P1 registration fix is long overdue

My wife and I just registered our son in Henry Park Primary School, which is within 2km of our home. It was a school that I was an ex-student of and, fortuitously, it was also near where we lived (I’ve lived in this area since I was a child). Even at this early stage of registration, the news reports had confirmed that a ballot was required.

The P1 Registration is broken – it flies in the face of meritocracy and is a tear in the fabric of our society. ST’s Sandra Davie has summarised the possible solutions in her piece last week, more comprehensively than I have hoped:

1) Eradicate Phases 2A1, 2A2 and 2B. No more fair-weather alumni and “volunteers” looking for favours.

2) The problem of the clustered “good schools” in wealthy neighbourhoods can be solved by uprooting them and placing them in HDB towns. It is time to tear apart these bastions of misperceived achievement. Alternatively, those who live nearby can be given priority over alumni (though I think this will not work).

Primary Schools are part of our meritocratic education system. They do not need to build a deep individual “culture”. Our society only stands to lose if certain primary schools come out tops in the “reputation” and “school culture” race. Primary education should be the level playing field every meritocratic society needs. Yet now it is a minefield of entitlement.

MOE has yet to make good on its boast that “every school is a good school”. The G’s failure to properly address the elitism still rampant in primary schools makes Heng Swee Keat look like a liar. The institutional way of trying to fix problems with “tweaks” falters in the face of a deep-rooted problem such as this – one reinforced by the basest kinds of kiasuism and one-upmanship. The tuition addiction continues to blight our children’s progress.

It seems that nobody in the ministry has the guts or fortitude to deal decisively with the problem at hand.

My wife (who is not Singaporean) marvelled at some of the literature that nearby primary schools were handing out – how even schools with nearly no accolades to boast about made desperate attempts to list their achievements, as if clutching to a fig leaf in shame, ironically entrenching their positions. How well-regarded schools likewise put their achievements on display, goading “lesser” schools and the ignorant public to play, and lose, the ranking game with them.

Our son’s pre-school teacher gave the most damning advice of all – when we asked her why they were teaching Primary One syllabus at preschool, she matter-of-factly replied that “teachers in primary school don’t have time to help your child keep up. If he falls behind, that will be the end.”

If that is truly the case, then it is the end for all of us.

Forestalling a war of Pink and White

Lawrence Khong has taken another step into the face of the LGBTQ community to ask churches to ally with muslims and wear white in opposition to something called the “gay lifestyle”, a nebulous term for the support and normalisation of LGBTQ rights in our society. I’m not sure if, had this been several hundred years ago, Pastor Khong would have picked homosexual allies to go sack the Muslim-held cities of the holy lands. It seems a queer choice of bedfellows (pardon my pun).

As a conservative Christian, I hold to the belief that God has clearly revealed that homosexuality is not His design and, along with the sins that I and the rest of mankind commit, attracts the penalty of death. We are all condemned.

But this earthly home, Singapore, consists of more than the Church. We are a diverse society, put here, together, now, by God for His glory. Should anyone insist that God approves of homosexuality, they will be commenting within the Christian context and sphere, and on that basis I will refute the argument as robustly as I am able.

Outside of this Christian circle, however, is the larger society, which has its many worldviews, rules, factions, and values. As much as I will not appreciate someone else dictating to me what I should believe, I have no right to prescribe my worldview for others – I can only persuade within the law and the bounds of society.

While Pink Dot’s organisers and sponsors have kept the event’s tone very measured, many of its participants border on the belligerent and throw barbs at the religious beliefs of others, claiming universal oppression and hatemongering. Pastor Lawrence Khong’s own tirade against his so-called homosexual conspiracy often comes out as discrimination against rights that the state has given universally – regardless of our individual proclivities and sins. In the light of these tendencies, it would be wise for both groups to withdraw from public displays (although they may legally have the right to do so) and continue persuading others in the private sphere.

The last thing we want to see happening is for there to be a real legal situation that is actively used to force any one segment of society to conform to the values of another, at detriment to the freedoms we all share and hold dear.

MUIS’ wisdom should apply to all. Don’t be confrontational about this issue. The lines, as far as civil society goes, are quite clear. Polarising the issue and a confrontational approach will only delay a peaceful solution and new equilibrium for Singaporean society, and push both religious and homosexual agendas to the fringe. We’ll make more progress talking than screaming.

5 Ways to Interpret Lim Swee Say’s latest CPF Gobbledegook

Minister in the PMO and Labour Chief Lim Swee Say’s latest statement about CPF has been feeding the flames of Mount Facebook since it was reported yesterday evening.

His easily-misinterpreted statement, delivered off-the-cuff on the sidelines of a Singapore Model Parliament event, has left many fuming, some puzzled, and others scrambling to defend the man.

The Man. photo: cabinet.gov.sg

The specific quote in question:

“Instead of thinking about whether you can spend your savings in the CPF at the age of 55, I think we should think about how can we help our Singaporeans to continue to remain employed, to continue to earn a good living, continue to have good jobs, and at the same time to continue to contribute to the CPF because the more money they have in CPF, the longer they defer the use of the CPF — this will mean they will have more for retirement.”

Mr Lim made a daring grab for the mantle of Captain Obvious from NMP Eugene Tan by, among other things, saying that people who put more into their account (by working past the ‘retirement age’) will have more money for retirement. There was also this nearly pointless quote: “You have your money, you have the account, and you receive the statement, the account on a regular basis. So, you know how much money you have in the CPF”.

Here’s five ways we can interpret his overall statement as reported:

1) You probably won’t have enough money in your CPF to retire, so it’s best to defer retirement. Ditch that pipe dream.

If this is true, that’s pretty in your face. While I personally agree that retirement is a myth these days, Mr Lim is known for making bizarre and confusing statements like “Cheaper Better Faster”, which took months for NTUC to clarify and is still being misinterpreted today, the “Little Frog” story from GE 2011, “better, betterer, betterest”, and of course, “I feel so rich”, the legendary proportions of which doubtless will colour every statement about CPF Mr Lim will ever make.

2) Those who don’t have enough money to retire should continue working.

Blunt, but true, if that’s what he meant. It doesn’t bode well coming from the mouth of the labour chief, though. This corroborates with the fact that some 50% of CPF Members today cannot meet their Minimum Sum and will not have enough to retire on.

3) Don’t spend your CPF savings on other things (like housing and education) so you have enough for retirement.

If that’s what he was trying to say, then it’s terrible advice. This interpretation, however is a little far fetched, although the reporter’s opening line “The best way for Singaporeans to prepare for retirement is to use less of their Central Provident Fund (CPF) money when they are young, said Labour Chief Lim Swee Say” lends some weight to this.

4) Specifically saying that younger Singaporeans should stay employed and earn more to have more for retirement.

It’s good advice, and a friend in NTUC tried to this as a defence by bringing up the example of someone she knew who was out of a job for several years before he was 40. This, however, doesn’t seem to be what Mr Lim is talking about at all.

5) People should plan to continue working and leave monies in the CPF account between 55 to the Drawdown Age (currently 63), even though they can, by right, withdraw monies in excess of their Minimum Sum at age 55.

This is possibly the best interpretation for Mr Lim, should he want to come out and clarify his statement. It makes sense, is sound advice, and doesn’t sound prescriptive. Too bad he totally botched the delivery, as he often does.

Here’s the kicker: in the same interview, Mr Lim was also reported to have said that “the labour movement has been watching the debate closely, and wants to ensure that what is discussed does not create confusion among workers and union leaders.”

Looks like he’s got some catching up to do.

UPDATE 23 June, 10:15pm: A clarification has been made on what Mr Lim said. It seems that his use of the word “young” to describe people aged 55 resulted in mass confusion. Point 5 is our winner.

Dr Puthucheary gets too personal with Catherine Lim

As soon as Catherine Lim puts pen to paper, she gets the PAP and its supporters all hot and bothered. Her open letter to PM Lee, published in the South China Morning Post, raised the concern that trust in the government was lacking.

First, Singapore’s consul general in KH (Where SCMP is based), Jacky Foo, wrote a letter to the SCMP to insist that Catherine Lim was wrong, citing a study done that showed trust in the government was high, although he failed to mention that the same study showed that trust in individual politicians was pretty low.

Then a certain (or should I say uncertain) Eugene Tan did some statistical gymnastics on the ST Forum page to try and prove that the PAP is highly trusted.

Now Dr Janil Puthucheary has volunteered to wade into the fray on PM’s behalf (PM being wise enough not to get involved so far) with yet another letter. While Dr Puthucheary did make a good point about how trust may fluctuate over the short term, and how good government is a long-term endeavour, he wasn’t able to control himself (unlike the previous two fellows) and decided to add some of his own personal attacks into the piece, saying that Ms Lim “could not be trusted to be consistent” and insinuating that she was one of the “jaundiced commentators on the sidelines”.

The second, especially, reeks of then-PM Goh’s “join politics or shut up about it” rant back when Ms Lim decided to pen him a letter.

Dr Puthucheary, who has been saving babies for about 13 years now (although this is irrelevant), Jacky Foo and the mysterious Eugene Tan all seem to have forgotten that many others have made exactly the same observation, with nobody in government taking umbrage.

ST Editor at Large Han Fook Kwang, for one.

ST Editor at Large Han Fook Kwang, for one. (photo: Andrew Loh FB)

NMP Laurence Lien for another.

NMP Laurence Lien for another.

Dr Puthucheary has come down excessively hard on a moderate and reasonable critic, and this does his party and government no favours at a time when (I assert baldly) trust is diminished and the G needs to appear reasonable and inclusive. I’m sure Dr Puthucheary will also consider me another jaundiced commentator on the sidelines. But, by definition, all commentators are on the sidelines, and it’s so easy to look down on the commentators and fans when you get picked for Singapore’s “first 87″.

It really makes his reference about getting feedback from Singaporeans look like lip service if he cannot listen to Ms Lim without getting all worked up.

4 things about CPF that I don’t get

I support the CPF scheme for the most part. Its principles are essentially sound, although there are many things about how CPF works that are just bewilderingly at odds to me.

This, of course is no grounds for me to march off to Hong Lim Park, but it does make me want to shrug my shoulders.

Robert Downey shrug animInflation-pegged targets, without inflation-pegged returns

It seems rather strange that the Minimum Sum is pegged to inflation, but the CPF interest rate isn’t. Here you have a savings goal but the path chosen to get to it is… something else. Why?

I’m not saying that we’re being cheated of our money or that it’s lining the pockets of the GIC or anything. In fact, there have been one or two times when the CPF rate exceeded inflation, but it’s the principle that makes me go…

doesnt_make_any_sense_anchorman

As this 2002 Asian Development Bank Institute paper by Mukul Asher had also asked, “How valuable is the guarantee of 2.5 percent nominal return? As the long-term annual inflation rate in Singapore is about 3.0 percent, the guarantee does not even preserve the principal in real terms.”

Never mind that CPF Life itself doesn’t even offer payouts that are pegged to inflation (yet – the G is looking into it, who knows how long it will take, good luck grandma).

Forced to invest like a retiree

What kind of fund buys the bonds of a single government exclusively as the be-all and end-all of its investment plan? Yay for mega-stability and reliability, but that sounds like a terrible investment strategy to me when you think of the bigger picture (caveat: I’m not an investment professional). Basic principles such as diversification and risk appetite and your age aren’t even taken into consideration. This flies against all the conventional wisdom I’ve read from Ryan Ong (of MoneySmart fame).

Isn’t the principle that each person pays for themselves? I agree with that principle, but CPF hasn’t stuck to it when it comes to investing “our money” – it’s not tailored to represent us as a whole, or as individuals, and the returns, as a result, often disappoint (emotionally).

brendan fraser nothing to say

When you’re young, you put your money down in housing; when you reach middle age, equities tend to be the way to go. Finally, when you’re all done earning, saving and profiting, the conventional wisdom is to keep your money in bonds, MMFs, and other low-risk-low-return instruments, so that the stash you’ve built up will last you for as long as you hoped it will.

The whole point of a fund like CPF is that a professional fund manager should be doing the investing and making well-educated decisions for us. Instead, we’ve got what looks like the laziest investment plan on the planet – handing cash to the G (to invest for its own, separate, purposes) for the promise of a safe but flaccid return. Great for retirees. Most of us aren’t retirees yet, and some may never be.

CPFIS: forced savings or playing around?

So, we’re saving for retirement – I get that. But what’s this CPFIS thing that allows folks to go play around with a small pool of not-too-efficient investments on their own? What happened here? Did people complain about not having control over their money so some halfway solution was built to let people feel like they can play with their money a little (and generally lose it, since only 40% of CPFIS investments outperform the CPF rate of returns)?

So, are we putting forced savings with Big Brother or investing our own money?

kevin spacey doesn't get it

If you ask me, I’d rather have a proper fund manager for my CPF. That’s why we pool billions of dollars, isn’t it?

Static income cap, moving savings goal

The income cap of $4,500 has been around for a while. Why does it exist? Why does it exist at that level? Why hasn’t it changed after years and years?

The Minimum Sum savings goal moves. Wages increase (usually). Inflation. Shouldn’t the income contribution cap have gone up by now or is nobody keeping an eye on it?

matt damon promised land lost

So before anyone throws the accusation – I’m all for CPF. It’s helped poor, financially indisciplined me save enough to pay for a home and hopefully enough medical to keep me working to the end of my days. But some things just don’t click for me. Anyone got enlightenment?

NOTE: I stand corrected! The contribution cap is $5000, up from $4500 in 2011. Thanks “Daniel Tay”. Still don’t know if it is inflation-pegged.

Sacking Roy Ngerng: G can’t handle TTSH’s wildcard

Roy Ngerng and PM Lee, already embroiled in “the cripple fight” that I expect neither side to really win (but for PM to lose worse), have both just been thrown a wildcard by TTSH’s sacking of blogger Roy Ngerng.

It seems apt that a hospital get involved in a “cripple fight”. Source: link to FSAAM

Blog FSAAM broke the news and TTSH’s press release put it down to “misusing company time” (something I’m probably doing right now, but my company doesn’t mind), and that his values were incompatible with TTSH’s. It is not known exactly what these values were.

But as far as placing bets on how this new dimension will play out, I’m sticking to my old bets – the G (and by extension, PM Lee) is going to (maybe already has) screw up the PR game, while Roy will try his best to milk it (and he already has).

Exhibit A: Government PR flop

TTSH is probably well within its rights to sack Roy, but the sacking was followed quickly by a Ministry of Health statement to the press (not available on MOH’s website) that “it supports TTSH’s decision to terminate Mr Ngerng’s contract, as his “actions show a lack of integrity and are incompatible with the values and standards of behaviour expected of hospital employees”.

MOH’s involvement adds credence to the rumour that Roy’s sacking was politically motivated. If TTSH had simply made an operational decision, there would be no need for MOH to open its mouth. Now it looks like the order did come from on high, and that TTSH officials are, of nothing else, being backed by ministry officials.

If MOH felt that had to open its mouth at all, it should have been to say that TTSH makes its own decisions about staff performance. Better yet, it should just have kept quiet. The timing of the sacking alone was enough to win Roy sympathy.

Exhibit B: Roy flips to milk the political angle

Yes, it is a “shift”, as the PAP like to call it, with Roy first claiming that the sacking was justifiable and that he “could have done a lot better over the past few months,” but then following up to say that it was “politically motivated”.

Oh yes, Mr Ngerng is happy to milk the incident, and why wouldn’t he? It seems that he hasn’t got a whole lot of employment options left except in opposition politics.


 

Looks like the G comms machine is cutting its own legs off, while Roy remains nimble enough to gain some ground, in spite of having made some mistakes.

Meanwhile, there’s a job opening at TTSH for those of you who don’t blog, read blogs or access Facebook at work.

A new trust – PreU Sem 2014

Pre-U Sem 2014 was attended by about 500 students from JC, Poly and IP schools and I had the privilege of speaking on a panel to about 100 of these students alongside former NMP Claire Chiang, VP of Banyan Tree, and Martin Tan, Co-Founder of Halogen Foundation.

We were mostly fielded questions throughout the session on the afternoon of the 6th of June, but I was able to answer from nearly all of my prepared speech. My speech text is below:

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to address you. I’d like to talk to you about trust and how it will play a huge part all our futures.

Trust is a key element in every human relationship. How you, I, we, view each other. Without it, relationships break down. Without it, conflict rules.

Trust is also a key part of the relationship between the Government and its people. It is here that we find ourselves at an inflexion point in our society. There is a shifting of the foundation of our trust, from one built on the delivery of an economic promise, to one that is more ideological, for which trust has not yet been built. The past success of Singapore, and the good choices that our leaders made then, have given us a stable platform from which to forge a new kind of trust, but the window of opportunity for building this new trust is closing.

I write a blog and on it I comment on social, political and policy issues. My blog’s tone has changed over the years and I learned that the best outcomes are to be had when I put in the effort to see things from both sides of the fence.

When I mean “best outcomes”, I’m not talking about the most supportive comments or highest web traffic. The best way to get that is to post angry rants in support of one polarized end of the spectrum or the other. It’s so often true – you actually have to post something angry, accusing, or scandalous if you want web traffic. Or cats.

For me the best outcome is when everything I care about moves forward. When people grow and learn and have a chance at building something together. For me the best outcome is when there is trust.

It’s about realizing that the truth and the way forward always lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes.

To do this I maintain relationships with people who represent both sides of as many arguments as possible. I’m not just talking about political extremes, with PAP die-hards on one end and guys who can spray graffiti on rooftops on the other. No, our society is polarized along many other dimensions – income, education, liberal/conservative, male/female, any of a thousand small issues.

I make an effort to criticize, but to be constructive wherever possible. To give suggestions, to try and interpret messages in a less offensive way. To point people to something bigger that they can look to. Constructiveness is a starting point of trust.

To trust, we have to begin with the assumption of a constructive other. By this I mean that when you look around you, you immediately assume that the other person wants to build for some sort of greater good. Maybe not the same greater good that you had in mind, but one that could make sense, even though you dislike it.

People that actually want to destroy everything as an end goal are quite rare. Destruction is often the first step in building, and we do it all the time. We must not mistake a destructive act by another as a sign that this person or group wants to destroy everything.

At the parliamentary debate last week, Dr Maliki Osman said that the Government must trust its people by giving them the benefit of the doubt, even if they are critics. He said that they must be engaged to build, even if their vision is different. The same is true of the people for the Government, or between fellow citizens. We need it to build our future.

But what is the future we want? Some of our future is a convergent future, with shared hopes and dreams. But there is also a divergent future, where each of us wants to mould our world in a very personal and specific way.

We all want different things. We must recognize that it isn’t wrong for us to want different things for the future. Things that may be at odds to what another Singaporean wants.

Yet this issue of divergent futures will always threaten to pull us apart. We must not seek to remove diversity, but to work with it and get the most out of it. To do this we need strong leadership – strong leadership to keep a level of equilibrium in our divergent futures. Strong leadership to negotiate a middle ground. If we are to play a bigger future role in building trust among the peoples of Singapore, then you and I must provide strong leadership.

I know that many of you have heard that you, as part of the educational “elite”, are the future leaders of Singapore, but this is not the “strong leadership” I am talking about. Your intellectual leadership, your academic leadership, is not the primary sort of leadership that we need to negotiate national trust. Academic leadership will be useful, even necessary, but the leaders that Singapore needs to build trust are first and foremost empathic leaders.

How can we be empathic leaders?

Empathise. Learn to see the world through the eyes of others. Gain exposure, and I’m not talking about mandatory gawking field trips to third world countries. It must be more than seeing – you need to pursue feeling. Feel the joys and the pains of another. Feel the hope and despair of someone who does not share the same worldview as you do.

Communicate. The most important aspect of communication is you ability to listen. That’s why empathy comes before this. Then talk. Dialogue. Engage in respectful debate. Learn the logic and nuance of what others want, especially those who seem to oppose you.

Avoid participating in what are known as “echo chambers” – groups whose members merely reinforce each others’ biases and help to polarize one another. Make sure you talk to people who defy your point of view, and whom you cannot seem to win a debate with – these are the real issues – the ones without clear answers. Spend time thinking about these points of view.

Negotiate. Find the middle ground. Give up some of your dreams so that everyone can walk away with something. Find a common thread, a harmonious chord. Beautiful music and cacophony are made of the same notes – the only difference is in how everything is arranged.

Cooperate. Turn opponents into partners. Start down a path of action and find people who you can co-opt to build together. Mutual work in the right spirit builds trust.

Be trustworthy. Act in a consistent manner. I don’t mean that you can never change your stand on issues, but that you do it with grace and humility. Do everything that you promise you will do. Do not be tempted to betray. Nothing destroys a relationship of trust faster than betrayal.

Be vulnerable. Vulnerability engenders trust. Talk honestly about how you feel. Fight the need to put up a false front. Be open to change. It is no shame to change. It is good to change.

Apologise when you should. And if you find that you have not had to apologise for a long while, I think that is a sure sign that you have done something that you should apologise for. We are human, we must assume that we make mistakes. In the same vein, be prepared to extend grace to someone who has betrayed your trust, when the right time comes.

These are things that you will not be learning in your textbooks, but which you will have an opportunity to learn in school. I wish that there was some way to grade you all on this dimension of leadership because it is what Singapore will need now, need tomorrow, if we want to build deeper trust in our society.

We need strong leadership that is able to build a nation alongside those that oppose it; strong leadership is not a matter of who wields the most power, but about who wields his power wisely.

Singapore’s time for adversarial relationships, adversarial engagement must come to an end. We all want to build. Nothing good will come of wrestling over the construction tools, fighting over the blueprints, playing the rich against the poor, the academic against the everyman, one race against another, one agenda against the other.

We need strong leaders to show us how to trust. I pray that some of you will.