Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Beggars United Pte Ltd

Was out for an early evening stroll with PGFNB when I ran into an old Malay lady sitting forlornly in the corner of the MRT. I went to her and gave her the remaing coins in my pocket. I figured that the lady was old, frail and unable to work. Yes, I'm broke and won't another penny until my cheque clears tomorrow, but she needed it more than I did.

PGFNB saw things a little differently. Her only remark was, "Haven't You Heard of The Beggars Syndicate?" Yes, there we have it, the lady who needs to appeal to the State for legal aid, won't give to the "Beggar's Syndicate," out of fear that her pennies would either enrichen some old lady who should be doing a job or some gangsters who were preying on poor people like her. 

OK, let's get it clear, this is not a session to bash poor old PGFNB who has had to endure my terms of affection - within the past 48-hours, I've called her a virus and suggested that she's toxic in the sex department - nay, I didn't suggest, I told her. PGFNB is merely exhibiting the high moral fibre of your average Singaporean brought up in a middle class background. I've had some good friends spend minuites in an MRT checking if old men could walk properly before deciding if they should give away their pennies. 

Let's also clarrify things. I am aware that begging in many cities is something of an industry. Beggars can only beg in certain streets and kids are maimed by parents to make sure they're ability to beg remains at full blast. I don't doubt that begging, like other activities on the streets, is overseen by less savoury forces. There is a dilema at play. If you give, are you feeding a nasty system and disincentivising people from getting a job? 

Perhaps I'm naive but I like to think that when it comes to street beggars, it easier to make a personal decision about whether to give than it is with organisations. When I lived in London, I tried to avoid giving my pennies to many of the homeless. Most were for the better part - young, able bodied and white (no racial discrimination). Many had drug problems and I don't see why I had to support people who could easily find simple work. The main exception to this was "Dave" a local tramp who slept in Dean Street - both Tara and I liked him - unlike the more belligerant ones, he was actually polite and never asked - so it made it easier for us to give the pennies we didn't have. 

When I discuss the issue of the guys on the streets with friends, I like to bring up the fact that we're screwed up in as much as my friends, family and I find it easier to donate spare change to the guys doing nothing than it was to buy copies of "The Big Issue," -which for non-Brits was magazine designed to get the homeless into some sort of employment. 

An old man I once knew described begging about being "All About MONEY." To an extent he's right and where possible, it's best not to encourage it. I'm all for options of teaching people to fish (feed them for life) than just giving them money. 

But let's make something clear, begging is a shit awful option for most sane thinking people. If begging was a wonderful lucrative career option, I have ask why we don't have more people in the industry. Can you imagine if some clever clot in the Sinapore Government figured that this could be the next export industry? You'd have schoolarships awarded and our best and brightest would be sent overseas to beg and remit the spare change into the national economy.

Well, it's not happening and there's a darn good reason for it. Although I've been blessed with the fact that I've never had to beg on the streets, I believe I've seen my fair share of beggars to realise that begging for a living is a shit awful experience not to be wished upon anyone. 

While Singapore's streets are mercifully free of beggars when compared to places like London, the number of beggars are growing and in the land of "Asian Values," a good chunk of these beggars that you see are the elderly - also known as the people who built Singapore's prosperity. I think something's wrong here, particularly when you think that this is a country that trumpet's things like Asian Values, respect for the elderly and efficient government with a wonderful grassroots mechanism. 

I remember my grandmother telling me that it was good to go through my poor struggles when I was young. Being poor and young has a romantic ring to it, being old and poor on the other hand is shit and if you look at the streets at certain hours of the street you'll see a growing number of people in this situation. 

When I see an old person begging on the streets, I realise that this person could be me. It's by God's Grace that I was born into a family that can provide me with all sorts of support systems but that's only God's Grace. It can be removed from me anyday and so, I think, if that were me, would I be greatful to anyone to pass me a few pennies. So, that's just me, if I see the elderly having to beg, I try and give - it's just a few pennies but I still pass them on to people who need them more than me. Yes, perhaps the elderly are being used as part of a syndicate, but then again, are we, as individuals and society offering them something better? Furthermore, if some old person is faking a leg injury to a few pennies, then so be it - if they have to go through great lengths to fake things for a few pennies, they must really need it. 

But that's not really my beef with those who seem so terrified of passing on their pennies to the elderly. I find that most of the people who talk about not contributing to the beggars syndicate are usually contributing to something more repulsive. In the case of PGFNB, she's contributing to the New Creation Church, run by one Pastor Prince. The young pastor has recently made the papers for having a S$500,000 salary and he deserves it too. If you believe in the concept of paying for talent and giving people rewards if they bring in vast sums - Pastor Prince is comming very cheap - his S$500,000 salary is "peanuts," when you consider the fact that he raised S$90 million from his followers in A DAY. In case you were wondering if this was going to help get the beggers and hookers off the street, you'd be sorely mistaken - God, it seems is more interested in osentatious buildings than he is in the poor, though, I must have been out of the theology market for a while because I can't remember where it says it in the Bible.

Something is wrong here. How is it that the people who talk about God and morals are so afraid of doing what is clearly God's work. A good Catholic I know, argues that the likes of Pastor Prince (And let's not Forget Fred in Elim Church) are selling "McGod," or the rosy picture of a religion without understanding the spirit of the religion. Christianity, if you actually read the Bible is actually a brutal religion - followers of Christ go through lots of suffering to prove their faith but it's their faith that becomes strengthened during the bouts of suffering. I'm not starting as a the Pope's appologist but if you look through the Churches in Singapore, its the traditional "Sit Down and Pray" ones that do "God's Work," namely help the poor. The "Sexy, Hip" ones are more interested in selling records of the pastor's wife's records. McGod is an obvious franchise in our modern age.

What puzzles me is the fact that the people who buy into "McGod," are always people who come from well-to-do backgrounds. They are more often  than not graduates and working professionals. Surely, these people should be the last people to see that God does not need an MLM salesteam to get you into heaven. 

What is wrong with the prgramming of my PGFNB and people like her? They claim they're suffering and that life has dealt them a bad hand. They then buy into the McGod franchise and work very hard to donate their time and money to something that anyone with a brain will realise is an utter scam. They claim to love God and appreciate the morals that he's giving. Yet, the moment they have a chance to do God's work, they recoil and worry that they're contributing to the unknown faces of Beggars United Pte Ltd. - I think my friend Ravi got it right when he said, "Every Minister of Education we've had should be SHOT."  

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

HBT - High Bloody Time

Just read on Bloomberg that the finacial markets are having a bit of trouble, which is not unusual in this economic climate but non the less the reason for today's troubles were interesting. The bond holders (debt owners) of General Motors are worried that President Obama will let the company go bankrupt. 

General Motors or GM has been for many decades one of the largest companies in the world and the idea of its bankruptcy is scary for anyone who is in charge of running any of the areas where GM has a presence. GM is a large employer, particularly of those in the "lower-income' range. Car making is probably the original "Hard" industry, with the men on the assemblyline doing "Manly" jobs. Unlike the service industries, manufacturing has a certain image to it - you can see the "tech" in it. 

I'm not the elected representative of the men who are about to be thrown out of work. I don't want the responsability and I think the idea of hard working men on the shop floor losing the only means they've known to make a living being flung out of work because of the incompetence of their management is wrong, especially when the financiers on Wall Street who's greed caused the current mess continue to get their bonus's - and get defended in the media for it (They had contracts, we need their talent etc). So, we come up with the idea that GM and other companies of its size are TOO BIG to fail.  

From a social perspective, I can see the practicality of helping out some companies. Nobody wants a mass of enemployed people on their hands straight away. Then again, I'm of the mind that letting GM go under is -'high bloody time.' In some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, there is a social stigma to being bankrupt, but bankruptcy is the kinder version of what nature ordained. Buddhist philosophy says that life and death exist together and it's true. In nature, the sick and the weak become food. It may dissapoint some people to realise that lions do eat cute little antalopes, but this is what lions are meant to do. You cannot tell the lion it's wrong to eat the antalope, for the lion not to do so, would be a certain death. So lions need to eat the antalope. A healthy antalope is able to run away and not get eaten but an unhealthy one gets eaten. In nature, the idea that one species has the given right to rule forever does not exist. Animals that don't face competition become extinct when their natural habitat changes. 
So why then do human beings get this idea that certain people do not need competition and are "Too Big to Fail," or that their markets are "Too Small for Competition." General Motors is facing bankruptcy for a very simple reason - it was incompetently run, making cars that nobody wanted to buy. So, the obvious has happened, the company is unable to sustain itself and as sad as it is that thousands will lose their jobs, that is the natural result of incompetence. I think my mother's old neighbour got it right - "It is sad that so many people will lose their jobs, but they have to find something else to do." 

Humans are adaptable and placing them in a situation where they have no need to adapt is an abomination of nature. I often refer to my former father-in-law who ran an egg distribution business but also got himself a taxi driver license and fork lift driver's license. Why? Because he knew that he may have needed to adapt to his situation and understood that it had to prepare for that reality. So, this gets me thinking, if Yong Koon, the uneducated egg seller understands that, why can't the highly educated politicians and executives get that. 

In Singapore, we have played this natural law in an interesting place. On one hand, the government rightly encourages people to upgrade and cross train. If people have more skills, they can adapt to the changing economy. If you can't work in a manufacturing plant but can work as a foot reflexologist, you have a job. Perhaps working in a foot reflexology shop may not have the cache of being in manufacturing, it's still a job and means of living. 

Unforutnately, the government is not using the same policy towards the better educated. We retain the "Iron Rice Bowl," in the civil service and it becomes more true as you go up the food chain. Certain companies get themselves placed in a situation where the government believes the line, "The Market is TOO SMALL" for competition. For some reason the eco-system in Singapore's political and business landscape is trying to be immune to nature. 

Let's see if we can apply this arguement to reality. Imagine if someone decided to keep the brontasorus alive because it was "Too Big to Fail." Can you imagine the largest creature of the Jurasic era surviving without the need to evolve? Then imagine what would happen to it in the 21st century. It would be slaughtered by everything else that was better adapted to the environment. 

Companies like General Motors do not deserve to be preserved no matter how much we sympathise with the workers. The same is true for banks like Lehman Brothers and those who bought their products. You cannot keep businesses alive for the sake of it when they have clearly lived their use-by date. Yes, sometimes you have to manage the process, but artificial preservation and preservatives are ultimately bad for the system

The American economy has dominated the global economy for the last two-hundred years for the simple reason that American businesses were allowed to follow the rules of nature. Businesses that were badly run or no longer relevant ceased to exist. Businesses that were relevant to every age thrived and so did the well run ones. With the exception of GE, the original members of the Dow Jones Industrial index have changed as some companies went down and others rose to replace them at the top of the pecking order. What a shame that the American government has been rather oblivious to this fact.