berthahenson

Five points from Ho Kwon Ping

In News Reports, Politics, Society on October 21, 2014 at 10:42 am

How does one get to be a “leading public intellectual’’? I guess it has to be bestowed by the media. So now we are treated to a discourse from said intellectual, businessman Ho Kwon Ping,  a day after an erudite speech by former Foreign Minister George Yeo.

The MSM devoted much space to Mr Ho’s three scenarios of how the political landscape could pan out over the next 50 years – Status Quo, PAP dominant and two-party pendulum as a result of a “freak election’’. As Mr Ho himself acknowledged, those are pretty predictable scenarios. What struck me more was what he said about the changing trends that will affect  “governability’’. (Note that he talked in general terms although he did give some “local’’ examples like the “read-in session after the gay penguins fiasco’’ and Pink Dot celebrations.)

He makes five points which I will place in quotes:

First, the ability of governments to control information will continue to erode, despite sometimes frantic and illogical attempts to stem it.’’

How true. Yet we see attempts to control (or should the term be “manage’’?) the flow of information whether through blunt tools like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act or new forms of licensing or regulation. It has come to the point that even supposed “self-regulation’’ is viewed with suspicion as the arts community’s rebuff of self-classification showed. And we still have to see what changes to the Broadcasting Act have been dreamt up.

Mr Ho also said this: “Anything censored is still widely available in alternative media, and therein lies the rub: At what point will control and censorship of the mainstream news, cultural and entertainment media become counter-productive by not really achieving the purpose of blocking access to information, but, instead, end up alienating the social activists who, despite their small size, are influencers beyond their numbers?’’

Clap! Clap! Although I doubt that the G would agree that rules are in place to “block’’ access to information…merely to ensure that the right information gets through to the masses. The G is fighting an uphill battle if it wants to carry on with the old ways of simply saying “Cannot’’ or “No’’ or “No comment’’ to mainstream news media. Word will get out somehow or other. And even if it is, say, disinformation, some will regard it as more credible because there is NO information in MSM. Of course, the G can’t go chasing after every bit of speculation on social media. But what it can do is give the MSM more leeway to operate, that is, widen the OB markers.

Take Ms Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore with love. The G can’t quite ban it because that would be impossible. A ban would mean penalties for those who break it. Does it really want to punish people who get hold of the film online? That serious meh?  So it does what is known as “signalling’’. It doesn’t like the film and decides that it will “not be available for public screening’’. Frankly, I think it’s a new(ish) argument – that the medium is to be blamed more than the contents. It must, therefore, be okay for transcripts of the interview with the exiles to be turned into a book?

As for Mr Ho’s phrase about alienating social activists who are “influencers’’, I’m glad he said this because I’m pretty tired of the G piously dismissing activists as a vocal minority. The majority might be silent, but they are not dumb.

Second, it will be increasingly difficult to hold the political centre together in the midst of polarising extremes – liberals versus conservatives; local versus foreign; pro-life versus pro-abortion; gay versus straight, and so forth. While fault lines along race and religion have been contained and have still not cracked, the so-called culture wars are intensifying.’’

Yup, we’ve been talking about maintaining racial and religious harmony for so long that we forget that different attitudes to fundamental issues  would form – and widen over time. Our laws are directed towards making sure there’s no incitement of racial or religious tension, especially in the media and in the public space. Not that we haven’t tried to hold together with the G initiating numerous talkfests to gather some kind of consensus on the values, beating the Asian gong, strengthening the mother tongue and having National Education workshops…

“Third, diminution in the stature of political leadership will encourage the rise of so-called “non-constructive” politics. Future leaders simply cannot command the sufficient respect and moral authority to decree what is acceptable and unacceptable criticisms. To have the authority to simply deride wide swathes of criticisms as simply non-constructive is wishful thinking.’’

Mr Ho seems to think the “diminution’’ is permanent or at least irreversible. Is it not possible to shore up stature? Or is this a “gone’’ case?

Governing by decree is definitely history. It is no longer acceptable for the G to simply pronounce that something is unacceptable. Mr Ho cited the read-in at the National Library after the “comic’’ gay penguins saga as a local example. It wasn’t a rabid protest but more like a children’s outing, he noted. But the point, he said, had been made.

The political process will take longer and it will be messier. (I wonder what would have happened if the G tried to ban the sale of chewing gum now instead of decades earlier…) Some people might long for the days when decisions were made quickly, so that we could get on with the next thing. Some will even say this little red dot needs to be run efficiently, like a machine without starts and stops, which is what too much “unconstructive politics’’ will do to the system.

How to find a happy mean? Perhaps, the word stature should be replaced by the word respect – and respect works both ways. The G respects the people enough to give an explanation for what it does and we respect the G as the people we elected to lead us.

“Fourth, maintaining an ethos of egalitarianism in an increasingly unequal society will require more than just political oratory.’’

Mr Ho is talking here about the gap between rich and poor – widening not just income-wise but also in terms of values with the rich flaunting their “bling’’. How to fix this? (I hear somewhere in the background that this is the fault of rich foreigners…) I have to say that I’m a little perturbed too by the affectations of the wealthy or what Mr Ho describes as the “ethos of the elite’’ who drive fancy cars and eat in fancy places. Don’t they realise that being “under-stated’’ is classier? Then again, aren’t we trying to raise the wages of the bottom ranks of workers? Maybe that would fix the problem a little.

“Finally, the absence of a galvanising national mission and a sense of dogged exceptionalism as the little red dot that refuses to be smudged out, will lead increasingly to a sense of anomie – which has been defined as “personal unrest, alienation and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals”. It is the disease of affluence which affects individual people as well as societies. We have arrived, only to find ourselves lost again.

“If this seems unnecessarily pessimistic, it is because I personally think the danger of hubris right now is greater than the danger of under-confidence.’’

I’m sure the G would agree with Mr Ho on this. The complacency and sense of entitlement that comes with affluence is numbing. We can view our complaining culture this way – either we have high standards or we just expect everything to go smoothly the first time or all the time.

That’s it folks. Sorry if I was long-winded. I’m suffering from hubris too..

The WP-NEA affair over a fair

In News Reports on October 17, 2014 at 2:50 am

Remember all that fuss about a Chinese New Year fair in Hougang? How the temporary stallholders got hauled up for illegal hawking? And they thought the t Workers’ Party town council had got all the permits ecetera? Well, they compounded their fines but the town council refused to. See you in court, WP told the National Environment Agency.

I had wondered why the WP didn’t just compound the offence and get on with the business of running the town council. From reading the reports over the past couple of days, I can only surmise that it wanted to make a point about the jurisdiction of a town council and the role of the Citizens Consultative Committee (read: pro-PAP grassroots group).

Not that WP has a hope in getting their points across when the issue is so cut-and-dried: You needed a permit, you didn’t get it, you broke the law.

It wasn’t for want of trying though. The WP counsel wanted to look at whether the requirements for a permit for a temporary set-up were even valid or necessary, especially since the set-up is in an area under the town council’s charge. Why then, for example, the need to also get a supporting letter from the CCC which, by the way, approves the setting up of pasar malams etc.

Seems the line of questioning was deemed irrelevant.

Of course, we need to abide by the law. We need to make sure temporary set-ups are safe, hygienic, don’t add to noise, don’t bother residents and don’t pose a problem to traffic. We expect officialdom to do the needful. WP’s chairman Sylvia Lim argued that this wasn’t about “cooked food’’ nor was it a trade fair. It was a community  a mini-fair, with just half a dozen stalls selling CNY paraphernalia – and therefore did not require a permit.  Except that the WP didn’t make this plain to the NEA. It’s not clear from the reports whether even if it did, it still needed to get a permit for the stalls – with the CCC approval. The fact is that the WP TC had started the process of application but stopped corresponding with the NEA half-way. (Guess it got fed up with the red tape? Or saw a chance to get its grievance out in the open?) It went ahead with the fair even though NEA had threatened enforcement.

Sigh. As I did then, I feel sorry for the stallholders caught in the middle. It’s always the small people who get trampled on.

Anyway, the case is over and verdict to be delivered on Nov 25.

Over-charging over over-charging Part 3

In Money, News Reports on October 16, 2014 at 8:45 am

I have got to say I found the Law Society’s letter to the ST Forum Page, Don’t equate reduction of costs with over-charging, pretty annoying.

It starts by talking about how “much ink has been spilled following recent claims of overcharging by lawyers representing the Singapore Medical Council’’. I wouldn’t call a grand total of two letters “much ink’’. I guess my definition of “much’’ isn’t quite the same as the Law Society’s.

It goes on to say: “Without commenting on specific cases before the court and the inquiry committee, it appears necessary to explain the process to the public.’’

(Thank you very much but could you drop the condescending tone? In any case, I don’t think the explanation was very full.)

It then explains the “taxation’’ process. In a nutshell, a lawyer charges a sum of money to a client. Say, he wins the case for his client, then his bill goes to the loser, who can challenge it.

The quantum determined by the court is an amount that the losing party ought reasonably to pay, and not what a lawyer may reasonably charge the client.’’

I am not sure what that means. I guess it is something like this: What a lawyer might charge a client, isn’t the same as what the losing party pays the client (winning party) to defray fees of the lawyer. So if your client has deep pockets, the lawyer is in luck. Because the loser pays whatever amount that is “taxed’’ and I suppose the client foots the rest of the bill.

Then it tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised if there is a difference: “The law actually intends that there will be an appreciable margin between what a losing party pays in taxed costs, and what a winning party has to pay its lawyers. It is an attempt to reach a fair balance between the victor and the vanquished. ‘’

The question then is what is an “appreciable margin’’ – 10 per cent? 20 per cent? 100 per cent? And does the law really intend to have an appreciable margin? I didn’t know that! Yes, yes, I am not a lawyer.

It goes on: “In practice, most bills of costs submitted for taxation are reduced. The winning party’s lawyers have a duty to seek the highest quantum reasonably arguable, and the losing party’s lawyers have a duty to seek the highest possible reduction of those claimed costs. The court will balance both views and decide. That a winning party’s bill of costs was reduced on taxation should not automatically be construed as overcharging.’’

What a strange bargaining process! Keeps the judges busy…But this only happens if the losing side disputes the bill and brings it up to the court no? And the loser needs a lawyer to argue the bill down? What then is the definition of over-charging? How much above the appreciable margin should this be to be construed as “overcharging’’.

According to Rule 38 of the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules on Gross Overcharging: An advocate and solicitor shall not render a bill (whether the bill is subject to taxation or otherwise) which amounts to such gross overcharging that will affect the integrity of the profession.

I would have thought the Law Society would have referred to the above in its letter as part of its explanation of the difference between fee taxed down and overcharging. It would have been educational. And give examples please.

It also goes on to say that “if a client is dissatisfied with his lawyer’s bill, he can also tax that bill in court’’.

So you hire another lawyer to bring down your original lawyer’s fees?  Wow! I wonder if this is common practice? (Is this what the Singapore Medical Council should have done in the Susan Lim case? Or did it think the fees of $1m plus charged twice is a reasonable fee for the SMC to pay? Ooops! Wrong of me to refer to specific cases…)

Final paragraph: “The Law Society does not condone overcharging by lawyers, and complaints about overcharging are subject to a statutory regime. Complaints made to the Law Society are referred to independent committees for investigation. These committees are not appointed by the Law Society, and it has no control over them.  The public can have every confidence that there are long-established safeguards in place to address overcharging, whether by one’s own lawyer or by an opposing lawyer.”

Isn’t that so odd? There is an independent committee, which the Law Society has no control over, to deal with complaints. Which makes you wonder why the Law Society is spilling ink at all. LawSoc could at least give more details on how these committees work or the results of its work.

Here’s my response to the Law Society letter:

Much ink has been spilled by the Law Society on the general process of taxation by the courts. Without commenting on specific cases before the court and the inquiry committee, it appears necessary for the Law Society to elaborate on the phrase “appreciable margin’’ and define the term “over-charging’’. It might also be appropriate to disclose statistics on complaints of over-charging (after taxation and not through fraud or other action) and how many were acted on. This is so as that the public can have every confidence that there are long-established safeguards in place to address overcharging, whether by one’s own lawyer or by an opposing lawyer.

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