Sunday, November 27, 2005

Is this the so-called world-class public transport we are supposed to be paying for?

Nov 27, 2005
Top bus woes: Long wait and overcrowding
By K.C. Vijayan

BUS commuters have two major complaints: they are waiting too long for the bus and resent having to squeeze into overcrowded buses, the latest public transport survey shows.

The bus passenger satisfaction survey of some 1,000 regular bus passengers islandwide also shows a dip in the overall satisfaction level for bus services.

The rating, on a scale of one to 10, slipped to 6.4 this year, from 6.86 last year.
Commuters polled in the annual survey - commissioned by the Public Transport Council (PTC), the industry regulator - said bus companies need to shape up on these two fronts. They want shorter waiting times and less overcrowding on buses.

These grouses are not new - they were among the top four bugbears in last year's survey, the first one conducted. It was the same story in a 2003 audit of bus service standards by the council.

'I get tired of having to wait for 15 minutes,' said marketing executive Johnny Koh, 35. 'What's worse, sometimes the driver drives slowly.'
So, why has it taken so long to lick these problems?

PTC chairman Gerard Ee told The Sunday Times yesterday that commuters cannot expect a 'miracle' and said motorists had to do their part by staying out of the bus lanes at peak hours.

He said: 'There is a lot of room for improvement, but to put all the blame on bus operators would be grossly unfair as there are 1,001 factors to be considered.

'We have to keep pushing at it. I don't think this report will produce a miracle, but the surveys help us to look at areas to tweak as we go along and improve.'

He said the PTC intends to sit down with bus operators and explore ways to tackle the situation.

But things should get better with recent changes, he added.

For one, the Land Transport Authority has introduced, as a pilot project - an all-day bus lane system on busy Orchard Road to improve the traffic flow. If it is successful, it may be extended to other roads.

Both the bus companies - SBS Transit and SMRT Buses - said they would look at the survey to see how they can improve.

SBS Transit, which controls 75 per cent of the business, said it has made several improvements, such as introducing eight new services this year and lengthening the routes of another four to cover more areas.

Spokesman Tammy Tan said that traffic congestion is not predictable and is beyond the firm's control, but said the company would work with the authorities to see what more can be done to give buses priority on the roads.

An SMRT spokesman said the company would continue to try and match commuter demand.

Despite the bugbears, the survey also had positive results.

For instance, seven out of 10 commuters were more than satisfied with the services.
Almost nine in 10 felt fares were affordable, up from seven in 10 last year.

But commuters The Sunday Times interviewed yesterday want more.

Clerk Tham Ngan Chan, 55, said courteous bus drivers do not quite make up for having to wait 15 minutes for the bus, which takes her from Jurong to her workplace.

Ms Catherine Tan, 45, a customer service officer who waits 20 minutes for her bus in the morning, said she has grown weary of surveys. 'We have them all the time,' she said. 'But after the surveys, the improvements are slight.'

Is this the so-called world-class public transport we are supposed to be paying for?

Is this what the PTC have in mind when they approved the fare hikes?

Perhaps, perhaps…

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Mandatory should be removed from Death Penalty.

From: The Age

Top Singapore lawyer slams death penalty
November 22, 2005 - 6:04AM
One of Singapore's top criminal defence lawyers says the city-state should abandon its use of the mandatory death penalty.

Speaking ahead of next week's scheduled execution of Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, Subhas Anandan said if Singapore's courts had more discretion, the Melbourne man may have avoided death row.

"I am not opposed to the death sentence, but I am not in favour of the mandatory death sentence," Subhas told AAP.

Subhas has handled more than 50 capital cases in Singapore over the past 35 years, and is regarded as one of the country's leading legal professionals.

Nguyen, 25, is set to be hanged at dawn on Friday December 2 after being caught with almost 400 grams of heroin while in transit at Changi Airport in 2002.

Singapore law mandates that those caught with more than 15 grams of heroin are deemed traffickers.

A judge must sentence someone to death if they are found guilty of trafficking.

Nguyen was convicted, lost his appeal and has now had all bids for clemency rejected by the Singapore authorities, including repeated appeals from the Australian government.

Subhas said it was essential that judges in Singapore be allowed to weigh the circumstances of each case when deciding an appropriate sentence.

The judge has to be able "to look at the circumstances in which things have been done," said Subhas.

"Sometimes the reasons vary, so I think that the judge should be given the discretion whether to impose the death sentence or not," he said.

The comments put him at odds with Singapore's government, which has consistently argued that compulsory use of the gallows is a vital part of its criminal justice system.

"Even in drug cases, there are cases where there are 15 grams, 20 grams, one kilogram," said Subhas.

"I am not saying that he (Nguyen) doesn't deserve the death sentence," he added.

"I am saying that if judges are given the discretion he - along with many others - may not have got the death sentence."

Amid the mounting anger in Australia about Nguyen's likely fate, the use of mandatory death sentencing has also drawn fire from the United Nations.

Philip Alston, a Geneva-based Australian who monitors the death penalty for the world body, said last week that a black-and-white approach is entirely inappropriate where the life of the accused is at stake.

Subhas is well known for his defence work.

One tabloid dubbed him "public defender number one" for his high profile work.

Singapore also imposes the mandatory death sentence for murder, certain firearms offences and kidnapping.

Amnesty International has said the country probably executes more people relative to its size that any other state worldwide.

Well I have to agree to with Mr Subhas on this. While I am not against death penalty, I do not find it necessary to have mandatory death penalty, especially for offences drug offences.

Death penalty is the ultimate punishment for any crime. Given its finality, the accuse should be able to have his/her migrating circumstances taken into account of the sentence.

With a mandatory death sentence, however, the judges have no room for discretion.

Hence I personally would prefer that the part mandatory be removed from the death sentence.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Truth is out! Our NS + reservist worth a GRAND S$5000!

Nov 20, 2005
Pianist pays NS dues - 28 years later

He is fined for defaulting on his NS after he decides to return, as his aged parents are finding it difficult to visit him in London
By Kristina Tom

AFTER staying away from Singapore for nearly 30 years because he defaulted on his national service, pianist Melvyn Tan has finally paid his dues.

The 49-year-old, who has lived in the United Kingdom for the last 37 years, has paid a fine for not fulfilling his national service duty and will be performing at the Esplanade next month.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, a visibly relieved Mr Tan said that he is glad to have put the past behind him.

He has not stepped onto Singapore soil all these years because he had feared that he would be arrested and thrown into jail.

But his 86-year-old father and 80-year-old mother are getting too old to make the regular trips to London to visit him at his home in Notting Hill, London.

So he decided to take a 'risk'. After informing the authorities of his intention to return, he came home in April for a court hearing.

The hearing lasted 30 minutes but he had never been so nervous in his life. 'It was very, very nerve-wracking,' he said.

To his relief, he was asked only to pay a fine.

He claims that he cannot remember the amount.

Under the Enlistment Act, those who evade national service can be fined up to $5,000 or sent to jail for up to three years, or both.

Although Mr Tan became a British citizen in 1978, he was still a Singapore citizen when he failed to fulfil his NS duties, making him answerable for the offence in a Singapore court.

In 1994, The Straits Times quoted a lawyer who said that one of his clients, a 39-year-old French citizen, was arrested at the airport on arrival, fined and made to complete nine months of training.

Mr Tan, who has an elder sister, was studying at Anglo-Chinese School when he left Singapore to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Sussex. He was then 12 years old.

After he finished his course, he stayed on in England to study at the Royal College of Music instead of coming home to serve national service in 1977.

He said: 'When I was at the Royal College and I got my final call-up, I was just on the brink of starting a career. I thought about it and thought about it and realised that I was not going to get this chance again.

'So I made that very difficult decision to not return. It meant I could never come back.'

Mr Tan first made his mark in the classical world with his performances on the 19th-century fortepiano, the precursor to the modern concert grand.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he produced a series of recordings that popularised the early music movement, regarded as a slightly eccentric niche within the music world.

He has about 30 recordings to his name and a regular touring schedule in Europe.

Along with Seow Yit Kin and Margaret Leng Tan, he has helped Singapore to gain recognition on the global piano scene.

The pianist is wasting no time in reconnecting with the Singapore music scene.

He goes back to England tomorrow, but will return early next month to sit on the jury of the National Arts Council's biennial National Piano and Violin Competition, which starts Dec 7 and ends Dec 18.

He said that he is getting to know Singapore, which he describes as 'unrecognisable', all over again. And, of course, he has been feasting on his favourite foods such as popiah.

But the best part about being able to come home as a free man was showing up at his mother's 80th birthday party on Thursday.

His parents still live in his childhood home in Lengkok Angsa, off Paterson Road. 'There were a few tears,' he said. 'She was just delighted. It was the best birthday present she's ever had.'

Today I finally got to know how much does my 2.5 years in National Service and future reservist call-ups worth.

It is worth a GRAND $5000 sing dollars! How cool is that?!? Man shouldn’t be all Singaporean male be proud?!? 5k leh!

5K for 2.5 years of my bloody time and at least another 10 high key call up! KNNCCB!

Now I know China is not the only country with 1 country 2 systems.

NS really is only for peasants like me who cannot afford to leave Singapore for overseas studies when young, not elites who live near Paterson Road…

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Another failed attempt at social engineering? I wonder…

Is GEP another fail attempt at social engineering after our Eugenic programme and infamous graduate-mother scheme? I really wonder…

Weekend, November 19, 2005

A gifted student? Sorry to hear that
Pupils in GEP often ostracised, have trouble coping: Study

Loh Chee Kong

Some of them did not even want the honour in the first place.

They parents coerced them, bribed them with cash and goaded them into joining that most exclusive of clubs — the Gifted Education Programme (GEP).

But in many cases, the club turns into a nightmare. These bright youngsters find themselves struggling to cope with demands that they are not prepared for and often end up being ostracised by their own classmates for the badge that distinguishes them. Now some 20 years old, the GEP is not a bed of roses.

Mr Don Shiau, who conducted a study on such "gifted" students last year as part of his university honours programme, presented some poignant findings on Friday at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect's Sixth Asian Regional Conference.

Said Mr Shiau: "This study does not show GEP students are not as capable as we think but it demonstrates some of the unseen pressures they face."

GEP students lead strange lives. On the one hand they go to school with general-level students so that they can mingle. On the other hand, they have their own exclusive facilities, teachers and curriculum.

They are selected for their high intellectual ability. And yet they are expected to develop moral values and leadership qualities. And then, there is the constant pressure to excel.

Mr Shiau, now an executive at the Ministry of Finance, interviewed 16 "gifted" children from Primary 4 and Primary 6 to find out what they felt about it all.

Many of them did not join the programme out of choice, he found. Their parents made the decision on their behalf and the gifted children were often "ridiculed and ostracised by their non-gifted peers", he said.

True, during the GEP orientation, the Primary 4 students were warned about the difficulty of the programme and were constantly told that they were no different from mainstream students. But the differences were highlighted in subtle ways.

For example, in the run-up to the Primary School Leaving Examinations, the schools would also compare the performance of the Primary 6 students in GEP to their mainstream counterparts.

And between Primary 4 and Primary 6, their lives changed. While the Primary 4 students said that they were regarded with admiration by their peers, the Primary 6 students complained that they were stereotyped and subjected to heckling and verbal abuse. As a result, they had few friends outside the GEP.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Battle royale in Aljunied GRC?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Battle royale in Aljunied GRC?

If a contest arises, it could be a heavyweight fight: Analysts

Lee Ching Wern

Going by the current activity in the constituency, a battle royale could be on the cards in Aljunied GRC in the elections which many believe are just around the corner.

Party bigwigs are not talking but political watchers say that if a contest does come about, a heavyweight battle is likely to be in the offing — with a PAP top-liner in the form of Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo on one side and Workers Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim on the other.

Mr Yeo heads the current GRC slate with MPs Mdm Cynthia Phua, chairman of Aljunied Town Council, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed and Dr Ong Seh Hong.

Both corners are keeping their cards well hidden but last month Mr Yeo, who many political analysts believe is destined for bigger things in government, unveiled a five-year master plan and budget worth $160 million to upgrade the GRC.

The GRC encircles the WP stronghold of Hougang, which is like the hole in the middle of a doughnut. The influence of WP stalwart Low Thia Khiang, who holds fort in Hougang, could spread to the GRC if this geographical juxtaposition of constituencies, which have similarities in demographics, count for anything.

Political watchers, who believe that Aljunied GRC is likely to remain part of the WP's political strategy, point to the fact that WP's Ms Lim and 2nd Assistant Secretary-General James Gomez have been spotted working the ground in Aljunied GRC during weekends.

Just two weeks ago, the WP also held a public outreach session at Hougang Ave 1.

The PAP have not been laggards in this aspect. Soon after the unveiling of the master plan by Mr Yeo, residents received flyers informing them of improvements that will be made to their living environment, which includes lift upgrading, security systems, adventure parks and other recreational facilities.

Roving exhibitions to obtain feedback from residents on the facelift are being held at all the housing estates. Mr Yeo has also been seen more often around the estate, residents told Today.

That the GRC has kept up with the needs of residents with the PAP at the helm can be gauged from the number of public amenities — 14 schools, 17 PAP education centres, six Community Clubs, 27 Child Care Centres, two sports halls/swimming complexes, 11 parks and three MRT stations.

In addition, the GRC can boast of being home to 11 churches, 13 temples and five mosques. And for shoppers, five malls.

"The buzz seems to be that the Workers Party will field a strong foursome in the upcoming GE against a strong incumbent team which has been doing due diligence since winning the ward in 2001. There are signs that both sides have not rested on their political laurels, and are seeking to make an impression before the GE," said Ms Jeannie Conceicao, research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

How will the $160 million carrot affect the elections, Today asked residents of Aljunied GRC?

Residents welcomed the newly announced measures and IT professional Mr CK Tan said that for supporters of the PAP, they showed the commitment of the party to the constituency.

But some differ.

Then there are the diehards. "I will vote for the party I wish to support, regardless of whether the lift stops at every floor," said Mr Wilson Aw, a 23-year-old undergraduate.

Mr Yeo, when asked if the upgrading measures were timed to garner support from voters for the GE, said: "If you ask me whether this has anything to do with serving residents, winning their support, yes, the whole idea is to serve residents, win their support and serve them better."

But will the goodwill felt for Mr Low in Hougang spill over to Aljunied GRC?

"Sentiments still play a part in how people respond to candidates and political parties. This is evident in Hougang. But whether there will be any similar effect in Aljunied is hard to say because it also depends on which particular candidates the WP fields there and not purely on Mr Low's influence," said political scientist Dr Ho Khai Leong.

While they have definitely seen the WP working the ground, many residents that Today spoke to cannot remember the names of the party members they've met.

"Unless you're someone who follows politics very closely, chances are you won't know much about them, especially the new candidates. When we have to choose between voting for a known entity or an unknown entity, the choice is quite obvious. So to convince people to switch camps, the opposition has to be very clear as to what they can offer," said resident Mr Ow.

And what does the opposition have to offer?

The WP's Ms Lim told Today: "We have to work within the resources available to us to do our outreach. Even if some voters may not know us intimately, votes for the WP could serve a variety of purposes: To effect change and to indicate support for the WP or its candidates per se, or to express dissatisfaction with the incumbent party by sending them a clear signal."

With Singaporeans largely viewing upgrading as a given and a part of the social compact between the Government and the people, the new amenities may not win over some residents.

"To be honest, all these are cosmetic add-ons. Adventure parks and CCTVs are good to have, but I don't really need them," said Mr Ow, who added he would keep an open mind and listen to what the opposition has to offer before deciding on whom to vote into office.

In the last GE in 2001, a WP team tried to contest in Aljunied GRC but was disqualified because of incomplete nomination papers.

Their supporters would be sorely disappointed if that error was repeated.

Although I applaud the efforts made by WP, I have to say that the contest described above is, in all likelihood, over-hyped.

First of all, George Yeo is not an unpopular minister. He is in charge of the Foreign Ministry and I have to say Mr Yeo has done his job ably. Singapore is well regarded in the international scene and that is remarkable for the fact that Singapore is only a small island state.

Secondly, the $160 million upgrading carrot will certainly have an effect has most would like their estate to be spruced up in the hope that it will help to boost the price of their properties.

However the table might be turned on PAP if the residents are made to hefty co-payment for the project. It is an issue that the WP can capitalise on.

WP could have made their task easier by targeting some of the weaker and more unpopular ministers for the next GE. In my opinion Hong Kah GRC would have been a good target for the WP because of the many unpopular policies that the anchor minister, Mr Yeo Cheow Tong, has implemented and that LTA is probably by far the most unpopular ministry in Singapore for the many debacles it had committed.

The task of challenging Mr Yeo on the upcoming GE would probably fall on SDP given that they had contested in Hong Kah GRC during the 2001 elections. But I really cannot see SDP winning the GRC just for the fact the SDP’s reputation is no longer what it used to be after Dr Chee took over.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Case for transparency.

Nov 12, 2005
Audit 'quite negative', staff told

THE independent auditors' report on National Kidney Foundation (NKF) activities will be released soon, and staff have been told to prepare for a strong public reaction to the findings.

NKF staff interviewed by The Straits Times said they had been told the report by auditor KPMG is 'not very favourable' and 'quite negative'.

When asked by The Straits Times to comment on this, Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan, said it does not matter whether the report is good or bad, but whether it is transparent, complete and accurate so that people's trust can be restored.

The new NKF board had ordered an independent audit into the organisation's finances in July. A press conference on the issue had been planned for Thursday but was cancelled at short notice.

Interim NKF chairman Gerard Ee said the NKF decided to 'change the order of the information released'. Findings of the KPMG report will be released first, followed by details on NKF reserves.

The charity has stopped all active fund raising and donors are still cutting contributions.

For the NKF cancer charity shows held in July, donors defaulted on about $518,000 in donations. About 40,000 regular donors have also stopped their monthly donations.

However, a Singaporean businessman in Hong Kong recently donated $100,000 to the NKF to help its 1,862 patients on dialysis.

Dr Balakrishnan said it is understandable that people who were angry or uncertain might want to withhold donations.

He added: 'Let's give some time, for things to settle down, for the facts to come out, and for new management of NKF to establish and improve itself. I think people will resume their donations.'

I guess there is no better example than this that can fully illustrate the need for transparency in our govt institutions.

Just imagine what if CPF or GIC (these 2 public institutions had never open their accounts to public scrutiny) are like that?!?

Guest writer

Ever since at82(the blogger of this blog) asked me to contribute some ideas to his blog, I've been stumped by how hard it actually is to put down thoughts on screen in a coherent way. Over the past year or so, at82 and myself have discussed Singapore's affairs over long dinners, and i suppose that was the catalyst for his starting of this blog. I hope blog viewers(is that the right word??) will appreciate my effort since blogging and writing about these topics is fairly alien to me.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Elections must be coming real soon.

From ST:

Nov 7, 2005
PM backs bonus for low-wage workers

Payout is one of many ideas govt committee is looking into to narrow income gap
By Lydia Lim and T. Rajan

THE Government may pay a special bonus to low-income middle-aged workers to encourage them to stay employed.

This latest plan to narrow the growing income gap was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday at the People's Action Party (PAP) convention.

The idea for bonuses was floated by Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen to Mr Lee and the Prime Minister thinks it will work.

The special one-off payout is to be given when there is a Budget surplus. It is to help low-income workers aged over 40, many of whom have both children and elderly parents to support. Those with the lowest incomes will get the biggest bonuses.

'We want to encourage people to work, but if they have low incomes and are working, we should reward them,' said Mr Lee, reiterating the principle behind workfare.

'If you make an effort, you will be rewarded,' he said.

He added that the Committee on Low-wage Workers, chaired by Dr Ng, was working on this and other ideas. It is due to announce its recommendations early next year.

He made the announcements while addressing the PAP convention for the first time as secretary-general.

A confident Mr Lee said both Singapore and the ruling party had what it took to meet the competition and challenges ahead.

He spoke for 30 minutes in English, Mandarin and Malay to some 2,000 party members at the Kallang Theatre.

He celebrated the PAP government's success to date and also laid out its programme to take the country forward.

The PAP, he said, continued to be the party with the ideas and policies to make life better for all Singaporeans.

Its policies served to upgrade the economy to create new jobs and remake the education system to prepare all children for the future. They were also strengthening social cohesion and guarding against the fault lines of race, language and religion.

The effectiveness of these policies could be seen in the 78,000 new jobs created so far this year, two-thirds of which went to Singaporeans.

The audience roared with laughter when Mr Lee joked that it was turning out to be easier to create jobs than to get Singaporeans to create babies.

Internationally, Singapore's standing was also high, he said.

This was why multinationals continue to invest here. Countries like China, India and Russia were also keen to work with the Republic to develop industrial parks.

Within Singapore itself, there were policies to ensure all in society progressed together, with help for low-income families, the elderly and those with medical needs.

'We will do everything in our power to take care of all groups,' he said.

The Government will continue to distribute Budget surpluses, with the elderly receiving more Medisave top-ups, and those on low incomes, more Singapore Shares.

To achieve all this, Mr Lee said Singapore needed a 'strong and capable PAP' which would pursue pragmatic and rational solutions with compassion.

Good leadership was also crucial and the PAP continued to renew itself.

In the next General Election, which Mr Lee would only say was 'some time coming', the party would field a good slate of candidates, both old and new.

Without providing names or numbers, he said the new line-up would be 'young, diverse and representative', in touch with people's needs and committed to the country. He urged party members to help him win the next polls with a strong mandate to lead the country and secure its future.

Young PAP member Goh Chung Meng, 48, director of Avi-Tech Electronics, was in favour of rewarding low-wage workers.

'We don't want to have welfare. You work, we will help you out,' was how he summed it up.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Manpower and Education) Hawazi Daipi said low-income families were an issue that would remain: 'We hope to find new ways of helping Singaporeans to level up, to help themselves be employable.'

Elections must be coming real soon.

I really cannot think of any other reasons why is our govt giving away so many goodies all of a sudden.

I just hope they won’t take it all back with interest after the elections by increasing GST, ERP, our CPF withdrawal age and whatnot!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

HDB flats - Wealth that cannot be unlocked?

This report is closer to the real situation faced by Singaporeans when forced to cash out on our HDB flats than the rosy picture that PM Lee has painted.

Nov 5, 2005
Pot of gold for the poor?

Even the bottom 20 per cent of households here have over $138,000 of assets in their Housing Board flats, thanks to the home-ownership policy. But are those HDB flats really pots of gold for the cash-strapped? How useful is that valuable HDB flat, if such wealth cannot be unlocked? Lydia Lim and Aaron Low report.

ON PAPER, it looks like mother-of-four S. Kannaki is sitting on some $170,000 in wealth.

It is locked up in her four-room Housing Board flat in Sembawang, which could sell for up to $230,000 on the resale market.

She still owes the HDB $60,000 in mortgage payments.

But Mrs Kannaki, 32, who earns $900 a month as a daily-rated worker fogging mosquito-breeding areas, does not exactly feel rich.

With her husband in jail, she is cash-strapped and wants to sell her flat. She cannot as she has not lived in it for the minimum of five years required under HDB rules. Her husband also does not want it sold.

'I have to wait and I don't know how long more I can tahan, ' she tells Insight, using a Malay word which means 'bear with it'. 'Once I sell the flat, I can get some money. I don't think I want to buy a flat again. I hope I can rent a one- or two-room flat if everything works out, so I can support my family,' she says.

Some 87 per cent of low-income families here own the HDB flats they live in. This is an unusually high percentage, relative to other countries. It is largely due to various government policies to encourage and enable as many Singaporeans as possible to buy their own homes.

In a recent paper based on data from the 2003 Household Expenditure Survey, the Department of Statistics (DOS) implied that this home ownership policy had also helped the low-income become 'well-off'.

It highlighted the finding that households in the bottom 20 per cent by income have accumulated on average home equity of $138,000 each.

Home equity is the sum of money an owner gets after he sells his flat and repays his mortgage. It is calculated by taking the estimated valuation of the flat and deducting the outstanding loan from the HDB.

The conclusion of the DOS? Home-owning Singaporeans, including those in the bottom 20 per cent, are in general 'well-off in terms of the asset values of their HDB flats'.

But does owning an HDB flat really make even low-income households 'well-off'?

Besides giving them a roof over their heads, how does it help these families when they face hard times?

How easy is it for them to cash out when they need to, so they can use the capital gains from their flats for other needs and expenses?

The answer to these questions could well decide whether home equity should be a factor in deciding how 'well-off' these families are.

The difference is a huge one, especially for households in the bottom 20 per cent.

By the DOS' own calculations, the amount of home equity these families have accumulated - an average of $138,000 each - is close to 10 times their annual household income.

This figure was also cited by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech this year, when he spoke about the Government keeping a close eye on how families in the bottom fifth of the population were faring.

Mr Lee said it was 'not bad' for families in this group to have equity of $138,000 in their HDB homes.

'It will see him into his old age and his family if he is prudent,' he said.

But while the Government's underlying assumption seems to be that the value of these flats should count towards people's wealth, some economists disagree.

Among them is National University of Singapore (NUS) economist Tilak Abeysinghe, who says: 'The question is whether your house is a usable asset. If it is not, then it cannot be considered part of your wealth.'

By 'usable asset', he means something that can be sold to help the owner pay off debts or for other expenses.

Not easy to cash out

THE irony in Singapore is that while most people own their homes, they cannot do what they will with them.

The vast majority who live in public housing are technically not owners but tenants, who lease their flats from the HDB.

It is the HDB, as landlord, that decides what they can do with their homes. This state of affairs seriously limits the ways in which Singaporeans can convert their home equity into cash for spending.

In contrast, in countries like the United States and Australia, people who want to get money out of their homes can either downgrade to a cheaper place or borrow money using their homes as collateral.

But the HDB does not allow the second option here.

In 2002 during the pro-entrepreneurship drive, entrepreneurs tried but failed to get the go-ahead for home-equity loans, as a way to get capital for their start-ups.

These loans allow an owner, who has paid up part of his mortgage, to take a second loan on the repaid portion.

The HDB said no because subsidised housing is for Singaporeans to live in, not use as a source of credit.

Reverse mortgages are also not allowed. The HDB worries that borrowers may outlive the term of the mortgages, be forced to sell off their flats to repay the loan and end up homeless.

West Coast GRC MP S. Iswaran says more needs to be done to help Singaporeans to monetise the wealth tied up in their homes in an orderly manner.

He describes this as the 'essential final aspect' of policies to help people own their homes and save for retirement.

The current situation is 'asymmetric', he says. 'The average Singaporean spends 20 to 30 years building up the equity in his HDB flat through monthly mortgage payments.

'Yet when it is time to unlock some of this value, say for retirement expenses, the main option is to sell the property. This is not optimal - the monetisation is lumpy and the individual still needs a place to live,' he tells Insight.

He means that after the sale, the flat owner gets the money in one lump sum instead of a steady stream of payments spread out over a period of say, 10 to 20 years.

One change that has helped HDB owners monetise their assets is the relaxation of subletting rules in March this year.

Now, those who have paid off their mortgages can sublet their entire flats after living there for five years, and those with outstanding loans after 10 years.

But this only helps families who have alternative accommodation. Those who do not have but one choice - downgrade.

Even then, they may trip up on HDB rules, such as one requiring them to have lived in the flat for at least five years before selling.

Southwest district mayor Amy Khor says the resale levy is yet another impediment. HDB owners who downgrade have to pay levies of up to 25 per cent of the sale price of their flat if they want to buy another subsidised flat.

She says the policy should be reviewed to help those who genuinely need to downgrade and would suffer a loss if they had to pay the HDB such a huge chunk of their sales proceeds.

No wealth effect

WITH these HDB restrictions in place, it is hardly surprising that Singaporean homeowners do not seem to feel richer when the value of their homes go up.

This is quite unlike home owners in other developed countries.

In a 2004 paper on housing prices and their impact on Singaporeans' spending behaviour, Singapore Management University economist Phang Sock Yong analysed quarterly economic data from 1981 to 2000.

She concluded that the dramatic increases in housing prices during that period 'had no significant positive effect on aggregate consumption in Singapore'.

In contrast, data for the other 30 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries showed an 'unambiguous' link between changes in housing wealth and consumption.

She suggested two factors to explain this.

First, it is not as easy for households here to withdraw housing equity to finance consumption.

Second, Singaporeans have a stronger desire to bequeath their homes to their children.

In a separate paper, Associate Professor Abeysinghe and fellow NUS economist Choy Keen Meng found a strong link between increases in home loans and CPF withdrawals, and the steady decline in Singapore's average propensity to consume (APC).

The APC measures the share of a country's total output or GDP that is due to private consumption, that is, spending by households.

In the 40 years from 1960 to 2000, Singapore's APC declined from 0.8 to 0.41.

Singapore's APC is now the ' the free world', they said. By comparison, the US has an APC of 0.68 and Hong Kong an APC of 0.64.

The decline is of concern, they wrote, as private spending is the most stable source of total demand - and therefore growth - for any economy. This means that the higher the APC, the more likely it is that a country's growth will be stable.

They concluded that Singapore's declining APC results in more volatile GDP growth.

This is because when APC or spending by households is low, growth is largely driven by exports and foreign investments, which tend to fluctuate more and are more vulnerable to external events.

The two economists found that a fall in housing prices was accompanied by a rise in APC with a lag of four to five years. They also found that the APC lost much ground when housing prices shot up during the property bubbles of the early 1980s and 1990s.

They urged the Government to prevent further declines in the APC by ensuring homes remained affordable.

When asked to respond to the findings, the DOS said it had no comments except to note that Singapore 'has a unique and exceptionally open economy with significant periods of economic growth driven by external demand'.

Taken together, the two academic papers raise the question of whether Singapore's home-ownership policy - which has benefited the vast majority, including the low income, by providing good affordable housing - may have exacted costs on the economy and individuals.

And though most Singaporeans have significant equity in their HDB flats, there remain doubts about the usefulness of such wealth to home owners.

These are due largely to the difficulties many HDB households face in converting their home equity into cash they can use.

Unless and until ways are found to help them monetise their prized assets, it is debatable to what extent HDB-owning families, especially those in the bottom 20 per cent, are truly 'well-off' if that assessment is based on paper gains they cannot encash.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What is so good about being a contract worker?

Posted: 01 November 2005 1704 hrs

Recruitment firms report increase in hiring of contract workers
By Farah Abdul Rahim, Channel NewsAsia

SINGAPORE : The number of contract workers in the workforce is rising dramatically - making it one of the fastest growing segments in the job market.

Recruitment companies report a surge in the number of such workers hired - with a two-fold jump so far this year, compared to last year.

They made up about 5 percent or more than 100,000 of the labour force last year.

Mr Ryan Chan, Personal Consultant, moved from the banking industry to recruitment and sales four months ago - on a contract-basis.

"It is flexible. I get to try out certain industries. That is a major perk for me, to try and if it is not my cup of tea, move on, don't waste time on my side and employers' side," he said.

Recruitment companies are seeing more of such contract employees, who are employed from a period that ranges from three months to as long as three years.

Ms Cynthia Chew, Managing Director of Adecco, said: "We see an overall increase, but in particular, a marked increase in professionals today, compared to say two to three years ago.

"Contract jobs are here to stay, the landscape for employment is changing and contract jobs are the jobs of tomorrow, with outsourcing and benefits of contract jobs, and the flexibility of managing the workforce."

As the number of contract workers grows, there is also a call for more to be done to protect them as contract workers lose their medical benefits once they leave the company.

Ms Chew added: "The only thing that needs to be improved is legislation to allow, in the future, for benefits to be portable, because currently insurance, medical are tied to the company.

"Once the contract ends, you begin a whole new episode with the next organisation that hires you on contract and this may not be positive."

This trend will also help older workers.

With Singapore's ageing population and the increasing number of mature workers, industry watchers say contract work is a win-win for employers and employees alike.

Employers get greater flexibility in hiring older workers and older workers increase their chances of getting a job, with more contract jobs on the market.

In the second part of the series on contract workers on Wednesday, Channel NewsAsia will take a closer look at the growing pool of low-wage contract workers and the recommendations by the labour movement to protect their interests. - CNA/de

Typical positive spinning by our 140th media again.

Ask any of your friends who are doing contract job, large majority of them will tell you they hope to get a PERMENANT job soon.

It is a well-known fact that employees hired on contract-basis have much less job security and staff benefits such as annual leave, bonuses etc… Some of them don’t even receive CPF contribution from their employers!

It really annoyed me when the media tries to paint a rosy picture when the reality is much grimmer…

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Singapore ranked at 140th out of 167 countries in freedom of press? SM Goh: No need paiseh!

From Today:

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

A free press? Or efficient govt?
At Today's 5th birthday bash, SM Goh speaks of press power, responsibility and competition

Lee Ching Wern

IN A recent worldwide ranking on freedom of the press, Singapore — 140th out of 167 countries — placed below even war-ravaged Sudan.

First of all, all thinking people should have already realised that it is not freedom of press that cause Sudan to be ravaged by war.

Freedom of press just means being free from govt. interventions when it comes to reporting news, so why can't a war torn country have better press freedom?

Moreover if even war-ravaged Sudan can do better than us in freedom of press, doesn’t it speak volumes about the state of our media?

"Should we be embarrassed because we are near the bottom of the ladder in the ranking? Should we be worried that investors may be put off? Not at all," said Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Yeah we should be proud of our achievement; it is not easy for us to compete with Egypt (143rd), Pakistan (150th), Iraq (157th), Burma (163rd), North Korea (167th) ok?

"What then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1959 is still our position today. He told a foreign correspondent then: 'You are not going to teach us how we should run the country. We are not so stupid. We know what our interests are and we try to preserve them'."

PAP’s interests or Singaporean interests, I wonder...

Speaking at the fifth anniversary dinner for Today at the Shangri-La Hotel last night, Mr Goh first touched on the Press Freedom Index, published by the international non-government organisation Reporters Without Borders, where Singapore fared poorly. Then he pointed to two other indices that told another story.

Transparency International's 2005 survey of corruption perception for 158 countries ranked Singapore as the fifth least corrupt country. Meanwhile, the US-based Heritage Foundation's Economic Freedom Index ranked Singapore second out of 155 economies.

"As for economic prosperity, Singapore is way ahead of many countries with better press freedom rankings. My simple point is this: It has not been proven that having more press freedom would result in a clean and efficient government or economic freedom and prosperity," said Mr Goh.

No matter how many times I look at the list, ALL of the countries that ranked near us does not seem to be corruption free and most of them are not doing well economically. This shows that for every Singapore there is a North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Yemen and whatnot. What make you so sure that we won’t end up like them one day in the future?

Contrary to what western liberals think, the media has no place as the fourth estate here, he added.

"I do not know what our young journalists learn in their university courses but having our media play the role as the fourth estate cannot be the starting point for building a stable, secure, incorrupt and prosperous Singapore. The starting point is how to put in place a good government to run a clean, just and efficient system," said Mr Goh.

Of course having media playing the role of fourth estate cannot be the starting point for building a stable, secure, incorrupt and prosperous Singapore. These are the jobs of police, judicial system, political leadership and most important of all us as voters.

However a free media can help us, the voters, to make informed decisions during General Elections by monitoring and reporting on instances of corruptions, scandals, unkept promises and unsatisfactory performances of these politicians.

That in my opinion is the true value of a free press.

As the media shapes public opinion and provides an important channel for the Government to communicate with the people, it is in a privileged position, he explained. Editors and journalists, thus, shoulder a heavier moral and social responsibility than the CEOs and executives of other commercial companies. He urged editors and journalists to be always be "mindful of the powers wielded by their pens or nowadays, keyboards".

I think SM Goh doesn’t need to worry too much about that given the large number of ex-ISD intelligence “analysts” working for Straits Times. The public opinion shaped by our “credible” media will always conform to the interests of our government.

Recalling how he had shared his views at the 150th anniversary celebrations of The Straits Times on the media paradigm that Singapore should adopt, Mr Goh said: "Today newspaper is only five years old. Compared to The Straits Times it is still a growing child. The fifth birthday is not really a major milestone whether for a child or a commercial organisation.

"However, I agreed to be guest-of-honour because I regard newspapers as more than just the usual commercial products." …

I totally agree with SM Goh on this. There is no better way of spreading our government propagandas, opps sorry is ideas, than our 140th national press and media. Without our 140th press and media, our country will not be as brainwashed, shit paiseh is cohesive, as it is now.

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