Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Third Eye

When the taxi driver appeared to have difficulty with our destination, we suggested he use the GPS system in his cab, but he said the LCD display was not a navigation system. It was just a digitised map, and yes, his rental did go up after it was fitted. We then taught him how to enable turn-by-turn voice guidance navigation with Google maps on his android smartphone.

ComfortDelGro recently installed in-vehicle cameras for its fleet of more than 16,000 taxis, purportedly as an added safety and security measure for drivers to identify passengers who evade fares, as well as to provide video evidence for accident situations. If rentals also did increase, it is not public knowledge.

ComfortDelGro is now testing a new smart camera on 30 taxis for the next 6 months that it says can determine real-time traffic risks while a vehicle is in motion and prompt the driver with audio and visual warnings.  Mobileye® is a “smart” camera located on the front windshield and uses proprietary pedestrian detection technologies to measure the distance to vehicles, monitor lane markings, speed signs and hopefully avoid collision with objects being scanned. Nothing is mentioned about prevention from being rammed from the side by a speeding Ferrari trying to beat the lights at Rochor Road. The installation for the fancy camera, which retails for S$2,300, will be done for free for the cabbies. Who has to end up paying for the expensive accessory is not disclosed.

Yang Ban Seng, ComfortDelGro’s chief executive for its taxi business, said “This device acts as another ‘eye’ for our cabbies, who spend a large part of their days and nights on the road.” What we really need is someone to keep an eye on the costs of operation, and work towards reducing exorbitant taxi charges, not find another excuse to hike fares.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Defending Unorthodox Ways Of Doing Business

While Brazil has denied links with property firm EcoHouse, a developer who claimed to be working with a Brazilian government social housing programme, it has not refuted reports that GIC Private Limited (formerly known as Government of Singapore Investment) has acquired an 18.5 percent stake in Brazilian education services company Abril Eduacao.

Opaque as ever, GIC did not disclose how much was shelled out for Brazil's primary and secondary school market. Reuters is guessing that the investment is worth about $330 million. How much of that has been tapped from the Central Provident Fund ("GIC pays no regard to what the source of funds is" - Tharman) is more difficult to decipher. We know CPF can be used for our children's education, but spending it on Brazilian kids?

Skip to 49:50 of the video (Lee Kuan Yew speaking in October 1998 at the Shell Distinguished Lecture Series: "The Origin of the Meltdown in East Asia") where he says, "I'm not wanting to defend unorthodox ways of doing business," just after defending Suharto and family for stashing away $42 billion of a nation's wealth. It's okay, he said with a straight face, because Suharto and his family had vested $42 billion and their enterprises in Indonesia, "they didn't put their money outside". 30 years of "corruption, cronyism, bribery and the rest of it" was justifiable in his eyes "because they made growth". What brought the country down was foreign debt, and he blamed IMF for highlighting the financial morass.

We may not have to worry about foreign debt, but the local debt could bring us down to our knees. The composition of government borrowings outstanding as of March 2013 was S$396 billion (comprising T-bills ($60 billion), SGS Bonds ($87 billion) and SSGS ($249 billion)). We now know what SSGS is. We now know where the SSGS ends up. What we don't understand is why they are still saying our CPF is risk free.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Story of the Fishball Stick

Quite a few viewed the National Day Rally speech on Youtube, at 9.15 pm the visitor count was 6,093. Maybe they were hoping to capture a personal video of another "mee siam mai hum" moment for posterity, the type of glitch that seem to pepper his public performances. He did mention the Minimum Sum was going to be raised to $161 twice, but the staid non-reaction of the selected audience in attendance let that pass. However, it was difficult to miss the saga of the fishball stick.

Once upon a time, there was an entity that went by the acronym of PWD, which stood for Public Works Department. If you had a mosquito problem that needed defogging, a pavement that needed to be resurfaced, or a road that needed to be dug up, you had only one number to call. Think of it as the ghost-busters of public space, the sentinels of a well maintained environment, once upon a time.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the captive audience he found out (what we all already know) that it took 3 government agencies to address one miscreant piece of wood, presumably used for piercing fishballs. Mercifully it was not bagged and sent to a government laboratory to determine whether it could have been satay or yakitori.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) would only budge if the offending litter was on a grassy slope, the National Parks Board (NParks) if it was on the park connector, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) if it was on a pavement next to a roadway. Imagine the big inter-agency quibble over a pavement running down a slope, along a park connector, abutting a roadway.

Why the need for NEA, NParks and LTA when PWD was doing a good job for the price of one? Quite simply, that kind of bloat translates to justification for 3 sets of offices, 3 sets of permanent secretaries and 3 sets of superscale civil service officers. First rule in government spending: Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?

Lee's solution is to set up a fourth agency, the Municipal Services Office (MSO) under the Ministry of National Development.  Grace Fu must be glad to finally have something to do, to justify her million dollar paycheck. After all, she must feel lost among the numbers of Minister-in-the-Prime Minister's Office, which used to be more accurately called Minister-without-Portfolio.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Another Close Call

They say if you open the windows, expect flies to come in. Certainly not Ebola, unless you have a open door policy for all things foreign.

There was a mild scare yesterday when a Nigerian woman in her 50s was identified as a possible Ebola case by doctors at Gleneagles Hospital and transferred to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH)'s Communicable Diseases Centre. She had flown into Singapore recently and arrived at Gleneagles's emergency department with a fever. What we do not know is whether she is one of many African foreign talents welcomed into the country by the liberal immigration policies or just another high valued individual landing here with lots of cash to park at our banks.

According to latest update (14 August) issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 128 new cases of Ebola virus disease, as well as 56 deaths, were reported from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, bringing the total number of cases to 1,975 and deaths to 1,069.

Ebola is a scary viral illness with initial symptoms of a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and sore throat. Then it gets worse - vomiting, diarrhoea and - in some cases - both internal and external bleeding. The incurable disease infects humans through close contact with infected animals, and then spreads between humans via direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments.

It's so scary that WHO has warned that there is "no early end in sight" to the severe health crisis and called for "extraordinary measures". Measures such as the Korean Air decision to suspend its return flights from Incheon, South Korea, to  Nairobi, with effect from August 20.

India's health minister Harsh Vardhan said 500 Indians are in the Republic of Guinea, 3,000 in Liberia and 1,200 in Sierra Leone, from where the maximum cases have been reported. Nigeria has a much larger presence of nearly 40,000 Indian citizens. "If the situation worsens, there is a possibility of these people returning home," Vardhan said. Hopefully not with the disease.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) claims that the risk of Ebola in Singapore remains low as there is limited traffic between West Africa and Singapore. Just in case, they carried out a mock "preparedness" exercise at Changi Airport, coincidentally, yesterday. All we need now is a tweet from Singapore Airlines declaring that they do not have connecting flights from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Conjuring Up The Future

The minister sticking to the nonagenarian like a leech in the photo op gave a longer speech than Lee's two minutes at the microphone. After stating that the aim of the Government is to ensure every Singaporean owns an asset - a HDB flat - so that everyone will have an albatross hanging about his neck for the span of the 35 year mortgage a stake in the country, he proceeded to advise against borrowing against the future, so that a financial burden is not passed on to future generations.

Ngiam Tong Dow once said George Yeo can weave magic with words. The context was the request from the MITA minister to build the Esplanade theatres and concert halls for $600 million. Before this, the highest ever request from MITA had been for $50 million to reconstruct and refurbish the Victoria concert halls, and even that was approved only because Goh Keng Swee personally placed his "considerable power of persuasion" behind the proposal. At the launch of Ngiam's book "Dynamics of the Singapore Success Story", Yeo confirmed the story: "When I was in MITA, Mr Ngiam was Permanent Secretary in the Finance Ministry. He almost killed the Esplanade project about which he paid me a high compliment years later."

The "high compliment" paid by Ngiam: "MOF was defeated by this ingenious procedural innovation," which was to use the Totalisator Board to finance the capital expenditure outside the Budget, using future revenue streams. Then Finance Minister Lim Hng Kiang has another variant of the ingenious scheme, giving Yeo less effusive credit for deploying future revenue streams, but the money was still spent.

Behind the cascade of words, more schemes must have been hatched. Why else is the current generation feeling the burden of financing the strained infrastructure, such as the $1.1 billion freebie for SMRT and SBS Transit? On Tuesday (Aug 12) SBS Transit reported a 57.2% increase in net profit for the second quarter; will they ever return anything to the taxpayers? The future's a tricky business, when the guys in charge weave magic with words.