraphs later – actuarial.)

But almost a year later, she has not received a single job offer.

“I think it’s because the economy is bad. I’m not sure why. I’m working in an insurance firm as a temp and I have done two short-term internships in small firms,” said the 21-year-old, who received her bachelor’s degree in actuarial science from Australia.

(So we know it is a foreign university but not whether it’s a recognised name.) 

The job market has not been kind to new entrants to the market like Ms Lew, with unemployment rising for the younger group of workers.

(So this is a typical intro which focuses on one person and later segues into a bigger story. A human interest beginning with hopes of being something bigger.) 

The under-30 unemployment rate rose to 4.3 per cent in September last year, from 3.9 per cent in September 2013, data from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) showed.

(Here’s where numbers start coming in. The best evidence! But why such dated numbers from last year? We’re already into the end of 2015 and total unemployment figures for September 2015 are already in.) 

In contrast, total unemployment across all ages posted only a marginal increase, from 2.2 per cent to 2.3 per cent over the same period.

(Okay, youth unemployment is higher than total employment but wouldn’t it be better to see unemployment rates for different age brackets?) 

Part of the reason for the rise in youth unemployment is simply the slowing economy, which has made bosses more hesitant about hiring.

(Why is the word “simply” there? Because it’s a no-brainer? And wouldn’t a slow economy make employers hesitant about hiring anybody? Not just young people who would be cheaper than mature workers?)  

Of 665 employers surveyed by recruiter ManpowerGroup in September, just 16 per cent forecast an increase in staffing levels in the October to December period, lower than the 19 per cent in the same period last year.

(Okay, the article is into THIS year now and here’s hoping that the ManpowerGroup is a big player in the job market. Let’s assume that it is and that “just” 16 per cent of employers are hiring in the coming three months, in the run-up to Christmas, compared to 19 per cent last year. It might be better to find out just how many jobs the 16 per cent are hiring against the jobs offered by the 19 per cent. That would be a better picture of hiring, although we still won’t know if they are hiring workers of all ages, or just young ones.)  

“Since the beginning of the year, companies have been cautious about hiring because of falling oil prices and a slowing economy in China,” said Ms Linda Teo, country manager of ManpowerGroup Singapore.

(A general quote which could have been said by anyone. Almost like “simply”.)

Advance estimates from the MOM also showed that unemployment for Singaporeans edged up to 3.1 per cent in September.

(Ah. Some “new” figures… But why unemployment of Singaporeans? In the earlier paragraph, the article spoke of total unemployment, which meant not just Singaporeans but the resident population. Total unemployment in September is actually lower, at just 2 per cent.) 

Just last week, the central bank gave a sobering assessment of the short-term outlook for the economy.

(Looks like some macro-economic figures are going to appear… )

The Monetary Authority of Singapore said the economy is facing uncertainty in the short term as the outlook for Singapore’s key trading partners remains gloomy.

(But no… it’s to tell you that the central bank is known as the Monetary Authority of Singapore and again, we’re told about the uncertain short-term outlook. More or less, the same words. No figures.) 

SIM University senior lecturer Walter Theseira also expects underemployment to rise as the economy slows down, since “companies may hire part-timers or short-term contractors but be unable to justify permanent headcount”.

(It’s good to have an academic weighing in but what is the value of having him throw a curve by referring to underemployment when the article is supposed to be about youth unemployment? Or is it?) 

The weaker employment outlook has prompted some young job seekers to burnish their resumes with extra qualifications.

Mr Tseng Shih Ying, 24, a quantitative finance major at the National University of Singapore, hopes to show interviewers more than just a graduation certificate.

“I’m going to take my CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) level one. I didn’t get an offer from my last internship, so I feel that I need to boost my resume,” said Mr Tseng.

Ms Jan Richards, president of CFA Society Singapore, has noted a “marked increase” in student enrolments for the level one exam.

This year, 31 per cent of level one candidates are students, up from 24.5 per cent last year, she said.

(So we have one undergraduate talking about taking a CFA – note that he hasn’t done it yet. And Ms Richards’ comment has “marked increase” in quotes. Usually, quote marks used like this is a form of distancing the writer from the newsmaker. It is a bit like “according to…” which means, she said it, not me! Again, we have to assume that the proportion of level one candidates – whatever level one means – is big in absolute numbers. It could have gone up from 24 students and a child, to 31 students now. In any case, how many finance students are there to make this a representative sample?)   

To be sure, about nine in 10 fresh graduates found jobs within six months of graduating last year, according to the Education Ministry’s survey of graduates here.

(Here is where the story comes undone. We’re not sure about “to be sure” but it sure looks the statistics contradict the story of youth unemployment. Unless we’re talking about non-graduate youth unemployment or unemployed youth from foreign universities. Are we?) 

But some of that job-matching also comes from students lowering their expectations, settling for firms and job functions outside their first choice, students said.

(Ah! Cold water being poured on the graduate employment figures! By “students”! Un-named and un-numbered!)  

Mr Ong Chuon Yan, 25, a human resources major at the Singapore Management University, sent out job applications more than six months before graduation.

He said: “It’s quite stressful because it’s already very competitive and, on top of that, there may be a decision made not to hire anyone.”

(Hmmm, it is extremely common for undergraduates to start sending out resumes in their final year six months before or more. It’s been happening for years.) 


Featured image magnifying_glass by Flickr user Joe Duty, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Man pointing to iPad hidden in his jacket.
Want an article for free?

by Daniel Yap

IF YOU are a writer, photographer, artist, model or other content producer, you have heard it before – “provide your service/content to us for free”, they say. “It will be good exposure for you.”

Star Trek and Big Bang Theory star Wil Wheaton kicked off another discourse over the issue of unpaid work when he slammed a HuffPo editor who asked to republish an article from his blog without compensation and who justified it with the “value in the unique platform and reach” provided by the US$50 million company.

In my years as a writer, I have had similar experiences. When I was starting out fresh from school, some of my work was practically given away to small publications that were on a tight budget, but which I felt I could use to pitch for paid work to a bigger publication.

My years in PR also taught me that exposure itself is valuable to some people. Having a client’s CEO write a strong opinion piece in a respected publication does wonders for the client’s branding.

But when a company asks for free (or cheap) work from an experienced content producer, especially one who makes a living from that craft, it is insulting. And even after more than a decade writing, this is still happening to me.

It ranges from outright theft of my work by alternative sites to requests for unpaid republication (some of which I agree to, if I am aligned to the cause), to this one I will never forget: my team had produced, on our own dime, our first feature-length documentary on local football.

It had a short screening run in cinemas, and then we hoped to sell the content to other media (as is normal with such content). During one meeting with a large company, we were asked to pay $50,000 to have our own film screened on their channel. Yes, the broadcaster asked us to pay them.

I can only put it down to greedy exploitation by an established (and profitable) company. This is the sort of thing that destroys the creative ecosystem.

What do we do here at The Middle Ground? Do we pay for the content we publish? In principle (and one we share with Mr Wheaton), we believe that there is inherent value in the work we publish. The exceptions? Articles and content that are pitched to us voluntarily especially when it is content written by people looking for exposure for their brand (in other words, writing is not their real income source).

Of course, there are occasions when contributors have been happy to write for us for free. Nonetheless we have, several times, ended up paying voluntary contributors as well. In this way, we want to respect good content producers and encourage a higher quality of writing and reporting.

Yet walking this road presents other risks – if the cost of producing content goes up, how are publishers going to pay the bills?

Will readers pay? Or will readers (I include myself here), used to consuming free content, simply expect that someone else will keep the company afloat: advertisers, content creators, or someone else who wants to feed me their agenda (for example, a site that receives funds from an agenda-based organization)?

In this age of free content, it’s hard to find someone to blame for the exploitation. But maybe that’s just the way we like to read it.


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Photo By Shawn Danker
The MRT passes over a bus interchange.

by Ian Tan

I refer to the story “The Big Read: Despite push for public transport, a love for cars endures” (17 July, Today).

The article presented most sides of the transport problem in Singapore – a growing desire by commuters to wean themselves off cars, yet they face perennial issues of inconvenience or sometimes, the sheer impracticality with the state of public transport in Singapore.

However, like most conversations around transport in Singapore, the article did not address what it really takes to solve a long-standing problem of getting around in this tiny city state.

Let me tell you what I think it takes – immense courage and conviction at all levels of society to actually make things happen.

As Singapore turns 50, I see less and less of the mindblowing bravery that our early leaders demonstrated to bring us from third world to first. These days, I observe too much hemming and hawing in the public sphere. Policy decisions seem to be made to desperately preserve the status quo, not to truly transform Singapore for the next stage of its existence.

By now it is clear that transport is both a personal and political matter for everyone.

I take all forms of transport every week – my car for weekend family outings and errands, my motorcycle for daily work commutes, buses and trains whenever the need arises, and once in a while, I will cycle to work via a mixture of park connectors and public roads.

While I am thankful I have so many transport options at hand, I also have had the chance to experience all the possible scenarios depending on which mode of transport I’ve taken. I don’t know if I can say the same for the Transport Minister or his policymakers.

When looking for realistic solutions to our transport problem, there are some things that need to be made clear first:

Stop saying car ownership is a status symbol or lifestyle aspiration.

As long as this mentality is perpetuated in the media (see the Today story) and government, it makes it quite impossible for a real solution to appear.

Who does not have lifestyle aspirations? Who wants to appear of low status? Come on!

But we need to decouple this popular statement from car ownership. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people believe it.

I often see high-powered executives take the train and squeeze in with the crowds, because it’s really more convenient than getting stuck in jams or paying high parking fees in the business district. Some people driving supercars are young greenhorns whose parents earned the car, and it’s part of their lifestyles by default.

Cars are so expensive today in Singapore, even the entry-level family car costs at least $100,000 SGD.

Obviously, a family sedan is no “status symbol” and people still buy them because they truly find a need for it, not because they want to appear important or wealthy.

The mindset of the transport policymakers might be hampered by this very crutch – as long as they believe that people cannot give up their cars due to their ego or lifestyles, then the policies will always be half-baked and spineless in their resolve to solve the problem.

The roads are now jammed because of poor COE management in the 2000s and even today.

Don’t hate me for saying this, but my 2009 Corolla Altis has a $4,460 COE, ridiculously cheap by 2015 standards when the same COE now costs $58,700.

The car population jumped from 417K in 2004 to 595K in 2010 because the LTA failed to tweak its decades-old COE policy in that period, and COE prices plunged from $25K (Jan 2004) to $5K (Jan 2009).

Cars became more affordable to many more people. In 2010, the LTA finally decided to press the brakes with policy amendments on how COEs were released and COE prices started climbing again.

But in my opinion, the truly effective measure came in 2013 when the Ministry of Finance (note, not the LTA) mandated the 50% to 40% downpayment and reduction of car loan periods to 5 years. Many asset-rich but cash-poor Singaporeans immediately stopped car-shopping.

The huge jump in the car population also coincided with the period in the 2000s when the government allowed many more foreign workers into Singapore, causing a steep increase in the load on the public transport system.

Even with all the policy tweaks, it’s still ludicrous that the LTA allows for an annual vehicle population growth rate of 0.25% today.

If you are trying to get people to switch from cars to public transport, you should be mandating a NEGATIVE growth in the overall vehicle population. Stop saying positive vehicle growth should happen because you are widening roads or building new ones – those should be done in any case to make traffic smoother, not allow more cars on the roads!

Finally, COEs will bring an estimated $5 billion revenue to the government this fiscal year. There have been many calls to solve car ownership problems without a financial sledgehammer solution, but they have been ignored by the government since the early 1990s when the COE was developed.

As long as there is such huge financial risk to the government coffers involved, which policymaker will truly be able to think out of the box without worrying about his job prospects?

Public transport has its limits of improvements.

Yes, we’ve heard this to death – more people will switch to public transport when it is deemed better than private transport.

It’s true, but let’s also get real, there are limits to how much public transport can be improved on this island.

Just look at the SMRT system. Time after time, they will tell us it is going to get better. But the breakdowns have only gotten worse – the recent 7th July 2015 breakdown of all North-South and East-West lines was the most devastating ever with an estimated 250,000 commuters left stranded during evening peak hours.

That night, I drove out to help a friend who was stranded at Ang Mo Kio. Even though it was three hours after the SMRT first announced the breakdown at about 7pm, there were still hundreds of people spilling onto the streets outside Bishan MRT trying to get onto a bus or flag down a taxi.

It was a disgraceful incident that does not happen in countries like Hong Kong or Japan with even older and more complex train networks. I have no doubt it can happen again…it is just a matter of when, given the frequency of SMRT train breakdowns here.

I feel sad for the current SMRT management who have the tough job of fixing deep-set problems left behind by the previous management and have to face public wrath so often.

I feel even more sorry for the beleaguered SMRT staff and all the Traffic Police and LTA folks who were deployed that night to manage traffic control. Do policymakers realize how many people were truly affected that night and with every other breakdown? Being “gravely concerned” doesn’t cut it anymore.

It is worth noting that the decline of the SMRT network also came about in the 2000s as the company’s previous CEO and management decided to focus on retail profits instead of track sustainability. Come think of it – Just how many things went wrong with the transport system in that decade?

Aside: What also flabbergasted me was the fact that people trying to compare this SMRT breakdown to the London Tube subway strike which was a planned outage, not a catastrophic, unpredicted system breakdown (which as of this time, nobody in SMRT or LTA even knows the actual root cause).

So yes, 550 more buses are also being added to the network using tax dollars, and given to private transport companies like SBS to manage. It still doesn’t change the fact that the roads are clogged up with private cars, or that having more buses in the same network of bus lanes may actually mean more congestion in the bus lanes.

I don’t disagree that we need to give the SMRT more time and leeway to fix the train system, and I’m not against adding more buses because they are often too crowded at peak hours.

However, will these planned improvements make public transport that much “better” than private transport? I strongly doubt it because it’s just adding more of the same stuff to the equation.

Take for example, I sometimes have to travel from my house in Bishan to Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 Industrial Park 2. By car or bike, it’s not more than 10 minutes. By bus, it’s at least one hour of waiting, sitting in the bus and walking! It’s just the dense road network that limits how fast or far buses can go in each route.

I don’t mind taking a cab, but if I don’t use an app like GrabTaxi to call a cab, it’s impossible to flag one down most hours of the day. Don’t get me started on the taxi situation in Singapore…

So back to my point on public transport, perhaps we need to be clearer what “better than private transport” means.

For example, are people willing to slow down for the slower pace of the public transport system?

If you want to keep telling people that they should aspire to be rich, and that means living a high-life and getting multi-tasking work done quickly in the world’s most expensive city, they’ll never consider taking life in the slower lane, both figuratively and literally.

Or maybe, it’s really getting public transport right once and for all, no more excuses. Spend tax dollars for all you will, but make it a Hail Mary move, not some Handyplast remedy that doesn’t fix deep-set issues.

It could be in the form of true competition for taxi companies with no stupid, complex surcharges or no taxi COEs so cabbies don’t have to pay high rentals. Or shutting down the entire SMRT network once a week so the engineers can rip out every deteriorating part and replace them with truly hardy stuff. Everyone can hop into car-pools in the meantime, or work from home if they don’t need to be in the office.

And Singapore’s size makes it a zero-sum game : The more buses you add to the network, the more cars  you need to remove. And the more new trains you buy, the more you need to ensure the tracks can take the additional load. These are the two things that aren’t happening. With the number of cars on the road today, whenever there are major accidents on one expressway, you’ll find the ripple effect spreading to other roads and expressways – there just aren’t enough “escape routes” for vehicles.

So by this time, some readers will probably say I’m idealistic and that I’m asking for too much.

Guess what? I’m going to go even further, because I have some ideas that are not mired in the usual “it can’t be done”, or “we need to tax the citizens again because solutions cost money” attitude that plagues this country from one level of bureaucracy to another.

This country often cannot think out of the money box and you can read another post about it here. If you think that taxing people further for car ownership or usage is the way to go, then here’s a grim reminder : It’s not working anymore lah.

We still need private transport for businesses, disabled and elderly people, but how can we seriously reduce the car population for good while ensuring people can get around via public or private transport?

So here goes, and my key guidelines are that these ideas should not be expensive to implement, are founded on logic and behavioral triggers, and don’t revisit the same old, failed ideas again.

Idea #1: Get serious about cycling

Convert the full left lane of every road (even highway roads) into bicycle-only lanes with small barriers to ensure cars, lorries or motorcycles don’t drift into them. The natural outcome is that the remaining lanes will get so clogged with vehicles, more people will switch to bicycles out of frustration or joy.

I’m so tired of hearing people asking about making Singapore a cycling nation and someone retorting that there isn’t enough space to widen the roads.

Then don’t widen the roads lah, divide them up and it won’t cost a bomb at all. The park connector (PCN) routes are very limited in which areas they can serve, and many of them require me to haul my bicycle across overhead bridges or cross multiple traffic lights. You’d want a bicycle network that can link people to ANY location and not just some park.

And no e-scooters allowed in these bicycle lanes, please. Those guys are nothing but trouble on the road or pavement.

Really, people should stop paying lip service to the idea of a “cycling nation”. You either make it happen, or you don’t.

Idea #2: Make it really difficult to get a car licence, using motorcycles.

As a motorcyclist, I have to take three tests (Class 2B, Class 2A and Class 2) and wait nearly four years before I am allowed to drive a motorcycle above 400cc. I hate this, and so do all other bikers. But I do agree it’s logical to ensure bikers have enough experience on smaller capacity bikes before they graduate to super bikes and power cruisers.

Yet car drivers are allowed to drive any type of car from the time they pass one single Class 3 test! That’s why you have so many inexperienced twats in powerful cars causing all sorts of deaths.

Now, what if we made it mandatory for everyone to pass Class 2B, 2A and 2 motorcycle practical tests before they can get a Class 3 licence?

Firstly the fear of dying on a motorcycle (which is very real, I assure you) will stop many people from even going for Class 2B lessons.

Secondly, by forcing everyone through the same filtering system, you will actually get very high-quality drivers on the road and less traffic jams due to accidents.

Most Class 2 riders know how to properly handle powerful machines that accelerate faster than a Ferrari and have proven their ability to stay alive on the roads with all the daily hazards – that’s why we tend to be better drivers with greater spatial awareness and reaction times.

A consequence is that you may see more motorcycle-related accidents on the road.

Or you may not, as the fear of dying keep people from even wanting to ride.

The stigma against motorcyclists is so deeply ingrained in Singaporeans, you might as well leverage on it.

I won’t even bother trying to suggest that more people should just ride motorbikes instead of driving cars or take public transport– most people just don’t have the guts to do it and that’s ok.

Bikers all know the joys of overcoming any traffic jam or the low maintenance costs of a two-wheeler. Unfortunately, the LTA is constantly reducing the number of motorcycle COEs and transferring it to the pool of larger vehicles.

Go figure.

Idea #3: Go for car-pooling measures

I don’t understand why car-pooling measures are hardly suggested in Singapore. Just look at most cars on the road – they often contain only the driver.

What if you could incentivize car-pooling? Or penalize cars that have only one person during peak hours? Or ensuring every car owner is registered into a car-pool database and is required to provide minimum hours of car-pooling each month?

Car-pooling in itself may not be effective, but coupled with a slew of other measures like reduction of vehicular growth rates, it could be more useful. There have been some recent car-pooling moves by the LTA but it largely flies under the radar of most people.

We really need to bring this topic up again, because the train network needs to be lightened of passengers, not further burdened. There is also much talk about reducing air pollution, but practical measures like this are not discussed.

In closing

So all three ideas above could be flawed or stupid in your opinion, but at least I’m giving it a shot from my perspective. If you have a better idea, please post in the comments below and be polite about it.

Really, I’m weary when the state tells me that Singaporeans need to be creative and think out of the box, and then they go stick with transport policies that have not really changed in over 20 years.

I don’t think anyone is convinced when it is repeated ad nauseum – that the COE system is not a revenue-generating tool, or that complex and varying ERP rates are effective in regulating traffic flow.

The recent train breakdown was the final straw for many people, and whether the PAP admits it or not, they lost a lot of goodwill overnight despite all the SG50 rah-rah.

It’s time to stop treating the symptoms and be courageous about drastic solutions to public transport. Singapore is nimble because it is small, but we’ve stopped punching above our weight in many things and no longer dare to look at hard choices.

We are a first-world country without a first-world transport system, period.


Blog post by Ian Tan was originally published on iantan.org.

Featured image is by Shawn Danker. 

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Jalan Besar complex.

by Bertha Henson

I have been off blogging for a while because I have been thinking about how to do a new news/views website. I miss Breakfast Network – that pro bono passion project which almost became a business until bureaucracy got in the way.

I like blogging, I do. I like the ability to say anything about anything with no one standing over my shoulder. I like breaking out of the usual news report/column/long form styles that restrict journalists’ ability to play with the language. Content is king, but story-telling can take different forms.

Plus, as a blogger, I don’t always have to draw a line between news and views. I can get self-righteous and indignant and emo. It’s just my take. It’s personal! You can tell that I’ve never really cared about getting eyeballs. I use a free WordPress platform. I don’t ask for ads. I don’t even care about putting up a visual which I have been told time and again would increase the number of eyeballs to my blog.

I just want to write.

If blogging was more “professional’’, I would add links to sites so that you will have more information. I would even spell-check (!) and re-write my pieces.  Instead, I am sorry to say that most of what you read are first drafts – and I do wish sometimes that I had someone who can cast a second eye over my work. Every writer needs an editor.

But it isn’t journalism. It isn’t original content. It isn’t pure reportage. It isn’t neutral. Of course, you can argue that professional journalism isn’t “neutral’’ or “pure’’ either, as it is grounded in editorial directions, government policy, corporate interests and the narrative of the day as dictated by ….someone else?

So can blogging and journalism be combined? Can aspects of social media be “professionalised’’?

I think so. Some of the rules of journalism can and should be imported, especially attribution and verification. There is one other principle that online journalism should apply: putting things in context and giving perspective. Very few things are really “new’’ or “astounding’’, yet a rape case or an administrative blunder takes on the proportions of a Titanic disaster (even in MSM) when the truth is, not all women are rape victims and the administrative wheels do run very well most times.

But I think that sticking to pure reporting and pure commentary might be going the way of the dodo. Why? Because most people don’t want to read TWICE – and you’d be lucky that if people read one piece from start to end. So news and views (of others and even the writer) have to be married and the baby would have to be presented in the way that best catches the eye of the beholder.

Social media leads the reading pattern with its click-baits as “headlines’’….such as….I didn’t think I would go crazy until I read this…This is the most amazing thing you’ll ever see in your life…etcetera. Buzzfeed et al think that listicles are the way to go. Then there are sites which believe extremism works best – always get angry and make people angrier. There are also sites which think making a mountain out of a molehill is the way to go – as well as  repeating old news because they worked the last time …so why not again?

How does one even begin to conceptualise a news site then? The easiest way is to set it up as a foil. Just put it against MSM and make sure most of the angles and types of stories are different. Then tout the site as “alternative’’. Better still, as anti-establishment. Or as a useful addition to the parched MSM landscape.

Nothing wrong with it.

But then a person who wants to be fully-informed would have to read both mediums – and make up his or her own mind about what he or she feels about what they have read. Yes, feel. Most times, reading/watching is more about “feeling’’ than about being “enlightened’’. (Tip: Always make sure you end the piece well, rather than let it taper off….)

The other way is to curate or edit effectively, selecting topics of interest to the readership or alerting them to news that they will make them lead better lives. The trouble today is that we have too much news and too many facts – and we don’t know what to do with them. In fact, sometimes we’re so numbed by the news that we become indifferent to happenings elsewhere. A news organization should make sense of the news – especially what they mean.

So what is this new website going to offer? More Breakfast Network stuff? Actually, I have been describing it as Breakfast Network plus plus. The people behind it, which includes me, have decided to name it The Middle Ground. We start on Monday.

To be continued tomorrow…


This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Mr. Benny Se Teo, Founder and CEO of Eighteen Chefs (Image Credit: Central Singapore CDC / Facebook).

“To have a million-dollar food and beverage (F&B) enterprise”, Mr. Benny Se Teo shared right from the get-go, “one needs to start with a billion dollars”. Speaking at “In Search of Purpose” – a session organised by the Central Singapore Community Development Council – his point was clear. The F&B industry is hard, and as a social entrepreneur the founder and CEO of restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs has to possess the business nous. Hearing his experiences in person for the first time, I was most struck by Mr. Teo’s pragmatism.

As a social enterprise Eighteen Chefs hires ex-offenders and youths-at-risk, who make up 25 per cent of his headcount.

His story is well-documented. Because of his addiction to heroin he spent 10 years in and out of the prison and the rehabilitation centre, and following his fifth release in 1993 – after rejections from six job interviews, with his criminal record – he “got a job that did not require an interview”. He bought a motorbike and pager to become a dispatch rider, and by 2000 he had his first business in the courier industry. A Chinese restaurant in 2005 was his first F&B venture, but he eventually joined the Apprentice Programme at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, before opening his first Eighteen Chefs outlet at Eastpoint Mall in 2007.

In this vein there were five perspectives (including a titbit) from the talk:

1. First an enterprise, then a social enterprise. Social enterprises balance the creation of economic and social value, yet Mr. Teo made it clear that he was first and foremost “a businessman”. He spoke of the measly SGD$20,000 of monthly sales at his first 689 square feet outlet at Eastpoint Mall, when he was “technically bankrupt” – owing large sums of money to different individuals, including his landlord – in 2010. At the present moment, he hires “the best people in the market … paying them well with five-figure salaries to focus on the organisational structure, technological infrastructure, as well as finances”.

In Search of Purpose, organised by the Central Singapore Community Development Council (Image Credit: Central Singapore CDC / Facebook).
In Search of Purpose, organised by the Central Singapore Community Development Council (Image Credit: Central Singapore CDC / Facebook).

The enterprise must be profitable. “Too many aspiring social entrepreneurs leverage on the social aspect, forgetting that to do a good business they have to help themselves first, before helping someone else”.

“It is not about how many beneficiaries we help, and we do not have key performance indicators since we do not have funds from the government”, Mr. Teo continued. He emphasised that Eighteen Chefs – unlike the aforementioned Fifteen – was not a charity which could rely on donations. Likewise the label of the social enterprise per se cannot be used to draw sustainable crowds to the different malls across Singapore.

2. The turnaround. The first eight months were difficult, yet there was growing acceptance from the other tenants and the community in Simei. “My daughter will be very safe in your restaurant”, a lady said when she was planning the birthday party. Since then Mr. Teo has gone on to open seven more outlets in Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Panjang, Bugis, Jurong, Orchard, and Serangoon, two of which are franchise establishments, picking up awards along the way.

He also revealed that monthly sales at each location now exceeds SGD$200,000, a tenfold increase since he first began.

3. The yellow ribbon remains a stigma. “If patrons come to Eighteen Chefs because it is a social enterprise, I will not be happy”, Mr. Teo mused. “They should be coming for the food, for the location, for the ambience”. He explained that marketing the restaurants as a social enterprise was not an effective strategy, that the yellow ribbon project – which rehabilitates and heightens acceptance of ex-offenders – could stigmatise instead, and that reintegration of ex-offenders would accelerate if the government hires these individuals more actively.

4. Challenging times for F&B businesses. Another quote Mr. Teo made time and time again was that “if one wanted to destroy the lives of enemies, one should ask them to start an F&B business”. It has been “very tough”, and if he could start again he would not run a restaurant. Mr. Teo explained the high rentals, the difficulty of hiring staff members (even with job fairs in the prisons – a “previously untapped resource” – and door-to-door recruitment), as well as the economies of scale of food costs (a kilogram of mozzarella cheese would cost SGD$18.50 for one or two establishments, and just SGD$8 for a larger number).

He warned audience members against F&B endeavours, arguing that “after entry into the industry, one will not be able to leave for years”.

5. His love for Indian cuisine. Even though he serves fusion food in his restaurants and cites molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal as his culinary idol, Indian cuisine remains his favourite. “I can make a mean saffron rice and wicked curry”, he revealed. When he was young he had an Indian neighbour, and was not only inquisitive about curries but also keen to replicate these dishes.


This article was originally published at guanyinmiao.wordpress.com.

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared copyright.
The skies over the eastern heartlands of Singapore.

by Bertha Henson

What do you think?

Can you live with the consequences of your vote? So if your town council runs out of money, you will just have to suffer lift breakdowns and dirty corridors until the next general election? That’s the Workers’ Party position. How it operates is something between the party and the voters – not for the G nor the courts to intervene in, it said.

It’s so interesting. The WP lawyer in court even backed it up with past ministerial exhortations about the consequences of the vote. Residents shouldn’t expect to be bailed out if they voted in people who can’t manage the estate.

Anyway, some background:

The G wants the court to let it appoint independent auditors to go over the WP town council’s books and reclaim funds that have been wrongly disbursed. It will only release $14 million in grants to the town council, if the independent auditor is in to see that the money is managed properly. For example, if the WP wants to spend $20,000 or more, the independent auditor has to sign off on it.

Things are getting critical because there’s only enough money to sustain the Aljunied, Punggol East and Hougang estates till June. And that’s because it hasn’t made two sinking fund payments for cyclical works, according to the G.

The WP looks to be trying to head off the installation of an independent auditor (if the court says okay) by having its own external accountants and a financial consultant. But the G has dissed its efforts as “lukewarm assurances’’ citing the lack of experience of at least one of them.

What a state of affairs!

What’s interesting is that the WP is throwing back to the PAP its own argument about voting the “wrong’’ people. It’s the PAP G which said residents are responsible for their vote, so why is the G turning to the courts to intervene? In fact, it is up to the G to decide how to disburse the funds and it has already said it would review the Town Council Act. So why doesn’t it just do so and make the system more robust?

Another argument: Only the Housing Board and residents can go to the courts for redress.

Hmm. Quite smart.

The G wants to deal with this as a “legal problem’’ which needs the court’s adjudication while the WP wants to portray it as a “political dispute’’ that shouldn’t be any business of the court.

The problem with long sagas is that most people have short memories. So did the WP do any wrong that required such action by the G? Here’s what people reading about the court saga will remember: There was something about arrears, its managing agents having conflict of interest and some unaccounted money somewhere. Oh. And the Auditor-General’s report which said that there were plenty of “lapses’’ but didn’t say anything about a crime being committed.

They might remember the WP saying how no one wanted the job of managing agent and how it had just 90 days to sort the groundwork for the enlarged town council – and wasn’t this a bit tough on them? And the WP said it would fix its internal problems by itself while the G said it would fix the Town Council Act.

I am going to say it again: This is all sooooo interesting. It’s like the days of the late Ong Teng Cheong who wanted to test the elected president’s powers vis-à-vis the G. That took place in the courts too. Now we have another unique experiment in Singapore taking the same route.

I wonder what the residents in the opposition ward think? The elected presidency challenge was more hypothetical. This case, however, affects the lives of people living in one GRC and two single-seat wards. There hasn’t been much of a ruckus raised by residents, not even after the PAP put out fliers asking them to take the WP to task – or at least get answers from the party. Nor has any noise been heard about a petition that was initiated. The community groups in the area haven’t said a thing either.

Actually, I was thinking that if the WP had a case and the court agrees that the G shouldn’t bring the issue to court, what if a resident did so instead? Remember how a resident went to court to try and force a by-election in Hougang?

It would be good to know the mood of these hundreds of thousands of people in the opposition wards. How would they react to their own MPs’ position: You voted for me, so you have to live with me until the next GE when you have to decide whether you should keep me or throw me out. You know that don’t you?

Some possible answers:

  1. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. It hasn’t, so I have to live with it. Never mind rubbish piled up to the nth floor.
  2. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. Even if the WP doesn’t, I reckoned that the G wouldn’t just let things be because we’re all taxpayers aren’t we? And that grant is really taxpayers’ money.
  3. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. But it’s been hobbled so much that it can’t perform and now it’s being bullied and we, the residents, have to suffer. If the PAP didn’t try to “fix’’ the party, we’d all be okay.
  4. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but it didn’t matter to me whether the WP did a good job of running the town council or not. I voted them to speak up for me in Parliament. The estate is a bit smelly and dirty but that’s the price you pay for exercising your vote.
  5. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote which was why I DIDN’T vote the WP. So why are PAP voters being penalized? Should I move out?
  6. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but I thought all those other checks by grassroots organisations which purport to represent us would keep the town council in line.
  7. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but this is too high-level for me to intervene. How can I make a difference? I am powerless – and that’s why the G should intervene to protect me. It’s no longer a party thing, but a national issue.
  8. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and I also know that at the very last minute, the G will still rescue us because it risks looking heartless if it doesn’t.

Anyway, it’s in court now. Even if the residents decide to band together and say something, would it be subjudice? I don’t even know what subjudice is anymore.


This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The view of the sea from East Coast Park.

I was a little puzzled by the Media Development Authority’s order to The Real Singapore to shut down. Not that I would miss TRS. I am puzzled at the way the law and media regulations look like a badly sewn patchwork.

The kindest thing I can say about the G’s move is that it is still wondering how to handle the wacky online world.

So the MDA couldn’t do a thing about TRS in the past because it based its operations abroad. That means it didn’t come under the ambit of the Broadcasting Act.  Until December that is, when Yang Kaiheng, a Singaporean, and his Australian fiancé, Ai Takagi, started “running their operation from Singapore’’, said the MDA.

I wonder if running an operation FROM Singapore is the same as running operation IN Singapore because I gather that the couple were nabbed while on a trip here from Australia in February. So, they weren’t based here but the servers were? Administration? What?

In any case, a couple of months passed…before the cops, not the MDA, acted. Why didn’t the media regulations kick in first (in December?) if the MDA is so keen to protect the reading/viewing public? Instead, it gets into the act after the couple got the book thrown at them.

I can’t help but wonder if somebody made some mistake here… Did someone think that TRS would automatically shut down or suspend itself after the couple got charged? And when it didn’t and continued to have those allegedly seditious posts accessible online and operated business-as-usual, that someone realized that TRS wasn’t going to play ball? Or were the criminal charges levelled simply so as to keep the couple in Singapore? (By the way, Yang has been allowed to leave Singapore to attend to his sick father.)

I had a look at the Sedition Act which can be used against any person who “prints, publishes, sells, offers for sale, distributes or reproduces any seditious publication’’. The penalty: fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both, and, for a subsequent offence, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

I am not going to say more about this because the case is before the courts. And that is what makes the MDA move even more puzzling. By ordering a shutdown, hasn’t it prejudiced the sedition case against the couple? Or is it going to split hairs and say that it was not referring to the seven charges which refer to specific posts when it made the order – but on other matters posted on TRS?

There are too many questions surrounding this issue which I am sure is being watched by anyone who has a website.

In its statement, MDA said TRS published “prohibited material as defined by the Code to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony.’’ I looked at the Code on what was considered “prohibited material’’ and I guess it would be this one:

(g) whether the material glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.

It also said that “TRS has deliberately fabricated articles and falsely attributed them to innocent parties. TRS has also inserted falsehoods in articles that were either plagiarised from local news sources or sent in by contributors so as to make the articles more inflammatory.’’

You know, I didn’t know the MDA also policed a site’s errors and plagiarism… But I suppose if a site does so with the intention of inflaming passions and increases eyeballs while raising eyebrows, then there’s a reason for its intervention.

The statement goes on about how “at least two out of TRS’s three known editors are believed to be foreigners – Takagi is Australian, while another editor Melanie Tan is believed to be Malaysian’’. “The foreign editors were responsible for several articles that sought to incite anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore.’’

Hmm… Is the problem one of having foreign editors? Is this something all websites must guard against? Or is this about foreigners trying to incite anti-foreigner sentiments here? How does the MDA know that the foreign editors were responsible when it is so tentative about how many editors the site has in total and even the nationality of the third?

The landscape is way too complicated.

Even though all websites come under the statutory class licence requirement in the Broadcasting Act, the MDA decided two years ago that some big sites which report on Singapore to Singaporeans should be licensed with a $50,000 bond. If TRS was based in Singapore, maybe this licensing route would suffice to keep it in line given its 1.2 million unique visitors a month.

Then the MDA also decided that some websites, never mind how fledgling, should register once they decide to go commercial (I declare my interest here as the former editor of Breakfast Network), I thought, ah, maybe TRS would be cornered here, given that it charges six figures in ad space a month. Then again, no, because, I think, it didn’t have a Singapore-based company.

Then TRS moved here.

It’s a bit ironic that it was the good ole Class Licence requirement that was held against it after all the fuss made about earlier tweaks in regulations.

Some people have said that the unprecedented application of the Class Licence requirement reflected the “light touch’’ of the G. In other words, it waited till “now’’ to actually use it. But they forgot to say that the Sedition Act charges came first.

We need a lot of clarification here…but how to ask/answer questions when the court is involved? The court action and the MDA move are not separate issues – or are they?


Where oh where is that promised review of the Broadcasting Act?


This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long speaking at a PAP election rally during the Punggol East By Election.

Everybody is reading tea leaves again. You can be sure that every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth from now, people will speculate on whether it would be an early election held way before January 2017. I have given up guessing dates but my tea leaves, or rather coffee grounds, tell me that all seats will be contested and eyes will be on wards bordering the Workers’ Party cluster in the east. At least, I sure hope so….I live there!

So what can be gleaned from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech on May Day? It was all about exceptional leadership, like the sort his father and the first generation of ministers provided. And the difficulty of recruiting good men and women into leadership positions. He didn’t say that they would be for the People’s Action Party – presumably because it’s a given. In fact, he hardly mentioned his party at all except when he reminisced about the late Lee Kuan Yew’s early days with the NTUC.

He has set the agenda for the next election: “..leadership renewal is the most important issue. It is not doing more or spending more as some would like you to think. It is who will lead Singapore into the future and it is our future at stake and our children’s future. Because if this government fails, what is going to happen to you, to all of us to Singapore?’’

The thing about leadership renewal as a mantra is that it has been the case for nearly every general election that I can remember save the years when the PAP put the elected presidency and the need for MPs who can run town councils centre-stage. Of course, there were plenty of other issues the PAP threw in, like vote for upgrading and deny racial politics ecetera.  But the theme of getting a team in place for the future is like listening to a tape recorder after re-winding.

Is it going to get any traction? Can it compare with the WP’s theme of needing a check in Parliament? Remember that Singapore lost a Foreign Minister in George Yeo. That’s a high profile job that is responsible for Singapore’s high profile on the international stage. Despite expressions of Mr Yeo’s exceptional ability, the PAP couldn’t fight the WP tide.

I suppose one reason leadership renewal might resonate now is that PM Lee isn’t getting younger. He’s 63. Leadership renewal was less of an issue during PM Goh Chok Tong’s time was because we all knew who was going to take over his job when he stepped down. Now the guessing game isn’t just about when the GE will be held, but who is going to step up to the PM’s plate. (You realise that we no longer have a First or Second DPM? Both Mr Tharman and Mr Teo are equal players although it is Mr Teo who steps up in the PM’s absence.)

The other issue is what it means to have an exceptional team.

PM Lee said this of the outpouring of emotion from the people when his father died: “I think his passing reminded people that exceptional leadership made a big difference to us and I think it has caused many people to pause and to ask ourselves are we sure we don’t need that kind of leadership any more, that quality of leadership anymore. Ofcourse Mr Lee did not do it alone. Part of his greatness was that he brought together exceptional people to form an outstanding team.’’

As evidence, he also cited the numerous foreign leaders who came for the funeral and even flying their own national flags at half-mast.

So is PM Lee talking about “tough love’’? Hard truths and no holds barred kind of leadership that the late Mr Lee epitomized? He was after all, not a “gentle father figure’’ but a hardnosed mobiliser and, some might even say, hardboiled mobster.

I don’t think the late Mr Lee was the right leader for the turn of the century but I have sometimes wished that he had come out to lay out the law of the land and just point the waaaay. This is especially so when discussion gets too fractious.

I really want to know, for example, what was it that the late Mr Lee wanted to say in Parliament post-GE which his son didn’t allow him too. My guess is that it’s some kind of harangue about navel-gazing and going on about COEs and property prices when the world is out there ready to eat our lunch. The PM told his father that he and his team would handle it by themselves.

This is pure guesswork but I suppose he thought Mr Lee might do more harm than good by speaking up to a population which is no longer dominated by the first or second generation Singaporeans. Also, he wouldn’t want his father to help bolster him and the younger lot, and risk looking even weaker especially after a weak showing in the GE. Just saying.

There is another point in his speech I found disconcerting. He talks about how Mercedes still needs Lewis Hamilton to win the F1 championship even though it has an outstanding car. “The car can’t drive itself.’’ So those people who think it’s okay to try out a different team to lead the government because there is still the civil service to run the show should be “very careful’’.

Hmm. The civil service SHOULD be able to run the show despite a change of political masters no? That’s how it works elsewhere, so why can’t it work here? What is the relationship between the civil service and the government-of-the-day, especially when so many ministers are ex-civil servants?

I ask this because I was very taken by the speech made by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo published in the media last week:

“The distinction of the role between the politician and public servant has started to become blurred.

“The upside is that the politicians will have strong support from public servants when they need to sell government policies. But the downside of the change is that it will be more difficult for the public servant to behave in a non-partisan manner as the public will see him as intrinsically linked to the ruling party, perhaps even occasionally justifying the party line. It was not an issue in the early days because the old-generation public servants never had to worry about another political party taking over government from the PAP.

“But GE 2011 has caused some of our younger public servants to worry about what to do if there are more and more opposition MPs in Parliament or even if there is a change in political party, and not just in government, maybe a few general elections from now.’’

There is something very wrong here. Are the fates of the civil servants so inextricably tied with that of their political masters that we have to be “very careful’’ if we exercise our right to put in a different political team? We risk the country going down the drain because the civil service can’t function as well with someone from a different party? Surely, ministers are NOT super civil servants.

You can already see attacks on the civil service when something untoward happens in the Workers’ Party town council. There is a perception that civil servants might not be even-handed in its dealings with the PAP and WP town councils, with those living in the opposition wards being worse off. It might be an unworthy perception but it is one that will dog the civil service if the distinction of the role between the politician and public servant is not clarified. We can throw out the party in power because we disagree with its politics or politicies but we must always be able to have faith that the civil service can and will carry on on behalf of the people.

It got me thinking about the NTUC. What happens to the NTUC should the PAP lose more seats or even lose power? Maybe nothing as the symbiotic relationship is between the PAP and the NTUC, which is like a holding fort for some would-be candidates and a testing ground for others. (Note: symbiotic is not tripartite which is G-employer-union.) I once asked Mr Lim Swee Say about the relationship and he said there were non-NTUC unions as well and opposition parties are free to tie up with them or form their own version of the labour movement. Interesting.

So PM Lee is right about being “very careful’’ about our vote. Throw out the bath water (the PAP) and the baby might go as well (the civil service) – and we also risk over-turning the bathtub (the NTUC)?

He might be right but it doesn’t seem right, does it?


This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Madam Pang (second from right) back at Bin Kiang School on Pulau Ubin.

“有人要你就好了 [1]”, Jie Liu (揭六) said in Cantonese, hours after his seventh daughter, Pang Tai Quee (彭大娇), was born in the early morning of September 26, 1939, on Pulau Ubin. She was the ninth of 10 children. It was a baby boy her father wanted, and seven days later she was given away to his friend, Pang Heng (彭兴). Opium brought both men together, who had to take 25-cent boat rides to buy packets of the substance from Changi back home, and had to dump them into the sea when the sirens of police boats blared in the distance.

Smoking opium in the afternoon, even though possession was illegal without certificates from a medical practitioner since 1934, eased the exhaustion of Madam Pang’s foster father – albeit temporarily. “He earned seven or eight dollars a day at the granite quarry”, she recalls, “but the labour of mining granite, which was sent in barges back to the mainland for construction, was backbreaking”.

Exhausting Routines

Granite quarry workers on Pulau Ubin.

Besides the many quarries on Granite Island, as Pulau Ubin was known for and named after, there were large rubber and cash crop plantations. Like her birth father Madam Pang’s foster father favoured his sons, and after barely a year of education at Bin Kiang School (敏江学校) she joined her stepmother at the rubber plantation when she was nine. “重男轻女” [2], in her words. Her foster father had just remarried, two years after Madam Pang’s foster mother died of an unknown disease.

Work was tough on the island. The night before Madam Pang turned in when the sky got dark at eight in the evening, after brewing a pot of black coffee which was stored in aluminium thermos flasks. At two in the morning with lukewarm coffee in their veins, she walked with her stepmother for 20 minutes to the plantation where they tapped latex from the rubber trees. “We made the incisions early to increase the yields, collected the white latex in metal buckets, and had them weighed and recorded”, Madam Pang shares. At ten they returned home, took a nap, and busied themselves with household chores.

Pay-outs of about $60 were made by the collector at the end of the month.

Still, money was in short supply. Huddled in their three-room atap house, while they grew vegetables and raised chickens and pigs, Madam Pang and her family needed the money to buy rice and fish. It was hard to make ends meet, and her two stepbrothers stayed on mainland Singapore as apprentices to a furniture-maker at Whampoa, without completing their formal primary education.

Given Away at Birth

The entrance to Pulau Ubin today.
The entrance to Pulau Ubin today.

Even as she grew accustomed to the routines of her foster family, she found out more about her birth family. During her school holidays in 1948 she visited her elder sister at Hainan Street in Singapore, and helped to look after her sons. When Madam Pang returned her foster father was incensed, because “he thought I was trying to get back with my birth family”. It also gave him another reason to stop her from attending school.

The practice of giving children away was not uncommon, especially within her families. They did not have the means to feed so many mouths. Madam Pang’s three-year-old stepsister was sold for a small amount to a childless family who later moved to Guangxi, China. One of her elder birth sisters was given to a Malay family in the neighbourhood.

Now, potential parents go through an arduous process to adopt a child in Singapore.

According to the Adoption of Child Act, some of the requirements for adoption include the age of the adopter, the maximum age gap between the adopter and the child, as well as attendance at the compulsory Pre-Adoption Briefing, conducted by voluntary welfare organisations accredited by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). With stricter checks on prospective parents – such as the home study reports, which are prepared after a series of interviews and home visits – adoptions number in the hundreds. The informal adoption arrangements which charted the course of Madam Pang’s life, since she was one week old, no longer exist.

Making a Move

The Majestic Da Hua theatre.
The Majestic Da Hua theatre.

At 19 Madam Pang was married to Kwan Hin Kee. It was an arranged marriage, made in the early 1900s by her foster grandmother and his grandmother, who were good friends in Sanshui, China. With his parents Mr. Kwan had visited her on the island a year ago, and after two movie dates at The Majestic Da Hua theatre (大华戏院) they had a wedding dinner of nine tables at the New World Entertainment Complex (新世界) on February 23, 1957.

Some yearn for the lifestyles of the past, of the kampung spirit, yet Madam Pang embraced the move to the mainland. “Nothing” she says, when asked what she missed about Pulau Ubin. “Especially not the snakes we had to look out for in the early mornings”.

Madam Pang joined Mr. Kwan’s family of 11 in a shop-house at Whampoa. The family paid $85 a month for the two-room apartment. After a relocation exercise they stayed at Toa Payoh for a few months, before settling at a shop-house along Kempas Road for $250 a month in the 1970s. Over the next three decades the rent has increased from $280 to $1,000 to $2,000, and as a house-maker she help tend to the small grocery shop with her four sons. With Mr. Kwan she now lives in a three-room flat along Balestier Road, making pineapple tarts and love letters in the festive reasons.

Three years after her marriage Madam Pang’s foster family moved away from Pulau Ubin, to a kampung along Airport Road. Her older and younger foster brothers found jobs in a government agency and in a cement transportation company respectively. She made the occasional trip back to visit her friends, but in the 1960s as the granite quarries and the rubber plantations ceased operations more residents moved to the mainland. Madam Pang has also headed back on Qingming Festival and the death anniversaries of her elders.

“I feel no resentment”, she muses, “and it has been a long time since my birth and time on Pulau Ubin”. “Things have turned out well over the years, my children and grandchildren have lived quite comfortably, and I am thankful for that”.

[1] Translated from Chinese, this means “how nice would it be if someone wanted you”.

[2] A Chinese expression, used to describe someone who values men over women.


This article was originally published at guanyinmiao.wordpress.com.