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Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

Over-REACHing

In News Reports, Politics, Society on January 31, 2015 at 7:45 am

If the G’s REACH people had rung me to ask about the Liquor Control legislation, I would have answered this way:

  1. No, I do not support the restrictions.
  2. No, the restrictions, if imposed, would not affect my lifestyle.
  3. Then comes the third question: Whether I consider public drunkenness a serious problem that has to be countered. I would have said yes…Because on PRINCIPLE, I would have to agree. But then I would have stopped to ask: You mean public drunkenness here? Now? Is it a serious problem? This country with the lowest alcohol consumption in the world? Seriously?

So we finally get to hear some statistics about public drunkenness – at the second reading of the Bill. Just about the last chance for anyone, or rather only MPs, to reflect on them and ask questions.

Last year, there were 47 cases of rioting linked to the consumption of liquor. There were also 115 cases of serious hurt, which were related to drinking. These cases included stabbing, cutting using dangerous weapons, and inflicting severe bodily pain. Nine in 10 occurred after 10.30pm.

Please let me hiccup a few times.

Hic! The rrreview over liquor consumption was started in 2012, and brought into focus after the Little India riot the next year. And all this while, public consultation was going on without the benefit of some numbers to ascertain the seriousness of the problem? What kind of rrrreeeeview is this? Hic!

Hic! We don’t know if these rioters and slashers were all drinking takeway beer after 10.30pm or had emerged sloshed from a licensed premises or got booted out by bouncers onto the public space. But, hey, hic!, So what rrrrright? All the crimes were committed after 10.30pm. Therefore it makes sense to make sure all “public’’ drrrrinking – whether or not it becomes public “drrrrunkenness’’ – stops at 10.30pm….

I have been trying to find the overall statistics on rioting and can only refer to an ST report, released on Thursday, the day before Parliament approved the Liquor Control Bill, saying that rioting involving youths had gone up from 283 arrested the year before to 322 last year. Please note that these riots involved only youths who may or may not be old enough to drink.

So what’s the BIG, national statistic?

I know what some people will think: Why am I nit-picking? Isn’t enough that people are hurt after some people had one too many? Didn’t you hear all those MPs going on and on about the pee, the vomit and the noise? You are in no position to speak because you don’t live in those places where there is public drunkenness.

Really? If it were me, I would be calling the cops all the time and insist that they do their job instead of asking for an omnibus law that affects everyone. My question would be: “Why aren’t the cops doing anything???!’’ Not: “We need yet another law.’’

So I hear this from a lawyer-MP who said that “of course’’ the law is a curb on personal liberties. But the “right to drink where and when you want is not a fundamental liberty’’ if it affects the public interest.

Because it IS a curb on personal liberties, this requires us to be rather more circumspect in imposing the law. This is not like a quarantine order to confine people in their homes to stop the spread of infectious disease. In fact, while others in developed countries might balk against such orders, we’ve shown ourselves pragmatic enough to deny ourselves freedom as was the case during Sars. That was a BIG problem that should be solved. The citizens here agreed.

Then you have the G saying this: “When does the Bill stop being blunt and over-reaching, and when does it start being comprehensive and effective? We can have a lot of rhetorical flourishes and pose interesting questions, but at the end of the day, we need to make a decision, and that decision applies not just to general principles, but also to specific steps that need to be taken on the ground.”

I really think that was not a nice thing to say. Rhetorical flourishes and interesting questions? When it comes to fundamental rights, the questions are merely “interesting’’? Or is the word “academic’’? I suppose the subtext is that this is merely the concern of liberal loonies who put Western ideals of fundamental freedoms above the heartlanders’ law and order concerns.

By the way, hic,,..I am not a liberal loonie, I am a member of the hic! HIC!.. intelligentsia – a term which is practically un-used in Singapore. And it is normal everywhere that the much despised intelligentsia would raise such uncomfortable questions especially if it touches on the extent of State power

As for that REACH survey. So the G denys that it governs by polls, never mind its feedback arm had the poll done. I guess it had to be done to counteract the ST online poll which had more people against the restrictions. The REACH poll, which is “scientific’’, mind you, showed otherwise. In fact, you have the usual suspects saying that the online views are just those of a vocal minority while the REACH poll is a REAL reflection of public sentiment.

I am really quite sick and tired of such dismissals of contrarian views. The G should give us the FACTS, not the views. And give us the FACTS early, not at the last minute.

Isn’t the key question this: Is the state of public drunkenness such that it is beyond the ability of the police to cope? Are there not enough specific laws in place to handle this?

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I cannot help but recall how the Little India Commission of Inquiry had repeatedly asked for statistics on public drunkenness in the area and whether the Miscellaneous Offences Act was being enforced against those public drunks who became a nuisance. These statistics were given out then: 60 arrests in 2013 and 27 in 2012. Then nothing heard.

If rioting cases fuelled by drinking had gone up over the years, I certainly didn’t know this despite being an avid follower of local developments in the media. The only time liquor became a problem was the Little India riot, which left the police black-and-blue in the face.

MPs of affected resident say it is about giving back the residents their “space’’. I don’t suppose affected residents think that getting back their “space’’ also means restricting their own and that of other people? Why aren’t they asking where the law is during those times? All those cameras everywhere and it can’t be used to direct officers to clear drunken loiterers or put them behind bars under the Miscellaneous Offences Act?

Then comes this cop-out from the G: Let’s not worry because the law is really about nabbing the really very bad drunks. The police won’t bother to strip search you (even though they can) or break up your beach barbeque (but please get a permit) or arrest you because you were drinking a can of beer at 11pm (but please bin it when told to) In other words, light touch. Or another decorative piece in the law that will be utilised with utmost discretion by the executive. Which sort of begs the question of why the law is there in the first place.

Also there is this crazy point about how the definition of workers’ dormitories as “public places’’ is really just a “technical’’ thing to conform to another piece of legislation. Pttfff…Dismissed.

Sheesh. Shouldn’t we be more careful about protecting ourselves against over-reach by the G? Or should we laugh it away in a drunken fit? Maybe we should say: For more than 20 years, we’ve always had no problems with the G abusing any process. We assume that everything is done according to our expectations. Now this (fill in the blanks) has happened. But never mind, we can always unwind the process. Let’s drink to that!

But now that the Bill is LAW, I can only suggest this for licensed premises to consider: Please start your happy hour earlier.

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A deadly serious business

In News Reports, Society on January 30, 2015 at 2:12 am

So Eternal Pure can’t build its temple-cum-columbarium in Sengkang after all. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the G didn’t know it was a purely commercial company and had nothing to do with religion. Here’s a peek at what happened from the point of view of the company 

They were dead on the money. What could be better than going into real estate in Singapore? Shoe-box apartments for the living might go empty, but a shoe-box for the dead? Everybody needs a shoe box sooner or later, unless they prefer to be set adrift in the sea. And in Singapore, with its ageing population, people will be queuing up to see the showflat. Plus, this niche property development won’t be subject to the vagaries of G controls, or debt servicing ratios. Yep! A columbarium it is!

The members of the Living or Dead company based Down Under congratulated themselves on hitting on the idea. Their underground cavern shook. Claws were sharpened. Bones jangled. Saliva dripped. Until someone intoned zombie-like that private columbariums were already in existence and buying land would drain the company’s coffers. It might prove a dead loss. What the hell!

There was a deadly silence, until a bony one suggested bidding for land intended for a religious purpose. Why not build the shell and rent it out to a religious organization? And then build a columbarium on the side?

Somebody guffawed, clapping his paws. What a heaven-sent idea! These temples and churches don’t have much money (and City Harvest is busy in court), they could out bid any one of them for the land. A small, cautious voice piped up: Is this allowed? Won’t the G check to see if a religious group was bidding for the plot? Then it would a dead end…

The fanged one looked up from his red liquid diet. Private companies were already allowed to bid for land for religious purposes, he said. These G fellas assume that the companies are set up by the religious organisations or in some kind of joint venture…

“Assume? They don’t check?’’ asked a clawed one.

“Naah. Haven’t done so in 20 years…’’ replied the fanged one.  “But we will need a name that sounds religious…’’

After some brain-storming which did not include the headless one, they decided on Heavenly Life. They dug into their pickets and unearthed $20m, setting aside $5.2 m for the bid. Of course, they won. The Living or Dead members thought they would be safe for all eternity, drawing an income from Singaporeans’ obsession with real estate. They didn’t reckon that their plot would be undone by….Singaporeans’ obsession with real estate.

The members met a second time to discuss the dark forces massing to attack their proposed columbarium. The living was unhappy about living next to the dead. The homes of living were their places of rest, the living said, and they can’t rest easy next to the resting places of the rest. Plus, the value of their homes would go down.

The fanged one, draining his cup, insisted that the Singapore G was good in the way that it would refuse to climb down despite the noise. “It is not in its DNA,’’ he said knowingly. “I’ve had a taste of it.’’

The clawed one wasn’t so sure. He preferred to slash the residents and accuse them of nimby-ness. “Let’s attack that front, and hopefully, we will keep our plot and our other plot won’t be discovered.’’

But things were not to be.

It wasn’t nimby-ness that killed the plans of the Living or Dead. Residents had discovered the plot and raised a stink to high heaven about the G awarding the plot to a commercial company.

The G said it had never intended the plot to go to commercial companies. It just hadn’t caught up with private sector’s dark and nefarious ways of making money and didn’t think to ward it off with any garlic, wooden stakes or special incantations. You know, it’s like how you wouldn’t expect a woman disguised as a man to attend a function that is clearly for men. The word most commonly used: ASSuME

Plus the religious groups were pushing back – and they were people that the G could not afford to antagonise.

The Living or Dead had to stop its shares trading on the stock market Down Under. They re-grouped. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Their underground cavern shook. The fanged one demanded blood. The clawed one broke up the furniture. Only the zombie remained unfazed. He intoned: They could pick a religion – Taoism, Buddhism or any Chinese diety – become converts, start a religious organisation and bid for the land legitimately.

The rest looked up, be-witched by the idea. Until a small, cautious voice piped up and said that the nimby issue would still be an issue. Did the Living or Dead want to waste precious time combating these would-be neighbours? It would drain the life out of them…

The headless one nodded with his foot.

The fanged one picked his teeth.

The clawed one started his manicure.

The bony one rattled.

They wanted revenge.

They turned to the small, cautious one.

With one voice, they said: “Go infest the place.’’

Dear PM, can you pass me your minister?

In News Reports, Politics on January 24, 2015 at 4:21 am

I wonder which country in the world has a labour movement which writes to the head of Government to ask that he release an office-holder so that the man can vie for office in the…labour movement. But I guess it’s better than the parachuting of an unknown into a big office on someone’s say-so.

It says much about the symbiotic relationship between the G (or is it the People’s Action Party?) and the NTUC, that no one has said anything about the above “poaching’’ process. One guess is that the concept is so in-grained or well accepted  that nobody talks about it anymore. The vision of the union and the G is aligned, and leaders move in and out. They even maintain offices on both sides of a (non-existent) fence!

So Mr Chan Chun Sing is the man of the moment. The PM has said okay and Mr Chan has to win the votes of delegates in October to get the top job of secretary-general. We all know that the head of the NTUC has to be politically acceptable. As well as the ability to win the hearts and minds of workers. So both have to go together.

There is a precedent in the form of Mr Lim Chee Onn, once the flavor of the month and among the front-runners for the premiership. Although he got the top job with the blessings of the political leadership, he was removed as the secretary-general because his leadership style rankled on the rank-and-file. I’m basing this on memory because I’m having a hard time researching the background. I’m not sure if he was removed at a conference or simply told to step aside in favour of someone more palatable, in this case, the late president Ong Teng Cheong.

I am among those who were surprised at the choice of the NTUC central committee. MSM reports that even unionists were surprised. In fact, I am more surprised that there has been no successor groomed for Mr Lim Swee Say’s job after all these years. Nobody knew that Mr Lim was going to turn 62 soon and has to retire? Its current crop of deputy/assistant sec-gens not good enough?

As for the choice of Mr Chan, the surprise is that a career civil servant whose only experience has been in one “unique” sector, the military, should have been the choice of the key union leaders. Perhaps, it is because he heads the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which deals with bread-and-butter issues of the less privileged that makes top union leaders think he is a good choice? It cannot only be because he drinks coffee with taxi-drivers; he’s an advisor to the taxi drivers’ unions. Or because he can adopt as folksy a manner as Mr Lim?

All I can say is that we seem to have an amazing paucity of talent, so much so that established institutions here have to raid each other, like companies poaching in the private sector. Or is there a bigger, long-term objective in sight, such as Mr Chan is being tested for an even bigger job. Much as Mr Lim Chee Onn was. Getting the endorsement of the labour movement, which has nearly one million members, is a big deal. Given that Mr Chan is a first-term MP, you might call this “hot housing’’.

Okay, I am rambling. Sorry.

Anyway, I have always liked Mr Lim Swee Say, since the days he was an officer in the Economic Development Board. Power and position hasn’t changed him one bit. I liked him even more in the past few years for what he was doing for the labour movement. For too long, I’ve always thought the NTUC was placing too much focus on the “social’’ aspects of its mission, such as setting up its “finest’’ supermarkets and pre-skools which it can’t spel, instead of the “organising’’ aspects of a trade union. It should be looking at wages, recruitment and workplace practices. I blame the union for not detecting the long stagnation of wages at the lowest levels.

But I can see more “organizing’’ work done in recent time. It has managed to pry open the two integrated resorts and unionized their workers. It has tried to rectify the low wages of some sectors by combining a wage floor with a productivity ladder. It has pushed for $50 salary raises within the National Wages Council. And it has finally managed to get PMEs under the labour movement’s umbrella. I still think it needs to do a better job of selling the “re-hiring’’ of older workers to the people. That is not about working till you drop dead, but about being able to work beyond a certain age if you want to.

It has also always been a source of wonder to me that the NTUC does not have its own labour experts in a strategic policy unit who can crunch the numbers on wages and employment. The labour movement should be leading the charge, rather than depend on the statistics and pronouncements of the Manpower ministry.

If Mr Chan does get the vote in October, I hope that he will carry on the organizing aspects of the movement. After all, he has headed a big organization like the military and is now the PAP organizing secretary. Perhaps, under his charge, the NTUC will be the first thing that comes to the minds of workers who feel they have been short-changed in some way. And that it is not just a place to buy groceries.

It remains for me to wish Mr Lim and Mr Chan all the best!

CPF – Complicated Problem to Fix

In News Reports on January 23, 2015 at 1:58 am

TODAY had an interesting way to describe one of NTUC’s proposals to tweak the CPF system. It described the suggestion to let those with less than the minimum sum take out 20 per cent on top of the $5,000 that they are allowed to when they turn 55.

Eye-catching indeed and doubtless welcomed by those who want their CPF returned to them to fund other expenses or even a holiday. But what happens then to their monthly payouts under CPF Life? Much smaller than before? And what happens to the payouts for the rest of CPF members who kept their money in the fund?

The NTUC suggested “incentives’’ to get people to keep their money in the CPF but one labour economist said this would have “marginal utility’’. People would be expecting more and more incentives over time. And frankly, can’t the money be better used to bolster health care or pump up the wages of those who need the money?

I guess you would expect the labour movement to weigh in on behalf of the working class. It has tried to do so, but like all policies, any change would have an impact on some other part of the whole. And you can’t ever satisfy all the people all the time.

I was also thinking about another “eye-catching’’ proposal – shave off the 2 per cent difference in CPF contributions between those below 50 and the 50 to 55. I have to confess that I was flummoxed when I realized that my take-home pay as gone up. And then realized is because I had just turned 50 and hence do not have to contribute as much to CPF. Then again, neither does my employer. So wonderful. I’m glad that I don’t need my CPF Ordinary Account to pay for my housing…

Here’s the problem: The rates were shaved to make old(er) people employable because employers won’t have to pay them as much – something which the labour movement surely welcomes. Then again, the labour movement wants people to have more money for retirement. What a conundrum!

Of course, this eye-catching proposal is viewed as “hair-raising’’ by businesses who see only a rise in wage costs at a time of restructuring.

Then there is the proposal to raise the cap on wage contributions from $5,000 a month to $6,000 and to do this in two $500 parts. The reason is because the 80 percentile of wage earners have been designated as the ceiling. And that hit $6,000 in 2012. Hmm. Interesting. I didn’t know about the 80th percentile factor and the proposal looks like simply a logical adjustment. But what is the impact really of the rise? I wish the labour union elaborated on this. More money for future retirement and less money for present needs? What sort of impact will this have on people who have to pay off housing loans?

There is also the 1 per cent extra interest given to those with balances of less than $60,000. NTUC wants the cap reviewed. According to ST today, it wants it doubled, to $120,000? I don’t think anyone minds more money. But do we really need to do more for those who are better-off – or give more to the lower income? How many people are we talking about with balances between $60,000 and $120,000 anyway?

Policymaking is quite an interesting exercise especially when there are so many good but conflicting priorities. I can’t wait to see what sort of proposals the CPF review panel will come up with that will satisfy all, or at least most, CPF members.

Over-protecting the people

In News Reports, Politics, Society on January 21, 2015 at 3:12 am

The proposed alcohol curbs don’t affect me; I’m usually in bed by 10.30pm. And I drink on licensed premises anyway. My days of drinking on the beach staring at the stars are long over. As for take-away alcohol, nothing prevents anyone from buying it earlier and stocking up at home as the Home Affairs ministry put it: “members of the public can continue to consume liquor at home during the restricted hours’’. Sheesh. You would have thought such a statement was un-necessary. Surely, no one thinks the State can start imposing on what we can do or cannot do in the confines of our home? Then again, foreign worker dorms have been designated as “public spaces’’…

Never mind all that.

My problem with the restrictions on boozing that are making its way in Parliament is simply this: Are they even necessary? So, they have come in the aftermath of the Little India riot because alcohol was a “contributory’’ factor. We had thought that too many liquor licences had been given out to retailers over there – so a cap on such licences looks reasonable. But we were then told that other areas, such as Chinatown, had even more such licences. Restricting the number of licences would have been good enough surely? Just make sure there is no such ready – and cheap – supply. Instead, the whole population have now been told that they can’t buy takeaway liquor after 10.30pm and can’t drink in public areas during “restricted hours’’.

The penalties for infringements: a fine of up to S$1,000 for a first-time offender, while jail of up to three months and a fine not exceeding S$2,000 can be imposed on repeat offenders.

The promise from the G is that it will be “flexible’’.  Just dispose of that beer can if you are caught with it in public; nothing will happen to you.  If there is one thing I do not like about some of our laws – it is the amount of discretion it gives to the executive arm to enforce…

So the G has come up with two ways to convince people that the legislation is okay.

  1. It has the support of the people, or at least most of the 1,200 people it consulted. I sure hope they do not comprise mainly the residents of Little India and Geylang.
  2. The proposed rules are less draconian than those in other countries, including the developed countries. (Except that most of the laws do not blanket a whole country. And I don’t know the historical circumstances which led to their rules in the first place.)

People have been asking for more convincing evidence that the legislation is needed. It is not a question of people wanting to drink till they are light-headed or stoned out of their minds, but that new laws that affect the public must be grounded in something more solid than a poll of 1,200 people.

I recall the Little India Commission of Inquiry which kept asking if police enforced the Miscellaneous Offences Act. Particularly this section: Any person who is found drunk and incapable of taking care of himself, in any public road or in any public place or place of public amusement or resort, or in the immediate vicinity of any court or of any public office or police station or place of worship, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months.

So there is a law already in place dealing with drunkenness. Thing is, has it been enforced? How many people have we thrown into the brink to sleep it off? Deputy Superintendent (DSP) Ho See Ying, the Commanding Officer of Rochor Neighbourhood Centre, told the COI that there were 60 arrests made last year and 27 arrests in 2012. That is only for the area. Do you think the figure is too big or quite small? Surely, the Home Affairs ministry can give the full statistics island-wide? We have yet to hear the numbers. Have the cops used this scalpel? Why wield a sledgehammer when you already have a specific weapon dealing with drunken behaviour?

I can’t help but think that some people wanted things all neat and tidy. So bits and pieces of legislation scattered in the books relating to alcohol have all been grouped under this Liquor Control Bill. I sure hope the people’s representatives would do a better job of asking about the need for this Bill during the second reading.

I also happen to agree with NGOs on another part of the Bill which designates the foreign worker dorms as a “public space’’. That is, the liquor restrictions would apply. Surely, the dorm operators know how to come up with their own rules? Do we need the law to enter into such private spaces? Or are we saying that foreign workers have no right to privacy at all?

Then there is the other law covering foreign workers in their dormitories. MSM seemed to have focused on how they are intended to make the workers’ living conditions better with a Commissioner empowered to look after their needs. Yup. Wonderful. Great. But there is also this part which I read in TODAY: The Commissioner will also have the power to order operators to restrict the entry and exit of dorm residents if there is a serious health threat or risk, or if there is a risk that incidents outside and within Singapore — including civil unrest, hostilities, war, and elections — could generate ill-will or hostilities among or between residents.

My goodness! Isn’t this rather too broad and sweeping? If there is a hotly contested election in say, Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi workers will be confined to their dorms? Or if ethnic groups in China start fighting each other, we’re afraid that the Chinese workers will start an altercation with locals here? Bear in mind that the foreign workers do indeed come from countries which aren’t as politically stable and sedate as Singapore…I guess the response from the State will be that it will be “flexible’’ and not resort to such measures willy-nilly. That is, can we please place more trust in executive “discretion’’.

I read about the MPs going on about why the smaller dorms aren’t covered by the law which is only effective against those with 1,000 beds or more. I wish they didn’t put cart before horse. Shouldn’t the Bill itself be scrutinized properly before we even start asking for an extension? Or do we treat foreign workers as a different species altogether because we want to put Singaporeans first?

Again, I view both pieces of legislation as “convenient’’ for the State rather than necessary for the people. So what if Parliament has to be convened time and again for the G to ask for specific temporary powers to maintain law and order, such as the Public Order Bill? Too messy and time-consuming? But that’s democracy isn’t it?

The Government is there to protect the people but I think sometimes, we also need to ask if getting too much “protection’’ is a good thing for us, the people.

Bad memories

In Politics, Society on January 19, 2015 at 10:11 am

A couple of weeks ago, my publisher asked if he could play an excerpt from a video made during the launch of my book, Troublemaker. He was interested in the portion where I had been asked about the worst time of my journalistic career. I had replied that it was during the Marxist conspiracy of 1987.

His company, Ethos, had a book coming out, by Father G Arotcarena, one of four Catholic priests who had been named in so-called plot. The Frenchman had written Priest in Geylang, about the establishment of the Geylang Catholic Centre which had to be closed down during that time. I had described it as a terrible period when journalists twiddled their thumbs because an editorial decision had been made to simply run material from the Internal Security Department in full. There was to be, in journalistic parlance, no value-added reporting.

As a rookie reporter who was so pleased to have been recalled to work in anticipation of covering news of an Internal Security Department operation, the assignment was such a let-down – journalistically. We were not to ask questions of anyone nor can we do what we usually do with verbose reports – write it journalistically. I was too low in the hierarchy – and much too green – to give vent to my views. We did what editors, who presumably were better-informed than we were, told us to do – which was nothing.

My publisher, Hoe Fang, wanted to play the video during the book launch on the Saturday. The book reprised quite a lot of never-before-revealed details of the time. I said okay (in return for a free copy of the book!) I finished the slim volume in a few hours on Sunday,  surprised that Hoe Fang had several mentions in it as well.

We’ve heard many views about Operation Spectrum (I certainly didn’t know at that time that that was its codename), including from those who had been incarcerated. But the Catholic church had kept a studious silence. Now a priest whom I knew from way back when I was a teenager, has spoken up.

I remember Fr Arotcarena as a very energetic priest who surprised people by breaking out into fluent  Mandarin. He preached often in my Siglap parish as he was based at the next nearest church in Katong. When the names of four priests were released to the media, he was the only one I knew. I also knew that he ran the Geylang Catholic Centre which was well known for its work for abused Filipina maids. You could say it was the fore-runner of the groups which have since sprouted up looking to protect the interests of foreign workers against unscrupulous employers here. At that time, there was hardly any form of “civil society’’.

The book is a narrative of Fr Arotcarena’s attempts to put the faith into practice, whether by relating with prisoners in Changi or the marginalized, such as foreign maid population here. He wanted to do more than just preach from the pulpit. There are several accounts of the people he met. He told stories of robbers and thieves he’s met, as well as those on death row. Of abused maids with bosses were so unreasonable that one of them even wrote on her passport indicating that she was a carrying a bomb on the plane that she was about to board for home. (The employer was later convicted of disseminating a bomb hoax). Of the reformed and the un-reformed and those who couldn’t get their life back on trach. There was even a “kidnapping’’ that he was called to when one of his charges brandished a knife in front of another priest and some layman.

Fr Arotcarena also had his own personal tales. Of the centre being broke. Of warnings by friendly parties that his centre was being watched. Of attempted seductions which, he thinks, had been “officially’’ sanctioned to trip him up. Also, of course, of continued visits by officials, whether in uniform or plainclothes, his own call-up to ISD and a few cloak-and-dagger scenes which involved an ISD officer named Charly.

In a chapter titled Inside the Catholic Church in Singapore, he recounted how the Church had issued an official statement asserting that it had the right to intervene on social matters and to uphold its moral values. It was read out at all masses. One weekday evening, a solemn mass was organized in my parish church to pray for the detainees and their families.

I was there, in my capacity as a journalist. The church was filled to the rafters and beyond. Thousands crammed into the space. The atmosphere was so silent and tense you could have heard a pin drop. The congregation was clinging on to every word of the Archbishop who had 30 priests in attendance. I was recognized by fellow church-goers and endured the hostile glares sent my way. Still, that wasn’t as bad as the tongue-lashing I received from a priest in my parish a couple of days later. He had some choice  swear words for me. I went home crying.

Fr. Arotcarena thinks that the mass mass was the trigger for the scaling up of official activity. A meeting between Church and State was organized and the Archbishop was surprised into holding a press conference. The Prime Minister had ushered him into a roomful of waiting journalists, something that was not on the agenda of their meeting, said Fr Arotcarena. I can still recall the Archbishop’s face and posture on “live’’ TV. He looked beaten down, especially next to a vigorous Lee Kuan Yew who even finished some of his sentences on his behalf. As a Catholic, I felt tremendous pain for the gentle bishop. When the dust had more or less settled, he suffered a heart attack.

There were some things Fr Arotcarena said which were new to me, like the kind of pressure the ISD asserted on the Church authorities to have the four priests not just resign from their respective posts as they had offered to, but to be officially suspended with no contact allowed with each other. Despite the bishop’s protestations that such ecclesiastical sanctions took time, Fr Arotcarena asserted that the bishop was forced to make a statement almost immediately. “That was the end of the resistance of the Catholic Church,’’ said Fr Arotcarena. He left town for Paris that same evening.

His departure, and that of another priest, was the subject of the only exclusive story I wrote during the whole period. I had heard about their departures the next morning and had proceeded to the Church of St Peter and Paul where I knew the Vicar-General, right-hand man of the bishop, would be. He was in church, deep in prayer on his knees. I waited for what seemed like ages for him to get up from his knees and emerge, feeling more wretched by the minute. He was kind enough to confirm the story and I had my exclusive printed on the back page of ST. (At that time, the front and back pages were the premium pages.) It was picked up the world over.

There was one other instance of reporting I was involved in. We had been told that the G had met leading Catholics, including the late Dr Ee Peng Liang, over the matter. The media made a beeline for Dr Ee’s  home late that night after the meeting was over. He tried oh so carefully to answer questions, mainly to reiterate that “yes, we met’’ and trying very hard not to say more. He looked wretched. And I felt wretched.

Truth to tell, I have never found the ISD’s reasons for the arrests convincing. What Marxism? What liberation theology? The detainees seemed to be a bunch of people who wanted to do good. Maybe it was because Fr Arotcarena is French, despite being a PR, and we can’t have foreigners interfering in local politics? But what “politics’’ is this? Were their actions really subversive? If so, plenty of groups today should be locked up by the ISD for doing more or less what the “conspirators’’ did.

I doubt that the G won the political battle for the people’s hearts and minds over this issue then. Although the ISA was in place to nab people “before bad things happen’’, the evidence produced was simply unconvincing and the actions taken, too high-handed, to put it mildly. Even Mr Goh Chok Tong who was then-DPM, said the next year that the G could have been gentler.  Of course, several more things happened after the first round of arrests. Some of the detainees who were released recanted and got thrown back in.

Then came a tip-off that one of the priests involved was seeing a woman. My bosses wanted the story “broken’’ – and assigned it to me. I said no. I suggested to him that it would better to move the assignment to another journalist, maybe a non-Catholic. I got a dressing down from my boss for being “unprofessional’’. Still, the job went to someone else. Now, a rookie reporter getting such a drubbing from a top boss is a big deal. But I really did not want to be the one who hung up my church’s dirty linen, if there was any, to dry. My church is bigger than my job. (The priest has since left the church and married the woman.)

Reading Priest in Geylang only made me feel wretched. It was one period in my reporting career, and even in Singapore’s short history, that I would rather forget. Older Catholics will remember how we felt under siege at that time. It left a deep mark on the Catholic psyche.

Then I think about the celebrations being drummed up for SG50. Yes, I agree that this little red dot has come a long way. But I don’t think we should ignore the parts of history that aren’t so agreeable or politically acceptable. We have warts – and they too make up the face that is now Singapore.

The Chee-Chan show

In News Reports, Politics on January 17, 2015 at 10:37 am

Laaaaaaadies and geeeentlemen! For the first time ever, we bring together two of Singapore’s greatest showmen! One has been presenting his shows in Korea, United States and assorted other democracy forums! He has fought in several wars, known as elections. And lost every battle. The other has been preparing for a war all his life, but never fought one. This time, they will do battle, like gladiators of old! May the best man win! Gentlemen! Unsheath your swords!  Unpack your bag of words! Get ready to answer the following questions!

BH: Minister Chan, why do you hate the Huffington Post so much?

Chan: What? I don’t hate it. I’ve never read it until that man showed up in it. I like the Huffington Post – it’s an example of a free media that we don’t have. Oops! Sorry, sorry. I like the HuffPost but in this instance, it’s gone berserk, giving that man so much space.

Chee (huffing): Who are you calling “that man’’? Just because you are a minister, you don’t think you have to be civil…

Chan (puffing): Like you were civil to Mr Goh Chok Tong when you shouted at him “Where is our money?’’ during one GE??

Chee: That was in the past. Let bygones be bygones. Everyone should get a chance to turn over a new leaf…You, you… paper general!!

Chan: You, you… political failure!

Chee: You, you… PAP running-dog… Stigmatising failure! Have you never failed before? Are you perfect?

BH: Boys, boys…give it a rest. Too much testosterone for me..Back to business. So Dr Chee, you keep insisting you have been silenced in the Singapore media. What is your evidence?

Chee: Well, I sent three op-ed pieces to The Straits Times but it declined to run them. The media has always undercovered me or put me in a bad light. And now it’s insisting that it edit my letter or it won’t get published. Thank goodness for the foreign media and social media!

BH: Oh! You must be happy then at the exposure the foreign media give you. Such prominence! So much space!

Chee: Very. The foreign media are very sympathetic to the plight of the Singapore masses, who are poor, down-trodden and have been deprived of their democratic rights, like being able to protest outside the Istana. They like what I write.

Chan: I object. As Minister for Family and Social Development, I can safely say that every family in Singapore has kueh lapis to eat. And while they might not be earning much, they still have a roof over their head which they own. Plus, there are all these schemes to help them…..(gives long list…)

BH (rubbing eyes): Thank you, Minister. That was enlightening. You may wish to put up that list on very void deck in Singapore so people will know of the G’s largesse…

Chee: What largesse…! It’s taxpayers’ money! And it’s not enough! We need minimum wages, poverty line and free health insurance for all!

Chan: You’re a fine one to talk. You say one thing to one audience and another thing to another. How come you don’t mention abolishing the ISA and why not propose some ways to protect workers’ rights? Or gay rights? All these Western liberal values… In fact, why don’t you just go to Myanmar and be with Aung San Suu Kyi?

Chee: I’ve met her already…Nice lady. Read her book. Mine will be out in April…(turns to audience)… Everyone…please buy and donate to the SDP!

Chan: I’ve met Aung San Suu Kyi. You are no Aung San Suu Kyi. And this is not a forum for you to collection donations to fund your election campaign. Remember no foreign donors allowed….

Chee: How like the PAP! Set up rules to perpetuate itself. You wait till the next election when I stand against you in Tanjong Pagar GRC. I will scream “Where is my CPF?’’ Oh…that’s Roy’s line. Sorry.

Chan (turning to audience): I would like to remind all of you here that Dr Chee is a failed politician, has been jailed and fined several times and even backstabbed that nice man who was his mentor, Mr Chiam See Tong. Remember him?

Chee: Hey, wait a minute! I’ve invited Mr Chiam to the SDP 35th anniversary dinner. You didn’t even invite Dr Tan Cheng Bock to the Istana.. Remember?

Chan: Don’t confuse the issue. You misappropriated funds from the university which hired you and made up taxi fare claims. You have been caught out as a liar time and time again!

Chee: And you got into Parliament on the coat-tails of you-know-who. Never experienced a proper electoral contest and yet you’re getting paid a million bucks…  !

Chan (getting up from seat): If you think you can do better, let’s fight to see who forms the next Government. Do you want to be Prime Minister?

Chee (getting up from seat): Why are you asking? Worried that I’ll take your future job away from you?

(The two gladiators confront each other. The crowd is cheering, baying for blood. Some are raising their hands in a keechiu sign. Others are waving their flasks of glucose-laced water…)

BH (terrified): Okay, okay. Stop it! Shut up and sit down both of you! I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions…So Dr Chee, the minister has written in to say that you are sacrificing Singapore to score points abroad. How would you respond to this accusation?

Chee: I think the minister is equating Singapore with the PAP. It’s the PAP which has made Singapore what it is today….

Chan (cutting in): Thank you. I’m glad you have acknowledged that we have moved from Third World to First and that we worked to get  this little red dot into the international spotlight. We are well known the world over for our housing, transport, CPF, healthcare and other systems. Plus…

Chee (cutting in): Hey, I mean… made Singapore a place where children have to study so hard they cry, where money is made by the few and by foreigners, where income inequality is among the highest in the world…

Chan (cutting in): …and which we are addressing with our various social policies to give the lower income a better safety net, helping SMEs restructure and ensure affordable medical care for the rest of your life…

Chee: There goes the PAP… taking credit for everything. This Medishield Life scheme is actually adapted from our own health financing policy proposal…You never give others credit. Instead you persecute people, silence good people. Look at me. My academic career down the chute…my life in tatters (sheds a tear)

Chan: Again, you are playing the persecution card, pretending to be hard done by. What you want to be is to be viewed as a martyr, some kind of hero. You think just because you have the foreign media backing you and social media to broadcast your views…that Singaporeans can’t see through you?

BH (worried): This discussion is getting out of control…Relax boys…I would like to ask this of Dr Chee.  Why is your slogan Your Voice in Parliament? Sounds very Workers’ Party. Why not something more fierce? Like We stand for Free Speech, Liberty and Freedom? Like the French?

Chee: Well, first, I am not Charlie Chee. Then, I decided on Your Voice in Parliament to represent voiceless Singaporeans. We can be a First World Parliament but it’s nothing without a first-class voice. I speak well and so do several of my members. That’s why I had suggested to Mr Low Thia Kiang at the last by-election that we should join hands and contest a seat. I speak in Parliament, he runs the town council.

Chan: Hah. That shows what sort of person you are! Why not go to Workers’ Party and ask to run the town council, since it can’t seem to run it very well.

Chee: There goes the PAP again, running down other people…

BH (cutting in): Minister, the PM has said that the PAP or the G has to be careful about having to “flex its muscles’’. Are you flexing them now?

Chan (feeling his biceps): I don’t think so. I have been out of the army for so long I haven’t kept to a heavy schedule of workouts. I am still very fit though.

BH (non-plussed at reply): Hmm….Dr Chee has accused you of name-calling and character assassination…

Chan: He can sue me if he thinks I’ve defamed him. I’m sure M Ravi will help him.

Chee: I don’t intend to waste any money on a law suit. I also intend to keep out of trouble so that I can contest the election this time.

Chan: Okay, I will see you on Nomination Day. If you dare appear.

Chee: I will. Scouts’ honour.

Chan: You were a Scout? Never mind..

BH: Thank you gentlemen for being with us here today. We look forward to viewing more exchanges between you, whether in the foreign media, social media, local media…or here.

(The two men eyeball each other, and very, very tentatively, shook hands. The audience exploded into cheers and started singing the National Anthem followed by a solemn recital of the National Pledge. There were hugs. There were tears. And of course, there were fireworks.)

Where’s my hearing aid?

In News Reports, Politics on January 17, 2015 at 3:55 am

I read the Prime Minister’s interview with local media several times and have concluded that what he said was pretty much what he’s been saying all along, like how we should be happy with a 2 to 3 per cent economic growth rate and how low productivity is a worrying thing.

He should have added, methinks, that we should be happy with a slower growth rate because indications are that we, the people, want it that way to have less of a pressure-cooker society….except that most people also expect that standard of living will go up exponentially as it did over all these years…

What I cannot understand is the extent of cynicism his comments are attracting online. His words are viewed with distrust, and people question his sincerity. Surely the proof of the pudding is in the eating? Actions speak louder than words?

Too many people are content to lay their dissatisfaction with anything at the G’s door, and I don’t just mean the online denizens. Like cost of living, like children having to study too hard, like every fee we have to pay. No one credits it for bringing down housing prices, for tweaking the education system to add non-academic portions, for bigger grants, subsidies and credits for struggling businesses, lower income households or the elderly.

One thing which caught my eye was what he said was his biggest regret: that the G didn’t ramp up infrastructure faster to fit the burgeoning population. He’s said it before and even said sorry, but it seems some people simply won’t let him forget it.

So the comments on G ineptitude and incompetence continue. I find it a trifle unfair. That’s because over the past three years, the G has been in overdrive in its efforts to ramp up its infrastructure, whether in housing or transport. The Population White Paper with its much-maligned 6.9 million planning parameter is still a looming spectre, despite a smaller inflow of foreign labour (which businesses are unhappy about) and a sort of cap on the number of new citizens each year.

“We do not want 6.9 million as a target but I want to have infrastructure… I want to get myself ready. If unexpected things happen, I can be prepared,” Mr Lee Hsien Loong said. “That is the attitude which the Government needs even more, and so does the population. And when things turn out not quite right, well, we accept that that is the way the world is.”

I have no idea what are the “unexpected things’’ he expects could happen, perhaps the happy situation when Singaporeans decide to procreate in greater numbers? In any case, I can see the point in planning for more, even if the numbers prove to be fewer. Hey, there will be more room everywhere for everyone!

I’ve always maintained that the lax foreign worker policy of the past was the G’s biggest mistake. But it is more important to try to get to the root of the problem: How is it that the G didn’t see it coming? It’s like the leaders are so blind, so deaf or so dumb to the rising complaints over the years – or are somehow immune to the changes which affect the rest of the populace. This is not a Black Swan event. You can see it coming from a mile off…

The way the PM put it, it looked like this was somehow a bean-counting error.   “We have to plan in future less conservatively and try to be less precise in our prognostications,’’ he said. “At the time we thought we were doing the right thing – pacing it, measuring it out, building it when we needed it and not spending resources until we needed to spend them.”

Some people have posited that this is the outcome of a G which has been so long in power and has been so right in most of its decisions that it cannot conceive itself to be wrong. There is a kind of in-built confirmation bias. You also wonder who the greatest influences on government policy are – what are its grassroots people saying to the leaders? The things they want to hear? Or inconvenient truths?

Maybe those who grumble that the G “never listens’’ is right. At least on that score. And that it took an election result to jolt its hearing aid into place.

Now is the time to ask ourselves if, to use that lecturing phrase, it has “learnt its lesson’’. We should assess this based on what it has done over the past three years and whether we think there has been a new approach towards policymaking, one that takes into account not just what it thinks the people need, but also what they want.

People still say that the G “never listens to the people’’, but is it also vice versa? The G can try convincing people that policies must be based on the greatest good for the greatest number, and is best for the long-term future that they may not live to see. How many people, especially those affected adversely, can grasp this? Are they even listening?

One reason I can give for the people’s “deafness’’: that old ministerial salaries issue. I have said before that I consider it a slow poison which destroys the relationship between the government and the government governed and reduces it to a business contract, rather than the social compact it should be. It is the ultimate, un-arguable line: We pay you so much, you should get things right, in fact, perfect.

No mercy, no quarter given.

It’s not an issue that can be shoved under the carpet. Opposition parties have come up with different numbers although they too can be questioned for plucking numbers out of thin air. But the G isn’t engaging them on the issue. I think it’s time to slaughter this sacred cow, dismember its parts and see how we can put it together in a way that is palatable to most citizens. Surely, there are more minds that can be engaged on this? Is this really too hard to do? Impossible? If so, the G must keep convincing people on the principles behind the salaries they earn – which it must know by now is not well-accepted…

At the bottom of it all, this is the people’s biggest beef – and the reason most people have placed their hands over their ears.

So how?

The G/PAP returns salvo

In News Reports, Politics on January 16, 2015 at 1:36 am

I was going to write a column about the Singapore Democratic Party’s Saturday launch of its campaign for the general election, but more interesting developments have taken place. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing has written to the Huffington Post to decry its publication of two op-ed pieces by SDP’s Chee Soon Juan. The point, in the view of this observer at least, is to tell HuffPost not to lionize Dr Chee, as he is no Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics.

He has also written to the ST Forum page to rebut a letter from Dr Chee rebutting a letter by Singapore envoy Jacky Foo which in turn rebuts an op-ed piece which the SDP chief had published in the Wall Street Journal. (You wonder why the two sides just go to a dark alley somewhere to slug it out….)

And so it begins…

On Saturday, the SDP announced that it wants to be “Your voice in Parliament’’ and will be contesting several seats including, it appears, Mr Chan’s seat in Tanjong Pagar GRC. Now, Mr Chan’s two letters could have been made public much earlier, instead of about a month after. You can just imagine the People’s Action Party deciding to wait until after SDP signals its intention to contest, to set off its own rockets. Maybe it also decided to wait until its whole Central Executive Committee has been established, and take a collective decision. (We wouldn’t know because Mr Chan used his ministerial position, indicating that this is a G response – and not a PAP response.)

Anyway, the lateness of the letters meant that I had to go back in time to find out what exactly Dr Chee said in HuffPost. I had read his piece on Free the Singapore Media and Let the People Go. What a biblical headline, I thought. If I were Charlie, I would have caricatured Dr Chee as Moses berating the Pharoah and parting the Red Sea. This was also why I wondered why the SDP had no plans to “free the media’’ when asked about it at its Saturday press conference.

After all, this was what he wrote in his Dec column:

The state-controlled media shield the ruling class from being responsive to the needs and aspirations of the common people. They have put reason and intellectualism to sleep and, as a result, stymied development.

 Such kind of politics cannot continue, not if Singapore is going to graduate into the next phase of development. The ruling party must stop attempting to conquer people and, instead, move to contest policies. It must end the political solipsism from which the PAP arrogates unto itself sole ideological legitimacy and turn to a contemporary pluralism where differences in opinion are debated, indeed celebrated.

 If the country is going to survive the next phase of technological advancement in an increasingly competitive global environment, politics in Singapore must evolve in tandem. Starting with the media.

Instead, on Saturday, he flip-flopped between berating the “state-controlled media’’ and appealing to its representatives there to “look into themselves and do what is right’’. As someone who used to be in MSM, I have been subjected to enough cutting words by opposition politicians. Rather than use the media as a punching bag, I have always wondered why they do not put their money where their mouth is and come up with proposals to change media laws and regulations. Instead what we hear from Dr Chee et al was that other players can take the lead on this front, the SDP will cheer from the sidelines. Sheesh. What a cop-out.

Besides the media, I wondered why the SDP platform was bereft of the party’s usual emphasis on other forms of liberal freedoms and human rights. After all, these are his pet topics at the various foreign events he had been invited to. In fact, it was a key point in his earlier HuffPost piece, Without Freedom, there is no Free Trade. On the free trade agreements Singapore has concluded – and about to conclude, he was disappointed that nothing was said about democratic freedoms and the rights of workers.

It is clear that the benefits of the USSFTA have not accrued equitably. One reason for such a skewed outcome, at least for Singaporeans, is, as I’ve mentioned at the outset, the lack of democratic rights of the people. 

The labour movement is under firm state guidance (the umbrella National Trade Unions Congress is headed by a cabinet minister), the print and broadcast media are owned by the government (Singapore ranks 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index — even Myanmar is higher at 145th), the ranks of the political opposition and civil society have been decimated through decades of state harassment, and fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association are severely proscribed.

The European Union (EU) is about to sign its own FTA with Singapore. The proposed agreement makes extensive provisions for the protection of the rights of businesses, but almost nothing in it speaks of the protection of the rights of workers.

But it was a different Dr Chee and SDP which presented itself on Saturday. It dealt with bread-and-butter issues like housing and healthcare. There was no banging of drums on abolition of the Internal Security Act, freedom of speech or assembly and human/worker rights. The silence disconcerted me, and when I asked about it, Dr Chee replied that the SDP had never “consciously’’ set out to be “liberal’’ and issues such as healthcare are about human rights too.

So it seems that Dr Chee presents one face of the SDP to the foreign gallery and another to Singaporeans. Quite smart, I thought. Even sneaky. It went on issues close to the heart of Singaporeans, as Dr Chee himself put it, while it is addressing Singaporeans… because the other face it presents to the world is not something Singaporeans are enamoured with?

That, by the way, was going to be the point of my column.

Back to recent developments…

So Mr Chan has written to the HuffPost. I have to say I’m disappointed. If there is one thing I deplore, it is politicians who diss the media. In this case, Mr Chan laments the “considerable but undeserved space’’ given to Dr Chee. Media give attention to what they deem important issues, aligned with their own editorial values which they believe their readers/audiences share. I don’t think the Singapore Government would think it is its place to tell Charlie Hebdo what it should have or should not published…

What flummoxes me is that Mr Chan signed off in his capacity as a Government minister. I would have comprehended the move if the response was to deal with points in his articles that were incorrect or mis-represented Singapore. In fact, there are plenty that the G can take issue with. They include sweeping statements such as “We have a pension savings system that is broken. An entire generation of workers is in danger of not having sufficient income to retire on’’ or “As for the younger generation, there is significant underemployment and limited opportunities for graduates.’’

Instead, the letter was about how Dr Chee was not the “weighty politician’’ the HuffPost might think he is, but a defeated, deflated opposition politician with a string of political failures and a record of run-ins with the law. I wonder if the HuffPost editors would respond with a thank you note…

Then there was this perplexing defence of the local media:

As he has done in the past, he has looked to the foreign media for redemption, chiefly because foreign journalists don’t know him as well as Singaporeans and he believes he can beguile them into believing he is the Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics. Dr Chee, however, claims he is forced to publish in the foreign media because he has been silenced in the Singapore media.

 But this is false. There are several socio-political websites in Singapore, some with as wide a reach among Singaporeans as the Huffington Post has among Americans. They have run several articles by Dr Chee. The local press also has carried several of Dr Chee’s letters.

 Mr Chan surely realises that Dr Chee isn’t referring to online media but local MSM, including the state broadcaster? In any case, why is he speaking for the media? (And man, oh man, which websites was he referring to which has HuffPost’s reach???? Put your hands up please!)

Mr Chan’s letter to ST Forum Page makes more sense. As I said, it is a response to a response to a response…so bear with me.

This is what Dr Chee said in his letter headlined Not possible for poor Singaporeans to live on $1,000 a month.

The Government asserts that these families are able to afford their own apartment. It forgets that they still need to eat, transport themselves to work, send their children to school, seek medical treatment when they fall ill, and save for retirement.

Mr Chan’s response: Singaporean families earning $1,000 a month can indeed afford their own flats because of various housing grants. As a result, the lowest 20th percentile of households have an average net home equity of $200,000. That is an achievement no other nation in the world can boast of.

And that is not all. In recent years, we have enhanced our social safety nets. Lower-income households have benefited from, among other things, Workfare and various assistance schemes for medical, transport, utilities and education.

We will soon strengthen our social safety net further with the Silver Support Scheme to help Singaporeans with low Central Provident Fund balances.

So what we have is a fuller version of the help Singaporeans, including $1,000 a month, get. That is useful and puts Dr Chee’s point in context. It is right that the Minister in charge of social and family development replies on a matter under his portfolio.

Then Mr Chan takes a swipe at Dr Chee’s articles as “sacrificing’’ Singapore to score points abroad:

For instance, when he writes in the right-leaning WSJ, he attacks our government-linked companies – never mind the many Singaporean jobs at stake if foreigners do not do business with our companies.

And when he writes in the left-leaning Huffington Post, he attacks the US-Singapore free trade agreement – never mind that this FTA allows our companies to compete in the US market and creates jobs for Singaporeans.

Hmmm….This is interesting. It’s an ideological conundrum that Dr Chee and the SDP face methinks. Which principles do they uphold? Does the SDP want the European Union to “force’’ the G into some position/condition on human rights before an FTA is signed even at the expense of not having an FTA at all?

Thing is, sometimes SDP’s “foreign’’ face is in conflict with the “local’’ face – or can they both meld in some way? The SDP should clarify.

The second part of the letter is a “reminder’’ to Singaporeans of Dr Chee’s past, such as how he had betrayed his mentor, the much loved Mr Chiam See Tong and ousted him from the party he founded.

Ouch. I agree that there are some things Dr Chee would probably rather not have mentioned in public…History has a way of coming back to haunt you….especially in election-time. Doubtless, the SDP is preparing ammunition to use against Mr Chan as well.

And so it begins…

Campaigning has started…

Singaporeans, sit back and relax and watch the spectacle unfold – at the SEA games lah.

Minimum clarity;maximum confusion

In News Reports on January 15, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Yesterday, I did a double take when I saw this headline in ST: Minimum wage “may aid hospitality sector’’. I was trying to figure out how to view this: Implement minimum wage, that is, a wage floor and you might get more people to join the much shunned hospitality sector? Or are we talking about a minimum wage FOR the hospitality sector? Given the G’s allergy to a wage floor, I wondered who was coming up with a contrarian view.

It was Mr Ho Kwon Ping, head of Banyan Tree Holdings.

This is what the story said:

Some form of minimum wage might attract more people to work in the local hospitality industry, Mr Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of well-known hospitality group, Banyan Tree Holdings, has suggested.

He threw up the idea as he addressed concerns about low wages in the sector at a hospitality and tourism conference yesterday at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), attended by about 250 of its students.

Mr Ho said it might be helpful if industry players could agree on a wage structure for certain areas of the hospitality sector.

Now, this is really difficult to read. So he’s not talking about a minimum wage across the nation, but something more specific for the hospitality sector? So, this is a suggestion he “threw up’’.

Reading the story, it seems that he doesn’t want it mandated, but something for the industry to agree on, like what is happening in the cleaning sector. Now, it’s not the minimum wage in the cleaning sector though but a wage ladder for cleaners to climb if their job scope is increased or their productivity goes up. So perhaps this is the “some form” of minimum wage Mr Ho is talking about. The reference to the cleaning sector, however, is unfortunate because its wage model is mandated by law. Not a voluntary affair.

Then I read what was reported in TODAY which said he was NOT in favour of a minimum wage.

With low wages also deterring many from joining the hospitality industry, Mr Ho, who was responding to a question posed by a student, said he was not in favour of a minimum wage for the entire economy because “it is too blunt an instrument” for wage adjustments.

Mr Ho added that when a country with a high minimum wage faces a severe recession, employers tend to get rid of the newer entrants to the workforce and retain the older, experienced employees. While acknowledging that an industry-agreed pseudo-minimum wage could help the pockets of low-wage employees in the hospitality sector, Mr Ho said what is more pressing is the issue of raising productivity and wages in the industry.’’

Now this puts a different complexion to what he said. And it wasn’t quite “thrown up” but more like he had to say something because he was asked something…

I think the term minimum wage has to be used less loosely. It is a “line’’; employers cannot pay workers less than the level. It doesn’t, however, mean that employers need to raise the wages if employees get better at their jobs, unlike the progressive wage model. I am frankly more in favour of a ladder than such a floor. It would be so easy for employers to simply stick to minimum wage levels than to get them to keep wages in pace with productivity.

And there are already sectors which have voluntarily implemented the so-called progressive wage model. Some chefs have agreed to do so, as well as certain types of hospital workers.

This confusion over terminology is reflected in a letter to ST Forum page today : Minimum wage in hospitality sector not a panacea

BEING a venerated doyen in the hospitality business, Mr Ho Kwon Ping is obviously qualified to expound his views on the sector (“Minimum wage ‘may aid hospitality sector’ “; Tuesday).

Yet the imposition of a minimum wage in whatever guise or whatever sector will not act as a panacea to manpower woes for the employer, or address service deficiencies for the consumer.

Multiple studies have proven that a minimum wage does not decrease poverty, for how can it when, once implemented, salary scales rise for almost all workers, resulting in an inflationary spiral with the lowest-paid still remaining at the bottom rung of the wage ladder?

Hmm. Are we talking at cross-purposes here? What exactly did Mr Ho say – wasn’t it “some form” of minimum wage? – and what did he mean? Again, as I said in my earlier post, I wish the media would give a clearer picture.