Friday, November 30, 2012

Aren't You Luck that We Shit on You?

Singapore has just seen its first major industrial action in 26-years. On Monday, 26 November, 2012, 100 bus drivers from the Singapore Mass Rapid Transport Corporation (SMRT) decided to stop work in protest over their pay and working conditions. As expected, bus services were affected and the SMRT was left scrambling to find a way of dealing with the situation.

The great and the good have weighed in on the issue. The Powers-That-Be have been stunned. Singapore has prided itself in being “strike-free.” The official stand is, “This is illegal criminal activity and we cannot condone it – there are proper channels to air your grievances and you cannot take things into your own hands.” There is of course the other shock in that this ‘strike’ is led by Mainland Chinese – a group the government has led into the country in the belief that they’d be so grateful to be let into Singapore that they’d be even more docile than the local population.

What’s particularly interesting is the fact that a great number of comments in the online and mainstream media have been echoing this sentiment. One lady has gone as far as to call them “thugs” and accusing them of trying to hold the nation hostage. It seems that the government has managed to find itself on the right side of the backlash against its very own policy to open the flood gates to foreign labour.

Unfortunately, everyone seems to be missing the point here. The question that should be asked is – “What is it that made 100 Mainland Chinese strike?” Let’s face it, the Chinese are known as sturdy migrants who are able to take an enormous amount of rubbish that most other groups won’t take. Today’s migrants from Mainland China don’t come from the thriving metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. A very large portion of them come from rural areas are untouched by the economic growth driving China. What you give them should be better than what they’re used to.

It turns out that the group was protesting against the fact that they were getting a vastly inferior deal to their Malaysian counterparts. According to the statistics released by SMRT an average Chinese driver was getting a good $400 a month less than his Malaysian counterpart. When the SMRT Corporation increased the pay of Malaysian drivers, it didn’t for the ones from China. A few have argued that the pay differential is not as great as it seems since the company subsidized the accommodation of the Chinamen by $270 a month per person. Unfortunately what it didn’t factor into the equation was the fact that the Chinamen worked vastly longer hours in return for their miniscule pay rise. Furthermore, the Malaysian drivers were hired as permanent staff, thus enjoying job security and regular pay increments, which the guys from China did not get (the guys from China are hired on a two-year contract).

Let’s face it, there is no rational way of looking at the comparison and realizing that the Chinese guys were getting a raw deal – raw enough for them to do something about it. Who is at fault? Whatever way you look at it, the SMRT Corporation has failed in basic communications and labour relations. Let’s just look at some issues here.

Are Chinese Bus Drivers Inferior to Malaysian Ones?

Some Singapore Chinese Graduate lady wrote on the Today News paper’s online portal that Chinese should have asked why they were getting paid less instead of complaining about it. The lady in question went as far as to suggest that the lower pay was due to inferior language skills of the Chinese bus drivers

Let’s start with the obvious; this isn’t the only time that people have complained about the lack of English language skills by people from China. Most of the complaints have come from the service sector. So given that complaints about the language skills of PRC nationals is not exactly new, why did the SMRT hire PRC drivers whose language skills may not have been up to par? As a business, it is surely in the interest of the company to ensure that the people it hires can communicate with their customers.

The Second Point is that the key element of driving a bus is driving skills rather than language skills. Yes, you do need to communicate basic messages to passengers – ie you got to be able to advise people on certain routs but other than that your job as a bus driver is to drive well and safely. Nobody has shown any evidence what so ever that  PRC drivers were inferior in this crucial aspect of the job to their Malaysian and dare I say, Singaporean counterparts.

So, how exactly were the PRC chaps inferior to the other nationalities to the extent that it justified being paid less money than their counterparts for doing the same job?

China is a developing country; its citizens can afford to live on less – The Pittance they Earn here is a Fortune Where they Come From 

Yes, China is developing and its people have lived on less than most. However, this argument doesn’t exactly hold water. Contrary to what many Singaporeans might like to think, migrants do bring their families over and often have to support them.

Furthermore, while what one earns in one country might seem like a fortune in another, the fact remains that most of us have to live in the country that they work in. I remember that when I lived in England, it felt like earning a salary in England would make me a rich man – everything penny earned in England would be three times what it was in Singapore.  Unfortunately that changed when I had to pay bills in pounds.

So while one might comment about how people from China, India, and Bangladesh etc are earning a fortune when converted into their native currencies, they forget that our foreign labourers have to live in Singapore and pay their respective bills in Singapore dollars. What they do send back home has to be at a cost of denying themselves.

The closest anyone has to earning a strong currency and spending in a weaker one are the Malaysians who live in Johor Bahru. The distance between Singapore and Johor is reachable by train and bus. It is possible to live in Johor and work in Singapore – earning Singapore dollars and spending Ringitt is possible. It’s a different story for the chaps from Mainland China. They can’t take a bus back to China every night and spend their hard earned Singapore dollars in Chinese Yuan.

There are Official Channels they should not have taken things into their own hands.

Yes, there are official channels. Workers in Singapore can always go to their HR departments and if the HR departments don’t listen there is always the regulatory authority, which in this case is the Ministry of Manpower. If you are really desperate you can bring it to the courts.

While the system is wonderfully transparent on paper, there is a major flow – going through it requires time and money. Lawyers for one have never been known to be cheap and going through any government ministry requires time. 

While the Ministry of Manpower is considered effective in what it does, it still takes 11-weeks to investigate claims made by workers against employers. While it might not seem like much time to the bureaucratic machinery, this is a lot of time for a worker, particularly the ones at the bottom of the rung who have to feed themselves and are often forced to stay in accommodation provided by the very employer they are making a complaint against.

Do you expect the economically disadvantaged to rush through the system? Rightly or wrongly, the poor, particularly those from one-party systems, don’t expect to get a fair deal.

Unfortunately, the Singapore system hasn’t exactly made itself known to be particularly ‘labour-friendly.’ Let’s face it; abusing your foreign domestic worker is less of a crime than libel against politicians. Our system has allowed a contractor to keep his workers in conditions so harsh that one of them died from chicken pox. Despite repeated calls to the police, nobody did anything until someone died and when that happened, the courts slapped the contractor in question with a mere $10,000 fine.

Contrary to what Singaporeans might believe, such stories do get around the migrant communities. The system brags about how our courts work for settling commercial disputes. While other system’s might show that the small man can win in the courts once in a while, Singapore doesn’t bother to announce those victories.

So, while the powers –that-be might talk about going through official channels, we need to look at how ordinary people perceive the system. If desperate people do not believe they have a fair chance of dealing with the system, isn’t logical that they will look to get what they perceive to be justice outside the system?

The Law Says You Have to Give Two Weeks’ Notice to Strike

Yes, this is technically and legally true. However, anyone who expects people to follow this rule when they perceive the system to be against them is living in lalala land. Sun Tzu argued that surprise was one of the key elements of victory.

The Times Have Changed

Let’s face it, the bus drivers broke the letter of the law and they will have to face the music. However, sweeping this incident under the proverbial carpet would be a gross mistake. Whatever one might think of this "strike" the point is, the Chinese Bus Drivers have made people notice them and pay attention to their complaint. While one might bleat on about how they should have gone through the "proper channels," we have to ask ourselves if we'd even know about the pay discrepancy between Chinese and Malaysian Bus Drivers. Would we even know about dormitories? 

Strikes can harm an economy. Let's look at the militant unions who crippled the UK economy in the 70s as an example of what not to accept. 

However, no strikes are not necessarily an example of healthy industrial relations. Workers keep quiet because they need their jobs. Businesses do benefit with lower cost, including labour cost. However, there's a point when people will not except being treated unfairly or when you pay them at such levels where they are barely surviving. Just as people don't choose to be suicide bombers as a career choice, people don't go to work to strike for the sake of it. 

So, SMRT and Singapore Inc needs to treat this as a wake up call to do something about bringing the management of industrial relations into the current era. The days when workers are willing to accept minimal wages as being good for society are long gone. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thankful on Thanksgiving

My American friends and family have just celebrated Thanksgiving, a festival that has its roots in the old European festival. Some of attributed the American festival to going as far back as 1621 when the first immigrants were arriving in the new world. There is a ‘legend’ of sorts that states that this was the one time the new arrivals and the indigenous Indians shared a meal together.

While I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving personally, I believe that there are things that the world should be thankful for. For a start, the world remains a fairly decent place because America remains the world’s superpower. Despite the economic crisis and the often bitter partisanship of her politicians, America on the whole has remained a force of good. Say what you like about America’s political system but it has held fairly steady and the current crop of politicians are being forced by voters to look at domestic issues instead of looking for foreign adventures to distract themselves.

For all the problems of the American economy, the country remains the hot bed of innovation. While the system may at times seem unfair and even destructive, it has constantly produced companies and people who have come up with the things that make our future. While America’s military strength may have been sapped by the lack of funding and overambitious overseas ventures, the power of ideas generated by American universities is shaping the world. The rise of tomorrow’s superpowers, China and India, can attribute to American Universities (As a friend of mine who was at University of Southern California pointed out – mechanical engineering courses at USC are filled with Mainland Chinese and software engineering courses are filled with Indians).

America has its problems and American policy, as anyone who’s dealt with the Middle East will tell you, has done plenty of harm. However, I remain with Douglas Hurd, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, when he describes America as the “most benevolent superpower in history.” On the balance of things, America has been a force of good.

For me, my reasons to be thankful to the USA are more personal. Although I’ve career success with American companies like Citibank and GE, my reasons to be thankful to the USA are more personal – it’s family. The two Americans who come to mind are my stepfather, Lee (Mum’s second husband) and my step-grandmother, Joan (mother of my dad’s second wife).

Both Lee and Joan never thought of me as anything less than their own. To Lee, I was as good to him as his own flesh and blood sons. He’d always make it a point to ensure that I would never have anything less than my sister, Tara his natural daughter. There was a long stretch of my life where having Lee around was taken for granted as breathing and I know the same is true for him. When I do get a chance to speak to him, he tells me that I’ll always be the 13-year old boy he once knew and raised as his own.

Joan was the other reason why I am thankful to the USA. She took me as her own grandson and one of the last great memories I have of being in the US was visiting her in Chicago. She would quiz me about politics in Singapore and the UK as well as my views on the global economy. One of the most touching things she did was to keep every email that I sent to her when I was at university and to compile it into a small book. Not only did she take me as her grandson, she took my friend Joe on as well.  She was more than happy to be an interviewee for one of his early videos.

I’m probably very different from what either Joan or Lee expected of me. It was Joan who planted the seed of a dream I once had of getting an MBA at Northwestern. Lee feels that I have the potential for great spirituality.

However, both have left one major impression on me – the understanding that family is more than a question of flesh and blood. Family is more than a question of skin colour or ideology. Many of my friends wonder why I’ve put my heart into both Thuy and Yooga instead of focusing on having my own flesh and blood.  I think the answer is I’ve seen both these kids as mine regardless of the lack of a biological connection. With Yooga, I worry that his mother’s instability will affect him. With Thuy returning to my life as a young woman, I worry that every inappropriate adventure I had with the opposite sex will come back to haunt her.

Yet, I’m thankful for all the worries and responsibilities I’ve taken on. It’s like when people question me as to why I’m so passionate about wanting to do things for Yooga or Thuy because they’re not my flesh and blood, I wonder what my life would have been like if Lee had taken the same position with me. I believe my life would be the poorer for it.

I went to see Lee this summer. It was his 80th birthday and he made the point to the family that seeing me was the only wish he had. The process of going to see Lee in Washington State (Port Townsend) also meant I got to see my stepsister, Carol and her family.

The last time I saw them was 14-years ago. Her kids, my step nieces and nephews were children, just like me. The youngest of her kids, Brennon and Mikaela, were still small enough to jump into my arms and get hugged. Well, I returned to the USA to find Mikaela a mother of a two-year old boy and I arrived in time to see Brennon married off to my new found ex-step-niece Chava. Time has passed. We’ve made monumental life changes. There’s been an absence of over a decade. Yet the feeling of being welcomed by family remains the same.

I am also thankful that the USA has been good to my brother Max. Funny, when we were children (well, I’m quite a bit older, so I was a kid and he a baby), the expectation was that I would be the studious one and Max the rebel. Things have turned out quite differently. I have, as they say, become the bastard in the family, the type who gives his own parents nightmares. Max has turned out quite differently. A steady girlfriend in the shape of Caitlan has, I believe, brought out the best in him and he’s found a form of contentment that seems to elude most of us.

Say what you like about America and American politics. Say what you like about the mess of the American economy or the mess of its Middle Eastern policies. The country is the place that blessed me with a family beyond flesh and blood. It’s blessed my flesh and blood – it for this reason that I am thankful onThanksgiving day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Can you blame them?

I spent my early Sunday morning attending a book launch by a prominent member of Singapore’s local community. The man in question was a former CID officer who, thanks to his attraction to gold had earned himself the name “Mr Gold Finger.”

Mr Gold Finger has been out of the police force and is now a sprightly 70-year old. Upon retirement, the man decided to devote his life to his community. He is an active member of both the Singapore Indian DevelopmentAssociation (SINDA) and the Little India Shop Keepers Association (LISHA). Mr Gold Finger is also the former father-in-law of Bijay, the Nepali Naan Maker or the Nice Guy who Finishes First.

Despite his devotion to his community, Mr Gold Finger taken a few knocks on the personal front. His eldest daughter died of cancer and his second daughter has since moved to Belfast taking along with her his much loved granddaughter. The worst thing to afflict Mr Gold Finger is the fact that his DNA runs through his eldest son – Macha Pundek (Bother-in-law Cunt). Macha at the age of 44 has found a wonderful career – he’s waiting for Mr Gold Finger to meet his maker in the hope that he inherits his wealth.

Being revolted by the site of Macha Pudek is as easy as being drawn to his father. Macha Pundek dresses like a rapper. He’s shaved his head clean and wears sunglasses indoors. He has the usual baggy trousers and somewhere in there I believe he really believes he’s a music producer of “Gangsta Rap.” While he may look the part, Macha Pundek has forgotten one of the key elements of being a music producer – you’re actually required to do some work.

At yesterday’s event, I saw the pride Mr Gold Finger had in his community. The man has written a book on the commonalities between Confucius and Thelluvar, a Tamil sage. His latest book told the story of his life. It was filled with family photos, photos of his travels and photos with the great and the good of Singapore, including our former President, Mr SR Nathan.

Then I had the misfortune of running into Macha Pundek. A greater misfortune followed – Macha Pundek actually recognized me and said hello. Yech……He was there strutting around like a peacock and this time he had company. He had a friend, who I think worked for a debt collection company. The giveaway was that he surrounded himself with nasty looking people (the type who have tattoos on their faces) swaggering around in black leather jackets.

I felt bad for Mr Gold Finger. Here you are trying to show the community that you’ve devoted your life to that you are a highly respectable man. Then, along comes your low-life scum of a son with his equally distasteful group of friends, swaggering around on your parade.

How else could you describe the situation other than to say – SHIT! Well, I guess you could say it’s ironic. Macha Pundek is walking around with people from a debt collection company while he has borrowed money he has no intention of returning (He currently owes his former brother-in-law and his late sister over $10,000).

Really, when you see Macha Pundek swaggering around, you have to worry about the state of the local Tamil Community. I mean this community has produced excellent people. Our current finance minister and deputy Prime Minister is actually brilliant enough to be recognized internationally. I’ve liked every journalist that I’ve had to deal with from the Tamil Media. I even had a very sweet former Tamil employee who made a point of doing special for me on my 37th birthday.

Unfortunately, the community has an infestation of the likes of Macha Pundek.  In what passes off as his mind, Macha like other members of his family (Annek and Thambi) believes he’s part of the social elite. Macha like Thambi (Younger Brother) cannot sit in the outdoor shade for more than three minutes before running into the air conditioning.

Macha Pundek is highly allergic to work. Despite being healthy and certified sane, Macha has does not have the ability to do simple jobs like driving a taxi driver (he’ll brag about how he once threw out a passenger who didn’t have 75 cents change). He even found the job of being a watchman in a school to be taxing (4-hours a day of which only 2 were required for him to move more than an inch).

As a result, Macha Pundek has an interesting dilemma. He can’t afford to hang out where he believes he’s entitled to.  So, he has a simple solution – he’s tries to mooch of everyone else. Don’t ask him to sit down by the void deck for a drink – apparently that’s low class or rather that’s what Indian workers from India do. You got to take him to no less than Harry’s Bar and when you do, you will not only be footing the bill for him, you’ll be footing the bill for his entire family.

Like all members of the Pundek clan, Macha has a curious relationship with the group from India. He hates Indian expatriates. He describes them as “Proud Cocksuckers who don’t know their place in life.” At the same time he despises Indian labourers and can’t shit on them fast enough.

Can you blame the highly educated Indian expats for not wanting to associate with him? I think of what a Senior VP at prominent IT firm said – “Other than a few religious rites – THEY are definitely Singaporean while WE are Indian.”  I suspect that the poor bastard must have run into one Macha Pundek clone too many.   

You’ll find that it’s the likes of Macha who has the most to complain about when it comes to foreigners. They’re living the life that he believes he is entitled to. Unfortunately for Macha and the rest of the PundekClan both the Indian Expatriates and the Indian Labourers do this thing called “work.” The labourer group in particular is prone to doing things like carrying heavy things in the hot sun and they’re still there while the rest of us are heading home to get our feet rubbed.

So, how can we make life in Singapore better for everyone? Perhaps the key here is to focus on key word “productivity.” We should make it a point to welcome people who are productive and want to earn a wage of sorts. We should also export the likes of Macha Pundek. I believe that North Korea might have a use for him – they could clone him and inflict him on the South. That would do more damage than a few nukes and the entire Korean War.

Or perhaps he and his ilk have a use in Somalia. You could carve Macha and the rest of the Pundek clan up and feed lots of people for quite some time.

Either way, the case for exporting local duds is overwhelming. Stopping labourers from entering upsets businesses even if the government thinks it makes people happy. It’s a short term solution. Exporting Macha Pundek and his ilk would be far more productive.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


I had the privilege of attending the “Third China-India-Singapore Dialogue on Higher Education” on the 8th of November, 2012. The event involved leading academics and administrators from China, India and Singapore discussing what they saw as the future of higher education in Singapore.

The star at the event was Mr Ngiam Tong Dow one of Singapore’s most prominent former civil servants. 

You could say that Mr Ngiam was in the thick of things during the creation of the Singapore Miracle. He was Permanent Secretary in the key ministries of Finance and Trade as well as in the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr Ngiam was also the Chairman of the Economic Development Board - thus making him the chief salesman for Singapore to multinationals.

What makes Mr Ngiam is a rare creature in Singapore – he’s an intelligent and credible critic. Mr Ngiam utilizes public forums to criticize many government policies without saying anything critical about particular members of the establishment. Unlike the ‘rabid dogs’ on blogosphere, Mr Ngiam does not make it a point to attack the government for the sake of it – you will, for example, never find Mr Ngiam kissing trees in public or hurling vulgarities at people.

So, when you take all these facts about Mr Ngiam into consideration, you have to take what he says rather seriously. One of Mr Ngiam’s pet peeves is the fact that he believes that our economic planners haven’t done enough to encourage Singaporeans to use their brains. In yesterday’s forum, Mr Ngiam declared that he did not like casinos because they only provided ‘second tier’ jobs and Singapore, he argued, was selling itself short.

I’m glad he said what he did at the forum. Singapore talks a lot about how we only have “human resources” and we brag about how much we’ve developed it. Yet, despite all the rhetoric, Singapore claims that it has very little talent to get things done – hence the need to import talent. Why is that so?

The main culprit here has to be government policy and the inability of the establishment to accept that the successful game plan of the 1960s may not necessarily work in the current century. Despite investing heavily in education, Singaporeans remain shockingly clueless about many things. My favourite example is the way many Singaporeans think Sikh’s come from Bengal as well as believing that Saudi Arabia is a part of Dubai. You might argue that this is a small matter but it’s not. These basic facts don’t require a college degree. One merely has to look at a map to realize that there’s a distance between Punjab and Bengal or that Saudi Arabia is many times larger than Dubai.

I think of former Bloomberg Columnist, Any Mukherjee, who once lectured a group of journalism students. His only remark about the students after the fact was that they were “Curiously uncurious.” Like Mr Mukherjee, the government should be curious as to how it could educate a population into not being bothered to glance at a map before dealing with people from elsewhere.

Instead, the government seems content to produce people like The Young Muslim Politician Who Drinks During a Ramadan Day from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek. This young clown is currently very upset because I’ve told him that he has to compete for good jobs with people like a client of mine, who happens to be an Indian National. He’s asking me what this client of mine can do that an NUS Graduate can’t do. Well, unfortunately if you take The Young Muslim Politician Who Drinks Alcohol during a Ramadan Day from Paris Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek as an example, the answer is simple. The Indian National can think.

To be fair to Singapore’s established universities they have NOT admitted the Young Muslim Politician who Drinks Alcohol during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek (apparently he’s at some Singapore based Monash campus) and they’re recognizing the need to teach subjects that train the mind. One of the professors from the National University of Singapore (NUS) proudly told the audience that NUS is ramping up its teaching of liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. They’ve found that while employers haven’t specifically asked for liberal arts graduates, they’re asking for people with the skills that liberal arts training provides – critical thinking.

This is a rather belated but welcome move. Simply put, in the 1960s people were told to send their best and brightest to work for the government or a multinational. In these organisations things were simple. The civil service was led by a handful of bright thinkers (educated elsewhere) who controlled the drones (educated at home). In the multinationals, the head of would always be some barrow boy from elsewhere.

Well, this economic model is becoming less relevant. The multinationals now have a choice when operating in Asia. The hot markets these days are China and India and they have alternative gateways to Singapore. So, we need a new game plan and people trained in the old ways of doing things need to reinvent and readjust their thinking.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be don’t always seem to get it. Singapore has been trying to reinvent itself as a Monaco of sorts – the rich of the world are invited to Singapore to have fun and the population is supposed to make do as service providers to the entertain the rich and famous.

This strategy has a slight flaw – the rich can always bugger off to elsewhere when they’re bored. Your indigenous population has a habit of getting uppity when house prices go up. How do you figure things out?
I’m with Ngiam when he argues that we need to look at developing brains. 

Singapore is small and it lacks the muscle of China, India or even neighbouring Malaysia. The only thing we have going for us is our brains.

There’s some hope here. We managed to produce Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology – the man who gave us the sound blaster and allowed Steve Jobs to plagerise his technology into the iTune. We've borrowed Olivia Lum from Malaysia and she’s reinvented water.

Unfortunately, both Mr Sim and Ms Lum seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What can be done? Well, it’s encouraging to hear people at NUS like Professor Lilly Kong, Vice President of University and Global Relations at NUS talk about encouraging creativity and critical thinking.

However, training alone is not enough. Having a brain has to be lucrative. Singapore has wonderful intellectual protection laws. However, there’s very little market for intellectual property. In the media industry there are only two established media houses that regard publishing anyone not on their payroll as a favour to that person. In the R&D sector, there are wonderful government funded research labs…..unfortunately the government holds owns you and therefore your intellectual property. Hence you have very little commercialization of R&D

This has to change. Civil Servants need to lose the fear of letting go. Entrepreneurs should be allowed to look for innovations that could produce things that can be commercialized. The economy should welcome invented in Singapore as much as professes to accept made Singapore.
Mr Ngiam is right and he needs to go further to encourage greater competition for products of innovation. It’s all very well teaching people how to think but they also need to get paid to think.