berthahenson

Are you all worked up – yet?

In News Reports on June 9, 2014 at 12:42 am

People are getting all worked up these days. I wasn’t at Hong Lim Park for the Return My CPF protest but I gather it was quite a “riot’’. So I read media reports on what happened, including the one in ST. The trouble with reportage is that it makes everything reasonable. It’s the way news is written. You try to make sense even of non-sense, because you want the reader to understand what’s been written. It is not in the nature of news reporting to report all the bells and whistles, side-shows, rants and raving. For that, you need “colour’’ writing. And even that is tough because you might well be seen as identified with, or on the side of, the revelry or occasion. And you can’t very well be “colouring’’ the report with your own views. Because that would be comment.

So, people have to resort to video, preferably un-censored. I looked at the videos of the speakers that were helpfully provided for me by the FB crowd and I have to say I feel quite perturbed. People are getting worked up by people who are worked up. Organiser Han Hui Hui says there were 6,000 or so people there, although others put it at one-third as much. Doesn’t matter. What matters also is what the speakers said and whether they will “catch fire’’ beyond the green space of the park.

Now, most of us have been to election rallies, especially by the Opposition. Some of us might identify with what they say but I think for most of us, it was for the enjoyment of hearing our leaders getting “whacked’’ once every four/five years. It’s even cathartic. Then we go back to daily living after elections.

 Who would have thought that “protests’’ would become a more regular feature in Singapore life, with our political leaders getting whacked at a more regular basis?

As in the nature of protests, Saturday’s was a lot of theatre. Words were calculated to whip up emotions and there were plenty of rhetorical questions and quite blunt insinuations which the crowd lapped up. Some even bordered on the defamatory. I’m sure some would say the fact that crowds turned up and the fact of a protest being held is a symptom of dissatisfaction and resentment among the electorate boiling over. Maybe so.

But I am uncomfortable with how the leaders are being castigated as not just heartless but evil. I don’t think it’s evil; it’s just stupid about the way it communicates with people. That, plus it took its eye off the ball in the pursuit of growth and neglected to see how the influx of foreigners would affect the place and also lead to the stagnation of wages at the lower levels. So even while its scrambling to “right’’ this, people still cannot forget, even if they can forgive, how it got this wrong in the first place.

Then there is the question of their salaries. Almost every speaker made reference to how much ministers are being paid. The mantra goes like this: We pay you so much, and you still screwed up! We pay you so much, that’s why you don’t understand how we feel! We pay you so much, you better do what we say!

This “commercial’’ relationship is something we should lose. I am of the firm belief that it subverts the relationship between the people and their leaders. But that’s for another blog post.

Back to the park.

I am all in favour of transparency and accountability and the need for more information about the way the CPF works. It’s such a complicated affair and it’s really the G’s fault that it can’t explain it simply and clearly, leaving room for speculation. Perhaps, the information is already somewhere in the public domain and people have yet to search them out or simply can’t understand what they read.

Then I hear Mr Roy Ngnerg talking about how some sites changed what they said about CPF management very recently – not good. People would think there was something wrong in the first place (and it might just be from sheer carelessness) or that there was something that must be hidden from public eye. The G really needs to take its “whole of Government’’ approach a step up and look at how policies are being explained by its different agencies.

Then there is the question of a protest being “one way’’. I hear Mr Leong Sze Hian talking about an Enhanced CPF nomination scheme that hasn’t been made public despite its introduction a few years ago. This scheme allows you to say that your CPF will go to your beneficiaries’ CPF account, rather than as cash. There was a lot of righteous booing but what wasn’t made clear was that CPF members still have a choice in deciding how to will their CPF – whether as cash or to CPF accounts.

Then you have speakers talking about the CPF interest rate being so low, as compared to other pension funds ecetera. I know the G has explained the links but you know what? People simply cannot understand what it is saying, even if they want to. There is, for example, an interesting graphic in the Business Times explaining the different rates in the Ordinary accounts etc…but how many people read BT? It’s just too much of a strain on the brain to understand G policies sometimes. (It’s a strain on mine too) Instead people latch on to catchphrases and witticisms – and view them as truth.

I wondered why some in online crowd were praising Ms Han’s performance, so I took a look at the video. I admire her ability to switch from English to Mandarin to Hokkien and back, but I don’t think much about what she SAID, especially the insinuations, or rather blunt assertions, that our CPF money was being creamed off to line some people’s pockets. (Her euphemism is “the family’’) If Temasek (which said it doesn’t touch CPF) and GIC et al were all hiding stuff because CPF money is going everywhere else and maybe even “lost’’, then the G has much to answer for. (By the way, the CPF rate of interest is a “guaranteed’’ amount, even if some people think its low). But the G might want to consider this: The trouble is that people don’t understand why their sovereign funds can’t be clearer about their statistics and, as I have always maintained, when you leave gaps in info, others will fill them in for you.

While there are many people who think the G is “bad’’ (almost by definition), there are also many who think it’s “good’’. It’s an article of faith. Those who cynically believe in everything bad about the G think that those who think otherwise are simply being naive. Likewise, those who swear by the G think the other end comprises ungrateful people who don’t realise how good they have it in Singapore.

Faith is good. But facts are better. I don’t think most of the population will be led by the nose based on “faith’’. Increasingly, we want the facts. The G itself said that people should reason based on information and not get all worked up over rumours. I agree. For that to happen, the G does not just have to be forthcoming with the facts, but also lay them out in a simple enough way for people to understand. Sure, there will always be people who will wilfully misunderstand, but I am betting there is a broad swathe of people who are watching from the sidelines waiting to be convinced, at least on the CPF front.

I am going to stick my neck out here and say: Don’t tear the G down. It’s been showing that it is trying to fix stuff. And my view is based on both faith – and facts.

  

    

   

 

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  1. Well, it’s hard not to agree that people have been pretty rough on the government, usually quite unjustly so. But I feel that the whole Roy libel saga is much more important than the specifics of the CPF.

    I gave Roy a few bucks. I don’t endorse libel, of course. It was wrong of Roy. But it’s also true that lies, mistruths and misrepresentations occur all the time in politics and in mature democracies even the most malicious of slanders don’t end up in court. But between Roy’s constitutional right to free speech – and Roy’s rights are also yours and mine – and the PM’s right to a pristine reputation, why would I ever choose the latter?

    The trust deficit can be resolved by one thing: stronger democratic institutions and stronger democratic processes. Apart from communicating things more transparently, major decisions – like the leadership of GIC and Temasek – should be formally and transparently endorsed in parliament.

    Same goes for policy decisions – if the MDA wants to implement some censorship policies, those things should also be voted on in parliament so everyone knows which MPs are on what sides of the issue. We expect our MPs on both sides of the political divide to represent their constituents’ interests and have their own line of thinking, not automatons who cower behind a party whip. Giving impressive speeches is not enough; these MPs should prove their commitment to their words by the evidence of their parliamentary voting. Cynical or even practical people might think such things are useless or a formality in a parliament that is currently 90% occupied by the PAP, but they set important procedural precedents that every mature democracy should have.

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