berthahenson

Archive for May, 2015|Monthly archive page

About a mother

In Writing on May 10, 2015 at 10:47 am

My mother turned 70 in February although you wouldn’t be able to tell her age if you meet her. If she’s captured on one of those websites which gives her age, it will probably say 50 – which is what I am. I weep every time I get mistaken for her sister or her friend.

When I grow old(er), I want to be like my mother, an active, healthy and I believe, happy, septuagenarian.

People have described my mother as quite a character. I agree.

This is my mother:

She zips around in her, or rather, my car, but only when I am with her or if she needs to ferry me or her grandson somewhere. (I don’t drive). Most times, she drives to a “cheap’’ carpark to take the bus or MRT. Saves on ERP and parking fees, she says.

She takes care of her appearance with her round of mani/pedi, exercise, facials, face and eyebrow threading, at neighbourhood places which she deems cheap and good. She colours her hair only when I do so she can “steal’’ some dye from my hair-stylist for free.

She needs so little dye. I, on the other hand, am a full head of grey.

She is a fantastic cook (she’s a nonya) and sometimes bakes cookies and mooncakes for “extra’’ money. Now, this is NOT because her children do not give her a big enough allowance. They do, but she says nothing beats making her own money. I end up being her kitchen helper.

She’s a frugal shopper who will make a trip to Shengsiong supermarket to demand a 50 cent refund for something she was over-charged. When she bargains, I tell her I will go walk around for half an hour and so and meet her back at the shop. I’m usually too early because the price negotiations wouldn’t have ended. She is so happy with her Pioneer Generation card that she flashes it everywhere she goes, asking if it entitled her to any discount. Times like these, I look away.

Despite her frugal nature, she presses me to buy expensive, designer clothes that I don’t want – because she thinks I need to splurge on myself. “Girl, you like, just buy,’’ she tells me like it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to reach for my wallet and pull out dollar notes. If I decline, she goes: “Mommy will buy for you’’, forgetting that her money is mine.

When she got twinges in her hip which made it difficult for her to shop for three households (hers, mine and my brother’s) and to do her own household chores, I got her a live-in maid to help. But she complains about the invasion of her privacy because she now locks her bedroom door when she sleeps. She thinks it will be better to move into an old folks home, forgetting she will get even less privacy there. (My brother and I know she doesn’t mean it…)

She did not have much of an education but she is an avid newspaper reader. She would call me or my brother whenever she comes across words and phrases she doesn’t understand. I bought her an electronic dictionary when she started reading my book, Troublemaker. She seldom uses it because it is so difficult to type the word and “telephoning’’ is faster, she says. It was she who taught me my ABCs and 123s. She caned me when I attached two zeros to make an 8. Yup, I still remember my kindergarten days.

Now in the twilight of her years, I want her to be a tai tai, to have lunches with her church kakis and to play mahjong. She is beginning to do so. I want her to be clear of any worries and never have to re-live those days when money was short and life was tough. She deserves as much rest and happiness as possible because she has spent her whole life looking after her younger brothers and then, looking after her own children.

I am still “girl’’ to my mother and she still tells me to be careful while crossing the road. But I wouldn’t exchange her for anybody else in the world. Who else will drive me around, fill my fridge, buy me health supplements, brew me yucky medicinal soups, sew me my pjyamas and become, in effect, my all-round concierge? Who else will keep calling me to remind me of things I have to do myself – because it is impossible for her to forge my signature?  Who else will be my best friend, scold me, laugh with me and weep with me? Who else knows everything about me?

Okay, I take back the last line.

She is NOT internet-savvy and so she doesn’t quite know what I do online. She knows that I “write’’ and worries incessantly that my writing will get me into “trouble’’. I will probably get into trouble, with her (!), for writing this. But I think I might just escape the sharp end of her tongue. You see, I am going away for a two-week holiday with my mother tomorrow so, hopefully, no one gets to tell her about it before we get out of Singapore.

It’s my mother’s day present to her.

I love you mom.

PS. Can those of you who know mom PLEASE SHUT UP?

Caught in the middle: Residents in AHPETC

In News Reports, Politics on May 5, 2015 at 8:14 am

What do you think?

Can you live with the consequences of your vote? So if your town council runs out of money, you will just have to suffer lift breakdowns and dirty corridors until the next general election? That’s the Workers’ Party position. How it operates is something between the party and the voters – not for the G nor the courts to intervene in, it said.

It’s so interesting. The WP lawyer in court even backed it up with past ministerial exhortations about the consequences of the vote. Residents shouldn’t expect to be bailed out if they voted in people who can’t manage the estate.

Anyway, some background:

The G wants the court to let it appoint independent auditors to go over the WP town council’s books and reclaim funds that have been wrongly disbursed. It will only release $14 million in grants to the town council, if the independent auditor is in to see that the money is managed properly. For example, if the WP wants to spend $20,000 or more, the independent auditor has to sign off on it.

Things are getting critical because there’s only enough money to sustain the Aljunied, Punggol East and Hougang estates till June. And that’s because it hasn’t made two sinking fund payments for cyclical works, according to the G.

The WP looks to be trying to head off the installation of an independent auditor (if the court says okay) by having its own external accountants and a financial consultant. But the G has dissed its efforts as “lukewarm assurances’’ citing the lack of experience of at least one of them.

What a state of affairs!

What’s interesting is that the WP is throwing back to the PAP its own argument about voting the “wrong’’ people. It’s the PAP G which said residents are responsible for their vote, so why is the G turning to the courts to intervene? In fact, it is up to the G to decide how to disburse the funds and it has already said it would review the Town Council Act. So why doesn’t it just do so and make the system more robust?

Another argument: Only the Housing Board and residents can go to the courts for redress.

Hmm. Quite smart.

The G wants to deal with this as a “legal problem’’ which needs the court’s adjudication while the WP wants to portray it as a “political dispute’’ that shouldn’t be any business of the court.

The problem with long sagas is that most people have short memories. So did the WP do any wrong that required such action by the G? Here’s what people reading about the court saga will remember: There was something about arrears, its managing agents having conflict of interest and some unaccounted money somewhere. Oh. And the Auditor-General’s report which said that there were plenty of “lapses’’ but didn’t say anything about a crime being committed.

They might remember the WP saying how no one wanted the job of managing agent and how it had just 90 days to sort the groundwork for the enlarged town council – and wasn’t this a bit tough on them? And the WP said it would fix its internal problems by itself while the G said it would fix the Town Council Act.

I am going to say it again: This is all sooooo interesting. It’s like the days of the late Ong Teng Cheong who wanted to test the elected president’s powers vis-à-vis the G. That took place in the courts too. Now we have another unique experiment in Singapore taking the same route.

I wonder what the residents in the opposition ward think? The elected presidency challenge was more hypothetical. This case, however, affects the lives of people living in one GRC and two single-seat wards. There hasn’t been much of a ruckus raised by residents, not even after the PAP put out fliers asking them to take the WP to task – or at least get answers from the party. Nor has any noise been heard about a petition that was initiated. The community groups in the area haven’t said a thing either.

Actually, I was thinking that if the WP had a case and the court agrees that the G shouldn’t bring the issue to court, what if a resident did so instead? Remember how a resident went to court to try and force a by-election in Hougang?

It would be good to know the mood of these hundreds of thousands of people in the opposition wards. How would they react to their own MPs’ position: You voted for me, so you have to live with me until the next GE when you have to decide whether you should keep me or throw me out. You know that don’t you?

Some possible answers:

  1. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. It hasn’t, so I have to live with it. Never mind rubbish piled up to the nth floor.
  2. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. Even if the WP doesn’t, I reckoned that the G wouldn’t just let things be because we’re all taxpayers aren’t we? And that grant is really taxpayers’ money.
  3. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. But it’s been hobbled so much that it can’t perform and now it’s being bullied and we, the residents, have to suffer. If the PAP didn’t try to “fix’’ the party, we’d all be okay.
  4. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but it didn’t matter to me whether the WP did a good job of running the town council or not. I voted them to speak up for me in Parliament. The estate is a bit smelly and dirty but that’s the price you pay for exercising your vote.
  5. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote which was why I DIDN’T vote the WP. So why are PAP voters being penalized? Should I move out?
  6. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but I thought all those other checks by grassroots organisations which purport to represent us would keep the town council in line.
  7. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but this is too high-level for me to intervene. How can I make a difference? I am powerless – and that’s why the G should intervene to protect me. It’s no longer a party thing, but a national issue.
  8. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and I also know that at the very last minute, the G will still rescue us because it risks looking heartless if it doesn’t.

Anyway, it’s in court now. Even if the residents decide to band together and say something, would it be subjudice? I don’t even know what subjudice is anymore.

TRS kena Part 2

In News Reports on May 4, 2015 at 2:14 pm

I was a little puzzled by the Media Development Authority’s order to The Real Singapore to shut down. Not that I would miss TRS. I am puzzled at the way the law and media regulations look like a badly sewn patchwork.

The kindest thing I can say about the G’s move is that it is still wondering how to handle the wacky online world.

So the MDA couldn’t do a thing about TRS in the past because it based its operations abroad. That means it didn’t come under the ambit of the Broadcasting Act.  Until December that is, when Yang Kaiheng, a Singaporean, and his Australian fiancé, Ai Takagi, started “running their operation from Singapore’’, said the MDA.

I wonder if running an operation FROM Singapore is the same as running operation IN Singapore because I gather that the couple were nabbed while on a trip here from Australia in February. So, they weren’t based here but the servers were? Administration? What?

In any case, a couple of months passed…before the cops, not the MDA, acted. Why didn’t the media regulations kick in first (in December?) if the MDA is so keen to protect the reading/viewing public? Instead, it gets into the act after the couple got the book thrown at them.

I can’t help but wonder if somebody made some mistake here… Did someone think that TRS would automatically shut down or suspend itself after the couple got charged? And when it didn’t and continued to have those allegedly seditious posts accessible online and operated business-as-usual, that someone realized that TRS wasn’t going to play ball? Or were the criminal charges levelled simply so as to keep the couple in Singapore? (By the way, Yang has been allowed to leave Singapore to attend to his sick father.)

I had a look at the Sedition Act which can be used against any person who “ prints, publishes, sells, offers for sale, distributes or reproduces any seditious publication’’. The penalty: fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both, and, for a subsequent offence, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

I am not going to say more about this because the case is before the courts. And that is what makes the MDA move even more puzzling. By ordering a shutdown, hasn’t it prejudiced the sedition case against the couple? Or is it going to split hairs and say that it was not referring to the seven charges which refer to specific posts when it made the order – but on other matters posted on TRS?

There are too many questions surrounding this issue which I am sure is being watched by anyone who has a website.

In its statement, MDA said TRS published “prohibited material as defined by the Code to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony.’’ I looked at the Code on what was considered “prohibited material’’ and I guess it would be this one:

(g) whether the material glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.

It also said that “TRS has deliberately fabricated articles and falsely attributed them to innocent parties. TRS has also inserted falsehoods in articles that were either plagiarised from local news sources or sent in by contributors so as to make the articles more inflammatory.’’

You know, I didn’t know the MDA also policed a site’s errors and plagiarism…But I suppose if a site does so with the intention of inflaming passions and increases eyeballs while raising eyebrows, then there’s a reason for its intervention.

The statement goes on about how “at least two out of TRS’s three known editors are believed to be foreigners – Takagi is Australian, while another editor Melanie Tan is believed to be Malaysian’’. “The foreign editors were responsible for several articles that sought to incite anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore.’’

Hmm…Is the problem one of having foreign editors? Is this something all websites must guard against? Or is this about foreigners trying to incite anti-foreigner sentiments here? How does the MDA know that the foreign editors were responsible when it is so tentative about how many editors the site has in total and even the nationality of the third?

The landscape is way too complicated.

Even though all websites come under the statutory class licence requirement in the Broadcasting Act, the MDA decided two years ago that some big sites which report on Singapore to Singaporeans should be licensed with a $50,000 bond. If TRS was based in Singapore, maybe this licensing route would suffice to keep it in line given its 1.2 million unique visitors a month.

Then the MDA also decided that some websites, never mind how fledgling, should register once they decide to go commercial (I declare my interest here as the former editor of Breakfast Network), I thought, ah, maybe TRS would be cornered here, given that it charges six figures in ad space a month. Then again, no, because, I think, it didn’t have a Singapore-based company.

Then TRS moved here.

It’s a bit ironic that it was the good ole Class Licence requirement that was held against it after all the fuss made about earlier tweaks in regulations.

Some people have said that the unprecedented application of the Class Licence requirement reflected the “light touch’’ of the G. In other words, it waited till “now’’ to actually use it. But they forgot to say that the Sedition Act charges came first.

We need a lot of clarification here…but how to ask/answer questions when the court is involved? The court action and the MDA move are not separate issues – or are they?

Sigh.

Where oh where is that promised review of the Broadcasting Act?

The baby, the bathwater and the bathtub

In News Reports, Politics on May 2, 2015 at 12:24 am

Everybody is reading tea leaves again. You can be sure that every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth from now, people will speculate on whether it would be an early election held way before January 2017. I have given up guessing dates but my tea leaves, or rather coffee grounds, tell me that all seats will be contested and eyes will be on wards bordering the Workers’ Party cluster in the east. At least, I sure hope so….I live there!

So what can be gleaned from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech on May Day? It was all about exceptional leadership, like the sort his father and the first generation of ministers provided. And the difficulty of recruiting good men and women into leadership positions. He didn’t say that they would be for the People’s Action Party – presumably because it’s a given. In fact, he hardly mentioned his party at all except when he reminisced about the late Lee Kuan Yew’s early days with the NTUC.

He has set the agenda for the next election: “..leadership renewal is the most important issue. It is not doing more or spending more as some would like you to think. It is who will lead Singapore into the future and it is our future at stake and our children’s future. Because if this government fails, what is going to happen to you, to all of us to Singapore?’’

The thing about leadership renewal as a mantra is that it has been the case for nearly every general election that I can remember save the years when the PAP put the elected presidency and the need for MPs who can run town councils centre-stage. Of course, there were plenty of other issues the PAP threw in, like vote for upgrading and deny racial politics ecetera.  But the theme of getting a team in place for the future is like listening to a tape recorder after re-winding.

Is it going to get any traction? Can it compare with the WP’s theme of needing a check in Parliament? Remember that Singapore lost a Foreign Minister in George Yeo. That’s a high profile job that is responsible for Singapore’s high profile on the international stage. Despite expressions of Mr Yeo’s exceptional ability, the PAP couldn’t fight the WP tide.

I suppose one reason leadership renewal might resonate now is that PM Lee isn’t getting younger. He’s 63. Leadership renewal was less of an issue during PM Goh Chok Tong’s time was because we all knew who was going to take over his job when he stepped down. Now the guessing game isn’t just about when the GE will be held, but who is going to step up to the PM’s plate. (You realise that we no longer have a First or Second DPM? Both Mr Tharman and Mr Teo are equal players although it is Mr Teo who steps up in the PM’s absence.)

The other issue is what it means to have an exceptional team.

PM Lee said this of the outpouring of emotion from the people when his father died: “I think his passing reminded people that exceptional leadership made a big difference to us and I think it has caused many people to pause and to ask ourselves are we sure we don’t need that kind of leadership any more, that quality of leadership anymore. Of course Mr Lee did not do it alone. Part of his greatness was that he brought together exceptional people to form an outstanding team.’’

As evidence, he also cited the numerous foreign leaders who came for the funeral and even flying their own national flags at half-mast.

So is PM Lee talking about “tough love’’? Hard truths and no holds barred kind of leadership that the late Mr Lee epitomized? He was after all, not a “gentle father figure’’ but a hardnosed mobiliser and, some might even say, hardboiled mobster.

I don’t think the late Mr Lee was the right leader for the turn of the century but I have sometimes wished that he had come out to lay out the law of the land and just point the waaaay. This is especially so when discussion gets too fractious.

I really want to know, for example, what was it that the late Mr Lee wanted to say in Parliament post-GE which his son didn’t allow him too. My guess is that it’s some kind of harangue about navel-gazing and going on about COEs and property prices when the world is out there ready to eat our lunch. The PM told his father that he and his team would handle it by themselves.

This is pure guesswork but I suppose he thought Mr Lee might do more harm than good by speaking up to a population which is no longer dominated by the first or second generation Singaporeans. Also, he wouldn’t want his father to help bolster him and the younger lot, and risk looking even weaker especially after a weak showing in the GE. Just saying.

There is another point in his speech I found disconcerting. He talks about how Mercedes still needs Lewis Hamilton to win the F1 championship even though it has an outstanding car. “The car can’t drive itself.’’ So those people who think it’s okay to try out a different team to lead the government because there is still the civil service to run the show should be “very careful’’.

Hmm. The civil service SHOULD be able to run the show despite a change of political masters no? That’s how it works elsewhere, so why can’t it work here? What is the relationship between the civil service and the government-of-the-day, especially when so many ministers are ex-civil servants?

I ask this because I was very taken by the speech made by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo published in the media last week:

“The distinction of the role between the politician and public servant has started to become blurred.

“The upside is that the politicians will have strong support from public servants when they need to sell government policies. But the downside of the change is that it will be more difficult for the public servant to behave in a non-partisan manner as the public will see him as intrinsically linked to the ruling party, perhaps even occasionally justifying the party line. It was not an issue in the early days because the old-generation public servants never had to worry about another political party taking over government from the PAP.

“But GE 2011 has caused some of our younger public servants to worry about what to do if there are more and more opposition MPs in Parliament or even if there is a change in political party, and not just in government, maybe a few general elections from now.’’

There is something very wrong here. Are the fates of the civil servants so inextricably tied with that of their political masters that we have to be “very careful’’ if we exercise our right to put in a different political team? We risk the country going down the drain because the civil service can’t function as well with someone from a different party? Surely, ministers are NOT super civil servants.

You can already see attacks on the civil service when something untoward happens in the Workers’ Party town council. There is a perception that civil servants might not be even-handed in its dealings with the PAP and WP town councils, with those living in the opposition wards being worse off. It might be an unworthy perception but it is one that will dog the civil service if the distinction of the role between the politician and public servant is not clarified. We can throw out the party in power because we disagree with its politics or politicies but we must always be able to have faith that the civil service can and will carry on on behalf of the people.

It got me thinking about the NTUC. What happens to the NTUC should the PAP lose more seats or even lose power? Maybe nothing as the symbiotic relationship is between the PAP and the NTUC, which is like a holding fort for some would-be candidates and a testing ground for others. (Note: symbiotic is not tripartite which is G-employer-union.) I once asked Mr Lim Swee Say about the relationship and he said there were non-NTUC unions as well and opposition parties are free to tie up with them or form their own version of the labour movement. Interesting.

So PM Lee is right about being “very careful’’ about our vote. Throw out the bath water (the PAP) and the baby might go as well (the civil service) – and we also risk over-turning the bathtub (the NTUC)?

He might be right but it doesn’t seem right, does it?

The Slap

In News Reports, Society on May 1, 2015 at 1:01 am

So many views have emerged over the slapping of Amos Yee that you can’t say a thing about it without someone emerging to… slap you down.

In case you didn’t know, Amos breached his bail conditions by posting online again complaining about his bail conditions and describing how his father had hit him, especially when he wanted to go to court in his pyjamas. His well-meaning bailor who put up $20,000, a stranger to him, pulled out because Amos wouldn’t abide by bail conditions. Then another stranger turned up in court yesterday to slap him in front of the media.

I’m summarizing the range of views here and my apologies if I left out any strand of thought

a. Those who clapped loudly along with the slap thinking that it’s about time the boy got his comeuppance. After all, he is undeniably rude and abusive and has no qualms about spreading his vitriol in public.

b.  Those who clapped quietly because it’s not right to condone violence on others and agree that the stranger shouldn’t have taken matters into his own hands. But they’re still gleeful that he did what they have an urge to do themselves if they could or had the guts to.

c. Those who say the stranger shouldn’t have done what he did because it’s just plain wrong. And have no views (I don’t know how it is possible to stop the brain from going there) on whether Amos deserved one tight slap or not.

d. Those who say that those who clap loudly or quietly are wrong because they are really piling on a troubled kid who just might have been abused at home by his father whom he himself described as a “killer’’ and a “bastard’’.

e. Those who say that the stranger was merely doing what his parents should have done (but of course the stranger is wrong), although they don’t know what the parents have done over Amos’ formative years.

f. Those who say that violence on others, whether by strangers or relatives, cannot be condoned. They do not subscribe to the “spare the rod, spoil the child’’ type of upbringing which they say is old-fashioned and out-dated thinking. Besides, it’s also cruel.

g. Those who think everybody should shut up especially if they are not child psychiatrists, do not know Amos or his family and, oh yeah, because the case is before the courts.

h. Those who heap abuse on anyone who differs with them, indulging in ad hominem attacks and engaging in vocabulary almost close to Amos’ quality.

i. Then they are those who conflate the slap with a whole host of other issues surrounding Amos, such as whether a 16 year old should be tried in an adult court, whether the Sedition Act is too heavy for what he did, whether he was being prosecuted more for his anti-LKY rants rather than seditious remarks on religion, why others who attacked him aren’t also being prosecuted….you name it, you can attach a whole lot of issues to Amos.

Before anyone asks, I belong to group b. I got vicarious pleasure from seeing the slap administered. But that is about as far as I would go. We all refrain from acting from basic/base instincts because we’re civilized people who abide by the rules of society and by the law. My regret is that no member of the media or any cop collared the stranger to find out who is he, why he did what he did, and to throw the book at him for executing some version of “mob justice’’.

I know I will be attacked by those who disagree with my group b choice and will call me all sorts of names and declare their “disappointment’’ ecetera. I suppose I can be politically correct – and keep quiet. I wanted to be, because I think that’s what Amos wants – the glory of public comment/interest. And I didn’t want to give him that. Besides, silence is great no? You can’t get into trouble for shutting up. Or if you want to say something you know will get you attacked, you use a pseudonym or set up a fake account or something. But that would be cowardly. So, by that measure, Amos is a hero for saying what he did online so openly….

The Amos issue excites comments because it touches on the law (why the Sedition Act?), court processes (strange bail conditions), freedom of speech (is this more about the anti-LKY rant?), upbringing (unresolved teen issues?), family circumstances (too lax/tight?) and yes, even child/teen abuse whether at the hands of parents, strangers or the State. All of us think we know a bit of the different facets and even have some pretty firm views on parenting styles.

Parents look at Amos and wonder if they are keeping a tight enough rein on what their kids do online. They will put themselves in his parents’ shoes and wonder about how the Yees brought him up, whether he was simply beyond their control – and thank their lucky stars that their own children are well-behaved, or so they think. There will always be an element of self-righteousness and even hypocrisy because we do NOT know his family background and we’re NOT child psychiatrists – but we think we know it all. The thing is, you can’t stop people from having a view, at least, over his public actions.

Likewise, we are all products of our own upbringing and know of people who turned out well or not, because or despite of family circumstances. So we base our judgments on our own experience and anecdotal evidence. To each his own view, I say. We can agree to disagree on any aspect but I think we must and should agree that the stranger was in the wrong to slap him if we are to live in a society based on law and order. And we must and should let the courts proceed with its case without anyone on the outside prejudicing the process or hoping to influence the outcome.

BTW. The Slap is the title of a 2008 novel by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas. At a barbecue, a man slaps his neighbour’s son, who has been misbehaving without any intervention by his parents. Plenty of drama after that. Some characters believe the boy should be taught some discipline, others think the police ought to be brought in to investigate the slapper. And there’s a range of positions in between. Very good book.

* my apologies. He is being prosecuted under the Penal Code