berthahenson

Archive for January, 2018|Monthly archive page

Why care about who will be PM?

In News Reports on January 26, 2018 at 1:22 pm

And there we were thinking we’ll know soon enough who will run Singapore as Prime Minister. Alas, it was not to be. All that foreplay ended up in an anti-climax. So no new Deputy Prime Minister will be appointed in the next Cabinet re-shuffle after the Budget debate. All we know is that it will take longer than the six to nine months time-frame ESM Goh Chok Tong had suggested.

Said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it’s a very serious matter.”

In other words, please butt out.

But why is it taking so long, especially since PM Lee had said he wanted to make way after the next GE due in April 2021?

His answer is more or less this: “The team is taking shape. The dynamics amongst them, they are working it out. They are learning to work together.

“Also, they need a bit of time for Singaporeans to get a feel of them – not just to be known as public figures, but to be responsible for significant policies… carrying them, justifying them, defending them, adapting them, making them work, and showing that they deserve to lead.’’

Oh dear. Can we get “a feel’’ of any one of them by then? The upcoming Budget must be an extra special one, for us to be able to divine the best among the rest. Yet, the Budget is also a collective effort.

The PM also talked about how the Cabinet re-shuffle will be “a significant step in exposing and building the new team, and putting them into different portfolios”. When that happens, speculation will start again, as we examine which minister has one or two portfolios, heavier or lighter portfolios, high-profile or low-profile portfolios.

After all, isn’t that why “observers” seem to think that the field has been narrowed down to three?

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat – oldest of the lot who led the Singapore Conversation and the Economic Restructuring Committee

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing – who entered one GE later than Mr Heng and who is also leader of the NTUC

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung – the latecomer who launched SkillsFuture and is also in the defence ministry and on the board of Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Does anyone remember that there used to be more people? So Mr Tan Chuan-Jin was deemed out of the running because he is no longer in the Cabinet. What of Messrs Lawrence Wong and Ng Chee Meng? Perhaps, they fell away because they have a relatively lower public profile compared to the rest. Mr Ng, the military man, however, has been pushing forth some new education policies that will have far-reaching impact. Is there room for a dark horse to emerge? If so, what role will this person, once he is chosen, play in fighting the next general election, which has to be called by April 2021?

Perhaps, we will know the answer  in the run-up to the election, by looking at who will handle the campaign or take the biggest role.  Mr Lee said the leading man, that is, if he hasn’t been picked yet even at this late stage “will have to pull his weight and… show that he deserves to be what his peers and his colleagues in Cabinet think that he can do.

“This is necessary. If you’re unable to win elections, you cannot be the leader. You can be a great thinker, you can be a great planner, but you have to be in politics.”

Unlike his late father, PM Lee is averse to discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the 4G team. The late Lee Kuan Yew, for example, had once described his successor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, as “wooden’’. That put Mr Goh under an uncomfortable spotlight, but I believe it earned him plenty of points with the people. We like underdogs.

So, PM Lee is really not giving anything away. He has said he has no part to play in picking his successor. Today, he reiterated that point: If the ministers ask him for his views, he will try his best “to be helpful’’.

I have always wondered at the way politics works in Singapore. That the decision on who will be PM is made behind closed doors, like the way the Pope is elected. It makes you wonder about the existence of the People’s Action Party membership. In most democracies, the party faithful picks its leader who becomes the Prime Minister if he leads the party to victory. Here, the cadres pick a slate of people, who decide among themselves who does what. It’s a wonder that the PAP faithful aren’t  chafing at having so little say in the matter.

PM Lee suggested that people view leadership as a team effort, rather than “personalized as a person’’. When decisions on who will be PM are so opaque, can you blame people from speculating who will be Pope (sorry, PM)?

And if we view the G as “team effort’’, why should we care who becomes Prime Minister?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Oh my! It’s the Budget! Yeah!

In News Reports on January 23, 2018 at 9:23 am

I congratulate the Finance ministry for creating a buzz by recruiting social influencers to raise interest in the upcoming Budget. Sorry, it’s not just a buzz but a fuss. Frankly, I think there’s too much fuss.

So the Finance ministry has decided to go the commercial way and hire 50 or so such young people who are always on Instagram. It hopes that these “influencers’’ will influence their followers to be interested in the Budget. The response from the online community has been pretty negative. They run along the lines:

  1. The MoF and social influencers? A serious numbers-based ministry in bed with those who hawk cosmetics and write food reviews? Haaahaaahaar
  2. These young things know anything about the Budget meh?
  3. Does anyone seriously expect that they can engage in a conversation more serious than “what’s the best lipstick to use’’?

I have been reading the brickbats thrown at MoF and the young people, ranging from their poor copy and bad spelling to the incongruous and insincere manner in which these influencers try to incorporate the news of the looming Budget in their posts.

The social influencers suffer from a credibility problem, especially from the older folk. Those who do NOT follow them on Instagram think that they are all puff and fluff and aren’t poster boy/girl material for the Budget. (I guess this is like movie or sports stars whom we suddenly see hawking a certain brand or product that their fans would not associate with them.)

This frivolous image extends to those who “follow’’ them. In all the reports both offline and offline that I have read, no one seems to have bothered to ask the “followers’’ what they think of their idols’ new MoF activity. Instead, some pleasure is taken in showing the low number of likes and comments for the posts.

The MoF has to take some of blame. It isn’t clear what role these influencers should play. Are they supposed to sustain their followers’ interest right into the Budget debate or simply to get more young people to the “listening posts’’ with the influencers as “bait’’? Are they themselves supposed to engage their fans on issues that the Budget will raise, like whether young people should be paying more tax in view of the ageing population? Is this merely an “awareness’’ campaign or an “engagement’’ campaign?

Then there is the question of renumeration. MoF is coy about giving answers on how much each is paid. The answer from MoF is that it is  “in line with market rates’’. Yet answers from others range from an “honorarium’’ or token, to anywhere between $100 and $800 per post. How MoF spends its money can’t be an official secret surely? Also, giving the amount paid would give readers an idea of the sort of commitment and level of work expected of social influences. I think many would balk if told that the fee for one post – or what we’ve seen of them so far – is $1,000.

Then again, why are people grumbling about whether this is the best use of taxpayers’ funds when they do not complain about the cost of the governments television and print advertisements and online videos? They are probably many, many times more expensive but we don’t ask if we are getting bang for our buck.

In any case, according to their media handler, StarNgage, they’ve more than reached the targeted 225,000 of  Instagram users. So a KPI has been met unless the MoF expects a qualitative aspect as well.

There’s a certain arrogance and snobbery that surrounds the criticisms of these influencers. We’d rather the MoF do something more erudite, like hold a forum for young people (which only the “converted’’ will attend) or advertisements that tell about the Budget process, albeit with some bells and whistles to get the attention of the young. What is worrying to me is that the complaints seem to lend credence to the view of some sponsors who insist that they not be identified as the paymaster of sponsored posts, because they could get flamed in the same way as MoF. The ministry has, to its credit, been upfront about being behind the posts which have been hash tagged as “sponsored’’.

The thing is, there is always a (big) group of people whom officials find hard to reach. They don’t care about current affairs and don’t see why they should be interested in them. They live on social media and have short attention spans. I think that most don’t know anything about a Budget for their country and likely to go “what’s that?’’

If the social media push has just got a few hundred become “aware’’ of this, why not? If they make their way to the “listening posts’’ to see their idols, rather than give feedback, we can hope that at least an interest is kindled. We shouldn’t expect that they would be able to hold forth on taxes and spending and actually influence the Budget, but we can hope that this is just a prelude to a time when older and wiser, they can take part meaningfully in the process.

As for the not-so-young (including me) and the better-read (including me) can we just acknowledge that these social influencers aren’t targeting their messages at us? Give them a break. They will get better next year, that is, if MoF isn’t spooked by the outcry.

 

 

A public tutorial

In News Reports on January 16, 2018 at 12:35 pm

I started school this week and was going through some news articles with my students. And I got really mad with this piece that should interest anyone who does grocery shopping. Good reporting is important and should concern people who want to know what’s happening around them. This is one substandard piece which should never have seen daylight, much less published on the cover of the ST Home pages. Even as we concern ourselves with fake news, we must also be concerned about doing real news right. If I sound like I’m lecturing, that’s because I am. 

HEADLINE: Fruit, vegetable prices stable – for now

Strap: Wholesalers absorbing extra costs, seeking new supply as bad weather creates shortage

Imported fruit and vegetable prices have gone up (reader will assume that it means consumers are paying more), but many wholesalers say they are not passing on the costs to consumers – not yet anyway. (Oh! So it’s wholesalers paying more but they aren’t raising price. But that’s what wholesalers will say. The evidence lies with consumers. )

TRY THIS: Fruit and vegetable sellers are paying more to bring  fruit and vegetables into Singapore but say that they aren’t passing down the cost – yet.

The wet weather and flooding in recent weeks (here? Or in Malaysia) are to blame.

Mr Vincent Lee, vice-president of the Singapore Fruits and Vegetables Importers and Exporters Association, said too much water and too little sun have led to a 40 per cent drop in local green vegetables such as chye sim, spinach and xiao bai cai. (Are we talking local veg also? Is this a big proportion of total veg?) There is also a shortage of cucumbers, long beans, green beans and bitter gourd from Malaysia because of floods there. (so are we talking about local or imported stuff?)

Prices have gone up by 50 to 60 per cent for this week, said Mr Lee.

(Note that in the TODAY story, a different person in the same organization gave different figures: Mr Jerry Tan, assistant secretary of the Singapore Fruits and Vegetables Importers and Exporters Association, said: “The cold weather is definitely affecting the supply. Prices are already going up. Compared to last week, the prices of certain vegetables have increased by 80 to 100 per cent. That’s quite a lot.”

So are they plucking figures from the air? Can we have some specifics on what is the price of XXkg of chye sim then and now? ST story has this one source with figures; TODAY had more sources)

“After that, things should go back to normal,” he added. (Why is he saying this? He can predict rainfall? So he’s only affected this week? What is normal? What about the CNY seasonal impact?)

Fruit wholesalers are in a similar situation.

Mr Jimmy Quek, chairman of the Singapore Tropical Fruits Importers and Exporters Association, said the cold weather caused faster decay in harvested crops and a much shorter shelf life.

“As a result, we have seen a 20 per cent drop in fruit sales overall.” (Fruit sales? So he’s buying less? Or selling less? And what is he saying – demand or supply?)

Mr Quek said mandarin orange prices are expected to go up by 10 to 30 per cent during the Chinese New Year period because flood waters have affected harvests. (But they always do during CNY – so what was the price rise like last time and how is the flood contributing to this seasonal spike?)

“At this point, prices are stable, but by next month, consumers will feel the shortage,” he said. (So, are we saying that consumers will feel shortage because nothing to buy or feel impact in terms of higher prices?)

To ensure they have enough supplies, retailers such as Sheng Siong, FairPrice, Giant and Cold Storage have sourced for crops from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even as far away as Ecuador and Mexico. (Surely, this “sourcing’’ is NOT a recent thing?)

Both Mr Quek and Mr Lee said wholesalers will absorb the extra costs and ride out the price increase of imports, while obtaining their crops from other sources to keep prices stable for retailers and consumers. (For how long? CNY is not that far away?)

A check with (how many?) fruit stalls across the island showed that merchants were largely (what is largely?) not raising prices.

Mr Zhao Win Son, 51, a durian stall owner at Block 260 Serangoon Central Drive, said he kept prices at $15 to $21 per kilo even though his supply from Malaysia fell by 20 to 30 per cent over the weekend because of flooded roads.

In Bukit Ho Swee, fruit stall owner Christine Goh said strong winds caused durians to drop before they are ripe, which means the fruit is smaller and less sweet.

She has raised prices slightly to $13 to $14 per kilo from $11 to $12.

(So two stall holders quoted – one keeping price stable and the other raising it. Doesn’t quite reflect “largely’’.)

Most people (how many?) The Straits Times spoke to yesterday said there was no noticeable increase in vegetable prices either at wet markets or supermarkets.

However, a housewife, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Lee, said chye sim and xiao bai cai cost about 20 cents more at the wet market she frequents. (Spoke to “most people’’ but can’t find a housewife willing to be named?)

But she was not sure if they are from Malaysia. (Is this important? Only Malaysian veg price is up? But locally-grown not?)

 

Fake news: Forestalling winter

In News Reports on January 10, 2018 at 11:17 am

I wanted to write a column on the Green Paper produced by the G on the challenges posed by fake news. But I thought I should wait until Parliament moves to set up a select committee to examine the issue in case more views came forth from our elected representatives. I couldn’t be in Parliament earlier but I think I’ve caught up on whatever has been said.

Frankly, I don’t think more insights have been given. Local examples were still the same, like TheRealSingapore case and the faked photograph of a collapsed block in Punggol). No one doubts the harm that fake news, or rather people who take fake news for news, can do.

They can upend elections, cause insurrections, create panic and ignite some sort of mini-apocalypse because some people want to make money off eyeballs, pursue a political agenda or are plain mischief-makers.

The concerns over measures to curb them are similar around the world, such as drawing the line between legitimate comment and deliberate falsehood. People’s concerns revolve on whether this would lead to further curbs on free speech, if not by fiat, than by the individual’s inclination to not do/say the wrong thing because he isn’t sure. And the Singaporean is more kiasi than others.

The Green Paper takes readers round the world on the trouble fake news have wrought and the measures various governments have taken or are thinking of taking.

Then there is a section on the implications for Singapore and options that can be considered. Singapore is, as the paper put it, an attractive and vulnerable target because it is open and has a multi-racial and religious mix that can be easily ignited. (I’ve said this in far fewer words than the folks who drafted the paper.)

Also, “Singapore is a key strategic node for international finance, trade, travel and communications, and a key player in ASEAN. What Singapore says and the position that Singapore takes on global and regional issues matter.’’ There is, therefore, a “high risk of foreign interference’’. Woah.

Quite a lot of space was given on the possible role of nefarious foreigners, with historical examples being trotted out on foreign involvement with local dailies here like The Herald or The Eastern Sun. Perhaps, the G is thinking of putting even more screws on online news sites by requiring even more transparency on operators and donors.

I wish there was more information on the Singapore context, rather than the usual line about being small, open and vulnerable.

What is the extent of Singaporean understanding of what constitutes fake news?  Recall that Minister Chan Chun Sing lambasted Reuters for running fake news because it headlined him as saying that he would serve as PM if called upon. He was upset that it wasn’t placed in context: He said that he, as well as his colleagues, would serve would do so. To enjoy the fake news label, it means that it is NOT true that he would serve as PM if asked. Which surely cannot be the case. His response had the media community tittering about the line between deliberate falsehood and lack of context.

I cite another example and I declare my interest here. Last year, a BlackBox survey said that people believe that The Middle Ground (of which I am a founder) peddled fake news, and this was reported in The Straits Times. I wondered then if those interviewed had even read the website or understood the term, and am even more aghast that journalists in ST, whom I’m sure read the TMG website, should actually think the team peddled fake news and considered the survey worthy of reporting.

Another point about the Singapore context. We already have many laws, regulations and blurry OB markers that govern what we say.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun is right to call for a deeper look at existing laws, such as the Telecommunications Act – where knowingly transmitting a false message could lead to a fine and jail term – and the Protection from Harassment Act and Sedition Act.

I don’t think I would be breaking the Official Secrets Act to say that I was invited several months ago by the Law ministry to give my views on measures to curb fake news. I said that I would have first to be convinced that current legislation isn’t enough to deal with the phenomenon. After all, we are concerned not with fake news per se (and there are plenty which are posted for laughs), but its possible impact, and our laws are surely broad enough to counter any speech that is calculated to cause societal problems. (Here, I would like to append this article from the New York Times re-printed in ST on Jan 2: http://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/fake-news-wide-reach-but-little-impact-study-suggests )

It’s a pity then that the Green Paper didn’t lay out the laws that affect speech in Singapore.  We’ve also got the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (soon to be changed too), Penal Code, Administration of Justice Act, defamation (including criminal defamation) laws and various media codes like the Class Licence Act. And who knows what the much-delayed Bill to amend the Broadcasting Act will toss up?

Further context: I don’t think people will disagree that the climate here is getting chillier, and it’s not because of the rain. I can count at least 10 instances of tightening OB markers in the last year alone. This includes the contempt of court charges on Mr Li Shengwu for remarks about the judiciary intended for a circle of friends on FB and the worrying use of the Official Secrets Act because a journalist had tried to do legitimate journalism by checking on what her source told her.

Like many, I was heartened to read that instead of merely introducing legislation, a  select committee has been tasked to deliberate on the principles to guide Singapore’s response and “specific measures, including legislation’’.

Note, therefore, that legislation is not a given. In fact, going by an ST article (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/a-broader-conversation-and-more-time-needed-on-how-spore-should-deal-with-fake-news), what our legal tools cannot deal with are foreign sources, bots and phantom accounts. This gives hope for a scalpel approach rather than a sledge hammer in the tool box. There is one measure, though, which I hope will be implemented – that online as well as offline articles and programmes must indicate if they had been paid for and by whom, prominently. It’s a bit like what France is doing: having tougher rules for social media platforms on revealing sources of sponsored content.

I agree with MP Seah Kian Peng who said: “Heavy-handed legislation may backfire on the Government, acting as the judge, jury and executioner of what constitutes credible information. We may end up freezing free speech online.’’

Now, I am NOT going to use that Game of Thrones phrase.

 

 

 

Keppel case made it to Parliament, but are shareholders concerned?

In News Reports on January 8, 2018 at 10:08 am

I was in Parliament today to hear what was being said about the KOM corruption case. My report, and some thoughts:

The problem with a “conditional warning’’ is that it sounds like what you tell a teenager who has been caught shoplifting. So that’s what it sounded like to some people when the G said Keppel Offshore & Marine had been given a conditional warning for giving out $55 million of bribes to secure projects in Brazil.

There was some hope that more light will be shed in Parliament but clearly, the G doesn’t know enough about the 13-year scam that also involved the US and Brazil, or can’t/shouldn’t speak because “investigations are on-going’’. It cannot say what conditions or undertakings were attached to the warning. Nor can it say when local investigations will be completed because so many people and evidence- gathering scattered across three jurisdictions are involved. It is also not a general practice to identify possible wrong-doers (never mind if they have been named in other documents).

So it’s no, no, no from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah yesterday to some key questions.

Anyway, some facts:

What has happened is that US Department of Justice has fined KOM $422m under what is called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement. Half of this sum would go to Brazil, and the rest split between Singapore and the US. Singapore is supposed to get $52m in 90 days of the US decision, and the rest, three years later.

This penalty, which outstrips even the $351.8 m in gains from the projects, is so much more than what could be imposed under the Prevention of Corruption Act – which is a maximum of $100,000 per charge. In other words, KOM was hit harder by this global resolution involving the three countries than it would be under local law, a point Ms Indranee repeated a few times.

As for individuals, Ms Indranee noted that under the US deal, Keppel had taken disciplinary action, including levelling US$8.9 million in financial sanctions on 12 former and current employees. (So this might satisfy those who have been wondering if bonuses for those involved should be clawed back, something which a couple of MPs asked as well)

This doesn’t mean the end of the matter.

Remember that local investigations into the role of individuals are on-going. So it seems that while KOM, the company, has been granted conditional warning “in lieu of prosecution’’, the individuals might be open to a double whammy if the Singapore authorities file a case against them.

Through her answers, Ms Indranee was attempting to portray a G that is tough on corruption, but had its hands tied because quite a lot of the bad stuff happened abroad (WP’s Png Eng Huat asked about email trails leading back to Singapore. Answer: don’t know/can’t say)

Then there was this notion that because KOM is a GLC, the G in the GLC can intervene in its affairs.

Ms Indranee answered with some maths: The G owns 100 per cent of Temasek, which owns 20 per cent of Keppel Corp which owns 100 per cent of KOM. Neither the G nor Temasek interferes with day-to-day operations but Temasek does have oversight role over the board .

WP’s Pritam Singh asked about the nature of this oversight and the culpability of the board of directors as well as whether Temasek as a shareholder, would consider taking civil action.

Ms Indranee repeated her maths solution and read out what the Keppel had said in its press statement on Jan 5, that the  current boards of directors of Keppel Corp and Keppel O&M “were not aware of the illegal payments” made in Brazil because it had been deliberately concealed as agency fees.

But, seriously, this is a question that comes better from Keppel shareholders than MPs. Is there something prevent shareholders, led by Temasek, from coming together to force an extra-ordinary general meeting to get some answers from the Keppel boards? Or are they only concerned about whether they should sell their shares or buy more? It doesn’t take a financial analyst to wonder whether the previous boards have been asleep on the job or worse, in cahoots, with the malfeasance that seems to have affected the top rungs of the company.

Here’s a list of those made public by Bloomberg which reported a trial in the US involving the middleman in the case* : former CEOs of KOM  Chow Yew Yuen and Tong Chong Heong, former CEOs of Keppel FELS Brasil Tay Kim Hock and Kwok Kai Choong, as well as former Keppel CEO Choo Chiau Beng.

Get this: Mr Tong  had been involved in a 1997 corruption scandal that involved Keppel Shipyard, which has since been subsumed into KOM.  He was one of the Keppel directors who made the decision to give a middleman a 1 per cent cut of the contract sum for all tenders awarded to Keppel by Petroleum Shipping. Some $8.53million were involved, and the company was fined $300,000.

That first scandal doesn’t seem to have blackened Mr Tong in Keppel’s books. He was KOM’s CEO between 2009 and 2014.

There is also Mr Choo, whom WP’s Mr Singh noted, was  Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Brazil from 2004 to 2016. He asked if Mr Choo had used his official position to help Keppel win contracts.  (Answer: Don’t know)

There was plenty of interest from backbenchers as hands shot up during question time. Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, however, said that Ms Indranee seemed to be repeating herself and limited the number of questions.

It’s a pity.

When the frontbenchers repeat themselves, it’s either because backbenchers don’t understand what they are saying or the frontbench is adamant about not straying beyond the script. The biggest corporate corruption scandal should have been given more air-time in Parliament.

*I earlier said that the names were in US documents. The names appeared in a Bloomberg report on the trial of Zwi Skornicki, Keppel’s former agent in Brazil from 2000 to 2016. I am sorry for the error.

Deciding on who will be first among equals

In News Reports on January 4, 2018 at 11:53 pm

Surrounded by coffee and cake (low-fat), the 16 looked around the ginormous table in the function room of a six-star hotel. Hotel, because no one volunteered their dining room.

They had to make a momentous decision: Which among them should be “first among equals’’?

So many thoughts ran through their minds. Are they really equal or are some of them more equal than others? Then there’s the length of experience to consider. What is a 4G member or can a 3plus G person also qualify? Mentally, they slotted each other in chronological order. Then again, shouldn’t experience date from the time the individual reached full Cabinet level? No, that would disqualify too many.

The 16 are in a quandary. Perhaps, some of them are already out of the running, like the non-Chinese. Singaporeans, it is said, aren’t ready for this change. They would have to be forced into that kind of decision by a mechanism that gave them no choice, like a reserved elected presidency.

Pity there’s no such system. Instead democracy was being practised. But it’s a limited one, someone piped up.  “Maybe we should ask the MPs and party cadres for views as well,’’ he added.

A semi-altercation broke out.

Someone said sourly: “Might as well ask 1G, 2G and 3G ministers as well….’’

Another said scathingly : “Don’t be silly. Even the PM said he wasn’t going to be involved.’’

A third dead-panned: “Cadres only give views once in two years and it’s about who should be in the CEC, and that’s us. So the responsibility has been handed to us.’’

A fourth (through gritted teeth): “I am not in the CEC, are you telling me to leave?’’

They had been stuffing their faces for an hour but no one was inclined to lead or chair the discussion. Out of shyness? Or so as not to rule themselves out of the running? Maybe the most junior (who would have no chance of being first) should chair the meeting.

Junior tried: “Maybe we should examine how many portfolios each one has taken up. So the more portfolios, the better because it means he or she can handle everything and anything.’’

Less junior added: “Maybe we should weight the portfolios. Environment can’t be as important as Defence.’’

More senior one went tsk tsk: “Do you seriously think the defence of Singapore outweighs the challenge of combating climate change? Also, isn’t this our priority now?’’

Junior tried again: “Maybe we should list the qualities needed for being first and rate everyone on a scale of one to five and whoever gets the most points…’’

Less junior chimed in: “And get an external auditor to vet the process…’’

More senior one went tsk tsk: “Are you suggesting there will be hanky panky? Who’s paying for this hotel room anyway?’’

Even more senior one intoned: “We’re splitting the bill equally to the last cent. I have already calculated the cost.’’

Middling one, hoping to play peacemaker, said: “Why not just give the job to the person who volunteers to pay the full bill?’’

It was made in jest but it conjured up shades of Keppel. A few squirmed at the ill-timed remark. Definitely middling one wasn’t going to “make it’’.

It was getting ridiculous. No one made a move for the pencil and paper in front of them that had been so thoughtfully provided by the hotel. There was even a power point projector in the room. No one suggested a nomination/seconder process or a show of hands. Because no one wanted to show their hand.

Most senior one said: “Why not write the name on a piece of paper and we’ll open them together and see who’s been most named?’’

That sounded like a plan. Until junior piped up: “Isn’t the decision supposed to be unanimous?’’

Less junior suggested: “Maybe we will all sign a statutory declaration to support whoever is most named?’’

More senior one said hesitatingly: “You know…the media has already named three in the running…’’

Even more senior went ballistic: “This will not be an election by media!’’

Faces turned to him. No wonder. He wasn’t one of the three. Even more people squirmed in their seats.

Most senior one said: “Let’s just put out a joint public statement to say we will decide in good time.’’

Heads nodded. They left the building, satisfied with coffee and cake.

 

4G leadership: what’s your imprint?

In News Reports on January 3, 2018 at 1:00 pm

So everyone’s reading tea leaves now.

After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s New Year’s message that new Parliament in May will have an agenda that will “bear the imprint of the fourth-generation leadership’’, ESM Goh Chok Tong came out on social media to suggest that the G get a move on and start naming the next leadership.

Now everyone’s back to the guessing game of “who ” and “when”. It’s a pity that Mr Goh chose not to explain why he considered the establishment of the 4G leadership an “urgent challenge’’. Instead, he suggested a time frame of six to nine months.

Who knows what the PM has in mind? There’s nothing the people can do to influence the choice of PM, who will have to be thrown up from among his peers. But we can do something about the sort of agenda the 4G leadership should carve out and the imprint we, the people, would like to see.

But before all that, we should have an idea of the sort of imprint the 3G leadership is leaving behind. From the top of my head, I would credit them with the creation of the healthcare and retirement mechanisms. Medishield Life protects us from sky-rocketing medical bills while CPF Life makes sure we aren’t destitute in our old age. Of course, both are dependent on sound financial and economic policies to make sure we can afford to sustain them.

There are actually already some policies that the 4G can lay claim to, especially on the education front. The two “newish’’ ministers of the 4G pulled out quite a few stops to re-work the school system to put more emphasis on the individual’s strength and potential rather than the grades. The change has started, even at pre-school level, but it would take some time to show results. Perhaps, the SkillsFuture programme, which focuses on adults, would help change parents’ mindsets on getting their kids to the “best’’ school.

I would think the economic policies which focus on industry transformation is another agenda the 4G leadership can be said to own. It was, after all, a product of a committee led mainly by members of the team.

There is one big burden that they will have to carry – tax increases. Whether increasing GST, lowering the income tax threshold, increasing taxes for the higher income, taxing e-commerce or even bringing back inheritance taxes, they would have their hands full explaining why.

But it might not be so difficult a job if they can articulate the basis upon which Singapore will fund itself and for what vision. I don’t just mean where the money will come from but the sort of the balance between welfare and work income, and the contributions to society expected from different sectors and classes.

What sort of trade-offs are we willing accept now in return for better infrastructure and better care for the rapidly ageing population? Would higher marginal tax rates really hurt our status as a wonderful place for foreigners to park their money? Are the affluent doing enough for the bottom of society? Are we looking to raise the water level for all boats or just aiming for a Nobel Prize winner? Of course, we want both, but something’s got to give.

A 4G leadership will have to answer these deeper, bigger questions before deciding on how much to tax the people. In other words, give us a new vision please.

Frankly, it’s really not a good time for a leadership change – anywhere. Social media can rattle people’s convictions and unsettle even the most confident of politicians. Think back to how much easier it was for politicians in the past to set directions without the distracting and discordant internet noises.

So the 4G would have to deal with this greater fractiousness too. Would they do so in an authoritarian manner in the name of national security?

Truth to tell, the climate has become cooler over the past year, especially with the promises of even more legislation covering the limits of expression. How the fake news legislation, amendments to the much-waited Broadcasting Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act will be shepherded through to their final forms will be a big reflection of how the 4G wants to operate vis-a-vis the people in this brave, new world.

Whoever emerges as first among equals might also consider what ESM Goh said in August about building a “stronger and more inclusive millennial generation team”.

“The fourth generation leaders will have to quickly establish themselves as a cohesive team and identify the captain amongst them,” he said.

“They must try their utmost to bring in potential office-holders from outside the Singapore Armed Forces and public sector to avoid group-think.”

He added that talented people outside the public sector should step up and serve. Clearly they aren’t, or the circle of contenders wouldn’t all be former public servants.

For whatever reason, notwithstanding generous ministerial salaries, the G hasn’t been successful on this front. I have said many times that the issue of salaries is a poison, reducing the relationship between the government and the governed to a business transaction.

So here’s one sacrilegious suggestion for the 4G leadership: Ditch the 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.

That would be a magnificent move for the 4G leaders. Wah liao! Talk about imprint!

 

What has Raffles to do with Sg?

In News Reports on January 1, 2018 at 9:23 am

You’re tired, I’m sure, reading about all the “looking back’’ articles on 2017 in both online and offline media. The same hot topics everywhere, although with opinions that vary depending on the type of publication.

So I won’t bore you with recent history. I will go even further back!

In case you haven’t heard, Singapore will be going “biggish’’ on the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles setting foot on our tiny isle in 2019. Do not say the phrase “founding of Singapore’’, although those in my generation were taught this way in our little people days. The politically correct and historically accurate 1819 event is about how the English “discovered’’ the island – even though it’s been in existence way before Sang Nila Utama days.

So why celebrate this then, you ask? The answer from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “Had Raffles not landed, Singapore might not have become a unique spot in Southeast Asia, quite different from the islands in the archipelago around us, or the states in the Malayan Peninsula.

“But because of Raffles, Singapore became a British colony, a free port, and a modern city. Our progress was not a straight line upwards. We experienced many dislocations and disruptions, including war and peace, economic depression and prosperity, struggle as well as success. But ultimately we came through, and became an independent nation.’’

Note that he was careful to preface this by saying that Singapore was already a maritime emporium in the 14th century, although it declined after that. Raffles’ landing, he said, marked a “key turning point’’.

Old(er) people will recollect that the 150th anniversary was celebrated in 1969, so this isn’t unprecedented for Singapore. Except that coming so soon after our 50th anniversary independence celebrations in 2015, it does make you wonder if we are just looking for an excuse to party.

What PM Lee said about 2019 brings about a sense of deja vu: “It is an important milestone for Singapore; an occasion for us to reflect on how our nation came into being, how we have come this far since, and how we can go forward together.’’

Didn’t we do this in 2015? What was the outcome of that year’s reflection? What was the upshot of all the articles, exhibitions, concerts and carnivals? Did we come together collectively to re-affirm our commonality and define our destiny?

I can’t remember anything about it besides the Pioneer Generation package which was a wonderful gift to the over-65s. They are our greatest generation, our survivors and stayers. It was fitting that all of them, regardless of income, should be honoured. But beyond that, what did we agree on?

That we will strive to become a smart nation underpinned by meritocracy? That’s not much of a rallying point especially since merit seemed to have been compromised by a race-based presidential election.

That we will strive to increase productivity, upskill and move away from mere paper qualifications to an emphasis on craftsmanship? That seems suitable for a corporation, not a vision for a country.

That we will go chasing rainbows, however ephemeral, because we are passionate and have potential? Will that work when we have questions about whether we can slog as hard as the pioneers and stay down to earth instead of harbouring unrealistic expectations?

Cynics will say that the result of the SG50 celebrations, which included loads of freebies, was a 70 per cent mandate for the People’s Action Party the next year. And doubtless, people will point to how the 200th anniversary celebrations would add to a feel-good climate for the general election which must be called by 2021. Or could well be a nice, assuring platform to announce the incoming prime minister.

It doesn’t matter what use the celebrations is being put to, frankly. I think the country has somewhat come apart in the last year or so.  You can read my piece here.

I believe we need a new vision, and if going further into our history will help us forge one that goes beyond material progress and possessions, I am all for it.

I wrote this earlier in the day on my Facebook page.

In 2017,

We were divided…by the inclusion of race as a presidential prerequisite.

We were befuddled…by the crazy saga of the Lees at each other’s throats. 

We got angry…with the failures of our train system which couldn’t keep water out.

We felt colder…because of the ISA arrests, contempt of court claims, the use of the OSA.

We were confused…about whether the economy was really doing better or not.

We were unsure …about the position of this little red dot in a post-Brexit, Xi and Trumpian world. 

We were gobsmackedat the extent of the corruption probe into a prized Singapore company

We were lost…in the guessing game of who would be our next PM.

It is not quite in my nature to focus on the negatives but I have to confess that I can’t quite remember the positives.

But in 2018, I am hoping for someone in the fourth generation leadership to emerge who will bring us together, articulate our commonalities and see strength in our differences. Who can paint our vision in an uplifting and inspirational manner that goes beyond promises of glitzier infrastructure and better economic numbers. Who will lead, not lecture.

Then a new Singapore story can be written…

PS. Sorry for title. Trying my hand at click-bait! Haaaahharrr