Celebrate SG50 by gifting needy with $2 or more?

Today is the day when many of us wish one another a good year ahead. I have received and sent out my share of wishes for sweet surprises for 2015.

Today is also the day when we are counting down to the 50th year of Singapore’s reluctant independence from Malaysia.

Today is the day when we are on the cusp of the biggest national bash in Singapore’s post independence history. It will be SG50 with everything within a few hours.

Today is the day when I recall again — have done so on and off over the years — where I was when I heard that Singapore was no longer part of Malaysia.

I was outside Victoria train station in London one late August afternoon when I saw a newspaper poster screaming “SINGAPORE OUT”.

As a teen-aged student who followed the news only sporadically, I wondered what it was all about. Bought a copy of the evening newspaper — Evening Standard or Evening News, can’t remember which — and found that Singapore was out of Malaysia. Couldn’t understand the implications nor did I really try.

In fact I learned how upset former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was only years later — in 1968 to be precise when a colleague in the Straits Times newsroom in Kuala Lumpur waxed lyrical about Mr Lee’s tears.

This colleague was a Malaysian student in Perth and vividly retold what she saw on TV on the faterful day of the Malayisa-Singapopre separation.

“I admire your prime minister,” Yeoh Phaik Kim declared again and again.

Even that conversation and that colleague and I have been separated by more than 40 years.

Much has changed. Yet little has changed.

I returned from KL to work in Singapore. One day after work, I saw an old man sleeping on the five-foot way opposite where I was living (which incidentally like many buildings in Singapore has been demolished). I remember seeing him there when I left for work.

Asked him why. I was too young to understand that he might be hungry or had no home to go to. Or if I did, I assumed it was par for the course.

After all, when i was growing up in the same neighbourhood, I had witnessed beggars going from house to house regularly to ask for something to eat. My family always spared them a few cents which in those days could buy a bowl of noodles from the street cart vendors.

So I spared the old man some loose change. And even gave him some biscuits. And sure enough, he wasn’t there any more when I looked out my window later that night.

Wish I can say the same for the generic poor in Singapore. Today, although no one (other than scouts or other trick-or-treat rich kids) comes to my door to solicit something to fill his own stomach, the poor are very much with us.

Two weeks ago, one thundery wet afternoon, I saw a tiny waif of a woman picking up discarded cardboard outside the back door of the Fairprice outlet in Blk 280, Bukit Batok.

I had gone there for a GP-friend to give one of the family’s helpers her MOM mandated check up.

The cardboard picker was soaked even though she did wear a flimsy plastic poncho with hood. The cardboard she was collecting was soaked and disintegrating even as she tried to bundle the lot together.

I felt compelled to hand her a little something that would make her cardboard scavenging unnecessary — at least for that day.

But the pain of pervasive poverty didn’t leave me that afternoon.

I went to the OCBC ATM outside Fairprice to withdraw some spending money. Someone before me had left his/her withdrawal slip where the input keys were.

I am a kaypoh.

I picked it up and the numbers gave me yet another reality jolt.

The person before me (552XXXX203) had withdrawn $20. The available balance was just $34.49.

Fine if it was a domestic helper or a young student with employer or family to fall back on. Not so if it’s an adult, with no family support or worse, has a whole family of dependents!

So amidst all sorts of SG50 celebrations to spend money to mark the occasion, I would like to propose my favourite.

To celebrate SG50, let us adopt this habit to gift $2 (or more) to someone in need or looks in need we come across.

Of course, do respect their dignity. Make sure to smile and say “please let me buy you a coffee?”

A few may say no. Try to persuade. If they still say no, then say something like “another time? Bye”.

In my experience, persistence works in all cases.

So if they say no, try, try and try again. It’s not a waste of time to convince these aunties and uncles that someone out there actually wants to share a tiny something with them.

So young and so kind!

Three wonderful encounters on Saturday Nov 1 (due to it being All Saints’ Day?) left me hopeful that SG’s future has a good chance of remaining or even bettering today’s generally kind nation.

First, I was at the Kwan Im Hood Cho Temple in Waterloo Street to do my usual thing. After a few minutes inside the temple, I left and saw, as I made way towards Fortune Centre, a few young kids offering a lunch box to a tissue seller. They had some persuading to do!

The kids couldn’t be more than 12, possibly younger. But they were earnest in harassing the tissue uncle to accept their food. And it wasn’t a once-off gesture. The same kids repeated it with another tissue seller.

I am not sure if it’s a “movement” involving more children or just those three I saw. Whatever it is, I am happy to witness the kind acts, unlike the usual donation drive vultures — usually young adults — who ask for money for this or that needy cause, in SG or elsewhere, quite oblivious to the very needy right next to or in front of them.

Earlier on, before I entered the temple, I was touched and humbled to see a father showing his little boy how to pay for the tissue paper they bought from a wheel chair bound woman seller. He held the kid’s small hands which were holding a $2 note and together father and son offered their cash with overt sincerity and respect.

I wish more parents would be so hands-on in teaching their offspring the right way to do a kind deed.

The third kind gesture by a young kid had me at the receiving end.

After the temple and a few other errands I went to VivoCity in search of Pat’s Oven which sells exactly the sort of nuts I like to eat.

While there, I decided to do some shopping at Cold Storage.

Bad idea as my car was parked on the 2nd level and the supermarket was in the basement!

Added to that bad move was another one of choosing to use a basket instead of a trolley which saw me joining a slow moving Q humping a heavy basket that I had to be put down and then lift up as one more customer ahead of me paid for his/her purchases. And I inched up the Q.

I was just two customers away from the cashier when the kid — he looked no more than 16!! and I am at an age when anyone under 32 is a kiddo! — immediately ahead of me in the Q turned and said: “I carry up your basket for you after I pay?” (meaning he would help me put my basket on the belt for the cashier to tally).

“Yes, please,” I replied. Surprised and pleased. Especially when earlier I had snarled at him and his mates who though not buying anything were fooling around their friend.

“Eh, got eggs in my basket — if one of you fall, who will pay for the broken eggs, ah?”

His mates muttered apologies and disappeared.

His subsequent offer in the context of what went on before is therefore doubly kind.

Oh yes, his name is Jonathan! :D!

Pioneer perks and pains

First, I was pleasantly surprised today when I visited my GP — an ex-neighbour with a clinic in Bukit Batok — to consult about a suddenly super itchy throat and occasional coughing.

After the consultation and receiving three types of medication, I was told that no payment was needed as I hold a Pioneer Generation card. 🙂

Second, I was pleasantly surprised again at the Bishan Fairprice Finest outlet to be told that I would get a discount on my purchases if I had a Pioneer card. This was the Monday bonus for us Pioneers!

Well, I have and showed it with alacrity.

Only to be told: “And now your IC”.

Huh? Why an IC?

The cashier auntie deadpan: “to confirm you aren’t using someone else’s Pioneer card.”

I duly showed my IC but the pleasure that Mr Lim Swee Say hoped to give us Pioneers was destroyed in one go.

For heaven’s sake. It’s only a 3% discount!!

Would I, or anyone, be so desperate to get 66 cents off our bills (that’s my discount) as to borrow someone’s Pioneer card? And if someone elderly (but doesn’t belong to the Pioneer Generation) and so desperate would it kill Fairprice to let them have that discount just once or twice?

Today’s request reminded me of the days when I was asked for my bus pass to prove that I qualify for the Tuesday 2% elderly discount, even though I have a union member card.

As I don’t have a bus pass, I had to show my IC. There were even a couple of times at an outlet with unbending cashier aunties when I was refused a discount with my IC as the bus pass was the stipulated proof!

Thank goodness that ridiculous demand has long become history.

Hopefully our good Lim Swee Say will now mandate those who man cash machines at Fairprice be more flexible and not ask for our IC. If nothing else that is showing true respect for Pioneers and not start by implying we would be so cavalier with our Pioneer privilege from NTUC as to let others use our card.

$2 can buy happiness!

I was at the Kwan Im Hood Cho Temple in Waterloo Street on Feb 5, after a sumptuous lunch at the Ritz Carlton, courtesy of the Association of Banks in Singapore which always throws a grand event to mark Chinese New Year.

And I always like to go to the Waterloo Street temple when I am feeling good, après or before events that make me feel good.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, what I witnessed before I entered the temple — and after I left it — made me feel even more at peace with the world.

I saw a handful of uncles, aunties, young men and women, handing out $2 notes to the elderly and sometimes handicapped tissue paper sellers who are always around the temple.

Some took the tissues in exchange. Others just gave outright.

Why did I feel good to witness such gifting?

Because it’s always my view that most of us can spare $2 to someone apparently in need. Better to be cheated by 10 fakes than let a genuine needy case go unassisted. Better to be cheated by fakes of $2 a piece than by one mega-fake about which we keep reading in the Straits Times 😆

I hope my $2 non-campaign campaign would catch on.

Most of us can’t spare anyone a million bucks but there must be at least 450,000 Singaporeans who can spare $2 a day for a needy stranger?

Meanwhile do read (below) what I shared with some friends who were knocking our G for not being able to clear the poverty mass from our view.

Me: We all can rave, rant and rate G lowly for the continuing mass of poor in our midst. But didn’t Jesus himself say the poor will always be with us when Martha rebuked Mary Magdalene for wasting money on precious oil to anoint the Son of God, when the money according to Martha could have been better spent on the poor?

And he is not wrong: the poor will always be with us, because in a pyramid, the base will always be larger than the apex. Also, if you think of it, the Bible also says, to those who have, more will be given.

It’s pure maths. The rich having a critical mass will naturally become richer, even if they do no more than sit on their backsides. The poor even if they work hard may not make a lot of headway — or not the same amount of headway unless they experience a windfall through their own acumen or through pure random luck.

I think the more effective way to help this naturally skewed distribution is for those of us who can spare a little is to arm oneself with plenty of $2 notes n give to the ah mahs n ah peks one comes across in all corners of SG to buy snax n kopi. U wld b surprised how they all accept gratefully, if you treat the “gift” as a treat rather than a hand out!”


No free lunch?

I used to be very chuffed whenever I received NTUC Fairprice Co-operative’s annual notice of the dividend from the handful of shares I hold in the co-op and the rebates I get from shopping at the co-op’s supermarkets. These are on top of the cash Linkpoints that I can use to offset my bills.

Then suddenly last year, I noticed something in my bank statements that I didn’t remember seeing be4. Every month, for goodness how long, whenever NTUC Income credits my account with the pay-out from a small annuity I bought from the insurer, there was a corresponding debit of $9.

The sum was innocuous enough for me not to make a quick journey to NTUC’s headquarters to demand an explanation.

Suddenly, the penny dropped.

The $9 is probably some kind of fee I’m paying to hold the U-card which in turn allows me to enjoy link points and rebates from my shopping at Fairprice.

The corollary is that if I don’t shop at Fairprice or don’t shop enough to offset the $108 I pay every year to NTUC Co-op, then I should give up my U-card.

So, there’s no free lunch!

The timely arrival of my latest yearly statement from the co-op a few days ago showed that I enjoyed a rebate of $168 for the year ended March 2013.

Assuming that I also got cash offsets of the same amount from my Link points, the candle is worth the game especially when Fairprice’s outlets are ubiquitous enough across Singapore for me to be able to buy from any without making any great effort.

The only drawback in general — though not for me — is that poor folks who can’t afford their monthly $9 contribution to the co-op won’t enjoy the Link points or the rebates.

Which doesn’t seem right especially when those who have little $ need to have every bit of help they can to stretch what little they have.

Oh sure, Fairprice and/or NTUC already do a lot for the poor, with food vouchers and many other things.

But why not a little bit more, such as granting U-cards to all households living on direct welfare from the Government?

As a gesture to encourage NTUC to do a little bit more, I am willing to use part of the rebate I have enjoyed to enable one disadvantaged household to have a U-card.

Anyone care to recommend such a household? 😆

Credit card restrictions: hurting the poor?

First let me say, I think it’s a gr8 thing in principle that the Government is doing something at last to make it more difficult for those who really shouldn’t have a credit card from having one and the banks — whether out of stupidity or greed — from seducing people who shouldn’t go into debt with soft baits aplenty at shopping malls, MRT links or wherever there are crowds.

This said, I wonder if the less well-off will be disadvantaged by the slew of tightening measures announced by the Monetary Authority of Singapore earlier this month and which will kick in over the next 21 months, starting from December this year?

Let me explain, using self as an example.

I have four credit cards, from two banks. I always pay my credit card bills on time. I don’t pay any fees for any of my cards, even though I think it’s a pain to get the annual fee waivers.

I also get points whenever I pay with my cards and that allows me to redeem perks.

I redeem my points for vouchers that allow me to get $20, $30 or $50 off my bills at certain restaurants or shops.

I get to pay less for petrol if I use the stations affiliated with the bank issuers, and I always do.

One of my cards even allows me to eat lunch at three restaurants at the Grand Hyatt at discounts of as much as 50% off the bill, depending on the number of people I have with me.

Given the array of “perks” I always use credit cards where possible. For example, recently when Fairprice was promoting credit cards using the “wave” technology with one free Fairprice housebrand loaf for each shopper who charges at least $30, I got so many loaves over the promotion period that I had to give them away to the condo’s security guards and cleaners!

On top of everything, I get up to about 30 days of free credit on average. If I use my card with a greater eye on the calendar and the billing cycles of the issuers, I might get an even longer stretch. But I think the extra days aren’t worth the trouble of being selective with my cards.

Yet despite using plastic to pay 80+% of my monthly expenditure — would be 100% if mum’s helper will accept her pay via credit card 😆 — I am never anywhere near my credit limit of $22K for my 4 cards.

So earlier this year, I went to one of the banks and did what was considered unheard of: asked for my credit limit to be reduced.

The staff who dealt with me was so flummoxed that she asked me to write my own letter requesting a decrease in credit limit. The bank only has standard forms requesting increases in credit limit 🙄

From my short ramble, it should convince anyone reading this far that credit cards have their obvious privileges. But the not so obvious downside is that the merchants involved in the credit card network would have, must have, priced in the credit card facility into their goods and services.

It wasn’t my meditation on credit card use that gave me the Eureka  moment. Instead it was the Kopitiam store value card which I got some time ago, attracted by the 10% discount offered by the stalls in Kopitiam food courts.

Over the almost 2 years I have had the card, I have enjoyed some $70 worth of discounts (based on 10% of my to-date expenditure which is shown every time I top up) and I don’t even eat at a Kopitiam outlet more often than two or three times a month.

Imagine those who do, especially the lower income? How much such savings would help them to stretch their meagre dollars! 😥

Yet the people I see most often using Kopitiam cards to pay for their meals at the food court are invariably young executives, students and fairly OK-$-wise uncles and aunties, like myself.

Those who pay cash are invariably cleaners, security guards and other menial earner types.

I often wonder whether it’s because they don’t know how to work the store-value top-up machines. Or more worryingly, they can’t afford to pay the cost of the card: can’t remember how much, $2 or $5 every two years that Kopitiam charges to extract the 10% discount from its stall-holders.

Which brings me back to the credit card conundrum. Those who have them enjoy perks that would surely have been priced into the goods and services they buy.

Which is unfair to those who pay cash, especially those who have no choice but to pay cash — because the laws don’t allow them to have even one, let alone several.

Why should those who don’t enjoy the privilege and the convenience of credit and the discounts and perks that come with a credit card not be allowed to enjoy discounts when they pay by cash?

Credit card companies frown on this. Indeed bans its merchant network from giving discounts to those who pay cash instead of using their credit cards.

I think this should change. And if the credit card issuers refuse to undercut their own business by promoting cash payments, then it’s up to the Government to do something to level the paying field for the poor.

Make it mandatory for merchants who take cash and credit cards to give discounts to those who pay in cash. (Of course this won’t apply to those merchants who deal strictly in cash only!)

And if MAS is chary of tackling the powerful banks and other card issuers like American Express and Diners Club, then it could perhaps start with Kopitiam?

After all, those who patronise Kopitiam foodcourts would by and large be less affluent than those who qualify for credit cards, even be4 the more stringent credit rules kick in later this year.

Isn’t it the Government’s job to ensure that the less well-off have as much a level paying field as possible?

So why not tell Kopitiam that it should issue its cards to everyone without charge so that all — especially the less well-off — can enjoy the food discount?

This is a win-win situation for Kopitiam and its card-holders for every time they top up, Kopitiam enjoys a free float till they spend the money on their food.

In addition, the cards enable Kopitiam to manage its food stall tenants better by tracking their takings via the cashless system whereas cash takings are more difficult to track, which makes it attractive for the operator to encourage more to go cashless.

I rest my case. Now over to the new breed of PAP Ministers who all have big hearts for Singaporeans, especially the more disadvantaged!

What Lim Swee Say & I have in common…

.. other than our initials, at least in the case of my given Chinese name, Anglicised?

After his revelation on Monday, and which account published in the July 23 Straits Times I reproduce below, I would say what we also have in common is a toothpick, or more precisely a toothpick scavenged from restaurants wherever we’ve eaten in.

Actually, be4 Mr Lim’s confession, I was getting a bit worried about my own behaviour. Had I developed a fetish for toothpicks? Kleptomania directed at something as worthless as a toothpick?

Not any more. If someone as important as a senior member of the Singapore government has a penchant for free toothpicks, why shouldn’t I?

I don’t go for any toothpick, of course. I won’t dream of taking those naked sticks that come in a small container with a small hole in its cap that one has to shake and out comes a toothpick.

This is because who knows if diners before me had absent-mindedly pushed toothpicks they had already used back through the little hole? 🙄

Or even if they merely returned unused excess toothpicks as sometimes the holes in the caps are rather large and the sticks are rather thin, so that with one shake, more than one toothpick comes tumbling out.

I shudder more when it comes to naked toothpicks that are served in open containers. They are so much more easily contaminated by strangers’ fingers. Worse, the absent minded or — horrors — the deliberately sick-making can more easily mingle used ones with the unused!!

So, I accept only toothpicks that are individually wrapped, in the stronger paper the better.

And like Mr Lim Swee Say, I can’t ever resist taking away some to use at home or in another eating place where they don’t give out toothpicks or give out only naked ones!

But unlike the Minister, I don’t have the gall to take half of what’s  offered. Even then, there are some places where they ration toothpicks. Like once at Mezza9 at the Grand Hyatt where I eat occasionally.

When I asked for toothpicks at the end of the meal, the wait staff after a couple of reminders, handed me exactly one toothpick. When I grumbled, he apologised and said they had run out.

Wonder if Mr Lim had been there before me? 😆


The Straits Times

Published on Jul 23, 2013

Good service is all in the details: Labour chief Govt fund to help firms boost service pays off with more happy customers

By Amelia Tan

WHEN labour chief Lim Swee Say goes to Chinese restaurant Din Tai Fung, he is not eyeing its world-renowned dumplings and noodles. Instead, he looks out for the toothpicks.

They are well-designed and of good quality, he said. And in what he calls a “confession”, he admits to pinching half a box during each visit.

“It’s so good I can never resist,” he said, while fishing for a toothpick from his pocket to illustrate his point. “They (the restaurant) really pay attention to all the finest details. Even to the small things like providing you with the toothpick.

“Many restaurants give you toothpicks but the toothpick is so big it can never go through. But this one is so fine that whatever is inside… can surely come out,” he said to much laughter from the audience, made up of chief executives of food and beverage companies and reporters.

When asked, a Din Tai Fung spokesman said toothpicks are placed on tables and customers are free to use as many as they like.

Such attention to detail is the reason for a business’ success, as it adds a gloss to good service, Mr Lim said on a tour of Din Tai Fung’s parent company BreadTalk Group’s new Tai Seng headquarters yesterday.

Copyright © 2013 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.