berthahenson

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Expressedly depressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will backfire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is depressing.

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

Advertisements

An unlicensed conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard to work for your money

In News Reports on May 21, 2013 at 3:22 am

IT is all about the workplace today in the news although the piece which will garner the most attention isn’t something that anyone could have planned for. It concerns the video that went viral showing an employer slapping around an intern. Now more has emerged on what happened, due mainly to some intrepid reporting by Chinese afternoon daily, Shin Min. It actually carried a photograph of the intern’s parents confronting his abuser.

Now all the different newspapers in MSM had bits and pieces of the story, some deciding to name (and shame?) and others staying away from too much detail. So, here’s the lowdown based on a reading of MSM. (Note that it includes both confirmed facts and material which MSM couldn’t nail down)

The victim is a 29 year old university undergraduate. He works long hours, from 9am to 11pm, according to his parents, who added that his pay is about $500 to $600 a month as an intern. He is their only son.

The workplace is Encore eServices with its office at Jurong East. The company was registered in April last year, and reportedly designs management software for private clinics. The abuser is only identified as a supervisor named Alan.

The person who uploaded the video is another intern, a 23 year old from Singapore Institute of Management, who started work at the company two days before the slapping incident. SIM terminated his internship with the company to “protect his interest’’.

We all know that the slapping took place, the question is why. And why did the intern meekly “turned the cheek’’, so to speak.
None of the papers managed to ferret out a reason. The videographer was quoted saying that Alan thought the intern had “an inferiority complex” and wanted to “nurture’’ him out of it. Sheesh. Unbelievable!

The intern didn’t want to report the incident to the police (he wouldn’t even admit that he was the victim to his parents initially) because he was concerned about his supervisor’s family and didn’t want the matter blown up. And he wouldn’t give a reason for the slapping either.
Alan wasn’t quoted at all, but he was reported to have apologised profusely to the intern’s parents who immediately got their son to resign.
Now, isn’t this fine drama?

A police report has been lodged. Which is a pity because it means that people can use the excuse of “we can’t comment as the matter is being investigated by police’’! (Unless Alan wants to go public and clear his name since his face is everywhere online.)

In any case, all manner of HR practitioners are giving their two cents worth on the incident, like how to stop office bullying etc. Of course, one quick way is to quit the job and go to the police. Then again, you’ll have to reckon with whether you can find employment elsewhere or, if you are an intern, whether you really, really need a good report to help your grades.

The G probably never reckoned that a case of workplace abuse would crop up the same time when it is campaigning for workplace safety! Last year, 56 people died on the job, a rate of 2.1 for every 100,000 workers. The rate has been coming down, but it’s still high compared to that in the United Kingdom (0.6) and Germany (0.7), according to PM Lee Hsien Loong . (Or maybe the comparison isn’t quite fair since it is likely that construction and shipping work is probably more intensive and extensive over here than over there.)

Still, 56 lives lost are 56 lives too many. PM Lee wants the rate brought down to 1.8 – before the target date of 2018. Going to be tough given that construction work isn’t about to scale down with Singapore’s plans to house more people and extend the infrastructure.

More interesting is the other workplace issue – discrimination in the workplace. So far, attention is on bosses who favour foreigners over Singaporeans. That forms half of the 303 complaints handled by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep). MOM Minister Tan Chuan Jin appears to have moved from an outright rejection of anti-discriminatory laws to a more conciliatory “not ruling it out’’, but it’s clear that he prefers moral suasion than wielding the stick.

The Sunday Times had a useful report on workplace discrimination which also listed how developed countries protect workers. Not all countries have labour laws that include anti-discrimination of all sorts – against sexual orientation, marital status and sexual harassment, for example. Some choose to give more power to government agencies such as Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission. It investigates cases, mediate disputes and helps complainants go to court if mediation fails. Others combat it through laws aimed at promoting human rights and equality, something which is sought by some NGOs here.

So what about Tafep? So far, it seems to be an advisory panel only, talking to employers if the panel has a complaint to resolve matters. Mr Tan said that errant employers have had to make public apologies and “had their work pass privileges curtailed’’. Now, the second bit has a bit more bite…Perhaps, a way out would be to vest Tafep with more powers to, well, hurt employers who keep on infringing guidelines.
That would be a compromise.

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

In the aftermath of the “solidarity” rally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry CAN be easy to say

In News Reports, Society on May 11, 2013 at 5:21 am

Apologies are in vogue leh! There’s one by the website New Nation to photographer Mohd Ishak over allegations that he doctored a photograph that was published in The New Paper and My Paper. Pretty stylishly done I must say, with lunch, dinner or teh tarik thrown in.
What’s interesting is the acknowledgement that the New Nation actually has a difficult motto or agenda to live up to.

As Belmont Lay wrote: “New Nation should only be known for circulating half-truths knowingly and intentionally. The mistake, therefore, was to circulate half-truths that were not fully certified to be half-truths. This, ironically, has a deleterious effect on our credibility (or incredibility).”

Yep. It’s easier to tell a lie or to tell the truth but half-truths? Even the mainstream media has been known to pick up stuff from New Nation thinking half-truths were the full truth. Now, that’s pretty funny. But it’s not funny if the half-truth is totally false, and what’s worse, affects the integrity or reputation of someone else in the telling.
So good on the New Nation!

The other apology is by PAP MP Zainuddin Nordin who put up a Terry Goodkind quote on democracy and had some netizens all up in arms because the words “gang rape’’ were included. Actually, how the quote could have been misconstrued boggles the mind. It was clear to me that Goodkind was saying that democracy in its purest/basest form could lead to mob rule. Yet some words were taken out of context, attributed to the MP and there were demands that he clarify whether he was for or against gang rape! Sheesh. Frankly, some responses were way out of line.

I actually wondered why he felt the need to apologise for “the unintended offence which the posting caused’’. If people deliberately choose to be obtuse and read all sorts of things into what’s been said, what can one do?
I suppose the heat got to him especially after he supposedly sent a letter of demand to another Facebook poster who circulated a meme about him. Now the interesting thing is this: ST indicated that he sent the letter of demand but TODAY told a different story. He prevaricated when asked about this. Go read TODAY. So it’s not clear if he was the one who sent the letter or someone else his name. Odd.

Mr Zainuddin’s mistake was in not engaging those who asked for clarification. Surely that would have been the right thing to do instead of merely taking down the post and hope that everything goes away? And if he did send the letter of demand to cease and desist, well, that’s a silly thing to do.

Politicians who want to get on social media must expect to engage people, both those for and against them. And they must realise that sharing quotes from luminaries can be read in many ways. Why this quote or that quote from X, Y or Z? Just because it sounds good? Pithy? Resonates with your line of thinking? Several posters do this, but a politician must realise that they are not ordinary Facebook posters. Why did you post this quote at this time? Is there some deeper message you want to send across? Is this with reference to something happening at this time?
Anyway, looks like all of us who use social media have a lot to learn. May we demonstrate that civil society can be civil after all.

Malaysian polls: A red card for the race card

In News Reports on May 8, 2013 at 2:37 am

Here’s out and out race-based politics: What more do the Chinese want? That’s what UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia screamed out yesterday. They were probably taking the line set by Prime Minister Najib who said that a Chinese tsunami had swept seats from BN to the opposition. He’s still sticking to the line although analysts have suggested that it might be an urban/rural divide or a digital divide. Racial polarisation? Or a class one?

Even if he was right, one wonders if it was prudent for a head of government to pick on a minority community. Does he believe he is merely uttering unwelcome truths which will not have serious consequences? Or should it be swept under the carpet or disguised in more pleasing words? Police are investigating the paper for sedition and have hauled up two bloggers. Don’t suppose they can haul up the Prime Minister too for starting the wave…

According to TODAY, Malaysians themselves are reacting strongly against Mr Najib’s use of a Chinese target and Utusan’s pronouncements. Good on them! Not that Mr Najib is helping anything by saying that the Chinese newspapers are similarly racist…

Nobody likes being singled out as a community, not even in Singapore where education results and drug statistics are still race based and the existence of the Group Representation Constituency is a reminder that people tend to vote for their “own kind”. (Recently, however, that reasoning has been put to the test with single-seat wards electing non-Chinese representatives, even if it was Michael Palmer. Sigh)

Many general elections ago, the late Ong Teng Cheong came up with a similar analysis for the People’s Action Party’s loss of votes: He said the Chinese-speaking heartlanders were unhappy. Singapore was strong enough to weather his words but perhaps this was because the Chinese are in the majority here. Now what if a leading politician here had accused the Malays of being a swing vote?

How should those on this side of the Causeway react to what’s happening next door? There’s plenty of discussion on the supposedly more unsavoury side of the Malaysian GE with allegations of vote-rigging flying. There’s plenty of sympathy as well for the opposition; a kind of rooting for the underdog attempting to overturn the political order. Although, really, having a BN government in place is probably much more in the interest of this country. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, you know?

What’s funny is that BN seems to think that anyone who doesn’t vote for BN is racist, even though the vote went to another Malay. The Democratic Action Party which was the biggest winner in the GE is being demonised for playing the race card and luring Chinese votes to its side. Already, we’re hearing about how DAP is like a clone of the People’s Action Party here which is mighty ridiculous given the G’s heavy hand against those it thinks are stirring up racist sentiments.

With all that turmoil in Malaysia, let’s hope that the finger doesn’t get pointed to Singapore, that convenient whipping boy. No matter how much sympathy or fellow feeling for the opposition, it might be best to sit back and shut up before allegations of interference in Malaysia’s domestic politics start flying from up north. This little red dot needs a shield…

In the run-up to Singapore’s own GE due in 2016, it’s worth pondering whether race is still a card that can be played by political opportunists. There’s been little evidence of that since the days of Tang Liang Hong. Is it simmering below the surface though waiting for a firebrand to stoke the flames? Or have we matured enough as a society to start thinking as one nation? The ongoing discussion on what it means to be a Singaporean and who comprises the Singapore core bodes well for us, even though it is sometimes framed as an “us-versus-foreigners” issue.

What we can be thankful for: even if it lost the popular vote, the G here is not likely to make those sort of statements that Mr Najib has made. In fact, it is more likely to thump those who do.

This article first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg – where there plenty more things…

Crossed lines

In News Reports on May 8, 2013 at 2:24 am

Over the weekend, there were several pieces in ST that would be of interest to civil society. The first was a piece about when civil society activists would be perceived as moving into the political space. The other, more useful, piece is by a law don who talks about Singapore’s approach to contempt of court laws.

The first piece is pretty much old hat, drawing a great deal from a speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong to the Harvard Club (circa 1991) and an article by ex-Cabinet minister George Yeo (circa 1999). Law Minister K Shanmugam was interviewed for the piece and Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong gave a statement.

Nothing very new at all from them except that a new term has crept in: partisan politics. Said Mr Wong in the ST article: “NGOs should not be used as a cloak for partisan political objectives. Similarly while individuals in NGOs are free to express their views, they should not use their organisations to pursue a party political agenda.”

It’s like what Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said a week earlier regarding the Nizam saga. The accusation was that Mr Nizam Ismail formerly of the Association of Muslim Professionals pushed for “race-based” politics (although it would be clear to anyone that the AMP is a “race-based’’ organisation). Going by what Mr Nizam said, he wanted Malay issues discussed across race lines instead of just community lines. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Then again, the G said his call echoed a failed proposal made a long time ago for a collective leadership in the community, which might well rival that of elected Malay MPs. And that, the G said, is bad.

G funding, Dr Yaacob said, should not be used for “the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”

Ministers must have some kind of template…

What is partisan? According to the Oxford dictionary, it’s about strong support for a party, person or cause, especially in politics. So it isn’t about whether you are an outright fan or card-carrying member of this or that party, but also whether you support some political cause (which might not even be championed by any party).

Anyway, how do we count the ways?

The rights of foreign maids and foreign workers – political parties won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole because they won’t look patriotic. Abolition of Section 337A – another hot potato best fought between the evangelical right and the gay community. Independence of the judiciary – too dangerous because it is protected by the law. What about a group lobbying for minimum wage legislation – a favorite of opposition parties. If an NGO has a similar cause, would that be considered even more partisan because it is similar to a party’s platform?

The other phrase is “for political ends/purposes”. That’s the accusation the Home Affairs and Manpower ministry have levelled at NGOs who have been pressing the issue of alleged police brutality against the Chinese SMRT bus drivers. The NGOs, the ministries said, were exploiting vulnerable foreign workers to make their case about suppression of labour rights in Singapore. It’s a very big statement, which led to a retort from the groups which insisted that what they wanted was clarification of police processes.

Said Maruah, a human rights group: “We are troubled that the government sees the involvement of civil society in pushing for greater transparency as casting aspersions on the integrity of the police and “working for their own political ends.”

What’s the political “end’’ here? Getting the G to fess up that there are few labour rights here so that it will be kicked out at the next GE? Laying the groundwork so that NGO members can get elected on an independent platform at the next GE? Would such groups have to form a political party and make it a truly partisan party political cause – and fight in the political arena? Now, was anyone waiting for something like this to be said by the G? (It used to be uttered like a reflex action…) Well, it hasn’t done so…

Anyway, if the G did say something like this, it means that every NGO which has a cause that will have it butting heads with the G would have to form a political party. Like nature/heritage societies? Save Bukit Brown, green spaces, the birds etc… Butting heads with Singapore Land Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority and the like. Haven’t heard that members should form some kind of Green Party…

But, as the ST report points out, perhaps a lot depends on who is the one doing the speaking and lobbying. So it is okay for a Tommy Koh or a Ngiam Tong Dow to utter a completely contrarian view but not some nobody (never mind the quality of the view). Even Catherine Lim wasn’t let off in the past, although in recent time, her writings have not raised the same kind of ruckus. She seems to have been deemed “acceptable’’. Or has she earned her spurs in some way. Or the G has realised that there are too many Catherine Lims out there to discipline.

How should the twain meet? Actually it all boils down to the evidence, the facts. Statements made must be backed by proof, and not bare assertions – which both sides are sometimes guilty of.

After denying political pressure initially, the G came clean (almost) on exerting pressure on AMP to get Mr Nizam to resign, even implying that funds were hanging in the balance. Likewise, the NGOs should reply to charges of “hindering’’ police processes, in the SMRT case. Sometimes, there is no proof, you know, when something smells fishy? Then the civil way is to ask questions than make accusations – but answers must also be forthcoming.

As for G funding, all NGOs, including arts groups, which get any should take note. There’s now a new OB marker that has been thrown into the works. If you take G money, you can’t do things that the G doesn’t want you to do. There’s some justification for that. You take money because you’ve convinced someone about your cause – so you shouldn’t deviate from that or it will be like biting the hand that feeds you. Of course, you can be far more circumspect about taking the money and specify that it is only for this or that programme and not tantamount to a total gag order or a pair of handcuffs. And get it down in black and white.

Frankly, what would happened if the AMP declined to pressure Mr Nizam to quit? Would the G really have pulled funding from AMP and leave hapless Malay/Muslim families depending on AMP’s work in the lurch? It didn’t come to that but it would have been interesting to see the result of such a confrontation. The bet is, the G would lose. Evidently, it never envisaged the AMP not doing as asked.

Then there is this business of whether you can really speak for yourself or would be seen as speaking for an organisation. Mr Shanmugam said it depended on popular perception. So never mind if Mr Nizam swore with hand on heart that he is speaking in his personal capacity, it will be perceived as a view of the AMP. It’s not unlike the position of The Straits Times. It can swear all it wants about being independent, but everyone still thinks it’s a G mouthpiece anyway. The thing is, going by what Mr Shanmugam said, plenty of backbenchers should get out of NGOs and such. Does anyone doubt that they are involved or invited into NGOs because they are representatives of the ruling party? When they speak, it is with the party behind them – never mind if they too swear with hand on heart that they are speaking for themselves. There will be exceptions, of course, for MPs who were already active in NGOs and VWOs before they entered politics. They’ve earned the spurs to speak as independent minds.

As for the second piece on contempt of court, what was interesting is how the onus is actually placed on the state to prove that supposedly offensive remarks were not “fair criticism’’ and would actually lead to the judiciary to be regarded with contempt. Go read it.

The Law ministry is apparently looking at codifying the law on contempt and the writer, law don David Tan, noted that a court of appeal had actually suggested that Parliament consider legislative changes to allow for defences to scandalising contempt. Perhaps, that is what the Law ministry is up to. It had better get a move on.

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

Town councils: People vs Politicos

In News Reports on May 7, 2013 at 7:06 am

Looks like the people and the politicos are at odds when it comes to the “fundamental nature’’ of town councils, going by a poll in ST published today. Most of the 50 people polled wanted town councils to be “apolitical’’, harkening back to the old days when the Housing Board and National Development Ministry ruled the roost with MPs conducting meet-the-people sessions in their wards. The politicos, however, didn’t think such a turnaround was needed and suggested that maybe more oversight of town councils’ activities can do the trick.

If the poll is correct, it seems that the people had never quite imbibed the notion of town councils as political entities in the first place. It was intended for MPs to show their mettle, so to speak, by demonstrating their ability to run housing estates. MPs must show that they are not just talk (in Parliament), but action (on the ground) as well. Of course, those with long memories will recall that it had looked like a way to warn residents that electing opposition politicians might lead to dirty corridors and rubbish piled up in the chutes…

That didn’t happen.

Remember in those days how there was so much discussion about how town councils will be akin to “local governments’’ with representatives elected from residents who live there? There was all this expectation that residents themselves will have control over their neighbourhoods. Doubt that this is happening anywhere. Do you know your town councillors? In fact, do residents even scrutinise town council annual reports and act as the real overseers of their estate?

Instead, town councils have succeeded in becoming so partisan that political party members are employed in town councils or as their managing agents, whether in the People’s Action Party or opposition side. In fact, it is so partisan that the PAP actually started a company to serve their IT needs!

You know what? Residents don’t care who looks after them, so long as the rubbish is collected and void deck is clean. It might be the HDB, the town council or a private company from outer space doing the cleaning and residents wouldn’t bat an eyelid so long as things run smoothly. It is when things don’t or some aberration is brought to their attention, that people sit up and look at what’s happening.

That’s when they will find out (or not) the number of relatives, friends, party members or partisan companies employed by town councils for no other reason than political affiliation. Then again, so what if the void deck is clean and the rubbish is cleared and the S&C charges aren’t unreasonable?

It’s a little disappointing that people don’t look beyond their immediate comfort zone.

The town council “experiment’’ has actually not been too bad from the residents’ point of view. MPs are kept on their toes because residents know where to go to when they want to complain about bad estate upkeep. The MP is also, ah, a cleaning and maintenance contractor… Plus, residents can always threaten with the vote: Raise my service and conservancy fee and I’ll kick you out! Maybe it’s a good thing that residents aren’t so political. Imagine a whole housing estate lobbying for lowered fees… town councils will be ham-strung no end…

Back to the apolitical/political nature of town councils. For the best analysis, read the piece by Eugene Tan in today’s edition of TODAY.In the wake of the ministry’s review of the AIM saga in which a PAP owned company was providing services to PAP-run town councils, the key question really revolves on the oversight role the State should play in ensuring that residents get essential services despite changes in political “ownership’’.

The ministry has recommended another “strategic’’ review which all and sundry hopes will be non-partisan and inclusive. MND Minister Khaw Boon Wan will be making a statement in Parliament on Monday and the Workers’ Party, the one which raised the issue, has applied for an adjournment motion so that more time can be spent discussing the town council issue.

Perhaps, someone will do something about the role of HDB residents themselves in ensuring town councils are politically accountable to them. So many suggestions and tweaks have been suggested – centralise this, decentralise that, allow this and disallow that… But nothing has been said about the rights and responsibilities of residents whom the town councils serve.

Coming Home

In News Reports on May 6, 2013 at 2:29 am

When you’ve been away for three days and you’ve deliberately switched off on the news from Singapore, what do your eyes automatically turn to when you are confronted with a load of old newspapers?
This morning, I scanned through the weekend’s news and came up with the following responses:
a. Alamak, another cyclist died! Third one! Changi!
b. A third backside burnt by acid? Who the hell is this fella who’s been dumping stuff on MRT seats? And how come the G still doesn’t know what that liquid is?
c. Waaah…these two valets! Stupid to go take the Ferrari for a drive…Such an expensive car, sure got safety features.
d. Who is this designer who crashed his car into Geylang shophouse? And how come the media never identified the type of car? Can’t see from the photo, just that it’s dark blue.
Odd that it wasn’t the Malaysian elections which took my attention, it was what was happening to people here. On any other day, I would have been devouring news of the Malaysian GE – so nail-biting, so exciting, with washable indelible ink, allegations of foreigners awarded citizenships to vote, suspicious packages etc.
(Random thought: So the opposition is making inroads into neighbouring Johor – now what would happen to Iskandar then with its billions of Singapore investments? We’ll have to start making friends with the Democratic Action Party fellows – and risked being black-balled by the Barisan National types? Tricky.)
Also, I would be wondering what I should say about the AIM saga. Imagine so many months and the MND comes up with – everything’s clean and above-board BUT another review needed!
(Random thought: I guess its directive to review the “fundamental nature’’ of town councils didn’t include what it now calls a “strategic review’’ needed. Probably good, as such a review – about a possibly “non-political’’ town council – should be more inclusive than an MND one with only officials involved reporting to a minister who belongs to the ruling party.)
There are other big pieces that I should spend some time thinking over, like ST’s pieces on the line between civil and political space and a law don’s view on contempt of court in Singapore. But too taxing! Later!
Back to the people stories!
Of course, you must read The New Paper for such people stories and I go…
a. Sheeesh, I almost forgot about dengue. It’s on TNP’s Saturday front page on people who refuse to open their doors for mozzie inspections. Already, 5,300 cases or epidemic-like proportions and people won’t open their doors! Break in and enter dey! Who are these Yishun residents!
b. Now, why didn’t I think of joining the gold rush? What, like $51 a gram? Goldsmiths running out of stock liao!
When you come home from abroad, it’s the little things that matter to you, I suppose. Your safety, your neighbourhood, people you know…I suppose when I get old(er) I will start scanning the obituary pages to find out which of my contemporaries had died while I was away.
They tell me I’m home. And I’ve only been away three days.
Now I wish the media had said something about the weather. Is it still as upside down as ever?

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

Hong Lim Park event no. 2 – The protest

In News Reports on May 2, 2013 at 1:47 am

The red balloons were replaced by placards emblazoned with angry slogans. Young smiling faces were replaced by older ones, sterner-looking. No cupcakes were given out but tee-shirts were sold as well as hard-to-find books by political dissidents and such like.

It was a sea change in mood, from a carefree picnic in the morning to a carefully orchestrated protest in the evening. Organisers of the alternative May Day rally put the crowd figure at 5,000 to 6,000, more than their first protest in February which they said numbered about 4,000.

But it seemed less than that, with the crowd thinning as the evening wore on.

From 4pm, speaker after speaker took to the microphone, including an assortment of “lay’’ people as they were described – a single mother of an eight-year old, a stay-at-home mom, a 66 year old retiree, a 35 year old graduate who is a cab driver.

They were there to say no to the 6.9 million population figure, a repeat of February’s theme. Each “lay’’ person had a personal story to tell, stories full of anger and angst. About bringing up children single-handedly, about not being able to find a job despite a degree (the young cab driver by the way served in the army for 10 years before he got out into the private sector and couldn’t find employment), about discrimination against older women who want to rejoin the workforce.

Here is anger: “I challenge the minister to a debate on television about the CPF!’’ said a 66 year old self-employed man upset at CPF rules which do not allow full withdrawal at age 55. His “hati panas already’’,  he declared.

Here is angst: “Why are the smiles on the faces of foreigners here bigger than mine? When can I put the smile back on my face?’’ was how a single mother concluded her speech which were peppered with anecdotes about single mothers not being eligible for baby bonuses or a HDB rental flat.

Several times, speakers reiterated that they were not being xenophobic. It was like a mantra. They were just against the G’s policy on the use of foreign workers which were squeezing locals out of a job.

The crowd paid rapt attention, breaking out into shouts and applause. Every time the G was “whacked’’, they cheered. A heartland crowd it was, who lapped up the speeches made in dialects. One grandmother who spoke actually sang a few lines in Teochew, much to the merriment of the crowd. What was missing was a full Malay speech. Mr Nizam Ismail, formerly of the Association of Muslim Professionals, had pulled out at the last minute. As for Tamil, lawyer M Ravi obliged with a speech hich few understood but most appreciated going by the sustained applause he received.

Meanwhile, people with placards walked round.

“Singapore needs public transport, not world class transport’’

“It’s dangerous to be right when the Government is wrong.’’

“What do you call the natives of this wealthy island? Singapooreans.’’

There were less polite ones as well.

At another corner, a 20m long white cloth had been laid out for people to pen their feelings about the 6.9million.

The better-known speakers had more to say about policy.

Financial consultant Leong Sze Hian pointed out what he saw as contradictions in G statistics, especially on employment figures. Why weren’t they broken down further to make clear the number of both employed citizens and PRs? And what about a proper breakdown of the cost of building HDB flats?

Organiser Gilbert Goh, who counsels the unemployed, wants a quota set for employment pass holders, like for S passes and work permits. He maintained that he knew of companies with 100 per cent foreign workers 

Lawyer M Ravi referred to recent warnings to bloggers as an example of civil society being “under threat’’. There is no freedom of speech nor of assembly. There is no parliamentary ombudsman nor  a human rights commission. He told the crowd to give the G a “red card’’ at the next election.

Former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say, the last speaker, was more explicit. The Population White Paper, he alleged, was a PAP plot to tighten its grip on Singapore by adding new citizens to swell the pro-PAP voting ranks.

He called for the People’s Action Party to be booted out at the next general election, maintaining that the opposition was ready to form the next Government or at least, more ready than the PAP itself was in 1959 when it took power. He rattled off some figures: nine opposition figures who held senior positions in G agencies, seven PhD holders. There were about 25 to 30 people in the opposition ranks, he said, ready to take over – as a coalition Government.

“You can only change policy, in the political way,’’ he said during a press conference later. As for the formation of a coalition government, he wouldn’t be too pessimistic about the willingness of political parties to collaborate, he said responding to a question.

When organiser Mr Goh pledged that the May Day protest would be an annual event, members of the public pressed for more such protests. What about National Day, someone asked? It was the grandmother, a member of Function 8, who replied. She thought it was a good idea.

Looks like Hong Lim Park is coming alive.

The G is probably regretting designating Speakers’ Corner a free speech space.

Pse go to www.breakfastnetwork.sg for report on event No. 1 and plenty plenty pix of both.