April 29, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user law-8. CC BY-SA 2.0

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Oo Gin Lee

TAXI companies need to understand why users like me who spend about $500-$600 a month on cabs and rides are choosing Uber over taxis. Unless I am in a hurry, I will actually call for an Uber even if I am standing at a cab stand filled with empty cabs.

The biggest problem with cabs are the cab drivers. Many, though not all, are jaded and have bad attitudes. The crux of the problem is that these drivers do not see themselves as service providers which is why they come up with shenanigans like the “changing shift” excuse. Often, “changing shift” is a cover for them to choose the passengers that fits their plans – financially or otherwise. I don’t use Grab either because Grab drivers have the ability to choose passengers – passenger destinations are shown to Grab drivers before they make the pickup.

Uber drivers, on the other hand, do not get to choose their passengers. They only know where their passengers are going after they have picked up the passenger and started the journey.

The Uber system also means that passengers are always able to get a Uber confirmation within seconds, because the booking system does not need to wait for the drivers to make a decision about the rider’s destination. From my experience, when I get a booking with Comfort cab app, the cab arrives in under five minutes. Uber casts the radius wider, so sometimes I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes before the ride arrives. Many Uber drivers are also inexperienced, adding to the late minutes.

Despite this, I still choose Uber because you always get a booking confirmation the fastest (even if it means you still have to wait another 10-15 mins for the car to arrive). The beauty of booking apps is that you can see where the car is and how long more it will take before it reaches you, so you can maximise your time by doing other stuff while waiting for the ride to arrive.

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The second biggest problem with the taxi business is that the taxi companies act like landlords. Their revenue comes from car rental, which leads to the creation of the two-shift system, where the fairest time to change shift is between 3-5pm. This leads to a shortage of taxis during peak hours, the weakness of the system that private ride companies like Uber and Grab have exploited to the fullest. Ride companies on the other hand, earn by making 10-30 per cent cut of the cost of ride. The difference in the business model explains why you can always get Uber during peak hours. Uber incentivises its drivers to get onto the road during peak hours while taxi drivers are busy putting up their change shift signs and making mental calculations whether the next destination is en route to their handover location.

The third problem is that cabs cost more. Though this isn’t the main reason for me to choose Uber over cabs, I am confident that it is one of the main reasons that even aunties and uncles are choosing to book a ride through Uber and Grab.

So the recent news that the cab companies now want to introduce surge pricing befuddles me. This will drive up revenue for the cab drivers but it won’t solve the three problems why cabs are losing out to Uber. In fact, it will only make it worse. The potential for a more expensive ride does nothing to weed out bad service, and simply makes bad experiences even more unpalatable to customers.

The other problems still remain – customers trying to avoid bad drivers, and cab companies are acting like landlords and not as service providers. And like before, they think they can solve the problem by increasing the “potential revenue” for their drivers, just like when they increased flag-down rates, and introduced new surcharges.

Perhaps in the old days when we didn’t have a choice but to take cabs, this tactic may have worked well enough. But in an age where everybody can be a Uber or Grab driver, or call a car on demand, and at a time when we are hearing stories of cab drivers returning their taxis in droves, this latest initiative to add surge pricing, without first addressing other problems, is surely a recipe for disaster.

 

Oo Gin Lee was a tech journalist for over 15 years before he left The Straits Times in mid-2015 to start his own PR agency that focuses on consumer tech.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Bertha Henson

FOR the past two days, I have been wondering if I should write something about the imam who was said to have uttered insensitive phrases about Jews and Christians. I asked around and have been flooded with advice, ranging from no, because it’s a sensitive topic and no, because you’re a non-Muslim to yes, because this is an open society tolerant of different views and yes, because it would be good to have a non-Muslim speak who is not, ahem, Mr K Shanmugam.

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As an outsider looking in, I find the issue fascinating although I’m sure Muslims wouldn’t favour my choice of word. I will, therefore, be writing this very tentatively from a non-Muslim point of view and more importantly, from the perspective of a fellow citizen in a multiracial, multi-religious society in a secular state.

The Law and Home Affairs Minister’s comments in Parliament about suspending the unnamed imam from preaching have ignited a firestorm among Muslims on the Internet. The imam had, at Jamae Mosque last month, reportedly recited a prayer in Arabic that said “God grant us victory over Jews and Christians”, among other things. A whistle-blower uploaded a video of what he said. It went viral.

From what I read online, Muslims are upset, and many wonder if the imam’s words which are spoken to the faithful attending Friday prayers were taken out of context. Many erudite Muslims have been offering their opinions on the matter and citing religious sources.

It’s interesting to see how many different takes there are on one phrase and the deep discussions that ensue.

In the meantime, non-Muslims are looking on.

In these times of increasing religiosity, communities need to be careful about being misinterpreted. “Victory’’, in this instance, might well be a spiritual or religious conversion rather than defeat in the martial sense, as some Muslims have said.

The trouble is, the non-Muslim can only judge the words literally and depend on the whistle-blower, himself a Muslim, to say why he thought it was offensive. (It reminds me of how Christians are usually careful about using the word “crusade’’, so as not to offend the sensibilities of Muslims, even though you could be crusading against poverty.)

Whatever the imam said, I would like to think it was between him and his flock. If any member of his flock finds what he said objectionable, then the matter should be taken up with his religious superiors. I was surprised that the imam was “exposed’’ in this way; I didn’t think video-recording was allowed in a mosque. It took planning. It might well be that earlier complaints fell on deaf ears, and the whistle-blower believes this is the best way to gain attention. But I think it’s the worst way, however well-intentioned.

Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said: “While it is correct to whistle blow when one sees wrongdoing, one must also ask whether the manner in which this is done is appropriate, or if it sows more discord and causes tension in our society.’’

Mr Shanmugam weighed in on this point as well: “The right thing to do though, is that when a matter like this is encountered, it should be reported to the Police, and not put out on social media. That will allow police to focus their investigations on the subject of the complaint.

“If instead, the matter is publicly posted, it could lead to a groundswell of feelings, in this case, both from Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It could cause confusion about religion, and increase tensions and so on.’’

I wouldn’t even go so far as to report the matter to the police.

Why get the State involved in an issue that should be resolved by the faithful? Yes, there is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which I had always hoped was more preventive than punitive in nature. But even with the law behind it, the State is a blunt tool, and cannot take into account the different levels of knowledge and religiosity among people of faith. Let the religious authorities police their own leaders. (Unless some people believe that the religious hierarchy has lost its legitimacy and authority, which means opening another can of worms.)

I read with some consternation this exchange between Mr Shanmugam and Opposition MP Faisal Manap.

 

Mr Shanmugam: Can I ask the member whether he thinks that it is all right to quote from a text and encourage violence against others? Can I have a direct answer, please?

Mr Faisal: Madam (Speaker), from my own knowledge, the verses in the Quran are always in the context of giving out mercy to the people and the universe.

Mr Shanmugam: That is not the question I asked, and I didn’t refer to the Quran. Do you think it is all right for someone to refer to any holy text to encourage violence either by quoting directly or speaking, encouraging such violence? Yes or no?

Mr Faisal: It is wrong, Madam.

Mr Shanmugam: Thank you. That is a question the police will be considering. Thank you.

 

Oh dear! I am unfamiliar with the Quran, but I know that parts of the Bible make for blood-thirsty reading, especially the Old Testament. It cannot be that mere mention equates encouraging violence? Or does it? And is this a matter for the police?

In fact, I wonder why, if the statements were so objectionable as to be a security threat, that the Internal Security Department did not step in earlier. Surely, it would have its eyes and ears on the ground and the imam seemed to have said the same words before. A “lim kopi’’ session might have been enough to put things right.

But then, the video was made public. Non-Muslims are watching. The response must be public too or there will mutterings of cover-ups or some nefarious shenanigans taking place in secret. The G has made it clear that everyone involved, including whistle-blower and imam, will be investigated. I presume the police will be looking at the motivations behind their words and actions. I will shut up on this because I have to.

I wish that people will not think of social media as the place for all things objectionable or what they consider objectionable. Also, sometimes what you see or hear isn’t the full story. The truth is usually more complicated. Sometimes, a quiet word in the right ear can do more for peace and harmony than a loud-speaker, especially if directed at the wrong crowd.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user aditya_wicak. (CC0 1.0)

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By Louis Ng

MR LOUIS Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, received some flak for suggesting that the public service had lost its heart when he spoke up in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 1). TMG asked him to respond to various comments.

 

I’m not sure how, but my speech in Parliament about having a system without a heart became about having a civil servant without a heart. My exact words were: “In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart.”

But I’m glad it’s started a debate about this. That is the first step towards change.

This speech has generated response about how public servants actually do serve with a heart. And I completely agree. In fact, in my speech, I stated that “I have worked with many outstanding public servants in the last 16 years of my life as a civil society activist and the last year and a half as an MP. These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore…”

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Beyond the headlines, here is the gist of the points I made in my speech. You can view my full speech here.

 .

1. A system without a heart.
In the example I shared, the HDB officer had a heart and agreed to help the resident but his actions were overridden by a computer, which generated a letter demanding payment. That is the problem we need to urgently tackle.

 

2. Ensuring we can think out of the box
In another example I shared, the AVA officer knew the solution used to address the human-monkey conflict didn’t work. However, the officer’s hands were tied as the instruction to use this method came from the director.

 

3. We need to listen rather than explain
This is not a new point and one raised by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam back in 2015. The question is, have we done what DPM suggested?

DPM said, “We also have to stay open to ideas from others, and co-develop solutions with the community, the private sector and civil society and people from all walks of life… We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there… Developing and coordinating solutions together… must be second nature to public servants.”

 

4. I made suggestions on how we can improve
I made eight suggestions, starting with this one about helping our frontline public servants: “For a start, we need to cut some slack for our ground officers, our frontline staff members who will be the first to detect people who have fallen through the cracks, who can alert us.

Many I’ve spoken to feel that when they bring such cases to their superiors, they are scolded for not following the books. We need to develop a culture where they are not penalised for being different and where they are giving some flexibility when processing cases.”

 

I have received many comments about my speech. Here’s a sampling.

“Well said Mr Ng, thank you for speaking the mind of many in SG.”

“It is sad that people have not truly understood the message behind your speech, and that you’ve gotten flak when you had nothing but good intentions. Nevertheless, thanks for speaking out, and for this very timely reminder!”

“Public servants serve their best under trying conditions. We serve the ppl under the directions of the Government of the day. It pains me to be “lacquered in honey and staked out to an ant farm” by the very ppl we work for.”

There have also been different views published by The Middle Ground and by Lucian Teo, which I’ve shared on my Facebook page. Some have asked me why I shared those posts and my reply is simple. Everyone has a different view and we should embrace this diversity of views. And so people who are following my page should not only read my views but the opposing views too.

Again, I’m glad our speeches have sparked this much-needed debate. I’m glad it has sparked a wave of appreciation for our public servants, which is also needed and lacking.

But what worries me about this whole debate thus far is that we have not debated nor discussed the solutions offered. Not in the public arena nor in Parliament.

This speech isn’t about pointing fingers. It is about how we can make things better. Isn’t this what PM wished for? In his National Day Rally 2016, he said: “But what I would like to have is that we be blessed with a ‘divine discontent’ – always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”

There is always room to improve and the examples I have highlighted point to a systemic issue and not isolated cases. We need to address this and I hope the next chapter of this debate is about that. About discussing how we can improve the system, the bureaucracy, how we can develop and coordinate solutions together, how we can improve our system so that public servants can work in an environment where they can speak up and can question.

And we need to address this comment from a public servant which was shared with me:

“You think I don’t want to go the extra mile for my countrymen? I got heart, but I got time boh? MOF every year cut budget, we always kena headcount freeze or worse headcount cut. Work is ever-increasing, manpower is decreasing. Sustainable? My foot lah. Keep telling me to exercise compassion and empathy, you think I don’t know? Legislate more support for public officers first then we talk”

I read this out in Parliament (I took out three words “My foot lah”) and I urged DPM Teo Chee Hean to consider this feedback and hope that as we cut budgets, we can also consider the impact this has on individual public servants.

There is one last group of comments I’ve received which is about how I’m going to get into trouble for speaking up. I’d better “take care”. This worries me the most.

At a recent dialogue session, panellist and behavioural scientist David Chan jokingly addressed civil servants in the audience, saying: “You talk so much to me but when the minister is present, in front of him, you’re absolutely silent.” This habit stems partly from a fear of looking bad in front of others and of failing.

We need to make sure we don’t develop this culture of fear. Did I take some flak for speaking up? I don’t think so. I got to hear the views from fellow Singaporeans who might not have otherwise shared their views. And to answer many people, nope, PM didn’t call me after the speech and tell me to keep quiet.

I started my journey as an MP saying that I’m here to speak up, to speak my mind and to help shape policies. I have done so and will continue to do so. But most of all I’m here to listen. As I’ve said in my maiden speech in Parliament “we are not just there just to explain policies to people, to throw them facts and figures but we are there to truly listen and understand.”

Everyone needs to speak up if we care about Singapore. Remember this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts, your frustrations, and your suggestions with me over the past few days. Thank you to our public servants for serving Singapore and Singaporeans. Much appreciated too!

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Alexas_Fotos. (CC0 1.0)

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

 

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

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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:

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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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.

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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.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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