So what’s new? In the early hours of 2017, 39 people were killed in a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey. The gunman had opened fire on 600 partying people with an automatic weapon. Not surprisingly, IS has claimed responsibility for the attack even as the war in Syria rages on with IS losing ground and clueless folks cheering for Vladimir Putin’s involvement.
In the first few days of 2017, many of us are already left wondering without any need to look back. Closer to home, there is “good news”. Singapore’s economy was said to have avoided a technical recession, growing by 1.8% in Q4 2016 versus one year ago. The local news channels report that the scorecard exceeded our good government’s expectations and “catapulted” the Gross Deception Product figures, with the economy expanding by over 9% ….
As usual, the average Joe like me should be forgiven for asking “How on earth is that going to make a difference to my declining quality of life?”. Suffice to say that if the stock market buys any of that, I’m cashing out. Meanwhile, our newsPAPers report that the Ringgit has dipped to its weakest level since the 1998 Asian financial crisis. They have also reported that the RMB has weakened (versus the USD if you bother to read beyond the headlines).
Back in November 2016, our local news were reporting that “Ringgit drops to all-time low against Singdollar”. It’s too easy to assume that one month later in December, any reports on a further falling Ringgit would mean that those holding SGD can celebrate. Well, not so. Hidden deep within or conveniently ignored in these reports, is the fact that the SGD has also weakened. You need to do a bit of mining on the internet to see the whole picture.
This is the easiest chart to read. Back in November/early December 2016, 1SGD bought you around 3.1 Ringgit. Today, it buys you only 3.0+.
And this is how much a rapidly “weakening” RMB (versus USD only) 1SGD could buy you since August last year. I remember buying Y4.94 with every 1SGD just a few months ago. Today, our SGD only buys 4.8+ yuan in spite of the yuan having fallen significantly against the USD.
As for those who travel frequently to Thailand to do their shopping, 1SGD could buy you 25 baht not too long ago. Not anymore. Today, it buys you just a little more than 24 baht. This makes me want to kick myself. I should have held on to my property over there and cashed out later. I would have been able to exchange quite a bit more SGD at relatively higher baht values.
A local university professor said that looking on the bright side, a weak SGD is good for exports. And what are our top exports? Petroleum products and electronics. Go figure that one out yourself. How about tourism? We shall see.
With that, let’s move on to another piece of news which shook the earth for me more than the magnitude 5.5 earthquake that struck Fukushima at the end of 2016 did, but it turned out to be a teaser. It seems that the general manager and secretary of Ang Mo Kio Town Council (AMKTC) has been removed from his duties and is under investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
Mr Victor Wong, who works for CPG Facilities Management, the managing agent of the town council, was asked to go on leave by his company after the town council received a complaint about him in September 2016, town council chairman Ang Hin Kee told The Straits Times on Dec 29 2016.
As expected, Mr Ang declined to reveal details about the case, citing ongoing investigations, but said that the town council constantly reminded its staff to declare any interests concerning tenders that the town council was awarding.
That’s AMK we’re talking about. Our PM’s constituency! Can it ever get any jucier than that? Even if it doesn’t qualify as headline news, shouldn’t we have some experts talking about best practices, transparency, accountability and integrity? One can only imagine how the headlines will be hogged by ministers taking their turns to “stone” their political opponents if this had happened in Aljunied. Don’t be surprised if our opposition MPs are all hauled in by the CPIB for questioning – or even worse. Nothing of that sort seems to be happening at AMK, except that a few stones cast and swords thrown some time ago decided to bounce back.
Instead of a big read on the AMK Town Council scandal, we have a couple of pages devoted to “Complex dynamics at play ahead of presidential poll”. Complex? Yao mo gao chor ah? Isn’t it as simple as making sure that the “right” person gets “elected”, preferably in a walkover?
But wait a minute. Even if we have a functional Fourth Estate which people like Dr Chee Soon Juan has been wailing for since he took an interest in politics, it’s probably not going to affect this government’s chances at the polls. I’ve tried arguing with Dr Chee that media is not the main problem. You can hit the government with 100 scandals. People will still support them in lieu of gifts and upgrading. The results of GE2015 clearly demonstrate that the folks at Hougang and Potong Pasir who had proudly resisted the “carrots” and defied the “warnings” have somehow petered out.
Finally a letter to Voices by Mr Edmund Khoo which addresses the problems with medical tourism in Singapore. Here are a few points from his letter which I would like to address:
Visitors cannot be drawn here for shopping due to the strong Singapore dollar, and expensive goods can be purchased in their home countries or abroad for far less.
As I’ve already pointed out, the SGD has weakened. Even if it weakens further, it is unlikely to attract shoppers simply because our retail experience here sucks. Price may not even be the main issue here. Compare the basic EQ and attitude of our shop assistants here with those in Taiwan and Thailand. Why do people shop there instead? Because apart from cheaper goods and greater variety, the whole retail experience in these places way surpasses ours.
Mr Khoo went on to perpetuate the myth of the strong SGD. But that again, it is not the reason for Singapore to fail in its position as the medical hub.
If the Government had taken an active role in reining in costs and taking private hospitals to task for overcharging and over-utilisation of services, the medical hospitality sector in Singapore may have remained bullish.
If you travel to a foreign country to seek medical treatment, you are doing so either because you want to pay considerably less than in your home country or you’re seeking services not available in your home country. Countries like Thailand and Korea are able to satisfy these demands because of the relatively low costs of manpower and other overheads. When my first child was born in Chiangmai, Thailand, we paid only the equivalent of S$1500 for Caesarian delivery and 2 days’ stay for mother and child in a private VIP room. The room had an extra bed for the patient’s companion. Food could be ordered from outside and pushing the call button summoned the nurse on duty in less than 5 minutes.
It’s not just cost we’re talking about here. It’s also about the excellent service and the “royal treatment” which Singapore will not be able to provide as long as education here is focused on social mobility and PISA scores. Matching the prices charged by the Thais and Koreans will only turn our medical professionals into beggars. There is simply no way we can compete, thanks to our real estate based economy and a plethora of indirect taxation which push the cost of living to levels unseen in any country in the region.
Besides that, we have issues with regulations as well. A lot of cost-effective advertising methods like online interaction and the showing of results of treatment are not allowed in Singapore. Instead, high cost seminars in collaboration with news channels have to be organised. Regulations also do not permit the integration of non-medical or alternative therapies. In Thailand, you can get a foot massage while your teeth are being whitened. Conventional medical treatment with massage and aromatherapy are provided under the same roof. The same sort of facilities are not allowed in Singapore.
Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and India have invested a lot of money into improving their healthcare capabilities, infrastructure and services. As a result, the incentives for seeking treatment in the Republic have diminished.
Singapore’s long-term prospects as a medical hub can be revived, given the availability of high quality medical staff and equipment, if the Government were to increase oversight of private sector charges.
Singapore may boast some the latest medical technologies, but bear in mind that low tech treatments are sometimes more cost effective. The high registration fees and the sheer amount of “paperwork” for HSA approved products have caused many bucket shops supplying cheap, no-frills medical products to close down. I believe that while Singapore continues to provide high cost, high standard of medical care, it will never become a hub for foreign medical tourists. Costs cannot be tackled simply with increased government oversight. Ultimately, the culture, the ambition and attitudes of Singaporeans will ensure that we produce the most skilled doctors but certainly not the best overall treatment experience at competitive prices that will attract foreigners.