Archive | March, 2012

The Mysterious case of Taxis and Cat A COE

28 Mar

In case you missed it, it was reported in last Saturday’s Straits Times that local listed transport giant Comfort DelGro would be buying 120 new Mercedes Benz E220 CDI cabs to renew their fleet. With COE prices at a high of $56,501 for cars below 1600cc, more purchases from the taxi companies will help to maintain this high or drive it even higher. It was earlier reported that from Feb 2012 to Jul 2012, there will be 1,239 COEs per month for cars up to 1,600cc and taxis. 



Until today, I still don’t quite understand why taxis (instruments of generating corporate profits) are competing with private citizens in Cat A COE (for private cars under 1600cc). It was reported in the Straits Times in Sep 2011, “If not for taxi companies submitting a barrage of bids in the final minutes before the tender closed at 4pm, the premium could have closed at $20,000 or so.” So for people who bought their 1600cc and below cars in that particular COE exercise in Sep 2011 you could have bought your COE at around $20K instead of the resultant bid price of $48K. 


The engine capacity of taxis are usually above 1600cc so why aren’t they competing with the rich dudes buying big cars? Aren’t the taxi operators also rich dudes earning a decent profit on their operations? Why should they be competing with citizens aspiring to buy simple cars? 



Also, why aren’t COEs of taxis placed together with commercial vehicles as they are instruments of business? And like goods vehicles, taxis are on the road much longer (contributing more CO2 emissions) than normal private cars. 


For some illuminating answers, let us look at the reply from Ministry of Transport:


25 Aug 2011


Dear Sir/Madam,


We refer to your feedback dated 18 August. 


Taxis are allowed to bid for COEs in Category A as they are part of the public transport spectrum, although at the higher end.  Taxi companies replacing older taxis need not necessarily bid for a new COE as they have the option to do so by paying the Prevailing Quota Premium (PQP) instead and therefore do not need to compete in Category A.


Note: The PQP is calculated based on the moving average of the QP in the last 3 months.


It would not be advisable to start a new COE category for taxis. Based on the proportion of bids by taxi companies versus the total quota in Category A, a COE category specifically for taxis would have a small quota. This would be undesirable as small quotas in any category would likely lead to anomalies and high fluctuations in prices. Furthermore, having a quota for taxis would also go against the move to deregulate the taxi industry where the intent was to leave the determination of the supply of taxis to the market and not by the quotas allocated to the taxi category.


We hope this clarifies.


Thank you for your feedback.


Quality Service Manager

Ministry of Transport


First, what kind of statement is “taxis are allowed to bid for COEs in Category A as they are part of the public transport spectrum”, what is MOT trying to say? So why are public buses excluded from COE? Besides buses and taxis, what other kind of public transport are on the road? 


Next, by the taxi companies paying the PQP to acquire a COE, are they not similarly reducing the supply of Cat A COEs? If supply is lower, prices would naturally increase. 


Lastly, the COE in itself is a quota system. No matter how big or small the number of taxi COEs, there are only so many vehicles in total we can have on our roads to ensure that traffic flows smoothly. There is no such thing as a quota in a quota so to speak. By placing the COEs of taxis together with the smallest category of private cars goes to indicate that the business of this govt is pro-business. 

Getting racial in local football

26 Mar

*warning reading this post could bring you unwarranted attention from the Singapore Polis Farce’s Politically Correct Racial Enforcement Unit

Like everyone else growing up in pre-EPL Singapore, I am a fan of local football since the Malaysian Cup days. It’s feels proud to see Sundram and his boys climb to 2nd spot in the Malaysian League, a place they thoroughly deserved through the hard work, preserverance and creativity that they have shown. With this foray up north, it has reignited some of the old charm lost to European football in recent years. Hope our next generation would continue to give local football and sports their support.

source: ligasingapura.blogspot

In the recent decade or so, it has not been difficult to see that there is a dearth of local Chinese in the national football team. The most prominent Chinese footballers are actually naturalised citizens Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li – but this is not a post about FT in sports although Shi and Qiu have performed well for Singapore. But if we look at younger squads such as the Cubs that played in the 2010 Youth Olympics, we can see that it was more racially diverse.


Granted that in recent decades, Lim Tong Hai and super-sub Steven Tan may not be as talented as Quah Kim Song of the yesteryears, the point here is Singapore football (and for the fact any other sports) is poorer on the whole without the availbility of Chinese players to tap on. It seems that football coaches can only pick from less than half of the available talent pool to train, groom and field, as for some reason or other, local Chinese are not found on the team sheets of national teams for the past decade or more. Clearly, this shouldn’t be the case when football is a widely played sport across all races. Similarly, I have seen lesser players from Indian orgin as well.

source: ligasingapura.blogspot

There are many reasons why Chinese boys are declining to pick up professional football, it could be for financial considerations, it could be because of cultural/parents’ objections or it could be because they have better, more interesting, offers elsewhere. It would also be interesting to analyse why badminton as a sport that was played by all races in older Singapore has become more of a “Chinese” sport now. Or why table tennis is a Chinese sport just as cricket is an Indian sport and sepak takraw is a Malay sport.

But we have seen that in many situations, individuals are willing to give up material comfort if they know they can still make a decent living (although not a superlative high wage) doing something they love. Sportsmen and sportswomen would only make that sacrifice and contribution to national honour if they know they have a decent career both during and after their professional playing life. If football, or sports, as a career is over by the age of 35, then we would all have to resign to importing a large bulk of our sporting gold medals.

source: ligasingapura.blogspot

The constant renewal and reform of our sporting scene should be approached from a cradle to grave perspective where sports is not only seen as a honour and sacrifice but also as a wise career choice. We should also be examining at ways to break “racial barriers and stereotypes” in sports and encouraging kids from different racial groups to play different sports. If Singapore as a small country is not able to tap on our diversity and make the sum greater than the individual parts, then perhaps we are destined for mediocrity (at least in sports). With that, perhaps, we can finally tap on the full population and full potential of this little red dot and reduce our reliance on the next impending wave of foreign imports.

p.s. if Chinese kids don’t even understand cricket or sepak does that make the call for removal of race in NRIC somewhat weaker?

The idiosyncrasies that arose from the Bukit Brown incident

22 Mar

My take on ‘heritage preservation’


No doubt we should preserve the heritage of Bukit Brown. Clearly the issue is how and in doing so balance the needs of development. However, not all heritage preservation runs contrary to the aims of development. Museums are an excellent example of how both heritage preservation and developments can be married. Generally, successful cultural resource management projects are often tied with living and vibrant communities. 


For heritage to be successfully preserved, it must have an outreach capability such that the masses would be aware. Heritage preservation is not only about conserving the original physical relics but more importantly about the passing down of history and tradition from generation to generation. Heritage conservation does not equate to heritage preservation. I can conserve an antique rock to 95% of its original condition but it does mean everyone looking at the rock would get the story. Not EVERY SINGLE minute detail of heritage must be conserved, hence curatorship is needed. 



Now back to what I had wanted to rant. 


The idiosyncrasies…


1. If democracy (i.e. rule of the mob/maases/majority) was allowed to work, we would have a ten lane expressway cutting across Bukit Brown. Try asking around and most Singaporeans would tell you another road along the exiting Lornie Road is long overdue. Almost everyone staying in the North, North-East and Central would take this route to the West and the massive jams in the morning and the resulting economic losses can be substantial (unless you wanna pay $5 CTE/PIE ERP gantry rates). Remember buses like Service No.74 crawling along Lornie Rd packed with students from the Bukit Timah schools, Polytechnics, SIM and NUS?


Hence, sometimes we need a few ‘wise men’ to force the issue (i.e. suspend democracy) and make the authorities sit up and listen. Although the various heritage and nature groups have not manage to prevent the building of the road but they have made an impact and raised important issues for all Singaporeans to consider. However, do remember that in the age of internet and social media, there are many goons who can easily masquerade as ‘wise men’ (including me ;p). 



2. If one of the dangers of building the Bukit Brown Rd was the loss of our heritage, then it might have turned out the other way. The Bukit Brown Rd debate actually helped the cause of heritage preservation (although it might not have helped its physical conservation) as more people learned about it and flocked there to tour it before it was ‘ravaged’ by the development of the road. I bet you my last dollar that not many knew about Bukit Brown before the media covergae and I didn’t recall Bidaari cooking up such a storm when it was cleared (and still sitting empty and pretty now). In fact, the increase in human visitor traffic might actually upset the natural habitat and endanger the super old tombstones. Isn’t it ironic that the more we care, the more we destroy?


3. Govt has a policy of “no wrong door” since 2004 where citizens would not be referred from one agency to another to have their concerns addressed. However, it appaers that Minister of State Tan Chuan Jin seemed to have given heritage and nature groups the turn-around. So, it seems that engagement by the government must not only be done but must be seen as being done. How sensitive and emo we have become. Was wondering why no one go Hong Lim Park to register their unhappiness? If you really care, just rant online. 





There was even a chap who compared Bukit Brown to Angkor Wat (from “The leading online source for socio-political news and views in Singapore”). I mean I really LMFAO. If that comparison was made with Bukit Larangan (later called Fort Canning) and the rich cultural heritage (dating back to the 15thC) found there, I would have found it kinda acceptable. Oh wait, sorry, did you know there were actually archaeological work done there? Angkor Wat was largely ignored by the locals until the French colonialists made a great deal out of it for their political reasons and later transformed it into a tourist site. Till today, it is funded mainly by NGO and foreign money and locals just see it as a place to make business (have u seen the mess there these days?). So please wake up and smell the coffee. 


The same author also cried foul that Tan Tock Seng’s grave on Havelock Rd was nearly destroyed by road works and was only saved by the intervention of activists. I see it as the road engineers doing their job and the activists playing their role. It was only Objectivism and the Virtue of Selfishness at work (Aye Rand). In any case, with or without his grave, the grand story of Tan Tock Seng was drilled into our heads during secondary school history classes. By the way, the grave, situated near the Havelock Rd hotels below an overhead bridge, is quite interesting. But don’t wander there in half-drunk state after visiting the nearby karaoke joint as you might really see Tan Tock Seng himself.





“Bidadari Garden was established at Vernon Park to commemorate 20 people who were considered important to Singapore’s history, and who had been interred at Bidadari Cemetery. They include doctor and philanthropist Lim Boon Keng, Ahmad Ibrahim, and R. A. J. Bidwell–the architect who had designed the Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park Hotel, and Chesed-El Synagogue. The old gates of the Bidadari Cemetery, which bore the lion emblem of the Singapore Municipal Council, were then placed at the entrance of Bidadari Garden. “



I don’t think the Bidadari Garden is a popular heritage spot (yet). I haven’t visited it yet despite being a self-proclaimed lover of local history. Heritage preservation and the rememberance of our of history would not naturally come with the adundance of cultural relics conserved. It must come from within, a concerted effort and a change in psyche of parents, educators and leaders of this country. A move away from materialism and a dollars and cents approach with regards to development. At the same time, in our small country, although we cannot conserve more than we would liked to, we can preserve many stories and lessons through various other innovative means that amalgamate a living community (to take care of the dead so to speak) and yet achieve our aims of development.  





The Kranji War Cemetery is perhaps one of the very well-preserved cemeteries in Singapore honouring the war dead of WWII. But sometimes I wonder, what are we preserving at Bukit Brown? The graves? The nature? A unique location in Singapore? Its oldness? Some of the graves hold the honourable Chinese pioneers, while others hold interesting stories of various migrants and what we would today call “grassroots” leaders. Can we preserve their stories and lessons without the graves? Can we move the graves? Why do we remember men like Wee Kim Wee and Ong Teng Cheong without graves? There is MacRitchie nature reserve nearby some might say. Wherein lies the essence of Bukit Brown? 

An Ode to March: Satre, Laurence Lien, James Wilson and Tao Jie

21 Mar

March was and is sort of an unusual month. During the month, I was especially hit by how our society have dengerated over the last two decades to become more economically successful but last caring and inclusive. The kampongs are no longer with us but it seems that we were just as determined to give up the “kampong spirit” along with our pursuit for mordernity, convenience, instant technology and gratification.  Our addictions to and dependency on material goods and materialistic fantasies have blurred out the most basic principles and simple pleasures in life. Our lives are led “in-itself”  rather than “for-itself”.  We easily succumb to our basic instincts rather than exercise our human judgement. Have we forgotten the ability of ourselves to nihilate and reduce ourselves to nothingness? Jean Paul Satre’s Being and Nothingness still wakes me up in my dreams of dreams.

If the Broken Windows Theory is an indication of the beginning of community decay, then would the death of James Q Wilson this early March matter?

Laurence Lien rattled me with his first speech as NMP…how sweet when the bell gently tolls, how tragic as the guitar gently weeps…

Laurence Lien: Certainly, we must strive to be inclusive.  But  we can’t achieve this only through social policies and programmes.  Inclusiveness is fundamentally about how our people treat one another, not just about what the Government can do for its people, which, don’t get me wrong, is still important because the government represents the people.       

Besides, inclusiveness is more a mindset and value system, which the Government needs to lead the way in but cannot deliver alone.  Inclusiveness here is a sense of belonging, of being respected and valued for who you are, not what you should be, and ultimately, being always treated with equal dignity and compassion, no matter how old, how rich, how educated, what titles you hold, and how different you are. People are the ends, not the means. 

Being an Inclusive Society must be something that Singaporeans must firstly want. Otherwise, the Government’s efforts will be futile. You can give the Silver Housing Bonus to seniors, but other residents may reject the building of studio apartments and services for seniors. You can give the Special Employment Credit, but employers may refuse to hire and fit jobs to suit the disabled and senior workers.  Recent signs are that we are still not an inclusive society.  In fact, I believe we are in a social recession. We see this generally in the weakening of individual resilience, the loosening of family bonds and a decline in community cohesiveness.  The symptoms would include rising levels of mental ill-health, loneliness, and increased addictions.  It is caused by the stresses of living, by individualism and materialism.   

The heartache of Tao Jie 

In the cinema, there were at least 6 Ah-Ma(s) seated behind me giving a running commentary of an award winning Hong Kong film that I have been meaning to watch. One even picked up the phone halfway during the movie and told her husband she wasn’t coming back for dinner as she was watching a movie and having dinner with her friends. The middle-aged lady beside me was seething with anger as she squirmed in her seat and glared angrily back at the elderly women spoiling her movie experience. Even before the show started, she remarked openly, “so many old people, later surely very noisy one.” Finally, she couldn’t bear it no more, turned around, put her finger to her pursed lips and made a loud “SHHHHHH!” The Ah-Ma(s) stopped for awhile perhaps taken aback but resumed their hokkien cum cantonese multi-way dialogue shortly after, much to my delight and amusement. Gradually, the middle-aged lady adapted and tried to enjoy the movie.

If it was a Mission Impossible screening, I might have told them politely to keep it down but because A Simple Life was a movie that was about elderly and our responsibility to them, I guess I couldn’t bear to. How many films were made for the elderly? And besides the Ah-Ma(s) said some of the damnest things which was really funny as well. The storyline was touching but wasn’t really exciting. Actually, the cinematography and cast were better than the script. In fact, it was rather interesting to see a live cast behind me and all around the cinema as I have never seen so many elderly in a regular cinema screening before. Even the mood after the show was distinctively different, I guess many of us were thinking if we will ever have someone like the Andy Lau to take care of us in our twilight years or will we be given the cursory care and concern? Suffused with the gentle, unforced humanity viewers have come to expect from Hong Kong helmer Ann Hui, “A Simple Life” is a tender ode to the elderly, their caregivers and the mutual generosity of spirit that makes their limited time together worthwhile. Fittingly for a film about the challenges and rewards of looking after the sick and aging, this well-observed, pleasantly meandering dramedy requires a measure of patience, and some judicious trimming would improve its chances for export. But the moving, never tearjerking lead performances by Andy Lau and Deanie Ip rep strong selling points for Hui’s following at home and abroad.

After the show, I told the middle-aged lady beside me, “movie quite touching hor, the ah pors behind a bit noisy, but I also scared when I old like them no one to talk to me and no one to watch movie with me.” She looked at me, puzzled. 

Putting a price on human rights…$60 per month?

13 Mar

Please don’t mistake me, I am not saying that human rights has a price tag. Allow me to explain.

Maids who have their foreign domestic helper work permit issued or renewed from 1 Jan 2013 would enjoy a mandatory weekly rest day or compensation in lieu. By 2015, all maids will be covered by the new legislature. Employers who break the rules can be fined up to $5000 or spend six months in jail. The rest day can fall on any day and if a maid is asked to work on her off day, a replacement rest day must be given within the same month. Compensation is about $15 given that the average monthly wage of a domestic helper is $400.


Let us look at some of the statements in the speech delivered by Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin:


More than just a physical rest, a rest day provides the foreign domestic worker with an emotional and mental break from work. 


A weekly rest day is regarded internationally as a basic labour right. 


As Singapore is among the few foreign domestic workers receiving countries with no provisions for weekly rest days, this regulation is also expected to enhance Singapore’s attractiveness as a destination for quality and experienced foreign domestic workers. 



This is a step from the govt and some NGOs and observers have called it a step forward. I am not so optimistic. It’s a step but it might not be forward. Do you believe that your right can be compensated by monetary means? Would you agree if I say, you will work everyday for 3 months and I will compensate you for your 12 days of forfeited rest according to your daily wage? Most of us might not agree and those of us who agree would at least ask for double salary for rest days forfeited. So what kind of basic labour right are we talking about here? Are we teaching our younger ones that as a society we recognise rights of an individual but bear in mind that they can bought at a price (so let’s debate about the price)??!!

If we really believe that domestic helpers are deserving of our mutual respect (never mind their low wages), then why are we proposing that their right to a rest day can be replaced by money? To the tune of about $15 per week and $60 per month. Are their labour rights just worth $60 per month?

Our main competitors for quality domestic helpers from Philippines and Indonesia are countries in North-east Asia. In Hong Kong, monthly wages of domestic helpers are about $250 more than their counterparts in Singapore on top of having mandatory day-off with none of that compensation hogwash. If I am not mistaken, better quality helpers are flocking to North-east Asia, some of whom have been trained by Singapore households.



Taken in whole, it seems that the recent ‘mandatory day-off’ announced by the govt is more to make Singapore as an attractive destination for quality domestic helpers and ‘basic labour right’ was just there to make it sound musical to some ears. With such a deft move, wages of domestic helpers have gone up by about $60 or about 15% in the name of labour rights. Who could argue with a rights approach?

I understand that some families need domestic assistance 24/7 and I do sympathise with them. But if the maid has to go for a rest day to make her a better and more productive person as a whole, then I guess extended family, charities and non-government agencies have to chip in to make our society truely more inclusive. If we as a society don’t step up and do it soon, our sons and daughters might be already too materialistic, pampered and counting their cents and dollars before their morals.


Source: MrBrown


Coincident or not, MINDEF also recently announced that National Servicemen will get an increase in allowance to the tune of $60!!! So is this the magic price??

p.s. NS recruits are being paid $480, i.e. $80 more than maids and they have mandatory day-off. Think about it.

Singapore sons and daughters: MOE budget debate and social mobility

9 Mar

Last night, watching and reading the news on the MOE budget debate, I was gladden that MOE is finally, really, trying to make a shift away from school rankings and academic excellence. This would be a slow process, and even as we would want to remake our education into a more wholistic entity, our economy and even some parents would ask us to do otherwise. Again, this is not a situation of 1 and 0, but a fine balance to be struck. 


In Minister Heng Swee Keat’s words, 


Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Mr Heng said that to prepare our students for the future, education must develop the whole person. 

“It is less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one’s lifetime,” he said. 

“It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes. It is about developing an enduring core of competencies, values and character to anchor our young and ensure they have the resilience to succeed.”

“Developing the whole child must first begin with instilling the right character and values. We must adopt a student-centric, values-driven approach,” added Mr Heng.


Also encouraging is MOE’s plans to expand the social safety net in schools. With more financial assistance going into the pockets of lower income students, we hope that they would be able to concentrate on their studies with less distractions:


The income limit for eligibility for the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme or FAS will be raised from S$1,500 to S$2,500. 

Besides assessing applicants by household income, the ministry will assess them using a new Per Capita Income (PCI) criterion so that more students from larger families can qualify.

This means that students from households with a per capita income not exceeding S$625 per month will now be eligible.

For example, a family of six comprising two children, two parents and two grandparents living together, with a monthly income of S$3,600 (that is, per capita income of S$600) will now qualify.

Schools will also be given additional annual grants of up to S$15,000 per school every year, for the next three years. 

This will allow schools to provide additional targeted support in specific ways or to students who might have just missed the FAS criteria but are deserving. 

The ministry will also triple the annual funding allocated to the School Breakfast Programme, from S$4 million to S$12 million.


Lastly, with more auxillary education support from the MOE, weaker students and those from lower income families might have a chance to bridge the gap with their more high-flying schoolmates. This is ever more important in Singapore as our Gini coefficient widens, we must safeguard our social mobility and ensure that students from all walks of life have a chance to be competitive and realise their full potential. Failing to do so would mean Singapore as a whole would lose out, we would become less competitive and our citizens possibly leading less than fulfilling lives and having less confidence about their future.   


SINGAPORE: The government will provide academic support through its Learning Support Programmes.

These provide targeted assistance for students weak in literacy and numeracy. And they will also be extended to the pre-school level. Its Focused Language Assistance in Reading programme (FLAiR) will also benefit an additional 2,200 children. The programme exposes children level up, by exposing them to the English language. It has helped some 6,000 students from disadvantaged families to date.


SINGAPORE: The Education Ministry will be increasing the number of school-based student care centres over the next two years. The centres offer after-school pastoral care and a structured environment for students from low-income families to support their learning. By 2014, there will be 70 school-based centres, up from the current 57 primary schools and two special education schools that currently provide these services.


But all is not pink and good…


Social mobility is not dead in Singapore, at least not yet. But if we do not actively safeguard against the robustness of our social systems and to continue to level the playing field, to encourage fair competition, then perhaps the Singapore story would be less successful in the long run. It would be dreadful if small groups of elites entrench themselves in the upper echelons of the society resulting in a disincentive to creatively destroy existing structures for greater productivity and sustainable extraction of resources (no matter how limited they are in Singapore).   


Recent surveys on social mobility in Singapore have shown that youths continue to have the opportunity to do better than their parents in terms of education. But this does not ensure better salaries and livelihood as it is now harder to break into the upper echelons of income levels. Wealth (esp multi-generational wealth) have created high barriers of entries, whether in certain industries or even in education as richer parents are able to employ and utilise resources not commonly available to middle and lower classes. In fact, local law schools have recently wondered (published in ST) if they should change their admission criteria as they see many socio-economic similarities in recent cohorts. 



Indeed we see anecdoctal evidence that the cream of the cream of this society is being less varied. For eg, the economic background of our scholars. Is there at work, a slow process of homogenising the highest pinnacle in various economic stratas? One only need to think of Darwin’s Origin of Spieces and lessons on biodiversity to remind ourselves that groupthink would be to the detriment of our own future. 


Elitist Tuition Centres


One area that MOE might perhaps want to look at is the elitism in tuition centres and their supposed abilities to churn out top students over and above what is normally taught in schools. In other words, most of our top students are attending such elitist tuition centres. It is indeed worrying and a dent on our strong desire that education would be the great equaliser in society. Elite tuition centres have made news recently for the difficult admission tests they set and there is a growing trend that parents are employing tuition teachers to teach what other tutors have gave them. 


A premium local tuition centre is, One should check out their website to understand what it means to corporatise education. Indeed their flagship programme is called “Future Leaders”. It is described as:


This is a key initiative to help our students achieve their academic and leadership dreams as future leaders. It comprises landmark student leadership and academic development events to give your child a headstart in the corporate world.


In fact, in their own advertisments in ST, The Learning Lab have lauded their ability to churn out half of this country’s top PSLE students. 



In PSLE 2011, TLL groomed almost a mind-boggling one-half of the top ranking students in the entire country! This included a clean sweep of the first, second and third students overall. No school I know in the private or public sector has delivered such impressive results! – Gloria Chua, NUS Year 6 



Every year, its students dominate the top scorers charts. The best students in almost every single top-ranked school in Singapore have a link to TLL, although of course many of these students prefer to keep it low. – Desiree Chong, Dunman High, Year 5


To perhaps compile the problem, such elite tuition centres are actually paying their teachers a rather decent salary, not uncomparable to the education service. In addition, teachers employed by such tutition centres would not have to deal with school administration, CCA, and problem kids. 



Even as I urge the MOE to further realise the mission of education as a great equaliser in society, I would also ask parents to groom our future leaders with discipline, drive, grace, compassion and most of all, with less materialism and more socially attuned.  

A short reply to Mr Hri Kumar on the $1.1bil bus package

7 Mar

While I applaud govt’s effort and intentions to solve the transport woes, I am still unconvinced that govt is subsidising the commuter. Mr Hri Kumar argues that govt cannot mandate PTOs to provide additional 550 buses as this goes beyond the current regulatory framework. One wonders why this regulatory framework was not reviewed in 2004-2005 when govt was allowing and planning for a heavier inflow of migration. If this was done, PTOs would have at least 5 years to improve their service standards including going to capital markets to raise funds via sale of bonds, rights issue or placement shares.   

Another point to make is that PTOs are privatised coperations along with rail operations and yet it seems that govt is eager to make a distinction between them. Bus operations are not making money and hence PTOs are unable (or reluctant??) to invest in them, and hence govt has to step in. Doesn’t this defeat the whole argument of privatisation in the first place where different segments of the listed business is suppose to complement and subsidise one another? 

Mr Hri Kumar is arguing that PTOs will not make a single cent from the $1.1bil bus package. Is that the point?? Perhaps he doesn’t understand that Singaporeans are unhappy precisely because govt has to step in to fund this $1.1bil – it shows that the system is broken. How many more $1.1bil ‘subsidy for commuters’ would we have down this public road?  

We are glad that govt is finally looking at improving the bus system but surely there must be a long-term solution to the problem. 


p.s. if u follow farming news, these creative arguments by the govt sounds vaguely familiar to american govt subsidising their farmers year after year.  

p.s. Mr Hri Kumar, thank u for sharing your thoughts. 

Is the govt responsible for welfare or poverty?

5 Mar

Make no mistake about it, I am a fan of yawningbread, and Singapore would be lesser off if Mr Alex Au stopped blogging and doing his own research and articulating his opinions. In fact, most of the time, he makes a lot of sense and his articles always sets me thinking. I think all his efforts invested into blogging is not just for us to agree with him but to encourage us (and Singapore) to think independently and to exercise our own faculties as a citizen.

Alex makes 9 points in this above article. Let’s deal with the easier one. Yawningbread asked if the buyer need to pay cash upfront for a 2 or 3 rm HDB flat bought from the govt? It is possible not to pay any cash upfront provided the govt housing grant of $40K-$60K is enought to cover the 10% downpayment. On ST dated 3rd Mar, it featured Mr Azhari Abdul Malek (spouse and two kids) moving into a new 3rm Punggol flat from his HDB rental unit in Toa Payoh. He did not pay any cash upfront as the $40K grant and his CPF Ordinary Account covered the necessary payments.

Note: The CPF Ordinary Account would be wiped clean by HDB when purchasing a flat using grants.  Income ceiling for a direct purchase of a HDB 3-room flat is now $5000 household income.  

Yawningbread made a point that a 2 bedroom unit would be too small to raise a family. I have never lived in a 2 bedroom unit but I went to one as a guest when I was still in school. My classmate, Keong, slept in the living room while his parents slept in the bedroom. They had their meals in the kitchen and that’s where he did his homework too while his parents watched TV in the living room. Coming from a comfortable 4 room unit where I had my own room, I was of course appalled by such a small flat but at least it was better than renting. It was something to call their own no matter how small. I didn’t know if Keong’s parent practised family planning but he was the only child. 

The remainder of Yawningbread’s question deal with the ability of this low income family to save, pay for medical bills, take care of their elderly and retire. Yes, life is very tough if you are earning a low salary in Singapore and if you cannot keep up, you will need to swallow your pride and seek assistance. Staying in a 2 room unit does not exclude you from grants, aids and subsidies. In fact, it would probably help your case.

Keong received various bursaries and assistance when he was in school. I never dared asked what sort of welfare his parents applied for. His father was a cleaner while his mother was a stall helper and they were very frugal people. Keong always walked home for lunch after school and seldom joined us for our frivolous activities. The first thing Keong did when he got a stable job was to apply for a 4room flat together with his parents. His then-future wife would have to accept Keong’s parents staying with them – which she did.  Keong is not rich today, and if his parents fell terribly ill, I am sure it would be a financial strain on him. 

For low income families, life is not a bed of roses, they have to plan more carefully even though they might be less educated. Their margin of error is greater and misplanning can push a family into the downward spiral of the poverty trap. Govt and society should help them with this, above and beyond handouts, the more pressing issue would be guiding them to make the correct decisions (especially if they have school going kids). 

So the question, is govt responsible for your welfare or poverty? The govt should be responsible for our welfare, safe streets, housing, food, healthcare (even when you cannot afford it), temporary additional aid when it is needed, schooling, transport etc. But should it be responsible for your poverty or alleviating your poverty? This is a precarious line for society, but this line is also very blurry and porous and hard to draw. 

Yes, the govt is responsible in the welfare sense, in providing the basic necessities and additiional aid (when it is really needed) to give the lower income a chance, a leg up to climb out of poverty. But if one day, govt and society becomes too responsible for your poverty, then as a whole we will be less competitive. Yes, LKY’s favourite ‘cructch mentality’ argument – I shouldn’t elaborate more. 

Another question to ask is what sort of poverty level is acceptable for this society? Granted we are not building utopia, there would bound to be some sad cases around, key is making sure they get the aid in a timely manner and studies done to ensure that these are not chronic (or multi generational). Again, software is as important as (if not more) than just throwing money at the problem. 

Again Yawningbread is not wrong to say that surviving Singapore on $1000 is really no joke, in fact, it can be dangerous and we really must thank him for keeping his focus on issues that not many in Singapore care about. At least it is definetely much better than Vikram Nair and Chen Show Mao (via someone called Donald Low?) going at each other shadown boxing style with silly arguments about budgetary epistemology and semantics. 

Reply from a MP and just bus-spotting

1 Mar

Some days ago, I wrote a letter asking the esteemed members of the parliamentary committee for transport regarding the govt’s decision to subsidise public bus operators to the song of $1.1bil. My main concern was the so-called privatised, listed, dividend paying model of Singapore’s public transport operators (PTO). If the govt is going to subsidise PTOs, then should service standards be set? Should PTOs return the subsidies to state coffers? Should they continue to pay high dividends?

In any case, I was really pleased that at least one of the MPs replied. Really. Check this out.

Ok back to bus-spotting.

Public transport operators are profitable even though their bus operations might not be so. SBS incurred losses of about $6mil last year although it made a profit of $14.9mil on bus operations in 2010. SMRT’s bus business has perennially been in the red. However, I believe, there was precisely the reason why PTOs were privatised and listed together with rail assets. Their profits from rail operations should subsidise their bus operations. This was also precisely why there were granted both rail and bus licenses was that they can synergise and make both operations more efficient. 

So why is everybody harping on the fact that bus operations are not making profits for the PTOs and hence they deserve public sympathy and state assistance??

Another point. Granted, it is not uncommon in other countries where government subsidises private companies running public bus services,  but it is also uniquely Singapore that PTOs pay out one of the highest dividends on a listed stock exchange. Capitalism never stink that bad ever. 

As it is, public buses do not pay COE, Additional Registration Fee (ARF), main vehicle tax, duty on diesel and they are allowed to run for 20 years instead of the usual 10 years. They pay a nominal rent for interchanges while building and maintenance of bus stops and interchanges are paid by taxpayers. And after numerous rounds of fare hikes, PTOs are still making losses while paying our bus drivers a salary that many in Singapore would deem unattractive.

Despite not paying for duty on diesel, soaring oil prices have been a large component of costs for PTOs. SMRT’s bus operations incurred an operating loss of $7.9mil for the first 9 months of FY2012.  In 2011, SBS paid $4.5 mil in ERP fees and $5.5mil in road taxes. If the aim of ERP is to discourage use of private cars and steer people into using public transport, then I don’t see why it public buses should not be excused from this regime. Road tax should also be waived waived (if someone can think of a good argument).

Besides waiving public buses from taxes, govt and PTOs should make a conscious effort to reduce the energy bill of public buses through development of hybrid or CNG technologies for buses.  More route planning and reform is also needed from the LTA to better utilise buses on the roads.

ComfortDelGro, the parent of SBS, has been actively expanding its operations overseas over the years. Interestingly, its bus operations in Australia makes profit margins of around 18.7% – operators are paid on a per-mile-operated-basis and the amount is adjusted for increases in operating costs such as staff and fuel costs. Perhaps we should commence study on these countries to see how operators can stay afloat and yet keep fares reasonnable for commuters.

Fundamentally, the questions are: Are bus companies ran efficiently? Are routes, now centrally planned by LTA, efficient? Are certain trunk services only crowded on certain portions? Are the fares too low for any profits to be made? Are the costs too high even though the companies are efficiently ran? Are the PTOs inefficiently managed so much so that govt is actually subsidising a failing company? 

With a PAP majority govt, it seems like Budget2012 would inevitably be passed. If government is going to subsidise bus operators then we need more strict oversight to make sure consumers get better service instead of boosting dividends and stock prices. Govt should set KPIs for certain bus routes identified to be in dire need of improvement and monitor the operations of these services. If PTOs fail, subsidies should be removed or they be ordered to pay back the amount. Part of the $1.1bil should be channelled to improve the salary of bus drivers; SMRT bus drivers earn a basic monthly salary of $1200 while it is SBS pays a higher $1375 making it hard for them to attract locals.

Update on 2 Mar: DPM Tharman updated that $280mil of the $1.1bil i budgeted for purchase of 550 buses while the remaining $820mil is to cover the net operating costs of these buses for the next 10 years. These 550 additional buses to be funded by govt is projected to be a loss-making operation and govt will scrutinise the operators’ accounts. Should they make a profit or lower their losses, the govt funding will be reduced correspondingly or govt would reap the profits, if any. If so, I urge govt to make these estimates public so PTOs can be held accountable when the time comes. The PTOs will also have to improve service levels as a condition for govt’s investment. If so, make these levels public too. I believe the public and taxpayers should know these matters. 

DPM also argued that that the $1.1bil bus package is a subsidy for commuters and not operators. This is rather creative use of the English language. At the end of the day, the PTOs turned in healthy profits for years upon years from their rail operations and paid out generous dividends to shareholders – some of these should have been funding the renewal of bus operations. At the end of the day, the govt when executing their plan to increase our population to 6mil did not factor in the need to grow our public transport system. Commuters should remember this even as we take into account govt’s attempt to rectify the transport woes.

And if you follow DPM’s argument, he is essentially arguing that these are well-ran companies that would have turned in a decent profits if they were allowed to raise their fares. If you are the only water supplier in a desert town, can one refuse to drink from you?