Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

No time to create a full post about Yaacob’s critcism of online rumors. So here’s some quick comments about the incredible logic adopted by certain online commentators.

Logic 1: If I post something that exposes the truth, I trumpet the power of free speech at spreading the truth.

Logic 2:If I post something that is wrong or if I reported something out of context, I can say that I am “merely repeating what others have said”, and “As a blogger I can only comment on what I know”.

Logic 3:If I post something with innuendo that can be interpreted in the wrong manner, I will simply say that I am reporting the facts as I understood it. Any subtle message or (mis)-interpretation is entirely the fault of the reader.

Ergo. Logic 4: No need to take responsibility for what I write. Heads I win, Tails you lose.

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Beware those who deny change to themselves

There’s a sobering article titled “Do S’porean workers deserve their wages?” making its rounds on the internet, asking whether Singaporean workers deserved their wages. 

I have also had my fair share of interviewing (and in one case, hiring) questionable local talent. After hiring my first “poor” staff, I learnt the importance of conducting proper interviews and requiring an on-the-spots skills test, so as to ensure that the same mistake does not happen again. Thankfully my team today has a good number of dedicated and hardworking Singaporeans that are always willing to learn.

The contentious article by ST Managing Editor Han Fook Kwang is probably on the receiving end of some scathing online criticism, especially from the cynics. But whether you agree with the article or not, I think most people do believe that something about Singapore needs to change if we want to improve Singapore (be it in the form of better wages and buying power, or a more sociable and responsible society).

If change is necessary, then we must be wary of those who deny that change also applies to themselves. You will know these people when you see them. They will blame their failures on anyone else but themselves. They will claim that they are faultless and entitled to better things. They will demand that the world changes to suit their own needs. They see themselves not as a contributing member to society, but as a customer whose needs must be served. They listen only to those who think like them, and refuse to contemplate the views of others. These people are the parasites of our society.  

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Dumb and Dumber Singaporean Reactions to the Haze

In times of crisis, how a country reacts speaks volumes about its people and its character. I am sad to say that many online reactions to the unprecedented haze does not bode well for the country’s future.

Why isn’t there a stop work order? Gahmen only care about economy and not its people!

This is the most common complaint, but there is a key piece of information missing in every complaint. Nobody backs up their complaint with how other countries react if the air quality is really bad. A quick online search tells us why:

  • On Wikipedia, there is only one case where a state of emergency is declared. If the API in Malaysia exceeds 500, then “non-essential government services are suspended, and all ports in the affected area are closed. There may also be a prohibition on private sector commercial and industrial activities in the reporting area excluding the food sector.”

What does all this tell us? Firstly, there is little international precedence for a stop work order if the PSI is at 400. Many services can still continue. If you examine the policies of other countries, you will notice that most countries still allow commercial and construction activities to continue as long as precautions are taken (e.g. workers use masks) and that the companies assess that the risk is still manageable. If the companies fail to manage risk and cause an accident, they are still liable to be prosecuted.

It also tells us that the bad effects of air pollution are mainly felt over the long-term, so a little short-term exposure is still somewhat ok.

The effects of a stop work order in Singapore are very serious, possibly more so than bad air. Today, many people are scrambling to buy masks and air purifier. People still need to buy groceries. Over the weekend, I still see many people eating at hawker centers. If a stop work order was issued, how are people going to get their masks and food? How are hospitals going to be staffed? Who is going to run the public transport system? Who is going to be delivering essential supplies? If the concern is that people working outdoors should not be working due to bad air, then the MOM has already stated that respirators are essential above a certain PSI.

Do the people insisting on a stop work order believe that the world revolves around them? Singapore is not the first country facing bad air and there are international cases for how to react. To blindly insist on a stop work order shows a failure of imagination and research.

The PAP wasn’t prepared for the haze!

If the Govt wasn’t prepared for the haze, then where did the stockpile of 9 million N95 masks come from? These masks don’t just appear overnight. They expire every 3 years and have to be continuously replenished. And it is a major logistical challenge to distribute these masks to pharmacies all over the country.

If the Govt wasn’t prepared for the haze, then why is there already an Inter-Agency Haze Task Force comprising 23 govt bodies with plans in place when the haze hits? If you go to the websites of these agencies, you can see how these agencies have reacted to the haze by setting guidelines (e.g. medical assistance at polyclinics, closure of school activities etc)

If you are complaining that the Govt isn’t giving you free masks, then it is a sign of how unreasonable you are. Assistance has to be given to those who need it most, such as the poor, elderly and the vulnerable hospital patients. If you can read this message online, you can already afford a $3 mask. Don’t be a scrooge and pay for your own god-damn mask.

The PSI reading is inaccurate! Look at the sky, so much worse! Gahmen is trying to hide something!

Hello? Is there a brain in there? PSI is measurement of past pollution, because it is a 3-hour average. It is not a measurement of the present. If you want to see how bad the haze is RIGHT NOW, go look out of a window!

You can see on NEA’s website that the PSI can fluctuate wildly. This is because the localized effects of pollution can change wildly based on wind conditions. A PSI reading of any one particular point in time is useless because it can vary a lot within minutes. So it makes sense to smooth the readings over a period of time. Especially if the effects of bad air on health are measured over long-term (and not short-term) exposure

Singapore should do something to the Indonesians! The PAP is inept!

Hello? Are you asking for an act of war? It is crazy to insist on unilateral action that goes against the sovereignty of another country.

Shameless public behavior

There’s a world of difference in the way Singaporeans have reacted to the haze compared to say, Japan.

When Fukushima happened, the Japanese were queuing up in an orderly manner for essential supplies like water, even though they have lost their homes and were facing a looming nuclear disaster.

fukushima

When the haze happened, we see some Singaporeans hoarding masks, or even worse, reselling those masks at a marked-up profit. This is bad for everyone. Masks are cheap enough such that they can be easily hoarded. If the hoarding is bad enough, then it may not be enough for the Govt to release their N95 stockpile. It’s no wonder the PM had to tell people not to hoard masks.

cash_in_on_haze_by_selling_masks_at_jackedup_prices-thumbnail

Shameless online critics politicizing the haze, instead of lending a hand.

In other countries, an externally-triggered crisis would normally cause citizens to put aside their differences and rally towards a cause. Notice how the Americans came together after 9/11 and the Boston bombings? Notice how the Japanese [edited from Japs] came together to help each other after Fukushima?

But in Singapore, we have multiple sites from the online community that are known to be anti-PAP and politicize almost all events as resulting from the incompetence of the PAP. The haze is no exception. Online commentary has degenerated into a mudfest of nitpicking the words of politicians and how “slow” the Govt’s reaction has been.

Of particular note is The Heart Truths, a site that claims to come across as a level-headed critique of the PAP, but is actually a site that uses half-truths and misquoted information. For example, the author tried to poke holes at VB’s claims that “other countries also use 24-hour averages for their air quality indices”. However, this claim was swiftly rebutted by MEWR, who honestly speaking should be concentrating on tackling the haze rather than rebutting unfounded online accusations. I would urge readers to boycott The Heart Truths. Life’s too short to read the lies of this author.

The ironic joke is that while all these complaints about the PAP are intended to make the Govt look bad, it actually speaks volumes about the site owners and authors themselves. These sites are not using their online reach to reach out to the public and spread reassuring words on how to deal with the haze, or how to contribute to helping your neighbor, or help spread the message on what is being done to combat the haze. They prefer to politicize the issue. Even the Worker’s Party has chosen not to politicize the haze. By focusing their efforts on blaming the Govt instead of providing help and guidance, it goes to show who really loves Singapore, and who would rather see Singapore burn than to cede power to the PAP.

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Of “Petulant Children”: Are you a customer? Or are you a citizen?

There have been a number of blogs dismissing the forum letter by Lim Sing Tat telling Singaporeans to “stop acting like petulant children” and put forth suggestions instead of merely complaining.

The common message is that it is not the responsibility of the people to come up with solutions when the government and the PAP is paid to do this. Or that suggestions have been given but the government does not listen.

Now, it is true that if you see yourself as a paying customer, then there is no obligation on  you to come up with solutions. Please, go ahead and “bang table” to demand better service.

But I firmly belong to the “Lim Sing Tat” camp. Because I do not see myself as a paying customer of Singapore’s government. I see myself as a citizen of Singapore. Just because the govt is paid to serve me, doesn’t mean that I have absolved myself of the responsibility to contribute to Singapore’s well being.

Being a citizen comes with rights and responsibilities. You have the right to a safe and secure home. You have the right to a HDB flat and afforable healthcare and education. But you also have a responsibility to pay your taxes, defend your country, and look out for your fellow citizens. Hence we have a responsibility not just to complain, but also to constructively offer solutions, and to accept that sometimes, the solutions that we champion may not actually work.

If everyone in Singapore saw themselves as a “customer” of Singapore, then this is not only selfish, it is also dangerous. A democracy requires everyone to respect that different people have different views, and a compromise is needed to accommodate everyone. If we only insist on complaining, how can there be compromise? I will not want to stay in a country where the people behave this way, nor will I want to bring up my kids in this kind of place. Worse still, I will fear that my children will be infected by this “crutch mentality” of being a “customer”. I want my kids to be constructive people in their community, not loud complainers who simply bang table for better service. I want my kids to recognise that they are not always right all the time, and that we should tap on the wisdom of others as well.

So I ask you, my dear reader. Are you a customer of Singapore? Or a citizen of Singapore?

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PAP showing a lack of faith in the Singaporean consumer to spend prudently

One of the most interesting themes in the recent budget was how the PAP Government has been creating new rules to limit consumer spending on big ticket items.

Budget 2013 saw 2 new measures to limit spending. Firstly for cars, there is a cap on car loans and an increase in ARF for expensive cars. Depending on the price of your new car, a buyer can find himself forced to pay about half of this cost with cold hard cash. Some people believe this measure is meant to reduce COE prices. But I believe the greater reason is because the PAP believes too many Singaporeans are over-spending on cars and thus have less money for housing and families. We are still living in the shadow of the 5 “C”s Singapore Dream. There are still too many people expect that they need a car to have a family. While I support this new rule on car loans, I believe that many people will be unhappy that the PAP has just made their dream of owning a car even more difficult.

The second measure is on the raising of CPF contributions for older workers, as well as a change for low income workers. The PAP is clearly worried that Singapore residents in these 2 bands aren’t saving enough for their retirement. I’m not surprised to see this change because the sad fact is that retirement is getting ever more expensive with rising inflation.

It is debatable if Singapore’s inflation is a matter that is within our government’s control. Massive liquidity from global quantitative easing exercises means the world is flooded with too much cash, which has in turn raised the prices of global commodities like food, oil and other imports. Singapore’s small size also means that car ownership will naturally be limited, and homes in good locations will continue to command a high premium as long as we have millions of people believing that investing in homes makes the best returns. Hopefully the new changes to property tax will convince people that investing in property for rental yields is not always the best option.

These 2 measures, along with the earlier announced property cooling measure that limits the size of home loans according to the buyer’s income, show that the state is increasingly taking an interventionist stance in managing spending on the big ticket items of housing, cars and retirement. This is a major change in the PAP’s mindset, because the PAP had traditionally advoacated a political philosophy of personal responsibility. Citizens were expected to work hard, spend prudently, and save up a nest’s egg to take care of their parents and children.  But now it appears the MIW have decided that Singaporeans cannot be trusted to spend money prudently.

Sadly, I believe that some of these new rules are justified. Singaporeans are not exactly a poor lot. Not when we command one of the highest smartphone ownership rates in the world. Our ability to splurge on gadgets signifies that Singaporeans are vulnerable to consumerism mindsets. There are too many youngsters today who are complaining that they have no money to start a family, but are instead spending most of their money on gadgets, holidays and cars. So maybe the PAP is doing the right thing with these new rules, especially when income levels are expected to rise with the Wage Credit Scheme.

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Leong Sze Hian: Talking cock or intellectually dishonest?

TOC recently shared that Leong Sze Hian said the following at the Hong Lim White Paper protest on 16 Jan.

——————–

“I tell you that the very basis of the white paper is wrong. Because it says the population is aging, people are not producing babies that is why we need immigration. You know what’s the problem? In the development countries they have this problem, why? They have pensions, cost government money. Do you have pensions?

Is your CPF your own money?

In the developed countries, they have universal healthcare. Do you have universal healthcare?

The development counties have welfare, do you have welfare?

So what is the problem with the population aging when the government is not spending any money on the aging population?”

————-

I’m not surprised to see this excerpt from Leong Sze Hian. He is someone who is known to ask hard-hitting questions (which is a good thing), but occasionally does so by taking things out of context or by omitting crucial information (which is a bad thing, like the picture picture below.)

The line of logic in LSH’s speech is bullshit because it assumes that all of a citizen’s healthcare cost is fully funded from CPF and the 3Ms. (After all “government is not spending any money on the aging population” mah)

But this ignores the fact that the government spends billions of dollars a year on healthcare. That’s billions of dollars of government money coming from taxpayers, ERP fees and income from reserves investments. In Budget 2012, MOH was allocated $4.7b for healthcare spending, of which “a total of $2.2 billion is set aside as subsidies for Singaporeans seeking medical care at the restructured hospitals and institutions, polyclinics, community hospitals, and institutions in ILTC sector.” Because this is government money, it is paid for by working taxpayers, which is why the shrinking local population raises a valid concern for the tax burden of the future.

The funny thing is that it’s not as if LSH doesn’t know that the government does in fact spend money on healthcare. Not more than 2 months ago, he wrote on his blog about government’s (supposedly insufficient) spending on government healthcare. And since he is arguing for more government spending on healthcare, that is actually going to make tax burden worse for working adults!

And please don’t give me that crap about how we can pay for more healthcare by reducing spending on defense. That’s poor logic. If it makes sense to reduce defence spending, then we should do it regardless of which healthcare policy is adopted. Decisions to reduce defence spending or impose new taxes should be taken separately from healthcare decisions.

So maybe LSH just happened to forget what he said in his blog week ago? This man is either talking cock, intellectual dishonest, or suffering from short-term memory loss. Either way, it is worrisome when someone like him is talking about money issues because he also happens to provide advice on investments. I certainly won’t be counting on his investment advice, thank you very much.

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The population must continue to grow…for now

In my earlier post, I stated why Singapore won’t be overcrowded even with a 6.9m population. But assuming we can stave off over-crowding, we should still ask why Singapore’s population has to grow in the first place. The short answers are: Blame the baby boomers, and blame our societal expectations.

Blame the Baby Boomers

Why “Blame the baby boomers”? Because Singapore is about to face one of its largest demographic changes in the next 2 decades – a doubling to tripling of elderly folks. (I will be one of these elderly as well.) The chart below shows that this “silver tsunami” is nearly upon us.

age profile

This large influx of elderly is unprecedented in our young nation’s life. The productive years of the baby boomers helped keep Singapore’s tax base low because we had many working adults paying for very few elderly and a shrinking base of children. In the future, much fewer working Singaporeans will be supporting the elderly and the young. I will not be surprised to see my children grow up with higher income taxes and GST being imposed on them.

If taxes must eventually rise, they should not rise so much that it deprives our future generation of the standard of living that we enjoy today. A very real example is happening in my family today. Today, my 3 siblings and I spread out the cost of caring for my parents, but in the future the cost of taking care of me will be borne by my 2 children only. It therefore makes some sense at the “country level” to absorb some foreigners to spread out the tax load.

There is a common netizen complaint that the PAP is treating its citizens like economic digits when it explains why foreign workers are needed. To me, this is a hollow complaint that can only come from people who take today’s “good life” for granted. You can be idealistic about the political future of Singapore, but you must also temper it with the realities of the world we live in. Idealism cannot wish away the silver tsunami and its future cost to the younger generation. To the PAP’s credit, they are trying to use policy to reduce the future cost impact to the younger generation, so that the younger generation can chase their dreams like we did.

The litmus test will eventually come when GST is set to rise. (Why GST? Because a consumption tax is more efficient at generating revenue from tax dodgers.) I won’t be surprised to see a 10% GST in future. How many Singaporeans are willing to see a GST increase without complaining, if they knew that the revenue will be used to pay for  elderly care?

We will also need more actual foreign labor to take care of the elderly. My sister who works as a nurse tells me that the local nurses are being prioritised for the community hospitals which are closer to the ground and therefore interact more frequently with the elderly who cannot speak English. Many more foreign nurses are needed to support the doctors in our hospitals. Singapore may train as may bright young doctors as it wants, but they are useless.

Blame our societal expectations

The second reason why Singapore’s population will need to grow for now is due to our expectations on our children. As more Singaporeans receive a better education, they will aspire to higher paying white/blue collar jobs. No one will want to take on low-paying support jobs like being a cleaner. But somebody has to do the work.

Singapore’s population cannot grow forever. Even the PM has said that in 2030, the target population should be less than 6.9m. The question then is what Singapore would look like when our population stabilises.

There are two HR models that Singapore could adopt:

  • One is to be Nordic, where the entire local population handles all kinds of work from the low-skilled to the high-skilled. This requires Singaporeans to break the mindset that blue collar work is “lower ranked” and should be avoided. It will also mean that Singaporeans must be willing to pay blue collar workers much more than today, so as to be on par with white collar pay.
  • The other is to be Dubai, where the local population concentrates itself on higher tier work. Foreign transient workers are used to handle the lower-skilled work.

It should be obvious to the reader that the PAP has chosen to emulate Dubai over the Nordic countries. I believe the Dubai model makes sense for a small country like Singapore, even though the Nordic model may be a more economically sustainable model. This is because the Nordic model is not culturally sustainable in Singapore. The Nords require 80% of their population to be working, with a large proportion in the low/mid-skilled blue collar sector. But few Singaporean parents are willing to let their children grow up to work in the low/mid-skilled sector, and few Singaporeans are willing to pay more for the same service. I suspect that such mindsets will take a long time to change, if that were even possible.

So if we want to cater to the dreams and aspirations of our local citizens, then we must have someone else to do the lower-skilled “dirty work”. There will always be some other country lower than Singapore in the development ladder, so we will continue to have “unlimited” supply of cheap foreign labor for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, there is a future wildcard that may cause the Nordic model to collapse, and that is technology. When you think about how technology has changed jobs over the last 40 years (such as the death of typewriters and the birth of word processors and cloud computing), it is possible that similarly disruptive technology will change the jobs of the future. The jobs that are most at risk of being replaced by robotic technology are the lower-skilled jobs. One can only imagine how the Nords will react when a significant portion of its population finds itself out of a job because it was replaced by robots. This is why I have also told my children that they must continuously improve themselves because the competition is not just from foreigners, it is from technology as well. You can keep the foreigner out of our shores through immigration laws, but there are no laws against being replaced by a robot.

Once we have safely traversed the silver tsunami in the coming decades, it may actually be possible for Singapore’s population to start shrinking progressively without disrupting our livelihoods. Our TFR will probably never reach 2.1, because the experience of all developed countries is that education is the best contraception. When we have less locals and less need for fervent construction, we can also afford to have less foreigners to support locals and our construction needs.

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