Sunday, April 29, 2007

No special day

Happy birthday, my dear. It has been nearly 7 years and you would have been 28 today.

Friday, April 27, 2007

ST Forum: Speak better English - let's get it right

This letter appeared in the online letters section of the ST Forum on 26 April 2007.

April 27, 2007
Speak better English - let's get it right

APRIL is the speak-better-English month. On, the latest slogan is: 'Be understood. Not just in Singapore, Malaysia and Batam' and the focus is on students, teachers, parents and frontline workers.

Miss Singapore-Universe 2007 aspirant Peggy Chang spouted her stuff with: 'James Dean said: 'Dream like you'll live forever and leave (live) like tomorrow's your last day'.' Correctly, she didn't drag her first 'live' but did the second to sound 'leave'.

Another time, she quoted Dean had both 'lives' correctly undragged. Inconsistency betrays poor grounding and a cavalier attitude. Unremediated contestants let down pageants, their organisers and the nation.

Paradoxically, I learn from global contestants who announce their origins. For instance, Chile is pronounced 'Chee-lay', not 'Chilly'. Antigua is 'An-tee-guh', not 'An-tee-gwa'; Guyana is 'Gye-anna', not 'Gee-anna' and Lesotho is 'Luh-soo-too', not 'Lee-soto'. Those unfamiliar may miscall us 'Sing-kia-pour' or 'Sing-ah-pour'.

American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken called his North Carolina hometown 'Raw-lee' (Raleigh) which I smugly pronounced, heretofore, as 'Rare-lay' - a popular bicycle brand of the past and Sir Walter Raleigh. A Brit on TV pronounced it as 'Rah-lee'. How many know that Leigh is 'Lee' as in 'Wood-lee' (Woodleigh)?

British place names in America can sound different: Birmingham is 'Bur-ming-ham' (Brit: 'Buh-ming-huhm'). Warwick is 'War-wick' (Brit: 'War-rick'). Australians turn Brisbane and Melbourne into 'Bris-buhn' and 'Mel-buhn' which some American newscasters assume as 'Bris-bane' and 'Mel-born'.

On TV, an American guessed petrol as 'puh-trole' - probably misled by 'puh-troh-leum' as their term is 'gas' or 'gasoline'. He hadn't heard the Brit 'pet-truhl', like many of us. When London's mayor was here, local newsreader Neena Maraita literally called him Mr Livingstone which is 'Living-stuhn' to Brits.

Another gaffe over airwaves is 'com-pile-lay-shun' (compilation). Invariably 'com-puh-lay-shuhn' to native speakers. Word variants can delude: 'Com-pair' (compare) becomes 'com-pruh-ble' (comparable). Unlike written music, spelling alone can mislead pronunciation even with sprachgefuhl (intuitive familiarity).

A teacher on TV claimed a shy boy 'crams up' (clams up). Someone called me for a 'brieving' (briefing). A grocery assistant was replenishing 'lick-uh-rais' (licorice) instead of 'lick-uh-ris' or 'lick-uh-rish'.

Common gaffes are: 'flah' (flour: 'flau-uh'), 'ah-roh-mah' (aroma: 'uh-roh-muh'), 'loo-nah' (lunar: 'loo-nuh'), 'soh-lah' (solar: 'soh-luh'), 'fo-toh-grah-fuh' (photographer: 'fuh-taw-gruh-fuh'), 'ree-hair-billy-tate' (rehabilitate: 'ree-huh-billy-tate') and 'sahl-muhn' (salmon: 'sair-muhn').

There is a televised spelling contest for primary schoolers which imparts pronunciation. How about one for older students? Words like 'infinitesimal', 'indefatigable' and 'schadenfreude' would be eye and ear openers.

Anthony Lee Mui Yu

I say I have to agree with Mr. Lee here although 'flour' can also be pronounced as 'FLAA-uh' (as the queen does) - it gets contracted into 'flaa' in the mouth of the average Singaporean (actually, so does the queen).

However, his letter seems to imply that Singaporeans have trouble pronouncing only rather uncommon words like 'Leigh' or 'licorice' when, in fact, many words that Singaporeans use in their daily lives are also mispronounced. One cause of flawed pronunciation is the lack of elocution lessons - people are just not taught proper pronunciation of words in schools. People of my generation certainly weren't taught English pronunciation and I had to work on my pronunciation for many years (I'm still working on it). However, looking at the Singaporean undergraduates in my university, the problem seems to be getting worse with younger people. Or maybe it's because many of them come from SAP schools where the lingua franca is Mandarin. Good grief, what do English teachers do in those schools?

Allow me to give you a few examples of poor pronunication. Take the word 'vehicle'. It should be pronounced 'VEE-uh-kel' with the stress falling on the first syllable but most Singaporeans pronounce it as 'Vee-hee-kel'. I cringe every time I hear that. Some words can be pronounced in different ways, depending on the context. For example, 'rebel' is pronounced 'RE-buhl', with the first syllable identical to that of 'reservoir', when used as a adjective or noun. On the other hand, it is 'ri-BELL' when used as a verb. Another example is the word 'contest'. As a noun, it is pronounced 'CON-test' whereas as a verb, it is 'kuhn-TEST'. Seriously, many of the Singaporean whom I have met in this university don't realise the difference. Also, many Singaporeans are ignorant of the fact that the stress in a word shifts depending on its usage and meaning. I don't even want to go into the difference between 'three' and 'tree'. 'Power'/'Flower'/'Lower' isn't pronounced as 'PAU-wuh'/'FLAU-wuh'/'LOH-wuh'; it is 'PAU-uh'/'FLAU-uh'/'LOH-uh'. The 'w' sound is silent. Actually, even when there is no 'w', as in 'hour', there are people who still pronounce it as 'au-wuh'. Oh, by the way, it is 'AH-muhnd', not 'AL-muhnd' for 'almond' as in almond jelly. Yummy.

Well, those are the more obvious ones. There are some that most well-spoken (by SG standards) Singaporeans don't even realise. The vowel in 'pen' and 'pan' are pronounced differently. 'Texas' is not a homonym of 'taxes'. Nor are 'men'/'lend'/'send'/'met' and 'man'/'land'/'sand'/'mat' identically pronounced. Characteristically, many people also fail to realise that 'bear' has diphthong in the middle - it is suppose to sound like 'BE-uh' (glide quickly) where the 'e' sound is as in 'rest' and 'met'. Ditto for 'chair', 'care', 'dare', 'tear', etc. You get the idea. Mr. Lee, who penned the letter, doesn't realise that 'sair-muhn' isn't an accurate pronunciation of 'salmon'; it is 'SAE-muhn'. The 'ae' sound is the 'a' sound in 'sam' or 'land'. Also, 'sure' is pronounced 'shoo-uh', not 'shuh'.

Seriously, folks, the Speak Good English Movement is needed in Singapore. I think I'll make up a list of commonly mispronounced words sometime in the near future and post it on the blog.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Arguments for and against the pay hikes

This is work in progress and not even a beta version. The issue is complex and there are many arguments to examine. I have put up the outline/incomplete draft so that the readers can know what to expect (roughly) of the final version.


The government recently announced its decision to increase the pay of civil servants after conducting a major review of its wage system for the entire civil service. The decision to increase the already high pay of senior civil servants and ministers has caused an uproar in Singapore, especially with the pay hike coming so soon after the decision to impose the 2 percent GST hike. Evidently, most Singaporeans are against the pay hike for ministers and senior civil servants. Many Singaporean bloggers have railed against the pay hike, presenting a myriad of arguments against the pay hike. The objections are many and you can find some of the more prominent ones here, here, here and here. It is clearly evident that the popular opinion is against the pay hike.

The purpose of this post is to examine some of the arguments for and against the pay hike.

Arguments for the pay hike

1. Part of general salary review/revision in the civil service (which includes firemen, teachers, clerks, engineers, lawyers, etc). Big lag between current salaries and benchmark for ministers and senior civil servants.
2. Benchmark was decided in 1994. Why dispute it 13 years later?
3. Need decrease attrition rate. Private sector has become relatively more attractive.
4. Cost of ministerial pay hike is insignificant to the size of the government budget/GDP.
5. Composition of public sector salary has been changed with more MVC. Pay is linked with performance.
6. Public sector in Singapore has to take a more pro-active role compared to other countries. Hence, constant need to attract talents.
7. Having public sector talents is important to Singapore's survival or else our women will become maids in other countries.
8. Cannot have revolving door government. Need for experienced leaders.
9. It's tough being a minister - they deserve their high salaries.

Arguments against the pay hike

1. Bad timing given the recent GST hike. Ministerial salaries are always an unpopular issue. Costs too much political capital in light of the widerning income gap.
2. Unnecessary given that the pay of ministers and senior civil servants are already so high. Too high according to some. Issue of greed.
3. Hike does not address issue why young Administrative Officers (AO) are leaving public service. No clear proof that people are leaving because of low pay.
4. Main beneficiaries are ministers and senior civil servants on and above the MR4 level. Almost everyone else only see modest increase in pay.
5. Not evident that ministers and senior civil servants are worth their salaries or being properly scrutinised or assessed. Insufficient checks and balances. Ministers may not get so much in the private sector.
6. Reduces moral authority of our political leaders. Political leaders are expected to do their 'national service' by bearing some financial sacrifice..
7. Why should public sector salaries be indexed to private sector salaries?
8. No good KPI's. Salaries should be benchmarked to something else, e.g. GDP growth or GDP.
9. Civil service salaries should not be conflated with those of political leaders.
10. MR4 benchmark is wrong/unfair since it is only linked to top earners.
11. Other countries pay their leaders much much less. Why can't we do the same with ours especially since they are much bigger?
12. Before 1994, we had ministers and senior civil servants who earned much less and did a good job. Why should we have the benchmark? Civil servants =/= CFO's, CEO's, lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A $4 trillion economy

From today's ST (23 April 2007):

Extraordinary govt, talent keep S'pore ahead, says MM
By Peh Shing Huei


While he understood the emotions associated with the increases - which raised ministers' annual pay from $1.2 million to $1.6 million - he urged Singaporeans to think of the larger picture.

'You want to quarrel about $20 million over a $4 trillion economy? I say, rubbish. Let's say the PAP crashes tomorrow, right? One boatload sinks, 3,000 people dead. You have an election. You're going to reproduce this government? No...


Even though I must be one of the very few people who isn't against the ministerial pay rise, this is astonishing. Seriously, the sheer arrogance of calling ourselves a $4 trillion economy...

Shame on the write of this article who did not correct the MM on this.

Monday, April 16, 2007

ST Forum: Have more passion for Chinese language and cultural roots

This letter to the ST Forum was published yesterday (16 April 2007).

Have more passion for Chinese language and cultural roots

I CAME across a TV programme on the promotion of Tamil language on Vasantham Central on April 9.

Among one of the participants was a mother of three children who shared her experiences in providing a Tamil-speaking environment at home.

Right from the start, she insisted that her kids should learn English in school, but Tamil should be the only language spoken at home.

Initially, her husband had raised doubts about excluding English from the household, but she convinced him that this would not be a trade-off, given the prevalence of the English language in schools.

When her daughter tried to use English at home, she was ignored as if nobody at home understood the language.

This woman expressed pride in her youngest daughter's proficiency and passion for the Tamil language and in maintaining her cultural roots.

I was also touched by her confident remarks to Singaporean Tamils that 'if you do not respect your language, nobody else would'.

Sadly, I do not find similar sentiments expressed among Chinese Singaporeans, many of whom continue to show disdain for their cultural heritage, with some even proudly pronouncing that they have failed their Chinese language exams.

Meanwhile, being constantly 'hassled' by the task of getting their children to pass Chinese language tests, some parents have urged the Government to 'lower' the standards.

Of all communities in Singapore, it is among the Chinese, particularly the younger generation, that you find those who speak only English both at home and on the street.

It hurt me when a visiting English friend asked me whether Singaporeans see the West as an ideal after constantly seeing images of Western models and signs in English.

Is the educational system or the Eurocentric orientation of Singapore to be blamed for this current state of affairs?

I am not sure. But, I wish that more Chinese Singaporeans would share the same sentiments and practice of their fellow Tamil Singaporeans.

Given the continuous slide in the standard of the mother tongue, if I have children, I would seriously consider schooling them in Hong Kong, China or Taiwan in their formative years before bringing them back to Singapore for several years of secondary and early tertiary education, like what most foreign parents in Singapore are currently doing.

In this way, they would be truly bicultural and be respected as Asians.

Liew Kai Khiun

Sorry, Mr Liew, you are utterly wrong about the state of the Tamil language in Singapore. Like all other ethnic languages in Singapore, there is an ongoing language shift in Tamil families from Tamil to English. In fact, the language shift is greater for Tamil Singaporeans. According to Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam here,

This is our challenge. The Tamil community in Singapore is a small one, of 4-5% of the Singapore population. Compared to the Chinese or Malay languages, there are fewer natural, everyday opportunities for our young to use the Tamil language amongst their friends, on the MRT or in the shops, and in our neighbourhoods. Also, a far higher proportion of Tamil students speak English at home, compared to Malay and Chinese students.


Only a demagogue can spout untruths like "it is among the Chinese, particularly the younger generation, that you find those who speak only English both at home and on the street" and "I do not find similar sentiments expressed among Chinese Singaporeans, many of whom continue to show disdain for their cultural heritage, with some even proudly pronouncing that they have failed their Chinese language exams".


Letters from Chinese language reactionaries, like the one above, appear in the ST Forum every now and then. The letter goes usually like this: the standard of the Chinese language and culture is declining in Singapore and the government ought to do something about it; unlike Malay and Indian Singaporeans, the Chinese Singaporean community is regressing culturally as a result of the declining literacy standard in Chinese, even more so than Malay and Indian Singaporeans. There is always this issue of keeping in touch with their cultural roots and how they get more respect if they could maintain their proficiency in the language.

Of course, all this gets on my nerves and betrays the Taliban mentality and imagined persecution complex of the more conservative elements of the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore. It's like those people who do not like homosexuality and wish to impose their values on their fellow citizens. The Chinese language purists are like that - they cannot tolerate the presence of English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans, seeing them as cultural degenerates or inferiors. On the other hand, the English-speaking Singaporeans are astonishingly mild and meek, having imbibed at least in part that government-sanctioned narrow-minded singular intolerant point of view. (Never mind that most of our Ministers like Teo Chee Hean and Mah Bow Tan are not functionally literate in Chinese.)

For many years now, Singapore has had an education policy that promotes bilingualism. As everyone knows, the working language in Singapore in legal, commercial and official matters is largely English although our national language is Malay and the four official languages are English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

Needless to say, most people under the age of thirty have some knowledge of English. English is the lingua franca in Singapore given the diverse multi-ethnic and multi-lingual situation. Of course, given its importance in legal, commercial and official affairs, a mastery of English is valuable, in a practical sense, in Singapore. This is not to say that the other official languages are unimportant in Singapore but their use is largely confined to the academic and social spheres. One could get along quite fine in Singapore without ever being able to utter a single word of Chinese, Malay or Tamil, given the ubiquity of English usage in Singapore.

Of course, this shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of monolingualism in Singapore. If anything, I would encourage people to learn to speak and write as many languages as possible for practical reasons. After all, the world is largely non-English speaking and it is clear that there are advantages to knowing another language. Given that Singapore's economic destiny is tied with our surrounding Asian countries, it is important that we have Singaporeans who can speak Chinese, Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, etc.

The Chinese language purists are different. Their justification for their ethnic brethen to learn Chinese is that it is important to learn a language based on ethnic descent. No questions about it. They brook no argument that people's linguistic proficiency is largely a product of their linguistic environment or that it is difficult to achieve true bilingualism in two very different languages - Chinese and English - in a society in which one has far greater functionality.

English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans are their favourite targets for this sort of moralistic spiel since the former are usually not literate in Chinese and seen as less 'Asian', whatever that means, for not being able to communicate in Chinese. Of course, you don't see them railing against Chinese Thais or Chinese Filipinos for not being literate in Chinese and thus, un-Asian. Then, it does not take very long to realise that this talk about Asian-ness is really a euphemism for the Chinese-ness of Chinese Singaporeans.

So, let's call a spade a spade. These reactionaries are the Talibans and the PAS of the Chinese Singaporean community, seeking to impose their values on their fellow citizens in a multi-cultural pluralistic society of Singapore. We should and we must reject their narrow ethnocentrism.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The New Scientist: Do coffee and cigarettes protect against Parkinson's?

From the online version of The New Scientist: Do coffee and cigarettes protect against Parkinson's?

People with Parkinson's disease are less likely to be smokers and coffee drinkers than their healthy siblings, according to a study of family members. The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that some substance in tobacco might protect the brain against this devastating neurological disorder and sheds new light on coffee's effects on the disease.

Researchers say the study provides new evidence that the causes of Parkinson's vary. They also stress that the negative health effects of smoking far outweigh any protective effect the substance might have against this neurodegenerative disease.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

ST: Drawing talented Chinese nationals

For those who have read today's edition (April 9, 2007) of the Straits Times, the independent bastion of journalistic integrity staffed by Singapore's finest, you may have noticed the slew of articles on Chinese and Malaysian Chinese immigrants in the review section. There was one that caught my attention.

Drawing talented Chinese nationals

SINCE diplomatic ties were established in 1990, Singapore has been opening its doors to Chinese nationals to study and work in the Republic.

One of them is Lianhe Zaobao's assistant chief sub- editor Zhou Zhaocheng. After getting his master's degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1998, he joined the Chinese-language newspaper.

The Jiangsu native obtained his PhD last year. He and his wife, also from China, have a child and the family of three are now Singapore permanent residents.

There are 30,000 Chinese nationals studying in Singapore. Scholarship holders studying at NUS and Nanyang Technological University number over 3,000 and 2,600 respectively. These students, bonded to work in Singapore for six years, will probably form the bulk of Chinese immigrants in Singapore.


Whoever came up with the policy of attracting PRC immigrants by dispensing undergraduate scholarships has no idea about their true sentiments towards Singapore. As an undergraduate in Singapore, I knew many PRC undergraduates on MOE scholarships. Later, when I was working in Singapore, I had many PRC colleagues. When I came over to the US, I had three room-mates who were PRC nationals and even met a former TA of mine who was a recipient of an MOE scholarship in NUS and left Singapore after his finishing his bond. So, I believe that I know better and many more of these people - the very people that the Singapore government is hoping to form the bulk of Chinese immigrants in Singapore - than some million-dollar policymaker in MOE. From my experience, the majority of them have no intention of making Singapore their home.

When I informed people that I was going to the US for graduate school, I could see the sharp contrasting difference between the responses of my Singaporean acquaintances and those of my PRC acquaintances, which revealed their sentiments towards Singapore. The Singaporeans congratulated me on how lucky I was to get into a US graduate school and asked me how long I would stay in the US before coming back. The PRC nationals asked me how I got into a graduate school in the US and their well-wishes were along the lines of how they hoped that they could be coming along with me.

I am not against PRC nationals in any particular way. My ex-boss in Singapore was a PRC national and he was a good man who got me out of trouble more often than I deserved. I know PRC nationals who admire Singapore. One of my most pro-Singapore PRC friends was a PhD student Mr. Z whom I had met in NUS. He was full of always praises for Singapore (he even thought highly of NS!) and told me that he intended to marry his girlfriend and find a job and a place to live in Singapore. Well, good luck to you, Mr. Z.

The problem is the Singapore government which believes that its MOE scholarships can be used to reel in bright young PRC nationals in the hope that they will settle in Singapore. The truth is, most of these people have no intention of staying on, being young and well-educated. To them, getting a scholarship to study in Singapore is a great way for them to leave China and Singapore is only a stepping-stone.

A former classmate of mine told me that she was planning on converting her PR status to citizenship so that her bond would cease and she could leave for the US. To her, Singapore offered the opportunity to learn English as well as to get a recognised degree but in her heart, Singapore is not her home and she knows that her prospects can be better elsewhere. The 6-year bond was something to be resented - a view she shared with many of her countrymen.

If only there is a million-dollar senior official who can understand that...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

From the ST Forum: 'It's very hard to find good talent in Singapore nowadays,' said HR professional

From the online ST Forum (7 April 2007):

'It's very hard to find good talent in Singapore nowadays,' said HR professional

I ATTENDED a career talk organised by Contact Singapore in Sydney two weeks ago. This event boasted many respectable companies from the banking and financial sector, aiming to give new graduates job opportunities. Overall, the event was informative and encouraging. However, it was marred by an incident that sent shock waves through the conference room.

During the question and answer session, a representative from Morgan Stanley said, 'It is very hard to find good talent in Singapore nowadays' while explaining the need for more 'talent' from overseas. This remark was an insult to every Singaporean attending the event - a verbal slap in the face. It might not have been so offensive had it been a one-to-one talk, but this was an address to an audience of a majority of Singaporeans studying and working in Sydney. The looks on the faces of the Singaporeans present were clear to see. They were of shock, dismay and displeasure.

What is ironic about this incident is that the representative who made the remark happened to be in a senior position in the human resource department of the company. Remind me again what their job scope encompasses? So if this is coming from this part of the company, what does it say about the company as a whole?

I find it ridiculous how local talent is neglected and foreign talent is idolised. Sure, they may have experience from overseas, but are they capable? What can they do that a locally educated person cannot? Surely, they are not worth a quadruple salary compared to a local, simply because they are from overseas. There are some who merit that no doubt, but it is often hastily generalised that employees from overseas are 'foreign talent'. They are foreign but they are not always talent.

Local talent should be recognised and companies that discriminate against the local pool should not be welcome in Singapore. We do not have to take sitting down such disregard for our people. We should never discriminate against our own and we should never allow ourselves to be victimised in any way.

Julian Sng Yeung Liang

Sydney, Australia

Previously, I alluded to the discrimination faced by locals in Singapore here, here and here. You see, unfortunately, Morgan Stanley isn't alone in its view that better talents are to be found overseas. When Singaporeans are viewed as chaff in their homeland, it is no wonder that droves of Singaporeans head overseas to study, work and settle. Being treated as second-class overseas sure beats being viewed as second-rate in Singapore.

It is nice to know that there are those in Sydney who have left Singapore but still remember the discrimination faced by their countrymen in their very own homeland. They may be trying to make or have made it elsewhere but they will never forget.