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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The flip side of the Filipino Day

In News Reports, Society, Writing on April 16, 2014 at 2:34 am

We all know that there are racists and xenophobes in Singapore, as there are in any society. The sane among us know not to add fuel to their fire. We do not encourage their sentiments – because we do not share them. Sometimes we ignore them because there is no way to change how they feel. And, of course, no one would acknowledge to being racist or xenophobic.

So when does racism and xenophobia become news?

I ask this because I was aghast to read the article, Filipino group gets online flak over event, published in The Straits Times today.

It said: Organisers of a plan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day here had to remove a Facebook post about the event, after it drew a storm of vitriol and protests from netizens.
The online response came as a shock, they said, though they still intend to proceed with the celebration on June 8 at Ngee Ann City’s Civic Plaza, pending approval of permits from the authorities.

A lot of things get “online flak’’, so when is “flak’’ so heavy that it deserves further magnification in The Straits Times? Well, it seems that the removal of a FB post about the event by the hapless organisers was enough to merit a piece of real estate in ST. It was prime estate as well, on page A8, not in the bowels of its Home section.

Note: The organisers weren’t compelled to stop the June event. They are still proceeding with it as soon as they get the licences. If they were bullied into stopping altogether, methinks it would be worth some newsprint space.
So perhaps the online flak itself is enough to merit a story?

The article continued:
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.

It was the 26,000 “likes’’ that prompted me to check the particular page. I couldn’t believe that 26,000 would say no to the community holding an event here. We have that many xenophobes? If so, it is something worth reporting because there is something seriously wrong with Singapore society.
It turned out that the FB page has been set up way back when the White Paper on Population was still a hot issue. The page has all sorts of posts, including on the death of a wrestling star, the haze and the predictable pillorying of G leaders. It wasn’t a page that was dedicated to the event.

The post which called for the protest drew 300-plus likes – a more “respectable’’ number. In fact, it is a number which should not even bother any journalist. It is inconsequential in the scheme of “likes’’ in the internet space. So why does it even deserve newsprint space in the august ST?

Now, I am firmly against the protest. I think the arguments against the Filipinos holding its own day at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road are narrow-minded.

The protesters said on the FB page that they are against three things:
a. We are against them using the Singapore skyline in their logo for their Philippine Independence Day logo & posters, Facebook page, websites, etc.

Why? They live and work here presumably, and we are the host country. Perhaps some people think it looks as though the Filipinos have taken over the country? And Singapore is the Philippines? Why such insecurity? I happen to think it’s a nice gesture to the host country. It should be the Filipinos back home who are aghast that their own national symbols aren’t used. Not us.

b. We are against them in using the terms “Two Nations” and “Inter-dependence” in their Philippine Independence Day celebration posters. Singapore only observe and celebrate our own National Day on the 9th of August and we DO NOT and WILL NOT have a joint-celebration of “Inter-dependence” with another sovereign state. Their event is insinuating a very serious and misleading assumption; which we Singaporeans have never endorsed.

Hmm….is there a communication problem here? Something lost in translation? Isn’t it good that the community recognises the inter-dependence of nations? I don’t think the Filipinos are calling for a joint celebration! Rather, more an invitation to Singaporeans to join them in their celebrations.

Its organiser was reported as saying in ST: “We are not saying that we are trying to take over. Our drive is to be part of the community and try to open up to other nationalities. Interdependence doesn’t mean Singaporeans depend on us, but that we all help each other.”

I agree. It seems to me that the protesters have misled themselves

c. We are against them in celebrating their country’s Independence on Singapore soil. We urge them, however, to do so in their own Embassy compound.

For crying out loud…By the way, the community has held similar celebrations in the past, in Hong Lim Park and Suntec City. Is Orchard Road so sacred? And what does it say about the country’s own celebration of Singapore Day around the world; we took a public garden in Sydney and more recently, spent $4m or so in London. So Singapore should stop its own celebrations on foreign soil and confine the activities only in the embassy compound? If the other countries reacted like these “protesters’’ did, then perhaps we should.

The so-called protest leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But then again, it’s a SMALL group, not some 26,000 or so as ST seemed to have implied.

Which brings me back to the question: What is the duty of care that MSM should exercise when publishing or broadcasting what goes on on the Internet? There will always be vitriol, even in pre-Internet days. But to have the MSM further magnify this (based on 300, not 26,000 likes) is downright bad reporting and bad judgment. If it was a question of numbers only – that is, so many thousands of people protesting – then it should take a look at the anti-STOMP petition and publish a story. The same rules must apply, even to itself.

What I cannot abide is how the article has given the impression to its much touted 1million readers or so that the entire Internet community is a bunch of rabid, raving xenophobes. I wouldn’t put it past some politician to refer to this as an example of the terrible nature of the community.

Now I certainly hope the authorities aren’t going to get cold feet and deny the licences to the organisers because of this and cite “security and law and order considerations ’’. I hope the Filipinos go ahead and organise the celebration. Just make sure you don’t riot or consume too much alcohol or litter or pee in the plaza.

This Singaporean wishes you a good Independence Day.

I am in Singapore

In Politics, Society on August 17, 2013 at 5:06 am

It’s tough trying to think when you are sitting in a coffeeshop on a Saturday morning with shouts of kopi siu tai and kopi pua sio flying over your head. (Why on earth would anyone drink lukewarm black coffee?)

So I gave up thinking. If you really want to know, I was thinking about what to write for pre-National Day Rally. I took to people-watching instead.

There were two gruff-looking men sitting on the next table. Polo tee-shirts that had seen better days, shorts and dark gold/gold coloured watches on the wrist. They seemed to be arguing over nonya bakchang. In Hokkien. (Rice dumpling season over, right? They should be talking about mooncakes…).

An elderly couple and someone who looks to be their daughter were talking about someone else who bought three units…of something. (In Hainanese lah…which I don’t quite understand). What is clear that they were taking the piss out of that buyer of three units of something…Smirks, grimaces and one “ptui’’ on the coffeeshop floor.

A young mother and two daughters were tucking into what looked like a very big breakfast. Individual plates of mixed
vegetable rice, from the “economy’’ stall. (Only 10 am and lunching already?) They were too far away for me to eavesdrop but the mother was clearly upset with the older daughter who can’t be more than 12. A lot of fork-pointing on the mother’s part. (About school work?)

Milo peng! (Who would want to drink iced Milo in the morning? Something like that would wreak havoc on my tummy!)

The screamer was one of two brothers who ran the coffeeshop, always with a grin. He even offered to give me “credit’’ when once, I left my wallet at home. Pai seh, I told him. Ten cents interest, he said. Okay, I replied. I can afford to pay that grand total of $1 for the coffee I owed, a lot cheaper than Starbucks…

But the next time I returned to pay, he had forgotten all about it. He took the money
anyway…Typical Singaporean, I thought.

Yes, this is Singapore. And Saturday is the best day to watch the people who make up the core of the country. That’s when the working crowd comes out to do their marketing. The men, usually with a newspaper stuck under armpit. The
women, pushing trolleys filled with plastic bags of vegetables and meat. (Do they recycle, I wonder)

Plenty of young couples as well. The scene has changed somewhat from 10 years ago. Young men also throng the stalls, foreign maids have picked up the buying and selling patois and you can tell the new residents who have moved in from the old-timers.

Earlier on at the wet market, I watched bemusedly as an Indian couple found themselves elbowed by middle-aged housewives at the vegetable stall. The trick is to wave those sticks of carrots you are holding in the stallholder’s face, I wanted to say. But then, I was in the queue, or something close to a queue, too.

The stallholder, a woman has run it for more than 10 years, weighed my basket of sayur bayam, Romaine lettuce (yes, wet market also got), siao pai cai, cucumbers, carrots, Chinese cabbage expertly and wrapped them in newspaper. “Serai, two,’’ I told her. One swift turn and the lemon grass was in the big red plastic bag. She also dumped some Chinese parsley, red chillies and chilli padi into the bag. No, I didn’t ask for them. Gratis.

That’s why I like shopping in wet markets. So Singaporean.

I had less luck at another stall when I asked for 20cents worth of tow gay. Nothing less than 30 cents, I was told in Mandarin. I paid up, muttering that I was only cooking for one…(Hah… I thought,no wonder your stall not crowded).

At the coffeeshop, people were content to rest and relax. Never mind that some seemed to have bought cooked food for home. (Goodness, cold already!) Everyone seemed to be enjoying a lazy Saturday. At one table was a three-generation Malay family. A father, his son and two little girls. (Been to Mecca already, I thought looking at the white haired older man who had a white skull cap on. Where’s the daughter-in-law, I wondered).

Two tudung-covered and very well made-up middle-aged women were tearing apart their roti prata at
another table. Next to them, a Chinese man did the same, while trying to read The New Paper.

This is Singapore. We don’t just celebrate different festivals in the same place. (Would our Muslims have made a fuss about Buddhists making use of their prayer room, I wonder). We eat together. Elbow to elbow. Cheek by jowl.

Across the coffeeshop are the small neighbourhood shops. They’ve “changed hands’’ over the years. From big unit to half a unit to…nothing. A provision shop I’ve patronised for years sold his place to one of those budget store chains a couple of months ago. But I still bump into the provision shop owners; they still live above their old shop.

The four bakeries have changed hands so many times, but they still serve up the same things, $1 sliced white bread, assortment of buns and butter cake. Ubiquitous fare. But they have been experimenting too. For $1.20, I get an egg-covered folded-over bread with tuna or chicken and lettuce on the inside. Enough for an eat-and-run breakfast.

Teh si…neng puay…There he goes again.

Two glass mugs appear…and go directly to a table where…. my neighbours sat. We nodded to each other in acknowledgement. Don’t know who they are but it’s so good to be among familiar faces.

So this is Singapore.

Not the Singapore of skyscrapers and gardens. Not of casinos and cosmopolitan-types. Real flesh-and-blood people in down-to-earth places doing everyday things.

And what about my pre-National Day Rally column? What can I add to the hints already dropped on what the Prime Minister will say tomorrow?

You know, I feel too at peace to really care…

I am in Singapore.

This piece first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

Just how did Dinesh die Part 3

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

Looks like the death of the 21-year old prison inmate raised enough eyebrows to lead to questions being raised in Parliament. Leave you to judge, however, whether you’re satisfied with the questions – and the replies.
So Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran gave a long spiel laying out the timeline between day of death and day of reckoning in court.

Year 2010
Sept 27 Dinesh dies. Home Affairs ministry notified. Police get cracking on case. Prisons start reviewing procedures.
Nov 4 Police gives preliminary findings to Coroner. (Not sure what happens to the Coroner’s side here except that no inquiry took place. Maybe Coroner already knew it was going to be a criminal case, so he sat and watched. Then when the criminal case was over, there was no need for it.)
In the meantime, police interviewed 130 people, most of them prison guards and inmates. Even flew to United Kingdom to find out about control and restraint procedures, which Singapore had copied.
Year 2012
Aug 17 Police hands over full findings to Attorney-General Chambers.
Year 2013
Feb 4 After looking over findings and asking more questions, AGC says, okay, prosecute.
March 1 Police tells Home Affairs ministry investigations all done. (Don’t really know why they waited till March when they could have told the ministry in August at the same time as they told AGC. Maybe police didn’t want to bother ministry until after the AGC gave the go-ahead or not.)
Minister says must convene Committee of Inquiry. Review prison processes. Recommendations, please. COI gets cracking.
June 4 Home Affairs ministry accepts findings and recommendations of COI.
July 19 Case in court. Prison supervisor pleads guilty to a charge of death by a negligent act. Sentenced to $10,000 fine.

So many months, 28 or so, of so much police and prison activity – and it was made public in one day in court. Then case closed.
Mr Iswaran said the Shane Todd case took 13 months with 60 over witnesses. Yishun triple murder, which had 68 witnesses, took four years to conviction. To make the point that it wasn’t such a long time. But, hey, it wasn’t like the police had to go and hunt down suspects or anything. The last time we heard, the prison was a pretty secure place.
Never mind how many months police took, you almost wish the charge was murder – so at least the prison supervisor would have to have to go through a trial and the public can hear more about what happened. That would, of course, be too much. There was surely no malice intended on the part of the prison guards to make them under such an ordeal. Right?
So just how did Dinesh die?
Mr Iswaran didn’t go into all the mechanics of how many people pinned Dinesh down when he started flailing at them or whether they threw water on his face after he was taken to solitary. But it seemed the eight or so prison guards did not “maintain constant communication’’ with Dinesh “as required by SOP, to monitor his overall condition’’.
(So he might well be dead before he was hauled into the solitary cell. No one knows. Or no one is telling.)
Mr Iswaran also said something interesting about “positional asphyxia’’. You know, Dinesh was supposed to have died because he couldn’t breathe after he was placed face/body down. Mr Iswaran said that the guards have been given “new protocols’’ in the wake of this death; they should control and restrain violent inmates in a “standing position’’ to “reduce the risk of positional asphyxia’’.
What does that mean? That the prison guards pinned him down to the ground too forcefully? Did they use “reasonable force in a controlled manner’’ as they have been taught to do?
The police investigators and those on the COI would probably know. After all, they would have had to examine the body. So what did the post-mortem report say?
According to ST, MPs such as WP’s Mr Singh later rose and pressed for more transparency, including making the COI findings public.
Mr Iswaran reportedly replied that the COI’s purpose was not to establish criminal guilt or liability. Rather, it was to audit the prison system and its processes, and identify additional measures to prevent a recurrence.
This is all really, really too odd.
What is the problem with making the COI findings public? Didn’t the Our Singapore Conversation make it clear that the people want more, not less, information? Is giving out more information going to destroy the trust level between the people and the G? Surely not. Or is the G sticking to its position that no one needs to know so much. That’s enough that we have “handled’’ it. Or worse, raising questions on the death of Dinesh is equivalent to banging drums (Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears)?
Mr Iswaran took pains to point out that the prison environment is a dangerous one. Last year, there were 61 cases of assault: 40 against fellow inmates and 21 against the guards. Over the past four years, the guards had to use control and techniques 331 times. No one has ever died or have been badly injured. Until now.
WP’s Mr Singh also asked if the coroner’s inquiry could be re-opened. But the minister said it was not unprecedented nor uncommon for one to be discontinued at the state coroner’s discretion after the accused had pleaded guilty. Lawyers acting for the inmate’s family also did not object to the inquiry being discontinued.
The thing is, this is a death in a public institution. It would be better to let it all hang out. The people who don’t believe the G’s story will still stick to their guns whatever the G says. But there are also people who want to hear more, because the case is simply baffling to the layman.
What of Dinesh’s next-of-kin? They, at least, are entitled to know what happened. Their MP Ang Wei Neng said Dinesh’s mother had complained to him that prisons officers did not give her the full story until the court case.
Presumably, she knows everything by now? The MSM reported the court case in such a confused and conflicting manner that those who were not in court would be hard put to piece the “full story’’ together. It seems that in Parliament, Workers’ Party’s Pritam Singh referred to the conflicting news reports which led to Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean interjecting to say that his point was not relevant. Speaker Halimah Yacob agreed. (This was also reported in Zaobao today.)
Mr Iswaran told the House that the G and the family are in discussions over the matter of compensation. The G “accepts liability’’, that is, it acknowledged that it was responsible for Dinesh’s death. The sum is apparently being negotiated. You know what people will say… That there will be strings attached, like some sort of gag order.
It will be good to know the final sum. Let’s hope the G response is not that this is a “private matter’’ or that “the family requested privacy’’. It is taxpayer’s money paying for G liability, which should over-ride any private interest. Also, something like this could set the benchmark for other cases (touch wood!) that pop up in the future.
Again, just how did Dinesh die?

This article first appeared on http://www.breaknetwork.sg
Oliver et al and other BH readers, if you are more used to reading your email, then surfing websites, just go to Breakfast Network once and get an email subscription!

Singapore’s mid-life crisis

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 12, 2013 at 2:57 am

I couldn’t help it when Goh Chok Tong said Singapore was facing a mid-life crisis.
Here goes…

Can you believe I’m actually 48?

Sheesh, not too long ago, I was scrabbling the dirt, trying to think about how to survive after I got kicked out of my old home. Now, I’m driving fast cars, drinking champagne at $1,000 per pop parties and flirting with exotic foreigners. I wear so much bling, I am weighed down. (That reminds me.. I should pay up my credit card bill..)

But, hey, I am welcomed everywhere. I am a brand name. I yell that I am SINGAPORE and the world falls to its feet…Okay, not literally.

How dare people say I am going through a mid-life crisis! I am at the prime of my life even though my old man, LKY, who is even older, thinks I might be heading downhill. Can you believe his book? All forlorn and pessimistic. He’s joined the rest of the country in the gloomy stakes. Hah! I’m still going at 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent a year. My neighbours can eat the smoke from my Ferrari. Oh…did I just beat a red light?

I break out in hot flushes (or is that only a female thing?) whenever I think about those people telling me to change. Look at all those complaints and suggestions disguised as “reflections’’ in that report! They’re telling me how to age gracefully! I am NOT old, just middle-aged. In fact, I don’t even qualify for senior citizen discounts!

But, frankly, I don’t mind an elixir or two. My knees are getting creaky. The calcium tablets aren’t working. I am thinking of getting more vitamin supplements to boost my immunity but some people say I’m already taking too much. So I guess more of those foreign workers need to go and I’ve got to grow more fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs in my garden. Something organic. I will still need my foreign help to water them though.

I went to the doctor the other day.

I think I’ve got cataracts developing. He says I just need reading glasses. You see, I can’t see properly, especially what’s close by and right before my nose. I am tripping easily (actually I think I’m being tripped up on purpose by pesky people with their computers). I am even banging into coffeeshop tables, hindered by people who don’t wear white and who got to the coffeeshop before me.

(That’s why recently, I’ve only been eating at high-class restaurants where the waitress will show me my table. Half the time, though, I have trouble ordering food. The waitresses can never understand my English, not even my Singlish.)

Maybe, I will get those reading classes after all. The doctor says it will open up a whole new world for me. That I can finally see the faces of people around me. Familiar faces. He tells me though that I have to change the way I talk to them. Look them in the eye, he says! Tell them more about yourself, like what’s in your bank account, he says.

Now that’s a bit too much. I don’t quite trust them to know too much. They will get unreasonable and demand a lot of things. Do they even know what they are talking about? I’ve been doing quite well, thank you, for the past 48 years!

Anyway, I told the doctor I will go to an optician. He says surgery might do the trick too. But I looked at his medical charges…and I nearly fainted. Something has got to be done for older folk and their medical bills. I told that old man’s young man to do something. He said, sure. Wait a week or so for me to announce something, he said, and then go for surgery.

I also asked him (my doctor, not the old man’s young man) for those little blue pills. Very casually, you know. At my age, performing in the bedroom isn’t always a success. Not that I have much time for it. Too busy living the high life. I only hope those big-time scientists I’ve brought from theworld over will discover a cloning technique, besides finding a dengue vaccine.

Oops! I am digressing…you know what’s it like with older people…They ramble. They have gaps in their train of thought, like that big gap on my head. My hairline is receding… Been thinking of wearing a toupe but I’ve been told that’s old-fashioned. The new trend is to go bald.

I should have shaved my head for my 48th birthday. Everyone threw a big party for me on Friday! Those people in white finally realised that they should wear MY colours, red and white, not theirs. Clapping. Fireworks. Dances. Performances. Songs. You name it…they really laid it out for me…and then they left their rubbish behind…

I need to go now…Find the valet to fetch my Ferrari. Got to go back to someone’s Good Class Bungalow for another belated birthday party. Oh wait. I got the address wrong. It’s some HDB void deck party… Dammit! Should have bought those reading glasses.

This article first appeared on the Breakfast Network.

Dengue Shock Campaign

In News Reports, Society on June 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm

There’s a second dengue death. And the dengue toll has crossed 9,000. June is a hot month, so those blasted Aedes mosquitoes are going to breed faster. The sudden outpours of rain aren’t helping even though they give us a respite from the heat.

Now, National Environment Agency officers are super busy checking premises for breeding spots. Perhaps, if they stopped arguing with Aljunied GRC-Hougang town council over hawker centre cleaning, even more brains can be expended on how to battle the mozzie. (Amazing how what looked like a misunderstanding over who should pay for cleaning what part of the hawker centre has been blown into a huge political issue!)

Much money has been thrown into the business of making people aware of the dengue danger, and “reality’’ videos are supposed to be hitting computer screens as well. Perhaps, a dengue shock syndrome approach should be applied to the campaign to get under the skin of those who don’t think dengue will happen to them.

Why not the G try this multi-agency effort:

a. All ERP gantries to display dengue toll numbers instead of fees until the mosquito is definitely wiped out of existence. Raises awareness and gains the G some goodwill. To be executed by LTA.

b. All G bills must come with a small packet of wipe-it-over-yourself mosquito repellent that will hopefully tear during delivery and obliterate whatever you owe. Agencies include PUB and HDB.

c. Car bumper stickers to be distributed which read “Don’t get angry with me. I am not a mozzie’’. Calms down drivers prone to road rage as well. A Traffic Police initiative.

d. Hong Lim Park to be declared mosquito-infested zone. Good for the G as no more pesky people can hold rallies there. NParks to handle with Singapore Police Force to police.

e. Impose a $50,000 performance bond on every neighbourhood which has chalked up 50 dengue cases. Size of the neighbourhood is at the discretion of the G. NEA to seek MDA’s advice on implementation.

f. G will pay the COV for every resale flat that changes hands if owners can prove that not a single living thing lives in the apartment. Except humans. Makes resale flats more saleable. National Development Ministry to use money from land sales to fund this.

g. Our Singapore Conversation will devote one dialogue session with the Aedes mosquito. Minister-in-charge Heng Swee Keat to organise.

h. The Great Singapore Sale will offer all manner of insecticides and mosquito repellents at a 70 per cent discount. Free for tourists so they don’t flee Dengue Land. Lead agency: Singapore Tourism Board.

i. Owners of premises who refuse to open their doors for inspection will be forced, on top of fines, to clean drains wearing a sign “Bite Me’’. Public shaming always works. Law ministry to re-work regulations post-haste. To consult MDA.

j. Army exercises in muddy areas to be suspended. Mindef to issue orders.

k. Exhibition on old-style mosquito coils, folk remedies for mosquito bites, and mosquito nets to be held in the National Museum. Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to spearhead.

l. All Spelling Bees for primary schools to be re-named Spelling Mosquitoes, a longer word. Education ministry to distribute directive to cluster heads of schools.

Have left out Ministry of Health because staff might be too busy dealing with cases for anything else. Also Ministry of Communications and Information is not involved because there is really no need for public consultation and explanation.

Calling out the MDA

In News Reports, Politics, Society on June 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

On Friday, I was approached to put my name on the media statement calling on the online community to join a series of online/offline protests against the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme for news websites. I asked for time to think. I also asked to see the “link’’ that people would be directed to that was on the statement. But that “link’’, which turned out to be FAQs exhorting individuals to sign up, wasn’t ready. So I didn’t sign.

I do not like the MDA scheme at all. To think I left the traditional media which was bound by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to be subject to yet another similar instrument! But I am not subject to it, not as a blogger in any case, as MDA has clarified. So Bertha Harian is safe. But what about Breakfast Network? That’s still a question mark because the MDA can’t seem to get its act together to give clear answers. Am I to assume that Breakfast Network has the all-clear too because The Online Citizen has pressed its case for licensing and it has been “rejected’’? BTW, Good game TOC!

So it seems whether a website is worth being licensed despite fulfilling content and reach criteria is something for the MDA to decide. What does this mean? That a site has to keep within acceptable boundaries when reporting local developments and write the “right stuff’’ if it wants grow the number of eyeballs beyond 50,000 visitors and not put up the $50,000 bond? Guess what? This could mean the G considers TOC “acceptable’’ – kiss of death or what?

Or maybe the G’s real target is Yahoo, the only non MSM on the list of 10 websites. Dear Yahoo, what did you do wrong? Or were you making too much money off Singapore news?

There was an interesting piece in Singapolitics (yes, MSM) on the difficulties of controlling the Internet. The column did not slam the licensing scheme (it is, after all, MSM) but went into how the G was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to regulating the Internet. By its very nature, the Internet can’t be regulated. It is too free-wheeling and there will always be ways to get out from under anybody’s control or oversight. Other countries have tried to do so and the attempts have been seen as “censorship’’ of free speech – a very bad word.

The G could try clarifying the term “news website’’ further but it would lead to the following scenarios:
a. Say Facebook and forums which fulfil the content and reach criteria also comes under the ambit of the scheme. There’s better clarity now BUT the outcry would be tremendous! Poor sammyboy and PropertyGuru etc. Plus there will be arguments on who really is the Facebook owner? Maybe Facebook should put up the performance bond.

b. If there’s further clarity, then people would simply jump to platforms that won’t come under the scheme. So we jump to, say, Twitter. If Twitter is covered at a later stage, then we can cry foul and say this is not fair, you didn’t cover Twitter in the first place.

c. If the G starts covering all sorts of aggregators and whatever else with a local IP address in the scheme, then it would really amount to a draconian approach to control the Internet universe. It won’t have a leg to stand on when it talks about being more transparent and open to views.

d. So you jump to a foreign server to escape but then again, the G have already said it would move in on these people who report on local developments from abroad. How would it do so and how would it enforce this is unclear – and will be interesting to watch. Wow, is the BBC and CNN going to have to put up a bond too?

That’s probably why the G phrased its definition of “news site’’ so broadly and then tries to appease the rest of the world by saying it won’t be using the stick too much. In fact, what it is saying is: “Trust us not to be unreasonable. After all, we haven’t been unreasonable have we? Only one “take down’’ notice over the years…’’

That’s really the problem isn’t it? It’s about giving the executive arm so much/too much discretion. Now what happens if one day, the executive decides to “get unreasonable’’ and start issuing take-down notices – because it can? Do we then mount a challenge in the courts? Pretty tough since the issue wasn’t debated in Parliament and the courts can’t depend on the “will’’ or “intent’’ of Parliament to reach a full verdict. It might have to dig back to the days when the NPPA and the Broadcasting Act was first legislated – the dinosaur era.

The G’s next argument would be: Then the people had better make sure that good, reasonable people are elected so that executive powers won’t be abused.

It’s a line that it doesn’t really believe.

Look at how the Elected Presidency was introduced as a safeguard on the nation’s reserves so that if terrible people are in power and start raiding the reserves, we won’t be a bankrupt nation.

One other point: It has noted that the opposition parties have never called for a repeal of newspaper or broadcasting laws, because it would serve their interests to have them controlled should they be in power one day.

Hmm. That’s true.

Why do opposition parties keep railing at the pro-G MSM but not buckle down to actually doing something about it? Like getting the media laws repealed?

Perhaps, everyone has given up on that territory and now want to ring fence the new territory from G intervention. Hence the protests and such like.
Would I have signed the statement if I had time to think? Maybe.

The statement calls for action. A repeal of the scheme. Perhaps, it should have called for a conference with MDA first and have it out with the officials? Or would that be too lame? But just because the MDA doesn’t “consult’’ doesn’t mean the online community has to resort to the same tactics. Will the MDA talk? My guess is that it didn’t reckon with the kind of outcry the move has drawn. This is a far more discerning electorate than the one which accepted the old media laws. This is a community with a vested interest in keeping some territory to itself.

Note that objectionable content is already under the classification regime and other laws can be used to deal with the malicious and the mischievous. If the concern is the standard of professional reporting online, then other methods can be agreed upon, such as insisting on the right of reply and a policy of correcting errors for news sites with the content and reach envisaged. Perhaps, news sites can commit to a policy to have public comments only by readers who are ready to be identified, as it is for the letters pages in mainstream newspapers. That would be parity with MSM that some in the online community could live with.

I mean, I could live with that.

Perhaps I should have signed the statement if only to bring MDA to the table. But in the end, I am glad that I didn’t sign, because what I saw of the initial FAQs that were made public left me wondering if the online community was shooting itself in its own foot.

There was, for example, a quip that STOMP would be the first to be taken down. Was that necessary? Or is this only because STOMP belonged to the mainstream media which the online community likes so much to criticise. Is this fact or speculation? In any case, this phrase was deleted later.

Okay then.

Then there were the “personal’’ FAQs on why individuals should sign. To people who blog, it said: “Sorry to break it to you, but if you have more than 50,000 unique views a day, you better have $50k to pay.”

MDA has already said bloggers are excluded. But the group did not mention this caveat, and appears to be proceeding on the assumption that MDA isn’t saying so in good faith.

This phrase was subsequently amended to add this point:

“Even though MDA said that blogs do not fall under the licensing scheme, this is not reflected in the wording of the legislation. It leaves the door open for blogs or any other site to be forced to license in the future without any change in the law.’’

So much better.

Then there was the call to mainstream journalists. They should join the protest if they “have an iota of professional pride’’.

“If you belong to one of the publications who have been asked to license under the Licensing Regime, consider this: you are soon going to belong to an organization that has to pay money to guarantee its continued good behaviour. Is that what you went to J school for?’’

The group forgot that the MSM journalists already work under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act. Or they wouldn’t have mentioned anything about “professional pride’’. (So they already lack that even now?) Not quite the way to make friends…In fact, MSM might well retort that the group should have asked for “parity’’, to have the current MSM laws should be repealed as well.

In any case, the answer has been amended to this :

“Journalists in the mainstream media have long worked under the control of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). If you have ever experienced how editorial control stemming from the NPPA chafes at your journalistic sensibilities, why would you desire that potentially any expression online to be subject to NPPA-like controls?’’

Hmm…good sleight of hand.

Herein lies the difference between online reporting and MSM. Because it is definitely the case that online sites can make corrections quickly, even surreptitiously, compared to MSM which has to live with their mistakes in print for all to see. This is one factor that makes MSM careful about their reporting and ensure that facts are checked before publication.

But in the initial as well as current FAQs is this assumption that was made about “pro-PAP’’ websites and how they would be “happy that anti-PAP websites now have to live under a cloud of fear’’.

The group’s answer on why they should join the protest: “Your joy could be short lived. Elections come around every 5 years, and there’s no guarantee that the PAP is going to be in power forever.
“One day, you might live under an opposition government, who could very well use these press laws against you. Remember, the PAP was once part of the opposition too…’’

Now, that’s a bit unfair on pro-PAP websites. Just because they support the PAP, does this mean they would agree automatically with the diktats of the G? And what does that make the group behind the protests? Anti-PAP? Are we to assume that only anti-PAP people would decry this legislation? Why do we need to fracture the online community like this?

In any case, I will be at Hong Lim Park to do a hopefully professional job of reporting. Now I can only hope that no one takes a “if you are not with us, you must be against us’’ approach to those who declined to add their name to the petition. Because one of the great things about the online media is this: It allows for a plurality of views

An unlicensed conversation Part 2

In News Reports, Society on June 1, 2013 at 7:25 am

Supreme bureaucrats Chin Oo Eng and Nina Kan are back in their bunker, ego bruised and noses bloodied.

Mr Chin (all het up under the collar) : I told you we should just block the sites like China right! These online fellows, we go easy with just a licensing scheme and they whack us. They’re making a monkey of our boss…with bananas. And our boss’ boss now made to look like that short North Korean guy!

Ms Kan (cool as usual): Never mind. Good challenge for us. But you know, it might just go away. Like boss said, over time, “fears will prove unfounded’’. Heh. They will lose steam lah. Plus we have MSM on our side – no editorial, no columnist saying anything. Also, they only report something when we have something to say.

Mr Chin: But we already look weak! Now we have to come out and say that bloggers and individuals don’t come under the licensing scheme, even if they meet content criteria and that 50,000 visitor reach. Very soon, they will force us to say something about sites that are non-profit and small media start-ups which can’t afford the $50,000 bond. We keep talking about bankers’ guarantee of $50,000 – not cash upfront but they are not listening. Very cham!

Ms Kan (just slightly ruffled): Hm. Maybe we got to think about making our arguments more water-tight. A bit tough because we want the scheme to be as broad as possible so that we can use it as and when we want on whoever we want…I am still trying to figure out how to argue that the current classification scheme on objectionable content is not enough, that’s why we need licensing. Also, we only have one example of an order to “take down’’, the Innocence video. Actually, we only asked Google to block it, and they were nice enough to say okay. Can we come up with more examples of objectionable content?

Mr Chin (irritated as hell): Aiyah! We have plenty! But we use Sedition Act, Penal Code and the laws leh to deal with them!

Ms Kan (a bit more ruffled): Maybe we should change tack and say the objective is to ensure civilised discussion on local news developments and raise standards of reporting in online media…That sounds better. I don’t think that argument about parity between MSM and online media rules is getting anywhere. Or maybe we should pressure the MSM to speak in support? You think the boss should make a phone call to them?

Mr Chin: Can try..What about getting boss’ boss to say something? Or boss’ boss daddy? Televised debate between us and those online fellows who think they are so important? We will crush them like cockroaches! (He thumps table!)

Ms Kan (eyebrows furrowed): Shouldn’t dignify them that way. Anyway, opposition has already tabled adjournment motion in Parliament to discuss this – unless we can block? Or maybe we can depend on the PAP MPs to say nothing or just nice things? All those opposition fellows already weighing in.

Mr Chin (now shouting): Damn leeches! Can even get their town council to clean hawker centres properly and want to talk about “light touch’’! By the way, we should burn all copies of that silly report by the Advisory Council on Impact of New Media on Society…..you know the one released in 2008 which said Government regulation should be a last resort? Headed by a former MSM head honcho somemore!

Ms Kan (now breaking out in sweat): Oo Eng ah…you are showing your age…don’t forget…It’s the Internet age now, cannot remove the report entirely! But I also remember we didn’t accept many recommendations…So we can argue we are not bound by it…

Mr Chin: So what do we do now? Stay low? Don’t say anything? Have you seen all those comments on MDA Facebook page or not? Online fellows are resorting to fear-mongering…and they accuse us of adding to climate of fear. They scaring themselves and others silly! I am sure they are up to something more. Why can’t they see what we are up to?

Ms Kan (pulling out hair) : Actually, what are we up to ah? I think we’d better get back to basics. Everything’s getting more complicated and confused than we thought. I think we should pass buck back to the boss and get new directions from him.

Mr Chin: Ya, before he blames us …and moves us to some other department to do archiving…

A panic-stricken Chin Oo Eng and a thoroughly dishevelled Nina Kan get up and dutifully make for the boss’ office, forgetting that it’s a Saturday and he’s at a block party.

Expressedly depressed

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm

When word started going around that news sites were going to be licensed, my first instinct was: I want to be there when they announce this. I tried to wrangle an invite but was told I am not “accredited media”. (By the way, I don’t think Yahoo! News was invited either. And the news site is going to have to get a licence and put up a $50,000 bond.)

I wanted to be there because I am still, at heart, a curious journalist. Second, I write a blog and am now trying to build Breakfast Network by experimenting with alternative ways of telling the news in a moderate voice. Third, because I am a concerned citizen who wonders why we need more, rather than fewer, rules to govern what we say.

I wanted to ask questions. Now I wish I had banged the door down because the MSM did a pretty poor job of asking tough questions going by all the reports I’ve read so far. Maybe they have been “gagged” or given some deep background briefing that is off the record that convinces them of the need for such licensing. Maybe they too believe that the licensing of sites is the right thing to do since they already have to obtain licences for their newspaper products. I doubt though that any self-respecting journalist would adopt such a dog in the manger approach. More likely, they would want parity to go the other way: If online sites are not licensed, newspapers shouldn’t be too.

Which is why it’s really odd for the Minister to talk about being “fair” to mainstream media by imposing the same rules for online sites. It makes MSM look as though it were them who asked for a level playing field. That, I cannot believe.

Now, it’s no secret that the G has been looking for ways to keep online commentators in line. We just have to refer to the rush of letters of demand in recent time. Sure thing, some comments are egregiously damaging, undermines trust in institutions and plain false. To keep policing by throwing the law at individuals looks like a pretty tedious process. Hence, why not a blanket approach?

Perhaps, as an online community, we have failed to police ourselves. The G might well argue that it had wanted an Internet Code of Conduct in place but the online community who see this as a censorship threat was reluctant to co-operate. It might well say this: “It’s your fault. And that’s why we have to resort to such a blunt instrument as licensing.”

The funny thing is, when the announcement was finally made, the G merely extended it really to just one site, Yahoo! News. The other nine are owned by MSM. So this is the light touch? Or the thin end of the wedge? It cannot be that the G is worried about MSM content. It has so many ways to make MSM compliant. It is probably worried about bloggers and sites that have a reach which will grow to rival those of MSM. So it’s a pre-emptive strike.

It will backfire.

Anyway, what are the questions that should have been posed?

a. How did the G come to the 50,000 visitors figure?

b. How did it come up with $50,000 performance bond?

c. How did it come up with something like this as a content criteria: Report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months? It looks tailored….

d. Is it entirely within its discretion which sites to “notify’’ for licensing? If so, does this mean it might well not bother with some “nice’’ sites even though they meet both criteria on reach and local news content? What about individual bloggers and Facebook commentators with huge followings?

e. That 24-hour deadline on “take it down’’ or else. Who will determine what should be taken down? Is there an avenue of appeal? Does this mean that the current classification guidelines and code of conduct aren’t working and hence the need for this sledgehammer approach?

f. Can it cite instances when guidelines were regularly breached and by who or which site? In other words, who or what is it really targeting? Socio-political sites? Sites with shady foreign funding? Black ops type of sites? It can’t be just those 10 sites!

g. Are the current laws too weak to deal with egregious breaches?

h. How would it justify licensing in the light of what has been said about having an open, transparent conversation in a new normal Singapore?

i. How would it answer accusations that this would constrain those who have something constructive to say that might not be to its liking? Or those who say that it is adding to a “climate of fear’’.

j. Does it believe that engagement with the online community is a way to add to civic discussion? Did it engage the online on this licensing scheme at all?

Given the round of condemnation online so far, no one has been been consulted on this brainwave. So the licensing scheme has been imposed from up high. And there I was thinking that Singapore had entered a new era.

I would rather the G level with us and tell us exactly who or what it is targeting than put up that fig leaf of 10 sites. Can the G at least be honest about its intentions and upfront about what else it intends to do in the future even if it thinks the likes of us online aren’t worth engaging?

My more immediate question is: What should I do now? Odd that my fellow members on Breakfast Network and I would have to think about how NOT to make ourselves so popular that we would breach the 50,000 threshold. Even if we have $50,000 to spare, it’s not nice to have to wonder about phone calls in the night or an email to demand that a post be deleted. And it’s not nice to have to second guess what the G (or which god in which department) thinks about this post or that and that particular god-person’s threshold of “sensitivity’’.

I gather I cut too close to the bone sometimes when I write – even when I wield a scalpel and not a cleaver. Maybe I should stick to writing nice, boring stuff. But that isn’t me.

This is depressing.

This article first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

An unlicensed conversation

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 29, 2013 at 1:55 am

Inside a bunker in Singapore, two bureaucrats, Chin Oo Eng and Nina Kan, are discussing ways to control the universe. They’re starting with the Internet.

Chin: Okay, we failed to get those Internet fellas on board that Code of Conduct. And all those letters of demand, Sedition Act stunts we throw at them… don’t seem to be working. Boss now says we tighten the screws. I’ve been thinking for a long time… We can do it like China and just shut or block out stuff we don’t like. We can hire all those PMETs in the Singapore core to sit around and monitor sites. Below $4,000 a month, so that we can give them Workfare increases. It’ll make us popular.

Nina Kan: Don’t be silly. Just come up with a licence like under Newspaper Printing Presses Act. Annual. Renewable depending on whether they toe the line or not. And they must say who owns the site, editor, publisher etc. All these shady characters who give money to slam us will now have to emerge. Or if they don’t want to, they will have to close down. Yeehhahaaarrhaaaa! And throw in a $50,000 bond as well so that the smaller fellows who can’t afford it will have to close down too. Heeyaaaharrrr.

Chin: Eh, if they go to China and use servers there how? Some already do. Can’t even identify the buggers.

Nina Kan: That’s stage 2 lah. Now we just get those “friendly’’ sites under the umbrella. MSM fellows can’t object. Won’t object anyway. In fact, let’s get the boss to say that we’re just being fair: “Our mainstream media are subjected to rules … Why shouldn’t the online sites also be part of that regulatory framework?” Something like that.
If you really worried, we can say we targeting “commercial’’ sites that take in advertising. Like this, even Yahoo can come under licence. And I think that Marissa woman won’t mind $50K. Nothing to Yahoo…

Chin: You’re so good, you’re evil. But you know, if Yahoo won’t play ball…Anyway, if we only say commercial sites, then we have to rule out those bloggers and those very oo eng people who write about all sorts of stuff pro bono. We need to catch everyone!

Nina Kan: Hmm. Tough. We better come out with some conditions first. We can try this: Under the licensing framework, online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs1 over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.

Dear reader, don’t get irritated, but I need you to move to another place… For the rest of the conversation, pse go to http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

In the aftermath of the “solidarity” rally

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 13, 2013 at 12:51 am

An exchange between two foreign workers in Singapore:
(Ordinarily, I would have tried to mimick the accent of foreigners. But I don’t know how to. And don’t want to be accused of stereotyping!)

FW1: These Singaporeans really love us! They held some candlelight vigil for Malaysians last night. Even though there was a police warning and all.

FW2: Don’t be silly. Not many people turned up. Scared off. Only a few hundred versus 4,000 or so at that Population White Paper rally. Don’t forget some Malaysians got arrested too earlier.

FW1: But that they even turned up at all was quite something no? People say Singaporeans very, what they call it? kiasi. Seems some of them aren’t that afraid. They were even taunting the plainclothes policemen!

FW2: Hey, don’t you read what some people on the Internet said? They think Singaporeans shouldn’t be protesting on the Malaysians’ behalf. Frankly, Singaporeans should mind their own business. What can the people in this small country do anyway? They’re just asking for trouble.

FW1: But some Singaporeans have always done so. For the Indian gang rape victim, displaced Sri Lankans and I don’t know who else. There’s actually some support for those of us who work here. A good sign.

FW2: You’re being too optimistic. Have you counted how many of us have been sent home because our passes haven’t been renewed? I tell you, we’re not welcomed here. They say we are taking away their jobs.

FW1: Hah! As though Singaporeans want to do the work we do. They need us to build those flats they live in.

FW2: That’s easy for you to say. You’re in the construction business. I’m in F&B and my boss says there’s a quota on hiring foreigners. My pass is up for renewal. I think I might have to go home.

FW1: Can’t you go to those migrant centres? They are very good to people like us. They pay legal fees, fight for our salaries and let us stay in their quarters. Even in their homes. Ask them to petition or make a case for you.

FW2: Are you mad? What if my employer finds out? What if police found out? You want me to be roughed up like those Chinese SMRT bus drivers?

FW1: But police said that didn’t happen. You can’t believe everything on the internet!

FW2: Well, you can’t believe everything the police say! In fact, I am going online to tell the Singaporeans what I think of them! These lazy fellows who don’t want to do the dirty jobs and then complain when people like us do. We’re doing it for so little money!

FW1: But more than what we’ll make at home, I think. My family is very pleased that there’s money. Except I’m getting worried. My boss hasn’t paid me in two months. You think I should complain to someone? To mother?

FW2: You mean that place in Havelock road? Useless, I hear they will ask you for so many different documents and you have to keep returning. You think your boss won’t find out where you’ve been? He’ll probably put you on the next plane home. By the way, how’s that girlfriend of yours? The one working in that big house?

FW1: Terrible! She wants me to marry her. She keeps forgetting I’m already married. I am just afraid she will kill herself, or worse, kill me! I’ve been reading so many such stories in the newspapers.

FW2: Well, the good thing is that the police don’t care how many women we run around with. They only care if it’s a big name civil servant. Anyway, I’m off for a beer. Thank goodness for 7/11.

FW1: Okay, I have to run and meet my woman now. Her employer is out of town. Big house! I think I built it!

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