Archive for 2018|Yearly archive page

10 things that got Singapore talking in 2018

In News Reports on December 19, 2018 at 3:06 am

Has it been an exciting year or not? You judge.

1. Who will be Prime Minister?

It was three, then two and finally, the winner emerged! Mr Heng Swee Keat was anointed first assistant-secretary general of the People’s Action Party which put him directly in line to succeed PM Lee Hsien Loong, the current secretary-general. Mr Chan Chun Sing is now second assistant secretary-general. Cabinet changes early next year will cement the sucession. We’re still waiting for that next Singapore Conversation that was promised in the Presidential Address. It’s akan datang, Mr Heng said. The question now is whether the country can expect more of the same style of politics from the 4G or a vision to keep Singapore going especially since….

2. The rich are getting richer while the poor are…

About 100,000 people? Or 200,000? We’re not sure because there is no poverty line or minimum wage level. But questions are being raised about whether meritocracy is really working well enough for those at the bottom to climb up the socio-economic ladder. The issue of inequality was brought to the fore by academic Teo Yue Yenn who wrote the book This is the Face of Inequality, which, among other things, asked if Singapore’s social policies were too rigid to do much uplifting anyway. A television documentary on the issue is now more remembered for the way some young people in the lower educational streams seemed to have resigned themselves to their lot in life because they are not as “smart” as their peers.

3. But is the nation Smart? 

The SingHealth hacking scandal was a blemish in the glossy brochure that glamorises Smart Nation Singapore. The benefits of going cashless even when topping up cash cards, the advent of driverless cars and the installation of smart lamp-posts were thrown in the shade by the loss of more than million people’s personal records, including the medication needs of the PM, to hackers. The pause button was pushed. It looks like it’s all down to people’s sloppiness, kiasi and kiasu attitudes when it comes to preventing, detecting and reporting glitches. But in the usual Singapore style, the work must go on…

4. Even if the High-Speed Railway can’t

The joy Malaysians felt at the return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister was matched by the pall that fell over Singapore at the prospect of having to deal with the cantankerous 92 year old again. Drama was played out in the media, with public statements from the Malaysian side about stopping/postponing the billion dollar project (now postponed), the price of water and the building of the crooked bridge. New tensions emerged in the form of air and sea space and who has the right to fly or sail in which area. Officials on both sides (which Dr M described as twins) will talk in the second week of January. In the meantime, one Malaysian vessel is still in Singapore waters. With Singapore Coast Guard and Navy keeping watch. And that’s not fake news…

5. Which is going to be harder to come by…

After a parliamentary committee received representations from cyber-security experts, academics and civil society activists. Expect laws, including against tech companies, to govern online speech. At one stage, the committee’s hearings morphed into a history lesson of pre-Singapore independence. Historian P J Thum’s version of history, very uncomplimentary to the PAP, got the panel’s hackles up. They were raised even further when Dr Thum and a few others met Dr M for a dialogue, which some viewed as an attempt to solicit outside intervention in Singapore’s politics. The issue didn’t die. In the aftermath of the exchange of words, TheOnlineCitizen published an article from a contributor who had used another man’s identity. It was deemed as criminal defamation.

6. And which was used again in another case of fake news…

This time, it was online site States Times Review which ran an article which was picked up by Malaysian media alleging that the PM and Singapore were complicit in covering up former Malaysian PM Najib Razak’s 1MDB tracks. The site was shut down and re-opened as the Singapore Herald, which was again banned for articles commenting inappropriately on the Singapore-Malaysia row. FaceBook has refused to remove all traces of the site while one blogger is now facing charges for sharing the original offending article. They are expected to be fodder for the upcoming fake news legislation which online media, including yours truly, is now bracing itself for.

7. But it’s the house which really matters no?

So everyone was in a tizzy when they were told that their old  HDB flats might be worth nothing when their 99 year leases were up. It seems that some people were buying up old flats expecting to reap a windfall when the Selective EnBloc Re-development or SERS comes to their neighbourhood. They skipped the word “selective’’. Now that the flat isn’t the capital investment asset it was made out to be,  they now have to be content with more upgrading exercises to shore up the value. This includes a new Voluntary En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which will allow for some re-development – except that you might not live to see it. But hey, housing prices are coming down – in case, you’re thinking of buying one.

8. And what about getting around? 

Commuters who had enthused about the promotions and discounts when companies with ride railing apps started operating here had to moderate their expectations when Uber was grabbed up by Grab. Regulators had to grapple, belatedly, competition laws, licensing of an increased pool of drivers and complaints about threats to the livelihood of taxi-drivers. They also had to contend with the one, two, three-wheeled contraptions – manually, battery- or electrically-powered – that started perambulating on pavements, roads and open spaces. Shops selling personal mobility devices and bike-sharing companies found themselves saddled with new rules. And cyclists found that they would be responsible for where they left their bikes. That is, not just anywhere.

9.  Is it safe to eat anywhere?

Nothing gets a Singaporean more excited than talking about food. Well-known establishments, such as Mandarin Hotel and Spize, dished out poisoned food, leading to one death and excruciating pain for more than a hundred people. Talk of a link has been pooh-poohed by the National Environment Agency, which attributed the cause to poor personal hygiene and kitchen habits. But less well-known – and humbler – establishments got the spotlight too when food blogger K F Seetoh started campaigning for a better deal for hawkers operating in centres run by social enterprises. Confused talk about high rents, extra fees and cost of management services followed – until the NEA decided that it would play a bigger watchdog role to keep operators and hawkers happy. As it should. After all, Singapore is gunning for a United Nations heritage award for its hawker centre.

10. Finally, let’s talk about sex.

The proposed changes to the Penal Code include plenty on sex crimes, such as tougher penalties for those who prey on minors. Also a crime: marital rape, which husbands were previously immune from. But nothing was said about Section 377A, which criminalises homosexual sex, a bugbear of the LGBT community. Some leading Establishment members, such as Professor Tommy Koh and Mr Ho Kwon Ping, have taken up the cause for its removal, prompting counter-petitions from the pro-377A lobby. Uncharacteristically, the Government is taking a back seat. It won’t move until the “community’’ does and we really don’t know what that means…








Sg-Msia relations: Let’s drop this “twin” talk

In News Reports on December 13, 2018 at 5:02 am

We’ve been getting lessons in geography, cartography and navigation over the past few weeks. I’m glad because I think many people in this small country can’t point north, know just how big or small 2-hectares of land is and calculate distance base on time travelled, rather than in kilometres.

Now our lessons have moved into sea and air dimensions, with history thrown in. The one thing connecting them all: the concept of sovereignty. That is, the power (internationally recognized) to control a certain area, and it’s not just the land mass.

So Malaysia is describing the current spat with Singapore as an issue of sovereignty. The neighbor up north says that it is within its rights to extend its port limits because the waters belong to the country, according to a 1979 map. And so does the air space which planes landing in Singapore’s Seletar airport would have to fly through.

Singapore agrees that the maritime problem is a sovereignty problem. It has been owning the sea space, like, forever, until Malaysia decided to claim it in October. As for air space, Singapore argues that the issue isn’t about sovereignty, but who controls the planes flying in the space. For that, there are international players, like International Civil Aviation Organisation, which are involved as well.

We’re at an impasse, although there are signs of a Malaysian climbdown over the maritime issue. It has pulled back all but one vessel in Singapore waters and said it wants to discuss the dispute with Singapore next month. This is not before, however, pulling a stunt like asking for both sides to refrain from venturing into the disputed area. Singapore said no, as it should, because that would be conceding its sovereignty over the area.

I’m not sure I like the idea of having a Malaysian vessel in Singapore waters over Christmas and the New Year, even if it was ringed by Coast Guard boats and the Singapore Navy. It is not a guest, it is an invader.

I suppose both sides would be careful not to provoke an “accident’’, which sort of reminds me of what it must be like for sailors of different nationalities who patrol the disputed areas in the South China Sea. If an “accident’’ does happen, Singapore made it clear that this would be Malaysia’s fault – its vessels shouldn’t be there in the first place.

(I was actually thinking that if Malaysia wants to station a boat there, we should have a plane hovering in that air space above Johor’s Pasir Gudang. But, hey, that would be a churlish gesture.)

Singapore produced videos of the Singapore navy’s work in the disputed area and Malaysia now has its own video too. While the Singapore video is “real-time’’, the Malaysian video narrated by Malaysian Transport Minister Antony Loke is a simulation of the effects he claims having a flight path over Johor would have on Pasir Gudang. Singapore now says he’s got his mathematics all wrong when he talked about planes crashing into hypothetical cranes and tall buildings.

And Mr Loke’s fears about how the Instrument Landing System would compromise safety is unfounded. It isn’t just computerised, Mr Loke, there’s a pilot there too at the controls of the planes. Planes from Seletar used that same route too, manually, but there wasn’t a chirp about sovereignty then.

Which begs the question of : Why now?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan asked if Malaysia was raising technical issues because it wants to take over the airspace arrangements put in place since 1974. “Out of the blue in October, suddenly they started a row in air, in water. What’s next? Land transport, too? I wonder why.’’

If the authorities are befuddled, what more us lesser mortals?

Perhaps, the answer lies in something a lot deeper – a resentment of Singapore’s growth. As Malaysian political strategist Rais Hussin put it in a scathing article in the Malay Mail: “When Singapore was expelled by Tunku Abdul Rahman and declared its independence in 1965 —- having first joined Malaysia in 1963 —- it kept growing and growing to a size, at least in GDP, that is somewhat on par with Malaysia now, if not a fraction more.

“This is why we need to be blunt, just as Singapore is blunt to us often: without Malaysia providing all forms of auxiliary support, be they passive or active, in terms of stability provisioned, and concepts like Asean Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, all of which Kishore Mahbubani himself, a Singaporean, ask his country not to take for granted, Singapore would not be where it is.

“Thus a small gesture of kindness to Malaysia, even an appreciative word, would be nice. Instead Singapore often takes a holier than thou approach.’’

He complained about Singapore’s legalistic approach, forgetting that a legalistic approach would have led to Malaysia coughing up more than $15m in abortive cost for deferring the High Speed Railway.

The fact that he can talk about inflicting “pain by a thousand cuts”  if Singapore interdicts its ships shows how he little regard he has for our (to use a Malaysian word) sensitivities.

I wonder why, after more than 50 years, Malaysia is clinging to this umbilical cord of history. I resent the constant exhortations to remember that we are “brothers’’ and now, “twins’’ as popularised by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

We were separated almost at birth and have since pursued different paths. Malaysia might be geographically bigger and a little older, but we are two sovereign nations with our identities and aspirations.

If Malaysians want to keep invoking the “twin’’ analogy – and who’s the bigger and older one – it is free to do so. There is no need for Singapore to adopt the same approach.

I was aghast therefore when Mr Khaw described the analogy as a good one, although he probably meant it as a jibe: “As twins, we ought to embrace each other and help each other grow, and help each other succeed and celebrate each other’s achievements. Then I think it is so much better.”

Earlier in the week, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu described the relationship in the same way:”We are connected in so many ways. We go to Malaysia for shopping, we go to their place for business, we visit their people all the time. This kind of brotherly or sisterly relationship is one that we really want to continue and to protect.”

Perhaps, 3G leaders can carry on using this abang-adik relationship in their public comment, but I hope the 4G leaders, who were not even born during the 1965 separation would start a new chapter without such historical baggage.

We are neighbours and we want to be neighbourly. That’s enough.

As Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said recently: “Do we want to move forward constructively to prosper thy neighbour, or do we want to colour yet another new generation with beggar thy neighbour policies?”

He said he has met various younger Malaysian leaders since May, and they have expressed the hope that they want to work closer together.

Our relationship has gone back to the times when Dr M held the premiership. That was a generation ago, maybe more.

We should let a new generation of leaders define the relationship.



Taking the measure of Malaysia – and our leaders

In News Reports on December 6, 2018 at 2:39 am

Some of you might know this Singlish phrase: about how if you are weak, others will “makan’’ you. It’s not about someone eating your lunch, but trying to swallow you up if you display a weak point. So you have your armour on and someone thinks he sees a chink.  He tries to chisel away at it to make the hole bigger.

The phrase always comes to my mind when I read about yet another Malaysian attempt at chiseling. I thought we were done with land space connectivity issues even though I think $15m sounds quite little for the supposed abortive costs the Malaysians have to pay Singapore for deferring the High Speed Rail project. The payment deadline is next month, by the way.

Okay, there’s still the proposed crooked bridge between the two countries which the Malaysians think can be built without Singapore’s concurrence or support. I wonder if this engineering feat will cost more than the billions for the HSR project. In any case, like the Malaysians said, it’s not our problem.

Then there is the perennial water pricing issue which Malaysians have reduced to a soundbite: “Why are we selling water to Singapore at such a low price and buying it back at such a high price?’’ It sounds seductive until you know that that the high price Malaysia pays for treated water is a very subsidized price. And it is being re-sold to ordinary Malaysians for much higher. You know what? The Malaysians could always treat their own water, if they can do it at much lower cost. In any case, there is an agreement to talk about it – may it just stay that way.

We had a far stabler bilateral relationship when ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak was in charge, even though he too tried to play the bogeyman card in his last days by re-opening  the Pedra Branca issue which we thought had been dealt with in 2008. But with the Malaysian election over in May this year, returned premier Mahathir Mohamad said he was dropping the case which had been filed before the International Court of Justice in The Hague the year before.

But in general, Mr Najib was far friendlier to Singapore than Dr Mahathir has ever been. Singaporeans buy property in Iskandar, Singapore developers are involved in joint projects. Malaysians still travel to Singapore to work, or live here as permanent residents. Singaporeans do not consider Malaysians “foreigners’’, so integrated are they in the Singapore workforce. By all accounts, Mr Najib and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong get along, but this relationship has been fodder for critics of Singapore, who try to make malicious connections between Mr Najib’s current legal woes and Singapore’s banking system.

It has always seemed to me so odd that the same people who accuse Singapore of being unbending, unsentimental and rule-abiding, should suddenly see the country as a nefarious conspirator working in the shadows to help out a “buddy’’.

Those of us with long memories probably have no illusions about what a Dr M government means for Singapore. Even when he was a guest here last month, he couldn’t help jibing about Singapore’s junior status as the smaller twin. In fact, if I were to put out every belittling remark he has said about the country since he came into power, I could be accused of inciting disharmony.

Malaysia now thinks it sees other chinks in Singapore’s armour – water and air links. Only the G has any real clue about what has been happening behind the scenes that has led to the recent public explosion of statements, emails and historical facts. In fact, I doubt if the Singapore G would have said anything if Transport Minister Anthony Loke did not complain to Malaysian Parliament on Tuesday about Singapore’s “unilateral’’ decision to broadcast a navigation system for Seletar Airport.

This Instrument Landing System would require planes to make their approach over Johor, which Mr Loke said would inconvenience residents and jeopardise port operations at Pasir Gudang. He said Singapore was informed of Malaysia’s position on Nov 28 and 29 but the Republic went ahead with its plan on Dec 1 anyway.

“It is not our stance to take a confrontational approach with any party, much less our neighbours. But this involves our sovereignty, which the Malaysian government will defend in the strongest terms. This involves our airspace, which we will defend, and the interest of Johoreans,” he said.

What he didn’t say was that the Transport ministry here had been raising the issue with his officials since last December, in meetings and in emails – but received no response. Or that Singapore’s right to manage the space had been in place since 1974. Or maybe, he simply didn’t want Seletar airport to take off as an airport for commercial flights, especially since the first client would be Malaysia’s own Firefly.

Still, Mr Loke went on about “reclaiming’’ the airspace over Johor in stages as a matter of “sovereignty’’. He didn’t seem to consider the point about making sure planes don’t collide in mid-air in the congested airspace, or that other countries also let other foreign parties handle parts of their airspace in terms of safety.

Now that he has been reminded of this,  he now claims that Malaysia has better capacity to manage the area. “I understand there are safety issues that needs to be considered, but I am not asking for the airspace to be returned next month.’’

But it’s probably still no-go for Firefly in the meantime? What’s happening at Seletar Airport?

If there was any unilateral action taken, it was by Malaysia which, on October 25, gazetted extended port limits for Johor. Despite protests lodged by Singapore, vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department Malaysia have been venturing into Singapore’s waters over the past two weeks.

It seems that both countries are looking at different maps. Singapore said Johor Baru port limit now “extends beyond even the limits of Malaysia’s territorial sea claim in the area, as set out in Malaysia’s own 1979 map, which Singapore has never accepted”.

Guess what? That 1979 map showed that Pedra Branca fell under Malaysia’s territory. Didn’t we win the case and didn’t Malaysia just drop its claims over the island? Now the port limits are even further? It boggles the mind.

Dr Mahathir has denied the encroachment. “We can measure to see if it is true or not, but we had not touched their border.”

The wonder of Malaysian politicians is that they always make everything public, and have no qualms slagging off their neighbour. Here, the politicians only go public when cornered. It is reflective of the measured, rational style of Singapore’s leadership. But there is really only so much belittling we can take. So far, the 3G leaders have been doing the talking. Will the 4G leadership take a new approach?

Time to take out a measuring tape, and not just for defining the borders.





SingHealth COI: About keeping your head down

In News Reports on December 1, 2018 at 2:13 am

So I asked the doctor if I could send my mother to Changi General Hospital for physiotherapy instead of Singapore General Hospital. Closer to home, I said. But no, she would have to go to the polyclinic to get a referral to a doctor at CGH and then proceed from there.

What about a letter from him for CGH? Cannot. Aren’t they part of the same cluster and have all our medical data on electronic databases? Yes, but still cannot. Then can I use his medication prescription for later at a polyclinic pharmacy, rather that buy them now at the hospital? He doesn’t think so.

But why? His answer was to go ask Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

I rather thought he should go and ask him himself but maybe, there is such a thing as separation of the political and public service. Maybe this was what National Development Minister Lawrence Wong meant when he said that public officers should engage the public and “co-create’’ solutions. I thought to myself that there doesn’t need to be an engagement ‘’exercise’’, but merely a question of being alert to interest of citizens and bringing up improvements to the powers-that-be.

I am reminded of the encounter after reading the summation to inquiry panel on  the SingHealth hacking incident. There are 16 recommendations including technical ones about adding security filters and no-brainers such as using a more complicated password than P@ssw0rd. But we all know that whatever SOPs are in place are no good if the people can’t be bothered to follow them. Or worse, people follow them to the letter rather than hark to the sentiments behind them – which is for efficient and effective problem-solving. (Like banning the sale of rum and raisin ice cream after hours because it contains alcohol.)

If anything, the COI hearings illustrate the depth of complacency pervading the environment of those in charge of our health data. I called it bo chup culture in one column but I think I should also add that it’s about not wanting to rock the boat, or the worry about getting blamed or being singled out as a troublemaker.

I thought about how the employers were more intent on punishing an employee who wanted to move out, rather than consider the helpful advice from the vendor he courted about lapses in the system. I thought about the kiasuism in making sure there was really, really a breach before sounding the alarm. This is to avoid having bosses breathing down their necks and working with “no day, no night”. 

I thought about the guy who discovered the breach and was credited for alerting his boss – who did nothing. I think credit should be given if that same guy took his suspicions elsewhere when he realised his boss was sitting on the problem.

Our standards have become so low that we praise people for doing their duty and earning their salary. The flip side is: we lay no blame on those who don’t.

Plenty of wags have commented that this attitude of keeping your head down is more pervasive than we think. It is an organizational culture that breeds silence and consent, not one that encourages initiative and action. If this is true for big public sector agencies, then we are in big trouble. The private sector has the profit-making imperative to kick employees out of their complacency so as to gain market share, or to get a lead on rivals. Their bonuses and sometimes, even their continued employment, depend on it. The public sector has what? Random audits by the Auditor-General? A complaints box? A rehearsal or drill that they are prepared for because they know when it’s coming?

We’ve been hearing a lot about cultural issues lately. SMRT Mr Neo Kian Hong, made a remarkable declaration two weeks ago that  the “deep-seated cultural issues” of human error or failure characterised by his predecessor Desmond Kuek do not exist within the SMRT. That was a bold move, and he must hope that no major lapses occur on his watch or he would have to put it down to the usual excuse of “technical issues’’.

I don’t think Mr Kuek made himself popular with SMRT staff with his comments, because it tarred everyone in the organization. But I think he was brave to actually blame “people’’ because we are so averse to making people feel bad. So if a few people let down an organization, should we dismiss the whole barrel? Of course not, but it would be good if the rest of the apples realize that they too had a part to play in letting the bad ones rot to such an extent.

I happen to think that this approach of keeping your head down and not attracting attention is something that is embedded in our psyche. I see it all the time when I ask my class of undergraduates if they have any questions and I get no response. I’m sure it prevails even among those whose job it is to ask questions. Either because we’ve lost the art of asking questions or we simply don’t think we should do any asking because it’s considered so, so rude.

Taking initiative, like interrupting a class with questions, is even worse. You’ll be accused of wanting the limelight and “spoiling the market’’. You’ll be accused of adding to other people’s workload and raising expectations. No one wants to stand out and be noticed. It’s not Singaporean to be ambitious, not even for politicians.

However “smart” we are as a nation, it’s the people who are the source of good and bad. If people don’t take pride in their work, or in whichever organization they belong to, then they really just are cogs in a wheel. At a national level, we see it everywhere. We live our own lives and do our own thing. We think nothing will happen if we speak or take action – and we don’t even want to try.

It’s depressing.

I want to say that the encounter with the doctor was just a blip on an otherwise very good day at the hospital. I have always been impressed by the service and civility of the staff in SGH, from the security guard to the receptionists to the front-line nurses. This is one organisation with a culture of excellence and professionalism. Its record might have been marred by high-profile incidents, especially by senior people, but its rank-and-file have much to be proud of.

I guess Mr Neo feels the same about SMRT.


Heng in there, Singapore!

In News Reports on November 23, 2018 at 11:50 am

So is this the end? I mean, the end of the national gossip game of who will become Singapore’s 4th Prime Minister?

Mr Heng Swee Keat, 57, has been named 1stAssistant Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party. That means, if the leadership succession is really as orderly as the PAP says it will be,  he will take over as Prime Minister once Mr Lee Hsien Loong steps aside. Sooner or later, at one party convention, Mr Heng will assume the mantle of PAP secretary-general as well –  unless Mr Lee asked, like his late father did of Mr Goh Chok Tong, to be allowed to stay on in the party job for a while.

When media reports said that party sources were expecting Mr Heng to be first among equals among the 4G leadership, I thought to myself how things had gone one big round. After all, that was the talk last year and early this year, that Mr Heng would helm the post by virtue of his age and term in office. He would be Deputy Prime Minister because he is older and more experienced than the other two touted front-runners, Messrs Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung, both of whom haven’t hit the big 50. Then PM Lee nixed the idea and we’re told that all would be announced in good time.

It’s good that the leadership issue has been decided because the uncertainty was breeding too much speculation among the population. It must have been stressful for the three men, who despite whatever they or others have said about collective leadership, would have known how much scrutiny they were being subjected to, both in and out of political circles.

Recall how there were many more front-runners not too long ago. Their names have been quietly left out as pundits started narrowing the field. Last weekend, party sources revealed that Education Minister Mr Ong was no longer in the race, by virtue of being left out of the PAP Central Executive Committee’s list of nominees for party posts. Nevertheless, he was still nominated by the rank-and-file – and made the cut. What I would give to know how the 3,000 or so cadres split their votes!

When it came down to the wire, the Internet was abuzz with opinions about the two men, Finance Minister Heng and Trade and Industry Minister Chan. Anecdotally, netizens seem more in favour of Mr Heng than Mr Chan.

Mr Heng earned plenty of goodwill when he chaired the Our Singapore Conversation, an extensive and intensive political exercise to get feedback after the PAP’s dismal 2011 poll showing. The outcomes of his Committee for Future Economy didn’t get much as many bouquets. But most people know him who has been in public service for a very long time and who had been steering Singapore’s finances. He is seen as a “nice’’ man, so much so that even his attempts to upbraid opposition politicians in Parliament seemed too much out of character.

As for Mr Chan, a former general, his informal behavior and folksy mode of speech endeared him to the grassroots. But there were those who thought he lacked the gravitas that marked Singapore’s prime ministers.

Some say that all this speculation is none of the people’s business, because it is an internal party matter. Some say that things will go on just the same, regardless of whoever is in charge since there doesn’t seem to be a standout candidate. Yet others wonder if the leadership was being divided into factions which are unable to come to an unanimous choice. How much hard bargaining, if any, was there?

Of course, the PAP would never disclose any internal politicking and would probably even deny it, even if there was. In the PAP world, there is no such thing as harbouring political ambitions.  Politics is a call to service, with the chosen one gracefully accepting the mantle.

So, what now?

It looks like a Cabinet reshuffle should come next. After all, both deputy prime ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam aren’t in the PAP’s CEC and the 4G leaders should be given an even higher profile now.

How will Mr Lee position his men and women in Cabinet? Will there be one DPM or two DPMs or a First and Second DPM, to take account future succession planning? Note that when Mr Goh became PM, he had the late Ong Teng Cheong as 1DPM and Mr Lee as 2DPM. But it was Mr Lee who acted as PM in Mr Goh’s absence.

But the Cabinet’s game of musical chairs doesn’t matter as much now as how Mr Heng will lead the PAP in the next general election due by January 2021. It will be a 4G show, we’ve been told, and it would be interesting to see if PAP strategies or tactics have changed.  It would a good time to announce a new vision that is not only economically-driven but also socially-oriented, and an agenda that will energise Singaporeans rather than make them deaf to motherhood statements. Perhaps, also, the 4G will think harder about whether to invoke LKY Thought in their words and deeds, and dare to forge ahead on their steam.

They still have the moribund economy to see to, the GST to raise, the moves towards a digital society and the dive in old HDB property prices. Not to forget that the younger lot have to deal with a Malaysia that has Dr Mahathir Mohammad at the helm, and a more assertive China.

The man who fronts Singapore isn’t going to have it easy, especially since there are still citizens around who can compare his performance with not one or two but three prime ministers.

From now till then, we’ve been told we’ll be seeing a lot more ministers walking the ground. I am looking forward to shaking Mr Heng’s hand and wishing him well.

Congratulations, Mr Heng.








Roast the boar and call a pig, a pig

In News Reports on November 23, 2018 at 12:51 am

Every year, my mother buys the Chinese New Year zodiac commemorative coins as keepsakes. So she was asking about the Year of the Pig. I told her it’s the Year of the Boar. She looked at the newspaper pictures of the coins that the Monetary Authority of Singapore is putting out for 2019. It looks like a pig against a kampung backdrop. I told her boars are found in kampungs too. She harrumphed. As she should.

Why hasn’t someone asked the MAS why it has decided to rename the animal in the Chinese zodiac? I can’t recall ever going through the Year of the Boar. I googled the term and found that boar and pig are used interchangeably – so it’s not incorrect. But it’s the pig which hogged the search list.

Is the boar a nod to political correctness or some worry that Muslims here would be offended by an animal in the Chinese horoscope? If so, then the MAS should have minted more boar-like pigs on the coins. And merchants should be told not to adorn shopfronts with pigs.

Yet, there are reports that the Muslims here aren’t at all perturbed by a year being named after swine. They can’t eat pork or touch pork, but does this mean they can’t look at the image of a pig or contend with the idea that there is something known as the Year of the Pig? Nor is anyone forced to buy the coins if the concern is about manhandling the image.

Since nobody asked MAS why, I can only speculate that MAS doesn’t seem to credit our Muslim community with some common sense. Or maybe it will cite chapter and verse that the term is used elsewhere or interchangeably. Or maybe it will accuse me of provoking religious sentiments.

The wonder is that the Chinese community here isn’t saying something about the Boar versus Pig dissimulation. The fact is, we’re used to the pig. Perhaps, its members think that it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to raise the matter lest they be accused of being insensitive – a term which is very easy to bandy around no matter which side of any divide you’re on.

Still, it hasn’t stopped non-Muslims from raising a ruckus when some fast-food chain decides to go halal with turkey ham.  But it’s one thing to slam a commercial company which bases its decision on dollars and cents and what the market will bear. It’s another thing to question an agency as august as the MAS about re-labelling an entire year and tampering with tradition.

The Chinese here know that as the majority, they are expected to give more than they take. Nevertheless, I think they should be able to keep their pig.




The contentiousness of socially conscious hawker centres

In News Reports on November 22, 2018 at 9:05 am

I can’t help but do a double-take at Dr Amy Khor’s assertion that social enterprise is the wrong term to describe the operators of 13 hawker centres here. The right label is “socially conscious’’ enterprise, she said. I wonder if that means they are like banks and developers who have corporate social responsibility emblazoned on their mission statements.

Okay, I am sorry if I am cynical. But I do wish that the “misinformation’’ was corrected from the start instead of being turned into an accusation later on. In fact, I wonder what the difference between the two is for her to make such a distinction suddenly.

After all, that was how the Hawker Centre Consultation Panel described them in its 2012 report:

New hawker centres could be managed by social enterprises with funding and  and other support from the government for the operation, management and upgrading of the centres and the necessary subsidies to achieve its objectives. This management model is one where the daily operations are run by the social enterprise but still takes directions and instructions from a board of directors who are appointed by the government. Under such a model, the government could explore co-managing the centre with the social enterprise for an initial period to lend its expertise in hawker centre management to the latter.

Then it helpfully elaborated on the term in a footnote:

A social enterprise is a regular business that maximises profits to deliver social impact such as hiring ex- offenders. It is considered “for profit” when it is invested by private investors who take equity stakes. It is considered “non-profit” when the full profit is either ploughed back to the parent non-profit organization or fully retained in the company to create maximum social benefits without giving out any returns to investor shareholders.

The hawker centre social enterprise is a registered non-profit company that tenants out hawker stalls to create viable livelihoods for small time individual hawkers, the low income and the less privileged locals to provide affordable food to the community.

The model isn’t quite the same though because the G isn’t quite intervening in the management once the tender has been awarded. It now seems to be having a change of heart.

The SEHCs are supposed to put back half of what they make into the community. Did they do so? They have to hand in audited accounts to the National Environment Agency every year. The model has been in place for three years. According to Dr Khor, none of the five enterprises made an operating surplus.

What can we deduce from that? So they made no money at all, and therefore cannot give anything back? How long will they take to break even? Or is this because they spent too much money marketing the centres to create “vibrancy’’? Is the model broken? Are we asking too much of these SEHCs?

Instead we are told that the model is “generally sound’’ with assertions about “good outcomes’’ (like a higher rate of tray return!). Plenty of “happy’’ anecdotes from hawkers peppered the speeches of the two ministers who replied to questions from MPs in Parliament on Monday. And this comes right after Dr Khor slammed well meaning people for passing on generalisations, incomplete information and “unhappy’’ anecdotes.

I am going to sound like a broken record here: Fake news happens when there is no news. It took a pretty long time for us to get answers to questions that were first raised by food critic K F Seetoh in August. The SEHCs themselves were pretty closed mouth choosing only to correct misinformation. (And more, which you can read here.)

Monday was when we heard a full accounting of the operating costs of hawker stalls and what they have to pay the SEHC.

Here’s a quick run-down from Dr Khor:

Stall rental: The median rental of stalls in SEHCs is about $2,000 per month, not $4,000 per month as some media reports have claimed. The highest is 3,700. Yes, the median rental is higher than the median rental of $1,700 a month elsewhere but the SEHC stalls are larger: 10 to 21sqm compared to 5 to 13sqm.

Operating costs: Service & Conservancy Charges (S&CC) at SEHCs are between $110 and $350 a month, within the range of $130 to $450 a month at the rest. (This was said by Dr Khor although I would think S&C charges aren’t decided by the SEHCs but town councils.)

Cleaning costs: Table-cleaning fees at SEHCs are between $300 and $550 a month, within the range of $200 to $830 a month at the rest. Those at SEHCs have centralized dishwashing facilities which, at one SEHC, cost about $700 a month. Other hawkers with no such facilities have to hire dishwashers paying each up to $1,500 a month.

So that’s the cost part. What are the safeguards?

The SEHC can’t change the charges to hawkers or implement new – even optional – costs without letting the NEA know. So that $600 optional professional consultation fee levied by Fei Siong to Ci Yuan Community Club Hawker Centre in a “miscommunication’’ to hawkers had presumably been cleared by the NEA. (The wonder is that the grassroots leaders who throng the community club don’t seem to have heard anything.)

What about other contractual terms such as 24-hour operations, penalties for closures and onerous termination clauses? Obviously, the NEA is clueless or it wouldn’t have demanded that such terms be changed from January. Also, obviously, it has no idea of hawker complaints. Or it turned a deaf ear to them. Or directed the hawkers to the SEHC.

I mean, to think the SEHCs had to be directed to hold feedback sessions with hawkers…It boggles the mind.

Unless of course, the SEHCs are really just private companies with other pre-occupations, which should be left to decide how to run the business. You know, like mall management. In fact, some mall managements do quite a lot to drive footfall into their buildings with fringe activities, free shuttle service and flea markets. You know, like SEHCs are supposed to do.

I will grant the SEHCs this: Why should they operate with a bigger heart unless they have help to do so? Did SEHCs (not the hawkers) get any help in the form of programmes or grants or subsidies from the G or taxpayers to get the job done? Only now do we hear of 50 per cent subsidy for centralized dishwashing services. And that’s only for the first year.

All I can say is that the NEA has left the SEHCs too much to their own devices. Dr Khor prefers, however, to put it this way: “NEA will rebalance its soft touch regulatory approach towards SEHC operators and exercise greater oversight to safeguard hawkers’ well-being.’’ The word “rebalance’’ has been used several times by her.  Likewise, the word “re-calibration’’.

She might as well have said: “We didn’t pay much attention to the SEHC before. Maybe we should have. We’ll start doing so from now.’’

There is now a “stock take” of SEHCs. What’s puzzling is why the G is insisting the model is fine when the review isn’t even over. After all, Dr Khor has declared that the G is open to other business models for hawker centre operations. Already, people are talking about having co-operatives run the show. If radical changes should be taken, so be it. Why constrain the review by insisting that everything is really, really okay?

You know, it’s okay to be wrong sometimes.








The year is ending and it’s getting chilly

In News Reports on November 22, 2018 at 2:06 am

A few weeks ago, I shared a column published in the Economist about contempt of court laws in Singapore on my Facebook wall. It had a caricature of three very agitated-looking judges looking at a computer screen. I thought the image was funny – for at least three minutes – until a Facebook poster asked if this was a case of scandalizing the judiciary. I deleted the image.

I suppose if the G really thought it was a scandalous image of our judges, then it would slam the Economist, especially since it is available in print here and online too. Then what about the rest of us who helped to publicize the image? I believe online distributors have never been tagged along with the original source in any legal confrontation, but it’s better to be safe than sorry – lest you earn yourself a parliamentary mention.

When the G denies that any of its laws have a “chilling effect’’, I wonder who it’s trying to kid. It can cite figures and surveys to show that everything is business as usual, but this is not true. It is correct that we think very hard before we open our mouths or thump the keyboard, but the truth is, we simply do not know when we’ve crossed the line on what is appropriate and what is not.

I wouldn’t have been so wary about sharing the caricature on social media if there was not the example made of civil society activist Jolovan Wham who said something negative about the judiciary here in comparison with the one in the north. (I am being careful here). A lot of people have said worse things but Mr Wham looks like he’s being singled out for preferential treatment, which could be the result of his past run-ins with the law on matters that in Singapore could amount to civil disobedience. That special treatment took place under tightened Administration of Justice laws which relied on the “risk’’ of bringing the judiciary into disrepute, rather than a “real risk’’.

So why would anyone risk it? Then there is the example of Mr Li Shengwu, whose private FB post was deemed as contempt of court because of a word he used. So is this case also about who he is, that is, son of an estranged sibling of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, besides about what he said?

That is the unique nature about Singapore’s OB markers, which I teach as a university module. Every semester, I worry that I would come across as “brainwasher’’ if I defend the G, or a “rabble-rouser’’ if I don’t. Worse, it is tough to discuss the issue when the students are un-informed. They do not know who is Mr Lim Chin Siong or Mr Tang Liang Hong, nor even Mr J B Jeyaretnam. (Hint: Opposition politicians)

When I look at their project work, I feel dismayed when they seem to think that any criticism of the G, or comment on race and religion, could be construed as crossing the OB markers, and thereby deserving of opprobrium. I tell them that the G is not so thin-skinned and that society is not so fragile as to fall apart at the mere mention of race. Why aren’t they pushing the boundaries, I ask. At which point I caution myself: Why am I asking them to do so?

The flip side is this: I also feel dismayed when I see them jumping on the popular bandwagon, like attacking the mainstream media without justification or calling for a poverty line or minimum wage because others are doing so. It’s very vogue to be anti-G. At several points, I have suggested that they give the current policies a chance and actually take them through the mechanics of Workfare Income Supplement or the Progressive Wage Model. Then I worry that they may think I am a government mouthpiece.

Recently there have been new OB marker cases, like that of the five Singapore Civil Defence Force NSFs who took and distributed pictures of a Bionix crushed against a Land Rover, killing the driver. The SCDF filed a police report against them, presumably because those pictures were taken in a protected area where army training is being conducted. There is, therefore, a possibility that the Official Secrets Act could be invoked.

Since it is a police case, it’s hard to say much about the matter. I doubt that the NSFs thought very much about the consequences of their actions beyond how it was too good a picture not to share. It wasn’t a gory picture, and it wasn’t fake news. It was taken at the wrong place – and disseminated.

They might have broken the law but they did the public a favour by showing the incident to be a lot more serious than what the original Defence ministry statement had made it out to be: that a soldier was “involved in a vehicular incident’’. Such mealy-mouthed statements do nothing for the credibility of Mindef, especially when backed with pictures.  And now, two weeks later, we learn that there was a trainer in the jeep along with the driver who died. It took a parliamentary question to get the answer.

Then there is the case of the States Times Review.

When I received a WhatsApp message which shared the “news’’ of Singapore’s supposed illicit involvement in Malaysia’s 1MDB sage published in The Coverage, I was flummoxed. That was because I had no idea The Coverage was a sensationalist outlet prone to provoking Singapore. I read it and dismissed it as scurrilous nonsense immediately. It was too fantastical, libelous and it looked intent on capitalizing on the current not-so-hot relationship between the two countries by dragging even the sacred water agreements into the fray.

Then I saw that I had missed another WhatsApp message from the same person: “I think it’s fake news.’’

I guess he thought I would be interested to know that such “fake news’’ was floating around. We know what happened next. The G used the force of its authority and tools in its arsenal to attack the originator, The States Times Review. Still, there were some surprises. Like how the Monetary Authority of Singapore decided to make a police report alleging criminal defamation. Woah. So it’s taking it upon itself to make this a criminal case on behalf of itself and the G?  A criminal defamation suit, by the way, can land people in jail. It isn’t about asking for damages.

I have said before that the whole saga seemed to be aimed at laying the groundwork for proposed fake news laws in Singapore. On Monday in Parliament, Mr Edwin Tong hinted as much when he talked about Facebook’s refusal to take down STR’s post because there seemed to be no threat of imminent violence or physical harm.

I can understand FB’s position because it would be setting a precedent if it blocked something on simply a government’s say-so. Because its standards apply world-wide, it must have a high threshold. In any case, there has been no objective test of the falseness of the allegations – even if the rest of Singapore believes the remarks to be patently nonsense

Then on Tuesday, another OB marker case emerged when the premises of The Online Citizen were raided and equipment removed.  Regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority had filed a police report against it, for criminal defamation. You would think that a regulator would have many tools at its disposal to circumscribe the activities of websites or at least have a channel of communication with the source. The usual responses like calling for a right of reply, issuing a letter of demand or throwing the Internet Code of Practice against the site seemed to have been dispensed with. The sledgehammer came out.

It’s not even clear what the offending article/articles were but we hear from MSM that it was about a September article which criticized MP Seah Kian Peng for hitting out at historian P J Thum’s meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. The scurrilous phrases had to do with corruption and tampering with the Constitution written by a contributor. Two months have passed since the IMDA took this action, which seemed like  a belated ‘gotcha’ moment.

It is no small thing to have police officers, however polite, barge into your home to seize your computers. My mother would have a heart attack if this happened to me at our house. Already, she is suggesting that I kill this piece if I do not want some kind of midnight knock on the door.

As you can see, I am being terribly unfilial here. Of course, I feel the chilling effect – and the heat from my mother – but if we all do, then what does this mean for a citizen’s ability and right to join the national discourse,  however, ill-informed and irrational he or she may be? But there is an obligation, though, on the part of news sites to curate and fact-check citizen’s comments – or they would be no better than a post-box or a loud-hailer. They, too, must give citizens a level of protection against themselves even as they revel at the idea of being a platform for controversial views.

The latest news now is about The Independent Singapore being threatened with a lawsuit from NTUC Foodfare for two articles claiming that the social enterprise was bullying hawkers. No amount of journalistic euphemisms such as “allegedly’’ or “supposedly’’ can take the sting out of the focus of the article – that a hawker had died because of the long work hours stipulated by NTUC Foodfare.

The website publisher has respondedsaying that there’s material evidence for its claims. And it appears that the site is after bigger fish – questioning the role of NTUC in the business landscape.  All I wonder is whether NTUC Foodfare had a chance to give its views before the two articles were published. It is well and good to give the small man a voice, but it doesn’t mean shutting out the big boys from the conversation

I think both the G and the people have to come to some sort of accommodation about what constitutes free and fair speech, and the terms of engagement.

The G and other big boys should be cautious about using the sledgehammer against citizens. Big boys always have the upper hand and recourse to a lot of actions before resorting to the most drastic.

I am getting tired of responses such as “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about’’. That’s because I never know when I would be singled out for preferential treatment over a lapse that I wasn’t even aware of. Likewise, I am getting tired of phrases such as “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about’’. Sure, but I don’t appreciate other people poking around my computer even if there are  only pictures of my Lego construction work to see.

On the other hand, websites which claim to speak for citizens will find that adhering to journalistic practices is the best way to keep the conversation between both sides going on a fair and equal basis.

We should speak up – and be fair when we do. We should base our opinions on facts – and point out the absence of other facts. And the G must remember it doesn’t do itself and the country any good if we have to keep watching what we say, so much so that we’d rather shut up.

That is surely not what it wants.



(No) Thanks STR. You just justified fake news laws

In News Reports on November 13, 2018 at 12:19 am

I hope we’ve seen and heard the last of Mr Alex Tan, the founder of the now-defunct (?) States Times Review and a former collaborator of the definitely-defunct TheRealSingapore.

I have always thought that the right way to deal with such fringe sites is to ignore them. Their claims of real news and independent commentary would make any journalism student blush. Not that they care very much about the ethics of the profession anyway.

Which was why I was surprised when TODAY decided to take Mr Tan’s announcement of a website’s shutdown a few weeks ago so seriously as to have an interview with the man. Reading the report, Mr Tan,  now resident in Australia after the TRS saga in court in 2015, was a mass of contradictions.

He said he was worried that the proposed fake news laws were targeted at him. (He’s right to be worried. In 2017, the site was named as one of two sites which peddled fake news. The second one is All Singapore Stuff, which is now infamous for its doctored picture of a collapsed rooftop in Punggol.)  He said he would turn to blogging, with content unchanged –  as if the different online mode would make a difference.

Then he said he was not worried and that he would take everything the G could hurl at him.

In any case, he continued publishing.

Now, I have to read about him again in the traditional media, thanks to a Malaysian online portal which seemed to have taken his meandering conspiracy theories about Singapore’s involvement in the 1MDB saga seriously. Or, at least, felt that his accusations were in line with the sort of “news’’ it publishes.

When I was sent a WhatsApp message on the article linking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the 1MDB scandal in a screaming headline, I wanted to ignore it. But fake news is sensational, so I read it. I gulped at the article’s gumption, which contended that the price of water sold to Singapore and the High Speed Railway negotiations were some kind of quid pro quo for covering up the money trail from 1MDB.

The WhatsApp sender said that it was “probably fake news’’ , which made me wonder why he shared it with me in the first place. I guess it’s because not many people know of the Malaysian online portal, The Coverage. At first, given the look of the site and the colours, I thought it was linked to The Star. Then there was the mention of the whistle-blowing Sarawak Report in the article, which seemed to lend credibility to the allegations. There was even “a source close with (sic) the Prime Minister’’ if I recall correctly. (The site can’t be accessed anymore and I am digging into my memory bank).

I don’t, however, recall that it attributed its content to STR, which would have made me upset about wasting a few minutes of my life reading it.

Then the G started weighing in, first with the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia putting out a press statement denouncing the report in The Coverage. It said that the basis of the article was STR. This was followed by  a flurry of pronouncements aimed at STR. It was almost as if someone thought: Ahah! Here’s our chance!

Even so, I found news that the Monetary Authority of Singapore had filed a report against STR for alleged criminal defamation surprising. I can’t find a past instance when a public agency has alleged libel, although I can understand why the central bank is so unhappy about having its integrity “impugned’’. I  recall how in 2013, the Council of Private Education tried to sue Ms Han Hui Hui, a move which raised questions about whether a G agency could take such action against a private individual. In any case, the case was dropped. Then there was the Defence ministry’s 2017 attempt to use the Protection from Harassment Act on The Online Citizen. That failed because the courts said the law was meant for individuals. (I am so grateful that the Administration of Justice Act with its contempt of court rules only applies to the judiciary – and no one else.)

What wouldn’t have surprised me would be news that Mr Lee had decided to sue, since he was so clearly being targeted in the article, much like he did for blogger Roy Ngerng in 2015.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has weighed in too, giving a political dimension to the allegations, which had been given a “nasty and malicious twist”.

“It brings in 1MDB, it brings in (former) prime minister Najib, and says that our PM and Singapore Government were corrupt and complicit in the money laundering on 1MDB, and that that is why Singapore got favourable deals and Malaysia was soft on water price (and) gave us a good deal on HSR (High-Speed Rail). Absurd allegations,” he told reporters.

He also pointed out that the China Press in Malaysia had run the story too. This meant that the story was making it into the mainstream of Malaysia as the China Press is said to be the second largest Chinese-language newspaper over there.

“The natural question is, why did they publish these falsehoods – probably knowing that there is no basis … It is obvious also to anyone who publishes them that the allegations … will try to damage the prime minister and seek to damage Singapore,” he said. He described the actions as “very curious’’.

It would appear that this  STR saga is checking off all the boxes on the difficulty of nipping fake news in the bud.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority threw the Internet Code of Practice at STR. This says that an Internet Content Provider shall “deny access to material considered by the Authority to be prohibited material if directed to do so by the Authority’’. STR refused to do so, so the Internet Service Providers (also covered by the Code) stepped in to deny access to the site.

Prohibited material, by the way, covers  “material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws’’.

Then a request to Facebook to do the same was turned down.

Right on cue, Mr Shanmugam said FB’s response showed that legislation is needed. “FB cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign.’’ It seems that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have a firm case when it recommended that there be legally valid and binding orders to compel technology companies because a “request by the Government for them to do so may not be enough’’.

I had a look at FB’s community standards on False News.

It says this: “Reducing the spread of false news on Facebook is a responsibility that we take seriously. We also recognize that this is a challenging and sensitive issue. We want to help people stay informed without stifling productive public discourse. There is also a fine line between false news and satire or opinion. For these reasons, we don’t remove false news from Facebook but instead, significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in the News Feed.”

Mr Tan is still venting on his STR FaceBook page. He said that he would shut it down in two weeks and left a little tit-bit for his fans. He will be passing on the mantle to someone else based abroad, who might call the site the Singapore Herald. Now, that is a name that brings memories.

I said on my own FB wall a few days ago that I wish Mr Tan and STR would simply disappear. I can just see how the G will turn the current fuss into a case study on the lack of legal teeth to deal with recalcitrant peddlers of fake news. You know what? I would rather navigate OB markers than have to run up against the law.

No thanks to Mr Tan.








PAP changes: Casting around for a star – and a script

In News Reports on November 12, 2018 at 5:53 am

So everybody’s trying to guess who’s going to be the next Prime Minister after yesterday’s People’s Action Party convention.

But what do we know?

  1. We know who’s got the most votes for 12 places in the policymaking Central Executive Committee, as well as the two with the next highest votes who have been co-opted, namely, Dr Ng Eng Hen and Ms Josephine Teo.
  2. We don’t know how the divine dozen fared in the polls. Was Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP’s secretary-general, the top vote-getter? We don’t know what the PAP cadres thought of the three front-runners – Messrs Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung and Heng Swee Keat – because we don’t have any voting numbers either. But we know Mr Ong was voted in, unlike the last time when he had to be co-opted.
  3. We know whose name wasn’t on the ballot: the two Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam (so he’s definitely out of the running) and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan. Mr Lim Swee Say and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim have been left off the list too, which is no surprise given that they had relinquished their ministerial portfolios earlier. (The CEC is practically a mirror image of the Cabinet)
  4. We know that there were at least 19 names on the ballot. According to ST, Messrs S. Iswaran, Lawrence Wong, Desmond Lee, Janil Puthucheary and Alex Yam, the only backbencher on the list, didn’t muster enough votes to make it into the CEC.
  5. We know that it really doesn’t matter who made the cut because the CEC has the power to co-opt another four members.

So what will we know next or what will be allowed to know?

We know that with the withdrawal of the 3G leaders, there are now five senior vacancies: chairman, vice-chairman, first and second assistant secretary-generals, as well as treasurer. If you recall what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said recently, how this new hierarchy is staffed would give clues on the leadership transition.

After Mr Lee as secretary-general, the next two top slots are first and second assistant secretary-general. This is a bit like first and second DPM (told you it’s a mirror image). As for who decides who gets what job, that’s up to the CEC members themselves.

Given that this college of cardinals is now filled mainly by 4G leaders, this means they should have the most say on who should lead them. Mr Lee has already said he wouldn’t interfere in their discussions, and the younger team seemed to have been in a huddle over the past few months to secure a consensus.

When will we know this? In a few weeks time when the CEC meets. That when the real show starts.

The change in the cast of actors is intriguing to watch. But I can’t help but think about the pressure the star performer will face when the curtain finally parts. It isn’t just the 4G leaders who have been trying to reach a consensus, there’s plenty of talk on who will be leader among the polity itself. It isn’t enough for the lead actor to have the backing of his peers, he needs to demonstrate to the audience why he deserves top billing as well.

But the audience doesn’t have any clue about what sort of performance the entire cast will put up. The 4G leaders have always emphasized its collective position, rather than point to individual characters who are making their mark.

Given its collective persona, is there then a distinctive style that separates them from the earlier leadership?

The year started on a high note, with President Halimah Yacob calling on the younger leaders not to be afraid to make bold changes. We’re told that the year’s Budget is in their hands and would have their imprint.

The response from the 4G leaders, in the person of Mr Heng, was to pledge a new compact with the people, with more interaction with the people. But there is no sign of a second Singapore conversation, unless we count the multiple-minister walkabouts which end in closed-door dialogues. Or the various interviews they gave on television, over radio and in print.

What we remember instead is a year in which Mr Heng and Ms Grace Fu, also elected into the CEC, tussled with the Workers’ Party on the proposed rise in GST, and the town council law suits against some WP leaders which, to many, smack of the old-style PAP confrontational politics even though the suits were initiated by an independent panel.

We recall the grilling that the Parliamentary Select Committee gave to some representors, especially historian P J Thum, at the hearings on deliberate online falsehoods. We see the tightening of OB markers, with new laws to secure public order and lower thresholds for contempt of court indictments. The 4G leaders have given some very vigorous responses even to moderate comments in the media, demonstrating that they have a pretty short fuse despite the promise to listen to opinions with respect and humility.

On the bread-and-butter level, I’m sure many are glad that the MRT is working well, after so many hiccups. But we are now told that the worth of our HDB flats, once touted as an ever-appreciating investment, will go down to zero eventually. We have to face the facts of course, but it’s hard to digest, especially for those now trying to sell off their old properties.

And I haven’t even started on about jobs and cost-of-living.

Perhaps, the 4G is intending to make its mark in education, breaking the Singaporean mindset away from the emphasis on grades and the reliance on connections that give those from privileged families a headstart. Several announcements have been made to this effect, whether about polytechnic students’ admission to universities, pre-primary programmes and how international rankings might not give a complete picture of Singapore’s higher education landscape.

Perhaps, these tweaks will have an impact on another big set of issues they have to deal with:  the merits and demerits of meritocracy, its impact on social mobility, and whether elitism has seeped in too deep into society to be uprooted. These are philosophical and cultural issues that would have to be factored into policymaking.

In this respect, they suffer from an image problem. They are viewed as products of a system which has nurtured them, buffeted by the ever-controversial ministerial salary issue, in a closed elite of technocrats bound by old school/public service connections. Even the CEC doesn’t have a single backbencher in its ranks.

Their vigorous defence of the social support system in place – Workfare Income Supplement, Silver Support Scheme, Progressive Wage Model – doesn’t give much room for alternative viewpoints. Instead, increasingly, the blame seems pinned on the people at large, for not being able to see beyond their noses and sniffing at the less well-off.

In other words, I don’t see any kind of political or governing style emerging from the 4G leaders. What’s worse is I think they will make a virtue of continuity of policies and style, even while they deliver lectures on Singapore’s vulnerabilities in an increasing complex world.

The cast is acting out the same old drama. Hopefully, the unveiling of the star will be accompanied by a change of script.