More than a Fair(mont) Stay

(I have not intended to write reviews in some time, but this is quite the exception(al) stay! Because this was not intended, pardon the dearth of photographs.)

Fairmont has been a household name in the luxury hotel scene alongside competing brands such as Hilton and Marriott. The first time I stayed in an entry-level Fairmont room was a certainly great stay, but to me, it lacked some finesse compared to a comparable entry-level Sofitel Ciy Centre room.

Originally, I wanted to return an entry-level room whilst being filial to my mum, but there was a shortage of rooms. So I was offered an opportunity for a room upgrade to the Fairmont Gold for approx $150. The Singaporean reviewer’s question: can I make the extra dollars up whilst still enjoying the staycation?

Amuse-bouche: Room Impressions

Greeting our entry to the Fairmont Gold Room is automatically-opening curtains and some treats.

This made us somewhat perplexed, because we did not make a call previously. Mum and I looked at each other, wondering whose birthday it was! We later learnt that Fairmont Gold probably meant more than just room upgrade + club access.

The Fairmont Gold Room features a king-sized bed.

Artfully designed, with a leather board and bedside lamps, including a full range of controls, to boot. From the comfort of bed, we could control the curtains, our individual lighting and the full room lighting. Mum said the controls were too complicated though!

In many hotels, the bed faces the TV. However, for the Fairmont Gold Room, the city greets us.

Viewing the city from bed. Note the work desk and lounge chair by each side.

From our room, we could get gorgeous views of the city. In the day time, one could see the economic prowess of Singapore:

I was once also a member of the “CBD Club”!

Meanwhile, at night, a stunning city backdrop greets us. A little pity the Fairmont is not as high as the Swissotel, hence resulting in slightly obstructed views. (note that the Fairmont and Swissotel are two of the few hotels where every room has a good balcony)

Fans of F1 would likely have snapped this room up during F1 season. Cars will speed through Raffles Boulevard (main road you see near the Singapore Flyer in this photograph) before making a sharp left down Nicoll Highway, before another right up Stamford Road.

A friend reminded me to have a look at the bathroom amenities. Artful use of mirrors and glass give the illusion of a spacious bathroom.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

The obligatory bathtub shot. Note that the entry-level Fairmont rooms do not have bathtubs, so this was a welcome upgrade!

Everyone can do with a bathtub soak.

A friend reminded me to check for bathroom indulgences. Beyond the usual bath amenities, we are provided a loofah and bath salt. This time, I did not need to make a call to “Royal Service” (Fairmont’s version of room service) to request for bath salt.

Amenities photographs are a little boring. Partially because we know it’s likely to be good, but also due to supply chain inconsistencies, it’s normal to note amenity brand changes too. Usually Fairmont provides Le Labo amenities but we had Christian Lacroix amenities. Looks more elegant, so I wonder if it was a step up, or an amenity substitution.

Club Access

Only Fairmont Gold room and Suite guests are allowed to the Fairmont Gold Lounge (Fairmont’s version of club access) at Level 25. Yes, even if you are an Accor platinum member. This is analogous to how premium airlines like SQ block privileges even from fellow Star Alliance members such as SilverKris lounge access. For those who are on the right side of the deal, this makes for an intimate, exclusive sanctuary.

Since I brought my mother for a staycation, there was little need to use any of the business facilities. However, these were the relevant features of club access:

  • Free evening canapés and cocktails
  • Free breakfast (as an alternative to Prego’s)
  • Taking lots of pictures that not every guest could take.

Quick shot of the quietest part of the lounge:

Real: books, seat, decorations. Not real: fire.

Because I did not originally plan to review the hotel, I have too few photos of food. However, food options included:

  • Two salads
  • Various meat and vegetable dishes
  • A “cook your own udon” station
  • Desserts
  • Cheese platter with crackers
  • Fruit

Basically, it sounds more like a DIY meal than just canapés. Complimentary cocktails and champagnes were available. In true “Don” fashion, I got a twist on the Old Fashioned.

No, there was no photo editing. It looks like I used a photo beautifier app on top of the default camera but it’s indeed this pretty.

Club Gold Service

Towards the end of lounging, a staff (who later introduced herself as Syakirah) asked how the service was and, to our surprise, what our favourite dishes were and whether we wanted to bring some back to our room since the lounge was closing. It was an offer too good to refuse, but we got the following extras instead:

Two dishes, some honey (which was a surprise), and more assortment of teas.

Syakirah also suggested we return to the lounge for another drink, just before we checked-out, if we enjoyed the lounge. No prizes for guessing what we did (later section).

Sleep, and Back to the Lounge for Breakfast

This time, we returned to the lounge for breakfast. Breakfasts in lounges are usually a reduced serving affair for good reason: there are simply fewer people. But I ate quite a fair amount for breakfast too:

I could not decide if I wanted to go Asian or Western.
Some samplings of cold cuts, and salmon.
Looks like I probably ate some food before beginning on a course of vegetables (for breakfast!)
To end off food shots (before a fruit platter which I forgot to take pictures of), adjustment to an eggs benedict recipe: salmon this time!

Throughout breakfast, Firdaus ensured we had an ample supply of drink (orange juice and teas) and made sure that everyone had a peaceful breakfast. I managed to also catch some other guests receiving custom menu items (Indian food) which were not otherwise available in the lounge. Clearly, the Fairmont Gold experience is one where they go out of their way to meet guests’ preferences.

Breakfast was also a great time to get inspired by some artwork. Decided to pick up some reading in the lounge (real books, by the way!).

Because who doesn’t check what the Maldives has to offer in terms of resort experiences?

Despite the Fairmont being a Canadian hospitality chain prior to their acquisition by the Accor Group, they try to add local touches (unlike Sofitel’s design principle, where they go for chic, elegant designs).

Perspective shot of the Double Helix Bridge

All in all, a great second lounge visit! I probably ate too much breakfast to test out lots of features that I missed out.

Oops, No Time to Do Everything

As a five-star hotel, it is sometimes a little difficult to try everything out. This was the case. Below are some facilities in Fairmont (these facilities are also shared with Swissotel)

  • Willow Stream Spa pools, jacuzzis
  • Gym access (split into upper and lower floor)
  • Tennis courts (bring your own racket and tennis player(s))
  • Swimming pools (mum suntanned; I swam)
  • Good range of restaurants (Mikuni, Prego’s, and Swissotel’s range including Asian Market Cafe, SKAI)

Additionally, loyalty members do get extra perks, such as Fairmont Fit, which is a service that allows you to borrow sports attire and running shoes. Maybe next time, Fairmont!

Checking Out from the Lounge

To round up the end-to-end stay, we were invited to the lounge for a check out. Bonus drink!

A custom mocktail, with various fresh fruit and egg white to thicken it! Not something I usually drink, but this is good! WARNING: may not be replicable for your stay.

Besides a free drink, we were also offered some in-house cookies.

Double chocolate chips. Way better than Subway, Famous Amos, or any mass-market cookie production facility. Bonus: these cookies don’t track your preferences; they become your preferences.

We were left with two mementos of the Fairmont Gold Experience.

Don asked if he needed to return the hotel key card. Zhi Xin (operations manager) said I could just leave it!
Always good to know the crew! Some other Fairmont reviewers also noted they had more crewmates for their longer stays.

Big Question: Did I Make My Money’s Worth?

Like all subjective questions on “worth”, it depends on what one seeks in a property. I can briefly split this into “hard product” and “soft product”. Here a “hard product” refers to something built into the hotel and is something the staff cannot change, whereas a “soft product” refers to one where the staff have a significant say in how to carry out said service. (E.g. a bed will be a hard product, but the speed of room service is a soft product since the staff could take 2 minutes, 2 hours, or never return to you)

The “hard product” delta includes:

  • Guaranteed bathtub
  • Higher floor — better views
  • Fairmont Fit — we can borrow sports attire and shoes as guests
  • Lounge access, to avoid the rest of the crowd
  • Extra amenities in the bath (loofah, bath salt, mouthwash)

The “soft product” delta includes:

  • More exclusive service (better staff-guest ratio) — if I guess right, there were at most 100 rooms that are eligible for Fairmont Gold service and above, which means calling for Royal Service was more efficient, guests had a higher chance of being addressed by name e.t.c.
  • Evening turndown service (while we did not ask specifically for said service, we asked for a restock of amenities)
  • Morning service (a Fairmont Gold staff came to provide us some chocolates, presumably for us to take home)
  • Greater scope to be pleasantly surprised

This may give you a better perspective if it is worth $150 for more exclusive service, or perhaps, you may be eye-ing a nearby property, the Raffles Hotel, for possibly $700 a night!!

But a third party suggests the Fairmont Gold upgrade is worth it. It’s Forbes, so maybe they mean business travellers will be happy to pay the premium, if it makes their work trip smoother.

Capital Reflections

2021 was hectic. How hectic? About an hour ago, I was still drafting Very Clear Cut’s special newsletter. I finished the last gathering for 2021 in the evening. And… to top it all up, half my January calendar is full of meet-ups I could not fit in 2021. I should not repeat this next year.

It dawned on me after my 30th birthday that time is money. It is perhaps a cursory interpretation of the “time is money” mantra that leads people to hustle without break, undertake 996 even though they may detest it deep within or try to cram their schedule with appointments of all sorts. But that is not quite the right way to view it.

As we move through our phases of life, we require capital to tap on. Once again, a cursory interpretation of “capital” might lead one to think of earning as much money as possible, doing sidelines or for a select few, working to the point of exhaustion just for an extra dollar. That is also not quite the right way to view it.

I have learnt quite a lot this year, but one simple point I thought was worth putting on record is the concept of social capital. One of my resolutions in 2021 was to try to bridge across various friend groups in the hope of unlocking synergies. Sounds corporate-speak but here is a simple example: it is quite clear that each of us, given our limited cognitive powers, will not be a master of every topic. But through tapping onto a network of friends, we can extend our capabilities, be it in understanding more about the world around us through expert advice/opinion, or reach, through allowing our friends to tap onto the minds of others.

To some extent, Very Clear Cut somehow became a reflection of 2021. Initially, this was started with the idea of education in mind, but it quickly grew on us that the true potential, for us founders, was not so much in the videos themselves, but the networks we could tap on. They do not necessarily lead to monetary gain, but the breadth of perspective helps us build the all-important helicopter vision that is a trait behind any big-picture job (think C-suite). I was personally humbled at how little I know, while doing research on topics we felt were pertinent among young people, and learn so much, especially in the second half of the year where we were inviting guests on a consistent basis to share their worlds with us.

With social capital, one can reinterpret “time is money”. Rather than to look at the phrase linearly, i.e. to try to do more with less, we can adopt a non-linear approach, i.e. re-imagine how we will spend time, how we can tap on one another’s time to produce far better outcomes than what we do merely as individuals. For instance, the seemingly time-wasting activity of catching up with friends may in fact unlock ideas we would never have thought of ourselves, which could then be applied in some other area of interest we have been searching for a solution in vain. This is what makes us, as humans, capable of creation and creativity.

2022 will likely continue to be a washout as the world figures out how to live with COVID-19. Mentally, we already know this is endemic. But the amount of time spent at home rediscovering ourselves could become worth it after all. Let us also rediscover the networks we had, since young, and look for more untapped potential to continue growing in 2022.

Part 1: Are We Barking Up the Right Tree with CECA?

Recently, Parliament convened on Tuesday to address concerns about the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Agreement (CECA) that was brought up by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on numerous occasions.

The term “CECA” refers to a free trade agreement between India and Singapore in August 2005. However, this term was then used recently as a racial slur against Indian professionals working in Singapore. This has got so out of hand in online spheres that Reddit decided to ban the use of said term.

r/singapore - I guess the best way to deal with a sensitive issue in this subreddit is to pretend it does not exist and not discuss it at all
Reddit banned the use of the acronym “CECA” because of how it was used to proliferate increasing racial slurs against the Indian migrant community.

CECA?

CECA allowed for tariff reductions and eliminations, as well as improved market access between India and Singapore, like other free-trade agreements (FTAs) that Singapore signs with other countries. The Enterprise SG site provides summaries of the twenty-six (26) Singapore FTAs we have signed. Together, all these efforts have yielded $1.5 trillion of trade (three times our GDP growth) for a country of 5.6 million people. It is clear that FTAs are existential to us.

Hence, is the issue really with the free trade agreement itself?

If It’s Not Actually the FTA, What Is It?

PSP’s Leong Mun Wai also agreed in Parliament that they find FTAs useful for Singapore, yet they have repeatedly harped on CECA. Why has immigration become such a hot-button issue?

Let us revert to the Lee Kuan Yew era, where liberal immigration was justified by the need to attract top talent to help fuel Singapore’s economy. Today, Singapore also imports significant number of migrant workers to occupy many key roles in Singapore’s economy and social fabric. In 2019, Channel NewsAsia reports that Singapore has 255,800 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) to help take care of our families. We import many more migrant workers to take up roles that are perceived as less desirable, including but not limited to blue-collared work such as technician roles, drivers, waiters and other vocations.

Tensions on immigration exacerbated with the Population White Paper in 2013, leading to the largest public protest ever organised in Singapore (back in 2011). Moreover, observations on how some industries were dominated by a single nationality of migrant workers led to new lexicon such as “Chennai Business Park” being invented. However, the PSP was first to bring the acronym “CECA” to the fore to encapsulate these sentiments, turning the neutral acronym for a FTA into one used by the population to echo their frustration against a certain group of immigrants. Interestingly, the anti-immigrant sentiment was selective, not extending to other areas such as FDWs or blue-collared workers. Why is that? Indian IT professionals tend to congregate in the booming ICT sector.

Infocomm Technology (ICT) is a Hot Field

(Disclaimer: I work in the cybersecurity industry. Some of these examples I bring forth will be industry-specific, but with some extrapolation, can be applied to other industries.)

Most recently, Singapore actively attracted Big Tech firms from both the US and China to set up their regional HQs in Singapore. These include Bytedance and Facebook. With these exciting Big Tech firms, other highly competitive and favourable jobs such as cloud infrastructure, software engineering, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity were brought into Singapore.

The common feature such jobs is the requirement to have deep technical skills and great willingness to adapt to changes. Because of how fast technology changes, these jobs also change significantly with time, which make them different from other jobs like accountancy. For instance, the proliferation of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Azure cloud offerings have transformed infrastructure deployment from largely hardware deployment to software deployment, requiring new skills to be learnt in the short span of a decade. This leads to high barriers to entry and hence significant manpower shortages.

Even at the freshman level, a degree in computer science would result in a mean or median salary higher than those in most other faculties. Starting salaries are a function of demand for labour of relevant disciplines.

But this does not seem to square with the observation some local PMETs report, of migrant workers “stealing their jobs”. Did PMETs try to transition to other ICT jobs?

Transitioning to ICT? Everyone Tried!

On my taxi and Grab rides, I ask them, especially the younger ones, why they decide to drive for a living. Some remark the job flexibility, but after I introduced myself as a cybersecurity professional, all of them remarked how difficult it was. Three Grab drivers I know commented that they tried to understand cybersecurity, but none went far.

On the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) front, multiple government organs started Artificial Intelligence SG (AISG) to help grow local talent in AI. One such initiative is to curate courses for professionals and offering a significant subsidy for their AI for Industry (AI4I) track, especially for mid-careerists. I signed up for that to find out how difficult it was.

As part of the AISG incentive, the course, initially valued at 2k SGD, cost 50 SGD before taxes.

Eventually, after some months, I obtained my certification.

I tried to study some AI.

For about half a year’s work to understand some AI basics, where would this land me? Perhaps the ability to understand junior-level problems. After all, these are only the foundations. AI4I is in the process of adding a new tier of proficiency for those interested in the AI/ML domain.

Work-in-progress: Building up AI Competency

I felt that the course was sufficient to understand basic AI, but it was quite difficult for those who had no prior idea about AI. However, AISG must be commended for trying to come up with a rigorous enough curriculum requiring the student to go through practical exercises to pick up skills relevant to the job market. But none of this is easy; we must try harder. Will the efforts eventually be worth it?

Singapore’s Strategic Economic Model Works – Aviation Shows We Can Fly High

In an open economy like Singapore that relies on innovation to survive, its labour force must similarly be malleable enough to adapt with changing times. Strategically, Singapore’s economic strategy has always been to entrench itself in areas where it can deliver high value-add to the world’s supply chains. Singapore has done this right before. For instance, Singapore’s foray into aviation has resulting in numerous net positives for many Singaporeans with a wide variety of jobs for our people with varying qualifications such as technicians, aeronautical engineers, and pilots, even though many of the MNCs brought into Singapore also comprises of many foreigners in top management. Seletar Aerospace Park does not receive the derogatory terms that Changi Business Park receives.

Singapore’s aviation ecosystem has developed significantly. Singapore is the only other location outside the United Kingdom that manufactures the most important part of today’s civilian aircraft: the engine. We have managed to create a vibrant aerospace industry with local firms like ST Aviation and Singapore Airlines forming strong partnerships with renowned firms like Airbus and Rolls Royce. Together, local and foreign companies can work together to contribute to a vibrant Singapore economy.

Ecosystems, Not Individual Jobs

The aviation and ICT sectors enjoy some similarities. The Government is already bringing in Big Tech firms into Singapore with competitive jobs that Singaporeans find favourable due to high remuneration for the high-value add. More importantly, we want Asia-Pacific ICT needs to be entrenched in Singapore for Singaporeans get first dibs on good ICT jobs in the Asia-Pacific region, just like in aviation.

When Singapore first embarked on our aviation strategy, we were hardly qualified to do any deep technical work. In fact, Singapore was considered unnatural for aviation since we had no domestic market. Building this sector up required many years before Singaporeans took over the critical job functions and led Asia-Pacific operations. Moreover, as part of the ecosystem, there will be jobs deemed “less desirable” even though all of them are important and are interdependent. For instance, the aviation sector has the following:

  • Pilots
  • Stewards/Stewardesses
  • Aeronautical Engineers
  • Line technicians
  • Ground operators
  • Air Traffic controllers
  • Drivers
  • Compliance officers
  • Process engineers

Less favourable jobs must be filled as well, necessitating migrant workers.

The same ideas can be applied to ICT. The ICT sector is full of diverse job roles too, such as:

  • Network engineers
  • Infrastructure engineers
  • Technicians
  • Compliance officers
  • Hardware engineers
  • Process engineering
  • Data Centre operator

Moreover, not all roles are equally desirable; some roles are required to support other highly sought-after roles. To ensure that good jobs exist for Singaporeans, support jobs must also exist.

Tl;dr: Do Not Conflate a Race/Nationality Issue with a Labour Issue

Going through a brief introduction of the ICT sector, and drawing on some lessons from the aviation sector, the sentiments faced by local PMETs over foreign labour is a labour issue. Local PMETs are anxious that they cannot keep up with the speed of their industries, such as ICT, giving rise to negative sentiments. Yet, the strategy to entrench Singapore into such sectors is important as it helps provide good jobs to Singaporeans. One part alone is insufficient to discuss the broader questions about labour strategy, and whether Singapore’s decision to concentrate on specific sectors is correct. This is something I will opine on in Part 2.

Issues local PMETs face are real. We need to understand whether our labour strategy needs to be refined to balance economic competitiveness and social stability. This requires more than one debate, across more than one topic. But such issues should not be mischaracterised in the hope of fuelling a xenophobic/nativist sentiment among some groups of the population. These sentiments will exist, because many will recount personal stories on their perception of being short-changed. But these sentiments should be debated as they are as opposed to hiding them behind an otherwise innocent free-trade agreement (a separate discussion) for Parliamentary debate.

Taking Umbrage at the Writing on the Wall

The real estate business was always going to be more profitable than the media business. But people have already taken umbrage to this notion years ago by calling SPH “Singapore Property Holdings”.

Real estate folks have a penchant of calling SPH “Singapore Property Holdings”. Source: https://www.ein55.com/category/property-market/

In this Linkedin article in 2019, Derrick opined that a break-up between the underperforming core media business and profitable property business inevitable. His crystal ball proved ominent.

Systemic Issues

It is an understatement to claim that the print media industry has taken a sharp decline over the years. I remembered the old days in school where schools would order hard copies of Readers’ Digest, The Economist and TIME for its students to level their worldly knowledge. Today, the Internet replaces this function.

Print media was dominant pre-Internet because of the limited number of channels for information consumption. This meant that advertisers were at the mercy of print media, because print media controlled the instrumentation required to propagate advertisements. Print media profits were hence largely derived from print advertisements in the past.

Some of these “old media fundamentals” are uprooted today. Who views the Classifieds section for job advertisements today? In my generation, almost nobody, because there are other sources we can seek for both content and advertisements.

Advertising

Before we put the blame solely on “advertising”, let us encapsulate the discussion with a Quora thread.

The “ad-blocking” trend first surfaced in response to the digital companies placing advertisements on their platforms in multiple ways. Clearly, consumers were not pleased with these ads, resulting in workarounds such as the use of Ad-Aware (in the early days) to detect “adware” and delete these add-ons.

In the old days, browser helper objects (BHOs) such as toolbars were frequently bundled with digital products such as free game executables. Source: https://www.f-secure.com/sw-desc/adware_w32_bho.shtml

With the rise of Web content consumption, advertisements also moved from bundling products and ads in installers to Javascript snippets such as Google advertisements. For as long as there exists web content that is “given for free”, there must be some method of monetisation somewhere else.

Ads have been the answer to this, and will always be a monetisation strategy. While annoying to the majority, a minority will click, and a proportion of the minority would result in additional sales to the firm advertised, reinforcing the need to run advertising.

Financing versus Editorial Independence

But are advertisements alone enough? That depends on the type of content, which also means the following: content needs to be digestible by a large enough audience for advertising strategies to work because of scale. This is not always the case, which raises the question on who backs the media outfit and whether said media outfit will maintain an editorial direction independent to the sources of funding. This is not always clear cut.

In the United States, the media scene is known to be politically driven as a consequence of the technical definition of media as the “fourth estate”. It is clear that the editorial direction of many media outfits (caution: not all) will be affected because the “fourth estate” definition implies the media’s freedom to craft political issues in a narrative of their choosing.

Editorial independence is not equal to non-bias. It is difficult to find “non-biased” sources. Editorial independence simply means that the editorial desk can direct the media outfit independent of the sources of their funding. E.g. if Hilliary Clinton funded a certain paper, would the editors write articles rebuking the Clinton era, yet are still able to continue being funded? In some contexts, this is tantamount to “biting the hand that feeds you” and in other contexts, this is tantamount to “speaking truth to power”. Context is everything here; we cannot answer this with confidence because financing leads directly to the viability of the publication should large decentralised funding mechanisms (e.g. advertising, subscriptions) not work to be sufficient to run the media outfit as a commercially viable entity.

Taking Umbrage at the Writing on the Wall for SPH

The writing on the wall for SPH was in fact much earlier.

In this Guardian opinion piece, Victor opines that the commercial method of running a media outfit was no longer viable due to the irreversible loss of the monopoly position media companies used to have to run advertisements.

SPH tried to keep the media business going as a commercial venture by spinning off other revenue streams like property. But property does not address these issues SPH faces.

a) The property arm of SPH slowly became the profit nexus of SPH, eclipsing the primary business.

b) Yet in property, its growth would be stymied by the real estate companies in Singapore such as Capitaland.

c) SPH runs the Straits Times, which has a national narrative.

Basically, the fundamentals of SPH conflicted with the balance sheets of SPH (you can see the declining print revenue for SPH in the Linkedin screenshot). COVID-19 simply laid bare SPH’s untenable position (by extension, The Straits Times (ST)) in the long run because it failed at capturing market share in the digital space as compared to Channel NewsAsia and TODAY (I think Channel NewsAsia has the best digital offerings.)

Straits Times’s webpage: Simply the physical newspaper brought to digital format.
Channel NewsAsia: More product offerings like podcasts, TV and documentary series (e.g. Climate Change)
Today: Tried to appeal to a younger group through Gen Y speaks (although the quality of content is not always stellar)

It is quite clear ST’s answer to digitalisation was inadequate; all they did was to switch from physical broadsheet to digital broadsheet, offer subscriptions and provide tablets to read ST. From a business standpoint, that is not digitalisation, and from a consumer consumption perspective, this was woefully inadequate. Our parents read the broadsheets from front to back because there was a dearth of information sources in the past. Copying the broadsheet and pasting it in an app, expecting people to consume news that way was a recipe for disaster.

The Missing Voice: SPH Journalists

Curiously, in an issue involving a journalism outfit, SPH journalists did not voice much opinion. It was TODAY’s coverage on Instagram that attracted more eyeballs from my friends.

Honestly I take umbrage at your first question. (Ng Y.C., 2021)

The missing voice of SPH’s journalists is deafening. Some questions that I think are missing:

  1. What do they think of this move, especially considering that SPH still has the largest newsdesk in Singapore by far? Surely a restructuring proposal to decouple property from press, and to use the company limited by guarantee (CLG) to raise private and public equity be something that concerns them.
  2. Is it a journalistic quality issue? Many people (me included) find ST’s reporting less than stellar at times. Do they think that is the reason that stymies a move to a subscription-based model?
  3. Why did ST not try to evolve from simply a broadsheet? Even the Government today speaks to other media companies like SGAG and Mothership to create content in different forms for different target audiences. What was ST doing in the years of digitalisation and why did it fail?

Could SPH Have Been Saved?

To answer this question, we must first define “saved”. For instance, in Calvin Cheng’s commentary, he cleverly avoids the question on the form SPH could have taken, although he correctly points out that the SPH ship was sunk by digitalisation.

But perhaps we should take a look at “saved” in the SPH context. To answer this question, we first have to ask ourselves what entity we expect to see the press component of SPH to be, and why.

First question: should it be a for-profit entity, and if “yes”, how it is expected to be profitable. The bad news? Domestic news is not profitable, especially with this space overcrowded with all sorts of news outlets such as TNP, Mothership and our socio-political commentators. The money from a domestic audience of five million people alone is unlikely to result in a profitable news desk.

Another angle is to compete with top journalism outfits like BBC, DW (Europe); Asahi Shimbun, South China Morning Post (Asia); USA Today and Bloomberg (USA) as an illustration. Ranking of Asian newspapers suggest that ST is still far from the largest papers today. Will this model to pivot to the international desk work? Channel NewsAsia is trying from an Asia-centric perspective, but I am unsure if SPH will attempt this angle.

Ranking of top Asian newspapers. The ranking is not that “bad” per se, but to compete against the biggest in news, it is clear we need to up our game.

But SPH also has a national objective. Once we switch paradigm to think about news from the perspective of “national communication”, the question becomes stark, because SPH needs to keep its local news desk. How amenable would Singapore be to the local news desk being run by entities with either no interest in Singapore affairs, or have interests in Singapore affairs contrary to the interests of Singapore? The answer is likely “no”, and this issue opens another can of worms about issues such as the Newspaper Printing and Presses Act (NPPA). However, I shall not try to tackle the NPPA issue in this post. In other words, SPH cannot simply sell off its press arm to the entity that can likely run ST profitably regardless of national interest; the government will likely block this move for good reason, and it was probably for this reason that the government supported SPH’s proposal to form a CLG instead, promising to provide funding for it.

Some will also contend that the political climate in Singapore makes running a competitive domestic news room untenable due to the historical backdrop of media in Singapore. This is also easier said than done (and arguably beyond scope for humble me since I do not work at SPH), as it likely requires a cultural overhaul of the news room. In today’s form, who would fund a domestic news desk, ensure high journalistic integrity and understand how to navigate Singapore’s political dynamics among government, news room and citizens? I hold my breath on this.

Some may also suggest nationalisation, but unlike in the case of SMRT’s delisting, nationalising the press would only serve to reinforce the perception of SPH being the “government’s mouthpiece”. It takes a government utterly daft to political trends to nationalise the press no matter what the economic grounds may be.

The conundrum is this: we expect a press to have high journalistic integrity, be at an arm’s length away from its funding sources or the Government, yet it must offer a national perspective so that Singaporeans will have local news to read, interpret and understand. Who would be eligible to fund such an endeavour and actually did it, if it turns out that it cannot be profitable?

This is not for the lack of trying; Bertha Henson tried to run The Middle Ground, but operating a newsroom of such size (a fraction of SPH) ran in the tens of thousands. The fact that the TODAY article centred financial viability around ad revenue and the lack of Patreon donors suggest that domestic news by itself simply is not profitable.

When we ask the question on whether SPH can be saved, it is perhaps important to ask ourselves what we value about local news, and how much we will be paying for (be it in the form of a licensing fee, tax, direct payment to publisher). And if the costs do not sum up, we will probably live with its consequences: a dearth of news publications, and a news landscape that does not capture the Singapore perspective as vividly.

A Tale of Two Sofitels

(Hint: They are not equal.)

Introduction to the Sofitel Adventure

How Did I Even End Up in Sofitel?
I never planned for a staycation, or a “work from hotel” day. But this happened:

Conversation with Daniel, my insurance agent turned super foodie friend and buddy

In true Singapore kiasu spirit, I accepted the offer. After all I could always work from the hotel (always remember to use a VPN!)

Work From Hotel @ Sofitel City Centre

Sofitel City Centre was designed for the corporate traveller in mind. But do not let “corporate traveller” fool you; Tanjong Pagar is underrated as a tourist destination; it is rich with food and drink options no matter what price point you desire.

Sofitel City Centre’s location: Walking distance to Robinson Road/Anson Road/Shenton Way. 5 min walk from Tanjong Pagar Food Centre (bottom-left), 5 min walk from Maxwell Food Centre, right outside Tanjong Pagar MRT. Even if you are miserly with yourself, you have plenty of options.

The Office, Lounge, Bedroom and Soaking Corner

I could identify the hotel concept Sofitel City Centre aimed for. Thanks to Daniel’s Accor membership, Sofitel City Centre provided a complimentary upgrade to the Club Room, but note the basic room is largely similar. (Note: Due to COVID-19 season, some amenities are not displayed. Feel free to ask room service for them.)

Office space (with visitor chair that can be taken out when needed), lounging space with reading light, resting space facing the TV. Charging ports (240V AC and USB) available on bedside and beside work desk.

Form balances with function in the design of the room; every item here has a functional purpose that somehow blends into the overall theme. Classy.

Views you can get include the classic brick red roofs of the shophouse district.

Certainly not a beach resort, but this city hotel is blessed with good views.

This theme carries over to the bath, and gets nudged a notch up.

The elegance continues whilst maintaining function; look at the towel hook right outside the shower cubicle. Thoughtful.

And then we begin to get into the opulent displays. (ask room service for the bath tray)

Plastic glass, a book (please don’t steal the book) and bath salt. Tell your friends you are multi-tasking; soaking in the bath while sipping on wine and reading a chill book. That’s 1 way to live well!

Feel free to use the speakers provided to play some classical music and pretend to be wherever you are for as long as you like.

Elegance Extends Beyond the Room

While not an ostentatious resort, careful thought has been placed into its design to retain its upmarket character, whilst maintaining function.

The pool floor. It is not by any means the best pool, but you can do a few laps here and pretend to replicate the Infinity Pool experience.

The attentive staff (more on this later) were assisted by a few robotic servers. Watching them take lifts themselves to deliver amenities was a curious sight.

Say hi to Xavier and Sophie, the droid butlers. They say “Merci” while asking travellers to give way to them to take the lift!

Sofitel City Centre Shines Because of Staff

The staff elevated the already 5-star hotel beyond a sparkling experience. Daniel describes the first encounter as one of the factors that made him decide to renew his Accor membership.

Taken from Daniel’s Facebook post. This is accurate on every count.

The other episode was in 1864, the bar. Here, I wrote the following:

From my own Facebook post. I recommend 1864 as a bar. Trivia: they use the Raffles Hotel recipe for their Singapore sling, but make it fresh.

I enjoyed a welcome drink at 1864.

Star of Negroni. A negroni but somewhat stronger. 🙂

A little word on 1864: if you want a top-notch bartender:

Everyone likes a drink, but perhaps the secret to a personalised bar experience is… a champion bartender?

There are other little touches of excellent service such as personalised addressing of hotel guests (the pool receptionist remembered me while performing housekeeping duties on my floor).

Much time here was spent alternating between doing some laps in the pool and working from the room. For a corporate traveller this hotel hits the spot. For a staycation this should also offer an exquisite experience, even if not quite the usual type of hotel staycationers will go for.

A Word on Food

I did not try the breakfast set, since it did not come complimentary with this package. However, I swung by Tanjong Pagar Food Centre to buy a takeaway, visit the market on the first level to buy some cheap fruit, and chill in your own room with a complimentary TWG tea. It is still a luxurious experience.

Slacking @ Sofitel Sentosa (no time to do everything!)

After an outstanding adventure at Sofitel City Centre, I was invited to try Sofitel Sentosa. Expectations were inflated for this one.

Sofitel Sentosa: Will it Live Up to its French Way?

Because of the Lunar New Year season, we were greeted with an impressive lantern display.

Opulent lanterns greet the Sofitel Sentosa visitor.

If Sofitel City Centre was designed to impress with elegant touches, Sofitel Sentosa tries to do so with grandeur. Did it succeed?

Expansive corridors greet the hotel guest. There will be space to roam down the hallways, taking in the resort atmosphere.
At night these hallways transform into a display of lights due to the festive season.

Clearly, this was a resort, unlike the corporate hotel in Tanjong Pagar.

The room feels different, and is somewhat less practical than Sofitel City Centre (even though the view is much more calming).

This time you see the work desk full of items, including the welcome drink I got.

Because there was no lounge chair, I tried to chill from the work chair. It was alright.

Chilling. Note: dark chocolate provided from my own home. Not available for purchase from hotel.

However, I noted an impracticality. While minor, it appears boiling water for tea was somewhat inconvenient.

The views outside during daytime look vast. From my room, I could see a sampling of the verdant green view.

Room view. I would then decide to slack in this same garden, but on the chair partially visible in this picture.

Taking a stroll on the resort grounds, I was greeted with more lush greenery.

Tried to chill in the hanging chair too. I learnt it was not the best of ideas; had to sweep away a few ants.

I took some TWG tea out and decided to enjoy the view early in the morning. Rather relaxing indeed.

My time was somewhat short, though, so I did not get to review the spa facilities, or the array of sporting facilities provided in the resort. However, I managed to find some views of the pool. Great views, but they need to clean the deck chairs and seats more frequently.

Great, deep pool view. But the beds and chairs by the poolside don’t look that well-maintained.
Early morning: hardly anyone here. Chill!

For those who prefer the beach, Sofitel Sentosa is located atop a hill, which gives it its exclusive resort feel. However, one could descend the hill to chill by Tanjong Beach (I didn’t do so).

I saw from another review that one should get a band for accessing Tanjong Beach due to beach population limits. Take note!

Bonus points visiting other resort residents too.

Hi peacocks and peahens!

So… are the Sofitels Five Stars?

It depends. Stars can be subjective, as per what Investopedia says:

There’s no question that the hotel star rating system can be vague, confusing, and downright arbitrary. However, with a little bit of research, it is possible to pinpoint the perfect hotel to suit your unique needs and your budget.

Investopedia, Navigating the Hotel Star System

Sofitel City Centre is in my opinion, easier to review. It is indeed 5-stars for service. I was personally impressed enough to write a complimentary letter for them:

Since I mentioned on “Very Clear Cut” to look out for the less fortunate sectors who were affected by COVID-19, complimenting those in hospitality is a good first start to reward those who have done well.

Sofitel Sentosa is harder to review, because my stay there was somewhat limited. Perhaps because I was spoiled by my experience at Sofitel City Centre, I went into Sofitel Sentosa with inflated expectations. As a resort property, it still commands an air of grandeur, and those who enjoy lazing on the hotel grounds itself would find Sofitel Sentosa a good day out. However, I found the finer touches at Sofitel City Centre much better than Sofitel Sentosa, to the point that I find it hard to rate them the same. Maybe the jewel in Sofitel Sentosa lies not so much in the hotel room itself, but in the other amenities such as the spa.

Final Remarks

COVID-19 has made us unable to travel, and especially in Singapore, domestic rediscovery of our tourism scene can feel a bit contrived, since our tiny island does not allow for the illusion of going faraway. However, there is often joy in rediscovering new ways to enjoy the Garden City.

Noob About Budget

Budget season is upon us in Singapore, with 8 days of Budget debate that started yesterday. Not everyone may be aware on what “the Budget” is, so here are 10 questions and 10 answers to basic Budget questions.

What is the Budget?

Every year, the Ministry of Finance prepares a budget for each of the ministries in Singapore that begins on 1 April and ends on 31 March the following year (i.e. a financial year). Budgets are required to plan the expected revenue position and spending by the different ministries each year.

Pre-budget dialogues are held in December where feedback is sought based on what might be expected to be approved by Cabinet, before eventually being tabled in February as a Supply Bill. Parliament then sits as a Committee of Supply to examine the plans for each ministry. As of time of writing, Parliament is in the Committee of Supply phase.

Thereafter, the Minister for Finance will deliver subsequent readings of the Supply Bill, which will then be voted on by Parliament. The President then assents to it, turning the bill into law called the Supply Act.

You can read the Budget speech itself, and a summary can be found here.

How many Budgets are released per year?

Typically, one. 2020 was special due to COVID-19, resulting in the need for supplementary budgets. Hopefully this situation has stabilised sufficiently that Singapore does not need to pass supplementary budgets again this year.

How do we fund the Budget?

There are many ways to fund a Budget theoretically, just like how you would for a household budget. Some methods include:

  • selling state-owned primary goods (e.g. salmon, oil)
  • tax revenue (typically a combination of different taxes for an overall desired tax regime that is not regressive, i.e. hurts the poor or too progressive, i.e. disincentivising top earners from working too hard, or worse, taking flight)
  • borrowing through bond issuance/loans/seek the help of others (in extreme cases countries have sought the help of foreign countries for funding before, or sought IMF for help)
  • printing money (ok, the reality is more complicated than simply “printing money”. The technical term for this is “quantitative easing” and most countries cannot access such instruments with impunity)
  • investment revenue

Unfortunately, not all methods are created equal, and not all countries are well-endowed with privileges to mine liquid gold or sell precious ores. Singapore is one such example. Our Budget is primarily funded through tax revenue, and increasingly, net investment return contributions through our sovereign wealth funds, GIC and Temasek. Countries invest in the market and try to beat it, just like us individuals!

What are some key areas in Budget 2021?

Owing to COVID circumstances, Budget 2021 is focused on targetted sectorial support and restructuring opportunities. However, Budget 2021 also takes note of Singapore’s ongoing efforts to deal with climate change.

Unlike more normal years, where the start of a new term is typically fiscally conservative, Budget 2021 will continue to draw down on the reserves, incurring an expected deficit of approximately S$11 billion. It is clear that this shortfall will somehow have to be remade, thus a lingering discussion about how tax increases will be implemented, and if so, how it should be done. DPM Heng Swee Keat has already alluded to the GST hike happening sometime by 2025. Politically, announcing the GST hike is typically not done on an election year budget (who would vote for an incumbent if you promise to tax the people heavily?). We watch with bated breath too, as a tax hike is never popular.

Words like “digitalisation” sound so big in the Budget. Why are there such big words?

Budget statements typically do not micromanage how money is to be spent. However, given the general political direction that a country heads towards, there may be certain objectives that the country aims to achieve. For instance, digitalisation has been a buzzword for some time. Due to COVID-19, an opportunity exists for the government to actively retrain enough people to partake in the digital economy at higher skill levels.

Big words, while lofty-sounding, also provide us common people with a rough idea the trajectory of different sectors in the government’s view. For instance, additional funding for a sector suggests government’s confidence in growth of that sector. For those who might be contemplating a career switch, the Budget statements give some idea of the more promising sectors to consider, especially in terms of hiring incentives, skills upgrading incentives and the general long-term trajectory of the industry sector.

What are budget “cuts”?

In technical parlance, a parliamentarian can issue a nominal budget cut on the budget during the Committee of Supply, before opening debate on a variety of issues. For instance, in the first day of Budget debate, members of Parliament have queries on many issues, such as senior employability, career prospects, tax collection to fund future expenditures and more. In fact, a budget “cuts” is not so much an actual cut in the budget, as it is an opportunity for parliamentarians to debate over substantive issues of the Budget.

Policy wonks pay special attention to this part of the Budget as different parliamentarians will suggest other ideas, based on the feedback received from their constituents and the various groups they may represent, through their career involvement, or other associations. Often the most substantial debates in a parliamentary democracy happens over the Committee of Supply.

Has a budget ever failed to be passed before?

Interestingly, while this has not happened in Singapore in my recent memory, this nearly happened in Malaysia during their own Budget debate, with Prime Minister of Malaysia Muhyiddin Yassin passing the Budget with a 3-vote majority in December 2020.

A budget that fails to pass is known as a budget crisis, which informally describes the deadlock in a parliamentary system. This is significant because Singapore runs a parliamentary system. If the budget cannot pass, the government cannot run, which means it falls.

In presidential systems like the United States, budget crises have happened before. The end-result is a closure of most non-essential governmental services for several weeks due to the lack of funding.

The Singapore budget is going to be passed anyway, so why should we be aware of the Budget debate?

Ok, we know the budget may not necessarily lead to a significant handout for you or me, but knowledge about our country’s affairs and direction is important if we want to maintain our agency as active citizens.

The Budget debate also provides a summary of the main concerns with the current state of Singapore affairs. Tracking years of Budget debate will almost automatically up your Singapore policy literacy game. You can also point out what the Government has done well and has fallen short over the years simply with the Budget debates, as perennial issues will keep getting highlighted year on year without much solutions, whereas issues solved well will disappear after a certain time.

I am a Gen Y. Why do I need to care about the Budget?

There are many areas of the budget that concern Gen Y people! Perhaps they will not occur immediately, but we will likely live to see the effects of climate change and exponential increase in healthcare costs. Understanding if the country is heading in the right direction before deciding how you should cast your vote, or whether you should speak up, voice your concerns to a member of Parliament or other actions.

In any case, the more Gen Y people who are aware of the issues facing our country, the more intelligent and insightful our conversations will be. And with that, we can better understand the issues that face us, and when we are in positions of privilege, work towards using said powers responsibly to guide the political direction of our country.

What do you think of the budget?

Good that our budget debates are peaceful, and that Singapore is not broke to have to borrow cash or print money.

GameStop? It’s Not Just a Game…

The most popular topic on my Facebook feed now is on GameStop. But for the completely uninitiated, let us try to make sense out of what happened. Simplified post as per 30 January 2021, since the situation could evolve.

What is GameStop?

GameStop is an American videogame, consumer electronics and gaming merchandise retailer. It had been in decline since 2016 due to the digitalisation of games. Naturally, GameStop was a company that looked like it was eventually doomed to fail. Considering many of us have nostalgia about videogames, seeing it fail would be saddening, except if you could benefit from its demise.

How do you Profit From a Failing Company?

First, you can. The instrument is called a “short”.

Before describing shorts, let us describe conventional purchases of stock, i.e. we spend money to buy stock on the stock exchange at a certain price P1, and we can sell our stock at a certain price P2. It is trivial to suggest that we hope for P2 > P1 to win at the stock market. In stock market parlance, buying stock means we are playing “long”. A “short” flips these two steps around. In other words, we can “sell our stock” at a certain price P3, and then “buy back said stock” at a certain price P4. Except that we don’t own any stock of that firm in the first place. In other words, this is merely an instrument. For “short-sellers” (terminology used to describe individuals that “short” a stock), it is also a trivial inference that they profit when the buyback price P4 to be less than the selling price P3. But there are differences.

“Shorts” Can Leave You Naked

Whenever purchasing an instrument, there are certain restrictions to the product, and also statements of risk that the trader needs to be made known about. This is where taking a long position versus a short position differs. If we take a long position, and the stock crumbles overnight (i.e. it drops to 0 dollars in value), the risk is that we lose our principal. That is alright; as long as we did not owe any other entity money, we will not go bankrupt. We will feel a bad sad, but can still sleep on a bed that wouldn’t disappear overnight.

This is not the case for a short. Taking a “short” position is time-dependent, i.e. the “short” cannot last forever. When the “short” position expires, you must buy back said stock at whatever price it is on the stock market by obligation. This carries much higher risk as shown in the dummy example:

Suppose we have a stock named “Good Tech” and it retails for $200. Being a small-time trader, I “short” 200 lots of it at said price. I will earn $40,000. If the stock price drops to $100, I would earn a profit of ($200 – $100) multiplied by 200 lots, which is $20,000. Not bad for predicting a company’s decline. But what happens when the stock price rises to $2,000 when the “short” expires (or when I decide to sell it)? Well, I will have to pay ($2,000 – $200) multiplied by 200 lots, which is $360,000!! Here our losses exceed our principal. If we do not have $360,000 to pay up, we must sell other assets, such as our bed. We are not sleeping easy tonight.

If it is so Risky, Why Short?

Different stock exchanges behave differently. Some have conservative restrictions on shorting, considering its high risk. But this was not the case in GameStop. Some hedge funds believed its decline meant that shorting it consistently was positive cash flow. In other words, shorting a stock provides easy access to capital. The idea was: short an unprofitable entity, get some “easy money”, invest long in some profitable entity, earn both ways. Clearly rather greedy.

Short Squeeze

Approximately 140% of GameStop’s shares were sold short. That should alarm any regulator. The Wall Street Bets (WSB) subreddit noticed this too, and realised this was indeed anomalous. Hence, GameStop became a target of a short squeeze. In short, artificially buy so much of the stock to inflate its stock value, forcing traders adopting “short” positions to decide to cash out at a loss, or take higher potential losses when the “short” expires. This left the hedge funds who were attacked by the “short squeeze” with huge losses, considering the skyrocketing GameStop price.

Taken from Wikipedia. Note the price from 11 January (<$50) to 27 January. Note that past stock price is not indicative of future stock price.

Basically, if a fund had a short position on 28 December (approx $20), and they were caught on 26 January (approx $130), they were looking at losses of $110 per share. That quickly adds up.

The short squeeze was further reinforced by tweets from Elon Musk. In my part of the world, there were attempts to short squeeze short positions on glove companies as well (interestingly enough, they were already on the watchlist for high short magins by the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange in December 2020).

Who Was Happy, and Who Was Not?

(Warning! Political commentary begins here!)

Some narratives suggest that this was a “Redditors versus Wall Street” battle. Others commented this was a bunch of institutional investors taking long positions slugging it out with hedge funds taking short positions, with Redditors fuelling the fire. Many of these narratives are compelling, so let us take some time to understand them in their political context.

Among notable figures that supported the short-selling were Ted Cruz (Republican) and AOC (Democrat). They lambasted Robinhood, one of the brokers, for suspending purchases of GameStop shares. In addition to the criticism from politicians, Robinhood was sued with a class action suit due to the trading suspension. Some quarters are also looking into speculations of links between Robinhood and Melvin Capital, the initial hedge fund that racked billions of losses due to the short squeeze.

To understand why AOC and Ted Cruz, from seemingly different parties, supported WSB, one needs to steer away from traditional interpretations of the GOP and Democrats.

AOC represents a generation of young Americans that feel negatively about the establishment. In their world view, “the establishment” has led to problems such as high student debt, inability to find meaningful employment and a pessimism that they can be successful in life in an increasingly divided American society. The narrative is sometimes enhanced through the juxtaposition of the “tiny coastal elite” and “jobless student who graduated from university with mountains of debt”.

While Ted Cruz is not Donald Trump, the GOP has also learnt that Trump has energised a GOP base comprising of rural people left economically disenfranchised due to the vast disparity in influence, power and economic growth between the urban areas and rural areas. This pro-GOP section does not look too kindly at “Big Business”, which was a traditional mainstay of GOP support in the past. Energising this ground is critical in maintaining GOP relevance.

Basically, we need to look beyond traditional “GOP vs Democrat” lines, and start understanding that a significant majority of people in the US feel pessimistic about their future. Their common enemy? Suit-donning Wall Street elites that control levers of power.

The narratives were not entirely accurate though. Not all suit-donning Wall Street elites took short positions on GameStop. It was reported that BlackRock was likely to have earned billions of dollars simply because of their 13% equity stake in it. The people who work in BlackRock are also likely to be suit-donning Wall Street elites that simply bet the right way. There were elites who were (silently) happy as well.

Even among retail traders, there was a mix of results. Those that followed the WSB sub-reddit super closely likely followed a wave (very short time interval!) but those that were late to the party likely burnt themselves. Even among retail traders, not everyone was happy. This was not exactly “Redditors versus Wall Street” in reality.

Where Were the Regulators?

In the United States, the US Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC) function as the regulatory authority for the stock exchanges we are concerned about. They issued a statement saying that the SEC was monitoring GameStop. Other politicians such as Elizabeth Warren have lashed out at the SEC for lax regulations on hedge funds. Hedge funds typically enjoy less regulation than other types of funds, which adds to the criticism revolving around regulations, especially with respect to the aggressiveness of positions they can take.

Where is Biden in All of This?

Unfortunately, Biden’s hands are tied in this debate. Biden was involved in Obama’s administration that made SEC rules more lax in 2011. Regardless of the technicalities of the SEC relaxations, it indicates some sort of back-pedalling from deregulation.

While Elizabeth Warren’s concerns over lax regulatory frameworks and oversights on hedge funds are valid, it is difficult to view this from a bureaucratic lens. Much of the media coverage on GameStop revolves around the class divide. Unfortunately, Biden is also seen as a member of the establishment.

As of time of writing (30 January 2021), Biden has not made public commentary on the GameStop situation.

Some Philosophical Thoughts

GameStop has provided a precedent that retail investors can, through speculative pressure, apply pressure against a financial entity. It is not entirely clear whether it was more of the institutional investors or Redditors or other retail traders who made the short squeeze effective. There are philosophical debates that revolve around whether the financial markets are so complicated today that the layperson is simply “led by the nose of a financial elite”. There are also debates that entertain the idea the power imbalance between Main Street and Wall Street should be re-evaluated, and GameStop shows a proof-of-concept that targetted Wall Street entities can be impacted through the collective actions of other agents. Perhaps the over-aggression from hedge funds border on being irresponsible to their clients owing to the excessively high risk they sometimes take.

However, from a macro view this is not exactly all that rosy. Business confidence is an output of a stable financial system. These include questions like whether debt issued can be returned. Excessive “bad debt” was what led to the domino effects in 2008 to 2009. GameStop is not likely to deliver a recession, but such “short squeezing” of overly shorted stocks inevitably gives rise to domino effects with hedge funds trying to sell capital assets to salvage their short position. Is that destabilising? Definitely. But perhaps it was never sensible to be so aggressive with instruments that expose their clients to losing money far beyond their principal.

But GameStop perhaps also unravels how infinite human greed can be. Beyond the “class wars” we talk about, it also made me reflect on my own humble portfolio. When thinking of financial targets, we often get distracted by seductive ideas of trading in instruments that look wildly profitable. But we sometimes forget the risk involved in them as well. The good adage in finance, do your own due diligence, while dated, remains accurate. But maybe it is also important to understand the ends beyond the means of acquiring whatever wealth we set out to achieve. Money is important, for without money we have no resources to navigate the world. And people would not reject an extra dollar if it were given to them free. But money alone provides no philosophical direction. It is up to you to decide on the types of rewards you want, the risks you can take, and to make sure you do not burn the fingers of yourself and your loved ones. If we mock the hedge fund that went bust due to their excessive greed shorting GameStop, we should not recreate the circumstances that will lead us to sacrifice our loved ones.

Thirty Thoughts at Thirty

A chain of thoughts starting from a seemingly tautological statement.

  1. There is much of the world that I definitely do not know about.
  2. Hence, I have to rely on many friends to navigate the world around us.
  3. Reliance on friends means that I need to take effort to upkeep relationships with friends.
  4. Upkeep can be intimidating; maintain a comfortable circle, but make sure to be meaningful in said circle. Said circle is a “first degree circle”.
  5. Just as I rely on friends, the inverse relationship also applies. In friend circles, each person is likely to be good in something. Self-improvement extends beyond self; it extends to helping friends within one’s circle as well.
  6. Circles are likely not complete. It is unlikely that even the largest friend circles can map out a significant fraction of what there is to know to navigate the world. Hence, bridging across friend circles is important.
  7. Each of us, hence, can also function as a proxy across different groups of friends to maintain a network. Going through a proxy is a “second degree” relationship.
  8. Even among relationships of the same degree, they are not equal. Some are close “first degree” friends, whereas others are “first degree” acquaintances we do not meet very much. But they provide different perspectives we can use when we mull over different unknowns in the world.
  9. Close friends have seen us in some of our darkest moments; they have a more “insider” perspective of us and can give contextually correct advice. Acquaintances may not know us very well, but can give us advice pertaining to how external parties see us.
  10. Besides looking at Thought 1 (the seemingly tautological statement) from a network perspective, we can take another approach to this. Here, we divide the large part of the world “I definitely do not know about” into two different components — parts I know I lack knowledge in and parts I am not aware of my deficiencies.
  11. Not knowing what we do not know is a lack of awareness. To improve awareness, stay curious. While curiosity kills the cat, cats have nine lives. Until we observe these cats after being curious about them, we do not know if they are alive or dead.
  12. Knowing what we do not know is powerful knowledge. Investing in a subject area to understand it is time-consuming, but knowing we did not invest in it is humility. We are aware of our cognitive limitations.
  13. One of the best ways to be aware of what we do not know is to search, in real space, as many possible topics there are in the world. For instance, browsing book titles in a library makes us humble to the fact that we have read very little.
  14. Now that we realise our lack of knowledge in real space, we can then approach our networks with many different people differently. We can network with them with the premise of wanting to learn and understand more, not judge them.
  15. Ask intelligent questions. Questioning is an under-appreciated ability. With good questions comes insight. With bad questions comes frustration and blue ticks.
  16. There exists open-ended and close-ended questions. Open-ended questions are used to explore while close-ended questions provide focus.
  17. Ideation through open questions help us to connect dots in seemingly different areas. E.g. biologists find physical models increasingly useful at modelling statistical behaviour of regular arrays such as cells. Biological systems, in turn, give us insight to how division of labour works, much like how societies around the world function today.
  18. Ideation can be chaotic and sometimes lead to nowhere. Eventually we must decide to converge on some areas of focus.
  19. Focus by asking close-ended questions. Question on the feasibility, value and risk to pursue certain dreams.
  20. Questioning is important. It forces us to break out of our preconceived notions and give thought to what we are sometimes careless about.
  21. We likely do not have all the answers to all the questions we ask. This is part of the imperfect world we live in. After all, our seemingly tautological statement remains true; we simply know too little to operate in perfect information space.
  22. Hence, we must make decisions despite the lack of information. This requires good judgement.
  23. Judgement can only be trained by operational experience. There is no prescribed text for judgement.
  24. Because of imperfect information, we may be set up for mistakes that we cannot avoid, or miss out. We sometimes make bad decisions. When it happens, how do we recover from them?
  25. Part of experience is knowing how to recover. What does not kill us makes us stronger.
  26. To learn how to recover, we must try and fail. The probability of success without experiencing failure tends towards zero anyway.
  27. Trying and failing is in effect, learning by doing.
  28. Learning by doing is effective. It forces us to go through the life cycle from ideation to execution. Some ideas never make it. Some make it and get stopped halfway. Others take flight.
  29. No matter what the results of learning by doing are, they are irreversible once they happen anyway. Learn regardless of outcome.
  30. With our learning, we can fear the unknown less, and approach Thought 1 with a little more confidence. Rinse and repeat.

Another End of Year Post

2020 taught many of us how to live differently. For me, it seemed to have accelerated what could otherwise have occured a decade or two down the road. Mass swathes of the population were forced to digitalise or risk losing their business or livelihoods. All of a sudden, we were made to think of what an “essential worker” means in our societal context. COVID-19 has not only killed many lives, it has also turned into reality some of the coffeeshop talk we had about how people would adapt to a “VUCA world” (as always, VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity).

For a number of people, 2020 was also a year of contemplation. Thanks to how 2020 has forced many of us to stay at home, the more privileged ones among us (not all homes are equally liveable!) managed to find some quiet time away from the physical spaces we otherwise had to report to to think about philosophical questions. I had my moments of contemplation too, and am still unsure if I’ve all the answers to all the questions one can ask about life.

Pardon my indulgence in the digital world. 2020 has made me realise our dependence on the digital world for almost everything. We use it to shop, order food and update ourselves on the happenings of the world. Previously, my sentiment that many who use the digital world do not understand it was merely grounded in theory. I have learnt how it can be validated in practice. Some of the nastiest happenings in the digital world happened this year, be it the Solarwinds breach (cyber domain) or how pervasive fake news about COVID-19 (information domain) could spread. In Singapore, we also had an election where campaigns were conducted primarily through digital media as opposed to physical media for the first time. This highlighted issues that plague our information domain such as how algorithmic suggestions of articles different groups of users might enjoy reading, supposedly used to drive more sales and maintain eyeballs on social media, can have the inadvertent effect of political polarisation, inhibiting the ability of people from different, sometimes conflicting groups, from bridging these divides.

At the heart of all these reflections, however, is also another topic that permeates the digital world — privilege. The word “privilege” has been a term littered to discuss all sorts of politically contentious and noisy issues such as race relations around the world. The privilege I am concerned about, however, revolves around digital access. Those who understand the digital world can find good jobs and find themselves in positions where they can influence their fellow people. Those who do not become part of the data set for a digital world operator (could be a cybersecurity practitioner, social media analyst or digital content creator). The OECD has published a paper in 2017 that looks at ICT access and whether different aspects of ICT access and availability have any correlations with certain measurable outcomes such as test scores, and whether ICT policies in various countries help advance public policy objectives. My fear from a societal lens is whether those who are slow to learn will eventually lose out in a digital world that seeks not to wait for people to come onboard. After all, the private sector innovates not for the slowest adopters, but for those who are willing to challenge boundaries and convention.

My personal interests behind the “privilege” of being able to use and understand ICT stems not so much from a technological perspective as a social one. If you recalled the paragraph on how COVID-19 has forced digitalisation as a whole, the human in me cannot help but wonder what we have short-circuited in the process and whether we understand these social consequences that result. For instance, the way we make amends for the lack of physical connection through video conferencing retains both video and audio feed, but the dynamics of conversation would have subtly changed; we can disable our video feed to avoid giving body language cues if we wanted. Neither can we sense “tension” because we cannot see people sitting at the edge of their seats unlike at a coffeeshop. Here we have an unanswered question of information fidelity and whether that might correlate in some way to how we continue to maintain social connections. Here is one little example of “privilege” because contemplation bought time to think about such issues. This cannot happen if COVID-19 had, for instance, affected my livelihood.

Understanding the position of privilege was perhaps one “pull factor” towards trying out something ambitious in 2020 — to set up “Very Clear Cut“. Themes of information warfare, fake news and political polarisation recurred in discussions with different groups of friends. All of these issues have some relation to the digital world. But the digital world, by itself, is merely a platform, and is otherwise ideologically agnostic. What matters is what we do on these platforms. I don’t claim to be an expert in any of these domains, but I managed to find friends who share my sentiments on these issues and understood that these are issues that my generation will continue to grapple with. Many of us, especially in Singapore, simply want to live life like middle-class citizens, setting up families, and helping their children do well in life. But what if their information sources, not by their doing, cannot be trusted due to the agendas that information propagators may have? Being cognisant of these issues, I thought “Very Clear Cut” could help be one of many initiatives to cut through the digital world to restore some sort of agency for people to think for themselves. Like the introduction on “Very Clear Cut”, none of us are monopolists on all domains of knowledge. That is simply impossible. But what is possible is to make use of topics young people are concerned about to show how we think about them, and to provide adequate starting points to begin research on topics young people care about. (But we try not to end up becoming a tabloid, hopefully.)

Did 2020 end up well? I don’t know. But we can make 2021 better even under the specter of COVID-19 and the ills in the digital world that have been actualised as a result.

“Selective” COVID-19 Reporting?

I thought the recent NYTimes and BBC reporting on Singapore’s COVID-19 situation was rather selective not to label their news article as an opinion piece, instead seemingly reporting it as “fact”, missing most of the broader points. I would like to write a few points to paint my thoughts on the COVID-19 response in Singapore, from a risk angle, a technology angle and some of the issues that we’re still grappling with.

Yes, I think in the initial stages of the pandemic, we were reactive. Indeed, the situation in the migrant worker dormitories was suboptimal. Today, the situation is still unequal, but at least, we have got the pandemic somewhat under control, and am on track to slowly reopen Singapore for business.

Let us now look at the COVID-19 situation around the world. First, from a public health perspective, can we track the progress of cases so that officials can effectively triage, isolate and manage COVID-19 cases? The answer in Singapore during the initial stages of COVID-19 was “not really”, but today this answer is likely to be “yes”. There are individual prices to pay for this; each of us in Singapore is told to sign up for a proximity-monitoring contact tracing solution called TraceTogether, each of us also needs to scan at locations of prolonged congregation with SafeEntry to monitor spaces we have been to and need to mask up wherever we need to go. Migrant workers, as this article alludes, still cannot wander out too much.

But let us ask ourselves. What are the first-order issues during COVID-19 crises? First, for the migrant workers, their choices are between returning to their home country and forgoing their job in Singapore, because they have no work-from-home privileges; and staying in Singapore with great uncertainty anyway. Therefore, the decision in Singapore was to pay migrant workers even during circuit breaker when they could not do work. There are at least two reasons why I would support that. Morally, it is only right to provide a living option for our migrant workers who have built our country. More pragmatically, it is also only right that we pay our migrant workers so that post-COVID, they can naturally return to work without having to further propagate the downstream impact on their livelihood to other innocent parties. In dealing with the first-order issues, we have done with; few have died and more importantly, we have saved the livelihoods of our migrant workers whenever we can with extremely limited resources during the first phase of COVID-19. The point in bold is important; hindsight on COVID-19 testing regimes is 20/20, but we need to think about the serious limitations there were on testing capabilities during the time Singapore encountered its COVID-19 case spike. These limitations meant that Singapore did not have the luxury to put workers through multiple rounds of COVID-19 testing with different methods of testing, unlike today’s testing options. While they will still feel the psychological uncertainty, the government has helped to reduce the economic uncertainty of their situation. In this respect, we have done better than many other countries that have similar demographic challenges, namely the Gulf countries.

The second-order issue is to re-integrate our migrant workers. But even within the local population, we are treated unequally due to the risk factors involved. For instance, even during Phase 3, there exists great restrictions on nightspot operators, and events with congregations are still not back to any semblance of full strength. The reasons are quite clear; the calibrated opening is to test the resiliency of our COVID-19 response systems against cases and clusters that might spark with increasing crowds should we still have asymptomatic case reservoirs in our local population. I tend to believe these exist. Unfortunately, since COVID-19 has exposed the issues behind the dormitories, one risk factor has not changed: the migrant worker dormitories are still not upgraded yet; even quick build dormitories are not instant. Hence, there still exists continued segregation between different groups of people, depending on the risk factors of their population groups.

Hence, the likelier prospect today is a gradual easing of measures, and I want to, at some point, see our migrant worker friends enjoy their picnics on our grass fields, and enjoy their days off performing their preferred past-times once more.

From the migrant worker lens, the trade-offs here are more stark. Dormitory standards today are not pandemic resistant, which explains the straightforward decision to improve them. But what is perhaps harder to appreciate is how migrant workers view their choices. Migrant workers came to Singapore in the hope of a better future in comparison to their home countries. For them, their choices are between staying in Singapore or returning home, since moving to a third country to work is likely not an option as long as restrictions continue to exist. What we can do as a country is to make sure, if they choose to stay in Singapore, they would not be short-changed on their ability to make ends meet.

Let’s now take a more strategic view of COVID-19. Will COVID-19 disappear? Increasingly, the answer seems to be “no”. We are likely to have to live with COVID-19 as endemic, and governments are trying to figure out how to return lives and livelihoods sustainably with such a forecast. Not everyone will revert to what they once did. So what’s the new normal like? Truth is, no one knows, and governments around the world are trying to experiment how a world with COVID-19 being endemic will be, balancing multiple contentions such as political cost, economic cost and mental health cost. Perhaps it will be like the seasonal flu with vaccinations as a mitigation. Perhaps we will all wear masks like how many people in Japan do so. Maybe we will live with more digital engagement and less physical engagement. Can we erect “business bubbles” properly for those who must meet over long distances, while simultaneously providing a source of customers to sustain our hospitality and retail sectors? I don’t know the answers to any of these. But maybe we will all wear out over time with all these measures. Because of these unknowns, governments are experimenting what can be done with increasing levels of risk, and should incidents happen, whether their current systems can effectively triage, isolate and treat/manage these incidents. This is why, despite the low case numbers, there is still great insistence on TraceTogether and SafeEntry in Singapore. I would go so far to say that care has been taken to balance against privacy concerns, which is why TraceTogether is a proximity tracking solution and not a location tracking one, unlike the apps we all make use of rather unquestionably like FourSquare, Waze, Google Location, Eatigo and more. From a technical angle, I tend to believe the Government did the right things largely from a strategic point of view.

Let us also take the time to explore more uncharted waters. Why is COVID-19 important to us as a learning lesson? Pandemics can and will happen. COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic despite the advances in medical science. But COVID-19 has shown the inadequacies in our worldwide response capabilities despite our advances in technology. COVID-19 gave some countries great opportunity to make use of technology, for the first time, to build up pandemic readiness infrastructure. COVID-19 is the first pandemic on such scale that made us all think about how we can make use of the extensive capabilities of the smartphone for public purposes as opposed to mostly commercial ones. And for those that have experimented with the technology, we see that it can deliver outcomes for the public good, such as the trust that the government is now on top of the pandemic and can contain incidents as they surface.

Let’s be fair when discussing about COVID-19. The core issues have always been about saving as many lives as we can, reducing the number of cases and likely clusters that could emerge, and also making sure that the people under the care of their respective governments can emerge from COVID-19 without too much economic fall-out.