Low key Middle Ground upper management

It was the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to work on a solidly-funded news portal with one of Singapore’s most seasoned journalists. How could I pass it up? All I needed was to pull together the seasoned journalist, the news portal and the financial resources to keep the publication viable.

I met Bertha when she had just started up Breakfast Network and was looking for writers. A mutual friend suggested that I could contribute as a volunteer and I was happy to, since I had been blogging on socio-political issues for a while. Bertha was happy to give me a shot and that was the start of a wonderful year where I received my first lawyer’s letter threatening to sue the site for defamation, marked my inaugural participation in a G press conference as a member of the media and watched a whole drama with the MDA unfold. I was keen to sign up to MDA’s demands, but that was a corporate call in the end.

When Breakfast Network was finally closed down, going back to blogging didn’t seem to be quite enough for me. My work in a small PR agency kept me busy and paid the bills for my burgeoning family, but what could have been at Breakfast Network always nagged at me. It was a job left incomplete; an opportunity not seized; a risk not taken.

I spent the next year following up with Bertha, and through her, found the resources to get a newsroom and a small company up and running. As with a new company I had no illusions: nothing would go according to plan, so I detailed a year-long blueprint so that there would be a plan that nothing could go according to. We tried to reconstitute the wonderful ex-Breakfast Network team and offer them something more substantial.

Why, though, would I step away from 12 years of agency life and my stable and growing public relations firm (disclosure: I’m still on the board) to go into the tough, saturated market of publishing, especially in Singapore, where even the incumbents have trouble doing profitable business? Did I really hope to be able to run a sustainable business?

Management scion Peter Drucker said that “there is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer”. And that is what I hope to achieve at The Middle Ground as publisher. I want to gather readers around our way of doing the news and in so doing, influence the way society thinks. It is long-term thinking; it is something for the next generation, something that doesn’t pander to short term results like mere traffic and clicks but that builds fundamental values.

This is the country and the world I hope to leave to my children – one with citizens who are discerning of the news and of the flow of information (a REAL smart nation), who know the difference between fluff and subject expertise, who can handle both sides of an argument, who respect intellectual property and who are intelligent enough not to get offended or alarmed by satirical articles.

I want this industry to adapt and thrive because we all need it to, and am happy to be one of what I hope are many other news publications and magazines that can chart a new way forward in the digital age and beyond.

And that is why I am trying to fill this gap, even as our team works to fill the digital pages in The Middle Ground. Thank you, dear reader, for reading and for engaging with us. You are our Middle Ground and it is you whom we hope to serve and foster.


We will pay the price for unrealistic views of Lee

Seven days are over, and now I have the time and proper space to make sense of all that has been said about Lee Kuan Yew over the last week. Lee casts a long shadow over all of Singapore, and how we handle his narrative in the years and decades to come will have great bearing on how we change as a society.

Lee Kuan Yew (image credit: biography.com)

Lee Kuan Yew (image credit: biography.com)

In death, the man still has the power to unite us. From his grave, he still could be the one to tear us apart. But the choice rests with us rather than with him – our handling of the legacy that we, willingly or unwillingly, have in our hands.

There are two ways forward now. In one future we polarise ourselves, we retreat into two camps: one that idolises and one that vilifies (both unjustifiably). In another future we manage to gather our senses, sit down together and have earnest conversations about the man and about our future.

Lee Kuan Yew was unashamed of his choices – why are we ashamed on his behalf? Why the need to fabricate some narrative of unmerited perfection? Sure, he has received some unfair criticism, but even while it is wise for critics to steer away from criticisms during the man’s wake, it is similarly disrespectful to caricature his achievements and the hard choices he made.

MOE all but mandated a whitewashed history lesson in the days after his passing, and most teachers fed it to their students unedited. Die-hards like Calvin Cheng and Indranee Rajah had to reach for mockery and distortion to try and rebut what they saw as attacks on Lee Kuan Yew’s character. Talk about there being no trade-offs is pure nonsense. Talk about us having sacrificed only bad things in exchange for good things is likewise naive. Talk about how everything is totally humane fails to give Lee credit where he is due – that he made and stood by his choices in a fallen world where not everything can be win-win for everyone all the time.

And this is also the very same mistake that many of his critics make – seeing his actions in isolation and refusing to acknowledge the effective but imperfect outcome.

If Lee had not made those choices, and sacrificed dreams, even people, we would not have what we have today. And by any sensible critic’s reckoning this outcome for Singapore, out of all possible outcomes, is far, far better than what we could ever have hoped for.

Lee also sacrificed a part of his humanity. One cannot make hard choices like he did without hardening within; and to live with no regrets as he did meant that a hard pragmatism had to overrule.

Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is admirable BECAUSE he made those sacrifices. He is a leader par excellence BECAUSE he had to bear the consequences of the people he sacrificed. He is a visionary without peer BECAUSE of all the futures and freedoms he steered us away from. As much as I may want an apology for all the things he did, I honestly am glad that he never apologised. The legacy handed to us is crystal clear.

Let us remember the man he truly was, not some cartoon hero or villain of our own imagination.

Taxi-Taxi@SG: if you hate LTA’s app, maybe it’s you?

I’ve been there before, standing at the side of the road in the rain watching busy cabs go by, grumbling about how these lazy drivers all go into hiding at the first sign of precipitation. I swear out loud at that ****** **** who popped out 200m down the road and STOLE my fricking taxi, how dare he: I will find you; I will kill you. I try crossing to the other side to try my luck… and then all the cabs start appearing on the side of the road I just left. I curse a random deity. It’s their fault, it’s someone else’s fault – it’s not my fault.

I vacillate between booking a cab and not booking one, battling the inner scrooge wanting to save $2.50 or $4, but still desperate to get my ride. I start to make bookings on GrabTaxi, Comfort and EasyTaxi SIMULTANEOUSLY, proving that I am indeed a douchebag planning to cancel on some poor driver.

Three minutes later I flag down a taxi with a green light, jump in and leave all my bookings to hang. Let them rot – I’ve got what I came for. That’s what the surcharge is for, no? No risk, no return. Muahahahaaaa….

I want it all. I want it now.

And maybe that’s the story behind why we hate LTA’s new, FREE app Taxi-Taxi@SG. We wanted to book taxis, not flag them down. Consider, however, that there are may be some people who do want to flag taxis down: the struggling student, the low-income elderly who need to take a taxi for medical appointments, me when I’m not in a rush. Think of the taxi drivers who are sick of commuters who don’t show up for bookings, wasting their time and money. They just want to see where the general demand is and don’t want to commit to a booking that may end in a no-show.

Nevermind that there are so many applications for this big data that LTA is putting into our hands – think of how the API could be used to enhance bookings by booking apps.

If we wanted bookings, we’d have gone to someone else’s app – LTA isn’t in the business of snatching market share from other companies. It’s not out to generate revenue through taxi bookings (although we all know how ELSE it generates revenue). But forget about that – if the app doesn’t do what I want it to, it sucks.

Because in the world of Singapore taxis, we have no qualms about throwing others under the bus (pardon the pun) if we don’t get what we want, when we want it.

Starbucks vs Koi Cafe: the difficult customer test

If you ever wondered why nobody wants to be in the service industry, look no further than the Straits Times. Two cafes were in the news in the last two days for customer-related incidents that occurred at their outlets. But whichever way you want to pin the blame you have to admit one thing – it takes something special to do a service job well (and many service staff don’t have it).

Long hours, meagre pay and some physically challenging work are only there to whet the service worker’s appetite for the icing on the cake – difficult customers. And armed with the almighty Internet, where it is easy to tell a one-sided story and fool the feckless masses, difficult customers have found one more way to bully people on the front lines.

Case 1: Koi Cafe (read the case file here)

If you read the description of the event, the customer actually confessed to taking the trouble to go all the way back to the Koi Cafe outlet AFTER she had gotten her drink elsewhere so that she could engage in verbal fisticuffs with the staff once more. Probably for sport. Probably to get material for a good Facebook/STOMP post. Probably so that I have something to write on my blog (thanks!).

It is, of course, no excuse for the staff member to call her names (fail), but this is the typical “difficult customer” – the person who makes your pay package completely worthwhile (to your boss, so that he/she doesn’t have to deal with these people). For the employee, however, this is simply another opportunity to get fired from a thankless, dead-end job, which “Rachel” successfully accomplished.

She’ll probably get another crappy job next week elsewhere unless she goes to…

Case 2: Starbucks (read the case file here)

Annoying students who hog tables and buy one small drink to last for 5-6 hours are the bane of paying customers in land-scarce Singapore. They are also a bane to business owners, but how many are brave enough to admit it? I personally take offence at people who let their coffee go cold – it is simply not in good taste. The worst kinds of people leave their table for 30 minutes and get all offended that the manager helped them to keep their stuff safe.

This time, however, the fickle Internet decided to bite back, and “Huixin Yap”‘s Facebook profile has suddenly become… very private. Starbucks did not reprimand their staff and gave a nice, vague reply befitting a large, profitable corporation.

Service is good here. And all the entitled twats have gone somewhere else.

Service is good here. And all the entitled twats have gone somewhere else.

I, for my part, took a longer than usual walk after lunch, bought a latte at Starbucks Citylink Mall, left a tip in the tip box (which I normally never do – shame) and praised the staff for their… service excellence.

Conclusion: it is better to buy from and work at Starbucks than Koi Cafe.

We import foreign athletes? Hells yeah.

by Daniel Yap

Citizens are citizens, although Australia’s William Henzell may not be too happy about Singapore’s largely ex-Chinese team sweeping most of the table tennis medals at the Commonwealth games.

I’m okay with getting foreign-born athletes to commit to the nation and become a part of our country, if the scheme doesn’t significantly deprive Singaporeans of the chance to excel and raises opportunities for our people to do better.

Of course, there’s also the conundrum of how they are ACTUALLY Singaporeans as well.

The worst case would definitely be when a foreign-born athlete fails to integrate into our society, then packs up and leaves when his or her sporting days are over. If you want to buy in to Singapore, you have to buy in to the whole package. But alas, this is a humane society, and such fair-weather friends are free to go (and good riddance).

But we do have Australia to thank for one of Singapore’s most amazing foreign-born athletes – Aleksandar Duric. This guy’s story should be made into a movie. Don’t believe me? Go read it here on Wikipedia.

Duric came to us from Australia, on his own steam (not specifically for his excellent sporting prowess), and became a major piece of our nation’s football history.

So yeah, thanks for letting us have him, Australia. It was totally worth it.

The new IPPT turned me from has-been to hero

I’m a pretty fit guy. I’ve always gotten gold for my IPPT and I’ve always been physically active, playing sports several times a week.

That is until my first child was born. After 12 straight years of IPPT gold, I added some 50 seconds to my 2.4km run timing the year after I became a dad. The following year, I added another 30 seconds. Then another 30. These days I’m hanging at just under 12 minutes, but who knows how long that will last?

I’m happy to walk away with a silver, and $200. Not too shabby, as I still consistently score full points for my other four stations, but I think of myself as well past my physical prime (although my wife would beg to differ). The other 70% of my cohort don’t fare as well as I do, unfortunately.

But the new IPPT scoring system actually puts me among the fittest of the fit – I could potentially get a gold even under the commando/diver/guards standard… because even though my 2.4km run is pretty meh, I would totally kill at situps and do quite well at pushups. If the SAF wants to give me $400, I’m not going to complain about it,

Some people have said that the new regime is “going soft” and represents a drop in standards. There are even some semi-serious Facebook groups on the topic. But let’s consider the full ramifications of this change.

1) Resetting the mean. If the passing rate is skewed to only 30% (in my cohort) it becomes more difficult to measure the ends of the spectrum. How fail are failures? Many folks who know they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell (because of a critical weakness in ONE station) will show up for the IPPT, then proceed to fail every station (even those you can pass) because, well, WHAT’S THE POINT? Sign up for RT and be done with it.

The new system actually gives most guys a fighting chance. And that means more fight.

2) A recognised standard. The US military and Korea already use pushups as part of fitness tests. It’s not like we’re going off into new territory.

3) Better incentives for incremental improvements. I never bothered to try and put those 2 lost minutes back on my 2.4km run. The effort needed to hit 10:30 reliably was just WAY more than I could afford, but now, every 10 seconds earns me a point, and I can bust ass at situps, instead of stopping at 43 and resting the last 15 seconds. I can aim for 55 now without wasting energy.

4) The financial cost? What about that FCC equipment? A full set of test equipment for one of our FCCs costs millions of dollars. Sure, we could still use two out of five stations, but there would be quite a bit of waste. Also, more people passing and getting incentives means more money paid out, but on the flipside, more people passing means fewer resources being wasted training unmotivated soldiers in RT, and paying them their rank allowance to go through the motions.

5) Bragging rights. I get to start every mention of IPPT with the words “back in my day”. I can make up stories about how impossible everything was and how much we suffered, like how all good soldiers do about crap that doesn’t involve actual warfare.

I’ll miss the old stations, but I’m eager to give this new system a whirl, especially when there’s an extra couple of hundred bucks in it (and a chance to put that old badge on my uniform again)!

Miss the point, pass the buck

So what was that article in ST yesterday trying to say? That bloggers need to earn trust? Sure, I agree, but it is a bit of an airhead statement. Of course blogs need to build trust, and I don’t doubt for a moment that they are working to do so.

But whose trust are blogs courting? Surely not ST’s loyal readers.

I’m sure that ST is well aware that readers who lap up their political commentary come from certain sections of the political spectrum. Perhaps those segments of the political spectrum even go as far as to exert an influence over the commentary being written. Trust in ST’s political opinion is as subjective as trust in the opinion of bloggers.

So it is really meaningless (or even cheap) for ST to say that trust needs to be built.

So what is the point really? When one uses the Internet, just don’t be naive. Trust must be earned, from both MSM as well as blogs. The Internet IS real life, as much as ST seems to separate the two concepts. You are out in public, interacting with people. Some say this, others that, coffee shop talk, office rumor, gossip among friends. We function fine in real life, discerning truths from rumour. We do the same online.

So ST’s long sermon about trust is nothing new. The article itself makes odd arguments and compares facts based on leaky research or poorly interpreted data, or biased comparisons. They have a right to publish all this, since as a newspaper owned by the G, they are expected to pour cold water on protests against (lousy) regulations and inform the public of alleged failures of the Worker’s Party and all alternative anything.

The Internet IS already self-regulated. ST (and the G, I assume) simply doesn’t LIKE the system and hierarchy of the Internet. They can’t handle the information. They can’t filter the rumours. They can’t stand the dispute process, which is more like two people arguing on the MRT or in a coffee shop than two journalists or parliamentarians debating or writing letters based on some professional code.

Like they say in the movie Pirates of the Carribean, the Internet “code” of conduct is “more like guidelines”. Nonetheless, we get along fine, except for those who can’t hack a little ambiguity.