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


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

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

Discriminatory parental benefits – stop giving excuses

There’s nothing to call it but discrimination. The only takeaways from Minister Tharman’s latest justification of our discriminatory laws against parents and children from single-parent families is the usual “support married women who remain in the workforce and raise their children within the context of marriage”. Marriage is laudable and it is to be encouraged, but discriminatory laws and benefits are not the way to do it.

While we acknowledge and appreciate the benefits already dished out to both married and unmarried parents, the visible gap in benefits is a blow to many of Singapore’s children. This bare-faced prejudice will only perpetuate the hate when the children of single parents realise that they have been given second-class citizenship. The rationalised argument of “children still receive equal benefits” is hogwash. My earlier post details the discriminatory gap:

Unmarried mothers (parents) do not receive: Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account, 8 weeks of Maternity leave, Paternity leave, Shared parental leave, Parenthood tax rebate, qualifying child relief, handicapped child relief, working mother’s child relief, and grandparent caregiver relief, Foreign Maid Levy Relief, Housing grant for families and Housing priority schemes.

Is the minister trying to tell us that children receive no benefit from these things? That these are only enjoyed by their parents? The children of these parents are not discriminated against at all?

The bogeyman of moral hazard is clearly false – it has been shown time and again that giving better protection to divorcees has not in fact impacted the divorce rate, that giving incentives like the Baby Bonus has not been able to make a dent in the birth rate, that these days, Singaporeans don’t give much thought to government policies when making major family/life choices. But it seems that the G would rather take the moral low ground.

The G clearly has no idea how to win hearts in this context. There are better ways to encourage marriage and to encourage the raising of children. We should not need to scrape the bottom of the policy barrel to punish those who sometimes have little choice in their life circumstances.

If the G wants to appease and support specific (or maybe most) religious sensitivities, then do so within those spheres. Encourage members of those faiths to actively support raising children within the context of marriage and organise resources for them to use. If there are specific secular groups that also support raising children within the context of marriage, they too can enjoy G support for that agenda.

By law, however, we cannot afford to make discrimination official. This will tear at the very fabric of our society that the G claims to be trying to preserve.

Are our pro-family policies fair?

A friend brought up the issue of parental benefits this week and it got me thinking hard about the issue again.

Although the initial conversation was about the relationship between productivity, labour participation and pro-family policies, I noticed that things aren’t all fair or logical.

See, for example, the well-known issue of benefits for children of unmarried parents: Consider this bit of pedantry from MSF, which claims that children get the same benefits whether or not their parents are married. The ministry drew an awkward line to define “benefits” only as those accruing directly to the children, rather than to a parent, as though maternity leave or housing, for example, did not benefit a child).

Unmarried mothers (parents) do not receive: Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account, 8 weeks of Maternity leave, Paternity leave, Shared parental leave, Parenthood tax rebate, qualifying child relief, handicapped child relief, working mother’s child relief, and grandparent caregiver relief, Foreign Maid Levy Relief, Housing grant for families and Housing priority schemes.

That’s a LOT of benefits that a child misses out on. I’m sure I haven’t even named them all. When the G withholds these benefits from parents, it is the children that really suffer, which makes all that talk of a level playing field for our children a bit of a twisted truth.

I’ve heard some ideas for easy-to-implement tweaks to make our policies even more family friendly, and not just family friendly – fair and logical.

Fully-shareable parental leave
Because if you can share one week, why not share all the weeks? What’s the difference, really? Sometimes you need that flexibility, and if your employer is okay with it, why not? It will make sure that bad employers don’t give pregnant women the “evil eye”, since they can now foist their TAFEP-breaching prejudices on men as well.

Extending parenthood benefits to single parents
Because people don’t get pregnant out of wedlock just BECAUSE you offer them the same benefits as everyone else. Moral hazard is near to zero. And really, in spite of what MSF says, it’s the kids who suffer the most. That, in my book, is unmeritocratic.

Paid childcare leave
Paid childcare leave that doesn’t increase when you have more kids? That’s the purpose of PCL, right? To take care of your kids. Maybe 4 days for first child, 6 days if you have 2 children, 7 if you have 3, 8 days for 4 and above? It’s not THAT much, and parents will take leave only when they actually only need to.

Classifying stay-at-home-mums and dads as “working”
I’ve got a much more in-depth post about it. Take a look.

Who wants to work forever?

Well I do, and that’s because I like my job. There are others as well who want to keep working for various reasons – avoiding monotony, force of habit, feeling of being valued, financial needs, social reasons… the list goes on.

Singapore’s most visible elderly workers – our cleaners. Photo from

The latest report from MOM showed that employment of older workers aged 55-64 has increased from 65% in 2013 to 66.3% this year and, according to a Straits Times report, employent for workers aged between 65 and 69 has risen from 35.2 per cent in 2011 to 38.5 per cent in 2013 it now stands at 41.2%. This is in part due to the tight labour market and also the promotion and enactment of the RRA (Retirement and  Re-employment Act), which came into force in 2012. Now, there is talk about extending the RRA to 67.

Workers can still retire whenever they want, really. But this is a good option for those who do want to stay employed.

The only potential risk from the RRA (considering that we have full employment)? Employers of older workers may (or may not) experience higher healthcare benefit costs and health-related absenteeism. To mitigate this, MOM has cut the CPF contribution rate for this age group by 5%, meaning that the cost burden is passed on to workers. Is this a worthwhile tradeoff?

The target age of 67 was supposed to have been met back in 2003, as part of a decades-old plan to bring into balance Singaporeans’ longer life expectancy, productivity and retirement needs. This is a benchmark that Singapore desperately needs to meet, given the fact that we have scaled back our foreign-sourced population growth plans.

I had the opportunity to ask Heng Chee How (NTUC’s Deputy Secretary General) for his thoughts on what kind of impact we will see form a rising re-employment age.

“The offer and acceptance rates for reemployment in both the public and private sector since the law took effect are both in high 90+%.  That is very encouraging,” he shared, “The Tripartite Committee on the Employability of Older Workers (Tricom) issued an Advisory asking companies to extend the re-employment age ceiling from 65 to 67.  It also asked the Government to provide incentives to firms to do so, and the Government has agreed.”

As to whether there is discrimination against older workers and whether it is true that older workers are less productive, Mr Heng was quick to set the record straight.

“Every age group has its strong performers, average performers and poor performers. The best performers among the mature workers are those who know how to leverage their strengths, experience and networks to best effect.”

“There is ageism in every society. Our strength lies in strong tripartism and effective unionism at workplaces. Together with efforts by like-minded entities like TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices), we have the mechanisms to promote fairness at work and to deal with allegations.”

“Re-employed workers want to be treated fairly and be valued for their performance and contribution, and not be typecast and diminished just on account of their crossing a certain chronological age.  Employers worry whether re-employed workers can keep up their performance, updated skillsets, productivity, health and adaptability.  These are factors that affect a firm’s competitiveness.  Value is created by bringing down barriers of prejudice and negative stereotyping, and by positivity, lifelong learning and active, healthy aging.”

Personally, I see the 5% CPF rate cut as a form of ageism. It seems terrible to think that this should be considered normal – instead I hope to see it as a necessary evil to gt buy-in from employers but it should be reinstated gradually and I hope that the half to one per cent CPF reinstatement for older workers in mid-2015 is part of this journey back to fair employment practices.

Here at Last: Wage Protection for Security Officers

It has been a long-drawn debate between the G, NTUC and security companies and the result has been a long delay in the implementation of NTUC’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for Security Officers. I’m glad the wait is over.

The deadlock was broken when the parties in the Security Tripartite Cluster agreed to implement the Progressive Wage Model and the Government announced that it would be implemented as part of the licensing framework for security agencies.

Given that the ruling will only kick in for security agency license renewals after 1 September 2016, the real impact will only be seen several years down the road, but at least it is set in stone.

There has been much confusion (myself included) over whether this constitutes a minimum wage, but it is clearly a far cry from the classic US-style minimum wage, where a single wage is applied across all sectors with little regard for skills and career development concerns. This confusion has resulted in people variously saying that NTUC has had to eat its own words after criticizing suggestions for a US-style minimum wage.

I shamelessly stole this graphic from NTUC and vandalized it – please read.

I shamelessly stole this graphic from NTUC and vandalized it – please read. 

Singapore, like other nations, is clever enough to try and implement sector-based wage protection and integrate it with skills development pathways. This results in more work needing to be done to maintain the system in balance and keep all sectors updated to new developments in technology and knowledge, but it is preferable to the “lazy way” of implementing a classic single minimum wage instead of something like the Progressive Wage Model.

My only gripe is that it is taking forever to implement. Only cleaners and security officers have been covered so far since the PWM was mooted in 2011 (landscaping workers are next). There is plenty of ground to cover.

This is a good interim solution for the security industry and Singapore – wage protection often falls into different forms along a spectrum, with no wage protection at one end (where Singapore used to be) and the collective bargaining of overpowered unions on the other (in nations such as France). With only a fraction of our workforce in unionized companies, it will be a long time before our workers have the awareness required to secure their own rights.

Who do we have to blame for that? Since it is collective bargaining, I guess we only have ourselves to blame.