Thank you, Uncle Sar, and Rest In Peace!


I’ve always known him as Uncle Sar. He was a teacher, a biology teacher no less. When he used to visit us at home when I was 7 or 8 years old, he would always give my sister and I 10 cents The 10 cents was meant for us to go get a jotter book.

The books would have blank pages into which my sister and I were supposed to draw things in. Exactly what was to be drawn, I don’t think he specified, but it was to be used for something.

When I knew that he was going to visit us, I remember being extra industrious in trying to finish up the pages in jotter book that got the last visit. Many times, I would have missed a few pages or just scribbled something on a page just to make sure that the book has no more empty pages left.

He was always accommodating and smiling and would be ever too keen to check our “work” in the jotter book.

I recall one visit when for some reason he did not give us the usual 10 cents. I remember sneaking up on him, and putting my hand into his shirt pocket to get the 10 cent coin. He would act as if nothing is happening and let me be the crook. Thank you, Uncle Sar.

There are many other memories of you driving us around in your Austin, car license plate ST 287 (not the one in the photo) and how excited I was to go on those rides.

Years later, when I was doing biology for my “A” levels, I was struggling with it and he was kind enough to give me materials that eventually did help me pass it – which was more than what my own teacher ever did. Uncle Sar taught at Pasir Panjang Secondary School then.

We did not quite keep up our contacts over the years, but I do know that every time I saw him at an event, my heart would beat with a happy beat. You had a smile and laughter. Perhaps it brought me back to simpler days, days of childhood.

There was a meeting where you came up to me and congratulated me for being outspoken and fair about things around Singapore politics. You said that, “yes, Hari, I keep a look out for you.” Thank you!

I am glad I took a selfie with you in December 2016 at some event. Unfortunately, I did not hold the camera steadily enough, but here you are.

So it is with a very heavy heart that I bid you farewell. You’ve lived 85 wonderful years. Thank you, Uncle Sar.

A better model to work with citizens


I have been putting off installing the SGSecure application on my phone.

I finally decided to do it via the Google Playstore. It got downloaded and installed and when I started the app, it needed me to agree to the Terms of Use:

Screenshot_20170407-084036

I know most people would just hit the “I agree” button, but not me.

I hit the “Terms of Use” link and it then brought me to Ts&Cs page.

Screenshot_20170407-083728

As an open source advocate, I am very disappointed that a tax-dollars funded application is kept proprietary. I am OK for the contents the app works with as “proprietary”, but at the very least, I expect that the application code be placed on an open source license like the GNU General Public License. Why? So that we can all work to make it even better. The government is not the best in building applications and as has been demonstrated over the last few years, working with the free and open source community helps build a significantly better application no matter who you are.

Continuing the Ts&Cs:

Screenshot_20170407-083746

Screenshot_20170407-083805

I have a problem with 4 (b) above. Why would the app need access to messaging services? Shouldn’t the app be able to send information to the relevant recipients directly?

Screenshot_20170407-083932

What’s with 4 (e) where it says that PII may be shared with non-Government services? It is easy to say “to serve you better”. I would want to know who the non-G service providers are and how they manage these PII.

Screenshot_20170407-084001

The link at the bottom of the screenshot above, brings me to https://e3res.sgsecure.sg/misc/tnc_v1.html – a substantially similar one as the one included in the app.

I decided to uninstall it.  And I tweeted about my hesitation in accepting this app. Hopefully someone is listening and I am more than willing to discuss.

Congratulations NUS Engineers Class of 2016!


My speech at the Commencement of NUS Faculty of Engineering on July 12, 2016 at 3:00 pm.

Mr Neo Kian Hong, Member, NUS Board of Trustees, Distinguished Guests, Friends and Families of Graduands, Graduating Class of 2016, Ladies and Gentlemen, Good afternoon.

To the class of 2016, both my wife and I would like to extend our heartiest congratulations to all of you.

There are, here today, 515 graduates of which 106 getting joint bachelor’s, 3 with multi-disciplinary, 244 bachelor’s in computer and electrical engineering, 115 masters, and 47 PhDs degrees.

In a word, wow. What a fantastic collection of talent, potential and promise. A brain trust that would rival any other. The 2016 World University Ranking by Times Higher Education for Engineering and Technology, ranks NUS lucky 13th globally. Your alma mater is shining and you can rightly be proud of it! Surely that deserves a hearty round of applause!

I feel at home in the company of people who value the pursuit of knowledge with the vision to make this a better world. Engineers are dreamers, doers, builders, risk takers. Engineers are weird like that. That’s in our DNA. Our ethos.

As a child, I was enthralled with the idea of being able to walk on the moon. I wanted to become an astronaut. It has not happened, yet, but that goal has helped open up for me a vast vista of possibilities and opportunities. In its own way, that interest led me down the path of becoming a ham radio operator, 9v1hp is my call sign if you want to QSO, pursuing electrical and electronics engineering, and then computer engineering and computer science.

It was done during the time when technology, largely driven by the NASA space program’s need for high performance computing and semiconductor devices, was showing the way to bring to life, some of the ideas of what was essentially in science fiction.

It was a time when, much of the things we take for granted today, were mere ideas in Isaac Asimov‘s visions of tomorrow.

There is a wonderful interview of Asimov done by Bill Moyers in which they discuss education.

Let me quote you the following:

Bill Moyers asks:

Do you think we can educate ourselves, that any one of us, at any time, can be educated in any subject that strikes our fancy?

Isaac Asimov replies:

“The key words here are “that strikes our fancy.” There are some things that simply don’t strike my fancy, and I doubt that I can force myself to be educated in them. On the other hand, when there’s a subject I’m ferociously interested in, then it is easy for me to learn about it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully – what’s exciting is the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.”

Asimov later goes on to say:

“That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school — reading books, having ideas, asking questions — that’s kid’s stuff. Now that you’re an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”

Education is never “finished”. It is also not marked by getting pieces of paper, or getting a grade, or even this today’s commencement.

You may have heard of adage “sharpening your saw”. A rusty or dull saw cannot cut you a tree. Sharpening the saw is key to keeping your knowledge fresh, alive and useful. Stop sharpening, you disintegrate.

It is fitting that today’s event is called a “commencement”. You are indeed commencing your next phase of life. It is the culmination of lots of sweat equity you expended to reach a goal, and then to go on to build new things. It is a cycle, not a treadmill. It is a deliberate and positive cycle of life.

There is a word for that. Entropy. And I find entropy a fascinating idea.

You may be wondering why would I want to bring in the “second law of thermodynamics” in the address.

A tl;dr definition of the 2nd law of thermodynamics says that the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time, or remains constant in ideal cases where the system is in a steady state or undergoing a reversible process. The increase in entropy accounts for the irreversibility of natural processes, and the asymmetry between future and past.

What was that all about, you wonder? What has entropy got to do with today’s proceedings? I hope Carnot, Clausius, Kelvin, Planck and Shannon would grant me this non-scientific postulation of their collective work.

Most of you have spent 4 years in this 111-year old institution, those getting their PhDs, a few more.

From the time you entered this school, entropy in you has been increasing. As knowledge, experience, wisdom and insights flowed from your dedicated faculty and your classmates to you – entropy increased. I say it increased because I am approximating the university as a closed system – as needed by the 2nd law.

When you take formal leave of this school’s lecture theatres, halls and labs, you will start the process of transferring the entropy – knowledge, experience etc – on to the big world outside these walls.

As you stand at the peak of this phase of your life’s adventure, the “you” sitting here is a very different “you” that entered this school. In giving of yourself to the future endeavours that you get into, you will be putting truth into the statement “that the entropy of the universe will always increase”.

By the end of this evening, all of you would hold in your hands a scroll that records your accomplishment. Savour and cherish that moment but only for a moment. It is an indication and acknowledgement that your next stage of possibilities and responsibilities has now been laid in front of you.

I am frequently reminded of a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States.

He said:

He who received an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his candle at mine, receives light without darkening mine. Then there is twice as much light.

Ideas are one of those fundamental qualities that make us all human. In other words, Ideas Maketh Homo Sapiens. It remains to be seen if Artificial Intelligence can generate ideas like we do.

Each of us generate hundreds of ideas every day without breaking a sweat. Most of them are not acted upon, but do serve as building blocks for something else, all done subconsciously. The “ah, ha!” moment is an example of that subconscious confluence of ideas.

If you must judge me, judge me by how good my good ideas are and not by how bad my bad ideas were.

I know you are all brimming with ideas of what to do next. I hope you will not be distracted by, what I consider, a falsehood that ideas need to be guarded, locked up and not shared with others.

I come from the world of open collaboration where software source code, the classic example of the embodiment of ideas, is freely shared and improved upon. The business I am part of, Red Hat, built its US$2b revenue business on 100% open source code, all achieved with open collaboration on ideas and code.

My empirical experience has been that when ideas (and code) are shared, they get sharpened and the outcome is both unpredictable and beautiful. And just last week, the source code of Apollo 11 spacecraft was released and it is amazing to read the code and understand the constraints they had to work with in 1969.

Please don’t hold back on sharing your ideas.

I shall practise what I’ve preached and here’s an idea that I hope some of you will consider picking up:

Electric cars are fun, but the challenge is one of re-charging it. Re-charging is being done today by retrofitting and building new charging infrastructure. And that takes time. So here’s my idea for a start-up which I shall call PowerBuddy:

a) PowerBuddy operates a mobile, battery-powered fleet of “charging vehicles”

b) these charging vehicles are strategically placed all over Singapore

c) As a subscriber to PowerBuddy, your car will be tracked with your permission, so that PowerBuddy will know what the charge level is at all times and, based on pre-arranged settings, provide a quick (or full) recharge wherever the car is parked at.

d) You can then go anywhere and not be worried about running out of juice and more importantly, not have to wait for the current infrastructure to catch up.

I hope some of you here will pick this up, ideate further and execute PowerBuddy. I would be happy to collaborate with you on this. We are engineers, we build solutions to address problems.

Engineering is a profession that loves precision but accepts and is extremely aware of real world approximations.

Any worthy engineer will solve problems in many cases by making assumptions, to a first approximation, and then to iteratively refine the solution until it is good enough. There is a growing community of engineers who recognise that “good enough” engineering is what makes the world happen. I believe in that approximation as well.

It was the French philosopher Voltaire who said: “Perfect is the opposite of Good Enough”. The real world we live in makes it almost impossible to be perfect. Embrace good enough and we can build solutions.

We all love to succeed. But success is a poor teacher – failure, on the other hand, is a fantastic albeit cruel teacher. You can learn lots from failure, but precious little from success.

So, make sure you define success on your own terms, and work to achieve success by your own rules. Fail, fail quick and often, so that you can succeed. And in that process, to build a life you’re proud to live.

Before I conclude, from one engineer to another, well done on becoming an engineer! Together, let’s build a better world.

And finally, thank you NUS for giving me this opportunity to address this afternoon’s commencement (Update: my address starts at around 0:26).

Congratulations Class of 2016.

Thank you.

As the silly season starts


By noon on September 1st, we will know who are running for the 89 seats in the parliament.

As voters we are all keen to know who the candidates are. The irony is that the majority voters don’t really know who their current member of parliament is to begin with. I know who mine is, but I have not met nor spoken to him ever. That being the reality, how would you go about making a considered and fair assessment of how you should be casting your vote.

Let me offer up a short checklist to help with the thinking:

  1. Is your’s, your family’s and of Singapore’s future important to you?
  2. If you said YES to 1, do you think the candidate(s) in your ballot paper will be able to deliver the future you want?
  3. If you said NO to 1, it does not matter who you vote for.  So VOTE, PLEASE DON’T SPOIL THE VOTE EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPOIL IT.
  4. If you said YES to 2, have you understood who the candidate(s) is(are) and where they stand on issues that is of concern to you? Have you done sufficient research to be able to be honest to yourself to come to a decision?
  5. If you said NO to 2, are you prepared to find out why you think they cannot deliver the future you want?
  6. If you said NO to 5, it does not matter who you vote for. So VOTE, PLEASE DON’T SPOIL THE VOTE EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPOIL IT.
  7. If you said YES to 5, do spend time reading, talking to family, friends, colleagues or just about any other Singaporean voter. Do make sure that you get to hear from all sides not just one side.

See, it is quite easy to navigate the silly season.

Do be aware that what is called “Mainstream Media” (MSM), which especially in the Singapore context, has very low credibility in terms of being fair, balanced and critical. These MSM include the newspapers, TV and radio owned and operated by Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp. These entities are government-linked companies and have never been known to challenge or be critical of government policies. Investigative and critical reporting is NOT what they can ever do (or to be fair, allowed to do).

Having said all of that, do take about 10 minutes to listen to this TEDx talk that discusses how entities, like governments and political parties, would do all that they can to astroturf opinion and understanding of issues. Don’t be lulled by catchphrases, innuendoes, carrots, meat etc.

And, yes, this post could perhaps be also playing that game.

Majulah Singapura!

#ge2015

He probably is indeed telling the truth! (info graphic updated on Aug 29)


It would appear that ESM Goh Chok Tong is indeed telling the truth that “checks and balances are a seductive lie”.

He says in that article that: “the check comes from the “integrity of the leadership in PAP.”

Let’s dissect the notion of checks and balances. I will draw reference to how the PAP-run town councils built-sold-then-leased-back the town council management system. This system was withdrawn from use by the Worker’s Party following their 2011 general election take over of the Aljunied GRC.The fact that a key piece of infrastructure needed to run the town council had to be replaced with something new, I would assert, contributed to the issues that the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol-East Town Council faced.

The town council management software was paid for from public funds, not party funds. The public funds also included funds from contributions made to the town councils that were under the PAP then. So, just because there was a “change” in the MPs running the GRC/town council, to then deny them a key infrastructure goes against all commonsense and fairness.

And to make things even worse, the “Coordinating Chairman” of the PAP town councils made statements that were totally wrong. In my post in 2013, I addressed his comments and you can read it there.

Coming back to what ESM Goh said a couple of days ago about checks and balance being a seductive lie, he probably is telling the truth. The PAP, it would appear, has been lying all along and seduced us all.

Let me share this info graphic which was sent to me. I am not sure of the origin of it or what licence is it made available (assuming CC). It seems to be from a facebook page of Temasek Review.

11954780_880117968708186_8038350811398547849_n
From Temasek Review’s Facebook page. Assuming CC license.

Update: August 29, 2015. The infographic above is incorrect and I have updated it to reflect that there indeed was a tender to sell the system.

updated infographic to reflect that there was a tender called.
updated infographic to reflect that there was a tender called.

The need for a independent Electoral Commission


I am reading the Candidate Handbook for Parliamentary Election 2015 for the first time. I don’t have any of the earlier versions so I cannot tell what the changes are (yes, no edit history/change log; here’s a local copy: Candidate Handbook for Parliamentary Election 2015_1 in case the ELD.gov.sg site goes down).

According to Section 4.1 of the handbook:

Candidates should conduct election campaigning in a responsible and dignified manner that befits the seriousness of the election process. Candidates should steer away from negative campaigning practices based on hate and denigration of opposing candidates, and should not make false statements that allege corruption or commission of criminal offences, or statements that may cause racial or religious tensions or affect social cohesion. Egregious acts of negative campaigning could also be in breach of the law.

As noted by Viswa Sadasivan in his IQ post, this paragraph has many issues. Who would be the adjudicators of this? How does one raise an infraction?

We could crowd source to tally up of the various transgressions on an hourly/daily basis on a wiki or Google doc. This will help, if nothing else for posterity, but more so for transparency, regardless what is done with “the list”.

Further reading of the Candidate Handbook gives more nuggets:

On page 30 (Section 4.5.4):

iv. no form of public entertainment (such as singing, dancing or showing a film) shall be provided, and no live-streaming of any event (including the election meeting itself) shall be shown before, during and after the election meeting;

I wonder what the “live streaming”  is referred to here? I have to assume that it means that live streaming done by the candidate/party themselves is a no go. I cannot see how I, as a person in the audience at the rally, choosing to use Google Hangouts or Periscope to stream the rally is a no go. I have the right to do so.

These additional conditions are intriguing (page 30/31):

Other conditions that will be imposed are:

a. only persons named in the application for the permit and who are approved as speakers can speak at the election meeting;

b. members of the Central Executive Committee or an equivalent governing body of a political party as well as candidate(s) from the same political party who are nominated in accordance with the provisions of the Parliamentary Elections Act (Cap 218) for election as a Member of Parliament for an electoral division shall only be permitted to speak at election meetings held by their own political party. They may not speak at election meetings held by an Independent Candidate or another political party even if they are concurrently members (of any type) of that other political party. The reference to a political party includes political alliances registered as a political party. An Independent candidate can only speak at election meetings for which a permit has been issued to him/her or his/her election agent. He/She will not be allowed to speak at election meetings held by political parties or other Independent candidates contesting in the elections. However, where a member of the Central Executive Committee member or an equivalent governing body of a political party has been nominated in accordance with the provisions of the Parliamentary Elections Act for election as a Member of Parliament for an electoral division as a candidate for another political party or as part of a group of Independent candidates, he may be permitted to speak at all election meetings held by that other political party or at the election meeting held by that group of Independent candidates as the case may be;

emphasis added

Why would you DISALLOW a party or independent candidate from speaking at each other’s rally? While it would be strange for “opposing” candidates to speak at each other’s rally, stating it the way it is done smacks of being excessive and is curtailing one’s freedom to speak.  Granted that no one would want to or accept an invitation to speak at a PAP rally, but denying it explicitly, seems rather draconian.

Why did I name this post “the need for an independent electoral commission”? The fact that these “guidelines” did not have any public consultation – it might have been there but I cannot find any references to such. Because the Elections Department reports to the Prime Minister, I doubt that they have any form of independence or opportunity to do things better that could be negative for the PAP but good for Singapore.

More drama to unfold I am sure.

Five days to nomination.

What I want for the future of Singapore starting today.


rainbow-2 (2)
CC-BY version 4 – View from my house looking north. Rainbow (primary and secondary) originating in Bt Timah and ending somewhere at Clementi

Fifty years of being an independent country and having seen how we have evolved over the years with my fellow Singaporeans is just amazing. Yes, the political hand did play a significant part in the direction we took, but if we are to continue to thrive and get even better, we need to relook and reassess many things.

As the next general elections is looming (some say September 12 2015), here are my list of things I want to have a conversation around as well as action taken. These are in no particular order, except that these were listed over several weeks. I have diliberately left them unorganized/unsorted.

1. Withdrawal of the Internal Security Act. Failing which, a mandatory judicial review within 48 hours of anyone arrested. And they have to be presented in court within 30 days or be released.

2. Formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission: At fifty years of independence, we should be looking at reviewing al the dark days and getting a closure to all of them – no exception. Yes, it will hurt people along the process, but we need to clean and clear the deck.

3. No walk overs. All seats will be contested. Even if there is only one candidate, that candidate must get at least 25% votes in favour or else the seat is vacant. Democracy has to be seen to happen and not be something that is manipulated via technicalities. This applies to the silly GRC system as well.

4. Full disclosure of all the assets of GIC and Temasek. No excuses.

5 Set up of an Independent Electoral Commission

6. Removing the pre-requisites for being a President – anyone born in Singapore and above the age of 40 can run for president.

7. Live and archived broadcast of all parliamentary proceedings – warts, sleepy heads, yawns and all.

8. Freedom of Information Act

9. Removal of GRCs

10. Release of all government records after 30 years.

11. MPs will focus only on municipal work and bringing up issues in parliament. This means that other than the Prime Minister and a Deputy Prime Minister (as elected MPs), every minister shall be nominated and qualified people who were NOT ELECTED into parliament. Such nominations will be done AFTER the elections and these nominees will be confirmed by parliamentary committees convened for this purpose. The term of a minister so chosen will be for the duration of the government. This is to give separation of executive from municipal issues.

12. No pensions for MPs

13. All government systems will be built using open source software and where they don’t exist, to fund technology to meet it. The code will be available for anyone to use.

14. Review Instruction Manual to bring it up to date.

15. Removal of 2nd language as a requirement. Languages such as Tamil, Malay and Mandarin shall be taught at levels that should encourage their usage but not to the extent that is being done today. Students can optionally decide to take on a full 2nd language load if they want to. PSLE to be reviewed to level the playing field to ensure that social mobility is achievable and elitism to be contained.

16. Removal of licensing of newspapers etc. No government oversight.

17. Fixed dates for elections. No longer at the whim and fancy of the government of the day.

18. Mayors to be abolished. No practical value. If Mayors have to be kept in place, they must be elected positions not held by MPs.

19. All town council software systems will be publicly funded and built using open source and available to anyone – not party specific.

20. People’s Association restructured to have NO political links. The MP of an area is the advisor to the local grassroots organizations and the People’s Association works with the elected MP at all times.

21. Review of all HDB designs to that the apartments are of a decent size and not shoebox sizes

22. Proper labelling of GMO foods

23. Giving the consumer advocacy more authority – from a legal perspective.

24. Review of ALL government scholarships with a view to reduce the “bond” period to no more than 3 years after graduation. This is to free up people for the private sector.

25. Proportional representation in parliament. This is the best way

26. No Trans Pacific Partnership without national referendum

27. Outlawing of software patents.

28. Residential use of down link satellite systems.

29. Singaporean astronauts by 2020.

30. Smart power generation via Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. This is critical is we are to achieve our Smart Nation vision which is power hungry.

31. During elections, the “party political broadcasts” will all be of the same duration of ten minutes per party contesting and ten minutes for each independent. Similarly for presidential elections – each candidate gets the same amount of time.

32. Exit polls encouraged – the best part of these polls is that, in most cases, these polls are completely wrong but by specifically not allowing for it, there is no empirical evidence.

33. Removal of death penalty

34. Removal of 3/4 tank rule

35. Allow dual/multiple citizenships

36. ASEAN Day, August 8th, to be officially observed – starting from 2017, the 50th Anniversary of ASEAN.

37. Introduce a National Thanksgiving Day starting in 2015.

38. SAF Day to be renamed National Service Day and to encourage donning of uniform by all NSmen (SAF, Police, SCDF) during that day.

39. Removal of election deposit (all elections).

40. All Singapore Standards documents (coming out of SPRING Singapore) should be make available in electronic format at no cost.

41. Reinstate sale of chewing gum – educate on how to dispose them and we will be just fine.

42. Remove REITs to mitigate the excessive rental rates. Or create a rent control scheme to manage the runaway rents.

43. Hawker center rentals to be controlled by NEA and have to always be affordable.

44. Introduce Pay-As-You-Bid for COE bidding. The base line for each category will continue to be what it is today and that is the number that will be used for all subsequent considerations regardless of what the PAYB paid.

45. Singaporeans living outside Singapore will be exempt from Medishield Life.

46. Automatic forgiveness of National Service defaulters after they reach age of 50.

47. Removal of censorship of Internet sites and films. Rating of films to continue.

48. Removal of no alcohol law (introduced after the Little India incident)

49. Review the ORBAT of the SAF and Police to reduce the number of BGs and ACs. There are too many of them.

50. All tax payer funded research (and code developed) must be made available on a GPL-like license for anyone to use at no cost.