Farewell, Sir Peter Hall

August 8, 2014

Last week, we bid farewell to a great friend of Singapore, Sir Peter Hall.

Sir Peter of the UK was a leading urbanist and academic. He was well-known for his sharp mind and expertise in urban theory and practice.

In recent years, he had been a valued Nominating Committee member of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. He was also a respected member of URA’s International Panel of Experts, and provided valuable insights to help improve Singapore’s urban planning.

Sir Peter’s passion had inspired many. He will be remembered fondly by all of us as a humorous, kind gentleman who was generous with his thoughts and time despite his many other obligations.

Sir Peter Hall will be missed by his many friends in the urban planning fraternity. My thoughts are with Sir Peter’s family during these difficult times.

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Our Partnership Continues

September 2, 2013

Our Partnership Continues

Today, MND officially bids farewell to SMS Tan Chuan-Jin. While in MND, he helped me tremendously in several areas, particularly in green and blue issues, animal welfare and construction manpower matters. Many MND projects benefited from his inputs and insights. He made great efforts to reach out to relevant stakeholders. He walked, jogged, cycled, dived, and of course Facebooked, to build up a strong and productive relationship between MND and the interested NGOs.

The Rail Corridor, Bukit Brown, animal welfare and biodiversity conservation issues, and many other projects benefited from his suggestions and feedback.

MOS Desmond Lee will take over some of this portfolio as ex-officio, but Ag Minister Tan Chuan-Jin will continue as our unofficial point person with these NGOs. He feels passionately for these causes, and we too.

As he leaves MND to focus on MOM, our partnership will continue and our common aspiration to raise construction industry productivity will see our paths crossing often, I am sure.

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No Journey Too Tough

April 27, 2013

No Journey Too Tough

Table Tennis Association for the Disabled (Singapore)The ASEAN Para Games will be held here in 2015. Our Team Singapore paralympians will no doubt strive to do us proud. But they need our support.

My MND colleagues are doing our part.

Recently, we heard from Dr William Tan that the Table Tennis Association for the Disabled (Singapore) or TTADS had some problem getting training facilities. They have been renting training facilities twice a week at Community Clubs. But it was not easy to make bookings given the high usage at these clubs. Many of them hold day jobs and can only train at night.

The MND Recreational Club stepped forward to help. They modified part of their recreation facility into a wheelchair friendly training venue. This has enabled the TTADS to conduct training up to 6 days a week with full vigour. Their hope is to add to our national success in table-tennis.

By the way, Dr William Tan is an accomplished Paralympic wheelchair marathoner, committed to charities locally and internationally. Illness has not daunted his spirit. He has reinvented himself to play wheelchair table tennis instead and has been promoting para-table tennis as an outreach and rehabilitation programme for both the physically and intellectually disabled.

I hear that TTADS is looking for able-bodied volunteers to help them train. Join them if you can.

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Of Justice, Fairness and Due Process

August 1, 2012

I do not condone wrong-doing.  When it is within my purview, I will do my best to get to the bottom of it.  Wrong-doers will be exposed and appropriately punished.  The proper due process will be followed to ensure fairness for all, based on the law and evidence.

That was how I dealt with the NKF and the Ren Ci incidents, when I was in MOH.

This is the same approach now that I am in MND.

After Zaobao reported on the NParks’ purchase of 26 foldable bikes in Jun 22, I discussed the matter with CEO, NParks and PS/MND.  The first thing was for NParks to look into the matter.  I wanted answers to two questions: (a) why foldable bikes?; (b) how was the supplier chosen?

On Jun 30, NParks reported to me on their internal findings.  After reading their report, I was satisfied that the decision on foldable bikes could be justified.  Not all bikes in NParks need to be foldable, but for the heavy users who need to access places with no convenient public transport, such staff could be issued foldable bikes.

However, on the second question, I was not happy with the procurement outcome.  I thought they could have gotten a better deal, even though they had adhered to the prevailing Government procurement rules.  Based on what I had read of the NParks report, I had no reason to question the integrity of the officer(s) involved.

For thoroughness, on the same day, I commissioned an MND Internal Audit Team to work with NParks and dig impartially and more thoroughly into the transaction.  Besides verifying if the procurement was conducted in a fit and proper manner, I also wanted them to see if this episode would yield lessons for us to improve our overall procurement system. This was on Jun 30.

While the MND Audit was on-going, I posted a blog on Jul 4, to update the public on the subject based on what NParks’ internal inquiry and the MND audit team had ascertained at the time.  Did I jump the gun?

I don’t think so.  There had been many Singaporeans writing to me expressing concern about the issue.  The public have a right to know, and I thought that I should share this interim finding with the public, so long as what I disclosed did not affect the on-going audit.

I wrote then, that the decision to buy foldable bikes was justified.  However, to signal my dissatisfaction and to convey a public message (not just to NParks but to all MND officers) that we should always seek value for money and ensure contestability when procuring goods or services, I added that I thought the procurement could have been better handled and NParks could have gotten a better deal.

What I did not mention in my blog was our preliminary investigation findings. I could not say much then (and I still can’t), as doing so will compromise investigation.

Meanwhile, from July 14, some netizens began to comment on the friendship between one NParks officer and the owners of the company supplying the bikes. The Internal Audit Team noted the observation while continuing with its investigation and interviews.

On Jul 20, the MND Audit was completed.  The findings of the audit (a) confirmed that the NParks’ reason for the purchase of foldable bikes on staff productivity grounds was valid, (b) verified that the procurement formally observed and complied with the existing rules. However the audit also uncovered certain discrepancies which suggest a possibility of bias.

Over that weekend, I discussed the audit findings with PS/MND and we decided to report the matter to and share the audit findings with the CPIB.

On Jul 23, PS/MND reported the matter to Director/CPIB. The next day, on Jul 24, we issued a press statement and suspended the NParks officer from duty.

This is how the subject was dealt with in MND during the past one month: firm but measured action, balancing between the resolute pursuit of justice and the need for fairness and due process.  Along the way, we have benefited from both our internal investigations and the many views received through emails and expressed in the main and the new media.  We thank all the people who came forth with their views.  I share their common objective to ensure that taxpayers’ money should be well spent.

The matter is now in the hands of the CPIB.  If there is wrong-doing, appropriate punishment will be meted out.  I am mindful how this episode may be affecting the morale of my officers in NParks.  I think we should be fair and not demoralise and tarnish the reputation of NParks as the department has  many dedicated officers who continue to work hard each day to make Singapore a Garden City for the well-being of all of us.

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Value for Money

July 4, 2012

Last week, I read Lianhe Zaobao’s article on the National Parks Board’s (NParks) purchase of Brompton foldable bikes and wondered if it was the right decision.

As I am not familiar with foldable bikes, I asked NParks and a few regular users of such foldable bikes for their views.

First: why foldable bikes? NParks explained that the demand on its staff to do field inspections has gone up sharply. Our park connectors have lengthened: another 50 km were newly completed. Tree inspections have also been ramped in frequency to address the issue of tree falls due to adverse weather patterns. Rather than simply increasing manpower, NParks sought to find alternative methods that are cheaper and more sustainable in the long-term.

Providing staff with bikes was thought to be a simple and effective way to raise staff productivity as it enables the officer to cover more ground and do more inspections within the same time. And if the bikes are foldable, it would eliminate the need for an office van to transport the bikes and the staff to the areas of their daily rounds. Just like a good baby stroller, NParks officers could just rely on public transport and carry the foldable bikes up and down our trains and buses, without breaking their backs or inconveniencing the public. (Where such flexibility in deployment is not required, eg. within parks such as East Coast Park, NParks has non-foldable bikes for use by staff).

Each staff in the Park Connector Division typically covers 30 – 40 km a day in his daily work. A good foldable bike is hence considered an appropriate equipment for such staff. It offers us maximum operational flexibility in terms of usage and deployment. It enables our staff to get to the field sites directly and individually rather than needing an office van to transport them and their bikes to the various sites. This is a significant factor in raising productivity all round – manpower, time, vehicle.

Second: how was the particular brand, Brompton, chosen? NParks clarified that it had no particular brand in mind. It was open to considering all brands. Hence, the quotation on the Government website adopted general specifications to ensure that as many dealers as possible could come in.

Unfortunately, at the close of the quotation, only one vendor responded with two options, offering Brompton and another brand (at a higher price). NParks made some research, tested the equipment and after noting that the Brompton bid price was lower than the listed retail price of the same model, proceeded with the procurement.

Cyclists who are familiar with foldable bikes assured me that a Brompton bike, while costing more upfront, is durable and requires less maintenance, especially if heavy usage is anticipated. Its unique folding mechanism also makes it easy to carry and store. This is a useful feature for the female staff.

I have accepted NParks’ explanation.

It looks like NParks has bought the right equipment. However, it also looks like NParks might have gotten a better deal if there was greater participation in this quotation. I have asked MND staff to discuss this case with our agencies, to see if there are lessons which we can draw from this case. In all purchases we should always satisfy the criteria of “value for money” when public funds are involved.

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From Fathers to Sons

June 16, 2012

“Blood sweat and tears for 45 years.

Thank you for soldiering on.

                              Love, Singapore”

This was one of the many notes expressing their gratitude for our national servicemen that I saw at the “NS45 Showcase@Toa Payoh” just now. It was touching.

Marking the 45th year of National Service (NS), the roving exhibition is making its rounds in the heartlands.

The theme ‘NS45: From Fathers to Sons’ resonates with many, as fathers who served their NS in the early days share their experience and advice with their sons serving today.

While NS enlists Singaporean men to military service, the women in their lives – mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends and wives – also “experience” NS through their sharing of In-Camp Training and Basic Military Training stories.

It is these different stories that bind us together, shaping NS as a distinct Singaporean experience, a rite of passage for all boys.

How much things have changed? At the Time Tunnel exhibition, we are reminded of how NS has evolved over the years. Soldiers used to wear starched khaki uniforms, used M16 rifles and had wooden cabinets. Today, our 3rd Generation (3G) soldiers don pixelated combat uniforms, carry made-in-Singapore SAR21 rifles, and employ some of the most advanced technologies to defend Singapore.

In SAF’s Cyberpioneer publication, Lieutenant Colonel (Vol) James Suresh shared how his friends kept him going in the Army. “We were 18-year-olds then, now we are attending each other’s children’s weddings! I think that really tells you something about how the Army brings people together and bonds them.”

Army-issued equipment, uniforms, and combat ration have changed over the years. But one thing remains the same – the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the men who served together. The bonds they have built over NS training last a lifetime.


Eat Less, Move More

February 25, 2012

Last week, a friend forwarded an email from a 60-year Singaporean on the use of HDB stairs for exercise:

I discovered an obvious exercise in Singapore — walking up flights of staircases!

80 per cent of Singaporeans can do it every day, since they live in HDB.

This morning, I walked up all 11 floors of my block. Taking two steps at a time, it took me 2.30 mins to reach the top floor. Then I walked round the common corridor on the 10th floor to cool down. Then I walked down to the ground floor. One cycle takes about six minutes. Do it 4-5 times, and you get a good workout.

We should promote this. No need to join gyms. Save money.

Yes, indeed.

After my heart bypass and while in SGH, my physiotherapist started me on some light exercise using the SGH stairs, beginning with one level, and gradually progressing to three, before discharging me home.

Last year, I remember watching a Youtube clip on how the Swedes encourage their people to use the stairs:

And apparently, it worked.

The friend suggested that we could try something similar – and also tune to different beats for different effects – one day gamelan, another day Thai music, and another, hip-hop?

That should be fun – nudging people to exercise and in a fun way.

Let’s eat less and move more, and include the HDB stairs as one way to promote healthy exercise.  Anyone?

But of course, know your limits and don’t over-exert yourself.

If you have other fun ideas to exercise, do share them on MND Facebook.