Of course we trust the G!

In News Reports on December 8, 2017 at 1:40 am

So the Prime Minister talked about trust during last month’s People’s Action Party convention – and how distrust between the government and the governed will destroy the country.

I wonder why he’s talking about the level of trust because the people’s trust has been manifested in so many different ways over the years. We trust the G to use the Internal Security Act well even though there’s no recourse to the courts. We trust the G to use its powers over the media appropriately to further the country’s ends, rather than its own. We trust the G not to act on Section 377A which criminalises homosexual acts because it said it wouldn’t. (We also have to trust that the PAP will always be in power)

We trust the G so much that we want it to fix every single problem, like the choping of seats in hawker centres. We trust the G to build a world-class transport system – and it obliges by taking over some former private sector functions of the SMRT. We trust that the G knows enough about religion when it brands or bans someone as a “radical preacher’’.

So what more trust does the G want from the people?

Is it unanimous, universal approval for its policies? That can’t be. Because while we trust that the G is filled with clever, well-meaning people, we don’t think that it always knows best. Besides, people will argue, chafe and complain because policies always affect one segment or another. Is the PM referring to criticisms online from the insane or inane crowd? Bear in mind that some criticisms are valid and that not everyone is insane or inane. In fact, an insane and inane person can sometimes make good points. So no need to tar everything and everyone with one brush or to impute unsavory motives and hidden agendas to someone who says something contrarian.

You see, trust has to be two-way as well.

But trust shouldn’t be blind nor absolute. The G must realize that it is always the more powerful party in any situation. This means that there should be clear rules of engagement to prevent smaller beings from being overwhelmed. The trouble is, these rules are getting murkier. How does it decide for example to haul someone to court for contempt (cue Li Shengwu), but not others who make more egregious remarks? Why does it see the need to respond robustly to some people (cue Kishore Mahbubani) but not others? Since when is a journalist’s questions to legitimate authority become the subject of an Official Secrets Act investigation?

Executive discretion is a privilege awarded to the G by a sovereign Parliament. But the randomness with which it decides to use this discretion isn’t encouraging civil engagement. Sometimes, it acts according to the letter of the law; sometimes it invokes the spirit. But always it says, the rule of law. And who can argue with that?

Take the rules on subjudice. Is it all right to petition the G to drop charges against civil activist Jolovan Wham or should we expect the Attorney-General to issue an edict that this is illegal activity? Can we play a recording of a foreign speaker – not Skype – in an indoor assembly without a police permit? Is a Facebook post calling on citizens to gather on the Padang to celebrate the inauguration of a new President a call for an illegal assembly?

Because we’re not sure, we take the line of least resistance. We do not speak. We do not do. We don’t want a bad record or bad name in this small country where everyone knows everyone.

I know what the G will say : Trust us. The G, with a 70 per cent mandate, will do what is “right’’ and only pick on the people who are the real troublemakers. The G knows what it is doing because it is privy to information which, unfortunately, it cannot make public. Therefore, trust us. Because we know who to trust.

Trust isn’t a very good asset when so much power is in the hands of the G. That’s why the elected presidency was conceived, no? To prevent a rogue government from raiding the reserves? Think about it. If the PAP turns all bad or another untried and un-tested political party holds the reins, what sort of havoc can this cause?

I’m not talking about just the reserves here, but the laws governing free speech, media and security. It is to the advantage of any party in power to have such wide discretionary powers, but not for society at large nor in the country’s long-term interest. The PAP knew this during Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s time when it looked like it might be in danger of losing power. Hence, the elected president (whose powers have been calibrated since…)

But there are other levers of power that we have entrusted the G, and its super-majority in Parliament, with. This means we will always have to depend on electing good men and women to ensure that power isn’t abused. The PAP is right to insist on honesty and integrity as key attributes of elected politicians. What it doesn’t say is that this is because the political system is so weighted in favour of those who form the government, who can decide to make the OB markers a noose and act according to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.

So to answer the PM: We have a great and, almost unhealthy, trust in the G.

Or maybe, we’re just apathetic.




SMRT saga: Is it an “anyhow can” attitude?

In News Reports on December 6, 2017 at 12:15 am

It could be that the pumps weren’t switched to automatic mode or the float sensor was too submerged in mud to send out an alert. Never mind the specific cause of the flooding in MRT tunnels on Oct 7, they all boiled down to lack of maintenance. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan calls it a failure of organizational management.

We have a nice media. In other countries, those SMRT employees who have been sacked, disciplined or who have quit would have been corralled and asked some questions about why they did or did not do some of the things they were supposed to. But there’s nary an attempt to chase them down. Perhaps, there is the thought that the SMRT might take legal action against them and in these days of tightened OB markers, the media think it better to let the court process take its course?

I was more or less hoping that the investigation panel will shed light on that phrase “deep-seated cultural issues’’ which CEO Desmond Kuek will never be able to live down. But I guess that wasn’t part of the investigators remit.

Clearly, cultural issues which are deep-seated are what is termed euphemistically as “legacy’’ issues. I would dearly love to know if Desmond Kuek succeeded in replacing those who have helmed positions from his predecessor Saw Phaik Hwa’s time? Of course, this doesn’t mean that every long-time staffer is a laggard or recalcitrant, but it would give an idea if the new(ish) broom swept clean or left the corners un-dusted.

That’s about top management. What about the rank and file? What I find troubling is the attitude of the bad apples in the SMRT barrel. They seem to have taken no pride in their work. How prevalent is this sort of “anyhow can’’ attitude is among our people here?

Former top civil servant Lim Siong Guan referred to this in his lecture last month: “We have to move away from what appears to be a prevailing attitude on the part of many workers in Singapore, an attitude of “satisficing”, which means “aiming to achieve only satisfactory results because the satisfactory position is familiar, hassle-free, and secure, whereas aiming for the best-achievable result would call for costs, effort, and incurring of risks”.

“When we avoid “trying our best”, but simply do what is good enough, we are in fact cheating ourselves of what is possible given our individual talents and abilities.’’

We seem to have given up on the mantra of being the best we can be, which include doing the nitty-gritty, mundane tasks well. I suppose it’s normal to chafe at having to grind away at a series of small stuff which nobody sees and aspire to handle bigger, higher profile projects. But if you can’t do the small things well, what makes anyone think that you’re capable of anything bigger?

I wonder if the cultural narrative that has been circulating for sometime is correct for our people. You know, about fulfilling aspirations and chasing rainbows…

People do not jump from, say, school, to gliding on a rainbow. There’s a long hard slog in-between, unrewarding and out of sight, for a pay-packet which we all think could be better. We’re no longer kiasu about making sure everything is tip-top, and more willing to cut corners because no one’s really watching.

We’ve got to bring back the idea of excellence.


Back to Blogging

In News Reports on November 26, 2017 at 11:09 pm

Hello! I’m back. So what should I talk about? The news – or the lack thereof?

I suppose I can continue writing the way I used to write for The Middle Ground – temperate, moderate and with a disinclination (most times) to emote. It’s a disciplined process of fact-gathering, checking and rational analysis. Now I’m back to blogging…which gives me leeway to rant (!) and rave (!) since I don’t have to worry about bringing the entity (and other people) into trouble! So fun!

Okay, I’m joking, more or less. Some habits die hard. This space is not going to be that much different from TMG, except that I’ll probably get frillier and fluffier. I have learnt to my great dismay that people prefer the sort of stuff which takes me five minutes to write. And you can even make money off them!

In TMG, we were worried about image and personality. We didn’t want to be seen as schizophrenic, writing clickbait stuff, listicles as well as pontifications and sermons.

But this is MY blog, and I seriously don’t much care about my image. Just know that it’s from me, I and myself. Take it or leave it! There!

Now that my arrogant acclamation is over, what WILL I write about?

It will still be about the news and what I think needs greater dissemination. I am thinking of packaging a morning round-up, much like I do now on my Facebook page. I want to do this because I am aghast at how people don’t think it necessary to keep up with important developments. I wrote dozens of columns over several months, for example, on the implications of a reserved elected presidency, but too many people only woke up to the fact that they will have only a choice of Malay candidates when the poll was called. In the end, there was just one choice. Or, no choice.

It looks to me like I should have written those columns with a view to making it a meme. Or it should be absolutely one-sided, like websites which shall not be named

Something with headlines like this…

a. Are you happy that you will be voting for a Malay (and only a Malay) for president? (Oh dear! I am stirring up trouble…)
b. Did you know that OTC is NOT Singapore’s first elected president? (How dare I suggest that our sovereign parliament was not right to pick Wee Kim Wee!)
c. How can Tan Cheng Bock lose his court case to have OTC as Singapore’s first elected president? (I think I have steered clear of contempt of court)
d. Yeah! It’s Halimah! (That should be safe…)

It’s unfortunate that people prefer extreme ideological positions articulated emotionally – and in short order. Conspiracy theories are much easier to grapple with than contextualization. Yet a method must be found to shake citizens out of apathetic inertia and to think deeper about what affects us now and in the future. (The irony is that some people will say this line applies to that 70 per cent, while the 70 per cent will go hear! Hear!)

If a 10-things-you-should-ask/know will do the trick, then why not? It will, however, take supreme journalistic skills to condense a weighty issue into 10 short and, hopefully funny, points. That’s why most posts add hyper-links for the full story – which most people don’t read.

I will, nevertheless, try here under 5Ws and 1 H.

So let’s say this is about the SMRT trains which came into contact with each other.

What happened: One train kissed another train which wasn’t moving. Driver no time to elak. So, 38 passengers got injured. (No one died)

Where: At Joo Koon station along East-West line. (Get your own map)

When: On Nov 15, about one month after “flooding’’ incident and two days after Transport Minister said in Parliament everyone will do better. (Yes, very suay)

Who: You mean blame who? Thales, engineering company, said sorry because “contact’’ had to do with the new signaling system it was installing.

Why: Complicated process. Trains have a protective bubble. This bubble disappeared and then second one appeared – but also disappeared later. Something to do with train moving from old to new signaling system. Or maybe the other way around.

How(?) : You mean “how come’’? Dunno. Still investigating specific problem. First time for Thales.

How (??): You mean “how can”? Donno. Old and new signaling system on the same line somehow.

How (???): You mean “how liddat’’? So part of East-West line, between Joo Koon and Gul Circle, (get your own map!) shutting down until June to get problem fixed. Passengers got to take bus in-between (LTA and SMRT paying)

That took me 10 minutes to write. If you’re happy enough with such reporting, then I have not much to worry about. I wouldn’t have to go into signaling issues, rail reliability, deep-seated cultural issues and who foots the bill for what, much less what or who else should get the blame. In fact, most people would probably jump from this short post to draw their own (uninformed) conclusions.

If I sound sour here, it’s because I am. Its obvious that most people don’t want to think too much or even care enough about the whys and wherefores of anything. They prefer short summaries and entertainment, probably both at the same time.

The attitude is to trust the powers-that-be and complain when anything goes wrong. Our brains only work once every four or five years. In-between, we delegate our thinking to someone else.

That’s why I get upset when I see obfuscation and lack of transparency in what I read in the news media. Legitimate questions not asked (and now they can even come under the Official Secrets Act!) and information gaps not plugged really bug me no end. I am also tired of seeing G statements to media queries which say nothing but the obvious.

That’s why I worry about the transformation of the media industry into an assembly line serving out of a central kitchen, like Singapore Press Holdings. Methinks that non-competition leads to mediocrity.

I’ve said before that we deserve the media we get because we won’t pay for professional standards. But I still don’t think the answer is more online journalism, although it’s a cheaper platform. The answer is to have a reading public that demands more from the media and stands behind the media in its quest for information.

I wouldn’t consider myself part of the “media’’ now since I’m just blogging. In fact, I can tell off people who presume to tell me to report this or that! (Hey! You’re not paying for my hobby!) But I will promise to enlighten where I can, ask questions that aren’t asked (and try, in my limited way, to get answers) and even raise a laugh or three.

Welcome to Bertha Harian.