Priorities, priorities

Sometimes, on an ordinary day, minding one’s own business, we cannot help but notice things that make us think beyond our private thoughts and about the wider world. And so it was one evening last month when I visited my father in hospital. I found him bored out of his wits.

“Why don’t you at least turn on the telly?” I asked.

“There’s nothing there.”

I wasn’t going to believe him so easily. So I fiddled with the remote to surf the channels. There were our handful of free-to-air channels (in other words, nothing worth watching), and another 6 or 7 cable channels. With the exception of the Cartoon Network, all the cable channels were Arabic. Three of them are imaged on this page – channels 15, 18 and 14. There were news, drama and even Arabic cartoons.

We weren’t in a private hospital, but a public one. What does the menu of channels tell us about our public hospitals’ priorities when it comes to their target market? Should our public hospitals chase Middle-Eastern patients? When reports surface of bed shortage or ambulances turned away, has the revenue-driven cultivation of the Arab market got anything to do with that?

It should be said though that in my many visits to hospitals – with my father getting on in age, the frequency of my visits has been increasing – I have only rarely noticed visitors who were identifiably Middle-Eastern – the men with Arabic facial features and the women in full-flowing robes and face veils.

I don’t think there are many such patients, but I wondered nonetheless.

* * * * *

The same month, I happened to make a trip to Pulau Ubin (Ubin Island), and discovered that it is not connected to our power grid nor to our mains water supply. On this island, the residents draw water from wells and run generators for electricity.

This is absurd, I said to myself. The island is separated from mainland Singapore by little more than one kilometre of water. What does it take to lay an underwater pipe and cable?  If we can invest so much to lay fibre-optic cables for internet connections to the rest of the world, why can’t we supply water and electricity to Ubin?

Why, in Singapore, do we still have outdoor latrines (pic at right) less than a hundred metres from wells?

* * * * *

I was reminded of Ubin a few weeks later when I found myself travelling past the Old Supreme Court and City Hall which are now being converted into the National Art Gallery. The building works alone will cost S$320 million, according to a webpage belonging to CPG Corporation.

But that would hardly be the end of it. How much more are we going to spend buying art to fill the enormous spaces?

If we can throw money around like this, why can’t we supply water and electricity to Ubin?

And yet, S$320 million is only five percent of another project – the North-South Expressway. According to a news report from last year, it will cost $7 – $8 billion. (Channel NewsAsia, 15 Nov 2011, New expressway sparks big land acquisition, Link)

Could we have spent it on more rail lines rather than roads? Do we really want to encourage more cars?

This project is particularly controversial because it entails the demolition of several blocks of public housing. 567 households have to move out. It must be particularly galling for them because these residents have already endured years of noise and dust with the building of the Downtown metro line almost at their doorstep.

They would have consoled themselves with the thought that eventually they would enjoy the convenience of being virtually on top of a metro station, but just as this section of the Downtown Line nears completion, they are now told their homes will be demolished to make way for a road tunnel.

Lexus owners rank higher than public housing occupants.

* * * * *

Little things like television channels in hospital wards and where to wash one’s hands on Ubin can lead to much bigger questions about our priorities in Singapore. The sorry thing is that they tend to point to answers that can be quite disgraceful.

29 Responses to “Priorities, priorities”

  1. 1 nerdybeng 31 May 2012 at 19:46

    I work within the hospital campus, and I do actually see quite a few patients/visitors in Arabic garb. They tend to appear in the evening. However, there seem to be fewer of them these last couple of months.

  2. 2 mirax 31 May 2012 at 20:15

    I must be really out of touch but find it incredible that all (bar one) the cable channels are Arabic ones! Didnt you raise a complaint with the hospital? I would certainly have.

    It also seems odd as none of the actual cable channels that are available to subscribers here are of middle-eastern origin. Elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, there have been concerns raised about the content of these channels – islamist propaganda and hate speech (vitriolic anti-semiticism).

  3. 3 mirax 31 May 2012 at 20:19

    As for Ubin, isnt it the intention of the authorities to run off the last of the people living there rather than encourage settlement there?

    • 4 Lye Khuen Way 31 May 2012 at 22:52

      I believe you, mirax. Of course, “they” will cite that nostalgic last vestige of kampong life to justify the hands off attitude.!

  4. 5 Guest 31 May 2012 at 21:23

    I understand that the UAE has an arrangement to provide their citizens with free healthcare. When needed services are not available locally, they are flown to Singapore and the local embassy makes arrangements with the hospitals here for their care.

  5. 6 Anonymous 31 May 2012 at 21:43

    Alex, not to mention that some of the $gizillion being spent on roads and art and stuff can be put to use to better the lot of poor and needy Singaporeans.

  6. 7 Anonymous 1 June 2012 at 02:31

    Have you asked the Ubin residents if they want piped water and electricity before making this statement? Sure it may seem absurd to you that hey there is no piped water nor electricity, but do Ubin residents really want them?

    • 8 dZus 1 June 2012 at 16:02

      You know what seem absurd? You asking if people will want clean running water and electricity. No Really.

      And to your point that people might not want it. People might or might not want to drive, but that does not mean the government only build roads when people buy cars in a neighborhood. These are basic amenities and infrastructures that should be in place on an island as big as Ubin.

      I applaud Alex for pointing out something so obvious that I’m surprise the MP for the area have not broach this subject in parliament or the relevant departments.

      • 9 yawningbread 2 June 2012 at 00:00

        Thank you for saying that. There are people who live on Ubin; it isn’t only for hikers. Why should these citizens be deprived of equal access to clean water and reliable electricity?

        If you want to live rough, go ahead; you don’t have to go to Ubin to experience it. Bukit Timah Hill may do just as well. Is that reason enough to say: let’s not provide electricity and water to all residents of Bukit Timah area?

      • 10 octopi 2 June 2012 at 03:22

        My first instinct was to google and see which district Pulau Ubin is in. East Coast! No wonder PAP almost lost it. My second instinct was to google Pulau Ubin to see how many votes they would lose. 100! 100 votes is going to really really hurt the PAP!

        If it’s 100 people it really changes things. I can justify a power grid for 1000 people, but not 100.

      • 11 yawningbread 2 June 2012 at 11:01

        You seem to adopt realpolitick and majoritarianism as the guiding principle for everything. Do you not have any understanding at all of (a) rights, (b) equality and (c) fairness? Aren’t the 100 citizens on Ubin entitled to an equal measure of these?

        By your same argument, if only 100 people have their houses broken into, why bother with enacting an anti-burglary law? If only 100 people belong to a particular religion, why bother with enshrining religious freedom? If only 100 children come from such poor families they can’t afford to go to school, why bother to help?

      • 12 octopi 2 June 2012 at 13:07

        Elsewhere in your article, you said that generators are more expensive than a power grid. I can definitely see why this is true for 1000 people. For 100 people, I don’t know. Is the govt subsidising them for the generators? I don’t know. Is running the generators more expensive for the govt, or setting up a power grid for them? I don’t know. Until I get the answers, I’m going to reserve judgement. The point is, if I were the govt, and if giving them generators will cost me less than laying all the wires, I will give them generators. Connecting a power supply to the mainland is going to cost you. I mean really going to cost you.

        I read about one notorious case in Japan where they spent millions of dollars building a really huge bridge for an island that had only 200 people on it. It was rightly condemned as a waste of money.

        This is not about being majoritarian. This is about economics of scale.

      • 13 yawningbread 2 June 2012 at 14:45

        It is petrol or diesel that is way more expensive than electricity off the grid, that’s why getting electricity from generators is so much costlier. No, the government does not provide residents with generators, nor any subsidies. Residents pay from their own pockets. Same with water. No help from the govt at all.

        Yet, Ubin citizens are expected to pay the same taxes as others.

      • 14 octopi 2 June 2012 at 19:00

        Yes, petrol and diesel is more expensive than a grid that has already been built. What about the cost of extending that grid to Pulau Ubin in the first place? Power lines are not the same as optic fibre lines. The first is not waterproof, the latter is. What is the cost of laying that line under a crowded sea lane, divided by 100 people? Let’s take a conservative estimate of $10M. That’s $100K per person?

        Outward Bound School, that branch of the august institution, the people’s association does not have running electricity either. If they’re not going to provide for their own Hitler Youth Camps, maybe there really is an economic reason?

        The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the energy has to be generated on Ubin itself. It’s just a matter of who’s going to generate it. I’d really like to see what happens if and when that place becomes an opposition ward.

        And some historical perspective. Those kampong dwellers are like all other kampong dwellers, and they get offered the same deal. Take a HDB flat, and you get electricity and running water (but you have to move). Or stay behind in your kampong and live like in the 60s. So the answer to the question, “how do you know that these people choose to live this way” is “because they had to make a choice at some point in the past, just like everybody else”. Could it be that we’re merely witnessing a replay of how villages in the past got cleared out?

        I don’t disagree with a lot else that you write. I take your general point that the govt has a lot of misplaced priorities about spending. But I just don’t think that Pulau Ubin is a particularly good example.

      • 15 Poker Player 3 June 2012 at 22:29

        “I read about one notorious case in Japan where they spent millions of dollars building a really huge bridge for an island that had only 200 people on it. It was rightly condemned as a waste of money.”

        You are using a wrong example. There are infrastructure projects that has a lot more to do with benefiting contractors and politicians than citizens. Your example is one of them. The bridge was built for the contractors and politicians. A cheaper bridge (or alternative) would have kept the residents happy. This is not the case argued for Ubin electrification.

        “This is not about being majoritarian. This is about economics of scale.”

        And this principle is not consistently applied. There are policies that are approved that benefit only the few. It is just that the ***priorities*** of the ruling political class decided – which is the point of the article.

      • 16 octopi 4 June 2012 at 13:07

        What’s your point? If the govt paid $10M for a power line to Pulau Ubin wouldn’t that be a project that benefits politicians and contractors more than citizens?

        So what you are trying to say is that if the Japanese govt spends millions builds a bridge for only 200 people, they are wasting money, and if the Singapore govt spends millions to lay a power line for only 100 people, they are revising their priorities in a positive way?

      • 17 Poker Player 5 June 2012 at 11:02

        You are making less and less sense. Compare: education for the disabled, wheelchair friendly facilities, electricity for citizens who happen to live on an island vs over-sized bridge. There is a difference…

  7. 18 surewin 1 June 2012 at 06:47

    Alex, I think the Ubin residents might prefer to run their own generator than to be subjected to the rising tariffs that we pay

    • 19 yawningbread 1 June 2012 at 11:52

      But it is several times more expensive to run a generator.

      • 20 nick 1 June 2012 at 21:06

        There is a pilot project to use solar power. It was reported in the news some time ago. Not sure about how the chalet there manage the sanitation, it is quite clean and well maintained though.

  8. 21 Kelvin Wong 1 June 2012 at 12:05

    I disagree with the ubin thingie. I think its good that at least one part of singapore is as original as possible. This will allow people going to Ubin to at least experience what’s it is like not to be dependent on the national grid and water and stuff like like.

  9. 22 Randy Soh 1 June 2012 at 12:51

    Someone should send this piece to Low Thia Kiang and the WP. I hope they can factor this information in the next budget debate. Their decision to support this years budget in Parliament was very very disappointing. How on earth could they have voted in favor of a budget which put such a disproportionate emphasis on defence?

  10. 23 outdoorslover 1 June 2012 at 16:45

    Nparks used to have a visitor book in Ubin. We have idiots (my own opinion) except Mr. Au here asking why can’t we have all the modern conveniences like we used to have in our modern shopping centers. Granted Mr. Au here is trying to make a point about hospitals which I agree 100%. I had a traffic accident and I was warded because I broke more than 3 ribs. Any less than that, I have to suffer the agony and pain at home.
    Pulau Ubin is for our future generations to experience the outdoor life with all its inconvenience. Its is also safe, my Malaysian friend tells me you get robbed if you camp outdoors in Malaysia. City lights distract roosting birds and wildlife is slowing regenerating in the paradise island. Next time go to Sentosa, which is on life support until it was turned into a casino. Surely we are not asking for another casino in the north?

  11. 24 VoteforPAP 1 June 2012 at 21:56

    “Little things like television channels in hospital wards and where to wash one’s hands on Ubin can lead to much bigger questions about our priorities in Singapore. The sorry thing is that they tend to point to answers that can be quite disgraceful.”

    But are these election issues in last GE? Or even in recent Hougang BE?

    If not, why would PAP care whether you think the answers are disgraceful or not?

  12. 25 Sgcynic 1 June 2012 at 23:52

    In a country where the majority ethnic group is Chinese and the lingua Franca is English, what possessed the hospital management to have multiple cable channels in Arabic? Certainly their priority is clear. Nevertheless, we should make their spin doctors and PR earn their keep, no?

  13. 26 Rajiv Chaudhry 2 June 2012 at 10:45

    I can’t find the link now but I remember some years ago someone prominent at URA, possibly Liu Thai Kher, saying Singapore could easily accommodate 6.5 m people but it would be necessary to build HDB flats on Pulau Ubin. An MRT link has also been talked about. So, for all you nostalgia freaks out there, its just a matter of time …..

  14. 28 Anon j22W 2 June 2012 at 16:57

    I guess living without electricity and running water is a romantic concept until one actually experiences living this way for a day or two. Then even the most ardent supporters of “nostalgia” writing from their modern apartments would tend to change their viewpoint. I am sure the SAF have been salivating over Ubin for a long time. And I am sure they have wired electricity for some of their locations that have well under 100 people as permanent residents.

  15. 29 KiWeTO 14 June 2012 at 08:30


    an alternative reason as to why there are so many arabic channels:

    Could it be that these channesl in question are offering their content at free or near-free prices via the cable companies, in the hope of promoting their middle-east perspective on events?

    eg: Al Jazeera English; the views and opinions expressed there can be quite different from other mainstream English-language News in the world; or even more so when one crosses Language – French perspective vs UK perspective vs….

    There may be even more layers of reason/context as to why there are that many Arabic channels in a SG public hospital; to arrive at only one conclusion would be to wear intellectual blinkers?


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