Singapore: No country for the clearheaded

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It has been said that one of the drawbacks of living in the internet age is that we become addicted to information, often meaningless, often incoherent, often irrelevant to our daily lives. We are faced with a glut of information, and we have nobody to sieve through the mess of it all and make sense of it for us.

So we try to make sense of it ourselves. We pick and choose the content we want to read, from following the right Twitter accounts to subscribing to the right blogs, the ones we consider integral to our thought process and world-views.

But in curating content we build walls, first in our minds, then in the spaces we live, work and play in. We speak of the internet as the technology that will lead our society to greater openness, inclusivity and tolerance. Yet we have only succeeded in separating the technocrats from the tool users, the internet users from everybody else.

I see this in Singapore today. The young grow increasingly restless, symptomatic of a generation that isn’t quite sure how to approach a world where instructions aren’t quite clear, where schools become increasingly archaic and backward, and schoolteachers have to compete with the latest YouTube sensation to make any headway with lessons.

The elderly expect to be treated with respect, but are instead ridiculed, viewed as dinosaurs in the digital age. They are rarely, if ever, seen as sources of wisdom, cast aside by the allure and accessibility of online forums and Facebook pages. They view the internet and all its accompanying goodies with suspicion and pessimism.

This sharp divergence creates two schools of thought. The first school houses the rioters and protesters of the world – Ankara, Stockholm, Sao Paulo – vociferous in their disagreeing with their countries’ governments. Ditto Singapore, from the comforts of the state-regulated Speaker’s Corner. Some of them, many still in the prime of their youth, don’t know what they are rebelling against, but do it all the same. It’s become fashionable to be anti-authority, to cry for civil liberties, to completely ape the youth of the West.

This school encourages everybody to have an opinion, to know their rights, to follow their own dreams – never mind if those dreams don’t make much economic sense or result in a straining of familial relationships. This school doesn’t believe in stoic calmness.

The other school is typically seen as ignorant, yet to see how they’ve been fooled by the government they voted in, still clinging to the traditions of their forefathers, still conservative in a world of expanding opportunities. It still subscribes to the age-old view that no system, no matter how refined, can replace the collective experience of its people.  This school still uses the old content, context and curator.

This school encourages good old common sense, putting others before themselves, respecting the elderly and learned, maintaining the status quo. I suppose one could say that the disadvantages in following such a school is that change and innovation are hampered, and many of its adherents continue to do things the tired, old way when other new-found methods work much better.

I don’t see things in black and white, so I can’t say with complete conviction that one school is better than the other. I suppose it’s no different from asking if the way things were done in the past are better or worse than the way things are done today. Each era had its pros and cons, though I must admit I have an affinity for doing most things the old-fashioned way.

But to drop all clear and rational thinking on the basis of “we are living in the year 2013 now, so we should do this and that or accept this and that” is just plain stupid. Yes we live in the age of the internet. Yes it’s affecting our cultures, our religions, our schools and workplaces. But human beings are still human beings.

They still love, hate, eat, get angry, get worried, grow old, die. They are still prone to irrational and stupid behaviour.

I’ll illustrate with an example. Today, people think that because technology has enabled the average man (and woman) to voice their views on just about anything, they should then, be free to voice their views on just about anything. It’s like saying, hey look, we have a bomb that can blow up an entire city, who should we drop it on?

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, unbridled freedom of expression only serves to harm society. When scriptwriters, journalists, movie directors, music executives are given license to create content for news, music, movies and television, they inadvertently manipulate the evolution of popular culture, and sway opinions on everything from family and society, to law and order, to governance in a country. They are the foot soldiers of postmodernism, where truth is no longer absolute.

No matter what year we are living in, we need some form of guidance, from history, from the high courts, from Him. To think we alone know what’s right and true for society is at best foolish, and at worse, arrogance.

Take Pink Dot Sg for instance, the movement that aims to bring the LGBT community into the mainstream. For all their preaching on greater understanding and acceptance, they have no qualms considering people who view homosexuality as a sin as bigoted and prejudiced.

Pink Dot’s “love” extends only to their kind, the lesbians and gays and activists desperate to overturn 377A, the criminalisation of sex between men. Anybody who disagrees with their arguments for homosexual behaviour are chastised in the strongest possible terms. Their vitriol extends to religious leaders who uphold the teachings of religion, which denounce same-sex unions.

In their fight to bring their lifestyles into the public space, they come up with a multitude of reasons which argue for homosexuality. They claim some animals exhibit homosexual behaviour, to those who say it is unnatural. They claim that being homosexual is a genetic predisposition, to those who say it is a choice. They say that God would not consider their actions sinful, to those who remind them of Sodom and Gomorrah.

To those not merely satisfied with external appearances perpetrated by popular culture which normalises gay behaviour, these reasons do not hold water.

To begin, an animal cannot be seen as the default reference point when considering what is natural, or normal. Rather, one must look to civilisation from the beginning of time and ask if same-sex relationships are normal. Logically, because the human race has propagated itself for thousands of years, man-woman relationships are what’s natural. You cannot be sitting here today reading this if your ancestors had same-sex relationships.

Next, this idea about being “born gay”, one that perpetuates the notion that to punish gays would seem cruel. But let’s implant this logic into deciding the fates of society’s criminals: the murderers, rapists and thieves. Would you accept letting them off scot-free because they were born to murder, rape and steal? What if I had a gene that made me prone to violent behaviour? Would I be then allowed to commit as much violence as I wanted? Would it make my violence acceptable?

Of course, to group gays together with murderers and rapists might seem a little harsh. But the point I’m trying to make is that a person who breaks a law cannot use the “born this way” argument to legitimise his breaking of the law. Sure, the law may seem ridiculously offensive to gays, but it’s an accurate reflection of Singapore’s mainstream values, which are obviously dictated by the majority who live here.

Furthermore, just because a person is in support of 377A doesn’t mean that he is therefore discriminatory towards gays. While I support anti-drug laws, because of the untold damage drugs can cause on society, I neither look down on nor hate a person just because he’s addicted to drugs. I know that despite his addiction he can make a meaningful contribution to society, that he has some goodness in him, perhaps more than other non-addicts. But I cannot in good conscience accept his drug-taking.

Unfortunately, the LGBT community doesn’t see what they do as wrong, or that Pink Dot has the capability of leading impressionable young minds to consider experimenting and ultimately following such alternative behaviour (or maybe they do). To them, their actions are nothing to be ashamed of, not to be taken as sin, not wrong in the eyes of God. And why should it be, when even the most conservative of leaders must tread carefully when commenting on the issue, lest they be seen as prejudiced and bigoted.

So before you get caught up in their snazzy marketing campaign this year, before you join the hordes of other youth looking to appear modern and Western by parroting their view, before you say yes to other pink-shirted citizens of Singapore this June 29th, think. Take a moment to clear your head and think.

Two types of rich people

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I went to whiten my teeth recently. Yes I am a borderline vainpot. Plus I drink too much tea.

You know how they say that when you assume you make an ass of you and me? Guilty as charged. I bought a voucher from DEAL.com.sg for a 30-min LED Laser Teeth Whitening session at Sure Solution. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of group buying, read this wikipedia entry here.

Perhaps because I was having dinner with a friend when I bought it, and because discounts of $911 have a tendency to deaden my brain’s rational thinking faculties, I wrongly assumed that the ones performing the teeth whitening would be highly-qualified professionals.

A screengrab of the deal I bought.

A screengrab of the deal I bought.

You know, the kind of professionals you usually trust your precious pearly whites with. The kind who spend obscene money in university on tuition fees so they can charge obscene fees, say $999, to keep your chompers in pristine condition. The kind with the authority to give you a medical certificate or write you a prescription. Dentists.

So, imagine my shock and horror when I walked into Sure Solution, at One Marina Boulevard. Dental clinic it most certainly wasn’t.

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For the record, I have never been in a spa. When I think of spas I think of rich Chinese women with too much time and money on their hands. When I think of spas I think of slim wraps in ginseng and baths in milk and honey. I don’t belong in a spa, even though I’ve got the kind of acne that gives young children nightmares (for that I visit a dermatologist who gives me an antibiotic).

I was led to a dimly-lit room, very unlike all the bright confines of medical establishments, and given instructions in halting English by a young woman (PRC, I think) to brush my teeth and gargle my mouth. Then she compared my teeth to some samples, telling me what colour shades my teeth were.

I could see she was trying to taper my expectations, so I told her I wasn’t expecting much from the whole process. In truth, I just wanted her to get the whole thing over and done with so I could leave before anybody I knew actually saw me in a spa. I was convinced the damage it would cause to my reputation as a retrosexual would be irreversible.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t figured out that she had told me about the colour shades of my teeth in a feeble attempt to point out that I had some really bad stains, and that the 88 dollars I paid would not give me the kind of treatment that would result in significant improvement.

Enter the spa manager (Singaporean, fo sho). This lady basically repeated whatever the PRC girl said, in better English (perhaps they thought I needed a dose of eloquence to part with my hard-earned money). She went on about how the 88 dollars I paid, for a voucher worth 999 dollars, would not give me whitening treatment equal in value with 999 dollars. 88 dollars would be for 1 coat of peroxide – the stuff they slosh on your enamels during the process – and that if I wanted teeth closer to a celebrity’s megawatt smile, I would have to go for an additional coat. At 88 dollars.

Right.

There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.

She seemed rather puzzled that I would say no. She continued hassling me, telling me it was a good offer and all but I wasn’t about to budge. Granted, a total of 176 dollars to have my teeth looking like a Hollywood celebrity was dirt cheap, but I was already irked from having been duped.

I mean, what good is it if I buy a voucher which clearly states it has a value of 999 dollars, if I don’t end up getting the 999-dollar service? I guess its asking to much to expect a little transparency and honesty in the people who sell us things these days.

Just give me the one coat, I said. And so in came the young PRC woman again, to put me through the whole process, which took about fifteen minutes.

First, she used a plastic guard to hold my mouth open, preventing the possibility of contact between the top and bottom rows of my teeth. Then she applied a gel-like resin on my gum line, to prevent the mildly-corrosive peroxide from touching my gums.

No, this isn't a scene from CSI Miami.

No, this isn’t a scene from CSI Miami.

Next, she applied the peroxide coat on my teeth, then switched on the blue laser light to activate the compounds in the peroxide. This would take eight minutes, so she left me in the room by myself and told me to “rest”. I did feel some discomfort, perhaps because of the effect the peroxide was having on my teeth, and swore to myself this would be the last time I ever visited such an establishment again. She then came back in to complete the final step, which was basically me having to rinse my mouth, to remove any remnants of the gel-like resin and peroxide.

The changes to my teeth colour, from a single coat, were not too shabby. There was no way I was going to go for a second coat, even though the Singaporean manager did try to convince me again. I could sense a hint of desperation in her tone, maybe because business appeared to be slow (I was the only customer in the spa at the time). I figured the cost of rental at One Marina would be pretty steep.

In a half-hearted attempt to get her off my back, I told her that I wasn’t confident of going through the process again, especially if it was not going to be administered by a trained dentist. The peroxide that whitens the teeth isn’t exactly 100% safe, and using it too often can result in the thinning of one’s enamel, leading to increased tooth sensitivity.

I could tell she wasn’t going to take the remark lying down. After all, how could I, virgin spa visitor, insinuate that I would be anything less than 100% safe, here in One Marina, Singapore. I don’t know if anybody reading this has ever heard this from a salesperson before, but she went on to say, “This isn’t Malaysia. We have to follow the law here, YOU KNOW.” I cannot begin to describe how arrogant and off-putting she sounded.

Nothing ever goes wrong here. Ever.

Nothing ever goes wrong here. Ever.

I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I simply filled up a feedback form, making little attempt at veiling my displeasure, and left.

To which I reach this confession’s conclusion; there are two types of rich people in the world.

There is the one who does an honest job, works hard, is valuable to the society in which he lives, and continually improves himself and his craft, where becoming rich is merely incidental, a natural process to reward his excellence.

Then there is the one who does whatever it takes to make money, neglecting the consequences that such an attitude may result in, deceiving if needed, with little regard to his or her own reputation, with zero interest in the welfare of the consumer.

Take a bow Luis Suarez

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I first laid eyes on him at South Africa 2010. He was playing for Uruguay. He wasn’t much of a physical presence, given his average height and built, but he had this magical ability to whizz past defenders. Combined with his wondrous touch on the ball and the most immaculate finishing ability I had ever seen, I was a little surprised that I had never heard of him before.

Then again, I wasn’t paying much attention to football in the year 2010. Liverpool wasn’t doing well in the league, having just finished seventh. Benitez had been given the sack and the club appeared to be on a downward spiral. I also happened to be busy with a humanitarian project, one that required me to spend the bulk of the World Cup tournament in Cambodia. Apart from that I was due to graduate from school, and was in desperate need of a good-paying job.

So although Luis Suarez wowed me the first time I saw him, putting in a tremendous shift against the South Koreans, I never really gave him much thought. I saw him again when he put an arm up to deny Ghana a spot in the semis, sacrificing himself so that his country could have a glimmer of hope for progress. In the end Uruguay finished fourth, a worthy achievement by their standards.

But when he signed for Liverpool six months later, I was quietly pleased. Yes there were naysayers who said he and Andy Carroll would never match the quality of the departed Fernando Torres, but I believed they both had much potential. Though things never really worked out for Carroll, I don’t think anybody can say that there has been a better player in England this past season than Suarez.

But like all geniuses who ply their trade in the beautiful game, like all the Cantonas and Zidanes of the modern footballing era, he has his manic episodes. His first instinct is to fight, to survive. He has a ruthlessness about him, absent in most his peers, forged from the cauldron that was his tough childhood. He remembers there was always never much to eat (cue jokes about bite on Ivanovic), Mum struggling to make ends meet to feed her seven boys, left to fend for themselves when Dad had had enough.

The making of a legend.

The making of a legend.

For all of his brilliance, he has had far too many brushes with the law. He’s bitten, kicked, racially insulted, dived, stamped, punched, bitten again. The watching world judges, prejudges, and says the game needs to be purified from elements like Suarez. The man is unstable. A loose cannon. A radical. A deviant.

Graeme Souness, who perhaps broke more shins with his studs-up tackles than the rest of Liverpool combined, deplores Suarez’s bite on Bratislav, saying he’s already in the last-chance saloon as a Liverpool player, with his numerous indiscretions. If Suarez doesn’t tow the line as a Liverpool player, he’ll be shipped out, Souness says. The same Suarez who’s top scorer at the Merseyside club by a mile.

Even British Prime Minister David Cameron is weighing in on the drama that unfolded at Anfield, calling Suarez an “appalling” example to children who watch the game. Because obviously our footballers are expected to subscribe to the highest ideals and become shining beacons of light for global youth. That means you Ryan Giggs, filthy adulterer.

Me? I’m just enjoying every minute I get to watch Luis dance on the ball. He brings the game to life in a way few others can, Pool’s six-nil trashing of Newcastle notwithstanding. As he sits out his ten-game ban, he surely will reflect on his future at the club and England, where he is very clearly becoming the anti-hero the media loves to hate.

With the legend-killers of Munich calling, something tells me Suarez will not have to reflect much longer.

The (Singaporean) Motorcycle Diaries

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Given how our public transport system has deteriorated in recent years, I bought myself a motorcycle in August 2012.

Ain't nobody got time for that!

Ain’t nobody got time for that!

It’s great when you don’t have to depend on a straining public transport system to get you from Point A to B. Nevertheless, it’s not always a great choice. Drivers in Singapore are notoriously inconsiderate and reckless and even if they aren’t there’s always the tropical weather to contend with.

About three weeks ago, in the midst of one of the worst storms to hit Singapore, my bike skidded and I fell on the expressway. Lane 1, AYE. Not many people walk away from accidents like that. Most people get run over by the car or truck behind them, barreling at 100 km/h.

Luckily for me, the car behind me didn’t. It braked in time, and stopped about 2 meters from the spot where I fell. As I sat on the asphalt, the rain forming puddles around me, I wondered who would play the part of good Samaritan. It all felt a little surreal and ethereal, the whole fall and me just sitting there, slightly pinned under my bike, big drops of water causing my hot engine to spew clouds of white smoke.

Nobody did help in the end. They all just drove past, the sleek wheels of their cars rolling inches from where I fell. I imagine they must have been pretty livid at the clown who decided to fall on lane 1, wasting the precious minutes of fellow road users. I picked myself up, and found enough strength to lift all 140 kilos of the bike onto its wheels. Thankfully, it did not sustain any serious damage and I could ride off. I found somewhere to dry off and rest before continuing my journey home.

I guess for many non-riders, the experience I’ve just recounted must seem like as good a reason as any to stop riding. But skidding and falling is pretty normal to most riders, especially in a country with an annual precipitation of 90 inches. It’s not exactly something we boast about, although falling and getting up again does help overcome some of the fears associated with riding.

In any case, I think riding a motorbike is an immensely pleasurable experience. Given the right weather, the right amount of traffic, the right roads, and the right bike, straddling a two-wheeler that eats up the miles beneath your feet can be very therapeutic. Despite having fallen on the AYE, I still think it’s one of the nicest expressways to cruise on. Its lined with big trees which provide ample shade from the sun, and it doesn’t seem to be as crowded as other expressways, like the PIE or CTE.

I don’t really like Lee Kuan Yew, but I admire his dedication to keeping Singapore a green city when he took charge of the country all those years ago. In a memoir, Lee said that the well-tended trees in the city would signal to investors Singapore’s commitment to maintenance and order. Okay, so he wasn’t exactly a tree-hugging liberal.

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The Ayer Rajah Expressway

I also like travelling on roads which evoke a certain rustic charm, like Mandai, Kranji and Seletar. I guess when you spend far too much time in staid urban-concrete environments, you cherish places with a unique blend of nature and history: old big trees shielding equally old colonial-style buildings. It’s a bonus if you can find a sarabat stall in the vicinity. I usually just park my motorbike on a pavement somewhere, then sip some frothy teh tarek at the stall, while observing the stillness around me. Life’s simple pleasures.

Having your own transport also helps uncover places you wouldn’t typically find when travelling on public transport, places that seem to be from an era long gone, stubbornly holding onto existence in a country with an irritating enthusiasm for whitewashing away its physical past. Or perhaps they simply slipped off the grid, forgotten and neglected by busy Singaporeans more interested in shopping and eating.

I remember riding to Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque located along a slip road off Portsdown Avenue, and admiring how kampung it felt. Its entrance was just a few feet from the KTM train tracks, and I recall seeing a train speeding past in the darkness of dusk, shortly after the congregation had completed the Maghrib prayers.

Or Masjid Omar Salmah, atop Mt Pleasant, next to the National Equestrian Park. I’ll never forget seeing this middle-aged Caucasian lady grooming her horse beneath this big tree outside the mosque.

I’m sure older Singaporeans also have their favourite spots on this island we call home, the ones that help them reminisce of a simpler, more innocent time. A hawker centre, a library, a cinema, a place of worship, an open space. Of course, such nostalgia count for little in the big scheme of things, in our drive to continue being number one in everything.

I sometimes ride around and see a new condominium or shopping mall being built, and I try my best to recall what was there before, but my memory comes up empty. It’s strange and frustrating because having lived here for so long I must have at least an image of that building in my mind’s memory bank, but I can’t retrieve it. It’s like the government is doing an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on me.

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That’s funny. I could have sworn there was a library here.

With plans to roll out more train stations to meet the increasing ridership here, it’s probably not far-fetched to suggest that my favourite places will be irrevocably changed as well. Both Masjid Omar Salmah and Masjid Hang Jebat sit on prime real estate, which will further increase in value with the opening of future stations. Already Masjid Kampong Holland is facing imminent closure.

I was having a meal with my wife at the new Geylang Serai market recently. From where I sat, I could see the last vestiges of the Malay Village being torn down by Caterpillar tractors, perhaps the same models used to bulldoze Palestinian homes in Gaza and the West Bank.

I looked at the buildings along the stretch of Geylang. Joo Chiat Complex, where I got lost as a five-year-old after a shopping trip with Mummy. The Galaxy, where Darul Arqam is housed, a refuge for Muslim converts. Further down, the Haig Road hawker centre and the Tanjong Katong Complex, now popular meeting spots for Indonesian maids on their off days.

I guess when you live in Singapore, you begin to appreciate these little eccentricities that have been allowed to remain, especially if they help you to remember your roots. At least, until they have to make way for another condo.

Singapore 2030

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There’s been plenty of debate in Parliament recently on the population white paper released by the government, which projects the number of people in Singapore to range between 6.5 and 6.9 million in the year 2030. Naturally, many ordinary Singaporeans are opposed to the idea, given the space constraints they face in their daily lives.

To fully understand the rationale of this ‘controlled’ population surge via immigration (the population now stands at roughly 5.2 million), we need to firstly know two things.

One, in the aftermath of World War II, people began to have more children, buoyed by the industrial expansion of the West, and a pervasive sense that peace was now at hand. The kids born in these post-apocalyptic years, generally accepted as between 1946 and 1964, are deemed baby boomers. Fearing a strain of Singapore’s resources, our nation’s policymakers attempted a curb of the population, with the infamous “Stop at Two” campaign which began in the late sixties.

Despite these measures to curtail birth rates, this deluge of babies brought economic benefits in the 70s and 80s. Their entry into the labour force, and subsequent maturity as professionals, led to massive industrial expansion here. Such a rise is almost always inevitable, when you have truckloads of educated and disciplined men and women eager to make a living.

Two, we need to know and realise that the government of Singapore places economic growth as its top priority. It is unforgiving in its pro-business approach. We don’t have to accept it, but to think they are going to change worldviews overnight – or after a few National Conversation sessions – is exceedingly naive. They operate on the gospel that money is what makes the world go round.

Thou shall have no other purpose but to be economic cog in the spotless, gleaming and efficient machine that is Singapore Inc.

So it comes as no surprise really, in their earnest effort to keep the Singapore system in motion, that the white paper has made the projections it has. The gradual retirement of Singaporean baby boomers will need new workers as replacements. Who will keep the machines running? Who will control traffic at the airports? Who will move cargo at the ports?

As such, the cries of the common man on the street, suffering from the ill effects of high immigration levels are recklessly brushed away. After all, to the people who rule this country, you and I are nothing more than workers, consumers and taxpayers. Economic digits. Our shared identity lies in our common love for the empty things money buys us. Pragmatism and meritocracy are the tools with which we accelerate towards more and more economic progress, environmental preservation and equality and spirituality be damned.

Our presence feeds into the bubble that continues to inflate from an increasing demand for goods and services, increased borrowing, increased tax revenue. Pockets are filled. Everybody’s happy. The ruling party remains in power.

But for how long? How long before the bubble bursts?

Proponents of the white paper have argued that the measures to be implemented, while painful, are necessary for the sake of future Singaporeans. They mention that as people grow older, they need greater care, which would entail higher costs. These costs will place a greater tax burden on future workers. Bringing in more immigrants now would help in spreading some of these costs.

Secondly, an ageing country is hardly the sort of place an MNC would want to set up or continue operating its business in. In the cutthroat, fast-paced world of commerce, old people don’t exactly make ideal workers. A country sorely lacking in fresh talent is one that is looked over by the world’s investors. Unless we want our children to work at low-skilled jobs, or worse be unemployed, we need to continue convincing the world that Singapore has more than enough highly-skilled labour to meet the manpower needs of whoever decides to set up shop here.

The first point is laughable, because the majority of retiring Singaporeans have saved up more than enough in their CPF accounts (or downgraded to meet the CPF minimum sum), and are automatically included in either the country’s annuity or minimum sum scheme. It’s safe to say that the monthly payout they will be receiving upon reaching 65 years of age would have been from the sweat off their brow.

The ones who have zilch in their CPF (perhaps because they worked at jobs that didn’t pay CPF or they were homemakers) will simply have to collect pieces of cardboard and empty cans, or sue their kids into giving them money. The government provides next to nothing.

The second point makes several assumptions: that foreigners will continue to want to come here in the face of rising xenophobia and a straining of infrastructure, that MNCs will continue to stay as rents and wages move skyward, that Singaporeans are willing to accept the government’s plans for better-paying jobs. Cynics say that these better-paying jobs end up in the hands of foreigners anyway, with expat hiring managers in these locally-based companies more willing to hire a fellow countryman instead of a Singaporean.

In any case the noise on the ground means little. The government appears to have lost touch with the man on the street, and even if they haven’t, are simply too ingrained in their current ideology of more and more growth.

Instead of growing the economy by encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, and restricting foreign labour so as to force companies to focus more on productivity, they continue to take the easier route, growing GDP by means of bringing in more people into this already crammed island. One only wonders if they’ll still be kept in power to see their plans through to completion.

Business as usual, PAP-style

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Welcome, one and all, to the year 2013. New beginnings? Not quite. That old French saying, plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ah, the French knew, they knew, didn’t they?

If you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, let me attempt to summarise the AIM-AHTC saga in a single paragraph.

14 town councils develop a software which they sell to Action Information Management (AIM) for $140k through a questionable tender process, then lease it back at $785 per month per town council. This was in 2010. In 2011, shortly after the Worker’s Party’s historic victory in Aljunied, AIM terminates its contract with Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC). Oh, and by the way, AIM just happens to be a PAP-owned company with a paid-up capital of $2 and practically no track record.

I don’t know what makes me angrier – the fact that the ruling government see practically nothing wrong in giving a job, and public assets developed with public funds, to a private, partisan body, or the fact that the leader of this ruling government thinks its necessary to set his legal hounds on the likes of Alex Au, working tirelessly to ask important questions of those we entrust with public office.

All the talk of engaging people, of gathering diverse views. All the forays into social media to connect with the man on the street. The National Conversation. Hope, heart, home, Minister sir? Perhaps, home sweet home for your buddies, highly-paid capitalist clowns sifting through our hard-earned money.

Perhaps, they worry for their future earnings and stranglehold on power, they fear 2016, or that by-election in Punggol around the corner. Perhaps, we have become too noisy, too nosey. Perhaps, we need to be reminded. Of those suits from Drew & Napier or Allen & Gledhill, lurking behind every corner, ready to decimate any opposition, local or foreign.

No sign of losing work.

Ready to do his master’s bidding

Perhaps they realise the system they’ve worked so hard to build is in danger of unraveling itself. A system that depends on continually portraying an image of superiority in politics, while keeping the true nature of its inherent bias away from the people’s prying eyes, cannot survive the scrutiny of the internet and social media. While all the online noise may not help in clearing the confusion, it certainly makes difficult this continued rhetoric of the PAP running a tight ship.

Essentially, this is what I want, as a citizen of this country. If you are clean, efficient and incorruptible, you SHOW me that you are clean, efficient and incorruptible, not drum it into my head every chance you get. You stand aside to allow for alternative journalistic opinions to develop, especially given that the country’s mainstream media are so overwhelmingly ready to parrot your views. You come clean when your constituents question you, on how many companies you own, for instance, especially if leads to a genuine conflict of interest.

You don’t fuck up the system by blurring the lines between political party and public institution. You don’t set up, especially not with the use of public money – grassroots organisations and town councils – that serve your party’s interests by proxy. Your party is not bigger than this country and it should never be too big to fail.

Still Hougang's grassroots adviser.

Still Hougang’s grassroots adviser.

Is it too much to ask, that we see a fair contest? Is it too much to ask that we be more than a country that is just one man’s vision, just one man’s version of right and wrong? Can we, as a people, ever be empowered to choose where we want this country to go, even if we are not the best or brightest?

In the silence that grows more and more deafening, as the government continues to evade the many questions this saga has thrown forth, perhaps the only answer the PAP wants us to know and accept is the one to the question; can we have a choice?

The answer, as long as they are in charge, is no.

– Ask yourself. Does any government help the opposition to displace itself? (Lee Kuan Yew, 2006)

What the MSM won’t tell you about the SMRT strike

Standard

It must seem like the end of days for SMRT’s management. For the uninitiated, in 2010 and 2011 the local public transport operator suffered security breaches at its depots, when vandals broke in to spray graffiti on its trains.

This was then followed by a series of train breakdowns, beginning in December 2011, affecting tens of thousands of rush hour commuters. The vandalism incident, and the breakdowns, earned SMRT instant notoriety, and a rebuke from the ruling government.

The stuff of SMRT's nightmares.

The stuff of SMRT’s nightmares.

Illegal Strike

Last week, the company was again in the headlines, this time over an “illegal strike” involving 171 PRC workers, all bus drivers. The drivers were protesting against their lower pay compared to Malaysian drivers, and the poor living conditions they had to put up with. The incident caught the watching public, including SMRT and the Ministry of Manpower, by surprise. It shouldn’t have. But more on that later.

It’s been 26 years since Singapore had its last strike, when 61 workers picketed outside American oilfield equipment company Hydril’s Tuas factory. The city-state has long had a reputation for industrial harmony, although any rank-and-file worker will very likely pour scorn at such a description.

In Singapore, its common to hear of the elite class traversing from corporate boardrooms to government bodies and back. Many members of parliament hold full-time jobs in multinational corporations, and are quick to subscribe to the ideals of free-market capitalism. Hence that constant refrain that we need cheap foreign labour, to stem the already high costs of doing business.

The NTUC-PAP-Employer combo

The rest (Lim Swee Say, Halimah Yacob, Zainal Sapari, et al) take up leadership positions in the National Trades Union Congress, the country’s biggest trade union, and one that has had a symbiotic relationship with the People’s Action Party since the early years of our nation’s independence. 98% of all unionised workers in Singapore belong to the NTUC. This tripartite relationship, a cornerstone of the Singapore economy, is a key advantage for a country that has no natural resources. Or so they tell us. In the words of NTUC, a strong, responsible and caring labour movement helps Singapore remain competitive and workers employable.

It’s not rocket science. If you have little qualifications, or you don’t have any connections to people in power, you really have no business demanding a fair wage for your indentured labour. Especially if you work for a transport company that already has a lot to worry about. Like how to continue earning fat profits while spending S$900 million to put in place an effective maintenance regime.

This is how tripartism works in Singapore. The average worker bending over backwards to meet the demands of his corporate and political masters. You’re not happy, are you? Well, you can very well find another job (or as SMRT’s drivers were told, you can resign and go to SBS).

It’s interesting to note that earlier this year, SMRT had increased the salaries of its drivers. However, with this increase in salary a driver’s work week was also lengthened, from 5 to 6 days per week. This would ultimately lead to a loss of overtime, and with it, a loss of income. It would also result in less rest for drivers, given the very possible, very unpleasant situation of having to work for 12 days straight (the one-day off could be given on any day of the week).

Cheaper. Better. Faster.

Cheaper. Better. Faster. 12 days in a row.

Petition

These changes were simply announced by SMRT’s management, without any negotiation with existing drivers. Subsequent petitions to Lim Swee Say, to reinstate a five-day work week, while keeping the increased salary, fell on deaf ears. In their petition the bus drivers highlighted that:

The move (salary increase) was a laudable one, no doubt motivated by consideration of management for the welfare of bus drivers, and to address competitive pressures in the bus industry in general.

What a naive bunch of sods.

I take that back. The job of a SMRT bus driver is an unenviable one. They work 9 to 11 hours a day, with only eight minutes of break time between rides. When road traffic conditions work against them that eight minute break can dwindle down to nothing. They have half an hour of meal time to last them that entire shift.

For the PRC drivers who went on strike, their long working hours are made all the more miserable by the abject conditions of their crammed accommodation. Drivers on different shifts were placed in the same room, making it difficult to get much-needed rest. Even SMRT conceded that they could have provided better housing for the drivers.

SMRT’s top management visiting the China drivers at their dorm

The drivers, whatever their nationality, really deserved more pay. Instead, what they got was more work, for less. They were cheated, plain and simple. Cheated by the recruiters who brought them into Singapore with the promise of a better life. Cheated by a corporation motivated by the bottom line.

At the centre of this petition brouhaha was failed PAP candidate Ong Ye Kung, the former secretary general of the NTUC and an independent director on SMRT’s board, tasked with the case of handling the unhappy workers. Conflict of interest? You bet. Ong resigned from NTUC barely two months after the petition was first written, though he denies his leaving being related to the whole saga. He remains on SMRT’s board.

The Aftermath

I admit. I have said some nasty things about PRC drivers. In retrospect, perhaps they are a group deserving pity. We live in a country unforgiving in its march to more and more economic growth. And in that march we have turned a blind eye to the depressing lives of the many foreign men and women who make this place a better place to live in. The ones who build our homes, sweep our streets and drive the buses and trains that move us from Point A to B.

The aftermath, for those on the sadder side of the income divide, isn’t pretty. 5 men will go to jail for their part in the strikes, for standing up in what they thought was right, even if the law didn’t think so. 29 others will be going back home to China, their dreams of a better existence shattered. The mainstream media (MSM) will have you believe that Singapore is better off without them, fiends out to tarnish the industrial harmony this country has worked so hard to build.

The remaining drivers? Let off with a stern warning, and no further increase in pay. Of course this was announced on Monday morning, a full week after the strikes first started and with the ringleaders swiftly arrested. Cue the Government’s nod of approval. Mr Lim Biow Chuan, member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport puts it this way, “What the CEO has done is the right thing. From the perspective of the employee, if you feel that your salary is not right, you should actually speak to your employers about it. And if at the end of the day, employers are not prepared to increase the salary, you should then look for other employment.”

“I think it is also a wrong signal to send if the company adjusts its salary upwards because of actions by employees to force their opinion on their employer to make adjustments to the salary.” Tripartism. What a riot.

The systemic rotting of a company creaking under the weight of its responsibility continues. While the Government chooses to flog SMRT publicly for its lapses, in maintenance, security and HR, it knows that it also must share part of the blame. Its continued practice of bringing in foreign workers to feed the economy has strained our country’s public transport system. And in that strain SMRT selected the most cost-effective solution it could find to its manpower problem. A solution that ultimately backfired.

Happier days

Happier days