Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

MSM: You don’t need the G’s help. Really

In News Reports, Politics on July 12, 2014 at 4:17 am

There’s an interesting column in ST today calling for a re-think of the role of the media. The key issue is whether the role of the media is to strengthen the public trust in the G and if so, how to go about doing it. The writer sort of skims over the question of whether this should be the role. Instead, he plunges more quickly into how this should be done – if so.

He talks about the old knuckle duster approach of ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew and the gentler hand of the G these days, focused more on cajoling and persuading journalists and editors to “do the right thing’’ (my words). There is a mention of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, but he does not call for a re-look of this piece of legislation with its annual renewal of publishing licences and allotment of “management’’ shares.

Instead he asks that the Government “help strengthen public trust in the media’’. It can do this by being forthcoming with data so that the media can do a better job of reporting and analysing the news, he said. Then he segues into how the MSM must be a thought leader that contributes a diversity of views – without saying what role the G plays in this regard. Instead comes an exhortation that the G should “respect and trust’’ MSM journalists to act in the interests of the nation, and give them a wider space to operate in.

It’s an old familiar rumble. MSM would never call for a re-look of the legislation or any regulations that govern them. I doubt that any editor or publisher would let such questioning of media rules see light of the day. It therefore has to resort to asking for the G to be more transparent with information and wield less of a big stick when it publishes more “controversial’’ views. As for what sort of “persuading’’ and “cajoling’’ is done, just go read my ex-boss’ book, OB Markers.

But I think the writer has got the wrong end of the stick. There is really no need to ponder over whether it is MSM’s job to strengthen public’s trust in the G, even less how the G can “help’’. It is MSM’s job to strengthen the public’s trust in the media by professional reporting that would make BOTH the G and the people turn to it as a conduit of information and views. That has always been the role of journalism, unbeholden to any institution or in need of outside “help’’. Both the people and the G must trust the media – it is the mediator, middle ground for both sides to connect with each other.

The writer laments the criticisms levelled at MSM, calling some of them unfair. I agree. The MSM is fair game precisely because it is so closely identified with the G – that’s why I really don’t think the writer should be asking the G for “help’’. So there are plenty of online rants about MSM being biased towards the G and having a pro-G spin. Most of them are just that, “rants’’. A word from the wise (namely, ahh, me) to young journalists who are disheartened: Pay them no heed. There is only one thing the MSM journalists should consider: and it is whether you have done the best journalistic job you can, especially in the business of asking the tough questions which seems to be an increasingly rare trait.

But MSM must take seriously legitimate complaints about its work. Whether they are about grammar mistakes, factual errors or lack of perspective in reporting. This is no longer a field in which MSM plays alone; there are too many sources out there that serve as counter-checks. Keep professional reporting standards high and people will trust you. So will the G. No need for any help. Just help yourself.
At the risk of preaching/teaching/over-reaching, I would like to suggest the following steps for MSM :

a. If the G doesn’t want to give you info for any reason, you must always tell readers you asked for the info and say why it wasn’t given. This is to make clear to readers that you know what your job is about. There is a temptation to ignore this because the journalist’s job is to give information you’ve gathered. So nothing gets said when nothing is gathered. But in many instances, you should also show that you’ve tried especially if there’s a big hole in your article which the readers expected you to fill. Do this often enough and, perhaps, the G will be shamed into telling you the next time.

b. Even if the G doesn’t want to give you data, go around it by asking experts or near-experts to give an estimate/guess-estimate. If it is wrong, the G will correct. If the G doesn’t correct, then the G is complicit in abetting the circulation of false info. Very soon, the G will realise that it is better for it to fill in info gaps, than let others do it for them or speculate.

c. Name everybody in your story, INCLUDING spokesmen. Again, the temptation is to keep stories short and say ministry spokesman or agency spokesman instead of naming the person. G spokesmen will be more aware that they are talking to “people’’ if they are named. And held accountable to more people than just their bosses. It is also rude for a spokesman to think that he/she doesn’t owe the reader a name.

d. More on names…for goodness sake, try and name everybody in a story instead of resorting to quoting Netizen rubbish123 or porkypig. It’s plain sloppy and gives the idea that that was the only “appropriate’’ quote that you can get. And by the way, please go beyond getting the views of 20somethings because it is becoming too obvious that young journalists are canvassing their friends.

e. Try not to go for label headlines on G news that don’t give news. Motherhood headlines like Parliament wraps up debate or So-and-so on need for social defence isn’t doing you any favour. (And I’m not even saying how the G comes out looking. Nag, nag, nag.)

f. Avoid the temptation to “rah rah’’ G news. It’s enough just to report the facts without any adverbs or adjectives to dress them up. All you need to do is remember that you are not writing advertising copy. Serious. It works wonders if you can discard phrases like how people can LOOK FORWARD to something or will WELCOME something or say that they CHEERED something. Just report facts.

g. Have a proper policy on what should remain online and what should go into print. I have yet to hear any media say how it selects news that emanate from the online sphere for print, which I assume is still the anchor medium. So what is the MSM definition of viral? This is important because it saves those online from guessing WHY something made it into print/and why something didn’t. Stops people speculating on whether there are other motivations that aren’t clearly “editorial’’ behind the choices.

h. Even as there are online posters who castigate MSM, the media should also stop painting online views as just noise and rubbish from a “vocal minority’’. It doesn’t make you any friends and a careful look will show that there are plenty of views online that are far better, deeper and richer than most letters the MSM print. So acknowledge that there are good views out there as well.

Anyway, that’s my one cent worth. Journalists can take it or leave it. No skin off my nose. Really.

What entrenching means

In News Reports, Politics on July 11, 2014 at 9:03 am

If no one understood the news reports on Law Minister K. Shanmugam’s reply to NMP Eugene Tan on not being able to activate a part of the Constitution, no one is going to blame you. It’s taken me some time to get to the bottom of it – and I am still not sure I’m right.

To re-cap, this is the question the NMP asked:

To ask the Minister for Law (a) what are the reasons for not bringing Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force given that the constitutional amendment was first passed in 1991; (b) under what conditions will the Government be ready to bring Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force; and (c) whether the Government will instead bring into force Article 5(2A)(b) and Article 5(2A)(d) to entrench the constitutional provisions relating to fundamental liberties and general elections respectively ahead of the constitutional provisions entrenching the elected presidency.

Now, what is this about exactly?

First, about this Article 5(2A).
This was introduced way back in 1991 when the elected presidency was put in place. And yes, it was a constitutional amendment which required a two-third majority in Parliament. It is basically an elaboration of the elected President’s powers.

So what is this Article?

Here it is in its unvarnished form:
A Bill seeking to amend any provision in this Constitution shall not be passed by Parliament unless it has been supported on Second and Third Readings by the votes of not less than two-thirds of the total number of the elected Members of Parliament referred to in Article 39 (1) (a).
*(2A) Unless the President, acting in his discretion, otherwise directs the Speaker in writing, a Bill seeking to amend —
(a)this clause or Article 5A;
(b)any provision in Part IV;
(c)any provision in Chapter 1 of Part V or Article 93A;
(d)Article 65 or 66; or
(e)any other provision in this Constitution which authorises the President to act in his discretion,
shall not be passed by Parliament unless it has also been supported at a national referendum by not less than two-thirds of the total number of votes cast by the electors registered under the Parliamentary Elections Act (Cap. 218).

Still don’t understand?

Basically, any change to the Constitution that affects fundamental liberties (very broad section which covers freedom of speech, religion, forced labour…) or to do the General elections (Article 65/66) and other money matters like use of reserves now requires two-thirds of Parliament to get passed. And then Presidential assent.

This Article adds another line of check: The G has to go to the PEOPLE as well in a referendum, UNLESS the President says No Need.

Now this particular Article has been passed, but is “not in force’’ or “entrenched’’. This means that it remains in the books, but is not “activated’’. Usually, all laws will come into force or “gazetted’’ with a date which states when this will start.

Interestingly, this is actually a a 1996 version. Yup, the 1991 version that was “not in force’’ was amended in 1996 and is still “not in force’’.

Of course, the question then is: why is it taking so long?

Apparently, there’s no set time between parliamentary approval, presidential assent and final force. It’s to up to the G.

According to the Minister, it hasn’t been “entrenched’’ because we’re still feeling our way about the powers of the presidency. So many amendments have been made since 1991 to the powers, the last one being in 2008 on the G’s ability to use the Net Investment Returns on Singapore’s reserves. In fact, there were eight years in which Parliament had to meet to agree on changes in the powers of the President, mostly in connection with financial safeguards and ability to veto key appointments.

Said Mr Shanmugam: “To bring Article 5(2A) into force before that would otherwise potentially trigger a national referendum each time we needed to make a further refinement or adjustment. Our view is that we should give ourselves more time, before entrenching the provisions.’’

His argument is that Singapore can expect to tweak the way it spends and invests over the next decade, since it has to cater for so many changes with an ageing population. Think G subsidies for health and so forth. It would tie the hand of the G significantly if it has to go to the people whenever it wants to make a change, like if it wants to raise taxes or the amount of NIR which can be used from the reserves.

He added: “We must therefore preserve our ability to make necessary adjustments in due course, so that we can maintain Singapore’s strong financial position, and our fair and progressive system of taxes and transfers. For these reasons, it remains the Government’s intention not to bring Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force until the position is clearer.’’

Okay, that looks clear enough.

But what of the NMP’s last question? If we don’t activate anything to do with spending/investment/appointments, we can surely do something about other sections, like the ones to do fundamental liberties and elections? There hasn’t been much, or even any change, on this front as related to the powers of the President as far as I can tell. The system of dissolving Parliament and holding elections has been in place since the last big change to introduce Group Representation Constituencies in 1988.

Mr Shanmugam chose to repeat what his predecessor said in 2007 in reply to this part: “As the previous Minister for Law explained, the Attorney-General had advised the Government that, having regard to the provisions concerned, that the implementation of Article 5(2A) cannot be staggered, as this would go against the intent that Article 5(2A) should operate as an integrated package.’’

Now what exactly did ex-Law Minister S Jayakumar say in 2007? I checked and interestingly, it was another lawyer-NMP, Thio Li-Ann who asked practically the same question as Mr Tan.

The question:
Whether Article 5(2A) of the Constitution which entrenches the elected presidency will be brought into operation soon and, if not, whether the Government will consider bringing into effect Article 5(2A) insofar as it entrenches basic constitutional provisions relating to general elections and fundamental liberties.

Prof Jayakumar gave somewhat similar answers on how the Presidential safeguards, particularly over finances, were still being refined. Hence, not yet time to entrench the provision. At that time, the issue was also over the use of NIR (then known as Net Investment Income). As for the section on elections and fundamentals, he didn’t say anything more than that this is was the AGC’s advice.

He did have this to say in closing though:
“Whether the Article is entrenched or not, the Government has made it a practice to always seek the President’s views whenever it intends to move Constitutional amendments that affect the relevant provisions. The President’s views have been reflected in the respective Second Reading speeches in this House. We have not made any amendments which the President had not agreed with, except once in 1995 when we referred a legal question to a Tribunal of Supreme Court judges set up under Article 100, which ruled in favour of the Government’s interpretation o f the Constitution.”

That was in the late Prez Ong Teng Cheong’s time – and a whole another story…

So, that’s the background I’ve dug up.

Do NOT shoot the messenger.

Freelancing in Syria

In News Reports, Politics on July 11, 2014 at 6:50 am

I learnt a new term lately: Freelance jihadists. It was used to describe Malaysian Muslims who suddenly take off to Syria, fire off weapons at people in the name of their religious cause and then return home (or not?) to lead their former lives. Sounds like a holiday filled with adventure – in which you can maim and kill or get maimed and killed.

Here in Singapore too, it seems, the jihadist call, however misguided, is gathering adherents. Of course, as usual, a lot of the blame is put on social media and the proliferation of radical sites and “selfies’’ that making posing with a machine gun look sexy.

But I also noted something quite interesting when DPM Teo Chee Hean talked about this in Parliament recently. He said there was a whole family of husband, wife and two children, who had decamped there. The husband is a foreigner. But his nationality was not given. An earlier freelance jihadist named is a naturalised Singaporean of Indian origin. He also took his wife and three kids along with him. So it looks like a family affair? Is there a “foreign’’ element in this?

Then there were three others now detained under the Internal Security Act. All locals but there’s no information on whether they wanted to bring their entire family with them.

Said DPM Teo: “There are others who have expressed interest to go Syria to join in the fighting, and are presently under investigation. We have established that they were radicalised by videos, articles and social media postings online. They subscribed to the sectarian-religious or ideological rhetoric that calls for engaging in militant jihad in Syria.’’

Ooh. Which videos, articles or postings? Have they been taken down? Blocked?

We haven’t heard from the Singapore born-or-bred jihadists but the Malaysians have been hearing from their own: One blew himself up in Iraq and took along with him another 25 lives. Another 15 died fighting in Syria. It seems that Malaysian freelance jihadists number as many as 100 and the authorities have detained at least 18 people, including two who belonged in the Malaysian Navy. Apparently, they were drawn by the clarion call of correcting “injustice to Muslims’’ more so than any identification with the formation of the Islamic State that has taken form in Syria. Another theory for the fan following: the puritan form of Sunni Islam called Wahabism that is at odds with Shi’ite teachings is taking root in this part of the world (Yup, yup. Different strands of the Muslim community fight each other too…)

Why would Muslims in this part of the world want to go so far away to fight someone else’s battle? Do they consider this a religious obligation or feel they should have some sort of solidarity with their fellow Muslim brothers, at least a strand of them? I mean, they are shooting at fellow Muslims aren’t they? I am not Muslim, so I don’t know and I don’t understand.

Or would anyone say this is not unlike how the overseas Chinese felt during the communist/nationalist tussle in China early last century or how the Tamils here feel during the civil conflict taking place in Sri Lanka a couple of decades ago? The pull of religion, race and old country is still prevalent everywhere it seems.

The problem appears to be bigger in Europe, with its large and relatively more recent immigrant Muslim populations. ST reported that the Netherlands, with a population 900,000 Muslim citizens, has produced 130 fresh terrorist recruits. Belgium, with an even smaller 630,000 Muslims, turned out 300 volunteer fighters. France, home to 7 million Muslims, has 900 volunteers in Syria alone.

You wonder if many of these people who go on military adventures come back or stay there. If they do, how will they fit in the nice, normal routine of home life? The worry the G has is that they won’t and bring in their extreme views/actions to home ground as well, like the Frenchman who shot dead four people at the Brussels Jewish Musuem. BTW, he travelled through Singapore to get from Syria to Europe, apparently to avoid detection.

Said DPM Teo: “This threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans. Indeed, any Singaporean who assists violent organisations like the Al-Nusra Front, IS or any other violent group, has demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause. ‘’

I wish he had said more. Like what did those captured by the ISD say? What were their key influences? And if radical websites are the key recruiting tools, why not block access to them like the French are doing? Would this be too controversial a move? Surely not. Or do the authorities think it better to just monitor interest levels on the site and nab people thinking of a Syrian holiday?

I read an ST commentator talking about the counter-measures adopted by Malaysian religious authorities. He said these had been “largely confined to relatively tame expressions of disappointment about misguided thinking and the lack of proper education’’. He preferred the feisty, plain speaking of ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad who suggested that more people go wrap themselves in bombs and blow themselves up if they want to go to heaven quickly. But the writer makes no comment of the response of authorities here, which looks to be led more by the G than the Islamic leaders.

Today, though, it was reported that mosques, religious teachers and madarasahs will be roped in to put the “right message about the Syrian crisis’’ which, I suppose, would be that the rebels call for jihad do not fulfill the teachings of Islam.

I wonder if this is too lame/tame to counter the romanticism of a foreign adventure fuelled by religious fervour. Remember the Crusades of old when the Europeans flocked to the middle east to fight “infidels’’ so as to guarantee themselves a place in heaven? So many stories, movies, books on them! More fiction than fact! So glam.
I hazard a guess (don’t shoot me) that it is probably more adventure and emotion and less religion and rationality that draw people to Syria and Iraq. And the Internet can be a greater preacher with a greater following than any uztaz that we have here.
So I am straining against every fibre of my being to say this: Go block the sites. Sure, more will pop up. But why make it easy to recruit freelance jihadists?

I wish the Muslim leaders all the best in your efforts.

For the love of Mandarin….drama serials

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on July 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm

For the past three years, I have been watching Chinese drama serials almost every day. I started because I had a vague notion of wanting to work in China and thought that I had better brush up on my secondary school level grasp of the language, especially its spoken form.
I can now say that I can craft imperial decrees with the right amount of gravitas and converse fairly fluently, almost like water, on any period of Chinese history pre-1900. I would be even better in a court of law presided by Justice Bao and any magistrate with a peacock feather in his hat. You should watch my rendition of a wronged victim who is asking for her life to be spared.
It was a tough remedial lesson for me when I started because I chose the China-produced Three Kingdoms series as a starting point with its extremely fine, poetic language and four letter words that every student of the language knows is an abbreviation for something far deeper. Plus, there were no English subtitles.
But it got me going on to a eunuch’s sea voyage, court intrigues, magisterial incompetence and plenty of bloody wars and sword-fighting battles that involved demi-gods and semi-devils. After a few months, I no longer needed English sub-titles but I still needed the Chinese subtitles to follow the dialogue.
When I started, I made a pact with my DVD vendor that I would only speak to her in Mandarin while I was in her shop. We continued the charade for more than a year until her shop closed down. In the meantime, I got to know the vendor of almost every DVD shop that hawks Chinese drama serials in the east, whether it be TS Laser, Blue Max, Poh Kim or Veego.
I am now the proud owner of several hundred drama serials and have to trawl shops like Canton Video for really old serials in VCD format because China cannot keep pace with my demand for period drama.
I didn’t grow up loving the Chinese language. Learning it was a mighty chore as no one in my family spoke Mandarin. I thought in English and spoke in Mandarin, which can be hilarious because of mixed syntax and sentence construction. Still, I scored relatively well in examinations, mainly because of rote-learning.
Now I am listening to Chinese dialogue or reading the Chinese subtitles that fly past my television screen every day. I am also devouring books on Chinese history – the English translations.
I have learnt to love the language, especially the construction of four-letter or rather, four-character, phrases that mean so much more than they seem and the use of homonyms as riddles. I still cannot grasp Tang poetry or the more philosophical works, but I think it is good enough that I know of them.
For me, historical dramas are best because they serve so many objectives – purity of language, Chinese cultural values and of course, a bit of history even if it is more fiction than fact. My mother was flummoxed when I offered to serve her her meal personally, because it was an expression of filial piety, much like the patriotic general Yue Fei washing his mother’s feet. I see how examinations play such a big role in gathering mandarins for the use of the state, or rather, the kingdom. Missing the examinations meant a wait of several years, making top scholar brought pride to the village and those who didn’t excel went on to lesser court posts.
I see so many parallels with the Singapore system. But I also see how corruption and venality can destroy a kingdom and how even the most enlightened ruler needed a coterie of good and unselfish advisers.
There is, of course, the dark side of Chinese history, with its numerous patricides and fratricides committed in the struggle for power. I think I have seen enough torture methods to declare that the worst that anyone can ever experienced is to have his eyes gouged out, tongue cut and all four limbs chopped off and be left alive to root around like a pig. At least, that is what a deranged empress did to a concubine.
The great failing of my pursuit of the language is that I decline absolutely to watch anything “modern’’. I don’t know, therefore, the equivalent Mandarin terms for technological gadgets and everyday working life. When I am asked why, I give the very unsatisfactory but nevertheless truthful reply that I like looking at fancy costumes.
Several times, vendors have also offered me Hongkong-produced period dramas to watch but I always end up a little disappointed at the quality of the Mandarin dubbing. The language is not as refined as those produced by the Chinese even though the plot might be superior. I was told I should listen to the original Cantonese version and then read the Chinese subtitles but I believe that would put too much pressure on my ability to hone the language.
The Speak Mandarin campaign is now in its 35th year and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on Singaporeans to stick with Mandarin despite the increasing calls to return to the use of dialects. There is room for dialects but not as a replacement for Mandarin. I agree. It would be so much more difficult for me to have to grasp the variations of the language. Then again, I am not Chinese and do not know what the loss of a dialect means to dialect-speakers.
What I know is this: I have chafed against having to learn this complicated language all my life but am now grateful that I had mastered the basics in school. I know the meaning now of learning a language so as to “open a new window’’ on the world.
It is not an empty phrase.

Little India COI: And now that it’s over…

In News Reports, Politics on July 8, 2014 at 3:14 am

I don’t know whether it’s coincidence or not, but did you realise that yet another Little India rioter was sentenced to jail and cane yesterday, on the same day that Parliament discussed the COI findings on the riot?

The Indian national was jailed two and a half years and to be caned three strokes, and is the third to plead guilty to “active’’ rioting. That is, he wasn’t one of those bystanders who merely threatened the cops. He took part in throwing missiles, including a rubbish bin, setting fire to the bus and, yes, he was one of those who danced round a burning police motorbike. I guess that’s the power of video? Or was it eye-witness testimony? The ST news report didn’t make clear.

(In any case, you might want to know the number of police cameras have been DOUBLED to 250 in Little India since the riot night with another 88 to be installed by the end of next year. So everyone had better think twice before doing funny stuff, like dropping your pants for a pee.)

ST didn’t make clear either where he was alcohol-fuelled. All it said was that he had been chatting with a friend and remitting money before he decided to go liven up the events of the night. He makes No. 14 of the 25 rioters charged. It’s good to know that key players have been brought to book, although so far, there’s only been three charged with actively taking part in the riot.

I really wish the news reports said more, like what possessed him to do the things he did. Was that reported in court? Or maybe not since he pleaded guilty? Or were there any mitigating factors that the lawyers put up? I presume he assigned a lawyer. It would have been first-hand testimony, putting flesh and blood on the COI report which said that the accident that happened was the cause of the riot, which was aggravated by alcohol consumption and nought to do with living or working conditions here.

In fact, the three-member COI has “disappeared’’. No press conference to address queries. No interviews. Perhaps it has to do with the nature of the inquiry, which has the status of a court? You don’t have judges explaining their judgment, so it is the case here? Pity.

What we have instead is DPM Teo Chee Hean delivering a ministerial statement in response to the COI report and MPs questioning him. I have stuck my neck out to say that the COI report was pretty lame when it came to criticising the police effort that night. And now, DPM Teo has stuck his neck out to say that he thought the cops did okay. He quoted liberally from the COI report which commended those who arrived first on the scene and while he noted the COI saying that the police could have done better in the later stage when the rioters went on a rampage, he said “the commanders and officers that night did the best they could in the circumstances they faced, with the information that they had on hand’’. The COI, he said, arrived at its assessment based on a reconstruction of all available information collected after the riot by a team of investigators.

“It is not always possible to take the analyses done after the fact, and substitute them for the judgement that the commanders and officers had to make on the ground that night. We will not be able to know definitively what the outcome would be if a different course of action had been taken during this phase, given the emotional crowd which was volatile and prone to misperceptions.’’

TODAY had a bit extra on what he said about Tanglin Division Commander Lu Yeow Lim, the ranking officer who decided to “hold the position’’ that night. PAP MP Vikram Nair had asked if action will be taken against him. Mr Teo’s reply: “I have evaluated the actions of the commander and the officers that night, and I do not find them wanting.”
On the matter of DAC Lu, it’s best to read TNP, which had Mr Teo saying that the police on the scene that night did not “have the benefit of hindsight’’. If DAC Lu had adopted an “interventionist’’ approach, that is, taken some action instead of waiting for riot police to arrive, no one could have predicted if things could get better or worse.

This appears to be one key area in which the G disagrees with the COI which thought that there were “lapses’’ in this particular stage of the riot that night and that DAC Lu could have taken “more positive action’’. The COI noted that most of the destruction happened while police were waiting for the Special Operations Command to arrive.
But why split hairs over what has happened, you say? So long as measures are in place to prevent a repeat occurrence – whether of the riot or any police lapses.

DPM Teo cited a list of measures, including beefing up the SOC and points to how there’s a manpower shortage everywhere so simply “asking’’ for manpower like the Police Commissioner had done, is not going to solve the problem although “there is no problem asking’’ .

Oh dear.

Anyway, the SOC will get 300 more frontline officers to get the number up to 600. I wonder if there ever is an ideal riot police to people ratio or even normal police to people ratio. While the force has been beefed up over the years, the ratio is way below other cities but there appears to be no mention of this Parliament going by the news reports. It strikes me that while there’s a shortage of manpower everywhere, including in the private sector, it is for the G to prioritise where new manpower should go to. And to pay them well. What’s also puzzling is how there seems to be no mention of auxillary police officers, who also played a critical role in the riot. Did no one ask about this aspect of beefing up the police force?

BTW, there was an interesting question by WP Sylvia Lim who suggested that the G allow “peaceful’’ demonstrations in certain areas. DPM Teo’s reply was described as “amused’’ by ST. But reading TODAY’s excerpt of the exchange, I thought he was pretty short with her: “Perhaps Ms Lim might want to go one step further and say allow the protests to get out of hand so that they get a little bit more practice? Why not? Since we want to give them practice?’’ In any case, there were enough large-scale events for the police to “practise’’. That’s true. They just need to go to Hong Lim Park every weekend or so…

Frankly, Ms Lim’s suggestion goes against the Singapore DNA for peace and stability. We might as well stage a mock riot with missile somewhere and see how the police deal with it – and this is something I’m sure they already do.

So, are we closing the chapter on the Little India riot? There’s still the public consultation going on on the sale and consumption of alcohol and also some more rioters left to be brought before the courts.

I see the Little India riot as our police force’ “baptism of fire’’. I wish our men and women in blue well. You might want to consider this point: You have a minister who defended you. Good for you. Now, methinks it is time for all of us to get behind you too.

Medi-Shielding the civil service

In Money, News Reports, Politics on July 5, 2014 at 1:46 am

So I know that civil servants had some pretty good news today on medical benefits but I pity the poor civil servant who has to wade through all the words in MSM to find out what the good news is all about. And what’s in it for them.
So here’s a dumbed-down version:

First, remember that everybody, including civil servants, will get 1 per cent more from employers that will go into their Medisave account from next January. This extra will help to pay for the Medishield Life premiums which will be higher than it is now under the current Medishield.

Second, there are two groups of civil servants.

The first group is a big group, 85 per cent of the 82,000 civil servants. For this group, the G ALREADY puts in extra money – 1 per cent – in their Medisave every month so they can buy current shield plans or other types of approved medical insurance. That is, they have portable medical insurance something which the labour movement wants employers to give to their workers. This means that even if workers quit the service, they can still bring their benefits along with them.

(Okay, I know it’s a far cry from the days when retiring from the civil service still means pretty good or even free access to healthcare. But it’s a lot better than most workers in private sector who are left in the medical lurch when company health benefits expire when they quit or retire)

Anyway, from January, this group will get 2 per cent, capped at $140 a month. This seems a pretty good deal given that monthly premiums will go between $3 and $6 every month when Medishield Life kicks in.

What about those who don’t earn as much as won’t ever be able to get as much as a $140 top-up? If they earn, say, $2,500 a month, the 2 per cent will amount to $48. Well, the G says those who earn $2,500 a month or less will get at least $50.

(Note to civil servants: you get this if you are on the Medisave-cum- Subsidised Outpatient (MSO) scheme)

The second group is on a different medical scheme, a much older scheme known as Comprehensive Co-payment Scheme which heavily subsidises health-care costs, including inpatient treatment at public hospitals and polyclinics. Mainly for the older and senior people. These people will get 1 per cent extra.

The third group comprised the retired civil servants, some 32,000 people, who are themselves divided into those who are on the scheme above and those with the really, really super duper medical benefits. Those who are on the scheme above will similarly get 1 per cent extra.

The rest will get their Medishield Life premiums paid for by the government. Lucky devils number about 19,200.

I don’t know how much this is costing the G because the news reports don’t say. But it looks like people who enter the job market or change jobs should be looking out for more than just what prospective employers pay in terms of salaries and bonuses. The question to ask should also be: What about medical benefits? This is something most people don’t pay much attention to, especially young job-seekers. They are more interested in the cash as well as whether they need to work shifts or weekends and the number of days of annual leave. I know of enough people who enter retirement with even more worries than while they were working. Suddenly, the comfortable corporate healthcare rug has been pulled out from under them. And they never thought to buy themselves any medical insurance while they are hale and hearty. So they enter retirement with their blood pressure even higher and find that they can’t be insured or would have to pay sky-high premiums if the insurance companies give the nod.

The good thing about Medishield Life is that those with pre-existing illnesses will be covered, yes, at greater cost. It’s relief to the sick although I am also hoping that this wouldn’t suddenly bankrupt us when the time comes to pay for their bills. There is a reason the private sector WON’T insure them.

The private sector should move quickly to having portable medical insurance. The small and medium sized companies have come up to say that it would be tough for them to give up an extra 1 per cent to Medisave accounts; it will add to employment costs. Fair point. I’m not even sure if most already provide medical benefits…

But what about the bigger companies who have company health benefits and group insurance schemes? Is it only inertia that is stopping the move to something that is clearly more beneficial to the individual, both in the long and short term? The issue deserves further airing. It seems the public sector unions were involved in the discussions with the civil service on topping up Medisave accounts. Maybe they should help their private sector union counterparts to come up with a plan to move the big corporations to do the same.

Not as a check, but for a change?

In News Reports, Politics on May 26, 2014 at 1:33 am

I met Mr Tan Jee Say many moons ago when he was still serving in the Prime Minister’s Office. Like any good reporter hoping to establish a “contact”, I invited him out to lunch. He picked a really, really expensive place, way beyond my means and I wondered if my boss would approve of me putting up the lunch tab as an expense. I am really sorry but that was my most vivid initial recollection of the man who panicked a poor rookie reporter.

Now, he’s making waves again, much to the chagrin I believe of his ex-bosses in the G. First as an opposition party candidate, then a presidential candidate – and now as head of a new political party. I wonder why anyone would be surprised by his move. He’s already a written a book and is somewhat a fixture at Hong Lim Park events. In fact, his speeches are more electioneering than discursive, calling for an overthrow of the PAP G – through the ballot box of course.

What I’ve always remembered: How he kept maintaining that it was not true that the Opposition could not put up a credible Cabinet. Seems he’s done a scan of opposition members and their credentials to assert that the Opposition was more than ready to take over. I wonder what Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Kiang has to say to this. He’s been pretty circumspect, even modest, about the abilities of his party, which has the biggest opposition presence in Parliament. The WP strategy appears to be to act as a check and veer towards the centre, hence the grumbles that WP looks like PAP-lite.

So now we have Singapore First with a logo that some people say look like an ad for Walls’ ice cream. Never mind the jibes…What does it stand for? Looking at reports of its manifesto, I think Mr Tan and his merry band have simply tapped into a wave of sentiment that is currently prevailing in the “intellectual realm”. That is, to move away from treating citizens as economic digits. Add to this complaints that we look at relationships as “market transactions” and pay ministers like CEOs, you can see where the group is coming from.

It’s a good move to put the party on some kind of “ideological” footing even though some of its “initiatives” on universal healthcare et al aren’t original and have been espoused by other political parties. You can’t, however, define the ideologies of say the SDP or Reform Party (at least I can’t) As for the WP’s First World Parliament, it might have caught on in the last election but I’m not so sure it will next time. The people might no longer just want a check, but some sort of change too.

The PAP itself knows that the “economic” narrative, out and out capitalism and raw meritocracy isn’t what people are looking for. That’s why it has been okay about going for moderate economic growth instead of growth at all cost; why it now uses the term “compassionate” meritocracy with the President making it clear that Singapore is a home, not just a “global marketplace”. (Note: he didn’t use the term “hotel” which was a fave word of the past when EMI-gration, not IMMI-gration was a troubling subject.)

It’s also why it promised a more “social” agenda, pumping more money in the second half of the Parliamentary term into preserving a good retirement for the seniors and eliminating heart attacks via medical bills.

What can Mr Tan and his team offer? Looking at their credentials, they are offering PAP-grown clones with anti-PAP brains. Just tick off the scholars etc he has… Then again, he’s got a couple of cross-overs from other parties. People ask why he doesn’t just join a political party instead so that opposition votes won’t be diluted or split. I thought the answer would be obvious: He wants to head his own party with his own platform rather than subsume himself (and his ambitions) under others. In fact, he’s pitching for a coalition, with himself (?) at the head. This is a man with big, big plans. Not as a check, but for a change.

What happens from here? Seems after the party is registered (question: why didn’t he register it first and then publicise? In case, he can’t get it registered?) various policy papers are going to be put forth. I look forward to reading them, and seeing how they compare with other papers put up by the other parties and what the G is offering.

It’s good to be offered choices. But we’ve got to do plenty of thinking before doing the picking…

Doing NS…and what about those who don’t?

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 23, 2014 at 3:49 am

One Facebook wag asked me if I thought the Committee to Strengthen National Service recommendations should be regarded as “perks’’ or “compensation’’. Man, how would I know? And while an organisation like Aware might want to look at “equity’’ issues (it had raised this in the past), I am not about to weigh in on why, or why, are people like me of the wrong gender are left out! No point. And most women have brothers, uncles and male cousins anyway who will (?) be glad with the recommendations.

So they get $6,000 more in their Medisave, on top of the current $9,000. More money if they are fitter, do well in in-camp training as well as if…ahhh, anything untoward happened to them during their stints in camp. They can indicate choice of vocation (whether get it or not is a different matter I reckon), don’t have to go through the hassle of informing Mindef whenever they are out of the country – unless its for more than two weeks and the unfit will get more time to clear fitness tests.

Oh. And there is an SAF Volunteer Corps set up as well to guard installations (do I get to carry a rifle) and in other aspects like medical care, psychology, information and so forth. Of course, there is some training time volunteers must set aside and time allocated for performing duties. The boys in blue, by the way, have had the same system for decades with its Volunteer Special Constabulary of more than 1,000 people. They wear the same uniform as cops and have the same powers. They get paid $3.60 an hour regardless of rank. Makes you wonder why we have to hire Cisco when the police can put out a call for volunteers …
Anyway, what the Committee did not give:
a. Shorter NS stint. (Apparently, two years is short enough)
b. Special priority for kids admission to primary school (Wonder if this had gone through, how priority will be allocated since every guy would have priority. Generals first?)
c. Increase in full-time NSman’s allowances. (Guess this is so as not to “cheapen’’ duty, honour country and turn it into a mere transaction)
d. Forcing new citizens and first-generation PRs to do NS.

I can appreciate that the committee wants to “strengthen’’ commitment to National Service and therefore wants to give a soft touch rather than a hard punch. No doubt, there will be arguments about the “perks’’ being too little, too late.

I just want to raise an unpopular thing. Much of the angst about NS is about the presence of those who skip or get away with not doing it I reckon. Only second generation PRs and progeny of new citizens have to do the stint. I recall a survey on integration last year on the differing views of the local-born and foreign-born citizens. Close to 70 per cent of the local born think the male child should do NS, compared to 43 per cent of the foreign born. There’s a difference in perception here which must bridged and the committee doesn’t seem to have quite looked into this aspect.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said there would be practical difficulties inducting first-generation PRs and new citizens into NS, adding that having them do NS shouldn’t just be “tokenistic or symbolic’’. Hence, the set-up of the Volunteer Corps. I don’t suppose the G is going to force anyone to sign up, but I do wonder why more isn’t made to “encourage’’ sign-ups among them.

This is especially since the guys always get upset at the ability of second-generation PRs to uproot and leave the country before their call-up. And Mindef has never been very clear about the penalties imposed or the numbers who are drained out of the system (I would be quite pleased to be corrected on this). The playing field doesn’t seem fair.

The thing is, NS as a value should not just be passed down through the generations, but also inculcated in those who decide they want to live and work here, and not back home. That they have a duty to do so, to honour their new home country.

PS. In case some guy points out that the same goes for the women, let me point out that we can do one thing you can’t – bear children! And give us a break already. The Women’s Charter is already being reviewed…

Not a Hard Choice: Just read

In Politics, Society, Writing on April 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I finished reading Hard Choices by Donald Low and Sudhir V in one sitting today. Yup. It’s that grabbing. A bit cheeky to call it Hard Choices but it’s appropriate since it challenges some of the Hard Truths we’ve always been told about. It’s a quite balancing act for the authors who also include academic Linda Lim based in United States: They’re careful about not knocking the past too much; instead they maintain that the past might not be a good guide for the future. They are, as they say, challenging the consensus or rather, exploding some myths.
The authors acknowledge that policymakers have made adjustments by, for example, moving left of centre in social policy. One thing they couldn’t avoid saying: The policy of flooding the country with foreign workers over the past decade in the go-for-full-throttle economic growth era is to be blamed for some of malaise we face today: stagnant incomes in the lower ranks, low productivity because of access to cheap labour and pressure on housing prices which now need cooling.
For baby-boomers (and almost baby boomers like me), there was this interesting bit: Singapore’s strong reserves were built on the backs of this generation and it makes sense for the state to return some of it to the generation as it ages rather than find new ways of getting more out of the younger people.
At the risk of summarising, I think the key thesis goes something like this:
a. Some of the strongly-held political and economic mantras that helped Singapore to what it is today might not apply if we want to move forward. The “vulnerability’’ narrative, for example, has outlived its usefulness as an inspiration for most citizens while the vision of a “global city’’ might actually be pretty limiting. Why not try for a vision of a just and equitable city?
b. Rather than look at policies from a dollars and cents or economic point of view, why not look at them from the point of view of strengthening the social compact and social trust. Singapore, in the words of Linda Lim, is more than just its GDP. Citizen “well-being’’ is a better measurement of success than economic growth rates.
c. The G should rid itself of some mindsets such as contending that more welfare leads to an erosion of work ethic or automatically reaching for “co-payments’’ and “means-testing’’ and monetary incentives to achieve social policy goals. Rather, all citizens should be guaranteed a basic level of help, that is, go “universal’’ rather than hew to a targeted approach. Ensure one level, and then means-test for the rest. Also, most “welfare’’ approaches seem to be contingent on “employment’’. But what if people are involuntarily unemployed in these times of economic restructuring? What about wage loss insurance?
d. The trouble with sticking to past models and predicting the future based on extrapolations is that the system becomes rigid, inflexible – and late. Like the drastic imbalance in housing supply and demand in the past, or how more rail lines were needed far sooner than expected.
e. The country’s leadership is an incestuous one (that’s my phrase) populated with like-minded people thrown up through similar channels and reinforcing a group-think mentality. Because they had benefited from the policies of the past, they conclude that what had worked for them would work for future generations. That is, they are already “biased’’.
All in, the authors are calling for mindset change if Singapore wants to move forward. Some of the principles policymakers have held on to may no longer work. Higher income taxes do not necessarily crimp work ethic nor is a universal approach to welfare always accompanied by laziness on the part of the recipients. The view that housing is an “appreciating asset’’ needs to change since it’s so vulnerable to booms and bust and not easily “unlocked’’ as a retirement fallback.
They call on the G to have less of a stranglehold on public discussion and dialogue, contending that political openness is needed for ideas to flower and flourish. The book has some policy solutions or alternatives as well, some of which would be unpalatable to the G, like taking out the “political’’ element out of grassroots bodies, such as the People’s Association.
The Singapore of today, they argue, demands “equity’’ and “fairness’’.
I’m sure I’m not doing the book much justice at all. So why don’t you just go buy it and read?

Open Letter to ST Readers Editor

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 21, 2014 at 12:42 am

I am writing to convey my great disappointment over ST’s reporting of the online protests against the holding of the Philippines Independence Day celebrations.

In your first report, you said:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately. Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.
The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

This is inaccurate. The 26,000 “likes’’ are for the page itself, which was set up a few years ago and has a wide variety of posts including those not associated with foreigners. The post calling for the protest amounted to some 300-plus “likes’’.

This mis-reporting has caused consternation as it implied that 26,000 citizens or so support the protests – which is not true. For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.

There was no correction nor clarification, which would be important for readers who read only your august newspaper. Nor was there an attempt to set the record straight in your next article on the protest organisers receiving threats. Or in subsequent articles and in your editorial.

In your Sunday Times article, Filipino group heartened by support, you chose again not to correct the misimpression. You quoted selectively from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook post, focusing only on his point that xenophobia should not be tolerated.

You ignored this point: “That there are xenophobes wasn’t the surprising part since there are these sad elements in any society. It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page … that raised my brows. As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate.”

Likewise, you quoted selectively from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page on this issue, neglecting to incorporate this line: “Fortunately, it was the work of a few trolls.’’

It would seem that ST has gone to great lengths to sweep its mistake under the carpet, an ignominious thing to do for a newspaper which prides itself on accuracy. For ST-only readers, the 26,000 figure is what will stick in their minds, tarring the online community as a bunch of rabid xenophobes. Foreigners who read ST only would also come away with the impression that Singapore is on the verging of losing its sanity over the immigration issue.

In her column on April 19, your writer Ms Chua Mui Hoong used the online protests as a launch pad to discuss whether such online views are representative of Singapore society at large. She too made no mention of ST’s mistake of exaggerating the protest numbers although she did say this: From all acounts, that anger seems to be an over-reaction from a segment of Singaporeans against a perfectly pleasant, legitimate event. Many others spoke up against such anti-foreigner sentiments.

She also said: Unlike blogs in English which delight in ripping off mainstream media’s reports, Chinese language bloggers used mainstream media reports as sources of information, not as fodder for criticism.

I would like to point out that this is precisely why ST should be careful with its news reports – because the mainstream media is used as a source of information. This means that when it is inaccurate, it must brace itself for criticism, acknowledge its failings and not dismiss the comments of those, whom as Ms Chua put it, “delight in ripping off’’ its reports.

Ms Chua concluded: So it’s never a good idea to generalise from a group of angry netizens to Singapore society at large.

I agree. And it would help if ST was more careful in its reporting and upfront about its mistakes instead of adding to the misperception.


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