Thursday, 31 December 2015

When is domestic violence not domestic violence?

Confession: since I inherited my son's smartphone from about two years ago I have developed the bad habit of checking my phone in bed.

Today, first thing in the morning, I replied to YP's WhatsApp wishing me a good 2016. We go back to secondary school, YP and I.

On Radio 4 I heard someone say the likes of NHS (National Health Service) do not have 'buyers' who know what they want about their IT system. So £40 MILLION down the drain. Yep. Wrote and spoke about that elsewhere.

Then read of how the UK Border people -- what ever they are called now -- are making it easy for immigrants who claim domestic violence to gain citizenship (or here).

Guess what? I wrote to the UK Border Agency in October 2012 with information about how I thought it more than a coincidence that several people knocking on our doors for help had been turfed out by their spouses.

An even more 'confounding' case was that of a woman who claimed that she did not know that the man she married and who had sponsored her visa was already married. The woman claimed 'domestic violence' (emotional, as a result of being cheated) and that she could not return to her family because she had married outside her caste.

She was back in a couple of weeks with a stamp on her passport giving her access to generous welfare benefits.

What about the man who contracted a bigamous marriage, which is illegal? As far as I know he did not face any legal repercussions (hopefully I am wrong in this).

Extract from my letter (to which I had no reply):

As a taxpayer I would like UKBA to answer the following questions:

(1)   How stringently are applicants who sponsor spouses checked for their current marital status before visas for spouses are approved?

(2)   Would this woman’s husband who made the fraudulent visa application, and who promised to support her but is not doing so, now be prosecuted, or would he suffer no penalty at all?

(3)   What is there to stop this client’s husband ‘marrying’ another woman, get found to be bigamous, thus letting her claim benefits on grounds of not being able to return to her country?

(4)   Even though no domestic violence was perpetrated, why was this woman given LOTR [Leave Outside the Rules, to remain in the country] on grounds of domestic violence?

(5)   If applicants such as this woman make a claim that she cannot return to her family due to her marrying outside her caste, what does UKBA do to verify this claim? More scientifically, how might this claim be verifiable at all?

(6)   How many cases do you have on file where immigrants claim that they cannot return to their homes because they have married ‘outside their caste’?

It irks me so when people make a mockery of our rules. Domestic violence is no laughing matter because real people get hurt when there is real violence. It is not something that we should -- as we say in Singapore -- play-play about.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Let us extend SG50 till SG51

In between making mince pies and doing other Christmassy chores I read about the 500 packets of chicken rice (this link was very slow loading, please be patient).

Nice. I thought.

Previously I made comments about the Jubilee here lamenting that, well, Jubilee is not about bragging about how well we have done or goodie bags, and the marketing hype that went with it. Jubilee is about setting people free and cancelling debts. But how many of us were doing that?

Subsequently I learned of the Methodist Church Getting Out of Debt or 'Good' programme.

It was heart-warming to learn of another initiative, this time directed at foreign workers. Better still, the young and privileged were involved.

Let us hope that more private companies, whether or not under their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) banner, would do even more for those in Singapore who could benefit from more Jubilee action.

Let's keep the Jubilee fire going till 8th August 2016!

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

People are attracted to ISIS because

Alternative title: Cultural ineptitude is not the same as racism

Having been traumatized by the events of 9/11 and 7/7 when the husband was caught up in the aftermath I did not plan to write about Paris. But as details about the backgrounds of the terrorists filtered through I found it fascinating to note the type of individuals that the ‘so-called Islamic state’ (as the BBC now calls it) seem to be attracting.

Someone else has explained how poverty and ignorance are not the cause for people turning to extremism. If only we can identify that ‘something else’ that makes individuals susceptible to ‘radicalization’, we might be able to prevent it.

The news media tell us that the likes of ‘Jihadi John’ seemed to have suffered a significant amount of family breakdown, unstable and mobile childhood, teasing and bullying, poor performance at school as a result of these disadvantages, ‘going off the rails’ to indulge in drugs, women and other ‘un-Islamic’ practices and crime before being radicalized.

People on the margins of society – ‘misfits’ – are the target recruits for IS.

How did they become misfits? As a social anthropologist/sociologist, I am interested in how individuals acquire the requisite ‘cultural capital’ to become fully functioning and happy adults in their society.

In a lot of literature young British from migrant groups are often said to be ‘between cultures’. They are neither fully comfortable in their own ‘migrant’ nor adopted ‘British’ cultures, however British culture is defined.

Interestingly I found in my own research in the late 1990s British-born Chinese who were ‘straddling cultures’. They were as capable of ‘being Chinese’ when with other Chinese, as in ‘being British’ when with other non-Chinese compatriots, having acquired the cultural capital to succeed both inside and outside ‘Chinese-only’ contexts.

When we look at the history of migration into Britain, we see within many other migrant groups, no matter what colour of skin, cultural, linguistic or economic background, the majority have eventually acquired this cultural capital to thrive in mainstream society. Why do potential IS recruits remain ‘between cultures’?

Is it Islam, the English language (or the lack of), the ghettoization of certain migrant groups, racism, or a permutation of these factors?

There are thousands of Muslim migrants who are thriving in British society. My successful Muslim friends and their grand/parents chose, for example, to become vegetarians where they could not get halal food. They ‘kept calm and carried on’ and made the most of their economic and family situation.

These days the demand for halal food in schools is so strident that some schools have quietly acquiesced and simply feed the non-Muslim children halal food, much to the dismay of those parents who are pro-animal welfare. Even supermarkets are complicit in this.

Until recently Britain is the only European country that did not require its new citizens to speak English, its official language, to a minimum standard before being naturalized. Previously first-generation migrants, keen to make their future in Britain, learned to speak it to the best of their ability. It opened doors to good jobs.

I came to work in England in 1993 and noticed that increasingly the authorities were translating forms and notices into a host of migrant languages at schools, hospitals and other public agencies. How different it was from Amsterdam where I could not even get English newspapers!

The people running Britain were clearly suffering from the collective guilt of her imperialist past. Excusing new migrants from learning English was part of this corporate apology.

They call this ‘multiculturalism’. An unintended consequence was the ghettoization of certain communities.

Large groups of newer migrants now grow up entirely within their own ethnic enclaves. Is it any wonder that they cannot speak English?

When their children do not mix inter-culturally, how can these migrants understand why other people have different cultural traits and worldviews?

Many jobs and professions require more than paper qualifications. Prospective employees are expected to dress appropriately, know how to eat at restaurants, speak in public, and treat people of either sex with respect and dignity.

If children grow up without learning how to use cutlery correctly, is it any wonder that they face difficulties in finding jobs?

This cultural ineptitude is construed as - contorted into - ‘racism’, fomenting a sense of injustice.

Azziza (not her real name) is a very well-spoken middle-aged mother, abandoned by her husband, and about to finish her business degree, paid by the British taxpayer. She pointed to her Muslim robes and said, “Look at me. No one is going to employ me.” At least she did not claim victimhood. Yet.

Previously migrants adapted – in their manner of dress, language, demeanour – in order to thrive professionally. Now Azziza could choose to put on a business suit at her next job interview or remain unemployed – and unemployable – as the generous welfare system allows her this luxury, as have great swathes of the migrant population.

They may be well-homed and well-fed, but there is a poverty of the soul.

The lack of structure in unemployment leads to purposelessness. Depression and/or drug use ensue, often leading to crime and incarceration. When a seemingly purposeful/happy person comes along to say, “I can offer you a purpose/mission in life. You can become part of a global brotherhood,” it must seem an incredibly attractive option.

This person could be a ‘Kong Hee-type’ who then says, “Repent of your sin and henceforth live an abundant life, using your talents to serve God and society.” Or a Muslim radical who says, “Kill all infidels.”

Those teenage girls from East London who travelled to Syria are also ‘between cultures’. They only wanted to be able to choose their boyfriends and husbands like most girls in Britain. If they cannot do it in Britain – because their families have strong objections – it must sound irresistibly attractive to be able to do so, even if only in Syria.

As an individual I can only do so much to draw the marginalized like Azziza into mainstream society, befriending them and lending support as I do. Migrant families have huge resources thrown at them – free education, free health, welfare support. They have to choose to get out of their physical, mental and cultural ghetto.

Surely it is unacceptable in 21st century Britain that people are excused from shaking hands with the guest-of-honour at new citizens and university graduation ceremonies because such ceremonial physical contact between males and females is prohibited in their religion.

If they have chosen to live in this enlightened society, then they must accept and live in this society for what it is: in its totality. They cannot pick and choose those bits that benefit them and then bite the hand that feeds because certain practices do not accord with beliefs that belong to the Dark Ages.

Only policy-makers can make such individuals toe the line. “Between cultures” is not a nice place to be.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Reprise: Tears in Heaven

With the verdict announced at the CHC trial I read my previous posts again:

Tears in Heaven (original in September 23, 2008) and

Mega-church = mega-ego. Beware!

My Christian friends, read, weep, and then pray. Do not worship any person/career/title/goal as God.

Non-Christian readers: This only goes to show how we are ALL -- everyone -- human. And therefore corruptible. Do not believe anyone who tells you that he/she is perfect.

By the same token, do not condemn anyone who has not had a perfect life. Because even the worst of sinners can be forgiven by God.

That is grace.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Letter from (to?) PM re: Rules of Prudence


An ex-classmate alerted me to this letter on FB, with the accompanying message: To all my non-Singaporean friends, this is the integrity of our Singapore ruling government that makes us proud to be called Singaporeans.

It was the next bit that disturbed me: (Singaporeans, who have left Singapore and cannot relate to this, pls refrain from comments.)

The last time I checked there is still freedom of speech and expression where I live.

When I finally found time to return to her post I FB’d her to ask if her remark was aimed at me, noting that, actually I have not ‘left’ Singapore. It was Singapore that ‘left’ me and others like me.

The Letter

So now we know, there is such a thing as a ‘traditional letter from the PM’. It was an impressive letter, spoiled by the last paragraph (37) when the PM reveals that:I am releasing a copy of this letter to the media so that the public knows the high standards we demand of our MPs.’

I will not be the only one who wondered if the PM wrote with one eye on the wider readership, thereby losing some of his credibility, whether or not this suspicion is justified.

He missed a trick here. In another place and time this letter would have been sent only to its intended recipients – sans para 37 – and then ‘leaked’ by any number of new MPs in their FB/Twitter accounts to show how incorruptible the party is/aspires to be.

Para 4: Be humble in victory

“Humbled” and “humbling” were the most (some say over-) used words by PAP MPs on Election Night and its immediate aftermath. I suspect at least some were secretly thinking, “What a relief!” (or probably the equivalent "SweeSaying") but they did not want to admit to any self-doubt. To their credit, neither did any come across as being triumphalist. Either under direction and/or in a mass copycat manner the ‘humbling’ description became the buzzword.

‘Servants of the people’**?

This is the ethnographer speaking: To be truly a servant, MPs – and in particular Ministers – would do well to rid themselves of the fawning grassroots leaders and volunteers who swarm around them when making visits to their constituencies. From having a reserved parking space to not having to wait for the lift, such practices insulate MPs from the experience of real people. How can they possibly reflect the aggregate (as against the individual, at Meet-the-People sessions) concerns of the people if they have never used a stinking HDB lift?


Good guidance here from the PM:

5. Never give cause for allegations that you are misusing your position, especially your access to Ministers. 

6. As MPs, you will come across many different sorts of people. …But a few will cultivate you to obtain benefits for themselves or their companies, to gain respectability by association with you, or to get you to influence ministries and statutory boards to make decisions in their favour.

7. At all times be seen to be beyond the influence of gifts or favours.

May I suggest that MPs designate a few charities every year (within their constituencies) to which ALL gifts will be directed on a strict rotation basis? These gifts could be used for staff and fundraising functions. That way, there is no question about MPs receiving personal gifts. Perhaps schemes like this are already in place?

8. Be scrupulously proper in your contacts with government departments or public officers.  Do not lobby any ministry or statutory board on behalf of anyone who is not your constituent or grassroots activist (my emphasis).

The problem here is too many people take on grassroots work precisely to gain the necessary contacts – and sympathetic ear. I am curious as to how an MP who has been ‘cultivated’ might find the gumption to turn on the grassroots activist to say, “Sorry, mate, I can’t speak on your behalf in this matter.”

Ironically the friend who alerted me to this letter said herself that she knows people who approach other ex-schoolmates (now senior civil servants) to help make smooth certain business operations/transactions.

9. MPs are often approached by friends, grassroots leaders or proprietors and businessmen to officiate at the openings of their new shops or other business events.

PM makes the salient point: once you accept one, you will be hard-pressed to draw a line.


Much of the rest of the letter was about drawing a line between the business/personal /professional and the political.

What I found curious was that while Ministers and ‘office holders’ are subject to the ‘reporting requirements of the Code of Conduct for ministers’ (para 35) other MPs only have to tell the PM ‘in confidence’ their ‘business and professional interests, present employment and monthly pay, all retainers and fees that [they] are receiving, and whether [their] job requires them to get in touch with officers of Government Ministries or statutory boards on behalf of employers or clients’.

Surely, in the interest of transparency, every single MP – of whatever party – should declare all these interests in a public register (as is done in other democracies), and which must be updated frequently (at least quarterly). This will help to silence any critic. Surely eyebrows – if not questions – will be raised if an MP accumulates, say, over 60 directorships. There are only 52 weeks in a year. How many directors meetings can this MP attend? But then, this could just be hearsay.

If there is anyone who stands to make the most pecuniary gain, it is the new MP who (1) might need some time to develop wisdom on what invites and inducements to decline, or (2) use this lack of experience as a defence for accepting such inducements. Take away any excuse for error during this ‘liminal’ period (before a new MP makes Minister) and the party will be on so-solid ground to repel any possible accusations come the next election.

A completely public register of interests would allow the electorate to see who has been working the hardest for his own or his constituents’ interests. Freedom of information and expression would mean that journalists and voters can scrutinize these interests and root out corruption (overt or covert) before it gets entrenched. A win-win situation. 

In the spirit of separating business and politics, why not separate the business of running a town council from the politics of representing one’s constituents?

It makes no sense at all for the administration of a town council to change hands if there is a change in political leadership in the constituency. Just consider now the messiness in Punggol East.

I tried to think of a parallel in the commercial world, but failed. Maybe the private golf club fits. The President’s position (or whatever the figure-head of a private golf club is called) is up for election. The incumbent President is unhappy with being voted out. He then sacks all the paid staff. The incoming President has no staff to run the club. Members cannot even buy drinks at the bar or pay their subscriptions. But every single member had been a paid-up member until then! (They qualified to vote.) Why should a change in non-administrative leadership affect their club services? (Are club members allowed to sue the club/President/ex-President for dereliction of duty?)

If, perchance, the principle that an MP should run the town council was hatched to create a stumbling block for opposition parties, then the sooner this block is removed, the quicker the ruling party will be seen as the magnanimous party that they should, and could, be. The Confucian concept of the junzi (gentleman) comes to mind. Let us err on the side of generosity.

If the party has truly been ‘humbled’, then clear the scores at AHPETC. Return the counter to zero. Give them a clean slate. That way the party can literally pull the rug from under the opposition.

Why stop at the town councils? De-politicize the grassroots organizations as well.

If this was my letter TO the PM, I might end with:

"As I have not ‘left Singapore’ I remain

Your humble servant"

**By coincidence my Bible reading for the day after I first drafted this post was: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) 

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Foreign Domestic Workers: The elephant in the room/house/flat


As promised, from my 6th September 2015 Nomads post I am looking at another elephant in the room that has been totally ignored during this GE. Sort of, as I learned yesterday that a PAP candidate did mention Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) when he tried to argue his case against Minimum Wage for foreign workers.

According to government statistics we have some 222,500 FDWs in December 2014.

My friend ranted on her Facebook page how she had found it impossible to hire any Singaporeans who (1) bothered to attend interviews, (2) did not want to work on weekends, and (3) went on sick leave or simply did not show up for work when the going got tough.

I feel sorry for her and other SME owners like her. (I understand that the MNCs do not have the same issues.) She wanted the freedom to employ foreigners.

Is there any connection between the young Singaporean attitude towards work and the 222,500 FDWs?

I cannot prove this, so you can stop reading here. Most of my evidence is anecdotal but ah, the thinking is original, I hope.

Things happen, and people change, and this type of change is often evident after just one generation. I researched the Chinese in the UK. A respondent tells me that when the Hong Kong Chinese first arrived here to work in the Chinese restaurants, they had one goal: work hard, make money and go home.

Claiming benefits did not even occur to them. But within 25-30 years -- about one generation -- she noticed how younger Chinese were saying, "Why bother to work so hard when the government gives you so much money just for sitting around?"

That generational difference is sometimes translated into the more scientific sounding "cohort effect". So my mother's generation was a generation of hoarders because the cohort had nothing during the Japanese Occupation. My late mother refused to throw away a single rubber band. That was the measure of her previous 'nothingness'.

What then is the cohort effect of children being brought up by FDWs? The first ones arrived in a trickle in the mid-1980s. Then the floodgates were opened in the 1990s, it seemed.

Where previously only the professional families could afford FDWs, suddenly FDWs became a status symbol and lots of households had FDWs although the second income only marginally covered the cost of the FDW. Why?

Some say that FDWs were necessary because couples found it difficult to meet their mortgage payments on just one income. Some intimated that the pressure for women to continue working was exceedingly high, whatever their income.

Few women -- and men -- would admit this: It's much more fun working in an air-conditioned office where you can enjoy banter and gossip with grown-ups than staying at home to look after young children. It gives us much greater esteem: "I did not go to university to wipe my children's bums, you know."

I know. I worked in an NMC. Went on to get a PhD. Then I stayed home to wipe my child's bum. I wonder if Dr Huang (Dr Chee Soon Juan's wife) also -- at times -- felt the same resentment that I felt.

My friends in Singapore have very different attitudes towards their FDWs. Some are introduced as valued "helpers". Some are spoken to as if they have no right to exist. Others are rendered completely invisible. We might as well have been served by a ghost.

Once I asked my nephew to bring me a glass of water. It's the sort of thing I did when I was his age. Auntie visits, we go fetch her a drink. What did my nephew do? He shouted for his maid to bring me a glass of water.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Is it any wonder that this generation of young people do not know the meaning of service? Is it any wonder that my friend found it difficult to hire good service staff? To them, "service" equals "servitude". "Service" is NOT the same as "servitude". 

You can give abysmal, mediocre or excellent service. There is no such thing as good or bad servitude.

So, a generation of FDWs means a generation who feel they are above giving service. The chickens have come home to roost, as they say.

(I had words with my nephew. His family went without a maid as soon as it was possible. Nephew is a lovely young man now.)

Has anyone tried thinking outside the box to ask: How long do we want our children to be brought up by FDWs? What is the alternative to FDWs? How do we mesh in the need for FDWs, the PWP, HDB, etc. with facilitating the return of mothers to the work place?

I hope to explore this is greater detail in a later piece, backed by real research. After the GE.

Video? What about this? For the mothers.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

There is no such thing as a perfect manifesto

Image result for i used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect

Contrary to what some "perfect" people might believe, there is no such thing as a perfect party and therefore there is no such thing as a perfect manifesto.

1984, my Sociology Honours classmates said, “Why don’t you form your own political party?” Then, as is now, there wasn’t a single political party with goals and philosophy that I can completely agree with. Fast forward to 2015, having looked at their manifestos -- which is a reflection of the party ideals -- there still isn’t a single party that completely represents my values.

I like the emphasis on “freedom of expression” and a free press by the Reform Party, the call by SDA to return the use of CPF for retirement instead of for housing and education, the proposal by WP (and SDP?) for Parliamentary Select Committees to scrutinize bills, definitive objectives in reducing class sizes (SDP, WP), and support for Small and Medium Enterprises (Singfirst, WP, SDP, RP, PAP). I think the call for a “separation of powers” (particularly between the legislative and executive) by the PPP is laudable, but they still have a lot of ideology to work through. The NSP manifesto, while it resonates with down-trodden Singaporeans, is too vague.

I struggle, though, with many of the proposals calling for minimum wage and universal benefits, because I have to deal with the fallout from such policies week in and week out. These policies are not only about money and reserves. Development studies have shown that throwing money at people groups alone does not make them richer or more viable.

A simple benefits system might be a good short-term answer but it is almost impossible to prevent “mission creep”. A comprehensive benefits system requires an onerous social and bureaucratic infrastructure. Perhaps more about this in a different post.

There is also a lot of common ground amongst the opposition parties with regards to the Population White Paper, CPF, HDB, income gap, putting Singaporeans first, etc such that it is difficult to distinguish the minutiae of one party manifesto from another. Maybe they should heed the SPP call for “collaborative, collective Government” (ie starting with a collaborative opposition). Thankfully, there are few three-corner fights and voters merely need to decide on one or the other.

How much more difficult it is to vote with our feet and join a political party!

There have been mumblings about certain candidates who, on the party election platform seems to espouse one set of causes, but had, on another, clearly opposed them. Are these candidates true to themselves? Are they worth our X beside their name (or party)? These causes could be LGBT, smoking in restaurants, shelters for cats, or lowering voting age to 16, anything close to your heart.

This, again, illustrates the important distinction between party and the person.

Personally I believe that children thrive best in two-parent families of opposite sex. But as a volunteer at my charity I have extended my help without bias to numerous single mothers and fathers. Am I a hypocrite? Dishonest? Maybe. But at least I have trained myself up to help those who most desperately need my help.

When these individuals come to me at my charity I put aside my prejudices because I have signed up to the principles of the charity. If I were to discriminate against a client on the basis of his age, sex, religion, sexuality or illness, I will almost certainly be asked to leave.

Similarly candidates who support "your" cause might not be able to vote in its favour while those who do oppose this same cause  might be required to vote for it for so long as they are “under the party whip”.

So, a day may come when I decide, “Enough. The nature of this charity has changed from when I first joined it. We are spending too much effort in (just as an example) helping people who are clearly involved in benefit fraud. That is dishonest.” I can leave this charity. I might even join another.

Likewise, some candidates move between parties. Several British politicians (including Winston Churchill) have “crossed the floor”. Sometimes this is solely for personal political gain. Sometimes our personal values change. Sometimes it is the party that has changed. Always they are trying to find the party that best represents their personal worldview.

Otherwise everyone would be needing to form their own political parties.

We are all imperfect beings. Political parties are made up of imperfect beings. They have imperfect manifestos.

Come Polling Day, the thing that matters to us is which party manifesto better (best in the three-corner fights) reflects the personal values I hold and the direction I wish our government to take.

Video: This could possibly be considered the manifesto for a perfect world. Dream on.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Nomads: love them or loathe them?

Some thoughts about political musical chairs

Anthropologists love nomads. I worked with a manager who said she wanted to go live with the Bedouins. Some people do find the idea of a group of people traversing huge expanses of land just to find water and food rather romantic, whether these groups are hunter-gatherers, pastoralists or peripatetic minority groups like Romani or Irish travellers (sometimes known -- derogatively -- as gypsies).

My dear second sister -- and many others who have grown up with Enid Blyton books might identify -- used to say she wanted to be a gypsy. At one point I saved enough money to buy a few Matchbox models. One was a caravan.
Image result for matchbox caravan

"Travellers" in the UK do not have a good reputation. The term refers normally to Irish travellers who used to move around from place to place to offer specific services including entertainment, crafts, tin-smithing, knife-sharpening, etc. I think these are the ones featured in Enid Blyton stories for which she was condemned a "bigot".

They have a totally different lifestyle from us sedentists, but who is to say that we are morally or spiritually superior to them? They have their own set of rituals, rules and regulations. They abide by their own code of conduct.

The Mongols, Genghis Khan and all that, they were nomads. They plundered. They conquered. Or the other way around.

Nomads can also be peaceful pastoralists. They move their livestock around, searching for greener pastures literally. Over the years, however, they have worked out a method or cycle of moving around in such a manner that the ground has enough time to heal, for another set of nomads to settle. All very civilized, really.

Those of us who care for the environment will be familiar with how some mega-farms are farming the same bit of earth to death, after which they use man-made fertilizers and pesticides to increase yield which end up poisoning the ground and water.

Compared to these mega-agriculturalists that rape the earth, nomadic pastoralists are angels.

In the context of the Singapore GE2015, what I do not understand is how some forms of nomadism are lauded, while others are decried.

More to the context: complaints that MPs only come around when it is election time (plunder and disappear?). Opposition MP-wannabes work the ground in between GEs. Constituency boundaries change -- some say arbitrarily amidst accusations of gerrymandering, but we won't go into that -- and MP-wannabes who have been "working the ground" (an agricultural metaphor, note) might suddenly find that all the goodwill they have cultivated (more farming imagery) has crossed borders.

Nomadic MP-wannabes or nomadic constituents? Who controls these constituent boundaries and on what basis are they altered? A mystery to all outside government. [Aside: election boundary setting should be made by an independent committee, or at least a cross-party group. Surely.]

What about nomadic PAP candidates? So my old schoolmate has returned to Aljunied and is billed "the prodigal returns". People of Aljunied, time to slaughter the fatted calf. Or is it the sacred cow?

The former "Son of Punggol" is now Step-Son/ Son-in-law/ Second Cousin Once Removed/ some other fictive kin of Ang Mo Kio.


[I hereby give notice that I am "daughter of Tiong Bahru/Tanglin Halt/Tanjong Pagar". Don't say I don't say.]

Indranee Rajah (whose creative energies I had to rein in -- twice -- when she was head of a publication at an NUS group many years ago) reminded my fellow constituents that PAP MPs know their constituents well. This is a plus point for them. Surely.

So why does PAP re-deploy some of their MPs to other constituencies as if they are playing political musical chairs? As if the relationships built up do not -- suddenly -- matter any more? As if, for the sake of a political victory, constituents can now be abandoned? Who is going to write all those letters for the constituents?

Dr Lily Neo, for example. I saw her clinic at Tanglin Halt being decorated (renovated) when she started her practice. She was especially kind to an old neighbour who was a bit of a hypochondriac. She has also treated me. Where is she going next? 


I have been away from Singapore for a long time. (Too long, some say.) Still, I recall Singapore leaders admonishing Singaporeans to venture outside Singapore to find work, to start businesses, to tap the Chinese/Indian markets. So we went.


Whenever I sign up for a major anthropological conference I need to use a software called Nomadit: Nomad IT. When I looked them up, I discovered that "NomadIT is a team of down-to-earth freelance administrators, event organisers and IT specialists who work remotely using internet and email technologies to assist NGOs, educational and voluntary sector organisations to run their organisations and events".

I have no reason to believe that anyone within this group is either wealthy or corrupt, or both. But boy! this software is really useful from setting out calls for panels to calls for papers, to the minutiae of organizing cross-border and sometimes cross-discipline conferences.

You may not be an anthropologist, but it is OK to be love a nomad.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Even the perfect needs help

[Manifesto watch: Housing the elephant in the room or should it be "Housing: the elephant in the room"?]

When I was in secondary school my elder brother who is six years older bought me a Webster-Merriam dictionary for a birthday. I don't know how long he had to save to get me that. On the flyleaf he wrote, "Word is power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Such powerful words that I can almost still see his uniquely-angled left-handed writing on that page.

Pondering ESM Goh's recent claim that PAP are able to provide their own checks and balances I wonder why he thinks that he and his fellow MPs and candidates are so super-human that they will not, ever, not a chance in hell for an eternity, succumb to the temptation of corruption.

Corruption is not confined to accepting bribes. Consider King David, a king so pure and so fervent in his love and dedication to Yahweh that David is often described as "a man after God's own heart".

When David acquired absolute regal power he committed adultery with Bathsheba who fell pregnant and he tried to cover it up by instructing Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, to sleep with her. Uriah was so dedicated to David and the battle he was fighting he refused to lie with his wife. Eventually David had Uriah killed. (David had the power, remember?)

I wonder what is it that made ESM Goh think that he and his colleagues are such perfect specimens of humanity. Super-human or robotic? If neither, then it is possibly more strategic to accept that politicians -- both in government and opposition -- are capable of corruption and that we can all do with humbling ourselves to be subject to the checking and correction by others.

Here is a link to a page which tells us about the origin of the phrase "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely". (NB. The second part of this shrewd observation is "Great men are almost always bad men.")

I don't think anyone has been able to disprove this sagely statement by finding any human being who is totally incorruptible.

I cannot, for one moment, think that out of the blue, 89 totally incorruptible saintly politicians will simultaneously be found in Singapore come September the 12th.

Isn't it better to admit, "O Lord, it is hard to be humble"? (Enjoy this video, by the way!)

As a certain Mr Teo said, "What do you think?" Do add your comment.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Housing the elephant in the room

I had a look at the various manifestos with a focus on housing. There were some interesting ideas on how to make HDB flats affordable.

SDA and SDP separately proposed schemes where flats were sold cheap, repaid in under 20 years and can be sold back to HDB. WP proposed a scheme which pegs debt service ratio to the median household income. Generally it was agreed that it is wrong to factor in the cost of land when pricing new HDB flats.

No party has mentioned the elephant in the room. We do not “own” HDB flats. We rent them on a 99-year lease. Eventually the flats are returned to the HDB, with or without a profit. A bit like the biblical Jubilee, when land is returned to its original owner.

Just for the sake of argument: what would happen if we all withdrew our applications to buy a flat from HDB? What if we simply decided to rent instead of buy?

It is difficult to try to resolve an ostensibly “housing” issue when there are two distinct and opposing conditions to the problem.

Group A consists of (poorer, younger) people who just want to have the certainty of a home to start and build a family or to grow old in. Renting leaves one susceptible to rent rises which might become unaffordable. The only way to gain such security seems to be to acquire an un/affordable HDB flat.

Group B is made up of wily individuals who had bought a flat with as little money as possible and hope to sell it at the biggest profit possible after a shortest period of time.

Group A wants to have low prices in order to buy. Group B wants the prices to rise in order to make a profit. How do you please both these groups?

If the government were to legislate such that property prices come down substantially to help Group A, Group B would feel hard done by. By letting market forces drive up prices to benefit Group B, Group A becomes even more disgruntled.

To complicate matters, members of Group A eventually become part of Group B. The composition of the groups are constantly in flux.

How did HDB and "affordable housing" get into such a conundrum?

Let us go back to first principles. Affordable housing meant moving us from the danger of living in slums after the fire at Bukit Ho Swee and to resolve overcrowding. The government's right to compulsory acquisition of land gave us affordable flats without us worrying about rent rises. We can get on with our lives. We lived in a happy equilibrium for a while.

Somewhere between the "Swiss standard of living" and SG50 owning a flat was no more about providing a family home or security of tenure (or tenancy). Somewhere along the line owning an HDB property became an "investment", a stepping stone to owning an increasingly larger and ultimately a private property.

Somewhere along this same line, some people made a lot of money.

The ultimate HDB betrayal was to let people own both an HDB flat AND a private property at the same time. If you can afford a private property then you no longer need an HDB flat. You either need affordable housing, or you don't. These are mutually exclusive positions.  

There is a third, largely forgotten perspective: pioneer Singaporeans were encouraged to buy homes to sink their roots into our new nation. If you lock yourself into a 30-year mortgage, that means you must grow roots, even if you must work till you drop.

Besides, our property is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay. If HDB manages to house 100% of our population, there will be no demand for flats. No buyers means your HDB property will become worthless. Overnight.

Therefore it is important to keep creating a new pool of home-owners to maintain demand.

Thus, we have somehow managed to create an "aristocracy" based on (HDB) home ownership.

What to do? Maybe we should make it illegal for private home owners to also own an HDB flat. The increase in supply of flats will surely reduce the value of these flats thus pleasing those in Group A.

That will go down well with Group B. Not.

Or we need another paradigm shift: Let us only rent (says she who has never owned any real estate). As ultimately we would need to return our flats to HDB. Why bust a gut just to pretend that we own that property?? Have HDB build lovely flats and offer a rental scale that is inversely proportional to the number of children a family has.

Now that will solve both the housing and fertility problem. Don't say I don't say.

Friday, 28 August 2015

My MP should not be a letter-writer either

[28/08/2015: Uploaded my post on 'mudslinging' late last night, oblivious to what was happening in Singapore. Woke up this morning to learn the latest about fellow social scientist. Susah!]

Journalist Chua Mui Hoong was right to point out Your MP is not the Chief Social Worker. He’s supposed to raise issues and make laws". A Member of Parliament is by definition someone who represents our voice in Parliament.

They and they alone have the privilege of voting within the debating chamber, thus helping to shape laws and policies concerning transport (MRT, taxi fares), the environment (flooding, mosquitoes) and healthcare (Medishield, hospitals), for example, through debating with the government ministers and holding them to account.

Everything else they do is secondary to this task of law-making.

Professional managers can run the town councils. Therapists can listen to your woes. A neighbour can write your letters. Churches, temples, and other voluntary groups are feeding and housing those in need. Social workers can look after dysfunctional families.

Only your honourable Member of Parliament can reflect what you, his constituent, feel within the hallowed walls of the House of Parliament.

I am not an MP but I have run the equivalent of Meet-the-People Sessions (called “surgeries” in Britain) at my advice charity for five years. Clients have told me about her incontinence, his piles and a husband’s impotence, usually within the context of “how do I get more benefits?”. At every session I deal with families facing eviction and individuals owing enormous amounts of debt with debt collectors knocking on their doors.

Contrary to what a minister had said recently, I (and about 25,000 others) do this without being paid. (I was, for a year, employed to ensure minimum service on the London Minimum Wage and then Living Wage.) I am neither wealthy (compared to this minister) nor corrupt (compared to this minister). (Oops! Nearly risked my being sued.)

One of my most memorable clients ranted, “I called those people so many times and they never answer. You people call and they will talk to you.” How is it that civil servants (“those people”), paid by my taxes, are not answering this man’s queries on the phone? Why are they withholding information about himself from him? Why does he need us (“you people”), unpaid volunteers, to phone or write a letter on his behalf just to get a response? Is this acceptable in a First World democracy?

Considering GE2015: Why do we still need MPs to write letters on our behalf?

My late father often had to go to the letter-writer at Ann Siang Hill whenever he needed to send news back to China. Immediately post-1965, many constituents needed their MPs to write letters in English. Fifty years on, most of us can either write our own, or turn to adult children and grandchildren.
Letter writers


According to Mr K Mahbubani, the “Singapore population is one of the best educated populations”. If this is so, why do we need MPs to write letters to HDB, for example, for grants to fix a leaky ceiling? Can the highly-paid civil servants at HDB not decide whether an application is legitimate?

Singaporeans have told me that sometimes, like my British client, they do not get a response at all from certain government departments. So they trot down to the MPS. The MP writes. Hey presto! The civil servant replies. Job done.

Why should the interference of an MP -- of whatever party -- make a difference?

I can think of two reasons.

The first is our civil servants are lazy and useless (in which case they should be sacked). Considering how they are often rewarded with bonus payments, this cannot be the case.

The second is, for some reason, there have been inefficiencies designed (yes, deliberately engineered) into the process so that the wheels would only turn when oiled by an MP’s intervention.

Such a system forces a voter to seek the help of an MP. Is this an example of a “patron-client relationship”? The politically “superior” can (be seen to) dispense favour to the “inferior”, making the “inferior” indebted (ie obligated) to the “superior”. Of course the favour will be called in at some point (ie at General Election). This, however, is not the same as corruption or bribery.

I suspect and hope that this practice will be phased out once we have more opposition MPs in office.

MPs should not be doing the work of the civil servants whether at a local (town council) or national level. We do not pay MPs $16,000 (how much?!!) to be a letter-writer. We need a separation -- clear blue water -- between the legislative (Parliament) and the executive (Civil Service).

When you cast your vote, think whether you are choosing an effective letter-writer or a law-maker who would diligently represent your views in Parliament by the way he/she votes on legislative matters.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Mudslinging makes potatoes grow (repost)

[28/08/2015: Uploaded my post on 'mudslinging' late last night, oblivious to what was happening in Singapore. Woke up this morning to learn the latest about fellow social scientist. Susah!]

I am plagiarising myself here. I first posted this on 24th April 2011.

In my view there was too much "mudslinging" at the last GE. I hope that we have matured a bit and will use less of this strategy and argue on points that matter. I would like politicians to inspire me, enthuse me with their vision of where they wish to take us in the next 30 years.

Talking about SG100 is, to me, a bit premature. Five years are too short. Short-termism -- where politicians hand out freebies and promise the electorate even more goodies, and neglecting to fix the systems that need fixing -- in British politics has run everything Britons are proud of (eg National Health Service, pension provision, social care) very nearly into the ground.

I think striving for positive change (eg class size, National Service, CPF) within a generation is much more do-able. Just think, there is now a whole generation of young Singaporeans who were brought up by foreign maids, and they probably expect their own children to be brought up the same way.

==== [from previous post then ...]
The potatoes in my garden are going berserk. [I grow these in potato bags, not in the ground.] Every time I see new leaves I cover them with compost (as per instructions).

If I put compost on it last thing at night, new growth appears the following morning. If I cover it with compost in the morning, the leaves break through again by the end of the day.

New leaves appear despite the compost. Or is it because of the compost?

I’ve been baking my own bread. In the temperate clime here it takes a long time for bread dough to proof (ferment and rise). But when it has risen to the right size, it takes but a few minutes to bake, and then soon we can tuck into delicious warm bread.

When it’s the season for potatoes to grow, nothing would stop it once it finds moist, fertile ground.

Fed with alternative views via the internet and watered by rising dissatisfaction, the political ground in Singapore is fertile for opposition growth.

The ruling party might dig up the dirt and heap it on the opposition. But mudslinging and dirt (as compost is but organic material that has rotted down) only promote even greater growth.

I don’t have to remind you that potatoes grow underground.

As the opposition has been biding its time, proving (pun intended) itself to be worthy (or not, as the case might be), so too like bread, it would not take too long for it to be ready to form a government, or at least that alternative voice so necessary to provide checks and balances.

Wishing you, my beloved Singapore, the wonderful aroma that promises the delight of freshly baked bread. Soon.

P.S. I hope I get to vote this time.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

SMRT/Gracious Fellow Travellers

Unlike a former classmate who can afford to jet across the world -- First Class -- at the drop of a hat, my visits to Singapore are few and far between.

The upside is I notice the changes. I guess this is a bit like what the anthropologist would call "making the familiar strange".

My husband and I have noticed how people are much better at letting passengers off the trains, for example. We dutifully stand where the marks are, wait till most have disembarked before pushing our way in.

An old Singaporean woman who had become a British citizen went back to visit Singapore some years back. She insisted on her return that "there are no old people in Singapore".

She was staying at an Orchard Road hotel and she said she could not see one person with a walking stick or in a wheelchair. Conclusion: there were no old people in Singapore.

Well, I have had so many people offer up their seats to me on the trains (both in Singapore and Bangkok) that I figure I must look REALLY OLD.

I put it down to my carefully cultivated grey hair. It has never touched hair dye.

It used to be when I see people with grey hair coming up the bus or train I would offer them my seat. These days I have to be careful that people who appear to be older than me (wrinkles, gait, manner of dress, eg) but with hair a uniform jet black (or brown) colour may not actually be old.

Going by hair colour, my friend was right, there are no old people in Singapore.

Do I offer these people who seem old, but who have less grey hair than I do, my seat? What do I do if someone offers me a priority seat?

So I just want to record my thanks to the many foreign workers (they seemed foreign in complexion and manner of dress), young students and National Service men (in uniform) who have offered me their seats on the trains.

My principle is that I will always accept their offer. If I declined their offer they might become less willing to offer the next person their seat, and this next person might really need that seat. The exception is when I only have just one stop to go. In which case I would explain this to the kind person.

As for Indian workers in Singapore I noticed, too, when trudging through Little India one hot afternoon, that not once did I hear someone (foreign or otherwise) in Little India say, "Excuse me, excuse me" (or the Singapore equivalent which sounds something like "kills me") in trying to get past us on the five foot ways. It seemed like everyone fell in behind us (ambling tourists) and waited patiently till we got to a point where they could -- quietly -- pass us.

And it was also reassuring to see how people in wheelchairs (usually propelled by a diminutive foreign-looking person) can travel in buses and trains, and fellow travellers did not grudge them that space and time.

It did give me hope that Singapore (comprising locals and guest workers) is becoming a much more gracious place to live.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

GE15: Singlish good, English bad

[Single Mother watch]


So, the gauntlet has been thrown down. SG is up for grabs.

Trawling through some of the GE15 posts and videos I cannot help but notice that numerous comments have been made about the (British, clipped, etc) accent of a certain candidate.

In other videos other candidates spoke in perfectly grammatical English, also with a slightly "foreign" accent.

The last time I had anything published in the MSM and my blog about Singlish I was taken to task by Singlish supporters on some FB page. I don't know how far -- if at all -- that debate has moved on. At the recent SG50, I see that Singlish was being celebrated.

Was this a real recognition of Singlish as part of the Singapore identity or an acquiescence on the part of the G (previously known as “gahman”, I assume)?

I do not remember -- ever -- hearing the late great Mr Lee speak Singlish in public. His was a beautiful, carefully enunciated English, precise and crisp. A British accent? Maybe.

That is why I chuckled when ESM Goh said in Mr Lee’s eulogy: “But I believe Mr Lee would say, ‘What to do? This is life.’”

Mr Lee definitely, double-confirm, would not have said, “What to do?” Maybe “What can I do?” or even “What shall I do?” but definitely, definitely not “What to do?”

It was, for me, a ‘facepalm’ moment, feeling very paiseh that in front of all those dignitaries from around the world, my previous PM said, “What to do?”

(BUT, but I will always respect ESM Goh for giving us the vision for the “Swiss standard of living”. Don’t say I don’t say.)

Honestly, I wonder what Mr Lee would have said about the SG50 Singlish parade.

Back to GE2015: I am afraid that those candidates who speak good grammatical English and have acquired a slight accent due to their having lived and worked abroad for many years might now be painted/portrayed as being not Singaporean enough.

Note, too, that speaking with a, say, British/American/Puerto Rican, accent is not the same as speaking good grammatical English which is not the same as speaking Singlish.

You can’t really speak good Singlish without a particular rise and fall in tone. But you can speak grammatically correct English with its precise vocabulary, understood right around the world, and the accent will vary and it does not matter whether your accent is Dutch, Czech or Urdu.

I have not been able to get rid of my Singapore accent despite having lived in Britain for more than two decades, but that is OK. I don’t particularly want to get rid of my Singapore accent.

However there have been many times when I pronounced words or used sentence structures that my English-speaking colleagues/friends/husband/son could not understand. I have been teased many times for the way I do not speak English properly. I’ve had to change my way of speaking English (with specific focus on consonant clusters) so that I can be understood outside Singapore.

My point is: please do not hold it against those election candidates who speak an English which sounds a bit strange to our Singaporean ears.

Good Singlish might make us sound/look like we are "closer" to the people. Cabinet ministers and other politicians have to interact with their counterparts on a global basis.

Referencing the scenes from Animal Farm where the animals were (initially) chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad", please, hah: It is not a case of “Singlish good, English bad” (which is not to say that bad English is good Singlish, you know what I mean).

Monday, 24 August 2015

SMRT/Signal Failure at Wembley Park

[New post: GE15: Singlish good, English bad]

Three things happened on 11th August 2015 which were sort of related.
  1. Husband came to give me a kiss and my mug of tea in bed (as usual) and said “the Met line is not running”. A signal failure at Wembley Park meant that all trains going east from where we live were … not going east. Husband had to take the overground mainline train, change to an Underground train and then trek across the Thames with thousands of other commuters.
  2. London Underground announced another TWO days of strikes. This was after a strike the week before which had caused a great deal of resentment.
  3. Over in Singapore Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew announced that he was going to be the ‘former’ Transport Minister.
When the recent NS and EW lines died my response was rather uncharitable, “Hello, Singaporeans! It is an old system. Deal with it!” At least it is not being sabotaged by overpaid train drivers and their trade unions holding the commuter to ransom.

We are talking here of Tube drivers who earn £50,000 a year. In comparison a nurse earns £22,000, a policeman £24,000 and a new university lecturer with a PhD starts at around the £30,000 mark. The benefits cap was set at £26,000 a year – the average salary earned by Britons.

Tube drivers also get 43 days of paid leave a year. That is another 0.83 day a week, on top of their two days off every seven days. Effectively Tube drivers work just over four days (4.17 to be exact) out of seven. I hope I have put that £50,000 in perspective.

What I thought most mysterious – and many others have already commented on this – was the number of people coming out of the woodwork to make kind, gracious and some might say cringe-worthy comments about how a wonderful and decent man Mr Lui is and that he should not be blamed for the fallout from all the train failures; failures he had inherited. 

Where was the support when Mr Lui was being ridiculed and castigated by the public in social media? (I must confess that during this period I had, for various reasons, stopped reading Singapore news regularly and had refrained from commenting on it for some time. Let she who is without sin cast the first stone.)

A successful politician does not only need to know how to make astute and often difficult decisions, he/she also needs to be able to convey to the electorate the impetus behind these decisions.

Our pioneer politicians learned as they went along, fuelled by little other than the mission of nation-building. The fire in their belly carried us along. We fell in behind them. (And look where they have brought us.)

As an undergraduate after the post-1984 watershed election I ranted about how the new batch of politicians were merely ‘technocrats’. They had the technical ability to get certain jobs done, but all seemed to have a charisma ‘bypass’, a lobotomy in the personality department, and were not able to enthuse the voters.

With Lui’s generation of politicians they seem to be just very nice scholars who can make things work, but only within very structured environments where the chain of command is very clear-cut. Despite not being shackled by a trade union as with the London Underground, the picture is emerging – or I can only conclude – that Mr Lui was too gentle with the heads that he should have knocked together to make the transport system work.

What to do? When you have grown up within a Confucian culture where respect must be accorded to some because of their prior position, what leeway had poor Mr Lui? (I subsequently heard that Mr Lui did not have as many stars on his epaulettes as the people whose heads he should have knocked. Would anyone care to set the record straight?)

The Transport portfolio is now a poisoned chalice. But really, we don’t care. Please do not play-play political football. Commuters simply want a transport system that works, and works reliably.

Is anyone out there, ex-Army, ex-Navy, ex-SS (ie Sheng Siong) or ex-whatever ready to deliver?

Meanwhile, back at the Tube, if I were the Mr Lui-equivalent, I would sack every striking driver and re-hire them on new no-strike terms. They are, after all, running an essential service.

24 August 2015 17.51
BREAKING NEWS - The Tube strike is OFF: Commuters given 11th-hour reprieve from four-day walkout as unions agree deal

As usual, brinkmanship. Or should it be "blinkmanship"? Who blinked first?

NB: RMT sets new walkout dates of September 8 and 10 if no deal is reached