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Give the facts, the FULL facts

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm

In the report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods are a few interesting paragraphs about maintaining public trust in institutions. The end result is a  recommendation that public institutions “emphasise the timely communication of information to both pre-empt and respond to online falsehoods, and recognize the role of participation, transparency and accountability in ensuring public trust in how public institutions respond to online falsehoods’’.

But the discussion was a lot bigger than that.

Note that the committee’s recommendations relate to how to deal with falsehoods per se rather than than issues of accountability and transparency. But broader recommendations about governance were also made by representors. The committee said that these reiterated the importance of well-established principles such as communication, transparency, participation and accountability. It added that there were several suggestions urging the G to:

  • – Explain the rationale for public policy decisions;
  • – Be candid about failures and problems faced;
  • – Undertake continuous and transparent communication with the public;
  • – Involve the public in policy and decision-making processes;
  • – Demonstrate willingness to be held accountable by the public; and
  • – Foster civil society and an active citizenry.

More specific proposals include enacting a Freedom of Information Act, to enable the public to get information from public institutions. Related recommendations were made to establish an ombudsman, to assess what classified data could be disclosed, to regularly de-classify archival material, and to investigate complaints against public institutions.

The basis of the recommendations: Strong trust in public institutions makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect. It also makes it easier for public institutions to effectively intervene in crises.

While the committee thinks the suggestions are valid and well-meaning, it said that representors didn’t go far enough to, for example, assess the extent to which the G now explains policies or consider how national security interests would crimp transparency. In other words, there was no evidence on the extent of gaps to be addressed. Nor was there a direct relation made between these issues and deliberate online falsehoods. In other words, they lacked “specificity’’.

It sent off the recommendations to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which has oversight of citizen engagement efforts. The MCCY’s response is a seven-page statement listing all the efforts to engage the public, from Remaking Singapore and the Our Singapore Conversation to getting input on what to with the rail corridor and having Silver Ambassadors to explain policies to the elderly.

I suppose representators were too polite to make a direct link between lack of transparency and the uptake of falsehoods. I will say this: It is the perception that citizens are not being told everything that leads them to explore other avenues of information. It is the perception that information is being “spinned’’ to put policy makers in a good light. It is the perception that mainstream media, the G’s main channel of communication, isn’t giving all sides of the story, even if they do report accurately.

Panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong said during one of the public hearings: “On the ground, there would have been some erosion of trust. There is a perception in certain quarters that the mainstream press is pro-ruling party, or pro-Government, and in some quarters they say mainstream media has now swung the other way.”

Yes, we’re talking about perceptions here. It is a slow drip that has less to do with the prevalence of fake news and more to do with the frustration over not getting full answers.

I will give one example: The Prime Minister’s answer to a question from a parliamentarian on the amount of bonuses ministers received. The PM spoke only of performance bonuses and referred to the framework established on calculating ministerial salaries. Is it any wonder then that people would start asking about other salary components such as the National Bonus and take a stab at calculating how much each minister makes? This is how falsehoods are created, with The Online Citizen making the error of saying that the PM earned $4.5 million a year.

Nor is the G’s fact-checking site Factually any clearer in debunking the falsehood.

It said: The Prime Minister’s norm salary is set at two times that of an MR4 Minister (that is, $1.1m). His $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses. The Prime Minister does not receive a Performance Bonus as there is no one to assess his performance annually. He does receive the National Bonus.

So what is the National Bonus anyway? We’d have to do our own calculations based on the KPIs in the matrix developed for the bonus. And isn’t it the case that although he gets no performance bonus, the Prime Minister’s National Bonus can go up to 12 months while it’s capped at six months for the rest of the Cabinet if KPIs are exceeded ?

The mainstream media, meanwhile, faithfully reports the “debunking’’ without adding any value nor asking any questions.  In the meantime, TOC has put up another calculation of the PM’s salary…

Where there are gaps in information, others will step in to fill it. There is little point in indulging in self-righteous indignation over misinformation and rumours that arise because of a natural tendency for people to close the information loop. Also, because as the Select Committee itself pointed out: the falsehood has far greater traction (and retention) among people than the correction. Why create such opportunities for the curious, the mischief-makers and the malicious?

So the G has a big part to play in curbing the spread of disinformation beyond wielding the stick. Likewise, the mainstream media.

A 2017 Reuters institute report said that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from political influence. Academic Shashi Jayakumar who spoke on the need for public trust during the hearing, said that ways should be found to help newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao “again be seen as the pre-eminent news sources, bar none, in the eyes of the Singapore public”. Note the word “again’’.

It has always been my thesis that the G should leave MSM alone to do a professional job, so that we can all be exposed to quality journalism.

Another important point to note that the media landscape has changed substantially.

Professor Thio Li-ann, whose views were quoted liberally by the committee, for example, describes MSM as “a public forum, exposing people to a wide range of speakers, unanticipated topics and viewpoints, and exposing viewpoints to a diverse public’’. She said that this would allow citizens to engage with a range of representative views of issues, in order to understand where other citizens are coming from, and for facilitating compromise and overlapping consensus where possible.

This might be the case some years ago when even a monolith like Singapore Press Holdings pursued a competition policy among its stable of newsrooms. But news reports are now served out of a common kitchen and put in different packaging. A reader would do as well having a copy of the free New Paper, because the same stories can be found in the paid Straits Times and Business Times. Diversity of news and views and the variety of discussion has narrowed. There is less to read – and a paywall for premium content as well. According to the Nielsen Media Index Report 2017, only 55.9 per cent of adults read print and online newspapers in Singapore today.

Prof Thio added that people who choose to go online to obtain their news are “denied this exposure to differing viewpoints’’. Online news sites would beg to differ and argue that they offer viewpoints that do not exist in the mainstream media.

It is good that there is widespread support for quality journalism, even though 60 per cent of the people here agree that the average person can’t tell good journalism from rumours and falsehoods.

The answers on how to raise the standard of journalism are predictable: Ramping up training and fact-checking – except there’s the question of who’s going to pay for this at a time when subscriptions go down and digital advertising doesn’t translate into big bucks. It can’t have escaped Select Committee’s notice that “fact-checkers’’ are a near-extinct breed in news organisations, accompanied by high staff turnovers, whether forced or voluntary. Even MSM editors lament the tremendous amount of resources that would have to go into verifying sources and checking facts. What journalism faces is a worldwide industry problem: The old business models aren’t good enough to ensure quality journalism – and good profits.

The panel said that commercial challenges aren’t within its remit, but is something the G and media organisations themselves have to think about. In my view, a suggestion by ex-journalist Nicholas Fang bears greater consideration. He proposed to separate the news functions of news organisations from the rest of the business, and be held under a not-for-profit umbrella where the sole mandate is to deliver excellence in journalism. The funding of local news organisations could be modelled after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Britain, which is funded principally by an annual television licence fee charged to all British households, companies and organisations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts.

It will probably be met by howls of protests.  Journalists will never make big bucks under such a system and consumers will scream at having to pay for news. Someone, however, has to foot the bill for quality work. Please do not apply to the G, because this means the media will never be free of the charge of being under “political influence’’. The whole Singapore media landscape bears a re-look.

What about online media? The committee says that the same standards of professionalism should apply online and offline. I agree, and I would add that there should be no double standards when it comes to access to official sources of information. MSM might carp about how online sites play fast and loose with the facts; they don’t say that it is far easier for them to obtain the facts compared to online media.

But if MSM finds it difficult to maintain its fact-checking resources, then I don’t know how online sites can do it. Funding must come from somewhere.

Want quality journalism? Pay for it.


Fake news report: It’s what comes next that is more important

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 7:24 am

So, at the end of the day, legislation to curb fake news looks like a sure thing. (I am not going to say it will happen because I must give Parliament the dignity of being able to say no). Reason: Current legislation isn’t good enough, especially in terms of curbing the quick spread of disinformation. Also, we now don’t have laws to compel the likes of technology companies like Twitter and Facebook to do anything. These social media platforms have to be accountable too.

Hence, laws.

That’s my one-cent worth of summary of the tome produced by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. It’s really no surprise to me that some kind of law would be in the pipeline going by the way the committee handled the public hearings. Almost every representator was pinned down on the necessity for some sort of action to curb fake news.

Those who thought that current laws were good enough were wrong and they didn’t have evidence to prove that people here can discern fact from fiction, the panel said in its report.  As for the definition of fake news which had some people worried that it might be used to curb legitimate dissent, the panel said that falsehoods can be independently verified and the courts here have historically done so. So there!

It’s a massive report, albeit repetitive. If anyone needs a primer on fake news and examples to go with it, it’s recommended reading. The pity is that the examples are from the world over and the only significant Singapore example is the defunct TheRealSingapore, which had the Sedition Act thrown at it for spreading disinformation and creating dissent.

A lot of attention was paid to foreign State and non-State actors out to break social cohesion here by employing such “non-kinetic’’ warfare tactics. The pity is that not much light was shed on this for national security reasons so much so that we are left with assertions that cyber warfare is already happening here – and will continue to happen. Again, worldwide examples peppered the report and there was a brief reference to the SingHealth hack (which isn’t about fake news by the way but stealing). A significant portion was dedicated to big, bad Russia’s shenanigans.

Did the committee’s report allay fears that any new laws or regulations would be abused by the powers-that-be? Face it. That’s really the objection to fake news laws isn’t it? That the G would somehow use it to tamp down any opposition – and throw you in jail for it too.

The might of the elephant in the room was mentioned here and there, for example, in the discussion on who should decide on what is fake:

Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive. That said, both Law Dean Associate Professor Goh (Yi Han) and law academic Associate Professor Eugene Tan explained that judicial oversight of Executive action would serve a crucial balancing role in ensuring the propriety of the Executive’s exercise of discretion.

Civil society activists had tried to pull the elephant’s tail, by advocating a Freedom of Information Act and the introduction of an Ombudsman to investigate public complaints of executive excess. The supposition, methinks, is that more information is needed to counter fake information and a check on the G needed if it tried to do any kind of “cover up’’. The committee countered this by saying these were big issues and too multi-faceted a feature for the committee to take into account. The ball was, instead, lobbed to the G.

As there are countries which have such legislation and institutions, the Committee suggests that the Government studies the experience of these countries, and whether having a Freedom of Information Act and an ombudsman will help in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods.

As for allegations that such laws would produce a “chilling effect’’? To answer the question, the committee referred to the testimony of Mothership, the online news site.

Mothership testified that they did not experience a drop in traffic, nor a drop in contributions, comments and engagement on its platform as a result of being covered by the Broadcasting Act licensing regime. This suggested the need for circumspection in assessing the extent of any potential “chilling effect”. The prospect of a “chilling effect” should be dealt with through calibration in the powers deployed; the answer cannot be to do nothing at all.

The committee quoted liberally from Professor Thio Li-Ann’s representation to make the point that free speech isn’t being circumscribed.

She had said: “There is no human right to disseminate information that is not true. No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation. The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society … being informed not misinformed. Misleading people and … purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of the democratic society and should form no part of such a society. There is no duty to publish what is not true: there is no interest in being misinformed.’’ 

Her  argument is that fake laws would protect “the marketplace of ideas’’ by driving out what is false so that people can come to conclusions based on the facts. In other words, it is a promotion of the democratic process.

Okay. So, if legislation is more or less to be expected, what did the committee propose to ensure that the net isn’t cast so wide that it catches every single lie, piece of satire, prank and deliberate falsehoods to bring down the country?

Methinks we should pay attention to two critical phrases that were used in the report: Prescribed threshold for intervention and criminal culpability. In other words, how bad should things get before the law kicks in? And how heavy should the law come down on purveyors of lies?  Should it be different strokes for different folks?

Representors said the threshold for intervention has to be based on a combination of factors such as magnitude and nature of impact, type of content and intent and identity of perpetrator and so forth. Also there are different degrees of disinformation and different sorts of lies.

On this, the panel recommended:

Criminal sanctions should be imposed on perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods. These deterrent measures should be applied only in circumstances that meet certain criteria. There should be the requisite degree of criminal culpability (i.e. intent or knowledge), in accordance with established criminal justice principles. There should be a threshold of serious harm such as election interference, public disorder, and the erosion of trust in public institutions.

So no, the committee didn’t pin down weightages on each factor or draw up a matrix. In any case, we shouldn’t expect it to hammer in the nuts and bolts. What’s good is that it has taken into account different facets and motivations for spreading falsehoods and advises a calibrated approach. It remains for someone somewhere to draw up the “criteria’’ and translate it into legal language.

So, dear reader, I am leading you down to this point: The committee produced a pretty general report, replete with examples and backed up by experts both local and foreign. The G can now say that it has embarked on an extensive public consultation exercise. But the real bite of fake news laws will be what will be drafted by the executive. And that should mean a second round of scrutiny on “threshold’’, “criminal culpability’’ as well as penalties imposed.

I am hoping that a Select Committee to scrutinize the Bill will be formed. But I am not betting on it.





Singapore – adrift

In News Reports on September 15, 2018 at 1:38 am

We’ve changed a great deal, thanks or no thanks to the Internet. Coffeeshop talk has gone online, shared and amplified. Now, we don’t even believe very much in indices and surveys, because they do not capture our own real life experience. Frankly, it probably has been the case anyway but the disbelief is more widespread now – and louder. Now, it’s fashionable to talk about a disconnect between people who are paid high salaries to come up with policies and the people who have to abide by them.

It’s an argument that is heard all the time, but, again, amplified: You don’t stay in HDB, so you don’t know. You don’t ride a bus, so you don’t know. You’re paid so much, so you don’t know.

I have never thought very much about this sort of argument which is intended to shut down an opposing view. Then I recall that the new SMRT head ditched his car to use public transport. He also moved house to be near his workplace. Some people applauded him for doing so (ditching car). It might be an expression of his commitment but methinks he’s over-compensating to appease unreasonable people who want leaders to “come down’’ to their level. There’s no need to ditch the car – or buy a new house to be closer to the workplace, you know…

So what is this sense of drift I’m referring to? Let me try to unpack it:

First, it’s a sense that things are not getting better for us, but worse. That sticking to tried and tested policies might not work for us in the future. We need some drastic re-tooling in some aspect of our society or economy, something path-breaking. We don’t want to be told about how far we’ve come, but where we want to go. Harking back to history is no longer good enough, unfortunately, especially since we know so little about our history!

There are redeeming features such as the Industry Transformation Programmes, SkillsFuture and attempts to change mindsets from academic prowess to craftsmanship. But they are being drowned out by a sense of a dread, even among our tech-savvy young people who believe that technology changes might mean smaller rice bowls for them. Is this sense of dread real? Or of our own imagining?

Second, it’s about whether the tenets of meritocracy are actually working. There’s some loss of faith in the system which used to enable a hawker’s son to rise to the top. Although there are still such examples to hold up, we don’t think it would continue in the future because some households will always have more advantages than others.

There are changes to pre-primary education, direct school admission and so forth,  to help ensure the same starting line for all but there’s still a sense that everything can still be “gamed’’, if you have the money and the connections.

Third, it’s about the multiracialism/multi-religious ethic that knits us together. Casual racism, taking offence easily, issues of Chinese privilege are coming to the fore. There is less of a live-and-let-live attitude here. Perhaps, the G is right to say that we need active ethnic intervention policies, but too many disagree, say, with the need to reserve the presidential office for communities who have not been elected for some time. And I think this cuts across all communities.

Fourth, It’s about whether Singapore, without its old leaders, can stay strong against a rising China and a less-than-friendly Malaysia. The G seems to think it is best to get things settled behind closed doors but the sounds from the outside are beginning to erode any zen feelings we might have. More importantly, did the G miscalculate this most important bilateral relationship that we have when it kept plumping for former PM Najib Razak? And does its faith in contractual agreements on matters such as the High Speed Railway demonstrate a certain amateurishness?

Fifth, It’s about little things getting more and more expensive and little things going wrong, like stuck trains, floods, falling slabs and killer lifts. To give the G credit, it moves fast to correct deficiencies as they occur.

All the above erode our confidence in ourselves and in our future. The media isn’t helping to pull people together. The mainstream media is at one end of the spectrum and seems intent on putting a good spin on things. Alternative media thinks it should balance this out by taking the opposite viewpoint. There is no centre of gravity in public discourse.

The G seems to think that the way to raise spirits, among other objectives, is to build a better living environment and most rah-rah announcements are about new towns, re-made towns and hubs of all kinds.

This isn’t enough. The centre cannot hold even if it is supported by concrete and steel.

Yesterday, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made a stab at shoring up confidence for the future. We shouldn’t just make things, but create things. We shouldn’t just focus on getting foreign investments in but getting ourselves out there. We shouldn’t obsess over academic grades but pay attention to soft skills. But, like he said, the changes will take time to manifest themselves.

But this isn’t enough either. Beyond making sure we remain economically viable as a country, something needs to be said about the worth of the people, strengthening the  ties that bind us and becoming a society which is less intent on accumulating material goods and more concerned about becoming a kinder, civilized place. Can we, as a society, build soft skills around our hard core?

I am probably not making much sense – or making too much out of things. But that’s what “disquiet’’ is all about isn’t it? A loss of bearings. Of feeling unmoored. We need to get our confidence back and that can only come with strong leadership and bold moves. The vulnerability narrative might still be true, but the story isn’t resonating anymore. We need a new story and new leadership.

Who will stand up and offer us a different vision or a compelling narrative that will drown out all other voices? Or is this current disquiet the new normal? The internet has muddied everything. The media is divided into the pro-Establishment mainstream and the anti-Establishment online. There is no common rallying point much less a meaningful common message for everyone.

Or maybe there is a common message: We’re drifting.

Section 377A: Repeal this piece of decoration

In News Reports on September 8, 2018 at 2:41 am

Move aside HDB. Let’s talk about LGBT?

We seem to be buffeted by so many divisive issues these days. This time, you can blame Professor Tommy Koh for suggesting that the LGBT community take up a class action suit to strike down Section 377A which criminalises homosexual sex. If he was merely a blogger, his comments would be ignored. But this is one very respected Singaporean who’s probably eaten more salt than the whole 4G leadership has eaten rice.

He didn’t explain why he thought 377A should be struck down, except to refer to what the Indian courts did. On Thursday, its Supreme Court ruled that its own section 377 is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which is a fundamental violation of rights. When someone noted that our own courts had thrown out similar constitutional challenges here, Prof Koh suggested “try again’’.

Perhaps, people might not have noticed that the Indian courts had a 2013 judgement which upheld the criminalization of homosexual sex as an “unnatural offence’’. Now, five years later, it has decided otherwise.

Do your sums. The two constitutional challenges in Singapore was in 2014. Is the time ripe?

The Indian passage was a long, tortous one, starting in 2001. BBC reported that a bid to repeal section 377 was initiated in 2001 and was batted between court and government until 2009, when the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of decriminalisation.

Several political, social and religious groups then mobilised to restore the law and in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the High Court ruling.

Anti-section 377 activists then submitted a “curative petition” – a formal request to review an earlier court order perceived as a “miscarriage of justice” – and in 2016 the Supreme Court decided to revisit its ruling. Then came its judgment on Thursday.

Should LGBT activists do the same?

In 2014, the courts here ruled that the guarantee of equal protection under the law as enshrined in Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution touched only on issues relating to religion, race, place of birth and descent, not gender, sex and sexual orientation.

Neither does the statute violate the right to life and liberty — as stipulated in Article 9 — as this referred only to the personal liberty of a person from unlawful incarceration and not the right of privacy and personal autonomy, said the court.

Already, pro- and anti- groups are gearing up to set out their own viewpoints. The main fight is about values, which is something that is difficult to change because they also stem from religious beliefs. Expect the fights veer into science and genetics. Then there is the slippery slope argument about gay marriages, adoption and opening the door to allowing pedophilia and beastiality!

Some would view it such arguments as part of the normal course of a maturing society but there’s also the fear that the discussions would lead to too much dissent and divisiveness that a small, multi-religious nation cannot afford.

The wonder, however, is that other notable voices have been added to Prof Koh.  The G’s chief information officer Janadas Devan, writing in his personal capacity, described 377A as a “bad law’’.

Mr Ho Kwon Ping, who launched book on his thoughts yesterday, told a forum that he backed Prof Koh.

“Either you have 377A and you justify to people, which (will cause) a furore, or you repeal. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, and say you want to please everybody, it’s on the statutes, it is illegal in Singapore, but you are not prosecuting,” he said.

In a 2014 forum, National University of Singapore law don Walter Woon, a former Attorney-General, said he was in favour of repealing the law because of what he sees as a “constitutional problem”.

He noted that Section 35(8) of the Constitution makes the point that the powers to prosecute lie with the Attorney-General. “So we have a very dangerous precedent here where the political authorities are saying to the Public Prosecutor – who is supposed to be independent – there are some laws that you don’t enforce.

“”I find that very uncomfortable.’’

Prof Koh, who was at the same forum, said he agreed that the in-principle, the law should be done away wither  but seemed to back the official position that this was hard to do given the “potential political pushback’’.

“The compromise is a law in the book, but Singapore will not enforce that law,” he said, adding that the Government’s difficulty in balancing opposing opinions “should not be underestimated”.

Personally, I have always subscribed to the view held by Mr Ho. It’s either you enforce the law or you repeal it. I have always been uncomfortable with “compromises’’ because it leaves everyone in nowhere land. What is to prevent another government or Parliament to call for the law’s enforcement? After all, it is in the books.

I think we should look at Section 377A as an issue about the rule of law. Citizens, whether homosexual or otherwise, must be able to live their lives with clear rules and boundaries – and not have look over their shoulders because of the fear of “political pushback’’.

Already, the G has plenty of discretion to prosecute in so many areas. Do we need to extend this discretion to promises NOT to prosecute?

Frankly, I wonder why pro-Section 337A groups are upset at the prospect of a repeal. They do realize that for the moment (and maybe forever) it is NOT being enforced, correct? It seems that, ahem, they should be calling for enforcement of the law rather than having it decorate the Penal Code. Who are we trying to deceive? Ourselves?

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the fate of Section 377A is for  society to decide. How do we come to this decision then? The G to hold a referendum? The activists going to the courts again? Letting Parliament lead the way with an amendment?

Of course, it will be divisive – and we must be an extremely fragile nation if we can’t even withstand a discourse on the issue. ( I guess people will ask if we even want to test this…)

I, for one, would like to live in a land with clear rules.


That KL meeting: And the winner is… Dr M

In News Reports on September 2, 2018 at 8:34 am

If someone invited me to meet Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, my first instinct would be to say “yes’’. It doesn’t matter what hat I’m wearing (whether journalist or not), I am a curious enough human being to want to see what Dr M is like. Like him or hate him, he’s a personality.

But he’s no friend of Singapore, some people would say, and I would then go: So? Does being in the same room as him make me anti-Singaporean? Is this guilt by association? In fact, I would relish the opportunity to ask him some questions such as “Prime Minister Mahathir, may I ask why you seem to insist on bullying Singapore? It’s so last millennium!’’

Then, of course, questions will also be asked about the agenda of the meeting and who else will be there. It’s not a big step to conspiracy theories from here.

So there’s a lot of fuss about a meeting between five Singaporeans and Dr M in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. The Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the meeting between Dr M, Singapore exile Tan Wah Piow, historian PJ Thum and three others who “did not wish to be named”, according to news reports.  But the media reported anyway that the three were Mr Sonny Liew, Ms Kirsten Han and Mr Jolovan Wham. This wasn’t hard given that Mr Wham had posted a picture of them eating together and alerted his fans of the upcoming meeting with Dr M.

From news reports, it seems that the key objective was to get Dr M to speak at a conference next year organized by Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia. Malaysian filmmaker Hishammudin Rais, who initiated the meeting, and Mr Tan belong to this organization. Dr M agreed in-principle, which is quite a coup for any forum organizer.

So what were the other four Singaporeans doing there? Very uncharitable comments have been made, including a missive by a People’s Action Party MP Seah Kian Peng practically denouncing them as traitors.

Even before this latest diatribe, illustrator Sonny Liew tried to make clear that he was present because he was curious.

He talked about the “optics’’. “It was clear from the outset that the group was made up of non-establishment folks, and there was always the possibility of the optics playing out in uncontrollable ways, heightened when we found out late on that a press alert had been released,’’ he said in a Facebook post lamenting the way ST had lumped all of them as “activists’’. Which seems like the latest bad word in Singapore.

Ms Han and Mr Wham wrote reports of the meeting, which seemed to have ranged over several issues including Malay traits and LGBT rights. They didn’t seem too enamoured of the man. I wish though that they had talked to Dr M about his attitude towards Singapore, his relationship with the current leaders, about water pricing and the cancellation or postponement of bilateral projects. That would be of greater concern to Singaporeans and also burnish their pro-Singapore credentials.

It was what Dr Thum said which got people scratching their heads. “I urged him to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information.’’

It made me wonder whether history, according to Dr Thum, excluded recent history such as the period when Dr M was prime minister in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps, he believed Dr M to be a changed man. Even so, he can’t have failed to notice Dr M’s same ole’ railings and ranting about Singapore in this second round of his prime ministership. Or is this irrelevant?

But why did Dr M agree to meet them?

They are not journalists nor even members of a political party hoping for some of his shine to rub off on them.

Through my years of journalism, I can’t recall interviews and meetings with top politicians being “open-ended’’. A busy politician must have, at least in his head, some talking points to put forth. Then again, maybe Dr M thought he was merely shooting the breeze with civil society “activists’’, flattered that he would be sought out by anti-establishment types. Or he thought it would be good to see them and therefore, “shake things up’’ a bit in pesky little Singapore.

In fact, that seemed to be the impact Mr Tan Wah Piow was looking for when he answered a question on how he thought the Singapore government would view the meeting:

“I think they will be very concerned, not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy and to enhance the development of democracy in the region.

“And that Malaysia is now shining this beacon which is probably stealing the limelight from Singapore. I think that’s what worries them. Singapore is becoming (an) outdated, archaic society with its dominant party controls.”

I think the activists (I use the term broadly, sorry Sonny) have got the optics all wrong. Or maybe they were just short-sighted. They should have planned a response in anticipation of news of the meeting filtering out. They should have known that as people who have had run-ins with the G, a darker shadow would be cast over their words and actions.

I don’t know how they would account for being in the company of Mr Tan though. Whether you believe Mr Tan was persecuted or guilty, it doesn’t make any political or pragmatic sense to be seen with someone whom Singaporeans have been told continually is a fugitive from the law. You have to factor in this nasty side to Singaporeans about associating with the “enemy’’ or people who have fallen out of favour. All you need to do to set tongues wagging (negatively) is be seen with such people.

It also doesn’t do much good to come out “gushing’’ from a meeting with the man who is intent on complicating our bilateral relations. Then again, if a senior journalist could be so bowled over by the nice manners of Malaysia’s finance minister, I suppose non-journalists should be forgiven.

But the activists don’t deserve this hauling over the coals by Mr Seah who seems to be reading far more into the meeting than most people. In fact, he goes further to accuse them of wanting to be part of Malaysia by linking the meeting as well as Dr Thum’s national day greetings to Malaysia on Aug 31, in which he said: Selamat Hari Merdeka to the people of the former Federation of Malaya! (and happy unofficial independence day to the people of Singapore!)

Mr Seah roped in Ms Teo Soh Lung , and the Singapore Democratic Party, into the picture as well because of one line she posted.

Mr Seah said: “I’m amazed that Dr Thum and his supporters should proclaim that Singapore is part of Malaysia (or Malaya). Perhaps that is why he thinks it is permissible to ask its current prime minister to interfere in our affairs.’’

I am more amazed that Mr Seah reached this conclusion. I would also like to know how he knew that Dr Thum had asked Dr M “to interfere in our affairs’’. Is this his interpretation of what Dr Thum said about urging Dr M to “take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information’’? Maybe Dr Thum should have used Myanmar’s Aung San Su Kyi instead?

If Mr Seah knows something more, he should give evidence – lest he be accused of peddling rumours.

Later in the day, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam tried to shed some light: “Dr Thum puts up a photo of him holding his book on politics in Singapore, shaking hands with Malaysian Prime Minister, then puts up a forum post saying that he invites Dr Mahathir to take a leading role in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of speech in South East Asia.

“I think it is quite clear what that means.”

Is it clear to you? It just seems like an assertion to me. Just louder.

Now, there is an interesting exercise going on about whether it is correct to describe August 31 as Singapore’s unofficial independence day. I think we can expect Dr Thum to start citing documents about severing colonial ties and being part of Malaya. Maybe what can come out of this saga is a good history lesson.

But has anyone realised what has happened? If Dr M is intent on stirring up matters in Singapore, he’s succeeded.

(NOT) Crazy Rich Asians

In News Reports on August 24, 2018 at 1:57 pm

So there I was trying to make my way through the hawker centre to my HDB flat and I went bang up against a sea of red. Red table cloths. On what looked like 100 tables or so which were laid out on any open space you can find in the neighbourhood centre. There were many empty tables with cutlery at the ready and plastic bowls and saucers. Pink serviettes were neatly folded into glass cups.

Some tables were half filled. Men and women of differing ages who looked like they had come straight from their shop, stall or whatever business they had in the neighbourhood sat around. I recognised a few of them. The woman fruit seller and another who ran a provision shop. We nodded at each other in recognition. I felt very out of place in my dress and heels. Everybody, whether seated or standing, were so casually dressed. Some men, I believe, traded up for a collared tee-shirt but in the main, it was a round-necked tee-shirt and bermuda crowd. Some tables had a Carlsberg bottle holding fort, which must, I believe, be the pre-dinner aperitif for some people.

I stared at the half dozen or so pig heads which stood on a table that took pride of place on that assembly area. Dark brown. Braised? Roasted? I don’t know. I tried to enter a passageway to cut through a car-park to my HDB block and this time, found myself bang up against a kitchen.  The cold dish(es) were all lined up and I wondered if they will be warm when they were finally served. Because it seems that the tables were NOT empty. The patrons were all in another part of the assembly seated on plastic chairs enjoying the getai.

I decided that I, too, should enjoy the show and found myself wedged in the back with people with all manner of personal mobility devices. I wondered if they too were accidental spectators or had made their way for the show. Friday, I said to myself. Nothing to do. No work tomorrow.

A skinny silver-clad young female was prancing on stage in her silver-coloured boots. She was belting out, I think, a Hokkien song. The crowd looked on – passively. It looked like they were doing an assessment of the show. Or they didn’t have enough Carlsberg in the system. I asked myself how the silver young thing knew Hokkien so well, and whether the audience knew what she was singing. So many years of the Speak Mandarin campaign, and it is still dialect which connects the Chinese heartlanders…

Song over, she carried on in a mix of Hokkien and Mandarin to address the audience, giggling about the “boy band” (in English) she had as her backup. Evidently a joke because the drummer, guitarist and organists have probably eaten a lot more salt than she has rice. The crowd remained stony-faced. Not enough beer, I thought to myself again.

Then the emcee came on. A big guy in a chilli-red blazer withe most incredible curry-puff  hair fringe I’ve ever seen.  The fringe stood straight up and I thought I could make out every strand of hair from where I was standing – or maybe there was just too much gel. He too, spoke in a mix of Hokkien, Mandarin and, I think, Teochew. He was introducing someone known as a ”princess”, which of course, got me pretty excited given how much of a fan I am of Chinese period dramas. Another skinny, silver-clad young female emerged, but this one also had a silver crown. Out came another song in a dialect I can’t recognise – or maybe her pronunciation was bad. The crowd was getting thicker. I thought to myself that these people had already had their dinner at home and had come out to see what the fuss was about.

Were there non-Chinese there? Yup, but not many. I don’t remember seeing Muslims or a Muslim table but a few tables had some non-Chinese – more likely Indian – men sitting there. I thought I would see plates, fork and spoon – but no, the table setting was just like the rest. I asked myself if there were dietary arrangements made for them – or maybe no need…

I spied a few non-Chinese in the standing audience. One sari-clad lady had brought her own chair and made herself comfortable. Some of the wheel-chair bound had their domestic help with them. But non-Chinese were far and few in between.

As I write this, the getai is still going on. I can hear them through my bedroom window and am bracing myself for the auction that has yet to come. Or maybe that segment was what I heard last night? Do they do it twice?

I thought about Crazy Rich Asians, which I must admit upfront I have not read nor viewed. But I don’t think it includes this scene of the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations, which isn’t quite in the class of the crazy, rich. If it was included, it might have been viewed as an attempt at injecting some Asian exotica. But it is probably more representative of the majority of Chinese Singaporeans than those who crowd Marina Bay Sands. Not crazy, not rich (maybe mediocre). But more real.

Dear PM…

In News Reports on August 19, 2018 at 2:55 pm

I have a question: How are we going to pay for everything? I waited and waited for the penny to drop after your announcement on extending the Community Health Assistance Scheme and introducing a new Merdeka Generation package. Then there came the Home  Improvement Programme 2, to be implemented at an HDB precinct’s 60th year or so, as well as Voluntary En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which is essentially a very long drawn-out version of Sers.

I guess a National Day rally isn’t the place to dampen spirits with the niggling question of cost and we’ll get to hear more about the budgetary part of the programmes later.  I half-expected that the on-coming rise in GST would be mentioned, but you seemed to have let this thorny topic slide.

In fact, this could be a pre-election speech, with so many coming programmes as well as many very, very long term ones which, as you said, would be several general elections away.

I saw that you were misty-eyed when you spoke of the people of your generation who were born in the 50s but can’t quite be considered a “pioneer”. And how they too made sacrifices for the country. I suppose we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth but I wonder if there was some pressure exerted by the folk who missed the Pioneer Generation Package deadline.

To put it bluntly, the cost of  the Pioneer Generation Package will disappear along with this pioneer crop of Singaporeans much sooner than the Merdeka package. And don’t those in the Merdeka generation already have access to the Silver Support scheme if they need aid? It strikes me that we might be better off just giving everyone above a certain age a pension of sorts.

It looks like I am throwing cold water over your proposals which I believe will be very much welcomed by most people. I just happen to be one of those people who count pennies and don’t resort to the muddle-headed thinking that “the government is very rich” and therefore can afford to be generous. It is not the G which is rich, it is the State – and taxpayers will have foot the bill – unless we’re thinking of raiding the reserves.

Back to HDB flats…

I listened to this very carefully because I happen to live in a flat that is more than 40 years old and which recently underwent HIP. I see that you decided against entering into a debate about whether HDB residents are really home-owners or tenants and went straight into what a 99-year lease meant. I am not sure you satisfied those who decry the depreciating asset that they now live in. The problem, you see, is that people expect the value of the flat to always go up, but in recent years, those older flats appeared to have passed their peak prices and started going down. Yes, it is an unreasonable expectation. We all know about the 99 year lease, but choose to think of it as something far down the road. It is only when we try to sell an old flat that we get floored by a lower than expected profit margin.

I am glad, however, that some long-range thinking has gone into (or will go into) Singapore’s public housing programme, even though I may not  live to see them. I have always thought that a HDB flat is not worth leaving to younger people because it would have to go back to the State.  Now I have a reason to think about the flat as an inheritance. There’s HIP 2 and my precinct would be among the pioneers in the queue for Vers. Whoever gets the flat will still be able to unlock the value of this hand-me-down.

The video of the transformation of Punggol from a prototype 10 years ago to the real thing today was a stroke of genius. It was a forceful way of showing that your Government keeps its promises. Except that we never expected that the G wouldn’t keep its promises when it comes to development projects. We know it is an efficient machine which will get things done (maybe not the High-Speed Rail project). We’re used to it because at almost every NDR, you’ve projected us into Singapore’s future with bits of its physical transformation.

But you did not talk about its soul – beyond celebrating hawker food.

Yes, there were the examples of Singaporeans who made good and did the country proud on the international stage. I salute them too. But there is this gaping hole in the Singapore psyche now – a sense of drifting aimlessly.

I wished, for example, that you said something bold about the Malaysian drumbeat about water pricing instead of telling us to look up Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s speech made in Parliament. I wished that you addressed some issues like meritocracy and elitism, clean wages and ministerial pay – on top of the bread-and-butter ones that you chose. You didn’t even talk about leadership change. Instead you brought up your father.

I know the comeback: People are more interested in bread-and-butter issues than such “liberal” topics which concern the vocal minority. Of course, people are interested in the here and now. But it is the soul which will keep people together – the values and ideals – that will make the physical transformations come through far in the future.

One example: I was somewhat surprised when you spoke of gathering Muis, Mendaki and other Malay groups under one roof in Geylang Serai in a project headed by People’s Action Party MPs. I suppose it makes sense to share resources but I certainly hope it won’t be some kind of enclave for Malays only. There’s nothing to prevent the other communities from asking for similar centres to cater to the cultural needs and community preferences. And doesn’t this also mean less need for the community to go to national-type, multi-racial type, secular type of agencies?

I worry  that we seem to be emphasising our differences – in the same way I worried about the impact of having a “reserved” presidency.

But I have to say this: Your speech was better than last year’s.











Meritocracy and mediocrity

In News Reports on August 9, 2018 at 3:27 am

Four years ago, I wrote about a slow-acting poison in Singapore’s political system: ministerial salaries. I argued that it had reduced the relationship between the ruler and the ruled into a commercial transaction, based on whether voters thought they were getting their money’s worth.

The topic is a lightning rod, with very few people weighing in on the merits of such a rational, pragmatic way of paying for good leaders who might otherwise be tempted to aggrandise themselves in other ways. It is, in today’s parlance, a clean wage shorn of hidden perks and privileges. Those who rally behind it are quickly shot down by others who think the pay formula is a disgraceful way of putting a value on national service.

Now, one of the chief champions of ministerial salaries, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, has ignited a fire-storm with his comments on ministerial salaries during a recent dialogue. Looking at the transcript of what happened, it appeared that Mr Goh got carried away when he was asked to give his perspective regarding  a question about whether a pension fund could be created by reducing defence spending or ministerial pay and so relieve them from slogging at cleaning tables. (He was sabo-ed by Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman).

He started by engaging the audience over whether they would do cleaning jobs for $1,000 a month, which segued into the problems of hiring too many foreign workers and then to the imposition of minimum salaries. It was an answer that was supposed to show how policy making is difficult, with one limb affecting the other and not necessarily in the national interest. But he also seemed very taken up with the “populist” question and made the point that ministers are hard to come by.

“I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government, because civil servants now earn more than Ministers. Are you aware of that? And where do we get our future office holders from? From the private sector?”

He went on to say he tried to recruit two from the private sector in the last election, but they turned it down because of the salary sacrifice.

Mr Goh took a blunt approach which is unlikely to elicit empathy from people who are grumbling about the cost of living.  People are not likely to say that ministerial salaries are low, especially when compared to their own, and even compared to political leaders in far bigger countries. Ministers who tried in the past to talk about the cut in their private sector salary, or whose past salaries were referred to, have regularly been flamed. It is now the unfortunate Edwin Tong’s turn to have his past earnings (more than $2m a year) splashed in the media. The Senior Counsel has just been appointed Minister of State, therefore making far less. Mr Goh said Mr Tong had sought his counsel because he had “a house, parents-in-law and his own parents to support”. To highlight the travails of a high-income earner, no matter how honest, was bound to attract derision since these are normal circumstances for most breadwinners.

What was more disturbing was his comment equating merit with salary. He wouldn’t recruit someone who earned less than $500,000 a year because “you are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister.”

“Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?”

Okay, so let’s think about it.

First, it’s odd that our civil service salaries have outpaced those of ministers. I suppose Mr Goh meant the salaries of junior ministers rather than full Cabinet ministers. But I don’t know the facts here. In fact, one of niggling problems I used to have was how civil servants (and not really top-ranked at that) had been parachuted into key government positions on their election. Doesn’t this leave them open to questions about whether they are in politics for the higher pay, which they might never achieve if they stayed on in the public sector? I suppose the counter would be that because they are civil servants, political leaders would have a better measure of their character, competence and ability. They would have worked together, you know.

Hence, this self-perpetuating closed circle of members of the Establishment.

Second, the difficulty of canvassing candidates from the private sector has been a long-standing complaint. The way I see it: the People’s Action Party wants only the top brass, but these head honchos do not want to put nation before family and wealth. And the PAP is critical of the not-so-at-the-top private sector types, because it thinks their salary is a reflection of their lack of brilliance. Worse, it is suspicious of this “type” whom it perceives as wanting political positions because they pay better. (Read: opposition politicians).

Conclusion: The PAP doesn’t know or trust enough private sector people. (And vice versa?)

Mr Goh has tried to correct his faux pax by posting this on his Facebook: “Salaries is not our starting point in looking for Ministers. Character, motivation, commitment, selflessness, practical abilities, competence and proven performance are the main attributes we look for. The first four attributes are veto factors.”

He stuck to his point that when it comes to assessing abilities, it is a person’s salary which reflects his competence and performance. (I don’t suppose he ruled out self-made businessmen who pay their own salaries? Or will this come down to the size of the business?)

The two points aside, his statements merely reinforces the notion that everything in Singapore can be bought, “from durians to clothes to football players to military weapons”. So too quality political leadership.

This is the attitude that pervades our society which is why I have been writing columns to argue that the move towards a skills-based mindset can only come about, sadly, if there is “money” – not even power – attached to it. Why would any parent want his kid to enter a trade or be a master craftsman when the pecuniary rewards are small-ish?

Here, we calculate everything in dollars and cents – how much sacrifice, budget constraints, trade-offs. Then we laud ourselves for being pragmatic and getting our money’s worth. We apply the same yard-stick to ministers and ask if their exceptional salaries lead to exceptional performance? (By the way, no one even knows what performance bonuses are paid to ministers, except the Prime Minister.) Sometimes, we are simply hypocritical, arguing that we should not expect the ministers to be governed by the same calculations that we have.

At the end of the day, the issue of ministerial salaries will always stand between the rulers and the ruled. You cannot engender trust, if people can only think of the payment made.

I made this suggestion in a column in January this year about the sort of imprint the 4G leaders might want to make: To ditch the ministerial salary formula and come up with another one.  “Then maybe people won’t be so tetchy and demanding of their money’s worth and the talented wouldn’t be so afraid to be derided for working for money.”

I am not hopeful.










Hack of a little to report, actually

In News Reports on August 6, 2018 at 11:46 am

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a news report, because there isn’t much new to report regarding the SingHealth hack. But I suppose I will share with you some of the acronyms which came up in Parliament.

  1. CII, which stands for Critical Information Infrastructure. There are 11 sectors like media, transport and telecoms and they straddle public and private sectors. When the Cyber Security Act passed in February takes effect, the CSA or Cyber Security Agency will set some minimum requirements for these sectors to comply with to secure what data they have on you and me.
  2. APT, which stands for Advanced Persistent Threat. Such APT groups are usually state-linked and make it their business to steal data or disrupt operations. SingHealth was hacked by an APT group but the G can’t say which or what or who because of national security considerations. In fact, it might not even get it right – at least it might not stand up in a court of law. Such an APT group had done the same before, attacking National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University’s computer systems.
  3. ATP, which stands for Advanced Threat Prevention. This is not a group but some kind of security system that is being put in place in the health sector. There is also a “visual router’’ that is being piloted somewhere in the healthcare system.

Phew. Now that the technical part is over, here are some interesting bits.

What has the G got to do with SingHealth?

We already know that the July 20 press conference announcing the hack was fronted by Communications Minister S Iswaran and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who apologized for the hacking incident. Personal data of 1.5 million patients and outpatient medication records of 120,000 people, including the Prime Minister, were stolen.

But why was Mr Gan apologising and not the SingHealth people, asked Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim.

Mr Gan said it was because he was part of the healthcare family, adding that SingHealth had apologized too. Mr Iswaran had the better response. Right from the start, he said that SingHealth was a private company “not a statutory board’’ but because it was part of Singapore’s critical infrastructure, the G had to get involved.

That delay between discovering the hack on July 4 and telling the public on July 20 – what gives?

Mr Gan gave a long answer about having to secure the system, to make sure there were no remants of malware and to investigate what happened. Right up to July 19, there were attacks and that was when the decision to do an ISS was made (Sorry. Forgot about this acronym – Internet Surfing Separation). It’s a pity that there wasn’t more dogged questioning on this point – were the authorities really so convinced even at such an early stage that no patient will be affected by the stolen data in the meantime?

Would ISS, if put in place earlier, have foiled the hackers?

This is where it gets interesting. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had said after the hack that ISS would have done the trick. Yesterday, Mr Gan didn’t give a yes or no answer but went to great lengths to explain why this was difficult to do in the healthcare sector. It would inconvenience patients and doctors and lead to longer waiting times. He also made it plain that the healthcare sector wasn’t asleep; its professionals had been trying out different ways in the meantime to secure data with as little inconvenience to patients and doctors as possible.

He added that the ISS, a temporary measure, might well become permanent for some parts of the healthcare sector.

Was there any negligence on the part of SingHealth, asked Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh. Mr Iswaran’s answer was to ask that people do not go “down the path of allocating blame’’. He noted that a Committee of Inquiry had been set up to look at what happened. The police and the Personal Data Protection Commission will be investigating as well. The COI will deliver its report by Dec 31.

Should we worry about our stolen personal data?

Mr Iswaran wasn’t as blunt as CSA head David Koh who has been pilloried for saying they were of “no commercial value”. Instead, he made it clear that very little use can be made of them, because most online transactions required much more than personal identification details to proceed. (Unless, of course, you’re silly enough to use your IC number as your password).

Both ministers stressed that only name, birthdate, gender and race and IC number were stolen, not credit card numbers, email addresses or telephone numbers. Nor were any details in the system changed.

I wondered at that point if Workers Party MP Png Eng Huat would stand up from his seat to ask the question he had tabled: whether the G would bear responsibility for any stolen identity crime committed as a result of the hack. He didn’t.

Sitting in the gallery, I thought the MPs were pussyfooting about the issue. First, no one asked why the SingHealth cyber people only spotted the hack on July 4, when it actually started on June 27. Second, since an APT had been levelled at the two universities in the past, what has been the outcome of those investigations that might have been learning points for others? Third, even if the APT group can’t be named, did our cyber sleuths let the supposed state know that we know? Or do they already know that we know?

I suppose we should leave everything to the COI, which will open some hearings but not those which touch on national security. Then it will publish its report.

Goodness! That will be next year!




Ben Davis is no Joseph Schooling

In News Reports on August 6, 2018 at 9:58 am

Dr Ng Eng Hen didn’t just shut the door on Ben Davis’ application to defer his National Service stint. He locked and bolted it.

In fact, he was tougher than the Mindef statements on the youth’s aspiration to play for English club Fulham, which has led to some pretty polarizing discussions on the internet. It wasn’t just about deferment for “exceptional talent’’ (you might as well use “exceptional circumstances’’ too) but exceptional talent that serves the national interest, said the Defence Minister. As far as Mindef was concerned, Ben Davis was putting aside his citizen’s obligation to pursue a personal interest.

It was by far the most convincing statement I’ve heard about the rejection of the youth’s application. Dr Ng referred to the Enlistment Act which made plain that all male citizens must be treated equally and should not be allowed to enlist at their “own personal convenience and choosing’’. The judiciary too had emphasized “equity’’ when it upped sentencing benchmarks for NS defaulters last year. So far, 13 such defaulters have gone to jail.

There were little nuggets of information that Dr Ng let fall which hadn’t been widely canvassed in the media. One of them: That Davis would be playing for Fulham as an Englishman and, according to Fifa rules, he will always have to play as an Englishman or for England. That sort of puts to rest arguments that he be allowed to hone his professional footballing skills abroad so that he can bring glory to Singapore at a later date.

The youth’s father, Harvey Davis, didn’t come out looking good at all in Dr Ng’s ministerial statement. Mr Davis wouldn’t give a time frame for his son’s return to do NS. In fact, the senior Davis’ pronouncements made it clear that he intends for his son to pursue a professional footballing career for as long as he can, said Dr Ng. He had said, for example, that Ben could be given an extended contract by Fulham, be sold or loaned to other clubs or sign up with another club. He had also raised the notion of renouncing citizenship.

“The application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son’s deferment is to further his son’s professional career first and to the longest extent possible… Singapore and her interests, including his son’s NS obligations, are secondary consideration, if at all.’’

Whether he intended to or not, Dr Ng pointed to a possible pecuniary incentive for the Davis’ posture. Mr Davis had said the successful deferment would be an inspiration for the students registered with his company Junior Soccer School and League Singapore (JSSL). It is a youth football club and academy business run by Mr Davis and “advertises itself as having links to Fulham FC”. It also has 500 Singapore youths…

He also suggested that after receiving hundreds of pounds playing for Fulham, and possibly a lot more later, the youth would be unlikely to return to Singapore.

Did the ministerial statement answer all the questions that have shrouded the NS enlistment issue?

In some ways, yes. Deferment is a privilege and comes with strings attached. Swimmers like Joseph Schooling have benchmarks to meet – or risk having his deferment curtailed. Dr Ng also spoke of medical students who are allowed to defer their stint but this was because they would serve as medical officers during their NS. In 1992, Singapore disallowed deferment for those pursuing overseas medical degrees, because enough doctors were produced locally.

While Dr Ng appeared to have used the term deferment and disruption inter-changeably, he didn’t touch on the issue of Government scholars who seem to have been given some leeway on national service. He should have, because the concern isn’t just over the building of sporting or artistic talent, but how it is balanced against developing young people with good grades.

Nor did he talk about the conscription systems in other countries such as South Korea, which is popularly believed to be less stringent in its enlistment requirements. Perhaps, it was because no MP raised the point, which is a pity.

There was a question from MP Lim Wee Kiat, who asked if the youth would have got his deferment if a deadline on his return was pledged. Dr Ng went back to first principles – was this in the youth’s personal interest or the national interest?

The door has been shut, locked and bolted. I think Dr Ng also threw away the key.