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ST Forum: Safety should come before style in flat design

Straits Times Forum 23 June 2012
Tan Xiu-Yin (Ms)

I agree with  Mr Ang Chin Guan’s letter (“Focus on safety first in building HDB flats”; Forum Online, Wednesday).

My family and I, owners of a new Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flat in The Peak @ Toa Payoh, discovered designs that create safety concerns.

The bay windows in the bedroom, while pleasing to the eye, act as a step to the window grilles comprising a series of four horizontal bars that lead to a huge gap at the top.  Active children who love to climb may regard it as a children’s gym meant for exploration.  Diagonal bars, or even floral design grilles would have been safer.

The three- and four-room units have master bedroom toilet doors through which pregnant women, or larger people, cannot squeeze.

A folding or sliding door would have been more practical.

The gates of the flats are oddly designed.  The padlock holders are not on the inside of the gate facing the interior of the flat, but outside the unit.  The design makes it hard to lock and unlock the gate.  If a fire breaks out, the occupants will have a hard time escaping because the padlock is located outside and at a height above the shoulders.

Residents whose units are perpendicular to each other have discovered that they cannot open their gates at the same time or keep the gates open as this will impede the movement of people from the other unit.  The gates should have opened not towards each other but in different directions.

Huge planters are provided but not everyone has a green thumb, and as the planters are like drains, they are a hazard for children.

The HDB, the developer Hoi Hup, and the Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council should take a good hard look at how the units are designed.


A&W – Before they bought the flat, they would have visited the show flat.  I can only wonder why did Ms Tan proceed to purchase the flat despite all the ‘hazards’ that she perceived?

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Marriage, Divorce, Children.

Watched a romantic comedy sometime back and picked up a message from there.

Two good people may not mean they are the best for each other in marriage.

No, I am not a good person, far from it. But my noble better half is. Too good. Perfect – many people say 🙂

So, what happens when your other half is perfect?  Tough. Simply because he can do no wrong, so you are always the evil one :p

My friend, let’s call her Sandra, is in the midst of getting a divorce. Two little kids. Reason? Extra marital affair.

The affair started about three years ago. And it all started from a text message from the other woman. Sandra confronted her husband and naturally, he denied.  Husband kept insisting that she was imagining things, that she was nuts and that she needed to pay a visit to the shrink.

It took her all in all two years to collect evidence which proved that she is not insane.  During which, she tried her best to salvage the marriage, for herself and for her kids.

Granted, she is not exactly your perfect wife. As a good friend, I must say she can be quite demanding, bossy even.  But if those were the reasons that her husband give for his running astray, then it is too lame.  For, at the end of the day, it is all due to his self-centeredness.

Yes, men (ok, not all) are generally more self-centered than women.

When women become mothers, we start to divert part of our energy to the children for we believe that it is our responsibility to care for them, to be with them especially during their growing years.

Some men, on the other hand,  insist on living life pre-parenthood.

My father-in-law, who is one of the best man you can find, never fail to emphasize that mothers are great and it is the mother’s duty to educate the children. “What the kids turn out, it depends on how the mother educate them”, he tells you.

I thank him for having such faith in mothers but frankly, it is just another way of saying, “they are the wife’s job, not the husband’s”.

Anyway, Sandra had a terrible time before she decided to file for divorce. People around her have been advising her against it and constantly asking her to consider her little ones.

“Think about your kids, they are innocent.” “Poor thing to grow up in an incomplete family” “Give him a chance”

She will text me every other night, in the wee hour, about the slightest fight that she was having with him.

She was mentally tortured and she was falling apart.

She just could not ”close one eye” to his affair which he has no plan to end.

I picture her going through the torment day after day, year after year,  just so that her kids can continue to have a ‘complete’ family.

15 years or so down the road, her kids will probably be married and have their own families. They will have lesser time for their mother, probably only visiting her once a week, if not once a month or a year.

Dear husband probably still happily enjoying his double life. Or might have initiated divorce himself before that.

The optimist will think that he may grow to be more sensible and responsible as he aged, recalls the wedding vow, feels terribly sorry for his cheating and makes up to the wife. They will renew their vow and live happily ever after.

What of her then, if the outcome is not fairy tale?

A 60-year-old grumpy LONELY woman living out the balance 20 years of her life?

Sandra filed for divorce and people around her including her family, blamed her for the initiative.

“You should just close one eye for the sake of your kids!”

Marriage is about two people. When it fails, no party can shirk the responsibility. And honestly, sometimes, a divorce may be the best solution.

But more often than not, we will see the wives having to bear the brunt of it. Simply because wives are mothers and mothers are supposed to sacrifice for their children.

They have totally forgotten that fathers are part of the equation too.

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North Korean defector tells of death and despair at prison camp

The Korea Herald/Asia News Network Thursday, Jun 21, 2012

Three years after defecting here from North Korea, Kim Hye-sook is slowly recovering from the wounds she incurred during nearly three decades in a prison camp.

But potent memories of herself and fellow prisoners being starved, battered and unspeakably humiliated still haunt her.

Kim, 49, thought she would have no more tears to cry. But her lips quivered and eyes brimmed over with tears while recounting the stories of her children and siblings still in the North.

“I met my mother for the first time in five years at a prison camp. I couldn’t recognize her at first. She looked thin and just like a beggar dressed in filthy clothes that I saw in old movies, a sign of how hard her life had been there,” she told The Korea Herald.

“Her looks and two other raw-boned siblings ? born in a tumbledown house in the camp ? left me speechless. Although I was too young to get a full grasp of what was going on, I knew (that we are in trouble).”

She was brought to the prison camp located somewhere in or close to Pyongyang in 1975, some five years after the rest of her family were dragged there for a reason security authorities did not explain.

After being released from the camp in August 2002, her relatives told her that her entire family had been branded political prisoners after her grandfather defected to the South.

While being brainwashed to worship the ruling Kim dynasty in the prison camp where physical and mental abuses were routine, she did not have the faintest idea about whether her human rights were trampled or even ever existed.

“I did not know what the abuses were. I only knew Kim Jong-il was the great leader. At school, when someone asks you when the great leader was born, you have to automatically recite what you memorized, or else you would get beaten,” she said.

“One of the most traumatic things was when a prison officer at a mine full of coal dust ordered me to kneel and spat out his phlegm into my throat. It happened three times to me. It was shockingly humiliating to me. If you resist it or show you feel like throwing up, then the next thing is severe battering.”

Kim had to endure all this as she had to take care of her young siblings and ailing grandmother after her anemic mother accidentally fell to her death on a mountain and her father was taken away by security authorities.

The responsibility as a breadwinner weighed heavily on her mind as the young, feeble Kim herself wanted someone to rely on. The specter of death continued throughout her life in the camp where she said at least two or three people each month were executed.

“At the camp, the first reason for execution was asking anybody why you were dragged there. I heard my father was taken away because he asked the authorities why our family was brought there,” she said.

“The second reason was stealing food. The amount of food rationed to prisoners is all the same, but if one had more, then someone reported it to the authorities and then, he or she was executed. If you talked back or were disobedient, you would be executed too.”

Kim vividly remembered the massive purging of North Korean officials that the deceased leader Kim Jong-il carried out in the 1990s in the process of consolidating his power after the death of his father and national founder Kim Il-sung.

“Thousands of people, at the time, were executed as they asked the authorities why they were dragged into the prison. I was petrified and told myself that I should behave well not to be executed like that,” she said.

Over the span of 28 years, things at the brutal camp were not improving at all, she said, dismissing any hopes that human rights conditions in the impoverished state would improve under its new leader Kim Jong-un.

“When Kim Jong-il took power (after his father died in 1994), things got a lot worse as he purged and executed many in his use of coercion to make people coalesce around him,” she said.

“In the case of the new leader, he has now nothing to lose. He does not have his father and many relatives to care about. I think his dictatorship will be even more severe than his father’s.”

As an example of worsening conditions in the North, she shared the story of a mother who killed her 16-year-old son and sold his flesh as pork meat.

“When I was repatriated (after being caught working at a restaurant in China in October 2007), I met a woman in a prison cell whom the prison officer berated for having murdered and sold her son as pork meat,” she said.

After the repatriation, she was sentenced in February 2008 to another six months of hard labor, something she could no longer endure after coming to terms with the reality that her life was not protected by the “Dear Leader,” but brutally devastated.

Less than a month after the sentencing, she risked her life to flee the prison at night when she was ordered to clean the streets.

“Though all areas surrounding the prison were blocked with electrified barbed wire, I knew several holes to sneak out of the camp. I lived there for long enough to know that,” she said.

In August 2009, Kim landed in the South via Thailand. She came into the spotlight with many civic groups inviting her to speak about freedom and human rights ? concepts she never understood nor imagined in the North.

As time went by, she slowly felt the need to speak up about the human rights issues to help other downtrodden North Koreans and her children that she gave birth to in the camp after marrying another prisoner who died in a coal mine accident.

“I want to tell North Koreans not to die and rise up and survive,” she said.

Kim now runs the Organization for the Elimination of Political Prison Camps in North Korea where she has spearheaded a campaign to publicize the dire human rights situation.

With freedom and care from society, she now understands what happiness is. But she hopes to share the happiness with her siblings and two children still suffering from poverty and suppression in the isolated country.

“I wouldn’t have any regrets of my life if I could have a chance to see them once before I die. Whenever I eat good food, I am automatically reminded of my loved ones in the North,” she said.

Kim is to deliver another testimony about her experience in the prison camp at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul on Thursday.


A&W – am reading “Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden” now.  Constantly thinking how I would be like if I were to be born in North Korea.  Would definitely not be in the elite class. And being one who does not exactly follow rules all the time, I’d probably end up in one of the prisoner camps. I shudder at the thought of it.

Thank goodness, I’m born here in Singapore.  Even the worst that I have had experienced as a child, when mum was struggling to put food on the table, I had fresh bread to eat, never mind if it was plain.


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Sometimes, it’s better to give in even if you’re right

Maureen Koh – The New Paper – 17 June 2012

Between a durian tree and a spat over noise, I cannot decide which is more hilarious or ridiculous.

Hard feelings to match the concrete walls of HDB flats?

On Tuesday, The New Paper reported about residents in a Bukit Batok block petitioning to have their neighbour evicted.

They complained that Madam X, who is in her late 50s, makes loud banging sounds in the wee hours of the morning.

A day later, there was a report that residents in a Moulmein Road HDB block were trading barbs over a durian tree.

The spat came to light after one neighbour called the police to complain that her neighbour had scolded her with vulgar language because she picked durians from a tree which he claimed to own.

A friend, who works as a Community Mediation Centre (CMC) mediator, says “It’s amazing sometimes to hear the kind of complaints.”

Do you believe that we’ve even got residents who walk in to complain that their neighbour sings in the bathroom?”

A&W – that’s not me hor.

He laughs, then adds:” And you have to take their complaints seriously, even if you think it’s silly.”

The CMC, a department under the Ministry of Law, provides community mediation services.

It deals with more than 300 cases of disputes between neighbours each year.  It handled 324 cases in 2008, 366 in 2009, 334 in 2010 and 338 last year.

The most common disputes include noise disturbances and obstruction of the common corridor.

Housewife Lai Lee Peng, 70, laments the loss of the kampung spirit.

Madam Lai, who lives in a four-room HDB flat in Tampines, says – “Some of my neighbours don’t even smile at each other when they walk into the life.

“They can be waiting for the lifts at the lobby and they’d stare at their feet, their mobile phones or the ceiling.”

A&W – how about try smiling to them first?  You see, people nowadays tend to be a tad shy.  Or they may be worrying that their smiles will not be reciprocated and thus making them feeling like a ‘fool’. 

So, we usually will smile at new faces, if they smile back, we go on to say “Hi” followed by “Just got back from work? / Wah, today very hot hor? / Makan already?….”  More often than not, we will start a conversation and finally get to know each other.

Of course, occasionally, we will get those who really just cannot be bothered.  For this group, we just take it as they are private people and really prefers to stay private. Or perhaps they simply don’t like us 😦

A group of six elderly people seated around a table at the Old Airport Road Food Centre were discussing the durian spat.

Mr John Tung, a retiree, 70, laughs and says in Cantonese :” So dumb to fight over durians. How much does it cost to buy your own?”

“Why argue over it and make yourself unhappy? Not shiok eating then.”

A&W – Uncle John, don’t you know that being able to get something for free when others have to pay for it is really ”shiok deh” !

His friend, who wants to be known only as Mr Lim, lives in the same HDB block in Moulmein.

Mr Lim, 64, a plumber, agrees that “you can easily buy better durians, lah”.

He says :” I don’t want to get involved but I always laugh when I hear from my wife about the squabbles.”

It’s harder to tolerate noise disturbances, says Madam Chua Yeow Chi, 58, a food centre cleaner.

The grandmother of a six-month-old baby says in Hokkien :” I always say that sometimes people should learn to open one eye and close the other.”

“Yet, I found it hard to be patient when the neighbours upstairs played mahjong the whole day, right up to 3 or 4 am.”

Madam Chua says :” When it’s so late in the night, the noise will sound louder.  We don’t have air-con in our home so when it gets noisy, my baby granddaughter wakes up.”

A&W – good training actually, To let her get used to all the noise so that when she starts surfing the net, she will have been immuned, hopefully 🙂

It’s easy – though unfair – to dismiss these complaints as frivolous.  Sometimes, you won’t know until you are living in the same vicinity.

Mr K.Yogachandran, 49, a bus driver, found this out first hand after a change in his three-year night-shift routine.

He says :” My wife used to complain that our neighbour, who lives two floors up, had rowdy parties.”

” Nothing much has been done even though our other neighbours have called the police several times.”

Mr Yogachandran would tell his wife to be more tolerant until he found out “how bad it really was”.

A&W – see? men just don’t get it till they themselves experience it.

He recalls :” The noise – music, TV shows, drilling and even banging – continued until midnight.”

In February, I wrote in this column about how every few Sunday mornings, I would wake up to a din that drove me mad.

A woman’s shrill screams would pierce the quiet neighbourhood for reasons so mundane that it’s not worth mentioning.

I wrote about how I have harboured thoughts of marching upstairs and banging hard on my neighbour’s door.

Guess what? Two other neighbours who read the column pumped my hand in gratitude for highlighting it.

Then one of them asked :” Why didn’t you name here ?”

Well, for the same reason I don’t confront her – for the sake of neighbourly harmony.

A&W – Bravo Maureen! That’s the way to go, I don’t like confrontation unless it’s towards people who I will probably not see for the rest of my life; or with people whom I know even after I’ve confronted, we will be the same as we were or better still, our relationship takes a step forward.

But I am also fortunate that we are good neighbours – or friends – with the three families who share the same common space on our floor.

The reason for this success: Give and take. That’s what community living should be about.

A&W – quote for the day :-  GIVE & TAKE 

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Myths in the go-slow debate

Taking economy out of the fast lane may not be all it seems

 Straits Times – Published on Jun 17, 2012 … By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor (muihoong@sph.com.sg)

Singapore is embarked on a national conversation about the model and pace of growth. But sometimes, the debate seems to be at cross purposes.

Take the issue flagged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on whether Singapore should go for strong growth when it can, or opt for a slower pace. He recently told members of the Economic Society of Singapore: ‘I know that some Singaporeans welcome the prospect of slower growth. Some want us to slow down even below our economy’s potential. ‘They argue that we already have enough material success, and should give less weight to economic factors, and more to social considerations. And that we should spend more on ourselves, and put aside less for the future.’

There are two different questions here.

The first is: what pace of growth do we want for Singapore?

The second is distributive: what level of social spending can Singapore afford?

The answer to the first is surely obvious: As much growth as we can get, while we can, in a way that does not make life difficult for the more vulnerable.

Past framing of the issue as one between ‘growth at all costs’ and ‘slow growth’ is an injustice to both camps. In fact, the debate is riddled with three mutually distorting myths.

Slow growth, less stress

The first myth is that slower growth equals lower stress.

Slower pace of life, fewer foreigners to compete for jobs with locals, cheaper housing with lower demand – what’s not to like, then, about slow growth?

But slower growth also means the economy will shrink, some businesses go bust, workers lose jobs.

It is the vulnerable workers who will bear the brunt of a shrinking economy: the elderly worker, the middle- aged technician or saleswoman who has worked 20 years in the same small company that folded and may not get another good position.

When you lose your job in your 40s or 50s, chances are high that you end up permanently under-employed.

You may still get a job, but at lower pay, with reduced benefits and on contract, with reduced hours.

Without a national survey, I cannot say how many Singaporeans seriously want the country to opt for a slow growth path.

Those who already have means may find a leisurely pace of life intellectually and emotionally appealing.

But the average Singaporean heartlander is still at an aspirational phase: he wants a good job, pay rises, a nice home and prospects for his children.

I am willing to venture most Singaporeans, if asked, would be quite happy with going for growth while the country is able. So long, that is, as they share in the benefits of growth.

Fast growth is unequal, so slow is good

This leads me to the second myth in this debate: the idea that fast growth breeds inequality, and therefore slower growth is better.

It is true fast growth exacerbates inequality.

When the economy booms, those earning $100,000 a year may find their income tripling as performance bonuses stack up. Those earning $1,000 a month may get a $50 pay rise.

The gap between the top and bottom incomes yawns wider.

 But the solution is not to stave off growth.

Size and distribution are different concerns.

You go for a larger pie first, and then you figure out how to slice it more fairly.

 Going slow is a choice

The third myth is the notion that Singapore can choose to go slow or grow fast.

In fact, the choice will be made for us.

As PM Lee noted, slow growth is unavoidable.

You do not need an economics degree to understand that Singapore’s mature economy is at a very high base, which means future growth will be slower. Its limited land and labour also constrain growth.

This is an accepted premise by all sides in this discussion.

It is therefore important to understand what critics of ‘growth at all costs’ are lamenting. They are not saying Singapore should slacken.

In essence, they are saying fast growth should be conditional on benefits being spread equitably, and on maintaining quality of life.

So there is no point in going for fast growth of say 8 per cent if:

The benefits only go to those at the top, say, if incomes grow 8 per cent or more for those at the top, while the majority see their wages stagnate or even drop. Wage rises are wiped out by rising prices.

If cost of things like health care, transport and food go up by more than 8 per cent, workers end up worse off than before.

Growth worsens quality of life – for example if you need to bring in so many foreigners to grow 8 per cent that the city gets overcrowded, and housing costs go up beyond your affordability.

In other words, it is the impact of high growth, unmitigated by social policies, that is being faulted.

This is not the same as saying slow growth is preferred over fast growth.

Rather, it is about saying: Go for growth that is balanced and sustainable, with benefits shared with the majority.

If the alternative to 8 per cent growth is growth of 4 per cent, with real wage increases across the board and enough foreigners to fill jobs yet keep Singapore’s pleasant living environment, then maybe Singapore should go for 4 per cent, this camp will say.

But in the end, these are hypothetical numbers.

Economic growth is a function of inputs: with zero or minus population growth and low productivity, even slow growth will be a challenge.

In this set-up, the debate over fast or slow is academic.

As a price-taker in a globalised, cut-throat, capitalist world, tiny Singapore would be wise to take its growth when it can, and share the fruits of growth equitably.

Since a slower pace of growth is inevitable, I find it more meaningful to talk about how to prepare better for a world when jobs are harder to come by and incomes stagnate or even fall.

My own view is that our social safety nets have too many holes.

The emphasis on self and family as the first line of defence against the usual life risks of unemployment, disability or disease worked well when real incomes grew steadily; the old age support ratio was high, with many young working folks per elderly person; and each successive generation was better educated, drew higher pay and could support their ageing parents.

Each of those three assumptions has broken down.

Real incomes at the bottom and middle have see-sawed in the last two decades; the old age support ratio will plunge from six working adults per elderly today to two in 2030; and today’s young born in the 1990s will start work and form families amid soaring asset prices, no longer assured of having a better life than their parents born in the 1960s who started on a much lower base.

There is an urgent need to rethink assumptions underlying Singapore’s social policy approach, and do the hard policy work of coming up with alternatives, and the even harder political work of convincing people to buy into new kinds of social security programmes that share risks in a different way.


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The Screaming Chameleon

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