Long term issues to consider in GE2020

In today’s interview with Bloomberg News, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing that there’s “not much time” left for Singapore’s government to hold its next general election as the city-state has to dissolve parliament in January, months ahead of an April deadline.

Mr Chan also said, “Coming up against a hard deadline to hold elections, there’s actually ‘not much time’. We would like, when the opportunity arises, to have a strong mandate because the challenges that we are going to face in the coming years will indeed be the challenge of an entire generation.”

When the time to vote does come, Mr Chan thinks Singaporeans “are wise enough to look at the government performance not just on an episodic event”, but how it has done in the long term.”

 

My thoughts on this are:

1. The PAP has been given a super strong mandate since 1968, I believe the strongest for any country with democratic elections even in their worst performance. The current strong mandate that the PAP had been given certainly allows it to do whatever had been required to in the fight against Covid-19.

2. Yes, we should not judge based on just an episodic event, even though the government themselves had admitted that they could have done better in the explosive Covid-19 infection outbreak amongst migrant workers, if they had hindsight, etc.

The issue with migrant workers though, is actually a long term one that has become worse and worse each year. In the Population White Paper debate, Singaporeans had given their views very strongly yet the move towards the 6.9 mil ‘cap’ continued. The 2013 Little India riot cast a spotlight on migrant workers again. The key response was to curb drinking, especially among the migrant workers past 1030 pm. The Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA) was passed in 2015 but three manpower ministers later, some key parts of the bill appeared to be unimplemented, including the appointment of a Commissioner to oversee safety, maintenance, health and other issues across all large foreign workers dorms. We now know that half of the large dorm operators flout regulations yearly, thanks to questioning by MP Png Eng Huat. Singaporeans are paying a huge cost in now trying to control the situation at the dorms. How much we are paying is not yet clear but the government had said they will fund the additional costs that the already very profitable dorm operators have to incur for the required additional Covid-19 safety measures. Should Singaporeans fund dorm operators especially if they had cut costs and constantly flouted regulations previously and yet made huge profits each year?

3. In researching on this issue for an earlier blog post on how Singapore grew to nearly 1.5 mil migrant workers, I found that several of our prominent first generation leaders including the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the late Dr Goh Keng Swee had been against the idea of growing our migrant workforce beyond what we can manage, for many good reasons – our space cannot handle the large numbers that the PAP wanted, the negative impact on our culture and society, that over-reliance on cheap foreign workers will kill the push for innovation and entrepreneurship, etc. Dr Goh had warned that Singapore’s growth will one day come to a grinding halt if we become too reliant on these low wage workers. This is a long term issue that must be urgently addressed. The explosive number of Covid-19 cases has put a timely spotlight on our over-reliance on these migrant workers, living in what I believe are overpriced, poor and crowded conditions.

Former GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong cited a IPS study in 2014 which projected that if our labour force was allowed to grow at just 1.7% annually, Singapore would hit 10 mil population by 2050, just 30 years from now. Can we handle this? Will more migrant workers issues explode in our face in the coming years after GE2020? Will we come to a grinding halt as warned by Dr Goh? Will the wealth and income inequality become too crazy to handle as we overpopulate? Can we even have a Singapore culture with local-born as minority?

Yes, there are indeed long term issues Singaporeans should be concerned about in the coming GE. It will certainly be the challenge of an entire generation as we seek to deal with a very tricky over dependence on low wage migrant workers problem and other issues caused by years of grow-at-all-cost..

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.

Singapore’s journey to nearly 1.5 million migrant workers

The massive explosion of Covid-19 cases has cast the spotlight on migrant workers. Much has already been said about living conditions for these workers and whether this has contributed to the spread of Covid-19. The purpose of this article is not to add to these debates, but to examine how we ended up with such as a vast number of low wage workers, living in a different world from Singaporeans even though they are very much in our midst all the time. What could have been the economic thinking behind this massive influx?

 

Singapore has seen migrant workers grow from 7% of our workforce since 1970 to 38% today (presented by NMP Associate Professor Walter Theseira at a recent IPS forum). Currently, 72.4% of these migrant workers are on Work Permits (WP) and 14% are on S-Pass (SP). In absolute numbers, the migrant workforce grew from just over 60,000 fifty years ago to a staggering 1.472 million today. The vast majority of 1.234 million are WP and SP holders (Source: MOM & Migration Policy Institute).

 

WP and SP workers form the lower wage spectrum of our work force. Their numbers are so large now that they occupy almost every area of our social spaces. In 2008, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that he was not convinced on his own party – the PAP’s plan to have 6.5 million population, to be achieved largely through immigration to drive economic growth. “There’s an optimum size for the land that we have, to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort,” the late Mr Lee said. Other than occupying our social spaces, the presence of so many low wage foreign workers have depressed the wages of less skilled Singaporean workers, which has in turned caused a great divide between those who have benefited from our economic progress and those whose real wages have stagnated or even regressed in the past two decades.

 

How did we arrive at this situation of so many migrant workers, many stuck at low wages and with low productivity compared to other developed countries?

 

I believe it was the obsession with economic growth when the baton was passed from the first generation of leaders. Economic growth is good, but we also need to look at how the growth is derived, whether it is sustainable quality growth and how the benefits are spread across society. Our rapid growth from independence till the 1990s has made many countries and economists praise Singapore as a role model for development. One contrarian view was that of renowned Professor of Economics, Paul Krugman. To him, Singapore’s miracle was based on perspiration rather than inspiration. The growth had come from a very successful mobilisation of the population to participate in the workforce, jumping from 27% in 1966 to 51% by 1990. Professor Krugman warned that Singapore’s workforce participation rate was by then so high that it was unlikely to be further increased significantly. Such ‘sweaty’ economic growth model has its limit. Unless productivity, efficiencies and innovation are raised in the future, economic growth has to be captured through an ever-increasing migrant workforce.

 

By the 1990s, the ruling party had monopolized parliament with absolute or near absolute monopoly since 1968. The leadership was transferred to our second PM, Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990. There was an unprecedented loss of four seats to the opposition in GE 1991, a really big deal to a party that will not tolerate any loss or the rise of a serious competitor. Mr Goh had in 1984 promised that Singapore would reach the 1984’s Swiss standard of living by 1999, in per capita GDP terms. The measure of success was to boost up GDP.

 

The late Dr Goh Keng Swee, architect of Singapore’s economic transformation in our first 2 decades, had since the 1970s till his retirement in 1984, warned of the dangers of growing our GDP through large influx of foreign workers and foreign direct investments. In the Future of Singapore (FOSG) talk in 2017, former Chief Economist at GIC, Yeoh Lam Keong who had worked under Dr Goh, said that Dr Goh frowned upon those who dare suggest growing the economy by boosting immigration. Dr Goh had felt that getting unlimited access to cheap labour would impede the critical need for upgrading and innovation.  The first-generation leaders seem well aware of the dangers of large influx of cheap foreign labour and overpopulation. The next generation of leaders however, felt that it was imperative to capture economic growth fast. I believe they must have felt the pressure to retain their super majority control of parliament through continued economic growth.

 

There were massive infrastructure projects in the 1990s. It opened the doors for a much looser migrant workforce policy to feed the expansion. Foreign workers grew from 311,264 in 1990 to nearly 800,000 in 2000 (a 255% increase in just 10 years). In the mid-2000s, to capture another wave of economic boom, Singapore had another massive round of migrant workforce. The 2009 Global Financial Crisis put a temporary pause but in 2010, our GDP grew a phenomenal 14.7% and the influx continued. Foreign workers numbered 1.3 million by 2010. As infrastructure had been a key part of the economic activities, the construction workforce grew very rapidly in these two decades, from 114,000 in 1996 to some 300,000 in 2019. This numbers will potentially be even higher going forward as the Singapore Business Review recently projected a 3.3% average annual growth in the construction industry from 2019 to 2028. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed in 2011: “We’ve grown in the last five years by just importing labour. Now, the people feel uncomfortable, there are too many foreigners.” He had estimated that it might take five years for the country to scale back its need for foreign workers, something which the government is still grappling with nearly a decade later and the numbers have continued to increase.

 

During the 2013’s debate on the government’s Population White Paper, we were reminded of this simple formula: Economic growth = Annual Productivity Growth + Growth in Workforce. Singapore’s productivity in recent years have been miserable, mostly flat for the decade of 2011-2020. It even fell by 1.5% in 2019 and is likely to be worse in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruptions and an impending recession. Today, despite recent acknowledgement of our low construction workforce productivity and some efforts to improve on this, we are still lagging very far behind our developed peers such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. For example, Australia’s and Japan’s construction workforce are 3.9 times and 2.8 times respectively more productive that their peers in Singapore. In other sectors that depend heavily on low wage migrant workers such as F&B and retail, our productivity has lagged significantly behind that of Hong Kong, a city state economy like ours.

 

The trouble with looking at purely GDP numbers is that it is misleading. GDP can be divided into three components – Wage share, Profit share and Tax share. Singapore has now one of the highest GDP per capita in the world but its wage share has been hovering just above 40% for the past few decades, way below those of OECD countries which are around 50% and some even much higher.

 

The profit share component of GDP would go back to shareholders. In Singapore, the government owns a disproportionately large share of the economy compared to other developed countries. We encourage foreign investments and the profits would have to flow back eventually to where the investments originated from. Prior to Covid-19, the Marina Bay Sands was the most profitable casino in the world. It was generating some US$1.5 billion in earning (EBITA) a year. It is owned entirely by Las Vegas Sands Corp, listed in the USA.

 

For a long time and up till 2011 when astronomical ministerial salaries became an issue in GE2011, GDP was the measure for how well the civil service did. GDP growth was a key determinant of the bonuses of political office bearers. With the rapid rebound from the Global Financial Crisis, in 2010 the salary bonus for ministers went up to 8 months on a then-super high salary base. When productivity is low, growth in workforce can boost up the GDP growth; so we should also look at the quality of GDP growth, as well as how income growth had been distributed to the median and lower income groups.

 

I believe that the last three decades of drive to boost GDP numbers through large-scale foreign labour import had masked many brewing long-term structural problems. It has come to a stage where our Singapore Inc. economy is hooked on an ever-increasing base of low wage, low productivity workers to continue with our model for ‘prosperity’. I believe it is this obsession with GDP that impedes bold decisions such as having a national minimum wage.

 

It is unsustainable. In the same FOSG talk, Yeoh Lam Keong shared a 2014 forecast by IPS: A mere 1.7% annual growth in labour could see Singapore hitting 10 million population by 2050! The 2013 Population White Paper only presented a population scenario of 6.9 million by 2030. What’s beyond 2030 if we continue at this rate? This is quite a frightening thought considering that our imported labour is indeed growing at beyond 1% per annum currently. At a population of 10 million, the IPS forecast was for 3.3 million migrant workers, a 235% increase from currently. This will be on top of regular injection of new citizens and permanent residents. How do we manage the housing and social spaces by then? How do we manage the growing wealth and income inequality that will come? What will our Singapore identity be like then?

 

We have seen how troubles like that of the Little India riots of 2013 could happen when we overcrowd our small city state with the many people that we currently have, not to mention if we allow it to explode to another 235%!  The government now collects some $3 billion per year in workers’ levies. These add significant costs to employers and force them to keep wages of workers low. There has to be big structural changes, initiated by the government to bring us away from the ‘perspiration’ driven model that Paul Krugman warned of in the 1990s.  We have to also look at the ‘optimum size’ as advocated by the late Mr Lee that our island can hold and figure a more sustainable quality and innovation-led economic growth. The government has to take the leadership to effect big structural changes to sectors that persistently have this problem of huge dependency on low wage workers.

 

For too long,  we have kicked the can down the road from one generation of leaders to another in the drive to capture GDP growth in the quickest (and lazy) way, even though we had been warned by prominent leaders and economists that such methods will lead to unsustainable population growth, depressed wages for the bottom income earners and social problems associated with vast inequality. We are all feeling the negative effects now in a very real way. Uncomfortable though the changes may be, the time to tackle this escalating problem is now.

 

Note: The views expressed here are the opinions of the author.

Unpaid school fees – What are the teachable moments?

The incident reminded me of a case I took when helping at a Meet-People-Session in Aljunied GRC a few years back.

It was almost 9.30 pm then, which was the closing time for residents to register to meet the MP over issues. I had just completed a case and I was about to leave as there were no further cases needing a case writer. Then, a young lady rushed to the counter and registered. I popped over to check and decided to take her case. It turned out that she was a 2nd year diploma student at a government supported non-profit college. She had unpaid fees and was told by the college that unless she paid up, she would not get her official results and she needed the results to register for her courses for the third and final year. She was very distressed because the last date to register for her courses was like that next day or very soon after that. She was sobbing as she told her story. She is the eldest with only her uneducated mum working part time to support the family. The family was constantly in debt, borrowing from relatives. Her previous year fees had been paid by an aunt who was not able to give her another loan so soon. She worked part time but that was only enough for her own living expenses and not for her fees. She believed she would be kicked out of college because of her unpaid fees. She did not even know what her 2nd year results were because the school’s policy was that they could not release the results without payment of fees.

I happened to have a friend working in the school. I called him. He was kind enough to set up a rushed meeting the next morning with the finance manager. I called the young lady to come along. The school did not know of her financial situation. The finance manager was very kind and revealed that she had passed and may register for the third year courses and asked her to apply for a bursary. The school also gave her time to pay up for the previous fees, which she eventually borrowed from her relatives. She got a bursary for her final year of studies. As she had the relevant skills, I engaged her on a part-time basis for my art company that year as well.

She graduated, found a job in a MNC as a web designer and I last heard she was still working there. Hers is a happy story that could have turned out badly. I asked why she did not try to apply for any financial assistance before then. She said she was not aware (even though the school had schemes and were indeed kind and fast to act when her situation surfaced). It is hard to blame her as she was not yet an adult then and the family already had so much problems. Relatives were afraid of them requesting for more financial assistance. She only came to the MPS because she shared her problems at a church meeting and her friend suggested going to meet her MP, which she promptly rushed to because the MPS happened to be that evening.

Back to the MOE case. Like MOE, the college the lady was in had to have some policies over unpaid fees. So I do not fault these organisations for needing to have rules to go by. MOE said it is a teachable moment for the parents. The problem often is that when there are persistent unpaid fees, there are often some deep issues or dysfunctional family situations. I am not sure if the family would be in a good situation to talk to the child about the learning points of having to pay their dues if they had many other daily stresses or were dysfunctional. I do not know the exact situation for the PSLE student as to why financial assistance was not applied for. I know schools have lots of ways to help low income family pay for fees and even get pocket money allowances because I have been involved in helping to raise such funds for schools. The young lady I had helped could have raised her problems to the school much earlier and she would likely have gotten a bursary from day 1 but she said she was not aware of support schemes and did not know that she would have qualified.

I will end with another story. A principal of a faith-based kindergarten told me recently that she and the form teacher of a class made a surprise visit to a family whose child had not paid the third term fees nor fees for the school bus. The boy had stopped attending school without a formal withdrawal. The bus had refused to pick him as well. The purpose of the visit was to understand what happened and to try to get the child to be back so he can finished his final few weeks of preschool with friends he has made over the past couple of years before going on to primary school.

They reached the home of the family just as the father and son were stepping out. The father was apologetic and promised to pay up the fees. He thought that the school had come to chase for the debts. The school explained that they were not there for the fees as they had already asked the Board for permission to waive off the fees. They just wanted to ask the child to go back to school as they did not want him to miss out the memorable final weeks. They even asked the bus company if they could sponsor the bus trips for the final period for the family.

What are the teachable moments? It can be to tell the family and child that they need to pay for all financial obligations. It can also be to tell them that there’s grace in the society if there are truly situations that call for it. I hope the young preschool boy will grow up well and one day remember that the school he attended reached out because they did not want him to fall behind no matter what the family circumstances were; that if he is financially capable one day, he can pay it back to others.

I do not think many families like to owe money especially over education. It is embarrassing to the child. With persistent unpaid fees, there are often stories behind these which can only be known if we probe further. Probing needs time. I do not know enough of the situation with the PSLE student as to how the school may have previously reached out to the family. Teachers and principals are often stressed out because our schools run large operations and class sizes are big. There are daily fires to fight when school is operational. Digging into problems such as persistent unpaid fees and trying to resolve them require lots of time and patience. As much as there are teachable moments to the families, there are also engagement opportunities by the schools and by social welfare organisations to use these as trigger points to dig further and to help families work a way out of problems.

#Correction: The earlier post stated the Principal and Vice Principal of the faith-based kindergarten. It should be Principal and form teacher of the class the boy was in.

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.

 

 

Examining The Storm Over Social Enterprises Run Hawker Centres

* published in The Workers’ Party Hammer Newsletter, March 2019

The recent storm over high rental prices in Social Enterprise-run Hawker Centres (SEHC) cast the spotlight on what social enterprises are and how they run public goods. When the plan was presented in parliament in 2013, I expressed concerned that if we gave too much autonomy to the operators to impose rents and other charges to hawkers, when they operated a significant market share of the hawker centres, we might face monopolistic behaviours that would impose high operating cost on hawkers. Hawkers would in turn impose higher food prices on consumers. Although we term the operators as social enterprises (SEs), from the reality of how SEs had run public goods in the past, it was obvious that they did make surpluses; and when they dominated the market, monopolistic behaviours had been observed.

Hence, I sought the assurance of the ministry to monitor the way SEHC are operated. Then-Minister for The Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, gave his assurance in Parliament that his ministry would keep a tight watch over the way hawkers would be charged.

Fast forward five years and the issue became a national debate when food blogger K.F. Seetoh revealed details of high rental charges and ridiculous terms and working hours that hawkers had to bear with.

Much debate online ensued. Many Singaporeans were angry that commercial operators were allowed to form SEs to manage hawker centres with burdensome terms for hawkers compared to those at NEA-run hawker centres, and that hawkers seemed to be imposed with many other costs beyond the actual rental.

NEA finally acted to stop operators from imposing some onerous conditions, allowing now for early termination with smaller penalties, shortening required operating hours of hawkers, capping the fines that SEHC operators can impose on hawkers and imposing better feedback channels for hawkers.

I believe the unfortunate saga could have been prevented if NEA had indeed taken a very proactive examination of contracts by SEs for hawkers in the five years that SEHC had been operating.

The issue also called into question how government outsources the provision of public goods to third party organisations. The preference thus far has been for social enterprises to run public goods such as childcare and hawker centres. A commercial company has to incorporate a social enterprise entity to bid for such projects. I do not object to social enterprises running public goods, but we must know that they do not work magic and cannot be relied on to fulfill government objectives automatically. As can be seen from revelations of contracts and correspondences between SEHC and hawkers in the recent saga, the SEs tend to behave like typical large landlords, imposing harsh terms on hawkers and using employees who will apply rules strictly on hawkers without mercy. Without government subsidies or interventions, they also cannot work magic to bring about lower food pricing, maintain low rents to hawkers whilst having to manage own costs (including payments to NEA) and be profitable themselves.

I believe one reason this issue has generated so much sympathy for hawkers is perhaps because the situation hawkers faced mirrored the feeling of many SMEs and Singaporeans – squeezed by rent-seeking landlords in a country where costs have become very high. This has caused the ordinary person to feel the stress of making a decent living and small companies being forced out of business. It stems from a mindset of squeezing as much money as possible out of the people. Industrial land, for example, used to be managed by JTC who as a large supplier of such space, could dictate market rents. After JTC divested the industrial factories to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), many of them majority-owned by the government, rents went up steeply. Public transport was outsourced to private companies with the government also benefitting initially from the privatisation. This however backfired when private companies, pressed constantly for profits, cut back drastically on maintenance.

Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, former Permanent Secretary recalled a conversation he once had with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew over the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) scheme, which he felt was taxing transportation, and hence taxing every man, woman and child in Singapore, from the day of his birth till the day of his death. The late Mr Lee shot back, “Ngiam, are you the Permanent Secretary of the Budget and Revenue Divisions at MOF? … What’s wrong with collecting more money?” (ref: https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2013/10/01/pap-elitist-dont-feel-for-the-people-ngiam-tong-dow/)

Hawkers today are not spared from this, being squeezed by ever higher rentals and operating costs. A different government mindset, more understanding on the plight of hawkers and a better support system will be needed if we are to help hawkers manage a decent living whilst keeping food costs manageable for all.

Hammer-hawkercentre-chineseHammer-hawkercentre-english

Pathways to success

Last month, my daughter came home from her holiday work with a story. The cleaning/cooking aunty at the preschool centre told the teachers that she was angry at her son who was studying in a polytechnic. She said that instead of studying hard, he was working every day till late at night at some events company. She showed my daughter the recent Whatsapp messages she had with her son.

From those messages, my daughter gathered that Aunty’s son was working because he wanted to be financially independent, so he had taken up a part time job managing sound systems at events. Events are typically held at night and hence he had to work late. He had also explained that he was still able to cope with the demands of his polytechnic studies.

My daughter and another teacher told Aunty that it was good that her son was being independent and working hard, and was not loafing or partying around or addicted to computer games, as some young adults his age may be. My daughter had friends who were good with sound systems and explained to Aunty that people often had to pay to learn how to manage those expensive sound equipment. She told Aunty that her son was now even being paid to learn how to be a sound engineer – a good skill to have. My daughter too started doing part-time work actively since she was 14 years old, so I guess she could speak with some assurances for Aunty.

I think my daughter and the other teacher managed to convince Aunty. She said she would go home later that day and talk to her son.

The Aunty’s concern is typical of the average Singaporean parents. We have been conditioned that the pathway to success in life is to score in exams. When you are studying, do not waste time on other things, even if these are useful skills to have or can help one to develop their character. If you are a student, just study. In many parents’ minds, grades are what matters.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a former high-flying government servant turned entrepreneur in a developing country. We all shared our concerns of Singaporeans being exams-smart but lacking the ability to cope in the new economy requiring innovation, creativity, resilience and many skills that one cannot train through the books. When I mentioned about us consistently scoring tops in PISA assessments, he remarked that our education advantage like those measured through PISA often disappear in tertiary studies when one has to go beyond knowledge. My former civil servant friend also shared his concern about high-flyers taking very safe paths. We will end up doing very safe things to meet short term KPIs, and not do things that are necessary for essential disruptive changes.

Several years ago, policy makers have said Singapore will embark on many pathways to success, beyond measuring by exam grades. That is highly necessary but the implementation will continue to be challenging. Mindsets of parents like Aunty need to change. Mindsets of employers, especially those in the civil service will need to change. Policy makers must dare to make bold changes where needed.

This is the year-end results period. We had the PSLE results released several weeks ago. O and A levels results will be out soon. As it is every year, parents will scramble to enrol their children in what they consider as good schools. Some will be disappointed that their children did not get the grades necessary for the targeted top schools.

We will need more young people to be like Aunty’s son. Some part-time work or active involvement in community work outside of school is good. It trains up resilience and time management. We will need our people to be more than exams smart if our economy is to do well in this new global economic climate.

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.

A story to warm your heart

We conducted our first house visit yesterday since the release of the EBRC report. As usual, it was a tiring affair, going door to door. People were noticeably more interested to engage with us now that the report is out. They were curious if we will be the ones that will contest in their constituency. As usual, we tried to cover as many houses as we could given that GE is imminent.

At this house, a lady in her mid 40s, Miss J, came to the door. We introduced ourselves. She opened the door and invited us in. Usually, we would just converse with residents at the door. This time, I saw an old lady sitting on a sofa gazing at us. Something made me want to go in and talk to the old lady, so we accepted the invitation to enter.

She was highly advanced in age, body deeply bent and her legs looked like they were too weak to support her. I spotted a wheelchair nearby, presumably used to transport her around the house and outside. Miss J went in to the kitchen to make drinks for us. It was extremely difficult making any conversation with the old lady. We used a mix of Chinese and Hokkien. Sometimes she seemed to understand, sometimes she would say something unintelligible to us. If not, she would gaze at us or at the television.

Miss J came out with the drinks and explained that her mother, aged 87, has dementia. It became very severe two years ago, so she quit her job to become a full-time caretaker. She said that her mother would get confused easily. Sometimes, she would think that Miss J was her daughter, sometimes her ah-ma, sometimes a maid, etc. At times, she seemed to understand and apologised to Miss J for causing her not to be able to work because of her poor health.

I told Miss J that she is very filial and that it must be really difficult for her to play the role of the sole caretaker. To my surprise, Miss J replied “No, it is my privilege that I have my mother to love and to care for”. Every night, she would hug and kiss her mother before she goes to bed. She said that whenever her brother’s children visit their grandmother, the grandchildren will do the same thing to their Ah-ma. She said that it is important for them to do this so that they will do the same thing for their own parents when their parents are old.

Miss J struggles with the finances. Her savings are mostly dried up. She tries not to ask for too much help from her siblings as they have their own family expenses. She has to buy adult diapers and to pay for all sorts of medicine that her mother requires. However, there was no trace of any bitterness in her. She said these as a matter of fact and ended by saying that this is what she wants to do as this is her mother. It is her privilege.

I was deeply moved and asked for permission to share her story. As she was narrating her story, the image of the recent viral video of a daughter beating up her mother and making her eat faeces and drink urine came to my mind. How did something go so wrong in that family, and how did Miss J find the strength to go through all these difficult daily duties with such a big heart?

May God bless people like Miss J for showing to the world what filial piety is.