Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hougang's Story: Upgrading abode but downgrading quality of life

In the recent by-election episode, Hougang residents highlighted a paradox of our quality of life.

Upgrading our public flats, provisions of sheltered walkways, lift access to each level of our abode bring about an improvement of our quality of life no doubt, at least from the day-to-day aspect.


Such provisions of hardware are invariably associated to our political choice in our unique political climate. In simple words, we have to sell our votes during election in return for these hardware even though some of them, such as lift access and sheltered walkways will never be part of our personal possessions but the public. 


As such,  do we then gaze beyond the facade and usefulness of these hardware and think of some other aspects that impact the quality of our life deeper and wider?

Such as the persistent inflation, meaning high cost of living including medical care and education which form an essential part of living, especially to young couples for family planning and care for their parents.

When we enjoy the shade of the walkways on our way to the nearest bus stop or train station, have we given up on the reliability of our public transport which was once our pride; is the possibility of a price hike by the transport operator always at the back of our minds? Can the shade of the walkways shelter us from the ominous dark clouds of cheaper foreign influx that loom above our heads as these immigrants will replace us imminently?And when that unfortunate day does come, will there be  re-employment opportunities of the same pay and benefits for us? If not, how do we invest in our young and support our old?


While admiring the refurbished look of our public flats and estates, do we not feel the stress of the increasing cost of goods and services that seep into all aspects of our lives? In education, in medical care, in transport and in retirement. That will eventually erode our retirement funds, if we still have any left for retirement after combating the rising cost of living with our existing salaries, and on the assumption that we could still hold on to our jobs till our retirement.


I love modern and convenient hardware like any other residents. However, I cannot overlook the harsh reality on the grounds that will ultimately eliminate the meagre, short-lived benefits that come with the refurbishment. In fact, these votes-exchanged hardware provisions will invite more nightmares to our lives in the long run as our endorsement at the ballot box endorsed the direction which the current ruling party is bringing our nation to.


The sheltered walkways offer no comfort when I am thrust with a big medical bill of my parents that will inevitably eat into my retirement funds. I'd rather shelter myself with an umbrella in exchange for a more affordable medical care. I'd rather have a less pleasing looking estate in exchange for the current price of my food and services. The inflation rate for April is 5.4% (Here) and this is the rate that is here to stay for years. Can you imagine the price of my rice in twenty year's time when I retire based on the current pace of inflation?


Voters do have the ultimate right in deciding the kind of quality that they would like for their lives.

However, Hougang residents value their quality of life over the longer term than superficial hardware benefits. At the ballot box, they manifested their objections to the policies formulated by the current political party that inflict long term pain and stress on our citizens--young, mature and old alike. The Hougang residents saw through deficiencies of the current policies.



The Hougang residents opened my eyes to the hidden price tag of the hardware provisions that will be ultimately borne by all the people of this nation.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ferrari Crash—An epitome of Singapore’s future


Sit tight. Fasten your seat belt. We are going for a rough ride from here. And the seat belt could no longer warrant your safety. And I am not talking about road safety over here but the future of this island-state-nation for our citizens.  

Last weekend, a Ferrari beating red lights crashed into a taxi at a junction at 4am in the morning. The accident claimed three lives, including the Ferrari driver and injured two others (thank goodness the motorcyclist survived despite being the most unprotected vehicle user). The irresponsible act of one driver, a super rich Chinese national, to cause irreparable loss to two families. Especially saddened by the demise of the taxi driver who was working night shift on that fateful night as the sole breadwinner of his family of five. He was declared brain dead on the same day but hung on for 39 hours before succumbing to his injuries.

I couldn’t help but to see this accident as the future of Singapore and thus, feel even more disheartened by this mishap.

In this accident, 5 casualties were involved. The Ferrari driver and the passenger are Chinese nationals; the taxi passenger who was killed was a Japanese; and the taxi driver and the motorcyclist are both Singaporeans. Of the 5 people on the road at a random time at a random place, only two are Singaporeans. This is the growing reality of Singapore nowadays. Just this year alone of road-related fatalities, more foreign nationals than Singaporeans are involved : a Chinese national hijacked a taxi and ran down a Malaysian cleaner; a Chinese national bus driver killed a Malaysian pedestrian; a Malaysian bus driver killed a pedestrian….Yes, the situation where the proportion of foreign nationals is overtaking the natives could only get worse, judging from the recent series of justifications of more foreign nationals needed, determined by our pedestal leaders who possess more wisdom than mundane creatures like us.  

Foreign nationals overtaking natives in numbers is already happening now and there is no reversal to this situation. But this is not the only phenomena that the Ferrari crash presents.

Of the two Singaporeans in the wee hours of the night, one Singaporean was working—the taxi driver. The purpose of the motorcyclist out at this hour was unknown. All the other foreign nationals were most probably having a Friday night chill out. Driving taxi for long hours is tiring and it is an occupation with zero benefits: no paid or sick leave, no bonuses or medical benefits. But this is a common option left for people who were retrenched in their mid careers who could no longer find employment in their previous industries despite their experience, given the unfair competition which some foreign nationals have with their cheaper labour and their presence in every industry.

The disheartening fact which this unfortunate accident highlighted, is that the helpless average working Singaporeans, in this case, the taxi driver, will be run over by the super rich, represented by the Ferrari driver. Pun intended. We are already run by the super rich for the last two decades. In the future, average Singaporeans will be run over by even more super rich, locals and foreign nationals alike. Ran over and crushed. Similar to what the Ferrari driver did to the taxi driver. Although in a different circumstance.

Singapore’s playground for the rich is growing bigger and faster. Look at the number of sports car growing on our roads and luxurious bungalows springing everywhere in the last decade. Luxurious malls for the super rich are mushrooming. Foreign nationals are lured to this growing pool of wealth too.

Undeniably, their wealth allows the rich to game the current system which for a start is pro-rich. Given their wealth, natives or foreign nationals alike, they can afford to flout all rules and regulations. Like that Ferrari driver.

This pool of wealth boosts real estate, businesses and landlords. And they can afford to grow wealth from their ready wealth. Salaried employees benefit little from that influx of wealth. In fact, they have to pay for the rising cost of living in consequence of that. No, I don’t buy into Tharman’s logic that inflation only affects those who will be buying houses and cars only.  On the facade, prices of housing and cars contribute substantially to inflation.

But inflation affects everyone. When prices of cars and housing are soaring high, the cost of transport and the high rental charge for businesses and retails will be eventually passed on to the consumers in the form of other commodities. And inflation is increasing from year to year. If we add up each year’s inflation, despite not buying houses and cars each year, the inflation for commodities, utilities, transport fare, medical and education costs are very, very real.  On the other spectrum, wages are not rising faster than inflation. In some unfortunate cases, wages actually fall or became stagnant. In short, salaried employees who do not possess any property to flip or to rent out, are fighting an eminent losing battle against the rich. The super rich feel little pinch from the inflation and profit more from the inflation via real estate.

Back to the Ferrari crash analogy, there is only that number of working hours a taxi driver could work per day. And the cost of running his taxi will definitely increase—have you ever seen fuel costs or rental for taxis coming down? His real income will be wiped off by the rate of inflation eventually and there will come a time where his income will not be able to cope with the living cost, no matter how prudent he chooses to be.

Inflation comes crashing on average Singaporeans fast and furious. Won’t be long before that crushes us to crumbs.

Policy-makers, the Ferrari driver in disguise, crush working Singaporeans in two ways: (1) allowing cheaper immigrant influx to control the rise of local wages for the benefits of the rich; (2) allowing super rich influx to sustain the current “economy” to benefit the super rich. 

Either way, average Singaporeans will be crushed.

价格与价值


是有区分的。价格指的是金钱上的标价,而价值是非金钱、主观的标价。

只懂得以价格来衡量一切的人,包括对人命,永远无法掌握任何事物和行动的内在价值。One who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

因此,来自金融业的新任部长为了要重整狮城没落的道德,决心从教育着手。于是,拿了一袋金子,来培养学生用有良好的品德。唯有金钱的诱惑才能让自己“决定”拥有良好“品格”的动机叫“利欲熏心”。砸钱来培养品格,只能反映出当事人看不懂什么是发自内心的品格。

要求地铁局在月台上设置栅栏,以确保搭客安全,避免重演搭客意外跌下月台的事件。地铁局的劈头反应便是:设栅栏的费用不小。对地铁局来说,一条人命的价值比不上挂牌公司的利润重要。

要求提升低薪工人的待遇时,让各界惊恐得犹如海啸当前那般。一桶又一桶的冷水泼下来。抱歉,企业的开销压力必须由工人全权承担,以保全中小型企业以及海外企业。员工的切身生计以及日益加剧的通膨压力事小,吓跑外国企业事大。只能怪工人自己命苦。

面对人口老化的事实,要求降低医药价格,以减轻医药负担时,那名重金聘请的天才理所当然地建议狮城儿女把父母送去邻国的医疗中心。因为那里比较便宜。对眼睛只看懂金钱价格的人而言,无法要求他明白道德的价值。

就因为价值是无法标价,所以是无价的。因为无价,所以更不可能随着价格的起落而摇摆不定,也不必等待金钱的肯定,所以也不用金钱来推动个人的行动。

当然,眼睛里只有标价的人自然无法理解。

扭曲的成与败


英国伦敦地下铁工人在最后一次的罢工行动中为自己争取到五万英镑的年薪(约新币十万)。

重点并不是这些地下铁工人是否贪得无厌,而是这样的待遇比大专学府讲师,甚至是一些从事金融业者更丰厚的事实。

不可思议是吗?蓝领工人的待遇竟然高于白领工人。

可是,又为何不呢?

地下铁工人不重要吗?没有了他们,瘫痪了的伦敦繁华不起来。清道夫低贱吗?少了他们,狮城肯定难保干净的美名。

可是,我们惯用“不好好读书,以后就去路边扫地”这样的价值观来鞭笞孩子努力学习,不假思索地就否定了某些工作的价值。这样的价值来由何处?

狮城社会的那名总工程师拟定了成功的标准及人数,在观念上否定了运用劳力工作、站在前线的服务人员,顺理成章地在待遇上剥削他们,更巧妙地让这批人潜意识地接受了自己的“失败”。拟定这一标准的那名工程师只肯定“会读书”的人。

成功与失败的定义被人为地扭曲了。

一个国家的运作靠各阶层、各角色的分工。不可能只是一个人的功劳。试叫旷世奇才统领沙漠,把它变成先进国吧。再庞大的重型机器,少了该有的微小螺丝钉,就无法安全运作。社会是分工运作的,有策划者与执行者之分,是角色不同,而不是优劣之分。这道理,真的很简单。

伦敦地下铁的工人肯定自己的工作价值。英国水管工人每小时收费40英镑(约新币80元),凭相关的技能与经验完成工作。

反观狮城重金聘请的那个会读书的博士,面对狮城水患频繁时,只懂得以设置闭路电视观察水患程度来“解决”淹水问题。到底,谁的技能与经验更有价值?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My experience with public bus accidents/breakdowns


I am most fortunate to encounter 4 separate public breakdowns and minor road accidents on SMRT public buses in less than a year.

It is such experience that highlights the good work of some of our Singaporean bus drivers and the severity of the lack of training given to our current fleet of transport workers especially with the rising proportion of foreign workers into our public transport service.

Of the 4 incidents I encountered, two which involved road accidents occurred with the same bus route and coincidentally both buses were driven by foreigners (not sure if they are both PRs!) , a Malaysian and a Chinese national respectively. Honestly, in both accidents, I could not tell whose fault it was—the bus captains or the other motorists.

The other two bus break downs involved local drivers. The reason of me pointing out the nationalities of these drivers being, of these four incidents, coincidentally again, only Singaporean drivers could conduct proper breakdown procedure to the passengers involved, by issuing complimentary bus tickets for passengers affected to continue free-of-charge with their subsequent journey and also instructing passengers to tap out when leaving the bus.

In my most recent encounter of a bus break down, our Malay bus captain gave clear instructions and explanation in English of each procedure that I realized, for the first time, in addition to the given complimentary ticket, passengers actually received a refund straight away when they tapped out of the affected bus. I always thought that I have to travel to the bus terminal to get refund and because of the time and cost involved, I never did.

In comparison, on foreigner-driven buses, both bus drivers appeared hapless after the accident and had to call back to SMRT or stopping other buses for advice. Passengers were told to get off the bus with or without a complimentary ticket. And in one case, even communication between the driver and the non-Mandarin speaking passengers was an issue.

These accidents/breakdowns on public buses and in comparison with different groups of drivers, highlighted the importance of training the transport workers receive, to safeguard both the safety and convenience of passengers. Training is especially crucial to overseas-recruited drivers as driving in foreign road conditions with foreign language and commuters are very challenging. Therefore, training provisions must be sufficient to overseas-recruited transport workers to ensure the safety and convenience of both the commuters and the drivers.

Lastly, I would like to express my appreciation to those local drivers who have been upholding the standard of our public bus service, in the challenge of ever increasing number of motorists and public bus commuters. 

All Ups and One Down.


Was looking at SMRT’s 10-year annual financial reports in brief and the recent spate of intimidation and finger-pointing in response to Prof Lim Chong Yah’s urge for a revamp of wages for our workers to address the income inequality issue, came into mind.  

A series of intimidation followed efficiently from our Cabinet that wage increase without corresponding productivity increase will result in inflationary pressure on business costs and consequently scaring away businesses away from Singapore. Their bottom line is that productivity holds the key to any possible wage increase even though Prof Lim has already pointed out that our workers have been underpaid, meaning that previous increased productivity has not been compensated by adequate wage increase. Yet, we have to further increase our productivity before even dreaming of any wage increase. The irony is that our workers have been working the longest hours among the 12 countries in an International Labour Organisation 2012 Report.

More cold water is thrown in by MP Teo Ser Luck [Here]. He demands increase in revenues for business on top of the productivity increase as the pre-requisites for any wage increase. PM Lee Hsien Loong wrapped it all up as a Labour Day gift for all workers simply: Singaporeans, Stop! dreaming of higher wages.

Naturally, business owners and GDP-reliant government would cry out loud for increase productivity. But who could guarantee our workers, in black and white, that increased productivity would warrant a pay increase? Productivity increase contributes directly to revenue increase in the form of cost savings. Business owners are business owners afterall, coveting for profits. Increased revenues would not necessary translate into wage increase or proportionate wage increase. That is the reality which our Cabinet and MPs choose to overlook.

Take a look at SMRT’s net profits over a decade (Fig. 1). Net profits have grown 183% over the ten years with year to year increase in most years. Despite incurring a loss in FY 2011 and gaining a small increase in FY 2010, SMRT still bagged in over $160 million in the last three consecutive years.

(Fig. 1)

(Staff and related costs include directors’ fees and remunerations)

Fig. 2


Assuming Teo Ser Luck’s logic that growing revenues and increase productivity will bring about higher wages and using SMRT as an illustration, SMRT workers should have seen their wages increase by the same proportion, or at least, by a similar proportion. Over the course of ten years, SMRT’s staff and related costs increased by 70% in total (Fig. 2), inclusive of fees and remunerations of the directors, as well as the CEO’s. Much of this 70% is due to the huge increase in staff cost in FY2003 alone.

Looking at the average percentage increase per staff, subsequent years see cost per staff growth kept below 10% and in some years, an actual wage drop, meaning the average wage for workers did not see wages growing above 10% and were subject to wage cut in some years. This cost per staff will not be an accurate reflection of those staff below the ranks of directors and CEO, as any increase of this latter group of staff will distort the average wage of staff by a large extent. In cases where increment is only allotted to directors and CEO, overall staff costs will still increase.

If we compare the percentage increase in SMRT’s net profits year-to-year with that of the staff and related costs, wages seem to fall behind the net profit growth. FY 2007, FY 2008 and FY2009 saw a 31.08%, 10.38% and 8.5% increase in net profit respectively but subsequent FY2008, FY2009 and FY2010, staff and related costs per staff fell between 2.08% to 4.25%. FY 2005 alone saw a substantial 40.35% increase in net profits but it was translated into only a 2.3% increase in staff costs per staff in FY2006.

Although the figures shown here is a very raw form of illustration, it serves to highlight the fact that our workers generally are at a losing end where wage increase is subject totally to the mercy of business owners or top executives. And there is no organization or a strong and independent trade union, much less the ruling party, to literally fight for the welfare of our workers who were shortchanged in the first place.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

教育工厂(二)


看英国小学生的学习量,确实让人有点惊讶。

到了1112 岁,才开始学习分数(fractions)。处于一个英语单语社会,这个学龄的学生,当中还有不少会把“马”和“房子”的英文拼写拼错。

此外,他们的功课量、学习时间量,都不远及狮城学童。不必周日和假期补课。平时放学后,等待他们的并不是补课,而是课外活动。

学得少,是否就意味着学得好?

把同样的学生放在舞台上。只看到他们说、唱、跳,游刃有余。令人惊讶的就是说话的头头是道、表演时的信心满满。

让人思索,何谓有效的教育?是知识积累,还是技能的运用?

再看,英国培育出史上数位著名科学家,重视数理学科自然不在话下,却也没有像狮城那般唾弃人文科目,漠视人文科的价值,把人文科判定为成绩不佳的学生所选修的学科。

相反的,英国教育重视人文科里所包含的技能。因此,大专学府推出了由哲学、政治与经济所组成的科系。这样的科系或许会让狮城教育制度纳闷。因为在狮城教育的价值观里,三个学科中,只有经济才有价值。

然而,在英国大学,这是热门的科系。许多英国议员、政治领袖,例如当今的英国首相便是毕业于这个科系。

看英国的政治实况,没有乖乖就范的媒体和群众。想用歪理来蒙选民,媒体不会笑脸迎迎地照单全收。不管是国会辩论,还是自由讲,面对媒体或群众,议员、政治领袖都必须独立辩驳。

看来,只懂得用计算机来衡量价值的教育制度无法理解,真正的价值是无法计算的。

教育工厂(一)



英国朋友相告,英国首相有意效仿狮城岛国的教育模式。

我看了友人的电邮差点喷饭。

狮城产出的学生,多能在国际学术竞赛中脱颖而出;海外大学的考试成绩也辉煌无比。相较之下,英国学生望尘莫及。

然而,放眼全球的竞争舞台上,学业成绩处于领先地位的狮城学生,是否在职场上同样处于领导职位?回望狮城岛国,不论本地或是外国企业,事实是坐在最高领导位子上的往往是外国人,其中也不乏英国人。现实是,解决狮城水灾问题,请的是人口密集度远不及狮城的英国“专家”;建造地铁路线交由中国公司;第四搭客大厦设计也指定要外国设计师。

那些成绩数字完美的狮城学生,后来都去了哪里?

原来大都集中在能够肯定学业成绩的公共服务制度里。在制度的护驾下平步青云,呼风唤雨,却与实际生活脱钩。放生在真枪实弹的私人企业里,凭真本事坐上要职的有几位?

毫不讳言,狮城学生必学的数理知识量比英国学生大,学习时间也更长。然而,职场的现实却狠狠地打了狮城教育制度一巴掌。

生产出优异的成绩,却培育不出国家所需的专才?这便是狮城教育制度的强处。把教育作为生产线,根据指定模型,大量生产。产品有品质,却没个性。追根究底,生产的终极目标是,出产乖乖待命的员工即可。员工不许异议、也不能质疑。

然而,对于习惯扮演领导或专家角色的英国人而言,狮城的教育模式似乎与他们的理念背道而驰。

Us and Them. The Mystified Swiss Standard of Living.


Former Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was/is smirk about his attainment of Swiss standard of living for Singaporeans.

It is the year 2012 and we see that we are no where near the realization of GCT’s mysterious Swiss standard of living. It was his aspiration in the 80s.

Public housing, 110 square meters big, sold with a 99-year lease, unashamedly at half a million Singapore dollars, burdening next generations with future housing debt and devouring their retirement funds; no life-pensions for retired workers (save for the ministers who retired before 2012), forcing elderly who cannot afford to retire to work as cleaners, clearing tables; unaffordable medical costs which children raid their own CPF funds to pay for their parents’ healthcare; continual exploitation of those earning less than S$1000 each month by rejecting minimum wage; increasingly unreliable and costly public transport while the bid of certificate of entitlement to drive a car costs more than the actual price of the car itself; open-gate policy to foreign influx to sustain businesses at the expense of depressing local wages.

Nevertheless, GCT chided people who were cynical of his Swiss standard of living, with the claim that Singapore has already achieved the 1984 Swiss standard in 1994, 4 or 5 years ahead of time [Here]. Effectively, we are enjoying the Swiss standard now, yet so elusive to the large numbers of us. GCT gleamed about their “achievements” as they “surpassed their expectations”.

By his definition, the mystified Swiss standard of living refers strictly to the GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) of the Swiss in 1984. He proudly noted that Singapore’s GDP per capita in PPP was ranked 4th by 2009, throwing the US, Switzerland and Japan behind Singapore.

It was the pursuit of the GDP figures only, not the QUALITY of living that matters. He was misunderstood, unsurprisingly, by Us.

There exists a huge irreconcilable gap between Them and Us. Them as the ruling party that monopolizes all decisions for our nation, and Us, the people who made noises against their monopoly. We speak different languages although using the same words. We did achieve the Swiss standard, meant exclusively for the top earners only.

Explaining explicitly why GCT felt the substance of the Swiss standard of living in Singapore whereas a substantial number of people felt otherwise. Also, the foreign influx gives very good massage to the GDP figures and thus, serves Them well but detrimental to Us.

Yes, we should be extremely proud with our GDP ranking. It doesn’t matter if all Singaporeans are begging for food in the streets. Only GDP matters. 

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A fluid sculpture

video

A Janet Echelman Sculpture in Porto, Portugal. A fish-net-like installation, an assembly of the natural elements from the surroundings to portray the sea history and culture of Porto.

Affordability of HDB flats and poor financial planning are different


Tan Chuan Jin used an illustration [here] of a low income family living beyond their financial means, to justify the affordability of HDB flat. Whether the aforesaid family is really living beyond their means is not a concern over here. The issue is confusing affordability of HDB flats with individuals’ poor financial planning.

TCJ reasons, since people can choose to live beyond their means, public housing is deemed affordable. There will always be this group of people as there will always be a group of people who will use knife in a criminal way. But you cannot condemn the knife itself.

Affordability and living beyond one’s means are two separate issues, in my humble opinion. And they are independent of one another.

If TCJ would scrutinize HDB pricing in the last 4 decades, probably he could get closer to understanding the unhappy noise about the affordability of HDB.

Period
Type
Size
(sq m)
Average Price (New flats)
Average Price (Resale)
1970s
3 room
60
15 000
-
1980s
3 room
65
50 000
-
1990s
3 room
70
120 000
200 000
2000s
3 room
65
140 000
200 000
In 2010
3 room
65
291 000
-


Period
Type
Size
(sq m)
Average Price (New flats)
Average Price (Resale)
1970s
4 room
75
20 000
-
1980s
4 room
90
80 000
-
1990s
4 room
95
170 000
270 000
2000s
4 room
90
230 000
300 000
In 2010
4 room
90
376 300
420 300

Period
Type
Size
(sq m)
Average Price (New flats)
Average Price (Resale)
1970s
5 room
95
30 000
-
1980s
5 room
115
110 000
-
1990s
5 room
125
230 000
350 000
2000s
5 room
110
290 000
370 000
In 2010
5 room
110
448 700
-


Looking across all types of HDB, prices for new flats have risen 14 -20 times in the last 4 decades. If we zoom into the last decade, the inflation is 100% for 3 room flats, 63% for 4 room flats and 55% for 5 room flats. For 4- to 5-room flats, the increase maybe smaller in terms of percentage but bigger in absolute amount. The average price difference for new 5 room flats in the last decade is $158 700, higher than 3 room flats’ difference of $150 100.

Is that an affordable increase?

Assuming that takers for new flats to be young families/couples with young careers, we have to match the housing inflation with the starting salaries for young people with proportionate increase of 55% to 100%. Did starting salaries increase at least 50% over the last ten years? If it did not, there will be an implication of young families shouldering a heavier burden than young families 10 years ago.

Using teaching salary as a guide, the increase in starting pay for an honours degree female teacher trainee is approximately 12.7% for the last decade. Far from matching the housing price increase.

In considering the affordability of our HDB flats, TCJ should also take a look at our average monthly household income (Table 1) to grasp the realities on the grounds. Average monthly income grew from $5947 to $9618, a 62% increase and this increase mainly comes from households from the 61st and above deciles. Below the 60th deciles, household income rises less than 60% and the percentage diminishes as it moves up to the 1st and 10th deciles.


 (Source: Statistics Singapore)

In absolute amount, the 62% increase in average household income will not suffice to catch up with that increase of the housing price as the housing price is greater to start with. A five-room flat in the 2000s stood at $290 000. A 10% increase in price will bring about $29 000 difference in price. In this light, young households have to stretch their housing loan longer and eat into their retirement funds to service their loans. Is this affordable?

For lower average monthly income families, between the 1st to 10th deciles, average monthly household income rises only 14% in the last 10 years. It is most apparent that prices of new HDB flats are priced out of their means.



Unaffordable housing will remain unaffordable despite prudent financial planning. Prudent family will probably resort to squeezing a family of six into a 3 room flat when 5 room flats are financially out of reach for them. They can only afford 3-room flats. That does not reflect the affordability of HDB flats at all. It only points out the contrary.

I can’t help but smelling a rat over here. The habitual use of a group of certain “irresponsible” individuals to justify any poorly formulated policies. 

How much profits do the public transport operators want?



I am irate by the recent spate of train breakdowns and some horrifying bus accidents [Link] in the month of April. Not only by the direct impact of these breakdowns and accidents that affect human lives, time, cost and productivity, but also of the fact that commuters and taxpayers are taken for a ride by private transport companies and relevant government bodies.

Despite being slapped with a price hike (Sep 2011) in exchange of a promise of enhanced level of service, commuters are told to endure persistent train breakdowns/disruptions and the increasingly unreliability of our train and buses--I personally have the fortune to encounter a total of 4 breakdowns and accidents within a year on SMRT buses as a less-than-regular bus commuter. In addition to the price hike, respective bills of $1.1 billion to purchase buses and $900 million (co-share between SMRT and LTA) to fix train problems will be further charged to public funds.

To further rub salt into the wounds, Singaporeans were being blamed for the use of $1.1 billion public funds as Singaporeans “don’t want to wait so long” as described by Ms Josephine Teo [Link]. On the contrary, Singaporeans have waited many, many years, long enough before the 2 massive train breakdowns in December 2011. Prior to that, all feedback on excessive crowdedness on our public transport was disregarded as noise.

Persistent train breakdowns do not occur overnight but more as the consequence of prolonged negligence and lack of robust maintenance, coupled with the ill-preparedness of SMRT towards increased ridership as a result of the large influx of immigrants. In simple term, our public transport system has been overloaded. Nothing substantial was done to cope effectively in meeting increased demand apart from introducing price hike.

Both SMRT and SBS are afterall public-listed private companies. They charged commuters for their transport service, using public-funded infrastructure. However, as private companies, they share their profits among their shareholders yet expecting public funding to bring their ever-deteriorating service level to an acceptable level.

Is this not socializing costs and privatizing profits over here?

It should not be what PM Lee Hsien Loong has remarked [Link], that the government has “to allow transport companies to break even and to make reasonable profits”, as it is neither the responsibility of the government nor the public in ensuring “reasonable” profits for private companies where profits are retained within its shareholders.

SMRT and SBS are far from struggling to break even (See Figs. 1 and 2). Moreover, where do we draw the line between reasonable and unreasonable profits? How much do these companies want? Do they want $50 million, $200 million or $2 billion a year?

 (Source: SMRT Annual Financial Reports)
 Fig. 1  Net profit of SMRT for financial years between 2002 and 2011.
  

Fig. 2  Net profit of SBS for financial years between 2002 and 2010.


Operating costs versus net profit

 Between 2002 and 2008, SMRT (See Fig. 3) has been gaining year-to-year increase in net profit, peaking at approximately $161 million for the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively. In a span of a decade, net profit has risen almost three times of that in 2002. Although operating costs have been rising over the years, it has not been rising proportionately to its net profit growth.

Between 2008 and 2011, during which we witness a growing population and thriving tourism, the percentage of operating costs incurred against net profit rose surprisingly small. The proportion spent on operating cost as compared to net profit, is less than that in 2002 where ridership was much lower than in 2011. We have to come back to the same question again: how much profit does SMRT want?



Fig. 3   Net Profit of SMRT for financial years between 2002 and 2011.


Conflicts of interests: public, private and government (Temasek Holdings)

From a SMRT shareholder perspective, SMRT has witnessed almost three times increase in its basic earnings per share (Fig. 4). It rose from 3.8 cents in 2002 to 10.6 cents within a decade. Shareholders stand to gain on earnings per share while commuters experience a fall in service level on our trains. From overcrowded to frequent breakdowns/disruptions. Apparently, the welfare of shareholders surpassed that of the commuters. This is a clear demonstration of the conflicts of interest between the general public and the private companies involve in public transport.


Fig. 4   Basic Earnings Per Share of SMRT

Adding to the confusion is the fact that SMRT is 54.28% (as of 16 May 2011) owned by Temasek Holdings, a government investment body. It has to account to Temasek Holdings which is its biggest shareholder. Are there not a huge conflict and a confusion of roles between the public, private companies and government over here?

While it is the government’s role to protect the public’s interest, it also demands SMRT to maximise profits at the expense of the public so as to contribute substantially towards annual net profit. Where does the government’s interest genuinely lie then? With the people or with the private company? Such overlap of roles does not bode well for our public transport system.


Unavoidable and unacceptable

 It is “unavoidable” that a profit-driven private company has more to account to its shareholders than its customers.

Precisely such is unavoidable, that it is the sole responsibility of relevant government bodies to ensure stringent monitor on these privately-owned public transport providers. As a responsible and vigilant regulator, it should pre-empt problems instead of waiting for them to surface. And when problems occur, neither should it lower the public’s expectations so as to condone breakdowns and disruptions which could be avoided in the first place.

While understanding that some disruptions are unavoidable, nevertheless, it is not an excuse to disguise irresponsible regulation and negligence. Ultimately, lowering commuters’ expectation does not resolve the actual problems on the grounds.