Thursday, July 29, 2010

When will housing prices return to 'normal'?

I think few ordinary Singaporeans would think that housing in Singapore is affordable or reasonably priced.

Yet, while I share this view, I have been hesitant to label the Singapore housing situation a bubble, unlike many other bloggers or news sites. This is because there are several fundamental drivers for property prices in Singapore. Also, indicators for property valuations are mixed. For example, price-income ratios appear to be on high side, but price-rent ratios are more moderate. 

Note, however, that this post does NOT constitute an exhortation to "buy now before it becomes even more expensive" or that property represents an excellent investment proposition in Singapore.

This post is on thinking about why housing prices have risen, what could cause prices to reverse, and how likely it is that prices will return to a more moderate, 'normal' level.

I have identified 5 drivers for the recent rise in property prices in the past 7 years or so:

1. Strong GDP growth and a relatively stable employment. Wage growth, however, is a separate issue. But clearly, at least some people, notably higher income groups (both local and expatriate) benefit from GDP growth.

2. High rates of immigration.

3. Liberalization in property-related policies. For example:

  • reduction in downpayment from 20% to 10% for HDB flats bought with bank loans, enacted in 2005.
  • permitting singles to buy any type of HDB flat, when previously they were restricted to 3-room flats.
  • permitting entire HDB flats to be rented out.
  • reducing the number of years flatowners must stay in their flats before they can be sold on the resale market.

Notably, HDB has backpedalled on some policies since property prices started sky-rocketing. I do not have an exhaustive list of all the policy changes that the government has enacted in the last 7 years or so (and there are many). Frankly, the housing policy system in Singapore, just like the CPF policies, are byzantine. But the overwhelming impression I get is that policies today are far more liberal than they were 7 years ago. Enlightened readers can correct me here if I am wrong.

4. Inelastic supply of property, in particular HDB flats. HDB's BTO scheme is largely responsible for the latter situation.

5. Ample liquidity, and low interest rates. This is a function of governments around the world flooding the markets with liquidity, particularly Bernanke's quantitative easing policy. There is a direct inverse relationship between property prices and interest rates.

Given these positive fundamental drivers, high property prices in Singapore may stay high for a very long time. 'Normal' could be a long time coming, which might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal financial situation. Again, I have to reiterate here that I am NOT recommending investing or buying property now. I'm not in the market for Singapore property, or any property for that matter, now and in the foreseeable future, so I'm not talking my book.

How might the fundamental drivers listed above be affected such that property prices start to fall and moderate?

Clearly, government policy has a lot to do with policy liberalization, immigration and housing supply. Given how wedded our government is to immigration and just-in-time construction policy, I'm not holding my breath for change here. The government has shown a willingness to tweak housing policy, but it is evident that their effects are not as potent as increasing supply or restricting immigration. Barring a massive loss by the PAP at the next general election, which needless to say is a black swan event, we can safely conclude that policies conducive to high property prices will continue to persist.

As for economic growth, liquidity and low interest rates, these will largely depend on external factors. In particular, if the wheels come off the global economy due to fiscal stimulus wearing off, or if the China overcapacity, commodity-buying and property bubbles burst, or if the US dollar suffers a crisis of confidence, or if the sovereign bond market revolts and stages a massive puke-up...well, a lot of very bad things could happen in a very short time.

Singapore's economy would clearly suffer in such a situation, with knock-on effects on foreign direct investment, capital flows and property prices (and perhaps even immigration).

On balance, it's difficult to say when property prices in Singapore will revert to 'normal'. If you believe that high growth will continue, you might hold the view that housing prices have reached a permanent new plateau, never to descend again.

If on the other hand, you see unsustainable policies, interest rates, levels of debt both sovereign and household, and money-printing everywhere you look, you might have far less sanguine views. 

Myself? Let me reiterate for the third time that this post does not constitute a recommendation or a forecast. Whatever I write could well be very wrong.

I think that property prices will continue to grind higher (keyword: grind, meaning protracted and choppy but with a directional bias) for the short to medium term, meaning 6-18 months or so. Perhaps longer. If an economic reversal occurs however, then property prices will probably plunge sharply and quickly. In other words, my view is that property price movements will be assymmetric in direction and magnitude. Less potential upside relative to potential downside.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What are some possible unintended consequences of massive immigration?

Disclaimer: Some readers might take offense at this post. This post is not motivated by any form of xenophobia, and I will maintain as neutral a tone as I can manage throughout. The purpose of this post is as a thought experiment, to think about potential unintended, and more importantly, unexpected, consequences of unrestrained and massive immigration. If you've read the Black Swan, you can think of this post as an exercise in Black Swan hunting.

We know massive immigration causes problems. Particularly when immigrant populations are not well integrated into the mainstream population or when the native population is outnumbered by foreigners. For example, see the civil unrest in France in 2005, Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, or the July 2009 Urumqi riots in Xinjiang.

Immigration in Singapore appears to be mostly free of these problems, and the main concerns here have been more prosaic, if still important, such as the cost of housing, employment of citizens vis-a-vis foreigners, and the declining quality of life, particularly those who rely heavily on public services.

I don't intend to interrogate these consequences of immigration, as they are well known and noticed, but to look for consequences and effects that are less obvious, less often perceived. Things that won't be found in some official record somewhere, but are street observations that are undocumented, until perhaps sometime in the future.

Take neighborhoods for instance. I am a flaneur, and the tagline of my blog is "An obsession to walk the city to experience it". And what I've noticed over the years is the changing character of neighborhoods as a result of immigration.

We know neighborhoods change as a result of redevelopment and gentrification. Tiong Bahru for instance, while still retaining an air of authenticity, has been gentrified almost beyond recognition. The most accessible parts of Chinatown are one big giant tourist trap (the interior is still somewhat authentic). And most of the shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar conservation area are given over to offices, particularly law firms and accountants' offices. I should know, I used to temp there.

But some areas have changed mainly as a result of immigration. Joo Chiat, for instance, was and perhaps is still infamous for vice, mainly stemming from callgirls from China setting up shop there.

Then there are what I call 'immigrant enclaves', buildings or places that attract a disproportionate number belonging to a particular foreigner ethnic group. For example anyone who has spent any amount of time in Singapore would know that Lucky Plaza is Filipino central, particularly on weekends. As a JC student years ago who used to head to Orchard every weekend (to chill at Takashimaya 'Square'), I used to marvel at the number of Filipino maids who would picnic on the lawn where Ion Orchard is now situated at.

Similarly, Golden Mile Complex has long been popular with Thais. I remember one time I wandered there while looking for Army supplies at Beach Road and was bewildered by the sheer number of Thais and Thai signboards. I felt like I had been transported to Bangkok.

On recent trips to Peninsula Plaza, I noticed the vast numbers of Myanmarese businesses (travel agencies and shops) amid the ... piquant ... odor of that aging mall.

What, in practice, have I found to be the best indicator that an area or building has been colonized by an immigrant group?

Supermarkets. Because food is so integral to culture, and supermarkets are high volume, low margin businesses, ethnic supermarkets are the number one indicator of a sizeable immigrant presence. Places of worship are another great indicator, but still not as useful, or visible, as supermarkets.

It's not just places that change as a result of immigration. Industries and occupations change as a result of immigration too.

We've already talked about vice in Joo Chiat due to China girls. Then there's that infamous report on human trafficking in Singapore that the government has dismissed. Perhaps Singapore's allegedly lax stance on immigration has contributed directly or indirectly to the prevalence of human trafficking in the sex trade here. We have the ubiquitous Banglas in the construction industry, more accurately South Asians, as they comprise Indians and Pakistanis as well. Their social problems have been well-documented by The Online Citizen. And the nimby effect was clearly evident when the thorny problem of situating their dormitories came up. We have also seen the problems of customers communicating, or not communicating, with non-English speaking service staff. Everyone in Singapore has had experience with that. And university students in the local universities have long complained of lecturers from China or India who are unable to teach effectively due to their heavy accents.

What is less commonly remarked upon, noticed, or is simply a more recent phenomenon? 

The Ministry of Manpower has an entire department of statisticians churning out labor statistics which are unfortunately publicly unavailable due to 'sensitivity', but we can make a few observations.

The IT industry and call centre industry is heavy with foreigners, particularly Filipinos. Anyone who has had to interrupt a meeting because of a cold call from a credit card representative would know this if he had deigned to notice. A friend who works as an IT recruiter has commented that it has been this way for quite a while.

And a colleague who complained of driving on the roads these days because of "aggressive" mainland China bus drivers clued me in on something I had noticed, but hadn't really internalized. Our bus drivers today are increasingly from China. And they're aggressive enough on the roads to have caused some drivers to take notice. Just a few days ago, a friend told me of how his bus driver got into an quarrel with a passenger due to a fallen tree branch incident which blocked traffic on an expressway. The bus drivers of today aren't the bus drivers of yesteryear, that's for sure.

We know of wildcat strikes in China at Honda factories. For better or for worse, immigrants to Singapore are generally not as ... tractable ... as native Singaporeans. If a critical part of our infrastructure like the public bus transport network is heavily dependent on foreigners of a particular ethnicity or creed, what happens if they have reason to get organized and demonstrate, protest or go on strike? Like the Falun Gong demonstration that happened in Singapore a while back? Or the diplomatic fracas that came in the wake of the Flor Contemplacion incident? There would potentially be a lot more unhappy Filipinos on Singapore soil today should a diplomatic incident like that happen again. And frankly, before 9/11, Singapore was lucky to not have sourced for immigrants from Muslim states that might subsequently have found our staunch relationship with the USA ... objectionable. 

What about our other industries? Electronics, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, construction? Any possibility of some adverse event occurring simply because we are so critically dependent on "hired help" in those industries? Nobody knows, and the MOM a'int talking. Maybe we should start asking. Just sayin'.

Finally, immigration changes not just places and industries, but also people. 

With every change, I find myself becoming less and less rooted to this island. A sizeable mass of Singaporeans has been disenchanted with "growth at all costs", income inequality and massive immigration. Because of immigration, some wags talk about being second class citizens in our own country. We have become disenchanted, disenfranchised and increasingly disconnected.

Home is where the heart is, but what happens when the heart itself has left the home?

I remember when the old National Library building was demolished despite massive public dissent, and the collective memories of generations was lost. Is that so different when neighborhoods are transformed through immigration? They may be revitalized, and that is undoubtedly a good thing for places plagued with urban decay, but something is lost nonetheless. Lost and unmourned.

Our local patois of Singlish is regularly denigrated (lah), as if being drowned in a babel of foreign tongues and accents is not challenge enough already. Will the day come when even ordering in a hawker centre is something that can't be done in Singlish? Because the service staff don't speak it, not at all?

And immigrants are brought in to "stick spurs" in our hides to make us work harder. We work plenty hard already, and are justly proud of our achievements. Yet we are told time and time again to work harder, cheaper, better, faster. We are exhorted to emulate some city or country, to strive to be the "insert city here" of the east. We are told we have to be hungry like some nationality or ethnic group. We are made to feel inadequate and insecure, and when we voice concerns, those concerns are belittled or dismissed. All the national education and NDP parades in the world will not be enough to dispel the actual experience of the modern day Singaporean. That despite having made it from third world to first, we are still not good enough. Hence the need for more immigration. We are not allowed to feel pride in being Singaporean.

The Singapore Tourism Board has been zealous in promoting the Uniquely Singapore brand. But no one seems to be paying attention to the fast eroding Uniquely Singaporean Identity. For better or for worse, we are getting disconnected from our place of birth. We already have a low birth rate. Do we need an escalating rate of migration among native born Singaporeans as well?

It is clear from recent news that the powers that be are intellectually wedded to a pro-immigration policy. But what might that tunnel vision bring us in the future, when the unintended consequences of massive immigration are fully felt?


I am very interested in the transforming urban landscape in Singapore due to immigration. I would be much obliged to readers who can point out instances of neighborhoods or districts that seem to have taken on an overt foreign character. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"How Microbes Defend and Define Us"

From The New York Times
Published: July 12, 2010

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said. 

Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria. 

Dr. Khoruts mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology last month, Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues reported that her diarrhea vanished in a day. Her Clostridium difficile infection disappeared as well and has not returned since. 

The procedure — known as bacteriotherapy or fecal transplantation — had been carried out a few times over the past few decades. But Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues were able to do something previous doctors could not: they took a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines before and after the transplant. 

Before the transplant, they found, her gut flora was in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.” 

Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.” 

Scientists are regularly blown away by the complexity, power, and sheer number of microbes that live in our bodies. “We have over 10 times more microbes than human cells in our bodies,” said George Weinstock of Washington University in St. Louis. But the microbiome, as it’s known, remains mostly a mystery. “It’s as if we have these other organs, and yet these are parts of our bodies we know nothing about.” 

Dr. Weinstock is part of an international effort to shed light on those puzzling organs. He and his colleagues are cataloging thousands of new microbe species by gathering their DNA sequences. Meanwhile, other scientists are running experiments to figure out what those microbes are actually doing. They’re finding that the microbiome does a lot to keep us in good health. Ultimately, researchers hope, they will learn enough about the microbiome to enlist it in the fight against diseases. 

“In just the last year, it really went from a small cottage industry to the big time,” said David Relman of Stanford University. 

The microbiome first came to light in the mid-1600s, when the Dutch lens-grinder Antonie van Leeuwenhoek scraped the scum off his teeth, placed it under a microscope and discovered that it contained swimming creatures. Later generations of microbiologists continued to study microbes from our bodies, but they could only study the ones that could survive in a laboratory. For many species, this exile meant death. 

In recent years, scientists have started to survey the microbiome in a new way: by gathering DNA. They scrape the skin or take a cheek swab and pull out the genetic material. Getting the DNA is fairly easy. Sequencing and making sense of it is hard, however, because a single sample may yield millions of fragments of DNA from hundreds of different species. 

A number of teams are working together to tackle this problem in a systematic way. Dr. Weinstock is part of the biggest of these initiatives, known as the Human Microbiome Project. The $150 million initiative was started in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health. The project team is gathering samples from 18 different sites on the bodies of 300 volunteers. 

To make sense of the genes that they’re gathering, they are sequencing the entire genomes of some 900 species that have been cultivated in the lab. Before the project, scientists had only sequenced about 20 species in the microbiome. In May, the scientists published details on the first 178 genomes. They discovered 29,693 genes that are unlike any known genes. (The entire human genome contains only around 20,000 protein-coding genes.) 

“This was quite surprising to us, because these are organisms that have been studied for a long time,” said Karen E. Nelson of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md.

The new surveys are helping scientists understand the many ecosystems our bodies offer microbes. In the mouth alone, Dr. Relman estimates, there are between 500 and 1,000 species. “It hasn’t reached a plateau yet: the more people you look at, the more species you get,” he said. The mouth in turn is divided up into smaller ecosystems, like the tongue, the gums, the teeth. Each tooth—and even each side of each tooth—has a different combination of species.

Scientists are even discovering ecosystems in our bodies where they weren’t supposed to exist. Lungs have traditionally been considered to be sterile because microbiologists have never been able to rear microbes from them. A team of scientists at Imperial College London recently went hunting for DNA instead. Analyzing lung samples from healthy volunteers, they discovered 128 species of bacteria. Every square centimeter of our lungs is home to 2,000 microbes. 

Some microbes can only survive in one part of the body, while others are more cosmopolitan. And the species found in one person’s body may be missing from another’s. Out of the 500 to 1,000 species of microbes identified in people’s mouths, for example, only about 100 to 200 live in any one person’s mouth at any given moment. Only 13 percent of the species on two people’s hands are the same. Only 17 percent of the species living on one person’s left hand also live on the right one. 

This variation means that the total number of genes in the human microbiome must be colossal. European and Chinese researchers recently catalogued all the microbial genes in stool samples they collected from 124 individuals. In March, they published a list of 3.3 million genes. 

The variation in our microbiomes emerges the moment we are born. 

“You have a sterile baby coming from a germ-free environment into the world,” said Maria Dominguez-Bello, a microbiologist at the University of Puerto Rico. Recently, she and her colleagues studied how sterile babies get colonized in a hospital in the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ayacucho. They took samples from the bodies of newborns within minutes of birth. They found that babies born vaginally were coated with microbes from their mothers’ birth canals. But babies born by Caesarean section were covered in microbes typically found on the skin of adults. 

“Our bet was that the Caesarean section babies were sterile, but it’s like they’re magnets,” said Dr. Dominguez-Bello. 

We continue to be colonized every day of our lives. “Surrounding us and infusing us is this cloud of microbes,” said Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University. We end up with different species, but those species generally carry out the same essential chemistry that we need to survive. One of those tasks is breaking down complex plant molecules. “We have a pathetic number of enzymes encoded in the human genome, whereas microbes have a large arsenal,” said Dr. Gordon. 

In addition to helping us digest, the microbiome helps us in many other ways. The microbes in our nose, for example, make antibiotics that can kill the dangerous pathogens we sniff. Our bodies wait for signals from microbes in order to fully develop. When scientists rear mice without any germ in their bodies, the mice end up with stunted intestines. 

In order to co-exist with our microbiome, our immune system has to be able to tolerate thousands of harmless species, while attacking pathogens. Scientists are finding that the microbiome itself guides the immune system to the proper balance. 

One way the immune system fights pathogens is with inflammation. Too much inflammation can be harmful, so we have immune cells that produce inflammation-reducing signals. Last month, Sarkis Mazmanian and June L. Round at Caltech reported that mice reared without a microbiome can’t produce an inflammation-reducing molecule called IL-10. 

The scientists then inoculated the mice with a single species of gut bacteria, known as Bacteroides fragilis. Once the bacteria began to breed in the guts of the mice, they produced a signal that was taken up by certain immune cells. In response to the signal, the cells developed the ability to produce IL-10. 

Scientists are not just finding new links between the microbiome and our health. They’re also finding that many diseases are accompanied by dramatic changes in the makeup of our inner ecosystems. The Imperial College team that discovered microbes in the lungs, for example, also discovered that people with asthma have a different collection of microbes than healthy people. Obese people also have a different set of species in their guts than people of normal weight. 

In some cases, new microbes may simply move into our bodies when disease alters the landscape. In other cases, however, the microbes may help give rise to the disease. Some surveys suggest that babies delivered by Caesarian section are more likely to get skin infections from multiply-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It’s possible that they lack the defensive shield of microbes from their mother’s birth canal. 

Caesarean sections have also been linked to an increase in asthma and allergies in children. So have the increased use of antibiotics in the United States and other developed countries. Children who live on farms — where they can get a healthy dose of microbes from the soil — are less prone to getting autoimmune disorders than children who grow up in cities. 

Some scientists argue that these studies all point to the same conclusion: when children are deprived of their normal supply of microbes, their immune systems get a poor education. In some people, untutored immune cells become too eager to unleash a storm of inflammation. Instead of killing off invaders, they only damage the host’s own body. 

A better understanding of the microbiome might give doctors a new way to fight some of these diseases. For more than a century, scientists have been investigating how to treat patients with beneficial bacteria. But probiotics, as they’re sometimes called, have only had limited success. The problem may lie in our ignorance of precisely how most microbes in our bodies affect our health. 

Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues have carried out 15 more fecal transplants, 13 of which cured their patients. They’re now analyzing the microbiome of their patients to figure out precisely which species are wiping out the Clostridium difficile infections. Instead of a crude transplant, Dr. Khoruts hopes that eventually he can give his patients what he jokingly calls “God’s probiotic” — a pill containing microbes whose ability to fight infections has been scientifically validated. 

Dr. Weinstock, however, warns that a deep understanding of the microbiome is a long way off. 

“In terms of hard-boiled science, we’re falling short of the mark,” he said. A better picture of the microbiome will only emerge once scientists can use the genetic information Dr. Weinstock and his colleagues are gathering to run many more experiments. 

“It’s just old-time science. There are no short-cuts around that,” he said.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Revisiting the Streisand Effect

First, the MDA banned a new book unflattering to the Singapore government, as it promised to be an expose of the allegedly unsavory aspects of the death penalty, in particular the uneven way it is applied (h/t the online citizen).

Then, hardly a few days had passed before Martyn See's new film was banned. Again by the MDA, that paragon of virtue and guardian of Singapore's tender fragile minds. 

You know what this reminds me of? When Royston Tan's film "15" was censored years ago, and he made a satirical film called "Cut" in retaliation and released it online, generating massive publicity. I remember this incident well, because I wrote a post on it waaay back in 2004 on explaining that censoring 15 backfired on the Board of Film Censors as it generated a whole lot more interest in the film than if they had left well enough alone. Let's face it: "artsy" films like 15 play to largely a self-selected audience of intelligentsia that collectively already has a less than sanguine opinion of the establishment. Censoring the film was like tempting fate to unleash the dreaded Streisand Effect.

Martyn See was absolutely right in saying that "I like to thank the Minister for banning this [film]. It generates more interest on the video now." I for one, will be looking to view this video myself for a fresh perspective. Just like I will be interested in reading the book just banned by MDA.

This post is a corollary to what I have stated before, that the mainstream media is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Information wants to be free, and the MDA is fighting a losing battle. 


Monday, July 12, 2010

"Google’s Do-It-Yourself App Creation Software"

From The New York Times
Published: July 11, 2010

Google is bringing Android software development to the masses. 

The company will offer a software tool, starting Monday, that is intended to make it easy for people to write applications for its Android smartphones. 

The free software, called Google App Inventor for Android (, has been under development for a year. User testing has been done mainly in schools with groups that included sixth graders, high school girls, nursing students and university undergraduates who are not computer science majors. 

The thinking behind the initiative, Google said, is that as cellphones increasingly become the computers that people rely on most, users should be able to make applications themselves. 

“The goal is to enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world,” said Harold Abelson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is on sabbatical at Google and led the project. 

The project is a further sign that Google is betting that its strategy of opening up its technology to all kinds of developers will eventually give it the upper hand in the smartphone software market. Its leading rival, Apple, takes a more tightly managed approach to application development for the iPhone, controlling the software and vetting the programs available. 

“We could only have done this because Android’s architecture is so open,” Mr. Abelson said. 

Mr. Abelson is a longtime proponent of making intellectual and scientific resources more open. He is a founding director of the Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge and the Creative Commons, and he helped initiate M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare program, which offers free online course materials used in teaching the university’s classes. 

The Google project, Mr. Abelson said, is intended to give users, especially young people, a simple tool to let them tinker with smartphone software, much as people have done with computers. Over the years, he noted, simplified programming tools like Basic, Logo and Scratch have opened the door to innovations of all kinds. Microsoft’s first product, for example, was a version of Basic, pared down to run on personal computers. 

The Google application tool for Android enables people to drag and drop blocks of code — shown as graphic images and representing different smartphone capabilities— and put them together, similar to snapping together Lego blocks. The result is an application on that person’s smartphone. 

For example, one student made a program to inform a selected list of friends, with a short text message, where he was every 15 minutes. The program was created by putting three graphic code blocks together: one block showed the phone’s location sensor, another showed a clock (which he set for 15-minute intervals), and third linked to a simple database on a Web site, listing the selected friends. 

An onscreen button would turn on the program, Mr. Abelson explained, for perhaps a few hours on a Saturday night when the person wanted his friends to know where he was. 

A student at the University of San Francisco, Mr. Abelson said, made a program that automatically replied to text messages, when he was driving. “Please don’t send me text messages,” it read. “I’m driving.” 

A program by a nursing student at Indiana University enabled a phone to send an emergency message or make a call, if someone fell. It used the phone’s accelerometer to sense a fall. If the person did not get up in a short period or press an onscreen button, the program automatically texted or called the person designated to receive the alert. 

“These aren’t the slickest applications in the world,” Mr. Abelson said. “But they are ones ordinary people can make, often in a matter of minutes.” 

The Google tool, of course, works only for phones running Android software. A sign-up with a Google Gmail account is required. The tool is Web-based except for a small software download that automatically syncs the programs created on a personal computer, connected to the application inventor Web site, with an Android smartphone. When making programs, the phone must be connected to a computer with a U.S.B. link.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Liquidated - Parallels between Wall Street and the Singapore Civil Service

I recently finished reading Liquidated by Karen Ho. It wasn't an easy read; in fact I skimmed through large chunks of it. Satyajit Das was right in saying that it reads like a doctoral dissertation.

Still, what struck me were some of the similarities between Wall Street investment bankers and how the Singapore civil service governs the country. Perhaps because I had been reading Constructing Singapore concurrently that the similarities popped right out. The parallels may or may not be spurious though; I'll leave that up to the readers of this post to decide for themselves. 

First: Wall Street investment banks like to hire the best students from the best universities. Harvard and Princeton are the main hiring grounds, and potential hires are feted and treated like rock stars. Although I attended a relatively second tier institution in the United States during my time in university, even I felt the lure of the investment banks. All week during career week, students came walking out of the Glass Pavilion (an exhibition space in my school) carrying coveted swag from the banks.

Ho in her book postulates that the reason why Wall Street banks focus their hiring almost exclusively on the top universities is because they in effect leverage on the stellar reputation of top-tier universities to give themselves the sheen of prestige and extraordinary capability. That in turn helps to capture business. e.g. Goldman Sachs hires only the best students from Harvard. If you hire Goldman to represent your corporation, you've got the smartest guys in the room playing on your team.

It's not important that the people the investment banks hire really are individuals of the highest calibre. What's really the most important thing is that the perception that Wall Street investment banks hire only the best legitimizes why they can charge the astronomical fees they charge and how they can get away with the financial equivalent of murder when things fall apart. After all, if the smartest guys couldn't have saved the day, whocouldhaveknown???

In my mind, this doesn't seem so different from how the Singapore government insists on academic excellence in its highly credentialed acolytes, and has metrics like the infamous Current Estimated Potential. It's part of the reason why the government can make the boldfaced claim that we have to pay the highest ministerial salaries in the world to keep the good people we have in government, even if the actual performance of our ministers seems to be mediocre unremarkable. 

Second: In her book, Ho talks about the myth of "increasing shareholder value". It's like a religion to investment banker types. Everyone in investment banking drinks the Kool-aid and uses the shareholder value argument to justify all kinds of business actions, such as mergers and acquisitions, even though years of academic research have shown that M&As typically destroy more value than they create. But investment bankers can't just sit on their asses doing nuffin'. Got to git them fees rollin' in.

The irony of course, is that the more bankers talk about creating or increasing shareholder value, the less they actually improve it. The opposite is truer more often than not.

Within the Singapore context, the concept of shareholder value is obviously irrelevant. Instead, here, GDP growth is the overriding concern. And every civil servant in Singapore is subject to what I call the tyranny of KPIs.

With regard to GDP growth, the problem is not growth per se, but the quality and sustainability of that growth. What use is growth if it is goosed by massively unsustainable immigration policies, finanical repression (think forced savings, high residential property prices, and low interest rates paid on depositors' funds) and suppressed wages? Worse, the positive aspects of growth are not spread evenly but accrue to those at the top of the income ladder. Yet we reward our highest civil servants and elected officeholders chiefly on the basis of this number. Is it any wonder that we have achieved spectacular GDP growth, but that the fruit of this Pyrrhic victory is bitter indeed?

As for KPIs, the concept is not unsound in theory, but excessive adherence to KPIs blinds the user to other, less tangible measures of performance. If something cannot or will not be measured, then it can't be important, can it? One is reminded of that story of the man searching for his lost keys beneath the streetlamp on a darkened street.

Like the red herring of shareholder value that bankers put forth, we have ministers and CEOs and other high priests telling us that such and such KPIs have been met or even surpassed. That everything is going according to plan. Yet that fails to assuage the disquietude in so many of us, that there are things happening here which are viscerally wrong. Like income inequality. Housing (un)affordability. Rising costs and the fast fading possibility of a comfortable retirement. Or any retirement for that matter. Of how this Singapore ... this place, just doesn't feel like home anymore.

Third: The investment banking industry has notoriously low job security. Job turnover is tremendous. You would think that investment bankers, hired and fired so easily, would have some empathy for the massive numbers of layoffs they're directly responsible for when they advise their client companies to layoff and outsource operations to cheaper countries. Turns out to be the opposite, according to Ho's research. Apparently, it is precisely because bankers have to hustle all the time in their highly volatile industry that they have precious little sympathy for others who can't do the same. Not being able to scramble when the times call for it is considered by bankers to be a personal failing rather than an unfortunate consequence of circumstances.

The highest levels of government in Singapore operate the same way. It's dog-eat-dog within the Admin Service, as is well known, and everyone there aspires to be the top dog. As a purported meritocracy, it was designed that way. A fall from grace from that height would be ... crushing. As a corollary, our senior commanders in the SAF devote great amounts of energy feathering their own nests and constantly keep half an eye on that coveted ministerial, GLC or statboard position for post retirement.

In such a situation, the problems that ordinary people face become mere abstractions, to be described in clinical terms like "structural unemployment". The same sentiment underlies brazen, clueless and flippant exhortations of workers to work "cheaper, better, faster".

That the highest levels of our government are paid handsomely for their work could in fact, be part of the problem, and it's not just me saying this. Research from Harvard indicates that "The More Leaders Make, the Meaner They Get."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Coping with Public Transportation

The recent fare hike change to a distance-based charging formula for the public transportation system has upset quite a few people. Although I have not had the opportunity to check exactly how much my public transportation expenses have increased (I live a 5-minute walk away from my workplace), I am certain I am one of those negatively affected since I take mostly trunk services and avoid transfers like the plague.

This post isn't about me ranting about our ... flawed... public transportation system. I have commented on it previously here and in particular, "Why our public transportation system should be a cut above the rest.". I consider the latter to be one of the better posts I have written. 

This post is about me embracing my inner anti-establishment self, and exercising my engineer's creativity. 

In addition to being inherently anti-establishment, frankly, I'm disgusted with how a number of things are run in our country.

So I opt out. For instance, I've opted out of local media (don't watch TV and while I read the newspapers, I ignore the columnists and dispense with the entire paper in 15 minutes flat), and I tune out local events (like Formula 1 and YOG, *shudder*).

Unfortunately, as I don't drive, I can't opt out of public transportation. Much. And it's not like driving sets you completely free of "the system" either, what with satellite and GPS-based ERP on the horizon.

But there have to be some creative ways of opting out of public transportation at least partially right? Some way of coping with public transportation, so to speak?

Here are a few that I can think of:

1. Premium bus services. Heck, if you're going to pay more anyway, might as well get a premium product. More information on the LTA website

2. Park-n-ride. Only available to those who drive. Not very useful, I know. Still worth mentioning though. Again, see for details.

3. Free shuttle bus services, often associated with out-of-the-way shopping malls. The most complete list is probably here, though it has not been recently updated.

4. Cycle or run to work. You have to be the sporty type though; let's face it, our culture and our climate are not conducive to a casual city person's Velib type service. As for running, well, you have to be in reasonably good shape to actually commute by running. When I used to work on a semi-regular basis at MINDEF, I ran home from work about once a week, traversing the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve by using a variation of one of my regular routes. I would enter the forest via the Dairy Farm Road entrance and exit out via Jalan Kampung Chantek, then continue running on to home.  

5. Use a Segway. I've long fantasized about zipping past bumper-to-bumper road traffic during peak hours by segging (is that even a word?) along pedestrian pavements that run parallel to roads. Don't take this as literal advice though; I have no idea as to what the legality of using Segways on pedestrian pavements is in Singapore. Knowing our government, they would probably just as soon ban it as someone decides to do it.