Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Abs Exerciser for George Bush

Taken from CNN:

President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush also were remembered by their Arab friends. The Saudi king gave the first lady an $85,000 sapphire and diamond jewelry set and a $10,000 piece of artwork made of gold, depicting a desert scene of Bedouins, camels and a tent.


The gifts range from the extravagant -- like the jewelry -- to the modest -- a $6 assortment of nuts and dried fruit given by the Dalai Lama to Laura Bush. Some gifts were downright odd, like the Abs Exerciser given to President Bush by the prime minister of Singapore.

What on earth was the Prime Minister of Singapore thinking when he made the gift? An Abs Exerciser as a diplomatic gift?

Friday, November 28, 2008

ST: Putting the oomph into physics

From the Straits Times on 28 Nov 2008:

Putting the oomph into physics

STUDENTS have been going for engineering, the life sciences and mathematics, and bypassing physics.

But physicists are needed in industries here, said Senior Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew yesterday.

Singapore's having top-notch physicists was a key factor behind the world's biggest solar company - Renewable Energy Corporation of Norway - investing $6.3 million in a solar plant here, he said.

The concern, though, is over the future supply of physicists here.

Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui was speaking at the opening of the High-Energy Physics Conference, organised to interest 58 junior college and secondary school students in the subject. Teachers and university lecturers are also attending it.

Declared open at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) yesterday, the three-day event will feature presentations by 29 eminent physicists, including Nobel laureate professors Martin Perl and Gerard't Hooft.

Top students of physics from the schools will also take part in a workshop.

The numbers tell the story of the flagging interest in physics: The number of undergraduates reading the subject at the National University of Singapore has been stagnant at around 60 in the last seven years; at NTU, 70 are studying it this year, up from 27 in 2005, when the physics programme began there.

Of the nearly 10,500 graduates in 2006, over half - 55 per cent - had gone for engineering, the life sciences, mathematics and information technology.

Associate Professor Quek Leong Chuan, who chairs the Institute of Physics, called for more to be done to promote the subject in schools.

The institute will conduct more talks and seminars for students and raise the profile of physicists working in various industries, he said.

Professor Alfred Huan, who heads NTU's School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, added that having quality teachers was key to inspiring students' interest in the subject.

Former Raffles Junior College student Krithin Sitaran, 20, who has completed national service, will be reading physics at Princeton University.

He said: 'Rather than apply a ready-made solution to a problem, physics teaches me to think outside the box to find solutions.'

This was a point RADM Lui made earlier. He said that even if physics students decided to leave the field, their training makes for a strong foundation in managerial and leadership positions.

Lui Teck Yew claims that we need physicists for industries in Singapore and cites the example of Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) moving to Singapore because of, in his own words, Singapore's 'having of top-notch physicists'. This is of course utter rubbish. on two counts.

1. Singapore does not have any real top-notch physicists if you discount part-time faculty poached from other universities like Sir Anthony Leggett who doesn't work full-time or do any research in Singapore. I can only think of at most one real Singaporean top-notch physicist but I doubt his field of research was what motivated REC to invest in Singapore.

2. The supply of trained physicists in Singapore is probably not a significant factor in REC's decision to locate its manufacturing facility in Singapore. Don't take my word for it. Check out its job adverts for vacancies in Singapore. If you search for 'Physics' jobs, there are no vacancies. Zilch, nada, zip. If you search for engineering-related jobs in the same website, all of the positions are microelectronics-related and can be filled by any person who has some familiarity with silicon technology. That person can be trained in chemistry, materials science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or physics. There is no specific requirement for graduates holding physics degrees. Those engineering positions in REC Singapore require the same technical background as any other engineering position in a wafer fabrication facility in Singapore.

Conclusion: Senor Minister of State for Education Lui Teck Yew is talking nonsense. Either that or he's been fed misleading information by his subordinates.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

This blog endorses Tan Kin Lian for president

Singapore need someone to stand up to the powers that be for the little guy and unsurprisingly, I personally don't think that anyone in the establishment does that although some of them do actually believe that they are working for the little guy (but their actions are nearly always diametrically against the little guy's interests).

If you believe that Mr. Tan Kin Lian, the former CEO of NTUC Income, should run for the Elected Presidency of Singapore, then please sign the online petition at http://www.petitiononline.com/TKLFPO1/petition.html, which requires your name, NRIC, phone number and email address. He is trying to garner 100,000 signatures to support his run for elections as the Elected President (EP) or a Member of Parliament (MP). He has less than a thousand votes and is very short now of the 100,000 votes. Please spread the word and get like-minded friends and acquaintances to sign the petition.

Being the former CEO of NTUC Income, he definitely passes the stringent qualifications requirements to run for the EP. His actions in fighting for a fair resolution for the Minibond investors and in speaking out against the cuts of NTUC Income insurance bonuses have convinced me that he is a public-spirited person who will be of immense service as the EP and whose views resonate strongly with mine.

The writer of this blog, Fox, strongly endorses Mr. Tan Kin Lian.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

ST: Accept sacrifices, cutbacks

From the Straits Times on 8 Nov 2008:

Accept sacrifices, cutbacks

THE Government will ensure no Singaporean falls below the poverty line as a result of the financial crisis but it cannot restore people's living standards to what they were pre-crisis.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave this assurance today, as he promised measures in next year's Budget to buffer lower-income earners and those without jobs from the impact of higher prices of food and other goods.

He did not provide details but said the Government would need to make a realistic assessment of how much it could afford to give out in additional utilities rebates, Workfare income supplements and other alleviating measures.

Mr Lee was speaking to Tanjong Pagar GRC constituents during an event to mark Tree Planting day.

'We all have to accept some sacrifices and cutbacks,' he said.

'But compared to our counterparts in neighbouring countries, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, our low income earners are much better off.'

He cited two reasons for confidence in Singapore's economy in the midst of the most severe world recession since the Great Depression.

First, its reserves accumulated over decades could see the country through the crisis without it going broke.

Second, jobs are still available at the two integrated resorts and as a result of investments from high-end manufacturing companies. These include solar cell producer Renewable Energy Corporation and maker of oil and gas equipment, Halliburton.

This is strange. Singapore doesn't have an official poverty line. So, you can't have people falling below the poverty line if you haven't got a poverty line.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

ST: Expect high leakage of engineers

From the Straits Times on 24 July 2008:

Expect 'high leakage' of engineers

TRAIN more engineers and expect a 'high leakage' of these desirable talent into other industries, said Mr Philip Yeo.

It's inevitable because 'their skills of logical thinking and analysis can be applied to any field', he added.

Mr Yeo should know. An engineering graduate from the University of Toronto, he has held various public sector portfolios.

He was a Defence Ministry permanent secretary. He was also chairman and then co-chairman of the Economic Development Board from 1986 to 2006.

He was also chief of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and is now the Spring Singapore boss.

He argued that engineers can easily cross over into finance, but not the other way round.

But what's happening today is that bright A-level students are heading into finance, an industry where he felt young people are 'grossly overpaid'.

He warned that the 'penalty will be felt years down the line'.

In contrast, Germany values engineers.

'It comes from a tradition in which you value people who can make and sell things.'

The solution: Reward engineers well, and make the industry attractive.

For now, a PhD graduate in mathematics can earn much more at a hedge fund instead of as a researcher, he said.

Singapore trains about 4,400 engineers a year at the universities here, he noted.


Is the solution really to train more Singaporean engineers when more of them are crossing over to non-engineering sectors of the economy? When more people cross over, this means that the market doesn't really need so many engineers. Also, companies won't pay engineers more simply because someone says so, even if that someone is Philip Yeo.

The comparison with Germany is not really suitable. The kind of engineering jobs we have in Singapore are mainly the repetitive low-level technical types, those that can and will be outsourced to China. On the other hand, a good deal of those in Germany are those that involve tailoring the product for the customer. Those jobs in Germany require a great deal of technical proficiency whereas the ones in Singapore are mainly the Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V types.

Take for example, the field of electronics. Although Singapore has a large microelectronics industry, most of the equipment is imported from overseas. If a machine breaks, they'll just fly in someone from the US to fix it. Singapore doesn't make high-precision optics; countries like Japan and Germany do. Because most Singapore engineers don't make or design things like high-precision optics, they stand to lose their jobs in the next 5 years to some guy in Vietnam or China. On the other hand, German or Japanese engineers have a lot more job security because they perform precisely those kind of services.

Rather than increase the number of engineering graduates, I believe that better solution would be to cut the number of engineering graduates and instead, focus on improving the quality of the education and training engineers receive in Singapore. In Germany and many other European countries, engineers undergo a very rigorous technical training and their degree courses take 6 years. Competition to gain entry to engineering institutions is fierce and engineers are very well-paid. In Singapore, people with C's for A-level are dumped into the engineering schools of NTU in the mistaken belief that the more sub-par engineers we have, the better off we are.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ST: Still adamant that scholarship holders serve their bonds

From the Straits Times on 24 July 2008:

Still adamant that scholarship holders serve their bonds
By Zakir Hussain

MR HECTOR Yee, one of three public-sector scholarship holders who were named and shamed for breaking their bonds 10 years ago, now works at Google's headquarters in California.

So does Mr Philip Yeo consider him a loss to Singapore?

Clearly not, suggests his answer to the question. In fact, he is glad Mr Yee is not here.

Mr Yeo, chairman of Spring Singapore, is well-known for taking a tough line against government scholars who do not return to serve a single day of their bond.

Mr Yee, now 32, was such a bond-breaker. He had accepted a scholarship from the National Computer Board (NCB) to do an undergraduate degree in computer science at Cornell University in the United States.

In 1998, when he was 22 and about to complete his four-year course, he decided to stay on - sparking a controversy when his name was made public.

The issue was widely debated in the press and in Parliament.

Recalling the incident yesterday, Mr Yeo said: 'He wrote back by e-mail: I'm not coming back because I want to stay in America for the next 15 years. I see my role in life to serve the world and not Singapore alone.'

Then, in a typical no-holds-barred retort, Mr Yeo added: 'What bullshit is that, right?

'I don't think he's a loss. Thank goodness he's not here.'

Mr Yeo then went on to explain what got his goat.

'It's the attitude,' he said.

Mr Yee had asked for - and was given - an extension of one year to do a master's degree. But he later said he was considering a PhD after that. NCB advised him to get work experience first.

He then broke his bond.

Mr Yeo, then chairman of the Economic Development Board, had warned that bond-breakers would be named in public as a deterrent because of their growing numbers.

He remains adamant that scholarship holders have a 'moral obligation' to serve their bonds as the money comes from taxpayers.

Mr Yeo was himself a Colombo Plan scholar who did engineering at the University of Toronto in Canada. He returned in 1970. 'Because we are forced to come back, we helped build Singapore.'

To further underline his point, he gave this example: 'I got 100 scholars. I allow one to stay for five, 15 years, I make a mockery of the 99 guys who come home.

'At the end of the day, there's a thing called equity. If you don't want to have the obligation, don't take the scholarship...Borrow from Citibank if you want to.'

Philip Yeo's view on scholarship bond breakers are well-known but I'll just comment on one of them: namely, that scholarship holders have a 'moral obligation' to serve their bonds as the money comes from taxpayers.

I'm not really sure about the cogency of this argument. Government scholars who break their bonds usually pay the monetary penalty (principal plus interest which is above the prime rate). So, where is the actual loss to the taxpayers? PRC students absconding to the US without serving a day of or paying off their bonds are a greater loss to the Singaporean taxpayer.

Also, it's not as if the government had to cut social welfare spending in order to fund the scholarships. For some reason, I'm not convinced that the we would have fewer septuagenarians collecting old cardboard boxes in Singapore if Hector Yee didn't break his bond or that when he paid off his scholarship bond, the sum was paid back with interest to the taxpayers.

Now, if people are breaking their scholarship bonds, doesn't that suggest that there is something wrong with the scholarship-awarding organization? If your employees are resigning left and right after one month in your company, I think you should examine your HR policies rather than call people ungrateful. Maybe you shouldn't award so many scholarships.

Or even have a scholarship scheme in the first place.

Or you can redirect the funds for scholarships towards raising starting salaries or improve staff welfare.

Or hire more competent HR officers.

Or re-examine your scholarship policies.

There are so many ways to skin a cat. Calling people immoral or ungrateful certainly isn't one of them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ST: Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way

From the Straits Times on 18 June 2008:

Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way

I THANK readers who wrote in to discuss my article, 'Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?' (June 4). By so doing, you have provided the authorities feedback on the views, concerns and issues about the bilingual education policy. Hopefully, the Ministry of Education will take note and take appropriate measures to improve its implementation.

My message in the article is very clear: The right mindset, attitude, interest, motivation, time and effort are success factors for language learning, however difficult a language may be, including the absence of a supporting environment. These factors override linguistic difficulty.

Some readers have tried to read my mind, inaccurately for that matter. They say that in my mind, 'If I can, so can others'. The truth is it is just the opposite, that is, 'if others can, so can I'. Let us look at the statistics.

I (and others) believe that people can succeed in learning and acquiring a language if they want to. The Singapore Census of Population 2000 shows that Chinese Singaporeans (48.3 per cent English-Chinese bilinguists and 32 per cent Chinese monolinguists) have reached the high of 80.3 per cent acquisition of literacy in the Chinese language (CL). These figures speak for themselves and highlight the point that Chinese is not that difficult as perceived, at least to the vast majority.

Those who harp on CL's difficulty may unconsciously develop the negative mind-set, reluctance and resistance to learning the language. So unintentionally and unwittingly, they add on to the perceived difficulty and do themselves and their children a disservice.

Let us think positive. Look at it this way: When you love a language, it will love you and stay with you. I have read the Chinese learning experience of Joseph Needham in the book The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester (HarpersCollin Publishers Inc 2008).

The late Cambridge University don was a biochemist by training. Unlike a professional sinologist 'who had gone through the mill of formal academic teaching in Chinese', Joseph Needham learnt Chinese, an unrelated language, without this benefit in his late 30s.

With great interest, enthusiasm, love, passion, effort and diligence, he attained his linguistic competence of 5,000 or 6,000 Chinese characters for full literacy in two to three years. By comparison, students in Singapore learn 3,500 Chinese characters in eight years, four years in primary school and another four in secondary school. This works out to 8.4 characters a week, including school holidays.

His experience shows that where there is a will, there is a way. So long as one wants something and is willing to work for it, one will get it. Many other non-Chinese Westerners have also got it.

Joseph Needham was the great author of the voluminous book (18 volumes) Science And Civilization In China. His mastery of Chinese gave him the key to unlock the door to the treasure of Chinese science, culture, history and civilisation. With his book, he became the great man who has made a tremendous contribution to the world's understanding of China.

As far as learning Chinese is concerned, 'he fell in love not simply with the language, but with China itself'. Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, has done so with the same spirit.

In conclusion, if you think CL is a useful key, learn to get it. If not, forget it. There is no need to justify your choice.

Lee Seng Giap

This is the same Mr. Lee who claimed two weeks ago that it is not hard to learn Chinese. I don't wish to waste my breath rebutting him but it is a matter of public record he did say that Chinese was not difficult to learn.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

ST: Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?

From the Straits Times on 4 Jun 2008:

Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?
By Lee Seng Giap, For The Straits Times

SOME English-educated Chinese Singaporeans think and say that Chinese is difficult to learn. That is why their children find it hard to pick up Chinese, they say.

Is this really the case? I have found the answer is an emphatic 'No!'

Vili Maunula, a theoretical linguist, writes: 'All languages are, to the best of our current understanding of human languages, equally suitable for conversation. No language is more expressive or less expressive than the other, neither is one language easier or more difficult.'

My own language-learning experience from childhood supports this view. I grew up in a dialect-speaking home. My mother had never been to school. My father had learnt some Chinese in the Hokkien dialect in an old-style village school in China before coming to Singapore at the age of 13. In my childhood days, Mandarin and English were hardly spoken among the Chinese community.

When I first went to a Chinese school, I could speak neither Mandarin nor English. I did not even know how to write my name in Chinese or English.

But I started learning Chinese and English. I was interested and had an open mind. I worked hard. I finished the six-year Chinese primary school in five years. I graduated as the top boy of my year in 1950.

Then I decided to switch from the Chinese stream to the English stream. My oral English was not good then. I had had no chance to speak English other than reading aloud in class. So, in the English school, my classmates called me 'Chinaman' because of my poor spoken English.

I listened to BBC broadcasts, read English books, attended public lectures in English and also made it a point to ask questions and make comments. I also had pen pals with whom I corresponded in English.

I even learnt the international phonetic system, as I had done the old Chinese phonetic symbols (now replaced by the hanyu pinyin).

With an open mind and effort, my English improved by leaps and bounds. I topped the school in English. Much to my surprise and pleasure, I even scored a distinction in English in my Senior Cambridge School Certificate examination in the mid-1950s.

All this while, I never stopped learning Chinese. I continued to improve my Chinese by listening to local and Peking Mandarin broadcasts.

When I sat for the Chinese Senior Middle III Government examination as a private candidate, I scored distinctions for both Chinese and English. And when I took the Higher School Certificate (HSC, now A-level), again as a private candidate, I received distinctions for the general paper and Chinese.

I later signed up as an external student for a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in Chinese and passed with a good grade from the School of Oriental and African Studies, which required, and still does, answers for examination papers in both Chinese and English.

Based on the misconception that Chinese is a difficult language for those from an English-speaking background - and that English too is difficult for those from a dialect-speaking environment - I should not have done so well in these two languages.

A closed mind is a blocked mind. Things are shut out and you lose out. The best way to learn Chinese is to keep an open mind, do away with prejudice and be passionate about learning the language and culture.

The rise of China in recent years has created a global wave of interest in learning Chinese. In the United States and Europe, there are now Caucasians who are professional English-Chinese translators.

Even Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has picked up so much Chinese that he won applause for his fluent Mandarin when he spoke at Beijing University in April.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced last year a list of 1,600 to 1,700 Chinese characters for CL (Chinese language) pupils, and 1,800 to 1,900 characters for HCL (higher Chinese language) pupils in primary school.

There are 52 weeks in a year and 312 weeks in six years. If one divided 1,700 and 1,900 respectively by 312 multiplied by seven days, CL students would have to learn 0.78 character a day, while HCL students would have to learn 0.87 character.

Of the two Chinese character lists, 600 to 700 characters in CL and 400 to 500 in HCL are for word recognition only, not for writing.

The revised list of Chinese characters for secondary school students is not available yet. Based on the MOE announcement in 2002, the list for CL students was 3,000 characters, of which 300 are for word recognition only.

For HCL students, the list contains 3,500 characters for word recognition and writing. Both lists include characters from primary school.

In effect, CL secondary students need learn only an additional 1,400 characters at most and HCL students an additional 1,700 new characters. This is quite manageable, even if school holidays are not counted.

It is a question of mindset. Have the right mindset and you will succeed.

I once saw a poster of seagulls flying over a stormy sea. The caption read: 'They can because they think they can.'

That gets to the heart of the matter.

The writer is a veteran English-Chinese simultaneous interpreter and book translator.

I get annoyed by articles like this. Not because I am against learning Chinese but because articles like this, which appeared in the Review section of the Straits Times, trivialize the difficulty of learning two extremely different languages. This is an opinion piece unbacked by data and has no place in the Review section of the national broadsheet.

It is true that many English-speaking parents complain that Chinese is difficult for their kids to learn. Just because Mr Lee managed to become proficient in it doesn't mean that it isn't. When we say some task is difficult, we mean that it is not easily and readily done and that it requires much labour, skill and planning in order for it to be performed successfully. Difficult certainly does not mean that the task is unachievable, just that it requires extra effort. If anything, Mr Lee's detailed account of his tremendous extra-curricular effort and time contradicts his claim that learning Chinese and English is not difficult.

Language acquisition is a function of one's linguistic environment. For many kids who come from an English-speaking background, learning Chinese is tough and vice versa. This, of course, doesn't mean that those kids cannot do it; it's just that it would require considerable additional effort and motivation and it is not necessarily obvious to them, or to me, why they should do so.

Take me for example. I come from a Chinese-speaking background but have never identified very much with contemporary Chinese culture. I don't listen at all to Chinese music, which seems to be mostly soapy love songs. Radiohead is more my cup of tea. I do read some Chinese newspapers and magazine but that's about it. Yazhou Zhoukan is pretty good. My attitude towards Chinese is pragmatic - it just allows me to read more stuff. Being Chinese is a matter of ethnic descent to me, something I had no choice over, and not one of self-identification.

Back to the issue at hand. Mr. Lee was obviously a very motivated learner of Chinese and English. But that's not the point. Every person can be a very motivated learner of something and if one is sufficiently motivated, one can usually learn something well enough. For instance, Mr. Lee should be sufficiently intelligent to learn at least one computer programming language but it is highly likely that he doesn't know Matlab. Why doesn't Mr. Lee know Matlab? Well, he probably think it is irrelevant.

The same goes for some people in the schooling system. Sure, Chinese is important for many things but it is not important to every single Chinese Singaporean kid. There is an attitude, held sincerely by many in Singapore, that English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans are somehow morally deficient. I am pretty sure that most Chinese teachers during my school days had the point of view: because you are an ethnic Chinese, you must learn to speak Chinese. Not being able or inclined to do so made one a racial traitor. Surprisingly, most Chinese Singaporeans ,who hold that view and never fail to remind their fellow non-Chinese speaking Chinese Singaporeans, generally lack the gonads to tell it to other Chinese people living in the Phillipines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

People usually learn a language because they need it, not out of any sense of ethnic loyalty. Many people cannot be bilingual simply because their environment simply isn't conducive for that. Blame Singapore where most official business are conducted in English, not the kids. The very fact Mr. Lee had to toil to learn both English and Mandarin suggests that being effectively bilingual is an achievement not attainable by the average Chinese Singapoean. In some sense, Mr. Lee ought to be thankful for that. Would we have the need for translators if everyone were equally facile in English and Chinese?

There is no point bringing up examples of Caucasians who speak and write Chinese and comparing them with Chinese Singaporeans who are illiterate in the language. As if being born Chinese endows you with any special genetic ability to learn the Chinese language! After all, most Chinese-literate non-Chinese people have the advantage of going through specialized language training to acquire their linguistic skills in Chinese. Kevin Rudd studied Chinese as an undergraduate and went to Taiwan to polish up his Mandarin skills. Instead of using isolated irrelevant examples of Chinese-literate non-Chinese from outside of Singapore, the proper benchmark should be non-Chinese students in the Singapore educational system studying Chinese. Do they, on average, demonstrate a better command of Chinese, after controlling for variables like intelligence and academic ability?

Of course, my detractors will say that as sons and daughters of the dragon, Chinese Singaporeans should learn to speak Chinese. This is obviously a particular point of view and there is no rational reason to submit to it. For instance, a Muslim Singaporean could tell you that it is immoral to drink alcohol but why should you accept its imposition on the rest of Singapore? It also betrays an ignorance of the history of the ethnogenesis of the Han Chinese race in China. Most South Chinese are descended, at least partially, from the non-Sinitic aboriginal natives of South China. In other words, like many Chinese Singaporeans, I probably had ancestors who didn't speak a Chinese language as their mother tongue but took up the language and passed it on to their kids. Those ancestors of mine and of many Chinese Singaporeans must have given up their original native language in the process of becoming Chinese. So, it is not a little hypocritical to demand total linguistic loyalty from Chinese Singaporeans.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

ST: English test for foreign front-line staff? Bosses say 'no'

From the ST on 25 May 2008:

English test for foreign front-line staff? Bosses say 'no'

Many not keen on imposing test, citing current labour crunch in service industry

By Jamie Ee Wen Wei and Dhany Osman

Should there be an English entry test for foreign workers in front-line service jobs?

Judging from the response of employers and human resources experts contacted by The Sunday Times, the answer seems to be no. In fact, most say that such a test may pose more problems than it solves.

The idea of an entry test was mooted amid a brewing debate in the Forum page of The Straits Times over the issue of foreign front-line staff and their English proficiency.

Letter writer Jaggi Kumar, who suggested the test, wondered why it is not in place, since a similar test was imposed on foreign maids.

Introduced by the Ministry of Manpower three years ago, the English entry test for first-time maids was designed to ensure that they have basic numeracy and literacy skills to do household tasks and adapt to life here.
A check by The Sunday Times with employers revealed that most were not keen to impose a similar test on service workers, though the idea did find a few backers.

Among them was Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, president of the Consumers Association of Singapore and co-chairman of the Customer-Centric Initiative, which helps local companies to raise their service standards.

He said: 'If we have it for maids, I don't see why we can't have it for service staff too.'

Mr Tan Yew Kiat, general manager of fashion chain bYSI, believes that a test would improve service standards and help new foreign workers understand what is expected in their work.

Is it really necessary?

But industry players not sold on the idea worry that the test may shrink the pool of workers and worsen the labour crunch faced by the booming industry.

'Singapore cannot afford to say 'no' to foreign workers. I think if we introduce this, the number coming in will be reduced by 80 per cent,' said Mr Heinz Javier Colby, general manager of Novotel Clarke Quay Hotel which has about 30 foreign front-line officers.

Ms Elim Chew, director of streetwear chain 77th Street, felt the language problem is actually 'minor'. She said: 'If we put more obstacles, then it will be harder to get workers. This will raise costs, which will be passed on to consumers.'

There is one foreign front-line worker for every three Singaporeans employed by her company.

Mr Edward Tan, human resources director of department store chain Metro Private Limited, which employs foreigners from Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Myanmar, also wondered if there is an over-emphasis on English.

'If some stores are in the suburbs, having staff who can speak Mandarin or dialects may be more appropriate,' he said.

Mr Josh Goh, corporate services manager of recruitment company The GMP Group, agreed, noting that English speakers may not necessarily deliver better service.
'Implementing such a rule will eliminate those able to give good service but not privileged enough to learn the language.'

His company has recruited more than 100 workers from China for the service industry since hiring rules were relaxed last year.

That said, employers agree that English skills are good to have. In fact, given a choice, most companies would prefer to hire English speakers, said employment agencies.

The reality, however, is that it is hard to find such people, especially when the industry is turning to non-traditional sources like China.

'Some know English, but it is still hard to understand them because of their pronunciation,' said Mr Daniel Low, director of Wilm Management, a recruitment company. It has recruited more than 200 Chinese workers for service-sector companies this year.

Those who do speak English well also expect higher salaries. Often, they also prefer to work in Western countries where the pay may be better, said employment agents.

Training efforts

Still, employers agree that more can be done to train staff to communicate better. Some employment agencies and service-sector firms have started in-house English training programmes.

On a national level, there is also help offered by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), which companies like Sakae Sushi are tapping into.

Mr Douglas Foo, chief executive officer of Apex-Pal which runs the Japanese-food chain, said all his workers have to go through the Employability Skills System under the WDA. Under this, there are courses to upgrade English proficiency.

A few weeks ago, Mr Foo said his company hired its first batch of 10 Chinese workers. They are undergoing a three-month English course.

But not all companies may have in-house or external training. Smaller enterprises, noted industry experts, are often hard-pressed to say yes to training.

'Operation costs are going up. Their margins are already very slim,' said the Singapore Retailers Association's executive director Lau Chuen Wei.

Another issue is time. Mr Justin Ng, director of human resources company AICG, said: 'Most employers require their foreign staff to work long hours. By the time they finish, they are too tired to attend any courses.'

Among his clients, only 30 per cent require their foreign staff to go for language training.

When Metro started a computer-based English training course four years ago, it became a hit with its foreign staff.

But after a few years, the department store faced another problem. Some workers, after receiving training, left for better jobs.

Others have suggested that the Government extend subsidies for training to foreign workers as well. Currently, training subsidies are limited to Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Still, in the light of the current situation, most feel that the onus is on companies to train their foreign staff to communicate effectively.

Those which do not may soon lose their competitive edge, said Ms Caroline Lim, director of the Institute of Service Excellence at the Singapore Management University. 'After some time, customers will stop going to their shops. This is when the companies will start feeling the pinch.'

The presence of non-English speaking PRC staff has increased significantly in Singapore retail shops and many people, especially the non-Mandarin speaking ones, are getting annoyed by it. What the authorities have to bear in mind is that there is silent social compact between the major ethnic groups in Singapore that, despite the Chinese majority in Singapore, we do not use Mandarin as the national inter-ethnic language very much like Malay is the decreed lingua franca in Malaysia. There is nothing wrong with learning Mandarin, or Malay for that matter, but we shouldn't expect our fellow non-Chinese Singaporeans to learn it just to buy their groceries.

While it is true that most non-English speaking PRC staff are found in the heartlands, where there are a large number of Mandarin speakers, what fails to be noticed is that, because of our national policy to disperse minorities, there are Malay and Indian Singaporeans living in the same heartlands. How do they feel? There is no avoiding of these non-English speaking foreign staff.

ST Forum: Engineers' body will work to draw top brains into industry

From the ST Forum on 2 June 2008:
Engineers' body will work to draw top brains into industry

I REFER to the article, 'His worry: Is Singapore becoming high cost, low tech?' (May 22).

In it, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, a former top civil servant, highlighted the importance of Singapore ensuring that the best and brightest students become engineers. He was quoted as saying: 'How do you become a knowledge-based economy except through science and technology? As a result, if the cream of the education goes to Shenton Way instead of technology and industrial parks, I think we are done for.'

Coming from someone with a strong economics background, this statement is especially significant.

The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES) shares Mr Ngiam's view.

In another article, 'Engineers have role in community building' last Monday, our president, Ms Lee Bee Wah, said that, in order for Singapore to take the next leap, we need a core group of very good engineers. This is because technology will play an important part in the next phase of our development.

She also expressed her hope that top students will make engineering their top choice at university.

Engineers have made significant contributions to nation building and improving the quality of life in Singapore. Almost every aspect of our daily activities, be it at work or at play, involves the work of engineers.

As Singapore moves towards a more knowledge-based economy, engineers will be called on to perform ever more complex and cross-disciplinary tasks. It is for this reason that schools and other institutions need to strive continually to ensure that our bright and talented youth do not turn away from taking up engineering as a lifelong career.

IES will continue to work with government agencies, engineering industry stakeholders and educational institutions to explore ways to attract top students into engineering.

Chong Kee Sen
Honorary Secretary
Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES)

The reason why top students don't want to go into engineering is actually pretty simple - engineers in Singapore are paid less relative to people in finance, law or accountancy. Engineering is one of those things in Singapore that get outsourced very easily. Furthermore, it is extremely easy to import engineers from India and China. Therefore, job security is minimal in Singapore.

Singapore students are not stupid. After years of conditioning, the Singaporean has become the archetypal rational Homo Economicus. To compete more effectively in the job market, they have to use their comparative advantage (relative to competitors from China and India), which would be soft skills like their command of the English language and familiarity with the local culture. Fields like Law and Business remain local bastions where Singapore students can call their own. Witness the collapse of the computing as a discipline in our local universities. A much sought-after degree in the heydey of the internet boom, it is now avoided by local university applicants mindful of the fates of their predecessors languishing in a job market saturated with Indian IT workers. As for engineering, even the best local graduates from local universities are headhunted by banks in their recruitment drive and they gladly let their heads be taken.

So what if Singaporean 14 year-olds have the best math and science scores in the world? There are always foreigners with better math and science skills than you who are willing to work for less. However, there aren't that many foreigners with English skills better than the average student. Yet. And those with enough English skills wouldn't even bother to use Singapore as a stepping stone.

For now, there is no stopping the gravitation of local students towards the non-sciences and the non-engineerings.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bond breakers

A couple of months ago, I was asked by a professor J in the office building to review the credentials of a graduate school applicant X from my alma mater, the National University of Singapore. X is a 4th year Electrical and Computer Engineering student and should have completed his studies by now. Prof. J handed me the dossier file containing X's application materials - his transcript, resume, statement, recommendation letters, etc. I went through all of them. His application was pretty solid. Straight A's in his engineering classes according to his transcript. Top 5 in his cohort, said one of his professors in his recommendation letters. I don't even know why Prof. J asked me to look over his application.

Then, I noticed that X was from the PRC. More specifically, X is an MOE scholarship holder (as stated in his resume), the kind that is obliged to serve out his/her bond in Singapore for 6 years after graduation in exchange for a tax-money sponsored university education in Singapore. What on earth was he doing, applying to go to graduate school in the US immediately after graduation when he has signed a 6-year contract with the MOE? As far as I know, the bond does not allow its signee to undertake any postgraduate studies overseas unless he/she obtains Singapore citizenship. If the ECE department accepts X's application, there is no way they will defer his entry for 6 years. So, the only logical conclusion is that X is going to break his bond and come to the US for graduate school. Applying to graduate school is not cheap and something you do on a whim as it involves doing the GRE, TOEFl and getting people to write recommendation letters.

The irony is, for people like X who will probably 'break' his bond and mind you, not fulfill the terms of his contract, i.e. not pay the financial penalty of not serving out his bond, the Singapore government will stay silent, very very silent. By letting someone like X go, at least 100 to 150 thousand dollars of Singaporeans' tax money spent subsidizing his eduction has gone down the drain. Where is the accountability so often trumpeted by our civil service?

On the other hand, in contrast, when one of our PSC/EDB scholars does not serve out his/her bond but pays back the money to the government, plus a little bit more, the national broadsheets scream bloody murder and an esteemed, very senior civil servant, who is more likely than not to be aware of MOE scholarships for people like X, threatens to award scholarships only to females and foreigners because they are supposedly less likely to break their bonds. (Guess what? Someone in this university, who used to be an undergraduate scholarship holder from the organization formerly chaired by the aforementioned civil servant, is a female non-Singaporean bond-breaker.) We have to bear in mind that the government is financially compensated in this case and terms of the contract are indeed fulfilled to the letter, whereas for people like X, there is a clear monetary loss.

The hypocrisy of it all...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday Times: Making S'pore a 'brain gain' city

From the Sunday Times on 18 May 2008:

Making S'pore a 'brain gain' city
To stay ahead globally, Singapore - like many other countries - is trying to attract talent, but efforts will be hampered if locals don't welcome them
By Warren Fernandez, Deputy Editor

Imagine if you could read the minds of people around the world to fathom what they were thinking about most.

What do you think it would it be? Global warming and the dangers climate change poses for their children?

Rising oil prices? Rising food costs?

Democracy? Human rights? Freedom?

Family? Relationships? Sex?

Well, the international polling organisation Gallup sought to find out with its first World Poll. It bills this as a 'window into the minds of six billion people in over 140 countries', or 95 per cent of the world's adult population.

And the answer?

'What the whole world wants is a good job,' Gallup chairman and chief executive officer Jim Clifton wrote in an article titled 'Global Migration Patterns and Job Creation', published last October.

'That is one of the single biggest discoveries Gallup has ever made...

'If you and I were walking down the street in Khartoum, Teheran, Berlin, Lima, Los Angeles, Baghdad, Kolkata or Istanbul, we would discover that on most days the single most dominant thought carried around the heads of most people you and I see is, 'I want a good job'.

'It is the new current state of mind, and it establishes our relationship with our city, our country and the whole world around us.'

Now this might well seem blindingly obvious, hardly something you need to poll six billion people to discover. After all, didn't then prime minister Goh Chok Tong declare in 2001 that the election then was all about 'jobs, jobs, jobs'?

Gallup's Mr Clifton, however, believes the discovery is 'game changing', to borrow one of Mrs Hillary Clinton's pet phrases.

Writing in the Gallup Management Journal, he argues: 'Humans used to desire love, money, food, shelter, safety and/or peace of mind more than anything else. The last 25 years have changed us. Now we want to have a good job.

'This changes everything for world leaders. Everything they do - from waging war to building societies - will need to be done within the new context of the human need for 'good jobs'...

'Everything leaders do must consider this new global state of mind, lest they put their cities and countries at risk.'

This too will sound familiar in Singapore, where the economic imperative has always been primary. Only in recent years have other concerns such as the need to boost creativity and enterprise, encourage environmental sustainability and strike a work-life balance gained in importance, without quite displacing economic priorities.

But the significance of the Clifton thesis lies in his view that in the face of the new global state of mind, countries and cities will have to compete for what he calls 'brain gain' to stay ahead.

'Brain gain is the 'big-bang' theory of economic development. The challenge leaders face is how to trigger brain gain in their cities,'' he adds, referring to a society's ability to draw talented people, whose exceptional abilities and knowledge have a sort of multiplier effect on its economy.

He calls such people 'stars'. By this he does not just mean intellectually bright people, but includes innovators, entrepreneurs, superstars (like brand-name chefs, architects, musicians, actors and artists) and super-mentors (political leaders, philanthropists and others who take on the challenge of developing their communities).

The more of these stars a city or country can attract and keep, the better its prospects.

The United States, he notes, has streaked ahead of Japan and Germany - which many pundits said in the 1980s would soon rule the world - because it has been singularly successful at drawing such stars from around the world.

Similarly, those predicting that China's economic juggernaut would edge past the US before long might be 'colossally wrong' as they fail to factor in the big unknown - whether China is politically and socially prepared to be a talent magnet like the US.

Singapore, with its long history of immigration, going back right to its founding in 1819, is the quintessential 'brain gain' city. It has always drawn in people from the region with the wit and the will to create a better life for themselves and their families, and in the process, for the wider community too.

In recent years, Singapore has been experiencing another wave of 'brain gain' with many more stars heading here, giving the place an even more cosmopolitan feel.

This point was brought home to me last Sunday evening, as I watched a video of a recent trip by my wife and her father to his ancestral village in Chaozhou, in southern China.

It was his first visit since he had journeyed to Singapore in the 1930s as a seven-year-old boy. Taking in the scenes of the village, reminiscent of Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s, you could not help but be struck by how very differently life would have turned out for him and his family had he not made that fateful boat trip.

Later, he met and married a fellow Teochew here, and they had five children. My mother-in-law often recounts how she climbed over the school gates in the wee hours of the morning just to make sure that her daughters got a place in a good English-speaking mission school, which laid the foundation for their successful careers today.

Yet, their story is by no means unique. Just about every family in Singapore has a similar tale. It is the Singapore story, of migrants heading to this island with big dreams, just as they continue to do to this day.

Given this backdrop, it never ceases to amaze me how strong the antipathy towards foreigners is among some Singaporeans. The issue continues to simmer and sour the ground, and is easily whipped up.

The latest incarnation of this is the angst over sweet young China waitresses giving beer-lady aunties in heartland kopitiams a run for their money.

Then, there is also the endless carping about the latest wave of immigrants filling service sector jobs although they struggle to speak English.

Let me ask a pointed question: Just what sets the Singaporean Chinese woman today apart from the 'China girls' some speak so condescendingly about other than the fact that the forebears of one got here earlier than the other?

And are those language snobs who lament in their choice Singlish that new immigrants cannot speak 'proper English' very different from the old colonialists who turned up their noses at the 'uncultured and uncouth' early immigrants - in other words, your parents and mine - to these shores?

Given our immigrant history, Singaporeans should really be more gracious, and show more compassion and understanding towards newcomers to the island, to help them settle in.

They don't speak English? Well, they will soon learn, as their children surely will.

Being open and embracing towards newcomers is not only the decent thing to do, but it might also be in our own self-interest.

As Mr Clifton puts it: 'Today's explorers migrate to the cities that are most likely to maximise innovation and entrepreneurial talents and skills. Wherever they can freely migrate is where the next economic empires will rise. San Francisco, Mumbai and Dublin have become hotbeds of job creation. This phenomenon has occurred in other hot cities from Austin to Boston and Seoul to Singapore.'

The Government will have to do its part to woo talent here, adding that critical buzz to the city, and tackling issues such as rising housing costs, lack of office space or school places. But these efforts alone will not be enough, unless Singaporeans make those drawn here feel welcome.

So the next time you feel like letting fly against the growing number of foreigners here, remember this - you and I are the products of an earlier wave of immigration and 'brain gain'.

This is such a blatant one-sided piece of propaganda from one of the Straits Times' finest. I don't know where to start but as the Fox will be out of the house for the rest of the day, he shall postpone his comments on this article to a later time. There is certainly one thing we are sure of: someone knows which side his bread is buttered...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

ST Forum: Speak English the way it should be spoken

From the Straits Times Forum (10 May 2008):

Speak English the way it should be spoken
I FIND that our spoken English and Mandarin in Singapore are appalling. However, what amazes me is that our Malay and Indian friends are speaking at least their mother tongue efficiently. Some are even competent in handling both English and Malay/Indian languages.

So are the Chinese learning languages the wrong way or does it have something to do with how we handle the two languages?

While working in China, I have come across people who handle two languages competently. Most naturally speak Mandarin well as it is their first language. However, many also speak English fluently enough and sometimes they put me to shame. I find that they learn most of their near-perfect spoken English from native teachers such as the Australians or Britons. Their level of competency in handling the spoken language is thus influenced greatly by their teachers.

I find that most Singaporeans can speak English and Chinese but at a basic level. Most could not express themselves well enough in either language, causing miscommunication along the way. Our Singlish is a disgrace and should never have being promoted, nor encouraged at all. It is often peppered with grammatical mistakes and our pronunciation is horrendous, to stay he least. We also dare not express ourselves too much as we have limited capacity to do so.

My Secondary Two daughter speaks Singlish often and tends to be lazy in the use of proper sentences. Moreover, she always ends her sentences with 'lah' or 'loh', making it sound like a mixture of Chinese and English when she adds Chinese phrases in between words. There is also no effort to pronounce words correctly. I am sure a Briton or Australian will not understand her style of spoken English.

Having also travelled around widely, I find that when I speak to the Australians or Americans, I tend to make an extra effort to speak properly and my Singlish disappears almost immediately.

However, when I return home, I switch back to improper English (Singlish) automatically and all my 'lahs' and 'lohs' come back to my sentences. I try my best not to speak Singlish but fail as most of my friends speak Singlish. They would laugh at me if I try to speak correctly.

Maybe we should hire proper native English teachers for our schools here to teach us the right way to speak English. It may take a long time for us to drop the 'lahs' or 'lohs' but it is definitely worth the time and effort invested.

Gilbert Goh

Hubei, China

I find it a little ironic that a letter which puts down Singlish and extolls the virtue of proper English is so riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes. My guess is that the sub-editors in the ST deliberately left these mistakes uncorrected. Someone in the newsroom sure has a sense of humour... But let's not go there. Instead, why don't we examine the arguments put up by this Gilbert Goh person.

1. I find that our spoken English and Mandarin in Singapore are appalling. However, what amazes me is that our Malay and Indian friends are speaking at least their mother tongue [sic] efficiently. Some are even competent in handling both English and Malay/Indian languages.

Actually, the usage of Indian languages (Tamil, Punjabi, Malayalam, etc) amongst Indian Singaporeans is declining and being eroded by English/Singlish. From the Wikipedia article on Indian languages in Singapore,
Interestingly, about half of Indians in Singapore predominantly use a non-Indian language in the home. 39% spoke mainly English, in contrast to 28.1% nationally. This made English the most spoken language in Indian homes, by a small margin.
If anything, the proficiency of Indian Singaporeans in Indian languages is probably similar to that of Chinese Singaporeans in Chinese. In other words, most young Indian Singaporeans are more comfortable in Singlish/English than in their respective Indian mother tongues. Why should that be surprising? Both ethnic groups share the same linguistic environment; Singlish is much more prevalent than Tamil and Mandarin and English has far greater functionality in Singapore. I don't speak Tamil (because I'm of Chinese descent) and I get along fine in Singapore. Similarly, an Indian Singaporean can work and live in Singapore without knowing a word of Mandarin.

2. While working in China, I have come across people who handle two languages competently. Most naturally speak Mandarin well as it is their first language. However, many also speak English fluently enough and sometimes they put me to shame. I find that they learn most of their near-perfect spoken English from native teachers such as the Australians or Britons. Their level of competency in handling the spoken language is thus influenced greatly by their teachers.

I've live in the great US and A for the past three years and honestly speaking, most of the PRC nationals that I've encountered have a rather imperfect command of the language. Generally, their command of the language improves with time and many can attain a near-native or even native fluency in the language. However, I doubt that one can have 'near-perfect spoken English' without any kind of immersion in an English-speaking environment.

Also, I've spent some time in Shanghai before although that was almost 6 years ago. Don't bullshit me about PRC nationals with near-perfect spoken English.

3. I find that most Singaporeans can speak English and Chinese but at a basic level. Most could not express themselves well enough in either language, causing miscommunication along the way.

That's actually true. Most Singaporeans don't speak English and Chinese well. For example, many Indian and Malay Singaporeans have a rather poor command of Chinese. In fact, most of them don't speak it at all!

Seriously, Mr Gilbert Goh, Singaporeans =/= Chinese Singaporeans. Non-Chinese Singaporeans may find it offensive. Very offensive.

Are Chinese Singaporeans able to speak English and Chinese properly? Well, it's probably true that most of them can only speak the languages at a very basic level. What do you expect? Singlish is the lingua franca amongst a great number of Singaporeans, especially the young, and despite what you think, Singlish is a distinct language from English proper although it is largely derived from British English.

4. Our Singlish is a disgrace and should never have being promoted, nor encouraged at all. It is often peppered with grammatical mistakes and our pronunciation is horrendous, to stay he [sic] least. We also dare not express ourselves too much as we have limited capacity to do so.

Why should Singlish be a disgrace? I think Singaporeans generally speak perfect Singlish and can be very expressive in that language. Okay, so most Singaporeans can't speak English like Cheryl Fox or Arnold Gay. Why would you expect them to do so? Not everyone's a newscaster, you know.

Of course, having said that, this doesn't mean that Singaporeans cannot improve their English skills. Pronunciation is something that bugs me a lot and I believe that elocution is something that schools in Singapore should teach. It's just that you have to make the distinction between Singlish and English. They are two distinct languages. Singlish is not English with bad grammar. Mangle the grammar of English proper as you wish but you won't be able to reproduce Singlish. Singlish has its own grammatical rules which are, of course, different from those of English proper. There is no given reason why Singlish and English proper cannot co-exist in Singapore.

5. My Secondary Two daughter speaks Singlish often and tends to be lazy in the use of proper sentences. Moreover, she always ends her sentences with 'lah' or 'loh', making it sound like a mixture of Chinese and English when she adds Chinese phrases in between words. There is also no effort to pronounce words correctly. I am sure a Briton or Australian will not understand her style of spoken English.

Of course, a Briton or an Australian won't understand your daughter's Singlish. She's speaking Singlish, not English proper. Duh! Most non-Australians wouldn't be able to understand Broad Australian either. I've lived in Australia and trust me, Broad Australian is not easy to understand.

6. Having also travelled around widely, I find that when I speak to the Australians or Americans, I tend to make an extra effort to speak properly and my Singlish disappears almost immediately.

That's because you code-switch to English proper from Singlish. Code-switching is a perfectly good skill to have and I agree with you that people who need to use English proper should acquire that skill. I code-switch all the time (from Matlab to C and Singlish to English proper).

The point is that, proper English elocution can be learned regardless of one's existing background in Singlish.

7. However, when I return home, I switch back to improper English (Singlish) automatically and all my 'lahs' and 'lohs' come back to my sentences. I try my best not to speak Singlish but fail as most of my friends speak Singlish. They would laugh at me if I try to speak correctly.

Singlish without lahs and lors is just plain ungrammatical. For your information Mr Gilbert Goh, the lahs and lors, which are mood particles, are necessary because the intonation and the grammatical rules in Singlish are just different. Your friends laugh at you because you use a language inappropriate for the context. What is wrong with using Singlish in a social circle of Singlish speakers?

8. Maybe we should hire proper native English teachers for our schools here to teach us the right way to speak English. It may take a long time for us to drop the 'lahs' or 'lohs' but it is definitely worth the time and effort invested.

It depends. You don't need native English teachers to teach people to drop their lahs and lors in the appropriate context. Anyone who can code-switch between English proper and Singlish is perfectly capable of doing that. If anything, the ability to speak Singlish is a plus. How else can you teach people to code-switch unless you know something about the two languages in the first place?

Also, there is no more evidence that English skills can be improved by eradicating Singlish than evidence that one can do so by eradicating Mandarin or Malay.

Monday, April 07, 2008

You cannot kill people by chanting Sanskrit

The president of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku, challenges a tantric, on India Television to use the arcane arts to kill him. Hundreds of millions of Indians tuned into India Television to watch the televised performance of the dark arts by the tantric.

The performance are on Youtube.

Sanal Edamaruku Challenges Tantra Part 1
Sanal Edamaruku Challenges Tantra Part 2
Sanal Edamaruku Challenges Tantra Part 3

The outcome is totally expected but nevertheless, the video of the whole process is hilarious. Sanal Edamaruku has struck a blow for rationalism in the superstition-stricken subcontinent.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

ST: Appoint a woman to Cabinet? Base it 'on ability'

Got this from the Straits Times (3 Apr 2008)

Appoint a woman to Cabinet? Base it 'on ability'

MS GRACE Fu would very much like to see a woman appointed a full Cabinet minister, but not 'just to satisfy some gender or race requirement'.

Ms Fu, the Senior Minister of State for National Development and Education, is the first woman office holder to comment on the Cabinet changes announced last Saturday.

On women ministers, she said: 'I am sure when PM sees someone who has that capability and competency, there is no doubt that he will put one of us in that position.'

Speaking to reporters at an event at Pathlight School yesterday, she said that, as for herself, she would much prefer to move up 'at a steady pace where the PM is comfortable with my ability'.

Ms Fu, who was promoted in the latest round of changes and given a new role in Education, plans to visit schools and talk to people to better understand the issues.

I don't get it. More Singaporean women go to university than Malay Singaporeans or Indian Singaporeans. This probably has been the case for most of Singapore's history since independence. Yet, we have Indian and Malay (male) full ministers but no female full ministers. Statistically speaking, it is impossible. The only way that can be possible would be that the variance in the distribution of 'talent' in the Indian and Malay male population is much wider than that of the general Singaporean population but that is very unlikely.

The conclusion is obvious. Either people are appointed to the cabinet on account of their race or women are discriminated against. Of course, it could be both but it is impossible to have a selection process that does not take race into account and discriminate against women but yet gives us a cabinet with ethnic minorities but not a single woman. Impossible.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

ST: Staff crunch spells last orders for tze char stalls

Got this from the Straits Times (2 Apr 2008)

Staff crunch spells last orders for tze char stalls
By April Chong

MR HUANG Hui Liang, 40, served up his last plate of braised noodles at his tze char stall in Tampines in February.

Four months earlier, his brother had also called it quits at his Bedok stall.

Such stalls, fixtures in heartland coffee shops, whip up restaurant-style dishes - fish-head curries, soups, stir-fried greens and fried rice - for dine-in or takeaway customers.

The brothers had the same problem: They could not find enough Singaporeans who wanted to work for them - not at the rates they were willing to pay anyway.

No hard data is available, but those who lead coffee-shop trade associations say many tze char stalls are shutting down.

The way out, it would seem, is for these stalls to hire foreign workers willing to stand for hours over hot woks for less pay, but labour rules forbid these stall holders from doing this.

So although these tze char stalls are kings in the coffee shops in terms of the size of their stalls and their menus, many claim they are not doing royally.

For starters, their ability to whip up so many dishes from scratch makes them more labour-hungry than the average one-dish stalls that sell only, say, fishball noodles or chicken rice.

Tze char stalls typically need seven employees - two cooks, two kitchen helpers who assemble the ingredients, a server, someone to take the orders and collect money, and a dish-washer, or some variation of this formula.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) allows only Singaporeans and permanent residents to be hired.

Mr Huang said he can pay $1,000 for a kitchen helper, and twice that for a cook.

He concedes the work is hard. The 12-hour work days typically start in the morning, with going to the market and preparing the food. More stalls now open for lunch and take a break before re-opening from 5pm till midnight.

He said his brother tried to get around the shortage of workers by hiring five foreigners illegally. He was caught and fined last year.

Aside from the difficulty in finding workers, he was also up against rising food costs; his rent was also going up from $5,000 to $6,500.

The average rent for a noodle stall is about $2,000.

Mr Huang said his operating costs left him out of pocket for six months last year. In better months before rising costs came along, he made between $1,500 and $4,000 a month.

His problem is common, said Mr Christopher Tan of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, whose members account for a fifth of the 2,000 coffee shops here.

He said a growing number of tze char stalls run by association members had shut down in recent years, though he could not say how many.

Mr Wee Jee Seng of the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurants and Bar-Owners Association, which represents about 300 coffee shops and stallholders here, confirmed the trend.

In the last five years, the associations have appealed to MOM at dialogues to reconsider its stance against foreign workers but have always received a firm 'no'.

A MOM spokesman told The Straits Times there were no plans to liberalise this rule and, as the stalls were small, they could be operated by the licensee with family help.

Veteran labour Member of Parliament Ong Ah Heng pointed out a difficulty with liberalising the hiring policy: 'If you open up the regulations, another 10,000 foreign workers will come in.

'Of course, they do contribute to the economy, but it will become a social problem that we cannot afford.'

The stallholders say that MOM's call to rope in family members does not solve the numbers problem.

Mr Ong himself has met a couple who could no longer cope with running their stall when the wife became pregnant.

Industry associations have suggested, for example, tapping senior citizens and housewives and offering them flexible work hours.

To this, Mr Kenneth Lee, 46, who is also short-handed at his Toa Payoh coffee shop, said he had few such takers even when he offered the 'market rate' of $5 an hour.

Sometimes, with this group, it is not only about the money. Housewife Ang Guat Khim, 54, who used to earn just above $1,000 preparing drinks, said she quit because she could not bear standing nine hours a day.

MP Ong said tze char stallholders simply have to pay more to entice Singaporeans to do the job.

Some tze char operators have hatched other solutions - not all legal - to get around their problem.

One is to hire foreigners on the sly. A chef from China, for example, will work for $1,800 a month, against a Singaporean's asking wage of $3,000.

Last year, 341 employers in the food and beverage sector were caught hiring foreigners illegally; 1,544 foreigners were arrested.

Another ruse: 'Borrow' foreign workers from their landlords - as coffee shop owners have been allowed since last July to hire a limited number of Chinese nationals.

The landlords do try to help, because the fortunes of the coffee shop are tied to that of the resident tze char stall, especially if it is one that pulls in the crowds with good food.

Coffee-shop operator Wee Jui Ho, 63, said he suffered a 60 per cent drop in business at his drinks stall when his tze char tenant closed shop last December because of a worker shortage.

He has not been able to find another tze char tenant, and will now try running the tze char stall himself. But he has no experience in this area and is aware that if he fails, he will have to end his 30-year-old coffee-shop business as well.

There is only so much coffee-shop owners like him can do. They could ask tze char stalls to pay better salaries but, as the coffee-shop merchant association's Mr Tan says: 'It's very hard to raise wages without raising the prices of the food, and this comes at a risk of losing customers.'

I'm shocked beyond words. How dare this MP Ong Ah Heng suggest that the reason why stall owners cannot find enough Singaporean workers is that they don't pay enough?

But seriously, this is a real problem. Tze char stalls are facing a real problem in getting workers because they are not allowed to hire foreign workers. On the other hand, when I was back in Singapore, I saw plenty of PRC waiters and waitresses in Chinese restaurants everywhere. It seems doubtful to me that restaurants in Singapore are not allowed to hire foreign workers. Isn't it unfair that tze char stalls are denied access to foreign labour while bigger establishments like Chinese restaurants aren't? The rationale for it is that MOM believes tze char stalls can get by with family members.

Excuse me, but don't the top honchos in MOM realize that families are getting smaller nowadays? Or that a tze char stall is a 7-man operation? Why should restaurants be given the cost-lowering advantage of hiring foreign workers but not their tze char counterparts?

To be fair, labour restrictions should equally applied both tze char stalls and restaurants. On the other hand, not too many foreign workers should be allowed into the food and beverage industry. One possible solution would be to fix the total number of foreign workers in the industry. This can be easily accomplished by issuing a fixed number of work permits for the industry every year and then letting restaurant and stall owners to bid for these work permits the same way aspiring car owners bid for COE in Singapore.

Come to think of it, maybe we should try that for other industries in Singapore.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ST Forum: Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

From the Straits Times on 20 Feb 2008:

Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

RECENTLY, I befriended a group of scholars from China studying at my alma mater, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They were in their late teens and were attending foundation courses in English and maths before starting their undergraduate studies. In their five-year sojourn at NTU, they will be given free lodging and a monthly allowance of $500 each. Needless to say, they do not have to pay for their tuition fees. When they graduate, they must work in Singapore for six years as part of their 'payback'' bond.

A highly conservative calculation of their five-year tenure at NTU suggests that each will cost the Government or NTU some $70,000. That is, $30,000 for their five-year tuition fees, including the charges for their foundation courses, and some $40,000 for hostel accommodation and their monthly stipends. I graduated from NTU five years ago, with a good honours degree.

I was in the top 15 per cent of my cohort - and performed better than some of these scholars. While studying at NTU, I had to work as a pizza delivery boy to earn my allowance. Upon graduation, I had to start paying off a $24,000-student loan.

Why are Singaporeans like me not treated as considerately as such scholars? My study loan took five years to pay off after I started working. The China scholars receive financial support, a free education and start their working lives debt free. Their six-year bond is seen as a contribution to Singapore.

Am I not contributing as much, if not more? Non-scholar Singaporeans are not treated in quite the same way as foreign talent, regardless of how well we perform. The disparity is disheartening.

Don't Singaporeans like me who have done well deserve some relief? True, local scholarships are available. But not every Singaporean who graduated well, gets one.

Can the NTU or the Education Ministry tell me why graduates like myself don't deserve some relief or reward for doing as well as, or better than, some of the foreign talent?

Zhou Zhiqiang

At first glance, in a cynical cold-blooded way, a foreign talent policy that provides extra benefits to talented foreigners would make sense. After all, Mr Zhou is presumably a Singaporean and there is no need to be equally generous to people like him even if he is as capable as his foreign friends. To paraphrase an overeducated hawker I once knew, he is a captive of the system. So, because he is a Singaporeans, the government takes him for granted.

Yet, this is not the way to draw in young mobile foreign talents. Yes, generous scholarships to foreign students are a way to get these people to come. That's not difficult. The problem is, how do you get them to stay. Any foreign talent worth his/her salt will be able to infer that the reason he/she is a beneficiary of Singapore's generous foreign talent policy is that he or she is a potential immigrant i.e. not a Singaporean. Of course, it remains his/her advantage to stay a potential immigrant.

Don't get me started on the unfairness of it all to Singaporeans. How does the government expect Singaporeans to show goodwill towards their country when they can see that the system rewards bright talented foreigners better than it does bright talented Singaporeans. No bloody wonder we lose 1000 of our brightest every year. Yes, it is true that most of the 1000 leave Singapore because of better opportunities elsewhere but those 1000 too would have friends and family in Singapore. They may even care and feel outraged that the government treat those friends and family so shoddily. It is also this discriminatory policy that might push Singaporeans like Mr. Zhou to join the exodus.

The Goatherd And The Wild Goats

A GOATHERD, driving his flock from their pasture at eventide, found some Wild Goats mingled among them, and shut them up together with his own for the night. The next day it snowed very hard, so that he could not take the herd to their usual feeding places, but was obliged to keep them in the fold. He gave his own goats just sufficient food to keep them alive, but fed the strangers more abundantly in the hope of enticing them to stay with him and of making them his own. When the thaw set in, he led them all out to feed, and the Wild Goats scampered away as fast as they could to the mountains. The Goatherd scolded them for their ingratitude in leaving him, when during the storm he had taken more care of them than of his own herd. One of them, turning about, said to him: "That is the very reason why we are so cautious; for if you yesterday treated us better than the Goats you have had so long, it is plain also that if others came after us, you would in the same manner prefer them to ourselves."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is your religion?

One of the things that strikes me as somewhat odd in America is the almost Talibanish national obsession with religion. Well, not really religion in general but just one particular persuasion, Christianity. The majority of Americans are religious to the extent that an ordinary Singaporean who does not share their beliefs would find it almost fanatical and irrational. I've had one who've tried to convert me, very gently, but he inevitably failed.

However, I've long since learned that amongst Americans, there is a strong social stigma against people who have no religion; 'atheist' is a taboo word in many social circles. The lack of belief is practically synonymous with immorality in this country. So, I try not to mention that, for most of my life, that is after the age of seven, I've been utterly irreligious. Actually, I wasn't very religious before the age of seven. I only went to church because my mother's mother insisted that she go to church and that we were to accompany her. After my maternal grandmother's death, we simply stopped going. My mother and her brother were probably not very ethusiastic churchgoers to start with. My father's family is Buddhist but Buddhism is something I know very little about. As a result of both my parents belonging to different faiths, religion wasn't and still isn't something much talked about at home. It was something that other families do but ours don't.

Personally, based on my personal observation of Americans, I don't think that there is a particularly strong correlation between religiosity and human decency. There are some very nice, unselfish and helpful people in my building and they sometimes schedule their experiments on Sunday mornings. There are decent people of every and no persuasion. So, for me personally, it's hard to accept the idea that you cannot have morality without religion.

Besides, it is so damn obvious that those holy books were penned by humans.

Friday, January 25, 2008

ST: It's S'pore's gain even if 30-40% of immigrants settle here: MM Lee

This recent Straits Times article caught my eye. The MM said that it is Singapore's gain even if 30 to 40 percent of immigrants settle here. He also acknowledged that many PRC and India students use Singapore as a stepping stone to the West. Well, it certainly took him some time to catch on to what most ordinary Singaporeans have known for a long time.

I was back in Singapore a couple of weeks ago. Feeling nostalgic, I took out my copy of Commencement 2004, which stated who graduated with what degree in 2004 from NUS. As I thumbed through the pages of the booklet, I saw that majority of the first class honours graduates from the Engineering and Science faculties had very Chinese Singaporean surnames (Lim, Tan, Teo, etc). Mind you, these faculties are where the PRC and India scholars are concentrated. Also, first class honours are usually given to the top 3 to 10 percent of the cohort (depending on the specific course of study).

Given that foreign students make up 20 percent of the NUS undergraduate body, you should expect PRC and India scholars in the Engineering and Science faculties to be grabbing the majority share of the top honours. After all, we are told that for every one local undergraduate on scholarship studying in a university in Singapore, we have two foreign undergraduates also on scholarship. Surely, it would not be unreasonable to expect our foreign undergraduate scholars perform academically. If undergraduate scholarships are given out on the basis of pure academic merit, then we should expect the ratio of foreign to local first class holders to be 2 to 1. Yet, this is not even true in the faculties in which the foreign students are concentrated.

This clearly demonstrates the strong anti-local bias in our foreign talent policy. Good local students, who study the same subjects as equally able foreign students, are given much less financial incentives to enroll in our local universities, unlike their foreign counterparts. What more can I say?