Saturday, June 28, 2008

SO CHEAP!

Paul Pondadouri, the lead guitarist at Harry’s Bar in the Esplanade provided one of the best explanations for why Singaporeans get ripped off in Malaysia. He said, “Don’t you realise that shop keepers have the ears open every time you yell ‘SO CHEAP,’ to all the prices they have?”

Well, to be fair, life in Singapore is getting expensive and not having to pay millions for a toilet or hundreds of thousands for old banger must seem like paradise. However, as Ravi Veloo, Managing Director of The Media Campus says, “You always hear Singaporeans say ‘SO CHEAP,’ you never hear them say ‘SO GOOD,’ –makes you wonder about our values.”

That got me thinking. Are Singaporeans so obsessed with everything being ‘SO CHEAP,’ that we have become ‘CHEAP.’ Well, let’s start with the defence. Singapore may be the most expensive country in the region but it is also easily the wealthiest per capita. The average Singaporean earns far more than the average Malaysian, Thai or Indonesian and we don’t even have to discuss Vietnam, Laos and the rest of Indochina. Things may be more expensive here but on the whole we earn more money.

You also have to take into consideration that the system in Singapore is designed to take spare cash away from Singaporeans. As the economy improves, subtle taxes like the goods and services tax go up just a few percent to make life a bit more expensive. So, just you rejoice at having more money in your pocket, you actually have to spend more of it. And lets not forget, the system does not encourage you to achieve financial independence – interest rates on bank accounts are deadly low (so much so that an offer of 2 percent annual returns on your cash sounds like Christmas coming), and investment products like insurance policies and unit trust have high front end charges that it takes three-years for you to see profit.

So, when you take all this into consideration, it’s no wonder why Singaporeans have become obsessed with things that are CHEAP. The national obsession with CHEAP is particularly evident across the Causeway, when freed from ideas like fines for littering, Singaporeans go utterly wild. Back in the days when Malaysia used to subsidise petrol, Singaporeans would find ingenious ways to fix their tank gauges so that they could have the thrill of driving up to Johor where is it was SO CHEAP to buy petrol. My late grandmother even went as far as to take a bus up to do some grocery shopping – and then proceeded to cook me lunch and tell me how much she had spent on groceries.

As comical as all of this sound, it does make sound business sense to look for low prices. People who pay more for something just to say that it gives them class are equally as comical as the people who look for things that are SO CHEAP. I once had a good laugh at one of my best friends who paid $70 at Toni & Guy for the hair cut I got in the army barber for $2. He said it made him feel ‘high class,’ but as far as I could see, we both had the same hair cut. Then I look at Han Li, who easily makes over S$15,000 a month but at the same time shops wholesale whenever possible.

However, there is a difference between being CHEAP and smart with money. In the case of Singapore, the national obsession with looking for CHEAP things has not made the nation capital efficient. What little money that exists in the economy is horded away by the government and then, whenever the government has a project it throws money at the project until it gets the desired results. My favourite young politician points out to Temasek and GIC as examples of companies that “We should be PROUD of.” Personally, I think they’re a sign of the biggest threat to our economic system – poor understanding of the difference between VALUE and CHEAP. These companies take unlimited resources and throw them into investments that are seemingly CHEAP. If it works – hip hip hurray, we are clever. If it fails, journalist suddenly become responsible for the national interest and news only appears in Bloomberg – a place that has the honour of being sued by Temasek.

Compare that with Hong Kong, where the tycoons that own the economy actually have to look at the value of things they buy. Although wealthy, the tycoons understand that resources are limited, so they have become clever with money. Li Ka Shing for one has spent enormous amounts of capital on unproven 3G licenses but has the good sense to accept good offers when they appear (Hutchison Esser’s sale to Vodaphone in India being such an example.) Another example of some one who understands the difference between VALUE and CHEAP is Warren Buffet, currently the world’s richest man and easily the world’s greatest investor. Did anyone remember Mr Buffet rushing to buy stock in UBS or Citigroup, despite their apparent CHEAPNESS on the stock exchange?

Why can’t we be obsessed with things being SO GOOD instead? Look at Europe, particularly Scandinavia and Germany. Things are not CHEAP but when you buy a product made in any of these parts of the world, the quality is outstanding. Unlike Singapore, which is obsessed with coming up with all sorts of statistics, the Europeans actually understand this thing called quality. Look at German cars as an example. It takes years to develop a Mercedes and bring it to market. But when you buy a Mercedes, the quality of the car is SO GOOD; you actually save money by keeping a car that remains in tip top condition longer than cheaper models.

Then there is of course the service industry. You get taxi drivers in Singapore who don’t know the way down the road – allot of them claim to be new. You will never get a taxi driver in Western Europe who does not know the directions to the outskirts. Taxi’s are relatively CHEAPER in Singapore but the taxis in Europe are GOOD. In Europe, you have governments that understand that taxi drivers need to get a fair share for their efforts, in Singapore it’s more important for the government owned trade union to get its dues from the efforts of the taxi driver. Likewise in restaurants – Singapore is probably the only place where waiters can’t tell you if a dish is available. On the other hand, while Europeans and Americans gladly tip some 10-15 percent of the bill for good service, Singaporeans would not tip if restaurants did not come up with a mandatory service charge.

What do Singaporeans understand by the term QUALITY? I don’t know. I just remember being told by someone from Standard Chartered Bank when I was going to quote for a regular job – “I would rather see a decline in quality than pay those prices.” So, there you have it – this is our economic and social system as it is.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Candour and Managing Up

It's a fairly quiet week of the home front but a more active one of the local political scene. Gave Dad a surprise send off at the airport and much to my surprise, he actually seemed to appreciate being sent off (after insisting that I don't send him off). Also managed to read through Jack Welsh's book called "Winning."

Mr Welsh makes allot of sense and unlike allot of guys in the management guru business has the credibility of having run what is arguably the best run company in the world. When he ran GE in the late 1990s til early 2001, he made sure that GE, an industrial conglomerate delivered exceptional results for stock holders, while everyone was mad about dot.coms that turned out to be dot.bombs. He also planned his succession immaculately, leaving GE to grow to stronger levels under the leadership of Jeff Immelt and the two alternatives to Mr Immelt as CEO went onto achieve outstanding careers as the CEOs of 3M and Data Craft.

What makes Mr Welsh so readable and believeable is the fact that he's exceptionally frank in his assessment of history. Allot of us make it a habit of glossing over our failures and trumpeting our successes. Who amongst us has not honestly polished up a CV? This former CEO actually draws attention to mistakes that GE made under his leadership like the purchase of Kidder Peabody and the bribing of an Israeli General. The secret to business success according to Mr Welsh is candour, and this is precisely what he practices in his book.

It was perhaps ironic that I read through Mr Welsh's book right at a time when the Home Affairs Ministry was going through a rather nasty week. Four months after Mas Selamat limped out of a highly secure prison, two clowns tried to escape from the courts - and darn well nearly succeeded and finally a retieree managed to stroll through the airport checkpoints with the wrong passport. Each of these incidents would have been exceedingly funny if they were not such a serious reflection on the competence and culture of the organisations that are supposed to take care of security - "Don't worry, if you're ever thrown into jail, you can just stroll out.."

As expected, the Minister of Home affairs was busy announcing to the world that he was "appauld" by the lapses of security. As expected the Netizens wrote that they were appauld he kept his job.

I've made my position clear that I think that the Minister should have made the offer to resign during the Mas Selamat incident. Alternatively, the ISD Director should have made a public offer to resign and then allowed the Minister to reject it. Instead, this was written off as a case of complacency of the people running the prison. The Minister went onto argue that one cannot argue that the Ministry as a whole is complacent. In fact the whole cabinate were very publically calling on us to remember that the Home Affairs Ministry had done a smashing job with the exception of one black mark.

But I'm with Al Capone when he says, "Once is an incident, twice is a coincidence and three times is war." Well, it's happened three times and are we going to sit there and tell us that three separate branches of the same ministry were cursed with complacent people but that has no widder implications? Call me old fashioned, but someone at the top has to take moral responsability and pay with their jobs.

OK, let's be fair to the people at the top. They're sitting on a very high pyramid and from their viewpoint, you cannot expect them to know every little detail of what goes on. People at the top depend on the people at the bottom to fill them in on what's going on.

But having said that, the people at the top know darn well that they are responsible for ensuring that they get good people at the bottom, people who will ensure that they,as bossess get what they need to make the right decisions. If the top man is responsible for anything, it's the setting of the culture of the organisation that he or she runs.

Something is definately wrong with the culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs if we can get three major cases of standard opperations procedures being disregarded. Only a simpleton would not see that this is a case of more than 2 Gurkhas, 1 policeman and 1 immigration officer.

Personally, I think our Ministry is suffering from a lack of candour, particularly when it comes to dealing with the boss. Nobody wants to look bad when the boss comes around, so we gloss over everything. I got my very lesson of this during National Service when an instructor told us, just before parent visiting, "Tell your parents you are happy if you are happy: if you are not happy also say you are happy." Didn't think much of it at the time. I was actually very happy during the early phases of National Service. But over a decade later, I've seen quite allot of this and think its something we need to speak about.

To be fair to Singapore, the culture of wanting to gloss over happens all over the world. But I think its particularly glaring in Singapore because we're such a small island and our political system is such that we've developed a very corporatised culture. Success means doing well within your organisation and climbing the ladder.

Again, credit must be given where credit is due. Singapore has a world-class political system. Government officials by and large do a very good job of keeping the place ticking over. It was right to welcome the multinationals, particularly when the rest of the third world was kicking them out. I mentain that, after living in places like London and visiting New York that Singapore is everything that a city should be - clean, green, rich and safe.

However, systems need to evolve to keep up with the times. It was a good policy to get the population educated but docile so you could get large numbers employed by a cash bringing multinational. But that no longer works in an era where you have other places with far larger pools of cheap labour. You need people who have candour to tell you exactly what's going wrong with the system and you must be candid enough except that the other guy may have a point.

Singapore is very much a case of gloss. Statistically, our education system is fabulous. However, if you've been down to a neighbourhood school, you'll find kids ready to take their O-levels who can barely string a sentence together in English, Chinese or any of our official languages. Needless to say, these kids get shoved into a dark corner when a VIP visits (these will be the kids who would have spent the last few days cleaning up the school). You get this situation where the VIP feels good that he's walked the ground, the school management feels good that its shown the VIP its glory and everyone forgets that there are a frightening number of kids who are not being taken care of by the system.

Thanks to this, we get a situation where our top schools have their mouths open as the resource tap flows. Good kids get good teachers and good facilities. The neighbourhood schools could die waiting for the Ministry to upgrade the door to the staff room.

This situation with schools is only one example of what a lack of candour does for you. Note, we are talking about corruption here, merely a lack of candour is basic relationships and a lack of ownership. If there is a problem - we don't deal with it, particularly if it won't make us look good, but if it's going to be glorious, we go all out and usually get. Sure, its important to concentrate on what you're good at but not when you have a situation where you ignore issues or avoid bringing them up to the powers that be.

Bosses are only human - they want to look good. For government officials, it's all about the statistics. If your statistics look good, you get promoted and get a bigger budget. If problems arise, you may have put that promotion at risk. Subordinates also want to look good and they get it by making their boss look and feel good. Sometimes this leads to a situation where short cuts are taken. Look at the window grill or rather the lack of one at the Whitely Detention centre. Nobody looks good asking for a window grill to be put in place. But when you ask for a state of the art security system costing millions you can quite easily claim to the world that you care about security. Is anyone going to question this thinking?

Of course, it takes a certain skill to manage up as well as down. With subordinates you need to be respected and you need to be human to them if you expect them to respond. However, you must not cross the line of being their buddy as opposed to their boss. With superiors, its a different story. You need to make the superior know he has your respect but you must be able to manage him or her in such a way where they respect you and more importantly, your expert opinions. If you see your supperior going down the garden path, you have to be able to warn him or her about it and more importantly get them to listen - how do you do that?

In my personal life, I think of the "leaders" who have tried to break down the barriers between us so that we could each do our jobs more effectively. I think the first one that comes to mind is my battery commander, Lam Sheau Kai who would constantly remind us, "This BC is here to work for you." The funny thing was he actually expected us to alert him to problems so that he could solve them. One of the incidents I remember most clearly was a day when we lacked specialist to work as guard commanders (If I remember clearly, I was promoted to guard commander for the night but lacked a 2 and 3ic) We approached him and he solved the problem for us.

Another character who comes to mind, is my first supervisor, Loh Mun Loong, who is now a business partner. He constantly reminded me, "I'm a resource for you." True enough, he was good enough to make himself available whenever I needed his experiences.

Finally, MediaCorp's Editorial Direcotr, PN Balji, who kept his door open at all times and tried to eliminate words like "Educate" from our vocabulary. He said, " When you use such words, you create a situation of ME TEACHER, YOU STUDENT." Now, that's something we never think about, do we?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

11 Rules of Life - By William Henry Gates III

When it comes to getting ahead in life, I think Bill Gates, formerly the World's Richest Man (for over 11-years) should know what he's talking about. Although Gates forced MSN onto us instead of letting us use open source software, Gates has been one of the biggest indivudal creators of wealth in history and for this, he deserves much credit.

Not sure if this is really Gates, but I think something he could well have said and something all of us, particularly school leavers in Singapore could well learn.

ELEVEN RULES OF LIFE:-

Rule 1 --> Life is not fair>>> Get used to it.

Rule 2 --> The world won't care about your self-esteem & will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3 --> You will NOT make $40,000 a year - right out of high school & won't be a vise-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4 --> If you think your teacher is TOUGH, wait till you get a BOSS.

Rule 5 --> Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity, your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping -- they called it opportunity.

Rule 6 --> If you mess-up, it's not your parent's fault, so don't whine about your mistakes. Learn from them.

Rule 7 --> Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes & listening to you talk about how cool you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8 --> Your school may have done away with Winners & Losers, but life has not. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades & they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9 --> Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers Off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself - DO that on your own time.

Rule 10 --> Television is NOT real life, in real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop & go to work.

thumbup Rule 11 --> Be nice to nerds, Chances are you'll end up working for one

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Manifesto for a New Singapore - In Honour of My Favourite Young Politician's 18th Birthday

Towards a New Singapore

My fellow Singaporeans, I am honoured to announce to you that I will be launching a new political movement, a movement, that I hope will bring Singapore into a more prosperous future for all Singaporeans.

My movement will be called – “Singapore for Singaporeans.” I’m sure many of you may be wondering what I mean by “Singapore for Singaporeans,” so bear with me as I outline my simple platform for elected office.

What Do I Dream for Singapore?

Everything starts with a dream and a Singapore for Singaporeans starts on the premise that Singapore was created by the sheer hard work and ingenuity of Singaporeans. I want to return Singapore to the value system that made it a shinning red dot. Values such as visionary leadership, individual responsibility and human ingenuity must be restored if Singapore is to claim its place as a civilised and prosperous citizen of the global community.

Visionary Leadership

Singapore has been blessed with visionary leadership. Under the firm but fair hand of men like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore has developed from an insignificant island into a thriving centre for commerce. These men have all played a role in making this nation everything a nation should be – clean, green, rich and safe. As a Singaporean I am proud to be able to walk down streets that are covered by trees and free of litter that pollutes so many other cities around the world.

If elected, I will continue the legacy of these great men by providing what we call leadership. Leadership being the concept of taking responsibility for decisions no matter how popular and demanding higher standards of ones self than what one demands of others. Is this old fashioned? It is old fashioned because these are timeless and successful concepts that have been proven successful across cultures and national boundaries. To this end, I will implement the following policies:

  • Parliament will be given more powers to hold the executive to account. As our national legislature it is the job of parliament to ensure that the executive, lead by the Prime Minister will be held accountable to parliament and the people. From now on, parliamentary committees will have the power to summon ministers for questioning. The committees will have the power to make recommendations to dismiss ministers who do not comply. The buck stops at the top and we must institutionalise this truism. .
  • Secondly, the Prime Minister will be required to make an annual report to Parliament on the state of the nation. This will be in addition to the Presidential address at the opening of parliament. Singaporeans pay “top-dollar” to get a world class government and highly paid government officials must be responsible to their paymasters. All government servants will be subject to annual reviews and the bottom ten percent of every review will be terminated. Government cannot be seen as an employer of those who do wish to excel.
  • Laws on libel will also be reviewed and revised so that they are not open to abuse. The media has a vital role to play in ensuring that the relationship between the government and governed remains an open channel of communication. We maintain the position that no one individual media owner will be given the power to topple and elected government but it is also important that the press plays a role in investigating rumours and bringing facts to the public attention. Failure to do so due to perceived political sensitivities not be tolerated – it is irresponsible journalism.

Individual Responsibility and Human Ingenuity

While visionary political leadership is important to the development of society, it is useless if the population has no interest in accepting responsibility in developing the nation. Singapore was built by hard working and ingenious people – people who had the courage to create opportunities for themselves. We cannot have a system where people behave in certain ways merely to suit government legislation. Gone are the days when government was sole source of ideas.

Privatisation of Temasek Holdings and Annual Reporting by GIC

Singapore’s reserves are currently managed by the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) and Temasek Holdings. In recent years these companies have been buying into foreign companies to preserve Singapore’s financial future. However, this has often led to complaints that the Government is pursuing its political agenda overseas and that is using the money of Singaporeans to further its own commercial interest. These concepts must be removed, so to this end greater transparency must be created. Previous governments have argued that secrecy was necessary to protect Singapore from international speculators. However, the experience of public companies has shown that greater transparency has lead to greater efficiency in its use of capital.

  • To this end, if elected, my government will make it a law to ensure that the Chairman of the GIC will be required to make an annual report to a parliamentary committee on the state of GIC’s investments. This will provide Singaporeans with a clear view of how their money is being spent and the value which it provides the nation. This will also make it easier for GIC to deal with foreign governments in its investments.
  • More importantly, Temasek Holdings will be privatised. The government will maintain a controlling interest but eventually the majority of shares will be owned by the Singaporean public. This will have several benefits. It will create greater liquidity in the stock market. It will provide our aging population with another means of securing their future. More importantly it will subject Temasek Holdings to the laws of the stock exchange and provide benefits like greater transparency and allow the shareholders to hold management to account for their performance.
  • As a small nation, Singapore needs to keep its markets free to foreign competition if it expects larger markets to allow Singapore companies free access. To this end, anti-monopoly laws will be strengthened to ensure that larger companies to do engage in practices that endanger competition. This will include making former state monopolies open up use of their infrastructure to competitors and it will prevent anyone company from controlling anyone market. Government exist to protect the interest of consumers, not the profits of companies. Companies that cannot make money in a competitive market have incompetent management and the government is not in the business of protecting incompetence.
  • SAF commanders will also be given more autonomy. As our most important arm of national defence, the SAF must be lead by men who are capable of making decisions and have the ingenuity to think differently. The nature of warfare has changed and we need leaders who can think along the lines that defeats today’s new enemy. Skills like being able to work with foreign counterparts has now become integral to modern warfare and we need commanders with such skills. From now on, promotion to the highest ranks will be based on service in trans-national forces like the UN. As for those below, it is important that they have the feeling that they are part of an organisation that is valued. This will begin with a simply symbolic change – the members of the brigade of guards and military police will have responsibility to guarding the Istana without the presence of the Singapore Police Force. The military must be seen to be more than decorative.

Singapore has run a successful course but it is now necessary to ensure it continues to do so in the future. A vote for us is a vote for leadership that is willing to create the culture that will protect our future.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Generation Stupid Meets Generation Hopeless

I guess I have finally become a true Singaporean, but I've become a little dull towards news events. So, I guess when I do find something to grumble about in the papers, I suppose I should take the opportunity to do it.

Anyway, the latest news item that's got me "involved" in an effort to try and say something intelligent is the fact the Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) has just released the results of an inquirey into sudden deaths in the SAF. Over the last month, we've been reading stories about how National Servicemen in their late teens and early twenties dropped dead all of a sudden and thanks to incidences happening so close together, the Ministry decided to suspend training for three days to review procedures.

All of this is deja vu to me. It was just 11-years ago, before going Opperationally Ready (ORD), when I remember the SAF going through another excercise. Swift Lion had claimed two lives from 23 and earlier that year, an officer cadet had just been shot at a GPMG range by one of his course mates. Then all of a sudden, while we were out in the field, a recently passed out second lieutenant called Brian Loke decided to play with an M113 tank killing round that he found while clearing blinds. He lost his left arm and fingers on his right (he was knocking a stone on the base of this gentle bit of ammunition), sent his two sergeants two the intensive care and killed the private who had the misfortune to follow orders.

So there you have it, my generation can be politely known as Generation S or Generation Stupid. With the exception of Ronnie, Yin Tit and the Staff Sergeant who died earlier in New Zealand, nearly everyone who ended up dead from my generation did so out of stupidity. Well, when I think about it, Ronnie was not stupid but was a victim of stupidity on the part of the ammo-people. How the hell did they not think to check that fuze before issuing it out to us? I don't know, I guess it was just your typical breeding ground for civil service, "As long as nothing goes wrong" mentality on the part of ODE and the guys who equip us. Life to them is about just producing the hardware that gives the political masters a hard on without actually bothering too much if it actually has a side effect.

Swift Lion for all its faults did have one positive effect. It made the military stand up and insist on some sort of safety standards for National Servicemen. For just under ten years, guys on National Service got right to see the ex-ray of the fuzes they were to handle. But unfortunately institutions have short memories and if I'm not wrong, this is going back to the dustbins. After all the civilian engineers who build our weapons are a group of highly competent people - which is fine until its a military guy who dies from their stupidity. Seriously, if ever there was a country where the military needed more guts to tell the civilian sector to stuff it, it is Singapore.

But yes, that was my generation. A group of kids who had it good and I guess you never think you can die during National Service, until you actually see people die. The term "Culture of Complacency" fitted my generation quite well. I suppose we learnt quickly because after National Service we ended up with the Asian Financial Crisis to make us understand that it wasn't much easier in the commercial sector either. So much for Generation S.

As awful as what we went through all those years ago may seem, I think the thing that the guys who are dropping dead are going through is worse. They're dying of heart attacks. How can that happen I wonder?

Well, if I have heart problems (I've got hypertension), its from years of late nights, not enough money and too much booze. Duboius women don't help either. But the kids who died during national service are supposed to be in the prime of their life. This is when a man is supposed to be at his fittest. Sure, I was not fit and I do have a family history on heart issues (Mum's side) but I didn't die of a heart attack!

So, what's happening to the kids these days? This time I can't blame MINDEF or the SAF or even ODE and the guys who make weapons for being arseholes. Has life become tougher in the SAF? Well, I guess I'm inclined to suggest that it has not (In My time.....a sign of age in Singapore). But its more likely that kids are becomming more soft with a growing economy and the good life.

It makes me dispair! At least for those of us who lived through Generation S, we had the opportunity to grow up and become sensible adults (my ex-wife would denny that I grew up). Is there hope for Generation H, or Generation Helpless? What can you do if the bunch of you have heart attacks left right and centre? Would really like to know!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

10 minuites to go

Decided to drop into chills to play on the internet and pretend to look intelligent in cyberspace, which is pretty difficult, especially when you think that I've been involved with all sorts of funny people. Life as they say is internesting and I'm just trying to make the most of the hay that comes my way.

As weeks go, this one has been fairly productive. Managed to attend two new business meetings. One is an SME business, which should be fun and the other is a furniture industry association, which looks less fun - I think it could be a case of lots of work but not enough money to justify the time and effort that one will have to put into dealing with this sort of thing. If being a teacher for 3-months taught me anything, it was a healthy distatest for comittee meetings, of which the furniture guys will require us to do. I await the SME chap with a reasonable amount of eagerness. I'll just go through the motions with the furniture people.

On a more interesting note, I meet with the two founders of Ammado.com, a social networking site that is dedicated to the NGO sector. The main partner is an Irish Entrepreneur. This is "facebook" for NGOs but it will grow into something else by the sounds of it. I think one of the most interesting developments in the last few years has been the revolution of the "non profit" and NGO sector. Business people are moving into the sector and applying basic business principles to being good.

Of course, charity as a business has something of a negative connotation in Singapore thanks to the now jailed Mr Durai of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). The man managed to ensure that only 10 cents on the dollar went to charity - the rest of it went to his bonus's and perks. But outside of Singapore, charities run along business lines has worked wonders. Look at the Gates Foundation - the former world's richest man is making a major difference to the lives of many.

Yes, Gates did hoist the inferior PC on the rest of us but he's done allot of good things - namely to make getting rich accessible to the masses (Seattle is filled with guys who made millions by simply going to work for Microsoft and collecting their stock options). Now the man is doing the same to the charity sector. The best thing about this is that giving away money has become something of a trend in the USA and the developed world. Suddenly giving away money is becomming an industry in its own right.

For me, I don't have money to give away. Hell, I'm really stuck for cash most of the time. But I've noticed that people who give away money to the needy tend to be rewarded back many times over. Dad once said that he's been in situations where, just when things look bleak, someone gives him a job - he tells me this is how Karam works when you give away time, energy and money to others - you get it back with interest - somehow or another.

So, although I don't have much money, I do make it a point to try and give a bit here and there. My main forray into the being good business was to work on a site called Kiva.org. This is a site that allows one to play at being a microlender. Used the money that mum had sent me as well as some spare change I had made from clicking emails and discussion groups to finance two pig famers in Vietnam (no Han Li is not involved, though if she knew I suspect she'd become a pig farmer for the moment) and a furniture maker in Cambodia. Well, its not like the money earns me vast ammounts of interest sitting in PayPal and it was certainly not enough for me to transfer into the bank and pay them charges.

Anyway, do feel free to contribute to my PayPal account and I'll help to lend it out to the less fortunate if you will. Or better still, join Kiva yourself. I'm trying to think of what I can do with Ammado. I think there are clients who will be able to get something out of the place. I guess one of the perks of being in the business of relationship building is that even if you don't have the money or power to be good, you have the ability to influence the people with the money and power to make a difference.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Long and Short of Sleepy Weepy

It was a crazy Friday night. Went out with Terry O'Connor, CEO of Courts for his birthday (this is the BIG four OH) boy's night out on Friday and ended up not sleeping the whole night. Slept at 7am, woke up at about 3, then had lunch/dinner then it was drinks with Luke and then I'm back at home trying to think of something that will create a bit of dough in the pocket.

It's crazy, my sleeping patterns have gone utterly nuts and I'll need to restore some equilibrium to my body clock before the next week kicks off. But for now, I guess I'll try and spend it on the net trying to say something witty and intelligent, which is difficult because I'm not as witty or intelligent as I like to think.

Having said that, I guess I'm going to try and be smart at this hour of the day. I've managed to get the guys at Ammado.com, a Facebook for NGOs and Non Profit organisations a radio interview next week. I hope they'll get the publicity bug and I hope they'll want to hire a small little PR consultancy. Being European, they will, Insh Allah, pay in Euros. Am also working with Jean Phillipe, Food and Beverage Manager of the Raffles Hotel an interview on 938 Live. Hopefully there will be something out of this.

It's quite an interesting reverse engineering PR publicity stories. Probably hard to get paid but its an opportunity to build relationships with new businesses more importantly it helps one get closer to the media when you provide them with stories that don't necessarily fulfil your immediate commercial interest - one of my first lessons in media relations from PN Balji.

MediaCorp will be showing my interview on Tuesday 10, June, 2008 at 10pm. Was nice to be on TV. Since this is about my relationship with Gina, it will be under the name of Terrence Ang and my voice will be muffled and my actual image will be pixilated. After this, I will have been accross all mediums in the MediaCorp and SPH stable. Glad I've been able to get the issue of spouse abuse out and about and especially the issue of men being at the sticky end of the Singapore legal system when it comes to gender issues.

Have been watching the Contender Asia, a reality show based on several guys kick boxing their way into a prize. Its very interesting to see how people in certain situations opperate. I'm not normally a fan of "Reality TV" but it is interesting when you can see people act in certain siutations. It's like on the Apprentice, you see all the corporate types stab themselves in the back. On America's Next Top Model you see cat fights as you do on Project Runway (what else do you expect when you get that potent combination of gays and fashion). But the Contender Asia, you see something totally different. You see a group of guys who beat the shit out of each other and but also have mutal respect and admiration for each other.

I don't know what it is but I think harsh conditions have a way of bringing people closer together and guys tend to be able to take things less personally than girls and fags. Put two guys in the ring with the instruction to beat the living crap out of each other and they have a way of remaining friends. Put a couple of girls in room to compare who has bigger firmer breast and they'll kill each other trying to prove their point - and they say guys are competative.

But there we have it. People in easy environments tend to be arseholes. People who grow up in the rougher parts of town tend to be better people. I'm comming to the conclusion that harsh experiences are a necessary part in forming character. I look at who my best friends are and til this day, I'm looking at my army colleagues. I think its because our friendships were formed when we were in situations where we didn't get affected by unnecessary considerations like family, class and wealth - we were just all in a lousy place trying to get by as best we could and somehow we had to make it work. You also found out quickly that the people worth knowing were always from humbler backgrounds. People from Middle Class families are useless. "Oh God, I can't pee with you guys - I got to think of my future" - Yea right - piss off wuss - its not like you're the only prick with a future to think about.

Seriously, when you look at people as they are rather than who they are, it makes life so much easier. It's very funny because one of my business partners has a very different perspective. I remember him speaking the praises of one of the doctors we had to deal with and the very first comment he made was "Oh he's from a RICH family." Yeah, as if that was supposed to be something to be impressed by. On the other hand he would make it a point of complaining about the brand manager of a multi-national who started out as an office boy - "What does he know - Stupid Office Boy." - Prick! An office boy who can pull himself up to becoming a brand manager for a major company is either very smart, very ruthless or a combination of both - he's also far more valueable to society than the guy who grew up from a rich family.

It's funny being part of the DNA lottery. It's amazing how many people put winning that lottery down to their criteria in juding people. I prefer to think that its the people who move on from that lottery that count.

Then again I shouldn't knock the genetic lottery. Much as we may not like it, being born into th e families that we are born into does play an important part in forming our character. My mother, who has had three husbands attributes her ability to survive three marriages from her father who made it a point to educate his daughters and to ensure that they would never be the inferriors of any man (Mind you, Mum credits my Dad's grandmother for giving her the courage to leave Dad). Dad, a poor boy from Chinatown made good, has his father to thank for giving him the attitude that he was no different from people born into better circumstances. My grandfather was also encouraging of art, which definately helped my Dad develop his talents.

So there you have. We try not to rely to much on our families in making us who we are but at the end of the day, they do have a role to play.


Monday, June 02, 2008

Night Time and Early Morning Insomniac Moments

It's now some really horrible hour in the morning and I can't get to sleep, I'm stuck with not much on TV and most damagingly there's not a single book that I have not read in the house. Hence, my eternal quest to get a major dose of fry eyes by staying up this early and getting my kicks by starting at the computer.

Yesterday was fairly simple. Went down to facilitate a meeting between Zen and Anil. The two clowns are strange, almost childlike but somehow they are managing to get their lives moving. Then the evening was spent with two perspective partners discussing how we are going to try and grab a small retainer account to help our bank balances move in the right direction. Should be interesting, one of the potential partners is a designer and the other is a brand strategist. First time I'll be working accross disciplines, since I've gone out on my own. But hey, if there's a penny to be made here and there, why not.

Managed to put some money aside from the GE job and also paid off that most massive of liabilities - my phone bill. Will need to pay off a major bond holder and then work on trying to add to the savings pile, now that I have a wee bit of working capital in the bank. Managed to survive the weekend without the temptation to run into the business account. Somehow, I just got to be able to keep up this and make things move in some sort of direction. This year is agonizingly slow. Things seem to hover on the edge but don't seem to be able to materialise and the only things that do happen to be the very small and wierd stuff.

Han Li comes back to Singapore tomorrow, so she says. She's been out of the country after a long stint in Dubai and Vietnam. Says she went home to set up a high-class restaurant in Hanoi. That girl is so driven it's quite incredible. I don't know how we've managed to last thus far....I think its admiration for her desire to make things work and the fact that she takes quite a few risk in her life.

Singapore has this incredible love-hate relationship with foreigners, of which I mean other Asians. We think the White People are necessary to the economy, which I doubt, unless you count picking up the rejects that no normal man will touch. OK, let's give credit where credit is due, the Honks do provide the place with some sort of vibrancy, though it's most definately not intellectual.

The outsiders we often have a problem with tend to be our fellow Asians mainly because they come in as labourers, domestic workers, prostitutes and other desireables. We're actually fairly mean spirited when it comes to our fellow Asians. While we may fawn over some barrow-boy with two GCSE's to his name, we'll spit at everyone else if we're given half the chance. Indian IT professionals are our latest target. These guys are from...India....they're quite often dark skinned....but they're not domestic workers or labourers.....so they just CHEAP labour hired by the evil Singapore government and employers to keep jobs away from good old hard working Singaporeans. Nobody seems to realise that the Indian professionals are highly educated, have specialised skills and actually provide a valuable service to the economy. These IT professionals spend decent money on fairly up market things like private houses....

If you cut to the chase, Singaporeans as a group are deeply racist, despite what the government may tell you about racial harmony. Yes, you won't get any one rioting and clever people do get ahead regardless of race and religion (except if you're Malay Muslim in the armed forces). But if you bother to talk to the average Singaporean, you'll find that most of them are unable to see race beyond certain professions. Indians and Malays are so strongly associated with lower social strata in the eyes of many Chinese Singaporeans, they find it hard to accept the Indian IT professionals as being genuinely better than them.

I think the sign of Lee Kuan Yew starting to go senile was the year he started going on about "Asian Values." Up til then, the man was genious who created a city that is actually everything a city should be by using pragmatic polices with no pretense of being a "Moral Figure." The man simply did what worked and we, the people may have grumbled. But the moment he started on the Asian values track, he screwed up the nation by turning people into a bunch of self-righteous and judgemental cracks.

OK, prostitution is not very nice business and having lots of girls sell their wears on the streets is not pleasent for the Middle Class hidding in their comfey little zones. The fact that most of the influx of girls come from China and now Vietnam does not do the reputation of ladies from this nation much good.

However, what alot of judgemental people fail to see is the hunger that these girls have. They have precisely the thing that made Singapore what it is. Most of these girls want to make it big and they see Singapore as a land of opportunity. They rightly see a means of making fast money through prostitution, which quite a few times goes to educating their kids and getting them ready for a better life.

But ok, I'm not going to try and defend prostitution here. There's another sickening example of how we've become a nation of jealous wimps. I've seen quite letters in the press from people complaining that the National Environment Agency (NEA) is not doing anything to stomp out illegal curry puff sellers, because, hey you may get sick eating on their curry puffs and....these guys are illegals from Batam (a double whamy here - entreprenurial Malays - if ever there was something to upset your typical Singapore Chinaman.) The NEA official line is "We're swoopin down on the buggers."

I do understand the need for some regulation, but for crying out loud! The guy is not a criminal taking jobs away from Singaporeans. If anything, the guys who sell "Unlicensed" curry puffs are less of a threat to Singaporean jobs that the expats who come in with big multinationals. In fact they benefit the Singapore economy - where do you think they buy the ingredients for making the curry puffs. They never forced you to eat their food.

You listen closely enough to the dialogue between Singaporeans and the government, you'll find that you have a government that is motivated primarily by its own economic interest but as part of its interest, it does what's necessary to give the people a decent living standard. A good portion of Singaporeans work for the government and the rest work for multinationals brought in by the government.

This system has worked brilliantly and as long as the economy grows, why should anyone complain? I complain because, while it looks very good on paper, I want to know what happens to the guy who wants something outside this contract, something which can actually benefit Singapore and everyone but its just a different way of doing things.

The government is seemingly tollerant. But unfortunately, it's yet to learn the art of not protecting its own companies. Yes, I am aware of the fact that our big companies like DBS have grown overseas. But that's done through aquisitions from cash hoards working in an environment where they faced little if any competition. Only Singapore Airlines has become a world-class industry setting company due to the fact that it opperates in an industry where being protected by the Singapore government is utterly pointless. SIA, from day zero has adapted the same mentality that makes Singapore successful - a small minow trying to survive in an ocean of sharks.

Unfortunately, that mentality is not present in the rest of our companies who are used to near monopoly power in their domestic market. My favourite bugbear is the way the banks get away with paying you little if any interest, lending it out at at least 8 percent and then charging you for the privillege of lending them money. Singaporeans don't have a choice, the banks make pots of money, but I can't think of a single banking product that has shaken the local consumer banking scene through its innovation and ability to benefit consumer and producer? Does it surprise you that the local bankers with ideas, guys like Eddie Khoo of UOB started their careers and built their reputations in Citibank?

But that's the government's approach to the companies it has interest in. What I don't understand is the lack of empathy the Singaporean people have for people lower down the social ladder who are finding ways to make themselve better. The curry puff seller is motivated by the basic human need to survive. He's not taking away things from Singapore or Singaporeans and yet, you get Singaporeans who are offended by his very presence.

Have we reached a stage where we can only accept success as being obtainable by certain classes of people? In many financial firms, you find the corporate and salried people getting jealous of the money made by the comissioned sales people. A career CEO may not like having a couple of sales managers under him earning overriding and direct comissions that amount to what he earns in a year coming to them in a month. But leaving his or her personal preferences aside, the smart CEO pushes these guys because they make his bottom line and he provides them with the support they need to bring in the figures. The grunts supporting them, don't begrudge the sales people their money because, the sales people provided them with their salary.

Now, let's apply that to the economy. The government offers some entrepreneurs funding. To others it leaves them alone. So what does the public do, it complains that the uneducated Malay man from Batam is selling them curry puffs. Are we saying that the curry puff man is only good enough to be working for the college graduate and earning much less money? How dare these people do something that horror of horrors actually make them better off than the clever people?

My favourite young PAP grassroots leader is often quick to remind me that the government provides lots of opportunities for Singaporeans. Well, that's a fair statement. What I want to know is, who do we take the people who don't wait for the government to provide the opportunities and go and create their own? If they're half educated foreigners doing this, I'm even more excited for them. We should celebrate their spirit and think of ways of bringing them into the community that they can rejuvinate.

Let's shove the Asian Values, let's wait authority to think for us mentality down the toilet and adapt the, I'm ready to do anything mentality that the foreigners have and make this place work.