30 November 2003

The Power of Three

Recently, an ancient incantation popped up after years of disuse, when first our Minister of Labour and then the heir apparent to the throne threatened, not subtly, to close down the union for the national airlines.

The heir apparent, Mini-Lee, specifically plagiarised his father's 1980 confrontation with the same trade union, threatening that "I don't want to do you in, but I won't let anyone do Singapore in".

"Tripartite Relations"

Attention, shoppers: the magical phrase is Tripartite Relations. Following a venerated tradition, the "leadership" of Singapore plagiarises and then bastardises key political, economic, and social theories from academics, and then attempt to pass off the product as "uniquely Singaporean", thus excusing themselves from the usual obligations of democracy and accountability.

But let's not get sidetracked here... the issue is "tripartite relations" between the State - which in Singapore, always means the Party, Capital, and Labour. To understand what this magical phrase means, it is necessary to take a magical journey back in time for 150 years... to October 1847.

Like all good stories, this one begins "in media res", in the middle of the plot, so as to speak. The Industrial Revolution had been under way for almost a century in Western Europe. Poor William Wordsworth had much to lament in the 19th century about the despoiling of nature, so much that his muadlin verses on flowers and clouds gradually became nostalgic in his countrymen's eyes within his lifetime, due to the ravages of industrialisation, urbanisation, and rural migration in England. For that eventual rapproachment with his initially unreceptive readers, Wordsworth became the poet laurette.

Too bad then, that the poet never pointed to the real ravages of industrialisation on the human soul. The industrial revolution created a new class of people, the Capitalists, who owned the factories where hundreds of thousands toiled, in very abysmal conditions and very low pay.

By 1799, one year before Wordsworth's famous "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey", the capitalists got smart enough to bribe the very corrupt government of William Pitt, to ban the formation of trade unions. The unions would've had sufficient bargaining clout to negotiate for higher pay and more humane conditions.

Back to 1847, fifty years on. By that time, unions are banned in most of Western Europe, and the exploitation of workers boiled to crisis proportions. Enter Marx, with the Communist Manifesto. The rest, they say, is history.

Marx might have been a poor Communist philosopher (and he expressedly insisted that he was never a Communist), but he was a brilliant economist who saw the problems of early capitalism, which probably would have "did capitalism in" if Marx didn't publish his analysis.

It did however take almost a century before economists began to take Marx seriously, and only because of the great crisis of industrial capitalism, which we know as the Great Depression. The great arch-Capitalist Henry T. Ford eventually gave in and reversed his opposition to labour unions within his factories, and hence started the ball rolling on modern trade unions.

And tripartite relations? Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programme echoed most economic-political reforms in capitalist countries across the Atlantic Ocean.

The "welfare state", maligned as it is in today's discourse, is a valid description for every modern capitalist country.

The state's policy basically guarantees the near full-employment conditions in the economy for the capitalists.

For Labour, the state guarantees basic working conditions, such as instituting minimum wage laws, and safegauarding work conditions.

Since the state's aim is for an economy operating near full-capacity, it takes out "unemployment insurance" for workers caught in the wrong part fo the economic cycle, hence the dole.

To provide a decent workforce for the factories, the state heavily subsidises education, as modern industrial economies require a workforce schooled with a foundation in Math, Science, or Engineering.

In general, this agenda sounds like most of the modern "capitalist" countries. What we practise then, is a reformed capitalism, reformed by Marx's analysis of the flaws of the early system.

23 November 2003

PAP Governance from the 1984 Operations Manual

"How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?"
"And if the Party says that it is not four but five - then how many?"

The powers-that-be probably had enough of the popular heckling of its failed PR-exercise on White Horses, and went back to the issue of the Great Leader's London Trip to cover it up - an irony, since the White Horse affair was probably leaked in order to relieve tension on the Great Leader.

The national newspaper duly reported that contrary to what the Great Leader and his medical team announced almost 3 weeks ago, the missus had suffered a cataclysmic stroke with internal bleeding, the kind that kills 8 out of 10 such stroke victims. And contrary to rumour, the missus flew back on a commercial SIA plane, where none of the passengers had a clue about who was in the first-class front cabin.

"How many fingers, Winston ?"
The needle went up to sixty.
"How many fingers, Winston?"
"Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!"

It's all very nice, case resolved with the proper explanations from all involved. The Great Leader is not an unfair man who abuses his status.

But questions remain:
1. You mean to say the entire medical team and the Great Leader lied about the condition of the missus from the beginning? In their original words, it was a "mild stroke".

2. The entire medical team originally claimed that the missus' condition wasn't life-threatening or serious. They felt she could survive a 18-hour flight three days after her stroke. Such high-altitude flights would normally induce massive bleeding in the cataclysmic stroke patients! Now, their heads should roll for putting her into such danger, and she should've stayed in London at a private hospital for a month.

3. You mean to say the Great Leader lied when he said our national airline spent 2 days retrofitting a plane so it would be, in his own words during the initial press conference, "a flying hospital"? How modest that we are now told her flying hospital consisted of just the front cabin on the plane, in the first class section.

4. Let me ask: if you spend 2 days retrofitting a plane on short notice, surely it means it screws up the entire flight schedule of the commercial passengers?

And surely, given the status of the Great Leader, his missus, and family on the plane... standard security procedures would've been taken, like body checks, more scans before boarding, lots of security personnel with earphones. Surely it'd be impossible for the passengers to notice that someone big was on the plane?

Incidentally, we are never given the flight number of the "commercial plane" that Great Leader and missus took home.

"How many fingers, Winston?"
"Four! Stop it, stop it! How can you go on? Four! Four!"
"How many fingers, Winston?"
"Five! Five! Five!"
"No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?"
"Four! Five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!"

Incidentally, I think both operations Great London Escapade and White Horse were brilliant sucesses of the Government, and should be acknowledged as such. In the end, the public is told what it needs to know, and has absolutely no way of refuting what it is told.

My previous post about the White Docket scheme was a spoof of the news reports on the White Horse revelations by the Minister of Defense, Cedric Foo. And yes, White Dockets really do exist, as pointed out by one of my readers. But it does illustrate the principles of information management that qualifies his actions as a success.

There is nothing secret about White Horses, the state of POW training in commando camps, the waste of time and money - to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars - by bureaucrats on WITS projects, and even White Dockets, which, as a reader points out, really exist. These secrets are "open secrets", some as old as modern Singapore itself.

The recent disclosures of the first 3 issues in open Parliament is a fantastic and brilliant move. If they never raised these issues in open Parliament, it would be impossible for us to discuss White horses, commando training, and WITS projects in any open forum (open = public, can be logged down).

The only venue to speak about these issues in the past was always in secret, and always as an act of very discreet "indiscretion", as a private matter transmitted from one individual to another. These indiscretions would be largely subversive, underlying connotation "Singapore is not a clean country".

That these topics are now able to be discussed in Singapore shows how much we owe to Mr. Foo, and how much permission was actually needed before Singaporeans feel they can talk about this openly.

Not only are they allowed to talk freely, now everyone is incited to debate the issue of favouritism in a context that is socially favourable. The connotations are now socially engineered in a single stroke, and changed to "standards of fairness". Such discourse is not subversive, but conservative and reactionary, re-affirming the values of justice, equality, clean government and efficient administration. The dissent of public discourse is subverted, tamed and domesticated.

And besides, according to the officials, all these activites belong to the past, and no longer take place. There is no more biased treatment of certain soldiers, no more White Horse classfications, no more deaths in the army, no more illegal and questionable army training, no more wastefulness in the civil service. Hence, it is impossible for future discourse to be subversive, or continue to bear any connotations that "Singapore is not a clean society."

Can we disagree? And where would we find the proof to back our dissent? We will neither find out just how bad the abuses and mistakes were, and whether they still exist.

In fact, our leaders have just decisively shown who's in charge here. At the end of the day, they control the information, how much Singaporeans are allowed to know, and what Singaporeans are allowed to talk about, and in what context.

And this is why the Civil Service is still the ideal job of every graduate here. It pays to stick with the winners.

"How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?"
"I don't know. I don't know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six - in all honesty I don't know."
"Better", said O'Brien.

20 November 2003

Minister Reveals More Mindef Secrets

The Singapore Minister of Information and the Arts, Mr. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, has announced in Parliament today another Mindef bombshell: since 1965, the Ministry of Information has been tracking all Singaporeans with secret dossiers, which track them from birth till death.

This unveiling is the third this month, after the recent disclosures about the illegal POW training in a Commando school and the "White Horse" policy where sons of prominent and rich Singaporeans were earmarked for ordinary treatment in the army.

Announcing the secret dossier policy, Mr. al-Sahaf assured MPs in the House that the "White Docket" scheme has been discontinued since 2000.

"It was for valid security reasons and for the sake of nurturing a capable and law-abiding population that the White Dockets were instituted. When any Singaporean child is born, a White Docket is opened - we need to keep track of all Singaporeans' family backgrounds, to see who is safe, and who may put the State and society in danger. When you enter school, all your form teachers were required to make annual personality assessments on trustworthiness, obedience, and conformity, among other moral criteria.

"The secret dossiers follow Singaporeans wherever they go, from primary school to junior college, and even to the army. It is also used for employment, security clearance, employment, and risk evaluation in both the civil service and the GLCs, which of course employ more than half of all Singaporeans."

The Minister claimed that the policy has been terminated since 2000, because of changes in official perceptions. "The Ministry decided it is, in the long run, not cost-effective to have the system keep track of all Singaporeans."

Nominated MP Steve Chia had begun to ask questions designed to probe more information about how the secret dossier policy functioned, what "criteria of judging morality" were exercised, and who authorised this scheme when the time ran out for discussion. Parliament will move on to other topics tomorrow, when it adjourns.

Reactions from the public have been muted so far. Social commentor Prof. Kao Beh Simi suggested that the public may have reached "saturation point" with the recent spate of shocking disclosures of abuses of power, about-turns in policy, and inefficiencies in the government. "Of course, it is an open secret that actual army training violates the safety regulations of the army; that the army treats sons of influential Singaporeans with kid gloves; that Singaporeans are tracked with secret dossiers; and that Ministers don't need to queue at hospitals. Since everyone knows about it, it doesn't have much of an impact as a real revelation since people have just decided to close an eye to it, and I predict they will continue to close an eye to this too."

19 November 2003

Bush arrives in London, faces protests

George W. Bush has arrived in the UK on a state visit, a first for any US president. He will also be the first US president to sleep over at Buckingham Palace since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson was accorded the honour. Unlike Wilson, Bush will be greeted with a 21-gun salute.

Central London will be cordoned off to all traffic, and 5000 police will be deployed on the streets as part of extraordinary security measures, a historical first for the city. The move, however, is widely unpopular with the British public, which is split in the middle on the Bush visit. Tens of thousands of protestors are expected to march near the Palace to heckle the US President on Thursday.

A grandmother, Ms. Lindis Percy, 61, was the first demonstrator yesterday to climb over the gates of the Palce to plant a yellow banner declaring "Bush is not welcome".

Protests in Singapore

An unexpected protest came from the highest office in Singapore, when the Senior Minister called a press conference to express his displeasure with the Bush visit. Speaking to a packed newsroom, Mr. Lee complained that the visit showed favoritism towards Bush and a lack of regard for his own status during his previous visit to the UK.

Visibly bristling with controlled anger, the great leader jabbed the air with his left finger as he said, "Look, I went to the UK two weeks ago. Did they close down central London for me? They didn't even close down the hospital I had to visit when my wife had a stroke! I spent the night sitting on the hospital waiting room, while this Bush fellow gets to sleep in the Palace! I am the founding father of Singapore, and obviously rank higher than GW Bush!"

Lessons for Singapore

Mr. Lee declared that the incidents showed lessons for Singapore's survival.

"We must obviously not follow the United Kingdom's slide into mediocre service. I am at least happy that in Singapore, the traffic police will definitely close off the roads to the Istana or any part of Singapore at my command. Our police and army are always ready to mobilise whenever I get bad dreams about terrorist attacks. This shows that Singapore has a bright future and excellent hopes for beating this recession."

The Press Secretary for Tony Blair has issued a statement reaffirming its cordial ties with Singapore, and has explained that "the UK has special relations with the United States, which means to say, GW Bush is more important to us than the Senior Minister."

17 November 2003

Job Market Roundup 2003

A friend just finished his final paper for the BA in music and flew back home shortly after. It's a little funny how he'd spent the past three days packing his luggage, and still managed to leave two haversacks back in Melbourne. Then again, I suspect that was because of the weight limit, rather than a slip of the mind.

I accepted my friend's invitation to "walkabout town", and so I ended up at Bugis Junction, shopping with my very zombiefied friend. Despite his stupor, he managed to come to a quick decision after looking at the tonnes of unemployed people hanging about Singapore: he'll accept the invitation to do his Masters of Music.

Then again, it was rather scary seeing too many taxicabs on the road; the fabled "eternal taxi queue of death" was nowhere in sight at the Bugis taxi stand. The refugees of the economic recession, helping to make our transport system less painful.

In our amazingly short queue for the taxi, my friend and I came up with a comic item that probably annoyed any listeners, but greatly entertained ourselves.

Top Jobs in Today's Economy - where do our recently unemployed or recently graduated Singaporeans go?

~Taxi driver for Comfort cabs~
Remember all the reports of 30something former execs and 40something degree-holders driving cabs? If you thought the 1998 boom in the taxi industry was scary, think again.

~Sales Executive~
There must be some secret to getting people spend money when they haven't got any. 80% of job listings in Classifieds are for sales.

~Financial Planner~
Investment and Taxes. See "Sales" and "Recession". And the entry above.

~Insurance Agent~
Can someone tell me why all the insurance companies are calling up the NUS/NTU database of all graduates from 2001 onwards?

~Data-entry worker~
Ever wonder why everyone and his dog is allowed to ask for your I/C number, home address, email, age, and probably income and education level, for just about any old reason? My dears, that's to keep the data-entry grunts busy!

~Tuition Teacher~
Yes, let's do our part to make sure today's students end up as overeducated and unemployable as their tuition teachers/recent graduates.

Our PM says, the Hotel/FNB industry needs you!

Distributing flyers pays, and some companies have armies of pamphleteers every corner of a street, underground tunnel, MRT station... all waiting to pounce on you.

~Donation Solicitor~
That's right. Our charity organisations have a shady deal with the companies that run the pamphleteer business. All operatives get paid a 20% commission on amount of money raised for the charity. Now, I'd rather give my money to a conman pretending to be a deaf-mute than donate a single cent to the thieves running our charities.

~Yasumi (休暇) ~
If all else fails, do what the Japanese do: say you're on vacation.

15 November 2003

Sesame Street begins broadcast to Middle East

From yesterday onwards, little children everywhere in the Middle East will enjoy an educational television program aimed at fostering peace and mutual acceptance amongst Arabs and Israelis. The project is funded by the European Union, thank goodness... so there won't be any bias.

I'm sure if the US of A funded it, the show would largely be a PR stunt for "the spread of democracy in the Middle East, beginning with Liberated Iraq". Top US generals would probably appear on some episodes, saying the reason for their country's supremacy is "My God is bigger than his". Grouchy Oscar would probably be replaced with a look-alike of the evil Kim Jong Il, with his trash can doubling as a nuclear processing plant/hidden weapon of mass destruction!

One thing I'm sure of, today's episode will be proudly brought to you by the number 400, which is the death toll of American soldiers killed since their illegal invasion and occuption of Iraq began.

05 November 2003

A Plan to Revive the Economy

Watching Singapore telly is worse than stabbing your eyes out, especially when it comes to locally-produced telly. Mediacorp proudly proclaims that it has more than 40 years of experience in public tv broadcasting, but surely much more can be desired from the producers of such gems like Living with Lydia, Brothers 4, The Ways of the Matriarch?

It's time, we feel, for the Media Development Authority to end the ridiculous monopoly of Mediawhore - a monopoly, because the said company still receives 80% of total funding. For once, MDA should encourage really independent production houses to produce their own stuff. Having mediacorp or mediaworks (Twiddledumb and Twiddledumber?) do in-house production or commission third-parties to bring to life their half-baked ideas... basically leads to awful television, bad accounting, and the closure of the market to independent competitors.

Here is a list of what locally-produced shows might actually succeed in Singapore:

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Why the hell should we watch some really boring travel shows where you get to see the landscape, the culture, the foreign people? The tourist is the real star of a travel program, and the biggest star in Singapore is our Great Leader, Mr. "It's fair that I got a discount for my luxury condo in 1989 because I'm a star, like Madonna"!

Follow our Great Leader and his family as they tour around the world and make devastating comments on the food, service, economy of the foreign country!

See how the rich and famous of Singapore push, cajole, drop names, and threaten ignorant foreigners, to get ahead in a queue! See the rich and famous travel round the world in specially chartered private planes from the national airline!

Proudly sponsored by: Chan Brothers Travel and Singapore Airlines.

Exchanging Lives

Who on earth would give a hoot to see pampered celebrity Kumar exchange places for a day with celebrity adventurer Pierre Png? Or to see a pampered middle-class Singapore exchange lives with an African family for a week?

Each week on Exchanging Lives, a minister will exchange places with an unemployed Singaporean. That will teach the minister just how easy it is to follow their own advice to "settle for any job", don't you think?


Every week, this reality tv/game show will focus on the travails of different unemployed Singaporeans. Cheer them on, as they work hard to land a job, any job! Afterall, it's time we prepared Singaporeans' mindsets for the New Economy.

As befitting the advice of our Prime Minister, see each unemployed bloke and gal settle, plead, and even offer to work for free in the service industry, which of course boils down to 1. waitering, 2. sales, 3. making ramen.

The Great Reformation

Why watch the crap that is Mohlmein High?

This year-long reality series will follow the ups and downs, the hope and uncertainty that follow the pioneer batch of Singapore kids, the "guinea pigs" of education reforms, in their final year of JC/secondary school. And their teachers, who got into NIE for job security... now blunder about from the lack of 10-year series guides to rely on, and are forced to actually teach their students. There's the REAL angst that kids are facing: the incomprehensibility and senility of a system that refuses to die.

Yes, Prime Minister

This comedy is all about a clueless, newly appointed PM, who struggles to carve his own political identity in face of mounting doubt and derision from the skeptical public. He also must face the bureaucrats, who think they run the country; his father, the Senior Minister, who drops in every episode to 'give advice'; and the Other Senior Minister, i.e. the previous PM, who feels he is now entitled to a say in the running of the country. What's worse is, his political opponent Dr Suan Jee Choon keeps taunting him with the line "You think your father own the country issit?"

Poor PM!

03 November 2003

The Ugly Singaporean Tourist

The strangest thing happened last night when I turned on the telly. Our Great Leader, after nearly one week since his missus contracted a stroke while touring in the UK, finally came back to Singapore, and the first thing he did was to give a press conference slamming the foreign country as a place with poor service, lousy healthcare, and nothing compared to our great, efficient nation. The Ugly Singaporean Tourist rears his head, in a personage no one scarcely expected. The details of the sordid tale is here.

The charge? Mrs. Great Leader had a stroke and was admitted to a London hospital. The doctors took 8 hours before they handled her, prefering instead to tend to 3 heart attack patients. Mr. Great Leader was so annoyed at not getting prompt service that he demanded to fly back to Singapore. So, Singapore Airlines mobilised an aircraft, get a team from SGH to retrofit the plane with the necessary equipment, and flew Mr and Mrs Great Leader home on that plane.

What did Mr. Great Leader complain was 'wrong' in how the london hospital staff treated his missus?

Lee said he and his wife had earlier waited 45 minutes for an ambulance to take them to the hospital for what was only a 10-minute drive. "If she was in Singapore, within... one and a half hours flat, we'd know exactly what went wrong," he said. Lee reportedly said the incident highlighed the problems of Britain's free health care system compared with Singapore's part user-pays method. "We run a system where you have to co-pay... but you get the attention. There, no attention, just join the queue."

Er, like. Let's give this guy a slap on the back of his head, shall we? If an average Singaporean had a stroke....

1. The ambulance may come in a few hours. Or it may not even come, as previous horror stories in the papers have reported.
2. After arrival at the A&E department of a Singapore hospital, you'll have to wait anything from 12 to more than 24 hours to see the doctor.
3. Mr. Lee, have you ever tried queueing when you visit a Singapore hospital?

According to some Ministry of Health guidelines, and from what I remember from my brief period as a volunteer, a Catscan needs to be done on a stroke patient from between 8 to 24 hours of a stroke. Stroke patients are indeed ranked on lower priority than heart attack patients, because a stroke tends to lead to a stabilised (but weak) condition and is usually not life-threatening. A heart attack can lead to death, and the patient health do not self-stabilise. Mrs. Great Leader's stroke was actually handled according to proper guidelines and procedures by the UK hospital.

What we can learn from Mr. Great Leader's experience... and let's just ignore whatever patriotic propaganda he's trying to spin out of this, is:
1. Being a big star entitles you to special treatment from Singapore Airlines. If you're big enough, they'll even prepare a private plane for you in 2 days.
2. Please, when you visit another country, try not to complain about how slow everything is, and expect everything to be run as "fast" and "efficiently" as Singapore.
3. If you're the Great Leader, everywhere you go in Singapore, you get special treatment. But not if you're overseas. Don't get too cocky and expect the United Kingdom to revolve around you, when you already have Singapore for that.

02 November 2003

Disenchantment, Re-enchantment, Re-disenchantment

Today's topic is on the venerable Luohan fish that Singaporeans used to keep as a wildly popular hobby in the past 3 years. It's a good time to pontificate on this utterly serious matter, after today's reports that people are dumping the hobby fish into the sewers, flushing them down the toilets, releasing them into reservoirs and ponds, and even dumping them in front of aquariums.

As we all know, Singapore is a modern, capitalist society full of hardheaded, pragmatic people who believe in meritocracy and social mobility. This means, no ridiculous superstitious and unscientific beliefs like "the rich will get richer, and the poor, poorer", or "if I arrange my furniture thus and thus...", or "he is a son of so-and-so, of course he's rich". For most part, Singaporeans are proud to believe that no one owes them a living, that the good life can be attained by anyone if they tried hard enough. Social scientists call this demystification a "disenchantment of the world" that is a feature of modern society.

After 1999, when it became apparent that the country would not recover from the 1997 economic crisis, Singaporeans remained honourably disenchanted with the world, prefering to pick up the pieces of shattered financial portfolios by becoming entrepeneurs; we still believed then, that social mobility and sucess could be attained. So, everyone and their dog started a tuition business. Then, everyone and their mum opened a bubble tea shop in every third store of a street. And when that failed, everyone and their cat opened a handphone accessories shop.

Gradually though, the forces of science and technology took a step back from the rise of magick, when people started buying luohan fishes, those scarily mutated looking giant fish that seem to have lottery numbers showing on their bodies. We became a nation of superstitious gamblers; everyone either had, or knew a relative who had these ugly but lucky fish.

Yet today, the ridiculous fish fad has sunk. Luohan fish that used to fetch as much as $4000 now sell for $20 or less in aquariums. Our migrant construction workers collect them from ponds and reservoirs to EAT. We have become, full-circle, disenchanted again.

You can tell the difference from the original state of naive disenchantment from today's version. No one believes that "it is glorious to be rich!", since it is impossible to get rich anymore. There will be no real recovery, only a jobless recovery. Hope has disappeared, and we are truly disenchanted.