Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Work Did You Do to Justify Your Charges?


Singaporeans have never been known for their sense of irony. While the population has never been known to appreciate irony, Singapore has more than its fair share of it. The most recent example of grand irony has been in the case of Dr Susan Lim versus the Singapore Medical Council.

It's ironic because the man who has been most vigorously attacking Dr Susan Lim for being "greedy" in the act of "overcharging" the Royal Family of Brunei for medical services performed between January and July 2007 has been non other than Mr Alvin Yeo, SC (Senior Counsel - Singapore's version of the QC), the Senior Partner at Wong Partnership, one of Singapore's largest local law firms. As well as being a very prominent lawyer with impecable credentials, Mr Yeo is also a Member of Parliament for Hong Kah GRC and Chairman of the Government Comity for Home Affairs and Law. He also serves on the board of directors for a number of public listed companies.

Mr Yeo has spent the better part of the month trying to show the world that Dr Lim is a greedy little money grabbing tart who has abused the noble profession of medicine to make money. As far as Mr Yeo has been concerned, Dr Lim has betrayed every standard of ethical propitiatory in order to chase the almighty dollar. Leaving aside the merits of Mr Yeo's case into Dr Lim - one might be tempted to ask Mr Yeo is he's guilty of the very things that he's been accusing Dr Lim of.

Let's put things in perspective. As excessive as Dr Lim's S$25million bill may sound, it was a bill that was issued by a thriving medical business and it was for work done over a period. The fact is, had that S$25 million been paid, most of the money would have gone to cover expenses that Dr Lim incurred by caring for the patient, including the building of an ICU infrastructure and transplanting it via private jet (paid by her business). Fact remains that of that S$25million, Dr Lim would probably only received S$3.5 million, which was her annual salary for running the group.

Dr Lim does run a vast and very successful operation, which was recently valued at some S$80million. While this fact may not endure her to Singaporeans who are convinced of her greed, Dr Lim has been a successful entrepreneur as much as she's been a doctor. She has placed her personal money into the operation. She has taken on personal risk in starting an enterprise and it's a rule of business that the person who takes on the risk gets the lion's share of the rewards for the success of the business (she would also take the lions share of the cost if the business fails). Dr Lim may be making a lot of money, but she is also responsible for feeding over 30 people as well as caring for her patients. In short, that hefty salary that she earns is measured by the work that she does. If she fails in her work, not only does she lose her business and work but at least 30 additional souls get thrown out of work.

Mr Yeo by contrast has it relatively easy and like Dr Lim, he's no pauper. If Dr Lim can be accused of running a "scam," Mr Yeo's "scam" makes Dr Lim's look like child play. Mr Yeo has found a way of minting money without assuming any of the risk and responsibility that Dr Lim has.

Let's start with his day job. As the Senior Partner at Wong Partnership, one can expect Mr Yeo to take home nothing less than S$50,000 a month. What exactly does he do to earn this money? Well, just as no one doubts Dr Lim's talents as a surgeon, nobody is doubting Mr Yeo's talents as a litigator. I've heard him argue. He's articulate and logical when he presents his case. He's also good at disturbing his opponents. He knows how to play up to the public gallery as much as he does the judge.

So, I guess you could say Mr Yeo deserves his money from his day job in that many of the firms clients are there because of him. However, most of the leg work is done by his juniors (approximately 300 lawyers under him and let's not forget the paralegals) and let's face it - Mr Yeo was the founder of his firm and the personal risk he faces from the success or failure of the firm are negligible, especially when compared to the risk that Dr Lim faces.

While Dr Lim's income is derived from the business she has started and runs, Mr Yeo has done something even better. He's found a host of part-time jobs the supplement the income he makes from his full time job. His part time jobs also involve very little actual work for generous pay.

Let's start with his various directorships. What exactly does a board of directors do in public company? The answer is they look after the interest of the shareholders and they keep the CEO on his toes. The board of directors does not get involved with the day-to-day management of the company and they get paid not ungenerous fees to attend the usual yearly annual general meeting. They protect the shareholders by signing off on the report presented to them by the CEO and signed off by external auditors. So, if you think about it, what Mr Yeo is doing is very clever. He attends enough board meetings to enjoy enough swanky meals. Reads through a few annual reports and gets paid a decent sum for say a days work.

His directorships are, however, nothing when compared to his main part-time job - namely that as Member of Parliament for Hong Kah GRC. What does this part-time job take from him and give to him?

The answer is simple. He is required to listen to his constituents whine for about an hour a week. Once in a while he may be required to visit a few people and may be grace a few events. His comity work will involve maybe another two hours a month.

In return for doing all of this, he receives an allowance (Note - this is an ALLOWANCE not a SALARY) of a mere S$15,000 a month (around S$1,875 per hour worked). As long he serves two terms (10-years), he's entitled to this for life. He is also entitled to a pension which around two thirds of the allowance.

What he does not receive in money, he more than makes up for in the prestige of being a Member of Parliament. Wherever he goes, people will be aware of the fact that not only does Mr Yeo argue laws, he has a role in making them.

What risk does this part time job entail? Well, in theory he has to face the voters every five-years. However, Hong Kah has been a "walk-over" constituency - so he's never had to face the buggers who pay him for visiting them. Then let's look at this way - the work that he needs to do for his weekly visits are actually performed by volunteers in the grassroots.

As an MP, Mr Yeo is running one of the most impressive enterprises in the world. Everything that you make is gross and net to you. The cost are either borne by the State or by volunteers who want nothing better than the chance to say they licked your boots.

At the very least, Mr Yeo makes S$65,000 a month. This figure may not be as impressive as the S$25million that Dr Lim is supposed to have billed. However, it's far more secure. To date, Dr Lim has yet to receive a penny for the work that she did. The cost have had to be written off. By contrast, Mr Yeo's monthly salary is guaranteed and long as he stays within the comfort of his full and part-time job.

Which leads to the question? Why does Mr Yeo need to have an MP's allowance and pension when he's making the money he's making? Then you have to look at the fact that Mr Yeo, like Dr Lim is doing "Noble" professions. Lawyers are supposed to be interested in justice rather than in money. Being a Member of Parliament is ALL ABOUT SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY. The member does NOT receive a SALARY but an allowance to cover things like transport (which in Singapore is negligible).

So, why doesn't Mr Yeo public ally announce that he's going to forgo one of his incomes and continue to do two jobs. That would be called "service to the community." His income as a the Senior Partner at the Wong Partnership is more than enough to cover the expenses he runs up on state business as an MP.

Mr Yeo made this point in court - "What work did Dr Lim do that could possibly justify her charges?" I would like to ask Mr Yeo the same thing - a significant portion of his income does not come from the Sultan of Brunei - it's comes from people like you and me.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Is It The End of the World? I don't feel fine.........

There's nasty virus going around at the moment. Have spent the best part of the last two weeks with a blocked nose and have been coughing like a chain smoker with TB. Then last night I needed to pop a few penadols to get rid of a nasty ache in the head. The funny thing is, I'm not the only one who seems to afflicted by this virus. Agnes, the PGF has been ill as has my latest business partner. Bed and rest are particularly welcoming these days.

Events haven't made things any more comforting. At the time of writing, Japan, the world's third largest economy has been hit by one of the largest earth quakes in history (9 on the Richter scale), a Tsunami and every other day the place seems to be hit by a mild earthquake averaging a six on the Richter scale). Adding to that, four nuclear reactors have been damaged.

With such events happening, it's not surprising that a few people have bandied about the idea that it may be the end of the world. My favourite millionaire pastor has apparently predicted the signs of the end and is preparing his flock. If Agnes is an accurate reporter, the good Pastor has told us that Christians who are dead and buried or burnt will be given new bodies and risen up to heaven, while the living ones will be be transported up to heaven. Ironically, the Muslims have a pretty similar vision of the end of the world - Islam believes in the return of Jesus to defeat the "Anti-Christ," who would have branded the rest of us with the 666 mark.

I'm normally not one for millenarian prophecies. The end of the world has been predicted many times over and yet we're still around. However, this time things may be different and it's worth asking why.

For me, the biggest threat to the world remains human arrogance. Man for want of a better term, seems determined to get one over nature and by extent, God. For the most part this has been a good thing - it's fueled the innovations that have made the world a better place. Today, we live the lives that our ancestors could only dream about as being part of an after life. Science has reached the stage where we don't fear the nasties that killed our ancestors. A simple course of antibiotics will cure you of TB or the plague. A hundred years ago, these ailments were a death sentence.

However, humanity forgets that nature has a way of fighting back and when nature gets nasty, there's not much that the human race can do - just ask the Japanese. The Japanese are the most orderly people on earth. Japans technology and infrastructure is the envy of the world. They are particularly well prepared for earthquakes.

Yet, and yet when the earthquake struck, the destruction was immense. More importantly, the nuclear reactors didn't work they way they were supposed to and there is a very real threat of a radiation leak causing massive problems for the rest of the world. What happened?

I suspect its a case of humans forgetting that they can never really be prepared to beat nature in a one-on-one contest. Japan's nuclear stations are built for providing a civilian population with energy and not for weapons. However, nuclear power does not need to be used for weapons in order to be dangerous. Furthermore, you cannot talk about your reactors being 100 percent safe when your country lies on major earthquake fault line.

Yet, the need to produce energy for humans overcame the need to protect nature and so nature extracted its revenge. The Japanese earthquake is only a dramatic example of what happens when you mess with nature.

China, the world's second largest economy and likely to be the largest in the not too distant future is belching out smog from filthy coal fire powered stations and over here in Southeast Asia, we get our annual dose of smog in the air from burning forest. What's going on here?

In way is simple, Asia is growing and we want to be able to have the good things that the West has taken for granted. When the Western World lectures us about ecology, we usually give them the Middle finger and make the point that we need to get our economics right first.

I live in Asia and I'm pro-growth. A prosperous Asia is good for the world and simple logic will tell you that you cannot have two thirds of humanity trapped in poverty while the majority of the wealth resides with only fifth of the global population.

However, we need to ask if the planet can take it and whether the growth model is sustainable. There's no point being rich if you're sick all the time. Nature can only take so much abuse and as much as Asians need to climb out of poverty, our policy makers should not sideline environmental issues as being a "Western concoction to keep Asia down."

Human ingenuity is working on clean technologies that don't abuse nature the way old ones did. There are encouraging signs that many of the rising big Asian economies get the fact that economic growth should not be anti-ecology. It is said that China, already the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will be the world's biggest market for clean fuel. India, which is potentially another very large polluter is working hard to harness "clean" fuel like "wind-power."

These are good things. However, one has to ask if they're happening fast enough. May be they are happening at a fast rate but the question is are they happening fast enough for the people who are affected? The answer sounds pretty depressing. As things stand, the Western industrialised world sees vast profits in shifting "smoke-stack" industries to China - the Chinese on the other hand also see vast profits in accepting the "smoke stack" stuff. On paper everyone wins....except the planet. The Western World gets cheaper stuff made in China, the Chinese make money selling to the West. Nobody thinks of making what these industries produce better.

So what do you get? You get human beings with lots of material goods produced at cheap rates. You get human beings with lots of money in their pocket. However, natural resources get used up and nobody considers how we're going to replenish those resources. As they say, God will get pretty pissed off and nature says "Enough is enough."

Mankind has been quite ingenious. I just hope that we get our act together before nature finally gets fed up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is there such a thing as a Noble Profession?

Thanks to Dr Susan Lim, everyone is once again obsessed with our favourite past-time - money and talking about it. If you talk to enough people, you'll find that everybody is exceedingly upset with Susan Lim for having the audacity to make money. It has even reached the stage where Susan Lim has become a verb for "overcharging."

The fact that Dr Lim never made money off the general public is irrelevant. The fact that she's in private practice and very successful because she's very good at what she does is also irrelevant. As far as a most people in the streets of Singapore and in cyberspace are concerned, Dr Susan Lim is a symbol of a greedy healthcare system that's milking the poor.

As far as most of the chat rooms are concerned, Dr Lim is wrong because she wants to make money. Talk to enough people about the case and they'll tell you that -"If you want to make money you should be a banker not a doctor," or "Doctors are supposed to save lives not make money." One journalist even went as far as to remind me,"She has a Hippocratic Oath to save lives."

It seems that the thing that's making people very upset with Dr Lim is the fact that she runs a very successful business? Yes, like it or not, a private medical practice is a business with rents and staff who need to be paid. Yet, because private medical practices are ..."Medical" they're supposed to be about something more than just paying the bills and turning a profit.

There are, as they say, professions and professions. Some professions are about making money. Nobody seems to mind when stock brokers make money - they wouldn't be stock brokers otherwise, would they? Then there are professions that notorious for keeping people broke - writing is one of them. Then there are what you call the "Nobel" professions, which are supposed to be about the greater good of mankind rather than making money. However much these professions don't make - they carry an aura of respectability about them.

I take teaching as an example. Teaching is known for being badly paid. Yet, it is a "noble" profession and being a teacher or a school master carries a certain aura to it, which money apparently cannot buy. I remember my late step-grandma who said that she was always relieved when step-grandpa went back to school, it was time when she could hold her head up high and tell the world that she was "Mrs Hart Smith." Step-grandpa Hart worked in the days when teachers did not get paid during holidays. So, he became a salesman for World Book. He made A LOT more money a salesman than he did as a teacher. Yet, as far as the community was concerned, his respectability came from being a teacher.

In a way, doctoring is supposed to be like teaching. Like the teacher and the lawyer, the doctor is a learned man. In addition to being learned, the doctor also saves lives. I think of Dr Christopher Khng, one of my ophthalmologist who teaches and operates on eyes. He says,"When you do good operation you help one person - but when you teach ten people how to do a good operation you help ten times the people." Doctors wear white coats, the colour of purity.

I enjoyed working in the healthcare space. It helped me to understand certain medical conditions and it helped me do some good by getting people I knew to look after their eye-sight.

However, as much as doing good is exceedingly satisfying, I am left wondering if there's such a thing known as a noble profession any more?

It started out with Singapore's politicians. It's a well known fact that Singapore has the world's HIGHEST PAID POLITICIANS. American politicians make their fortune after politics. Here, the politicians have a fortune thrust upon them. Our President, who is primarily a ceremonial figure who's main function seems to be shaking hands once a year on National Day only make some S$4 million a year.

When a few of us grumbled, the politicians made the point that high salaries for PUBLIC SERVANTS was necessary because the nation needed to get bright young things in PUBLIC SERVICE and to stay there. The politicians also made the point that highly paid PUBLIC SERVANTS did not shake down the poor for bribes. Much better to keep a PUBLIC SERVANT content with his lot so that he focuses on the job on hand.

If you think about it, this is a sound argument. Yes, we expect our PUBLIC SERVANTS to be noble people who want to serve society rather than engage in the grubby world of commerce. However, we understand that they need to live and if they see the possibility of living comfortably they're less likely to steal from us. Singapore is close enough to places where being an honest person is akin to being supernatural - able to function without life's basic necessities.

So, we've already bought the idea of the necessity of PUBLIC SERVANTS in NOBLE Professions being handsomely paid.

The next step is to look at the obvious - if we can accept the argument that PUBLIC SERVANTS must be well paid - surely the same argument applies to other so called NOBEL PROFESSIONS.

Then, let's look at the facts - the "Nobel professions" have already been industrialised. Let's go back to the example of teaching. Teachers may be a "noble" lot dealing with something other than money, but education is most certainly an industry and the teachers are slowly but surely realising that what they do for a living is a skill that can be packaged and sold just like any other.

Let's look at America as an example. America has the world's BEST universities. Places like Harvard, Princeton and Yale consistently rank amongst the world's top ten. How do these universities do it? Well, it's simple - they produce the guys who will get hired and promoted to top levels of the corporate sector. This in turn makes them more attractive as places to study and people are willing to pay vast sums of money to get in. If you are brainy but broke, the university has scholarships, bursaries and other schemes to help you out - but the bottom line is - the university still gets paid for providing you with a service.

The universities with the most successful business continue to climb world rankings. Those that fail - die. Nobody denies that Harvard is expensive - nobody denies that Harvard is a WORLD CLASS institution. The rules are simple - if you don't like Harvard's fees - you don't go there.

This is as business like and mercenary as it gets. While the American University system is acknowledged as the world's best despite it's mercenary nature, the same is not true lower down the education ladder. American High Schools are funded by the tax payer and any kid can goto high school. When you think of American High Schools, you usually think of a war zone in the same way that you think of an American University as a centre of excellence.

The Europeans who once stood out as the bastion of mass education have learnt the lesson. Business methods work in the supposedly noble business of education. European universities are now charging students for the service of teaching. In the UK, the universal truth remains - the schools that are run like businesses (misleadingly known as public schools) still produce the bulk of graduates at elite levels.

Teaching may be a noble profession but education is big business whatever anyone tells you. I live in Singapore where teaching is an industry. Local publishers survive on text book publishing. Parents spend good money on old exam papers so that they're kids can pass. Not all teachers are civil servants working in schools. If you're unemployed, become a tutor - you'll always have work. If you're entrepreneurial, you should also be a tutor. Retired school teachers with a name, make a very good living either by teaching only children of the well to do or setting a mass market tuition centre.

What is true of education has been more true of health care. Health care is, like it or not an industry in its own right. The doctor may be "noble" and willing to work for free but he or she would not be able to afford to provide you with basic health care without the people who make the equipment and the medicines. Nobody is suggesting that it's wrong for GlaxoSmith Kline or Norvartis not to charge money for their research, development and production.

Say what you like about big pharmaceutical companies but they've produced life saving stuff. Think of Asprin, which seems to cure just about anything. Think of HIV medications - which remain prohibitively expensive for many but have also given many others the chance to live healthy normal lives. More will be done in the field of pharmaceutical healthcare - however, someone has to pay for this and ultimately it's the consumer.

Doctors are part of this industry whether we like it or not. The industry that produces many of the miracle drugs we now take for granted, relies on the feedback of doctors.

Much as we hark back to the ideal of a doctor being all about saving lives no matter the financial status of the life to be saved, it is just that - an ideal. Doctors need to live too and the more well looked after they are, the more they are able to focus on the business of saving lives.

This is especially true of private practice. Doctors in private practice may not like to admit it but they are running a business and you cannot expect them to work on nothing but the love of it. The doctor may want to save your life for free - but the industry that supplies him will want him to pay for the medication and the landlord of his practice will expect to be paid. The staff of the practice will also expect their salaries.

Let's face it, the doctors who make it big in private practice are good at what they do or at least they're good enough for people to open their wallets. The Susan Lim's, Julian Theng's and Ron Yeoh's of this world are darn good at what they do - hence they get people who are willing to pay them top dollar.

I've always believed that life has to be about something more than just money. However, to expect people to provide you with something for nothing is unrealistic. Money is necessary in order to get progress. You need that to fund things like research and development. The money has to come from somewhere and more often than not, it is from the consumer and tax payer.

It's also proven that systems that have an element of business to them tend to be better at providing the basic service. If I had ten high paying clients, I could focus on just ten. My concentration for every client would be better than if I had to service a hundred poor paying ones. You like at the difference between the American University System and High School system as the best comparison.

Noble professions are not immune from the basic rules of business. Education, healthcare and dare I say legal systems are becoming more industrialised and not all of this is bad.

While noble professions may be less so, that does not exclude people from being noble. My favourite litigator devotes an incredible amount of time to "bro-bono" work and he's not the only lawyer doing it. His argument is that he believes in a system and the work he devotes to cases like Zen and Eric is a way of paying providence for giving him clients like Zim.

The same is true for doctors. Susan Lim may have charged Pangiran Damit millions, but she has given free surgery before. Dr Ron Yeoh has a lucrative eye care practice in Camden Medical centre serving an elite client el, but he and his team continue to do work at the National Eye Centre (SNEC).

Doctors and lawyers do give away pro-bono work. However, they have to get the money from somewhere to keep their practices flowing.

You cannot expect people to be noble without any consideration to their ability to take care of themselves. As one taxi driver says - "You cannot expect me to treat you like you are in a restaurant but pay me a Kopi Diam rate."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Meet The Pundeks .....They're a Family out of Singapooorrrrreeeeee...........

Singapore, contrary to popular opinion, is unique place. Despite what our Ministers will tell you, we have actually produced quite a few home grown institutions that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Look at Singlish, a form of English that combined elements of Chinese and Malay - you could call it the perfect amalgamation of the West, the Orient and Islam - living in peace. Our local Indians have even produced a festival called Thaipusam, which is not found anywhere on the Indian Sub-continent.

Anyway, there's a family in Singapore. You could say, they are Singapore's answer to the "Simpsons." They are the "Pundek" Family and anything the Simpsons can do - the Pundeks can do better.

I've actually met two members of this unique clan. They are known as "Thambi (Younger Brother) Pundek" and "Macha (Brother-in-Law) Pundek. The unique thing about this family is that the family ties are actually deeper than blood. They are actually behave the same.

One of the most striking characteristics about this clan is that they have an incredible bravado. Or at least they know how to talk to the talk. If you listen to Macha, you'll be under the impression that he's a real mover and shaker - well, he certainly shakes a lot when he walks.

Macha, it seems, is the most well connected person in Singapore. If you need to know the rough element, he'll show you a picture of an even more over-sized friend of his who is apparently a "labour supplier" - you know, it takes a fat cunt with put the lazy bastard Indian construction worker (who only works 12-hours a day in the hot sun for $12 a day) in place. If you need to know a rich Chinese coffee shop owner - well, Macha seems to well connected enough. Apparently, one of these very rich people sent Macha on a trip to Bali so that Macha could meet "BIIIIIGGGGG" business people - whom he's threatening to introduce to me.

Thambi is a little bit more subtle or at least he hasn't developed the pundacity of his elders. He's joined the Young PAP and if you believe him, he's the best buddy of our Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense. At least Thambi has pictures of himself with the Minister of the Ministry he's working for plastered all over his Facebook - in case you had the audacity to test on how close he is to the said Minister.

In fairness to Thambi, he's also pretty generous is you're willing to sit down to listen to him. He'll buy you a few cups of coffee and now that's he'd old enough, he'll also be happy to have a beer with you - however, you got to do it in doors and in air conditioning since the sun will probably kill him.

Macha is even more generous - with your money. If you go out with Macha, rest assured, he'll provide you with a girl and order plenty of drinks. He may even suggest that where you're meeting is a shit-hole and invite you to somewhere more classy. He'll invite his friends and you'll spend the day and night drinking - the best part about Macha's generosity is that you won't get drunk - after the first round, you'll notice that you seem to be the only one picking up the tab as Macha gets more and more generous with everyone under the sun. Macha is firm believer in the principle of give and give and give and give.........and somewhere in there he....I mean you shall receive. One of his latest ones was to sms the Naan Maker to ask him to come back to the bar the Naan maker had just left so that he could pick up the beer that Macha and his friends had ordered.

The Pundeks also have an ability to assure you of their friendship with you and their loyalty to something other than themselves. Thambi is very sure that he LOVES the Nation and will be happy to suffer hardship, deprivation and all sorts of nice things from the comfort of his bedroom. Thambi only discovered his will to fight for the nation once the powers that be in the National Service postings department sent him off to be a clerk wearing Number Thee (office wear) in a unit that has as much chance of seeing sunlight, let alone active duty.

Macha is a little more forthcoming. When you meet with him - especially in the presence of the Nepali Naan Maker, he'll tell you that you are now "Family," hence "your problems are his and HIS PROBLEMS ARE YOUR PROBLEMS."

The Pundek's are incidentally related to another prominent family - "The Chutias. " I used to be a good friend of a chap called "Chutia Bhai," who will assure you that he hates his South-Indian cousins. According to Chutia Bhai, a relative of the Pundeks once cheated him out of a bonus. As such, Chutia Bhai is on a mission to rob anyone who resembles a Pundek. As such you just need to visit a coffee shop in Kembangan. Chutia Bhai will insist on buying you a meal. Well, he doesn't buy you a meal. He will complain about this particular member of the Pundek Family and tell you that the guy has no "Burkat" (The Islamic version of Karma). When the coffee shop chaps are not looking, Chutia Bhai will insist that you walk away without paying.

Chutia Bhai is making pots of money, but he has a mission, which is to extract his revenge on the Pundeks and so his antics continue.

The Chutia and the Pundek also have an incredible inability to see beyond White Skin. The Old Rogue used to capitalise on this. Thambi would sit at the Old Rogue's feet and allow the Old Rogue to tear him to bits for selling out his people, so to speak. Thambi Pundek would then stare at the ceiling in utter amazement and tell you - "He's a very wise man."

Chutia Bhai was even more impressed by the absent colour. He used mock an Australian chap we once knew for being a total loser. "Typical OP, no money," was his classic remark about the poor Ausie. Then one day, the Aussie showed up at a party claiming that he found an investor. Chutia Bhai was instantly depressed that the Aussie did not give him much business and so Chuta Bhai proceeded to a Pakistani restaurant to vent his steam on the poor chaps who actually had money.

Having said that, I think we need to be fair to chaps like Chutia Bhai. He's going to deliver the economies of the West from the economic crisis. You could say Chutia Bhai is like Robin Hood. He takes from one community so that he can deliver to another. He spends his time taking from the coffee shop staff in Kembangan so that he can sponsor the Irish Embassy's St Patrick's Day function in the Hyatt Hotel. You could say that there's nothing more noble than returning to Colonial Days.

The Pundeks and the Chutias are a very special family and I can assure you that one day the Chee and Bai's who run Singapore's media will create a special about them. In the mean time, I'm sure some bright spark in the Istana will give these families a special award for creating a special Singapore identity.

As one Indian expat pointed out,"They are definitely Singaporean .....and WE ARE INDIAN."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Nice Guy Who Finishes First

The Young Pariah from Pasir Ris GRC is exceedingly upset with me because I told him that he doesn't have what it takes to play politics and climb the corporate ladder. Instead of being enamoured with the more glamorous people in my life like Datuk Vinod Shekar of Malaysia's Petra Group, I told him he should follow the example of Bijay, the Naan Maker. Bijay has a simple formula for success - find a skill, hone it and work very hard. Sooner or later, you get the breaks that you need.

His reaction was "FUCK YOU. Bijay?!?!?" I know why he's upset - Bijay works in a kitchen and in the Young Pariah's eyes, he's too good for that. At the age of 20, he's learnt the key to success - join a political party's comity, thus learning the art of absolving yourself of all responsibility and developing a mentality that you're entitled to huge salaries for doing nothing.
In his mindset, the very idea that the path to success requires an ounce of honest work is a major anathema.

To be fair to the Young Pariah, he's not alone when it comes to looking down on certain professions. I have met top notch executives who have been retrenched but would rather do nothing than work as a cook or waiter or dare I say a dishwasher. In the minds of many Singaporeans, it is nobler to live off your friends than it is to actually wait on tables or scrub a few floors. Doing that is considered a sign of failure, I guess.

However, when I look at my friends, I think Bijay, the Naan Maker has achieved the most. Let's start with where he came from and then look at where he is today. Five years ago, Bijay was in the shit. His wife of a decade decided to walk on him and to take his beautiful daughter. As a result, he had to leave the house, which was in her name. He went from a Executive apartment to sharing a space on a floor for migrant workers. His job paid him a grand total of S$1,500 a month and he worked a 12-hour night shift for a roadside store in Little India (It's actually on the junction of the downgraded Red Light District).

Didn't help that he got himself a girlfriend, who subsequently became his wife. Lazy cow decided that she wasn't going to work and so Bijay had to find a way of stretching that S$1,500.

Somehow the guy persevered. His manner was such people liked him and one day, he got a lucky break. Today, he is the Sous Chef (Number two in the Kitchen - he's in charge of the Indian food) in a five-star hotel (Orchard Hotel). His income has shot up from $1,500 a month to S$3,000 today. He has found the means of buying his own property and he manages to support his wife and new baby on his single income.

Now, if you look at the way he's moved from a cook in a street side shop to being a sous chef, in a five-star hotel, you cannot argue that this man has not moved in the world. You would say that this is a bigger leap than say an assistant brand manager in a multinational becoming a brand manager. When you look at the fact that he's an immigrant from Nepal, with what barely passes for O-levels, his achievements are even more amazing.

How could this guy move up in the world? His education is minimal. His English is passable but not good. He speaks no Chinese, Mandarin or Malay. You cannot call him the brightest spark in the room.

Having said all of that, there is a simple secret to this guy's achievements. He keeps things simple. He does his job and he goes out of his way to ensure that customer satisfaction in assured. What he lacks in natural wit, he more than makes up for with an exceedingly likable personality and an ability for hard work.

Sometimes being simple and likable has its drawbacks. Bijay has an attachment called "Macha Pundek," his former brother-in-law who is constantly trying to find ways to scam money of Bijay. He's even tried it with me - after my second meeting, he decided that he wanted to talk about doing "Big Business." Yeah, right, like I'm going to rush into doing business with a chap who can't pick up a round of drinks but is exceedingly generous when you're picking up the rounds.

However, being nice has lots of benefits - namely everyone likes you and when you are not nasty to people, nobody wants to be nasty to you. OK, let me phrase that, once in a while, some shit may decide to be nasty to you and because you're so nice to everyone - they'll kick the shit out of the nasty.

Personality counts and Bijay has that in his favour. He's polite and respectful and somehow, when it comes round to Chinese New Year, you find Chinese customers being generous in their Ang Pao's to him (more so than to the Mainland Chinese staff). When you're nice people want you to succeed.

There is a simple law of Karma - which give and you shall receive. Bijay was a good employee to his previous bosses. As such, they'll always welcome him back and the guy will never be out of a job.

Bijay, in many ways reminds of Forrest Gump. A simple fellow who does good things with the purest of intentions. Somehow he gets people to be on his side and he ends up in the right direction.

We live in a violent and complicated world. Sometimes you have to get nasty to get what is due to you. I surprise myself by the extent that I sometimes have to go through in order to get simple things. I live in a world of complications. I take my most recent project, which a business partner rightly describes as being like "mee siam" - which to non Asians is a dish made up of very thin noodles - it's impossible to take out the bits and pieces. Because I live in a world of complications, people like me end up pursuing complicated pleasures.

By contrast, Bijay keeps life simple. He does a job, is good at it and his personality is appreciated by everyone around him. He also keeps his needs simple. His house is an ordinary 3-room HDB. He and his wife share the house with some friends who provide some financial contributions to the mortgage and hey - they live pretty darn comfortably for a family with only one-income (something which people from a higher income range can't manage).

Meet the man and look at where he came from and where he is today. It gives you faith in the human spirit and things that are important. It makes you realise that in this crude and nasty world, nice guys can finish first by being......nice. It's a lesson most of us could do well to remember

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How Much You Earn ah.......?

One of the things that I really have to remind myself of whenever I travel to Europe, is to refrain from the temptation at guessing people's income. After living here for a decade, I've become so used to discussing salaries and earnings, that I have check myself when I leave this little island of 'meotheism.' Discussing salaries and the value is real estate is actually downright rude in other parts of the world, but in Singapore, it's a national past time.

Singaporeans are obsessed by how much other people earn. It's like we need to throw out figures just for the sake of spoiling someone else's day. Everyone's favourite question these days is,"How much you buy your house for,ah?" The second favourite is,"How much you earn, ah?" The standard answer to these questions is usually,"I don't believe that's any of your f*** business." However, this question is gleefully answered in Singapore - "Eh, I get vely cheap ah....only $3.8 million ah,' or "Me, knn, my boss vely stingy, only give me $5k ah."

Of course, it's not just about telling people how much you make that counts. You to show people that you have it too. Anyone who is anyone needs to be seen in a standard Mercedes and they should make it a point to wear a "Lolex" (Rolex). I actually know of a cash rich salesman who hangs around Geylang Lorong 6 (picking up Indonesian hookers, so that he can cheat them of $5 - standard market rate for an Indonesian girl from Batam is $30 for a short time) who had a habit of needing to position his arm in such a way so that you had to notice he was wearing a "Rolex," (which was fake). Such people are unfortunately, not rare in Singapore. I have the PGF, who in a moment of weakness ( I was going through an in the money phase and taken her out to a 'cheap' place that only set me back $150 without alcohol), confessed -"I really like your company......but you have NO money." Then you have Joyce's mother who decided that it was better for her daughter to go back to the man who beat the shit out of her because I did not drive. Then you have the Young Pariah from Pasir Ris GRC who constantly brags to you about how he's serving the nation by taking his girlfriend to Les Aimes (swish restaurant) every week.

Sad to say, but the mentality of this crowd rules the roost in Singapore. Who do you blame for this? Well, I'd blame the politicians who run the place. If you look at Singapore's development, you have to divided into two eras. One is pre-1984, when you had the likes of Goh Keng Swee in the Cabinet. Dr Goh was a brilliant economist who made it a point of keeping things in order. More importantly, he was the one person who had a way of ensuring the Lee Kuan Yew, the then Prime Minister ran the show like "Primus Inter Pares." Once Dr Goh stepped down and faded from the public eye, the powers that be decided that we needed to "attract and maintain" top talent in politics. So, before you know it, Singapore's politicians decided to announce to the world that they were going to raise their salaries beyond the dreams of avarice.

To a certain extent, I can see the merit in the argument. Paying people enough "over" the table, reduces the need for people to look for money "under" the table. You also send out the message to bright young chaps that they don't need to rush of to JP Morgan to make their money - politics is a viable option.

However, there was a side-effect. When the politicians announced they were going to raise their salaries, we all became very interested in what everyone else was making. Suddenly it was vitally important that you not only made more money than your neighbour, but you were seen to be making more money. As far as the leaders were concerned, all they had to do was to create "growth" to keep the money flowing in. The people were happy because they were too busy bitching about other people to actually do anything for themselves.

We simply get over what the other chap is making. When Pastor Prince made $21 million in 24 hours, nobody made a peep. When TT Durai gave himself an 18-month bonus on a $600,000 yearly salary, we joked about peanuts and then let Durai slip away to Dubai to earn a mere $25,000 a month. Now, we have Susan Lim who sent a patient a bill of about $25 million.

We simply cannot get over the fact that there are people who make more money in a day than what most us poor saps can ever dream of making in a month. If you read the blog postings on Susan Lim, you'll find that there is a common thread - doctoring is a noble profession and you should not be a doctor is you want to make money. If you were to believe everything in cyberspace, you might be lead to conclude that Susan Lim's bill to the Sultan of Brunei's family is the single cause of rising health care cost for average Singaporeans.

There's no logic in this sentiment. Susan Lim has always been an entrepreneur as much as she's been a doctor. She's always charged premium rates to very wealthy and she's never been known to work in the public sector. Of course, she's going to try and make money.

However, the idea that someone else can make more money than you irritates people. Right now everyone is upset with doctors. Not only are they upset with Dr Lim for having the audacity to make money, they're upset with the doctors who didn't seem upset that Susan had 'marked-up' their bills. "Hang the Greedy Doctors," is now the popular mantra and the medical profession won't be the last to be at the end of this sentiment. Bankers upset people with their bonus's and stock options. Lawyers upset people with the way they bill (It was nice talking to you over that 2-hour lunch, here's my very reasonable bill for $1000)

May be there's justification to this public outrage. In the case of TT Durai, I could understand it. TT was supposed to be running a charity - living of the good will of the public. Instead, he was more charitable to himself than to the people he was supposed to serve (The auditors found that only 10 cents of the dollar was heading to the patients). I dislike Pastor Prince because he makes his money selling "hot air" to the gullible - which, although is perfectly legal, is not necessarily moral.

However, if you look at the professions, you have to accept that as much as we might like to think of them as "noble" and being about something more than just the money - money is a vital part of their survival and in the area of private practice, the professional skill is a business product to be sold to the highest bidder, just like any other business. My favourite litigator does his share of "pro-bono" work but at the end of the day, he needs to pay his rent and the salary of his assistant. Dr Susan Lim is involved in charity work but also needs to pay bills.

It's easy to focus on the sale without understanding that what is earned is not necessarily kept. It's also quite common to ignore the work that people have to do to earn their money. My favourite example is the example of how the Middle Class love to go on and on and on about how the 'char kway teow' man can afford to drive a Mercedes. What everyone seems to forget is that the 'char kway teow' man has to stand in front of a hot stove, frying noodles in the tropical sun and works something like 24/7. Another example that comes to mind is an aquaintaince who kept going on about how much money hookers make for very little work (lie there, say "ah,ah,ah" and can collect money.) I noticed he wasn't pushing his daughters into the business.

It's pretty much the same when it comes to professional practice. I remember telling Zen, that although I don't see the pricks (as in penis not person), I also get fucked for a living. As such, the best business mentors I've found, are the Chinese street girls in Geylang. These girls have understood the basics of business - "collect the money before you get fucked." When you work in a profession, there's a lot to be said about "being professional," but at the end of the day, you need the cash to come in to pay your basic living expenses. If you are the head of a business, you have a moral obligation to pay staff salaries and commercial rents. That moral need has to override any obligation you have to be nice to clients who mess around with your payment.

We're all getting worked up over Susan Lim's $25 million charge but did we ask ourselves what Susan Lim had to do to earn that money? Did we consider the fact that this was for work done over a 7-month period?

Much has been made of the fact that this issue of "overcharging" might be a case for the 'regulators' to introduce "guidelines" on what doctors can and cannot charge. Might be an ideal world if people were willing to pay more taxes for a more "socialised" system of healthcare.

Then as one private practice doctor said,"If we get a cap on what we can charge, will there be a cap on the rents we have to pay and the staff we need to hire?" Cap the money you make - quite possible - you're making it. Cap the rent - you got to be joking - the landlord needs to make money (guess who is the biggest land lord in Singapore? Government)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Change - Yes We Can - We'll Stay the Same.

Something amazing is happening in Singapore. On the 25th of March, 2011, Major-General Chan Chun Sing will step down as Chief-of-Army and be replaced by Brigadier-General Ravinder Singh. Much of the talk has been on whether MG Chan will be heading into politics. However, the story that the media played down, was the fact that BG Singh will be the first Non-Chinese Chief of Army that we've had.

This is landmark. Singapore has been pretty good at getting people of different colours into top government jobs. Our Head-of-State is an Indian and the sensitive ministry of finance is also headed by an Indian. The Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs also happens to be the same man running our much valued water resources. Lower down the level of full-minister, we have a relatively high-profile Minister-of-State like Mr Zainul Abidin Rashid.

You could say the presence of 'ethnic minorities' in cabinet reflects the ethnic mix in Singapore. You have good people of every race doing certain jobs. Let's face it, in a multi-ethnic society, you need a few faces in the chief policy decision making body who are darker than the rest.

Things have been rather different when its come to armed forces. The people with direct control over the people with guns have inevitably been Chinese. Yes, you have Malay and Indian officers passing out of Officer Cadet School - but the top brass is inevitably Chinese - from the majority race.

To the Westerner, this sounds blatantly racist. However, our 'practical' political masters have always maintained that should we go to war, its likely to be against Indonesia or Malaysia and we don't want our Malay population having 'dual' loyalties. As for the Indians - well, there simply enough 'talents' hanging around the armed forces. So, when you put things this way - the top brass is going to be Chinese and looks likely to remain that way.

Things have now changed thanks to the elevation of BG Singh. Not only is he the first Non-Chinese to take the job in over 30-years, he's also the front runner to take over the job of Chief-of-Defense-Force in a few years time. What's going on?

One might say it's election politics. The lack of ethnic minorities in the top ranks of the armed forces has been a sore point with our neighbours. We brag that we are a meritocracy that does not discriminate (unlike them) - but it doesn't quite work when you see our top brass.

Then there's the fact that BG Singh might be the right person to do the job. The Sikh's have always been proud of their military heritage (unlike the Chinese who traditionally spit on the idea of soldiering). If the Ministry of Defense's photos are anything to go by, his conduct and bearing are befiting of a senior general.

Then there's the fact that BG Singh's credentials are impeccable. He's got first-class degrees from Oxford in the UK and MIT in the US - therein lies the rub.

If you look at his academic background, you'll realise that BG Singh's credentials are identical to those of everyone who has become a top general in Singapore. The fact that his name is Singh rather than Chan is merely incidental. He is an Oxford and MIT graduate and this ultimately what counts.

While much has been made about 'race-relations' in Singapore, we've always been a fairly open minded society. Yes, a typical Chinese family might have balked when the daughter brought home an "Indian" boy. However, much of the feelings towards race have always been based on social class. The early Indian migrants to Singapore were labourers and convicts. However, as the Indian population became more "educated" and joined the professional class, we've seen the rise of more and more interracial relations between Indians and Chinese.

If you look at BG Singh, he's the ideal Singaporean. His credentials are impeccable. He's been to two of the best universities in the world. He has a secure civil service job and he's flown up the career ladder.

In short, he is exactly like every top general we've had. BG Singh is a man made by the system like MG Chan and LG Neo (The Current Chief of Defense Force). So what exactly has changed here? The only thing that's changed is the fact that the top man is called Singh and is a little more tan than his predecessor. Other than that, he's exactly the same.

Now, it's not a bad thing that BG Singh has many of the qualities of his predecessors. If you look at his credentials, you'll realise that BG Singh has to have a lot of brains just to get into Oxford and MIT. You want brainy people running the show.

However, the problem with that is that BG Singh is EXACTLY like everyone else who has taken the job before him. He's been trained to think a certain way like everyone else before him. His appointment is not meant to change anything - it is meant to preserve the status-quo.

This is a shame, because the nature of warfare is changing and we need top people to be able to adapt to the changing nature of the game. As political integration within South-East Asia gathers strength, the likelihood of a full out war between nation states seems more and more unlikely. Malaysia will not rush to invade Singapore as long as Singaporean tourist flood across the Causeway. Indonesia will not rush to invade Singapore as long as the nations elite see Singapore as a safe haven for their money and the poor see Singapore as a source jobs.

What is, however, a threat, has been the growth of extremist groups like the Jemah Islamiah, and other Al-Qaeda off shoots who want to do as much damage as possible to national economies to set up a mythical Islamic State. These groups operate across national boundaries and they are held together by an ideology.

As such, some of our old ideas about security might have to change. For a start, we should look at whether Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces and Chinese in the Malaysian Armed Forces needs to be looked at. In Singapore we've argued that our Malay brethren cannot be trusted to fight against fellow Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia.

May be this is true when the most likely opponent was a nation-state. However, as that possibility recedes, isn't that idea of not trusting the Malay community with senior positions in the armed forces becoming outdated?

If anything, a Malay general in the armed forces might be exactly what we need. Let's face it, the opponents are claiming to be fighting for an Islamic cause and they're appealing to the Malay population of South-East-Asia - so who else could be more qualified to fight these opponents but a Malay Muslim.

We have to look at someone who is different from the norm. The enemy seems to be able to adapt to various situations - surely we should do the same? We cannot keep having men trained to fight yesterday's wars to fight today's.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Problems when you ASS U ME

It's easy to see why the case of Dr Susan Lim is making headlines. The story has all the ingredients of a successful block buster - money (about S$25 million), drama (did he or didn't he), political movements (government-to-government activity), a mysterious monarch (The Sultan of Brunei), a potentially devious professor (Professor K.Satku, Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health) and a pretty darn good looking and talented woman (The Good Doctor herself). If you have a quick glance at the chat rooms, you'll find that most people are convinced that the good doctor got greedy - but they're also sure that there's a conspiracy by the powers that be to fleece someone - ie Dr Lim was fleecing the Royal Family of Brunei until they complained and so they're dumping her to cover their tracks.

While all of these items are keeping the papers busy, one of the most important factors of this saga is being ignored. When this story eventually dies down - people will forget that this is probably one of the few times that a basic Singaporean trait is challenged - namely the trait that assumes that the powers that be or the system is intrinsically flawless.

This became most prominent in court on Tuesday, 1 March, 2011, when the lawyer for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), Senior Council (Singapore's Equivalent of the Queen's Council), Mr Alvin Yeo accused Dr Lim of using "Legal Mumbo Jumbo" to stop the SMC from setting up a second disciplinary committee to investigate whether Dr Lim had 'overcharged' a patient of hers who happened to be a cousin of the Sultan of Brunei. The crux of Mr Yeo's argument was that ' If she was innocent - if there was a fee agreement and she rendered such a good job for the patient who trusted her - those facts would emerge - Dr Lim would then come out as 'pure as the driven snow.' In other words, if Dr Lim is innocent, she wouldn't be struggling so hard to fight this investigation into her practice. Throughout the four and a half hours of his summation, Mr Yeo kept repeating this point.

That got me worried. Yes, in an ideal world we should all be open and unafraid to speak our minds. In an ideal world, those who have nothing to hide would always be able to speak their minds freely and would have no fear of being prosecuted by the authorities. In an ideal world, the system is ALWAYS perfect and fair. Hence, Mr Yeo's point that Dr Lim was demonstrating her guilt by fighting the SMC's desire to hall her up before a second disciplinary comity after the first one had to recuse itself for 'pre-judging' her guilt.

I can accept that Mr Yeo might have a point from the perception of 'public-opinion.' Speak to enough people about this event and their answer is simple - "Dr Lim is a greedy bitch who's getting what she deserves."

However, I am disturbed by this assumption and the way it's being bandied about in court for the simple reason that we DON'T live in an ideal world where the system is perfect and always fair - there are times when the system does make mistakes and the course of justice gets perverted.

Dr Lim may or may not be guilty of the charges brought against by the SMC. However, her case is NOT the only time when the powers that be have used this argument when stripping people of certain necessary legal protections. I remember the authorities used this argument in 2005 when they made it such that an accused person would not be able to have access to their legal council until the police had concluded their investigation. The argument put forth was simple - "A defense lawyer might coach the witness and therefore impede the course of justice - read a truly innocent person would have nothing to hide and therefore cooperate fully with the police."

Hence the system is fair. The police are ALWAYS right. One would never have a case where the police would NEVER abuse power and use intimidation to extract confessions that may not necessarily be correct. We, the general public, had to ASSUME that the police would take everything at face value and not twist one into incriminating ones-self, which is a real possibility, especially when you are a society that measures people by results rather than process.

Dr Lim is a highly educated woman and has the financial means to hire a good lawyer. As such, it's difficult to intimidate or trap her into certain situations. In her case, her lawyer has pointed out that the system has an inbuilt flaw - namely the person directing the complaint against her is also the person judging her.

Under the laws governing the SMC, the Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health is also the registrar of the SMC and a member of the council. The Registrar happens to have a major role in saying who gets onto the council.

In an ordinary situation when an ordinary person brings up a complaint to the SMC about a doctor, the system works. An 'independent' complaints and disciplinary comity made up of a combination of lay people and council members act as judge and jury. A patient cannot say that the process was filled with doctors backing each other up and the doctor cannot complain that there were lay people out to get doctors.

However, in Dr Lim's case, this doesn't work because the complainant is the Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health, who is by law the registrar of the SMC. There's an intrinsic conflict of interest here - the prosecution is also the judge and jury.

Mr Yeo tried very hard to explain that there was no issue here - it was not the SMC but the Complaints and Disciplinary Comity looking into Dr Lim's case. However, the both these comities are filled with council members who in turn happen to owe their positions to....the registrar who happens to the Director of Medical Services, who in this case is the person bringing the complaint.

The SMC's lawyer kept stressing the point that Professor Satku had "no influence," over the process. He was not directly responsible and not everybody "reports" to him. Fair enough......if you believe in fairy tales. Mr Yeo used another tested argument - the authority was not "Directly involved," hence the process is "failure-proof." Professor Satku did not sign off on the order to investigate Dr Lim and he wasn't on the disciplinary comity.

However, the point that Mr Yeo overlooked, is the fact that Professor Satku, by virtue of being Director of Medical Services (The only people higher than the director are the Minister, parliamentary and permanent secretaries) at the Ministry of Health and Registrar of the SMC is in a position of immense influence. He doesn't have to say or do much - people will do the things they believe he wants them to do.

May be Professor Satku is genuinely interested in a fair investigation into Dr Lim. However, the process cannot be fair by virtue of the fact that the he is the one who initiated the complaint and the he is in a position of influence over the people doing the investigation.

There is a thread to justice in all "common law" jurisdictions - "No man shall be judge in his own court." In this case, Professor Satku is the judge in his own court and Dr Lim would be committing suicide if she subjects herself to a disciplinary hearing filled with 'his people.'

Now, Dr Lim is fortunate in that she's highly intelligent and has the means to 'fight' in the system. She's also lucky that the "judicial review" in her case is by a professional body rather than a criminal court. She has a credible case in pointing out that the system in her case has an inbuilt flaw.

What happens when you get someone who is less educated and does not have the means to hire a lawyer? What happens when the case is a criminal case? Are we to say that the system is so perfect and we always get the right guy locked away or hanged?

Let's look at the system of "Tua Pek Gong," (Named after the Chinese Kitchen God). Under this system, someone is paid to goto the jail by a criminal syndicate - in return, a huge sum of money awaits them and their families are taken care of. Anyone who decides to go for "Tua Pek Gong," simply has to role over and play dead when the authorities go on the attack. Now, the fact that this happens is an indication that the system doesn't always get the right chap.

I also look at the fact that there are people who have been so conditioned to admit to anything whenever they're placed in a situation of duress. I look at Eric, my favourite ex-convict as an example. The police had no case to link him to the cigarettes they found in the warehouse. However, once he was locked up in a room with them - he confessed. As far as they were concerned, they found the master mind of an operation that that could smuggle nearly a tonne of duty unpaid cigarettes into the country.

Thank goodness for Eric that the case ended up in the tray of my favorite litigators pro-bono desk. Since release, Eric has demonstrated an uncanny inability to tie his own shoe laces. Here is a clear case where the system is catching the wrong guy based on a confession given under duress. The people in power sit on their arses once they've exercised it on someone who crumbles when power is exercised over them. Can you say that the system works? Eric was actually innocent but he confessed and nobody could help him. He spent two years in jail.

We don't live in an ideal world where authority figures are always just and fair. In the real world, innocent people do go to jail and get hanged because they got intimidated into confessing to things they didn't do and they felt the deck was stacked against them. You can call it the "If you want it like that, I'll be that," mentality. How do you say sorry to the guy you hang or jail because you were more interested in upping your conviction rate that you bullied the bugger into confessing.

"Trust me, the system is perfect" should never be accepted as an argument. No system is fool proof or totally fair. However, we need to work in as many safeguards as we can to ensure that there is as much fairness to both sides as we can provide.

Not everyone is Dr Lim who has the brains and money to stand up for their rights. I may not agree with Dr Lim bringing a case to court to quash the second disciplinary comity from a public perception point of view. However, I have to support her when she's fighting the concept of not subjecting yourself to an inquiry that is stacked against you. Let's face it, this is a comity that changed its rules in the middle of things to suite themselves. How much more stacked against you can you get?

What happens further down the social ladder to uneducated and poor people when they have run ins with the authority? Do we just ignore them? Do we just let people get bullied into admitting to things they didn't do?

I like to think that our authority figures are generally good. I know that in many cases they do get the right guy. However, there are cases when they don't and while we may not be 'error' free, we have to work towards a system where we are as sure as we can get. We cannot just assume that the people in power are just, fair and trustworthy. Not only must justice be done - it must be seen to be done.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

You Can Run a Business but you are NOT ALLOWED to make a Profit

Singapore is very proud that it is regularly considered one of the most competitive economies in the world. Every year, the nation makes a habit of encouraging some think-thank or other to come over and "assess" the nation on how "business-friendly" it is. More often than not, Singapore is usually a winner. We often duke it out with that other ethnic Chinese City-State, Hong Kong for the top prize.

In a way, the think-thanks are not wrong. Singapore has a first-world physical and legal infrastructure. It's bureaucrats are always helpful, especially if you're the type of business pumping in lots of money. We even have a serious currency and we are also at the focal point of a region of nearly half a billion consumers. When you look at all these things together, you have to ask - "Who wouldn't want to set up a business here?"

However, I'm starting to worry a little. Thanks to an impending election, the government seems determined to add an interesting twist to many of the things that make Singapore a wonderful place to do business - businesses it seems are NOT allowed to make a profit. Yes, by all means, set up a business - but remember your business is NOT allowed to make a profit.

The most obvious example of this interesting twist can be seen in a saga involving a surgeon who once operated on my thigh - Dr Susan Lim, Chairman of the Susan Lim Surgery & Group (www.susanlimsurgery.com). Dr Lim is one Singapore's most prominent surgeons whom, based on her professional qualifications alone could be what you call an ideal citizen. In her career she has already achieved some of the following:

a - In 1990 performed the first successful liver transplant in Asia
b - In 2003 started the company Stem Cell Technologies
c - In 2004 became the youngest fellow of Trinity College in the University of Melbourne.

That's just her professional achievements. On the personal level, she's also managed to "snag" a prominent "foreign" talent for Singapore. Her husband is Mr Deepak Sharma, the Head of International Wealth Management (All Wealth Management Activities outside the USA) at Citigroup. In between their busy schedule's, Mr Sharma and Dr Lim have also found the time to set up a charitable "Indiapore" trust to assist underprivileged children in the region.

Dr Lim is what you'd call a "Star," in her profession and like most "Stars," she doesn't come cheap. As her patient over a decade ago, she charged something like $100 per consultation, which is twice what the neighbourhood GP charged and ten times what the subsidised government polyclinics.

Being a star doctor in Singapore is supposedly a good thing. Singapore is working very hard to promote itself as a centre for medical tourism. The economic planners get turned on by the very idea of the very rich from around the region (we have lots of them) coming to Singapore to receive medical treatments - preferably the expensive kind. Since Singapore cannot compete on cost with places like India and Thailand, our only option is to compete on quality and quality in the medical sense means not just a good physical infrastructure - but renown doctors. It doesn't take a genius to read Dr Lim's CV to realise that she is the very type of Doctor who brings international patients (The type with money) to Singapore.

Well, it turns out that being the type of doctor that brings in the patients with money, isn't always exactly good for you - that is if you are the doctor. One of Dr Lim's patients was the cousin of the Sultan of Brunei (Once listed as the World's richest man and by no means a pauper today). The woman had breast cancer and instead of heading off to the West, she came to Singapore to see Dr Lim.

I don't want to comment on the medical issues here since I'm not qualified to do so. What I can comment on is the fact that the patient arranged it such with Dr Lim, that Dr Lim effectively became her personal assistant. When the patient didn't want to goto hospital, Dr Lim would have to set up an ICU unit in the Hyatt Hotel. When she needed to fly to Brunei, it was Dr Lim who had to arrange for a private jet as well set up the medical infrastructure in the palace. In short, the deal was simple. Dr Lim had to clear out all her other patients to deal exclusively to the patient from Brunei. The royal patient seemed quite happy was quite happy to pay her rates. Dr Lim provided her treatment and the bills were sent to the Brunei High Commission.

This went on for several years - and then the patient died (Not an unexpected outcome from someone with cancer). Brunei's Ministry of Health then decided to ask for a small discount from Dr Lim on the bill that she had provided for the last seven month's of the Royal Patient's treatment. They approached their Singapore counterparts. The Director of Medical Services, a Professor Satku, got very upset with Dr Lim for having the audacity to charge the patient for money. So he decided to take issue with Dr Lim and before you know it, Dr Lim's clinic was raided five times and the Singapore Medical Council, the supposed independent regulatory body for the medical profession, which Professor Satku happened to be Registrar of, decided to bring charges against Dr Lim for "over charging."

Much was made of the fact that Dr Lim's bill amounted to some S$25 million. She had apparently marked up some suppliers by a huge margin. Unfortunately for the good professor, there is actually no official guideline for charges for the service Dr Lim was offering (what constitutes over charging?) and one of his key witnesses even went as far as to say that Dr Lim could have charged a lot more (S$450,000 a day - the bill of $25 million for seven months comes to around S$100,000 plus a day)

Fortunately, for Professor Satku, Dr Lim decided to go directly to the Brunei government and offered a very hefty discount - a case of take less money (even lose it if you have to and get on with life). In short, Dr Lim was willing to forgo all personal monies on the last seven months of her royal patient's life.

The battle continues but was particularly interesting about this entire drama is the fact that the final bill has yet to be paid because, as Dr Lim's lawyer alleges (a good legal word), the Ministry of Health has suggested to the Bruneians that they don't pay it.

The Brunei government had no issue with paying the bills. What they wanted was a simple discount. They also had no issues with Dr Lim's professional conduct. As far as they were concerned, she did what she had to do.

So why on earth is the Singapore government telling the patients of a doctor from a private practice not to settle the doctors bills. Everyone accepts that work was done to a quality of everyone's acceptance. So where exactly is the professional misconduct here and when does a government do out of it's way to tell customers of a private business not to settle the bill.

Whatever way you look at things, this is an issue between a provider of a service (In this case Dr Lim) and the customer (In this case the Brunei Government). The customer asked for a service. One was provided and paid for. The discount should have been at the discretion of Dr Lim and Brunei government. The regulator should only have intervened had they complained of professional misconduct - ie had she promised to do something she could not.

Then there's the issue of charges. As far the Singapore market for medical services is concerned, it's a free for all. You can charge what people are willing to pay. As such, there is no set market rate - just an average of what people are offering. Some people offer below and others above. Dr Lim has never been known to be on the cheap - she's always been known to be on the premium side of things. Could you say she was expensive? The answer is yes. Could you say she was "over charging?" This is debatable, though one can easily argue that the patients were willing to pay her price. They had to choice of moving elsewhere if they found her too expensive.

So what exactly is the issue here? Why on earth is the government going after a private business for charging high prices? Let's stress again - Dr Lim is not a government official, obliged to provide a service to the people. She runs a private enterprise, selling something to a specific target market. Surely, when it comes to private enterprise, the person who should decide on whether they're being over charged are the customers.

Furthermore, here's the important principle - in a free market capitalist society (which Singapore claims to be), governments should not interfere with a customer relationship as long as no professional misconduct has taken place. The Brunei government did not allege that Dr Lim had fleeced them. It is the Singapore government that has clearly decided that Singaporean business are NOT allowed to make money.

Which is sad really, especially when you consider the fact that real economic growth comes from enterprises rather than from government dictation.

Perhaps it's hard to feel sorry for Dr Lim. She's made pots of money and as they say - how do you feel sorry for someone with money. However, let's face it, Dr Lim did not make her money exploiting the poor. She's contributed to society by running a successful business that employs people in high paying jobs. She's given time and money to charity.

So, you got ask yourself, why is it so that the government has decided that it needs to punish Dr Lim for doing what every business does - make money? Is this something new into the ethos of Singapore?