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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

ST Forum letter: "Cashless payment: Pro-active examples IDA should copy"

Not going to ramble much on this because the issue was never followed up by the relevant authorities. They were probably glad that it was all "hot air".

IDA should enforce Cepas compliance, not leave it to the market Cashless payment: Pro-active examples IDA should copy

I refer to Last Saturday's reply by the Infocomm Development Authority's (IDA) reply on e-payment adoption (Ms Jennifer Toh, "Working towards complete cashless convenience"; Saturday) on e-payment adoption was puzzling.

(new paragraph) She said The IDA states that card issuers and merchant acquirers require a business agreement to enable terminals to accept all Contactless ePurse Application Standard (Cepas) cards.

(new paragraph) This means that business entities businesses have effectively hijacked been allowed to hijack a customers' customer's choice of which Cepas card to use.

I find this response to be bewildering. On one hand, So while the IDA says it wants to promote an e-payment culture. On the other, it appears to be taking a "hands off" approach in the process. This Such an attitude actually hinders true competition in the e-payment market, even though it reeks of government heavy-handedness.

When the local telecommunication market was liberalized liberalised, IDA required all telcos to ensure that subscribers from to one telco could contact those from rival telcos seamlessly. It imposes imposed stiff penalties if telcos do did not meet this requirement.

If the telco market had followed what is required for Cepas cross-acceptance, subscribers would need to have their own private agreements to contact family or friends who use subscribe to other telcos!.

Another example of how government intervention leads has led to improved market fairness is the Media Development Authority's (MDA) new stance on set-top boxes.

(new paragraph) MDA will soon require programming from any provider providers to be available on any set-top box. This is regardless of whether the customer has subscribed with to SingTel or Starhub.
(new paragraph) Customers thus benefit from more programming options and lower costs of acquiring set top boxes. They are also freed from being subject to their content provider's whims and fancies.

I urge IDA to should learn from its telco liberalization liberalisation experience and MDA's set-top box policy in promoting e-payment with Cepas cards.

To that end, I suggest a carrot-and-stick method to ensure a level playing field.

- (new paragraph, removed bullet point) Carrot The carrot: provide Provide subsidies for Cepas equipment makers who that ensure acceptance for of all Cepas cards (EZ-Link ez-link, Nets Flashpay, etc and so on).

- (new paragraph, removed bullet point) Stick The stick: penalize Penalise card issuers and merchant acquirers who that restrict customers to using Cepas cards from only one issuer.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Why doesn't the President sing the National Anthem?

About a week after National Day on 9 August 2010, I submitted an enquiry to the Istana's feedback form. I won't elaborate on what it is because it's self-explanatory.

Firstly, please note that this message is not a joke. I'm asking it in all seriousness because it is something that many people have noticed, but no one has the answer to.

I've noticed that at every National Day Parade, during the singing of the National Anthem, the President is shown to be not singing it. This year, the camera was focused on him at the tail-end of the anthem, but his lips were visibly sealed.

With all due respect to His Excellency, I was wondering if there is a protocol that says that the President is exempt from singing the National Anthem.

Thank you for your time.

Yu Hui
After waiting about a week and not receiving any response, not even an automated "thank you", I sent the above to the Straits Times Forum and Today Voices. Till today, I have not seen this enquiry published in either of the mainstream newspapers.

So I'm just posting it here on the hope that someone will chance upon it and know the answer that is on a lot of people's minds:

Why doesn't the President of Singapore sing the National Anthem during National Day parades?

Monday, 9 August 2010

Personal dreams shaped by 45 years of Singapore nationhood

Singapore flag created with <canvas>
In half an hour, the National Day Parade will begin with great pomp and circumstance at the Padang. For the next two-and-a-half hours, the nation will be treated to the annual celebration of Singapore's independence. This year is our 45th National Day (i.e. Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965) and the theme is for all Singaporeans to live their dreams.

What were my dreams?

When I was a young boy, my dreams were really quite materialistic. Be rich. Own a thriving business. Be famous. Or, you know, be a politician (which is akin to being a celebrity in Singapore). Looking back, I had perhaps been subconsciously indoctrinated into the whole "5Cs" dream, i.e. to have Cash, Condominium apartment, Credit cards, Car and Country club membership.

What wasn't subconscious was that to attain that dream, I would need to study hard, earn straight A's in my exams and get a degree from a reputable university.

The thing is, by the time I entered university, I had more-or-less realized that being rich and famous wasn't really all it was cracked up to be. Perhaps it was because of where I studied, but I became more idealistic. My dreams were now of intangibles like freedom and personal happiness and gaining knowledge outside of books.

But reality set in and those dreams were brushed aside for more pragmatic demands, like earning a steady income, rising up the corporate ladder, and -- ultimately -- marrying and having children.

The funny thing is that those are exactly what any work-a-day person can hope to achieve if he follows the "study hard, get straight A's" route. Everyday, there are stories of people who've achieved the 5Cs by not following that straight and broad path. Everyone else with a university degree has become an "office monkey".

What's my dream now?

Today, my dreams are more down-to-earth. Save enough to own an apartment and hopefully not a hole in the wall. Grow my nest egg that I'm not a beggar when I'm old and incapable of being productive. And yes, I still want to have my own family with the girl of my dreams.

What other dreams are there?

There is that dream of being my own boss. Which feeds back to my youthful dream of being rich and famous, though I think at the back of my mind, as long as I don't go into bankruptcy, then that should be fine for me.

Or the other dream of being a filmmaker. Yes, I know, that's the path to poverty in Singapore unless you are blessed with a sizable inheritance. I figure that all I really need is to make one film to satiate myself.

One other dream is not really a dream, but a passion to inculcate environmental responsibility in everyone. (This coming from a person who still takes long baths.) Which hopefully leads to the path of becoming a politician, because nothing happens in Singapore unless a person in Government says so.

If I don't achieve my dreams, can I still be happy?

Someone asked me the other day, "Are you happy?" My immediate answer was "yes".

Though my first instinct was to say "No," though not because I am unhappy. I am always reminded of this story that I studied in university. I can't remember the title or the author or the characters, but I know that it's a Greek tale. There was this wise man who was quite rich and famous. So the king asked him if he was happy. He said "no". Later on, at two other different times in the wise man's life, even as life got better for him, he would still say "no" when the king asked him if he was happy.

Exasperated, the king asked him why he was unhappy if he had everything that the gods had granted. To which the wise man said, "I can only know whether I am happy or not after I've completed living my life." By this, he meant that you could not know when is your happiest moment till after you've lived every moment, and then you can look back and identify the happiest one.

My personal reading is that, while happiness is important, it is far better to be content with what life has given me. So my real answer to that person should be "I am content." I can't really complain about my life. As long as there are people worse off than me, even in prosperous Singapore, I feel that I don't have a right to complain.

Dreams are lofty. I am content.

Happy 45th Birthday, Singapore!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

SBS Transit online feedback really works well!

I have new found respect for local public transport company, SBS Transit. And it's because they've shown that online feedback don't go into a corporate blackhole, but are actually responded to and acted upon by real human beings.

On 9 June, when taking SBS 14, I found that I had been incorrectly overcharged. Not just that, I had been overcharged according to the distance-based fares that are only supposed to start in July. (I wonder if any other passengers realised this error too.) As soon as I could, I went to SBS Transit's website and submitted my feedback on the error through their online form.

(By the way, SBS Transit, please fix your form. It really doesn't make sense to split it into two pages.)

That day, I received two emails from SBS Transit. The first was a standard computer-generated acknowledgment email that I immediately consigned to the electronic bin.

But the second email was from Sophia Tan Yen Peng (no title provided). A real human response from SBS Transit. Sophia stated that SBS Transit would be investigating the matter, then gave a cookie-cutter response about how I could submit a request for a fare refund.

After reading Sophia's email, I figured that that was the end of the story for me. Except that it wasn't.

Today, I received another email from SBS Transit, this time by Asrina Binte Asari (Head, Customer Relations). Apparently, there was a technical glitch (which sounds like the equivalent of a doctor telling you that you're sick because of a virus) and SBS Transit has taken measures to resolve it (the doctor prescribes antibiotics).

But the gesture was very much appreciated. It's comforting to see that a big organization takes the time and effort to have someone reply to little ol' me. And the complimentary travel voucher was a nice touch too.

Oh, and I was advised to file my refund five days after the incident. It's been almost two weeks already, and frankly, I thought nothing of the refund after getting Sophia's reply. If you're nice enough to respond to me personally on behalf of your organization, I'm nice enough to forgive your trespass.

The thing that really touches me is that this isn't the first time that I've received an actual human response from SBS Transit or that action has been taken based on my feedback. The first time was when I had complained about a bus which air-con was leaking so badly it was as if it was raining inside the bus. The next day, that bus was nowhere to be seen at the usual time. And when it reappeared, it was as dry as one would expect the interior of a bus to be.

SBS Transit has proved, at least for itself, that online feedback don't disappear into the ether. I hope my experience encourages others to submit their feedback as well. And maybe together, we can make public transport slightly more comfortable for all in Singapore.


Friday, 23 April 2010

ST Forum letter: "Make MRT system more user-friendly"

In anticipation of the opening of the Circle Line to our MRT system and (somewhat) fresh from my trip to Japan, I banged out the following letter and sent it off to the Straits Times Forum. I hadn't really put in much effort to writing it, and felt that its standard was below what the Straits Times would accept.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I saw it in the papers! As I had mused over Twitter, it might have been a slow letter day.

Here's a comparison of what I had emailed to the Straits Times and how it was finally published.

As a modern, world-class subway system, the MRT provides a fast and efficient mode of transport for Singaporeans and visitors. With more Circle Line stations opening in mid-April, this is a good opportunity to take another look at the usability of our MRT system With the increasing sophistication and complexity of the MRT system, it may be timely for the authorities to review its user-friendly aspects to cater to first-time users and our aging the ageing population.

1. Circle Line station numbers: (removed paragraph break) The Circle Line uses yellow as its line colour. However, the station numbers are in white text, similar to what is used in other MRT stations.

(new paragraph) Unfortunately, the white-text-on-yellow does not provide a sufficient contrast. As a result Consequently, it is difficult to make out the Circle Line station numbers from afar. This The problem can be remedied easily solved by outlining the text in black, which would then to make the station numbers stand out.

2. Train colours for all MRT lines: (removed paragraph break) When we only had two MRT lines, it It was easy to distinguish the train lines between the when there were only two, even when making transfers. Adding a third line, the Circle Line, could potentially introduce confusion to confuse visitors. In a few years, we will have a fourth line, the Downtown Line.

(new paragraph) To easily make it easy to identify the trains that serve the various lines train we want, I suggest taking a leaf from what we should copy other subway systems which use a better colour scheme for easy identification.

(new paragraph) There, not Not only do the train lines have unique colours, but the trains themselves are also are coloured similarly.

In our context then Singapore, a North-South train would could be coloured red, an East-West train coloured green, a North-East train coloured purple, and a Circle Line train coloured yellow.

(new paragraph) I realise that this This would clash with the respective train operators' brand colours. However, I think , but it is even more important that our trains are easily identifiable to commuters, which will then make subway MRT travel more convenient and efficient.

I hope that the Land Transport Authority and train operators will seriously consider the above suggestions to improve our outstanding MRT system.
Moral of the story:
  • Keep it brief, stupid!
  • Use short paragraphs. Two sentences per paragraph at most. Silly me for forgetting this from my university journalism class!
  • Even though its public transport, the public doesn't own the buses or trains.
  • Don't suggest next steps for the government. I guess then that they have to read between the lines to know what to do next.
With regards to that last point, I have a feeling that no action will be taken. My letter was published nearly two weeks ago, and I've yet to see a single response from any agency, be it the Land Transport Authority, SMRT or SBS Transit.

So my joy at seeing my letter in the papers is bittersweet. My effort has probably ended up in some bureaucratic black hole. Ah well. "You can't always get what you want."


Monday, 1 February 2010

Thinking about enclaves in Singapore

There has been a lot of talk lately about enclaves in Singapore. Or rather, the prevention of forming enclaves in Singapore, because it could lead to national integration problems. This followed on a rather intense debate about the importance of declaring one's ethnicity, which the government claimed was to remind Singaporeans of their roots.

(Which begs the question: Aren't we supposed to have set roots in Singapore already? But I digress.)

So let me tell you three stories.

Cooking up an Indian storm
Someone related this tale to me. Back when he was studying in the United Kingdom, he lived in a dormitory that had quite a number of Indians. Every weekend, the dormitory would be filled with the smells of Indian curries, wafting from the freshly cooked dishes in the kitchen. He joked that the smells probably irritated the non-Indians. I don't know if those on the receiving end would have thought it to be a joke.

Easy-to-find Indonesians
Where I was studying my undergraduate degree, I used to take the afternoon bus to get across campus. Every day, that bus would be filled with Indonesians sending them to and from their apartments. And it was always the buses to a particular location that would be filled with Indonesians. Everyone on campus knew that the sizable Indonesian student population lived within a few blocks just outside of campus. And no one batted an eyelid. Like I said, it simply made them easy to locate.

Singaporeans under one roof
In another university city, apparently almost all of the Singaporean students lived in the same apartment blocks. There were a few hundred Singaporeans then out of the thousands of university students there, so it must have been a sight to see all of them congregated in one location (like the Indonesians at my university). If a new Singaporean student entered that university, he would invariably end up living in one of those apartment blocks too. It was just the natural thing to do.

What's the point of the above stories? Besides being anecdotes of enclave-like living overseas, they also highlight something that's very basic about human beings: we find comfort in being around people like us. That's the basis for how societies were formed. People who related with one another lived and interacted together.

The need to be with familiar faces generally becomes stronger when one is overseas. As a stranger in a strange land, being around people like yourself makes the transition of living overseas easier to bear.

Which is why, in Singapore, our foreign nationals prefer living near one another. That shouldn't come as a surprise. It's what we'd do if we were in their situations. It's an organic formation of community.

The dark side of living among your own is that it's easier for you to ignore the rest of that society that you reside in. Putting it simply, if I can speak Mandarin freely with those around me and still be able to work, live and play, then why would I want to learn English to communicate with those who are outside of my circle, except for commercial necessity?

I suppose that's what has the government spooked about enclaves. And it has history to justify its rationale for breaking up these enclaves. Singapore's turbulent past saw one race fighting another. Breaking up these homogeneous communities was the government's way of preventing any more of these outbreaks, by reducing their bases of power.

I don't think our communities of foreigners would start fights with one another today. But if a particular enclave grows to a substantial size, it could become self-sustaining, and Singapore could see Little Japan, Little Russia, or maybe a new Chinatown and Little India.

The government thinks that that is undesirable for a small country like Singapore, which cannot afford the (physical and social) space to support so many homogeneous communities.

But breaking up an enclave is easier said than done. For one thing, there's the practical difficulty of identifying the foreigners, particularly if they rent their apartments and thus leave no property trail to trace.

Also, if enclaves are the organic formation of communities, then the government will need to build new communities artificially, which could lead to resistance from both locals and foreigners. It has already undertaken steps to integrate foreigners more closely into society, though it seems to be implemented more from the foreigners rather than the locals. And it's a long and hard road to build an heterogeneous community.

Ideally, we'd say, "live and let live". Foreigners have their rights to live where they want, subject to practical restrictions like housing availability. If an enclave results from their living together among their kind, so be it. And deal with the problems later.

I guess the question then is: Can Singapore afford to deal with enclave-related problems in the future, if they do arise? I don't have an answer, but I hope a smarter person than me has already worked through the various possibilities.