Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Paralysed by the PM (Part 2)

In News Reports, Writing on June 30, 2012 at 3:05 am

I was not going to say anything about ST page 1 headline yesterday, Gardens by the Bay not an easy decision: PM. Then I came across a story today in which the PM was the newsmaker: Community groups play a key role, says PM. He was speaking on the occasion of Jamiyah’s 80th anniversary.

I KNOW that whatever the PM says is important, even he’s just reiterating policy or repeating oft-heard statements. But the readers will look at these headlines – and turn the page.

Of course, deciding to set aside 101 hectares of land for a garden is not an easy decision! I mean, did we really expect the PM to say that it is? What’s been an easy decision for the Government anyway? The thing is, so much more could be said about the WHY it’s not an easy decision. PM says it could have been turned into some kind of commercial or residential development. Would have helped to have property people to say what would have happened if this were the case. Maybe no need because the Marina Bay Financial District is already nearby?

What about for homes? BTW, how BIG is 101 hectares? How many homes could that plot of land sustain? Could there be more cheap housing? Or of the high-priced Sentosa Cove kind? Okay, so this is hypothetical. The other thing to explore is this “green lung” business. With this Garden, how much space in Singapore can be considered green lungs? For all you know, it’s too small a proportion and we are still very much a concrete jungle.

But the Jamiyah story today held out so many opportunities for elaboration. I was most interested to read about Mr Abu Bakar had built it with just $5.60 in the bank and 190 members in 1970 to more than 35,000 members today. Goodness, how did he do it? Is there something other groups can learn from him?There was also a bit about the Jamiyah Business School which helps out-of-school young people continue their education. Worthy effort deserving of praise. It’s all part of the PM’s message of community groups playing a key role in other areas. Thing is, would any reader get to those last few paragraphs of the story after seeing the headline?

Church vs State

In News Reports, Society on June 30, 2012 at 2:39 am

What, in heaven’s name, is City Harvest church up to?

I know this is a day late, but I cannot figure why the church seems so intent on putting itself on a collision course with the State. Never mind exhortations and reminders that this is about five individuals breaking the law, it seems City Harvest wants to put the full weight of its congregation behind the five. It is even arguing on  theological grounds  – promoting Sun Ho’s secular singing career to reach non-Christians is part of doing God’s work. In fact, the church gave details of the “fruits” of its controversial Crossover project – how money made from the more than 80 concerts (at least I think its money made from the concerts although the church never said how much) have gone into funding global humanitarian projects.

The church seems to say that the members didn’t think anything was wrong. (And they got their money back anyway…) News reports quoting church members seem to say the same. I guess short of doing of poll of all its 30,000 members or so, we wouldn’t know. So I suppose when the case comes up, lots of paper will turn up – minutes of meetings and board resolutions and the like – to show what really took place.

So why can’t the church wait?

I cannot believe that there are no lawyers in the congregation advising the church on what it can or cannot say – legally. That the statement is subjudice and contempt of court. Church insiders say the statement is an attempt to calm the congregation. Really? So I suppose the church does not mind? care? about the consequences of itself breaking the law by speaking about the case before the judge has a chance to hear arguments? Maybe the church figures that the State would be hard put to throw the book on a whole Church. What’s the penalties for subjudice anyway?

The trial hasn’t even started and I am already confused about what is the issue at hand….

Shorn of all the legal jargon, I thought this was about whether the church members know where their donations are going to – or not. So were they conned by their leaders – or not? And when the leaders were supposedly found out, they did a complicated series of transactions (is this itself illegal?) to cover it up?

I find it disconcerting that while the five leaders were suspended from their posts by the Commissioner of Charities, the pastors among them are allowed to preach. I suppose there is a line drawn between the CoC’s powers over charity governance and interfering in the work of religion…It would seem to me more appropriate if they took it upon themselves NOT to preach while the case is going on. Even if their sermons do not touch on the case, you can bet that feelings will run high. Whatever they say on the pulpit will be analysed and re-analysed for signs of emotion, distress or grievance. Why put the church through this? Why not let justice take its course? There will be vindication if no one did anything wrong.

A plentiful Harvest of stories

In News Reports, Writing on June 27, 2012 at 11:21 pm

For clarity, ST leads the way in its coverage of the City Harvest saga. It was a pleasure to read a complicated story that was simply written and which didn’t require me to re-read to be appraised of all the facts. There was even a simple, useful infographic on how the money was supposedly filched and the alleged cover-up process that followed. It put the numbers in perspective, noting that it dwarfed the NKF suit and Ren Ci’s case of misuse of funds.

While all the English-language papers went with the big $50m figure that was involved, not just $23m so we are now told, Today’s report was a hotch-potch of facts and figures tumbled together.$24m-of-church-funds

It didn’t even get to the cover-up until the second page…

For value-added, TNP leads the way, especially in chasing down that mysterious Indonesian. It got hold of the man and although the only useful thing he said was that he had known Kong Hee for 20 years, it managed to dig up more background on him, right from his boyhood days. BT had a bit more on the “round tripping” – the cover-up process – apparently not unheard of in the corporate world. I wish it had elaborated on those two past corporate cases it had cited though. Maybe tomorrow?

Anyway, yesterday’s charges made everything clearer. The earlier reports on the Crossover Project and Multi-purpose Fund only made me wonder what the problem was about. If the church members had agreed that money should go into supoprting the singing career of the pastor’s wife, who is to say they are wrong?  Today’s newspapers, for example, went on a certain Christopher Pang claiming that the Commissioner of Charities had indulged in defamation, but there was another point in his letter I found intriguing:

He refered to the CoC’s assertion that donations and tithes to the Charity were transferred to a private fund known as the Multi-Purpose Account. “This is a fabrication. The MPA was purely a private fund and the donors knew they were contributing to the Crossover Project and to supporting Pastor Kong and Sun. In fact the MPA was set up by donors who specifically wanted to contribute to the Crossover Project as we the members of the Church support this as part of our missions work.”

I wonder what he will say now that more charges are out in the open – including the shifting of money from a BUILDING fund, and I suppose we’re talking about a physical structure – rather than building Sun Ho’s career…

BTW, I found it sad that church leaders had to come out and say that the case wasn’t an attack on the church or on religion, in response to rants and other rubbish online. This is a case about supposedly bad people, not bad religion. So can we all just watch how the case unfolds instead indulging in polemics, sterotypes and bad puns?

Cemetery extension

In News Reports, Writing on June 27, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I’m expanding my cemetery to include outside contributions. If you’re got a word or phrase that you keep seeing in the media that irritates you to death, tell me. Of course, as the chief grave-digger, I reserve the right to decide whether to perform the public funeral rites. So send the hearse over – hopefully with a pithy phrase on why you think your contribution should stay dead and buried.

Here’s one from an ex-colleague who is tired of seeing “tuck into” as a substitute for eat. You know, tuck into a bowl of bak chor mee etc? He thinks it’s tucking silly. I agree.

The business of harvest

In Money, News Reports, Society on June 27, 2012 at 12:51 am

I am a little confused over the City Harvest story. So the church embarked on a Crossover Project to promote Sun Ho’s secular music to the masses. I suppose with the aim of converting them…Sounds like something any church (if it has a star singer) would say okay to.  Thing is, how was this project supposed to be financed in the first place? Was it to come from church donations? If the Church says yes and followers know, then there’s nothing wrong right? Why this need to funnel through Malaysia and some dark underground Multi-purpose fund?

Two years ago, when ST was checking on the story, the thing that blew us away was the businesses that the church was into. It led to some comments on the role of the church in business and what’s allowed or not. Time, I think to talk about this again. I, for one, can’t remember much of that issue. What sort of State rules are in place on this? Just normal ACRA accounting rules? Is this the business of the church and nobody else’s business?  Even members of the faithful would appreciate some help in navigating this.

Just as the NKF scandal led to changes in charity governance rules, perhaps the City Harvest case would give some clarity on this religion-business nexus. That would be the most useful outcome of the case, even as it provides plentiful colourful copy…

Red tape and red faces

In News Reports, Society on June 27, 2012 at 12:05 am

Omigawd. Another day of bad memories. I am referring to the case of the ex-SPH exec Peter Khoo who was charged in court for filching money and receiving kickbacks from a supplier. I have been waiting for this day for close on two years now, ever since my ex-Editor called me into his room to tell me the news that Pete had confessed to what he did. He asked me to take on Pete’s job and clean house. I felt as though my head was about to burst; the blood was pounding in my skull so hard…I would never have thought Pete needed the money…

The day went by in a blur. Meetings with management to cobble out a press statement, a trip to the National Council of Social Service – then administrator of the School Pocket Money Fund to alert them to what’s happening, editorial meetings to decide how to “play” the story. The ST editors decided that the story would be dealt with like any other story – even though/or especially since it involved one of our own. Stake-outs started. People who might have an inkling of what went on were pounced upon by their own colleagues.

But the impact fell hardest on the staff closest to Pete. Through the day, I had been busy contacting each one, telling those who were out of the office organising outside events to return, getting people on their rest day out of home to the office and telling one who was away on holiday to take the next plane home. Like now. Now.

When all were finally brought before the Editor to be told the news, they were shell-shocked. I thought to myself, Oh my god, I am going to have a very hard time pulling them together to clean house…I was wrong. After a day of daze, they picked themselves up wih a vengeance and we went about sorting through all the standard operating procedures and introducing new ones. I tied so much stuff in red tape that we were strangling ourselves with it.

The main thing was to ensure that DONATIONS would not have a way of slipping into somebody else’s pockets. Thinking back, some of the things we did were really over-the-top. Not enough to have one safe but two. Not enough to have one signature but two/three. There was the problem with cash donations. Cheques were pretty straightforward since they were in the name of the Fund, but all those coins and notes? Dealing with small change became a big chore. Bags and tags and counting once, twice, timings to get to the bank. It became so that I was tempted to say no cash please. It was just a small percentage of total donations but enough to be a big headache. Several times, staff came to me to ask that we convert the cash into a cheque. My chequebook would come out, and I would have several stacks of $2 bills that couldn’t fit into my handbag.

Of course, we didn’t clean house alone. Internal and external auditors were killing trees with reports on what was the case, now the case and would be the case. Those vouchers – and we had plenty – were a pain. New records were started, everything serialised, and procedures put in place for the drawing of any voucher. Essentially, staff had to record my permission for every single voucher drawn. What was worse was that Pete had supposedly confessed to  taking Capita vouchers too. So there I was at one dinner with the Capitaland folks, a cheque in hand, to make restitution. I don’t know when I have ever felt so shame-faced. But the Capitaland folks were gracious and more than willing to work with us again…I mean, they could have really made me feel worse.

I am not talking about the ins-and-outs of the alleged kickbacks etc since a court case is coming up. I know SPH has declined comment, but an assurance that things are in order is, well, in order. So dare I say this:  We cut off all links with Sino-British, the suppliers, as soon as we possibly could. The SPMF was ring-fenced even further. It is now a full-fledged charity, rather than the half-being it was. It is now properly staffed, with its own board and governance rules. There’s so much red tape on collection and distribution of money we could use them as Christmas decorations. At least, that was the way I left it.

Some people thought that we made too big a deal out of a small amount of money. I mean, $190K or so that was supposedly taken is nothing like City Harvest’s $23m…I don’t think so. When a publishing company gets into trouble, it has to come clean, be whiter than white. After all, the media is the outfit that gets on its high horse whenever others commit breaches of trust. What more when it’s one of its own? Some self-flagellation is in order to restore the public trust. That’s part of maintaining editorial integrity as well.

Go buy ST.

Feeling Stomped all over

In News Reports, Society on June 26, 2012 at 1:44 am

This Stomp fiasco brings back so many bad memories. Many moons ago, TNP had to apologise to ex-DPM Toh Chin Chye for saying that he had been charged with drunk driving. The whole stable of SPH newspapers had to get on its knees and apologise on page one, not on one day, but on several. The reporter was sacked and a couple of his superiors were removed from decision-making positions. A disciplinary inquiry took place which looked at the system of checks would should have prevented something like this from happening.

Suffice to say that it had to do with a reporter noted for bringing in the big scoops, a star whom editors believed in. It had to do with one anonymous source whom the reporter had past dealings with and had always delivered the goods so to speak. It had to do with keeping the story under wraps to prevent word leaking out to rival media. It had to do with getting the story out before the G could enter the picture and complicate matters. It had to do with editors who DID raise questions but decided to go with the judgment of the reporter.

In the end, the story turned out wrong.

I was in Australia when the news (or rather not news) broke. And when I returned to Singapore, I was given marching orders to go to TNP to fill the gaps left by the editors who had been disciplined and sidelined. Oh, I kicked and screamed all right! But in a newsroom, the editor points a gun to your head, and you go.

It was a subdued newsroom and I was given the leeway to re-organise and start new practices in it. I brought quite a lot of the ST systems to bear. A paper as old as ST has honed a robust system of checks, with high discipline standards and areas of accountability for all levels of staff.

Orders also came down from bosses – no more unidentified sources, at least two sources needed in a story, and there must be official confirmation of the facts. The rules were tightened considerably, and some journalists chafed that they look more aimed at killing stories, than getting them published. But they were good rules to ensure journalistic standards. Never mind if you lost the scoop, make sure you get the story right. Plug every hole. Account for every fact.

These are the sort of standards that distinguish a professional journalist from a blogger or a citizen journalist. Don’t just report stuff that’s circulating online or offline. Verify. Verify. Verify. Even if you get accused of “hiding” or “covering up”, never mind. Check first – and get the story right. It might well be that the rumour online/offline is false and fabricated. Then the story should not be run. Never mind if people saying you are “covering up”, you do not run the story simply because, there is NO story.

It’s been some time since the Toh Chin Chye saga. The people involved have been rehabiliated or have moved on. In the meantime, there is this thing called the Internet which is complicating journalists’ lives.

News or whatever is masquerading as news gets out faster.The faster it circulates, the more it assumes the status of truth.  The fuddy-duddy MSM will have go through all the lines of checks to suss out the facts. In the meantime, it is hit by barbs about being slow, late or self-censorship. Still journalistic standards must be held. Like who is really the person behind that email handle (real name, age, sex and occupation please). Is the so-called source a real source or a massive fraud? Is the picture doctored? If not, what is the source of the picture – who took it, when and where? Should this or that Internet poll be trusted or should you just poll people yourself? Is that really the person’s view or is someone else using his name? Does the fellow have an agenda, something to lobby for, axe to grind?

Only when all the bases are covered does something online make it into MSM. Tedious but necessary. Because people (most I believe) trust that what makes it into print is credible. It’s not as though MSM hasn’t broken great stories because of stuff online. Remember graffitti on MRT train? It came from a video posted online. ST, which broke the story, got the fellow who posted it, checked with police, SMRT and all manner of sources before deciding to run the story. And what a story!

Ironically it was about SMRT….

So MSM fails on several levels over the Stomp fiasco. Frankly, Stomp is just a collection of pictures contributed by people. And what gets posted should remain just that – contributions online. To get something from online to offline, those checks must kick in.

Yet, newspapers still carried that Stomp picture first. I don’t know why. Obviously, they didn’t think about the source of the picture, who posted it, and whether there is really any chance that doors can be left open while a train is moving. Hold your horses, hold the story, get the full story from source, wait for SMRT to check – and the story should not even have seen the light of day. It would have been another instance of MSM doing its checks, found the story false and not worth publishing.

Of course, if in the process, if it found its own staffers wanting, then disciplinary measures should kick in. Sack people. Demote. Suspend. Remove bonuses. Clean up the house. And heave a sigh of relief that you weren’t publish-happy.

I am terribly upset over the Stomp fiasco. Anyone who is or has ever been a journalist should be. Ethical standards have to be maintained, ingrained in all levels of journalists if I am to trust whatever MSM is saying. It’s wrong to fake stuff. And its wrong to let stuff through without checking. It’s not just Stomp which should clean house, the newspapers have to do the same too. Social media has made life harder, but really the checks are still the same. Maintain them.

Trust no one?

In News Reports, Society on June 25, 2012 at 2:28 am

Many moons ago, I was on a panel interviewing a young woman who applied to be an ST journalist. She graduated from a reputable American journalism school, aced her writing test (by that, I mean she scored about 60 per cent – great feat!) and was articulate during her interview. She even had a portfolio of work, mainly travel pieces for a publication here. Seems like a sure hire – until I started making small talk.

“Wow! You were in Athens! I’ve never been there,” I said.

“I haven’t either,” she replied.

“Wait a minute, you have a piece here about eating dinner in Athens with this magnificent waiter hovering by. Clear night sky and all,” I said.

“That’s my friend,” she said.

Raised eyebrows do not suffice. It was a jaw-dropping moment for the three of us on the panel. That travel piece was a first-person account with plenty of I, me and myself in the article. She passed off second hand information as a first-person account? Her answer was that she interviewed her friend extensively, the information was accurate and her editor knew what she had done.

My fellow interviewer weighed in, basically amazed that some one from an American journalism school (I mean bastion of journalism right?) in a time when the Jayson Blair scandal was roiling the profession, could resort to such tactics. Her answer was that she desperately wanted a job in ST and she thought a portfolio would help her clinch it. I was thinking, Gosh, she doesn’t even know how to lie! Then again, I figure it was because she didn’t even seem to understand what she had done wrong; she was more concerned about telling us the lengths she went to to get to the interview stage.

So ironic. We would have hired her without her portfolio.

Anyway, we showed the young woman the door. She pleaded and pleaded. My fellow interviewer told her we couldn’t possible take someone on board whom we would have to check and counter-check. We’d be wondering if she fibbed or fabricated her reports.

It’s all about trust isn’t it? It’s not just about making sure that readers can trust that journalists report the facts. Editors must trust that the journalists are telling them the truth too. It’s not funny to have – or be – an editor who cannot trust his journalists. Because the editor would be checking and counter-checking the journalists’ work, calling for notebooks, transcripts and checking with the journalist’s newsmakers on what had transpired between them. That’s plenty of time spent.

Of course, there’s this layer of people in the media called sub-editors whose role is also to do some fact-checking. Most times though, it is for accuracy – checking against past information, making dates and designations clear etc. But catching out a  journalist who is determined to lie….? Tough.

That’s why I thought that Stomp fiasco about a content producer who uploaded the picture of the opened MRT door is so regrettable. Funny thing, I never expected trouble to come from in-house. Over the years, I have wondered what would happen if a fake, scandalous, libellous picture was posted and Stomp and ST (despite prior disclaimers) had to take responsibility. Stomp editors have probably caught some of these fraud pictures before it went up. Still there were many instances when pictures posted even by the well-meaning don’t tell the whole story.

Like how an ex-colleague once had his picture posted on Stomp of him holding down a boy at mall. Postings came thick and fast accusing him of bullying the crying kid and what in heavens’ name was he up to etcetera. Fact is, he had caught the boy taking upskirt pictures and was holding him until the police got to the scene. That’s the weakness of citizen journalism. Sometimes it doesn’t capture the context.

Like a man I know whose car was parked haphazardly in a HDB carpark and had the picture posted on Stomp. Again, recriminations came fast and furious. Fact is, the poor fellow was in a tizzy, running to get his pregnant wife from home to the hospital. Parked car badly for 10 minutes ya lah, but can be forgiven no?

But the current Stomp case takes the cake. The woman (I would never call her a journalist) was sacked. She conned her editors, posted a picture that she said was from a netizen named wasabi about an opened door at a station she never was at. Then she brazenly tried to tough it out when SMRT came checking. Hey, opened door/moving train…safety issues no? She even stood by her story when her editor asked her about it. It was egg on the face for everyone.

One intriguing thing: She was actually interviewed by The New Paper first but it seemed it didn’t cotton that she was a Stomp staffer. It let her go by the name wasabi. I would have thought one big safeguard for any story is to know who is behind a name. It’s a standard check; due diligence. Her lie would have been uncovered sooner because someone did the journalistic and professional thing – even if she didn’t.

Razed eyebrows

In News Reports, Writing on June 22, 2012 at 12:44 am

I simply have to point out the headline in Today: Probe on ex-MFA senior official raises eyebrows! Arrrgghhhhh. On  Page 1 some more! The headline writer has no other way of putting the message across? Raised eyebrows? I mean, whose eyebrows were raised? The headline writer’s? The MFA official’s? His colleagues’? The readers’? Me? What happened to the straight news headline?

By the way, it was a good scoop by BT which ran the story yesterday. Way to go!

Use machine, make more money?

In Money, News Reports on June 22, 2012 at 12:23 am

Over the past nine years or so, I don’t know how many times my condo has switched cleaning and security services. I know they’ve switched because their uniform changes. I recall one AGM, when residents queried the security bill, asking why so many guards had to be hired for so much. The MC bowed to pressure and reduced the number of guards. So I no longer see a guard by the swimming pool, who used to have chase unaccompanied kids out of the adult pool. I think to myself, what if one kid drowned, will we ask for a guard back on duty at the post? So I end up doing the nasty thing – I chase the kids out myself.

So we pay cleaners and security guards peanuts and now the NTUC wants to step in and subsidise some cleaning equipment for cleaning companies – on condition that they pass on productive savings to cleaners who can now hope for better pay. Sounds good. I wonder what sort of beaucracy has to be set up to monitor this – that the cleaners DO get higher pay in return for their employers getting subsidies. I hope it’s monitored because it is MY money, or rather taxpayers’ money. In fact, $30m of the Inclusive Growth Fund has already been tapped by 400 companies. So what’s the result then? From what I read in ST today, the 28 cleaning firms on it managed to raise salaries. And the other 370 or so? I ask because another $70m is going to be pumped in. So much money better be accompanied by checks. In fact, we’ve been subsidising employers for their staff’s skills training for some time, and I always wondered what’s the end result. Did all that money go into a black hole?

But the key to raising wages, says cleaning companies, is whether clients will pay. So,  if what used to be done by 10 people, is now being done by nine, will clients be willing to pay the old labour cost of 10 people, and the extra money spread to the nine? At least, that’s how I think it works….. Which is why I wish more was said about the case of the 62 cleaner who now takes home $1,600 a month, double what he used to. So he can operate a new fangled machine, how did this help him jump to twice his salary? He cleaned more spaces? The client loved the way the machine worked? It’s a big-hearted client? More details would have explained his path to higher pay. Can’t just be: Operate machine, get more money!

We don’t want a case of people being promoted or become more productive, and still earn the same because the bosses always have this argument at hand: We have to keep costs down and stay competitive.