Politics: ‘The bottom line is that no one succeeds alone’

This week, Lawrence Wong, deputy prime minister and designated next leader of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), gave a comprehensive and compassionate speech at the annual dinner of the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS), outlining his plans to address inequality and improve social mobility. Wong illustrated the risks of technological disruption with an anecdote about the difficulties his mum faced when switching from typewriters to computers in the 1990s. “Older workers in their 40s and 50s are especially vulnerable,” he said of the job-replacing potential of artificial intelligence (AI) today. “Many also have caregiving obligations, which can make it difficult for them to set aside sufficient time to meaningfully refresh their skills.” In order “to advance the well-being of the broad middle”, he reiterated the PAP’s long-standing belief in an open economy where “the forces of creative destruction” can work, but suggested specific programmes to assist those displaced or left behind. This includes training allowances for mid-career workers to support their full-time training or study and, incredibly, some form of unemployment benefit—what has long been considered anathemic given the PAP’s belief in individual responsibility, and allergy to welfare. (“...we have revised and refreshed our thinking,” Wong contended.) Among other initiatives to help those in the lower-income segments, he stressed the need to narrow the gap in starting pay between university graduates and those from polytechnics and institutes of technical education (vocational schools). He shared a glaring statistic: as a percentage of the national median wage, Singaporeans in service and hands-on jobs—what he likes to call “heart work”—earn only about 50 percent as much as their peers in advanced economies. His speech will probably please those on the left, including a fair number of ESS wonks. Yet, many will remain sceptical about the implementation and ultimate impact. Politically, the PAP will hope to win back voters attracted by the more socialist policies of the Workers’ Party (WP). Indeed, the WP has been calling for redundancy insurance since 2011. Though the PAP won’t go that far—Wong rejected an “insurance scheme” in favour of a “government-funded benefit”—at least it has finally heeded the call. No one succeeds alone.

Society: Showing signs of depression before the baby arrives?

If left untreated, antenatal (or prenatal) depression has a higher chance of developing into postpartum depression, harming a mother’s well-being and their relationships with child and partner. An expectant woman with clinical depression might not rest or eat properly, Dr Chua Tze Ern told The Straits Times. “Some mothers may turn to…smoking, drinking or substance abuse in order to cope with their emotional load…,” explained the head and senior consultant of the women’s mental wellness service at the Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) Department of Psychological Medicine. Antenatal depression could also, Dr Chua said, lead to impaired foetal growth and altered foetal response to stress and premature labour. Last December, KKH started a universal antenatal depression screening programme for women receiving obstetric outpatient care. Patients in their second trimester answer 10 questions from the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) about how they’ve been feeling in the past seven days, such as: “I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.”; and “I have been so unhappy, I have been crying.” Of the more than 1,300 women screened, eight percent (or one in 12 women) reported having significant depressive symptoms. The EPDS is not a diagnostic tool, but helps identify women who might need individualised, follow-up care. KKH offers patients with higher questionnaire scores a psychiatric appointment, which could lead to a diagnosis. A clinical counsellor provides those with borderline-high scores tele-support and triaging. So far, the prognostic outcomes for patients treated for antenatal depression have been good, noted Dr Chua. Societal expectations of being a “good mother” (real or perceived) often place intense, emotional pressure on women, with varying consequences depending on their cultural and economic backgrounds. Routine universal screening goes some way towards removing the barriers that prevent the identification and treatment of maternal mental health disorders, as well as access to advice and support.

Earth: The planet's heating up and it is a serious and an immediate threat

Only 43.7 percent of Singaporeans believe climate change is “a serious and immediate threat” to the well-being of our country, down from 66.4 percent in 2021, according to the latest Southeast Asia Climate Outlook Survey Report published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS). ISEAS researchers hypothesise that this decline might be due to intensifying economic concerns in the region—respondents consider inflation, the rising cost of living and unemployment more “top-of-mind issues”. This is despite the fact that June to August of this year was the hottest three-month period ever recorded on Earth. While heat-induced health risks are obvious, presumably the impact that climate change will also have on Singaporeans’ cost of living—extreme weather driving food insecurity, for instance—is not yet well understood by the layperson. Perhaps another reason contributing to Singaporeans’ apathy is the fact that 91.4 percent believe it is the government’s duty to tackle climate change. While on some level it is, a pitifully low proportion of Singaporeans  sign petitions (17.6 percent) and attend protests (3.2 percent) related to the climate crisis. Madhu Ardhanari, a sustainability strategist and researcher and one of the speakers at last weekend’s 2023 SG Climate Rally, said that “…the people who want to talk about [climate change] is a very small group of people, and are often disconnected with people who are facing the most of who are most vulnerable to impact.” Other speeches—by Geh Min, former Nominated Member of Parliament; Ho Xiang Tian, co-founder of LepakInSG; and Nor Syazwan Abdul Majid, founder of Wan’s Ubin Journal, in addition to Ardhanari—emphasised the uneven impact of the climate crisis: lower-income residents without air-conditioning units often bear the brunt of the worsening heat, for example. SG Climate Rally’s three broad calls to actions are: accelerating the transition to a net-zero future; protecting the ecosystems; and empowering the people. Of the 1,400 odd attendees at Hong Lim Park were probably more politicians than at any other rally, including: the PAP’s Wan Rizal; the WP’s He Ting Ru, Dennis Tan, Louis Chua, Gerald Giam and Jamus Lim; Progress Singapore Party’s Leong Mun Wai; and Red Dot United’s Ravi Philemon. The climate crisis is urgent, grave and inescapable. It is in our interests to stay informed, remain engaged, and be inspired and ready to act—at the individual, local and national level.

History weekly by Faris Joraimi

Weapons from past wars are still among us, dormant but lethal. A 100-kg aerial bomb was found in a construction site in Upper Bukit Timah, which the bomb disposal unit of the Singapore Armed Forces defused and disposed of on Tuesday. About 4,000 residents in the surrounding area had to temporarily evacuate. This isn’t the first such occurrence here: another, smaller aerial bomb was also found during construction works near the Singapore River in 2019 and had to be detonated. Some residents interviewed back then said they’d booked more than one night’s stay in hotels even though the planned detonation would take less than a day. I mean, make the best of it, I guess? Of course, despite having the world’s most competent government, Singaporeans can never be too careful. One such resident said, “I know the authorities have it taken care of, but I’m still really worried that there will be remnants (of the bomb). I just have a weird feeling about it. Some of my friends actually flew overseas, what I’m doing is already less extreme.” These bombs were all dropped during the only modern military conflict that was physically fought in Singapore, world war two. They either date from the Japanese bombing campaigns of 1941, or the Allied bombings that took place between November 1944 and May 1945. Such military explosives are routinely unearthed in Europe, historically a violent warzone replete with ethnic cleansing, trench warfare, and refugee crises. But its developed nations now have the resources to defuse these relics safely. Elsewhere, in places like Cambodia and Afghanistan, explosive remnants of more recent wars still regularly maim and kill civilians, even after the armies have left and guns fallen silent.  

Arts: Singapore Writers Festival 2023

The theme for this year’s Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) is “Plot Twist”. Writer Pooja Nansi described this edition, her last as festival director, as “a challenge to see how far and wide we could fling the reach and relevance of a literary festival”. She assumed the post in 2019 and has overseen several digital and hybrid editions during the pandemic. Last year’s festival, the first full-scale programme post-Covid, broke SWF attendance records with almost double the number of visitors of 2019’s edition. Her tenure has been characterised by a commitment to diverse programming that reaches beyond just books. A programme titled “50 Years of Bars, Flows and Beats” will celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip hop this year, a major inspiration for Nansi’s work, and includes a reading featuring a live DJ, a conversation with hip hop historian Jeff Chang, and a workshop for children with Singaporean rapper BGourd. This year’s international headliners include Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, pioneer of postcolonial theory Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Lemn Sissay. Chang and Nguyen will be attending as part of a collaboration with the US Embassy Singapore titled “Spotlight on Asian-American Authors”. SWF has also collaborated with the Singapore Book Council on its South-east Asian Focus programme which will feature writer and translator Tiffany Tsao and novelist Jesse Q Sutanto from Indonesia, and legendary Malaysian cartoonist Lat. As always, SWF will also celebrate Singaporean literature. This year’s Literary Pioneer is the late Goh Poh Seng, a writer of plays, poetry, and prose and a key member of the arts community. The festival boasts over 200 programmes and will be held from November 17th to 26th. For more information, visit the SWF website.

Arts: AI takes centre stage

AI is everywhere in the art world now. Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum recently closed a month-long show titled “Notes From The Ether: From NFTs to AI” that featured 20 artists working in digital art. The National Museum of Singapore used generative AI tools to produce images of an alternate reality Singapore as part of their ongoing “What If” series. Singapore Art Museum’s new show “Proof of Personhood: Identity and Authenticity in the Face of Artificial Intelligence” explores the fraught concept of reality in an era where digital tools can alter and fabricate identities. (Disclosure: Jom co-founder Charmaine Poh is one of the artists in this show.) The Singapore Writers Festival’s annual Opening Debate will be “This House Believes AI is the Better Writer” and lists OpenAI’s large language model (LLM) ChatGPT as the closing speaker for the proposition. Not all of these projects have been embraced by the arts community. Comments on the National Museum’s Instagram have criticised the use of AI tools in place of commissioning human artists, while local writers have questioned SWF’s decision to frame the conversation about LLMs as a debate with two sides rather than adopting a more critical perspective. Free-to-use generative AI tools are often trained on pirated work. The website Have I Been Trained?, which was featured in German artist Hito Steyerl’s talk on “so-called AI art” at National Gallery Singapore earlier this month, allows users to check if their image-based art (like photographs and drawings) have been found in AI training datasets. A recent investigation by The Atlantic discovered that almost 200,000 books, including titles by Singaporean writers, were used by large corporations like Meta, Bloomberg and potentially OpenAI without permission. This has a host of implications for artistic labour, including the financial viability of a career in the arts when the risk of being undercut by a tech tool trained on stolen work looms large. The Writers Guild of America strike only concluded earlier this week, after 148 days, partly because the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers agreed to include clauses preventing the “exploitation of writers’ material to train AI” and the use of generative AI to write or rewrite literary material in the Guild’s new contract. Digital technologies are neither new nor temporary features in the art world. However, it is in the interests of both artists and arts institutions to engage with the subject judiciously rather than jumping on every new and shiny bandwagon.

Tech: Grabbing Delivery Hero’s pie in APAC

Delivery Hero, a German-listed company and parent of foodpanda, has confirmed the potential sale of its foodpanda business in South-east Asia, including in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. While the deal is still in its preliminary stages, the acquisition, potentially worth over S$1.45bn, could significantly bolster the buyer’s market share in the region. The speculated buyer, Grab, could acquire an overwhelming share of the food delivery market, exceeding 80 percent in several South-east Asian countries. However, regulatory approval remains a hurdle as the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) is more likely to review a deal that would give the combined entity a market share of 40 percent or more. Given that Grab is now a listed company and was fined for not notifying the CCS before its merger with Uber in 2018, it will likely pay more attention to regulatory sensitivities. The markets under consideration generated revenues of between S$1.31bn and S$1.45bn for Delivery Hero in FY2022. HSBC analysts have commented that market consolidation—and hence, less competition—could be advantageous to the acquirer, leading to improved unit economics, higher margins, lower customer acquisition costs and fewer incentives. Employees of foodpanda are feeling the brunt of the impending sale with a third round of layoffs announced. As seen in the ride-hailing market, while the benefits of consolidation are apparent for the business, it is unlikely that consumers will see lower costs on their food deliveries.

Tech: Alternative pork for Singaporeans

Meatable, a Netherlands-based food tech company, will introduce cultivated pork products in Singapore by Q2 of 2024, adding to the current menu of cultivated chicken and beef items. Meatable’s products, including pork sausages and dumplings, are a fusion of plant-based and cultivated meats, co-developed with plant-based butcher Love Handle and manufactured here by Esco Aster. The firm has devised a unique, more sustainable approach to meat production, with pricing comparable to organic meats. Meatable leverages its patented opti-ox technology to isolate pluripotent stem cells from live animals without inflicting harm, then replicates them in a controlled environment, and differentiates them into fat and muscle tissue, mimicking the flavour and texture of meat. This process also cuts the production time of traditional farming methods. Choosing Singapore as Meatable’s launchpad in the region is due to the city-state’s strong support for alternative proteins, as part of its larger pursuit of food security. Singapore was the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meats by Eat Just; its cultivated chicken meals are sold at Huber’s for about S$19—still fairly pricey. To bring its products to market faster, Meatable blends cultivated and plant-based meats, which curbs costs and broadens access to ingredients. The company, having raised US$95m (S$129.8m) in funding, will focus on cultivated pork for now, with plans to penetrate the US market. It also eyes export opportunities to China and Japan once the regulatory landscapes there are ripe for expanding the business.

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