Archive for May, 2007

‘Foresight’ in stockpiling sand

May 13, 2007

The government has been singing praises about itself for having the ‘foresight’ to stockpile sand.

Turns out that Singapore has had a long history of conflict with our neighbours over sand imports. Referring to a report by Low Ching Ling in the The Electric New Paper:

In 1997, Malaysia banned sand exports to Singapore, making us even more reliant on Indonesia.

Since then, Singapore has imported about six to eight million tonnes of sand a year, almost all of it from Indonesia.

Then, in February 2002, Indonesia halted sand sales from Riau to Singapore and Malaysia. It said the export of sand did not benefit the Riau state.

However, it allowed firms with existing contracts to proceed.

Then, between September and December that year, Indonesia imposed quotas on sand exports to Singapore.

In March 2003, it banned all marine sand exports, including to Singapore. The ban still stands.

With so many past experiences with sand curbs stretching back to 1997, it would take a bloody idiot not to realise the need to stockpile sand in case of future sand curbs.

What the government failed to foresee probably, is the scale of the latest ban. If they had truly foreseen the complete ban this time round, they wouldn’t be frantically looking to import sand from Myanmar, quarry from Ubin or suddenly embark on sustainable construction. We would’ve had a much bigger stockpile in Pulau Ubin instead of saying that we should look into stockpiling more sand in Pulau Ubin now.

As congruent with the past, actions are more often than not kneejerk reactions to events that were either unforeseen or not foreseen to the degree that you would regard as truly having foresight.

Grace Foo recently commented about the government stockpiling sand for the past five years as though they’ve predicted our predicament today five years ago. But five years ago coincides with the Indonesian ban of sand from Riau in 2002. With such coincidence you can’t help but wonder if the stockpiling over the last five years isn’t in reaction to the ban five years ago. So what foresight does that amount to?

If, in reaction to the ban today, Singapore embarks on and successfully achieves sustainable construction five years later, do we then say that we had the foresight five years ago? Or do we say it was in reaction to a ban five years ago?

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Lower income taxes

May 13, 2007

The government always emphasizes to its people that we, the citizens of Singapore, pay much less tax than citizens of other high income cities. Tharman in fact said during Budget 2007 that we paid less tax than our counterparts from Dublin, Sydney and Tokyo but comparable to what citizens of Hong Kong pay.

Here’s a list of wage indexes of the most highly paid cities in the world taken from http://www.citymayors.com/economics/richest_cities.html. The indexes are net of taxes so tax rate has already been factored in.

Rank Cities Wage index
1 Zurich 124.2
2 Geneva 115.4
3 Oslo 110.8
4 Dublin 104.6
5 New York 100
6 Luxembourg 98.1
7 Los Angeles 97
8 London 96
9 Copenhagen 95.7
10 Chicago 94.7
11 Helsinki 89.1
12 Tokyo 87.4
13 Frankfurt 85.5
14 Munich 84.5
15 Berlin 82.1
16 Vienna 81.2
17 Toronto 80.4
18 Sydney 79.6
19 Brussels 78.2
20 Montreal 77.3
21 Stockholm 77
22 Miami 74
23 Auckland 73.4
24 Amsterdam 72.7
25 Lyon 70.5
26 Nicosia 69.5
27 Paris 68.8
28 Barcelona 66.6
29 Madrid 64.3
30 Milan 59.9
31 Dubai 57.8
32 Rome 49.7
33 Athens 48.6
34 Seoul 48.2
35 Taipei 43.3
36 Singapore 38.9
37 Lisbon 38.6
38 Johannesburg 37.3
39 Manama 36.6
40 Hong Kong 34.9

We can see that, even after factoring in their high tax rates, citizens of Dublin, Tokyo and Sydney take home 2.7, 2.2 and 2 times the amount of salary that we take home.

So never be fooled by politicians when they say they tax us lower because they don’t pay us quite as much to begin with. This is to be expected because of the nature of our economy. Manufacturing still comprises a large segment of our economy and unless we are reasonably cheap, no MNCs would set up shop here, hence the lower wages.

MM likes to compare us with New York and London. Looking at the list, I think we’re better off comparing ourselves with Athens or Madrid for New York and London are way above our league.

Suggestions for public transportation

May 8, 2007

One of the reasons why MRT stations like Raffles Place and City Hall are crowded is because we have a situation where two lines are merging into one. People from both the North and East wants to go West so Raffles Place becomes the bottleneck.

The soon to be completed circle line would greatly resolve such problems by directly shunting people between North and East and between North and West so that passengers do not have to all congregate at Raffles Place or City Hall in order to change trains. But until that happens, we need a good stop gap measure.

Express buses linking major MRT stations

A good stop gap measure would be to have express buses running during peak hours that shuttle between say Clementi and Yio Chu Kang or Ang Mo Kio and Bedok which basically serves the same purpose that the circle line would eventually serve.

Travellators

To reduce the Raffles Place crowd, we can have travellators shunt CBD goers to the Clarke Quay station from which they can directly enter the Northeast Line. Travellators can also be useful for shunting people between Bugis and Little India and between Little India and Novena so that travellers need not go through the congested Orchard road stations and clog it even more. The good thing about travellators is that they can be built overhead so that they do not compete for real estate and they do not stop every 100 metres or so like buses do.

Shuttle buses

CBD goers complain they cannot get cabs because taxi drivers do not wish to pay CBD charges to get into the CBD. To get around this problem, we can get CBD goers out of the CBD by other means so that they can be met by taxis outside the CBD. Travellators is one way, shuttle buses is another.

Shuttle buses are also useful for shoppers at Takashimaya. There are long queues for taxis at Takashimaya because taxis simply do not wish to get jammed inside Orchard Road because time is money to them. To work around this problem, shuttle buses can be used to move shoppers out of the crowded Orchard Road to designated taxi pick up points. This would benefit both shoppers and taxi drivers by bringing them together.

Double decker MRT line

By building an MRT line on top of an existing MRT line, we can double our capacity without taking up more land.

If you travel west often enough from Raffles Place or City Hall MRT, you would realise that the bulk of the passengers get off at Clementi and Jurong East MRT stations. We can have an express line that brings passengers from Redhill MRT straight to Clementi without stoppages in between. The reason why it has to start from Redhill is because it is the first above ground train station in the westbound direction. Shuttle buses can bridge the distance between Raffles Place and Redhill.

Traffic junctions

Traffic at junctions like Bugis crawls unnecessarily because there is a busy pedestrian crossing that ought to be replaced by an underground link to the other side of the road. There should be an entrance to the underground near the busy bus stop at Bugis Village.

CTE

This can be quite difficult to implement but the rough idea is for the two middle lanes of the CTE to change direction between morning and evening. In the morning, we have four lanes going south and two lanes going north while in the evening, we can have four lanes going north and two lanes going south. We install movable barriers so that when you need to combine lanes, you lower the barriers and when you need to separate lanes, you raise those barriers. Raising / lowering of barriers to decrease / increase lanes can be effected at 4 am in the morning every day to keep the number of motorists affected to a minimum.

World class transportation

May 8, 2007

Our world class public transportation has been hitting the headlines once too often for reasons other than world class. The CTE is jammed, ERP is expensive and useless, buses take forever to arrive, long waits for cabs, crowdedness at MRT stations …

Now we have Comfort Delgro proposing to merge all public transportation into one single entity so that it could harness even greater scale economy so as to lower prices and deliver better services. Sounds promising except that its reasoning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There is little synergy to be realised from the merging of the two monopolies.

You can’t half the number of drivers in the trains just because the two companies have merged. You can’t half the number of personnel manning MRT stations. You can’t half the electricity bill. You can’t half the length of MRT track or carriages to maintain. You can only half the headquarters staff count but if both companies had been lean to begin with, you won’t save much from this either.

The root of the problem as we all know is that both SBS and SMRT are public listed monopolies ever watchful of shareholders’ return. Their primary goal has always been to make ever more money so either the consumer pays more or they compromise on service standards. They are in a position to do so because they are monopolies in their own right so consumers have no alternative choice. As such, merging the two jauggernauts would exacerbate the problem rather than improve the situation.

The situation is fundamentally wrong because at the end of the day, the very reason for the bus or train company’s existence is to provide a public service. Public service, as the name goes, should first and foremost benefit the masses who are the predominant users of public service. What we have instead are bus and train companies who are primarily concerned with delivering higher returns for shareholders who are none other than the government itself.

Some would argue that in most countries, public transportation is owned and run by the government so there is nothing wrong with the government monopolising public transportation here. The problem is our government is different from those of other countries. Our government makes no qualms paying itself millions, why should they have any qualms milking the people as much as they can through public transportation?

What’s right, not what’s popular

May 5, 2007

In his May Day speech, PM Lee recounted how third world countries long for the “first-class leadership” that Singapore has. The govt never seems to tire reminding Singaporeans how envious third world countries are of us … third world countries only that is. But is that all we can be proud of? That we’re better than the poorest of third world countries?

CPF, SIA restructuring, casinos, foreign talents are issues that are deemed not straightforward although they all have the straightforward effect of enriching government coffers immensely.

What kind of logic is it that says that anything that is right must be unpopular and by inference anything that is popular must surely be wrong?

It is right only to one person but wrong to everyone else. That is why it seems right to that one person but unpopular to everyone else – because it is wrong to everyone else. What kind of society operates on the wishes and sense of right or wrong of one person? An autocracy or a state of absolutism. Looking back into history, what happens to autocracies or absolutism?

King Louis XVI was beheaded during the French revolution because the French people rejected his absolutism and his exploitation of the French peasants. King Charles I of England was executed during the English Civil War because he went against the wishes of the people. The magnificence of Russia’s Peter the Great was tainted by the fact that he pushed too hard for what he thought were important reforms for the country but that which ran counter to the culture of the people and were extremely unpopular.

In the words of Russian historian P. Kovalevsky:

“We could enthuse forever about the greatness of Peter’s actions and still not depict in all its fullness, brilliance and worth everything that he accomplished…But in creating, he destroyed. He caused pain to all in whom he came into contact. He disturbed the safety, peace, prosperity, interests, strength, well-being, rights and dignity of everyone he touched. He made things unpleasant for everyone. He did harm to everyone. He touched intellectual, political, social, financial, family, moral and spiritual interests. Is it possible to love such a statesman? In no way. Such men are hated.” [source: “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_I_of_Russia”%5D

We see a parallel in our PM Lee today. Does he want to follow in the footsteps of King Louis XVI, King Charles I and Peter the Great?

Looking on the other hand on great rulers like Queen Elizabeth and Catherine the Great of Russia, we find the contrary to this post’s title that is “What is popular, is right”. Queen Elizabeth brought England to its most glorious period because she respected and in turn received the support of the people. She knew very well that the power of her seat rests not with her but with her people. Catherine the Great achieved similar greatness by endearing herself with the people.

Have a mum-friendly economy

May 4, 2007

Here’s another good one which appeared in Today on 2 May 2007

Letter from Yvonne Wong

It’s interesting to note the contrast between the report, “Don’t let them drop out” (April 30) in Today, in which Minister Lim Boon Heng called on employers to help young women stay in the workforce, and a report in The Straits Times on April 28 about the baby boom in France.

Women make a conscious choice to become mothers not because of monetary perks or, for working mothers, the availability of childcare options.

One main reason why working mothers get burnt out is the lack of a pro-family culture at work and in our society. Torn between work demands and the yearning to spend more time with their children, many women clearly prioritise the family over work satisfaction.

Being a stay-at-home mum is not easy. Women have to manage the housework and childcare — work not considered revenue-generating — and have to deal with the loss of opportunities and perhaps self-esteem issues.

I find disturbing the prospect of women working until retirement and, at the same time, having babies who they have to leave in childcare centres for 10 hours or more a day. Those who are not resilient enough to handle such conflicting demands may get burnt out even before they retire.

There is no perfect solution to this dilemma. We have to realise that we have to prioritise and that trade-offs are necessary: Choosing work-life balance and higher birth rates at the expense of slower economic growth and a dip in global competitiveness. There has to be a perception shift to acknowledge the value of working mothers to Singapore’s economic growth, as well as to the population and to manpower resources for future generations.

There should be an inter-ministerial committee championing the creation of jobs that leverage on Sohos (small office, home office), flexi-hours, part-time and project-based working arrangements.

These job opportunities can cater to working mothers with diverse experience and varying qualifications. The guiding principle for this taskforce is to provide working mothers with options that allow them to balance their aspirations in family and life, without shortchanging themselves.

All for the pursuit of wealth

May 4, 2007

A very well written letter that appeared in today’s Today (4 May 2007) that is truly worth reading.

Letter from Aaron Ho Chien Kwok

Much has been said concerning Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s recent comments regarding the possible liberalising of laws with regards to homosexuality. The purpose of my writing is not to argue the merits or flaws of such an action but to look at the basis upon which decisions such as these are being made.

It is my humble contention that the value which is esteemed above all else in our country is wealth — material wealth — and that is an extremely dangerous ground to be on. We are taught this in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways.

For example, Mr Lee said this: “They tell me that homosexuals are creative writers, dancers. If we want creative people, then we have to put up with their idiosyncrasies.” If I may have the liberty of paraphrasing this statement, I would put it this way: “If they can contribute to the economic bottom line, their lifestyle does not matter.”

The still recent debate over the integrated resort issue is another example.

One justification of having an integrated resort — make that two, actually — in Singapore is that if we do not have them, we would lose out to other countries that do have them.

Lose out in what way? In revenue, of course. We can have more jobs, more tourists, more money. The fallout from people who may get addicted, the families who may suffer as a result, these are but minor considerations that can be dealt with.

It seems “we must be realistic” or “we must be practical” is more important than “we must do the right thing”.

It is not surprising that a me-first (maybe a me-only) mentality is prevalent here. It is not surprising, therefore, that I take the lift every day and find litter scattered all over the floor, I squeeze onto the bus trying to find space to get on and find that the back of the bus is still relatively empty, and I read the papers and discover rich people scurrying for cheap books meant for the poor.

The family in Singapore is deteriorating. While we are out earning our wages, our children are at home, being brought up by maids (and this is in no way a slur on the job that they perform).

Of course, some would take exception to what I am describing and say that this generalisation is overly simplistic and I cannot draw a conclusion from these observations. And they would probably be right. However, the purpose of my writing is to force us to think about what is truly important in life.

If we persist in this philosophy of life, we may indeed find that our country remains on top of the economic pile but has lost its very soul.

I conclude with words from an ancient book of wisdom: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”

High averages not enough

May 1, 2007

Tharman said that our education needs to become more multi-disciplinary as opposed to specialised so that our students may be better prepared for changes in interest and careers later in life. I beg to differ. It can be multi-disciplinary at the beginning, but it needs to be focused at the end because a jack of all trades can never master anything. Also, more often than not, it is not because their interests have changed but rather they have discovered their real interests that they change careers later on in life.

What the school really needs to do is to discover the innate talents and interests of the students and then encourage them to pursue those talents or interests wholeheartedly. What that means is to expose the students to as many subjects and topics as early as possible. Organise talks, visits or even attachments so that students know first hand what the major professions entail and can better choose their future careers. Rather than let them discover their real interests 10 years after they’ve left school, would it not be better that they’re exposed to all the various career choices while they are still in school so that they need not make that painful career transition later on in life?

The problem is that what the school offers is often linked to what the industry demands which in turn depends on what the government has decided to focus on. In other words, students do not have the luxury of choosing what they love most or what they are best at but has to instead choose from what is available.

Tharman also said that the most intrinsic outcome of education is to mould characters that pursue excellence. I beg to differ. The most important purpose of education is to make good citizens. Citizens with moral kindness, compassion and a sense of righteousness. When we have professors spitting on taxi drivers or taking revenge on his mistress, we can’t help but wonder if we’re not encouraging blind pursuance of excellence at the expense of basic moral goodness. When we have our mountain climbing hero, Khoo Swee Chiow forsaking his team mates so that he could achieve personal glory, we wonder what kind of sick society are we becoming? When we have our own prime minister openly bargaining with the people about how much money he should be getting, we can’t help but wonder if our education has truly failed.