Singapore Writer’s Festival 2017 (Part 1)

The Green State of Singapore. Singapore has plenty of thriving nature ecosystems. The last of the tigers seen on the island was the 1930s. In the last 100 years, there is a trend of increased use of cultivated land (crops) and increase urban land use. The percentage of primary forests have decreased a lot. The 1960s marked the resettlement of people from village to HDB. NParks works with MINDEF to allocate land for jungle training. These jungles also enable biodiversity to thrive. The interesting thing is that in the 1930s, almost all of Singapore’s bio-diversity was gone and this had to be built from scratch. Today, Singapore has an outstanding range of biodiversity. We have over 400 bird species, which is 4% of the different bird species in the world. We also range high on the bio-diversity index and have improved over time. We top the Green new Index, the Treepedia by MIT. Some interesting species which we have are the Horseshoe Crab, where there are properties in their blood which can detect certain toxins in human blood. Everyone needs to take positive action. Nparks has a nature conversation masterplan in place to boost our conservation efforts. Roadside greenery and the various nature parks, reservoirs are all due to careful planning. 22 May is the bio-diversity roundtable and we also get schools involved. There is a school where the Chinese teacher actually brings students in the courtyard for lessons, where there is more greenery. 93% of Singapore’s forests were chopped in 1883 due to colonization. The Botanic gardens were tasked to re-forest and to grow Singapore’s bio-diversity in the late 1800s. Up to the 1930s, Singapore produced most of their food. In the modern day, we import almost everything. This was largely due to government policy on the need to make better use of the land and modernize our economy. Botanic Gardens actually re-introduces extinct orchids through a hybridization process. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the chief gardener. Almost everything green in Singapore has been created and this provides a conducive environment for businesses to set up shop here. Trees were planted along expressways to impress tourists. When animals (tigers, wild boars, meerkets) are dangerous, we try to get rid of them. The green movement is growing and more young people are on-board. The increase in green energy does not necessarily mean it’s good for eco-systems as these are very distinct. Land still needs to be set-up for natural eco-systems. Roof gardens on multi-storey carparks are also more common.

All in a Traveller’s Day. The Chinese and Taiwanese markets are bigger than Singapore’s for writing. Write about your own experiences. Traveling can inspiring you to write. Mimi is an illustrator and now a comic book writer. One can use social media to update people on your upcoming novel. This might be a niche area. Writing a travel guide is different from a novel as you are heavily constrained by guidelines. Telling your publisher upfront that you are going to work on a particular work might help as it leads to you feeling the pressure and motivation to get things done. Most Singaporeans travel casually because they feel repressed here. However, most do not achieve the type of depth that travel writers experience. It is necessary for travel writing to have some element of universality, and not completely personal. Sometimes, even if you are a travel writer, it is important to just go in with less expectations and to experience as many things as naturally as possible. There is no need to contrive a novel. A good thing about comics is that you can exaggerate things that happened along the trip. The problem is that social media is all about framing and people make the place seems very exclusive and empty. However, in reality, there could be many people waiting for the same opportunity as you. Smartphone apps have changed the way we view things and meet people. Travel writing needs to be very open and chatty. Marc Nair writes a short haiku for every of his photos. There is a need to be a responsible traveler, such as by recycling materials. The problem with some tourists is that they may intrude into someone’s privacy if they go too close to someone’s famous house for a photo opportunity etc. Poetry can be linked with photography if it tries to explore the space in a photo. Write in your own voice and learn to find your own writing style. Sometimes, it is useful to get lost while traveling as it allows you to experience things you wouldn’t normally had a chance to.

From Apart to a Part: Writing to Unite. To some, many do not know where home is as they might have been displaced due to violence, turmoil in their own country etc. However, home is actually within you and once you are at peace, you must feel at home everywhere you go. Suki Kim taught English to North Koreans in NK for 6 months and wrote about her experiences. In NK, everyday felt the same and it felt really empty. There were no news/emails received and you didn’t know how to assess what was true. It was mainly propaganda. Literature can connect the arts/culture and translation is important as it helps to revive old literature. Through the shared power of literature, it is powerful enough to spread culture and important cultures. Learn to immerse yourself in other cultures. Learn to understand the human narratives through talking to refugees etc. The power of fiction is so amazing that someone else might actually think your character is a real person. It is almost possible to fall in love with a character in a book. All of us humans have a story to tell. It sucks being a migrant worker. The panelists shared about a Nigerian woman who tried to go to Italy to work as a result of social unrest in her country. However, her journey was fraught with difficulties and dangers. Stories help us to understand the world and make sense of what is true. Sometimes, the media do not feature such stories and hence the truth is suppressed. Social media is a way of broadcasting to the masses. There is a need to learn about someone else, and one of the best ways are through stories. Poetry is like rain, which politicians can’t stop. Soon, it will seep into the ground like rain. Writers have a social responsibility to share the stories of those who have slipped through the cracks. Through this sharing, it is hoped that the world will be more aware of such plights.

Growing up with Sumiko Tan. Sumiko graduated from English literature and moved on to a journalist covering crime. Later on, she wrote 2 books on crime. She is well known for her personal columns in the Straits Times on Sundays. The good thing about a personal column is that it allows everyone to start off on a clean slate. She wanted to show everyone that small things in life have a bigger meaning. Everyday experiences can be interesting as well. However, most of her columns had the same succinct writing and a certain structure to it. Over the years, she has received much praise for her work and sometimes some criticisms too. She always chooses to write from the heart and that’s how her topics were chosen. It is no wonder that she has written 400+ columns over 22 years. However, she only like 10 to 20% of them. They were compiled into a book. Some of the topics she covers are her pets, love, death, loneliness etc. She has an obsession with death. She only got married at age 46 and does not regret having no kids. Having kids would just have affected her career achievements. Now, she interviews household names like Tony Fernandez, Zoe Tay etc. Often, she also writes about her mum and husband. ST uses readership surveys to decide whether to continue her column and most readers responded positively. Over the years, Sumiko has generated the art to write everywhere, even with distractions abound. Deadlines also help her. Sumiko avoids over-dramatization of her characters and also plans to write short stories in future. She likes works by Sonny Liew and Tash Aw, local authors. Young people nowadays can do an internship or even start a blog to showcase their works and talents. This might help employers notice and aid in a job hunt. It is important to be sincere in your writings. She is grateful to having been born in Singapore, in such exciting times. So far, she does not have many regrets in her personal life.



Review of the ATOP World Time Singapore SG50 Edition

I purchased this watch in July 2015. This was the first quartz watch which I purchased on my own. I was really thrilled with the idea of owning another SG50 watch after owning the Ball SG50 nighttrain piece. In addition, the ATOP World Timer was only produced in 100 pieces and seemed really exclusive. This was the third watch I purchased since pursuing the watch hobby in April 2015. I first learnt about this watch from SJX’s website: The watch has an interesting feature of switching to different time zones. This feature has won the brand some accolades as well.


ATOP also produces world timers in other colours and designs. You may check out the other designs here:

The ATOP World Time Singapore SG50 Limited Edition watch (44.5mm case and is 12mm thick) has a day night indicator and a unique feature of switching to different time zones. It runs on a quartz movement. One could switch to a different time zone via rotation of the bezel. On the top of the watch, there is an engraving of the number of the watch. For mine, it is number 2 out of 100. For me, this limited edition is of significance as it marks Singapore’s 50 years of independence and is certainly a moment worthy of celebration.


ATOP is a Taiwanese brand that was established in 1984. It was founded by engineer Mark Lin and his wife. Their precision movement is also patented and their brand is known for the automatic setting of world time as the watch contains 24 pre-set destination times. ATOP watches usually come in playful colours and tend to attract a younger crowd.


The ATOP World Time Singapore SG50 Limited Edition is a fairly new model, and follows on from other world time models. It is heartening to see unique technology employed in a quartz watch. In the brief period that I used it, the watch keeps time well and is very light and enjoyable to wear on the wrist. This is certainly a watch that stands out from other brands that carry many quartz watches, like DW, Swatch, Fossil etc. In addition, this watch will suit frequent travellers as switching time zones is such a breeze. ATOP watches are made in China, however, this is no way compromises the quality aspect of their timepieces.


The main reason why I found it so attractive was the technical features and also the playful feel that came with the watch. My reasons are listed below:

The ATOP World Timer comes in a high grade polycarbonate case and a durable rubber strap. The watch is relatively lightweight due to the use of a rubber strap and the use of polycarbonate. The polycarbonate feels harder and superior to normal plastic watches. The strap is comfortable and still in great condition. The case is all black and the red accents on the dial provide excellent contrast to the overall appearance of the watch. This contrast gives the watch a youthful and playful feel. The bezel is also made from polycarbonate and is relatively easy to turn.


The watch screams playfulness, which I like. This is certainly one piece which you will not see on the wrist of others. It has a hardened mineral crystal which is fairly scratch resistant. Although not as hard as sapphire crystal, it is still acceptable due to the price positioning of this watch. Due to the materials used, the watch will not develop patina over time. There is a sub-seconds dial at 6 o’clock of the watch.


The ATOP World Timer is a weekend watch with 30 meters water resistance. This is a watch where you can wear daily without having to worry about it. As the watch is donned with a rubber strap, one can certainly use it for sporting activities. After nearly 2 years of use, my watch is almost scratch-free and still in mint condition. I have also wore my more expensive watches more frequently.

The ATOP World Timer uses an in-house quartz movement. This a certainly a workhorse movement with a long battery life. The battery can be easily replaced via unscrewing the caseback via the tool provided. This type of CR battery will likely cost less than $10, if brought to a watch shop for replacement.

The black dial on the watch has different textures under sunlight/artificial lighting. This is certainly very attractive to look at. At the 12 o’clock position, the country stated would indicate that the current time zone the watch is in. For instance, from the pictures, Singapore is by default positioned at the 12 o’clock position and is in red font. The bezel can only be rotated in an anti-clockwise manner. There is a day-night indicator at 3 o’clock and it will slowly rotate as time passes.  There are tinges of white and red on the dial and this gives the watch a playful feel at times. Overall, there is minimal text on the dial, apart from the ATOP logo at the 9 o’clock position. The bezel is of the right size and does not overwhelm the dial. The hour and minute hands are filled with luminous materials and can glow at night. However, the lume is weak and practically non-existent.


The ATOP World Timer has a closed caseback. As mentioned earlier, it can be opened up via the tool provided. Once the caseback is opened, one can replace the battery and also change the time. Therefore, there is no crown on the watch. This actually gives the watch a symmetrical feel.

Overall, I am still impressed by how the watch has not ‘aged’ and still looks in like-new condition. I have worn this watch on a rotational basis among my other watches. The ATOP SG50 watch is a weekend watch which will pair well with casual clothing. The two most outstanding features are its (1) World time feature and (2) Day night indicator. I purchased this watch for SGD 193 from Red Army Watches and by now, all 100 pieces would have been snapped up by now. If you want to lay your hands on one now, you will have to get a pre-owned one.


Five Amazing Benefits of Being Kind by William Wan

The Singapore Kindness Movement was founded in 1997 with the aim of building a kinder and more gracious society

There are 5 amazing benefits of being kind. They are:
1) Personal Happiness
2) Happy Families
3) Good Health
4) Success at Work
5) Kindness Begets Kindness

What is Kindness? It is about benefitting others without expecting anything in return. This is graciousness in action. Make a positive difference in someone else’s life. You can do simple things like hold a door for someone. Compassionate people who exhibit altruistic acts of service tend to have better life satisfaction and health. Doing nice things for people leads to a significant increase in people’s positive moods.

Personal Happiness. When you are kind towards others, dopamine, is released. This makes you feel good. Be kind and you will happy, be happy and you will be kind. Doing good over time will tend to lead to a friendly and joyful personality. This, in turn, makes you more attractive to others. Doing good deeds is also associated with better relationship satisfaction. Helping others bestows a sense of satisfaction. Learn to acknowledge your colleagues in your workplace.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. – Dalai Lama

Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day. – H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Happy Families. Small acts of service are a way of showing affection for your partner. Kindness should start from the home. Talk about kindness in your dinner table. Write cards or notes of appreciation.

Strength of character may be learned at work, but beauty of character is learned at home. – Henry Drummond

Being considerate of others will take you children further in life than any college degree. – Marian Wright Edelman

Good Health. Being kind to others has mental benefits, due to the production of dopamine and endorphins. Your body produces oxytocin, the bonding hormone. This hormone protects your hear by lowering the blood pressure.

Success at Work. Kindness can create a healthier and more effective workforce. This helps to boost productivity. Employees who are happier then to go the extra mile and tend to be more engaged in their work. The work place culture indeed matters. Teamwork also becomes more fun and the work environment is more pleasant and welcoming.

Kindness Begets Kindness. We can make our society a better place. When we enjoy others act of kindness, we feel good and feel inspired to pass it on. Learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Understand their needs and desires. Do good, without expecting anything in return.

The very nature of kindness is to spread. If you are kind to others, today they will be kind to you, and tomorrow to somebody else. – Sri Chinmoy

Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end. – Scott Adams



The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman (Part 2)

Assume the Worst (How Singapore Conquers Corruption). Corruption was an old problem in Singapore. We are very close to eliminating corruption. In 2014, Singapore was ranked the least corrupt state in Asia and 7th in the world. There used to be Chinese triads and secret societies in the 1960s. Our bureaucrats were not up to the task back then. Harry Lee Kuan Yew changed everything and made the eradication of corruption his priority. He survived through the war. He studied in LSE in UK, and then subsequently to Cambridge. Later, he entered private practice. He and a few friends founded PAP in 1954. Corruption was rife back then. By embarking on this campaign, it would differentiate themselves from other parties at the time. By 35, LKY was Singapore’s first PM when they won the GE in 1959. Singapore had no natural resources and there was racial tension at that time. It was 1965, and Singapore went independent after separation from Malaya. LKY realized that Singapore needed good governance. He enforced the rule of law and created a nation that was efficient and secure. He established the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau). CPIB was granted great independence, like the power to investigate, search, perform house arrests etc. Even top government officials were taken to task for corruption. Now, CPIB has 177 staff. Also, members of the public can report anonymously on CPIB’s website. At times, the government will also punish the supervisors of corrupt officials. CPIB also engages in educational and public outreach programs. The Singapore Government also compensates its officials well, more generally than virtually any other state in the world. Singapore also imposes spending limits, keeps elections short and bans political ads. Singapore is very conducive to doing business and our economy is bigger than Philippines. The fear is that government officials might become too complacent. Fighting corruption need not be an expensive undertaking. Given its size, Singapore is more mobile and can react to threats quickly. Singapore is not a true liberal democracy and LKY has done things to keep his enemies weak and off guard. Singapore is known for restrictions on opposition parties, media etc. Many countries have wanted to learn from Singapore’s success.

Civil servants get a range of cushy benefits, from golf club memberships to discounted vacation packages, and their compensation is pegged to two-thirds the prevailing wage for equivalent private-sector work. – Jonathan Tepperman

You can have the best rules, the best anticorruption agency, but if your politicians are corrupt… nothing is going to save the system. It’s as simple as that. – K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s law Minister

Diamond’s Aren’t Forever (How Botswana Defeated the Resource Curse). Botswana had no resources after it was independent from the UK. A large part of the land was occupied by the Kalahari desert. Even the UK had little presence on the place because of the lack of resources. They didn’t invest in much. Botswana was independent in Sep 1966. There was only 1 doctor for every 26000 people and the infrastructure was non-existent. Somehow, diamond deposits were found. However, many expected the government officials quickly harvested them and leave the people in ruins. To everyone’s surprise, that didn’t happen. For over 30 years, Botswana is the number one diamond producer by value, mining and exporting etc. They have a democratic government and have never fought a war. Income levels are of global middle class. Literacy is at an impressive 87%, among other achievements. Corruption levels are very low. Their magic formula was luck, leadership, and good political and economic policymaking. The good thing was that the UK didn’t bother about them and they could start their own culture. Tswana used a system called kgotla to manage disputes. Basically, they were meetings which encouraged free speech. Major issues were debated. The people respected responsible rule and public participation. Seretse Khama was their first president until 1980. He was a crown prince of Bangwato. He studied in the UK. This gave him a strong grounding in Anglo-Saxon constitutional democracy. He married Ruth Williams, white daughter of a British army officer. Khama hated racial discrimination. He founded the Botswana Democratic Party in 1961 with Quett Masire. Botswana opened up their country to anyone who accepted its values. They also invited foreigners as consultants for their government. This helped to build up the strength of their Civil Service. They made English and Setswana their two official languages. The country managed to achieve a great level of ethnic harmony. The two leaders avoided dictating policy and ensured that there was a cabinet to approve policies. Sometimes, the public was consulted as well. It would have been easier to be a dictator and just execute whatever ideas he had straight away. Also, the government could balance its books. The earnings from diamonds had to be spent wisely. De Beers’ had to channel some of its profits to the government. The government officials were also not corrupt. They were surprisingly thrifty when it came to spending. There is also a saving culture in their people. State salaries were kept low too. Stable budgeting was used to ensure over-expenditure would be detected. With more exports, the value of currency will rise, making imports cheaper. However, this means local industries in Botswana might suffer if they are not careful. It created its own currency and invested in human development and infrastructure. Corruption is common when there are big resource profits to be made. The government launched an anti-corruption campaign. The trick was that not too much power was given to any one person. In 1981, exports fell because of a severe recession. Because of this, the government set up rainy-day funds, one for recurring expenses, one for debt payments etc. Because of this, they could build up their reserves fast. Mineral earnings could only be used for investment expenditure. Mining revenues have plateaued and there is lot of room to groom the private sector too. The current leadership is also not as competent as the first generation. Botswana has managed to reverse the resource curse.

This Land is my Land (Why the Shale Revolution Could Only Happen in the US). This is a great American story. It created the energy revolution that transformed everything. Despite its size, it could still succeed. People feared that oil and natural gas production will be hit. However, renewables are still going strong nowadays. The US managed to discover shale and unconventional oil and gas to boost its energy production. In addition, it is exporting a lot of energy. By 2020, the US will be the number 1 oil producer. The energy boom has pumped a lot of money into our economy. Peak oil has been a distant memory, and we are not running out of oil. Fracking is a dangerous process which might harm the environment. Shale boom has reduced emissions, and natural gas has replaced a substantial % of coal. Fracking has also been made safer. There is now closer monitoring and enhanced testing of well components. Fracking Safety will keep improving. However, a plunge in prices will cause the producers to suffer. Shale wells are cheaper to drill. In the 1970s, oil and gas produced slowed. Shell and Esso joined forces when drilling so as to save costs. Many of the smaller independent players could not afford to drill and find new sources of energy. US shale often lays deep underground. George Mitchell came along, he was a geologist. He kept thinking of ways to extract shale from the north east of Texas. He used water, instead of more expensive gels, to perform the fracking. Water was cheap but many thought that it was not strong enough to crack the rock. Sand and polymer lubricants were added to the water and it worked. The shale produced huge quantities of gas over a few months. This would work for oil extraction too. Mitchell deserved the compliments. The US government had its part to play too. The government paid for studies in unconventional oil and gas and also similar projects. The government also used tax credits to help firms. Public investment in technology certainly paid off in a huge way. US law grants owners not just the land rights and use of the land, but also what lies beneath it as well. Because of this, many energy companies started and wanted to compete with one another. Why have the rest of the world not bore more wells? The issue is that the US had major companies, but with also many small ones. The small ones were willing to work hard, unlike the Europeans. Europe has a lot of shale, but energy companies there fear commitment. Some of Europe has also banned shale gas operations. It is time that Europe start harvesting shale too. China is also reluctant to change as it sticks to reliable methods. Labour in China is cheaper. CNPC, CNOOC and Sinopec are huge companies, which are state-owned. China has other issues to tackle, like the water crisis etc. In recent years, brackish water can be used too. China has partnered with giants like Shell etc and tried to learn their methods. However, due to the different terrain, fracking is made more difficult. Many US companies failed before they could succeed. Also, it could be that government companies are not as nimble to think as compared to smaller companies. China still has a long way to go in extracting its shale potential. The US has been ingenious in this regard and many other countries can learn how to innovate and be as nimble as them.

Manufacture Your Miracle (How South Korea Keeps its Economy Growing, and Growing, and Growing). The North and the South went to war in June of 1950. The country was split along the 38th parallel during WWII. Seoul was decimated during the war, so was their infrastructure and economy. However, in recent times, they have managed to thrive. It is one of the richest countries. There are plenty of skyscrapers etc. The Korean male are also taller than their parents. They have experienced growth at a healthy rate for more than 50 years. In 1963, its economy took off. For other than 2 years, their economy generally expands at more than 7% per year. The country have emerged from crises stronger. It has learnt from its mistakes fast. There are 3 phases: developmental dictatorship; democratization and liberalization. Park Chung-hee was a general who seized power of the state in 1961. He came from humble beginnings. He also studied in Tokyo etc. Their exports were pathetic and many people were subsistence farmers. The Korean war ended in a draw, without resolution. The US was bailing out Korea, but at a price. The Kennedy administration didn’t like Park. Many of the citizens didn’t trust him because he had no experience in politics. He had limited appeal. Exporting goods was a good idea, but the question was what to export? There were no natural resources. Manufactured goods was a possibility. The trick was to mass produce clothes and toys for export. This proved to work and oversaw the country’s transformation. He pumped a lot of money into the country’s infrastructure. He built up a meritocratic bureaucracy. The currency was devalued to encourage exports and banks were nationalized. He jailed many of the Japanese ‘chaebols’ CEOs. Later, he worked with them and offered them incentives. Exports grow from $55 million to $1.6 billion in 10 years. Next, Park targeted other type of industries which were more value adding like electronics, automobiles, iron ore etc. Those CEOs who listened to him were rewarded. There were also protectionist measures which were necessary to protect the local industries from competition. Park was a nasty piece of work. Despite this, some people still loved him. Education improved etc. There were no denying his achievements. It was 1979 now. His successor was Chun Doo-hwan, another General. Some of the corporate leaders were becoming very rich and there was income disparity. In 1987, Korea ceased to be an authoritarian state. Roh Tae-woo was the new President after Chun was overthrown. The chaebol kept growing and intimidated others. Chaebol kept growing and was a threat to others. Everything crashed in 1998, during the Asian Financial crisis. Exports collapsed and the currency value halved. IMF had to bail Korea out and many of the big MNCs laid people off. Kim Dae-jung was elected as President. He started the economic liberalization campaign. He believed in profit and growth. He did not resort to short term populist policies. He got rid of many redundant ministries and restructured some of the major firms. In a strange move, he allowed the underperforming big firms to die or be bought over. Daewoo’s crash prompted a turn-around in Korea’s fortunes. His hard measures helped kick start the economy again. Chaebol were associated with poor quality goods. They were forced to innovate under Kim and had to welcome outside expertise. In the past few years, growth has slowed to 3 to 4% only. Heavy state intervention can be helpful if used at the right time. Instead of causing inefficiencies, it helped. The government did not reward corporate leaders much. If you underperformed, you’d get cut off. However, when technology improves, it is more useful to let the private sector take charge rather than protecting local firms. Despite all its problems, South Korea is still a successful country. Being open-minded and nimble was one of its big successes.

Give to Get (How Mexico Got Its Government Going Again). Pena Nieto was Mexico’s president. However, he was in trouble as he allowed drug lords to escape from prison. Their economy tanked also. However, in actual fact, Mexico hasn’t have such a bad democracy. In Latin America, it is quite big. In 2013, 2014, Nieto did very well indeed. Corruption and crime needs to be brought under better control. He managed to unite the 3 parties warring with each other. One of the parties is Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Nieto was from PRI. However, some criticized him as Nieto was linked to the party’s elite. He had a poor command of English and had a complicated marriage etc. He won the election in 2012 and had to prove people wrong. He brought 3 feuding parties together: National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Nieto managed to bust monopolies, re-structure the energy sector and education system, tax laws etc. It was revolutionary indeed. Before 2012, Mexico was disastrous. Their extraction of natural resources had slowed. Corruption was rife and the economy was ruled by some wealthy oligarchs. PRI and PAN couldn’t get along in the past as one would always oppose their bills in parliament, causing deadlock. After 15 years of infighting, the leaders realized that it was useless and it was time to change. Nieto won with 38% of the vote and realized he needed the support of his enemies. PAN also woke up and realized they weren’t doing well. The two parties started to negotiate. Teaming up with other parties was useful, but it was also necessary to take on bullying oligarchs, unions etc. Nieto was not handpicked by his predecessor. He initiated talks with the other 2 parties for reconciliation. These talks were also kept secret. The energy sector was opened up to market forces. Marriage of conveniences do not last long. It will take time for some of their reforms to work. For structural changes, it takes time to materialize. Job creation has shown signs of improving. However, crime rates remains high. The drug cartels have killed many people.

Gruesome as it was, the slaughter was hardly unprecedented in Mexico. The country has suffered all too many massacres over the years; indeed, an estimated 100,000 people have been killed alone since 2007. – Jonathan Tepperman

DIY Defense (NYC and the Art of the Work-Around). The US federal government is dysfunctional at times. It was 11 Sep 2001. 9/11 was interpreted differently by many people. Michael Bloomberg was the mayor of NY. There was little protection for NYC too and national security was an issue. New York had to try to defend itself. Bloomberg started looking for cops to protect the city. He found Ray Kelly. The federal government didn’t offer NY much help. Tourism was badly hit after 9/11 and Bloomberg needed to restore the city. There was little counterterrorism work and poor co-ordination between FBI and NYPD.


Singapore in Transition by Han Fook Kwang (Part 2)


This will never happen in Singapore. The state of cleanliness is troubling. Taiwanese people carry their trash with them. People were very hospitable when I visited. They do not wait for the government to solve their problems. They solve them. This is known as social capital. Singapore often pulls people apart. We need people to work together.

Maid industry needs a cleanup. Removing levy scheme and including amount under minimum wage a win-win deal for all. There has been increasing demand for domestic workers in recent years. Quality has suffered. Singapore also uses the levy system. Agencies have to look for low quality, lower cost maids. Most of them have rural backgrounds. HK has a minimum wage for them. It could be a win-win for employers. The Indonesian and Philippine government should establish a common maid agency.

The dirty truth about Singapore. Singaporeans’ poor social graces a result of a weak sense of community. Singaporeans seldom recycle goods. The service quality in Taiwanese restaurants was better than Singapore’s. The staff were polite and enthusiastic. Japanese have courteous behavior and are public-spirited. We, as a society, certainly have work to be done. There needs to be a strong sense of community and identity among the people. We need to look out for one another. Forging strong bonds requires hard work and effort. It isn’t easy to build a civic society.

To get our politics right, get the people sector right. This is where values needed to work together for larger good are cultivated. The author feels that the economy is not as strong as before. He feels that in areas like volunteerism, donations to charities, Singapore is sorely lacking. We do not do our best to help our fellow citizen. A free market society tends to reward the individual more than the community. There is a need to develop the people sector. Civil society is more vibrant than ever before. Singapore is at a turning point.

A world apart and invisible? Beyond their economic contributions, there’s little interest in what foreign works do, how they cope. Dec 8 was the Little India riots. Many Singaporeans hate dormitories with foreign workers. Maybe the foreign workers are transient too and do not want to interact with Singaporeans. Singaporeans need to reach out to them more. Most of them are not illiterate and not extremely poorly educated. Many workers take a year to repay their loans to get to Singapore via agent. Often, some employers do not pay employees on time. The good thing is that foreign workers are protected by the Employment Act. Singaporeans need to change our attitudes towards them.

How to be a smart city (technology not included). People’s actions matter more in making city a better place to live in. There is a new Smart Nation Programme Office. It’s about using technology to enhance performance. Singapore can emulate these 3 places in the world. In Singapore, you just have to throw rubbish down your rubbish chute, where it is much easier. We could use different coloured bins for disposal of different type of rubbish. Have bicycle lanes for cycling. There are many areas where Singapore can work in.

Don’t let hawker fare disappear. The odds are stacked against hawkers – the hours are long, prices of ingredients are high and the public won’t pay more. The food is cheap and you can’t find these sort of prices worldwide. Hawker food is uniquely Singapore. However, it might be a dying trend. Their wages are low and it is tedious work. The government should try to rejuvenate the business and encourage more to take up hawker fare.


Why I am Still Writing on Transport. Mr Sim Kee Boon believed that we could solve any problem if we focused hard. Issues like car population, encouraging people to take public transport still exists. Should Singapore transport system follow HK? Here, we use government Iinked corporations. COE definitely helped, but car prices fluctuate a lot nowadays. The government also has control over how it works.

Should transport system go the HK way? There is greater competition, which spurs innovation, but less order and control. We have strong central planning capabilities, which are good. Many foreigners have praised our transport system. HK also runs the place well. People in HK are even more reliant on public transport than anything else. Competition is fierce among the different transport providers in HK. There is a sole train player, MTR Corporation. There is less restructuring of bus routes vs MTR in HK. Singapore prefers to have fewer players in the market.

Car ownership scheme should be better managed. No policy should result in arbitrary price movements with no relation to economy. In order to raise COE prices, government can reduce the supply of COEs and lower ownership taxes. They can also relax the lending requirements for owning a car. The government often defends themselves by saying that market prices dictate the price of the COE. The COE market isn’t a free market as it artificially controlled. The government reduced supply of COEs too drastically, that caused an issue. In major cities, many people do not drive and take public transport. Examples include cities like Tokyo, London, New York etc.

Taxi woes and the ghost of 1985. Why that is with so many taxis on the road, taxi queues are often very long. The government decided to raise taxi fares. However, the public stopped using their services and demand fell. Later on, they let the taxi companies regulate their own fares. Taxi demand can be unpredictable. Fees must be able to be set sufficiently so that taxi drivers can make a decent living.

The road to new model of public transport. Singapore’s public transport was overhauled. Is a two company operator model bad? LTA needs to be a strong regulator and planner and understand transport requirements. They will also need to understand our bus operators. There is now the progressive wage model. How much subsidy should the government give bus companies to operate?

Shrinking pool of engineer poses national risk. Are our engineers competent enough? We need to have top-notch engineers. Many top students choose not to take engineering. Now, government is making changes to career development of engineers. There needs to be a steady stream of fresh recruits. We are not known to be an engineering powerhouse. NUS and Keppel Corp are developing cutting edge research facilities. Buying the technology from overseas is one thing, but we still need to maintain them at home.

Satellite-based ERP: Great technology but what’s the policy? This will happen in 2020. The more you use the roads, the more you will have to pay. However, this system doesn’t cost cheap. What is our policy going to be? Shouldn’t policies be settled before you call tender on this new technology? Shouldn’t there be more debate on such important matters?

Odds and Ends – Why I write. These are articles with no one theme. I often comment on public issues. I often like receiving alternative viewpoints on issues. Writing can force readers to think more deeply on pressing national issues, which I think is healthy.

Singtel vs Starhub: It gets curiouser and curiouser. There is huge competition between the two in pay-TV. However, there is no common box for the 2 telcos yet. This is a big problem. Singtel, in the past, won the rights to broadcast the BPL. This incurred the wrath of Starhub and consumers were forced to absorb the higher cost. Everyone ends up paying more in the end. Perhaps, they should devote more time into developing their own content.

Insurers should treat customers better. If they can’t explain premium increases and policy changes plainly, they need closer regulation. I had to play twice the premiums suddenly for virtually the same coverage. Insurance companies can just raise premiums as and when they like. There should be some degree of stability in the premiums to be paid. Those with no claims should be allowed to pay less also. There needs to be minimum standards of transparency and disclosure necessary.

Doctors v Doctors. Action must be taken to curb overcharging and ensure industry is in the pink of health. Surgery rates in the private hospitals are increasing at exponential rates. The Government has abolished guidelines on professional fees. Medical insurance has led to escalating costs. Measures should be put in place to control these costs. Wealthy foreigners also come to Singapore to receive health treatments, and this results in inflated costs. Most doctors are not motivated by money, but by a higher calling. The Singapore Medical Council needs to look more into such cases. Doctors still need to meet ethical and professional standards.

Build a winning football team…and national spirit. Make a strong commitment to take care of careers and lives of those selected for national duty. To be successful, we need a great domestic league and a system to identify talented individuals. Average S league attendances have not been good. The game is also dominated by Malays. Many parents feel a football career is too short. Our football budget is not high enough. As a result, some of our talented youngsters go overseas. Football is important as it is great for the nation to bond.

Set aside places in top schools for needy, bright children. There is the Straits Times pocket money fund. Is there a link between poverty and poor grades? Obviously if you have to worry about things at home, you will have less energy to focus on your studies. However, giving these kids pocket money can go a long way for them to take part in more school activities. Poverty has been shown to produce stress/anxiety, resulting in people’s worse decision making abilities. However, more still can be done.

There’s a haze twin that is more dangerous. Finding solutions harder in haze of ignorance and misinformation. Singapore has been trying to pinpoint which are the companies who have been polluting. Haze is taking its toll on public health. In Indonesia, the situation is of course much worse and babies have died because of the haze.

To improve education, go beyond the classroom. Instead, focus on aspects which impact community and society. In Japan, students have to bring their tablecloth, collect their food, scrub the floor and clean their own toilets. Through this, they learn to care for their environment. What happens outside the classrooms are also important. The Japanese people are known for their civic consciousness and social responsibility. Many students overseas also do part-time work in addition to studying.

Singapore In Transition

Singapore in Transition by Han Fook Kwang (Part 1)

Hope, anxiety and question marks

Introduction. He was the editor of the Straits Times from 2002 to 2012. Fook Kwang writes regularly columns in The Sunday Times. We are a more rounded society now. Singapore is thriving for more civic participation and diversity of views. How can the economy continue to grow He has learnt to take feedback in his stride.

Politics. In 1989, he joined the Straits Times as a journalist. Technology and social media changed how people viewed society and politics. The public is more outspoken nowadays. Are the leaders out of touch with what is happening on the ground? The public is becoming more demanding nowadays. GE 2011 showed what happens if the government doesn’t change fast enough. Fear is always still present. It is important to read and think about the articles.

The trouble with $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs. Why were Singaporeans so upset with these purchases? The bidding period for quotations would increase from 4 to 7 days. The issue was not unfair evaluation but also the sheer cost of the bikes. Spending $2,200 on a bike wasn’t typical household spending in Singapore. Does all government need to be analyzed using cost benefit analysis? Can they incorporate assessment methods like using common sense and instincts to decide? Can an organization develop a culture and values system to do the right thing? Is there a widening gap in expectations between the general public and public sector leadership? We all need to agree on what the future Singapore should look like.

The real fear: Being pushed out of home. At the root of disquiet over foreigners is basic human anxiety of being displaced. The number of foreign workers are a concern. Immigration is a hot topic everywhere. The issue is the dilution of our culture and values. Are the foreigners integrating into our society? Mr Lee Kuan Yew had great foresight and could foresee this problem many years ago. Nobody wants to be displaced from their own back-yard. There has been a strain on infrastructure in recent years. However, infrastructure can be continually improved. People have different views on immigration. The common man is worried about their job security and foreigners stealing their jobs. Nowadays, there is also high skilled labour entering Singapore’s shores. The government needs to recognize concerns from Singaporeans and yet do what it takes to continue having a vibrant workforce and economy.

Singapore the real winner in Punggol East by-election. The by-election was conducted fairly. The Workers Party are also a party which is not out to upend the status quo. They certainly do not have plans to become the next government straight away. WP often agrees with the positions of the PAP. WP needs to work on their policies to rival PAP’s. The electorate is more educated and sensible now. It is important to field the best candidate.

Government needs to regain people’s trust. White Paper debate shows people must be persuaded plans are in their interest. Many Singaporeans were unhappy at the White Paper. Is there a lack of public confidence in the government? People need to know that policies are in their best interest. Trust has to be earned and re-earned. There is certainly a measured approach which needs to be adopted when it comes to population growth. The government needs to explain how the increase in foreigners will benefit Singaporeans. This is crucial. The public must feel that the government is acting in their interest and is doing what is best for the country.

Who’s out of touch – our leaders or people?  While some feel the Government has become elitist, others say citizens are unrealistic. The public seems to be getting unhappier at major issues. Has the government gone soft? The first theme blames the government. If the policy makers lost touch with the ground, things might be difficult. Or are the people to blame for having unrealistic expectations of the government? Are they are grateful enough Policy makers need to deal with municipal issues as well.

50 and celebrating the spirit of questioning. People who bought property in the past were able to benefit from them. Many people have taken advantage of the real estate boom. This was one of Singapore’s icons of success. However, are resale flats too expensive? Are we a too materialistic society? Are we better off living in houses with inflated values? There are grave concerns over the Singapore economy. Are Singaporean companies losing their competitiveness? Is our economy in need of structural change? The public also wants a stronger opposition. Our government is never stagnant and is trying their best to rejuvenate the economy. As we turn 50, it is the best time to ask such questions.

What dark secret is in the Singapore basement? There are things every society is not proud to be associated with, but which still exist. What is the cost of economic growth?  Is there exploitation of cheap labour? 3 groups have sacrificed themselves for the sake of economic growth. One is the low-wage workers. However, programmes like Workfare are helping this group. Politicians who were opponents of the ruling party have suffered in the past. Some movies have also been banned in Singapore. There are also many low-wage foreign workers doing the jobs that Singaporeans do not want to pick up. These are the some of the trade-offs in our society.

Fear for Singapore propelled vote swing. Voters feared that the ruling party might be voted out. It would be the unthinkable. The opposition’s campaigns seemed to gain a lot of traction online. There was a fear the ruling party would lose seats and weaken it. Voters didn’t want to see 1 more GRC move to the opposition. Many voters could have been influenced by SG50. The WP kept emphasizing on checks and balances to improve governance. The opponent will have to thread carefully after this bad result. The WP will have to re-strategize and fight again.

Lee Kuan Yew. LKY was a fast worker. Back then, everything was handwritten and he would mail his comments to me. He would always ask reporters and editors on how his speech could be improved. LKY has a tremendous persistence and determination. Many of his initial ideas for Singapore were revolutionary at that time. Indeed, he still continues to loom large.

His conviction and personality shaped Singapore. LKY can look back at Singapore as his achievement. The country has progressed much since independence. Does the younger generation lack the understanding of what made Singapore succeed? His conviction was outstanding and he was relentless about his pursuit of success. Values were very important to him. Thankfully, PAP is never on autopilot and a lot of fine-tuning of policies need to be carried out. He can take pride on our new generation and the effort younger Singaporeans are putting in.

The original big-idea leader. His enduring legacy was that he had powerful ideas for Singapore and the courage and commitment to turn them into reality. Mr Lee was not concerned with winning his critics. The good thing about him was that he was not afraid of implementing new policies. He chose to bring in MNCs, have compulsory NS for males, introduced English as the common language and multi-culturialism. He had a great deputy, Dr Goh Keng Swee. The big institutions were under government control. Mr Lee is an extreme pragmatist. He believed in minimal public welfare and home ownership. Can Singapore sustain its growth? It remains to be seen.

I’m very determined. If I decide that something is worth doing, then I’ll put my heart and soul to it. The whole ground can be against me but if I know it is right, I’ll do it. – Lee Kuan Yew

What’s next for Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew. Passing of larger-than-life leader will bring inevitable change, but key question is what this entails. What will life be like? The current leadership will certainly feel his absence. Lee Kuan Yew also commanded a lot of respect from international leaders and Singapore’s reputation might be affected. Mr Lee had many views on rising China in the past and he built a strong relationship with global leaders. No current leader should try to emulate him though.

He wasn’t afraid to show his true colours. Open display of grief shows Mr Lee’s qualities mattered more than his actions. Mr Lee never sought adulation. He was a very serious leader. He was a very frugal man and wasn’t interested in wealth. This made him more relatable to ordinary Singaporeans. Singapore was his lifelong project. He was never afraid of public examination and he wasn’t afraid to be harsh, when necessary.

Singapore’s future according to LKY. He still thought that Singapore would be safe for 10 years. But beyond that, it depends on the other members of the team. There will be a time when the public wants to try the other side. Nobody can settle the future of a country beyond more than 10 years of his life.

Economy. Hope it isn’t the kiss of death for me. Stagnating wages have been an issue for a while now. Does the average Singaporean worker deserve higher pay than his neighbouring counterpart? How do we make workers in Singapore more competitive? People need to do their job well and display initiative in whatever they do. I was impressed by service staff overseas. Singaporeans have not developed this sense of taking pride in their work. We do not possess the deep skills and knowledge required to make our products/services world-class.

Who do you think owns your company? It’s hard to improve productivity unless employees feel a sense of ownership. Labour productivity growth rates haven’t been growing. The government has been investing a lot into the National Productivity Fund. There is a lot of financial support for start-ups. Will companies be over-reliant on government help? We need home-grown innovators. Productivity is crucial. Management’s problems should also be worker’s problems. If you ask the Japanese who owns their company, they will say that their companies belong to them too.

Do workers here believe that the company they work for belongs to them? If the answer to the question is no, if workers’ hearts are not in their companies, the company doesn’t deserve to be given taxpayers’ money. – Han Fook Kwang

The $6 billion question: Will government funds help SMEs to do better? How do you grow the pie each year so that everyone can benefit? Transformation of the SME industry was the strategy. We want to send workers’ for training and rely less on foreign labour. Singapore is known for the excellent infrastructure and tax incentives. The going will continue to get tougher. However, we have to be accountable for the amount spent in the budget. We need to review whether programmes have the desired effect.

When wages fail to grow along with economy? Stagnating incomes need to be tackled in earnest. Income rose from the 1965s to the 1990s. The median monthly rate increased tremendously. Starting salaries for fresh graduates haven’t been increasing much. Why is there economic growth but no wage increase? This issue is also not uniquely Singapore. Do we need a new growth model? These are important questions which need to be answered. Inflation rates have been rising. Will stagnating incomes affect the quality of living? If the ruling party can’t deliver good jobs and incomes, they might lose votes. Ultimately, they still need to care about the economy.

Do Singaporean workers deserve their wages? Why do our workers deserve a premium when they are not so productive? We do not fare well in case interviews too. Are our workers comparable with engineering firms in Germany? Many say workers in Singapore lack drive. We should be hungrier and more hardworking. Our workers need better skills and ability. The Swiss has managed to reinvent themselves. Let’s hope stagnating wages are not here to stay.

Is Singapore too business friendly for local firms? There are basically no entry barriers. We face the brunt of global competition. It is too easy to set up a business here than many want to try. Toyota and Nissan thrived at the start because of protectionist measures. Once they were bigger, Japan opened up their economy to trade etc. It can notorious for foreign firms to succeed in China. Japanese companies usually favour sub-contractors they know for a long time. Can the system be more nuanced? Can a more protectionist approach yield the new global Singapore firm?

Understanding productivity: Why we haven’t got it still. BCA has been encouraging construction firms to use technology. Our economy is struggling to achieve 2 to 4% of productivity growth. It is not so easy to get workers to produce more. Is the worker even doing the right job? Should he be doing something else? What is Singapore really good at producing? Restructuring of the economy comes into the picture, not just about productivity gains. There is also excessive focus on technology. We need to understand the human relationships in organizations and how employers/ employees interact

If workers do not believe that bosses are fair, that the company belongs to them as much as it does to shareholders, and that they have a future in it, no amount of skill or technology will help them excel. – Han Fook Kwang

Sake, windmills and the art of craftsmanship. Both how Japanese brew and the Dutch harness wind for energy is intriguing. There is a common pursuit of excellence. Be the best you can be. The master craftsman often hands down the skills to the younger ones. They are constantly thinking of new ways to improve the brew. They treat their job with utmost respect and care. The Dutch needed to be good at harnessing energy from windmills as they needed to clear waterlogged lands. The country sits on low-lying land. It is a deep Dutch tradition.

What it takes to get the economy buzzing. Singapore relies on trade and connections with neighbours. We lack enough dynamic individuals to take us forward. We need to develop a culture of entrepreneurship. We need to do our jobs well. People in Japan, Netherlands are very resourceful.

Singapore In Transition

Panel Discussion: Why Study Literature?

Why Study Literature? (15 March 2016)

This panel members comprised of Philip Holden, Loh Guan Liang, Tan Tarn How and Tan Chee Lay. The topic of discussion was ‘Why Study Literature?’ The hard truths are that there are less Singaporeans reading literature nowadays despite them believing that there are benefits associated it. Refer to this article on the StraitsTimes. The essential question to ask is ourselves is ‘Can literature even be taught and studied’? Does the Singapore education system support creative ways in teaching literature when there is heavy emphasis on grades? Can the two co-exist?

The current form of assessment in literature requires students to sit for exams and regurgitate facts. This might not be the way to get students interested in the subject. This is because studying for exams often requires memorizing and rote learning. Hence, students might be passive in their learning and not appreciate a sensitive reading of the text. The aim of a literature education is for students to be able to apply what they have learnt. This could be done via the introduction of creative writing in schools. Currently, the required readings in schools, like Shakespeare, might seem too advanced for certain segments of students. As a result, for those who do not have a strong English language proficiency, they might lose interest in literature altogether. This is certainly not ideal. Elements of English literature could be incorporated in the English language syllabus. In lower Secondary, literature should be taught in a fun way so as to pique student’s interest in literature. At this level, a portfolio-based assessment could be introduced. In upper Secondary, some form of examination is inevitable and students should be prepared for some level of rigour in assessment.

Literature is great because it teaches you that accuracy does not equate to the truth all the time. Reading is proven to improve grades in students. In addition, it is the great equalizer and a child from a not well-to-do family who reads widely might be able to break free from poverty via the knowledge attained from reading. In general, literature helps formulate better citizens and make them more tolerant and aware of conflicts that arise in the world. Literature opens your mind to different values, ideas and concepts out there. The beauty of reading fiction is that it enables one to live other people’s lives and see things from other people’s point of view. Asking why people like literature is akin to asking why do people sing, write, dance etc? Such a question is essentially asking something more fundamental: why is there is need for arts? Why are the art important? Singaporeans are known to lead materially comfortable lives but have not attained the level of human flourishing in order first-world cities. Most of us lead mundane drone-like lives, living from day-to-day. Do visit Tarn How’s blog on human flourishing here. Basically, people who like literature are covet rebels. They value self-expression and protest against the certain conflicts that exist in the world. They believe in the value of individuality and do not like to be told what to do. Chinese literature used to be huge in the 1920s, 1930s. However, it has taken a back seat in recent years and you can hardly find a Singaporean Chinese writing in the Chinese language. Despite this, the Writers’ association/Singapore Writers’ association are doing good work. Some of the community centres have also worked hard to compile Chinese short stories/poems written by Singapore Chinese into books.

How do you improve the situation? It would certainly be beneficial for people who like English literature to attend Chinese literature-related events and expose themselves to different cultures. Literature should transcend languages and should be viewed as one. To address the lack of readers/writers, the government could do more in the areas of funding translations works from other languages to English and vice versa. Books in the libraries could be arranged by themes instead of by different languages (current practice). This novel approach might encourage more people to read books in other languages. Views towards works that contain smatterings of Singlish could be viewed more favourably in future. It might even be feasible to introduce such works as literature text for students. The bifurcation of the study of the English language with English literature is a trans-national issue and other countries also battle this problem.