Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

About that third chestnut…

In News Reports on April 29, 2013 at 3:25 am

I tried cracking the third chestnut too early. It’s a much bigger chestnut than I thought.
The G has responded in a letter to ST’s Forum Page today – to say that Mr Nizam was using AMP as a cover for race-based politics. Don’t get irritated but if you want to read about this, you will have to go to


Cracking three hoary old chestnuts

In News Reports, Politics on April 28, 2013 at 11:03 am

Chestnut No. 1:
Whoever said politics in Singapore isn’t exciting hasn’t been following news events recently. A confrontation appears to be looming between the establishment and civil society groups over the same hoary old chestnuts – freedom of expression and the ability to criticise the judiciary and institutions without running afoul of the law or being branded as renegades out to erode confidence in the system.

These tussles have never quite died down but it seems the civil society types are upping the ante and gaining more traction. Their amplifier is the internet and social media, aided by an environment which is admittedly less respectful of authority and more inclined to criticism than conciliation.

The wonder is that civil society groups are leading the charge rather than the opposition political parties in questioning the agenda and actions of the G and, yes, sometimes making statements bordering on the scurrilous. The parties are keeping quiet and seems content with organising policy forums and presenting policy papers. Perhaps, the political parties prefer to be seen as professional politicos in public and leave the guerrilla warfare to groups and individuals, whether or not they are aligned to the opposition cause.

The G is getting a drubbing by bloggers, cartoonists, online sites, advocacy groups and the like. The level of vitriol is increasing and will not go down despite the G’s recent actions and statements. Either a consensus or compromise must be reached on the rules of engagement or there would be no end to the scepticism over the citizens’ to ability to engage the G outside G-sanctioned parameters.

The statement by the Manpower and Home Affairs ministries to a joint statement by some civil society groups and individuals over allegations of police brutality towards a couple of SMRT bus strikers was a super quick response. Clearly, there is official irritation at how that the SMRT saga hasn’t died down.

The thing is, in the digital age, nothing dies. The MSM may decide to “end’’ public discussion but online, news will surface and old news rehashed and sometimes passed off as new. Given that people do not make news reading a daily habit, any satisfactory solution or compromise reached can be easily missed. Nuances will be lost, the tone revised. Anger resurfaces.

Yet the noise in Singapore is no different from the noise wherever there is an educated populace. The only difference is that Singapore is a smaller place than most. Noise can reach all parts of the island in double quick time, moving from the virtual to the real world. The G’s protective stance towards public institutions is correct. It will not do for public trust in agencies that enforce the rules to be eroded. But the question is: How should it react to those who want fuller answers from agencies in the spotlight?

By accusing advocacy groups of exploiting foreign workers “for their own political ends’’, as they did in the SMRT bus drivers’ case, they are reverting to their old tactic of labelling aggressive critics as having “an agenda’’.

Here’s what happened for those who haven’t caught up:

Police internal watchdogs have investigated the allegations of brutality against the two Chinese nationals who spoke in a video that made the rounds of the Internet. They found them to be “baseless’’. A statement was issued last weekend in which MHA noted that “neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse during Police investigations even though they had had many opportunities to do so”. They could have spoken up while they were in the lock-up, in court, while out on bail, when a doctor saw one of them for grastic pains, when they were on trial. Neither they nor their lawyers no the Chinese embassy did so.
(The possible cynical retort to the above could be: They were too scared lah.)

The ministry pointed out that even after the videos were released, both men and their lawyers did not report the allegations to the authorities, although the lawyers would have known that would be the proper course of action.
(Again, the possible cynical retort could be: They were too scared lah. Also once the allegations were out in the open, then the expectation would be that the G wheels will start grinding)

But when the two men and their lawyers spoke to police internal affairs, their statements were found to be “inconsistent’’. They subsequently retracted their accusations.
(Possible cynical retort: They got scared again lah)

One of the bus drivers, now back in China, have again repeated the allegations, denied retracting them and insisted that when he said he would not pursue his accusations of police abuse, this did not mean that “those things never happened’’. Implicit (or explicit) in his remarks was he feared what would happen to him if he pursued the case, giving grist to the mill to those who believe that Singapore is a lawless country which punishes real and imagined critics mercilessly.

The advocacy groups have weighed in, asking for clarifications and more details about the investigation into the statements on police brutality: How were they baseless or inconsistent?

Seems they trust the word of the Chinese drivers more than the police. Can the police give more details than what they already have in the interest of placating the groups? Would that not, however, would be setting a precedent of sorts? Surely detailed police investigations cannot be released on demand, unless demanded by a court?

Thing is, the groups have found the wrong examples if they want to make a political point about suppression of labour rights and other wrongs. It is unlikely that the police would have done anything untoward towards foreign nationals in a high profile case, especially with diplomats from a big country watching.

The groups might be better-off if they had Singapore workers instead of the bus drivers as their “poster boys’’. If suppression of labour rights and the role of MOM and unions is an endemic problem here, there would be rather more Singapore workers who could be held up as examples.
Of course, this is not to say that everything is hunky dory here. If anything, the actions of the SMRT bus drivers have led to changes and brought to light several worker-management issues. Manpower officials will probably be more alert to disgruntlement in the worker rank and file. Unionists will also have to think about going back to basics, whether in ensuring better salaries for locals or watching the impact of foreign workers on the livelihoods of members – which appear to have passed them by over the years!

Now what?

The majority of Singaporeans probably have enough faith in the integrity of the institutions but there will always be some who don’t. Since it’s clear who some of these people are, is there some way the G could unbend enough to sit down with them to talk? Advocacy groups are good for the development of civil society but not if they are so apart from decision makers that the adversarial relationship leads to just more words and no action. They are volunteers with special causes, giving off their time and energy.They shouldn’t be dismissed like just so much trouble makers.
Note also that they are unlike political parties which have as their ultimate goal the formation of an alternative government.
The sit down and talk proposal is probably idealistic and even naïve but it is made in good faith. We don’t need too many fractures in society.

Chestnut No.2
Now what about the actions taken against online cartoonist Lester Chew who is “helping police’’ with investigations with regards to the Sedition Act? The Attorney-General’s Chambers gave the longest response so far on how it wants to deal with comments and criticisms. Here’s a look:

a. Every day, there are hundreds of commentaries, if not more, on socio-political matters both in the mainstream media and online. Many of these do not contravene the law, and no legal action will be taken by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on behalf of the State, even though some may contain factual inaccuracies. Some of these statements may defame or otherwise cause damage to an individual; whether any action is to be taken is generally a matter for that individual.

In other words, you can say what you want so long as you don’t break the law. No one will come after you even if your sometimes inaccurate. Beware though the consequences of defamation. The G can’t sue, but individuals sure can.

b. However, racial and religious harmony is vital to our society and has enabled Singaporeans to live together in peace over the years. Words or deeds touching on race or religion have the potential to create fault lines within our society. Such bonds, once frayed, let alone sundered, cannot easily be repaired and we must therefore remain vigilant against any threats to racial and religious harmony.

Very clear. No one would object to this.

c. Where statements are made, or actions are taken, which insult a particular religion or race, or seek to engender hatred amongst races or religious groups, or which suggest that the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes, then a response will follow. Where the statements or actions are heinous, a firm line will be taken. For example, the burning of the Koran or the Bible will not be allowed in Singapore under the cover of freedom of speech or expression.

Here’s the problem : what’s an insult or could engender hatred to some could be satirical to others or even humorous. Or justified as “awareness raising’’. Think Porn Masala. Second thing: That the G is using race or religion for its own purposes. What does this mean? That the G is using race or religion as a policy tool to benefit itself or protect its members? If people are questioning the G’s use of race and religion, then there is something wrong in the first place – there is no agreement on both sides on the rationale, much less the use.

d. On the other hand where comments are made in the heat of the moment, or by relatively immature persons who did not know better, a more nuanced response may follow. Much will depend on what is uncovered by investigations

There is a bit more clarity here. You are forgiven if you “let yourself go’’ in the heat of the moment. That is, you misspoke and didn’t go on and on. Then age matters. The young and immature will be forgiven, maybe counselled? but they won’t get the book thrown at them in the face – or not full on anyway. That leaves the older folk whose racist remarks ecetera form a pattern or a trend.

e. Similarly, the rule of law is another fundamental tenet of our society and action will be taken in respect of any statement or action that seeks to impugn or undermine the independence of the Judiciary. Unwarranted allegations of bias or partiality strike at the heart of the judicial process, threatening the very institution that protects the rights of all Singaporeans.

Okay, this is the famous contempt of court thing that keeps cropping up which critics say is a muzzle on freedom of expression. In this, they have on their side that a member of the British House of Lords who has described the Singapore version as “outmoded and archaic’’. Plus, in Britain, there is a move to remove the offence of “scandalising the judiciary’’. The AGC is sticking to its guns on this so it’s not likely to be abolished. But one thing is happening: The Law Ministry is looking into “codifying’’ the law of contempt which it has described as a priority. Now just what is “codifying’’? Making the lines clearer? The ministry had better work a lot faster then.

Chestnut No. 3
In the wake of Mr Nizam Ismail’s departure from the Association of Muslim Professionals, Ms Braema Mathi of Maruah has written to ST Forum page to ask for a clear stand on the participation of politicians in groups that receive state funding. Apparently, Mr Nizam’s participation in opposition forums and his sometimes controversial views have led to some pressure on him to leave.
That, plus a statement from a minister that state-funded groups should not be used as a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.

Ms Mathi’s query deserves an answer. She did not give a number on how many People’s Action Party MPs are involved in volunteer groups , but the bet is probably quite many. Ms Mathi said that MPs’ participation would elevate their political profile and hence, the profile of the PAP. In other words, the charge of using a VWO as a platform for partisan politics would apply to them too.

How will the G answer? That the PAP MPs were “invited’’ by the groups who already know that they are partisan? So there is a difference between an aspiring politician who intends to make use of a platform and an elected one whose presence was asked for to burnish a VWO’s credentials? If so, then there should be no objection to Opposition MPs sitting on board state-funded groups as well. Are there any?

Even if the G somehow makes the case for elected PAP MPs, it has to reckon with aspiring PAP politicians now sitting on VWOs. Using the Mr Nizam example, they should be booted out too, especially if they speak at PAP-organised forums or join in partisan political activities. Looks like a whole can of worms is about to be opened.

Maybe every state-funded VWO should ask members for their political affiliations and screen them all out just to be safe. Maybe this is why no one wants to be in politics or get involved in politics. Maybe it’s best to stay apolitical.
That is surely not what the G wants.

Or maybe that really is its aim – to make sure politics in Singapore is as unexciting as can be.

Rules of engagement need negotiation

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 24, 2013 at 2:16 am

Sometimes, a word or two whispered in the right ear will do the trick. Sometimes, the whisper can be as simple as “What’s he doing in a place like that?’’ Depending on the status/standing of the whisperer, the person being whispered to would have to guess at what the whisperer truly meant. An innocuous question? Or one that has deeper meaning?

Seems that Mr Nizam Ismail, a now former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals, has been the subject of some whispering. He told The Straits Times that AMP had informed him over the weekend that two ministers had “expressed concern” about some critical views he had put forth online and his participation in the two events. He declined to name the ministers.

ST reported: He said he was presented with two options. One, if he did not “tone down” his activities, the Government would withdraw funding from AMP. Two, dissociate himself from AMP if he wanted to continue with civil society activities.
Of course, no one in the AMP or the G is going to admit to “political intervention’’ as Mr Nizam has described it. He quit, they said. The retort would be: Did he really have a choice?

Muslim Affairs Minister Yacob Ibrahim gave a roundabout response, or at least, that was how the ST report appeared:

Asked by reporters last night on the sidelines of a dialogue organised by government feedback unit Reach, Dr Yaacob said: “AMP is an important partner. In our discussions with AMP, we have never touched on their internal organisation, how they are being managed.”

(Okay, so he’s saying it doesn’t matter who is doing what in AMP, so long as the work gets done properly. Mr Nizam was head of AMP’s research arm and its former ex-chairman)

He also noted that the association has “written in its Constitution that whoever is involved in AMP must be non-partisan and we assume therefore not involved in politics”.

Some questions:
a. What’s non-partisan? A card-carrying member of a political party? By extension, this should disqualify AMP members who are members of the ruling parties too. Are there any? Mr Nizam has said he is not a member of any party, nor intending to be one.
b. What’s getting involved in politics? Seems Mr Nizam’s participation at the Population White Paper protest and a Workers’ Party forum counts. Would it help if he made it clear at those forums that he was speaking in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of his organisation? Not enough? Well, Mr Nizam is going for a hattrick; he’s down as a speaker for the May 1 rally at Hong Lim Park. Would he still be speaking? Nothing to prevent him now really….Or he could ask if he could speak at the NTUC-organised May Day rally!
c. If getting involved politics – broadly defined – means running afoul of the constitution of an organisation, then too many people will be disqualified and proscribed from speaking up. Or should they only do so at government-sanctioned events, like the Singapore Conversation series.
He said the Government was more concerned with the work they do as they receive public funds.
Dr Yaacob added: “Money which is given by the Government to Malay-Muslim organisations must be for the purpose of voluntary work that will help the community move forward. It is not for the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”
(Okay, the AMP gets funding in the form of a $1m matching grant yearly for five years. Other organisations which get any form of G funding might want to take note, like arts groups.)

So did Mr Nizam quit voluntarily or was he pushed?This is what he himself said in a posting today:

“I received a surprise phone call from Mr Azmoon Ahmad, Chairman AMP on 20 Apr 2013. He informed me that he received separate phone calls from two Ministers to the effect that they were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2) my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media. Mr Azmoon had relayed a message that he said he received for me to “take it easy” and refrain from such activities. Otherwise, the Government will withdraw all funding from AMP. This puts AMP in a difficult situation. Mr Azmoon also painted the alternative that if I were to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP.”

Mr Nizam also cited instances when he alleged that threats to pull funding was made:

“For instance, State funding of AMP’s programs were cut in the wake of a proposal for a collective community leadership during AMP’s 2nd Convention in 2000. Threats of funding cuts were also made in reaction to a proposal for an independent Community Forum made by AMP during its 3rd Convention in 2012, as that was seen as a threat to the State-sponsored Community Leadership Forum (CLF) – which ironically, was perceived to be set up as a reaction to the Collective Leadership proposal made earlier by AMP.”

At least, Mr Nizam doesn’t need a lawyer which is what Demon-cratic cartoonist Leslie Chew now has. Online media (link to yahoo) said he was held in custody and questioned over the weekend, and was released at 8.45pm on Sunday after posting bail of S$10,000. The police confiscated his handphone, computer and hard disk. He was also asked to surrender his passport to the police at the Cantonment Police complex.

Mr Chew has been warned twice over his cartoon strips, first for scandalizing the judiciary with a cartoon strip that refers to the removal of a judge and second, for running foul of the Sedition Act with a second strip that talks about the Malay community’s fertility rates. He has refused to take them down, nor apologise for them. Crossing the Sedition Act can lead to $5,000 fine or up to three years, or both.

In his defence, Mr Chew pointed to the disclaimer in each of his cartoons which says that the portrayals in them “are purely fictional”. “I also explicitly stated that Demon-cratic Singapore is an entirely imaginary country and is not the Republic of Singapore,” Mr Chew said. He added that most fans know that Demon-cratic Singapore is fictional and “just for laughs” said Chew.
“Even when there are new readers who thought otherwise, they are usually quickly reminded by other readers that everything on my Facebook page is fictional.”

Hmm. Wonder what sort of defence this is. It’s a silly person who can’t connect his cartoons to Singapore developments. He might be better off suggesting that his cartoons are satirical takes and produce evidence to show that his audience treated them this way.
As if both incidents are not enough to make one wonder about the G’s approach to differing views, then comes an intriguing message from the organisers of that May 1 protest in Hong Lim Park: Foreigners, please do not attend.

The NParks has told organisers to get a police permit because a “Police Permit must be obtained if permanent residents of Singapore are speaking or organising a demonstration, performance or exhibition, and/or if foreigners are speaking or participating in or organising activities at Speakers’ Corner.’’ (link to site)

No foreigner is behind the rally or will be speaking, the organisers claimed. They didn’t apply for a permit for the first rally in February either. Like the Nizam case of getting “involved in politics’ , just what amounts to “participating in’’ activities at Speakers Corner? A curious tourist looking on? Would having a police permit mean that security measures must be taken to ensure that foreigners are screened out? The organisers do not want to apply for one. They should. To see if they get it and whether it comes with strings attached. They should cover their bases.
What to make of all this after all the warning letters shot into the blogosphere in recent time?

A coming confrontation between civil society and the G? The G attempting to impose some order on what it deems as freewheeling, chaotic discourse? Or part of the process of a maturing society, in which both sides are negotiating the rules of engagement?

Hopefully, the last option.

Torn up over tourism

In News Reports, Sports on April 23, 2013 at 2:25 am

How should Singapore present itself to the rest of the world? As a glitzy Dubai or a charming Penang? Singapore Tourism Board chief Lionel Yeo thinks we can be both and wants to ratchet up Singapore-flavoured offerings. It marks a change from the days when we were told to be enthusiastic about international attention on Formula One (Oh! Look at the numbers tuning in worldwide!) and how casinos will bring in the well-heeled.

Thing is, can we be both? Or is it already too late?

In the international eye, Singapore is probably more Dubai than Penang – efficient, fast-paced, haven for billionaires. Expensive clubs. Designer boutiques. Playground for the rich and famous. The tourism strategy has brought in a lot of money, as well as foreigners – both the spending kind and those needed to staff the low-wage positions in the hospitality industry. For the rest of us, we can only look in. Not rich enough to play; too rich to want a job tending bar and waiting tables. We might feel proud about how far we have come, as we cruise along the East Coast Parkway and gape at the skyline. We might even feel like tourists in our own country!

What about the new effort to display our local offerings then? Here’s the good: our local designers can expect a leg-up. Also, heritage and conservation, something increasingly dear to Singaporeans, will now have…. an economic dimension! We need to preserve them…because they bring in the tourists!

Okay, enough of that.

Anyway, that was what was reported in ST yesterday. Today, however, the media reported that at a tourism conference, expectations were scaled back on tourism numbers and spending in the future. That’s because those big ticket draws are already in place and have contributed to the spurt in numbers. A rising rate of growth would be “unsustainable’’. (Did anyone heave a sigh of relief at the propect of a not-as-crowded future?). Besides, neighbouring countries are also putting up theme parks and F1 races. Singapore’s first-mover advantage will be eroded.

Media reports said STB estimated that visitor arrivals could grow at 3 to 4 per cent and tourism receipts at 4 to 6 per cent annually over the next 10 years. This contrasts with the record growth posted between 2002 and last year, when visitor arrivals grew at a compounded annual rate of 6.6 per cent. Tourism receipts also grew at a corresponding 10 per cent in the same period.

According to Second Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran, Singapore should concentrate on “high-yield growth’’ (code words for big spenders) and those who come “regularly’’. He wants the industry to create more content for visitors in the lifestyle and business sectors. One example, according to ST, is the Fort Canning Centre and Black Box Theatre, which the STB and National Parks Board are looking at turning into a museum with modern art, for an Asian audience.

One wonders if the big spenders will really be interested in experiencing the Singapore way of life and take tours of the HDB heartland and what not. As for those who “come’’ regularly, they would have “been there, done that’’.

Or maybe the new direction is just a marketing gimmick – to tell big spenders that besides the main showpiece of glitzy stuff, there are still those “curiosities’’ they might have missed. So why not have a cheng teng cocktail at a hawker centre and gawp at the locals in their flip flops? If or when that happens, hopefully, prices of our local deserts won’t be jacked up. According to an ST report, there was a suggestion to create more places like “Newton Circus’’. Hey, there might be a good idea – keep the tourists at these high-priced places with a Singapore flavour! No need for them to import inflation into the heartland!

Does anyone remember the old days when Singapore was merely positioned as a Garden City? That was a good one. Very few of our neighbours can replicate that, unless they want to tear down whole buildings and start re-landscaping. So beautiful, our Singapore. Air-con city in a tropical paradise….Can brand like that also leh!

Mr Yap said something refreshing published in ST yesterday: “The STB cannot do our work in a way that ignores what locals care about. It’s about striking a balance…and being respectful to how Singaporeans feel about what is going to happen to their city.’’

That’s something to think about. Because while we might be consulted – and want to be consulted – about our own living surroundings, we tend to leave the business of luring foreign tourists to agencies, forgetting that their actions would affect the place we live in – and even our way of life.

This article first appeared on
Also on Breakfast Network: The coming storm over City Harvest Church saga/Aren’t medics trained to deal with asthmatic soldiers?

The G’s new dartboard: the blogosphere

In Politics, Society, Writing on April 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Does anyone think that the G is getting too trigger-happy shooting off warning letters into the blogosphere? I’ve lost track…

There’s the set that was sent to administrators of Facebook pages which contained comments on the 25-month jail sentence on the Chinese national who went berserk in Changi airport, carjacked a cab and killed a cleaner (contempt of court). Then there’s the Council for Private Education upset over some emails a blogger sent to the media (defamatory). Then a stiff clarification from the Singapore Land Authority to another blogger whom it said got his facts on the Pulau Ubin saga wrong (misleading readers).

Oh! The most recent: the Manpower ministry takes issue with a Yahoo news report on the SMRT bus drivers’ alleged grievances (failed to verify facts). And a filmmaker says she’s likely to hear something from the G on her video of those Chinese SMRT bus drivers (false allegations of police brutality).

The G and its agencies are really on a roll!

What is the message here?

Well, at least the G is responding to the blogosphere. (Hear me out, okay?) It’s better to be noticed than to be ignored although this is probably the kind of attention the online bloggers wouldn’t want…But, hey, it shows that there is some kind of official recognition that online commentators have some clout to sway opinions.

It also puts the online community on its toes; restrain your fingers before you shoot off your mouth. Engage mind before mouse. In the Pulau Ubin case, the point the blogger about not compensating the islanders for 20 years is way off the mark. They are tenants, not owners, and have actually been living rent-free. It’s a significant fact. And the SLA probably has a right to feel aggrieved. Of course, the retort could be that the G started the whole thing anyway with that silly clearance notice by the HDB which got everyone suspicious about its intentions.

The more important thing is to come to grips with why people are so angry over some things that they see red and see, yes, just half the picture. That 25-month jail sentence was astounding, for example, even though the judge made clear he took into account the Chinese national’s mental state. Didn’t anyone expect that there would be outrage? And if someone did, wouldn’t it better to make sure that judgment was clear and very, very full? Judges can’t be living in ivory towers. (Oops! Am I not even supposed to say that?)

Contempt of court is a concept that the layman finds difficult to grapple with. Does this mean it’s best not to criticise a sentence at all? When is criticism warranted and will not be construed as contempt? Maybe you can criticise the sentence, but not the judge?

Thing is, should everyone online know everything about what is “on” and what is “not on”? I suppose if people want to take on the role of journalists, they should strive for the same standards as the professionals. Quite tough, when even journalists can get it wrong. Top pointers would be: Get your facts right, verify allegations and get the other side of the story. Oh! And get a good tutorial on libel laws and contempt of court. You might want to add the Official Secrets Act as well.

Although the G is responding to the blogosphere, it seems to be responding only when things don’t go its way. It’s a negative reaction, hardly the engagement that most people would desire. Would the agencies, for example, respond to requests from the blogosphere for more information or clarification? Or would this be too much trouble? Would they enlarge their engagement to more than just members of MSM so more people have a clear view of what’s happening… especially since some people don’t read MSM and rely on Facebook feeds for their news diet!

So what’s next?

The blogger who faces the wrath of the Council for Private Education (CPE) is arguing that the CPE is really a public agency (it’s a statutory board), and so has no locus standi to sue for defamation. It’s seems more a case of who can sue than whether the statements were defamatory. Interesting.

The Real Singapore is gearing up for a showdown. It has refused to apologise for the comments on its FB page regarding the court case and has instead raised questions about who should really be responsible for comments on open Facebook pages.

Good question.

Do administrators have to watch and monitor every single comment? If so, better NOT to have Facebook pages and invite NO comments because one oversight and it’s over for you…I suppose the G’s online watchdogs will say that they will exercise discretion – maybe 100 horrid comments and you’re done for. Or if they are satisfied that there have been “some’’ attempt at moderation, they will turn a blind eye.

Big problem when you don’t know where the line is. Then again, we might not want a line drawn to constrict the independence of the blogosphere…

We live in interesting times indeed.

This article first appeared on

More in

In News Reports on April 19, 2013 at 3:20 am

Dear Bertha Harian reader,

I put up Parts 2 and 3 on the Pulau Ubin saga because the first part was first posted here. The next two parts were actually first posted on the Breakfast Network site. (Yep, been having some difficulty figuring out what goes here and what goes there!)

Anyway, if you are only reading this blog and not the site, then you might want to go over there and aaahhh…catch up? Better still, there’s a free email newsletter you can subscribe to when you get there. – this is one of my favorites….On the teaching of Singlish. – this is on the Boston blasts…



Unsettled over re-settlement Part 3

In News Reports, Politics on April 19, 2013 at 3:13 am

Now we know exactly who is eyeing that 4-hectare piece of land in Pasir Ris that residents are hankering to preserve. It is for the Overseas Family School, which will have to move from its Paterson Road premises by 2015. For nine months, the G has been locking horns with residents who want to preserve the forested area. Over that time, the management of the school must be anxiously looking at the fracas because it will mean so little time for construction. As for an alternative site, it appears that there are very few places that can house a school with more than 3,000 students.

This is an interesting case because as one property expert was reported saying in Today, it was “a little unusual for the Government to put off the development of a land parcel if there is a real need for a new development”. If the residents got their way, then will a precedent be set? One can imagine developers and other investors shaking their heads over the G’s change of heart – all because of some tree huggers and bird watchers! He said: “If word gets out that the authorities will delay (the development of a plot of land) just because of some special interest groups, where does this leave us?”

Hmm. It will leave us with a reminder that there is a democratic process in Singapore and that the people who live here want a say in what happens to their surroundings. TODAY had an interesting commentary which tries to explain this angst we have about our neighbourhood, especially areas we think are worth preserving as part of our heritage. This has surfaced most recently over the fate of Pulau Ubin and its residents.

Said the commentary: “The fate of the island is held in suspension, contingent on the country’s housing needs, and this uncertainty has a long-term profound impact on Singaporeans’ sense of belonging and psyche.

“The lesson here is not that spaces must be sacrificed for the country’s housing needs but that spaces, regardless of natural or heritage worth, are transient in Singapore and it is better not to get too attached to them.’’

The island has been held in bureaucratic limbo over the years and while exhortations that it will be kept “rustic’’ have been made, they just do not go far enough as a stamp of permanence.

“One cannot expect citizens to sink roots into the land or be called to defend it without expecting them to be angry, even confrontational, when spaces like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Brown are vulnerable,’’ the commentary said.

“It is thus important for civil servants and civil society activists alike to understand that the bridges of communication must always be kept open in order for dialogue to take place. Without this dialogue, both parties will become more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise.’’

Nobody has a monopoly over the definition of the national interest. The old norm that economic development must over-ride all other considerations is increasingly being questioned now that the country has passed the survival stage. Questions of identity and belonging loom large.

The Bukit Brown, Pulau Ubin and Pasir Ris examples makes official decision-making “messier’’ for sure, and will make bureaucrats pause the next time they see a “development’’ opportunity in a piece of green space. The stakeholders, that is, the people who live here, want to have a say. Both sides will have to talk it out and decide together what would be in their best interest.

In the case of the Pasir Ris greenbelt, one side might have to give way or some compromise be sought.

The greenbelt lobby is digging in its heels. Said a spokesman: “We have also made it categorically clear that there are no justifiable grounds for the authorities to clear the Pasir Ris greenbelt at all for whatever reason, whether it is to build an international school or for that matter any other urban development like private condominiums, which are sheer commercial profit-driven enterprises.”

How to talk like that?

Unsettled over re-settlement Part 2

In News Reports, Politics on April 19, 2013 at 3:12 am

The word “sorry’’ has appeared. Such an easy thing to say in the light of the distress a bungled notice to Pulau Ubin residents caused. The 22 residents served a HDB “clearance’’ notice should rest easier, and so too those who think that Pulau Ubin is going to be Disneyland and are taking up cudgels to defend this last bastion of kampong-ism.

The Singapore Land Authority has decided to come out in the open today to sort out the confusion. Going by what it says, it seemed like a small matter of trying to stick to rules – but it was botched by bad bureaucracy.

Small matter you say?

Seems like the HDB botched it up first by sending a notice with an unfortunate header: “Clearance scheme: Clearance of structures previously acquired for development of Adventure Park on Pulau Ubin”.

From what SLA let fall earlier today, the header is a throwback to a 1993 land acquisition exercise by the State. It wanted the land back from landowners to build what it had then planned for – an Adventure park. So landlords gave the land, took the compensation and left. Trouble is, some of them had tenants who were paying them rent – and some of these tenants are still staying put in their kampungs on what is now State land. Some 22 of them.

As for that Adventure Park, it was never really built – at least not on the scale of popular imagination. Over the next 20 years, the Outward Bound School (maybe this is the Adventure Park?) , bicycle tracks and other recreational spots sprouted up. This “development’’ has been completed and nothing else is going to happen on Ubin apparently.

So those 22 tenants can stay on – or go if they want.

Seems like if the tenants stay, the G thinks they should be paying rent, of about $10 or so a month in the first year, and at most $200 a month in year six when the rents are supposed to be “market rates’’. Doesn’t sound too bad. As tenants, they would have been paying rent to the original landowners pre-1993.

If they go, they get a re-settlement package of about $10,000 or so and get help to secure a place on the mainland. The phrase “re-settlement benefits’’ is pretty unfortunate. It conjures up hundreds of thousands of dollars – which is why $10,000 look paltry. But really, it is more an ex-gratia payment – tenants aren’t entitled to re-settlement benefits, according to SLA. Again, why didn’t someone clarify things earlier?

As for that so-called Ubin Census, it seems that some people moved in after 1993 when it was already State land. They are not descendants of the earliest kampong folk, like the Chias. (link to picture spread) So the money must go to the right people, the SLA reckoned, or it would mean that some people are getting an un-deserved windfall.

The G is working pretty by the book it seems. That book, however, doesn’t seem to say anything about how to communicate with people. Or how G agencies should talk to each other…

Of course, anyone can choose to believe or not believe what the SLA said. Maybe it is backtracking in the face of dissent and the HDB was right in the first place about clearing the land. Or maybe it was a truly innocent lapse in communication. In a time of mistrust of G’s intentions, some people might be inclined to think the former. The proof will come when someone checks on those residents again in a few months.

For now, Pulau Ubin looks safe from the bulldozer.

Unsettled over re-settlement

In News Reports on April 13, 2013 at 10:52 am

I am getting all confused reading the Pulau Ubin reports. So the Singapore Land Authority doesn’t want to evict the residents; it just wants to give them some resettlement money – whether they stay or go and then start getting them to pay rent. By year six, the rents would be “market rates’’.

You can’t fault any of the residents for feeling unsettled. What would you think if you received a circular that states: “Clearance scheme: Clearance of structures previously acquired for development of Adventure Park on Pulau Ubin”. Seems clear to me.

Yet SLA sees no need to say sorry for throwing people into a state of panic. Never mind that. So how did this “clearance’’ notice come about? Get this…it’s some 20 year old legacy, how the G had then wanted to acquire land for a recreation park, 254ha of private land, according to the ST report, and residents affected were told they would get resettlement benefits whether they moved or not.

Now, if I get this right, some people moved out from private land to state land on the island, took that resettlement money and applied for Temporary Occupation Licence. Presumably they started paying rent. Yes? No? Or maybe they moved straight from island to mainland.
But some people didn’t move at all (maybe because their homes didn’t make way for “recreation’’), and didn’t apply for TOL. This means those people, 22 of them, are now really squatting on state land and should really be paying rent.

Somewhere along that 20-year period, somebody discovered the anomaly and now wants to correct this – in a ham-fisted manner.
So despite the SLA’s planning intention: “to keep Pulau Ubin in its rustic state for as long as possible as an outdoor playground for Singaporeans’’, some bureaucrat referred to some very old correspondence or meeting minutes and still thought an Adventure Park was going to be built.

Given the unsettled state of Ubin, it might be time for the SLA to tell all about Pulau Ubin, because people don’t quite trust what it says about preserving its “rustic nature’’. It is also very easy for laments to start about the destruction of the last kampong in Singapore. Look at how the MSM is going on about how people love their kampong homes and the online angst about supposed impending destruction… Also, it was reported that the resettlement money is $10,000! I wonder how those rents would be scaled over six years – would $10,000 cover that?

Perhaps the SLA should tell us more about its planning intentions and how these had changed since 1993. For good measure, it might want to say how many residents had moved to other parts of the island, or to the mainland. Perhaps, after its census in June?

The Malaysian polls: A grassroot look from across the Causeway

In Politics on April 5, 2013 at 2:10 am

So exciting, this Malaysian election! Wow! Apparently the opposition thinks it can come into power. That Anwar says his PR party will win more than half of the 222 parliament seats, like 10 seats more. Like between 120 and 125 seats. Can or not?

Anwar’s team now has 75 seats. Najib has 137. Already Najib don’t have two-thirds majority…Then Anwar’s side also got four constituencies. A bit like Aljunied, Hougang, Potong Pasir, Punggol East ? Err, no, no. Wrong. It’s four states in Malaysia, much bigger and more powerful than town councils.

Must sit down and calculate. Call bookie before numbers get too hot and then cannot place bets…

Wow! Imagine that Anwar as Prime Minister. Got thrown into jail and all that. Got accused of sodomy. Now got chance! Malaysian politics very exciting. In Singapore, someone like him better give up and leave the country. Can’t even have mistress here!

And that Najib actually say he will ensure peaceful transfer of power! Like so early give up hope…Real or not?
Don’t know whether the opposition will break down or not, about who is going to fight where. Maybe will have three, four-cornered fight…and then split the votes. Then Najib will laugh. But don’t hear much about such quarrels leh. In fact, those PAS people say all the seats already allocated. Everything so organised. In Singapore, so much drama in opposition about who is going to stand in one small by-election…

But maybe the opposition will break up after they win. You know, like how so many cross over to Najib’s side the last time. Actually Anwar’s side got five states but only left with four now. Should be like Singapore…politicians cannot anyhow change political party…or they lose their seat. Anwar now says he wants to move out of Penang and go to Perak to fight. That place almost went to his side the last time.
Wow! So exciting.

Actually Malaysians quite lucky. Najib got $444 million economic transformation plan, want to turn Malaysia into high-income place by 2020. Wow! That’s like $2m for every seat! And then all those civil servants in Petronas just got bonus somemore! So much money spread everywhere!
This Najib really quite something – change ISA, let foreign companies in, some bumi policies his father put in.. also he change…Don’t know if this make him more popular or make him look weak. Poor fellow.

But he maybe got to think about all those young people voting for the first time lah. Like three million of them, more than 20 per cent of people voting. Sure they go out and vote, even though not compulsory like in Singapore. Young people these days quite vocal. I hear the internet got buzz like bees.
Malaysia got elections commission some more. Wonder if they look at boundary changes or not? Or just make sure that no funny business with who is on the voting list. Apparently, can anyhow add dead people’s names the last time…Never heard of such a thing! So much hanky panky! Now not much chance also to do anything funny with the voting paper – the ink cannot come out type. Don’t know whether same ink use in Singapore or not. Should ask that new fellow now running Singapore elections after Ah Yam left.

Aiyah! We in Singapore just relax and watch lah. Maybe PAP and Opposition can learn something from the Malaysians. But maybe we small people don’t go buy property in Iskandar yet. Our business people also better be steady and watch properly. Anwar’s side said they want to take over Johor. Don’t know if anything will change if they take over.

Aiyoh… Hope everything Singapore already settled with Malaysia won’t get changed because of the election, you know, railway land lah, the joint development in town lah. Hope everything in concrete. That high-speed train from here to KL had better come true. Wait kena delay because got change in government and someone wants to re-calculate everything…
My stupid bookie not picking up phone. Must be busy.