Stop telling me success is “possible”

The words mean nothing. Every time some ultra-high net worth individual or politician goes around touting that “hey folks, there’s a social ladder to climb, go climb it”, they are actually (often deliberately) distracting us from the real issue of probability. We need to talk about probability, not possibility.

Now I’m not saying that in my context (Singapore) we are in a dire situation and that we need major reform or that they are lying to us. Inequality exists here, and if you were the comparing sort, we’re probably in the top half of the world when it comes to ossification and negative social impact. The question is what level we want to aspire to – to be a world leader in social mobility, or do we think that social mobility is a bad thing beyond a certain point (for example, an argument that “no rest for the rich” is bad because it disincentivises aspiration)?

Either way, we need to learn to stop it with the platitude that “whatever your situation is, if you work hard, you can succeed” and see the platitude for what it is whenever such throwaway words leave someone’s lips (and get waved around by the media as a slogan).

With the revelation (I hope the G can publish the source for other schools, because Mr Ang Wei Neng got it from the former RI principal) that not even half of Raffles Institution’s students come from non-elite primary schools, the odds are clearly stacked against the have-nots, even in the heart of our “meritocratic” education system (which is a subset of our “meritocratic” national system.

Ms Teo You Yenn’ s latest book “This is what inequality looks like” (BUY THIS BOOK), also shows the ways that inequality in Singapore has become sticky as we create systems that try to incentivise effort and hard work. This is a problem that many MPs have highlighted over the last week.

So the President and the Ministers say “they want to listen”. I’m then confounded by the tone-deafness (I hope it is unintentional) that is so apparent when someone stands up to say “anyone can succeed if they work hard”. This is either universally true or untrue. Even if you were a slave, you could “succeed” against the odds by leading a rebellion, or by winning in the fighting pits to regain your freedom – rebellions and skilful slaughter are hard work! Or if you were a European peasant, you could still rise to the ranks of nobility by joining the crusades to slaughter innocents, or perhaps star in some fairytale, or scheme and seduce your way into the pants of some countess-to-be (please see Game of Thrones for tips).

Has the world been an equal-opportunity place all this time? Garbage. Inequality exists, and it exists in Singapore. The playing field is NOT level. We don’t want to hear about the universal truth (or the universal lie) of hard work and success because it blinds us to the real issue in society.

What’s important are for the G to tell us what the odds are, across different risk factors. What are they doing to equalise these odds across education, social spending, employment, social networks, etc? Is the playing field getting more level, or less level, as time goes by? Which systems have to change to make it better?

Political leaders tell us about probabilities and the policies that will shape them. Politicians tell us about “possibility” and pipe-dreams, and turn our eyes away from important questions.


Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash


I trust our generals!

I trust our generals wholeheartedly. I trust them to plan our national defence, and to manage the military. I trust them to muster and motivate the armed forces to war in times of need, and to show strength to keep the peace.

As a soldier, when they tell me to go, I go. When they tell me to stay, I stay. What part I need to play in the bigger plan. How the resources at their disposal work together best.

I trust them because they have done this job from the beginning of their decades-long careers, when they started at the bottom of the (officer) ranks and amassed experience and learned specific skills, handled weapon systems and technology. They are the best men for the job.

But put them in another world and they have little credibility. If I am going to scale Everest, I want a Sherpa by my side, a Sherpa with no formal education, a Sherpa who has never left his province. I do not want a general to guide me up the treacherous mountain. I do not want the Pope to lead me on that journey either. I do not want Warren Buffet to show me the way.

That’s why it is disconcerting when SMRT starts touting the military credentials of their incoming (and outgoing) CEO. Mr Neo Kian Hong is intelligent, I’m sure. He’ll learn eventually. It seems that his predecessor Mr Desmond Kuek has learned enough after six years, and is stepping down. Will Mr Neo take six years to learn as well?

Mr Kuek faced a steep learning curve when he jumped industries. Mr Neo will face the same. Did Mr Kuek successfully transition? Did he achieve what the board set out for him to do? What does his success or failure say about Mr Neo’s chances?

I think I’m most curious about the process that has put (save Ms Saw Phaik Hwa) a military man on the “throne of the trains” for the majority of the company’s existence. That alone is quite astounding. It makes one puzzle over how wide a search has been done. How unattractive could the job be to professionals in this field? Is the pay unattractive? Is the job impossible?

Good luck to Mr Neo. He has ability to shoulder big responsibilities. I hope for all our sakes that he manages to overcome the obvious disadvantages he will suffer from jumping from the public sector to the (officially-)private sector, from one industry to a completely different one. I don’t need to trust him. I hope he succeeds, but deep down I have my doubts.

Just watch the Halal Subway hoo-ha (and do nothing)

There seems to be no point trying to refute people who are determined to hate Subway’s decision to apply for Halal certification for all its restaurants. The (sometimes toxic) comment thread in their official FB account bears witness to this.

Of course Subway is going to lose some customers – that’s the point of their exercise. They’ve made the decision based on a calculation that they will happily shed the <1 per cent of argy bargy halal-haters to access the halal market.

Never mind the laundry list of reasons: that nearly all major fast food chains are halal, that businesses are free to make decisions on their product, that Subway has probably already done market research to show that they will earn more than they lose, that “halal-haters” are eating halal food all the time already… it’s not about that.

This is the madness of social media amplification – a number of insignificant voices (perhaps less than 1 per cent), account for 99 per cent of the negative noise on social media. Stanford researchers released a study showing that just 1 per cent of subreddits instigate 74 per cent of all inter-community conflicts on the “front page of the Internet”.

Social media platforms thrive on conflict. They amplify traffic and help sell ads. That in itself is a business decision, so consume at your own risk! My advice – don’t step in. There’s nothing to be achieved here by engaging with people who refuse to engage, and you’re not going to change a thing.

Although all this has implications on what harmonious interaction looks like for Singapore (still waiting for someone to report racist comments to the Police), it may be well worth considering philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s idea that being politically correct can actually perpetuate prejudice (like our externally “harmonious” yet deeply racist Singapore). It’s my thought for today, so I’ll let the ranters rant, but I’ll stay out of the fray.

Unless you’re in it for the sport… then be my guest.


Image from Flickr Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0

Tobacco tax is good for the coffers, but risks abound

Take your eyes off the GST rate hike, if you can. I personally don’t mind so much how much tax is levied, as long as we get our money’s worth in the end (spend it well), and it doesn’t lead to any risky situations.

The G already makes more than $1 billion a year from tobacco tax. A 10 per cent hike would put a tidy $100 million more into the budget (although it wouldn’t stave off the need for the 2 per cent GST hike everyone is fixated on), and will more than pay for the healthcare costs that smokers are likely to rack up from their habit.

Don’t be mistaken – the tax hike is not really meant as a way to encourage smokers to quit. Singaporeans are surprisingly stubborn when it comes to paying taxes on things they really want, and the massive taxes we already pay for cars and alcohol have scarcely put a damper on demand.

Two things are going to happen, and one more likely than the other. The first is that smokers will feel a little hard done by – this can’t be avoided if the G needs the money. Smokers are used to being the butt of taxes anyway, since the G believes that they will not only keep smoking, but not impact the political balance significantly (it’s not like there are any pro-smoking opposition parties anyway).

Second, and more importantly, we are going to see a rise in contraband cigarettes (check out TMG’s report on the issue last year). As prices go up, it’s going to become more and more attractive to bring in illicit cigarettes, and with them the additional risks they are linked with.

Just on the surface, the G already loses about $203 million in revenue per year to contraband cigarettes, according to a 2014 report. If higher tax leads to more smuggling, then this loss figure could increase significantly.

Underneath the surface, it also floods the market with more tobacco prpducts that may not be compliant to tar, nicotine and chemical limits, is a source of funds for criminal syndicates and terrorism, and encourages other sorts of trafficking (like drugs or weapons) to piggyback along. Singapore becomes a big magnet for the inventory of illegal cigarettes around the region because with retail prices sky-high, smugglers stand to make bigger margins on their goods.

One more factor is going to push up cigarette smuggling in the near future – proposed plain packaging laws. The health ministry’s public consultation paper on plain packaging basically considered the risks of increased illicit trade non-existent, citing the Australian story, but some facts seem to bear out a different story.

KPMG study of illicit tobacco market in Australia

Chart from KPMG study of illicit tobacco market in Australia

Australian plain packaging laws came into force in 2012, and a study by KPMG showed that since that year, illicit tobacco has accounted for 2 to 3 per cent more of the tobacco market than before. The situation has prompted the Australian government to push a bill for harsher penalties for illicit cigarettes and tobacco.

Ultimately, Singapore needs to tread carefully and increase her vigilance against smuggled cigarettes, or else the financial benefits from the increased cigarette tax will not outweigh the associated risks.


Photo by Thong Vo on Unsplash


The stupid thing about IMDA ordering The Opinion Collaborative to return $5,000

Here’s the short background: The Opinion Collaborative used to publish the online news site TOC, before they split up. During that time, the organisation received $5,000 from Monsoons Book Club in the UK to run a competition – the amount was recorded as advertising revenue.

Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) asked that the money be returned to Monsoons Book Club because it considered it to be funding from foreign sources (except for bona fide commercial purposes) that would be prejudicial to the site’s presentation of local issues. Monsoon Book Club names Mr Tan Wah Piow, a former ISA detainee, as one of its directors.

I’m not arguing about the legitimacy of the transaction – this point has already been contested by The Opinion Collaborative in its press statement. The thing that really gets to me is how easy it is for ACTUAL nefarious agendas, terrorists, and foreign influencers to get funds to publications in the Singapore socio-political space.

To prove the point, The Opinion Collaborative has returned the $5,000 to Monsoons Book Club, which then gave $6,000 to The Opinion Collaborative, which is now all legit because The Opinion Collaborative has been de-linked from the website TOC. It’s a big “F U” to IMDA.

And, had this organisation been one with intentions to influence local politics, it would have been just as easy to hand that $6,000 on to any other news site, run an ad or promo, and fund some other agenda. IMDA’s regulations are powerless to actually stop the flow of money by determined actors. I’ve asked before: what’s the point of the local/foreign definition anyway?

In the end, this leaky IMDA rule only serves to burden upright publications with paperwork, while those who want to disguise payments can easily do so (and they are encouraged to hide their money trails). This is a worse situation all around.

Meanwhile, the G’s war on fake news doesn’t seem interested in addressing this regulatory weakness at all.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Hri Kumar Nair is right – there’s a hole in our Constitution

Former PAP MP, now Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair was right to say, at the court hearing on whether Madam Halimah Yacob’s vacated MP seat should trigger a by-election, that there is no part in the Constitution that says that the rest of the MPs in the affected GRC should resign as well.

In fact according to him there is no part of the Constitution that says that they shouldn’t resign. And according to his interpretation of the Constitution, there is also no clear indication that there ought to be a by-election, even should ALL the MPs in a GRC resign or vacate their seats. There are, in Mr Nair’s reading of the law, no provisions at all.

Sure, Mr Goh Chok Tong triggered a by-election in his Marine Parade GRC in 1992 to get a vote of confidence for his fresh Prime Ministerial post. All his MPs resigned then, but apparently, the Constitution is unclear on whether that by-election was mandatory. It was a moot point, of course, since the President and the PAP, still in power, had the right to call for a by-election, whether it was mandatory or not.

Since then, GRC seats have been vacated by the resignation of Choo Wee Khiang for cheating (Jalan Besar GRC, 1999), the deaths of Dr Ong Chit Chung (Jurong GRC, 2008) and Mr Lee Kuan Yew (Tanjong Pagar GRC, 2015), and of course the resignation of Halimah Yacob to run for the presidency (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, 2017). In most of these cases questions were asked about whether a by-election should be held, and the G was correct (to the same extent that Mr Nair is correct)  to point out that the Constitution did not demand that other MPs in the GRC resign.

This claim, assuming Mr Nair is right, falls short – the constitution does not even require a by-election if all the members of a GRC vacate their seats.

Mr Nair said the Government’s interpretation of Article 49 (1) is that a by-election is only required when all GRC MPs have vacated their seats (although the article does not actually say this), but then went on to say that Article 49 (1) does not apply to GRCs, because it was enacted during a time when there were only Single Member Constituencies (SMCs).

This is quite a double standard for Mr Nair to say that 49 (1) has an interpretation for GRCs while at the same time being unapplicable to GRCs. It sounds as if he is completely confused.

If we, however, would be so charitable to concede Mr Nair’s point about Article 49 (1), then there has been a massive loophole in our Constitution since 1988, and of course the silent accusation that the PAP government of the time did a damn shoddy job of the Constitution Amendment Act. And that subsequent governments also neglected to shore up this weakness.

Mr Nair was also derided for saying that the “GRC scheme was designed to ensure minority representation at the point of elections” because some took it to mean that minorities merely had to ‘cross the line’ before their race became irrelevant.

It was no defence either to hark back to Goh Chok Tong’s 1988 speech (at the second reading of the Constitution Amendment Act to introduce GRCs) where he said that “GRCs are meant to ensure a multi-racial Parliament, not a multi-racial team in the constituency”, since there was no provision either to determine at what point Parliament would be considered to have enough minorities. If that (to ensure a multi-racial Parliament) was the purpose of the constitutional amendment, then I would say that the legislation is a shoddy piece of work that does not serve this purpose effectively, since it doesn’t even tell us what would constitute adequate minority representation in Parliament, since minority candidates can resign and not be replaced. If in theory every single minority MP can vacate his seat and still trigger no by-election, then the Constitution, and the GRC system in it, does not effectively safeguard a multi-racial Parliament.

So, if Mr Nair is right, then our Constitution is a bloody shambles, and needs fixing immediately, and some people really need to answer for the mess they made in 1988, and the tardiness in cleaning it up.

And if Mr Nair is wrong, then it is time for a by-election.


Featured image via TMG.

One simple rule for safer sidewalks


I’ve been riding an electric scooter for over three years, and it seems that over the last six months, we have become the scourge of the sidewalk. And the road.

Of course, those that flout the law should get their due punishment, but bad hats and morons aside, we want to make our too-narrow pavements and shared spaces safer for everyone.

Hence I propose this basic code of conduct that I hope will reduce risk significantly: KEEP LEFT.

That’s all. We’re trained to do it on the road. We’re trained to do it on escalators. We can see how much easier it is to anticipate danger, and allow a faster flow of traffic (even foot traffic) if everybody behaves more predictably.

Faster traffic overtakes on the right, of course, and it is the speedster’s responsibility to check for safety. This rule applies to everyone – strollers, walkers, oblivious video-on-mobile watching phombies with headphones in, bikes, scooters, e-scooters, runners, crawlers, and aunties with shopping trolleys.

Of course, it would also be good if e-scooter riders would also slow down before overtaking, say “good morning, excuse me” instead of going ballistic with the bell, and wear a helmet, but that’s another set of rules for this specific group.

But for now, KEEP LEFT. Please.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash