Go with a smile!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Singapore and the English Speaking World

There has been some anxiety recently about our place in the English speaking world. There have been two articles which have attacked Singapore, and Singaporeans have responded to them.

It’s been well known for a while that Jim Sleeper is a very vocal opponent of NUS Yale, and he’s always been a demagogue in this regard. His views are not completely objective, and I suspect there is more than just a little political motivation in this regard. The latest article is pretty embarrassing to him, because he got a really vocal response from Singaporeans – and you know, it is not the response of freedom loving people, but rather the mindless and loony ravings of the brainwashed masses, especially if they don’t really agree with you.

In fact, some of the things he says is that Chinese people don’t treat the other races with respect. That is only true to a very limited extent. The fact is, if we treated the Malays with the same “respect” that Israeli Jews treat the Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian Arabs, or any other Arabs, there will be no peace in Southeast Asia. Chinese and Malays have been living side by side for more than 500 years and it is a mostly peaceful existence.

What is true, though, is that Chinese people don’t treat white people with a lot of respect. I’m sorry, but that’s true. I’m sorry, Jim Sleeper, for your post Mitt Romney white male angst.

Another article said that Singaporeans were the “least emotional” among the countries. Now, in all fairness, I would expect Singaporeans to score lowly on questions such as:

“Did you feel well rested yesterday?
Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
Did you experience the following feelings during a lot of the day yesterday?
How about (enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, anger)?”

What I’m pretty sure about is that there would have been no article if they found out that the last place went to a place like Chad or Niger. Maybe it is a back-handed compliment that we find people wanting to knock us off a perch? It makes good copy to say that a nouveau riche country, preferably one with pretensions of being a great global city, isn’t really that happy after all.

But I suspect that there is a certain degree of unease at it all, at finally having to acknowledge that Singapore is, after all, a part of the English speaking world. And let’s face it, we are part of the English speaking world. Winston Churchill wrote a book called “A History of the English Speaking Peoples”. And I think what he had in mind were “real” English speakers, ie those of European ancestry. But the English speaking world is different, and I would argue that right now, there are two tiers of the English speaking world.

Suppose somebody like Lee Kuan Yew were to say that the Australians are “white trash”. There would be a massive uproar. But I think that Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, Brits and the Irish can call each other twats and wankers with far lesser consequences. The fact is that there are two English speaking worlds. There are those countries that I have mentioned, and there are other countries like Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria, India, the Philippines and of course Singapore. No doubt that the average person from these “second tier” of countries is not as proficient in the language as those in the “first tier”. But there are a sizable number of people in these countries who are native speakers of the language. I’ve been told before that I’m not a real speaker of English – I’ve had to correct some people in these points. This is as real as it gets. At least this is California, so people are not surprised when they see an Asian guy speaking it like they’ve been speaking it all their lives.

At the same time, you see that there is this presumption of exclusion. A lot of it is seen in how Singlish is described. People have variously called it a Pidgin, or a creole. But I think that it probably should be known as a dialect of English. Think about Liverpool English – spoken with lots of foreign words (from Celtic, Welsh or whatever), with a different accent, and sometimes even different grammar. How is that fundamentally different from what Singlish does? Then why is Liverpool classified as a “dialect” and Singlish is classified as – well nobody really knows what? That’s the difficulty that other English speaking peoples have in confronting us. There is this fundamental confusion of who we are. On one hand, we have a different culture, greatly influenced by Malaysia / China / India. On the other hand, we get so much of western influences – I’m likely to think of Singaporeans as mutant westerners. And since we speak the same language, nominally, it’s hard for them to think of us as 100% foreigners. What they see in us is western culture, reflected back at them as though through a hall of funny mirrors.

To a smaller extent, we are mutants of China, mutants of India, even mutants of Malaysia. I can meet an Indian and I can tell him so much about how much I know about his cuisine. But it feels surreal and strange. As though he were seeing something really familiar but very subtly mangled, like one of those nightmares you have at night where you see your house and very familiar surroundings, but with one or two extra secret passages you never knew about.

Predictably, Singaporeans have reacted with outrage, and to a certain extent, the reactions are positive in the sense that the outspokenness has to a large extent debunked the notion that Singaporeans do not have freedom of speech, nor do they know how to use it. The image that Singaporeans are mindless hordes of brainwashed people blindly accepting the prevalent norms dictated to them from above is if not thoroughly discredited, then in the very least called into question. The image of the Singaporean as a soulless and emotionless person is conflicted by the howls of outrage following that Gallup poll, even though there is a degree of truth that we, as a people are not prone to show our emotions outwardly.

You can see that there is a certain degree of unfamiliarity with Asia. There is this anxiety about the unknown. There is a great asymmetry of information here. It is not surprising, and much of this is cultural. I know more about France than I know about Indonesia. Asians don’t tell outsiders a lot about their cultures, and this is disconcerting to foreigners. To a certain extent, we are responsible for the image of the inscrutable orient. To a certain extent, this antipathy is generated by our attitudes towards the outside world at large. We are failing to build an image of ourselves to the world, we are failing to communicate to the world who we really are. We are very very far from completing our task of nation building. When I grew up to become an adult, one of the most important tasks I set for myself is to forge myself an identity as an individual. Then after that I think about extending it, because the identity that we forge ourselves as a tribe, or a city, or a nation is more or less an extension of who we think we are as people.

I am pleased to report that we have something. This is not a tabula rasa that Singapore was in the 80s and the 90s. But what we have is not enough. There has been another issue that was raised recently. Singapore’s MRT started announcing station names in English and Mandarin recently. This was fairly unusual: The Singaporean Chinese know all the English names of the MRT stations. So why have the Mandarin versions, when that might make the Malays and the Indians feel left out? Turns out that it’s for the benefit of our PRC friends. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if it’s for benefitting the new arrivals, I’m sure that the Malays and the Indians aren’t going to be happy. So that’s the thing – is Singapore supposed to be an English speaking country or not? Is this supposed to be a place where you just have to know how to speak English, or is it going to be alright if you don’t speak English but you can speak Mandarin?

Well, these are questions to ponder over when you’re reckoning with Singapore’s status as a English speaking nation.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Great Job Hunt part 2

I went into the third interview thinking that I had blown it.

There was that first interview which took place over the phone. I had been contacted over email regarding that phone interview: I probably gave them a resume in a job fair, but I couldn’t remember that booth. The first interview was relatively easy, he just asked me about my experience.

This is what happened during the second interview: I didn’t feel exactly 100% at home when they brought me into the room, but I looked at the question they had on the table for me, and after a few minutes, I wrote them an answer. They looked at it, and then they said, hey, that’s a really neat way of solving the problem. I probably did it in 2 steps, while everybody else’s problem would take 4 or 5.

I’ve never been totally comfortable with Americans, especially white Americans. Never been totally comfortable among the hipsters and the geeks although I will totally take them over a bunch of ah bengs or a bunch of jocks. That place looked a lot like what you’d find in a typical startup: quite bare of furnishings, spacious, concrete everywhere. Austere, probably a lot of kiddie toys lying around. It was an office downtown, not far away from University of Mexico, with a nice view.

After a while, the conversation drifted to Singapore. The founders had visited Singapore once and were quite intrigued about Asia. One of them was an Asian-American, although he wasn’t there at that time. I felt a little uneasy talking about Singapore and after a while tried to drag the conversation back to the real stuff, asking them about their technology. But they said that they were curious about Singapore.

After the conversation ended, I was ushered out. The main thing they did impressed me: over 10 years, and working with a team of not much more than 5-10, they built a product which probably takes as much work to build as Microsoft Word. That was remarkable. I flipped through a few things in my mind that I probably shouldn’t have said, for example: I said that “Mexico” reminded me of Singapore 20 years back. I meant a more laid back, easy going Singapore and a better place to live in. Would that be misconstrued? I said that if you wanted to do real machine learning, you’d probably have to hire a PhD. Was that an open invitation to reject me? When they told me that they were setting up a new analytics department, I said that decisions that you make early when you are setting things up will come back to haunt you later if they are the wrong ones. Was that a reminder that they had to think very carefully before they hired me? I even repeated a joke cracked by my archenemy Edna Mode: how 前人种树,后人乘凉 got parodied into 前人种树,后人遭殃

I thought that they were going to send me a polite note thanking me for my time after that. To my amazement they invited me back for another round. This time, I met both co-founders, including the Asian American. (Parents were Taiwanese). We talked – this time the interview was tougher. I had to explain what I was doing in my project. (Of course I tried to make it sound more important than it really was). Tried to sell the point that my previous experience was in line with the capabilities they were looking for. In the email inviting me to the third interview, a founder told me that he was attending a big data conference. The interview took place after another less successful one: there was a class where the enrollment was restricted, because it involved Big Data and plenty of computing resources. I told the prof what I previously did, and he did not allow me into the course. I thought this was a bad omen for the third interview.

But towards the end of the third interview, they told me that they were seriously considering me. What followed next was a glimmer of hope. For me it was 50-50. They even walked me all the way to the bus stop: it was 5 blocks away from the lunch place.

Something bizarre took place when I was waiting for the bus to take me back to the university, when a woman 10 years older than me in a summer dress came up to me. She had a heart sign drawn on her forearm, and she said bizarre things like, “isn’t today a beautiful day? Don’t we all want to be ourselves today? Do you want to be yourself today?” I muttered that mostly we don’t really have a choice but to be who we are. Thankfully the express bus (which actually arrives only every hour) came within the next 5 minutes, otherwise I would have to suffer the indignity of seeing her work her middle aged feminine charms on me. However, that overaged manic pixie dream girl did ask me one salient question: "Is this your lucky day?"

Next 10 days was thankfully finals week. I had to force feed myself around 20% of one course’s material over 3 days. It was pretty intense, and operating systems – you didn’t understand half of what the papers were being talked about. I felt like a total blur fuck. To my great surprise, I was able to write the exam afterwards. Then right after the exams, it was the usual routine – scrambling to have your papers written, I had set up your experiments to run some time ago, but somehow procrastinated on writing the report. Then after that, the last homework assignment for another course. Then after that, a project that my partner was supposed to finish on his own, but he didn’t because he wanted to help me with the other project when I didn’t want it.

Finally, after everything was done, I sank back onto my own bed, exhausted. When I woke up, though, there was an email waiting for me. It said that I got the job.

At the same time, though, I still had a few replies from the people I sent my resume to in the job fair. I wasn't close friends with hippo when we were both colleagues, but I remember something he said: Job applications teach you a lot of things. Keep on applying for jobs, even if you don't need one, because the process of applying for jobs keeps you in touch with the job market.

I spoke with the boss the other day. He told me that I'm the first foreigner to work for that company. He had never procured a work permit visa for me before, and it could be a problem. Now the job offer is the job offer, and the way it works is that I get an extension on the student visa, and in the meantime they get the work permit visa for me. And if it doesn't work - well let's really really hope that it does work. Now I know what Shingot feels like. But difference between him and me is that if I want to go back to my country it's OK. Maybe less so for him if he were to go back to his country.

There will probably be a part 3 because I'm still going to shop around. Unless what follows this is dismal failure all around.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Great Job Hunt part 1

This time last year, I had flown back to Mexico for the second time in three months. It was an uneasy time. One year earlier, I had started a part time course towards a post-grad degree. Six months earlier, I got accepted by Mexico and decided to quit my job, although I didn’t manage to get out until one month before I was due to fly off.

Three months earlier, I started school at Mexico. During the first three months, I had felt as lost as I had during the six months doing that part time course. It wasn’t like Snowy Hill where I felt like there were a thousand new ideas streaming through my head every day. Ploughing through papers were a pain. Working things out.

I realised that doing a postgrad degree in something you hadn’t done as an undergraduate was a hard slog. You sorda got the main ideas, but the technical details escaped you. There were talks going all the time. It used to be exhilarating looking at all the things that you could learn / could have learnt. Now it just induces a vague sense of panic. It used to be exciting that so many big companies were visiting the campus, but then you realize that you had to up your game to even be considered.

I hadn’t come to the states thinking that I’d look for a job. To be honest, I continued my education in the states because that’s where I got my bachelor’s, and I was already familiar with the system. I didn’t like the Singaporean education system which placed more emphasis on memorization. I preferred the US system because it rewards you when you have a sound grasp of the ideas. It wouldn’t surprise people that in my short stint in the local uni, considering that I had to work and study at the same time, I wasn’t 100% impressed with my own grades. Then on my first week here, I told an American that I wasn't expecting to find work, because the US economy was so shit, unemployment was so high, and the recession was still going on. He said, are you kidding? Do you realise that you're in the one industry that is recession proof? That got me thinking.

My first job fair involved looking for an internship. I was walking around with a resume, and I handed copies out to everybody. I got only one reply, and that involved me flying to – well let’s call this place Cowland.

I was asked to do an online personality test for Cowland. And afterwards, there was a phone interview. And after that, a standardized test administered by a third party, where you went to one of those exam booths like the one where you sat your GREs. I spent almost the entire three hours allotted coding the assignment, and I had to rent a car for 1 day to drive me to that place. 1 month later, they flew me onsite for an interview. All the way from the south to the Midwest, and they put me up for 1 night at the local Hilton. Their headquarters, or as they called it, the “campus” was the most lavish one I had seen so far, and it had plenty of artwork collections on a huge sprawling site. Programmers were seated two to a room. It looked very interesting.

However, I think I bombed that interview. I was supposed to present to them a software engineering project that I did, and it started well, until I got very confused at the terms and the questions that the interviewer asked me. We got our signals crossed. The second interview was a short one, and basically just a HR person asked me stupid standard questions about my strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately they said that they weren’t granting me an internship because my summer break was different from most other peoples’ summer breaks (this is true). But then why advertise for internships at my school? Duh.

What followed were a pile of resumes sent out online, and almost no replies. That was the bleakest part of my stay. I had to fix my resumes. Or else I had to target the better job. Any job, I thought, I could grow into it and start bullshitting my way through until I was actually competent. After all, that was how I did my last job and I turned out fine in the end.

There was another campus event, and I handed my resume to a nice lady. Then she called me up for an interview. It was somewhere else in Mexico. I had tried to get my shirt ready for that event the night before – I wasn’t good at ironing shirts and I was wondering why the one shirt I brought over wouldn’t fucking stay ironed. I woke up a little late, and not really willing to go to the interview. I finally got to the rental car place and drove over, and actually arrived at the interview 15 minutes late. That was a very bad sign. The interviewer asked me a few questions, and the internship involved uploading some code into the firmware of tractors. Sounded like a decent but boring job. It may have been the tardiness for getting to the interview on time, but I didn't get the job. There was a follow up question, asking for my immigration status, and during the interview they had told me that they did not employ foreigners. Eventually I realised that if those guys knew what they were doing, they wouldn't have asked me in for an interview at all: they could give an internship to a foreigner, but they weren't going to employ a foreigner full time. Then they give internship for fuck?

Eventually, summer came and there were no internships. I was looking at a bleak summer. I had a not very nice academic term just before that. Being able to watch the Euros around that time took the sting off things, but it wasn’t very fun. I had some time to learn some computer skills and try to make myself a little more attractive to employers.

Out of the blue, however, I was asked to be a teaching assistant for a subject that I hadn’t been very good in. I grabbed it, of course. But otherwise my life during that summer was pretty boring, although there were nice parts for me exploring “Mexico” and what not.

After the first few weeks of fall, there was a mass mail sent to all the students telling that google was visiting. The deadline was actually on the last day of Crazy Frog’s visit. I quickly got that resume ready again. This time, with the benefit of one year in a master’s program, I was able to pump it up with some more nice sounding bullshit. That is the problem with resumes: if you half know something, you probably should put it in. Then if the job calls for it, polish it up just before you get started. Most programming languages are similar to each other, and you only need to know one really well – probably C or C++, and then you can learn the rest pretty quickly. The only thing the other people can tell is whether you’ve named it on your resume.

Resumes have to be sifted through the computer search system, and if you do not have the terms, then no humans will ever see it. So even if you’re at beginner level, put some things in. HTML. CSS. Because I did this, suddenly my resumes were getting some replies.

The first round of the Google interview had two 45 minute sessions. The first interview was more pleasant. The guy asked me a two coding questions. The first one was easy. The second one, I was more hesitant about being able to code the whole thing. But I showed him that I knew how to do it, even though I would say that my display showed that I was a little disorganized.

The second interviewer was a little more arrogant. But you know what geeks are like – a few of them seem arrogant without actually being so. He asked me a few questions about computer systems, and my answers were probably quite naïve.

The Facebook interview had a coding challenge. I was answered by a neatly dressed Asian American. I thought it was going to be a technical interview, but then it turned out that his first question for me was “how would you improve Facebook”. It went downhill from there. It was pretty stupid of me, one of the most obvious questions asked, and I couldn’t answer it well. Then I managed to get into an argument with him concerning Timeline.

The coding question, I think I did OK on it, but maybe they were looking for somebody faster than me. He asked me to correct a few things on my code.

Cloud Report
The other company, I’ll call it “cloud report”, since their business involves delivering a lot of reports on the cloud. It took place on campus as well. I met with a pretty old guy, and the problem with white guys is that if you don’t master the Yankee accent well enough, you’re going to be repeating yourself quite often.

The work looked interesting, and there were a lot of data queries involved, a lot of backend optimization. But I think I realised that I wasn’t able to explain well enough what I did in school. I had just finished working on a problem set the previous night, but I had it on the tip of my tongue what I was doing – and never managed to explain it to him.

Towards the end of the interview, I actually asked him when they were going to get back to me. He said, “our HR people are quite on the ball, and they’d reply to you quickly”. On hindsight, he had probably already decided by then that I wasn’t it. Properly translated, he was probably saying something like “don’t hold your breath man”.

So it was dejecting: three on-campus interviews, and three strike outs. But at least a few heartening things was that it was giving me practice. I would make one or two fewer mistakes every round, and it gave me practice.

The worst thing is that my fucking shirt wouldn’t stay ironed. Only after that interview did I try spraying water on the shirt and that actually worked. I supposed that’s why that fucking shirt was so fucking cheap – all that fucking inferior material. I finally got that shirt sorted out last month.

I was talking to a friend afterwards, and I complained that it was so hard to find work. He said, “you got to be kidding. You are in the field which has the most employment opportunities”. Well I couldn’t deny that. Then again, I discussed this with another Singaporean I bumped into on campus, and he told me that it was that much easier for Americans to get employed in the US. He told me of the countless times that an American would get employed, but an equally qualified Singaporean would not.

But then again, he was a scientist rather than an engineer, and we all know that scientists find it harder to be employed than engineers.


Saturday, December 08, 2012

Drama in place of football quality

I don’t think that the Suzuki cup is that well followed in Singapore in spite of the fact that we won it 3 times – and the first 2 times we won it were considered flukes. I've said it before that this is the one football tournament in the world where the fervent support for the sport just isn't matched by the quality of the play. You can contrast this to the African cup of nations where there are plenty of fine footballers, any African team can thrash one of our SE Asia teams, but nobody ever turns up at the matches. Fortunately, though, it always seems to be packed with incidents, which seems to make up for it.

Just look at all the stuff in this slide show.

One incident that I’m surprised they didn’t mention was the semi-final against Myanmar in 2004/5, the leg that took place in Kallang. There were 3 Burmese players who got sent off during that match, and Singapore, I think, ended that match with a three player advantage. But thinking back, maybe some of them had problems back home due to the Indian Ocean tsunami 1 week earlier. So maybe they could have collectively lost it.

I was in the Kallang Stadium during another of the incidents depicted: when Singapore was awarded a penalty against Thailand and the Thais protested by walking off the pitch.

I was in the Kallang Stadium when that match against Vietnam was going on, and it was a pretty ugly sight, even though at that time I wasn’t aware of any incidents going on – later on I realised that it could have been pretty ugly. It’s one of the incidents depicted in this slide show.

As it turned out, that match didn’t go well for Singapore. Singapore had more chances in that match, but Vietnam managed to break, and they scored. After Vietnam scored, I got depressed because I thought that Singapore would have to score 2 in order to get through. Only later did I find out that because there was no away goals rule then, 1 goal would have been enough.

The reason I remembered that match, which was 4 years ago, was that I thought that it was very dangerous that Singapore had finished an away match 0-0. They did so last night, just like 4 years ago. It is certainly very disadvantageous to Singapore – if Philippines scored first, then Singapore had to win in order to get to the finals – and I wanted Singapore to get to the finals. This time, there really is an away goals rule. So to not keep a clean sheet in Singapore would be to ask for trouble. The good news is that if it came to extra time – which is only possible after another goalless draw – extra time would be played on Singapore soil.

It doesn’t matter to me what happens after that – they’d be expected to lose against Thailand. But if Malaysia did us a favour by beating the Thais, then it’d be easier to beat the Malaysians.

I suppose you could always count on the ASEAN championships to be interesting. 2 years ago, there was this great controversy about Malaysian football fans pointing their lasers at the Indonesians during the final.

There wasn’t anything extremely exciting about the 2012 edition so far, unless you want to count the first ever ASEAN championships match in Manila. But that match was scoreless so I’m guessing it was a boring match. Then there’s the fact that the Philippines are no longer a side that you can just fuck around with anymore. Then there was also the infamous picture posted on Facebook which exhorted Singaporeans to just bloody go attend the match, otherwise the “home” terraces would be full of Pinoys. That’s a little bit sad if that’s a reflection of the state of Singapore football.

I suppose any match played in Singapore would bound to be interesting. Singapore has so many foreign workers from other countries that it’s almost like a home match to the away team. Vs Vietnam, vs Malaysia, vs Philippines, vs Indonesia. Well, good luck to Singapore for Jalan Besar on Wednesday. Then you can go lose the final, I don’t really care.


Saturday, December 01, 2012

Revolution of the Singapore Transportation system

According to classic neo-liberalist theology oops I mean ideology, private companies always perform more efficiently than government companies. If there is competition, then it will spur the companies to work harder. This is the justification for the government to have privatized the transport companies a long time ago. Unfortunately, transportation is something that has always been handled by the government, instead of the private sector for the reason that they are natural monopolies, and it is very dangerous to hand the reins of natural monopolies to the private sector. So even when you had two major bus companies running side by side with each other, they don’t really compete with each other because they do not service the same routes. To a large extent, they don’t even service the same regions of Singapore.

The recent problems of the transport companies has raised the question of whether it is good or even feasible for the transport companies to remain as private entities, albeit government owned private entities. Leave aside for a moment that there are other issues, such as the failure to come up with a good emergency plan, that aren’t totally related to the financing part. The service level of the transportation services are still functional, although people couldn’t help but notice that the service levels are degrading year on year. The maintenance regimes are also degrading.

One big issue is that it is very politically costly to raise fares on transport services. This cuts away one large portion of the source of financing. To be fair to Saw Phiak Hwa, even though I personally find her repugnant, she managed to use retail store rental to offset the running expenses of the transport system. And it’s not a trivial thing to keep the transport fares from rising as quickly as energy costs. And to be fair to Raymond Lim, even though he largely seemed to be twiddling his thumbs away and doing nothing, he managed to effect the transition to distance based fares and that creates the incentive for people to use the transport system more efficiently, instead of staying on the same bus just so that you can minimise your fares.

The big problem with privatization is this: you are ultimately answerable to your shareholders, not the public. Somebody I was having a debate online with asked me, “why don’t you just spend what you need to spend on maintenance, and only pay out what’s left to the public as dividends?” Because you can’t. Because if you were to report lower profits, or pay lower dividends, all the private investors out there would start dumping SMRT shares, and the capitalization of the company would go down. Then the company would find it even hard to raise cash.

Well this would be a big problem, wouldn’t it? Unless the government was pumping in cash to make sure that a big slump in the share prices of SMRT would not pose a problem for the smooth running of the company. So here’s my theory. The government is thinking about buying back SMRT in order to nationalize it. But they want to fix things so that they don’t spend too much money to buy back SMRT. Instead, they’ll let the share prices drop. But they’ll pump money into the operating expenses in order to keep SMRT afloat. And of course, this plan is a secret because it wouldn’t really work if people were really wise to what’s going on: if they knew that the government was going to buy back the shares, the stock prices wouldn’t go down like they were supposed to do. So you’d allow SMRT to get fucked at the stock markets for a while, and when it’s cheap to buy it back, do it. Sounds like a great idea!

The COI would of course provide some impetus for “organizational change” to take place within the company, for them to refocus and get used to new ways of doing things.

I wrote this article around half a year ago, when there was some degree of debate over the nationalisation of the transport sector. Now those debates have arisen in a fairly unconventional manner. PRC workers going on strike. It doesn't change my belief that this system is straining at the edges. I don't know why people can bear to treat their own guys so badly. In any case, this is case is sensational for a few reasons.

First, it reopens the debate on transport nationalisation.
Second, it is the first strike in more than 25 years.
Third, the first strike in more than 25 years was carried out by Chinese nationals.
Fourth, it opens up the debate on our reliance on foreign labour for jobs shunned by Singaporeans.
Fifth, Chinese nationals have more reason to call us dogs, even though they are not Sun Xu and we can't expel them from NUS. But somehow they think that everybody are dogs, and I don't feel that insulted by that.

First question, what is to be done about the issue? I think that this might usher in a new era where people go for automation rather than cheap labour in order to get things done more efficiently. There will finally be financial pressure in order to drive up human efficiency. I just cannot see it happening that the labour costs for SMRT will go down. Buses need to be run, more buses need to be run, and when Singapore roads get more and more clogged, buses run slower, and more trips need to be scheduled.

Let's face it: Singapore's road system is also not very well designed. It is very difficult to serve buses efficiently. It got better with the design of newer towns, but for the older towns, the problem is that you had a "town centre" and from the "centre" you needed to change buses in order to get to other parts of Singapore. What makes it worst is that the government has long insisted on zoning, thus making sure that many types of buildings are to be found only in the CBD and nowhere else. Thus all traffic goes towards that centre or out of it, instead of a more decentralised structure where everybody travels to everywhere else.

The issue could involve jacking up bus fares for the general public. But jacking up bus fares could be potentially ruinious for the lower class people in Singapore, unless they got subsidised. In fact, I think that the transport companies need to seriously look into fare subsidies for the less advantaged. Unfortunately - the less advantaged in Singapore are also the large hordes of foreigners. So that is one question - how are you going to help the poor of Singapore when so many of the poor are foreigners?

Second question, where are the higher wages going to come from? One simple answer is that when you nationalise, you immediately do away with paying dividends every year, and it could come from those 2-3% (not exact figures) of corporate profits. That is well and good. But what happens when you've used up those 2-3% as well? You'd then have to face the music all over again, right? But the fact is that nationalisation would get ourselves rid of this 2-3% fiscal burden in the first place.

Third question, what are you going to do about the growing disgruntlement of unskilled workers from China who think they are being treated like second class citizens? You can't put them all in jail, and even if you could, the problem is that jail is even less of a disincentive for those people who are foreigners. The situation where a lot of people from China come in to Singapore could in the long term be reversed when the salaries of people from China are raised enough so that you can attract enough people to take their jobs. The problem is that a lot of people in China are developing a real antipathy for Singapore. Eventually there will be a situation like Taiwan where you have two groups of Chinese people who don't really like each other. It would be easy to say that Singapore and China would have had a better relationship if we didn't have to cram that many Chinese nationals into Singapore.

Anyway, I would encourage this strike in Singapore. It doesn't matter who fights for the rights of labour in Singapore, but anybody who does that is doing us a great service. It's high time Singapore thought about weaning itself off cheap labour from less developed countries. I realised that Singaporeans are not all enthusiastic about the strike. Many are, but others feel that there should never be any strikes in Singapore - it doesn't matter whether labourers are treated like shit or not. I think they just aren't very used to the idea.

In Mexico, the bus fares are much higher. In fact, I would say that bus fares in Singapore are probably too low, except that to raise them would be politically very bad for the government. I think a lot of people get to travel free on the buses, but I never figured out who. Students of the University of Mexico like myself get to travel free on the buses by showing their student IDs. But the point is - that's how you create a multi-tiered system, where you can still extract enough fares from the customers, but at the same time you don't kill off your poor people. Buses are run on CNG, which is a new source of energy for America - well the problem is that extracting the natural gas from the wells is very not environment friendly, but it makes running the buses less expensive than normal gasoline. They don't have traffic problems, so buses usually run on time.

Well those are lesser problems, I think. We should be thinking of going down this road.

I don't have any real problems with how the government responds in the short term. I would have said that the right thing to do is to whack the strikers, which they have done. And whack SMRT, which they have also done. Over the long term, they must realise that this system is unsustainable, and they should realise that less than 26 years will pass between this strike and the next one.