A week of ridiculous statements

It’s been a busy week of news and I’m pretty upset, not so much by the news but the jaw-dropping things the Govt people say as a result of the news.

Meritocracy

“The labour movement is “uncomfortable” and “concerned” with the calls for equal jobs, equal remuneration”…Mr Lim said that equal remuneration would not take into account the standard of living in Singapore as opposed to other regions, and this would be unfair for local workers who have to support their family members here. – Labour chief Lim Swee Say with regards to the strike by the China-born bus drivers in Singapore.

For all the talk about meritocracy in Singapore, it doesn’t exist from what I see. The rich/poor gap widens every day, because things are stacked up against the poor and lowly educated.The rich can ensure their children get all the help they need to get a top-tier education, and the poor struggle to make ends meet while trying to figure out the convoluted English in today’s primary school papers.

Now we are asked to ponder: Why shouldn’t we pay foreign workers less than a local worker for the same amount of work done?

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It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

This post has been published as a letter in Today, 10 Oct, under the headline “To educate is not to hothouse“.

In May this year, I was so outraged by the steep difficulty in a primary school exam paper that my wife showed me, I wrote my first letter to Today about the unrealistic standards in our education system. It was followed by a flurry of letters by other parents, and by National Day, this had become a national conversation of sorts.

I was glad to know that I was not the only one who thought that the system has become distorted.

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Getting to the root of kiasuism

This commentary was published in Today on 27th Aug as a parent’s reflection on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Rally the night before. I focused on the topics of education and the birth rate, which readers will know are my two pet topics on this blog and in real life. Contrary to popular belief, the family photo wasn’t a National Day thingy, but Chinese New Year from earlier this year :)

As a parent of two primary school children, I paid extra attention to the Prime Minister’s take on education and the birth rate. I was glad to see some glaring gaps finally plugged, or at least touched on.

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Why I don’t feel sorry for Kodak

It was all over the news today – Kodak has finally filed for bankruptcy protection.

Nobody was really surprised. Kodak has been on a decline since the beginning of the 2000s as digital cameras began to supercede film cameras. Unlike the recent passing of Steve Jobs, I haven’t seen many people on my social media networks lamenting the loss of the company that popularized photography. Looks like people just aren’t shedding a tear for Kodak.

While I do feel sorry for the Kodak employees and pensioners who face an uncertain future, they had little say in how the company was run to the ground by their management over the past few decades. Yes, Kodak film allowed for the creation of millions of amazing images, but in my lifetime, Kodak didn’t care for the consumer very much.

I’m normally a very nostalgic guy, and I will always remember walking past the bright yellow decor of film-development stores that were sponsored by Kodak in the 1980s. It was always fascinating to see how long strips of negatives would pass through the innards of the gigantic machine which would spit out 3R-sized color photos.

However Kodak left more of a bitter taste in my mouth than nostalgia is worth. Let me tell you why.

1. Film was ridiculously overpriced.

When I started getting into photography in the late 1990s, it was such an expensive hobby. If I remember correctly, it was $5 per roll of film, $10 to develop a roll of film and 30 cents to print each photo in 4R size. So to shoot a roll of 36 exposures would easily cost you $25 before inflation.

That’s not counting the cost of batteries as film cameras were power guzzlers – remember the sound of film being rewound in a compact camera? Today you can shoot thousands of photos without considering the cost – it costs just about nothing on the digital platform. But we always had to consider the cost of reloading each roll of film.

You can argue that it forced us to become better photographers when we didn’t waste film, but I can also argue that Kodak profited handsomely from enthusiast photographers.

Kodak and other film makers never really sought to lower the cost of film. The centuries-old method of using silver halide worked for them until digital overtook it with dazzling speed (actually it took about 5 years for digital to go into the mainstream from the time the first decent digicams appeared in the early 2000s).

2. Kodak never understood digital, and still doesn’t

As a tech writer in the mid-2000s, I always groaned when Kodak’s PR agency would pitch their latest digicams for a review. Compared to current models of the day from Canon and Olympus, Kodak’s digital cameras often seemed like backward and ugly cousins. And their image quality was never up to par. I could be wrong, but they were probably re-branded OEM digital cameras. For a company that invented digital cameras, they put little effort and money in advancing the technology.

As film development stores began to shutter down rapidly, I didn’t see Kodak doing anything significant to save their retail partners.The shopkeepers were helpless as the landscape shifted and so was their principal supplier.

I remember it was so expensive to request for film negatives to be converted to a digital format. I tried it for a few rolls after a professional shoot and the quality of the scan was not fantastic. Where was Kodak then? Still trying to sell more Portra film to professionals, and over-saturated Gold label films to clueless tourists.

If you read any business story on Kodak’s decline, you’ll see so many other ways that they failed to capitalize on the digital tsunami. It’s not that they didn’t have the money to invest,  (especially at their peak in the 1990s), but like many legacy companies, they clung on to the past desperately and turned their noses at consumers. We just wanted a better solution instead of having to panic every time our film canisters or strips became accidentally exposed to the sun.

I embraced digital photography the minute I discovered it, and was over the moon when digicams finally reached an acceptable level of quality compared to film (that was about 2007 if I remember correctly, while dSLRs achieved that about 2004 with the Canon 1D Mark II). When I used the Canon 1D Mk II, my first 1GB memory card cost a whopping $400, but it paid for itself quickly – that card was approximately the cost of 16 rolls of film (or 576 exposures) and I shot thousands of photos in a few weeks.

It was sad at first to see how Kodak failed to change itself for the times (in contrast to its greatest nemesis Fujifilm), but after a while, one didn’t care for the company at all. It looks like after this bankruptcy protection, Kodak wants to focus on digital printing. That’s another silly move – everyone in developed countries are gradually moving to ebooks and Zinio mags on tablets, and we’re now sharing photos on Facebook folders…thousands of them, all for free. Who will pay for digital printing in the future?

Like the cliche goes, change is a constant, and we have no choice but to embrace change. If you work in a company that doesn’t embrace change, please take a look around and see if you can get out before the company becomes obsolete by its own choice or ignorance.

Kodak may emerge from its bankruptcy protection a better company, but the young people of today don’t even know how iconic it once was. Perhaps I should be sad for the past, but that feeling just isn’t happening.

Of Art, Ads and Naked Men

I was driving into Orchard Road with the family a few weeks ago when I saw the huge billboard (above, from Mr Brown’s site) from Abercrombie & Fitch. I was so stunned that I took a second look and probably put myself at risk of an accident. It was a black and white image of a rippling male body with his genitals barely hiding from view underneath the low-slung jeans.

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The man who lost his limbs

In recent days, you’ve seen me voice out on why we need to do more for the needy and marginalized in this rich country. And every time I ponder on this issue, this story floods back into my mind.

Nearly ten years ago, I was still a press photographer and I was assigned to cover what the journos call a “hard luck” story. It’s self-explanatory but I’ll explain it further: This is a category of stories that often feature people down on their luck, suffering extraordinary hardships or are the victims of really unfortunate circumstances. In the earlier days of The New Paper, these stories really helped to drive readership, along with scandals and freak accident stories.

The main newsmaker was this man in his 40s who had started to lose all his limbs, starting with his appendages. He was a heavy smoker in the past, and one day, he discovered he was getting gangrene (or something similar) in his toes and fingertips.

Over time the affliction spread inwards and affected more of his limbs. He stopped smoking, and had several fingers and toes amputated, but the disease wouldn’t stop.

By the time the journalist and I met this man, he was stuck in a wheel chair with both legs amputated just below the knees, and only two fingers on each hand.

He spoke to me, then he started crying: “My wife just got retrenched from her job. If it wasn’t for our young children, I would have committed suicide by now.”

I was so shaken by a grown man crying with nowhere to go, I could only take two or three photos of the man before I shut down my camera. I wish I could put the photograph on this site, but it’s copyrighted by the newspaper.

I also remember feeling upset at how little support money they were getting from the authorities despite their situation. It was in a range of a few hundred dollars a month.

Their social welfare worker was trying her best, but there was only so much she could do. I believe she told us about this story in the hope that it would bring some public support for this man’s plight.

Then the man asked softly if I could help him in any way.

I declined, because I was covering hard luck stories regularly in those days, and newsmakers were asking to borrow money from me on several occasions because they had nowhere to turn to. My reasoning was : I’m a photographer/journalist. My pay is only sufficient for my own needs. I can’t be donating money to every newsmaker. I’m just here to do the story.

I went back to office and received a scolding from my photo editor because it was standard protocol to take many different angles of a newsmaker for easier layout. “Why did you take so few photos!?!?” But I refused to go back to the man’s house to take more photos and the story was later laid out around my few image.

Today, as the memory of this man constantly resurfaces, I keep asking myself : How could I have turned down his plea for help?

Closing thoughts on the elections

Chiam and signboard

Mr Chiam See Tong from 2009: “Every Singaporean must be given the respect he deserves”. Photo by Charles Lim

Like many of you, I stayed up late to watch the announcement of the General Election 2011 results, all the way until 3am on 8th May when Potong Pasir’s narrow win by PAP was finally announced. I believe more people in Singapore watched this historic event more than several National Day Parades combined.

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Being media literate during the elections

chiam by bob lee

Mr Chiam See Tong during GE 2011, by Bob Lee

I’m thankful for the work of great photographers like my friend Bob Lee, who took this photo of Opposition veteran Chiam See Tong during his elections campaign. Mr Chiam suffered a stroke some years ago, and the physical effects are obvious to everyone. However, it has not diminished any of his passion for politics or the people.

This photograph speaks more to me than all the rhetoric over the airwaves or grassy fields.

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