Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Time and Place for Everything

This is one of my many letters to the Straits Times that have not been published:


What do the news on sloppily dressed students, Singapore employers struggling to fill vacancies, and the Indian tycoon Ratan Tata complaining about the “work ethic” of British workers have in common?

Despite putting people through an extensive, and some say intensive, education system, employers in Singapore and the UK still do not get the type of employees they require.

Ergo, our education systems have failed.

This clearly contradicts the increase in the number of students gaining a greater number of O and A levels. Some young person questioned how Chen Show Mao could be a top student with only 4 A Levels.

I am of the opinion that a “marketplace” of exam boards in UK has led to a “dumbing down”. Where previously only the top 5% (say) of a cohort are awarded an “A” grade, now everyone who scored over 70% (say) is given an “A”.

Therefore, many more people get A grades. But does gaining multiple A grades mean they have actually mastered the art of learning and the skills of thinking?

I have met several ostensibly “high-achieving” young people who cannot string two grammatical sentences together in a conversation on any topic of significance.

“Yes”, “No”, shrug of shoulder, shake of head. How are these going to convince anyone to buy a product, a service, or an idea?

I had no qualms in ticking off my NUS students if they came to tutorials ill-prepared or dressed inappropriately.

Educationists speak of a “hidden curriculum”: being – and submitting work – on time, wearing the uniform correctly, participating in discussions, walking and speaking in a manner befitting a student, etc. (“Hooligan or gentleman?” is enough to make my son sit properly.)

Knowing how to dress (and behave) for the occasion is a life skill. Would you wear revealing clothes when being introduced to your prospective mother-in-law or a scholarship interview?

Heard of Victoria Beckham? She annoyed me by refusing to smile at the recent royal wedding. She behaved as if she were royalty, attending a funeral.

Time and place for everything, my dear.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Who's the highest paid person in this chain?

I am often a bit slow off the mark when it comes to commenting on Singapore news, despite the instant nature of electronic communications these days. My excuse is I do have a life to live, a home to look after, a business to run.

Concerning Dr Lim Wee Kiak's comment about high minsterial salaries, he was supposed to have said, but later apologised for these inappropriate comment, “If the annual salary of the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars, because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence, a more reasonable payout would help to maintain some dignity.”

My immediate response to this was this man has never lived in the real world.

At eighteen, when my classmates went to National Service and/or university, or repeated their A Levels (which were really tough), I decided that I had enough of school and went out to work.

I went into advertising as a trainee copywriter. Prior to this I had asked and was given a column to write in a teenage magazine. The editor said, "Yeah, I think you can write," and gave me a job that did not exist before. She even assigned me a senior writer to train me, in between my long hours at a junior college.

When I saw an advertisement for a copywriter after my A Levels, I thought, uhm, I don't think I they would give me this job, but who knows? They could only turn me down.

Though I was not the type of person they needed, the creative director managed to create a trainee post for me, because he saw that I had the potential. He even managed to find an extra desk and an old typewriter for me, rather upsetting the chemistry between members of an existing creative team.

What I learned here was wages were in inverse proportion to "power".

The advertising executive in a client company called the shots on the type of advertising campaign his/her company required. He/She signs off the contract, and if the agency does not comply with what was agreed, the client could refuse to pay.

The account executive from my advertising agency probably got paid a lot more than the client advertising executive, but he/she quietly took instructions from the client, and produced the brief for the creative department.

The creative director who was paid more than the Account Executive (AE), no doubt, then gave the job to one of the creative teams. The art director and copywriter took instructions from the AE and planned the campaign. The creatives are known to make a lot more money than the AE. Or at least they behave as if they did!

Then if the campaign required models and photographers, the creative team sourced for these. The photographer and model took instructions from the art director. The copywriter took care of the "copy" (ie words). I got to talk to the model agency and "ordered" the type of models we needed and helped to audition them.

Again both the photographer and model probably made more money than the art director (at least on their hourly rates). The top models I worked with (sometimes I helped to style photo shoots) were paid about half my monthly wages for an hour of work!

Sometimes if the art director/photographer would let me, I would make suggestions about the photo shoot (especially if I knew that it would be more in sync with the copy (ie advertising text) I planned to write. Even top models had to take instructions from me. Sort of.

So you see, the person/s at the lowest order of the command chain (the model) actually made the most money, while the advertising executive who thinks he called the shots actually, possibly, probably, made the least (bar the trainee copywriter).

What has Dr Lim got to say to that?

It was the same when I was the editor of the magazine for an international non-profit organization. I had to commission articles from the people who were the "who's who", the "aristocracy", of the business I was in.

Poor me, earning peanuts and therefore living on peanut butter sandwiches in my north-west London town, had to tell these people what I required of their articles and the deadline by which I needed them.

And then I had the audacity to edit their theses into 800 words for a target audience made up mostly of readers who do not have English as a first language.

Yet I always got my writers to agree to write, and my articles always arrived on time, and no one has yet to complain that I have not done justice to their original articles.

So Dr Lim, clearly it is not a question of how much I earned, what brand peanut butter I used, or how important these people are in their spheres of influence.

It comes down to the skill with which I (or anyone else) could persuade other individuals -- who do not owe me a living -- to do something for me despite not gaining any financial advantage.

Does this surprise Dr Lim?

If it does, I can only conclude that Dr Lim has lived in a very cloistered world.

Going by his reasoning, no one would engage in any unpaid voluntary work.

Sir, Man shall not -- must not -- live by bread alone.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Why do we (still) need MPs to write letters?

Of course due to reasons of confidentiality MPs cannot tell us the particular woes of their constituents who come to their MP surgeries (as they are called in the UK). (This is one reason void deck surgeries are not ideal.)

From information gathered in the news, blog post comments and other personal communication, it appears that a sizeable number of queries are to request MPs to write letters to government departments.

In the following link someone wants help with an application to hold a religious event: Aljunied MPs hold first Meet-the-People sessions

Why, I ask myself, does an MP need to be involved in this? It should be a purely bureaucratic decision: The rules are these. If your plan does not fall within these rules, you cannot apply.

Or is the woman in question appealing a decision by whatever government department involved? (1) Is it a standard practice that these decisions are passed back to the MP? (2) Is the MP therefore to act as judge and jury to decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate?

If the answer to (1) is yes, then something is very wrong with the civil service/bureaucracy. Clearly the system is not efficient enough. There are too many grey areas and a comprehensive review of processes and protocols is required.

If the answer is yes to (2), then we are are saying that MPs have the right to dispense patronage. If they feel that they like a constituent for some reason, they can approve ("endorse" was the term I've seen being used) an appeal/application. If, for some reason, the MP does not approve, the contituent has no one else to turn to.

What if the MP writes the letter, but the government department still refuses the appeal? Does this mean that the MP would "lose face"? What is the percentage of MPs' intervention refused by government departments, I wonder. Is there a difference between PAP and opposition MPs' appeals?

If MPs are now writing more letters, according to a Straits Times report (which link I cannot locate as I write), is this because civil servants are not really as efficient as they should be? Then why are they given the bonus we read about here:

Civil service to get half-month payment in July (actually this headline gave me the impression that their regular wages have been docked for poor performance, such is the headline writing skills at Straits Times)

In Singapore where we had a lot of illteracy, constituents had to turn to MPs in the past to write letter. Now after 40 years of good education (so the government claims, but that will be the subject of another post), why are we still having to rely on MPs to write letters?

A response to my previous post tells me:

When the MP writes the letter, the government department considers your appeal differently. If it's a favourable result, the constituent will be indebted to the MP (and hence more likely to vote for him/her). That's the whole point of the system.. unfortunately.

I remember I had to go to my MP to write a letter to HDB for a grant to fix a toilet ceiling leak! Waited for 2 hours to not even see the MP, but some grassroots person, and my letter got lost somehow. Crazy.. HDB could have just given the grant directly without me queueing etc, but they said it's the policy to get the MP to write a letter.. ??

Similarly someone told me that when after all her efforts to write to the relevant department have failed, a letter from her MP did the trick, and so she is now eternally grateful to him.

This suggests to me that our civil service departments and/or statutory boards have designed "built-in inefficiencies" into their protocols so that MPs are seen to be effective. Such an inbuilt pattern of patronage is not befitting a first world parliament.

We pay our MPs quite a lot of money. We should not use them as a secretariat.

I would rather MPs hold more "tea parties" or "focus groups" so that the issues facing constituents can be dealt with BEFORE there is a need to get an MP to write to government department x,y or z.

Monday, 16 May 2011

A Tree Picture

Last Saturday I was away with friends from church on an "away day". We spent the day at a 19th century home of the former Dukes of Somerset. It is now owned by an international mission organization.

A staff member took some of us on a tour of the house and grounds.

Of greatest interest, she said, are some of the trees in the grounds. They are so old they are listed and once in a while some officials come to inspect them.

She then pointed to us a very old tree, apologies for not remembering what it was called, that had fallen down in the last winter. It was a winter so harsh that even we in Greater London became housebound.

The tree had fallen in the night, right across the path we were walking. It was the tallest tree of its kind "in the whole of the Seven Counties".

Pity, but she pointed out that a sapling in its previous shadow was doing well.

The old tree had fallen. The wood was cracked and therefore useless. They offered it to people in the area but nobody wanted to take it away.

Ah! But a sapling is now growing sturdily where it would never have survived due to the shadow cast by the old tree. The old (now fallen) tree would have drained the ground of all its goodness and water making it impossible for a new sapling to be established.

The old tree had not fallen all that long ago. Now the sapling is nearly six foot tall, free to absorb the heat and light to thrive; free from competition in the roots department.

Some hundreds of years down the road it may yet again be the tallest of its kind in the Seven Counties. Who knows?

When I got home I noted the news that the MM and SM had just announced their retirement.

Ah! I thought.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Salute to Mr Chiam, shame on voting chaos

It's heartbreaking, watching Mr Chiam try to speak on footage posted on FB last night.

The cameras were clicking away and I was shouting in my heart, "Stop! Stop! Is it necessary to take all those photos?"

Mr Chiam has done remarkably considering the fact that he had suffered, I'd been told, two strokes.

Watching him at a rally it appears that he had difficulty even trying to smile. He's got the words in his heart and in his fully functioning mind, I am quite sure.

But to make that connect between the brains and the vocal chords and other facial muscles must have been such an effort.

An elderly member of my church also suffered a series of strokes. The first one gave her a black eye. The second left her unable to speak. The doctors could not tell how many strokes she had had in total.

I visited her often at hospital and later at her nursing home.

You could see the frustration on her face as she tried to speak and no words could form.

So to see Mr Chiam, otherwise known as "Chiampion", making his points so clearly attests to the fighting spirit of this man.

That "office" where he had his Meet-the-People Sessions.

They say a picture paints a thousand words.

This picture paints a picture of :

(1) tireless, unrelenting desire to serve the people of Potong Pasir,

(2) an uneven playing field where opposition MPs, though elected servants of the land, are not provided the same facilities as other elected MPs of the ruling party, which

(3) illustrates that there is a dire need for Singaporeans to understand the distinction between the party and the state, the legislature and the administration, and therefore demand that the administration provides what is rightly that of the people: a right to a private conversation with their elected representative in parliament.

Perhaps we should insist that the new Potong Pasir MP-elect continue to use this office?

Potong Pasir (and Hougang and Aljunied) residents pay their taxes. They should be given exactly the same services as other taxpayers. Full stop.  And puh-leese, don't get me started on "upgrading".

Was there a counting fiasco?

I was trying to follow the election results on FB, Twitter and "938-live" on my internet radio.

What I heard was the radio station interviewing friends of PAP candidates to testify how wonderful these candidates were. After the first poll result, the candidate was quickly elevated to "MP-elect". Every other PAP candidate that was returned subsequently was described deferentially as "MP-elect".

Until Hougang was announced and Mr Yaw was simply and still the "opposition candidate".

And if a blog doing the rounds is to be believed, then Singaporeans appear not to know how to vote, leading to many votes being spoilt, and/or spoilt votes being counted.

It is worrying that if a voter puts "go to hell" next to a party logo it was considered a mark in favour of the party indicated by the logo.


So those crucial spoilt -- as well as valid -- votes at Potong Pasir could have made a huge difference.

As to why spoilt votes were not re-scutinized in cases of such tight margins is beyond me.

What a shame, this: Only in third-world countries do they have to educate voters how to vote in a normal election. These are countries coming out of dictatorships, colonial rule, and therefore needed to be told that a cross (X) must be placed next to the name of the candidate/party for which they wish to vote.

How sad is that?

Many Singaporeans in their mid-40s confess to being "virgin voters" because since coming of age they have had no opportunity to vote. Did they spoil their votes on purpose or did they spoil their votes unknowingly? Worse, were spoilt votes given to an undeserving party?

And if you were, like me, a Tanjong Pagar constituent ... aiyah! susah-lah! (My husband suggested that I took the government to the Court of Human Rights for depriving me of a chance to vote.)

Back to the recounts that night.

"938-live" explained that candidates could request a recount if the margin is very small, and a low figure like "between 2% and 4%" was quoted, if I remember correctly. Imagine my shock when the Hougang result was announced.

We'd been told all this time that there was a recount in Hougang, implying that there was a very close margin. But the result in Hougang was not any where close.

Which makes you wonder, "How impartial were all these election officials?"

Were these civil servants who have long forgotten that there is a difference between the duties of the Legislative (parliament) and the Executive (administration) branches of government?

Were these civil servants simply fearing for their ricebowls?

How valid were the spoilt votes and vice-versa?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Scholar, Officer and Gentleman

In the last few days it was brought to my notice (some internet message making the rounds) that a couple of our highly-paid ministers have sons who are in receipt of very expensive scholarships.

In other words (if this information is true) Singapore taxpayers -- the lowly clerk, the security guard, the hospital cleaning lady, the sales assistant, the school teacher, as well as the most expensive CEO -- are helping to foot the bill of said ministers' children at very expensive overseas universities, providing them with book allowances, flights home, etc. etc.

I was just amazed, if this information is accurate, that these ministers had the cheek to accept these rewards. Buay paiseh, huh?

I have nothing against these young men. I am sure they are very capable, very personable and polite young people deserving of every accolade they received.

But surely, as top-dollar ministers, these fathers should be going to their colleagues to say, "Hey! Thank you for thinking so highly of my son. But hand on heart, I cannot accept this. It is worth a lot of money. Could we give it back so that we can give it to another candidate whose parents cannot afford to pay?"

"Let's do it this way, we can acknowledge his abilities, maybe make it an honorary award. But let me pay for the fees. Or at least let me pay some of the costs of educating him there."

An officer and gentleman would, in my view, say that.

Sometimes when we give away some things (lawn mower, old sewing machine, old microwave, my old car, etc, all in working order) the recipients say, "This is too good to give away. Could we give you  some money for it?"

(Anyone with a sense of justice would say that. Our reply is usually, "Make a donation to church or your favourite charity.")

I grew up in an era where we were always challenged and inspired by sons and daughters of taxi-drivers and housewives winning major scholarships. We looked at these and say to ourselves, and later our children, "You could get to Cambridge that way."

How have things changed in the last two decades!

I watched in amazement as foreign investors tell us that they cannot find Singaporeans with the ability to think outside the box, or the work ethic, to do the work. Therefore they seek permission to employ foreigners.

So ministers acquiesced to this request (demand?). Did they not first ask, "What is wrong with the Singapore education system such that graduates are deemed to be 'trained' but not 'educated'?"

Is this why sons and daughters of ministers have a better chance to gain scholarships than the sons and daughters of us more ordinary people, us "lesser mortals"? Do they have opportunities denied ordinary Singaporean young people? (Access to better schools and overseas universities not affordable to most, eg?)

What an indictment, eh, on the state of Singapore education?

Who has/have been in charge of education in the last 20 years to create a generation of young people who cannot think for themselves? And how much do we reward these ministers, did you say?

I hope these are not the same ministers who allow their children to accept these high-prestige and high-value scholarships.

In the UK young people vie for scholarships to prestigious (secondary) schools in the private sector. These awards are usually merely honorary. Sometimes all the scholars get is a special neck-tie or item of clothing which they wear with great pride. Sometimes such non-monetary scholarships are called "Exhibitions".

Some scholarships carry a 5% to 25% remission of fees. Most carry a full remission only if the candidate's parents are genuinely unable to afford the school without that scholarship.

If our cabinet ministers have a heart, or clever enough, they would have said, "Why not design a scheme to recognize these candidates without using public funds to educate them?"

That would have been the appropriate and expected response of the true gentleman (and whatever the PC equivalent to a female "gentleman" might be).

Of course, if the ministers are only paid a pittance to do their work, as altruistic "service" to their nation, I would not quibble with their children winning prestigious and expensive scholarships.

The terms "eating cake" and "having it" come to mind.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

"Majulah SINGAPURA!" is what we sing

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

1) We pledge allegiance to Singapore, not to a particular party, and sing a national, not party, anthem.

After years of doing this, can the PAP now blame us for wanting to BE Singaporeans, and not PAP puppets (PAPpets?). Still, "A+" to the PAP for making us "Singaporean".

(I've been told "pap" is English slang for something "worthless". However the National Union of Teachers is NUTS.)

2) An indispensable minister? No. If it is a truly good minister, leader, parent, he/she would have the vision, the foresight to ensure that they are not indispensable. Good leaders work themselves out of their jobs, fully confident that someone else would do similarly good, if not better, work after them.

3) My husband's company sent in one man to start up their Singapore office. Now they employ four Singaporeans and hopefully would employ several more. That is foreign talent generating employment.

Would you go to China with its vast supply of workers and then employ Indian workers because they do the work better (or cheaper, or faster)?

4) I left Singapore in 1991. Some time after that I seem to remember reading about plans for Singapore to move into the high-tech manufacturing and/or service industry because we cannot compete with labour power of China and India. So I am surprised to learn now that manufacturing is back on the agenda.

I have not read Mr Tan Jee Say's essay, I must admit. The recent debates in the UK made us realize one thing. We must have something to sell (ie export), be it in manufacturing, food or services.

The UK has a huge service industry -- servicing the benefits culture. People are paid on their 'expertise' in how the benefits system works: who gets what from which government department, and what to do if you do not get the amount that you think you are entitled to, etc, etc.

We don't want that kind of "service industry". Singapore must also have something good, something special, something "noble" (as Mr Tan might say) to export. (Please hah, not cheap tacky plastic goods that only damage the environment.).

5) Inward investment. Singapore has done well in attracting the MNCs to create employment. This strategy worked when we were a fledgling nation and there was a lot of unemployment. But to attract investments that would create jobs for foreigners seems counter-intuitive to me. Yes, GDP will grow, but what's the point if the locals do not benefit? [did someone whisper ministerial salaries?]

Were Singaporean workers overlooked because they do not want the job or that they cannot do the job? I get the impression, and I might be wrong, that Singaporeans do want those jobs. If they cannot do that job, then it is an indictment on the Singapore education policies.

Or is it because Singaporeans are too expensive to hire?

Why are Singaporeans expensive? Because Singapore is expensive.

I have blogged about the British government attracting "foreign investments" to the detriment of the British people in Money, Manufacturing, Farming, where British taxpayers (ie myself, yes!) had to bail out foreign companies on the threat of their closing factories. Closing factories would be paiseh for the government. So we were forced to bail out such companies. Just so to help that party win votes. So we voted out that party.

6) Encouraging local enterprise. What have we done to encourage Singaporeans to start their own businesses?. I feel I am doing my bit, just a tiny, teeny bit, for the British economy when I sell my little crafty bits and bobs to USA, Europe, and so forth.

It is not much, but the running of a business is such that you are actually feeding into other businesses (suppliers, stationery, postage, couriers, accountants, etc.). And of course one pays tax not only on profits (if any) but also on goods and services (ie GST) with everything that one buys and transports.

Small businesses matter. What more can we do to incubate businesses and encourage big businesses to use the smaller ones? Does our education and tax systems encourage our people, like our forefathers, to take risks, to explore, innovate, or just to become a "jobsworth"?

7) Empowerment. I remember a classmate whose family was doing very well. Sadly her father died and there were several young children. I'm not sure if her mum managed to find work, but her grandmother was soon selling wonton noodles in a coffee-shop. One of her younger sisters graduated NUS many years later. I cannot imagine how proud my friend's mum would have been.

It used to be, I believe, that people in dire financial circumstances were given priority in the granting of hawker licences. So when we looked at any school canteen there would be a widow or widows there running a little stall to support her family.

For me, this is equivalent to the work of one of my favourite charities. They give a microloan, just £50, to a widow to start her own little business. When the business becomes self-sustaining, the loan is returned and it goes to help another widow. I much prefer this model to the incredibly expensive welfare state I now am forced to fund.

But now it appears that only millionnaires get to own coffee-shops (someone please explain the significance of a Kate Spade bag to me) and so stall rental is correspondingly exhorbitant. There is no way my friend's grandmother would have been able to sell her delicious wonton mee (with bits of fatty chicken skin, yumm) to support her grandchildren.

I don't want MPs to write letters (to "endorse" suggests that the MP, a paid servant, has power and authority that others do not have) so that someone can be given special treatment. I want action to help that person to look after himself/herself after a period of support. [thinking the Cynthia Phua episode]

8) An informal economy. Very third-world, you say. But let's think, just a generation ago, my parents' generation, we were brought up on the backs of washerwomen, seamstresses, hairdressers, odd-job labourers, etc.

I was thrilled last year that through Facebook I got together with some primary school mates. I was especially happy to know that a friend's mother who used to be a washerwoman is alive and well. She used to go to homes to wash clothes by hand. I take my hat off to her.

The advent of the washing machine put her out of a job, but it was mothers like her, hundreds of them, all over Singapore, that saw a generation experience the most incredible social mobility in what was a truly meritocratic Singapore.

In my own housing estate I can remember the cries of "nasi lemak" and "mee rebus". Families requiring extra income (or simply an income?) packed their children off before or after school to walk the length and breadth of HDB corridors crying "nasi lemak", "mee rebus".

I am particularly fond of the goreng pisang that a neighbour sells from the back door of her groundfloor flat. Next to the rubbish chute, mind you.

But we never feared food poisoning. Simply because we know these people know they would lose their clientele once someone gets food poisoning.

What if middle-class Singaporeans employed local people to clean their homes instead of foreign maids?

I am a fan of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The heroine Ma Ramotswe says it is not acceptable that people who can afford a maid (a local maid) does not employ one. It is the unspoken duty of those who have the ability to employ a maid, to do so. That way the maid could feed her family.

An interesting perspective. Certainly better than the comprehensive welfare state.

You say, but there aren't women who wish to do these jobs any more. I had an older widow who was too young to get a state pension who had time on her hands. She used to come to my house, parked her BMW outside, and cleaned for me. (I did pay her above minimum wage.)

It was a case of give and take. I am a good employer and needed some help, and she only wanted to work a few hours.

Us mothers love to be paid for doing work that we already do. So if I have to pick up my child from Games, it is no trouble if I picked up another two (which indeed I do. I don't get paid but the boys are always very polite and thank me profusely every week).

If we developed a "helping mother" culture, we can cut out the costs of hiring a maid, which makes hiring Singaporeans cheaper.

The fact is in any society there will be a whole spectrum of people with widely differing abilities. There will be people who are willing to do work on an informal basis.

9) $1,800 not enough?

Apparently a PAP candidate met a restaurant owner who said he could not find someone to do the job even at $1,800. Are my Singaporean friends too choosy? Maybe.

Are the working conditions difficult? Would you like to be the only Singaporean working amongst a whole crew of foreigners? Would you work 12 hours a day seven days a week when you have a spouse and children?

Are Singapore customers hard to please? Confirm. Double confirm (I chuckle at this term.)

I have seen how difficult some restaurant patrons are and I often feel sorry for the staff waiting at tables. More money has not made us all more gracious. To be fair to Singaporeans, we must put this $1,800 within context.

It's back to that Swiss standard of living, isn't it? Learning to be gracious. (Remember, even that waitor/waitress is a human being, possibly Singaporean.) Learning to be generous. Learning to be magnanimous. It must begin at the top.

O look! A pig ... flying!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Fallacy of the letter-writing MP

So some voters would say, "My MP has been a great help in resolving this issue with the [xyz] department. He wrote a letter and it was sorted."

My questions have been, and always remain:

  1. Why was that government department not able to resolve your "problem" until a MP steps in? 
  2. What are the civil servants for, except to serve the citizens? If they made a mistake then they should jolly well make a polite apology and make sure things are set right. There should not be a need for a voter to go to an MP to "set things right". 
  3. After the MP has written the letter and your problem has been resolved, does this MP then go to his colleague in the party or hassle the relevant Minister to ensure that the same mistake does not recur?
Or, do we condone a sluggish, inefficient civil service just so that it appears that MPs are doing something?

I don't wish to malign all civil servants as I am sure that there are very many very good and efficient civil servants.

But when trouble spots appear, they face an obstacle, an "unusual" set of circumstances occurs and they are lost in their bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, then they are duty-bound to DO SOMETHING to resolve that.

The last thing they should do is say, "Those are the rules. If you are not happy, go to your MP."

If MPs are always busy writing letters to government departments, that means these departments are inefficient, or uncaring, or both. If things do not get done unless "endorsed" by a MP, something is not right.

The ministers in charge should be taken to task, not be rewarded with huge salaries.

Conversely (just for the sake of argument), if ministers are richly rewarded that means their departments are running well, so logically there is no need for these MPs (because no need to write letters, what), so why do MPs still get the high salaries?

MPs are paid a lot of money. Why waste their time writing to government departments? Is writing letter the only reason we vote for a particular MP? If this is the case, then of course the "personalities" matter.

Thankfully I can write my own letters. So when I vote, I vote for a person who would be my "Member of Parliament", someone who would represent my voice in parliament. Not to write letters on my behalf.

Or pull strings.

Distraction of "track records"

As I've said previously let us not be distracted by calls to opposition candidates to prove their "track records".

Opposition candidates can only have a "track record" when one is able to do something in a ward between electioneering periods.

This means that opposition parties and their candidates are given a level playing field, even between elections. (And it would help if ward boundaries are not drawn and redrawn for some unspeakable reason.)

I ask the following questions as someone who's been away from home for too long, based on what I've observed of UK politics:

Can opposition candidates go on "walkabouts" or would they face harrassment, eg being construed as an illegal assemby?

Can opposition candidates sit in on local Council/town hall meetings and voice concerns about work done (or not done) around the constituency?

Can opposition candidates interest the mainstream media in publicizing their work in supporting the campaigns of the constituents if these campaigns are not supported by the sitting MP?

What opportunities are there for opposition candidates to be effective opposition if regulations are in place to obstruct any work they might try to do?

If it is clear that opposition parties and candidates do not have a level playing field, then it is an "own goal" for the sitting MP, whether PAP or not, that opposition candidates do not have a "track record" to speak of.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Fallacy about manifestos

Too much has been said of personalities in this election.

Yes, the integrity and ability of the individual candidates are important. But a first world parliament looks at manifestos. When push comes to shove, the MP votes with the party.

Therefore it is important to know what the party stands for.

For example after years of a Blair government that championed "education, education, education" it is clear that education has failed and the party has not met the promises of its manifesto.

In the corporate world, the business plan is very specific: we will achieve these (KPOs or Key Performance Objectives) by these dates. We will measure success in this way (KPIs or Key Performance Indicators).

Likewise a party manifesto must be specific, to some extent.

Even the 13-year-old boys in my son's school need to have a manifesto at the annual hustings for House captaincy. Some run on "better lunches", or "bicycle sheds" or "lockers to store music instruments", etc. (Somehow "less homework" is not accepted!!)

To couch a manifesto in extremely vague terms is (1) avoid making any real promises, and/or (2) to have forgotten what a manifesto means. As the saying goes, if you do not have a target you are certain to hit it.

A party election manifesto must spell out the general guiding principles of the direction they plan to take. But it cannot be so specific as to say how many dust-bins will be provided in which ward.

There is distinction between overall political direction and specific administrative goals. So to challenge opposition candidates on "what they would do" for a specific constituency is moot.

But Singaporean voters are not really used to such election protocol. I know. I used to be just like that. Until I started working overseas.

We had always gone with personalities: look! this candidate is more qualified, more experienced, has more grassroots experience than that candidate.

Or guess what, that candidate spiks liddat, only got 'O' Levels, and is a lorry driver.

That may be so. But remember that when it comes to voting in parliament, MPs vote with the party.

Could someone please help, enlighten me?

I've been asking this question but have not been given clear answers.

Is the Speaker allowed to speak for his constituents in the debating chamber? When my former MP was made Speaker he had to be "impartial". While he would still meet the people, he could not represent our views in parliament as such.

What's the point of having your MP appointed as a Speaker when he cannot actually represent your interests?

What about ministers?. When my local MP (in UK) was made a junior minister, he had to represent the cabinet view. So when my friend went to see him about a personal matter he said, "Sorry, I can't help you. As a minister I cannot be involved."

So what's the point of voting in MPs who are going to become ministers?

My question: does the same system apply in Singapore?

Fallacy about high ministerial salaries

In the UK, especially after the "expenses scandal" of 2009, few voters have faith in their elected representatives in the House of Commons.

Many of us feel that they are overpaid and get too many perks, all at the expense of us hardworking taxpayers.

We feel this way not only of the UK MPs, but also of the EU MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). We use the term "gravy train".

Once one gets "onboard" (elected into one of these parliaments), their future is made.

First, not only do they earn a salary quite disproportionate to their skills and amount of time spent on this job (MPs at Westminster have very long holidays). They get huge travel perks (first and business class travel), a monstrous living allowance (root of "second home" scandal), and also a fat pension (while most of the rest of the country sees their pension pot shrinking)

When they finish, many move on to lucrative jobs in lobbying companies, or get non-executive director posts all because they know the people who are still involved in making decisions. In other words, they have a fat address book.

This is not corruption, of course. It is all above-board.

Us taxpayers, despairing at the policies dreamt up, describe these elected representatives as  "couldn't even run a whelk stall". (A whelk stall represents the smallest possible business.)

That is, they have no real work experience in the cut-and-thrust world of commercial enterprise. They have never been charged with responsibilities that require making a healthy profit.

Many of our MPs "rose" through the ranks of the Westminster system as researchers, administrators, being "spotted" by sitting MPs etc to then being transported to the various wards to be voted in at general elections.

While they have a bottomless pot to spend, it seems, these candidates have never had to take a risk, make a profit and/or understand the impact of bad decisions on ordinary people around them.

They are, in short, only used to spending OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY.

Guess what, even my young son knows how to spend other people's money!

The PAP, in giving all their reasons for giving ministers and MPs such high salaries, now run the risk of attracting all the wrong kind of "talent".

From within parliament when you have a (relatively) good team, we can understand why one is persuaded to think, "Ah! These people are doing a good job and should be rightly rewarded."

From the outside, one or two elections down the line, and looking at Westminster (let's say), we see the very real danger of attracting precisely the type of people we do not trust in running a whelk stall.

Be warned.