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Not a Hard Choice: Just read

In Politics, Society, Writing on April 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I finished reading Hard Choices by Donald Low and Sudhir V in one sitting today. Yup. It’s that grabbing. A bit cheeky to call it Hard Choices but it’s appropriate since it challenges some of the Hard Truths we’ve always been told about. It’s a quite balancing act for the authors who also include academic Linda Lim based in United States: They’re careful about not knocking the past too much; instead they maintain that the past might not be a good guide for the future. They are, as they say, challenging the consensus or rather, exploding some myths.
The authors acknowledge that policymakers have made adjustments by, for example, moving left of centre in social policy. One thing they couldn’t avoid saying: The policy of flooding the country with foreign workers over the past decade in the go-for-full-throttle economic growth era is to be blamed for some of malaise we face today: stagnant incomes in the lower ranks, low productivity because of access to cheap labour and pressure on housing prices which now need cooling.
For baby-boomers (and almost baby boomers like me), there was this interesting bit: Singapore’s strong reserves were built on the backs of this generation and it makes sense for the state to return some of it to the generation as it ages rather than find new ways of getting more out of the younger people.
At the risk of summarising, I think the key thesis goes something like this:
a. Some of the strongly-held political and economic mantras that helped Singapore to what it is today might not apply if we want to move forward. The “vulnerability’’ narrative, for example, has outlived its usefulness as an inspiration for most citizens while the vision of a “global city’’ might actually be pretty limiting. Why not try for a vision of a just and equitable city?
b. Rather than look at policies from a dollars and cents or economic point of view, why not look at them from the point of view of strengthening the social compact and social trust. Singapore, in the words of Linda Lim, is more than just its GDP. Citizen “well-being’’ is a better measurement of success than economic growth rates.
c. The G should rid itself of some mindsets such as contending that more welfare leads to an erosion of work ethic or automatically reaching for “co-payments’’ and “means-testing’’ and monetary incentives to achieve social policy goals. Rather, all citizens should be guaranteed a basic level of help, that is, go “universal’’ rather than hew to a targeted approach. Ensure one level, and then means-test for the rest. Also, most “welfare’’ approaches seem to be contingent on “employment’’. But what if people are involuntarily unemployed in these times of economic restructuring? What about wage loss insurance?
d. The trouble with sticking to past models and predicting the future based on extrapolations is that the system becomes rigid, inflexible – and late. Like the drastic imbalance in housing supply and demand in the past, or how more rail lines were needed far sooner than expected.
e. The country’s leadership is an incestuous one (that’s my phrase) populated with like-minded people thrown up through similar channels and reinforcing a group-think mentality. Because they had benefited from the policies of the past, they conclude that what had worked for them would work for future generations. That is, they are already “biased’’.
All in, the authors are calling for mindset change if Singapore wants to move forward. Some of the principles policymakers have held on to may no longer work. Higher income taxes do not necessarily crimp work ethic nor is a universal approach to welfare always accompanied by laziness on the part of the recipients. The view that housing is an “appreciating asset’’ needs to change since it’s so vulnerable to booms and bust and not easily “unlocked’’ as a retirement fallback.
They call on the G to have less of a stranglehold on public discussion and dialogue, contending that political openness is needed for ideas to flower and flourish. The book has some policy solutions or alternatives as well, some of which would be unpalatable to the G, like taking out the “political’’ element out of grassroots bodies, such as the People’s Association.
The Singapore of today, they argue, demands “equity’’ and “fairness’’.
I’m sure I’m not doing the book much justice at all. So why don’t you just go buy it and read?

Deciding on MP “material”

In News Reports on April 29, 2014 at 12:15 am

Way back in late 80s, when I was a rookie reporter in a past life, a colleague and I set about piecing together an article about the People’s Action Party’s soon-to-be unveiled candidates for the 1988 general election. It was a tough job because it was a big slate of about 20 (the George Yeo batch) and we went about verifying each name one by one. The PAP wasn’t saying anything so it was a tough job nailing each man and woman in white. It took us two months. Although convinced that we got it right, our editors sat on the piece, worrying that its (premature) publication would land us in hot soup. They sat on it for so long that we were “scooped’’ by our rivals in the Chinese newspapers. Then it was published, late by journalistic standards. My colleague and I were none too happy of course but we were assured that caution, especially during such an explosive time, should be the order of the day.

Some reasons for the hesitation:

  1. We could have got a name wrong.
  2. The name could be right, but if he or she was “dropped’’ at the last minute, then it would be such a loss of face for the person wouldn’t it?
  3. Do we want to upset the PAP by tipping its hand so early and without its sanction?  

 We were too young to argue too much with our bosses but we did: the names can’t be much of a secret if the grassroots leaders and their colleagues were spilling the beans and we have pictures of the candidates in leading roles at community functions.

Fast forward and you now have the PAP itself announcing its candidates or “potential’’ candidates early. It is doing so, it said, in response to complaints that their charges are being “parachuted’’ for the fight only at the last minute. Best that they be given some grassroots exposure and publicity.

The PAP could have sent them to the ground quietly if the idea was to only expose them to grassroots work. This means that when it comes to unveiling them, it could say that they have experience under their belt and not just degrees to their name.  For the candidates, it means time to build a corps of party workers and to lead them – rather than be led by them. 

By going public, you can bet that people would be dissecting their resumes and the Internet would be doing a CSI on them. (One “candidate’’ must be regretting his remark lamenting how he didn’t “score” in Primary Five maths, made in an interview two years ago.) Well, the five so far have probably braced themselves – for bouquets from those who know them, and brickbats from those who don’t.

Here are their names:

  1.  Ms Chan Hui Yuh, 37, a director at construction company Infra Waterproofing
  2. Mr Kahar Hassan, 45, a deputy director (infrastructure) with rail operator SMRT.
  3. Mr Chong Kee Hiong, 48, chief executive of OUE Hospitality REIT Management
  4. Saktiandi Supaat, 40, head of foreign exchange research at Maybank,
  5. Amrin Amin,35, corporate lawyer at Watson, Farley & Williams Asia Practice

Good for them, I say.

If you have an ideological position, don’t be coy about identifying with the political party you are with. The spotlight will be shining on you and even if you are “dropped’’ at the end of the day, it would have been an experience to remember. Can add it to your resume! And please continue your work at the grassroots level.

And if you decide to say “no’’ to being nominated because it’s got too hot in the kitchen for you and the family even before the hustings, then it’s good for the rest of us, because you clearly aren’t cut out for political life. And please continue your work at the grassroots level.

While the PAP is letting them loose on the ground to test their mettle for MPship, another call is being made for names to be put up as Nominated MPs. Of the nine NMPs, six will not be seeking second terms. (NMP Eugene Tan has confirmed that he is carrying on, by the way).

Former PAP stalwart and presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock has weighed in on his FB page, reiterating his opposition to the scheme. He was the only PAP MP who said no to the scheme which was first mooted in 1990 to give people a wide representation in Parliament or quell demand for opposing voices, depending on your point of view. I reported on the debate and I must say Doc stuck to his position:

 “Parliamentarians must earn the right to speak in the House. To earn this right, he or she must get elected in a general or by-election. Being elected by his constituents, he is responsible and accountable to his constituents for whatever he says in the house. On the other hand, an NMP, not being elected, is not responsible or accountable to anyone. Also, by participating in an election, the MP takes the risk of losing and not being elected. This is not so in the case of the NMP. So Parliament, being the highest legislative body in the land, must not be seen to promote non-risk taking, which is not in line with government’s call to its citizens.’’

I supported his position then, with a column on how elected MPs shouldn’t be given such short shrift. That it was important that a representative in Parliament be in touch with public sentiments by dealing with them at ground level. I still say it is bad to have MPs and Nominated MPs sitting cheek by jowl in Parliament because it is an indictment on elected MPs who, presumably, aren’t able to represent the whole spectrum of the people. There was a sop thrown to the dissenting PAP MPs then (Dr Tan wasn’t the only vocal one although he was the only one who said “nay’’) – that it was for MPs to decide every term on whether they would let NMPs into the House. But this “sop’’ has been taken away. The NMP scheme is now carved in stone.

In his FB post, Dr Tan noted the changes in the scheme which was intended for non-partisan and independent voices but has since evolved into “a path that should never have happened – specifically by allowing sectorial or functional group representation”.

“So you have NMPs representing trade unions, tertiary institutions, professional bodies, businesses, arts and theatres, social services and sports. These are civil society groups with vested interests. Can they be truly non partisan?’’

Remember that the NMP scheme didn’t have a good start with just two NMPs in the pioneer batch. Now, the full quota of nine is being filled every time with even more applications to the Parliamentary Select Committee to look over now that “sectors’’ are invited to submit names.

But Dr Tan has a point about sectoral representation, although one can quibble with his definition of “non-partisan’’ as groups which have vested interests. It is terribly odd for the labour movement to be considered a “sector’’ in need of representation when you have so many labour MPs including their chief who sits in the Prime Minister’s Office. It is also terribly odd for the People’s Association to lead a “sector’’ when every PAP MP has links with it or for the National Council of Social Service to be only body representing social service.  

Dr Tan also said: “At the same time, there are many other groups representing clan associations, religious organisations, minority races, new citizens and people of different sexual orientation, all wanting their voices heard in Parliament. Naturally, they are unhappy that they are not allowed representation in Parliament under the NMP scheme.’’

He noted that they can lobby sitting MPs to reflect their concerns, but he didn’t say that they, too, could try and get into the House through the “independent’’ route, not as a sector representative.  

I still think the NMP scheme is a slap in the face of elected MPs, but I cannot deny that some NMPs have been able to raise issues that MPs, chary of going against the party line, would not. The likes of Prof Walter Woon, Viswa Sadasivan and Siew Kum Hong come to mind as sharp debaters with strong points of view. And given what PAP Hri Kumar Nair and WP’s Sylvia Lim said recently about their party Whips – it only justifies further the need to have NMPs.

I recall a Straits Times columnist who called for the NMP scheme to be made more transparent a few years ago. So far, we only know of who succeeded, not who applied. It is time for the House to lift the veil on the scheme and share details of how it came to the conclusion that such and such a person should be allowed into Parliament. It is even more critical that it does so for the coming batch because they would be in the House at a critical juncture of our national life: when the G makes a bigger “left’’ turn in the run-up to what looks to be a very interesting and controversial general election.

If someone wants to be nominated as a Nominated MP, announce it. The sectors can do so on their behalf and those who brave the independent route can’t possibly be so shy as to shun the spotlight which will be trained on them if they eventually succeed in being nominated.

Thing is, the NMP scheme is pretty much a fact of political life, despite Dr Tan’s misgivings. More people have grown comfortable with the idea of having them in the House, although some will still label them as “co-opted’’ MPs.

But do we need to “kick’’ the sectors into having representation by having such a structure? Is it not time to do away with it and have all go through the independent route? Also, must the sectors be represented if they already are, by sitting MPs? Surely some of them are strong enough as a force to make their views known such that the House would be forced to take them into account? (Note: most of the sectors’ constituent groups are “establishment’’ types like the universities in the “academic’’ sector.)

How many “independents’’ usually apply? About 30 or 40? Can past and current sector representatives say hand on heart that they are not beholden to the sector to protect its interest in the highest forum in the land? Can they say that they would subordinate sector interests for the national interest? Or is this even a point for discussion since NMPs are supposed to add diversity to the House?

Questions like the above would be moot (or least rendered less relevant)  if everyone went through the same route.

My bottomline: It’s going to be too hard to get rid of the NMP system but it is not so hard to refine the “application’’ structure or do away with sectoral representation altogether. It is definitely not hard for Parliament to give more details of what goes on behind closed doors when it weighs the worth of a nominated candidate.

The people are the ones who put MPs into Parliament and when MPs give themselves the power to decide who should sit with them, the people should get a look at how it’s done even when, and especially because, the people have no say.

That’s reasonable, no?  

 

 

Takeaways at half-time

In News Reports on April 26, 2014 at 1:56 am

At the risk of over-summarising, here’s a run-down of how a panel discussion on the G’s half-time report went. Please refer to earlier blog post on the report.

Top takeaways:

  1. The G is in a pickle, said the non-partisans on the panel. It’s got about two years to shore up its score with the people who seem to want more checks and balances but don’t seem to want the G to have more power to solve their “problems’’ which could really be unrealistic expectations.

 Quotable quotes:   

 “So the current situation looks something like this to me: A Government out of its comfort zone and unable to quite meet the expectations of Singaporeans and a citizenry demanding what the Government could not reasonably deliver considering the trade-offs, while entrusting it with less power than it used to have.’’ – sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

 “The second half of this term of Parliament is short simply because time is of the essence in wanting to try to fix the many hot button issues and put bluntly, time is running out. And in many ways like what Ern Ser says, the population may have some unrealistic expectations.’’ – NMP Eugene Tan.

 2,, Different groups of people have different expectations – and confidence – in the G’s ability to solve problems, with the most anxious being the middle-aged, sandwiched class. (Actually, methinks it’s a case of whether you see the glass as half-empty or half-full.)

Quotable quote:

“Now, look at another age category – the 35 to 44. They are less approving than the average of how government is doing now in elderly, the poor, healthcare and transport. When you ask them about the future, they are less likely to express confidence than the other groups, in the areas of the poor, health care, housing, transport as well as foreigners’’ – academic Gillian Koh.

“There is assessment of how their lives are being affected now, but there is also a realisation that not all problems can be solved straightaway and also an appreciation that things are being done that will lead to better outcomes.’’ – PAP MP Hri Kumar

 

  1. Both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party members have to abide by the Whip, which holds their parliamentary votes in line. PAP MP Hri Kumar noted that WP has never uttered a contrary position to its own party line to which WP’s Sylvia Lim replied that this was because they are too small a group in Parliament and risk looking divided. Then they crossed whips…

Quotable quotes:

 “How many times have you heard a WP MP give a different view from the WP? Zero. A WP MP has never, in the time I’ve been in Parliament from 2006, stood up to say ‘I’m taking a different position from my party’. So if you think our Whip is thick, theirs is thicker and theirs is obviously more painful.”  – PAP MP Hri Kumar

“I don’t think many people would be comfortable with the fact that you have a whole House full of MPs from one party no matter how much they talk… because in the end you know that the party Whip comes in and that’s about it.” – WP MP Sylvia Lim

  1. Although immigration did not figure as the top hot button issue in the survey, it is the root of a lot of complaints about cost of living and accessibility, maintained the non-partisans. PAP’s Hri Kumar rebutted with charts on what the PAP had done to counter the impact of the foreigner influx – but which seemed to have gone un-noticed.

 Quotable quotes:

“The only question is whether it will manifest as an issue in and of itself or whether it will be fingered in a whole variety of other hot button issues, but certainly it will materially affect how Singaporeans assess the Government. And immigration is complex and it may not feature so prominently because no political party or candidate wants to be labelled as xenophobic or anti-foreigner; neither would any one party want to come across as a staunch supporter of more immigration. So you’ll see the parties continue to gingerly tread around this particular issue.’’  – NMP Eugene Tan

“There was a huge credit side which no one wants to talk about” – PAP’s Hri Kumar on the $5b Job Credit Scheme which saved jobs.

  1. Everything thing boils down to the big question. How will Singaporeans vote in the next election? Will good governance matter?

Quotable quotes:

 “There is an implied assumption in this survey that perhaps the way voters view policy progress or lack of progress will determine how they vote. While we do talk about all these policies and how they might affect the election, in the end how people really vote…could be affected by other things.” – WP’s Sylvia Lim

“There’s a very good chance that as our democracy progresses, the margins will become thinner and thinner…So it is all the more crucial that we hold the opposition’s feet to the fire because as the margins become very thin there will be a … possibility that an election will actually see a swing. And if it swings, people want to be assured that the new party coming in will have the capability to lead.” – PAP’s Hri Kumar

 “I think the Government will need all the time to the end of the point in order to get the performance up for people to really feel that the changes have mattered, they have made a difference in their lives.”  – Academic Gillian Koh

 

 

 

Sci-fi story: Xena and Xeno:

In News Reports on April 25, 2014 at 1:31 am

An imaginary conversation between Xena and Xeno

Xeno: Eh, can these Pinoys stop it already? Want to hold independence celebration at Taka? They think this is where? Manila?

Xena: Chill. We are all members of the same universe. They liberated themselves and now they are chained here. How to celebrate in Manila? Let them chill out lah. Anyway, it’s in June. School holidays. Why you want to go Taka anyway? Sure crowded with small semi-sentient beings.

Xeno: Oi! Not enough that they’ve invaded our houses, our hospitals and our restaurants…They want to take over my favourite shopping mall? This is war!

Xena: Eh, they already take over many buildings on weekends. Have you been to City Plaza? Anyway what do you want to do? Lead a squadron to take them out? They are harmless, defenceless prisoners, I mean, people… You know, once they get police permits and if Taka says okay, you will be breaking the laws by shooting them……Then it’s Changi penal colony for you man…

Xeno:  I don’t care! They are part of a conspiracy, aided by the powers that be, to exterminate natives so that they can use our resources. It’s a slow takeover. We can’t let them happen. We need to don our greens, flash our pink cards, show our red passports…Time to make a stand!

Xena: Well, there’s always Hong Lim Park, that small planet where you can say what you like and wave the flag. But you’d better get a permit. Go see how many followers you have…some people think 26,000 will turn up. Go try! Say you’re exercising freedom of speech!

Xeno: But I don’t believe in diplomatic means anymore. People are upset. They see the Pinoy flyer and they go…eh, isn’t that the Singapore skyline? The Pinoys made a big mistake. They’ve showed their hand…Now we know what they are really up to….

Xena: Aiyah. They did it before. In Hong Lim and in Suntec City. We didn’t have a problem…Just call their leaders and tell them to stand down. Or go to the Philippines embassy or something. 

Xeno: Exactly what I have been saying! Do it on their own property! Doing it in Taka is a provocation to the rest of us who can’t afford to shop there! We’re unhappy. We’re being squeezed out of our jobs. We don’t even recognise our own country anymore. Everytime I close my eyes and hear all those alien tongues, I think I’m on another planet.

Xena: Wait a minute…Didn’t you escort our own fleet for celebrations in London and Sydney? We did that in public parks right?  

Xeno: That’s different. That’s a public park. Not a shopping mall. Geddit? And there are not so many Singapuddlians in London or Sydney. But there are so many Pinoys here. The gathering is a pretext for the start of a riot when they will all fan out over Singapore as police hold their positions. No shots fired. Well! I will fire first shot!

Xena: Ahhh. I thought some people think we’re too hard on the foreign beings? Work them too hard? No space to sleep? Nowhere to hang out?

Xeno: But it must be on OUR terms. WE will decide when and where and what they can do. Just like we decide at home for the helper. I think I’m not going to give my maid Sunday off that day. Whose silly idea was that?   

Xena: So you want to send a hit squad that day to Taka? Must remember that natives will be around and might get caught in friendly fire…

Xeno: Hmm…we will use water pistols then…

Xena: What? Like Songkran festival which got called off because it’s wasting water?

Xeno: Goodness! So hard to start a war…

Xena: Never mind Xeno…Come. Let’s arm wrestle. I’ll let you beat me this time.

Digging new graves

In News Reports on April 25, 2014 at 12:37 am

I haven’t updated my cemetery in a long time but I think it’s time I did so. Our public speech is so full of euphemisms that we seem incapable of straight talk. I don’t even want to get started on “holistic’’. Everything is “holistic’’ these days, especially development. And don’t worry, each “new initiative’’ will be “monitored closely’’.

  1. Have you noticed that when people want to praise something, they call it “a step in the right direction’’? It’s such a cliché and I wonder why people reach for this…Is it because it’s not such “fulsome’’ praise? Better than saying “it’s a wonderful idea’’ because that would make you sound so young and naive? If I see another step in the right direction, I will step, nay, stomp, on it.
  2. Something bad happened to you, so it “affected’’ you. Or did it “impact’’ you? I can’t stand impact being used as a verb….So such and such “impacted’’ the bottomline? Why this choice of verb (if it is one?) Because impact simply means it has impact but you don’t know if it’s adverse or positive? Can we keep impact as a noun?
  3. I am guilty of this too: The devil is in the details. Legitimate phrase of course. But it probably means “it’s so complicated that we will probably screw up when we carry it out’’. I suppose it’s also code for “I really don’t think this is going to work but let’s see…’’

Just how did Dinesh die? The final chapter

In News Reports on April 24, 2014 at 4:26 am

So we come to the last episode of the long-running series, Just how did Dinesh die?

His family has decided not to pursue the issue of getting more information on how Dinesh died in a state institution. They had earlier charged that the prison officers had abused their authority and assaulted the 21 year old. He died from positional asphyxiation because a prison supervisor had neglected to oversee a restraint procedure properly. In layman’s language, after Dinesh had an altercation with some prison guards, he was laid out in a cell face-down in such a way that he could not breathe. The supervisor pleaded guilty and paid a $10,000 fine.

It had looked like the last stage for the family in the legal process: They went to the apex court to challenge the state’s assertion that the State Coroner had the power to decide not to resume the inquiry into the youth’s death. The court had reserved judgment. If the court had ruled for the family, what would have happened next? Another counter-appeal from the State? If it had ruled against, some would have accused it of protecting the organs of state. I hope this doesn’t land me in contempt of court…

Now the family has accepted a “settlement’’, which both the family and the Home Affairs ministry said was “at a level which the G indicated from the start it was prepared to consider’’. What strange phraseology. Why the stress on this point? What does it mean? That the family went through all the legal hoops for nothing? That the family wasn’t “silenced’’ with a more substantial settlement? That the family was finally convinced through “back channels’’ that they were barking up the wrong tree when they wanted the other prison guards brought to book?

In any case, it seemed that everything was settled amicably with the indefatigable lawyer for the family, M Ravi, saying that this was “closure’’ for the family. The family has also dropped its civil suit asking for compensation. It isn’t clear if this is part of the “settlement’’. But since the family has accepted the official version of what happened  “on a full and final basis, in relation to all claims, issues, disputes and matters whatsoever’’ according to the joint statement, I would suppose so.  

In the news reports I have read today, the main point that comes across is this:  that the State Coroner had a right to discontinue an inquiry if he was satisfied with the outcome of  criminal proceedings on how the death occurred. In the Dinesh case, those criminal proceedings were over in a day because the prison supervisor pleaded guilty.  

What they neglected to say was that the coroner had asked the family when the inquiry was later held if they objected to the discontinuation. Apparently, they were badly advised by their first lawyer at that time. They said nothing. So they lost the chance. And it seemed like it was their one and only chance. One lesson though: Get yourself a good lawyer

Well, if the people with the most interest and stake in the case, the family, are satisfied, I suppose the rest of us should be too.

Let’s let Dinesh rest in peace.

Open Letter to ST Readers Editor

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 21, 2014 at 12:42 am

I am writing to convey my great disappointment over ST’s reporting of the online protests against the holding of the Philippines Independence Day celebrations.

In your first report, you said:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately. Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.
The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

This is inaccurate. The 26,000 “likes’’ are for the page itself, which was set up a few years ago and has a wide variety of posts including those not associated with foreigners. The post calling for the protest amounted to some 300-plus “likes’’.

This mis-reporting has caused consternation as it implied that 26,000 citizens or so support the protests – which is not true. For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.

There was no correction nor clarification, which would be important for readers who read only your august newspaper. Nor was there an attempt to set the record straight in your next article on the protest organisers receiving threats. Or in subsequent articles and in your editorial.

In your Sunday Times article, Filipino group heartened by support, you chose again not to correct the misimpression. You quoted selectively from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook post, focusing only on his point that xenophobia should not be tolerated.

You ignored this point: “That there are xenophobes wasn’t the surprising part since there are these sad elements in any society. It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page … that raised my brows. As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate.”

Likewise, you quoted selectively from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page on this issue, neglecting to incorporate this line: “Fortunately, it was the work of a few trolls.’’

It would seem that ST has gone to great lengths to sweep its mistake under the carpet, an ignominious thing to do for a newspaper which prides itself on accuracy. For ST-only readers, the 26,000 figure is what will stick in their minds, tarring the online community as a bunch of rabid xenophobes. Foreigners who read ST only would also come away with the impression that Singapore is on the verging of losing its sanity over the immigration issue.

In her column on April 19, your writer Ms Chua Mui Hoong used the online protests as a launch pad to discuss whether such online views are representative of Singapore society at large. She too made no mention of ST’s mistake of exaggerating the protest numbers although she did say this: From all acounts, that anger seems to be an over-reaction from a segment of Singaporeans against a perfectly pleasant, legitimate event. Many others spoke up against such anti-foreigner sentiments.

She also said: Unlike blogs in English which delight in ripping off mainstream media’s reports, Chinese language bloggers used mainstream media reports as sources of information, not as fodder for criticism.

I would like to point out that this is precisely why ST should be careful with its news reports – because the mainstream media is used as a source of information. This means that when it is inaccurate, it must brace itself for criticism, acknowledge its failings and not dismiss the comments of those, whom as Ms Chua put it, “delight in ripping off’’ its reports.

Ms Chua concluded: So it’s never a good idea to generalise from a group of angry netizens to Singapore society at large.

I agree. And it would help if ST was more careful in its reporting and upfront about its mistakes instead of adding to the misperception.

A mid-term report

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 19, 2014 at 3:55 am

ST pulled out its big guns to mull over a mid-term report on Singaporean’s satisfaction with the G. They dissected the views on health, transport and housing and expanded on what they saw as middle class angst over the state of affairs here.

The survey results were generally favourable to the G, noting higher levels of satisfaction over its attempts to fix the housing, healthcare needs of citizens and to alleviate the plight of the old and the poor. Post-2011 GE – and the G seems to have taken into account the woes of the populace. Yet as commentator after commentator pointed out, the disaffected will still say that the measures were too little, too late and the problems were wrought by bad policies, which behoved the G to rectify anyway. Some will point to the small sample size of 500. But students of statistics will allow that a sample, if scientifically picked and polled, would suffice as a more-or-less accurate gauge of sentiment. Far better than the usual street poll, at least…  

In any case, I’d wager anything for comments to surface that the survey was a white-wash, initiated by a pro-G media mouthpiece which sought to present the survey results as the voice of silent majority.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised at the results. Bread-and-butter issues have always been foremost in the Singaporean mindset. People are happy that the problem of affordable housing seems to have been fixed and moves are being made to provide for universal healthcare. Social policies in recent years have been geared towards alleviating the plight of the poor, aided by the G’s constant reminders of the amount of money, subsidies and benefits that go to the group. The Pioneer Generation Package is appreciated. The need to provide medical cover for those who pre-date the CPF scheme and Medisave has been thoroughly welcomed, although experts have noted that the devil is in the details.  

Give us the good life – that’s what we want.

We also want lower COE prices and a train system that doesn’t break down. That’s the biggest bugbear of those surveyed. The G is having difficulty on this front, and no wonder. In housing, it has the levers of HDB and land sales as well as the power to restrict or expand lending through MAS regulations. Its network of polyclinics and public hospitals as well as controls over CPF and Medisave also work as healthcare financing instruments. In transport, besides the Land Transport Authority,road-building and infrastructure, public transport is really in private hands and private enterprises are wily enough to get round private transport curbs. Hence the luckless Mr Lui Tuck Yew.

When it comes to conceptualising policies, this really is a good government, aided by a very able civil service (MDA excepted). Increasingly, a soft touch is being applied to them, which we will probably see more of when Parliament re-opens.

As for the not-as-satisfied middle class and mid-age group, their sentiments have been variously described as conforming to a traditional U-shape for happiness (because this is the segment everywhere which has to deal with the bread and butter issues with car, house, children to support). Or explained as high expectations of an even better life than what they now have.

Now, the G can fix policies to give more people a fair shake, but raising the tide to lift all boats will be a far tougher issue at a time when people are unhappy about life’s stresses and the influx of foreigners needed to fuel the economy.   

How will this translate into votes come election time? There is a chart in the bowels of ST which could shed light. It does not refer to policy issues, but how survey respondents pick their MPs .

Of six factors, national policies and their impact on the individual were rated as “important’’ or “very important’’ for 86 per cent of them; or a mean of 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 5. This bodes well for the G, except that other contrary factors are also at work, such as how about 80 per cent think it “important’’ or “very important” to have checks and balances on the G, especially among the vast swathe of 21 to 54 year olds, and the higher-income. Indeed, a high 35 per cent viewed this as “very important’’. Expressed in terms of averages, this factor scored 4.11.  

There is another statistic: 29 per cent viewed the need for alternative views in Parliament as “very important’’; the same proportion as those who placed such a premium on local constituency issues. The score for alternative views is 4.05. For local issues, 4.02.  

The other two factors are the candidate’s attributes (4.11) and party (4.09).

I wish the survey had ranked the factors as well, so that we know which the people placed the greatest weight on.

Statistics can of course be interpreted any which way. But it is absolutely clear that the People’s Action Party will never go back to the days of a one-party Parliament however it satisfies the people policy-wise. Despite innovations like the Nominated MP scheme, the people’s aspirations for a more diverse Parliament have not been assuaged. In fact, it might have raised expectations instead. You can also expect that some will attribute the G’s performance to the presence of more opposition MPs and the rude awakening call it was administered at the last GE. In fact, it might lead some to think that more opposition would bring about better government.

Of course, the reverse could happen. Those who voted against the current G might feel that it has seen the “error of its ways’’ or the benefits of social policy are felt widely enough for more people to feel that the G has done right – and will continue to do right – by them.  

How the G does in the rest of parliamentary term will be critical. Can it consolidate its gains and ride the 50th anniversary feel-good tide?  Can it “fix’’ the current pre-occupation of residents – rising cost of living?

Truth be told, I am a little uncomfortable with its shift towards more “social’’ governance. Methinks it would lead to greater expectations on the part of the people and invite a greater role for the G in the people’s lives.

But it is so very important to satisfy the people, isn’t it?

  

 

The flip side of the Filipino Day

In News Reports, Society, Writing on April 16, 2014 at 2:34 am

We all know that there are racists and xenophobes in Singapore, as there are in any society. The sane among us know not to add fuel to their fire. We do not encourage their sentiments – because we do not share them. Sometimes we ignore them because there is no way to change how they feel. And, of course, no one would acknowledge to being racist or xenophobic.

So when does racism and xenophobia become news?

I ask this because I was aghast to read the article, Filipino group gets online flak over event, published in The Straits Times today.

It said: Organisers of a plan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day here had to remove a Facebook post about the event, after it drew a storm of vitriol and protests from netizens.
The online response came as a shock, they said, though they still intend to proceed with the celebration on June 8 at Ngee Ann City’s Civic Plaza, pending approval of permits from the authorities.

A lot of things get “online flak’’, so when is “flak’’ so heavy that it deserves further magnification in The Straits Times? Well, it seems that the removal of a FB post about the event by the hapless organisers was enough to merit a piece of real estate in ST. It was prime estate as well, on page A8, not in the bowels of its Home section.

Note: The organisers weren’t compelled to stop the June event. They are still proceeding with it as soon as they get the licences. If they were bullied into stopping altogether, methinks it would be worth some newsprint space.
So perhaps the online flak itself is enough to merit a story?

The article continued:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately.
Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.

The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

It was the 26,000 “likes’’ that prompted me to check the particular page. I couldn’t believe that 26,000 would say no to the community holding an event here. We have that many xenophobes? If so, it is something worth reporting because there is something seriously wrong with Singapore society.
It turned out that the FB page has been set up way back when the White Paper on Population was still a hot issue. The page has all sorts of posts, including on the death of a wrestling star, the haze and the predictable pillorying of G leaders. It wasn’t a page that was dedicated to the event.

The post which called for the protest drew 300-plus likes – a more “respectable’’ number. In fact, it is a number which should not even bother any journalist. It is inconsequential in the scheme of “likes’’ in the internet space. So why does it even deserve newsprint space in the august ST?

Now, I am firmly against the protest. I think the arguments against the Filipinos holding its own day at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road are narrow-minded.

The protesters said on the FB page that they are against three things:
a. We are against them using the Singapore skyline in their logo for their Philippine Independence Day logo & posters, Facebook page, websites, etc.

Why? They live and work here presumably, and we are the host country. Perhaps some people think it looks as though the Filipinos have taken over the country? And Singapore is the Philippines? Why such insecurity? I happen to think it’s a nice gesture to the host country. It should be the Filipinos back home who are aghast that their own national symbols aren’t used. Not us.

b. We are against them in using the terms “Two Nations” and “Inter-dependence” in their Philippine Independence Day celebration posters. Singapore only observe and celebrate our own National Day on the 9th of August and we DO NOT and WILL NOT have a joint-celebration of “Inter-dependence” with another sovereign state. Their event is insinuating a very serious and misleading assumption; which we Singaporeans have never endorsed.

Hmm….is there a communication problem here? Something lost in translation? Isn’t it good that the community recognises the inter-dependence of nations? I don’t think the Filipinos are calling for a joint celebration! Rather, more an invitation to Singaporeans to join them in their celebrations.

Its organiser was reported as saying in ST: “We are not saying that we are trying to take over. Our drive is to be part of the community and try to open up to other nationalities. Interdependence doesn’t mean Singaporeans depend on us, but that we all help each other.”

I agree. It seems to me that the protesters have misled themselves

c. We are against them in celebrating their country’s Independence on Singapore soil. We urge them, however, to do so in their own Embassy compound.

For crying out loud…By the way, the community has held similar celebrations in the past, in Hong Lim Park and Suntec City. Is Orchard Road so sacred? And what does it say about the country’s own celebration of Singapore Day around the world; we took a public garden in Sydney and more recently, spent $4m or so in London. So Singapore should stop its own celebrations on foreign soil and confine the activities only in the embassy compound? If the other countries reacted like these “protesters’’ did, then perhaps we should.

The so-called protest leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But then again, it’s a SMALL group, not some 26,000 or so as ST seemed to have implied.

Which brings me back to the question: What is the duty of care that MSM should exercise when publishing or broadcasting what goes on on the Internet? There will always be vitriol, even in pre-Internet days. But to have the MSM further magnify this (based on 300, not 26,000 likes) is downright bad reporting and bad judgment. If it was a question of numbers only – that is, so many thousands of people protesting – then it should take a look at the anti-STOMP petition and publish a story. The same rules must apply, even to itself.

What I cannot abide is how the article has given the impression to its much touted 1million readers or so that the entire Internet community is a bunch of rabid, raving xenophobes. I wouldn’t put it past some politician to refer to this as an example of the terrible nature of the community.

Now I certainly hope the authorities aren’t going to get cold feet and deny the licences to the organisers because of this and cite “security and law and order considerations ’’. I hope the Filipinos go ahead and organise the celebration. Just make sure you don’t riot or consume too much alcohol or litter or pee in the plaza.

This Singaporean wishes you a good Independence Day.

Before we stomp on STOMP

In News Reports on April 10, 2014 at 3:45 am

So, it’s 20,000 signatures and counting…That’s for the online petition to close down STOMP started by a Mr Robin Li.

The reason, according to the petition: STOMP publishes fabricated stories that promote cyber-bullying and unrest in the name of “citizen journalism’’. It doesn’t acknowledge mistakes and seems to lack guidelines that would screen out fabrications by contributors.

It is a worthy enough reason and one which would probably apply to countless of sites that unabashedly fabricate stuff under the guise of free speech and discussion. (What has happened to that petition to close down The Real Singapore?)

I suppose what grates on people is that STOMP is part of the Singapore Press Holdings stable using the brand name of The Straits Times. BTW, I declare my interest. I was party to the setting-up of STOMP all those years ago. It was meant to capture the young people on the Internet and get them to engage with the fuddy-duddy ST. There was some original content, giving different insights into the news of the day and I remember an extremely successful MMS talent quest and a successful “getai’’ series. It was an experiment to catch young eyeballs with a down-to-earth, life-stylish, grassroots approach that was accessible. (I admit to not being comfortable with the experiment as it seemed so at odds with the august and conservative tone of ST. But then again, I’m a fuddy duddy and who can object to an experiment to capture a slice of the online pie?)

Celebrating “citizen journalism’’ was part of its core mission. The idea was to give netizens a platform to post stuff which would be curated, edited and then published. For journalists, such user-generated content was a great source of news tip-offs, especially in its early years. STOMPers acted as eyes and ears on the ground. In the era before Facebook, it collected views. Both functions are less well-used now that social media is so wide-spread and news tip offs and opinions can come from anywhere.

(By the way, I object to the phrase citizen journalism – and have always done so. It cannot be that anyone with a camera phone can be considered a journalist. The right term is “eye-witness’’. A journalist asks questions about the picture and gets the full facts. Most “citizen journalists’’ simply capture a moment in time – and believe it to be newsworthy because he likes it or hates it – and then he opines.)

That STOMP has been successful is in no doubt. It has become part of the vocabulary, even a verb. You STOMP something or you are afraid of being STOMPed. It can even be used a threat…I’ll put it up on STOMP. STOMP has been lauded by its peers in the industry. Its list of accolades is long, including Best in Online media (Gold) last year from the World Association of Newspapers. The accolades must count for something.

Question: After so long in operation and the praise of its peers, why the sudden move to petition for its closure?

I venture to say this: There is so much rubbish online these days that we would like to see a marker of standards, especially from a media company. There must have been plenty of gaffes in the past, but it seems only more recently that people are complaining about the mis-steps of STOMP. Of course, STOMP didn’t help its case when one of its own was found fabricating material. And we still do not know how the offending picture of the NSman who did not give up his seat on the train to an old lady was cropped to leave out the vacant seat in front of her.

Because STOMP is part of a media company, people expect that some amount of scrutiny and editing should take place before inflicting content on the public. This expectation is even greater now given, well, the escalating amount of rubbish online. The flip side, of course, will be charges of censorship and how STOMP refuses to publish because of so-and-so reasons which have nothing to do with journalistic merit.

What rules should be in place then to guard against insane rants and fabrications? How to draw the line between trivial stuff that would divide people and cause “social unrest’’ and trivial stuff that are, well, trivial and may be good for a laugh? Should trivial stuff even make it on STOMP or should  they be considered as “slice of life’’ pieces or a collection of the diversity of Singapore, in all its groaning glory?

And how to screen out online trolls who are out to do in someone or up to plain mischief? Can STOMP do an ST Forum Page and contact contributors who must leave behind their full names and addresses? That would go against the nature of online contributions.

Maybe, we should look at it this way. Best to give the kooks and nutters a platform so that we know where they are. And not to take STOMP seriously at all. This, of course, won’t be good for its image and the image of the media company. It will be open to accusations of sensationalism and in the business of capturing as many eyeballs as it can by catering to the lowest common denominator. Drivel, unfortunately, attracts eyeballs.

Perhaps, it is good if STOMP makes a re-statement on what it is about and what it hopes to achieve. This is what it says now about itself:

Award-winning STOMP, or Straits Times Online Mobile Print, is Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website with user-generated material fuelling its success.

We’re also big on social networking, enabling millions to come together to interact and bond both online and offline in Singapore Seen and Club Stomp.

STOMP connects, engages and interacts with Singaporeans in a style and approach that is different from conventional news websites. Its strong growth reflects not only its popularity but its resonance with Singaporeans.

This is pretty old hat and can be applied to any website that has a social networking function and ah,,,,parodies the news! SGAG? New Nation?

Maybe it should also say what it is NOT. Right now, it is not about generating deep discussions on policy or starting useful debates. It isn’t geared towards doing so. For that, you have The Straits Times. (Don’t laff)

Then again, what it has been doing so successfully for years is causing a backlash (although it can argue that its fans outnumber its detractors) I say it was an interesting experiment in a time when there weren’t so many alternative platforms for the trivial or slice of life stuff. It acquired first-mover status and a market. Now, it has to find something new to distinguish itself from the rest of the hoi polloi.

Any media must move with the times, the demands of its ever-changing audience and in the case of Singapore and its media duopoly, show how responsible online journalism should be conducted.

STOMP should take a step back and re-consider its content if it wants to continue to stomp ahead.