As a child, I remember my dad sitting in front of the television with his eyes glued to the screen, watching what I vividly recall, 20-odd people chasing after a ball – with my dad giving the occasional euphoria when a ball enters a net. Of course, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t always seem excited whenever a ball goes into a net, but all I remembered was my dad’s appointments with the television gave me the license to stay up late into the night.

Needless to say, I grew up not enjoying what I subsequently learnt was football – or soccer, depending on which part of the world you are at. Alas, when I was in varsity, the football craze came about and there was nothing much I could do except to join in the late nights with my friends. Gee… even my female counterparts got glued to the telly, which I suspected was the works of their boyfriends.

Eventually, I succumbed to the evil side my peers and decided to watch the game seriously for once. Seriously – because instead of watching 22 people or so, running after a ball, I decided to learn more about the sport. Frankly, I didn’t get to retain much of what I learnt. “Off-side”, “throw-in” and “penalties” are probably all that I can remember now, and frankly, I can’t really remember what an “off-side” is, although I am sure I know what a “sunny-side up” is :)

However, as recent as a couple of years back, my dad lost interest in watching football. I remembered calling up Starhub to purchase what would have been the remaining few telecasts of the matches ‘live’, before I headed off out of the town for a short trip – amidst all the late nights that my friends would have engaged. I figured that it’d have been better for me to spend some late nights elsewhere shopping :)

Just as I thought this would have been a good idea, I found out to my dismay that… English is no longer the language of the world – at least not during football season. What in fact is, is the language of football! Pubs, night markets and even 24-hour convenience stores all seemed to have that little telly broadcasting ‘live’ matches of the omniscient sport.

*palm faced*

Fast-forwarding to today… soccer – which I clearly remember was quite affordable in the last decade, somehow became a multi-billion dollar industry. Well, perhaps it had always been this way, but I guess it was only when news broke between Singtel, Starhub and Fifa + World Cup that I was introduced to the capitalism behind it. The thought of consumers having to fork out potentially up to a hundred bucks for ‘live’ matches almost irks me… although the reality today is that it’s probably going to be a lot more cheaper.

What people will not be looking forward to – I suspect, are the late nights that are going to happen during ‘live’ matches: people – probably ah beks, gathering at coffee shops with glasses of Tiger beer and peanut shells spread all over the table, people who have probably never eaten McDonald’s burgers for their entire lives glueing their eyes on the LCD TV inside 24-hours McDonald’s restaurants, or perhaps pubs filled to the brim with yuppies who drive flashy BMWs. Of course, I am just generalizing. There is however, one thing that I can’t refute… and that is the pseudo-sense of euphoria that you get whenever the entire neighbourhood screams in ecstasy when their favourite team scores a goal.

“And it’s a gooooooooooooooooooooal !!!! What a beautiful pass that was….. !” Oh yeah… going to be hearing that soon :)

Well, yes. To a certain extent. It helps in making you panic, especially so when you are a holder of a scholarship.

I am not a particularly bright student and my grades came through sheer hours of hard work. Sometimes, the hard work would only get me a pass – and there’s probably no way for a, ahem, self-proclaimed biologist to do well in subjects like… distributed computing. The best I have scored was 89 out of 100 for that latter subject – and mind you, that was below the mean, mode and median (I affectionately call it “3M”; on the side – if you score below the 3M, you are pretty much out of the league; an academic warning is imminent) of the class.

Yes, it was that bad. Nothing could have (or rather, is going to) prevent an academic warning from coming my way.

But you see, academic warnings are retrospective. That is, if I have done poorly for a subject, there’s nothing I can do to remedy that. The grade is in, and hence the repercussions of that is a lower CGPA. It’s easy to go down, but hard like hell to climb up. I should know that better. If the focus is really on letting the student learn, then perhaps some form of help should have been rendered to struggling students *way* before the exams; and this leads us to the dreaded common tests. For me, it’s more like a common common test – and no, it’s not a typo because there are really professors who take the term “common test” quite literally – something that you do “of frequent occurrence” (to quote http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/common).

Yes, I have common tests every week, and I have common tests every other week; overlapping with the ones that happen every week; and to top it all, I now have a lecturer who is going to give what she calls a “mini exam”. With the exception of 1 or 2, most lecturers will mark our scripts, give us the marks (if they even do) and tell us how we should “work harder” – without any hint of what we can do. Worse, we don’t even know where we went wrong! I borrowed books, shipped books from amazon.com, run though notes that were made available by Google on the Internet – and I still ended up scoring way below the class 3M.

Why?

It’s probably because I have no inkling of what’s going on during class – and mind you again, I’m not someone who sleeps in class or surf the Internet or do anything else except listening to the lecturer. However, the topic(s) could have encompassed so many sub-topics that in itself is a course by itself, then the learning curve is going to be very, very sharp. I am not sure how many can empathize with me.

So, there’s continual assessment that’s meant to mark out (yes, I hate to use this word) the weaker students which helps to – and quoting The Mainstream Media, “advise someone to improve on his academic performance and urging him or her to do his or her best in the coming examinations” is not really going to help much. What the student will get is added pressure because he or she knows that he or she is, in a pretty crude sense, “screwed”.

And I heard that the institution that’s giving out the academic warnings also send copies of it to the parents of the scholarship holder; well, maybe not for all scholarships, I hope.

I have had friends who have received academic warnings after the exams and while I am not sure about what the content is (I have no wish to know it on first account), they didn’t seem to be able to do anything. Well, that again, is because the warnings are retrospective. Since the subjects/difficulty of the subjects vary each semester, there’s a chance that a person may do well in the next exams… or “screw up” just as badly. Still, I don’t see how “warning” a student can help in a pragmatic manner.

So, ideally, when a student does badly in a particular exam, academic warnings are send out to him/her asking them to seek help if necessary. Personally, I can’t figure out how that’s going to help me (or anyone) except that I would “wake up my senses”. However, if my senses are already woken up in the prior semester, and have already put in my best, then I can either pray (or work 100x harder, of course, this may have psychological repercussions) that the next set of subjects are going to be “easier” or “something I am familiar” with, or… perhaps I should just sign the Withdrawal Form.

While I admit that administering to over tens of thousands of students is no mean feat, but issuing out retrospective academic warnings to students (who are going to take a different set of subjects the follow semester) is not going to help much except to give them “two tight slaps on the face”. If the school (meaning, from the administrative office to the lecturers) is not going to be supportive of the student in terms of helping him learn, then no amount of academic warnings is going to help and we should all just retreat to e-learning. In this case, the school can save on hiring lecturers and probably use the money saved to send out more academic warnings.

And this happened to one of my friends.

So, what happened was, he/she (hereafter “he”) invested with some company and was promised returns within a certain duration. When the returns didn’t come in, he made noise and was told that there would be a delay. Obviously (in this story), the delay was never ending and he tried to contact the persons-in-charge but to no avail. As a last resort, he made a police report.

Well, many months later, he was shocked to receive a Letter of Demand (hereafter “LOD”) from the lawyers representing the organization that he has:

  1. acted in a manner that is threatening and embarrassing to their client
  2. defamed their client
  3. trespassed their client’s compounds
  4. extorted money from their client

The first thing that came to my mind was… some major leading organization!!!

I thought my friend had invested in some “investments” and that since they have since gathered every now and then at some hidden corners, they have effectively acted in a threatening manner that is also embarrassing to the organization. It was also reported that the organization has misrepresented the bonds and so it sounded like defamation. At the same time, some of them may have gathered at the organization’s headquarters which is also considered trespassing.

Last but not least, their demand for compensation is akin to extortion. I mean… they invested money knowing the risks… how can they ask back for money down the drain right? Isn’t that extortion? How can the investors do that? It’s investment risk wat!

So, which organization is it?

Read the rest of this entry »

Euthanasia… Hmm….

Perspectives November 6th, 2008

Euthanasia is a topic that brings about much debate, and when our minister brought it up into the open, I knew that it was just a can of worms waiting to burst open and spilling it everywhere – including the ceiling with a ceiling fan that helps to increase the splatter width.

Now, even the Archbishop of the Catholic churches have came out to condemn euthanasia, citing that it’s suicide and hence immoral.

As a doctor-to-be in the not-too-near future, I am torn in between. Perhaps I had been struck by this topic when I was in secondary school education – that euthanasia may be a solution for suffering patients; and I sort of grew up with that thinking. The argument back then was that a doctor’s role was to alleviate pain from a patient, and if death does that, then it should not be ruled out as a viable option.

Then again, as an impressionable teenager, I believed everything that was told to me, and death didn’t seem like a bad thing back then; of course, until I witness the passing of my friends from road accidents.

Even then, putting someone, or something to sleep for good is a really tough choice. I had a critically ill kitten once and although I knew it was suffering, I begged the vet to try different medications on him. Eventually, I was told that my kitten will not be able to make it, but yet, I let it die a natural death. There was no euthanasia administered to it because… I didn’t know if it was prepared to die.

Of course, legalizing euthanasia will come with its own set of problem as well. There’s of course, fear that there will be misuse by the doctors and worst of all, some smart guy might think that euthanasia is a good way of controlling the ageing population! God forbids if that ever happens!

I thought it was a little strange that the minister were to bring this topic up in such times of financial crisis. However, if historical data were anything to go by, then it would seem that there’s a chance that euthanasia would be legalised viz-a-viz the legalization for the compensation to kidney donors.

So, will this soon be a quick solution to our ageing population? I am not sure, but I am not expecting anything to change drastically anytime soon.

I had a personal experience with the DBS Relationships Managers (RMs) a few years back when I was utilizing their counter services at the then Raffles City branch (which had since closed). I was ushered to one of the cubicles of the RM and he started telling me about investing my money. At that time, the market was bad, and he was introducing a product that works for that; meaning, when the market goes down, I earn.

I didn’t know what that was, and even if it was shorting the market, I didn’t know there can also be a product for it. Nonetheless, after a while, I decided not to invest because he was asking for tens of thousands to invest, which I obviously didn’t have.

Since then, my mum had also been asked by the RM to invest recently. However, I have no idea what she invested in and I have not spoken to her for a long time. She might have been burned for all I know, but when I first knew about her investment, I was quite furious because she has totally no idea what she’s investing in and it’s not her fault. The RM simply told her that it’s a form of investment with GUARANTEED returns. Oh come on, there’s NO SUCH THING as a GUARANTEED RETURN!

If you are guaranteeing 0.3% p.a. or something along that line, yes, I might buy it; but 5% p.a.? Even my AIA financial advisor didn’t dare to guarantee such a return for me. Then again, if he did, I would probably switch my financial advisor right away. Speaking about that, it’s probably a fact that the RMs disappear from the banks faster than the Starbucks barista can make an iced lemon tea. The next time my mum went back to the bank to ask them about her investment, the RM who attended to her was no longer there, and her balance in her port folio was near zero. Where’s the integrity?

However, as the saying goes, a fool and his money are soon parted. I would not call the investors fools, however, I would say that the RMs made fools out of them by not informing them of the risks that are involved in investments. In fact, Maybank also advertised a fixed deposit of about 3.8% returns during the last Comex Show. Upon further inquiry, I found out that there is no fixed deposit as per se, but rather, an investment plan by another insurance company. Integrity? Presenting facts? I only see false selling.

I do not feel angry about my mum’s loss. In fact, she’s still investing her money monthly because of what the first RM told her – that eventually, the money will “grow back”. See? A fool and his money are soon parted. A bigger fool and all his money is owned by the bank (editor: I am so tempted to write this: A fool and his money is all belongs to the banks [sic]). I foresee that 10 years down the road, my mum will still have zero in her investment port folio because the RMs at the POSB/DBS bank are not doing their job. They are treating all their customers like fools. I don’t think they have contacted her since she invested – and  paper statements do not count because she can’t make her own decisions based on whatever’s written in there!

So, as for the DBS debacle, the RMs have definitely made fools out of the investors, and it’s unlikely that any sound organization will step in to intervene. Investment – regardless of whether the investor knows about it – has its own risk. One might think that I am being heartless – but can you imagine how things will be if, say, the MAS insists that DBS refund the investors their money?

“Gain, I keep; loss you pay”?

I don’t think the investors, especially the elderly ones deserved what they got. However, if a government financial institution steps in to demand for compensation, I think it sets a precedence which will not be good for anyone. The next time some investors lose some money, the same thing might happen again and they may demand for compensation for apparent ignorance.

The people in Hong Kong are not getting it any better too, even as the banks buy back at market rate. Come on, how much are the bonds worth now anyway? Singapore, at best, might go down this road, but it’s no consolation to anyone. As for responsibility, the RMs might eventually be blamed for this – but they may no longer be around to “bear the responsibility”.

There used to be a time when the minority may suffer because of the implementation of some policies. However, when it comes to distance-based fares, it seemed like the majority will suffer as "only 4 in 10 will benefit from it" – if the report below is anything to go by. Another article also highlight that the hub-and-spoke system is the way to go. In simple English, it means having more transfers to get to your destination.

In fact, according to analysts, the hub-and-spoke system can be as effective as direct services and the Ministry for Transport seems to believe in it. In the event that they do buy into the idea, commuters will end up having to do more transfers to get to their destinations. In such a scenario, direct bus services may jolly well become "premium services", which belong to a separate tier of bus fares. Simply put, commuters will end up paying "premium fares" for "premium bus services". In SBS, there’s already the "Express", "Fast Forward" and "Premium" services which serves this group of commuters.

Eventually when the transport system in Singapore adopts the hub-and-spoke system, more people will end up having to do more transfers because some direct services will either be removed or be rebranded as "premium services". When this happens, then more than "4 in 10" will benefit from distance-based fares because there will be more transfers. Statistically, the ministry can use this to prove their point in the future that distance-based fares will then benefit the majority of commuters.

As for the rest of the commuters who believes in having less or no transfers, there will be the premium bus services who will serve them. These commuters may end up paying more for for their journeys. In such a scenario, the fear of benefiting only the minority of the commuters in a distance-based fare system will then be unfounded. Eventually the transport companies may benefit from such a system too because some of their current direct bus services will end up becoming premium services which they would then be able to charge more for. As for the "revenue loss" resulting from distance-based fares, I would say that "benefit" is relative and when premium bus fares go up, then any fare lower than the latter fares are "beneficial" to the commuter. Commuters will then have to decide if that "few minutes saved" from a premium bus service is worthy of the premium fares they pay.

At least it will still be cheaper than taking a taxi. =)

Distance-based fares ‘fairer way to go’

But GPC deputy head is worried about six in 10 direct-service users having to pay more

By Yeo Ghim Lay & Maria Almenoar

CHARGING public transport fares based on distance travelled is a much fairer way to go, say commuters and members of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport.

At present, a commuter who transfers between buses or from a bus to a train pays more compared to someone who uses a direct service that travels the same distance to get to the same destination.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) announced that under a new fare structure to be phased in by next year, both commuters will pay the same fare.

Calling distance-based fares ‘fair and equitable’, GPC for Transport deputy chairman Ong Kian Min said: ‘A commuter might want to avoid a certain stretch of road that might be congested, and this gives him the option to choose his route.’

However, he has reservations about how six in 10 commuters who take direct services might wind up paying more.

MOT had explained that a reduction in fares for those taking transfer routes will lead to a loss of revenue for public transport operators, and this would have to be shared by both operators and commuters.

Disagreeing with this, Mr Ong said: ‘This is not justified…fares should be maintained for those taking direct services now. I would like to know why the operators cannot absorb the cost first and let the system settle down first?’

MOT believes four in 10 commuters will end up paying less with the new fare structure, and Singapore is not alone in going down this road.

Seoul introduced distance- based fares as well as bus service reforms in 2004 and commuter behaviour changed as a result of the reforms, said MOT.

Hoping for a similar result here, it said that a number of commuters choose not to make journeys involving transfers now because of the transfer penalty.

‘So with through fares, more people will take transfers,’ added a ministry spokesman.

Commuters who have to make a transfer to get to their destination will benefit the most with the change.

Financial analyst Grace Lau, 25, who takes a bus from her home in Upper Serangoon before transferring to a train to get to her Shenton Way office, said: ‘Commuters shouldn’t be penalised for the route they choose as one could be faster than the other but the distance might be the same.’

But it is not so clear if the new distance-based fare system will motivate commuters to change their travelling habits.

While a commuter might have several options – either through a direct service or transfers – to get to his destination, the distance for each must be the same for fares to be uniform.

Many commuters also said that travelling time and convenience are just as important as the fare, when choosing a route.

Food stall assistant Sally Lim, 53, said: ‘I prefer taking a direct service instead of transferring from one bus to another. It can be very inconvenient.’

While commuters like Madam Lim are choosing to stick to their tried-and-tested route for now, a revamp of the land transport system still under way could see more direct services being withdrawn.

Transport Minister Raymond Lim had said in January that transfers are a key feature of a hub-and-spoke transport system, which commuters are set to see more of in the years ahead.

This means fewer direct services, which are considered inefficient and expensive.

Commuters can expect better service as a result as MOT has set public transport operators a new target – 80 per cent of commuters must complete their journeys within an hour, by 2015, up from 71 per cent now.

ghimlay@sph.com.sg

mariaa@sph.com.sg

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/Singapore/Story/STIStory_256987.html

And a primer on the hub-and-spoke system:

Transfers key to hub-and-spoke transport system

By Christopher Tan, Senior Correspondent

THE fare restructuring exercise announced by the Ministry of Transport on Thursday throws up two key questions.

Why is it embarking on this monumental task? And what does it mean for public transport commuters?

To answer these questions, we need to go back in time, before there was an MRT network. Bus commuters paid full fare for each and every trip they made. There was no such thing as a ‘transfer rebate’.

When MRT trains started rolling in 1987, bus services were changed to integrate better with the rail lines. Because of that, people lost some direct bus services, and more needed to make transfers.

Hence, in January 1991, transfer rebates started – 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children and students. This was to lessen the cost burden of changing from bus to bus, bus to train or vice versa.

The keyword was ‘lessen’, not ‘remove’.

Seventeen years on, the Government feels the cost burden of making transfers should be removed. The new thinking is that fares should be based on the distance of the journey – regardless of whether transfers are involved.

As right as that sounds, it is not the complete rationale for undoing a 17-year practice.

There are other practical considerations – like capacity. As the population grows, more buses need to be deployed. The best way to deploy them is through a hub-and-spoke model. While we have some semblance of a hub-and-spoke system today, it needs to be enhanced.

As Transport Minister Raymond Lim noted in one of his first speeches early this year, a hub-and-spoke system ‘is the right model for our public transport system’. The alternative is to have many direct services, which cannot work in a compact city.

He cited an example: ‘Let us take 20 origins and 20 destination points with a hub in the centre. With a hub-and-spoke system, you will have 20 buses going into the hub from the origins and 20 buses leaving the hub to the destinations, or 40 bus services to run this system. Take away the hub, replace it with direct services, and you will need 400 bus services.”

A hub-and-spoke model is cost-efficient and, if executed properly, just as fast as direct services.

Transfers are part and parcel of a hub-and-spoke system. And hence the move to make transfers far less punitive.

The ambition to go hub-and-spoke goes hand in hand with the planned liberalisation of the bus market to allow entry of new players.

This will happen after the Government takes over as central route planner.

What will all these mean to the commuter? In a nutshell, he will have to learn to live with more transfers. It is highly possible that the pattern of travel will involve bus to train or vice versa. Bus-only commutes will be far less common when new MRT projects like the Downtown Line and Eastern Region Line come onstream by around 2020.

Will it cost more? For some, yes. Others, no. But if a hub-and-spoke system is more cost-efficient, it should not cost more to commuters on the whole compared to one with more direct services.

But implementing it well is key. The hope must be that with more operators joining the fray, and with the Government playing its role as central route planner well, the commuter should be served better.

christan@sph.com.sg

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/Singapore/Story/STIStory_256991.html

Article extracted on 13th July 2008

My friend and I revisited this topic today and I asked if she was for or against organ trading. Her answer was quite straight forward; she was for it – only if no lives are being sacrificed in the process because it is pointless to sacrifice a life just to save another one. Some people might be thinking – it couldn’t be that the donor would want to sacrifice his life in exchange for money that he couldn’t spend, would he?

Well, not exactly. However, we do know that there are already syndicates which are harvesting organs (legal or otherwise) for sale in the black market. Yes, that darkens everything, doesn’t it – the existence of syndicates that goes round harvesting for organs. Remember all those chain emails that you used to get that warns you about being drugged in a pub and waking up only to find yourself in a tub of cold water and a note that tells you to call 911 (or 995 in Singapore) immediately because your life is in danger? Yes, these emails depict of the dark scenario that may happen if syndicate activities were to go up. They warn of people getting drugged and having their organs stolen from them.

Of course, many of us shrug them off as being urban legends, but these could jolly well be true one day. However, just before you think that I am trying to convert you to be against organ trading, you might want to think through a few questions first.

Now, imagine if you are on dialysis, 3 times a week, 4 hours each time. Imagine if you have to be on the waiting list for an average of 9 years. Imagine spending 12 hours each week on the dialysis machine, over 600 hours a year and more than 5400 hours over 9 years. If you are a regular graduate paid about $150 for a 10 hours work-day, that’s about $15 per hour, which means your opportunity cost is about $81000. If your dialysis costs $1200 per month, that works out to be about $14400 per year and $129600 for that 9 years. Adding that up, that’s about $144000 (that’s one hundred and forty-four thousand) in total costs just waiting for a donor kidney; meaning, there’s no guarantee that you don’t have to wait beyond 9 years, and providing nothing happens to you while waiting on that dialysis machine.

Someone comes up to you, makes an offer of $30000 for someone else’s kidney excluding his medical well-being. Let’s put in another $20000 for hospitalization and medical fees for both of you. $50000 for a kidney – will you take it?

Perhaps you have integrity and feel that you are young and can wait. You feel that the time spent on the dialysis machine is nothing compared to someone losing his kidney over money. Moreover, you don’t know the circumstances leading to the donor giving up his kidney. Now, let’s assume that the donor himself comes up to you, and makes you an offer. Same figure, but no middle man. Every single cent you give him goes to his pocket.

Still not convinced?

Let’s just say without your money, the potential donor might just starve. He has a sick mother to take care of and needs money for the medical treatments. Your money will do him good. Even if you are half way into the waiting list, $50000 is still much less than how much you’d have to spend and that gives you and him a new leash of life. If you don’t take his kidney, he may never find another suitable recipient. His family suffers and you continue your wait. A wait that may see no end.

Instead of putting things in such a morbid light, let’s look at it from the pure economic aspect. Organ trading is now illegal because money is involved. If you take the money out of the equation, then it becomes "an act of kindness". Do you, as a waiting organ recipient, really expect to receive an organ for free? Would you be "thick-skinned" enough to receive an organ for free even if you have the means to compensate the donor for it but are not doing it because "organ trading" is against your morals? How about taking a back seat and rethinking about the whole thing again.

Of course, if organ trading becomes legalised, the syndicates may have more business and perhaps what’s said in the earlier chain emails might come true. People might really start waking up to find one or two of their kidneys, or their liver, or any other harvestable (editor: there’s no such word as "harvestable", but you know what I mean) organs missing. That is over the line, but if syndicates are involved, then there’s nothing to stop potential recipients from hunting down organs through the syndicates; legal or not. Of course, some will think that if organ trading is legalised, potential recipients will not feel that bad paying for an organ. There is, however, a difference between paying and seeing the donor, and just buying an organ.

That’s where legislation should step in.

With the recent upheaval on the organ trading cases, some countries such as India are toughening laws on organ transplants, requiring recipients to bring along their donors when seeking treatment in India. As in the article below, farmers are being duped of their organs by syndicates for small amounts of money. While I am not in any position to comment, at the end of the day, a holistic approach has to be taken. What’s written here is just meant to provide different perspectives to a problem that will continue to run its own course in the black market.

India gets tough on organ transplants

It will toughen laws so that foreigners seeking treatment must find donors from their own country

By P. Jayaram, India Correspondent

NEW DELHI – INDIA plans to tighten its organ transplant laws and put more curbs on foreigners who come for such operations.

Under proposed amendments to the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, foreigners, who make up 30 per cent to 40 per cent of these transplants – mostly kidney and liver – would need to find donors from their own country.

India has also proposed enhancing jail terms and fines for violations of the Act.

The move comes six months after a multi-million-dollar kidney transplant racket was busted in Gurgaon, an affluent Delhi suburb.

The racket involved a network of doctors, nurses, a clandestine hospital run from a three-storey house and mobile testing labs.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said then the government would amend the organ transplantation Act to enhance penalties for the illegal organ trade.

Under the Act, only immediate relatives – parents, siblings, spouses – can donate an organ to the patient. It also allows a person to donate organs ‘by reason of affection or attachment towards the recipient or for any other special reasons’, a clause that experts say is grossly misused.

The amendments propose doubling the jail term for doctors, donors and recipients involved in illegal organ transplants from five to 10 years, and raise fines from 10,000 rupees to 500,000 rupees (S$315 to S$15,800).

For others involved in running transplant rackets, the amendments propose to increase the jail term from seven to 10 years and the fine from 500,000 rupees to 1 million rupees.

According to health experts, the proposed amendments will make it mandatory for foreigners having the transplant operations in India to get donors from their own country, with proof that the organs are from their relatives, in line with India’s laws.

Experts say that one out of every 10 Indians – or about 100 million of the country’s one billion population – suffers from some form of kidney ailment, creating a huge demand for such transplants.

But the Gurgaon kidney racket showed that many foreigners were also coming to India for illegal transplant operations.

Investigations point to the involvement of politicians, bureaucrats and police, besides doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, in the racket.

It was also found that many poor labourers and farmers were duped into parting with their kidneys for 10,000 to 20,000 rupees each, and that the organs were then sold for 1.5 million to 2 million rupees.

pjay@sph.com.sg

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/Asia/Asia/Story/STIStory_255581.html

Article extracted on 8th July 2008

Update: If you are looking for a list of the ERP gantries and the charges, you may retrieve it here. I was thinking of linking the one provided by Street Directory, which comes with pictures! But I scared kenna sued for linking…

I was on the PIE towards Tuas when I noticed a familiar pair of pillars being raised near the KPE exit. Yes, I was right. It is part of the familiar structure that we all lovingly know as the ERP gantry. It not just strikes fear in car owners, but ordinary folks like myself who need to flag the occasional taxi in a rush. Speaking of which, I tend to make myself heard whenever I pass an ERP gantry…

In a taxi… talking to taxi uncle when the taxi goes under the ERP gantry

ERP: *beep*

Me: Ouch…

Uncle: Bitten by ERP ant ah?

Not funny, taxi uncle; not funny at all. Indeed, every time I pass by a gantry, I remember the millions that the government has spent building them. At the back of my mind, I kept wondering on one question: How do they recover their Return On Investment. Well, I am only being logical – when the government spends money, I am sure they will want to get something good out of it – and it’s only natural that they do; if only they put in as much, or more vigilance when investing in overseas projects and businesses – some of which had been in the red for quite a while. Of course, it’s all part of a business decision and that risks have to be taken. So, what really is the business decision behind the ERP gantries? If the minister claims that they are losing more money than gain, then there has to be some gains that they are getting, else it just doesn’t make sense to build that many gantries.

Now, this is probably one of the most uninsightful posts of all because I seriously have no idea. Some have claimed that the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) that car owners have to purchase returns the money into the kitty, but there is, of course, no substantial proof. However, if Mr Lim Swee Say’s words are anything to go by, then the government suffers a net loss of S$40 million based on the supposed fact that they will collect S$70 million a year from the ERP increase while at the same time, losing S$110 million due to the 15% reduction in road tax (Source: AsiaOne Motoring, http://www.asiaone.com/Motoring/News/Story/A1Story20080625-72781.html).

Of course, nothing is mentioned on the road tax in following years.

So, is the government really serious in reducing congestion? If they do, then why don’t they nib the problem at the bud and reduce the number of COEs issued every fortnightly? Reading on another article gave a better insight; that the government is progressively shifting from vehicle ownership taxes to usage charges. This means that there is a chance when road taxes will hit a minimum – but that’s also when we pay ERP charges not just for congestion control, but as a means of road taxation. In simpler terms, the honey will come later.

On a bigger perspective, the government is laying grounds for a future method of road taxation, where literally, every road pays. They pay the government, that is. eventually, there will still be road tax, albeit a minimum sum, but the moment you drive on major roads, that’s probably when road taxation starts since it’s supposed to be part of a usage charge.

In the mean time, the government or LTA is probably used to the initial complaints that they hear every so often whenever they declare a raise in ERP charges or erections of new gantries. They have a bigger goal in mind and that is to move towards usage charging eventually. Everything else is secondary for now.

Of course, PR blunders are hard to miss whenever the government or agencies try to find a logical explanation for their actions. This comes in the form of a newspaper article which was first published in The Business Times on 23rd June 2008 (Source: AsiaOne Motoring, http://www.asiaone.com/Motoring/News/Story/A1Story20080623-72438.html). It was on how ERP actually helps businesses, and it said:

‘ERP changes are necessary to manage congestion effectively,’ Mr Yam (editor: Mr Yam is the LTA Chief Executive) explains . ‘Faster travel times lead to overall lower transport costs and ultimately help businesses to remain competitive. Congestion also adversely impacts family life as people spend more time on the roads.’

I thought this was a rather catch-22 statement. At the rate things are happening, faster travel times can only be achieved if ERPs are implemented, which in turn increases the cost of operation of businesses. This will have a spill-over effect which will see some businesses switching to public transport, which need not necessarily lead to faster travel times since there is now more people on public transport. There are many ways to remain competitive, and if we assume that travel timing is the same across all companies (since all of them are using the same roads as each other), the other way to do so is to offer competitive pricing. If faster travel times is achieved through ERP – which increases the cost of operation… then where does the competitiveness come from?

Of course, what LTA got right is on the part that congestion adversely impacts family life as people spend more time on the roads. However, having longer ERP timings may also mean that more people spend more time in office just to avoid paying – which in turn means family life is also affected. Public transport? Well, it’s just as congested now although I am happy that they have improved on the frequency of the trains. The difference between now and then is that now, we have lesser people waiting on the platform, but the trains are just as packed. I guess it really depends on where you are taking the trains from.

Now, I wonder when the next transport fee hike is coming…

Expect to see more of these gantries in coming months

New KPE will have 16, taking grand total from 60 to more than 80

By Christopher Tan, Senior Correspondent

EVEN as motorists cope with five fresh electronic road-pricing (ERP) gantries along the Singapore River and extended operating hours at others in the city from this week, more gantries are set to come onstream.

Besides the half dozen announced for spots along roads such as Commonwealth Avenue, Alexandra Road and Serangoon Road – to go up by November – 16 more are planned for the new Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE), which will run 12km from East Coast Parkway in the south to Tampines Expressway in the north. Three quarters of it will run underground.

When it opens fully on Sept 20, it will have the most ERP gantries among all roads here.

According to a Land Transport Authority (LTA) spokesman, however, they will not all be switched on at the same time, unless the average speed dips below 45kmh in the tunnels.

The new gantries form part of a massive ERP project the LTA recently awarded to MHI Engine System Asia, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Worth $83 million, the contract includes 27 new gantries, all to be up by this year, the replacement of some older gantries and maintenance works.

The cost is higher than the $80 million spent on Singapore’s 60 existing gantries, the first of which went up 10 years ago.

Asked about the huge expenditure, the LTA said construction and materials costs had risen over the years. Each three-lane gantry now costs $1.5 million, compared to $1 million before, said the spokesman.

The expansion of the ERP network will see almost 90 gantries here by the end of the year.

Five gantries went up in areas such as Toa Payoh Lorong 6 and Geylang Bahru in April. Like those for the future KPE, it was decided they would only be switched on if traffic speeds dipped below the 45kmh threshold for expressway speeds. All have since been switched on.

The 45kmh threshold will be adjusted over the next few months. To stave off ERP, 85 per cent of vehicles will have to attain the optimum speed, instead of half the vehicles now.

‘For safety reasons, it is essential that we keep traffic in the tunnel smooth-flowing,’ the LTA spokesman said of the KPE.

Asked if that meant ERP on the KPE may be operational over weekends as well, the spokesman said no decision on that had been made.

But retired traffic planner Joseph Yee expects the KPE gantries to be switched on before long. He explained that when the LTA conducted traffic forecasts using computer simulations, it found that without congestion pricing, ‘the KPE would be jammed quite soon after it opened’.

Mr Yee expects the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE) now being built to have ERP too. The $2.5 billion MCE is a 5km underground road connecting the KPE and ECP to the Ayer Rajah Expressway. It is due to be completed by the end of 2013.

Motorists are not looking forward to the fast-expanding gantry network.

Said housewife Beverly Wong, 38: ‘That is terrible. Food and fuel prices are increasing. This isn’t helping.’

To ease the pain, a 15 per cent cut in road tax will kick in this month; public transport services have also been beefed up to make buses and trains a more viable alternative.

Editor of Torque motoring magazine Lee Nian Tjoe, 30, expects some drivers to be priced out, but he says the majority will continue driving into ERP areas.

Aircraft sales engineer Ng Tzong Sheng, 30, says he does not need to drive into ERP zones, but he wonders whether ‘average speeds’ could be improved by better synchronising traffic lights and carrying out roadworks only during off-peak periods.

christan@sph.com.sg

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/Prime%2BNews/Story/STIStory_255258.html

Article extracted on 7th July 2008

Back in the old days not too long ago, people were commenting how the liberalization of diesel-vehicles would be a good alternative to petrol-powered cars given that diesel engines are way more advanced than yesteryears and that it is not as pollutive as it used to be. Lobbyers were possibly eyeing on the fact that diesel costs much lesser than petrol back then – by as much as 60 cents per litre; and one of the legislative issues holding back ownership of diesel-powered cars was the high tax that is imposed on these vehicles. In fact, it was reported that the Singapore government should look into relaxing the rules and

SINGAPORE is an acknowledged leader in transport management – but its policy on diesel-fuelled cars is increasingly looking antiquated.

While the Republic’s Certificate-of-Entitlement (COE) quota system to control vehicle growth and its Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system to manage vehicle usage have set the pace for other cities, Singapore is lagging behind in its policies towards diesel-powered cars.

Singapore’s rules for diesel engines were set many years ago when diesel was a dirty fuel. The modern diesel engine and fuel is actually very clean, even compared to gasoline engines.

Current policies, however, do not take that into account. While most commercial vehicles are diesel-powered, few private passenger cars are, with owners discouraged by high charges.

Private users of diesel-driven cars must pay a diesel tax on top of a road tax, which is six times the road tax, or four times for a Euro IV-compliant diesel car. Not surprisingly, only seven out of the 470,000 cars sold here last year run on diesel. This is in sharp contrast to many developed countries, where there is an even greater emphasis on being green. In Britain last week, the government launched a major campaign to promote greener driving, and its underlying message was that a diesel car was the best option as it would travel at least 20 per cent further than a similar car using an equivalent amount of fuel. Almost half the new passenger cars in Europe run on diesel.

It is notable that Japan, which has also frowned on diesel cars, has signalled that it is now prepared to give diesel a second look, given the advancements made in diesel technology. Diesel-powered cars, of course, are not the only alternatives to petrol-driven cars.

Hybrid vehicle technology, which couples the internal combustion engine with an electric motor, will play an increasingly important role as costs come down and as hybrid technology becomes available on a broader range of vehicles.

And the government here has been receptive of hybrids and other vehicles powered by alternative fuels. It offers a Green Vehicle Rebate worth 40 per cent of the Open Market Value (OMV) – or the base value – of a vehicle that can be used to offset the upfront taxes, in order to help motorists who are willing to switch to environmentally friendly vehicles, such as CNG, electric and petrol-electric hybrid cars.

But it can be argued that diesel-fuelled cars, because they are far more advanced in development compared to hybrids or other alternative fuel-driven vehicles, offer the best immediate alternative to petrol-driven cars. Indeed, major manufacturers like BMW, Mercedes and Audi have taken the diesel engine to petrol-beating heights. New-generation diesel engines are not only as clean as petrol engines but also more efficient.

Singapore – which prides itself in having a flexible policy-making regime that keeps pace with changing developments – should consider re-evaluating its stand on diesel.

Source: One Motoring, http://www.asiaone.com/Motoring/Motorworld/Others/Story/A1Story20070813-21739.html

However, diesel price has now crossed the $2 mark, bringing the prices of diesel closer to that of petrol, with it just being 22 cents cheaper than the lowest grade of petrol. This, together with the high tax that comes with private ownership of diesel-powered vehicles, makes diesel-powered vehicles less attractive for private owners. In addition, this will affect taxi drivers as well as bus operators who will be hard-pressed to raise prices again.

This will of course have adverse effects on commuters who depend on such transport, particular school children whose parents have seen at least 2 school bus fee hikes in the past year. In the evening news, it was reported that bus operators may look into transporting workers of companies instead – which may be more profitable than transporting school children.

Parents have also hinted at the possibility of taking their kids off school bus transportation during the last fee hike. With the price of diesel crossing the $2 mark, they may well have to brace themselves for it.

Diesel price crosses $2 mark

By Jason Hau

THE cost of diesel breached the $2 mark yesterday after the latest round of pump price increases.

Shell raised the pump price of petrol by five cents and diesel by 10 cents at 4pm.

When contacted last night, none of the other three petrol companies – SPC, Caltex and ExxonMobil – had raised its prices yet.

With the latest adjustments, a litre of 98-octane petrol costs $2.36 before discount. The 95 grade is now $2.286, with 92-octane at $2.253. A litre of Shell’s V-Power premium fuel will set you back by $2.479.

Diesel, which is used by buses, taxis and heavy vehicles, now costs $2.033, the first time it has crossed the $2 mark.

Diesel prices have gone up by 80 cents in the last 12 months, a 40 per cent increase and the most among the five main fuel variants at pump stations here.

This latest round of price hikes is the 14th since July last year. It comes as crude oil prices reached another record high of US$146.69 (S$199.35) per barrel two days ago.

A Shell spokesman explained that crude oil prices are ‘not the only reason for petrol price increases’. Strong demand from China and India, as well as the increase in costs for transport, and political volatility in some oil-producing countries are all factors that may affect pump prices.

The higher diesel prices are likely to affect the transport sector the hardest.

Private bus operators had earlier been reported as saying that they have raised prices by at least 10 per cent in the last few months, largely because of rising diesel prices.

Mr Lionel Lim, owner of Bedok Transport, foresees hard times ahead for the whole private bus industry as a result of the increasing prices.

However, as the bus operators have only recently raised prices, Mr Lim said that it is ‘unlikely that they will increase (prices) again’.

Motorists here are also switching to cheaper alternatives. Some have given up their cars and moved to public transport. Others have downgraded to smaller cars or two-wheelers.

A growing number have opted for hybrid- engine cars or retrofitted their cars to run on compressed natural gas.

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/Singapore/Story/STIStory_254799.html

Some may think that CNG may be a good alternative, but there are other issues to consider before mounting that gas tank in your boot – including the space required, as well as the breaking even with the cost of installing a CNG tank into the vehicle. Attempts to extract more information from the CNG website at http://www.cng.com.sg returned an "Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage" error. However, it is understood that the conversion to a CNG tank costs approximately S$3.5k and there is also a bi-fuel (CNG + petrol) option available. More information of this is available at http://www.scantruck.com.sg/cng.htm.

However, it took an ST Forum writer to figure out that the price of CNG had been going out. Quoting his letter to the ST Forum:

… I am surprised that the price of compressed natural gas (CNG) has also risen. Before May 1, the price of CNG at Mandai CNG station was $1.18 per kilo, after which it went up to $1.38. Less than two months later, Smart, which runs the Mandai station, has again raised its prices to $1.49. The CNG station ran by SPC at Jalan Buroh fared slightly better, with its prices rising to $1.38 only on June 15.

In addition, the writer, David Tan, asks if the government is doing anything to control the price hikes, stating that the price of CNG goes up every time there is a petrol price hike. To this, Paul Lim, GM of Sembcorp Gas replied that:

… the market price of CNG is pegged to the price of high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO), which is a derivative of oil. Over the last six months, the price of HSFO has increased by around 35 per cent, resulting in a corresponding increase in the cost price of CNG. Our company has absorbed the bulk of this increase at our retail outlets at SPC Jalan Buroh and on Jurong Island, and even today, the increase in our pump price of CNG remains significantly lower than the 35 per cent increase.

Moreover, Paul Lim stated that "even with the adjusted prices, in terms of energy equivalence, Gplus CNG is still roughly 45 per cent cheaper than diesel and almost 60 per cent cheaper than 95-octane petrol". It is also interesting to note, in the statement above, that the company has absorbed the bulk of the 35% increase of HSFO at our retail outlets. I can’t help but wonder what is the margin that petrol companies and Sembcorp Gas works on, that allows the latter to absorbed the bulk of, mind you, a 35% increase.

Nonetheless, with prices going up across the board, and not sparing CNG, commuters may be forced to rely more on public transport – which is also not spared from the fare hikes but usually distributes the increase across a wider ridership. While the 3 to 5 cents per trip may not mean much to most of us, this works out to be about 12 to 20 cents on a 4-trip day, amounting to about $6 per month. I won’t do the math, but for the poorer families or those with more kids, this may work out to a hefty sum when combined with other hikes of products or services that’s affected by petrol prices (practically everything).

The implications are overwhelming but as a consumer, I can only brace myself and hope that any "bonus" from the government is good enough to cushion the impact. Getting your vote will also help cushion the impact. =)

ST Forum letter from David Tan:

Why has price of CNG gone up?

IN RECENT months, there was constant news on rising petrol prices, the reason given being escalating oil prices all over the world.

However, I am surprised that the price of compressed natural gas (CNG) has also risen. Before May 1, the price of CNG at Mandai CNG station was $1.18 per kilo, after which it went up to $1.38. Less than two months later, Smart, which runs the Mandai station, has again raised its prices to $1.49. The CNG station ran by SPC at Jalan Buroh fared slightly better, with its prices rising to $1.38 only on June 15.

Rising petrol and diesel prices are blamed on rising oil prices around the world, but what is the reason for the recent increase in CNG prices? Are Smart and SPC out to earn more profit now that CNG cars are fast increasing in numbers?

Is the Government doing anything to control such price hikes? On the one hand, the government encourages Singaporeans to use CNG cars by offering rebates, but on the other, CNG stations increase their prices whenever petrol prices go up.

Perhaps Smart and SPC can clarify their reasons for the increases as I do not recall any news about escalating CNG prices around the world.

David Tan

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/ST%2BForum/Story/STIStory_252535.html

ST Forum reply from Paul Lim:

Price of CNG pegged to that of oil derivative

AS THE operator of the Gplus CNG pump at SPC Jalan Buroh station, Sembcorp would like to thank Mr David Tan for his feedback last Saturdy on the price increase of compressed natural gas (CNG) (’Why has price of CNG gone up?’).

CNG is a relatively new fuel for Singapore drivers and the proportion of CNG drivers remains small. As Singapore’s first retailer of CNG, we would like more Singaporeans to consider switching to this economical and environmentally friendlier fuel.

In view of this, we have worked to keep the price of Gplus CNG affordable. However, the market price of CNG is pegged to the price of high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO), which is a derivative of oil. Over the last six months, the price of HSFO has increased by around 35 per cent, resulting in a corresponding increase in the cost price of CNG. Our company has absorbed the bulk of this increase at our retail outlets at SPC Jalan Buroh and on Jurong Island, and even today, the increase in our pump price of CNG remains significantly lower than the 35 per cent increase.

Nonetheless, readers may be interested to know that, even with the adjusted prices, in terms of energy equivalence, Gplus CNG is still roughly 45 per cent cheaper than diesel and almost 60 per cent cheaper than 95-octane petrol.

Hence it represents an economical alternative fuel for Singapore drivers.

Paul Lim
General Manager
Sembcorp Gas

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/ST+Forum/Story/STIStory_253693.html

Article extracted on 5th July 2008

There had been recent rants by netizens on how our dearest foreign talents have been taking up jobs, and then settling down, and then having kids (yeah! achieve government’s goals) and finally decide that – hey, why don’t they settle down in Singapore as well. If I were the government, I may be extremely happy because it does seem like a plausible solution to an aging population in Singapore. Retaining them is of course another problem which… I am not prepared to look into yet. =)

Personally, I know 2 siblings who studied in Singapore for quite a while and they finally got their Permanent Residency (PR). They got their parents over (on some pass) and were thinking of getting their own flats. I was a little surprised because, if I am not wrong, singles under the age of 35 are not allowed to own HDB flats (government built apartments). At least that was true for Singaporeans. What follows is a whole chain of speculation and may not be substantial at all.

We (a few of us) guess that the only situation that allows unmarried siblings under the age of 35 to own any HDB flat is when their parents pass away. Of course, there may be 101 other clauses that allows them to own flats, but let’s just take a simplistic view first. The 2 siblings I know are definitely not at or over the age of 35 and their parents are still around – so what makes it so special?

Then we speculated (again) that it could be because they do not have Singaporean parents (Singapore Citizens or PRs), they could be deemed to be in the same scenario as Singaporean siblings whose parents are no longer around (we are not sure if migrated parents count – but it would seem a little weird that parents do not bring their kids along; unless of course you are talking about male children who have to serve compulsory National Service). Of course, at the end of the day, it might just be a single clause that simply allow PRs under the age of 35 to own HDB flats, but we were just trying to get the rationale of it.

So, does it mean that if the parents of the 2 siblings are Singapore PRs, they would not be able to own HDB flats? I am actually not sure, but I think it is highly probable. I am not good with HDB purchases, but does anyone here have any first hand experience on this?

We may not be totally accurate on the rationale part, but don’t you think we deserve a vote today? =P

More HDB homes sold to PRs

By Jessica Cheam

MORE permanent residents (PRs) in Singapore are snapping up Housing Board (HDB) flats to beat rising rents.

Latest figures from local property agencies show that almost one in five HDB flats sold recently went to PRs.

Housing experts attribute this to a combination of rising rents and low interests rates as the driver of this demand.

The number of flats sold to this group is a two-fold increase from a year ago, when PRs bought up 10 to 15 per cent of homes sold, said PropNex chief executive Mohamed Ismail.

Source: Straits Times Interactive, http://www.straitstimes.com/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/STIStory_254529.html

Article extracted on 4th July 2008