Sunday, December 30, 2012

An eventful few months

This is a personal post, meant to update the people who actually read my blog whom I may not have met in some time.

[Yes, as odd as it may seem to the people who read my blog for my insights into current affairs, this blog still does serve the purpose of a journal of my thoughts and experiences =)]

I ended a brief relationship a few months ago. It was my first real relationship. I learnt a little about myself, but more importantly, I learnt with certainty that I need not be in a relationship to be happy. It would be nice to have someone of course, but to be with someone with whom things are not working out should not be a goal to aspire to in itself.

M., if you are reading this, I do treasure the moments we spent together. It is rare for me to put into words in the public domain an intensely private experience, but here it is. I should not allow the moment to pass before the desire leaves me.

It means something to me that you touched my life in a positive way. If nothing else, being with you gave me a push to move forward in my life. When things ended between us, I told you that I did not learn much about myself that I did not know already, and that is true, but I did grow from our time together.

Perhaps it is true that we prepare our previous partners for better relationships ahead of them in the future. If so, I hope that I left you with something that will enrich the relationship with whomever you will be (or are) with.


I passed another one of the actuarial exams which I had taken in October 2012. Results were released less than two weeks ago. Another step to qualification as a Fellow in my plan to complete a career transition from research engineer to actuary.

The result was not unexpected; I generally know once I see the exam paper on test day itself whether a pass is in the offing or not.


I found a new job. Surprisingly enough, it was the job with the very selective requirements that I blogged about in a previous post.

Turns out one interview (albeit a very long one at two hours) was enough to cement their confidence in me.

After a number of career setbacks, it was a strangely affirming experience to have someone else validate my view of my own abilities. It also didn't hurt that the new job came with a large pay rise that exceeded what I used to draw as an engineer.

Then again, perhaps it was because my new bosses are American and new to Singapore. Unlike other hiring managers in the industry, they did not have the convenient fallback of hiring only from a pool of people of known quality that they already knew, as I blogged about previously.


I'm currently in progress on a personal project that may or may not help in my new job. Learning Python and the Django framework to allow me to build database driven websites.

This was related to a project proposal that I had submitted which unfortunately did not get funded. However, that doesn't necessarily mean the project will die.

In time to come, with the skills that I intend to acquire, I may embark on the project on my own anyway.


After a hiatus of a few years, I returned to the Pokhara valley in Nepal for two weeks of advanced paragliding lessons. Sarangkot beckoned.

I was originally signed up for an SIV course (Simulation d'Incidents de Vol -- french for Simulated Incidents in the Air).

For a good idea of SIV, see this video. It's not a course for the faint of heart; it involves simulating adverse incidents in the air and learning to recover from them under radio instruction. Basically, doing all the things you are NOT supposed to do while in the air. Ironically, this makes you a much a safer and more confident pilot, now that you know the limits of your glider.

For safety reasons, SIV is almost always done over a large water body, like a lake.

Well, I bailed on the two friends of mine who were also doing the SIV course. Instead, I found out about and switched to a concurrently running thermalling course which I thought would be better for my development as a pilot.

As it turned out, the thermalling course involved learning some SIV maneuvers as well. Looks like I would get plenty of opportunity to scare myself as well.

Only the SIV pilots got to do the really scary stuff: spins/SAT, full stall/backfly and reserve parachute deployment.

However, I had the same opportunities to do frontal collapses, asymmetric collapses, B-stall, dynamic turns and wingovers.

Bottom line: Amusement theme park rides now hold absolutely zero appeal. My adrenaline threshold just got raised again.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wearing Abercrombie and Fitch in Singapore - How declasse

One of the things I've written about in the past is on how as mass immigration has enlarged our working and spending population in Singapore, international brands are increasingly finding it attractive to locate flagship stores here to capitalize on a lucrative market.

Hence, Singaporeans no longer need to venture out of the country for their togs from the likes of say,  Topshop, Gap, Banana Republic, H&M and Abercrombie and Fitch.

The irony is that now that the clothes are widely and easily available here, they've noticeably lost their edginess and exclusivity. It was one thing to wear Gap when it was not available here, it's quite another when it is now easily available and no longer exclusive.

[Sidenote: Up until several years ago, Gap in fact manufactured some of its clothes in Singapore. This was before it started distributing its clothes here.]

Worse, unbeknownst to many, some brands have become totally uncool in their home countries, like Abercrombie and Fitch for instance.

Disclaimer: I am not a fashionista. I hate shopping for clothes. In fact, I hate shopping period. So, don't take what I write as fashion criticism, cuz it's not. This post is a meditation on how ironic it is that the people who think that they're being fashionable wearing A&F are in fact the height of uncool.

Frankly, I'm amazed every time I see an otherwise well-groomed person on the street wear Abercrombie and Fitch (or Hollister). If I meet someone new for the first time, and they're wearing Abercrombie and Fitch, I automatically dial down my impression of that person.

Don't these people know what the brand stands for?

Abercrombie has carefully cultivated the youthful preppy WASPish look, and coupled it with its racy catalogs adorned with half-dressed models. I have nothing against the latter, except that it's boring and unremarkable in today's increasingly porned world (see The Porning of America in my reading list), but the former is certainly something I reject completely.

This is a company that has been subject to lawsuits for racial and sexual discrimination. A simple Google search would throw up the results for anyone curious enough to find out more.

Just a few months ago, controversy struck in South Korea over the bad behavior of its models at a store opening.

For most Singaporeans who are ethnic Asians, to aspire to wear the vaguely white supremacist label of A&F is, in a word, bizarre. And if you're a straight male, a little weird too, seeing as how the advertising for the brand is famously homoerotic.

But all this is probably intellectual claptrap for the trendy wannabe fashionista in Singapore still wearing A&F.

Problem is...the brand itself is rapidly losing cachet among its target demographic in the United States, as well as among youth fashion tastemakers. It's "passe", according to a group of high school students in the US, who were unanimous in their dismissal. That's the true fashion death sentence.

The sex-soaked marketing campaigns are looking dated, and it's not just me saying that. One article here and one article here for reference. The money quote from the second article, from Bloomberg Businessweek:

“Abercrombie is still running an offense which is a huge banner of a bare-chested guy with a cute girl who’s not wearing enough clothing,” says David Maddocks, a former chief marketing officer for Nike’s Converse label who now runs a brand consulting firm. “It’s vacuous, there’s no core idea there anymore.”

A&F is an object lesson in how NOT to market to Millenials. They're dropping the ball on reaching out to this key demographic. And the final flourish at the end of the article:

So far, Abercrombie’s woes at home haven’t hurt its popularity in untapped markets. Its Hong Kong flagship, which opened in August, logged more than $1 million in sales in its first five days. Abercrombie is considering more locations in China and the Middle East. Still, in a hyperconnected world, it won’t take long for the brand’s fading cool to catch up with shoppers in Dubai and Shanghai, says Lindstrom.

"Vacuous" is an accurate description of the brand's adherents. The really cool fashionable people in Singapore wouldn't be caught dead in A&F, and that it takes an unfashionable person like me to point that out to the wannabes, well, that's just the patina on their rapidly fading cool.

PS: No moose (meese?) were harmed in writing this post.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly."

Earthbound, but practice makes perfect.

Ground handling at Woodlands Drive 17. Light winds, overcast.

Credit to J. for the pic.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SMRT Strike - Breaking the sacred chain of command

Yawningbread had a post on the recent SMRT bus strike. In his post, he commented on the ineffectiveness of official channels for dispute resolution. Here’s the pertinent section:

The government has also said, repeatedly, that workers should have “discussed” their issues with management. Knowing Chinese workers, I am sure they have, many times and loudly. It’s in their nature. The problem is that the system is stacked against them. It’s a very Singaporean system: where lower-rank people don’t have rights to justice, but can only plead for better treatment. It’s a microcosm of the political system this government has created. Citizens have no substantive rights; they can only plead for their wishes to be taken into account. There’s a term for this: The petitionary state.

My first reaction to this was: but the Chinese workers came from *the* original petition state (see here for instance), so surely they should comprehend the Singapore system perfectly. 

But I digress. Snarky humor aside, I have another insight to share. But first, let me tell you a story.

I used to work in a division of a quasi-government company headed by a former SAF general. He had a pet peeve, and here when I use the word “peeve”, I really mean (from the perspective of the general) reprehensible, egregiously bad behavior that deserves to be excoriated in the strongest possible terms.

You get the idea.

This pet peeve was what the general called “breaking the chain of command”.

He would expound on the importance of the chain of command every time a complaint surfaced from the staff at the ground level, bypassing him to reach the ears of human resource, other senior management, or the CEO himself.

In simple terms, he hated it every time a problem in his division cropped up without coming up through the official channels, namely through him. He probably thought it made him look bad, which to be fair, is a pretty logical deduction to make.

His take was that even if a problem required the CEO’s intervention, the request should be escalated through him rather than brought up directly by the individual.

It never occurred to him that part of the problem was with him, that some staff were either not comfortable coming to him with their grievances or that they felt their concerns would not be properly addressed.

The uncharitable would add that most people avoided coming to him because they expected (correctly, as was unfortunately often the case) that his initial reaction would be to stonewall them.

In my experience, the expectation of the general that all staff adhere to the chain of command was really not that unique of a trait among SAF personnel, both former and current. I clearly remember the commanding officer of my NSF battalion espousing a similar sentiment.

The point of the foregoing story is this:

Our government is stuffed to the gills with people who think this way, from former fulltime professional soldier officers like the recently anointed Chan Chung Sing and Tan Chuan Jin, to our Prime Minister who formerly held the illustrious rank of Brigadier General.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the government likes to stress the importance of working through official channels when it comes to resolving disputes.

There are lots of issues worth exploring here.

One issue is whether recourse can truly be found through official channels in Singapore. Whether you think so or not depends on how cynical you are, and whether you have had firsthand experience navigating the system.

Yawning Bread has brought another issue into his post: namely the lamentable state of our petitionary state. That sounds quite anodyne really. I prefer to call it the PAP’s dictum to Singaporeans to “Be silent and be governed.” Citizens’ opinions don’t matter until seats in Parliament are suddenly up for grabs. The recent national conversation is really just a grand exercise in perception management.

My preferred issue to focus on is what this strong aversion to anything that doesn't originate from official channels tells us about the decision-making processes in the higher echelons of the Singapore government.

That the government constantly stresses that labor relations (and other matters by extension) can only be negotiated only within the ambit of official channels indicates that the government:

  1. Cannot handle uncertainty. Our officials are world champions at planning, but are frequently caught flatfooted whenever a situation develops that they failed to anticipate. That’s not to say that other governments do better all the time in unscripted situations, but a tendency to over-plan typically means less of an ability to adapt to a changing situation. The fact that even elections are carefully choreographed affairs is not complimentary of our cabinet ministers. For supposed consummate actors in the rough and tumble world of politics, our ministers are in a word, coddled.
  2. Cannot handle negative media attention. This has to do with point (1) above. Our officials are bad at adapting to dynamic situations. When was the last time we had a minister answer unscripted questions posed to them by an independent journalist or interviewer who had not been warned implicitly or explicitly to go easy on the minister?
  3. Has an attitude that no news is good news.
  4. And that what isn’t surfaced through official channels doesn’t exist and is hence officially NOT A PROBLEM. In other words, the PAP likes to operate within its own personal reality distortion field. Too bad they don’t have the charisma of Steve Jobs as well cuz they sure as hell need it.
Point number 4 above is the most important point. But the other points are related in that the PAP has been so effective at building a safe, controlled political environment for itself that it has started believing in its own propaganda and hence frames its governing decisions accordingly. That's a dangerous place to be, drinking your own Kool-aid.

The upshot of seeing things surfaced only through official channels means tunnel vision, and all the associated bad decision-making that goes with it. And we haven't even brought in the stonewalling that all too often blocks what you can see of the information that floats up through official channels.

Case in point is the recent SMRT strike where unhappiness had in fact been simmering on the ground for months.

The remarkable thing is that considering Singapore is so small, so tightly controlled and with such a precisely defined and controlled government machinery (including the media), that the government still cannot get reliable information and act on it is a severe indictment of its ability to sense-make and come to effective and appropriate decisions.

Who knows what other problems are out there just waiting to explode? All thanks to the reality distortion field associated with the chain of command.

But again, I come to the stupid or evil hypothesis for the PAP, which I can never decide between. Are they really that dense, or are they just plain evil and actually prefer the status quo, which while detrimental to the resilience of our society, benefits themselves and the entrenched power elite.

See Jon Stewart for a more elaborate explanation of the stupid-evil dichotomy.

I am personally more inclined toward the evil hypothesis, but I am also reminded of Hanlon's Razor.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SMRT bus driver strike - 2 years early, but still proven right

Today, local media reported on a strike by SMRT bus drivers hired from mainland China.

Local media called it a "dispute". The headline on asiaone read "SMRT bus drivers refuse to go to work".

What's that called again? Yeah, in other countries, it would be called a "strike", specifically a "wildcat strike" (raise up your hands and do the air quotes, people)

More than 2 years ago, I wrote a post on the unintended consequences of immigration. You can read it here.

I was early by 2 years, but still proven right in the end. Since I was proven right, it's useful to go back to revisit what I wrote because even I can't remember what thoughts were percolating through my mind back then and what *other* predictions I made that may eventually pan out as well.

The pertinent section from my 2-year old post:

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'.


Perhaps our numerous generals-turned-cabinet ministers can advise us on what the national security implications are of depending so heavily on foreigners, when fully one third of the warm bodies here are not your typical compliant docile Singaporeans. That should be one area that they can truly claim to have expertise in.

If there has ever been a national policy document that details the risk-adjusted cost-benefit analysis of mass immigration, I'd certainly like to see it.

Book List Refreshed 27/11/2012

I have removed:

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely
The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
Currency Wars by James Rickards

I have added:

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely
The Vanishing Face of Gaia by James Lovelock
Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson
The Porning of America by Kevin M. Scott and Carmine Sarracino

Monday, November 5, 2012

On the Narrowness of Job Descriptions

Given that my current job is pretty much a moribund dead end of a position (I previously described it as managing 2 aunties who have been doing the same thing for 50+ years between the 2 of them), I have been looking for another job.

I haven’t been looking very hard, largely because my current lack of industry-relevant experience and contacts makes it difficult to move to another position. How I got my current position was pretty much of a fluke really. To put it briefly, my current boss needed to fill the position at short notice and seeing as how there were no takers inside or outside the company (like I said, “moribund”), he thought it would be a good idea to put someone who had the maturity and capability to lead a team, but who wasn’t really in a position to bargain for better terms.

On hindsight, it really was something of a poisoned chalice.

To put it simply, I am performing a manager’s role with an executive’s pay. The money issue doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as the severe curtailment of opportunities for professional development. I am getting paid slightly more than a fresh graduate, but with very little direct supervision or work given to me that is interesting or important for professional development. And I have to deal with the aggravation of managing 2 aunties who are, to put it mildly, a little set in their ways. It’s likely that I will leave my current position in 6 months or less, new job offer or no.

But I digress from today’s post, which is on how absurdly unrealistic the requirements for some jobs are.

A recruiter contacted me recently regarding a position that had opened up, which he thought would be suitable for me.

I gave the OK for the recruiter to send my CV to the company, but quite honestly, I’m not expecting any callbacks. My CV is probably there to provide “contrast” to stronger candidates (not that I think there will be many serious CVs that actually fit the bill, you’ll see why in a moment).

The potential employer for this position is looking for a number of things. Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that I don’t really meet many of the requirements in the job description. This post isn’t an exercise in sour grapes.

I’ve reproduced the job description below along with my interpretation of the requirements and my other comments. You can also find the JD here.


Associate - Innovation Solution Center (Strategy and Management) Asia, Singapore
Central (Singapore) - Raffles Place / Shenton Way
Associate - Innovation Solution Center

Center for Innovation, Strategy and Management; Asia - Singapore

Budget: S$5k to S$6k per month

Summary of Responsibilities:

1.        Develop algorithms, datasets and models that support Health and Benefits field consultants
         The employer is asking for financial modeling experience, specifically in the realm of Health and Benefits consulting.
2.        Build prototype tools to test new concepts and demonstrate potential functionality and assist in revisions and improvements to existing models
         They want rapid prototyping experience, as opposed to carrying out routine procedural work. This implies some form of concept development and/or creative input.
3.        Develop reporting templates and interfaces for use by field consultants and clients
         They are looking for skills in designing and developing reporting dashboards. This implies not just software engineering skills, but also some usability engineering expertise. Obviously, the knowledge of what goes into the dashboard needs to come from existing experience in Health and Benefits consulting.
4.        Document models and algorithms to facilitate programming by developers and educate client consultants about functionality
         They want solid communication skills, especially in technical writing. Not unreasonable to ask for, but technical professionals that are strong in both their technical skills as well as communication skills tend to be uncommon, and quite well paid.
5.        Work across multiple internal departments to develop and execute on project requirements and business testing
         They’re looking for some form of project management or coordination experience. This is not a formal project manager role, so this is probably less heavily emphasized, which explains its low ranking in the list of requirements.

  • Bachelor's degree in a Technical Science, Mathematics, Actuarial Science, Statistics, Economics or related field
  • Strong mathematical background and familiarity with insurance and financial concepts
  • Track-record of independent learning and technical problem-solving
  • Demonstrated ability to work collaboratively in a team
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Ability to develop and communicate creative solutions to technical problems
  • Interest in pursuing actuarial exams and certification is a plus
    • Though not particularly difficult relative to other technical fields I’ve experienced, completing the actuarial exams is time-consuming, tedious and arduous. It’s certainly not something that everyone would want to do.

Technical Skills: 
  • Strong understanding of software technology and computational models
  • Project experience in Microsoft Excel and Visual Basic for Applications
  • Project experience in Java, Microsoft.NET(C# or Visual Basic) or other object-oriented coding environment
    • Seriously, are they looking for an actuary/statistician, or are they really looking for a software developer?
  • Experience in working with and manipulating large data sets and/or databases
    • Is that code (sic) for experience with SAS, Oracle or some other database system? Why not just out-and-out ask for SQL fluency? It’s not like they haven’t already requested for familiarity with specific languages in the previous requirement (C# and VB).
  • Web development or mobile-development experience is a plus
    • So, application development for a Windows environment under the .Net framework isn’t quite enough, but they want some development experience with what essentially amounts to iOS and Android as well. Probably to cater to their smartphone-toting field consultants.

If it isn’t clear by now, I’m highlighting what are the unrealistically demanding requirements for this position, advertised for the “princely” sum of $5k to $6k per month.

This ad is targeted at least in part at actuarial professionals. As a benchmark, actuarial science fresh graduates with an average number of actuarial exam passes can realistically expect something in the low 3k range, with rapid salary increments once they start passing exams. And these are kids without any work experience, financial modeling-related or otherwise, and probably no formal training in programming in any language.

Heck, even your regular fresh graduate who finds work in a bank could probably pull down something in the 4k range.

And yet, for all that they are asking for, this potential employer is offering not very much more in compensation terms. Let’s not even talk about the opportunities for training and exposure that other roles may offer, or what this position essentially amounts to: a backroom support role to field consultants with probably limited opportunities for further development.

Salary aside, is it just me, or are job descriptions these days written so narrowly that no one could possibly meet all the requirements unless they were doing exactly the same things in their current or previous job? In the case of this particular job ad, I’m not even sure what they’re looking for: an actuary, a statistician, or a software engineer?

Seriously, if I was the hiring manager for this position, I probably wouldn’t even bother with placing job ads, not unless the salary offer was much improved. The fact that this job ad has gone out to so many different recruiters probably means the employer hasn’t been very successful in sourcing suitable candidates that tick all the boxes.

Bear in mind that in the more recent versions of this job ad (which has circulated far and wide among many recruiters), the ad calls for at least 5 years of experience. The part on the estimated salary of 5k – 6k was noticeably missing in those ads. I guess someone in the company got the memo on realistic market rates for salaries.

One thought that did cross my mind was that the hiring manager would probably have had better luck scouring the graduate student lounges of the applied math departments at the local universities. The grad students would at least have extensive computational and mathematical modeling experience, and fluency in a few programming languages. Granted, the average applied math grad student would probably have greater fluency with R or Python than C# or VB, but still, that’s way more programming proficiency than the average actuary based in Singapore, experienced or not.

And that 5k-6k package probably wouldn’t look shabby next to a graduate student’s stipend.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A word on *that* mindshare survey - the importance of framing

The results of the Mindshare survey first published in the Business Times, and subsequently blogged about everywhere should be known to most Singaporeans who consume online news content.

While I believe that the survey results are broadly reflective of citizen sentiment on the ground, and I am most definitely not a pro-government apologist, I'd like to highlight the importance of framing of questions on surveys of this kind, and how they could influence the survey results.

In my mind (sic), I think the questions in the survey done by Mindshare were poorly phrased. In fact, they were far too leading to be considered well-designed survey questions. More likely, the survey was designed to elicit some form of expected reaction (which would have been anticipated by the surveyors), which would then be parleyed into some kind of media circus (which arguably has happened in the anti-establishment blogosphere).

Tellingly, no serious blogger whom I actually consider noteworthy has commented on the results of the survey. Granted, I probably am not a voracious consumer of online content. Still...

I have reproduced all six presumably Yes-No questions in the survey below. Beneath each question is a parallel version that I have written which I submit would return quite significantly different results.

When you have read all the questions, return to the first one and appraise all the Mindshare questions in their entirety. You will see that they are quite far from being neutrally phrased, and you will appreciate the power of framing in influencing survey results.

MindShare: I don't believe that I will be able to retire comfortably in Singapore.
My version: Do you think that you will be able to retire comfortably in Singapore?

MindShare: We cannot afford to get sick these days due to high medical costs.
My version: Do you think medical costs are affordable or too expensive in Singapore?

MindShare: Public housing prices are getting out of hand these days.
My version: Do you think public housing is reasonably priced today?

MindShare: I should not be spending my entire working life paying off my housing loans.
My version: ...

Honestly, this question has zero value. It has the blatant appeal to emotion behind it, which is why I said earlier that the survey doesn't pass the smell test of a bona fide study. 

The real kicker is not that 75% in the Mindshare survey answered "yes" to this question, but why 25% did NOT answer "yes". I can't imagine why anyone who has an operating brain cell would answer "No, I don't agree" to this statement.

MindShare: Political leaders are paid too much these days.
My version: Would you say that political leaders today are paid too little, too much, or at reasonable levels?

MindShare: There are too many foreign workers taking up job opportunities in our society today.

Depending on what you were specifically looking for, this question could have been framed in many different ways, all of them much more neutral than the Mindshare version, and all of them possibly yielding different responses.

My versions: 

Do you feel disadvantaged looking for a job in Singapore today due to the large foreigner population in Singapore today?

Do you think the large number of foreigners in Singapore makes looking for a job harder (for you)?

Given the large foreign population in Singapore, do you think the number of job opportunities is reduced?

Do you think the number of foreigners in Singapore has affected the unemployment situation?

Mindshare: Singaporeans should be granted priority in employment.

Ah, this question is very easily manipulated to give the desired response, once a suitable interpretation of the result is trotted out. Some examples...

My versions:

Do you think employment should be based on the principle of meritocracy?

If a foreigner is more qualified for a job than a Singaporean, do you think the Singaporean should still be given priority in employment?

All other things being equal, Singaporeans should be granted priority in employment.

If Singaporeans cannot be found to fill certain jobs, those jobs should be made available to foreigners.

Moral of the story: be very careful when reading the results of such surveys. Sometimes, the questions are more telling than the answers themselves.

Friday, October 19, 2012

This is Singapore, I thought everything needs money?

Overhead in the elevator at work...

Woman 1: You mean you've never been to a Ladies Nite before?

Woman 2 (in a PRC accent): No, never. I normally don't walk into bars anyway. Besides, this is Singapore, I thought everything needs money?

Never a truer word spoken...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reflections on a retrenchment exercise

So, my company went through a restructuring this week. As part of the restructuring, 16 people were let go. 

Given that most of my working experience up until last year had been in the public sector, the retrenchment process was something new to me.

A senior manager in my own department was let go, not 2 weeks after she had given birth. It was an interesting juxtaposition of fates: here was someone who was my own age, but had chosen right from the beginning of her career to work in the industry, and as a result had climbed very high. Her salary was easily more than 3 times my own, and she managed a team of more than 10 people, all of whom were probably paid more than me.

In contrast, little old me who had to take a pay-cut to start anew in the corporate world remained employed, albeit in an unenviable position. I’m low on the food chain, and manage a small team of two aunties who, between the 2 of them, have remained in the company for more than 50 years, doing mundane but essential work.

This isn’t a post where I gloat with schadenfreude. Indeed, the retrenched manager was well-liked in the department and was known to be a high performer. However, in the words of the CEO, it is “an unfortunate reality of corporate life” that sometimes positions get made redundant.

A well-meaning colleague contacted the retrenched manager at home while she was recovering from childbirth. Despite the generous severance package and the reassurance that the retrenchment in no way had to do with her performance, she admitted feeling sad.

That got me thinking.

Here was clearly someone who was a confident and successful businesswoman. Yet, in the aftermath of being made redundant, even she took a hit to her emotional state.

Today, most people invest considerably of themselves in their careers, and derive not just money, but also a sense of identity from the work they do. It is telling that a standard question that we often ask within the first few minutes of meeting someone new is, “What do you do?” And perhaps more tellingly, nobody in this age thinks that this is strange or unusual.

In contrast to how we view our own careers, corporations largely view employees today as independent business partners who are contracted to render services under conditional terms. It is not natural for most of us to view ourselves this way, but given workplace realities, perhaps it would be wise to.

As an aside, it has not been lost on me the irony that in many job descriptions today, “passion” is often listed as a required quality. I reserve a special hatred for how that word has been co-opted by the modern corporation and how it has been cheapened and degraded beyond all recognition. Christ had passions, the suffering artist has passion, the toiling scientist at the bench has passion, the community organizer and political activist has passion…passion should not be demanded of your average corporate drone; instead, it should be unambiguously described as enthusiasm to perform unpaid overtime.

But I digress.

Because I suffered setbacks very early on in my own career, I learnt early to sever the relationship between my job and my sense of self-worth. The experience of the retrenched senior manager validates this decision I made so long ago.

Here was someone who was a noted performer and had invested much of herself in her career, and as a result of being retrenched, felt keenly the psychological impact of being let go.

This is not to say that we should not strive in our chosen career, but that it would be wise to, as I have stated in a previous post, to diversify one’s own identity.

Understand that you are more than the person who takes the MRT to your office, sits at your desk in front of the computer, and answers emails and works on spreadsheets and Powerpoint slides 10 hours a day (or more).

You can derive much satisfaction and a sense of achievement and competence from your work, but do not allow yourself to be defined by this. From a humanistic perspective, you are more than this. From a pragmatic perspective, not everyone has the unerring single-mindedness, talent, opportunity and good fortune to become a Steve Jobs or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, people who have reaped the enormous psychological rewards of investing substantially all of themselves in their work and been successful.

In Singapore, I wonder how the lack of appreciable work-life balance exacerbates the already formidable effect of involuntary unemployment on self-worth. Perhaps the reason why the Japanese salaryman pretends to go to work for months after retrenchment, for fear of breaking the news to his wife, is precisely because he is Japanese and a salaryman. Could not the same be said for the Singaporean salaryman?

We already know the lack of substantial safety nets in this country for the unemployed and how it affects families and individuals. But in a country with admirably low unemployment but terrible work-life balance, the impact of any economic crisis could be especially debilitating on the nation’s collective mental health. Who knows how that might pan out in a true crisis?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book List Refreshed 28/08/2012

I have removed:

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Dying of Money by Jens O. Parsson
Cornered by Barry C. Lynn
Cyber War by Richard A. Clarke and Robert Knake

I have added:

The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani
Tiger Head, Snake Tails by Jonathan Fenby
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Google Autocomplete: Why is Singapore so...

As inspired by another blog noted in this article...

Basically, the idea is to type "Why is Singapore so" into Google and see how Google autocompletes the query. That way, you can tell what most people are really thinking about this little red dot (and no, it's not about our food, at least not in the way you think).

The valence of the results matters prominently. Most results have negative valence. As the originator of this idea stated, most people tend to search for reasons for negative rather than positive phenomena.So, don't be offended by what you find here.

I did the Googling so you don't have to. Partial queries in bold, in case you want to verify the results yourself.

*Drum roll* please...

The answer to what people think about Singapore?

Why is Singapore so hot, rich, boring and expensive? (Aye to that.)

And the various fun-fun combinations... Take note especially of the order in which the queries are autocompleted. Remember that Google's algorithm sorts by likelihood of the query.

Why Singapore needs immigrants, need foreign talent, banned chewing gum, is so hot?
Why are Singaporeans so rich, kiasu, selfish and unfriendly?
Why are Singapore cars so expensive, and girls so difficult? (Oh, I love this one. Ladies, take note. You're a pain, but less of a pain compared to COE.)
Why Singaporeans migrate, are so stupid, don't recycle and waste food.
Why do Singaporeans hate China, hate foreigners, say la and migrate?
Why Singaporeans like to complain.
Why Singaporeans love to buy property and love food. (note that Google prioritizes property above food. Apparently, condo launch beats prata, laksa and char kway teow hands down.)
Why Singaporeans hate filipinos, foreigners, indians and malaysians?
Why Singaporeans don't recycle, do not recycle, don't splurge with profits and don't want to have children.
(PAP shills and sycophants, and assorted political observers, take note. The environmental lobby here is becoming stronger and stronger.)

This is a gold mine of information. Short, pithy, and you get an inside line on what people are really thinking in the privacy of their Internet searches.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The drive for more babies...and the wrongheadedness of the approach.

The government is getting there...but still does not quite get it. Or chooses not to get it. Or believes it can have its cake and eat it too. Wishful thinking.

There were 2 articles and an editorial on encouraging Singaporean couples to have more babies. Very briefly, the first article was on NTUC pushing for 6 months paid maternity leave and an option to take a further 6 months unpaid. The second article was on changing employers' mindset to make for a more baby and mother friendly work environment. Finally, the editorial was on how a holistic approach was needed to encourage more babies, ranging from more hands-on fathers, to affordable childcare and preschool.

I shall deal with these one by one.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

The government had previously extended paid maternity leave by one month from 3 to 4 months, with our taxes picking up the tab. This was over and above the Baby Benefits, which are really tax breaks that are applicable only to those families that make enough money to pay taxes.

I will say this even if no one else wants to say it. Our Baby Benefits are targeted at couples in the upper middle class and above to have more kids, and no one else. The provenance of new babies matters to our government; heaven forbid that the poor go forth and multiply. This is one more example of how our government's policies favor the rich rather than the less privileged.

Let's also not forget state subsidies for in vitro fertilization, which is largely an option open only to the upper middle class.

After several years of the fertility rate continuing to languish at below replacement levels, I think we can conclude one thing. Throwing money at the problem, and increasing maternity leave is throwing money at the problem, is not a solution.

Why do I say increasing maternity leave is throwing money at the problem? Because no one makes the decision to have kids, a lifelong commitment, just for one or two more months of leave. Just like no one is fooled by the government's one-off or X-off GST rebates and Medisave top-ups in the face of what are permanent GST hikes and increased Medishield premiums.

My opinion on baby benefits has evolved over the years. Today, I believe that the couples who desire kids will have kids regardless of these Baby Benefits and perks. And those who won't, won't. The benefits are really just gravy for whoever already wants kids. In which case, these incremental benefits are a waste of tax dollars.

Is having a few months of maternity leave important? Yes. But is increasing it from 4 to 6 months going to help boost the fertility rate? No, I don't think so.

Thinking that applying the Scandinavian approach outside Scandinavia will work reflects an appalling lack of big picture perspective.

The second article was a wonder in naivete and ignorance.

In it, Ms Cham Hui Fong spoke on wanting to create a mini Denmark where there was high GDP growth, high female participation in the workforce and a high fertility rate.

Honey, we live in one of the most unequal societies on earth, where money is worshiped like a god, status is tied to how much you make and how much you spend, and the myth of meritocracy has taken root like the state religion. With meritocracy, you should get what you deserve, but the flipside is that you resent when people get what you feel they don't deserve. This is about as far from Scandinavia as you can get.

In a Scandinavian country like Denmark, the income and wealth distribution is relatively flat and taxes are progressive and high. This lends credence to the ideals of shared sacrifice both among individuals and companies, income redistribution, equal opportunity, societal values where family and relationships are prioritized, and work environments where workers are respected and valued.

In Singapore, GDP is what is valued. Economic growth is what is valued. Every time some form of social assistance is broached as an idea, the bogeyman of higher taxes is trotted out, we are reminded of what it will mean to our collective pocketbooks, and the idea is shot down.

Ms Cham is part of the establishment. She should know. We live in a society where we are taught to hold our noses to the grindstone early in life, that we need to scramble constantly for advantage.

Ms Cham spoke of changing employers' and colleagues' mindsets, saying that "Women need the peace of mind that they are not being victimized and marginalized just because they have a baby or have to spend more time at home."

Well, honey, guess what? In this country, when companies like SMEs are compelled to give say, 6 months of maternity leave, they feel victimized. In this country, when the norm for most working professionals is to knock off at 7, 8 pm, or even later, if they have to pick up the slack for a colleague on maternity leave, they feel victimized. When an unmarried worker has to shift their work patterns on account of flexi-work arrangements made specially for a worker with kids, they feel victimized.

Am I being anti-family? No, I am not. I am simply speaking of the realities on the ground. If we lived in a country where everyone knocked off at 5 pm and could go home and relax, the environment would be naturally kid-friendly and no one would bat an eyelid at maternity leave, paternity leave or family-friendly work arrangements.

But we don't live in such a country. Ms Cham talked about changing employers' and colleagues' mindsets. I have a news flash for her. You need to change the entire country's mindset.

A holistic approach is needed. 

Isn't it always the case? The editorial has it right in that affordable and available childcare and preschool must be part of the equation. I don't think the lack of hands-on fathers is a problem anymore, particularly among the upper middle class that the government is especially anxious to see reproducing.

However, I have one caveat to add, and this is linked to my second point above about changing society's mindset.

While it is thought to be important, providing greater and greater incentives to encourage couples to have kids may in fact, prove to have a divisive side-effect in this highly unequal, mercenary society of ours.

The benefits provided so far are in fact a form of affirmative action, but the reason that nobody complains is because most people see themselves starting families and having kids at some predefined point in their lives. But that may change in the not too distant future.

We already see sizeable segments of the population choosing not to have kids for various reasons. There are the avowed singles, the childless couples unwilling to sacrifice their careers and lifestyles, the LGBT community, and the marginalized minority, such as single parents.

In a Scandinavian country, such generous benefits would, as I have mentioned, not cause a furore, but be seen instead as a societal good.

In a country like ours however, some people may take issue with these benefits instead. Remember, we live in a country where being single practically bars you from owning your own home due to stratospheric property prices, the lack of a housing grant and affordable HDB loans, and being shut out from the market for new HDB flats.

Who can tell when benefits become too generous and arouse disgruntlement and resentment among sections of the population? I know I myself feel some disquietude already.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance and City Harvest Church

In the midst of the scandal involving the Pastor Kong Hee, City Harvest Church has come out strongly in support of their disgraced leader.

It may seem prudent to wait until a verdict is delivered, but the evidence is heavily weighted against Kong Hee and Co. And I do mean company; they ran the church like a business, selling packaged experiences, religious "happy meals" as someone close to me is wont to call them. There's an old saw: "The best way to rob a bank is to own one." I might add owning a church makes more financial sense than owning a bank. It's far more tax-efficient.

As for whether I think Kong Hee is guilty as charged, oh I do not doubt that at all. Remember,  a former church member had been vilified for asking just too many questions about the church's finances. The lack of transparency almost always points to some form of shenanigans behind the scenes (This, I might add, would probably apply to more than one large local financial institution).

Although it may seem counter-intuitive why City Harvest is so strident in their support, frankly, I'm not surprised. Even Charles Ponzi had his "supporters" after his fraudulent scheme was unmasked.

The Psychological Blog offers one perspective. I'm not going to quote it here, except to mention that the section on cognitive dissonance is germane.

The noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said: 

"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

There is no one that City Harvest Church wants to convince more on the integrity of its leaders than itself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Scenario Forecasting - Singapore 201X

I'm not a regular reader of Senang Diri, but his latest post seriously irked me.

As much as I get the idea behind him exploring the security implications of a political transition to a non-PAP government, the post was heavy on the scaremongering and extrapolation ad infinitum, and thin on substance.

And the final flourish? "This is Year 0 and Singaporeans have gotten the government they deserve." Subtext: You would be a fool to risk the PAP falling from power. Better the devil you know, than the devil you don't. Stay safe: vote for the men in white.

You know what that sounds like to me? Too big to fail. Like banksters holding everyone hostage while they pile up their bonuses and construct their grand plans for everyone else. Having the PAP continue to have their way is no reason to feel secure. Quite the opposite in fact.

While flaneurose may not have as many page views as Senang Diri, I think I too will channel my inner Peter Schwartz, and try my hand at scenario forecasting.

I'll take creative licence to scaremonger and extrapolate endlessly too, but let me paint for you a different, and dare I say, more plausible scenario for Singapore in 201X.


With the massive debt overhang from decades of trade and fiscal deficits, largely brought on by the abandonment of the gold standard and the Bretton Woods system, as well as having in possession the exorbitant privilege of issuing the world’s reserve currency, the US government’s debt situation finally comes to a head in 201X.

The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back are the massive debts from the Great Recession of 2008 that were never written off, but were instead transferred onto sovereign balance sheets. The Federal Reserve and the US government, captured by financial and special interests, continues their destructive policy of quantitative easing in an effort to inflate away debts and avoid writedowns of US debt. They are confident that the US dollar will continue to maintain its reserve currency status as “there is no credible alternative”.

Meanwhile, the European Union (and the UK) first implodes under a mountain of debt, then breaks up in spectacular fashion. Belatedly, the European Central Bank also revs up its own printing presses to arrest the crisis, but the damage has already been done.

China, being a mercantilist economy more dependent on its trade partners than it cares to admit, prints as well, keeping the value of the Yuan low to maintain export competitiveness and export-driven growth. But global markets will have none of it. Demand has dried up everywhere. Meanwhile, the massive amounts of bad debt in China’s state banking system start to take their toll. The shadow banking system in China also starts to exert profoundly negative effects on the economy. Stir in a real estate collapse into the mix, and you have politically destabilizing developments in China as once reasonably prosperous Chinese citizens revolt against a situation where growth turns negative for the first time in a generation.

Debt-ridden countries make the conscious decision to default on their debts, either through outright repudiation of debt, or through stealth default via inflation. Inflation everywhere runs at a rate of at least 7% per annum for the foreseeable future. Interest rates respond by rising concomitantly, leading to more rounds of default. The astronomical notional value of derivatives in the global financial system acts as an accelerant to the crisis, nay, apocalypse.

Global trade and commerce dries up everywhere as developed countries that formerly ran trade deficits erect trade, capital, currency and immigration controls to ringfence their own economies from global economic turmoil, and to husband their most valuable resource: domestic aggregate demand. These measures are largely implemented by politicians swept into power on a wave of nationalistic sentiment and a revolt against the status quo. A new era of trade protectionism dawns.

Small countries highly dependent on external trade and capital flows, and who have deliberately structured their economies that way, are the biggest losers.

In Singapore, the economy suddenly grinds to a halt from a reversal in the hitherto-thought unstoppable trend of increasing international trade and globalization. At the same time, with globally high inflation and interest rates (and bond yields), the real value of Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, tied up in various “investments”, plummets. All of a sudden, the emperor wears no clothes, and is poverty-stricken to boot. Needless to say, the Sing dollar isn't looking pretty. Singapore politicians start to panic, torn between digging into the kitty to fight the crisis or leaving untouched what has sudden been cut in half, or worse.

The large foreign professional workforce starts leaving, either for better prospects elsewhere, or at least home, where the living is cheaper or where social safety nets exist, albeit greatly diminished in real terms. This provides cold comfort to the average Singaporean professional, as the number of jobs is vanishing faster than the competition for them.

The sudden loss of such a large proportion of the population creates an accelerating downward spiral in the economy, extremely difficult to reverse even if the will to apply massive fiscal stimulus did exist. Politicians who are penny pinching in good times are unlikely to loosen the purse strings in tough times. The austerity hair shirt beckons. And of course, the local real estate market, fueled by debt and capital flows from since the previous decade, starts to implode. Debt, again, shows itself to be a problem even in the formerly prosperous city state.

Meanwhile, the poor unskilled foreign workforce remains in Singapore, abandoned by irresponsible employers, unable to return home, or unwilling to do so since they borrowed heavily to pay for passage here. Crime of all stripes, petty, violent or venal, starts to skyrocket. The authorities respond by forcibly deporting undesirable foreign elements. Expect riots and violence to ensue.

Too bad the authorities can’t deport the bottom 30% of the local born Singapore population as well. Struggling right through the good times, their collective living situation deteriorates even further into the teeth of the crisis, unrelieved by substantive social safety nets, real or imagined, permanent or stop gap. *They* start to contribute to societal disintegration as well.

The top 20% of the Singapore resident population, fatly fed from the boom years, treated with kid gloves (see Woffles Wu) and feted by the government, start to reconsider their choice of home. After all, they aren’t Singapore citizens, not really, since they’re actually “global citizens”. Turns out the Boston / London / Switzerland / *insert city of reference here* of the East is a lot grubbier than once thought. Hey, if the formerly top property developer here had the tagline of “Own the Original”, why not “Move to the Original” too?

So the elite of Singapore leave, taking their wealth with them. I would not be surprised to see more than one cabinet minister's family among them. The people who were formerly the toast of the town now toast their goodbyes and take off, tossing the last flute of champagne aside at Jet Quay in Changi Airport and breezily swanning through the departure gate. Of course, they don't forget to collect their goodies stashed at FreePort on the way out. 

If you’re smart and lucky, well, you might just be able to slip away right on their heels. Do turn off the lights when you leave.

For everyone else, enjoy the darkness.