Monopoly of Wisdom will Cripple Singapore

At a May 15 virtual forum on the topic, “What are the sacred cows that Covid-19 might force us to reconsider?”, a panel of academics and other prominent social commentators believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging some of the Government’s “sacred cows”. These include the country’s addiction to cheap, transient labour and what the panelists described as the policymakers’ “fear of social responsibilities” and the idea that they hold “the monopoly of wisdom”.

Yes, I feel much needs to be done. Covid-19 has brought to the forefront issues which our society has been sweeping under the carpet for far too long.

1. We have a long entrenched and ever growing reliance on foreign workers. We were not like that years ago, definitely not under the first generation leaders who had repeatedly warned that we should never let ourselves become too dependent on low cost migrant workers. Those advice were swept aside in the chase for stellar annual GDP growth when the 2G leaders took over and grew worse over time. I have traced the 30 years journey of how we got to this mess today : https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/1-5-million-fw/. Just in case we think this is unavoidable, many developed economies such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have done far better especially in the construction industry compared to us by taking a different path.  The productivity of their largely local-based construction workers are way higher than their counterparts in Singapore.

2. Assoc Prof Theseira spoke about the myth of Singapore exceptionalism. Former NMP lMr Sadasivan said that the Government needs to come to terms with the fact that it “really does not have the monopoly of wisdom”.

For far too long, given the vast success of our first generation of leaders in transforming Singapore and shutting down criticism, Singapore has gone deeply down the path of believing that only the government has all the wisdom, that we only have enough for one A team, etc. We have been conditioned since young, from schools to just follow rules. The government celebrates creativity and innovation only when they fall in line with what they like to see, but clamps down or withhold support when they feel ideas are not consistent with their views. There are many examples. Just to name one, graphic novelist Sonny Liew had his grant of $8,000 from the NAC revoked on the eve of the official launch of his novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye for ‘sensitive content’.  He went on to become the first Singaporean to win at the prestigious Eisner Awards, considered to be the ‘Oscar Awards of comics. He won not one, but three awards at that event.

Only the government can be right and all other views are portrayed as dangerous for society or ‘irresponsible‘. As former veteran Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow had warned, many in government think they are little Lee Kuan Yews when they have not yet earned their spurs, preaching and dictating others like they know-it-all, and even mocking other world leaders.

Bold change so far happens mostly when the ruling party feels their hold on near absolute power is being threatened, such as after GE2011. Unfortunately, group think has and will impede Singapore from innovating and moving forward. I believe too often, the false sense of exceptionalism will make us complacent, lazy to think deeply, just follow rules and unwilling to embrace divergent views.

I have long believed that only when the competition becomes stronger will the government be forced to be more innovative and more responsive. I remained even more convinced after GE2011.

Covid-19 has exposed that our government does not always know it all and that we do not always have the ‘Gold’ standard. We should be humble to learn from others, whether from other countries or from Singaporeans with differing views. Given the uncertainty of the 21st century, we need to learn to embrace diversity to continue to be relevant.

 

(Note: a shorter version of this was earlier posted on my personal FB page)

Privatising Profits and Socialising Costs

We need to be mindful of privatising profits and socialisiing costs.

It was recently report that the government will absorb additional operational costs for dormitory operators during the circuit breaker. Responding to queries from The Straits Times, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) had said that the Government will offset the increase in operating costs for operators of purpose-built dorms, factory-converted dorms and construction temporary quarters owing to the longer hours workers now spend in their residences.

To qualify for additional relief from the government, the criteria certainly must be more than what is the operators’ normal running cost versus the additional costs incurred due to measures required due to Covid-19.

Firstly, the operators would, like all businesses in Singapore, qualify for Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), support for foreign staff, property tax rebates and perhaps other measures. These must be factored in before allowing them to claim additional costs. When ECDA made all preschools give 50% rebate on net fees for Apr and May to Singaporean parents, the main rationale was that centres already receive JSS and foreign staff support from government and these must be used to provide the fee rebates. All preschool centres definitely had increased costs during this period due to additional cleaning, health screening, additional MCs for staff, etc, on top of loss of revenue due to withdrawals and deferred enrollments. The centres all bore these costs as part of the expectation that these are part and parcel of their business risks.

The dorm operators, especially the larger ones, seemed to have been rather profitable in the good years as the government pushed foreign workers away from HDB and other places into large dorms in a short period, plus a constant growth of low wage migrant workers coming to Singapore. Have all the operators complied with the regulations, health and safety measures required by the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act? Or were a number flouting regulations and cutting on costs needed to implement these? Surely their level of readiness must be factored into how they would qualify for additional support.

While I can understand that the situation at foreign workers dormitories is urgent due to the fight to contain massive explosion of Covid-19 infections, I do hope the authorities will be very careful in reviewing carefully all applications for additional relief. It seems to me from a cursory read of the Straits Times report on this issue that the criteria to give out additional relief is far too simple and these businesses can continue to enjoy the normal good profits they make and no mention was made on whether the regular generous business support that they already received from our Budgets would be taken into account. We must not double support them given that they already automatically receive support like all Singapore-based businesses. There should be sharing of pain, in fact more needs to be borne by the operators as they had benefited in the good years and they will want to continue to partake in this business after Covid-19.

Storm over PMDs – Reflections of a motorist, cyclist, pedestrian cum PMD user

Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) have grabbed the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. PMDs started in a small way in the past but ownership grew with LTA’s masterplan in 2013 to better facilitate first and last mile legs of commuting through better connectivity for walking and cycling, and exploded in 2017 with the Active Mobility Act that allowed PMDs onto footpaths albeit with a speed limit of 15 km/hr and with food delivery companies tapping on PMD users. Along the way up till the sudden ban announced on 4 Nov, effective the next day, there had been fatalities and many injuries, many happening on footpaths. There had also been several flip-flops by the government along the way.

You can read more of the short and explosive history of PMDs here: why-are-pmds-banned-from-footpaths/.

Let me share my thoughts as a motorist, cyclist,, pedestrian and PMD user.

I use PMD only casually because my daughter owns one which she use for commuting to her workplace under 1 km from her house. She will of course be surrendering her machine for cash incentive soon as the PMD will effectively be useless as the route is not connected by cycling tracks. A pity because it was indeed her most feasible and fastest way of commuting daily. In the few times that I used her PMD for convenient short commutes, the ride has been smooth, fast and incident free.

I am also a cyclist since I was young, both for exercise and for commute for specific purposes. I had long been concerned about the safety of cyclists because our roads are generally not friendly to cyclists and motorists tend to be impatient. I am concerned because I had a bad accident when I was young. I was in college or varsity at that time, cycling around my house in the Siglap / Bedok area. A lorry carrying workers sped past me very fast and knocked the side of my bike handle. The impact flung me onto the pavement. I distinctly heard a worker at the back of the lorry saying in Hokkien, “Hit already, run quick.” Yes, it was hit and run. I did not see the number plate as I was thrown suddenly onto the pavement. The handle was damaged and I had bruises and cuts but thankfully no broken bones. I composed myself after a while, pushed back the handle as best as I could and pushed the bike home. Since then, I am very wary of our roads even though I still do cycle. As much as possible, I avoid using the roads when cycling even if it meant the ride would be slower.

When I entered parliament, I made a few calls for more cycling paths and better sharing on the roads with motorists. I remember after one of my speeches, then MP Irene Ng spoke to me and said it was a relief that more have started speaking in parliament for cyclists. She had been a lone voice for some time advocating for this. Tampines Town where she was an MP for, was chosen to be Singapore’s first cycling town with more cycling tracks provided for.

The response from the government to her call, my call and those of a couple of other MPs had been the usual that we do have a Park Connector Network that now runs across most of the country. Yeah, it is good for leisure but for serious daily commute for work, shopping or to fetch kids? Nah, most of the time it will not get you to where you want and it is still bad and dangerous to cycle on the roads. So every time I see MND allocating generous monies at estate upgrading in the private estates, I wonder why they do not look at putting more budget for cycling paths. Frankel Estate, right next to my place is going for upgrading soon. I doubt it will improve my cycling experience much. I hope I am wrong.

I deliberately tried riding bicycles in other big cities and was impressed with my day-long experience at San Francisco. There, people can literally depend on biking to and fro work, even for long distances, and many do. They do not have cycling tracks all over the city but where there are roads, provisions are made for sharing of the road with bikes. And even when there were no special markings or provisions on the road for cyclists in San Francisco such as in the suburbs, cars were very disciplined to let us cycle past first. I rarely get motorists in Singapore giving way to me when I am cycling. For my safety and to be on guard, I always assume they will be aggressive and they usually are. After my accident years ago, I constantly watch over my back wondering if some speeding vehicles will squeeze too close to me. I have cycled in cities in Japan too and generally, the experience have been much better than Singapore. Here is a link to some cities we can learn from.

With PMDs now confined only to cycling routes (no footpaths and no roads), the spotlight is now on the bicycle infrastructure. Some improvements have been made by the government especially since 2013 but the infrastructure is still grossly insufficient. And it will be a long time before it will even be meaningful, so some other measures such as how some roads can be marked for sharing be implemented and motorists and cyclists better educated on sharing the roads. There are many cities we can learn from, if we are determined to truly make riding safer and more useful. With bicycles, there is not a lot of pressure on the government to act because it is still a small group and most do not rely on cycling daily. However with PMDs, it is now so widespread because the government had previously made it friendly to own and use and suddenly it has to solve a problem that it had helped to create.

As a pedestrian, of course I welcome the ban on footpaths because our footpaths are generally quite narrow, and Singapore is becoming more crowded. People have said that if we ban PMDs on footpaths because of injuries and deaths, must we also ban cars on roads because there are even more deaths and injuries due to vehicles? Well, roads are meant for usage by cars and pedestrians are supposed to use the roads safely at junctions and crossings and to use with care when crossing in other segments, according to safety rules. Footpaths are meant for pedestrians, which include vulnerable ones like old folks and kids. If we allow automated machines and unfortunately some do not control their speed well, then footpaths will forever be dangerous.

As a motorist, I have experienced PMD users dashing across road junctions or zipping in and out between vehicles. PMDs users have to understand that at road junctions, motorists are conditioned to look out for users with the speed of walking. I have witnessed a couple of near nasty accidents where a PMD user dashed out of some paths or buildings onto a zebra crossing or traffic light. No doubt they have the right of way because it is a designated crossing but motorists have to look left and right at junctions. So when PMDs travel at a fast speed dash onto a crossing, the motorist may have already checked that it was clear on the left and looked to the right and suddenly the PMD appeared in front on him / her as the car started to move.

I know some motorists will be unhappy reading this post and question why I am advocating for ‘road hogging’ bicycles and potentially even PMD users to share some segments of the roads (as it is in some cities). It will take more studies but I think that until we have enough bicycling infrastructure, we will need to think about sharing on the roads. Motorists will need to understand that there are other users on the roads and the slower lane of some roads may be used by others.

Lastly, I hope in considering what to do with PMDs, we can actively explore the use of technology. Technology can help us track speed real-time and determine the location of PMDs. It can determine whether the user is registered or licensed (assuming if we move to a path of having users to buy insurance or pass a test). Right now, the explosiveness of the use of PMDs and the frequency of accidents have caused several sudden policy announcements. Many are understandable frustrated because they followed what the government said, traded their non-UL2272 compliant PMDs to compliant ones recently only to find their investments have been made practically useless other than for leisure.  Allocating $7 million for trade-in grants for food delivery users will only solve the issue for a small segment and even so, it is a poor solution that may not work for some of those doing food delivery. It will push more fast vehicles onto the road when our motorists are not so understanding of sharing the roads with other vehicles. We can explore how technology can be used to enforce regulations real-time. We also need to figure what regulations we will need to allow PMDs to start using more of our infrastructure again, and which part of our infrastructure can be opened up for use in a safer way.

 

Note: These are my personal opinions and not necessarily that of the Party’s.

 

 

Go!

American best-selling author, H. Jackson Brown Jr. had this advice: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

That quote was made several decades ago, when travel was slower, more expensive and difficult. Today, with our highly interconnected world, it is so much easier to set off to explore the world. Perhaps more than just travelling, we can set our minds to sail away from the safe harbours of the mundane things we have become familiar with.The world is now constantly on the move. So we can set ourselves the target to learn something new each year. Challenge yourself to master a new skill or to do things differently.

As the year 2016 comes to a close, perhaps the best word to summarise my 2016 is the word “Go!”. Amongst other places, I finally visited the remaining two countries in ASEAN that I had then yet to visit. We even started business projects there, albeit cautiously on a small scale first.

2016 was a year that I set myself the target to venture out – in business, in travel and even in the things that I do. Driving a manual left-hand drive car in the crowded streets of central Vietnam was a first, and quite an adventure too, especially when the online navigator took us onto small paths we later found out were for motorbikes only. I had hesitated to turn into the small alleys but my Vietnamese friend with me (who was himself unfamiliar with the roads there), said, “Just go lah!”. Thankfully, we made it through after an arduous 30 minutes, with the car unscratched, squeezing with motor bikes and with padi fields inches to our left and to our right.

Learning to ski at 51 seemed ambitious and I had some nasty bruises to show for the many falls. Fortunately, I survived to continue with the rest of an all-AirBnB self-planned budget trip across South Korea with my family. Learning the hover board was thankfully much easier. Doing a live storytelling session was interesting, especially with a top radio DJ and a prize winning storyteller from USA in the same session as me. Doing live doodling performances on stage without my artists in three cities in China in front of officials and business leaders was initially intimidating. Learning to cook certainly benefited my family. I now have some decent dishes to show for a year of regular cooking :).

Not sure what 2017 will bring. Hopefully more interesting things to do, more projects to get ourselves busy with, and more places to see. Life is too short to hold back. Happy New Year and just go lah!

 

Thank you for 2015!

 

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Yes, 2015 has been an eventful year. Not the outcome we may wish for, but thanks for the journey.

Thanks for being with me on the journey.

Thanks to my wonderful team mates for being together in the contest.

Thanks to the many who had given so much of your time and resources. Thanks for your sweat, thanks for your tears. Thanks for your cheers, thanks for your hugs. Thanks for the many kilometres travelled together. Thanks for the new friends made, thanks for old friendships rekindled.

Thanks to the many who gave us drinks on our hot and tiring visits, and for the occasional snacks to give us the energy to go a bit longer. Thanks for your many words of encouragement.

Thanks for a year that I shall always remember.

To the many who had come my way this year, as William Shakespeare put it in the Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks…”

See you all in 2016. Wishing everyone a fulfilling year ahead.

 

Places and buildings, Japan

Some buildings and places we visited in Japan, Nov-Dec 2015

Walking tour of West Shinjuku, Tokyo

Shinjuku-Mode Gakuen Cocoon-skyscrapper

The Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in Shinjuku

Tokyo-ViewFromShinjuuku Sumitomo Building 45th

View from the observation tower on the 45th floor of the Shinjuku Sumitomo Tower. Entrance is free.

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Inside view of the Shinjuku Sumitomo Tower

Tokyo-WorldLargestPendulumClock - Shinjuku NS Building

World’s largest pendulum clock in Shinjuku NS Tower. We visited the skywalk bridge and found to our pleasant surprise that there were many reasonably priced eateries there for such an expensive looking place.

 

Miyajima, one of top 3 official scenic spots of Japan

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The famed Itsukushima shrine in Miyajima at low tide with a multitude of visitors on a public holiday.

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No obstacles can stop these business professionals from visiting the shrine, not even having to carry luggages over the sand and to brave the huge crowd on a public holiday.

 

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Flowing stream and autumn leaves

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A shop sign in Miyajima. Someone should ask President Obama if he likes green tea ice cream. We did anyway 🙂 President Obama did visit Tokyo, Japan in April 2014 and perhaps green tea ice-cream was served?

Naritansan Shinshoji Temple and Garden, Narita Town

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An old Pagoda

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A closer look at the pointed roof of a temple building

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Shadow selfie – lots of photos to take in this beautiful temple and garden!

 

More Temples, Shrines and Castles

Kyoto

Himeji

 

Towers, towers everywhere, in cities and in towns

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Cycling past the Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka’s Shinseikai area, originally builit in 1912 supposedly inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris and rebuilt after the war . Weather was nasty during our stay in Osaka, with intermittent rains

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Goryokaku Tower, Hakodate

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Zoomed-in view of Goryokaku Tower and its neighbourhood from Mount Hakodate in late afternoon

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Kyoto Tower on a gloomy and rainy day

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View of Sendai from hotel room on 18th floor, with a building towering over its neighbourhood.

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Sleepless in Sendai. Night scene from hotel room, facing the tower

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The 100m tall Beppu Tower in the background on a late afternoon

 

Matsushima, another  of the three most scenic places in Japan

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“Matsu” means pine or 松. You will find lots of pine trees here, little islands, clear blue waters, beautiful sky and lots of boats. Well worth the slow 40 minutes train ride from Sendai.

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The 252m-long bridge to Fukuura island

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Perfect weather for a walking tour of the bay of Matsushima

 

Hakodate, viewed from Mount Hakodate from 330pm till 5pm

 

The 8 hotspring “hells’ of Beppu

and some the animals and plants in the “hells”

 

Hiroshima Atomic Peace Memorial Park

 

Toya – Nishiyama and the destruction caused by Mount Usu’s eruptions

and the cold, cold walk after last night’s snow

 

Lake Toya, where G8 leaders met in 2008

Colours of autumn, Japan

Late autumn in Japan, 2015

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Garden in Naritan-san Temple, Narita city

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Shades of colours – Garden in Narita-san Temple

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Red tree in Nijo castle, Kyoto

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Matsushima mid morning sun

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Multi-coloured tree in the morning, Himeji castle

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Himeji castle, late afternoon

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A glowing Nakajima island in Lake Toya in the evening. The orange glow on the island is from the sun breaking through holes in the cloud

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Colourful hell – at one of the 8 hotspring “Hells” of Beppu

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Evening, Hiroshima Atomic Dome

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Hiroshima waterfront evening

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View from Mount Hakodate in late afternoon

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Night at Hakodate old public hall

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Lady in blue on multi-coloured fallen leaves, Kyoto

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I’ll be back. An almost bare tree in Narita town readying itself for winter. See you in spring.

 

Christmas Colours, Hakodate on 28 Nov 2015, the night of the light up

 

Christmas lights in Beppu

People of Japan

Here are some photographs with people as the main theme from my recent Nov-Dec 2015 travel to Japan.

Religion

JapaneseWithCoatsInMiyajimaShrine

Three business professionals with luggages in the sand at low tide at Miyajima Itsukushima Shrine on a public holiday. The island was jammed packed with people everywhere. We found out later that it was a long weekend.

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Devotees zooming in on the incense burner at the centre of the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. People were literally fanning the fumes into their nose, presumably to cleanse themselves or to take in the blessings.

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Queuing for blessings in Miyajima

Trades

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A chef in Narita’s Omote Sando Street  masterfully prepares a live eel while camera crew films him in action. The street has many restaurants serving eel meals and they proudly put their chefs in front for passer-bys to see how they skilfully prepares the food. We tried the meal at a restaurant that had a reasonably priced set lunch. Oishi-desu!

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A noodle shop in Himeji with very high tripadvisor’s rating. We found out why after trying it ourselves. Inexpensive and prepared right before your eyes from raw flour.

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An elderly street vendor at Miyajima preparing our BBQ squid snack. Many stalls were run by elderly folks.

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A rather elderly man hired to dress as a Samurai warrior in Miyajima. This was by a company providing costumes for rent. From Himeji castle to Miyajima, we noticed that a number of those dressed in these traditional costumes were the senior workers.

PerformingMonkey-Miyajima

Not a person, but a performing monkey in Miyajima working for a busker.

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A group of all Japanese workers working on the pavements. Despite an ageing population and expensive labour costs, Japan relies almost entirely on locals for its workforce. We did find a Cambodian adult student working in a supermarket and two China adult students working at a restaurant. They all speak Japanese.

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The reason why plants are so nicely manicured in Japan. Workers carefully trimming the trees at mid day.

 

Life

Wedding-Himeji-Couple

Wedding-Himeji-InLaws

Chanced upon this couple whom I think were getting married. They were waiting to enter  a shrine next to Himeji castle while two lines of people waited inside next to the red carpet. I presume they were the immediate families of the couple. They greeted and bowed to one another as the whole process was captured on video.

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An old lady with walking aid inched her way slowly through the market in Aomori as customers zipped around the centre. Japan has been dealing with issues of an ageing population.

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Singaporeans aren’t the only ones who love queuing. A long queue for sweet potato ice-cream in Miyajima. We paid in front thinking that was the queue for the ice-cream. It turned out that we bought only the tokens for the ice-cream and had to wait another 30 minutes to get the ice-cream. The queue snake all the way into the shop and there were several turns inside! We queued many times during our trip, get to trains, for rides in Disney, for food, and many more! Yes, we were told by local that they do queue overnight for launches of highly sought after products too.

WearyTraveller-HakodateGoryokakuTower

Yes, travel can be exhausting. A weary traveller totally knocked out at a bench inside Goryokaku Tower, Hakodate. He seemed to be from a Taiwanese tour group, some of whom were watching a performance at the hall.

 

 

Rolling through the land of the rising sun

It has been a long while since I got to travel for 15 days at a stretch. We decided to get a JR Rail Pass and do a DIY getaway. Our travel took us from Tokyo to Beppu in the south (Kyushu island), north to Hakodate and then back to Narita for the flight back. We had stopovers in Himeji, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka, Kyoto, Kokura, Sendai, Matsushima, Aomori and Toya, some of which were just day trips from a nearby town.

Yeejj-cycling-Himeji

Cycling from our AirBnB homestay in Himeji to the station. We had loaned out free bicycles from the Tourism office next to the station and decided to cycle with our luggages from our stay near the castle to the station before returning the bikes. When we first arrived, we had to walk nearly 40 minutes to find this house (Google map said 20 minutes walk only!). I thought that bicycling with our roller luggages for our return may be better. Turned out to be challenging as we had to cycle mostly on pavements and there were curbs and lots of bumps. We managed eventually. Do look for the free bicycles at the Tourism office (office hours only, first come first serve). Without luggages, Himeji is a nice place for cycling.

It was quite an experience travelling some 4,500 km without any private transport or taxi. The trip was done entirely by trains, trams, buses, boats, occasional cycling and lots of walking with our roller luggages. We experienced both peak and off peak travels, including the famed Tokyo peak hour trains. For some cities, we bought the day passes for either trams or buses or subways, depending on our travel plans if it works out to be cheaper than the rather expensive individual rides.

Pork buns at Kokura

Looking for food near Kokura station on the northern tip of Kyushu island while waiting for the connecting train to Beppu. We found this eatery from Tripadvisor but discovered that it was actually a takeaway kiosk and not a sit down dining. We tried it anyway. Juicy buns but not the food we were yearning for after a long ride from Osaka.

When in Japan, do as the Japanese do. We often bought along our pre-packed food and start our picnic on the long Shinkansen (bullet train) rides the moment we got to our seats. The system is so efficient that we can stopover at an intermediary city just to catch a meal at a restaurant near the station that has great online reviews and then catch another train after our meal, carefully timing our stops and monitoring the schedules.

HokkaidoTrainSchedule

A train schedule for Hokkaido. Trains are relatively infrequent here and you will need to plan carefully to minimise waiting times or to avoid missing the last train back!

A bus schedule in Beppu, a quiet town in the southern island of Kyushu

A bus schedule in Beppu, a quiet town in the southern island of Kyushu. We usually snap pictures of schedules at the stations so that we can plan our return after visiting an attraction.

The transport system was amazingly efficient, even on networks that are decades old. We relied on the published timetables. Train were reliable to the exact minute arriving and departing at the various stations we were at. The punctuality was critical for planning especially in the more remote parts of Japan where transport services were often infrequent. We wanted to minimise waiting time and had to match the timetables of trains and bus / tram services.

My most frequently used words for the trip? “Sumimasen, xxxx wa doko desu ka?” (or “Excuse me, where is xxxx?” as we stop strangers and transport officials and ask for directions getting around to new hotels, to restaurants that were highly rated on travel sites and to the many places of attractions. Almost all whom we had asked tried their best to be helpful, giving us instructions which we often cannot quite fully comprehend due to our very limited range of Japanese vocabulary. However with sign language, we can roughly figure out and get near enough to our destination to ask another random stranger if we need to again. Some were even so helpful that they walked part of the way with us. A young lady even used her mobile app to translate her instructions into English for us!

Beppu-bus depot

Stopping at the office of a bus company in Beppu to explore transport options. We eventually took the day pass from another bus operator which had better connections to the places of attractions we wanted to visit. Enquiring at bus stations, train stations and Tourism offices was something we did a lot at every new town to make sure that we get the transport options right to start off the visit to the town.

I must say Japan is a relatively safe place as we navigated sometimes early in the morning to sometimes late at night, in both busy and quieter areas feeling completely safe all the time. Bicycles are commonly used by Japanese but not always safe as roads can be busy and there are no bicycle lanes. Bicycles often share the pedestrian walkways but I notice that cyclists are careful to coexist safely with pedestrians.

Have travel passes, will travel!

Sharon-PointingDirection

Sumimasen, xxx wa doko desu ka?

Pawnbrokers Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 19 January 2015.

This Bill seeks to update the Pawnbrokers Act which was last amended in 1993. Amongst others, it removes the existing auction system, requires pawnbrokers to provide an indicative valuation of a pledge to a pawner at the point of pawning and at the end of the redemption period, and raises the minimum paid-up capital of pawnbrokers for their first outlet and for each subsequent branch.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. I am concerned though about the rise in the number of pawnshops and in the total value of pawnbrokering loans in recent years. The number of pawnshops has grown from 114 in 2008 to 217[1] as at June 2014. The value of pawnbrokering loans rose more than three times from S$2 billion in 2009 to a peak of S$7.1 billion in 2012[2]. Many of the pawnshops are in the HDB heartlands. In an earlier parliament reply, we are told that HDB does not generally limit the number of shops for each trade and leaves it to market forces to determine the trade mix of shops. Market forces have indeed led to the rise of the pawnbroking industry.

In our geographically small island state, with some 217 outlets, access to pawnshops for a quick loan is easy. This has prompted some journalists to cast the spotlight on our pawnbrokering industry which now has three publicly listed pawnbrokers as key players in the market. A Bloomberg report in June last year titled “Rolex for Casino Cash Fuels Singapore Pawnshop Growth”[3] highlighted stories and statements by industry players about the rise in pawnbrokering activities being driven by gambling. The report, as well as other reports[4] [5], also pointed to soaring living costs as another reason for Singaporeans to turn to easy credit sources such as pawnbrokers to cover their living expenses.

Madam Speaker, there is very little data available on the profile of pawners. The ministry has said that it does not track the reason for non-redemption of pledges[6]. While the overall percentage is small at 5%[7], 5% of 4 million valuables pawned in 2012 works out to around 200,000 items that were unredeemed and had to be sent for auction. We do not know how many of these 200,000 items were from pawners who repeatedly failed to redeem their valuables. We also do not know the reasons for these non-redemptions.

I’d like to call for a more detailed study on the profile of pawners and on the industry. In particular, we should look at those who do not redeem their valuables to understand the underlying reasons. Also, in order not to become a society with excessive pawning, the study can also look into the appropriate number of outlets in each neighbourhood and if the level and content of advertising should be subjected to some controls. I believe better data will be useful to help look into the underlying causes for the rapid rise in the pawnbrokering trade and how we can tweak the Pawnbrokers Bill in future to continue to keep pace with this industry’s changing landscape.

Thank you.

[1] http://business.asiaone.com/news/pawnshops-the-rise

[2] http://tablet.todayonline.com/singapore/removal-auction-system-among-proposed-pawnbrokers-act-changes

[3] http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-17/rolex-for-casino-cash-fuels-singapore-pawnshop-growth.html

[4] https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/singapore-cost-living-sees-pawnshops-043309125.html

[5] http://www.fool.sg/2013/11/04/the-battle-of-the-pawnbrokers/

[6] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006308-WA&currentPubID=00006301-WA&topicKey=00006301-WA.00006308-WA_1%2Bid-da07f921-38d6-46fc-8a85-f7f746df8cfd%2B

[7] http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130527-425418.html