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.

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.

That Lying Beggar Auntie

by Daniel Yap

So there is finally a newspaper report about her scams. Wanbao followed up on a lead through STOMP and discovered that this auntie makes over a thousand dollars a night begging, lying and scamming. She has asked me for $500 before, but then I uncovered her scam over 45 minutes once I bought her tea.

She cries, lies, and makes more money on one weekend than you do in a month. Photo linked from STOMP http://goo.gl/6RIqLZ

I first met her in front of Red Dot Building in Tanjong Pagar on a weekday afternoon, maybe in 2012. She was sobbing and crying to a bunch of young office workers as I walked past on an errand. On the way back I saw she was still there sobbing by the pavement and stopped to try and help. She said she was hungry and I offered to take her to Maxwell Market to buy food. She declined. I offered to buy her tar pao food from Maxwell. She then claimed that her leg hurt and she wanted to rest there, and that I should just give her $5 instead so that she could go buy food later when she felt better.

She claimed to live in Ghim Moh and was only here in Chinatown (Tanjong Pagar actually, but I shan’t quibble) to meet someone who owed her money but who refused to return it. She said her children had abandoned her and that she had lived a “good life” but had been “taken advantage of”. She said that she worked at some big local company (I forget which) as a secretary but that she had been cheated of all her savings. She even invoked the name of some church she had attended and that was how she knew the person who owed her money, she said. She gave the impression that this was a temporary situation.

I was heading back to the office so just gave her the $5 and wished her well.

In 2013, I saw her again in Holland V (where I live), which didn’t raise alarm bells for me because she said she lived in Ghim Moh. She was sobbing along the pavement again and I came up to her to ask what had happened about that loan, and why was she begging still. When she realised that I had given her money before, her eyes lit up. I thought it was because of familiarity, but now I realise she saw me as easy prey.

This explained what she said next.

Her momentary flash of recognition quickly faded into sobbing again as she poured out a tale of how she had been a guarantor for a church friend’s son, but that both son and friend had defaulted and that she was left in the lurch. (In retrospect, I now realise how foolish a notion this is – that a penniless old woman could act as guarantor for a loan). The bank was after her. SHE ASKED ME FOR A $500 “LOAN”.

I don’t know why, but I still had a soft spot for her and I knew that I would never see the money again, but I wanted to do my due diligence and help her sort out a better solution to the “grave injustice” that had been done to her. I offered to buy her tea at the HV market and tried to uncover her story and talk to the players to reach a better outcome. Oh, how it unravelled from there.

She would make fake calls on her phone without actually dialling numbers, and furnished me with names and contacts that didn’t exist. She declined to say which bank the alleged loan was from. Nothing existed. I declined to give her $500.

She then proceeded to chide me for leaving her to suffer and die. I told her to go away, and she eventually did.

A friend of mine who worked at a market food stall (we were having tea at the market) then came up to me and told me about this woman. She knows about this old woman with the crocodile tears and the bag full of lies. She, and other stall operators, have seen her frequently begging and scamming in HV. She is not poor at all, my friend explained. She could be seen walking into the 7-11 or other shops nearby to change her small notes into 50s, and would change $400 or $500 at a time (the retail assistants would tell her, as they bought drinks from my friend’s stall). She made over $1,000 at each outing. Maybe more. The news reports say that she deposits the cash into a bank account, which I suspect contains more cash than some people’s CPF accounts.

The next time I saw her in HV, I asked her loudly who else she was planning to lie to today. She gave me a dirty, irritated look, seeing how I was blowing her cover and revealing the scam that she was running. If I see her doing this nonsense again, I think I will call the police and get them involved. It’s all on record now.

I’m glad the press has blown the cover on this woman’s disgusting antics. We have genuinely poor people working hard to make ends meet, and here is some greedy, rich scammer beggar sucking up money that should be going to properly-governed charities, like the now-renewed NKF, or to the folks at the rental flats nearby.

And for the rest of us – don’t be taken for a ride like I was.

 

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.

ST getting muddled on race, culture, ethnicity and nationality

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I’m married to a Finn. When my wife became a PR, she had to fill in a form that asked her what race she was. To her surprise, “Finn” was a race, apparently only recognised by the Singapore government. She gamely signed off on it, although “Finns” are not a race, and include the Nordic, Sami, Urgic, Aryan, and more. Her ethnicity, though, is indeed Finnish, whatever that counts for.

I’m mostly Chinese (part Straits Chinese), and often mistaken for a Malay when tanned, and Japanese when fair. Singaporean born and bred.

Our kids are NOT Eurasian, whatever some ST Forum hack might callously presume. They are something else, part Singaporean, part Finn, Chinese in some ways, Nordic in others, Peranakan sometimes, but mostly just whatever our family is coming to terms with about their identity as they grow up. Yes, the G and the world will brand them one way or another, for one purpose or another, but their identities are their own, whatever a few letters on a pink plastic card might say someday.

Even Wikipedia’s entry on what “Race” is shows our local system up for the gobbledegook that it is. Yes, I understand that in order to do such things as prevent HDB enclaves along ethnic/racial lines, one will need to bag and tag each individual, and assign an ill-fitting pigeonhole so that you can tell some people that “their” people have maxxed out the quota. Or so that the “self help” groups can help to cover people, but not all. It’s one less fault line to worry about, although religious, economic and educational ones still threaten our society.

ST isn’t helping us much, with their poor definitions of xenophobia, nationalism, race, ethnicity and nationality. If they want to really tackle the question, I suggest that they get their terms ironed out before trying to pose as experts on race, ethnicity and our national identity.