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Local Review Singapore

Omotesando Koffee Review

After hearing our subeditor rave about her Omakase experience in Japan and “the best tasting coffee” she ever had, the THG team visited the coffee joint’s Singapore chain to check out the hype.

Here’s our review of Omotesando Koffee!

Address: 6A Shenton Way #04-01, The Work Project, Downtown Gallery, Singapore 068815

 

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Culture Featured Lifestyle Local Singapore

Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore, Explained

Growing up in Singapore, there was always a month in the year where respect to the dead was commissioned. The trail of incense and joss paper burning signaled the beginning; the flashy live performances (‘Ge Tai’) its peak.

The seventh month of the lunar calendar (July or August in the Western calendar) is known as ‘Ghost Month’ and the 15th day of the seventh month ‘Ghost Day’. A special custom to honour the spirits of the dead, it celebrates the Taoist (and Buddhist) belief in the afterlife. This year, the festival is held from 19 August to 16 September 2020, and as I’m writing, a familiar haze of smoke signals Ghost Day (2 September) is in full swing.

History

The festival’s origins come from a Buddhist tale of filial piety, where a Buddhist monk called Maudgalyayana (or Mulian) wanted to save his mother from perpetual hunger in the pits of hell. Buddha explained the only way was to make offerings to the monks returning from their annual retreat (15th day of the seventh month), as they could offer prayers that would bless his ancestors and relieve their suffering. As the story goes, Mulian’s mother was eventually raised from the status of hungry ghost to human being through this ritual, and thus, a new tradition was born.

Background

During Ghost Month, Chinese believe the Gates of Hell are opened, allowing spirits to roam the land of the living and visit their family members and descendants. These hungry ghouls are in constant search of food and entertainment, which is why all sorts of offerings are made — to keep the dead appeased and out of trouble.

While Taoists celebrate the festival as ‘Zhong Yuan Jie’ (or中元), the Buddhists name it ‘Yu Lan Pen Jie’ (or兰盆节’) — after the sutra from which the origin of this festival was derived. In Chinese tradition, deference and reverence to all ancestors is demanded; one of my earliest memories of Ghost Month was being instructed to say ‘excuse me’ whenever I passed offerings or prayer sticks, as an expression of respect.

Today, accidentally trampling on food, stepping on incense ashes, or kicking over joss sticks is still very much taboo, unless you’d like to suffer the wrath of angry spirits. The Chinese are a superstitious lot, but much of these special customs are centered around educating the next generation on proper decorum and the value of respecting the community’s elders and family members.

Offerings

Following that line of thought, making offerings are a significant part of Ghost month tradition — families burn joss paper replicas of anything their ancestors might need in the afterlife. Paper money is the most common offering, but believers also burn paper cars, luxury houses, clothes, even paper durian and pets.

Much of the joss paper burning now takes place within dark-coloured metal bins scattered around heartland estates and at temples where large furnaces facilitate mass prayer. The tradition of offering joss sticks or plates of food (often unpeeled fruits, cake or a cup of tea) still holds, and you’ll see these along pathways and public housing void decks as an aid to prayer.

travel_hungry-ghost-festival-singapore_1
kiawui/Instagram

Ge Tai

Because wandering ghouls need entertainment, flashy performances and raucous auctions are also a mainstay. Unique to Singapore and Malaysia, these live performances are called ‘Ge Tai’ (literally translated to be song stage), and it’s often thrown by religious affiliations and temples as a culmination of Ghost Day. Large tents are temporarily set up in open fields, or in my case, an open car park and crowds of heartlanders and believers gather to watch.

Auctions are part of the lively affair, during which dinner attendees (usually members of the hosting association) bid for items ranging from a fan to thousand-dollar liquors. Winning the bid is as much about saving ‘face’ (prestige and social standing in the Chinese context) as an ego boost; things can get heated as bidders try to one-up each other.

As the night wears on, the live performances take over — singers in flamboyant, glittery costumes take center stage to perform songs in dialects — Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Mandarin. The occasional Chinese opera performance and irreverent comedy dialogues intersperse the jazzed-up performances — it’s a heady mix of old and new that entertains with choreographed song numbers and technopop LED. Just be sure not to sit in the first row, as that is purely reserved for the ‘honoured guests’.

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Local News

Religious Headgear in the Workplace: A Lack of Acceptance or Professionalism?

The recent incident regarding Tangs department store and its dress code guidelines has sparked a public furore. A part-time promoter at a pop-up booth in Tangs was reportedly informed to remove her hijab, a religious head covering scarf, as part of the grooming standard to maintain professionalism. In the Islamic religion, the hijab is worn by women to protect their modesty and privacy, especially from unrelated males.

The business owner, Ms Chin, was selling handmade leather bags in a pop-up booth in the department store and had hired Ms Nurin Jazlina Mahbob as the part-time promoter. On her first day at work, Ms Nurin was told by Tangs staff to remove her hijab to be allowed to continue working on the premises. This incident has escalated with Ms Chin deciding to end her lease early with Tangs, despite having weeks left on her contract, while investigations are being made by Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep).

As per the guidelines handed to the tenants of Tangs, the “grooming standard” had stipulated wearing black polo T-shirt and long black pants while religious headgear and accessories were not allowed. Ms Chin was appalled at the rationale for the removal of hijab which Tangs had cited was for ‘professionalism-sake’. This lack of tact and sensitivity touching on race and religion has ignited a public outrage with many coming forth with their opinions.  

The Senior Minister of State for Manpower, Mr Zaqy Mohamad urged employers to review their workplace policies. “Religious attire should generally be allowed at workplaces, unless employers have uniform, or dress code requirements which are suited to the nature of their work, or for operational and safety reasons.” Moreover, Ms Nadia Samdin, the MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, stated that discriminatory hiring practices – including those against age, gender, ethnicity or religion – do not have a place in Singapore. 

“Discrimination of any form has no place at all in our society and, most certainly, not at the workplace.” The President Halimah Yacob had also heavily accentuated her views in a Facebook post, adding on that “people should be assessed solely on their merits and their ability to do a job and nothing else”.

While the above statements made by various political officeholders are valid and reasonable, this progressive belief does not seem to resonate with a few employers. In 2016, a similar incident had occurred when Ms Sharifah Begum was told that she could not wear a hijab for work during an interview for the role of administrative assistant at a preschool operator. Meanwhile, in 2014, Isetan was under a negative spotlight when a sales assistant was allegedly told by the managers to end her shift early and leave their premise for wearing a hijab. Although, since then, Isetan has adopted a new guideline for female Muslim staff to don the hijab during work. 

Ultimately, Tangs has since removed such restrictions and will allow the hijab to be worn at work, releasing a statement, “As a Singaporean company with a diverse, and multi-racial workforce, we must respect cultural and religious practices and requirements on all accounts. We have made an immediate change to ensure a policy that uniformly respects all our employees and our brand partners.” 

Both the business owner and staff, Ms Chin and Ms Nurin respectively, are heartened to receive the support of the community, especially the strong voices of the Members of Parliament and Mdm Halimah. Ms Nurin added that she is excited that there is a [positive] change happening, hoping that nobody should experience what she had gone through. 

As quoted from Ms Chin, who is highly commended for standing by her staff, “I am hoping to bring to the attention of all workplaces [especially] the frontline that there should be no reason or logic for this kind of discrimination, and they really need to review their skewed practices if they are practising it.”

On a darker note, although Tafep has stated that religious wear should be allowed in the workplace unless specific dress code guidelines are stated, employers may use the latter to enforce on the removal of religious wear. While many have expressed shock and disbelief at this incident, especially in a well-known establishments such as Tangs, a number has shown support that it is fair for companies to have their own dress code guidelines. 

In Singapore, the embrace of multiracialism and meritocracy is strongly advocated in all ages and all walks of life. However, the discriminatory practice illustrated in this post may serve to be the tip of an iceberg as racial and cultural differences are deep-rooted in the minds of many. Despite Singapore’s continuous efforts on racial and religious harmony, racism is a profound issue where most have experienced discrimination at one point in life. It seems that more work needs to be done to encourage acceptance in this day and age.

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Local News

S$90 Million COVID-19 Scheme — Has The Grant Been Helpful in Aiding Singaporeans?

As the pandemic continues to affect Singapore, the government has stepped in once again to relief the burden of its people who are struggling in these unprecedented times.

On 17 August, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the COVID-19 grant will be extended to the end of the year. In his ministerial statement, Mr Heng said the COVID-19 scheme have been given to 60,000 Singaporeans so far with a total pay out of more than $90 million.

The grant aims to help those who are unemployed or have suffered significant income loss due to the pandemic.

However, to qualify for the grant, those who are unemployed must prove job that they have searched for employment or training efforts. Further details of the grant will be announced early next month.

According to Mr Heng, it is likely that Singapore’s job market will continue to remain weak beyond this year. Observers have said that more businesses will be closing and retrenchment will be apparent in the coming months due to the impact of the circuit breaker.

Mr Heng said that they are researching on how to continue to support employees and self-employed who are currently the most vulnerable group.

He also pointed out that they government will pay attention to low-wage workers as many of them are essential workers who have kept Singapore going through these tough times.

Those on the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme for work done in 2019 are also eligible for the payout. In addition, those who were not on the WIS list last year but who have already received or will be receiving WIS for work done this year can also be qualified for the grant.

In times like these, it is extremely important for Singaporeans to have support from every avenue to cushion the fall that they are currently facing. But has the grant been helpful to aid Singaporeans through this though times?

Irfan, 26, fresh graduate from The University of Sheffield

The pandemic has certainly impacted the lives of fresh graduates around the world who now have to face the uncertainty of their future.

Their dreams of jumping straight into employment and kick starting the new part of their life seem rather bleak at the moment. As the job market continues to weaken, so are the hopes and dreams of the fresh graduates who are now struggling to make end meets.

Sheffield University graduate, Irfan who returned home from the UK in March, has certainly felt the pinch of the pandemic. He is currently seeking graduate opportunities and traineeships but has admitted that he is struggling in getting a job despite the government’s attempt to help fresh graduates through the implementation of the traineeships.

He said, “I feel like there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment surrounding today’s job climate with COVID-19, particularly among fresh graduates. I am slightly concerned about my career prospects and its implications in the long run due to the pandemic”

Over the past few months, Irfan has applied for hundreds of jobs only to find himself in a cycle of not hearing back from the employers.

Despite his positive outlook on the whole situation, it is not a surprise that this fresh graduate have great worries about his future which includes the salary gap between his first and next job, the high cost of living in Singapore, job stability especially in this current climate and last but definitely not least, providing for his family.

But the sociology graduate continues to remain hopeful in these tough times, and has said that he will brave through the upcoming challenges. Though the whole situation frustrating, he is determined that the right job will come for him soon.

The 26 year-old have also shared that the pandemic have opened up his eyes to a lot of things — something that he might not have taken great notice if the pandemic hasn’t happened.

He said, “The virus has definitely allowed me to broaden my perspective and outlook in life, especially in terms of adaptability. I believe that right now, it is important to develop industry and career-oriented skills that would improve my chances of securing my dream job in the future, despite whatever the role or job might be.”

However, Irfan has admitted that the government has certainly eased a lot of his burdens more so with the new announcement of the extension of the COVID-19 support grant. He believes that the Singapore government have been working hard to cushion the fall of Singaporeans.

“In comparison to other countries, I do believe that our government has implemented practical policies and strategies to assist fresh graduates in these trying times. For example, setting up traineeship opportunities and providing allowance during that period,” he said.

Irfan also shared that the grant will significantly help him a lot as he tries to navigate his way to secure a full time job.

He said, “I think $800 seems like a fair amount, particularly when it was handed to more than 60,000 residents. It would be great if the amount it higher, but we should be grateful and try out best to sustain the help given, or even make some adjustments to our lifestyle and balance it out.”

As Singapore tries to navigate its way through this pandemic, it might have overlooked, certain part of the society, who is equally struggling like the rest of Singapore.

Shawn, 48, business owner of a construction company

Construction business owner, Shawn*, was forced to stop all his site work due to the surge of cases in dormitory. Due to that, he found himself in a difficult position where his monthly income had been severely affected.

Being in one of the most affected industry, he believes that the government might have overlooked on the fact that they, too, are struggling.

He said, “I have lost a significant amount of my income since the circuit breaker and was still denied any grant because of the annual income of my house. I don’t think this is necessarily fair, because what does my property annual value have got to do with the eligibility of the grant? It’s hard. Just like every other Singaporean, I, too lost a significant amount of income.”

Though the odds are against him at the moment, Shawn believes that there is a light at the of the tunnel. Since the dormitory have cleared not too long ago, things are slowly getting better for the businessman.

“To be honest, I am still frustrated that I was denied the grant. I had no help all because of my annual house value. But, is it really fair? Being in the most affected business, my income wasn’t stable at all.

“If I was lucky, I would take $500 home, but some months, I didn’t even had anything to take home. But since they cleared the dorm, things are picking up slowly and I am so excited to start work again.”

The 48 year-old have said that he is thankful that the government is helping low wage workers but he wished for the help to be extended to every Singaporean despite the annual house value.

He said, “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and I know that there are people out there who are struggling more than me, but all I’m trying to say is that, I wished help was there for me when I needed it.”

Applications for the support grant are now open till December. To apply, please visit https://msf-csg.gov.sg/preinstruction/csg from 9am to 6pm daily.

Processing time will take about two weeks upon submission of supporting documents.

*not real name

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Local Singapore

Massive Retrenchments in Singapore Due to COVID-19

What lies ahead of those affected by the recent string of layoffs?

As Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrinks by a historic 13.2% year on year, retrenchments have abounded. On 18 August, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced that it would be laying off 140 employees from its media sales and magazines operations due to the negative “impact COVID-19 has had on advertising revenues”. This figure is, as of yet, the highest when compared to those of past exercises held by the company in October 2017 and October 2019.

According to the World Economic Forum, a decline in advertising revenues can be largely attributed to “changing consumer behaviour”. In a troubling time when social distancing and stay-at-home measures are the norm, digital consumption (i.e., use of social platforms and streaming services and gaming) has risen dramatically, thus allowing digital advertising to take precedence over its print counterpart.

Furthermore, in a debilitating recession, advertisers have been looking to speed up the sales process by focusing on purchase immediacy through “direct response campaigns”.

But advertising has not been the only sector to be severely hit by the pandemic. The hospitality industry has also faced its fair share of large-scale layoffs, with Millennium Hotels and Resorts making the headlines. A day after SPH’s announcement, the said hospitality management group retrenched 15.2% of its Singapore-based workforce. As an offset, the company also reduced its foreign employee dependency by 45 per cent, resulting in a net increase in its “Singapore core” from 61 per cent in January to 69 per cent on 19 August.

drastic drop in the number of tourists is to blame for this phenomenon. In April, visitor arrivals in Singapore dropped to 748 for the first time in history. Compared to a year ago that saw 1.6 million tourists hit our shores, this counts for nearly a 100 per cent dropMoreover, the number of tourists from January to April decreased by 58% compared with the same period last year.

Consequently, the average occupancy rate of gazetted hotels plunged by 27.2 percentage points to 58.6 percent, contributing to a 30.9% fall in overall revenue in the first quarter of the year compared to the same period last year.

Uncertainty creates opportunities

Corporate loyalty can often turn into disillusionment when retrenchment suddenly strikes. Take it from Madam Josephine Low, a 75-year-old lady who was laid off after a near 10-year career at a hotel.

Maybe, the trick to fighting structural unemployment is not upskilling but reskilling.

After all, Mr Andy Yap, once a digital design director of an events company, has now turned to food delivery via mountain bike after he had been axed during a retrenchment exercise.

He claimed, “‘Food delivery is pandemic-and recession-resistant.’”

Governmental schemes

Currently, the most prominent reskilling programme rolled out by the government is SGUnited Skills.

Under this scheme, trainees can learn skills relevant to their preferred industries which will help improve their employability. These certifiable courses are delivered by Continuing Education and Training (CET) centres, including Institutes of Higher Learning. As bonuses, they will also receive a training allowance of $1,200 per month for the duration of the programme, to cover basic subsistence expenses and its highly subsidised course fees will be deductible from their SkillsFuture Credit.

For those who have been recently retrenched, it would be wise to pair this scheme with the Enhanced Hiring Incentive to maximise their chances of getting employed upon completing their reskilling training.

SkillsFuture Singapore

The latter scheme, which is an upgraded version of its predecessor (Hiring Incentive), boasts a salary support of 40% for six months, capped at $12,000 in total for employers who hire a local worker aged 40 and above, and a salary support of 20% for six months, capped at $6,000 in total for employers who hire a local worker aged below 40. These are assuming that the said hired workers have undergone eligible reskilling or training programmes.

But, given the 6- to 12-month length of the SGUnited Skills programme, such would not make for a feasible short-term solution for those who have borne the brunt of massive retrenchment exercises.

Gig economy

With employment agencies unable to cope with the piling application forms following the widespread displacement of workers from their jobs, the once go-to alternative for finding a job has quickly now become a bottleneck to steer clear of. Instead, freelancing has replaced these agencies as a quick fix for those who have lost their jobs.

The two main advantages that freelancing has over the traditional corporate setting are greater efficiency and lower costs. Besides, jobs like food delivery courier and freelance stylist/designer entail the freedom to schedule one’s working week and an extremely short time lag between the application for gigs and the hiring (no traditional intermediaries like job interviews and contracts).

The only downside is that freelancers are not entitled to health benefits. Fortunately, on 4 November 2019, the government enacted the contribute-as-you-earn (CAYE) scheme to divert a portion of their earnings to their MediSave accounts, which would aid in the payment of their medical bills where applicable.

This scheme, however, applies only to those working in the public sector.

COVID-19 has challenged the paradigm that longstanding employment is permanent and has forced us to value subsistence over complacency. And while the future may look bleak from where we are standing, all is not lost: reskilling and job opportunities are out there for us to fully utilise provided we do not give up on searching for them.

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Exclusive Local News

Is The Internet Still The Wild Wild West?

Governments have been actively seeking to regulate the internet which has yet to mature into a safe and fair place. Laws have been introduced around the world to tackle the Wild West elements on the internet from cyber bullying to online child exploitation to legal and illegal harms. In Singapore, our own Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) came into effect on 2 October 2019 to fight the scourge of fake news. The law targets the spread of malicious falsehoods and the use of fake accounts and automated bots that spread fake news rapidly through various social media platforms.

The law ignited fierce debate over its necessity, and since its launch, POFMA has been issued a total of 55 times. The use of POFMA during the recent General Election sparked concerns of regulatory overreach and its effect on freedom of expression and speech.

Through the use of POFMA, the government has been able to stop the possible spread of falsehoods that would have impacted on Singapore’s public interest and peace, such as inciting hatred between different groups of persons and undermining the confidence of the Government and its entities. Correction orders have been issued to owners of websites, Facebook, and YouTube accounts for content that has been deemed false by the relevant authorities.

POFMA provides the government and its entities a means to tackle and take down falsehoods, but what about ordinary individuals? What recourse or platforms do they have against, predators, cyberbullies, and criminals? Individuals are increasingly turning to the internet to voice their opinions and causes that they believe in. Although signifying the maturing of the Singaporean population that is not afraid to share openly their beliefs, there is also the ugly side where opinions are forced onto others — digital lynch mobs and vigilantes that flagrantly seek to amplify mistakes and stir discourse on issues they know would cause hurt and rile specific communities.

There is, however, space and a need in the digital sphere for proper dialogue and conversations. Former Paraplympian Theresa Goh aptly summed this up when asked about the areas that she thinks the country can improve on, “I think when wanting to do right by a group of people, we could do better at listening to what that group of people need rather than assuming we know what they need.” She added that, “I think we need to learn to be better at having conversations, and that means being open to different views and not just being open to discussions that we are accepting of because that’s not how we grow.” Being open and humble is important in any conversation.

With increasing digital penetration among the young, the incidence of cyber bulling has also increased with 3 in 4 youths reporting incidents of being bullied online. Defined as electronic communication with the intent to intimidate and hurt a person or a group, intentionally or otherwise, sending hurtful messages, spreading rumours online, and circulating humiliating or degrading photos or videos of someone — these would be considered acts of cyber bullying. The rising online vigilantism approach of revealing the identity and personal information of a victim (doxxing) with the intention to harass is now illegal in Singapore. The act criminalises the publication of personally-identifiable information with the intention of harassing, threatening, or facilitating violence against a person. Predators can face fine up to S$5,000 and a jail term if found guilty.

Has the introduction of POFMA and amendment of the Protection from Harassment Act tamed the internet? Is there a need for more regulations or should extreme opinions be countered and checked by more moderate and fair-minded individuals? To answer the first question – yes, I believe regulations has brought to mind the need to be factual and accurate in the expression of statements and views as false statements and harassment can cause irreparable damage to personal reputation and loss of life during an emergency. As to the need for more regulation, I feel the laws are presently sufficient with legal recourse available for doxxing, online defamation, digital impersonation, and cyberbullying. But more can be done to educate individuals on the incidence of cyberbullying and how to better cope or respond to it. In addition, more can be done to champion the need for proper dialogue and respecting differences between individuals and groups.

We are also increasingly witnessing social or online justice being dispensed in the court of public opinion. Coordinated community movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movement have been able to bring causes and injustice to light and provide spaces for individuals to come together. These movements have helped to build equity for minorities and underrepresented individuals and groups in society. There are however dangers of mob justice where sometimes the lives of the innocent are affected and even ruined. Take the recent case of a women in Singapore who claimed to be “Sovereign” and did not need to follow the law on wearing masks when outdoors. Doxxers had wrongly targeted an innocent individual by identifying her as a chief executive officer of a tech company. There are many more examples where mistaken identity, false accusations, or the act of forwarding a controversial image have caused individuals to lose their jobs and affected their family life.

Here in Singapore, there has been a lot of discussions on cancel culture and about woke mobs demanding accountability for a controversial tweet, video clip or post. Very often, when an individual’s misdeeds or action fail to conform to progressive views and beliefs, they are often attacked and ‘cancelled’ on social media. Cancel culture basically refers to a concerted effort to withdraw support for an individual or business that has said or done something objectionable until they either apologise or disappear from view. Academics have supported the view that activism on social media can be constructive and legitimate but have also warned that if the aim of the movement was to harm others then it is less positive. The ease at which an individual can be attacked, or have a petition circulated to have them fired or ostracised can be easily used to limit discussions and the free exchange of ideas and information.

The cancel culture has often been criticised for being mob like and seeking to punish their target until they are totally destroyed, leaving no room for offenders to learn from their mistakes and change for the better. In the past few months, influencer Xiaxue had challenged the mob approach following calls for her sponsors to drop her after some of her old racist tweets resurfaced. Mediacorp Channel 8 drama My Guardian Angels had been called out for their stereotypical negative characterisation of gays. Mediacorp and the artists Chase Tan, Kym Ng, and Brandon Wong who were involved in the series were slammed online for their involvement. Mediacorp issued a statement that there was “no intention to disrespect or discriminate against any persons or community in the drama”. Chase Tan apologised for his role in causing distress to the LGBTQ community and promised to do better.

Australian fitness guru Chloe Ting, whose YouTube channel has 13.6 million followers recently stood up in a 17-min video titled “time to talk” to address a Singaporean man’s criticism of her as he sought to defame her and make a profit through a series of 62 Instagram stories about Chloe that were entitled, “The Scoop on Chloe Ting”. These stories was a blatant attempt to profit at the expense of Chloe and were quickly taken down following her video.

Influencer Joanna Theng also experienced backlash for her scripted comments on the LGBT community in a Christian group’s video post. Despite apologising for the comments made in the video, a vocal minority continues to inflame the situation. She continues to be attacked online and the attacks have also extended towards her family members. The online vigilantism also attempted to impersonate her online with the aim of perpetuating the incident and using it to create further discourse among the various communities. Why? What purpose does such action serve but a misguided attempt to milk more followers? Whilst Joanna champions and supports open mature discussions, a line needs to be drawn when comments become defamatory, especially to family members.

Joanna Theng will learn from the incident and will emerge more mature and aware that as a public figure, her words matter. She, as well as other public figures, will certainly thoroughly vet scripts given to them and will not participate in any reading unless they truly agree with the content being said. We hope aspiring influencers and online personalities would take away the positives from these incidents and emerge as positive change individuals for the community. Joanna has clarified that she is not homophobic, and many friends, I believe, have and will step forward to attest to this. The numerous sharing and comments on the incident displays an underlying desire for greater dialogue and understanding of various communities here in Singapore. A 2015 forum article in the Straits Times titled “Agreeing to disagree on LGBT issues” called for Singapore to cultivate a culture in which we are able to both articulate our views as well as respect the views of the opposing camp. The writer rightfully stated that contentious issues should not be hidden from students but instead, encouraged to be debated, with emphasis on respect for the opinions of both sides. She added that such a culture of understanding cannot be cultivated overnight and is certainly not simple to bring about. Yet, she felt that being able to succeed in nurturing such a culture would put Singapore in stable hands for the future.

As we understand the views and feelings of various communities better, we echo Pink Dot’s statement and solidarity with the many individuals who have stepped up to share their struggles and experiences with the intention to educate and correct misinformation on their community. Misunderstandings will definitely surface from time to time and it is the collective responsibility to engage in constructive dialogue and activities that will help navigate the differences and make space for everyone to peacefully and respectfully co-exist.

Through better understanding of issues at hand, being better listeners, and humbleness to deferring views, I believe these will help make the wild wild west a little less wild and more welcoming.

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Exclusive Local News

Positive Creditor Response Sees Pison Extend Offer Deadline

This week Pison Investments Pte Ltd extended their offer for senior creditors to accept their buyout offer of Hyflux Ltd that was launched through their invitation memorandum on 9th July 2020. The offer for unsecured debts, contingent debts, and/or trade, and other debts of Hyflux Ltd, Hydrochem (s) Pte Ltd, Hyflux Membrane Manufacturing (s) Pte Ltd, and/or Hyflux Engineering Pte Ltd was set to expire on 17 August 2020. However, positive submissions and responses from creditors seeking additional time to submit their application saw the deadline extended to 4 September 2020. Pison Investments will have till 25 September 2020 to accept or reject the offers.

The invitation memorandum outlined that each eligible creditor may only submit one bid for an amount of all or some of the eligible debt. The discount set out in the tender application form highlighted that the offer must not be less than 91% on the Offered Debt.

As part of the company’s reorganization process under a Scheme Of Arrangement, Hyflux updated SGX on Pison Investments’ offer extension and will make appropriate announcements as and when there are any further material developments on this matter. Should sufficient creditors step forward and accept Pison Investments offer, Hyflux may just get that lifeline needed to reorganise and start rebuilding the company.

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Exclusive Local News Singapore

Hyflux Saga: What Happened, and What’s Next

On 13 August, Hyflux announced that an unsecured working group of bank lenders (UWG) has filed its application for a judicial management order, following an extension of the deadline from 7 August to 12 August granted by the Singapore High Court. 

Justice Aedit Abdullah gave the green light for the filing of the judicial management order last month, taking into consideration UWG’s case that they could no longer trust Hyflux’s management for any restructuring efforts. Justice Aedit Abdullah had previously rejected the judicial management order, but reiterated that the application could be revived if needed. He stated during a hearing last May, “A moratorium is meant to be a temporary solution to allow a company to put something together… but it doesn’t mean I can give a blank cheque for the moratorium going forward.” 

If given the go ahead, this order would allow the group of bank lenders — Mizuho, Bangkok Bank, BNP Paribas, CTBC Bank, KfW, Korea Development Bank, and Standard Chartered Bank — to carve out their respective shares from Hyflux’s debt moratorium. 

This is the second time that the UWG has applied for a Judicial Management Order. The first was done in May 2019, but was met with resistance from Hyflux, which refuted that judicial management applications often lead to liquidation of a company. 

Hyflux had its break in 2001, when it became the first water treatment company to be listed in Singapore, and secured the water treatment project to supply and install the process equipment for the Newater plant in Bedok. The company then went on to clinch other major projects, such as the third Newater plant in Seletar, the SingSpring Desalination Plant. 

Another success came a decade later, when Ms Olivia Lum, CEO of Hyflux, became the first Singaporean and the first woman to win the Ernst & Young (EY) World Entrepreneur of the Year award. That year, Hyflux also won Singapore’s second and largest seawater desalination project, which led them to propose building an on-site 411 megawatt combined cycle power plant to produce electricity for the desalination plant and power grid — the Tuaspring Integrated Water and Power Project, which formally began its operation in 2016. 

However, Hyflux’s foray into the energy business did not go as well as predicted. 

With the dip in electricity prices in Singapore, the Tuaspring Integrated Water and Power Project registered a net loss of S$81.9 million at the end of 2017. 

The loss of profit can be attributed to various factors. According to Associate Professor Lawrence Loh, Director of the NUS Business School’s Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations, Hyflux’s risk management committee met only once in the 2017 financial year — a red flag considering the high-risk nature of their business. 

There have also been questions raised about the management practices within the company. In an interview with TODAY, NUS corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen, pointed out that Hyflux’s board of directors may not have adequately questioned Ms Lum’s decisions, as the latter is known to have a strong personality. 

Another problem could be due to the fact that the eight-member board includes two former employees — which present a level of conflict of interest. Non-executive independent director Christopher Murugasu was Hyflux’s senior vice-president for corporate services and Mr Gary Kee, a non-executive non-independent director, was its executive director overseeing areas such as corporate finance and information technology. Having ex-employees on the board could be problematic, as boards are meant to represent shareholders’ views and monitor the management. 

As such, after reporting a year of consecutive profit loss in 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, Hyflux decided to appeal to the High Court for a supervision of business and debt reorganisation. A 6-month debt moratorium — filed under Section 211B of the local Companies Act — was also granted, hence protecting Hyflux from court proceedings from creditors and investors while restructuring was underway. This would allow Hyflux to focus on discussion with investors, optimise operations and complete ongoing projects to generate some cash flow.

The moratorium has since been extended multiple times to accommodate Hyflux’s efforts to restructure — much to the frustration of more than 34,000 investors, who have been seeking reprieve since 2018. 

To add on to their problems, Hyflux’s restructuring process has also been shaky, as a significant portion of local bonds have been bought by individual investors, leading to difficulties in uniting investors when it comes to decision making. 

Amidst these troubles, another stumbling block appeared in late January 2020, when Hyflux’s legal advisor expressed intent to resign, owing to a “lack of confidence”. The company has retorted by saying that they too have lost confidence in their existing legal advisors, and have since appointed new ones.

So, what’s next for Hyflux?

Hyflux has undergone negotiations with various investors in a bid to save their business. Some of these entities include Middle Eastern utility firm, Utico, Pison Investments led by Johnny Widjaja, Unilegend Investments, and Aqua Munda. 

Out of all these potential suitors, Utico and Johnny Widjaja through Pison Investments have been touted the ‘white knights’, as both have outlined their desire to save Hyflux from its financial troubles. In an agreement which took months of negotiation to materialise, Utico offered to take a 95% stake in Hyflux, in exchange for a $400 million ‘rescue’ deal whilst Pison Investments have set aside $200 million for debt repayment and working capital. Mr Widjaja believes in the potential of Hyflux and aims to integrate Hyflux’s water treatment services with the coastal industrial estate he plans to build in Java . 

As the possibility of judicial management looms, Hyflux has to choose on a rescue package soon or face the prospect of liquidation which often happens to companies under judicial management. The fate of many retail investors numbering close to 34,000 and their prospects of recovering any part of their investments will be known in the coming weeks.

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Local News Singapore

Troubled Times at Singapore Companies

There is a saying that when it rains, it pours. That saying could not be truer for several Singapore companies which have been heavily impacted by the biggest global health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu.

One-two punches

Once a promising company which briefly counted Temasek Holdings as an investor, Hyflux made its name providing water treatment technology expertise and project management. It has since been brought to its knees by a one-two punch, namely the oversupply of natural gas in 2018 and the oil market crash in 2020, exacerbated by the global pandemic, which have seen a prolong weakness in electricity prices.

In 2016, several years prior to a COVID-19 pandemic, Hyflux was already deep in financial turmoil. However, a collapse in the demand for oil caused by the pandemic led to a crash in oil prices and thereby lowering the profits of electric power generation. Since Hyflux’s projects integrated water treatment with power generation, it meant that the drop in electricity price caused substantial losses for the company. For its Tuaspring project in Singapore, Hyflux estimated electricity prices at $220 per MWh. At the time, Hyflux had the intention of selling excess electricity to the national grid to offset the low cost of supplying water to PUB. Unfortunately for Hyflux, electricity prices have trended only downwards and presently are approximately $81 per MWh. With $1.6 billion in debt, the fate of Hyflux now remains in the hands of UTICO, an Emirati company; Pison Investments led by Johnny Widjaja; Aqua Munda, a Singapore register chemical company; and a consortium comprising of unsecured working group (UWG) of banks — Mizuho, KfW, Bangkok Bank, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered Bank, CTBC Bank, and Korea Development Bank — who have recently applied to the courts for the company to be placed under judicial management.

Similarly, Singapore’s marine industry have also endured a one-two punch of its own — first with the cyclical weakness in shipping, and secondly with the COVID-19 pandemic that hammered oil prices. As a result of closing its Singapore yards for months due to the pandemic, Sembcorp Marine posted a net loss of $84 million in the first half of 2020. While production gradually resumed with the lifting of island-wide circuit breaker measures, Sembcorp Marine have also implemented salary cuts across the company and job cuts. Sembcorp Marine’s rival, Keppel Offshore and Marine, similarly cut jobs this month. In 2017, it had already cut 1250 jobs and the economic disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic means the recovery of Singapore’s offshore and ship building industry remains gloomy. Both parent company Keppel Corp and Sembcorp Marine are partly owned by Temasek.

One almighty punch

One almighty punch can be sufficient to wipe out a business. In 2020, that one punch is COVID-19.

Knocked out by COVID-19, around the world airline bankruptcies have been par for the course, with only those receiving government aid as the likely survivors of this global health crisis. Thankfully for Singapore Airlines, majority shareholder, Temasek Holdings, will no doubt continue to provide full backing, and the national flag carrier will likely survive this crisis. Having said that, it faces a monumental challenge ahead.

The current situation at Singapore Airlines has deteriorated due to a much longer than anticipated time before air services can resume. Unlike larger countries which have a domestic air network that may still function in a global pandemic, a carrier like Singapore Airlines is highly susceptible to international travel restrictions such as mandatory quarantines.

The resultant precipitous drop in demand for air travel means Singapore Airlines is facing its greatest challenge yet in its seventy-three-year history. According to data from International Air Transport Association (IATA), revenue-passenger-kilometer in April 2020 has dropped by 94.3% on a year-on-year basis. The SIA Group is currently operating at only 4% of its pre-COVID routes and a load factor of just over 10%. As the reality is setting in that the resumption of air services could happen much later than hoped, the company is staring at an extended period of operating in survival mode.

Given the magnitude of the decline in air travel, the fact that no definitive time line is set for the resumption of air travel, and no certainty that SIA’s capacity will be the same size as pre-COVID, it is inevitable that job cuts would occur. Currently, more than 22% of its 27,000 staff are on no-pay leave, and there is a company-wide pay cut among other measures that have been rolled out. However, even with the Singapore Government’s Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) extended till March 2021, covering 50% instead of the current 75% of wages, it is likely that staff retrenchments will come sooner rather than later.

Investing in a Pandemic Economy

Yet as tumultuous a time as it is for its subsidiaries, Temasek have been adding to its estimated $306 billion portfolio, prudently taking advantage investment opportunities created by market volatility.

In its recent 13F filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Temasek added to its stake in the world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock, worth approximately $4.8 billion. Meanwhile Temasek have also purchased additional shares in Chinese bio-pharmaceutical companies, China Biologic Products Holdings and Beigene.  In addition, earlier this month, Temasek and Bayer AG’s impact investment arm, Leaps by Bayer, announced a new joint-venture called Unfold. Combining seed genetics and agriculture technological experts, the new company hopes to develop crops specially designed for the unique requirements of indoor vertical farming.

Meanwhile, Temasek have pulled out of a recent deal to increase its stake in Singapore’s Keppel Corp due to Keppel’s financial losses. Certainly, Temasek’s recent investments in bio-pharmaceuticals and high-tech agriculture is a hint at how investing in a COVID-19 world will look like going forward, and that for now, perhaps the best investment opportunities lie outside Singapore.

Categories
Asia Local News Singapore

Singapore Will Not Return to Pre-COVID days

In a press conference held on Tuesday (11 Aug), Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing announced that Singapore needs to move in another direction, after describing the nations “worst quarterly performance on record”.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) now expect a year-on-year contraction of 5% and 7%, compared to the initial 4% to 7% projection. 

Private economists’ predicted a downward drop of 12.9%. However, the nation’s quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 13.2% year on year in April through June, a sharp 0.3% decrease from the first quarter. The MTI informed that “the outlook for the Singapore economy has weakened slightly since May”.

The anticipated return to the old normal is hoped for by many. Unfortunately, quick recovery and return to the ways of the past are gone. The “painful truth” is that “we are not returning to a pre-COVID-19 world” and that recovery will be slow and unlikely to be smooth sailing. 

“We can expect recurring waves of infection and disruptions,” he said. 

Mr Chan also highlighted a few global changes that Singapore has to anticipate. The geopolitical landscape that provided Singapore with the opportunity to grow and thrive in the last five decades has changed, due to tensions amongst the major powers. He highlighted that Singapore has to avoid being between the conflicts of major powers. 

“We must avoid being caught between the conflicts of major powers or be stranded in a fragmenting world of trade relations and technological standards,” he added.

The global landscape has changed irrevocably, with global companies reorganising their production and supply chains. Some companies are also reviewing the need for regional hubs and the way their operations are organised to serve different markets. New investments will be making its way to Singapore, but some existing ones may seek to diversify elsewhere. 

Mr Chan also added that “It is a fluid landscape and we must do everything we can to defend our capabilities and capacities.” 

The nature of jobs has also changed, with remote working becoming the norm, allowing for more global job opportunities to be available for Singaporeans. Still, the nature of remote working will also let other workers in other countries do the same jobs from their homes. Some job posts have advertised openings with the opportunity to work in Singapore or remotely, which affects many PMET jobs, as such work can be done virtually or through automation and AI. 

Changes in the economy will also result in more societal frictions and tensions, as those who have more and those with less will contend, and issues such as foreign and local employment, and citizenship, will also arise. 

“We will need to better take care of those affected by job and business losses. We have and will continue to do these in a sustainable way that is not divisive, affirm the dignity of work and strengthen our social fabric. These tensions, unless well managed, can divide our society,” he said.

The way forward for Singapore is muddled, but staying still is not an option. The fluidity of the entire situation means that every factor and circumstance is fast evolving. However, the government regularly update the people on the economy and job situation, sector by sector. 

Three principles were outlined for Singapore’s moving forward. 

Firstly, the country will open for business safely and sustainably. Mr Chan said that “it will not be a binary option of open or close. It can be done. We must stay open while isolating the impacted clusters quickly and tightly.” 

Secondly, the government will extend help to businesses and workers, helping them adapt to the new normal. Firms with opportunities will be provided with a boost for growth, as this creates more job opportunities for workers. Examples of such firms include those in info-communications technology, biopharma, supply chains, and precision engineering. Companies experiencing a drop in demand now but have the potential to recover will have their core capabilities preserved so that they can come out of this stronger. Companies will also receive help in cash-flow, from schemes such as Jobs Support Scheme to rental relief scheme. Assistance is extended to companies whose industries have gone in another direction due to reinvention and adaptation. 

The last principle includes supporting businesses through establishing the “right macro conditions,”, Mr Chan said. The government will strengthen connections with the world for markets, supplies, technology and talent, to preserve Singapore’s competitiveness. 

In a novel move, Singapore will engage in digital free trade agreements to open more markets for businesses, while maintaining existing access to conventional markets. 

The future may be unpredictable, and it may be challenging to pull through. However, the minister assured that the government is still committed to every Singaporean, mentioning that instead of waiting for the situation to calm down, they will start preparations now.