Saturday, February 26, 2005

Whither The Straits Times? 

In view of the interest in the Singapore blogosphere over the recent decision by The Straits Times to charge for its online content, I think this is pertinent.

Whither The Wall Street Journal?
The Wall Street Journal is not only the best-written, most elegantly edited newspaper to cover business, it may be the best paper period... Nevertheless, the Journal faces an intractable problem. Because you have to subscribe to access both current news articles and the archive, the Journal is leaving only a faint footprint in cyberspace... Since most people refuse to pay for WSJ stories, most bloggers are reluctant to link to them... As a result, there is a meme that has begun to take hold that questions the Journal’s long-term relevancy...
Regular readers of this blog would have noted that, with one previous exception, I hardly link to The Straits Times Interactive. I will be even less likely to from now on.

Has the Health Minister changed his mind? 

A few months back, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan was quoted by the media as saying he was “relaxed” about the exodus of doctors from the public sector. His latest views are as follows:

Doc brain drain not OK
THERE are some in his ministry who think that the migration of doctors from the public to the private sector is “not a loss”, as long as they continue to practise here. But Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan disagrees.

With a record exit of 247 doctors — 87 of them specialists — from public healthcare last year, those who lose out are not just subsidised patients, but also young doctors who would miss out on the teaching and mentoring of senior doctors, said Mr Khaw. The loss is also Singapore’s. Teaching hospitals or academic medical centres — not solo practice — is where progress is more likely to be made in acquiring “new capabilities” for competing globally.

So, to ensure a “critical mass” of talent in the public sector, Mr Khaw is targetting to retain the top 20 to 25 per cent of each cohort of 300 doctors in the sector until they retire...
If the Health Minister has changed his mind, I’m not necessarily critical of him for that. But is he actually aiming to cream off the entire top 20 to 25 percent of each cohort for the public sector?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Public transport fare formula reviewed 

A new public transport fare formula has been drawn up for Singapore.

New public transport fare adjustment formula recommended
Putting the brakes on untimely public transport fares hikes. This is one of the thrusts of the recommendations tabled by the Committee on the Fare Review Mechanism... The committee said the new proposed fare adjustment formula would mirror the changes in the cost of living and wages more accurately.

Ong Kian Min, Chairman of the Committee on the Fare Review Mechanism, said: “If this formula had been in operation since 1998, you can see that in some years in applying this formula, it will produce a negative maximum adjustment value which means that in those years conditions were such that the fares should be reduced or rebates should be given by the PTC.”...
Earlier, the Department of Statistics had released figures showing scant inflation in Singapore.

Singapore’s Jan consumer prices up 0.3% month-on-month
Singapore’s consumer prices rose 0.3 percent in January as prices of everything except clothing rose from the month before, the Department of Statistics said on Monday... Seasonally adjusted, the January consumer price index was however flat from December, confounding market forecasts for a rise.
Over the longer term, the consumer price index in January is just about 3 percent higher than in 2000, according to figures provided by the Department of Statistics. In fact, prices actually fell in 2002 from the previous year.

Price indices compiled by the Department of Statistics show that in the fourth quarter of 2004, the import price index was half a percent lower than in 2000, while the export price index was a whopping 16 percent lower than in 2000. In other words, prices that are set in the international market have tended to decline, not rise, no doubt thanks to the dampening effect on prices of low labour costs in emerging countries like China and India. No wonder Singapore workers who face this competition are worried.

In the face of such statistics, prices in Singapore that move in only one direction — up — look out of place. The latest proposal by the Committee on the Fare Review Mechanism appears to be a recognition of the current reality. Hopefully, the lesson is not lost on other price-regulating committees.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Digital Life on specialisation and Dell 

Today’s cover story for Digital Life is on IT skills. It emphasises the importance of continually picking up new skills to stay relevant in the industry.

It also has a novel definition of specialist:

Specialists are well-rounded professionals...
If specialists are well-rounded professionals, what are generalists? Not well-rounded? Not professionals?

Of course, you should read the rest of the passage — and article — for context. It still probably won’t make the phrase look quite right, but at least you should be able to understand where the writer is coming from.

Digital Life also interviewed William Amelio, the head of Dell Asia-Pacific and Japan. According to the article, Dell is reputed for being “a slavedriver employer” while Amelio himself is said to intimidate his employees.

Amelio disagrees.

It’s important that the leader shows a human side of him. It makes it that much easier for people to say that I want to stay in this company and make Dell a great place because it has many great people and leaders that behave appropriately and are role models for others.

So when somebody sees you, whether it’s doing charity work, having a work/life balance, spending time with children or being a good role model parent... that sends the right kind of message across the organisation.
Amelio claims to have improved himself as a leader as a result of feedback that he has received. But he also adds:

We are direct. We set tough goals. We don’t allow anyone to make any excuses. We leave our egos at the door.
It seems to me that good leaders should manage egos, not get people to abandon them. Employees without egos are often employees without motivation.

Maybe Amelio’s views have something to do with his reputation for intimidating his employees. With such a leader, followers have to leave their egos at the door — or leave.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Straits Times gives its take on funding for biomed 

The Straits Times carries a report today entitled “Ignorance closes door to biomed funding” which claims that the lack of local biomedical funding is the result of ignorance on the part of the financial sector.

[O]ne crucial ingredient for a successful [biomedical] hub is sorely missing: funding and support from the financial sector. Local biomedical firms say venture capitalists, financial institutions, the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) and investors here generally have a limited understanding of the sector's unique characteristics and funding needs. Few appreciate its special traits: enormous capital costs, long development periods, high risks — and potentially immense returns.
If the biomedical sector is characterised by enormous capital costs, long development periods and high risks, why not blame the lack of funding on these characteristics, rather than ignorance? If anything, the financial sector may be reluctant to invest in biomed precisely because it is well aware of these sector traits. Not everyone — even venture capitalists — can afford to take the risks that some biomedical investments entail.

The report seems to lack balance. While it quotes several people from the biomedical sector, the closest it comes to quoting someone from the financial sector was when it mentions Dr Beh Swan Gin, director of the biomedical sciences group with the Economic Development Board — which provides some biomedical funding — as saying that “there are very few [venture capitalists based in Singapore] with expertise in biomedical sciences”.

The report also mentions a group called BioSingapore which, among other things, aims to help biomedical firms get access to finance. It says:

With about 30 new members in the past three months, the group is plugging away to sell this message: it’s worth putting your faith and money in Singapore’s biomed future, even if lucrative returns take time.
Anybody who knows anything about financial advisory knows that you don’t make such a blanket recommendation on investment without knowing the specific financial circumstances of the target of the recommendation. As far as I can tell, BioSingapore itself does not make such an explicit recommendation in writing. Even if it did, the newspaper is not obliged to parrot what the group says.

If The Straits Times is intent on putting out a piece of advocacy, I guess this report is a passable one. Otherwise, it should stick to maintaining some sense of journalistic balance.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Women make poor leaders, 20-somethings make poor advisers 

Okay, the title is deliberately provocative. But it’s what you might conclude after reading The Sunday Times today.

A feature entitled “Wonder Women...or Wicked Witches” cites a survey which shows that most people prefer working under male bosses. It goes on to list the following stereotypes of women bosses:

  • Maternal and nurturing

  • Demanding and fastidious

  • Unable to see the big picture and take a gamble

  • Possesses both high IQ and EQ

  • Emotional and takes everything personally

  • Susceptible to PMS

  • The article, however, quotes Kamal Kant of career and training consultancy Next Transition as saying: “It is the personality, upbringing and life experiences that determine whether a boss is rational and realistic or ruthless and rough in his approach.”

    And yet, stereotypes do create problems for the victim. Effective leadership relies to a certain extent on the confidence that followers have in their leadership. Insofar as stereotypes undermine this confidence, they can affect the leader’s ability to lead and therefore be self-fulfilling.

    The article cites the ouster of Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina as putting the limelight on women bosses. It could also have highlighted the case of Lawrence Summers, the Harvard University president who created a furore by suggesting that innate differences between men and women may help explain why fewer women work in the academic sciences.

    The Summers case raises the question of whether there are indeed innate differences between men and women that may account for the difference in their behaviour and level of success at work. I’ll leave this question for the experts to sort out.

    But in the Harvard University case, it is not so much what Summers said but how he said it that caused the furore. And that essentially reflects a failure in leadership — ironically, in a man.

    Not that I want to pick on Summers. No man — or woman — is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. And Summers was “man enough” to admit that he made a mistake.

    Which leads me to the second part of this post.

    The Invest section of The Sunday Times today carried the story of an investor in his 60s who seems to have done rather well on his own through staying close to the news. The story says of him:

    Having invested in Singapore stocks for most of his working life, he has acquired an intuitive feel for markets... These days, the last thing he wants is advice from bank advisers who are “too young”, or 20-something, he says.

    He cites a case where one of them kept persuading him to hold on to his US dollar deposits. Going against his own conviction that the US dollar is headed down, [he] held on for a few months until he decided he had lost enough and closed his account.
    The US dollar has fallen over the past few years, so his adviser made a mistake in recommending it. Is the mistake necessarily because of his age or lack of experience? It did occur to me on reading the article that a few years ago, many older and supposedly more experienced analysts also thought that the US dollar was a good investment. Age may not be as important a factor as he implies.

    And yet, my own personal experience does suggest that in Singapore, organisations often do put young people in positions of responsibility for which they are not sufficiently qualified. I know Singaporeans in their 20s in specialist appointments who know less on their specialty than generalists from western countries. Of course, the latter are often in their 40s or even 50s.

    The first point is: Experience counts. And this is important in the light of the ageism being experienced in Singapore.

    In Singapore, good performers are more often than not promoted to managers. While they may also perform well as managers, this practice often means that they stop doing what they are known to be good at while possibly depriving their profession or vocation of their accumulated skills and experience (so it wouldn’t entirely surprise me to see unqualified 20-somethings giving incorrect investment advice). And for those who get promoted to managers but don’t perform well, the problem only gets compounded.

    The second point is common with the first part of the blog. Many people carry and act on perceptions that have not been properly thought through. Whether it is prejudices against women, against the old or against the young, such perceptions, when carried to extremes, not only negatively affect the objects of the prejudices but also prevents society from fully utilising the resources that are actually available to it.

    It is society’s loss. Therefore, it is in society’s interest to correct such prejudices.

    Saturday, February 19, 2005

    Singapore 2005 budget 

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong presented the government’s budget for 2005 yesterday.

    Budget aims to create opportunity, build community: PM Lee

    Singapore Budget 2005

    Friday, February 18, 2005

    Conscription in Singapore 

    Redrown has an interesting series of posts which essentially questions the value of conscription in Singapore. It comes in five parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

    Huichieh and Olorin of From a Singapore Angle have excellent responses to the posts, especially on the military aspects.

    The posts and responses are long and involved, and I think excerpts won’t do them justice. So those interested should just read the original posts.

    As for me, I think that conscription does add value to Singapore’s defence capability. The question is whether it is worth the social and economic costs. Unfortunately, I have not seen anything that answers this question to my satisfaction, either in blogs or anywhere else — not even in the aforementioned posts. And realistically, I probably never will.

    Nevertheless, the value of analyses like those in the above posts is that they lay out the issues involved so that policy makers can try to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives, while individuals can be made aware of the issues, arrive at their own conclusions and preferences, and act — write, analyse, advocate, vote etc. — accordingly.

    Good arguments should not be wasted.

    Thursday, February 17, 2005

    Singapore Air Force reviews US training despite royal treatment 

    The following news was taken from the Portales News-Tribune.

    Singapore Air Force reviewing training
    The entire Singapore Air Force training operations in America are under review, officials from the Singapore Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Air Force said Wednesday. But no decision has been made about what will happen to the 428th Fighter Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, which is comprised of about 100 Royal Singapore Air Force personnel, officials said.

    “We are not discussing about the detachment in Clovis (exclusively). We are re-evaluating our overall, overseas detachment training needs,” said Col. Bernard Toh in a telephone interview from Singapore. Toh, a spokesperson for the Singapore Ministry of Defense, said it is standard procedure to re-evaluate training missions in America every few years...

    An official statement from the media operations center at the Pentagon underscored the Singaporean message. “The Royal Singapore Air Force is reviewing the force structure of their overseas detachments and is in consultation with the U.S. Air Force,” the release showed.

    Randy Harris, president of Bank of Clovis and member of the Committee of Fifty that promotes and supports Cannon operations, said he was aware of the review process going on, but said there is no way to know the ultimate outcome... While in Clovis, the Singaporean families have been active in the community, Harris said. “I think the families have enjoyed tremendously being out west here, and especially the reception the community has given them,” Harris said...
    Something’s brewing at the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2005

    The little red dot hosts the prestigious Red Dot 

    Singapore will be hosting one of the Red Dot design Awards.

    Singapore lands Red Dot Award
    SINGAPORE has beaten out other Asian countries to serve as host to one of the world’s most prestigious design awards. Into its 50th year, the Red Dot Design Award is introducing a third category, Concept Design, which will overseen in Singapore. This is the first time the Award will be administered outside of Germany, where the other two categories of Product Design and Communication Design will continue to be held.
    It looks like former Indonesian president B J Habibie was quite prescient after all in his description of Singapore.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2005

    The opinions of others 

    Salman Rushdie was introduced into the Singapore blogosphere by Mc Dermott’s blog, and his comments on the right to offend people in the name of a free society was picked up by caustic.soda and From a Singapore Angle as well.

    I won’t bother to reproduce Rushdie’s comments. You can find them in the above blogs. Or in the full essay. Suffice to say that he believes that getting offended is part and parcel of a free society.

    That seems fair enough. But I would add that getting offended should be incidental to the ultimate aim of free speech, which is to generate ideas and have them contested so that the best ideas prevail. Unfortunately, creating offense can be counterproductive to that goal.

    Rushdie’s recommended method of argument:

    You never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks.
    This is hyperbole, or at least, it should be treated as such. Taking it at face value raises a few questions.

    Firstly: Why should one have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions? Especially if the opinions are well-argued? If you have absolutely no respect for others’ opinions, how do you integrate them into your own views?

    In my opinion — and you can choose not to respect it if you wish — while some people may be overly respectful of the opinions of certain authority figures, there are also many who have too little respect for others’ views, have problems seeing issues from others’ perspectives (see “Perspective, please”) and are too quick to dismiss their opinions, especially those that don’t tally with their own. Be mindful of both tendencies.

    Secondly: How likely is it that you can savagely attack a person’s idea without the person feeling offended? And if he does feel offended, how is he likely to react? Happily admit that he is wrong and embrace the opposing point of view? Or harness his aroused emotions to put up a more coherent argument? And what do you do with those sensitive souls sitting on the sidelines waiting for a chance to throw in their own ideas, but seeing instead the fate that may befall them? Tell them that if they are so sensitive, their opinions must be useless and they can go fly a kite instead?

    Rushdie’s method may work for an academic sitting in an ivory tower mulling over an idea in his own mind or with other academics in a private setting, but it can be inflammatory and counterproductive in a public discourse, as Rushdie should well know.

    However, Salman Rushdie is not a leader of men, and probably just as well. A leader would keep the end in mind and not be fixated on the means. But perhaps that’s beside the point; to Rushdie, free speech is apparently an end in itself.

    Talking of leadership, Koh Buck Song, leadership guru at The Straits Times, has a commentary today on the importance of communication in society, which seems relevant to the foregoing. The commentary was written in the context of the Singapore government’s call for greater participation by the youth in Singapore. He says:

    Rousing the young has its inherent benefits. There is no doubt about the cohesive value of allowing people just to feel they have a place and platform to say their piece.

    Beyond that, many will also be looking to see how ideas will be processed, and the best ones implemented.

    An abiding challenge is how to tackle scepticism, founded on observations that previous consultation exercises left good suggestions floating but not fulfilled.
    Tackling scepticism shouldn’t be the problem. It’s an unfortunate choice of words. In an earlier paragraph, he had used the word “cynicism”, which seems more appropriate.

    In fact, scepticism is what Singapore may need more of, and is probably the correct approach to evaluating others’ ideas. Scepticism means to retain doubts on something. It means not to be too quick to believe, but not necessarily to disbelieve. After all, as someone once said, disbelief is belief with a minus sign in front of it.

    Monday, February 14, 2005

    Budget airline may sue Singapore 

    Indonesian budget carrier AWAIR, the Indonesian arm of Malaysian budget airline AirAsia, has been in the news lately. First, it had its planned flight between Singapore and Jakarta cancelled after a delay in approval by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. Now, it seems that the airline is considering seeking compensation from the Singapore government.

    AWAir To Seek Compensation From Singapore
    AWAir, a unit of Malaysia’s budget carrier AirAsia, will seek compensation from the Singapore government for blocking the Indonesia-based airline’s flights to the city-state from Jakarta, AirAsia said on Tuesday.

    “We have suffered financial loss and should be compensated. We are looking at all possible avenues,” AirAsia’s executive director, Kamaruddin Meranum, said. He did not rule out the possibility of legal action. “We have not gone to that stage yet,” he added...

    AWAir has dropped plans for flights between Indonesia and Singapore after failing to secure landing rights from the wealthy city-state... Kamaruddin said... “I strongly feel this is a case of protectionism by the Singapore government”...

    In Singapore, CAAS officials were not immediately available for comment...
    Not for the first time in this saga, the CAAS has shown itself to be not very keen on explaining its position. In the meantime, the bad press on it is piling up. Note how The Star Online reported this — the CAAS side of the story was hardly mentioned — and how the story was subsequently picked up by Forbes.com.

    Sunday, February 13, 2005

    Operation Flying Eagle 

    Lzydata of Singapore Ink looks at the story of Operation Flying Eagle — the Singapore Armed Forces’ tsunami relief deployment — and wonders how the SAF would perform in a large-scale overseas deployment.

    [T]he larger issue here may be the lack of “jointness” in our SAF as a whole - they “have never trained together before” & all that. ... One wonders how the “landlubbers” most of our Army may be would cope in the event of a large-scale overseas deployment. In a less peaceful operational environment than Meulaboh, to what extent will their capability be affected because of lack of experience in training & familiarity with the Navy & Air Force? Surely we can expect our people to, at the very least, hitch a ride without becoming sick, especially when their real work awaits them at their destination. What about food for not just 470, but thousands? Would we airlift NTUC foodfare people in? Do they even expect to be deployed militarily like this?

    ... I can think of one response to my doubts: the bulk of our Army is not intended to be an expeditionary force; it only needs to defend & proceed from our ground. That is quite possible, but the merits of such a doctrine is questionable. Even as the success of Operation Flying Eagle is laudable, it exposes some institutional problems we may have to think about.
    Huichieh of From a Singapore Angle is more sanguine.

    I’m not all that surprise at the supposed “lack of jointness” exhibited (people not having trained together). Training for rapid deployment on LSTs overseas is still comparatively new to us, and besides, what kind of message would our neighbors be getting if we are always practicing for that.

    In any case, this is hardly the usual combat deployment. But that said, there is certainly much that the SAF could work on, and I’m sure Operation Flying Eagle gave it the golden opportunity to evaluate existing equipment, methods, prodecures, etc, in ways that more set piece exercises would not be able to. All in all, the men and women of the SAF are to be commended for pulling it off...

    One thing that really struck me about the (professional) SAF personnel--they embodied the very “initiative” and “thinking out of the box” that our education system tries so hard to cultivate (with debatable success).
    I agree with Lzydata that there is much that the SAF must learn to build up a credible expeditionary capability. In fact, in view of its general lack of combat experience, that is true of many other operational aspects as well.

    But as Huichieh points out, that is where experiences like Operation Flying Eagle can help. And his comment on initiative and thinking out of the box is also worth highlighting; in real operations, things seldom go according to plan, so such abilities are often critical.

    On a more general note, my own view of the SAF is that it is not as good as it claims to be — but then, which army is? What may be more important is not whether the SAF is good but whether its potential adversaries are worse.

    Wednesday, February 09, 2005

    Year of the Rooster 

    Today marks the start of the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese calendar.

    While the Chinese or Lunar New Year will primarily be celebrated in East Asia, it is also having some impact in other countries — and not necessarily because there are Chinese there.

    Is Chinese New Year a desi festival?
    Till about a year ago, Chinese New Year celebrations and the ensuing long holidays in the Far East were inconsequential to India. But this is no longer the case.

    As China, a growing trade partner of India, heralds in Year 4,702 — the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese calendar — from Wednesday, various governments and most companies in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan will come to a standstill for well over seven days.

    At the same time, many Indians are also enjoying a holiday, especially those employed in trading, shipping, commodities, business process outsourcing (BPO) services related to the Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai markets... Employees of many shipping companies and general agents have gone on holidays, since the entire month is seen as a lean season. “Nothing much happens during February, thanks to the Chinese New Year...” says an official from Transworld...
    Meanwhile, in Chinese-majority Singapore, families are also doing their bit to spread the festival overseas.

    More Chinese families spending Lunar New Year overseas
    More and more Chinese families are spending the first two days of the Lunar New Year away from home. Helped by the long weekend, some have left Singapore as early as Saturday afternoon.
    For those who stay behind, fret not. There are still places to visit and things to do over the rest of the festive period.

    Happy Lunar New Year.

    Tuesday, February 08, 2005

    Income risk — Part 2 

    I title this post as “Income risk” but this AFP/Yahoo! News story also ties in a few themes that I have explored recently. Excerpt:

    Curse of part-time work shatters Japan’s middle-class dreams
    After a decade of corporate restructuring, a third of Japan’s workforce is now in part-time or contract jobs, a trend policy makers worry will erode contributions to the social safety net and further discourage people from having children in a rapidly ageing society.

    A phenomenon known as ‘freeters’, workers who are free-minded but financially unstable, began at the peak of the 1980s economic bubble when young Japanese shunned the regimented corporate world in favour of the more flexible hours offered by part-time work.

    But according to a 2003 government survey, 70 percent of freeters aged 15 to 34 would now prefer to have full-time jobs...

    Traditionally in Japan people have found the most stable job opportunities only at graduation from high-school or university.

    This means it is hard to join the workforce at any other time as a full-time worker, and the practice of hiring new graduates for long-term employment is fading, said Reiko Kosugi, senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training...

    Jobs offered to high school graduates now total only 200,000 a year, down sharply from an average 1.68 million in the early 1990s, while offers to university graduates have declined to two-thirds of the levels seen a decade ago...

    With the widening income gap, a mindset of winners and losers is developing in a workforce that once largely thought of itself as a middle-class mass. “I think the sense of inequality is growing among those in the workforce,” said Fumio Otake, associate professor, Institute of Social and Economic Research at Osaka University...

    Many young people turned off by the job hunt rely on their parents, but such support is not a long-term option...
    Economic uncertainty and income risk is a worldwide phenomenon, not just an American one nor a Singaporean one. Note how the story brings in the problem of falling birth rates and perceptions of economic inequality, which are also of concern in Singapore. And with the difficulty in getting stable jobs, even for graduates, the role of agencies that facilitate employment — like the Workforce Development Agency — and the availability of long-term financial support take on added significance.

    So the story has relevance to Singapore, and it is no surprise that The Straits Times also carries a version of the report today.

    Monday, February 07, 2005

    WDA travels half the world to make inquiries in Person 

    Personnel from the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) visit the United States to find new ways to help Singapore workers upgrade and retrain themselves. Excerpt:

    Singapore delegation takes pointers from PCC
    Given that its country is facing training and worker education challenges akin to those here in the United States, a delegation from Singapore’s Workforce Development Agency visited Piedmont Community College this week to learn what the college is doing to prepare Personians for jobs of the 21st Century.

    The group of five seemed impressed by what they heard from PCC Continuing Education staff and Roxie Russell, branch manager of the Person County Employment Security Commission.

    The Singapore delegation asked questions Thursday throughout a three-hour presentation in which PCC staff and Russell explained the tools used here to help dislocated and unskilled workers find and keep jobs...
    The WDA seems keen enough to improve itself. See also a previous post.

    Friday, February 04, 2005

    High expectations and cost of living 

    The Straits Times today reproduced an article by Ling Chien Yien that had first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao. An excerpt:

    Several bread-and-butter issues were discussed at length in Parliament recently. The conclusion drawn was that since per capital income had grown faster than the cost of living from 1998 to 2003, it is not true that middle-income families are worse off than before. Rather it is Singaporeans’ rising expectations, among other reasons, that have led them to complain.
    The writer, however, disputed this conclusion.

    Singaporeans have for years heeded the call of the Government and worked hard to create economic wealth. It was the common hope of both the Government and the people to see their standard of living rise. Therefore, to hint now that Singaporeans’ rising expectations are not absolutely necessary, and are even asking for trouble, would be an injustice to the middle- and lower-income groups

    In fact, we should ask whether, in the process of raising the standard of living, we realistically identified and addressed the high expectations of the people and the price to be paid to meet these expectations.

    Given people’s current income levels, did we consider whether they could afford these expectations?
    The writer then went on at length to describe how costs have gone up in Singapore.

    The article drew a rebuttal from Chen Hwai Liang, press secretary to the Prime Minister.

    It would not be correct to blame the difficulties that households face on the high cost of living, which in turn has resulted from government policies. Some prices have indeed risen, while other have come down. To households, no cost increase is welcome, especially in tough times. But we have to look at the overall impact of the price changes, to see how significant they have been... If we examine the facts more carefully, we will find that for most Singaporeans, the cost of living has not risen by much.
    Mr Chen concluded as follows:

    All Singaporeans hope and strive for a better life. We have achieved this for many years, even though the last few have been difficult. While costs have gone up modestly, they have not been the main reason that households have felt pressure. Nobody wants to turn back the clock to the days before air-conditioners or handphones, or when only a small minority could afford overseas travel, even though costs might have been lower then. The way forward is to create more prosperity and growth, so that Singaporeans can get better jobs, and attain the higher standards of living that we all aspire to.
    First, let’s frame the issue properly. In my opinion, it is the frustration experienced by some Singaporeans from unmet expectations.

    The argument that this frustration can be blamed on the government’s failure to curb rising costs is one that is commonly forwarded but is difficult to defend when confronted with the full set of economic data.

    There are two components to rising costs: inflation in prices and increased consumption volume.

    For price inflation, a sense of realism is needed. Singapore’s economic development depends on integrating itself into the global economy. An internationally-integrated economy must reflect international prices, adjusted for local conditions. Apart from certain exceptions, Singapore’s local prices are generally comparable to international prices and are not obviously out of line.

    Prices of certain domestic goods and services may have risen rapidly over the past few decades. Hawker food is commonly cited. Actually, this rapid rise in prices is to be expected in a fast-developing economy. To put it simplistically, Singapore’s rising per capita income reflects the bidding-up of the price of labour in Singapore. All products and services produced by Singapore labour would tend to go up correspondingly. Any service whose price lags would tend to get bid up with rising affluence while at the same time, workers abandon that service to seek more lucrative trades, creating scarcity.

    The point here is that prices tend to be pulled along with income. While there may be some areas of inefficiencies which give rise to unduly high prices, the fact is that real per capita income in Singapore has risen almost continuously over the past few decades.

    So blaming unmet expectations on price inflation has relatively little obvious implication on policy. While some Singaporeans’ aspirations are possibly being frustrated by a perception that inflation is eroding income gains, as a matter of policy, it is not clear exactly how much more the government can do or could have done to reduce general inflation without creating other conditions that frustrate the aspirations of Singaporeans as a whole even more.

    Which brings me to the other component of increasing costs: increased consumption volume. Singaporeans are consuming more, which is why their cost of living has gone up. Higher living costs resulting from higher consumption can hardly be depicted as bad (although Ling did allude to the possibility that part of the higher consumption could be the result of deficiencies in national income/expenditure accounting).

    So if Singaporeans are consuming more but their expectations remain unsatisfied, doesn’t that mean it is their own fault for raising their expectations excessively?

    Perhaps. But Singaporeans are humans. And humans base their expectations not only on absolute needs but on relative needs as well. In other words, the need to keep up with their neighbours.

    And this phenomenon is hardly unique to Singapore. Take, for example, the following excerpt from a review by The Economist of a book entitled Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics:

    FOR the past half-century, those lucky enough to have been born in a rich country have had every prospect of growing richer. On average, incomes in Britain, America and Japan, adjusted for inflation, have easily doubled over that time. On top of this come the benefits of longer lives of better quality, thanks to advances in medicine and to a plethora of consumer goodies making living easier and more enjoyable. You might, even, expect folk to be a great deal happier today than in the 1950s.

    You would be wrong, according to many surveys taken in rich countries. These tend to show that, once a country has lifted itself out of poverty, further rises in income seem not to create a meaningful rise in the proportion of people who count themselves as happy...

    Lord Layard devotes a good portion of the book to a summary of what is known about how to be happy. Much of it will appear self-evident: cultivate friendships, be involved in a community, try for a good marriage. But his big idea is controversial. It is that a zero-sum game of competition for money and status has gripped rich societies, and that this rat race is a big source of unhappiness. Put simply, one person’s pay rise is another person’s psychic loss. To make that loss worse, says the author, there are only so many top rungs on the ladder of status...
    And this suggests that press secretary Chen’s assertion that the “way forward is to create more prosperity and growth” may not necessarily be correct.

    Rather, one should ask, as Ling did, whether, in asking Singaporeans to work hard to create economic wealth, the government had “realistically identified and addressed the high expectations of the people and the price to be paid to meet these expectations”, not so much because inflation increases that price but because the very process of wealth creation raises expectations and, in the words of Lord Layard, effectively puts people “on a treadmill that brings less advance in happiness than we expected”.

    Thursday, February 03, 2005

    Casino: It’s about money versus money 

    In my post “Parliamentary debate chokes on values”, I had mentioned Member of Parliament Tan Soo Khoon saying that the casino debate is about “money versus values”. Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan has a different take.

    Too early to decide if Singapore should have a casino: DPM Tan
    Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan has said he feels it is too early to decide if Singapore should have a casino...

    Dr Tan said: “It is a complex issue and we can look at it in many dimensions. I think it is good that people should be given time to give their views. A lot of debate has been going on for this issue for quite some time. It has been framed in various ways I think.

    “One discussion has been to look at it from value against money. Do we sacrifice our moral values for economic gain? There is a lot of talk on that issue. Another way to look at it is some people have tried to frame it as an issue of whether Singaporeans are mature enough. Can they look after their own money? Are they responsible? Are they grown up?

    “My own view on the casino debate. I would tend to take a very hard-headed practical view of the casino, pragmatic. To me the essential question is on balance. Is having a casino in Singapore an economic plus or an economic minus for Singapore?”
    In other words, it is not so much “money versus values” but “money versus money”.

    That’s not too surprising. After all, for those who talk in terms of values, what exactly are the values that are usually mentioned in relation to the casino debate? Freedom from the vice of gambling, working hard for a living. What is the point of these values? Accumulating and retaining money. So it has always been money versus money.

    You can also argue that it has always been values versus values — and I’m not just referring to the accumulation of money as a value. A casino brings money to Singapore. But it does this by allowing free enterprise. And in the process, it creates jobs — jobs that allow Singaporeans to better provide for their families, something that the “values” group can probably relate to.

    So at the end of the day, money and values are merely means to ends. But different people connect with the issue in different ways depending on how the issue is framed.

    Some people connect better when the issue is framed in terms of money; Dr Tony Tan is a case in point. Others connect better when the issue is framed in terms of values. If the pros for having a casino are cast in terms of money while the cons are cast in terms of values, the latter would tend to oppose allowing a casino, and vice versa.

    The Singapore government is generally pragmatic and would probably not limit itself to thinking in just monetary or values terms. As Dr Tan says, the issue can be looked at in many dimensions, although in this regard, Dr Tan’s own statement quoted at the end of the Channel NewsAsia report is revealing.

    Of course, personal circumstances also matter. Those who know people who are addicted to gambling, for example, would tend to oppose it. Those who are unemployed might welcome it.

    Huichieh has also posted his own take (see “The Prince and the People”) on how the Singapore government handles issues like the casino, as did Han earlier.

    2005 Work-Life Innovative Excellence Award 

    Singapore’s efforts at work-life balance has gained recognition abroad.

    Singapore wins 2005 Work-Life Innovative Excellence Award
    Singapore has become the first Asian country, and also the first outside the United States, to win the prestigious Work-Life Innovative Excellence Award. The annual award by the US-based Alliance for Work-Life Progress is to recognise development and advancement of work-life effectiveness.

    It is given this year to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports for efforts by its Work-Life Unit to promote work-life harmony and create family friendly workplaces in the country...
    Awards are nice, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As I have pointed out in previous posts (“What working women want”, “Perspective, please” and “More innovative businesses, fewer babies”) there is still little indication that the Ministry’s efforts are getting the results where they matter.

    Entrepreneurship: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread 

    If the Singapore government wants to encourage entrepreneurship, maybe it should try to make more Singaporeans overconfident of their abilities. Rob at the BusinessPundit points to an article in BusinessWeek entitled “Ego Makes Entrepreneurs?” which suggests that it’s not risk tolerance that separates entrepreneurs from the rest but “overconfidence in their ability”. Excerpt:

    While conventional wisdom assumes entrepreneurs have great risk tolerance compared to the rest of us, in controlled experiments that tracked attitudes to risk, we consistently found that they aren't really that different. In some cases, they're even more risk averse [than the norm], and yet they continue to bear risk...

    Entrepreneurs, like everybody else, hate uncontrollable risks, but on the other hand, they're overconfident in their own abilities -- they think they can control their abilities in a random drawing of people...

    Entrepreneurs appear to be risk seeking with respect to their ability. For example, if there are two industries and one has a high cost of ability uncertainty and the other has a low cost of ability uncertainty, the entrepreneur will choose the first case because of his overconfidence.
    Without looking at the study’s results in detail, I can’t be sure exactly how valid the conclusion is. It is intuitively attractive, though. Entrepreneurs are generally doers, and any trait that promotes action — and overconfidence obviously would — seems a natural fit with entrepreneurs, although of course, there will always be exceptions.

    The conclusion does suggest that the government’s efforts to promote risk-taking among Singaporeans may not get the payback it hopes.

    Government to be more open to extreme sports in Singapore
    Thrill seekers in Singapore may have more avenues to leap, dive or climb in the future. Acting Community, Youth and Sports Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan says the government plans to take a more open approach towards extreme sports...as the government takes a renewed look at the possible benefits from risk management, which is part and parcel of any extreme sport... “What I am signalling now is a receptiveness to new ideas, new proposals for sports, even extreme sports which build up positive attitudes to risk taking in young Singaporeans, build up team spirit and ultimately, national spirit.” said Dr Vivian...
    The key, rather, may be to habituate people to success. That would require them to spend most of their time doing things that they are good at.

    Tuesday, February 01, 2005

    Unemployment woes for mature graduates 

    The Ministry of Manpower reported yesterday that Singapore’s unemployment rate rose to 3.7 percent in December. It also reported that employment rose by 27,500 in the fourth quarter and 66,200 for the whole of 2004.

    In spite of such encouraging news, a letter published in The Straits Times today points out that many graduates remain unemployed.

    With all the talk about jobs, unemployment and working till a “ripe old age”, it is indeed strange that I have been increasingly meeting qualified individuals who have been left on the shelf. These people are usually past 35, 40 years of age and have post-graduate degrees... [Many] I have spoken to are left jobless, some for more than a year!

    I am baffled as to why these qualified individuals are jobless... It seems that the mindset in the corporate world in Singapore is to hire young/younger graduates, leaving these very qualified batch of people out in the cold. If this trend continues, it looks like experience counts for nothing and upgrading of skills is useless...
    For older workers, getting them to fit into an organisation is often the main challenge, not qualification. In fact, high qualification sometimes means high employee expectation that may be difficult to meet. Experience sometimes means entrenched mindsets that may be difficult to change.

    Furthermore, much of the experience gained by workers is intangible and difficult for prospective employers to assess. That is why networking is so important in getting jobs. Someone who knows you is much more likely to offer you a job than someone who does not.

    One alternative for the mature unemployed is entrepeneurship. High qualifications and experience may come in handy in setting up a consultancy.

    The plight of the unemployed is made worse by the lack of unemployment benefit in Singapore. Unemployment benefit, unfortunately, would not be a panacea either. To prevent abuse, most countries that provide unemployment benefits have introduced or are introducing conditions on their disbursement. This can lead to situations like that in the following Herald Sun report (also reported in The Straits Times):

    Just lie back and think of dole
    A 25-year-old woman is risking her unemployment benefits after refusing to be a prostitute.

    The woman, an unemployed information technology worker, was contacted by her local job centre telling her an employer was interested in her “profile”, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported. She was not told who the employer was... Only when she phoned did she discover she was being recruited by a brothel...

    Under Germany’s welfare laws, any woman under 55 who has been out of work for more than a year can be forced to take an available job – including in the sex industry – or lose her unemployment benefit...
    Singapore’s unemployed don’t face this problem. I’m not sure they’re thankful for it, though.