Friday, December 28, 2012

下一站,中国。Next station, China.

SMRT’s initiative in making Mandarin broadcast for all our train stations doubly infuriates me as a local-born Mandarin-speaker of a Chinese-ed family. Especially when station names are announced exclusively in Mandarin and not any other ethnic languages of Singaporeans, SMRT's intending target audience couldn't be more apparent. And thus deplorable.

Having lamented on the withering fate of Mandarin/Chinese in Singapore in the face of the growing dominance of the English language, SMRT’s Mandarin broadcast of stations did not come as a solace at all.  

It is insulting, honestly.

When our own ethnic Chinese citizens such as my parents who were educated in the Chinese medium needed Mandarin instructions most during their times, Mandarin broadcast on trains was not there for them. Likewise for all the other ethnic groups who were educated in their ethnic language medium.

When the NE line was completed, Chinatown station which is located in the heart of Chinatown went into service. And naturally drew crowds of mono-lingual ethnic Chinese elderly to the NE line. And Outram Park, being the interchange for transferring passengers from other lines towards Chinatown station should thus be equipped with Chinese instructions to enable these elderly for easy navigation round the interchange. But no such convenience was provided for our citizens back then. And sad to mention, multi-language train station name displays are also only a recent happening despite the annual emphasis of our multi-racial characteristics on each National Day.

Ironically, Mandarin broadcast are now on board purely for the convenience of the new mainland Chinese immigrants pouring into our island who have very limited English language knowledge while the needs of our own citizens can be rightfully ignored and English language rightfully forced down our throats.

Taipei Metro’s Heartware

By comparison, Taipei metro was already equipped with four languages broadcast as early as the 2000s on board for train stations and instructions, in Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka and English. Such consideration of the needs of local and overseas passengers indicates the human touch of the public transport provider. At least, it caters to the needs of the majority of their people even though languages of their aborigines are not included.   

It took Taipei city ten solid years of construction before their first line of metro went into operation in 1996, covering a mere distance of 10.5km. Our MRT went into operation a decade earlier and was no doubt a more efficient construction. Nevertheless, when it comes to passenger-oriented service, Taipei Metro is a few light years ahead of SMRT. And Taipei Metro’s dedication towards passengers does not just stop with multi-language announcement only but I shall not dwell into it at this point. 

We see ourselves as a multi-racial country and yet whitewashed ourselves with English language, as shown on our main public transport. Taiwan appears to be a more uniformed ethnic place than ours, yet recognizes the diversity within their own ethnic group on their metro.  

The English language mania and the $

The English language was ruthlessly installed as our lingua franca at all fronts in Singapore, at the expense of marginalizing our local ethnic languages (I wouldn't use the term "mother tongue" over here as it specifically refers only to the official languages of Malay, Chinese and Tamil, ignoring the presence of dialects). People who are proficient in non-English language were made to play a second fiddle to the English language and the people who master it. And during my times, it was even used as a determining subject for academic progression.

I wonder if other races felt the same bitterness?

Things started changing around 2006, I returned home for a visit and was stunned to spot Chinese signs at Suntec City. The discovery contrasted the incident that took place during my JC time when my English-ed ethnic Chinese principal disapproved the use of Chinese characters on our Chinese New Year banner within school compounds.

And now the sea change of attitude towards the Chinese language after successful strangle of its growth through political and economic isolation for the past decades. Underscoring the changed mindset is undoubtedly the economic and political profits gained from the millions of mainland Chinese immigrants shored upon our land. Branded as “talents” but ill-equipped with our lingua franca. Contrarily, English language help provisions are available to these “talents” whereas our own people were penalized for the lack of it.  Blatant inconsistent criteria for the locals and the foreigners is a clear indication of a $$$-driven mentality which explains many unexplained hardware malfunctions of our MRT trains. 

Unfortunately, SMRT is not merely a private public transport company but in many ways an epitome of the way which our country is run. $$$-driven mentality and therefore the constant play down of its people/passengers and the severe lack of national pride.   

Such revelation. It doesn’t take a genius to see where Singapore is heading to for the next stop. 

Next station, $$$. Mind the platform gap. If you were to fall into the gap, it is solely your own responsibility.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pause. Stop and Think-- The last 20 years during the reign of Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong.

Lee Hsien Loong is currently hailing ALL Singaporeans to envision our country for the next 20 years. However, before we embark on crafting a future blue print for even one more year ahead, we should also pause and reflect upon our housing, transport and healthcare, the basic goods which impact on our standards of living. Goh Chok Tong’s “The Next Lap”, initiated in 1991, was too, a forward-looking plan for Singapore stretching as far as 20 to 30 years ahead. Between 1991 and now, have our lives improved or deteriorated in the last two decades?

A vision without actualization is empty and meaningless.

Strip off the number of hubs, rankings or international awards that Singapore has clinched throughout the years and get down to the core, ie, the quality of living. The best international airline award may polish our vanity and pride, but is of no relevance to the quality of our housing, (daily) transport and healthcare.

(1)  The rosy GDP figures and the population expansion addiction

Economic perspective first, since that has always been the benchmark for measuring the success of the governance of Singapore.  

GDP figures have always been the big and only picture of Singapore’s success story.  

GDP (US$) between 1991 to 2011

Looking at Singapore’s progress through the lens of GDP, the big picture is rosy-looking, with GDP growth on the upward trend throughout the last two decades. There are occasional dips of recession but the period of upward growth surpasses the dips.

Our GDP per capita attainment was listed as the world’s most affluent country in 2010 by the World Report 2012. In fact, according to Goh Chok Tong, we have already attained the 1984 Swiss standard of living as early as 1994 in terms of GDP per capita in purchasing power parity. That was unmistakably Goh’s pride during his reign. 

GDP (US$) per capita

It is also interesting to note that the pace of GDP growth is more pronounced after 2005 where it overtook the peak of GDP in the 90s. What attributes to such substantial growth of GDP in the mid 2000s?

Compare the GDP chart with our population chart which may hold the answer. Coincidentally, the growth trend is very similar. 

Population 1991 - 2011

Undeniably, our GDP per capita figures cannot achieve the same stunning figures independent of the population boost. There is a co-relation between the two.

Another thing to note on our population growth is that it is growing at an accelerated rate after 2003. It took 13 years in the 90s to grow one whole million people (it reached 4.1 million in 2001 but hovered at this figure till 2003). After 2003, the population expanded by 1 million by 2011, within 9 years. Today, it stands at 5.3 million and certainly will be gushing through the 6 million mark, judging at all the hints that the Cabinet dropped all over the place on the need to grow population. By the way, LHL succeeded GCT in 2004. Lee’s GDP figures are also noticeably unmatchable by GCT’s, and likewise on his population growth rate. His addiction on the population size is apparent.

Using population size as the single means to boost GDP begets the question of sustainability. Once the population expansion steroids are removed from the economy, what other miracles can LHL perform apart from importing another 5 million newcomers to elevate the GDP amount to 100 billion US dollars. Even if that 5 million more comes in, but the million dollar question is, what comes after? Another 6 million or so?

(2) Housing

Contrasting the limelight which our GDP figures has drawn, our housing concerns attract equal attention, albeit negatively.

HDB size has shrunk in absolute size across all flat-types. 3- to 4-room flats shrunk by 5 sqm,whilst 5-room and executive flats shrunk by 15 sqm. To rub chilli into wounds, HDB price rose stubbornly throughout the last two decades and coupled with shrinking flat size, implying an even higher in terms of psf.

Housing is the single most expensive purchase in our lifetime. Contrary to what Tharman suggested that inflation of HDB flats will not affect current flat owners. That is based on the assumption that all flat owners do not have any offsprings, or that couples stay married for the rest of their lives or there is never a compelling need to downgrade one’s current flat.

Under current housing regulations, divorcees have to dispose of their flats. If for some reasons, they could not live with their parents under the same roof, they will have to turn to resale market for an abode of their own. Prices of new HDB flats affect the resale market directly and vice versa too. And it is not rocket science to see future generations facing future HDB flats that are priced out of proportion of their incomes. In the event of such, current HDB owners may have to dip into their retirement funds to supplement their children’s housing purchases. Parents may choose to sell down. But with the unrelenting increase of HDB prices, selling down also means incurring higher purchasing price of a smaller and older resale flat, resulting in a fall in the quality of living.

Paying more for smaller flats, median wage increase fails to catch up with the rate of housing price increase, extending the period of paying off housing debt and eroding both the retirement funds of both existing and future HDB owners. All these combined factors indicate a fall in overall living standard in the last two decades and outstrips any improved quality of new HDB flats there may be. To compensate better quality HDB flats with an additional 10-year loan is unreasonable.

(3) Transport

Contrary to what awards or accolades SMRT may choose to highlight in attempts to convince commuters of its service quality, as a MRT commuter since the 90s, the travelling experience for me has definitely fallen in comfort and reliability, both which constitute good travelling experience. Ironically, only the fare went up whilst comfort and reliability fell.  

Awards or rankings hold little meaning if actual train travelling on the ground fails to yield improved satisfaction despite persistent fare hike in the last two decades. Newer models of trains with greater seat spacing or improved comfort are completely written off by excessive overcrowdedness and longer waits to board a less sardine-packed trains during peak hours. How would newer model of trains improves commuting experience if commuters were compelled to wait for a few rounds of trains during peak hours before they can squeeze on board? Longer waits translate into longer commuting time between home and workplace, leaving home earlier and returning home even later.    

Commuters expect crowds during peak hours but public transport operators are being unreasonable to pack commuters to the extreme of a can of sardines. To be perspiring in the supposedly air-conditioned train carriage, not forgetting to mention that the increased number of bodies packed in a constraint cabin will inevitably and understandably intensify the body odours after a day’s work, it is also inevitably uncomfortable. The insufficient air-conditioning in the cabin is an indication of overloading.

And comparing to the crowds at peak hours in Tokyo does not even make me feel any slighter comfortable on my train trips. Instead, such comparison attempts to belittle my genuine travelling discomfort irks me to the extreme. By the way, I hate London tube and still that does not eradicate the fact of SMRT’s deteriorated quality since the 90s.

Unreliability due to train stalls or signaling problems or what-so-ever has become part and parcel of our SMRT travelling experience. Just the other day, on the 29th October, around 7pm, commuters were disposed at Toa Payoh because of door faults. The faulty train then pulled out of the station with no further instructions whether stranded commuters should find alternative travelling mode or to wait for subsequent trains. So much for improved communications after the massive break-down last year.

(4) Healthcare

Although the data for the number of hospital beds per 1000 people is incomplete throughout the last two decades (world bank date), one could still see that there were more hospital beds between 1991 to 1994 as compared to the period between 2005 and 2008. It is a consequence of unprepared population expansion, leading to longer wait for outpatient healthcare.

No. of hospital beds per 1000 people

That is a fall in quality of healthcare.

On the other hand, whilst ministers are urging for wage increase in tantrum with increased productivity, yet our expenditure on healthcare does not increase in tantrum with the GDP growth.

Public and Private health expenditure (% of GDP)

Proportion of public expenditure on health care is comparatively stable compared to private expenditure. With rate of inflation, this is hardly good news as public expenditure is actually decreasing in real terms.

Its size of spending that caters to the majority of the citizens surprisingly lags behind private spending, and bearing in mind too that our public spending is even below that of developing countries, an evident indication of a strong reluctance to distribute GDP yields to the majority of the citizens.

And with our accelerated population expansion rate since 2005, public health expenditure fails to rise in tantrum too.

Swiss standard of GDP but declining quality life
A glance through the reality of our housing, transport and healthcare, has GCT’s 1991-vision improved our lives? If the answer is not affirmative, it is already a proven record that Singapore’s politicians-in-power have failed to effect genuine and beneficial progress for the bulk of our citizens despite their vision, planning and promise. Therefore the attempt to think beyond tomorrow with the same political party of unchanged ethos, values and mindset is futile, save the envisioning. We did surpass the Swiss standard of GDP ultimately, yet our quality of lives for the majority of our citizens is worse off than the 90s. And that is the proven record of PAP’s failure.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The THICK line between convenience and exploitation

Workers from essential services going on strike are considered illegal under our laws. On 26 November 2012, more than 100 Chinese national bus drivers went on strike in Singapore, breaking the two-decade old of strike-free  records of our demure workforce. Their actions were considered illegal in the eyes of our laws. 29 to be repatriated, 4 to be charged and 1 already jailed.

On the facade, such laws were legislated to eradicate any possibility of disruption in public/essential services to ensure a smooth function of our society. The term "essential services" covers a HUGE range of sectors, eg. banking, telecom, water, ICA, newspapers, SAF, postal, healthcare.....etc.
As a member of the public, and like any selfish being, I would hate to be inconvenienced by the industrial actions of the workers in the essential services, such as the cleaners from my estate. How else could I tolerate the state of cleanliness of my estate for even one day without proper cleaning? Who would chauffeur me to work if transport workers were to go on strike? How would the society function without these workers from essential services? Yes, HOW? 

I have no qualms of the fierce support coming from Singaporeans in illegalizing strikes for the sake of our own convenience and the weakness of our selfish traits. It does seem to benefit EVERYONE as a member of the public when public services are involved, to enforce a strike-free enviornment. I confess that I used to think along this line two decades ago.

And therefore, the justification comes cleverly, by mobilizing the selfish traits of the members of the public to criminalize the undesirable/selfish actions of a group of individuals for holding the public ransom for their monetary demands through the actions of strikes.

The striking question is, who are we protecting exactly with such a law against strikes? For the members of the public or for the few employers?

Unfortunately, the scope of "essential services" is largely  public services where there is little or no presence of competition, ie. a single source of service provider, which is namely the government as it is the only employer

If cleaners of a coffeeshop go on strike, we could simply switch to another coffeeshop for services, given the stiff competition present in genuine private businesses. 

However, if public services were to come to a halt, there is no other alternative source of service provider for consumers to choose from. It will strike a terror into the hearts of the public which will in turn help the "employer", ie. our government, to assume the right to eliminate every bargaining power from the workers so as to ensure a subdued pool of local labour. As such, the employer, aka the government, sets the artificial "market rate", forcing the workers to be wage-takers. 

It is evident that the law against strikes is not so much for the convenience of the society but more on cost-savings.

Eg. our cleaners and bus drivers have not seen much increment in their wages until post GE 2011 when the issue of our low wage workers were brought to surface. Before GE 2011, monthly salary for cleaners were under $1000 and average basic monthly salary for bus drivers were $1400. Paradoxically, these people, our people were forced to take up such wages for being part of the essential workforce. They are being devalued for the essentiality of their jobs. 

Exploitation is the only honest word that could describe the mentality of the employer/government.

Btw, the bus drivers who went on strike are from SMRT, a private enterprise and 54% owned by Temasek Holdings which is the investment company of our government. As the main shareholder of SMRT, our government holds influence over this "private" enterprise and thus cannot shun entirely from criticism in maneuvering the low wage levels of our bus drivers. 
As users of public services, we have to see through the disguises of employers, largely the government which directly and indirectly employs the bulk of our labour force, of justifying the exploitation of our workers, through the use of: 
1) illegalizing strikes
2) unlimited access to cheaper foreign labour 

Delve deeper, we should understand that the much valued convenience of our society comes at an expense of some of our people. We must also see the close association of persistent exploitation of our workers with ourselves. While ourselves or our family members may not be part of that essential service workforce now, given the exploitative mindset of our government and employers, we cannot be assured there will not come a day when our services will be listed as part of the "essential services" and subject to exploitations for their own gains. 

The myth of higher salaries for essential service workers will translate into higher costs for members of the public must be debunked. [Pay $1 more to increase pay for cleaners] We must avoid falling into the clever trap of believing that higher salaries of our people must come direct from our own pockets instead of the tax pool to which we have contributed directly and indirectly, as well as the prices which we pay for all the public services. There are no free lunches but there has to be a limit to profiteering by the employer/government. Years of wage depression did not translate into cost-savings for consumers. Town council fees, transport fares, housing prices etc did not come down despite zero or negative growth for wages for front line workers.

Btw, SMRT's net profits rose from 56 million in 2002 to $160 million each year for 2009 - 2011 period. Did wages for frontline SMRT workers grow proportionately to that of the net profits?

As wage-takers, there could not be a genuine communication/discussion with the employers who sets the wages, and therefore, our workers are open to blatant exploitations. 

Desmond Kuek of SMRT and Lee Hsien Loong both reiterated the decision to continue sourcing for cheaper labour abroad, respectively for SMRT and for our country. This will be the trend for our workers and country.

Convenience should not naturally result in exploitation, whether on our workers or on foreign workers.

Monday, December 03, 2012