Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The PAP and the Internet: An uncomfortable co-existence.

I came across the post below on the Facebook page started by PAP enthusiasts.
Credit: YP
I do not agree with the writer overall and would like to address the points that he has brought up.

"When has it become an entitlement for bloggers to demand a dialogue with the PM..."

True, it smacks of egotism for a blogger to expect that the PM would actually meet up with him to discuss national issues. Who is Roy Ngerng anyway? I don't even know what his educational credentials are or what organisation he works for. What right does he have to profess that he is, in his own words, "sacrificing" himself to speak up for Singaporeans? In that sense, I agree with the writer, YP, that Roy probably has an inflated ego.

On the other hand, the writer might want to think about whether Roy Ngerng is the only person in Singapore asking those questions about the CPF. Since I cannot share unjustified allegations, I ask those of you who are interested to type the pertinent keywords into the search engines. You will see the painfully obvious fact that Roy Ngerng's questions are also the questions on the minds of many anonymous Singaporeans on the Internet.

If Roy Ngerng isn't the only one, and other Singaporeans are also asking similar questions, is it really all right for our Prime Minister and his government to ignore them? That's for him to judge. After all, his own political legacy is at stake. And perhaps that of his father's as well.

"... just because they have a computer and can rant online..."

Come on, the Internet is nothing new. I learnt to go on the net back in the 1990s. Today, we are living in one of the most wired nations in the world. A high percentage of Singaporeans have tablets, laptops, iPads and smartphones. They can access information nearly everywhere they go in Singapore. I expect a better argument than the usual laments about the dangers of the computer.

The Internet is here to stay, both for good and for bad. People in varying jobs - be they doctors, teachers or sales staff - have for many years had to contend with more questions from their patients, students and customers, because of the increased sharing of knowledge. Due to all the readily available information on the Internet, the gap between the knowledge held by someone who is viewed as an authority and that of someone who is a layman has been reduced.

Certainly, there's a lot of specific knowledge that cannot be accessed by the layman, but we can no longer expect the layman to completely trust in the authority, without raising some questions of his own.

So, why should politicians in Singapore expect to be unaffected by the information revolution? Why should they not be questioned when we find information that contradicts what they are telling us?

Furthermore, there is a tendency for the PAP supporters to portray the government's online critics as whiners who are not credible. This begs the question of who the people using the Internet are. Are they the baby boomers? Are they lowly educated individuals? Drug addicts? Gamblers? Alcoholics? I'm afraid that the whiners alluded to below, who will "probably spend [their CPF] on essentials like heroin and beer" will be too busy indulging in their vices to comment online.

Credit: Fabrications about the PAP
More likely than not, Internet users, particularly those who comment extensively online, are white-collared workers with tertiary education. I don't know what credentials Roy Ngerng has, but based on this report, 43 percent of Singaporean males above age 25 and 36.5 percent of Singaporean females above age 25 are graduates of tertiary institutions. It has also been reported recently that our universities are climbing up the international rankings, which means that their graduates should be well-trained and skilled individuals.

So, what makes the opinion of a local university graduate who supports the CPF more credible than the opinion of another local university graduate who doesn't entirely support the CPF?

If both are laymen, there should not be a disparity in perceptions of their credibility. But there persists in Singapore the belief that the people who support the PAP government's policies are more credible than the people who criticise them, regardless of the fact that the government's critics today may be highly qualified individuals. If we do not value the views of these highly educated Singaporeans, then why educate them?

"... just because you keep harping on a pet issue that has been recycled many times in different variations by our cab drivers"

When reading the posts shared on Fabrications about the PAP, you don't have to wait long for the condescending attitude to surface. The writer seems to be implying that cab drivers make mindless chatter, and their opinions on topics such as the CPF are not to be taken seriously. Well, Cai Mingjie has a phD and was a former employee of A*STAR. I take cabs almost every day and I have also met drivers who used to be businessmen, drivers who are extremely well-travelled, a former student leader from the Chinese High who was involved in the student protests in the 1950s, and even one well-spoken driver who used to work, in fact, at the Prime Minister's Office. While it is true that most cab drivers are not authorities on the CPF, if the CPF is a financial product, they are the end-users. At the very least, they have the right to give their feedback on the product. It is thus unfortunate that the author chose to make a dismissive reference to the opinions of cab drivers.

"Nothing wrong with the questions raised, or regurgitated."

There are three reasons why the same questions are regurgitated or asked repeatedly. First, the person who asked was not listening carefully to the answer. Second, the person could not understand the explanation given. Third, there was no explanation given, so he had to ask again. According to this blog post, the last reason seems to apply for our questions on the CPF.

"I am not sure which I detest more. The yesteryears when opposing voices were indeed silenced quickly, or now where those with an inflated [sense of self-importance] are allowed to play the victim card.... I know I have more respect for the former."

So, now he says he respects only the opposition politicians who were clapped in jail and sued to bankruptcy for speaking up? That's hypocritical, isn't it? If he had any respect for those opposition politicians and what they stood for, he wouldn't be writing a short paragraph on his Facebook to deny someone else of his right to speak up as a citizen. If he respected the opposition politicians of yesteryears, he would similarly guard the right of anyone else to speak up today against policies that he or she disagrees with. He would not be supporting the PM's evident intention to seek financial compensation from a blogger, when the latter has already apologised for the uncalled for allegations.

Of course, it is Prime Minister Lee's right to do what he wishes, as he does indeed have a case against Roy Ngerng, but what I would hope to see is for him to take a softer approach. To lead Singapore in an information age, he has to appreciate that information on the Internet is often contradictory and that is precisely why it is so amazing. People are free to express their thoughts, whether they are inspirational or banal, everyone with Internet access has a space for himself or herself to express their differing views. Just as he has detractors, the PM also has many supporters online. He has to trust that ultimately, Singaporeans are capable of discerning right from wrong. If Roy Ngerng is an egomaniac who makes unsubstantiated assertions, the PM has to trust that Singaporeans can tell that for themselves.

Finally, the PM doesn't need every single person in Singapore to speak well of him. He only needs to ensure that more than 50 percent do, every five years. That's more than easily achievable for a leader who is well-regarded by the majority of the people in Singapore as well as by his peers in other countries.

Update: Apparently the PM's lawyer has rejected Roy Ngerng's offer of SGD5,000 in damages, calling it "derisory". An opportunity to be a gentleman has passed. It's back to knuckle-duster politics.

Further updates: Roy Ngerng has managed to raise SGD70,000 within four days, despite the fact that people from the "Sue Him" and "Arrest Him" camps have erroneously branded his crowd-funding effort as "illegal" and have criticised his lawyer for not offering to absorb all the costs of the lawsuit. The substantial amount collected within such a short period of time suggests that the government's management of the CPF issue has well and truly pissed off a whole lot of people in Singapore. The number of transactions in Roy's fund-raising account may be just slightly more than 1,000, but former presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock's Facebook post on the CPF received 4,733 likes.

So is the CPF really a non-issue? You tell me.

Just because Roy is not Mr Popular doesn't mean that the CPF is okay.

The people who donated to him most likely do not view their donations as a support for libel of the PM, but as a statement against the revised CPF rules which were implemented by the government without consultation with the stakeholders - Singaporeans and PRs who are members of the CPF.

Although reports indicate that the PM has already gotten his lawyer to begin preparing for the lawsuit, I still hope that the PM can recognise the support for Roy for what it is. It's not support for slandering a high office holder - it will be sad if we were to develop cynicism and mistrust towards our political leaders. Instead, the donations are signals that the government has been doing it wrong where the CPF is concerned. If the government can right the wrong and provide more autonomy to CPF members, I believe the majority in Singapore will continue to rally behind the PM.

Apart from the increased retirement age and Minimum Sums required, little has changed since this article appeared in 2004. While it is good to anticipate problems before they occur, without any concrete, national, statistical evidence to prove that releasing the people's CPF savings was a bad idea, discerning CPF members are not going to buy the argument that they are going to squander their retirement funds accumulated from decades of their own hard work.

To expect that the people in Singapore will believe them without any evidence tells of the PAP's false confidence in its popularity among the people. It is worth repeating that 40 percent of the 2 million voters in this country picked an alternative political party in 2011 (that's about 800,000 voters who opted for the opposition).

My message to the government is similar to its message to Roy Ngerng. If you say that CPF members will misuse their CPF savings, please prove it.

Credit: Mr C

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Wait long long: A view of public housing in Singapore (part 2).

Okay, so I am about to launch into the debacle that is the HDB flat - the shelter we all need that many of us are paying for with what the government still persists in calling our CPF retirement fund. The funds that, for both my husband and I, have been wiped down to zero dollars and will remain so for the next 20-over years while it services our HDB home mortgage. Some retirement funds, huh? I bet no one in other countries has ever heard of a retirement fund with zero dollars. (Thankfully, there is still money in the Medisave portion of our CPF, but those are strictly for medical bills and cannot be withdrawn to purchase daily necessities during our retirement years.)

Anyway, I don't want to receive any letters from anyone named Davinder Singh, so I'm going to stick to just talking about housing. For many years now, the Singapore government has been promoting the idea that our HDB flat is a top-notch investment. It has been said that even Singaporeans who earn only $1,000 a month should make it their lifetime aspiration to own one. In fact, my father, whose pay was indeed $1,000 a month, was pressured by HDB to purchase his current flat in the mid-1990s. Prior to that, he was simply a tenant of HDB paying a low rent of around $65 a month. Whenever repair works were required in the flat, all he had to do was to call HDB and they would send their workers down to do it free of charge. My father had rejected the purchase option the first time, but they came back to him a second, and then a third time. He was told by the HDB staff that should he not take up the option to purchase, he would have to pay increasingly higher rents. So, he purchased the flat even though he was already 60 years old at the time, thus wiping out his CPF savings. He continued paying for the home through his CPF until he stopped working 10 years later, which ensured that his CPF remained at zero dollars throughout. Then, he retired with an empty CPF account, and the mortgage payment has fallen on me. Now, I must state for the record that the mortgage amount is not a lot to me, so I am happy to continue paying for the flat - it is also my way of repaying my parents for how much they have done for me. However, I have always felt that it was wrong for the HDB to pressure my dad to purchase a home that, in my opinion, he could not afford. I truly believe that the idea that every household in Singapore must aspire to own a HDB flat to increase their "net wealth" (see the PM's National Day Rally Speech 2013) is a deeply misguided notion.

The HDB flat is home to 80 percent of the people in Singapore. Thinking of our home as an "investment" with a "wealth" that we can unlock any time, is tantamount to perilous financial planning. If you can afford a second or third property, by all means, invest in them to secure your financial future. But your basic shelter, your home, is not an asset that you can sell at will. In Singapore, where rental rates are high, if you sell your home, where will you live? Even a room in Seng Kang (around 20km away from the city centre) costs $600 per month, excluding the power supply bill. If you are forced to convert your HDB flat for cash, you are going to face serious problems finding a place to stay. The New York Times wrote a very good article titled "A House is a Home, Not an Investment". Everyone in Singapore who intends to buy a flat ought to be mindful of the points in the article. Investments in property are for those with cash to spare. Low-income families do not have enough money to invest in an expensive HDB flat, and they should not be compelled to make such an expensive investment by the Singapore government's housing policies.

Yet many Singaporeans continue to believe that the ownership of a HDB flat is an investment to aspire to for most Singaporeans, the middle income and even the low income. They wholeheartedly support the government's view that the high prices they pay for HDB flats are worth it with many even believing that eventually, they will reap the returns by being able to sell the flat at an even higher price. Will they really? If the prices go higher and higher, what will happen to the younger ones at the back of the queue? The beliefs have persisted, nevertheless, and I think there is one major reason for this....

Credit: Ben Soon
In the past decade, too many ordinary people in Singapore have benefited from having circumstantial good luck where property is concerned. I believe it is pure good luck and nothing else. These people did not purchase their flats with the intention to invest, unlike the real-estate multi-millionaires, they simply bought the flats so that they could have a place to live in. Then suddenly, as prices sky-rocketed, partly because of limited supply by HDB and population growth, they sold their flats and upgraded to much bigger homes. Now, many of these people are thinking, "Hey! This is great! I bought my flat for $100K and I sold it for $500K!"

I understand how they feel. Because when you have made a 400 percent profit from selling your HDB flat, or when you have made millions from flipping numerous properties at a time when prices were on the way up (I have met a taxi driver who has lived in three HDB flats in total. He sold each of them after a few years, and has earned a lot of money from the flat sales), it must go against your conscience to not believe in the pure sweet goodness of the government's housing policies. But sadly, the greed and speculation of the previous generation often leaves a path of unsightly obstacles for the next generation to traverse over.

There are two main issues that I can see in Singapore's housing policies. The first issue is, as discussed above, the idea that an expensive HDB flat is an investment worth making. More can be said on the issue. You can also read Kenneth Jeyaretnam's take on it here. Now I would like to discuss the second issue, which is the more immediate issue for young couples like myself and my husband: the BTO procedure and all the waiting that it entails.

As generalizing leads to inaccurate assessments, I would like to add a caveat. First, I am speaking as part of a married couple who are paying for the flat with our own money. We are not taking any money from our parents because they need whatever they have for their retirement. Second, we are speaking as a young couple who are first-time flat owners. We had never owned a property previously, and like many in our generation, never profited from any selling of property. So, if you belong to either of the above categories of people who have been given property by your parents or who have received benefits from having sold your property at a high price, this blog post is not about your experience.

No matter how bad a government policy is, if you or your family members are high income earners and all of you keep your jobs, you will always be able to live comfortably in Singapore. So, these are the impacts of the BTO scheme strictly for those of us who are not as well-heeled, and who are counting on the government's public housing scheme to start our families.


1. A minimum waiting period of three years. The first major problem is that the BTO entails what is, to me, a rather long waiting period. Although the HDB website says that the waiting period of a flat is at least three years, this is only if you have successfully balloted for the flat in the first place. The first time my husband and I applied for a BTO was in 2007. We had applied under the Fiance/Fiancee scheme for a place that was less than 1km (10 minutes' walk) from our parents' place. We thought that we would surely get the flat since we met all the requirements, but we didn't. In fact, among myself and my peers, I would say that 50 percent of us who applied for homes during the mid-2000s did not get the flats. (Here are some dudes from My Car Forum discussing their plight in 2007. The Internet always remembers, so the government can't pretend that it never happened.)

In fact, the problem persisted right till GE2011, with many newspaper reports on how the latest HDB sales launches were often oversubscribed (i.e. there were many times more applicants than there were flats). Therefore, those who wanted to marry quickly and who had the money would have to buy the more expensive resale flats.

I am aware, of course, that the government has been doing its best to have more BTO projects since 2011. I am not sure if things have gotten better, but there are fewer complaints from young couples the likes of those in the car forum above. I guess, like for many other things in Singapore, timing determines everything. Those who were lucky to be at the right place at the right time benefited, while those who reached marriageable age at the wrong time had to face more challenges. Nevertheless, life has turned out well for us. After the lack of success in our 2007 flat application, we waited a number of years by our own choice. And we have gotten a very nice home this year, 2014. Our relationship has grown stronger, and our financial status is more stable than it was before. On hindsight, I do think it was a blessing in disguise for us that we didn't get the first flat. However, biologically speaking, couples are better off starting their families in their mid-20s than later. This brings me to the next consequence.

2. Reproductive health problems. A couple of months ago, I wrote that we were having fertility issues. The problem has since been confirmed. As I have been going for check-ups annually, I know that this is an issue that only cropped up when I was 29-30 years old, which is not that long ago. Considering that there are no infertility statistics in Singapore, as mentioned in my earlier blog post, I doubt the decision-makers in the government, guided by economics facts and figures, ever considered the reproductive health of the women in Singapore when they made the housing policies that would affect our ability to settle down and have children of our own. While some of these problems may be reversible, thanks to better healthcare standards in Singapore, it will cost us, the citizens, a sum of money to tackle the issues.

A wise person once said, "The solutions of the present often lead to the problems of the future." Political leaders have to be mindful of that in making decisions. While it is true that many Singaporeans could live with their parents in the interim period while waiting for their flats, not every couple would have such an option. Many young couples still wish to settle down into their own homes. It appears that, where housing is concerned, the government had solved the problem of HDB sustainability but neglected the impact of its policy on family-planning. It is thus really ironic that while the wait for a HDB flat is forcing couples to marry later, the government continues to blame women for not wanting to start a family young.

3. Complicates the application for home mortgage insurance. Apart from reproductive health problems, adults in their 30s may also develop other health issues that will have to be declared when filling in the forms for the basic home mortgage insurance. Such insurance protects the occupants of the home should anything untoward happen to the payees of the mortgage, such that they are not able to complete the payment for the house. As you can expect, I have had to declare my health condition. It is not troubling me in any physical way at all, but it's there and it must be declared. My husband has also developed some ailments in his 30s that needed to be declared. If we are rejected from mortgage insurance protection because of these health issues, it will put our home at additional risk. Will HDB be able to help us appeal for home mortgage insurance? I doubt so. Insurance companies are known for going by the book. (As for those who continue to believe that health issues can be prevented with exercise and a healthy diet, sorry, I think mine is genetic. My mum had the same issue when she was younger.) It is just unfortunate again, a case of poor timing. But again, I can't help feeling that if we had gotten married when we were young and in good health, we won't have to face such uncertainty.

I believe as citizens, we have to be realistic, so I don't expect the government to provide me with a HDB flat at lightning-fast speed. But I think it's reasonable to have some expectations in terms of time frame, which has a huge impact on family-planning. I hope that the HDB can think of some ways to revise the current public housing system, so that young couples will not have their family plans thwarted because they have to wait many years for their new homes to be built. I don't want to be overly dramatic here, but lost youth can never come back. Parenthood is much more taxing when one is older.

There is more that can be improved upon in our housing polices, not least that of how the BTO process has led to more young people having their cash payments taken away when they give up their allocated flats. There are stories about that here and here. Of course, it is debatable whether we can really blame that on the system. But I think the low supply of flats contributes to rash decision-making. It's psychological - when people know that something is a limited edition, they will do whatever they can to get it. Profit-making companies design limited editions to get buyers into a frenzy. Our public housing system, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is designed in a similar way. Couples who know that flat supply is limited will try to ensure that they get a foot in the process as soon as possible so that they won't be left high and dry when they need a home.

I will attempt to write more when I have time. Of course, all the above does not take away the pride that my husband and I feel at having, finally, a place to call our own. As they say, there is always a silver lining. :)
Punggol Waterway Terraces II BTO Project: Looks great on this artist's impression, but takes four years to complete. A young lady who wants to get married in her mid-20s has to apply for a BTO flat at the age of 21, when she's most likely still a student. Should she and her fiance drift apart and change their minds after they start working, they will have to forfeit all of their previous cash payments to HDB, which can run up to more than SGD10,000 for each person. Credit: HDB.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Wait long long: A view of public housing in Singapore (part 1).

When considering public housing in Singapore, we very often hear two extreme points of view. One is the complaint about the high prices and long waiting time for Built-to-Order projects (literally, they only build the flat when you book it, so you have to wait for a period of three to five years to get your home).

The other extreme, however, sings the praises of the HDB - prices are affordable, the flats are beautiful, nowhere else in the world is there a country with such a high percentage of people owning such well-designed property.

In fact, it's not difficult to find, among residents of Singapore and visitors alike, people who believe that the HDB are to be credited with developing Singapore from a slum city to a vibrant city. Nowhere is such propaganda more prominent than in the HDB's gallery, unabashedly titled "From Slums to Vibrant Towns".

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, so here's the garden at my mother's family home in the 1970s before the PAP government sent them a letter of evacuation and shunted some of them off to HDB flats. The red-roofed ang mo chu (Western-style house) is visible in the background. You can still see some of these one-storey landed homes around, nestled in the heart of landed estates, among newer two to four-storey properties with post-modern designs.

Does this look like a slum?
A modern kitchen in the 1970s, with no credit to the HDB.
Yet according to HDB rhetoric, most Singaporeans back then - except for the super wealthy - were twaddling about in degenerate homes from the 1960s well into the 1980s. Many people seem to have been convinced by that rhetoric, including this British lady who lived here and went for the HDB exhibition ("most people lived in slums and kampongs which were dirty and unsafe"), and it is most unfortunate.

Although the house pictured above was only built in the early 1970s, my mother's home in the 1960s was also a large construct with eight bedrooms. Even my dad's family, who was lower middle class, had a well-built house with running water and were able to afford a family car.

Now, my intention of writing all this is not to deny the existence of slums in Singapore. The infamous slums which were burnt down in the Bukit Ho Swee Fire are an example of how overcrowding at squatters' quarters have the potential to cause large-scale destruction. Historian Dr Loh Kah Seng has written an engaging book on the subject (which I have not read yet, but I have read the thesis that the book is based on).

Neither do I wish to deny the efforts by the government to improve our lives. On the contrary, I greatly appreciate the successes of the PAP government in improving sanitation. For example, for all his love for his old home, my dad concedes that living in a HDB flat is more convenient and hygienic. This is because the lavatory in my dad's old home was located about 100 metres outside his house. If he needed the toilet at night, he had to walk out of the house in the dark, accompanied by the eerie glow of a torchlight, and even drag his guard dog along. Not to mention the stinky fact that human waste back then had to be disposed of manually by night soil collectors.

But apart from the much-appreciated improvements in sanitary conditions, and the improvement to the lives of slum-dwellers, it is extremely questionable if our housing policy has been the resounding success that it is touted to be. To what extent is it true that the majority in Singapore had poor living conditions before the HDB came along? How far did their lives improve after the HDB started rehousing Singaporeans? I guess this is something for the professional historians to ponder over. After all, for the people living in bigger homes amidst greenery before HDB came along, it is unlikely that they would find HDB homes like the following an improvement to their lives.

Credit: H88.com.sg
In an atmosphere of lack of political competition, it has been easy for the government to promote the view that the HDB has been vastly successful in improving the quality of life of Singaporeans. Further, that the recent throngs of people who are griping about the high prices of public housing are just jealous citizens from the lower classes who expect social mobility without having to work hard for it and whose aspirations have risen over the years.

To continue thinking in that vein would be a political mistake for the PAP. The government must be aware that Aljunied GRC, which the PAP lost in GE2011, comprises a significant proportion of landed estates, including the affluent Serangoon Gardens neighbourhood and landed and private properties in the Hougang and Upper Paya Lebar area. Joo Chiat ward, which the PAP candidate won by only a thin margin of 51% against a then relatively unknown Yee Jenn Jong from the Workers' Party, is also a neighbourhood comprising many landed homes. Judging by their properties, these people should be leading comfortable lives. So, why didn't the PAP receive a strong mandate in Joo Chiat, and why did it lose Aljunied GRC?

This is all still moot but I think the PAP is losing ground among the middle and upper middle classes. And the reason isn't too difficult to imagine. The political party has simply forgotten that before it rolled out all its domestic policies, there were already many people in Singapore who had been eking a good living for themselves since the British colonial days, including those who possessed one of the strongest symbols of middle class comfort: the ownership of a nice home. Far from being majority illiterate slum-dwellers who should be grateful for government aid, they were educated, skilled, and thus empowered, individuals who gave their support to Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP - despite initial suspicions that the PAP might have been working together with the Communists. Nevertheless, they trusted the PAP for decades, appreciated its anti-corruption and law-by-law stance, cooperated with the government and tolerated the PAP's self-congratulatory talk and sometimes overbearing attitude, for the sake of having a safe and harmonious homeland. However, since the 2000s, many writers have noted that the "social contract" between Singaporeans and the government has gotten a tad shaky. And by GE2011, things reached a point where even those who had comfortable lives were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the actions of the party they supported.

Based on Minister Ng Eng Hen's comments two days ago, it has still not yet occurred to the PAP government that many Singaporeans are voting against them, not because their lives have not improved to suit their "higher aspirations", but because their lives have actually declined in quality in recent years, starting with the inability for many of them to purchase a home when they needed one.

Nevertheless, I think that politically biased arguments dissing either the citizens or the PAP government are counter-productive. Instead of coming up with solutions, polarised debates tend to be more concerned with proving a point with both sides accusing each other of lack of sympathy on the one hand, and being "oppie" ingrates on the other. Motivated mainly by the hope that we can make things easier for young couples who wish to settle down, in my next post, I shall blog about some challenges that couples face in purchasing their new home, and the lasting impact that these challenges would have on their lives. It is hoped that such challenges will be mitigated as far as possible for future generations of Singaporeans.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Have you taken your helpers for granted?

How many of you have heard these words from the people around you?

"Taking care of kids is okay what. Why are you so stressed?"

Then you find out that the person who said that has a maid.

"Why do you keep taking leave for your parents? You're not the only one with sick parents, you know. My parents are old too, but look at me! I am handling it well without taking leave. You must be more professional! Don't bring your personal problems to work."

Then you find out that the person who said that has a maid.

Apart from maids, other helpers who have suffered the ignominy of being treated as though their contributions don't matter are parents, parents-in-law and siblings.

If you do a Google search on caregiving in Singapore, you'll find that there are a great number of articles. Some are inspirational stories about the trials and tribulations that caregivers have to go through, some are letters or speeches by doctors, heads of Voluntary Welfare Organisations, members of Parliament, urging the government and society in general to provide more structural support to caregivers.

However, after GE2011, while hot-button issues like housing and transport have taken centre-stage, it seems that few people in Singapore are interested in what happens to caregivers.

We should be. Home caregivers play a vital role in our social system, which is built on self-reliance. The government does little to help us care for our family members. Without home caregivers, other people like you and I will not be able to go to work with peace of mind. Without home caregivers, the queues to enter old folks' homes will be longer than they already are. Without women who leave their jobs to care for their kids, the childcare centre crunch will be worse.

There's another reason why we should care about caregivers: the preventable tragedies - such as this one - that took place because family caregivers who could not tahan (tolerate) anymore decided to take what they thought was a quick-fix solution. Or this one, where a maid who couldn't tahan the scoldings took drastic action that will most likely cause her to be condemned to the gallows.

Unfortunately, the dialogue at the beginning of this post is all too common in Singapore, especially when speaking with people who feel that they have achieved something of worth in their careers. Many Singaporeans feel proud of the fact that they are able to perform their professional roles even while their family is going through a crisis; they effectively hand over their family responsibilities to their maids, yet after that, claim credit for having done a great job of juggling work and family.

They have done nothing, except fork out the cash to hire the maid.

Let's be clear. I have nothing against families who hire foreign maids. (Although my parents could not afford a maid, I did grow up with one who was hired by my relatives. She took some valuables from the house when she left, but overall, she was a good maid who did all the chores.)

It's certainly not a problem - in fact, it's extremely good and lucky for you - if you have family members who will help with your sick parents or your active kids.

But I do have a problem with people who treat the contributions of these helpers like they are nothing.

Every extra pair of hands, counts.

I have friends without maids who shared that they find it tough to juggle work and family - the result is that they were frequently criticised for not doing enough both at work and at home. Their colleagues wanted more commitment from them. Their family members thought they should do much more for the old folks or the kids. In the end, the frustration mounted as they felt that they were simply inadequate in all their roles.

I have friends who shared that their colleagues with maids and family members helping out at home told them unapologetically that caregiving should not affect their work commitments, as based on their personal experience, it's really not a big deal. The people who took leave because of home commitments then became deemed as "unprofessional".

It simply has not occurred to those self-congratulatory people that the only reason why they were able to continue being "professional" is that they have out-sourced what ought to be their responsibility, to someone else.

Their maids and other family members are providing vital help to them. Without such help, they would not have been able to carry on with their work normally.

Disbelieve this? Try sacking your maid. Ask your parents or in-laws to go for a much-deserved long holiday overseas while you take over full responsibility for your kids.

Humans don't only exist to work. We also have other commitments in our lives. I feel that there is a discordance between our stress on self-reliance and our disdainful attitude towards caregiving. It just doesn't gel that while the government is trying to convince us that our family members are our own responsibility and the government should only play a limited role, we have such prevalent attitudes, even in the civil service, that people who spend time on their family members are lesser employees.

Based on what I know from the people of my generation, such attitudes are causing Singapore's workforce to shrink prematurely. Eventually, in our lives, all of us will have to face some family issues, be it a parent getting sick or a kid who needs more attention. The unsympathetic view of caregivers has already pushed many highly qualified young and middle-aged men and women out of full employment to take on less productive work so that they can manage their family commitments.

Even if they do not leave their full-time jobs, these caregivers are frequently passed over for promotions and salary increments as their absence from work is viewed unfavourably by their superiors - never mind that they still managed to finish their projects.

Just because people are physically present at the office doesn't mean that they are being productive.

To the self-praising people in the workforce, if you have taken your helpers for granted, I suggest you give them a holiday and take over the responsibilities of caregiving yourself 24-7 to experience what it's really like.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sharing my review of Lee Kuan Yew's book.

Some time ago, I sort of volunteered to do a review for Lee Kuan Yew's book for New Mandala - a blog on Southeast Asia hosted by the Australian National University. ANU, in my opinion, has the best programme for studies on Southeast Asia in the region (sorry, NUS), not least because it is the university of several well-respected professors in Southeast Asian Studies. To mention just one example out of many, there's Professor Anthony Reid. (Dr Reid is well-regarded as an expert in Southeast Asia and the founder of the Asia Research Institute at our very own National University of Singapore. He also wrote a famous two-volume book that I highly recommend, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce.)

It was thus gratifying that New Mandala published my review and even agreed to let me use a pen-name. As they certainly will not approve of my Twitter handle, @bimbo_observes, I came up with a normal-sounding name that has a connection with a family member who is very important to me.

Anyway, I am sharing the review in light of the fact that Mr Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, has recently written an article calling for "stories to strengthen the Singapore spirit". "What happened to the historians?" Mr Mahbubani seemed to be asking, "Where's their contribution to Singapore?"

Well, I believe that a "Singapore spirit" has to be forged, through hard-won battles, struggles overcome with grit and determination. You can't develop a Singapore spirit or a firm conviction that Singapore is the best place in the world to live in, just by colouring people's views about past events and staging hagiographical one-sided musicals on Mr Lee Kuan Yew, no matter how brilliant a politician he may be. The discerning audience in Singapore can identify state propaganda when they see it, and they will not take such views seriously.

So, there's my contribution. A small effort alongside those of the historians mentioned in this article, as well as these students from NUS, back in 2011, striving to revise previously unquestionable narratives of the history of Singapore.

Is Mr Lee Kuan Yew ready for historians to revise what the world understands about him? As Mahbubani puts it here, "Ultimately, history will be the final judge." I believe that our nation's grandfather is ready. He had already set the ball rolling many years ago when he published The Singapore Story, and he's ready for the historians. In my humblest opinion, Lee Kuan Yew, the man, is a little misunderstood by his critics, and a little over-protected by his supporters.

The question now is, probably, not whether our leaders are ready for revisionism, but whether the people in Singapore are prepared for what will be revealed in the counter-narratives? Are they prepared for the realisation that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, the PAP leaders are not as smart and all-knowing as they claim they are? And the still bigger question is, are the people prepared to face a future where what they used to know may no longer be true?

I await with bated breath the new Singapore stories.

(And in case you missed the link to the review, here it is again.)