Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Disempowered Generation

The Sunday Times, October 31, 2010.
A Disempowered Generation, page A14

Content from the original article was scraped and is available here with an...impassioned discussion.

Only in Singapore will career politicians reframe a political problem so that it appears to belong to the citizenry and not to them.

He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. 'I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth... We don't really feel comfortable in our country any more.'

Mr Goh's reply was one of deep concern. 'This is one early [early to the clueless, perhaps. Emphasis mine.] sign of danger... If this is happening, it is very serious.'

He asked Mr Lim why he felt disconnected.


'This is your country,' SM Goh replied. 'What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?' [Note the defensive posture, emphasis mine]


News flash to Goh Chok Tong: If young Singaporeans are feeling disenchanted, disenfranchised and dissatisfied (I could have a field day with "dis"), it's not OUR problem. It's YOURS.

Young people are the bedrock of the nation. They are the future upon which the country is built. Just telling us to think positive and look at things purely from your privileged Senior Minister's perch isn't going to magically make all the negative feelings, which are grounded in real causes of your doing, go away.

The world is becoming smaller. For better or for worse, people are a lot more mobile now. It's one of the little consequences of globalization that Singapore has so readily embraced.

Telling the most mobile, talented and arguably, valuable demographic of your nation to suck it up and deal with it is practically laying out the red carpet for us to emigrate. Why not? Even if we wanted to hang that massive millstone of an HDB mortgage around our collective necks, even that has been priced out of our reach lately.

Marriage, family, kids to anchor us here? In case you haven't realized, those life stages are being postponed later and later. No thanks to you.

Voting out the current government to agitate for political change that's more responsive to our needs and aspirations? You should be so lucky we have that option. If we did feel our votes counted, fewer young people would feel so disenfranchised that they feel they need to move to a place where they actually have a voice. Sorry, again, political dissent and change is no-go in Singapore. And again, we ask, whose fault is that?

'If that is prevalent among young people over here, we've got a real problem,' SM Goh said. 'If the majority feel they don't belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I [GCT referring to himself, emphasis mine] doing here? Why should I [GCT referring to himself, emphasis mine] be working for people who don't feel they belong over here?'

Apparently, our politicians are beneath even the banksters responsible for the worst financial crisis in generations. At least bankers are satisfied to be paid lots of money for wrecking the global economy. Our dear Chok Tong doesn't just want millions of dollars in compensation, which he already gets. He wants to be loved and valued for his work too, by people who feel they belong here.

Funny, I thought the whole point of paying our ministers so much money was to counter the appeal of the private sector and its big bucks over the virtues of working in the public sector. I mean, the reason why we pay you so much was because there was the assumption (asserted by you and your compatriots) that talented people prioritize money over everything else. And here you are claiming that you want to be working, not just for money, but for people who care about your feelings?

What are you, nuts? Bi-polar or something? Afflicted with some affective disorder? Or perhaps you're not the talent we thought you were, since you need more than just millions of dollars. And while we're on that, if your feelings matter, why don't ours?

Let me reiterate my main point. The way young people feel is not our problem. It's YOURS. let me spell that out in case you don't understand one or more parts of it. Y-O-U-R P-R-O-B-L-E-M.

Your government is like a company giving their resigning staff an exit interview, asking for honest feedback, and then systematically rejecting criticism by saying, "It's too bad you feel that way. We're not sorry about it and frankly, we think it's unjustified for you to feel that way."

Fine. Stay on your lonely, delusional moral high ground. Since you're governing in the interests of the foreigners flooding the island, and the top 20% of income earners that benefit disproportionately from your income inequality inducing policies, you guys deserve each other. We'll keep out of your way. Way out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

SGX buying ASX: There are projects and there are "projects"

It's old news that SGX is attempting to acquire ASX.

The merger is probably going to be value-destroying, as most M&A deals are. See here. The mature Australian market, the imminent loss of monopoly status for the ASX, and the massive amounts of debt AND equity that the SGX has to issue will probably drag down earnings badly in coming years.

The question to ask, of course, is the old Latin adage, "Cui Bono?"

SGX's senior management, and especially its new CEO, are the likeliest beneficiaries of any deal. They will reap massive bonuses for such a "bold" and "audacious" move should a deal go through. They might even be lauded as being "visionary" and showing "leadership". Not only that, as a helpful side benefit, CEO pay of financial institutions is highly correlated with the market capitalization of the institution. It's why banks have evolved to become TBTF.

When it's time to pay the piper, however, Magnus Bocker should have departed long ago to greener pastures. And the shareholders will reap a bitter harvest.

Why am I talking about this? Because the government doesn't operate so differently.

The government frequently rotates senior civil servants, especially scholars, among different ministries and government entities, arguing that doing so broadens exposure and helps senior civil servants to network with each other so the wheels of power are greased whenever things need to get done. We saw this most recently for YOG when everything including the kitchen sink was thrown at it to make it a "success".

What is less commonly known is that highly motivated Type-A civil servants like to leave a distinguishing mark on their most recently assumed 2-5 year appointment, a giant ego-stroking "I was here and I did [insert grandiose, high-falutin' project]". Kind of like a mongrel cur leaving a huge stinking piss stain to obliterate the mark left behind by the previous dog.

Indicators of such propensities include but are not limited to: 

a) making deprecating remarks about one’s predecessor’s efforts, particularly remarks that have just the right balance of both obsequiousness, condescension and outright disdain [can’t be too obvious about it, right?].

b) insisting on a new five-year roadmap after just two years into the previous one [which was the length of tenure for the previous appointment holder], with an ironclad requirement that the new roadmap must be sufficiently different from the old one.

c) spending a lot of money underwriting a huge project with nebulous objectives, vague sounding actionable plans, lots of buzzwords, and making sure that it enjoys heavy publicity and the appearance of consultation.

It hasn't been uncommon encountering itinerant, know-it-all, hard-to-please dilettantes in my professional life. I call the phenomenon "Gai3 Chao2 Huan4 Dai4". On a practical note, a proposed project that takes more time to complete than the tenure of the local emperor is usually DOA.  

For c) above, do not ever mistake such a project for a vanity project. A vanity project is frivolous and wasteful, but ultimately transparent and relatively pure in intentions.

Such projects serve deeper, more mercenary objectives, namely to elevate the appointment holder’s prestige, and to pad the resume in a quest for a loftier appointment two or more years down the road. Hardly a vanity project; there’s an important goal firmly in sight, just not the one written in the project proposal.

The especially annoying thing is, when reasonable people point out flaws or problems with such a project, it's never the criticisms that are addressed. Instead, the loyalty of the critics is loudly called into question, their judgment or their lack of "vision" is rubbished, and they and their opinions are otherwise dismissed, naysayers and doubting Thomas' all.

In Singapore, the YOG was only just one example in recent memory. There are, of course, others. Here’s a recent one, for instance. Read the last comment in the article and you will see why.

Friday, October 8, 2010

ACS - Weekus Horribilis

Some disclosure and preamble:
I am an ex-ACS student, and the just resigned principal was principal for three of the four years I was there.

It's been a fun week for the ACS family. NOT.

First, Dr Ong Teck Chin abruptly resigned after an inquiry was made into "inappropriate behavior". Then, not a week passes and ACJC has to deal with the shocking revelation that two female students had been filmed making hot lesbian love in a school toilet cubicle, and the video had been subsequently circulated among students.

First story here, second story here. And full transcript for second story available here.

I'll deal with each story one by one. 

Dr Ong should be considered innocent until proven guilty of behaving "inappropriately" towards one of his male teachers.

That said, I think we can all imagine what "behaving inappropriately" means. And where there's smoke...well, you know.

If the teacher was a woman, and I don't mean this in a bad way, there might be some who might question the veracity of her claims. But in this case, because the teacher was a man (let's face it, in a sexual harassment case, it's very rare for a man to play the victim card unless he really was a "victim", and even then...), I'm inclined to believe that there's solid evidence of inappropriate behavior.

Although, one does have to ask: If the teacher did have extensive evidence, that's an awful lot of instant messaging, email and voice recordings to have if it was just a case of harassment.

Either Dr Ong had been really persistent (looks like somebody' s still getting it up in their 60s), or there was something going on that just might have been consensual, and then turned sour. But that's just speculation on my part. Too much trashy TV might have something to do with it.

Somehow, all this just reminds me of Lord Browne and his boy toy. Or Ted Haggard. Or any number of other Christian leaders who have fallen by the wayside.

I am an alum of ACS, and I should properly be shocked, upset or outraged.

But I feel none of those things.

I'm actually amused. A little tickled. Oh, what the hell, I'm experiencing paroxysms of schadenfreude-laced pleasure. I'm a bad, bad person, I know. =)

The thing is, one of the indelible memories I have of my time in ACS was getting railed at every single Monday morning during chapel period. Far from being healing and uplifting, it was an almost toxic experience.

If it wasn't on the sins of having lustful thoughts, it was the evils of "satanic" Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, Magic the Gathering trading cards (go figure), or the dangers of rock and roll music. There was one time the school even invited an American ex-gay minister to preach at the pulpit.

Well, the irony is rich indeed. With this sexual impropriety scandal involving the principal, it's always fun to see the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou types experience the cognitive dissonance of reconciling their pre-conceived notions with reality.

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Dr Ong since he's going through hell right now (although if he was hitting on one of his teachers, it's his own damn fault), but I have no sympathy for those at ACS who are distressed by the turn of events.

Turns out that men who have the hots for other men don't just include effete, breathless, hand-wringing types. Or promiscuous, depraved sexual predators. Who knew they could also be fine, upstanding scholars, officers and gentlemen? Hello gay sociology 101, welcome to the real world, folks.

And then there's the ACJC scandal. Quite apart from the reprehensible behavior of students secretly filming other students doing the horizontal tango and then circulating the video, which is already a huge deal to handle, Kelvyna Chan now has a full-blown crisis to deal with because of the gay dimension as well.

Guess she won't be taking over Dr Ong anytime soon.

There's just no good way to deal with the ACJC scandal because our straitlaced culture and societal norms make even talking about anything involving gay people or gay sex taboo and uncomfortable. This is what happens when people sweep stuff beneath the carpet and ignore reality. Conversations that should have happened in the open during less tumultous times now have to be had on terms much less appealing. 

Make no mistake. The filming and dissemination of the sex video was an malicious act that should be severely punished. The "having sex in a public place and hence invitation to be filmed" argument isn't an excuse.

But because there are undoubtedly ACJC students like this one: 'What I saw disgusted me,' said the second-year student, who said he could not bring himself to continue watching the rest of the clip, there will inevitably be some quarter of the student population who will somehow view this incident as okay because it involves victims whom they would consider as sexual deviants. Two girls who had it coming to them.

Because a frank conversation on sexual differences probably has never taken place at ACJC, how is Kelvyna Chan and the teachers at ACJC supposed to impress on their students that this kind of behavior, secretly filming other students having sex, is not acceptable, no matter who is involved?

How are they going to reassure their students that the school is a safe environment for learning? Not just for the kids who are still experimenting sexually, but for the collection of misfits, oddballs, and unconventional types that you find in any school who aren't part of the alpha clique of cool kids? Who's going to be safe from the Plastics at ACJC if the school doesn't send a strong message that this is unacceptable? 

And if ACJC is really serious about discouraging kids from having sex at that vulnerable age, really, how useful are your abstinence-until-marriage sex-ed classes going to be for the segment of your student population for whom marriage is irrelevant? Like, hello? If you don't even acknowledge their existence, how are you even going to start that conversation with kids who are confused (or sure) about their sexuality?

I think Kelvyna Chan must be secretly glad the two girls have transferred out of her school. She can't expel them just for having sex; that would invite accusations of sexual discrimination. Yet, if they weren't expelled, there would have been a firestorm of protests from concerned parents that ACJC was degenerating in their moral standards. Remember, this is ACJC we're talking about. The same God-fearing Methodist folks who think Magic the Gathering cards are from the devil, to say nothing of sexual perversion.

So, the two girls have transferred out. Now, Kelvyna just has to decide what to do with the students responsible for the filming and circulation. Good luck with that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book List Refreshed!

I have removed:

And then there's this by Bill Wasik
Falling Behind by Robert H. Frank
Liquidated by Karen Ho
Constructing Singapore by Michael T. Barr and Ziatko Skrbis

I have added:

The Pose Method of Running by Nicholas Romanov
Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet by Michael T. Klare
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Quick thoughts on the Sunday Times, 3 October 2010

I haven’t had much time or inclination to write on substantive topics lately, but I’ve still had some thoughts. Just not enough to write lengthy posts on.

I’m starting a new tag, “quick thoughts”, to denote short posts that deal with random topics. Today’s quick thoughts are responses to the Sunday Times, 3 October 2010.

“Inflation Up: How to make your money work harder” – Invest, Page 30

No mention by Lorna Tan on the hardest inflation hedge of all: gold. Disclosure: I’ve been heavily invested in the precious metals for the past 2 plus years or so. That gold is still not mentioned in the mainstream media is great news; it means it hasn’t entered bubble territory, yet.

As always, I make no claims to offering investment advice. I do not share the gains or losses of readers, so make your own investment decisions. If you are at all interested in precious metals, please do your own research.

Personally, I’m invested in gold and silver exchange-traded funds, BUT not GLD or SLV. There have been some allegations or suspicions of fraudulent dealing by both. My holdings are in ZKB and ZSIL, both managed by the Zurich Cantonal Bank. Why? You’ll have to do your own research to figure out why. One thing to note: these two exchange traded funds are traded only on the Swiss Exchange, and the last I checked, only one broker in Singapore offers access to the Swiss Exchange, and that’s Saxo Capital Markets.

“Rail-life Stories” – lifestyle, Page 8

The closure of Tanjong Pagar railway station and its relocation to Woodlands is understandable. Sad, but understandable. It’s not just the land that the station sits on is prime and can be redeveloped, but also all the land that the railway currently sits on.

Still, it would be nice if we had the equivalent of a Grand Central Station or Union Station in downtown Singapore. I love the romantic look and feel of grand railway stations, and I have fond memories of Union Station. As a student at Hopkins, I used to take the train between Baltimore and DC when staying in Baltimore got too boring. Also, air tickets from Dulles International Airport were sometimes substantially cheaper compared to tickets from BWI airport.

High-speed rail between downtown Singapore and downtown Kuala Lumpur would lead to all sorts of positive synergistic effects.

“Screen off the sun” – Pulse, Page 10

I’m not a fan of sunscreen. I apply it to prevent sunburn, not out of a desire to be fair (heck, I’m a guy) or prevent skin cancer.

Unknown to many, there is a sunscreen controversy brewing out there. In a nutshell, there is some evidence to suggest that sunscreen, ironically enough, may increase the risk of malignant melanoma.

Personally, I’m more concerned with vitamin D deficiency. More and more studies have found vitamin D to be implicated in many crucial metabolic processes, and it's unclear if each of us is really getting the amount we ought to be getting. What compounds matters is that if we avoid sun exposure, there really aren’t that many dietary sources of the vitamin, especially if you don’t fancy dairy products.

Coldwater fish oil is one non-dairy source. The problem is that to purge fish oil of contaminants like PCBs, most reputable fish oil supplements, which are touted for their Omega acid content, are probably devoid of vitamin D, thanks to extensive purification processes.

So far, I haven’t found a really satisfactory solution. If you take fish oil, there are good fish oil products out there, like Carlson’s fish oil, which unfortunately isn’t available in Singapore, but still, it won’t provide you with Vitamin D. Personally, I just take Michael Pollan’s advice to eat food. So here’s to an extra serving of saba and shishamo whenever I eat Japanese.

Oh and contrary to Mary Schmich's advice, I'm laying off the sunscreen unless absolutely necessary.