Sunday, July 30, 2006

Meritocracy... just lip service?

I just had a very good time catching up with an ex-lecturer from University. Given that I had gone to university very late (at the age of 26), he was rather close to me in terms of age.

I found out I had topped my year in one of my subjects... but I never got the top prize.. which was awarded to the person who was 2nd.

I am shocked.

Let me give you the background.

I had graduated from the polytechnic and had worked for a few years before I had been accepted to enter the University. Everybody was surprised... they had told me not to raise my hopes. Anyway, I got in. But I had another problem. I had no money. So, I pulled some strings and got myself a small scholarship. Still... I had to work very hard to go through school; I sold insurance part time, did 2 sets of accounts, and taught tuition to 4-5 children. It was tough. Because of that, my grades suffered. But I was good in ONE subject... the only subject that got me an A+.

Now I found out that I did not receive the top prize for the subject...because I didn't do well in the OTHER subjects.

I'm not upset, but I wonder what would had happened had I received the award; the award that I rightfully deserved? Incidentally, the award for being the BEST in that particular subject was given to another who scored below me, but who was on the DEAN'S LIST. It's hard to be retrospective about this, but knowing myself , I reckon that I would have worked a lot harder than I did... I would have pushed myself more...


And all this talk about Singapore being a meritocratic society... had they bothered to look (which by principle, they needn't had done, because I WAS THE TOP STUDENT), they would have realized that I deserved it... because I had done it in spite of all this difficulty.

All this from a university that proclaims itself as world class...

It's sad, isn't it?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What's rude and what's not?

Not quite spot on what's bugging me... but enough to kick off with...

July 26, 2006
Customers have a part to play in courtesy stakes

IN THE recent discussion on courtesy in Singapore, there were some complaints about rude hawkers. What I am most disturbed about is the attitude of customers towards the people serving them.
Many of us tend to be impatient when things are slow, and we make unreasonable demands and pass harsh criticism. Then we rush off with our goods without saying a word of thanks.

I am studying in Britain and the situation here is very different. The British have a tradition of being polite but what struck me most is the protection offered to shop staff. Notices are put up in many shops and pubs around Britain warning that if any customer is rude, abusive or unreasonable to a member of the staff, he would have to leave.

Campaigns campaigns campaigns... ever since I can remember, there have been campaigns.. "Keep Singapore Clean", "2 is enough" and yes, my personal favourite, the "Courtesy" campaign... and more recently the Speak Good English Movement and the Four Million Smiles thingy.

Still, today, there have been many comments about how we have fallen short in terms of courtesy.. despite our (younger) PM Lee talking about it, we continue to lapse into rudeness... Perhaps we should distil ,10-year-series style, what's rude and what's not into simple rules...

The Simple Rules of Courtesy

1) Saying "Excuse Me" does not excuse one from saying "Please";

2) It's rude to stare. So there;

3) When someone smiles at you... Smile back!.. unless you're at a bar and you don't want to encourage him/her;

4) It is NOT polite to stand close behind someone have his lunch in the hope of speeding up his meal. Similarly, don't order your food and have it delivered BEFORE you have a seat at the table;

5) If you are holding an umbrella, and it's raining, it's okay to offer to share it with the person next to you;

6) Don't pretend to fall asleep on the MRT when there is a pregnant lady / aged person / fill-in-the-blank standing in front or near you. It's so lame.. because everyone knows that you are just pretending;

7) It's is alright to hold open the lift door / any other door for other people. It's only nice;

8) Don't just brush off the blind folks selling tissue papers. Who knows? May be they DO need the money. So what if you're wrong and you're taken for a sucker? What is a buck to you?

9) Some car trying to filter into your lane? Hey, it's not going to kill you if you let him into your lane. Especially if he's been signalling for the last 5 minutes;

10) Instead of saying "Can I help you?", you could perhaps say, "Hi, my name is pc. Please feel free to look around and let me know if you need anything" with a nice genuine smile when someone steps into your shop; and finally...

11) If someone does something nice for you, it's okay to say "Thank you"...

I guess having the campaigns sometimes desensitise us to plain old common sense.


Ok guys. Let's see you come up with your own simple rules of Courtesy and share it with others. Something tells me that if we all do this conscientiously, we'll all become nicer people...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Isn't this so Singaporean?

Food for thought (pun intended :o) )... comments below.

July 17, 2006
Some Suntec food outlets up in arms
By Grace Ng

TOUGH GOING: The management met all stallholders to address grievances but some say they are still thinking of moving out. -- LIM SIN THAI

SOME tenants at Suntec City Mall's newly opened Tasty Treatz, a cluster of 'takeaway' food outlets, are in a dispute with their landlord over an apparent promise they received that a competing food joint nearby would make way for them.
About three weeks ago, 16 of the 40 stallholders there banded together to send in a petition to Suntec City Developments 'to appeal for an open dialogue' and thrash out their grievances.

They also asked for a waiver of three months' rent and more effort to be put into marketing the cluster which, they say, has been suffering from poor customer traffic.

So slow has business been that one of the 40 tenants there has decided to call it quits after just six weeks, having chalked up losses of $100,000 in that period.

'I was making only about $100 in turnover on a Saturday...I decided to cut my losses rather than continue bleeding,' said the owner of the stall that sells savoury snacks. He declined to be named.

The 10,000 sq ft joint - tucked away in a corner beside Carrefour on the ground floor of Suntec City Mall's entertainment centre - is not readily visible to most shoppers, the tenants said. A large number of them are first-time business owners.

Though business is poor, the rents they pay - from $3,000 to over $8,000 a month - are comparable to most prime rental rates elsewhere.

And they face competition from a low-priced food outlet next door.

The tenants say they were told by Knight Frank, Suntec City Mall's marketing agent, that the competing outlet would be shut down.

Now it turns out, Delights Corner - operated by Carrefour and selling snacks at prices that the tenants say undercut their own higher-end food and drink offerings - will be closed only for a short time for a revamp.

Responding to queries, Knight Frank's director of retail Sherene Sng denied that it had misrepresented the situation.

'We had said that there were discussions about the possibility of revamping Delights Corner into a gourmet concept, selling gourmet meats, fresh seafood, freshly baked breads, wine cellar. We did not at any time say that Delights Corner will be closed down,' she said.

Mr Ng Lay Pheng, Suntec City Development's general manager for marketing and property services, added that 'Delights Corner is an integral part of the cluster'.

Mr Ng said that since receiving the petition, the Suntec management has met all the tenants. 'We are pleased that with the exception of a couple of tenants, the large majority of these tenants have provided constructive feedback and suggestions to further enhance the concept.'

Some of the tenants, however, have said that they are still considering moving out, with one drinks stall owner saying that 'business has not improved in the past few weeks despite more fliers and coupons distributed by Suntec City Developments'.

Now, these are business people. People who are supposed to have done their homework BEFORE they make any commercial decision.

The strange thing about this is that these stallholders are crying foul. Too bad. Whatever is not stated, is not enforceable legally (although I realize that verbal representations can sometimes be binding. This, however, could be difficult to prove in a court of law)

Looking at this situation, though, I can't help but feel that this is a very Singaporean condition. Merchants crying foul when they themselves haven't done enough to safeguard their own position. I just wonder if that was the original motivation behind the setting up of the Suzhou Industrial Park; an evironment where Singaporean infrastructure and Singaporean rules prevail. Just so there is a glimmer of hope that Singaporean companies can survive.

It's so sad.

If I were one of the stallholders thinking, I would have realized that the Carrefour corner would post a serious threat. If I had been promised that that particular "cheap corner" would go, I would insist on having it put into a contract so that I would have a way out. If this could potentially lose me S$100,000 in 3 months, I'd better have consider everything that could go wrong.

However, it's too late now that they're there. Their options would be to :

1) take a good hard look at providing what Delights Corner does not, provide it, and then make it known that I have what Delights Corner doesn't have... the key is differentiate;
2) bite the bullet, play the pricing game and lower prices;
3) bite the bullet, take my loss, and leave...

The steps that the current stallholders have taken; complain and demand that steps are taken, doesn't quite cut it for me. I could go and negotiate, but in my opinion, I would have no legal grounds to fall back on.

Until we, as Singaporeans, realize that we must depend on ourselves to take care of ourselves and not on some omnipotent Big Brother, we will never really be the economic chilli padi that we can be.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Mid life crisis

This has been on my chest for the past few months... *deep breath*

I'm turning 40 this year... invariably, my thoughts have been drifting to what I've done with my life thus far. My wife calls it my "mid life crisis". I mean, the signs ARE there. A couple of weeks ago, I brought the whole family to have our glasses done and I was choosing a couple of new frames... so that I would look "cool". My wife gave me one strange look... "Darling.. what's wrong... mid life crisis?" One night, I dressed up to go out for a night of World-Cupping... another look from my wife... and.. before I knew it, the mid life crisis question came up again...

Guess what? It IS true.. while I wouldn't classify it as a crisis, I find myself critically evaluating myself. Tonight, the taxi driver told me about the trouble he was having finding a new full time job. The choice of words were really interesting. He talked about having his difficulties as "he was too old for a junior position" and how employers would rather prefer to hire younger, good looking women, rather than "old men like me".

Yup. Old men like me. All of a sudden, I realize that 50 is only 10 years away. All of a sudden, I feel.. mortal... I am... afraid

Afraid that I have not made much of my life. I wonder.. could I be in a better job if I had made the right decisions? Would I have had more success? I wonder if I'm a loser.

But then, I think about my family. I look at my wonderful wife and my two beautiful children and think... even if I think that I've not "done" much with my life, I've left my legacy in my children. I've made memories with them, and they will forever know that they have a father who loves them deeply.

I think about the people who love me, and who genuinely care about me. I think about the people whose lives I've touched; in my work, in my concern. I think about the woman whom I gave mouth-to-mouth resusitation to. I think about the people I've reached out to in their time of need.

My life has not been a failure. It has been a journey for me, albeit not a very smooth sailing one. I have not reached my destination, although it's not really very clear what or where it is. I will continue to do my best. I will continue to love and to reach out.

I will continue to be me.

Sorry for the ramblings; it was important for me to post this entry

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Slower Quarter Growth = More Bankruptcies?

Seems our economic activities have slowed down...

July 14, 2006, 11.08 am (Singapore time)
S'pore June bankruptcies rise to 3-month high

SINGAPORE - The number of new bankruptcies in Singapore jumped to a three-month high in June, rising by 4.7 per cent from a year ago and reversing the previous month's fall, Government figures showed on Friday.

June's bankruptcy orders - including those filed by companies and individuals - rose to 267, from 255 a year ago, the Ministry of Law's website showed.

The total number of undischarged bankrupts as of June 30 was 24,138.

Analysts say bankruptcies are a lagging indicator of economic activity.

Growth in the trade-dependent economy slowed sharply in the second quarter to an annual rate of 1.1 per cent, slower than the 7.0 per cent clip in the first quarter, as manufacturing output cooled.

Under the law, a person can be made a bankrupt by the High Court for debts of
S$10,000 (US$6,337) or more. -- REUTERS

Tempting to take this as a quick answer.

However, it seems strange... If you analyse the article, it says that the "economy slowed sharply in the second quarter". Second quarter meaning April to June. For those in the know, it is extremely unlikely that a person would be made a bankrupt in a short period of 3 months. Firstly, it takes 1 month to have a late payment... the first reminder comes from the bank, nice and friendly. The second month passes, a less friendlier letter comes... then a third month... and you get a call from the assigned collections officer... Although I'm not personally involved, I reckon that it takes at least 6 months before drastic action is taken by the bank.

Instead, do you think it could possibly be due to easy credit... especially for the lower income groups?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Singaporeans the most unhappy lot in Asia?

Interesting article about the Happy Planet Index :

July 13, 2006
Singaporeans the least happy people in Asia

LONDON - OF ALL the countries in the Asean region, Vietnam has the most to smile about and Singapore the least, according to a list of the happiest countries on the planet.
A new study published yesterday ranked the small South-east Asian country as 12th on a list of 178 nations, beating big-economy behemoths such as Britain and the United States in a survey that measured people's well-being and their impact on the environment.

Singapore, on the other hand, fared the worst of all the Asean and Asian nations ranked, coming in at 131st.

Compiled by the British think-tank New Economics Foundation (NEF), the Happy Planet Index painted a different order of world wealth.

Abandoning what it termed 'crude ratings' of countries according to economic indicators like gross domestic product, the NEF intended the new index to strip life back to the basics - measuring life satisfaction, life expectancy and environmental impact.

Island nations did well in the rankings, with the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu topping the list. 'People are generally happy here because they are very satisfied with very little,' said Mr Marke Lowen of Vanuatu Online, the republic's online newspaper.

Industrial countries, perhaps unsurprisingly, fared badly on the index - Britain came in at 108th while the US ranked 150th. Most of the bottom 10 countries were African nations, with Zimbabwe coming in last.

'The order of nations that emerges may seem counter-intuitive. But this is because policymakers have been led astray by abstract mathematical models of the economy that bear little relation to the real world,' said NEF's policy director Andrew Simms. -- AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

I went over the the Happy Planet Website to find out how they calculated the index and what I got was :

How it is calculated
The HPI incorporates three separate indicators: ecological footprint, life-satisfaction and life expectancy. The statistical calculations that underlie the HPI are quite complex. However conceptually, it is straight forward and intuitive:

HPI = Life satisfaction x Life expectancy


Ecological Footprint

The HPI reflects the average years of happy life produced by a given society, nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed. Put another way, it represents the efficiency with which countries convert the earth’s finite resources into well-being experienced by their citizens

The equation's really quite esoteric and being the philistine that I am, I don't quite get the intricasies. However, what struck me was the following :

Life Satisfaction
I understand that their methodology involved questionaires. Don't know the specifics, but if we were to just take a look around, you'll find the average Singaporean is concerned with :

- making good money, so that they can afford the "luxuries" of life (eg car, condo,..)
- putting their children through the best schools
- making sure their children become the best, thus the enrichment classes, tuition classes, other classes that will help them develop
- hopefully, with luck, the average Singaporean would have accumulated enough assets (or have good children / children in law, if I remember what Mr Mah talked about some time ago, about having good health insurance in the form of filial children) to have a good, comfortable retirement.

Unfortunately, what happens most of the time is this vicious circle :

- Work ==> Make Money (but not enough time for the family)
- Children go to best schools ==> But no time to for childhood ==> Love for learning is killed. Because parents are busy working, they concentrate on "quality time" (a common euphemism used when parent are not spending enough time with their kids) ==> Parents justify this by making sure that their children have the best, financially.
- When their children grow up, and the parents have reached retirement, they try to catch up on lost time... but lost time is just that... lost...

What results in that we have a very unhappy population... I've often observed that Singaporeans tend to be very unhappy... just go on a holiday and invariably, you'll find it's the Singaporeans who are complaining.


Ecological Footprint
The Happy Planet folks mention this is computed based on the rate of consumption versus the total resources.

I wonder if this factor also significantly affected the numbers, given that we are a nation without any natural resources except for her people (we even have to take to importing THAT given the slower population growth)


I think that numbers or how we rank in indices are really not that important... If anything, I think this a good platform to think about what makes us happy... what do we want in our lives? What's REALLY important to us at the end of the day?

I am Singaporean

My participation in the "I am Singaporean" podcasts initiated by Mr Brown and Mr Miyagi ... I do apologize for the crudeness of the recording... this was done using a basic Creative MP3 player with the volume subsequently boosted by Audacity (thanks to Mr Brown for the tip)


I am Singaporean - PC - MP3
I am Singaporean -...
Hosted by eSnips

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Great makan

Mr Wang

It was good meeting you for lunch. We should do this again soon... with a Huge Whale Shark, no less!


Sir... This product is very good for you!!!

Have been mulling over this article in the ST

July 10, 2006
Over $1m in sales but zero commission
By Lorna Tan, Finance Correspondent

ONE would have thought that achieving over $1 million in sales of financial products in just one month would mean a sizeable commission, but not for Ms Jean Lim (not her real name), a relationship manager with a local bank.

In April, Ms Lim, 23, notched up more than $1 million in sales but her commission was zero.

Her startling predicament is the result of a rigid sales commission policy imposed by her employer, in an industry where many sales staff earn large portions of their salaries from commissions.

The Straits Times has learnt that she qualifies to earn monthly commissions only if she is able to meet a minimum sales target for each of three product lines - unit trusts, structured products and insurance.

For instance, in order to earn a commission, she needs to sell $300,000 in unit trusts and the same amount for structured products each month, while the monthly target for insurance amounts to $13,000 in annualised premiums. And the overall sales generated has to total at least six to eight times her basic salary. Sales recruits start on about $2,000 a month.

To raise the commission bar even higher for employees like Ms Lim, the bank is also fond of promoting specific products as 'Product of the Month'.

Again, there is an additional sales quota for the relationship manager for these types of products which could be a unit trust, structured product or an insurance plan.

Said Ms Lim: 'It was the first time I had hit $1 million in sales and yet I received zero commission that month. I sold more than $1 million in structured products but I was unable to hit my target for insurance products.

'What can I do...force customers to buy what they don't need?' She has worked at the bank for about a year.

Banks are generally guarded when it comes to providing information on the sales quotas they impose, but a check among relationship managers showed that a multi-product target system is prevalent at several banks here.

Many banking sales staff argue that this type of compensation structure means they have little incentive to highlight warnings and disclaimers of products during the sales process - because there is high pressure to post big sales.

And this raises fresh questions about an industry push to better inform customers.

The findings of a recent mystery shopping survey conducted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore showed that out of the 100 sales representatives who were approached, only about one in 12 explained the warnings, exclusions and disclaimers of products.

Indeed, a personal financial consultant at a local bank - not the bank Ms Lim works at - said: 'If I've to follow all the guidelines, I'll be out of a job.'

Sales quotas vary from bank to bank. One foreign bank has a similar structure to that of Ms Lim's bank in that there are minimum targets to achieve for each product type, but the targets are lower, such as $150,000 for unit trusts and $5,000 for annualised premiums.

A senior executive at a bank with such multi-product target structures said the rationale was that 'every customer needs multiple products'.

Others such as Citibank and Standard Chartered Bank (Stanchart) said they do not set minimum sales targets for specific product types.

Said Stanchart's head of consumer banking, Mr Ajay Kanwal: 'We want our staff to sell what the customer needs.'

On a positive note, it appears that more banks are adopting a reward structure that is not solely based on sales targets but also includes customer service, compliance and competencies measurements.

OCBC's head of corporate communications, Ms Koh Ching Ching, said: 'At OCBC, a large bulk of the compensation for our sales staff is based on the way they service customers and not just on the volume of sales, which means their remuneration will be impacted if a customer complains or cancels his purchase.'

Hmm. Really interesting.

Let's take a look at this.

Firstly, the poor girl sold over S$1mn worth of structured deposits. Why did she not get any commissions then? Well, because she failed to achieve the minimum portfolio sales for Unit Trusts, Structured Products and Insurance. This very much reflects the way the industry has been for the past 8 - 10 years, when the banks started becoming really focused on their fee-based income.

Next, the MAS mystery shopping exercise showed that only 1 in 12 explained the warnings, exclusions and disclaimers of products. I find this result really odd... and disconcerting. With the introduction of the Financial Advisor's Act (FAA), bank sales staff have an obligation under the Act to fully disclose all the "hidden clauses", failing which there will be punishments ranging from written warnings, fines and even blacklists. What's even stranger is that precisely because of the FAA, the banks have all produced forms advising clients of the risks of these investments. These require clients' acknowledgement. Were these documents conveniently buried among the other paperwork... and snuck in? Were the remaining 11 out of 12 officially warned? Why was there no "public warning" issued by the MAS to the investing public about the results?

It's also interesting that "it appears that more banks are adopting a reward structure that is not solely based on sales targets but also includes customer service, compliance and competencies measurements". The operating word here is
solely. A few years ago, in my last incarnation as a Personal Financial Consultant, I was top in terms of customer service. So many of my clients had written in to compliment the work I was doing.... My reward? A crystal vase and some monetary incentive. What's interesting is that despite this, I was largely ignored by management for not being a "performer", having been deemed to be underperforming because I was not selling as much as the others. So, in spite of this adoption, the traditional measurement is still one's ability to garner sales!

In my opinion, I think the problem lies right smack in the compensation plan.... when you pay so much for someone to sell investment products from you... the motivation WILL NOT be in the service. Rather, it's how fast one can sell the product. Fix the compensation plan by upping the basic salary and cut the payouts on the investment products substantially, and you will wipe out a large part of the rogue behavior. The problem is that the banks are not likely to do so as this would compromise their bottomline.

The girl also says 'What can I do...force customers to buy what they don't need?'. I believe many are, if not forcing, influencing their clients to do precisely that. This is where the danger really lies; when lines between being a financial "adviser" and that of being a "salesperson" is truly and totally blurred. Many a client have bought because they trust me. In my mind, this is really dangerous which can send clients down the path of financial disaster.

To be fair though, not all the banks are like that. While I'm currently not working directly in the sales of investment and insurance products (I could not get myself to sell a product if I didn't think it was good for my clients), I know that my current employer does not push targets like others do. There are constant internal campaigns to always do what is right, to always put the clients first and to not proceed with something if it's not good for the clients.

I'm proud to be working for an organization like that. As for the others, until there is a substantial change in the compensation plans, customers will have to assume that these relationship managers would only be keen to sell their products and the term Caveat Emptor would apply.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I'm back.


It's been a very busy period for me... I was on leave, but still working most of the time. In fact, it's been much more stressful than when I'm at work full time. I've also started work on a (re)new(ed) project. More details about that in the next few months. Then, after I officially got back to work.. it was targets targets targets. It's been a tough time...

I've been looking on with interest at the mrbrown saga. What's happened is very evident, and no sense in debating and being sarcastic to death. The fact is, the ruling party is further distancing the very electorate that it was trying to woo this particular elections. The thing is, people will remember come the next elections. Coupled with the good work that some of the opposition parties are doing, the PAP is setting itself up for even more challenges in the future.

While the mrbrown issue was concerning a really funny (largely) satirical piece published in a newspaper, I can't help but feel that this is the beginning of the process of "managing the (internet) channel of communication" mentioned earlier by one of the new MPs. One thing I must say about Mr Brown has kept his head held high above all this.. and kept silent. That's the way to do it dude!

To date, I've consciously chosen to keep my observations of the political landscape to myself, especially when criticisms and observations by other bloggers very often reflect my thoughts. Part of the reason is that it's been my philosophy that there's no point talking an issue to death. Second? I happen to think that many of the folks at the PAP have good hearts; that their intention is to sincerely work towards a better Singapore. It's not perfect, but I believe that however the issues are discussed / handled, it would not be perfect anyway. To me, the intentions are important...

However, what with the many happenings in the political arena, I'm tempted to change and really start giving my 2 cents'. I don't know... let me think about it and let's see how it goes.

My renewed project? Well, that's taking the form of a new blog in addition to this one and will involve a lot of work over the next 12 months....

It's late now; am planning a short nap before the Finals tonight...

Go France!!!

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