Go with a smile!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

Not many people are going to watch the UK Olympic opening ceremony. Now, there’s been a lot of bad press leading up to the Olympics. Nobody really things that hosting the Olympics is a great thing. I don’t know what Sydney thinks about it, but in Greece, the Olympics has become one big sick joke. 2004 was a high point for Greece, because it was not only the year that they hosted the Olympics, but also the year they pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history when they won the Euros. Now, the stadiums are in ruins, everybody knows that the government has overspent on the event, and a great financial crisis is about the befall that country.

Even Beijing, who was so keen to host it after it had lost the vote to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics (I even remember writing a Chinese essay in school about how those “western powers” were always undermining us Chinese) now has to contend with a lot of unused stadiums. That always makes you wonder if these big sporting events are growing out of control. Singapore also had something on a smaller level when it was hosting the youth Olympics.

When Beijing hosted the Olympics, it had decided to put out a great show. It was visually stunning, and they pulled out all the stops. The props, the scale of the events and the visual splendor was unlike anything people had ever seen. The preparations were brutal and meticulous. But there was a sense of unease about that ceremony, as though it were proclaiming not only China hosting the Olympics for the first time, but also its great arrival on the world stage, and claiming back what had been its historical right for the longest time – being the greatest empire on earth.

At the same time, its Olympic preparations were dented by a series of public relations disasters. There was the revelation that the little girl singing a song on one of the events was not the same one whose voice was used. People argued that that it crossed the line from showmanship into deceit. Steven Spielberg who was supposed to help direct the opening ceremony decided not to continue. Ai Weiwei who had helped to design the bird’s nest stadium later turned into a big dissident and one of the greatest pains in China’s ass. There were riots and self-immolations in Tibet. The Sichuan earthquake tragedy provided a lot of outpouring of sympathy for China but it was mixed with outrage at the corruption of officials that allowed substandard housing to be built for its people, and it raised some very uncomfortable questions about how a government found itself to be conducting disaster relief and preparing for the Olympics at the same time.

Because it’s really not easy to be a new big player on the world stage. People will look at you with apprehension, and they will wonder if you’re truly worthy to join the ranks of the great. China is going back to the old days of exhibiting some pretty unattractive traits of an imperial power. No, they will not join the ranks of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or the wanton destruction of the Mongol empire. But its fall from grace has been one of the most distasteful episodes of human history I’ve read. Widespread corruption everywhere, the nobility not giving a shit about their citizens. The Empress Dowager only too keen on holding on to power. The western powers selling opium in order to keep the Chinese drugged. Power plays. Gangsters. Wretched misery co-existing with the indifference of the elites. The imperial palace refusing to face up to the realities of the outside world. To the extent that trading with foreigners was made illegal at one point. I suppose the fact that our forefathers were some sort of outlaws is a nice thought – people from Guangdong, Fujian and other places who didn’t give a shit about what the central government thought.

But at the same time, between 1978, when Mao Zedong ran China into the ground once more like so many before him, and now, the pace of progress was astounding. Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore just gave people a small taste of what Asians were capable of. Now it was happening on a grander scale, and maybe twice as fast. Credit where credit is due: they were treading in our footsteps, but they will overtake us sooner or later. I heard that a lot of good things were done because of the Olympics, it forced Beijing to clean up, they even managed to clean up their air somewhat. There were plenty of renovations everywhere, and a lot of greenery was planted. So the Olympics was in its way undeniably great.

Great Britain was almost the polar opposite of Beijing. It didn’t exactly have the right to host the games. I remember the IOC meeting was held in Singapore, and Tony Blair visited. And although Paris was considered marginally the favourite, London got it, partially due to the great lobbying efforts of Tony Blair. Paris was considered to have better facilities than London. Well I have taken the tube, and I have taken the metro, and there is no contest – the metro is better run.

Later on it turned out that London had grossly underestimated their budget and it had to be revised upwards sharply. The Olympic mascots were pretty ugly, as were their logo. But when I heard that Danny Boyle was going to direct the opening ceremony, I had some hope. Danny Boyle was the movie director behind such films as “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire”. His films were quite full of life and humanism, so I held out some hope that it would be a nice opening ceremony.

There was no way that Great Britain could ever match Beijing. There was an interesting symmetry between the two Olympics held four years apart. London was the capital of the greatest empire of them all, but that was all in the past. Beijing will regain its position as the greatest empire, but it will be in the future. I heard that Spanish and Italian football teams are quite popular in China, and that’s probably because those two countries, unlike Britain, were never implicated in the opium wars. But the thing about being a great power: Britain has been a great power before, and of the great powers, learnt how to conduct itself the best. I suppose there was a bit of humility there because Great Britain knows that it really wasn’t meant to be great. It’s not a big country, and it was probably one of the biggest freak accidents in history that it managed to be the seat of such a large empire. And when I say “the best”, it’s relative, because in a lot of incidents, they were like all other empires, behaving like assholes.

But they aren’t like the Americans or the Chinese: they seem genuinely open to other people, they seem to want to learn from other peoples’ cultures. They weren’t a land power, they were a sea power. And when they came across the idea of the leaders being servants of the people, or ideas of liberalism and democracy, these seem to be genuine intentions in making a better life for all. The British excelled in soft power. The football, the cricket, the rock music, the curry, the tea, the language, the Cinema, the common law. Not the food, mind.

This is not to disguise the brutal reality. Britain is fading power. It is possible that it will keep on fading even further. “Trainspotting” was a horrifying film about Edinburgh and its heroin addicts. There’s not much hope for its industries – they aren’t producing stuff that other people want to consume, except for cultural stuff. Everything’s been swallowed up by finance. They used to have the world’s best universities, but now maybe Oxford and Cambridge can be considered world class. Maybe the 90s were the last dying breath of its great cultural legacy. After that was one long painful series of Big Brother reality TV shows, premiership stars behaving badly, and mini-celebrities living in mortal fear of the paparazzi.

But the opening ceremony was a celebration of its former greatness. There was Mr Bean hamming it up during the “Chariots of Fire” number. There was James Bond and Queen Elizabeth jumping out of a helicopter. And there was the national health system – I think they put it there because they wanted to support Obama. They were a former great power, but they probably acted like your old uncle who used to be a gangster in his youth but mellowed to be this kindly old lovable rogue. There is a lot of richness in British culture, but there is also a lot of humility as well. There is a celebration of everyday life. More than that, they like to celebrate the middle class. It seems more autumnal. Or put it this way: they may have been a former empire, but they were behaving like a nation. They weren't trying to appeal to people who didn't know anything about Great Britain. They were just trying to be themselves as best they could. (To be frank, I enjoyed visiting England and Scotland more than I enjoyed visiting US, it’s just that the universities in US are better.)

So I’m thinking, China can be like that too one day, if it chooses. It can be a kindly power – and traditionally it was a kindly power. They never decimated the Indians the way the Americans and the Spanish did. They were happy and content to just extract a few tributes from the vassal states. But they were oh so insecure in their power. They just felt like they needed to build something grander that everybody else.

Look at Britain: they never built supergrand monuments. Look at the contrast between London and Washington DC. 10 Downing street is not a mansion like the White House: it’s an apartment. Buckingham Palace is grand, but it’s not the Forbidden palace. Piccadilly square is not Tiananmen. They didn’t have to overwhelm visitors with visions of splendor and grandeur. And they built a fabulous empire. I think deep down they knew they weren’t really meant to be a great power, and whatever greatness they had, it was meant to be fleeting, and that is why they just lived in the moment, content with being moderate. Don’t you think that China could learn a thing or two from them?

China are the Noveau Riche, but they will not stay that way forever. They'll have a lot to deal with, and sooner or later they will have to reckon with their own cultural identity. There is a great cultural heritage, no doubt, but they'll have to bring it into modern times. They'll have to ask themselves all the questions that all those other great cultures asked themselves. Chinese people are pretty average at learning: on one hand we have such a great and vast culture that nothing is truly foreign to us. On the other hand we're pretty insular and resistant to learning from other people. We'll have to learn how to be as creative as these westerners. We'll have to create characters which are as instantly recognisable and likeable as Mr Bean, Simon Rattle

So that’s the thing, Singapore – the two empires who have influenced you the most. Which one do you look up to?


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Adventures in eBay

Sometime around 3 years ago, I realized that it was really easy to get good CDs on eBay. In fact, it’s often cheaper than paying iTunes for it. I used to shop a lot for music when I was a teenager, and there were so many CDs that I wasn’t able to buy because I had to budget my pocket money carefully. CDs used to cost $25 in 1990, and that fell to around $20 by 2000, but it was still expensive. By 2009, there were so many CDs on sale in second hand shops like cash converter – they were around $5 each. Imagine: you bought them at $5, you ripped them, then sold them elsewhere on eBay at $5 – your net expenditure was practically nothing!

Well, not exactly nothing, because there are a lot of times when you will buy CDs and you won’t be able to get rid of them at the price you think you can. I’m sure that there are a lot of people my age, or in the late 30s who think they can all do the same, so they just buy 2nd hand, rip and sell, and they will never get caught because there’s no downloading involved. You can ever only get caught if you download copyrighted material.

So I’ve been kinda busy doing a lot of buying and selling over the weekends. I set up my processes. A lot of this doesn’t really make sense in the US, because there are a lot of CDs that you can get for, like 5 cents. Literally. It’s just that the standard US$3 for postage will kill you. In Singapore, in contrast, you can sell CDs for $5 to $10 because the market is small, and it’s still less than what you have to pay for real music. If I select my CDs carefully, I’ll be able to flip them at a small loss or even a slight profit.

One of the most wrenching things in my life was when I moved house 10 years ago. OK, I didn’t move house. My flat was being renovated, and we relocated to the 5th floor. I had to throw out things, and I chose to throw out a whole load of cassettes that I had accumulated over the years as a teenager. I found CD copies of my favourite stuff that I threw out - very often at prices that were even lower than what I got the tapes for. But it was a very sad day. In any case, I made a list of all the stuff that I threw out, and a special mark for those that I wanted to get back some day. I'm still trying to find some of those things.

There are a lot of people who think that the CD format is finished. I don’t think so. So long as this black market is still alive, and so long as people can always exchange music this way, I don’t think that it’s dead. It would probably be dead in the sense that people aren’t likely to buy CDs anymore from say HMV. But people would still be clearing out their CDs, and putting them out on the market, and I think that CDs will still be circulating around for quite a while. So I’m trying to take advantage of this temporary second hand market while it lasts.

Now, there is the internet phenomenon called trolling. It’s what happens when you are on the net, there’s something about the internet that makes people behave rather nastily towards each other. And I’ve also had this problem before on eBay.

First case was when I found a U2 CD for $4. I put it up on sale for $7. (I have to do that to recoup my losses on other CDs). Somebody asked me for it and bargained it down to $5. I gave him my bank account number and he paid $5 for it. Around the same time, somebody else bought it through eBay for the buying price of $7. I had to make a decision, do I sell it to the first guy or the second? I decided to sell it to the second guy and get my $7. So I emailed the first guy and told him that I was going to return him the money and if he wanted that U2 CD, too bad he was such a bloody miser. He got really angry towards me. It was totally hilarious. I can imagine that he turned blue in the face cursing me over email, but he wasn’t ever going to get that CD, so he had no choice but to allow me to transfer the money back to him. I suppose he was really stupid for not putting in a formal bid on the CD, since if he had done that, I wouldn’t be able to screw him over.

Second case was this guy who also asked for a discount when buying CDs. I said OK, but then later on I found out that he was a top accountant who lived in landed property. So I made some snide remark like, wow I can’t believe that rich people like you are so bloody stingy. He got really angry for a while before I asked him, “do you want me to cancel your fucking order so that I can sell it to somebody else who will pay full price for it?” And after that he backed down, because he did want those CDs after all. Damn, I was behaving like the soup Nazi.

Third case was this person living in Changi (think she was an expat or something) and she bought a book from me. It didn’t get delivered to her, and she wrote a lot of angry emails to me, until I told her to fuck off and check with her local post office if they had it. Turned out that they did and she had to give me a groveling apology.

There was another case when somebody bought a CD from me over half.com. Now only people in the US are allowed to use half.com, but I listed a US address there, so I was still able to sell things on half.com. Somebody ordered something from me, and I sent it. After a really long time, they mailed me, and told me that they were getting a refund from me because they didn’t receive it. They were pretty rude about it, and they gave me negative feedback. A month or 2 later, I had that package returned to me, and apparently it got all the way to America and back, and the receiver turned it back, not realizing that it was the parcel that they ordered.

I thought that was extremely strange. Until I realized that the people who ordered it from me were also merchants who were using half.com to fill in their orders. Somebody would order something from them over the internet, probably at a higher price. Then they would order it from me over half.com and pocket the change.

I was still sore about that. 1 year later, they ordered stuff from me again. I told them that I was cancelling the order immediately, and if they didn’t like it, they could fuck off. Additionally, if they tried to do something funny, I would write a rude letter to their customer and said that it was from them. I would report them to eBay and ask them to investigate. This time, they meekly stepped down. That felt good.

Fifth case, somebody bought a book from me over ebay. I had accidently listed it twice, so somebody else bought a book from me. I had to disappoint one of them so I wrote and said that somebody else had snapped it up first and I ran out of inventory. It is a very common thing on eBay, but she posted negative feedback for me over that. So I wrote her back, using a lot of four letter words and told her never to use eBay again. I think she deserved it: a seller not having inventory is really not something that deserves negative feedback.

This took place after they made some changes in the feedback system of eBay: previously, buyers and sellers could give each other negative feedback. Now, sellers were not allowed to give buyers negative feedback. Otherwise I would have given her negative feedback. At that time, I was a seller of a lot of CDs, so this impacted me very badly. Later on, when I moved to the States, I became a net buyer instead of a net seller, so I had my revenge.

There was this seller who was very impatient with me. He emailed me 2 hours after the end of an auction (yes, they still use auctions in the US, as opposed to Singapore where they more often use buy it now) to pay up asap. Then as I was watching another of his items, he threatened to give me negative feedback (obviously he hadn’t been ebaying for a while so he didn’t know about the rule change). I got sick of receiving an email every day so I didn’t respond. I just paid up at the end of everything. He tried to give me negative feedback but obviously he couldn’t, so he was just stuck with saying that I took a little long to pay. At this point, I thought I was going to fuck him over and I did. I bought 3 items from him, and I gave him 3 negative feedbacks. Out of a total of 100 that he received in his lifetime, this was a pretty heavy penalty. I got an angry email from him soon afterwards, and he demanded to know why he got negative feedback since he had fulfilled his obligations. I told him it was because he was an asshole, and more importantly, I had to teach him the proper rules, otherwise sellers would never learn: I can take up to 2 weeks to pay for it, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off. The only thing I compromised on was that the first draft of that last email to him had plenty of f words in it: I edited them all out when I finally wrote to him.

Then there was another problem with eBay: they censored my listings without telling me. Of course, ebay.com.sg is free, so I suppose they think they have the right to censor my listings. The most infamous case was when I put this album up for sale:
This was in 2000, when eBay was new and they hadn’t got all their shit together. So it got reclassified under porn, which was wrong. I wrote to them. I suppose that particular album gave them a headache. One day, I uploaded 200 listings onto eBay, and found out that when I did a search on my listings, only 196 appeared. I hunted down the missing 4, and I found out that some of the listings did not appear if they contained 4 letter words or something. Therefore I changed my listings to avoid spelling out those 4 letter words, only to find out that the last listing got censored for no explicable reason at all. Eventually I got mad and wrote an expletive laden letter to eBay to complain.

Then there was this other time I was in the states. I had 1 or 2 bank accounts from my time in the US, and some were frozen, some had old addresses. It took me a while to untangle everything and undo the damage. I used one of them to pay for a whole stack of CDs I bought from an eBay seller who was probably the person who pioneered the idea of listing all your CDs on sale and putting the initial price at 1 cent, so that everybody who saw them would bid the price up. I spent a fair amount of time bidding for those CDs, and sometimes I had to do some sniping. Sniping means you put in a bid 10 seconds before the auction closes, so that the previous high bidder gets caught unawares and you snatch the product from under his nose. eBay knows that it pisses people off, but they probably can’t be bothered to do anything with it. So I paid for those CDs with my Paypal. However I paid for them around the time that I was changing my address from the East Coast to the West Coast, and it got marked out as something suspicious. Eventually I wasn’t receiving my stuff, and so I wrote in to the seller. Her response was pretty shocking. She said, “your email address said that you are from Snowy Hill, you want me to ship the CDs to University of Mexico, and you have an Asian name. Don’t you expect me to suspect that something is wrong?” My God, that was one of the most racist things I had ever heard in the US. Unfortunately even if I had the power to give her 20 negative feedbacks, she gets around 100 feedbacks every day, so it very quickly got drowned out. So I was wasting time getting angry with her.

My interesting encounters as a merchant (if I may call myself that) aren’t limited to eBay. There was this fellar who set up a website to sell second hand books. I saw that website and I trusted it, and even before it was really user friendly, I spent a lot of time and effort using that klunky interface to put my books online. I had sold around 20 books that way so I wasn’t complaining. At the same time I noticed that they listed their own books online as well. Not only that, but when they featured their advertisements, they only put their own books in the advertisements.

There was one transaction where I bought a book from them off their website. For some reason, they listed it auction style, so I had to wait another 1 week for the auction to end before I got the book. So I wrote in to complain: why bother with the auction when your traffic is so low that I will never get a second bid? And why are all your advertised slots filled in with your own stuff? To my surprise, I got a very surly response, something to the effect of why are you so judgemental? Well it was my turn to get angry, and I said that first those were legitimate questions. And second, I was an early adopter of your website, and I placed my trust in that website much earlier than most other people. (At that time I was their biggest user of the website: I used to be ranked number 2 on this list). I was the one who got their website off the ground and you, you ingrateful wretch, are talking like that to me in this manner? Well she backed off. Eventually I had a chat with her husband, who was the real person setting up the website, and he seemed like a much nicer fellow than she was. I can't use their website now because I'm in the US. But I think their little project is surviving very well and I'm glad for them. It's surviving especially well now that so many of the top bookstores in Singapore have closed down and people are forced to buy books from second hand dealers now.

Well, there are a lot of interesting stories that take place when you’re in the business (actually it’s not a business – just a hobby of mine, together with actually listening to the music) of trading stuff. So it’s kinda interesting in its own ways.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fortune Cookies

Americans may not be aware of this, but the fortune cookie is a Chinese American thing, not a Chinese thing. It’s a cute idea to attract more people to eat at their Chinese takeouts, but no more than that. Also the other thing is that people think that America is a white man’s country. Mostly true, but California has a long history of Chinese people. California only belonged to the USA after the war with Mexico, and the USA took over Mexico. Then that place quickly started getting populated with immigrants from other parts of the US, as well as Chinese people. The Chinese people helped to build the first railway line from California to the mainland: and not just any part of the line: the most difficult and dangerous section, going through a few mountain ranges, and involving a lot of explosives. So California is as essential a part of the story of the overseas Chinese as Hong Kong or Singapore.

But I digress. I had never paid much attention to fortune cookies before, but I went to eat dinner once in in a Chinese place and I got a fortune cookie. At that time I was struggling with a take home exam in my Maths class. My fortune cookie read “you have good problem solving skills”. Now I did not solve all the problems in that class to my satisfaction, but I got an A in the end, so I have to believe I was good enough. A second time, I got a fortune cookie that said, “you will receive unexpected support”. Later that week, a friend (honest face, if you remember him) and my cousin contacted me out of the blue for a chit chat. I thought that was interesting.

Later on, I was trying to decide whether or not to approach a professor to do research with. The fortune cooking I got around that time was “adventure awaits you”. I took that to be a bad sign because I was deciding between travel and doing research. In the end, it turned out that the professor wasn’t going to be around in summer.

After that, I got a fortune cookie saying “you will have an unexpected romantic encounter”. I was in a class, and there was this girl I found attractive. And it was possible that we could have partnered each other for that course. But for various reasons I never got around to asking her: either I was too jaded to care, or I hadn’t gotten my part started and I didn’t want to just jump on her bandwagon. In the end, I had to carry a very heavy load myself, and I suspect the same was true for her.

My last fortune cookie, that I got yesterday was “you will make some friends”, or “you should make some friends”. I forgot, but the truly interesting thing about fortune cookies is that they keep you guessing which is which. And it really doesn’t matter. That is tricky: what am I going to do about that?


Friday, July 13, 2012

Woffles Wu

In a recent case, Woffles Wu (or whoever) was found to have been speeding. Woffles Wu got an elderly employee to take the rap, but was found out and sentenced to a fine. Somebody played up the incongruity of the sentencing, pointing out other cases where people had gotten somebody else to take the charge for them, and they got sent to jail. Woffles Wu was just fined.

One issue that raised eyebrows is that Woffles Wu was charged under section 81(3) of the Road Traffic act instead of section 182 of the penal code. If I’m reading the laws correctly, section 81(3) is about the duty to inform the police officer of who was driving the car at the time of the incident. Section 182 is about lying to a police officer. He was charged under 81(3) of the Road Traffic Act.

Some people have dug this up as a case where the law favours the richer members of society. Indeed, there were a few articles written up about this incident, most notably on the Online Citizen. Choo Zheng Xi was querying whether or not Woffles Wu should have been sent to jail. In many of the incidents, people who had lied to the police and gotten somebody to take the rap for them were sent to jail. There was a matter of back and forth between the AGC and Choo Zheng Xi.

Now, Woffles Wu (or whoever) had committed the offence of speeding. Not drunk driving, not reckless driving, not shooting red lights, merely speeding: although this would have resulted in 12 demerit points. Eventually the AGC argued that speeding is not a very serious offence and should not be lumped together with all the other cases brought up by Choo Zheng Xi. OK, but lying was also a very serious offence, something we know is far more serious than speeding.

Ultimately, this is one of those calls which will always be hotly debated. The way that Choo Zheng Xi painted it, it’s an egregious miscarriage of justice. It’s not. The dust settled for a while, until the AGC wrote a letter to Yawning Bread which you can read on his site. It made the point that I mentioned earlier, that the original offence was relatively minor. It also refuted the charge that Woffles Wu was charged under a less strict law, and pointed out that both sections carried out the same maximum offence. Well, both can’t be correct. Either you take the position that Woffles Wu was committing a less serious offence and deserved a less serious sentence, or you say that the issue of which statute to charge the guy under does not have an impact on the severity of his sentence.

In any case, from what little I know about the law, which statute does matter, because a charge under different statutes will have different case histories, and this will influence sentencing. That is the real issue. Not, as the AGC has cleverly argued, what the maximum sentencing should be.

As it is, the flexibility of this legal arrangement allows the AGC to frame the charge. The judge does not have the discretion of deciding how to charge Woffles Wu. The charge is served up on a plate to the judge, who merely decides the verdict and the sentence. There is a fair bit of room on the part of the AGC. The executive has a lot more wriggle space than the judiciary.

My personal belief is that Woffles Wu should have been sentenced to jail, but this is the opinion of a layman who hasn’t been to law school. Choo Zheng Xi thinks 14 days. I estimate 1 week, maybe less. The charge against Woffles Wu for abetment to committing an offence of “not reporting” the offence is probably fishy. My point of view is that the scales of justice were tipped slightly towards Woffles Wu. Not by a whole lot to fully justify the sound and fury in the direction of the AGC, but I would definitely say it was a little biased. It’s definitely a grey area. Rather than to say that the legal system was abused, I would prefer to say the prosecutors cut him a bit of slack.

The problem is that the legal system allows a lot of discretion on the part of the prosecutors to influence the final outcome. To be sure, no legal system is perfect. For that to happen, you must compare every case with every other case that has ever happened, and conclude that everything is consistent with each other. Since this is impossible, all legal systems have varying degrees of wriggle room.

Woffles Wu said that it was silly that he provided the name of the wrong person (he didn’t admit to being the one speeding so regardless of whether I think he was the one speeding, I’ll just have to qualify that I don’t know for sure. And I have to add – innocent until proven guilty). And it is really very silly to shirk an offence as minor as speeding. 91 km/h is not really that fast, although Lornie Road is a fairly dangerous road.

So when somebody like Woffles Wu cannot be shown to have been the one speeding nobody really knows whether it’s impossible to figure that out or whether there are things better left unknown. In any case, it is possible that a crucial difference between this case and other previous cases is that Woffles Wu hasn’t been determined to be the guy driving the car at that time. And it isn’t easy to figure out who’s driving the car, to be honest. After all, that guy is rich enough to allow any Tom, Dick and Harry to be touching his stuff all over.

I think that there’s no smoking gun here, and that reflects the true nature of how the system works. There’s never a smoking gun. When regulations are selectively applied, they are done so within the bounds of the law, and further checks and balances do not exist to make sure that the outcome is what most people would call fair. They wouldn’t do something outrageously unjust. Just a little here, a little there, and in the long run, it all adds up. That is the kind of tilted playing field that people just have to contend with.

About that Yawning Bread article, he wrote in a blog post about why he thinks the case reflects the growing suspicion of the general populace that the courts tilt towards the rich and prominent people. Well, according to my memory, that is what was written. I can’t read it anymore because the AGC served him a lawyer’s letter and told him to take down that blog post.

Well that was really stupid. People already have such a dim view of the legal system in Singapore. And you want to make things even more suspicious by ordering somebody to shut up? That smelled really bad. Yawning Bread – well if you look at how prolific he is and how he’s always running around being a do gooder, you wouldn’t be surprised at what he did. He didn’t stick to his guns, but he said, I’m not going to spend time and energy proving my points, so I’ll take it down. But doesn’t an action like this sound something like “HEY GUYS! I HAVE SOMETHING TO HIDE HERE!” Like Confucius say, three taels of silver are not buried here.

Why couldn’t they have written this as an open letter, and forced Yawning Bread to put it up? What’s the purpose of a court of law if it doesn’t convince people that things are fair and equal? They needn’t have forced Yawning Bread to take down his blog post. I had to go through what had been put up about this case. Initially after reading what Yawning Bread and TOC wrote about this incident, I had assumed that there was a grave injustice on the Woffles Wu case. And that would have been my impression if I had heard about the lawyer’s letter from the Minister of Law. Only after going through the case did I revise my judgement to “slightly biased”. After all, people get let off for lack of evidence.

A lot of people speculate on legal issues in the USA. Maybe this makes the legal system a little more inefficient, a little more partisan, but at least people can see how things are done. I don’t know how they could say that Yawning Bread is guilty of contempt of court, since all the things that have been written are directed at the AGC, not the court. What we have on the part of the AGC is contempt for the people of Singapore, who after all are the ones who decide who gets to be the minister of Law.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mandatory Death Sentence and the "new normal"

Right after the elections, I was speaking to a friend of mine. We knew that this was a “watershed election”. A bit like having your first fuck. Most of the time, fucking is nice but your first fuck is special.

He asked me, what do you think they’re going to change now? And I said, they’ll cut their own salaries. He said, “why would they want to cut their own salaries? They’d do anything in order to avoid cutting their own salaries.” (This guy is a banker). But you know, I was right.

So why did I guess right? There’s another statement made by a former boss of mine who was a senior SAF officer. He’s a pretty conservative guy, unlike a lot of government scholars who are actually pretty liberal. He was dyed in the wool PAP, but he did notice that there was a lot of “anger” in the crowd. So I guess that’s the way that people at the top saw it: the people just had to “suffer” a little bit “for the greater good”. There “wasn’t any choice”. It wasn’t a matter of the government really implementing the wrong policies. It was that the public didn’t really understand why it was “necessary”, and maybe they weren’t going to hold out for much longer. But you just had to “manage” that “anger”, so what you did was a series of movements in order to appease the masses.

So what did I predict? I predicted that what the government would do in the near future would be to pluck the lowest hanging fruits. And I identified the minister salaries as the lowest hanging fruit because this was something that they had absolute control over. Probably they would also rescale the salaries of some of the senior civil servants. The salaries of senior civil servants are meant to entice people to come into the civil service early in their careers, and not for senior civil servants to stay in their jobs. It’s not easy to switch out of the public sector for a comparative wage in the private sector, and everybody knows that. In the short run, there wouldn’t be a lot of damage, and in any case, the damage has already been done: people have already noticed that it is difficult for the PAP to attract candidates vis a vis the opposition. The toxic environment under which a PAP MP has to serve is actually pretty off-putting for most people.

Recently, there have been a few other incidents that have confirmed my hypothesis. First, there was Lui Tuck Yew going down to the ground during the MRT breakdowns and observing the scene. Well he’s a general and you don’t get far in the SAF if you don’t know how to wayang, but this is positive form of wayanging that sends the right message. Accordingly, the COI over the public transport breakdowns were pretty harsh. I’m sure that the ministry of transport was genuinely angry over the handling of the MRT breakdowns. They must have been really happy that this didn’t happen in April 2011, just before the elections, or worse still, in the first week of May, in the middle of the campaigning season. So Saw Phiak Hwa either resigned or was pushed. And they pledged a lot of money for more buses on the roads, raising the question of why the transport system was not nationalized. And there were some dark mutterings that the Worker’s Party was caught between a rock and a hard place when it came to transport policy.

Then there was this other incident that aroused a lot of anger: the handling of the Suntec assault case. Three angmors who got into a drunken brawl were arrested, let out on bail and later absconded, raising questions of whether or not there was indeed preferential treatment for foreigners in Singapore. These sort of issues go all the way back to the era of “unequal treaties” in China, so everybody responded to that. In the end, apparently one poor officer was made to take the rap for allowing the guy to escape. I see no reason to believe that this whole incident was the fault of the guy alone, but in the absence of any real evidence, I also see no reason to believe otherwise.

The “Sticker Lady” case was another incident. It provoked a groundswell of protest. After the Sticker Lady had been arrested, it was probably decided that people would not press charges against her. It was on balance a correct decision, because it would have been very awkward to charge her when a lot of people paste advertisements on public property all over Singapore, and nobody ever gets caught. And it would have been very difficult to prosecute what has become a beloved icon in the eyes of many Singaporeans.

Pastor Kong Hee was arrested for the embezzlement of millions of dollars from tithing worshippers. A lot of people felt that this was long overdue. It was the popular thing to do all of a sudden. This was the obvious thing to do as well, but it was difficult to execute. You could have a horde of angry church-goers adopting a persecution complex. But luckily the horde of angry church-goers was in this instance outmatched by an even larger horde of angry people from outside the church condemning Kong Hee for being so obviously greedy, and the churchgoers for being such big suckers.

There was the Ma Chi Ferrari crash, which briefly raised the question of the deadly driving habits of foreigners in Singapore, and would have been even more serious if not for the exact same accident taking place at the same junction taking place exactly two weeks after, this time with the offending car driven by a Singaporean. Somebody brought up the idea to impose more regulations on allowing people to drive sports cars, but that was later on dropped.

Now there is the case of the mandatory death penalty. The mandatory death sentence has been one of the most controversial aspects of the judiciary system, and protesters have been harping on it for a long time. Apparently, now they want the MDS to be discretionary on two very strict conditions, one is that the drug trafficker is not involved in other parts of the drug supply chain, and another is that the drug trafficker is not of sound mind.

This was also a little eerie, because I had complained to a friend of mine who was a government lawyer. I said that it was stupid that you sentenced a drug mule to death and you did nothing about the drug lords. By sentencing the mule to death, it was highly unlikely that he would give you any information about who told him to transport the drugs. This was highly unproductive. Apparently somebody up there thought the same way too.

Now Ravi Philemon has also rightly pointed out that this is not a major breakthrough but a minor tweak in the mandatory death sentence. True, but you just don’t make big changes all of a sudden without studying the larger impact resulting from these tweaks to legislation. These things have to be done slowly. You don’t want there to suddenly have the drug cases in Singapore shoot up (no pun intended). It therefore remains to be seen if there’s going to be any follow up on this matter, or if this is the full extent of what they ever intended to do.

This is the year of three elections. The general elections, the presidential elections and the by-elections all took place in little more than the space of one year. None of them have been outright disasters for the PAP, but all of them have produced results that would have made them extremely uneasy. It was not surprising, therefore, that the government would be in damage control mode for a little while.

This was a watershed elections not only in the sense that the tide was beginning to turn against the PAP, but it was also a watershed elections in the sense that dirty tactics and duster-knuckle threats were generally found to have outlived their usefulness. No amount of fear-mongering and use of carrot and stick approaches can compensate for the fact that Singapore is ultimately a democracy.

Then, it is very useful to contrast this with the high hanging fruit. Why did the government ignore Lim Chong Yah’s wage proposals? Because they conflicted with other objectives like providing full employment and not having to worry about unemployment in Singapore. Because it would then be difficult to keep other MNCs in Singapore if wages went up too quickly.

Why did the government disregard the Bukit Brown protestors? Because they weren’t going to destroy the whole cemetery anyway, because they weren’t going to derail a multi-million dollar project in order to have a nice chat with conservationists. Either way, it would have been difficult.

Why did the government not cut back on defence spending? Because their most loyal supporters work in Mindef, and it would have been very difficult to take them out of what had been pretty comfortable careers. Even though the correct thing to do was to transfer them out of Mindef and plant them in schools and hospitals.

Why are they not repealing 377A? One possible reason is that they don’t want to be engaged in a second activity that pisses off the church in such a short span of time. Fair enough. Another reason was something that I don’t completely understand: somebody made a comment on facebook that a Constitutional Law professor said that there were some hidden reasons why 377A is not repealed. Would that led to a whole flood of other changes in legislation that they don’t want to think about? Anyway this issue is complicated because a lot of conservatives in Singapore will not be happy about it.

The indications are that Singapore is not turning away from the “growth is everything” paradigm that they’ve had since independence. I don’t see signs that they’re thinking about building a more equitable society, or scaling back on encroaching on peoples’ rights and freedom of speech. They might cut back on foreign labour, but this are big complicated issues which involve the co-operation of many Singapore businesses and are therefore very difficult to pull off. I don’t know if they’re going in the direction of open data, and allowing information to circulate more freely. But I don’t really think so.

There are other signs that the government is realising that some of their policies are stupid. One of the worst ever policies is the "asset enhancement" policy of the early 90s which allowed the rising price of land to fuck our economy upside down. In one fell swoop, a few people became very rich, a lot of people became very poor, the obstacles to running a successful business became ridiculously high, and our competitiveness - especially vis-a-vis the lower income neighbours around us - went down the toilet. There are measures to cool down the rising price of land, and hopefully that works out. This is not a low hanging fruit because if property prices stop their upward momentum, some people are not going to be very happy.

There was the almost Stalinist purge of the cabinet. Many people who left were the old timers. Possibly there were a few people who stayed around very long, and the date of their leaving the cabinet was merely brought forward a few years. It was a little strange that not more of the old timers were around to fix the problems that they helped create, but maybe they decided that many changes of leadership were long overdue. Maybe they felt that dogs couldn't learn new tricks. Maybe the ones who stepped down themselves thought that they couldn't face up to a newer harsher environment where they were no longer surrounded by "yes minister" types but they had to work in the face of a feistier opposition. In any case, there are a lot of new faces who simultaneously have to learn the ropes and learn new skills of "engaging the internet" which is really stupid because this is a skill they should have learnt 10 years ago and not only now.

So it is easy to provide some sops to people to stem the rising discontent. And I think our government is smart and capable enough to see which of their policies are in trouble. The only thing that is lacking is the will, but if you squeeze their balls a little bit, the political will will magically appear. What concerns me, however, is that they’re slowly succumbing to something that they said they wouldn’t succumb to – populism. A lot of times, when the PAP government mentions populism it’s actually a disingenuous way to justify policies that will not be of great benefit to the larger population. But it is true that they are also sincere about other non-populist policies that have served us over the years.

The other thing is that in the past, their policies still have had some measure of coherence about them, but when they start tweaking things in a less than deliberate manner, things could go badly out of sync with each other. Classic example is removing restrictions on import of foreigners without backing up with transport or education infrastructure. Things are beginning to fray around the edges. The prime minister – what the fuck is he doing? He should have a plan. We had a plan in 1990, and it was called “the Next Lap”. Obviously that plan wasn’t perfect, judging from the number of people who now tulan the PAP, but at least the idea was that the pieces had to fit. Now things are even more precarious – cheap labour all around. Massive uncertainty in the world economy. Existential threats to human civilization resulting from world population growth, depletion of natural resources and climate change. Better start having a plan now!!!

I just hope that they’re going to put their thinking caps on from now on and steer Singapore onto the right direction.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very simple. There's no plan because this is their final lap now. Thanks for a great overview.

2:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

based on your overview, i'm surprised you believe the PAP is smart and can think. it is quite obvious from many of today's policies and the way they've been realised that the party has not thought things through for at Least a couple of decades.

incidentally i disgree with your view that a policy or decision tt's welcomed or popular or what people want makes that policy questionable. is it bad to have housing - public housing too - and care for the old that an ordinary person can afford? these are among the things people want.

i also cannot understand why the PAP feel it is vital to have such Ginormous reserves, which are gambled away. surely the point of collecting all this money is to use it to benefit the people who have made it possible? how useful is it to have a huge amt of cash sitting around, unless you want to show others you are filthy rich? it's like having wardrobes of clothes which are never used.

10:31 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

When I believe that the PAP is smart and can think, it's based on my impression of what they did beyond 2 decades, ie up till the 80s. I share you opinion that what has happened in the Goh Chok Tong era and beyond is a breakdown of a coherent vision. But to be fair, the economic conditions of the last 2 decades have also been tougher.

What I said was "just because a decision is popular doesn't mean it's a good one". That is different from "just because a decision is popular it means it's a bad one." If you think those two statements are the same then your logic is flawed.

During the Asian Financial crisis, all the countries around us suffered speculative attacks on their economies. Traders would bet that the banks in Thailand or Indonesia would go down the drain, and at the same time, they would keep selling the stock of those banks. By doing this, they could make a lot of money in a short time. Singapore had this protection, which is why they could not do this to Singapore. And which is why Singapore did not suffer that much from the Asian Financial Crisis.

Second reason why we have a lot of reserves is that we can use that money to make more money. (Assuming we invest it properly). When that money comes in, it is possible that we get to pay less taxes, or the government can spend more.

So there is a real reason for maintaining reserves. But when you take this policy to the extreme and become so tight fisted that your only objective is to grow the reserves, then there is a problem, which is why I partially agree with you that our reserves situation is the product of a warped mentality.

11:31 PM


Friday, July 06, 2012

Belated Thoughts on Sticker Lady

Ever since the elections of 1 year ago, people have come out to debate social issues in greater numbers than ever before. Especially the one defining issue of that election: trading away one George Yeo for 5 opposition members. Since then, so many incidents have come out to provoke public debate: the Yaw Shin Leong sex scandal. Xiaxue publicly humiliating her detractors in public. Sun Xu neglecting to curse people under his breath and instead saying something out loud triggering a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment. Ma Chi getting a big dose of anti-foreigner flak for smashing up a taxi at a junction, until a Singaporean did exactly the same thing two weeks later. The sticker girl posed one of the greatest conundrums for law enforcement. She was famous before she got caught, because everybody was talking about her work. The positive feedback must have been very encouraging for her to carry on her spree. Well, I’ll cut to the chase and lay out the main issues, and my thoughts about them.

1. Is she a vandal?

Assuming that she’s the one who did the stickers and the spray painting, yes.

2. Does she deserve to be punished?

On balance, I would say a slap on the wrist would suffice. There wasn’t any malice involved. Even if you were to talk about damage to public property, don’t you think that all those sticky posters that advertisers put up also damage public property, and cost money to remove? And don’t you think that having a sticker that says “press once can already” would actually make those traffic light buttons last longer?

3. What would the law do to her?

I would look for an outcome that applies that above outcome to her, but which doesn’t break the letter of the law. If I were a judge, I would give her a light sentence. I would base that on outpouring of support for her – that would be a strong mitigating factor.

4. Is it art?

On the basis of the mass outpouring of support, it’s clear that she’s one of the most beloved artists Singapore has had for quite some time. You could even use it as a legal basis for defining art. Suppose there was no support for her, you couldn’t really tell if it were art. But if there were great support for her – no doubt! It doesn’t have to be universal – just present in large numbers.

5. Should we have more public spaces for people to “express themselves”?

First, I’m not a big fan of street art or whatever. I’ve always thought, you want to express yourself, do it on canvas. You want to see great art, visit a digital gallery. And frankly, the real obstacle to art in public spaces in Singapore is not the law. It is the fucking sky high price of land. That’s preventing people from setting up artist enclaves.

6. Whither the Vandalism act?

I didn’t want to have an opinion on this. But as people pointed out, it was originally written to deter commies putting up subversive posters. And now they’re angling for it to be less insanely tough. I’m not going to be an advocate for this for selfish reasons: I don’t support street art. But others do. I don’t think that if you ease up the law, more street art will appear than wanton defacement of public property. I don’t think that I want to pay higher taxes to maintain damaged goods.

A lot of people are saying, "why can't Singapore open up like the rest of the world". Well we're not "just another city". We're special, we're Singapore. If we didn't do silly things that make people laugh at us, if we didn't ban chewing gum, cane people (actually, young males) for vandalism, hang people for drug trafficking, we wouldn't be uniquely Singapore. And that is why I despair at people who, in the name of individuality cry out, "why can't we be like everybody else? Why can't we have a funky city like everybody else?"

Ultimately the question of street artist is a competition of ideas between the street artist and the city planner. The city planner designs the landscape on a bigger scale, while the street artist decorates smaller portions, on the scale of one wall at a time. They might get into each other's way. You could have a mural that is nice to look at up close, but when you look at a wall from afar, all those murals become undistinguished from each other, and look almost downright ugly.

7. Space for artists in Singapore

I had a long standing argument with a friend of mine. He is a guy who is pretty pro-government, and he first took the position that he never understood why artists are always angling for "more controversy". I started engaging with him on this point until I realised that you don't really have to support the idea that "art is about controversy" to believe that Singapore severely hampers the space that artists have to work with. It is ridiculously easy to withdraw performing and entertainment licenses. You can't swear into a mike. I think there was a time when Chris Ho got banned for inviting people up on stage. Laws are more strictly enforced for local acts than foreign acts.

But another strange thing happened: around the time then Singapore decided to liberalise its hold on artists, a totally different set of obstacles presented itself to the artist. This time, there wasn't a lack of entertainment venues, nor was there a lack of good facilities for performance. But they were expensive, and you had to fill in the seats. This means that everything became more corporatised. You couldn't stage a concert unless you filled in all the seats. All this pointed to an inherent bias in the system against more experimental acts - unless you were generously bankrolled by good backers. You had foreigners flooding into the system, who managed to hone their craft elsewhere and make their name in more favourable conditions. Then they come here, complain about how the restrictive atmosphere is stifling the artists, and proceed on to further stifle the local artists by providing competition.

Yes, you can call on the government to provide more support for our local arts scene, but these other conditions will have to be dealt with as well.

As for space for Street Art in Singapore, I think that you could issue a few more permits for Street Art. I remember that before they renovated the Singapore Museum for the umpteenth time, there was a quirky little sculpture with 4 wiry guys sitting on a bench. I kinda liked that and I think that was a nice piece of street art. I don't think that these pieces of street art would necessarily do much harm to Singapore.

Update: as of now, Samantha Lo hasn't been charged. They talk about the enormous amount of leeway there exists to either charge or not charge Woffles Wu. Now, people don't like this flexibility because it makes the law seem arbitrary. But apparently this flexibility was used to not charge Samantha Lo, which does raise questions: why? Why, when after risking the wrath of the public to charge a popular figure, do you not stick to your guns? Do our leaders lack balls? Or is this the wise and pragmatic approach, that after demonstrating that nobody is exempt from the long arm of the law you just decide to do the most sensible thing in the end? This debate may long continue, but it is interesting in its own right, and also in what it tells you about the societal changes in Singapore.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

The real lesson of the Brompton fiasco

There has been a bit of hoo hah over the use of public money for civil servants. Apparently the first time this happened, people were complaining about the use of public money. There were chairs which cost $1000 each bought for NTU. Now, people are complaining about $2000+ folding bicycles bought for the national parks board employees. Khaw Boon Wan's boilerplate response is attached here for your amusement and viewing pleasure.

Now, there are aspects of this decision which are mitigating factors. First, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to take care of your employees well. You should give them good quality tools which are well designed. It is certainly better than paying ministers or elites a shit load of money: this is money for the rank and file.

Second, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to buy them goods that are going to last. If something costs twice as much but lasts twice as long, it’s also a good thing. Now the only basis I can criticize this spending is the cost, because it’s way too high, and there are cheaper alternatives. And I think they should have done more homework and gone for a second round of tender. A lot of bicycle enthusiasts come out of the woodwork, and then tell you that there are cheaper alternatives. They tell you that the reason why Brompton bicycles cost more is because parts are custom made – and that raises some eyebrows, because the stated reason why you pay more for better bikes is because of the supposedly lower maintenance cost.

OK, pretty straightforward. One side says it’s an honest mistake – yes and no, because the due diligence was not diligent enough. Another side says the civil servants were stupid and I agree. How much money was spent on upgrading Bishan park? One fucking billion dollars? And at the same time you do nothing for the poor of Singapore?

Anyway, that’s not my main point of this post. The main point is: where are our Herman Millers and Bromptons? Aren’t there local companies which manufacture high quality products for peoples’ use? Why aren’t we going down that route? Surely there must be a small market for these products? An SME, a GLC, whatever. Now, I wouldn’t totally mind if the government was taking all this money and pumping it into our own economy. I used to play with Zoids toys when I was a kid and I felt proud when it said that they were “made in Singapore”. Surely we have highly educated people from top wanking universities like NUS and NTU who are dying to actually put their engineering degrees into good use instead of joining an MNC and getting all the grunt work.

Singapore could really consider becoming more bicycle friendly. Yes, it is very hazardous to be biking on main roads in Singapore, and when I see that roads have to be widened by half a lane to accommodate bikes, it does seem rather big use of space. But the main roads within HDB towns aren’t always jammed, and they could be made more bike friendly.

So: step one: create a market for bikes. Is that the hardest thing in the world to do when people are paying through their noses for cars? Step two: build a small local biking industry. There are not a lot of obstacles to this, except that bicycle retail will be expensive. But there are already bike shops in Singapore. Build them in parks. Build them in industrial zones. Deliver the bikes to customers in pickups.

Then, you can sell your bikes to the government for an outrageous rate, I don’t care. Similarly, if there are so many offices in Singapore, why does Singapore not have a Herman Miller? Surely the market for good quality office furniture must exist. And surely we are already buying office furniture from local firms. Why don’t we have a local firm taking that extra step to achieving excellence on the scale of a Herman Miller or a Brompton?

We are always talking about creating value adding jobs that justify paying Singapore level wages in a region where Malaysian or Indonesian wages are the norm. There is a chance here – are we going to take it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha ...

"top wanking universities like NUS and NTU"

4:12 PM