Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

A buay song year

In News Reports on December 31, 2013 at 3:10 am

I was reading the Christmas bonus issue of the Economist on the plane home and an article about the French got me thinking. The magazine described the sense of malaise, ennui and negativity that pervades the French people. Everybody was fashionably downcast it seemed. I couldn’t tell whether the magazine was taking the mickey out of the French or dead serious. After all, the headline was Bleak is chic. It coined a new word: “ miserablism’’.

I wondered if some phrase or word would fit Singapore’s sense and sensibility in the year 2013. After an intensely intellectual conversation with my brother, we declared that the right word/s were buay song. The year of discontent? Naah. Too cheem. Just buay song.

Singaporeans seem very buay song over everything this year. What is it? A simmering resentment? A mass of confusion? Too many things happening in this country? Too many voices competing for attention? Disillusionment with the present? Discouraged about the future?

The year opened with the hated 6.9million population figure and unprecedented protests as people tried to wrap their heads over how to fit the figure here. Everything that was bottled up boiled over. Resentment over crowded infrastructure, rising car and property prices and the sneaking feeling that foreigners here were eating our lunch instead of helping us make it.

Other sneaking feelings: That the elites were perpetuating themselves and their progeny through the education system’’; That somebody somewhere was getting ahead of the individual-me  – unfairly – in the meritocratic system; That we actually have poor people.

Telco and transport glitches didn’t help. Neither did the visit of the haze. No wonder tempers frayed. Suddenly it seemed that wonderfully efficient Singapore was breaking down although frankly, we couldn’t have done anything about the haze except distribute masks.

If we thought having an unprecedented illegal strike by the Chinese bus drivers last year was a shock to the Singapore system, the Little India riot shook us to the core.  Foreign imports bring more than just bodies to the economy. These are people schooled and acculturated differently in their home countries. They didn’t belong here.

Then there was the mechanism that threaded everything. And for the first time, it wasn’t the G. It was social media or variously described as the Internet beast. It had a presence in everything. It initiated. It rejoiced. It informed. It thrashed, amplified and distorted. It did both good and bad. For the voiceless or those too scared to put up their hand, it was a release valve allowing for ventilation and vitriol. For those with opinions, it was space for both cranks and geniuses.

It was also a place for the buay song to kpkb as the PM so eloquently put it. But I daresay that other non social media users felt pretty buay song too. Of course, now you will ask for evidence. I don’t have any although the G will probably have plenty of surveys that say differently.  If there is a “buay song’’ result, I wouldn’t make it public if I were the G.  In fact, the common retort is that the buay song quotient on the Net is no reflection of offline sentiment. I am not so sure.

It was also a year that the G moved fast. More flats. New rules on lending, transport fares. Changes to Primary One registration. Embarking on a scheme of universal health insurance although that is what it would not choose to call it. And of course, clumsily patching together rules to regulate online conduct if not content.

The poor G is in a conundrum – if it gives in, it is accused of pandering; if it doesn’t, it is accused of being arrogant.

Should we really have been so buay song in the past year? There are bright spots and things to look forward to after all, like the Sports Hub’s completion and the URA Masterplan which evoked a grand vision for Singapore. There was one big bright moment methinks, such as the Our Singapore Conversation. We discussed the trade-offs we have to make to move ahead from the status quo. There is the promise that conclusions will be incorporated into policy. We have seen a couple – a move to the left on welfare and a nuanced notion of meritocracy.

Even then, it is in the Singapore nature to whine. Still very buay song.

You would have expected the opposition to capitalise on the buay song-ness of Singaporeans especially since it won the Punggol East byelection but the Workers’ Party has been a damp squip. Other parties are relegated to online statements and forums although this probably more activity than we have seen in a long time from them. Not just at the G, plenty of people are buay song about the opposition too.

It looked like everything went wrong in 2013 and needed patching. Did it?

I have just come back from Lombok, a thoroughly laid back place where the Ferrari is a horse and carriage. I was thinking it was not a bad place to spend a month out of every year just vegetating. Then again, I can afford to do that because I am a middle class Singaporean holding on to a strong currency. A beneficiary of a system (now broke?) that allows me to even consider something like that.  

At Changi,  I get a thrill when the immigration check-in machine welcomes me home by name. I hear Singaporean voices. I see the Christmas decorations lining the route to and from the airport. I marvel at the green spaces and parks I pass by, the tall HDB buildings and the hustle and bustle of people and cars.

Of course, I also read about the jams on the MCE. And people unhappy with the DNC exemption moves. And I think to myself, if this is all the news there is in Singapore, the place can’t be too bad.

Perhaps, we have unreasonable expectations of ourselves and everyone else. We want improvements by leaps and bounds. We want First World comfort at Third World prices.  We want a say and don’t like being contradicted, especially by the G. Maybe we’re just unreasonable people.

Or maybe I’m the unreasonable one. Just buay song.

In any case, I am glad to see the back of 2013. Happy New Year everyone!



Reflecting over Xmas

In News Reports on December 19, 2013 at 5:05 am

For the first time ever, I am not going to be home for Christmas. The whole family has decided to fly off to Lombok in Indonesia. So no open house at Mother’s. No food. And no presents for visitors. No, I am not escaping Mas Selamat style and I certainly don’t appreciate jokes about being detained at the airport for trying to flee the country…(Will blog immediately if it happens, unless everything technological I am carrying with me gets confiscated.)

But this is one holiday I am really looking forward. I haven’t had one since I quit my old job. And since Breakfast Network (now defunct)  started functioning in February, I’ve had no time at all to smell the roses.

It was my brother who suggested that we close house and jump ship for Christmas. It’s something he brings up every year but Mother got in the way. An old-fashioned Christmas is what she likes with Midnight mass, presents under the tree, carols playing, family, friends and dog around.

Mother said yes because we resorted to simple blackmail. If you don’t go, Sis won’t go, says Bro. Sis needs a break. She acquiesced. Now looking at what’s been happening around me lately, she’s in full agreement.

So we’re going. Tomorrow! Yay! 

I was toying with the idea of bringing along my laptop because I am so used to thumping on a keyboard but I’ve decided against it. This WILL be a holiday, away from computer, Facebook and errrm…all G agencies.

I don’t know what I’m going to do there except read and play with my nephew. I might do some thinking if I can get my brain to start up. I want to think about  what it’s like to be a non-mainstream media journalist. About having to play by the rules (and still get a black eye!). About not getting access to information to do a good job of reporting or writing.

I also want to think about what it means to be a “moderate’’ commentator. And whether there is really such a thing as a middle ground between the pro-G and anti-G lobby.  I want to think a bit deeper about this word called trust. .

I am not anti-G but neither am I so pro-G that I leave my brains behind when I look at what it does. People say I am not consistent – that is, you should be either pro- or anti-. I don’t think I want to look at the world that way. My position is: When you think something is right, praise it. When you think something is wrong, knock it. And put your name behind it. I intend to continue operating that way.  

But being accountable and transparent hasn’t done me much good, going by the dance I’ve had with MDA. I want to wrap my head around what’s been happening lately.

You know, I agree with the principle that we must not let foreign funding influence reporting and writing. But I do not agree with the imputation that because I do not register the site/company with MDA, I am against the principle.

It’s a typical argument.

If you agree that people should not kill each other, you should agree that murderers should not hang. If you agree that more should be done for the poor, you should agree to pay more income tax. I have seen the opposition politicians being hobbled by such arguments over the years whenever they objected to aspects of a policy. Poor things, I thought. (Now, poor me?)

I had asked MDA to say plainly that it has no evidence that I have been consorting with foreign players for funding. It told me there was no need to do so, since I had reported this in an earlier post. I must say that MDA has no idea of the difference between reporting hearsay and hearing it from the horse’s mouth.  

You know, foreign embassies have got in touch with me because they want to know my views on the media, especially with the recent waltz. I told them point blank that it has been my policy even in my past life not to meet diplomats on a social basis. I think they were quite flummoxed at my not-very-polite answer. But how else should I couch it? Better dash their hopes, I thought. A new media player even offered to introduce me to the people behind malaysiakini to get an idea of how the online site operates as a business. I saw it as a death sentence. Thank you, but no thanks.

The undergraduates who intern for me at the now-defunct BN can testify as to how I would ask every new recruit if he or she was Singaporean. And the difficulty I faced trying to turn him or her down if the answer was no. I know full well the complications of having “foreign influence’’ in journalistic operations. When a foreigner writes for the now-defunct BN (sorry I have to keep repeating this), he goes under the label Expat Eye. Nothing can be clearer than that.   

I know I’m rambling. But that’s the (good? bad?) thing about blogging – anyhow also can.

Which was why I had such hopes of building a good, professional team of reporters and writers with layers of checks, editing processes and professional standards. I wouldn’t let me – or others – get away with rambling on a news/views site. There is a code. For the ex-BN, it was no preaching and no advocacy. Can be critical. Can ask questions. Must have writing style that engages, even if wicked. Must be bylined.

Many pieces had to be re-worked because of bald assertions without proof and sweeping statements without facts. Quite a few were spiked. The young ones were told they were too young to pontificate and to be clear that they were commenting from their own (limited) perspective, (short) life experience and (narrow) world view. I thought they should still be heard, despite and because of their youth.

It was good that I had old(er) people for company though as they had institutional memory, even if we lacked the resources of a newspaper archive.

So what happens when I get home at the end of the year? I guess I’ll continue blogging. Life goes on. In fact, I’m not even sure I can refrain from blogging while I’m away.

 Probably cannot.

 See how.

A deportation report

In News Reports on December 19, 2013 at 3:25 am

IT’S getting too predictable. Whenever there are arrests, there are allegations of police abuse. Then human rights groups will come out to protest and call for investigations, which the police will do. So it is with the case with those involved in the Little India riots. The police must be getting tired of having to investigate themselves.

But there is something new here and it has to do with the deportation of 53 people who will not be charged in court because their involvement in the riot was “less egregious” — failing to disperse despite police orders to do so, for instance.

Human rights groups have come out to decry what they call “arbitrary deportations’’. The foreigners’ work passes have been revoked and they, therefore, cannot stay on, unless they are called upon to assist in the Committee of  Inquiry into the riots.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson has questioned why “so many” migrant workers were being deported without a judicial proceeding, while Amnesty International Deputy Asia-Pacific Director Isabelle Arradon said the authorities were “moving too quickly” in dealing with the alleged rioters. Local NGO Workfair has also weighed in.

The G’s response is that the laws here provide for the repatriation of those assessed to have posed a threat to Singapore’s safety and security, and that the 53 individuals “satisfy the conditions”.

Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam was reported as saying that under the Immigration Act, the Government has a right, when a determination is made that someone has acted contrary to Singapore’s interests or acted in a manner prejudicial to the public security or safety, to ask them to leave. That is according to an ST report.

“They have interviewed about 4,000 over, investigated about 400, and then settled on the 53. So I don’t think you can say they chose them on an irrational basis. They had a reason for selecting 53,” he said.

He also said that repatriation takes place “regularly’’. If every such case had to go to court and the repatriation decision became judicial rather than administrative, then “every foreigner is entitled to stay here at taxpayers’ expense, housed here at taxpayers’ expense”.

“What we have here works quite well. Foreign workers that come here know they have to behave, and if they don’t, they could be sent back. That keeps most of them on the straight and narrow.”

Local NGO Workfair isn’t pleased with the answer saying in a letter to TODAY that “the costs associated with a protracted judicial process should not be reason for denying access to justice’’.

“The costs cited are justified, considering the economic contributions of migrant workers. Moreover, social justice, equality and human rights are important to every society and should not be sacrificed for the sake of efficiency and costs.’’

This is probably the first time in a long time that Singapore’s policy on deportation of foreigners is in the spotlight. No one would disagree that illegal immigrants and overstayers should be deported. As for those who have committed crimes, we probably can’t wait for them to get them out of the country.

With so many foreign workers in Singapore, there is a case for giving the G a freer hand in handling foreign workers especially in matters of law and order. What is interesting is that Mr Shanmugam said that repatriation takes place “regularly’’. How regularly and what are the various reasons for deportation – or is this something that the immigration authorities cannot disclose?   

The picture of foreign workers being hurriedly rounded up and packed off is likely to make people uncomfortable. They’re just “bystanders’’, they would say. Why send them home? Frankly, I’m surprised that not more people have been deported.

 The G’s first responsibility is to the people of Singapore. And we have got to think harder about restraining the state’s hand such that it becomes crippling. The embassies of the foreign workers have been alerted and have full consular access. You would think that they would kick up a fuss if they thought their own nationals had been mistreated. I would expect the Singapore embassy to do the same too, if I am in trouble in a foreign land.

Still it would be good if the G makes clear its “administrative’’ responsibilities. Are these in line with practices in other countries with foreign worker populations? It should try to satisfy citizens that its actions are not draconian. This is all part of the growth of an active citizenry more aware of rights and responsibilities on both its part and the part of the G. There will always be questions and it is good politics to answer. 

A Sunday problem

In News Reports on December 18, 2013 at 3:39 am

We have a problem. We have hundreds of thousands of foreign workers – and we don’t know what to do with them on Sundays. And they probably don’t know what to do with themselves on Sundays either.

The foreign maid can stay “home” and be paid for not taking the day off. And even if they are out, they’re not likely to get into a drunken stupor and throw pieces of concrete around. They’ll just crowd somewhere until someone shoos them somewhere else.

The foreign worker can stay in his dorm – except that he won’t get paid because he is not working. In the better dorms, he can play basketball and watch cable TV. In the lousier dorms, well, he will have to find his own entertainment. Maybe, he could sneak in a beer can or two…

It looks as though for all our masterful planning of Singapore’s infrastructure, we neglected to think about what we should do about guest workers when they are not working. It’s not enough to house them, although some people still think “housing’’ is too good a term for cramped dorms. It’s not even enough to make sure there are more trains and buses so that Singaporeans won’t complain about overcrowding.

No one quite thought about this question: Where do they go on their day off?

I’ll wager that most of us plan our precious weekends carefully. Some of us have got it down to a routine; visit parents, in-laws, take kids for enrichment classes, attend church service, get together with friends, watch a movie or read a book at home. How do foreign workers plan their weekends? For those from the Indian sub-continent, it’s probably a routine as well: take bus, go to Little India, send back money, eat, drink, meet family, friends and then return to dorm.

Will Little India go back to normal after the riot? It was definitely not business as usual last weekend. Businesses grumble about lost takings. It wasn’t just the foreign workers who gave the place a wide berth (as they have been encouraged to),  tourist numbers dwindled too. Of course, liquor stores were most affected given the alcohol zone. Little India became a dry zone in more ways than one. But you know what? Residents there are probably happier.

And now, the rumble is that the ban will hold in some form, perhaps modified to restrict the hours of sale. It is likely that you can’t swig a beer along five-foot ways or in open spaces, at least in Little India.

Whatever the action taken, there will be consequences and questions. One good thing is that minds are now directed at another part of a foreign worker’s life – not about pay or abuse or working/living conditions but about their Sundays.

Their dorms are situated in remote spots far away from Singaporean eyes. Amenities are lacking. They want ingredients from home for cooking and other essentials that dorms do not provide. They need them cheap because they know how much/little they’re paid. In any case, they need to save money to send it home. Already they say that it’s worthwhile paying for a shuttle service from dorm to Little India because they can do a one-stop shopping, eating, drinking and everything else.  

But some people think they should be in a “gated community’’ or be provided with amenities far away from residential areas so as not to ruffle Singaporean feathers. To be sure, some would probably say that they just “stay in’’ like some NSmen do in camp. After all, they are here to work, not play. It’s an uncharitable view and you could even argue that this is the price to pay for maintaining law and order.

The Committee of Inquiry will be looking into the causes of the riot, and it appears to have framed it in large part as a law and order matter. Others have suggested that riot was the result of pent up tensions arising from bad treatment of foreign workers. Then the G weighs in to assert that working conditions had nothing to do with the cause. Provide evidence, it says. The G would have done better and kept mum about its conclusions/assertions – and let the committee do its work.

But here’s one suggestion: The committee shouldn’t just be looking at causes but also answers to this question: What CAN foreign workers do on Sundays. And where?


Why is MDA making a meal out of BN?

In News Reports on December 17, 2013 at 7:19 am

 I am going to KPKB here. I will make sure that I do not defame anyone, including the MDA (even though you can’t defame a G agency). I will not touch on the judiciary. And I will not advocate disobedience – civil or otherwise. 

In other words, I will do my best to be nice. 

What the (insert your choice swear word here) is MDA up to? Why me? Why BN? Isn’t it enough that we write responsible stuff? With bylines and all? We even correct mistakes openly!!! What makes you think we want to take foreign funding?!!! We’re Singaporeans, for crying out loud! We just don’t want to sign your papers! Cannot ah?  

Sorry. I simply had to get that out of the way….

I am floored, flummoxed and flabbergasted at the MDA’s twists and turns. So its replies have NOT been “curiously vague’’ but crystal clear? Gimme a break. Anyway, I leave it to readers to cut through the bureaucratese below:





I think almost everyone, including the MDA, thought BN would register. I was given a two week deadline (please remember that The Independent was notified in July) to think things through and get my people to agree that we should be registered. 

All I have gotten so far is grief from MDA.

I asked for one month, it gave me one week, because it reckoned the forms were straightforward. You’ve seen those forms on BNFB.  

You would think that with a two-week notice, it would be able to give you quick replies to calls for clarification. It would know what to do/say. I can only guess that it didn’t cater for a “rejection’’. Instead, it was a step-by-step dance. If it had said BNPL should close, then we would have closed it. Instead we closed the site, and left social media to function.Then comes this silly tango about mode of operation, corporate entity etc etc.

So I closed the company, and now it says I should have told them who owns and runs BN’s social media platforms? Well, it’s not BNPL. It’s not me. I’ve quit. As for who the people are, I am tempted to say, what business is it of MDA? If the problem is whether the volunteers are getting foreign funding to run social media, then may I respectfully point out that there are plenty of social media groups which have political and religious content? 

So what in heaven’s name is this? Persecution?

Is MDA making up rules as it goes along?

Frankly, everything is getting stranger and stranger or curiouser and curioser. So if it’s not a company behind it, but an association, a society or an individual– foreign funding issues will not arise? It knows that this would be crazy, and maybe that’s why it wants to know who owns and runs BNFB and Twitter as well. 

If so, then it really has to net every site, social media platform that has political and religious content – never mind that there is no corporate entity behind them.

Is this why it hasn’t answered the critical question of whether the main BN site can be resurrected? Or that BNFB and Twitter can be continued by volunteers using the BN name? Is it still figuring out the answer?

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at this state of affairs.  

Personally speaking; No fund intended

In News Reports on December 14, 2013 at 1:39 am

First, let me declare that this is my personal blog. It is not owned by any company, including Breakfast Network Private Limited.

Second, I don’t know how come advertisements are sometimes pasted here; I think that’s a WordPress thing. Definitely no money comes to me, whether to write articles or in the form of other revenue for this blog. Swear.

Third, I do have a personal Facebook page. It’s PERSONAL. I am not paid to put up my posts. As for those ads, I think that’s a Facebook thing. I have a personal Twitter account, which I seldom use. Again, no money changed hands. If it did, I think that’s a Twitter thing.  

Finally, below is a satirical piece. Satire. I’m not sure if it counts as political and religious content but I am banking on the above three declarations to ensure that I am the right side of whatever regulations, at least the current ones.

I can’t predict the future.


There was once a man who thought he should open a soup kitchen. You know…like those free meals that churches, temples and mosques dish out to followers and others? (Oops! I better re-write in case this is defined as religious content…)

There was once a group of people (all Singaporeans) who thought they should step up to the nation’s call to contribute to society by providing free food to the under-privileged.

They borrowed pots and pans and even filched some from home to set up a kitchen and dining area. A company called WordPress gave them premises for free. A company called Facebook did their public relations work for them. Twitter, another company, also said it could post short messages for them as a marketing tool. Both pro bono.

They found it tough. They didn’t know who was poor because there was no poverty line. But never mind that. They thought they would just start a kitchen anyway for anyone who wanted free meals, whether rich or poor, foreigner or local, pro-G or anti-G. One of them said he would make kueh lapis.

They started serving breakfast; plain, simple fare of the bread and butter kind for a start. That was tough too because they were volunteers who held down jobs or had school assignments to do. And most were not “morning’’ people.

Their silly and demanding leader wanted food to be served every day, sometimes three or four times a day. Because, she said, people need to eat lunch and dinner too. Sometimes she wanted more elaborate dishes, which required some in the group to spend their weekends gathering ingredients from exotic places like Hong Lim Park and foreign worker dormitories.

People came to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even supper if there were still crew members silly enough to stay in the kitchen after dark.  Okay, okay, sometimes they served leftovers.

More people started coming and the kitchen had to be expanded. A microwave oven replaced the charcoal stove. The group also ascended to cloud nine, moving some servers to the Amazon basin. That required money. The silly and demanding leader broke her piggy (halal) bank and paid some kopi money to starving undergraduates trying their hand at being poets, writers and journalists and other silly, salary-short occupations. They wanted to be Junior Chefs

The silly and demanding leader, who called herself Head Chef , thought she could stick her piggy bank together by turning “corporate’’. Cover costs, she thought. Pay for some chefs who had at least been Shatec-trained and can do more than slap a sandwich together.

That was when some big burly guys came into the restaurant and asked to see the crew. They started waving some papers. The kitchen crew got rattled. Some wondered if the Head Chef had gone to a loan shark ; others wonder if they had to put up protection money. But no, the guys wanted to inspect the kitchen for bugs and other stuff that could lead to food poisoning of patrons.

The kitchen crew swore that they used only the best ingredients, locally sourced. They even fumigated the kitchen every week for cockroaches and rats. They didn’t intend to charge for the food but they did wonder if people could stick posters on the blank walls of their premises, also known as advertising space. In fact, they were in the midst of enlarging their premises when these outsiders came barging in.

The big burly guys wanted to take down the names of key kitchen crew staff, like the Pastry Chef and Soup Chef. They said they could come by time and again to look at the cash register. They wanted the Head Chef to sign up to join their fast food franchise – and left behind some forms with a deadline and blank spaces for signatures.

The kitchen crew wondered about becoming a franchisee which served fast food. They wondered if the kitchen invasion had to do with the food they served. Not tasty enough? Too spicy? Or was the restaurant really the problem? It was sited on prime land, you see. Little India. (No, they didn’t serve alcohol.)

So they closed the restaurant and said thank you very much, but no thanks. To continue serving loyal patrons, they did some catering on the side. But the big, burly guys came round again and said you have to join the franchise – or else!  The kitchen stopped catering operations. The crew decided to break up and do some personal catering through this home delivery system called blogs. They did wonder if they should use Jeff Bezos’ drones but realised that the big, burly guys would shoot them down from the sky.

The Head Chef decided that she should just wind up the company and end all dreams of becoming a mini media magnate. She decided to go on holiday.             


A Conversation over Beers

In News Reports on December 11, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Four friends decided to pry themselves off high-priced bar stools in Marina Bay to “slum it” in a Little India coffeeshop – before the no-alcohol ban kicks in over the weekend.

Dramatis personae

Frank D’light: An American expatriate banker

Lim Tau Keh : Local construction magnate

Paragswamy Khannakena: Strategic consultant, resident in Singapore

Chin Jiak Eng: Some time civil society activist.


Frank: Can’t think why we haven’t been here before. Beats the prices in town.  You reckon they sell champagne here?

Tau Keh:  Eh, Frank. Coffeeshop.  No champagne. Just Tiger, Heineken and Carlsberg.  With ice. Where’s Khannakena?

Jiak  Eng: He went to the mama shop to get some Kingfisher or something. Said good Indian beer; can knock you out quickly. Think he misses home.

Tau Keh: How come you didn’t follow him? Scared ah? Don’t be. See that red van over there? Full of riot police….Up there got new CCTV. And that next table? All plain-clothes policemen. Have faith in the Home team!

Frank: So, this really is a police state eh? Guess all those international reports are right. You guys really take the fun out of things. My chaps back home were all wondering what’s happening in Singapore and whether they should take up jobs here. I told them to come on over! It’s getting exciting here! And nothing will happen where they’re gonna put up. Not in Bukit Timah.

Khannakena (huffing and puffing with armloads of beer): Like any cosmopolitan, global and capitalist city-state, those shopkeepers have put up the price. A can costs $5 now, not $3.50. So much demand and they getting rid of supply. Pure economics. It makes the globe go round.

Frank (looking around): What’s this? A penile colony? Where are the girls?

Jiak Eng: This is Little India, not Geylang. Tomorrow, I take you there. But seriously, these foreign workers are very pitiful. Abused by employers.  No place to hang out. Sleeping with bed bugs…

Tau Keh: Eh, don’t exaggerate. I treat my workers very well. Nice dorm. Good food catered. Buses to take them on excursions.  Sometimes I forget to pay them. But they never complain.

Jiak Eng: What’s the name of your company again? I go report to MOM. Or better still, I tell Alex Au. Or M Ravi. Or that Vincent Whatshisname…  

(The two Singaporeans eyeball each other over the beers. Frank is delighted. Khannakena is staring into his beer, trying to read the future in the froth.)

Jiak Eng (blinks first): Okay, okay. We’re Singaporeans. We don’t fight. Not the Singapore way. Put the bottle down. Dangerous things.

Khannakena: It’s the normal condition in any developed nation, Tensions will arise because of differing socio-economic conditions. A sense of alienation. A feeling of dis-enfranchisement. But I still say we can fit 8m people in Singapore.

Tau Keh: You mad or what? Already can hardly move through Race Course Road… I’m worried about my Merc getting scratched. See that group over there looking at my car? I paid $120,000 COE for that. Hope the cops are watching my car.

Khannakena (not listening):  I postulate that such dislocations are endemic in any society that claims to be developed and civilised. The Government’s moves to restore law and order are to be commended but it does not guarantee that there will be future conflagarations. Singapore should study Dubai which manages its huge foreign population with aplomb.

Jiak Eng: Ya…just house them on some offshore island right? Take away their rights as human beings right? Take away their alcohol. Restrict their movements. Run police checks.What sort of civilised society is that?

Frank (smirking): Hey, you guys can’t crow about Singapore being a safe haven now. Even your bank account statements can be stolen. I’m really raking it in now…StanChart’s clients are moving over to my bank. I’m minting money. By the way, I was told the netizens are going nuts. They won’t have anything against me right? I’m a western foreign talent but Khannakena…

 Jiak Eng: Ignore those unhappy people on the Net. The right thing to do now is to tackle the root causes of the riot. It’s not just about law and order, it’s not just about alcohol. It’s about how we treat the less well-off, the distribution of incomes in society, the manifest discrimination against the poor and down-trodden, including those people who labour 12 hours in the hot sun for so little pay…It’s about…

Tau Keh: Stop it already la, Jiak Eng… I pay my workers more, you pay more for your house. You didn’t read about the URA Masterplan ah? More construction. More workers needed. More business for me. Don’t come destroy my rice bowl. And by the way, I’m paying for drinks tonight.

(Silence. All four deep in thought. Their reverie was interrupted by the kopi kia who warns Khannakena about consuming beer that wasn’t bought on the premises. Because they are law-abiding people, they pay and leave. Tau Keh’s Merc has been towed away because it was parked in a No Parking Zone. They tried to flag down a bus…and almost got run over. This, however, will not deter the intrepid foursome from checking out Geylang tomorrow night.)


The Party before the riot

In News Reports on December 11, 2013 at 12:18 pm

If not for Sunday’s riot in Little India, the MSM would have splashed an event earlier in the day, the People’s Action Party congress, all over Monday’s print and broadcast news. Actually, Zaobao kept the Prime Minister and PAP secretary-general’s speech as Page 1 lead. But it looked like ST made a quick decision to replace the story with what happened in Little India. PM Lee’s speech was moved to Page 2. I’m reading tea leaves here…

The decision isn’t wrong. The first riot in 40 years beats a party congress any time news-wise. Truth to tell, I was more obsessed with the whys and hows of the riot than I was in what the PAP leadership said although it was to be a re-making of sorts for the ruling party.

Belatedly, therefore, I went over the speeches at the party website and took a look at the resolutions approved.

I have to say I was a little disappointed. The PM’s speech was not unlike what he said at the National Day rally, except that it was customised for his audience of party members with references to the work done by stalwarts. The most significant thing was that a group will be set up to look at ageing issues, known as the PAP seniors group. This is not a gathering of old folks, the PM made clear, but of people, including old folks, who want to take a close look at the issues which affect our greying population.

That’s a good move. Politics-wise, it would give older party members a sense that they have not reached their expiry date of usefulness to the party. Nation-wise, a group of ordinary people, including older people,  looking at the multi-faceted issue of ageing might give all a better feel of problems than the numerous high-level committees which have discussed the matter in the past. Seriously, so much attention is given to the youth and young people issues that we forget that the bulk of the population will be the older folk. I am guilty of it too.

I don’t know how often I’ve told my undergraduate students that Singapore is “yours now’’. If problems arise, you are the people who will have to face them and solve them. Me? Hopefully nicely retired and lazing by the pool. This is why I push them to get interested in the Medishield Life discussions because hey, thanks, for paying my premiums when I get old(er). This is why I asked them to write about the URA Masterplan in the now-comatose Breakfast Network  because it will be realised in their lifetime. Me? Hopefully still ambulant in elderly-friendly spaces. I tell them about COE and property prices and say, they might be difficult for you to own. But then again, my generation lamented that it was more difficult for us as well when we compared ourselves to our parents’ generation. (The big houses were all taken…)   

My reasoning was faulty. The grey and the greying should take the bull by the horns and settle their own future. I think there is this idea that when you reach a certain age, your time has passed and the younger generation should step up to the plate, including thinking for you. This sort of thinking only adds to the perception that being old is to be a burden, whether on the family or the nation. We “consume’’ resources while the young people are to be “invested’’ in.

Older people are worth investing in too.


Okay, I wasn’t too enamoured by what Minister Chan Chun Sing said about “communications’’ and exhorting the party members to do battle on all fronts. Too Churchillian, methinks, and where’s the war? It might be all right if this was a closed-door event; leaders will do what it takes to rally members. But an outsider looking in would be wondering what he meant by : “We must continuously and strenuously defend the common space for people to speak up.’’

“ If we do not stand up for what we believe, others will occupy that space and cast us into irrelevance. We must not concede the space – physical or cyber. We will have to learn from the 1960 generation of PAP pioneers – to fight to get our message across at every corner – every street corner, cyberspace corner be it in the mass media, and social media. We will have to do battle everywhere as necessary.’’

Fighting words.

So is it a common space to be defended or a space for the party to occupy?  Who are the “others’’? Other political parties or ordinary voices which do not sing the PAP song? Is this intended to herald in the knuckle-duster era?

I suppose we should simply read it as a call for party members to stand up and say clearly that the PAP is delivering the right stuff in the right way for Singapore, for Singaporeans and with Singaporeans. Typical political party language.   

Mr Chan needs a better speech-writer.


The big Little Indian clean-up Part 2

In News Reports on December 11, 2013 at 1:44 am

Seriously, when it comes to reporting on the ground, metinks The New Paper wins hands down. First, we get a break from seeing busty babes on its cover. Second, it has reporters who do plenty of legwork, this time in Little India.

So we know that there are close to 300 buses which ferry foreign workers from their dorms to the area every Sunday. A conservative estimate means the area fills up with an extra 40,000 or so bodies on weekends.

We know that there are seven liquor shops along the 400m stretch of Chander Road. Just one road. We even know the names of Indian beer, like Kingfisher, Knockout, Haywards 5000, which go for about $3.50 a can, compared to $4 Heinekens and Tigers. At 8 per cent alcohol content, they can knock you out faster than a 5 per cent Tiger.

Both transport operators and liquor shops rake in big bucks from their South Asian patrons – and both are now worried that the G will clamp down on their operations. Should we side with them? Or say that this is the price of keeping the peace? It really depends on the G means by a “calibrated’’ response – so not a total ban on alcohol sales, but maybe on selling hours. Not a ban on entry to Little India, but better staggered “visiting hours’’?

Seems like the G is pulling out other stops, with cameras in Little India (you mean, there are none now?) and stepped up police presence in the area as well as where foreigners congregate, like the Geylang and Golden Mile stretches. People are asking for fences to close in the residential areas from outsiders. Others are asking for more social amenities and spaces so that they can enjoy their weekends stone cold sober.

That’s a good point. Do we really expect workers who do hard labour to stay in their dorms on their day off? They want to meet and mingle, send money home and yes, knock back a few beers just like the locals do.

TWC2 has a point when it said that “a more sustainable solution’’ involving creating sheltered spaces with amenities should be found. “We need to be conscious of the fact that sometimes Singapore actively denies foreign workers use of public spaces, such as void decks. Moreever, with low pay, they can’t afford to spend their leisure time within commercial spaces,’’ the NGO said on its website. With just the five-foot ways and open fields which are no good in the rain, they will crowd on walkways.  

“This can raise tempers,’’ it said. Presumably it is referring not just to the temper of the migrants but residents, shopkeepers and other locals who would view it as an “invasion’’ of their space.    

Maybe the NGOs themselves can step up to the plate here?  Not too long ago, there were movie screenings on open fields for them – are they still on? And football and cricket matches were played. Can NGOs and business groups, and even the labour movement, work together to take over the organisational aspects? Or can the foreign workers themselves be encouraged to organise such activities for their community?

Possible to bring the remittance agencies to the dorms? Rather than have them go to Little India to send money home?

What I really want to know is the name of the hero who tried to protect the female bus conductor in the initial stages of the riot. The burly man in a plaid shirt has been caught on camera and video shielding her and waving off the rioters. I hope he wasn’t injured in the process.  

We should give that man a…Kingfisher?

The big Little India clean-up

In News Reports on December 9, 2013 at 11:38 pm

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Just testing.

I’m back.

Crazy huh?

After trying to get readers of this blog to move over to Breakfast Network, I’m now trying to get everyone back here…What’s the difference you say? Well, when I blog, I can get “personal’’. I tried to write differently for BN, adopting a more business-like, professional-sounding tone. Now I am going to be entirely MYSELF! Yeehaaaar.

So what’s the news today?

Well, if you are thinking of going drinking in Little India this weekend, don’t. No alcohol will be served – or sold over the counter. It’s an expected move by the G, after it proposed curbs on alcohol sales hours and the establishment of no-alcohol zones last week. The G twisted itself into knots trying not to pre-empt the police investigations into Sunday’s riots by saying that alcohol could be’ a “contributory factor’’ leading to the riot on Sunday night. What it made clear was that the 33 year old Indian national who died after being knocked down by a private bus was stone drunk. As for the 400 others, or 27 arrested….

The intoxicated man had boarded the bus and dropped his pants when he was told to get off. When he did, he was knocked down somehow and pinned under the bus. Not decapitated, as some people have been saying. That was when all hell broke loose.

So is the G doing a knee-jerk by banning alcohol? It’s only for this weekend though, before it finalises what it wants to do about alcohol sales. The G and MPs for the area said too many liquor licences have been given out to the shopkeepers in the area. No number was specified and you would have thought someone in the liquor licensing department had been keeping count…

It seems, however, that Little India has been a messy, chaotic space for some time, going by what residents there say. One resident penned a letter published in TODAY citing the number of times news reports have surfaced about the state of the area on weekends, with jaywalking and jammed-up roads. Some 20 private buses would unload foreign workers there on weekends – and park along the roads as well. It’s like a weekend excursion: from dorm to Little India, and back to dorm. It seems that the G response has been to step up policing, checking for identification and so forth.

So should the G have acted earlier in response to residents’ grumblings and foreseen that a powder keg was in the making? If it did and tried to impose curbs on activity, it would have been attacked for high-handed treatment of those who do hard labour in Singapore.  Residents might chafe, but for others, Little India is neither chaotic nor messy. It is spontaneous and exotic. It bustles with a different sort of life every weekend, not at all like other parts of Singapore. And that is because it is brimming over with foreigners of a different culture. Can you imagine Singaporeans dancing in the streets unless they are specifically allowed to, like the South Asians did on Deepavali?   

Maybe the announcement of an impending alcohol ban or the constant police checks are what got their backs up. Others point to different cultural attitudes towards authority. Singaporeans are respectful towards those in uniform, and wouldn’t dream of hurling dustbins at them, much less pelting them when they are trying to rescue someone. They might brawl in coffeeshops after several beers and even resist arrest, but you won’t get others joining in the fray against the cops.

So is an alcohol ban of sorts in Little India going to help? It will be a “contributory factor’’ in the pursuit of peace, methinks.

The Prime Minister has convened a committee of inquiry to look into “ the factors that led to the incident and how the incident was handled on the ground’’. “It will also review the current measures to manage areas where foreign workers congregate, whether they are adequate and how they can be improved.’’

It seems that the G is looking at the riot as a pure law and order issue. Presumably, the “factors’’ are immediate factors and the “measures’’ are intended to ensure safety and public order. So no deep probing on possible root causes? A very self-contained probe?

What I know is that I got angry reading The New Paper which has the best on-the-ground coverage of all the English language newspapers. It had an interview and a picture of the female bus co-ordinator who was attacked. The 38 year old  had a wound on the left side of her forehead, her left eye was swollen and her limbs bruised. The poor woman was trapped on the bus with the driver as rioters smashed windscreens and ripped off  whatever they could. Six policemen later escorted them to safety.

Then there was the account of a resident who had a bird’s eye view of what was happening and gave a blow-by-blow account of how the riot unfolded. How the police couldn’t hold back the rioters and disappeared into a fire engine which sped off, along with an ambulance. How rioters flipped a police car against an ambulance and paramedics opened the back door to flee. How they cheered and danced around a burning police bike.A TNP photojournalist was almost attacked. Restaurants pulled down their shutters, with diners still inside. Shopkeepers had their goods used as missiles.   

This should never happen again. Ever.

So I say: Dear G, do whatever it takes.