Thursday, September 30, 2004

Encouraging a diversity of talents 

Yesterday, Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke at the ministry’s annual workplan seminar on the new approach in education. The following is an excerpt of what I thought was most interesting:

What’s critical as we go forward is that we respect all talents, and nurture diversity. We should positively encourage a diversity of talents — in intellectual fields, in the arts and sports, and in community endeavour. We should value people with irregular strengths, not make them regular. It is the irregular and unusual talents and ideas that give most great cities their energy and vitality. And above all, we should work to avoid a convergence of ideas, even as we foster an abiding loyalty to Singapore and an interest in seeing Singapore succeed. Convergence is always the danger when we are a small country, or just a city. It is how many other cities in history have faded away...

To do this, we have to start young... How do we achieve our goals in education?...

  • First, we have to gradually reduce the emphasis on examinations, and focus on a holistic education.

  • Second, we have to give our students more choice in their studies, so that they can shape and enjoy their learning.

  • Third, we have to do all we can to support our teachers, so as to help them bring quality and innovative practices in to the classroom and school.

  • The broadening of the school ranking framework, and move from point rankings to bandings of schools, will reinforce schools’ desire to provide a holistic education... By changing what counts in education, and measuring success in more diverse ways, we will help parents take a broader perspective of education and allow our students to stay true to their interests and aspirations.
    So promotion of diversity is now official government policy. And to show that it means business, the government has not merely exhorted people to embrace the change in direction but put in place explicit measures to incentivise schools along that direction.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2004

    Road pricing in San Diego 

    Singapore has been a leading proponent of the use of electronic road pricing to control traffic congestion, but San Diego also seems to have a pretty sophisticated system. I wonder whether the Land Transport Authority has anything to learn from it.

    Larger issues in media merger 

    In the wake of the merger of the mass-market television and free newspaper businesses of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp (see my earlier post), there have been plenty of grumblings about the loss off competition in the media industry and that therefore the merger is unjustified. Many of these grumblings come from people within the media industry, for whom the reduction in competition clearly represents a diminution of choice, whether that choice applies to employment, advertisement channel or source of entertainment or information. As their interests are being affected, it is perfectly understandable that these people should speak up to defend those interests.

    What moved me to write on this issue again is Koh Buck Song’s article in The Straits Times today, which suggests that the merger neglects “larger issues”. Unfortunately, the larger issues referred to in the article — the credibility of the media — appear to be still limited to those pertaining to the media.

    What seems to be forgotten is that Singapore is more than just the media industry. There is a wider economy and society to consider. To me, these are where the larger issues belong.

    To consider “larger issues” is to confront the following questions:

  • When an entire industry sustains persistent losses, what is the implication to the wider economy in terms of wasted resources and potentially unmet demands in other sectors of the economy that are denied those resources?

  • When companies in an industry are perceived to suffer losses due to mismanagement and incorrect strategy, what is the role and responsibility of outsiders vis-à-vis those of management and shareholders in ensuring that the mistakes are corrected to stem those losses? Put in another way, where does private enterprise end and central planning begin?

  • If the losses cannot be reversed, what are the practicalities involved in forcing a company to continue operating under a loss? What happens when funds run out?

  • When an industry operates under persistent losses but benefits accrue to the country as a whole, who should bear the cost: company shareholders or taxpayers?

  • How do investors perceive a country’s business environment and react when obstacles are placed in front of companies attempting to make rational business decisions?

  • Even when considering the impact to the media industry itself, important questions still need to be asked. If the media companies are not allowed to merge but cannot stem the losses and one of them folds anyway, who would be the likely survivor? And what would be the impact to the rest of the industry and to the country if that company attains a complete monopoly of the industry?

    Looking at larger issues is fine. But let’s be clear what those issues are.

    Tuesday, September 28, 2004


    The Straits Times today reported that shops are reporting record sales of mooncakes, helped by the introduction of unusual flavours and innovative fillings. Excerpt from the report:

    Hotels are other outlets gunning for a bigger slice of the pie no longer offer just the traditional confection with lotus seed paste, but also unbaked ones with exotic fillings such as kiwi fruit, custard and peanut butter. These are among the new varieties put out this year to whet the appetite of those celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which falls today. Other recent flavour “innovations” — some say gimmicks — include mooncakes stuffed with durian- and green tea-based fillings, ice-cream, and even low sugar versions of the traditional lotus seed paste. The wide choice and aggressive marketing have resulted in many shops reporting record sales.
    Interestingly, just yesterday, the newspaper reported that in Taiwan, boxes of mooncakes are piling up and being thrown away as people become bored with them.

    Either the Taiwanese are not as innovative as Singaporeans or they sell even more mooncakes.

    Child discipline 

    A team of six researchers from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) recently studied 230 Singaporean parents aged between 23 and 52 who had gone to seek medical attention for their children aged between four and 12. The study found that 68 per cent disciplined their children just by reasoning with them. About one in 10 of the parents used only caning, while one in five used a combination of both methods.

    In a letter to The Straits Times published today, Dr Daniel Fung, deputy chief of the IMH’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, wrote:

    The findings showed that parents who used reasoning as the sole disciplinary method reported the least behavioural problems but an intermediate amount of emotional problems in their children. Parents who used caning as the sole disciplinary method reported the most behavioural and emotional problems in their children. Parents who used a combination of caning and reasoning as their disciplinary method reported the lowest level of emotional problems but an intermediate amount of behavioural problems in their children.

    The findings suggest that reasoning alone might not always be the best form of disciplinary practice across all situations; and caning as the sole disciplinary method should also be discouraged. The study shows that there is no one perfect way of disciplining children. Depending on the environmental situation, the child’s temperament and parental beliefs, parents may want to consider using various types of disciplinary methods to help mould the next generation.
    The study also indicates that the old authoritarian style of parenting and child-discipline may be quickly going out of favour in Singapore.

    Having said that, one always has to interpret such findings with caution. The study was conducted as a questionnaire, so the parents were free to respond as they saw fit. Bearing in mind that caning is nowadays considered controversial and no longer the norm that it once was, some parents who do cane might not have admitted so.

    The study also found correlations between disciplinary method and child behaviour. It is tempting to think that the former causes the latter. However, things are not always so straightforward.

    Correlation does not necessarily imply cause-and-effect, and even when they do, the direction is not always obvioius. For example, does caning by parents lead to more behavioural and emotional problems in children, or do behavioural and emotional problems in children lead the parents to cane them more often?

    The Straits Times today also published another letter from a reader, who thinks that caning does not work.

    Do we need studies to be done and their results validated in order to be convinced that caning of children cannot be justified on any grounds?... I have yet to come across any logical, reasonable and infallible arguments to support this act of violence against children that should aptly be described as criminal.

    It is a fallacy that punishment is effective. It seems to work — but only to achieve one thing: temporary compliance.
    The writer’s concern for children is commendable. As for his question on the need for studies to be done on this matter, I think the answer is yes.

    Without studies, we are left with myths and dogma on which to base our actions. Without studies, too many people prefer to just stick to the status quo or prevailing wisdom. This is often a good idea, as it has been tested by time. Unfortunately, it is also often a bad idea when circumstances change.

    The IMH study, while not perfect, provides additional insights on the links between disciplinary methods and child behaviour. And additional insights should be welcomed.

    For those interested in yet more insights on how to discipline children, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports has a website on family life that includes a section on this topic.

    Monday, September 27, 2004

    New secondary schools performance report out 

    The Ministry of Education’s latest secondary schools report card is out. Excerpt from a Channel NewsAsia report:

    4 schools top new secondary school banding
    The banding of secondary schools is out, replacing school ranking tables which line up the academic performance of schools. In the top tier are Cedar Girls’, CHIJ St Nicholas, River Valley High and Singapore Chinese Girls’.

    But what is missing from the list are six secondary schools offering the Integrated Programme, including Raffles Institution and ACS Independent. Junior Colleges too are not included.

    The Education Ministry has also introduced the top School Excellence Award and the next tier — School Distinction Award. River Valley High is one of three schools which are the inaugural winners of the School Excellence Award. The other two are ACS Independent and Raffles Institution.

    To get there, schools must have won at least three Sustained Achievement Awards in areas like academic and sports performance, two Best Practice Awards for developing students and teachers, and attained Singapore Quality Class. They were also assessed by a team from the Education Ministry.
    No doubt, some people will complain that the new system still emphasises scores and rankings. But I think that is inevitable. Schools still need to be accountable for their performance.

    The important thing is that the new system adds non-academic criteria in the performance assessment, thus redressing the shortcoming in the previous system where the incentive was skewed toward achieving academic performance.

    Learning the mother tongue 

    There were two letters published today in The Straits Times on the subject of learning the mother tongue.

    Excerpt from the first letter:

    Language instruction should move away from being taught as a fixed system of formal structures and functions... Languages turn many students off because teachers foist on them content they consider dull... Without a context to use and practise, a language begins to rot.
    Excerpt from the second letter:

    As a Secondary 4 student, I frankly admit the Chinese syllabus has the most outdated, dull and childish syllabus of all the subjects in Upper Secondary. Unrealistic talking cats, inane dialogue and 1960s propaganda-like passages do not interest 16-year-olds.
    The common thread in both letters is the need to make the learning of the mother tongue more relevant and interesting. Unfortunately, the teaching of the mother tongue has in the past been heavily influenced by language purists and cultural conservatives. For Singapore's bilingualism policy to work, a little more innovation needs to be injected into the teaching.

    Ideas have been coming in from the public since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted the shortcomings of mother tongue teaching in his National Day Rally speech. The Ministry of Education would probably already have been aware of most of them even before PM Lee’s speech. For the more promising ideas, it must implement them as soon as feasible before Singapore degenerates into a nation of monolinguals.

    Saturday, September 25, 2004

    Servitude in Singapore 

    mr brown’s column in yesterday’s edition of Today, titled “Don’t study, you'll end up in service industry”, reflects on the fact that service workers in Singapore tend to get a rough deal from customers (see also mr brown's blog on the article).

    I think we Singaporeans get the customer service we deserve. We complain about the salesgirl who did not smile at us and pulled a long face when we entered the store. We mess up the display bin and then complain why everything is so hard to find.

    We sit along the aisles of a bookstore and complain when we are told not to sit there because it is a fire-safety violation...

    Working in the service industry is considered a lowly job; and serving people and doing sales are akin to being a lowly servant and losing face.
    Perhaps he generalises somewhat — it is, after all, a humour column — but I agree with the general thrust.

    Relatively new to affluence, many Singaporeans are still more familiar with old authoritarian norms when servants serve with bowed heads. Others have been imbued with the notion that the customer is king, and should behave like one.

    Singaporeans’ treatment of service workers can also be seen as part of the more general trait of kiasuism, or the fear of losing out. Put in an advantageous position over the customer service or sales personnel, kiasu Singaporeans try to fully exploit it by being demanding.

    In fact, the poor treatment of service workers can be seen as a form of abuse of power, which also manifests itself in other aspects of life in Singapore, for example, worker exploitation and maid abuse.

    Kiasuism, in my opinion, is a common human trait, and will probably never be eradicated among Singaporeans. However, behavioural norms with respect to service and authority can — and probably will — evolve.

    I expect that in time, as Singapore becomes more dependent on the service industry for jobs, that evolution will lead to a society that gives more respect to service workers and that realises that the customer is not so much a king but a person who needs help and who happens to have the money to pay for it.

    Thursday, September 23, 2004

    Singapore workers quick to quit over glass ceilings 

    Singapore workers seem to be quitters. Excerpt from an article from The Business Times:

    S’pore glass ceiling victims more prone to job hop: survey
    Glass ceiling victims in Singapore are more likely to job hop than those elsewhere, according to international recruitment firm Robert Walters. In an online poll of 5,000 people, 83 per cent of respondents in Singapore said they would look for a new job straight away if they hit a glass ceiling at their workplace.

    Robert Walters attributed this to the corporate culture here. ‘Talking to your human resources department or individual line manager about potential issues in the workplace can be seen as confrontational,’ said its Singapore director, Mark Ellwood. ‘And many people would rather avoid an argument and look for another position rather than address the issue head-on,’ said Mr Ellwood.

    The survey, conducted in July, asked: ‘If you came up against a glass ceiling in your role, what would you do?’ Of those polled in Singapore, 53 per cent said they would initiate a job search and also raise the issue with either their HR department or their immediate manager. Another 30 per cent said they would just look for a job. The rest said they would resolve their problems by talking to their manager or the HR department.

    ‘It is very frustrating for a line manager or HR manager to receive a resignation letter with no prior warning, and at this stage, it is hard to salvage the situation,’ Mr Ellwood said...

    In some cases, money isn’t the main driver that spurs employees to leave. ‘It might come down to promotions, alternative career plans or trying to alter an individual’s perception about an apparent glass ceiling,’ Robert Walters said. ‘If you feel there’s a glass ceiling, then talk it through with your boss or HR department in a constructive manner, as this is much more appreciated than doing nothing, becoming frustrated and handing in your resignation.’
    Robert Walters director Mark Ellwood apparently thinks that the tendency of respondents in Singapore to quit their jobs is due to conflict avoidance on the part of the employees. He advises employees to talk to their bosses or HR departments.

    But maybe the reason that many don’t could be due to the fact that their bosses or HR departments are not receptive to employee feedback. While modern management and human resource methods are being increasingly employed in Singapore, there are still many local companies run along traditional lines with clearly demarcated hierarchies. And if managements don’t keep communication channels with their employees open at all times, the latter are unlikely to talk to the former when problems arise.

    The Robert Walters survey may say as much about Singapore managements as it does about Singapore employees.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2004

    CPF threatens fines on self-employed Medisave defaulters 

    The Central Providend Fund (CPF) seems to have lost its patience in getting the self-employed to top up their Medisave accounts. On 10 September, it began issuing letters to the laggards, giving them seven days to top up their accounts. Those who fail to comply face fines of between $2,500 to $10,000.

    Some of those issued with the warning letters have duly complied, but many others have not. One lawyer complained to The Straits Times:

    I understand the government’s concern that the self-employed may spend all their money and then ask for help to pay medical bills. But then, they should target those who have no alternative health-care financing arrangements.
    Another person wrote to The Straits Times to ask:

    As a “Medisave laggard”, I seek to clarify one thing: Whose money is Medisave? Mine or the Government’s? I like to believe that the money is mine. But if so, then why should I face the prospect of being fined and otherwise penalised for failing to pay money which I “owe” to myself?
    I think that is a good rhetorical point.

    The reality in Singapore — as this incident makes clear — is that there are often legal constraints to what people can do, even with things that they own, even when it does not necessarily impact others negatively.

    The government’s fear — as stated by the lawyer cited above — of people with underfunded Medisave accounts turning to the government for help is understandable. The question is whether there are better ways to encourage the self-employed to top up their Medisave accounts. After all, penalties are usually imposed for actual harm done, not for hypothetical fears.

    Incidentally, the letter-writer goes on as follows:

    For failed entrepreneurs like myself, other pressing needs include having to fend off creditors and having to pay off loans from family and friends, so that one does not have to feel uncomfortable in their presence. While the Government — and just about everybody else — talks about encouraging entrepreneurship and having people not be afraid of failure, the latest clampdown on people like me who owe money to Medisave has introduced a very major fear factor.
    The government has asked entrepreneurs to risk their livelihoods to become entrepreneurs. This, however, apparently does not apply to their CPF money.

    Some people have previously said that Singaporeans’ wish to maintain a fat CPF account discourages them from becoming entrepreneurs. Now it looks like the legal requirement for them to maintain their CPF accounts — in particular their Medisave portion — may discourage them from becoming entrepreneurs as well.

    Sunday, September 19, 2004

    Managing research at A*STAR 

    AcidFlask expresses rage against the a*star machine.

    A*STAR is a government agency set up to promote research in Singapore. Led by Philip Yeo, it bears the imprints of the civil service veteran.

    The problem is that Yeo’s leadership style may not be the correct one for a research agency. The style — which emphasises charisma and personal power — is very effective for forcing change and getting things done.

    The problem is that in research, getting things done is not the main problem. It is knowing what to do.

    In a research environment, it is important for the leader to be able to tap the knowledge of his followers, who would be experts in their own areas. They cannot be treated as mere production workers.

    AcidFlask may have gotten it right: ‘focus on your studies’, indeed.


    Chua Mui Hoong’s column in The Sunday Times today covered spiritual intelligence, or SQ for short. In explaining the concept, she refers to the book The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns by Robert Emmons, a psychologist from the University of California at Davis. In the book, Emmons says that there are five components of SQ:

  • First is a capacity for transcendence. People with high SQ perceive a transcendental reality: that is, they believe in a reality beyond the physical or material.

  • Second is an ability to sanctify everyday experience. People with high SQ can imbue daily activity with spiritual significance.

  • Third is the ability to experience heightened states of consciousness.

  • Fourth is the ability to use spiritual resources to solve problems.

  • Fifth is the capacity to engage in virtuous behaviour: They can show forgiveness, be kind and compassionate, and empathise with others.

  • After reading her article, my first thought was that SQ should stand for Stupidity Quotient.

    Okay, that is probably unfair. I actually know of a number of intelligent people who believe in various aspects of spirituality.

    My main grouse with the concept is that many aspects of spirituality are actually unprovable. To subscribe to spirituality usually requires a person to believe based on faith or emotion. If it leads to the positive spirituality as described above, that is good.

    Unfortunately, blind faith or emotion can also lead to irrational behaviour. It can lead people to superstition or bigotry, and render people susceptible to manipulation. In other words, it can lead to extremism and become the basis on which terrorist organisations induce their members to perform acts of terrorism.

    So spirituality may be able to shield people from the harsh realities of life, but it is also a small step away to the very forces that cause people to act destructively in response to those realities.

    Saturday, September 18, 2004

    SPH and MediaCorp to merge TV and newspaper businesses 

    After years of competition, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp will be merging their mass-market television and free newspaper businesses (read report).

    It was inevitable. SPH’s television operation, MediaWorks, and its free newspaper, Streats, have both been losing millions of dollars every year for the past few years. So have their MediaCorp counterparts, MediaCorp TV and Today.

    With the merger, MediaWorks’ television operations will become part of MediaCorp TV Holdings, for which SPH will pay $10 million for a 20 percent stake. MediaCorp will hold the rest.

    Streats will cease operation as a separate paper and be incorporated into Today. SPH will pay $19.16 million for a 40 percent stake in MediaCorp Press, while MediaCorp will own the rest.

    Many observers have lamented over the fact that with the merger, competition and choice will be reduced. One observer, a media consultant, was quoted by The Straits Times as describing the merger as “a real pity” and suggesting that media companies have “a responsibility to the nation”, implying that they should continue to absorb the losses. Easy for him to say, I guess.

    Let us remember, though, that for the newspaper business, competition for Today will continue in the form of The Straits Times, still wholly owned by SPH, as well as from the Internet.

    As for television, we need to be realistic. Singapore is too small for two television broadcasters. Television operators need to extend operations overseas to achieve scale. This is something that MediaCorp has long been trying to do, but has been distracted from doing by the competition from MediaWorks.

    Bearing this in mind, viable competition for MediaCorp TV is most likely to come from cable television, which obtains its programmes from international sources. In fact, cable had provided competition even before MediaWorks was set up in 2000. Starhub CableTV, the cable operator, may conceivably benefit from the turn of events.

    Incidentally, Starhub is holding a Digital Cable Upgrade Fair at The Atrium@Orchard over this weekend, highlighting yet another step in the development of Singapore’s media industry.

    Friday, September 17, 2004

    Stem cell research 

    Today, The Straits Times reported that a Singapore-based company will be creating new stem cell colonies to develop treatments for diabetes and heart disease.

    Singapore company ES Cell International (ESI) has announced ambitious plans to create up to 10 new stem cell colonies that make the grade for human treatments, to fulfil its goal of helping diabetics throw away their needles, or giving heart failure victims a new lease of life. It aims to start clinical trials in two years and hopes to make such treatments widely available by 2010, said its chief executive officer, Mr Robert Klupacs, yesterday...

    [T]he Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International...is funding ESI’s bid to produce islet cells on a large scale for type 1 diabetes sufferers the world over. Said the foundation’s executive vice-president of research, Dr Richard Insel: “We chose ESI as one of our first industry partners because it is leading the charge in the development of human embryonic stem cell-derived islets that perform the function that a diabetic patient’s pancreas cannot.”
    Embryonic stem cell research, however, is controversial. It involves the destruction of human embryos and thus raises ethical issues. Some readers of The Straits Times have also pointed out recently that the use of embryonic stem cells carries no advantage over that of adult stem cells.

    For example, a letter published in yesterday’s edition of The Straits Times said: “Contrary to the claims of many, there is no scientific evidence to suggest embryonic stem-cell research has more potential to lead to viable treatments for various diseases than non-embryonic stem cells.”

    Indeed, this issue has been hotly debated in the United States (see “Beyond the mirage of cell science”).

    Then there is also the rejoinder from Stanford University pathologist Dr. Irving Weissman: “If you have to prove ahead of time that something has to work before you will fund it, then stop funding all NIH research,” he said. “Medical research is about discovery.” See Murky partisan politics mar stem-cell debate.

    More specifically, medical research is about discovery that concerns life. Which is precisely what makes embryonic stem cell research so promising and yet so controversial.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2004

    Flying on the cheap 

    With the proliferation of budget airlines, air fares are getting really cheap these days.

    Cut-price fares herald new era of flying for travel-hungry Asians

    Thai AirAsia offering S'pore-Phuket flights for 29 cents

    All this should stimulate travel and tourism around Asia.

    I just wonder though: With fares this low, will the airlines be able to afford to maintain their aircraft to a decent standard?

    Tuesday, September 14, 2004

    Writing doesn’t pay 

    Ong Sor Fern laments in the Life! section of The Straits Times today over the fact that writers in Singapore are not being paid enough for their work.

    There is a strange reluctance to pay a writer for writing in Singapore. One local publisher tried to reduce the percentage of royalties to be paid to a poet who is one of Singapore’s most respected writers... [W]riters have to fight tooth and nail for every cent they get. Even then, they get paltry amounts. A novelist, for example, with a royalty of 10 per cent and an average print-run of 1,000 gets under $2,000. This is for a work he might have slaved over for a year if not more. The real income might be even less, depending on sales. According to a paper presented by Daniel Chan, president of the Screenwriters’ Association at a conference for film and television workers two years ago, the industry average here is under $1,000 for a script which takes anywhere from 46 to 65 hours to finish.
    Actually, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The fact is, writers are a dime a dozen — not just in Singapore but in many parts of the world. For evidence, just look at the blog world.

    Granted, not many writers are actually good. But then, with the worldwide reach of the media and publishing industries, you only need one blockbuster to entertain the whole world.

    Thursday, September 09, 2004

    Fun with numbers from ST 

    The following came from The Straits Times today.

    A report mentioned that business intelligence and consultancy firm Datamonitor has estimated that over 415,000 individuals in Singapore have more than US$50,000 in onshore liquid assets. This group of individuals, known as the “mass affluent”, have a total investible wealth of US$112 billion last year. The report said that “the fact that the wealth of these 415,000 is US$112 billion indicates that most of them probably hold more than the study’s US$50,000 liquid asset minimum to be considered part of the mass affluent” (italics added).

    Since US$50,000 is the minimum, shouldn’t all of them hold more than that amount?

    An article on home office setup said that you need “a good sturdy table and a comfortable chair. Your desk should be big enough for a computer’s central processing unit, monitor, printer and telephone, and still leave some working space for you. A 1.5mm by 0.6mm table would be an ideal size” (italics added).

    Nanotechnology at work?

    In both instances, you can probably guess what the writers actually intended to say.

    Wednesday, September 08, 2004

    WDA fine-tunes job matching and training 

    As a follow up to yesterday’s post “Executive search consultant recommends the sack” as well as a much earlier post “No job after training” in June, the following excerpt from today’s edition of The Straits Times talks about how a government training and job-placement programme has been modified.

    Some workers quit one month after being placed in a job. Others complained they did not get the job they were placed for. It is a situation which has prompted the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to fine-tune its year-old job matching and training programmes to ensure fewer trainees quit. The changes also aim to provide a better job fit for the out-of-work Singaporeans it is trying to help. “We have learnt our lessons,” WDA director of industry division Teo Sio Hoon told The Straits Times.

    The WDA recognised the need to tweak certain Place-and-Train schemes in sectors like textiles, aerospace and electronics, so that training funds do not get wasted. In the textiles sector, for instance, sewers in garment factories will now receive follow-up support such as counselling and personal sewing tutorials... Other programmes the WDA has tweaked include...a...programme for the electronics sector...[W]orkers hired as technicians were first “immersed” in the job to get a first-hand feel of the work. A three-month government-funded training programme began shortly afterwards. Prior to this, workers underwent training immediately upon being recruited and were then sent on the job... The WDA is similarly changing its [aerospace] programme by placing trainees in technical jobs with aerospace companies prior to sending them for training — rather than the other way around. Training will also now be customised to meet the needs of the companies.
    The modified schemes are more complicated to run, but should be worth the additional effort involved to ensure that more appropriate training is provided to match the requirements of the available jobs. And I find it refreshing to see the WDA being so forthright about having learnt its lesson and seeing the need to modify its scheme.

    Tuesday, September 07, 2004

    Executive search consultant recommends the sack 

    I was attracted to the headline in the Recruit section of The Straits Times today which reads “Axe the slackers”.

    In the article that followed, executive search consultant Andre Cheong of PSD Group wrote:

    A survey of 1,000 to 1,200 employees over a period of two and a half years found that 71 per cent are “not engaged” in their work and 17 per cent of these slackers are “actively disengaged”. To put it bluntly, this means they are trying to sabotage your company and drive customers away. If you are a manager, fire them.
    Usually, the actively disengaged within a company are beyond help and the only recourse for the company is, indeed, to fire them. The question is what to do to avoid employees becoming actively disengaged in the first place. Cheong suggests the following:

    Fire your weakest employees and replace them with great ones. In every group, people arrange themselves according to their personal comfort levels. The achievers move immediately to the front of the line, the mediocre ones find the middle, and the laggards find the tail. The way to get your group to perform at a higher level is to regularly replace your weakest links with stronger ones.
    As an executive search consultant, I am sure that Cheong is familiar with the concept of job matching, that is, selecting the right person for a job by matching the job requirements with the person’s skill and aptitude. That he fails to mention it in his article is a glaring omission.

    Weak performers are often suffering merely from poor job match. Improving their performance may sometimes involve nothing more than finding a more suitable job for them, one that matches their talent and personality. A company which continually fires its weakest employees, on the other hand, is likely to be a company of demoralised — and disengaged — employees.

    As management guru Peter Drucker once wrote in an article about “How to make people decisions”:

    If I put a person into a job and he or she does not perform, I have made a mistake. I have no business blaming that person... Some of the worst staffing failures I have seen involved brilliant Europeans hired by U.S. companies [who] were hailed as geniuses when they came in. A year later they were both out, totally defeated... Although both men subsequently became highly successful CEOs of major European corporations, both executives were failures in companies that did not know and understand them.
    An executive search consultant, of all people, must know and understand that.

    Sunday, September 05, 2004


    The Sunday Times today also reported that the satirical TalkingCock.com website crashed recently. “Site regulars speculated that the site might have been hacked into,” the newspaper said.

    When the website came back online, it posted: “We are still investigating the cause of the crash. As a poultry-themed site, we cannot rule out fowl play.”

    Colin Goh, who runs the website, writes columns for various publications as well, including The Sunday Times, where you can find the same sense of humour.

    Exodus of specialists from public health sector 

    Yesterday, The Straits Times reported that more than 50 specialists have left the public health sector this year. The newspaper described it as “the biggest exodus of specialists in a decade”. Some of those leaving cited too much administrative work as the reason for their departure.

    Today, in The Sunday Times, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said he was “relaxed” about it. “I’m happy with the current arrangement,” he said. “We’re a public institution; we will always have to teach and train.”

    It is understandable that in an improving economy, the public sector would see more employees leave. However, if the exodus of so many medical specialists is not a concern, I wonder why they had so many in the first place.

    Saturday, September 04, 2004

    Fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke 

    The Straits Times reported today that the death rates for cancer, heart disease and stroke have declined over the last seven years.

    In 1997, 150 in every 100,000 Singaporeans aged between 35 and 64 died of cancer. Last year, 119 in every 100,000 did.

    Heart disease claimed the lives of 59 in every 100,000 last year, compared to 85 in 1997.

    And 21 in every 100,000 died of stroke last year, down from 37 in 1997.
    To collect data for improving disease-control programmes, the Ministry of Health will be conducting its third National Health Survey between 10 September and 4 December (I first mentioned this in an earlier post).

    Another article in The Straits Times today highlighted the nine risk factors that account for nine out of ten of all cardiac arrests. The risk factors, as identified in the study called the Interheart study and published in The Lancet, are:

  • High blood cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Abdominal obesity
  • Level of consumption of fruit and vegetables
  • Frequency of physical exercise
  • Level of consumption of alcohol

  • There were several interesting points in this list.

    The first is that stress rates rather highly. More than ten years ago, I remember that stress was highly stressed as a factor in heart attacks. More recently, it had given way to diet and exercise as top risk factors. The Interheart study re-emphasises the important role of stress as a risk factor.

    The second interesting point is the mention of consumption of fruit and vegetables, but not the more-commonly mentioned avoidance of red meat and dairy products. Personally, I think that both are important and mentioning one factor without mentioning the other makes it unbalanced.

    Which leads me to the third point. Many of the factors mentioned above actually have overlapping root causes. High blood cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal obesity are actually symptoms of other factors. By treating them as independent factors, some of the actual controllable factors, like diet and exercise, get subsumed under them. Some uncontrollable factors also get subsumed, namely genetic factors. This is almost certainly why diet and exercise appear relatively far down the list, and consumption of red meat doesn’t even get a mention. Genes were not analysed as an independent factor.

    Finally, I think it is worth mentioning that an important risk factor for heart attacks is actually age. The study apparently controlled for age, and so did not study it as an independent factor. In any case, it would have been one of the factors that get subsumed in some of the other risk factors that are mentioned, and it is an uncontrollable factor as far as laymen are concerned.

    Nevertheless, it is an important factor to keep in mind because control of age-related factors may be the next avenue through which researchers can attack not only heart disease but other diseases like stroke and cancer. It is also useful to remind laymen that with increasing age comes increasing risk of many age-related diseases, and the rise in risk is something that must be taken into account in their lifestyle choices.

    Thursday, September 02, 2004

    Unemployment and the government 

    The Straits Times reported today that the jobless rate for Singapore is expected by the government to stay at 4 percent.

    Pressed in Parliament by opposition MP Low Thia Khiang on the projected unemployment rate for Singapore, Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen said: “All things being equal, if we continue to grow at the rate of 3 to 5 percent for the next five years...unemployment will be around 4 percent.”

    Manpower Minister Ng added that “the greater challenge for many Singaporean workers is that they may be left behind because their skills and aptitude may not be quite consistent with the types of jobs being created. Our new economic structure creates jobs that we must retrain and help Singaporeans adapt to. If we can do that and meet the challenge, then unemployment will go down.”

    I agree with him. When an economy restructures, there is always a great risk that some workers — often the lower-educated and lower-skilled — will be unable to adapt to the new jobs.

    Unfortunately, the government’s plan to reduce headcount in the public sector, also reported in The Straits Times today, may aggravate the unemployment problem. The newspaper did not provide much details, but the target for job cuts appears to be based on the number of heads rather than the total wage cost. This may create a temptation to focus the cuts on the lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs, thus affecting the ones most vulnerable to the economic restructuring.

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004

    Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his mark at Republican convention 

    California governor and former actor Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appearance yesterday at the Republican national convention.

    Republicans can best “terminate terrorism,” says Schwarzenegger
    Action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger brought down the house at the Republican national convention, boosting President George W. Bush’s bid for re-election as the best bet to “terminate terrorism.” The California governor was greeted with thunderous applause as he made his bow on the national political stage to lend his Hollywood star power to Bush’s campaign against Democrat John Kerry...

    “Ladies and gentlemen, America is back,” the Austrian-born former Mr. Universe said. “Back from the attack on our homeland, back from the attack on our economy, back from the attack on our way of life. We’re back because of the perseverance, character and leadership of the 43rd president of the United States -- George W. Bush,” Schwarzenegger told the wildly cheering delegates in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He urged Americans to vote for his party to combat terror: “If you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican,” he said.
    I caught parts of his speech live on television and was very impressed with his eloquence and poise, his strong accent notwithstanding. A pity that it lacked meaningful substance, though. But considering the attendees, I guess there’s no need to preach to the converted.

    It also highlights the fact that the US presidency — and most other political leadership positions for that matter — is, to a very large extent, about rhetoric and public image.