March 25, 2017


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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

WHEN my mother was in her 60s, she had both her knees replaced. Last year, when she was 71, she had surgery to her spine. She made a swift recovery but age is telling on her. She laments that she isn’t able to walk as quickly or as far as she could. She laments that she is unable to carry the bags of groceries and has to ask the Sheng Siong staffers to lug it for her to her car boot. Yes, she still drives and I’m thinking of taking away her keys because she has a greater tendency now to confuse her routes.

How does one come to terms with getting old(er)?

Everywhere you see material that caters to the younger set, whether on looking good or dressing well. If there is material on the old, it’s about how some elders are ageing gracefully, like doing the triathlon or something. Or it is the rather more depressing stuff, like end-of-life issues and hospital or hospice care. Or it’s about maintaining enough funds for retirement.

The truth is, ageing is not graceful.

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I see increasing signs of an ageing population everywhere everyday. Like hawkers and stallholders in my neighbourhood who are now wheelchair bound. Like having to make my way through sidewalks crowded with personal mobility devices – and I don’t mean skateboards and wheels for the young. Like seeing an increasing number of foreign helpers who go out marketing with their older charges.

There is a couple I’ve known half my life who walk bent and at a snail’s pace around the neighbourhood. They used to be perky and sprightly. At least, I thought, they have each other and they still hold hands. I tell my mother to straighten her posture when she’s walking or she’ll end up looking like them.

How does one come to terms with growing old(er)? My mother fights age with every ounce of her decreasing energy. She colours the tuft of grey on her head with hair mascara. She dons track shoes for her increasingly shorter walks. She maintains herself well, never neglecting the face powder, lip-stick and earrings when she gets out of the house, even if she’s bound for the wet market. She makes sure her spectacles are youngish – she just bought a red-framed one which she worries would be too flashy for her age.

She knows, however, that she is losing her battle with age. She complains about being “useless’’ because she can’t bake as many cookies as before or cook the big family spreads she used to.

Nothing really prepares you for the slow and steady drip of energy and strength. It doesn’t help when friends you’ve known half your life suddenly succumb to illness. A friend of my mother’s who is one of the most out-going and social beings in her set, collapsed at a mall a few weeks ago and died in hospital a few days later. It’s depressing when people your age suddenly pass on, as it was for my mother.

It’s one aspect of ageing that is seldom talked about: the psychological acceptance that you are not as young as you used to be. We can mend our body parts and even replace them, or slow down the ageing process. We can ensure we have enough funds to live until death, but what is the point when you can’t live life to the fullest in the meantime? You hear it, don’t you? Older folk saying they want to holiday overseas before they become incapable of walking. That they want to enjoy their life with their CPF savings while they are still healthy and sprightly. Yet we tell them to see the big picture: that without funds, society would end up caring for them. It’s a message for the young, who can yet envisage being old.

I feel age creeping on too. Creaky knees, reading glasses and a bad wrist that appears to be the result of too much time on the keyboard. Like my mother, who considers herself young, I look at older folk and wonder about the day I become one of them.

Singapore has to get used to the presence of older folk. I can declare that I have never heard any driver honk at an old person who is taking his time to cross the road. And I have never seen anyone not responding to an older person who asks for help. But I also know that statistics show that the elderly are vulnerable on the roads and die in accidents, and that they are susceptible to scams, especially if the trick involves their children’s well-being.

I read on Friday about an old lady who has kept herself in her own home because she is afraid of falling down when she ventures outside. I smile because my mother is afraid of falling too, not just because of broken bones, but that she would look like a foolish sight in public, sprawled on the ground in an unsightly manner.

Maybe that’s why she always dresses well when she ventures out of the house. You really want to look your best when you are at your worst.

May age be kind to all of us.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
A Comfort cab covered in ads trawling the streets of Singapore.

by Bertha Henson

YESTERDAY, my ride from the National University of Singapore in Kent Ridge to my home in the East cost me $51. It was the most expensive fare I’ve ever had to pay in my life.

It was raining. I was carrying books. And I called for a GrabTaxi, none of which was in my vicinity as I could tell from the app. It suggested that I try for a GrabCar as well. Now a standard taxi ride would cost me about $26 to $28, according to the app. A car ride would be a flat $51.

Decision time. Should I pay that high price or hope that a standard taxi would bid? Or should I just stand around in the rain and hope that a taxi with its green light on come by? I went for GrabCar, a Honda Stream, which was due to arrive in three minutes. As luck would have it, I spied a green-lit Comfort cab coming my way. Should I cancel the GrabCar and hop into it? Yet, I also recall the number of times empty cabs have cruised by or drivers who told me that they were not going my way. I also thought about the Grab driver. He would lose his fare.

I let the cab pass.

Now I’m sure people who think I should have hailed the cab would say it’s because I’m “too rich”. I would like to think it was because I’m “too nice”. Serious. Hey, the GrabCar driver could be the family’s sole breadwinner with four schoolgoing children!

Now it seems that surge pricing will come into play in the taxi industry. All the cab companies want some form of demand-and-supply charging system because it seems to be working for rivals, Grab and Uber in terms of incentivising their drivers to stay on their fleet.

The biggest player ComfortDelGro wants to try something in-between – a choice between fixed fare and surge pricing. The fixed fare system, however, doesn’t assure commuters of a guaranteed outcome. The Public Transport Council is looking over the proposal, although I don’t understand why, since fares have been de-regulated since 1998.

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When canvassed, transport analysts all have something to say about taxi fares. So I thought I should give my take as a passenger too.

a. Cab companies should first get rid of the myriad surcharges it has and streamline fares.

Of course, they should. But they don’t have an incentive to now because nobody hails a taxi and asks for an itemised costing before getting in, like how many ERP gantries the cab would have to pass through and at what cost and whether it’s still peak hour pricing. Cabbies might actually prefer streamlined fares because it saves them from getting into arguments with commuters who accuse them of going “the long way”.

b. Surge pricing might be too heavy a cost for cab companies to carry because unlike their rivals, they don’t have as much money to burn.

I’m no transport analyst, so I don’t know how the change would affect the companies bottomline. But I am a commuter and all I worry about is taxi drivers hiding during non-peak hours and suddenly “surging” during peak hours when fares would be surging too. After all, they already do so now.

c. Surge pricing, if applied to street hailing, would cause confusion for the commuter.

That’s true. A meter system is great because you can actually see the fares going up – and check the cash in your wallet. You can actually stop the cab half-way and get off, which I have done when I think I can save a dollar walking to my destination because my purse is emptying out. Presumably, under the new system, I have to flag a cab down and ask the price – which is given to me. Frankly, my next instinct would be to bargain. Is this allowed? Sigh.

d. Surge pricing may lead to cabbies responding only to calls and avoiding taxi stands.

If you’ve ever been in a taxi queue, you know that feeling you get when a cab comes by to pick up someone who went for a ride-hailing app instead. Sometimes it’s good because it shortens the queue. Sometimes you feel like screaming because the passenger is not in the queue and have therefore “choped” the cab which would have been in the line. I have taken to reading a book while waiting.

Now, what will happen if surge pricing occurs across-the-board. “Unker, how much to Bedok?” “Fifty dollars”. Do you say “No thanks, I’ll take the next ride?” Or do you just get in so as to not lose face with those waiting after you. “Cannot afford, why take taxi?”

At least, the current system is just the booking fee on top of the meter system. You roughly know if you can afford it.

Well, I suppose some would say that surge pricing reflects the true cost of taxi transport. It is, after all, private transport and should not be subsidised.

Don’t you think roads are getting too crowded these days? Those who would have left their cars in carparks are now out picking up fares as Uber or Grab drivers. I think that getting from Point A to Point B is taking much longer than it used to. If the price is too high for too long a ride, public transport would definitely be better value-for-money.

Time to switch mode of transport.


Featured image from Shawn Danker.

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Featured image by Flickr user Vaping360. (CC BY 2.0)

by Daniel Yap

SENIOR Minister of State for Health Amy Khor’s answer to WP Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera’s question about heated tobacco products exposed a weakness in the Ministry of Health’s policy on alternative tobacco products, and its approach to science. Smoking is a big risk for our healthcare system, and if alternative products can lower that risk, then perhaps we need to consider them more carefully.

Heat-not-burn tobacco may be strange to Singaporeans because it is banned here, but it accounts for more than five per cent of the tobacco market in Japan after being on the market for just two years, and is catching on in many major markets worldwide. Its popularity is due to rising fears of the effects of second-hand smoke and also smokers’ desire to quit or reduce harm to themselves and their families.

But since Singapore plays host to research and development facilities of tobacco companies, it’s odd to think that we know so little.

How Philip Morris International's iQOS system works
At least we know how Philip Morris International’s heat-not-burn iQOS system works

Plus, since we are at war with diabetes (of which smoking is a major risk factor), it behooves us to be interested in even preliminary studies of products that claim to reduce risks, including e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.

I have family and friends who smoke and I would like to know whether this product (or any other, like vaping) could reduce the harm they are doing to their bodies (and to mine). I would think every smoker’s family does.

It takes time, of course, but Dr Khor did not say that studies were underway. Are they? I know the budget is tight, but this is a budget for the future, isn’t it? Why not spend a few million now to potentially reduce future healthcare costs by billions of dollars?

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1. Don’t know means don’t know, not “no”

Dr Khor’s reply sounds like a defence of the G’s policy of banning heat-not-burn products, along with e-cigarettes and non-smoking tobacco. If a lack of information exists for an issue as important as smoking, then it is the duty of the G’s scientists to go and find out more.

If we don’t know, we should be open to trying. I’m not saying we should completely legalise alternative products to all and sundry. Even Mr Perera’s suggestion to start with giving these products to smokers trying to quit will be a start.

2. Citing nicotine levels as a reason why heat-not-burn is bad

Mr Perera was asking about the overall risk of heat-not-burn products. Dr Khor answered with how nicotine levels were comparable to regular cigarettes. This answer is strangely off-track.

Smokers are addicted to nicotine but killed by tar and other chemicals. Shouldn’t the answer be about tar and carbon monoxide instead? Or at least one of the many other chemicals in cigarettes that could harm your body?

And if lower levels of other chemicals are detected in heat-not-burn products, then the same level of nicotine would be a good thing because it would be easier for addicts to switch products because they get the same high while causing less harm to themselves and others.

We practise “reduced harm” policies for other vices. If heat-not-burn products and e-cigarettes reduce harm, we should allow them, and the health authorities should commit to this and then go research it.

3. Criticise the research, not (just) the researcher.

Dr Khor is a little too dismissive of the research done by tobacco companies when she says “while there have been claims that such tobacco products are less harmful…these claims are made by the tobacco industry”. It is one thing to know that a person or organisation is an interested party in a study or has lied in the past, but that isn’t what makes a study true or untrue.

Research done by tobacco companies on heat-not-burn stretches back to 2008. And it is extensive, with publicly available methodology. Philip Morris, for example, has submitted a two million-page dossier to the US Food and Drug Administration on the effects of heat-not-burn. If heat-not-burn is as harmful as cigarettes, as Dr Khor presumes, then we need to dive into the research, not ignore it.

Since there is currently no research to disprove the tobacco companies, why not peer review their studies? Why not attempt to replicate them? Why not conduct independent studies? That is how one refutes (or proves) another’s research, not by a mere claim that the other party is an interested party. That’s what we do with big pharma, so apply it across the board.

Good science was responsible for linking cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other ailments with smoking. We need to drop the lazy rhetoric and do the hard work of science.

4. “There is no safe level of tobacco use”

This was the answer Dr Khor gave to Mr Perera’s query about trialing reduced-risk products to help smokers who have registered for smoking cessation programmes quit.

Not only does it fail to answer Mr Perera’s question, the answer hides behind a truism. Of course there is no safe level of tobacco use. There is also no “safe level” of particulate pollution. There is no safe level of red meat consumption. But we know that a PSI below 50 is considered “healthy”. We know that one can eat a moderate amount of red meat and not be considered “at risk” by doctors or insurers.

We want to know whether heat-not-burn is safer than cigarettes, not whether tobacco is bad for you. Big tobacco is claiming that heat-not-burn is safer. There are no claims that it is safe.

5. The “gateway effect” and other “evidence from other countries”

Dr Khor says that “evidence from other countries” shows that heat-not-burn products have emissions that are not too different from cigarettes. However, a November 2016 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report on heat-not-burn products comes to this conclusion:

“To date, we have not found new independent science that has assessed the harm reduction potential or the acceptability of the current generation of heat-not-burn products… If independent science finds that the new heat-not-burn products do indeed considerably reduce harm and are widely acceptable to smokers, an opportunity would arise for eliminating the sale of the higher risk combustibles.”

So other “evidence from other countries” so far is a well-documented seven-year-long and counting study by UK health authorities disproving Dr Khor’s “gateway effect” fears, and showing the exact opposite.  Dr Khor mentioned the study but didn’t have the time to explain why she didn’t accept its findings.

Instead, her evidence backing up the “gateway effect” is only half a story – that adolescent e-cigarette use in the US is growing quickly (ten-fold since 2011). The other side of the story, which she left out, is that there was a sharp decline in conventional cigarette use over the same period. I’ll not be one to confuse cause and correlation, but telling only one side of the story robs us of the facts.

Add to that the fact that the UK government has concluded that e-cigarettes are definitely less harmful than regular cigarettes and you’ve got to ask: Could the Ministry of Health, in their over-zeal to protect Singaporeans from “potential harm”, also be holding us back from potential benefits? All I know is that we can’t justify our policy positions with bad, bad science.


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U.S. President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

by Daniel Yap 

THE race to retrain is playing out in the USA as it is in Singapore. US President Donald Trump was just told last week (Feb 24) that even if he brings the jobs back to “make America great again”, there aren’t enough qualified American workers to fill them.

Currently, some 324,000 factory vacancies are available in the USA and the two dozen business leaders, including Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Doug Oberhelman of Caterpillar, and Inge Thulin of 3M, warned that a skills mismatch meant that many would remain unfilled.

Jobs have not only left the USA for other markets; it seems that some jobs are simply gone for good. Part of the problem that got Mr Trump elected into office, anger over lost blue-collar jobs, has been one that was left un-addressed by the previous administration, and the issue of the job-skills mismatch seemed to be relatively new to Trump himself.

Simply demanding that companies move production back to the USA will not solve the problem. Times have changed, and the USA needs a new solution.

White House staffers were challenged by the President to come up with a program to make sure the American worker is trained for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow.

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What sort of program would that be, I wonder? Would it involve subsidised training for workers to study skills more relevant to where job openings are? Would it include a fund to allow Americans to pursue interest areas that may or may not be related to their work? Will it include education reform to prepare tertiary students for work by focusing on the latest and most relevant industry skills, and get workers matched to small businesses looking for people with the right skills?

Oh wait, you mean something like SkillsFuture?

Singapore is a little ahead of the curve on this. Even as Mr Trump, as the Government, is just learning about what businesses need and want, and scrambles to formulate policy that will address the gap.

But both Singapore and America have yet to prove that their workers, especially the oft-ignored rank-and-file workers, are up to the task of reinventing themselves for the jobs of the future, with or without help from the G.

That’s not to say that Singapore’s programme will solve America’s ills. This island nation is still at the start of its struggle to revolutionise its traditional focus on paper qualifications and America is still many steps ahead of Singapore in parts of the SkillsFuture journey. It has always valued skills at the workplace, even though it has not thought to train people for it.

The ability to get the job done and done well has fuelled many a mailroom-to-corner-office story, because employer culture is generally one that values skills and results above educational qualifications. And Americans are entrepreneurial enough to know not to expect handouts in their highly competitive economy.

Both America and Singapore know the score – as disparate as the two nations are, they are fighting for a bigger slice of the global economic pie, and whichever economy doesn’t transform fast enough is going to get left behind.

In the big picture, this is about national prosperity. The country that is able to provide citizens with the best quality of life and hope for the future is the one that can develop the skills of its people most effectively, but that takes buy-in and commitment from all parties – the government, businesses and the workers themselves.


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


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by Ryan Ong

SINGAPORE has had an expansionary budget two years in a row now, so it’s not surprising the budget surplus will shrink a little. Most of it is caused by an urgent (read: expensive) need to upgrade our workforce; as we head into a future of further automation and digital trade, it’s unlikely that Singaporeans can manage first world costs of living by being an assembly worker or cleaner. But where does this money come from, what are the Net Investment Returns that supposedly fund it?

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DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam's portrait
Action man: "In Jurong, We believe in doing it, and doing it with a heart" says DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

by Daniel Yap

PM LEE Hsien Loong’s interview on BBC HardTalk brought the race issue back into the spotlight. The old question about whether Singapore was ready for a non-Chinese PM came up, as did DPM Tharman’s popularity. Sadly, host Stephen Sackur didn’t hit hard on the reserved Presidency.

PM Lee seemed not to favour the odds of there being a non-Chinese PM. He said it would be difficult, but not impossible, “I hope one day it will happen…if you ask whether it’ll happen tomorrow, I don’t think so.”

Indeed, race is a factor. But of what sort? Was PM saying that Singaporeans are racist? Or was he saying that Singaporeans are realists, who vote for someone they feel more kinship and shared identity with? If it is the latter, then how big of a role does race play and can it be diminished with time?

When it comes down to the ballot box, PM’s statement that “ethnic considerations are never absent when voters vote” may be true, but race and racism are not issues that pull at us once every few years. These are daily struggles: for job applicants, for homeowners and tenants, for anyone who has more than 10 friends.

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When do we cross the line between pragmatism into racism? When does a policy designed to defuse racial tensions become a drag on society’s ability to live in harmony as different races?

What kind of a society are we building – one that believes that race issues can never be fully overcome, and must therefore be constantly managed, or one where we hope to foster race-blindness and someday be free of our CMIO definitions? Perhaps it could be something in between.

That’s why it’s time for a hard talk about race and racism. The best way to understand other perspectives and find common ground is to talk it over with one another with the aim to build bridges and share stories and hopefully come to an understanding of the society we currently live in, as well as the one we hope to build for the future.

Dinner won’t hurt either, because that’s just so Singaporean. THat’s why TMG will be the official media for More Than Just to open up dialogue between Singaporeans on the issue of race and racism. We hope you’ll be able to join us for makan and a chat.


TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.


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by Bertha Henson

SO, MINISTER for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said this in Parliament yesterday: “If we needed any additional water, where would it come from? How much would that additional litre cost? That is what we call the Long Run Marginal Cost (LRMC). That is the cost which consumers must see.’’

Except that we can’t see it because LRMC is a state secret. Revealing this would compromise future bids to build desalination plants. I don’t know how this works but it’s probably like a businessman who doesn’t want to tip his hand to a potentional contractor by telling him what kind of money he has to pay him.

So you can’t see LRMC but you have to “feel’’ it. Which is why the price of water is going up by 30 per cent after staying put for 17 years.

He did give an idea of what went into the computation: a blend of NEWater and desalination costs. Singapore would have to depend more on desalination in the future as there’s only so much water in an urban city that can be recycled as NEWater. And desalination is much more expensive than making NEWater.

Going by what he said, if there was no NEWater invented in 2002, the price of water would have shot up. That’s because after threats by Malaysian elements to cut off water supply from Johor in 1997, we scaled up desalination. To match the cost would have meant a jump in water tariffs. Price did go up from 1997 to 2000 before holding steady. Was there much of a fuss then? A check with the archives showed that Singaporeans were accepting of the increase. Doubtless, it was because we were faced with a clear and present danger of going without water.

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This little history lesson Mr Masagos gave is more illuminating than merely general statements about water security.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing put it more starkly: “How many more desalination plants and NEWater plants must we build in order for water to never be a weapon pointing at our head?”

He also warned that water needs of people in the southern Malaysian state are increasing, and Malaysia is also extracting water upstream of Linggiu Reservoir — which Singapore depends on to draw water reliably from the Johor River.

This is a point that is seldom stressed, that Malaysia’s “upstream” venture,  Johor’s Semangar and Loji Air water treatment plants, along the Johor river means less water “downstream” for Singapore to extract. Can we rely on Johor for freshwater? We already have 17 reservoirs in Singapore.

He sounded a little testy when he suggested that MPs should get the basics right: That water is an existential issue. The former army chief added that a whole generation that has worn uniforms know what this means.

Which is as good as saying, do you really want to see the day when fresh water supply from the north gets cut off or Singapore is subjected to some kind of blackmail over a resource that countries go to war over?

I suppose politicians are constrained from saying things this bluntly but it’s a logical conclusion given the threat that the Linggiu Reservoir might run dry this year if hot weather persists, as Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan noted last month in a parliamentary reply. The water issue was raised at the leaders’ retreat in December with both Singapore and Malaysia pledging to look for new ways to increase fresh water supply.

According to the 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries, PUB can draw up to 250 million gallons (mgd) of water from the Johor River each day. In return, Johor is entitled to buy treated water of the same volume as up to 2 per cent of the water extracted by Singapore on any given day, or about 5 mgd if Singapore draws its full entitlement of water from the Johor River.

Dr Balakrishnan described the agreement as “sacrosanct to Singapore”.

“Should Linggiu Reservoir fail, there will be many more occasions when it will not be possible for PUB to abstract its entitlement of 250 mgd, and the current abstractions by Johor’s Semangar and Loji Air Water Treatment Plants will also be affected. This will cause severe problems for both Malaysia and Singapore.”

I can also speculate that the water increase was timed now because of the dire straits of the Linggiu reservoir which was at 27 per cent capacity on Jan 1.

But there’s still this niggling question of why the G didn’t look ahead and had to impose such a high increase. Was it so happy with NEWater being a substitute? Did it get complacent over the water problem or think there’s always enough in the public coffers to build yet another plant? Because it’s likely.

If the water price hike was put starkly and clearly in strategic terms, it’s likely that people will be more willing to pay the price.

I would.


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by Alvin Pang

WE PUBLISH here a reply to MPs who suggested that the public service has lost its heart, which was reported in TODAY.

Public service is hard work. I should know. I’ve worked alongside (and lived with) public officers my whole life. I have relatives who were teachers, counter officers, cleaning staff, and I’ve been in the service myself. I’ve manned hotlines. Written papers. Sat in meetings. Put together events, both public and closed door. I’ve analysed, deliberated, drafted, vetted, edited, planned, soothed, cajoled, compromised, stayed back to finish. I still work with many public sector clients today. I’ve spoken with or interviewed folks from all across the Service. So I should know. But the fact is, I don’t.

Because while I have had the privilege to study, behind the scenes, everything public servants do to carry out their duties with integrity, excellence, and a sense of service to Singapore – all the little things within their mandate and control to make life run smoothly for the rest of us, often even before we realise a need – while I have seen these things firsthand as a beneficiary and as an observer, it isn’t in the end my head on the chopping block, every day, out in the frontlines or in front of the auditor’s panel.

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It isn’t me, in the end, who has to implement, in good faith and to the best of my professional judgement, policies that delimit what should and should not be done. Policies that include precisely the sort of checks and balances and constraints on jurisdiction and action that the public has called for to head off potential abuse. I am not the one who has to deal with increasingly demanding and sometimes churlish behaviour from members of the public, often asking to be excepted from the established guidelines.

Think about it: most of us only interact with government services when we have to, and it’s not always for a pleasant task. There’s a bill to be paid, a tax to be declared, a summons to answer, or a rule to be complied with. We may be facing some sort of loss, or a loved one may be in distress and we’re not exactly in our best mood. We want things our way. It’s public servants who have to address our concerns, smile, stay calm and shepherd the process to a reasonable conclusion that is satisfactory, yet at the same time legitimate and fair, according to rules they didn’t make – and now some of the ones who did help make the rules are suggesting they may have lost their compassion. Well, where’s the compassion for the hard-working public servant, who are also Singaporeans, also our loved ones: our parents, spouses, aunts and uncles, children, friends – who labour over things most of us don’t even know needed to be done, so that we can go about our lives and not get in one another’s way too much?

The Public Service hasn’t lost its heart. It is the heart of government. It’s the part of the state that plays an active, hands-on role in improving people’s lives; that translates policy theory into practice. I am not saying public servants are saints. I am saying they are human, and are trying to do their jobs. I am saying they are vulnerable to being made the strawmen and scapegoats when their hands are tied, albeit often for sound reasons.

The Public Service has not lost its heart. But I worry it may lose heart. So I suggest we go talk to someone we know who works in the sector. Find out how they operate and make decisions. What their day is like. What they care about. And worry about. Then think again about who exactly in Singapore is lacking in compassion. Let’s make sure it isn’t ourselves.


Alvin Pang is a poet, editor, and former teacher and civil servant.


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by Eugene Tay

IT WAS 5.30pm when I arrived at the Changi Exhibition Centre and made my way to the back of the queue for Pen A (for $300 ticket holders) at the Guns N’ Roses concert on Saturday (Feb 26). GnR would take the stage at 8pm. It took about 30 minutes to get to the first checkpoint and a couple of minutes more to get our tickets scanned and RFID wristbands synced.

The three pairs of gatekeepers were doing a good job keeping the momentum going but they were impeded by the speed at which their devices could process. By the time I cleared through, the line snaked back twice as long as when I first joined. Bag check was next, and went smoothly.

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It was less than two hours to show time. I’ve worked organising concerts and festivals before, and I was beginning to sense things were about to get massively ugly.

How things were laid out at the concert. Enter from the bottom.
How things were laid out at the concert. Enter from the bottom.

The venue was big enough to accommodate the record 50,000 turnout but wasn’t set up for it. Whoever was in charge of the front of house had probably expected a gradual flow of traffic from 1pm to 8pm and did not account for a sudden influx an hour before show time.

It was an obvious miscalculation. Middle-aged concertgoers aren’t as free as when they were younger, when it was normal for fans to camp overnight for concerts.

About those RFID bands. They’re supposed to ease the hassle of payment: you top up a non-refundable amount at one station and then go spend it at the stalls. There were three counters for cash top-ups and just one for credit cards. I queued for an hour to load my RFID tag.

Now that I was e-cash loaded, I started my first queue for drinks. It was 7.30pm by the time I got my first two pints of beer and the queue situation had reached worrying levels. I felt sorry for those in queue behind me but was more relieved that I wasn’t one of them, so I sipped on my beer and made my way to the outdoor area of Pen A.

Wolfmother, the pre-show band, ended their set just as I finished my two pints, clearing the stage for the main act slated to start in about 15 minutes, at exactly 8pm. I “excuse-me”-d my way towards one of the only two drink stations in Pen A and – by golly-mother-of-god – the drink queue was all the way to the back of Pen A and threatening to spill over into Pen B.

“Screw this,” I thought to myself, remembering that there were F&B stalls back in the Exhibition Hall. “I’m going to try my luck with the queue in the Hall”. So I made a quick dash for it.

The Hall was a scene out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

There were more people in the hall than there were in the Pen. The queues for food, drinks and merchandise had exploded out of control, forming a human bulwark against the kancheong latecomers who needed to get from bag check station to the outdoor Pen in the shortest possible time. All around, people were losing their tempers. One guy was yelling at his friend, apparently still in a shuttle bus, over the phone.

I had two options. Screw the drinks and forget my remaining $160 in credits, or run back into my Pen and join the other queue. I decided I needed a head-start away from this chaos in the Hall before it reached the Pen.

That’s when GNR started playing, people started running, and pandemonium ensued. There was no way the gatekeeper could hold the frenzied human horde back to check the validity of our tags. More hell broke lose than you’d see at a death metal concert. By the time I got back to the Pen, there was only a semblance of a queue. It was just a mob of people standing at the back that differentiated themselves from non-queuers by the pissed off looks on their faces.

I waited in the drink line for two hours while the band played. Now I guess I could have gotten pissed off at this point, seeing that I had spent about 80 per cent of the concert in the drink queue. I’m sure some people were. But that’s not my style. What good does it do? Spoil my own fun and waste the $300 I spent because I chose to let the situation dictate how I feel? Being pissed off doesn’t change anything. I ended up singing along with others in the queue and making new friends.

The performance was excellent in the way that only an old-school fan can appreciate. The few seconds of sound glitch during one of Slash’s solos was not an issue as most of us already had the riffs in our head and were happy to fill in the gaps. The boys were pudgy and more subdued than their younger selves, but so were we – the concertgoers.

If you were there purely for the music, you would have enjoyed the show and probably walked away not knowing that there were thousands of angry fans behind you who spent the entire show queuing up for food and drinks that they probably never got.

When it finally came to my turn, the crowd was chanting ‘encore’. I couldn’t really see what was going on and hadn’t been able to for the past half hour, because my view was blocked by the drink tent.

The poor sod in front of me almost broke down because he had just realised that his RFID tag did not come pre-loaded with credits, which he felt a $300 ticket would have entitled him to.

I’m glad they had a 30 minutes encore set. I made it a point to down one pint for every song, to catch up on lost time. By the time the band got to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, I was singing my lungs out and in a largely forgiving mood.

Eugene at the concert
Eugene at the concert.

To me, organiser LAMC Productions made a business decision to slash (no pun intended) costs so that the concert could happen at the given ticket price. As a business, they guarded their bottom line and delivered what they could. They cut manpower, access points, facilities, amenities and probably hired less experienced temps on the ground.

Being a concert promoter has got to be the most thankless job in the world. They get into tough negotiations to bring in the acts, cough up the money, take the risks (GnR’s performance fees are rumoured to be US$3 million, excluding travel and entourage expenses) bend over backwards to accede to everyone’s requests, but when things don’t go right, it will be their fault. It doesn’t matter if you ran ten great shows prior; people only remember the screw-ups.

I don’t doubt for one second that the people who worked there that night had put in their very best. It’s tough work with long hours and shitty pay. Whoever you guys are, thank you.

The show ended, my beer was almost done, and I needed to pee, but discovered that the toilet queue would probably be another two hour wait. I looked at the empty plastic cups lying by my feet… whence it came, thence it shall return…


Eugene Tay is a Singaporean author, entrepreneur and a mindset coach. He runs the Get Naked with Eugene Tay talk show where he interviews interesting people and puts himself through life changing challenges. He eventually decided not to pee into a cup.


Featured image by Eugene Tay.

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by Daniel Yap

I CAN’T say it’s a bad thing when PM Lee and senior civil servants call out in praise of constructive naysayers. It is heartening to hear those words from him.

At no other time in our history has Singapore so needed Steve Jobs’ “crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently”.

But when I look around me, I see a civil service rife with yes-men, round pegs worn ragged into squares, and all the rebels on the outside looking in. I see a society that is unnecessarily harsh on dissenting voices, a situation where promising alternative thoughts are never voiced aloud in the upper echelons of the G, and where leaders are conditioned to mount a robust defence of the status quo (with nearly no admission of mistakes) in the face of failing policies and ever-deeper problems.

So then in that context, PM’s words become the deep irony (I’ll be kind and assume it’s simply a lack of insight; if deliberate, it’s propaganda) of Orwell’s Oceania. Naysayer means yes-man. Reform means status quo. Respectable means conformist.

His description of how they grade potential MPs and political office holders is telling – “very high marks” are given to those who have a coherent, strong view of policy areas that need Government change. At this point, my jaw drops and I have a little giggle.

It would have been my assumption that every single MP and office holder must have a coherent, strong view on policy areas they want to be changed all the time because no administration is perfect. And that’s not a throwaway line – it doesn’t mean that there are small flaws in any administration. Every administration has serious policy failures that beg to be changed (it’s not always an indictment of policymakers, but a reality of a harsh environment).

What should have been the baseline requirement for an MP is now cause for “very high marks”.  

Not that MPs should never defend policy, but every policy area needs to have its supporters and critics in Parliament. Without discounting the current small voices of dissent, we want for champions.

By my estimation, fewer than half of our current office holders and MPs appear to have coherent, strong views on policy areas that need change. Gone is the sharp-minded sparring of the Lee Kuan Yew era. The bulk of airtime and effort seems to be spent reading from scripts, raising petty issues and defending the status quo rather than pushing for urgent re-thinking and reform on issues such as our population predicament, education arms race, weak civil society, diluted national identity,  lack of innovation, low productivity growth, greying generation, and more.

PM is big on tech solutions, so why not write an AI “policy defence” cliche script and vocaliser that can replace non-functioning MPs? Win-win, yeah?

The marketplace of ideas that Parliament should be requires the energy of productive disagreement. Instead, a few questions are asked, lame answers are given, and nobody actually pursues the matter to the end. The opposition then shakes its fist helplessly at the supermajority.

PM rightly observes that big organisations like the G are obsessed with wanting to avoid malfunction. The truth is that they are currently obsessed to the point where they are effectively in denial of malfunctions where they exist, or are paralysed to the point of being unable to fix significant malfunctions.

The G’s insistence on using small tweaks to solve deeper, underlying problems is not only ineffective, but misguided. It then proves to Singaporeans and a watching world that this nation is not interested in meeting its fundamental challenges, but would rather spend effort upholding the status quo.

Case in point: The lack of effective naysaying in the public sector.

It’s now become “naysay-ception”, where the problem of a lack of constructive naysayers remains unsolved because of a lack of alternative ideas from constructive naysayers.

I have heard for over a decade from friends in (and now out of) the public service bemoaning their inability to effectively change or talk about the things they feel strongly about simply because their bosses are yes-men, or paralysed by the fear of other yes-men further up the chain of command.

The G actively puts a chill on not-yet-constructive naysayers in their infancy, depriving them of guidance and opportunity, relegating them to the fringes, teaching them to stay silent. In the words of a friend of mine, “we crush the caterpillars and complain there are no butterflies”. And we keep breeding worker drones to take their place.

And then there’s the irony of PM saying in the same session that “leaders must be able to acknowledge mistakes”. So far, there seems to be no acknowledgement on his part that he and/or his administration are the fundamental cause of, and finally responsible for, the lack of effective, constructive naysayers in public service. If someone’s got their hand on the lever, it’s the men at the top. Perhaps it takes a woman to pull it?

It’s always going to come down to these things: put your money where your mouth is and let the results speak for themselves. The day that constructive naysayers function effectively and openly in the public service is the day I’ll take the call for alternative views as a sincere one.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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