Monday, August 28, 2006

Are singaporeans picky? or just a lack of desire to serve?

Interesting nugget today, told to me by the GM of a large hotel in Singapore.

1. new coffeeshop being renovated in hotel. Change of theme and style requires change of waiting staff as the original staff are cultured to the old setup.
2. ads go out for new staff in newspapers. Not enough locals respond. No staff hired. Countdown to new opening is ticking.
3. New ad goes out. Now offering 1 month's sign on bonus. basic pay just under 2k a month.
4. ZERO responses received by said hotel. Countdown continuing to new opening. still zero staff at the waiter level.

Now, this is a pretty good hotel by most measures, and most definitely no slouch when it comes to being willing to pay well for good help. The problem here is, they can't find good help!

As a foreign friend then commented - Chinese people do not like to serve. They only like money and power.
(now this may be stereotyping, but there probably is a big nugget of truth in that statement!)

Nestled within that stereotype are chinese post-colonial attitudes about servitude. Now there is a slight difference between modern day service industry and servitude (though one could also argue that one still has a choice in both colonial times and modern times as to where to work in the 'service' industry).

In colonial times, the chinese had to serve foreign masters. In modern times, they may still see waiting in hotels as 'serving' foreign masters. I guess this is one prejudice that we will have to overcome (if we can ever overcome our own 'inferiority' complex).

Now, last I checked (and I could be rather wrong), $2k a month wages is something that a university graduate might accept. It is more than what the average polytechnic grad could expect to get in their first year(?) while working for the government. Now with a 1 month signing bonus, I would also think that they would probably get good opportunities for wage incrases and year -end bonuses to encourage them to stay on (given the shortage of service staff hotels face all the time!).

This is not a WongKanSeng call for people to accept lower wages. The wages being ofered are more than sensible given that one doesn't need a huge amount of education to wait, just a pleasant attitude, genuine smile and interest in the customer's well-being. If I had fewer options, I would be considering such offers too.

One thing that the GM also mentioned, is that we do have 'quotas' that must be filled by Singaporeans. Now, we do not have a minimum wage system. Maybe that reduces the prestige of being a waiter (especially since there aren't enough big tippers for waiters to earn big bucks). On the other hand, basic economics teaches us that when there is a quota, and a lack of supply, wages would rise, because the companies must fill the quota.

Is this Singapore society's response to the lack of a minimum wage? refuse to work in the service sector until the wages are the equivalent of a lawyer or doctor? Maybe they will have to pay that much to get labour waiting on tables. Maybe that is one way to get to a lower GINI co-efficient. Or maybe I'm just rambling.

sigheth. As the GM said, and I wholeheartedly agree -good help is hard to find.
In the service sector, it seems, its even harder despite the market rate going up.

best wishes to my friend to find good help.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Short rant on Foreign(?) nationals of chinese descent

10.30pm Orchard Road; waiting for the bus.

Up comes fairly well-dressed woman (about 30ish?) who speaks with some difficulty in a very soft voice, in Mandarin (not singaporean/malaysian accent.), stretches over and tries to speak into ear with a very very VERY soft voice.

"can you please help me? I am ill, out of work, and need help. "

"sorry, cannot help."

"where do you need to go?"

*points at nearest bus, "Bedok"

Finds $1.20 for bus fare, gives to woman.

Woman walks to next bus (No.7 for those who know), and amidst the crowd of people trying to get on the bus, tries to get (sneak?) through without the driver/conductor's notice.

Driver/Conductor notices, calls woman back.

Woman tries sob story again on conductor. Tries to get close to bus conductor/driver's ear and speak softly in ear with difficulty (attempt to pull on sexual strings?)

Bus conductor/driver waves woman towards back of bus. Decides its not worth his effort to contest such free-riding behavior.

Bus drives off.

What did this incident illustrate? Are we wrong to hold racist attitudes? Do a few rotten apples
contaminate the whole batch by accident? (yet, in statistics, if we do find a rotten apple, we might throw away the entire batch?!)

I'm not sure how to respond about my own biases. Here is someone, out to 'free-ride' a little on the rest of society. The money was given for a bus fare (though she looked like she could afford it, and I happen to believe that if one can help, one should work towards a kinder society), yet, the money was put into the pocket, and she also CON(vinced) her way onto a free bus ride.

Maybe she wasn't from China. Maybe the sob story was real. Somehow, the body language just didn't seem to hint at it. No thanks at all after receiving the money, just straight away turned and walked to the bus. Maybe I was biased. but my read of her motions was that she was happy to have conned me out of $1.20. (or was it $1.30?)

Now, I was standing there wearing a short sleeved shirt, and short pants (reaching to the knee), and in what the Americans like to call "trainers", reading a book, minding my own business and waiting for the bus. Either she was desperate, or she thought maybe even a few cents from another unwary individual is still a few cents more in ther pocket than not.

Either way, free riding practices such as this (regardless of ethnicity or nationality), are inhibitors to a kinder society.

Globalization, they call it. Overcrowded society, where every man/woman for himself attitude, I think it.

Sigheth. What future can the world bring, when 2.5bn people are 'unleashed' with personal values that include such 'CONvictions'?

[btw, i hope this doesn't lead to any 'counselling' for the bus driver. He was thinking of meeting his demanding timetable, and the inconvenience to other passengers for delaying the bus. Did I ever mention that the buses in SG rival HK in terms of their urge to get away from the bus stop? buses on the European continent seem to operate at a more sedate pace. Wait, maybe he does need counselling, because he has caused the firm to lose income, and encouraged more passengers to consider trying this form of CONtact with bus drivers to get a free ride.]

Identifying the Ideological Construct used by the ruling party the first step towards defeating it?

While doing research for my final university course on culture, I came across a really interesting entry on Wikipedia that happened to describe Singapore very well:

- a pragmatic political philosophy,
with maxims like "when the epoch changed, the ways changed"
as its essential principle, than a jurisprudence.
(Source: wikipedia)

(Jurisprudence: Jurisprudence is the theory and philosophy of law. Students of jurisprudence aim to understand the fundamental nature of law, and to analyze its purpose, structure, and application. Jurisprudential scholars (sometimes confusingly referred to as "jurists") hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the law, the kind of power that it exercises, and its role in human societies. At a practical level, some jurists hope to improve society by studying what the law is, what it ought to be, and how it actually operates. They seek a deeper understanding behind law's seemingly unpredictable and uncertain nature. Source: Wikipedia)

Now, what really intrigued me was how each of the core principles described in the wiki entry, could easily be reflected in the political approach to governing Singapore:

  1. Fa (法 fǎ): law or principle. The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. Thus it is guaranteed that actions taken are systemically predictable. In addition, the system of law ran the state, not the ruler. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.
We have our laws. We interpret our laws. We reward our politicians who attempt to use summary judgement to enforce the sanctity of the state. We have a society where politicians demand to be above reproach. (someone tell me why? serving the nation is a desirable state of mind, serving the nation while having a 7-figure salary package must be nirvana?)

Is junior a strong leader? only the historians will know. But for now, it can be shown that he is not above using his father's tried (tired?) and trusted methods of stifling dissent with policy. The only other states where intellectual dissent against policies receive such responses are either dictatorial or totalitarian, which doesn't leave much to compare against.

Mr Brown is a good example of being silenced, possibly by bureaucrats seeking to gain the favour of the ruler, rather than any actual decision by the ruler.

Shu (術 shù): method, tactic or art. Special tactics and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, and thus no one can know which behaviour might help them getting ahead; except for following the fa or laws.
Hmm... how long is the list of Singapore's special tactics?

a. Out-of-bound markers - hmm... invisible - nobody knows one has crossed them until one has crossed them. as per the quote above, no one can understand Singapore's motivations, and thus no one can know which behaviour might help them get ahead, except for following the "golden path" - study hard, work hard, and leave politics to the politicians.

b. Un-independent Elections Department - Now, in most other democratic countries, the elections commission (or equivalent), is independent. They do not officially 'report' to anyone, and their independence is seen as a societal necessity to check against excesses of power. Singapore's version reports directly to the Prime Minister's Office. Now, efficiency is nice and good, but doesn't that reinforce the incumbent's ability to stay in power? If I had to answer to a boss who needed to get re-elected, it would truly take a man of conviction to be completely free from any undue influence - actual or imagined.

c. Continual shifting of target markers - 5Cs, Academic achievements, Shared values, heartlander v cosmopolitan, Stayer or quitter, foreign talents, desirable immigrants; do we really know what we are working towards or are we just expected to be hamsters, changing wheels at the command of their owners?

d. Artificially inflated land prices / HDB - the original goal of public housing was laudable. The current policies of HDB do not seem to be fulfilling those idealistic goals. Housing that takes 30 years to pay off? Will working hard at paying off the loan interest ensure that one gains the favour of the ruler? Or will it just make one a wage slave, asset rich, but without any cash to retire with?

Or maybe its housing that is re-developed at the whim of a bureaucrat at URA's hand? Land that can be compulsory acquired by the state for $1, and re-sold to developers at prices that make a mockery of the original landowner?

e. State determination of the right to associate - any gathering of >4 people can be considered an illegal assembly, and cause for the state to turn out the riot police. We are a pure society, prudish, and conservative, thus, all sorts of fringe groups such as People Like Us are not allowed to form for fear of upsetting the conservative majority (more likely, its the apathetic majority!)

f. Maintenance of obscure statues - S377, an inheritance from prudish Victorian times, a law repealed in the country where it came from, yet continues to exist as a statute on our books. By its last intepretation by the Singapore Judiciary, I guess most Singaporeans above 18 are probably guilty and should be thrown in jail (except that this might grind the economy to a halt?!). Then again, better to have all sorts of wierd and underused laws on the books, that can be drawn out to skewer any potential political dissenter. As long as the threat exists, the chilling effect on speech exists. Nice to have a hammer to threaten people without actually having to use it.

g. Constitution that defers to the law of the day - An example of a country not really knowing what it stands for. I'm not very sure what other countries do with their constitution, but ours seems more intent on giving power to the ruling party of the day rather than trying to uphold some ideal of society. See S14 (Freedom of speech, assembly and association), where, the right to be free, is 'conditional'. "Parliament may by law impose" a pretty long list of issues that are frequently subjective in light of the present. (simple translation - write new law, or change law to prevent any kind of intellectual dissent when they see fit. The parlimentary majority possessed by the ruling party is beneficial in this case, isn't it?)

h. State Control of Media
- Check out our over-protective Newspapers and printing Act. Specifically, S10 (Special features of newspaper company). Now, only the Minister may grant the right to transfer management shares to people he favors. Not exactly a model for media independence.

i. Legislative, Executive, Judiciary - with the ability to control all 3 elements in a society which seeks balances through checks through the 3 branches of government, is there any room for dissent?

j. An ongoing list? Please do point me to other things that are dissent-unfriendly, and I'll add ot this list!
Shi (勢 shì): legitimacy, power or charisma. It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself, that holds the power. Therefore, analysis of the trend, the context and the facts are essential for a real ruler.
Position of the ruler? Hmm... The offices of the government must be public, and above reproach. These "JUN-ZI"s have been carefully selected from (by?) birth, and groomed for high office. They cannot make mistakes, because they are the best our people have to offer, and the best will not make mistakes. (enjoying the circular logic yet?)

We have a system where the position holder holds the power. No longer the Charisma of the "founder of modern singapore" to wield as a stick to beat dissenters into submission; now, it is the office that is beyond reproach, and any dissent against the pronouncements of the office, must be met swiftly and surely.

Now, it would seem far fetched that a 3rd century BC ( that's -300 years for those who have difficulty with Anno Domini) would be relevant to Singapore society today. For those who enjoy cerebral pleasures - I would invite you to read the entire wiki entry on Legalism, and then decide for one self if it fits modern Singapore society. For those who are reading-challenged, here's a briefer cut&paste and the Singapore analogy:

...Legalists emphasized that the king as head of state was endowed with the "mystery of authority” (shih), and as such his decisions must always command the respect and obedience of the people. The king’s very figure brought legitimacy.
Hmm... lawsuits against Tang Liang Hong, J.B. Jeyaratnam, Francis Seow; Investigations against Martyn See. Rather a good way to maintain the mystique of high political office.
...Legalists emphasized that being too kind would spoil the populace and threaten the state's internal order.
Hmm - Low welfare expenditure as a % of GDP/GNP thanks to very strict and reductionistic criteria, spiraling healthcare costs due to the need to 'co-pay' (what are taxes for if not a form of redistributive justice?), requiring individuals to achieve self-sufficiency rather than state-assisted sufficiency (what is the use of the state if self-sufficiency is taken to its logical maximum?).

We're not known for having a kind government. Most commentators/critics would describe it as hopelessly paternalistic (graduate mother? high eugenics? social engineering?) and invasive of individuals' lives. Senior even said he rather direct Singaporeans' lives than leave it to their own responsibility to decide what's best for themselves. I guess it really isn't our own life. We're just another corporate digit in Singapore, Inc.
While the laws promulgated by the Legalists were ostensibly meant to benefit the common people, in reality, these laws aimed at benefiting the state by placing war and agriculture at the forefront of state policy.
Lets see, paraphrased in modern Singapore language:

While the laws promulgated by the ruling part were ostensibly meant to benefit the common people, in reality, these laws aimed at benefiting the state by placing economics and money at the forefront of state policy.

Some people have said - strong country, weak people. In our case, its strong government, weak people. Last I checked, the government was the appointed representatives of the people. When did they become the rulers of the people?

Last I checked, our ruling party seems to be in love with the idea that we're in an economic war, and ruin will come to the losers of this war. Paradoxically, although we desired a highly educated workforce, we only seem to desire their higher education for the increase in 'value-adding', rather than the evolution of society that higher education could lead to. By relentlessly calling on the workforce to be more productive, accept less for more so that the state can survive, pitting us in competition with the greater world (of which we're not really equipped to compete in the knowledge economy world, not without large importation of "immigrants/foreign talent"), these 'educated' hamsters are required to run faster and faster, and expected to switch wheels at the snap of a bureaucrat's fingers, because of some perceived competitive advantage (that usually turned out to be more puff than substance)
Legalist philosophers emphasized the primacy of the state over individual autonomy. The lone individual had no legitimate civil rights and any personal freedom had to be undone to strengthen the ruler.
Hmm, acid test - do you believe the state is more important than the individual, or the individual is more important than the state? What kind of real civil rights do we have? personal freedoms? (after being tied down with onerous financial chains, what freedoms can be left?)


So, if the ruling party's political philosophy is a variant of legalism, what then can we do against it? With complete control of the media, and the power of legislative, executive, and judiciary all on the side of the ruling party, can any individual dissenter achieve any progress in a kinder, friendlier, gentler Singapore?

The decline of legalism was hastened by war. I'm not really sure anyone would look forward to war as the tool of changing political philosophy in today's "life-is-precious" world. History has sadly, shown that frequently, sharp changes in politicall ideology have been preceded by bloodshed. At the end of the day, life is 'cheap' for statistician, or economist. Its only valuable to the individual that is living that life.

If the ideology is the enemy, then, is it time we woke up to its existence, and work towards defeating its absolutism? Or will I, like many other idealists, decide the fight's not worth fighting for, and leave for fresher (not necessarily greener) pastures?

[Comments appreciated. New perspectives desired. Flames, please stop contributing to global warming.]

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hamsters without souls

Posted on Xenoboy's musings about the SG soul.

We are Hamsters
bought into this country,
through thinly disguised attempts
at eugenics,
and even thinner protestations
about, the need to maintain a racial balance of 77/17/6/x

Trained from birth, to run,
relentlessly, as fast as we can,
exhorted to sprint,
to stay on the hamster wheel that sits, in the corner of our cage
and keep running all day.

Hamsters, to be entertained,
once a year, with pretty explosives,
A choreographed show
reminiscent of a North Korean
extravangaza, for our Dear Leader and his merry men.

Full of pomp, and the message to continue running.

To run from birth, till death,
for retirement is a pleasure,
that must be put off, for we must
help the men-in-charge, save for
our rainy day, which when it arrives, is still woefully insufficient,
due to the need for higher wages.

Running in a city,
that calls itself a nation,
wither a countryside, for used hamsters to rest in.

Hamsters. Be all that we can be,
for the only thing that is desired of you, is your body at work.
Your soul, is an unnecessary component, in this economy that they call

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

41 years and still, mindless entertainment for the masses

for those outside SG thinking of doing negative things to SG,

national day can be no better an opportunity to just about take out the entire political leadership structure in Singapore. (not that it would be easy, but just pointing out that fact. Hmm... does even contemplating the possibility equate to sedition?)

anyway, negativity aside,

it was interesting to observe that the choice of movie for national day had all to do with guns, big explosions, unreal scripts, and the american way of life.

Bad Boys 2 was the choice of late night entertainment for NDP revellers.

One could point that its the free market that enabled the national TV station to program this kind of "entertainment" on a day of remembrance. That to put any kind of politically-themed movie would be to attempt to go one-better than North Korea in collectivism.

Then again, if art is all about exploring the un-mundane-ess of life, then, Bad boys 2 is a political statement in itself, in that it encourages individual initiative, disregard for rules, and general american "bad-assness' attitude towards the bad guys. (that the only thing criminals will understand is power through a gun barrel.)

However, remembrance is scary when its intepreted in the political light of the present.

- by MoE, 23 July 1998

Its scary. Programming from young, including a step-by-step guide.

How my school does it is it makes the emcees read out certain sections while our the rest of the students chant out certain key phrases. It’s a very surreal experience really. The first time I saw it happen, I was quite amazed. Can you imagine 1600 students chanting loudly phrases like: “Our happiness was not to be / Until our country could be free”.

and the late night movie post 12 midnight on "free"-to-air main channel?
(must pay annual license fee!)

"Army of Darkness"
ugh. maybe its a hint that the individual has to battle the darkness cast by the MiW?


Sunday, August 06, 2006

rethinking the Happy Planet Index

Various other commentators have talked this topic to death.

Well, I had the opportunity to examine in detail the actual mechanics of the HPI, and there are mitigating factors why SG is at the bottom of that ranking.
(mainly due to the fact that we have Jurong Island, and that we really have no land!)

Below is the comment I appended to Mr Wang's entry on this issue.


measuring environmental impact,

the question is - how much does Jurong Island contribute to that measure, and how much 'happiness' does Singapore derive from having Jurong Island and its petro-chemical crackers?

Having looked through the measures used in the HPI, Singapore would be an outlier no matter what, because we have a highly industrialized city without a countryside to balance out any ecological damage we do to the environment.

The more important data point would be the Life satisfaction level, at which SG is measured at 6.9 (No 59 according to their data).

However, even there, we lose out to Malaysia (7.4) and barely beat Indonesia (6.6).

Other notables include being more satisfied with life than
Hong Kong (6.6)
Taiwan (6.6)
(our nearest ideological/economic neighbours.)

Again, it really depends on where we want to go - do we want to be like Switzerland/Denmark (8.2), Ireland (7.6), or even Malaysia (7.4)?

And further intepreting the data, and in terms of scoring,

at 6.9 on the Life Satisfaction index, SG is ranked No.11. That means that there are 10 'ranks' to climb before we are as happy as the best in the world.

(for the quantitave-obsessed, the total number of different results are 45; for those who choose to be exacting and demand 2 decimal places, please check with the happiness ppl at
. I'm just intepreting data they gathered with my own biases).

Thus proving the quote, variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (and nobody seems to be definite about it either!).

"There are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics."
- Benjamin Disraeli

Believe whatever we want, but the fact that we felt that being ranked at the bottom of the HPI reflected our reality means that all is still not well.


Well, I guess, the question is - in a city, does it really matter if the only pursuit that matters is economic?

Paradox comes when those who seek to pursue anything else other than economic success, find their paths blocked by 'well-intentioned paternalistic do-gooders' in our approach to government.

More on that coming along soon. Think about comparing Singapore against other cities, rather than other countries, and maybe, my Parisian friend is right. Its NOT that hard to run a city.