Tuesday, August 31, 2004

ST writer slams UN 

It’s unusual to see a writer in The Straits Times criticise the United Nations. But that appears to be what Pranay Gupte has done in his article titled “Population control or reproductive health? It’s all a scam”. Excerpt of his article:

Remember those warnings about how unbridled population growth was a bomb ticking away? Well, the dire scenario did not materialise... But...the United Nations...continue hammering on the theme. Between UN expenditures and those of individual governments and NGOs, some US$11 billion is spent each year on population-related matters. That is more than a fourth of what all 135 countries of the Third World receive annually in foreign aid, and almost a tenth of what they get each year in foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign institutional investment (FII) in their equity markets. And the greatest population scam is all set to enter a new stage.

Starting today, thousands of politicians, diplomats and academicians will gather in London’s Queen Elizabeth II Convention Hall for a three-day conference to lament the world’s allegedly rapid population growth. They are flying first class or business class, they are being put up in luxurious lodgings, they are being feted at tony restaurants — and international taxpayers are footing the bill... At the London conference, there will be calls to create an international super-agency to coordinate global efforts concerning social development...

Is it really necessary to create yet another bureaucracy? My own experience...suggests that Third World countries don’t need the altruism of foreign bodies and their highly compensated consultants... Four critical elements are necessary to accelerate sustainable development in poor nations: The mobilisation of domestic resources by the private sector...the inflow of more FDI for strengthening infrastructure and expanding manufacturing and agro-business; more foreign and local investment in securities markets; and the widening of education, particularly of female children. Anthropology suggests that people will always respond positively to economic and educational opportunities — and adjust family size accordingly...

For three decades I have known the leading dramatis personae of the population and development business. Some of them became friends. But, in the end, many of them turned out to be frauds, however clever, however charming. For them, social development has meant self-aggrandisement. This international class of povertycrats, regrettably, has only a promising future to look forward to.
Strong words, indeed. Not having had the privilege of working with UN or other international agencies and their officials that are working on population-related issues, I am unable to directly assess how clever, how charming or how fraudulent they actually are.

Yet, speaking in general, some degree of self-aggrandisement is almost to be expected in bureaucracies. Lacking the discipline of the marketplace that businesses have — though having seen the likes of Enron and WorldCom, I’m far from suggesting that the business world is free from the same problem — effective governance is difficult to measure in bureaucracies, making them fertile grounds for ambitious political types to use their cleverness and charm to attain power or enrich themselves instead.

Whether it is actually happening in UN agencies, though, is not for me to say. As it is, Pranay Gupte has said quite a bit. I am almost certain that the UN will respond. The accusation is too obvious to ignore.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Nigerian scam 

This is such an old trick that I’m slightly surprised that people are still falling for it.

Yesterday, The Sunday Times reported that an 80-year-old man has been cheated by the Nigerian scam. The funny part was that the man had apparently been warned by the Nigerian High Commission that he was being cheated, but he refused to believe it.

“That’s the biggest problem we face, people who simply refuse to believe us when we tell them they’re dealing with fraudsters,” the acting Nigerian high commissioner said. “Instead, they called us fools and said that we’re blocking them from getting their money.”

Greed and gullibility is a powerful combination.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Getting followers to participate in decision-making 

Today’s Recruit section of The Straits Times featured an article written by consultant Peter Block. In the article, Block described what he called a simulation in which teams were asked to role-play three different styles of leadership.

Team 1 role-played a high-control, patriarchal leadership style. Team 2 practised cosmetic empowerment, that is, espousing participation but not really giving up control. Team 3 role-played genuine participation and empowerment.

What he found out from the simulation were as follow:

  • People prefer to be led by patriarchal leadership. Decisions were made quickly and efficiently.

  • The expectation of followers create the leaders they receive.

  • In other words: “High-control bosses are created by our reluctance to care for the whole and assume the risks inherent in our own freedom.”

    The findings are interesting, but his conclusion that people prefer patriarchal leadership probably applies only within the context of the simulation.

    It is a well-known fact that for short-term results, authoritarian leadership works best. The simulation is obviously a situation where results are needed quickly. Little wonder then that the authoritarian style worked best.

    True participation of followers in decision-making, on the other hand, cannot simply be forced onto a team. Followers willingly participate in decision-making only within a proper organisational framework that takes into consideration the following:

    Their access to management thinking — Most people would be aware that good decisions are usually those that are aligned with the organisation’s overall strategy as well as address higher management’s perception of the problem. That’s why organisational visions are important. If these are not properly shared, followers would feel uneasy getting involved in decision-making.

    Compatibility between their required contribution and their competencies — People prefer to contribute when they can look good, that is, in their area of competency. An accountant, for example, would not expect to play a major role in formulating a technological vision. The person presiding over discussions must have the skill to draw out contributions from the appropriate person at the appropriate time.

    Proper reward and recognition for their contributions — People would not like to see someone else — most likely management — take all the credit for their contributions. This means that management must first gain the trust of their subordinates that they would be recognised and rewarded for their contributions. Depending on the pre-existing culture of the organisation, this may not be an easy thing to do.

    Leadership — Yes, this is still needed in a participatory leadership style. Followers participate, but not all decisions can be delegated to them. Some decisions must remain the prerogative of the manager, the leader. In a team where many participate in the decision-making and put their egos on the line, leadership skill may in fact be especially important. Participatory leadership is not an excuse for wimpish leadership.

    In the absence of the above framework, followers may become cynical about participative decision-making and see a requirement to contribute to it as an abdication of management responsibility. In the simulation, it would obviously not have been possible to put such a framework completely into place, so this was exactly what happened. No surprise then that in that situation, people preferred to be led by patriarchal leadership.

    Friday, August 27, 2004

    Extreme sports makes the front page 

    The headline on the front page of The Straits Times today reads: “S’pore on world map of extreme sports”. Excerpt:

    A well-known international extreme sports event will be held here in October, the latest in a series of extreme sports events aimed at putting Singapore on the world map as a “must-see” destination. Action Asia Challenge, a cross between the hot TV serials Survivor and The Amazing Race, will put athletes through a challenging course that will see them jumping off bridges and perhaps zipping down the Esplanade in an extreme sport discipline called the flying fox.
    It’s interesting news indeed, but I’m not sure why it made the front page of the newspaper. It’s apparently more important than the bomb blast in Thailand, the uprising in Najaf, the fallout of the bird flu on Singapore, and the inquiry on the Nicoll Highway collapse.

    The sidebar on the bird flu story (see also my earlier post) was titled: “Importers, hawkers feel the pain of ban”. Apparently though, the editors of The Straits Times think that self-inflicted pain is more interesting.

    Thursday, August 26, 2004

    Measures to raise birth rate unveiled 

    The Singapore government has unveiled its measures to raise the country’s birth rate (see "Singapore government dishes out S$300m pro-family package"). The package addresses the cost of bringing up children as well as helps parents with time and childcare options.

    The Straits Times, though, today published a report by Joseph Chamie, director of the Population Division in the United Nations, that concluded that “current and foreseeable efforts available to most governments to raise their fertility rates seem highly unlikely to succeed, at least for the near term”.

    Well, nobody thought it would be easy anyway.

    Make money with option trading? 

    My earlier post suggests that Singaporeans feel financially insecure. Which is probably why money-making schemes abound.

    One that seems to have become particularly common over the past year or so involves option trading. There seems to be a number of practitioners who are advertising their expertise and inviting people to attend their seminars. With the unemployment rate being as high as it is now, I guess there is likely to be more takers for such schemes.

    While their entrepreneurial spirit is admirable, some of the advertising copy used is a little hard to take. For example, there is one in The Straits Times yesterday (this is not the first time I’ve noticed it) that says: “Make money safely, consistently...and retire early.”

    Sounds like a free lunch. Probably tastes like one.

    Option trading can be extremely risky, especially if you’re writing them. Option buying is much safer, but option buyers normally lose money consistently, not make them. I wonder how many poor souls have lost money getting involved in option trading.

    Retire early? Probably. Once they’ve lost all their capital, they’ll have to retire from option trading.

    Singaporeans want more insurance 

    Yesterday, The Straits Times reported the findings from a survey conducted by insurance company AIA that showed that despite having more comprehensive insurance coverage than Malaysians, Thais and Hong Kongers, Singaporeans believe that their existing insurance is insufficient. Excerpt:

    The survey of 500 Singaporeans found that about 70 per cent of people here have some form of insurance coverage. But in the other three markets covered by the survey, only about half or less of the survey’s respondents have insurance cover. Nevertheless, 40 per cent of Singaporeans said they would like to have more insurance against potential accident and health risks, well above the level in Malaysia and Hong Kong...

    The survey also posed several hypothetical questions on how respondents would cope if they were forced to stop work through illness or accident, assuming that they had no insurance coverage. One in every five said they would face serious financial difficulties within just three months. And just over half admitted that they would have a maximum financial buffer to cover expenses for only 12 months before facing acute financial difficulties...more than 60 per cent of Singaporean respondents would be reliant on draining personal savings and investments or would rely heavily on family for support... Among the younger Singaporeans aged 20 to 29, a larger 73 per cent said that they have a financial buffer of a year...
    If the survey was meant to scare people into buying insurance, it appears to have worked, at least with Singaporeans. Singaporeans are either more financially aware or more risk-averse than their neighbours are.

    Monday, August 23, 2004

    Li Jiawei does Singapore proud 

    During his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee Hsien Loong also brought up the exploits of Singapore’s Olympics participants. He mentioned that Ronald Susilo had beaten the world’s number one in men’s badminton and Li Jiawei, the world’s number two in women's table tennis. Unfortunately, both are coming back to Singapore empty-handed.

    PM Lee recounted telling Li Jiawei just after losing the bronze medal playoff:

    There’s no reason to be sad. We are proud of you, you have done us well. Yes, you have not got the top prize. But we will keep on trying. Sports is not just about medals, but about doing our best, overcoming our setbacks, depending on each other, being part of Team Singapore.
    Mr Lee was trying to encourage Li. However, downplaying the disappointment is often not the best way to provide encouragement. And Li would have had good reasons to have been upset.

    First of all, Li had come so close to a medal. She had almost clinched a place in the final, at one point leading three games to one in her semi-final match against North Korean Kim Hyang Mi, who was ranked well below her internationally. And she had lost her bronze-medal playoff to South Korean Kim Kyung Ah, a player she had beaten twice before.

    Secondly, at the age of 23, Li probably has only two more Olympics at which she will have a reasonable chance of getting a medal. With new, young contenders appearing all the time, it is not getting easier. Li probably has only a few more years to realise her full potential. With increasing age, her reflexes may start to decline in a few years’ time, and with it, the likelihood of her getting a medal. Remember: China’s world number one, Zhang Yining, is only 22.

    Finally, to a sportsperson of Li’s calibre, winning a medal is the main point of participating in the Olympics. Especially when it comes with a monetary incentive. When Li lost the bronze-medal playoff, she also lost $250,000 promised to Singapore’s bronze-medal winners by the Singapore National Olympic Council. Not something to be sniffed at.

    In the winner-takes-all world of sports, you don’t get anything for coming close — except maybe sympathy. Li, like her compatriot Jing Junhong four years ago, will be returning to Singapore empty-handed despite reaching the semi-finals of the table tennis competition.

    Nevertheless, Singaporeans have unanimously expressed gratitude and support for Li. The Singapore sports authorities will, hopefully for her sake, provide a more tangible expression of that gratitude.

    National Day Rally 

    In his maiden National Day Rally speech yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent over three hours outlining his plans for the nation. In a sign that he is a man in a hurry, his speech covered a wide range of topics and mentioned a number of initiatives, many of them bold, and some – apparently emphasising his point about the need to be ready to change — even reversing his own earlier policies (see “A speech for all Singaporeans: Fresh and bold initiatives in PM Lee’s first rally”).

    For details of his speech, see the following:

    Singapore’s PM Lee says his recent visit to Taiwan is in his country’s interests

    Singapore’s schools to get 3,000 more teachers by 2010

    PM Lee urges Singapore’s youths to come forward and serve the nation

    PM Lee focuses on Singapore’s post-independence generation

    National Day Rally: PM Lee sets out vision of “future of opportunity and promise” for Singapore

    Longer maternity leave, lower maid levy to address falling birth rates: Singapore’s PM Lee

    Sunday, August 22, 2004

    Churchgoers’ parking annoy Siglap residents 

    The Sunday Times today carried a report of a man who disrupted a church service because a churchgoer's car had blocked his front gate. Excerpt from the report:

    Fed up with churchgoers who parked their cars right in front of his house, a man stormed into a Catholic church in Siglap during mass and demanded that something be done about the problem... The man is being investigated for disturbing a religious assembly — an offence under the Penal Code... The man, who is in his 40s and a freethinker, said: “The church, as the host should be responsible for its guests and not let them park anywhere they want.”
    Apparently, this has been a long-standing problem. The report goes on to say:

    Residents along Siglap Hill...have complained about parking problems to the police and Land Transport Authority (LTA) on many occasions in the past... Churchgoers park their cars along the road when all 160 lots in the church have been taken up... Priests at the church have reminded churchgoers not to park along Siglap Hill as this obstructs traffic along the narrow two-way street...
    It looks like the authorities will be stepping in. According to The Sunday Times, to help end this stand-off between residents and churchgoers, the police have stepped up patrols in the area.

    “The LTA will also put up double yellow lines by the end of the week,” the newspaper said. “Those caught parking illegally will be fined, given demerit points or have their cars towed away.”

    It looks like it’s not easy to please both God and Man at the same time. But I guess the churchgoers who park illegally can always go to church and confess.

    Update on August 26: The LTA has sent a letter to The Straits Times with the following clarification: “[T]he Land Transport Authority (LTA) does not have any plans to implement double yellow lines along Siglap Hill.”

    Sunday Times columnist joins abortion debate 

    The abortion issue was resurrected in The Sunday Times today (see my earlier post “Abortion law draws defective debate”).

    Chua Mui Hoong writes:

    My concern is whether Singapore society is too lax on abortion: When we make it such a simple option, it becomes the default choice...the calculations are so easy... a short, 15-minute procedure is simpler to go through than a lifetime of raising a child, especially a child who might be disabled... But that calculation ignores what abortion means: the aborting of a life.

    I don’t want to judge women who choose to abort rather than risk having a disabled child. Neither do I want to judge women who choose to abort simply because they feel it’s their body, and their choice. I just want to ask them two questions.

    One: Abortion is your choice, but how about what the baby wants? After all, who will protect your baby’s right to life, if not you?

    Two: Even if you don’t want the baby can you find it in you to love the baby enough to give him or her a chance at life? Carry the child to full term, and then, if you still cannot raise him yourself, put him up for adoption.

    At least give him a chance at life.
    These points are in the same vein as those already made by the previous letter-writers and, like the latter, don’t really address the questions: Can we force parents to have a child known to have defects such that he/she will be a major burden? If the parents have no means to support this child, what can they do?

    Furthermore, her two questions don’t really have the easy answers that she seems to think they have.

    On her first question: How about what the baby wants? Who will protect your baby’s right to life, if not you?

    This is an academic and rhetorical question. Who knows what the baby wants? Even if we do, the correct question should be: what is good for the baby? Society has never really accepted the idea that we should give babies what they want, but rather, what parents think that babies should be given.

    As for the baby’s right to life, who says that there is such a thing? In a society with the death penalty, the right to life is not a given; it is always contingent on the individual’s impact on the rest of society.

    On her second question: Can you give him or her a chance at life? If you cannot raise him yourself, put him up for adoption?

    I suspect Chua didn’t think through this one before she wrote it. Raise a child, and if you find him troublesome, dump him on someone else? What kind of a suggestion is that? Which adoption home is going to accept the child?

    This is not to say that I am necessarily rejecting her suggestions. Her suggestions are ones that should be borne in mind, especially before a woman decides to go for an abortion.

    But the whole abortion issue involves many medical, societal and individual factors and is much more complicated than a casual reading of her piece would suggest.

    Thursday, August 19, 2004

    Bird flu hits Malaysia 

    A case of bird flu has been found in Malaysia (see story “Deadly bird flu hits Malaysia's Kelantan”). As a result, Malaysia has banned all poultry exports temporarily. Obviously, this will affect the availability of poultry in Singapore (see related story “Singapore suspends all imports of poultry products from Malaysia”).

    Singapore had been lucky to avoid being affected by the bird flu until now.

    Unfortunately, bird flu has proven to be more persistent than SARS, which hit the region last year. Thankfully, it hasn’t proven to be as lethal to humans.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2004

    Swimming to Singapore 

    Maybe Singapore should consider getting some of those Myanmar men trying to swim into Singapore to represent it at the Olympics.

    4 men caught trying to swim into Singapore illegally
    Four men, believed to be Myanmar nationals, were arrested while attempting to swim into Singapore late Friday night.

    This is the second time this week that illegal immigrants have been caught trying to enter Singapore via its coasts.

    Early Monday morning, five Myanmar nationals were picked up while swimming into Singapore, near Kranji.

    In the latest case, the four men were fished out of the waters off Admiralty Road West.

    Using night surveillance equipment, Police Coast Guard detected the men at about 10:55pm, swimming with the help of inflated black trash bags.

    Police say the men, between 24 and 32 years old, wanted to seek employment in Singapore.

    Said Commander Police Coast Guard DAC Jerry See, “These illegal immigrants should not even think of trying to swim into Singapore as they are taking a great risk on their lives by swimming with those flimsy trash bags against the strong currents. It is fortunate they were picked up from the sea.”

    Anyone convicted of unlawful entry can be jailed up to 6 months, given at least 3 strokes of the cane, and fined up to $6,000.

    So far, 115 illegal immigrants have been arrested for trying to enter Singapore by sea this year.
    Call them foolhardy, but the determination and effort of these immigrants would be useful when it comes to training for the Olympics.

    Of course, we’ll have to wait for them to get out of prison first.

    Christel Bouvron at the Olympics 

    Looks like Singaporeans were not the only ones cheering for Christel Bouvron at the Olympics in Athens. Excerpt from the University of Notre Dame website:

    Christel Bouvron Swims 200 Butterfly in Athens Olympics
    Rising junior Christel Bouvron (Singapore, Singapore/Raffles Girls' Secondary School) became the first student-athlete in 84 years - and second overall - to compete in the Olympics while enrolled at the University of Notre Dame when she swam the 200-meter butterfly Tuesday morning in the Olympic Aquatic Centre of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex at the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad. One of only 12 competitors to have competed in the 200 fly in both of the last two Olympics, Bouvron finished 32nd with a time of 2:26.21.

    Bouvron, who has earned all-BIG EAST honors four times as a member of the Irish, took part in the first of four heats, which was won by Maria Bulakhova of Russia in a time of 2:12.99. The 32nd-place finish matched Bouvron's result in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when she registered a 2:17.62. Her seed time in these Olympics (2:17.72) also was the 32nd-quickest qualifying mark in the field.
    Too bad Bouvron didn't get past the heats.

    Tuesday, August 17, 2004

    Justifying reward 

    Two posts by Prof Brad DeLong in his weblog reflecting rather utilitarian views on reward.

    For What We Deserve, Let Us Be Truly Thankful

    For What We Deserve...

    Good points, and worth remembering whenever we talk about CEO pay or, in the Singapore context, ministerial pay.

    Saturday, August 14, 2004

    PM Lee Hsien Loong: A new chapter 

    Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in as prime minister on Thursday, marking a new chapter in the history of Singapore.

    In his inauguration speech, Mr Lee called on Singaporeans to help him create “a country we are proud to call our own”.

    He spoke about the need for leadership renewal and for the government to stay in tune with the needs and aspirations of the majority of Singaporeans who were born after independence in 1965. “Leadership succession will be one of my top priorities.”

    He also re-affirmed the path toward greater openness. “Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different...Ours must be an open and inclusive Singapore.”

    Mr Lee touched on the economy in an optimistic tone. “Our prospects are brighter than ever before. Our economy is growing strongly again.”

    Of course, that is a view that is consistent with what he said last week about Singapore’s economic restructuring (see my post “Restructuring: Too early for self-congratulation”)

    Not everyone is as confident though. For example, Morgan Stanley’s Daniel Lian wrote that while he is raising his 2004 GDP growth forecast from 6.8 percent to 8.3 percent, he thinks that Singapore’s economy is at the mercy of global demand.

    Singapore: Happier Days Here to Stay?
    We are raising our full-year 2004 GDP growth forecast from 6.8% to 8.3% on the back of stronger 1H04 growth and steady 2H04 growth...

    Until the external economy becomes much larger and more profitable, the economy will remain at the mercy of global demand. This is why the just-arrived happier days in Singapore may or may not stay beyond 2004. Global demand is already threatened by the concomitant arrival of three macro wildcards: the China slowdown, the energy crisis and global monetary tightening following hikes by the Fed. The US economy has clearly decelerated in the second quarter, and poor job creation in both June and July raises fears that the largest growth engine of the global economy could falter in 2H04. Singapore faces uncertain prospects in 2005, in my view.
    It’s an economist’s prerogative to be pessimistic. A political leader has no such luxury.

    “There are plenty of opportunities for all of us if we make the effort, take calculated risks and stay united,” said Mr Lee on Thursday. “As a nation, we are stronger, more cohesive, and have more resources than ever before. The future is ours to make.”

    Thursday, August 12, 2004

    Abortion law draws defective debate 

    Last week, a reader of The Straits Times wrote to the newspaper regarding the fact that it is illegal to abort a baby after 24 weeks of gestation even when the foetus has a defect, unless the foetus cannot live beyond a few days after birth.

    He pointed out that there is a 2 percent chance that a baby may be born with a major handicap, and that 100 percent detection is “practically unachievable”.

    This means that with the abortion law’s restriction, “parents of babies with defects, such as a physical handicap or Down’s syndrome, are left with no choice when the defect is identified after 24 weeks. The mother would have to carry the pregnancy to full term.”

    He asked: “Can we force parents to have a child known to have defects such that he/she will be a major burden? If the parents have no means to support this child, what can they do?”

    He urged the “authorities to review the abortion policy”.

    Today, The Straits Times published four letters from readers, all supporting the legislation outlawing abortion beyond 24 weeks. All four readers emphasised the value of human life and the potential of even people with disabilities to lead fulfilling lives.

    Unfortunately, only one of the readers addressed the original concern: How do we help the parents if they have no means to support the child? She had no answer, other than saying: “We should do all we can to help the parents and families of such special children, both financially and emotionally. Perhaps the authorities can respond to Mr Teo’s question...”

    Another reader suggested more compassion in treating these “special children”. Fair enough, except that the compassion needs to be extended to the parents of such children as well. The problem, of course, is that in the real world, compassion is sometimes in short supply and cannot always be relied upon. In the real world, people do suffer for lack of help.

    And it’s probably also worth pointing out that mercy killing is usually considered an act of compassion too.

    I’m not suggesting that the abortion law needs to be changed. The subject of abortion involves many medical, social and ethical issues and I don’t think I am qualified to deal with all of them. In any case, I'm sure that the law-makers have already considered the relevant issues and leave it to them and others of greater expertise to decide whether a change is desirable.

    In the meantime, it is inevitable that other individuals will have their own different perspectives on each of the issue involved, and will emphasise one or other perspective.

    What is important is that we don’t get overly emotional, idealistic or dogmatic and shut out other perspectives when arguing our own, as some of these readers appear to have done.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2004

    Lee Hsien Loong names his cabinet line-up 

    Lee Hsien Loong takes over as prime minister of Singapore tomorrow. Yesterday, he named his cabinet line-up.

    Interestingly to me, Mr Lee will remain as Finance Minister. Apparently, finance is an area which he sees as critical, and for which continuity is important.

    Reinforcing the importance of finance is the fact that the outgoing prime minister Goh Chok Tong will replace Mr Lee as chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

    The swearing-in of the new prime minister takes place tomorrow evening.

    Tablet PCs in school – Part 2 

    Carl Skadian, the technology writer for The Straits Times, supports the introduction of the Tablet PC in schools (see my earlier post “Tablet PCs in school”).

    A reader had written to The Straits Times, asking if this was a case of using technology for technology’s sake.

    Skadian rebutted the reader's point by saying that Tablet PCs “provide a more efficient way of doing things”. He also said that the use of “computers makes learning a lot more fun and interactive.”

    He concluded by implying that Crescent Girls’, who had introduced the Tablet PCs, “is on the right path”.

    Unfortunately, Skadian refused to “go into the dollars and cents of the move”. Which makes his whole argument specious.

    If cost is not considered, almost anything can be made to look right. If cost is not considered, a private jet would look right for me too.

    Monday, August 09, 2004

    National Day 

    It's National Day.

    Happy Birthday, Singapore.

    Friday, August 06, 2004

    Explaining that HDB subsidy 

    Last week, a reader of The Straits Times wrote to ask why the Housing & Development Board (HDB) bases its subsidy for new flats to the market price rather than the cost of the flats.

    “Most Singaporeans would have expected the selling price to be related to the cost of production, in this case the cost of land and construction,” he wrote. “Under the current pricing policy, the subsidy may be non-existent in the event that the cost of production is lower than the selling price.”

    Today The Straits Times published a reply from Desmond Wong, a deputy director at the HDB.

    Today, first-time HDB flat buyers can buy either resale or new flats. Those who opt to buy resale flats from the open market can take up a housing grant of $30,000 or $40,000, which allows them to enjoy a discount off the market price of the flat.

    Those who opt to buy new flats from HDB also enjoy a discount off the equivalent market price of the flat.

    The difference between what the buyer pays HDB for his flat and what it is actually worth in the market is a direct and real subsidy provided by HDB to the buyer.

    Like the housing grant for resale flats, the provision of such a market-related subsidy in the case of new flats has enabled HDB to keep its flats affordable for the majority of Singaporeans.

    Wow! Thanks for the enlightening explanation, Mr Wong.

    With civil servants like these, it is no wonder that Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew wants to pack some of them off to the private sector.

    Granted that the subject of government subsidy involves economic and accounting principles that are not easy to explain to laymen. However, overly simplistic explanations which do not directly address specific questions raised only turn people cynical at government officers.

    Wednesday, August 04, 2004

    Restructuring: Too early for self-congratulation 

    Excerpt from the article “Restructuring works, says upbeat DPM” in The Straits Times today:

    Economic restructuring is working and Singapore is now better positioned to face the future than many others because it was willing to take bitter medicine, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

    The strong rebound is not simply because of an improvement in external conditions or the result of Singapore being “carried by the rising tide”, he said at a National Day observance ceremony.

    “We are doing well because over the past few years, we took bitter medicine. We cut direct taxes, retuned the CPF, changed our GST and pushed for wage restructuring in a big way. We restructured our economy and it is working.”

    Nice bit of self-congratulation. But I think it is a little premature.

    The fact is, Singapore’s economy is being carried by the rising tide of global economic recovery. Whether Singapore would have done as well without economic restructuring is a question that requires more time to answer.

    The reality is that unemployment remains at 4.5 percent, with economists not expecting it to drop much below 4 percent by year-end. And remember that most economists expect Singapore’s economy to slow down next year, so 4 percent may be about as good as it gets for the foreseeable future.

    So DPM Lee still has a lot to work on when he takes over as prime minister later this month.

    Monday, August 02, 2004

    Towers Perrin moves operations out of Singapore 

    The Straits Times today reported that human resources consultants Towers Perrin has moved most of its local operations to Malaysia to save costs. The firm closed its HR operations here at the end of June but said that it would continue to serve its Singapore clients from Malaysia.

    Kuala Lumpur-based Towers acting country manager Christopher Bennett said that the move was driven by “price-sensitive” customers here, but added that Towers would continue to provide Singapore clients “the same quality service but at a much lower cost by doing most of the work in KL”.

    However, The Straits Times noted that among its Singapore-based consultants, only one — a non-Singaporean — was known to have joined the KL office. A few would continue to work for Towers on a project basis.

    The Straits Times reported that other HR consulting firms like Mercer and Watson Wyatt had no plans to move.

    Rich Nuzum, the managing director of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, was quoted as saying: “We have no plans to shift our regional headquarters from Singapore or otherwise cut back on our activities here.” He added that “the Singapore market is too competitive and sophisticated for clients to believe they will get good value-added from being serviced out of a neighbouring country”.

    I tend to agree with Nuzum. Granted that Towers Perrin is a highly reputed consultancy, but I don’t see any compelling reason for anyone in Singapore to want to consult with a KL-based firm when there are so many other competent alternatives locally.

    My own take of the Towers Perrin move is that it had probably decided that with the stiff competition and high costs, the Singapore operation was simply not worth maintaining and had simply packed its bag to look for greener pastures. The bigger market in Malaysia, much of it still relatively untapped, offers less competition and more scope for growth.

    And with lower costs, more potential for profit as well.

    Sunday, August 01, 2004

    Bond-breakers: Shame no more 

    It looks like the Singapore government has abandoned the stand that it took a few years back to shame scholarship bond breakers.

    Back in 1998, Philip Yeo, then-chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), suggested that recipients of government scholarships had a moral obligation to serve their country, and that those who broke their bonds should be named and shamed as a deterrence.

    Many members of the public rejected the suggestion then. As Member of Parliament Chng Hee Kok pointed out, a scholarship is a legal contract where liquidated damages apply should the scholarship holder break his part of the bargain.

    The response from Chng upset Yeo, who suggested that the MP should resign if he opposed naming bond-breakers. Chng also later revealed that he had been asked by Yeo to submit his speech against naming of bond-breakers to the latter for vetting.

    Yeo’s actions irked Chng. “We must always be on the lookout for such intolerant attitudes, especially of some in the apex of government,” Chng said at the time.

    The government, however, chose to back Yeo. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that a scholarship holder who fails to return to serve his bond has used public funds merely to serve his personal ends.

    “So when a scholar breaks a bond, it is not a matter of just liquidated damages,” he said. “It involves deeper issues...moral integrity, a sense of shame at breaking a solemn personal undertaking.”

    It all sounded very righteous. What was left unsaid was why scholarship bonds were different from other contracts as a matter of principle.

    Is there no moral obligation involved in other contracts, even commercial contracts? Is it moral for a party not to perform the terms of a contract? To break an agreement? To cause the other party to suffer injury or loss? Isn’t that why liquidated damages are applied in the first place?

    So no, in principle, there is really no difference between a scholarship bond and any other contract.

    The problem, in my opinion, was that the government, like Philip Yeo, chose to see the matter purely from its own point of view. It saw bond-breakers frustrating government policy of recruiting talent to serve the government.

    It failed to see the matter from the perspective of the other contracting party, that is, the scholarship recipient. It failed to appreciate that changed circumstances or improved personal understanding of the business environment are legitimate reasons for a scholar to change his mind about serving in the public sector.

    However, perhaps the government is beginning to see the light.

    Today, The Sunday Times reported that the EDB and the Infocomm Development Authority has stopped naming bond-breakers.

    An EDB spokesman explained the change in policy as follows: “We had already sent a strong signal in the past that commitment was important for the scholars, and as the number who leave before the end of their bonds is negligible, we have not been naming them.”

    It is also possible that the government is taking to heart Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s point that there is already “too much concentration of talent, drive and energy in the public sector”, and there is no longer any point in having policies to promote further concentration of talent in government (see my earlier post “Too much talent in government”).

    The Sunday Times also reported how computer graduate Lawrence Suen had broken his scholarship bond in 1999 to work in the US, where he worked in Silicon Valley. He is now chief technical officer of L2 Solutions, which has tied up with the National University of Singapore to take its students as interns, and partnered a Singapore firm Kikuze — reportedly, through the EDB of all people — to promote each other’s products.

    There is some irony in the turn of events. But it does emphasise the unpredictability of the future and hence, the need to be flexible.

    Apparently, that lesson has not been lost on the government.

    Tablet PCs in school 

    The Singapore government has always placed great stress on both education and technology, so it's not surprising that it should be thinking up new ways to use technology in education.

    The Sunday Times today reported that secondary one students at Crescent Girls’ School will be using tablet PCs in a pilot project initiated by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and Microsoft Singapore. The PCs come loaded with digital textbooks, multimedia learning tools and note-taking software.

    The Sunday Times reported that the students interviewed seemed “thrilled with the idea of using PCs rather than books”.

    I’m sure they are. Unfortunately, some of the parents are not too enamoured with the additional cost involved.

    “This may well be a first-in-the-world project simply because nowhere else in the world have 13-year-olds been known to need such expensive devices,” a father of one of the girls was quoted as saying.

    This particular girl got her tablet PC because her mother decided to pay for it. However, according to The Sunday Times, the parents of four other girls opted out “in principle” and another six said they would “wait and see”, deferring payment for the PCs for the first few months.

    Another 10 said they could not afford the PCs and the children were provided the PCs and software free of charge.

    The IDA should be commended for being pro-active in promoting the use of new technology in Singapore. However, new technology and new projects usually come with costs. The project managers should not blithely assume that others are willing to pay.

    Unfortunately, that is something that bureaucrats — who are used to spending other people’s money — tend to forget.