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!

 

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When life throws curve balls at you

We just returned from our first trip to Myanmar. It was a packed trip, driving from Yangon to Mandalay immediately upon arrival and then back two days later via driving again, as we had several meetings in Mandalay, Naypidaw and Yangon.

It was a good first trip to this beautiful and resource-rich country. I had many good first impressions. One that impressed me deeply was our meeting with Ms A (not her real name).

Ms A returned to Myanmar 3 years ago after studying and working abroad for over 10 years. She explained that she had 2 young children with severe special needs and it was best to return home so that her retired parents could help look after the children. Having been trained as and worked as a preschool teacher abroad, she decided to start her own preschool centre back home.

She described the many challenges faced, as people initially did not believe in her centre’s style of learning through play in a country where people are used to having children learn from completing worksheets and mastering spelling lists. Nevertheless, she started with just three children in her centre. She had to cope with hiring teachers who were not used to the style of learning she wanted, and more so with her own young children with special needs. Both her children, sadly, passed away this year within months of each other.

She described their passing away so calmly that we thought we heard her wrongly the first time round. Their deaths were quite recent too. It must have really hurt. Yet we saw a vibrant centre filled with over 200 children enrolled there, a huge jump from just three customers when she started off three years ago. How could someone manage to put so much energy to running a start-up whilst struggling with the tragic circumstances at home?

As we toured the centre, she pointed to a class which she said were children with special needs. Given her own circumstances, she wanted to also provide for others with special needs. Those who could not pay were charged subsidised fees. I saw a teacher massaging the legs of a child. She explained that the child could not walk properly and they were trying to strengthen the muscles to help him to walk.

Towards the end of the visit, I could not help but asked how she could cope with the huge demands of the new business given her own personal circumstances. She said that she could choose to be depressed but there was nothing she could do to reverse the situation. She would rather overcome her sorrows by putting her energy into doing something that will make a positive difference in the lives of others.

It was a very powerful message that I will remember for a long time. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. Some people get the short end of the stick. Life throws difficult curve balls at you. One can choose to live in depression and sorrow, or one can choose to put in extra energy to overcome the sadness by doing something positive. Ms A chose the latter and we could see the huge impact it has already made in her society.

MEWR – Transboundary Haze Pollution

I delivered the following speech during the MEWR Committee of Supply debate on 10 March 2014:

Sir, the haze is at our doorstep again. Singapore has been affected by recurring haze episodes resulting from land and forest fires in Indonesia since 1991, with last year being the worst ever. These had an adverse impact on our tourism, economy and the health of our people.

I had previously in this House, called for legislation to empower our authorities to punish those found guilty of transboundary haze pollution in Singapore through their deliberate actions, even when committed outside of our shores. I am glad to see that the ministry is contemplating a bill to this effect that can impose criminal and civil liabilities on guilty entities. While some may argue that it is hard to impose our rights outside of Singapore, we should bear in mind that many of the large plantations have operations in Singapore or are public-listed here. We want to do business with companies that are responsible.

Many Singaporeans desire to know if the products they buy have been produced through illegal land clearance. While the fines may not seem large, the proposed legislation will now empower our government to have the means to take legal actions in our own courts against offenders. Such actions will signal to our consumers whose products they should and should not support. It will also signal to the region of our determination to solve this perennial problem and can hopefully spur other countries to enforce actions on offenders as well.

Happy Lunar New Year 2014

As we celebrate the Chinese New Year of the wooden horse, many of our Asian friends of other cultures are also celebrating their new year.

Vietnamese celebrate Tết, a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán (節元旦) , which is translates into “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. It takes place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day. Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. They visit the homes of friends and relatives, perform ancestral worship, send New Year’s greetings and give lucky money to children and elderly people. Tết is also a time for family reunions. As Tết is on the first day of spring, it is often called Hội xuân (spring festival).

Singaporeans in Hanbok costume

Singaporeans in Hanbok costume

Koreans celebrate the Korean New Year or Seollal. Celebrations start on New Year’s Day and lasts for three days. Many would return to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives, where they perform an ancestral ritual. Traditionally, Koreans would dress up in their colourful hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing. Sebae (deep formal bow) is a traditionally observed activity on Seollal, and is filial piety oriented. Children wish their elders a happy new year by performing one deep traditional bow and say “saehae bok mani badeuseyo (새해 복 많이 받으세요)” which translates to “have a blessed New Year”. Parents give their children new year’s money in luck bags made with beautiful silk design and offering them words of wisdom.

Mongolians celebrate the Tsagaan Sar, or literally White Moon. It is the first day of the Mongolian lunar calendar. Around the New Year families burn candles at the altar symbolizing Buddhist enlightenment. Also people greet each other with holiday-specific greetings such as “Is there peace?”. Mongols visit friends and family to exchange gifts. A Mongol family will usually meet in the home of the eldest in the family. Many people will be dressed in full garment of national Mongol costumes. When greeting their elders during the White Moon festival, Mongols perform the zolgokh greeting, grasping them by their elbows to show support for them. The eldest receives greetings from each member of the family except for his/her spouse. During the greeting ceremony, family members hold long, typically blue, silk cloths called a khadag. After the ceremony, the extended family eats sheep’s tail, mutton, rice with curds, dairy products, and buuz (a grilled side of sheep and minced beef or minced mutton steamed inside pastry). It is also typical to drink airag (fermented horse milk) and exchange gifts.

The day before Tsagaan Sar is called Bituun (dark moon). On the Bituun day, people thoroughly clean around home, herders also clean the livestock barns and shades, to meet the New Year fresh. The Bituun ceremony also includes burning candles to symbolize enlightenment of the samsara and all sentient beings and putting three pieces of ice at the doorway so that the horse of the deity Palden Lhamo could drink. The deity is believed to visit every household on this day. In the evening, families gather together to see out the old year by eating dairy products and buuz. Traditionally, Mongolians settle all issues and repay all debts from the old year by this day.

Author in Bhutanese Gho at Bhutan's parliament house

Author in Bhutanese Gho at Bhutan’s parliament house

The Tibetans, Bhutanese and Nepalese celebrate Losar, the Tibetan word for “new year”. It is also celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists Worldwide. Before the Tibetan New Year, Nyi Shu Gu is celebrated on the eve of the last night of the year.

Losar is celebrated for 15 days, with the main celebrations on the first three days. On the first day of Losar, a beverage called changkol is made from chhaang (a beer-like drink). Losar occurs near or on the same day as the Chinese New Year, but the traditions of Losar are unique to Tibet, and predates both Indian and Chinese influences.  Losar this year is celebrated from 2 March. Originally, ancient celebrations of Losar occurred solely on the winter solstice, and was only moved to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian New Year by a leader of the Gelug school of Buddhism. 31 Jan 2014 is the traditional day of offering in Bhutan, the 1st day of the 12th month of the Tibetian calendar. It was said to be the original new year day celebrated in Bhutan.

Losar celebrations in Bhutan include a traditional morning meal, as well as a midday meal and afternoon snack. Sugar cane and green bananas are considered auspicious foods, the presence of which helps to ensure the New Year will be a good one. Bhutanese hold archery competitions (archery is their national sport), and play darts and other games. Families picnic, people dance and sing, and offerings are made.

Archery competition in Bhutan

Archery competition in Bhutan

It is also the year of the horse (wooden horse for most) for these countries.

Japan used to celebrate new year on the same day as the Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Vietnamese. However, in 1873, five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar and 1st January became the official and cultural New Year’s Day. In the Ryukyu Islands, a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese lunar calendar. New year is still celebrated in Okinawa island based on the lunar calendar.

A common theme in all these new year celebrations is the strong tradition of family ties and respect for the elders, something we should strive to preserve even as we face the influences of new cultures through the media and the Internet.

Also, despite the differences that these great ancient cultures have with one another, there are also many similar practices. Sometimes when we see differences in others, it is also helpful to remember the many similarities that we share.

Happy Chinese New Year, happy Tết, happy Seollal, happy Tsagaan Sar and happy Losar. Hope I have not missed out others through my limited knowledge of the cultures around us.

Sources: Wikipedia and published holiday calendars.

Cycling through San Francisco – A bike-friendly city

Still looking fresh 30 minutes into the start of the adventure on a dedicated bike lane along Fisherman's Wharf

Still looking fresh 30 minutes into the start of the adventure on a dedicated bike lane along Fisherman’s Wharf

Last week on a stopover at San Francisco en-route to an international conference, I decided to cycle through the city. It seemed to be a popular thing with tourists to cycle to the famed Golden Gate Bridge and in the more scenic parts of town.

We rented our bikes near our hotel in busy downtown, where the shopping and financial districts were, rode through the entire stretch of the popular Fisherman’s Wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge and returned across the beautiful Presidio park and housing areas, through various parks, back through the Wharf and finally into various parts of downtown. It was a tiring 6-hour ride through a hilly San Francisco.

It was a weekday that we chose to do our biking expedition. What I gathered was a first-hand experience that despite the hilly conditions and sometimes heavy traffic, San Francisco is a bike-friendly city which we can learn from. There are many bike lanes clearly marked out across the city. In some places where it is not possible to have the extra bike lane, the rightmost (slowest) lane is marked as a shared bike and motor vehicle lane, where motorists have to wait behind bikes that are in front of them. And in some suburbs where there were no such markings, I noted that motorists were very conscious of us and gave way to us at road crossings. It made cycling a lot safer. Biking to work appears to be a very common thing in San Francisco, with trains and subways carefully planned to allow bikers to bring their bicycles along with them. Motorists, bikers and public transport commuters seem to follow a code of ethics on how to live with one another.

Below are photographs and my thoughts as I rode through town.

Cycling along the beach on a road shared with pedestrians

Cycling along the beach on a road shared with pedestrians

The prize in sight. Tired after climbing several hills and just a stone's throw from the entrance to Golden Gate Bridge. There's a track on the bridge shared between cyclists and pedestrians.

The prize in sight. Tired after climbing several hills and just a stone’s throw from the entrance to Golden Gate Bridge. There’s a track on the bridge shared between cyclists and pedestrians.

Surveying the Bridge from San Francisco side before pedalling through the majestic structure constructed in the 1930s

Surveying the Bridge from San Francisco side before pedalling through the majestic structure constructed in the 1930s

View of the Bridge from Marin County, after crossing from San Francisco: Tired, sore bum and dreading the ride back.

View of the Bridge from Marin County, after crossing from San Francisco: Tired, sore bum and dreading the ride back.

This cup of water was a reward from the rental shop owner after the 6-hour adventure. It summed up how I felt while cycling. Tried or not, you just have to make the long journey and get the bike back to downtown after crossing the Bridge, before the shop closing time.

This cup of water was a reward from the rental shop owner after the 6-hour adventure. It summed up how I felt while cycling. Tried or not, you just have to make the long journey and get the bike back to downtown after crossing the Bridge, before the shop’s closing time.

Most of the roads in the city are marked with bike signs. This is a shared lane between cyclists and motorists. As I cycled on this lane, cars have to wait behind me.

Most of the roads in the city are marked with bike signs. This is a shared lane between cyclists and motorists. As I cycled on this lane, cars waited behind me.

One of many different types of signs for bikes and cars on the road.

One of many different types of signs for bikes and cars on the road.

Biking around town, to and from work or just for leisure is a common thing in SF. This lady brought her bike down the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to board the train. Trains allow bike to enter and bikers and commuters have a code of ethics on how to manage with each other on the trains.

Biking around town, to and from work or just for leisure is a common thing in SF. This lady brought her bike down the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to board the train. Trains allow bike to enter and bikers and commuters have a code of ethics on how to manage with each other on the trains.

A bike-only carriage on CalTrain, a train service that runs between San Francisco and San Jose (Silicon Valley)

A bike-only carriage on CalTrain, a train service that runs between San Francisco and San Jose (Silicon Valley)

A biker in CalTrain bike cabin

A biker in CalTrain bike cabin

Bikes neatly arranged in Caltrain's bike cabin, with the riders sitting on the 2nd floor of the cabin.

Bikes neatly arranged in Caltrain’s bike cabin, with the riders sitting on the 2nd floor of the cabin.

A sign on a Caltrain bike cabin to remind commuters that this is a bike area.

A sign on a Caltrain’s bike cabin to remind commuters that this is a bike area.

A picture showing a section of Caltrain cabin layout, with cabins for bikes only and those for commuters only

A picture showing a section of Caltrain cabin layout, with cabins for bikes only and those for commuters only

A bicycle parking shop next to Caltrain San Francisco station. Some bikers would park their bikes here for better safety for their precious bikes.

A bicycle parking shop next to Caltrain San Francisco station. Some bikers park their bikes here for better safety for their precious bikes.

Bikes for sharing for US$9 a day (unlimited rides of 30 minutes each), which can be returned at any of the many such stations throughout the city. Frequent commuters can buy longer period passes at discounts. These bikes are meant for short periods of cycling between destinations in the city. Additional charges apply when a bike is taken out for more than 30 minutes for each cycling trip.

Bikes for sharing at US$9 a day (unlimited rides of 30 minutes each time a bike is removed from the parking bay), which can be returned at any of the many such stations throughout the city. Frequent users can buy longer period passes at discounts. These bikes are meant for short periods of cycling between destinations in the city. Additional charges apply when a bike is taken out for more than 30 minutes for each cycling trip.

The Bay Area Bike Van transporting bikes from station to station if needed or to service bikes.

The Bay Area Bike Van transporting bikes from station to station if needed or to service bikes.

A bike with stolen wheels on a bike parking bay. Unfortunately, bike theft in SF is one of the highest in USA.

A bike with stolen wheels on a bike parking bay. Unfortunately, bike theft in SF is one of the highest in USA.

A securely locked bike, with all wheels locked to the parking bay. Was told the thieves are really fast at getting off with the bike (or whichever parts of it are not secured).

A securely locked bike, with all wheels locked to the parking bay. Was told the thieves are really fast at getting off with the bike (or whichever parts of it that are not properly secured).

Intergovernmental Agreement with USA on Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act

The following is the speech I delivered in parliament today during the debate on Income Tax (Amendment) Bill

Madam Speaker, I will speak on the parts of the Income Tax (Amendment) Bill that relates to the agreement with the United States to implement the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (or FATCA).

The amendments contained in this Bill is effectively facilitating compliance of our financial institutions with FATCA to assist the USA government with identifying tax evaders as deemed so by the laws of the United States. FATCA affects financial institutions and is a matter of relationship between the USA Government and financial institutions with U.S. source income streams.  Typically, foreign governments are not obliged to help facilitate this relationship. Singapore is taking an extraordinary step to facilitate compliance.

As of June 2013, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Mexico, Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Spain, Germany, France and Italy have concluded intergovernmental agreements (or IGAs) to cooperate with the U.S. on FATCA implementation. Japan and South Africa have consented to cooperation. We will be the first and only country in ASEAN to take such action of cooperation with the USA. Various other countries such as Hong Kong are in talks with USA on their own IGAs.

The Senior Minister of State has explained the reasons for Singapore to enter into IGA with U.S. on FATCA. The USA has made it clear that financial institutions operating in countries that do not sign IGA with U.S. IRS by the end of 2013 must sign individual agreements with the U.S. tax authorities. Failure to do so will subject the financial institutions to a 30% withholding tax, as stated by the Senior Minister of State. Given the importance of the USA as a key political and economic partner of Singapore and the trend of countries complying with FATCA, it is understandable that Singapore will want to work with USA on this matter.

The U.S. Department of Treasury provides two IGA models. Model 1 involves financial institutions in the partner country reporting information about U.S. accounts to the partner country’s tax authority, which then provides the information to the U.S. authorities. Model 2 involves financial institutions reporting directly to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and partner country agrees to lower legal barriers to reporting.

All the countries that have concluded IGAs with the U.S. are on Model 1, except for Switzerland, which concluded a Model 2 agreement. Japan is considering Model 2 as well. According to Swiss Finance Senior Minister of State, Model 2 “better protects privacy and sovereignty.” Swiss banks will have to report accounts belonging to U.S. taxpayers above a minimum balance, but client’s data will only be exchanged once the U.S. authorities have requested administrative assistance. Singapore had signalled that we will be implementing Model 1 IGA with USA.

I like to raise six areas of concerns with the Senior Minister of State on this matter.

First, is about mutual benefits.

In a reply in parliament in 2009 to a question regarding Singapore being on the OECD countries “grey list” of countries committed to the internationally agreed tax standard, then Second Senior Minister of State for Finance Mrs Lim Hwee Hua had said that “Singapore is starting talks with several countries to update our DTAs (or Double Taxation Agreements) with them on a mutually beneficial basis, including having exchange of information provisions that are in line with the new international Standard.”

In the matter of bilateral agreements, governments form arrangements on mutually beneficial basis. There will be compliance costs. There will be cost incurred by our government to collect data on behalf of the USA. We will be facilitating the U.S. government to implement one of their laws.

Singapore currently has comprehensive DTAs with 71 countries providing for exchange of information, but not with the USA. We have only a limited treaty with the U.S. covering shipping and air transport income.[1]

I like to ask the Senior Minister of State if we are currently negotiating comprehensive DTA with USA or seeking for other concessions from USA in view of us facilitating FATCA? If so, what are these?

My second area of concern is about the cost of compliance. Countries that opt for Model 2 will let the financial institutions deal directly with USA’s IRS. There will be compliance costs for the financial institutions as they may need manpower to deal with queries from U.S. and to change their IT systems to comply with FATCA. In the Model 1 supported by Singapore, our government will collect data from the financial institutions for the USA. While this will make compliance with FATCA easier for our financial institutions, compliance costs will be transferred to the government and therefore to the taxpayer. What is the expected annual compliance cost and would the government be carrying this cost? If not, how will the cost be borne?

In the IGA reached between Switzerland and the USA, three of the six objectives are

(i)                increase “legal certainty by clarifying which Swiss financial institutions are subject to FATCA implementation”,

(ii)              “reduce implementation costs including by suspending, under certain circumstances, certain withholding and account closing obligations”, and

(iii)             “simplify the necessary due diligence procedures”.[2]

The joint statement with Japan also has similar provisions benefiting Japanese financial institutions.[3] Can the Senior Minister of State clarify what are similar provisions in our proposed IGA on FATCA?

My third concern is about the impact on Singapore citizens.

FATCA does not only affect U.S. citizens but is targeted at anyone who is potentially earning a U.S. taxable income stream. This person takes the definition of a “U.S. person”, which is indicated by any one of the following:

  1. U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent resident (green card) status;
  2. A U.S. birthplace;
  3. A U.S. residence address or a U.S. correspondence address;
  4. Standing instructions to transfer funds to an account maintained in the United States, or directions regularly received from a U.S. address;
  5. An “in care of” address or a “hold mail” address that is the sole address with respect to the client; or
  6. A power of attorney or signatory authority granted to a person with a U.S. address.[4]

This definition could see many Singapore citizens being identified as a U.S. person. In a Model 1 IGA, our Government may have to automatically transmit information on Singapore citizens who are deemed as U.S. persons to the USA. What is the government’s estimation of how many Singaporeans will be deemed as U.S. persons in the implementation of FATCA?

Are there any safeguards to limit extraterritorial implementation of foreign laws to prevent overreach by any foreign government on Singapore citizens? As the Senior Minister of State had earlier stated, it is expected that any treaty or international agreement should be fully reciprocal. What reciprocal rights will we have on U.S. citizens on similar matters?

This leads to my fourth concern on the risk of political blowback. Even with full reciprocity in agreement, there are already some quarters in the USA resisting FATCA for fear that reciprocity requirements by foreign governments will compromise the constitutional privacy rights of U.S. credit union members and bank customers. Requests for information by foreign governments, including by Singapore in the USA may be stalled in their courts. What would our government do in the event of limited reciprocity due to U.S. domestic politics when we have implemented our IGA with the U.S.?

My fifth concern is whether this concession to the U.S. may open the door for demands for similar concession by countries. The Bill provides for similar implementation with any other countries beyond the U.S. that Singapore will make similar type of tax compliance agreements with in future. Are there similar agreements some of our other big trading partners will be expecting of us soon in their efforts to identify their own tax evaders?  If so, which are the countries? Would this lead to a situation where many account holders in Singapore financial institutions become subject to foreign scrutiny, with greatly increased compliance costs?

My sixth concern is to understand the parliamentary process.  This Bill allows the Minister to negotiate and conclude the IGA, declare it as effective and then to implement it. There is no need for debate and ratify the IGA in Parliament. In Switzerland’s case, the IGA was entered into in February 2013. The Swiss Parliament voted to ratify it in September 2013. Our Government is now asking Parliament to approve the implementation of an IGA with the USA that does not yet exist and for which we do not have the details on. Shouldn’t parliament have more details of the IGA so that we can better understand the full implications of the Bill?

In conclusion, there could well be international pressure and good reasons for Singapore to enter into compliance with FATCA and in future with other countries on similar type of agreements. At the same time, there are questions that Singaporeans would want answers to, and to know the implications of our compliance with FATCA. Therefore I seek the Senior Minister of State’s answers to the questions I have raised. Thank you.

Pioneering Visual Art with a Heart in Bhutan

On the Druk Air flight into Bhutan, I had read the inflight magazine about VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio) Bhutan, started in 1998 by a group of artists to provide opportunities to the Bhutanese youth to develop their potential as well as to share social responsibilities through art.

I chanced upon an art shop next to my hotel. By coincidence, the owner is the brother-in-law of the key founder of VAST, Kama Wangdi, or popularly known as Asha Kama. Asha means “uncle” in Bhutanese. Even His Majesty calls Kama Wangdi “Asha”. When I met Asha, he joked that even his mother calls him Asha.

Alaya Gallery, the painting and exhibition place for VAST

Alaya Gallery, the painting and exhibition place for VAST

I was told he conducts free art classes for children every Saturday at 2pm at the Tayarana Centre, which is near my hotel. So I decided to check VAST out today.

VAST is located in a space of approximately 2,000 sqf in the Alaya Gallery. Inside, there are a number of young artists at work or chatting with one another. Completed works adorn the walls while half completed canvasses are either on the floor leaning against the walls or on art easels.

Art Pieces on a wall of Alaya Gallery

Art Pieces on a wall of Alaya Gallery

A large completed piece depicting the 4 important animals in Buddhism and Buddha. Was told a piece like this would sell for around S$600-S$800.

A large completed piece depicting the 4 important animals in Buddhism and Buddha. Was told a piece like this would sell for around S$600-S$800.

Artist at work painting a Dzhong from a photo.

Artist at work painting a Dzhong from a photo.

Artist Chand working on his third piece of the series using oil pastel

Artist Chand working on his third piece of his current series using oil pastel, mostly in purple

Artist Dorji Wangchuk who was a pioneer student of VAST 15 years ago. He is a successful artist now, having held several art exhibitions, including one in Taiwan last year.

Artist Dorji Wangchuk who was a pioneer student of VAST 15 years ago. Today, he is a successful artist, having held several art exhibitions recently, including one in Taiwan last year. He has sold some 30-40 paintings so far.

Artist Zuki with a semi-completed painting. She has been with VAST for 11 years since she was young. She recently graduated with a degree in Graphics from a Pakistan university under a South Asian scholarship. She obtained her scholarship thanks to recommendation by VAST. She has also learnt computer art and animation as a student at VAST, taught by a volunteer. She now does contract work in graphics using computers since returning to Bhutan.

Artist Zuki with a semi-completed painting. She has been with VAST for 11 years since she was young. She graduated a year ago with a degree in Graphics from a Pakistan university under a South Asian scholarship. She obtained her scholarship thanks to recommendation by VAST. She has also learnt computer art and animation as a student at VAST, taught by a volunteer. She now does contract work in graphics using computers since returning to Bhutan.

Asha and Singaporean Ivan surveying the children painting by the river bank

Asha and Singaporean Ivan surveying the children painting by the river bank

The children were missing from the gallery. The artists directed me to the river bank across the road. There, I found some 20 children busy sketching away. Asha was there too, together with some of his artist disciples working with the children.

Today was outdoor art. Asha has set up a structure for the kids to sketch from, or they could sketch other things around the beautiful river bank. There were even an Australian child and two Indian girls there. They were here because their parents are working in Bhutan. Asha explained that usually, there are many more children but this being close to the final school and national examinations, the older children were busy preparing for their examinations. Lessons are totally free. Parents can donate to VAST if they wish to.

Children concentrating on sketching the structure Asha has created by the river bank.

Children concentrating on sketching the structure Asha had created by the river bank.

Young Australian girl who had accompanied her mother, a volunteer to Bhutan for 2 months.

Young Australian girl who had accompanied her mother, a volunteer to Bhutan for 2 months.

A Bhutanese girl sketching a stone bridge

A Bhutanese girl sketching a stone bridge

Bhutanese boy in full concentration

Bhutanese boy in full concentration

Pema, a volunteer artist giving tips to the boy

Pema, a volunteer artist giving tips to the boy

Pema guiding a group of boys to improve their sketches

Pema guiding a group of boys to improve their sketches

We adjourned for tea with Asha and his artists at the Alaya Gallery. Asha, 55, told his story. He started his career as a graphics staff with the government in 1976. For 10 years, he tried many ways to go abroad to study art. He finally received a scholarship to study art at the University of Kent in UK. Upon his return, he worked for another 2 years in the government until his department was closed down and he became a full time artist. It took him a long while to get his art accepted and to sell his pieces. He held his first solo exhibition only 2 years ago, in 2011.

VAST is a non-profit initiative. Rental for the premises is currently paid for by His Majesty. Artists pay a nominal 1,500 Nultrums (equivalent to S$30) a year for access to Alaya Gallery any time (except Sunday, a rest day). Asha explains that the amount is barely enough to pay for utilities and to keep things going.

Asha and 3 of his pioneer students, Pema, Dorji and Maiyess, all full time artists now

Asha and 3 of his pioneer students, Pema, Dorji and Maiyess, all full time artists now. Another pioneer student and full time artist, Dorji Wangchuk was sitting opposite this group and was hence not in the photo.

Sitting around with Asha and us for tea were 4 of his pioneer students. They all started when they were school students, back in 1998 with the formation of VAST. Today, all 4 are full-time artists and they give back their time to help train the next generation of artists.

It is hard to define Bhutanese visual art. Bhutan has a long history of handicraft, made for their many colourful cultural and traditional events. Visual art in the form of painting is new in Bhutan, with strong influence from western art styles. Glancing at the art pieces, I see each artist trying to evolve his or her style. The themes for most paintings were related to Bhutan – objects, religion, places and sceneries of Bhutan.

Being full time artist is an exception. Most of the other artists have day jobs and come to VAST only on Saturdays. Finding jobs related to their artistic skills is a challenge too. For example, Zuki the scholarship holder with her overseas graphics degree and IT skills, could only do occasional contract jobs after returning to Bhutan for a year. Chand is an animator. He recently started his studio with some partners but have yet to secure their first major contract. On Friday, I met the founder of an IT firm that hires seventeen 3D animators. He proudly showed me his 3D animated film and told me of his plan to make a more ambitious 3D animated film of a famous battle in Bhutan’s history. He has yet to figure how to make money out of this industry, funding his animation passion with profits from his software development and training businesses. His passion is to create animation and he has ploughed on for 3 years in this pursuit already.

Yet I see their passion to follow their artistic pursuits despite economic challenges. And even with their own challenges in making a living out of art, they found time to return back to society by volunteering each week to train the next generation.

Jurwa, a change in mindset for a better environment

Posing with Banners at Clock Tower Square before team set off for the streets

Posing with Banners at Clock Tower Square before team set off for the streets

Last Sunday morning, I observed a group of youths gathering outside my hotel in Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Curious, I joined the crowd and found that they were volunteers from various youth groups gathered for the Clean Up Bhutan project, which coincided with the United Nations’ Clean The World Day (21-23 Sep).

Having a free Sunday, I decided to join the group and followed them on their trail around the streets of Thimphu.

Group posing for photo before setting off to clean the streets

Group posing for photo before setting off to clean the streets

The event was initiated by Mr Dorji Wangchuck from the Department of Youth and Sports in the Ministry of Education. He wanted to mobilise youths from various youth groups together to get them to make a change in their living environment. Mr Dorji was earlier working in a rural school and was the school’s scoutmaster. Frustrated that his school was often passed over for many activities because it was too remote to be allowed to participate, he jumped on the opportunity to be based in the capital to follow his passion of driving volunteerism and youth activity across the country when the post was opened up.

The event started late. Apparently, the truck from the municipal that was to deliver the collection bags, gloves and tools for the clean up did not show up. Undaunted, Mr Dorji gave a pep talk and managed to move the group to get supplies donated by nearby shops to get the event going.

It was already getting hot at around 10 am. The enthusiastic youths fanned out in two groups towards two parts of the town. I followed one group. A little later, I noticed some had gloves. I wasn’t sure if those were donated by a shop or the supplies did come later. We went through around 10 km of streets zig-zagging between alleys until we reached the collection bins in the Tourism Centre where the bags of garbage were emptied before piping hot food was delivered to them in Mr Dorji’s car.

Banner ladies carrying the message across town

Banner ladies carrying the message across town. I found that these two ladies are studying grade 12 (JC2) but are in their early 20s. They are working in the day and studying at night in community schools. When asked why, they said they realised it is important to be educated. Education is taken quite seriously by many young Bhutanese.

Picking up at all corners

Picking up at all corners

Carrying the message through the streets of Thimphu

Carrying the message through the streets of Thimphu

Leftover rubbish from someone's night drinking

Leftover rubbish from someone’s night drinking

A Finnish volunteer who also joined in

A Finnish volunteer who also joined in

Lugging the collected waste to the bins centre

Lugging the collected waste to the bins centre

Emptying the waste in the bins centre

Emptying the waste in the bins centre

Distributing snacks and drinks to hot and tired volunteers

Distributing snacks and drinks to hot and tired volunteers

After a hand wash, now for the food

After a hand wash, now for the food

Mr Dorji Wangchuck, organiser of the morning clean up event

Mr Dorji Wangchuck, organiser of the morning clean up event

Later, I realised that the food was paid for by Mr Dorji himself. A supposed sponsor for the event did not turn up and there was no refreshments. Not wanting to disappoint the youths which may discourage them from future volunteering, Mr Dorji went to buy his own food. I heard it cost around 3,000 nultrums (Bhutanese currency, which is about $60). As a civil service officer, I figured it would cost him around 15% of his monthly salary, a substantial investment for a day in his volunteerism work. His remarkable spirit in wanting to mobilise youths for change and to spread the message that we can all do our part in improving the world around us is admirable.

Later that afternoon, another group came out to the Clock Tower Square outside my hotel. I knew this group. I had met Mr Sagar Guring earlier at the Musk Restaurant in the Square where he and his friends frequent in the evenings. He had invited me to see their weekly Sunday cleaning routine for the Square using a group of volunteers.

Shifting misplaced pots and clearing the soil and dirt beneath

Shifting misplaced pots and clearing the soil and dirt beneath

Mr Tshering Yonten, a co-founder of the Jurwa Club. He was a former top civil servant and now runs a business

Mr Tshering Yonten, a co-founder of the Jurwa Club. He was a former top civil servant and now runs a business

Two months ago, the owner of Musk Ms Diki and her friend, Mr Tshering Yonten (a retired top government official now in private business) were musing about the amount of waste people were putting around town, and across the country. Being Green is something that is part of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept and even taught in schools. However, with increasing urbanisation and people forgetting what they were taught in school, garbage is being thrown indiscriminately. They decided they can do something, at least in the environment around them.

They mobilised a group of friends, numbering around 15 and started a Sunday cleaning campaign around the Clock Tower Square. Theirs was a little more serious, regular and organised than the morning youth group. They have invested in brooms, gloves, pails and even made name tags for themselves. They call their group the Jurwa Club. Jurwa is the Bhutanese word for Change. Change because they wanted people to change their mentality about garbage. Change because they believe people are capable of change to improve the environment around them.

Mr Sagar and friend dragging out large bags of collected garbage

Mr Sagar (in black) and friend dragging out large bags of collected garbage

This group is comprised of young adults to retired folks, all well spoken, mostly professionals and business people. After over 2 months, there is currently over 20 people turning up each week, depending on whoever is available. Most make it a point to keep this Sunday afternoon date. Being more experienced professionals, some with media background, they were able to mobilise the media to cover the event to drive home the message to the rest of Bhutan that each should initiate change to take care of the environment around themselves.

With better tools, they go about cleaning up the tougher dirt and garbage around the Square. An hour later, all hot and sweaty, they completed their task. Tools were returned, washed and stored up for next week’s cycle, and the group were rewarded with tea and cookies from Musk restaurant.

Jurwa Club members on 22 Sep afternoon

Jurwa Club members on 22 Sep afternoon

Returning the tools of the trade after the clean up

Returning the tools of the trade after the clean up

Ms Diki (wearing cap), co-founder of Jurwa Club washing gloves after the clean up

Ms Diki (wearing cap), co-founder of Jurwa Club washing gloves after the clean up

Jurwa Club with then-newly elected Prime Minister gracing the clean up in July

Jurwa Club with then-newly elected Prime Minister gracing the clean up in July

In observing these two clean-up events, I was reminded of the many “Use Your Hands” and cleaning campaigns I had gone through as a student in school decades ago. Our campaigns too were to drive home the message of the importance of cleanliness and to do our part (use our hands) to make things happen.

I recall once while in Junior College, some from our class initiated a night hike across Pulau Ubin island. We trekked through plantations and reached the northern end of the island when it was pitch dark and camped there for the night. The next day, we packed up to go. Some of us had left their rubbish behind in the deserted beach. One of the group members picked up the rubbish and carried these with him. The nearest dustbin must be at least 5 km away, back through the plantations we had trekked through. No one else would know we had put rubbish in the beach if we had done so. Yet this member reminded us that we should handle our waste properly. So everyone picked up every bit of waste that we had created on the beach and carried them till we came to the first dustbin miles away.

I can still remember this till today because it was a powerful message sent by one member to the rest in the group that we can take control of our environment. We can choose to keep it clean. We can choose to change and inspire others to change. Never underestimate the power of a few to inspire others to change by your simple actions. Jurwa – for a better world.

Finding the Singapore Psy

The 17 Oct issue of TODAY featured Psy and the economics of Gangnam style. Psy (Park Jae Sang) is suddenly famous. He holds the record for the highest number of Youtube likes (now over 4 million and still rising) and over 400 million views, after officially releasing his video on Youtube only in July this year.

Psy goes against the grain of successful pop stars. He is portly and by his own admission, is not good looking. He was once told by major record labels to get a drastic image overhaul, including plastic surgery to ever be successful. He did none of these and chose to “dress classy and dance cheesy”. He is the total opposite of what had made K-pop successful in the past: stars with long legs, robotic dance moves and years of training and grooming to make more out of the same mould.

He got South Korea’s finance minister talking about him.  South Korea’s top economic official cited Psy as an example of the kind of creativity and international competitiveness the country needs. It was a plea for South Koreans to let their hair down and dream a bit.

As successful as South Korea is in the competitive world of global electronics and export, the finance minister recognises that the country needs to continue to find its own groove. It needs the creative Psy in businesses to go against the grain for the country to continue to propser as innovation becomes more important for success globally.

I believe Singapore needs that too. We may have found success in our early industrial policy. We went against the nationalistic grain of what our neighbours were doing and attracted multinationals to our shores. Former Perm Sec Ngiam Tong Dow had warned of flying on auto-pilot mode, relying on past successes as a sure and safe way for future progress. He was pushing for Singapore to grow its local ‘timber’, i.e. develop our SMEs to a level that they can compete globally. To do so, we will need innovation.

Innovation needs a mindset change. It is difficult to mandate innovation. It has to start from a culture from young where we dare to be different, where we dare to go against the grain and we dare to try alternatives. Our formula for success is too predictable.  Our system has put too much emphasis on measuring children from young and sorting them into cookie-cutter programmes we think are best for them. We sieve out the elites through tests and channel them onto fast tracked programmes. We have created an excessive meritocratic education system where the rewards for doing well in academic examinations are exceedingly high. We will end up breeding a next generation of policymakers fixed on doing what had been done previously because that is the safer way to carry on with things.

To have a culture of innovation, we need to cultivate such an attitude right across all areas of our society. If we want a Singapore Psy, we need to let our hair down in our creative sector, even if it causes a bit of discomfort sometimes. Once a while, over enthusiastic officials will clamp down on artistic expressions in the fringes, afraid that our population cannot discern. We will get conforming people but not the next Psy.

If we want Psy-thinking in our businesses, we need to encourage divergent thinking from young. We need to find alternative ways to educate our young and to find a different way to progress them up the education ladder. We need to incorporate into our education more areas that do not have fixed answers. We need to find a way to embrace greater ambiguity and diversity.

Our economy will also need to allow the space for SMEs to develop. We need to allow fresh spaces for them to grow, rather than stiffle them under the shades of giant GLCs and multinationals. I had spoken on this earlier in my Budget speech in parliament this year.

I look forward to a day when we can have our Singapore Psy, in pop culture and in business. We need confident Singaporeans, prepared to be different.

Developing our national identity and values

Yesterday, Ang Peng Hwa the Director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at NTU, and president of the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society wrote in the Straits Times (5 Oct 2012, pg A32) about learning from Bhutan in how Singapore can go about developing its own identity. He stated that Bhutan’s concept of GNH is not about replacing GDP and is not just about happiness. It is something designed to distinguish Bhutan from their neighhours and from the rest of the world.

I had spoken about Bhutan’s GNH in my maiden parliament speech as well (see link). The GNH concept is to also ensure their culture and environment are preserved for the benefit of future generations. It is as much about leaving a future for the next generation as it is about current economic growth. It is centred on collective happiness as a society, rather than individual happiness. Hence, preserving its culture, ensuring sustainable development and having good governance are as important as measuring economic development.

Many Bhutanese may have also gone out to the world to study and work. However, ask any Bhutanese where he/she would like to spend his/her last days, and it will be in Bhutan. Their identity has remained strong over the years. Singapore has been building a global city, but it is weak on building a nation with its own identity and culture. As our people study, live and work overseas in an increasingly globalised world, how can we root them back to Singapore? How do we build an identity with the constant influx of new migrants into our society? What do we want to leave behind for our children’s generation? Let’s hope we address this as we talk about what we want Singapore to be 20 years from now.