Standing Tall : The long and short of it

In News Reports on May 14, 2021 at 3:32 am

If there was one thing I really wanted to hear from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, it was how he dealt with Malaysia’s premier Mahathir Mohammad who had made life pretty difficult for him – and Singapore. 

But all he would say was that Dr M described him as a “minor luminary’’ when they first met in the days when he was a mere Senior Minister of Finance. And that while he was PM, Dr M called him during the Asian Financial Crisis to ask that Singapore buy up some companies in the Malaysian stock market. Mr Goh said no.

What would I give to know what the two men discussed during those tortured negotiations over the water price, the new bridge, KTM land, Pedra Branca and so forth! Author Peh Shing Huei said he didn’t want to say much. I suppose it would be impolitic to reveal anything given that the protagonist is very much alive and still politicking next door. 

Standing Tall is the second part of what can be described as Goh Chok Tong’s memoirs, with a focus on domestic issues. It reads like a television series with each episode (chapter) opening narrative style to focus on a dramatic event during his premiership. Tuck in-between each chapter is a dialogue between the two men. Like the first book, at the end of the book are Mr Goh’s reflections on each chapter, although this time, they took up considerably more space. The book is 358 pages, much longer than the previous 272. 

As someone who covered Mr Goh extensively while he was PM, a lot of the content was a trip down memory lane.  I loved, however, the bountiful hitherto undisclosed anecdotes about how he tried to win foreign friends for Singapore. It reflected the personal touch that he brought to the premiership, after decades of a tough, austere Lee Kuan Yew government. Like passing a hand warmer to a fellow leader, timing his entrances and exits to coincide with those of someone whom he really wanted to know, making small talk with someone who looked so desperately alone. I am not naming names. You can buy the book. 

Like in the first book, he is still as full of admiration of the late LKY and was gratified by the present PM’s conscientious loyalty. PM Lee Hsien Loong was in no hurry to take over the helm, he said, although 14 years is a long time to keep a seat warm. 

 I didn’t expect any mea culpa from him regarding any policy enacted during his term. The nearest he got was admitting to a “gaffe’’ equating those who earned less than $500,000 a year as mediocre people who shouldn’t be in the ministerial ranks. That was said, however, after he stood down from the job.

On ministers and would-be ministers

Paying ministers well is still a good policy as, among other things, it would help them stay on the job for longer, as they would be assured that they wouldn’t need a mid-career change because money no enough (my words).

“My point is that , pay them an adequate market-related wage so that when they step down at around 60, they can still think about how they can contribute to society using their experiences as ministers without having to worry about what happens when they retire from politics. Otherwise, good able people might not even enter politics to serve.’’

It was a newish argument, beyond the usual reasons such as making up for the loss of privacy. He’s also surprised though that there is still so much cynicism over ministerial salaries after so many years. Both he and the late LKY thought the populace would settle down and agree with their point of view. 

My own view is that the subject of ministerial salaries has always been contentious. It was just not played out in mainstream media because the late Mr Lee wanted the subject out of the public eye. But you can’t gag the Internet. You can’t stop people talking, including putting politicians under scrutiny. He described social media as the Number One reason for people declining to enter politics. 

That made me sad. 

He is correct that social media is full of intemperate and unkind remarks, but he should have added that offline, Singaporeans are an obedient and docile people. That’s more than what a lot of politicians elsewhere can expect: a people who are roughly in tune with the national agenda. That political aspirants could be shying away because of internet scrutiny simply shows how thin-skinned the generations have become. I wonder what LKY would have made of this, given that he belongs to a generation who had to dodge bullets and flying objects, rather than avoid being the subject of a meme. 

I have heard too much about how people have to be wooed and courted to join politics, that is, stand as a PAP candidate. Even the supply of top civil servants is drying up, said Mr Goh, although we can still bank on the generals to join elections. (Yes, he said this). I wonder if ministers believe it looks better for them to be dragged into the job with inducements, rather than shoot for jobs because of conviction. 

Perhaps, in Mr Goh’s calculation, governing ability is primary. The government must be run by technocrats who, hopefully, have some political nous. What’s incredible is that after so many years, the difficulty of finding new blood is always blamed on something else rather than the PAP. Surely, it’s time for the PAP to think about whether it is an attractive magnet for the best people who are not in the civil service. And I am not talking about the money.

I would have expected Mr Goh to say more about the 4G leadership and the search for the fourth prime minister. After all, he was impatient enough to ask them to get a move on three years ago. He was pretty ambivalent in the book, pointing out that Singapore didn’t have many precedents to turn  political succcesion into a formula. 

But he made two points that piqued my interest. 

First, he thought it might be a good practice for the person who has passed over the prime ministerial baton to hold on to the position of party secretary-general post for a while. 

“…you might have a PM who is DPM for only a few years before he takes on the top job. When this person takes power, he might behave differently. Or he might not measure up. It is better for his predecessor to take a step back and observe him for a while. Let there be a transition period to be sure that things would not go wrong.’’ 

He was quick to say he wasn’t referring to the impending handover but just making the “more important point’’. Perhaps, he was being polite but I cannot foresee the next Prime Minister having a long runway as the deputy before having to take over. 

Second, he recalled that when he himself passed on the baton to PM Lee, he called for a meeting of MPs to endorse his successor even though Mr Lee had always been his heir apparent. They must have a say, he said, even to nominate some one else. But once they had decided,  they must hold their peace thereafter. 

“It would not be right for a leader to be selected by just a few going forward. We need to broaden the pool of selectors. Otherwise, the party leaders could be accused of practising cronyism or factionalism. I wanted the process to evolve further.’’ 

Now, the choice of PM is left to the current batch of 4G leaders. I wouldn’t expect the choice to be made by the whole party, or even just its cadres, but it seems a small and reasonable step to extend the selection or endorsement to its own elected MPs. 

On presidents and presidential aspirants 

While there are no mea culpas, there is a “key regret’’: the acrimonious end of the Ong Teng Cheong presidency. 

He said the Cabinet didn’t want to endorse Mr Ong’s bid for a second term because the doctors’ prognosis on his health was not good. But people had the impression that it was because the Government and Mr Ong didn’t see eye-to-eye on the scope of presidential duty. Mr Ong held a press conference to complain of being stymied by civil servants when he asked them for details. Mr Goh said Mr Ong wanted even the location and value of every single property of the government. His own view was that president was delving too much into nitty-gritty details. 

Then Mrs Ong died two weeks after the unprecedented press conference and a new wrinkle came up: Is she a formal First Lady or just Mrs Ong? What sort of funeral should she be accorded? The Government decided it should be a private affair because First Lady was never an official title. He admitted it looked “petty and ungracious’’ but it decided to follow state protocol. 

Then he also had to respond to Mr Ong’s charges of non-cooperation from the executive branch. 

“My wife and I knew Teng Cheong and Siew May very well. They were a generous and gracious couple. The government had to rebut him, but we had to do it in such a way that would not, in a sense, diminish him or the government. That was particularly painful and sad.’’

Mr Ong died three years after he stepped down, which would be smack in the middle of a second term should he have decided to contest. Before you ask, no, Mr Goh didn’t say if he agreed that Mr Ong should be known as Singapore first elected president rather than the late Wee Kim Wee, as the Government had declared on the advice of the Attorney-General.

But he did say something about the latest reserved presidential election which Madam Halimah Yacob clinched in a walkover.

He said that if Madam Halimah  had a straight fight with Dr Tan Cheng Bock, she would lose. He even disclosed that his wife had voted for Dr Tan. But he held firm to the government line that the race rule for presidential office was not intended to keep Dr Tan out of office. Dr Tan would be knocked out because of the new criteria on corporate management which require candidates to run far bigger companies, he added. 

On foreign workers 

If there was one criticism he made of the current government, it was over immigration.

Although he started the policy of opening the door to foreign talent because of Singapore’s declining birth-rate and the need to keep the economy humming, he was surprised and annoyed to know that the number of permanent residents escalated after he left office in 2004.

“Take permanent residents (PRs) for example. In the years before 2011, the numbers rose to 50,000, then 70,000 a year. It was nearly 80,000 in 2008! I was surprised and annoyed. I told PM so. Since then, we have kept the numbers to around 30,000 PRs a year. But even then, when you add the numbers up over the years, you will begin to feel the cumulative effect within society and in daily living.’’ 

Asked who should be blamed, he said that it wasn’t “our style’’ to blame anyone. Nor was it an “error in policy’’. Rather it was a lesson learnt about keeping an eye on the ball to ensure that people do not get anxious about being crowded out. 

I’ve only put out three topics in the book which I found interesting. And I am certainly not doing it justice. People have said that autobiographies tend to be self-serving, to justify words and actions of the past. They are, but it doesn’t mean that insights cannot be gleaned or new details emerge to give a more complete picture. Buy the book to know what happened in the 1990s because it adds to our understanding on why some things are the way they are. 

I didn’t know, for example, that Mr Goh was so instrumental in building up Singapore’s network of free trade agreements and the effort he put into ensuring that this little red dot had a say in regional and global issues, like the Asia Europe Meeting or ASEM he mooted while he was in Davos, Switzerland in the 1995. This, even though I covered many of his foreign visits. I just never toted them up.

I think like many others, I have always seen Mr Goh through a domestic lens. People remember his votes-for-upgrading election ploy and jumbo GRCs. He is no softie when he plays political football, talking up an opposition member to prevent another from getting into Parliament even if this annoyed his own candidate, or risking his own seat to secure a mandate for his Government in a by-election. 

Perhaps, some would remember how he started Medifund and Edusave, and decided to distribute some of the fruits of the economy to the people with bonuses and share schemes – which is still continuing. Every leader has pluses and minuses on his ledger, and I think Mr Goh came out on the positive side. It can’t be easy to be the Holy Goh sandwiched between father and son.

Clearly, however, he has a problem with social media voices. I wish that he had been pressed on the infamous Catherine Lim affair when he drew OB markers to ensure that there was respect for hierarchy and institutions.  There is a chapter, The Story of Chok and Cat, but it doesn’t say if Mr Goh still stood by his insistence that those who want to influence policy should do so in the political arena. What would he say to the many, many people who think nothing of deriding their leaders and the institutions? Boh tuah, boh suay isn’t going to cut it with them. 

Lastly, I hope he is keeping notes on his dealings with Dr M. At some stage, I would like read about how the two men duked it out to secure their respective national interest. It would be extremely educational and probably make dramatic reading too. 

Go buy Standing Tall. It is an informative yet easy read.

It…could be… a new beginning for news media here

In News Reports on May 7, 2021 at 2:38 am

The signs have always been there. Over the years, the SPH newspapers have been spinning a positive line about their operations, talking about bigger audience reach and higher digital subscriptions, when the fact was that the moolah has been shrinking despite cost cutting exercises. You have to read that in the bowels of their news reports. 

But there’s no way you can spin the news in its annual report of 2020. They were lit in neon colours when SPH said the media business would have been in the red, if not for the Jobs Support Scheme.

For at least the past 20 years, the SPH group has been figuring out how to keep its coffers bulging with the coming of the Internet age. I was privy to those discussions in the early days when print was king and the newspaper business kept churning out record profits. 

The strategy was usually defensive – and contradictory. The cautionary word was “cannibalisation’’. Going online risks turning readers into viewers, leading to fewer print subscriptions and consequently, lower advertising rates. Putting up a subscription wall might gain some revenue, but also risks people moving on to other free sites. 

Management was clear about protecting the golden goose, print, and “bundling’’ became a buzzword.( You know, you buy this thing, and you get the print version as well.) It’s not working. More and more young people were gravitating to online media – and other news sites – and they weren’t returning. There’s no way that digital subscriptions and online advertising can ever reach the revenue levels of print advertising. 

Management knew this, and the wonder is how long they took to make the decision announced yesterday to hive off the media business. 

Clearly,  shareholders wouldn’t be happy to subsidise what would be a continual loss-making operation – even if pitched as a form of national service. I wonder, though, if they would be happy to part with more than $100 million to start up this non-profit entity that will run the media side. Maybe that’s why the Ministry of Communications and Information made a point of saying in its press statement that it would be consulting the management shareholders (the biggest players with the biggest vote) on this move, including the establishment of the entity, a company limited by guarantee. 

Economists and financial types are probably poring over the numbers and its impact on stock price. I am less concerned about this than what this means for journalism in Singapore. SPH rather blithely stated that the move will improve the quality of journalism as the operator doesn’t have to worry about shareholder demands or commercial pressures. So profits can be ploughed back into investing in talent and technology. I certainly hope that this will happen. 

We still have to hear about the structure of this non-profit entity and who its major partners will be. SPH gave the example of the Guardian, owned by the Scott Trust, and funded by donors and philanthropic groups. It’s a success, yes, but it should be noted that the Guardian’s key editorial position is independence and freedom of speech. That seems to be the draw for donors and readers. It’s also a news media with a world-wide reach – and sitting on a S$1.7 billion kitty. 

More likely, the entity will take a form similar to that of the Esplanade, which is run by The Esplanade Company *, and funded by the G and the Tote Board. 

My guess is that the SPH media arm was hived off mainly to allow for such funding from the Government. After all, it’s no secret that over the past few years, the G is funnelling money to Mediacorp to pay its journalists better and raise the quality of its news products. 

The worry then is what this means for the independence of the new entity when it comes to reporting and writing the news. Will it be beholden to the G and to other private and public players? 

This is assuming that it is not already the case.

Editors are lying when they say that they have never succumbed to political or commercial pressures. The question is really how frequently they roll over or whether they put up a good fight. When CEO Ng Yat Chung lost his cool over a CNA reporter’s question about editorial independence, I empathised with him. It is a naive reporter, especially from a local media outlet, who asks such questions which can be applied to his or her own employers and editors. 

But the move does present an opportunity for the new entity to draw up its own rules of engagement with newsmakers, donors and advertisers. Hopefully, it will be led by those who understand the value of journalism and what it takes to raise the game. The composition of this core group would be vital to gain public credibility. They must have enough standing to negotiate OB markers with the G and decide on the sort of working relationship it should have with officialdom and donors. They must not all be Establishment types who flinch at any form of official disfavour or try to second guess how the G wants its public messages communicated to the people. I would suggest that its members go on a fact-finding mission to study how, say, the BBC manages to maintain its credibility and what sort of norms to follow. They might even go so far as to investigate the need for an independent Press Complaints Commission to handle complaints about editorial content and uphold editorial values for all who call themselves news media.

There’s no better formula to gain credibility than to focus on news, good and bad, so that readers and viewers would trust that they’ve been given the unblemished facts and what is as close to the truth as possible. This is a chance for The Straits Times to drop its negative political baggage and shore up its journalism standards, which have been declining at a precipitous rate. It’s an opportunity to get new blood to work on a clean slate and infuse it with the excitement of a start-up, rather than port over the same old ideas and ways of working. 

Much, however, would also depend on whether the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act would apply to this new entity. We’ve been told that the holding company will no longer have to abide by it. So with no outsized management shares, the board would be able to invest freely or seek more financing from previously banned quarters. But what about other structures like the need for yearly licences for print or the ability of the board to decide on who should be editor? I suppose some details will be revealed in Parliament on Monday in a ministerial statement. Clearly, the G will want some sort of control over the media. 

I have no doubt ST will live on and I hope it would still be able to deliver the full suite of news. Will ST still have its network of foreign correspondents or will it be subscribing to foreign wire agencies for content?  I also wonder about the fate of the vernacular papers.  There are three Chinese language papers, one Malay and one Tamil paper. There’s also the Business Times. Then there are online entities like The New Paper and STOMP. I am sure there’s something in a book somewhere about having to maintain news in all four languages. Can we still look forward to having news that is tailored for specific audiences by specific journalists? Or will we be feeding from a buffet trough?

I am sure journalists in SPH are worried about their future, and some are probably regretting getting into the profession. Trust me when I say that the skills acquired in journalism are invaluable. Good luck and best wishes to all of you. Serious. 

*Earlier version of this post said that the Esplanade was run by the National Arts Council. This is incorrect. It’s run by a company limited by guarantee called The Esplanade Company. I apologise for the error.

Making allowances for ageing parents

In News Reports on April 28, 2021 at 2:14 am

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a Washington Post article on my Facebook. It talked about how singles in Singapore were putting their own lives on the back burner because they were looking after aged parents. So career progression gets disrupted and luxuries foregone as they struggle to meet the daily living and healthcare needs of ailing parents. It’s not just about money, but also energy and time. For those who stay with their parents, it’s 24/7 care-giving. 

My heart went out to the courageous daughters and sons who demonstrate their filial piety when duty calls. I wouldn’t call it humble bragging because it’s no easy task handling the physical, mental and emotional needs of people whom you knew to be vigorous and energetic during your own growing up years. 

So I was thrown off by comments which questioned filial piety as a virtue, suggesting that it be re-formulated or updated to fit with the times or even that it was a bankrupt ideology intended to keep the traditional  hierarchy of authority in place. There were many reasons proffered for a re-thinking: too few children in the family to be able to stretch the dollar to cover their parents. Or children who already have to take care of their children, and who should be allowed to “live their own lives’’ without guilt. 

There were the usual “children didn’t ask to be born’’ excuse, which is the worst line you can throw into a parent’s face. Or how parents shouldn’t view children as ATM machines. You list the various whataboutisms…parents who don’t deserve help, children who can’t afford to help and so forth. 

A new-ish reason is how people should have made their own plans for retirement, with no expectation that their children would give a hand.

Of course, there are questions about the role of the State in helping the sandwich generation cope with dependents young and old. 

I happen to think there is plenty of State support for the elderly here. They include the concessions for Pioneer and Merdeka generations, many of whom might not have accumulated enough CPF savings because their salaries were too low in their working days. There’s Eldershield, now called Careshield, and the frequent Medisave top-ups that allow the elderly to pay for outpatient treatment. They lighten the fiscal responsibility of the children. 

The problem is when the elderly are no longer mobile, require rounds of hospitalisation and slide into dementia and other old age problems that require diaper changing, cleaning bed sores, replenishing medicines, inserting IV tubes, help with showering – activities that we think belong only to hospital staff.  

No one is ever adequately prepared for the time when their own parents start to break down in body and mind. That there might be a time when, just as they had looked after us while we were babies, it would be our turn to baby them. Do we outsource their care? Or take it upon ourselves, with professional help if we can afford it, however difficult the task may be? Should we think in terms of what we would have to sacrifice, instead of thinking of what they had sacrificed to bring us up to this stage of our lives?

For those who can afford it, a convalescent or retirement home is an option – but I doubt it is a place the elderly will voluntarily check into. Most would prefer to “age in place’’ surrounded by family and the familiar. But there will be those who want to alleviate the burden of their children and consent (if they can still do so) to be looked after by better-skilled strangers. At the moment, it is not the “go to’’ option in our society. Many have called for more such facilities, given the increasing number of singles who cannot rely or do not have family support. 

But in all the comments about caring for the old, there is a word which stands out: expectations. The common view is that unlike in the past, parents should not “expect’’ to be looked after by their children when they get old. I agree. In a similar vein,  children should also not expect their parents to bail them out, or live for free in their parents’ household when they are already capable of taking care of themselves. Nor help them buy their first home. Parents need the money for their own old age. 

I sometimes see some benefit in the western way – where children are turfed out of their parents’ home once they start working or would pay for their own food and lodging if they are still staying with their parents. In Singapore, we would call this giving parents an “allowance’’, a bit of a misnomer because the working adults are simply paying for their own living. 

This habit of giving an allowance is alive and well, although it appears to be decreasing. I think it’s a habit that should be ingrained and hardened, right from the time children can stand on their own two feet while living under their parents’ roof.

 I would suggest that young people start preparing extremely early, mentally and financially, to meet their own needs once they make their own money, and ensure that both their parents and themselves are prepared for their own retirement.

I realised this need at an extremely early age, when it dawned on me that I would have to take care of the household given that my late father is twice the age of my housewife-mother. As the eldest, financial planning started early. Family considerations took first place in every life-changing decision I made – whether to continue my studies, which job to take, when to get married and whether I could afford to run two households if I wanted to live on my own. Looking back, that’s a lot of mental pressure for a teenager and young working adult. There was some resentment when I saw my friends lead a more carefree lifestyle, but I think being prudent and far-sighted did me a lot of good in life. 

I consider giving parents a regular allowance, however small, a simple emotional tie. If it starts while the children are single, it becomes a habit when they are married and have moved out. In my view, it is not a “favour’’ that we extend to parents. It’s an obligation, something which is not trendy because all of us want to do “our own thing’’. By the way, it’s also the law. 

Of course, there are working children who can barely cope on their own and would have trouble parting with even $10 every month. What we can’t make up for with money, we should do so with our time and our energy, like taking them for medical checkups or running household errands. We try to alleviate their burden, even as it seems burdensome to ourselves. 

Do children “have’’ to do this? Are they “expected’’ to do this? I find it disconcerting to hear people say no. That we’ve become slaves to tradition and custom and scoff at old-fashioned terms like filial piety or “honour thy father and thy mother’’. I hope those who want a new relationship with ageing parents are talking only about their own circumstances and not suggesting a modern general practice. 

Filial duty has always been so clear to me. It’s not about fairness or extent of sacrifice. It’s a duty, even if onerous. Period. I cannot explain a duty in practical terms, or put a monetary value, or even rationalise it. I was brought up to think this way. Perhaps, it helps that I’m Catholic because I sure hope to be rewarded with some merits to get into heaven! 

Maybe I would think differently if my parents had put me through hell while I grew up or abandoned me as a baby. So I’m lucky that I have loving parents. In the main, I think most parents are like mine. Some have bigger warts than others, but some children are no saints themselves. 

Even as we try to shore up facilities for the aged, tweak the financing structure for geriatric medical care and work on building up the nest-eggs of those who don’t have enough, methinks that duty or moral value or virtue should never be diminished by talk of “fulfilling one’s own potential’’ and notions that the individual is the centre of society forever asking “what’s in it for me’’? 

I don’t have children, so I am not even expecting an allowance in my old age. I can only hope that my financial planning will see me through the end of life with relative ease. If it doesn’t, I don’t have children to blame – or to help me.

Happy Fathers’ and Mothers’ Day in advance.