Archive for August, 2007

Some first time buyers may not get new HDB flat

August 29, 2007

I refer to what Minister of State, Grace Fu said in parliament as reported by Straits Times (28 Aug 2007). As far as I can remember, one of our government’s grandest achievements, one which they constantly harp back on, was to have given each and every Singaporean a home to call their own. Therefore when I read Ms Fu saying that the Government cannot provide a new HDB flat for every young couple buying their first home, I can only imagine how far this government has deviated from its predecessors in serving the people’s needs.

Ms Fu has urged new couples wishing to stay in mature estates to buy from the resale market, but has she considered the exhorbitant costs of resale flats, especially in the current market frenzy?

When Ms Fu says that the HDB has a stock of 800,000 flats, I hope she understands that these are not 800,000 empty flats but flats occupied by families. So the actual supply of resale flats is actually much less than 800,000 and consequently, resale price is very high. Furthermore, when Ms Fu says that the “HDB … has a stock of 800,000 flats”, she is saying that the flats belong to HDB. In that case, what exactly do the people own then? Are all these years of preaching home ownership a sham then?

No one is asking for the HDB to over-provide for young couples. The fact that there are 10,000 applications for 300 flats in mature estates shows that the problem is obviously not one of over-provision but acute under-provision.

Ms Fu claims to be sparing a thought for old couples intending to upgrade to private property. Amidst the current talk of how old folks can feed themselves in old age, she is telling us that she is concerned of their wish to upgrade to private property? Does she know many such old couples? Someone close to her perhaps?

She also claims to be sparring a thought for old couples intending to monetise their flats. If the HDB is really so concerned, then such monetising schemes would have been launched 10 years ago and not a couple of weeks ago wouldn’t they?

Her concern of depreciating home values would be valid if home prices are indeed on the decline. But home prices have increased by more than 5 times that of salary increase over the last 40 years! Amidst the current property market frenzy, surely any one with any reasonable amount of logic and reason would worry about price escalation rather than price depreciation?

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Knowledge can be a bad thing, if others are taking credit for it

August 26, 2007

An article by Dr Manoj Thulasidas (Today, 25 Aug 2007)

TECHNICAL knowledge is not always a good thing for you in the modern workplace.

Unless you are careful, others will take advantage of your expertise and dump their responsibilities on you. You may not mind it as long as they respect your expertise. But, they often hog the credit for your work and present their ability to evade work as people management skills.

People management is better rewarded than technical expertise. This differentiation between experts and middle-level managers in terms of rewards is an Asian phenomenon. Here, those who present the work seem to get the credit for it, regardless of who actually performs it. We live in a place and time where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishments.

In the West, technical knowledge is more readily recognised than smooth presentations. You don’t have to look beyond Bill Gates to appreciate the heights to which technical expertise can take you in the West. Of course, Gates is more than an expert; he is a leader of great vision as well.

Leaders are different from people managers. Leaders provide inspiration and direction. They are sorely needed in all organisations, big and small. They are not to be confused with middle-level folks who keep harping on the “big picture”, the “value-chain” and such, and spend all their working hours in meetings.

Why should they get such hefty salaries when they know and do so little?

Technical experts are smart cookies. They can easily see that if they want to be people managers, they can get started with a tie and a good haircut. If the pickings are rich, why wouldn’t they?

Going the other way is a lot harder, though. For a pure people manager to become a technical expert, it takes a lot more than losing the tie. But why would anybody want to be an expert in the current corporate climate here? Slim pickings, really.

Is it time to hide your knowledge, get that haircut, knot that tie, and become a people manager? It comes down to your personal choice. Knowledge gives you technical authority and a sense of indispensability. But it also sets you up for a stunted career progression. So, the choice is between fulfilment and satisfaction on the one hand, and convenience and promotions on the other.

I wonder whether we have already made our choices, even in our personal lives. We find fathers who cannot get the hang of changing diapers or of household chores. Is it likely that men cannot figure out washing machines although they can operate complicated machinery at work?

We also find women who cannot balance their accounts or estimate their spending. Is it really a mathematical impairment, or a matter of convenience?

At times, the lack of knowledge is as potent a weapon as its abundance. Yes, knowledge is a double-edged sword. Use it wisely.

Annuity

August 25, 2007

PM Lee seems to be in a hurry to do things always. Pressing buttons, making demands and leaving people with no choice.

There are many ways to make provision for life after 85 and the annuity isn’t the only one.

Those who would rather leave their hard earned money for their loved ones should be given a choice to either:

1) Have smaller monthly payouts that would stretch from 65 to 100 years old.

2) Save a bigger minimum sum so that without any change in monthly payout, can last till 100 years old.

3) Any combination between (1) and (2).

If these choices are presented, he would not be so resented.

Osteoporosis

August 25, 2007

From what I have read, it seems that the best years to combat osteoporosis is between the years 9 to 20. This is the time when our bones are still soft and pliable and capable of growing thicker and stronger. By the time puberty is over, our bones would’ve more or less hardened and any attempt to strengthen it through calcium supplements would simply come to nought.

In a way, our bone system is like our CPF. Just as we spend a lifetime building up our CPF so that we may draw upon it in our old age, likewise we spend our growing years building up calcium in our bones in order to draw upon it for the rest of our lives.

WHAT A CHILD NEEDS

What your growing child needs to build strong bones (and teeth) are:

1) 4 glasses of milk daily (spread throughout the day)
2) 15 minutes shunshine daily
3) 1 hour weight bearing exercise daily

Items (1) and (2) are easily fulfilled without conscious effort. Item (3) is the critical factor that most people miss out on.

I once saw on TV, a martial arts expert demonstrating his ability to break a thick stack of bricks using just his forehead. When asked how he does it, he says its simply a matter of conditioning the skull through repeated trying.

This illustrates the rationale behind weight bearing exercises. By subjecting the bone to constant impact and pressure, the bone is forced to grow thicker and stronger. Examples of weight bearing exercises are running and jumping, which are what kids do anyway. Swimming and cycling are not weight bearing exercises. In the former, the weight is buoyed by water while in the latter the weight rests on the seat.

WHAT OLD FOLKS NEED

All is not lost for old folks. There are four categories of drugs that are available that supposedly improves conditions of osteoporosis.

1) Evista (raloxifene)
2) Miacalcin (calcitonin) nasal spray
3) Forteo (teriparatide)
4) Bisphosphonate drugs, Fosamax (alendronate) and Actonel (risedronate)

In addition, exercise does help old folks though not in the same way it helps young people. Exercise does not strengthen bones in old folks because their bones have long hardened. What exercise does is that it strengthens muscles which improves balance and prevents falls. Strong leg muscles also help cushion the bone from impact. So for old folks, the opposite is recommended. Instead of weight bearing exercises, they should do more non-weight bearing exercises to strengthen muscles but not impact the bones. So swimming and cycling are recommended for old folks.

NOTES:

Bisphosphonates: Alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel) and ibandronate (Boniva) have been FDA-approved for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. (Alendronate is the only one currently approved for management of osteoporosis in men.) Both alendronate and risedronate are approved for the prevention and treatment of glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis in men and women. These medications help slow down bone loss and have been shown to decrease the risk of fractures. All are pills that must be taken on an empty stomach with water. Because they have the potential for irritating the esophagus, remaining upright for at least an hour after taking these medications is recommended. Alendronate and risedronate can be taken once a week, while ibandronate can be taken once a month. An IV form of ibandronate, given through the vein every 3 months, also has been FDA-approved for osteoporosis management. Two other IV forms of bisphosphonates available, pamidronate (Aredia) and zoledronic acid or zoledronate (Zometa), are not currently FDA-approved for osteoporosis management.

Calcitonin (Calcimar, Miacalcin): This medication, a hormone made from the thyroid gland, is given usually as a nasal spray or as an injection under the skin. It has been FDA-approved for the management of postmenopausal osteoporosis and helps prevent vertebral (spine) fractures. It also is helpful in controlling pain after an osteoporotic vertebral fracture.

Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (SERMs): These medications mimic estrogen’s good effects on bones without some of the serious side effects such as breast cancer. Raloxifene (Evista) decreases spine fractures in women, and is approved for use only in women at this time.

Teriparatide (Forteo): Teriparatide is a form of parathyroid hormone that helps stimulate bone formation. It is approved for use in postmenopausal women and men at high risk for osteoporotic fracture. It is given as a daily injection under the skin and can be used for up to 2 years. If you have ever had radiation treatment or your parathyroid hormone levels are already too high, you may not be able to take this medication.

Strontium ranelate (Protelos): A powder dissolved in water and taken daily, this medication has been shown to reduce the risk for fractures in postmenopausal women. It is currently available in Europe, but not the USA. Because of an increased risk of blood clots, it should be used with caution in women who have a history or risk for deep venous thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.

Land scarcity

August 24, 2007

At the end of the day, the property price disturbances we have experienced of late merely goes to show how scarce land is in Singapore. When a choice location like Tiong Bahru becomes fully developed, it leaves little room for more housing to be added there. What that means is that even though there may be potentially thousands of resale flats available in Tiong Bahru, in practice, only a handful would be up for sale because for most people, a home is a home rather than an investment vehicle to be encashed in times of good prices. So high property prices merely reflects land scarcity.

What Mr Mah has done is to make the alternative, a home in a far flung corner of Singapore, more enticing and alluring. More land near to areas of frenzied demand have also been set aside for flats. I think these are probably the best the govt can do at the moment. We can only hope that in a few years time when these projects come to fruition, they would go a long way in alleviating the shortfall that is being experienced now.

Hopefully when the time comes, we do not see even greater numbers of foreigners that would again outstrip the available housing.

The high cost of prosperity

August 24, 2007

I refer to the article by Minxin Pei:

http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/05/opinion/edpei.php.

An uncanny similarity with Singapore. Prosperity is pursued at the expense of social well being. When leaders are appointed by the government rather than chosen by the people, they will naturally pursue government agenda first before attending to the needs of the people. And the situaton persists because our elections are not competitive which renders our parliament a mere theatrical event.

A good example would be Mr Mah Bow Tan. Mr Mah said in a recent interview with the Straits Times that his most satisfying achievement has been the transformation of the Marina Bay area. There is no mention of him finding satisfaction in meeting the housing needs of ordinary Singaporeans. Why is that so? Because the Marina Bay is a top government priority unlike us ordinary citizens who, as far as Mr Mah is concerned, can be housed in the most far flung corners of Singapore.

Church mission trips: to learn is as important as to serve

August 22, 2007

This was an article written by Andy Ho (ST, 20 Aug 2007). In a nutshell, Andy is trying to say that the Korean Christians shouldn’t have gone to such a dangerous place like Afghanistan to spread the Bible. The person who wrote to ST forum feels that Andy, in effect, belittled such humanitarian efforts.

Here’s how I feel:

The heart of the Islamic world may not be the best place to spread the holy Gospel. Christians and Muslims have fought religious wars and massacres have been committed in the name of God. Even today, we find Christians violating Muslims (ethnic cleansing, Bosnia) and Muslims taking revenge on Christians (911).

Religion is so powerful and so difficult to control or deal with that our govt has always adopted a policy of no discussion. Because there will be no end to discussion and real risk that conviction in religions can lead to conflicts.

Mr George Yeo recently said (ST, 27 Jul 2007) that a person having strong faith in his religion, will not accept other religions as equals even if he tolerates them. Since respect is based on equality, it means that deeply religious people have difficulty respecting other religions as equals and this is something we cannot wish away.

So what happens when a devout Christian, who by virtue of his devotion bears a certain disrespect for other religions like Islam, goes to a Muslim country to spread the Bible to people who are equally devoted to Islam and hence equally disrespectful of Christianity? Wouldn’t that be the best recipe for igniting a war?

So while we cannot wish away the feeling of superiority in one’s own religion, we cannot let the associated disrespect for other religions trample upon the feelings of those of other faiths. Allowing that to happen would simply be to ask for unnecessary conflict.

New ministerial pay benchmark

August 21, 2007

This is a new ministerial pay benchmark to end all. I’ll use Mr Mah Bow Tan as an example. As the Minister of National Development, one of his main roles is to build houses for Singaporeans. We can benchmark Mr Mah’s pay on how well he performs on this important role. In the current HDB balloting exercise, there are 10,000 applicants applying for 300 over flats. So Mr Mah effectively fulfils only 3% of Singaporean’s demand for housing. If we were to benchmark his salary to the percentage of housing demand he can fulfil, he would end up getting only 3% of what he currently gets.

Similarly in the case of Jurong West flats for example, we know that despite attractive prices, take up rate is only 70%. In other words, Mr Mah’s good agencies over built flats in Jurong West, which is a wastage of resources. If we were to again benchmark his salary to the percentage flats over built, his performance would be 70%.

Assuming there were 3,000 Jurong West flats on offer during the last selection, we can then calculate his weighted average performance as follows:

Performance = ( 3% X 10,000 + 70% X 3,000 ) / 13,000
= 18.5%

National Day Rally 2007

August 19, 2007

PM Lee attributed the astronomical high salaries of those at the top (presumably the cabinet) to our winner-takes-all society. He cited the example of golf, where Tiger Woods earns a lot more than number 2, Jim Furyk. But sports isn’t reflective of the way our society functions. Sports is a zero sum game whereby one person winning the gold medal denies another from getting gold. What Tiger Woods wins, Tiger Woods deprives of others. Society however, doesn’t function like that. There can be many top surgeons as long as their skills are demanded. Likewise there can be many top bankers, accountants and lawyers.

It is however true that there can only be one CEO in a company and one prime minister in a country. But even then we see a difference between Tiger Woods and the CEO or the prime minister. Tiger Woods is a one man show. No one doubts that it is through his own hard work and gift that he accomplishes all that he achieves. A company on the other hand, is not a one man show, let alone a country. The success of a company or a country cannot be solely attributed to the CEO or the prime minister and much has to be considered of the contributions of employees and the people.

A better analogy would have been that of an orchestra. The conductor knows that all the members of his orchestra are truly talented people and the best that he could find. Without them, he alone would have amounted to nothing. So rather than taking all, credit and rewards are shared amongst all members.

The PM says that we cannot hold down top salaries for otherwise talent will leave. We can do an experiment and hold down the salary of say Mah Bow Tan and see if he leaves. For the experiment to work, we have to ensure that no government linked company would employ him and see if he can make it just as good in the private sector.

PM Lee also said that western countries cannot attain the growth rates that we attain. Let’s us wait till we reach their per capita GDP levels before we say so. The reasoning is this: US got 90 marks last year and 93 marks this year – an increase of only 3 marks. Singapore got 70 marks last year and 78 marks this year – an astounding increase of 8 marks. But which is better at the end of the day, 93 marks or 78 marks?

Of Plamas and LCDs – bigger isn’t always better

August 19, 2007

A colleague of mine recently told me of the experiences of her good friend, whose contractor had painted her house the wrong colour and was not only asked to repaint the house but also asked to pay for damages. That she says is the power of the consumer.

I recently made a bad television purchase and ex-changed it for another TV. In this case, my colleague says, since I was the one who chose the TV, there was no fault on the part of the shopkeeper and so I had no right to ask for a TV change. Somehow having made a choice, consumer power was lost.

There was clearly consumer disatisfaction in both cases but to my colleague, the former warrants the power of the consumer whereas the latter does not. So to my colleague, consumer dissatisfaction means nothing. The consumer is not entitled to alter his or her choice simply because he or she is dissatisfied. So having entered a restaurant on her own accord and given bad service, my colleague would simply accept the bad treatment than ask for something better.

There are of course vast differences between the first and the second case. When it comes to painting the house, there is nothing complicated that the eye cannot see. A colour is a colour, there is no reason why the consumer would have difficulty seeing a colour as it is, unless she is colour blind. Since colour of a house is so easy to choose, the contractor does not have expert power over the consumer and therefore cannot possibly influence the consumer’s choice.

On the other hand, a television is a complicated purchase and many things are hard to discern even upon scrutiny. For example, how do you know that the colour of a TV is inherently better and not due to settings? How do you know one TV is sharper than the other if they are all playing beautiful images in the showroom? So advice from the salesman becomes important in helping you make a purchase. So does our reliance on the salesman’s advice reduce our final rights as a consumer?

This leads us to another argument by another colleague. Why did I trust the salesman? Why didn’t I do my homework? Why didn’t I ask my friends and fellow colleagues instead?

The salesman is the expert in his field and can provide much information and knowledge that would be difficult for layman like us to acquire. For example, we may have read that plasma TVs respond better to fast motion compared to LCDs. But how much better? Can we see the difference? That’s where the salesman comes in. He tells you to curl your hand into a funnel and focus on one spot on the LCD. When there is sudden and abrupt changes in the scene, you can actually see blurring during the transition where the pixels become reconstituted. This does not happen for plasmas.

You go home and verify the salesman’s advice from Internet sources such as CNet Asia, which are authoritative sources of information. Most websites when making a comparison between plasma and LCD, give the thumbs up to the former when it comes to image quality.

Finally, what about friends and colleagues? The colleague chastised me for not seeking advice from our fellow team mates who all seem to know that LCDs are better than plasmas. But their so-called knowledge turned out to be mere preferences. One colleague dislikes plasmas because of the reflective glass, which I know and don’t mind. Another colleague figures that plasma is an older technology compared to LCD and therfore inferior. But older technology can mean that it is more mature and hence more stable and cheaper. In any case, none of my colleagues knew what I found out eventually.

Be it plasma or LCD, the bigger the screen size, the less sharp it becomes. Websites give it a passing remark, the salesmen do not think it is a problem let alone mention it, even friends and colleagues are bewildered when I say that smaller TVs have sharper images. So who would have suspected otherwise?

It is only when you place a 32″ TV next to a 37″ TV and play the same programme on both would you actually see the difference, especially in the substitles. From the subtitles, you can see that the smaller TV is sharper and more crisp. The difference between a 32″ and a 42″ is even more pronounced.

It is like buying a $5,000 diamond ring believing it would shine brighter than the $2,000 diamond ring you have at home. But lo and behold when you compare them side-by-side, the cheaper ring actually shines better. Wouldn’t you have felt shortchanged spending so much more to buy an inferior ring?