Archive for the 'business and employment' Category

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’

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’

Clean hands to eat poisonous vegetables

The toilet at this coffee shop is quite serviceable

I wonder how many people are as surprised as I was to read that a coffee shop had its licence suspended for a day over the absence of soap in its washroom. Gee, if that’s the case, I said to myself, hundreds of food establishements should be shut down. Dirty, broken and ill-provisioned toilets are everywhere in Singapore. Continue reading ‘Clean hands to eat poisonous vegetables’

There was once a buffalo here


Making small provisions to enable people to upskill through bite-sized training courses will not be enough to cope with a world in which lifelong continuous learning and career switching has become necessary — I argued this in my previous post Spreading a bit of money to “position Singapore for the future”. But in the interest of length, I left untouched an even bigger question: What if, for all the retraining, adjustments and preparations we make, there simply isn’t enough work to be had? It’s a question that’s not only for Singapore.

Continue reading ‘There was once a buffalo here’

Spreading a bit of money to “position Singapore for the future”


Singapore was mentioned favourably in a recent Economist magazine leader.

But the biggest change is to make adult learning routinely accessible to all. One way is for citizens to receive vouchers that they can use to pay for training. Singapore has such “individual learning accounts”; it has given money to everyone over 25 to spend on courses from 500 approved providers. So far each citizen has only a few hundred dollars, but it is early days.

— The Economist, 14 Jan 2017, Learning and earning: Equipping people to stay ahead of technological change

We will probably hear more about this in the coming weeks. The Committee on the Future Economy is supposed to have completed its work by the end of 2016, and anytime now, its report should be released. This committee was tasked to “keep the Singapore economy competitive by helping to position Singapore for the future, as well as identify areas of growth with regard to regional and global developments.” Continue reading ‘Spreading a bit of money to “position Singapore for the future”’

Auxiliary thoughts about auxiliary police

A Certis Cisco auxiliary policeman and two neighbourhood vigilantes shooing away foreign workers

A Certis Cisco auxiliary policeman and two neighbourhood vigilantes shooing away foreign workers

The news this week is that Certis Cisco — a fully-owned subsidiary of sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings — is hiring Taiwanese for its auxiliary police force. Here are four thoughts that I had, leading on from this key news point. They are: (1) What are the implications of hiring Taiwanese? (2) Why must they be graduates? (3) What are the powers of auxiliary police? (4) Another example of rentier economy?  Continue reading ‘Auxiliary thoughts about auxiliary police’

Rebuilding from the rubble of 2016 voter-quakes

Pic from BoredPanda/EFE

Pic from BoredPanda/EFE

2016 will be remembered as one of those break-point years when an old order started falling apart. The worrying thing is that there is no sign that any better new order will be born.

Still, 2016 had its uses. The series of victories by what had been unlikely personalities and movements — Rodrigo Duterte winning the Filipino presidency, Brexit, and of course, the Donald Trump victory, have been cathartic. Some good commentary in various media have followed as a result, full of soul-searching and self-criticism. Continue reading ‘Rebuilding from the rubble of 2016 voter-quakes’

Zika erupts in Singapore: how we made it worse than it might otherwise have been


‘Cover up!’ screamed the immediate reaction I noticed on social media. The Health ministry had just announced that they have found 41 cases of Zika infection, barely 24 hours after they said that there was one confirmed case (on Saturday 27 August 2016). How can the number jump so fast without them knowing about these other cases earlier — was the implication behind the shouting headlines. They must be hiding facts from the public! Continue reading ‘Zika erupts in Singapore: how we made it worse than it might otherwise have been’