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(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.



How the Holy Goh got on with the Father and the Son

In News Reports on November 2, 2018 at 5:42 am

I know the book Tall Order Volume 1 is about Mr Goh Chok Tong’s route to prime ministership, but what I didn’t expect was a glimpse of the mental gymnastics that the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew put him through. Like Mr Goh, I believe all of us were caught off-guard by Mr Lee’s 1988 National Day comments about preferring that Dr Tony Tan succeed him as Prime Minister. Now, some 30 years later, we read about the shock and consternation this news was to the man whom everyone thought would be Singapore’s next Prime Minister.

“I was perplexed, stunned and dumbfounded by his revelation. You have the awkwardness of facing the big crowd after the rally. You had to be very wooden when you came out,” so Mr Goh recalled in the book, wryly using the term that the late Mr Lee had attached to him just one week after.

Mr Goh thought there could be  two reasons for Mr Lee’s public put down. Mr Lee himself had said that he wasn’t to be blamed if Mr Goh failed – because he wasn’t his first choice. Then there was the question of whether he wanted to derail the succession process by putting Dr Tan as first among equals. Or even place his son, who entered politics four years before. It’s a pity that Mr Goh never asked the man directly. But clearly, Mr Lee wasn’t ready to give up the job.

That 1988 speech is also famous for Mr Lee’s promise to rise from the dead should anything untoward happen to Singapore. To Mr Goh, he was publicly signalling that he wasn’t ready to leave the stage. “He had raised expectation that I would take over in 1988, so he had to square with me publicly, with the whole team, that I was not quite ready yet.”

The second blow came a week later when Mr Lee described Mr Goh as “wooden” in his communication skills and who might need the help of a psychiatrist. (Mr Lee said later he meant “psychologist”). In fact, Mr Lee told him at one lunch after the rally that he didn’t think he was ready “and asked if it would be all right if he carried on for two more years”. You can guess Mr Goh’s answer…

That was one big revelation: That it was Mr Lee who wanted to stay on.

Even when Mr Goh became PM in 1990, he knew Mr Lee could always remove him if he wanted to. This was  because Mr Lee was still secretary-general of the People’s Action Party.

“He told me that normally it is the secretary-general who becomes the Prime Minister. I am handing over to you, but would it be all right if he stayed on as secretary-general? So what does that tell you? He’s not sure if I might change or could succeed…You know my style, and I said yes.”

There could be another reason for Mr Lee’s hesitation, which Mr Goh didn’t allude but which was revealed by former Cabinet minister Ahmad Mattar. The rally speech came just months after news that some of the ex-detainees in the Marxist conspiracy had recanted the confessions they made the year before. Mr Goh, who was acting PM because Mr Lee was away, decided to detain them the next day. Mr Lee was furious at the 24-hour delay. When he returned to Singapore, he rounded on Mr Goh  saying in front of the Cabinet ministers that “If Loong is not my son, I would have asked him to take over from you now.”

Mr Goh was never really sure if he made the cut in Mr Lee’s eyes, but he was sure that he had the support of the New Guard (what his generation was called then). After that rally, they publicly re-affirmed their choice of leader. Fast forward to today and you wonder what’s taking the fourth generation leaders so long.

There have been many books on the late Mr Lee, including some by the late Mr Lee. They give his thoughts on policies and political philosophy. This book gives the another perspective of the man – from someone who had to work for him, and later, with him.

It is no secret that the two men are as different as chalk and cheese in terms of personality. Mr Goh described his predecessor  as Machiavellian. He recalled how Mr Lee had even handed him a book by Machiavelli to read because he thought the younger man was much too soft. Mr Goh discarded it.

His idea of consultative government and participatory democracy also made no sense to the older man, who though it was inefficient and smacked of indecision. But, according to Mr Goh, Mr Lee still left him very much on his own to make his own decisions. Hence, the setting up of Residents’ Committees and the Feedback Unit. Hence,  the year-long consultation exercise on the introduction of Medisave when Mr Goh was Health Minister.

He never thought that Mr Lee got “personal” or had an agenda that was not for the greater good. The fact that Mr Lee was open in his remarks showed he was not a backstabber, he said. Several times, Mr Goh described Mr Lee as an ”honourable” man. Even when Mr Lee suggested that his daughter, Wei Ling, could make a good MP, Mr Goh saw the suggestion as Mr Lee’s attempt to help him recruit new candidates, especially women. “He was trying to be helpful.”

You can see some pussy-footing he did around Mr Lee, especially when it came to the changeover period. Should he take over Mr Lee’s Istana office? He didn’t want to out of respect for the man and also because the room would “smell of Lee Kuan Yew”.  In the end, his office, ready before he became PM, was set up above Mr Lee’s. The comical part: Mr Lee actually moved into the new premises because his old office was being refurbished . “So he was the first PM to use this room, not me!”

If there was one harsh thing he said about the late Mr Lee, it was about his “unparliament-like” language when the late Mr J B Jeyaretnam entered politics after the 1981 Anson by-election. The younger leaders were uncomfortable with the debating style, which was reminiscent of an earlier tumultuous era.

You cannot read a book about Goh Chok Tong without wondering how he dealt with not just the older Lee but also the younger Lee in the Cabinet. In the book, Mr Goh took pains to stress that it wasn’t Mr Lee who recommended his eldest son for politics. He himself had put forth the name and persuaded the younger man to stand in the 1984 election. There was “due process” – two rounds of interviews with two different panels.

Author Peh Shing Huei tried his best to play devil’s advocate, going by some interview transcripts that were published in the book. Maybe Mr Lee was hoping that Mr Goh would put forth the name himself? Did Mr Goh really think people would believe that the father had nothing to do with the son’s entry into politics?

Mr Goh actually conceded that it might be difficult for people to believe him but reiterated that Mr Lee was an “honourable man” who respected certain principles and was very “correct” in his dealings. .  There was, however, one time when Mr Lee had a “not very good” reaction to one of Mr Goh’s decisions: appointing the late Ong Teng Cheong as deputy prime minister.

“He asked why Ong Teng Cheong. He did not say why not Lee Hsien Loong. But from the way he asked, I could sense it, that he was thinking of the future and the future lay with Lee Hsien Loong, not with Ong Teng Cheong…I am not saying he wanted Hsien Loong there because he was his son, but he wanted to put Hsien Loong there because he was the better man.”  In the end, Mr Goh decided on having both of them, making clear that it would be Mr Lee who would act for him when he was not in town.

You get the feeling that Mr Goh was also  being very “correct” with his answers when it came to the late Mr Lee. He had suffered some indignities but didn’t take them to heart. He knew that some of his decisions looked either like “self-sabotage”, naive or even stupid, such as bringing the younger Lee into politics and making him deputy prime minister. But he was no stooge nor anyone’s puppet, he said. The Father, Son and the Holy Goh worked very well together and never doubted each other’s intentions.

If I were Mr Goh, I would probably be miffed with this review which revolves on his relationship with the father and son. He said in his “afterword” that the book should capture his unexpected journey to become Singapore’s second Prime Minister, and his trials and missteps along  the way. The story is about Singapore’s transition from the Lee Kuan Yew era, he said.

The thing is, you can’t tell people the “takeaways” they should have after reading anything. There will always be a fascination about how he navigated the waters with the Lees. It comes through as well in the questions that were asked of him.  The question in people’s minds: Was he really, really his own man?

Perhaps, it isn’t fair to him, because he should be judged on his political philosophy and his policies. I am waiting for Volume 2, which would focus on his time as prime minister. Even then, I think I’ll still be fascinated by how he led the country, sandwiched between father and son.

Go buy the book. It’s very readable. I finished it in a day.









10 things you didn’t know – or might have forgotten – about Goh Chok Tong

In News Reports on November 2, 2018 at 12:50 am

It’s only Volume 1. I think Volume 2 which covers Mr Goh Chok Tong’s prime ministership should be more interesting. Nevertheless, there were some nuggets of really cool information, some of which I had forgotten, that turned up in the book, Tall Order, which tracks his journey to the top job.

  1. The four Tans who vied for the Presidency had close associations with Mr Goh. Dr Tony Tan was in his Cabinet, Mr Tan Jee Say used to be his principal private secretary, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, ex-People’s Action Party MP, is an old friend and his doctor while Mr Tan Kin Lian was his  PAP branch secretary at his Marine Parade constituency. Bet you don’t remember that last one…
  2. The one person he would never, ever acknowledge is….Dr Chee Soon Juan. He considers him untrustworthy….this man who went all the way to Williams College in the United States to disrupt a conferment ceremony he was at. There was no disruption (I was there) but Mr Goh is clearly super livid still. The book didn’t talk about Dr Chee’s infamous heckling of Mr Goh during a general election campaign. Perhaps, that will be in Volume 2.
  3. He saw PM Lee Hsien Loong’s CV when the younger man was being vetted as a candidate for the 1984 general election. And Mr Lee is NOT a straight A student! He got a C4 for Chinese! The book doesn’t say at what level and it could be that it’s a B4 or a C5 – because I don’t think there’s a C4 even in those days….
  4. More on the Lee family…You know that it was Mr Goh who brought Mr Lee into politics right? Mr Lee Kuan Yew didn’t recommend his son. But Mr Lee did suggest his daughter, Wei Ling. Mr Goh said no, after consulting her brother and former Foreign Minister George Yeo, both of whom also said no. No explanation was given for the no answer in the book.
  5. More on the Lee family…he did consider Mr Lee Hsien Yang but decided against it because he thought the elder brother would outshine the younger one. Also, how was he himself going to cope with so many Lees? “Nobody would believe I am my own man, isn’t it?”
  6. More on the Lee family…the candidature of Madam Ho Ching did cross his mind but she said “not at this stage”. Then she got married to Mr Lee Hsien Loong and…that was that.
  7. He was uncomfortable and felt humiliated when the late Lee Kuan Yew publicly said in his 1988 National Day rally speech that his preference was for Dr Tony Tan as Number 1. He told his old friend Dr Ahmad Mattar that he would “walk out” if Mr Lee repeated it next year. But that year, all he could do in front of the public eye was stay “wooden” (his word). In fact, he wryly referred to several descriptions people have of his role straddling father and son – seat warmer, puppet, Holy Goh. He also described himself rather off-handedly as a “lubricant” because both the Lees had their own independent cast of mind and he had to stop them clashing.
  8. Although Mr Lee Kuan Yew never pushed his son forward as prime minister, there was one time he lost his temper in Cabinet and told Mr Goh: “If Loong is not my son, I would have asked him to take over from you now.” This was during the Marxist conspiracy in 1988 when Mr Goh delayed his decision to re-arrest some conspirators who had recanted their confessions. He took a day. Mr Lee, who was not in town then, said he would have re-arrested them immediately. This anecdote, by the way, wasn’t volunteered by Mr Goh, but by former Cabinet Minister Ahmad Mattar who was interviewed for this book.
  9. He followed his mentor’s working style by leaving it to the permanent secretaries to  implement policy. He wasn’t a super minister or super permanent secretary. He thinks that the relationship has now changed with politicians and civil servants interacting directly and frequently. “And in their interactions, ministers function as super perm secs”. He adds that some ministers know more than their perm secs. No, he doesn’t say if this is good or bad.
  10. I am going to take a deep breath here and say this: I know he’s being bashed for his statements on mediocrity but this is a man who grew up without electricity or sanitation facilities in Pasir Panjang and lost his dad when he was 14. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and there is very little hint of any kind of snobbery or elitism portrayed in the book. By all accounts, he’s a humble, nice guy whom the late Mr Lee thought was ‘too’ nice. I am going to go so far as to suggest that we don’t remember a man for one line, but for his life of service.

Now I’m waiting for Volume 2.



Making sense of the class discussion

In News Reports on October 26, 2018 at 3:28 am

Everyone is talking about class these days. Or socio-economic status. Or income inequality. Or social capital. Or meritocracy. Actually, this can be summed up in one line: As the rich get richer, will the poor remain poor?

Surveys have been done, a documentary programme aired on television and speeches have been made especially in the past month. But what, however, have we gleaned from all these words and numbers? What solutions, or even conclusions, can we draw from them?

If I can summarise what Messrs Lee Hsien Loong, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Ong Ye Kung and Janil Puthucheary have said in the various forums, it goes something like this:

a. There will always be poor people in Singapore.

But the poor here are less poor than before, and not so poor as those elsewhere. Don’t forget that Singapore topped the world’s Human Capital Index; its investments in education and health of the people are paying off handsomely.  According to an OECD report, even our disadvantaged students do better than those elsewhere and more of them  have a firmer grasp of core science, maths and reading skills.

There are plenty of programmes to help the poor and even the less-poor. For adults, there is the Workfare Income  Supplement, rebates on service and conservancy charges and other ways to help raise their incomes and cut living costs. And while there is no minimum wage, Singapore’s Progressive Wage Model seemed to be working so far in boosting the salaries of cleaners and security guards.

As for who or how many people, households, students are poor, there’s the confusion. There is no poverty line nor a minimum wage which establishes the official poor. But Prof Tommy Koh who was moderating an Institute of Policy Studies forum with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was reported saying that  his research estimates that 100,000 to 140,000 households here lack the means to pay for their basic human needs. The report didn’t say how he reached that conclusion.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung gave another set of statistics in another forum: less than 15 per cent of employed households today have an income of $3,000 and less.  This is an improvement from 20 per cent 10 years ago.

We would therefore have to leave it to the G and other groups which have the information on incomes to do what they can for this group of invisible poor. But is direct intervention enough? Or should we be looking for a change in welfare philosophy altogether? Probably not. Read on.

b. Having too much of a good thing 

Meritocracy has worked too well because the better-off who had benefited from this system now have the resources to ensure that their progeny stays ahead of the pack, thereby widening inequality of outcomes. In fact, that same OECD report said that Singapore’s disadvantaged students have trouble catching up with their top peers. For example, only 10 per cent of 15-year-old students from lower socio-econom backgrounds in Singapore attained equivalent scores in science that the top quarter of the country achieved.

It is a natural thing for parents to want the best for their children, even if it means depriving a taxi-driver’s son of a place in a good school. But it wouldn’t be right to lop off all the “top poppies”, as Mr Ong put it, because it is instinctive of every Singaporean to do their best. Also, he asserted that no alternative system has emerged to replace meritocracy. (We would have to presume that alternatives were actually looked at and found wanting.)

His take on meritocracy is somewhat different from past pronouncements on the need for a compassionate meritocracy or taking steps to blunt the hard edges of meritocracy. He said we should “double down” on meritocracy but enlarge what is deemed meritorious from the current narrow focus on past academic grades. So non-academic skills, talents and strengths should be factored into the definition of success. This, however, depends on fixing some structural and cultural issues such as “the way we hire people, admit students to tertiary institutions, grant awards and scholarships, and accord respect to fellow Singaporeans”.

Some structural changes have taken place, for example, there’s no more need for polytechnic students to hand in their O level results when seeking a place in a university.  What has yet to be seen is whether the G itself has changed its position on granting awards and scholarships. Will this still be top scorer-based? Or will there be a range of scholarships of equal prestige given to those with more skills than academic prowess?

c. Birds of a feather

The CNA documentary, Regardless of Class, starring Dr Puthucheary, is now being remembered for a segment on the replies of students from various academic streams. To put it bluntly, the clever among them have high aspirations while the rest seemed resigned to their lot in life, now and for the future. We’re looking at two worlds here which intersect very little with each other. This was borne out by a survey on social capital published in December last year.

Among other findings, the study showed that on average, Singaporeans who live in public housing have fewer than one friend who lives in private housing. People who study in elite schools also tend to be less close to those in non-elite schools, and vice versa. Predictably, this led to calls to change school admission policies for children whose parents have no connection to schools. That is, parents who are alumni members or have the luxury of time and energy to contribute to the school that they’re aiming their kids at.

A small move has already been made: from next year, 20 per cent of secondary school places will be reserved for students of parents with no affiliations.

More worrying is the finding in the OECD report on where “disadvantaged” children study. It found that 46 per cent of disadvantaged students in Singapore were attending “disadvantaged schools” in 2015, up from 41 per cent in 2009. The OECD average is 48 per cent. The Education ministry has come out to protest that “disadvantaged schools” do not mean low quality teachers and lousy facilities. In other words, every school is a good school.

But this doesn’t take away the fact that there are concentrations of poor students in some schools. (Dare I say ghettos?). According to the OECD report, disadvantaged pupils do much better in schools where they are in a minority. It suggested that  governments boost social mobility by breaking up clusters of pupils. What this means is that MOE shouldn’t just be looking at the supply side of the equation but also at the kind of student mix that would maximise the potential of individuals.

d. Start early, step up and get off 

Increasingly, there is an acknowledgment that efforts must start early, even at the pre-natal stage as DPM Tharman suggested. So Kidstart to help disadvantaged parents raise their new-borns and changes to pre-primary school system to ensure the young ones have same starting line to push off from have been implemented. For example, one-third of MOE kindergarten spots are reserved for children from poor households.

The problem, however, is not confined to whether the poor will remain poor – but whether everyone, including the middle class, will stay stagnant. That’s when you can expect a great deal of dissatisfaction, when a broad swathe of Singaporeans believe life isn’t getting better. I say “believe” because there would always be those who expect a lot more than they deserve or think the system is weighted against them. Social mobility is as much about perception as about numbers.

DPM Tharman talks about keeping the escalator moving, which is a good metaphor for social mobility.  But there is another metaphor for the situation now: the elevator or lift. In Singapore, people get off on different floors, including the top floor. But there will always be some on the ground floor waiting for the lift doors to open.














AHTC trial: Up against a battering ram

In News Reports on October 23, 2018 at 2:21 pm

I suppose if you were up against a battering ram like Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, you’d be careful about your replies too. So you attach qualifiers like “possibly’’, “perhaps’’, “far as possible’’, “where applicable’’ or the all-time favorite, “I cannot recollect’’ to your answers to his questions. It gives you some wriggle room. Except that as far as the lawyer concerned, these were all prevarications if not downright lies.

So town council chairman Sylvia Lim was put in a bit of spot over the past few days because she declined to give yes or no answers to questions and had to be cross-examined intensively over much the same ground. Ms Lim, herself a lawyer, gave herself time to compose her replies and to refer to written documents. But Mr Singh still got his “gotcha!’ moments.

Ms Lim is named as the first defendant, although she appeared on the stand after her old chief, Mr Low Thia Kiang did so, in the on-going civil suit brought by Aljunied Hougang and Pasir-Ris Punggol town councils against eight parties, including three MPs.

Clearly, Mr Singh’s aim was to cast doubt on the credibility of Ms Lim, by suggesting that she withheld information or was careless with the truth about, at least for now, the appointment of FM Solutions and Services as managing agent.  For example, she didn’t want the old managing agent to know that there would not be a new tender for the job, nor did she make public the shareholdings of FMSS which is run by a husband-and-wife team who are Workers’ Party supporters.That is, she and Mr Low had the same motive: to give the job to FMSS, whether it was qualified or not.

Mr Singh went further, to get Ms Lim to say that the rest of the elected MPs were as careless and negligent about their duties to residents by not asking more questions about FMSS’ appointment.

And this morning, he took it all the way, when he said that Ms Lim didn’t tell the truth in a media statement in FMSS appointment, hence misleading “the entire country.

In the statement in August 2011, she had said that the town council didn’t incur extra costs when it appointed FMSS. While it was true that FMSS was employed at the same rate as CPG, she neglected to say that there were expenses incurred from hiring new employees to prepare for the handover. The court did not hear details of this cost, but this appears to amount to some $89,150 according to auditor KPMG’s report.

To almost all of Mr Singh’s allegations, Ms Lim denied that there was any intent to mislead anyone, whether town councilors, residents or the media. For example, she took it for granted that the MPs and councilors were on the same page when they were told FMSS was hired on the same “specifications’’ as CPG, that is, the same contract. It took a lot of lawyerly skill on Mr Singh’s part to get her to acknowledge that town council financial reporting rules had been breached because, despite whatever understanding was reached among the parties involved, she did not disclose the rates FMSS was charging.

Ms Lim and the MPs didn’t come out looking good.

FMSS was supposed to work and be paid along the same terms and conditions or “specifications’’ as the former agent, CPG Facilities. But there was no evidence that anyone examined the old contract or asked questions. In fact, in October 2011, Mr Low said in an email that he had not read the old contract. By then, FMSS had been on the job for some three months.

What about the appointed town councillors? Their go-ahead was needed for the appointment and going by what Mr Singh suggested, this was apparently given without a clear understanding of what the contract between FMSS and the town council entailed. Besides the fact that two of them, Mr David Chua and Mr Kenneth Foo, are among the eight defendents, there has been almost next to no information on who these councillors are or even how many of them were appointed in 2011.

This is a little explored issue: the duties and responsibilities of town councilors. How are they appointed? On the basis of party affiliation? Or drawn from the grassroots network or among residents of the estate? And do these volunteers have a fiduciary obligation to the residents to safeguard their money? Doubtless these questions will arise in the later stages of this trial.

For now, it looks like the WP didn’t dot their i’s nor crossed their t’s. (Mr Singh would say it doesn’t even know the letters of the alphabet). It does look odd that no one seemed to be too concerned about the managing agent’s rates, beyond being satisfied that they would be the same as before. Plenty of trust seemed to have been placed on Ms Lim’s leadership. Ms Lim, however, did produce evidence to show that she herself queried some rates charged for projects.

What is coming across is an active distrust on the part of the opposition towards any element that seems connected to the ruling People’s Action Party. This isn’t a surprise given how town councils are really political exercises in estate management. PAP-owned Action Integrated Management, for example, could withdraw its computer services from the WP town council because its contract stipulated that it could do so if there were “material changes to the membership of the town council’’.

The question is whether this distrust is translated into an active partiality towards political supporters that is to the detriment of residents. If anything, this trial shows the importance of residents having a greater interest in the workings of their town council, beyond simply wanting working lifts and clean corridors. After all, we should all be getting the best value for our money, never mind which party is in charge.


Town council suit: Low defends FMSS appointment

In News Reports on October 16, 2018 at 11:52 am

I knew there would be fireworks but I didn’t think the trial would start with a bang, with Senior Counsel Davinder Singh accusing Mr Low Thia Kiang of attempting to reduce his cross-examination time by insisting on having a Chinese interpreter on board. He called the request a “stunt”, a term which Mr Low’s lawyer, SC Chelva Rajah objected to. In any case, it was quickly resolved with a pledge by the defence that the interpreter would be used only when Mr Low found it easier to express his thoughts in Mandarin.

This beginning, however, set the tone for the rest of the exchange between the veteran Workers’ Party politician and the former People’s Action Party MP, who is acting for the independent entity that is Aljunied-Hougang town council. It got testy at times with Mr Singh chiding Mr Low for laughing on the stand. Mr Low once shot back at the end of an exchange: “I am not that stupid, Mr Singh”.

With the two auditors out of the way, the court yesterday turned its attention to the defendants, which include two other WP MPs, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh. Mr Davinder Singh opened his cross-examination by getting Mr Low to agree that the role of a town councillor was above party politics, and dedicated to serving the interests of residents who pay service and conservancy fees. The words “honest town councillor” would pepper most of Mr Singh’s questions.

For the next three hours, the focus was on the circumstances leading to the appointment of FM Solutions and Services as the town council’s managing agent, which is a key plank of the plaintiffs’ suit to get the defendants to account for $33million they had paid out. The defence had always contended that it had little choice but to appoint the company led by the husband-and-wife team, Ms How Weng Fan and the late Danny Loh, because the former managing agent, CPG Facilities, did not want to continue with its job at Aljunied Town Council.

Mr Singh took Mr Low through emails and correspondence in the first week of WP’s takeover of Aljunied GRC in May 2011 to make the point that contrary to the WP’s assertions, it was never its intention to retain CPG.  Rather, it was “crystal clear”, said Mr Singh, that the party wanted CPG “out right from the start and at all cost” for the benefit of Ms How and the staffers at WP-run Hougang TC. That was why Mr Low suggested that a company be set up, and this accomplished before the week was out.

“You’ve come to this court to talk about politics but instead what you were doing was putting politics above the residents,” he said. Mr Low denied the charge repeatedly and claimed that FMSS’ establishment was a “contingency plan” put in place to ensure that residents had a smooth transition from one party to another.

It wasn’t a good day for Mr Low.

He was forced to admit that he did not look at the contract between CPG and the former PAP town council, whether to ascertain its terms and conditions or see if  any penalties would be incurred for breaches such as a sudden pull-out. Yet, FMSS was allowed to levy the same rates as CPG. Mr Singh deemed his attitude  “reckless”, which got Mr Low’s hackles up.

Mr Singh claimed that a series of communications between Ms How and CPG in the first week on the transfer of town council documents, including its financials, also indicated that CPG would not be retained as managing agent. Mr Low, however, contended that the transfer was merely to effect a change of management from the PAP to WP.

Mr Singh also alleged that the communication was carefully crafted so that CPG would think that its estate management work would be done “in-house”, that is, directly by the town council. He said this was done so that the WP would not be pressured into calling for a tender, leaving the field open to only FMSS.

There were quite a few issues regarding FMSS, which was suggested by Mr Low and incorporated within a few days after the 2011 general election, such as:

a. Why pick people who didn’t have the experience of running a town with 40,000 units to manage the estate instead trying to retain a tried and tested one like CPG? Mr Low reiterated that FMSS was an alternative fallback plan because he was uncertain if CPG would stay on. He acknowledged later that he didn’t ask CPG, nor did CPG indicate, if it wanted to pull out  to continue. Not until May 30.

b. Why didn’t WP simply employ Ms How and have salaried employees as was the case with the Hougang TC which had been under direct management of the MPs? Mr Low’s case was that direct management took up too much of an MP’s time and would not offer staff a career path. It was best to outsource the job to a reliable and trustworthy managing agent, which Ms How had proven herself to be in Hougang TC.

c. But why set up a company which would have as profit as one of its objectives? Mr Low  said he didn’t consider this as a factor. Mr Singh then claimed that it was to persuade an initially reluctant Ms How and Mr Loh to continue working for the town council.

Mr Singh also noted that Mr Low had said in his affidavit that he thought the introduction of a new company would inject competition into the estate management  business and would be an attractive option to for other opposition parties which managed to win wards in elections. “You wanted a start-up to boost the work of opposition parties,” said Mr Singh. Mr Low replied that he was talking about the positive outcomes that a start-up in the market could bring.

As I said, it wasn’t a good day for Mr Low. Mr Singh kept his questioning tight, requiring   yes or no answers. His key message was that Mr Low did not exercise “due diligence” in the running of the town council, and wasn’t behaving like an “honest town councillor”.

The cross examination continues tomorrow and we might hear more about the pullout of Action Integrated Management (AIM), which the defendants claim had left the town council stripped of software. All we got today was how, even in the initial week, WP had asked CPG for the financial records and a meeting with its  computer vendor, because it wanted to upgrade its in-house system to incorporate Aljunied’s data.

Mr Low corrected Mr Singh: “Upscale, not upgrade”.

Mr Singh thanked Mr Low for correcting his English.

In reply, Mr Low thanked the lawyer for having a higher regard for his command of the English language than the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had.

















Town Council trial: An accounting or political issue?

In News Reports on October 13, 2018 at 3:24 am

First, an admission. I was in court only for a day, and not even the full day, to hear the lawsuits involving the Workers’ Party town council. I caught the final part of KPMG’s Owen Hawkes testimony in court and the beginning of Price Waterhouse Coopers’ Goh Thien Pong’s cross-examination on Thursday.

It was, to put it plainly, tedious listening. Files were piled high around the lawyers and the witnesses and plenty of references made to this or that page, file, email, correspondence, invoice, serial number, payment voucher, work order and other terms that bean counters would be more familiar with. This meant that there were frequent spans of silence as lawyer and witness – as well as judge – try to, literally, get on the same page.

If there was anything to be gleaned from the six days of proceedings reported in The Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia and TODAY, it is that every single thing discussed, ordered and paid for in a town council had to be nailed down in black-and-white. Not only that. They must be filed in the relevant column, relevant document and signed off by the relevant people. Which means that the different parties must know about standard operating procedures of the town council which, again, has to be put down somewhere in black-and-white, and not merely in the form of instructions or guidelines via email. And all this must fit in with the Town Council Financial Regulations that govern all town councils. Phew.

Yup, it’s a bureaucracy that’s bound with red tape. I guess a layman, including me, would either yawn or gasp at the incredible amount of verification and cross-checking that has to take place and wonder about the necessity of some steps. Signing off on something, for example, doesn’t mean you’ve read it or checked it – but it must be assumed that you’ve done your due diligence. And does it matter if you’ve missed a step when you are sure others have done their part?

Rules are rules, the two auditors made clear. They must be uniformly and consistently applied.

So what are the lawsuits about? Here’s a quick re-cap:

  1. It isn’t just one, but two lawsuits. They were filed by Aljunied-Hougang town council (via an independent panel) and Pasir Ris-Punggol town council, which belongs to the People’s Action Party.
  2. The two lawsuits are filed against the same people though: three WP MPs who held/still hold positions in the town council, and five others including the managing agents who run FM Solutions and Services. In addition, the plaintiffs want WP MPs Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh to pay more than $2m in damages because a higher-priced architect was hired for seven of 10 contracts.
  3. The lawsuits are about a sum of some $33.7m which the auditors calculate and contend were improper payments for various reasons: like paying more than the town council should have, not having proper documents or no documentation, missing signatures, all while there is a conflict of interest as the managing agents also hold town council positions.

Some new information that wasn’t available to the auditors at that time emerged during the trial, such as how some documents were already delivered to the PRPTC when it took over Punggol East from the WP in the last General Election and some emails giving reasons for hiring one contractor over another. Both auditors, however, stuck to their positions that as far as they were concerned, payments were improper, policies were inconsistent  and that whatever controls that were said to be in place were simply insufficient.

If you go by the book, it looks like the plaintiffs have a strong case because most of point c is accurate. But this is a court case, which means the defendents have a lot to say about why things are what they are and it doesn’t mean that they have neglected their duty to serve the residents or didn’t exercise enough oversight.

So the defence lawyers  Chelva Rajah and Leslie Netto, beyond contending that some of the auditors’ sums were wrong, have raised other issues that are more “accessible’’ to the laymen. This includes how the opposition had been stymied by the PAP machinery right from the beginning and how the auditors did not take into account “human’’, “social’’ or “emotional’’ factors involved.

“I am an accountant,’’ said KPMG’s Mr Hawkes at one point when pressed about whether he took into account possible job losses in the town council should the original managing agent, CPG Facilities, be retained by the WP to run Aljunied-Hougang TC.

He added: “While I do understand these are employees of an organisation and there is a potential they would lose their jobs … What we’ve been asked to do is to account for the cost of AHTC in taking on one of two managing agents.”

Nor was “trust’’ an element that accountants considered when doing its work, when Senior Counsel Rajah suggested to him that the FMSS husband-and-wife owners Danny Loh and How Weng Fan were “reliable and trustworthy” individuals known to the elected town councillors for “many years”.

“Trust is not the control, but is in fact the enemy of control,” he replied adding later that he didn’t think there was total trust between the MPs and the managing agent because the MPs were kept out of the loop on some conversations because the agents wanted to be in “self-protection’’ mode.

“Notwithstanding that you know somebody and trust them, you can’t forgo control,” Mr Hawkes added. He also contested the point that the MPs were happy with the work of FMSS, or they wouldn’t have held back some $250,000 in payments in February 2015 to make up for its deficiencies.

Lawyer Mr Netto, however, was positive that theMPs would have a different view: “I think we’ll have to listen to the MPs when they come on the stand. I think you’ll see that they are happy.”

At another juncture, Mr Rajah asked PwC’s Mr Goh: “Did your report deal with the factors, the compulsions that caused the defendants to seek the assistance of (FMSS early on) to prevent the intended tripping of (AHTC)?”

Mr Goh replied: “We don’t consider emotional factors.”

“That is a factor of political life,” Mr Rajah said.

The hiring of FMSS is a major plank of the plaintiffs’ case, as the managing agent was also signing off on payments to itself.

Here’s where the defence is making much hay of what happened in 2011: That it was CPG, the PAP’s former managing agent, who wanted out of the contract and yesterday, it transpired that it could only continue to work if it used a certain computer system which had been pulled out of use. That system is the much-touted system run by Action Integrated Management, a PAP-owned company.

The auditors stuck to their guns on how CPG should have been persuaded to stay on to serve out the rest of its contract – or put out a tender.  Retaning CPG would have saved the town council costs. Instead it resorted to the expedient option of using agents who were not familiar with running a far bigger place than they are used to.

The two auditors took every blow as they came, sticking to the script on the need for proper financial controls and oversight.

There were two points when KPMG’s Mr Hawkes was caught flat-footed. He couldn’t give a direct answer when asked how to account for why the G had openly said it had no problems with WP waiving a tender for a managing agent at that time and hiring FMSS. He also said he did not know that the secretary of the previous PAP town council, Mr Jeffrey Chua, was also managing director of CPG and had shares in CPG’s holding company. Still, he said:  “The question is not whether there is a conflict of interest. The question is how severe is it and what are the steps taken to manage it.’’

Mr Hawkes recovered considerably when the argument turned to whether the town council could even have worked effectively as it was “stripped’’ of its computer system. He conceded that even though the town council had a hard time initially trying to introduce and scale up a new computer system, everything should have been in place after five years.

PWC’s Mr Goh, however, drew some laughter in the courtroom when he insisted that processes must be followed to the letter, like attaching photographic evidence that polling stations for the last general election had been set up according to specifications before paying the contractor, even though Mr Rajah noted that the GE has “come and gone’’.

I don’t have the list of witnesses but it appears to me that CPG should be called to the stand to expound on its side of the story. It also seems that more information should be available on the practices of other town councils, such as whether they too parked similar contracts under project management services that had to be paid for, rather as part of the managing agent’s duties.

For example, Mr Rajah told Mr Hawkes that the former managing agent, CPG, had also charged the PAP town council similar fees, adding: “But you reviewing the project documentation thought otherwise?”

Mr Hawkes replied: “That is correct, and it wouldn’t be the first case (where a client has disagreed with an accountant’s definitions)… Our view was that this fell under basic services, at least in part.”

I wonder if other auditors agree.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the defence keeps referring to the elephant in the room, the residents under the WP’s charge, in the cross-examination. Mr Netto kept asserting that the residents are happy, something which the auditors should have considered as services that have been “satisfactorily delivered”. Those who are flummoxed by the complexity of this case will probably have the same question.

Mr Hawkes’ retort: “The suggestion isn’t that the lifts didn’t work and the streets are dirty,” he said. “Having been to Hougang on many occasions, it’s not some kind of ‘Mad Max’ or wasteland…

“It’s the management of the town council’s affairs itself, rather than the maintenance that concerned us.”

In other words, this is an accounting problem, nothing to do with politics as far as the auditors were concerned. It is about financial propriety and controls which is probably an arcane subject to most residents.

It must be noted that the case so far has only involved the defence lawyers and auditors. The plaintiff’s lawyers have yet to make their case nor have the politicians taken the stand. That’s when we can expect fireworks.

CNA and ST episodes: About trust and transparency in the media

In News Reports on October 12, 2018 at 2:16 am

I have been waiting to see if MediaCorp would do an ST, that is, be compelled to reveal more details of what looks like a scandal which had erupted in its organisation. But it seems that MCS has decided to hold its tongue. I am talking about online reports which have surfaced regarding the termination/sacking/resignation of senior journalist Bharati Jagdish.

I am not in the habit of sharing posts from online news sites, but I gather that The Online Citizen’s post on her departure was, in the main, accurate: That she had left the company in the wake of a parliamentary exchange that had mentioned her reporting.

If you haven’t been following the debate on ministerial salaries and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s defence of the salary framework in Parliament on Oct 1, here’s a run-down.

DPM Teo referred to a reported published on Channel NewsAsia’s website on an interview with Banyan Tree Holdings chairman Ho Kwon Ping. Among other things, Mr Ho talked about ministerial salaries.

This is the part which DPM Teo referred to, when the report appeared on Sept 30:

At one point during our interview, he includes Singapore ministers in this group. 

“My salary is decided by the board and my salary is lower than the ministers so I probably belong to the group of people who might be considered mediocre, unfortunately.”

His salary, including benefits and a bonus, according to Banyan Tree Holdings’ 2017 Annual Report was over S$2.5 million, so it’s certainly not lower than ministers’ salaries.

“Lower than ministers? Really? I’m shocked,” I say.

“Well, but I don’t know about everything. All I can say is that we are still every year winning corporate awards for transparency and disclosure, so whatever those  guidelines are, we are definitely one of the best. I try, But that doesn’t mean you may find me in every way, walking the talk.

This is what DPM Teo said in Parliament about how well-meaning people with a deep interest in politics have misconceptions about ministerial salaries.

I read Mr Ho Kwon Ping’s extensive interview with CNA, which was published yesterday.

Among other things, he suggested pegging Ministerial salaries to the median salary of Singaporeans. He also suggested an independent Commission to decide the actual quantum. And Mr Louis Ng, in an earlier similar interview, also suggested that there should be public consultations…

…But even Mr Ho, who is well-informed and has a deep interest in politics, has some serious misconceptions. He claimed, for example, that his salary is lower than the Ministers.

Sir, fortunately, the interviewer had checked, done the homework, and pointed out to Mr Ho that his salary, including benefits and bonus – I would not mention the figure, but it is significantly higher than that of Ministers and certainly not lower than Minister’s salaries.

Sir, otherwise the misrepresentation could have been carried widely and spread more disinformation.

The only news media which contacted Mr Ho for a response to DPM Teo’s remarks was TODAY. :

Mr Ho said it was unfortunate that the Channel NewsAsia interview had given an impression “which not only made me seem quite ignorant or untruthful about my own remuneration, but also critical of the amount of ministerial salaries”. 

“I was not ‘corrected’ by the interviewer — I was referring to basic salaries and she used my total compensation instead. Anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different,” he explained.

Mr Ho stressed that he had never criticised the “absolute level of ministerial salaries” and “fully agree that their work is more important to the nation than my own business enterprise”.

“I have reservations about how they are computed and pegged,” he said.

In an interview with news site Mothership a few days later, he reiterated his position:

 “I have absolutely no reservations about their absolute amount, which I have always publicly argued is more than justified not only because of their contributions, but in order to ensure that the entire public sector… will never need to succumb to the open or hidden corruption in both developing or even very developed countries.”Ho said that he could imagine that the way the interview was structured, “it would seem as if that actually I was not entirely truthful, that I was trying to make a dig at ministerial pay”.

That’s far from the truth, he said emphatically.

Ho clarified that he was in fact referring to the process of basic remuneration rather than the absolute amounts, adding that he was not “corrected” by the interviewer.

He was referring to basic salaries and she used his total compensation instead, before concluding that “anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different”.

This is all so intriguing.

So what did he say and what did the reporter do? At this point, editors would have to get into the picture to find out if the reporter made an error, misinterpreted comments and, worse, fabricated quotes. If editors stood by the story, they would have not amended the report – but they did.

Mr Ho’s answer on how his company won corporate awards for transparency was deleted. Instead, the new quote is this: “Well, but I don’t do much you know, ministers care for the country and I belong to the mediocre class.”

Then there was this paragraph inserted, as well as an Editor’s note.

(When asked for his comments by TODAY a day after this interview was published, Mr Ho said that “I was referring to basic salaries and she used my total compensation instead. Anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different. In his clarification, Mr Ho stressed that he had never criticised the “absolute level of ministerial salaries” and “fully agree that their work is more important to the nation than my own business enterprise”.)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article suggested that the interviewer had highlighted Mr Ho’s total compensation during the interview. This point was in fact not made during the interview. We apologise for the error.

The next thing we know, the reporter in question was no longer in the organization. I have no idea what happened in the interim, but I can see several issues worth examining, especially in this era when so much is said about “trust’’ in media.

First, you don’t need to put out fake news to stir the pot. You can put out the facts – but in the wrong places.

Second, DPM Teo trusted the mainstream media so much that he actually commended the reporter for doing her homework in “correcting’’ Mr Ho. Mr Ho contests this point. If you have been in the business long enough, (and DPM Teo is not a journalist) you will see that the paragraph on Mr Ho’s total salary look like it had been inserted into the story and he looks like an idiot who tried to rescue himself by saying he doesn’t know everything including, presumably, his salary. A tenacious reporter, as  Ms Bharati is known to be, wouldn’t have let something go like that in the course of the interview.

Third, it could be that Ms Bharati found out later, after the interview, that Mr Ho isn’t a “mediocre’’ salaryman and thought it was  important to make the point to provide “balance’’. If so, she should have contacted Mr Ho with the information during which he would probably have corrected her assumptions about total compensation package or basic pay.

Fourth,  did Mr Ho say those things about his company being among the best or not? Is this a fabrication or just an editor exercising judgment that the point was not worth the space used? Deleting a quote and replacing it with another is easy to do in the online space. But it’s not professional unless an explanation was provided to those who had noticed the change.

Fifth, I can’t imagine how a senior journalist like Ms Bharati could even think that it was right to insert that paragraph on his pay and make it look like she had tackled him on it. A rookie reporter could have made the mistake, because he or she doesn’t have the skills to navigate a difficult story. Even so, it would have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor who would have asked: “Wow. Ho Kwon Ping doesn’t know how much he’s paid? Really?’’

Some people have asked whether Ms Bharati deserved the sack or whatever euphemism that MCS wants to come up with. My position is yes. And this is despite knowing that Ms Bharati is a far better interviewer than most in the profession. Why? I am going to get up on a high horse now and say “journalistic ethics”. Her report had led to a misconception about Mr Ho being raised in no less august a place than Parliament, and by a personage no less than the DPM. It casts a pall over her previous work, as legitimate questions will be raised about whether due diligence was exercised over her past reports. DPM Teo actually owes Mr Ho an apology for, ironically, relying on his faith in MSM. That seems to me grounds enough for a dismissal.

I suppose I will be criticized for being harsh. But severe disciplinary action is the standard editorial policy for mistakes that don’t seem to be a result of carelessness, bad language use or lack of expertise. I don’t know if MCS did so, but it should have a disciplinary inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter, at least as a cautionary tale to its own staff on what not to do.

What is troubling is how readers are more interested in the scandal that engulfed The Straits Times earlier this month, rather than this more pertinent lapse in professional ethical standards. Most people are (still) all agog about who did what when TOC broke the story on the demotion and deployment of two editors over their respective relationship with a subordinate. Sex sells, I suppose.

For readers, what should matter is whether these illegitimate relationships affected the quality of ST, and therefore, the readers’ interest. It doesn’t seem to have had that effect.  What’s worse is ST’s response, It was paltry and unsatisfactory to say the least.  If it had decided to take the heat, then it should have reported the case like it would any scandal.

In the case of CNA, however, there is no excuse for silence given the very public nature of the issue: DPM, ministerial salaries, Parliament and a prominent Singaporean. It is interesting that rival MCS didn’t touch the ST scandal, nor did the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newsrooms report on Ms Bharati’s departure. I hope MSM realises that this omission merely confirms the need for media that is outside the duopoly.

What the ST and CNA episodes also show is how the two media organisations have very different standards when it comes to reporting their own shortcomings, compared to other people’s shortcomings.  It used to be that news media come down much harder on their own than on others, because it must have the credibility to demand transparency and openness. This is how trust is built up, when the public knows that the media holds itself to higher standards than the rest.

Because what can a journalist say to a newsmaker who responds with: “Why should I tell you anything when you don’t tell me everything?’’


WP town council case: It began a long time ago…

In News Reports on October 9, 2018 at 4:02 am

I feel like I have been taken back in time, to right after the 2011 General Election. That’s when the Workers’ Party wrested Aljunied GRC from the People’s Action Party. I remember at that time, I actually thought I had gone even further back, to the aftermath of the 1991 General Election, when WP’s Low Thia Kiang took over Hougang.

That’s because old news is coming back to the fore, of the difficulties that opposition faced when it had to run a town council. So old battles are reprised, old wounds re-opened, and we see that the boils have continued to fester.

So the entity that is Aljunied-Hougang Town Council is suing seven people, including three WP MPs, for the return of $33m which it claims had been wrongfully paid out to its former managing agent and other contractors. It’s got two audit reports to back up its case with a list of lapses as long as your arm.

The audits make it look like the WP was trying to run a provision shop with its kakis, instead of a professional outfit with proper rules and financial processes. It has shades of the National Kidney Foundation saga, which ended up with the new entity bankrupting former executives, also backed up by an auditor’s report.

Over the years, there is the sniff of cronyism and the hint of fraud hanging over the heads of the WP. Yet, despite several mentions, no criminal charge has been brought against anyone in the town council although there were various mentions of breaches of the Companies Act. More recently, the Town Council Act was amended to plug loopholes regarding the duties and liabilities of town councilors.

Accountants and lawyers will probably have a field day dissecting the fine print of the charges and mulling over terms like fiduciary and statutory duties. The laymen will gasp at the dollar amounts and wonder if their service and conservancy charges as well as G grants were put to good use, even if no money had gone into other people’s pockets.

But a town council is not a charity, like the NKF, which is surrounded by a thicket of safeguards over donor’s money. It is a political organization, run by politicians, who would naturally rope in politically like-minded people to lend them a hand, hopefully, gratis. It has an incentive to prove itself worthy of its electoral mandate and out-perform its political rivals.

The town council’s lawyer Davinder Singh worries about the WP turning the court case into a political soapbox. His worry is well-founded because which opposition party would not portray itself as the injured party driven to circumstances because of shackles placed by a more powerful force? WP’s lawyer Chelva Rajah in fact asserted that the PAP had a track record of making “things difficult  for opposition-run town councils”

So the memory recall machine is put into high gear, with affidavits filed on how, for example, the Housing Board terminated its Essential Maintenance Service Unit contract and computer services for Hougang Town Council, and Mr Low had to find alternatives. Mr Low’s town council also had to leave the premises it occupied within three to four months of notice, and his request for an extension of time was rejected.

The memory machine also kicked out some other episodes like the CPG pull-out of Aljunied TC in 2011. CPG  had openly said it was difficult to service an opposition town council when it also had contracts with PAP-led ones. Since the hearing started on Friday, there was this question raised about why CPG wasn’t retained, especially since it was cheaper.

The WP’s response  in court was based on its 1991 history – and practical politics. Pre-empting a similar 1991 withdrawal by the HDB, the WP said it made contingency plans involving its old managers in Hougang TC which later became corporatized as FM Solutions and Services. In fact, when it put out a tender after gaining Aljunied GRC, none of the three estate management companies put up a bid.

There was also the embarrassing matter of Action Integrated Management systems (AIM) which the G admitted was a $2 PAP company, handling town council backend work for all the PAP town councils. It pulled out of Aljunied too, leaving WP, or so WP says, having to re-work a system which had to be scaled up from serving a single seat ward to a GRC. It took ages. Hence, lapses.

The AIM saga, circa 2012, is probably an episode that the PAP would rather forget. It could, in fact, be said to be the spark that ignited the today’s flames. Hitting back at that time, the PAP pointed to the tangled web of conflicting interests in the WP town council, and this attack continued with the WP’s failure to secure its auditor’s unqualified green light for its finances almost every year.

Then came the threat to hold back HDB grants, the recourse to the courts, the public accounting of what lapses had been fixed and what had not, and the setting up of an independent panel to supervise the TC, which took out this civil suit now led by Mr Singh, a former PAP MP.

In between, there was a general election in 2016, which resulted in WP losing its single-seat ward of Punggol East and a smaller vote share for Aljunied GRC and Hougang.

What new revelations can we expect from this court case, besides some firm numbers fixed to WP’s list of alleged wrong-doings? One issue is about the classification of projects and whether they should be considered as part of the managing agent’s basic fee coverage or as separate projects to be paid for. That accounts for $1.2m of the sum in contention. An interesting point was raised about how this was the past practice of the previous PAP town council.

This court case is framed as a legal issue of recovering money owed to residents, but no one is under illusions about the ramifications of the result, whether it goes one way or the other. If the WP side managed to defend itself successfully, then there will be a fuss about how this rigmarole which was several years in the making is a colossal waste of everybody’s time. There will be plenty of red faces on the PAP side.

If it goes the other way, I doubt that the seven people named as plaintiffs have deep enough pockets to pay large sums if the verdict goes against them. Mr Low might well have cause to repeat his line about being “sued till pants drop’’. Bankruptcy would disqualify the three MPs from standing for re-election.

I believe the laymen would view this as political persecution even if it is really legal prosecution. You can prevent the spread of fake news but not people’s perception of real news.

That’s politics.