March 27, 2017

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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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by Bertha Henson

TODAY, MPs will be talking about the Budget that was announced on Feb 20. Here’s a speech which I am hoping NOT to hear. At the very least, MPs should move away from the clichés.

 

Madam Speaker, I applaud the Finance Minister for a comprehensive budget that positions Singapore securely not only for today, but for the future. With the world in turmoil, Brexit and the protectionistic stance of the Trump administration in the United States, it is right that we take steps to make sure that Singapore remains competitive in an uncertain environment.

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We live in a small country. We have no natural resources. We can only rely on our people. We must do our best to harness our collective energies and look for synergies that will increase our competitive advantage. In this regard, the Global Innovation Alliance is a step in the right direction.

The budget is a good follow up to the report from the Committee for the Future Economy, which the good minister, despite recovering from a stroke, chaired. The report had many good points, such as strengthening enterprise capacities, enabling innovation and growth through partnership, and developing a vibrant and connected city.

Some people have described the Budget as underwhelming. They expect more specific measures or a magic bullet. This is understandable. The focus of the Budget is on transforming the economy so that we can seize opportunities that come our way. We must be agile. Nimble. Flexible. This Budget is to help us achieve this goal.

The Budget’s emphasis on the future economy is therefore appropriate and timely. The sharing economy is on the rise as demonstrated by the presence of Uber and Grab. But it also causes disruptions. We must strike a balance between welcoming new technologies and ensuring that Singaporeans are not left behind. People must be trained and re-trained. I note that many schemes have been put in place. More should be done to make sure that people know what are the resources available to them and how to access them.

Although the G and the National Trades Union Congress have done a great job in ensuring that the unemployment rate remains among the lowest in the world, according to a REACH survey, PMETs worry about their job security. (Insert clichéd anecdote here) We must deal with the problem of skills mismatch, by offering more incentives for training. The SkillsFuture system is one way to change the cultural mindset. It is an excellent scheme. Can more be done to get more people to sign up for courses? Can we be more flexible?

Our small and medium-sized businesses, however, are complaining about the lack of relief in the Budget. Although the Minister has been generous in extending and enhancing the corporate tax rebate, can he re-look other fees and charges as well as rents? Our SMEs are the backbone of the economy. We must help them restructure their operations, upgrade their processes and utilise robotic technologies so that they can compete in the global marketplace. The Industry Transformation Programmes launched last year will help them. I note that this will be extended to more industries. This is a welcome move.

I am also cheered that this is a green Budget. It has incentives for those who use cleaner cars and green technology. It is important that we understand the threat of climate change especially to a small country like Singapore. I look forward to the day when all the buildings in Singapore are environmentally-friendly. We have already done much in this area. However, more can be done.

As for social policies, I am pleased that the Budget is an inclusive budget with help for the disabled and caregivers. This shows that this is a Budget with a heart.

Now, I turn to the rise in water price. People are not happy. This is natural as no one likes a price increase. As Mr Lawrence Wong said, there is no ideal time to raise prices. It is important to educate the people on water security and to treasure the resource. I welcome the G’s move to phase in the increase in two stages so that people have more time to get used to the new price. The rebates will also go some way to lessen the impact on lower income families.

Madam Speaker, it might be timely to introduce incentives to get people to save water. We need both a carrot and stick approach. People who save water deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. This will impress on them the importance of conserving this scarce resource.

In conclusion, this Budget is a blueprint/roadmap for the future. Not only for our future but for the future of our children and our children’s children.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

A FOREIGN student asked me this the other day: why are nationalities of maids allowed in advertisements? Surely, nationality has no bearing on whether a maid can do the job, she asked. It’s not done for cleaners, for example.

She is new to Singapore.

I was flummoxed at first.

Then I proceeded to explain why. First, the nationalities would mean different charges for employers because of the policies of the home country. Second, nationality would give an indication of race, religion and language. So employers who want an English-speaking maid would opt for someone from the Philippines, for instance.

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Even as I replied, I felt uncomfortable. Advertising based on race is disallowed here. Now, you even have to advertise for a local to fill a job before you can begin a search for a foreigner. All this, to appease locals who, rightfully, abhor discriminatory hiring practices that look at a person’s skin colour rather than ability. Also, to appease those who think foreigners are more sought after than they are.

So what about foreign maids? Can we say that this is just a way to make it easy for employers who aren’t just hiring a worker, but someone who would live in their home? They therefore deserve more information before making a decision?

Perhaps. Except that we know that stereotypes are attached to the nationalities of maids. Just listen in to a conversation among maid employers and you will hear labels such as “dirty’’, “cannot be trusted’’ and “stupid’’. Then there will also be “expensive’’ and “cheaper’’.

Never mind that each has probably employed two or three maids only so far, every maid employer is an expert in sussing out the abilities of maids of every nationality. Basically, we want them cheap and good.

Imagine if the same were done to different races here! There would be an outcry! And woe betide the foreigner who dares say anything bad about Singaporeans. We have double standards, don’t we?

I suppose people will say that since no one is making a fuss about it, not even the maids, why am I even raising this? It’s probably the same in maid-heavy countries in the Middle East and Hong Kong. I can only suggest that little things put together create a cultural mindset over time. Remember the $2 maids being advertised? Or how displaying the maids in a shop window was demeaning to them? The point being made is how they shouldn’t be turned into objects exported from their respective countries.

I am musing aloud.

But what I’ve also learnt is that sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes looking at what we take for granted is a good prompt for hard questions. Like whether we would like it if our women had to take maid jobs abroad and the advertisements say: Singaporeans available. Cheap.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Daniel Yap

I’M A rider. My trusty motorcycle has been my means of transportation over long distances for more than a decade. This week, the G dropped a bombshell tiered tax of up to 100 per cent of a bike’s open market value.

My current, very, very modest ride is my Suzuki DRZ 400SM. Even though I don’t fawn over it as much as other bikers do their rides, I love it. It’s considered a small capacity bike in any other developed country. Here, the G has suddenly deemed it a “luxury”. My bike is now a luxury I cannot afford.

I’m venting now, excuse me. I don’t care what you think of it.

When my bike was new it would go for $16,000 or so, COE included. Today, the latest iteration of such a bike will cost about $1,500 more thanks to the G’s new tax regime. A larger bike, even a modest-sized 600, will cost $6,000, $12,000, $20,000 more than before. Madness.

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But I know the score, it is the G’s prerogative to tax what they will. And it’s my prerogative to feel how I feel about it. And I’m not alone.

It seems like the G doesn’t understand us bikers. Biking is in our blood. Biking is a lifestyle, a community. I don’t greet other drivers in my multi-storey car park when our paths cross. I only greet other bikers. “Be safe out there, bro”, “it’s raining up north”, “nice ride”. The bike was the poor man’s hope for that feeling of freedom, of empowerment. And now it’s out of reach.

You’ve hurt us, G, you’ve hurt us. We aren’t “dismayed” like the Today article says. We are pissed off. Outraged. Livid. I’ve heard biker friends screaming blue murder, trying to migrate, crying, frantic because the dreams and plans they’ve been cherishing for the last few years, working slowly up to the next-level ride, it’s all up in smoke now. It’s crushing.

And for what? The new tax on bikes is supposed to “solve” a problem created by another more or less pointless policy decision – the slashing of bike COE supply.

The COE for bikes has risen from under $900 in 2010 to well over $6,500 today. The massive jump is because LTA decimated the bike COE supply as a proportion of all COEs. Why did they do that? To move the quota to the car COE supply because, I don’t know, somehow bikes cause the same congestion as cars in LTA-La-Land. Or maybe because car COEs make a lot more money. Or poor people should not be on the road. Or car owners were lobbying, I don’t know.

This price rise is the cause (not the result) of the surge in popularity of bigger bikes because the kinds of people who could only afford to buy a small bike like a brand new $6,000 kupchai in 2010 will never ever be able to afford a $6,500 COE in 2016. This prices them out of the market, leaving the COE supply for buyers with slightly deeper pockets. And which idiot would pay for a $6,500 COE to buy a $3,000 bike anyway?

Of course those poor unkers and delivery riders whose livelihoods got screwed over complained, and rightly so. These days even food delivery riders and couriers ride 400cc bikes. In the past, it was rare to see anything past 200cc for these jobs.

Guess what? This new tax isn’t going to make a difference for those poor bikers who got shafted by the COE crunch. It will simply put more bikes out of reach for more Singaporeans. It will just make more money (pennies, really) for a G worried about balancing the budget.

And does this tax make things more “progressive”? In a sense, yes – those who can afford to pay for a better bike will have to pay more. Cars are subject to such a tax regime (although the price of a luxury car is still ten times or more than that of a luxury bike).

But don’t make a pretence of being “progressive” when what should have been done is to make COEs more affordable for lower end bikes (and therefore more progressive) by introducing a tiered COE system, which bikers have been agitating for. Now low-income bikers are penalised with high COEs, while middle-income bikers are penalised by COEs and high ARF taxes.

No doubt, this new scheme makes good money for the G, as fellow rider Ian Tan has calculated. It makes some sense in itself, although the implementation is as shocking as the 30 per cent hike on water. Why crimp our move towards a “car-lite” society? Bikes are the definition of “car-lite”.

I could defend bikes all day. They ease congestion. Riding helps develop better driving habits. They pollute less. Riders are more community-minded. Bigger bikes are safer because they have better design, control, better brakes, and more power for responsible riders to escape danger.

Maybe I’ll still buy a bigger bike someday. I’ll just have to work hard and save more for it. But today I feel pain, a pain echoed by my fellow bikers in Singapore.  My dreams are further out of my reach. I can forget about that Speed Triple now that it costs $6,000 more. Or that Ducati Scrambler in yellow with the racing stripe. I can forget about ever feeling the exhilaration of mounting a litre bike… maybe if I move abroad. Wait, did I just think of migrating?

This is a heart issue, and the new and mostly senseless tax regime is causing us pain. I don’t want to hear the “justifications”. That you’re trying to open up the supply of bikes to lower income bikers. If the G wanted to do that, they would have raised the COE numbers.

I don’t want to hear how the G said over half of new motorcycle buyers will not be affected by the new system because they buy small bikes. We are all affected because we all dream about owning a bigger bike, a better bike. To me, this is about the G making more money, money, money, and making it off regular joes with mid-sized and low incomes.

I’m not going to listen to attempts at “reason”. Deal with it. Just like I’m going to have to deal with the new bike tax.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Filmwek-kiel. (CC0 1.0)

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by Elvin Ong

THE Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) report was released on February 9, 2017. It will serve as the guiding document for Singapore’s economic restructuring and growth over the next five to 10 years. Many commentators have since provided excellent analyses of the report, including former Member of Parliament Mr Inderjit Singh, research fellows at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) Mr Adrian Kuah and Mr Hawyee Auyong, LKYSPP don Mr Donald Low, as well as Business Times associate editor Mr Vikram Khanna.

Here, I share my approach in my reading of the report. First, I read the report against the grain and in between the lines to assess whether and how the thinking behind the CFE has changed as compared to past committees. Second, I approach my analysis from the perspective of the political economy of advanced capitalist societies. This perspective privileges institutional analysis – in particular, the relationship between social-welfare policies, the structure of the labour market and overall inequality.

 

Positive changes

I found at least three positive changes from past committee-lead attempts to provide new directions for Singapore’s economy.

First, in Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s reply letter to thank the CFE for its work, he noted that: “We will take a hard-headed, pragmatic approach. When results are promising, we will vigorously pursue them. When a scheme does not look like it is going anywhere, we must have the courage to cut losses.” Similarly, on page 15, the report suggested that the government “will take an adaptive approach, continuing strategies which are successful, discontinuing those which are not, and making major changes where necessary.”

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These statements are particularly noteworthy. As I have examined elsewhere, billions of dollars have been poured into various schemes such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit with negligible impact. Instead of improving productivity, they have been subjected to systematic abuse.

Moving forward, the Singapore government can and should grow its capabilities to implement and monitor the results of its various schemes more rigorously. This means civil servants having the wherewithal to admit that they were wrong in pursuing certain policies, and to shut down programs if they fall short of their targets or are not in the public’s interest. Clinging on to sacred cows to “save face” should no longer be tolerated.

Second, throughout the report, the CFE emphasized that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to economic restructuring. Instead unique solutions will have to be tailored to various industries to help firms to restructure and upgrade, such as the Industrial Transformation Programs for the various sectors already identified.

Such a recognition is consistent with recent plans, and is a decisive break from the past. Silver bullets and grand schemes such as tax incentives that apply to all individuals and companies no longer work. A sectoral approach that identifies the specific needs of an industry and its unique solutions for different firms reduces deadweight loss, enhances monitoring and compliance, and builds solidarity.

Third, on pages 4 and 15, the report emphasised that the 7 strategies articulated in the CFE report are mutually reinforcing. Each strategy complements one another in the overall pursuit of restructuring, just like how different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle come together to form a nice picture.

This is also a refreshing perspective that is different from past committee reports. For far too long, haphazard public policies proposed and implemented have been orthogonal with one another, generating conflicting incentives for firms and individuals to restructure and upgrade. It is imperative that both macro- and micro-economic policies pull everyone in the same direction moving forward. Of course, the devil lies in the details. Claiming that the strategies are mutually reinforcing does not necessarily mean that they will be mutually reinforcing.

 

Understandable silences?

Many commentators were understandably surprised that the report was silent on a whole host of issues. Macroeconomic assessments, social policy, and foreign talent were conspicuously absent from the report. Why did the CFE, billed as one of the most inclusive committees ever, keep silent on these important topics?

Therein lies the clue. I think that the report was silent on these issues precisely because the CFE was so inclusive. Ironically, the more inclusive the process, the greater the struggle for the prioritisation of different ideas, the greater the impulse to find the “lowest common denominator” areas of agreement and to pave over the differences among competing groups. If we see the report as the outcome of a three-way fight of ideas between the government, the private sector, and workers, the result was a draw. What we have is an apolitical report that suppresses and avoids all the most important political questions.

Take tax policy for example – one of the most politically sensitive issues for the Singapore government. Three paragraphs on page 63 of the CFE report is all there is to say for it. The conclusion is that Singapore tax system must remain both “broad-based, progressive and fair” as well as “competitive and pro-growth.” It does not say how we should proceed if these two principles are in conflict with each other.

 

The politics moving forward

Singapore’s Budget for 2017 has been unveiled on 20 February. Analysts will have to examine it closely for clues on how the government has decided on the treacherous politics of Singapore’s future economy. Two political problems, both related to skills upgrading, are most pressing – the question of foreign manpower, and social security.

On the question of foreign manpower, the key political problem is the trade-off between the desire to keep Singapore open to foreign talent (CFE Strategy 1) and the need to build up Singapore’s pool of deep skills with good jobs and good wages for locals (CFE Strategy 2). This is a vexing issue for both entry level jobs, and senior management roles.

At the entry level, if firms can easily hire an engineer with “deep skills” for cheap from overseas, why would they bother to recruit and train locals? There is also no incentive for firms to participate in the numerous on-the-job training programmes with our institutes of higher learning. The rewards of a fully trained and competent Singaporean worker take months and years to realise, while the benefits of a highly skilled foreign worker are instantaneous.

At the senior management level, why would Singaporean workers care to upgrade their skills, if they know that they will not be rewarded with higher wages or promotions by their employers who can easily import senior management from overseas? It is not that Singaporeans workers do not care to engage in life-long learning. It is that they are systematically dis-incentivised from doing so.

For social security, the trade-off is between the desire to keep spending on social policy low, and the related costs and risks needed to build up deep skills. Learning deep skills is an expensive and risky pursuit. Who is going to pay for the learning process? What if companies close due to a global economic downturn, and workers with deep skills who lose their jobs are too expensive to re-hire? Who pays for prolonged unemployment? Furthermore, if workers with deep skills in one industry need to change their vocations to another industry, who pays for the re-training? These are just a small sample of the tough questions that require decisive political answers.

 

Conclusion

I do not think that we should despair at the lack of new ideas or unaddressed questions in the CFE report. To be sure, it may genuinely reflect the limits of top-down thinking among our top policy-makers as many commentators have alleged. But I would also suggest that it reveals the stalemate between competing groups who have varied interests and preferences, and the government’s reluctance to politicise the report and upset these groups.

Moving forward, it is inevitable that the government will have to confront, rather than sidestep, the political questions that over-shadow the economic restructuring process. Some questions, such as social spending, will be easier to tackle because of the fiscal headroom that the government has. Others, like the foreigner-local workforce ratio, will be unavoidable. How the government decides will be a function of the need to appease the demands of local and foreign capital, versus the countervailing pressures from the mass electorate in future general elections.

 

Mr Elvin Ong is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Emory University.

 

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by Suhaile Md

MORE jobs are always welcome news. On Feb 8, over 2,300 jobs were on offer at the two-day career fair held at Changi Airport. Running concurrently, to complement the physical fair, was the Virtual Career Fair (VCF) which will be online till Feb 22.

The VCF is meant to “complement” the physical fair and it would allow “individuals to apply for jobs and speak to hiring employers virtually, at the jobseekers’ convenience”, said the G and the labour movement in a joint-statement (Feb 8). They are the organisers of the fair.

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What’s it like to use the VCF?

Here’s the short version:

The Good

  • The website layout is intuitive and easy to navigate.
  • You can book a half-hour career coaching session delivered over the phone or live chat.
  • You can chat with prospective employers.
  • There are over 19,000 jobs available.

The Bad

  • You will be redirected to the Jobs Bank site, where you have to sign in again, if you want to apply for a job.
  • Key information like salary range and working hours are not mentioned on the VCF. For that, you have to go to the Jobs Bank site.
  • Prospective employers were not available for a chat when TMG went online.

And here’s the detailed version, with pictures!

 

The layout

 

Home page of VCF. To sign up, click the link on the top right. Image is a screenshot of https://adaptandgrow.seemecv.com/.

It’s catchy, and intuitive. The categories are self-explanatory. No job experience? Check out the “Fresh Entrants” section. If you’re well into your working life and looking for a change, go for the “Mid-Careerists” section. In either section, you can look for jobs according to functions like marketing or finance. Last we checked (Feb 16), there were over 4,000 jobs each for fresh entrants and mid-entrants.

Change the variables to fit your needs. Image is a screenshot from VCF portal.
Change the variables to fit your needs. Image is a screenshot from VCF portal.

You can toggle between the options to fit your needs. There are multiple positions like entry level, senior management and non-executive. Employment types also range from temporary, to flexi work, and the usual part-time and full-time options as well.

If you un-click the “Jobs from Career Fair @ Changi Airport”, a wider range of jobs will appear. There were 41 job categories to choose from, each with its own icon. For example, if you’re looking for an admin job, click on the blue icon with the paper clip (shown above).

If you missed the physical career fair, you can click on “Career Fair @ Changi Airport” and it brings you to the booths that were present there.

Some of the booths. Scroll down for more. Image is a screenshot of the portal.
Some of the booths. Scroll down for more. Image is a screenshot of the portal.

There are over 40 companies on the portal. From housekeeping at Crowne Plaza Hotel, to human resources at Singapore Airlines, to engineering at Indeco Engineers, there’s a wide range of jobs for everyone.

If the options and the jobs categories look familiar, it’s because the jobs on VCF are drawn from the Jobs Bank (read more here). Click on a job you wish to apply and it will redirect you to the original job posting on the Jobs Bank site.

Redirect to JobsBank

 

You have to use your SingPass to log into Jobs Bank to apply for the job. If you don’t have an existing Jobs Bank account, you will need to fill in the usual details like your NRIC number, employment status and so on before you can continue.

But it’s worth it because unlike the VCF, key information like salary range, the number of vacancies, working hours and so on are stated on the Jobs Bank.

Look at the white column on the right. Image is a screenshot from JobsBank.gov.sg
Look at the white column on the right. Image is a screenshot from jobsbank.gov.sg.

Compare the Jobs Bank job description to the VCF one below.

Job description on the VCF
Job description on the VCF.

The Jobs Bank has nearly 60,000 jobs online at any one time (recall that VCF has only about 19,000). Furthermore, there are more options to toggle from when searching for jobs on the Jobs Bank.

Another draw of the Jobs Bank: You can search for jobs based on companies that are part of the professional conversion programmes (PCP), or P-max programme that the G has come up with to support mid-careerists looking for a career change. (Read more about the PCP here).

The search options on JobsBank.
The search options on Jobs Bank.

Which raises the question: Why should anyone use the VCF when the Jobs Bank is so much better?

The chat function

The great perk of the VCF is the chance to chat with employers, as well as a career coach. This is not available on the Jobs Bank and it would be more than enough reason to use the VCF.

Enter the “connect with a career coach” booth and click on the chat link. It leads to a scheduler where you can book half hour slots with a career coach from Workforce Singapore. You can then have a phone conversation with a coach who, among other things, will advise you on how to improve your resume, or interviewing skills, and give insights into the job market of the various sectors available on the VCF. Very useful!

Click on any of the 40-plus companies with a booth online, and you’ll enter a room that looks like this…

Click on the icon hovering over the table and chairs.
Click on the icon hovering over the table and chairs.

Enter the chatroom (the icon over the table) and you’ll see something like the following:

Time table of available times online.
Timetable of available times online.

The timetable shows the dates and times someone will be online from their company. Unfortunately, of the 40-plus companies, only three had such a timetable: SATS Ltd, Soup Restaurant Singapore Pte Ltd, and Plaza Premium Lounge Singapore Pte Ltd. Of the three, none of them were online when we checked twice on Thursday – once before lunch, and again later around 3.40pm. Actually, none of the companies were online at all.

Sadly, it was the same the next morning at 10am. A call to the helpline (found under the FAQ section) was fruitful. They were polite and apologetic, with an explanation of sorts: We “reminded the employers to go online… sometimes even if not reflected on the timetable, employers do have representatives online,” they said.

Poor chaps, they reminded the employers but still, no show. Except for SATS Pte Ltd. Kudos to them!

 A quicker way to see who's online would be to head to the networking lounge (the cup and saucer icon on the top right). But as you can see, only SATS turned up.
A quicker way to see who’s online would be to head to the networking lounge (the cup and saucer icon on the top right). But as you can see, only SATS turned up.

Unfortunately, multiple attempts to enter the chat room showed an error message. Bummer.

Error message when attempting to join chat room.
Error message when attempting to join chat room.

 

Turns out, the key attraction of the VCF – the chat function – was a downer. And the search functions, total number of jobs, and inclusion of important information like salary and working hours, are much better in the Jobs Bank.

To be fair, this is only the second time the VCF has gone live. The pilot VCF came online last September.

“We will continue to gather user feedback and refresh virtual resources in the virtual career fairs prototypes in the coming months,” said Mr Tan Choon Shian, Chief Executive of Workforce Singapore (WSG) on Feb 8 in a press statement introducing both the physical and virtual career fairs.

Let’s not forget the Jobs Bank was launched in 2014. Naturally, it would have added better functions over time.

Besides, the VCF is not duplicating efforts. Rather, it has built on the Jobs Bank database and has added value primarily through the chat function, for instance. Which frankly, if effectively executed, would have been invaluable. Maybe that’s something for VCF to look into and for us to look forward to next time?

 

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by Bertha Henson

HAVE you received your latest CPF statement? Extremely colourful, isn’t it? Easy to read with pie-charts that tell you what’s in your CPF account. So much better than reading numbers in a table! I like my PUB bill as well. Not the $ figures of course, but how it now comes with a chart of past consumption. I give myself a pat every time I see that the bill has come down and try to cast my mind back to what I did differently at home.

These are small improvements in G communications that I appreciate. It is personal and more importantly, clear. If only credit card companies would attach a chart of your spending patterns in its statement! Getting cardholders to save money, however, isn’t part of its KPIs. I wish hospital bills could also be easy to read with all its subsidies, discounts and what you can deduct from Medisave or use from Medishield. In this case, however, hospitals are pretty good at having its staff members sit down with patients to explain a bill line by line. It’s the same for the Pioneer Generation Package, which has had ambassadors move round the homes to explain the benefits.

Of course, there are people who say that this is a waste of effort because your SingPass would tell you all you needed to know about your transactions with the G. But you only log in if you have an immediate problem to solve or need the information quickly, don’t you? It’s a service, while the other forms I’ve stated above can be classified as “outreach”.

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If the G is getting better at communicating at the personal level, including using dialect to reach the older folk, the same can’t be said for some of the bigger news developments recently.

I pick three issues:

 

a) The Committee on the Future Economy

Nearly everybody says it’s underwhelming. That’s because expectations have been raised so high that the CFE report was viewed as the panacea for all our economic ills. The language doesn’t help erase the perception that the committee of mainly Establishment faces have run out of new ideas to power the Singapore economy. To talk about developing synergies and deeper capacities is simply so much jargon to the layman. The CFE would do better to draw a map and show how the different parts of its report would work for Singapore.

To put a good face on things, you have people dissing the perception that the CFE must have new directives and those who have been looking forward to them are silly: Don’t they know that there can’t be prescriptions for such volatile times?

If the CFE report is supposed to be a clarion call to Singaporeans and companies here to gear up and seize the day, it didn’t work. It’s been 10 days since the CFE report and it’s a long time for people who wonder if today’s Budget statement would do better.

 

b) The culling of chickens

Who would have thought that Parliament will be talking cock today? But the AVA really cocked up its communication process in dealing with complaints from Sin Ming residents over the chicken ranging over their premises. In fact, it merely added to the divide between animal lovers and affected residents. To have one person talking about dealing with noise and another who said that it was also because of bird flu threats showed that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

This is strange because the G is usually pretty good at giving a full reply for its actions, including throwing in the kitchen sink whether it’s needed or not. If the G thought that it was merely responding to complaints and putting up a consultative front, it didn’t work. What is worse is the attempt to shoot the messenger for getting it wrong. So what will be said in Parliament today?

 

c) Syonan Gallery

There was an 82-year old ST forum page letter writer who said that the justification for the name of the exhibition on the Japanese Occupation years was “nonsense”. He’s right. Those who pointed to other memorials elsewhere were misinformed. You don’t see the Jews using a name associated with Hitler to remember the Holocaust or Al-Queda attached to any 9/11 monument. The attempt to cast those who hated the name as people who wanted to bury the past was cack-handed. It showed a lack of empathy with grassroots sentiment on something as emotional as war. What would it have cost the G to change the name, even if the signboards are up, if it makes everybody happy? Face? A sign of weakness? Its decision to rename is the right one and I prefer to see it as political courage to change its mind. But the more important issue was this: how is it that the G and whoever advised them on the gallery name can be so out of touch with the ground as to even propose the name?

Anyway, let’s look forward to the Budget statement today. I have, however, one appeal for Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat: Speak the people’s language, please. The CFE report isn’t a good enough reassurance for the future. Really.

 

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by Melissa Tsang

I’M A 23-year-old Chinese Singaporean woman. After graduating culinary school in 2016, I started as a commis (also known as 马王, or minion) in a Chinese restaurant kitchen along Orchard Road. This is a description of my everyday work, in English, written for friends and family who are curious.

The structure of a Chinese restaurant kitchen

I drew a diagram of what our kitchen looks like, from where I stand (I only know how to hand draw and then upload a picture, please forgive incompetence):

pic 1

Dim Sum, 点心: They make the har gow, siew mai, XLB (little soup dumplings), carrot cake, cheong fun, and many other forms of dim sum and desserts. Because nearly everything there is made by hand, from scratch, they start work at 7am to finish their prep before service starts at 11am. Since we only serve dim sum in the afternoon, they get off work at 5pm, or whenever they finish their scheduled prep for the day. They are usually considered a separate kingdom from The Main Kitchen and the roasting department.

Roasting/BBQ, 烧腊:This is where the Peking duck, braised duck, roasted suckling pig, soy sauce chicken, char siew, roasted pork belly, braised pig’s intestines, etc. are made. They have two work areas — the back, and the front. The back is where all the heavy prep work is done. Every day they have to wash, marinate, dress, and hang carcasses; as well as roast them in their huge apollo oven (it looks like a tandoor). The front (a tiny work space beside the main kitchen) is where they carve and plate their finished products. They don’t just prepare their own items, like an a la carte order of a Peking duck; they also make products for the main kitchen. For example, they have to produce char siew for the rest of the kitchen — dim sum uses a lot of char siew for their pastries; the main kitchen uses char siew in a Yangzhou fried rice.

The Main Kitchen, 厨房: When industry people say “kitchen” they often refer to any of these sub-sections, and not dim sum or BBQ:

Steaming, 上什/蒸锅/蛋扣: They are located right beside dim sum, and are responsible for anything from the main kitchen that requires steaming — for example, Teochew steamed pomfret, Cantonese steamed marble goby, steamed bamboo clams with fried garlic and tung hoon. They make the daily double-boiled soups, and are also in charge of preparing the sharks’ fin and sea cucumber (very labour intensive, time-consuming products to prepare). Unlike the rest of the main kitchen sub-sections, they coexist very peacefully with dim sum.

Wok, 炉头/炒锅: Most people are more able to understand this sub-section of the kitchen. It’s basically where all the things are stir-fried or deep-fried. Within the wok line (our wok line can accommodate six, but most of the time we work with four) there is a hierarchy.

Wok 1 is head chef, 老大/大佬. He makes the big and final decisions for the main kitchen. He doesn’t do much prep work. If there are orders for abalone, sea cucumber, Alaskan crab, the expensive stuff, they go to him. But he is really more important as a political figure, not as a cook. Like a gang leader, or any head chef, he is supposed to enforce discipline and consistency in his kitchen. He is also supposed to protect the interests of the main kitchen, especially against Front-of-House and higher management, especially in disputes with HR. For this reason, people expect him to exhibit a lot of machismo and dominance, or else they consider him ineffective and weak.

Wok 2 is the sous chef. He is not as politically significant as the Laoda, but he is acting chief in Laoda’s absence. He schedules our duty roster. He may also cook the Very Expensive Things. Some corporations/restaurants that do Cantonese cuisine have a policy of hiring only Hong Kong nationals to occupy head chef and sous chef positions. Ours is one such company.

Wok 3 is expected to cook anything short of the Very Expensive Things. Although he is lower in rank than Wok 2, he is not necessarily less experienced.

Wok 4 is also known as the deep-frying wok, or the “tail wok”. It is usually occupied by a more junior person. If a whole fish needs to be deep fried, it goes to him. He also handles a lot of fried rice, ee fu noodles, fried bee hoon, stir-fried carrot cake. Since the larger and heavier woks are all kept at his end of the line, he cooks off most of our sauces (XO sauce, black pepper sauce, chilli crab sauce, sweet and sour sauce etc. ), deep fries peanuts, cashews, walnuts, whole chickens multiple times a week. He has an enormous role in prep. This person must work very quickly, and must multitask well. When service gets very busy, he should be able to deep fry two different items while stir frying ee fu noodles, without losing his shit.

Woks 5 and/or 6 are opened when we’re descending into chaos and desperately need another wok guy to help out. That’s when a qualified person, who otherwise performs another role, goes on the line for the night.

Butchery, 水台: The person working in butchery has one of the most strenuous jobs ever. Our butcher happens to be the largest dude in the kitchen. When deliveries come, they go straight to his room. He is the one who has to wash cartons and cartons of vegetables alone, break down entire carcasses of cod, hack entire legs of Jinhua ham, chop crates of ribs into smaller chunks, etc. He has to lug boxes and boxes of stuff to and from the walk in freezer. These are on top of the fish and seafood he has to kill and clean. He mostly works with the heaviest cleaver.

Knife work, 砧板: This station is a line of three cutting blocks (literal blocks, they are very thick and heavy, for stability). People doing knife work slice and chop almost everything the kitchen uses. They also have to marinate all the meat, sliced fish, diced chicken, etc. They have a never-ending list of things to do. They are also the first line to read and process order tickets. For example, an order comes for “Seafood fried rice, medium, +salted fish, on hold, no MSG, not too oily, VIP, split into 6 portions”. The relevant information to the dude at the cutting block is “seafood fried rice medium + salted fish” has to pass the ticket over with the correct amount of diced seafood, julienned lettuce, and a small handful of chopped salted fish. Then his job is done and he has nothing else to do with this order ticket.

The Center Line/Traffic control/Communications, 打荷: This is where I work, between the knives and the fire. This is the section most difficult to explain to outsiders. This is where the youngest, most junior people work. This is the section that is the least technically demanding (i.e. you can train a monkey to do this job), but it is the most physically mobile, and the most cognitively demanding position during peak hours.

I’ll first explain what happens when we get a single order, using the above example – “Seafood fried rice, medium, +salted fish, on hold, no MSG, not too oily, VIP, split into 6 portions”. The dude at the chopping board has already pushed the lettuce, diced seafood, and salted fish from his side to our side of the table. We take a quick glance at the order sheet. First, we grab a medium-sized portion of rice. Then we transfer everything from our side of the table to the table directly accessible to the wok guys. We tell him, “no MSG, not too oily”. We then fetch a serving tray, six small plates, a small rice bowl, and a metal dish. The wok guy makes the fried rice, dumps it in the metal dish, then we portion the fried rice using the small rice bowl (so that every portion is in a neat little mound). This fried rice example is a very simple example involving a bit of communication between our section and the wok line.

Here is another example, involving more inter-department teamwork: an appetiser plate named 特式三拼

pic 2

Let’s say there’s an order for this item for five people. The knife work dude will toss over five butterflied prawns and five mantou rings (the dim sum department makes these weekly, in huge quantities). I will have to dust the prawns in potato starch, garnish and decorate five plates on a serving tray, sear five pieces of foie gras, and have wasabi sauce and foie gras-mushroom sauce on standby. At the same time I have to talk to Wok 4 – “特式5位”. Sometimes he forgets what he has to do, so I will say “炸锅巴5件,wasabi 虾球5粒,打鹅肝汁”. He will do all that while I sear the foie gras. When the foie gras is almost ready, I will call BBQ. They will bring five individual portions of braised duck and tofu, and I will plate up and send the dishes out.

These are only individual examples. On their own, they are very easy to execute. But on a busy night, between 6:30 – 9pm, the ticket printer doesn’t stop running. It will feel like the orders are coming in faster than we can send out dishes. This is when our roles within the section become specialised, and the concept of “queue” and “time” becomes especially relevant:

pic 3

Incoming orders:

Highlighted in pink is the table where we process incoming orders. The shaded black box is the ticket machine, facing Knifework. Any order printed is first visible to them, although we have trained ourselves to read from the other side.

(As far as possible), according to the order in which they were printed, Knifework pushes ingredients with their order sheets over to our side, and they will all be received by the Korkor, who is the most senior person in the section. The first thing he will do is separate dishes “on hold” from “fire”. “On hold” means the order has been processed, but the customer doesn’t want it now. For dishes on hold, he groups them by table number. For dishes ready to fire, he sorts them according to

1. Time of order. But it’s not rigid, it’s no big deal if an order printed at 7:35pm goes out before an order printed at 7:32pm.

2. Whether it is a soup, appetiser plate, non-starch item, or starch item. Within the same time frame, items should be sorted to prioritise soups and starters first, and starch dishes last.

3. Front-of-House mistakes – sometimes FOH barges in saying “I FORGOT TO KEY THIS ORDER IN PLEASE SAVE ME AND MAKE IT NOW”. We could say “no, dis your problem”, or we could allow that item to jump the queue.

4. How angry the customer is. Some customers are able to wait, others are not. If it’s been 15 minutes and a table hasn’t gotten their fried rice and are upset, we understand and will help that item move up the queue. But if the order has literally just been printed and a server comes in saying “HE’S PISSED OFF”, we do not entertain this request. Because we honour the concept of the queue.

Outgoing dishes:

When we’re busy, I stand facing the table highlighted in green. On this table we cram at most three to four items in a wok guy’s immediate cue. Meaning he simply has to concern himself with clearing these few items as quickly as possible. The rest of the space is reserved for plating and garnishing. In a five minute time frame, I might have fish pan frying on the stove, tofu in the deep fryer, while plating lobster ee fu noodles for 10 people, while listening to wok sounds. We look down when we plate so we can’t see much else, but we are able to hear when a wok guy is done with a dish. If he’s done, we have to drop what we are doing and send out the dish. As soon as the immediate queue begins to clear, any one of us will fetch items from Korkor’s Organised Queue of Incoming Orders.

Stacking and efficiency:

Sometimes there’s a Yangzhou fried rice in Wok 4’s immediate queue, but he’s been busy and the fried rice hasn’t been started. Then Korkor receives another Yangzhou fried rice order, but if we go strictly by time, that Yangzhou fried rice would be quite further down the queue. Nevermind, we let it stack. The Korkor will call out “扬州炒饭有塔!” then he tosses it over to me. Stacking is inevitable because if we went item by item, according to time, we would literally die.

Prep work and miscellaneous duties:

There are many other small, routine, menial tasks that I do every day, that I don’t need to talk about here. Oil does not pour itself, I need to fill metal drums of oil for each wok guy about twice a day. Eggs don’t crack and separate themselves. Seasoning containers don’t refill themselves. And so on.

The more interesting prep work is in sauces. A great example would be XO sauce. We make roughly 10 litres of XO sauce every two weeks. When we realise we’re running low, we need to start dicing (very small dice) Jinhua ham and salted fish. This is very difficult. They are very tough ingredients. I do not like this part. Then we need to soak dried shrimp, steam and shred dried scallops, and grind chillies, shallots, garlic, and the soaked shrimp. We will weigh the required MSG and sugar. Then the XO sauce is ready to be cooked off.

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This article was first published at eightmileswide.svbtle.com/.

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by Bertha Henson

I WAS about to write about the much-condemned Syonan Gallery when news broke that the G had changed its mind about the name. I was going to say that my father would turn in his urn if he knew about the name.

First, he would have said it was really Syonan-to, not Syonan. Then, he would have said it was not the Light of the South but the Dark of the Night. Finally, he would curse and swear at the historians and members of the advisory panel which the National Library Board (NLB) said it had consulted before alighting on the name.

Seriously, the NLB’s rationale for the name is no rationale at all. It merely reiterated the importance of remembering that period. It did not say that it had considered alternatives and discarded them. It merely stated that “no other name captured the time and all that it stood for”.

Nor was the public outcry about burying or erasing the past, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to when he weighed in on the matter. What people were asking for is some sensitivity to those who would rather not remember how they had to use banana money and watch kith and kin die while Singapore was so grandly named Syonan-to. No one would object if the gallery was called simply Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

What people were asking for is some sensitivity to those who would rather not remember how they had to use banana money and watch kith and kin die while Singapore was so grandly named Syonan-to.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim had defended the name when he opened the exhibition on Wednesday: “Some among older Singaporeans who lived through that dark period feel that the name legitimises the Occupation. Others among them say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and we should call it what it was.” It was not, he said, about glorifying or legitimising those years.

He repeated this in his statement last night but there were also these lines: “Over the past two days, I have read the comments made on this issue, and received many letters from Singaporeans of all races. While they agreed that we need to teach Singaporeans about the Japanese Occupation, they also shared that the words ‘Syonan Gallery’ had evoked deep hurt in them, as well as their parents and grandparents. This was never our intention, and I am sorry for the pain the name has caused.”

He said the Syonan term had been used before in an exhibition called When Singapore was Syonan-to. There was no problem then. I can’t think why anyone would object to the phrase – it is accurate and factual. But sticking Syonan onto the word Gallery simply makes it too glamorous-sounding.

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I read reports in mainstream media (MSM) which quoted old-timers saying that it was fine to name the gallery Syonan and I wished my father was alive to say something different. I have also heard others who say that it was a good way to enthuse young people because it sounded so intriguing. Far better than Memories of Old Ford Factory. If so, then we aren’t quite honouring our forefathers, are we? We’re just interested in getting young people on board.

I had thought about how easy it would have been simply to bow to public opinion and rework the name instead of coming to its defence. After all, this was not about reversing policies or opposing fundamental tenets.

In fact, we even have the politicians and NLB saying that they had expected the public outcry. Why do it then?

In a nod to the public outcry, the signs were tweaked before the grand opening. The new signs now reflect its full name, Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies and include the phrase, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory.

And it will be changed again.

No one would object if the gallery was called simply Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

Said Dr Yaacob: “I have reflected deeply on what I heard. We must honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation. I have therefore decided to remove the words ‘Syonan Gallery’ from the name of the exhibition, and name it ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies’.

“The contents of the exhibition remain unchanged. They capture a painful and tragic period in our history which we must never forget, and which we must educate our young about. It is vital for us to learn the lessons of history, and reaffirm our commitment never to let this happen to Singapore again.”

Yes, the exhibition is a lesson of history and for the G, this episode is a lesson on communication. I can only think that the NLB, historians, advisory panel and whoever else was involved in picking the name simply didn’t have the pulse of the people. It is distressing.

I applaud the G for making the change. It takes courage to admit and rectify mistakes, especially right after putting up a defence. My father would applaud this too.

 

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by Daniel Yap

I HAVE no particular love for chickens, unless they are cooked well. But in the case of the Sin Ming chicken culling, I was left clucking at the number of complaints it took to spur the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) into action: 20.

That’s over the course of a year, mind you. And it’s not clear if the complaints were from different people, or the same fella over and over again.

It’s a small number, given that cocks crow at least 365 times a year, and that there must be hundreds of households within earshot of one aspect of the kampung spirit everyone keeps saying we need more of. The kampung is truly gone for good.

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It brings to mind the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) bizarre order to effectively shut down a zoning-compliant football school at Mattar Road over a mere five bellyaching residents. JSSL, the academy, were ordered not to let children (or anyone) play on weekends and after 7pm on weekdays. As a result, hundreds of children had their classes affected, and a football academy had to move out while rents (charged by SLA) stayed as high as they ever were.

And it wasn’t even kampung football – it was one of Singapore’s largest football facilities, 2.5 hectares all design-approved by the G.

Meanwhile, dogs urinate and defecate all over my neighbourhood and my grouses go unheard. I think I need to rally four other neighbours to help alter our reality. Or was it 19? Can someone provide me with clarity about the golden number I need to hit to get things done?

I’m confused. Some petitions garner hundred or thousands of signatures and go completely unheeded. There doesn’t seem to be any consistency for how much angst I need to generate to move the G’s hand. Perhaps it’s a question of which hand I’m trying to move. It seems that SLA and AVA are pliable while ministries are harder to convince.

In 2012, a nursing home to be built in Bishan East drew the ire of residents, but a petition with 40 signatures failed to put a dent in the Health Ministry’s plans. In 2008, some 1,400 residents of Serangoon Gardens signed a petition against a foreign worker dormitory to be built in the estate, but the Ministry of National Development allowed the dorm to open anyway. I suppose chickens are easier and cheaper to remove.

Or is it that they had wanted to cull the chickens anyway but found it convenient to pin it on upset residents? I can’t tell. AVA says that it will take action whenever it receives complaints about noise.

You know, there is this koel bird in my neighbourhood… Could I get AVA to kill it for me? I kid.

There is, however, a perfectly valid ecological reason for culling chickens – the preservation of the endangered red junglefowl. But that bird is said only to live on Pulau Ubin and in the Western Catchment Area, and culling for ecological reasons is the ambit of the National Parks Board.

So did the AVA really only execute the culling because a bunch of residents made noise (like the chickens did)?

It’s always been the G’s stand not to let a few noisy voices drown out the sentiment of the (oft silent) majority. You don’t want a handful of argy-bargy neighbours dictating the ebb and flow of community life. What’s happened now? Why doesn’t the rule apply to chickens and children’s football?

As soon as I unravel this mystery, I’ll form my army of petitioners and reshape the world in my image.

 

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