berthahenson

Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

A letter to the PM

In News Reports on August 19, 2013 at 2:48 am

Dear Prime Minister,

I thought your speech was brilliant! You steered clear of babies, parenthood and foreigners. You didn’t turn the rally into an economic report card. You didn’t hector those who don’t agree with the G’s policies.

Thank you for focusing on us, the people.

You know, this is the first time I have heard any politician use the term “faith” so many times. We’re so used to hearing politicians droll on about costs and benefits, pluses and minuses. On how we should be pragmatic and to calculate every step we make. Oh, and you didn’t use boring charts either. (Many of us like looking at housing prices…)

Okay, you did tell us to do a reality check. That the way forward that you are proposing is fraught with “risk”. I don’t recall the word being used in the way you used it. Usually, the G doesn’t advocate “risk”, preferring a “stable” path – yet here, you are raising the possibility that we might fluff everything and become a country bankrupted by health spending, and with too many unemployed graduates.

Yes, “strategic shifts” (oooh, not to the left..!) do come with risk but I think the people are willing to take the risk, since you are basing quite a bit of your “shifts’’ on the results of the Our Singapore Conversation. Brilliant! So many such conversations in the past seem to have been consigned to someone’s bottom drawer. This time, what we have said as a people seems to have been heard.

Not everyone is going to be persuaded that the G has the people’s interest at heart. You know… The usual grumble… That this is just another way to perpetuate the power of the People’s Action Party. Sir, you quoted the late Mr S Rajaratnam that democracy is made up of deeds, not words. So go right ahead and do the deeds that will make us a “just and equal” society.

You stuck close to the OSC report and announced changes in education, housing and healthcare. That I suppose, dealt with two aspirations in the report: the need to have social mobility and the assurance that we can all live good lives here without fear of going without basics such as shelter or medical care.

PM Lee speaks about how some of his residents have built a better lives for themselves and their children - to the loud applause from the audience (Photo by Shawn Danker)

PM Lee speaks about how some of his residents have built a better lives for themselves and their children – to the loud applause from the audience (Photo by Shawn Danker)

I’m someone who, like you, never knew my PSLE results and will never understand parents who move house four times to get their children into choice schools or who stopped work for a year to prep their child for the PSLE. My parents left me very much alone study-wise. But I have watched with great worry the perpetuation of an elite class, with privilege passed down to their children, and their children’s children – whether deserving or not. I have watched top/good schools close in on themselves, with their students thinking themselves a world apart from their “lesser brethren’’.

Perhaps, now, the children on one-, two-room flats can get into good primary schools instead of via parents’ connections. (What is 40 places per school by the way? What proportion of the school cohort? Because you can be sure that people will say this is too few.)

You are right that we must still pursue excellence because equalising everything – which may seem “fair’’ – will simply mean dumbing down to mediocre levels.

I stand by the Singapore principle of meritocracy – and I like the term  “a compassionate meritocracy” a lot. The idea of the better-off taking care of the less well-off, to my mind, hasn’t quite taken off here. Giving money is easy especially if the act of kindness comes with tax deductions. Giving time and energy is tougher.

Yet, you can judge by the applause of the audience how they appreciated Singaporeans who fight a good fight, whether it be the blind scientist or the wheelchair-bound basketball players. They epitomise resilience. Maybe we clap for them because there are so few of them…

Sir, you announced changes to housing and promised that a HDB flat will be within reach of every family. But zero cash outlay for a Build-to-Order flat? So much subsidy to own a home which will then be sold off for a profit? And then to buy another subsidised flat to be sold for another sizeable sum? Perhaps, this shows that people think property prices will always go up and have “faith that Singapore will still be here and worth investing in”, as you put it. The other way is to say: Rent first, if you cannot afford to buy. Work for it.

You can bet the middle class will not be too happy that they are left out of the housing equation. Who is paying to achieve this ideal of full home ownership, including for people who might not have worked for it? It does seem to go against the grain of the no free lunch mentality that has been drummed into us. Or is that out of the window now?

But your anecdote about the mother who wants the price of her flat to go up for herself but to go down for her children’s sake was an apt example of the contradictions that we face in this society. If, as you said, the OSC has made people aware of differing views and the need to reconcile and respect them, then we’re in a pretty good position. Too often, we seem to think only about our desires and concerns and do not worry that fulfilling them might mean depriving others who have different desires and concerns.

Yup, we want it all!

The healthcare part is what both heartens and concerns me most, maybe because I am getting old. No one except the most callous of heart can object to the principle that we owe it to the pioneer generation to look after their needs. But universal coverage and other expansion of schemes again give rise to this question of who will pay. More Medisave will have to set aside and MediShield premiums will have to go up, as you said. When you do so, expect a mighty uproar – because the heart might be willing but the flesh is weak. Let us hope that the consultative process the G will hold will be hard-headed as well as soft-hearted.

It was interesting that you did not talk about trust or rather, the trust deficit, between the people and the G, something that was in the OSC report. I don’t know what to make of this. You’ll have to address the contentious stuff sooner or later, like the foreigner issue. The politically alienated citizens will tear apart your repeated statement to “get the politics” right. Your suggestion of a Youth Corps is bound to provoke comments of G attempting to mould young citizens and reshape their minds.

Perhaps, the issue of trust was implicit in your whole rally speech: Trust us, we are listening to you and we will see what we can do. Maybe you will let us help you out too.

In fact, you are already building the infrastructure for the future, using Changi Airport as an identifying symbol very much like the Americans have their Statue of Liberty. We will have five terminals?? Boggles the mind.

You described them as “acts of faith in Singapore and ourselves.” “Faith that Singapore will still be here and worth investing in. Faith that we have the drive and can hold off the competition,” you said.

You are asking us to take a leap of faith with you. Speaking for myself, and myself only, I will do so. Thank you for offering us hope and more clarity on the way forward.

Sincerely,

Bertha 

I am in Singapore

In Politics, Society on August 17, 2013 at 5:06 am

It’s tough trying to think when you are sitting in a coffeeshop on a Saturday morning with shouts of kopi siu tai and kopi pua sio flying over your head. (Why on earth would anyone drink lukewarm black coffee?)

So I gave up thinking. If you really want to know, I was thinking about what to write for pre-National Day Rally. I took to people-watching instead.

There were two gruff-looking men sitting on the next table. Polo tee-shirts that had seen better days, shorts and dark gold/gold coloured watches on the wrist. They seemed to be arguing over nonya bakchang. In Hokkien. (Rice dumpling season over, right? They should be talking about mooncakes…).

An elderly couple and someone who looks to be their daughter were talking about someone else who bought three units…of something. (In Hainanese lah…which I don’t quite understand). What is clear that they were taking the piss out of that buyer of three units of something…Smirks, grimaces and one “ptui’’ on the coffeeshop floor.

A young mother and two daughters were tucking into what looked like a very big breakfast. Individual plates of mixed
vegetable rice, from the “economy’’ stall. (Only 10 am and lunching already?) They were too far away for me to eavesdrop but the mother was clearly upset with the older daughter who can’t be more than 12. A lot of fork-pointing on the mother’s part. (About school work?)

Milo peng! (Who would want to drink iced Milo in the morning? Something like that would wreak havoc on my tummy!)

The screamer was one of two brothers who ran the coffeeshop, always with a grin. He even offered to give me “credit’’ when once, I left my wallet at home. Pai seh, I told him. Ten cents interest, he said. Okay, I replied. I can afford to pay that grand total of $1 for the coffee I owed, a lot cheaper than Starbucks…

But the next time I returned to pay, he had forgotten all about it. He took the money
anyway…Typical Singaporean, I thought.

Yes, this is Singapore. And Saturday is the best day to watch the people who make up the core of the country. That’s when the working crowd comes out to do their marketing. The men, usually with a newspaper stuck under armpit. The
women, pushing trolleys filled with plastic bags of vegetables and meat. (Do they recycle, I wonder)

Plenty of young couples as well. The scene has changed somewhat from 10 years ago. Young men also throng the stalls, foreign maids have picked up the buying and selling patois and you can tell the new residents who have moved in from the old-timers.

Earlier on at the wet market, I watched bemusedly as an Indian couple found themselves elbowed by middle-aged housewives at the vegetable stall. The trick is to wave those sticks of carrots you are holding in the stallholder’s face, I wanted to say. But then, I was in the queue, or something close to a queue, too.

The stallholder, a woman has run it for more than 10 years, weighed my basket of sayur bayam, Romaine lettuce (yes, wet market also got), siao pai cai, cucumbers, carrots, Chinese cabbage expertly and wrapped them in newspaper. “Serai, two,’’ I told her. One swift turn and the lemon grass was in the big red plastic bag. She also dumped some Chinese parsley, red chillies and chilli padi into the bag. No, I didn’t ask for them. Gratis.

That’s why I like shopping in wet markets. So Singaporean.

I had less luck at another stall when I asked for 20cents worth of tow gay. Nothing less than 30 cents, I was told in Mandarin. I paid up, muttering that I was only cooking for one…(Hah… I thought,no wonder your stall not crowded).

At the coffeeshop, people were content to rest and relax. Never mind that some seemed to have bought cooked food for home. (Goodness, cold already!) Everyone seemed to be enjoying a lazy Saturday. At one table was a three-generation Malay family. A father, his son and two little girls. (Been to Mecca already, I thought looking at the white haired older man who had a white skull cap on. Where’s the daughter-in-law, I wondered).

Two tudung-covered and very well made-up middle-aged women were tearing apart their roti prata at
another table. Next to them, a Chinese man did the same, while trying to read The New Paper.

This is Singapore. We don’t just celebrate different festivals in the same place. (Would our Muslims have made a fuss about Buddhists making use of their prayer room, I wonder). We eat together. Elbow to elbow. Cheek by jowl.

Across the coffeeshop are the small neighbourhood shops. They’ve “changed hands’’ over the years. From big unit to half a unit to…nothing. A provision shop I’ve patronised for years sold his place to one of those budget store chains a couple of months ago. But I still bump into the provision shop owners; they still live above their old shop.

The four bakeries have changed hands so many times, but they still serve up the same things, $1 sliced white bread, assortment of buns and butter cake. Ubiquitous fare. But they have been experimenting too. For $1.20, I get an egg-covered folded-over bread with tuna or chicken and lettuce on the inside. Enough for an eat-and-run breakfast.

Teh si…neng puay…There he goes again.

Two glass mugs appear…and go directly to a table where…. my neighbours sat. We nodded to each other in acknowledgement. Don’t know who they are but it’s so good to be among familiar faces.

So this is Singapore.

Not the Singapore of skyscrapers and gardens. Not of casinos and cosmopolitan-types. Real flesh-and-blood people in down-to-earth places doing everyday things.

And what about my pre-National Day Rally column? What can I add to the hints already dropped on what the Prime Minister will say tomorrow?

You know, I feel too at peace to really care…

I am in Singapore.

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

Just how did Dinesh die Part 3

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

Looks like the death of the 21-year old prison inmate raised enough eyebrows to lead to questions being raised in Parliament. Leave you to judge, however, whether you’re satisfied with the questions – and the replies.
So Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran gave a long spiel laying out the timeline between day of death and day of reckoning in court.

Year 2010
Sept 27 Dinesh dies. Home Affairs ministry notified. Police get cracking on case. Prisons start reviewing procedures.
Nov 4 Police gives preliminary findings to Coroner. (Not sure what happens to the Coroner’s side here except that no inquiry took place. Maybe Coroner already knew it was going to be a criminal case, so he sat and watched. Then when the criminal case was over, there was no need for it.)
In the meantime, police interviewed 130 people, most of them prison guards and inmates. Even flew to United Kingdom to find out about control and restraint procedures, which Singapore had copied.
Year 2012
Aug 17 Police hands over full findings to Attorney-General Chambers.
Year 2013
Feb 4 After looking over findings and asking more questions, AGC says, okay, prosecute.
March 1 Police tells Home Affairs ministry investigations all done. (Don’t really know why they waited till March when they could have told the ministry in August at the same time as they told AGC. Maybe police didn’t want to bother ministry until after the AGC gave the go-ahead or not.)
Minister says must convene Committee of Inquiry. Review prison processes. Recommendations, please. COI gets cracking.
June 4 Home Affairs ministry accepts findings and recommendations of COI.
July 19 Case in court. Prison supervisor pleads guilty to a charge of death by a negligent act. Sentenced to $10,000 fine.

So many months, 28 or so, of so much police and prison activity – and it was made public in one day in court. Then case closed.
Mr Iswaran said the Shane Todd case took 13 months with 60 over witnesses. Yishun triple murder, which had 68 witnesses, took four years to conviction. To make the point that it wasn’t such a long time. But, hey, it wasn’t like the police had to go and hunt down suspects or anything. The last time we heard, the prison was a pretty secure place.
Never mind how many months police took, you almost wish the charge was murder – so at least the prison supervisor would have to have to go through a trial and the public can hear more about what happened. That would, of course, be too much. There was surely no malice intended on the part of the prison guards to make them under such an ordeal. Right?
So just how did Dinesh die?
Mr Iswaran didn’t go into all the mechanics of how many people pinned Dinesh down when he started flailing at them or whether they threw water on his face after he was taken to solitary. But it seemed the eight or so prison guards did not “maintain constant communication’’ with Dinesh “as required by SOP, to monitor his overall condition’’.
(So he might well be dead before he was hauled into the solitary cell. No one knows. Or no one is telling.)
Mr Iswaran also said something interesting about “positional asphyxia’’. You know, Dinesh was supposed to have died because he couldn’t breathe after he was placed face/body down. Mr Iswaran said that the guards have been given “new protocols’’ in the wake of this death; they should control and restrain violent inmates in a “standing position’’ to “reduce the risk of positional asphyxia’’.
What does that mean? That the prison guards pinned him down to the ground too forcefully? Did they use “reasonable force in a controlled manner’’ as they have been taught to do?
The police investigators and those on the COI would probably know. After all, they would have had to examine the body. So what did the post-mortem report say?
According to ST, MPs such as WP’s Mr Singh later rose and pressed for more transparency, including making the COI findings public.
Mr Iswaran reportedly replied that the COI’s purpose was not to establish criminal guilt or liability. Rather, it was to audit the prison system and its processes, and identify additional measures to prevent a recurrence.
This is all really, really too odd.
What is the problem with making the COI findings public? Didn’t the Our Singapore Conversation make it clear that the people want more, not less, information? Is giving out more information going to destroy the trust level between the people and the G? Surely not. Or is the G sticking to its position that no one needs to know so much. That’s enough that we have “handled’’ it. Or worse, raising questions on the death of Dinesh is equivalent to banging drums (Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears)?
Mr Iswaran took pains to point out that the prison environment is a dangerous one. Last year, there were 61 cases of assault: 40 against fellow inmates and 21 against the guards. Over the past four years, the guards had to use control and techniques 331 times. No one has ever died or have been badly injured. Until now.
WP’s Mr Singh also asked if the coroner’s inquiry could be re-opened. But the minister said it was not unprecedented nor uncommon for one to be discontinued at the state coroner’s discretion after the accused had pleaded guilty. Lawyers acting for the inmate’s family also did not object to the inquiry being discontinued.
The thing is, this is a death in a public institution. It would be better to let it all hang out. The people who don’t believe the G’s story will still stick to their guns whatever the G says. But there are also people who want to hear more, because the case is simply baffling to the layman.
What of Dinesh’s next-of-kin? They, at least, are entitled to know what happened. Their MP Ang Wei Neng said Dinesh’s mother had complained to him that prisons officers did not give her the full story until the court case.
Presumably, she knows everything by now? The MSM reported the court case in such a confused and conflicting manner that those who were not in court would be hard put to piece the “full story’’ together. It seems that in Parliament, Workers’ Party’s Pritam Singh referred to the conflicting news reports which led to Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean interjecting to say that his point was not relevant. Speaker Halimah Yacob agreed. (This was also reported in Zaobao today.)
Mr Iswaran told the House that the G and the family are in discussions over the matter of compensation. The G “accepts liability’’, that is, it acknowledged that it was responsible for Dinesh’s death. The sum is apparently being negotiated. You know what people will say… That there will be strings attached, like some sort of gag order.
It will be good to know the final sum. Let’s hope the G response is not that this is a “private matter’’ or that “the family requested privacy’’. It is taxpayer’s money paying for G liability, which should over-ride any private interest. Also, something like this could set the benchmark for other cases (touch wood!) that pop up in the future.
Again, just how did Dinesh die?

This article first appeared on http://www.breaknetwork.sg
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Singapore’s mid-life crisis

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 12, 2013 at 2:57 am

I couldn’t help it when Goh Chok Tong said Singapore was facing a mid-life crisis.
Here goes…

Can you believe I’m actually 48?

Sheesh, not too long ago, I was scrabbling the dirt, trying to think about how to survive after I got kicked out of my old home. Now, I’m driving fast cars, drinking champagne at $1,000 per pop parties and flirting with exotic foreigners. I wear so much bling, I am weighed down. (That reminds me.. I should pay up my credit card bill..)

But, hey, I am welcomed everywhere. I am a brand name. I yell that I am SINGAPORE and the world falls to its feet…Okay, not literally.

How dare people say I am going through a mid-life crisis! I am at the prime of my life even though my old man, LKY, who is even older, thinks I might be heading downhill. Can you believe his book? All forlorn and pessimistic. He’s joined the rest of the country in the gloomy stakes. Hah! I’m still going at 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent a year. My neighbours can eat the smoke from my Ferrari. Oh…did I just beat a red light?

I break out in hot flushes (or is that only a female thing?) whenever I think about those people telling me to change. Look at all those complaints and suggestions disguised as “reflections’’ in that report! They’re telling me how to age gracefully! I am NOT old, just middle-aged. In fact, I don’t even qualify for senior citizen discounts!

But, frankly, I don’t mind an elixir or two. My knees are getting creaky. The calcium tablets aren’t working. I am thinking of getting more vitamin supplements to boost my immunity but some people say I’m already taking too much. So I guess more of those foreign workers need to go and I’ve got to grow more fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs in my garden. Something organic. I will still need my foreign help to water them though.

I went to the doctor the other day.

I think I’ve got cataracts developing. He says I just need reading glasses. You see, I can’t see properly, especially what’s close by and right before my nose. I am tripping easily (actually I think I’m being tripped up on purpose by pesky people with their computers). I am even banging into coffeeshop tables, hindered by people who don’t wear white and who got to the coffeeshop before me.

(That’s why recently, I’ve only been eating at high-class restaurants where the waitress will show me my table. Half the time, though, I have trouble ordering food. The waitresses can never understand my English, not even my Singlish.)

Maybe, I will get those reading classes after all. The doctor says it will open up a whole new world for me. That I can finally see the faces of people around me. Familiar faces. He tells me though that I have to change the way I talk to them. Look them in the eye, he says! Tell them more about yourself, like what’s in your bank account, he says.

Now that’s a bit too much. I don’t quite trust them to know too much. They will get unreasonable and demand a lot of things. Do they even know what they are talking about? I’ve been doing quite well, thank you, for the past 48 years!

Anyway, I told the doctor I will go to an optician. He says surgery might do the trick too. But I looked at his medical charges…and I nearly fainted. Something has got to be done for older folk and their medical bills. I told that old man’s young man to do something. He said, sure. Wait a week or so for me to announce something, he said, and then go for surgery.

I also asked him (my doctor, not the old man’s young man) for those little blue pills. Very casually, you know. At my age, performing in the bedroom isn’t always a success. Not that I have much time for it. Too busy living the high life. I only hope those big-time scientists I’ve brought from theworld over will discover a cloning technique, besides finding a dengue vaccine.

Oops! I am digressing…you know what’s it like with older people…They ramble. They have gaps in their train of thought, like that big gap on my head. My hairline is receding… Been thinking of wearing a toupe but I’ve been told that’s old-fashioned. The new trend is to go bald.

I should have shaved my head for my 48th birthday. Everyone threw a big party for me on Friday! Those people in white finally realised that they should wear MY colours, red and white, not theirs. Clapping. Fireworks. Dances. Performances. Songs. You name it…they really laid it out for me…and then they left their rubbish behind…

I need to go now…Find the valet to fetch my Ferrari. Got to go back to someone’s Good Class Bungalow for another belated birthday party. Oh wait. I got the address wrong. It’s some HDB void deck party… Dammit! Should have bought those reading glasses.

This article first appeared on the Breakfast Network.