Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains

Boats in Chongqing (L) and Kochi (R)

[2,900 words]. Ever since China began to be a major part of the global economy in the early 1990s, one of the most enduring themes in American media is the country’s rise and its future challenge to US dominance. A subsidiary theme is whether India may be on the same path to parity, with this subtheme often coming across as prayer and hope: that India, as a fellow democracy, could help the US contain superpower China.

Much Indian discourse about China in recent years has adopted this lens too. Discussion about China in Indian media (at least the English-language media that is accessible to me) tends to take on a comparative and competitive tone. A good example is this online discussion at Quora.com: Which country will be next superpower: India or China?  It is rare to see discussion about China as itself. Continue reading ‘Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains’

The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy

For several years a decade or two ago, tiny Singapore was reckoned by defence analysts such as at Jane’s, to have one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful militaries. I don’t know if this is still true, but given this chart below which I took from this site, I won’t be surprised if it is. The bar graph shows that Singapore topped all our Asean neighbours save Laos, which isn’t included in the graph, in military expenditure in 2014. Continue reading ‘The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy’

Patches, grit, and the sorry state of things

There used to be benches on both sides. They were recently removed — most likely as part of SMRT’s “service improvement”, which is Orwellian-speak for “squeeze more people in”. The parts under the erstwhile benches are darker grey, but the outline of the benches isn’t of straight lines. Instead the wavy boundary between the darker and lighter grey is almost surely caused by abrasion from feet over the years.

Yet, there are some dark spots too near the doors where abrasion must be greatest, suggesting that the floor covering has worn through one more layer, revealing a third, dark layer beneath, or that abrasion is so deep that dirt is trapped there.

An alternative explanation could be that the spotty abrasion near the doors came not from feet, but from scrubbing with an incompatible chemical in an attempt to clean the dirtiest parts.

The questions that come to mind are:

1. Was this degree of wear and tear expected?

2. If it was, what is SMRT’s replacement policy for flooring?

3. If it wasn’t, was it because of substandard materials used? If so, did the manufacturer cut corners, or was the vendor specification too lax?

Regardless of the answers to the questions above, the fact is that when the seats were removed, the stark discolouration of the floor must have become noticeable. Why didn’t SMRT promptly lay a new flooring? Did the maintenance and branding people think it acceptable to leave this awful sight in place?

Or was replacement proposed but rejected by management?

Some readers may also have experienced SMRT carriages with an unpleasant odour. I’ve never been able to identify it, but it is a chemical kind of smell, not from other humans. My guess is that it was either from the cleaning chemicals, or from a nasty reaction between the chemicals used and the interior of the carriages — perhaps the flooring.

That something nasty is going on became quite apparent two weeks later, when I was in a different train and took this photograph:


I took it because, as I stepped into the train, I felt the floor to be gritty underfoot.

Why is it so? I asked myself, and stooped down for a closer look. And took this next picture.

What is evident is that what used to be a smooth floor covering — the speckled floor is really composed of grit embedded in polymer — has now been so badly abraded that the softer polymer has worn off by a millimetre or two and grit stands exposed. It won’t be long before the grit loosens out altogether, perhaps to be shuffled by walking feet, with some pieces eventually ending up in the door channels. We’ll know it has happened when the doors jam and refuse to open or close.

I can’t say for sure why the polymer flooring in this train has worn down so badly. No other train that I have been in had this problem. Either the flooring was particularly substandard in this train, or a new cleaning chemical was tried on this one, with disastrous results.

Regardless of the reason, why wasn’t the floor covering replaced immediately?

It says much of an organisation whether problems are promptly attended to. We can read a lot about management attitudes from the little things. Not just the attitudes of top management, but all the way down line management.

Look at this next photo, taken at an MRT station toilet. Three faucets have broken down. What are the odds that they broke down the same day? Very unlikely, I would think. In all probability, they broke down sequentially over a period of time. Yet the first wasn’t repaired before the second broke down, nor even before the third!

It’s like nobody cared.

Frustrating though incompetent management and sluggish corporate culture may be, the bigger danger is that Singapore society will slowly come to accept all this as normal. It is bad enough that we are reticent about speaking up, and that reticence simply means we fail to apply the needed pressure on public service organisations. But when such a sorry state of things becomes normalised, then the rare person who does speak up will be the nail that sticks out and is seen negatively for it: as the guy who makes trouble, the guy who expects too much, the guy who is unreasonable.

It is never unreasonable to demand better. If we don’t strive, we’ll never progress.

Flapping wildly amidst the wreck

For the last few weeks, Singapore-based Keppel Offshore and Marine Ltd (“KOM”) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. KOM and its wholly owned US subsidiary, Keppel Offshore & Marine USA Inc. have agreed to pay a combined total penalty of more than US$422 million (S$565 million) for making corrupt payoffs to officials in Brazil. Brazilian authorities will receive 50% of the penalty, while the US and Singapore authorities will receive 25% each.

This will hurt. KOM’s profit after tax for financial year ending 31 December 2016 was only S$326 million. Its business was already troubled as can be seen from the fact that its 2015 profit after tax was a much higher S$528 million. Continue reading ‘Flapping wildly amidst the wreck’

Requiem for a mug

I accidentally knocked it against the edge of the kitchen sink and its handle broke. Instinctively, I gathered the pieces to throw them into the bin. And then I stopped. I wanted to take in, respectfully, the feeling of loss that surged over me. This mug had been given by my late brother-in-law, Blake. Throwing it away, which in the end I will of course, will have incalculably more meaning than most other acts of disposal. It will mean the loss of one more material connection to someone I once knew, but who has since departed. Continue reading ‘Requiem for a mug’

Preliminary findings about flooded tunnel raise more questions

Two weeks after the North-South Line of Singapore’s metro system was severely disrupted because of flooding in a tunnel, there are still calls on social media for Desmond Kuek, the CEO of SMRT Corporation which operates the line, to resign or be sacked. Public anger intensified after SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming said at the 16 October 2017 press conference that the SMRT maintenance team will have their bonuses cut for failing to maintain the flood-prevention system. The public feeling was that Kuek himself should shoulder the blame and not point fingers at his staff, especially as he has been CEO for five years already.

Indeed, there is a growing perception that an entire cadre of military generals inserted to run various parts of public administration enjoy impunity whatever the failures on their watch. Kuek was a lieutenant general before. It is time for a proper example to be set. Continue reading ‘Preliminary findings about flooded tunnel raise more questions’

Singapore Press Holdings bloodied and confused, part 2

I don’t think anyone has yet figured out what a viable business model for post-print journalism will look like. As Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) FY2017 results indicate, even while circulation is holding up, advertising revenue continues to be in freefall. The problem seems to be that print circulation brings in more advertising revenue than digital subscription. So even as digital makes up for print’s decline numbers-wise, revenue is reduced. This is true for other newspapers, such as the New York Times, as I mentioned in Part 1. Continue reading ‘Singapore Press Holdings bloodied and confused, part 2’

Singapore Press Holdings bloodied and confused, part 1

The deterioration of Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) fortunes has long been expected. As the monopoly publisher (now that Mediacorp’s Today has gone totally digital) of all Singapore’s print newspapers, not only is it suffering the same headwinds from digital that newspapers around the world have been experiencing, it has lost all sense of journalistic mission. Partly, this loss was due to demands of the Singapore government for government-friendly coverage, but partly too, its monopoly position — the flip side of its Faustian bargain — has eroded whatever competitive instincts it might once have had.

For these reasons, I am very doubtful that there is any blue sky ahead however many cost-cutting exercises SPH’s management performs. The problem isn’t cost; the problem is the brand and the impossibility of doing a proper journalistic job. Part 2 of this essay will expand on this. Continue reading ‘Singapore Press Holdings bloodied and confused, part 1’

Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do

“Not if but when” says the poster. Indeed, an attack of some sort will happen in Singapore. But let’s not be ahistorical about it. Throughout history, highly aggrieved individuals have lashed out at society or authority with violence. Sometimes they act as loners, other times as part of an organised network. We’ve had bombs going off in Singapore within living memory — for example on 10 March 1965 at MacDonald House in which three persons died. We’ve had the Sepoy mutiny in 1915 in which over 100 people lost their lives, including 56 mutineers.  Continue reading ‘Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do’

Tunnel floods and the erosion of performance legitimacy

In traditional Chinese political thinking, emperors have absolute powers, subject only to the will of gods. The political duty of subjects is to serve and to obey. The Mandate of Heaven, however, can be withdrawn at any time. Flood, famine, earthquake and pestilence are read as signs that Heaven is displeased with the regime and has revoked the emperor’s mandate.

As recently as 1976, millions of people in China had reason to believe that this divine signalling was in operation. On 28 July 1976, a massive earthquake struck the city of Tangshan, killing over 240,000 people, though nobody really knows what the actual figure was. Six weeks later, Mao Zedong, supreme ruler for 27 years, died. Continue reading ‘Tunnel floods and the erosion of performance legitimacy’