Sunday, 23 September 2007

Wealth, Health, then Accessibility

My new theory of economics is that you can judge the state of a nation's development by its pavements. Based on a single observation, I have crafted this theory in the grand tradition of unitary datum point analysis.

It goes like this: First there are no pavements (you can just use the road), then pavements are added for convenience, then they are neglected in favour of cars, then they have a renaisance in the age of the health concious (joggers), climate concious (walk, cycle), commericially conscious (pedestrianised high streets) and then the socially concious with the installation of dropped kerbs for wheelchairs. The final, crowning glory stage is the addition of tactile inserts (knobbly tiles) for the blind or partially sighted to help feel the edges of roads.

Singapore is in the middle of a project to retrofit these inserts into every pavement / drop kerb. To improve accessibility generally, they are also upgrading civic center shopping areas with wheelchair ramps. I'm not complaining, there is the odd wheelchair user, but I've never seen a blind/partially sighted person on a pavement so the effective value is pretty low. Which is why, of course, it's at the end of the development cycle, when all the really useful stuff has already been done.

We now have a development model for national development which we can use for national comprison. I'm putting Malaysia (for example) about 20 - 25 years behind Singapore on this scale.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Singapore Rock & Roll

Two earthquakes in two days (closer to 2 in 10 hours) makes you think, or at least wobble on your chair. If I was closer than the +700km of these two, I'd be more concerned. Having lived in Japan induces a familiarity and hence lack of concern, although if I thought about it, I would say I am more confident of Japanese building design & construction.

The first one was around 9:10pm and induced a slow, gentle swaying to my chair for what must have been 30 - 40secs. The second at 7:10 the following morning was a repeat and at 7.8 and 8.4 on Mr. Richter's fun scale, they are impressive expressions of natural energy for the distant observer. An R8.0 quake is rated as a Gigaton of TNT equivalent which sounds impressed but rather glosses over facts like the quake was 30km underground. And it's a log scale so R8.5 is a lot bigger than R8.0 and R12 means the earth cleaves in two.

And that's it. No more drama, no damaged buildings or injuries. The office facilities dept. sent around an e-mail confirming all was well, that "Singaporean buildings are built to withstand earth tremors" and offered helpful advice in such circumstances, including the ill-phrased "buildings are not normally cleared to avoid causing panic but staff are free to auto evacuate".

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Budget, Low-cost or just Cheap?

I took a Tiger Airways flight the other week and therefore used Changi's Budget terminal for the first time. That's what it's called: "Budget". Getting there involved taking the bus to the main terminals then getting on a shuttle to the Budget terminal. If I'd know that's what it was, I could have saved myself 20mins by getting off the bus on the main airport access way and crossing the road to it.

It's a new (2006), purpose-built facility, but looks like a low, converted warehouse-cum-shed painted in bright yellow with the logo and tagline "Pocket the Difference" all over the place. "See the Difference" more like. The plaque says it was opened by the 2nd vice-minister for paperclips or something.

I think only Tiger Airways flies from there. Check-in was a 25min queue with the usual delays from people trying to check-in over-weight cases or trying to take over-large items as 'hand carry'. [BTW, I saw an extreme example of this recently at Heathrow with a couple trying to check-in 2 cases of 34 and 37Kgs. The legal maximum for a single item is 32Kgs (Health & Safety), so they had to remove 7kgs (while standing at check-in) just to get to legal, and would then still be 24Kgs over their ticket allocation.]

Departure lounge is Okay with a reasonable selection of food, drinks, dodgy souvenirs and a handy money exchange kiosk. Queuing at the gate, our documents were checked again by the same ladies from check-in and I wondered if they were the stewardesses as well (they weren't but it was shades of Bob Newhart's Grace L. Ferguson Airline & Storm Door Co.). It's a walk yourself to the plane job; no jetways. On-board, they spent 15mins going up and down the plane checking seat belts, electrical items (Airbus A310, so no phones, iPods, games etc), kids, tray tables, luggage etc. I haven't seen such dumbing down in cabin crew since I last flew on China Southern in the late 90's.

In-flight, everything costs extra (drinks, snacks) and officially they ban bringing your own on-board but it was a well ignored rule, not least by me.

The return is similar and the Duty Free shop in the luggage re-claim hall is really cheap (£6 for a litre of Gin!), so there's a huge queue being served by staff displaying a level of work disengagement normally reserved for Soviet cabbage farms.

The final security X-ray was the slightly apologetic affair that characterises Singaporean officials who know their processes inconvenience the many to catch the few. Apparently (given our port of embarkation) they were on the look out for illegal "snakes in liquor bottles". Being verifiably unencumbered by pickled reptiles, we were free to beat a hasty retreat from the yellow shed.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

China's Unsung Heroes

There are already 93 million Chinese called Wang and the number's growing (the top 10 Chinese surnames are Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Zhou, Wu). The problem is that Chinese names are traditionally 3 characters, starting with the family name, then adding 2 personal names. The Chinese Government controls the choice by publishing a list of acceptable family names. The resulting surname (or as seen in a recent e-mail: "sir name") shortage is causing confusion apparently.

The ministry's suggested solution is to allow double-barreled combinations. China Daily gives the example of a baby whose dad's surname is Zhou, the mother's Zhu, and who could therefore be called Zhou, Zhu, Zhouzhu or Zhuzhou.

Note that wives usually retain their own name but children would take the father's. We can now play the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue game where we announce the arrival of Mr. Ng and Mrs. Sung with their son Ng Sung He Ro.

You don't need double-barreled names to have problems. Everyone one I know here has problems with romanised Chinese names, most notably in e-mail where I hear daily Long/Leung/Leong or Chee/Chie/Chea debates amongst people of all levels of Mandarin fluency. Worse yet, a Mandarin Seng is a Hokkien Sing so people pronounce the same name according to their language bias.

As far as I know, my company's e-mail always uses the Mandarin romanisation but that just means they may be called something slightly different and you can't tell. A minor additional confusion is that Westerners are shown as "<first> <last>", but for some reason, Indians are added "<last> <middle>-<first>", leaving their given name in the wrong place unless they complain to the Admin and have it switched around. It's no wonder business cards are so important and exchanged with almost Japanese levels of reverence.

My chief gripe is with Chinese who take a Western name as well. While Mike Tan is easy, it may be used in addition like TAN Kuan-Hiat Mike. So he might be "Mike" at work, "Kuan-Hiat" elsewhere but you still need to be able to spell the whole thing for e-mail. It can occassionally be fun such as a lady I worked with a few years ago: Ms. Heidi Ho. Strangely, I've never forgotten her name.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

EQ & Employee Disengagement

I attended an in-house, company presentation entitled "Enhancing EQ" by an external HR consultant, ostensibly part of the company's EAP.

It wasn't a great presentation partly because the goal was to promote their business (rather than educate the audience) and partly because it's a huge topic. Having said that, I could summarize the 1 hour easily:

1. Obvious: We all have emotions / feelings.

2. Interesting: People have different emotions about the same event.

3. Crucial: Our sub-conscious plays a huge and often unappreciated role in our emotional responses.

Explaining #3 wasn't even attempted except via some trivial examples and given it is the main point, left me, and I suspect others, confused and unsatisfied. A double-whammy was that she managed to emphasise employee dissatisfaction without offering hope or remedy. At one point, when she asked what our emotional reaction to being fired would be, the room almost pulsed with a collective "woo hoo". D'oh!

This slow-motion train wreck of a presentation did contain one fascinating point, mentioned in passing, that a Gallup survey found Singaporean workers were amongst the worst for workplace disengagement. Now this needs investigating ...

The original Oct 2003 Gallup survey is for paid/registered users only.

The next best is a Singapore Commentator piece itself referring to a NY Times article (now unavailable) but adds some fascinating words on the Freudian psychology of bullying bosses (which is a topic all of its own).

Better, there is a Government reference in a speech by Ms Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary (Manpower) which is worth reading in its entirety, but for example, quoted:

... that Singaporean workers were among the least committed workers amongst the world's developed economies.
... some 12 % of Singapore's workers felt actively disengaged from their jobs. But this ISR survey goes further in concluding that the key driver for their lack of commitment was their disenchantment with corporate leadership

I liked the "we needed productive, disciplined workers" part. Disciplined? I think she was heading for "obedient" but missed for whatever reason.

Para #8 explicitly cites the danger of dissatisfied knowledge workers seeking employment overseas to find a conducive workplace. Ouch. This is dynamite stuff and very much on-message as far as I am concerned.

Para #16 lays into the school system, e.g.: "When the human spirit is dampened down, there can be no passion."

I give up on the excerpts; just read the whole thing. It's all true I tell you.