Saturday, August 25, 2012

Returning Singapore to Singaporeans? Dare we wish?

It is hard to feel betrayed. Gigamole says 'feel' because that is what it is, only a feeling. Gigamole can understand the logic of our political leaders, and I don't think they had any real malice in the decisions they took. But Gigamole thinks they were misguided, and Gigamole, like many others, feel betrayed.

Mind you, Gigamole was one of those who stood in the rain for the first National Day parade. And Gigamole was one of those who dug into pocket money to give to the Singapore National Defence Fund.

Whether it is about birth rates, education or academic achievements, where we are now, and who we are is a result of policies in place during the early years of nationhood. Until the 1980s, the thinking about university education was that we were training too many graduates. University education was seen to be an 'evil' contributing to frustrations and social discontent. The university was deliberately kept small. We were producing too many doctors. Not good, because doctors were woolly headed and bleeding hearted.

Gigamole remembers that medical research was regarded as a 'luxury'. Research funding was only available to allow medical scientists to 'tickle' their minds and keep them interested in their science. Gigamole remembers how we all had to troop, hat in hand, to the Singapore Turf Club to ask for a small sum of money to do some research.

What a turn around in the 1980s when the university began to expand, and research became a much sought after activity. In the years that followed, Gigamole has seen hard working colleagues given the boot because they did not have the research track record that was comparable to academics from developed countries who had spent a lifetime doing research. Foreign talent they were called.

Since then or universities and research establishments have turned into wonderful performing whale-ariums populated by non- Singaporeans. Mind you, Gigamole is not against foreign talent. Just that it has become too easy a solution to rent (not buy, mind you) performing whales in order to vicariously capture research glory. It is really no different from buying Olympic gold medals on Ebay. Now almost every department in the Universities and Research Institutes are headed and staffed by non-Singaporeans. It looks fantastic on paper, but only on paper. The reality is that the local content has been severely hollowed out. To make matters worse, the current crop of 'foreign talent' mostly do not want to teach, and do not engage in any technology transfer. The Nanyang Technological University, for example, under their Swedish President, is fast becoming a totally foreign university, desperately trying to catch up with the NUS in glbal ranking. The Lee Kong Chian Medical School with their Deanery imported from Imperial College, London, seems engaged in political struggle with the more indigenous Tan Tock Seng Hospital for pre-eminence. No prizes for guessing who is backed by higher forces, and who will eventually win.

Even the student population appears to have been done in. Gigamole has often wondered about the logic of building so many elitist universities, that our own Singaporean children have no choice but to venture overseas if they want a university education.

So Gigamole is not happy. Gigamole can't help feeling betrayed.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sussing out the Susan Lim saga...

Gigamole is deadset against Dr Susan Lim's grotesque charges for her services... especially as Gigamole has to seriously contemplate a car-less future, in view of the even more grotesque COE values.

Even so, Gigamole has to confess to not even coming close to understanding the charges brought against her.

Singapore has no accepted fee structure for medical consultations. A previous non-binding guidelines published by the Singapore Medical Association was unilaterally and mysteriously scrapped in 2007. Apparently this was to make SMA compliant with the Singapore Competition Act of 2004.  Methinks however, it was in response to pressure to free up the fee structure to market forces so that the competition will drive down health care costs. What the policy makers didn't reckon with however, was that this would work only if it is a perfectly free market. But it never was a buyer's market, and fees were not significantly driven down. Instead, the deregulation allowed the high flyers such as Dr Susan Lim to escalate their costs. She is not the only medical consultant in private practice to exploit the deregulation, just the most obvious and noteworthy one. It might never have surfaced if not for the fact that some rich royalty called the Ministry of Health.

One might argue that the 'over-charging' occurred prior to the deregulation in 2007. But for the 20 years before 2007, even with the guidelines in place, there was never anything binding to the extent that anyone could be penalized for over-charging. Therefore, Gigamole is totally mystified as to how the Singapore Medical Council can determine that Dr Susan Lim over-charged anyone.

The Singapore Medical Council owes us an explanation here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The cyclist-motorist conflict - It's time the LTA did something

A paralysis of indecision happens when someone cannot decide between two or more courses of action that will independently lead to conflicting outcomes. We have seen how this can affect regulatory agencies such as the HSA, when trying to decide between pleasing the biomedical industry and protecting public interests A proper balance between conflicting outcomes may be difficult to strike. The indecisive will often just sit on their hands, and hope the problem will blow away, or at the very least stay away until the decision maker can escape to another, usually higher appointment.

The problems between cyclists and motorists have been brewing for a very long time. It's not as if the LTA has not been aware of it. Gigamole had posted before on this conflict almost exactly 2 years ago. Yet no action had been taken since then. Recently, this has blown up again because of some tragic and unnecessary accidents between cyclists and motorists. 

An increasing cyclist lobby are rightfully clamouring for more space, more consideration and more safety. On the other hand motorists say cyclists are often irresponsible on the roads, that motorists feel they have more rights to, as they pay road taxes while cyclists do not. Truth be told, both parties do engage in risky, irresponsible behaviour. Who is right?

It is during times like this that the LTA need to step in and openly declare the appropriate boundaries, physical as well as behavioural. It is in this situation that the LTA has been neglectful, and in my mind irresponsibly indecisive. I can appreciate their dilemma. On one hand they do not want to restrict the behaviour and recreational choices of the growing cycling population. Yet the road system is far from adequate to accommodate both cyclist and motorist needs. Motoring traffic is congested enough as it is already. S what does LTA do....? It appears they just want to sit on their hands and hope the problem will be delayed to the next cohort of managers.

So here is Gigamole pleading again with the LTA.... please do something about this. Before more unnecessary deaths occur. Make the rules clear to both the cycling and motoring populations, and be committed to enforce them until such time as behavioural norms can be established.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!

I love the Malay greeting for Hari Raya. Asking for forgiveness is just so much more meaningful then wishing for prosperity and wealth.
Maybe we should all go round first thing in the morning and wish everyone, particularly our muslim friends, "Maaf zahir & batin".

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri all!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Workplace Safety and Health Act - a case of "I see nutting,I know nutting"?

Gigamole remembers somewhat fondly, an old TV comedy series called Hogan's Heroes, where one of the most colourful characters was a German POW prison seargent, Sgt Schultz, who regularly articulates his famous line, "I see nutting, I know nutting...". Sometimes, I get the feeling that our Ministry of Manpower indulges a bit in this.

The Ministry of Manpower had taken a fresh and refreshing new position with respect to workplace safety in 2005. This was followed up by the enactment of the Workplace Safety and Health Act in 2006. Many of us involved in research labs, were encouraged by this new commitment to workplace safety, and despite the increased administrative, operational and logistic demands, faced up seriously to the challenges. Indeed, there was a flurry of activity on the ground to get procedures and guidelines up and going. Of all the research labs I know of, the National University of Singapore, I think, has been the most systematic and fervently active in pursuing this mission. That's why it's somewhat ironic that they have been the facility in Singapore whose labs have been most frequently blowing themselves up. (see 1, 2, 3, 4)

But despite all these incidents, there is no evidence that the Ministry of Manpower is noticing or doing anything about it. They seem to be content merely in inspecting construction sites. If there had been any action taken about the lab accidents cited above, it's all shrouded in secrecy. Gigamole maintains this is counterproductive. All accidents are learning opportunities. It is only through the systematic revelations of mistakes made at all levels that the infrastructure, management and operators can improve. This is the best way forward to better workplace safety.

Gigamole is really puzzled by the MOM's reluctance to discuss lab accident investigations publicly. Gigamole is reluctant to believe that this is because, unlike construction sites where the subcontractors are relatively lowly placed on the foodchain, the most liable person in the research lab is usually a high value researcher, or a high value institutional leader.

The amazing exploding NUS solar cell laboratory

Barely a day after the National Day parade fireworks, the NUS put up its own pyrotechnics display when a laboratory in Engineering Block E3A blew up. The lab was apparently involved in the production of solar cells. Will we ever know the reason for this massive explosion which thankfully did not result in any serious injury or death? I don't think so, given our local tendency to hide everything. Pity, because there are lessons in it for all.

The link between the manufacture of solar cells and the explosion may not be readily apparent to the uninitiated, but actually solar cell manufacturing is extremely dangerous because it deals with highly explosive materials. Those within the industry will know that the easiest and cheapest way of bonding layers of silica to make the solar cells is through the use of a gas called silane. Silane is actually a combination of silica and hydrogen, and is a very capriciously flammable gas. In chemical terms, the gas is termed pyrophoric, which means it can readily burst into flames even without any sparks to trigger it off. This explosiveness is quite unpredictable and can occur after a delay in exposure.

Over the last few decades, many spectacular silane related explosions  (Bangalore, Taiwan, Osaka to mention a few)  have been reported which have killed a total of at least 20 people. That there was no loss of life at the NUS explosion was more a result of good fortune than good lab practice.

Truth is, silane is a very dangerous gas, whose capriciousness needs to be managed extremely carefully. One of the most dangerous places to use silane, in fact, is in small enclosed spaces - like university labs, or fume cupboards. I need to point out that I have no inside info about whether silane was involved in the NUS accident, but everything I have read points to it being the reason behind the explosion. If so, one wonders how approval was obtained to store and use silane in a relatively common area university laboratory where students come and go.

I really hope the results of lab accident investigations can be made public, the way flight accidents are, so that we all can learn from any mistakes made. But in Singapore, that may be too much to ask.

Recommended reading:
ANSI standards on how to store and handle silane - CGA G-13

Monday, August 13, 2012

Procurement issues - a problem with competence? Surely not.

DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam's announcement that the government will look into widely criticized e-procurement issues is timely and very much appreciated. But his comment that this was all to do with incompetence and compliance shows that perhaps he hasn't quite appreciated what the real problem is.

If indeed compliance was the problem, surely this would have been detected easily through the regular audits, and the necessary corrective action taken. If corrective action had not been taken despite non-compliance having been diagnosed, something is seriously wrong with management. To lay the blame at the level of the procurement officer is misguided to say the least.

If anything, the procurement officer is only all too careful to follow all procedures. He knows he will be caught out by the audit if he is non-compliant. I am not talking here about any intention to cheat. This can happen even if procedures are followed. That is why Minister Khaw can confidently attest in the NParks wayang that "procurement formally observed and complied with the existing rules".

The real problem is not one of incompetence and lack of compliance at the level of the procurement office. Rather it is the lack of understanding at the level of the approving officers and senior management about why the procedures are in place. It is the fallacy that being right is only about procedural correctness.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dr Yahaya Sanusi's Mango Tree - a poem for our times

I reproduce an excerpt of Dr Yahaya Sanusi's "Mango Tree" here. It's a wonderful poem that spoke so much to me about the travails of our time - the passing of the old, the abandonment of the weak, voiceless and powerless for new commercializations, the loss of our soul.

tapi apa kan daya 
waktu telah tiba 
mereka membunuh aku bila aku tak terdaya 
mereka pengecut, penipu 

aku mati untuk kau hidup 
kau adalah warisanku 
jagalah martabatmu 
selamat tinggal 

(the time has come 
and now it's done 
they take me down, I cannot fend 
cowards and liars, they still pretend 

I die, so that you live 
my legacy, you shall receive 
hold your head high with dignity 
fare thee well till eternity 
my dear)

The full poem and the story of Hidayah Amin's mango tree can be found at Ms Amin's Gedung Kuning blogsite.

Majulah Singapura

Indeed, we do love Singapore, our home. Here's my wish list for this year's birthday celebrations:

a] that while we react very publicly against some government policies and misdeeds, we do not run down our beloved homeland;

b] that we learn to distinguish between ruling party, government and country;

c] that the government will re-commit to focusing on the poor, unable or incapable - and generally those among us who need a hand in this difficult world. The current balance is not right. Too much of our resources has been devoted to building up those who are already successful. The government has to date been too miserly in its dealings with the other end of the spectrum in our society;

d] that the government will stop this idiocy in buying cheap glory through the wholesale import of "foreign talent". What pride is there in this vicarious pursuit? While I was cheering on Ms Feng Tian Wei during her table tennis matches, I found myself strangely more drawn to support Malaysian badminton champ Lee Chong Wei when he was playing Lin Dan. I have to confess to some envy of the Malaysians among us, that they should have someone so homegrown and local as their champion. Though Malaysian, Dato Lee could easily pass off for the boy down the road here in Singapore. A real ka kee nang. It didn't matter that he lost. He was the object of much love and adulation even in defeat. And whatever problems the Malaysians may be struggling through in the lead up to their national elections, Dato Lee's defeat brought the people together. A lesson for the government here. It really isn't about winning or losing, but what participation truly means to the people. Solidarity doesn't come from buying cheap (not so cheap considering the $$$ spent) cosmetic simulates of glory. This only serves the interests of the 'elite' who want to posture on the world stage.

So thank you Minister Chan Chun Sing for acknowledging this problem. It's time to put a stop this lunacy.

e] that we all learn to be more gracious and welcoming to the new immigrants among us. It doesn't matter what their reasons are for taking up citizenship here. Our forefathers all came here to make money and to find a better life for themselves and their families. Our new comrades deserve an equal chance at this. Let us welcome them and make them feel at home. Singaporeans are much more caring and gracious then what has been portrayed in the more xenophobic blogs. Let's not forget what being Singaporean means.

So we turn 47 today. Cheer up, we'll survive this mid-life crisis if we but pull together, and remember our love for Singapore.

Majulah Singapura!

Friday, August 3, 2012

The exploding laboratory....who is responsible?

In 2008, an accident in a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) chemistry lab claimed the life of a young research assistant Sheri Sangji. An inflammable chemical she was working with had burst into flames. Not even wearing a protective lab coat, her sweater caught fire. Her lab colleagues didn't even know how to put out the flames, and she didn't even know well enough to get under the safety shower in the lab.

In the aftermath, UCLA and the Principle Investigator of the lab were charged as there was evidence of negligence with respect to lab safety procedures and training. Just a week ago, the university reached a settlement and had charges dropped after agreeing to put in place extensive corrective measures for lab safety, and also setting up a half a million US$ scholarship in Ms Sangji's name. Charges against the investigator Prof Patrick Harran, however, remain. At least for the moment.

Meanwhile, the outcome of the investigations into the NUS lab accident last year remains unclear. I hope there is no intent to sweep the proceeding under the carpet, because there is so much for us to learn from the accident. The WSH Act has yet to be clearly applied to lab safety in Singapore, and it is instructive for all involved in the labs to see how lines of responsibility are drawn should accidents occur. This is not a matter to be played out behind the scenes but a lesson to be placed in the public domain. Safety in our research labs is an important message to drive home.